Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Happy 100th Birthday, Frank Tashlin!

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Born on February 19, 1913, film comedy producer-director-writer-animator and the author of The Bear That Wasn't, the most satiric children's book ever penned, Mr. Frank Tashlin.





Tashlin could well be the single greatest cartoon director who ever lived, or at the very least, neck-in-neck with Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett.




Like the other Termite Terrace boys, Tashlin was responsible for enduring comic gems at Warner Brothers.






Tashlin carried that subversive sense of humor from animation to live-action, first as screenwriter (The Road To Utopia, The Paleface), then as director. Paramount comedy stars Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in particular benefited immensely.




As the 1950's progressed, Tashlin smuggled even more of that unique satiric edge into the mix while directing and writing starring vehicles for Martin & Lewis, Jayne Mansfield, Tony Randall, Terry-Thomas and Jerry Lewis.















The following commentary on Tashlin's delirious 1956 musical The Girl Can't Help It, by a subversive filmmaker of a later generation, John Waters, says it all.



Thanks, Frank - like Little Richard and Sweet Gene Vincent, you rocked!





Author/historian Mike Barrier rocked as well with his 1971 interview with Mr. Tashlin.



Saturday, February 09, 2013

Don't Forget - Personality Is King!

True in the early 1930's - still holds today.





Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Seven



Here, proving behind an inkling of a shadow of a doubt that Mr. Blogmeister adores cheap comedy shorts, is the last in a series about the Columbia Shorts Department.



This was no small feat, as clips from even the most obscure Columbia 2-reelers - even unavailable titles which do not star once and future members of The Three Stooges and will never, ever get an official DVD release - have been getting yanked in quantity from YouTube (obviously, one of the 5 or 6 regular readers of this blog works for Sony Pictures).



The big game-changer for theatrical short subjects was the end of Block Booking, which guaranteed movie studios an audience for short subjects and was struck down by a 1948 Supreme Court ruling. With Block Booking in place, studios could say to theatre owners "if you want that Jean Arthur feature, pallie, then you have to take these El Brendel-Tom Kennedy shorts and Columbia Color Rhapsodies and Fables cartoons, too - like it or not".



Television became the key outlet for live-action slapstick, showcasing comedy by Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Lucille Ball, with Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello and Ernie Kovacs soon to follow. By the premiere of I Love Lucy, The Three Stooges, seeing the writing on the wall, had made many TV appearances.



The 1950's saw big changes at The Shorts Department. Hugh Herbert passed away in March 1952. Dudley Dickerson, who deserved better than the stereotypical roles he got, left Columbia and appeared in the Mr. And Mrs. North TV series. Vera Vague finished her series and went on to many roles in television. While The Three Stooges and Andy Clyde were "the last headliners standing", Shemp Howard passed away in 1955 - and the team, always troupers, kept soldiering on.



The four films The Three Stooges had to make after Shemp's passing to complete their 1955-1956 contract are now known as "The Two Stooges" or Fake Shemp films: Rumpus In The Harem, Hot Stuff, Scheming Schemers and Commotion On The Ocean.



There was, indeed, no post-1954 film of Shemp in these remakes, just stock footage and shots of the back of Joe Palma's head! By this time, the costs of making 2-reel comedies had increased - and budgets had decreased - so much that the new films were often dominated by footage from previous films, anyway.



Behind the camera, even more of a shakeup took place at the Columbia Shorts Department. Del Lord retired. Edward Bernds, who, among many other things devised those ingenious sound effects that created The Three Stooges' surreal universe (and eventually directed numerous entries in the series), left to direct Bowery Boys comedies.



After a brief, unhappy stint directing Columbia 2-reelers, Richard Quine said "no mas, no mas" and transitioned to television and feature films, most felicitously as a key collaborator of comic geniuses Ernie Kovacs and Jack Lemmon.



Sadly, the talented and prolific writer/director Clyde Bruckman, who made comedy magic with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, The Three Stooges and other comedians, but did not make a lot of money while delivering those belly laughs to moviegoers, committed suicide in 1954.



Jules White became the sole director - and that meant the eye poking part of the equation really hit high gear in the 1950's. Just about all those patented Jules knockabout variations can be seen in the astonishingly tasteless and yet weirdly funny 2-reeler starring Eddie Quillan and Wally Vernon, Nobody's Home.



Quillan and Vernon make The Three Stooges look refined and genteel in the following gloriously unsubtle piece of work.




And speaking of unsubtle, here's a shameless and astonishingly inept Our Gang ripoff, released theatrically on December 9, 1954, The Mischief Makers in Kids Will Be Kids.



Slapstick and The Three Stooges would continue, but not until Joe Besser, who had starred in comedy shorts for Columbia a few years earlier, came on board as "the third Stooge" to shoot the team's last 2-reelers in 1956-1957.



No doubt Besser could be very funny, often hilariously so, as the following clips from the Abbott & Costello and Joey Bishop shows illustrate.







However, as a Stooge, although he gets plenty of laughs with his patented catchphrases ("not thooooooo hard, you crazeee") and gives the comedy his all, Besser never seems like quite a comfortable fit as a member of the team. Thus, you see such films very late in the team's 24 year run as this, Sweet And Hot, clearly an attempt to launch a musical offshoot series starring prolific television character actress Muriel Landers. Although likeable and a very good songstress, Ms. Landers seems miscast in a Three Stooges film.





The last of the 190 Three Stooges shorts, Sappy Bullfighters, was released on June 4, 1959, eighteen months after the department closed at the end of 1957.





Little did the boys know that they would soon be introduced to new generations of fans via television and go on to appear in several feature films, with another former Columbia 2-reeler star, Joe DeRita, on board as the new "third Stooge".





While snark-laden 21st century television humor frequently leaves Mr. Blogmeister as sub-freezing as the Atlantic in January, those uncultured, not terribly ambitious 1930's comedy shorts still provoke laughs - not just the creme-de-la-creme from Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase and Our Gang at Hal Roach Studios, but the randy vaudevillian weirdness of Clark & McCullough, those misguided yet intriguing Vitaphone "Big V" comedies (often featuring Shemp Howard), the no-budget train wrecks from Educational Pictures and yes, even the eye-poking 2-reelers from Columbia.



That said, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog lifts its half-full glass and says, "here's mud in yer eye" to The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Vernon Dent, Bud Jamison, Hugh Herbert and all the others who made us laugh - and still do!

Friday, February 01, 2013

The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Six



The Columbia Shorts Department, which began as the "C" 2-reeler studio to the A's (Hal Roach, RKO), B's (Vitaphone, Universal) and truly low-budget "D" studio Educational, kept chugging along until it represented "the last studio standing" in the field. Some of the greatest creators of silent movie comedy - Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon - had already come and gone, squeezing maximum creativity and style into tight budgets and tighter shooting schedules.



The good news: The Shorts Department continued producing 2-reelers in quantity long after every competitor had folded their tents. The bad news: an overworked cash cow (The Three Stooges), combined with the inevitable passings, retirements and defections of many talented comedy directors/writers on staff.



By 1945, Curly Howard was visibly ailing, in no shape to continue the daily grind and long hours involved in making motion pictures. Moe Howard pleaded with Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn to give the team some time off. Cohn refused. Curly eventually had his second stroke on the set during the production of Half Wit's Holiday.



Shemp Howard, then starring in his own solo series for Columbia, was convinced to rejoin the team he had left in the early 1930's. He did so, with enthusiasm. As a result, the Three Stooges got a jolt of fresh energy that carried the series into the next decade.




The third Three Stooges comedy starring Shemp (and #100 in their Columbia series), Hold That Lion, featured a cameo by Curly which turned out to be his last onscreen appearance.



This very funny moment (Curly appears at 8:45) was also the only time all the Howard brothers appeared together onscreen.



Two more parallel developments: dwindling budgets and a growing reliance on the "scare comedy" sub-genre, invariably co-starring the uncredited Guy In A Gorilla Suit. After the success of The Three Stooges' If A Body Meets A Body, everyone on the lot starred in scare comedies.



In some cases, as in this Hugh Herbert-Dudley Dickerson short, the scare comedy formula works, largely due to the cast's formidable character acting skills. By this end of the series in the early 1950's, Herbert & Dickerson were working as a comedy team and the kind of racial stereotype gags that were rampant in movies before World War II were receding.




Meanwhile, the studio continued trying out a wide variety of actors in one-shots and mini-series - and especially in scare comedies.



The wide variety of talent featured in Columbia 2-reel comedies included: Billie Burke, who played "Glinda The Good Witch" in The Wizard Of Oz; voice actor par excellence Sterling Holloway; Stooge-to-be Joe DeRita; radio announcer and Burns & Allen Show cast member Harry Von Zell; Bert Wheeler of the comedy team Wheeler & Woolsey and RKO feature film fame;character actor Wally Brown, who was teamed with screenwriter Tim Ryan (note: Tim's comedienne wife was Irene, later to be famous as Granny from TV's Beverly Hillbillies) - and many more.



All of the aforementioned performers acquit themselves admirably as troupers and showbiz pros in the thicket, shovel and 2 x 4 filled landscape that was Jules White-Land, even when the slapstick just doesn't work.













There is an end to this and it comes in the next installment. The Shorts Department at Columbia survived for 24 years!