Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Comedy Fan Rings Out The OId Year With New Books

Ringing out the old year with new books about very old movies, the last post of 2015 tips the Jimmie Hatlo top hat to several superb new releases on the subject of comedy. The bonanza begins with the biography of comedian Larry "Ridolini" Semon - many years in the making - by cartoonist and linguist Claudia Sassen. There are also Michelle Morgan's latest, The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life And Mysterious Death Of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd (which concentrates on Miss Todd's ONSCREEN career), The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels & The History Of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff, author of the Classic Television Showbiz blog, and Matthew Dessem's The Gag Man: Clyde Bruckman and the Birth of Film Comedy.

Claudia Sassen's book is a painstakingly researched answer to the question, "just who was that goofy looking ultra-wacky silent film comic known as Larry Semon?"

The thumbnail sketch is that Larry was a prolific cartoonist and the son of a magician named Zera The Great. After a childhood that involved getting onstage with the magic act, Larry who found his way into filmmaking. He started as a gag writer and director for other comedians at Vitagraph and then began starring in his own inventive, cartoony, lightning-paced and stunt-filled series.

In the WW1 era and early 1920's, Semon would be the primary exponent of the "louder, faster, shorter" school of comedy and the architect of spectacular sight gags on an epic scale.

Larry's frequent co-stars and collaborators at Vitagraph included Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Dick Smith (the director of The Marx Brothers' silent film, Humoresque, as well as numerous comedies starring his wife, slapstick queen Alice Howell). For more, a lot more, read Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian Of The Silent Screen.

Thelma Todd has been mostly known for her tragic demise, so it's a wonderful thing that someone has at long last penned a book which actually delves into her contributions as a comedienne, Hal Roach Studios stalwart and ace supporting player in movies.

Surprise surprise surprise, Thelma was actually very bright, very talented and particularly winsome in her films with Charley Chase (The Pip From Pittsburg and Looser Than Loose being standouts). Miss Todd deserves her due and finally gets some overdue accolades here.

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels & The History Of American Comedy presents an epic history of nightclub and standup comedy in 20th century America, but not in a way that is pedantic or academic in any way.

Nesteroff is a former standup comic and sees it from the inside, weaving the various backstage tales of the wisecracking vaudeville and nightclub denizens (and the mobsters who owned the clubs) into a more expansive overview of 20th century American culture and subculture. For more, listen to the following interviews on WGN Radio and LA Review Of Books.

Clyde Bruckman is both ubiquitous - worked with Keaton, Lloyd, Fields, Laurel & Hardy and many more - and something of a mystery man of classic comedy. Like Thelma Todd, he worked with just about every comedian in Hollywood not named Charlie Chaplin but is known more for his tragic end (suicide) than for the countless laughs he was responsible for.

The Gag Man: Clyde Bruckman and the Birth of Film Comedy spotlights his many contributions to screen comedy, investigates who Bruckman the man was and how drastic changes in the movie business - including the transition from silents to talkies - affected him. Clyde Bruckman's name was on way too many amazingly funny films to be relegated to a footnote in film history.

There's also the new edition of Randy Skredvedt's Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies, slated for publication in April 2016 (and plugged here prominently just short of two weeks ago), as well as standout new books about classic movies - albeit not specifically about comedy - that would be worthy additions to anyone's bookshelf. These would include Hollywood Celebrates The Holidays: 1920-1970 by Karie Bible (Location Filming In Los Angeles) and Mary Mallory (Hollywoodland), which received a glowing review on the TCM website, as well as Tracy Goessel's The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. As the old ad campaign said, reading is fundamental. It's also a fitting way to chase out the old year and ring in the new one.


Tom Degan said...

I just finished the Nesteroff book.SUGGESTED READING:

The Comedians
by Kliph Nesteroff

This history of stand-up comedy covers the years from the early twentieth century to the present time. I couldn't put this one down; in fact I read the whole thing in about a day and a half. If you're half as passionate about comedy and comedians as I am, you won't regret investing in this one. Although they are the national treasure of any country, this book reinforces what I've known for a long time: Comedians tend to be among the most dysfunctional human beings on the planet. My only (small ) complaint was a handful of glaring omissions (Andy Kaufman, Steven Wright, and Martin Short in particular). Other than that, it's perfect.

Tom Degan

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Bought a hardcover copy of The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff - couldn't put it down, either. Still imagining the legendary Shecky Greene, in whatever Las Vegas lounge he was headlining in at the time, performing an entire set of wild, crazy, stream-of-consciousness standup comedy from the top of a curtain he climbed up.