Sunday, February 22, 2015
Comedy is our beat - we will be watching the Oscar Levants and the Oscar Madisons, as well as a woman yelling "Oscar!" from Helzapoppin tonight - and the list of all-time favorite film humor creators remains a (well, relatively) short one. Two who are tops, both in the worlds of theatrical short subjects and television, would be comedian and cartoon voice artist George O'Hanlon and producer-director-writer Richard L. Bare.
This writer considers a good many of the WB Joe McDoakes 1-reelers, starring George O' Hanlon, pretty high on the list of funniest short comedies in which the names Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase do not appear. Fortunately, they do get shown periodically between feature films on Turner Classic Movies.
Although this scribe does not recall ever seeing Joe McDoakes on TV in his neck of the woods during the 1960's or early 1970'a (but did read about the series in Leonard Maltin's 1972 book The Great Movie Shorts), much later, in the latter 1980's, the long gone Comedy Channel showed ran the series. Some of us were watching - and laughing!
If Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog has a McDoakes favorite (among many), that would be So You Want To Be A Detective, the whodunit sendup that features our hero as gumshoe Philip Snarlow and has a plum role for intrepid series narrator Art Gilmore.
The McDoakes comedies may not be quite in the same league with the Chaplin Mutuals, Keaton's 2-reelers or the Chase-Leo McCarey-L&H masterpieces, but the overall batting average for the series (first one released in 1942, last in 1956), is very good.
The operative word describing the Joe McDoakes adventures is zany, but not monolithically so; Bare and O'Hanlon feature a trademark blend of alternating subtle and outrageously over-the-top comedy. Some entries, such as the following, So You Want To Hold Your Husband, toy with the central characterization - in this one, Joe, rather than a likable everyman, is an obnoxious, selfish husband (pre-dating Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin by decades), with the jokes revolving around the extent to which he's a complete jerk - and save the ultra-wacky "topper" for the very end.
The Joe McDoakes series originated with So You Want To Give Up Smoking, which was the third USC student film made by Richard L. Bare. The script for the USC film was was originally pitched to Pete Smith at MGM as a potential Pete Smith Specialty on kicking the smoking habit.
The first three entries, to some degree, emulate the humor + information template of the Pete Smith short subjects. Luckily for Warner Brothers and not so luckily for MGM (which already had a go-to physical comic, Dave O'Brien, in the Pete Smith 1-reelers), the answer was no - and Bare and O'Hanlon went on to produce quite a few more Joe McDoakes comedies. . . 62 more.
Only The Three Stooges and Andy Clyde at Columbia ran longer as a series of comedy shorts produced for theatrical distribution.
Once the McDoakes series ended, George O' Hanlon went on to some showbiz lean times and hard knocks, a few good roles in movies before landing that wonderful and enduring gig as the voice of George Jetson. Very likely best known among his features is his role in the massively entertaining 1957 sci-fi classic Kronos.
George is the scientist in the "aliens gone wild" story and, while (unlike Joe McDoakes) understated, sneaks a certain subtle element of sly fun into the proceedings.
Even though this writer is a science fiction fan and will drop whatever he is doing to watch Kronos again, he finds it impossible NOT to watch the film without saying, "look - that scientist. . . it's FREAKIN' GEORGE JETSON!"
And then George ended up, along with the formidable likes of Mel Blanc, June Foray, Bill Scott, Daws Butler, Don Messick and others, as an ace voice artist for animated cartoons. Unlike all of the above, George had one characterization instead of 1000. . . however, that voice, for intergalactic family man George Jetson, suited the character to a fission-powered T. O'Hanlon was surrounded by high-powered talents, including the wonderful Penny Singleton and Janet Waldo.
Meanwhile, as O'Hanlon was bringing personality plus to George Jetson, Richard L. Bare ended up directing dozens of TV shows, at a time when the likes of Ida Lupino, Mitchell Leisen, Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis and Robert Altman were working in the medium. Part of this was his arrival at WB television, along with ace writer Roy Huggins, at the beginning of the studio's TV westerns boom (Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Maverick, etc.) Later, he directed excellent episodes of The Twilight Zone (Nick Of Time, Third From The Sun, To Serve Man), among many other shows, and also, for Filmways Productions, the small-town sitcom Petticoat Junction.
Eventually, Richard L. Bare would enter the world of TV sitcoms in a big way on Green Acres, directing the entire series run for producer Jay Sommers. The temptation is to present Mr. Bare as an "auteur" of the series, because Acres and Joe McDoakes do share a zany sense of humor, more akin to animated cartoons than TV sitcoms. In interviews, Bare insisted that he only directed the shows and that the gags strictly came from the duo who wrote ALL the episodes.
Now if one mentioned the word "surreal" to Richard Bare regarding Green Acres, he thought it was nonsense. While the show was substantially, cosmically wackier than its mates at Filmways - Mr. Ed, Beverly Hillbillies, and Petticoat Junction - that is due to the vivid imaginations of the writers. One certainly wonders if Mr. Bare, in his "hey - I was strictly a hired gun and director" insistence is simply being modest. There are frequent leaps into utter bizarreness on Green Acres - and this trait is definitely NOT shared by the other Filmways TV shows.
Richard L. Bare, rather amazingly, is still living among us - and very likely still damn funny - at 101 years of age. We shall close today's post with this clip of Richard and frequent "Joe McDoakes" co-star Phyllis Coates at the Labor Day weekend Cinecon in Hollywood. There are also the Richard Bare Visual History Interview conducted by Gene Reynolds, and an interview by the Archive Of American Television
Acknowledgements go to the aforementioned interviews, Leonard Maltin's review of The Joe McDoakes Collection, Don M. Wowp's outstanding Tralfaz blog, which beat us to the punch with TWO tributes Meet George O'Hanlon and more recently How To Be A Star (both easily among the very best pieces this correspondent has read about this very, very funny comedian's career) - and Madame Blogmeister, for thoughtfully choosing the McDoakes DVD set as a gift!
Saturday, February 14, 2015
One more thing we love at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog: the comedy of Benny Kubelsky, a.k.a. Jack Benny. It's always a pleasure to celebrate Jack's 39th birthday!
By the time Benny's popular radio show completed its first season in 1932-1933, his go-to characterization for five decades - vain, self-obsessed and above all, cheap - was well established. Among the many carryovers from the radio shows to television are his wonderfully appalled reactions to the stock company of supporting comics. Paramount among them: Frank Nelson, who one expects to find in pretty much ANY episode of The Jack Benny Program!
And then there's Mel Blanc. . .
Jack's television show, appropriately titled The Jack Benny Program, ran for 244 episodes, from 1950 through the 1964-65 season.
Jack Benny also loved to do guest shots on his friends' shows - George Burns especially!
Jack often made fun of the fact that he didn't make a huge splash as a star of feature films. Still, many of his movies are quite entertaining and fun.
Jack particularly enjoyed making fun of his much-maligned starring vehicle The Horn Blows At Midnight.
Seen today, Jack's bête noire, The Horn Blows At Midnight, comes across as charming and funny. Seems the bar line for comedy was a lot higher then than it is now.
Jack did have one prominent feather in his cap in his movie career: his witty performance in Ernst Lubitsch's classic To Be Or Not To Be, co-starring the incredible Carole Lombard.
Again, it's a thanks for the memories and thanks for the laughs to Jack. Enjoy these mp3s of vintage Jack Benny radio shows from archive.org.
Thursday, February 12, 2015
While writing an "R.I.P. Blog" is never this correspondent's preference, occasionally, we must note when one of the Last Hollywood Luminaries Standing leaves passes. In this case, we mourn outstanding actress and singer Lizabeth Scott. We'll start with this very nicely done tribute.
There have been quite a few super articles penned about Ms. Scott, who passed away at 92 on January 31. Particularly noteworthy: a well-researched piece on her life and career, Libeled Lady - Film Noir's Quicksilver Anti-Heroine: Lizabeth Scott by Anastasia Lin. This was posted on the Film Noir Foundation website, where one suspects there may be more first-rate essays on her incendiary film roles.
In this blog's recent tradition of zigzagging between classic movie comedians and film noir, then occasionally visiting the world of music, we are compelled to note that Lizabeth Scott excelled in ALL OF THE ABOVE. Comedy? Nailed it in Scared Stiff with Martin & Lewis and also worked very well with Abbott & Costello on episodes of The Colgate Comedy Hour. Music? No problem! She first sings in Dead Reckoning, with the sultriness one would expect.
While Ms. Scott did not go on to a long and prolific music career as songstress Julie London did, she made television appearances promoting her singles and albums in the 1950's.
Noir? As classic movie buffs know well, Lizabeth Scott was a powerful actress well known for her pivotal roles in noir masterpieces. No actress headlined more films in the genre.
There's the incredible I Walk Alone, which features Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas AND Lizabeth Scott. How do you cram THAT much explosive personality in one film? Ladies and gentlemen. . . that's noir and some darn good direction by Byron Haskin.
Was there something masterfully diabolical in her "don't you mess with me - EVER" roles? Er. . . uh. . . yes! In the aptly titled Too Late For Tears, she stars as a gal about whom a guy's first thought is, "sure, baby, I'll take that never-ending plunge into a pitch-black, unending abyss with you - natch! And the second thought, invariably too late for anyone's tears, is: "uh. . . thank you very much - think I'll take my chances with Hannibal Lecter instead!"
For more info, see the obits in The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter, as well as, from The New York Times, Lizabeth Scott, Film Noir Siren, Dies At 92. In addition, Carole Langer conducted an eight part interview with Ms. Scott in 1996. Luke Sacher, the videographer, has posted the footage on YouTube; here is Part One.
Lizabeth Scott's mojo remained an almost unheard-of ability to excel in varied genres - dramas, noir thrillers, comedies, the Elvis Presley musical Loving You, at least one terrific western - on movies and television - and always bring focus and personality to the task.
Now let's sit back and enjoy an episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott & Costello . . . and Lizabeth Scott.
Sunday, February 08, 2015
This is our contribution to the first annual Buster Keaton Blogathon - happy to be a part of it!
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, a bedroom farce involving much running in and out of hotel rooms and the customary multiple misunderstandings between the characters, could be considered the best of Buster Keaton's MGM talkie features, a sorry but far from worthless lot.
First and foremost, we must re-visit, at least in brief, the history that preceded the making of Parlor, Bedroom and Bath. While classic film aficionados all know the story of Buster Keaton, the tale bears repeating.
After co-writing, directing and starring in 31 films (for producer Joseph M. Schenck), ranging from very good to blazing masterpieces of cinema, The Great Stone Face signed with Hollywood mega-factory of mega-factories, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and relinquished his independent studio.
While the powers that be in Tinseltown (at least until the enforcement of the Production Code hit American films like an iron fist on July 1, 1934) could not take Betty Boop's "boop-oop-a-doop" away, they could and did take Buster Keaton's creative freedom away.
For the most part, not joining Keaton at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, would be his key collaborators, a.k.a. THAT OLD GANG OF BUSTER'S, from left to right, Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Eddie Cline. Not in this photo but equally essential were cinematographer Elgin Lessley and technical director/effects wizard Fred Gabourie.
Buster began his stint with at the mega-studio by making his last two silent films, The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. Both are very enjoyable, with excellent production values throughout, but seem a lot less personal than his previous features. Still, The Cameraman appears to have at least some minimal input in its creation by Buster.
On the former, Clyde Bruckman and Lew Lipton share story credit, while Lessley was among the cameramen and Gabourie is listed under the category of Set Decoration.
However, storylines and individual moments, a little in The Cameraman and a little more in Spite Marriage, reflect a general carelessness with the Keaton characterization - which is neither a Raymond Griffith style "smart guy" nor a bumbling, stumbling sap - that is a harbinger of big trouble down the road. Worse yet, the name of Buster's character in Spite Marriage is Elmer, the preferred moniker of the nerdy nincompoops he would be frequently asked to portray at MGM.
THE NOT-MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
The MGM talkies, now regarded as the nadir of Joseph Frank Keaton's six decade career in movies and television, range from Not Bad (much of Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, Speak Easily and Doughboys - especially when Ukelele Ike and Keaton play music together) to Not So Good (The Passionate Plumber) to Oh Dear, Buster Looks Like Death Warmed Over (What! No Beer?) to Utter Abominations (Free And Easy) and finally, Crimes Against Humanity (The Sidewalks Of New York).
BUSTER KEATON, FARCEUR
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was the third of the MGM sound era features conceived by the mega-studio of mega-studios as vehicles for Buster Keaton and, with The Passionate Plumber, one of two to be based on farces. It is also to a lesser degree a vehicle for another MGM headliner from silents, British character actor and light comedian Reginald Denny.
The basic premise is that Buster, playing amiable but awkward sign poster "Reggie Irving" transforms, via the veritable litany of standard issue bedroom farce misunderstandings and mixups, into a lusty Don Juan, romancing babes with gusto if not skill at the Seaside Hotel - and eventually enjoying himself immensely in the process.
WHY PARLOR, BEDROOM AND BATH ISN'T HALF BAD
Although the bedroom farce that drives the plot is definitely an open-and-shut case of shoehorning a comedian into a genre that doesn't suit him, somehow, against all odds, a fair number of signature Keaton sight gags and rollicking Comique Productions style physical comedy bits (the "slipping on the wet floor" segment featuring Buster and Cliff Edwards) make it into the finished film. Arguably the prime example is a sound era variant on the remarkable sight gag from one of the penultimate Buster Keaton silent 2-reelers, One Week. It's amazing in both films. One assumes that Buster fought the suits at MGM tooth-and-nail for every moment featuring his signature style.
(note: said gag from One Week starts at 1:14)
Although bashful, definitely too timid with the gals and a far cry from the smart and resourceful protagonist we'd like to see Buster Keaton play, at least "Reggie" in this film is clearly a good guy and not quite the blithering idiot character from other MGM features (the "Elmer" character). His politeness and meek persona at least fits the context of the character.
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath is also the rare Metro feature in which the supporting cast, principally long-legged musical comedy gal Charlotte Greenwood, actually works with Buster instead of against him.
- This is one of the very few Keaton films in which he shares the screen with a comedienne - and that would be the very funny and acrobatic Charlotte Greenwood - who can match his pure physical comedy, pratfall for pratfall. There is also a variant on the "dragging a woman to bed" routine (in this case hiding Ms. Greenwood in a closet) Buster performed in movies (and many years later, onstage with his intrepid wife Eleanor Norris Keaton). While Buster does subsequently share some excellent sequences with Thelma Todd in Speak Easily, scenes pairing Buster with comediennes were rarities in his feature films.
Charlotte Greenwood and Buster are so good together, one wonders why the story was not re-tooled to have them share more scenes. Now just why there was never a Buster – Marie Dressler – Charlotte Greenwood starring trifecta at MGM, possibly with Marion Davies thrown in for good measure and balance, that we’ll never know.
- Believe it or not, considering that MGM teamed Buster with "subtle as a two-by-four in the face" Trixie Friganza and pre-television Jimmy Durante, the various supporting players actually contribute something other than irritation. Dorothy Christy - who Laurel & Hardy fans know well from her role as the duck-hunting Mrs. Laurel in Sons Of The Desert, is charming as the gal who has a crush on Reggie, but strictly on the proviso that he's "dangerous". Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, as the bellhop, doesn't get the opportunity to sing, unfortunately, but has one of the best verbal zingers in the film when he bursts into the hotel suite to find Reggie romancing yet another beautiful babe and mutters "Mormon?"
- Buster's performance is pretty darn wonderful throughout and often manages to make the frequently dunderheaded "Reggie" endearing. One scene which illustrates this is when Reggie has a pekinese pooch on his office desk for the purpose of licking stamps that are then applied to letters. Keaton works in subtle ways with the character's essential politeness and honesty, managing to squeeze quite a bit of inventiveness and likability into his "contract player" role along the way.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK
- Awful treatment of Buster throughout. He's ordered around by Reginald Denny, shouted at by Charlotte Greenwood, bawled out by Dorothy Christy, called names like "terrible shrimp", etc. Somebody at Metro seemed to think that presenting Buster Keaton as a pathetic individual and then putting him down for the entire running time would create pathos and humor. News flash: it doesn't. The unending and increasing humiliation of Buster during the run of the MGM features is, however, remarkably effective as a caustic irritant for Keaton fans!
- Misunderstanding of Buster Keaton's characterization and identity. Again, he is by no means inept in his 1920's features and frequently beats the odds with sheer resourcefulness. Here, there are too many instances in the film when "Reggie" is a knucklehead (although, thankfully, less than in several of the other MGM features). While this may work for Knucklehead Smiff, it proves deadly for Buster Keaton and undercuts the comedy.
Another noteworthy trait of the MGM talkies is the complete lack of the "wide open spaces" and "one man dwarfed by the grandeur of nature and the elements" motifs that are trademarks of the Buster Keaton silent features and short subjects. The ending features lots of mayhem and running around, neither of which have a darn thing to do with Buster's more measured and thoughtful approach. Whatever mayhem happens in his previous epics is not caused by jealous husbands running around shooting guns in hotel lobbies, but by Mother Nature.
- It is overloaded with subplots, secondary characters and scenes involving said characters. On the plus side, the pace moves reasonably briskly and the mix is far more agreeable than certain Laurel & Hardy and Marx Brothers features that are known for wretched, unwelcome "young lover" subplots and cringe-inducing musical numbers.
The opening of the film was shot on the spectacular grounds at the Keatons' Italian villa, occupied in the 1920's by Buster and Natalie Talmadge, among other illustrious tenants. The scenes at the swimming pool and on the grounds of the villa are the only outdoors sequences in the movie.
THE 14,000 POUND ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM:
Buster's MGM talkies made money. Parlor, Bedroom and Bath was a big hit in 1931. Alas, things would get worse for Buster from here. It's never a good sign when your next feature is directed by the guys who helmed the "Dogville" series.
While, granted, MGM had much difficulty adapting the big studio playbook to the individual needs of an improvisational, brilliant, accomplished and fiercely independent artist such as Buster Keaton, the studio eventually produced The Thin Man series, mysteries with generous slugs of booze and humor, co-starring always urbane William Powell with always delightful Myrna Loy, and later, sprightly comedies starring the likes of Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn: outstanding ACTORS all, but not Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd style comedian/filmmakers with doctorates in advanced visual humor.
Provided one does not directly compare it to such epic silent features as Our Hospitality,The Navigator, Go West, The General and Steamboat Bill. Jr., one can see this "Buster Does Farce" feature as a noteworthy example of Joseph Frank Keaton's originality, charm, acting skill and acrobatic derring-do. The story, milieu, genre and concept are clearly not Buster's cup of tea, but he, yet again, proves himself the ultimate trouper and carries the day.
Acknowledgements: we thank the many fine writers, researchers and historians who have presented the tale of Buster Keaton's film career with some level of accuracy, especially Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay Productions, creators of the following documentary on Buster at MGM.
Most of all, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog thank Lea Stans of Silent-ology for hosting this blogathon.
Sunday, February 01, 2015
On February 1, 1966, Buster Keaton passed away. On February 8-9, 2015, a blogathon shall celebrate the cinema immortal's memory.Film historian and writer Lea Stans of Silent-ology is hosting the first Buster Keaton Blogathon and this correspondent, classic comedy buff and enthusiastic "Buster Booster" is happy to be among those participating.
Joseph Frank Keaton, born on October 4, 1895, was not merely among the greatest of movie and stage comedians, a remarkable acrobat/stuntman and a surprisingly good character actor. He was also a brilliant filmmaker, director, writer, editor, cameraman, special effects designer and a gifted engineer! Almost 50 years after his death, there is still only one individual in the history of motion pictures who mastered ALL OF THE ABOVE: Buster Keaton.
Even at the low point of his professional and personal life, starring in big budget feature films for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or headlining 2-reelers made for miniscule budgets in the latter 1930's and early 1940's, Buster could - and did - continue to make magic onscreen (too bad Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg said no to Keaton's idea of co-starring in an all-star spoof of Grand Hotel with, among others, the two fellows pictured below).
Buster, long after directing his last movie, would carry that magic well into the television era.
The Buster Keaton Blogathon lineup:
Big V Riot Squad | The Keaton family in vaudeville
BOOKSTEVE’S LIBRARY | Early 1960's T.V. appearances
Caftan Woman | Neighbors
Critica Retro | Speak Easily
Girls Do Film | Keaton’s development as a screen artist in his 1917-1923 shorts.
In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood | The Navigator
Lone Wolf Says |Cops
Margaret Perry | Keaton’s career after the silents
Marty Jones | The origin of the name “Buster”
Mildred’s Fatburgers | The Cook
Moon in Gemini | Twilight Zone episode “Once Upon a Time”
MovieFanFare | A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
MovieMovieBlogBlog | Sherlock Jr.
Movies Silently | Contemporary views on Keaton films compared to 1920s reviews
My Classic Movies | The Villain Still Pursued Her
Mythical Monkey | Keaton in Arbuckle's Comique films
Nitrate Glow | Our Hospitality
Once Upon a Screen | What! No Beer?
Public Transportation Snob | Daydreams
Second Sight Cinema | The General
Silent-ology | A Country Hero
Silents, Please! | One Week
Silver Screenings | Go West
Sister Celluloid | Childhood memories of Buster’s films
Special Purpose Movie Blog | The Awakening T.V. episode
Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog | Parlor, Bedroom and Bath
Wide Screen World | Steamboat Bill Jr.
Wolffian Classic Movies Digest | Sunset Blvd. and In The Good Old Summertime
Wonderful World Of Cinema | Free And Easy