Saturday, January 09, 2016
And This Blog Loves Musical Comedians
The last post about pianist Victor "Yes, There Can Be Humor In Music" Borge reminds me that there are all kinds of 20th century comedians - some sophisticated, others not so sophisticated, still more wonderfully lowbrow - who are fundamentally musical. We begin this Saturday cornucopia of clips with. . .
The Wiere Brothers
Victor Borge was not the only performer to combine classical music with comedy. It's often the modus operandi of the trio this writer first read about eons ago in Leonard Maltin's indispensable Movie Comedy Teams book: The Wiere Brothers. Here they are combining the music of Frederic Chopin with silent comedy on the April 26, 1951 episode of "The Ford Festival."
Harry (1906-1992), Herbert (1908-1999) and Sylvester Wiere (1909 – 1970) had a five decade career, beginning in vaudeville and then mostly on stage, but occasionally seen onscreen in feature films and periodically on television as well. Their act goes back to the 1920's. Billed as The Continental Trio, here they are, in early acrobatic dancing form, captured in these time capsule clips from The British Pathé Collection.
The team appears in Bob Hope & Bing Crosby flick Road To Rio (the Wieres' dance, starting at 1:50, sets up a sequence involving the spectacle of Bob Hope in drag), as well as the Roy Rogers western Hands Across The Border and the 1967 Elvis Presley vehicle Double Trouble.
The following Wiere Brothers television appearance presents their act, performed hundreds of times over decades. Herbert plays classical music on the violin while Harry and Sylvester muck up his performance by changing the tune and "going hillbilly." Then all three perform acrobatic derring-do involving stringed instruments. Well, hold the mayo and the Stradavarius - one hates to ponder if any bass violins bit the big one while the boys rehearsed this bit!
There was an attempt at a Wiere Brothers TV series in 1962. While this writer has not seen any of the 12 episodes of Oh! Those Bells, one would surmise that, as producer Jules White did frequently when directing Columbia Shorts Department 2-reelers starring headliners other than The Three Stooges, by casting The Wiere Brothers in slam-bang slapstick, the producers may have missed out entirely on what was wonderful about Herbie, Harry and Sylvester in the first place.
Spike Jones & His City Slickers
Since it remains utterly beyond Your Correspondent's powers as a wordsmith to describe the musical lunacy of Spike Jones & His City Slickers, we'll show you with clips, jam-packed with jokes about sound and music, from the band's appearances on the early 1950's live comedy show All-Star Revue.
The casts of Your Show Of Shows and Caesar's Hour
Nobody, not even Victor Borge, has taken on classical music quite like the ridiculously talented casts of Your Show Of Shows and Caesar's Hour.
One could make a strong argument for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca as the greatest and most versatile pure comic talents to ever headline a television program.
When Imogene left the cast after Your Show Of Shows, her successor was the stalwart musical comedy gal from stage and screen (The Band Wagon) the mighty Nanette Fabray.
Two decades later Ms. Fabray would be a frequent guest star on a variety program modeled to a significant degree on Your Show Of Shows - yep, The Carol Burnett Show.
The Ritz Brothers
Seems like a good idea to follow Sid Caesar with a comedian who clearly influenced him - and his intrepid writer cohort on Your Show Of Shows and Caesar's Hour, the inimitable Mel Brooks - in a big way, the legendary Harry Ritz (in the act, "the guy in the middle").
While the wacky Ritzes - led by rubber-faced alpha goofball Harry - do not play musical instruments as Harpo and Chico Marx did, their comedy is not about jokes per se, but all about music and dancing.
As is the case with musical comedy guys Ray Bolger and Donald O'Connor, the humor is frequently in how they sing, as well as all about how funny their movements to the music are. This excellent production number from the Alice Faye vehicle On The Avenue would be this blogger's answer to the question, "just what did people find funny about The Ritz Brothers?" Harry's bravura vocal is followed by a series of skillful and indescribably funny dance moves by the trio - the bit where they mimic penguins is tops!
Besides that amazing He Ain't Got Rhythm number, the best example of Harry, Jimmy and Al Ritz remains the episode of The All Star Revue they hosted on May 17, 1952. It presents a valuable record of their act, as The Colgate Cømedy Hour shows did for many comics (Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello) - and is also the reason this blogger has been known to utter the phrase "DON'T HOLLA - DON'T HOLLA" for no apparent reason. The Ritzes' anarchic spirit and musical comedy mojo reigns supreme throughout.
Both teamed with Dean Martin and as a solo, Jerry Lewis - whether lip-syncing to Mario Lanza's Be My Love on the Colgate Comedy Hour, performing a silent comedy routine to Count Basie & His Orchestra in The Errand Boy, conducting in The Bellboy or dancing up a storm with Sheree North in Living It Up - is fundamentally a musical comedian.
Along with Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis strikes this writer as among the artistic progeny of Harry Ritz. As with The Ritz Brothers, the credo is: sound + music + image = laughs, big laughs.
The Typewriter Routine gets this correspondent laughing every time, as does the very funny sendup/homage by another gifted physical comedian, Martin Short.
The following sequence featuring Jerry as the conductor, demonstrates how Lewis' 1960 feature The Bellboy would make a splendid double bill with the 1957 Chuck Jones WB cartoon Baton Bunny.
One wonders whose tongue-twisting musical routines were developed first, those of Danny Kaye or Sid Caesar - or if they both got the bits from Harry Ritz.
They appear to be two entirely different performers working along similar artistic lines - in some respects comparable to saxophonists Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane in 1950's jazz. Chronologically, Danny got there first, with a breathtaking linguistic prowess comparable to Sid's.
When he sang and played the piano, the ol' Schnozzola was a remarkable musical comedian and a most endearing one, too.
Unfortunately, there are no film clips of Jimmy as part of the team of Clayton, Jackson and Durante, but we do at least have this bit starring 2/3 of the show-stopping vaudeville trio.
Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams
There was no more creative comic mind than Ernie Kovacs and no more talented musical comedy gal than the Juilliard-trained Edie Adams. Arguably my all-time favorite musical comedy routine - well, maybe tied with the Wagnerian incarnation of Elmer Fudd singing "Kill The Wabbit" in What's Opera, Doc? - remains the sendups of opera performed brilliantly by Edie Adams on The Ernie Kovacs Show.
Perhaps the most wonderfully chaotic finale to a television program is the "topper" from the epic Kovacs On Music special.
Today's post closes with a comedian who wrote music but was mostly silent in movies - but NOT in this clip. Here he is, the guy who started the 20th century's first British Invasion, the greatest dancer on film not named Fred Astaire - and one who Michael Jackson definitely picked up at least a move or two from - the one, the only Charles Spencer Chaplin.