Friday, May 27, 2016

The Ballad Of Pete The Pup

“To stay a whole weekend with Pete … was my idea of glory and paradise combined.” Jackie Cooper

“He was a gentle, playful and warm dog. He would sleep at the foot of my bed. He was just the regular family dog. I really miss him.” Harry Lucenay

“May his dog star never fade!” Roadside

Today's post is our contribution to the 2016 Animals In Film Blogathon, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood. For the entire group of blogathon entries, click here.

We are very happy to participate and tip that battered cap - can't remember if it was worn by Mickey Rooney in National Velvet or Stablemates - to Crystal Kalyana Pacey, the Animals In Film blogathon host, journalist and prolific writer about all things classic movies.

Today's post profiles the Ian McKellen, the Patrick Stewart, the Larry Olivier, the John Barrymore of canine thespians - although (actually) that would be several dogs - screen immortal Pete The Pup of the Our Gang comedies a.k.a. The Little Rascals.

The Our Gang comedies, at least until producer Hal Roach sold the rights to "the big studio" A.K.A. behemoth monolith Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, bringing ruination, devastation and Janet Burston to the series, were more often than not 20 minute masterworks.

Since we penned a post for a previous blogathon about Gale Henry, who enjoyed a lengthy career as the trainer of top canine talent (including the beloved Asta) after appearing in 268 films as a comedienne and character actress, it seems fitting that the topic du jour for the Animals On Film Blogathon is these Top Dogs from Our Gang (a.k.a. The Little Rascals, Hal Roach's Rascals).

Pete was hardly the first "Dog Star". There were many predecessors, especially the masterful co-star of Chaplin's A Dog's Life and Keystone's canine action heroes Luke and Teddy.

In many respects, the prototype for what would later be seen with Pete in Our Gang was done with great success by Charlie Chaplin in his wonderful A Dog's Life, in which The Little Tramp scrounges for sustenance with the remarkable Scraps the dog. Almost 100 years later, there's not a dry eye in the house whenever it flickers across the big screen. That Charlie knew how to get a laugh and tug on the heartstrings!

Luke could be considered the canine Chaplin and "dog in demand" at Mack Sennett's Fun Factory, where he supported studio headliners Mabel Normand and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle with athleticism, boundless energy and great charm.

Arbuckle took such a liking to the amazing athletic canine that Luke was among the group from Keystone to also appear in his subsequent Comique series.

And then there was the gigantic Keystone Teddy, who very likely weighed more than most of the leading ladies and some of the leading men at Sennett.

It could be argued that the funniest dog ever was another Sennett star, Cameo - a comedienne and Miss Cameo to you. Here's Cameo, alongside the perpetually non-plussed Billy Bevan in a hilarious Mack Sennett comedy.

Before ending up as Our Gang's ever-intrepid mascot, Pal the Wonder Dog made quite a few appearances with the top comics of the silent screen. There's a memorable cameo in the Harold Lloyd gridiron epic The Freshman as well as the following turns in two films by a pre-L&H Stan Laurel.

More importantly, Pal then was the driving force of Dynamite Doggie, one of the quintessential classic comedy shorts of the silent era. The headliner? The prolific, rubber-legged and quadruple-jointed silent comedy perennial Al St. John. The director? No great surprise - Al's uncle and former co-star (from the Mack Sennett Studio and Comique Productions) Roscoe Arbuckle. Tough to say who is the more acrobatic of the two death-defying daredevils, Al or Pal.

By the time these 1925 films hit the movie palaces, Our Gang had already been an enormous hit with audiences for three years. The winning formula - a lovable band of plucky poor kids show up the stuck-up town snobs, bluenoses, Margaret Dumont-ish matrons and stuffed shirts just by being themselves - was there from the series' inception.

The first three Our Gang releases made their silver screen debuts across the United States in September - November 1922 and proved to be an enormous hit with movie audiences.

As inevitable as death and taxes, a gazillion kid comedies soon followed and Pal the wonder dog would be in the thick of things, starring as Tige in the Buster Brown comedies, produced by the Stern Brothers for Universal.

Imitation being the sincerest form of plagiarism, the Buster Brown series, based on Richard F. Outcault's comic strip character, is actually a shameless ripoff of Our Gang, right down to casting similar looking kids - one cast member is a dead-ringer for Our Gang mainstay Joe Cobb.

As fate would have it, Pal had a natural ring around his eye. A bit of dye and Max Factor assistance finished the job and transformed Pal into Pete The Pup. Rock-solid through both good and not-so-good periods in the series, Pete in some cases drive the storylines. Many of the silent Our Gang shorts, such as this one, Love My Dog, would be remade and improved upon in talkies.

In this correspondent's opinion, the Our Gang comedies from the early 1930's, thanks to a stellar ensemble cast, LeRoy Shield's evocative background music and inspired direction and writing by Bob F. McGowan frequently rank among the series' all-time best.

There is a level of genuine heart which entirely eluded the other "famous kid comedies" and even Our Gang itself at the end of its 15 year Hal Roach run and throughout the dreadful last six seasons produced by MGM.

Said genuine heart, taking a few cues from Mr. Chaplin and getting the audience to care about the characters, would be central to the 1930-1933 Our Gangs. The hilarious and charming Pups Is Pups, released theatrically on August 30, 1930, was a defining moment for the series and also included the silver screen debut of a new Petey, quite literally a pup when this was produced.

Now the reason that Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins' buddy in Pups Is Pups is not Petey, but by a slew of puppies, shockingly, is due to intrigue, chicanery and violence involving the series' canine hero. Earlier in 1930, the first Pete The Pup, Pal the wonder dog, was poisoned to death by an unknown assailant!

One of Pal's offspring, seen among Wheezer's ridiculously cute co-stars in Pups is Pups, would succeed him and eventually star in a string of pretty darn wonderful Our Gang comedies.

The new dog, bred by A. A. Keller, was named Lucenay's Peter and can be seen following his trainer's commands with utter perfection in a newsreel clip with Harry Lucenay.

Lucenay's Peter grew quickly and made his silver screen debut in School's Out, one of the last Our Gang vehicles for Jackie Cooper before his move to feature films.

Two Pete starring roles that exemplify everything film buffs and Hal Roach studio fans adore about the Our Gang series are Dogs Is Dogs and The Pooch.

The former, the ultimate Depression era melodrama, delivered with lots of laughs along the way, casts Wheezer and Dorothy "Echo" DeBorba in a downright Chaplinesque situation. The two Our Gang stalwarts play impoverished children in danger, mistreated in a truly horrific manner by an abusive stepmother and her hideously spoiled son. Saving the day for Dorothy and Wheezer: one of the funniest and most likable Our Gang cast members and most memorable child actors in movies, Matthew "Stymie" Beard. When the horrid stepmother and her obnoxious kid get their comeuppance at (and in) the end, it's one of the great payoffs in movies.

The Pooch is even more melodramatic. Pete needs a license, the gang can't afford it, and the local dog catcher is a rat who derives sick pleasure from euthanizing strays. In a series of very funny scenes involving Stymie and a 3-year-old Spanky McFarland, the Gang tries various means of scraping up the money for the license. The evil dog catcher is played with appropriate villainy by Billy Gilbert actually attempts to kill Pete in a gas chamber! It all ends well for Petey and the Gang but at one point the kids are crying because they think Petey's dead! Both kids and their parents watching this in 1932 must have been crying their eyes out - there had to be many bruised arms the next day!

After Hal Roach fired Lucenay in 1932, the trainer took the second Pete to Atlantic City, where the pooch both entertained children at the Steel Pier and made his silver screen swan song in Buzzin' Around, one of the Vitaphone Big V comedies produced the East Coast, starring Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John. The brilliant and memorable movie career of Lucenay's Peter ended and the talented canine lived until 1946.

After Lucenay's Peter, several different dogs would appear in Our Gang as Pete, starting with Hook & Ladder.

These were also amazing dogs, in general Pete was gradually getting phased out of the series in the mid-1930's. This signals a change in storylines and approach that would be apparent as the 1930's progressed. For Pete's Sake is a memorable example of the later series, directed by Gus Meins, who piloted Our Gang after Bob McGowan's retirement in 1933.

Pete The Pup is to some degree a non-factor after Our Gang transitioned from the 20 minute length to 10 minutes. These slicker and shorter 1-reelers, built around Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat and Porky, are the best known in the series. Directed by a young Gordon Douglas - later known for piloting a wide variety of feature films, including The Rat Pack in Robin & The 7 Hoods - they offer enthusiastic performances by the superb cast, plenty of laughs and a snappy pace, but lack the charm, depth, humanity, Depression-era flavor and LeRoy Shield music of the early 1930's Our Gangs.

We thank all the Petes for giving audiences much needed laughs during the Great Depression - and, on DVD, much needed laughs now.

In closing, we both thank and raise our chocolate milk-filled goblets to Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood for hosting the Animals In Film Blogathon and inviting us to participate.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Starting This Thursday: The 2016 Animals In Film Blogathon

Now officially no longer watching Rodney Dangerfield standup comedy routines (at least for a day or two) and clips celebrating the birthday of the incomparable Harry Ritz, we will announce our participation in the first Animals In Film Blogathon.

Big thanks to Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood for hosting and allowing the movie-crazed reprobates at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog to participate.

The rules for posting are pretty clear: National Velvet and International Velvet are cool, but Blue Velvet - well, not so much.

That said, King Kong is not only a-okay but, hallelujah, represented in this blogathon! And it's the 1933 RKO feature with Willis O' Brien's astounding stop-motion animation, not that the crappy 1970's version or those limited animation made-for-TV toons from the mid-1960's.

Our contribution will be all about the Our Gang comedies. The affection and high regard that Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog has for the mini-masterpieces Hal Roach Studios produced starring Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, Harold Lloyd and others is entirely undimmed after over five decades, when this writer and many of his contemporaries first saw these films on TV. Our Gang is right in the wheelhouse for the Animals In Film Blogathon because it could be argued that the series' greatest star, especially in the late silent and early talkie eras, was the fabulous Pete The Pup.

We were thrilled to write about Petey and the Gang in an "Unca Paul's Foodie Films" post on the Eat With Annie website and are thrilled to cover the beloved series again.

The lineup for the 2016 Animals In Film Blogathon is as follows:

B Noir Detour - Obsession/ The Hidden Room

Back To Golden Days - Bringing Up Baby

Caftan Woman - A Tiger Walks

Century Film Project - Dog Factory

Christina Wehner - Rhubarb

The Cinematic Frontier - The NeverEnding Story

Cinematic Scribblings - Umberto D

Classic Movie Hub - The Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland

Critica Retro - The Jungle Book

Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For - The Fox

The Flapper Dame - Toto from "The Wizard Of Oz"

Flickers In Time - Moby Dick

Karavansara - Gorilla At Large

Make Mine Criterion - Very Happy Alexander - Smoky

The Midnight Drive In - Harvey

Moon In Gemini - Mighty Joe Young

Movie Classics - Broadway Bill and Riding High

Movie Movie Blog Blog - Laurel & Hardy and horses

An Ode To Dust - Buster Keaton - Go West

Old Hollywood Films - The Yearling

Phyllis Loves Classic Movies - The film career of Asta, and Trigger in Son Of Paleface

Portraits By Jenni - Dunstan Checks In

Realweegiemidget Reviews - International Velvet

A Shroud Of Thoughts - The cat from “Breakfast At Tiffany’s"

Silver Screenings - Francis The Talking Mule

Twenty Four Frames - Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog - The Ballad Of Pete The Pup

Wolffian Classic Movies Digest - King Kong

The Wonderful World Of Cinema - Rescued By Rover

Friday, May 20, 2016

And This Blog Loves Rodney Dangerfield

In the plaque-filled hearts of all at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, standup comedy king and actor Rodney Dangerfield occupies a soft spot - and is no doubt eating Cantonese food at 4:15 a.m.

While there have been self-deprecating while exceedingly funny standups - from deadpan Jackie Vernon to X-rated "dirty comic" Robert Schimmel - Rodney's use of "I'm all right now, but last week I was in bad shape" as a springboard for comedy delivered with unrelenting pace and unerring precision remains, even decades later, something to behold.

Rodney was born Jacob Cohen on November 22, 1921. One imagines he MUST have made a joke somewhere about his birthday and the JFK assassination taking place on the same day, immediately following "I don't go no respect - no respect at all."

Many of a certain age regard Rodney Dangerfield's standup comedy as an instantaneous passage to the laughing place and first recall seeing Rodney on Ed Sullivan's "rilly big shoe", The Dean Martin Show (which often spotlighted comedians, particularly Jonathan Winters) and in frequent appearances with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

The jokes are invariably fired in a rat-a-tat-tat fashion that makes Henny Youngman look downright phlegmatic.

If Rodney repeated any jokes, it didn't matter because he had dozens more new ones in the mix every time.

To tell just a bit of Rodney's background story, he started his showbiz career as a struggling comedian under the name Jack Roy.

Toiling for many years with a not very successful standup act, he spent many years cranking out jokes in mass quantities and selling them to the other comics. He also was a troubled family man in a very bad marriage, zigzagging between that suburban life and the subterranean world of standup comedy. One of the key guys in Rodney's development as a comic was the famous and infamous Joe Ancis, raconteur, inspiration, mentor and pot dealer to numerous comedy greats in the 1950's.

Ancis, who wrote the line "the only normal people are the ones you don't know very well", had stage fright and never got his own standup career off the ground, but was known as an ace comedy writer possessing a keen sense for what jokes, acts and characterizations could go over with an audience - and why. Known as "the original sick comic" and "the funniest guy in New York", he is credited as a key gag writer and behind-the-scenes figure in shaping the standup acts of many comedians, including Lenny Bruce.

For awhile, Ancis and Rodney and numerous other comedians were involved in the same aluminum siding racket which was at the center of Barry Levinson's 1987 movie Tin Men.

To get a sense of where Rodney came from, watch the Barry Levinson films Diner and Tin Men. Danny DeVito exemplifies the ultimate b.s. sales operator, with extra relish, in Tin Men. The comics gauging customers selling aluminum siding at highway robbery prices made a lot of money but got into a lot of trouble! The scam getting busted was a key reason behind Jack Roy dropping out of sight and then adopting a stage name found in a Jack Benny radio show. . . Rodney Dangerfield.

It would appear that as much as Rodney had family problems (and let's be honest - who doesn't), he was also incredibly nice and generous to young comedians coming up and to his contemporaries/collaborators in show business. The latter, as well as the legendarily grandiose nature of Rodney, has frequently been confirmed by one of the standup comedy guru's closest friends, Robert Klein, who offers great stories and insight into just who the "no respect" guy was.

Rodney became something of a sensation among young comedy fans and even hosted Saturday Night Live on March 8, 1980.

After growing showbiz success, it was no surprise to anyone that Rodney soon found himself as a bankable star in feature films. As an actor, he took the amazing timing, larger-than-life stage presence and flair with dialogue from his standup act and parlayed in into character roles - both comic and occasionally dramatic - with great success.

There was even a cartoon featuring Rodney as the main character. While generally not thrilled about animated features including lots of dialogue, this one's actually pretty good - rather amazingly, given the extent to which the Dangerfield standup act is not directed at children.

For further reading:
Rodney Dangerfield tribute by Suzanne Ford on the AND Society: Entertainment, lifestyle, culture, and humanity website.

Roger Ebert's interview on the set of Easy Money. While it is pure p.r. schmooze, legerdemain and a few outright falsehoods on Rodney's part, one still appreciates even a brief encounter between the great standup comedian and Mr. Ebert, a wonderful and ridiculously prolific film and pop culture reviewer. An even better profile of Rodney penned by Roger can be found in Ebert's 1984 book A Kiss Is Still A Kiss.

For detailed background info on the underground NYC nightclub comedy universe that created Jack Roy/Rodney Dangerfield:

Many episodes of the wonderful and old school show business-obsessed Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast featuring Gilbert and Frank Santopadre - like the following one on Groucho Marx.

Numerous articles by the guest of Episode 95 of Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, the one guy who conducted dozens of interviews with comics, both famed and obscure, Kliph Nesteroff, starting with The Schleppers: Stale Gags & Stale Food in Mid-Century Manhattan. Anyone writing about post-1930 nightclub/standup comedy and comedians must acknowledge that information and quotes came from the Classic Television Showbiz website.

On Rodney specifically, read the following interviews:

Stan Irwin

Stanley Dean

Bobby Ramsen, Part 3

Art Metrano

Parts of all the aforementioned interviews can also be found in: The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels & The History Of American Comedy

To close this tribute to the guy who sends everyone at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog so quickly and easily into hysterical laughter, here's our favorite 12-inch single recorded in the 40 years since James Brown's epic Get Up Offa That Thing: the great Rappin' Rodney, penned by Kurtis Blow songwriters J.B. Moore and Robert Ford Jr.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Today: Creature Features Tribute

This all-day tribute to the Northern California late-night TV institution Creature Features and esteemed horror hosts Bob Wilkins and John Stanley holds forth at the Rheem Theatre on 350 Park Street in Moraga.

Tom Wyrsch, producer of the documentary Watch Horror Movies: Keep America Strong (and friend of the KFJC Psychotronix Film Fest) will no doubt have rare Creature Features footage to share with the audience.

To contact the Rheem Theatre's box office, call (925) 388-0751. Main office: (925) 388-0752.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Psychotronic Paul's Reel American Heroes #1

Was thinking of "the quiet Marx brother" earlier today reading a splendid article about Harpo on Neatorama by Miss Cellania, A.K.A. the delightful character actor, classic movie buff, comedian and writer Eddie Deezen. All at Way Too Lazy To Write A Blog are suckers for anything involving Harpo, Groucho, George Burns and Jack Benny!

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Olivia de Havilland Tribute At Stanford Theatre

Palo Alto's Stanford Theatre, one of two Sistine Chapels of classic movie wonderment in the San Francisco Bay Area, presents an extended Olivia DeHavilland 100th Birthday retrospective. The two month tribute started last night, so we're a day late and a dollar short with this news, but the classic movie-obsessed denizens of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog shall be there to check out as many double bills as humanly possible.

This dovetails nicely with the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon - in which this aficionado of Warner Brothers movies looks forward to participating on the silver screen icon's 100th birthday on July 1.

The Stanford Theatre retrospective will include The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Strawberry Blonde, Captain Blood, It's Love I'm After, The Charge of the Light Brigade, My Cousin Rachel, The Heiress, The Snake Pit, They Died With Their Boots On, The Dark Mirror, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Santa Fe Trail, Hold Back the Dawn, Four's a Crowd, To Each His Own, The Great Garrick and, topping off the series in grand style, Gone With the Wind.

Sounds like big screen fun to me, even taking into account that Madame Blogmeister has requested that I find something else to do - a rousing game of tiddlywinks, perhaps - when the Stanford shows The Snake Pit, a never less than harrowing 108 minutes.