Friday, June 16, 2017

The Comedy Credo: "Give Me Your Quirky, Anomalous, Unorthodox & Unconventional"

The last post about Marcel Perez, as well as Anthony Slide's 1998 book Eccentrics of Comedy and the upcoming publication (July 1) of Steve Massa's new book Slapstick Divas got this writer thinking of the odder, more unorthodox characters from the rough and tumble days of vaudeville, music halls and silent movies.

We'll start with the turn of the 20th century vaudeville star who would scare the living daylights out of a shoe salesman - and get big laughs every exaggerated step of the way - the one, the only Little Tich!

Another inexplicable yet highly entertaining vaudeville act, the sand dancers Wilson, Keppel & Betty, hit the stages thirty years later.

In the greatest medium for Eccentrics of Comedy, silent movies, such stars as Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and wry action hero Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. were, after all, handsome fellows, many headliners and supporting players were quite the antithesis of this.

The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer "whirls", produced by George Kleine for Essanay in 1916-1917 and starring rubber-faced circus clown and Ziegfeld Follies performer Harry Watson, Jr. may be the wildest and craziest films, along with productions of directors Henry "Suicide" Lehrman, John G. Blystone (L-Ko, Century Comedies) and Vin Moore, in the entire silent era.

Imagine 1916 Sennett-style knockabout, blended with 19th century style vaudeville and the kind of wildly surreal moments one might find in a Tex Avery cartoon or Monty Python. That is one way of describing the indescribable Mishaps Of Musty Suffer.

George "Cockeyed Slim" Rowe was a supporting player like no other, in dozens of films for Hal Roach and other studios, and we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are sorry he did not do any talkies - would have loved to hear what his voice sounded like, as well as get him in a scene with Ben Turpin.

Most the opposite of such dapper comedians as Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase? Kalem's Ham & Bud, the most unsympathetic comedy team ever in movies. . . and frequently downright grotesque.

The more indefensible and disgusting the duo's behavior was, the bigger the laugh.

Gallant yet unorthodox and pixilated was Ben Turpin, the janitor and jack-of-all-trades at the Essanay Studios who, in appearing onscreen as a lark, became the first star of American comedy films in 1907.

Unlike the despicable Ham & Bud, who would gladly sell each other to medical researchers, the double-jointed and cross-eyed Turpin's character was likable, plucky and weirdly endearing. After co-starring with Chaplin in two very funny Essanay 2-reelers, A Night Out and His New Job, as well as a series for Vogue Comedies, Turpin went on to be a headliner for Mack Sennett.

Mr. Turpin's earnest sendups of silent movie "great lovers" and action stars can be both highly absurd and oddly heroic.

Ben would continue into talkies with memorable appearances in such feature films as Cracked Nuts and Million Dollar Legs. At Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we especially love Turpin's cameo that closes the great Laurel & Hardy short Our Wife. For more on the inimitable comedian's career on stage and screen, Steve Rydzewski's book For Art's Sake: The Biography And Filmography Of Ben Turpin has the last word.

One eccentric of comedy, Vitagraph and Educational comedy headliner and gagman Larry Semon, resembled both Richard Outcault's comics star "The Yellow Kid and Max Shreck as Nosferatu (who, rumor has it, did not drink wine).

Semon, a cartoonist and magician, was a tremendously popular star of short subjects in the late teens and early 1920's but had difficulties transferring his fast, frenetic, mayhem and sight gag-filled approach to feature films.

What Larry Semon did have going for him, besides his creative, imaginatively cartoony visual gags and gift for staging said gags in those most extravagant way possible, was a very talented roster of supporting players, led by Oliver Hardy. In this 1918 opus, Larry co-stars with one other than Stan Laurel.

Larry Semon, like Orson Welles, animator Hugh Harman and television visionary Ernie Kovacs, also enjoyed his extravagance of concept immensely, overspending on budgets whenever possible! This is notable even as early as his Vitagraph 2-reeler The Grocery Clerk. One might imagine Larry saw Roscoe Arbuckle's Comique Productions hit The Butcher Boy and tried to "top" the big guy in the sheer quantity and breakneck pace of elaborate knockabout gags set at a general store. The comedy of Larry Semon = sight gag-packed mayhem.

On the other hand, the much more sedate and minimalistic Harry Langdon was a true eccentric, both in characterization and the bold originality of his performance, as well as the closest of all the comedians not named Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd to attaining a kind of mega-stardom in silent features. Unorthodox & unconventional was Harry's modus operandi.

After his 1927-1928 starring vehicles Three's A Crowd, The Chaser and Heart Trouble bombed at the box office, Harry continued to work steadily, but was largely relegated to short subjects and occasional character roles in features. Throughout Langdon's career, his characterization, acting and comic timing were highly original, ultra-quirky and most idiosyncratic.

Said characterization proved especially problematic for moviegoers when Harry transitioned from silents into talkies. It was one thing to witness the addled brain of his otherworldly "little elf" character not work terribly well in a silent film and yet another thing to see and hear it.

Watching Harry talking to himself as he demonstrates his bizarre spin on "reasoning" in his early sound films may have proved both unfunny and distressing for many back in 1929, as well as to latter-day film historians, but (then as now) can provoke others, such as this writer, to laugh in utter amazement.

The much-maligned 1929-1930 Hal Roach Studio series demonstrates Harry's fearlessness and determination to stick with his bizarre little character - and his original approach to comedy is downright inspirational.

Modern day historians have been less given to accepting the conventional wisdom about Harry Langdon's career and work in both silent and sound films; such scholarly articles as The Case For Harry Langdon: How and Why Frank Capra Was Wrong by Ben Urich indicate that a fresh and long overdue reevaluation is finally underway.

Just ever so slightly Langdon-esque was the brilliant stop-motion animator who doubled as a comedy headliner, frequently in the characterization of an eccentric inventor, Charley Bowers.

Author Imogen Sara Smith penned a scholarly article on Charley Bowers in Bright Lights Film Journal which comes about as close to explaining the way-out universe of the cartoonist and stop-motion genius as possible.

No mention of eccentrics of comedy in the silent era would be complete without a nod to the heavies; all were at least a tad on the eccentric side. Eric Campbell in Chaplin's Mutual series was tops, but there were many more. Here's "Bull" Montana, the lumbering bald bad guy of countless silent movies, cleaned up and wearing top hat and tails, singing "You Were Meant For Me" to comedienne Winnie Lightner in the Singing In The Bathtub number from Warner Brothers' revue picture Show Of Shows. The hulking brute enters at 3:16.

Then there was Noah Young, another actor who specialized in bad guys. He's all over the late teens and early 1920's Hal Roach Studio (Rolin) productions, including this very early film by Stan Laurel.

Young's career ended not long after his appearance co-starring in Harold Lloyd's Welcome Danger, shot as a silent and then re-cast as a talkie. The reason: Young had a goofy voice, more like a cartoon character than a bad guy. He could have gone on in movies, but not as a menacing villain.

The gangliest of all performers was Joe Murphy (1877-1961), co-star with ace silent movie comedienne and actress Fay Tincher, in Universal's The Gumps series, based on the comic strip.

Joe Murphy starred as Andy Gump in 48 entries of the 1923-1928 Universal series and a few other feature films, wrapping up his movie career in 1940 with an uncredited appearance in one of the funniest Three Stooges 2-reelers, You Nazty Spy!

While not many Gumps 2-reelers exist, here's one, I'm The Sheriff (1927).

We finish today's post by going full circle, back to music hall style comics from Great Britain, starting with the slapstick lechery of Benny Hill.

Here's Max Wall (1908-1990), who began his career in the 1940's, carrying on the physical comedy tradition as Professor Wallofski.

Magician Tommy Cooper, like Wall, brought slapstick comedy into the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's.

On a day, June 16, noted as the birthdays of Stan Laurel and Bobby Clark, we tip our battered bowlers to the Eccentrics of Comedy and say thanks for the laughs, gents!

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