Sunday, September 17, 2017

Monologists And The Movies

Writing about Eddie "The Old Philosopher" Lawrence brought up the topic of monologists who also acted in movies. First and foremost, there's monologist/satirist, movie actor, cowboy and star of The Ropin' Fool (among numerous films in silents and talkies), the great Will Rogers.

Will Rogers' monologues about The Great Depression - a time of 30% unemployment in significant swaths of the United States - have weathered the test of time and resonate all these decades later.

His commentary on hubris and politics still rings true.

Rogers would star in a remarkably successful series of feature films, many directed by John Ford or Frank Borzage. He projected warmth and likability onscreen that transcends the era and certain dated aspects of the storylines.

Without a doubt, humorist Robert Benchley, of Algonquin Round Table fame, considered himself first and foremost a writer, but ended up in movies as a lark.

To amuse his friends at parties, Benchley used to do sendups of stodgy "after-dinner speakers" and less-than-dynamic academic orators. Several were filmed in 1928 and theatrically released among William Fox' first sound-on-film Movietone short subjects.

The 1-reelers Benchley starred in for William Fox eventually led to his headlining his own short subject series for MGM and Paramount.


Sometimes Benchley ventured into the same current events territory as Rogers, as he does in the following wry and satiric clip, courtesy of the British Pathe Collection.

In between his writings, Robert Benchley ended up appearing in 92 films, including Sir Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent.

We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are particularly fond of Mr. Benchley's role in the Hope & Crosby vehicle The Road To Utopia.

Three who changed the comedy world in no uncertain terms were Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory.

Jonathan Winters very likely did not consider himself a thespian in any way, shape or form, but played a character part in Tony Richardson's 1965 satire The Loved One quite well.

Mort Sahl occasionally acted in television programs (including an episode of the Gothic-noir-suspense series Thriller), while his fellow standup philosopher, political and social commentator, the recently passed Dick Gregory, starred in the movie Sweet Love, Bitter. Gregory excelled in this drama, as he had as an activist and monologist.

Contemporaneous with this trio and, along with them, key among those who expanded standup comedy beyond the joke-punchline format, the edgy and quick-witted Lenny Bruce only appeared in a couple of films, including one, very early in his standup career, Dance Hall Racket, a tawdry and terrible movie directed by Phil "Robot Monster" Tucker. Was there a director worse than Edward D. Wood, Junior? Yes - Phil Tucker!

There aren't all that many uncut Lenny Bruce monologues available - after all, his preferred performing venue was strip joints - but here's a breathless one, including references to Jack Durant, Alice B. Toklas, Liberace and Julian Eltinge, from the Palladium. The audio element only tells a minimal fraction of the story. Just hearing his use of his voice and dynamics, one concludes that if Lenny Bruce had been interested in pursuing acting, he may well have been able to make the transition from standup comedy successfully.

Richard Pryor, along with George Carlin, could be considered among those who carried on the standup comedy approach of Lenny Bruce, while extending it into uncharted political and social territory. Richard Pryor's brilliant monologues became movies - Live In Concert, Live On The Sunset Strip, Here And Now - but he was also an actor who co-starred in Paul Schrader's Blue Collar and both starred in and directed the biographical drama Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. Pryor's abilities as a storyteller and actor distinguish him from his contemporaries and subsequent political comedians. One envisions that Mr. Pryor could have spun off into further writing, directing and acting in indie films, not just doing comedies.

Best known of all the monologists who transitioned into movies would be the late, great Robin Williams, capable of playing menacing characters adeptly, in a departure from his standup comedy persona.

Williams starred in World's Greatest Dad, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, still occasionally a standup comedian, but primarily a filmmaker - and a quite original and provocative writer/director at that.

Speaking of dark and provocative movies, the latest monologist to go into filmmaking is Louis CK, who, after his brilliant yet gritty and ever-uneasy television show Louie, is now writing and directing disturbing indie films.

This does not seem a stretch to this writer, as Louis CK's standup performances frequently focus on finding humor in the dark side of human behavior - and especially his own behavior. And that recalls another brilliant monologist who ultimately made movies.

Woody Allen would be the most famous/infamous and prolific among the monologists who also wrote and directed movies - and the very best of his films are, indeed, dark and disturbing. . . not far afield from those written by Bobcat Goldthwait and Louis CK.

Whether Jon Stewart, who has produced the Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez documentary After Spring, or current standups Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Lewis Black opt to ultimately move behind the camera as well - that remains to be seen. The more provocative and original films, the better.

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