Large Association of Movie Blogs
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Not Just A Custard Pie: Dining Do's and Don'ts from The Surreal World Of Silent Film Comedy by Paul F. Etcheverry

(Note. . . An earlier version of this piece appeared in Eat Drink Films.)

When the actor, comedian and innovator Ernie Kovacs, then in his early days in local television, got stuck with hosting the afternoon Deadline For Dinner cooking show, he wanted to call it Dead Lion For Dinner. The answer was no. After all, National Geographic Channel didn't exist in 1950.

While fine dining options in the farthest corners of the Serengeti, then as now, prove somewhat limited - and throwing thick, juicy tenderloins from endangered species on the Weber would certainly constitute a faux pas - key rules of etiquette seldom change as society continues rapidly de-evolving through the decades.

Of course, nobody knew Emily Post rules regarding swanky (and not so swanky) dining quite like the great comedians and comediennes of silent movies!

Here are the following rules regarding fine dining and entertaining, applicable for 2014, but hard and fast as a 1914 Keystone comedy.

Rule 1 - Make Sure The Proprietor Of Your Favorite Dining Establishment Has Musical Training!

Illustrating this absolute: a comedienne who was the silent era's "wacky redhead" and lauded by no less than Stan Laurel - the great Alice Howell (1886-1961).

Twenty years before Lucille Ball made her silver screen debut as a showgirl in delirious Busby Berkeley musicals, Alice, the go-for-broke comedienne with a Q-Tip hairdo and a flair for knockabout farce, was tearing it up as a supporting player in Mack Sennett's rip-roaring Keystone Comedies. She would go on to headline her own series with various fun factories (Century Comedies, Emerald, Universal) from 1917-1925, before retiring from showbiz to become a real estate mogul.

Most of her starring vehicles are now lost films, including THE CABBAGE QUEEN (1918), in which spies are sent personally by Kaiser Wilhelm to steal Alice's recipe for sauerkraut - yes, almost a half century before Woody Allen's WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY and Phil Moskowitz' coveted egg salad.

Here's maestro Alice, skillfully conducting a bunch of slobs through a tuneful luncheon, among other things in CINDERELLA CINDERS (1920).

Rule 2 - If Your Favorite Dining Establishment's Line Cooks Can't Sing Or Play - Make Sure They Can Dance!

Forget those ZAGAT ratings, just be sure there's rhythm in the kitchen!

Illustrating this: a bit of culinary terpischore by Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle, from THE COOK (1918).Isadora Duncan was jealous!

Mr. Arbuckle was Keaton's mentor in the movie business and became a popular star of Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies in 1913.

Roscoe Arbuckle launched his own studio, Comique Productions, and a new series in 1917, a happenstance of felicitous circumstances brought him in contact with Buster Keaton. Roscoe immediately cast Buster in THE BUTCHER BOY, the comedy he was shooting that day, which turned out to be the first in the Comique Series.

Frequently described "slapstick ballets", the Comique 2-reelers are to this day the most amazing displays of pure physical comedy ever produced, a veritable "can you top this" of somersaults, falls and impossible stunts. Co-stars, Arbuckle, Keaton and Al St. John constituted a slapstick "dream team"; all three could act, write and direct.

Alas, the tragic death of Virginia Rappe a few days following a Labor Day soiree hosted by Arbuckle meant screaming headlines, public vilification, three ensuing trials and a story which sold a gazillion Hearst newspapers. Arbuckle was banned by Will Hays and would not be seen again onscreen until Hey, Pop!, the first of his 1932-1933 series for Vitaphone.

Even after Arbuckle was acquitted - and the jury in trial #3 wrote a statement saying the public owed him an apology - he was banned from the screen. The trio of Arbuckle, Keaton and St. John would continue collaborating after the scandal, as Arbuckle worked incognito behind the camera as a director, scenarist and gag writer.

Rule 3 - Play With Your Food A.K.A. During Times Of Long Waits, Entertain Your Fellow Diners

Arguably the most famous silver screen example of NOT boring one's fellow diners to tears is the dream sequence from Charlie Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH in which The Little Tramp performs "The Dance Of The Potatoes" or "The Oceana Roll".

As this routine was originated in the 1918 film ROUGH HOUSE by the aforementioned Roscoe Arbuckle, it is not only possible but likely that this scene was Chaplin's homage to his friend and colleague from Mack Sennett's Keystone.

Chaplin subsequently got that pesky penchant for dessert-throwing out MOSTLY of his system with the mayhem of A NIGHT IN THE SHOW (Essanay, 1915), which was recently shown to rousing response at the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Of course, in Chaplin's 1916-1917 Mutual series, he had to A NIGHT IN THE SHOW! That was accomplished with the epic dessert-throwing melee in the 1916 Mutual 2-reeler BEHIND THE SCREEN

Pie-throwing days over, Charle Chaplin was off to create a blend of comedy and pathos, first seen in the 1914 Keystone comedy THE NEW JANITOR and developed further in for such films from his Mutual series as THE VAGABOND, then later exemplified by his feature films:THE KID, THE GOLD RUSH, THE CIRCUS, CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES.

Rule 4 - Do Not Entertain Your Fellow Diners By Barging On Stage

And, in the category of the social faux pas, the ultimate in "what not to do" when out on the town can be found in THAT'S MY WIFE, a film devoted to cramming as many episodes of public embarrassment as possible within a 19 minute running time.

This Laurel & Hardy vehicle is also devoted to jokes that absolutely, positively, could not be done once strict enforcement of the Production Code hit the movie business like a slapstick style "ton o' bricks" in July 1934. Throughout, The Boys demonstrate a conspicuous lack of social graces in public!

The bit that ends THAT'S MY WIFE re-does a routine previously performed brilliantly by Charley Chase and Gale Henry in HIS WOODEN WEDDING (1925). Premise on both: how does one retrieve a jewel that has fallen down a lady's gown?"

Rule 5 - Never Order A Side Dish That Can Fight Back

There are comedy buffs who will never, ever order oyster stew in a restaurant because of the famous "live oyster in the stew" routine.

It's a good bet that beachfront comics in coastal societies 6000 years ago did this bit even earlier than "The Mirror Routine" (immortalized by the Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP and Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball on I LOVE LUCY, after at least two versions by Max Linder, another by Christie Comedies' Billy "The Goofy Gob" Dooley and one by cinema pioneer Alice Guy Blaché ).

Here is the first instance of "the oyster bit" - later remade in talkies by Curly Howard, Larry Fine and Lou Costello - performed by Billy Bevan in Wandering Willies, this 1926 Mack Sennett comedy directed by Del Lord. The gag starts at 7:50 with the title, "these are the freshest oysters you ever saw!" Indeed.

Rule 6 - When Showing Off Culinary Knowledge Via Entertaining, Be Careful About Your Wait Staff

In FROM SOUP TO NUTS, a social climber played by Anita Garvin gives a dinner party, desperately hoping to escape the hoi polloi and become the hostess with the mostess among the well-to-do set. Her first mistake: wearing a recalcitrant tiara.

Her second mistake: hiring Laurel & Hardy as wait staff.

Rule 7 - If You Kill Your Neighbor's Prize Chicken, Don't Serve It To Him For Dinner

This, indeed, was the plot premise from PASS THE GRAVY, from the Max Davidson series, just one of director Leo McCarey's many way-out takes at the Hal Roach Studio on the sitcom format. This series, starring veteran character actor and comedian Davidson (1875-1950) as the ever-aggravated patriarch of a Jewish family, was produced between McCarey's history-making stints creating the Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy comedies. Author and historian Richard W. Bann has written eloquently about Davidson and his late 1920's series for Hal Roach.

In PASS THE GRAVY, Max's son, told to go to the butcher shop and buy a chicken for dinner, goes the 21st century foodie route, does Michael Pollan AND Barbara Kingsolver proud and kills a bird personally; alas, it's the neighbor's prize rooster, Brigham and said neighbor is coming over for dinner. A series of desperate efforts to conceal this knowledge from Max, including some stellar impromptu dancing and general tomfoolery by supporting players Martha Sleeper and Gene Morgan, ensue.

As Max's stock in trade was the middle-aged immigrant, an Old World gentleman ever-vexed by the customs of his new country, his films can be a hard sell for young 21st century audiences.

Davidson's movie career dated back to the 1911-1912 Biograph short subjects of D.W. Griffith and included playing supporting roles for top comediennes "Madcap Mabel" Normand and Fay Tincher. Max received some belated respect when the 2007 San Francisco Silent Film Festival showed a 35mm restored print from UCLA Film And Television Archive of THE BOY FRIEND (1929) as part of a Hal Roach Studio retrospective.

In closing, such dining dos and don'ts would extend far beyond the "microphone in the plant" era immortalized by SINGIN' IN THE RAIN. The Three Stooges, A.K.A. Los Tres Estúpidos, backed by ex-Sennett gag writers and directors Del Lord and Clyde Bruckman, made a career of remaking silent comedy jokes involving dining improprieties on an epic scale.

In feature films, Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot would carry on the silent comedy tradition of Chaplin, Parisian boulevardier Max Linder and American "silk hat slicker" Raymond Griffith with style and panache.

In the post-World War II comedy landscape, no less than Buster Keaton, along with Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and the aforementioned Ernie Kovacs, would bring their unique approaches to dining mayhem and visual humor into the television age.

We'll give Mr. Kovacs the last word here. Although he did not get the opportunity to introduce the 1917 Fox Sunshine comedy ROARING LIONS AND WEDDING BELLS during his stint as the host of "Silents Please", by the time he Ernie wrote his 1961 ABC series, a groundbreaking blend of surreal comedy, music and WAY out-of-the-box thinking, he delivered a laugh-starved Cold War world. . . a dancing chicken.

Acknowledgements, A.K.A. tips of the Raymond Griffith top hat, go to Gary Meyer, Michael Guillen, Annichen Skaren, Milestone Films, The Criterion Collection and Josh Mills. Thanks!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for curating such an interesting collection. Lots of fun!
Summer Reeves

Silver Screenings said...

Fabulous post! Loved these dining Do's and Don'ts. Very clever. :)

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thank you, Summer and Ruth and a Max Linder top hat tip to all those very funny men and funny women of silent movies! This piece is the direct product of the 5-6 year old version of me seeing Paul Killiam's Silents Please (Buster Keaton!), The Ernie Kovacs Show and Rocky & His Friends on TV and drinking it all up like a sponge, followed a couple of years later by repeated viewings of another Jay Ward Productions show, the extremely zany Fractured Flickers (starring the great Hans Conried).


What a wonderful and humorous post! Just waht I needed today. Keaton and Arbuckle are a great duo, indeed! And, well, I had never seen the lobster routine, but it made me laugh out loud. Thanks for such an informative post!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thank you, Lê from Critica Retro - love your blog and post on Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein!