Sunday, July 28, 2019
On a Sunday in which Hudson Valley temps hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit - rough on this "weather wuss" San Francisco Bay Area native - and physical energy is definitely flagging, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are reminiscing about a dynamic duo that, like Adam West and Burt Ward, resolutely does not fall into the love 'em or hate 'em category: George Burns & Gracie Allen.
So today, while guzzling one cold drink after another, we continue the topic of comedy teams from our previous post - and find ourselves fondly remembering George and Gracie, who are still loved, almost 55 years after Gracie's passing.
We've posted the first Burns & Allen silver screen appearance, performing their vaudeville routine in Lamb Chops, Vitaphone Varieties #891, released October 14, 1929, at least three or four (or five) times on this blog. Never tire of seeing it!
George & Gracie reprised this routine beautifully on The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show.
The team began their movie career at Paramount Pictures, where, in 1930-1933, they starred in a series of very funny 1-reelers, some involving a "breaking the fourth wall" concept that would continue into their radio and television careers.
By the time Burns & Allen had made a few of these Paramount short subjects, they were regulars on radio's Guy Lombardo show. They would get their own popular radio show in September 1934.
Saturday, July 20, 2019
In 13 years and 1072 posts, only once has this blogger ever gone as far as to delete a post years in retrospect. Said piece was posted way back in 2012. Unwisely titled "Worst Comedy Team Ever," its topic was the comedy team of Frank Mitchell (1905-1991) & Jack Durant (1905-1984). The post elicited such an outraged and angry response from an avid fan of the duo that Mr. Blogmeister opted to delete the post.
The super-fan of Mitchell & Durant either did not actually read the post or did and totally missed its point and ironic tone (which was that I actually liked the acrobatic team and found their roughhouse act, which makes The Three Stooges directed by Jules White look like Noël Coward, quite funny), got personal and took pot shots at the guy who writes a blog that is so under-the-radar that radar has declared it "missing."
This sort of thing happens. I saw two members of a classic comedy group on social media go at it over the topic of Jerry Lewis vs Jacques Tati, causing one of them (the Jerry fan, very likely a personal friend of the comedian or his family) to leave distraught and practically in tears. I don't get it. It's comedy and what makes a person laugh is subjective. Why this is something to fight over, I don't know. Seems like everyone is angry these days, partly due to a media and internet landscape that thrives (and makes big buck$$$$$) on getting as many people as possible liquored up on never-ending conflict and hate. Strongly suggest eliminating or dramatically curtailing time spent on social media and surfing that growingly ugly web, as well as throwing your TV sets out the window a la SCTV.
Whatever the offended Mitchell & Durant #1 fan thought, this comedy buff saw their knockabout act in a 1931 Paramount Pictures 1-reeler, one of two short subjects they starred in, the other being Girl Trouble (1933) a Vitaphone musical shot in 2-strip Technicolor.
It was titled A Pair Of French Heels, and I found Mitchell & Durant's slapstick, which included a "butt-kicking at the swanky party" segment, hilarious. Many film buffs do not. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Comedy Teams book, definitely did not. I recall the extremely knowledgeable silent era and early talkie screen comedy expert Richard M. Roberts describing A Pair Of French Heels as awful and possibly the single worst comedy short he had ever seen. Probably the best point of comparison would be The Three Stooges.
Oddly enough, after Mitchell & Durant broke up, Frank Mitchell would appear as a supporting actor in Three Stooges comedies, including one of their better "Shemp era" pieces of slam-bang slapstick, Goof On The Roof - and even very briefly worked in the 1970's as part of a "New Stooges" team with Mousie Garner and ex-Stooge Joe DeRita.
Kicking off this Comedy Rorschach Test about polarizing comics, those performers who people either love or can't stand, we shall start by asking just who the comedy team of Mitchell & Durant were, anyway? They were a 100% slapstick acrobatic knockabout comedy team from vaudeville, and started (as Clark & McCullough did) as tumblers. If Mitchell & Durant recall anyone, that would be Martin & Lewis - but Dean & Jerry were downright genteel by comparison and did not do somersaults at will.
The duo also express a - shall we say - combative relationship with each other also seen in the top box office movie comedy team of the 1940's, Bud Abbott & Lou Costello.
The duo pounded and thrashed each other through several Fox features (She Learned About Sailors, 365 Nights In Hollywood, Music Is Magic, Spring Tonic) in the 1930's.
Mitchell & Durant were cast as comic relief in a trio of Alice Faye musicals produced by Fox and directed by George Marshall, who helmed everything from Laurel & Hardy and Thelma Todd-Zasu Pitts 2-reelers to Destry Rides Again.
Along with Bebe Daniels, who reprises her Dorothy LeBrock egomaniac diva role from 42nd Street, the team co-stars with Alice in Music Is Magic.
Mitchell & Durant actually have parts throughout the movie.
The team even does a slapstick dance routine with the star.
There's only one cut to a stunt double for Ms. Faye, the queen of 1930's Fox musicals, in the routine. Music Is Magic represents the team's high point as comic relief in feature films.
Frank Mitchell & Jack Durant met at the gym and there is a certain "boxers turned comedians" dynamic that is demonstrated emphatically in all the team's silver screen appearances.
Characterization. . . well, let's just say it is not a priority.
In the Fox Films contribution to topical Great Depression musicals, Stand Up And Cheer, none other than Warner Baxter is the figurehead star presiding over a three ring circus which includes, among numerous other performers and actors, Mitchell & Durant.
Wonder just how Warner Baxter ended up in the delirious and super-topical musical fantasy Stand Up And Cheer!, a.k.a. The Fox Follies and Fox Movietone Follies Of 1934, a fascinating Great Depression era train wreck if there ever was one, after starring as the ailing and obsessed dance director Julian March in 42nd Street.
While the film remains, as many revue musicals of the late 1920's and first half of the 1930's are, an entertainingly incoherent mishmash, one thing Stand Up And Cheer has going for it is Great Depression themed musical numbers.
As fate would have it in 2019, the one example of Mitchell & Durant's physical comedy mojo that's up on YouTube is from Stand Up And Cheer. The duo plays Senators Danforth and Short, who throw each other around mercilessly while discussing policy. Warner Baxter might as well say "if you'll excuse me, I have some very important auditions and must leave so the two of you can beat the crap out of each other for no apparent reason." The routine works due to the contrast between the civilized dialogue and the wildly outrageous physical comedy.
That scene features some of the heaviest heavy duty knockabout and somersaults seen on the silver screen since Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John and Buster Keaton threw each other around with utter abandon in such accurately titled comedies as Rough House. I'll admit it, Mitchell & Durant make me laugh. Like the other comedy team that frequently provided comic relief in Fox musicals, The Ritz Brothers, I don't know exactly why they make me laugh, they just do . . . with the proviso that Mitchell & Durant are among the 99.5% of comedians who do not come close to the comic genius of Harry Ritz.
Stand Up And Cheer also includes the feature film debut of the Fox studio's megastar-to-be Shirley Temple, IMHO a non-polarizing figure - and spoofed beautifully 40+ years later by comedienne Laraine Newman.
It's tough to find clips of Mitchell & Durant doing their brand of slapstick in Alice Faye musicals on YouTube, Vimeo or DailyMotion.com. Have not seen these films on TCM, either. Curiously, either Mitchell & Durant or Alice Faye's mid-1930's Fox features appear to have fans in Eastern Europe. . .
Their last appearance as a comedy team was in the Al Jolson WB vehicle The Singing Kid, a movie in which swing legend Cab Calloway and the very funny humorous musical act The Yacht Club Boys were also in the cast. After Mitchell and Durant broke up in 1938, they both would go on to work in show business. The former's superb riding skills earned him parts in westerns, and in a continuing role as the sidekick Cannonball in 1940's oaters starring Tex Ritter and Bill Elliott, while the latter had a part in the flawed but fascinating WW2 espionage thriller Journey Into Fear, directed by Norman Foster and Orson Welles for RKO - and even did a cameo appearance in episode 112 of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.
A well-researched post by author Trav S.D. on Travalanche elaborates on their careers. Equally informative: Aaron Neathery's terrific article about Frank Mitchell & Jack Durant from May 9, 2006, titled What made pistachio nuts?, which posted on his gone but not forgotten The Third Banana blog.
When it comes to comics who elicit "love 'em or hate 'em" responses, there's the always-seagoing star of 1920's Christie Comedies known as "The Goofy Gob," Billy Dooley (1893-1938), before movies part of a vaudeville team with dancer Frances Lee. Some silent movie fans like him a lot, others find Mr. Dooley about as funny as a colonoscopy without anesthesia. So, readers, watch The Goofy Gob and see for yourself.
How does a Billy Dooley comedy go over on the big screen with an audience? This writer and programmer of classic movie presentations has not shown a Billy Dooley 2-reeler to a group and admittedly does not know the answer to that question. Could it be that The Goofy Gob gets big laughs? Watching a comedy film at home by yourself as opposed to in a theatre with an audience remain two entirely different experiences.
Billy Dooley was strongly influenced by a comic who could be considered #1 on the list of "love 'em or can't stand 'em" comics: Harry Langdon (1884-1944) a.k.a. The Little Elf.
The 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 character roles in features. Throughout Langdon's career, his characterization, acting and comic timing were highly original, ultra-quirky and most idiosyncratic. This classic comedy buff finds him devastatingly funny.
Said characterization proved especially problematic for moviegoers when Harry transitioned from silents into talkies. It was one thing to see his otherworldly "little elf" character malfunction in a silent and yet another thing to see and hear his bizarre spin on "reasoning" in a talkie. Watching Harry talking to himself and plunging into truly cosmic befuddlement in his early sound films may well have proved disturbing and unfunny for 1929 moviegoers, as well as to latter-day film historians, but (then as now) can provoke others to laugh in astonishment at Langdon's brilliance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't - but Harry is always taking risks as an actor, comedian and pantomimist.
Among the 2-reel comedies of the silent and early talkie eras, the much-maligned 1929-1930 Hal Roach Studio series still remains quite the Rorschach Test. Some will see Harry's fearlessness and determination to stick with his bizarre little character as pure comedy genius. Others - and that would be many classic comedy buffs - will see a performer smashing boundaries and experimenting with offbeat ideas way beyond the point where the results are funny.
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.
Many of Harry Langdon's sound films will be shown as part of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's tribute to The Little Elf on the last weekend of September.
The only post-modern comic who strikes this scribe as even a bit Langdon-esque, albeit within a much more aggressive characterization, would be standup comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman (1938-1984). The difference between the two was that Harry enjoyed toying with his performance and timing, in slowing things down and getting deeply into his extremely odd little character, while Andy's m.o. was to deliberately antagonize the audience. That said, Harry Langdon's experimentation and willingness to stretch a scene out does have a way of antagonizing audiences (if not the writer of this blog).
There are lots of polarizing Rorschach Test funsters, many more than could be discussed in one or two blog posts. Of the comedians from silents, Roscoe Arbuckle, Larry Semon, Jimmy Aubrey, Musty Suffer and such amoral slash-and-burn characters as the L-Ko studio's Billie "The Man From Nowhere" Ritchie and Kalem's scurrilous Ham & Bud (the scuzzy team played with rancid relish by Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan) would fall into that category.
Another comedy team in the "love 'em or hate 'em" category would be the stars of Fox and RKO films, Bobby Clark & Paul McCullough.
Frantic Bobby Clark has been described as "Groucho without the warmth" and Paul McCullough, in the later RKO films, is overpowered by his wisecracking partner. The aggressively uncuddly team, much more than The Three Stooges and Mitchell & Durant, demonstrates a decidedly dark sensibility.
All that said, do we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog find Clark & McCullough funny? Yes, often very much so!
Do we wish 35mm nitrate prints of more long-missing films from Clark & McCullough's 1928-1929 Fox series would turn up perfectly preserved in a cold dark cave somewhere? Double yes!
Of course, leading the Technicolor wing of Rorschach Test comedians would be Ben Blue and Red Skelton!
In addition, singer-comedienne Cass Daley, Danny Kaye, Joe Penner, The Ritz Brothers, Pinky Lee, standup comedienne Phyllis Diller, Benny Hill and most of all Jerry Lewis immediately come to mind.
As fate and film history would have it, Frank Mitchell appears in Lewis' 1970 film Which Way To The Front, the ultimate Rorschach Test feature comedy. Abomination or classic comedy? You decide!
In more recent memory (but still in the 20th century), Pee-Wee Herman, Pauly Shore, Andrew Dice Clay and Jim Carrey would most certainly be Rorschach Test comics. Yep. . . So what? We encourage readers to have fun and laughs with your favorite comedians and comediennes. Enjoy Comedy Tonight!
Or be ready for Don Rickles to come back from the dead and insult you!
Friday, July 05, 2019
This week's not unexpected news is that Mad magazine will be bowing out of the print publication business. As Peter Green sang, Oh Well.
There will be many more articles in an "end of an era" vein (if not a jugular vein) and no doubt Mark Evanier's superb News From Me blog will offer thoughtful and well-researched pieces on the comics and humor institution heading for the last roundup - or maybe merely for a temporary hiatus.
This blogger grew up on the 1960's Mad magazines, edited by Al Feldstein. These were loaded with the genius of Mad Fold-ins and "Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions" by Al Jaffee, hilarious movie parodies featuring dead-on caricatures by Mort Drucker, and devastatingly funny continuing features by Dave Berg, Stan Hart, Larry Siegel, Frank Jacobs, Dick DeBartolo, Antonio "Spy Vs. Spy" Prohias, Arnie Kogen, Jack Davis, Paul Coker, Jr. and especially the brilliant Sergio Aragones and the incredibly cartoony Don Martin.
Along with the TV shows of Dick Van Dyke and Ernie Kovacs, the music of The Beatles and movies starring The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, the magazine made the awkward young life of many go a lot easier. "Different" and non-conforming kids felt just a little less isolated, just a little bit better about letting our freak flags fly after spending quality time with all of the above - and the satiric sensibility of Mad was right in our wheelhouse.
Later was introduced to the earlier and darker Mad EC comics by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder and Wally Wood.
These early issues stuck to spoofs of the comics, and, as such, are less given to social commentary/satire of current events than the subsequent Mad Magazine, but do feature outstanding, dynamic artwork as do the EC horror and action comics (drawn by Kurtzman, Wood, Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, Graham Ingles, Harry Harrison, Jack Kamen, and Jack Davis).
These early Mad comic books became, as wonderful as the aforementioned artists are, my favorite issues in the 60+ years of "The Usual Gang of Idiots."
In an era in which current events have gotten so bizarre and ridiculous that it is actually no longer possible to make up ANYTHING that's crazier and more unfathomable than real life, is there a need for Mad Magazine. This comic art fan answers that question with a resounding YES!
The hope is that "The Usual Gang of Idiots" shall regroup and continue as an online magazine or perhaps as an annual, with new material alongside "best of" stories. If any readers of this blog happen to be in San Diego next week, there will no doubt be appearances by Mad magazine stalwarts at the Comic-Con.