Friday, July 24, 2020

This Weekend: The Broncho Billy & Friends Silent Film Festival online!



This blog has been plugging film festivals for quite a few years now - and our favorites (after the extravaganzas we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are personally involved in) are those curated by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, and the Noir City festival at San Francisco's Castro Theatre.





Alas, thanks to a pandemic which is raging and out of control in much of the United States, there are no in-person events. We're heading into the fifth month of watching events and TV shows via YouTube and Zoom.



Enjoyed the online Charlie Chaplin Days that the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum presented last month - and am thrilled and delighted to see that the museum shall be hosting the 2020 Broncho Billy & Friends Online Silent Film Festival all weekend!



Rena Kiehn of the museum elaborates:

"Hello Everyone, we hope you're all staying well. First we'd like to thank all of you who took part in our Charlie Chaplin Days Online celebration. It was quite an adventure to put on and we feel it was a big success. The links for each day will go ACTIVE at 12:01am that day! We hope you enjoy it all. The gang at Niles Essanay."



This year's festival shall be titled Broncho Billy and Friends. The Friends shall include the actor and director of movies, television and radio Francis X. Bushman, who began his career with Essanay, plus a few silent film luminaries who did not make movies for Essanay: Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle and the Keystone Kops. There shall be a documentary on film preservation, Saving Brinton by Iowa-based filmmakers Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne of Northland Films.



As always, the festival will screen a few classic westerns featuring our own Broncho Billy Anderson. In addition, museum historian and author Sam Gill tells the tale of the Essanay Snakeville Comedies, produced and sometimes both directed and written by G.M. Anderson.



This is the 23rd tribute in Niles to pioneering producer, filmmaker and cowboy star Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson. While Broncho Billy's crew and Allan Dwan's "Flying A" company were producing westerns as early as 1911, the Anderson approach incorporated nuance and characterization into the silent oater. Broncho Billy was not just the first movie cowboy, but the first thinking man's cowboy, establishing a format which William S. Hart would later ride to feature film success with Thomas Ince.



The "A" of the Chicago-based Essanay (S & A) Film Manufacturing Company, Anderson established the Essanay company in Chicago with George Spoor (the "S"), but having found few locations within "that toddlin' town" suitable for making westerns, set up shop in Niles, CA on April 1, 1912. Anderson starred in 140 films under the moniker of "Broncho Billy." More than 350 one and two-reel silent films were made in a four year period in Niles, which is now a historic district of Fremont, CA, USA.



The museum's own David Kiehn has penned the comprehensive history of filmmaking in Niles and the career of Broncho Billy. It is an outstanding book.



The Essanay Company's greatest claim to fame, along with its importance among the early film producers that put western movies on the map, remains the signing of Charlie Chaplin by Anderson in 1915.



The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival has been an annual event in Niles since 1998 and has called the museum its home since 2005.




Here is the schedule at a glance.

Friday, July 24th
Welcome to the Broncho Billy & Friends Online Silent Film Festival - Michael Bonham. Music by Janet Klein.



3:00 pm PDT / 5:00 pm CDT / 6:00 pm EDT
ZOOM Webinar on Rediscovering Roscoe: The films of "Fatty" Arbuckle hosted by Steve Massa, with Dave Glass and Robert Arkus, spotlights both the onscreen and behind-the-camera work of Keystone star Roscoe Arbuckle. Here's the Zoom meeting link.



This program shall include a screening of Dave Glass' restored version of the 1916 Keystone "slapstick ballet" starring Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John, The Waiter's Ball, featuring rare footage not seen in the previous Blackhawk Films and Paul Killiam versions.




Saturday, July 25
Welcome and intro to Day 2 of the Broncho Billy & Friends Online festival by Michael Bonham and silent film accompanist Frederick Hodges.

Facebook Live: Saving Brinton
3:00 pm PDT / 5:00 pm CDT / 6:00 pm EDT

Co-presented by the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival and FilmScene. Join historian Michael Zahs (the subject of Saving Brinton) for a Q&A about the documentary film and, as a Virtual Event, a live presentation of the 24th Annual Brinton Silent Film Festival. Zahs will narrate a selection of silent films from the W. Frank Brinton film collection including films by Thomas Edison, Georges Méliès and more streaming live on Facebook for free. Donations are welcome in support of The Ainsworth Opera House.



Michael will be joined by John Richard and Andrew Sherburne from the Saving Brinton film team. Directed by the aforementioned Mr. Sherburne and Tommy Haines, Saving Brinton is available to stream on Vimeo for a small fee - or on Amazon Prime for free.

Essanay westerns by Broncho Billy Anderson



Why Broncho Billy Left Bear Country (1913)
Broncho Billy and the Western Girls (1913)
Broncho Billy's Sentence (1915)


The making of the Broncho Billy DVD by Larry Telles

Writing Music for Silent Films by Rodney Sauer, Mont Alto Orchestra Symphony Conductor

FILM PREMIERE of newly discovered split reel:
Mabel's Adventures and Useful Sheep (1912) Accompaniment by Rodney Sauer with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra



Introducing this newly-discovered split reel featuring the great silent movie comedienne "Madcap Mabel" Normand: Nigel Dreiner, with assistance from John Bengtson, Brent Walker and David Kiehn.


Keystone Studio Locations by John Bengston
In this series of blog posts, the author of Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin and Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd presents a tour of the various places where Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio filmed its comedies in Los Angeles.




Sunday, July 26th
Welcome and intro to Day 3 of the festival by Michael Bonham, with music by Janet Klein.



ZOOM Webinar 5:00pm PDT / 8:00 pm EDT
Chase: A Tribute to the Keystone Kops by Lon Davis, Debra Davis and Sam Gill (Foreword)



Hosted by Chris Seguin with panel of historians: Rob Farr, Paul E. Gierucki, Sam Gill, Michael J. Hayde, Robert King, Brent Walker, Marc Wanamaker and others. Here's the zoom link.
Short subjects by Mack Sennett's Keystone mixed in with the discussion:

Keystone Cops highlight reel by David Glass

The recently discovered "lost" Chaplin-as-a-Keystone-Cop film, A Thief Catcher (1914)

Fatty Joins the Force (1913)

Beyond Keystone: The film work of Al St. John and Buster Keaton. Lea Stans of Silent-ology explores the career of acrobatic slapstick comedian Al St. John, focusing especially on his overlooked work with Buster Keaton in the Comique comedy series of the late 1910s.

All About Mabel: Timothy Lefler, author of Mabel Normand, the Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap, discusses the highs and lows of the preeminent silent movie comedienne's illustrious career, with a Highlight Reel and Cinema Chat Podcast.

The Movies Go West. Geoffrey Bell's 1974 documentary explores the movies made in Niles and is narrated by Hal Angus, one of the Essanay cowboys. Bell wrote one of the first books to explore the Bay Area film history, The Golden Gate and the Silver Screen (1984). After the screening, Rena Kiehn will be doing an informative outro, not to be missed.

For the Love of Mrs. Emmons -
Author Mary Mallory (Hollywood at Play, Hollywood Celebrates the Holidays, Living With Grace: Life Lessons From America's Princess) looks at the life and career of the talented, prolific and little known silent film character actress Mrs. Louise Emmons - the movies' perennial octogenarian (in addition to Margaret Mann - and remembered here at Way To Damn Lazy To Write A Blog for her role in the Our Gang comedy Mush & Milk) - through the eyes of two devoted fans, Michael Hawks and Jennifer Lerew. The two sought information on the unforgettable actress for years, finally purchasing a tombstone for her grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in 2014.

Classic movie buffs and fans of silent era filmmaking who have seen every pre-1930 film ever shown on TCM, as the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog has, check the 2020 Broncho Billy festival out and enjoy!


Saturday, July 18, 2020

Born on July 18, 1913 - Red Skelton



Today's post commences with the Guzzler's Gin routine (from Ziegfeld Follies) by Red Skelton, the ubiquitous comedian of radio, movies and TV for six decades who was born on this day in 1913.



Red was a gifted physical comedy performer and the most old-school of all the old-school comics (with the possible exception of his friend and frequent collaborator Lucille Ball).



Here's Red with Jerry Lewis, a fellow baggy pants comedian who relished extemporaneously improvising bits of business and responding to the energy of the audience. Note that Jerry, always (like Danny Kaye) a musical song-and-dance comedian, brings a bit of terpsichore into the mix. Not surprisingly, Red responds instinctively and matches Jerry's fancy footwork step-by-step.



The Red Skelton TV show was a mainstay in our household and countless others from the 1950's through its last season in 1970-1971. Twenty episodes from the black & white seasons of The Red Skelton Show can be seen in their entirety on this YouTube playlist.



This writer's favorite of Red's characters was Clem Kadiddlehopper, who enters the following sketch at 1:44.



One of the best aspects of The Red Skelton Show was how guest stars had an opportunity to shine in the sketches.



Red began his movie career with appearances in the Ginger Rogers - Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. vehicle Having A Wonderful Time and the Vitaphone short subjects The Broadway Buckaroo and Seeing Red.





As a result of his very successful radio program, Red Skelton was soon signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he appeared in 17 movies. These included three entertaining light comedy whodunits in The Whistling series, in which Red plays radio murder mysteries star Wally "the Fox" Benton, who ends up inevitably in real-life capers.







One of the popular Maisie comedies starring actress-comedienne-singer-dancer Ann Sothern features Red in a supporting role.



There would be turns in the big-budget musicals Panama Hattie and Du Barry Was A Lady.





Red and Lucille Ball tear it up together in the most memorable scenes from Du Barry Was A Lady.



As co-star of the Esther Williams vehicle Bathing Beauty, Red contributed slapstick comedy to the aqua-queen's milieu.



In other MGM features (A Southern Yankee, Watch The Birdie, The Yellow Cab Man, The Fuller Brush Man) Red is the star of the show. One indication of how quickly Skelton's star rose: he was spoofed by MGM's King Of Cartoons, Tex Avery!



While it has been many moons since this writer saw the Red Skelton feature films on television (even TCM), have a soft spot for Three Little Words, the musical starring Fred Astaire in which Red played ace songwriter Harry Ruby. Granted, it's not the rowdy, rollicking and double entendre-filled biopic we'd like to see with Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey playing Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby - but we love seeing Fred n' Red together just the same.



The article by author and comedy historian Trav SD on his Travalanche website that reviews films of Red Skelton in detail is a worthy guide to Red's movie career.



A Southern Yankee is a very good comedy and definitely one of Red's best movies - and all at Way Too Lazy To Write A Blog wish there were even MORE gags written by uncredited scenarist/script doctor Buster Keaton in the mix.



This writer, even as a child watching Red on TV, had mixed emotions about his over-the-top comedic approach, so Buster's Rx, to get Red to tone down his goofiness a bit and let the story drive the comedy, is just what the doctor ordered. Wish they had made seven or eight movies together!



Buster's autobiography claims that The Great Stone Face made MGM an extremely generous offer to be the supervising writer, de facto producer and assistant director of the Skelton series - and not take a cent of salary unless the finished products proved themselves at the box-office. Too bad Metro didn't take him up on the offer. A Southern Yankee is full of Buster's creative ideas - and could have been even better, with more Keaton material and an even more toned down Red.



Watch The Birdie is a loose remake of Keaton's last great silent epic, The Cameraman.



Red was a truly ubiquitous presence on TV, both via his own show and in guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and the television programs of Lucille Ball and other top comedians.





Red Skelton did not retire after his TV show left the airwaves in 1971. He continued performing his standup act for audiences, well into his eighties.





In the following clip, Lucy, arguably the comedy star most similar to and sympatico with Red, gives Mr. Skelton a lifetime achievement Emmy.



This mid-July stretch presents a veritable bonanza of showbiz birthdays, with Red today, Jimmy Cagney, comediennes Phyllis Diller and Cass Daley born on July 17 and both Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck on July 16. Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog extends our thanks and a respectful tip of the Fred Astaire top hat to all of them!

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Happy Birthday, Our Gang-meister Robert F. McGowan!



Born on July 11, 1882 in Denver, Colorado, a fellow responsible for many, many laughs on the silver screen: Robert F. McGowan, creator of Our Gang.



Wikipedia's entry for Mr. McGowan adds:
"Before moving to Los Angeles, McGowan was a firefighter in his native Denver. An on-the-job accident during a fire rescue mission left him with a permanent limp. McGowan moved to California in the 1910s and made the acquaintance of Hal Roach, an aspiring film producer who opened his own studio in 1914. By 1920, McGowan was a director at the Roach studio, and in 1921 began work on the first entries in the Our Gang series."



Prior to his hiring by Hal Roach, Robert F. McGowan worked as a scenarist for Christie Comedies and as assistant director on marital farces starring Mr. and Mrs. Carter DeHaven.



Along with writer Tom McNamara, producer Hal Roach and director general Charley Chase (former director of the aforementioned Mr. and Mrs. Carter DeHaven comedies), Robert McGowan was on the team that originated the Our Gang series in 1922.





After the first two entries, the Our Gang series quickly found its footing. Soon assembling a stellar cast, the Our Gang comedies became an immediate hit and would remain very popular through the silent era.



The formula clicked early in Our Gang's run, due to the exceptional cast, featuring Harold Lloyd's nephew Jack Davis, Lloyd co-star and skilled scene-stealer (in the hilarious Get Out & Get Under) "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, along with Mickey Daniels, Jackie Condon, Mary Kornman and the series' first good natured "fat kid" Joe Cobb.



While the silents have been eclipsed to some degree by the later Spanky-Alfalfa-Darla lineup, largely because the 1935-1939 Our Gangs were shown frequently on television, they remain fast-paced classic comedies that get laughs.



This would be the first of several groups of extremely talented kids who starred in Our Gang over its 22 year run. Many studios produced "kid comedies" with the hopes to compete with Our Gang, to little or no avail.



Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman were among the most photogenic, spunky and likable child actors ever to make movies.



Hal Roach would subsequently cast the teenaged versions of the pair in director George Stevens' The Boyfriends series, but they were definitely at their best as the plucky Our Gang stars of 1924-1925.



None of the Hal Roach Studio's competitors came up with a cast that could compare with Our Gang, try as they did.



Robert F. McGowan became ill in 1927-1928 and took a sabbatical after cranking out dozens of Our Gang comedies (his nephew, Robert A. McGowan a.k.a. Anthony Mack took over in the interim, with varying results), then returned to create many of the best and most memorable films in the series and shepherd the cast from silents to talkies.



It was a bit of a rocky transition from silents to talkies. McGowan was accustomed to giving the cast instructions verbally - and this was not possible once sound recording was in the production process. The gang weathered the transition to sound with flying colors nonetheless.



The 1929-1930 season of Our Gang featured a very funny and endearing group of kids. The cast combined stalwart silent era veterans Allen Clayton Hoskins a.k.a. "Farina" (arguably the most talented and most sensitive child actor ever in Our Gang), Joe Cobb, top "kid comedienne" from the Mack Sennett Studio's Smith Family series Mary Ann Jackson and perennial "lil' squirt" Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins with excellent newcomers Norman "Chubby" Chaney and Jackie Cooper.


The charming actress June Marlowe would soon join the cast of Our Gang as the one, the only Miss Crabtree.



There's a fascinating collaboration in the early talkies between Our Gang and frequent stars and supporting players from the Hal Roach Studio's other series, such as Max Davidson and Edgar Kennedy. These made for some of the funniest entries in the series.





Matthew "Stymie" Beard and Dorothy "Echo" DeBorba were soon added to the cast.



This would complete what was arguably the best, most talented and most varied of all the Our Gang lineups.



With the exception of Free Eats, directed by Ray McCarey, Robert McGowan helmed the Our Gang comedies, with the exception of the 1927-1928 sabbatical, through 1933.



McGowan was there at the Our Gang helm long enough to see George "Spanky" McFarland show his star potential as a toddler in Free Wheeling.



One notable and rare break from the gang was a very, very zany All-Star comedy Robert McGowan directed titled A Crook's Tour.



Starring British music hall entertainer Douglas Wakefield, a comic who resembles a living version of Edgar Bergen's dummy Charlie McCarthy, A Crook's Tour includes live fish dropping inside ladies' clothes, tommy gun totin' gangsters on ocean liners, hand grenade throwing and 9-year-old Mae West impersonators. It is a favorite film of the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog.

After hitting complete and utter burnout, not from working with the kids, but dealing with their obnoxious parents, Mr. McGowan left Hal Roach Studios and briefly worked for Paramount Pictures. He would return to Hal Roach to make one last Our Gang comedy, the extremely funny Divot Diggers in 1936. Then Robert McGowan retired again.



In the late 1940's, Mr. McGowan produced and wrote storylines for yet another Our Gang series, this time two not particularly memorable featurettes. The executive producer was Hal Roach, Jr. and the films were not directed by McGowan, but by Bernard Carr.



The stars of Curley (who, unfortunately for the revival of Our Gang, entirely lacked Jerry "Curly" Howard's comedy mojo) and Who Killed Doc Robbin, try as they did, could not put over the material, as the Our Gang casts from both silents and Depression-era talkies did so well.



On one hand, watch Who Killed Doc Robbin at your own risk - even with a relative of Matthew "Stymie" Beard in the cast, it simply isn't very good. On the other hand, this is about 1/100 as terrible as the godawful Our Gangs produced in 1938-1944 by the ever comedy-challenged MGM, a mega-studio that did fine making movies co-starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, but otherwise were so inept with humor they made bad movies with The Marx Brothers.



Here at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we have nothing but love, respect and admiration for the laugh makers who made things better for moviegoers hit hard by the Great Depression.



While the Our Gang comedies are out on DVD and prevalent on YouTube, unquestionably, these wonderful movies are best seen with an audience - so let's hope that sometime in the distant future, enough progress will be made on bringing the rampaging COVID-19 epidemic under control (2023, maybe) that we can someday get together and watch movies on the big screen. . . even if we are all seated 6-10 feet apart. What a concept!



For more info on Robert McGowan and the gang, read The Little Rascals: The Life And Times Of Our Gang by Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Happy July 4th, 2020 from Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog!



On July 4th of this lousy pandemic year, Hallelujah, your blogmeister is not dead - YIPPEE KEYEYOH KAYAY - and continues wearing face masks featuring Bugs Bunny or hula girls!



This 4th of July has the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog wanting to ring up our British friends across the pond, ask why they didn't botch the public health response to the coronavirus outbreak massively as we have here - and also find a way to share a delicious East Kent Goldings hopped pub ale via Zoom.



Alas, our 4th of July offering will not be a British Animated Productions, David Hand Studio or Halas and Batchelor opus, but an Academy Award winning cartoon from the MGM studio in Hollywood, U.S.A.



This is among my favorites from Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera's Tom & Jerry series and features its clever synthesis of Disney/Harman-Ising (MGM era) style character animation with "Warner Brothers rowdyism."



This opus, with the cat and mouse stars celebrating July 4th by lighting an unending supply of fireworks on, around and through each other, was produced just a year or two after the Rudy Ising cartoons that launched Tom & Jerry.



While Yankee Doodle Mouse demonstrates some of the Disney-esque animation style seen in such initial cartoons in the Tom & Jerry series as Puss Gets The Boot, the transition towards the wackier, faster approach from the latter 1940's (no doubt influenced by the arrival at MGM of Tex Avery, the fastest cartoon director/comedy gag mind in the West) is well underway.



Yankee Doodle Mouse features dynamic animation, especially by the brilliant Irv Spence, and the drawing style is stylistically quite a ways from the streamlined Tom & Jerry of the 1950's. Bill Hanna & Joe Barbera and crew's creative synchronization with Scott Bradley's music, a key cornerstone of the series, is already apparent.



This dyed-in-the-wool animation buff feels strongly that the Tom & Jerry cartoons peaked in 1944-1947. The following 1945 Tom & Jerry classic, Tee For Two, would be tied with Quiet Please! as personal favorites; an entire episode of the Cartoon Logic podcast was devoted to it.



While the Tom & Jerry cartoons were still handsomely produced and beautifully animated in the 1950's, in this writer's opinion, they would became much less compelling, less overtly musical and more likely to lapse into formula. At least Hanna & Barbera's Tom & Jerrys, even at their worst, were still far superior to Famous Studios' painfully unfunny Herman & Katnip cartoons.



Happy July 4th, everybody! The gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog shall celebrate the 4th, after tipping our battered top hats to recently passed comedy great Carl Reiner, to whom we say "thanks a million for the ten million laughs."







Shall be watching the following July 4th perennial starring Jimmy Cagney as well.