"Cruel and Unusual Comedy"...on the air on NPR

Elif Rongen-Kaynakci and Steve Massa were guests on the Leonard Lopate Radio Program on March 16, 2012.

Listen here:

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Drag Shows"

Wednesday, May 20 at 4:00
Drag Shows: Cross-Dressing the Sexes
Getting Rid of Trouble (1912) with Charlie Murray
Sweedie Learns to Swim (1914) with Wallace Beery
Chasing the Chaser (1925) with James Finlayson
Get ‘Em Young (1926) with Stan Laurel
Good Night Nurse (1917) with Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton
silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model

Men appearing in drag is a time-honored stage tradition that goes back to the Commedia dell' Arte and probably further. It was a staple of the English music hall and pantomimes, where some of the best practitioners like Stan Laurel and Syd Chaplin got their training. Today the use of drag carries all kinds of sexual and political ramifications, but on film in the ‘teen and 1920s it was used for its inherent physical silliness. John Epperson, the well-known drag performer Lypsinka, hosted our class version of this program and was surprised at how innocent and fun these silent comedy uses are. Drag was often set-up as a disguise (i.e. CHASING THE CHASER and GOOD NIGHT NURSE), or to provide a cartoon portrayal of large, ungainly women (i.e. GETTING RID OF TROUBLE and SWEEDIE LEARNS TO SWIM). At this point there’s no hint of actual transvestism or sexual thrill in the dressing up – it’s just an easy way to get laughs.

Getting Rid of Trouble (9/5/1912) Prod: Biograph Co. Dir: Del Henderson. Writ: William Acker. 1 reel. Cast: Charles Murray, Edward Dillon, Kathleen Butler, William J. Butler, W. Christie Miller, J. Waltham, Gus Alexander.

When Mack Sennett left the Biograph Company in mid-1912 to form his Keystone studio two of his regular performers, Del Henderson and Edward Dillon, were put in charge of comedy units. Turning out a steady stream of one-reelers they shared the stock company of Gus Pixley, Sylvia Ashton, David Morris and others, but the star in the majority of the shorts was Charlie Murray. Said to have started his stage career at age ten and worked his way up through circuses, not to mention pony and medicine shows, Murray hit big time vaudeville when he teamed with Ollie Mack and became an Irish Weber & Fields. The pair starred in successful shows like SHOOTING THE CHUTES and THE SUNNY SIDE OF BROADWAY, plus had been a team for over twenty years when they split in 1910. It didn’t take Charlie long to find his way into the infant film industry, and by 1912 he was one of the leading comics at Biograph. There he created his screen persona of the layabout Irishman named “Skelley,” which he essentially played for the rest of his career.

In 1914 Charlie migrated to Keystone, where his character was re-named “Hogan.” Working frequently with Louise Fazenda, Slim Summerville and Polly Moran, Murray was one of Sennett’s top stars until 1922, when he began freelancing in shorts and numerous features. In 1926 he was first teamed with comic George Sidney in the film THE COHENS AND THE KELLYS. Thinly adapted from the smash Broadway hit ABIE’S IRISH ROSE, its story of Irish and Jewish families struck comic pay dirt and spawned six sequels. Becoming a popular film team, he and Sidney were mismatched in many features and shorts. Although he made a good transition to sound Murray’s career slowed down in the 1930s. His last appearance was in the Eddie Cline directed feature BREAKING THE ICE (’38), and he passed away in 1941.

The tough Irish cook was a popular stereotype featured in tons of films, where it was usually played by someone like Kate Price. Murray’s very masculine bearing puts a funny spin on the cliché, and Del Henderson’s direction keeps the pace moving. Canadian-born Henderson was a long-time stage actor who switched to films in 1908 as part of the ensemble at Biograph. Originally more dramatic, he soon gravitated to comedy and in 1912 became a full-time comedy director. After Biograph he directed at Keystone, and by 1916 was helming features of all kind until THE RAMBLING RANGER in 1927. At this point he returned to acting, turning in excellent character performances in films such as THE PATSY, THE CROWD and SHOW PEOPLE (all ’28). Having made a smooth transition to sound he continued working until 1950.

This film is another of the many many Biograph films in MoMA's collection. Screening print is a 16mm reduction from preservation materials. We've screened a lot of the Del Henderson-directed Biograph comedies. Their comedic style tends to be somewhere between what one sees in a Biograph light drama and the sort of picture Sennett was beginning to turn out.

Sweedie Learns to Swim (10/12/1914) Prod: Essanay. Dir: (often credited to Wallace Beery). 1 reel. Cast: Wallace Beery, Leo White, Ben Turpin, Betty Brown.

Wallace Beery is remembered today for 1930s MGM classics such as THE CHAMP (’31) and GRAND HOTEL (’32), but much of his early film career was spent in silent slapstick. Coming from a background of circuses and the stage, in 1913 Beery began working for the Essanay Film Co. in Chicago, appearing in their GEORGE ADE FABLES and making his first mark in this series as a big lummox Swedish girl. In 1914 and 1915 about 29 episodes of Sweedie’s misadventures were filmed, with Beery directing as well as starring. Soon Essanay sent him to their Niles, California studio to replace Roy Clements as director of the last leg of their Snakeville Comedies.

When the Niles plant closed Beery worked briefly for Mack Sennett, and then moved over to Universal where he directed and starred in Victor and Nestors, in addition to helming Carter De Haven’s “TIMOTHY DOBBS, THAT’S ME” comedy series. By the late Teens his comedy skills gave him the opportunity to break into features as a busy character actor, and the arrival of sound made him more popular than ever and solidified his screen persona of the loveable rogue. His comedy chops continued to come in handy, especially in his teamings with Marie Dressler and Marjorie Main.

In support of Beery are a youngish Leo White and Ben Turpin, who were part of the ensemble at the Chicago Essanany studio. A couple of years later they would both be taken to California by Charlie Chaplin after he used them in his first Essanany short HIS NEW JOB (’15). Turpin of course went on to become one of the big comedy stars of the 1920s, and Leo an indispensible part of silent comedy, working everywhere with everybody, continuing right up to his death in 1948.

As was mentioned elsewhere in the notes for this series, films in an archives' collection are not necessarily always 35mm prints struck of nitrate camera negatives. Collectors prints get donated to archives (Walter Kerr's 16mm collection resides with Eastman House, for instance) and sometimes what may be available on a film is a 16mm print sold to the home market. This print is one sold by Blackhawk Films, and is complete and a pretty good print all things considered. Blackhawk Films is greatly responsible for hooking film buffs and collectors on silents – by making these films available decades before home video existed.

Chasing the Chaser (7/5/1925) Prod: Hal Roach. Dir: Stan Laurel. Dist: Pathe. Writ: Laurel & James Parrott. Photo: Art Lloyd. 2 reels. Cast: James Finlayson, Fred Kovert, Lyle Tayo, William Gillespie, Fay Wray, Jackie “Husky” Haines.

In 1925 producer Hal Roach decided to give supporting comic James Finlayson a big build up and star him in his own vehicles. CHASING THE CHASER was one of the first, and others such as YES, YES NANETTE, UNFRIENDLY ENEMIES and MOONLIGHT AND NOSES (all ’25) had Stan Laurel firmly behind the scenes as director and writer. Probably the ultimate screen sourpuss, Finlayson was born in Scotland and entered show business at an early age touring the British Isles and music halls. Hooking up with the company of Sir Harry Lauder’s brother Alec, Jimmy’s big stage success was in Graham Moffat’s play BUNTY PULLS THE STRINGS. BUNTY brought Fin to America, running for 18 months on Broadway, and afterward he toured vaudeville which brought him to California.

He gave films a try in 1916, working for Thomas Ince and in comedies at L-Ko, Century and Arrow. By 1919 Jimmy made his way to Mack Sennett comedies, where in shorts like MA AND PA (’22) he specialized in comic villains. In 1923 he moved over to Hal Roach and fulfilled a similar function for Snub Pollard and Stan Laurel. Although Fin didn’t take off as a star after his big build up, he settled at the top of the supporting comics heap, and was indispensable in the Roach comedies, particularly with Laurel & Hardy. He even found time to appear as support in some First National features like the hilarious LADIES NIGHT IN A TURKISH BATH (’28). Sound revealed his Scottish burr, which only seemed to make him more irascible and blustery. Continuing in the Roach product, Fin also appeared in shorts at RKO and many features into the 1940s. He retired, due to ill health, a few years before his death in 1953.

Co-starring with Fin in this film as the detective in drag is Fred Kovert (a.k.a. Frederick Ko Vert), an interesting and overlooked figure. A female impersonator and dancer in vaudeville, in addition to gracing sheet music cover photos, Kovert made his film debut in AN ADVENTURESS (’20 - a.k.a. ISLE OF LOVE) where he starred opposite the most famous female impersonator of the day, Julian Eltinge. Although he originally appeared in dramatic films Kovert moved into silent comedies such as Ben Turpin’s THE REEL VIRGINIAN (’24), STARVATION BLUES (’25) with Clyde Cook, and the Bert Lytell feature THE FIRST NIGHT (’27). For Larry Semon’s THE WIZARD OF OZ (’25) Kovert not only does a bizarre turn as “the Phantom of the Basket,” but designed all the costumes as well. After his movie days, he opened a photography studio and became “Kovert of Hollywood,” a pioneer in male physique photography. Said to have had much trouble with the LAPD’s vice squad, Kovert shot and killed himself in 1949.

Every once in a while one of these rare comedies turns up in 35mm with complete original main and intertitles, and this film is one of them, listing complete credits (direction by Stan, photography by Art Lloyd, etc.), giving us a chance to see the film just as audiences did in its original release, in terms of visual quality and completeness.

Get ‘Em Young (10/31/1926) Prod: Hal Roach. Dir: Fred Guiol. Dist: Pathe. Writ: Hal Yates, James Parrot & Stan Laurel. Photo: Harry Gersted. Titles: H.M. Walker. 2 reels. Cast: Harry Myers, Eugenia Gilbert, Stan Laurel, Max Davidson, Charlotte Mineau, Fred Malatesta, James T. Kelly, Mickey Bennett, Monty Collins.

In 1926 producer Hal Roach hit upon the idea of hiring established feature film stars to appear in, and thereby give class to, his two-reel comedies. This was similar to a scheme used by Harry Aitken back in 1915 when he sought out big stage stars for Triangle films, but of course the only feature stars that Roach could get a hold of were past their prime. On top of that, with the exception of Mabel Normand and Harry Myers, the rest – Theda Bara, Priscilla Dean, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Rawlinson, Agnes Ayres – were all dramatic performers with no experience in sight gag comedy. Roach’s solution was to have the bulk of the physical business fall to his regular crew of clowns such as James Finalyson, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, etc., or as he told Motion Picture News: “People asked me why I tried to make Theda Bara a comedienne. The answer is: I didn’t. I surrounded her with a comedy and her name appeared in electric lights.” Although name star Harry Myers had a long career in silent comedy, in GET ‘EM YOUNG most of the comedic heavy lifting is still done by Stan Laurel, with help from Max Davidson.

This was Laurel’s third sojourn at the Roach studio. After years spent in the English music hall and American vaudeville stage, Stan stuck his first toe into the cinematic waters in 1917 and in addition to Roach bounced around to Universal, Vitagraph, Metro, and Joe Rock. Never really settling onto a specific character his early films were usually built around occupations or popular movie parodies. By 1926 Stan was primarily working behind the scenes at Roach writing and directing. GET ‘EM YOUNG is a milestone as it brought him back in front of the camera again. He was originally set to direct, but when Babe Hardy had an accident Stan took over the role. Soon they were appearing together and film history was made.

Harry Myers, chiefly remembered today as the drunken millionaire in Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS (’31), spent ten years on the stage before he entered films in 1910 as a leading man with the Lubin company. Soon switching to comedies and directing his own films, by 1914 he teamed up with (and soon married) actress Rosemary Theby. Becoming popular in a series of polite one and two-reelers, they moved to Universal, Vim, and Pathe. Sadly these domestic situational comedies are virtually impossible to see today. In the 1920s Myers moved into starring vehicles such as A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (’21) and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE (’22) , but by the end of the decade his career had waned and, after his brief regeneration in CITY LIGHTS, he declined to walk-ons in sound films until his death in 1938.

As always Max Davidson supplies a large number of laughs with his repertoire of shrugs, lifted eyebrows, and tilts of the head that conveyed the mounting frustrations of his put upon characters. After years of stage and movie work Max started coming into his own in 1925 when he co-starred with Jackie Coogan in the features THE RAG MAN and OLD CLOTHES. Hired by Hal Roach to support stars like Charley Chase and Mabel Normand, he soon got his own starring series where he was able to take the stereotypical Jewish tailors and merchants he specialized in and flesh them out a bit, while at the same time creating a screen family with excellent players like Lillian Elliott, Spec O’ Donnell, and Martha Sleeper.

This film survives in better shape elsewhere – check out disc 2 of the Kino/Lobster Stan Laurel Collection Vol. 2, where the film is seen in a sharp print (although it's been transferred too slow) with its original intertitles recreated for video – making this another opportunity to demonstrate the variety of prints on an extant comedy short. Screening print is a 16mm reduction from a print with flash titles. The basic plot, outlined in reel one, is a bit tricky to follow without the titles, and at the showing we will clue everyone in on the set-up.

Good Night Nurse (7/6/1918) Comique Film Corp. Prod: Joseph M. Schenck. Dir/Writ: Roscoe Arbuckle. Dist: Paramount. Photo: George Peters. 2 reels. Cast: Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St John, Alice Lake, Kate Price, Dan Albert.

By 1916, with shorts like FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT and HE DID AND HE DIDN’T, Roscoe Arbuckle was one of the most skillful comedy creators and directors on the Keystone roster. To continue to develop, artistically and financially, Arbuckle left Sennett and signed with producer Joseph M. Schenck, who set up the Comique Film Corp. to make shorts that would be released through Paramount. While Roscoe’s later Sennett films had become more sophisticated, for his Comique shorts he returned to roughhouse on such a grand scale that they became veritable slapstick ballets. Having brought nephew Al St John along with him from Keystone, Arbuckle added former vaudevillian Buster Keaton to the mix, and with the three best tumblers in the business many of the ensuing shorts seem like a contest to see who can top who.

GOOD NIGHT, NURSE is one of the most surreal of the Comiques. Possibly Arbuckle’s recent experiences with a nasty leg carbuncle may have fueled some of this nightmarish take on sanitariums. Skilled as a drag performer from his days on stage Roscoe often found ways to work in it into his films, usually as a disguise to elude irate husbands or his overbearing wife, although in films such as MISS FATTY’S SEASIDE LOVERS (’15) he plays an actual female character and gives Marie Dressler and Merta Sterling a run for their money. In addition to his drag routine Arbuckle also recycles a gag with a garden hose from his early Keystone A NOISE FROM THE DEEP (’13), and uses a climatic footrace that would be repeated six years later when he directed Al St John in STUPID BUT BRAVE (’24). The title was a popular one for silent comedy shorts as “Smiling Billy” Mason used it in 1913, Neal Burns in 1916, Alice Howell in 1920, and Lupino Lane in 1929.

The regular Comique crew of Keaton, Al St John and Alice Lake are on hand. Buster would do one more short with Arbuckle (THE COOK) before he ended up in the army, spending most of his time entertaining the troops. Al St John would go out on his own in 1919 in shorts for Paramount/Warners and Fox, and in 1924 dropped his country boob character to become the clean-cut (but still bumbling) man-about-town or young hubby in shorts for Reel Comedies,Inc. and Jack White. Of course in the mid-30s he grew a beard and got rid of his teeth to become sidekick “Fuzzy Q. Jones” in tons of western oaters. Irish character comedian Kate Price turns up like she did in THE WAITER’S BALL (’16), so that Roscoe can wear her clothes. In a long career that included work at Vitagraph, Edison and Vim, she did countless features and was actually the real-life older sister of Al Christie’s “foxy grandpa” comic Jack Duffy.

Probably one of the greatest of Roscoe's "Comique" series (1917-1920), this title survives in a print in the Danish Film Archive, and which this one is made from. The Rohauer/Douris prints on this title are off the Danish print as well, although in the circulating Rohauer prints (and the video edition of this film) some of the intertitle text has been reworded and some titles are left out completely – like the one in which Dr. Buster explains to patient Roscoe that the reason Alice Lake keeps twirling her arms around manically is that she believes she is a windmill.

No comments:

Post a Comment