"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

"Animals and Children"

Friday, May 29, 4:00
"Animals and Children: No Harm Done"
An Elephant on His Hands (1912) with George Ober
Cat, Dog, and Co. (1929) with Our Gang
Mind the Baby (1924) with Pal the dog
The Knockout (1923) with the Dippy-Doo-Dads
When Summer Comes (1922) With Billy Bevan
silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model

It’s an old rule among actors never to work with babies or animals, as they are natural scene stealers. Because of this quality they played an important part in silent comedy – sometimes used for cute throw-away gags, and often as stars of their own series. Performing animal acts were a vaudeville staple, but they were always the repetition of a set routine that the animal had learned. In films innocent babes and critters were often thrown into situations that involved pratfalls, runaway autos, burning buildings – things they didn’t understand and couldn't tell weren’t actual reality. According to former child performers such as Baby Peggy, these film scenes were mostly just as dangerous as they looked and frequently went awry.

Watching slapstick comedies now it’s one thing to enjoy physical knockabout with adult performers who willingly subjected themselves to the ordeals involved, but it crosses way over the comfort line with kids and animals who don’t know what’s going on. Audiences at the time seemed to have had no problem with this, so this program presents a cross-section of many things that could not be gotten away with today. AN ELEPHANT ON HIS HANDS shows the usual routines of a household disrupted by a roughly-handled little pachyderm. Next are two films from the Hal Roach studio. The first, CAT, DOG AND CO., has kids and animals together in one of the most bizarre episodes of their famous Our Gang series. Following is THE KNOCKOUT, an example of Roach’s Dippy-Doo-Dad comedies, which created an alternate, all-animal universe. The animal-as-star films is represented here by MIND THE BABY, where Pal the dog is the hero who risks life and limb to save a clearly traumatized toddler. Finally, the wild and ragtag WHEN SUMMER COMES gives us a look at “lion comedies” – a very popular comedy genre from about 1918 to 1924 – which always put adult actors in real peril working with unpredictable felines.

An Elephant on His Hands (10/16/1912) Prod: Vitagraph. Dir: Frederick Thomson. Writ: Gene Mullen. 1 reel. Cast: George Ober, Kate Price, Lillian Walker, Flora Finch, Robert Gaillard, Charles Eldridge, the elephant.

The basic story of AN ELEPHANT ON HIS HANDS was an often-filmed one in the early days of cinema. This version concerns an older gentleman in his cups who buys a little pachyderm and brings it home to his horrified family, but the usual plot had someone receive the beast as an inheritance from a rich uncle. This handy story was re-worked to fit monkeys, dogs, or lions. Made by Vitagraph in Brooklyn, the studio must have had easy access to elephants at this time as they also produced DIANA’S LEGACY and MAMMOTH LIFE SAVERS (both ’12) which teamed Flora Finch with elephants.

Although the main title is missing, this is otherwise a complete, beautiful, sharp 35mm print with all original intertitles. There a a number of elephant comedies that survive and this one was chosen because of its vintage and the print quality. What's interesting to note about this film is the fact that the elephant is more cooperative with the Vitagraph players than it is with the real animal trainer who shows up toward the end of the film to collect the animal, poking, prodding and shoving the poor creature through the house and down the front steps. The Vitagraph product from the early 'teens belies the stereotype that, other than Griffith, silent films are shot head-on with general over-head diffuse lighting. In screening many Vitagraph shorts from MoMA's collection (ask us about The Tangled Tangoists, with John Bunny and Flora Finch, BTW) we've seen that the good directors at Vitagraph often composed shots on a slight angle, grouping actors in specific ways to complement this and staging two and sometimes three playing areas. Regardless of the star being an elephant, these characteristics are in evidence in this fine short, as are use of local Brooklyn locations. Notice the interior stairwell scenes, which look like they may have been shot in an actual home.

Cat, Dog and Co. (9/14/1929) Prod: Hal Roach. Dist: MGM. Dir: Anthony Mack. Titles: H.M. Walker. 2 reels. Cast: Joe Cobb, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Jean Darling, Mary Ann Jackson, Pete the pup, Harry Spear, Donnie “Beezer” Smith, Hedda Hopper, Chet Brandenberg, Silas Wilcox, Dorothy Vernon, Harry Bowen, Jack Hill, Clara Guiol, Adele Watson, Bob Saunders, Jack O’Brien, Robert McGowan.

Animals were always an important part of Hal Roach’s long-running Our Gang series. Pete the pup became a full member in the late 1920’s and there were always various chickens, dogs, skunks, and mules named Dinah. In CAT, DOG AND CO. the feral co-stars take over in a plot that concerns Wheezer happily torturing all the critters he sees until he has a terrible nightmare where he’s put on trial by giant animals for his acts of cruelty.

This off-beat entry was directed by Anthony Mack (real name Robert Anthony McGowan), nephew of Our Gang founder Robert F. McGowan. Thanks to the usual Hollywood nepotism the younger McGowan directed fifteen shorts that were for the most part lackluster, although this one and DOG HEAVEN (’27) are the oddest in the series entire history. Mack’s last directorial effort on the series was the early talkie BOXING GLOVES (’29), but wasn’t the end of his association with Our Gang. Nine years later when the series moved over to MGM, Mack, under his real name of Robert A. McGowan co-wrote the screenplays for practically all of those dismal shorts. It’s hoped that the giant animals from CAT, DOG AND CO. had the opportunity to put him on trial for cruelty to audiences.

The silent Our Gang shorts are far more inventive and surreal than their talkie counterparts, and this short is no exception. This short is included because of its showing of both sides of animal treatment, as well as a well-made dream sequence in which Wheezer gets his come-uppance in an animal-run trial and is attacked by giant versions of the chickens he taunts early in the film. Plus, the film's climactic final third features a large menagerie of critters. MoMA's screening print is struck from a print with Dutch flash titles, and image quality is just okay. While this film does survive in good 16mm prints, this is an example of the fact that an archive's collection can include a range of materials, and isn't necessarily all 35mm nitrate camera negatives. The film does hold up well, even if you can't follow the intertitles. BTW, the woman from the animal society who gives the kids a lecture on how to treat animals is soon-to-be Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper. Roach film fans will recognize bit players and street sets in the 2nd half of the film, when all the animals get loose (spoiler alert!).

Mind the Baby (9/10/1924) Prod: Century Comedies. Dist: Universal. Dir: Al Herman. 2 reels. Cast: Pal, Louise Lorraine, Fred Spencer, Ernie Shields.

In the 1920's, Century Comedies was the home of a number of animal stars – there was Mr. & Mrs. Joe Martin (orangutans), Queenie (horse), Maude (mule) and Charlie (bull elephant). Producers Abe & Julius Stern were the brothers-in-law of Universal founder Carl Laemmle and notoriously cheap, so it’s very likely that their thinking was that feral Barrymores wouldn’t get swelled heads from all the publicity and public adoration and demand more bones or peanuts in salary.

The Stern’s first canine star was Brownie the wonder dog. After he passed on (probably due to sheer over-work) he was replaced by the star of this short, Pal. Owned by trainer Harry Lucenay, Pal generally had better timing and more personality than his human co-stars, and is rumored to be the father of Pete the pup (also trained by Lucenay). Working until around 1928, Pal also appeared with Harry Sweet, Our Gang, Jerry Madden and Big Boy.

Parts of MIND THE BABY have to be seen to be believed, and Pal’s baby co-star must have grown up wondering why he always had a panic attack whenever he’d see an alligator handbag or shoes.

This was one of those films that was at the top of the list when we were assembling the program themes for the series, mainly because of the toddler-'gator-pup fight in the middle. It's also a nice example of the Pal series which, like the Snookie-the-Humanzee shorts, features an animal as hero in a slapstick version of the Rin-Tin-Tin formula. This print is a good 16mm reduction from MoMA's 35mm preservation materials, which were struck from 35mm nitrate in the Czech film archive. The original material, like a majority of the slapstick shorts held in that archive and preserved by MoMA during Eileen Bowser's tenure, have Czech flash titles. However, this film is so out there you don't really miss them; all you need to know is there is a kidnapping plot afoot (although it doesn't get off the ground until reel 2). Most of reel 1 is shot at Echo Park in Los Angeles.

The Knockout (10/28/1923) Prod: Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir & Photo: Len Powers. 1 reel. Cast: The Dippy-Doo-Dads.
photo (R): Director/Photographer Len Powers with some of his wild thespians
Silent comedy was rife with Simian stars – there was Napoleon & Sally, their daughter Snooky the human-zee, and the Fox chimps Max, Moritz and Pep – but the cream of the monkey comedies was Hal Roach’s Dippy-Doo-Dad series. Its inspiration may have been William S. Campbell’s short-lived Campbell Comedies, which featured kids and their animal helpmates. MONKEY SHINES (’22) is the only circulating example today, and has very Dippy-Doo-Dad-ish scenes of Josephine the monkey doing her morning exercises and ablutions. Trainer Tony Campanaro had supplied the animals, and when the series ended Roach took the animal idea and spun it off into its own surreal universe, using Campanaro’s menagerie.

Roach studio staff photographer Len Powers became the auteur for the series, handling both the directing and photographing chores. The early entries were simple stories like BE HONEST and THE WATCH DOG (both ’23) where the feral stars were cavorting in a barnyard or hanging around a vegetable stand, but soon the shorts became spoofs of movie genres encompassing love triangles (LOVEY DOVEY ’23), the evils of drink (THE BAR FLY ’24) and rousing Northwest Mountie sagas (NORTH OF 50-50 ’24). THE KNOCKOUT takes on boxing melodramas, complete with detailed miniature sets and costumes. Roach discontinued the series in 1924, but Jules White and Zion Myers co-opted the idea in sound for their ever-popular Dogville Comedies.

Print is a beautiful, complete 35mm print with original intertitles. This film was one of the shorts from the class version of this series chosen for MoMA's January "PopRally" event. Called "Silent But Deadly", the evening consisted of three comedy shorts from the list and "response videos" made by a number of comedians. Two of the videos were in reponse to THE KNOCKOUT. One was made by comedy duo Gabe & Jenny called Where's the Tickets? which had a live score performed by Ben Model, and another by comedian Joe Mande was a mock director's interview รก la a Criterion Collectors edition extra called The Knockout: 15 Years Later. Click here to see the website for this PopRally program which has all six of the response videos embedded on it.

When Summer Comes (9/23/1922) Prod: Mack Sennett. Dist: First National Pictures. Dir: Roy Del Ruth. 2 reels. Cast: Billy Bevan, Mildred June, Billy Armstrong, Kewpie Morgan, Tiny Ward, Cubby, Jack Cooper, John Rand, Gordon Lewis, Hughie Mack, Edgar Blue.

Comedies that featured lions menacing human actors became an extremely popular genre in the late 'teens and early 1920s. Studios such as Universal and Fox, who cranked out tons of titles like WILD WOMEN AND TAME LIONS (’18) and WILD LIONS AND FEROCIOUS CHEESE (‘20), had stables of lions ready at all times. Not wanting to be outdone the other comedy producers jumped on the bandwagon, including “King of Comedy” Mack Sennett.

This short is an early Sennett foray into the genre, where he tended to hold the lions back for the big climax. In addition to the lions, the general surreal mix includes Billy Bevan, Cubby the bear, a rustic hunting lodge, an elongated car with Hebrew-script license plates, and a wax-eating Native American. Other Sennett lion sagas are THE LION AND THE SOUSE (’24), SCAREM MUCH (’24), THE LION’S WHISKERS (’25), and what is likely the first sound entry THE LION’S ROAR (’28).

And, yes, those are swastikas on the Indian's tent in reel one. The symbol was used by many southwestern Native American tribes, especially the Navajo. The film contains a number of trademark Sennett car-lengthening gags (see also LIZZIES OF THE FIELD on June 1st). As much as there is trick photogaphy in the scenes with the lions, it's breathtaking or startling to see how many times the comedians are in the same frame with the lions, who get a heck of a workout going through all those transoms. The print is a 35mm with flash titles, and is probably the choppiest one on this program, but that's how a lot of these comedy shorts survive, with the heads and tails of reels gone due to decomp, etc...but what survives is in great shape, and it's great to see a crazy, surreal 1920's Sennett short in a sharp 35mm print (and in a theater, too!).

No comments:

Post a Comment