"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.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Unsocialized Medicine: Health Care Comedies

"Unsocialized Medicine: Health Care Comedies"

(film notes written by Steve Massa)

Bunny Backslides (10/30/1914) Dir: George D. Baker. Prod: Vitagraph Film Co. One reel. Cast: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Josie Sadler, Charles Eldridge.

In addition to the rotund John Bunny (see BUNNY DIPS INTO SOCIETY), BUNNY BACKSLIDES features two excellent and overlooked character comediennes – Flora Finch and Josie Sadler. Skinny Finch, one of the earliest comedy stars in American films, specialized in spinsters and domineering wives, particularly when working with her frequent co-star Bunny. Born in Surrey, she began her career on stage in England with Ben Greet. After coming to the U.S. she began appearing in films while trying to establish herself on the American stage. Starting at Biograph in 1908 she caught the attention of D.W. Griffith, and made an impression in the “Jones Family” shorts and other comedies like ALL ON ACCOUNT OF THE MILK (’10). That year she moved pver to Vitagraph and was soon teamed with Bunny. The thin Finch and corpulent Bunny made a perfect physical contrast, and were audience favorites until Bunny’s death in 1915. Sadly the peak of Flora’s career was her years with Bunny, afterward she was never able to recapture the same popularity. Leaving Vitagraph in 1916, the next year she set up the Flora Finch Film Corporation and turned out a series of two-reelers that were cooly received by audiences and exhibitors. She returned to the supporting ranks and kept very busy, turning up in a few Johnny Hines films like THE EARLY BIRD (’25) and in high profile features such as QUALITY STREET and THE CAT AND THE CANARY (both ’27). Flora was also regular support in “Carrie of the Chorus,” a series of live-action shorts made by Max and Dave Fleischer. By the time that sound arrived, outside of an occasional character bit in an independent feature like THE SCARLET LETTER (’34) or her funny cameo in the opening of Laurel & Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST (’37), she was mostly confined to anonymous extra work.

Josie Sadler, who was as round as Finch was angular, was one of the best-loved stage comediennes at the beginning of the 20th Century. Small and rotund, she began her career at age 9 after being discovered by impresario Tony Pastor, and became famous for playing naïve immigrant girls in shows like PRINCE PRO TEM (1899), THE SILVER SLIPPER (’02) and her biggest success PEGGY FROM PARIS (’03). Running the gamut from Dutch, Cockney, French, Swedish and German, Sadler wrote many of her own musical specialty numbers, a few of which she recorded for Victor. Joining the Vitagraph ensemble in 1913, Sadler at first turned up in support of Bunny, Sidney Drew and Norma Talmadge. Soon the studio began tailoring films to her stage fame – THE COMING OF GRETCHEN (’13) and THE MAID FROM SWEDEN (’14) were about the misadventures of immigrant women, and then launched in her own series of “Josie” comedies. 5 episodes about a German household drudge were made, after which she did BUNNY BACKSLIDES as her last film for Vitagraph. Slowing down the pace of her work she made only occasional stage appearances and only two more pictures. In 1920 she completely retired from show business to run the electrical business of her late husband, and died in 1927. Today she’s part of the huge list of neglected comediennes, and although her film career was brief her immigrant servant girl persona was a forerunner for ladies like Louise Fazenda, Jane Bernoudy, and Alice Howell who would soon follow.

A Professional Patient (1/19/1917) Dir: Sidney Drew. Prod: Vitagraph Company. 1 reel. Cast: Sidney Drew, Lucille McVey (Mrs. Sidney Drew), Donald McBride, Bobby Connolly.

In the ‘teens an alternate to the rough and ready slapstick shorts were the witty and sophisticated comedies of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew. For a few years the Vitagraph studio was the bastion for this type of picture, with not only the Drews but also Wally Van’s “Cutey” series, Lillian Walker’s “Dimples” shorts, and most famously the Bunny-Finches. By early 1917 the tide had turned when all of the above players moved on, and Vitagraph comedies were taken over by Larry Semon.

Sidney Drew was a light comedian from the stage who entered films in 1911 and embraced the medium much more than the rest of his illustrious theatrical family (Lionel, John and Ethel Barrymore) to become an innovative writer and director. His early films were for Kalem, then he joined Vitagraph in 1913 with his first wife Gladys Rankin (who wrote under the name of George Cameron). Mrs. Drew died soon after and Sidney married Lucille McVey, a young actress who had recently joined Vitagraph after six years of presenting recitations on the concert stage, and was working under the name Jane Morrow.

In 1914 they launched their series which chronicled the misadventures of an average married couple that became known as “Henry and Polly.” The Drews worked together on the scripts and direction, while Sidney’s dry and expert performances put them over on the screen. Becoming immensely popular the pair left Vitagraph and continued the series for Metro. At ten minutes their shorts revolved around a simple situation or misunderstanding taken to the Nth degree, as in this entry where Sidney loses his job and ends up being a living advertisement for a painless dentist.

Later the Drews moved to the V.B.K. Film Corp. with distribution through Paramount, and appeared together on the stage. Sidney Drew’s health rapidly declined after the death of his son (director S. Rankin Drew) in World War I, and he died at the peak of his fame in 1919. After his death Mrs. Drew continued on – fulfilling their V.B.K. contract with shorts like BUNKERED (’19), later moving to Pathe for a few that she wrote, directed and starred in. She also directed the Vitagraph feature COUSIN KATE (’21) before her own premature death in 1925.

The Snow Cure (4/23/1916) Keystone Comedy. Dir: Arvid E. Gilstrom. Prod: Mack Sennett. Dist: Mutual. Two reels. Cast: Ford Sterling, Fritz Schade, Marie Manly, Alice Davenport, James Donnelly, Slim Summerville, Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Lee Morris, Otto Fries, Bert Gillespie, Harold “Josh” Binney, Coy Watson Sr., Clarence Lyndon, Bruno the bear.

THE SNOW CURE is a wild and wacky Mack Sennett farce that dumps large helpings of snow, fat men in bathing suits, a jealous husband, telegraph poles, and a long-suffering bear into its artistic blender and turns it on puree. The nominal star is Ford Sterling (see HEARTS AND FLOWERS), but most of the heavy comedic lifting is done by Fritz Schade and Bruno the bear. Schade, the human half of the duo, is a forgotten roly-poly comic who did yeoman work at Keystone from 1913 to 1917. Born in Germany, where he had extensive stage experience before coming to American to work for the Olympia Opera Company, he made his film debut at Universal before taking up residence at Sennett. He appeared frequently with Chaplin in 1914, but the next year was the headliner in a series of one-reelers where he was often paired with a young Charles Parrott (a.k.a. Charley Chase). Schade took a lot of physical abuse in the name of comedy, and usually played excitable characters named Fritz, or something more exotic like Baron von Hassenfeffer. After his stint with Sennett he moved on to Triangle Komedies, and finished his film career at Fox Sunshine Comedies in 1918. Illness forced him to retire and he died following brain surgery in 1926. Bruno the bear was one of the many animals who appeared at the studio, some like Teddy the great dane and Pepper the cat were regular studio stars. Bruno was a silent comedy veteran, turning up in other films such as Gale Henry’s HER WEEK-END (’19), and is responsible for a lot of the laughs in this picture.

The afore-mentioned fat guys in bathing suits are Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Bert Gillesppie, Josh Binney, and Otto Fries. Frank Alexander was probably the heaviest “heavy” in silent comedy, and although today best remembered for his supporting Larry Semon and being the ringleader in the Ton of Fun comedies, he also carried weight in shorts for Sennett, L-Ko, Century, Fox, plus plenty of features. The large person who spends much of his screen time floating on his back in the spa’s swimming pool is Bert Gillespie, a cannonball shaped actor who was only 5’3’’ but weighed 355 pounds. He appeared in comedies for Sennett, Fox, and Henry Lehrman Specials but died in 1922 at age 33. Harold “Josh” Binney worked for Biograph, Imp, Vogue, and Sennett before setting up his own production company to make “Josh Binney Comedies” that starred another hefty comic, Hilliard “Fatt” Karr, as “Funny Fatty Filbert.” Perhaps the slimmest of this herd is Otto Fries – he may just qualify as husky – who was a silent and sound comedy veteran for many years (see WHAT A NIGHT). Also on hand are bean pole Slim Summerville (see ASCHOOLHOUSE SCANDAL), plus character players James Donnelly and Alice Davenport.

Arvid E. Gillstrom is the director and skilled traffic cop of this production. Born in Sweden, he came to the United States as an infant and was a mining engineer, prospector, and ball player before entering films as a stunt man. After working his way up to an assistant director at Kalem, he became a full-fledged director at Sterling Comedies and moved over to Keystone in 1915. THE SNOW CURE was his first solo directorial credit at the studio, but after being one of the many uncredited contributors to the Mabel Normand feature MICKEY (’18) he became director general for Chaplin imitator Billy West’s King Bee Comedies. From this point he traveled all over the silent comedy map – helming the moppets Jane and Katherine Lee for Fox, Muriel Ostriche’s series for Arrow, Century Comedies, Jack White Comedies, FBO, Weiss Brothers, and finished the silent era at Christie Comedies. Only occasionally piloting features like CLANCEY’S KOSHER WEDDING (’27), his sound films included shorts for Educational and Paramount starring names such as Harry Langdon and Bing Crosby. He died young at age 43 in 1935.

Naughty Nurses (3/1920) Arrow-Hank Mann Super Comedy. Prod: Morris R. Schlank. Dir: ?. Dist: Arrow. Two reels. Cast: Hank Mann, Vernon Dent, Madge Kirby.

In the silent era the American film industry was still in its formative stages, with the studios not really taking over and making everything regimented until the end of the 1920s. There were numerous independent producers who relied on distribution organizations to get their productions to the public. The Arrow Film Corporation was one of the larger of these outfits and handled all kinds of films – shorts, serials, and features – of all genres – comedy, westerns, melodramas, sports pictorials, etc. Arrow was formed in 1915 by W.E. Shallenberger as a production unit, but soon switched to brokering other producer’s productions. By the early 1920s it was one of the largest independent distributors around, and its comedy shorts included the work of Eddie Lyons, Bobby Dunn, Muriel Ostrich, and Billy West, not to mention Reggie Morris’ Special Comedies, the Cruelyweds series, and Fred Ardath’s XLNT Comedies. Arrow ceased to be in 1924 when the vice-president, W. Ray Johnston, formed Rayart Productions, which produced their own low-budget films while distributing outside product. Rayart had comedy shorts that starred Bobby Ray and Al Alt, plus four comedy features that included THRILLING YOUTH (’26) and LUCKY FOOL (’27 – both in MoMA’s collection) that starred and were produced by former Chaplin imitator Billy West. Rayart was re-organized as Monogram Pictures in 1930, which became beloved for its B films with the likes of Bela Lugosi and the Bowery Boys.

Hank Mann cranked out a record number of these shorts in a three year period (see THE GUM RIOT), and the man with the money was producer Morris Schlank. In addition to Hank’s series Schlank also produced Broadway Comedies with Eddie Barry and Vera Reynolds, Spotlight Comedies with Billy Fletcher (a.k.a. Bletcher) and Violet Joy, western features with Al Hoxie and Jack Perrin, plus action thrillers directed by J.P. McGowan. Schlank later moved his product to Rayart, and kept producing right up to his death in 1932.

Hank’s leading lady in this Arrow series, and the main naughty nurse of the title, is British born Madge Kirby. Coming to the U.S. at age nine, she went on the stage at 14 appearing with Richard Carle and Lew Fields, in addition to performing in vaudeville with Fred Walton. She began her film career in 1912 with the Biograph Company. During her four years there she played the dark-haired ingénue in shorts such as THE BOOB AND THE MAGICIAN (’14), and when she left them she became one of the most prolific comedy leading ladies of the ‘teens. In 1916 she joined Rube Miller and Arthur Tavares in the ensemble at Vogue Comedies, and passed through Imp, Victor, American, Fox, and LaSalle Comedies before landing at Vitagraph with Larry Semon. On the way to hooking up with Larry she’d begun wearing a blonde wig, and is always the heroine in distress in shorts like BATHING BEAUTIES AND BIG BOOBS (’18), and TRAPS AND TANGLES (’19). Never having the opportunity to be funny on her own, she embodied the part of the heroine in peril, and fulfilled much the same function when she joined Hank’s ensemble in 1919. As the girl the bashful Hank flirts with from afar as in THE BILL POSTER (’20), or as usual needing rescue in A HAREM HERO (’19) and MYSTIC MUSH (’20), Kirby is warm and plucky and seems like she should have moved on to greater use in the 1920s, but she drops off the film map at the end of this series. Hopefully she was one of the many movie ingénues to marry millionaires and happily retire from the screen.

Good Night Nurse (4/28/1929) Lupino Lane Comedies. Prod: Jack White. Dir: Henry W. George (Lupino Lane). Dist: Educational Pictures. Cast: Lupino Lane, Wallace Lupino, Fay Holderness, Muriel Evans, Eleanor Fredericks.

This is the next to last silent short from Lupino Lane (see TIME FLIES), who’d already released SHIP MATES (’29), his first sound comedy. Lane didn’t really change his style all that much to adapt to the new technology, which gave him the opportunity to show off his singing and dancing skills as well. After returning to England in 1930 one of his first films there was NO LADY (‘31) which contains several silent comedy set pieces from his Educational shorts re-worked for sound. All of his later films left plenty of room for physical business.

An important ingredient in Lane’s films was his younger brother Wallace Lupino, who had the same upbringing and training in the English theatre. The brothers had worked together on stage and in early British films, so when Lane embarked on his series for Jack White Comedies Wallace was tapped as his main support – playing villains, rivals, or buddies. Where Lupino Lane was pure clown, Wallace was a versatile comic character actor, and among his many roles were a Moroccan sheik, a fiery gaucho, and, in LISTEN SISTER (’28), even a boarding school head mistress. Besides supporting his brother and other comics on the lot, White starred Wallace in some of his own one and two-reel comedies such as HARD WORK and THE LOST LAUGH (both ‘28), which garnered good reviews and praise for Wallace. The shorts successfully continued through 1929 and the coming of sound, but in 1930 the family returned to England. The pair continued to work together on stage and in films, and Wallace also appeared with cousin Barry Lupino, in addition to turning excellent character performances in THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES (’37) and WATERLOO ROAD (’45). He later teamed with his nephew Laurie Lupino Lane in a club act, but after finding that the onset of arthritis made physical knockabout too painful, he retired.

GOOD NIGHT NURSE is almost totally a tit-for-tat routine between the brothers Lupino – the kind of thing they’d been doing together their whole lives. Although the pair are really the whole show, there are a couple of regular comedy players who turn up as nurses. Appearing fleetingly as the doctors’ office nurse is Muriel Evans, who would become one of Charley Chase’s favorite leading ladies in shorts such as OLD IRONSIDES (’32) and HIS SILENT RACKET (’33). After working with Charley she moved to bits in features like QUEEN CHRISTINA (’33) and HOLLYWOOD PARTY (’34) before finally becoming a western sweetheart for Buck Jones, William Boyd, and Tex Ritter in low-budget oaters until she retired in 1940.

The large nurse at the sanitarium that tries to dispense the hot mustard plaster is Fay Holderness, a somewhat smaller version of Blanche Payson with dark circles under her eyes, who specialized in hen-pecking wives and bossy matrons. Born in 1888, little is known about her pre-film life, but she started working in 1914 although not making an impression until she played the Innkeeper in D.W. Griffith’s HEARTS OF THE WORLD (’18). At the same time she can be spied as a dance hall girl in Chaplin’s A DOG’S LIFE (’18), as well as being a stock player in Billy West’s later King Bee comedies. Although she worked everywhere – L-Ko, Fox, Christie, and Jack White – she’s probably most familiar for her roles at the Hal Roach studio in support of Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Max Davidson, Clyde Cook, and others. Her feature appearances include THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (’24 – MoMA’s collection) and LONESOME (’28), and she remained busy in sound films until the early 1950s.

(film notes copyright © 2010 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved)



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