"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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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

EYE Institute Program 6: "Musical Comedy"

Program 6: Musical Comedy
Mon. Mar 19, 7:30; Fri. Mar 30, 1:30.
film notes © 2012 by Steve Massa

Amour et musique (a.k.a. Met muzieken en hindernissen) (1911) France. Pathe/Nizza. (4 min)
Working apart, a pair of off-key male and female street performers are assaulted by unappreciative music lovers. When an arrest brings them together, they discover their power to make beautiful music.

This short is an example of the many creators of these comedies – directors, writers and performers – who are unknown and overlooked. Most came from music halls and circuses, and after a short jaunt in films returned there. Since movies weren’t particularly highly regarded many weren’t anxious to advertise that they were working in them and didn’t give them a second thought. Even some performers who had their own starring series, such as the actress who plays the stupid servant Cunegonde and the child who was the bratty Leontine, are a source of mystery today.

Rosalie et son phonographie (a.k.a. Rosalie en haar phonograph) (1911) France. Pathe. Dir: Romeo Bossetti. Cast: Sarah Duhamel. (4 min)
A jolly housekeeper brings new meaning to the notion of “home entertainment” with a handsome new portable phonograph that causes people, furniture, and buildings to rock and roll through the magic of stop-motion animation.

Roly-poly Sarah Duhamel is a particularly overlooked comedienne who had been a child actress on stage from the age of three. Extremely prolific, besides starring in this series she was frequently partnered with Little Moritz and Casimir (Lucien Bataille), and also starred in her own “Petronille” comedies for Éclair. Large and excitable, Duhamel took a lot of punishment in the line of slapstick duty. After marrying actor Edouard Louis Schmit she retired in 1916, but made one final appearance in Les mysteres of Paris (1924).

Grammofono di Polidor (a.k.a. Polidor and his gramofono) (1912) Italy. Pasquali. Cast: Ferdinand Guillame, Matilde Guillame. (9 min)
In a scheme that’s all the more convincing on silent film, Polidor attempts to fool a high-society mob with a no-talent singer who lip-synchs recordings from a hidden gramophone.

Ferdinand Guillame was a clown and acrobat from a circus family who made his film debut as Tontolini for Cines in 1909. By 1912 he moved to Pasquali Films of Turin with his popular character of the bungler Polidor. Also directing many of the shorts, the plot for this one would be passed down to later comic generations, with its best incarnation probably being the Three Stooges classic Micro-Phonies (1945). Continuing as Polidor until 1918, Guillame later turned up in Federico Fellini films such as Nights of Cabiria (1957), La dolce vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963).

Pik Nik ha il do di petto (1911) Italy. Aquila. Cast: Armando Fineschi. (5 min)
Singer Pik Nik tests the power of song with a earth-shattering voice that causes people to pass out, walls to collapse, cars to go backwards – and eventually lands him in jail.

Pik Nik was played by character actor Armando Fineschi, who after this series appeared in all types of Italian films until 1941. Aquila Films was founded in Turin in 1907, and early on specialized in sensational crime films and melodramas. In addition to villains and spies in exotic locales, their comedies series consisted of Pik Nik and another character named Jolicoeur. In 1912 Aquila moved into feature productions, and continued with the crime and melodrama themes in pictures such as Fedora (1913), La peccatrice (The Sinful Woman 1916), and Tenebre (Darkness 1916). Much of the company’s strength came from its alliance with international distributors, which imported their films to Britain, France, Spain, Russia, and South America. The outbreak of World War I cut off Aquila’s access to these markets, and the company folded in 1917.

Robinet inamorato di una chanteuse (1911) Italy. Ambrosio. Dir: Marcel Perez (as Marcel Fabre). Cast: Fabre, Gigetta Morano. (7 min)
Robinet brings down the house when he unleashes himself on an attractive opera singer during a music hall performance.

Many of Marcel Perez’s surviving Robinet comedies center around the main character’s single-minded obsessions which lead to absurd extremes. In this film Robinet’s passion for the titled singer causes him to disrupt an entire variety performance, and even stalk her at home. Robinet Boxeur (1913) is about him becoming crazy about boxing, and after challenging the champ to a bout he trains and becomes a boxing machine. He knocks his punching bag into orbit, and when he runs amok on the street he makes fat men explode, innocent pedestrians back flip down the street, and trolleys fly in reverse with the power of his mighty punch. Mistaken obsession is the whole theme of Robinet e geloso (1914) where his suspicion that Robinette is cheating on him causes him to follow her to an apartment building to catch her in the act. Unfortunately for him he keeps bursting into the wrong apartments, and is continually beaten and pummeled until he finds that his wife had only commissioned an artist to sculpt a bust of him. Robinet never learns, and his obsessive quests always lead him to wrack and ruin.

La vengeance du sergent de ville (1913) France. Gaumont. Dir & Sc: Louis Feuillade. Cast: Renee Carl, Suzanne Grandais, Louis Leubas, Yvette Andreyor, Andre Luguet, Paul Manson. (13 min)
A policeman’s late night horn playing dismays neighbors in his apartment house, leading to marital discord, hysteria and a bizarre form of psycho-therapy involving a body double.

Director and writer Louis Feuillade is best remembered today for his surrealism-laced serials such as Fantomas (1913) and Les Vampires (1915), but turned out all types of films in the twenty years he worked for the Gaumont Studio. When he started in 1905 it was solely as a writer, but was soon directing as well, and by 1907 was named artistic director of the company. His serials benefitted from the antic spirit of his early comedy shorts, and he worked non-stop in all genres right up to his death in 1925.

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