"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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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Program 1 – "Love Sick: Mating Rituals"

Program 1:
"Love Sick: Mating Rituals"

Wed. Sept. 11, 7:00pm and Mon. Sept. 16, 7:00pm

piano accompaniment by Ben Model

film notes by Steve Massa; ©2013 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved

Tangled Tangoists (4/24/1914) Vitagraph. Dir: George D. Baker. 1 reel. Cast: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Louise Beaudet, Charles Wellesley, Jack Brawn, Mary Anderson, William Shea, Arthur Cozine.John Bunny and Flora Finch began working together in 1911, and the combination of the expansive Bunny with the severe Finch created an instant combative chemistry. Audiences loved them together and many assumed that they were married in real life, referring to their pictures as “Bunnyfinches.” Although the fans adored them teamed it’s rumored that they had an active mutual dislike for each other (when asked about Bunny by an interviewer years later the best thing Finch had to say about him was that he was very clean for a fat man), and not long after this short they went their separate ways – primarily working with other Vitagraph players . Bunny died of kidney disease in May of 1915, and Ms. Finch left Vitagraph to form the Flora Finch Film Corporation. When her independent comedies weren’t well received she returned to the supporting ranks, and was busy in popular features such as QUALITY STREET (‘27) with Marion Davies, and THE CAT AND THE CANARY (‘27). She continued working in bit roles until her death in 1940.

A third person who contributed to the success of the “Bunnyfinches” was director George D. Baker. After working in a bank, and then as a cartoonist, he decided to become an actor and had years of experience with people such as Nance O’Neil, McKee Rankin, and John Griffith. He also began adapting properties such as GRAUSTARK and THE GOOSE GIRL for the stage, wrote original plays, and designed posters. With the rise of movies he joined the Vitagraph family in the early teens, and directed a majority of John Bunny’s films, with and without Ms. Finch. Some of his best known titles include A TRAIN OF INCIDENTS, HEARTS AND DIAMONDS, and SWEENEY’S CHRISTMAS BIRD (all ‘14). In 1916 he began directing Vitagraph features, and then moved on to Cosmopolitan, Goldwyn, Sawyer-Lubin, Selznick, and Metro. Many were dramas, but he continued in comedy with May Allison and Gareth Hughes before he retired in 1924.

There and Back (8/11/1916) Vitagraph. Dir: Lawrence Semon. Writ: Semon & Graham Baker. 1 reel. Cast: Hughie Mack, Patsy De Forest, Frank Kingsley, Alice Mann, Eddie Dunn, Ethel Corcoran, Josephine Earle, Harry Hammil.
*new MoMA print*

Thanks to the success of John Bunny and Fatty Arbuckle it was practically a prerequisite that every comedy company have a fat man. Members of the cinematic over 300 pounds club included John Brennan, Bert Gillespie, Marvin Loback, Ralph McComas, Walter Hiers, and Frank Alexander. While many of them were basically used for the sight-gags inherent in their large size, others such as Oliver Hardy and Vernon Dent, of course, had the goods and were great comics. Fat men were so popular that in 1914 Vitagraph actually had three – Bunny, Jay Dwiggens, and the star of THERE AND BACK Hughie Mack.

Born in Brooklyn in 1884 as Hugh McGowan, by day he was an undertaker but due to his outgoing nature he became involved in amateur theatricals and became popular appearing at clubs and societies. It was while entertaining at a club supper that he was seen by an influential member of the Vitagraph staff, and soon became a member of the studio’s supporting ensemble. Appearing with the likes of Bunny, Flora Finch, and Wally Van, Mack became an audience favorite, bridging the studio’s transition from situation comedy to out and out slapstick. In 1916 he became a star in his own right, with his films directed by the young Larry Semon, but soon moved on to headline at L-KO and Century Comedies. After more shorts for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach he broke into supporting roles in features, becoming a favorite of director Erich von Stroheim, for whom he appeared in GREED (‘23), THE MERRY WIDOW (‘25), and THE WEDDING MARCH (‘28). His other features included TRIFLING WOMEN (‘21), MARE NOSTRUM (‘26) and FOUR SONS (‘28), before the busy Mack died of a heart attack at age 42 in 1927.

Two forgotten comedy ingénues, Patsy De Forest and Alice Mann, are in support of Hughie. De Forest began her film career at Lubin after two years on the stage as the leading lady for Clarence Elmer in his “Patsy” series, and for Davy Don in his “Otto” comedies. In mid -1916 she transferred to Vitagraph and played Hughie’s love interest until she was bumped up to Vitagraph features in 1917. Breaking out to independent features like BULLIN’ THE BULLSHEVIKI (‘19), her last two pictures were the Fox Buck Jones westerns SQUARE SHOOTER and SUNSET SPRAGUE (both ‘20). Alice Mann also began her career at Lubin and worked there with Patsy De Forest when they were both supporting Davey Don. THERE AND BACK was her first short for Vitagraph, and after about a year there she moved over to Roscoe Arbuckle’s New York based Comique films HIS WEDDING NIGHT, OH DOCTOR, and CONEY ISLAND (all ‘17). After this she sporadically appeared in mostly independent features on the order of SCRAMBLED WIVES and THE FAMILY CLOSET (both ‘21) until 1925.

Lend Me Your Wife (1916) Eagle Films. Dir: Marcel Perez. 2 reels. Cast: Marcel Perez, Babette Perez, Louise Carver, Tom Murray.

Marcel Perez, along with Max Linder, was one of the few direct links between early European and American silent comedy. A graduate of circuses and music halls, Perez began appearing in French films in 1900 and scored a hit in 1907 with his comedy THE SHORT-SIGHTED CYCLIST for the Eclipse Company. Launched in his own series in 1910 for the Ambrosio Co. of Italy, where he played a bungler named Robinet, the films were popular world-wide and Perez came to the United States in 1915. After brief stops for Joker and Vim, in 1916 he embarked on a series for the Eagle Film Co. in Jacksonville, Florida.
The area around Jacksonville was a beehive of film activity in the teens. Besides Eagle, there was Vim, Lubin, Kalem, Jaxon, Gaumont, Klever Komedies, King Bee, and Josh Binney Comedies. All were based, or had production units, there.

Perez’ wife and co-star from his Ambrosio films, Nilde Baracchi, had come with him from Europe, and under the name Babette Perez was his leading lady at Eagle. Also on hand are Louise Carver and Tom Murray, real-life husband and wife and former vaudevillians, who were part of the Eagle stock company and would soon head to California to become silent comedy regulars. Louise Carver is best known for the homely battleaxes she played in tons of Mack Sennett comedies such as THE FIRST 100 YEARS (‘24) and FROM RAGS TO BRITCHES (‘25). Tom Murray excelled as tough customers like Black Larsen in Charlie Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH (‘25) and Harry Langdon’s marathon rival in TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (‘26). Both turned up in shorts and features through the early sound era. Murray passed away in 1935, and Carver, after retiring in 1941, lived until 1956.

After this series for Eagle, Marcel Perez continued to make independent comedies for companies such as Jester, Reelcraft, and Sanford, in addition to directing western and society melodrama features. The loss of a leg in 1922 brought an end to his performing career, but he carried on writing and directing. For years an obituary for Perez couldn’t be found, but recently his death certificate finally turned up. Working for Joe Rock and Universal until 1927, he was struck by lung cancer and lingered until February 1929. Due to his frequent name changes as he made his gypsy-like way through early film, his work and accomplishments fell into almost total obscurity, but recently his films have started to be revived and his reputation and place in silent comedy history re-examined.

Name the Day (8/21/1921) Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir:   1 reel. Cast: Snub Pollard, Marie Mosquini, Noah Young, Sunshine Sammy Morrison, Sammy Brooks, James T. Kelly, William Gillespie.

Hal Roach initiated his Snub Pollard comedies in 1919. Snub had been Harold Lloyd’s second banana and when Harold was laid up following an accident with a live bomb Snub was put into his own film START SOMETHING (‘19). The series took off, and Roach, who had been trying out potential new series with the likes of Toto, Beatrice La Plante, and Dee Lampton, had a new success on his hands. Unlike the Lloyd comedies, which were getting more realistic, the Pollard films were wild gag fests the faster the better. Snub was like a living cartoon character with his upside-down Kaiser Wilhelm moustache, and could pull off the most outrageous sight-gags in a nonchalant manner. In 1920 a move was made to move the Pollard films into Harold Lloyd territory – his moustache was removed and he was given a more middle-class setting – but the experiment was unsuccessful and they soon return to the slapstick absurdity.
The one link to some kind of reality in the Pollard shorts was his regular leading lady Marie Mosquini. Born in Los Angeles, at age fourteen she became the “girl Friday” of the fledgling Roach studio. Besides her duties of answering phones, ordering props, checking out costumes, and even patching films, she began playing various bits in the comedies. These appearances increased and after being teamed up with Snub in 1920, she became a full-time actress. Marie was usually the gooney Snub’s long-suffering wife or love interest. These breezy, anything-for-a-laugh shorts were close in spirit to the Mack Sennett style of comedy with Marie the only voice of reason or sanity in the madcap whirl. After appearing in umpteen shorts together, they went their separate ways in 1923. At that point Marie began working with Will Rogers, Stan Laurel, and Paul Parrott, and after leaving the Roach lot in 1924 , she worked in Universal shorts with Charles Puffy and a few features, most notably SEVENTH HEAVEN (‘27). In 1930, she retired from the movies when she married Dr. Lee De Forest of audion tube and Phonofilms fame.

The Hal Roach stock company always got a brisk workout on the Pollard films, and besides the much appreciated Sunshine Sammy and Noah Young, a special nod should be given to the indispensible  William Gillespie and Sammy Brooks. The Scottish-born William Gillespie spent three years with the Selig Co. before turning up in the later Chaplin Mutual comedies EASY STREET, THE CURE, and THE IMMIGRANT (all ‘17). He joined the Roach company in late 1917 and would remain there for sixteen years, until 1933. During that time he played everything – prissy department store floorwalkers, tobacco-chewing old farmers, twitching drug addicts, and pretentious French artists – supporting every star comic on the lot. Besides his innumerable shorts, he also turned up in many of Harold Lloyd’s features, and an occasional other like Larry Semon’s STOP, LOOK, AND LISTEN (‘26) and EXIT SMILING (‘26) with Beatrice Lillie. Gillespie retired from films in 1938 and died in 1980 at the age of eighty-six.

The 3 foot, 10 inch Sammy Brooks was born Sammy Rochenberg in Brooklyn, NY, and appeared in stage shows such as SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, plus vaudeville with LASKY’S HOBOES, and THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS with The World of Mirth Company. Before joining Roach in 1916 he was in CINDERELLA (‘14) for Famous Players, Selig’s “Hans and Fritz” series, and in the “Heinie and Louie” comedies for Starlight. Because of his small stature Brooks was often used as a human sight-gag and generally knocked around by the likes of Snub and Paul Parrott. But the feisty Brooks always gave back as good as he got, and usually turned the tables on whoever thought they could take advantage of him. Sammy stayed with Roach until 1938’s SWISS MISS, when he left films due to losing his sight and ran a concession stand until his death in 1950.

Two Time Mama (1/23/1927) Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir: Fred Guiol. 2 reels. Cast: Glenn Tryon, Vivien Oakland, Anita Garvin, Tyler Brooke, Gale Henry, Oliver Hardy, Joseph “Baldy” Belmont.

In 1923 Harold Lloyd moved out on his own, so the Hal Roach Studio looked for a replacement. They settled on Glenn Tryon, a handsome twenty-five year old actor from stock and touring companies who had been appearing in small bits in their shorts and had just gotten some attention playing a fey cowboy in Stan Laurel’s THE SOILERS (‘23). Plucked from obscurity, Tyron was starred in two Roach features THE BATTLING ORIOLES and THE WHITE SHEEP (both ‘24), plus was put into a series of two-reelers that lasted from 1924 to 1927. Usually cast as a young hubby or a
country boy, Tryon came off as a junior Charley Chase in some very entertaining comedies that benefitted greatly from the Roach Studio expertise and its company of supporting comics. In 1927 Tryon went over to Universal where he finished the 1920s in breezy features such as THE POOR NUT (‘27) and BARNUM WAS RIGHT (‘29), in addition to an occasional dramatic piece like LONESOME (‘28). The change-over to sound eventually brought an end to his performing career, but he moved behind the camera as a writer, director, and producer where he worked on projects such as SONS OF THE DESERT (‘34) and HELLZAPOPPIN (‘41) until his retirement in the early 1950s.

Some of the best of the late 1920s Hal Roach stock company members are on hand lending sterling support. Dapper but dippy Tyler Brooke was in residence at Roach from 1925 to 1927, playing bungling suitors and playboy sons.  For many years a song and dance man in musical comedies and vaudeville, he was hired by the studio after being spotted in the L.A tour of NO, NO, NANETTE. Later he moved over to Fox where he was support in features like THE CRADLE SNATCHERS (‘27), plus took over the lead in their “Adventures of Van Bibber in Society” two-reelers. When sound arrived he had a few interesting roles in important features such as THE DIVORCEE (‘30) and MORNING GLORY (‘33), but was soon demoted to uncredited bit. Unhappy with the direction of his career he took his own life in 1943.
Besides Oliver Hardy and Anita Garvin, whose murderous glare could cut through solid lead, attention must be paid to Vivien Oakland and Gale Henry. Despite a few early films Vivien Oakland came from a popular vaudeville act with her husband John T. Murray to be the vivacious blonde “other woman” in scores of Roach comedies with Glenn Tryon and Charley Chase, with her most memorable performance being the judge’s drunken wife in Laurel & Hardy’s SCRAM (‘32). Although later getting a bit matronly, she kept busy playing wifely comedy foils at RKO for Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol until her retirement in 1951. Snoopy the maid is Gale Henry, one of the great comediennes of the silent era. Spending the teens as part of the ensemble at Joker Comedies, and having her own starring series for Bulls Eye, in the 1920s she became an ace supporting player in features and other people’s shorts. Working regularly on the Roach lot she was frequently paired with Charley Chase, where in shorts such as HIS WOODEN WEDDING (‘25) and A ONE MAMA MAN (‘27) she steals everything but the film’s sprocket holes. Continuing to work with Chase in the early days of sound, she retired in 1934 to manage the movie career of her dog Skippy, who was better known as Asta.

Director Fred Guiol started his career as a prop boy on features such as D.W. Griffith’s HEARTS OF THE WORLD (‘18) before joining the Roach organization in 1919 as a cameraman. Working on the Harold Lloyd films as a general assistant he began directing shorts in 1923 with the likes of the Spat Family, Will Rogers, Glenn Tryon, and Laurel & Hardy. Although his work is generally taken for granted he did helm some genuine classics such as PASS THE GRAVY, LIMOUSINE LOVE, and THE BOYFRIEND (all ‘28). After some early Roach talkies he directed sound shorts for Pathe and RKO, in addition to a few features such as THE RAINMAKERS (‘35) and MUMMY’S BOYS (‘36) with Wheeler & Woolsey, plus some Roach “streamliners” like MISS POLLY (‘41) and HAY FOOT (‘42). His most fruitful work was spent as an associate of fellow ex-Hal Roach cameraman George Stevens, where Guiol was the scriptwriter on Steven’s films GUNGA DIN (‘39) and GIANT (‘56), as well as associate producer and director on PENNY SERENADE (‘41), TALK OF THE TOWN (‘42), A PLACE IN THE SUN (‘51) and SHANE (‘53).

Dad’s Choice (1/7/1928) Hollywood Productions (Harold Lloyd). Dist: Paramount. Dir: J.A. Howe. 2 reels. Cast: Edward Everett Horton, Sharon Lynn, Otis Harlan, Josephine Crowell, Silas Wilcox, James Gordon, Gus Leonard, Elinor Vander Veer.
Edward Everett Horton is remembered as a master of befuddlement and the double-take for his sound film appearances in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, and comedies such as HOLIDAY (‘38) and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (‘44). It’s not generally recalled that he had a substantial career in silent films as well. Going on the stage as a young man he spent many years in stock companies all over the country before settling in Los Angeles in 1919. Working in the theatre at night left him free for films during the day and he made his debut in 1922, starring in features like TOO MUCH SUCCESS (‘22), RUGGLES OF RED GAP (‘23), BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK (‘25), POKER FACES (‘26), and TAXI, TAXI (‘27).

In 1927 Harold Lloyd produced eight two-reelers starring Horton under the company name “Hollywood Productions,” with distribution through Paramount. Written and directed by Lloyd’s regular production staff, DAD’S CHOICE was the third entry, and the series chronicled Eddie’s misadventures as a persnickety man-about-town or young hubby. Even while Horton was making these silent shorts, he was adapting very well to sound films, appearing in the early “all-talking” THE TERROR (‘28) and talkie two-reelers for Educational Pictures. By the mid-1930s he settled into the groove that would keep him busy in films, on stage, radio, and television (as the narrator for FRACTURED FAIRY TALES among other things) up to his death in 1970.

Josephine Crowell (R), with Harold Lloyd
Besides the silent comedy rank and file of Gus Leonard and Silas Wilcox, Horton gets excellent support from Josephine Crowell, Sharon Lynn, and Otis Harlan. Having made her name in dramatic parts in D. W. Griffith epics such as THE BIRTH OF A NATION (‘15) and HEARTS OF THE WORLD (‘18), Josephine Crowell was a busy character actress who was equally at home in comedy. Some of her most memorable comedic moments are with Harold Lloyd in HOT WATER (‘24), in Charley Chase’s DOG SHY (‘26), and her last film, WRONG AGAIN (‘29), with Laurel & Hardy. As an ingénue Sharon Lynn had starred in the features CLANCY’S KOSHER WEDDING and JAKE THE PLUMBER (both ‘27), and with a background as a nightclub singer and songwriter she was in demand for early musicals such as SUNNYSIDE UP and FOX MOVIETONE FOLLIES OF 1929 (both ‘29). Sadly her career never really took off, and her last major role was as James Finlayson’s paramour Lola Marcel in Laurel & Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST (‘37).

The “Dad” of the title is played by Otis Harlan, a well-known stage comic who made his film debut for Selig in 1915’s THE BLACK SHEEP. In the 1920s he became a regular character player in features on the order of THREE BAD MEN (‘26) and SHOW BOAT (‘29), plus was an excellent comedy foil for Reginald Denny in OH! DOCTOR (‘25), THE CHEERFUL FRAUD (‘26) and WHAT HAPPENED TO JONES? (‘26). Working steadily in sound films, Harlan’s parts got a bit smaller after 1935’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, but he remained active until 1940.

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