"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 2 – "Movie Mania: Fun in the Dark"

Program 2:
"Movie Mania: Fun in the Dark"

Thurs. Sept. 12, 7:00pm
piano accompaniment by Ben Model

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

The Dumb-Bell  (7/16/1922) Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir: Charles Parrott. Photo: Robert Doran. Edit: T. J. Crizer. Titles: H.M. Walker. 1 reel. Cast: Snub Pollard, Marie Mosquini, Sammy Brooks, William Gillespie, Charles Stevenson, Noah Young, George Rowe, Wallace Howe, Roy Brooks.
Along with Mack Sennett, Hal Roach is remembered as a “King of Comedy” of the silent era, and Roach’s reign continued into the early 1950s and television. Primarily thought of for his films with Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang, Roach’s roster of stars also included Snub Pollard, Charley Chase, Clyde Cook, Paul Parrott, and many others, but it was his association with Harold Lloyd that created his studio. Roach started at the bottom rung of the film industry as an extra. Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and most of the other early producers had all been successful merchants who switched from selling furs, gloves, and even junk to a new product – movies. Roach on the other hand had been a muleskinner, prospector, and cowboy before he entered the movies. After working at various studios and striking up a friendship with fellow extra Lloyd, Roach received a small inheritance in 1914 and decided to set up his own production unit. The first person he hired was Lloyd because “he was the hardest working actor I had ever seen.”

Despite early ups and downs that included distributors stealing their films, and Lloyd briefly heading off to work for Sennett while Roach directed one-reelers for Essanay, they finally clicked with some comedies and scored a contract with Pathe. Settling down to a series of Lonesome Luke shorts, slowly but surely the studio made progress, and with the development of Lloyd’s “glasses character” his popularity soared and Roach began expanding his operations. Due to necessity when Lloyd was laid up after an accident with a live bomb Snub Pollard was moved into his own series, but it was a hit and continued apace after Harold returned to production.
In 1921 a young director/writer was brought in to helm the Pollard series. Charles Parrott got his early experience in vaudeville specializing in comic monologues and songs. Breaking into films in 1914 with a brief stint at Nestor Films, he soon settled in at the premiere laugh factory of the day – Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio. Because his youthful and dapper appearance limited his onscreen roles in the exaggerated Keystone universe, he also began contributing gags and stories in addition to becoming an assistant director. By 1916 he was a full-fledged comedy director helming shorts such as A DASH OF COURAGE (‘16) on his own and at this time he left Sennett to become a veritable silent comedy bee – flying from studio flower to studio flower.

The first place he lit was Foxfilm Comedies where he directed Hank Mann and Heinie Conklin, but he kept moving – helming the Billy West Comedies for King Bee, some entries for L-KO, a return to the Billy West unit but this time for Bulls Eye, Hank Mann at Arrow, Mr. & Mrs. Carter De Haven for Paramount, and even a couple of Lloyd Hamilton shorts for the fledgling Jack White Company. By the time he settled in at Roach in 1921 Charley had an impressive track record and solid comedy expertise. Put in charge of the Pollard series, Parrott made good use of his well-developed sense of the absurd and the films took a decided upswing. Impressed with his taste and creativity, Roach soon made Charley director-general of the entire studio, where he oversaw all comedy production (except the Harold Lloyd films). As supervisor one of his most important assignments was the creation of Our Gang, Roach had the idea and Charley put together a top-notch unit to develop the series. The peak of the Pollard comedies was during Parrott’s tenure, as when Charley stepped down for other duties the series straggled on with other directors such as George Jeske and Ward Hayes but petered out by 1926.

The Picture Idol (5/31/1912) Vitagraph. Dir: James Young. 1 reel. Cast: Clara Kimball Young, Maurice Costello, Charles Eldridge, James Morrison, Mary Maurice, George Cooper, Dorothy Kelly, Tom Powers.

When one thinks of comedies from the Vitagraph Studio the names John Bunny, Flora Finch, Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, and Larry Semon come to mind, but there were others such as the “Jarr Family Comedies,” Josie Sadler, Frank Daniels, and the husband and wife team of James Young and Clara Kimball Young who made major contributions to the excellence of the studio’s output (also see GOODNESS GRACIOUS).

Another who starred in many comedies was Maurice Costello, Vitagraph’s leading man par excellence. Although really a matinee idol, Costello still managed to use his warm presence in a number of light comedies like THE PICTURE IDOL for the “Big V.”
Costello began acting in vaudeville in 1894, and was soon roaming the country in all kinds of stock companies. Popular in shows such as THE KENTUCY FEUD and SCOTLAND YARD, he joined Edison in 1906 but switched over to Vitagraph the next year to become one of their biggest stars. Two of his best known films were A TALE OF TWO CITIES (‘11) and THE FIRST VIOLIN (‘12), and although he excelled as a romantic leading man his comedies included AN INNOCENT BURGLAR (‘11), IT ALL CAME OUT IN THE WASH (‘12) and DELAYED PROPOSALS (‘13). He also directed many shorts, usually starring himself. His wife Mae and their daughters Dolores and Helene appeared in numerous films, with the girls continuing as adults. Dolores became quite popular in the late 1920s and married John Barrymore. Her son John Barrymore Jr. was the father of Drew Barrymore, making Maurice Costello the great-grandfather of the current star.

Like many of the first movie stars, Costello’s popularity began waning by 1915, and never having saved his money he had to take whatever films he could get. By the 1920s he was a supporting player, and eventually ended up as an unbilled extra in the 1930s. The mantle of “has-been” settled on him early, so this, and the fact that he was estranged from his daughters for many years, made him a frequent subject for the press. Plagued by ill health he went to live at the Motion Picture Country Home in 1946, and died there in 1950 at the age of seventy-three.

Playing Clara Kimball Young’s long-suffering parents are the first-class supporting players Mary Maurice and Charles Eldridge who graced a majority of the Vitagraph product. Ms. Maurice came to the studio at age sixty-five after a stage career that encompassed Shakespeare, THE ARKNSAS TRAVELER, RIP VAN WINKLE, and taking time off to have a family. Joining the company in 1909 she played everyone’s mother or grandmother, and became known as “Mother Maurice” or just plain “Mother” among the company. Whether it was in dramas such as THE BATTLE CRY OF PEACE (‘15) or comedies like Sidney Drew’s IS CHRISTMAS A BORE? (‘15), Ms. Maurice worked non-stop for Vitagraph right up to her death in 1918.

Charles Eldridge also came from a long stage career during which he’d performed blackface song and dance, plus appeared as part of various comedy teams to work his way up to act under Charles Frohman, Augustin Daly, and A.A. Woods. Starting in 1910 Eldridge supported all the studio’s stars in a warm and low-keyed manner, and outside of a brief stint with Imp in 1914 he stayed with the “Big V” until 1916 when he moved out into supporting roles in features for Metro, Famous Players-Lasky, Maurice Tourneur Prods., and Goldwyn such as SUNSHINE NAN (‘18) and MADE IN HEAVEN (‘21) until his death in 1922.

Buster’s Frame Up (6/6/1927) Century. Dist: Universal. Dir: Gus Meins. 2 reels. Cast: Arthur Trimble, Doreen Turner, Pete the pup.

R.F. Outcault’s famous comic strip character Buster Brown had first been brought to the screen by the Edison Company in 1903 and then revived in 1914. Century Comedies launched their version in 1925 with Arthur Trimble as Buster, Doreen Turner as Mary Jane, and Pete the pup as Tige. Distributed by Universal the series was a hit and brought Pete to the attention of movie goers. Nine year-old Arthur Trimble had been starring in independent shorts since the early 1920s and joined Century around 1924. More than slightly effeminate, the prescribed Buster Brown outfit and Dutch – boy haircut cut contributes to Trimble’s troubling androgyny. Little is known about his life after the series except that he shot his wife and then himself at age thirty-one in 1948. Doreen Turner had appeared in features and had been a regular in the 1921-1922 Campbell Comedies, a series produced and directed by William S. Campbell about kids and their animal friends. She stayed with the series before leaving it and films in early 1929.
The real star of the show was Pete, who already had the famous ring around his eye, and garnered most of the laughs and attention from reviewers. He was owned by a French-born former actor/wrestler named Harry Lucenay and his father was Pal, another of Lucenay’s dogs. Pal was a star of his own series of Century Comedies in 1923 and 1924 and also worked with the likes of Buster Keaton, Monty Banks, Big Boy, and other popular comics. Lucenay started Pete in films when he was six months old and along the way he appeared with Stan Laurel, Al St John, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, and A Ton of Fun. By the time he joined Our Gang in 1927 he was a seasoned pro. Director Gus Meins, who piloted about half of the shorts, started his career as a gagman at Fox in 1919, and soon moved over to assistant directing for Mack Sennett. He eventually found a home with Stern Brothers/Universal, handling a large chunk of their Buster Brown, The Newlyweds and their Baby, Keeping Up with the Jones, Let George Do It, and Mike & Ike franchises. In the sound era he ended up with Hal Roach for many Our Gang, Charley Chase, and Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly shorts. After directing some “B” features such as SCATTERBRAIN (‘40) he committed suicide while awaiting trial on morals charges against six young boys.

The early years of the series are best. Changes that occurred after 1927 – the replacement of Pete by a dog with a scarily made-up face, and the taking over of direction by the untalented Francis Corby and Sam Newfield – brought the comedies down to a pretty dire standard. Even the addition of funny little Hannah Washington as Buster’s friend Oatmeal wasn’t much help. The series limped along before finally expiring in 1929.

The Studio Rube (1922) Prod: Fox. Dir: Gilbert Pratt. 2 reels. Cast: Al St John, Billy Engle, Marvin Loback.

Chiefly remembered today as the country hick nemesis to his uncle Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Al St John went out on his own in 1919 and had a long-running solo career. In 1921 he began this starring series for Fox, and what’s striking is how spare and subtle his performing style became with a new comic seriousness that’s very “Keatonesque.” Out of the 29 shorts he made for Fox only four are known to exist today – THE STUDIO RUBE, SPECIAL DELIVERY, ALL WET, and OUT OF PLACE (all ‘22) – but they are some of his best surviving films. From here he moved to comedies for Reelcomedies, Inc. and Jack White to finish out the 1920s, and in the sound era he switched to low-budget westerns, developing a new screen persona. With a beard, and without his teeth, Al became “Fuzzy Q. Jones,” sidekick to cowboys Buster Crabbe, Don “Red” Barry, and Lash Larue, providing much needed comic relief with his old routines and falls. Retiring in 1952, Al passed away in 1963.
In this short Al gets support from two of the most ubiquitous faces in silent comedy. Little Billy Engle was a native of Austria and a graduate of burlesque who began his film career in 1919. Small, with a bald-pate comb-over and usually a moustache, Engle appeared non-stop in shorts for Fox, Universal, and Roach, but spent a major part of the 1920s working for Al Christie. His sound career consisted of uncredited bits into the 1950s. Marvin Loback was an adept comic foil who found a ready place in comedies due to the fact that his extreme weight made him a walking sight-gag. He first began turning up around 1917 in L-KO, Sennett Triangle, and Harold Lloyd comedies. A good part in Universal’s special THE GEEZER OF BERLIN (‘18) gave him some visibility, leading him to become part of the regular stock company on both the Sennett and Roach lots. In the mid-1920s he was unofficially teamed with Ralph Graves for a number of shorts at Sennett, and later for Weiss Brothers Artclass he was hooked up with Snub Pollard for a series that cashed in on the thick and thin popularity of Laurel & Hardy. He spent the rest of career doing bits in shorts and features until his death in 1938.

THE STUDIO RUBE’s director is the neglected Gilbert Pratt, a solid utility man who never settled in one place but instead worked everywhere. Al St John, Lloyd Hamilton, Harold Lloyd, Montgomery & Rock, and A Ton of Fun are just a few of the stars whose comic misadventures he piloted. Originally a bank teller and auto salesman, amateur theatricals led Pratt to the movies where he started at Kalem as an actor. He was soon playing heavies and assistant directing on Harold Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke shorts, and when the comedian switched to his new “glasses character” Pratt became a full-time director. By 1920 he was turning up all over – Federated, Fox, Jack White, Christie – and would continue for the rest of the decade. He also worked on scripts for features such as CLANCY’S KOSHER WEDDING and TWO FLAMING YOUTHS (both ‘27), and in sound it was as a writer that he did most of his work. His later credits include being a gagman on Laurel & Hardy’s SAPS AT SEA (‘40) and contributing to some mid-1940s Columbia shorts. He died in L.A. in 1954.

Goodness Gracious, or Movies as they Shouldn’t Be (4/24/1914) Vitagraph. Dir: James Young.  3 reels. Cast: Sidney Drew, Clara Kimball Young, James Lackeye, Ned Finley, James Young.

Here’s another comedy from the team of James Young and Clara Kimball Young (also see THE PICTURE IDOL), and this one is far ahead of its time in its skewering and spoofing movie clichés. Clara Kimball Young is a name that pops up often in literature about American silent cinema, but her films are rarely shown and her work has been overlooked. Her brief heyday as an actress and a producer came in the mid-teens, but was cut short by bad decisions and relationships. Born in the proverbial trunk she began performing at age two, and was the daughter of touring actors Edward M. Kimball and Pauline Kimball, both of whom followed Clara into pictures for Vitagraph, Solax, and World. As a young actress she met and married the popular James Young and the pair joined Vitagraph in 1909. Under his direction she became a star at the studio, mostly in charming comedies in which she seems to have been the successor to Florence Turner in her skill and appeal. Clara appears to have been more interested in being a great dramatic star, and focused on melodramatic features after leaving Vitagraph.

She also acted the role of diva in real life as she became involved with her producer Lewis Selznick and later producer-director Harry Garson. Estranged from James Young, their relationship problems hit the newspapers when Young sued Selznick for alienating his wife’s affections, and even more so when Young attacked Harry Garson with a knife in 1917. There were also legal lawsuits with Selznick, with he and Clara suing and counter-suing each other. Clara eventually married Garson, and her last big success was EYES OF YOUTH (‘19). After this Garson insisted on directing her films, and bad pictures as well as unwise management derailed her career. Her last starring role was in 1925, after which she hit the end of vaudeville in an act that traded on her former movie fame. She returned to Hollywood in 1931 for small parts in low-budget and independent features, in addition to the Three Stooges’ short ANTS IN THE PANTRY (‘36) where she’s a society matron who hires the trio to take care of the ants in her mansion. She retired in 1941, but when silent films began to be shown on television in the 1950s her name became known again and she made various personal appearances, but in poor heath she moved to the Motion Picture Country Home and died in 1960.

The other star of GOODNESS GRACIOUS is Sidney Drew, a fairly recent recruit to the Vitagraph family. Drew was a light comedian from the stage, and was a member of the famous Drew and Barrymore theatrical clans. After many years in the theatre he entered films at Kalem in 1911 with his first wife Gladys Rankin. Mrs. Drew died soon after the pair joined Vitagraph in 1913 so Sidney was part of the regular acting ensemble but soon started appearing in marital comedies such as JERRY’S MOTHER-IN-LAW (‘13) and PICKLES, ART, AND SAUERKRAUT (‘14),
where his spouses were played by Clara Kimball Young and Louise Beaudet. When Sidney married Lucille McVey, a young actress and writer in the company who worked under the name Jane Morrow, they became a team and found fame with the 1914 launching of their series that chronicled the misadventures of an average married couple. Mrs. Drew contributed most of the scripts, together they directed, while Mr. Drew’s performances put them over on the screen. Hugely successful, they moved on to Metro and Paramount, but after the death of his son in World War I, Sidney Drew died at the peak of his fame on April 9, 1919.

James Young was Clara’s husband during their days at Vitagraph, and is an almost completely forgotten director today. Born in Baltimore in 1878, he had an extensive and successful stage career, during which he worked with the likes of Sir Henry Irving, Augustin Daly, and Minnie Maddern Fiske. In addition to numerous Shakespeare productions he was very popular as the lead in plays written by his first wife Riba Johnson Young such as BROWN OF HARVARD. At the same time he appeared in “high class vaudeville” performing  famous Shakespearian characters such as Hamlet, Shylock, and Marc Anthony, as well as presented lectures on the Bard’s plays. Young and Clara joined Vitagraph’s stable of actors in 1909, and he began directing in 1912. Handling everything from melodramas and Shakespearian adaptations to historical dramas, his best surviving work are comedies such as GOODNESS GRACIOUS, and CUTEY AND THE CHORUS GIRLS, JERRY’S MOTHER-IN-LAW, and DELAYED PROPOSALS (all ‘13).

In addition to writing many of his films, he and Clara moved to features for the “Big V’ in 1914, but soon jumped across the river to Fort Lee, New Jersey to work for the World Film Co. The couple became estranged when Clara became involved with producer Louis Selznick and later producer-director Harry Garson. Despite all the personal problems Young kept working and continued into the 1920s with good pictures  such as WANDERING DAUGHTERS (‘23) and THE BELLS (‘26). He had even directed a substantial part of Mabel Normand’s hit MICKEY (‘18) although he didn’t finish the film and the credit went to F. Richard Jones. He directed his last film in 1928, but not due to a lack of trying. His papers at the New York Public Library are filled with numerous inquiries about directing positions, even to a company making educational shorts for children. Sadly there were no takers, and he returned to Broadway as an actor in the 1930s, and continued his Shakespeare lectures until his death in 1948.

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