"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 3 – "Food Fights: Chaos á la Carte"

Program 3:
"Food Fights: Chaos á la Carte"

Fri. Sept. 13, 7:00pm
piano accompaniment by Ben Model
film notes by Steve Massa; ©2013 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved.

Hash and Havoc (12/4/1916) Vitagraph. Dir: Lawrence Semon. Writ: Semon & Graham Baker. 1 reel. Cast: Hughie Mack, Patsy De Forest, James Aubrey, Eddie Dunn, Frank Brule, Billy Bletcher.
In the early teens the Vitagraph Studio was the bastion of sophisticated and polite situational comedies, but by 1916 the style had undergone a radical sea change. John Bunny had died, and others stars such as Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, Flora Finch, Wally Van, and Lillian Walker had moved on to other studios. A newspaper cartoonist named Lawrence Semon was hired to write and direct the comedies, and brought with him an antic and rag-tag style of slapstick.

HASH AND HAVOC shows Larry very much in charge as director at this early stage, but in his first movie days he had a great teammate in Graham Baker, who wrote most of Semon’s comedies until 1918. Having started as a writer at Vitagraph in 1915, Baker first worked with Larry on these Hughie Mack comedies such as TUBBY TURNS THE TABLES and A VILLAINOUS VILLAIN (both ‘16). He also wrote for Frank Daniels “Captian Jinks” shorts, and directed a bit more sophisticated comedies like HIS WIFE’S HERO (‘17) and THEIR GODSON (‘18). The 1920s saw him writing all types of features, even hooking up with Larry again on THE GIRL IN THE LIMOUSINE (‘24), THE DOME DOCTOR (‘25) and DUMMIES (‘28), and some of his best-known sound films are THE SINGING FOOL (‘28), YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (‘37), STAND-IN (‘37) and SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (‘40). He worked up to his death in 1950.

Besides Patsy De Forest (see THERE AND BACK) and Jimmy Aubrey, Hughie has future Hal Roach wise-guy Eddie Dunn and little Billy Bletcher as support. In 1915 Eddie Dunn started turning up in small bits in the films of John Bunny and Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew. Although it’s unverified he appears to be the older brother of Vitagraph leading man William Dunn, who preceded him at the company by four years, and also a Stanley Dunn who played small parts. When Larry Semon took the helm of the Hughie Mack comedies Eddie got bigger supporting roles and stayed with the “Big V” through 1917. After that he worked in a few of the 1919 and 1920 features produced by former Vitagraph head J. Stuart Blackton, and then resurfaces in the mid-1920s in the New York-made Whirlwind Comedies of Charley Bowers. Eddie’s on hand in FATAL FOOTSTEPS (‘26), MANY A SLIP (‘27) and NOTHING DOING (‘27), and then relocated with Bowers in Hollywood for SAY AHH (‘28), and WHOOZIT (‘28).

In 1929 Dunn began the best known phase of his career – as a supporting player and gagman at the Hal Roach Studio. He even gets director credit on a few of Charley Chase’s mid-1930s comedies.  Always loud and not-so-bright, Dunn often functioned as the comic heavy and excelled as exasperated cab drivers, sarcastic cops, or combative doormen in countless shorts and features up to his death in 1951. Two of his memorable later appearances are as one of the “Keystone Kop” Nazi storm troopers in Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (‘40), and as a harassed chauffer who gets unwanted advice from W.C. Fields in THE BANK DICK (‘40). Billy Bletcher was another ubiquitous comedy face who began his career in the teens at Vim and Vitagraph. In 1919 and 1920 under the name Billy Fletcher he headlined in a series of Spotlight Comedies with Violet Joy, and did some Universal Star Comedies, but soon returned to Bletcher and worked prolifically in Christie Comedies and as support in all kinds of films, was an in demand voice performer for Disney and others, plus made television appearances into the 1970s.

Jus Passin Through (10/14/1923) Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir: Charles Parrott. 2 reels. Cast: Will Rogers, Marie Mosquini, Noah Young, Earl Mohan, Vera White, Emma Tansey, Wallace Howe, Leo Willis, Jackie Condon, James Finlayson, Jack Ackroyd, Lyle Tayo, Billy Engle, Charley Young.

Will Rogers was born Nov. 4, 1879 on a ranch near Oologah, I.T (Indian Territory), now Oklahoma. Thank to a persistent father Will managed to get an education, but his obsession was roping, and he spent countless hours practicing throws and tricks. After a few years of working as a cowboy he began performing his rope tricks in Wild West Shows, which were a cowboy version of vaudeville that featured re-enactments of famous battles, with trick-shots, riders, and ropers as the headliners. Billed as “The Cherokee Kid” he toured South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Madison Square Garden with different shows, sometime along with future movie cowboy Tom Mix. When he made the leap to vaudeville in 1905 Will’s act was silent, but he began verbally introducing each trick. His dry delivery and wry outlook on things made audiences laugh, which upset him initially, but other performers convinced Will that the audiences were laughing with him and he soon developed jokes and routines – mostly comments on items that he read in newspapers. In 1915 he hit the big time when he was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld whom he would work for until 1925, with several breaks for motion pictures in California. 
He began features for Samuel Goldwyn in 1918. Surviving examples are light-comedy dramas that present Rogers as a shy and straight-forward salt of the earth, with his jokes and observations used as titles. The pictures were popular but the Goldwyn Company went belly-up in 1922 and Will decided to produce his own films. THE ROPIN’ FOOL (‘22) and another couple of shorts were made but the venture collapsed and Rogers’ savings went with it. To recoup he went back to the Follies, appeared in a couple of features, and in 1923 signed with producer Hal Roach for a series of fourteen two-reelers that took pot-shots at politics, western life, and other movies. After this, Will appeared in two more silent features, TIP TOES and A TEXAS STEER (both ‘27), and became the “Unofficial Ambassador of the United States” for a series of Travelogues which had the Rogers family visiting European capitals with Will’s pithy comments related via titles. When sound arrived, his first talkie, THEY HAD TO SEE PARIS (‘29), was a huge hit. Now Will could give his wisecracks to movie audiences himself, often delivering them directly to the camera, which created an intimacy and familiarity which he hadn’t been able to achieve in silent films. Through his movies, newspaper columns, and radio appearances he became one of the most beloved personalities in America until his untimely death in a plane crash on August 15, 1935.

During his stay at the Hal Roach Studio Rogers had support from a crack team behind and in front of the camera. JUS’ PASSIN THROUGH’s direction was by Charles Parrott, the Renaissance man of silent comedy, better known today as Charley Chase (see THE DUMB-BELL notes). Two of the character players deserve special nods. The deputy sheriff is played by Earl Mohan, a longtime member of the Roach company, who started in the late teens with Harold Lloyd in the Lonesome Luke and early “glasses character” comedies, and continued with Charley Chase, Stan Laurel, and others. In 1924 Roach teamed him with little Billy Engle, called them “Hunky Dorrey,” and made a series of one-reelers such as FAST BLACK (‘24), ALL WOOL (‘25) and RIDERS OF THE KITCHEN RANGE (‘25). Unfortunately there was little interest, and after the series was cancelled Earl turned up less frequently at Roach but increased his appearances elsewhere – shorts for Educational and Fox, plus features like Lloyd’s FOR HEAVEN’ SAKE and THE GENERAL (both ‘26). Mohan died young at 39 in 1928. Roach’s perennial hardboiled mug Leo Willis began his career in 1914 in Thomas Ince productions, so he can be spotted in William S. Hart westerns such as THE BARGAIN (‘14) and HELL’S HINGES (‘16). He worked on many of Hart’s later films, as well as all kinds of features for Triangle, Universal, and Metro. Turning up at Roach in 1924 he spent the next twelve years making life difficult for every comic on the lot, while continuing his work in features like THE KID BROTHER (‘27), ROMAN SCANDALS (‘33), and ROOM SERVICE (‘38) until 1938.

King of the Kitchen (10/30/1918) L-Ko. Dist: Universal. Dir: Frank Griffin. 2 reels. Cast: Harry Gribbon, Eva Novak. Rosa Gore, Mae Emory, Oliver Hardy, Billy Armstrong, Merta Sterling.

L-Ko Komedies was the brainchild of Henry “Pathe” Lehrman (Lehrman Knock-Out Komedies) who formed the company under the auspices of Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle. Lehrman’s first move in 1914 was to do a talent raid of his former home, the Keystone Studio, and although unsuccessful luring away Mabel Normand he did nab Hank Mann, Alice Howell, Rube Miller, Peggy Pearce, and others. After two years Lehrman left – either of his own accord or was ousted – and L-KO was taken over by Carl Laemmle’s brothers-in-law Julius and Abe Stern. Their pilfering of Sennett personnel continued, and one of the most popular to come over was Harry Gribbon.
Nicknamed “Silk Hat Harry,” Gribbon had a long stage career which started at age sixteen and went through vaudeville, legitimate shows like FLO FLO, and the 1913 Ziegfeld Follies, in addition to working for the Shuberts and George M. Cohan. Hired by Mack Sennett in 1915 from the Gayety Company at the Morosco Theatre, Gribbon sooned moved all over the silent comedy map, going from Keystone to L-KO, back to Sennett, then back to L-KO, and on to shorts for Fox, Al Christie, and Universal – all by 1921. In the 1920s he spent more time in vaudeville before coming back to films as support in features such as THE CAMERMAN and SHOW PEOPLE (both’28). Early sound was good for Harry as he headlined in Sennett talkies from 1929 to 1932, and from there continued working in features and New York-made shorts for Vitaphone and Educational. He later returned to Broadway in shows like MR. BIG (‘41) and the mega-hit ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (‘43) in which he replaced John Alexander as Teddy Brewster. Sadly drinking ruined his career and health, and he died in the Motion Picture Home and County Hospital in 1961.

In KING OF THE KITCHEN Gribbon has support from the well-known Oliver Hardy and a number of other comedy professionals, including his real-life wife May Emory, who was frequently his partner on stage as well as film. Statuesque and a bit zaftig, Ms Emory was often ogled by the likes of Ford Sterling in shorts such as THAT LITTLE BAND OF GOLD (‘15) or played the alluring “other woman” as she does in TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE (‘17). She joined her husband at L-KO, but returned to Sennett and soon retired to run a beauty parlor. She passed away in New York thirteen years before Harry in 1948. Leading lady Eva Novak began as an ingénue at L-KO in 1917 and worked there until she broke into features in 1919. Her comedies included UP IN MARY’S ATTIC (‘20) with Harry Gribbon, and Leo McCarey’s first unsuccessful directorial effort SOCIETY SECRETS (‘21). She soon became in demand opposite male stars such as William S. Hart, Jack Holt, and most frequently Tom Mix. She retired in 1930, and worked only occasionally until 1945, when she began doing numerous unbilled bit roles in films and TV shows until 1966.

Also on hand are character comics Rosa Gore and Billy Armstrong. The tall and skinny Rosa Gore had been a vaudeville favorite in an act called WHAT ARE THE WILD WINDS SAYING? with her husband Dan Crimmins. The pair entered films in 1914, working for Pathe, Reliance, and as regulars in THE MISHAPS OF MUSTY SUFFER series. Their careers, during which they worked with practically everyone in silent comedy, lasted until the mid-1930s, and Ms. Gore passed away in 1941. Billy Armstrong was an English music hall veteran, and was a principal comedian with Fred Karno when he was recruited by Charlie Chaplin for his Essanay films. Not following Chaplin to Mutual, Armstrong worked for David Horsley, Keystone Triangle, L-Ko, Roach, Century, Speed Comedies, and Sennett. Occasionally he would star, but was usually in support, often in more than one role. In his last appearances, such as THE EXTRA GIRL (‘23) and SMILE PLEASE (‘24), he looks terrible – years older than his actual age – probably due to the tuberculosis that killed him in 1924.

Fish (11/20/1916) Biograph. Dir, Writ & Cast: Bert Williams. 1 reel.

Bert Williams was the first black media superstar, a pioneer who broke the color barrier by becoming a regular comic in the all-white Ziegfeld Follies, sharing the stage with W.C. Fields, Leon Errol, Eddie Cantor, and Will Rogers. He first made his name teamed with George Walker, and Williams & Walker starred in all black shows such as DAHOMEY (‘02) and ABYSSERIA (‘06). Having to go solo after Walker’s early death he hit the Follies in 1910, and at the same had a huge success with his song recordings.

In 1916 the Biograph Company signed him for films, and released two shorts, FISH and A NATURAL BORN GAMBLER. Both are invaluable records of a great clown, and incorporate many elements and ideas from his songs and sketches. Biograph also had begun shooting a feature starring Williams, but when the studio folded the shorts had been released but the feature was unfinished. The rushes have been preserved by MoMA and are a fascinating look at Williams and his working methods. This elaborate production would have been the first full-length film to star a black performer, in addition to presenting him as the romantic hero of the film.

After leaving the Follies, Williams appeared in 1920 with Eddie Cantor in BROADWAY BREVITIES, and undertook a 1921 – 22 tour of the show UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE. Although other film projects were announced for him none came to fruition. While touring in UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE he died of pneumonia on March 4, 1922.

Feed ‘Em and Weep (12/8/1928) Hal Roach. Dist: MGM. Dir:   2 reels. Cast: Anita Garvin, Marion Byron, Max Davidson, Silas Wilcox, Frank Alexander, Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Hall, Charley Young.

In 1928 the Hal Roach studio was enjoying a huge success with the teaming of Laurel & Hardy. Hoping that lightning might strike twice, Anita Garvin and Marion Byron were put together as a female equivalent. Where Stan and Ollie had the “fat and skinny” physical contrast going, the girls had “tall and small.” Garvin, with her worldy-wise manner and proven slow-burn was a shoo-in for the “Hardy” role, and sweet, innocent, and slightly ditzy Marion was given the “Laurel” part. 

Anita Garvin was born in New York City in 1907, and at the tender age of twelve became a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, appearing in the Sennett stage show SEEING BROOKLYN and at publicity and promotional events. From there she became a showgirl for the legendary Flo Ziegfeld in his Follies and other shows, and when the tour of SALLY hit Los Angeles in 1924 Anita quit for the movies; “The very first thing I did was a picture with Bobby Vernon. I was supposed to be dancer on the floor, and Vernon flipped a piece of butter on the floor and I took a pratfall.” This was in the Christie Comedy BRIGHT LIGHTS (‘24), which exists in MoMA’s collection, and in addition to her exactly described big scene there’s footage of her fixing a couple of her soon-to-be-famous murderous glares on Bobby. Young and ambitious Anita soon moved to other comedy units such as Century, Jack White, Fox, and, very importantly, the Standard Cinema Corporation, where she first met and worked for Stan Laurel. Impressed with her comedic skills, Laurel brought her over to the Roach lot for RAGGEDY ROSE (‘26), and it was in the creative and family atmosphere at Roach that her talents and screen persona bloomed, leading to the performances for which she’s remembered today.

Marion Byron was born La Mae Bilenkin in 1911. The youngest of five sisters born to Russian immigrants, one of Marion’s older sisters became a vaudeville performer under the name Betty Byron so Marion adopted Byron as a last name too. Like Garvin, Marion started her career on stage as a chorus girl, and on the west coast had roles in TIP-TOES, THE CRADLE SNATCHER, and THE MUSIC BOX REVUE. She entered films in 1926 and gained a great deal of attention as Buster Keaton’s leading lady in STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (‘28). Later that year Hal Roach signed Marion and put her to work in his “All Star” Comedies. Nicknamed “Peanut” because of her tiny and petite size (4’11’’, 88 lbs), she was extremely cute and sexy but still had a little girl quality with her big eyes and flat chest.

The girls made three films together, with the first two very strongly based on the Laurel & Hardy blueprint. Number one FEED ‘EM AND WEEP presents them as waitresses hired for a big rush at Max Davidson’s train depot diner. Echoes of FROM SOUP TO NUTS (‘28) abound, including a note from their employment agency describing them as “the best we could do under the circumstances,” frequent falls with trayfuls of food, and Marion serving in her long underwear. The third short A PAIR OF TIGHTS (‘29) took the girls in a different direction that moved away from the L&H hand-me-downs and focused on the type of troubles that single girls have on dates – much more organic and grounded in reality than their previous outings. Sadly they never got to develop the single girls theme any further as Marion Byron left the Roach lot and they went their separate ways.

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