One of those eternal hypothetical dilemmas — if you could travel back in time to the 1930s, would you kill El Brendel? Think of the torment the world could be spared!
Comedy’s answer to gastric reflux — a tight-lipped, mirthlessly grinning faux-nitwit with a phony Swedish (I think) accent, the artist formerly known as Elmer Brendle dragged his evanescent non-talent across a succession of seventy-four otherwise blameless movies. He was even in silents! A dialect comedian in silents? That’s like a ventriloquist on the radio! Oh, wait.
THE SPIDER, a 1931 theatre-set murder mystery with a magician as sleuth, is static and stiff, but crackles with compositional power thanks to co-director William Cameron Menzies, one of my current obsessions.
The dialect comedian is a nightmare from which America finally awakened. At this historical distance, it’s easy to forget that Chico Marx was not an isolated case, although he was perhaps unique in actually being funny. One could in theory spend a lifetime in Hollywood movies without meeting El Brendel, and not miss much, but Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL is a significant movie, both for it’s early starring role for a gawky John Wayne, and the pioneering use of widescreen. Unfortunately, Walsh’s first ‘scope film (that’s Magniscope, in this case, an early 70mm system) is as static and slow as most of his later ones, made in old age when much of his cinematic vigour had burned out. The great Walsh movies are all square-ish, as far as I can see. It’s weird to see him holding a flat, wide shot, yawning with emptiness, for minutes on end, as El Brendel burbles away and Wayne drawls back, both filmed practically head-to-toe, and just when an edit becomes a matter of essential resuscitation, Walsh finally cuts — to an even wider shot.
Preston Sturges loved to employ comedy old-timers, and in 1949 he brought El back from four years of filmic unemployment, for THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND. I can’t actually recall his turn in the film, but Hugh “Woo Woo” Herbert’s scene is etched on my brain in the spot where I store childhood traumas and intimations of mortality. That said, I quite like the film, and having gotten to know E.B. I’ll be watching out for him next time I run it. And I will be armed.
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