Moral Quandary

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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20 Responses to “Moral Quandary”

  1. As I mentioned, I expect you’ll have a fresh trauma from Herbert when you hear him attempt a Scots accent in the 1930 Friends and Lovers.

    El seems to be a polarizing character, I’ve read some rather fulsome praise of his shtick. So far I’ve avoided it, though I haven’t avoided other non-Chico Marx dialect comedians, most of whom have been pretty embarrassing. They didn’t have the lasting power of El, one of them had the good taste to die after his performance was committed to celluloid.

  2. Maybe they showed him the rushes and he curled up and died of shame.

  3. Elradicating El Brendel has long been a dream of mine. There is no excuse for him.

  4. Heh. El-iminate! El-bliterate! El-nihilate!

  5. John Qualen is the first person who comes to mind when it comes to phony Swedish accents. But I’ve always found him to be a pretty endearing character, he could pull it off and exude a certain charm to boot.

  6. Yes, Qualen’s always welcome in the Shadowplayhouse. We cheer “Miser Stevens!” whenever he appears. That and his Earl Williams assure him of immortality.

  7. Among his primary crimes, El Brendel totally ruined two otherwise charming 30’s movies: Just Imagine and Delicious.

    The truly revolting thing is he worked steadily until 1965.

  8. I am so NOT sending this link to Louie at ;)

    The accent was fake.

    And I liked El in Sunny Side Up so I guess count me in on the side that doesn’t want to el-bliterate him. ;)

    Hugh Herbert though — now there IS cinematic trauma. He makes me want to do what that guy did to his TV set when Bristol Palin didn’t get voted off Dancing with the Stars.

  9. Randy Cook Says:

    Brendel was imposed upon Sturges in BLONDE, if I call correctly. Brendel doesn’t really do much except repeat the name “Hilda Svandumper” incessantly. Sturges betrays his feelings toward the situation when, after Brendel’s been scared off by Grable, Caesar Romero remarks to her that she’d “nearly frightened that comic out of his dialect”.

  10. Heh! That actually sounds worth revisiting. The prospect of seeing him in a film surrounded by firearms is too tantalizing though.

    Just heard that Lou Lumenick likes Sunnyside Up too, so I’ll maybe take a look. Marilyn Ferdinand just told me about, and with Sternbergian perversity I’ve immediately added it to my blogroll.

    Just Imagine has nice tunes and awesome sets, but Buddy DeSylva is probably my least favourite screenwriter (his songs are fine). I also bear him a grudge for driving Preston Sturges away from Paramount.

  11. Christopher Says:

    saay..that little fella talks like a SQUARE HEAD!

  12. David — apart from the El Brendel issue, Sunny Side Up is a delight and I can’t wait for the promised broadcast on TCM. The “Turn Up the Heat” number is jaw-dropping even on youtube; if only you’d seen it on the big screen at the TCM fest. Our eyeballs were melting along with the scenery. Janet Gaynor is utterly fetching and as for my beloved Charles Farrell, well, he was made for silent movies, not talkies (not counting My Little Margie or that highly enjoyable Lux Radio Theater version of Seventh Heaven), but when he has something to do that can be expressed through movement or body language or facial expression, he’s wonderful too. The songs have become standards and David Butler’s opening tracking shot through the tenement is a great opening. This was a big hit at the TCM festival. I happened to share a ride back to the airport with Bret Wood (Kino DVD producer, filmmaker, and more) and I asked him what had been his favorite films at the festival. The first one he named was Sunny Side Up. It absolutely deserves to be out on DVD though at this point the best we can expect, I suppose, is that it may eventually be released if (when?) Fox starts an MOD program (the rumors are that Fox has such a program in the works).

    I suspect that this is one of El’s least annoying performances (at least for those of you who can’t stand him) as he has a real character to play, though his relationship with Gaynor is kind of ambiguous. Does he have a romantic crush on her, or does he just think of her in big brotherrly fashion? I couldn’t make a determination though perhaps I missed something.

  13. So, I should wait for the TCM showing in order to grab a good copy of this one. I checked out some frame grabs and it looks very nice. I’ve been meaning to see those early Borzage talkies with Farrell in them, especially Liliom.

  14. Christopher Says:

    watched Liliom not too long ago..its pretty good..Farrell’s voice isnt as bad as some people make it out to be..Both he and Gaynor had voice problems but boy they did wonders in silence!

  15. Very few actors had “bad voices” it seems to me. It’s just that some of them weren’t trained in delivering dialogue, had never had to learn lines, etc. Farrell seems a little awkward speaking, I seem to recall (only seen clips), whereas he was incredibly natural if he didn’t have to worry about the words.

  16. Christopher Says:

    his voice is fine on My Little fact ,its an asset.

  17. Over 40 Teenage Wereewolf Says:

    As the story goes, some time around 1930, studio head William Fox had to be rushed to the hospital, and a blood transfusion was needed right away, and Fox had a rare blood type. A quick accounting of the personal present on the Fox lot that day found that only Brendel had the same blood type as the studio head. And in return for saving Fox’s life, Brendel was insured steady work for the rest of his life. A legend is born.

  18. It certainly should be true! The alternative explanation would involve Fox waking up with a reindeer’s head at the foot of his bed.

  19. Alas, the version of “Sunny Side Up” that TCM showed recently was not, for some reason, the restored one. (Some say the channel may have had problems securing the version it showed at the festival; it belongs to the Museum of Modern Art, which apparently is extremely protective of such properties where broadcasting is concerned.) The version we saw had such a poor audio track that it made Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell sound as they had been diminished into Munchkins waist-high to Kristin Chenoweth.

  20. Sheesh, TCM is as close to an unalloyed Good Thing as can be expected to exist in a capitalist society, so you’d think MOMA would cut them some slack. I’m sure the broadcaster could repay any favours…

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