Archive for Clyde Bruckman

The Three Stooges of Grief

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2019 by dcairns

Okay. After further Stooge-viewing, I can offer more “insights.”

(One) Watching with company helps. For me, there’s still a point of depression that kicks in after two shorts, but you obviously get bigger laughs with a friend present, and I can imagine a big cinema audience would amplify things further.

Old womanhaters.

(Two) Some of the shorts have more to offer than others. It might be the presence of a guest star — expected, like Billy Gilbert, or unexpected, like Lucille Ball. Or it might be an actual plot, as in PUNCH DRUNKS, where we get to see the Stooges meet up as if for the first time — Moe is a fight manager, Curly a waiter, Larry a violinist, and Curley becomes an unbeatable berserker whenever he hears “Pop Goes the Weasel” played. Or it might be all that plus the whole thing being a kind of grotesque operetta, as in WOMAN HATERS, an ode to/spoof of misogyny, performed in song and recitative.

Curky does his celebrated Jean Cocteau routine.

(Three) Curly is the most appealing actor. Moe is a horrible character, played with some skill admittedly (and as a unit, the Stooges are exemplary in what they do, if you can admit the need for anybody to do it at all). Whenever Moe gets a closeup, any laughter you might be working on dies before reaching the throat. And then you have a dead laugh lying on your stomach. Larry, apart from his fiddling, seems less of a character all round, and doesn’t really suggest the required dumbness. When you look at Moe and Larry together they seem like they ought to be starring in a film which would be called BILL AND TED GET ACROMEGALY. But Curly has all these weird mannerisms and non-sequiturs, which have nothing to do with real human behaviour — the strange butterfly movements, the dances, the abstract vocalisations, the nonsense utterances — “victim of circumstance” — “that’s a coincidence.” And he’s the most creative, adding flinches everywhere, as if constantly fearing the violence he is, in fact, going to receive.

Look at this image. Now try to think of something amusing.

(Four) I do have a fascination with unfunny clowns, or clowns who are only intermittently funny (Jerry Lewis is the King of Intermittence, but he can get me HYSTERICAL). I’ve watched less than ten Stooges shorts, and two of them begin with the Stooges begging on the streets. Not busking, like L&H, but merely BEGGING. And I think you’d find it hard to argue with the contention that we’re basically being asked to laugh at beggars. The way to enjoy this is to turn the laugh on the filmmakers, and laugh any time there’s a good joke but also laugh at the twisted nature of the endeavor, the tasteless, clueless approach to popular entertainment. There’s a contention that comedy is valuable when it punches UP and disagreeable when it punches DOWN. The Stooges shorts certainly contain a lot of punch-ups. But whereas Laurel & Hardy films have this strange duality (at least when Stan was in charge), where the boys are both the butt of the joke and the sole focus of our sympathy, in the Stooges films we are meant to laugh at the respectable citizens who get hurt and also at the idiots responsible, and we have no sympathy for anyone. I’m reminded of Fassbinder. Yes, I am: “I look to the left, and I look to the right, and I FIRE IN ALL DIRECTIONS.

Censored sequence from FIEND WITHOUT A FACE.

(Five) In POP GOES THE EASEL, a deaf dowager type is introduced. We wait for some kind of comedy based on her mishearing, or forcing people to repeat themselves, but no. She’s merely PELTED WITH CLAY. Her deafness is introduced (by writer Felix Adler, who also worked for Lloyd and Stan & Ollie) merely because it was assumed that smacking a disabled person with clay would be even funnier than doing it to a not-yet-disabled person.

(Six) In MEN IN BLACK (!), directed by Leo McCarey’s tragic brother Ray, the boys are turned loose in a hospital. They knock their boss unconscious with a hammer, transport him to the Operating Room, open him up with a road drill and then leave all their instruments inside him. Ha. Ha. Ha. J.J. Hunsecker’s line about “cheap, gruesome gags,” seems an apt one here.

(Seven) It would be wrong to traduce all Stooges fans. But anyone who likes the Stooges above and beyond other vaudeville-type comics, I would view with suspicion. Sam Raimi, Mel Gibson and the Farrelly Brothers are the main Stoogites I can think of, and I feel their preference tells us a lot about them. I simply won’t watch Farrelly films, they make me laugh a fair bit but there’s always something that depresses me for days. And they are not well-made films. Mel Gibson, enough said. I’m told he includes an hommage (“Spread out!”) in APOCALYPTO. Think of it. His films really are all set in a nightmare world of continuous mayhem, just like the Stooges. Raimi at least incorporates his stoogisms into a burlesque vision of grueling horror, which seems like the right place for them.

Is it a mistake that Moe is labeled with the chemical formula, not of water, but of hydrogen peroxide? Was that a well-known formula the audience would laugh at?

(Eight) Behind-the-scenes-of-chaos personages in the early shorts include Clyde Bruckman, ace gagman and Keaton’s co-director on THE GENERAL, who later shot himself with Keaton’s gun. See HORSES’ COLLARS and learn why. Then there’s the truly magnificent anti-talent of Jules White, co-auteur of the Dogville Shorts, which I kind of adore for their sheer horror. I showed the canine reconstruction of WWI to students and asked, “How did it make you feel?” “Just angry,” came the reply. White also presided over the destruction of Buster Keaton at MGM. Lou Breslow, misguided genius behind reincarnated dog detective movie YOU NEVER CAN TELL, is also in the mix. But it never seems to make much difference who is involved. If you’re in hell, which particular imp is stirring your pot may not matter too much.

Silent Comedian, Talking Picture

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2015 by dcairns

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So: Chaplin resisted talking, and even as late as THE GREAT DICTATOR (1939) was carving out sections of his films which could work as pantomime. (But people don’t acknowledge the extent to which Chaplin embraced and experimented with sound — just not dialogue). Keaton lost control of his career when sound came in, due to the tyranny of the screenplay, Louis B. Mayer, and the bottle. Harold Lloyd was the happiest case, remaining fairly productive until 1937, making some good talkies, maintaining the visual gags he was known for an augmenting them with verbals. The only thing lost is the ability to undercrank, which robs the action of that lighter-than-air, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet quality it can have in silents.

I really like Leo McCarey’s THE MILKY WAY, especially the scene where Harold has to transport a small horse (as I recall) in a taxi cab without the cabbie realising. Harold alibis the occasional whinnying sounds by grinning maniacally, doing his best to look like the kind of man who WOULD whinny in the back of a taxi.

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We ran MOVIE CRAZY (1932) after a hot tip that if we enjoyed Constance Cummings in SEVEN SINNERS, which we did, we should see this one. And how!

Half of the plot is a straight reprise of MERTON OF THE MOVIES, filmed by the same studio the same year under the title MAKE ME A STAR. Deja vu must’ve been a common sensation in those days. Both version suffer from the same problem, the hero being a delusional hopeful who wants to be a movie star. Rooting for his aspirations when he clearly has no talent is tough, and in both cases the filmmakers try to enlist our sympathy by pouring troubles on the hero’s head — Harold’s character even acquires the nickname “Trouble.” Harold wasn’t inherently a lachrymose type, and most of his stories are American success stories about conquering adversity — not too much time for pathos. His best protagonists gain sympathy while keeping busy. So that aspect of the film isn’t too great.

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The other half of the film, loosely connected to it, is the romantic triangle between Harold, Constance Cummings, and Constance Cummings. Harold meets CC twice, once in black wig and costume as a vampish senorita, once in civvies. He doesn’t realise it’s the same dame. Confused by a cunningly contrived chain of circumstance, he comes to believe the dusky damsel fancies him, whereas he does actually stand a chance with the blonde version — but keeps ruining his chances by flirting with her alter ego, thinking she’ll never know.

Cummings is just awfully good here. First she has to make us believe she’s taken a shine to Harold’s no-hoper. Suspending our disbelief requires Herculean efforts: in the end, we can say that she plays it magnificently, but the task is not really a possible one. It’s a bit like a CGI special effect, immaculately rendered with photorealist care, but inherently unbelievable, like all those bits in modern action movies where heroes survive colossal death plunges. Nobody could possibly do it better than Cummings, and the commitment is impressive, but it doesn’t quite result in a success. Harold is penniless, accident prone, talentless, and his self-belief comes across not as admirable but as unjustified arrogance tinged with insanity. But everything else Cummings is given to do, she does with equal commitment, and that stuff works great.

Apart from some very nice gags, scattered a little too far apart, the movie also maintains interest with an elaborate, spectacular shooting style. There are graceful, sweeping crane shots, particularly one which explores a movie set representing a ship at sea, where the camera swings from one position to another, guiding us through the geography of the scene about to unfold and building a fine anticipation. Occasionally, the visual ambition gets a bit carried away with itself, as in one of those “Santa POV” shots, filmed from inside the fireplace, but most of the elaborate moves and angles are more tasteful and effective, as well as being striking.

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“Oh no, Dad’s on fire!”

That ship scene leads to an impressive knock-down fight between Harold and his nasty romantic rival. It’s quite funny, visually grand, and mainly it’s a tremendous release of energy as Harold stops being pathetic and takes care of business. I don’t really like the idea that our hero has to beat the living crap out of someone else to prove he’s a man, but if ever a plot needed a violent drubbing to shake it from the doldrums, this one did.

Come for Harold, stay for Constance, and then fall in love with Harold again, eventually.