Archive for Easy Street

The Sunday Intertitle: Before Comedy was King

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2020 by dcairns

An evening of Laurel without Hardy and Hardy without Laurel sounded uncertain — I was reminded of the cheap tapes and DVDs that would package together whatever low-quality public domain bits they could scrape together and publish, without a shred of honest, as “The Best of Laurel and Hardy.” But, viewing as an amateur historian, and without the residual feeling of having been cheated, this was pretty great.

This is the intertitle, folks.

THE SERENADE (1916) stars Plump & Runt — an early attempt at putting Ollie in a double-act based on physical opposites: this time, a fat guy and a short guy. Well, that doesn’t work. Absorbing the twosome into a larger troupe, as musicians in a slapstick band, also doesn’t help things. When Stan & Ollie appeared as musicians early on, they made sure they were the only funny ones except for irate conductor James Finlayson.

Hmm, Babe made thirty-eight of these suckers, so I guess they thought they’d established things… I have zero recollection of ever reading about this series.

There are one or two ACTUAL SHOTS in this, such as the introduction of Runt (Billy Ruge) from behind his own feet. And some neat trick shots. Lots of stuff of Ollie blasting people out of frame with his mighty tuba, a kind of early sonic weapon. It isn’t any damn good, but it has spurts of invention.

Larry Semon rips off EASY STREET in THE RENT COLLECTOR (1921) with Babe Hardy in the Eric Campbell part, looking like Paul Sorvino in a spray-on beard. Hardy played heavy a lot in his early films, but whereas the examples I’ve seen were notable for how similar to his later performance style Ollie’s characterisations were, in this one it’s more interesting to see how unformed the persona is.

(There’s that wild west one where villainous O.N.H. spots the heroine skinny-dipping, and displays lustful scheming by hitching up his pants with a side-to-side rotation of the waistline, a pure Ollie gesture employed in unexpected and very unfamiliar circs.)

Larry Semon is funny-looking (hire Paul Rubens for the remake), and distinctive, though when he adds a jacket to his derby and baggy dungarees he again seems to be ripping off That Other Clown.

Some inventive special effects, jump cuts and undercranking and even overcranking, so you could fairly say, as the saying goes, it’s both good and original, but the parts that are good etc…

NB: Larry Semon definitely faked his own death. DEFINITELY.

Ollie has a henchman, another fat guy who’s even fatter. Two fat guys NEVER works.

Then we moved on to Stan Laurel in DETAINED — the title is funny, somehow. An escaped convict forces Stan into that stripy prison attire he’d be seen in several times in later years, resulting in his immediate incarceration — in other words, it’s Keaton’s CONVICT 13, and promptly devolves into a series of spot gags featuring Stan’s nascent idiot persona. He grins a lot, especially at us, and is much more, uh, proactive, than his later incarnations. There’s an electric chair scene played in a vaulted dungeon which is probably a recycled set from the Chaney HUNCHBACK — see also Stan’s DR. PYCKLE AND MR. PRYDE.

Some of Stan’s “freak gags” appear — his neck is literally stretched by a noose. Hal Roach might have actually been right about those — they’re always unsettling and rarely funny. Still, the tunneling to freedom stuff does show Stan annoying another, larger convict, and the foreshadowing of THE SECOND 100 YEARS is very clear. Towards the end, he does some running about in a panic, and some weeping, so it feels like he’s getting born.

Argh, take it away!

MOONLIGHT AND NOSES (1925) is a vehicle for Clyde Cook, paired with the reliably gruesome Noah Young, as a couple of burglars. Stan directed this one. and thriftily recycled chunks in future shorts — at first it looks like he’s using the burglars sketch his father wrote, and which he kept trying to turn into a successful short, but then it throws in a mad scientist (James Finlayson in fulsome side-whiskers) and grave-robbing, and a certain ingenue named Fay Wray, and turns into a practice run for HABEAS CORPUS.

Cook plays a hapless idiot, and Young plays a domineering idiot — you see where this is going — it’s like a rehearsal for mature Laurel & Hardy comedy, with a shopsoiled Chuckle Brother and a murderous gargoyle cast as the boys. Absolutely fascinating. Not a laugh in it. But I’m really glad I saw it. It has the quality of a dream, where all your familiar friends have been replaced by unsuitable stand-ins.

The byplay between Cook & Young is actually skilled, and I like comedy of terror a lot, so I had a fairly good time with this. Maybe no laughs but some muted snorts of appreciation.

And then comes WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923), one of Stan’s parody films, which are often outrageously funny (remember Rhubarb Vaselino?). This one, though incomplete, is a joy. The ridiculous gags mainly consist of throwing everything at the situation — whatever’s easiest. This being a Fairbanks Robin Hood parody, we get anachronisms and absurdities from the off. (Well, the actual off is missing, but from the off that’s left.)

Stan enters on horseback, but it’s a puppet horse he’s wearing, with floppy fake human legs draped over the saddle. British comedian Bernie Clifton used to wear an outfit like this, only he rode an ostrich I believe it was. You can ride anything using this technique.

Stan is being chased by an army of knights, all wearing their horses in the same manner. It’s very MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, only he found a more expensive way of doing the coconuts, which wouldn’t have worked in a silent movie, I guess.

Much battling on recycled sets ensues — Mae Laurel is glimpsed, I think — and the gags come (extremely) thick and fast. When an enemy is booted from a window, he lands on some power lines just for added cruelty and anachronism. The incessant piling-on of jokes means that Stan doesn’t get to make that much of an impression as an actor — you could substitute anybody you like, including Bernie Clifton, and it would make not too much difference. But it’s a riotous and unrelenting guffaw-generator, completely stupid and wonderful from (truncated) beginning to end, and fully justified the whole evening’s conceit.

Neil Brand’s piano throughout this programme brought the films to life, not in a ghastly electro-galvanistic way, which nobody would thank him for, but by infusing zest and charm and basic coherence where it needed to be and wasn’t always to be found, and brought into being the final short’s very specific musical requirement: a ragtime version of The Wedding March.

Frame grabs by Mark Fuller, mostly, to whom appreciation is due as always.

The Sunday Intertitle: Jazz Lizard Harold

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 9, 2017 by dcairns

TWO-GUN GUSSIE (1918) is an early, inferior Harold Lloyd short with a western setting — something Harold returned to fairly often. A pointless opening scene establishes Harold playing piano back east — I suspect deleted footage might have made more sense of this. But we do see Harold “shooting” the keys with his index finger (he still had all his fingers at this point), a la Chico Marx. The Marxes were already a big noise in vaudeville, so it’s quite possible this is a direct swipe.

The best jokes in this silent are verbal, from the insane word soup of this intertitle, to the signs behind the bar saying things like “No drink sold stronger than liquid fire” and “If you ask for credit you will get it in the neck.”

But when the hulking bad guy (William Blaisdell) wants to demonstrate his strength, he does so by plucking the legs off a chair. Now, how much strength that takes depends on how securely the legs are attached, so the gesture means nothing, and certainly lacks the hyperbolic terror of Eric Campbell bending a street light just to show Chaplin how strong he is in EASY STREET. Western saloon furniture is notoriously flimsy, but having Blaisdell maybe break the legs in half might have worked better. But he’s just torn Harold’s shooting iron to pieces, so it’s all kind of an anticlimax…

Bebe Daniels (top) also appears, but has little to do (more evidence of missing scenes). Pretty soon, Lloyd’s films would show more structure and better gags, and give Daniels slightly better roles, but they never exploited her comic potential to its full extent. She would have to wait for her own star vehicles…

 

Antipasto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2014 by dcairns

De Sica_TempiNostri_2

Il Cinema Ritrovato presented a season of Italian shorts, culled from the compendium films that were so popular in the fifties and sixties. I kept hearing that Alexander Payne had declared one of these to be the find of the festival, but nobody who told me this could remember which one he was talking about. Could be Scola, Rosi, Rossellini & Greco, or De Filippo. I also heard that Giorgio Simonelli’s episode from 1954’s ACCADE AL COMMISARIATO was a standout, with an endless array of outrageous plot twists, beginning with the best-prepared “pull back to reveal no trousers” gag in Italian history.

I saw a few.

Alessandro Blasetti, recently undergoing a renaissance thanks to Scorsese’s campaigning, inaugurated the whole anthology movement in 1952 with ALTRI TEMPI (OTHER TIMES, screened at Bologna last year), which collected stories from different historical periods. He followed it up with TEMPI NOSTRI (OUR TIMES), an episode of which was introduced by his 90-year-old daughter, who talked up a blue streak and nearly exhausted her poor interpreter. But she provided vital background to this story of an amorous Neapolitan bus driver played by Vittorio De Sica — the piece was originally intended to co-star Gina Lollobrigida, who had successfully paired with VDS in the previous film, but she declined the chance to play a deceived wife, arguing that it was not plausible that any husband would cheat on her. (She has a point, though one could point to the case of Gardner Vs. Rooney as precedent.)

Blasetti recast, but for some reason also rewrote to make the woman not De Sica’s wife, but a foundling raised as is sister, which very nearly wrecks the story. However, thanks to De Sica’s ebullience and charm, and some very funny lines, he gets away with it. British attendees were amused by the set-up of a randy bus driver and a sour, long-faced supervisor who hates him — the exact set-up of 70s sitcom On the Buses, adapted for the cinema for Hammer films and best avoided in both televisual and film form. Blasetti shows what that premise could be like with appealing characters and a sexiness that eschews seaside postcard grotesquerie. And it’s nice to see De Sica in a working-joe role.

amore

STORIA SULLA SABBIA was directed by Riccardo Fellini in 1963. Ahah! I thought, another Idiot Brother to add to my collection. But perhaps not — R. Fellini, who acted in several of his brothers, most notably as one of I VITELLONI, creates a touching, funny mood piece out of a working class wedding on the beach at Rimini. He can’t match his sibling for visual flair, but the less artful style allows a more naturalistic humour to emerge. The film was poorly received and Riccardo turned to documentary in the end — he also fell out decisively with F.F., who demanded that he change his name if he was going to be a director. There could be only one Fellini! What a dick. I am almost ready to declare Fellini the idiot brother.

toby dammit-4i

TOBY DAMMIT screened in its correct multilingual version, but without English subs for the Italian parts — the only movie offered without translation, so I have to assume it was an oversight. Still, it freshened the experience, and made me realize that Tim Lucas’s suggestion that the film evokes the strangeness of being in Italy without speaking the lingo is not quite right. Terence Stamp as Toby is able to reply to questions asked in Italian, even if he answers in English. So the film is really about how strange Italy is even if you DO speak the lingo.

A clue to the nature of Italy — Chaplin’s EASY STREET, in Italy, was called LA STRADA DELLA PAURA — THE STREET OF TERROR! If we could understand this, we would know many things, like the fox of legend.