Archive for It’s a Gift

Bogle’s Yearning

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , on October 4, 2017 by dcairns

If Laurel & Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX dramatise the sufferings of Sisyphus (that bloke condemned to roll a boulder uphill for eternity), W.C. Fields in IT’S A GIFT is comedy’s premier Tantalus, the chap tied up in the afterlife with food and drink perennially out of reach. Throughout this film, Fields strives to shave, eat, run a grocery store, sleep, win just one argument with his wife, control his son, stop his daughter crying, and start his car. It’s the comedy of frustration elevated to such an agonized pitch that the audience may feel inclined to gnaw its own limbs off to escape. Fortunately, it’s also very, very funny. I was sore afterwards from laughing.

A few stray observations.

Lots of Scottish references. Fields uses the name Charles Bogle to sign the story, and there are characters called Abernathy and Muckle. My theory is that Fields had a soft spot for Scotland, having first tasted whisky in Edinburgh while touring.

I first encountered this film when John Cleese showed the Mr. Muckle scene on a discussion show. This was probably soon after THE LIFE OF BRIAN so Cleese had become a kind of spokesman/counsel for the defence for edgy comedy. He said Fields had created the scene after a friend bet him he couldn’t make comedy about a blind person. “And he did something very clever: he made the blind man a THREAT.” So we’re not made serious by sympathy, and he don’t feel guilty for laughing at a disability.

My young self didn’t actually find the film clip funny at all. I wasn’t offended, but I was frustrated — Fields isn’t just an innocent victim in this, he’s a terribly incompetent grocer. So what I saw was a lot of painfully inevitable misfortune which made me itch to climb into the television and sort everyone out. Also, incredible as it seems now, Fields’ timing and delivery struck me as slack and shapeless. Of course, I was struggling to get to grips with his amazing naturalism, which incorporates hesitations, repetitions, sentences that fizzle out unfinished, and various other qualities of human speech rarely encountered in thirties comedy (never in the Marx Bros, for instance — and I loved the Marx Bros then as now). It would take me more than a three-minute clip to get in synch with Fields.

Fields’ young hellion of a son is played by Tom Bupp, brother of Sonny Bupp, who played Charles Foster Kane III, Orson Welles’ son in CITIZEN KANE. Thereby adding to the strange bond between Welles and Fields, who used the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves to sign THE BANK DICK.

About the only scene of family harmony is the picnic, where the Bissonettes wantonly destroy the grounds of a rich estate. Fiona, gasping for breath, wondered why Fields cramming crackers and a sandwich into his bulging face was SO funny. There doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Is this America’s first, mild gross-out joke?

The Simpsons suddenly seemed like a descendant of this. Homer is a more aggressive Harold Bissonette, Bart is a more charming Norman. Marge and Lisa are no Amelia and Mildred, but the sense of the central family as fundamentally blighted, which comes into play occasionally on Matt Groening’s show, feels connected to the glorious misanthropy here, particularly during the picnic, where Fields’ mild-mannered pop suddenly seems as much a force of destruction as his awful wife and offspring.

Nobody’s as apocalyptic in impact as Mr. Muckle the blind man, though, who sweeps through the grocery store like a hurricane (too soon?). He’s also profoundly deaf, of course, and this is merely more reason to fear him. Several things seem clear, and they all help Fields’ purpose in inspiring comedic rather than sympathetic reactions to Herr M.

  1. Muckle’s foul temper and rudeness have nothing to do with his handicap. He’s just an awful man who happens to be disabled. He seems only semi-aware that he’s disabled. His crotchetiness is more the result of age, but he was probably always kind of nasty.
  2. Bissonette’s terror on seeing Muckle’s approach tells us that these rampages are a regular, at least weekly occurrence. The grocery store plays Tokyo to Muckle’s Gojira (too soon?).
  3. Bissonette’s deeper terror when Mr. Muckle marches off into traffic shows his decency, and turns that into a pathetic comic trait also — a more normal response after what we’ve just seen might be to pray Muckle falls under the oncoming tyres and is extirpated at once.

A shame we never get to see Mr. Muckle chew his gum, and thus become unintelligible as well as sightless and unhearing, the full slapstick Helen Keller (too soon?).

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Blind Tuesday: Max Carrados Investigates

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2013 by dcairns

It’s high time I did another “blind person in jeopardy” post, I was just thinking, so here we go.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was an ITV series of 1971-2 based around the idea that Victorian London was swarming with sleuths, and maybe some of them were interesting enough to warrant televisual treatment of their own. The show ran for two series, with an amazing roster of guest stars impersonating the forgotten flatfoots (flatfeet?), but as to whether any of them really deserve to be called “rivals” of the Baker Street genius, one would have to fall back on the old Scottish verdict of “not proven.”

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In The Case of the Mirror of Portugal, Peter Vaughn Vaughan plays Arthur Morrison’s shady private eye Horace Dorrington, a shameless crook who defrauds his customers, his only saving grace being that he gives the money to charity. Or so we’re supposed to believe. Vaughan is always good at playing menace, fake bonhomie and overbearing ebullience shading into aggression, and these qualities combine with his threatening bulk to rob the character of any lightness he might have had. He quips archly with clients about the deaths of family members, though this is meant to be excused by the customers being foreign and therefore devoid of true family feeling; he’s also a merciless taskmaster with his quavering staff (Kenneth Colley and Petronella Barker). Of course, Holmes was lacking in some of the social graces, but he stood for something, damnit. Reason, possibly.

The episode does feature a touchingly young Jeremy Irons and a heartbreakingly alive Paul Eddington.

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James Cossins (left) and John Neville.

A Message from the Deep Sea stars John Neville, Baron Munchausen himself, as Dr Thorndyke — no relation to Mel Brooks’ headshrinker in HIGH ANXIETY, but certainly a close relative of Edinburgh physician Dr Joseph Bell, who inspired Sherlock Holmes in the first place. He’s another arrogant dick, but thanks to Neville’s elegant playing the show’s final scene turns on a dime from plea for preserving the sanctity of the crime scene, to something rather poetic and mysterious. Neville’s dreamy quality must be what commended him to Gilliam.

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And so to Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah’s blind detective, essayed by Robert Stephens with plummy relish in The Case of the Missing Witness, just after he took the role of Holmes himself (played with a touch of Oscar Wilde) in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES — my favourite Holmes movie. I didn’t think this story made the best use of a blind detective — Fred Zinnemann’s EYES IN THE NIGHT has a good handle on the idea, and I also enjoyed Dario Argento’s CAT O NINE TAILS for its investigations by Karl Malden. Carrados is smart, but this particular plot depends on him happening to meet a key witness at just the time he’s establishing a false alibi for a Fenian terrorist, so the heavy hand of coincidence rather spoils my engagement in Carrados and his brilliance. In fact, I don’t even require him to be brilliant — I would love to see a blind detective based on Mr. Muckle in IT’S A GIFT, rampaging around the crime scenes smashing everything in (everybody else’s) sight, while Dr Thorndyke looks on aghast. Why has no commissioning editor put this on air, starring Robson Green? Since all the other Holmes rivals are a bunch of horrible swine, why not the one who at least has a disability in mitigation? Probably people will still feel sorry for him so he might as well flail about violently and smack them in the face.

Silent Laughter

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2008 by dcairns

And so to The Silent Clowns, at Edinburgh Filmhouse. Comedian Paul Merton has been sharing his love of the silent comedians for a couple of years now, and this show is a pretty good format to introduce newcomers to the comedy greats, although from my lecturing experience I would suggest you really need about three hours to give people a proper grounding in any of it. But for the modest-by-Fringe-Festival ticket price you get Merton’s introductions, three or four clips, a Laurel and Hardy short and a main feature (Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JR.), with Neil Brand at the piano providing sensational live accompaniment.

I’m not sure what Merton really adds to the experience. Well, he adds his TV fame, which presumably draws in at least some of the punters who otherwise might go to their graves without ever seeing a silent feature, and he adds some good jokes and a bit of historical context. There’s no real analysis or anything like that: without the films to look at, you’d have no idea from Merton’s intros just what made Chaplin or Harold Lloyd great. Stressing Lloyd’s everyman persona is a strange way to introduce a scene from WHY WORRY?, where he plays a neurotic millionaire. Merton’s love and enthusiasm, and undoubted knowledge of these films is commendable, as is the fact that he’s proselytizing for them, but I wish he’d take a leaf from Walter Kerr’s magisterial book The Silent Clowns and actually give more of a sense of what makes them great, rather than just asserting that they are. It might seem redundant, when the films are their to be seen, with ample proof of their own greatness, but it’s less redundant than anything else you can say.

I don’t mean to be negative because it was a great afternoon’s viewing: punters in Edinburgh should forego the usual stand-up and see some eighty-year-old material that’s funnier and also more beautiful than most of the current comedy on show. You can laugh yourself sick and also emerge ennobled.

Wisdom gleaned:

My theory has always been that nobody’s funnier than Laurel and Hardy, but even a very good silent L&H like WE FAW DOWN does not show them at their absolute peak. It was very popular with the audience though, and the last shot, with its scores of erring husbands tumbling from windows in their underwear, drew a round of applause from the crowd before the final fadeout even started.

THE CIRCUS has some of Chaplin’s best NIGHTMARE SCENARIOS: trapped in a cage with sleeping lions, while a wee dog yips furiously at him outside, or here, on a high wire and assaulted, horribly, by monkeys.

Chaplin, in the first clip shown, maybe got the best laughs. Extracts from near the start of THE CIRCUS show him near the top of his form, even if the film as a whole doesn’t stack up as among his best. I’ve never seen any Chaplin on the big screen, come to think of it, and he seemed to benefit most from this exposure. Having a greater distance for the eye to traverse from one element to the next in the frame really seemed to boost the comedy. I don’t think there were specific crucial details that would have been lost on the small screen, but everything seemed heightened by enlargement.

And idiots who suggest that Chaplin “doesn’t work” for a modern audience should have been there to see how this very modern audience reacted.

With Keaton, I’d noticed before that the ensemble playing suddenly became more visible and enjoyable on the larger screen, and this seemed true of Chaplin too.

Snub Pollard scored numerous laughs, partly because he provided the most cartoonish material of the show. It was good stuff, though.

“Opening his garage, Snub rolled out a little bullet-shaped car and hopping in, calmly held out a large magnet. As another car passed by, Pollard aimed the magnet and his little car took off in hot pursuit. Various forms of catastrophe occurred en route as Snub’s attention was distracted […]”

~ from Clown Princes and Court Jesters, Some Great Comics of the Silent Screen, by Sam Gill and Kalton C. Lahue. Surely Kalton C. Lahue must be the inspiration for Horton Hears a Who.

The film was IT’S A GIFT (1923), made when Pollard was briefly a contender in two-reelers. His star faded, the Australian comic became a specialist in tiny bit-parts, and can be seen getting an umbrella in the most famous scene of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. What I liked most about his magnetmobile was the idea of him inflicting this level of mayhem of the city streets every time he left the house. Life was tough in the ’20s.

Louise Fazenda got one particularly strong laugh, as her fur stole resolved itself into a draped dog, but her clip was largely to showcase Neil Brand’s skill at the piano, as he talked us through his job as accompanist.

Harold Lloyd wasn’t as well-served by the scene chosen as he could have been, but got good laughs anyway. Part of the charm of the programme is that, with different combinations of films and clips each show, there may be a different “winner” on laughs each afternoon.

Buster Keaton is a special case. Long stretches of SHERLOCK JR. provoked silent admiration rather than loud laughter, and I usually find this to be the case. It is NOT a weakness: with Keaton, the ingenuity of the gags is often more striking than the hilarity, and so you’re too busy gasping in amazement at his brilliance, or in shock at his physical daring. You can’t get your breath in order to laugh. It’s ironic, since Keaton’s stated objective was always simply to get laughs, but he winds up doing far more.

Having said that, the climax of the film, a rip-roaring two-part chase, got HUGE laughs, as did this amazing sequence, which resulted in Keaton unknowingly breaking his neck falling from the water-tower. He got up and was fine (as you see in the clip).

If the show had an extra hour to it (which wouldn’t risk tiring anybody out: you have to have faith in this material!), I’d like to see more complete shorts, and maybe something illustrating the earliest stages of the gag film, which Merton mentioned but didn’t illustrate. Some Charley Bowers would be good, some Fatty Arbuckle would be useful, and some Max Linder should be essential. But as an introduction to silent Hollywood comedy delivered in less than two hours, Merton’s programme can’t seriously be faulted.