Archive for Laurel & Hardy

The Cast and the Curious

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2023 by dcairns

Or maybe I should’ve saved this title for IF I HAD A MILLION, in which WC Fields and Alison Skipworth trash more vehicles than George Miller could get through in, oh, a lunch break.

Too late, I’m using it for SIX OF A KIND, a Leo McCarey film I’d somehow bypassed. It’s rather adorable, with its middle-aged characters (only Grace Bradley is youthful — her screen partner/fellow baddie Bradley Page is only in his thirties but seems prematurely seedy and dissolute in a very thirties way).

Bank clerk Charlie Ruggles and wife Mary Boland decide to take a road trip to Hollywood for their second honeymoon. They never arrive — Page has smuggled stolen thousands out of the bank in Ruggles’ valise, Boland has advertised for traveling companions to share the bills and Burns & Allen show up, causing chaos; mostly Gracie’s doing — it’s interesting to see her pretzel logic and unflagging joie de vivre matched up to some life or death situations. You really wouldn’t want her around when the going gets serious. When Boland is hanging from the Grand Canyon by suitcase straps, Gracie gets convulsed with laughter because a key strap is fraying. Idiocy is terrifying. Fields and Skipworth turn up as small-town sheriff and hotelier.

Fields does his pool routine, explaining how he came to be called Honest John while elaborately failing to break the balls. Amazing stuff, his physical skill (all that juggling pays off) allied to his sense of absurdity. The punchline, casually thrown away as he wanders off, would have been funnier onstage, where the exit would read as a definitive scene end: on screen, we sort of expect him to pick up the line in the next set. But watch it a second time and the inconclusive feeling makes it even funnier. Fields practically invented the art of naturalistically underselling a joke.

Frank Tashlin seems to have had this at the back of his mind for HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, since the unwelcome car-share couple have a huge dog, though he is not called Mr. Bascombe or whatever it was this time round. Both movies are Paramount, of coutse.

Some comedians benefit from flat staging. Keaton, of course, used beautiful planimetric compositions as part of the gag. Laurel & Hardy, more apparently artless, eschewed showy angles and favoured flat lighting. And so it only takes a slight emphasis to turn W.C. Fields into the beginnings of a horror movie character. (His sequence being cut from TALES OF MANHATTAN may be down to the fact that the film used dramatic lighting, turning Fields from a cut-out cartoon into a fully dimensional gargoyle.)

McCarey didn’t rate this one too highly, and it doesn’t reach the head-spinning heights of THE AWFUL TRUTH, but I’m accustomed to his films either soaring to the heavens or falling flat, so it’s nice to meet one which is just perfectly pleasant.

Marx for Trying

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Painting, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2022 by dcairns

I was thinking of getting rid of my copy of Moving Pictures by Budd Schulberg — “Will I ever read this?” — when I opened it at random — a fair test — and discovered that Schulberg had attempted to co-write a Marx Bros movie at Paramount in the thirties, where he was the boss’s son.

BUGHOUSE FABLES was the intended title, which I somewhat approve of, since it has the required animal reference. But is it a common phrase or saying like “monkey business,” “horse feathers,” “animal crackers,” and “duck soup”? (Two of these are by now UNcommon phrases or sayings but I’m prepared to believe that in pre-code days they were familiar to the American public.)

BUT I’m wrong — here’s proof, from 1922, that Schulberg’s title WAS extant.

It was supposed to be about the Marxes running an asylum. I’m unsure about this. The results could easily be tasteless, even for the 1930s, and Schulberg says that part of the impetus was to hit back at the censors who had been objecting to MONKEY BUSINESS. Also, surrounding the Bros with lunatics could easily diminish their powers. The possibilities for spot gags would be endless, but we can hardly have Groucho, Chico and Harpo seeming less crazy than everyone else. Presumably we would have a “lunatics taking over the asylum” scenario and there are strong possibilities for annoying headshrinkers (cue Sig Rumann) and wealthy patrons (Margaret Dumont). But I think the Marxes need a sane, generically-consistent story world to interact with, and be the craziest element of. When Groucho is placed in charge of a sanatorium in A DAY AT THE RACES, the most eccentric person he meets apart from his own brothers is rich hypochondriac Dumont.

Schulberg himself sounds pretty uncertain about whether his efforts to write funny were in fact hitting the mark or Marx (atsa some joke, huh boss?)

The same problem is multiplied by a thousand in Salvador Dali’s Marx scenario, GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD. Two animals for the price of one. But not a common phrase or saying, except perhaps in the Dali household. It’s understandable that Dali, a Spaniard, may have misunderstood “horse feathers” and “animal crackers” as pieces of surreal word salad, which they sort of are, but they were also pre-existing expressions which the domestic audience understood.

But the title is merely a clue to the full-blown insanity of Dali’s vision. And while that may sound mouth-watering, most commentators have concluded that surrounding the Marx Bros with an UN CHIEN ANDALOU world already chaotic and surreal would render them redundant, with nothing left to disrupt.

This image derives from a graphic novel adaptation, and you can listen to a subsequently-produced audio version here, for money.

Much, much later, Billy Wilder contemplated A NIGHT AT THE UNITED NATIONS. The title here places the project in the later MGM tradition though I doubt Wilder would have filled the movie with songs. The concept of positioning the Brothers in the context of international politics does smack promisingly of DUCK SOUP though. It would be untrue to say that the gags would write themselves — but I believe Wilder could write them. I’d love to see Chico working as a simultaneous translator. And then Harpo taking over.

Wilder never made a film built around an actual movie clown — his comedies are built around thespians with comedic chops. He uses Marilyn Monroe a little bit like a clown, and Jimmy Cagney as an icon whose famous moments he can built jokes around, but mostly his characters are not totally dependent on casting choices. He did try to work with Peter Sellers, twice, but Sellers had neither persona nor, he claimed, personality.

Wilder did also want to make a film with Laurel & Hardy — he got as far as planning an opening showing them sleeping rough in the last two Os of the HOLLYWOOD sign. So clownwork was something he had an interest in. But I suspect the collaborations would have been fraught. Stan liked to be in charge, and Groucho eventually kicked Wilder out of his house after receiving one too many lectures on the right wine to serve with dinner. (This is all from Maurice Zolotow’s semi-reliable Wilder bio.) It would have been like Preston Sturges and Harold Lloyd trying to collaborate, and finding their mutual respect could not overcome their need to be true to their individual comic muses.

Pig Race 2000

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2022 by dcairns

Sorry, the whole of PORKY’S ROAD RACE isn’t on YouTube, so you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you this Loony Tune by Frank Tash(lin) is the Warners 1937 animated version of DEATH RACE 2000. Tricked-out cars causing mayhem with tacks and glue and grease…

For some reason, it’s not just that, though, it’s a race of Hollywood caricatures

WC Fields is paired with Edna May Oliver, which might have been a good casting idea for a feature; Laurel & Hardy power a car jack with a see-saw; a very poor Charlie Chaplin, envisaged as a long thin chap in white trousers; Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh, but in a car.

Some of the references are quite obscure:

I guess this is meant to be George Arliss, Leslie Howard and Freddie Bartholomew?

And here’s one that required actual research:

Definitely John Barrymore. In a car called Caliban. Pursued by a woman in a car called Ariel (with an aerial). The first source I checked was baffled, as Barrymore had never appeared onstage in THE TEMPEST. But they did identify the woman as Elaine Barrie, his wife at the time. It turns out he’d played the part on the radio, as part of a 1937 series called Streamlined Shakespeare. I don’t know if a recording survives, but here’s Twelfth Night. Anyway, that seems like a moderately obscure set of references even for 1937. It’s a cartoon that needs annotated.

Of course, as in the other DEATH RACE 2000, there’s a Frankenstein, but instead of David Carradine it’s, naturally enough, “Borax Karloff.”

The concept overall is weird, there aren’t really any good jokes, and Tashlin’s fanboy side is charming but when he did gags about film technique rather than about movie stars, he was funnier. The closest thing to that is the disclaimer at the start, which starts great but fizzles out, but hey, at least it starts great.

Aaaaaaaaaand thanks to @GearGades on Twitter, here’s a link to the full toon: