Monday, April 27, 2015


As a rule I don't seek out TV comedy but around the turn of the year I needed something to lighten my mood and I was feeling nostalgic. As it happened, MeTV had just put Abbott & Costello on their daily schedule at the DVR-bait time slot of 5:00 a.m. I remembered the show fondly from my youth and I'm happy to report that it mostly lived up to my memories. At its best it's extraordinary, an almost Kafkaesque burlesque of American life and one of the last yawps of an especially irreverent comedy tradition. But then there was the second season.

Abbott and Costello, which is to say Lou Costello, had creative control of the TV show, which means that the show gives us the comedy team in something close to its purest form, freed from the too-frequent cinematic obligation to help boring young lovers or fill the time between songs. An anarchic burlesque sensibility comes through that arguably was typical of radio comedy. In television George Burns gets a lot of credit for "breaking down the fourth wall" by addressing the audience during The Burns & Allen Show, but for much of radio comedy there never was a fourth wall -- the comics often went out before a live audience with scripts in hand, after all -- and a certain self-consciousness prevailed that enhanced the burlesque elements of those shows. On TV Burns was perhaps less an innovator than a holdout, doing his thing while a fourth wall was being built to suit a sitcom paradigm. For Abbott and Costello the fourth wall went up between the first and second seasons. The first time around, the comics would come out from behind a curtain, address the audience, and set up the situation for the episode -- and a card girl invariably came out and put a card listing that week's guest stars in front of Lou's face. Between the acts and before the end credits, they'd take the stage again to comment on the story in progress. It was a zone of unreality, in story terms, or reality, in real terms, but comics could occupy both at the same time, confident that no matter what happened, nothing would really change. And that meant nearly anything could happen.

The show takes place in a slightly surreal quasi-world in which Abbott and Costello are down-on-their-luck personalities constantly scrambling to make the rent, though we're occasionally reminded that they are entertainers, if not famous entertainers. They're well-known enough that the audience at an actors'-home benefit show can demand the "Baseball" sketch (i.e. "Who's on First?") of them, but much of the time they may as well be nobodies. There's a difference between Nobodies and Everymen, and the comics definitely aren't the latter. Bud Abbott is an often repulsive figure, a parasite on Lou although he seems more competent at nearly everything than his partner and roommate. He' can be wicked toward other people -- having arrived at a bank after a robbery, he occupies a teller's window and is ready to confiscate Hilary Brooke's deposit until Lou stops him -- but he has a special relationship with Costello. Their routines nearly always involve some kind of psychological torture, not to mention physical abuse, of Lou by Bud. On the most innocuous level, Bud will torment Lou by forcing him into theoretical situations. For instance, let's say, as Bud would say, that Lou is at the train station. Where's he buying a ticket for? "I dunno," says Lou. "Then what are you doing at the station?" Bud demands with disgust. Bud's life work is the psychological manipulation of Lou, the better to make a minion or meal ticket of him. But Bud's abuse is only the beginning of Lou's victimization.

Lou Costello's first season is nothing short of a nightmare. His ordeal isn't merely the typical struggle of an amiable incompetent, as it would seem more often in the second season. When he leaves the safety zone of the stage he enters a world in which everything and everyone is actively against him. Something is wrong with this world. If you want to understand the difference between the first and second seasons, the first is the one with Joe Besser, the future Stooge, as Stinky, the apparently overgrown child who always picks fights with Lou. As a kid, I couldn't figure out what Stinky was supposed to be, but it's clear now that for the show's purposes he's not a madman or a retard acting like a child but a literal child in old-time short pants played by a fortysomething fat man. He's like an imp from hell -- or in hell -- assigned to torment Lou and get away with it, since bystanders almost invariably take the poor boy's side against the older bully -- though we should note how often Lou himself is referred to as a "boy" in these shows. If Stinky is the most obviously surreal element of the show, there's also Mr. Bacciagalupe (Joe Kirk), who seems to hold a different job in every episode, and the extended family of Sidney Fields (playing himself and all the family members), to whom Lou is always applying for jobs or other forms of assistance.

If anyone other than Lou Costello is the auteur of the first season it's Fields, who has a "story by" credit for the entire season and wrote the majority of episodes. Compared to the second season, when he's mostly reduced to a mere actor and tones down his personality accordingly, First Season Fields (or Melonhead) is a more eccentric and flamboyant figure with an almost soothing voice that belies his potential for violence. In one episode Bud and Lou are trying to entrap Fields by goading him into physically assaulting Lou. With every fresh insult from Lou Fields goes berserk, mauling Lou mercilessly while Bud, inevitably distracted, looks away. But it's not just the regulars. This is a show where random strangers seem to attack Lou out of nowhere, or where his pathetic attempts to sell products or simply strike up acquaintances expose him to explosions of psychotic rage (from "Niagra Falls! Slowwwwly, I turned..." to "Susquehanna Hat Company!").

Looming over the whole neighborhood, perhaps less amusing now than then, is Mike Kelly (Gordon Jones), better known as Mike the Cop. Mike is proof, since he lives in Sidney Fields' building as Bud and Lou do, that community policing is no panacea. Mike may as well be the last of the Keystone Kops. He is just about the last great expression of comedy's irreverence toward police, a great American tradition dating back to a time when cops were mostly political placeholders answering to few standards of professionalism or competence. Mike is a bully and an idiot; his interventions are almost always misguided and always make things worse. You'd hardly believe that this show was contemporary with Dragnet. Even though Bud and Lou appear to apologize in one onstage epilogue for the "fun" they've had with the police -- the episode had Lou and Mike wreaking havoc at a police firing range -- and appeal to the kids in their audience to treat the local police as their pals -- Mike's moronic antagonism was one first-season feature that persisted unapologetically into the second season. When people complain today about growing disrespect for the police as if Americans have abandoned a great and ancient tradition, Mike the Cop is evidence to the contrary.

There's a relentless quality to the first season that's made bearable by Lou Costello's wide range of defiance. Lou is no sad-sack victim of existence. He rages and dreams of fighting back, and if this world is his personal Hell, his sin is that he might be a bully if he could. Lou's vocal performance seems much influenced by Harry Langdon, though I don't know if the influence was ever acknowledged. Like Lou, Langdon paradoxically embodied adult appetites in a childlike if not infantile form. Lou Costello is a less passive, more uninhibited and turbulent Langdon, flailing at a world he can't master, falling from delusional heights of confidence to crying fits of despair. He's a fighter but the fix is in, but you love him for fighting anyway, especially if you feel the fix is in for you, too.

Something went wrong in the second season. Fields was demoted, maybe because he'd run out of creative gas, and Lou brought two new writers in. You can judge second-season shows pretty simply: if Jack Townley wrote it it has a chance of being good; if Clyde Bruckman wrote it, it stinks. Townley specialized in farcical plots, putting Lou in some form of peril and often having Mike the Cop assume that Lou had committed some crime. Bruckman was a storied figure of silent comedy, credited by Buster Keaton as co-director of The General, who was boozed up and washed up. His scripts for Abbott and Costello play out like Three Stooges shorts and often steal gags from them. They often degenerate into slapstick brawls that played to neither comic's strengths. Finally he stole gags from his onetime collaborator Harold Lloyd, who considered his intellectual property something to sue over. Lloyd sued Bruckman several times over two decades and arguably hastened his end, and the end of The Abbott & Costello Show. Bruckman killed himself in 1955, a year after the show folded. There were only 52 episodes, little more than half the traditional minimum for syndication, but like The Honeymooners' "Classic 39" the show stayed on the air for decades. It lost its staying power a while ago, despite Jerry Seinfeld crediting it as an inspiration for his own TV phenomenon. It was probably no reflection on the show, although today's sitcom fans might barely recognize it as a show, but a business decision that downtime airtime was better filled by infomercials than the old stuff that sustained stations for generations. You used to see this show all the time, but its reappearance on MeTV is like the unearthing of a buried treasure from a vanished time.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


The idea was probably more like The Good, The Bad, The Weird at sea than Pirates of the Caribbean Korean style but whatever the motive the results were fun. Lee Seok-Hoon has made a good old-fashioned adventure flick with modern effects and an Asian attitude toward human prowess that would make Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn gape with envy at the antics of these Korean pirates and bandits. I think they'd recognize the film's spirit as kin to their own, however.

Two parallel storylines eventually converge as we follow a 14th century hero and heroine who become treasure-hunting rivals and, inevitably, partners and lovers. Jang Sa-jung (Kim Nam-gil) is an army officer who doesn't go along when his general supports a coup d'etat. Jang fights his way out of immediate peril to become a forest bandit, the Crazy Tiger, complete with a comedy-relief monk with a big appetite. Yeo-wol (Son Ye-jin) is a pirate princess who leads an uprising against her mentor Captain Soma (Lee Geung-young) when he conspires with officials to save his own ass by selling out loyal crewmates.

The bad guys (above) and the good guys (below)

The coup being successful, the new regime receives legitimacy from "Ming," aka China. Legitimacy comes with a new country name, Joeson, and a new royal seal. The latter gets lost at sea and swallowed by a whale. The new ruler offers a huge reward for the recovery of the great seal, attracting both pirate Yeo-wol and bandit Crazy Tiger to the treasure hunt. Crazy Tiger is a total lubber but he has the expertise of ex-pirate Cheol-bong (Yoo Hae-jin), who quit Soma's crew due to chronic seasickness but often falls landsick as well. He proves helpful to the bandits even though he has a hard time making them understand just how big a whale is. Yeo-wol has a competitive advantage not just because she's a pirate but because she has an affinity with whales going back to her childhood. But she finds herself fighting with Crazy Tiger over equipment, most importantly over imported European explosives. Meanwhile -- wouldn't you know? -- the vengeful Soma and Crazy Tiger's old commander have joined forces to catch the whale and take the treasure for themselves.


That's the framework for some oldschool swashbuckling with a wuxia edge as well as FX setpieces more reminiscent of the Caribbean movies. The main such event comes fairly early: an urban chase scene with Yeo-wol pursuing Crazy Tiger, using an aqueduct as a flume ride until Tiger wrecks it with an antique rocket, setting an attached giant water wheel rolling through town, in and out of the heroes' path. I'm not sure of the physical logic of the wheel's wanderings but it's an amusing spectacle. There's good comic chemistry between the leads, too, who go through a lot of adventure tropes together, from Defiant Ones style shackling to mutual seduction through boastful comparison of battle scars. The comic relief is solid throughout, especially the award-winning Yoo Hae-jin as the cantankerous misfit who bridges the pirate-bandit divide, but the monk is cool as well. There's also some presumably veiled political satire, with the usurping Joeson regime an analogue for North Korea, though the usurper is offered redemption with advice to shun the influence of Ming that seems directed at modern China. For foreigners, the film doesn't suffer if you don't get any of that. The spirit of high adventure that prevails translates pretty well into any language.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On the Big Screen: OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928)

Harry Beaumont's flaming-youth film was billed as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's first sound film -- the studio's first with a pre-recorded soundtrack. Filmed at a time when silent film, at the brink of extinction, had reached a peak of expressive artistry, Our Dancing Daughters is a silent that feels like it should have been a talkie. Consider its signature moment, Joan Crawford's wild dance scene at a sort of wild party. The scene did for Crawford what the dance scenes in Saturday Night Fever did for John Travolta; the film as a whole made her a superstar and a sex symbol. But by the standards of sound cinema something isn't right about it. The dance music wasn't recorded live; the scene was filmed silent and scored in a studio afterward. Crawford moves at silent-film speed, filmed by Beaumont with little sense of style or choreography. She looks frantic, almost more spastic than sensual, and for all I know this was the desired effect and the way the flapper's era saw her: crazed energy bursting to express itself in wild motion. But from here Crawford calms down quite a bit, to the point where this, her star-making movie, is nearly stolen from her by the film's real bad girl, Anita Page.

The attempted theft may seem more obvious now; modern audiences may be more attentive and responsive to her character's fearsome dysfunction. Bred to be a gold digger by a mother so mercenary that she's an outright kleptomaniac, Page steals Crawford's millionaire boyfriend (as an Alabama football star with a fortune, John Mack Brown plays a wealthier version of himself) but isn't happy and is probably incapable of happiness. I thought Page had shown me something with her one-punch KO of Buster Keaton in Sidewalks of New York that had been hidden in her now best-known picture, The Broadway Melody, but Our Dancing Daughters shows her in full rage mode. Her jealous drunken tirade against Crawford and Brown is a sustained bit of suspense set against open windows and steep staircases; you expect her to fall or throw herself to her doom at any moment as she releases all the pent-up bile that may have kept her alive all along. The sequence climaxes with her mocking (and self-mocking) chiding, from the top of that perilous staircase, of three scrubwomen cleaning the floor at the foot of the stairs for failing to raise pretty daughters to keep them from having to work. If Page had been able to speak during the scene, she may well have stolen the film completely from Crawford. Her mad scene is still the highlight of the silent film.

Crawford still earned her fame with a performance that plays for pathos the way Twenties audiences liked, and Dorothy Sebastian, who completes an actress troika that went on to make two thematic sequels, is fine in the least showy role of a newlywed struggling to live up to her love for and responsibility to a husband (Nils Asther) who proves a bit of a stick in the mud. Beaumont's direction is mostly overshadowed by the film's art-deco production design, but he achieves at least one coup de cinema, opening the first party scene by parting a frame-filling screen of balloons to reveal the dance floor as seen from the ceiling. Until recently that shot opened Turner Classic Movies' "Silent Sunday Night" intro montage, and it set the tone quite nicely.  Our Dancing Daughters was indisputably a success on its own terms in its own time, but it may have gone over even bigger as a talking picture. It would have been better objectively had it not been burdened, as many late silents and part-talkies were, with an insipid love theme. The turgid ballad, "I Love You Now As I Loved You Then" is the antithesis of the jazz rhythm that possesses Crawford on the dance floor; it has no business on the soundtrack of a flapper film, but juxtapositions of that sort were all too common in the late Twenties. They shouldn't surprise us in as obviously transitional a film as this one.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE WILD PARTY (1929)

Imagine, if you're a film buff, The Blue Angel if Marlene Dietrich was a student in Emil Jannings' class, and Jannings was more of a hunk than a hulk, and you get an idea of what The Wild Party might have been. It was, above all, the talking debut of Clara Bow, the superstar "It Girl" of silent cinema. Bow is one of those silent stars whose trouble with talkies became legend. There's nothing wrong with her voice this first time -- if anything, she sounds less trumpet-like here than she would a few years later in Call Her Savage -- but we can safely assume that she didn't sound the way fans expected Clara Bow to sound. Maybe they expected something higher or cuter, boopier or doopier. The ultimately damaging thing, perhaps, was that, like John Gilbert, there was nothing special about her voice, but that seems appropriate for the mostly brainless character, a college student, she plays in Dorothy Arzner's film.

Like most of her schoolmates, Clara's character seems to be in college because she can -- that is, she can afford it. The only girl who worries about expenses is the studious, mousy but pretty wallflower (Shirley O'Hara)who has to hit the books hard and often to stay in the running for the academic scholarship that alone keeps her in school. Clara is a special friend to this character and that's her redeeming quality, whether you see subtext in it or not by virtue of Arzner's sexuality. Our heroine seems to recognize that her friend really deserves a college education, not to mention a break or more, and ultimately Clara will sacrifice her own academic ambitions, such as they were, to keep this good girl in school.

The main event of The Wild Party -- the title event is a mere episode -- is Clara's war of wills with her new anthropology professor. The first act of the picture climaxes, after Clara recounts to her suitemates her tryst with a stranger on a train, with the revelation that the new teacher (Frederic March in his second credited screen role) is that same stranger. The mutual recognition makes classes uncomfortable for both people, though most of the discomfort is theoretical on March's part. He doesn't want her to think that he's showing her any favoritism, so he goes to the opposite extreme and singles her out for embarrassing criticism. He drives her from the classroom in tears after he accuses her of plagiarism in an admittedly hastily thrown-together essay. But circumstances keep throwing them together. Both, we realize, are restless spirits. While Clara just likes to go out in search of fun, especially when the authorities at school and in the dorms frown on it -- she and three friends head for a rough roadhouse after getting thrown out of a "stag" party for wearing identical skimpy showgirl costumes -- March likes to go out nights for walks on dark roads. That gets him into trouble when he rescues Clara from roadhouse mashers and later gets shot by one of them. The reluctant lovers seem to be in a race toward self-destruction that accelerates when Clara decides to take the fall when the class tattletale discovers letters that could get Helen, the wallflower, expelled for dating a man. The letter is unsigned, enabling Clara to say it's hers, even if the context -- Helen writes of the importance of that academic award -- makes Clara an unlikely author. The authorities buy her confession, nevertheless, but her departure has an unintended consequence. March resigns his professorship, eliminating the hierarchical complications that had compromised his relationship with Clara. Ironically, he promises her a future of intellectual adventure; they'll be doing fieldwork in Malaya for their honeymoon.

For those who aren't movie buffs, Clara Bow was the "It Girl" because she was said by the novelist Elinor Glyn to be one of the very few people in Hollywood to have "It," an otherwise indescribable magnetism. "It" seems to have been relative or chronologically specific, like Elinor Glyn's own fame, rather than a timeless quality. Bow is attractive but to me, at least, she's far from the most magnetic female of silent cinema, much less talkies. Her vapid character in Wild Party and the chaotic shrubbery she sports on her head in parts of the picture further diminish her vaunted magnetism, more of which is on display in her more assured (or more manic) turn in Call Her Savage. She's also sabotaged by the primitive nature of early talkies. While Arzner is credited with innovating a "fishpole" microphone to accommodate the restless Bow Wild Party isn't much less stodgy than the immobile pictures parodied in Singin' In The Rain. With Wild Party Arzner and Bow caught up with film technology but their frivolous film remains something that very soon would be very much a thing of the past. The Thirties required a different kind of wild that Bow eventually proved herself capable of but unwilling to sustain. By the end of the Pre-Code era she had retired from cinema to become a relic of the Roaring Twenties. In that sense, despite the uncomfortable novelty of sound Wild Party is a representative work, though the silent, stylized Bow is probably the best one to see.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On the Big Screen: FOLLOW THRU (1930)

Movies have always been capable of making art of its absences. Silent film is recognized now as a distinct style rather than the mere absence of speech. At its best, black and white cinematography was a positive artistic choice rather than the mere lack of color. Shouldn't this also be true of movies made in "two-strip" or "two-color" Technicolor, before the process was perfected and could capture the color blue? Watching these films -- either special scenes in otherwise monochrome pictures (e.g. the silent versions of Ben-Hur and The King of Kings) or else full-length features (e.g. Douglas Fairbanks' The Black Pirate) is like watching cartoons with an eccentric if not obsolete aesthetic sense. Hollywood was well aware of the limitations of the process and its pictures were art-directed accordingly until the world was turned red, green and brown. History has judged harshly, however, perhaps because the heyday of two-color was also the infancy of sound film, not to mention the epoch of the part-talkie, for which few artistic excuses can be made. Few of these early Technicolor films survive intact. Technicolor sequences or entire films survive only in black and white; some don't survive at all. Follow Thru is an exception: a full-length 1930 Technicolor musical that survives intact, though it was considered a lost film, like so many others, for a long time. Musical comedy seems like the ideal material for the two-color process, which highlights the essential, deliberate unreality of all the proceedings. Watching Follow Thru in 1930 may have been a little like watching an all-CGI picture today; you can tell it's not "real," but you weren't exactly looking for "real," were you? That Follow Thru is fantasy we can take for granted. That it's actually quite funny is what puts it over for posterity.

Follow Thru is about golf, sort of. At least that ensures a lot of green in the picture. The plot is typical musical comedy. Two female golf champions -- Nancy Carroll's the good girl, Thelma Todd the cheating villain -- are rivals for the affection of Jerry, a male golf pro (Charles "Buddy"Rogers). Jerry has been hired as a personal instructor for Jack Martin (Jack Haley), a girl-shy department-store heir. Jack goes into eyebrow-twitching seizures at the sight of pretty girls. Coincidentally, he once proposed drunkenly and gave a ring to Angie Howard (Zelma O'Neal), who happens to be the BFF of Nora, the good-girl golfer. Fearing girls, Jack wants to leave the country club where Nora and her rival are competing, but practically everyone contrives to make him stay so Jerry will. Acting as a facilitator, as far as his ability allows, is bra manufacturer "Effie" Effingham (Eugene Pallette), who's willing to help anyone out it gives him a better chance of having his bras sold in Jack's stores.  Because the characters usually act from ulterior (ableit benign) motives, many misunderstandings result from eavesdropping or too-candid conversations, but everything's resolved in time for Jerry to coach Nora -- the film makes clear that her talent only requires moral support -- for her ultimate showdown with her nemesis.

All of the above is scaffolding on which Follow Thru hangs its showpieces. The show was a smash hit on Broadway, and at least one of its DeSylva, Brown & Henderson songs, "Button Up Your Overcoat" ("Take good care of yourself/You belong to me") has entered the "Great American Songbook." The odd thing is that all the best songs go to the comics, while the romantic leads are stuck with several reprises of the uninspiring "We'll Make a Peach of a Pair." Even the third-rate juvenile couple (Margaret Lee and Don Tompkins) get a funny number, "Then I'll Have Time For You." The comedy numbers bring this Roaring Twenties relic close to the spirit of Pre-Code, as when Tompkins sings, "Once I've ruined the figgers/Of a dozen gold diggers/Then I'll have time for you." Probably the ultimate expression of this is Zelma O'Neal's big number, "I Wanna Be Bad," which is also the film's cinematic highlight. As directed by Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, the number crosses what we could call the Berkeley Boundary. Angie Howard is supposed to be singing an impromptu song at a costume party with a live jazz band, but the directors jazz things up with double exposures and other special effects to make the scene a more purely cinematic experience. Just as golf as a subject suits two-color Technicolor's peculiar palette, so the process's favoring of red encouraged filmmaker to imagine vivacious visions of Hell, even if Zelma can't call the place by name. At this point you may as well see this clip of Technicolor Temptation Triumphant. Yellow42758 posted it to YouTube.

It falls short of the Berkeleyan standard mainly because the camera itself doesn't cross the Berkeley Boundary to roam among the ranks of falling angels. The song is virtually a Pre-Code anthem, though I'd argue that the more authentic Pre-Code sentiment is "I've Gotta Be Bad!" Still, for 1930 it's a great movie moment that I'm grateful to have seen on the big screen during the Madison Theater's one-day Jazz Age festival.

Overall, Follow Thru succeeds as much as a comedy as it does as a musical. O'Neal and Haley are holdovers from the original Broadway cast and really know how to put over the comedy songs. In their hands "Button Up Your Overcoat" is more reciprocal bullying than love song. Once the future Tin Woodsman makes clear that he's got more going on than the thing with the eyebrows he really grows on you. His non-musical scenes with Pallette are also good, especially a bit that must be one of the first scenes in which men invade a women's locker room. The idea is that Jack must get in there to recover the ring he gave to Angie way back when while she's showering, so that he isn't disinherited for losing a family heirloom. This is a country-club locker room so cocktails are served by a black woman in a nurse's uniform. Pallette's idea is that the boys play plumbers, and in their fake moustaches I'll be damned if they aren't spitting images of Mario and Luigi, except for the derby Pallette sports. There's good farcical slapstick here, and to top it off the plumbers escape by mugging two women, stuffing them in lockers and stealing their clothes. After that the conclusive golf match can't help but be anticlimactic. The main romantic plot often seems like an afterthought, so overshadowed are the stars by the comedians, but Carroll and Rogers are pleasant enough not to be as unwelcome as, say, the musical leads in a Marx Bros. picture. They certainly do nothing to suppress the spirit of fun that prevails here. There's pathos, too, though you have to read that into a picture that was popular, according to reports, despite being obsolete in many ways the moment it appeared. There's a temptation to treat anything that survives from this brief, doomed moment as a treasure, even though much of what does survive is as bad, if not worse with age now, as it was thought to be then. Fortunately, with Follow Thru you don't have to resist that temptation too much -- and that's just how the film would want it

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B (1926)

In the mid-1920s Cecil B DeMille became a sort of movie mogul as the mastermind behind the Producers Distribution Corporation, which later merged with the more established Pathe company. DeMille's biggest hit as an independent was his own Jesus picture The King of Kings but his company released pictures from many hands, in all genres. DeMille as a comedy producer sounds like an unlikely proposition but The Cruise of the Jasper B. allowed him to tap, at whatever remove from the actual creators, into his inner Mack Sennett. Director James W. Horne filmed an adaptation by three writers (including future director Tay Garnett) of a novel by humorist Don Marquis. Best known now for his whimsical "archy & mehitabel" pieces, allegedly written by a cockroach jumping on his typewriter keyboard, Marquis wrote Jasper B in 1916 as a kind of mock epic, and Horne's film is even more mockingly epic. It mocks the conventions of melodrama and adventure by taking them way, way over the top, into the realm of the absurd.

Swaggering in his pirate shorts, star Rod LaRocque (who'd go on to play perhaps the most smart-assed version ever of The Shadow in the movie International Crime) looks like a parody of Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, which came out nine months before Jasper B. A prologue establishes the storied history of the Cleggett dynasty as the original Jeremaiah Cleggett wins a wife by rescuing her from scurvy ravishers. Since then, the heir to the line comes of age and into his fortune when he takes the old pirate vessel Jasper B onto the open sea to be married on it. By the eighth generation, however, the Cleggett line has grown decadent and bankrupt. The present Jerry Cleggett, whose exact likeness to his distant ancestor raises suspicions of inbreeding, will sleep through the auctioning off of his estate if not for the dedication of his manservant Wiggins (Jack Ackroyd). The beleaguered man must dress in front of prospective buyers, including plenty of women. He insists that they turn their backs, but the ladies whip out their trusty mirrors in the meantime, supposedly to adjust their lipstick. Rarely since the 1920s has the Hollywood male been so subject to the female gaze, but LaRocque is a good sport and unashamed. His performance requires comic timing worthy of the great clowns, especially early on as his bath goods and wardrobe are being snatched from him every time he turns his back. It's starting out as the worst day of Jerry's life, but his salvaging of his ancestor's original pirate costume augurs a change in fortunes.

And just across the way, the ink hasn't dried yet on a revised last will that bestows a fortune on the dying man's niece Agatha Fairhaven (Mildred "First Mrs. Charlie Chaplin" Harris) while virtually disinheriting the hateful Reginald Maltravers (Snitz Edwards). A maid taunts Reginald by waving the new will at him until the wind blows it out of her hand, after the runty villain jumps for it in vain, the will blows through a bathroom window to plaster itself, ink side down, on the bathing Agatha's naked back. Now it's not enough for Reginald to rip the paper text to shreds. To win his fortune, he must scrub the fatal backwards lines off Agatha's body. And so the chase begins, the villain pursuing with a loofah, until Agatha seeks shelter with Jerry Cleggett. It's love virtually at first sight under fire, and the dramatic title cards give an idea of the sensibility at play here:

Agatha: "Don't let him wash my back!"
Jerry: "NEVER!"

Jerry subdues the despicable Reginald and orders Wiggins to "soak" him. The loyal manservant misunderstands this as a command to "croak" the offender, but fortunately lacks the killer instinct. Instead, Maltravers plays dead in hope of escape and gets stuffed into a coffin-like crate which the men then dump out a window. But like Dracula aboard the Demeter the un-dead villain rides the roof of the Cleggett car, somehow unconfiscated, to where the old Jasper B is moored so Jerry can come into his own before the boat is turned into a floating chop house. They barely make it to the boat as Wiggins abandons the driver's seat to investigate the roof and the brake slips. A crash landing luckily leaves everyone unscathed, and Wiggins rejoices that they're at least rid of the accursed box until the thing slides down the hill to cut his legs out from under him.

Meanwhile, gangsters are robbing a mail truck to steal a priceless tapestry stored a in a crate that farcically resembles Reginald Maltravers' quasi-coffin. You can see where this is headed, but you probably don't know how far it's going. You can probably guess that Maltravers will end up leading the gangsters in a raid on the Jasper B. But while this storm gathers the wheels of government keep turning. The driver of the mail truck appeals to the local constable for assistance. "It's a federal matter," that official answers before taking him to the police. "It's a federal matter," the police agree before taking it up with the militia. "It's a federal matter!" an officer affirms before consulting the Navy. An admiral reviews the information up to this point and is about to deliver an opinion when everyone in the frame draws close to hear exactly what they, and by now you, expect. This gradual escalation features some of the best use of title cards I've ever seen in a silent film, and this extra beat of anticipation as everyone cocks their ears is a stroke of genius. And when the admiral (or his card) screams silently "IT'S A FEDERAL MATTER!" it's the cue for the film, already screwy, to go howling mad.

For as a federal matter the theft of the tapestry brings the full military power of the United States to bear against the Jasper B. In a sequence that may have inspired scenes from Duck Soup, infantry, air and naval power and even those newfangled tanks are mobilized against the pirate ship and its crew of three. A montage of stock footage and special effects portrays an apocalyptic assault on the plucky boat. Shelled by naval guns and land artillery, carpet bombed from the air, the ship somehow remains intact as Jerry battles Maltravers and the gangsters, though the villain himself is blown out of his clothes by one lucky shot even as our hero chastises him. Now that's a climax!

I wasn't surprised to learn that James W. Horne's subsequent career was split between slapstick and serials. Immediately after Jasper B. Buster Keaton recruited him to do the directing chores for College. He later directed Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West and some other films before ending his career in the Columbia serial department. You can see the knack for thrills and the comedy timing in Jasper B., which for all I know (which is little) of the man's work is his masterpiece. It definitely proves again that silent comedy had more going for it than the canonical clowns, yet it was a film I hadn't heard of before it was announced as part of this weekend's Jazz Age film program at the Madison Theater. The definitive work of genre criticism, Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns, had nothing to say about it. That just goes to show how deep the talent pool was in those days, and how much possibly this good remains to be discovered once we look past the big names of comedy.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pre-Code Parade on the Big Screen

I'm just back from the Madison Theater here in Albany, where today the Pine Hills Film Colony hosted a one-day film festival called Lost Paradise: Four Films from the Jazz Age. Chronologically speaking the feature program covered the late Twenties up to 1930, including two silent pictures, one early talkie and one early musical. These were interspersed with Charley Chase short subjects, though they inexplicably were from his end-of-the-line Columbia period instead of his golden days with Hal Roach. The best I can say about them is that they were better than Buster Keaton's work for the home of the Three Stooges. The features deserve coverage in more detail, and this post serves as a preview of coming attractions. In the coming days I'll be posting reviews of the four features, which in chronological order are: James W. Horne's Cruise of the Jasper B. (1926), Harry Beaumont's Our Dancing Daughters (1928), Dorothy Arzner's The Wild Party (1929) and the Lloyd Corrigan-Laurence Schwab collaboration Follow Thru (1930). For now, here are some general comments about the event:

The program extended over 9.5 hours, including a dinner break of not quite two hours between the third and fourth features and about a half-hour apiece separating the earlier segments. Film Colony director Michael V. Butler acted as MC, delivering a general introduction to moviegoing during the 1920s, emphasizing the multimedia experience of film, live music and occasional olfactory effects, as well as individual intros for the features. Source materials varied extremely, Follow Thru being a digital burn of the Museum of Modern Art's copy of the all-Technicolor musical while Jasper B. was an Alpha Video disc with predictable limitations. Technical problems were perhaps too evocative of the early days of sound as the theater staff struggled to call up the soundtrack for Follow Thru, while the aspect ration on Wild Party was juggled a little to make Clara Bow appear less chubby than she initially appeared. These can be written off as learning experiences for the event organizers, who should be forgiven much for putting this program together. Once everything was in sync Follow Thru was a spectacular experience, while the humble-seeming Jasper B. was a hilarious surprise from producer Cecil B. DeMille in Mack Sennett mode. The Wild Party was the nearest thing to a dud on the program, while Our Dancing Daughters is elevated above its soapy subject matter by powerhouse performances from Joan Crawford and Anita Page. But I'll have more to say about all of them in short order. For tonight congratulations are in order for the Pine Hills Film Colony along with encouragement for their next program tentatively scheduled for the fall. As for the Madison, despite switching to a primarily second-run format after being a repertory house for much of last year, the historic neighborhood theater still runs classic oldies or cult films every week, including Metropolis this week. Albany's a lucky town to have this theater as well as a thriving arthouse like the Spectrum. I hadn't been to the Madison for several months, more for personal reasons than anything else, but today was a perfect day to come back.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira (1908-2015)

The title of world's oldest person has changed hands twice this month but amid the coverage of those milestones I missed the passing of the world's oldest film director until I saw a small item on the Milestones page of the newest Time magazine today. To be exact, Oliveira (who died on April 2) had been the world's oldest active director, having released a short subject last November. If his name didn't pop up on Google News despite his record that was probably because he has no truly canonical classic in his filmography. He started out as a documentarian and really came into his own relatively late, in his sixties during the 1970s. As he pushed on, his work gained curiosity value, and curiosity was often rewarded by the quality or at least the ambition on Oliveira's work. I haven't seen very many of his films but was impressed by I'm Going Home (2001) and the death-enamored Strange Case of Angelica (2010), though less so by Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl (2009). Even then, I saw proof of a rigorous pictorial intellect, and Oliveira understandably worked in continuity with older literary and cultural traditions, so that his later films have always looked interesting, at least, on their own terms as well as for their testimony to their director's endurance. It's hard to know who to put on Oliveira's throne since the really old timers may put several years between projects. How much time must pass since the most recent feature before you can say a director's no longer active? For that matter, should we distinguish between fiction film makers and documentarians? Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, is still turning interviews filmed decades ago into feature-length films, most recently in 2013; he turns 90 this fall. Restricting ourselves to fiction film, the older of the Taviani brothers will be 86 this year and they have a new film out. Just behind Taviani in age are the always provocative Jean-Luc Godard and the sometimes indiscriminate Clint Eastwood, both of whom released acclaimed features last year. But who can say, other than their doctors, if older folks like Agnes Varda or Andrzej Wajda are really done yet? Oliveira gave them all something to shoot for, both by retaining his capability for so long and by actually having things to say until the end.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

James Best (1926-2015)

Twilight Zone screencap from the Shadow & Substance blog (
The other day I was watching Apache Drums (1951), a Hugo Fregonese western that was producer Val Lewton's last film. Early on a young man volunteers on what will prove a suicide mission. As soon as the actor spoke I recognized him as James Best, then nearly as young as I've ever seen him in movies. Best was going on 25 at the time and had only been making movies for about a year, including a small role in Winchester '73. Over the past couple of years I've watched a lot of movie and TV westerns from the genre's classic era. During that time I learned to appreciate Best as a welcome name in the credits. His versatile work as a character actor redeemed a performer I once despised by association with a show I despised and for which he'll regrettably be best remembered. On The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85) his Rosco P. Coltrane was a one-note clown who struck me as not just a poor man's Buford T. Justice (and that's starting poor) but an even poorer man's Sheriff Lobo, since Claude Akins, one of Best's classic-era peers, was also toiling thanklessly on redneck TV at the time. Best had his chance at bigger things. He came closest to genuine movie stardom in 1959 when he was top billed in Samuel Fuller's Verboten! and Ray Kellogg's The Killer Shrews. Of course the latter film is better remembered, thanks partly to Mystery Science Theater 3000. It's so well remembered that Best recreated his role in perhaps the most belated movie sequel ever, released in 2012. That was his penultimate film according to IMDB, but he was scheduled to appear in a new film before pneumonia claimed him this spring. Nearly everything he made had at least him going for it. To honor his memory, watch anything but the Dukes.

Monday, April 6, 2015


If the fiction film Timbuktu tempts you to punch a Muslim until you recall that a Muslim made it, Alex Gibney's HBO documentary expose of the Church of Scientology leaves you with fewer reservations about your desire to punch a Scientologist. You'll most likely want to punch a specific Scientologist: David Miscavige, the successor to founding father L. Ron Hubbard and the Stalin, it would seem, to Hubbard's Lenin. As portrayed here, Miscavige is a sinister twerp with none of Hubbard's lunatic charisma but plenty of dead-eyed will to power. Hubbard himself looks like a classic American mountebank, though he looks and sounds even more like that creepy "Friendly Angel" of that Star Trek episode. Like a figure possibly out of one of his own pulp fictions, Hubbard's face looks like a map of his character or lack of it. Gibney tells the old story, which Scientologists have struggled to discredit, of Hubbard telling folks that founding a religion was the way to make a fortune, but concludes that the old man came to believe his own buncombe, perhaps as part of a decline into paranoia. Nothing seems inspired or spiritual about Miscavige, but spirituality isn't what makes Scientology a religion. Actually, a campaign of harassment against the IRS made it a religion for the purposes of tax-exemption, but Going Clear suggests that Scientology is a more orthopractic than orthodox faith, defined less by Hubbard's mad mythology than by the constant practice of auditing for personal regulation and discipline.

The most alarming thing about the show was the resemblance it exposed between Scientology, and by extension many of the more notorious cults, and the totalitarian political movements that were its contemporaries. This became most clear when Miscavige was shown waging a kind of Cultural Revolution against his peers in the "Sea Org," the Scientology elite. He subjected them to a regime of constant auditing and humbling menial labor, much as those Chinese who ran afoul of Chairman Mao or his Red Guards were subject to constant struggle sessions, compulsory self-criticisms, menial labor -- and much worse, of course. Like the Marxist Leninists, Hubbard saw his revelation as a key to salvation, but salvation in each case required submission to unceasing self-surveillance and constant accountability to guides and guardians. Scientology promised empowerment, hence its continuing appeal, but as is often the case with religion or ideology empowerment came from submission, often to an abject extent, to an unworthy master. Yet the sympathy you might feel for the victims may be tempered by recalling that they were all of the elite that bilked the real rubes out of millions, if not by now billions of dollars. As in 1984 a special terror was reserved for those in the Party, so to speak, while the proles mostly went about their stupid lives. How much those suffered who merely bought copies of Dianetics without throwing thousands away on advanced study is hard to say. The show itself quotes Scientology advising such small-timers not to worry about believing all the mythology as long as practice improves their lives. For many if not most, Scientology is probably no more than another form of self-help, perhaps with special appeal for ambitious entertainers who look to John Travolta, Tom Cruise and others as models of success, while viewers of Going Clear may find those two more contemptible than ever. That this racket could also inspire terror in virtually political fashion makes the story of Scientology farcically tragic, but if my own reaction is typical you'll neither laugh nor cry but rage at what you learn. You'll want to see Miscavige in the stocks, or ridden out of some town, any town, on a rail, preferably in tar and feathers. Going Clear is one of the most infuriating movies I've seen in some time, but for once I'd like to compliment the director for getting me that way.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: THE TENDERFOOT (1932)

The interesting thing about Joe E. Brown as a comedy star is that you can never be certain how dumb his character's going to be. Brown's persona was neither the pathetic incompetent of silent days nor the verbal warrior of early talkies. His characters were often athletes or otherwise displayed some form of physical prowess, often accompanied by a naive arrogance that set him up for a temporary fall. Sometimes he could be more naive than arrogant, but you can never be as sure about him going in as you could be about his rivals. In Ray Enright's Tenderfoot Brown arrives in New York City braying like an idiot, playing a Texan with a big bankroll. At the station he's instantly beset by the big-city types who know a sucker when they see him. One tries to butter him up by calling him Colonel. How'd you know I was a colonel? Brown asks. Why, I just guessed, is the answer. Well, guess where I'm going he says, blowing the predator off. He runs a mini gauntlet of these types, from low-level gold diggers to a panhandler who can't take up Brown's offer of a free meal because he can't leave his "station" at the station. Brown may look and sound like a yokel -- his accent is more generic Yokel than authentic Texan -- but he's no fool, or so it seems. He seems a bit crazy, though, thinking he recognizes a junkman's horse as an animal he raised years ago. And when he goes crazy over Ginger Rogers his cunning fails him. She's no gold-digger but the long suffering secretary of a hack theatrical producer looking for an angel for his latest flop. The promise of proximity to her persuades him to buy 49% of the production, virtually wiping out his bankroll but leaving him with no authority. Brown may be cunning and he may be the best shot in his county of Texas but he has no taste in drama. His show has a disastrous preview in Syracuse -- how bad it really is is left to our imagination -- but he doubles down on it by buying out his senior partners, seeing that as the only way to keep an increasingly disgruntled and infatuated Ginger employed. We see him repeat to a new potential investor the same pitch he was given, and you'd think from that that he's acquired a sense of showmanship that can save Her Golden Sin, especially when he casts Ginger as the leading lady, but The Tenderfoot turns out to be a distant ancestor of The Producers, as the show succeeds only as an unintentional comedy when our hero has to dress his cast in Shakespearean costumes when those prove the only ones available.

Since we're denied the expected climax of the show's Broadway premiere, and because the main plot fell well short of feature length, Enright gives us an extended epilogue in which Brown must rescue Ginger from Broadway extortionists who kidnap her to induce him into paying $1,000 per ticket for a "benefit" event. This last reel makes up for any slapstick deficit in the main story as Brown goes full cowboy, raiding a tenement building (and bumping into an unbilled, malevolent Nat Pendleton along the way) and getting the drop on the extortionists. A brilliant little bit sums up Brown's appeal. He's just subdued a gangster who tried to jump him from behind and has the whole gang at bay before his two guns. He orders Ginger to get into a waiting getaway car while he boasts of his abilities. However, he's lost track of the layout of the room. Still talking, still boasting, he opens a door behind him. We see that it opens not into the hall but into a closet. Enright holds the moment so Brown's mistake can sink in for everyone, while Brown keeps up the rodomontade. Once everyone realizes what's going to happen the simple action becomes one of the best gags in the picture. He escapes, of course, and the ultimate climax is a slapstick montage of Brown's gunmanship and ropemanship wreaking havoc on the crooks. After that, Brown and Ginger go to Texas and have profoundly ugly children. Brown eschews his trademark yell in favor of presumably Texan whoops and hollers but remains a loveble bigmouth. He's not as smart as he thinks -- he uses "Ejaculations!" as a pretentious greeting, mistakes a swishy line of chorus cowboys for fellow Texans, and has never heard of matzoh balls -- but he's still smarter than most of the saps who star in slapstick, and his comparative independence from pathos makes Brown a perfect slapstick star for the Pre-Code era.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: CROONER (1932)

David Manners top-billed! Who knew the old boy, that avatar of bland, that pillar of ineffectuality, had it in him? Remembered today as a Jonathan Harker whose presence explains women's attraction to Bela Lugosi in the Universal Dracula, Manners was more than a male mannequin in horror pictures. He was very busy in the Pre-Code era, but usually in support of a female star. In that capacity he's probably at his best in Frank Capra's Barbara Stanwyck vehicle The Miracle Woman, for Columbia, but he spent most of his time at Warner Bros., and for his trouble Warners gave him the lead in this Lloyd Bacon satire a clef. The studio didn't do Manners any big favor, since the title character is an overrated jerk. The picture looks like a dig at Rudy Vallee, the "vagabond lover" who did the most to usher in the age of the "crooner," the popular singer whose style didn't depend on classical training. As Teddy Taylor, Manners wields Vallee's, famous megaphone, the device the crooner needed to project his voice in live performances back before they miked singers in clubs. In the film, Teddy's a bandleader filling in, badly, for the band's regular singer. Guy Kibbee as a drunken heckler hands Teddy the megaphone that will make him famous. To the confusion of many, the kids on the dance floor like how Teddy's voice sounds, and after some hard bargaining with niteclub manager J. Carroll Naish, and through the intervention of an agent (Ken Murray) who becomes his romantic rival, our hero becomes a radio star. Success predictably goes to his head, unobstructed by the revelation that the agent actually writes most of Teddy's fan mail himself. Soon Teddy has delusions of artistry, and Crooner becomes what I presume contemporary audiences would recognize as a parody of Ramon Novarro, M-G-M's latin lover who made a successful singing debut in talkies but tried to make too much of it with operatic training. Teddy's classical training produces results closer to Susan Alexander Kane than Novarro, and while Novarro was still a star, though fading, as Crooner came out, Teddy quickly sinks under the weight of pretension, abandoned by all his old friends until the agent nobly steps aside to let the girl (Ann Dvorak) rediscover him playing pickup gigs in a New Jersey nightspot. Whether it's back up from there the film doesn't say, and it doesn't matter since love, not Teddy, has won. As noted, this isn't a role designed to flatter its star, even though many actors played this rise-and-fall theme at the time. Suffice it to say that Manners is convincing as a smug and overrated jerk, while the story held my interest for its satiric and historical elements.  Notice, too, that despite Warner's good-faith effort, the newspaper ad gives Dvorak top billing. Some things just weren't meant to be. Manners would get top-billing twice more before he retired from cinema in 1936, if IMDB is correct, but both were Poverty Row pictures. Whatever fans he has today ought to treasure Crooner since, though neither his best or his most memorable picture, it shows the great mediocrity at the peak of his career.