Tuesday, January 17, 2017

From the DVR: Forty Little Mothers (1940)

In Jordan R. Young’s wonderful book The Laugh Crafters, veteran comedy writer Bob Weiskopf recalls that he joined the staff of Eddie Cantor’s radio program shortly after a movie that Cantor did for MGM, Forty Little Mothers (1940), was released to box office ennui.  In much the same manner that Jack Benny’s scribes later ridiculed his film The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Cantor’s team made certain “every week there was a joke in the show about how bad [Forty Little Mothers] was.”

Weiskopf continues: “And one day Cantor said, ‘No more jokes about Forty Little Mothers.’  What happened?  He got one letter from a lady in Nebraska: ‘It wasn’t a bad picture.’  That was the end of that.  All he needed was one letter.”  While I would probably side with the woman from the Cornhusker State as to the quality of Mothers as a motion picture (it’s not great, but it’s not terrible either), it’s a shame Banjo Eyes put the kibosh on what was apparently a rich vein of comedy waiting to be mined by the scribes who struggled to create laughter on his show week after week.

In Mothers, Eddie plays Gilbert Jordan Thompson—a once prosperous college professor who’s now down on his uppers after losing his job when the school at which he taught loses its endowment.  (Gilbert is so embarrassed about his current financial situation that he skips attending his own college reunion; he had been voted by his classmates “Most Likely to Succeed.”)  Thompson is at a point in his life where he’ll take any job to pay the rent, which is why he’s anxiously awaiting at the docks to see a man about working as a deck hand.  During his wait, he encounters someone else in the same down-and-out circumstances: young Marian Edwards (Rita Johnson), who is struggling to take care of her eight-month-old infant (Baby Quintanilla) after being abandoned by her husband.  Thompson stops Marian from committing suicide by jumping off the pier.

Gilbert then arranges for Marian to get a waitressing job, but is unaware that the baby he’s found abandoned in a ticket office is Marian’s son.  Thompson takes “Chum” home with him to his rooming house, and asks his landlady to keep an eye on the kid while he figures out a way to get his new roommate some milk.  The next thing you know, he’s standing before Judge Joseph M. Williams on charges of “liberating” a bottle of milk.  Williams is one of Gil’s old college classmates, and after quickly surmising that his old friend is too proud to admit how much of a financial bind he’s in, the judge arranges for Thompson to obtain a position teaching at a private school for girls.

The school is run by the autocratic Madame Madeleine Granville (Judith Anderson), who dismissed Thompson’s predecessor because he became an object of ardor among the female students.  Arriving on campus, Gilbert learns to his dismay that he’ll be expected to live on the grounds of Granville Academy…and that children under the age of fourteen are strictly verboten at the school.  Thompson must leave “Chum” with kindly Mama Lupini (Eva Puig) to keep his new assignment…a job that’s threatened by a coterie of students—led by Doris (Bonita Granville)—who want him fired and their former professor re-hired.

As you’ve probably guessed, the “forty little mothers” of this movie are Professor Thompson’s students...who later express regret at trying to get him dismissed once they discover his “little secret.”  Sworn to secrecy, the girls joyously adopt their new roles as adoptive mamas, and their “motherhood” generates more than a few chuckles as they surreptitiously knit “baby things” while engaged in their regular activities (swimming, archery, etc.).  The reactions from the academy’s instructors (an all-female staff—Thompson is the only male teacher) are riotously funny.

Scripted by Dorothy Yost and Ernest Pagano—they borrowed heavily from a 1936 French film Le Mioche, written by Jean Guitton—Forty Little Mothers is a most unusual Eddie Cantor vehicle.  The Ziegfeld Follies legend was best known for a series of spirited feature film comedies produced by Samuel Goldwyn in the 1930s—The Kid from Spain (1932), Roman Scandals (1933), etc.  Mothers was the only movie Cantor made for MGM, directed by Busby Berkeley with no trace whatsoever of his trademark choreographed audacity.  The movie is also atypical for the Tiffany’s of movie studios in that Mothers has only one musical number: Little Curly Hair in a High Chair.  (They get their money’s worth out of this ditty, though.)

Eddie Cantor is one of those entertainers that you either accept wholeheartedly or ask “What the hell is with the singing and prancing and hand-clapping?”  I liked his performance in Mothers (Cantor was clearly transitioning to more mature roles, as befitting an individual of his vintage) even though I’ll readily admit that the movie doesn’t quite measure up to his earlier films…and it certainly doesn’t skimp on the schmaltz.  (Well, it is MGM—you kind of have to expect that.  Also, too: this may very well be one of the rare Cantor films where he does not perform in blackface.)  I wish they had brought in a script doctor or two to punch up Mothers with some better jokes, but since this request will not be granted by the genius of the lamp we must settle for what’s onscreen.  The interaction between Cantor and the actresses who play “Chum” (“Baby Quintanilla” was actually a pair of female twins, Barbara Diann and Beverly Deann) provides a good deal of amusement, and there’s solid support from character favorite Nydia Westman, whose “Mademoiselle Cynthia Cliché” is very funny as a Granville teacher with a teensy crush on Cantor’s Thompson.  Sadly, they didn’t think to work in a Rebecca joke with the presence of Dame Judith Anderson…but she and Westman get Mothers’ biggest laugh when Dame Judith chastises Nydia on the proper method of holding a baby:

GRANVILLE: Anyone can tell you’ve never had children…
CLICHÉ: I can dream—can’t I?

This was Bonita Granville’s first film for MGM after leaving Warner Brothers (where she was best known for playing teen sleuth Nancy Drew in a brief movie franchise); Granville later married oil baron Jack Wrather, and the two of them occupied their time counting not only the money they made from all that light sweet crude but the proceeds from Wrather’s TV properties of The Lone Ranger and Lassie.  (Granville was the associate producer of Lassie for many seasons—and if I may borrow an old Fred Allen joke, it’s because she’s the only one who would associate with the producer.)  If you’ve got a bionic eye, you’ll spot Francis “Nyoka” Gifford and Veronica Lake (a source says she billed herself as Constance Keane) among the female contingent of Granville Academy. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

The state of the blog

As you can see by this morning’s review of The Red Skelton Hour in Color DVD collection, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is back in the blogging saddle.  I profusely apologize for being away so long; my original plan was to start applying the paddles to TDOY last week, but this cold my sister gave me for Christmas morphed into a wicked bout of flu—the kind where you don’t feel like doing anything outside of glancing at the trashcan that sits beside Count Comfy von Chair and marveling at the amount of Kleenex you’ve gone through.

Be that as it may, I did not spend all the time counting snot rags; no, indeedy—I was formulating plans towards once again revamping the content here at TDOY…and sadly, this means some of the regular features will be given their pink slips (they will, however, receive a most generous severance package).  I will not sugarcoat this: my reaction to some of these standbys is that they’re a little too much like work.  An example of this is B-Western Wednesdays; I like to sit down with a good oater with the best of them…but when it gets to the point where I’m looking at the calendar and saying to myself: “Geez, I need to set aside some time to watch a programmer for the blog before Wednesday”—well, that’s when watching movies ceases to be fun.  I want to write about movies I’ve recently glanced at for the joy of sharing them…not because I’m conforming to a schedule.

So while B-Western Wednesdays won’t disappear entirely from TDOY it’s been relegated to “irregular” status.  I’ve been kind of slack on the television material with regards to the blog, so I’m hoping to dust off some of my boob tube-related DVDs and watch a classic or two on occasion.  I mentioned in a previous post that Forgotten Noir Fridays will be wrapping it up in a few months, and I hope after that’s finished to welcome back the off-and-on Crime Does Not Pay shorts (I lucked out when the Warner Archive collection was on sale at Amazon and I picked up the entire set for a mere bag of shells).

The silent movies I write about on Thursdays will be sticking around, as will be Overlooked Films on TuesdaysOverlooked is kind of an extension of the “Where’s That Been” column I write for ClassicFlix, and I get a lot of pleasure out of sitting down with a movie that may have slipped under the radar of many a classic film fan.  Finally, I want to apologize for not getting the last TDOY giveaway started when I promised: I will have an announcement for this on Saturday, word of honor.  (It will be a month since the last swag contest, so everyone will get an opportunity to participate.)

2017 is going to be a dark year for many in the TDOY faithful.  Contrary to some of the smack being written about me on Twitter, I remain the happy-go-lucky individual dedicated to wallowing in nostalgia, and sharing that delight with like-minded classic movie and TV fans, so I’m hoping that the blog will provide a respite for those people who find themselves overwhelmed and just need a safety valve to restore a little bit of sanity.  As a wise cartoon Indian once said: “Hoopy doopy—we have fun!”  I most certainly intend to, and I invite you to join me.

“Good night…and may God bless…”

"A mime whose greatest success was on the radio.  A folk humorist in the years when American entertainment was becoming urban.  A vulgar knockabout at a time when American comedy was becoming sophisticated and verbal.  A naïve ne'er-do-well in the age of the self-conscious schlemiel.  Red Skelton's career is a study in how to miss every trend that comes down the pike."  This assessment of the legendary comedic clown by writer Ross Wetzsteon is excerpted by Leonard Maltin in his chapter on Red from his indispensable reference The Great Movie Comedians, and it’s one that’s stayed with me for many years—particularly the first sentence.

See, I am a huge fan of Red Skelton’s work…but I sincerely believe his shtick—what I have referred to many times in the past as his “Gallery of Grotesques”—worked better in an aural medium despite Skelton’s undeniable talent for pantomime and physical comedy.  I’ve had the marvelous pleasure to have worked on any number of collections of his radio broadcasts during my tenure at Radio Spirits—many of these shows have been previously uncirculated among old-time radio hobbyists, and have recently resurfaced with the stamp of approval from the Skelton estate.

That estate has not neglected the comedian’s television legacy, either.  You’ll find a myriad of DVD collections available from Skelton’s twenty-year boob tube reign as “the clown master,” and in casual conversations with those who share my obsession with nostalgia, I gleaned an impression that Red’s TV work is what they remember best.  (I don’t think my parents ever watched his show, so that’s why most of my memories are from radio.)  Time-Life added a magnificent set to the mix on January 3 of this year with The Red Skelton Hour in Color, a 3-DVD set featuring twelve episodes from Skelton’s mega-successful variety hour that convulsed audiences over CBS-TV on Tuesday nights from 1962 to 1970.  (Skelton made the leap into TV in 1951, but his weekly show was a half-hour for the first 11 years he was on the small screen.)

Many of the telecasts showcased on The Red Skelton Hour in Color haven’t been seen by audiences in over fifty years.  They are an incredible wallow in nostalgia; a time when the variety show format, practiced by TV legends like Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, the Smothers Brothers, etc., amused millions of viewers who wanted little more from that appliance in their living room than an hour of non-think entertainment.  The Red Skelton Hour naturally attracted big-name celebrities as guest stars; you’ll be delighted at seeing the likes of John Wayne, Phyllis Diller, and Mickey Rooney cavort with Skelton, who, it would appear, started the long TV variety hour tradition of not taking the proceedings too seriously…breaking up his guests with wild ad-libs and unrehearsed asides at every opportunity.

My favorite show on the collection is a September 24, 1968 outing featuring Thrilling Days of Yesteryear idols Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as a pair of mad scientists who are convinced that Skelton’s Clem Kadiddlehopper is their robot creation come to life.  (Price, Karloff, and Skelton also do a hilarious musical number in the same telecast.)  Clem is also the focus of a September 20, 1966 telecast with guest stars Rooney (who does a first-rate job alongside Skelton…and I say this as an individual who accepts all things Mick with the enthusiasm of a proctology exam) and Simon & Garfunkel, and a Diller outing from January 23, 1968 that also features Lou Rawls (performing “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”).  Skelton does “Deadeye” in two telecasts on the Color set: a December 13, 1966 episode featuring Robert Goulet and a hilarious show from October 15, 1968 with “The Big Mouth” herself, Martha Raye.

Merv Griffin guest stars in a March 18, 1969 show that’s sort of unusual in that Red does one of his radio characters that didn’t receive the prominence that favorites like Clem and Deadeye would later achieve on TV: obnoxious Brooklynite Bolivar Shagnasty (“T’ink nothin’ of it!”).  The Griffin telecast also lets Skelton do my two favorites in his repertoire: Cauliflower McPugg and Willie Lump-Lump (“You don’t look right, boy…you just don’t look right!”)  Some of Red’s radio creations never really made a smooth transition to the small screen; the comedian did “Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid” on many occasions but the visual medium spoiled the effect—he looked like an adult with a severe case of arrested development.  To offset this, Skelton introduced new characters like Freddie the Freeloader, who’s the focus of an October 31, 1967 show that features not only Tim Conway but Jackie Coogan and Nancy “That Was the Week That Was” Ames.  (“There’s nothing like a well-rehearsed show,” Skelton ad-libs to Conway when a comedy prop doesn’t work as planned.  “And this is nothing like a well-rehearsed show.”)

With a January 14, 1969 telecast guest starring Audrey Meadows, Red frolics as another of his boob tube creations, George Appleby (he has a funny ad-lib for one of Audrey’s zingers: “No wonder Ralph Kramden divorced you!”).  (This show also features one of Red’s most beloved routines: his interpretation of The Pledge of Allegiance.)  Two of the telecasts on this collection casts Skelton as Forsooth Fromkiss, a simpleton who’s apprentice to the scion (played by Milton Berle) of a torture device salesman in a January 4, 1966 outing, and sidekick to Christopher Columbus (guest star “Lonesome” George Gobel) from February 14, 1967.  The Berle and Gobel shows are a lot of fun to watch, because Skelton seems to have a great deal of fun matching wits with his fellow comics.

The Duke himself, John Wayne, appears on the remaining shows on The Red Skelton Hour in Color.  The earliest telecast is dated March 1, 1966, and allows Red to reprise many of the routines requested by TV viewers (including his legendary “donut dunking” routine, which cemented his fame in vaudeville).  (This type of telecast was apparently a Red Skelton Hour tradition, known as “The Skelton Scrapbook”—a kind of callback to his radio days, when many of the broadcasts were identified as “The Skelton Scrapbook of Satire.”)  An October 28, 1969 show pays tribute to Wayne’s forty years in the movies, and features a hilarious routine where Red plays a variety of autograph hounds encountering The Duke on the street.  In the set-up to the bit, Red suggests that Wayne “pretend you’re a movie star—you’ve been doing that for years, see…”

This produces a hearty guffaw from The Duke, prompting Skelton to observe: “That’s what I like—a guy who can laugh at himself!”  “You’ve been doing that for years!” Wayne retorts, to loud audience laughter and applause.  Another great thing about the Skelton Hour shows is seeing familiar character faces; I spotted Henry Corden in two programs, not to mention Peggy Rea, Elaine Joyce (in a see-through dress that you have to see to believe), Grady Sutton, David Sharpe (Grady and Dave are Boy Friends alumni!), Bern Hoffman, Stanley Adams, and Robert “I was kicked in the haid by a mule” Easton.

I’m not going to lie to you.  A lot of the material on these telecasts (Skelton’s writing staff during the 1960s included hard-working scribes like Charlie Isaacs, Fred S. Fox & Seaman Jacobs, Bobs Weiskopf & Schiller, and Dave O’Brien—the guy from the MGM Pete Smith shorts) are crammed with wheezy jokes that even Abbott & Costello might have considered abandoning.  But there’s an unbeatable sense of free-wheeling mirth (even Red refers to his hour as “a hokey old show”) that’s positively infectious, and at the risk of resorting to a hoary cliché—they truly don’t make them like this anymore.  The 3-DVD set of The Red Skelton Hour in Color (Skelton was the first CBS star to tape his programs in color) is great entertainment for the SRP of $29.95 (and for those of you watching your pennies, a single disc with four shows is available for $12.95), and it’s wonderful having the work of a tried-and-true comedic icon available for a new generation of fans.  (Gracious thanks to my pal Michael Krause at Foundry Communications for providing the blog with the screener.)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Roll Yuletide!

Merrrrrrrrry Christmas, cartooners!  Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays to every member of the TDOY faithful!  I had hoped to get back into the blogging habit by Wednesday of this week…but I’m having too much fun spending quality time with the family (both the ‘rents and sisters Kat and Debbie), so I’ve decided to extend my holiday vacation through the rest of this week.  (Plus, I’m trying to shake off a really wicked cold, an extra Christmas gift from Kat.)

The ‘rents and I joined Kat and her partner’s family for a sabbatical in a big honkin’ cabin located in beautiful downtown Lake Lure, NC.  Now…I must admit that I shed my country boy origins many years ago—but the retreat was rather sweet, and everyone ended up having a swell time.  (Particularly Mom and Dad, who don’t get out of the house much.)  The food was fantastic (we had the traditional Roast Beast, and it was amazing), the company most pleasurable…and I got the opportunity to meet-and-greet with a cousin whom I have not seen in over thirty years.  I was also amused by the antics of my nephew Davis, who plays Monopoly as if he were auditioning to be the Mini-Me version of Donald J. Trump.  (I’m not making this up.  He kept running around, holding a wad of Monopoly cash and singing out “I’m really rich!”)

We returned to Rancho Yesteryear just in time to greet sister Debbie and her family, who’ll be staying with us until Sunday; they gifted me with some Amazon gift cash that I have socked away for blank DVD-R emergencies.  I’d like to send out a special “You’re good people” to Todd, who also bestowed me with a gift card—this one of the Barnes & Noble variety (it was put to good use purchasing the third season DVD release of Lou Grant).  Sister Kat got me some goodies for a stocking, including some antique collectables of two of my personal heroes, pictured below:

I mostly received presents of the “spanking new duds” variety, but I did splurge a bit and took advantage of a couple of Blu-ray sets that were on sale at Amazon.com for one day only: The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection and The Honeymooners “Classic 39” Episodes.  (I told Rick “Cultureshark” Brooks about this last one, and he, too, was able to capitalize on the sale price.  Fa la la la la la la la la…)  I feel kind of bad that I wasn’t able to mail out the traditional custom-made TDOY Christmas cards (I had a last minute medical matter that gobbled up the Shutterfly funds I had set aside for that cause) but I do want to thank everyone who sent a bit of holiday cheer in card form to the House of Yesteryear—I promise there will be cards sent out in 2017.

I hope everyone had as splendiferous a Yuletide as I did…and since this looks like the last post in 2016, I want to extend a hearty handclasp to one and all as we roll in 2017.  (I have a feeling we’re going to need all the luck that’s available.)  Auld Lang Syne, cartooners!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: The Case of the Baby Sitter (1947)

In 1947, movie mogul Robert L. Lippert decided to “liberate” Hal Roach’s “streamliner” concept—very short features running anywhere from 40-50 minutes—by producing a pair of detective films starring Tom Neal, the doomed protagonist of the B-noir classic Detour (1945).  Neal played would-be gumshoe Russ Ashton, who takes over an investigative agency that’s down on its uppers, hiring Howard “Harvard” Quinlan (Allen Jenkins) as his partner (though “Harvard” seems to be around mostly for sh*ts and giggles) and Susie Hart (Pamela Blake) as his gal Friday.  Susie is the focus of the first entry, The Hat Box Mystery (1947), in which she’s hired to take a candid of a philandering wife…and winds up involved in murderHat Box also introduced Harvard’s girlfriend, Veronica Hoopler (Virginia Sale), who runs a nearby diner and feeds our sleuthing trio until they can make their bidness a resounding success.

The quartet returned that same year in The Case of the Baby Sitter, which finds Ashton and Company hired to look after the infant scion of the Duke and Duchess of Leradia (George Meeker, Rebel Randall) while the royals attend a function.  The task of keeping an eye on the nipper falls on the dimwitted Harvard…but what our detective heroes do not know is that a) there is no such place as Leradia, and b) the Duke and Mrs. Duke are actually a pair of jewel thieves, Phil and Mamie.  They’ve pulled a double-cross on a safecracker named Silk (Keith Richards—and no, not the Rolling Stones guy) in a heist involving the famous LaPaz diamond…and now Silk, with the help of his moll Maxine (Lona Andre), is going to retrieve the stolen gem while double-crossing his boss”—a gangster appropriately nicknamed “Diamonds” (Ed Kane).

This kid gets his own credit, by the way.  I wish I had his agent.

“Murder Stalked the Nursery...With Diamonds as the Pay-Off!” the promotional material for The Case of the Baby Sitter hyperbolizes, because there isn’t any murderer…and even the (always reliable) IMDb credits the child thespian pictured above as “The Kidnapped Baby”—the little rugrat never leaves his freakin’ crib, ferchrissake.  There isn’t any time in Baby Sitter for this kind of interesting plot development, because most of its 40 minutes has been assigned to the comic relief provided by Jenkins, who is apparently in this vehicle only because Sid Melton had not yet been invented.  The rounding up of the jewel scofflaws is very quick—it’s almost like the filmmakers looked at their watches and remarked: “Geez, this thing is about over…we need to wrap this up pronto.”

My esteemed ClassicFlix colleague—and the man who makes doubly certain the boxes of Goobers and Raisinettes are stacked neat and pretty at In the Balcony—Cliff Weimer has a slightly higher opinion of The Case of the Baby Sitter than I do…though having Allen around is always a plus (he gets more screen time than “star” Tom Neal, interestingly enough) as is the small contribution of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear fave Tom Kennedy as a dumb cop (there’s a stretch) and easy-on-the-eyes Rebel Randall as one of the baddies.  (Kennedy was also present and accounted for in The Hat Box Mystery—though I don’t know if he played the same character he did in Baby Sitter; I haven’t seen Hat Box yet.)  The mercifully short running time of this movie is its chief saving grace, because the script is pedestrian and the production values slightly above that of a set for a dinner theater production.  (Cliff wonders if these two films were planned as episodes for early television…though I tend to agree with him that since they were produced in 1947 that seems awfully early for TV.)

The Case of the Baby Sitter is the second “co-hit” on VCI’s Forgotten Noir Volume 9 set…and at the risk of going off on a rant, there’s nothing remotely “noir” about this entry (though its “Forgotten” status is never without question).  The debate about what constitutes “film noir” rages on in salons and saloons even today; my definition is not unlike that of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s explanation on what defines pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

But with Baby Sitter, that’s the last of the Forgotten Noir releases from the dusty TDOY archives—this feature will continue on Fridays for a couple more months (because I rented some of the later volumes from ClassicFlix), and when I’m done with that—I’ll re-launch the snarky Crime Does Not Pay write-ups that I did previously on an intermittent basis.  If I’m absent from the blog for a couple of days next week, it’s because I will probably be performing in the annual Christmas with the ‘Rents here at Rancho Yesteryear (with special guest stars Sisters Kat and Debbie) …but I’ll try to check in to make sure those dang neighborhood kids haven’t swiped the wreath off the front door.  Happy Holidays, cartooners!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

“You never dreamed a film could be so funny!”

Filmmaker Robert Youngson considered 1960’s When Comedy Was King his personal favorite of all his feature-length film compilations showcasing classic footage from silent movies (with a heavy concentration on those immortal mirthmakers from that era).  Historian Richard M. Roberts isn’t bashful about saying it’s Youngson’s best work, either, and his commentary for the recent Sprocket Vault release of WCWK (restored from “full-frame 35mm fine grains”) is a valentine to the man who can accept the responsibility for stoking the interest of future movie collectors and buffs in “The Golden Age of Comedy” (the title of Youngson’s 1957 feature).  As you may have surmised from frequent visits to this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere, I owe Mr. Youngson a debt of gratitude as well; his 1967 compilation The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy*, as well as exposure to the Columbia two-reel comedies that ran like tap water on WCHS-TV (in Charleston, WV) in my youth, were the stepping stones to the movie mania that has thankfully dominated my very existence to this day.

When Comedy Was King highlights some truly classic comedy from its most accomplished practitioners.  Charlie Chapin is well-represented with clips from several of his Keystone comedies (The Masquerader [1914], His Trysting Place [1914], etc.) and a generous portion of Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922) is also featured.  (As Richard explains in WCWK’s commentary track, Cops was in the public domain—allowing Youngson to use the footage without having to make any deals with Satan incarnate, Raymond Rohauer.**  I’m not joking about this last part.  Roberts spits out Rohauer’s name in the same disdainful manner with which people say “Nazi Germany.”  If you’d like to learn more about the man who’s currently watching Dippy-Doo-Dads comedies for the rest of eternity in Movie Hell, Google “Raymond Rohauer.”)  Harold Lloyd is absent from WCWK because Lloyd still owned most of his oeuvre; he's also MIA in The Golden Age of Comedy (1957).

You’ll also find footage from funsters such as Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle (with Mabel Normand and Al St. John in the classic Fatty and Mabel Adrift [1916]), ‘Snub’ Pollard (It’s a Gift [1923]), Ben Turpin (Yukon Jake [1924]), and Billy Bevan (several comedies including 1925’s Super Duper Dyne Lizzies and Wandering Willies [1926]).  The opening credits of WCWK are run over Charley Chase’s last silent short, Movie Night (1929), and the film concludes with a truncated version of one of the most hilarious of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy shorts, Big Business (1929—the perfect example of what historian John McCabe once called The Boys’ “reciprocal destruction”).  (Richard observes of Business that there’s more truth in those two reels “than in Intolerance or any one reel of any Carl Dreyer film.”)  Highlights from one of the most gut-bustingly funny two-reel comedies I’ve ever watched (and which I wrote about here), A Pair of Tights (1928—with the female comedy team of Anita Garvin and Marion “Peanuts” Byron), is also included in WCWK, as is a portion of Teddy at the Throttle (1917)***, a vintage Mack Sennett treat featuring Bobby Vernon, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, and “Teddy the Dog.”

I’ve reviewed two Youngson collaborations previously at TDOY: Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) and 4 Clowns (1970).  In my piece on Laughter, I noted that Richard and I had an e-mail conversation on the importance of these features that many consider “old-hat” and “corny” today.  RMR couldn’t emphasize enough that in instance after instance, Youngson’s movies often contained the only extant footage of classic silent film comedies; an excellent example in When Comedy Was King is Harry Langdon’s The First 100 Years (1924).  The footage of that short that you see in WCWK: that’s all that survives, brother.  (There was an attempt to track down this two-reel comedy at the time the All-Day Entertainment project Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection was being put together…and every possible lead turned up bupkis.)  Footage from another comedy featured in WCWK, Bevan’s Wall Street Blues (1924), was reconstructed by British collector Dave Glass using the footage from this movie and other sources, and a complete version of the comedy premiered at Slapstickcon in 2013.  (“You can now find it on YouTube,” deadpans RMR.)

But back to that “old-hat” and “corny” thing.  It’s important to note that even when the Youngson movies got maudlin (the chief culprit is that “Bring Back the Laughter” song from 1963’s 30 Years of Fun) they were always made with the utmost reverence for the comedians and personalities featured in those movies.  Robert’s features laid the groundwork for a renewed interest in silent movie comedy, and that’s why listening to Richard’s commentary on this DVD release is such a delight (I watched the movie sans commentary at first, and then ran it a second time).  I enjoy hearing how Youngson’s releases inspired RMR to not only collect these films but also to pursue a career writing about these classics; Roberts leaves no detail unturned as he meticulously documents Youngson’s career (covering his various productions and the people who worked with him) while making pointed and pertinent remarks on how these classics were previously presented pre-Youngson.  (RMR can add “impressionist” to his thespic resume when he channels Pete Smith—“Oh, my…”)  By the time Roberts reminisces about his budding collector days by being seduced by Blackhawk Films, I was saying out loud: “That could have been me…if I had been able to buy a home movie projector.”  (I remember salivating over each Blackhawk catalog—I started getting them because I purchased a few “Radio Reruns” cassettes from the company—and reading the descriptions on the Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase shorts for sale with something I can only describe as sheer rapture.)

Richard Roberts’ lifelong acquisition of silent comedies is an added benefit due to the bonus material on the When Comedy Was King DVD: there are three comedies from his collection included, notably the Ton of Fun romp Heavy Love (1926—reviewed here).  I got a real kick out of Lige Conley’s Fast and Furious (1924), and enjoyed Hughie Mack and Dot Farley in An Elephant on His Hands (1920) …even if it did leave me a little bewildered.  (As I suspected, Richard’s print of Heavy Love is a vast improvement over the one featured on the Alpha Video DVD.)  If you are a silent comedy maven like I am, you need to add this edition of WCWK to your DVD library; and if you need to toss out your old Televista copy (gleaned from an inferior 16mm print) I will not judge you.  To the good people at The Sprocket Vault: more like this, please!

*The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy was my introduction to one of The Boys’ oddest two-reel comedies, Early to Bed (1928).  When I finally got the opportunity to see Bed in its entirety many, many years later…I noticed it didn’t play as well as when I first saw it in Further Perils.  So I was pleased to learn while listening to RMR’s commentary that it wasn’t just me; he believes Youngson’s editing of the short for his feature improved the material substantially.

**Blame Raymond Rohauer for the reason why a DVD release of 4 Clowns may never come to fruition.  The movie concludes with a thirty-five-minute version of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925), and was licensed for use in Clowns for only a brief period.  (Rohauer was a first-rate swine…even if we grudgingly owe him for preserving the cinematic legacy of The Great Stone Face.)

***I can’t remember the name of the ABC-TV special in the 1970s (it was a salute to the movies—perhaps someone out there in YesteryearLand can help me out) but it’s on that telecast that I first saw (an excerpt, I’m sure) Teddy at the Throttle.  It was probably the oldest movie (outside of the Chaplin Mutuals) that I had viewed at that time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Partners of the Sunset (1948)

Rancher Bill Thompson (Steve Darrell) returns from a business trip to Tucson…and boy, does he have some swell news for his son Dan (Jay Kirby)!  Janice (Christine Larson), the pretty little gal at his side, is now his new mom…and no one should be surprised that Dan takes this bulletin with all the enthusiasm of a proctology exam.  It’s mostly due to Janice being old enough to be his younger sister, but that don’t make no never mind to Bill: they’re married, and if Dan doesn’t like it he can lump it.

Dan doesn’t like it, and so he vamooses from the ranch—bitter about the fact that his pop has reneged on his promise to bequeath him some of the horses they raise on their spread.  Ranch foreman Jimmy Wakely (himself) and chief-cook-and-bottle-washer “Cannonball” (Dub Taylor) ride into town in an attempt to patch things up between father and son.  Actively working against this reunion is stepmother Janice, who’s really a conniving little rhymes-with-witch out to take Bill’s fortune.  She’s assisted in this endeavor by her brother Les (Leonard Penn) …who isn’t her brother at all!  (Quel plot twist!)  The scheming pair cleverly frame Dan for his father’s murder, and it’s Jimmy (once again) to the rescue.

The fifty-three-minute length of Partners of the Sunset (1948)—and if you can figure out how that title connects with the plot of this movie, the phone lines are open—makes it just slightly longer than your run-of-the-mill episode of a typical TV western.  This doesn’t make it a terrible movie, you understand—it’s just that the overall presentation covers a lot of all-too-familiar territory.  Boyd Magers at Western Clippings gives this Jimmy Wakely programmer two stars, which seems about right…maybe I would bump it up half-a-star.  It’s painless to take, and Jimmy sings a couple of nice up-tempo ditties in It’s a Beautiful Day (Wakely sings and curries his horse as his bandmates accompany him on fiddle, guitar, and steel guitar—the way country music should be) and Press Along to the Big Corral.

The pluses in Sunset include a very good performance from Christine Larson, who’s a cut-above your usual B-Western ingénue—particularly when she’s fluctuating back-and-forth between sweet-as-apple-pie wifey and wicked stepmother.  She’s joined in her villainy by Leonard Penn (as Les, the “brother” who has difficulty keeping his hands off his sis), and between the two of them they are ruthless in their intentions to make sure Dan swings for fratricide (Les is really responsible for the vile deed, hitting Bill with one of those figurines that folks used to keep around the house for just such occasions).

You also can’t go wrong with having Dub Taylor as your sidekick if you find yourself in the occupation of singing cowboy; there’s a running gag throughout Sunset where “Cannonball” is desperately trying to catch an elusive fish (“Ol’ Smokey”) that will produce a stray chuckle or two, and Cannonball also gets some funny lines. (Jimmy: “What’s with the funny look?” Cannonball: “I always look this way!”)  The rest of the cast is dependable if not remarkable; the only name I recognized other than Wakely’s and Taylor’s was Marshall Reed, who was a regular on TV’s The Lineup (a.k.a. San Francisco Beat).  Marsh plays a bad hombre who agrees to help young Dan swipe those horses from his pa’s ranch, and winds up in a well-shot saloon donnybrook with Jimmy (well…more like Jimmy’s stuntman, Bob Woodward).  (Reed’s character connects right on Wakely’s button in one scene, which made me laugh out loud.)

Directed by master journeyman Lambert Hillyer (who helmed a previous Wakely vehicle covered in this space, 1949’s Gun Law Justice) and scripted by B-Western veteran J. Benton Cheney (I see Cheney’s credit on a lot of episodes of The Cisco Kid before I watch those Trackdown episodes I DVR off of Heroes & Icons), Partners of the Sunset is little more than a passable time-killer from one of the silver screen’s most engaging sagebrush presences...but that don’t make it all bad, as a cowpoke once explained to me.  It’s on DVD, available for purchase or rent on the Warner Archive MOD set Monogram Cowboy Collection: Volume 1.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"Well, I like it—I don't dig it...but I like it."

In Guide for the Film Fanatic, movie historian Danny Peary describes the 1978 biopic American Hot Wax thusly: “Floyd Mutrux's affectionate facts-out-the-window tribute to the late Alan Freed, regarded as the first white deejay to play black music, has as flimsy a storyline as those fifties "B" rock 'n roll movies in which Freed appeared.”  Go, Johnny, Go! (1959) was the last of those B-pictures to feature “Mr. Rock ‘n Roll,” just before his career came crashing down due to the early 60s “payola” scandal in the radio industry.  Freed, who demonstrated admirable integrity by refusing to commit perjury by denying he had ever participated in “payola,” lost his New York broadcasting license (in addition to paying a hefty fine) and finished out his career with stations on the West Coast and Florida before his death (cirrhosis of the liver and uremia) on January 20, 1965.

Freed plays himself in Go, Johnny, Go! in a story centering on a publicity stunt cooked up by his publicist (played by veteran character great Herb Vigran!) in which Freed is looking to discover a dynamic new singing talent.  His discovery will be dubbed “Johnny Melody” and promoted as a rock ‘n roll sensation as only the popular rock ‘n roll deejay can.  A young orphan (Jimmy Clanton) whose actual name is Johnny (we never learn his real last name, because orphan) believes he’s just the artist Freed is looking for, and during the movie’s running time employs every trick at his disposal to get to “Moondog.”  When a demo cut by Johnny and played by Alan on his radio show becomes a smash, the search for “Johnny Melody” intensifies; with the help of Johnny’s girl Julie (Sandy Stewart), Freed and Melody are brought together and Johnny’s future career in the music business is solidified.  (Well, for a while I’m guessing.  Until he winds up having to play one of those “garden parties” that Rick Nelson memorably bitched about in song.)

Go, Johnny, Go! has been remastered and restored in High-Definition for the first time on DVD…and that disc has been released by The Sprocket Vault, the new distribution arm of Kit Parker Films which I previously mentioned in a November blog post.  (The Johnny DVD is an Amazon exclusive.)  It’s a nice little nostalgic wallow back to those halcyon days when, as the press release for the DVD states, “Rock & Roll changed 1950s America at 45 revolutions per minute.”  It’s not great art by any stretch of the imagination: the acting is amateurish, the scripting merely standard, and the cost of the entire production was likely generated from the change for a five-dollar bill.  Still, it’s impossible to dislike the movie, and there’s enough novelty in the finished product to appeal to diehard rock ‘n roll fans and classic movie buffs (there’s an overlap on the Venn diagram, natch).

Chiefly of interest to your humble narrator was the presence of the legendary Chuck Berry, who as of this writing is still “reelin’ and rockin’” at the age of 90.  Chuck not only performs some classic tunes (Memphis, Tennessee and Little Queenie—plus Johnny B. Goode is played over the opening credits) but he displays some impressive thespic chops despite his amateur status.  Berry plays Alan’s “sidekick,” unusual for the time in that in most movies from that era Chuck would likely be assigned the role of the janitor (played by William Fawcett in this one).  (Chuck comes off a lot better than Freed, who’s stiff as a board, and Jimmy Clanton, who’s white bread bland.  The individuals on the DVD’s commentary track jokingly suggest that Berry is the movie’s Hoagy Carmichael, which cracked me up.)  This was Chuck’s third time appearing with the man to whom he credited for his career (despite their later squabbles); Berry can also be seen in Rock Rock Rock! (1956) and Mister Rock and Roll (1957).  Berry and Clanton are pretty much the only performers required to do any acting in Go, Johnny, Go!—the other acts do whatever musical numbers they’ve been assigned, and then quickly exit stage left.

Chuck, Alan, and Company jam on Little Queenie. (Spoiler warning: Freed is faking the drum-playing.)

Still, there’s one heck of a lineup here: Ritchie Valens, in his only feature film appearance, performs Ooh My Head, and the great Eddie Cochran (in his third and final film appearance) rocks out on Teenage Heaven.  (It’s a shame that we couldn’t have performances of Valens’ Donna or La Bamba—or in Cochran’s case, Summertime Blues or C’mon Everybody—but at the time movies like Go, Johnny, Go! were released the songs in those films were intended to promote current singles…and not classic ones.  Sucks for posterity, unfortunately.)  Jackie Wilson—“Mr. Excitement” himself—is one of the movie’s highlights, with an energetic version of You’d Better Know It (Jackie’s moves were later “liberated” by James Brown, I noticed), and The Flamingos (in a far cry from their better known doo-wop ballads like I Only Have Eyes For You) demonstrate some bodacious Nicholas Brothers-like dance executions while performing the rousing Jump Children.  The Cadillacs (“They often call me Speedo…”) also contribute to the fun with the Coasters-like Jay Walker and Please Mr. Johnson; rounding out the musical acts are Harvey Fuqua (formerly of The Moonglows) and Jo Ann Campbell.

Jo Ann Campbell channels her inner Brenda Lee for Mama, Can I Go Out (written by Bo Diddley!). Jo Ann's biggest pop success was I'm the Girl From Wolverton Mountain, an "answer song" to Claude King's 1962 country-pop smash.

Jimmy Clanton performs four songs in Go, Johnny, Go! and a duet with Sandy Stewart (she also gets a pair of numbers), Once Again…and I should be honest—Clanton’s the weakest thing in the movie.  (The title of the film might have inspired Clanton’s Top Ten single Go Jimmy Go, released later that year.)  Jimmy would appear in one more film, Teenage Millionaire (1961) …and though I probably shouldn’t say this since I haven’t seen Millionaire, it’s a good thing Jimmy kept his day job.  (If given the opportunity, I’d watch Millionaire; with a cast consisting of Rocky Graziano, Zasu Pitts, and Maurice Gosfield—and musical numbers from Jackie Wilson, Chubby Checker, and Dion—it would be worth a flutter.)  The romance between Clanton and Stewart will produce a lot of wristwatch-glancing…but fortunately, there’s always a musical number waiting in the wings to break that monotony.

C'mon everybody!

Shot in five days (gosh—you’d never be able to tell!) as the last film to come out of the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, CA (it would be released by the ill-fated Valiant Films, who were also responsible for Terror is a Man [1959] and The Flesh and the Fiends [1960]), Go, Johnny, Go! was written by Gary Alexander (his only feature film credit, according to the [always reliable] IMDb) and directed by Paul Landres.  Early Landres efforts like Square Dance Jubilee (1949) and Hollywood Varieties (1950) have been made available on a series of VCI “Showtime USA” releases…and on some of those same discs, film historians Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt, and Brent Walker provided audio commentary.  Well, they’ve got the band back together: RMR, Randy, and Brent are also on the commentary track of Go, Johnny, Go! and are the primary reason why you should be putting this disc in your Amazon shopping cart right now.  (Full disclosure: Rich graciously arranged for the Johnny screener, and both Randy and Brent are Facebook chums.)

Play it again!  (And again!  And again!)

Because of their expertise—Roberts is the author of Smileage Guaranteed, Skretvedt’s latest book is a revised “ultimate” edition of his previous Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, and Walker is the author of the indispensable Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory—all three men provide fascinating tidbits of trivia on both the performers and the production history of Go, Johnny, Go!  This might only be amusing to a character actor devotee like myself—but when an uncredited Dick Elliott turns up as the man impatiently waiting for Clanton to finish a call in a telephone booth, Brent points out that Elliott played “Mike Clancy” in several Bowery Boys films (Walker is the co-author of a favorite movie reference book of mine, The Films of the Bowery Boys).  (Richard sings out: “It’s the Mayor of Mayberry!”)  There are any number of familiar character faces in this feature film guaranteed to delight classic movie fans including Milton Frome, Frank Wilcox, Martha Wentworth, Phil Arnold, and Joe Flynn (uncredited as the guy who gives Clanton his walking papers at his usher job).

Movies like Go, Johnny, Go! were produced at a time when disapproving bluenoses were convinced “that crazy rock ‘n roll music” was just a passing fad, and yet they were going to make a buck from the phenomenon while it was still popular.  (Milton Frome’s character in the film, a choir director who kicks Johnny out because Mr. Melody is caught singing an up-tempo member, represents the “tsk-tsk” contingent…until he gets rock ‘n roll religion at the end.)  Grab a copy of this DVD and enjoy a perfectly preserved time capsule of performances from some of the best artists rock ‘n roll had to offer.