Thursday, November 8, 2007

Silents is golden

In light of my introducing my niece to the cheerful subversiveness of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and the rapt attention I’ve recently devoted to silent film over the past two or three weeks, it should come as no surprise that I decided to revisit a series sired in the stables of iconoclastic television producer Jay Ward: namely, Fractured Flickers. Flickers, a syndicated comedy series that may very well be—with the possible exception of Hoppity Hooper—the most obscure of Ward’s works, utlilized a concept that was splendid in its simplicity: take one silent masterwork, edit it to six-minute length, add a riotous script (from scribes that included Chris Hayward and Allan Burns) heavily seasoned with equally funny voices (provided by members of Ward's stock company: Paul Frees, June Foray, and co-producer/writer Bill Scott), mix and stir. And voila! Instant comedy! (I should point out, however, that Flickers was hardly an innovative series: television genius Ernie Kovacs did similar silent spoof sketches on his TV specials as well. In fact, the recent DVD re-release of The Best of Ernie Kovacs contains a bit in one of the half-hours in which he plays a harried director driven to distraction by attempting to maintain control over a picture easily identified as serial stinkeroo The Clutching Hand [1936].)

My introduction to Fractured Flickers occurred during the halcyon days of The Comedy Channel, before it was forced into a shotgun marriage to Ha! and became Comedy Central. It was part of a Sunday morning lineup that also included Spike Jones, Jack Benny and the Robert Klein-hosted Dead Comics Society. I only remember watching a handful of episodes, but I found Flickers’ content so rib-tickling that when VCI Entertainment released the series’ complete run on DVD in 2004, I snapped up a copy faster than you can say “Francis X. Bushman.” (For those of you who may be wondering why it’s taken me three years to get around to opening this up…well, I have a backlog. So sue me.)

On Flickers, silent movie classics like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) were savagely sent up into mini-sagas like Dinky Dunstan: Boy Cheerleader. (Lon Chaney, Jr. did not see the humor in this revisionism; he threatened to sue the show’s producers, labeling the sketch “a shameful, irresponsible act against an indefensible screen immortal.” Joan Crawford, no slouch in silent films herself, concurred, calling Flickers “a horrible idea”—though I should point out that this was long before she agreed to star in Trog [1970].) In turn, Richard Barthelmess’ gridiron hero in The Drop Kick (1927) was transformed into an inept footballer (“1-2-3-O’Leary…”) in Cornell Goes Wilde, and John Barrymore masterful performance in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920) was warped in Do Me a Flavor, in which a renowned chemist’s mad experiments yield the perfect chocolate seltzer.

The Barrymore-like Hans Conried was tabbed to host the series, and a better choice could not have been found (Conried voiced several characters in Ward’s various cartoon series—his best-known being the diabolical Snidely Whiplash in Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties). The actor’s unbridled sarcasm and snide this-program-is-beneath-my-dignity persona was a perfect match that made the show’s proceedings that much funnier. (In the Flickers pilot, Conried did not play himself but a pompous thespian named H. Carleton Fothergill, who hosted the program only because his agent had lost him in a canasta game.) In addition to his hosting duties (and sometimes narrator of the sketches), Conried was pressed into service to conduct interviews with the weekly “guest stars” on Flickers—an eclectic grouping of celebrities that included Gypsy Rose Lee, Annette Funnicello, Allan Sherman, Rod Serling, Bob Denver and Zsa Zsa Gabor. (Even the Bullwinkle J. Moose puppet from the prime-time The Bullwinkle Show made an appearance; keeping it in the family, as it were.)

In his wonderful history of the Jay Ward Studios, The Moose That Roared, author Keith Scott reveals some fascinating tidbits about Flickers: one I found particularly interesting was that the generous footage used on the program was supplied by silent cinema’s bete noire, Raymond Rohauer. Rohauer, who—depending on who you talk to—is considered either a sinner or a saint by silent movie fans, was remembered by writer Chris Jenkyns as “a man totally immersed in silent film. It was his whole life. He must have spent all his time in a vault, because in real life he looked sallow—white! It seemed as if he came out from under a rock.” Adds press agent Howard Brandy: “There was really only one person I ever heard Bill Scott say he couldn’t stand, and that was Ray Rohauer.” (No doubt Scott stood in a very long line.)

Using these valuable film prints posed a potential hazard only recognized in retrospect. As Flickers writer George Atkins tells the tale:

Fractured Flickers had to be written on the site of Jay’s stacks of ancient film, all of which was like dynamite and was the cause of some catastrophic studios fires in the thirties and forties before nitrate film was copied onto the fireproof stuff. A couple of inches of nitrate film when lit looked like gasoline had been ignited. When I think of working for many months amid this stuff, while smoking visitors toured our converted two-bedroom house, I get visions of Vietnamese Buddhists going up in curls of orange-and-white fire.

Because my loopy sense of humor has always been similar to that cranked out by Jay Ward and Company, I think Fractured Flickers is a funny series—though I can certainly understand its limited appeal. I’d be disingenuous, however, if I didn’t admit that overall, I have mixed feelings about the series. Most of this is due to 20/20 hindsight: knowing what I know now about film preservation, I can’t help but blanch sometimes at the cavalier attitude displayed by Conried (and some of his guests) regarding these films, dismissing them as just “beat-up” relics from another time—their only purpose to provide fodder for often corny comedy. Our way of thinking regarding these films has changed a great deal since then, but I still can’t restrain myself from yelling at the screen: “Ferchrissake, why don’t you do something about the rest of those movies that are rotting away!” (Sorry about that…I get a little emotional sometimes.)

This YouTube clip isn’t really the best representation of Fractured Flickers, only because the bulk of its source material is from Fritz Lang’s M (1931)—which is most assuredly not a silent film. (Maybe the folks who worked on Flickers lumped it into the same category because it’s in German—I don’t know.) Still, it’s fairly amusing: M is transformed into The Quitter, the stirring saga of a man attempting to break his nicotine habit…

No comments: