Tuesday, January 22, 2008

“Ohhhhh…my oh my!”

Mention Andy Clyde to any B-western movie fan, and they’ll no doubt conjure up memories of the actor who played second banana (as “California” Carlson) to William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd in dozens of oaters from 1940 to 1948 for Paramount and United Artists, and who also rode alongside Whip Wilson at Monogram for a short time afterward. For fans of classic television, Andy is fondly remembered for his roles as cantankerous neighbor George McMichael on the sitcom The Real McCoys and as the endearingly eccentric Cully Wilson on Lassie.

But for classic movie aficionados, Clyde earned a reputation as a hard-working clown who enjoyed several decades of success working for comedy king Mack Sennett and studios Educational and Columbia. In fact, during his stint with Sennett, Andy worked his way up from extra to studio star—though, it should be pointed out, Andy's “star” status depended a good deal on the inconvenient truth that most of Sennett’s discoveries eventually left his studio because the “King” was notoriously tight with a buck.

I was exposed to Clyde’s Columbia comedies almost from the time I was able to walk over to a TV set and turn it on, and thanks to a recent purchase from my pal Martin Grams, Jr. (“the Isaac Asimov of old-time radio”) at Finders Keepers, I found myself engaged in my favorite pastime over the weekend: wallowing in nostalgia. I’ll readily attest that on the list of classic movie comedians, it’ll take the individuals discussing the subject a while before they get to Andy, but having watched a goodly number of his two-reelers over the past few days, I certainly wouldn’t give his career short shrift. Many of these shorts—particularly from 1934-41—are thoroughly enjoyable; capturing the spirit of the old Keystone comedies in an endearing fashion. Sure, the shorts didn’t often make a lot of sense (then again, neither did the Keystones), and shooting schedules were so tight that the idea of the leisurely pace prevalent at, say, the Hal Roach studios, was a luxury Columbia couldn’t afford. But when all the cylinders were firing (stars, script, direction, etc.) side-splitting comedy was nearly always the result.

In his book The Great Movie Shorts, Leonard Maltin singles out Clyde’s 1935 two-reeler Alimony Aches as particularly noteworthy, but after having watched it for the first time this weekend I’d have to say that he apparently has more enthusiasm for it than I. But I also viewed It Always Happens (1935) for the first time as well, and I really got a big kick out of this one; Andy mistakenly ends up in a compromising situation with his new boss’ wife as she somehow ends up in a state of undress in Andy’s automobile (shades of Charley Chase’s Limousine Love) while her hubby is riding shotgun alongside Andy. The out-of-control car sequence in this short is first-rate, and was directed by one of the shorts department’s top directors, Del Lord, who was also at the helm of another one of my favorite Clyde vehicles (if you’ll pardon the pun), Caught in the Act (1936)—in which a wild motorcycle ride is the highlight of a fast and frenetic comedy that finds Andy mistakenly accused of being the notorious “kissing bandit” Jack T. Kisser. Happens, by the way, was a remake of a short that Andy made for Sennett in 1931 called Taxi Troubles; the material was also reworked in another one of Clyde’s Columbias, His Tale is Told (1944), and a short that Bert Wheeler made for the same studio in 1950, Innocently Guilty.

Other Clyde favorites include the Lord-directed Old Sawbones (1935), in which Andy is a small-town medico competing with another M.D. (James C. Morton) as to who will be county physician. Since the board making the decision is deadlocked as to who they’ll choose, it’s decided that whoever sees the most patients in one week will get the prize…but when this results in a tie, a board member pulling for Andy tips him off that his rival’s wife is about to have a baby, and a frantic chase ensues that, once again, is the highlight of the two-reeler. (This chase was so well-done that it was recycled for another top-notch Clyde comedy in 1940, Money Squawks.) Am I Having Fun! (1936) is also a pip; Andy has been taxiing around a soused Arthur Houseman around for the past few days when Houseman (who’s a PR agent) realizes he was supposed to meet a visiting potentate scheduled to have a publicity photo taken with some chorus girls. Houseman talks Andy into posing as the dignitary, but when the real McCoy shows up—as well as Andy’s jealous wife and his brother-in-law—the short becomes a rollicking comedy of errors with hysterical in-and-out-the-door chases amongst the backdrop of a ritzy hotel. There’s also The Peppery Salt (1936), which contains one of the eye-poppingest gags you’ll ever see in a Columbia short: Andy inherits a lunch wagon (dubbed “The Admiral Dewey”) and in the process of nailing up business signs is unaware that he’s driving nails right into a ship docked behind his diner. This results in the eatery being pulled away with the ship as it departs for points unknown, and Andy’s customers end up getting dunked in the drink after getting off their stools and going back to work.

Andy made three two-reelers that, curiously enough, tell a continuous story beginning with Love Comes to Mooneyville (1936), in which he and rival Bob McKenzie compete for the hand of widow Esther Howard. Andy wins the day in that one, and in Stuck in the Sticks (1937), he’s all set to marry Esther when McKenzie phonies up a wanted poster announcing that Howard is on the lam for forgery and swindling charges…that turn out to be true! (In marrying Bob, Esther ends up taking him for one large in the process.) The saga comes to a close in He Done His Duty (1937), in which Andy and Bob end up tangling with another con-woman, played by Dorothy Granger. (Andy and Esther would return to this formula in the 1943 short Wolf in Thief’s Clothing, with Emmett Lynn taking over the rival role from McKenzie.)

Heading into the forties, many of the Clyde comedies didn’t have the freshness of Andy’s previous efforts, only because the rise in production costs made many of the Columbia shorts more studio-bound. I do like Andy Clyde Gets Spring Chicken (1939), a funny outing that casts Andy as a millionaire whose thoughts lightly turn to love every spring…and whose attempts to romance a bevy of showgirls living next door are consistently thwarted until they learn he has mucho dinero. Other noteworthy Clyde efforts include Yankee Doodle Andy (1941), Host to a Ghost (1941), All Work and No Pay (1942) and A Maid Made Mad (1943). Much of the fun watching the 1940s Clyde efforts derives from recognizing plots from other comedies: Heather and Yon (1944) reworks the Buster Keaton Educational short Jail Bait (1937), and A Miner Affair (1945) casts Andy and Charles Rogers as “the two Stooges,” being a remake of Moe, Larry and Curly’s Cash and Carry (1937). In the mid-to-late forties, finding a well-done Andy Clyde comedy could often be a daunting affair, but I have to admit I like efforts such as Spook to Me (1945) (a “scare” comedy that teams Andy with Dudley Dickerson, who performed a similar function in the “scare” comedies Hugh Herbert made for the same studio) and The Blonde Stayed On (1946), as well as the Edward Bernds-directed Andy Plays Hookey (1946), Wife to Spare (1947) and Eight-Ball Andy (1948). (Hookey is a must-see short, only because writer Clyde Bruckman manages to compress the W.C. Fields feature he directed, Man on the Flying Trapeze, into two reels.) Though there are still a good many Clyde offerings I’ve yet to see, I think the last really good one was Go Chase Yourself (1948), a remake of the Charley Chase Columbia vehicle The Nightshirt Bandit (1938). (I remember seeing both these shorts as a kid and wondering how two comedies that essentially shared the same plot could star a young guy and an old one; this may have been my introduction into the “recycling” methods so frequently used by the studio.)

In addition to the Andy Clyde comedies, I was also able to score some DVDs containing some of the other Columbia comedy shorts with stars that aren’t billed with “The,” “Three,” and “Stooges” in the title; these were obtained in a deal I made with Rodney Bowcock, Martin’s partner-in-crime. I’ll highlight some of these performers in days to come.

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