Thursday, February 7, 2008

“How DARE you look like someone I hate!”

During its twenty-five-year hitch in the comedy two-reeler business, the Columbia Pictures studio worked diligently to find the right combination of comedic talents that might possibly echo the success of the shorts unit’s reigning stars, The Three Stooges. I discussed the short-lived team of Monte Collins & Tom Kennedy in yesterday’s post, but the brain trust behind the Columbia shorts (department head-director-producer Jules White and producer Hugh McCollum) were doggedly determined to generate comedy sparks with a teaming of the studio’s very own. Case in point: Swedish dialect comedian El Brendel, who during his stint with the studio was paired with Kennedy (Sweet Spirits of the Nighter, Phony Cronies), Collins (His Wedding Scare, Boobs in the Night), Shemp Howard (Pick a Peck of Plumbers) and Harry Langdon (Defective Detectives, Pistol Packin’ Nitwits). Langdon, in turn, was teamed up with character actress Una Merkel (To Heir is Human) and acrobatic comedienne Elsie Ames (What Makes Lizzy Dizzy?, Carry Harry). (Ames had even served as a partner to Buster Keaton during his brief stretch with the studio in farces like The Taming of the Snood and His Ex Marks the Spot.) George Givot & Cliff Nazarro, Wally Vernon & Eddie Quillan, Max Baer & Maxie Rosenbloom—no stone was left unturned at Columbia to find the next Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy…or Wally Brown & Alan Carney, even (though Brown did do a funny one-shot at Columbia with Tim Ryan, French Fried Frolic.)

Of all the partnerships created by the Columbia shorts department, the teaming of Gus Schilling and Richard Lane is the only such duo who came close to rivaling—as Ted Okuda and Ed Watz observe in their reference tome The Columbia Comedy Shorts—“the Three Stooges in terms of performance, compatibility, and gag content.” Sadly neglected today, the Schilling & Lane shorts are an absolute joy…even the worst entries are good for a laugh or two. Schilling, a character actor who seemed to be in every film Orson Welles ever made (yes, I’m exaggerating here…but he was in a lot of Orson’s movies) pitted his jittery, coffee-nervous qualities alongside the brash, loud-mouthed stridency of Lane (already a familiar face at Columbia as the no-nonsense Inspector Farraday of the Boston Blackie movie series) for some truly hilarious two-reelers. The team got off to a grand start with the hysterically funny High Blood Pleasure (1945), in which Dick—a legendary traffic scofflaw—is stopped by two highway patrolmen for speeding and in order to get out of the ticket, tries to convince the cops that he’s his twin brother (a world-famous surgeon) rushing Gus to the hospital for an emergency operation. The two patrolmen insist on escorting “Doctor” Lane to the hospital to observe him work his magic in the operating room, much to Gus’ consternation. Pleasure moves along at such a fast pace it’s necessary to run it twice just to catch all the gags, including Lane’s first-rate double-talk recitation of “Little Red Riding Hood.” It would mark an auspicious debut for the duo, and was a remake of the Monte Collins-Tom Kennedy two-reeler Just Speeding (1936). (Gus and Dick would also remake the Collins-Kennedy classic Gum Shoes as Hold That Monkey, their last short in 1950.)

You’re going to find that I’m a little more effusive in my praise for the Schilling & Lane comedies than Okuda and Watz, mainly because I’m convinced that their two-reelers were head-and-shoulders above the other shorts being cranked out at Columbia at the same time, often written and/or directed by the legendary Edward Bernds. The team continued their winning streak with the amusing Hot Water (1947), a short with overtones of Laurel & Hardy’s 1938 classic Block-Heads (in the first half of this one, Gus and Dick accidentally lock a female neighbor in a trunk and must take her back to her apartment before their wives find out), and Training for Trouble (1947)—a remake of the Three Stooges’ A Pain in the Pullman (1936) that I honestly believe is better than the original. Pardon My Lamb Chop is also very good, highlighted by the duo’s reworking of the classic “Pokomoko” routine from Abbott & Costello’s Lost in a Harem (1944). Of course, they would make an occasional misstep with remade material: He’s in Again (1949), a reworking of Charley Chase’s Many Sappy Returns (1938), falls positively flat—Lane, as good as he was, simply could not top John T. Murray’s hilarious performance as the lunatic in the original. Their worst short is probably Ain’t Love Cuckoo? (1946), with Flung by a Fling (1949) not too far behind.

One of the more unusual Schilling & Lane efforts was Pardon My Terror (1946), a two-reeler that was originally conceived as a Three Stooges short…but when Curly Howard was felled by a stroke while making Half-Wits’ Holiday, Gus & Dick were pressed into service to finish the project. Terror is a good example of one of the frailties of the duo’s two-reelers; often there wasn’t much time to fully develop the two men’s characters and so they would be shoehorned into comedies with little regard to any consistency of their characterizations. I actually think Terror isn’t bad (though it is unusual to see Gus & Dick do Stooge-like material), but I can’t deny that the Stooges didn’t approve on it when they remade Terror as Who Done It? (1949)…not only one of the best “Shemp-as-Third-Stooge” shorts, but one of the best Stooges shorts…period.

Wedding Belle (1947) is my favorite of the Schilling & Lane two-reelers; a side-splittingly funny short that features philandering husband Dick (with the reluctant help of bachelor Gus) trying to extricate himself from the overtures of his amorous ex-flame—a circus performer named Zorita (hysterically portrayed by Lynne Lyons) who performs a whip-cracking act. Dick pretends to be laid low with a case of “jungle fever,” while a disguised Gus stands by his bedside as his concerned physician. Two Nuts in a Rut (1948) is also comedy gold: Hollywood producer Dick tries to keep a low profile at a Palm Springs resort in order to get some R&R and not be bothered by wannabe actresses (flunky Gus unfortunately spills the beans to aspiring thespian Claire Carleton, who keeps trying to audition for Lane by trying to seduce him in a sultry fashion: “Come wiz me to the Casaba…”), but his wife (Lyons) and mother-in-law (Symona Boniface) suspect him of hanky-panky when he finds himself in an entanglement with another woman (Christine McIntyre) and her jealous wrestler-husband (Dick Wessel).

I’ve been fortunate to see all of the Schilling & Lane comedies with the exception of Hold That Monkey; Greg Hilbrich at The Shorts Department observes that the reason why Monkey remains elusive is that it was the only Gus & Dick two-reeler not included in Columbia/Screen Gems’ The Hilarious Hundred television package. Greg offers the remaining ten shorts for sale at his website, and I would strongly encourage you to seek them out to experience a comedy team whose reputation becomes more and more (unjustifiably) unknown with each passing year.

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