Sunday, November 24, 2013

Why Christopher Hitchens should burn in Hell*

You may remember that two weeks ago on the blog I chatted up film historian Richard M. Roberts’s book Smileage Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter—a invaluable reference volume on the history of the Hal Roach Studios.  If this subject is your particular cup of chamomile then you might want to walk over in an orderly fashion (single-file, please) either to Grapevine Video or (my personal recommendation would be Grapevine, because they’re good people and…well, really—why does Jeff Bezos need more money for a friggin’ clock?) and grab yourself a copy because Richard mentioned to me in an e-mail that there probably won’t be another print run.  (Honest to my grandma, this isn’t some sort of cheap Butterball turkey ploy…I just thought you should know that you need to get a copy because when they’re gone, they’re gone.)

Reading the book reminded me that I still had not acquired those two Munich Filmmuseum sets that I mentioned in this post from January 2011: one a collection of Max Davidson comedies, the other a compilation entitled Hal Roach: Female Comedy Teams.  I’ll talk about the Davidson films in a later post (I haven’t finished the set yet) but I did generously sample the Female Comedy Teams discs this weekend and I don’t regret the investment (though I am glad I waited since the price had come down a bit).  The focus is on those wonderful two-reelers starring Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts (and later Todd and Patsy Kelly) but the collection also contains three comedy shorts from producer Roach’s first attempt to create “a female Laurel and Hardy” with comediennes Anita Garvin and Marion “Peanuts” Byron.

Former Ziegfeld Follies girl Garvin was a comedy veteran by the time Roach paired her with Marion Byron in 1928; she had worked at the Al Christie and Educational studios before joining the “Lot of Fun” (she was asked to appear in Mabel Normand’s 1926 feature Raggedy Rose) and during that time played a lot of imposing dowagers and disapproving wives in Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase comedies (including one of my L&H favorites, 1928’s From Soup to Nuts—in which the tiara she’s wearing keeps slipping down over her eyes) due to her statuesque height.  Byron (you know her as Buster Keaton’s love interest in Steamboat Bill, Jr.) complimented the Amazonian Garvin with her smaller stature (Marion was only five-foot), although in their first two outings they made Byron sort of a female Harry Langdon.  The Garvin/Byron series was instituted to replace Max Davidson’s output for the studio (his comedies, while undeniably funny, were not as popular as Roach had hoped) but to keep Max happy he was given a role in the first try, Feed ‘em and Weep (1928).

Feed ‘em and Weep is essentially a heavy-on-the-slapstick venture set in Davidson’s whistle stop café; he’s expecting a large influx of train passengers making a scheduled lunch break, and instead of “competent” waitresses he’s wound up with Anita and Marion.  You can probably guess what transpires: trays of food are spilled and people wind up face down in same—it’s not a great comedy (directors Leo McCarey and Fred Guiol literally make the women a copy of Laurel and Hardy, and it’s been argued by many that roughhouse comedy often doesn’t work on the distaff side) but it has its moments; my favorite bit is early in the two-reeler, where Anita, after Marion has tripped over some rocks, lectures her friend via title card “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?  Keep your head up!”

Wait for it…

…it was not unexpected, but it did make me laugh out loud.

Byron is still channeling Harry Langdon in Going Ga-Ga (1929).

The girls’ second comedy, Going Ga-Ga (1929), is an improvement—Anita and Marion manage to acquire a kidnapped baby and after leaving it in an orphanage try to retrieve the tyke to collect the reward—but you still can’t shake the feeling that somebody just dusted off a discarded Laurel & Hardy scenario for this one.  (Max Davidson is in this one as well, as the detective on the case.)  The interesting thing about Ga-Ga (and Feed ‘em and Weep as well) is that the two shorts are incomplete comedies; there is footage missing from both shorts (nitrate won’t wait, folks) but they’re fairly well reconstructed with the help of surviving continuity scripts and a photo still here and there.  If you glance at the booklet that comes with the set, you’ll see that Ga-Ga isn’t listed among the shorts (though it is mentioned on the DVD’s back cover); instead it receives the designation “Work in Progress: The Restoration of GOING GA-GA” with a “5’” after it.  Is it possible that the short was missing in an earlier edition but after being finally put together was included in the later one?

Roach gave up on the Garvin-Byron teaming with the release of their final short, A Pair of Tights, in 1929…and this is a pity, because this two-reeler was not only their best outing it’s one of the funniest silent comedies I’ve seen.  If you’ve watched the Robert Youngson compilation When Comedy Was King (1960) you’ve seen some of it; Anita and Marion get a visit from Marion’s boyfriend (Stu Erwin), who’s brought along his boss (Edgar Kennedy) as a date for Anita—the women are positively famished but the men don’t plan on spending any more than necessary on their dates.  Stu and Edgar decide that if they spring for ice cream that will take the edge off the girls’ appetites and the second half of the short involves Marion’s attempts to purchase four cones without dropping them (an exercise in futility).  Complications further arise when a cop (Edgar Dearing) who’s dead set against Stu’s double parking enters the scene, scotching Marion’s mission at every turn.

Now…the simple act of buying four ice cream cones only to watch them wind up on the sidewalk is funny enough (the hysterical part of this is when a hungry dog keeps leaping up on the five-foot Marion) but for some reason I laughed harder in the earlier part of the short, when Anita and Edgar are introduced to one another and the animosity between the two of them is so palpable you could cut it with a knife.  Anita keeps giving Edgar the stink-eye the entire time as he fidgets nervously and avoids eye contact.  Finally he breaks the ice with a title card: “Well, how are you?”

“Starving!” is Anita’s icy reply.  The lobby card above will kind of give you an idea of how his attempts to woo her go over:

Both women were later released from their contracts at Roach during what Roberts describes as a “purge” in 1928; Byron worked at Warner Brothers for a little while afterward (I’ve seen a few of her films mentioned at the IMDb, notably a bit part in The Crime of the Century) before settling down and doing the rice-and-old-shoes thing.  Garvin also went the matrimonial route, marrying bandleader Clifford “Red” Stanley while continuing to appear in small roles—she’s in a number of Columbia two-reel comedies, including Andy Clyde’s Now It Can Be Sold (1939) and The Three Stooges’ Cookoo Cavaliers (1940), her final film.  She’s also in two of the Todd-Pitts comedies that are in this set (which I’ve discussed previously here), Show Business (1932) and my personal favorite of the Thelma-ZaSu shorts, Asleep in the Feet (1933).

This is one of my favorite Thelma and ZaSu stills (from Asleep in the Feet).  The two women had such a wonderful working relationship; it was said that they weren't able to make eye contact with one another because they would burst out laughing and ruin takes.

The Todd-Pitts-Kelly comedies in this collection were ones I had previously seen on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ and elsewhere with the exception of The Pajama Party (1931).  Party features Thelma and Zase at a swanky society party when the car in which they were traveling is run off the road and winds up in a lake.  The woman responsible invites them to her house for dry clothes and they stick around while she entertains her friends; one of them is celebrating a birthday and is subjected to the other guests giving him a birthday kick in the fanny while they shout “And one to grow on!”  ZaSu, having come in on the tail end (pardon the pun) of this, thinks this is the norm in polite society, and copies the gesture whenever someone happens to bend over…while shouting in her tremulous manner “One to grow on!”  Party is an entertaining comedy with some rib-tickling gags (the sequence where a French maid tries to help Pitts off with her wet things is a riot) including a recurring bit where some of the more amorous male guests keep inviting Thelma to see “the Japanese pagoda” and wind up getting a black eye for their trouble.

"Imagine my embarrassment!" Thelma steps into a sunken bathtub in The Pajama Party (1931).

The Female Comedy Teams set also includes a 1931 Todd-Pitts outing entitled On the Loose, in which the girls become fed up with the fact that all the men they date are convinced there’s nothing like a good time at Coney Island.  When the two women wind up splattered with mud from a careless motorist (John Loder), he offers to buy them new outfits (cue Billy Gilbert, hilarious as a dress designer) and take them someplace “smart and original” with his friend (Claud Allister).  Guess where the four of them go?  Loose is another winner (though I already owned this on another DVD set), and its windup gag features one of the greatest cameos in the history of movie comedy.

Although I had seen the rest of the shorts on this 2-DVD set I got to revisit some old favorites; in Babes in the Goods (1934), Thel and Patsy are department store employees who are asked by their boss (Jack Barty) to demonstrate a dishwasher in a window display…and are given strict instructions that they are not to leave as long as they have an audience.  Their “audience” finally dwindles down to an inebriate (who else but Arthur Housman?) who won’t take a hint and go elsewhere…so when he finally does leave the girls find themselves locked in the store (the night watchman mistakenly believes they’ve left already).  Goods is one of the best of the Todd-Kelly romps, but Female Comedy Teams also features Beauty and the Bus (1933), Maid in Hollywood (1934) and my personal favorite of the Thel-and-Patsy’s, Top Flat (1935).

Finally, the other day when I was browsing the racks at my friend Martin Grams, Jr.’s Finders Keepers at some of the clearance stuff, I succumbed to an impulse buy and bought a couple more collections of Todd-Pitts-Kelly two-reelers—some I already own, but many I do not.  So there will be a follow-up post to this, as soon as I avail myself of the material.  (And there might be a test, so be prepared!)

*It’s not because he embraced atheism.  It’s because he famously wrote an article for Vanity Fair proclaiming that women weren’t funny, and in the time I spent watching this 2-DVD collection it was proven categorically he didn’t know sh*t from shinola.

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