Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Somebody slipped me a Mickey


Back in mid-April, I skated by the Oldies.com website to see if they had anything worth grabbing hold of and I noticed that Alpha Video Classics had released a second volume of Lupino Lane two-reelers, which I scooped up into my shopping cart.  The most charitable thing I can say about Alpha Video’s product is that, yes, it’s churned out specifically for the budget-minded—but even then I won’t make any bones about the quality: you get what you pay for, and if the quality turns out better than you expected you’re ahead of the game.  In the company’s defense, a lot of what they release on DVD is not in particularly on the “we-gotta-release-this-and-stat!” lists of larger companies…plus most of Alpha’s prints aren’t much to write home about either.  If I can locate a better version of something I previously bought, I’ll unhesitatingly spend the extra scratch for it.  Otherwise, Alpha will have to do.

Oldies.com gives you a discount if you purchase five Alpha releases, so I looked around for another four more discs in order to cash in—I found a collection with a couple of Glenn Tryon shorts, whom I’ve been curious to check out ever since reading about him in Richard M. Roberts’ Smileage Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter last November.  Another collection had two Will Rogers silent comedy shorts (plus a genuine bit of WTF that I’ve seen before, a 1916 Douglas Fairbanks comedy entitled The Mystery of the Leaping Fish) and a 1928 Mickey McGuire comedy, Mickey’s Wild West.  I must have been in a sentimental mood due to the recent passing of the TDOY bête noire Mickey Rooney (at the age of 93) because I talked myself into buying two more collections with McGuire shorts, Mickey McGuire and Mickey’s Movies (and Other Juvenile Comedies).

The Mickey McGuire comedies were responsible—for better or for worse—for establishing the early motion picture career of the man born Joseph Yule, Jr. in Brooklyn, NY in 1920.  The kiddie comedy series was based on a character from the Toonerville Trolley comic strip (better known as Toonerville Folks; it was also referred to as The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains) created by cartoonist Fontaine Fox and published from 1908 to 1955.  The single-panel strip (on weekdays; the Sunday strip was multi-paneled) focuses on the doings of a small town serviced by a rundown little trolley driven by a grizzled old coot known as The Skipper.  Mickey McGuire was Toonerville’s resident bully, and held such a high opinion of his own self-esteem that he frequently billed himself as Mickey (Himself) McGuire.  The strip inspired a brief film series from 1920 to 1922 (the shorts were written by Fox) with Dan Mason as the Skipper and Wilna Hervey as The Powerful Katrinka, one of Toonerville’s eccentric characters.

Producer Larry Darmour decided to take a second crack at the series a few years after, and advertised in the trade papers for a dark-haired kid to play McGuire in a proposed series of film shorts.  Nell Yule believed her vaudeville veteran son (the future Rooney) would be perfect for the part—but because she couldn’t afford to dye Mickey’s hair black she used (depending on the source) burnt cork or shoe polish to darken his blonde tresses.  Mickey wound up getting the part.  An interesting story behind Rooney’s McGuire portrayal is that he at one time actually changed his name legally to Mickey McGuire…in order to stave off a lawsuit by creator Fox for copyright infringement (the theory being that if the junior Yule really was Mickey McGuire, there was little Fox could do but lump it).  Nell even changed her last name to McGuire as well to assist in the deception…but the judge hearing the case was not born yesterday, and not only awarded the owners of the McGuire character royalties but ruled that Rooney cease and desist from calling himself that both on- and off-screen.

Kids must have spent a lot of time dangling from wires in those days.  (From Mickey's Touchdown [1933].)
 The Mickey McGuire comedies were produced from 1927 to 1934 by Darmour, and were perhaps the most successful imitator of Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies—certainly the only one of the many “Little Rascals” rivals to make the transition to talkies.  The series was distributed by FBO (Film Booking Offices of America) in the silent days, then RKO when FBO was folded (along with Keith-Albee-Orpheum) into the Radio-Keith-Orpheum tent.  The last six McGuire sound comedies from 1933-34 were distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Before revisiting these shorts on the Alpha collections, I had only a vague memory of the McGuire comedies.  I’m sure I probably saw one or two on The Silent Comedy Film Festival back in the 1970s, and Greg Hilbrich at The Shorts Department notes that four of the McGuire comedies released by Columbia were in their 1959 Screen Gems television package.  I know for certain I’ve seen Mickey’s Covered Wagon (1933), because its “haunted house” premise stayed with me these many years…and there’s a short on the Mickey McGuire collection that also fired up the dormant memory banks, Mickey’s Rescue (1934).  In Rescue, Mickey’s Kid Brudder (played by Billy Barty—the series cemented his movie fame as well) is adopted by a wealthy couple in order to further his education; Mickey and his gang attempt to locate his whereabouts.  The short winds up with a “high-and-dizzy” climax in which Billy is holding on to dear life to a slide trombone outside an apartment window (with Hattie McDaniel on the other end), and as soon as I saw that I said out loud: “I remember watching this!”

The Mickey McGuire collection contains one other short from the Screen Gems package—the final McGuire comedy, Mickey’s Medicine Men (1934)—and the first of the two-reelers released by Columbia, Mickey’s Touchdown (1933).  Touchdown is probably the best of the two (it certainly has a bit more plot); Mickey’s football team gets some tips from University of Southern California coach Howard Jones (playing himself) to compete against some local rival gridiron champs, headed up by the loathsome “Stinky” Davis (Douglas Scott).  The mortal enemy of Mickey (also spelled “Stinkey” and “Stinkie”), Davis was frequently clad in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit; a variety of child actors played the part over the years including Douglas Fox and Kendall McComas (“Breezy Brisbane” in the Our Gang shorts).  Anyway, Stinky obtains Mickey’s duds and commits much mayhem disguised as McGuire—prompting the gendarmes to apprehend our hero and detain him from playing in the game.  (Fortunately, Mickey is sprung in the nick of time.)  Touchdown piqued my interest because I got a kick out of seeing Spec O’Donnell—the irritant in many of the Hal Roach comedies starring Max Davidson—in a small role as the game’s referee.

Spec!

In many of the McGuire comedies, James “Jimmy” Robinson, Jr. played the Mick’s sidekick, “Hambone” Johnson.  While not without talent, the young Robinson wouldn’t give Allen “Farina” Hoskins or Matthew “Stymie” Beard any sleepless nights…that much is certain.  “Ham” suffers from a lot of the casual racism prevalent in many of the shorts from that era; in two silent comedies, Mickey’s Eleven (1927) and Wild West, a gag where Hambone mops the perspiration off his face and shakes the handkerchief—causing the person standing nearby to be covered with a black liquid—is used…I get the feeling the filmmakers must have liked that one a lot.  The other regulars in the McGuire gang—known as The Scorpions—included Katrink (usually played by Marvin Stephens—but one-time Our Gang member Donald Haines also took on the part), who’s identified in at least two shorts as the younger brother of the comic strip Katrinka (he’s sometimes referred to as “Katink”).  The Scorpions were nothing if not equal opportunity: the only girl was “Tomboy Taylor,” whose use of a hairnet caused her hair to stand straight up.  Delia Bogard was Tomboy from the beginning of the series to 1933; Shirley Jean Rickert played the role in the final six Columbia comedies (and was also in Our Gang at one time—as the little girl with the spit curls in Bargain Day).

My overall reaction to the McGuire shorts?  Well, they’re a bit on the crude (both technically and creatively) side—independent producer Darmour squeezed a nickel till the buffalo bellowed and would later produce Columbia’s serials for a time beginning in the late 1930s until his death in 1942—but I occasionally got a chuckle out of them; there’s a gag in a short on the Mickey’s Movies collection—titled, appropriately enough, Mickey’s Movies (1928)—in which the kids watch a motion picture company make a movie and the director keeps removing his pith helmet, throwing it down in disgust.  There’s an assistant standing right behind him with a metric ton of replacement hats, which he dutifully puts on his boss’ head with each hat thrown.  So when Mickey decides to make his own movie, he has one of the kids fill that position with a steady supply of his own signature hat.  As to whether I prefer the silent to the sound shorts…I probably can’t make that call so early in the game.  The silent shorts means you don’t have to listen to Rooney…but for some odd reason he’s even more obnoxious than usual.

Mickey’s Movies also features a truncated sound Mickey McGuire short entitled Mickey’s Ape Man (1933) that due to its editing doesn’t really give you a full idea of the complete comedy.  There’s also a short called Howling Hollywood (1929)…which I guess Alpha Video justified putting on the “and Other Juvenile Comedies” set because there’s a gag in the film where a young boy is identified as “the brains of the studio.”  For that’s what Howling is—a spoof of moviemaking, in which a mellerdrammer entitled The Sheriff’s Moustache is unspooled for the movie studio executives in attendance, prominently among them noted silver screen inebriate Arthur Housman.  (The sober Housman has the funniest bit in the short; seeing a sinister looking individual wearing a scary mask peering from behind a clock he asks “What’s Lon Chaney doing in this picture?”)  Howling stars George Davis as the “star” of the movie western, and you’ll spot Three Stooges nemesis Vernon Dent in the role of the lawman; it has an amusing moment or two but nothing to really get excited about.

The other two-reel comedy on the set is Shamrock Alley (1927), one of the Malcolm Sebastian “Big Boy” shorts; I enjoyed the heck out of this one—there are some fairly creative gags (several involving a steep staircase) despite some uncomfortable stereotyping (you got your Jewish pawnshop dealer and a stray Gypsy or two), directed by comedy veteran Charles Lamont (the “Big Boy” comedies were a popular series that came out of Educational and produced by Jack White—brother of future Columbia shorts department Jules).  I bought a set of the Big Boy comedies from Grapevine a while back and I hope to feature them on the blog sometime soon.

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