Thursday, July 13, 2017

We laugh to win!

In 1925, a group of expatriate Broadway thespians who had moved to the West Coast for film work decided to establish a social club where members could fraternize and enjoy each other’s fellowship.  It would be known as The Masquers Club, and its members included at various times such classic movie icons as Joe E. Brown, Frank Morgan, Pat O’Brien, Charley Chase, Edward Arnold, and Charles Coburn.  It’s still going strong today—you can even check out the club’s website when you get a notion.

The Masquers Club decided to capitalize on the talent present in their membership and get into the motion picture production business in the 1930s with a series of two-reel shorts produced at RKO.  They weren’t the only outfit to express interest in making their own movies; The Lambs Club did a similar series for Columbia (among the familiar faces were Lynne Overman and Leon Errol) while the Thalians (featuring the likes of Franklin Pangborn and TDOY fave Grady Sutton) cranked out shorts for Universal.  But the Masquers Club’s movies were, in the opinion of Leonard Maltin in Selected Short Subjects, “easily the best of these shorts”:

If these two-reelers had one consistent quality, it was that they tried awfully hard.  There was a conscious striving for offbeat humor, which at times was overbearing, but which often paid off.  In Rule ’em and Weep (1932), the sound effects are always wrong. In a duel that runs through the film, every time the guns are fired, different noises are heard.  And when a horse-drawn carriage pulls up to the country of Bulvania, where the story is set, the sound effect of a train slowing to a halt is heard.

Director Mark Sandrich poses with Dorothy Granger and
Eddie Borden on the set of Thru Thin or Thicket (1933)
Alpha Video has issued a fun collection of these bizarre two-reel comedies in The Masquers Club: The Pre-Code Comedies Collection.  The set kicks off with an entry described by Maltin as “one of the wildest in the series”—Thru Thin or Thicket; or Who’s Zoo in Africa (1933).  (Many of the Masquers shorts had double titles, something reminiscent of many episodes of Rocky & Bullwinkle.)  Wealthy dowager Mrs. Chyzzlebottom (Grayce Hamilton) is financing an expedition in Darkest Africa on behalf of Professor Backwash (James Finlayson), who hopes to locate (despite some skepticism) the famous “Tarzan” of motion picture fame.  Instead, the party—with the help of reporter Scoop Skinner (Eddie Borden)—learns that that neck of the woods is ruled by the “Queen of the Jungle”—one Tarkana (Dorothy Granger), whose “yell” resembles in Len’s words, “a combination of Andy Devine and Johnny Weissmuller.”  Mr. M isn’t just whistlin’ Dixie when he says this is a wild short; it’s got some gut busting gags and wacky situations (Tarkana has a “homing pigeon” that’s a pelican) written by Ben Holmes & Walter Weems and directed by future Astaire-Rogers helmer Mark Sandrich.

"Youse is a viper!" declares Barbara Sheldon to villain Sam Hardy in Stolen by Gypsies (1933), who responds: "I hope she don't mean an old windshield viper."  (Okay, I didn't laugh at that so much as I did the reference to the classic Billy DeBeck comic strip Parlor, Bedroom, and Sink.)

Eddie Borden has a bit role in another short on the Alpha set—one that I found wonderfully amusing entitled Stolen by Gypsies; or Beer and Bicycles (1933).  (Borden figures in a running gag with June Brewster as the couple’s attempts to get in a little passionate necking are interrupted by various characters throughout the two-reeler.)  Stolen by Gypsies would the final short in the Masquers’ brief series; the best-known of their efforts (according to the [always reliable] IMDb) is the 1931 classic entitled The Stolen Jools (spoiler alert: the IMDb is wrong), which has been in the public domain for so long everyone’s seen it (if you haven’t—here it is).  A promotional short that sought to raise funds on behalf of the National Variety Artists’ campaign to combat tuberculosis, Jools spots an all-star cast in a funny tale about the hunt for some stolen bling belonging to Norma Shearer.  (Included in the cast are such TDOY favorites as Buster Keaton, Edward G. Robinson, Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy, and Wheeler & Woolsey.)

Stolen Jools isn’t in this collection, but the remaining shorts that are provide intermittent laughs and classic film celebrity wattage like Laura LaPlante, Walter Byron, John Sheehan, and Olaf Hytten in Lost in Limehouse; or Lady Esmerelda’s Predicament (1933—a funny melodrama that spoofs both Sherlock Holmes and Hairbreadth Harry-heroics) and Mary Carr, Russell Simpson, Lucile Browne, Russell Hopton, and Frank McGlynn, Jr. in The Moonshiner’s Daughter; or Abroad in Old Kentucky (1933—a feud between the Ratfields and Catfields in a tale from the hills).  My personal favorite is The Wide Open Spaces (1931), which features Ned Sparks, Antonio Moreno, Dorothy Sebastian, William Farnum, George Cooper, Claude Gillingwater, Frank McHugh, Tom Dugan, and George Chandler.  Moreno is a suspected bandito who’s smitten with heroine Sebastian…but she’s being pursued by crooked sheriff Sparks (as “Jack Rancid”).  When Dorothy agrees to marry Ned to spare Antonio’s capture (this is decided over a game of checkers), the two of them are about to be “spliced” when the justice of the peace (Gillingwater) asks Sparks to produce the ring.  Ned pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and a buttload of rings in various sizes falls to the ground.  Laughing, Judge Claude observes: “You’ve been ridin’ a merry-go-round!”

If Mack Swain is pourin'...I'm buyin'.  (Mack's the bartender in Wide Open Spaces.)
Brian Krey of Alpha Video provided me with a screener for this most entertaining compendium of classic film shorts…and I think fans of both two-reel comedies and those stars from the bygone days of Tinsel Town will want to add it to their bookshelf.  To quote Br’er Maltin: “Familiar faces and far-out humor were the order of the day in the Masquers Comedies.  They tried very hard to go off the beaten track.  Often they succeeded and sometimes they did not.  But the ingenuity that went into them always shines through.”

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