Friday, September 15, 2017

Holding pattern

Since I’m at the halfway point before Thrilling Days of Yesteryear makes its official move to the brand-spanking-new WordPress blog in October, I thought I’d post this to let you know why TDOY went silent this week.

I had planned to have a few reviews up but the post I penciled in for Monday got pushed to the side due to a Radio Spirits liner notes project I was trying to complete.  That activity took place all weekend, the time I utilize to plan what will go up on the blog for the week.  With my RS assignment completed, I had to further postpone posts because of that Irma thing (we were a lot luckier than some of our fellow Georgians in that our electricity didn’t go on vacation during the storm…but it did come and go a few times, interfering with the movie I was trying to watch) …and then a pair of doctor appointments (for the patriarch of Rancho Yesteryear, mi padre) ate up some more time.  I finally said ta heck wid it and vowed to get back to the blogging thing Monday.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a little hammering-and-nailing at the new site; there are close to 300 classic TDOY posts up there now, some with new photos added and a few tweaks and edits here and there.  I’ve also been doing a little pruning here at the old blog; I’ve made some editorial decisions about what to transfer and what to destroy—so if it looks as if the old blog has lost a little weight that’s the reason.  It’s simply going to be too Herculean a task to transfer everything to the new site, and some past posts will have to sit in the waiting room (most appropriate in light of the medical appointments this week) while others will simply vanish into the blogosphere, accessible only for those patient to sift through

So that’s how things stand—come back by next week and I’ll have a thing or two to bend your ear about.  Have a great weekend, cartooners!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

So this is Harris

Alpha Video’s Brian Krey—the individual who should take a bow for providing a lot of the product that I review on this here blog—mentioned to me in an e-mail a while back that the company was preparing a collection of two-reel shorts along the lines of their successful “Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies” releases.  The kicker was that since the two-reelers to be included in this set were going to be some released between 1936 and 1938, Alpha Video couldn’t exactly call them “pre-Code.”  (“I don't think ‘Ultra Rare POST-CODE Comedies’ would get anyone excited,” Brian joked.)

Well, this new collection was released in August…and if you’re an old-time radio fan like me, there’s plenty be excited about Rare Shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  It’s one of the strongest and most entertaining DVDs released by Alpha, because the first two shorts on the disc spotlight two solid radio favorites.  Rare Shorts kicks things off with Harris in the Spring (1937), a wonderful little musical outing starring Phil Harris—then making a name for himself as the lovable bandleader-comedian on The Jack Benny Program, and later star of his own successful situation comedy, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

“Then making a name for himself” isn’t really accurate, however; Harris was already wowing audiences with a musical aggregation that played to SRO crowds at the famous Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel during the early 1930s.  (Harris co-starred in the 1933 RKO feature film Melody Cruise, and a three-reel short released the same year, So This is Harris, would win an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject.)  It’s fitting, then, that “Curly” plays himself in Harris in the Spring (the “Club Ambassador” where he works is a nod to his earlier Cocoanut Grove gig) and because he’s mobbed by female admirers everywhere he goes, he asks his pal George (played by Jack Rice, the brother-in-law in the RKO Edgar Kennedy shorts) to help him hide to avoid some enthusiastic fans.

Phil ends up in George’s office…where he’s given the onceover by socialite Betty Randolph (Ruth Robbins), and once she deems him “acceptable” she invites him out for the evening.  That’s when George informs Phil that Betty is looking for an escort (why Harris’ best friend is in this business goes unexplained) …and that’s jake with Philsie, provided Betty doesn’t learn who he is really is.  I’ll give you three guesses where the couple winds up on their date…the first two do not count.

Ruth Robbins and Phil Harris in Harris in the Spring (1937)
Harris in the Spring is a real delight, with its star performing several numbers (Sweet Like You, Parchesi) and two duets with Robbins in the same lyric-exchanging style Harris did professionally with vocalist Leah Ray (and that Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard also imitated).  (The couple’s rendition of The Woman Who Pays is performed in the back of a taxicab, and they’re joined at the end of the song by cabbie Jack Carson—also a later radio star—who belts out musically “You said it, sister!”)  But the highlight of Spring is Phil’s rendition of his signature tune, That’s What I Like About the South; in later years (on his own series and Benny’s program), Harris raced through the number like he was double-parked—the tempo of South is slowed considerably in Spring, giving it a kind of loping, barrelhouse piano feel.

Goodman and Jane Ace: "The Easy Aces"
On radio, Goodman Ace and his wife Jane were known as the Easy Aces—the stars of a popular radio comedy serial that had its origins on local KMBC in Kansas City in 1930 before moving to CBS a year later and bouncing back-and-forth from the Tiffany network and NBC until 1945.  (The show later became a syndicated series from 1945 to 1947, recycling earlier scripts, and then a half-hour program for CBS from February to December 1948 as mr. ace & JANEEasy Aces had what one would call a cult following—it was never really a ratings smash—but that following did get the duo a series of movie shorts, “first for Vitaphone and then, on a more regular basis, for Van Beuren” as Leonard Maltin relates in The Great Movie Shorts.

Dumb Luck (1935) was a short Goodman and Jane made for Educational…additional two-reelers were planned, but never got off the ground.  Jane has a winning sweepstakes ticket worth $50, but after a literal game of “telephone” (talking to her girlfriends on the Ameche) the word gets out that the Aces are sitting on a nice little nest egg of $50,000.  Two hoodlums (Richard Cramer, George Shelton) put the snatch on Mrs. A and demand a ransom of $25,000 for her safe return…but the demand gets smaller and smaller the longer the kidnappers spend with the scatterbrained Jane.

There are going to be Easy Aces purists who will decry Dumb Luck as not faithfully adhering to the radio show…and I shan’t disagree with them, but I enjoyed the two-reeler tremendously for novelty’s sake.  Jane is…well, Jane; telling one of her friends on the phone of Goody’s frugality she cracks “he's such a tightrope when it comes to things like that” …and later, when she demands her husband allow her to get a dog with her winnings:

ACE: A dog?
JANE: Yes, it's nice to walk down the street with a little dog...
ACE: On a leash, I suppose...
JANE: On a leash?  Oh, no--I thought I'd buy him outright...

I also got a kick out seeing Richard Cramer (billed as “Kramer”)—a character veteran I always remember as the “Constable” in W.C. Fields’ The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)—and George Shelton as the luckless kidnappers.  (To keep the OTR connection going, Shelton was later one of the three panelists on It Pays to Be Ignorant, a radio favorite from 1942 to 1951—“I used to woik in dat town!”)

Jack Norton poses with radio's "Brenda and Cobina"
(Elvia Allman and Blanche Stewart) in the 1940
feature film A Night at Earl Carroll's.
Jack Norton, the silver screen’s favorite inebriate, is stone cold sober in two of the entries on Rare Shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood; the closest he comes to imbibing is having a mint julep in Who’s Looney Now (1936), in which he plays a henpecked husband whose next-door neighbor (Jack Good) gives him advice on how to win sympathy from his family—fake a heart attack.  The problem is, Jack’s family is anything but sympathetic…and they eventually become convinced that he’s a toy short of a Happy Meal.  So, the clan calls in a psychiatrist portrayed by Billy Gilbert…and any time you must rely on Billy’s expertise in the science of the mind—the results are not going to be pretty.  Looney manages to deliver the goods despite its timeworn premise; both Norton and Gilbert cannot not be funny, and there’s solid support from future Edgar Kennedy spouse Vivien Oakland (she’s married to Jack), Tempe Pigott (as the mother-in-law), and Dickie Jones—later both the voice of Pinocchio and Henry Aldrich on radio—as the obnoxious son.

Tom Kennedy in the "Torchy Blane"
feature Blondes at Work (1938).
Fight is Right (1936) is another short with a premise you’ve seen before—Norton convinces pal Tom Kennedy to accompany him ringside by snowing the wife (Maxine Jennings) into thinking Tom is sick (and Jack is the faux physician who’ll treat him).  It’s been done to death in every TV sitcom, of course (both Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone went to town with it) but if you execute it right and include some first-rate supporting players (Edgar Dearing plays—and I know this will surprise you—a cop who gets involved after pulling Norton over for speeding) you can always get a chuckle or two out of the finished product (I particularly enjoyed Fight’s windup gag).  Fight (and Looney) was directed by Leslie Goodwins (the later auteur of the Mexican Spitfire franchise), and Goodwins co-wrote Fight with comedian Monte (billed as “Monty”) Collins…which allows me to neatly segueway into…

…the fifth two-reeler on Rare Shorts, a 1935 comedy entitled Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!).  This short was a promotional gimmick funded by B.F. Goodrich, who wanted to alert the public on the dangers of reckless driving.  Monte is pal to Harry Langdon, who’s planning on wedding Diana Lewis…but Collins is really trying to sabotage the nuptials so he can have Diana and hug her and squeeze her and pet her and call her “George”; her father has warned Harry that if he gets one more traffic ticket the wedding is RIGHT OUT!—and of course, Monte is only too happy to get Harry in dutch with the police.  I was not a stranger to this short; it’s on the All Day Entertainment release of Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection and I think I said at the time “it’s not a bad little two-reeler.”  I’m still a fan—it’s got some inventive, Langdon-like gags (the bit with the four top hats produced a hearty chuckle) and as Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde note in Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon, “the film is on par with Langdon’s Educational shorts”—because it was produced by one of Educational’s units (I laughed more during Love than I have during some of Harry’s Roach shorts—that much I know).  Harter and Hayde note that Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!) was filmed before Langdon’s Columbia two-reeler His Bridal Sweet (1935) but released afterward; Sweet is my favorite of the comedian’s efforts for that studio.

Harry Gribbon
The final effort on the Rare Shorts DVD is unquestionably the weakest—Cactus Caballeros (1938), in which Harry Gribbon and Joey Faye (billed as “Fay”) play unemployed actors attempting to capture a notorious bandit in a Western town.  I’ve seen Gribbon in any number of Vitaphone shorts and he can make me laugh (though he’s usually outgunned by Shemp Howard, his frequent co-star) so I didn’t have a problem with Harry…but Faye’s character is so obnoxious, with a collection of verbal and facial tics that get on your nerves within the first five minutes of the short, that you soon start wishing for interactive TV so you can strangle him.  This was one of Faye’s first forays into film (love that alliteration); he made his name as a top “second banana” in burlesque and long claimed that he originated several of the routines popularized by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello including “Slowly I Turn” and “Who’s on First?”  Faye got better in movies and TV with each subsequent appearance…but in Caballeros, he’ll make you wish you were watching Ben Blue in a Taxi Boys comedy…and I do not make this statement in jest lightly.

Thanks again to Brian for providing the screener—Rare Shorts From the Golden Age of Hollywood is a keeper for fans of comedy and OTR (or both).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mr. Bojangles

Southerner Jean Stratton (Anise Boyer) is willing to go to any lengths to find work in Harlem—even making a wish under the legendary “Tree of Hope” (the story goes that an actor did this under the same tree and learned upon returning to his boarding house a producer had a part for him).  Unfortunately, a few innocent inquiries to male passersby about how long she must wait for this job leads to a mix-up with the law, convinced that “going to any lengths” part involves the world’s oldest profession.  Jean is rescued by an observer in the crowd, “Money” Johnson (James Baskett), who offers her a position as a showgirl at his Acme Theatre (though he has ulterior motives, natch).

Anise Boyer and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
in Harlem is Heaven (1932)
More than just a Harlem impresario, Johnson has also done very well for himself in the “policy racket”…which provides the fundage to run the Acme and several other shady enterprises.  The history of show business is dotted with racketeers like Money (the start-up cash must come from somewhere), and as such it shouldn’t be surprising (though it certainly is disappointing) that “the world’s greatest tap dancer,” Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, is in Johnson’s employ.  (Robinson, God love him, has a gambling problem that causes him to go through greenbacks like eggs through a hen.)  Bill eventually comes to realize that he needs to run fast, run far where Johnson is concerned; he’s very impressed with Jean’s talents, and after a slight misunderstanding (he thinks she’s carrying a torch for him) gives his “copacetic” stamp of approval to her budding romance with his pal “Chummy” Walker (Henri Wessell).  You sharper members of the TDOY faithful can see where this is headed; Money is miffed when Jean spurns his amorous advances, and plots to make Chummy the fall guy by putting him in charge of one of his disreputable businesses (this one involves a fraudulent “hair straightener”).

While I would certainly not dispute that Harlem is Heaven, this 1932 musical of the same name—the first release from independent Lincoln Pictures, a studio that specialized in making motion pictures for African-American audiences despite being owned and operated by whites—is anything but Paradise.  Made for $50,000, it’s an incredibly inept production; the sound is sub-standard (it sounds like someone’s smacking their gum in the background during one scene) and the abysmal direction rarely rises above resembling capturing a dinner theatre presentation on film.  Irwin (R.) Franklyn is credited as director (he also wrote the script), and while I have not seen the other film he helmed, 1938’s Gone Harlem, I can only assume he got better on his second try.  (Franklyn did pen several later movie screenplays, including Minstrel Man [1944] and The Woman from Tangier [1948].)

Harlem is Heaven is a terrible film…but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit.  The (always reliable) IMDb notes that this is the film debut of Bill Robinson, but this is simply not true…unless that tap-dancing gentleman in Dixiana (1930) appropriated Bojangles’ name for his own nefarious purposes.  I’ve stated a previous criticism that the direction in Dixiana does Robinson a tremendous disservice but it’s freaking Orson Welles compared to Harlem is Heaven.  The only bright spot with Robinson’s footwork in Harlem (and a rare departure from Franklyn’s “I’ll-just-point-this-camera-at-the-stage” style) is an amazing staircase dance executed by Bill, which is some ways a blueprint for the later number he did with TDOY bête noire Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935).  The World Cinema Review blog notes: “[I]n the original the simple set consisting of a small staircase of five steps up and five steps down better reveals his amazing footwork, and stunningly points up his simple but graceful dancing. And unlike the second ‘Step Dance,’ he does not have to play an old ‘darky’ to get the opportunity to strut his stuff.”

What I enjoyed most about Robinson’s performance in Heaven is seeing how the performer became more and more confident in front of a motion picture camera with each subsequent appearance.  He only had to dance in Dixiana…but Bill’s got to sing and act in Heaven, and he does a most impressive job despite his inexperience.  (In one scene, he reacts to Baskett’s Money Johnson referring to Boyer’s Jean as his “protégé” with this flawless retort: "You sure gotta a lot of funny names for it, Money...")  By the time of his next onscreen appearance, a great musical two-reeler called King for a Day (1934—I caught this sometime back when The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ had their Vitaphone shorts salute), Bill overwhelms the screen with his charm.  Robinson is the true strength of Harlem, he performs two musical numbers that are first-rate, The Bill Robinson Stomp and Is You or Is You Ain’t (with John “Spider Bruce” Mason).

Yes, it's TDOY fave Juano Hernandez in an uncredited bit as the cop who tries to run Anise Boyer's Jean in.

The opening cast credits of Harlem is Heaven note “The Following Players By Special Arrangement With ‘The Cotton Club’.”  Bob Sawyer and Alma Smith (as Johnson’s spurned girlfriend) don’t get much of an opportunity to make an impression, but James Baskett (billed as “Jimmy Baskette”) went on to a not-too-shabby movie career, culminating with winning a special Oscar for his performance as “Uncle Remus” in Walt Disney’s still controversial Song of the South (1946).  (Baskett passed away in 1948.)   I don’t know what Henri Wassell did after Harlem (this was his only film) but I hope he was able to make a living at something other than acting because he’s weak and embarrassing as Chummy.  Anise Boyer, on the other hand, continued her singing and dancing career and can be glimpsed in later films plying her trade including Stormy Weather (1943—which also features Robinson) and Carolina Blues (1944).  An IMDb commenter notes that there were people who thought Boyer was even more of a knockout than Lena Horne.  (I don’t wish to live in a world where the majority thinks this, by the way.  But it’s a shame Anise never made it into mainstream films since she’s very, very good here…though I strongly suspect she would have been saddled with a lot of “domestics” roles in a studio system.)

Spencer Williams and Edward Thompson in The Melancholy Dame (1929)

Alpha Video has just released Harlem is Heaven to DVD, and has paired the feature (it runs short…I’m convinced their available print was a truncated one) with a most amusing two-reeler, The Melancholy Dame (1929).  Real-life spouses Edward Thompson and Evelyn Preer play Permanent and Jonquil Williams in one of producer Al Christie’s “Darktown Birmingham” shorts (a series of early talkie shorts featuring African-American performers); Permanent runs a café where the featured attraction is dancing by—I swear I’m not making this up—Sappho Dill (Roberta Hyson).  (Sappho’s husband-pianist is played by Spencer Williams, later a director of Black Cinema in his own right and recognizable as “Andy” on the TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy.)  This production is a bit more polished (Christie was a well-known producer of shorts, many of which were released through Paramount) and the performances more professional—I didn’t even mind that I saw the punchline coming from a mile away (though the closing credits appear to be missing).  According to the IMDb, this one was remade as a Vitaphone short—The Black Network (1936)—that I’m curiously to track down if it turns up on TCM; TDOY fave Nina Mae McKinney plays the Hyson role, and fellow birthday celebrant Amanda Randolph essays the Preer-like “Mezzanine Johnson.”  (You would-be Moms out there—why not try to catapult “Jonquil” or “Mezzanine” onto the top baby name lists, huh?)