Thursday, September 22, 2016

Go West

The western is America's myth, America's
drama, what opera is for the Italians or
kabuki/noh for the Japanese. It's the
framework for our national narrative.

I missed the golden age of the western
(roughly the '50s through the early '60s) as
I wasn't born yet. But I tried to make up for
that accident of timing later. In the '80s Pat Robertson's CBN channel would show old western TV shows on weekend afternoons. That's how I discovered classics like Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Bat Masterson, The Virginian, Alias Smith & Jones, etc...

At the height of the form's popularity in 1959, one quarter of all prime time TV programs were westerns. Of course the great majority of this output was no better than workmanlike filler, but occasionally the TV sausage factories would turn out something extra special, worthy of comparison to the best western films. Here are a few of my favorite western episodes (in no particular order):

The Westerner - "Line Camp"

The Westerner was a short-lived TV series that aired in the fall of 1960. It starred Brian Keith as itinerant cowboy Dave Blassingame, who drifted around the West accompanied only by his loyal dog Brown (played by Spike, who had previously essayed the title role of Ole Yeller).

Created and produced by Sam (The Wild Bunch, Ride The High Country) Peckinpah (who had earlier created The Rifleman, but was screwed out of the credit), The Westerner presented a protagonist who was far from the typical Knight of the Sagebrush.

This episode was written and directed by Tom Gries. It memorably shows the gritty, mundane, unglamorous world of the cowhand.

Some of you western fans may recognize the story. Gries later expanded it into a feature script and directed it as the classic Will Penny.

Bonanza -- "The Crucible"

After being robbed in the desert, Adam stumbles onto the isolated camp of a seemingly chivalrous prospector named Peter Kane, who offers him a mule and supplies for three days work. However, Kane is in fact a demented madman who imprisons Adam and starts a dangerous game of psychological cat and mouse...

I'm not the world's biggest Bonanza fan -- it had too much soap opera, and Michael Landon gets on my nerves. This is probably my favorite episode (supposedly Pernell Roberts' favorite as well), with an intriguing premise and the great Lee Marvin at his Lee Marvinest.

The Big Valley, which imitated Bonanza in so many ways, did a similar episode entitled "Journey Into Violence":

Heath is kidnapped by a religious sect who accuse him of murdering one of their members. Acting as their own judge and jury, they convict Heath and he is sentenced to a life of slavery to atone for his crime.

A premise reminiscent of "The Crucible", but this episode emphasizes romance -- a girl from the cult (as it happens, the widow of the man he killed) falls in love with Heath and tries to help him. She's played by Quentin Dean (yes, that's her name -- she's best remembered from the Oscar-winning In The Heat Of The Night).

Daniel Boone - "Nightmare"

On the trail returning home to Boonesborough, the Boone family is attacked by renegade Shawnees. When Daniel is captured, his young son Israel must somehow rescue him.

One of the best episodes of the series, an action-filled classic that is basically one long chase. Direction credited to veteran George Marshall (The Blue Dahlia, Destry Rides Again).

An intriguing, seldom-discussed aspect of the early TV westerns is how some used their B&W photography to create a kind of noir ambience.  

The half hour Gunsmoke certainly did this in many night scenes of Dodge City, and The Rifleman became iconic for its nighttime showdowns, kettledrum booming on the soundtrack, between Lucas McCain and the heavy of the week.

Perhaps the noirest western of all was Rawhide, which was also notable in that it emphasized supernatural aspects far more than any other TV western. A number of episodes such as "Incident of the Executioner" and "Incident of the Blue Fire" deal with the drovers facing strange phenomena on the trail that they cannot explain.

Rawhide - "Incident of The Prophecy"

This is an especially eerie episode where a preacher puts a curse on the drovers for killing his brother. The great guest stars are Dan Duryea as the vengeful preacher and the inimitable Warren Oates as a jittery object of the curse.

That's just a few of my favorite western TV episodes (if you're wondering why I chose these, it's because they're the ones available on YouTube). I hope in future blog entries we can explore the subject further.

 If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Selected Shorts

By the early 1920s sound film was coming ever closer to fruition. Lee DeForest, whose audion tube made commercial radio possible, was producing sound shorts with major names of the theatre, opera, and vaudeville worlds.

An early example features Eddie Cantor, who by this time had worked his way from vaudeville child actor and Ziegfeld comedian to star of his own Broadway vehicles like Kid Boots.


Cantor's energetic likability is clear even today, and the short is pleasant enough. His material however is not terribly strong, and he comes off best when singing comic songs, like the one about preferring dumb girls because they make better lovers. Cantor actually made a silent feature (Kid Boots, with Clara Bow yet) but his appeal owed too much to his voice (he was a major recording artist of the era). He wouldn't make a significant impact in films until the talkie Whoopee in 1930.

By the later 20s Warner Brothers release of The Jazz Singer proved talking pictures commercially viable. Along with sound features Warners also made talkie shorts through their Vitaphone subsidiary, In addition to the usual operatic sopranos and tenors, these Vitaphone shorts included some very intriguing vaudeville acts.

Conlin and Glass were a married couple who'd been in vaudeville for years:

In 1928 Vitaphone filmed their stage routine "Morning, Noon, and Night" as Sharps and Flats. Here are two brief excerpts:

Miss Glass doesn't really add much to the comic proceedings, her role being to irritate Mr. Conlin and allow him various fits of annoyance.

She also comes close to ruining the later scenes by laughing at Conlin's shenanigans (when will people learn laughter is not funny?).

Conlin still manages to amuse while playing the piano or fighting against a curtain that seems to hate him -- one of some surrealistic touches that give this a cinematic quality miles ahead of the Cantor short.

Jimmy Conlin would go on to a long career as a movie character actor (he's even in Anatomy of a Murder). He's best remembered as a member of Preston Sturges' stock company -- he's the con who laughs at Mickey Mouse beside Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels.

Another Vitaphone short from 1928 features the veteran vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee.

While there were a few unorthodox touches in Conlin and Glass' film, their act itself was pretty straightforward -- straightwoman and eccentric comedian. But Shaw and Lee's act is quite unconventional, even downright odd:

Shaw and Lee - The Beau Brummels

They barely move for most of the footage and when they do move it is quite mechanical, like automatons. They seldom change facial expressions and speak mostly in monotone, occasionally even speaking in unison. Their material is mostly a non-sequitur style known at the time as "nut humor".

Many of their jokes are just okay, but they are made funny by the deadpan delivery and the duo's pod-people, Stepford Wife eyes.

Although a classic routine, this proved a dead end for the team. How can you have a film career out of being so unanimated? I've seen a later Shaw and Lee film appearance from the 1940s, and in that they predictably behave in an anarchic Stooges and Costello manner.

One more short for lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans. James Sibley Watson was a physician and wealthy patron of the arts who co-edited the avant-garde literary magazine The Dial. He also worked in film, making an expressionistic adaptation of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher that attracted some attention. But his next film was an oddity that makes The Beau Brummels seem positively mundane. Tomatos Another Day (1930) is a spoof of early talkies and their staticly expository style.

Although you could make a case it's distantly related to the Beau Brummels (sort of a parody of vaudeville teams, the way Rodney Dangerfield was a parody of Borscht Belt comics) it reminds me of Groucho Marx's lampoon of Strange Interlude in Animal Crackers. The difference is while that monologue had non-sequiturs and puns and other styles of humor, there's one joke here: the over-descriptive dialogue of early talkies. A guy leaves the room, and the girl says, "He's gone". Then after a long pause: "I am alone".

Allegedly Tomatos Another Day was shown once at a Boston theater to extremely negative reaction and never shown again. Watson himself deemed it a total failure. I can kind of understand it not going over well at the time -- audiences had abandoned silent film for dialogue, no matter how inept, and didn't want to see their preferences insulted. It plays better today, and can actually be seen as part of the parody sub-genre, along with such films as Buster Keaton's The Frozen North, Blazing Saddles, and Airplane.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Gimmee That Old Time Radio

Orson Welles had worked in radio from pretty much the beginning of his New York acting career, thanks to his versatility (he could play virtually age or accent). But it was the notoriety of his stage productions, specifically his all-black, "voodoo" Macbeth and the controversy over Marc Blitzstein's opera The Cradle Will Rock, that raised his profile and got him better radio roles.

A very boyish Orson Welles early in his radio career:

In late 1937 Welles starred in a seven part
adaptation of Les Miserables:

As Welles' reputation as a stage auteur grew, he was able to leverage that for more creative control of his radio work:

Exuberant Orson directs:

CBS gave Welles and his Mercury Theatre their own show (unsponsored) in 1938, and Welles went from Bad Boy of Broadway to Enfant Terrible of The Air. He acted in and directed literary adaptations without major incident until the day before Halloween, when he produced the most infamous broadcast in history:

Everyone should listen to "The War Of The Worlds" at least once, to hear what all the fuss was about. It later inspired not one but two TV dramas. The first was done live on CBS Studio One in 1957 and features early appearances from James Coburn, Ed Asner, John Astin, Warren Beatty, and Warren Oates (the two Warrens play Princeton fraternity brothers). Welles himself does not appear as a character.

Almost two decades later Nicolas Meyer wrote a TV movie in which Welles is portrayed onscreen.

Here's a PBS documentary telling the story behind the broadcast.

The Panic Broadcast got Welles a sponsor (and eventually, a Hollywood contract).

Welles continued to do radio throughout his Hollywood career (indeed for most of the '40s radio, not film, was Welles' major source of income). In the early '40s he teamed up with an aspiring radio playwright, the wife of his composer, Bernard Herrmann:

Lucille Fletcher:

Lucille Fletcher and Bernard Herrmann:

You may know "The Hitchhiker" from Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, though I think it works better on radio. "The Hitchhiker" was a great success, but it was another play of Fletcher's that would make her The Queen of Radio Suspense.

"Sorry Wrong Number" would become a sensation, the most celebrated radio drama in history after "The War Of The Worlds". Welles himself called it "The greatest radio play ever written", its series of telephone conversations perfectly suited to the medium. It would be revived for radio no less than seven times, always starring Agnes Moorhead.

Moorhead emotes for "Sorry Wrong Number":

Fletcher produced at least one other classic of radio suspense, however as it was never filmed it remains comparatively obscure. This has a much more baroque atmosphere than her rather more everyday previous plays:

Old time radio is a veritable ocean of great drama and comedy waiting to be heard. In blogs to come we'll continue to explore more of this vast art form.

If you're interested in film noir check out my book Dark Movies, available at Amazon.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Algonquin Round Table began at the start of the Roaring '20s as a lunchtime gathering of journalists and theatre folk, held at that New York hotel. Within a very short time their various wisecracks and witticisms would become familiar to the newspaper readers of New York, and eventually the rest of the country.

There had been literary salons and get-togethers before of course; Whistler and Wilde had traded bon mots at London's Cafe Royal in the 1880s. What made The Algonquin set different was how quickly they became celebrated. The new medium of radio could make instant celebrities, and the various members of the group often plugged each other's work and one-liners in newspapers, magazines, and books -- a process known derisively as "logrolling".

Many of the group became celebrities, even though some of them had done little of note except be witty. As early as 1923 the Round Table was cynically satirized in the novel Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton as "The Sophisticates".

They met at the sign of the Indian Chief where the cleverest of them — and those who were so excitedly sure of their cleverness that for the moment they convinced others as well as themselves — foregathered daily. There was a great deal of scintillating talk in this group of the significant books and tendencies of the day...They appraised, debated, rejected, finally placed the seal of their august approval upon a favored few.
The Round Table would be criticized for its allegedly superficial outlook and lack of heavy artistic achievements. Even Round Tabler Dorothy Parker would eventually take this attitude. Near the end of her life she wrote:
The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them...There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth.
This denigration of wit reminds me of S.J. Perelman's objection to BIG novels invariably being considered superior to shorter works (such as the sort of "casual" stories Perelman wrote). In fact there were at least two giants of humor in the group, Robert Benchley and George S. Kaufman, while others did interesting and often excellent work.

The Ten-Year Lunch; Wits & Legends of the Algonquin Round Table is a documentary from 1987; it's a good intro to the subject, although the device of various actors reading the members' quips doesn't really work.

New York in the 1920s is a recently unearthed TV documentary from 1961. Consisting mostly of newsreel footage of various greats of the period such as Gershwin and Mencken, it also features interviews with publisher Alfred Knopf, the previously unknown to me (but now quite intriguing) Texas-born newspaper editor Stanley Walker, and most significant for our purposes, Mark Connolly. The latter discusses the Round Table (note how forty years later he still tries to defend it from the charge of logrolling).

In the mid '70s Connolly appeared on the TV show Day at Night. I believe Connolly was the last Round Table member to speak in public. He and fellow member Donald Ogden Stewart both died in 1980.

Many Round Table members merit their own dedicated blog entries. However I will mention two members who were central in the group's rise to notoriety.

Franklin P. Adams may have been the individual most responsible for the Round Table's ascent to fame. As "F.P.A." he wrote a newspaper column called "The Conning Tower", and he frequently printed the witty remarks of his fellow Round Tablers.

The 1950s radio series Biography In Sound did an episode dedicated to Adams, who might be completely forgotten today if not for his membership in the Round Table.

Biography in Sound - Franklin P Adams

Alexander Woollcott was sort of a benign Gore Vidal. He wrote book reviews and theatre pieces but thanks to his Round Table notoriety his main job eventually became being Alexander Woollcott. He would become a national figure thanks to radio appearances as "The Town Crier".

He was caricatured in Looney Tunes and his friends Kaufman and Hart even wrote a play about him, where an insufferable Broadway critic-columnist-radio star wreaks havoc in a middle American household.

For those who've seen the 1942 film version of the play with Cole Porter's old law professor Monty Woolley, here's a little-heard treat: an all-star radio version from 1949, starring Jack Benny in the title role. Although of course exaggerated it does give an idea of how Woollcott was looked at even by his friends:

Biography In Sound also looked at the life of Woollcott:

Biography in Sound - Alexander Woollcott the Town Crier

We'll look at other members of the Algonquin Round Table in blogs to come.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Comedy College

Sorry if I'm a bit late on this, but TCM is offering a course this fall entitled Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies

We invite movie lovers, comedy fans, and online learners from around the work to join us for a free, flexible online course, TCM Presents Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies. Enjoy multimedia course materials, daily emails with movie clips and conversation starters, and ongoing interactions with fellow film fans on the TCM message boards or at #SlapstickFall. 

In this course, we will explore the greatest slapstick gags in movie history by showcasing 56 classic films released between 1914 and 2004. Spanning almost a century of filmmaking, we will watch, discuss, and analyze the best comedy gags ever filmed involving physical comedy, broad humor, and outrageous situations. 

The course will run concurrently with Turner Classic Movies' OUCH! A Salute to Slapstick programming event, airing every Tuesday and Wednesday in September 2016.  Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of comedy, Hollywood filmmaking, and popular culture. You will be able to share your thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of students, fans, and film lovers.
Here's a segment from a web series produced for the course: Breakdown of a Gag

You can get more info at the TCM Message Boards: Ouch! A Salute to Slapstick 

A few blogs ago I mentioned the David Wolper documentary series Hollywood and The Stars, which consisted mostly of library and newsreel clips, with wraparounds from host Joseph Cotten. The episode "Funny Men" was broadcast on November 29, 1963, exactly one week after the assassination of President Kennedy.


Clearly inspired by the compilation films of archivist Robert Youngson (who we'll get to in a moment) then playing in theaters, there are a couple of interesting things here: for one, this may be the first time Chaplin's City Lights rehearsal footage was ever seen publicly. And if I'm not mistaken the man with Fred Allen is none other than an unrecognizable Clifton Webb. Straight man, indeed.

The Marx Brothers are only mentioned in passing, and if Hal Roach was mentioned at all I missed it. Roach's discoveries Laurel & Hardy are seen only in a brief clip from an English newsreel. I guess Wolper was taking no chances with usage rights.

Roach already had a deal in place with the aforementioned Youngson, a longtime documentary producer at Warners who spent years compiling old movie clips for nostalgic shorts. He would expand on this technique in 1957 with a feature entitled The Golden Age Of Comedy.

Although James Agee's legendary Life Magazine article "Comedy's Greatest Era" in 1949 had begun the revival/canonization of the great silent clowns, it was Youngson who truly brought this campaign to the masses. He hedged his bets with narration that emphasized nostalgia, but interspersed throughout were comments about "the lost art of visual comedy".

There's a curious moment when the narration describes Harry Langdon as "the fourth in the great quartet of silent comedians". The other three are never mentioned. Was Youngson so afraid of a lawsuit he couldn't even mention their names? (I admit with Harold Lloyd, that fear might have been justified)

An odd quirk of Youngson's nostalgia was his stressing how many of the beloved stars had passed on. He shows a sequence with a very young Carole Lombard as a college athlete. As she wins her race and is congratulated by celebrating friends, the narration reminds us of how she died so tragically. Just the thing to extend the mood.

(For more about Youngson and The Golden Age Of Comedy read this excellent piece by John McElwee at the web's best movie blog, Greenbriar Picture Shows. Mention my name.)

Youngson released several other films in the same vein, with generally decreasing box-office returns, the last being 4 Clowns in 1970.

By this time the silent comedy revival was pretty much over, and the silent clowns had been replaced by The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields at revival houses as well as college film societies. An exception was Buster Keaton, whose cult would only continue to grow. He's here in 4 Clowns, thanks to Youngson making a deal with the controversial film archivist Raymond Rohauer, which allowed Youngson to include Keaton clips without fear of being sued by Raymond Rohauer.

The Roach deal is still in place, so Youngson once again features Laurel and Hardy. Rather strangely he includes a long sequence from Two Tars, just as he had done in The Golden Age almost 15 years earlier. Another curious decision is Keaton being represented solely by one of his weaker features, Seven Chances. This may have been Rohauer's doing, for some arcane legal/financial reason/scheme.

The revelation of 4 Clowns is Charley Chase, presumably as unfamiliar to audiences of 1970 as he is to audiences of 2016.

Sort of a cross between Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy (Chase was older than Hardy, but seemed younger onscreen), Chase was a harbinger of sitcom stars like Dick Van Dyke. He was invariably married or engaged in his films, and this was significant in the the nature of his farcically domestic comedy. He never managed the transition to features, unlike the similarly natty but less domesticated Raymond Griffith.

As part of Hollywood, his superb series on silent movies  (my favorite documentary series on any subject), Kevin Brownlow produced an episode on silent comedy.

It shows the rough and tumble beginnings, and even has some brief clips of Max Linder. before moving on to Sennett, Roach, and then the big four. The segment on Harry Langdon features an interview with his writer/director Frank Capra. Although not quite perfect (the Lloyd section is mostly the untypical Hot Water) it's an excellent overview, and probably the compilation I'd show to someone new to the form.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.