A (Not-So) Brief Note On WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT (20th Century Fox 2004)

Sometimes while scrolling through the channels one come across a pleasant surprise. So it’s Saturday afternoon,a thundershower has cancelled my plan to hit the beach, the Red Sox don’t start for awhile, and I’m clicking the old clicker when I land on WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT. I wasn’t expecting much, just a way to kill time; instead, I found an underrated little gem of a comedy that kept me watching until the very end.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT is an undiscovered classic or anything like that. It’s just a solidly made piece of entertainment about small-town life starring Ray Romano (riding high at the time thanks to his successful sitcom EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) and Oscar winning Gene Hackman. Romano uses his nebbishy TV persona to portray Mooseport, Maine’s local hardware store owner “Handy” Harrison, who gets involved in a mayoral campaign against Hackman’s Monroe “Eagle” Cole, ex-president of the good ol’ USA, who’s running so his grasping ex-wife will keep her paws off his vacation house. The race to the corner office takes a U-turn when Handy’s girlfriend Sally, tired of his inability to make a commitment, dates the former leader of the free world to make Handy jealous!

OK, it’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but the movie has more than it’s share of chuckles and some out-and-out guffaws. It kind of reminded me of something that Don Knotts would’ve starred in 30 or 40 years earlier, with Romano taking the small-town Everyman role in his stead. Ray’s funny here, and so is Hackman, who could play just about anything. This was Hackman’s final film before retiring and he nails it as usual. The supporting cast is top-notch as well, including the delightful Maura Tierney (ER, INSOMNIA) as tough State-of-Mainer Sally, Marcia Gay Harden (Oscar winner for POLLOCK) as Hackman’s trusted assistant (who of course carries a secret torch for him, just to even things out in the end), Fred Savage (THE WONDER YEARS) as a nerdy political operative, and the great Rip Torn as a sleazy consultant brought in to crank up the political heat. Christine Baranski pops up as the president’s vindictive ex-spouse, adding her own comic touch to the silliness, and that’s an uncredited Edward Herrmann as the debate moderator. And let’s have a shout-out please for the delectable Canadian actress Reagan Pasternak (BEING ERICA) in the small part of Mandy, who’s got a crush on her boss Handy!

I found out there was just as much talent behind the cameras as in front. Director Donald Petrie was responsible for a couple of old favorites of mine (MYSTIC PIZZA, GRUMPY OLD MEN); his father Daniel did both features (A RAISIN IN THE SUN, BUSTER AND BILLIE, FT. APACHE THE BRONX) and TV Movies (A HOWLING IN THE WOODS, MOON OF THE WOLF, the excellent MY NAME IS BILL W) of note. Screenwriter Tom Schulman was also an Oscar winner (DEAD POETS SOCIETY), penned the Disney comedy HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS and the insanely hilarious WHAT ABOUT BOB?, and served as writer/director of the cult classic 8 HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG.

So yeah, WELCOME TO MOOSEHEAD was a pleasant diversion, a well made comedy with an impressive cast giving their all. Sure, it can be a little corny in places, but there’s nothing wrong with a little corn now and then – just ask Frank Capra. The movie seems to have been made in that Capra spirit, and I’m pretty sure Frank would’ve enjoyed it. I know I did!

Make ‘Em Laugh: RIP Tim Conway

If comedy is a gift, then Tim Conway was America’s Santa Claus, delivering bags full of laughter directly into our homes for over fifty years. The cherubic Conway, who died May 14 at age 85, was mainly known for his television work, but also starred in films, on stage, and in the home video field, making him a true Renaissance Man of Comedy.

Tim and Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson

Young Tim got his start in his hometown of Cleveland, not exactly a hotbed of humor (with apologies to Jim Backus, Kaye Ballard, and British transplant Bob Hope ), writing and appearing in skits with local TV personality Ernie Anderson during breaks in a morning movie show. Anderson himself would later gain fame as a horror host (Cleveland’s Ghoulardi) and  a network announcer, ‘The Voice of ABC’ (“Tonight on The Loooo-ve Boat….”).

Comic actress Rose Marie, on a cross-country tour promoting THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, saw some clips of Tim and Ernie’s skits and helped him land a spot on Steve Allen’s national program. This led to Conway being cast as the bumbling, naive Ensign Charles Parker on a new sitcom titled MCHALE’S NAVY,  set during WWII and starring Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine as the conniving Lt. Cmdr. Quenton McHale. Parker’s inept ensign was a constant thorn in the side of stuffy Capt. Binghamton (‘Old Leadbottom’), played to perfection by the nasal-voiced Joe Flynn, who was always trying to find a way to rid himself of McHale and his crew of reprobates. But it was Conway who was the comic glue holding things together during the series four-year run, and his slapstick antics delighted both kids and adults out there in TV land.

The series proved popular enough to inspire two feature films, the first (1964’s MCHALE’S NAVY) featuring the entire cast. 1965’s MCHALE’S NAVY JOINS THE AIR FORCE was made without Borgnine (who was busy filming FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX), giving Conway the chance to showcase his comedy talents. This one finds Ensign Parker embroiled in a case of mistaken identity with an Air Force lieutenant (Ted Bessel), and bumbling his way into becoming a war hero! Conway and Flynn made a great comic duo, but no more MCHALE’S films were made.

“Rango” (1967) with Norman Alden & Guy Marks

Tim tried and failed several times at starring in his own sitcom (RANGO, THE TIM CONWAY SHOW, ACE CRAWFORD PRIVATE EYE), but was in demand as a guest star on other programs. Most notoriously, he hosted the first (and as it turned out, only) episode of TURN-ON , a sketch show ripped off from the then-popular ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN that was so offensive, it was immediately cancelled after the first airing. Tim’s hometown of Cleveland didn’t even wait that long – station WEWS pulled the plug before the show was halfway through! Conway took his sitcom failures with good humor, though; his license plate read “13 WKS” (which was how long most of them lasted!).

“The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975)

It didn’t look like Tim would ever be more than a second banana, until Disney came a-calling. His first for the studio was 1973’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHLETE, with the late Jan-Michael Vincent as a jungle boy who brings sports success to a failing college program. Tim’s next Disney movie was fortuitous indeed; 1975’s THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG paired him with another sitcom refugee, Don Knotts , as a pair of inept Wild West outlaws mixed up with a gold heist and a trio of cute kids. Critics trashed it, but families turned out in droves, and THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG was the tenth-highest grossing film released that year, spawning a sequel, 1979’s THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG RIDES AGAIN.

Tim & Don in “The Private Eyes” (1980)

Tim and Don teamed in a pair of comedies that Conway co-wrote: THE PRIZE FIGHTER (1979) and THE PRIVATE EYES (1980). The former has Tim as a broken down boxer and Don his manager, the latter finds the duo as slapstick sleuths on the loose in London. Both give Tim and Don plenty of opportunities to strut their silly schtick, and were box office hits for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. They would team one more time in a cameo as goofy Highway Patrolmen in CANNONBALL RUN II, and we fans wish they would’ve made more movie madness together!

Mrs. Wiggins & Mr. Tudball

Tim had been making guest appearances on Carol Burnett’s weekly variety show since it began in 1967, and became part of the regular ensemble in 1975. He was given free reign to create crazy characters and out-there comic skits, and really began to shine. His pairings on the show with fellow funnyman Harvey Korman  are TV classics,  as Tim never failed to break Harvey up with his insane antics and ad-libs. A case in point is the classic skit “The Dentist”, which you can find here . His shuffling, stumbling World’s Oldest Man was another comedic highlight, as was his Swedish boss Mr. Tudball, constantly frustrated with blonde bimbo secretary Mrs. Wiggins (Carol in a blonde wig and tight dress). He also joined in on ‘The Family’ sketches (which later morphed into the sitcom MAMA’S FAMILY) as Korman’s bungling employee Mickey, and this outtake shows why Tim was the Comic’s Comic:

Life after Carol found Tim hitting the lucrative home video market with DORF ON GOLF (1987) as a so-called sports expert. Dorf talked in the same accent as Mr. Tudball, but was only about four feet tall (Tim achieved this by effect by sticking his knees in a pair of shoes). More Dorf videos ensued, each as popular with home audiences as the next.

Tim made new fans later in his career as the voice of Barnacle Boy, sidekick to superhero Mermaid Man (voiced by Tim’s old buddy Ernest Borgnine) on the Nickelodeon cartoon show SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. Tim Conway delighted TV and movie lovers for generations, and he was rewarded for his efforts with six Emmys. Inventive, fertile comedy minds like his don’t come around too often, but fortunately for us, we can still enjoy his peculiar brand of silliness for generations to come. Thanks for all the laughter, Tim, and rest in peace.

De-Coded: Wheeler & Woosley in KENTUCKY KERNALS (RKO 1934)


The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woosley  join forces with Our Gang’s Spanky McFarland in KENTUCKY KERNALS, directed by Hal Roach vet George Stevens. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a barrel of laughs, right? Well, while there are some laughs to be had, the (then) recent enforcement of the Production Code finds W&W much more subdued than in their earlier zany efforts, and playing second fiddle to both Spanky’s admittedly funny antics and the plot at hand, a takeoff on the famed Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Weirdly enough, the film starts off with a lovelorn man attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge. Fortunately for him, he lands in a fishing net owned by down-on-their luck vaudevillians Elmer (Woolsey) and Willie (Wheeler), living in a waterfront shack. The two convince him to adopt a child, and go to the orphanage, where they find cute little Spanky, who has a thing about breaking glass! The man winds up eloping with his true love, and the boys wind up in charge of the glass-smashing Spanky!

Informed Spanky is sole heir to “a large Kentucky estate”, the trio head south, with Willie falling for pretty Gloria Wakefield aboard the train. When they arrive in the Bluegrass State, they get embroiled in a bitter feud between the Wakefields and Spanky’s clan, the Milfords. W&W manage to mend fences between the two warring factions, until Spanky pops a bottle of champagne. The Wakefields think it’s a gunshot, and the feud is back on in full force…

There are plenty of quick quips and good sight gags here, but that anarchic spirit Wheeler & Woolsey brought to  their Pre-Code comedies is sadly lacking. There are missed opportunities as well; Marx Brothers nemesis Margaret Dumont is utterly wasted as the orphanage headmistress. Just imagine the fun Woolsey could have had jousting verbally with Miss Dumont a few short years earlier! Ingenue Mary Carlisle (who died this past August at age 104!) is appealing as Gloria, but not given very much to do except look pretty. Willie Best is unfortunately stereotyped as the Milford handyman Buckshot, although he does play off Spanky well. Even the main song “One Little Kiss” isn’t up to the usual standards of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (“I Wanna Be Loved By You”, “Three Little Words”, “A Kiss To Build  A Dream On”).


Spanky of course steals every scene he’s in with his antics and facial expressions. The six-year-old tyke was already a show biz veteran, having debuted with Our Gang two years earlier and quickly becoming the group’s most popular member. In fact, the film itself feels more like a Hal Roach comedy than a Wheeler & Woolsey outing, with Dorothy Granger and Charlie Hall appearing in small roles. Noah Beery Sr. (whose son later worked for Roach) plays the meanie Col. Wakefield, while Lucille LaVerne is Milford matriarch Aunt Hannah.

KENTCUCKY KERNALS is a pleasant enough if minor comedy, but a disappointment for Wheeler & Woolsey fans thanks to the Code restrictions. It takes away the sense of chaos they brought to the screen and turns them into just another pair of comics. Damn you, Joseph Breen!

Stan & Ollie: OUR RELATIONS (Hal Roach/MGM 1936) & WAY OUT WEST (Hal Roach/MGM 1937)

Like many of you Dear Readers, I’m eagerly awaiting the new STAN & OLLIE biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, which hasn’t hit my area yet (and visit yesterday’s post for my thoughts on that film’s Oscar snub). I’m a huge Laurel & Hardy buff, and I spent last week warming up by watching “The Boys” in a pair of their classic comedies:

OUR RELATIONS wasn’t the first time Laurel & Hardy played dual roles (their 1930 short BRATS casts them as their own children, while 1933’s TWICE TWO finds them as each other’s spouses!), but it’s loads of fun! Stan and Ollie are two happily married suburbanites, while their long-lost twin brothers Alf and Bert are the seafaring “black sheep” of the family. Mother has informed Ollie the rascals wound up being hung from the yardarms, but it turns out Alf and Bert are alive and well, pulling into port on the S.S. Perriwinkle. The pair are conned out of their money by fellow sailor James Finlayson (who else!) under the guise of “investing” it for them (as Fin says when they leave, “Barnum was right!”). The ship’s captain (Sidney Toler, the future Charlie Chan) sends them to Denker’s Beer Garden to pick up a package for him – an expensive engagement ring for his sweetie. Couldn’t have picked two better guys for the job, right?

With but a dollar between them, Alf and Bert run into a couple of golddigging floozies (Lona Andre and the always welcome Iris Adrian ), who spot the ring and take the boys for a couple of high rollers –  and procede to run up a huge tab at the guy’s expense! The burly waiter (Alan Hale Sr.) takes the ring as collateral while Alf and Bert go to Fin to get their money back. Stan and Ollie soon arrive at the Beer Garden with their wives (Daphne Pollard, Betty Healy),  and now the fun really begins, with both sets of twins winding up at a posh nightclub before everything comes to a head on the waterfront, with Alf and Bert in cement overshoes as some gangsters (Ralf Harolde, Noel Madison) try to get the ring Bert unknowingly slipped into Stan’s pocket…

OUR RELATIONS is a classic slapstick comedy of errors with gags galore, like when the duo touch each others noses and go “Shakespeare – Longfellow” whenever they say the same thing simultaneously. Or sharing a beer with their one measly dollar, asking for two straws, and Hale brings a flagon that’s all foam (Stan asks for two spoons instead!). There’s a riotous scene involving Stan, Ollie, and perennial screen drunk Arthur Housman stuck together in a phone booth that was later reworked in the Three Stooges short BRIDELESS GROOM . And of course, plenty of Tit for Tat between Mr. Laurel, Mr. Hardy, and Mr. Finlayson!

Besides those previously mentioned, eagle-eyed comedy fans will want to keep a sharp lookout for Johnny Arthur, Dell Henderson, Gertrude Messinger, James C. Morton (as the mallet-wielding bartender), former Tarzan James Pierce, and Tiny Sanford. IMDb says Charlie Hall appears briefly at the pawn shop, but I guess I missed him! The story is credited to Richard Connell (best known for his oft-filmed short story THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) and comedy vet Felix Adler, with adaptation by Charley Rogers and Jack Jevne, with Stan providing plenty of uncredited material, as he always did. Harry Lachman’s direction keeps things moving briskly, and the whole shebang is credited as “A Stan Laurel Production”.

WAY OUT WEST is also ‘A Stan Laurel Production’; both were designated as such by Hal Roach to appease his star comic (who’d been serving in that capacity unofficially anyway) after an argument. Anytime you put classic comedians in a Wild West setting, fun is sure to follow, and WAY OUT WEST is no exception. Stan and Ollie are on their way to the rowdy town of Brushwood Gulch to find young Mary Roberts (Rosina Lawrence), whose father has died and left her the deed to a gold mine. They’ve never met her, and saloon owner Mickey Finn (Finlayson, of course!), Mary’s ‘guardian’, conspires to pass off his main attraction wife Lola Marcel (Sharon Lynne) as Mary and get the deed for themselves. When the Boys discover the ruse, chaos ensues as a mad scramble to return the deed to its rightful owner begins…

This scenario (from a story by Rogers and Jevne, with Rogers, Adler, James Parrott, and an uncredited Stan writing the script) allows Laurel & Hardy to engage in some of their most memorable gags, including Stan’s famous “Thumb Trick” – and admit it, all you L&H fans out there have tried it! We first meet The Boys on the road to Brushwood Gulch, where they have to cross a river, which proves disastrous for poor Ollie! The “block and tackle” scene is simply a masterpiece of comic construction (not to mention destruction!). Best of all is the musical interludes with The Avalon Boys singing group (featuring a young bass singer named Chill Wills !), as Stan and Ollie do a cute comic dance routine to “At the Ball, That’s All”, then later join in on a rendition of “Trail of the Lonesome Pine”, with Stan lip synching towards the end, dubbed by first Wills, then Lawrence!

James W. Horne took the director’s chair for WAY OUT WEST, as he did in so many other L&H romps. James C. Morton is again a bartender (complete with mallet!), Stanley Fields an ornery Sheriff, and Harry Bernard, silent star Flora Finch, Mary Gordon, and Fred ‘Snowflake’ Toones contribute uncredited bits. WAY OUT WEST serves as the jumping off point for the new STAN & OLLIE movie, and I for one can’t wait to see it. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it, and you can bet I’ll have a review for it ASAP… or I’ll eat my hat!

 

Attaboy, Luther!: Don Knotts in THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (Universal 1966)

When the conversation turns to great screen comedians, Don Knotts doesn’t get a lot of respect among the cognescenti. Talk to his loyal fandom, including celebrities like Jim Carrey and John Waters, and you’ll hear a different tune. They all agree – Knotts was a talented and funny comic actor, the quintessential Everyman buffeted about by the cruelties of fate who eventually triumphs against the odds. Following his Emmy-winning five-year run as Deputy Barney Fife on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , Knotts signed a movie contract with Universal, and his first feature for the studio was the perfect vehicle for his peculiar talents: a scare comedy titled THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN.

Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a meek typesetter for his local newspaper in the small town of Rachel, Kansas. He’s also somewhat of the town laughing-stock, bullied by the paper’s ace reporter Ollie, his rival for the affections of sweet young Alma. Luther dreams of becoming a reporter himself (after all, he has “a certificate from the Kansas City Correspondence School of Journalism”), and one day Luther, goaded on by his coworker Kelsey, writes a filler piece on Rachel’s infamous Simmons mansion, where a ghastly murder/suicide occurred twenty years ago, and the locals believe is haunted by the deceased.

Luther’s little column causes quite a stir, and the editor (also goaded by Kelsey) gets the idea to have someone spend the night in “The Murder House” and write a story – namely Luther! The cowardly Luther is reluctant at first, but after being embarrassed by Ollie in front of Alma, decides to go through with it. This sets the stage for the bug-eyed, rubber-faced Knotts to engage in his patented ‘fraidy cat’ buffoonery, as he encounters unexplained noises, secret passageways, eerie music from an organ that plays itself, and a portrait stabbed with garden shears dripping blood!

The story makes Luther the talk of the town, and the Chamber of Commerce throws a town picnic in his honor (a sign reads “Rachel, Kansas – Home Plate for Wheat and Democracy”!). But Nicholas Simmons, heir to the Simmons mansion, claims it’s a complete fabrication, and sues him for libel. The raucous trial culminates at the “Murder House”, where Luther’s story is debunked, but with a little help from his friends, Luther is vindicated and the mystery of the Simmons murders is finally solved.

For all intents and purposes, Luther Heggs is Barney Fife under an assumed name, even wearing Barney’s old salt-and-pepper Sunday-go-to-meeting suit! Rachel might as well be Mayberry transplanted to the Midwest, and that Mayberry flavor is no coincidence. Screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everrett Greenbaum worked on some of the GRIFFITH SHOW’s classic episodes, as did director Alan Rafkin, and Mayberry citizens Hal Smith (Otis), Hope Summers (Clara), and Burt Mustin (Old Jud Fletcher) appear in small roles. Another Mayberry figure had a hand in the film – Andy Griffith himself, who was called in by Knotts to help punch up the script! The plot recalls a GRIFFITH episode entitled “The Haunted House”, those “karate skills” were on display in another, and that speech Don gives at the picnic is a riff on his old  ‘Nervous Man’ persona. Yet THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN isn’t just a rehash of Don’s greatest hits; it’s a showcase for his incredible comic timing, and became a box office hit.

Producer Edward Montagne (who’d created another successful 60’s sitcom, MCHALE’S NAVY, featuring Don’s future comedy partner Tim Conway) filled his cast with dependable Familiar Faces from the worlds of film and TV. Pretty former Playmate Joan Staley (BROADSIDE, ROUSTABOUT) plays Alma, mean Skip Homeier is mean Ollie, and George Chandler, Ellen Corby, Robert Cornthwaite , Herbie Faye, Sandra Gould, Florence Lake, sourpuss Charles Lane , Cliff Norton, Phillip Ober, Eddie Quillan, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent (as Luther’s editor/boss), Reta Shaw (funny as leader of Rachel’s ‘Psychic Occult Society’), Lurene Tuttle, Nydia Westman, and Dick “Please Don’t Squeeze The Charmin” Wilson all engage in the frenetic madness (and that’s screenwriter Greenbaum’s voice doing the “Attaboy, Luther” shouts offscreen).

You can call THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, or Don’s other films, just silly family comedies geared to the kiddie matinée crowd if you want. But for me, and millions of other Don Knotts fans, he was an inventive comic actor who made some hysterically funny films. He may not have reached the lofty heights of a Chaplin or Keaton, but he definitely followed in their tradition. Scoff if you wish, but he still manages to make me (and many others) laugh out loud, and that’s what matters most!

Kung-Foolery: Jackie Chan in DRUNKEN MASTER (Seasonal Film Corp. 1978)

Jackie Chan’s  combination of slapstick comedy and kung-fu action helped make him a worldwide superstar, and DRUNKEN MASTER put him over the top as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. While I’m no expert on the genre, I’ve seen my fare share, and I can tell you this movie’s more than a few belts above because of Chan’s natural charm and comic timing.

As per usual with these films, the plot’s thinner as a Chow Mein noodle, which is okay because who needs a plot when you’ve got Jackie Chan? The dubbed version I saw casts Jackie as Freddie Wong, a rascally scamp whose father runs a kung-fu school. Pop tries to break the spirited Freddie without success, so he sends for Great-Uncle So Hi, a tough old buzzard with a fondness for saki (hence the title!). So Hi drives Freddie so hard with his grueling training the youngster runs away! But an encounter with the deadly assassin Thunderleg, in which Freddie suffers abject humiliation, finds Freddie crawling back to his Drunken Master to perfect the Technique of the 8 Drunken Gods. And just in time, for Pop’s unscrupulous enemies have hired Thunderleg to kill him, resulting in a Freddie vs Thunderleg rematch that’s a dizzying display of both athletic grace and Jackie’s comic gifts.

The film’s an almost non-stop orgy of graceful kung-fu action scenes highlighted by Jackie’s comedic talents. It’s a “star vehicle” all the way, and launched Chan to international acclaim. He’d been around the Hong Kong film scene awhile, as a child actor in the 60’s, a stuntman in the 70’s (working on the Bruce Lee films FISTS OF FURY, ENTER THE DRAGON , and GAME OF DEATH), and even a Hong Kong porn flick before finally breaking through with SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and this movie, catapulting him to “overnight” stardom. His athletic martial arts moves have a balletic quality to him, and his comedic chops are impeccable.

Chan didn’t really break through stateside until 1995’s RUMBLE ON THE DOCKS, though he’d been seen here in 1980’s THE BIG BRAWL and Burt Reynolds’s CANNONBALL RUN movies. Thanks to VHS and DVD, fans quickly caught up on his Hong Kong-made Kung-Foolery, and mainstream films like RUSH HOUR and SHANGHAI NOON elevated him to his rightful place as a major action star. DRUNKEN MASTER was the second film for director Yuen Woo-ping, who also made SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW with Jackie (and whose father Yuen Siu-tien plays Master So Hi), and his talents led him to mainstream work as well, choreographing the action scenes in the MATRIX and KILL BILL movies.

DRUNKEN MASTER gives fans the opportunity to see a young Jackie Chan honing his screen persona, and doing what he does best – giving audiences plenty of laughs to go along with plenty of action! Like I said, I’m no expert on Martial Arts movies, but I know what I like, and I liked this one a lot. Chances are, you will, too!

Brute Farce: Wilder & Pryor Go STIR CRAZY (Columbia 1980)

Gene Wilder  and Richard Pryor weren’t really a comedy team at all, just two incredibly funny comic actors who happened to work well together.  Both were stars in their own right, first appearing together in the 1976 comedy-thriller SILVER STREAK, with Pryor in the pivotal supporting role as a thief who aides the in-danger Wilder. Audiences loved the chemistry between the two, and of course Hollywood took notice. STIR CRAZY is not a sequel, but a funny film of its own allowing Gene and Richard to be their loveably loony selves.

New Yorkers Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are a couple of buds who’ve both lost their jobs. Playwright Skip’s a dreamer, while aspiring actor Harry’s a realist, but somehow Skip talks his pal into leaving The Big Apple to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. Their cross-country trek ends when Harry’s decrepit Dodge van breaks down in the Southwestern town of Glenboro. Running low on cash, they take a job doing a song-and-dance routine promoting a local bank. Oh, and they’re dressed as giant woodpeckers!

While taking a lunch break (and notice all the shameless product placement: Dunkin’ Donuts, Coke, Perrier, Heineken… all in the first fifteen minutes!), a couple of crooks steal their woodpecker suits and rob the bank. Skip and Harry are arrested, tried, and sentenced to 125 years in state prison, where they encounter some mean hombres, none meaner than Grossberger, “the biggest mass murderer in the Southwest”. City slicker Skip demonstrates an amazing aptitude for riding the warden’s mechanical bull, and the warden wants him to compete in the annual prison rodeo. Skip holds out in order to name his own crew, who’re planning a jailbreak, and the warden and captain of the guards try everything to break him. They don’t succeed, and Skip, Harry, and the boys create an elaborate escape plan…

“That’s right, we bad!”

It’s pretty obvious Wilder and Pryor threw the script out the window in many scenes and just ad-libbed, riffing off each other like a pair of jazz musicians. It’s equally obvious Pryor was coked out of his skull during much of the movie; his mannerisms are a dead giveaway. Be that as it may, both men are hysterically funny throughout, and the scene where they enter jail for the first time, with Pryor trying to teach Wilder to act like a badass (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) is still a laugh-out-loud classic. The pair teamed again for two more films, 1989’s SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL and 1991’s ANOTHER YOU, neither of which was successful; both try too hard, and can’t old a candle to SILVER STREAK or STIR CRAZY.

Sidney Poitier had directed five previous films with himself as star, and here he gives Wilder and Pryor free rein. Poitier does good work balancing comedy and suspense in the film’s ending, and one wishes he’d done more directing (except for GHOST DAD!). Humorist Bruce Jay Friedman wrote the absurd screenplay, at least those parts where Wilder and Pryor aren’t ad-libbing. Among the cast are Georg Stanford Brown (or as we called him, “Hey, it’s the guy from THE ROOKIES”) as a gay con with a crush on Pryor, JoBeth Williams as Wilder’s love interest, Barry Corbin (NORTHERN EXPOSURE) as Warden Beatty (get it?), Craig T. Nelson (JoBeth’s husband in POLTERGEIST) as the cruel guard captain, and the massive Erland van Lidth de Juede, a computer scientist, opera singer, and part-time actor (action fans know him as Dynamo in THE RUNNING MAN) as Grossberger. And yes, that’s the big man’s real voice singing “Down in the Valley”! (A side note: I could be wrong, but I’d swear that’s former Our Gang member Matthew “Stymie” Beard seen briefly sitting in the rodeo crowd behind the warden). STIR CRAZY was, as you can imagine, a huge hit, with the zany team of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor doing what they did best – making people laugh. The film’s just as funny today as when first released, a testament to the marvelous manic energy and comic chemistry between them.

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!: MOVIE CRAZY (Paramount 1932)

Harold Lloyd  made a smooth transition from silent films to talkies beginning with 1929’s WELCOME DANGER. Unlike Charlie Chaplin (who stubbornly clung to making silents until 1940), and Buster Keaton (whose MGM contract took away much of his artistic freedom), Lloyd retained both his comic visual style while integrating verbal gags in the new medium and kept control of the pictures he made. And while his popularity had begun to wane by the 1930’s, Harold Lloyd’s early talkies are definitely worth watching – because they’re flat-out funny! Case in point: 1932’s MOVIE CRAZY.

MOVIE CRAZY is one of those “Hollywood-behind-the-scenes” stories you know I love so much, so it automatically scored cool points with me! Kansas farm boy Harold Hall lives with his parents and daydreams of being a movie star. One day, he sends his picture and a letter to Planet Films exec O’Brien – only the inept Harold accidentally sends a pic of a collar-ad, good-looking guy instead of his nerdy self! O’Brien sends a reply asking Harold to come to Hollywood for a screen test, and the bumbling bumpkin goes west, immediately causing havoc at a location shoot. It’s also here he first lays eyes on actress Mary Sears, in character as a Spanish senorita.

One funny scene (among many) has Harold caught in a rainstorm, chasing his errant shoe as it floats down the street, finally landing on his keister and splashing Mary, now out of costume (though he doesn’t realize it’s the same person) and having car problems. His attempts to help her result in a series of comic mishaps, and earns him the nickname “Trouble”. She takes him home to get out of his wet clothes (wearing one of her outfits!) and her actor boyfriend, the drunken lout Vance, bullies our Harold. His screen test is a bust, though he’s led to believe he’s a hit, and Mary dumps him when she finds out he’s cheating (actually with her, as the senorita!), all culminating with Harold attending a swanky studio party, where he mistakenly switches jackets with a stage magician, causing more chaos with a water-squirting boutonniere, rabbits, and a box of white mice. Dejected, rejected, Harold gets beat up at the studio by the obnoxious Vance. When he comes to, a scene being filmed makes him think Vance is really assaulting Mary, and he finally vanquishes the bully, winding up with a studio contract, and Mary to boot!

There’s so many laughs in MOVIE CRAZY I could barely stop and take notes! Harold’s clumsy, naïve yet likeable persona serves him well as the hayseed in Hollywood, and he and costar Constance Cummings (Mary) make a cute couple. Spencer Charters as O’Brien takes the brunt of Harold’s ineptitude, and Kenneth Thomson’s Vance makes a hissable villain. Among the Familiar Faces are Louise Closser Hale as the studio boss’s dowager wife, Arthur Housman as a soused partygoer, and Grady Sutton in a brief but memorable cameo. The backstage scenes are well done, giving us a glimpse of those halcyon days of early talkies.

A plethora of writers worked on MOVIE CRAZY: the story’s credited to Felix Adler , John Grey, and Agnes Christine Johnson, screenplay to Vincent Lawrence, and ‘continuity’ to Lex Neal, Frank Terry, and Clyde Bruckman (with an uncredited assist to Lloyd and “Nancy and Sluggo” creator Ernie Bushmiller!). Bruckman also gets the director’s credit, though Lloyd had to take over much of the time due to Bruckman’s hard-drinking ways. Clyde Bruckman had been around since the early days of slapstick comedy, and worked with all the greats: Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields , The Three Stooges , Laurel & Hardy, so many others. His drinking curtailed his directorial career (his last was Fields’ MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE), but he could still get work as a gag man. However, Bruckman had a habit of “borrowing” (some would say stealing) old material and reworking it (The Stooges’ short LOCO BOY MAKES GOOD repeats the magician’s coat routine almost verbatim). Lloyd and his lawyers sued Bruckman’s then-employers, Universal, when evidence of this “borrowing” became blatant, and Clyde Bruckman never worked in features again. He was persona non grata around town, though  Abbott & Costello did hire him for their TV series, where his penchant for recycling other comedians’ old material once again found him in hot legal waters. Drinking heavily, unemployable, and nearly destitute, Bruckman borrowed a gun from his old friend Keaton and blew his brains out in a restaurant bathroom in 1955.

*ahem* well, that was a bit of a downer, wasn’t it? Instead of pondering the fate of the unfortunate Clyde Bruckman, let’s instead celebrate Harold Lloyd and MOVIE CRAZY, a hilarious concoction of comedy from an artist too often overlooked by modern audiences:

Campus Kooks: The Ritz Brothers in LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE (20th Century Fox 1937)


I haven’t posted anything on The Ritz Brothers since January of 2016 , so when TCM aired a trio of their films this weekend, I chose to review what I consider their best solo effort, 1937’s LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE. This was their first name-above-the-title movie, and features Harry, Jimmy, and Al at their zaniest, with the added bonus of comedienne Joan Davis as a kooky coed with her sights on Native American football hero Nat Pendleton.

Collegiate musical comedies were a popular sub-genre in the 30’s: COLLEGE HUMOR, PIGSKIN PARADE, COLLEGE SWING, COLLEGE HOLIDAY, et al, so it seemed the perfect milieu for the Ritzes to showcase their peculiar brand of nuttiness. The story is typical campus corniness, as George “Little Black Cloud” Black arrives at Lombardy College (crashing his motorcycle for an entrance) wanting to join the football team, and immediately developing a rivalry with football team captain Bob. There’s Coach O’Hara, in danger of losing his job after three losing seasons, and his daughter Janet, a love triangle with Janet, Bob, and Southern belle Cuddles, and of course the Big Game against Midwestern, where it’s revealed George is ineligible to play because of his pro past.

However, the plot is strictly secondary to the Ritz lunacy. They’re a trio of tailors who’ve been working their way through college for seven years, without much success (they’re lousy tailors!). They befriend George, who suffered a hazing by Bob and his jock friends early on, and find out the kid’s loaded (Oklahoma oil wells), which he doesn’t want the other students to know about. The brothers act as a “front” and give the dean a huge endowment ( driving him crazy in the process!), with the provision that Coach keeps his job and they get to play on the team (they’ve been sitting on the bench those seven years!). This is all an excuse for the boys to show off their precision timing in some nonsensical song-and-dance routines (a hilarious ‘Latin’ number with Harry in drag, an ‘Indian’ number with them as not-so-brave braves, the fan favorite ‘Spirit of ’76’), and the physical and verbal clowning that made other comedians green with envy! Of course, they get into the Big Game in the final two minutes, and almost blow it before making one of the most ridiculous winning touchdowns in the history of these college football moves!

Gloria Stuart  makes a pleasing Janet, and even gets to sing “Why Talk About Love?” (though I think she’s dubbed), but Dick Baldwin as Bob is dull as a butter knife. Nat Pendleton talkum like Tonto as George, but his comic timing is solid and he’s believable as an athlete (he won a Silver Medal in wrestling at the 1920 Olympics). Joan Davis was a fine clown in her own right, and performs a solo number highlighting her limber slapstick moves. Tony Martin’s on hand as a band leader, though he doesn’t get to do much except introduce the tune “Sweet Varsity Sue”. Veteran Fred Stone is the Coach, and among the Familiar Faces you’ll find two very young actors: a pre-noir Elisha Cook Jr. as the team manager, and a pre-horror Lon Chaney Jr. as one of the football players!

But LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE is all about The Ritz Brothers, and as you watch, you’ll find out where comics like Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, and Jerry Lewis learned their schticks. No less than Mel Brooks called Harry Ritz “the funniest man ever” – high praise coming from a comic genius like Mel! If you’ve never experienced the comedy of The Ritz Brothers, this film’s a good place to start. OR…. you can start here, with this rare clip of Harry, Jimmy, and Al’s appearance on the 1961 TV series JACKPOT BOWLING, hosted by another of their admirers, Milton Berle:

Confessions of a TV Addict #10: Neil Simons’ Greatest Hit THE ODD COUPLE Will Endure


When Neil Simon passed away this weekend at age 91, the world lost one of the 20th Century’s greatest comedy minds. Simon got his start writing for radio along with brother Danny Simon, and the pair soon moved into the then-new medium of television, hired by producer Max Leibman for the staff of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. This seminal variety show ran from 1950-54 and featured the talented comedy minds of writers Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Mel Tolkin, and Reiner on its staff. The Simons siblings moved to Caesar’s next venture CAESAR’S HOUR (1954-56) along with most of the writing staff, joined by newcomers Larry Gelbart and Aaron Ruben .

The Simons joined the staff of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (1955-59) for its final season, chronicling the escapades of con artist Sgt. Bilko. During this time, Neil began working on a semi-autobiographical play that became COME BLOW YOUR HORN. First produced in 1961, the play was a Broadway smash, and Simon was soon The Great White Way’s most celebrated playwright. He won his first Tony Award in 1965 for THE ODD COUPLE, and it’s this work that’s become his most enduring, with numerous adaptations in all media, including television, where we’ll focus.

The original stage production starred Art Carney as fussy Felix Unger and Walter Matthau as sloppy Oscar Madison, who reprised the role in the 1968 film version opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix. But when Paramount introduced their sitcom adaptation in 1970, they struck comedy gold by casting Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Randall was well-known for his comic chops, but Klugman was a revelation. Mostly known for his dramatic roles in film (12 ANGRY MEN) and television (including four episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Klugman had taken over the part of Oscar on Broadway and made it his own. The chemistry between Randall and Klugman was comedic dynamite, and the two actors began a lifelong friendship.

There were some minor changes made (for instance, Felix is now a photographer), but the basic premise remains. Neat freak Felix is thrown out by his wife Gloria and moves in with his messy, recently divorced pal Oscar. The pair constantly drive each other nuts with their opposite personalities. Felix is a bundle of neurosis, a confirmed hypochondriac (Randall’s “honking” allergy fits are classic!), and pines to return to Gloria. Oscar fancies himself a ‘ladies’ man’ despite his slovenly appearance, loves his poker games (which Felix always manages to foul up), and has a love/hate relationship with ex-wife Blanche (who’s portrayed by Klugman’s real-life spouse Bret Somers). Felix is the yin to Oscar’s yang, which sets the stage for hilarity during the show’s five-year, 114 episode run.

The series really hit its stride in Season 3 with some truly classic episodes. “Big Mouth” pits sportswriter Oscar against MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL anchor (and notorious curmudgeon) Howard Cosell, “Password” features Felix and Oscar on the TV game show hosted by Allan Ludden (with Ludden’s wife Betty White on the opposing team), “I Gotta Be Me” finds the mismatched roommates entering group therapy. My favorite is “My Strife in Court”, with the duo mistakenly arrested for ticket scalping, and this classic bit played to perfection by Randall:

THE ODD COUPLE has gone through many permutations over the years: a Saturday morning cartoon, a short-lived African-American version starring Ron Glass (BARNEY MILLER) as Felix and Demond Wilson (SANFORD & SON) as Oscar, a Simon-written female take on the characters, and the recent CBS series that was half good (Thomas Lennon’s Felix) and half not-so-much (Matthew Perry’s Oscar). Many cite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the film version as the ultimate Felix and Oscar, but far as I’m concerned nobody played the characters better than Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in one of the funniest sitcoms television has ever produced.

RIP Neil Simon (1927-2018)