Comedy Tonight: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM (United Artists 1966)

Director Richard Lester made the jump from The Beatles to Broadway in filming A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, but it wasn’t that far a leap. In adapting the Tony-winning musical comedy to the screen, Lester energizes the film with his unmistakably 60’s cinematic style, resulting in one of the decade’s best comedies, aided and abetted by a cast of pros including Zero Mostel , Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, and the great Buster Keaton in his final film performance.

The credits roll to the tune of Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight”, which may be my favorite song from any musical, as Zero introduces us to the main players. He’s Psuedolus, a slave owned by young Hero (Michael Crawford), son of unhappily married Senex (Michael Hordern) and his shrewish (not Jewish) wife Domina (Patricia Jessel, who’s a riot!). Hero has fallen in love with Philia (Annette Andre), the girl next door… except next door happens to be a whorehouse run by oily Marcus Lycus (Phil Silvers). Pseuodlus, who longs to be free, is charged with keeping tabs on Hero while Senex and Domina are away, and head house slave Hysterium (Jack Gilford) is charged with keeping tabs on Pseudolus! On the other side is the house of Erronius (Buster Keaton), an elderly man with poor eyesight still searching for his “lost children stolen by pirates” years before.

Got all that so far? Good, because things get complicated from here: Pseudolus takes Hero to Lycus’s emporium, only to discover Philia is pledged to Roman Captain Miles Gloriosus (Leon Greene), who’s on his way, while Pseudolus himself falls for the beautiful mute courtesan Gymnasia (Inga Neilsen). Houses gets switched, Senex returns home and thinks Philia is for him, Hero is sent to search for mare’s sweat (don’t ask!), Pseudolus and Lycus constantly try to screw each other over, Hysterium gets hysterical, Erronius thinks his house is haunted, The Captain demands his courtesan, and Domina is on her way home! All capped off by a mad chariot chase that, though I can’t find any evidence to back it up, looks like it contains some of Buster’s handiwork!

Zero, Silvers, and Gilford were all veterans of comedy, performing in venues from vaudeville to burlesque, and The Catskills to Broadway. This was Zero’s first film appearance after being blacklisted in Hollywood for fifteen years, during which time he became a huge Broadway star, originating the role of Pseudolus there (and winning a Tony), followed by his Tevye in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (garnering another Tony). Mostel mugs for the camera and hams it up mercilessly, and I mean that in a good way! His inspired clowning has influenced generations of comics, and here he goes full throttle in a part he was born to play.

Equally uproarious is Phil Silvers , without his trademark glasses but as Bilko-like as ever as procurer Marcus Lycus. Silvers and Mostel play off each other like two dueling swordsmen, engaging in a battle of “Can You Top This?” with each other and generally having a ball. The underrated Jack Gilford doesn’t get discussed much these days, mostly being remembered from the film COCOON, but was a great comic actor in his own right, and his song “Lovely” (performed while dressed in drag!) is just one of the movie’s many highlights. Michael Crawford went from playing the naïve Hero to Broadway’s original PHANTOM OF THE OPERA a few decades later. Besides those previously mentioned, Familiar Faces include Alfie Bass, Roy Kinnear, DR. WHO #3 Jon Pertwee (whose brother Michael cowrote the screenplay with Melvin Frank), and an uncredited Ingrid Pitt as one of Lycus’s courtesans.


Then there’s Buster Keaton , still taking pratfalls at age 70 while suffering from the cancer that would kill him before the films’ release. Keaton’s role isn’t as big or as showy as the rest of the gang, but The Great Stoneface is always a sure-fire laugh getter, and his character plays an important part at the film’s conclusion. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is a fitting ending to Keaton’s feature film career, surrounded by a top-notch group of funnymen, and given a chance to make us laugh one more time. But let’s not end things on a melancholy note, but rather with how things begin, the opening credits from A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. Take it away, Zero:

Double Your Fun: Laurel & Hardy in BLOCKHEADS (MGM 1938) and SAPS AT SEA (United Artists 1940)

Hal Roach first teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy in 1927, beginning a long and prosperous screen comedy collaboration. The pair became the movie’s most beloved, and funniest, screen team, a point  that’s hard to argue against after a recent rewatching of BLOCKHEADS and SAPS AT SEA, two films that each clock in at less than an hour, but pack more laughs than many longer, larger budgeted films of the era – or any era, for that matter!

In BLOCKHEADS, L&H are soldiers during WWI, and Stan is ordered to stand guard in the trench until the troop returns from battle. Twenty years later, he’s still there! Found by a pilot he shoots down, Stan is taken to an Old Soldiers’ Home, when Ollie (once again a henpecked husband) spots his picture in the newspaper. Ollie rushes to see his old pal, and finds him sitting in a wheelchair with his leg tucked under him. Thinking Stan’s lost a limb, Ollie picks him up and brings him home to meet his wife, and of course mayhem ensues as they attempt to climb upstairs to Ollie’s thirteenth floor apartment, encountering trouble at every floor, and a final melee with Ollie’s wife, neighbor Patricia Ellis, and jealous husband Billy Gilbert !

A battalion of comedy writers (Felix Adler, James Parrott, Charley Rogers, Arnold Belgard, and former silent star Harry Langdon) are credited with the script, but let’s not forget the behind-the-scenes contributions of Stan Laurel. Stan held court during the writing sessions for L&H’s films, supervising the entire project, and many of the quick-hit gags sprung from his fertile comic mind. It’s hard to say who came up with what, since all were great gag writers, but they come fast and furious: Stan in the trench, eating beans, tosses his empty can onto a pile (a virtual “hill of beans”!); the aforementioned wheelchair sight gag; perennial nemesis James Finlayson battling Ollie; an obnoxious brat (Tommy Bond, Butch of the OUR GANG shorts) kicking his football on one of the floors; and Stan smoking his “hand pipe” (first used in WAY OUT WEST). One of my favorite gags is when Stan tells Ollie, “You remember how dumb I used to be?…Well, I’m better now”, followed by a series of mishaps that causes Ollie to repeat, in his own inimitable way, “You’re better now”!

Billy Gilbert as the big-game hunting jealous neighbor adds his own blustery brand of buffoonery. Like Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy, Gilbert made a great foil for the boys in many of their shorts and features. Minna Gombell takes the role usually filled by Mae Busch as Ollie’s combative wife. John G. Blystone is the credited director (he also worked with the boys on SWISS MISS), but Stan had final say on all things Laurel and Hardy. After BLOCKHEADS, the team and producer Hal Roach left MGM (though Stan and Ollie would return five years later under drastically different circumstances).

Roach moved his output to United Artists, and his last with Laurel and Hardy is one of my favorites, 1940’s SAPS AT SEA. In this one, the boys work in a horn manufacturing company, where all the noise causes Ollie to have a nervous breakdown (“Horns! Horns!). He’s sent home to get some peace and quiet – no chance of that with Stan around! Ollie’s doctor (Finlayson again) recommends an ocean voyage, which Ollie refuses, but Stan has a brilliant idea (for a change); they could just rent a boat and stay in the harbor, getting as much fresh salt air as they would by going a-sea!

After some chaos involving wayward plumbing (silent legend Ben Turpin cameos as the cross-eyed plumber in his final film appearance) and Stan’s music teacher (Eddie Conrad) stopping by to give him music lessons (driving Ollie berserk!), the boys head to their dilapidated rented scow ‘Prickly Heat’, with a goat named Narcissus in tow (because Dr. Fin recommended Ollie drink plenty of goat’s milk!). Escaped killer Nick Grainger (Richard Cramer, playing it straight), chased down to the docks by police, sneaks aboard and hides on the boat, but Narcissus chews through the line, causing the boat to drift out to sea.


Grainger and his gun (nicknamed Nick Jr.) take control, dubbing the boys Dizzy and Dopey, and ordering them to rustle up some grub… or else! Having no food on board, Stan and Ollie decide to serve Grainger a “synthetic” meal, consisting of string spaghetti, sponge meatballs, paint tomato sauce, soap grated cheese, and the like. The killer watches them make the deadly concoction, then forces them at gunpoint to eat it themselves! More mayhem occurs when Stan begins playing his trombone, causing Ollie to go berserk again and subdue the criminal, just as Harbor Patrol comes across the adrift boat, followed by a funny coda and “another nice mess” Stan gets Ollie into!

Director Gordon Douglas , a graduate of the OUR GANG shorts, keeps things moving swiftly, and writers Adler, Langdon, and Rogers return, but as usual Stan Laurel is the genius behind the scenes. Some of the gags are old (the ‘mama’ doll under the rocking chair, for instance), but Stan and Ollie make them all seem fresh. SAPS AT SEA is their last really great comedy; when they signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox, creative control was taken out of Stan’s hands, and their later films suffered for it. Thank goodness their films under Hal Roach still survive, masterpieces of comedy delivered by the best in the business. The world is a better place thanks to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy!


Four Star Fun: LIBELED LADY (MGM 1936)

Jean Harlow ! Spencer Tracy ! William Powell ! Myrna Loy ! Four top stars at the top of their game shining bright in LIBELED LADY, a screwball comedy directed by Jack Conway with that trademark MGM gloss. Despite the zany improbability of the script by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, the crackling, witty dialog gives all four stars (and supporting actor Walter Connolly) plenty of good material.

Here’s the plot: rich heiress Connie Allenbury (Loy) is suing the New York Evening Star for printing a story about her being a husband stealer. Her price: five million! Editor Warren Haggerty (Tracy), after once again blowing off his nuptials to long-time flame Gladys Benton (Harlow), recruits ex-reporter and frenemy Bill Chandler (Powell) in a crazy scheme involving marrying him off to Gladys (and is she pissed!), hop an ocean liner to London, and return with Connie, using his “charms” to set her up on an alienation of affections rap. Bill angles his way in with the Allenburys by pretending to be a fishing expert (even though he’s no outdoorsman) and getting in Dad Allenbury’s (Connolly) good graces. Things go haywire from there as Bill and Connie fall for each other for real, then Gladys falls for Bill for real, and Warren tries to straighten the whole mess out without losing his newspaper!

Powell and Loy were riding high at the time due to the success of THE THIN MAN, and MGM wanted to keep them in the spotlight. The pair are always a joy to watch working together, and seeing the dandy Powell try to master trout fishing is a comic highlight. Powell also works well with Harlow, whom he was dating at the time, and she’s great in her role as the pawn in boyfriend Tracy’s plan. Tracy gets to show off his comedy chops too, and more than holds his own. A great bit comes when Tracy, after learning Powell and Loy have gotten hitched, tells them Harlow is wife #1, to which Jean replies “That’s arson!”.

Director Conway was a jack-of-all-genres, making everything from comedies to drama to actioners to Tarzan flicks with equal aplomb. Among his many credits are THE UNHOLY THREE , RED HEADED WOMAN, VIVA VILLA!, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, BOOM TOWN, THE HUCKSTERS, and DESIRE ME. Familiar Faces abound, including Billy Benedict (as Tracy’s office boy), E.E. Clive, George Chandler, Charley Grapewin, Selmer Jackson, Hattie McDaniel, and Cora Witherspoon. LIBELED LADY was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but lost to another Powell/Loy vehicle, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. It’s fast and funny and the kind of movie they don’t make anymore, but should. Then again, who could possibly fill the shoes of Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, and Myrna Loy?

Let’s Talk About Sex: BOYS’ NIGHT OUT (MGM 1962)


“Sex farces” were extremely popular during the late 50’s/early 60’s. They were filled with martinis, smarmy innuendoes, and smutty jokes, though no sex ever really happens. The comedies of director Frank Tashlin and the Doris Day/Rock Hudson teamings helped popularize this rom-com subgenre. A good example is BOYS’ NIGHT OUT, a humorous take on suburban mores starring James Garner and Kim Novak.

The premise is pretty simple: four friends commute every day from suburban Connecticut to New York City. They are divorced Garner and his married buddies Howard Duff , Howard Morris , and the ubiquitous Tony Randall, who made a career appearing in these type of films. When the “boys” catch Garner’s boss out with his mistress, they start to daydream what it would be like to get their own love shack going, away from their wives and equipped with a beautiful blonde to do their bidding. Garner balks, but soon the boys talk him into finding an apartment in the city. He does, and wouldn’t you know it, a blonde enters the picture. She’s Kim Novak, but what the boys don’t know is she’s actually a sociology grad student doing a thesis on “The Adolescent Fantasies of the Adult Suburban Male”.

This sets the stage for hilarity, as the boys each pick a night to spend in the city with the beautiful Novak. No sex occurs, as Randall just wants to talk (he’s constantly interrupted at home by wife Janet Blair), Duff is content to fix things around the pad (spouse Anne Jeffreys won’t allow it, the neighbors will think they’re not affluent enough), and Morris, whose wife Patti Page is permanently dieting, just wants to eat! Of course, none of them will admit it to the others, instead grinning and making sly remarks. That leaves Garner, who tries to save Novak from her fate as a courtesan. The wives get suspicious and hire private detective Fred Clark to investigate, leading to more hilarious complications and a knockabout ending that finds Garner and Novak together at last.

BOYS’ NIGHT OUT is loaded with Familiar Faces, like William Bendix as a wise bartender, Jessie Royce Landis as Garner’s mother, Oscar Homolka as Novak’s sociology professor, and Zsa Zsa Gabor as Garner’s boss’s (Larry Keating) mistress. Dead End Kid Billy Halop plays an elevator operator, Ruth McDevitt a nosy neighbor, and Jim Backus the guy who rents out the apartment. Its director was Michael Gordon, who also did PILLOW TALK and MOVE OVER, DARLING (as well as the Oscar-winning CYRANO DE BERGERAC). Kim Novak herself produced the film for her Kimco Productions, her first and last in that capacity. BOYS’ NIGHT OUT boosted James Garner’s feature film stock, and he was on his way to movie stardom. Films like BOYS’ NIGHT OUT and others of the genre seem pretty tame compared to contemporary farces, but there’s still a charm about them, of a more innocent time when just talking about sex onscreen was as titillating as graphic scenes of flesh on flesh.

Cleaning Out the DVR #19: Things To Watch When You Have Flumonia!

So I’ve been laid up with the flu/early stage pneumonia/whateverthehellitis for the past few days, which seemed like a  good excuse to clean out the DVR by watching a bunch of random movies:

Bette Davis & Jimmy Cagney in “Jimmy the Gent”

JIMMY THE GENT (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Michael Curtiz ) –  Fast paced James Cagney vehicle has Jimmy as the head of a shady “missing heir” racket, with Bette Davis as his ex-girl, now working for his classy (but grabby!) rival Alan Dinehart. Allen Jenkins returns once again as Cagney’s sidekick, and Alice White is a riot as Jenkins’s ditzy dame. Some funny dialog by Bertram Milhauser in this one, coming in at the tail-end of the Pre-Code era. Cagney’s always worth watching, even in minor fare like this one. Fun Fact: Cagney’s battles with boss Jack Warner over better roles were legendary, and the actor went out and got a Teutonic-style haircut right before shooting began, just to piss the boss off!  

Dwight Frye & George Zucco in “Dead Men Walk”

DEAD MEN WALK (PRC 1943; D: Sam Newfield) – Perennial second stringer George Zucco starred in a series of shockers as PRC’s answer to Monogram’s Bela Lugosi series . Here he plays twins, one a good doctor, the other a vampire risen from the grave to enact his gruesome revenge. Despite the ultra-low budget (PRC made Monogram look like MGM!), it’s a surprisingly effective chiller due to some ingenious camerawork from Newfield. Much of the film’s plot elements are borrowed (some would say stolen) from Universal’s DRACULA , including casting Dwight Frye as the vampire’s loyal servant. Fun Fact: Romantic lead Nedrick Young later won a Best Story Oscar for Stanley Kramer’s 1958 THE DEFIANT ONES, which featured another horror icon, Lon Chaney Jr.

LADIES DAY (RKO 1943; D: Leslie Goodwins) – Broad baseball comedy (no pun intended) about star pitcher Eddie Albert , who is easily distracted by pretty women, falling for movie star Lupe Velez . They get hitched, and the other player’s wives band together to kidnap her and keep them apart so Eddie can concentrate on winning the World Series! Silly but enjoyable farce elevated by a cast of comic pros: Patsy Kelly, Iris Adrian , Joan Barclay, Max Baer Sr, Jerome Cowan , Cliff Clark, and Tom Kennedy (Nedrick Young’s in this one, too… a banner year for the actor!). Maybe not a classic, but a whole lot of fun, especially for baseball buffs like me. Fun Fact: Director Goodwins has a cameo as (what else?) a movie director.

MYSTERY STREET (MGM 1950; D: John Sturges ) – Tight little ‘B’ noir as a Boston bar girl’s (Jan Sterling) skeletal remains are discovered on Cape Cod, and police Lt. Ricardo Montalban tries to piece together the murder puzzle with the help of a Harvard forensics professor (Bruce Bennett) and some good old-fashioned detective work. Early effort from Sturges benefits from excellent John Alton photography and a script co-written by Richard Brooks . Elsa Lanchester is a standout as a blackmailing landlady among a strong cast (Betsy Blair, Walter Burke, Sally Forrest, Marshall Thompson, Willard Waterman). Fun Fact: Filmed in Boston, and many of the neighborhood sights are still recognizable almost 70 years later to those familiar with the Olde Towne.

Victor Buono as “The Strangler”

THE STRANGLER (Allied Artists 1964; D: Burt Topper) – Lurid psychological thriller stars Victor Buono in his best screen performance as a sexually repressed, schizoid psycho-killer with a creepy doll fetish. Ellen Corby plays his domineering, invalid mother. Cheap, tawdry, sensationalistic, and definitely worth watching! Fun Fact: Lots of old horror hands worked behind the scenes on this one: DP Jacques Marquette (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN ), Art Director Eugene Lourie (director of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO), Editor Robert Eisen (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ), and makeup man Wally Westmore (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS).

HYSTERIA (MGM/Hammer 1965; D: Freddie Francis ) – This Hitchcockian homage gives character actor Robert Webber a rare starring role as an amnesia victim embroiled in a GASLIGHT-like murder plot. Director Francis’s keen eye for composition hide the budget restraints, and producer/writer Jimmy Sangster’s script pulls out all the stops, but I couldn’t help but wonder while watching what The Master of Suspense himself could have done with the material. As it is, a fine but minor piece of British noir with horror undertones. Fun Fact: Australian composer Don Banks’s jazzy score aids in setting the overall mood.

BEN (Cinerama 1972; D: Phil Karlson ) – Sequel to the previous year’s horror hit WILLARD is okay, but nowhere near the original. Crazy Bruce Davison is replaced by lonely little Lee Hartcourt Montgomery, an annoying kid (no wonder he’s lonely!) who befriends Ben and his creepy rat posse. The rodents cause havoc at the grocery (“Rats! Millions of ’em! At the supermarket!”) and a health spa in some too-brief scenes, but on the whole this looks and feels like a TV movie, right down to it’s small screen cast (Meredith Baxter, Joseph Campanella, Kaz Garas, Rosemary Murphy, Arthur O’Connell, Norman Alden). We do get genre vet Kenneth Tobey (THE THING ) in a bit as a city engineer, and the climax will remind you of THEM! , but like most sequels, this one fails to satisfy. Stick with the original. Fun Fact: Montgomery would grow out of his annoying stage and become an 80’s heartthrob in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN.

And now, here’s Michael Jackson singing the cloying love theme from BEN at the film’s conclusion. Rats – yuchh!:

Polish Ham: Jack Benny in TO BE OR NOT TO BE (United Artists 1942)

Comedian Jack Benny got a lot of mileage (and a lot of laughs) making fun of his movie career, especially THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT . While that film isn’t half as bad as Jack claimed it was, even better was Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE, a topical (at the time) tale of a band of Polish actors taking on the invading Nazis during WWII. Jack’s got his best film foil here, the marvelous Carole Lombard, and the movie’s got that wonderful “Lubitsch Touch”, a blend of sophistication and sparkling wit evidenced in classic films ranging from THE MERRY WIDOW and DESIGN FOR LIVING to NINOTCHKA and HEAVEN CAN WAIT.

Benny plays Joseph Tura, the self-proclaimed “greatest actor in the world”, and Lombard is his bantering wife Maria. Together, they lead a troupe of actors in Warsaw in a production of “Hamlet”, but every time Tura begins his “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy, an audience member walks out – unbeknownst to the vain Tura, the line’s a code for Maria’s young lover Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) to meet her in the dressing room! Germany invades Poland, and Sobinski’s off to join the RAF, but the acting troupe is forced to disban.

When the eminent Professor Siletsky is discovered to be a secret Nazi agent, the British send Sobinski back to Warsaw before the traitor can reveal the names of the Polish underground to the Gestapo. He reunites with Maria, now working for the underground herself, and Tura catches the young lieutenant sleeping in his bed! Maria returns, and an elaborate plan involving the acting troupe evolves with Tura impersonating Siletsky in order to retrieve that list of names. Gestapo head Col. Ehrardt is initially fooled by Tura, but then the dead body of the real Siletsky is found, just as Der Führer himself is about to pay a visit to Warsaw….

Benny’s vain, egotistical ham actor Joseph Tura is the perfect fit for his comic persona, developed through years of vaudeville and honed to a tee on his popular radio show. His trademark physical mannerisms and facial expressions are priceless, and Lubitsch brings out the best in him. He’s matched by screwball queen Carole Lombard, who shines in every scene she appears in as Tura’s not-so faithful wife. Sadly, this was the 33-year-old star’s last picture; on January 16, 1942, Lombard and 21 others (including her mother) were killed in a plane crash returning from a War Bond rally in her home state of Indiana. She was married to Clark Gable at the time. Among her many films, my favorites are TWENTIETH CENTURY, MY MAN GODFREY, NOTHING SACRED, and this one, released posthumously, and a fine capping to a brilliant career.

The supporting cast is equally brilliant, with young up-and-comer Robert Stack a fine lovestruck Sobinski. Sig Ruman ,  the Marx Brothers’ nemesis in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, gives another great comic characterization as the pompous Col. Ehrhardt (“So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh?”). Henry Victor is Ehrhardt’s top aide (and convenient scapegoat) Captain Schultz. Felix Bressart as Greenberg, one of the Polish actors, gets a chance to truly shine when he gives Shylock’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice (“If you prick us, do we not bleed…”). Old friend Lionel Atwill is on board as an actor who’s even hammier than Tura! Among the rest of the cast, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Helmut Dantine, Tom Dugan, Maude Eburne, James Finlayson , Charles Halton, Miles Mander, Frank Reicher , and Stanley Ridges in roles large and small.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is one of the few films where the remake (1983) is just as good. That’s probably because of producer/star Mel Brooks , a huge Jack Benny fan, who even pays tribute to the great comedian in the film (be on the lookout for the street sign Kubelsky Street, Benny’s given name). But if I had to pick one over the other to watch on a rainy night, it would definitely be Lubitsch’s 1942 classic, mainly because, like Brooks, I’m a huge Jack Benny fan myself! I’m pretty sure Mel would make the same choice.

 

 

80 Years of “Who’s On First”!

On March 24, 1938, Americans tuned in to THE KATE SMITH HOUR collectively convulsed with laughter as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello introduced “Who’s On First?” to a national radio audience. The hilarious routine, with baseball manager Bud trying to explain the names of his team to an escalatingly exasperated Lou, soon became an American comedy classic, one I can never get tired of no matter how many times a watch a clip of A&C performing their signature bit – they slay me every time!

Chico asking Groucho “Why A Duck?” in 1929’s THE COCOANUTS

The routine had its roots squarely in burlesque long before Bud and Lou first made that historic broadcast. Puns and word play were the coin of the realm among burlesque comics, and variations on this confusing theme abounded in the early 20th Century. Early talking pictures feature a notable pair of examples: The Marx Brothers 1929 COCOANUTS has Groucho and Chico bantering over “Why A Duck?”, while 1930’s CRACKED NUTS featured Wheeler & Woolsey doing some doubletalk concerning the towns of “Which” and “What”.

Abbott & Costello in 1945’s THE NAUGHTY NINETIES

A baseball version had been used on the burlesque curcuit, but it was Abbott & Costello who honed it to perfection, with an assist from their long-time gag writer John Grant. Bud and Lou never did the routine the same way twice, changing things to try and trip the other up, riffing like a couple of jazz musicians improvising on a familiar theme, keeping the bit (and themselves) sharp. Their Kate Smith performance earned them a contract with Universal, and the duo did an abridged version in their film debut, 1940’s ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS. They would revive the routine in 1945’s THE NAUGHTY NINETIES, and time and again on their own radio program. When the team produced their 1952-54 TV show, they did “Who’s On First” in the episode “The Actor’s Home”, which many aficionados consider the definitive version:

“Who’s On First?” was enshrined in Cooperstown, NY’s Baseball Hall of Fame in 1956, where it still endlessly greets new arrivals to the venerable baseball shrine. In 2007, Dodgers rookie shortstop Chin-Lung Hu got his first hit, a single, causing veteran announcer Vin Scully to quip, “I can finally say, ‘Hu is on first'”!

 

 

A Flask of Fields: W.C. Fields in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (Universal 1941)

I’ve professed my love for W.C. Fields before on this blog , and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is undoubtedly my favorite Fields flick. This inspired piece of lunacy is The Great Man’s commentary on getting films made in Hollywood his way. In fact, Fields wanted to title the movie “The Great Man”, but Universal execs nixed the idea, instead using a line from POPPY, his stage and screen hit. The change caused Fields much consternation, quipping that the movie’s overlong title would be boiled down on movie marquees to “Fields – Sucker”!!

Universal starlet Gloria Jean with “Uncle Bill”

The film’s plot (and I use that term as loosely as possible!) has Fields playing himself, delivering his latest script to Esoteric Pictures head Franklin Pangborn . The story he’s concocted may have the long-suffering Pangborn rolling his eyes, but it’ll have you the viewer rolling on the floor – with laughter! He and his niece Gloria Jean are travelling to a remote Russian village in a plane with an open air compartment in the rear when W.C. knocks his bottle out of the plane, so of course he dives after it, landing on the mountaintop home of beautiful Ouliotta Hemogloben, who’s never seen a man before.

Fields and his good buddy Leon Errol

After introducing Ouliotta to the kissing game of “squiggulum”, he then encounters her Amazonian mother Mrs. Hemogloben, played by Groucho’s favorite foil Margaret Dumont  , and her saber-toothed Great Dane (Fields calls her “a buzzard if there ever was one”). Escaping the 2,000 foot mountain via hand basket, he goes to a cantina, where he engages in drinking shots of goat’s milk with Leon Errol . Finding out the old dame is worth a ton of money, Fields and Gloria return to the mountain top so he can marry her, only Leon gets there first (thanks to Mrs. Hemogloben’s pet gorilla). The two love rivals vie for Mrs. H’s affections, until Fields gives Leon the boot (literally!), but Gloria talks him out of wedded bliss so just the two of them can hang out together…

At this point Pangborn tears up the script in utter disgust, and a dejected Fields goes to drown his sorrows at an ice cream parlor, looking directly at the camera and informing the audience, “This scene’s supposed to be in a saloon, but the censors cut it out… it’ll play just as well”, resulting in a wild ride with Fields driving a woman to a maternity hospital (she’s not even pregnant!) that’s straight outta Mack Sennett in his Keystone heyday!

WC tangling with waitress Jody Gilbert

It’s all just an excuse for Fields to engage in his peculiar brand of buffoonery: being harassed by Universal’s resident juvenile comedy brats Butch & Buddy, sparring at a diner with buxom waitress Jody Gilbert (dubbing her “blimpie pie”), croaking out the tune “Chickens Have Pretty Legs in Kansas”, and indulging in some of his best one-liners (think in your best W.C voice while reading):

When Gloria asks why ‘Uncle Bill’s’ never been married: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the only thing I’m indebted to her for.”

“Drown in a vat of whiskey. Death, where is thy sting?”

To a stewardess asking a hungover Fields if he’s airsick: “No, somebody put too many olives in my martinis last night.”

The Great Man, some booze, and a gorilla… what more could you ask for!!

Gloria Jean, Universal’s teenaged thrush, looks like she’s having a grand old time as ‘Uncle Bill’s’ niece, and gets to sing four songs in her sweet soprano voice. Pangborn gets plenty of comic moments of his own as the sourpuss Esoteric Pictures honcho, and the cast features Familiar Faces Irving Bacon, Mona Barrie, Anne Nagel, Minerva Urecal, Dave Willock, and the skeletal Bill Wolfe. Fields’ long-time mistress Carlotta Monte, who wrote the excellent book “W.C. Fields & Me”, has a bit as Pangborn’s secretary, and you can clearly see how much she enjoys Bill’s humor. Many changes were made by Universal to the original story by Otis Cribblecoblis (yeah, that’s Fields), and the screenplay is credited to John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin. But neither man ever wrote anything quite as funny as this (though Neville did pen the Bela Lugosi classic THE DEVIL BAT , filled with unintentional humor!), and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is pure, undiluted W.C. Fields, The Great Man at his surrealistic greatest!

(This post is part of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch FREE FOR ALL BLOGATHON , happening right now, so follow the link and have a good time!!) 

Glory Daze: Peter O’Toole in MY FAVORITE YEAR (MGM 1982)

The world of 1950’s live TV gets the comic treatment in Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR, a hilarious homage to those golden days of yore. Executive producer Mel Brooks had first-hand knowledge of the era, and much of the hysterical Norman Steinberg/Dennis Palumbo screenplay is based on his experiences, though completely exaggerated and laugh-out-loud funny. The film earned star Peter O’Toole an Oscar nomination for his role as Alan Swann, a dissipated movie star based on swashbuckling Errol Flynn .

Swann arrives at NBC’s 30 Rock, scheduled to be the week’s special guest on “Comedy Calvacade”, totally smashed, much to the displeasure of gruff show host Stan ‘King’ Kaiser (Joseph Bologna in a brilliant Sid Caesar parody), who immediately wants to fire him. But young comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, later of TV’s PERFECT STRANGERS), who idolizes the movie great, pleads with Kaiser to give Swann another chance. He does, and appoints Benjy as Swann’s personal babysitter, making sure the actor behaves… or else they’ll both get the boot!

Among the many subplots are Kaiser’s ongoing battle with gangland goon Karl Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell ), a Jimmy Hoffa-type Kaiser’s been lampooning on the show as “Boss Hijack”. Benjy’s got romantic problems with pretty young coproducer K.C. Downing (Jessica Harper, SUSPIRIA, STARDUST MEMORIES), as well as problems with his overbearing Brooklyn mom (Lanie Kazan). The writing staff is constantly at odds, with overbearing Sy (Bill Macy), cynical Alice (Anne DeSalvo), and the strangely silent Herb (Basil Hoffman in an apparent Neil Simon take-off).

O’Toole, who knew a thing or two about living la vida loca himself, was the perfect choice to portray the Flynn-like Swann. The gaunt actor may look like death warmed over, but his way with the ladies remains intact, and underneath the bravado of his screen persona lays a barely concealed vulnerability. His hard-partying ways have left him in debt and involved in scandalous behavior, but his dignity manages to shine through. O’Toole’s performance makes Alan Swann a flamboyant, funny, poignant, and all-too-human character, and he deserved the Oscar nom, but lost to Ben Kingsley in GANDHI. In fact, the actor was nominated and lost eight times in all, an Oscar record, only receiving an honorary award in 2002 for his body of work.

This was Benjamin’s first film as director, and got him off on the right foot. The actor had starred in TV’s HE & SHE and films like GOODBYE COLUMBUS, CATCH-22, and WESTWORLD before taking a seat in the director’s chair, and has made some good films since (CITY HEAT, LITTLE NIKITA, MERMAIDS, MRS. WINTERBOURNE). The supporting cast also features Adolph Green as show producer Leo Silver. Green’s no stranger to comedy writing himself, having penned the Broadway and Hollywood hits ON THE TOWN, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, THE BAND WAGON , AUNTIE MAME, and BELLS ARE RINGING with partner Betty Comden. Selma Diamond, who also wrote for Sid Caesar in the 50’s, plays the sarcastic costume matron. Familiar Faces Phil Bruns, Stanley Brock, Lou Jacobi, and George Wyner are on hand – and yes, that’s 1930’s starlet Gloria Stuart (later of TITANIC fame) as a dowager dancing with O’Toole during the Stork Club scene.

MY FAVORITE YEAR is right up my alley, a backstage pass to a show biz long gone. It’s got heart and chutzpah to spare, and never gets boring. If you’re like me, and love movies about behind the curtain shenanigans , you’re sure to love this one.

Mad Libs: Hope & Crosby on the ROAD TO MOROCCO (Paramount 1942)

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope travel the ROAD TO MOROCCO, the third in the “Road” series and by far the funniest. The plot involves two shipwrecked Americans who wind up in an absurd Arabian Nights style adventure complete with beautiful princess Dorothy Lamour and murderous desert sheik Anthony Quinn , but you can throw all that out the window as Bing and Bob trade quips, sing, and break down the Fourth Wall to let the audience know it’s all in good fun, so sit back and enjoy the zany ride.

Bob and Bing were already established superstars when Paramount teamed them for ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940), which was a huge box office hit and followed quickly by ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (1941). By the time they made MOROCCO, the pair had their act down pat, with Der Bingle the smooth-talking crooner who always gets the girl, and Ol’ Ski-Nose the cowardly wisecracker. Scripts were just a framework as the two hired their own gagsters to punch things up and ad-libbed madly, sometimes without even letting the rest of the cast and crew in on it. Their onscreen anarchy convulsed war-weary 1940’s filmgoers with laughter, as they skewered everything in their paths, including the hand that fed them, Paramount Pictures!

Some of their best gags are in this film: riding a camel through the desert while singing “The Road to Morocco” (“Where we’re goin’, why we’re goin’, how can we be sure/I’ll lay you 8 to 5 that we’ll meet Do-ro-thy La-mour”), Bob trying to get a free meal by acting like an idiot (not a stretch!), Bing selling Bob into slavery (which is how he ends up as Lamour’s concubine), trying to pull the old “pat-a-cake” routine on Quinn without success (he must’ve seen the previous movies!), stranded in the desert by Quinn’s army and seeing mirages, including one of Lamour where the trio sing “Moonlight Becomes You” in each others voices. The song, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, became a #1 hit for Bing that year, and is a standard today in The Great American Songbook:

The highlight comes when Bing and Bob attempt to rescue Lamour and handmaiden Dona Drake (who’s hot for Hope!) from Quinn’s clutches by sabotaging his party honoring a rival chieftain with whoopee cushions, a dribble glass, the old hot foot, and gunpowder-loaded cigarettes (as Crosby laces the tobacco, Hope quips “Hey, whaddaya doing, making reefers?”!!), all while being kibbitzed by a pair of talking camels! They escape for America, and all’s well that ends well, until bungling Bob goes for a smoke in the ship’s powder room and blows it to smithereens, an excuse for Hope to crack an Oscar joke to cap the shenanigans off.

From Hope playing dear, departed “Aunt Lucy” in drag to this exchange: Bob: “First, you sell me for two hundred bucks. Then I’m gonna marry the Princess, then you cut in on me. Then we’re carried off by a desert sheik. Now we’re gonna have our heads chopped off!” Bing: “I know all that”. Bob: “Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t”. Bing (flabbergasted): “You mean they missed my song!?!”, ROAD TO MOROCCO is tons of foolish fun, an enjoyable romp through the desert sands with two of the 20th Century’s greatest entertainers at the top of their game. If you’ve never travelled down the ROAD with Bing and Bob, this one’s a great place to start.

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