Double Your Fun With Wheeler & Woolsey: HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE (RKO 1930) & COCKEYED CAVALIERS (RKO 1934)

Welcome back to the wacky world of Wheeler & Woosley! Bert and Bob’s quick quips and silly sight gags kept filmgoers laughing through the pain of the Depression Era, and continue to delight audiences who discover their peculiar type of zaniness. So tonight, let’s take a trip back in time with a double shot of W&W comedies guaranteed to keep you in stitches!

1930’s HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE was their 4th film together, and the first exclusively tailored for their comic talents. In this WWI service comedy, Bert and Bob are a pair of AWOL soldiers on the loose in Paris, chasing girls while in turn being chased by a couple of mean-mugged MP’s (Eddie DeLange, John Rutherford). Bert winds up falling for Dorothy Lee (who appeared in most of their films, almost as a third member of the team), the youngest daughter of cranky Col. Marshall (cranky George MacFarlane), who’s having troubles of his own with frisky Frenchwoman Olga (Leni Stengel), to the consternation of wife Edna May Oliver (a frequent film nemesis of the boys).

This all sets the stage for W&W’s patented brand of lunacy, with snappy patter galore, and since it was made in the Pre-Code Era, some of it is pretty racy :

Girl: “Monsieur, you are making a bad mistake”

Bob: “You may be bad, but you’re no mistake!”

Each gets their own song, as Bert teams with Dorothy for a cute little number called “Whistling Away the Blues”, while Bob and Leni warble “Nothing But Love”, a tune that ends with Woolsey in a fountain dressed in nothing but his skivvies! The comedy comes fast and furious, as do the quips, and a standout scene finds W&W disguised as waiters in a fancy French restaurant serving the Colonel and his family. After a truly bizarre musical number featuring an all-female-soldier chorus line, Bert and Bob wreak their usual havoc, and Bob gets off some funny one-liners at the Colonel’s expense:

Colonel: “How’s your turtle soup?”

Bob: “Very snappy, very snappy”

Colonel: “Have you a wild duck?”

Bob: “No, but we can take a tame one out and aggravate it for you”

(Corny, I know, but I still laughed!!)

Eventually, Dorothy and Leni persuade the boys to deliver some secret plans to the front so they’ll be heroes (and her Dad won’t throw them in the brig), and things take a brief dramatic turn – but just briefly, as everything’s wrapped up in a neat comic bow and Bert and Bob get the girls, while the Colonel gets a reprieve from his sourpuss wife! HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE would make a good introduction to those who haven’t yet experienced Wheeler & Woolsey (and as a side note for film buffs, disgraced former silent star Fatty Arbuckle had an uncredited hand in the screenplay).

Most fans of the duo cite 1934’s COCKEYED CAVALIERS as their best picture, but while I would opt for the delirious political satire DIPLOMANIACS , this outrageously funny costumed musical comedy set in Medieval Olde England found me laughing out loud from start to finish! Bert and Bob are a pair of vagabonds who hitch a ride underneath the carriage of the portly Duke of Weskit (Robert Greig) and his niece Lady Genevieve (the delightful Thelma Todd ). The Duke has come to this small village to marry pretty young commoner Dorothy Lee (who else?), who wants nothing to do with the lecherous old toad, and disguises herself as a boy!

Bert suffers from kleptomania (Bob tells him, “Yeah, well why don’t you take something for it?), going into a comical convulsion every time he gets an urge to steal. He gets caught taking the Duke’s horses (and then the carriage!), and the two are put in stocks and pelted with rotten vegetables until Dorothy helps them escape. They waylay the King’s physician and his aide and ride off to the Duke’s estate. Lady Genevieve, believing they’re the real deal, flirts shamelessly with Bob, who flirts right back (Her: “Oh dear, I think you’re making a mistake” Him: “Not with you, baby, not with you!”), not knowing her husband is the rough, gruff Baron (Noah Beery Sr) they met at the local Inn.

Genevieve has called in the King’s physician to cure the Duke’s ills, and the boys proceed to “operate” on him, using a horse training manual! While the Baron goes out hunting the killer wild black boar that’s been terrorizing the countryside, Bob and Genevieve continue their *ahem* flirtation. Bert discovers Dorothy’s not a boy after all, and the quartet all do a comic song and dance number called “Dilly Dally”. The Baron returns and catches Bob messing with his Lady (thanks to his trained Great Dane!), Dorothy consents to marry the Duke to save her father from being beheaded, and everything winds up in a chaotic finale where Bert and Bob capture that devilish wild boar to save Dorothy and her Dad.

COCKEYED CAVALIERS is loaded with outrageous puns, sly double entedres (Thelma: “Don’t you just love wild game?” Bob: “The wildest game I ever played was post office”), plenty of slapstick humor (and you know how much I love slapstick humor!), and silly songs like “Dilly Dally” and the tongue-twisting “And The Big Bad Wolf Was Dead”, sung in the tavern by Bert, Bob, a bevy of extras, and the bass-voiced Beery.

It also features their best supporting cast, including everyone’s favorite comic “Ice Cream Blonde”, Thelma Todd, who also made HIPS HIPS HOORAY with W&W, and costarred with virtually every classic comedian of the era until her untimely death in 1935. Robert Greig (The Duke) was featured in the Marx Brothers’ ANIMAL CRACKERS and HORSE FEATHERS (also with Thelma), and later became a member of Preston Sturges’ movie stock company. Noah Beery Sr (The Baron) played the villain in both comedies and dramas, and was the older brother of Wallace Beery. Other Funny Familiar Faces in COCKEYED CAVALIERS include Billy Gilbert (The Innkeeper), Charlie Hall (the coach driver), Esther Howard (sitting on Bob’s lap at the Inn!), Hollywood’s favorite souse Jack Norton (The King’s physician), prissy Franklin Pangborn (The Town Crier), and former silent star Snub Pollard (the physician’s aide).

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey’s comedy is timeless, and the team is ripe for rediscovery. In this mad, mad, mad world we live in today, with everyone at each other’s throats on social media over stupidity (read: politics), we all need a good laugh, and the team certainly delivers the goods. The world needs to find it’s sense of humor again, and watching either of these classic comedies may not end the divisiveness, but they’ll sure make you laugh! All Hail Wheeler & Woolsey!!

Happy Birthday Charlie Chaplin: CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY (Independent-International 1968)

Today we celebrate the birthday of the immortal Charlie Chaplin , born on this date 130 years ago. Chaplin made his film debut 105 years ago this year, and the world hasn’t stopped laughing since! His silent comedies featuring the endurable character “The Little Tramp” (or as Chaplin called him, “The Little Fellow”) have stood the test of time, and his mix of humor and pathos elevated slapstick comedy to high art. The compilation film CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY highlights Chaplin’s early efforts at Essanay Studios from 1914-15, and contains some of his best work.

The success of Robert Youngson’s 1959 film THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY (spotlighting silent luminaries like Laurel & Hardy, Ben Turpin, and others) had spawned a whole host of imitators over the next decade utilizing low-to-no cost silent footage and repackaging it into a new feature film. Some were good, others lackadaisically put together, most just out to make a quick buck. CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is more than a few notches above, thanks to the genius that was Charlie Chaplin. The film was put together by Sam Sherman, and if that name sounds familiar, you must be an Exploitation Movie Buff! Sherman was the movie-mad founder of Independent-International Pictures, producing most of low-budget auteur Al Adamson’s output (PSYCHO A-GO-GO, SATAN’S SADISTS, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, GIRLS FOR RENT, BLAZING STEWARDESSES, NURSE SHERRI), and giving work to faded stars like John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Livingston, Kent Taylor, and The Ritz Brothers, among other former luminaries.

CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY salutes the art of slapstick comedy, which never really goes out of style. Here we see Chaplin’s Little Tramp coming into his own, with excerpts from nine Essanay classics. THE CHAMPION is a particular favorite, with down-on-his-luck Charlie becoming a sparring partner turned boxing contender. THE BANK casts The Tramp as a janitor who foils a heist (and wins the hand of lovely Edna Purviance, who costars in most of these shorts). Charlie creates mayhem at a movie studio in HIS NEW JOB, A WOMAN features him in drag trying to fool Edna’s disapproving dad, and POLICE has him an ex-con trying to go straight, until he hooks up with his former cellmate (played by future director Wesley Ruggles).

A real treat is A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, a change of pace with Chaplin playing a dual role as a tipsy playboy and a rowdy bum, based on the famous skit “A Night in an English Music Hall”, performed by Chaplin during his days with Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, where Charlie got his first break. It’s a rare chance to see what the early fuss was about, not to mention a very funny piece that still holds up well. CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is well worth your time, taking a nostalgic trip back to when comedy was king, and Charlie Chaplin was the king of ’em all!

(Oh by the way, Charlie Chaplin shares his birthday with another movie-mad, though much less famous, personality – me!!)

CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is available for viewing on The Film Detective , streaming everywhere right now!    

 

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:

The Day the Clowns All Cried: RIP Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis is an acquired taste for many. His unique comic persona isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, especially among the highbrow set (except in France, where for decades he’s been hailed as a genius). He was zany, manic, childlike, and the last of the great slapstick comedians, his career spanning over eighty years. He was a comic, writer, director, actor, singer, businessman, innovator, and philanthropist. Jerry Lewis is a true American icon, and the embodiment of the American  dream.

Joseph Levitch was one of those “born in a trunk” kids referenced in many a classic movie. His father was a vaudevillean, his mom a piano player, and by the time he was five Lewis was appearing with his parents onstage at Catskill Mountain resorts. A high school dropout, Lewis did what was known as a “record act” as a teen, where he’d lipsynch popular tunes of the day with comic results. During this time he met a young crooner named Dean Martin , and the two developed an act where Lewis would interrupt Dino’s singing with his wacky antics, much of it improvised. The 28-year-old Martin and 19-year- old Lewis were a smash on the nightclub circuit, within three years had their own radio variety show.

Television was in its infancy when Martin & Lewis appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TOAST OF THE TOWN in 1948. Jerry’s mirthful mayhem, combined with Dean’s good looks, were made for the medium, and they took TV by storm, becoming rotating hosts of THE COLGATE COMEDY HOUR, along with established acts like Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, and Abbott & Costello. Millions of Americans got their first exposure to Martin & Lewis and their fresh new brand of buffoonery, and soon the duo supplanted Abbott & Costello as the #1 comedy team in the country.

The team went to Hollywood that year as well, supporting “dumb blonde” Marie Wilson and her MY FRIEND IRMA radio gang in two films. Paramount signed them to a long-term contract and they made 13 movies together beginning with the 1950 service comedy AT WAR WITH THE ARMY (Dean and Jerry also did a cameo in the Hope and Crosby entry ROAD TO BALI). All the Martin & Lewis films are worthwhile, but my favorite is 1955’s ARTISTS AND MODELS, directed by Frank Tashlin. The former Looney Tunes animator’s vivid imagination lets Jerry run as wild as Bugs Bunny, playing Eugene Fullstack, a comic-book crazed geek obsessed with a character called “The Bat-Lady”. Dean is his roommate Rick Todd, a struggling fine artist who uses Eugene’s feverish comic-book dreams to crash the industry. The lunacy satirizes everything from the Cold War to the Kefauver Congressional hearings on how comics were warping American youth’s minds, and features one of Dino’s best movie tunes “Innamorata”, and sexy ladies Dorothy Malone, Shirley MacLaine, Anita Ekberg, and Eva Gabor.

All good things must end, and the team broke up in 1956. Martin, tired of being the straight man to Jerry’s increasingly expanding popularity, wanted to go it alone, and the breakup was one of the most acrimonious in show business history. Jerry’s first solo film was 1957’s THE DELICATE DELINQUENT, with Darren McGavin taking the Martin role.  In 1960, Lewis became a quadruple threat as he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in THE BELLBOY. Jerry plays inept bellboy Stanley, who gets into a series of unrelated misadventures at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel, where Lewis was doing his nightclub act while filming. Lewis does the character of Stanley in pantomime, and the name itself is an homage to comedy legend Stan Laurel, who consulted Lewis on the gags (and there’s a Laurel lookalike popping up throughout the film). For this movie Lewis invented a device called the Video Tap, which allowed the director to see what the camera operator sees in terms of framing. This later became de rigueur in filmmaking, and the industry has Jerry Lewis to thank for it.

Jerry’s best known and loved film is undoubtedly 1963’s THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, a Jekyll & Hyde take-off with the star in the dual roles of nebbish college professor Julius Kelp and smug, smarmy hipster Buddy Love. Here Lewis found the perfect balance of slapstick and pathos, playing two highly exaggerated extensions of his own personality. Contrary to popular belief, ‘Buddy Love’ was not a slam against former partner Martin; Lewis has denied this several times over the years. THE NUTTY PROFESSOR remains Lewis’ greatest film achievement, later remade in 1996 by Eddie Murphy.

Jerry’s other solo efforts were hit-and-miss; of them, two stand out in my mind. 1964’s THE PATSY finds bellboy Stanley turned into a top banana by a group of greedy Hollywood hangers-on looking to replace their former “meal ticket”. Again, Lewis marvelously walks the tightrope between comedy and pathos, aided by his best supporting cast: Everett Sloane, Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, John Carradine, and Peter Lorre in his last movie. 1965’s THE FAMILY JEWELS has Jerry in seven different roles as a recently orphaned little girl inherits 30 million dollars and must choose a new guardian among her six uncles (all essayed by Lewis), assisted by faithful family chauffeur Willard (also Lewis). THE FAMILY JEWELS doesn’t get as much attention as the other two films, but it’s a delight, with Jerry in top form impersonating all the screwball relatives. Jerry’s son Gary appears in this one with his band The Playboys, singing their #1 hit “This Diamond Ring”.

In 1966, Lewis began hosting the annual Muscular Dystrophy Labor Day Telethon, and used his show biz clout to attract the top stars in Hollywood, Vegas, Nashville, New York, indeed around the world, to donate their time to this worthy cause. Lewis’ “Love Network” of TV stations across the country (local Channel 6 right here in New Bedford, MA was among the first) joined in to broadcast the event nationwide during the holiday weekend. This wasn’t Jerry’s only humanitarian effort; he was charitable behind the scenes for many worthy causes. Ex-partner Dean Martin finally reunited with Jerry in a surprise 1976 segment orchestrated by mutual friend Frank Sinatra, one of TV’s most memorable moments. Jerry’s co-host every year was TONIGHT SHOW sidekick Ed McMahon, and every year the star would perform his heart-wrenching signature tune, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”:

Jerry Lewis never really slowed down. Martin Scorsese’s 1983 THE KING OF COMEDY had him cast as talk-show host Jerry Langford, kidnapped by unhinged stand-up wanna-be Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro). The 1986 TV Movie FIGHT FOR LIFE has Lewis and Patty Duke as a couple who must leave the country to obtain medication for their daughter’s epilepsy. He appeared in a five-episode arc of the 80’s crime drama WISEGUY as a clothing manufacturer threatened by gangsters, along with Ron Silver and Stanley Tucci. A 2006 episode of LAW & ORDER: SVU cast him as the uncle of Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch. And a little less than a year ago Lewis had the title role in the indie film MAX ROSE, as an aging jazz pianist who finds out his late wife (Claire Bloom) had an ongoing affair, and questions his entire life.

There’s so much more I could tell you about Jerry Lewis: his health battles, his humanitarian efforts, his success in Vegas, his failures as a solo TV performer. I’d probably be up all night just writing about his films with Dean.  When he died today at age 91, it truly was the end of an era. Lewis once was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to be remembered. I want the nice words when I can hear them”. Sorry Jerry, but you will definitely be remembered, not only for your show biz career, but your kindness in helping the less fortunate. I know you can’t hear all the nice words today though. All the clowns in the world are crying, and their tears are drowning them out.

 

 

Puttin’ On The Ritz: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (20th Century Fox 1939)

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The cult of the Three Stooges is as strong as ever. The Marx Brothers are studied in universities as artists. Laurel & Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert” fan club grows daily. Yet the modern world ignores the Ritz Brothers, and that’s a downright shame. Harry, Jimmy, and Al Ritz were multi-talented comic anarchists who  influenced a generation of funnymen from Mel Brooks to Jerry Lewis. Signed to a 20th Century-Fox contract in 1936, they lent support to big budget musicals like ONE IN A MILLION and ON THE AVENUE before being cast in a series of starring comedy vehicles highlighting their rapid-fire banter, madcap musical routines, and slapstick humor. They’re at their best in THE THREE MUSKETEERS, a musical comedy take on the Alexandre Dumas classic with Don Ameche as the dashing D’Artagnon.

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The Ritzes are three dumb clucks who we meet plucking chickens at the Coq D’Or Tavern in Paris. Brash young D’Artagnon, a new recruit in the King’s Musketeers, has summoned veterans Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to duel with him and prove his mettle. The Musketeers arrive early, and wind up losing a drinking contest to the Ritzes. The brothers put the Musketeers to bed and don their uniforms to impress some damsels when D’Artagnon comes in. Mistaking the Ritzes for the real thing, the four end up battling Cardinal Richeleau’s guardsmen, then get entangled in a political plot involving royal court intrigue, romance, and plenty of swordplay interspersed with wacky Ritz bits and songs like “Voila”, “Milady”, “Song of the Musketeers”, and of course “Chicken Soup (the Plucking Song)”.

The Ritz Brothers handle all the comedy, and their slapstick shenanigans and precision dances are letter-perfect. Harry Ritz could mug with the best of them, and Jimmy and Al are equally silly. Their cymbal routine while trying to cover for D’Artagnon is a masterpiece of comic timing:

Ameche is fun as D’Artagnon, cutting a handsome figure and wooing lovely Pauline Moore (Lady Constance). Villainy is taken care of by none other than Lionel Atwill (DeRouchefort), aided and abetted by Miles Mander (Cardinal Richeleau) and Binnie Barnes (Lady DeWinter). Joseph Schildkraut, Oscar winner for 1937’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, stands in as King Louis XIII, with Gloria Stuart a fetching Queen Anne. The Familiar Face Brigade in this one includes John Carradine, Douglas Dumbrille, Lester Matthews, and Gino Corrado. Alan Dwan had been directing movies since 1911, and kept steady at it for the next fifty years, amassing an impressive list of credits. He’s in fine form guiding the Ritz Brothers through their frenetic paces, as he also did in that year’s THE GORILLA. Some of his more popular films were the Shirley Temple REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, SANDS OF IWO JIMA (with John Wayne), and the feminist Western CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA.

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The Ritz Brothers films went downhill after this, with Fox’s B-unit producer Sol Wurtzel taking charge of their careers, causing Harry to quip, “Things have gone from bad to Wurtzel”. They left the studio and moved on to Universal, where the quality of their films did not improve. Leaving Hollywood behind in the mid-40’s, the boys became headliners in Las Vegas and nightclubs across the country. Their impeccable timing, incorporating music and dancing into their slapstick repertoire, kept the Ritzes active until Al’s death in 1965. Harry and Jimmy made a last appearance together in Al Adamson’s sex farce BLAZING STEWARDESSES. Harry, who was considered a genius by his peers, did a cameo in the Mel Brooks comedy SILENT MOVIE. He died in 1986, a year after brother Jimmy. The Ritz Brothers are gone, but their creativity shouldn’t be left to rot away in dusty film cans. The zany trio deserves to be rediscovered by lovers of slapstick humor, and THE THREE MUSKETEERS is a good place to start.