Friday, January 25, 2013
The Noir City film festival is back at San Francisco's legendary Castro Theatre for ten days of unbeatable hard-boiled big screen mayhem.
This year's festival, Noir City XI, kicks off with a screening of Joseph H. Lewis' delirious and quintessential "killers-on-the-run" noir Gun Crazy, with an in-person appearance by by the film's shooting star, Peggy Cummins.
The English actress played the femme fatale to end all femme fatales, hell-bent sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr - and burned up the silver screen in the process.
John Dall - who film buffs know well from Sir Alfred Hitchcock's Rope - co-stars with Cummins as the ultimate "sap for a dame" in this sexually-supercharged 1950 thriller from King Brothers Productions.
Nothing if not prolific, Joseph H. Lewis also directed the truly Kafka-esque My Name Is Julia Ross, as well as dozens of other films, including the fastest paced and most economical East Side Kids programmers ever committed to celluloid.
The Film Noir Foundation deserves mucho kudos, bravos and huzzahs for putting their money where their booze-stained, cigarette-burned, red lipstick-smudged mouths are and presenting newly struck 35mm prints of these classic films for the Noir City fest.
For more info, go to the Noir City website.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Serendipitously enough, after a series of postings covering the Columbia Shorts Department (producers of enduringly funny 2-reelers starring The Three Stooges and less successful comedy shorts featuring other headliners), here is outstanding classic movie and Golden Age Of Stoogery news from Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project:
"I am happy to announce that The Vitaphone Project has located a complete Technicolor print of the long-lost Stooges 1933 MGM Colortone short HELLO POP! This is the only lost short with all three Stooges, and also stars Ted Healy and Henry Armetta. The 35mm nitrate print was found overseas and after some torturous steps to get the nitrate packaged and shipped, it is today safely in the hands of my friend Eric Aijayla at YCM labs. Ned Price at WB has ensured the funding of the restoration, and ideally we could see this within a year. The sole known print burned in the big MGM fire in the 1960's."
What's next? This?
We can dream, can't we?
Monday, January 21, 2013
In the first half of the 1940's, shakeups transpired on and offscreen at the Columbia Shorts Department. Harry Langdon and All-Star supporting actor Bud Jamison died. El Brendel was let go. Curly Howard fell ill as The Three Stooges were becoming box-office champs.
Yet more changes transpired behind the camera. Jack White stopped directing and moved into the story department, where he would remain through production of the last Columbia comedy short, Sappy Bullfighters. Sennett Studio veteran Harry Edwards joined in 1942 - presumably to replace producer-director-writer Charley Chase - and was extremely prolific over the next four years. Sound engineer Edward Bernds, who had worked in just about every capacity for Columbia Pictures and the shorts department, was promoted to director, and proved to be very capable, in particular directing The Three Stooges.
Not surprisingly, The Three Stooges' sustained popularity prompted a plethora of similar knockabout comedies with varied stars - and even more varied results.
Sometimes these efforts succeed. Other times, the completed films present clubfooted, unintentionally funny train wrecks rather than conventionally humorous comedy shorts.
Nonetheless, the "scare comedy", frequently used to excellent advantage by The Three Stooges, soon became a staple at the Columbia Shorts Department - and would remain so well into the 1950's. Another example of this sub-genre, Pardon My Terror, starring Gus Schilling and Richard Lane, sure looks as if it was written specifically with The Three Stooges in mind.
Long after competing comedy fun factories had shut down, Jules White's department didn't just keep going, it initiated new series, even as The Three Stooges and Andy Clyde kept cranking out funny 2-reelers like clockwork.
1940's headliners included "once and future Stooge" Shemp Howard, the team of Gus Schilling & Richard Lane, character actor Hugh Herbert and radio star Barbara Jo Allen (a.k.a. "Vera Vague") from The Bob Hope Show. Most starred in frame-by-frame remakes of films Charley Chase and Andy Clyde made for the Shorts Department in the 1930's.
Although Barbara Jo "Vera Vague" Allen rivals Lucille Ball, Polly Moran, Una Merkel and Marjorie White among the best comediennes to ever work for the Shorts Department, her starring vehicles for Columbia frequently recall the title to the 1968 thriller, No Way To Treat A Lady.
The Vera Vague comedies repeatedly bring up the question, "should a likeable and attractive comedienne get the same treatment as Moe Howard"?
The answer, even given the subsequent slapstick success of Lucille Ball and Joan Davis, is NO, absolutely not. . . not now, not ever. However, some of Charley Chase's Columbia 2-reelers were remade with Vera, with good results, as in the following, Doctor Feel My Pulse.
Unfortunately, Charley wasn't alive to pilot Vera's series and gently steer it away from the trademark Jules White knockabout humor that, while perfect for The Three Stooges, simply doesn't translate from comedians to comediennes. Among his numerous contributions behind the camera, Chase directed The Bargain Of The Century, starring Thelma Tudd and Zasu Pitts, as well as silent era comedies for Mack Sennett featuring such comediennes as Louise Fazenda.
Need convincing that eye-poking humor is not a good choice with comediennes? Watch this uneasy, macabre Vera Vague vehicle, Hiss And Yell, directed with diabolical relish by Jules White. Vera is funny but boy, do bizarre shorts like this one give a new, foreboding meaning to the "Merrily We Roll Along" theme song that opens the non-Stooges Columbia comedy shorts.
Only somewhat more suited to the inimitable Columbia 2-reeler format was Hugh "Woo Woo" Herbert, ubiquitous comedy relief from countless RKO comedies and Warner Bros. musicals.
The ever-fluttery Herbert ended up starring in scads of Columbia 2-reelers, often in tandem with the aforementioned Dudley Dickerson. When cast or miscast as a girl-chasing Romeo, the results can be hilarious in any language.
As for the Stooges, they continued making hilarious films - well, at least until the deteriorating health that led to Curly's hospitalization on January 23, 1945 (after the filming of Idiots Deluxe) became painfully obvious onscreen. The team, however, is still in excellent form in the 1942-1943 season.
More to come in Part Six, as the Shorts Department continued well into the Eisenhower administration and the age of television.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Events dramatically impacted the Columbia Shorts Department as the 1930's ended. The Three Stooges became so popular that the boys began doing occasional guest shots in feature films. Charley Chase died of a heart attack in 1940, Buster Keaton left after completing the 1940-1941 season and Harry Langdon returned to Columbia for another series. Andy Clyde continued cranking out 2-reelers and consistently getting laughs.
Chase's tragic and premature death on June 20, 1940 meant that the Columbia Shorts Department and the movie business lost his unique, inventive and sophisticated approach to comedy. One suspects that Charley, as his brother James was, remained quite the well-kept secret in show business as a producer/director/writer of short subjects. Here's just one of the pieces Chase created for Columbia, the Swinging The Alphabet musical number from Violent Is The Word For Curly.
Watching both the films he directed for other comedians and his own starring series for both Hal Roach and Columbia, one wonders how Charley didn't end up collaborating with such top feature film luminaries as Preston Sturges and former Roach Studio cohorts Leo McCarey and George Stevens.
The Three Stooges made several of their very funniest films in 1938-1941, but trouble was afoot. Whether it was a result of getting bashed on the noggin repeatedly onscreen or his hard-partying, hard-drinking lifestyle offscreen, Curly Howard, arguably the funniest guy on the Columbia lot, began having serious health issues.
At first, Curly's difficulties are not readily apparent, but would be increasingly obvious onscreen as the decade progressed.
Nonetheless, the team, especially in collaboration with director Del Lord, continued their winning streak of hilarious films from the late 1930's into the early 1940's.
After completing a stint writing gags for the Laurel & Hardy features from 1938-1940, the brilliant comedian Harry Langdon returned to Columbia.
Langdon's 1940's series is definitely a cut below his first Columbia Shorts Department films in 1934-1935; Harry frequently gets buried in slap-poke-gauge slapstick humor, but gives the 2-reelers his all in any case.
Langdon would continue starring in short subjects for Columbia - with, unfortunately, diminishing returns as time went on.
At one point, Harry was teamed with El Brendel, the exceptionally goofy Swedish dialect comic who had headlined his own Columbia 2-reeler series after stints in features and short subjects with Fox and Vitaphone. Although Brendel's solo vehicles for Columbia could do the shorts department proud and put an enjoyably peculiar spin on the trademark slapstick, the results of the teaming with Langdon were curious at best. The knockabout comedy does not work for Brendel, either.
The slapstick-packed story of the Columbia Shorts Department continues in Part Five as the studio hires headliners to launch new series and the comedy factory's behind-the-camera staff changes substantially.
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Monday, January 07, 2013
To recap: by the end of 1934, The Columbia Shorts Department was up and running in a big way.
Already jettisoned from the Columbia 2-reeler roster by the 1934-1935 release schedule: vaudevillian Lou Holtz and the team of George Sidney and Charlie Murray.
Soon to be phased out: the Musical Novelties series created by songwriter-filmmaker Archie Gottler. One suspects that the vigorous enforcement of the Production Code, which began in July 1934, put the kibbosh on the sometimes risque Musical Novelties.
Leon Errol and Walter Catlett continued making Columbia 2-reelers, while the others were replaced on the 1934-1935 release schedule by The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde and Harry Langdon.
To create the new series for the 1934-1935 season, Jules White hired several prolific directors, all (as headliners Harry Langdon and Andy Clyde were), principal mayhem-makers in the wild and wooly world of silent movie comedy: his brother Jack, formerly the producer/creator of Lloyd Hamilton's acclaimed Mermaid Comedies; Mack Sennett director-writer-jack of all trades Del Lord; from Universal, the very prolific Charles Lamont.
The Three Stooges, of course, were an immediate hit with moviegoing audiences and continued rocking and rolling through the 1930's with great success.
Moe, Larry and Curly were already so popular as early as 1934 that competing studios' animated cartoons (for example, Friz Freleng's Merrie Melodie The Miller's Daughter) were caricaturing them.
To a slightly lesser degree, Andy Clyde would be a perennial audience favorite. He starred in 2-reelers at the Columbia Shorts Department for almost as long as The Three Stooges did.
At one point Andy's Columbia series co-featured Stooge-to-be and former Vitaphone Big V Comedies supporting player and periodic headliner Shemp Howard.
While the fast-paced, gag-filled milieu provided by the ever-inventive Del Lord may well have been the perfect showcase for The Three Stooges, the team also thrived when directed by the knockabout-oriented Jules White and the more deliberately paced Jack "Preston Black" White and Charley Chase.
The story goes that Jules White found Del Lord selling used cars and quickly put him to work on the Three Stooges and Tom Kennedy-Monte Collins comedies.
In the 1937 season, additions from veteran comedienne Polly Moran to prolific Fox and Vitaphone character actor/Swedish dialect comic El Brendel to producer-director-writer Charley Chase, who was responsible for several of the funniest comedy films ever made (His Wooden Wedding, Limousine Love, Mighty Like A Moose, etc.), joined the Columbia shorts department.
Chase signed with Columbia in 1937 after 15 years with the Hal Roach Studio.
He both starred in his own series and directed other comics.
Less influenced by the house style than other comics, Chase's approach and timing is markedly different - in some ways, more subtle, varied and gentler - from his fellow comedy creators at the Columbia shorts department.
The style of comedy Chase pioneered at the Roach studio, in collaboration with Leo McCarey, informs both his starring vehicles and films featuring other comedians at Columbia.
Chase directed many films starring comedians other than himself and The Three Stooges, often with excellent results. There are quite a few original and unorthodox interpretations of the Columbia 2-reeler formula by Chase, such as the shorts Mutiny On The Body and A Nag In The Bag starring the comedy team of Smith and Dale (the inspiration for The Sunshine Boys).
The zig-zagging between Sennett-style slapstick and Chase's Hal Roach Studio comedy sensibility created some pretty wonderful 2-reelers. Why Chase did not direct and write films for Harry Langdon, we'll never know.
Although the best of Chase's Columbia films, oddly enough, tend to star comics other than The Three Stooges, he wrote and directed one of the very best of all 190 of the team's Columbia shorts, the hilarious and tuneful Violent Is The Word For Curly.
Keaton, still unsurpassed in 2013 as an insanely talented feature film director-writer-performer-acrobat and comic genius, was signed by Columbia after three years starring in 2-reelers for Educational.
It is tempting to view Buster's 1934-1941 comedy shorts, like Langdon's, in a "how the mighty have fallen" prism, but Keaton adapts to the low budgets and slapstick formula well and often performs astounding pieces of pure physical comedy.
While it's common knowledge that the Educational and Columbia two-reelers aren't in the same category as such legendary and iconic epic features as The General and Our Hospitality - Keaton could still make magic onscreen, just given a chance.
The Columbia Keaton series' greatest drawback is that since Buster, even well into his forties, could perform difficult stunts and falls with breathtaking skill and panache, he gets shoehorned repeatedly into knockabout and teamed with unrelentingly in-your-face acrobatic comedienne Elsie Ames. While Ames had talent and could perform in a slapstick vein a la Joan Davis and Lucille Ball, let's just say subtlety was not her strong suit.
100% slam-bang slapstick doesn't fit Buster, but he, as always, gives it his best effort and makes the comedy work. On hand to provide stellar support to all the series from the Columbia Shorts Department: Bud Jamison, Vernon Dent and perennial dowager Symona Boniface.
Harry Cohn's studio continued distributing cartoons long after losing the Disney Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse series to RKO in 1932. The Charles Mintz Studio would continue making the Krazy Kat and Scrappy series for Columbia release, produced by Ben Harrison, Manny Gould, Sid Marcus, Dick Huemer and Art Davis, throughout the decade.
Whatever the Mintz cartoons, especially early in the 1930's, lack in slick Disney-style animation technique, they more than compensate for with energy, outrageousness and irreverent, nose-thumbing humor.
The Mintz Studio joined the "let's imitate Disney" brigade (Fleischer's Color Classics cartoons, Ub Iwerks' Comicolor Fairytales, High Harman and Rudy Ising's Happy Harmonies for MGM) with the Color Rhapsody series, starting in 1934.
The Color Rhapsodies series would continue until the Screen Gems cartoon studio closed in 1946.
With high hopes to compete with Fleischer Studio's Popeye, the Mintz Studio bought the rights to Billy DeBeck's comic strip Barney Google in 1934. Unfortunately, the series, directed by Sid Marcus and Art Davis, folded after four films.
Too bad: periodically the Marcus-Davis crew, in such Columbia Color Rhapsody cartoons as The House That Jack Built and The Mad Hatter, proved themselves capable of inspired lunacy. It is entirely likely that they were spread too thin working on both series and Scrappy cartoons as well.
Although the 2-reel comedies of the Columbia Shorts Department have been slammed to a significant degree as a haven for washed-up silent movie stars on the way down, the Chase and Keaton Columbia series have blazing moments and showcase their comic genius just the same. Such blazing moments would, unfortunately, be substantially fewer and farther between in the subsequent decade, the 1940's - and we will get to that in The Columbia Shorts Department, Part Four.