Friday, June 30, 2017
Today's topic: silent comedies that got produced decades beyond the last gasp of U.S. silent movies in 1929. Many in this writer's age group not only enjoyed actual silent comedies on TV, on such shows as Silents Please, Comedy Capers and The Funny Manns (as well as the Robert Youngson comedy compilation features The Golden Age Of Comedy and When Comedy Was King), but also latter-day homages to it on numerous programs, starting with I Love Lucy, Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton. Silent comedy carried on through the 1950's, 1960's and beyond.
Red featured "the silent spot" as part of his weekly CBS show.
Inevitably, discussions of silent comedy in television lead to Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and their appearances on Admiral Broadway Revue and Your Show Of Shows. Pantomime sketches were a frequent feature of both programs.
The following is a sendup of pre-1913 cinema, from the era of D.W. Griffith short subjects starring Florence "The Biograph Girl" Lawrence.
From the cast of Your Show Of Shows and Caesar's Hour key Sid Caesar (and Mel Brooks) collaborator Carl Reiner made The Comic, a drama about a self-destructive silent film star whose incongruous screen nom de plume was Billy Bright. As Billy's character offscreen is a dark and tormented soul, one surmises this 1969 feature could have been about two comics both Laurel & Hardy knew very well, Larry Semon (1889-1928) and Charley Chase (1893-1940). It's a good bet Mr. Van Dyke, who is a scream in the late teens - early 1920's style silent segments, drew upon his friendship with Mr. Laurel for inspiration.
Then there was an innovative director-writer-comic of a very different sort who also presented silent comedy sketches on television - and sometimes entire shows that were silent - the great Ernie Kovacs.
The "Eugene" sketches reflected Kovacs' love of Jacques Tati's subtle and elegant approach to visual humor. In feature films, Tati's Monsieur Hulot carried on the silent comedy tradition of Chaplin, Parisian boulevardier Max Linder and American "silk hat slicker" Raymond Griffith with style and panache.
And then there were the Brits, who demonstrated emphatically that the pantomime tradition did not die easily. Bits of silent comedy frequently find their way into the Monty Python's Flying Circus universe.
The 1971 Marty Feldman Comedy Machine show, co-starring Spike Milligan, may have been, with Kovacs, the most successful of all latter-day homages to silent film humor.
Giving Marty Feldman Comedy Machine a run for its money was Mr. Bean, arguably the last British attempt at silent comedy and frequently quite good, particularly in the first group of short subjects made for TV.
Rowan Atkinson elaborates:
While the amazing cast of ridiculously talented actors who surrounded Rowan Atkinson in his previous series, Blackadder - Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Tony Robinson, Tim McInerney and more - are much missed in the Mr. Bean shows, it is, that said, a SILENT presentation: perhaps less actors is a means to that end. When Atkinson strips the humor down to its essentials in the Mr. Bean shows and delivers silent comedy, English style, the results can be exceptionally funny.
Since Mr. Bean is not among the more sympathetic of comic characters, just a tad nasty and a bit of a rat, this comedy fan found that extending him to feature films was problematic. Did not want to see more than 30 minutes of Bean, but, that said, 10 minutes of Mr. Bean . . . well, that can be unbelievably hilarious.
An all-time favorite of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, who recently celebrated his 91st birthday and is still damn funny, is the great Mel Brooks. Along with Reiner, Kovacs and all the aforementioned British comics, Mel is considered to be among the patron saints of the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival programs this scribe has been involved in curating since 1992. Mel's 1976 feature Silent Movie, co-starring the great Marty Feldman, must be included!
What sparked this post in particular - wanted to open or close with it - was a certain brilliant 1955 short subject In The Park a.k.a. El Jardín Público, starring Marcel Marceau.
Marceau does not wear the traditional mime pancake makeup in this 1955 film and the more naturalistic look, at least for this viewer, enhances his performance. Could only find later performances of this piece on YouTube or Daily Motion, but not the excellent 1955 film, etc. At least Marcel got to appear for 5 seconds and utter his only word of dialogue in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie!
Friday, June 23, 2017
This weekend, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum will present the 20th Annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, which shall pay tribute to author and film preservationist David Shepard, director Frank Borzage, movies shot in 1917 and northern California filmmaking.
The three-day festival will be showing amazing cinema rarities you won't see anywhere else, among them two classic films made near the museum on the other side of Niles Canyon in Pleasanton: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), starring Mary Pickford and Peck's Bad Boy (1921), starring Jackie Coogan.
There will also be a walking tour of Niles on Saturday, as well as a tribute to film archivist and friend of the museum, David Shepard, who left us earlier this year. The tribute includes the 1975 documentary The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War, that celebrated cornerstone of early American cinema, The Great Train Robbery and Lois Weber's 1913 feature Suspense.
The festival's annual program of films made at Niles, preceded by a presentation on movie locations by author Mark Wanamaker of Bison Archives, features four Essanay westerns starring movie pioneer G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson:
The Prospector (1912)
Broncho Billy and the Western Girls (1913)
Broncho Billy's Capture (1913)
Broncho Billy's Fatal Joke (1914)
There will also be a Pre-Festival Event: Rory J. O'Connor shall lead a San Francisco silent film locations walking tour, under the auspices of the Friends of the Library City Guides, on Friday, June 23. The starting point is The Station Cafe, 596 Pacific Street (cross street is Kearny). The tour starts at 1:00PM and will take about an hour and 45 minutes. Arrive 5-10 minutes early to sign in and to allow for a prompt start. If you're planning to go, please RSVP with the PR person for the museum, Rena Kiehn, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For festival attendees who would like to tour the beautiful canyon that inspired the Essanay Film Studio to come to Niles, the Niles Canyon Railway will be running Sunday the 25th.
One can buy a festival pass for all programs. The shows hold forth at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison Theater at 37417 Niles Boulevard, Fremont, CA 94536-2949.
Thursday, June 22, 2017
"He was cinema's Kandinsky, an animator who, beginning in the 1920's in Germany, created exquisite 'visual music' using geometric patterns and shapes choreographed tightly to classical music and jazz." John Canemaker, New York Times
"Music is not limited to the world of sound. There exists a music of the visual world." Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967)
Google paid tribute to the pioneering filmmaker-animator-painter Oskar Fischinger with a Doodle commemorating his birthday on June 22, 1900. The Telegraph paid homage as well.
Fischinger began his filmmaking career in the 1920's with Wax Experiments using dyes in pieces of wax, then shooting the shapes and movements created frame-by-frame.
There is a DVD collection one can purchase from the Center For Visual Music (CVM).
Here are excerpts, from the CVM Oskar Fischinger channel on Vimeo.
The Oskar Fischinger Ten Films collection can be ordered here. The Center For Visual Music is working on a followup to this collection.
One would hope that Fischinger's astonishing short subjects will find their way to Blu-ray eventually. That said, in this animation aficionado's opinion, these films really do need to be seen on the big screen for full impact. Maybe such a screening could be arranged through Center For Visual Music in Los Angeles; have not inquired about this.
If you are not an avid sports fan or an aficionado of 1950's and 1960's movies, seen in their original CinemaScope dimensions, here's a reason to buy a first-rate big screen TV patched into a decent 21st century sound system: to see breathtaking "visual music," 20th century style, by the likes of Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Norman McLaren and Jordan Belson.
Friday, June 16, 2017
The last post about Marcel Perez, as well as Anthony Slide's 1998 book Eccentrics of Comedy and the upcoming publication (July 1) of Steve Massa's new book Slapstick Divas got this writer thinking of the odder, more unorthodox characters from the rough and tumble days of vaudeville, music halls and silent movies.
We'll start with the turn of the 20th century vaudeville star who would scare the living daylights out of a shoe salesman - and get big laughs every exaggerated step of the way - the one, the only Little Tich!
Another inexplicable yet highly entertaining vaudeville act, the sand dancers Wilson, Keppel & Betty, hit the stages thirty years later.
In the greatest medium for Eccentrics of Comedy, silent movies, such stars as Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and wry action hero Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. were, after all, handsome fellows, many headliners and supporting players were quite the antithesis of this.
The Mishaps Of Musty Suffer "whirls", produced by George Kleine for Essanay in 1916-1917 and starring rubber-faced circus clown and Ziegfeld Follies performer Harry Watson, Jr. may be the wildest and craziest films, along with productions of directors Henry "Suicide" Lehrman, John G. Blystone (L-Ko, Century Comedies) and Vin Moore, in the entire silent era.
Imagine 1916 Sennett-style knockabout, blended with 19th century style vaudeville and the kind of wildly surreal moments one might find in a Tex Avery cartoon or Monty Python. That is one way of describing the indescribable Mishaps Of Musty Suffer.
George "Cockeyed Slim" Rowe was a supporting player like no other, in dozens of films for Hal Roach and other studios, and we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are sorry he did not do any talkies - would have loved to hear what his voice sounded like, as well as get him in a scene with Ben Turpin.
Most the opposite of such dapper comedians as Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase? Kalem's Ham & Bud, the most unsympathetic comedy team ever in movies. . . and frequently downright grotesque.
The more indefensible and disgusting the duo's behavior was, the bigger the laugh.
Gallant yet unorthodox and pixilated was Ben Turpin, the janitor and jack-of-all-trades at the Essanay Studios who, in appearing onscreen as a lark, became the first star of American comedy films in 1907.
Unlike the despicable Ham & Bud, who would gladly sell each other to medical researchers, the double-jointed and cross-eyed Turpin's character was likable, plucky and weirdly endearing. After co-starring with Chaplin in two very funny Essanay 2-reelers, A Night Out and His New Job, as well as a series for Vogue Comedies, Turpin went on to be a headliner for Mack Sennett.
Mr. Turpin's earnest sendups of silent movie "great lovers" and action stars can be both highly absurd and oddly heroic.
Ben would continue into talkies with memorable appearances in such feature films as Cracked Nuts and Million Dollar Legs. At Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we especially love Turpin's cameo that closes the great Laurel & Hardy short Our Wife. For more on the inimitable comedian's career on stage and screen, Steve Rydzewski's book For Art's Sake: The Biography And Filmography Of Ben Turpin has the last word.
One eccentric of comedy, Vitagraph and Educational comedy headliner and gagman Larry Semon, resembled both Richard Outcault's comics star "The Yellow Kid and Max Shreck as Nosferatu (who, rumor has it, did not drink wine).
Semon, a cartoonist and magician, was a tremendously popular star of short subjects in the late teens and early 1920's but had difficulties transferring his fast, frenetic, mayhem and sight gag-filled approach to feature films.
What Larry Semon did have going for him, besides his creative, imaginatively cartoony visual gags and gift for staging said gags in those most extravagant way possible, was a very talented roster of supporting players, led by Oliver Hardy. In this 1918 opus, Larry co-stars with one other than Stan Laurel.
Larry Semon, like Orson Welles, animator Hugh Harman and television visionary Ernie Kovacs, also enjoyed his extravagance of concept immensely, overspending on budgets whenever possible! This is notable even as early as his Vitagraph 2-reeler The Grocery Clerk. One might imagine Larry saw Roscoe Arbuckle's Comique Productions hit The Butcher Boy and tried to "top" the big guy in the sheer quantity and breakneck pace of elaborate knockabout gags set at a general store. The comedy of Larry Semon = sight gag-packed mayhem.
On the other hand, the much more sedate and minimalistic Harry Langdon was a true eccentric, both in characterization and the bold originality of his performance, as well as the closest of all the comedians not named Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd to attaining a kind of mega-stardom in silent features. Unorthodox & unconventional was Harry's modus operandi.
After his 1927-1928 starring vehicles Three's A Crowd, The Chaser and Heart Trouble bombed at the box office, Harry continued to work steadily, but was largely relegated to short subjects and occasional character roles in features. Throughout Langdon's career, his characterization, acting and comic timing were highly original, ultra-quirky and most idiosyncratic.
Said characterization proved especially problematic for moviegoers when Harry transitioned from silents into talkies. It was one thing to witness the addled brain of his otherworldly "little elf" character not work terribly well in a silent film and yet another thing to see and hear it.
Watching Harry talking to himself as he demonstrates his bizarre spin on "reasoning" in his early sound films may have proved both unfunny and distressing for many back in 1929, as well as to latter-day film historians, but (then as now) can provoke others, such as this writer, to laugh in utter amazement.
The much-maligned 1929-1930 Hal Roach Studio series demonstrates Harry's fearlessness and determination to stick with his bizarre little character - and his original approach to comedy is downright inspirational.
Modern day historians have been less given to accepting the conventional wisdom about Harry Langdon's career and work in both silent and sound films; such scholarly articles as The Case For Harry Langdon: How and Why Frank Capra Was Wrong by Ben Urich indicate that a fresh and long overdue reevaluation is finally underway.
Just ever so slightly Langdon-esque was the brilliant stop-motion animator who doubled as a comedy headliner, frequently in the characterization of an eccentric inventor, Charley Bowers.
Author Imogen Sara Smith penned a scholarly article on Charley Bowers in Bright Lights Film Journal which comes about as close to explaining the way-out universe of the cartoonist and stop-motion genius as possible.
No mention of eccentrics of comedy in the silent era would be complete without a nod to the heavies; all were at least a tad on the eccentric side. Eric Campbell in Chaplin's Mutual series was tops, but there were many more. Here's "Bull" Montana, the lumbering bald bad guy of countless silent movies, cleaned up and wearing top hat and tails, singing "You Were Meant For Me" to comedienne Winnie Lightner in the Singing In The Bathtub number from Warner Brothers' revue picture Show Of Shows. The hulking brute enters at 3:16.
Then there was Noah Young, another actor who specialized in bad guys. He's all over the late teens and early 1920's Hal Roach Studio (Rolin) productions, including this very early film by Stan Laurel.
Young's career ended not long after his appearance co-starring in Harold Lloyd's Welcome Danger, shot as a silent and then re-cast as a talkie. The reason: Young had a goofy voice, more like a cartoon character than a bad guy. He could have gone on in movies, but not as a menacing villain.
The gangliest of all performers was Joe Murphy (1877-1961), co-star with ace silent movie comedienne and actress Fay Tincher, in Universal's The Gumps series, based on the comic strip.
Joe Murphy starred as Andy Gump in 48 entries of the 1923-1928 Universal series and a few other feature films, wrapping up his movie career in 1940 with an uncredited appearance in one of the funniest Three Stooges 2-reelers, You Nazty Spy!
While not many Gumps 2-reelers exist, here's one, I'm The Sheriff (1927).
We finish today's post by going full circle, back to music hall style comics from Great Britain, starting with the slapstick lechery of Benny Hill.
Here's Max Wall (1908-1990), who began his career in the 1940's, carrying on the physical comedy tradition as Professor Wallofski.
Magician Tommy Cooper, like Wall, brought slapstick comedy into the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's.
On a day, June 16, noted as the birthdays of Stan Laurel and Bobby Clark, we tip our battered bowlers to the Eccentrics of Comedy and say thanks for the laughs, gents!
Friday, June 09, 2017
There's a Kickstarter drive to raise the backing for a new DVD release of classic film rarities - The Marcel Perez Collection Volume 2 - starring Madrid-born silent movie comedian Marcel Perez (1884-1929).
This Kickstarter covers all production costs for the DVD's production and release, as well as of the making of and shipping of backer DVDs. All eight of the classic comedies on the collection, unseen since their original release, will be presented on DVD in new digital scans of archival 35mm materials preserved by the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art film department. The DVD box art will be created by professional graphic designer and silent film aficionado Marlene Weisman.
For those who haven't seen Marcel Perez, also known as Ferdinand Perez and Marcel Fabre, he was an irreverent and dancer-like comedian who gleefully thumbed his nose at the conventions of the early 20th century. His style combined outrageous and over-the-top physical comedy with the more subtle elements of European style sophisticated farce.
Among the earliest screen clowns, along with André Deed and Max Linder, he is one of many talented performers from circuses and vaudeville who, while not necessarily as elegant as Chaplin, as brilliant a filmmaker as Keaton (who is?), as upbeat an action-adventure-comedy star as Harold Lloyd or as boldly unorthodox as Harry Langdon, still demonstrated creativity, formidable physical humor mojo, a highly inventive mind and an original approach both in performances and concepts; after all, in silent era screen comedy, contrary to popular belief, there are numerous stellar performers, strong individual films and cinematic stories beyond "The Big 4".
Between 1907 and 1923, Perez starred in 200+ films under a slew of different character names (Robinet, Bungles, Tweedy, Tweedledum, Twede-Dan), both in Europe and America. Nilde Barrachi, frequent co-star, was a superb supporting player and comedienne in her own right.
Beginning as Robinette in the European films, Nilde would co-star in most of the Marcel Perez comedies through 1918 and prove an excellent foil to his wacky antics.
In the 1920's American films, arguably Perez' best, his leading lady would be the winsome actress (and future wife) Dorothy Earle, whose low-key presence adds to the Mirth Comedies series as Edna Purviance's relaxed screen persona deftly complements Chaplin.
The European Perez films (the Robinet series) tend to stress bedroom farce and battle of the sexes themes, while his starring vehicles from the late teens and early 20's present more of a European spin on American slapstick.
We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog were happy to be among those who supported the Kickstarter that led to the first collection of Perez comedies getting released on DVD in 2015. The Marcel Perez Collection DVD received an award in the "Special Mention" category on July 3, 2015 at the Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Bologna.
The film historian mojo behind the two collections: Ben Model, accompanist and contributor to The Silent Clowns Film Series at the New York Public Library and author Steve Massa, who devoted a chapter to Marcel Perez in his book, Lame Brains And Lunatics: The Good, The Bad And The Forgotten Of Silent Comedy.
The duo, who have presented vintage comedy events at New York City MoMA and other venues for quite some time now, have found 8 Perez films since the Kickstarter that enabled the release of the first Marcel Perez DVD.
The second Perez collection kicks off with his first film, The Short-Sighted Cyclist (1907)
The remainder of the titles scheduled to be on The Marcel Perez Collection Volume 2 are his American films, beginning with three Eagle Comedies produced in Jacksonville, FLA in 1916.
Lend Me Your Wife (1916)
Some Hero (1916)
A Scrambled Honeymoon (1916)
There are two entries from his Jester Comedies series, produced in 1918-1919, starting with Oh! What a Day (1918)
And followed by Chickens in Turkey (1919)
The last three subjects on the collection are from Perez' last starring series, the Mirth Comedies, released by Reelcraft.
Friday the 13th (1923) - fragment only
The Kickstarter ends at 8:00 p.m. EST on Tuesday, June 13. The hope is that the drive will surpass the fundraising goal to the extent that if any more Marcel Perez films turn up, they can be added to the collection.
The DVDs of The Marcel Perez Collection Volume 2 shall be made available for sale on Amazon.com via Amazon's CreateSpace publishing-on-demand service.