Friday, April 30, 2010

Hitler (Allied Artists, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up in the living room last night watching the TCM showing of the 1962 biopic Hitler, one of a night TCM devoted to biopics of people involved in World War II on both sides (including PT 109, the hagiography of John F. Kennedy made during his presidency with Cliff Robertson playing him; and The Desert Fox, 20th Century-Fox’s surprisingly sympathetic treatment of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel — ironically they based their script on the idea that Rommel really did have a falling-out with Hitler and had some participation in the July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life — most modern writers discount that). I’d seen it once before in the 1970’s, when it aired on a late-night movie channel right after the premiere of The Bunker, the made-for-TV movie about Hitler’s last days with Anthony Hopkins, and I thought it would be fun to have a Hitler double-bill.

In Hitler the title role is played by Richard Basehart, and despite an outrageously phony crepe moustache (revealed as such in all his closeups), Basehart actually does pretty well in the role despite a script by E. Charles Straus (who also produced) and Sam Neuman that made Hitler a good deal crazier than he actually was. Until 1942 or so, when something made him snap and gradually lose contract with reality, Hitler had not been crazy; he’d been evil, certainly, but he’d remained a rational man pursuing profoundly irrational ends through rational means. (Pat Buchanan’s infamous statement that Hitler was “a man of great courage and extraordinary gifts” was actually true; it was what he did with that courage and those gifts that made him evil.)

Directed by old Warners hack Stuart Heisler for a “collapsible” production company called Three Crowns, releasing through Allied Artists (née Monogram) and now owned by Warners, Hitler is a relentlessly melodramatic film, zipping through Hitler’s life starting with the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 and his subsequent imprisonment at Landsberg (a luxurious villa provided by Hitler’s rich corporate friends — it was more like Roman Polanski’s current house arrest than anything we normally think of as prison) and focusing so much on his romantic entanglements first with his niece, Geli Raubal (Cordula Trantow) and then with Eva Braun (Maria Emo), the film might just as well have been called Hitler: The Soap Opera. The conceit of the Straus-Neuman script is to see Hitler in Freudian terms as someone who never broke free of his Oedipus complex and so idealized his mother (who died when he was nine) that he was attracted only to women who looked like his mother, and even then he couldn’t perform the sex act with them because that would have been literally like doing it with his mother. Supposedly this piece of psychological glare-ice on his character was enough to turn him into a vicious dictator and a murderous monster — though, curiously, the script soft-pedals the Holocaust and shows Hitler’s ruthlessness and meanness mainly through his treatment of enemies (real or imagined) at home.

The film is over half finished before it gets out of Hitler’s bedroom and onto the battlefield — it’s liberally sprinkled with stock footage from the captured German newsreels as well as Nazi party rally footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (and yes, the stunning visual eloquence of Riefenstahi’s footage pounds Heisler into the dust, as it usually does when it’s incorporated into films about Hitler and the Nazis) — and despite some good performances by the actors playing Hitler’s henchmen (Martin Kosleck as Goebbels in particular — he’d aged badly since he previously played Goebbels in the 1944 Paramount film The Hitler Gang, which also focused on Hitler’s relationship with Geli Raubal and its uncertain ending — supposedly she committed suicide, but this film depicts Hitler’s henchmen murdering her on his orders and then faking it to look like suicide— but he still brings power and authority to the role) and a hint of the real agenda behind Hitler’s 1934 purge of his Gay second-in-command Ernst Röhm (Berry Kroeger) and Röhm’s main boyfriend Edmond Heines (Lester Fletcher) is given when an unctuous narrator (almost no self-respecting movie about the Nazis in 1962 came without a narrator) lists all the failings of the various Nazi bigwigs — mentioning Göring’s (John Mitchum) drug addiction — and bluntly calls Röhm a “pervert.”

Hitler is a decent movie for what it is, though a film that offered glimpses into Hitler’s genuinely charming nature (particularly chillingly portrayed in the documentary featuring his secretary, Traudl Junge, called Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary) and made him out as more than a certifiably raving lunatic would have paradoxically made the evil things he did that much more chilling. Also, it’s clear that Basehart never solved the biggest problem playing Hitler, which Anthony Hopkins articulated in the interviews he gave to promote The Bunker: how do you talk? The only audio-visual records of Hitler that exist are the ones of him in full public cry, expertly building his speeches for maximum audience reaction (in Mein Kampf he wrote that the secret to political leadership was in developing a compelling public speaking style that would dramatize his ideas for an audience and irresistibly move them to action — and he certainly practiced what he preached), and there’s really no clue as to how he spoke when he wasn’t on the podium and was just carrying on a private conversation with Eva and/or his friends. (There are silent home movies of him and Eva Braun together, and some people with expertise in lip-reading German have attempted to figure out what he was saying — ranging from tirades against the Jews to comments on celebrities; in one of the films he’s shown discussing the movie Gone With the Wind, which the Nazis didn’t allow to be shown publicly in Germany but of which they had a private print and they screened it for each other — and both Hitler and Goebbels sent directives to the people running the German film industry asking why they couldn’t make a picture as good.)

Basehart makes the mistake most actors playing Hitler have made — having him rant in private just as much as he did in public — and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to believe that this weirdo would have gone as far as he did, have got an entire country in his thrall and come damned close to conquering the world. It’s also a movie that presupposes a lot of advance knowledge of what is going on — nobody who hadn’t read at least some of the literature on Hitler and/or World War II would have been able to figure out from this movie how Hitler fell so fast from ruling most of continental Europe to hiding in a bunker while his enemies converged on his capital. Hitler’s story remains compelling — less out of intrinsic interest and more as a warning of how easily a country can be led to genocide by a shrewd political leader and a movement aimed at hooking at their prejudices (and I can’t listen to the inflamed rhetoric against “illegal aliens” sweeping the country these days without being all too aware of the similarities between it and the way Hitler and his fellow Nazis talked about the Jews) — and the interest in how a great country with an honorable liberal tradition was led so totally down a sick and disgusting path by an unscrupulous organizer effective at manipulating people by their fears and hatreds (and, alas, Germany in the 1930’s was not the last country this has happened to: unscrupulous leaders in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda in the 1990’s pulled the same tricks with the same bloodthirsty results) — has led to an enormous literature on Hitler and will no doubt survive this rather silly soap-operaish treatment of the Hitler legend.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Battlefield Earth (Warners, 2000)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles made a casual remark last night that we had a copy of the 2000 film Battlefield Earth with a “Rifftrax” soundtrack — Rifftrax ( is the latest operation of the final principal cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett), recording soundtracks ridiculing popular movies of today which can be played in synch with DVD’s of the film. Battlefield Earth is the legendarily awful movie that began life as a novel by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, who had been a pulp science-fiction writer (a contemporary of major names like Robert A. Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt and Ray Bradbury) before he got into the religion biz with the publication of his 1950 book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (a publication sponsored by his favorite editor, John W. Campbell, who also wrote “Who Goes There?,” the story that inspired both the 1951 and 1982 film versions of The Thing), and who wrote quite a lot of pretty mediocre pulp stuff as well as one series, “Old Doc Methuselah,” which is considered better-than-average by the sci-fi cognoscenti.

Apparently Hubbard wanted to show that just because he’d done a highly successful career change (Russell Miller’s “black” biography of Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, opens with a scene that supposedly took place in 1938, a luncheon with Hubbard and several other pulp sci-fi writers in which they began sharing get-rich-quick schemes and Hubbard supposedly said, “Actually, if you wanted to make a million dollars, the thing to do would be to start your own religion”) didn’t mean he’d lost his sci-fi writer’s chops. (Just about everybody who has written critically of Scientology has noted the similarity between the writings Hubbard offered as the scriptures of Scientology and the writings he published as ordinary science fiction.) So in 1969 Hubbard’s own publishing house brought out Battlefield Earth, and it became a best-seller — Hubbard’s critics said because he was sending out small armies of brainwashed Scientologists to buy it out at all the stores surveyed by the New York Times for their best-seller list — and for decades, ever since his own adoption of Scientology as his religion, John Travolta had harbored ambitions to make a movie of Battlefield Earth and star in it as hero Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, who in the year 3000 leads a successful revolution to liberate Earth from the dominion of a particularly nasty group of interplanetary invaders called the Psychlos. (The name sounds dorky but was probably also a nasty Hubbard slap against psychologists, a group of people he particularly hated.)

He finally got his chance at the end of the 1990’s, when a neophyte producer named Elie Samaha became one of those people who’d made a lot of money doing something else and thought it would be fun to make movies. His strategy was to attract major — or at least semi-major — stars to his enterprise by offering them money to make the big film they’d always dreamed of doing but had never been able to sell to a studio or a financier in the normal course of moviemaking. The result was predictable: Samaha ended up spending a lot of his own and his investors’ money on movies no one but the stars and their cults particularly wanted to see, and within a couple of years he became one of the many people with money who’ve slunk out of Hollywood, poorer but wiser from their flyers in filmmaking. By the time Travolta finally got backing for his dream project, he realized he was too old to play the almost terminally boyish hero, so instead he cast himself as the principal villain, a Psychlo named Terl (virtually all the Psychlo language we hear is guttural grunts and groans, and the Psychlos get grunt-like names like Terl, Ker and Chirk). Like Pontius Pilate, Terl has been stuck in a low-status post on a provincial territory by Psychlo Central, and he’s supposed to be responsible for bringing in Psychlo workers to mine Earth’s remaining riches — at least the ones the Psychlos haven’t already looted in the 1,000 years Earth has been under his occupation. His assistant Ker — played by Forest Whitaker, who later apologized for having been in this film (and I couldn’t help but savor the irony that the two main bad guys here were actors who’d played Bill Clinton and Idi Amin, respectively) — is suspicious of him and there are intrigues between them which, like so much else in this maddening film, never quite get explained.

Hero Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, a tall and twinkie-ish but still attractive actor who, as I joked to Charles later, would have looked quite good in blue skin in someone else’s sci-fi epic with a plot that actually made sense) is growing up with a group of cave people when he runs away to explore the big bad world outside — and he ends up being taken prisoner by the Psychlos, from which he continually manages to escape, only to get himself re-captured so he can recycle the process and we can get a lot of barely motivated and badly staged action scenes. Eventually Tyler and his human confederates — including his girlfriend from the caves, Chrissy (Sabine Karsenti) — take over Fort Knox and Fort Hood and figure out how to use the weapons stored there to conquer the Psychlos on earth and fly a nuclear weapon to the Psychlos’ home planet, thus destroying it. Believe it or not, the film encompasses only the first half of Hubbard’s novel — Travolta, Samaha and their co-producers actually expected this film to do well enough to merit a sequel, which needless to say it didn’t — and in addition to the basic plot it has a number of side issues, including a sort of combination teaching machine and ray gun that beams information directly into Jonnie Goodboy Tyler’s brain (including teaching him to speak Psychlo, an ability cheerily ignored through most of the film).

Battlefield Earth didn’t necessarily have to be a dreadful movie — the premise, though hackneyed through overuse, could have set up a reasonably entertaining sci-fi film — and it might not have been if the original screenwriter, J. D. Shapiro, had had his way. According to an “trivia” item, Shapiro turned in a script that was “less serious and a much looser adaptation of the original novel” than the one that got filmed — which I take to mean that Shapiro realized that the material was so overwrought and silly that the best way to make an entertaining film out of it was to treat it as camp. (Shapiro found himself in the same bind as Salvatore Cammarano, the librettist of Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore, who realized that the play he was supposed to be adapting made no sense and pleaded with Verdi to be allowed to reshape the material into a coherent and sensible story. Verdi sent him a famous letter in which he wrote, “If we can’t make an opera that has the bizarre quality of the play, we might as well give up.”) Unfortunately for Battlefield Earth the movie, the co-producer and star was someone who regarded the author of the source novel as a prophet — literally — and so Shapiro got fired and another writer, Corey Mandell, was brought in and gave Hubbard’s book the holy-writ treatment the people who were making the movie wanted.

The director was someone named Roger Christian (I’d like to think he resisted pressure from his employers to change his name to Roger Scientologist) who’d actually won an Academy Award for art direction on Star Wars (and subsequently won another nomination for Alien) — though the sets on this one look so drab and dull one would never guess this film was being helmed by an Oscar-winning art director! Battlefield Earth is that rarity — a legendarily bad movie that’s actually worse than its reputation; any appeal, even camp appeal, it might have had is destroyed by the relentless seriousness with which the material is approached, the utter absence of any sense of lightness or humor, and the drabness of the film’s visual look which all too accurately matches the ridiculously heavy and somber nature of the story. The drabness of the acting matches the drabness of everything else — John Travolta looks less like an actor doing the lead role in the dream project of his life than like someone encased in way too much makeup to allow even his limited acting skills to shine through; Barry Pepper is good-looking but hardly a charismatic enough screen personality to make us believe he could lead a successful revolution with 1,000-year-old equipment against an enemy that had utterly defeated the Earth despite defense forces that had access to the same equipment Jonnie’s crews are using now; and Forest Whitaker goes through the whole movie seemingly wishing somebody would stick a saxophone in his mouth so he could relive the best role he’d played to that time — as Charlie Parker in the Clint Eastwood-directed biopic Bird (to my mind the best movie ever made about jazz).

The Rifftrax crew did a quite good job ridiculing this one — though sometimes it was hard to tell their deliberately silly comments from the unwittingly silly dialogue of the actual movie — and their best joke was one about wanting to invent a time machine so they could have John Travolta die in a fire on the set of Saturday Night Fever so he wouldn’t be alive to make Battlefield Earth — though that probably wouldn’t have prevented this movie from existing: they just would have done it with Tom Cruise.

Gian Carlo Menotti's 90th Birthday (RAI, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I watched something from the rest of our video backlog: a concert in Spoleto, Italy from 2001 to mark the 90th birthday of composer Gian Carlo Menotti — a binational Italian-American opera composer and librettist who spent most of his life shuttling between both countries and launching the Spoleto Festival in 1958 (and a U.S. branch of it, Spoleto West, in Charleston, South Carolina in 1977). I was wondering whether this would be a documentary on Menotti, but in the end it turned out to be a simple concert film, directed by Francesco Pompoe and photographed by Giorgio Soccodato for Channel 1 of RAI, Italy’s state-owned radio-television network. The stars were singers Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming, with a few lesser operatic lights (sopranos Susan Bullock and Carmela Remigio), and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (the second half of his first name was spelled “Ives” on the credits), who opened the festivities with a beautiful version of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra led by Richard Hickox.

The only sign of Menotti was a quite well preserved man sitting in the front row who was occasionally photographed as a standout member of the audience — he looked in his late 60’s rather than 90 — and the only music of his that was performed was an aria called “Steal Me, Sweet Thief” from his opera The Old Man and the Thief (his second opera, composed for radio in 1939). The other selections were pretty standard stuff for opera concerts — the Song to the Moon from Dvorák’s Rusalka, sung by Fleming; “Dich, teure Halle” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, sung by Bullock; one of the most hackneyed soprano arias of all time, “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” from Puccini’s La Bohème, sung (surprisingly well) by Remigio with Leone Magiera (a well-known accompanist and the husband of the great soprano Mirella Freni) spelling Hickox at the podium; the Act I love duet from Verdi’s Otello, “Già nella notte densa,” radiantly sung by Domingo and Fleming (15 years after they performed it together at the Met in a telecast of the entire opera); and an aria from a zarzuela, “No puede ser!” from Pablo Sorozabal’s La Tabernera del Puerto, sung by Domingo in perhaps his most impassioned performance of the night. (Domingo has always had a particular interest in zarzuela, the Spanish form of operetta, because his parents were touring zarzuela singers who relocated from Spain to Mexico to perform in a new market for that music.)

The show ended with an elaborate brass-band fanfare from the balconies surrounding the courtyard in Spoleto where the performance took place, that soon resolved into “Happy Birthday” as sung by the entire orchestra and chorus to birthday boy Menotti (who would live another six and one-half years before dying in February 2007). The music was mostly first-rate and so were the performers — though Thibaudet’s nose seemed big enough (on an otherwise attractive face and body) he could probably play Cyrano de Bergerac without makeup and Bullock looked oddly dykey even for a Wagner singer. This is the sort of classical music show that gets telecast all the time in Europe (where they have a long tradition of public broadcasting and where the idea that radio and TV exist to serve the people is actually taken more or less seriously instead of given lip service, as it is here) but is all too rare in this country.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Carolina Blues (Columbia, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I ended up watching last night was Carolina Blues, the final movie made by bandleader Kay Kyser, who in five short years (1939 to 1944) rose up the Hollywood food chain from RKO to MGM — and then back down to Columbia for this final film, little more than a “B” despite the welcome presence of Ann Miller. Even more than most of Kyser’s movies, this one made a big to-do about his home town, Rocky Mount, North Carolina (also the birthplace of jazz great Thelonious Monk!), since the movie’s writing committee (M. M. Musselman and Kenneth Earl, story; Joseph Hoffman and Al Martin, screenplay; Jack Henley, additional dialogue) decided that one of the plot strands they would intermingle concerns Kyser’s efforts to raise enough money in War Bond sales (this was made in 1944 and the war, of course, was still going on) to fund a Navy ship — a destroyer or a cruiser — named after Rocky Mount. The other two plot strands concern the strongly expressed wishes of Kyser’s musicians for a long-awaited and long-deserved vacation after they had just returned from an exhausting tour of military bases, versus the continual flood of invitations Kyser keeps getting for them to perform for one good cause or another; and the need for Kyser to find a replacement singer for his band since his current one, Georgia Carroll, is planning to leave the band to marry a servicemember. (Over six months before this film was released in December 1944, Carroll had got married in real life … to Kay Kyser.)

Miller plays Julie Carver, niece of ne’er-do-well Phineas Carver (Victor Moore), the one poor relation in an otherwise fabulously wealthy family that includes Elliott, Hiriam, Horatio, Aunt Martha and Aunt Minerva — all of whom are also played by Victor Moore, which gives this otherwise pretty ordinary movie a unique appeal. Watching Moore as the imperious dowager Aunt Minerva is a real treat — and overall the multiple casting at least gives Moore something else to do besides whine, his annoying specialty in movie after movie (in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers Swing Time one ends up wanting to wring his neck). Moore isn’t the only one who has a multiple role; there’s a marvelous sequence in which “Ish Kabibble” (t/n Merwyn Bogue, Kyser’s lead trumpet man and also a deadpan comedian who wore his hair in what looked like a cross between Moe Howard’s and Ringo Starr’s) returns home to his family — an elderly mother and father and a younger brother and sister — and they’re all played by Bogue, complete with the trademark Ish Kabibble hair. Even the family dog is wearing an Ish Kabibble wig (remembering the gag scene in Yes, Yes, Nanette in which the dog ends up with Jimmy Finlayson’s toupee, Charles joked that this was the second night in a row we’d seen a movie with a dog wearing a wig).

All these flashes of surrealism, as well as the rather bizarre songs Kyser and company got to do — from a salute to the smallest U.S. state, “Poor Little Rhode Island,” to an elaborate number featuring African-American singer June Richmond (the first Black singer to perform in public with a white band — Jimmy Dorsey hired her in 1937, a year before Artie Shaw hired Billie Holiday) and a troupe of spectacular Black dancers do a tribute to, of all people, New York society columnist, man-about-town and well-known (for the time, anyway) Gay man Lucius Beebe — add life to an otherwise standard-issue plot in which the big dramatic issue is Ann Miller’s attempt to get the job replacing Georgia Carroll with Kyser’s band despite her penchant for accidentally insulting him (in one scene she mistakes him for a factory worker who’s supposed to be performing his imitation of Kay Kyser) and his disinclination to hire someone from a rich family — since she and her uncle have carefully concealed that they’re broke in hopes a rich background would impress Kyser instead of convincing him that she’s a dilettante who won’t take the job seriously. She eventually “outs” herself as poor just when Kyser is counting on her and her uncle to contribute the $4 million in war-bond sales he needs to fund his home town’s ship — and in a nice worm-turning scene Moore gets Kyser the money by calling in all his wealthy relatives and blackmailing them into contributing by threatening to publish his tell-all book about them if they don’t.

Carolina Blues isn’t much of a movie, but like all of Kyser’s films it’s fun and worth watching — and it’s fascinating that Kyser, not Benny Goodman, either of the Dorseys or Glenn Miller, was the biggest money-maker among the major bandleaders of the swing era, mainly because (like Martha Stewart later on) he determined to make himself the master of all media. While other bandleaders were content to do radio shows that were little more than broadcasts of their live performances, Kyser had a top-rated quiz show, “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge” (his catch phrase from the show, “That’s right — you’re wrong,” became the title of his first film), and he was able to make successful movies playing himself as a personality instead of just trotting out himself and his band for isolated numbers the way most swing bandleaders did. Eventually Kyser gave up his showbiz career and became — of all things — a Christian Science practitioner, dying in 1985 at age 80; and during the final scenes of this film, in which he pretends to be dying to lure his band members back from their vacations to play one final benefit, I couldn’t help but wish the writers had had him suddenly rise from his (supposed) sickbed and declare that his “disease” had just been an error of mortal mind.

Ann Miller is decently but not spectacularly featured in Carolina Blues — she gets one song in which to do her famous machine-gun taps but much of it is only heard on the soundtrack (supposedly Kyser is entering the theatre late and missing what she intended as her audition piece for him) — but on the whole the film is quite entertaining in the mild but fun way most of Kyser’s films (and his act in general) were. George T. Simon noted in his book on the big bands that Kyser’s band got better musically over the years — in 1937 he reviewed them and noted Kyser’s stylistic similarity to Guy Lombardo by saying, “If you’re a Lombardo Lover you’re probably a Kyser Kraver” — but within a few years Kyser had seen the writing on the wall and bolstered his band with a few swing musicians (including a lovely sax player — I think it’s Herbie Haymer — who plays some surprisingly advanced ideas in back of the singers during one of the big novelty numbers) that made it more fun for a jazz fan like Simon to listen to then and gives Kyser’s music a bit more interest now as well.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Laurel and Hardy: Platinum Disc Collection 2

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched all of the second disc in the Platinum Disc collection of Laurel and Hardy — jointly and severally — except for the “feature,” The Flying Deuces (1939). This entry begins with my comments on The Flying Deuces from the last time Charles and I saw it together, and includes notes on the silent films that filled out the disc (including one, The Stolen Jools, that wasn't actually silent at all but is erroneously listed as a silent on the DVD box):

I did have a short movie available: the 1939 film The Flying Deuces, directed by A. Edward Sutherland and produced by Boris Morros (hitherto the music supervisor at Paramount) for RKO release (and the first film Laurel and Hardy made away from their home at Hal Roach, unless you count their supporting roles in a couple of MGM loanouts, Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Rogue Song — MGM having been Roach’s distributor at the time).

It’s quite a good movie, benefiting from a genuinely witty script (Harry Langdon was one of the writers, and his odd sensibility shows in the sequence in which Laurel and Hardy are made to wash clothes — and the camera pans over to a 20-foot high mountain of all the clothes they’re supposed to be washing, while the ones they’ve already washed are hanging over literally acres of clotheslines) that essentially remakes their earlier film Beau Hunks and casts them as enlistees in the French Foreign Legion because Hardy has been jilted by a faithless (and, in this version, already married) girlfriend. Though real Laurel and Hardy mavens generally prefer their more slow-paced films at Roach, Sutherland’s direction of this one gives it zip and pace, and the stars are both screamingly funny and warm and charming. As I’ve written before, I’ve often wondered how Laurel and Hardy could poke each other in the eyes in a slapstick sequence (though no such sequence exists in The Flying Deuces) and make you laugh and break your heart at the same time, while when the Three Stooges do exactly the same gags the effect (for me, anyway) is simply repulsive. — 3/24/99


The additional material on the disc included a surprisingly long 40-minute comedy from 1922 starring Stan Laurel — Mud and Sand, a parody of Rudolph Valentino’s famous bullfighting film Blood and Sand, with Stan playing a character called “Rhubarb Vaseline” (!) — as well as two films from 1925 with Hardy cast opposite diminutive comedian Bobby Ray, The Paperhanger’s Helper (actually cut down from a two-reeler called Stick Around) and Hop To It, Bellhop!; a 1926 Hal Roach short called Yes, Yes, Nanette (the title is a parody of the popular musical No, No, Nanette but the stories don’t have anything to do with each other — much the way the 1940 film Saps at Sea, Laurel and Hardy’s last for Hal Roach, had a title making fun of the 1937 Gary Cooper vehicle Souls at Sea but the script itself was not a parody of the earlier film) in which Laurel directed and Hardy appeared; and what’s actually become a fairly well-known Hollywood curio by now, the 1931 all-star short The Stolen Jools, produced for the National Variety Artists as a fundraiser and with a dazzling array of stars of the day. Charles and I had seen The Stolen Jools before and I have a couple of notes about it:

Yesterday I’d copied some of the Bing Crosby short films for Mack Sennett on the end of my tape of the 1930 musicals Whoopee and The King of Jazz, and this morning I finally filled out the tape with the 1931 National Variety Artists short The Stolen Jools, a kind of “spot the star” exercise featuring Edward G. Robinson, Norma Shearer, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Joan Crawford (when they were still married to each other — though Crawford’s on-screen partner is the famous Hollywood Queer, William Haines, who — contrary to the myth — doesn’t seem at all unmanly or un-butch), Frank Fay and Barbara Stanwyck (when they were still married to each other), Loretta Young (almost unrecognizable in a severe bob), Buster Keaton (as a Keystone Kop), Laurel and Hardy (doing one of their most famous gags, involving a Model “T” Ford which collapses into a pile of junk parts as soon as they park it), Wheeler and Woolsey (reprising their famous slapping routine from the stage and film musical Rio Rita), Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels (the third real-life couple to appear), Little Billy (the midget actor) and Mitzi Green (the precocious kid star who imitated Erich von Stroheim and George Arliss in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round two years later) as the girl who finally solves the titular mystery (Edward G. Robinson and George E. Stone, one of his co-stars in Little Caesar, stole Norma Shearer’s pearl necklace from the annual screen stars’ ball, and little Mitzi stole them back). It’s an interesting curio, and a “cute” one. — 2/16/96


I ran Charles a movie he had downloaded from one of his sources onto a DVD: The Stolen Jools [sic], also known as The Slippery Pearls because this previously unknown film was originally rediscovered in Britain in the early 1970’s under that title, released in 1932 as one of the Masquers Club two-reel comedies distributed through RKO. It turned out, however, not to be an RKO film at all but an independent production by the National Variety Artists (N.V.A.), a “company union” of vaudeville performers set up in competition with the American Guild of Variety Artists (N.V.A. also stood for “National Vaudeville Association” and, in that guise, it was the association of vaudeville producers, circuit owners and theatre owners). The film was designed to be shown in N.V.A. theatres and afterwards a live speaker would come out and collect for the N.V.A.’s charities, particularly its sanitarium for tuberculosis patients. Since it was a charity film, the producers were able to pick willy-nilly from Hollywood’s star contingent, as evidenced by this listing (from of the people in it:

Wallace Beery ... Police Sergeant
Buster Keaton ... Policeman
Jack Hill ... Policeman
J. Farrell MacDonald ... Policeman
Edward G. Robinson ... Edward Robinson (as Edward Robinson)
George E. Stone ... Himself
Eddie Kane ... Detective Kane
Stan Laurel ... Policeman
Oliver Hardy ... Police Driver
Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins Farina (as Farina)
Matthew ‘Stymie’ Beard Stymie (as Stymie)
Norman ‘Chubby’ Chaney Chubby (as Chubby)
Mary Ann Jackson ... Herself
Shirley Jean Rickert ... Shirley Jean
Dorothy DeBorba ... Echo (as Echo)
Bobby ‘Wheezer’ Hutchins Wheezer (as Wheezer)
Pete the Dog ... Pete (as Pete the Pup)
Polly Moran ... Herself
Norma Shearer ... Herself
Hedda Hopper ... Herself
Joan Crawford ... Herself
William Haines ... Himself
Dorothy Lee ... Herself — giving autograph
Victor McLaglen ... Sergeant Flagg
Edmund Lowe ... Sergeant Quirt
El Brendel ... Waiter
Charles Murray ... Kelly (as Charlie Murray)
George Sidney ... Cohen
Winnie Lightner ... Herself
Fifi D’Orsay ... Herself
Warner Baxter ... Cisco Kid
Irene Dunne ... Herself
Bert Wheeler ... Himself
Robert Woolsey ... Himself
Richard Dix ... Himself
Claudia Dell ... Herself
Lowell Sherman ... Himself
Eugene Pallette ... Reporter
Stuart Erwin ... Reporter
Richard ‘Skeets’ Gallagher … Reporter (as Skeets Gallagher)
Gary Cooper ... Reporter
Wynne Gibson ... Herself
Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers … Buddy Rogers (as Buddy Rogers)
Maurice Chevalier ... Himself
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ... Himself
Loretta Young ... Herself
Richard Barthelmess ... Himself
Charles Butterworth ... Himself
Bebe Daniels ... Herself
Ben Lyon ... Himself
Barbara Stanwyck ... Herself
Frank Fay ... Himself
Jack Oakie ... Himself
Fay Wray ... Herself
George ‘Gabby’ Hayes … Projectionist (as George Hayes)
‘Little Billy’ Rhodes ... Film Delivery Boy (as Little Billy)
Mitzi Green ... Herself (solves the mystery)
Joe E. Brown ... Himself
Robert Ames ... Himself (uncredited)
Bert Lytell ... Bert Lydell (uncredited)

What’s more, the film holds up quite well: Norma Shearer seems barely able to play herself but it’s fun to see Wallace Beery commanding the Keystone Kops (he had started out at Keystone and his then-wife, Gloria Swanson, had started there with him!) and even more fun to see Buster Keaton taking a couple of great pratfalls as one of the Kops. The other comedians — Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey, Stuart Erwin, Jack Oakie — are also quite amusing (the scene in which Laurel touches the fender of their Model T car and the whole car collapses is especially hilarious), and so are some of the people who weren’t ordinarily comedians: William Haines and Joan Crawford have a surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly given Haines’ real sexual orientation) decorous scene in a bedroom (did he decorate it for her?); Barbara Stanwyck horseplays with her then-husband, Frank Fay (they were, as I pointed out to Charles, a real-life version of A Star Is Born: he was an established vaudeville and Broadway star when he was invited to Hollywood in the early days of the talkies, she was an unknown whose career he boosted, then his film career bombed out while hers took off and he responded by drinking a lot) and likewise Ben Lyon with his real-life wife, Bebe Daniels; the Hal Roach “Our Gang,” later known as the Little Rascals, also appear; Edward G. Robinson and George E. Stone (reunited from Little Caesar) growl their way through gangster parts.

The plot — to the extent there is one — concerns the theft of Norma Shearer’s pearls by Robinson and Stone, only someone else steals them from them and the someone turns out to be child star Mitzi Green (who’d have been a Shirley Temple prototype except she was considerably more sassy and less cute than Temple: the only other things I’ve seen her do are the torch number “Bluebird Singing the Blues” in International House and an outrageously funny impression of George Arliss in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round), though in the meantime we’ve been treated to glimpses of plenty of Hollywood royalty and quite a few genuinely funny gags (especially one towards the end that anticipates the home-video gag in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs: two men in a film studio projection room load a film can with The Stolen Jools, presumably the film we’ve just been watching, and the lead detective, played by Eddie Kane, overhears them and of course thinks the real stolen jewels are hidden in the film can): a rare and odd delight of a movie! — 10/1/07


The other films on the disc also turned out to be quite compelling and generally very funny. Mud and Sand is a bit long for a non-feature comedy — 40 minutes — but it doesn’t feel padded and it manages to hit most of the high points of the Valentino vehicle (based on a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibañez, who had also written the book The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that had been the basis for Valentino’s star-making film). Rhubarb Vaseline (Stan Laurel) is a poor kid in Spain who dreams of being a bullfighter; one day, when he’s out with his friend Sapo (Wheeler Dryden) supposedly shopping for flour for his mother, he’s sidetracked towards a bull ring (“Amateurs Welcome,” its sign promises — or warns) and takes a few passes at a few bulls despite the poor track record of the two would-be matadors who precede him, both of which are carried out on stretchers while a solemn man with a piece of chalk writes under “Bulls Killed” on the arena scoreboard, “0.” We don’t get to see how Stan actually does in the bullring but we get the idea as two bulls come sailing out over the top of it — they’re quite obviously dummies but the scene is still funny — and then Stan gets flung out himself on his third try but returns and finally dispatches the last bull.

Stan instantly becomes a bullfighting star and gets an invitation to fight in the big ring in Madrid — he’s seen out of his tiny village in a big parade where he’s carried in an appropriately ox-drawn cart and steps out of it into a mud puddle — where he runs into a series of women including his old childhood sweetheart Caramel (Julie Leonard), aspiring actress Pavaloosky (played by Stan’s real-life wife then, Mae Laurel — noting the male form of her Slavic name, Charles joked, “Shouldn’t that be ‘Pavalooskaya’?”), and the notorious vamp Filet de Sole (a marvelously dry performance by Leona Anderson). As in the Valentino original, all these womenfolk run Our Stan down to the point where as he faces the final bullfight of the season he’s too worn out to be much use in the ring, and plenty of hints (including a few lightning bolts, one of which hits his head and re-parts his hair in its own jagged shape) are dropped to indicate that he has a dire fate ahead of him. In the end he collapses during the fight after some gags mocking his apparent cowardice (and anticipating the ones in Sam Goldwyn’s Eddie Cantor vehicle The Kid from Spain by 10 years) and he’s buried in sand as the title comes up over the image of him to indicate that “mud and sand” are the inevitable fate of someone who tempts it by “throwing the bull,” as the credits routinely (and rather audaciously) call it.

For some reason, while all the other silent movies on these two discs had accompaniment (mostly what sounded like a rather scratchy LP copy of one of Joshua Rifkin’s albums of Scott Joplin music), Mud and Sand screened in utter silence (though it would be easy enough — and fun — to piece together a soundtrack for it based on such “Spanish” classical-music themes as the “Habañera” from Bizet’s Carmen and Ravel’s Bolero), but it came off as a very funny movie anyway, with good gags like Laurel’s utter incomprehension of what Pavaloosky wants from him (anticipating the cluelessness with which Laurel and Hardy — who at their best mixed pre-sexual, homosexual and heterosexual signals in a deliciously absurd and funny way while still maintaining their reputation as morally “clean” comedians — would respond to attempts by scheming women to seduce them in their later films) and his inadvertently squirting her with a seltzer bottle; Laurel plastering his hair with runny black goop in an attempt to duplicate the famously slicked-down appearance of Valentino’s; and Laurel being outfitted with the waist scarf of his bullfighting costume, spinning his body to wrap it around himself in the usual approved manner, and getting dizzy. Ironically, Laurel would spoof not only Valentino’s Blood and Sand but the 1941 20th Century-Fox remake with Tyrone Power as well; in 1945 20th Century-Fox decided that the last of their six contract pictures with Laurel and Hardy would be The Bullfighters, a bullfighting spoof which liberally used a lot of the 1941 Blood and Sand as a source of stock footage of bullfights.

The Paperhanger’s Helper and Hop To It, Bellhop! have interesting origin stories. The Georgia-born Hardy broke into films not in Hollywood but in his native Florida, where he was appearing in movies as early as 1912 (five years before Laurel first faced a camera), and by 1918 he had hooked up with one of the most blatantly imitative comedians of all time, Billy West. Billy West’s whole schtick was Chaplin; he not only copied Chaplin’s story formulae but made himself up into an exact duplicate of Chaplin’s famous “Tramp” makeup and costume. Today the character could have been copyrighted and the originator could have sued, but in 1918 those laws did not exist and so Chaplin’s only defense against people ripping off his act was to advertise and get the word out as to which films with that character were genuinely his and not an imitator’s. (At the time movie theatres regularly ran Chaplin impersonator contests, and Bob Hope got an early career boost by entering one and placing second. At another Chaplin impersonation contest Chaplin himself entered under a false name — and placed third.)

By 1925 West — like “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the producer of Laurel’s Mud and Sand — had quit appearing in front of the camera and was concentrating on a behind-the-scenes career as producer. Bobby Ray was a comedian who had a brief vogue in the silent era even though he never got anywhere near stardom (probably working at the two-bit Billy West studio in Florida didn’t help), but because he was short and thin these films (the only two of the four Ray and Hardy made together that survive) are often regarded as Laurel and Hardy prototypes. “This is only true on the surface,” Leonard Maltin wrote in his 1970’s book Movie Comedy Teams. “These two-reelers are typical comedies of the era, with some good slapstick gags, and in some ways they do parallel later L&H work; Hardy is tough and domineering, and makes sure Ray does all the work. He is arrogant, but always seems to get himself into trouble. Beyond this, however, there is none of the warmth that set Laurel and Hardy apart from other slapstick comedians of the day.”

Actually these two “Ray and Hardy” films are closer to Laurel and Hardy than Maltin makes them sound — the central scene of The Paperhanger’s Helper (Hardy is the paperhanger, Ray the helper, and they’ve been hired to paper the inside walls of a sanitarium) anticipates the mess Laurel and Hardy make out of Billy Gilbert’s living room in The Music Box, and there are some quite inventive gags, notably ones in which the two incompetent paperhangers insist on trying to paper over a doorway while people are in it — resulting in one man getting the face of a lion (they’ve got their paper samples mixed up and are doing the room up in old circus posters) and another with a skeleton picture plastered on his back. The Paperhanger’s Helper is shown here in a cut-down one-reel version released by Castle Films for home viewing in 1956; Hop To It, Bellhop! is shown here in its original two-reel length, and the contrast hints that Bobby Ray’s comedic vision was enough to sustain a one-reeler but not a two-reeler; Hop To It seems draggier, more dull and less funny.

Both are far overshadowed by Yes, Yes, Nanette, which involves both Laurel (as director) and Hardy (as supporting player) on the eve of their mega-stardom at Hal Roach studios. Roach had two ambitions for his little company: to eclipse Mack Sennett and to discover his own comedy superstar who could be bigger than Chaplin. He tried some unlikely candidates for this honor, and the one he was pushing in Yes, Yes, Nanette was, of all people, Jimmy Finlayson, who plays Hillory, who’s just married into a monumentally dysfunctional family (described in a title as “seven daughters, two sons and one who goes around all day reciting ‘Gunga Din’” — later one of the sons is described as proving “Bryan was wrong — the monkey idea was right”). His new wife, Nanette (Lyle Tayo), brings him home to meet his new in-laws and some delightful comedy complications ensue, many of them centering around the very obvious black wig Finlayson is wearing when he shows up — and which keeps getting knocked off his head and ending up in various places, including on the head of Pete the Dog (as himself), where it lands perfectly coiffed.

Yes, Yes, Nanette is co-directed by Clarence Hennecke and Stan Laurel from a script by comedy veteran Carl Harbaugh (and, likely, a lot of other writers trading gag ideas back and forth around a table — it’s how most silent comedies were written and how a lot of modern-day sitcoms are written as well), and it shows Laurel as an interesting filmmaker with as much of a flair for comedy when he was just directing as he had when he was on screen himself — even though Finlayson, as brilliant as he was as a supporting player in the later Laurel and Hardy vehicles (especially after sound came in and his delightful, inimitable Scottish accent registered in his films), just didn’t have quite the comic power on his own to work as a lead.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Three Creatures from the Black Lagoon (Universal-International, 1954-1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I ran The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature consecutively. I’m not sure why Jack Arnold has acquired something of a cult following among horror film fans — the two movies are well-directed enough (he did not direct the third in the series; John Sherwood did) but are done pretty much on autopilot, and Ricou Browning’s performance in the title role (unbilled!) is, likewise, a pretty straightforward piece of moving (one can’t really call it “acting”) in a story that is highly derivative of both Frankenstein and King Kong. In those movies, one felt a real sympathy for the monsters — in Frankenstein due to James Whale’s sensitive direction and Boris Karloff’s magnificently subtle performance, both of which rose above a pretty threadbare script — I still like to fantasize a Frankenstein movie in which Karloff could have played the Monster the way Mary Shelley wrote him, using that great voice to deliver Mary Shelley’s beautifully written speeches for her fully articulate version of the Monster:

“I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph. Remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? You would not call it murder if you could precipitate me into one of those ice-rifts and destroy my own frame, the work of your own hands. Shall I respect man when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness; and, instead of injury, I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude at his acceptance.

“But that cannot be. The human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union. Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I will revenge my injuries. If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care. I will work at your destruction, not finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth.”

— and in King Kong the sympathy was created by Willis O’Brien’s unique talent in giving Kong himself a characterization similar to the one Karloff had acted. In Creature, the “Gill-Man” never managed to cross over from monster to sympathetic being, at least partially because the writers (in Creature, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, from a story by Maurice Zimm; in Revenge, Martin Berkeley from a story by producer William Alland) didn’t give the Gill-Man any scenes that might have humanized his character. (No wonder Ricou Browning, whose chief talent seemed to be aquatic rather than thespian, didn’t get billing — though the part was so underwritten even Karloff in his prime couldn’t have made the character come alive as a sympathetic figure!)

About the only thing they gave the Gill-Man to indicate his links to humanity was a sexual itch for the leading ladies of both films (Julia Adams in Creature, Lori Nelson in Revenge — Nestor Païva, as the captain of the Amazon boat, was the only actor besides Browning who played in both) — and, while the actors playing human beings in Creature were at least competent (and Richard Carlson in a bathing suit was quite attractive, with nice chest hair and great nipples), the ones in Revenge were considerably less than that, leads Nelson and John Agar (Golden Turkey Awards nominee for Worst Actor of All Time) delivering their lines in the kind of monotone that bad actors lapse into when they don’t have a clue about how to modulate their voices to create a character.

Ironically, the first 20 minutes of Revenge (before the Gill-Man is captured and moved from the Amazon to Florida) were considerably better directed than Creature, with Arnold maintaining a tighter pace and creating superior suspense effects, but the remaining hour of the film slowed to a crawl, with large amounts of dull dialogue between Nelson, Agar and John Bromfield (who both out-acted and out-hunked Agar, but — alas — got drowned by the Gill-Man halfway through) before a final scene where the monster shows up at a nightclub (with an R&B band playing — what else, in a Universal movie — “I’ll Remember April”) and creates absolutely no reaction at all until Lori Nelson shows up and he kidnaps her.

Another annoyance of both movies is the political incorrectness — the racism in Creature (nobody cares about the mounting death toll until one of the scientists, played by Whit Bissell, gets attacked and nearly killed by the Gill-Man, and Adams laments the “loss of all that experience” if he dies — apparently the four Brazilian bit-players who’d been killed earlier were considered expendable) and the sexism in Revenge (there’s a long scene between Agar and Nelson in which Nelson totally accepts the need for her to abandon her scientific career in order to get married — even though the man who’s romancing her is in the same field). It’s ironic that the blurb on the video box, seeing a 1955 movie through 1993 eyes, says, “The tormented Creature begins to emerge as a hauntingly beautiful alien, and a female researcher (Lori Nelson) forms an uneasy emotional link with him, as her own doubts about career vs. motherhood parallel the Creature’s feelings of alienation and confinement. Soon they are both driven to break free of their respective ‘prisons,’ with exciting results.”

Had the makers of Revenge actually made the movie the video blurb-writer describes (a sort of cross between The Day the Earth Stood Still and Rebel Without a Cause), it would have “held up” as a considerably more interesting work than the one we actually have. Still, Revenge is historically interesting for its early depiction of a pre-Disneyland theme park (Marineland in Florida) and as the first film of Clint Eastwood (he plays a lunk-headed research assistant who loses a lab rat — and would have been virtually unrecognizable if the blurb hadn’t helpfully identified him and his mini-bit part). — 11/6/94


I decided to screen the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of the 1955 film Revenge of the Creature, Universal’s first of two sequelae to The Creature from the Black Lagoon — virtually no one realizes that the monster in that film is actually called the “Gill-Man” because he’s humanoid but has gills and therefore breathes water instead of air — and, at least according to a “trivia” post on, the only sequel to a 3-D movie that was itself in 3-D. One reason I wanted to see this just now was that after having just seen Clint Eastwood’s first credited screen role in the 1956 film The First Traveling Saleslady (with Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing — which makes it count as at least a sort of “doubles” movie, since Channing created the role of Dolly Levi in the stage musical Hello, Dolly! and Rogers was one of her mid-run replacements) I was curious to re-see Eastwood’s first movie role ever. He plays a dorky lab technician who loses one of the four white rats entrusted to his care, worries that a cat ate it and then realizes he had it in his pocket all along. “He’ll never amount to anything in movies,” the MST3K crew couldn’t resist joking after Eastwood’s brief scene came on.

Revenge of the Creature begins in the Amazon, where the first Creature from the Black Lagoon was set — Nestor Païva, the boat captain, was the only actor who carried over from the cast of the original Creature movie to this one (unless you count Ricou Browning, the champion swimmer who played the Gill-Man in his underwater scenes — when I saw the obituary for stunt man Ben Chapman I was startled to find him credited with playing the Gill-Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon since I’d always thought Browning had played him, and it turned out they both did: Chapman played him on land and Browning played him underwater — and in Revenge Browning repeated his phase of the Gill-Man role but stunt man Tom Hennesy replaced Chapman for the land-based scenes) — and it shows the Gill-Man getting captured and brought back to the U.S. for exhibition at Florida’s Marineland, the first aquatic theme park (which did a good business — enough so that it spawned a West Coast version, Marineland of the Pacific — until it was eclipsed by Sea World), though they call it something else in the film.

The people in charge of nursing the Gill-Man back to health after all the bullets that got fired at it both in the first film and this one are oceanographers Prof. Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson), who being that they’re first- and second-billed and of different genders naturally fall in love with each other, albeit quite diffidently (and the MST3K crew couldn’t help but kid the virtual torpor of their love scenes).

The Gill-Man naturally gets tired of being put on display as a freak — though he seems almost as put out by the monotony of his diet (just those fresh fish that get handed to dolphins at aquatic theme parks as rewards for successfully completing a trick) — and of course he escapes, pulling out the chains that are supposed to be holding him in place in the grand manner of amorous movie monsters from Frankenstein’s creation to King Kong, and he ambles around Florida more or less stalking Lori Nelson and also crashing nightclubs (there’s a neat scene in which a rather limp jazz band featuring tenor sax and trombone plays “I’ll Remember April,” a song that had already featured prominently in at least two better Universal movies: the 1942 Abbott and Costello vehicle Ride ’Em, Cowboy, in which it was introduced; and the 1944 film noir Phantom Lady) and various joints until he’s finally plugged, more or less for good, though there was a third Gill-Man movie, The Creature Walks Among Us — in which the scientists in that one give the Gill-Man a trachaeotomy that saves his life but converts him from a water-breather to an air-breather; at the end of that one the Gill-Man, acting on instinct, walks down a beach and back into the water — either we were supposed to think that, no longer being able to breathe underwater, he would drown or that would be the end of him; or the screenwriters just screwed up.

Revenge of the Creature isn’t a bad movie — though it’s not especially good, either; John Agar and Lori Nelson don’t have any charisma at all, either jointly or severally — they’re hardly in the same league, either as actors or as personalities (or as bodies!), as Richard Carlson and Julia Adams from the first film in the series — and the Gill-Man’s antics, including his sort-of crush on Nelson’s character (anemically reprised from the first film, which itself was an anemic reprise of King Kong in that department), have the sort of been-there, done-that air about them that infects all too many movie sequels. Still, it’s better than the sort of fare MST3K usually ridiculed — good enough that we can watch it as entertainment but not so good that we’d resent seeing it made fun of — though the other Universal-International movies they gave the “treatment” to, including The Mole People, The Deadly Mantis and especially The Leech Woman, were more appropriate targets (both for them and for the San Diego-area early-1980’s precursor, Schlock Theatre, in which the snarky comments on the film were run under the action as subtitles rather than spoken over the dialogue). The best line from the MST3K group in Revenge of the Creature: when the Gill-Man emerges from the Universal-International studio tank one of the crew said, “Man, Esther Williams aged really badly!” — 4/26/10


Charles and I got together at about 6:45 last night and we joined in a screening of one of the videos I just bought, The Creature Walks Among Us. This is the third and last of Universal’s “Gill-Man” movies of the 1950’s, with a completely different cast from either of the first two (except for Ricou Browning reprising his role as the underwater incarnation of the Gill-Man), and considerably better than the second in the series (Revenge of the Creature) in its plot (story and screenplay by Arthur Ross) and acting (reuniting Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason from the science-fiction film This Island Earth the year before, and also featuring Gregg Palmer and the obligatory blonde bombshell, played by Leigh Snowden in an Esther Williams-like performance, especially when she does a nice water ballet while supposedly suffering from “rapture of the deep” 200 feet under in the Florida Everglades).

Unfortunately, Jack Arnold yielded the directorship to John Sherwood this time out, and the film doesn’t have the same kind of atmosphere and suspense Arnold brought to the two previous entries in the series. The Creature Walks Among Us is one of those frustrating films that could have been a lot better than it was. Its premise — that, in order to save the Gill-Man’s life after its gills are damaged in a fire (after it pours gasoline on itself, apparently thinking it’s water), a trachaeotomy is performed on it and it therefore acquires the capacity to breathe air directly, while losing its natural ability to breathe through water — is easily the strongest of any of the films in the series, and with sufficiently sensitive direction and acting in the role, the movie could have been a classic tale of the “outsider,” a creature earning sympathy for being out of place on land or water (much the way director James Whale and star Boris Karloff evoked so marvelously sympathetic a portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 classic Frankenstein).

But whoever is in the Gill-Man’s suit this time (the reference books say it’s Ricou Browning in all three films, but the Gill-Man looks considerably heavier-set and clunkier once it’s converted into a land creature — indeed, I’d hazard the guess that it was Tor Johnson in the suit post-op) [it was actually Browning underwater and Don Megowan on land] is no Boris Karloff, and Sherwood is no James Whale, either. With the Gill-Man having little to do in the latter stages of this film but hole up in an electrified pen on the estate of mad-doctor Morrow — and cast long, lingering glances at Morrow’s private lagoon, the closest he could come to his ancestral oceans — the film’s focus shifts to its human characters (a mistake) and the sordid romantic intrigue between Morrow, Snowden (his wife), Palmer (who tries to rape her twice — ironically, she’s saved by the Gill-Man both times) and Reason (who ends up with her at the end, after Morrow and Palmer conveniently die). The ending is moving, though: the Gill-Man walks across a ridge and stares at the sea, about to walk in and head “home,” not knowing what we know: that he no longer can breathe water, and therefore he will drown.

Charles joked later that the Gill-Man was actually a Lesbian Gill-Woman (“Did you see a dick on her?” he asked — “Maybe it retracted, like a dog’s,” I replied, to which he said, “No dog — or any other animal — retracts its balls”), homosexually attracted to human women. — 4/23/95

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Chocolate Soldier (MGM, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I eventually watched last night was The Chocolate Soldier, a 1941 vehicle for Nelson Eddy in the waning days of his MGM career. This was at a time when they were experimenting with different partners for both Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald — she got to make The Firefly with Allan Jones (who’d turned down the male lead in the 1935 Naughty Marietta; Eddy got the part and the film’s enormous success launched the MacDonald-Eddy team) and Smilin’ Through with her off-screen husband, Gene Raymond, while he got to do Balalaika with Ilona Massey and The Chocolate Soldier with an intriguing partner indeed: up-and-coming Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens. The vehicle MGM picked for them was an old operetta composed by Oscar Straus in 1909 to the plot of George Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man — but Shaw refused to let MGM have the movie rights to his play, so producer Victor Saville and the MGM “suits” needed a replacement plot into which to fit the big scenes from Straus’s score.

They decided to make The Chocolate Soldier a remake of The Guardsman, which had begun life as a 1910 play by Ferenc Molnár; the U.S. premiere had taken place on Broadway in 1924 and had starred the legendary husband-and-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. MGM had bought The Guardsman and filmed it in 1931 with the Lunts repeating their stage roles, Sidney Franklin directing (beautifully, using moving-camera shots, superimpositions, depth-of-field shots and all the other tricks of the cinematic trade to make sure this potentially static story became a real movie and not just a photographed play) and Ernest Vajda and Claudine West scripting. The basic plot is about a husband-and-wife acting couple who’ve only been together two or three years (in The Guardsman it was only six months!) but their marriage is already on the rocks; at their performances together at the operetta theatre in the capital of “Balkany” (the decidedly fictional country in which this takes place) he’s swamped by teenage girl autograph seekers, while she’s making gooey eyes at the military men in the audience during their performances.

Aided by a critic friend of his (Nigel Bruce, playing the role Roland Young had in The Guardsman), the male half of this duo, Karl Lang (Nelson Eddy), decides to test the fidelity of his wife Maria Lanyi (Risë Stevens) by disguising himself as a uniformed Russian with a great voice and attempting to seduce her. Alas, Production Code enforcement had tightened so much since the so-called “pre-Code” days of The Guardsman that — as in the similarly plotted (but with the genders reversed) Two-Faced Woman, Greta Garbo’s last film, made at MGM the same year — the censors stipulated that the would-be seducee must know from the get-go that her would-be seducer was in fact her legally married husband in disguise, thereby leaching a lot of the entertainment potential out of the story premise.

The Chocolate Soldier is an example of a good movie that could have been a lot better. The excerpts from the Straus operetta aren’t all that interesting (except for a comedy song called “Seek the Spy” done by a chorus of six men who do an acrobatic dance as they look for Eddy, who’s hiding in a suit of armor in Stevens’ boudoir — don’t ask) and they don’t relate to the plot in any way at all — the careful parallelism of story and story-within-the-story that helped make the MacDonald-Eddy films Maytime and (less so) Sweethearts so great isn’t even attempted here — and though Maria tells her husband that she recognized him from his kiss, one wonders why she couldn’t tell even earlier from the moment she heard him sing: after all, she does hear that voice for several hours eight times a week! There are some clever bits in The Chocolate Soldier — many of them centering around the home life of the couple: they compete with each other doing vocal practice and they each have their own servants and even their own dogs — and the cinematography (mostly by Karl Freund with some fill-in work by Ray June and Harold Rosson when Freund fell ill) is utterly luscious, with effective use of light and shadow in cheery defiance of the usual MGM edict that everything had to be brilliantly and vividly lit all the time.

On the down side, though, is director Roy Del Ruth — there’s nothing really wrong with his handling of this story, but it cries out for a Sternberg, Lubitsch or Wilder (or, for that matter, Victor Saville, whose stylish British musicals with Jessie Matthews helped make her a star and hold up vividly today; had he directed this film as well as producing it, it would likely have been better) — and also the performance of Risë Stevens. She’s beautiful, she looks great in Gilbert Adrian’s gowns, she has one of the great voices of the 20th century (and as a mezzo-soprano she actually blended better with Eddy’s baritone than Jeanette MacDonald’s high soprano did), and she’s certainly a competent actress. The problem is she’s no more than a competent actress, and through much of this movie one misses the sheer effervescence MacDonald would have brought to this part. Stevens had a somewhat peculiar career in that at the Met she was frequently cast as males — on one RCA Victor recital LP she performed five selections from four operas, and in only one of them (Bizet’s Carmen, in which she played the title role) was she cast as a woman: the others were Gluck’s Orfeo, Mozart’s Cherubino and Richard Strauss’s Octavian, “trouser roles” (opera-speak for female-to-male drag parts) all.

Here she not only gets to play her own gender but her big operatic selection is “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila — in which she does by far her best singing in the movie: the plot makes a great fooforaw about whether her character’s voice is better suited for opera or operetta (the conceit is that she was working her way up as an opera singer when she married Paul and he insisted she shift to operetta so they could work together), but as far as Stevens herself is concerned there’s no contest: it’s obvious from the conviction with which she sings Delilah’s aria (and also the “Song to the Evening Star” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which both Stevens and Eddy sing — separately — as part of a running joke in the film) that opera, not operetta, was her true métier. (His, too; Eddy does his best singing of the film in Mussorgsky’s “Song of the Flea,” the piece with which he introduces himself in his Russian singing guardsman’s disguise.)

The film’s musical program is pretty varied — seven selections from the original Straus operetta, introduced with the convoluted credit, “Music by Oscar Straus; Musical adaptation by Bronislau Kaper and Herbert Stothart (1941); Original lyrics by Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson; English lyrics by Hugh Stanislaus Stange (as Stanislaus Stange),” cheek by jowl with operatic arias and a lovely original song, “While My Lady Sleeps” by Bronislau Kaper and Gus Kahn, which Eddy is unfortunately obliged to sing in his fake Russian accent (on the 1950’s LP Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Hi-Fi Eddy got to record it in his normal voice, to much better effect — and John Coltrane did a haunting jazz version of the song in 1957 for his first solo LP). More sophistication in the direction and writing of The Chocolate Soldier would have helped it a lot; as it stands, though, it’s still good fun even though it’s hardly a patch on The Guardsman and it runs about 10 to 15 minutes too long for its own good (not usually a problem in a movie this old!).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Laurel and Hardy: Platinum Disc Collection 1

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Over the last two days Charles and I watched a quite interesting set of movies from something advertised as a Laurel and Hardy boxed set from Platinum Disc Entertainment, reissued by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment. What sets this apart from most Laurel and Hardy compilations is that it focuses as much or more on their work separately than together; of the 14 films represented only five — the familiar public-domain features The Flying Deuces (1939) and Utopia a.k.a. Atoll K a.k.a. Escapade a.k.a. Robinson Crusoeland (1951); Lucky Dog, the early silent comedy that marked their first collaboration (though it was in fact a Laurel vehicle and Hardy was in it only as a supporting player); the 1931 National Variety Artists all-star fundraising film The Stolen Jools and the 1943 six-minute short The Tree in a Test Tube (in which Laurel, Hardy and Pete Smith participate in a demonstration of how many wood-derived products — including early plastics and synthetic fabrics like rayon — average people carry around with them; this was shot in color, in what looks like badly faded Kodachrome, during a lunch break while they were making the film Jitterbugs at 20th Century-Fox) — actually feature both Laurel and Hardy on screen. (A sixth, a 1926 Hal Roach comedy called Enough to Do — actually originally released as Wandering Papas — features Hardy as actor and Laurel as director, a career change he attempted in the mid-1920’s only to be talked out of it when the Laurel and Hardy films for Roach started becoming super-popular.) Charles and I had watched Utopia before from a download and here’s what I’d had to say about it:

We ended up watching a quite fascinating and surprisingly good movie both Charles and I had added to the collection — he on a computer download from and I from a videotape I recorded from TCM — known variously as Utopia, Atoll K, Robinson Crusoeland and Escapade, made in Italy and France from 1950 to 1951 and the last film appearance of Laurel and Hardy. I was surprised at how good this was mainly because most of what I knew about it came from Stan Laurel’s own recollections, which were of a nightmarish co-production between Italy’s Fortezza Films and France’s Films Sirius in which half the people spoke Italian, half spoke French and the two stars spoke English. The film turned out to be quite funny and — surprise! — a political satire, the sort of movie one might have expected from Chaplin or the Marx Brothers but not from two comedians whose previous work had been as relentlessly apolitical as Laurel and Hardy.

Utopia — to use the title of the print we were watching (the one Charles had burned to video CD; the name on my tape from TCM is Atoll K) — starts much like the 1940 Laurel and Hardy film A Chump at Oxford (and their little-known 1928 silent short Early to Bed as well), with Laurel traveling to England (“played” by France, since the plate advertising the lawyer’s office in which the opening scene takes place is in French) to receive an inheritance from an eccentric uncle who kept his money in cash because he hated banks, and Hardy tagging along as his financial manager. The inheritance comes in three large piles of currency — francs, lire and pounds — which soon get whittled down as the attorneys take their cut and then another piece off the top comes out for taxes. The inheritance also includes a motorboat that is rather grandly described as a “yacht” and an island in the South Seas, where Laurel and Hardy determine to set sail for so they can settle there and avoid any future tax collectors.

They set out, proving that their competence as sailors hasn’t improved any since their last film for Hal Roach, Saps at Sea (1940) and also attracting a stateless person, Antoine (Max Elloy, in a delightfully dry performance reminiscent of the great Laurel and Hardy foil, James Finlayson, from their days at Roach) and a stowaway, stonemason Giovanni Copini (Adriano Rimoldi) — there’s a delightful scene in which Giovanni, from his perch inside the boat’s sail, pilfers food from Laurel’s and Hardy’s dinner plates and, of course, Laurel and Hardy each accuse the other — and Giovanni’s presence is discovered only when the usual L&H incompetence wrecks the boat’s engine (it’s stopped turning because it’s run out of gas, but suspecting a breakdown Hardy starts dismantling the engine, and every time he removes a part he hands it to Laurel, who places it on the deck, from which it rolls off into the sea) and they have to open the sail to be able to get the boat to move.

Eventually they discover an island — not the one willed to Laurel but an entirely new one, formed as we watch by a volcanic eruption from the ocean floor — and the four men form a commune, salvaging a copy of Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe from their wrecked boat and using it as a guide to survival. Complications ensue when a woman, chanteuse Chérie Lamour (Suzy Delair), runs away from her bossy fiancé, Lt. Jack Frazer (Luigi Tosi) and ends up on the island. More complications ensue when Frazer shows up leading an international party which discovers uranium on the island and tries to establish who was the first person to land on the island, thereby establishing which country has jurisdiction. When it turns out that stateless Antoine was the first person whose feet touched the ground, the settlers decide to form their own country, “Crusoeland,” elect Hardy as president and pass a constitution (written on the flyleaf of their copy of Robinson Crusoe) that provides for no immigration restrictions, no laws, no prisons and, above all, no taxes.

Needless to say, the combination of a boom-town economy funded by the uranium mine and the lawless environment attracts the flotsam and jetsam of humanity from the entire world (it seems as if the film was parodying William Wellman’s marvelous Safe in Hell here), and when Alecto (Michael Dalmatoff), the nastiest of the nasties, makes an unwanted pass at Chérie, he responds to Hardy’s attempt to throw him off the island by staging a coup, overthrowing Hardy’s government and sentencing the four men who settled it originally to hang. There’s a slapstick chase climax before the protagonists are saved by another storm which sinks most of the island (and presumably annihilates the entire rest of the cast as well as the entire uranium operation), while Lt. Frazer shows up just in the nick of time to rescue them and take Laurel and Hardy to the island they were supposed to be on in the first place — only, you guessed it, they lose it to the taxman and Hardy gets to say to Laurel on screen, for the last time, “Well, that’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”

This bizarre premise for a Laurel and Hardy movie was the work of Léo Joannon, who concocted the original story and was also the director of record, though he had a lot of help writing the film (John D. Klorer, screenplay & dialogue; I. Kloucowsky; dialogue; Frederick Kohner; Piero Tellini; René Wheeler; and Monte Collins, “additional material”) and also up to three additional directors. When Joannon seemed to be losing control of the production, the producer, Raymond Eger, decided to bring in an American director with Hollywood experience to salvage it — only the director he chose was John Berry, who had relocated to Europe because he’d been blacklisted and therefore any film with his name on it could not get U.S. distribution. So Eger just left his name off of it and (according to enlisted two other “ghost” directors, Alf Goulding (brother of Edmund Goulding; their father had been the manager of Fred Karno’s comedy company when both Laurel and Charlie Chaplin were members of it) and British-born but American-trained comedy specialist Tim Whelan.

Oddly, this mishmash of four directors and six writers turned out a quite good film, pleasantly satirical — though the politics seem rather muddled, at times anti-tax libertarian and at others primitive-communist, certainly this film has a message, and it is that governments are evil, corporate greed (represented by the uranium mine) ruins everything it touches and the free spirits of the world should be fed, housed and otherwise left alone to do their thing — and also drawing on enough of Laurel and Hardy’s classical comedy style to be laugh-out-loud funny, maybe not as laugh-at-loud funny as their best work but still a lot funnier than most of what’s being made and touted as “comedy” today. Laurel and Hardy don’t do the big pratfall comedy they’d done 20 years earlier — probably because they couldn’t; production on this film had to shut down for several months because Laurel suffered a stroke induced by a mystery illness that was later diagnosed as diabetes (in the opening two-shot of him and Hardy, Laurel looks like death warmed over and anyone seeing it would have a hard time believing that Laurel actually survived Hardy by eight years), and Hardy had gone from being a big but muscular man (he kept in condition by playing golf and in the early years he resembled a linebacker) to a grotesquely obese one — but they still tap a lot of their own old gags (and not just theirs; they also do the multiple introductions gag the Marx Brothers used in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races) and their contributions are quite funny.

I suspect the only reason this wasn’t rediscovered by anti-establishment 1960’s audience and didn’t become the cult hit the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup did after flopping on its initial release is the film’s technical crudity: it’s all too obvious that everyone other than Laurel and Hardy is speaking in dubbed English (their lips don’t even begin to match the dialogue throughout much of the movie) and, in the scene in which their island home is menaced by a flock of bats, the bats are so obviously wire-mounted models that Bela Lugosi’s infamous film The Devil Bat looks like a Nature Channel documentary by comparison. Still, Utopia a.k.a. Atoll K (from the international designation given the island by the United Nations when various countries are squabbling over it, in a sequence which uncannily anticipates the current scramble by various nations over the mineral riches being uncovered in the Arctic as global warming melts the ice caps) a.k.a. Robinson Crusoeland a.k.a. Escapade turned out to be quite a good movie (perhaps no movie since Bette Davis’s early vehicle Ex-Lady has been so massively underrated by its star!), well worth seeing and a far better exit for Laurel and Hardy than those dreary movies they made for 20th Century-Fox and MGM in the early 1940’s. — 9/23/07


What’s fascinating about the short films that fill out the first disc of this collection is that very few of the early works of Laurel sans Hardy or Hardy sans Laurel offer much of a clue as to the chemistry they’d have together. Lucky Dog —’s entry on it lists it with a definite article, The Lucky Dog, though neither any print I’ve seen nor any article or listing for the film elsewhere had an article in the title — is an early Stan Laurel comedy produced by G. M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson and directed by Jess Robbins, the two men who had brought Charlie Chaplin from Keystone to their Essanay company in 1915 and given Chaplin the chance to develop his “Tramp” characterization (Chaplin invented the “Tramp” makeup at Keystone but it was at Essanay that he developed the unforgettable combination of comedy and pathos that made both the character and Chaplin himself so incredibly popular). Alas, Chaplin had moved on to greener pastures at Mutual and beyond, and Anderson and Robbins seized on Stan Laurel as their next star comic — perhaps because he’d been Chaplin’s understudy when both were part of Fred Karno’s famous British music-hall troupe. (Karno’s company was a hit attraction on both sides of the Atlantic; contrary to popular belief, Chaplin was a big star both in the music halls of his own country and in American vaudeville before he ever set foot in front of a motion-picture camera.)

The production history of Lucky Dog is so confused the various sources don’t even agree on the year it was made: Leonard Maltin’s Laurel and Hardy filmography says 1917, the credit on the Platinum Disc version says 1919 and says 1921 (the last date is almost certainly wrong). All that is known is that Laurel plays a nattily dressed young man who at the start of the film is thrown out of a rooming house — Robbins (who both wrote and directed) seems to have been trying to give Laurel an image midway between Chaplin’s and Harold Lloyd’s — and out on the street has various adventures, including befriending a street mutt (the title character), nearly getting run over by several streetcars because of his obliviousness in sitting on their tracks (this is probably as close as this film gets to the sort of gag Laurel did in his glory years with Hardy, when they had adopted their lovably stupid characters — in this, and many of his other pre-Hardy films, Laurel flits between doltishness and Lloydesque resourcefulness and energy, and the transitions jar), and encountering Hardy, a street robber who inadvertently puts the proceeds of his latest stickup into Laurel’s pocket instead of his own. Alas, this version cuts off what I remember from elsewhere as an entertaining if not brilliant two-reeler at the seven-minute mark, about where Hardy’s part ends.

After The Tree in a Test Tube (the color is too bad to show off Laurel’s red hair but the film is charming in the typically dorky way of Pete Smith’s commercial shorts back at his home studio, MGM) the Platinum Disc offers two comedies featuring Hardy in villainous supporting roles to one of the great enigmas of 1920’s film: star comic Larry Semon. Virtually forgotten today, Semon was considered a major star at the time — bigger than either Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon and rivaling the superstar comedians of the day, Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle (until the 1922 scandal that destroyed his career) and Lloyd. What happened to his reputation was that, as Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton and Lloyd had all done before him, he wanted to break out of two-reelers into features, and the vehicle he chose for his feature-film debut was a big-budget film of The Wizard of Oz. That had been my only previous encounter with Semon, and I thought it was terrible: he threw out virtually all of L. Frank Baum’s original story and substituted a stupid one of his own (despite the presence of Baum’s son, Frank Joslyn Baum, as co-writer); he cast a grown woman (his wife, Dorothy Dwan) as Dorothy; and he missed the story’s unique combination of innocence and terror the makers of the 1939 classic version expertly captured.

After seeing two Semon two-reelers I find myself liking him a whole lot better; he may have had almost no story sense at all and he didn’t create an endearing characterization the way the better-remembered silent comedians did, but he was very, very funny and he had a penchant for elaborate “trajectory” gags rivaling Keaton’s (even though he had a stunt person, William Hauber, double him for many of them, which Keaton didn’t — indeed, during his peak years Keaton not only did all his own stunt work but sometimes doubled for other members of his cast!) — including an audacious moment in The Sawmill in which he is perched on the end of a long beam and, when he jumps off, the wheelbarrow at the other end of the beam is catapulted through the air and lands on Hardy and two of the other less sympathetic members of the down-cast. The Sawmill casts Semon as “the dumb-bell,” a worker at a lumber camp (it’s considerably more than just a sawmill!) whose foreman (Oliver Hardy) is also his rival for the heroine. There’s little plot to this one but the gags are so elaborate and audacious — especially in one scene in which Semon gets too close to a buzz-saw and the entire back end of his overalls gets sawed off, to the predictable shock of the womenfolk — it really doesn’t matter.

According to, The Sawmill was the most expensive two-reel comedy ever made; Semon took his cast and crew to Lake Hume in California and built an entire logging camp, complete with enough space for everyone to live there until he finished shooting, and some of the gags show elaborate preparation even though most of the humor is simple and pretty brutal slapstick. Still, The Sawmill — made by “Larry Semon Productions” in association with one of the original Edison Trust studios, Vitagraph (an association that was the commercial peak of Semon’s career) — is screamingly funny, and Semon himself is a ragamuffin figure with an eloquent clown’s face and protruding ears that make him look funny even before he does anything. One can see from his closeups here why he would have wanted to play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz — he really does look like W. W. Denslow’s original drawings for the book — even though his lack of a sense of characterization or story mattered a lot more in a feature, and one based on a book already considered a classic, than it did in two-reelers.

Semon’s desire to make Wizard cost him his Vitagraph contract — the “suits” at the old-line company didn’t think he could be trusted to keep to a budget and make a commercially viable movie (and they were right; Wizard was a big box-office flop) — and Semon ended up at a smaller studio, Chadwick, where he made the second film by which he’s represented here; Kid Speed. In essence it’s a silent-era version of Speed Racer: the “Speed Kid” (Semon) is determined to enter a hybrid auto race with his new car, not just for the thrill of victory but because the prize is the hand of Lou DuPoise (Dorothy Dwan), daughter of the race’s corporate sponsor, Avery DuPoise (Frank Alexander — who also played Uncle Henry as an out-and-out Dickensian villain in Semon’s version of The Wizard of Oz, and whose presence here, as in Wizard, jars because one isn’t used to seeing a movie in which Oliver Hardy appears but someone else in the cast is physically larger than he is), who like Pogner in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger has promised his daughter to whoever wins his contest.

Needless to say, Oliver Hardy plays Semon’s rival, “Dangerous Dan McGraw” (in an artful touch, parody titles parallel the story to pop poems by authors like Robert W. Service as well as Henry Longfellow). There are a few dubious gags — notably ones in which Semon and his mechanic (played by Spencer Bell, the blackface actor who was cast as the usual stupid servant stereotype in Semon’s The Wizard of Oz) take turns spilling oil on themselves and end up looking like blackface minstrels, as well as one in which Semon, in the middle of the race, ends up with a white sheet over his head that makes it look as if his car is sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan — but overall Kid Speed is even funnier than The Sawmill: it’s better constructed plot-wise (well, you know that auto race — which is two laps around a track and then a cross-country jaunt — has to end sometime and Semon is going to win it), some of the stunt driving is absolutely hair-raising (there’s a gag in which a bridge collapses and Semon drives his car over the gap in a seemingly gravity-defying maneuver that anticipates the film Speed) and the film is packed full of uproarious laughs. Indeed, after the two Semon and Hardy movies the return to Stan Laurel is a bit of an anticlimax!

Next up after Kid Speed is a 1926 Hal Roach comedy presented here as Enough to Do but which, according to, was originally released as Wandering Papas (which would seem to indicate a contemporary story about unfaithful husbands rather than the Western melodrama we actually get) and which actually involved both Laurel and Hardy — but Hardy merely as a supporting player and Laurel behind the cameras as director (as well as one of six writers). It was actually a vehicle for Clyde Cook, an Australian comedian whom Roach signed in the 1920’s hoping to build into his own Charlie Chaplin — and who comes off as a reasonably amusing but overly frenetic Chaplin wanna-be with a lot of Chaplin’s comedic skills but none of his depth. Enough to Do (this is one case where the later title actually better reflects what the movie is about) casts Cook as a cook (appropriately) at a rough-and-tumble mining camp who has to feed a group of people who are getting tired of eating beans and demand trout, rabbit and cake. He goes knee-deep in the water (pushing his legs through the holes in the soles of his shoes so they’re at water level) and tries to get the trout to leap out of the water into his creel; he traps a skunk thinking it’s a rabbit; and when he bakes the cake he puts sunflower seeds in the batter and, when it’s done — in the funniest gag of the film — sunflowers have grown out of the top of it. If nothing else, Clyde Cook’s film shows what a depth of comedic talent there was in the silent era, when people below the genius level of Chaplin or Keaton could still make brilliantly funny films (as Charles and I discovered when we downloaded a couple of movies by Snub Pollard — not a major name even then — and found them utterly fall-on-the-floor hilarious).

The disc closed with two Stan Laurel comedy vehicles, including one called West of Hot Dog — a Western spoof supposedly based on the 1922 film West of the Pecos — that was made in 1924 when Laurel had briefly left Hal Roach for a producer named Joe Rock, who offered to set Laurel up in a series of vehicles under the name “Stan Laurel Comedies” which were distributed through Universal and also shot at Universal Studios. Along with Kid Speed, West of Hot Dog was easily the funniest short of the bunch, largely because of Laurel’s character — instead of the comic dolt he played with Hardy or the confused half-Chaplin, half-Lloyd he’d been earlier, here (as in another Rock production, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde — a marvelous spoof of the 1920 John Robertson/John Barrymore version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) he’s playing the upper-class British twit character he mothballed until his next-to-last Roach film, A Chump at Oxford, in which he cast himself as a dual personality: Stan Laurel and the supercilious “Lord Paddington,” Oxford-educated genius until he was hit by a falling window and turned into the Stan Laurel we all know and love.

West of Hot Dog follows the pattern of plenty of comic Westerns since (including Bob Hope’s The Paleface): the pathetic coward accidentally captures the outlaws that are terrorizing the town and wins both an undeserved reputation for courage and the hand of the heroine, “Little Mustard” the sheriff’s daughter (Julie Leonard). The central premise of West of Hot Dog is that Laurel has come to the titular Western town of Hot Dog (I guess they had to call it that because “Hamburg” was taken) to collect an inheritance that includes the town saloon — only the two biggest, baddest outlaws in town are also named in the will as the secondary heirs in case Laurel dies. They repeatedly pitch him out of a second-story window — in the payoff of this running gag, Laurel merely allows them to corner him at the window and then obligingly leaps through it himself, a gag one would more likely expect from Harpo Marx — and they try to corner him and knock him off, but he turns the tables on them in some delightfully imaginative comic ways. West of Hot Dog was unusually long for a non-feature silent comedy — it ran 30 minutes, which probably meant three reels instead of two (in the 1930’s Roach would experiment with Laurel and Hardy three-reelers and their greatest short, The Music Box, would be at the longer length) — but it was good enough to hold interest at that extended running time even though the plot probably wouldn’t have been strong enough for a feature.

The disc closed with Oranges and Lemons, which Laurel made for Roach in 1923 (he went from Roach to Rock and back to Roach again after Roach offered him more money and a chance to direct; Rock graciously released him from his contract to take Roach’s offer but his bitterness was apparent when John McCabe interviewed him for his biography The Comic World of Stan Laurel in the 1970’s), which Charles and I had actually seen before in a better print (as part of Kino Home Video’s Stan Laurel compilation) and which struck us this time around as perfectly workmanlike slapstick but hardly at the level of West of Hot Dog. Here’s what I had to say about it then:

Oranges and Lemons was a one-reeler produced by the Hal Roach studio for Pathé release in 1923; it’s set (as the title suggests) in an orchard and a fruit packing plant and it has virtually no plot at all, just a series of slapstick encounters between Laurel and actors playing his boss and his fellow workers (one of whom was a large man bearing a striking resemblance to Fatty Arbuckle, though the gags they did together, notably one in which Laurel jumped on his stomach to propel fruit boxes from the man’s legs to a packer standing on a shelf above them, were too sadistic to be considers harbingers of the Laurel and Hardy team) staged at breakneck pace. Within its limits, Oranges and Lemons was quite funny, though Laurel still hadn’t evolved a personal style; in parts of the film he seems to be drawing on his experience as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy in the Fred Karno music-hall company in his native Britain — he has all the Chaplin resourcefulness but none of the Chaplin pathos — while sometimes he slowed down his reaction time and came closer to his style as we know it from the films with Hardy.

There were some pieces of equipment on the set whose functions I didn’t understand, notably an elevator-like contraption that appeared to be for applying the tops to packed fruit boxes, though it was heavy enough to sustain a man’s weight [actually this time around it looked more like a dumbwaiter], and the final gag was the most brilliant in the film and the most evocative of Stan’s character in the Laurel and Hardy films: Laurel has pinned all his adversaries down under this thing and, when the lunch whistle blows (illustrated in this silent film by an insert shot), he calmly sits on top of the contraption, with four men under it, opens his lunch pail and eats his lunch. — 9/30/04