Tuesday, August 19, 2014

“Chasing Choo Choos” (1927) and “One Week” (1920): Balboa Park Silent Movie Night, August 18, 2014

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I went to the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion for the “Silent Movie Night” that’s the high point of the summer festival, featuring a concert of theatre-organ music in the first half (before night falls) followed by a showing of a program of silent films — usually a feature but, last night, two shorts. The organist was Donald MacKenzie, a Scottish-born performer who works regularly at the Compton Organ at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square, London — the instrument on which Thomas “Fats” Waller made his last pipe-organ recordings while touring England in 1938 and 1939. (He was a hit both times but the outbreak of World War II kept him from going back.) This was only the second time in the history of the event that someone other than Dennis James was the organist — Charles and our companions suggested he might not have been invited back because of the satirical routine he’d done the year before about San Diego’s then-Mayor, Bob Filner, and the scandals involving inappropriate and bizarre sexual advances towards women that drove him from office — but MacKenzie (who came out wearing a bow tie and plaid pants with the MacKenzie family tartan) proved a more than adequate replacement. He began his pre-film set with a version of “California, Here I Come,” prefacing it with an introduction quoting Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story — ironically, “California, Here I Come” was a hit for the man who did so much to end the silent film, Al Jolson! Then he played a nice version of “I Cover the Waterfront” (after introducing it as if it had something to do with the 1954 film On the Waterfront, which it didn’t — it actually was written to promote the movie I Cover the Waterfront, made in 1933 and starring Claudette Colbert and Ben Lyon in a story based at least nominally on the career of San Diego columnist Max Miller, whose regular column in the San Diego Sun was actually called “I Cover the Waterfront”! So the piece had a San Diego connection even though MacKenzie seemed unaware of it) and a familiar novelty called “Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” the sort of song you know even if you don’t know its title.

After that he played a quite atmospheric version of “Loch Lomond” (injured but not ruined by a few people in the audience who were gabbing away during it as if it were a nightclub and MacKenzie were a lounge pianist) and an elaborate medley of songs from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz — with a San Diego connection MacKenzie did acknowledge: Lyman Frank Baum was living here (on Coronado) when he wrote some of the Oz books. MacKenzie’s Oz medley, praise be, did not make a total meal of “Over the Rainbow” and use the other songs just as seasoning, though he did clarify why “Over the Rainbow” is the only song from this score that’s become a standard out of context; the rest of the songs are just too tightly tied to the film’s story to work apart from it (though composer Harold Arlen and Barbra Streisand did do a quite charming duet on “Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead” for his 1963 album Harold Sings Arlen on Columbia). After that he did “The Mouse Polka” by a Romanian composer with the Italian-sounding name of Iannucci (assuming I got that right, which I doubt — my notes are badly written and almost incomprehensible), and he closed his set with a medley of songs from Walt Disney movies that, praise be, included only songs from films Walt Disney personally worked on instead of ones from the movies the Disney studios have cranked out in the 48 years since his death: “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South (a film the Disney company has suppressed for decades, fearing it would be seen as racist); “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (ironically, “Someday My Prince Will Come” was also the last song Miles Davis and John Coltrane recorded together!), “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins, “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio (a pity that when he was playing this the sky was so overcast there were no visible stars to wish on!) and a closer I didn’t recognize, though Charles did: “I Wanna Be Like You” from Walt Disney’s last film, The Jungle Book.

The films Donald MacKenzie accompanied were two two-reel slapstick comedies, one a little-known vehicle for a largely forgotten comic and one an acknowledged masterpiece by a genius of the film. The little-known one was Chasing Choo Choos, a 1927 production starring and co-written by Monty Banks. Sometimes billed as Montague Banks, he was actually Italian by birth (the name on his birth certificate was “Mario Bianchi,” which makes me wonder why when he wanted an Anglo-sounding name he didn’t just call himself “White”) but emigrated first to England, then to the U.S., then back to England (where he was married to the legendary entertainer Gracie Fields) and finally back to the U.S. again, before dying at age 52 in 1950 back in Italy. Banks was both a star and director — he made Laurel and Hardy’s first film for 20th Century-Fox, Great Guns (1941), though like most of Laurel and Hardy’s Fox output it isn’t much (a stone ripoff of Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates) — and he’s described on his bio page on imdb.com as “short, stocky, but somehow debonair,” which pretty well sums it up. Chasing Choo Choos was actually edited down from a feature film Banks had made the same year called Play Safe, though it doesn’t seem incomplete — indeed, one wonders how Banks could have got anything more out of his rather sketchy plot! The story casts Banks as a worker at a company technically owned by a dissatisfied heiress (Virginia Lee Corbin, a child star of the ’teens attempting a comeback in adult roles) but actually run by two unscrupulous one-percenters who are worried that if she marries Banks, with whom she’s in love, once she comes of age and inherits her fortune they’ll be frozen out and left without any money. So they hire a gang of thugs (including Bud Jamison, later a “regular” in the Three Stooges films) to kidnap her and frame Banks for the crime.

The first half of the film isn’t much — mainly a bunch of confusing fight scenes — but the second half, filmed on location on a particularly perilous stretch of railroad in San Diego’s East County (modeled on one of the most spectacular exhibits in San Diego’s Model Railway Museum, also in Balboa Park), is magnificent even though through much of it one’s wondering whether to laugh or simply sit and gape with astonishment at the sheer peril Banks and his crew put him and the other actors through. Though one scene in which Banks falls from the train into a nearby gorge and lands on a runaway car that’s on a track below it was pretty obviously done with a dummy and a model train, much of this movie has the same vertiginous thrill content as a Harold Lloyd comedy, made all the more scary by the knowledge that there was no way to fake most of this stuff in 1927: Banks’ body was really hanging over gorges and suspended over tracks as the train sped along. He proves a surprisingly athletic man even though he was short and stocky — he didn’t have the athlete’s build of Lloyd or Buster Keaton — and the film itself is quite engaging. It also benefits from the personality of Virginia Lee Corbin (whose first name is misspelled “Viginia” in the non-original credits of this version), who should have had more of a career than she got; she died tragically young (at 31 in 1942) after a quirky career during which she played in elaborate fairy-tale spoofs with all-child casts in the mid-teens (before that she’d been the baby rocking in the cradle in the framing scenes of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance), and she barely made it into the talkie era but pretty much stopped working after 1931 (her only subsequent credits are unbilled bit parts from 1938 and 1940). The existing credits list only Banks and Corbin, and don’t credit a director, but he was someone else with a Griffith connection: Joseph Henabery, who played Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation and found a niche directing band shorts for Warner Bros. in the 1930’s.

After that MacKenzie got to accompany a masterpiece: One Week (1920), the first film starring Buster Keaton (whose first name is in quotes on the original title) to be released. In 1917 Keaton had stumbled into films — literally — when he came to visit Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on the set of The Butcher Boy, the first movie Arbuckle made after leaving Mack Sennett and partnering with producer Joseph M. Schenck to make films on his own. Keaton ended up acting in the film and appearing as a supporting player in Arbuckle’s movies until 1919, when Schenck’s distributor for the Arbuckle movies, Paramount, signed him to a feature-film contract and a stellar career until scandal abruptly ended it three years later. So Schenck decided to keep the two-reeler unit going and make Keaton the star. Their first film was a spoof of lodges called The High Sign which both Keaton and Schenck decided was too weak to release (eventually it came out when Keaton was laid low from an accident on the set of his film The Electric House). Desperate to come up with a vehicle that would establish Keaton as a worthy star, he and Schenck latched on to the idea of doing a movie around a prefabricated house — kits to build these things were apparently a hot new consumer item just after World War I — and taking the title from Elinor Glyn’s steamy best-seller Three Weeks. The gimmick is that Keaton and his girlfriend (Sybil Seely) have just got married, and his Uncle Mike’s wedding present to them is a prefabricated house kit and the lot to put it on — only the guy Sybil dumped to marry Keaton, out for revenge, changes the numbers on the boxes the kit comes in so that when it’s assembled the house looks like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (a film Keaton may well have seen) and has such non-standard accoutrements as a front door on the second floor and a wash basin outside the house. During the week over which the film takes place (indicated by insert shots of a calendar with pages being torn off — naturally, the week is one that includes a Friday the Thirteenth), various complications ensue, including one in which a delivery person (Joe Roberts) drops off the Keatons’ piano (“What is home without a piano?,” advertised the piano manufacturers, leading a lot of people to buy pianos even if no one in the family could play one — and, according to jazz great James P. Johnson, making people who could play piano quite popular socially) and has Keaton sign for it while he’s still pinned under it — and Keaton uses an insanely elaborate block-and-tackle to try to get the piano inside the house — and a Friday the Thirteenth storm sequence in which, while they’re having their housewarming party, Keaton and Sybil have to deal with the house suddenly spinning on its foundation (it was really mounted on a turntable that spun it) and violently ejecting its inhabitants and their guests.

There’s also a surprisingly graphic scene of the naked Sybil Seely taking a bath and having to reach for the soap when she drops it outside the tub — and a neat comment on film censorship in this genuinely “pre-Code” age in which a hand comes over the camera lens so we don’t see any of her “naughty bits.” The famous finale occurs when Keaton is told that he’s built the house on the wrong lot, he and Seely attempt to move it by jacking it up and putting barrels under it so they can roll it, they get it stuck on railroad tracks and a train approaches. Amazingly (in a gag Keaton recycled several times later), the train is on an opposite track and passes the house without harming it — and then another train barrels down on it and reduces it to kindling. Keaton and Sybil put up a “For Sale” sign on the pile of lumber that’s left, include the directions to assemble the house, and walk off. Showing One Week after Chasing Choo Choos indicated once again the difference between talent and genius — between competence and brilliance, between cleverly amusing and genuinely hilarious. As good as Monty Banks’ movie was, Keaton’s demented imagination trumps Banks’ thrill-seeking even though there were plenty of gags in One Week that were as dangerous as anything in Chasing Choo Choos, including one he recycled in Steamboat Bill, Jr.: he’s standing in front of the house when its front wall falls off, and he’s saved only because he happens to be standing where the window is when the wall lands. Keaton and  his special-effects genius, Fred Gabourie (whose model shots for the 1924 film The Sea Hawk were so good they were used as stock footage in the 1940 remake), used surveyors’ instruments to plot the exact spot on which Keaton had to stand so the wall would fall where it was supposed to and not injure or kill him for real. And in the 1967 film Casino Royale Woody Allen did a screamingly funny variation on the two-trains gag from this film: as a spy on the run, Allen escapes a firing squad by climbing over the wall — and then finds another firing squad ready to kill him on the other side!