Thursday, June 7, 2012
I haven't neglected the blog, I've been working on my new line of ebooks about the great comedians: The Legendary Laughter Series. The first volume focuses on early television's comic mastermind, Ernie Kovacs, and is already available on Amazon, downloadable to your computer, iPad, Kindle, or where ever you can click a link. At just 99¢, it's the best single buck purchase a comedy fan could make. "ERNIE'S JOURNEYS: A Sometimes Waxing, Sometimes Critical, Musing Appreciation of Ernie Kovacs" contains the three blog essays from Laughter Wax pertaining to Ernie, plus three other chapters not available here – A foreword commentary, a comparative look at Ernie and Lenny Bruce, plus the first act of an hilarious unfinished stageplay about Uncle Ern, originally called "Journeys With Ernie." Check it out here! Volume 2 is also now available, entitled "WHEN SILENCE WAS GOLDEN: Pre-talkie Comedy Beyond Charlie Chaplin." It focuses on the superstars of the silent era who made the world laugh while struggling in the shadow of The Little Tramp. It too contains both material from Laughter Wax, and some all-new chapters never before seen. I hope you'll check it out too! It's another 99¢ gem. Lots of classic comedy for your e-reader, and we still haven't spent a $5 bill. Here it is, for your browsing pleasure! Click here. I hope that if you've enjoyed Laughter Wax in the past, you won't be put off by the slight pause in activity here (there's more on the way) but you'll come along too, with me as I take it to a new level – with The Legendary Laughter Series, which will recollect the Laughter Wax pieces and pair them with exclusive new content. It won't break you. Bring along your whoopie cushion and enjoy the ride!
Friday, February 17, 2012
When I was a younger aficionado of the great movie comedians, I appreciated the legacy of laughter they had left us, but could not yet fathom what they hadn't left us; a dishonest caricature of themselves. Lost in hero worship and naivety, I fantasized new adventures for them; ones that transcended anachronism and the confines of their natural lifespans.
Why was there not even one full-length Three Stooges film more satisfying than their two-reelers? Especially in Curly Howard's era, or at the very least, Shemp's?
Why hadn't Laurel & Hardy, or the Marx Brothers, starred in a technicolor epic or two, on par with say, 1965's "The Great Race?" My starry-eyed pondering was tinted with denial. By the year that film was produced, my heroes were all housebound with arthritis and possibly dementia, or metal hips, sporting drool bibs, if not moved on to Forest Lawn.
The most expensive movie that my beloved Stooges – albeit their pale 1960s incarnation – ever appeared in, was "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!" (1963). It was a walk-on. Anything more, and the Magi of Slapstick would have been symbolically redundant – if not physically overwhelmed.
Vogueing, Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe (Derita) summed up a quarter-century of film comedy. No other team, save the Marxes, could have pulled it off. The Stooges formed their career capstone in the blink of an eye, motionless. Buster Keaton's bit part in the same film blistered with equal irony; the human monolith of the silent era was given a line of dialogue.
More clueless than insensitive, it was all merely symbolic. By the 1960s, these aged icons were no longer considered box office by any major studio.
Were these men still in their primes, would modern audiences have accepted them? The question lingers unanswered because it lingers in doubt. Moreover, sadly, it may be for the best.
The silent comedians, and respectively those of the early talkies, quite possibly had come along at a time that was perfect for them. They were in context.
Abbott & Costello were ideally situated by destiny, into the WWII era. With uncertainty mounting and a global conflict on the horizon, Americans needed to feel in control of something. Cherubic, naive, flawed Lou; conniving, transparent, flawed Bud – they made audiences feel like parents.
The post-war period belonged rightfully to Martin & Lewis; all that pent-up wartime testosterone and emotional self-deprivation needed an escape valve. Dean subliminally stood for "sexual," while Jerry was "freedom." Their comedic Freudianism embodied a reluctant, chased but giddily emerging inner jubilance. Born twenty years earlier, Martin & Lewis might have been as huge in the pre-depression 20s – they may even have beat out Al Jolson for star(s) of the first talkie.
The baby-boomers, however, embraced cultural rebellion without restraint, and from that point on, never again would a mere comedy team be the hottest ticket. Martin & Lewis were arguably as big as the Beatles... until the Beatles arrived.
Today, the young post-post-modern generation live in a world that offers them everything in abundance, yet nothing it seems, to repletion. Comedy is simply another item on a gluttonous menu.
Hollywood no longer surrenders to comedians an autonomous berth to self-brand, as was given to Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd... or Jerry Lewis. The comedian himself – however gifted – cannot qualify as the sole focal point of a film anymore.
Briefly, Rowan Atkinson defied the current comedic model, with his Tatiesque "Mr. Bean's Holiday" (2007), but some audiences were confused by it. Movie geeks, despite being more prolific than ever before, simply no longer had a mental category for this kind of film. Too long has Hollywood comedy relied on ensemble concepts... garnished freely with fart cues and dick jokes. "Hangover" anyone?*
Steve Martin may be the only comedy star who can still get a film over, based on his mere presence – but his output has been too sporadic. His last full-bodied work, "Novocaine" (2001), was strangely formulated – an attempt more at a neo-Lynchian instant cult-classic, rather than just another comedy.
Will Farrell could not promote a new release sight-unseen by theaters simply posting his portrait in a marquee window, emblazoned with "I AM HERE TODAY." That level of resonance belonged only to Chaplin. No one currently seems to possess that ongoing "franchise" singularity – a career based upon audience anticipation. Without need of a pre-sell.
In short, there are no comic geniuses with transcending screen presence anymore. That quality might be something that develops over time, but not without a type of cultivation that Hollywood no longer has a garden for, nor audiences the patience.
A latent trend in the music industry has been the retro movement – current stars and/or producers attempting to recreate, literally note for note, an iconic pop recording from the past. Yet, even sparkling with pristine, digital audio, it still comes across as an imitation of something much better and far more preferable despite its age and analogue-ness.
The classic comedians have too been under attack by a league of such hacks. Only in some cases these "hacks" have otherwise formidable résumés and more money to shovel into a single production than the combined budgets of the victimized comic's entire filmography.
The "retro movement" in comedy is really not a movement, but a siren's song. As Ulysses learned, following the call leads to the rocks. Occasionally moguls with childhood idolatries, combined with access to monster-sized budgets and undisciplined autonomy, fall prey to a kind of dark self-hypnosis. Power clouds over reason, and they attempt artistic necromancy.
In Great Britain, the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation literally dug a dead comic from his grave, with the aid of computer graphics and magical editing. Comedian Bob Monkhouse was the star-spokesman for a 2007 PSA urging viewers to donate – "give a few bob" – to benefit prevention research, even though he himself died of prostate cancer in 2003.
The late funnyman stands in front of, and contemplates, his own very real gravestone in the commercial, quipping, "I'd have paid good money to stay out of here."
Monkhouse's face is digitally – near flawlessly – grafted onto a body-double, and an uncanny sound-alike voice actor caulks the verbal gaps in a soundtrack comprised of Monkhouse's actual words, to create a believable posthumous narration. The ad is a jolting experience. As if God has allowed him back across the cosmic divide, to make a shoot date. Give it a look.
The notion is deceptively tantalizing. Cloning iconic clowns may even seem an ultimate act of fan worship in the minds of Hollywood creatives, but the back office has a much different motivation for green-lighting a star resurrection.
The seemingly sure-fire potential of creating a new franchise from an old one, with no need for creativity, is as big a no-brainer (and a rip-off) as porn. A classic, deceased comedian's post-mortem fanbase is seen as an endless parade of marks, to certain types of Hollywood investors.
Not only is the fanbase's loyalty mocked, but just as well the legacy of the performer, and even the sensibility of the film's producers who may naively believe their misguided project is an homage.
But nobody loses more than a newbie audience unfamiliar with the original commodity, who witness the on-screen facsimile, and assume they've sampled something genuine. It's often disconcerting to old-schoolers like myself, just how contentedly unaware the current generation, raised on digital-retro pabulum, can be.
The most frustrating conversation an aficionado must endure, is with a neophyte who will not acknowledge he's been duped, by "dupes."
It isn't quite the same as, say, a cartoon series starring the likenesses of the Stooges, or Abbott & Costello; an obvious attempt to cash in on a comedian's resonance beyond his years of ability. It's the subliminal insult; the insinuation that the original comedians could be reverse-engineered down to an easily imitable formula, minus their souls.
Laurel & Hardy are probably the most impersonated movie comedy team in history. Two names that come to mind instantly are perhaps Chuck McCann as Oliver Hardy and Dick Van Dyke as Stan Laurel. Not only can these men ape Ollie & Stan, they are both hardcore fans** as well, and inject their immense love of the original team into their impersonation. Whenever Van Dyke and McCann became L&H, most often separately with other partners, it was always an obvious tribute – not an attempt to deceive.
Groucho and W.C. Fields impersonators are so common they've become cliché – only the near-impeccable, vocationally practiced dare try to earn a dollar at it.
Laurel and Hardy were the first high-profile victims of attempted Hollywood cloning.
"The All New Adventures of Laurel & Hardy: For Love or Mummy" (1999) was a sin against everything holy to L&H fans; insult upon insult, the film was marketed directly at them. As if.
Filmed 34 years after the death of Stan Laurel, it was hyped as a brand new Laurel & Hardy feature. The creative force behind the production was Larry Harmon, creator of Bozo The Clown, and a personal latter-year acquaintance of Laurel. Harmon likely thought the film somehow a tribute with broad artistic license.
Gaylord Sartain and Bronson Pinchot, though listed in the credits, were not promoted as themselves, but as the real deal (or pointlessly, their nephews, according to the plot). Stan and Ollie are back, folks, just like the good old days!
Though Sartain and Pinchot are talented comic actors in their own right, and could certainly have been candidates to star in a biographical film based on the team's lives, they soiled any hopes of that with this unapologetic masquerade. The film was, to put it gently, forgettable. Fortunately.
Another, somewhat more successful, venture in the same vein, was "Brain Donors" (1992), which sought to rein in the muse of The Marx Brothers. Wisely, Paramount decided to make its stars – John Turturro, Mel Smith and Bob Nelson – merely Marxesque rather than outright replicants. This, it turns out, was the key to the film's success.
By avoiding direct comparison to the real Marx Brothers – all long dead – the film earned a favorable bye from audiences more willing to view it conceptually, instead of resent being taken for rubes.
Another cloning attempt is now scheduled for release in 2012, this one bigger, more saturated in market hype than ever before, targeting the Three Stooges. Rumors about the production began to spread in 2009, not just of a symbolic revival, but a star-studded casting coup.
Benicio del Toro and Sean Penn had allegedly signed on as Moe and Larry respectively, and excitement redoubled when Jim Carrey seemed penciled in as Curly. The proposed spectacle promised to be at least genuinely surreal if only superficially Stoogian.
Then suddenly the grandiose roster proved too good to be true, or more likely too faustian for such high-profile stars. The roles were pitched backward, to Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso, who at least offered audiences a familiar résumé to help sell the trio.
As of this writing, only the film's trailer is available for viewing, but like the other two aforementioned films, "The Three Stooges" (2012) only promises as best an imitation as can be gleaned from the imaginations of its producers – Peter and Robert Farrelly.
A few other notables lend their presence to the mix, like audience favorites Jane Lynch, Larry David and Jennifer Hudson – even an appearance by Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi – as insurance. But once their respective fans parade through the ticket turnstile, who will be left?
Bona fide Stoogephiles won't hang around long – it's not their feast. No matter how stellar the performances of the three Stooge-alikes, they are still imposters. That's the bottom line; though well-intentioned, perhaps even "lovingly" on some level, it's still a merry con-job.
The only hope this film may have, at the box office or the dvd vending machine at the supermarket, is if it can garner genuine laughs. It has to be funny – not just Stoogey. It must register viscerally with the audience, and they have to want to hang with it for 90 minutes or more. There are dissuading obstacles to hurdle, to be sure.
A large roadblock will be getting past the embedded anachronism, since it will place these Sim-Stooges in the present day, not the era for which the real Stooges were within context. The trailer itself offers a not-too-reassuring glimpse of the basic problem – Curly is shown an iPhone, and tries to "see" the caller on the other end. Get it? An "eye-phone?" Laugh it up.
The Farrelly's distributors will likely find they have a very expensive hunk of junk on their hands – a heavily blustered money-pit of a project that will embarrass retailers; nothing says "poorly judged bullshit on a breathtaking level" like a bargain bin crowded with stacks and stacks of a single title.
Collectors of bad cinema may horde copies before they disappear, to where ever over-produced and overstocked duds are secreted away to be melted down in the furnace, or turned into beverage coasters. It will be obvious even to non-fans: why buy that, when the real Stooges are so accessible?
It's nice to fantasize. It would be wonderful if The Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy could have gone on living, and filming, forever. But their mortality was a key component of their appeal.
As their careers progressed year by year and they aged before our eyes, it became visually apparent that they were a vanishing resource, a rare treasure. Men like Jerome "Curly" Howard and Lou Costello sacrificed their health and met untimely demises directly relatable to their output as physical comedians.
That level of inner-being and lifelong refinement cannot be reincarnated by an impersonator, no matter how well-honed. It's what audiences subconsciously seek to connect with. Broad comedy already asks viewers to suspend disbelief, to accept conceited plots and personas that are blatantly over-the-top. A comedy starring imitators asks them to accept a layer of fraudulence as well.
"Here's your birthday cake. Would you be so kind as to eat the candles too, so they won't go to waste after they're blown out?"
Plus, it is doubly sad when producers blessed with so much – disposable budgets, abundant material resources, technological wizardry, and nebulous clout with industry contacts – will shy away from the challenge of creation, and attempt only to safely reinvent.
"For Love or Mummy" art copyright ©Coast Entertainment, "Brain Donors" art copyright ©Paramount Pictures Corporation, "The Three Stooges" art copyright ©20th Century Fox (not Columbia?) Photo will be courteously removed at copyright holders' request.
*"Hangover" (2009) was deservedly a hit, but was also a textbook "ensemble" comedy, of the type which Hollywood seems now to churn out exclusively.
**Chuck McCann, himself a comedy legend, is co-founder of the Sons of the Desert, the official Laurel & Hardy fan organization, boasting over a quarter-million members world-wide. The club's name was coined after the title of Laurel & Hardy's 1933 comedy. Each local chapter is known as a "tent" with a number designation.
Sunday, August 22, 2010
ABBOTT & COSTELLO, LAUREL & HARDY
The public domain did not serve well these two great comedy teams. Perhaps more accurately, it lived down to its reputation. Do not judge the value of these men and their work, by what may be found of their legacies in the bargain bin.
No one denies Laurel & Hardy's place in cinema history. Abbott & Costello, despite a hit-n-miss résumé of diverting romps and formulaic yawners, were the comedic gatekeepers of America's morale through the WWII years, and Hollywood's top draw until Martin & Lewis in the mid-1950s.
The best films of both teams are preserved in beautifully packaged box sets and single-disk collections of varying price and quality. Yet the pub-dom has still managed to sneak a foothold.
Two particular L&H titles have lurked for years in the PD aisle, usually packaged together, shadily, as back-to-back "classics." Just remember, they're not in the public domain for nothing.
"The Flying Deuces" (1939) is often rated higher than it deserves, simply because of its status as a full-fledged Laurel & Hardy feature by a major studio – made while the pair were still considered not too far distant from their prime.
A few decently comic moments give it about the right "feel" of a typical L&H vehicle, but by no means does it earn a place among their best. How it ended up PD is not hard to fathom, being the first Laurel & Hardy project made apart from Hal Roach, whose studio first paired them, and by whom the majority of their classic comedies were produced. "Deuces" was made at RKO.
Despite such watersheds to its credit as "King Kong" (1933) and "Citizen Kane" (1941), RKO pumped out far more B-Stinkers than its reputation – or memorable baubles like the above – could counter-balance. When the studio went belly-up, becoming part of Desi Arnaz's "Desilu" empire in the 1950s, this orphaned Laurel & Hardy movie was left to fend for itself.
Essentially a half-hearted remake of their earlier film "Beau Hunks" (1931), "Deuces" puts the pair in the French Foreign Legion. Oliver impulsively joins – dragging Stan along – to eradicate from his heart the memory of a lost paramour. This, after a failed attempt at suicide by drowning, along to which he'd also dragged poor little Stan. Perhaps the film's most shining moment is a rare sample of Hardy's disarming tenor, in a brief rendition of "Harvest Moon."
Its initial box-office success had convinced Stan & Ollie that they'd run their course with Roach, and hastened their signing with 20th-Century Fox. The "upgrade" signaled the beginning of the end, as slowly they realized they'd sold their souls to become merely brand-names.
Laurel, the duo's comedic mastermind behind the scenes, was confronted by something he'd never dealt with at Roach: production committees who overruled him, and who had no real clue about the unique chemistry he and Oliver shared.
The result at Fox was a slew of dragging, overboiled feature-comedies that were exactly what they looked like: stop-watched, formula-scripted, thin-skinned pabulum. Laurel & Hardy would never again star in films as satisfying – to themselves or their audience – as those of their Hal Roach era.
"Utopia" (1951), also known by "Atoll K" and "Robinson Crusoeland," represents the absolute end of the line; the last act of their careers, and not on a high note.
Filmed independently in Italy, with a French-only speaking director, "Utopia" was a scheduled 12-week shoot that wound up costing an entire year of their lives. Plagued by age and illness, Laurel & Hardy's finalé was their worst nightmare. At various points during the marathon, both Stan and Oliver required hospitalization. Gaunt little Stan's diabetes flared in the prolonged interval away from home, and formed an ulcerous colon infection. Oliver's weight ballooned over 300 pounds and he endured cardiac strain. Production slowed to a crawl, to afford the film's ailing stars frequent rest-breaks from the onslaught of approaching death.
The grind wore them down, visibly. Their relationship with the director, to whom they could not even verbally communicate, became predictably dicey. Blacklisted American director John Berry was quietly recruited to run herd on the film. His name is not in the credits, but Stan's widow Ida, years later, confirmed his presence.
How could anything funny have resulted from such horrid circumstances?
"Utopia" may own another quaint distinction, as one of the earliest examples of intentional product placement. In a scene that involved wine, a full-on shot of a bottle of Welch's Grape Juice was randomly spliced in, for the sake of any impressionable kiddies in the audience. Though at the time they were probably on enough prescription meds and painkillers to stock a junkie's closet, Laurel & Hardy could not be seen to condone alcoholism.
Even in this little slice of Hell on celluloid, however, they still manage to be Stan & Ollie.
Laurel, then a frail old man, could still sheepishly confide to the lens, deliver his trademark malapropisms, and – finessing his body english carefully – throw down slapstick. Oliver was still the master of the slow burn past the fourth wall, communicating directly to the audience his evaporating patience with Stan's twerpishness – the comedic turn that only he could get away with. It is, at its core, a Laurel & Hardy picture. Maybe that's all it needs.
But the way-too-obvious physical pain etched on their faces between gags is an ordeal you may only want to endure once.
Abbott & Costello's PD entries are a real study in contrasts; two films that respectively represent both extremes of the public domain dichotomy – a rip-off repository of crap, yet a vault of cinema preservation and artistic democracy.
First, the crap.
You'd have to search awfully hard – possibly even film one yourself – to hold in your hands a comedy as unfunny as "Africa Screams" (1949). Its catchy title suggests a yock-fest of long-whiskered punchlines, and a generous helping of what might be termed "nurturing corn." If only it were that good.
Bud and Lou were under contract to Universal Studios for most of their film careers. Written into that contract was the privilege to occasionally go "off campus" to film comedies independently, under their own banner. A shrewd move, at least on paper.
Their first attempt, "Africa Screams" was shot at Nassour Studios, a typical lower-rent movie facility of 1940s Hollywood, and released through United Artists.
The script reads like a first draft, painfully straining, but defaulting to old standby routines when flopsweat threatens. Possibly they didn't yet trust themselves away from the streamlined assembly system of Universal Studios – on their own, with a track record to uphold. To shore up Universal's vested interest in their success, a number of then-famous cameos were thrown in as insurance.
Celebrated animal trainer Clyde Beatty (the Sigfried & Roy of his day) starred in a number of his own jungle B-adventures, usually as himself. Since "Africa Screams" was a spoof of such films, Beatty was given a featured spot in hopes it would attract his audience's box-office. Did it work? Hint: Beatty's own films just barely tread water in the public lake too.
Also shticking hither and tither are denizens of the Stooge universe, Shemp Howard and Joe Besser. Besser supplies his childish "stinky" character, and Shemp pops up as a nearsighted jungle tour-guide. Some of the (damn few) genuinely funny moments in the film belong to Shemp, who was known in the business as a "saver," a utility comic who could compliment an otherwise lackluster film, making its producers seem semi-competent with improvised clowning on a level that the script could apparently not create.
If only Shemp Howard's nearly forgotten solo starring vehicles were given a spotlight like the one in which the hardly-deserving "Africa Screams" has basked for so long. Presently the only ray of hope is Passport Video's 2008 release, "Shemp Cocktail: A Toast To The Original Stooge," but that's another article.
Two of A&C's other co-stars in the brutal catastrophe that is "Africa Screams" are anything but funny – in fact, they become downright scary, beyond their roles as heavies.
The Baer brothers, Max and Buddy, were tough hombres in real life. Max, today remembered primarily as the dad of actor Max Baer, Jr. (Jethro on the original "Beverly Hillbillies" sitcom), was a former heavyweight boxing champion. Younger brother Buddy was even bigger, and a contender himself.
Buddy once knocked Joe Louis completely out of the ring – though the Brown Bomber climbed back in to get even. Max was infamous for arguably the single hardest punch ever thrown in modern boxing, against a fighter named Frank Campbell, who had been considered a major up-and-comer, until...
Baer delivered a shot that tore Campbell's brain free of all its connective tissue inside the skull, which should have been instantly fatal. Campbell somehow lasted the round, and slowly fading into oblivion while still on his feet, groggily complained to his cornermen that something in his head had "snapped." Campbell fought on for three more rounds unaware that he'd just been killed, until his corpse finally ceased functioning and slumped against the ropes in the fifth. Later, Max Baer's public apology to Campbell's widow, offering to have amputated and present her with the hand that took her husband, became sports legend. She declined, saying "it could have been you, too." Baer was ultimately dethroned by James "Cinderella Man" Braddock.
Lou Costello, despite his cannonball-like physique, was an astonishingly capable athlete, and himself an amateur boxer. He had great natural rapport with he-men like the Baers, and his celebrity status allowed him access into their social circles, and they into his. It's no surprise they crop up in supporting roles in Costello's films from time to time.
The brothers, quite convincingly, play bickering hitmen who stalk Bud & Lou. In one scene their squabbling turns physical. Though the fracas may have been part of the script, somehow it looks a bit unscripted on-screen. Fully out of character, Max blurts, "I'll hit you harder than Louis ever did!" The fight ceases to appear comical at that instant – though Buddy finally "sells" the knock-out punch and goes down on cue, albeit with a pissed expression.
Everything about the film has an air of desperation. Even a King Kong joke, in the final reel, falls flatter than a canned ham dropped from the Empire State Building.
Thanks to the public domain, with countless re-issues over the years, the world will never fully be rid of "Africa Screams." It's even been covertly thrown into some cheap PD box-sets as filler. If you bought one of these instant film collections, recheck that contents list; you may own a copy of Abbott & Costello's least-wanted film without even knowing it!
At the other end of the spectrum, Abbott & Costello also starred in what may be a candidate for Crown Jewel of Public Domain Cinema. It is a film so rare that it technically no longer exists – the print used for PD distribution is a poor second-generation copy, the only version known.
"Jack and the Beanstalk" (1952), like its bastard cousin "Africa Screams," was made independently from Universal. Gladly, all similarity ends there! Lou Costello himself, with his brother Pat, were executive producers, under Lou's "Exclusive Productions" banner. It was first released through Warner Brothers.
Lou starred as Jack, and Bud as Mr. Dinklepuss, who buys Jack's cow for those pesky magic beans and tags along for the trip up-stalk. Big scary Buddy Baer returned, to play the Giant – and rarely was there ever more inspired typecasting.
MGM's "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) served as the template for "Jack," which along with "Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd" (also 1952), are the only two A&C features shot in color.
Though not nearly as financially extravagant as "Oz," Costello's musical comic-fantasy succeeds in exuding a kindred charm. The disparities are obvious, but not damning.
Where "Oz" employs a cast of thousands, "Jack" has... well, merely dozens. "Oz's" immense musical numbers overflow with throngs of dancers. "Jack" uses an ensemble of five; four women and one man, attempting to dance hard enough for a troop ten times larger. They provide both opening and end-reel dance numbers, while the remaining "townspeople" watch on, subtly bouncing in rhythm – but somehow one can still come away recalling these segments as huge.
Like "Oz," the film begins with non-color footage to represent the movie's "reality," then switches to full-color to serve up the magical other-worldliness of the fairy-tale. Sadly, it is here we must document the most tragic chapter of this film's journey to the public domain.
Costello financed the project out of his own pocket, and sank a major portion of the film's half-million dollar budget into its technical aspects. He wanted it to be every bit as wonderful, visually, as its muse, "The Wizard of Oz."
The non-color portions were not filmed black-&-white, but in rich amber sepia-tone, using the expensive "SuperCine" color process, which also made the full-color portions fantastically vibrant.
After its theatrical run, the film disappeared into that anonymous Hollywood vault, and did not emerge again until the film was released for television. Long story short: when the 16mm TV dupes were made from the original Eastman negative, the amber footage was mis-processed as standard black-&-white, and the shrinkage from 35mm did a hardluck number on the color portion as well.
Then, a twist of the dagger – the dynamic original was lost. A pristine first-generation print may still exist somewhere, but if so, it has not been released on DVD. Only the sub-standard TV print remains to represent this unique piece of comedy cinema. It seems that every re-issue of Abbott & Costello's "Jack and the Beanstalk" has been made from the same crappy 16mm dupe. So, no one who did not witness an original 1952 theatrical screening has ever seen the film in its intended format.
Happily, what it may forfeit technically, it reimburses comedically. The experience holds up considerably well; Bud & Lou in fine form. The fun is well-paced and just right for kids – parents need not worry about inappropriate content when leaving the room to check on dinner.
The Giant – Buddy Baer in assuredly the most memorable role of his acting career – is truly menacing, though not quite over-the-top enough to cause an actual nightmare. Like Andre in "Princess Bride," Buddy pulls off giant-ness just fine without special effects.
Though kid-level corny, A&C's hijinks are well-metered and confident. Even dastardly Bud attempts some slapstick, rather than leaving it all for cherubic Lou, whose most charming scene is his dance with the Giant's amazon housemaid, played by 6' 2" actress Dorothy Ford.
The film's only drawback is its handling of the romantic leads, Shaye Cogan and James Alexander, as Princess Eloise and Prince Arthur. Not to slam their talents, but here they could just as easily have been cardboard stand-ins. Community Theatre 101 singing roles, for an equally forgettable set of romantic duets, which they nearly sleepwalk through anyway. Fact was that the audience was there to see Abbott & Costello. A prince and princess were simply obligatory story elements, thus left undercooked. Cogan's and Alexander's only stylistic choice may have simply been to impersonate singing firewood.
"Jack and the Beanstalk" is still by all means a PD must-own for any fan of the Boys From Joisey, or any serious comedy collector for that matter, period. It's more than worth its inevitably meager price.
Also worth a quick mention are A&C's hosting turns on the Colgate Comedy Hour... on second thought, maybe that's all they're worth. Let's move on.
THE THREE STOOGES
Something stupid, and wonderful, happened in the late 1960s to the Three Stooges.
First we must backtrack to the 30s, and the beginning of their careers at Columbia Studios. Harry Cohn, grand mogul and industry asshole of legend, made a magnanimous pledge to Moe Howard: that for as long as he (Cohn) lived, the Stooges would have work at Columbia. Even when surrogate Stooges were employed after the deaths of Curly and Shemp, Cohn kept his word, literally.
In a 1974 interview, elderly Larry Fine recalled a surreal moment at Harry Cohn's funeral. One of the Columbia VPs gazed over the chief's casket at he and Moe – pointed to them subtly but quite deliberately, then made a slow cut-throat gesture. That pretty much said it all, before Cohn was even in the ground.
It's hard to imagine today, with Stoogemania as popular and profitable as ever, that Columbia once considered them nothing more than disdainful dead weight, despite all the box-office they had earned. They were old and in the way. The entire industry seemed to turn on them – while still profiting from their work. Finally the government too weighed in with an anti-stooge bias.
Legislation signed by then-California Governor and former Screen Actors' Guild President, Ronald Reagan, regarding royalty limitations past the 1960s, meant the Stooges were owed the whopping sum of... nothing, nada, zilch, for their nearly 200 films. Then to turn yet another quick buck from their vast archive of duty-free Stooge shorts, Columbia sold them in random incremental bundles to TV syndication.
Among the first to go were "Disorder In The Court" (1936), "Malice In The Palace" (1949), "Sing A Song of Six Pants" and that ageless favorite of Shemp fans, "Brideless Groom" (both 1947).
Columbia was too busy counting syndication receipts to notice mere copyrights oozing down the drain. Then something happened that nobody in the head office had counted on. The old Stooge films were hits – enormous hits – becoming overnight the hottest after-school TV property. Station managers and theater owners were phoning, asking if the Stooges were even still alive, and if so, were they available for promotional appearances.
Moe Howard and Larry Fine had just accepted the onset of mundane retirement. Moe had even been turned away at the Columbia front gate, humiliated over an expired entrance pass – a crushing insult that made the "rough stooge's" tears flow.
Larry, having reconciled with hasbeen-ism – his wild frizzy mane now trimmed and combed to look like any other boring non-stooge his age – was working as manager of a small apartment complex.
Suddenly Showbiz put them on speed-dial; senior citizen status and all, they were stars again! All was "forgiven." Tch.
There followed a spontaneous bowel-loosening at Columbia when someone noticed their new big sellers were legal free balloons. Their unabashed dissing of the longest-running comedy act in the history of Hollywood's studio system was about to boomerang on them; a legal custard pie right in the face!
The Stooges were due an engraved apology at that once foreboding front gate – not to mention a shiny new pass card.
A mad scramble commenced, before Moe Howard could catch news of the gaffe. Moe was known as an astute businessman, who chummed around more with judges and attorneys than with showfolk, and who would have certainly brought them to the fray, were he suddenly savvy to the legal bumble. Columbia went into a Stooge copyright renewal frenzy.
They further managed to distract the Stooges from pursuing a day in court, with lucrative new contracts to star in feature-length comedies – something the team had always begged them for, in vain, when they were younger, more capable funnymen – and key members Curly and Shemp were alive.
"Snow White and the Three Stooges" (1961), "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules," "The Three Stooges In Orbit" (both 1962) and similar films that followed – with makeshift stooge Curly Joe DeRita taking the Curly/Shemp spot on the roster – were rightful rewards to the Stooges on behalf of their rebirth and new popularity, but were not minus an agenda.
That first handful of short films sold to TV, however, managed to slip under the wire and become public domain freejacks. They may still be included in "official" remastered Stooge box sets, but are ripe pickings for anyone with a duping fee and a distribution license.
"Brideless Groom" – in which Emil Sitka uttered his trademark "Hold hands, you lovebirds!" – is soaked in irony. The bittersweet backstory begins with its being a rehash of a film already in the public domain, thanks to one particular man behind the camera.
Screenwriter and sometime director Clyde Bruckman's name should sound familiar to most classic comedy collectors. His career spanned the silent era to mid-50s television. He was crony to nearly every major film comedian of his day, and lent a hand in shaping a number of them.
He also had a somewhat off-color reputation in the business, as a script scavenger. His pattern was to retool work he'd penned for the silents, add dialogue, and offer it up as new writing. The practice may not sound quite underhanded, especially when the old script being cannibalized was his own anyway. But it was considered artistic thievery, since it was secretly giving one comedian's material to another.
Bruckman's script for "Brideless Groom" was a butcher-blocked reprise of "Seven Chances," which he'd co-authored with Buster Keaton a quarter-century earlier. The plot centers around devoutly unmarried Shemp's (like Buster's) frantic need to find a wife before an hours-away deadline, or kiss a massive, willed inheritance goodbye.
In the Keaton version, Buster's sweetheart refuses to marry him for any reason materialistic. "You just want me for YOUR money!" The entire plot may have been to facilitate that one punchline.
Buster is stymied by his own good luck, engaged to a genuine, pure hearted Miss Right. A well-meaning friend attempts to remedy the situation by taking the story to the newspapers – it winds up on that afternoon's front page. Suddenly every hulking spinster in the tri-county area is roaming the streets, in wedding veiled hordes, each clutching Buster's photo. What results is one of the greatest, and most original, chase comedies of the silent golden age – replete with a veritable portfolio of Keaton's mesmerizing physical stunts and antics, that would have sent any lesser comedian to the hospital, if not the morgue.
Bruckman took the Keatonesque scenario and Stooge-a-fied it, to accommodate the less-death defying comedy of Shemp Howard. The most original line in the film is not about its words, but Shemp's delivery of them: "Nobody's interested in me!" spoken not as a lament, but a triumph of the soul!
In Bruckman's revamping, Moe puts an ad in the local paper to find his stubborn partner a mate, which is soon answered by every ball-busting poolhall skirt who ever rolled Shemp for a free drink. A butch battle royale ensues, with slim hope of Shemp's bachelorhood being KO'd before the final bell – even against his will – by the one woman who genuinely wants him regardless of the windfall, a frumpy amazon with a heart of gold, played by plain but statuesque Dee Green.
Perhaps it's fitting that nobody legitimately connected to "Brideless Groom" could ever collect a royalty, considering the bad blood it would potentially have stirred.
Keaton was never heard to complain over the Stooges "borrowing" from him. The silent icon was an easy emotional touch, with undying faith in his former collaborators, unruffled by their accused iniquities. Keaton stood by his claim of Arbuckle's innocence, to his own death, 33 years after Fatty's. It's easy to imagine that Bruckman too garnered his forgiveness. Clyde wrote the story to begin with, Buster probably reasoned, so it was Clyde's to rewrite. Artistic license, legal or otherwise, be damned. The real question is whether Bruckman ever forgave himself.
Harold Lloyd, who had also employed Bruckman in the silent era, wasn't as charitable. Lloyd sued him, when gags he recognized from his own films began seeping into Abbott & Costello's weekly television programs, for which Bruckman served as writer.
Whatever penalty the industry dealt Clyde Bruckman because of his constant self-plagerism, it was small compared to the emotional toll of the artistic stigma. He was an addict, in violation of a creative trust that perhaps he himself held sacred despite his own compulsive misdeeds against it. Like an alcoholic whose heart yearns for sobriety even while his brain covets drink.
Lloyd's lawsuit tipped the scale out of Bruckman's favor, far enough to crack his will. His predilection had finally cost him his membership in the old comedy fraternity. One night in 1955, the weight could be endured no longer.
Packing a .45 pistol – borrowed, in a double-twist of irony, like the plot of "Seven Chances," from Buster Keaton – Bruckman entered a Santa Monica restaurant. After consuming an expensive meal he was too broke to afford, he went into the mens washroom and put the gun's muzzle to his temple.
"Groom" is also famous among Stoogephiles for the lovely songbird Christine McIntyre's legendary ballistic meltdown with Shemp.
After several useless takes, she just couldn't mean-up enough to smack Howard around as the script called for. Story goes, the director resorted to pushing her emotional buttons between takes, tweaking her into a semi-legit rage, to color her performance. Then Shemp, usually a softspoken soul behind the scenes, forced the issue: "Come on, Chris, give it to me, let me have it!"
McIntyre exploded. The cameras rolled, and Shemp must've thought he'd stepped into the ring with Jack Dempsey. The demure blonde singer/actress slapped him rawer than steak tartar, then iced the cake with a right haymaker that knocked Shemp through the thin pastewood door of the set. Everyone rushed to Shemp lying prone on the floor. In tears, McIntyre got to him first, to profusely apologize, but he woozily stopped her; "I told ya to let me have it, kid, and you sure as hell did!"
It's interesting to watch McIntyre in Stooge films subsequent to "Groom" – any trepidation or reluctance she may have harbored about dishing out slapstick was apparently erased clean by that whirlwind moment of madness with Shemp. Her inner-Moe had broken through – the Stooge-force was with her.
Among other odd Stoogean treasures drifting along the public tributary is the neglected old relic, "Swing Parade of 1946," a full-length musical comedy produced by Monogram Studios, for which the Stooges (Moe, Larry & Curly) were on loan from Columbia.
It's unknown whether an immaculate print of this diced and spliced wonder exists, which is a shame. Hardly was there ever a poverty-row curio more deserving of restoration. Filmed just before their Columbia short "Half-Wit's Holiday," during which Curly's career was garroted by a massive stroke, "Swing Parade" almost owned the grim asterisk as the comedian's final screen appearance. Otherwise, it is one of the most overlooked, under-appreciated gemstones in the entire PD dowry.
Rebelling against a rich tight-collared father, an ambitious young nightclub owner (singer Phil Regan) hires dishwashers/handymen/waiters, the Stooges, to help him open for business before his creditors and competitors descend – legal and mobster alike. A hopeful songstress facing eviction (Gale Storm) shows up to audition, and must battle her way into Regan's heart after being mistaken for a collections-server and repeatedly tossed to the curb. But aided by the Stooges, love and luck prevail. A run-of-the-mill plot as budget musical comedies go, but don't be fooled.
Monogram wisely refrained from the temptation to homogenize the Stooges away from their Columbia-style shenanigans. The boys are as enjoyable here as in almost anything filmed at their homebase studio – hardly a second-rate outing for them. The gags are of course derivative. Only two are lifted outright from previous Stooge films. First is their patented dishwashing shtick – Larry and Curly absent-mindedly wash and dry the same dish over and over, around Moe's back. The bit had been reprised so often, however, it hardly belonged to any single film. Second is Curly's plumbing fiasco; he keeps attaching pipes together until he has trapped himself in a maze – with the leak he was attempting to plug still raining down on him.
Moe and Curly also take turns recreating snipets of their waiter routine from the Ted Healey years. Still, it comes off with a certain freshness, and yes, it's still funny.
Monogram managed to wrap together a nice little parcel in "Swing Parade," despite its reputation as the studio where the careers of has-beens and never-weres went to die – whose contribution to cinema amounts to little more than the Bowery Boys, some of John Wayne's pre-stardom westerns and Bela Lugosi's dead end as a studio contract star. They wasted little potential regarding their ever-brief ownership of the Stooges, complimenting them with a fine cadre of supporting actors, though they aren't technically the actual stars of the picture.
In a secondary plot this remarkable cast, of war-era Hollywood's most underrated, includes character actress Mary Treen in a rare – singing yet – ingenue role. That same year she played Harry Bailey's wiry spinster cousin Tilly in "It's A Wonderful Life."
Even musically, the film flirts with surprising levels of quality, featuring rare performances like Louis Jordan's incredible throw-down of "Caldonia," and Connee Boswell's take of "Stormy Weather."
Sadly, this gem has gone long without polish, as its distracting technical flaws will attest in most re-issues. Some splices look like a sleeve of Scotch tape is being forced through the projector.
So far, only Legend Films has stepped forward, who offer the film in both b&w and colorized versions. However, their 2008 set, "The Three Stooges: Classic Shorts & Swing Parade" tosses in yet another set of the four traditional Stooge pub-dom re-dupes as its raison d'être, hinting the all-but-forgotten musical could not justify a singular release.
If the domain stands for anything, it's redundancy.
Perhaps a mediocre watch to the average DVD consumer, to cine-buffs who appreciate what "Swing Parade of 1946" represents – a solid effort by a studio not known for greatness, and a showcase of quality performers who were usually taken for granted and under-used elsewhere – it's a brief spring stroll amid the public domain winter.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
To a motion picture, "public domain" is the placard on the graveyard gate.
It can mean a movie is ancient, utter crap, or both. For reasons long forgotten, nobody gives a damn – likely because everyone connected to the epic is dead, or at least old and broke. The film has been reduced to its mere value as an historical curiosity, or lack thereof; hardly even worth the watch. Now it belongs to no one, and therefor, everyone.
The quickest clue that the DVD in your hand is a PD property, is when you spot other copies with differing box designs, by competing distributors.
Someone found an old neg, or print, of a movie with an expired copyright – or inherited it from a previous distributor – paid a duping fee, hired a cheap designer to produce zippy new packaging, and put the film back on the market. Nothing illegal.
If it's a film on your list, you'll likely have no problem finding it in abundance, and cheap. Your only hardship will be selecting which ugly package design you most tolerate. Your only real risk the quality of the source used for duping, which may be anything from pristine to an animation of projector-burn bubbles and jagged splices.
The shortfalls can be offset by the purchase price. I've paid anywhere from 99¢ for titles that became welcome additions to my collection, up to $10 for some that ended up in the Goodwill donation box. Clinkers abound, but there are some real treasures lurking on poverty row.
George Romero's original "Night of the Living Dead" (1966) is an ultimate must-have for any serious horror aficionado – and the cheapest ticket at the video store. Romero sold his film outright just to get it into theaters. Years later the copyrights lapsed and "Night" was lost in limbo. Before Romero could blink, dozens of fly-by-night video houses had their own releases on the market, cashing in on its growing "post mortem" popularity, denying him, its own author, of a rightful payday. All legally.
At last he bit the bullet and produced a remake in 1990, just to recapture his copyright on the title.
In terms of Classic Comedies in the public domain, there are definitely equal helpings of gems and junk. Though the diamonds are there to be unearthed, for one willing to burrow.
For anally adamant purists, meticulously restored editions of these films do exist – usually as part of pricey, major studio-licensed box sets. If you'd settle for less-than-ideal, and your DVD library looking hodgepodge-slutty rather than virginally symmetrical, you can still own the kings of early comedy, on a budget.
The films, and a few connected anecdotes, are worth a look.
CHARLIE CHAPLIN, BUSTER KEATON and NEARLY THE ENTIRE SILENT ERA
Many of Chaplin's and Keaton's works have PD versions afloat. Early in the home-video craze, however, the keepers of Chaplin's estate swooped in to secure the rights to his most iconic titles. Who could blame them?
The only Chaplin films left readily accessible to PD hunters are his earliest, which despite the Estate's cherry-picking, still comprise a noteworthy list containing many of his landmarks.
The two films that vie for Charlie's first appearance as the Tramp, "Kid Auto Races At Venice" and "Mabel's Strange Predicament" (both 1914) are public. Also in legal freefall are "The Tramp" (1915), "The Rink" (1916), "Easy Street" and "The Immigrant" (1917), and even his surreally melancholy "Sunnyside" (1919), to name a few.
The public trail also contains two historic mileposts. Mack Sennett's "Tillie's Punctured Romance" (1914), the cinema's first feature-length comedy, stars Marie Dressler, plus Chaplin and Mabel Normand as featured players. "The Kid" (1921), starring Chaplin and prodigy Jackie Coogan, is a bona fide piece of comedy history indeed; Chaplin's first attempt at a grand opus, the moment he turned movie comedy on its head with a then-radical concept called comic-pathos: comedy that tugs the heartstrings – as well as taps the funnybone – to triumphal heights.
In the VHS era, Chaplin's first major feature, "The Gold Rush" (1925) was an ubiquitous presence on the PD shelf, released under many disparate distribution banners. Though Chaplin himself re-released the film theatrically in 1942, he'd added a narration track – creating technically a "new" work. The original silent version was, legally speaking, left out in the cold by that misstep, and the vultures descended.
The Chaplin Estate rectified the situation somewhat for the DVD market, awarding the Parisian company MK2, in league with Warner Home Video, the official rights to the Tramp's adventures – and most importantly Charlie's latter-career masterpieces. Fans desiring copies of, say, "City Lights" (1931) or "The Great Dictator" (1940) to complete their collections, must pay full retail, or hope for a deal on Amazon. Warner Home Video's "The Chaplin Collection" is the obvious first choice.
Fortunately for the PD Chaplin connoisseur, there is an almost equivalent "single purchase" instant library.
St. Clair Entertainment offers over 50 of Charlie's silents in a 3-disk compilation entitled simply enough: "Charlie Chaplin." It includes just about everything one could need, except "Tillie" and "Gold Rush," which can still be had separately, or within less satisfying sets than St. Clair's, released by other distributors. The set also contains a few of his partnerings with Mabel Normand, making it a great budget-friendly find for her fans as well.
Many of these films are available as free internet downloads, some even live on YouTube, but again there are no guarantees regarding picture quality.
Buster Keaton was not as lucky. There was no "Keaton Estate" to rescue his films from the public swamp. In fact, there were almost no films to be rescued.
In the early 1950s, actor James Mason became owner of the residence that had once been Keaton's lavish Beverly Hills "Italian Villa." While remodeling he discovered a long-ignored and deteriorating garden toolshed, which had apparently served as Keaton's editing studio. Inside sat Keaton's films – most considered lost, up until that moment – still in the canisters that the comedian had left them, years prior.
Those air-tight tins, combined with the cold of many winters, were all that had preserved Keaton's legacy, printed on the unstable nitrate film of the silent era. Buster believed that the talkies had made his work hopelessly obsolete, and so had left his classics behind to rot.
Successfully copied onto safety filmstock, the pancake-hatted "Great Stone Face" was reborn to delight modern audiences just as he had those of his own era. The rediscovery of Keaton's genius, by cinema buffs worldwide, sparked searches around the globe for other archived-and-forgotten Keaton gems. The quest yielded enough material for Public Domain distributors to become the primary custodians of Keaton's filmography. Many, many competing releases of Buster Keaton masterworks are now available, and in quite viewable condition.
Consistently the best are by Kino International. Ted Turner's TMC Archives also offers well restored Keaton keepers, and Sony recently released Keaton's rare – if less classic – Columbia shorts, in a 2006 package somewhat misleadingly titled "The Buster Keaton Collection."
The Kino release of "Seven Chances" (1925) – part of their DVD box "The Art of Buster Keaton" – screen size not withstanding, may be exactly what 1925 audiences witnessed. A picture as crystal as any digital age could imagine; it appears to have been filmed yesterday.
Also from Kino is "Arbuckle & Keaton, Volumes One and Two: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts 1917-1920" which offers Keaton's early collaborations with his mentor, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in digitally restored quality. Image Entertainment's "The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection" features practically the same den of films, plus two, also restored – with just a few differences in applied music and other peripherals. It may in fact be a superior buy.
Both sets preserve a rare, unique chapter in silent comedy history; the filmed incubation period of one of the cinema's greatest clowns.
While jewel prints of Keaton's "College," "The General" (both 1927) and "Steamboat Bill Jr." (1928) are all available at premium prices, budget-friendly gently-flawed versions can still be had by the neophyte film buff living paycheck-to-paycheck. Echo Bridge Home Entertainment's "Buster Keaton 2-DVD Pack" contains the above-mentioned three, plus a Keaton documentary, all for about the cost of lunch for two at McDonalds. Public powerhouse Alpha Video has long offered "The General" as one of its flagship DVDs, though likely not from a source as well-preserved as that in Kino's catalog. The prices are of course different, and the choice yours.
Keaton's equally collectible silent shorts can be acquired with single-box buys like BCI/Eclipse's "Buster Keaton: The Great Stone Face of Comedy." In addition to the aforementioned "General," "College" and 1931's "Parlor, Bedroom and Bath," it includes "The Boat" and "The Playhouse" (both 1921 and themselves worth the set's asking price), 1922's "The Paleface," "The Electric House," "The Frozen North" and the incomparable "Cops." Start collecting!
Fields's very first film, the silent "Pool Sharks" (1915) is little more than a documentation of his Vaudeville billiards act, with comic romance tacked on. Filmed at New York's Gaumont Company, and written by Fields himself, it nearly ranks as a home movie.
Its most prominent aspect today is the indirect historical reference to the state of his career at the time it was filmed. His classic persona was still years, decades, away. He sports a very fake mustache – jet black in contrast to a starkly blond head – transparently in hopes of jumpstarting his film career via resonance with Charlie Chaplin's audience.
Years before Chaplin even beheld a movie camera, W.C. Fields was already a world celebrity; master juggler, marquee dominant Vaudevillian. He prided himself as a "next-to-closing" caliber performer whom few dared follow on the bill – save the silver-haired cellist sent on to drive the audience toward the exits; "play to the haircuts."
When the scrawny, cane-twirling, derby-hatted limey in the "flickers" threatened to surpass his stardom, and income, literally overnight, alpha-male Fields took it as a cue; it was time he conquered the movies. In terms of fame, he reasoned, he simply outranked Chaplin. Assuming a quick rectification of the pecking order, he failed the classic comedian's fail – the sin of trying too hard.
By the mid-twenties, it would be arguable that Chaplin was the most recognized man on Earth, eclipsing even world leaders.
Fields did not capture great public interest with his initial run at film comedy. He burned through warehouses of film, sometimes serving as his own mogul, attempting to bottle Chaplin's thunder, with only subjective success.
Harold Lloyd fought a similarly futile battle, in over a hundred short comedies for Hal Roach, as an acutely formulated "Anti-Tramp" character nicknamed Lonesome Luke.
Fields's pre-talkie era speaks for itself regarding the sheer hell through which he put himself. Hardly any of his silents after "Pool Sharks" has survived. Near zippo. Movie historians reference them in flimsy context-free anecdotes occasionally, but rarely does an inch of celluloid ever surface.
In fact, when Fields's entire filmography is considered, including his sound-era classics – which proved he may indeed have been the world's funniest man, possibly second only to Groucho Marx – less than half his life's output is still available to modern audiences.
If all known of Eddie Murphy was his work after Saturday Night Live... or we had only Jerry Lewis's movies without Dean Martin... that's about the ratio reflected by what presently exists of W.C. Fields. The films for which he is most celebrated were produced in his autumn years, long after Fields the young skinny juggler and acrobat had cross-dissolved into Fields the wide-trousered, bulbous-nosed curmudgeon.
His luck as a film actor was better served by directors like D.W. Griffith, who recognized his natural magnetism, and cast him accordingly in work like "Sally of the Sawdust" (1925) and even a remake of "Tillie's Punctured Romance" (1928). But when he defaulted in his head, to his ego's competition with Charlie, his grinding gears became intensely visible. Only years later, after his stagnating career demanded he re-invent himself, did Fields finally gain self-awareness. His pretense of hatred against The Little Tramp had blinded him to his own true caricature.
In the public domain, one may still view the turning point: "The Golf Specialist" (1930) resulted from Fields bartering with Mack Sennett who at the time, like Fields, was rudderless, seeking an inroad back to relevance. They each offered something the other craved; Sennett a bankable star to revitalize his career as a producer, and Fields a movie industry facilitator who'd allow him to experiment divorced from a crippling need to outshine Chaplin. He'd obviously, years prior, lost that war. Finally freed, he wanted to compete instead with his own perfectionism, and get it on film.
The series of short comedies Fields embarked upon under Sennett's post-prime supervision were his second attempt to make himself a film comedian, and Sennett's last hurrah as a comedy filmmaker. Just before exposing the first reel, Fields nearly jinxed the entire deal by mentioning to Mack that he expected $5,000 per week – his customary Vaudeville performance fee. Sennett swallowed hard, but forked over nearly his last roll of dimes to keep the stalled superstar hovering in his airspace.
"The Golf Specialist," like "Pool Sharks," was made from retooling a Fields stage skit, both to minimize scripting chores, and hasten completion of the inaugural project of their partnership – quick and dirty as a back alley skirt-lift.
The budget, nearly drained by Fields's abrupt stipend demand, dropped to ultra-cheap. The final scene, supposedly on a golf course, was staged indoors upon a cinderblock platform. The fairway was a painted backdrop. A static single-camera set captured Fields's Vaudeville golf sketch for posterity, in a prolonged medium shot. The claustrophobic cinematography was intentional, however, to allow the presence of the film's real star – the crucial element that Fields had latently realized was his "keystone," pun intended – a microphone.
Unlike in his silent debut's misguided faux Chaplinisms, Fields embraced his legitimate muse – his own mother. Her outrageous, hilarious, corner-of-the-mouth wisecracks about errant relatives and neighbors were etched in his memory from childhood. Well enough that he could himself ad-lib on the cuff to equal affect.
He had spent a few previous years lab-testing this verbal add-on to his acrobatic comedy, in Vaudeville, and had brought down houses with it. When Al Jolson ushered in the talkies with "The Jazz Singer" (1927), a fire was lit under Fields. His ticket out from Chaplin's shadow had arrived. Biding his time for the right opportunity, he finally crossed paths with Sennett.
The security of the Tramp's mustache, however, was still damn hard to toss away for the trial run. He held on to it, just once more. Though he still sprinkled in bits of acrobatic whimsy, the heart of the film's comedy was verbal. Fields had discovered himself. The rest would be gravy.
"The Dentist," "The Pharmacist" (both 1932), "The Fatal Glass of Beer" and "The Barber Shop" (1933) reveal Fields's and Sennett's learning curve regarding comedy wired for sound. They were already miles ahead of the pack simply relying on their instincts, which were mutually complimentary, honed by years of combined film and stage experience.
While not direct copies of Fields stage routines, the four films still dwell in familiar Fields territory; satire of "typical" American life. Foreshadows of the modern sitcom – a theme he explored thoroughly in Broadway sketch revues, and would still throughout most of his film career. "Beer" is a spoof of the old cattletown melodramas that dominated American "theatre" in the previous century.
"Dentist" is an astonishing experience even today. Modern film theorists still see just-barely subliminal sexual aerobics between Fields and a dental patient played by the exotically gothic Elise Cavanna. Her long, gymnastic body (she studied dance under Isadora Duncan) is easily imagined negotiating positions that would make Kinsey's jaw flap – until Fields comically suggests one far more traditional, planting himself with authority between her legs to get his "tool" within striking distance. As if that weren't front-and-center enough, Fields has Cavanna "consummate" the act by ramming her bare foot phallically home into his coat pocket – a virginally white cloth vagina. He wears himself out with frustration attempting to reverse the dynamics of their symbolic coitus.
Censors were still shearing Fields's "evil" comedy to ribbons well into the television era, three decades later. Oddly, all other sinfulness cataloged in its riotous 25 minutes – abuse, sloth, violence, xenophobia, et al. – remained intact through eight decades. Is to enjoy this humor to condone such things, or appreciate, along with Fields, their ribald absurdity? The answer is within the public domain. Judge for yourself.
With equally subliminal tact in the very next film, "The Pharmacist," Fields nudged the pendulum back in favor of the cinema's temperance league, casting himself as a stoic family man and Elise Cavanna as his nagging but devoted wife. Their allegorical honeymoon was long over, but the fruitful marriage between film and W.C. Fields was just beginning.
NEXT: PART TWO... Public Domain Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, and The Three Stooges
Thursday, February 25, 2010
It may feel strange at first, but if I can persuade you to humor me just for the length of an article (this one), my request is that you drop all contrary notions that have developed over the years, and consider the Three Stooges as human beings. They were, after all.
Like the Ritz Brothers they began in Vaudeville, and like the Marx Brothers they played Broadway (yes, believe it). Only the presence of non-blood relation Larry Fine – the fuzzy-haired middle Stooge – prevented the movie-going public from ever knowing them as The Horwitz Brothers.
The Three Stooges were a semi-brother act.
Early in Vaudeville, Moe and Shemp*, performing as a duo (Sam & Harry), intentionally "Americanized" their sir-name to Howard. When they joined forces with fellow Vaudevillian – and Moe's boyhood buddy – Ted Healey, to become his "stooges," the name Horwitz would never surface again in connection with them.
Even so, the three actual "Howard" brothers, Moses, Jerome and Samuel (Moe, Curly** and Shemp), only appeared on-screen together once, in "Hold That Lion" (1947).
Moe, Larry & Shemp – the "official" Stooge roster at the time – encounter a man snoring ferociously with his derby hat pulled over his face. Moe lifts the derby to discover that the gent has a clothespin fastened to his nose. Removing the pin causes the snoring to erupt into a very "Curlyesque" yammer. It's too close to home for Moe, who wisely re-clips the pin and replaces the derby.
Despite Moe's role as the cruel, bossy Stooge, his soft center had a way of betraying him on-camera. The snoring man under the derby, with a full head of moppy auburn hair, was Curly, making a cameo in the very series where he once shared top billing. Had his head been shaved, he would have been instantly recognizable – but Jerome Howard decided that he was permanently retired, and kept his hair, and the scene remains an inside gag to all but the most observant audiences.
Larry delivers a Stooge-101 doubletake at his former partner. Shemp – the venerable trooper, and original Third Stooge in the group's formative years – stares somewhat emptily at his kid brother Jerome; a blankness that could easily have a comical twist read into it. But Moe cannot even manage that, though he tries awfully hard. His instinct is to get the scene over as soon as possible – before his tears can flow.
Just a year prior, on the set of "Halfwit's Holiday" (completed in 1946, but released in 1947), which was a remake of their 1935 short "Hoi Polloi," a satire of – sit down for it – a George Bernard Shaw play, there had occurred a dour turning point for the seemingly unstoppable Stooges.
Moe had grabbed Curly by his tux lapel and given him the standard Stooge-brand noggin whap, sending him packing out of the frame. Neither of them realized it was the last gag of Jerome's career as a Stooge. The director, Jules White, grunted "cut." Moe disengaged, and went to pat off his perspiration with a towel before the next scene.
Character actor Emil Sitka, coming on-set for what was his very first appearance in a Stooge comedy (he'd become their most ubiquitous regular), would write in his diary later about that suddenly terrible moment. "Got on just in time to see Curly fold."***
On "cut," Curly made it to director White's chair, and had a stroke. A massive one. Though not quite deadly, to his life as a comedian, assuredly fatal. When White called in his talent for the next shot, Curly could not move from the chair. Nor could he even speak. Moe raced over to him, and knew the horrible truth instantly. It was over.
Curly was rushed to the hospital, and big brother Moe reached deep within himself to pull out that old Vaudevillian's creed that he and his brothers had based their lives upon; "The show goes on." He and Larry completed the day's shoot, including the film's final fade-out, sans Curly.
Moe, the "tough" Stooge, held up production with copious weeping, but somehow sucked it up long enough to keep White's heartless shooting schedule.
It was, of all things, a pie fight, where the reactions – doubletakes and cartoony mugging – are what sell the laughs as much as the gooey explosions of whipped cream and custard.
And in the film, against that contrasting emotive backdrop, it became quite visibly obvious that Moe's heart had abandoned him.
He is not mentally present, even for that staple of the Stooge repertoire, a blueberry battle royale. He shares in the tart-tossing, but his mind is clearly elsewhere. His one line amid the creamy carnage, "C'mon now, you started this!" seems frosted with weariness – delivered with the same tone as perhaps "Please, no more, let me leave."
He sped to Curly's bedside at the hospital immediately, in full Stooge make-up, as soon as White yelled "wrap."
Moe would have to roll with an identical blow again, about eight years later. The oldest Horwitz brother, Sam/Shemp, went with some friends to the horseraces in the afternoon, and then to witness some prizefights that evening. On the way home, somewhere on Barham Avenue in Los Angeles, in the back seat of a cab, Shemp asked for a light for his cigar, grinned, placed his head upon the shoulder of the buddy next to him, and left this world.
Curly, after additional strokes, had passed away in a less melodramatic fashion, three years before Shemp's "Hollywood" ending.
Like Curly, Shemp departed with work unfinished.
Columbia Studios came up with a novel plan for filling the vacuum of Shemp's absence in the remaining two uncompleted Stooge films, in a way that chipped at Moe's twice-broken heart even more.
Shemp's remaining scenes were shot using a stand-in; actor Joe Palma, never allowing him to face the camera. With his similar build and hair-comb, it worked. Audiences saw only the back of Palma's head in close shots, or in distant longshots obscuring his face with say, a toolbox carried on his forward shoulder. To anyone not hep to the switcheroo, it was Shemp.
But like Curly, the real Shemp was gone, and with him his intangible magic that had made the team click, as Curly's had.
Shemp Howard was the only one of the Stooges who had a solo career apart from the team – co-starring along side the likes of W.C. Fields, the Andrews Sisters and Abbott & Costello, as well as starring in his own – now somewhat obscure – features and short subjects.
Curly was Shemp's replacement when the Stooges first signed with Columbia, after a nasty parting of ways with Ted Healey, that had left Shemp uneasy about continuing with the group. Years later when Shemp returned to the Stooges in the wake of Curly's illness, he'd been a separate entity for so long that most audiences had forgotten him, and believed Curly was the original "third stooge."
Shemp did not mimic his kid brother's style, but brought his own. Of the three Horwitz brothers, Shemp was the true "comedian." Curly had invented his own comedic science and was its master, but Shemp was a puristic cinema clown; he could improv, pantomime, throw down slapstick, and deliver a one-liner impeccably. In one poverty-row film, he'd even played a "rough" Moe-like character to a team of stooge-like partners. Both he and Curly had, in turn, been the team's real money-makers.
Now the funny business was left solely to Moe and Larry, who by themselves could not quite muster the ambient comic chaos that had once existed with Curly's or Shemp's help.
When they came to scenes that had originally called for Shemp's presence, in a way too involved for Palma's turned head to accomodate, the Third Stooge would simply become missing. In one such instance, Moe was given the line "Where IS that Shemp!"
Moe couldn't pull the line off without giving it a cryptic double meaning. Or a look as though tears were threatening to form.
The charade could not last long. Finally Moe and Larry welcomed aboard comic actor Joe Besser to help them run out the team's final commitments to Columbia. They had been with the studio for 24 years. The last 12-or-so shorts ranked as forgettable – and at least one of them was a tacky remake of a Curly film, with Jerome's longshots intact, but all the close-ups re-shot – with Besser.
In his posthumously published autobiography, "Moe Howard & The Three Stooges" (Citadel, 1979), Moe claimed that he could never quite get over seeing Curly or Shemp in his mind's eye, in later Stooge films, when he had to brutalize surrogate Stooges Besser and Curly-Joe DeRita.
It has been theorized that the cranial abuse that Curly and Larry endured during their careers as Stooges may have contributed to their demise. Both men died of strokes, after years of Moe's slaps, punches and faux eye-pokes. The eye shots were actually delivered to their foreheads, but "sold" by a quick flinch and scrunch of the eyes.
The medical connection can't be proven, of course. But it may have been on Moe's mind for years after – another layer to his melancholy.
Legend has it that before becoming a Stooge, Joe DeRita expressed that he was not crazy about such high-impact comedy – especially being on the receiving end. Allegedly Larry assured him that he would himself, from then on, be catching the brunt of Moe's attacks. Larry drove the point home by demonstrating that a portion of his face was basically a solid callus, from nearly three decades of back-handing and sucker punches.
The Stooges' roughhousing had been not-quite-fake in the beginning, during the Healey years, when the slaps and tweaks popped and snapped unaided by the zany cartoon sound effects that would be commonplace in their Columbia two-reelers.
For sheer survival's sake they worked out each patented assault into harmless technique – yet there were always bumps and bruises, and the many injuries the Stooges suffered simply by specializing in such extreme physical comedy.
On the shoot of one particularly long pie fight, when the pastry/ammo ran out, the stage crew scraped together a last batch of new pies from the gooey remains on the studio floor. The Stooges and their accompanying troop of character extras discovered the hard way, in mid-take, that the pies also contained wood shavings, floor grime, and a slew of random carpet nails. Still, the show went on.
Even professional wrestlers of that period didn't have such working conditions.
As the Stooges reached their forties, it all began to exact its toll. It should not have surprised Moe that Curly went first.
Jerome Howard had come to detest shaving his head, and would periodically go through a depression. In his younger days, Jerome had been – again, sit down for it – quite the ladies' man, with a full mop of hair and sometimes even a mustache. He and the screen's top pre-Bogart "hoodlum," George Raft, had a running unofficial competition as to whom was the better ballroom dancer. Jerome specialized in sweeping the young ladies off their feet, and wowing the crowd with an uncommon grace and agility on the dance floor, given his "padded" build. Shaving his head to play Curly had robbed him of all that.
Moe and Larry were both happily married all their lives, but Curly's marriage to his wife Elaine had crumbled during the Stooges' time at Columbia.
Moses Horwitz and Louis Feinberg could disengage from their screen characters merely with a comb. Jerome Horwitz was forced to look his part 24/7. His fame as the world's favorite Stooge came with a heavy price.
He turned to the drinking and partying that had dominated his twenties, prior to joining up with the Stooges. Toward his final films as Curly, beginning in the mid-1940s, one can spot a grim transformation taking shape. His speech is strained. His face seems puffier than normal, his gaze hollow and far-off, and his timing is slowed and unevenly metered.
They began giving Curly less to do, as he would tire easily. Moe would sometimes literally feed him his lines, one at a time, to get a decent take out of him. Moe's "violence" became choreographed differently as well, so that both Curly and Larry took more evenly dished out portions – to ease Curly's physical burden. In "Three Loan Wolves" (1946) Curly could not gather sufficient energy for his usual solo scene, and it was given to Larry, who pulled it off with only marginal success.
The stroke was building, several films before it finally struck.
During a television interview in the mid-1960s, Moe demonstrated on Curly-Joe DeRita how some of his "violent" shtick was actually done – for the benefit of parents who were rattled by their children mimicking the comedic warfare – Tai Kwon Moe – upon their smaller siblings to injurious effect.
DeRita's face spoke volumes. Obviously no more painful than pats with an angora mitten, Moe's nose tweaks and ear twists were considered by DeRita with near-homicidal disdain. Utterly refusing to "sell" the gags with any facial reaction, comedic or otherwise, a glowing slow burn did his talking for him. Joe DeRita – who'd grown up in show business, and whose career's finalé had been to serve the legacy of two of the early talkie era's most extreme physical comics, Curly and Shemp Howard – hated slapstick with a passion.
He did it grudgingly when needed. Only Moe, who signed his paycheck, was immune to his temper.
Joe DeRita and Moe Howard died more typical "old man" deaths – DeRita, the "Last Stooge," in his 80s. The argument that Moe indirectly hastened his brothers and Larry Fine to their graves just doesn't hold water, and is in fact somewhat of an insult. The Stooges were, each in turn, victimized by the ever-hungering Movie Machine. Their lives were ones of sacrifice, to an artform they loved, and served from its lowest dregs, despite all the heartbreak it caused them.
Moe Howard never referred to himself as a comedian, but an actor, period. An actor, he said, whose career just happened to consist of comedy work. But the meanest Stooge, behind the scenes, had the biggest, softest heart. Occasionally, he didn't hide it very well. Some actor.
Call him instead Pagliacci... with a bad haircut.
*Sam's screen name "Shemp" was a gift from their mother, who spoke in Yiddish. It was how she pronounced "Sam."
**Jerome got the moniker "Curly" at the beginning of his Stoogedom, when he showed up with a shaved head to counter Moe's bowlcut and Larry's lion mane. It was like calling a tall guy "shorty," Moe explained. Those not familiar with the Stooges sometimes confuse Larry's and Curly's names because of Larry's wild skull mop.
***My memory of this quote is that it was attributable to Sitka, and was quoted in the documentary "The Three Stooges Story" by director Edward Bernds.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
With his Little Tramp long gone, Sir Charles Chaplin – one of the forefathers of modern screen comedy and perhaps the most important single screen presence in the history of early cinema – makes his final film, and some might say, life statement.
The scripted plot of "Limelight" (1952) may be summed up as a May-December love story set in the by-gone world where Chaplin began his career as a child performer, the British Music Hall. The story between the lines, however, is a revealing glimpse into the mind of the artist as an old man – and his final attempt to re-invent himself.
Chaplin creates a complex, if somewhat trite persona in Calvero, an aging stage clown who saves a young ballerina – Claire Bloom – from suicide, and nurses her back from a near career-ending paralysis. Their relationship as mentor-and-mentored becomes strained as he falls in love with her – and she of course never realizes it, until it's past too-late.
If it all sounds familiar, it is. Like the Tramp had done numerous times, and even the lowly barber masquerading as demagogue in "The Great Dictator" (1940), Chaplin's Calvero willingly lays everything on the altar of righteous sacrifice for the sake of an ideal.
It is a window with only an inward view. Chaplin seems to relish his own sage presence. In his sound films he never fails to gift himself with a younger – or at least naive – protégé upon whom to inflict long-winded monologues about the real Chaplin's off-camera worldview. In the silent days, interestingly, it was usually the Tramp who "discovered" these political revelations on his heroically innocent journeys.
In this rightly named finalé to his screen career, Chaplin's performance is visibly calculated. He has nothing left to prove, given his already well ensconced status in film history, and knows it. "Of course I'm brilliant," he exudes in each episodic scene, though this is not to deny the scope or formidable quality of what he offers throughout the picture. That white-haired elder statesman is still "Charlie" somewhere inside, and it shows, despite his obvious struggle to step out of the immense shadow of the Little Tramp.
For those familiar only with the Tramp, his performance here may strike a surreal chord. "Limelight" is arguably his most "talkative" talkie, and Chaplin's character is awash, nay, glowing in self-importance, even when down on his luck. The Tramp would've found this utterly incomprehensible, possibly immoral.
Chaplin was the last great silent era filmmaker to cross over to sound; a maverick holdout against the talkies. They were a blasphemy to him. And only Chaplin could have held out for as long, before finally relenting to the age of the microphone. His "Modern Times" (1936) is in fact, considered the very movie that officially closed the American cinema's silent era. Like his earlier silent masterpiece "City Lights" (1931), it was completed and exhibited well after theaters equipped for sound had become dominant.
The "Limelight" soundtrack boasts surprises on many levels. Chaplin doesn't just speak for novelty's sake, but displays a casual expertise with dialogue, and in a scene or two, a handsomely robust singing voice. The music hall boy still lurked inside him.
The mind reels so slightly for an instant: Chaplin's voice...!
As if he'd never spoken on film before, in each of Chaplin's "soundies," his voice seems to mesmerize. The ear hangs on his every word, seeking to capture it, like a rare bird. Charlie Chaplin's presence on any soundtrack is a somewhat mystical experience. Like witnessing the fleeting passage of a wraith across a dark hallway.
But with some of Chaplin's speaking roles, he'd misjudged its value. In "The Great Dictator," Chaplin's bromide-heavy speech for universal solidarity, in the final reel, is a single flaw in an otherwise peerless black satire of Hitler. On the other hand, in "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947) he definitely released his vocal powers to memorable and even haunting effect. Verdoux, a serial murderer 30 years before that term entered the lexicon, was certainly his greatest, and perhaps most successful, attempt to exorcise the Tramp; the "little fellow's" mirror opposite in every way.
Yes, Charlie Chaplin, playing a serial killer. Intrigued? Rent it!
Instead of waddling off into the sunset, Verdoux marches defiantly to the waiting gallows at dawn, after swallowing a glass of brine, with a hint of dark ecstasy – the Tramp's delicious death rattle: "I always wanted to taste it."
In "Limelight" he portrays a man very much dependent upon his voice. Calvero is a song & dance comedian. Up until his sound films, Chaplin spent four decades perfecting the caricature of the Little Tramp, living in a visual universe where voice was not only unnecessary but in some cases irrelevant – where those who spoke could only mime a stammering jaw-wag that visually stood in for the outpouring of words. The want hardly even occurs to imagine the Tramp's voice. Everything the Tramp ever needed was visual. Though Chaplin may have loosely made the Tramp a template when he manufactured Calvero, he drew an outline only, and replaced the center with a stunning departure from his realm of masterful visual storytelling – a character for whom sound and voice are not just crucial elements, but defining ones.
The Tramp's voice had been heard only once before "The Great Dictator." In "Modern Times" he takes a turn as a singing waiter, and when his crib-noted lyrics fly away during his opening dance, he sings a song of faux-French gibberish. The meaningless yet saucy non-word lyrics served to only further illustrate Chaplin's philosophy that visual presentation was the true focal point. The verbal was garnish, nothing more.
In Kevin Brownlow's incomparable book on the silent era, "The Parade's Gone By" (1976, University Of California Press), he declares that the silent and sound cinemas were more than just opposing sets of expository rules, but were in actuality two entirely different art forms. Charlie Chaplin proved Brownlow's hypothesis, although in ways that were sometimes disappointing – he would never dominate the talkies as he had the silents.
"Limelight" has a contrivance-on-rye flavor. The plot lurches and shuffles around the most obvious corners and twists. The dialogue is stiff and intemperately punctuated, though delivered undeservedly well. Chaplin unwinds his yarn like a teacher reading a storybook to a room of kindergartners; overstuffed even by 1950s standards. And as it is later revealed, all a set-up for one of his self-indulgent manifestos.
Calvero's flea circus act is over-simple, and overlong. It is enigmatic only for being a sanded-down reprise of a rare performance filmed nearly thirty-five years earlier.
During his stay at either the silent Mutual Studios, or First National, Chaplin attempted his first departure from the Little Tramp, with a character almost exactly the Tramp's opposite. "The Flea Circus" (1919), also known as "The Professor," is a freakish little presense in Chaplin's canon – a gift from an alternate universe, never officially released, but restored and viewable within some modern Chaplin documentaries. Chaplin plays a cynical, wrangley sideshow gypsy, dour and grimy, down to a moth eaten longcoat and ragged top-hat. Performing his act in a flophouse, chaos erupts when his flea performers mutiny and quickly infest everything, and everyone, in sight. Chaplin had even created a comic, misanthropic walk for this dour persona – a polar opposite of the Tramp's optimistic waddle. The only commonality was in the film's final shot, where Charlie exits into the sunset (or in this case, moonset) offering one last leg-shake to dislodge one of his insect tormentors.
Technically, "Limelight" is at times a groaner. Sound effects scream out their tinny artificiality. The most glaring sins occur in the theater scenes where the audience is clearly present on the soundtrack only, as evidenced by obvious volume manipulations to raise and lower the applause.
The one moment that earns this movie a permanent place on every cinema buff's shelf occurs in the last reel. And what a moment it is. For Calvero's farewell performance, he enlists an old friend to assist him – an old friend portrayed by none other than real-life old friend, Buster Keaton.
Though they are both slowed by age, the scene is nonetheless historic – their only appearance in a feature together, ever – and cosmic for silent comedy aficionados. Rembrandt and Di Vinci share a tea break.
Keaton's first line is so pregnant, it's hard to imagine the two men were unaware of its significance: "Well who'd have thought we'd come to THIS."
Buster's line delivery looks and sounds earnest to a fault – the still-present stage method from Vaudeville, and a main gripe among critics of Keaton's sound film work. Chaplin, meanwhile, remains aloof and catlike; an almost subconscious betrayal of his defenses being triggered by Keaton's close proximity, perhaps? Or was he simply Calvero, as his own script dictated?
Word spread that Chaplin was curt with Buster during filming, but this seems to be mere rumor. Other historical sources have revealed a few basic facts that outweigh the claptrap. Chaplin adamantly barred people he didn't like from his sets, therefore, he and Keaton were obviously on good terms. Some sources claim he personally requested Keaton – which seems most likely; rather than a cartoonish scenario of Buster Keaton answering a blind casting call for a Charlie Chaplin film.
Neither can we overlook the photographic evidence: still shots exist of Charlie and Buster working out the choreography of the scene, between takes! These details seem to dismiss any gossip of on-set tension between the two.
It's difficult to imagine Buster being hostile toward anyone on-set – if anything, he may have tried too hard to be helpful, to a point that perhaps annoyed Chaplin.
In the production of his last film, "The Railrodder" (1965), a travelogue shot in Canada, the only thing that apparently got under Buster's skin was his perception of his young director's inability to stage shots properly, in order to be matched up in editing. Keaton could only watch – and occasionally diagram for the youngster how certain on-screen business should fit together – then wander off to shed tears of anguish when his suggestions were overruled.
There exists footage of this, in the behind-the-scenes documentary "Buster Keaton Rides Again" (1965/66). The visage of the Great Stone Face openly weeping is heart-wrenching indeed. Then he sniffs it up... and proceeds to take his mark before the lens and be BUSTER KEATON. A remarkable man, under-appreciated, and used up.
But on the set of "Limelight," there were no such moments of private torment. All was as it should be; Chaplin and Keaton, each the other's only legitimate rival, yet with their private competition settled long ago to a mutual satisfaction. It was a draw. Both were content. Case closed.
They do a comic duet on stage in which Keaton plays the piano while Chaplin takes the violin. Hardly a note is played, as the comedic business involves the attempts of the two "virtuosos" to prepare to play. Chaplin emerges as the dominant performer in the scene, perhaps because he gives himself the majority of the business in the script. Despite the non-balance, this is one – and for some, the only – scene in the whole movie that causes audible laughter.
It is also the scene that displays Chaplin's showman genius in top form – not just in his performance, but his strategic involvement of Keaton, for the "skit" contains a subliminal geography of historical respect and appreciation for his chum.
Chaplin's comedic action is a study in "low" pantomime – consisting of body gags and facial expressions. Keaton's business relies on slapstick and the abuse of props – garnished by Keaton's stone deadpan. Chaplin's half of the scene perspires of the British Music Hall... Keaton's of Vaudeville. It is a testament to Chaplin's cognizance and keen measuring of his fellow silent clown's roots, against his own – and his ability to mesh them together so pleasingly. It might indeed be observed, that from all of Keaton's film roles that he did not self-direct, his best director was possibly Charlie Chaplin!
One bit involves Keaton accidentally stomping on Chaplin's violin, causing the two to briefly share a double-take at the destroyed instrument. No, it isn't the funniest thing ever captured on film, but on the galactic scale of cinematic comedy, Chaplin and Keaton double-taking at the same object has got to rank somewhere just below the Big Bang. Hardcore comedy fans may come away with the moment still looping in their minds, to the point of distraction, perhaps even missing the film's ending because of it.
Did the two men wonder if reality itself would shudder? Probably not. Did they just view it as another job? One wonders.
"Limelight" is an anomaly in Chaplin's cinema catalog for yet another reason. While important for being his last screen appearance, and rare cinematic evidence that he and Keaton shared the same planet, it is also a strange prism of distortion regarding his own theatrical moorings.
At its core "Limelight" is little more than B-movie fodder; an unremarkable work, considering the magnitude of its star. The screen personality whom at his peak was arguably the most famous human being on the globe, takes his final bow with nothing more than a death scene hardly worthy of low-budget melodrama. Calvero suffers a heart attack on stage, and passes away in the wings, watching his young ballerina enjoy the "limelight" of a renewed career.
The film's "fin" is utter cliché. Chaplin ends an incredible forty-year solo with a cough.
A white cloth is draped over his brow. Everyone looks on, including Keaton, probably wondering "oh brother," but playing his role exactly as his old pal requires him to.
Charlie does not amble off toward a horizon of tomorrow's promise, with his lady love, as he had done in "Modern Times." In fact, the final shot of that film may have served as a far more satisfying farewell regarding Chaplin's career.
When the Tramp made his final exit, so too did Charles Chaplin, only he apparently failed to realize it.
Many believed Chaplin lost his edge when he abandoned his derby hatted alter ego, including fellow silent era icon, and longtime Chaplin friend and associate, Mary Pickford. "When Chaplin got rid of the little tramp with the cane, the tramp turned around and killed him," she once said. Over a half-century later, her observation still appears spot-on.