Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dusting Out Comedy's Attic – Part Two


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.

How tough?

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.


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

Dusting Out Comedy's Attic – Part One

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.


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