Charlie Chaplin in HIS NEW PROFESSION (1914) – Something to offend everyone

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

His New Profession is about as politically incorrect as Keystone comedies get, but if you’re in the mood for that sort of guilty pleasure, it’s a riot.

It begins with Charlie in the park, sitting innocently (for once) and reading the Police Gazette. A nearby young man wants to make time with his girlfriend but must push his incapacitated uncle around in a wheelchair. The young man asks Charlie to push him around for a while and offers to pay him for it later.

The uncle has a cast on one leg, and when you recall what happened with Charlie and a man with gout (Caught in the Rain), you immediately brace yourself. Sure enough, the cast-up leg gets smacked a few times, but the real eye-popper is yet to come.

Charlie passes a bar. Suddenly realizing he’s an alcoholic, Charlie asks the uncle for a handout, but the uncle won’t budge. Charlie keeps walking the uncle, who falls asleep in his chair. Charlie ends up rolling next to another man asleep in a wheelchair; the man has a tin cup and is wearing a sign reading, “Help a Cripple.” Charlie surreptitiously moves the cup and the sign over to the uncle’s chair. A sympathetic nurse walks by and deposits a coin in the cup. Once she leaves, Charlie grabs the coin and is off to the bar.

From there, it’s one Did-I-just-see-that moment after another. And when everyone gathers on a pier for the climax, you’re just waiting for someone to end up in the drink. No disappointment there, either.

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NEVER KICK A WOMAN (1936) – Popeye and Olive Oyl, (and) a complete bust

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Popeye and Olive are gazing through the window of a sporting-goods store, watching a buxom near-dominatrix beat up a boxing dummy that bears the sign, “Come In And Try Our Equipment.” (Naw, I’m not going there, and besides, Popeye does it himself later in the cartoon.)

Popeye coaxes Olive into the store with a charming song about learning “the art of self-defense.” Turns out the dominatrix has some arts of her own, including a Mae West-like voice (though I don’t recall Mae as muscle-bound).

(Besides the typically delightful gags, the score — another stand-out in these cartoons’ bag of tricks — is wonderfully done. Note the scene where Popeye and Olive each hit the boxing post; the self-defense song plays assertively to highlight Popeye’s moves, tentatively to showcase Olive’s. It’s these small touches that help to put the cartoons over so well.)

Mae puts designs on Popeye, making him blush extraordinarily colorfully for a black-and-white cartoon. Olive gets so jealous that she and Mae, in a twist on the usual Popeye-and-Bluto scenario, start literally fighting for Popeye, who seems unusually eager to witness the catfight. Initially, Mae knocks Olive into four different hairstyles. But a bedraggled Olive notices a spinach can sticking out of Popeye’s pocket, and…well, so much for the dominatrix.

This otherwise flawless cartoon missed the opportunity for an obvious musical coda, from Popeye to Olive: “Dem goils with big busts you’ll scare off with your muscules, says Popeye the Sailor Man! [Toot, toot!]”

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon:  CanCanCanCan

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Swee’Pea in PUTTIN’ ON THE ACT (1940) – How can we enjoy your comeback if you won’t go away?

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Olive brings Popeye a newspaper which reports that vaudeville is making a comeback. (Must be the same paper that reported “Dewey Defeats Truman.”) A delighted Popeye decides to revive the duo’s old act (billed in typical Fleischer style as “Olive and Popeye – Half Song, Half Wit”).

This is mostly a (very delightful) excuse to showcase Popeye and Olive in a number of show-biz routines, the best of them being Popeye imitating Jimmy Durante, Stan Laurel, and Groucho Marx. (Olive does a pretty good imitation of a pretzel, too.)

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCanCanHalf

Buster Keaton in THE FROZEN NORTH – Putting William S. Hart on ice

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The Frozen North was Buster Keaton’s revenge on a contemporary of his: Western star William S. Hart. Hart always portrayed insufferably pure Western heroes; in real life, Hart was one of many celebrities who hypocritically attacked Keaton’s dear friend Roscoe Arbuckle during Arbuckle’s famous sex-scandal trial. Thus, Keaton’s parody of Hart killed two birds with one stone. (Apparently it worked, as Hart didn’t speak to Keaton for years after the movie’s release.)

And over eight decades later, Keaton’s parody still has some sting to it. Keaton is surprisingly content to play unsympathetic here. His first few gags – emerging in the Frozen North from an underground subway station, using a villainous-looking cardboard cutout to thwart some illicit gamblers – are benign enough to make you think this will be a good-natured satire. But further on in the movie, Buster shoots, drinks, and womanizes – and just as in the early Arbuckle/Keaton comedy Out West (1918), Keaton is such a convincing actor (even when he’s seducing a woman several inches taller than him) that the “it’s all just a joke” pretense doesn’t entirely wash.

Mel Brooks has acknowledged that Buster Keaton was a major inspiration for his movie comedies. Maybe the line from grim-faced Hart parody to Brooks’ earthy Blazing Saddles, 50 years down the road, is shorter than one might have expected.

The Marx Brothers in ANIMAL CRACKERS (1930) – Never leave out a Hungadunger

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(WARNING: Major spoilers ahead!)

Animal Crackers, besides being about a ton funnier than its predecessor The Cocoanutsis quite elucidating on the matter of what constituted a hit Broadway show in the 1920’s. From singing butlers to unmemorable tunes warbled by equally unmemorable love interests, it feels like this movie version of the stage show did not leave a darned…thing…out.

History tells us that the Marx Brothers were such a sensation, in their previous shows as well as this one, that the “straight” leads, and loads of exposition, were needed to offset their dynamic effect. Film-buff viewing, on the other hand, tells us that the Marxes ought to arrive on-screen a whole lot sooner than they do here.

The movie’s “straight” story is that Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), a rich Long Island dame, is hosting a big shindig to both honor an African explorer named Geoffrey Spaulding (Groucho–and it’s spelled “Geoffrey” right in the opening scene, not “Jeffrey”) and to unveil a famous and valuable painting she has acquired. Unfortunately for Mrs. R., the painting gets stolen before the opening, and nearly everyone in the movie gets involved in trying to find it.

Of course, hindsight has its benefits. Still, I don’t know of anyone who watches Animal Crackers nowadays and says afterwards, “Wow, how about that mystery about the painting? I was on the edge of my seat waiting for them to get it back!” I’m not so sure anybody really cared about it 85 years ago, either. For one thing, when you’ve got a Marx Brother (Harpo) who can steal a man’s birthmark right off his arm, who cares about the theft of such an Earthly thing as a painting?

(Harpo also gives us a glimpse into his unique love life. When a woman asks if there’s anything he really loves, Harpo produces a photo of a horse. It must have been a pretty steady and serious relationship; he kisses the horse two years later in Horse Feathers and sleeps with her in Duck Soup a year after that. No word on whether they broke up after she saw Harpo riding another horse in A Day at the Races.)

Funny thing about that painting, too. Even though it’s said to be immensely valuable, the thieves and others carry it around with all the finesse of someone shoving a Post-It note in his pocket. Curators at the Louvre must have been flipping out when they saw how this “priceless” work of art was being manhandled.

So much for the plot–let’s get to the good stuff. Groucho’s a hoot. He carries on and on to anyone who will listen to tales about his fearless adventures, even though he faints in front of everyone when he discovers that a caterpillar has crawled onto his sleeve. And Margaret Dumont is the most straight-faced straightman (sorry, straight-person) you’ll ever see. Whenever she’s confronted with one of Groucho’s ever-increasing anti-social behaviors, she just clucks it off and shakes her head, as though Groucho was just some poor guy with Tourette’s Syndrome who couldn’t help himself.

Chico and Harpo are a delight, too. After seeing their first burglary attempt turn out completely laughless in The Cocoanuts, it’s a relief to find that their attempt in this movie to steal the painting is so hysterical that they repeated the motif in later movies. When they’re trying to steal the painting in the dark, and Chico keeps asking Harpo for “the flash” (flashlight), Harpo reaches into that ethereal jacket of his and pulls out everything but the flash. (Speaking of flash, Harpo has an opening scene that’s one for the books.)

And Zeppo, for all of his maligned place in the annals of Marx history, has a great scene with Groucho dictating a letter to him. He’s probably the only guy on the planet who could destroy Groucho’s letter, paragraph by paragraph, and not come out of it skinned alive.

Animal Crackers is the kind of movie for which the term “photographed stage play” was invented. Still, it’s a heartily funny photographed stage play.

Newly researched (but not by me!) Buster Keaton article

I have an online friend named Lea Stans. I don’t know her age, but judging from her photos, I’d guess that she’s younger than my 21-year-old daughter…which amazes me, because Lea is a feverish Buster Keaton buff. I can’t even get my daughter to stay in the room with me when I put on a Buster Keaton movie.

What’s even more amazing is that Lea has blogged about some thorough research she’s done regarding Buster Keaton’s appearances at state fairs, a topic barely touched upon by Keaton biographers. I cannot get her blog to “re-blog” on mine, so I’m posting its URL and asking you to read this excellent piece, as well as many other fine writings at Lea’s blog, Silent-ology.

http://silentology.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/buster-keaton-and-the-minnesota-state-fair/

Laurel & Hardy in BONNIE SCOTLAND (1935) – The scriptwriters should have spent a wee bit more time on it

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I couldn’t begin to defend Bonnie Scotland as one of Laurel & Hardy’s best-structured features. The movie takes Stan and Ollie from America to Scotland to India with all the logic of Stanley’s garbled brainpower after Ollie instructs him to “Tell me that again.” Subplots spring up and die like so much crabgrass. Worst of all is the simpy romantic plotline, with actor William Janney as a lover so whiny, even the actor himself admitted (in Randy Skretvedt’s L&H biography) as to how embarrassed he was by his own carrying-on.

(Ironically, one of the movie’s many subplots involves L&H veterans James Finlayson and Daphne Pollard as two characters ostensibly having a clandestine affair. But as soon as the movie establishes this motif and gets us in the mood for their silly romance, the subplot is yanked without further explanation. It figures — the love affair between two funny actors gets about thirty seconds of attention, while the boring romantic leads practically push Stan and Ollie out of the way in their efforts to emote.)

The story is that Ollie and Stan (known here as “Stan MacLaurel”) travel to Scotland to inherit what they believe will be a vast fortune from a Scottish grandfather whom Stan never met. Instead, they get only a stopwatch and a set of bagpipes for their trouble. For a while, they hole up in a hotel room, and their gags are so funny that one would be happy enough just to watch them in that room for the rest of the movie.

Unfortunately, they’re eventually kicked out (was there ever a hotel room where Stan and Ollie weren’t kicked out?), and in their haste to find a tailor (Stan having accidentally burned up Ollie’s pants), they mistakenly go to a Scottish army recruitment office and get signed up to fight in India. Sadly, their going to the wrong address is handled so matter-of-factly, it’s as though the scriptwriters forgot to even try to get a laugh out of it.

But then, that’s assuming that the scriptwriters can or do take their military-and-romance motif far more seriously than the viewer can, and that’s not very likely. Instead, just bear with the movie for its tedious stretches of “serious” plot, and enjoy the sight of Stan and Ollie savoring a very dramatic explanation of what a mirage is, turning a military order into a joyful dance routine worthy of Way Out West, and several other moments of wonderful comedy. It’s as though Stan and Ollie accidentally bumped into the “serious” part of the script, politely tipped their hats to it, and then proceeded to do their usual comedy in spite of the gaseous theatrics surrounding them.

Here’s the dance routine referenced above, the definitive highlight of the movie: