Charlie Chaplin in A DAY’S PLEASURE (1919) – A pretty long journey

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s short Sunnyside, at least with A Day’s Pleasure, you can see what Chaplin was aiming at comedy-wise. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite make it to the halfway point.

The concept is that Charlie, his wife (Edna Purviance), and their two sons (one of whom is a lad named Jackie Coogan) intend to go out for a day of recreation. The movie opens on the family getting into their Model T Ford, and Charlie trying to start up the car. Charlie gets it started (to the point of bouncing the family around in the vehicle), but the car stops as soon as Charlie tries to get in. This is cute the first couple of times, but not for the three minutes the movie spends on it – and Chaplin doesn’t ring much variation on the theme.

The family eventually arrives at a ship for a day cruise. Strangely, the ship – which doesn’t look much larger than the vessel in which Charlie arrived in America in The Immigrant — decides to have a dance on-board, despite the ship being as rickety as its Immigrant model. Eventually, this line of gags deteriorates down to a single idea: Everyone on board is seasick. Pretty soon, this nauseates the movie’s viewer as much as it does the passengers.

(Cast trivia: The plus-size woman with whom Charlie grapples on-deck is played by Jean “Babe” London, later known to Laurel & Hardy aficionados as Ollie’s eloping fiancee in the L&H short Our Wife [1931].)

And Chaplin is quite bereft of imaginative gags – whenever a prop doesn’t work for him, he simply throws it overboard. Good thing Edna Purviance didn’t get in his way.

The only (faintly) amusing part is the movie’s final section, where Charlie tries to drive his family home but gets stuck in a traffic jam involving a persnickety cop and some hot tar. It presages a similar finale a decade later in Laurel & Hardy’s short Leave ‘em Laughing (though L&H’s version is a bit more logical and funnier), but at least it manages more chuckles than most of what precedes it.

Keep an eye on the Coogan kid, though; he’ll clean up in Chaplin’s next movie.

Laurel & Hardy in MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS (1934) – Not a holiday treat for me

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I will surely offend generations of grown-up kids by saying this, but March of the Wooden Soldiers isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In his famous movie guide, Leonard Maltin says the movie “looks better all the time, compared to lumbering ‘family musicals’ of recent years.” But the movie caters exactly to that “lumbering family musical” crowd who seem to believe that entertainment should be inoffensive at the price of being entertaining.

The movie is not completely without its merits. The idea of a fairyland filled with storybook characters is charming (far more charming than the idea’s execution, unfortunately). Stan and Ollie’s byplay, as it is in even their lesser movies, always makes at least a few moments worth watching. (Stan’s pee-wee game is more fun and endearing than anything else in the movie.) And in the ever-florid category of L&H villains, none stand out more than Henry Brandon as Silas Barnaby, who has designs on Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry) that still makes you shudder 80 years later.

But it’s all bogged down in that mire of family-film formula that works frantically to convince you how wonderful it is. The background music, usually a charming counterpoint to L&H’s tomfoolery, here comes off as merely over-insistent. Tom-Tom (Felix Knight), Little Bo-Peep’s love interest, is a high-pitched simp who hardly seems up to the elementary task of helping Bo-Peep find her lost sheep. And in an age where even the dazzling special effects of the first Star Wars movie already look quaint, it’s hard to imagine kiddies getting worked up at the thought of ostensibly scary bogeyman stumbling around the movie in stitched-together costumes.

Laurel & Hardy’s usual child-like adultness is made far too literal in this format, rather in the way that the clownish wackiness of The Marx Brothers was placed in a too-appropriate setting in At the Circus. The result is a family film that, to cop Leonard Maltin’s review of a different family film, might entertain children if you pay them to watch it.

Laurel & Hardy in ANGORA LOVE (1929) – This movie gets my goat

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Angora Love was Laurel & Hardy’s last silent film (not counting The Tree in a Test Tube, the ’40s Government short in which they appeared without dialogue), and it’s another of their shorts in which their winning characterizations overcome a sitcom-like script. (The device that sets the plot in motion is that a pet-shop owner’s goat chews through its leash and escapes, and the owner mistakenly tells a cop on the beat that his goat was stolen, which info the cop takes in a straight-faced manner. Even back in 1929, didn’t L.A. street cops have more important things to do, like issue citations to jaywalkers or something?)

The goat latches on to Stan and Ollie and their morning donuts, and suddenly they can’t get rid of him, which makes for some tracking shots that are pretty elaborate considering they’re from a goat’s point of view. They eventually try to hide the goat in their apartment under the suspicious eye of their distrusting landlord (Edgar Kennedy).

This set-up provides the template for every L&H hide-the-animal scenario forever after (e.g., Laughing Gravy, The Chimp). The most memorable gag is when Stan, trying to repeat Ollie’s earlier subterfuge of sticking Stan’s head in the washbasin so the landlord won’t think they’re bathing a forbidden animal, sticks Ollie’s head in the washbasin after the landlord has already seen the goat. (Stan is always about half a beat behind a given plan. At one point when they’re trying to hide the goat, Ollie lifts up the end of the bed and motions to Stan, whereupon Stan tries to hide himself under the bed.)

Angora Love isn’t their most memorable short (particularly with its unassuming organ score on the soundtrack), but it’s a fittingly simple farewell from L&H to silent movies.

Happy birthday, George Melies

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Today is the birthday of French silent-film illusionist George Melies (1861-1938).

Melies was the George Lucas of his day, only without the latter-day technology. He used every trick in the book — stop-motion, elaborate sets, and color painted directly onto the film frames — to evoke a fantasy world unlike any other.

Melies directed 531 films between 1896 and 1913. His most iconic work is probably A Trip to the Moon (1902), with its famous image of a rocket ship landed in the eye of The Man in the Moon.

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Eventually, however, Melies became too broke to continue making movies, and when his studio was taken over to aid in World War I, many of his movies were melted down to retrieve their silver and celluloid content. Melies himself destroyed most of the rest of his movies in a fit of rage after his studio was taken over. As of Dec. 2011, just over 200 of Melies’ films have been preserved and are available on DVD. Also in 2011, Melies’ life story served as the basis of Martin Scorsese’s delightful movie Hugo.

Much of Melies’ work looks quaint in this day of CGI, but it’s that very quaintness that provides their charm. Here is just one lovely example: The Untamable Whiskers (1904), with a beautiful modern-day score by Kieron McIntosh.

Laurel & Hardy in THE LIVE GHOST (1934) – Unusually morbid for Stan and Ollie

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Detractors of Laurel & Hardy’s later Twentieth Century-Fox features are quick to emphasize the morbidity in the storyline of A-Haunting We Will Go (1942). For my money, that movie has nothing on L&H’s short subject The Live Ghost.

The movie starts out with Stan and Ollie hanging around a seedy waterfront and getting hired by a burly captain (Walter Long) to shanghai some men for his crew. Even at a dollar a head (the captain’s going rate per shanghaied sailor), it seems unusual that the usually helpful and thoughtful Stan and Ollie think nothing of earning some bucks by enslaving some men for a ship.

Later, after The Boys end up shanghaiied themselves, the movie tries to milk comedy from Stan’s mistaken impression that he has shot and killed a sleeping sailor — not exactly fun for the whole family. (As if that wasn’t enough, Mae Busch does a bit role as a waterfront woman. While the movie [as befits the ’30s Production Code] never comes right out and says she’s a prostitute, Busch’s role was risque enough to have it cut out of early TV prints of the movie.)

It’s a bit odd that Laurel, usually openly conscious of his family-oriented audiences, went for laughs in such a randy setting. (Our Relations has a somewhat similar setting at movie’s end, but at least there the seediness is not dwelled upon so much, and The Boys aren’t the ones making bucks off it.) The rundown quality of everyone and everything in the movie tends to curtail many of its laughs.

Kenny & Dolly & some Christmas campiness

Here’s a jaw-dropping Christmas number from Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s 1986 Christmas TV special. Kenny prefaces the song by saying it was written by Dolly and is “destined to become a Christmas standard.” Do you even know any Dolly Parton fans who remember this song? And dig those nonchalant people in the church pews. Would you be sitting stone-faced if something like this came dancing through your church? I’d be more like one of the horrified onlookers at “Springtime for Hitler.”