Charlie Chaplin in EASY STREET (1917) – An old-fashioned comedy classic.

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Chaplin’s detractors complain that much of his work is old-fashioned and melodramatic. I don’t find anything wrong with that, when it’s done well. Easy Street is a perfect example of that. If Chaplin hadn’t already used the character names “David” and “Goliath” in Behind the Screen, they would have fit perfectly here; you’ll never find a more perfect story of a little guy taking on a huge bully and beating the odds.

Our first sight of Charlie is him curled up near the entrance of a mission house; no romanticizing the Tramp on this occasion. Contrasting Charlie’s derelict situation is the mission’s organist (Edna Purviance, never lit more angelically). Charlie hears the music and is literally taken in. After the service, given a righteous pep talk by Edna, Charlie sees the light. He’s so serene in his newfound ways, he even returns the collection box he had intended to steal.

Charlie sees a “Help Wanted” sign for a police station on Easy Street; he applies and is accepted instantly. That’s because of the station’s high mortality rate, due to Easy Street’s violence orchestrated by its gang leader (Eric Campbell, in the dastardly role he was born to play).

This is another of Chaplin’s great comedies that it would be sacrilegious to spoil by giving away the plot twists. Suffice to say, the heroism that Chaplin couldn’t quite give himself over to in Essanay’s The Bank is given free rein here, and it works beautifully.

And for those who say Chaplin was a routine movie director, watch how he builds tension by cross-cutting between Charlie’s prolonged cigarette break after subduing Eric, and Edna’s being locked in and nearly raped by a heroin addict. Hitchcock couldn’t have done it better.

Easy Street is unashamedly old-fashioned, without an ounce of irony. Watch it, and be surprised how well you can still respond to such a thing.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in LET’S CELEBRAKE – Dig that crazy granny!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Even in a cartoon series known for its wacko imagery, this cartoon’s first shot is pretty startling: Popeye and Bluto, both in full tuxedo, manning a horse-and-carriage and happily singing a duet. Up to now, there’s been no hint that these guys were anything but, at best, icily polite rivals. When did they go all Brokeback Mountain on us??

Turns out that the occasion is New Year’s Eve, so I guess we’re meant to guess that Popeye and Bluto got their Christmas stockings filled with sufficient supplies of spinach and…well, whatever makes Bluto happiest, so for now they’re buddy-buddy (at least until Olive spurns one of them at the matrimonial agency again).

The Boys arrive at Olive’s house and are greeted at the door by Olive’s sweet old grandma. Olive is ready to leave, but Popeye decides it would be cold-hearted to leave Granny by herself on New Year’s Eve. This is obviously heartfelt and would be nice to savor, except that Granny is one of those stereotypes worn thin by years of sitcoms, cutely misinterpreting anything that’s said to her because of her poor hearing. Between this, Popeye and Bluto’s sudden chumminess, and the cartoon’s not-up-to-par animation, it doesn’t seem like an occasion for dancing in the ballroom with Guy Lombardo.

After Bluto and Olive hit the floor for a dance contest, Popeye tries to do the same with Granny, but he can’t get her to shake a leg. He rushes back to the table, where the waiter is leaving dinner trays. From the tray, Popeye grabs a can of spinach (which apparently was being served at all the finest New York ballrooms on New Year’s Eve), feeds it to Granny, and gets her high-stepping enough for her and Popeye to win the contest.

The cartoon is more funny/cute than funny/ha-ha and is sometimes depressingly close to the dispirited tone of the limited-animation Popeye cartoons of early-’60s TV. The climax underlines the cartoon’s lack of energy, with seemingly the same three couples dancing in front of the camera over and over, and the gorgeous 3D backgrounds of previous cartoons replaced by lots of little circles meant to represent an onlooking crowd.

If this sounds like carping, it’s only because the Fleischers themselves have set such a high standard up to this point; it’s rather like hiring Buster Keaton at his peak and then casting him as a doofus dad in a sitcom. Happily, this downslide in quality doesn’t last, and the next cartoon (Learn Polikeness) gets things back on track.

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

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in KICKIN’ THE CONGA ROUND (1942) – Shake it like a Paramount Picture

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

On shore leave in South America, sailors Popeye and Bluto compete for the affections of one Olivia Oyla. Ay carumba!

Something about sassy music seemed to inspire the Fleischers. This one’s a gem from the start, with Popeye and Bluto shaking their thangs with as much liberty as great animation will allow. The cartoon is peppered throughout with superb throwaway gags, from Bluto’s photographic memory, to the “CENSORED” sign that briefly covers a Latin dancer’s suggestive region.

When they get to the local cafe, Popeye claims he “can’t dance no conjure.” But when Bluto rudely steps in, Popeye downs the requisite can of spinach, and it’s Morning, Noon and Nightclub all over again. The ending is novel, too — instead of Olive getting her men, the local military police nab them instead, for trying to start a riot — which they do, at least for the happy cartoon-viewer. An absolute hoot.

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

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in SHAKESPEARIAN SPINACH (1940) – A farce by any other name

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The marquee for Spinach Theatre (!) reads, “Tonight – Popeye and Olive Oyl in Romeo and Juliet.” Bluto comes to the theater and, certainly not to my surprise, has a fit over seeing a poster of Popeye as Romeo. He rips the poster away to see his own poster crossed out beneath Popeye’s, with the added message: “Dear Bluto: Your services are no longer required. – YOU HAM!! — The Management.” Suffice to say, Bluto is not about to handle this by filing suit with the Theater Guild.

Upon their entrances, Olive and Popeye launch into a horrifyingly musical version of “R & J,” and it quickly becomes clear that Bluto could easily ruin the show just by writing a review of it. Instead, Bluto fiddles with the lighting and special effects to mess up the show and generally yank Popeye’s chain. Eventually, Bluto removes Popeye and tries to take over for him on stage, but Olive will have none of it.

Popeye makes it back onto the stage in female garb, replacing Olive as Juliet, and pulling Olive away before Bluto can…er, what, co-star with her?? What all of this has to do with “R & J” is anyone’s guess, but the crowd loves it. Bluto uncovers a placard reading “Death Scene” (which always occurs at least four minutes into the play, right?) and uses it as an excuse to wail on Ms. Popeye, who either is dead (yeah, sure) or is acting out Juliet’s demise.

Bluto-as-Romeo cries, while from the wings, Olive throws an R.I.P. wreath made of spinach onto Popeye. The play ends with Shakespeare’s famous “To eat some spinach and kick Bluto’s butt or not, that is the question” soliloquy. (Well, not exactly, but it makes as much sense as anything else in this mishmash.)

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

Popeye in SOCK-A-BYE BABY (1934) – With a cameo appearance by Harpo Marx

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This short has the most ominous opening credits of any Fleischer Popeye cartoon. Behind the credits, we hear the familiar lullaby “Rock-a-Bye, Baby,” punctuated with loud punches. This is not going to bode well for somebody.

At least, happily, Popeye is not socking the baby he’s caretaking — he’s socking those who might wake up the baby with their loud noises. The first person to receive such a socking is no less than Harpo Marx (or at least a recognizable caricature of him), who is loudly playing his harp on the street corner (happens all the time). After Popeye whacks him, Harpo continues playing, albeit with a halo over his head as he ascends to heaven.

It only gets more bizarre. In an apparent attempt to placate the squalling infant, Popeye gives him a ukulele (would Dr. Spock have recommended this?). When the kid can’t tune the instrument to his satisfaction, Popeye grabs it back from him and strums and sings a lullaby. The song mellows out the babe so much that he grabs Popeye’s pipe, which unsurprisingly knocks the kid out.

Popeye happens to pass a music school filled with students and teachers in full orchestral mode. One by one, they live to regret it.

Then Popeye sinks an entire ship that has a tragically (for them) loud foghorn. And when he comes across a loud radio, rather than unplugging it or turning it off, he sends a resounding hit through the radio’s airwave, knocking out the offending singer. This guy certainly takes the long way around to reach a simple destination.

And heaven help those skyscraper builders making all that noise, and those cars that are honking about the baby (that Popeye has left in the middle of the road!) — can’t you guys see this kid is trying to sleep?? Popeye pops some spinach to knock out the cars, I guess because tearing down that half-finished building knocked all the strength out of him.

Ironically, a single safety pin falling out of the carriage wakes up the baby and starts him squalling again. So Popeye literally zips the kid’s mouth up and bleats his theme song at him. When all else fails, parents, dominate the little bugger! If Olive Oyl had seen this cartoon, she’d never have let Popeye get within a mile of Swee’Pea.

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

A question for bloggers and blogathoners

When bloggers participate in a blogathon, why are the participants so slow to post their entries? I’m currently participating in a ‘thon that is being held this weekend, and as of right now (Sunday morning), less than half of the entries are posted. I’ve participated in other ‘thons where the same thing happened. Doesn’t that seem rude, especially when the whole point of a blogathon is to entice people to read your and other people’s blogs?

One Saturday morning many years ago, I helped out my mother-in-law by trying to set up a garage sale she had wanted to hold. The sale was advertised to begin at 8:00 a.m., but I knew from experience that many customers arrive earlier than the scheduled start time, to see if they can get good deals. Mom, however, did not grasp this concept. When early-birds would roll up, she would actually yell at them, “Go away! We haven’t started yet! Come back later!” I daresay that nobody obeyed her last command.

That sounds pretty similar to this blogathon “late entry” situation. After a while, people are going to get tired of nothing new being posted, and they’re going to quit stopping by. Can you blame them? Imagine if you’d been anticipating the premiere of a certain movie, and when you arrived at the theater on Friday, the theater manager told you, “Eh, the movie’ll be in some time this weekend. Keep checking back!”

So if you ever hold a blogathon and you get a low turnout, you might keep this in mind. Just sayin’.

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“31 Days of Oscar” Blogathon

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My blogathon addiction continues! This time, it’s the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, sponsored by the three wonderful movie blogs listed above. To find out more information about the ‘thon (and to participate yourself, if you’d like), go to http://aurorasginjoint.com/2015/01/05/31-days-of-oscar-blogathon-2015/

I’ll be participating in the ‘thon’s “Oscar Snubs” section on Feb. 9-10, but with a different twist. I’m going to blog about famous comedians who have won Oscars, but for the wrong reason: They were given “Special Achievement Oscars” by way of the Motion Picture Academy’s guilt over denying these comedy greats “real Oscars” during their movie careers.

Enjoy the blogging fun in February!

COAL BLACK AN DE SEBBEN DWARFS (1943) – Watch this cartoon and make your own judgment

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(WARNING: Major, major spoilers abound!!)

In the late 1980’s, a documentary titled “Amos ‘n Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy” looked at the infamous comedy show. Despite the doc’s own testimonials by famous black performers who found the show funny, the only way to get the show looked at or praised these days was to surround it with politically correct analysis.

That’s most likely the only way that cable TV’s Cartoon Network, which owns the rights to Bob Clampett’s Snow White parody Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs would ever be able to air this cartoon. Most likely, the Cartoon Networkers won’t consider even that ploy, as they have seen fit to remove any possible inflammatory material from their huge backlog of cartoons. That’s a great pity, because most of those who have been fortunate enough to view Coal Black regard it as one of Bob Clampett’s most jaw-droppingly funny creations.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, the unfortunate fact is that, at the time of Coal Black‘s making, African-Americans were rarely treated as equals to whites on the silver screen. (Dooley Wilson’s Sam in Casablanca [1942] is a notable exception, depicting a warm friendship with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick. Yet even Sam clears out of the room as soon as Bogie and Ingrid Bergman, the movie’s iconic white lovers, reunite.)

And unsubtle stereotypes abound. Just to hit the highlights, “Prince Chawmin'” is a jive-spouting hero with dice for teeth (and he literally turns yellow when So White calls for him to rescue her). “De Sebben Dwarfs” are little more than thick-lipped comic relief. And the movie begins with the tale being told by a loving “mammy” to her child.

Yet the underlying irony is that the racial aspect is merely a smokescreen for what this cartoon is really about: sex. This film’s Wicked Queen doesn’t even consider whether she’s the fairest one of all; her first words in the story are “Magic mirror on the wall, send me a prince about six feet tall.” So White, far from Disney’s virginal image of Snow White, wears a low-cut blouse and thigh-high shorts, and she sends blazes of erotic ecstasy through every male she meets. If it weren’t for the movie’s parody approach, it’s difficult to believe that the same censors who got all worked up about Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood series would have let Clampett get away with such brazenness.

The irony is that Bob Clampett intended his cartoon as a tribute to black culture. The movie’s hot jazz score (by Eddie Beals) surpasses even Carl Stalling’s usual high standards, with some incredible scat singing and white-hot trumpet playing. And So White is voiced by Vivian Dandridge, Dorothy Dandridge’s sister, and the Evil Queen is voiced by their mother Ruby, which is enough to at least give the movie a legitimate pedigree.

Beyond that, this cartoon is to Clampett’s oeuvre what What’s Opera, Doc? is to Chuck Jones’s canon — a look at a Warner Bros. cartoon director at the height of his control. Like Jones’s opera parody/tribute, Coal Black goes beyond funny to just plain astounding. Even in fifth-generation bootlegs, the cartoon is rich in the sort of frame-exploding work that made Clampett’s reputation. Even though many of the wartime references (to shortages and the military) date this cartoon far worse that most WB efforts, the jokes still come across quite clearly. (When Mammy tells us how rich the Evil Queen is, the camera pans across her riches: piles of stockpiled sugar and rubber tires.)

There is plenty to be offended about in Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs, if offense is all that you seek. But the most memorable cartoons are usually the ones that get somebody’s dander up. In an era where Keenan Ivory Wayans makes the most profitable Afro-American movie ever (Scary Movie, 2001) by taking R-rated swipes at penises and mental retardation, surely there’s room in our culture for a comparatively benign (and far funnier) six-minute cartoon.

Charlie Chaplin in MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947) – Way too lovable of a killer

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The following is my entry in the “Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon” being held at the blog Sister Celluloid on Jan. 17 and 18. The blogathon’s purpose is to laud some critically un-acclaimed movies, as well as take some long-regarded-as-classic movies down a notch or two. Click on the image above to visit the blogathon, and watch (or read) the fur fly!

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Am I the only one who thinks Monsieur Verdoux is overblown and overrated? When it was first released in 1947, there was no way it could be fairly judged critically; Chaplin’s reputation as a supposed philanderer and Communist gave him and his movie no chance in the public court. Then the movie was re-released in 1964 and 1972, and a world that had had to suffer through the scare of The Bomb and the relentlessness of the Vietnam War was all too eager to embrace its black comedy.

Yet the primary problem with Verdoux is that everyone salutes its intentions rather than its execution. We are told that Verdoux (played, of course, by Chaplin) was a bank clerk who lost his job in the Great Depression. Then, in order to support his invalid wife and young son, Verdoux began a double life, wooing and marrying rich women, murdering them, covering his tracks, and snatching their fortunes.

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And that’s the problem: Throughout most of the movie, we’re told everything rather than having it shown to us. The movie begins with a shot of Verdoux’s tombstone, followed by Verdoux’s off-screen voice hurriedly starting his narration of the story, as if Chaplin had such a whopper of a tale on his hands that he couldn’t wait to get started. (For all of the movie’s ballyhooed black comedy, Chaplin doesn’t even have the wit to use his beyond-the-grave narration as a gag, as director Billy Wilder would do with William Holden in Sunset Boulevard [1950]).

Then we get a real lulu of an exposition: a few loud minutes of the Couvais family, whom we’re told are vintners but bicker like the cast of a white-trash reality TV show. It seems that a member of their family was taken in by Verdoux’s winning ways, and why did she clean out her bank account and then suddenly disappear?

The answer lies in Verdoux’s outdoor incinerator, which annoys his female neighbors because the smoke won’t allow them to hang out their laundry, but they’re too charmed by Verdoux to complain. And there’s Verdoux tending his garden, nearly stepping on a caterpillar and then moving it to a safe place. He cares for the life of a small creature but not a human being. Ah, the irony!

And therein lies the other main problem with the movie: In a story where woman after woman is being knocked off, it’s all about how Verdoux feels. Upon his first meeting with Madame Grosnay (Isobel Elsom), Verdoux falls all over himself (literally – and her as well) trying to convince us what a mesmerizing lover he is, and it gets to be pretty embarrassing to watch.

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When Verdoux wants to try out a new poison, he picks up a lonely woman (Marilyn Nash) off the street. At Verdoux’s apartment, they have an endlessly dreary philosophical conversation that, nevertheless, charms Verdoux so much that he decides not to poison her (the old softie!).Nash, by the way, is beautiful but wooden, and the latter adjective applies to most of the cast.

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In fact, the only time the movie brightens up and is about something other than Verdoux and his wonderfulness is when Martha Raye blasts onto the screen. As Annabelle, Verdoux’s erstwhile murder victim who never realizes how lucky she really is, Raye cuts through the movie’s pretentiousness and gives it the black-comedy liveliness it aimed for all along. (Apparently, Raye was just as brash in real life, referring to Chaplin on the set as “Chuck” and miraculously getting away with it.) Other than Raye and a dryly humorous scene between Chaplin and William Frawley (four years before he attained TV immortality in “I Love Lucy”), the rest of the cast is dull as dishwater.

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Finally, there’s the movie’s infamous wrap-up, in which Chaplin/Verdoux scores points off every nearby target. At his court sentencing, Verdoux gives an eye-rolling speech in which he compares his own killings with those of wars and declares himself “an amateur” by comparison. (But if he really believes he’s an amateur, why bring up the point at all?) Verdoux continues his smugness right to the end, trading barbs with a reporter (Herb Vigran, later a very recognizable TV character actor) and even the priest who has come to perform Verdoux’s last rites. Chaplin presents Verdoux as completely sound and rational, even as he has the last word over God.

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Over the years, many critics and moviegoers have criticized this movie for its antiquated cinematic “vocabulary” (the constant shot of train wheels to symbolize scene changes, etc.). None of that would matter if the story and characters were more compelling. Even more than its follow-up Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux is Chaplin at his most verbose and smugly superior – even when he’s portraying a sociopathic murderer.