The Return of Laurel & Hardy to the Jacksonville Beaches area

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Like a phoenix risen from the ashes, my Tent has been reconstructed!

Let me explain a few things. A “Tent” is another name for a local chapter of The International Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society, better known as “Sons of the Desert.” The group is named after the 1934 feature film in which Stan and Ollie lie to their wives so that they can go off to attend their lodge’s annual convention in Chicago. The group was founded in 1965 by L&H biographer John McCabe and several others, and it has grown to have chapters nationwide and throughout the world. Each Tent is named after a Laurel & Hardy movie.

I had wanted to have my own Tent practically ever since I discovered L&H as a young boy in the 1970’s. But back then, all we had were 16-millimeter movie copies of The Boys’ work, and what kid could afford that?

In the summer of 2006, I got a new job after being unemployed for several months, and my wife treated me to the British DVD collection of Laurel & Hardy’s movies (which, unlike the much-ballyhooed U.S. version, contains their silent films as well as their talkies). In August of that year, I made my wish come true and created the “Leave ’em Laughing Tent.”

For six years or so, I had meetings at a local library on the first Monday of each month, and they were very well-attended. Then at the start of 2013, the Jacksonville Public Library closed on Monday nights. I tried to carry on with the group on Sunday afternoons, but it was a bust, so I gave up in April 2013.

Now, nearly two years later, The Friends of the Beaches Branch Library (in Neptune Beach) has happily supported my cause. Since Mondays are still out, I am going to try to hold my screenings on the final Wednesday of Jan. and Feb. 2015. If the turnout is good, I’ll keep the Tent going on a regular basis again.

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I cannot properly convey my adoration of Laurel & Hardy. Like many of their fans (or buffs, as John McCabe preferred to call their followers), I started watching them on Saturday morning TV when I was about 10 years old, and I haven’t stopped enjoying them since.

I can identify with those two “likeably dumb” men more than I care to admit. When I am caught short trying to repair something in the house, or my kids and I bump heads at some point, we all quickly identify it as a “Laurel & Hardy moment.”

If you are anywhere in or near the Jacksonville, FL. area, I humbly implore you to visit my first “reconstructed” Tent meeting on Wed., Jan. 28, from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. It will be at the Jacksonville Public Library’s Beaches Branch on 600 N. 3rd St. (just south of Atlantic Blvd.) in Neptune Beach, FL. Admission is free for all attendees, and with any luck, I’ll have a few light snacks to share along with the movies.

If you can’t make it to the live meeting, please visit my Tent’s Facebook page, or its lovingly built website at http://leaveemlaughing.moviefever.com. Let’s keep this classic comedy team going for the next generation!

Good-bye!

Good-bye!

Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy in OLIVER THE EIGHTH (1934) – A close shave for Ollie

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Oliver the Eighth is a lot more plot-heavy (and a bit more macabre) than the usual L&H short. But as scare-comedies go, it’s a darned sight better than The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case.

The story is that Stan and Ollie (here, partners in a barbershop) come across a personals ad that Stan and Ollie both answer (though Ollie neglects to mail Stan’s letter). Unfortunately for (and unbeknownst to) Ollie, the woman in question (Mae Busch) has it in for men named Oliver, and she gets engaged to him merely for the pleasure of slitting his throat.

It’s not L&H’s greatest or most pleasant storyline, but it allows for some superb pantomime by all, especially when Stan and Ollie get to the woman’s mansion and have to deal with a butler (Jack Barty) who serves imaginary soup. Stan, being a bit on the abstract side himself, plays along for quite a while, but finally the logical side of him sinks in, and he declares, “You’re nuts.”

It’s also nice to see Stan be a bit more assertive than usual. When he realizes that Ollie has duped him, he follows Ollie to the woman’s mansion and declares that he deserves “half of what you’re going to get” (which he is surely doomed to receive). Of course, we find out that Stan wasn’t quite that assertive in selling the barbershop, but you can’t have everything.

Like most of L&H’s thrill-comedies (such as Habeas Corpus), Oliver the Eighth reeks of nostalgia for a time when it took far less blood and gore to put an audience on the edge of its seat. As such, it’s a worthwhile comedy.

Buster Keaton in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928) – Sailing high for his independent finale

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(WARNINGMajor spoilers abound!)

Steamboat Bill Jr. is a blessed relief after the relative debacle of College. There was much turmoil behind the camera, but none of it shows up in the movie. It’s well-constructed, thoughtful, and funny, a most worthy finale to Buster Keaton’s career as an independent filmmaker.

The movie’s story came from Charles Reisner, an assistant director on several of Charlie Chaplin’s movies (including his immortal The Gold Rush) who was named director here. The premise is that “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (memorably performed by Ernest Torrence), a crusty riverboat captain, is reunited with his collegiate-dandy son Willie (Keaton), whom he hasn’t seen since Willie was a baby. He is crushed to find that his son is the urban antithesis of a river-boatman, and he sets out to make Junior a man. Further complications ensue when Willie becomes romantically involved with Kitty, the daughter of Steamboat Bill’s business rival.

(As Kitty, Marion Byron does a fine job and holds her own with Keaton, no small feat since she was an unknown actress and only fifteen years old – less than half the age of her leading man.)

Keaton had planned an elaborate flood finale for the movie, but Harry Brand – the go-between man for Keaton and producer Joe Schenck – told Schenck that recent Southern floods would render the climax both expensive and in bad taste. Keaton acquiesced to Schenck’s request to change the movie’s natural disaster to a cyclone. But that made things even more expensive when sets had to be rebuilt and wind machines shipped to the location. Keaton was further nonplussed to later find out that in the previous year, more people had been killed by cyclones than by floods.

(Keaton wasn’t inclined to listen to Brand to start with. Brand was Schenck’s replacement for Lou Anger, an associate who had impressed Keaton. Furthermore, Anger had never asked for a screen credit, and Keaton was furious to find that, on this movie and College, Brand was credited as “supervisor” – which, to Keaton, made it look as though he, the star, was given co-credit with a paper-pusher.)

The most famous part of the almost dream-like cyclone finale comes when a two-ton wall falls directly onto Keaton, who is saved only by an open window that falls around Keaton. (The window gave Keaton two inches of clearance on both sides.) Keaton dined out on the story that when the scene was filmed, the cameramen looked the other way and Reisner was sequestered in a tent off the set, nobody wanting to witness the almost certain death of their star. Less often told is Keaton biographer Marion Meade’s account that, only two days before the filming, Schenck had told Keaton that he was closing Keaton’s independent studio, and that at that point, Keaton didn’t care if he lived or died. Whatever Keaton’s reason for subjecting himself to it, it remains one of the most astounding movie stunts of all time. (The Internet Movie Database reports that a cable pulling down the wall is clearly visible in the shot. Trust me, you either won’t see it or you won’t care.)

After Willie has rescued his father, his girlfriend, and her father, Willie inexplicably jumps back into the water, only to return with a life-preserver containing a parson who can wed Willie and Kitty. It’s a charming closing to the movie, and to the end of a groundbreaking era in silent films.

Popeye and Poopdeck Pappy in PROBLEM PAPPY (1941) – A cartoon that hits the heights

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Popeye goes to wake up his Pappy, but all he finds in Pappy’s bed is a note: “I wuzzent home last night.” Popeye searches the city and finds Pappy at his new job: flagpole-sitting. Popeye does everything he can to get Pappy down, but only a sudden lightning storm convinces Pappy he’s reaching too high.

Popeye and precarious heights — it’s another animated dream walking. Terrifically terrifying perspective work, as always.

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

Charlie Chaplin in THE CIRCUS (1928) – Even “mid-level” Chaplin is wonderful

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Coming as it did between Chaplin’s almost-legendary bookends The Gold Rush and City Lights, The Circus was for many years maligned as one of Chaplin’s back-burner numbers. But while it has no big agenda to burnish, The Circus is the kind of movie that would be a masterpiece in the career of any other silent-movie comedian, and it’s not exactly chopped liver on Chaplin’s resume either.

Before the main plot even gets underway, there’s a superb opening sequence involving Charlie, a cop, and a pickpocket (Steve Murphy, recognizable in face and character as a variation on the conman he played so smoothly in Buster Keaton’s short Cops [1922]). This entire segment could have played by itself as a short subject, and at first it seems almost a pity that the melodramatic plot has to be squeezed in.

The story is that a very unsuccessful circus has come to town. It’s run by a tyrannical ringmaster (Allan Garcia) who regularly abuses his daughter the circus walker (Merna Kennedy). Charlie happens into this non-laugh-fest while escaping from the cop, and he makes such a mess of the show that the audience, thinking he’s part of the act, laughs and applauds him wildly.

The ringmaster has Charlie audition for the show, but since Charlie didn’t know he was being funny, his attempts at being deliberately humorous fall flat – although with this circus, who can tell? The ringmaster has Charlie watch a couple of the circus’ comic routines and then orders Charlie to imitate them. That seems a strange request, since these routines are the same ones that aren’t getting any laughs, and Charlie’s innocent bollixing-up of them plays better than the straight routines do.

Charlie gets turned down for the job (he tells Merna that he and the ringmaster “couldn’t come to terms”), but then he gets hired as a prop man at the last minute, and he’s the laugh hit of the show once again. Only Charlie himself doesn’t realize this, and the ringmaster does his best to keep the news under wraps. When Merna finally lets Charlie in on the secret, he’s able to finagle a better salary for himself and no more mistreatment for Merna.

Things look rosy for Charlie, until the circus hires a new act: Rex (Harry Crocker), a dashing tightrope walker. This makes Charlie, who had designs on Merna (unbeknownst to her), very unhappy. And it brings about a couple of the movie’s most interesting moments. The first is when Merna and Charlie are on the sidelines, watching Rex do his act, and Charlie laughs with demented glee whenever it looks as though Rex is on the brink of disaster; it brings to mind all the sadistic thoughts we had as children of high-wire acts that might go ker-plop.

The other interesting bit is when Charlie observes Rex and Merna talking and hitting it off. Through double exposure, Chaplin shows us what Charlie wishes would happen: His alter ego steps out of his body, slaps Rex around, and knocks him unconscious. I find this interesting because that’s probably just what Charlie would have done to Rex, back in the old Keystone/Essanay days; it shows us just how far Chaplin has “evolved” his Tramp character.

The love triangle leads to the movie’s climax. One night, Rex cannot be found for his act (another strange example of “convenience,” the kind of plot contrivance that Chaplin claimed to have abhorred) and Charlie, who has been practicing a makeshift tightrope act of his own, is ordered to take Rex’s place. Far be it from me to spoil the surprises here; it’s enough to say that there are sufficient laughs and gasps to make this one of Chaplin’s best wrap-ups.

The final scene, too, is Chaplin at his best: Pathos without ramming it down our throats. Even as a “minor” number, The Circus is Chaplin at his most appealing and satisfying.

Laurel & Hardy in TIT FOR TAT (1935) – Pom-pom!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Tit for Tat spotlights the best and the worst of Laurel & Hardy at this point in their short-subject canon. Their status had grown to the point that one of their last short subjects could sport an elaborate set, including an electrical shop run by The Boys whose windows’ lettering looks like Art Deco. On the other hand, the fancy setting served only for some predictable, reciprocal slapstick, some of it funny, but not much of it terribly original.

The movie begins on opening day of the shop, with Stan causing continual frustration to Ollie via a sidewalk elevator than Stan keeps using while someone is using the sidewalk above. When Ollie decides to say hello to their business’s next-door neighbor, the neighbor turns out to be Charlie Hall and Mae Busch. Stan and Ollie had earned Charlie’s undying enmity when they innocently got Mae drunk (in Them Thar Hills [1934]), whose memories Mae rekindles when she sings a bit of “The Old Spinning Wheel” and Stan replies, “Pom-pom!”

Charlie refuses to let bygones be bygones, so Ollie elects not to speak to him from now on. Unfortunately, thanks to Stan’s machinations with the elevator, Ollie ends up outside Mae’s second-story window. (When Stan asks Ollie what he’s doing up there, Ollie replies with sarcastic aplomb, “I’m waiting for a streetcar.”) Mae helps Ollie through the window, and Charlie happens to overhear his enemy coming down his stairway and saying, “I’ve never been in a position like that before!”

Eventually, of course, this devolves into the tit-for-tat routine that served as the climax of the first film and now serves as the “story” for this second film. The funniest bit is provided by the punctuation to each new humiliation, as Stan and Ollie hang a “Will Be Back Soon” sign on their door and completely ignore a diminutive man (Bobby Dunn) who is handily shoplifting their goods.

Pretty soon the entire street is drawn into observing the battle, including a policeman (L&H veteran James C. Morton) who seems more of an ending than a character. (By contrast, witness Tiny Sandford’s policeman in Big Business who humorously takes notes as though he’s about to enter a war.) Charlie reluctantly shakes hands with Ollie, the little man drives away his haul in a moving van, and the policeman eats an alum-covered marshmallow that Charlie had intended as a revengeful snack for The Boys. Fade-out.

It seems a pity that the movie’s elaborate set-up leads only to the kind of tired routine that L&H impersonators do when they can’t think of anything better. Ironically, this led to Tit for Tat earning The Boys a short-subject Oscar nomination. Go figure!

TRIVIA NOTE: John McCabe’s 1975 plot-synopsis book on L&H quotes an unnamed source which claims that Frank Tashlin contributed gags to this and a couple other L&H shorts. As Tashlin was still earning his stripes as a Looney Tunes cartoon director in 1935, this seems unlikely.

Laurel & Hardy in NIGHT OWLS (1930) – How not to break into a house

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Laurel & Hardy were “high concept” 50 years before the concept. The funniest L&H situations are the simplest, and “Stan and Ollie burglarize a house” is the highest of high concepts.

A cop named Kennedy (played by, conveniently, Edgar Kennedy) has to get in good with the chief of police, so he coerces vagrants Stan and Ollie into breaking into the chief’s house so that he can ostensibly catch them and be the hero. Woe to any cop who has Stan and Ollie on his beat.

This is one of L&H’s early talkies, but unlike the staginess of Unaccustomed as We Are or They Go Boom!, Night Owls makes the most of both sound and visuals. The sight gags are endless, as it takes Stan and Ollie most of the film to even get into the house. As for sound, Ollie is forever “ssh-ing” Stan, practically guaranteeing that the duo will make the most noise possible. And who else but Stan could get a running gag out of going “Meow”?

Best of all is the movie’s ending (SPOILER ALERT!) — not quite one of Laurel’s coveted “freak endings,” because the situation at hand is almost plausible. But you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Stan skitter away like a cockroach, with Ollie in his underwear throwing garbage at him.

Monty Python – It was only a dream

As a rabid fan of Chaplin and Keaton, it has always amazed me to see how many of their short subjects ended with the old cop-out of Charlie or Buster waking up and discovering that the entire previous 20 minutes had been “only a dream.” This cliche was beaten further to death in countless sitcom episodes concocted by desperate writers.

Because of this, I have always been gratified that that all-time sacred-cow-killer, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” turned this cliche on its head once and for all. Go to the 3:20 mark in this clip from “Flying Circus'” episode “The Cycling Tour,” and you’ll see what I mean.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in VIM, VIGOR AND VITALIKY – Worth it just to see Bluto in drag

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Popeye runs a gym, with signs advertising “Healt’ Classes for Wimmen – Vitaliky Is Personaliky – Healt’ Is Wealt’.” Nice to know that Popeye writes as well as he speaks.

Next door to Popeye is a cabaret run by Bluto, who advertises “Ladies Wanted,” but the wimmen are too busy getting healthy to want to act like chanteuses — including Olive Oyl, who snubs Bluto on her way to the gym. Bluto dresses up as a woman and joins the gym so that he can wail on Popeye, who is too gallant to fight a “woman.” But when Bluto loses his wig, the jig is up.

The best part of the cartoon, naturally, is watching Bluto in drag (a bit he seems to enjoy a little too much for a he-man).

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