Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in MY ARTISTICAL TEMPERATURE (1937) – But is it art?

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The cartoon opens outside the Sweet Art Studio. (Speaking of “artistical,” you gotta love that subway shadow at the fade-in. Some of these unheralded Fleischer moments put even Walt Disney to shame.) The studio’s come-on signs read: “Portraits Painted – If It Looks Like You, $10; If It Doesn’t, $15,” and “Sculpturing Done Without Chiseling.” Ten points for guessing which he-man does the painting and which one does the sculpturing.

Popeye is sculpturing a woman holding a vase upward, but the arms keep slipping, so Popeye rips the arms off and turns her into a Venus DeMilo. But jealous painter Bluto lobs some black paint at her and turns her into Al Jolson.

Customer Olive Oyl enters and says she’ll sit for a portrait and a sculpture and then pay for whichever looks the best. (Nice. She ought to just come right out Wimpy-style and say, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a work of art today.”)

Popeye sculpts a brilliant likeness of Olive, except that the likeness comes out standing on her hands, so Popeye makes Olive do the same. Olive is surprisingly agreeable to this, but of course Bluto isn’t, so they beat each other up by way of tearing apart their studio. (Do they do this with every customer?)

The ensuing violence is actually quite funny, as The Boys’ fighting inadvertently “turn” each other into famous works of art. As The Three Stooges taught us, trying to teach culture to those who aren’t prepared for it can often be a dangerous thing.

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

THEY’RE PLAYING WITH FIRE (1984) – Sybil Danning’s bod; everything else, bad

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I have what I call “The Adrienne Barbeau Theorem,” which is as follows: Big breasts, in and of themselves, are not enough reason to watch a terrible movie. Ironically, there are two movies that strongly test my theorem, and one of them is Adrienne Barbeau’s Swamp Thing (which see my review at this blog). The other is an abysmal ’80s slasher flick titled They’re Playing with Fire.

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Sybil Danning plays an English professor (so much for realism) who seduces one of her young students (Eric Brown) in order to make him a patsy in a murder plot in which she’s involved.

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Despite its familiar ring, this plotline is several generations (not to mention quality points) removed from Double Indemnity and its ilk. In fact, the movie’s slasher motif is so sordid, even for this genre, that it’s painful to watch. The movie would be deservedly forgotten, were it not for Danning’s astounding sex scenes.

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These scenes, particularly the first one, are as jaw-dropping as anything you’re likely to see in a mainstream, R-rated movie. While not as anatomically graphic as your average porn video, Danning in the altogether amply displays enough, er, enthusiasm to get her point across. In fact, she’s so enthusiastic, you lose any sympathy for the kid she’s seducing. Here’s this gorgeous, buxom blonde twisting the night away on top of him, and he can’t think of anything better to do than *make conversation* with her! Obviously, the kid needs an education in more than English.

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Other than the all-too-brief scenes in which Danning demonstrates why a date with her would fetch a small fortune on an auction block, the movie’s only element of interest is in seeing Alvy Moore (shown above, left). Moore, best known as bumbling Hooterville county agent Hank Kimball on TV’s “Green Acres,” here hits a career low as a gas-station manager who’s dumb enough to hire and re-hire the kid as an attendant even after he’s dumped the job on the promise of some loot from Danning’s English professor. The only thing that could have made this movie more bad-memorable would be to pair Danning with fluttery Hank Kimball: “Welcome to Hootersville, I mean Hooterville! Sorry, I was blinded by your headlights, I mean my car headlights. The car is strangely stacked, I mean built, I mean…”

Here’s a short trailer for the movie (minus, of course, Sybil Danning’s cinema-verite sex workout):

Charlie Chaplin in IN THE PARK (1915) – Park and recreation

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Chaplin once famously said, “All I need to make a comedy are a park bench, a cop, and a pretty girl.” Perversely, in In the Park, to that formula Chaplin adds the pretty girl’s boyfriend (Bud Jamison, beau to Edna Purviance), a pickpocket (Billy Armstrong), and a passionate couple (Leo White and Leona Anderson).

And the movie proves that adding more characters to the formula doesn’t add more fun, it just causes a traffic jam. This looks like Chaplin’s revisiting of Mack Sennett’s “park” comedies, but at any given time, there are so many people populating the screen, it’s hard to tell what Chaplin was getting at. Even Charlie can’t make up his mind what he wants to be: one moment he’s a hero (he saves a sausage vendor from getting robbed), the next he’s a villain (he steals the sausages himself).

(The best gag comes at the beginning: A pickpocket absent-mindedly gropes Charlie in an attempt to steal from him, so Charlie figures that turnabout is fair play and gropes the pickpocket.)

Already, Chaplin’s expansion upon simple themes in his previous Essanay comedies proved that he had more on his mind that revisiting old formulas. Even at only ten minutes, In the Park seems too lengthy.

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy in THE HOUSE BUILDER UPPER (1938) – A flipped house, indeed

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Volunteer firefighters Popeye and Wimpy arrive just in time to see the charred remains of Olive Oyl’s house, which burned down after she used “only a gallon of gasoline” to clean her dress. Gotta hand it to those Fleischers — they really work to keep our attention.

Popeye vows that since he missed the “housewarming,” he and Wimpy will help Olive re-build, giving new meaning to the phrase “flip this house.” (Example: When Wimpy is carrying a load of wood that is too wide to fit through the door, rather than entering the door sideways, he finds it easier to saw off the offending parts of the wall.)

Lots of spot gags about house-building lead to the eventual collapse of the new house. Popeye downs the spinach and re-re-builds the house in less time than the opening credits took, but still it collapses again. Guess that spinach needs to be recalled!

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

Charlie Chaplin in HIS FAVORITE PASTIME (1914) – His unfunny drunk act

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His Favorite Pastime already shows that the anarchism, if you will, of Chaplin’s character isn’t that funny unless there is something for it to work against. Chaplin mock-danced in a lot of his shorts, so he was regarded as a great dancer – until he made Sunnyside (1919), where he danced to no purpose and it felt empty. Similarly, Chaplin could be a funny drunk, but not if all he was called upon to do was to be a funny drunk, as he is here.

The first half of the movie shows Charlie boozing it up at a bar and antagonizing most of the patrons. Occasionally, he also goes out on the street, where he flirts with a woman at her car, until the woman’s husband comes along to break it up.

The movie’s second part shows Charlie drunkenly heading home but going into the wrong house; to top it off, it is the home of the woman with whom he was flirting. Hmm, I wonder how the husband is going to react?

If Charlie had been given the slightest motivation to act up against these people, we could enjoy the retaliation. As it is, we can’t help feeling what it would feel like to try having a quiet evening in a bar and have this lout ruin your night.

Popeye and Olive Oyl in MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1934) – Olive goes swinging

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

This is not your ordinary musical. Popeye returns from sea and sails his boat several miles inland to reach Olive Oyl’s home. There, Olive’s mother gives Popeye a “Dear John” letter in the form of a spirited rendition of the title song, informing Popeye that Olive has run off with said trapeze artist. Well, what did Popeye expect after all those months at sea?

Luckily, the trapeze artist’s circus is right across the street from Olive’s house, so Popeye doesn’t have far to go and be lovesick. (After seeing the trapeze artist, I give points to Olive just for finally finding someone besides Bluto with whom she can be fickle to Popeye.) Turns out that Olive is even the man’s partner in the act, giving Popeye the chance to croak “And my love he has taken away” a few thousand times.

When the trapeze artist starts using Olive as a prop to keep from falling to the ground, Popeye has had all he can stands, ’cause he…oh, well, you know the rest. Popeye gets into the act, does the spinach bit, and turns the guy into a chandelier. Popeye returns to terra firma and calls for Olive to jump to his arms, which she does rather blithely considering all she’s put her man through; appropriately, Popeye doesn’t completely save Olive but is polite enough to catch her on the first bounce.

Simple plot, extraordinary marriage of music and gags. Another gem from the Fleischer Brothers.

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

Buster Keaton: The Irony of the Irish

Blogathon

The following is my entry in “The Luck of the Irish Blog o’ Thon,” hosted by the blog Silver Scenes from March 15 to 17 in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Click on the poster above, and read a variety of blogs celebrating cinema’s Irish heritage!

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Famed silent film comedian Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton on Oct. 4, 1895. Buster’s father, Joe, was of Scottish/Irish heritage. Keaton’s humor was not overtly Irish by any means. Yet there are certainly overtones of his ancestry throughout his life and his films.

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Keaton began his show business career at the age of three as one of “The Three Keatons” (shown above), consisting of himself, his father Joe, and his mother Myra. The act was best known for Joe’s treatment of Buster. When Buster would goad his father on-stage, Joe made a point of throwing Buster into the scenery or even out into the orchestra pit.

This act got huge laughs, but it was also a huge source of controversy, then and now. Sob-sister Keaton biographers have tried to claim that this act was thinly disguised child abuse, and at the time of the act, child-care authorities were constantly trying to accuse Joe of same.

But it has been well-documented that Buster’s stage costume had a suitcase handle sewn into the back of it, and Buster learned early on how to take a fall like a pro, so that he was never injured as a result of the act. The authorities who were concerned about Buster examined him thoroughly and never found any bruises.

Nevertheless, this early “urban legend” has survived, with fact-free observers concluding that Keaton became the “stone face” character due to his having to take years of public abuse in stride. But Keaton’s films well demonstrate that he knew how to take a fall without getting hurt. Here is just one example, from Keaton’s solo debut film One Week (1920):

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What is surely most “Irish” about Keaton’s movie persona is his stoicism in the face of calamity. The world seems to constantly knock Buster about, and he seems just as constantly to take it with a shrug, as though he knows the world won’t give him an inch and yet he’s still determined to make his way in it.

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Buster began his film career in 1917 supporting Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was one of the most popular film comedians of his time, second only to Charlie Chaplin in box-office revenues. Buster proved to be such a magnetic film presence and laugh-getter that eventually Joseph Schenck, Arbuckle’s producer, moved Keaton into Chaplin’s former studio and, from 1920 to 1928, produced short films and features co-written and -directed by Keaton that are now regarded as some of the most remarkable comedies of the silent film era.

To simply catalog some of Buster’s movie highlights is to list some of silent movies’ most famous stunts. In the aforementioned One Week, Buster and his newlywed bride try to build a do-it-yourself house that has been unknowingly sabotaged by the bride’s former boyfriend. resulting in one physical catastrophe after another.

There’s also: Buster swooping over a waterfall to save his girl in Our Hospitality (1923). Buster riding on the handlebars of a driverless motorcycle in Sherlock Jr. (1924). And Buster having a two-ton wall fall on him in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), escaping death only because of the wall’s open window falling down around him.

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Most famously, there was his stunt-as-movie, The General (1926), in which Buster plays a Civil War train engineer from Georgia who singlehandedly fights Northern troops with his train as his only weapon. The camera in this movie seems almost as astonished as we the audience are, as it records Buster jumping off, on, over, and on top of his moving train and making it look as effortless as riding a bike.

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All of this was done long before CGI…and all of it was done by Keaton. Other than a high-hurdle in Keaton’s film College (1927) that was performed by an Olympic jumper, Buster did each of his stunts himself, in long shot. Keaton was achingly conscientious about performing “on the level,” demonstrating the hurdles his character went through rather than leaving them to an anonymous stunt man. (Keaton’s famous comment about why he went to all of this physical trouble himself: “Stunt men don’t get laughs.”)

Sadly, after eight years of artistic freedom, producer Schenck pulled the rug out from under Keaton. He sold Keaton’s contract to Metro-Goldywn-Mayer, where Keaton became just another contract player who had no say in the scripts or direction of his M-G-M movies.

Keaton had been known as a fairly hard drinker even before his contract was sold. When Keaton lost control over his movies, he drowned his sorrows in alcohol, to the point that M-G-M couldn’t take him anymore and fired him.

After a long period where his life spiralled out of control — his wife divorced him and changed their children’s last name from “Keaton”; he married another woman while in an alcoholic daze and later divorced her — Keaton eventually picked himself up. He returned to movies in cheap comedy shorts for Educational and Columbia Pictures. And in 1940, he married an actress and dancer named Eleanor Norris, who was 23 years younger than Keaton. Friends were certain the marriage wouldn’t stick, but it lasted until Keaton’s death in 1966.

Buster and Eleanor.

Buster and Eleanor.

So in the end, the story of the real-life Keaton paralleled that of his screen persona. He went through a major series of hard knocks but came out on top at the end. Fortunately, Keaton lived long enough to see a “renaissance” of his silent movies, which finally got the full appreciation they deserved.

Finally, if you have any doubts about Keaton’s Irish heritage, here is a clip from Buster Keaton Rides Again, a documentary filmed a year before Keaton’s death. In particular, note Keaton’s response to a cake that is presented to him in honor of his 69th birthday.

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Buster Keaton in HARD LUCK (1921) – Hard luck for anyone expecting a coherent comedy

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Hard Luck is a strange bird indeed. Although Buster Keaton dubbed it his favorite of all his short subjects, it was considered a “lost film” for many years. Now that it has been found, it must be said to be very disjointed and one of the weakest of his independent shorts.

One would like to believe that the movie’s disjointedness is perhaps due to some of its footage still being missing. But there would have to be quite a lot of expository footage restored in order for the movie’s story to be coherent. As it is, Hard Luck plays like a typical short by Keaton’s mentor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, where Fatty starts out in a particular occupation in Reel One and then abandons it out of boredom in Reel Two.

The movie’s initial idea isn’t bad. Buster is down on his luck and attempts suicide in several ways – all of which fail, the irony being he’s such a loser that he can’t even kill himself right. Then he happens upon a meeting of a zoo committee that is discussing how difficult it has been for them to get a particular rare animal. One would think this would be a fertile premise for comedy: Buster, who was going to kill himself anyway, volunteers for this dangerous hunt. Unfortunately, it turns out that the “rare animal” being sought by the zoo is an armadillo. (How difficult is it to catch one of those? Where I live, all you need is a car to run them over.) And even this flimsy premise is abandoned shortly after it’s established.

Instead, the next scene shows Buster fishing. He successfully catches ever-bigger fish (What happened to the movie’s premise of Buster-as-loser?), only to use each successive fish as bait to catch a bigger one. Then when he loses the last fish, he bemoans his lack of food for the evening. Well, what did he expect??

Then Buster gets caught up in a fox hunt, saves a young woman from the clutches of a criminal, dives off the high board at a pool, misses the pool and falls through the surrounding tile, where he remains lost for years. The topper, which got one of the biggest laughs ever in its day, unfortunately plays only as racist today: Buster eventually emerges from the hole bearing a Chinese wife and their children, the implication being that Buster’s high dive dug him a hole clear to China. Just as unfortunately, the “gag” is about as logical and plausible as anything that comes before it.

Some individual bits are funny enough, such as Buster’s extended routine with a horse. But Hard Luck‘s “gags-for-gag’s-sake” style seems a bit alien after some of the flights of fancy that come before and after it.

Popeye in FLEETS OF STREN’TH (1942) – He finally gets some use out of that outfit

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Popeye is an honest-to-gosh sailor (ah, the ironicky!) aboard a Naval ship, first getting a hard time from his superior officer and then fighting much enemy aircraft.

That pretty much covers the plot. The usual top-notch animation is present, as are a few better-than-average gags. But this plays mostly like a war movie with a few jokes thrown in. This was obviously a sop to the cartoon’s wartime audiences, but compared to the zippiness and non-topicality of other Popeyes, this cartoon strains to make Popeye the all-American hero, and the strain shows.

(To its credit, at least it doesn’t stoop to the stereotypical demonizing of the post-Fleischer Popeye cartoon You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap.)

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