LAUREL & HARDY’S LAUGHING 20’s (1965) – Nice compilation of L&H silent comedies

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Although Laurel & Hardy’s “talkie” short subjects finally got their due on a lavish American DVD set in 2011, their silent shorts aren’t as readily available in the U.S. (because they are owned by different hands). So if you have trouble obtaining L&H’s terrific silent shorts as a set, your best bet is to check out Laurel & Hardy’s Laughing 20’s, one of the many silent-comedy compilations lovingly put together by film historian Robert Youngson in the 1950’s and ’60s.

Youngson’s efforts, well-chronicled in the L&H biography Laurel & Hardy From the Forties Forward, were instrumental in rekindling interest in silent-film comedy in general and L&H in particular. Though Youngson’s narration tends to be a bit verbose, his affection for Laurel & Hardy’s peerless comedy is obvious and infectious. And this compilation, especially, presents most of its subjects virtually complete (except for subtitles) and, with modest but effective musical scoring, nearly as lovingly as the originals.

Among the L&H gems presented here are: Liberty (1929), one of my personal L&H faves, with Stan and Ollie doing a “Harold Lloyd” stunt number atop an unfinished skyscraper; From Soup to Nuts (1928), with Stan and Ollie wreaking havoc as waiters at a dinner party; and The Finishing Touch (1928), with the duo building (or, more exactly, not building) a house. The film’s closer features climaxes (and only the climaxes, unfortunately) from L&H gems such as The Battle of the Century (with its famous pie-throwing melee) and Two Tars (a hilarious traffic jam that inspired much in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend).

(Also included are very funny excerpts from short subjects of L&H’s contemporaries  at the Hal Roach Studios, Charlie Chase and Max Davidson.)

To a film generation acquainted only with color, sound, and fury, the methodical pace of Laurel & Hardy’s silent work is almost like a foreign language to be learned. But the beauty inherent in a second language is on ample display here, especially as an anecdote to latter-day bodily-function comedies.

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Hanging on in Hollywood: Buster Keaton’s Educational and Columbia short subjects (1934-1941)

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The following is my second of two entries in The Fourth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology on Feb. 12 and 13, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of silent-film comic Buster Keaton!

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Now that Buster Keaton’s entire short-subject output from the 1930’s and early ’40s is readily available for viewing, this entire period of Buster’s film career has come under re-evaluation, in much the same way as when Laurel & Hardy’s 1940’s Big Studio films came under the light of more sympathetic biographers. Viewing these movies proves that, while none of Keaton’s late-period shorts are up to the tantalizing quality of One Week or Cops, they’re far more enjoyable to watch than was once believed.

As is well-documented elsewhere, by the early 1930’s, Keaton’s personal and professional life had hit the skids. But if none of the major studios wanted to take a chance on him, his name was still a commodity from which money could be made, and Keaton had bills to pay. Based on this matter-of-fact viewpoint, Keaton signed with Educational Pictures in 1934 and eventually performed in 16 shorts for them.

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Educational blithely billed their movies as “The Spice of the Program,” but if the studio could actually have been a spice, it might have been close to arsenic. By the ’30s, Educationals featured either up-and-coming stars who used these shorts only as a stepping stone to bigger things, or former big names such as Harry Langdon and Keaton for whom Educational was a last resort.

Many of Keaton’s Educationals get by sheerly on their audience’s goodwill; you feel they could have been great comedies if they’d just had a little more time and budget bestowed upon them. Some of them actually work as is. The one that everyone always cites as old-style Keaton (and the only short for which Keaton gets [or takes?] a screen credit) is Grand Slam Opera, and with Keaton deftly showing his physicality and his old stage routines, it does indeed work well. But others in the series are quite nice. The Chemist, with Keaton as a milquetoast inventor who runs afoul of some gangsters, is fast-paced, character-driven, and quite funny. Ditto seems to take off on The Playhouse‘s subplot of Buster falling in love with a woman who happens to have a look-alike twin. The short is so otherworldly, with an almost surreal ending, that it wouldn’t have been out of place in Keaton’s ’20s filmography.

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After Keaton’s Educational contract expired, he starred in 10 shorts for Columbia Pictures. Shorts-wise, Columbia was best known as the home of The Three Stooges, and the studio did their best to fit square-pegged Buster into a similarly round hole. Stooges producer-director Jules White served the same function on nearly all of Keaton’s shorts, and his slam-bang approach to comedy ruffled Keaton’s feathers to no end.

To be sure, Columbia, like Educational, was no return to Keaton’s salad days. The Columbia shorts were each filmed in just a few days, and after Keaton finished the final one, he vowed never again to appear “in another crummy short.” Yet it’s completely unfair to say, as Keaton biographer Marion Meade stated, that Buster “phoned in” his Columbia performances.

In his take on Laurel & Hardy’s Big Studio films of the 1940’s, L&H biographer Scott MacGillivray likened The Boys’ studio years to a magician wresting his way out of a strait-jacket, finding it interesting to see how the comedians could pull off their old tricks despite being hemmed in. Similarly, though many of the plot elements and gag structures of the Columbia films seem as old as cinema itself, they’re worth watching just for the grace and nuance that Buster brings to them. He takes moth-eaten situations and makes them look as though he had just invented them.

One element that certainly helps is the shorts’ writing, done mostly by Laurel and Hardy veteran Felix Adler and Buster’s old sidekick Clyde Bruckman. (Bruckman, a co-writer of Keaton’s famed feature The General, must have had more than a say in the making of Mooching Through Georgia, a delightful Civil War send-up.)

Although, again, the quality of these Educational/Columbia shorts is mostly middling, each series bears only one short that is downright painful to watch. Educational’s Allez Oop depicts Keaton’s Elmer becoming jealous when his erstwhile girl (Spite Marriage‘s Dorothy Sebastian) falls for a trapeze artist, and then trying to master similar trapeze tricks in his own backyard. It’s saddening to watch the man who swooped all over a moving train in The General fall flat on his face while trying to swing just a few yards above the ground. (The movie’s sped-up film and music make the situation even more garish.)

In Columbia’s His Ex Marks the Spot, Buster, much to the consternation of his second wife (Dorothy Appleby), decides to let his ex-wife (Elsie Ames) and her boyfriend (Matt McHugh) live in his (Buster’s) apartment so that Buster won’t have to pay alimony. (The boyfriend lives with the ex-wife?? How did this get past the 1940’s censors?) It’s a very mean-spirited short that simply makes Buster look like a doofus in everything he does. The film isn’t helped by its constant cutaways to close-ups of McHugh’s derisive laughter at everyone’s stupid behavior.

But the rest of the shorts are no source of shame for the Keaton buff; just watching Buster’s body language in some of the scenes is worth the viewing. For the most part, the Educational and Columbia shorts are watchable at worst, and the best of them are worthy additions to the Keaton canon — even if Buster himself wouldn’t have agreed.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my first entry, about Buster Keaton’s 1965 short subject The Railrodder.)

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) – Like father, like son

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

I maintain that, next to the original The ProducersYoung Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ most beautifully realized work.

Why? Because it has heart.

That might sound like a radical statement to those who regarded the movie as simply (simply?) a comedy classic. And yes, there is no shortage of literally breathtaking comedy scenes here — all you have to do is mention them. The Frankenstein monster pounding out “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Coffee and a cigar with a blind man (a superb cameo from Gene Hackman). Horses’ dramatic reaction to the name Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). The list goes on and on.

But you know what? For all of its sublime spoofery, what I take away most from the movie is the oddly touching relationship between scientist Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder at his finest) and his zipper-necked creation (try and do more with a nearly dialogue-less role in a sound movie than Peter Boyle did).

The movie opens by demonstrating how dismissive Frederick is of his ancestor’s supposedly insane past. But Wilder brings gravitas to even this opening scene. Is Frederick truly that dismissive of his heritage, or is he afraid he’ll be drawn to it? There’s subtext beneath the satire.

And when Frederick is trapped in a locked room with his raging creation, he has no choice but to play nice with him. And it’s almost as if, despite his John Barrymore-like presence, Frederick owns up to having as much misfittiness as his erstwhile “son.” Is there another Brooks movie that truly cared about the well-being of its characters as much as this one?

Brooks has perfect pitch here, letting the rest of the cast play their shtick to the fullest in counterpart to the dysfunctional-family stuff. Marty Feldman as pixish “Eye-gor,” Teri Garr as Frederick’s fulsome assistant, Madeline Kahn as his stuffy fiancee, Leachman as the castlekeeper with a past, and Kenneth Mars as the spokesman for the town’s lynch mob, all contribute beautiful grace notes of comedy throughout.

But seriously — are comedy viewers not at least subconsciously touched by the connection that Frederick makes with Ol’ Zipper Neck? If you doubt my theory, note how Brooks never quite hit the comedic heights after this one, and how writer-director Wilder tried a similar take on family Freudianism (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Brother) and never even came close.

A generation of movie makers who were raised on Mel Brooks comedies has long since proven that movie spoofs can concentrate strictly on genre parody and never have to concern themselves with being touching. But Young Frankenstein proved that it certainly doesn’t hurt.

 

 

AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER (2002) – Fool’s gold (and that’s a compliment)

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If you look in my files under “Guilty Pleasures,” you’ll see a picture of Austin Powers. Mike Myers’ series of spy spoofs, featuring a 1960’s British playboy several depths of quality below James Bond, looks as though it has spent the well with its latest entry. And yet, as tasteless and smug as it often is, the best parts of Austin Powers in Goldmember are funnier than any other movie around.

The new story involves Austin (Myers) going back to 1975 to obtain the help of a former lover, Foxxy Cleopatra (Beyonce Knowles), in rescuing Austin’s father Nigel (Michael Caine). Austin also has to fight another Myers-performed villain named Goldmember, who became so obsessed with gold that he lost a very important part of his anatomy in a smelting accident.

All of this is pretty inconsequential. Unlike the previous Austin Powers movies, which had much fun with the ’60s concept of “free love,” Goldmember plays a little with the 1970’s and then abandons the idea. And like Heather Graham in the first sequel (whose disappearance here is never explained, strangely), Beyonce Knowles comes off as more of a good sport than an actress.

What was fairly obvious in the first two movies, and what really shines through here, is Mike Myers’ outrageous desire to entertain. There haven’t been this many musical numbers in a comedy since the salad days of The Marx Brothers and Monty Python. And when Powers does a disguise bit where he’s precariously balanced on top of Mini-Me (the ever-game Verne Troyer), cutesy pantomime music plays in the background, as though Myers were doing a farewell performance. And oddly enough, it’s all completely entertaining on that level.

As with the other Powers movies, this one’s major debit is its extreme obsession with bathroom humor. It’s like a bad crutch that Myers throws into the movie in case the truly funny stuff doesn’t work. And a lot of funny stuff there is, including a superb opening scene that kicks the movie into high gear.

This sequel will be roundly criticized for all the usual reasons, and even though I’ll probably agree with every criticism, Goldmember made me laugh so hard and often that it’s worth sitting through its debits. That said, the movie’s ending seems to have roundly finished off any future possibilities for sequels. Austin, you’ve had a good run — now quit while you’re ahead, baby.

FREAKY FRIDAY (2003) – Jamie Lee Curtis gets her freak on

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Jamie Lee Curtis blasts through Freaky Friday like a breath of fresh air in a staid movie premise. This personality-switch comedy (already done twice before by Disney) takes forever to get going, but when it does, Curtis doesn’t just trade places — she channels Lucille Ball.

Curtis plays Tess Coleman, a prickly psychologist who is touchy-feely with her patients but has no patience for her teenaged daughter Anna (Lindsay Lohan). When the two have a fight in a Chinese restaurant on the eve of widow Tess’ second wedding, a Chinese sage (in the movie’s most dated story element) gives them a magical formula that will cause them to walk more than a mile in each other’s shoes.

Let’s get the nasty stuff out of the way first. Besides the wise Oriental, the movie offers up such painful stereotypes as the senile grandpa (wasted Harold Gould) and the smart-alecky younger brother. For a while, the movie all too vividly resembles one of those late-’60s Disney comedies where the characters on the screen resemble no human beings you’ve ever met.

But when the transformation finally takes place, there’s no stopping Curtis who, in 2002, enhanced her fame with a magazine spread where she displayed her unglamorized, middle-aged self. And what that pictorial didn’t do, this movie finishes the job. She throws herself — quite often literally — into the role of a mom-as-teen so well, it’s as though she’s using the role to work out her own mid-life crisis. This isn’t the stuff to win Oscars, but for everyday moviegoers, it’s a blessed catharsis.

Lindsay Lohan admirably holds her own with Curtis, plausibly adjusting the angst-ridden teen routine to prim-and-proper oldster as the script calls for it. The “second banana” in these routines is inevitably the overlooked one, but Lohan is a pitch-perfect trouper. Together, she and Curtis take a premise that ought to be threadbare and, by sheer force of personality, makes it a winning family comedy.

TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969) – Woody Allen steals the show

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The following is my entry in the “It Takes a Thief” Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 17-19, 2017 by Debbie at the blog Moon in GeminiClick on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies’ portrayal of thieves!

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In Take the Money and Run, his first movie as writer-director-star, Woody Allen plays Virgil Starkwell, a supremely inept thief and bank robber. The story is told in mock-documentary style (narrated by Jackson Beck, voice of Bluto in the later-era Popeye cartoons), but it’s not so much a story as a meshing of styles. It hops from man-on-the-street interviews to silent-film-style comedy to set pieces in order to disguise what little form it really has.

That said, if you’re a hardcore Woody Allen fan, it’s surprising how it sets the template for many of his future movies. Allen returned to the mock-doc style for his more highbrow comedies Zelig (1983) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999), and he later mined the bank-robbery theme for further laughs in Small Time Crooks (2000).

The most startling theme here is one that Allen mined more starkly in his first drama, Interiors (1978). In a contemporary interview, Allen said that one of the ideas he was exploring in Interiors was that of the artist who badly wants to create but finds that he really has nothing substantial to say. That theme has echoes here in Starkwell’s incompetent bank robber; after watching him bungle caper after caper, you’d think he’d realize he was no good at it and move on to a more lucrative occupation.

(This theme is summed up perfectly in an interview with one of Starkwell’s old acquaintances [played by Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser]. She states incredulously, “Everyone just thought he was a schlemiel, and it turns out he’s a criminal. I can’t believe it — there was a mind working in there, that could rob banks. It’s phenomenal!”)

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Probably the movie’s funniest scene is when Starkwell hands a sloppily written stick-up note to a bank teller, and before long, every worker in the bank is nonchalantly re-reading the note and second-guessing Starkwell’s terrible penmanship. But the funniest moments come completely out of left field, as when Starkwell and five other convicts are chained together at the ankles, and they all have to quietly slink in unison to avoid the suspicions of an inquisitive lawman. Or when the convicts are working on a rockpile, and a black man starts singing a spiritual, and Starkwell finds himself doing the song Tony Bennett-style.

As a comedy-film debut, Take the Money and Run occupies a spot in Allen’s canon similar to Monty Python’s first movie, And Now for Something Completely Different. It’s not his greatest or funniest film, but it’s a nice harbinger of things to come.

(FUN TRIVIA: The movie’s very first line of dialogue gives Virgil Starkwell’s birth date as Dec. 1, 1935 — the same as Woody Allen’s. Also, Virgil’s future wife is played lovingly by Janet Margolin, who was later to play Alvy Singer’s far less sympathetic spouse in Allen’s Annie Hall [1977].)

THE KID (1921) – One of Charlie Chaplin’s finest films

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The following is my entry in the Then and Now (Now and Then) Blogathon, being co-hosted by the blogs Realweegiemidget Reviews and Thoughts All Sorts from Nov. 12-15, 2017. You can click here for more details, but the main rules are that a participating blogger must choose:

  1. an actor or actress, and review two movies in which they appeared;
  2. a director or producer, and review two movies in which they appeared; or
  3. a film or TV series that has been rebooted or remade, and review those.

Essentially, I have chosen both 1 and 2, as I am reviewing two feature films directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin; my entry for # 2 can be found here. (I must confess that in the case of # 2, Chaplin appeared only in a seconds-long cameo. Otherwise, the criteria fit both entries.) The two entries come from wildly varied points in Chaplin’s film career — the first, when he was at the height of his creative and producing powers; the second; his movie swan song, long after much of those powers had been hindered by age and circumstances.

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Nowadays, it’s nothing for a laugh-along sitcom to trumpet a “Very Special Episode” in which things are suddenly going to get semi-serious for a half-hour. But before Charlie Chaplin made The Kid, he was heralded by naysayers who knew perfectly well you couldn’t mix comedy and drama in the same movie. Nearly a century later, the original template still holds up magnificently.

This “comedy with a smile and, perhaps, a tear” begins with an unwed mother (Edna Purviance) “whose only sin was motherhood.” (Chaplin’s intertitles here are unusually editorializing – more on that in a moment.) Guiltily, she abandons her newborn baby in the backseat of a limousine that is soon stolen. When the car’s hijackers discover the baby in the back, they ditch the baby in an alley (mercifully so – one of the hijackers is ready and willing to shoot the child).

Enter the Tramp on his morning stroll. He happens upon the baby, and as soon as he tries to abandon the infant, all manner of circumstances cause him to be stuck with the child as though he was flypaper. And yet, for a man who fancies himself a loner, once the Tramp accepts the inevitable, he’s surprisingly adaptable to this new addition to his life.

Five years later, and the babe (Jackie Coogan) has grown into the spitting image of his foster father. The duo run a “business” of sorts, which I won’t detail here because it would be a “spoiler” and because it’s so beautifully detailed within the movie.

Later, Jackie has another great scene where he and the Tramp must deal with a neighborhood bully and his older brother. The conflict leaves Jackie ill, and when a doctor visits Jackie in his rundown home, he decides the law must intervene with (as a title tells us) “the proper care” – heartless officials who want to take Jackie away to an orphanage.

Of the scene where Jackie is nearly separated from the Tramp, Coogan said years later, “If you are going to portray yourself as being hysterical, you better get yourself hysterical or, brother, it’s as phony as a three-dollar bill.” Unlike so many stagey child actors before and since, phoniness in the one emotion that never occurs in Coogan’s performance. Whatever the scene calls for, he’s there. And this particular, openly cathartic scene proves that Chaplin knew the bedrock rule of parenthood: You don’t screw around with someone’s kid.

If the movie has any weak link, it’s probably its finale. Finally separated from the kid when a flophouse manager finds there’s been a reward offered for his return, the Tramp searches the city for the kid all night, returning forlornly to his own doorstep and falling asleep. There follows a cute but superfluous dream sequence in which the Tramp and Jackie are reunited in Heaven but still must deal with day-to-day hassles. The sequence has a few laughs, but like the “It was only a dream” endings done to death by Chaplin and his peers, it’s rather turned into a cliché from overuse.

(There’s also an interesting moment where a devil appears over the shoulder of a young female angel as she stares at the Tramp and tells her to “Vamp him.” Years later, when her name was changed to Lita Grey and she became the second Mrs. Charles Chaplin, she seemed to have done just that.)

And finally, the happy ending. A policeman rounds up the Tramp and takes him to the mansion of the kid’s mother. She is now a world-famous star and has been reunited with her child, and she happily welcomes the Tramp into her home as the film fades out. It’s a nice thought, except where would it go from there? The woman would no doubt be grateful for all that the Tramp has done, but where/how would he fit into her world? And being the Tramp, who never wants to fit in anywhere, how long before he would get restless and want to abandon the whole idyll? The later ambiguity of City Lights is far more satisfying precisely because it doesn’t strain to put a final exclamation point on the whole matter.

That said, The Kid is still a marvelous tearjerker in the best sense. Perhaps because the story involves not just the Tramp, whom we feel can fend on his own well enough, but an innocent child, the lower-class world inhabited by the Tramp seems even more bare-boned than usual. (In the shot where the flophouse manager is reading the newspaper ad for the kid’s reward, we even see a fly crawling across the newspaper. Eeew!) Maybe that’s why Chaplin went for the quick wrap-up with its sanitary setting.