Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fun in a Telephone Booth

Lou Costello in Who Done It? (1942)
Today, we will look at the origins of the classic Abbott and Costello routine "Alexander 2222."  Here is the routine as I first saw it.

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All evidence points to the fact that the routine was introduced by Harry Watson, Jr., as  part of the Broadway show "Odds and Ends," which ran for 112 performances from November 19, 1917 to January 18, 1918. 

Watson continued to perform his "Odds and Ends" routines, which also included his "Battling Dugan" boxing bit, on the vaudeville circuit from 1918 to 1921.  Reports in Variety show that Watson played the act extensively in New York theatres (Palace, Colonial, Riverside) as well as San Francisco's Orpheum theatre.  Reviews were consistently good.  In June, 1919, a Variety critic reported that Watson was "laughing hit" with his "funny telephone bit" at the Riverside theatre.  The critic added, "The present chaotic condition of the telephone service has made Watson's act funnier than ever."

Other comedians began to perform variations of the routine in other venues.  Joe Bennett performed the routine under the title "Telephone Tangle" at Chicago's Kedzie theatre in September, 1919.  But no vaudeville observer had any doubt as to the source of the material.  The Variety critic specifically praised Bennett for "elaborat[ing] on the idea carried out by Harry Watson in his specialty in 'Odds and Ends.'"  For years, Watson maintained his status as the originator of the routine.  The routine was duplicated in "Big Wonder Show," which debuted at New York's Columbia Theatre in September, 1921.  Variety noted that, by performing "a verbatim lift of Harry Watson, Jr.'s vaudeville act," George P. Murphy furnished "the funniest scene in the show."  Burlesque comics Benny Platt and Frank "Rags" Murphy struggled futilely to impress audiences with familiar routines in "Steppin' Out," a show that debuted at the Mutual theatre in January, 1925.  Variety reported, "Platt and Murphy. . . [get] the most with a telephone booth idea probably inspired by Harry Watson's."  Elements of Watson's act could also be found in Harold Lloyd's struggles to make a call on a public phone in Number Please (1920).

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Watson set aside the routine while he performed in other Broadway shows, including "The Passing Show of 1921" and "Tip-Toes."  He later revived the routine in 1925, showcasing his telephone booth antics in grand style at the Hippodrome theatre.  A Variety wrote, "Watson with little change from the now hardy perennial, the telephone and 'Battling Kid' skits, got plenty of laughs.  The audience didn't seem to have been surfeited with his stuff.  He now has a pair of banjoing boys between scenes, a welcome relief and a vivid surprise that Watson would change his act at all." 

The routine remained durable.  Watson returned to the Hippodrome with the act, now called "In a Telephone Booth," in December, 1928.  A report in Variety dated August 22, 1928 indicated that Fox had engaged Watson to film the sketch for a sound short.  Unfortunately, the short was never made.  As it turned out, Watson retired soon after his Hippodrome appearance.  

The routine was forgotten until it appeared again in the Abbott and Costello feature Who Done It? (1942).

A variation of the routine titled "Number Please" (the same title as the Harold Lloyd film) was performed by Keenan Wynn in The Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

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A Motion Picture Daily critic reported, "This is the old gag about getting long distance calls through in two seconds but failing to reach a friend in the next block."  This certainly was a funny basis for a routine, which has allowed this comic business to remain as funny today as it was in 1918.  Thank you, Harry.


Let me now take this opportunity to give a rundown of other entertaining uses of the telephone booth.

The first telephone booth was installed in a Connecticut bank in 1889.  By 1902, telephone booths could be found throughout the United States.  Vaudeville entertainers soon recognized the comic potential of this device.  Rieny Craig and James A. Welch's 1907 act "Hello" was, according to Variety, built around a "burlesque telephone booth."  The same year, Euson's Theatre in Chicago introduced comedian Harry Bryant performing what Variety described as a "threadbare telephone booth episode."  In 1916, Tom Coyne performed at New York's Olympic Theater in a comedy act called "The Telephone Booth."  The routine had Coyne hiding inside a telephone booth to avoid an irate man.  The irate man, determined to harm Coyne, resorted to energetically rocking the booth.  If there was more to the act than that, it was not revealed in Variety's write up of the act.

A stock gag in early silent films had a fat comedian getting wedged inside a telephone booth.  In Losing Weight (1916), big-bellied Hughie Mack struggles to extract himself from a telephone booth, finally freeing himself when the strain of his great bulk causes the structure to burst apart. 

In 1921, the Six Juggling Bernsteins used a telephone booth at the center of an act called "Fun in a Telephone Booth."  According to Variety, the act was well-received.  The Variety critic wrote, "[T]heir quick passing of telephone books [was] loudly applauded."

Shipwrecked Among Animals, a 1922 short comedy produced for Universal's Century series, opens with the sinking of a steamship, the S. S. Sadness.  As he struggles to stay afloat in the ocean, sailor Harry Sweet sees a telephone booth floating among the ship's debris.  Sweet climbs inside the telephone booth and attempts to phone up a rescue party.  The Film Daily critic wrote, "In the middle of the sea he calls for a number but gets the busy reply."

In Three Ages (1923), Buster Keaton is able to escape from a police station when he unwittingly steps inside a telephone booth that is being moved out of the building.

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In Out of Order (1923), Neely Edwards and Bert Roach have come up with a movable dummy telephone booth.  They simply need to set up their telephone booth on a busy street corner and wait for an unsuspecting patron to enter to make a call.  According to Exhibitor's Trade Review, "[T]he usual nickel is deposited and falls into a tube that sends it speeding into [a] waiting hat outside."

Eddie Cantor performs a comic monologue in a phone booth in the Paramount short That Party in Person (1928).

In Red-Headed Woman (1932), Jean Harlow corners Chester Morris in a telephone booth for some torrid smooching.

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Laurel and Hardy get stuck in a telephone booth with a drunken Arthur Housman in Our Relations (1936).  Blogger Movie Mag described the scene as "Laurel and Hardy’s answer to the stateroom sequence in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera." 

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Felix Adler, one of the film's writers, had scripted a similar scene for the Fox short The Complete Life (1926).  The earlier routine started out with a tipsy man stumbling into a phone booth, which he has mistaken for a cab. 
 
Kent Taylor locks feisty rival Irene Hervey in a phone booth in The Lady Fights Back (1937).

"Busy Line, 4142" (1938) was a radio drama that unfolded within the confines of a phone booth.  Essentially the same idea was behind Joel Schumacher's 2002 feature Phone Booth.

According to The Film Daily, a telephone booth helped to provide a "swell gag" to The Cavalcade of Stuff (1938).  The narrator,  F. Chase Taylor (radio's Colonel Stoopnagle), explains that the telephone booth is too cramped and hot to be comfortable.  Footage shows a sweaty fat man squeezing inside a telephone booth and a dithery woman with packages trying to settle herself inside a booth.

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The pay phone became a source of laughs in a number of television sitcoms, including Gomer Pyle ("Gomer and the Phone Company," 1966), The Bill Cosby Show ("The Fatal Phone Call," 1969), Love, American Style ("Love and the Phone Booth," 1969) and The Brady Bunch ("Sorry, Right Number," 1969).  My favorite of these episodes, though, is the 1951 Amos 'n' Andy episode "The Rare Coin."  When Kingfish accidentally deposits Andy's valuable rare nickel into a pay phone, Andy tears apart the phone booth in a desperate effort to retrieve the coin.

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Slacker buddies Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter travel through time in a telephone booth in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).


"Pay the Two dollars!"

Eugene and Willie Howard
A highlight of the Broadway show "George White's Scandals of 1936" was Willie and Eugene Howard's comedy sketch "A Slight Case of Murder."  Literature scholar Jim Bernhard, author of the "Words Going Wild" blog, described the routine as follows:
The sketch commences on a New York subway. Willie is an inoffensive milquetoast, accompanied by a friend who is an aggressive and belligerent lawyer [Eugene]. . . They argue, and Willie gets worked up and spits on the floor.  The subway conductor points to a sign indicating a $2.00 fine for spitting.  Willie wishes to pay the fine, but the lawyer, as a matter of principle, will not let him.  Penalties escalate, as the lawyer unsuccessfully fights the fine and Willie pleads, "Let's pay the two dollars."  But the lawyer is obsessed with vindication - and Willie is ultimately sentenced to death in the electric chair.  The lawyer finally obtains a pardon for Willie, and as they return home on the subway, Willie denounces the lawyer for destroying his life.   He becomes worked up again and inadvertently spits on the subway floor.  Blackout.
The routine was re-created with Victor Moore and Edward Arnold for the 1946 film Ziegfeld Follies.

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The routine was extensively reworked for a 1952 episode of the Abbott and Costello Show called "Jail."

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Bernhard explained that the phrase "Pay the two dollars" became a widely known idiom.  It came to essentially mean "Don't fight City Hall" or "Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill."  The line turned up in the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest (1959).  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman specifically credited the Willie and Eugene Howard sketch in the film's DVD commentary.

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Additional Note

I expanded my handcuff routine article to acknowledge additional renditions of the routine, including an early version performed by Johnny Arthur and Anita Garvin.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Funny Medical Disorder


We are here today to talk about an involuntary contraction of the diaphragm, which is known by doctors as a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter.  It may be hard to believe, but this disorder has been a reliable source of comedy.  Amusement comes from the fact that, when a person experiences this contraction, their vocal cords are forced to close and they emit a loud "hic" sound from their throat.  The disorder is known by us more common folk as a hiccup.  The hiccup is something that people have likely laughed uproariously about since the beginning of mankind.  Hiccups have gotten more attention in comedy films than other similar afflictions, including coughs, yawns and sneezes.

Hiccups can be brought on by intense emotions, including fear, anxiety, excitement or happiness.  Home remedies for hiccups include headstanding, drinking several glasses of water, being frightened by someone, breathing into a bag, and eating a large spoonful of peanut butter.  Frightening a person with hiccups really helps.  A person reacts to a sudden fright with a gasp, which relaxes their diaphragm and reopens their vocal cords.  You can see that we have in this ailment the makings of good comedy.

Let me list hiccup routines of film and television in chronological order.

A 1909 Gaumont comedy, A Sure Cure, presents the comic efforts of a wife to rid her husband of the hiccups.  When a number of remedies prove unsuccessful, the wife sees that she needs to take more drastic measures.  The wife makes several attempts to frighten her husband, but nothing that she does works.  As a last resort, she summons her mother to their home.  The terrifying sight of his mother-in-law brings the husband immediate relief.

Charley Chase found a unique way to use hiccups in Tell 'Em Nothing (1926).  Chase, a divorce lawyer, receives an unexpected visit at his home from a pretty blonde client (Vivien Oakland).  He hides the woman under his bed when his wife (Gertrude Astor) arrives home suddenly.  Oakland gets an attack of hiccups, which Chase tries to conceal by pretending the hiccup noises are coming from him. 
 
Bebe Daniels helps to cure Neil Hamilton of hiccups in Take Me Home (1928).

Charlie Chaplin introduced humorous sound effects into his comic repertoire in City Lights (1931).  At a party, Chaplin accidentally swallows a penny whistle.  Having the whistle lodged in his throat brings on a distressing case of hiccups.  The funny twist is that, every time that he hiccups, he makes a whistling sound, which annoys a singer who is attempting to perform an aria.


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Oswald does everything he can to cure his dog, Elmer, of hiccups in Elmer, the Great Dane (1935).

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Fred MacMurray applies his unique expertise to cure Carole Lombard of hiccups in Hands Across the Table (1935).

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A barber develops hiccups while cutting a man's hair in Once Over Lightly (1935).

Dopey hiccups bubbles after he accidentally swallows a bar of soap in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

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Joe Penner gets an attack of hiccups whenever he kisses a girl in Millionaire Playboy (1940).


A chronic case of hiccups causes Merle Oberon to seek medical help in That Uncertain Feeling (1942).  This film establishes that a hiccup can be a psychological tic that develops when a person is anxious.  When the film opens, Oberon has just recovered from one of her reoccurring hiccup episodes and she is being advised and comforted by close friends.

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It is curious that the director, Ernst Lubitsch, avoided opening his film with his beautiful leading lady engaged in a comical hiccup fit.  Was hiccup humor not elegant or sophisticated enough for the classy director?  But, no, we do eventually see Oberon produce a hiccup.

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Daffy Duck consults a doctor to cure his hiccups in The Impatient Patient (1942).

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Dave O'Brien struggles to find a cure for his hiccups in the Pete Smith Specialty short Sure Cures (1946).

In Helter Skelter (1949), a detective (David Tomlinson) gets involved with a wealthy socialite who can't stop hiccuping.

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In Hic-cup Pup (1954), Tom and Jerry's fighting abruptly wakes Spike's son Tyke, causing the puppy to suffer a violent onset of hiccups.

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Hiccups became a considerable source of amusement on television.  An early example is an episode of The Honeymooners ("The Loudspeaker," 1956).  Ralph (Jackie Gleason) is excited to learn that he has been named Racoon of the Year, but he is in the midst of preparing his acceptance speech when he is stricken with hiccups.

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This episode may have been the template for many sitcom episodes that followed.  A character would be nervous about a big event and their anxiety would arouse hiccups.  Many actors have tried to draw laughs by making a funny chirp, squeak or "huff" as they struggled with hiccups, but Gleason sets the bar high with his wildly agitated hiccups.  This same plot was recycled on a number of top-rated shows.  Wally Cox, a symphony percussionist who's nervous about performing with a big New York orchestra, develops a bad case of hiccups in an episode of The Lucy Show ("Lucy Conducts the Symphony," 1963).

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Barney is afflicted with hiccups right before an important physical examination in The Andy Griffith Show ("Barney's Physical," 1964).  

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Fred helps Barney to get rid of his hiccups in an episode of The Flintstones ("Barney the Invisible," 1962).

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Of course, the hiccups are exaggerated to monstrous proportions in an episode of The Munsters ("Herman's Sorority Caper," 1966).

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Grandpa (Al Lewis) performs the Transylvanian Brain Freezer to rid Herman (Fred Gwynne) of his hiccups.

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Peter, who is nervous about performing in front of a big producer, gets a stubborn bout of hiccups in an episode of The Monkees ("Find the Monkees," 1967). 

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Davey, Mike and Mickey attempt to cure Peter's hiccups by scaring him with monster masks.


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Paula Prentiss is beset with hiccups as she gets ready for a party in an episode of He and She ("The Coming Out Party," 1967).

A explosive pill gives Woody Allen the hiccups in Casino Royale (1967).

Hiccups ruin a wedding night for Richard Dawson and Anjanette Comer in an episode of Love, American Style ("Love and the Hiccups," 1971).  The ruined wedding night was a staple of the series.

A fantasy element freshened up this old premise in an episode of Bewitched ("Sam's Psychic Slip," 1971).  Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) develops the strangest case of hiccups.  Every time she hiccups, a bicycle magically appears.


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In a 1975 episode of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase plays a minister who gets hiccups while trying to deliver a eulogy.  The grieving family tries various methods to stop the hiccups.

A king's guard gets the hiccups in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

The anxiety premise returned after a brief respite in an episode of Alice ("Alice's Decision," 1979).  Alice (Linda Lavin) has her big break at a singing career thwarted by an attack of the hiccups.

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Bull (Richard Moll) tries a range of remedies to get rid of hiccups in an episode of Night Court ("Futureman," 1990).

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Roberto Benigni makes himself a nuisance with his chronic hiccups in Down By Law (1986).

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Who knew that a rhythmic series of breathing spasms could be so funny?

The Three Stooges in Men In Black (1934)

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The Transylvanian Brain Freezer

 
 
 

And Around and Around We Go!

 

In 1899, the world’s first revolving door was installed at Rector’s, a restaurant in Manhattan's Times Square.  It wasn't long after this event that comedians recognized the comic potential of the revolving door.  Several characters tangle with revolving doors in an early comedy film appropriately titled The Revolving Doors (1910).  In 1913, the team of Mahoney and Tremont used a revolving door for comic effect in their stage act.

 
But it was Chaplin who succeeded in creating the first classic revolving door routine in The Cure (1917).  The routine was meticulously choreographed and exquisitely performed.

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Harold Lloyd, who was on his way to becoming Chaplin's chief rival, tried his hand at the revolving door routine in Next Aisle Over (1919).  I found footage of this routine that was included in a French television documentary.  Be warned, the quality is poor.

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A revolving showcase was used similarly by Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy in The Bakery (1921).

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The revolving door remained a centerpiece of comedy for decades. 

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

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Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd in The Soilers (1932)

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The Ritz Brothers in The Hotel Anchovy (1934)

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The Three Stooges in No Census, No Feeling (1940)

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 Peter Sellers in Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

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Anyone could get in on the action.  Asta the dog chases an escaping criminal around in a revolving door in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).

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A baby crawls into a revolving door at a department store in Baby's Day Out (1994).

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On television, the revolving door was central to a hotel sketch on a 1966 episode of The Danny Kaye Show.  In the sketch, Kaye plays a new bellboy whose misadventures with the revolving door infuriates the hotel manager (Harvey Korman). 

The animation community has loved these animated doors. 

Pluto's Judgement Day (1935)

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A Date To Skate (1938)

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Bellboy Donald (1942)

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Rabbit of Seville (1950)

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Dixieland Droopy (1954)

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How does the revolving door fare in more modern comedy?

Elf (2003)

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Comedy was once pantomime and choreography, but now it's flailing and vomiting.  But, the same year that Elf was released, Jackie Chan worked out a clever revolving door routine for Shanghai Knights (2003).

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This way out, my friends.