Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The First Known Pie-in-the-Face Gag

Peter Reitan, author of the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog, has written extensively about the origins of the "slipping on a banana peel" gag. 



Mr. Reitan has now moved his attention to the "pie in the face" gag" and he asked me for specific information on the gag's origins.  When I wrote The Funny Parts, I found a number of sources that credited Weber and Fields with inventing the pie-in-the-face gag.  As I recall, one of those sources was Matthew Kennedy's Marie Dressler biography.  But details on this subject were not something that turned up in my research.  Fortunately, online reference sources have expanded greatly in the last few years.  So, now, I can explain the exact origins of the gag. 

In 1898, the Broadway theatre turned out a popular melodrama called "The Conquerors."  A particularly memorable scene in the play involved a smug Prussian officer dining with a French maiden.  The officer attempts to force himself on the maiden, which causes her to throw wine in his face.  Weber and Field spoofed the scene in a sketch they called "The Con-Curers."  This time, the maiden smashes a thick and gooey custard pie into the officer's face.  The rest, as they say, is history. 

Mr. Reitan's research has also turned up an early car chase film, Trials and Troubles of an Automobilist.  The film was produced in 1904 by Paley and Steiner, who marketed their titles under the name Crescent Films.  The story involves a motorist whose reckless driving causes his vehicle to knock over an apple cart.  The apple seller chases the car to get his hands on the motorist and exert violent retribution.  Many others, including comic police officers, join the chase. 


Mr. Reitan believes that another Crescent film, Around New York in Fifteen Minutes (1905), may have featured an early example of the "slipping on a banana peel" gag.  The film, which presented a tour of Manhattan, included a scene titled "The Shopping District and What a Banana Peel Will Do."  A lawsuit filed against Paley and Steiner by Thomas Edison, who claimed that the partners infringed on his motion picture camera patent, promptly put an end to Crescent Films.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Live Long and Prosper

In an interview with Radio Times, Star Trek actor Simon Pegg had harsh words for adults obsessed with comic book films.  He said, "[W]e're essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes.  Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously.  It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues.  Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about. . . whatever.  Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot."  This was a real life reprise of William Shatner's "Get a Life!" speech from Saturday Night Live.

I wrestled with the man-child issue while writing my new book, I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present.  I could maybe accept a 35-year-old man running around Comic-Con dressed as Captain America.  But it is about more than a bunch of adults letting off steam at an annual costume party.  The fact is that, in all likelihood, you could talk to the man in the Captain America costume and find out that he devoted countless hours to the fabrication of his costume.  Comic books have gone from being a diversion to being an obsession.  That can't be good.

An author who commits to a discussion of the man-child trend will inevitably find himself engaged in either a passionate defense or an absolute condemnation of the man-child.  It is the type of controversy that doesn’t allow moderate feelings.  But, still, I resisted the urge to turn my book into a polemic.  I have seen other authors go down that path and the works that they turned out were more angry than astute.  I did not want to be what author Jason Kotecki has called the "harrumphing codger," but I also didn't want to be an advocate of irresponsible man-child behavior.  So, I found a balance between the two points of views.  I wanted to leave it to the readers to absorb the book's facts, observations and insights and come to their own conclusions about the man-child and, of course, his value to film comedy.

Pegg found a niche playing childish characters while he was working in British television in the 1990s.  He starred in the sitcom Spaced as quintessential man-child Tim Bisley.  Wikipedia describes the Bisley character as follows: "Tim, rarely seen without his skateboard, his Chocolate beanie, or his PlayStation controller, is an aspiring comic book artist, amateur skateboarder, and passionate follower of cult fiction in many forms, including video games, science fiction, and especially - at least initially - the original Star Wars trilogy.”  Pegg wrote of Tim, "[H]e channeled his childhood passions into his adult life, cared about them as much, invested in them, the same level of time, importance and emotion.  His hobbies and interests defined who he was, rather than his professional status."

It is at times hard to determine if a filmmaker is celebrating the man-child or mocking him.  Pegg has explored the man-child for nearly twenty years.  This has, without question, been a long journey.  In his various films and television series, the actor has highlighted the man-child's strengths alongside his weaknesses.  Evidently, the journey has finally ended and Pegg has come to his grim and inexorable conclusion.

The mobs of man-children on the Internet are not the sort of people who see benefit in contemplating criticism.  They are highly protective of their way of life and they will react strongly against those who speak against them.  So, they did not react well to Pegg's comments.  They had a collective tantrum that lasted for days.  It surprised me, though, that many of the people who became defensive over Pegg's remarks expressed fear and despair rather than rage.  They justified their childish obsessions by admitting to being overwhelmed by the world.  They see the world as a nightmare beyond repair and they cannot figure any other way to cope.  It makes the man-child more sympathetic to know that their infantile condition doesn’t come so much from pleasure-seeking and narcissism as it comes from distress.

Pegg acknowledged the fear and despair.  He wrote in his response to the uproar, "It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth?  A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read."

Mass media has the habit of laying the world's problems on our doorstep.  It can be unbearable to an individual to be forced on a daily basis to confront the problems of 196 nations.  We would be more effective and more content to focus on just the problems of our immediate community.  But the constant bombardment of global ills has put our perception and cognition into a disordered state.  We, as a society, have made overanxious by the media, which has caused us to be hyper-aware of the world at large and has amplified the world's many, many problems.  It no wonder that a young person who is hooked up to a continuous Internet feed wants to run away and hide.

Still, I cannot help but become a harrumphing codger at times.  I harrumphed a great deal when I learned about cosplay porn.  Is sexual relations so frightening and unpleasant that young people can't cope with sex without dressing up in a costume or seeing others dress up in costumes?  Again, this is about more than dress up games.  Sex is empty when intimacy and openness is replaced by lycra and spangles, but maybe the point is to avoid intimacy and openness.  After all, this can only lead to messy situations.  A couple that gets intimate usually finds themselves up to their necks in dirty diapers, pablum and vomit.  I have heard about (but have not confirmed) a subgenre of cosplay called genderplay crossplay.  As I understand it, this involves a man dressing up as a female character and a female dressing up as a male character.  The couple presents this demented parody as a rejection of traditional gender roles.  It is just stupid, weird, and unhealthy.  Sex doesn't mean much if it's nothing more than a game or a parody.

It has become difficult to sort out this touchy issue.  Conflict is inevitable whenever a man attempts to balance work and play.  It is the epic Freudian battle of the id and the super-ego.  I could never overlook the benefits of child's play.  Kotecki sees it as beneficial for a man to retain his childlike enthusiasm and optimism.  He believes that an adult needs to have fun to relieve stress and, more important, he believes that an adult can have fun without being irresponsible.  In Shaun of the Dead (2004), Pegg's Shaun learns to be a mature partner to his girlfriend, but he still steals away on occasion to play a video game with an old zombie friend.

Play and fantasy should never consume our lives.  Let us bravely come out into the light of day and be virtuous, well-rounded and productive citizens.

Additional note

Pegg performed the same slipping-on-fluid gag in all three films of his Cornetto Trilogy.  Click here to see.


Funny Fruit in the Family Tree

A recent episode of the celebrity genealogy series "Who Do You Think You Are?" traced the family lineage of choirmaster Gareth Malone to the Edwardian era of musical comedy theatre.  It was in this time and place that Malone's great great grandfather, Edmund Payne, obtained fame and adoration as a comedian. 

The actor, with his diminutive stature, his rotund figure and his pronounced lisp, made a striking comic character.  He further distinguished himself, according to Wikipedia, with his "elastic facial expressions, including his 'pop' eyes."

From 1892 to 1912, Payne was the principal comedian at London's prestigious Gaiety Theatre, which specialized in colorful and lighthearted musical comedies.  In many productions, the actor was aided in his comic turns by George Grossmith, who functioned in their act as a classic straight man.

In 1900, a theatre critic with the Pall Mall Gazette described Payne as "inimitably funny" and said that he "danced as he only can dance."

Here is a scene from the television show.


I found it a pleasant surprise to learn that Payne and Grossmith had starred in a film.


More can be found about Payne at http://www.edmundpayne.co.uk/.

Digging deeper into his family history, Malone found a second comic singer, Daniel Lowrey.  Lowrey, who was Malone's 4 x great grandfather, went on to become an important impresario in Dublin.


Malone has always recognized an enthusiasm for music and performance in his family.  "In my DNA," he said, "there’s a little switch for singing and it’s on."

As this show demonstrates, film and theatre history is rich with fascinating stories.  It is my unwavering belief that the accomplished men and women who populate these stories are worth our attention.

Random Bits for September

Lloyd Hamilton discarded his checkered cap to be the grand marshal of Straw Hat Day.

I thank Steve Rydzewski for letting me know that these photos of Ham and Bud have been posted to ebay.  I believe that the first photo is from The Blundering Blacksmith (1917) and the second photo is from For Sweet Charity (1916).

A carnival's distorting mirror is always a good prop to use when photographing a comedian.

Many comedy films have included a scene in which the comedian has had to awkwardly carry about a dead or unconscious person, but this action was typically limited to a single scene.  Three Girls About Town (1941) was the first feature film in which the comic leads spent most of the film's running time dragging around a corpse.  This was almost 50 years before Weekend at Bernie's (1989).

Here are two clips from the film.



An expressive comedian could draw a steady stream of laughs trying on a variety of hats.  An example of this comic business could be found in an early Hepworth film.  The film's title is, to my knowledge, unknown.


Here we have Norma Nichols, Larry Semon and Frank Alexnder in The Rent Collector (1921).

My favorite oldtime music hall singer is Harry Champion.  Champion amassed a large repertoire of songs.

Many of them were, according to Wikipedia, "sung at breakneck speed and often about the joys of food."  Champion's food songs included "Boiled Beef and Carrots," "Taters," "A Little Bit Of Cucumber," "Yorkshire Pudden," "Let's Have a Basin of Soup," "Hot Meat Pies, Saveloys and Trotters," "Put a Bit of Treacle on my Puddin', Mary Ann," "Oh! That Gorgonzola Cheese" and the rather blunt "I Want Meat." 


But he also had great success with non-food songs, including "I'm Proud Of My Old Bald Head," "It's Cold Without Your Trousers," "My Wife's Sister's Pussy Cat" and "Never Let Your Braces Dangle."  I enjoy so many of Champion's songs in this category that I had a hard time selecting a single one to post.  I decided in the end to post three additional songs.  I hope that you enjoy them, too.



A Brief Comparison of Road Warrior and Hondo

Road Warrior (1981) was influenced in many ways by the John Wayne classic Hondo (1953).

A bitter loner and his mongrel dog.
A bitter loner and his mongrel dog.
A good example of this influence can be found in a darkly funny incident that occurs while the warriors pressure the settlers to surrender.  During the scene, the warriors find perverse humor in an unexpected act of violence.



A Taste of Minsky's

I have had much to say recently about Minsky's "Flugel Street" burlesque, which was intiated with great enthusiasm by Joey Faye and Sid Fields.  The only record that I had of this "Flugel Street" variant was Faye's scripts.  But my articles drew the attention of Thomas Williams, who hosts a Phil Silvers website called Gladaseeya!.  Williams directed me to a radio recording in which the Minsky version of "Flugel Street" is faithfully performed by Phil Silvers and Rags Ragland.


I recommend that you visit Mr. William's site at http://www.gladaseeya.co.uk/.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Shame on Me


I received avid feedback on my recent series of articles on the history of Abbott and Costello's burlesque routines.  Unfortunately, not all of the feedback was positive.  One person insisted that "Who's On First?" was an old minstrel show routine that dates back to the Civil War era.  This person may be right, but I can find no credible evidence that supports this claim.  Another person insisted that Joey Faye is the sole creator of the "Flugel Street" routine.  I have done exhaustive research on "Flugel Street" and I stand by what I have written on the subject.  Faye, himself, admitted that Sidney Fields co-wrote the Minsky update with him.  The routine undoubtedly bears much of Fields' style of humor.  However, I do have a significant correction to make in regards to my article on the "Who's On First?" routine.  I was wrong about that date that Phil Silvers and Rags Ragland first teamed up at Minsky's Gaiety Theatre.  Click here for more information.

I have gotten copies of two different "Flugel Street" scripts that were written by Faye.    

The first script was only designed for two actors. The delivery man was to be played by "Irv," which was most likely Irving Benson.  Faye was to play two roles - a police officer and a young woman.  The script does not clarify how Faye was to make the transition between these two characters.  Presumably, he was to walk away as the police officer and suddenly return as the young woman.

The second script was worked up for Red Buttons and Robert Alda, who had been a comedy team in burlesque.  Button was to play the delivery man and Alda was to play the police officer.  Faye gave his wife, Judy, the role of the woman and he gave himself the role of a stutterer who comes along at the end.

There is one significant segment from these scripts that did not carry over to the Abbott and Costello version.  The segment starts with the delivery man pulling a letter out of his back pocket to show the officer his delivery instructions.
Police Officer: So, if you want to mail a letter, put a stamp on it and go right next door to the mailbox. You don't have to go to Floogle Street to mail a letter.

Delivery Man: Look, I don't want to mail the letter. The letter doesn't even belong to me. . .

Police Officer: Oh, it's not your letter. . .

Delivery Man: No, it's not my letter.

Police Officer: . . . tampering with the government mails. Do you know that you can go to jail?

Delivery Man: Look. . . I'll put the letter in my back pocket. . .

Police Officer: Aha! Trying to pull a gun, eh?

Delivery Man: I don't even carry a gun!

Police Officer: You don't carry a gun. Oh, I know, a gun is too noisy. You carry a knife. Go ahead, stab me, stab me, I can take a cut.
The following dialogue is only included in the "Irv" script.  The letter has caused the delivery man so many problems that he tosses it to the ground, which now gets the officer to charge him with littering.
Delivery Man: Just a minute, Buddy, what harm can a little piece of paper do?

Police Officer: What harm? Suppose a fella comes along and lights a cigarette. . . throws it on the paper. . . the paper ignites. . . blows against the building. . . the building ignites. . . bursts into flames. . . suddenly half the city is on fire. . . so you're a firebug. . . you're an arsonist. . . you run around burning up cities.
It was the sign of a good burlesque routine that the routine could withstand innumerable variations.