Friday, February 27, 2009

Danny McBride: The Confident Fool

Harold Lloyd was the go-getter for the Jazz Age. Joe E. Brown was the go-getter for the Depression Era. Danny McBride is the go-getter for the End Time.

Classic comedy is filled with humble jerks. But Harold Lloyd did something different with the perennial comedy fool - he gave him confidence and drive. Lloyd came to represent the All-American go-getter - ambitious, determined, enthusiastic and industrious. He was a Horatio Alger character, a down-and-out boy able to achieve the American Dream of wealth and success through hard work, courage and determination. He was able to rise from a humble background to life of respectable middle-class security and comfort. Lloyd's message was that a man could achieve amazing feats if only he believed in himself. Confidence was strength. Confidence was, in and of itself, an achievement. In Girl Shy, Lloyd must acquire confidence to resolve his shyness and stuttering. In Grandma's Boy (1922), Lloyd relies on a magic charm given to him by his grandmother to gain courage and confidence. The importance of confidence comes up in many of Lloyd's films.

During the 1920s, Lloyd's upbeat demeanor and confidence were inspiring to American audiences. But some, including biographer Annette D'Agostino, believe that Lloyd's popularity declined in the early thirties because the Depression-weary public no longer believed in the American Dream. These people waiting on bread lines rejected Lloyd's optimistic lessons of success.

It was at this time that Joe E. Brown took the Harold Lloyd formula and transformed the go-getter character into something new. His was a tougher character for a tougher day. The character could, at times, be an arrogant jerk. Brown's first big hit was Elmer the Great, where he played irascible, conceited pitcher Elmer Kane. Kane was modeled after baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean, who enjoyed bragging about his prowess on the mound. Dean once said, "Anybody who's ever had the privilege of seeing me play knows that I am the greatest pitcher in the world." When a reporter challenged him about his bragging, he replied, "It ain't bragging if you can back it up."'

Now, long after Lloyd and Brown, film fans have been introduced to Danny McBride, who believes as Lloyd that confidence is the key to success and believes as Brown that there's nothing wrong with being an arrogant jerk. Except, truth be told, McBride is a lot more arrogant and jerky than Brown ever was. What might this new comedian say about America and what we, as its citizens, have become?

McBride made his debut in Foot Fist Way (2006) playing Fred Simmons, a fourth-degree black belt in Taekwondo who runs a smalltown dojo. Marc Mohan, movie critic with the Portland Oregonian, wrote, "Simmons instructs his charges. . . in the five pillars of his chosen martial art: Courtesy, Self-Control, Perseverance, Integrity and Indomitable Spirit. These also serve as chapter headings for the film — and Simmons has very little success in his own life abiding by them."

Simmons seems to be trying to outdo W.C. Fields when he beats up a little boy in a taekwondo match. He comes across as creepy while making a pass at a young woman who has come into his office to sign up for classes. Robert Wilonsky, movie critic for the Village Voice, wrote, "Turns out Fred's more loathsome than laughable. . . There's something real about Fred — and something real nasty about him, too, something that lingers after the movie's choked a few laughs out of an audience that won't know whether to pity or punch him."

Simmons is only sympathetic because other characters in the film are even worse than he is. Wilonsky wrote, "He considers himself a warrior; meanwhile, the world is kicking his ass left, right, and sideways." Simmons tells his students that they cannot be soft. He castigates a student for being "weak as hell." He says, in no uncertain terms, that weakness is "disgusting." In his mind, a person needs to stay strong to deal with the challenges of the world. "This world is a dark, dark forest," he tells a young student. "If you open up a man and look into most of their hearts, you'll find disgust and evil. . . Your own parents - your mother and father - would slice your throat just to get ahead. And if you find a wife, you watch her - you don't believe a single word she says - because, at the core, people are shit." Simmons sees the need to be aggressive and confident to raise his status in a society that only respects power and success. He has to fight hard unless he wants to end up as just another punching bag. And he may just be right.

Simmons repeatedly refers to the confidence problems of his student Henry, who can sometimes be seen standing in a corner staring nervously down at his shoes. He warns Henry that his confidence problems are a weakness to be exploited. Henry has come to Simmons after being beaten up by bullies. Under Simmons' instruction, he gains confidence and learns fighting skills, which allow him to beat a surly opponent in a match. It seems, in this context, that confidence is a positive thing. Henry's story arc is much like Harold's story arc in Grandma's Boy.

Simmons falls apart when his wife walks out on him. Holding back tears, Simmons looks into the mirror and reassures himself that he is "cool." Still, Simmons later breaks down crying in front of his class. When his wife comes back to him, he tells her, "I know I may seem like the strongest man you've ever known. . . but the fact is that I'm penetrable. . . I have a human heart ticking under here." Simmons, pouty and doughy, looks like a big lost kid as he says this. He does not look particularly strong by anyone's standards. He only looks silly.

At his introduction in The Freshman, Harold Lamb is looking in a mirror and practicing football cheers. Harold, like Simmons, believes that it is important to put a good face before the public. He looks into the mirror to see what other people will see and he makes sure to perfect his look and manner. He looks in the mirror, too, to give himself encouragement.

Harold, who is getting ready to go to Tate University, feels that he can be popular at the school by mimicking someone who has, himself, managed to become popular at the school. He imagines himself as Chester A. Trask, a student voted the most popular man on campus. Harold also looks to the example of Lester Laurel, the star of the movie College Hero. Besides picking up fashion tips from Laurel, Harold adopts this little dance that Laurel does whenever he meets someone for the first time. Harold seeks success by pretending to be someone else. He will eventually take up football to be like Trask. In this way, he is not much different than Simmons. Simmons emulates B-movie action star Chuck "the Truck" Wallace, who he has seen in the Seven Rings of Pain movie trilogy, and it is to be like Wallace that Simmons has taken up martial arts.

Harold arrives at Tate University. The college, while not a dark forest, is still not the most cordial environment. The first students Harold meets are eager to play pranks on him. The students buddy up with him planning to "ride him." Harold's belief in himself leads him to make wrong assumptions about people and makes him vulnerable to the whims of these pranksters. He imagines himself to be a great guy so, in his mind, it's no wonder these students take an instant liking to him. His confidence, his eagerness and his outgoing personality will manage, in the end, to lead him into an embarrassing situation.

Harold is never seen in a classroom for the entire film. He never encounters a professor. That is because this film is not about education. It is, essentially, about Harold trying to attain social status in his new community.

I see a similar pattern in the story of Harold Lamb and the story of Fred Simmons. Harold is betrayed by his idol, Trask, who participates in the pranks. Simmons is betrayed by his idol, Wallace, who has sex with Simmons' wife. It is darkest before the dawn for both men. Harold suffers the humiliation of losing his pants at a school dance and then finding out that he has been the laughingstock of the school. Simmons suffers a bloody and humiliating beat down by Wallace.

Harold shows at this time that he, too, is penetrable. When his landlady's daughter Peggy holds her arms out to him, Harold falls into her lap and cries helplessly. Peggy tells him, "Stop pretending, Harold — be yourself! Get out and make them like you for what you really are and what you can do!"

Harold was a likable character and audiences had no problem rooting for him, but the self-aggrandizing social climber certainly has a dark side. Harold, with his confidence and ambition, isn't all pleasant and well-meaning. He desires the adulation of the masses. He envies Trask when he steps off a train and has a crowd of cheering students surrounding him and patting him on the back. His ultimate goal is to displace Trask as the most popular man on campus.

Confidence is, to an extent, about self-absorption and believing that you are superior to others. It's about thinking that you should get the job, the girl, the opportunity, because no one else deserves it like you do. In the end, it is Harold who is the hero of the football game, not Trask. It is Harold who spectators surround and cheer. In the same way, spectators surround and cheer Simmons when, at the end of Foot Fist Way, he beats Wallace in a board breaking demonstration. In the end, there can be only one "most popular man." In the end, there can only be one winner.

Believing you have unique abilities is the same as making claims to superior importance, which is to make yourself arrogant. If confidence and arrogance are different, they are not different to a great extent. The line, as they say, is thin. And thinking that you are better than others can offend other people. This mean that confidence, by itself, can be an obnoxious trait. George Carlin did a funny routine criticizing the "self-esteem movement." He pointed out, "Extremely aggressive, violent people think very highly of themselves. Sociopaths have high self-esteem."

Eastbound and Down, Danny McBride's new series for HBO, features McBride as down-and-old baseball pitcher Kenny Powers. Powers is arrogant, foul-mouthed, angry, impulsive, malicious, rude, and obnoxious. He's Elmer Kane on steroids, literally. Powers has been thrown out of baseball for drug use, racist comments, declining performance, and generally boorish behavior. One fans accuses him of "ruining baseball." Powers, looking to regroup, goes back to his hometown in Shelby County, North Carolina, to live with his older brother and teach physical education at the community high school.

Powers, undeterred by his setbacks, refers to himself as a "Goddamn champion" and a "bulletproof tiger." Others, though, describe him as a "big baby," an "asshole," a "piece of shit" and a "bagful of mashed up assholes." But self-image, which is what drives Powers, is all that matters to him. In his narration, Powers provides his ultimate philosophy: "I'm the man who has the ball. I'm the man who can throw it faster than fuck. So that is why I am better than everyone in the world. Kiss my ass and suck my dick, everyone!" It ain't bragging if you can back it up, except that Powers can no longer back it up. Powers started out with legitimate abilities - he could throw a ball at a speed of 101 mph. But that was all he was ever able to do and he is unable to even do that anymore. All he has left is his confidence, which he is determined to cram down people's throats.

Powers is an appallingly bad house guest, which is apparent as soon as he sits down with his brother's family for dinner. Powers laughs uproariously upon learning that his two-year-old niece Rose was named after Kate Winslet's character in Titanic. He pokes one of the other kids at the table. "What's his name," he asks, "fucking Shrek?" Later, Powers sits in the living room downing an uninterrupted series of beers and arguing loudly with a hooker on his cell phone about the amount she wants to charge him for a blowjob.

That's a picture of Rose to the left. The fact that Powers can use such harsh language around this sweet little tot does not say much about his character.

Simmons seems to look down on his brother's middle-class lifestyle. Middle-class is too smalltime for this success-obsessed character. We might assume that Harold Lamb was only after that life of respectable middle-class security and comfort, but it should be considered that Harold Lamb was an outgrowth of Harold Lloyd, who ended up an extremely rich man with one of the most lavish estates in Hollywood. How popular did Harold Lamb really want to be?

Peggy's advice to Harold was to "make them like you for what you really are and what you can do." This is definitely not how it works in Simmons' world. First, success is no longer about being liked. Success is about indulging in hot babes, fast cars, and as much cocaine as a person can stuff up their nose. In a competitive environment, where success is at stake, the motto is, "I'm not here to make friends." Second, it is not always about what you can do as it is about what people think you can do. It is not about belief in your genuine and measurable powers, but driving yourself to success with force of will and false beliefs. But wasn't that also true of Harold Lloyd's characters? In The Freshman, the coach sees promise in Harold not because of how fast he can run or how far he can throw the ball but he sees promise in him for the simple fact that this freshman has "spunk." He has this spirit, this determination, this force of will. Harold, himself, expects to instantly win friends with a little dance and the force of his personality. In Grandma's Boy, the hero's belief in himself is false because this so-called "magic charm" that his grandmother has given him is really a handle from an old umbrella. The hero beats up a burly, murderous tramp in this film based on blind, possibly misguided faith in himself.

McBride has received a great deal of support from comedy heavyweights Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller, both of whom have flexed their comedy muscles in similar territory. Ferrell has played a number of arrogant jerks in Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory. Stiller, when not playing anxious and awkward boobs, has done well for himself playing arrogant jerks in Zoolander, Dodgeball and Tropic Thunder. The stakes are higher when it comes to the success of these characters, who tend to be rich celebrities with little interest in a middle-class lifestyle. The fact that these characters are suddenly so prevalent and so popular has to say something about our current culture.

Harold Lloyd endorsed the American Dream in his films. Danny McBride shows that, seventy years later, the American Dream has produced greed and excess and obnoxious jerks.

The Great Stoneface

The Importation of Comedy Teams

Current comedy teams in America, including Little Britain, Flight of the Conchords and the Mighty Boosh, all come from foreign shores. It is truly an import crisis, worse than Japan surpassing the United States as the largest car producing nation in the world.

I find it interesting how these comedy teams name themselves. They don't subscribe to the old vaudeville tradition of taking the comics' last names and putting an "&" sign in between. I wonder what Abbott & Costello would have called themselves if they were around today. I doubt they would have been as endearing if they had called themselves something like the Great Confusion.

The Mighty Boosh, whose series is set to air on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, had its origins in England. But, despite a lifetime spent in London and Leeds, the comedians still display the influence of classic American comedy teams, including Hope and Crosby and Abbott & Costello. The Mighty Boosh consists of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. Barratt, as Howard Moon, is self-deluded, boastful and paranoid. He is contrasted well by Fielding, who plays his dim-witted, happy-go-lucky partner Vince Noir.

The team had an obvious fascination with the Abbott & Costello sitcom in their first season, at which time they imitated Abbott & Costello's habit of coming out in front of a theater curtain to introduce segments of the show. They also had a bizarre cast of supporting characters like Abbott & Costello. Bud and Lou had an ape named Bingo. Howard and Vince had an ape named Bollo. The disturbingly odd and chubby Bob Fossil was the show's equivalent of Stinky.

The first season episodes, as formative as they are, are not among the series' strongest. The only stand-out episodes of the season are "Charlie" and "Hitcher." But then, in the second season, the duo took flight with their own version of the Road movies. Like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, they portrayed vain entertainers engaged in a perpetual battle of the egos. They were obsessed with knowing who was better looking, who was more talented, and who could better attract the ladies. They ended up in surreal situations in exotic locales - the Artic Tundra, the Desert of Nightmares, Black Lake. In one episode, they got marooned on a desert island. The whole time, they have to contend with a creepy merman, a Yeti, an evil sultan, and a demon. In the Road movies, Hope and Crosby also had a wide variety of adventures. They treked through through the jungles of Madagascar, frolicked on the fictitious tropical island of Kaigoon, met beautiful princesses, used a stolen map to find a secret gold mine in Alaska, and embarked on hazardous deep-sea dive to retrieve a chest of priceless jewels.

Some fans of the the Mighty Boosh have expressed disappointment with Season Three episodes, which tie the pair to a boutique and feature less otherworldly adventures. But these episodes are more driven by the characters, which Barratt and Fielding have been able to develop more fully, and the stories are generally more satisfying.

Before closing, I would also like to praise one foreign comedy team that never managed to make it to the U.S. A recent British comedy series Black Books featured a perfect comedy odd couple - foul-mouthed, misanthropic, alcoholic bookstore owner Bernard Black (Dylan Moran) and his mild-mannered, eager-to-please, chronically abused assistant Manny (Bill Bailey).

Battling Romeos

For his first movie in five years, writer/ director James L. Brooks is looking to cast comic actors Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd as two men vying for the affections of Reese Witherspoon. Comedy situations built around romantic rivalry are not at all appealing to me. I don't know, maybe I see this as lazy storytelling. A writer puts two guys in an empty room. All he needs to do to stir up conflict is have a pretty girl walk into the room. Big deal. Writers have known for centuries that having the hero battle an evil opponent to win a lady's favor instantly brings together romance, action and adventure. The Farrelly Brothers took the romantic rivals concept to such an extreme in There's Something About Mary (1998) that this should have been the romantic rival comedy that ended all romantic rival comedies. But, I guess, Hollywood never tires of the concept.

I got my 14-year-old son, Griffin, to sit down with me and watch the DVD American Slapstick 2. It was hard to explain to my son the many unfamiliar items, customs and habits that came his way watching this collection of silent comedies. At one point, I had to explain to him the reason that people were at one time willing to crowd together at a lunch counter. A Woolworth's lunch counter has been preserved in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. Maybe, I could take him to see that some day.

Then, my son asked me why women are so mean in silent comedies. The question, I believe, had to do with the troublesome romantic rivalries that were at the core of many of the comedies. Often, the heroine does not acknowledge the rivalry, as if blissfully unaware of the havoc she is stirring up around her. Other times, she is a fickled individual who encourages the rivalry, reveling in the notion of two men battling fiercely to win her. This woman, whether insensitive, fickled or malicious, doesn't seem to be worth all the fuss.

My son's question came directly after we had watched a Sennett comedy called Be Reasonable. In Be Reasonable, Billy Bevan and Mildred June meet up at the beach, where June accepts an expensive pearl necklace as a gift from Bevan. June's dog, Fifi, chases a ball out into the surf and gets pulled into the undertow. Bevan tries to dive off the pier to rescue the dog but he misses the water and dives headfirst into the sand. Meanwhile, lifeguard Harry Gribbon dives into the water and carries out the dog. At this point, June's affection shifts to Gribbon. Bevan is unable to squeeze himself between June and Gribbon. When June cuddles up next to Gribbon on a blanket, Bevan asks her to give him the necklace back. June holds onto the necklace tightly. "It's mine," she insists. This leads Bevan to burglarize June's home to get back the necklace. Bevan, in the end, gets chased by an army of police officers.

On the same disk was Call the Wagon, another comedy that deals with courtship and romantic rivals. Dick (Neal Burns) wants to propose marriage to Mary (Charlotte Merriam), the daughter of a rich businessman, but he finds himself competing with a mob of suitors. Walking into Mary's home, Dick confronts four eager suitors packed together on a sofa. The men are waiting while Mary gets ready in her bedroom. Dick decides to get rid of these other guys by getting the maid's help to play a prank. At first, the maid (Babe London) passes through the parlor pretending to be bringing Mary false teeth in a glass of water. When she comes through a second time, the maid drops hair extensions, which she also mentions belong to Mary. The idea that Mary is not all that she seems to be sends her suitors scrambling for the door.

Dick, as the last suitor standing, is free to propose marriage to Mary. Mary, though, has learned about Dick's prank and is determined to get back at him. After accepting his marriage proposal, Mary sits down on the sofa with Dick and asks him if he minds her making herself comfortable. She proceeds to pull off a wig. Then, she pretends to be plucking out a glass eye. Finally, she acts as if she is yanking out false teeth. She has one eye squeezed shut and her teeth drawn back behind her lips to make herself look like a toothless, one-eyed hag. Merriam plays this scene perfectly. Maybe it's just me, but I still find Merriam adorably cute without her curls, her smile or her right eye.

Dick pretends to be insane to get out of marrying Mary. But Mary is not finished getting revenge on him. She lays a live electrical wire on a chair just as Dick is about to sit down. While Dick is hopping around from the effects of the voltage, Mary calls an insane asylum to have caretakers come to drag him away.

Dick isn't the most sympathetic character in the comedy, but this cruel treatment doesn't seem to be something he deserves. Mary could have avoided Dick's pranks if she fairly evaluated one suitor at a time.

For something to be funny, it has to be relatable. Personally, I have never had to compete with a villain to persuade a woman to go out on a date with me. All this boy has ever had to do is turn on the Balducci charm and wait a few minutes for the magic to happen. I don't mind admitting that I have been influenced by romantic heroes of the movies. To start, Barrymore taught me that a man with a great profile should never miss an opportunity to show it off. So, when sitting down with a woman, I make a point to turn my chair sideways so that the woman is better able to see my rugged brow, my classical Roman nose and my modelesque cheekbones. I then work the muscles in my face to create the cocked eyebrow and sneering lips that made Clark Gable so irresitable to women. I squeeze my chin to create a cleft like the one that Kirk Douglas had as he charmed the likes of Lana Turner and Kim Novak. I relax my eyelids to make them as seductively droopy as James Dean's eyelids. You want to see how it looks when I put it all together.

Yeah, that's the kind of movie star looks that I have. Chill, ladies, there's enough to go around for everyone.

Leaving my personal experiences out of it, I have to wonder if the genre conventions that surround these comically heated rivalries can be found in the real world. I know that competition for a mate has historically led to some great fights. This is something that presumably went on as far back as the caveman days. But what about today? Last July, the New Hampshire Union Leader printed the story "Camping trip turned deadly for romantic rivals" about a local man beaten to death at a campsite. The police were able to determine that the killer got rid of the man upon learning they were both interested in the same woman. He punched the man repeatedly, kicked him once he got him on the ground, and finished him off by smashing him in the head with a rock. Last October, All Headline News released the story "Teen Disfigures Romantic Rival's Face With Brass Knuckles" about an 18-year-old girl arrested for beating and disfiguring a 17-year-old girl's face with a pair of brass knuckles in a dispute over a boy. I guess, courtship is not all flowers and candy. It can, at times, involve outrageous, if not comical, violence.

It would seem more reasonable for rivals to act civil towards one another until the fair lady decides which one of them she likes better. In Dear Ol' Pal (1923), best friends Paul Parrott and Snub Pollard become interested in the same girl (Marie Mosquini). They are concerned about competing fairly to preserve their friendship, but they still keep getting mad at each other and exchanging blows. It's a confused state of affairs, which the friends have trouble working out. Mosquini becomes surrounded by flames in a burning building while the pair are trying to decide who should be the one to rescue her.

A more modern twist on this situationally awkward brotherhood can be found in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), the plot of which involves composer Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) losing his girlfriend Sarah to self-involved British-rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand). Bretter and Snow, as Parrott and Pollard, become pals. The two men engage in male-bonding while sitting on surfboards out in the ocean. Snow compliments Bretter's music. Bretter tells Snow, "Fuck, you're cool. It's hard to say because I hate you in so many ways but, whatever, I know what Sarah likes about you." The two men commiserate about Sarah's flaws. They end up developing a bromance. It is hard to imagine Harold Lloyd taking screen time to develop a friendship with his romantic rival. If you put Lloyd and his rival on the beach with surfboards, it wouldn't be long before the two of them were having a surfboard competition. In the end, neither Bretter nor Snow is interested in dating Sarah, who suffers the indignity of being dumped twice on the same day. Bretter calls Sarah the devil before he storms off.

A woman can, indeed, look like the devil sitting at the center of these unreasonable rivalries.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Confessions of a Ledge Climber

Isla Fisher is getting good reviews playing a pretty but klutzy magazine writer in Confessions of a Shopaholic. Fisher deals with pratfalls and tear-away dresses. She gets involved in a slapstick battle when a sale of designer boots erupts into a full-blown riot. Lisa Schwarzbaum calls Fisher "a fabulous acrobat of physical comedy." Nathan Rabin of The Onion praises her "gift for slapstick." Todd McCarthy of Variety writes glowingly of her "irrepressible comic personality." John Anderson of the Washington Post is pleased by the "incredibly sweet and frazzled" character she brings to the screen.

A number of critics have compared Fisher to Lucy. Comparing a pretty, pratfalling actress to Lucy is nothing new. Critics said that Shelley Long was Lucy. Critics said that Jenna Elfman was Lucy. Critics said that Téa Leoni was Lucy. Frankly, it benefited none of these actresses to be given standing with Lucy.

Schwarzbaum went further back in movie history to find a more appropriate comparison for Fisher. She found that Fisher, who "combines dizzy feminity and no-nonsense verve," is a classic screwball heroine in the tradition of Carole Lombard. Lombard, who started out working as a bathing beauty for Mack Sennett, was in fact an attractive actress adept at physical comedy.

Still, I would like to go back even further to find a precedent for Fisher. I would like to go back to silent comedies. Comediennes in silent comedies tended to be eccentric characters in grotesque make-up. Louise Fazenda, playing a quirky country bumpkin, was all spit curls and pigtails wrapped up in a calico dress. Dot Farley had buck teeth. Gale Henry was as drastically thin as Olive Oyl. Alice Howell wore a tall frizzy hairdo like the Bride of Frankenstein. But, during this period, at least one actress was able to perform physical comedy while remaining pretty and captivating. This one popular comedienne was more realistic than a cartoon character and prettier than a monster. Her name was Dorothy Devore. Devore was a determined go-getter in the mold of Harold Lloyd, except a curvier mold.

Unfortunately, only a few of Devore's comedies are available on DVD. These comedies, including Know Thy Wife (1918), Getting Gertie's Goat (1924) and Hold Your Breath (1924), are charming and entertaining. Devore looks, at times, like a wind-up toy - a tiny, energetic lady carried off hurriedly by shuffling feet. Hold Your Breath, the most outstanding of the group, features Devore pursuing a monkey out on the ledge of a high-rise building to retrieve an expensive bracelet. Let's see Isla Fisher fall through an awning and dangle from a fire hose like Devore does in this film.

Let others call Isla Fisher the new Lucy or the new Carole Lombard. I hereby dub her the new Dorothy Devore.

A Moron's Hitchcock

In Eagle Eye, terrorists use sophisticated computer hacking to take control of electronic networks. These bad guys, in their concerted attacks, implausibly operate automated cranes and set off power lines. Caught in the middle is a copy store clerk who has no idea what is going on. The film seems to be an attempt to update the Hitchcock innocent-man-on-the-run thriller, but it comes out looking like a crazy house mirror version of North by Northwest.

Unfortunately, director D.J. Caruso shows no finesse when it comes to pacing. He never holds a shot long enough to build suspense. The film, as cluttered and noisy as it is, never gives the audience the chance to worry about what's going to happen next. It's all explosions and car crashes. Addison Engelking, movie critic for the Memphis Flyer, referred to Caruso as "a moron's Hitchcock." Hitchcock preferred to ratchet up the tension by showing the ticking timebomb hidden underneath the table. The bombs in Eagle Eye don't tick, they just go boom. Oh, wait, a bomb hidden inside a necklace is introduced late in the film. By then, though, I was too shell-shocked to care. Besides, the fact that the the bomb won't be activated until a little boy blows a "high f" on his trumpet is an absurd idea that belongs in an episode of Get Smart. Engelking points out that the film has nothing in it like North By Northwest's famous crop-duster scene, which is made suspenseful by the "long, still shots of Cary Grant in the middle of nowhere."

It makes it even worse that the main characters in the film are shallow and unsympathetic. Hitchcock was not at his strongest when it came to character development, but he was at least able to rely on actors like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart to bring established personas to his films. Shia LeBeouf doesn't bring much of a character to this film. He's a testy young man with daddy issues. His emotions range from nervous to very nervous to angry to very angry. He's not a guy I'm cheering on to defeat the mysterious terrorists.

Chaplin Stands Out

The other night, I watched a few of Chaplin's early comedies. These comedies, which are little more than improvised slapstick, are mostly unfunny, but Chaplin was occasionally able to take a small bit of business and make something special out of it.

In The New Janitor (1914), Chaplin takes the position of janitor at an office. At his introduction, Chaplin picks up the wastepaper basket the wrong way and a trail of crumbled paper spills out on the floor behind him. Before leaving the office, he puts his finger to his chin and curtseys out of respect to the manager. This business may not seem like much now, but it was subtle and clever compared to the roughhouse comedy prevalent at the time.
Those Love Pangs (1914) features Chaplin as a masher in the park. A man, enraged to catch Chaplin trying to pick up his girlfriend, grabs Chaplin, shouts at him, and repeatedly shoves him. One hard shove puts Chaplin off balance, nearly causing him to topple backwards and fall into a lake, but, before Chaplin can fall, the boyfriend pulls him back from the brink to shout at him further. The boyfriend then shoves Chaplin again, Chaplin nearly falls into the lake again, and the boyfriend pulls him forward again. This pattern keeps being repeated until Chaplin suddenly steps aside, hooks the man with his cane and pulls him forward into the lake. This routine, with its playful design, is funnier than simply having one comedian kick another comedian into the lake, which is what audiences were accustomed to seeing at the time.

The Irreppressible Poodles Hanneford

I wrote recently about a comedy short starring Poodles Hanneford. I made it clear that this wasn't a film I liked much. I would like to add, though, that Poodles can be seen to better advantage in Fare Enough (1928), which is available on the DVD Weiss-O-Rama. The comedy features Poodles as a cabdriver who has problems getting a pair of drunken dandies home.

Monkey See, Monkey Bite

You hear about this vicious attack by Travis the Chimp? Travis was a show business veteran who once starred in TV commercials for Old Navy and Coca-Cola. I, for one, would never mess with a chimp who has gone Hollywood. Divas like Travis can get nasty. While working on his television sitcom, Lou Costello was bitten on the hand by co-star Bingo the Chimp. The wound was so severe that Costello had Bingo permanently removed from the show. In 1965, "Tarzan" Mike Henry was starring in Tarzan and the Great River when Dinky the Chimp sunk his teeth into his chin. It took twenty stitches to put Henry's chin back together.

J. Fred Muggs was the only show business chimp I know who was a true gentleman.

Congratulations, Jerry!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Tired State of Comedy in 2009

The other day, I checked out the 2009 movie release schedule to see what comedies I could look forward to seeing in the coming months. It really disappointed me to find the schedule jam-packed with rip-offs, remakes and sequels. I should have known that The Pink Panther 2 was a sign of the Comedy Apocalypse.

The paucity of ideas is demonstrated by the fact that, in many instances, the plots of these films sound almost exactly the same. I wrote last week about Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which is the story of a zealous, overweight, hypoglycemic mall security guard. Well, an upcoming release is Observe and Report, which features Seth Rogen as a zealous, overweight, bipolar mall security guard. Rogen's character, Ronnie Barnhardt, wants to get into the police academy and go out with a cute girl who works in the mall. He eventually seizes an opportunity to show off his law enforcement skills. This is Blart all over again. Mall comedy fans will be pleased to hear that Patton Oswalt co-stars in the film as "Cinnabon Man."

The release schedule is dominated by films attempting to copy two recent Judd Apatow hits, Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

The movie most like Forgetting Sarah Marshall is Couples Retreat. The film, like Sarah Marshall, has a large ensemble cast, including Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman and "Sarah Marshall" herself Kristen Bell. The plot centers on four couples who visit a tropical island resort and become involved in the resort’s couples therapy. Tropical island resort. Romantic troubles. Free-flowing liquor. It sounds awfully like Sarah Marshall to me.

Superbad was about two desperately horny high school nerds who plan to use a fake ID to buy liquor so that they can bring the liquor to a party and get a couple of girls drunk. Bart Got a Room is about a desperately horny high school nerd looking for a prom date. I Love You, Beth Cooper is about desperately horny high school nerd looking to hook up with a popular cheerleader. It won't satisfy audiences for these films just to copy Superbad's premise. Superbad was not funny because of its premise - the teen sex comedy was old and tired before Apatow got to it. The film was funny because it featured interesting characters, sharp dialogue and a unique perspective.

Elements of Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are evident in a number of films that center around young male buddies who go on a road trip looking to party, check out vacation sites, and score with the honeys. The buddies of Miss March are heading for the Playboy Mansion, the buddies of The Hangover are heading for Las Vegas, the buddies of Max's Mardis Gras are heading for New Orleans, and the buddies of Fired Up are heading for cheerleaders' camp. It is amazing to me that so many movies can be made from the simple premise of guys getting drunk and scratching around to get laid. The Hangover has a little bit of a twist. The morning after a bachelor's party in Las Vegas, three groomsmen wake up to find that they have lost the groom.

Apatow's films feature a great deal of male-bonding. A comedy that is all about male-bonding is I Love You, Man, which stars Sarah Marshall alumni Paul Rudd and Jason Segel.

For the summer, the studios bring out brassy, big-budget, special effects-driven comedies, including Land of the Lost and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. I will admit to being excited by the poster for the new Night at the Museum. Hopefully, seeing Ben Stiller as a bumbling security guard will not seem overly familiar after Blart and Observe and Report.

The year also offers a number of family comedies, including Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel, Goose on the Loose!, and Tooth Fairy. You know you're watching a kid-friendly comedy when a funny talking animal has a central role. Goose on the Loose! pits comedy oldtimer Chevy Chase against a talking goose. How soon before we get Aflac:The Movie? Tooth Fairy features Dwayne Johnson as an ordinary man who is brought in to save the tooth fairy kingdom. It is basically a rehash of The Santa Clause. Not surprisingly, the film is directed by Michael Lembeck, who directed the two Santa Clause sequels.

Ice Cube and Mike Epps, the duo from the Friday movies, re-team as shady concert promoters for Janky Promoters. I have laughed at Cube's comedies but I haven't laughed at them enough to spend money to see them. I will probably catch this one on Comedy Central in 2011.

The only comedies that look interesting to me are Year One and Funny People. Year One features Jack Black and Superbad's Michael Cera as hunter-gatherers living in early Biblical times. People aren't sure what to expect from this movie. Is it another History of the World Part 1? Is it like The Life of Brian? It is great not to know what to expect. Filmmakers need to keep the audience guessing. This is what the movie experience should be all about. Funny People, which stars Adam Sandler as a stand-up comic dying from an untreatable blood disease, is an attempt by Apatow to blend comedy and drama. To his credit, Apatow usually provides something new and interesting. He certainly doesn't bother to waste his time reworking past successes. The film co-stars Apatow perennials Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann and Jonah Hill. Let's face it, Apatow and company own movie comedy right now. Apatow has become Hollywood's official comedy czar.

No, I'm sorry, I still don't find a fat guy on a Segway funny. Please don't bother making Paul Blart: Revenge of the Segway.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The World Needs a Fat Comedian

After Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was banned from movies, exhibitor trade magazines published a full-page ad featuring comedian Fatty Karr. The headline read, "The World Needs a Fat Comedian." I wonder if that headline is true. Does the world need a fat comedian? Look at all the things that have gone wrong in the world since Chris Farley died in 1997. But a chance to end our troubles has now arrived in the form of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, a feature comedy starring fat comedian Kevin James. Blart, which has taken in more than 100 million dollars at the box office, is the first bonafide comedy hit of 2009. It is not a profound, groundbreaking effort. The message of the movie is, simply, never underestimate a hypoglycemic fat man.

The filmmakers make it clear that Blart is not having a good life. He flunked out of the police academy due to a hypoglycemia-induced blackout and has had to settled working in a mall as a security guard. His oversized immigrant wife, who only married him to get a green card, abandoned him and their daughter years ago. Blart, who hasn't had the nerve to date, is persuaded by his daughter to sign up with an online dating service. He submits his profile information and then waits eagerly as the program searches for a match. A message flashing on the screen reads, "No matches found." Blart stares hopelessly at the message and begins to sob uncontrollably. Blart is a stereotypical lonely loser and his failures, as depicted in the movie, are nothing but maudlin. Kirk Honeycutt wrote in the Hollywood Reporter, "Great comics from Jerry Lewis to Peter Sellers have turned pathetic into comedic. But James never seems to able to get beyond pathetic."

Blart becomes smitten with a kiosk owner named Amy (Jayma Mays). He has a chance to talk with Amy when the mall workers get together at a bar after work, but he becomes drunk and falls out of a window. I found it hard to believe that a woman as pretty as Amy would be interested in Blart, but then it had been a long traditon to cast pretty actresses opposite less than handsome comedians. I am still shaking my head in disbelief when I think of Playmate Joan Staley as Don Knotts' love interest in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

For the first half of the movie, the filmmakers seem to be depending on the sight of James riding a Segway scooter to garner sufficient laughs. The movie seems to be best designed for the rare person who thinks Hollywood isn't making enough mall comedies. Still, James is likable enough as a bumbler to remain interesting. The first time I laughed out loud was when Blart was in an arcade playing the interactive sports game MegaDecathlon. The first event of the game, a 110-meter race, requires James to run on a treadmill and leap over imaginary hurdles. Blart gives the game everything he has but he ends up collapsing from exhaustion. The scene is sad and funny at the same time.

Blart is playing another arcade game, Rock Band, when a group of robbers take over the mall. The robbers present Blart with a life-and-death challenge. We know in a movie as predictable as this one that Blart will beat the villains. Still, it's fun when he starts taking down the bad guys one by one. At least, the remainder of the movie moves along at a brisk pace and has plenty of goofy slapstick.

In the end, Blart not only bests the villains, he also gets the girl. The couple embrace as Survivor's "I Can’t Hold Back" plays on the soundtrack. This old pop-rock song took me back to the eighties, when the world was a simpler and happier place and fat comedian John Candy was a box office champ. Perhaps the world does need a fat comedian.

Quiz Answer

The three cross-eyed comedians that I could name are Ben Turpin, George Rowe and Bobby Dunn.

The Sensitive Comedian

Sid Caesar, an emotionally charged performer, was one of the alltime great character comedians. Caesar said that he modeled himself after Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy. "Most of their comedy came from their character," he wrote. "They each believed in what they did, and I believed them. . . They blended comedy and drama in such a way that you laughed, but you also felt something passionate in your heart." Caesar learned to combine comedy and drama mostly from Chaplin. He learned preparation from Keaton, timing from Fields, and sympathy from Laurel & Hardy.

Caesar's performances reveal an immediacy of emotion. Caesar, unable to contain his sentiments, often bursts into tears or erupts in a rage. Nachman wrote about Caesar's "flickering shadings of joy, sadness, scorn, anger, hatred or hurt." He noted of Caesar, "He could. . . shift moods in a flash." As the lead singer of the rock group The Haircuts, Caesar breaks down crying while singing a sad love song. Caesar reacts with unabashed glee upon learning that his wife has hired a beautiful maid. His emotional responses had a genuineness and a vigor. Dragged to a health food restaurant by his wife, Caesar finds himself eating a flower as an appetizer. The taste of the flower does not sit well on his palate. Other comedians have had to eat something distasteful. Chaplin had to eat an old boot to avoid starvation in The Gold Rush. Laurel and Hardy ate strings and soap while stranded out at sea with a gangster in Saps at Sea. A standard comic situation has a comedian tasting a girlfriend's bad cooking. Comedians typically seem forlorn and nauseous in their reaction to eating something foul-tasting. But not Caesar. Caesar, riled to anger, violently spits out the repulsive flower. He sounds like a growling lion as he demands a steak.

Caesar was as boisterous as television rival Jackie Gleason. Caesar played a newlywed businessman, Charlie Hickenlooper, in a regular domestic comedy sketch called "The Commuters." Hickenlooper was a sullen and frustrated man prone to bellowing disapproval in his unending feud with wife Doris. Gerald Nachman described "The Commuters" as "a sort of suburban 'Honeymooners.'" Despite the fact that he had a better job and made more money than Gleason's Ralph Kramden, Hickenlooper seemed to feel as downtrodden and angry as Kramden did.

Caesar and Gleason, who were related geographically, culturally and generationally, were bound to have had similar tastes and habits. Caesar, born in 1922, was the son of Jewish immigrants raised in Yonkers, New York. Gleason, born in 1916, was the son of Irish immigrants raised in Brooklyn, New York. Caesar and Gleason lived less than 20 miles apart as boys. They both played in loud and busy urban neighborhoods, where they learned about pain and struggle. They both enjoyed going to the movies to see silent comedians, who taught them how to be expressive while being funny.

Caesar was less focused on emotional expression for his movie parodies, which were often as absurd and surreal as a Monty Python sketch. A good example would be the "English Courtroom" sketch. Caesar, as an English barrister, changes his wigs repeatedly during the course of a trial. The wigs are increasingly ridiculous. The final wig, in fact called the "closing wig," is a long and curly blonde wig that makes Caesar look like Goldilocks. The sketch concludes with an eccentric old gardener, a witness in the case, revealing that the woman on trial for murder is in fact his daughter. The prosecuting attorney comes to realize that the gardner is his long-lost father, which means the woman he has been trying to get into the electric chair is his own kid sister. One of the writers of this sketch was Larry Gelbart, who later used the same ending as a way to conclude the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The sketch "Dancing Towers," which took up an entire episode of Caesar's Hour, manages to create a strong character within the context of a movie parody. The sketch was a spoof of dance team movies, such as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and Top Hat. Caesar plays Tony Towers, a restlessly ambitious dancer determined to create "something new." Tony discovers a new dance step when he trips walking across the room. He calls the new step the "Towers Trot." The dance becomes a national sensation, but Towers falls prey to addiction. It is not an addiction to alcohol or drugs but an addiction to food. In every scene, Towers appears significantly fatter. His dance partner, Nola, finds herself unable to get close to him - every time she tries to hug him, she ends up crushing a sandwich he has stored in his coat pocket. Towers' heftiness makes him look comical to the audience at his big Broadway debut. Laughed off the stage, he is promptly fired from the show. He ends up as a humble taxi dancer.

"Dancing Towers," despite its many absurdities, is honest and insightful in the way it exposes the vulnerable ego and desperate ambition that drives Tony Towers. The sketch, which effectively blends comedy and drama, shows Caesar at his best. People as diverse as Mel Brooks and Alfred Hitchcock compared Caesar to Chaplin. It is comparison made valid in this poignant movie parody.

Test your knowledge of silent film comedy

See if you could name three cross-eyed comedians who worked regularly in silent films.

The Bad Example of a Big Bully

The 1925 comedy Stick Around stars Oliver Hardy as a stout, bossy paperhanger who violently abuses his small, blank-faced assistant, played by Bobby Ray. Hardy kicks Ray, shoves him, punches him, and lifts him off the ground and rattles him. The paperhangers are called to a job at a sanitarium. Ray is loaded down with poles, buckets, brushes and wallpaper rolls while Hardy leads him around barking orders. When the pair arrive at the room that needs to be papered, Hardy sits down to read a newspaper while Dunn gets down to work. A rivalry between the two men is sparked by a pretty nurse entering the room. Slapstick ensues.

Stick Around has been widely identified as a precursor to the Laurel and Hardy comedies. Hans J. Wollstein wrote in his All Movie Guide, "Hardy himself later acknowledged that his character in this film resembled the Ollie of later fame, with a condescending attitude toward his less-brainy partner, dainty hand gestures and all." But, for the most part, Stick Around has more in common with a Ham & Bud comedy than a Laurel & Hardy comedy. While teamed with Laurel, Hardy was not much like the boss paperhanger. He could be domineering and pompous, but he was never a bully. Nor was he a lazy man willing to let his partner do all the work. The paperhanger's relationship with his assistant is, in this regard, more akin to something out of a Ham & Bud comedy.

And yet, in the final moments of Stick Around, the relationship between the paperhangers changes. Hardy rushes over to help Ray, who has sat down in a bucket and got himself stuck. The manager of the sanitarium is infuriated by the mess the paperhangers have made and demands that they get out immediately. Hardy, expressing himself with delicate hand gestures, politely advises Ray to come with him. Ray no more than stares at Hardy vacuously and blinks his eyes. The two men then lock arms, tip their hats, and walk to the door together. Hardy has Ray stand aside while he opens the door for him. The pair back out of the doorway together and immediately fall off a balcony. This ill-fated teamwork - the courteousness, the cooperation and the ultimate mishap - is what, in the end, makes Hardy and Ray resemble Laurel & Hardy. This comedy, which combines elements of Ham & Bud and elements of Laurel & Hardy, could be viewed as a link between the two comedy teams.

Ham & Bud, for all their crudeness and simplicity, established an effective template that continued to have an effect on comedymakers for years after their series ended in 1917.

It is possible that Jackie Gleason had Ham & Bud in mind while creating the "Rudy the Repairman" sketches for his television variety show in the 1950s and 1960s. Gleason is often associated with Hamilton in regards to his "Poor Soul" character, which was clearly inspired by Hamilton's post-Ham work, but it would be wrong to assume that Hamilton's influence on Gleason ended there. Rudy the Repairman shares significant traits with Ham. Rudy, like Ham, was big, bossy and boorish. Rudy, like Ham, abused a pint-sized sidekick (Rudy's sidekick, Whitey, was played by 4' 11" Jerry Bergen). Rudy, who enjoyed breaking things with his hammer, was as destructive of property as Ham had been.

Sauerkraut, Snakes and the Vertical Chase

This month, Looser than Loose released "Hamddenda 1" as a supplement to their 2006 five-disk collection "The Lost Magic of Lloyd Hamilton." The new set includes seven shorts, including Moonshine, The Simp, Prized Puppies, The Reformation of Ham, Whirlwind of Whiskers, Ham's Whirlwind Finish and A Sauerkraut Symphony.

The Reformation of Ham (1914), the oldest comedy of the bunch, features Hamilton shortly before his successful teaming with diminutive sidekick Bud Duncan. Hamilton, wearing a soup-bowl haircut, is a burly, harddrinking sailor who tends to get combative with shipmates while inebriated. His shipmates, determined to stop him from drinking, hide snakes in his bunk to make him think his drinking is bringing on terrible hallucinations. Hamilton, who has a short companion he kicks around, seems to be limbering up his legs muscles for the kicking he would soon be inflicting on Bud.

Whirlwind of Whiskers (1917) is a Ham and Bud comedy. Ham thinks he has the investigation skills to track down a counterfeiter wanted by the police. Clues lead him to a barbershop. Ham, intending to go undercover, pulls a shaggy wig out of his pocket and slaps it on his head before proceeding into the establishment. The wig, unfitted and unstyled, looks like sod sitting on top of his head. The highlight of the comedy is a vertical chase scene - police chasing Ham and Bud down a hill, up a fire escape, down a long flight of stairs, and up a different fire escape. The police end up falling through a skylight and dropping straight down into the room below. Ham and Bud, happy to have been able to escape arrest, hold onto each other as they skip off into the sunset.

A Sauerkraut Symphony (1916) features the misadventures Ham and Bud have while running a sauerkraut factory. Factories had been in the news at the time that this comedy was made. Factory workers had been forming unions and demanding improvements in wages and working conditions. The government had been conducting investigations and initiating legislative reforms since the catastrophic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. This comedy, which focused on bomb-toting union agitators trying to convince Ham and Bud to strike, was no doubt influenced by the extensive news stories. The conditions in the sauerkraut factory are certainly not ideal. Ham is chopping up cabbage, bits of which go flying in several directions, while Bud is using a pitchfork to mix sauerkraut in a pair of barrels. At one point, Bud slings soppy sauerkraut from one barrel to the other. The whole time, sauerkraut is splashing on the walls and windows. Ham climbs inside a barrel and stomps around to help mix the contents. The cinema has rarely presented a more nauseating scene. Leatherface's meatlocker is more appealing to the senses. The factory's safety conditions are as inadequate as its sanitary conditions, which is revealed when Ham and Bud get into a brawl with one another. The brawl ends with Ham nailing Bud into a barrel and rolling him down a hill. OSHA would not approve.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Comedy Uncles

French director/ comedian Jacques Tati made an impact on the international film community with his features Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). Tati was a throwback and a progressive at the same time. In accepting an Oscar for Mon Oncle, he expressed his gratitude to the silent film comedians, whose work had been a great inspiration for him. He said, "If Hollywood had not done so many funny pictures, I would not be here tonight. For all those great comedians, I am not the uncle, but the nephew." Yet, Tati, who was taking the ideas of the old silent film comedians and adapting them to current technology and culture, was able to impress fans with his daring innovations. Tati had no interest in plots or dialogue, which he felt interfered with his comedy. He produced, instead, loosely connected gag sequences enhanced by music and sound effects. The filmmaker's influence became clearly evident in the sixties, particularly in the work of Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers.

Lewis' The Bellboy (1960) is an outright attempt to capture the style of a Tati film . The Bellboy is introduced by a mock producer, Jack Emulsion, whose sole purpose is to warn the audience that the film has no plot. Lewis, as the bellboy, performs in scene after scene without speaking a word. But Lewis follows Tati's example even further than that. Lewis' bellboy, much like Tati's Mr. Hulot, has a boyish curiosity that often gets the better of him. Mr. Hulot is at his most curious when confronted by a noisy baffling gadget. Technology is also an attraction for the bellboy. When he boards a jet to retrieve a suitcase for a hotel guest, he becomes a mesmerized by the sight of the pilot's control panel. The next thing we see, the jet is taking off. After he makes a mess of things, the bellboy is willing to steal away from the scene before someone has time to notice. We can see him cringing with fear and embarrassment as he quickly tip-toes away. He is a naughty child afraid to get a spanking. Tati is also unwilling to be answerable for his actions. He is expressionless as he saunters away from a scene, acting as if he was in no way involved and doesn't even known that something has gone wrong.

Tati's ideas show up in other Lewis films. For Mon Uncle, Tati built a scene around the clickety-click sound of a secretary's high heels. In The Nutty Professor, Lewis' shoes make a loud squeaking noise. He removes the shoes so that he can walk quietly but, when he walks in his stocking feet, he continues to make the same annoying squeak. In Cracking Up (1983), Lewis slips on slick floors and slides off modern furniture, something that Tati had done earlier in Mon Oncle.

Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, like Mr. Hulot, was often a silent observer in a busy social setting, such as a party, a nightclub or a nudist colony. Clouseau once took a seat at the side of a pool to calmly watch bathers pass. As an attractive woman stands beside him, getting ready to dive into the pool, he leans back slightly to steal look at her and ends up falling back into the pool. It is comedy without a villain to be bested, or a woman to be won, or a job to be accomplished. Yet, it is still meaningful and funny.

The Sellers' film that owes the greatest debt to Tati is The Party (1968). Tati's elaborate modernist nightclub from Playtime (1967) is replaced in The Party by an elaborate modernist home owned by a movie producer. Sellers loses his shoe in a canal running through the home and tries several different ways to retrieve it. It is reminiscent of problems Tati had with a fountain in Mon Oncle. In Mon Oncle, Tati has trouble with a factory machine that produces an overwhelming stream of plastic hose. Sellers has trouble with a similar gadget, an electric toilet paper dispenser that won't stop dispensing toilet paper.

I identify similarities between Lloyd Hamilton and Jacques Tati in my Hamilton biography. It is not hard to notice that both comedians use a funny hat and off-kiltered gait to make themselves identifiable on screen. But the characters they portray also share a number of personality traits. Both are childlike. Both are loners. Both demonstrate a deliberate approach to problem-solving. Both are not good at being helpful. This last similarity is the most important. Hamilton's friendly and well-meaning character has a willingness to help others, even though it often gets him and others into trouble. Tati's Hulot is always polite and willing to please, as he demonstrates in Playtime when he helps two women with a broken lamp, but his helpfulness usually leads to disaster. These similarities, and other similarities discussed in my book, make me wonder if Hamilton was one of Tati's inspiring silent comedy uncles.

Essential Bilko

Not long ago, Paramount released a Sgt. Bilko 50th Anniversary DVD collection purported to include all the best episodes of the series. Fans, however, were disappointed that the set failed to include some of their favorites. I can think of at least three episodes missing from the set that are essential to any Bilko fan.

1.) "Bilko's Transfer." Bilko applies for a transfer to shake up Colonel Hall, who has confined him to the base for joyriding in a company jeep. Hall, contrary to Bilko's plan, likes the idea of getting rid of Bilko and arranges for him to be transferred immediately. The transfer does not turn out well for either Hall or Bilko. Sergeant Beecher, the by-the-book officer who replaces Bilko as the head of the motor pool, provides Hall with so many reports that the colonel has to work late every night to get through them all. Even worse, the number of breakdowns in the motor pool has increased because Beecher lacks Bilko's craftiness to cut through red tape and quickly get his hands on the needed repair parts. In the meantime, Bilko finds himself surrounded by so many suckers at his new camp that he has gotten bored taking their money. "This is too easy," he cries. "You're pigeons. I mean, give me a run for it. Make it tougher. At Fort Baxter, at least they gave me a challenge." Bilko is so fed up that, incredibly, he refuses to take any more of their money. "Leave me alone with your money!" he demands. It's something that fans of the series would have never expected Bilko to say.

2.) "Love That Guardhouse." Dimwitted messhall sergeant Rupert Ritzik (Joe E. Ross) wins $1,500 playing roulette in Las Vegas. Ritzik, convinced that he has finally gotten luck on his side, is anxious to get into a poker game with Bilko. Bilko is even more anxious to get his hands on his hopeless poker buddy's Vegas winnings. Standing in the way of Bilko and Ritzik is Ritzik's wife, who convinces Colonel Hall to lock Ritzik in the guardhouse to protect him from Bilko. Bilko is resolved to find a way to get into the guardhouse. At one point, he shows up at the guardhouse with a book, "The Poems of Elizabeth Browning," and a thermos, which he says contains "hot soup." The guard (Tom Poston) upends the book, causing playing cards to fall out from the pages. "That's some bookmarks, sir," explains Bilko. Then, the guard shakes the thermos and hears something rattling inside. "Poker chips?" he asks Bilko. "Bean soup," insists Bilko. Bilko is so smitten with the idea of taking Ritzik's money and Ritzik is so smitten with the idea of losing his money to Bilko that the two men behave like star-crossed lovers. They struggle to pull themselves free from the guards, the whole time calling out to each other longingly. Bilko, trying to get in a bet before he is dragged off, riffles through a deck of cards and pleads for Ritzik to pick a card. Every one of Bilko's failed attempts to reach Ritzik ends up in a struggle with the guards. These scenes become more exaggerated and more silly each time. The final scene becomes so outrageous that Ross can't stop himself from breaking up.

3.) "Bilko Goes South." Bilko is determined to escape the freezing temperatures at Fort Baxter. He sees the perfect opportunity when an all-expenses-paid trip to Florida is offered to the finalists of an all-army singing contest. To assure that his platoon is the only one that enters the contest for Fort Baxter, Bilko sends Private Fender to the mailroom to steal the application forms. Bilko is too much in a hurry to notice that Fender has brought back the wrong forms and he, in fact, ends up having his men sign up for a fatal medical experiment. Bilko and his men show up at the Tropical Disease Laboratory unaware that they are about to be exposed to mosquitoes carrying the caladonious fungus fever. The platoon, still believing they are competing in the singing contest, break into a rousing rendition of "The Last Roundup." They sing, "Gonna saddle old Paint for the last time and ride. So long, old pal, it's time your tears were dried. I'm heading for the last roundup." The laboratory officials get choked up to see how brave these men are in the face of almost certain death.

Silvers was perfect as Bilko. I cannot think of another comedian who can make me laugh more easily than Silvers. With his unctuous, rapid-fire delivery, he could make me laugh just by saying, "How are you?" Expect, when Silvers said the line, it usually came out "Howahya?" In any case, I hope that Paramount releases a second set of Bilko soon.

Scary Television

Thriller was a great old television series. No other television show has ever been able to tell a creepy old-fashioned haunted house story better than Thriller. The haunted house in "The Purple Room" is the house from Psycho. How more creepy can you get than that? In "The Purple Room," Rip Torn plays a man who inherits a mansion from his murdered brother. Torn acts smug when he's told the home may be haunted, but he soon becomes unnerved spending a night in the home alone. Torn gives a convincing performance. A haunted house movie isn't scary unless the viewer believes that the characters on screen are really in danger. It doesn't build up enough suspense just to have people walking around in dark rooms and brushing into cobwebs. Torn seems genuinely nervous. When he screams in terror seeing a ghostly apparition, I felt pretty scared even though this creature-that-goes-bump-in-the-night was nothing more than an actor in a dark robe and a pale rubber mask. "The Hungry Glass," which is about malevolent spirits living in the mirrors and windows of another spooky old mansion, is similar to the recent movie Mirrors. William Shatner stars as Gil Trasker, a Korean War veteran suffering the effects of post traumatic stress disorder. Trasker gradually becomes unhinged seeing ghostly images floating around in the mirrors.

Another memorable episode of Thriller was "The Premature Burial." A rich old man, Edward Stapleton, has contracted a rare medical condition called catalepsy, the onset of which makes muscles rigid and causes breathing and other body functions to slow down. The symptoms, in effect, mimic death. This has proven a problem for Stapleton, who was mistakenly declared dead following his first attack and got himself stuck inside a coffin in a burial vault. The old man eventually managed to escape the vault, but he now lives in fear of suffering another attack and being presumed dead again. He builds a special burial vault to address this problem. Stapleton has it all planned out. He leads his fiancé into the vault and shows her a cord. He tells her that, if he dies, she must run this cord through a hole in the coffin lid and clasp it in his hands. If he awakens, he will be able to gently tug the cord, which will cause the lid and sides of the coffin to spring open. He can also press a bar to make the door of the vault swing open. He has yet another mechanism installed that will set off a bell mounted outside of the vault. This musical, spring-action vault designed to allowed a bygone relative to pop back up in the land of the living is, as one character notes, a macabre jack-in-the-box. That's as creepy as it gets.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Physics of Lupino Lane

Last weekend, I pulled out a random selection of silent comedies from my DVD collection. The quality of these comedies was decidedly mixed.  There was good, there was bad, and there was just plain mediocre.

Lupino Lane starred in the two funniest comedies, Be My King and Maid in Morocco. Lane's breezy character wasn't a character with much depth or substance, but it doesn't make his comedies any less funny. Lane, a naturally likeable performer with unlimited energy and great agility, was one of the most engaging comedy stars of silent films. His outlandish, fast-paced comedies often resemble a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

In Be My King, Lupino Lane is a cabin boy shipwrecked on an island inhabited by cannibals. A native warrior tries to chase Lane into a dome-shaped hut, but Lane keeps rotating the hut so the entrance keeps moving out the warrior's way and the warrior keeps banging into the wall.

The funniest business in Be My King happens when Lane first arrives on the island. A leopard emerges out of the jungle while Lane's back is turned and then, before the sailor has time to notice, the great feline casually disappears back into the jungle. Lane takes another couple of steps and turns in a different direction. This time, a lion passes unnoticed behind him. No sooner does he miss the passing lion then he turns forward to the camera and an elephant walks heavily but swiftly across the background. This flawlessly staged scene is thoroughly entertaining.

In Maid in Morocco, a harem guard swings a battleaxe at Lane. Rather than jump back to avoid the blade, Lane leaps up on top of the weapon. The guard creates enough momentum as he swings the axe to send Lane flying across the room. Later, Lane runs up the side of an archway with such speed that centrifugal force carries him upside down along the top of the archway and brings him back down on the other side. Momentum. Centrifugal force. Lane is classical mechanics in action.

Maid in Morocco includes a clever scene where Lane, who is trying to get away from the Caliph, comes up with a plan to disguise himself. Lane, in possession of a long, curled staff, disappears down a corridor out of camera view. The staff is extended out from the corridor in time to hook a pudgy old guard and pull him down into the corridor. A moment later, the guard comes running out in a panic with part of his uniform missing. He gets pulled back and reemerges with even more of his uniform gone. He gets pulled back one last time. This time, Lane reemerges in the full uniform.

My least favorite comedy in the group was a 1928 Poodles Hanneford comedy, Help Wanted. Hanneford plays a bum sleeping in the park. He is down to his last quarter, which he plans to spend on a badly needed meal, but he has trouble holding onto the coin. First, the coin drops into a soup urn and then it falls down a sidewalk grating. It's a conventional silent comedy routine, just the type that would be presented on a 1960's television variety show as a homage to silent comedy. I could easily imagine Red Skelton performing the routine as a "Freddie the Freeloader" sketch. Later, Hanneford gets a job as a paperhanger, which is another overused silent comedy situation.

Still, in all fairness, Hanneford was a talented performer capable of original work. He manages, between losing his quarter down the grating and taking the paperhanging job, to use the wonderful trick riding skills he developed in the circus to stop a little boy's runaway horse.

The problem, I suspect, was that Hanneford, whose experience was largely in the circus, wasn't sure what worked in movies and was willing to borrow from the comedians who had been successful in the medium. Hanneford is blatant enough to wear Buster Keaton's trademark pork pie hat while he performs a scene from Keaton's Sherlock Jr. - a well-timed routine where he follows a man step-for-step down the street. Hanneford, at one point, gives a woman one of Harry Langdon's pursed-lipped smiles.

I get the impression that, in the late 1920's, the influences of Keaton and Langdon were prevalent in silent comedy. I look at comedies from this period and I see comedians employing gags, mannerisms and situations that can easily be traced back to Keaton and Langdon. Lane, in fact, performs gags from Keaton's Paleface in Be My King.