Sunday, June 30, 2013

YouTube Presents Hungry Lions, Exploding Cars and a Child-rescuing Chimp

It amazes me that I can go on YouTube every few months and find rare silent film comedies.  My latest YouTube search turned up five interesting films.

1.) The Lyin' Tamer (1926)

The "lion comedy" is well represented by this 1926 Fox Imperial comedy.  Michael Rogge, who posted The Lyin' Tamer on YouTube, admitted that he did not recognize the star of the film.  One commenter thought it was Raymond Griffith, which is reasonable as the actor does bear a passing resemblance to Griffith.  But the actor is, in fact, Ernie Shields.  Shields may be a mysterious figure today, but he became a familiar face to film fans of his day after starring in nearly eighty Universal comedies from 1914 to 1919.

The Lyin' Tamer is effective even though it is hardly original.  The following routine from the film falls squarely into the conventional category. 

Abbott & Costello still had use for the routine more than twenty years later when they made the jungle comedy Africa Screams (1949).

Here we have yet another routine that The Lyin' Tamer borrowed.

The business of a fake lion and a real lion engaging in a mirror routine had been done the year before in the Roach comedy Sherlock Sleuth (1925).  The man dressed as a lion in this clip is Curtis McHenry.  

The tilting house routine that appears in the final clip was another well-worn bit of business.  The routine was discussed previously on this blog.  But at least the filmmakers attempted to heighten the suspense by incorporating a lion and a flood into the action.

2.) What Price Goofy? (1925)

Here is a classic scene from The Awful Truth (1937).  The premise is clever.  A dog misunderstands the intentions of its owner and plays a risky game of hide-and-seek with an incriminating article of clothing. 

The director, Leo McCarey, had originally developed the routine for a Charley Chase comedy, What Price Goofy? (1925).  The film presents just the sort of domestic crisis known to plague Chase.  As a favor to a friend, Chase invites a professor to stay at his home.  When he learns that the professor is a beautiful woman, he decides that it would be better to keep her presence a secret from his jealous wife.  He has a burglar, of all people, pretend to be the professor.  We have no bowler hat in the scene.  Instead, Chase struggles to keep a female undergarment hidden.

3.) Shine 'Em Up! (1922)

The obvious lesson to be taken from Shine 'Em Up! (1922) is that some people are overly sensitive to racial slurs.  Paul Parrott is trying to draw business to his shoeshine stand, but calling out "Shine!" is somewhat imprudent when the word "shine" is also an offensive reference to a black person.

4.) The Grocery Clerk (1919)

You are likely familiar with this scene from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). 

Now, let's take a look at a similar scene that is less well known and much less serious.

Larry Semon in The Grocery Clerk (1919)

The scene is artfully designed.  An insert shot shows that gasoline leaking from an old man's can is creating a puddle at Semon's feet.  The old man carries the leaky can to his car, leaving a stream of gasoline behind him.  Semon lights his cigarette.  The flame of the dropped match ignites the gasoline.  The fire follows the gasoline stream to the car, causing an explosion.  This scene demonstrates that suspense works as well in a comedy as it does in a thriller. 

Semon could never resist using a routine that had worked for him before.  Let's look at a later version of the "gasoline stream" routine from Semon's The Hick (1921).

This isn't as funny to me as the earlier version.  I preferred Semon's thoughtless, cocky fool causing the accident rather than becoming the hapless victim of the accident.  Also, the scene isn't set up in a way that creates suspense.  Semon introduces too many distracting elements into the action.  He frantically drives off as the irate father is firing a shotgun at him.  A bullet punctures the gas tank.  Then, abruptly, the father realizes that he is out of bullets and decides that this would be a good time to have a smoke.  Semon, who just avoided being fatally shot, inexplicably climbs into the backseat of the car and plays "she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not" with a daisy.  Gunfire.  Car escape.  Daisy plucking.  As this is going on, it's easy to forgot that Semon's car has left behind a stream of gasoline and the gasoline can be ignited by the match that the father is about to toss to the ground.  To work, the scene depends on a focus so intense that it is unnerving.  All that matters at the moment is the match and the stream of gasoline.

5.) The One Best Pet (1920)

I'm not sure of the title of our last film today.  My best guess is that it is a 1920 Chester comedy called The One Best Pet.  I recognize the star of the film for sure.  That mangy-looking chimp can be none other than Snooky (also known as "Snooky the Humanzee").

I am not ashamed to say it, I am vastly entertained watching Snooky climb up to a roof to rescue a befuddled toddler held aloft by balloons.  Everything about this comedy looks sketchy from a child safety perspective - the gunfire, the rooftop antics, and certainly the lion leaping and clawing to get at a small child.

Also, I must add, watching Snooky having to contend with this rambunctious horse made me fear for the chimpanzee's life.

A DVD collection of Snooky comedies is available from Looser than Loose.

What treasures will you have for me next time, YouTube?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Doll Abuse

In Superman III (1983), a young mother enters a park pushing a baby carriage.  She lifts a toddler out of the carriage and sets him down on a see-saw.  Suddenly, a stolen money bag drops from a scaffold and lands full force on the upended end of the see-saw, causing the other end to fly upwards and humorously catapult the toddler into a tree.  Do not fret, though, as the toddler is represented by a blatantly obvious doll.  For years, comedians have tossed, kicked, dumped and stomped baby dolls for laughs.  No comic prop has been more maltreated than the baby doll.  Is this a little sick?  I do my best in The Funny Parts to explain the routine and describe the many gleeful ways in which comedians have roughed up these faux infants.  Evidently, this business never gets old.  Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm ("Mister Softee," 2011).

Bill Buckner, a former first baseman best known for a fielding error that cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series, has been redeemed.  A happy ending for all even though the doll got shaken up in the process.

Jerry Seinfeld said, "The comedy universe is a swamp of madness."  He expressed this opinion to David Letterman during an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee ("I Like Kettlecorn," 2013).  Letterman agreed with Seinfeld, stating that funny routines often come from "guys. . . [with] personality disorders."  He brought up, as an example, spastic standup comedian Lenny Schultz.  He recalled a night in the 1970s when he was at the Comedy Store and saw Schultz running around on stage with a baby doll.  Letterman said, smiling, "[He] has a little toy whip and he's whipping the baby. . . [Y]ou hear the sound effects of a crying baby."  Letterman could not have looked more pleased as he finished the story.  Yes, whipping a baby doll is great fun.  It's madness, but fun.  

The ultimate example of this routine was featured in a devilish 1915 Vitagraph comedy called Boobley's Baby.  The plot is simple.  Sydney Drew is pretending that a baby doll is a real baby so that he can get a seat on a trolley.  A woman who Drew has been romancing sees Drew with his "baby" and, assuming that he is a married man, becomes furious with him.  Drew is upset that his romance has come to an end and he takes his frustration out on the doll.  Steve Massa wrote in Lame Brains and Lunatics, "[W]e see Sydney throttle and tear the arms and legs off the doll (which really looks like he's murdering a baby)."

A baby doll suffers a similar fate in a 2011 episode of The Middle called "The Big Chill."  Laziness and selfishness cause high school sophomore Axl to grow hostile towards a baby doll placed under his care as part of a health class project.  The unwanted doll, which falls victim to increasingly abusive treatment from its impatient caretaker, ends up being decapitated and dismembered.

 A practice baby doll is not entirely safe even in the hands of a well-intentioned expectant mother.

 I Love Lucy ("Pregnant Women are Unpredictable," 1952)

More doll-catapulting can be found in this scene from Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994).

As I said before when discussing the "wedding attack" routine, sometimes dark currents of human psychology are the reason for the enduring popularity of a routine.

You can read more about this perverse phenomena of baby doll thrashing in The Funny Parts, which is available at

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

No Smoking


In The Duck Hunter (1922), Billy Bevan's efforts to enforce a "no smoking" policy in his barber shop lead to a surreal battle of wills with Jack Cooper. 

The routine was later reprised by the Three Stooges in No Dough Boys (1944). 

But, interestingly, the Stooges did not borrow this old comic business outright.  They started out with another routine that, although similar enough, maintained a distinct identity of its own.  It was over a span of eight years that the two routines finally merged into one.  If I was a wise old professor, I would call this comedy convergence.

Movie Maniacs (1936) 

Three Sappy People (1939) 

So Long, Mr. Chumps (1941)

The Brides Wore Blue

I recently discovered a 1920 Roach comedy called Money to Burn. This film, which lasts under 9 minutes, is a succession of stock gags and routines.  Take, for example, this routine in which Snub Pollard hides under a trash can to avoid getting bitten by a dog.

Harold Lloyd cleverly expanded the routine in Among Those Present (1921).

It is well-constructed scenes like this one that gave Lloyd his elevated status in the comedy field.  But a Money to Burn scene that caught my attention even more is a variation on the "bridal chase" routine.  It is usually a horde of prospective brides that chase after the comedian, but this time Pollard is chased by an anti-masher police unit composed entirely of women.

The Horse in the Floral Print Dress

Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality (1923) includes many great gags, but the following gag has always been one that stood out.

A rowdy slapstick version of the gag, which ends with the horse kicking the villain to the ground, is initiated by dude-turned-cowboy Johnny Arthur in the Tuxedo comedy Honest Injun (1926).  Harold Lloyd effectively reworked the gag for The Kid Brother (1927).

While working as a gag man on A Southern Yankee (1948), Keaton handed down the time-tested gag to a next-generation comedian, Red Skelton.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I Love Sushi

The Nickelodeon sitcom Drake and Josh staged a homage to I Love Lucy's famous chocolate factory routine in a 2006 episode called "I Love Sushi."  

I Love Lucy ("Job Switching," 1952)

Drake and Josh ("I Love Sushi," 2006)

As a child, I appreciated the pressure that Lucy and Ethel were under to wrap the chocolates before they sped past on the conveyor belt, but I still thought it must be fun for these ladies to stuff their mouths full of chocolate as a way to hide the pieces they couldn't wrap in time.  Others must have felt the same way as they now sell Lucy Chocolate Factory chocolates.

It is more gross than funny to see Drake and Josh with raw fish and seaweed hanging out of their engorged mouths.  It makes me cringe even more to watch the boys hide slimy cuts of fish by throwing them in the air and getting them to stick on the ceiling.  The selection of props can definitely change the character of a routine.   

In rare cases, a gag or routine is so inextricably tied to its originator that the only way that another comedian can repeat this business is to present it in the form of a homage.  No gag has inspired a greater number of homages than Buster Keaton's falling building gag, which was a subject that I discussed in a prior article.

I thank jayessell for identifying two more examples of animators using this gag.

 My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic ("Too Many Pinkies," 2012)

Aladdin (1992)

I have also come across two instances in which this gag was used by modern sitcoms. 

Arrested Development ("The One Where They Build a House," 2004)

The Middle ("The Name," 2013)

The Incredible Inedibles

A memorable scene in Saps at Sea (1940) features Laurel and Hardy cooking up an impromptu meal for a snarling gangster who insists on being fed.  Lacking actual food, the boys make a spaghetti and meatball dish using a sponge for the meatballs, string for the spaghetti and grated soap for the cheese. A precedent for this routine can be found in a 1927 Pizor comedy called Lunches and Punches.  Sid Smith, a lunch counter cook, is at odds with a rough, ill-tempered customer who insists that Smith serve him shredded wheat.  Smith finds that he is out of shredded wheat and, to avoid the customer getting violent, he fixes up broom bristles to look like the fibrous cereal.

Saps at Sea provided a clever twist to the routine.  The gangster learns of Stan and Ollie's deception and forces them to eat their synthetic (or, as Stan says, "sympathetic") meal.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Now Playing: Adultery!

As hard as it might be to believe, a silent film melodrama once used a silly plot twist that would later become crucial to Laurel & Hardy's Sons of the Desert (1933).  In Louis Feuillade's Tragic Error (1913), a husband goes to the movies one afternoon and sees his wife on screen in the arms of another man. 


By this time, the plot had already been used in a Biograph comedy.  Certainly, the idea of an untrue spouse being exposed in footage exhibited at the local theatre is good for a laugh.   It is hard to believe that a filmmaker as reputable as Feuillade thought that theatergoers would take this type of plot seriously.  It is no surprise, then, that the plot would be returned to the comedy makers, who would make use of it extensively for the next several decades.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lame Brains and Lunatics

Steve Massa's Lame Brains and Lunatics, which brings to light an assortment of talented, hardworking and groundbreaking film comedians that long ago vanished into the mists of time, is sure to deliver readers into the deepest depths of film comedy history.  The mist-clearing is handled well by Massa, who has devoted 45 years to the study of silent film comedy.  A lame brain will fail to see the value in the excellent chapters on Billie Ritchie, Marcel Perez, Lige Conley, and others too numerous to mention.  A lunatic will be unable to appreciate the exhaustive research that went into the selected filmographies.  But everyone else will, without a doubt, enjoy the book.

Lame Brains and Lunatics is rich in biographical detail.  Massa writes about these performers with great knowledge and sensitivity.  He has a particular soft spot for the ladies, which is evident in his chapters on Alice Howell, Gale Henry, Marie Dressler and Fay Tincher.

I am a big believer in drawing attention to lesser known film comedians, but you know that Massa is the ultimate champion of the underdog when you see that his book includes a chapter on cross-eyed comedian George Rowe.  Rowe worked from 1919 to 1925 at the Hal Roach studio, where he turned up as a supporting player in various series.  The frequent appearances that he made to assist Roach's comic leads, including Snub Pollard, Stan Laurel, Eddie Boland and Paul Parrott, were almost guaranteed to get a laugh.  Realize that, in the silent film comedy hierarchy, Rowe ranks below Eddie Boland.  "Eddie, who?" you ask.  Exactly. 

It is hard, when taking into the consideration the many comedians that populated silent films, to work out a proper hierarchy.  Where, for example, do you fit Jack Cooper or Sid Smith?  Let's use Smith as an example.  Smith was consistently featured in lead roles in short comedies from the time he entered the film industry in 1913 to his death of alcohol poisoning in 1928.  The diminutive comedian with the pencil-thin moustache was trusted to head up ably crafted campaigns of comic mayhem by most of the major producers, including Mack Sennett, Jack White and Al Christie.  The comedian's greatest success came starring in the "Hall Room Boys" for Harry Cohn from 1919 to 1923.  But Smith is barely remembered today and, frankly, I could not make a case that he deserves to be rediscovered.  I admit that I have been able to see little of his work, but what I have seen has left me cold.  But Massa offers such passionate and eloquent accolades in reference to Smith that I am compelled to rethink my evaluation.  Massa is the James Herriot of silent film comedy.  He has an undying appreciation of all comedians great and small.

Massa has a special talent for describing the grotesque figures that populated silent film comedy.  I like, for instance, when he describes Rowe as being "made up of odd mismatching parts" and proceeds to catalog a rich assortment of freakish traits.  It makes it clear that the funny, heavily made-up characters that showed up in many silent comedies were as weird and wonderful as something out of a carnival sideshow. 

Massa has gained extraordinary access to archive prints and research materials.  I am envious that Massa has had the opportunity to see a number of Marcel Perez's US releases, including You're Next (1919) and Sweet Daddy (1921).  I have seen Perez's A Busy Night (1916), which is extraordinary.

I have never seen a review of a film book in which the photos were specifically reviewed, but I was captivated by the many rare photos in this book.  Sometimes, nothing can make a point better than an illustration.  Many have recognized the influence that Harry Langdon had on Stan Laurel, but this will become more apparent if you turn to page 336 and take a look at a still of a hesitant, white-faced Laurel from A Manadrin Mix-up (1924).  You might have heard that the 1925 pairing of Oliver Hardy and Bobby Ray anticipated Hardy's epic partnership with Laurel.  Turn to page 256 and see a Laurel & Hardy-style image from Hardy and Ray's Hey, Taxi (1925), which resolves any possible dispute on the matter. 

Okay, fine, I have said enough.  Buy it!

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Lethal North American Spitting Woodpecker

I wrote in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film about Larry Semon's obsession with squirting critters. I recently discovered two more instances in which these wildlife anomalies turned up in a Semon film.

Frank Alexander vs. a baby alligator in School Days (1920)

Larry Semon vs. a woodpecker in A Simple Sap (1928)

What is woodpecker spew made of exactly?

"Hey, Beertender, Give me another Martoonie!"

According to Twentieth Century Fox publicists, a highlight of the upcoming comedy The Heat (2013) is a drunk scene performed by Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.  Here is a snippet that appears in the trailer. 

It is considered politically incorrect today to make fun of alcoholics.  By modern standards, a funny drunk scene is only acceptable if it's made clear that the drunk character doesn't have a chronic problem with alcohol.  The character may drink excessively to cope with a dismal event, maybe a breakup or a job loss, or they may overindulge in drink while celebrating a special occasion like a birthday or a wedding.  The clear implication is that these "drowning sorrows" or "cutting loose" episodes are not part of the character's daily routine.  Bullock and McCarthy get drunk to vent frustrations and bond with one another.

At one time, Hollywood studios valued comic actors who could act habitually drunk on screen.  These actors played characters who didn't need a special occasion or a personal set-back to drink.  Having to live on this planet was reason enough to down a few shots.  My all-time favorite movie drunk is Arthur Housmen, who made his debut as screen souse extraordinaire in Harold Lloyd's Feet First (1930).  The actor continued to appear as drunks up until his last film, Public Enemies (1941), which was shot just months before his death.  

Arthur Housmen in Gridiron Flash (1934) 

Arthur Housmen in Scram (1932)

Housman's top rival was natty Jack Norton.  Norton played a drunk in his first feature film, Finishing School (1934), and appeared as a drunk in his last public appearance on "The Jackie Gleason Show" in 1955.  That's 21 years of slurred words and fumbled steps from Norton.  If they ever create a Movie Drunk Hall of Fame, I will nominate this great old comic actor for a longevity award.  They could call the award the Lifetime * hiccup* Achievement Award.

Jack Norton in The Bank Dick (1940)

The funny drunk was phased out in the 1970s.  The last of the funny drunks were Dick Wilson and Jack Perkins.

Dick Wilson on Bewitched ("A Bunny For Tabitha," 1969)

Dick Wilson on Alice ("The Fourth Time Around," 1976)

Jack Perkins on The Odd Couple ("Felix The Calypso Singer," 1971)

Jack Perkins on All in the Family ("Archie Is Worried About His Job," 1971)

Attitudes changed in the 1980s and 1990s.  British comedian Willie Ross now conveyed a disturbing darkness in his frequent portrayals of drunks.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too! (1987)

One Foot In The Grave ("The Return Of The Speckled Band," 1990)

Our Friends in the North (1996)

Our Mutual Friend (1998)  

Allan Fish paid tribute to Ross on the blog Wonders in the Dark.  Fish wrote, "Sadly, in 2000, life imitated art, as it is wont to do.  [Ross] was killed in a fall down his stairs at home.  Drunk, naturally."

It may be due to political correctness that The Heat scene is never called a "drunk scene" in interviews and promotional releases.  It is consistently referred to as "the bar scene," as if the setting is more significant than the behavior.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Stinky Prank

A common routine in silent films had a sloppy eater accidentally dropping a sardine into someone's shoe, causing the person to be pursued by cats, or a prankster slipping Limburger cheese into someone's coat pocket, causing the person to go about their day emitting a bad odor.  Typical was When Slippery Slim Bought the Cheese (1915), in which Slim (Victor Potel) happily prepares for a date without realizing that Mustang Pete (Harry Todd) has hidden Limburger cheese in his pocket.  I was recently able to find a precedent for these routines that dates back to 1882.  A comedy sketch, which was part of a Broadway play called Squatter Sovereignty, dealt with an Irish immigrant who is unaware he has had a fish tied to his back as an April Fool's prank. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

For Art's Sake: The Biography & Filmography of Ben Turpin

It's here!  Steve Rydzewski's long-awaited biography of Ben Turpin has been released for the pleasure and enlightenment of film comedy enthusiasts everywhere.

The book had me hooked as soon as I got to the first chapter and came upon a 1867 wood engraving of a New Orleans candy shop owned by Turpin's father, Ernest Turpin.  Outside the shop was horse-drawn carriages, men in top hats and frock coats, and ladies in bustles.  The image immediately took me back in time, which is exactly what a book about the past is supposed to do, and it made me trust that Rydzewski (who I personally know as "Steve") did his homework to find every last bit of information available on Turpin's family history.  Without a doubt, the book is a labor of love by Rydzewski, who devoted 40 years to the research of this beloved comedy icon.

Turpin began his film career as the Essanay Studios' comedy front man in 1907.  He became a familiar face on movie screens before the American public got its first look at other homegrown film comedy pioneers, including John Bunny, Billy Quirk and John Cumpson.  He established himself in the infant film industry and, in the next 22 years, he endured every sharp twist and turn that occurred in the rapid-paced evolution of silent film comedy.

Turpin played an important role in the development of gags and routines, which is obviously a subject near and dear to my heart.  He took pies in the face and got sprayed by seltzer bottles years before those gags became standard fare.  In A Case of Seltzer (1909), Turpin appears as an inveterate flirt who gets his comeuppance when the women that he has harassed form a tight circle around him and blast away with seltzer bottles.

I learned from For Art's Sake that Turpin started out playing the sort of highly destructive bumbler that French comedian André Deed had perfected in his films for Pathé Frères.  In The Crazy Barber (1909), Turpin becomes obsessed practicing for a "fastest barber contest."  He moves energetically through town, automatically cutting the hair of every man, woman and dog that dares to cross his path.  As the title character of The Energetic Street Cleaner (1909), Turpin is so intent on giving the street a powerful sweeping that he fails to take notice of the people who get in his way.  He sweeps dirt onto a pair of women, he knocks down a waiter delivering a tray of food, he scatters a traveler's belongings, and he overturns a grocery boy transporting a sack of flour. 

Turpin had his greatest success at the Mack Sennett studio, where he was transformed into a living cartoon for a series of outrageous farces.  At Sennett, Turpin was never affected by the more sophisticated efforts of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.  In 1921, when Chaplin was crying uncontrollably over losing his little boy to child welfare officials, this is what Turpin was doing.

She Sighed by the Sea (1921) 

In 1923, when Harold Lloyd was hanging off a department store clock, this is what Turpin was doing.

Asleep at the Switch (1923)

In 1926, when Buster Keaton was speeding across Tennessee in his prize locomotive, this is what Turpin was doing.

The Prodigal Bridegroom (1926)  

Turpin's Sennett films expertly combined knockabout, lampoonery and surrealism.

At the peak of his Hollywood stardom in the 1920s, Turpin made a habit of standing in the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue to direct traffic.

Try to imagine what would happen if Jim Carrey tried that prank nowadays.  He'd be arrested in less than twenty minutes.  TMZ would be on the scene even faster than the police.  The tabloids would get the word out - either Carrey was as much out of his mind as Amanda Bynes or he was as incapable of handling drink as Reese Witherspoon.

But Hollywood of the 1920s was a carefree and merry place compared to what Hollywood is today, and Turpin's wacky antics on screen and on Santa Monica Boulevard helped to define Hollywood in its infancy.

All in all, I enjoyed the story of Ben Turpin, appropriately called by the author "the world's greatest cock-eyed mirthmaker."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eighteen Articles in Eighteen Days

I have had a bunch of half-finished articles sitting on my hard drive for months.  I actually thought at one point that I could get away with posting an unfinished article by giving it a funny title like "I'm So Lazy that I Probably Won't Finish This Article."  But, in the end, I could not restrain my Protestant work ethic (even though I am Roman Catholic).  In any case, it became clear to me that the time had finally come to stop procrastinating and get the articles finished.  I intend to post one article per day for the next 18 days.  Eighteen articles in eighteen days will hopefully persuade you to purchase my latest book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.
Yes, it is an epic undertaking indeed.  Secrets will be revealed.  Relationships will change.  Lives will be lost.  But, above all else, it's important to me that you enjoy what I have written.

Also, I wanted to let you know that I have added film clips to two previous articles, "The Wet Paint Routine" and "Masters of the Quick Disguise."

Now, let us end today with a tribute to the pie fight.  This was originally posted on YouTube by michiganjfrog.