Monday, March 10, 2014

Harry Langdon in the Sound Era

A new YouTube channel, the host of which calls himself Johnny Flattire, is furnishing the general public with the sound films of Harry Langdon.  The sound and picture quality is not the best, but it was a thrill for me to have access to many films that I had never seen before.  I have decided today to select a number of scenes for discussion.       

Director Arvid Gillstrom did well with Langdon in two of these films, The Big Flash (1932) and Tired Feet (1933).  The Big Flash includes a series of vignettes.  At one point, Harry does his best to avoid falling into the embrace of a vamp.  This was a preoccupation for Harry in his silent films.  

Later, Harry has trouble operating a machine gun, which is reminiscent of a scene from Langdon's Soldier Man (1926).

Langdon continues to fall back on old material when he recreates a Long Pants routine in which he has to distract a police officer.

I like this scene in which Harry gets caught in the middle of a shoot out.  The joke is that Harry's hat flies into the air each time that the cop or robber fire their gun.  The scene also includes a sidewalk elevator gag that was used often in silent films.

I wrote about the classic water pump routine here and here.  Langdon biographers Chuck Harter and Michael J Hayde found that Langdon made use of this routine in his vaudeville act, Johnny's New Car.  Langdon performed variations of the routine in two of his sound shorts.  First, he puzzles over an uncooperative water faucet in Tired Feet.

Nine years later, an older and wiser Harry struggles to best a tricky water faucet in Tireman, Spare My Tires (1942).

These two scenes reveal the major changes that Langdon made to his comic persona during his Columbia series, which ran from 1934 to 1945.  Pre-Columbia Harry tries to make peace with the faucet, giving it a friendly pat, and eventually walks away resigned and befuddled.  Columbia-era Harry, who functions as a more conventional character, engages in a prolonged battle with the faucet and walks away frustrated and wet.

The climax of Tired Feet involves Vernon Dent forcing Harry to dress as a woman in a scheme to rid their camp of tramps.

Langdon opens Sue My Lawyer (1938) with an amusing bit in which he accidentally mistakes a ball of rubber bands for an apple and tries to take a bite out of it.  It isn't as funny as Stan Laurel eating a wax apple in Sons of the Desert (1933), but it got me to laugh nonetheless.

Unfortunately, I cannot offer praise for much of what follows the rubber band scene.  The problem is that Columbia producer Jules White didn't allow Langdon to do what Langdon did best.  Langdon had his own distinctive style, but you see little of his style in his Columbia series.  It often looks as if Langdon wandered in off the street and got caught up in a Three Stooges comedy.  Buster Keaton had the same problem at Columbia.  Don't get me wrong, I love the Stooges.  But it was wrong for the Stooges' style to become the house style of Columbia's short comedies.

Midway through Sue My Lawyer, Langdon recreates his classic Strong Man routine in which he carries an unconscious woman up a flight of stairs.  New to the routine is a dime-store corkscrew, which has been introduced to enliven the action.  The corkscrew pokes through Harry's coat pocket and it jabs the woman in the backside every time that Harry lifts his left leg to ascend the stairs.  This sort of comic mayhem, though suitable for the Stooges, only succeeds in distracting attention from Langdon's pantomime actions and emotional expression, which is what made the routine funny in the first place.  The fact is that the corkscrew gets more screen time than Langdon.

But, still, the scene is subtle compared to the comedy found in many other Columbia shorts.  The next time that Langdon grappled with an unconscious woman for Columbia, writers Monte Collins and Elwood Ullman made the point to enhance the comic action with an explosive current of electricity.

To Heir is Human (1944)

This is a familiar Commedia dell'arte routine used in Sue My Lawyer.

In the long history of comedy, no actor ever worked his forehead as vigorously as Monte Collins works his forehead in this scene. 

This film provided one other routine that I enjoyed.

This cracking walnuts routine had been used by other comedians in the past.  Lloyd Hamilton and Dick Sutherland performed the routine in a 1924 Educational comedy, Good Morning.

In Cold Turkey (1940), Langdon furnished the mirror routine in reverse.  Instead of mistaking another person for his reflection, he mistakes his reflection for another person.

This is the strangest version of Langdon's classic balloon routine.

Langdon performed a slightly better version of the routine a year later when he starred in the PRC feature Double Trouble (1941).

Later in Cold Turkey, Harry is looking to slaughter the turkey for dinner, but Monte Collins gets the mistaken impression that Harry is an axe murderer out to slaughter him.

The first gag of A Blitz on the Fritz (1943) has Harry getting stuck in a tire. Believe it or not, this gag is as funny as the film gets.

The scriptwriter, Clyde Bruckman, borrowed the film's climax from a 1919 Harold Lloyd comedy, From Hand to Mouth.  The scene worked well with Lloyd but was hardly suitable for Langdon.

Langdon was paired with British comedian Charley Rogers in a low-rent attempt by PRC to create their own version of Abbott and Costello.

PRC's House of Errors (1942) starts out with Harry struggling with mechanical devices, including a car horn and a vacuum cleaner.

Later, a criminal tries to use a fishing line to snatch a set of keys away from Harry.  He snags onto several items apart from the keys, reeling in a pocket handkerchief, a rug and Harry's hat.  Seeing these objects move across the floor or float into the air leads Harry to believe that he is being plagued by a poltergeist.  The scene reflects a direct Abbott and Costello influence.  Lou Costello was spooked by a moving candle in Hold that Ghost (1941) and now Langdon is spooked by a moving rug.

Comedy stalwarts Monte Collins and Vernon Dent help out in a scene set in a flophouse.  The scene starts out with Langdon acting opposite Collins, who plays the proprietor of a flea circus.

Next, Harry runs into problems with Dent, who falls asleep on his hand.

Here is an amusing routine performed by Langdon in another PRC feature, Double Trouble (1941).

Blonde and Groom (1943), which was written by Langdon, has a morbidly bizarre ending in which Harry is injected with a giant hypodermic needle and drained of more blood corpuscles than he can spare.  Harry is so anemic that, when his wife hugs him, he crumbles to dust.  The fact that the scene drags on for close to 3 minutes makes it especially gruesome.

I recently wrote an article for Tim Greer's Harry Langdon fan site, Feet of Mud.  The article can be found at  I strongly recommend that you also take a look at the site's excellently illustrated filmography.

A Hopeless Search for Laughs in 2014 Film Trailers

What do the trailers of Hollywood's upcoming slate of comedy films tell us about the state of American comedy?  Unfortunately, today's filmmakers depend largely on raunchy comedy and shock comedy, both of which appeal mostly to the feeble-minded and the infantile.  The trailer for Bad Words includes a raunchy turn on one of the oldest gags in film history.  Let me provide background on the gag before I reveal the way in which this funny business has been reduced to an off-putting bathroom joke.

In 1903's Catch of Hard Shell Crabs, a mischievous boy empties a bucket of crabs into an old man's bed.  The old man no sooner settles into bed then he jumps up with crabs clinging to various parts of his body.  In the real world, a crab uses its pincers to seize and subdue prey, break open a mollusc's shell, fight foes, and signal other crabs.  But, in the comedy world, a crab uses its pincers solely to latch onto the assorted body parts of an unwary man.  Another marine crustacean, the lobster, also gets into the action at times.  Crustaceans could be expected to turn up whenever a comedian got close to an ocean.  In the 1913 Pathé Frères comedy Boireau à la pêche, André Deed is yanked into the ocean by a powerful fish struggling at the end of his fishing line.  Other fishermen promptly pull Deed out of the water, but by then a lobster has attached itself to our sad hero's backside.  Arthur Cunningham is swimming in the ocean when a crab snatches onto his big toe in the 1915 Falstaff comedy A Massive Movie Mermaid.

This trend continued for decades. The gag remained virtually the same except that the lobster or crab grabbed onto a different body part from film to film.  A comedian might have a crab hanging from their ear like an exotic earring or have their nose squeezed indelicately between a pair of pincers.  In Waiting (1925), Lloyd Hamilton expresses exquisite pain when he reaches into an icebox and comes out with a crab locked onto his finger.  Let's look at other examples.

Billy Bevan in Galloping Bungalows (1924)

Curly Howard in Matri-Phony (1942)

Lou Costello in Lost in Alaska (1952) 

 Come on, Shemp, show them how it's done.

Of course, tastes have changed.  We now live in a permissive and enlightened world, which I have been told is nearly utopian.  Bringing this timeless gag into our great new world now means having a marine crustacean latch its claws onto a new body part - a man's testicles.

Is this progress?  I managed, by exercising my utopian free will, not to laugh at this. 

The Bridesmaids influence continues, bringing us films in which women get drunk and act foolishly.  The trailer for The Other Woman features Leslie Mann getting drunk and vomiting into her purse.

Female comedians acting as stupidly as male comedians is supposed to be a form of female empowerment.  Who am I to argue?  Fine, go for it.  When the drunken woman passes out, Cameron Diaz carries her out to her car to get her home.  This allows Mann and Diaz to take on a routine that has been performed by venerable film comedians for close to a hundred years.

Walk of Shame presents yet another drunken women.  The plot is simple.  Following a boozy one-night stand, a woman (Elizabeth Banks) finds herself stranded in downtown Los Angeles without her phone or wallet and has only eight hours to get to an important job interview.

Last year, Banks argued on her blog that a sexy woman can be as funny as a goofy man.  This film will put her theory to test as the shapely actress wears a tight, skimpy yellow dress throughout her trek across Los Angeles.  At one point, she tries to borrow a bicycle from a small boy, but the boy is a horny little operator and he is only willing to part with his bicycle in exchange for a peek at Banks' bare breasts.

Bad Words looks to be dependent wholly on shock comedy.

This film goes a step further than Walk of Shame by featuring a scene in which a small boy asks for and receives a peek at a streetwalker's breasts.

Better Living Through Chemistry tries to elicit laughs from shameless acts of adultery and drug abuse.  Yes, more sex and intoxicants.

Neighbors introduces us to fledgling parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne).  In the trailer, the Radners do not come across as being as wise or responsible as we would expect parents to be.

Oh, here's a comedy stunt achieved through CGI.  Not very funny.

The most nauseating part of the trailer is the couple discovering their baby teething on a frat boy's used condom.

Am I supposed to be laughing uproariously as the couple rushes the baby to an emergency room out of fear that he has contracted a sexually transmitted disease?  Ho-ho, an infant has an STD scare.  I suppose that this is meant to please the creepy little degenerate that lives inside us all.  But, to be honest, I don't get it.  Why is it funny to drag infants and small children into the adult world of prostitution, condoms and slutty little yellow dresses?

These days, it would probably be best for Woody Allen's image for the comedian to play a celibate monk in a film.  But, unfortunately, Allen appears as a leering pimp in Fading Gigolo.

Are any of these trailers free of sex, drugs and alcohol?  I found three, Blended, The Budapest Hotel and A Haunted House 2Blended looks to get laughs from Adam Sandler riding a CGI ostrich.

Wes Anderson's The Budapest Hotel looks to be a film that focuses more on color, composition and whimsy than story and character.  But, hopefully, the trailer serves the same purpose as an eye-catching book cover, using color and design to draw the public to a rich and satisfying story contained within.

The highlight of the trailer for A Haunted House 2 is Marlon Wayans and Gabriel Iglesias killing a possessed chicken and then frying up the creature for two heaping plates of chicken and waffles.

Possessed chicken?  Chicken and waffles?  This is somewhat outside of my frame of reference.  I have never let my waffles get near a chicken, whether broiled, baked or fried, and the idea of a possessed chicken strikes me as more strange than funny.  More remarkable, though, is the execrable way in which Wayans mugs his way through the trailer.

I am sorry, we are not amused.  Better luck next year, Hollywood.

Additional Film Clip

The Three Stooges in A Pain In The Pullman (1936)

Wanna Play Hide and Clap?

The "Wanna Play Hide and Clap?" scene from The Conjuring (2013) has elicited screams and gasps from millions of people.  But this scene is nothing new to fans of classic comedy.
The Conjuring (2013)

An eerie clapping thoroughly frightened Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as they visited a graveyard in Habeas Corpus (1928).

Hands emerge suddenly out of the darkness in many spooky house comedies.  Here is an example from Abbott and Costello's Hold that Ghost (1941).

Ja, Neil Simon!

The comedy of American playwright Neil Simon has translated well overseas.  Numerous versions of The Sunshine Boys have been produced in Germany.  The still that appears at the start of this article is from a 1974 version of the play staged in Munich.  The actors are Paul Verhoeven (right) and Heinz Rühmann (left).  Here are stills from other productions.

Next is a YouTube clip from a 1999 television adaptation that starred Otto Schenk and Helmut Lohner.

YouTube also provided me with a film clip from a version of The Odd Couple produced at the Borras Theater in Barcelona from 1994 to 1999.  The actors, who remained in the play for the full five-year run, are Paco Morán and Juan Pera.

The simple fact is that character comedy is universal.

Commedia dell'arte on Comedy Central

It has been a long time since the Commedia dell'arte routine “Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back” was featured on a television series.  It was almost forty-five years ago that Don Adams and Don Rickles performed the routine on an episode of Get Smart called "The Little Black Book" (1968). 

Sitcoms have changed a lot since that time.  Modern-day comedy writers no longer see a use for such old-fashioned silliness.  Yet, the routine recently turned up as a party game on an episode of Broad City called "Hurricane Wanda."

Sam and Diane: The Delayed Romance Strategy


Television critics often refer to the trendsetting romance of Sam and Diane from the 1980s sitcom Cheers.  Sam and Diane (Ted Danson and Shelley Long) were sexually attracted to one another, but they never stopped fighting long enough to get together.  Just when it looked liked they might hook up, the volatile couple would have an argument that would again keep them apart.  Fans of the series got caught up in the "will they or won't they?" relationship, rooting for the characters to finally settle their differences and break the sexual tension between them.  Author David LaRocca called this the "delayed romance strategy."


But the same idea was used decades earlier in Mr. Peepers, which ran on NBC from 1952 to 1955.  It sparked the interest of television viewers when high school science teacher Robinson J. Peepers (Wally Cox) fumbled in his efforts to approach pretty music teacher Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit).  People tuned into the show hoping that Peepers and Remington would finally get together.  In those days, though, the question of "will they or won't they?" did not relate directly to sex as it did with Sam and Diane.  It related to courtship and marriage, which of course meant a honeymoon and a lusty roll in the sheets.  Peepers and Remington got married in a 1954 episode.  Wikipedia referred to the episode as a "blockbuster ratings event."  Unfortunately, though, ratings for the series declined afterwards.  Bob Costello, the series' production manager, discussed the show's downfall after the wedding in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation.

The delayed romance strategy was also adopted for the Jackie Cooper sitcom Hennesey, which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1962.  At the start of the series, romantic feelings developed between a Navy physician,  Lt. Charles Hennesey (Cooper), and his yeoman nurse Lt. Martha Hale (Abby Dalton).  But Hennesey believed that it would be unprofessional for them to pursue a personal relationship.  The series focused on Hale's continuing interest in Hennesey and it also focused on the gradual manner in which Hennesey finally warmed up to his beautiful young nurse.  The series ended with an episode in which the couple finally married.

The very next year, a similar plot device was employed for an ABC sitcom, The Farmer's Daughter.  This time, a widowed U.S. Congressman (William Windom) and his lovely Swedish housekeeper (Inger Stevens) develop romantic feelings for one another, but the two are hesitant to admit their feelings due to their professional relationship.  It took 71 episodes for the couple to come to terms with their feelings and become engaged.  Ratings for the series declined once the couple became married in a third season episode called "To Have and to Hold" (1965).

The torch for the delayed romance strategy was passed to I Dream of Jeannie, which ran on NBC from 1965 to 1970.  Baby boomers are familiar with the premise of the series.  Astronaut Tony Nelson (Larry Hagman) releases Jeannie (Barbara Eden), a beautiful 2,000-year-old genie, from a bottle that he discovers on a desert island.  The two are immediately attracted to one another, but Jeannie is not the sort of girl that a man can ask on a date.  She blinks her eyes to grant wishes, she lives in a bottle, and I think I mentioned that she is 2,000 years old.  Tony believes that the only reasonable thing to do under the circumstances is to grant Jeannie her freedom.  Jeannie, who has fallen in love with the handsome astronaut, refuses to leave him.  Tony comes to feel protective of Jeannie, who is childlike in many ways, and he relents to let her move into his home, but he sees his relationship with a genie as a threat to his career and continually resists Jeannie's efforts to win his affections.  It wasn't until the fifth season that Tony finally admits that he loves Jeannie.  The series ended shortly after the couple finally married in a fifth season episode called "The Wedding" (December 2, 1969).

Additional Note

I wrote recently about what I called "stuck" routines.  I forgot about an episode of Mr. Peepers in which Wally Cox spends most of the story stuck in a basketball hoop. 

The Funny Noises of Lou Costello

Not long ago, I talked to a young man about my love of Abbott and Costello. The young man had never seen an Abbott and Costello film and I offered to loan him a DVD of Hold That Ghost (1941).  I must have been persuasive in my praise of the comedy team because my friend didn't wait long after I gave him the film to bring it home and pop it into his DVD player.  He flashed me a big grin when I saw him the next day, which let me know that he did enjoy the film.  Then, he told me something that caught me by surprise.  He revealed to me that he suffered from Tourette syndrome and he said that he was particularly amused by Costello because the comedian expressed a variety of phonic tics that are commonly associated with Tourette syndrome.  Most common of the repetitive sounds that Costello uttered in his comic performance were wheezing, whistling and humming.  I found it intriguing that the way in which a high-energy comedian used vocal sounds to punctuate a line or express an emotion (usually fear, lust or frustration) could make him relatable to a person who suffer from a neurological disorder.  Motor tics, which are also caused by Tourette syndrome, are something that can be seen in the work of  many comedians.  These tics can include facial grimacing, eye blinking, shoulder shrugging and head jerking.  Abnormalities in the nervous system cause exaggerated reactions, which can mirror the exaggerated reactions that we see in comedy performances. 

Below is a compilation of Costello's funny vocalizations in Hold That Ghost.

Mel Blanc emphasized Costello's whistling tic when he parodied the comedian for a 1942 Warner Brother's cartoon, A Tale of Two Kitties.

I recommend a new book on Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates (1941), which was written by Abbott and Costello authority Ron Palumbo.