Sunday, November 29, 2015

Charles Kenna: The Street Fakir

Peter Godfrey in The Two Mrs.Carrolls (1947).

Charles Kenna became well-known in vaudeville for his take-off of the sidewalk pitchman.  His pitchman character came out on stage with a sample case and a stand.  Once he mounted the case on the stand, he opened it wide to reveal a collection of potato peelers and all-purpose powders.  He then furnished the audience with a funny, fast-paced sales pitch.  The act was already receiving prominent billing in 1903.  Kenna's act was at first known as "The Fakir," an old slang expression for the carnival shill or the street-corner pitchman.  But the act was later known as "The Street Fakir," "The Faker" and "The Yankee Faker."


Joe Laurie, Jr., the author of "Vaudeville From The Honky Tonks To The Palace," wrote, "[Kenna] was plenty original and a natural funny man. . . And don't let anybody tell you that the expressions, 'It's an old army game,' and 'Go away, boy, you're bothering me,' belonged to W. C. Fields.  It was Charles Kenna who used both these expressions in his act many many years before Fields even talked on the stage."

Kenna, whose real name was Charles McKenna, was born in 1859 in Quidneck, Rhode Island.  Sketchy information on Kenna's early years suggest that that Kenna's parents, James and Mary McKenna, worked in minstrel shows in one capacity or another.  Kenna made his debut on stage when he was only ten years old.  For the next 34 years, he performed as a blackface comedian in a variety of minstrel troupes, including Hi Henry's Minstrel Band, Lucier's Minstrels, Al G. Fields Minstrels, and W. S. Cleveland’s All United Minstrels.  He was also a member of a musical comedy act called The Four Emperors of Music.

In 1897, Kenna briefly teamed with Arthur Deming in a double act.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle offered the following assessment of the team: "Arthur Deming and Charles Kenna are funny and only a fair proportion of their jokes are old."

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Kenna as a "new monologist" in a notice published on April 11, 1899.  This newspaper was the only media source at the time that took any notice of the performer.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 16, 1900.  Review of appearance at the Novelty Theatre, Brooklyn.
Charles Kenna [is] a blackface monologist in budget of witty sayings, funny songs and recitations.
But then, suddenly, Kenna was receiving prominent billing and widespread notices for an entirely new act.  He had gotten rid of the blackface and transformed himself into a unique and dynamic stage personality.  He had become a fast-talking, self-assured comic pitchman.  It was at this late stage of his life that the veteran entertainer had finally achieved stardom.  He maintained favorable reviews for this act for the next 17 years.


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February, 1904.  Review of appearance at Hyde & Behman's Theatre, Brooklyn.
Charles Kenna presented his original one man sketch "The Fakir," and the novelty of the act made a decided hit with the audience.  Mr. Kenna has some new talk that is witty, and his act is a most pleasing one.
Variety, January, 1906.  Review of appearance at Hyde and Behman's Theatre, Brooklyn:
Charles Kenna, "the street fakir," has a first-class monologue when heard for the first time.  For a country boy, the second, third or fourth time isn't too often, but all of us in the Metropolitan District were not born amid green fields and mud.  To hear Kenna start off with "Watch the little ball — the old army game, you can't win where you can't lose," brings back the recollections with a rush.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January, 1906.  Review of performance at Hyde & Behman's Theatre.
As neat a bit of character study as the vaudeville stage has ever produced in a long time is that offered this week at Hyde & Behman's by Charles Kenna.  Much is being said of the popularity of American plays by American authors just now and the bit of Americanism presented by Mr. Kenna must be included in this category.  His is a decidedly American effort, depicting a character not to be found anywhere else in the world, a real "Yankee Street Fakir."  Not the kind that stands on the curb and sells ordinary merchandise, but the clever follower of the trotting and country fair circuit, who is an orator, comedian, merchant and flim-flammer all in one.  Whether Mr. Kenna had personal experience in that line the program does not say, but he has the many idiosyncrasies of the art so pat that many in the great audience last night recognized an old friend.  From the moment Kenna appeared on the scene until the finish, he was close to the hearts of the auditors and his act met with a hearty and unqualified success.  The entire bill is probably the best seen at the house this season, moving along with pleasing rapidity and with every act a hit.
Variety, February, 1906.  Review of appearance at the Imperial Theatre, Brooklyn, New York:
Charles Kenna had an imitation of a shell game man that gave him an opportunity for doing almost anything he wanted, and beyond a few stale jokes he did very well indeed.
Variety, November 1907.  Review of appearance at the New York Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna, "The Fakir," in his impersonation of a slick sharper working country towns by the one-night-stand route, was immediately "caught" by anyone who has inhaled the unsullied breezes in the precincts where electricity entered last.  Mr. Kenna has selected a humorous character, but it has required a long time for it to be recognized.  Broadway, even the non-vaudeville sections which seems to frequent the New York, liked "The Fakir" immensely.  The naturalness of Kenna's type brings the enjoyment, while there are many small bits which, though faultlessly true, escape the average uncountryfied metropolitan.
Kenna toured with his act through Europe in 1908.  On his return to the United States, Broadway producers talked to Kenna about starring in a musical comedy called "The Faker," but the project never materialized.

Variety, March, 1909.  Review of appearance at the Colonial Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna scored a complete success with his carefully drawn character sketch of the western medicine "fakir," and the swift patter of flash talk.  He has a capital story toward the finish in which he illustrates how different members of a family, all afflicted with a peculiar twist of the mouth, try to blow out a candle.  The tale is skillfully worked up to a screaming climax.
Variety, November 1910.  Review of appearance at the American Theatre, Chicago:
The hit of the show fell to Charles Kenna, away down next to closing, at a time when it looked as though the night would pass without much of importance actually happening.  "The Fakir" and his funnyisms kept the audience alternately laughing and roaring.  He made good all over the place.
Variety, February, 1911.  Review of appearance at the American Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna held down "No. 7" and being pestered by a house comedian, one of the "souse" variety, in one of the boxes, he managed to pull a lot of laughs.
San Francisco Call, February, 1910.  Review of appearance at the Orpheum Theatre, Oakland, California:
The funniest monologue which has been heard on the Orpheum stage in many a moon is the street faker sketch presented by Charles Kenna.  Armed with a fly brush which he kept in incessant motion to the detriment of imaginary insects, Kenna has succeeded in keeping his audiences laughing.  He is an admirable mimic, and keeps up a rapid fire harangue which would do credit to the dean of the curbstone medicine orators.
Spokane Daily Chronicle, June, 1913.  Review of appearance at Pantages Theatre, Spokane:
Charles Kenna's street faker monologue that goes on the Pantages program this week is mighty good stuff.  Without any accessories of staging or trick work, Kenna puts over a series of subtle gags, every one of which is in character.
Bill of Pantages Theatre, September, 1913.
Charles Kenna, billed as "the street fakir," is a monologist known wherever theatres are known.  He is one of the happiest, merriest laugh-producers on the stage and his new performance in which he takes the part of a street vendor selling medicine that will cure everything that mortal flesh is heir to, suits him to perfection.
Variety, July, 1917.  Review of appearance at the Majestic Theatre, Chicago:
Following [Charles W. Clark] was another male single, but a very welcome one, in the person of Charles Kenna with his delectable and really enjoyable portrayal of "The Street Fakir." There had been so few laughs ahead of him that Kenna's presence was a life-saver, and though he cleverly filled his next to closing spot, he could hardly be expected to hold up the whole bill.  His assassination and swatting of countless imaginary flies as he extolled the equally numerous qualities of his magic power, which among other things "perfumes the breath, sharpens the teeth and makes the hair grow," wrung many hearty laughs.

Kenna had to endure many imitators through the years.  Clyde Hager, of Hager and Goodwin, appeared on the bill with Kenna at the Majestic.  The very next month, he introduced an act in which he monologued as a tent show barker.  The act was a blatant copy of Kenna's act.  Hager spent most of the next decade working as a radio announcer in various markets, including Cincinnati, Chicago and Los Angeles.  During this time, he regularly performed the pitchman act for his radio listeners.  Here is a write up on Hager that appeared in Radio Age in September, 1925:
Clyde Hager was taken from WQJ, where he entertained with Jerry Sullivan.  His street fakir dialogue, in which he takes the part of a curb vender, selling a genuine rubber garter, and continually warning the crowd: "Keep away from me, boys, you bothah me!" brought him great fame at WQJ and he frequently repeats it at WMBB, to the delight of the listeners.
Clyde Hager
But, as reviews suggest, Kenna continued to dominate with his pitchman character on the live theatre stage.

Variety, August, 1917.  Review of appearance at the Riverside Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna kept the house in good humor throughout his stay with the "Street Fakir" monolog, the novel proportions of the specialty practically insuring his success.  Kenna is a good showman and gauged his audience to the fractional second on delivery and time.  His routine has been greatly improved since his last metropolitan appearance and with the well known lack of good comedy "singles" Kenna should find little or no trouble in landing continual work hereabouts.
Variety, June, 1918.  Review of appearance at the Hamilton Theatre, New York:
Charles Kenna, as a street corner salesman, selling insect powder, earned laughs aplenty and was sent over with some to spare.
Variety, November, 1919.  Review of appearance at the Harlem Opera House, New York:
It's a long time since Charles Kenna has been around New York with his fakir turn.  Like old wine, Kenna improved with age.  Kenna possesses the virtue of being original, a quality that few male singers can successfully claim credit for.  His talk went over for a continuous laugh.  It's a standard turn that seems as fresh as the day it started way back in the dark ages of vaudeville.
And, then, Kenna was gone.  This was Kenna’s last known engagement.

Variety, April, 1920

Declining health prevented the comedian from continuing his act.  Kenna retired to his home in Mansfield, Massachusetts.  He died on April 24, 1929.

Other comedians rushed forth to fill the vacuum created by Kenna’s retirement.  New pitchman routines were introduced by a variety of comedians, including Jimmie Cooper, Joe Frisco and Charles Robinson.  Robinson went as far as billing himself as "The Street Fakir."  But none of these copycat acts had the staying power of Kenna’s act.

One night in April, 1920, a one-armed singer/comedian Al Grossman came on stage with a sample case and a stand and engaged in a pitchman monologue much like Kenna had.  It upset the performer when Variety accused him of patterning his act after Kenna's act.  He wrote a letter to Variety that read, in part:
My offering is dissimilar to Mr.Kenna's.  The street fakir harks back to days long before Mr. Kenna.  The idea was first used in "The Runaways" at the Casino fifteen years ago.
Is this true?


"The Runaways" debuted on Broadway on May 11, 1903.  Al Fields was billed in the program as "Fleeceum, A Patent Medicine Fakir."  He was introduced in the show hanging around with touts and bookies at a racetrack.  The Plattsburgh Sentinel noted that Fields distinguished himself in the role with "his long legs and battered hat."  But it is unknown the exact nature or function of the Fleeceum role.

Let us now move ahead six months.  The earliest known record of Kenna's act was this ad that was published in November, 1903.
 

Close-up



Such a prominent ad suggests that the act was well-established by this date.  Kenna could have been performing the act for the last year or two.  Or, maybe he hadn’t.  No information that I turned up in my research can confirm this one way or another.  From the incomplete timeline that I was able to create, it remains possible that Kenna acquired inspiration for his act from "The Runaways."  But I am still willing to believe that the act had been, for the most part, originated by Kenna.  The critics unanimously credited Kenna as the originator of the act and I feel inclined to believe that they knew what they were talking about.

Mr. Al Fields, himself, was an undistinguished presence on the vaudeville stage.  We have no record of him ever including his Fleeceum business as part of his act.  Instead, he toured with an act called "The Misery of a Hansom Cab," which cast him as a funny cab driver.  The act involved Fields getting into patter routines with a straight man riding in the backseat as a passenger.  It was like the old bit that Burns and Schreiber performed on television in the 1960s.


Clyde Hager, the aforementioned radio announcer, had free reign to tour the vaudeville circuits with his pitchman bit once Kenna had passed from the scene.  Hager reintroduced his stage act in a 1929 Olsen and Johnson revue, "Merry Mad Minutes of Monkey Business."  Kenna once said that stage producer William Hammerstein hired him after he saw him selling potato peelers on a street corner.  Hager now told a story that was a nearly identical, the only difference being that he left out the producer’s name.  Hager, as Kenna, wanted his fans to believe that he was a 100-percent authentic, experience-hardened pitchman.

He later toured with the act on his own.  His reviews were generally good, although not as enthusiastic as Kenna's reviews.

Variety, June, 1930.  Review of appearance at the Paramount Theatre, Seattle:
Clyde Hager had 'em with his street vendor sales talk, the lingo being good, although some of the jokes are bewhiskered.
Exhibitors Herald-World, September, 1930.  Review of appearance at an unnamed Chicago Theatre:
Clyde Hager kept the house in an uproar from the time he landed on the stage. . . His long suit was selling some kind of an economic potato peeler, and when he actually peeled a poor little offensive spud right on the stage, it brought a howl.
In 1933, Hager was singled out in Variety for performing his "familiar street-hawking act" at the Pitt Theatre in Pittsburgh.

Variety April, 1935.  Review of appearance at the Palace Theatre, New York:
Clyde Hager, the pitchman, was okay on second.  His "go way from me boys, you bother me"' is always worth a giggle.  Hager surprised himself last summer by getting into a legit show — 'Keep Moving' at the Forrest, but he intends sticking to vaude.
Eddie Cantor had Hager perform his routine in his feature film Strike Me Pink (1936).  This was the year of the pitchman in Hollywood.  Other pitchman characters were affectionately spotlighted in two other releases of the year, Come Closer, Folks and Gift of Gab.

Pat O'Brien played a pitchman in I Sell Anything (1934).

Variety, August 1936.  Review of appearance at the Met Theatre, Boston:
Clyde Hager, in his ace pitch man single bit fits in nicely to the trey, spattering the front row with potato peelings as he demonstrates his first gadget, and shellacking his stooge with lather in another demonstration.  Hager's line is rich, his delivery is very good, but he did not register in the far-off seats.  Appeared to be too far away from the mike.  Although consistently the, pitch man, Hager would do well to work up a punchy blow-off.
Variety June, 1937.  Review of appearance at the Capitol Theatre, Washington D.C.:
Hager, the Street Fakir, has house in palm of his hand when he walks onto ramp with stand and suitcase for turn as pitchman.  Idea is rare enough here for him to work straight and wow 'em throughout the act, but he launches into broad farce, smearing stooge with cold cream, and plenty off-color gags that get the laughs, but alienate the cricks [i. e. elite] and smart crowd.
Variety, October, 1937.  Review of appearance at the Salt Lake City Theatre, Utah:
Clyde Hager's pitchman act, which he has been spieling for nearly 20 years, remains as the top applause garnerer of the bill.  Gabbing somewhat in a W. C. Fields tone, Hager calls upon such potent pitch bon mots as 'Go way, you bother me,' and 'You say you're not satisfied' to lift his act for a solid click.  Uses two stooges, one a cop to move him along the stage, and the other is spotted in audience but steps on the stage when the cue comes.
For the next several years, Hager performed the pitchman act in two of Olsen and Johnson's Broadway shows, "Hellzapoppin" and "Sons o' Fun."  He then teamed with Wally Brown to perform comedy patter routines on the Kate Smith radio show.  By this time, the comedian had reportedly obtained a copyright on the catchphrase "That’s all, brother!"

Clyde Hager
Hager returned briefly to one-night stage engagements.

Billboard, January 24, 1942.  Review of appearance at the Flatbush Theatre, Brooklyn:
Clyde Hager, with his familiar pitchman routine, gets belly laughs from men and embarrassed titters from ladies.
From 1942 to 1944, Hager performed his pitchman act as part of the floorshow at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe nightclub.  He left the club to tour army camps as a member of the Camel Caravan.  The following notice appeared in North Carolina's Cloudbuster newspaper on April 15, 1944:
[Clyde Hager] will entertain with his pitchman routine, exaggerating the styles of the street corner vendors selling everything from gold watches to hot perfumes for a dime.
Hager was still touring with the Camel Caravan when he died of a heart attack on May 22, 1944.  He was 58 years old.

Tommy Bernard and Ransom Sherman pitch their medicine show wares in Yankee Fakir (1947).

It wasn't long after Hager’s death that another successor to Kenna's comedy legacy came along.  The succession was clearly noted in a Variety article published on September 15, 1948:
And then there is Sid Stone, now a rather familiar Tuesday night figure on the Texaco television hour with his pitchman commercial for his sponsor.  Here he does the pitchman.  He includes the "get away, boys, you bother me,'' and all the rest of it so well identified with the late Clyde Hager.  It's said that Hager in turn had "adopted" the idea from a yesteryear vaudevillian, Charles Kenna.
Stone performed the pitchman role on Milton Berle’s "Texaco Star Theatre" from 1948 to 1951.  He furnished the familiar lines.  "You say you want more for your money?" he'd say.  "Tell you what I'm gonna do."

The fascination with the pitchman continued in the coming decades.  In the 1950s, John Steinbeck and George Frazier wrote a musical about an elixir salesman called "The Wizard of Maine."  Bing Crosby performed a pitchman musical number in The Country Girl (1954).


The pitchman's ways were ideally exemplified by Robert Preston in The Music Man (1962).  And, of course, let us not forget about Johnny Carson's Art Fern. . .


or Dan Aykroyd’s Super Bass-O-Matic pitchman.




Additional notes



My article includes assertions by Joe Laurie, Jr. that W. C. Fields appropriated parts of Charles Kenna's pitchman act.  Above all else, Fields has frequently been credited with using Kenna’s catchphrase "Go away, kid, you bother me!"  The pitchman is meant to deliver the line to an intrusive small boy whose questions or comments are interfering with his patter.  But I could find no instance of Fields speaking this line in a film.  Was this a misattribution much like claims that Cary Grant said "Judy, Judy, Judy" or Jimmy Cagney said "You dirty rat"?   I consulted two Fields biographers, James Curtis and Simon Louvish.  They, too, were unaware of an instance in which Fields ever recited this line.   They did, however, contribute their thoughts on this subject, which helped me to compose my final assessment.

Being as irascible as he was, Fields was quick to shoo away the frequent pests that came near him.  But he tended to mutter simply, "Go away, go away."  He might say this or something similar to a small child.



But he would just as easily say it to a dog (The Barber, 1933). . .



or a fly (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, 1941).


The closest that he came to Kenna's famous line occurs in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).  While performing a ventriloquist act for a carnival crowd, Fields snarls at a boy in the front row, "Away, boy, you draw flies!"


The Kenna line may have become associated with Fields by way of cartoons, including Little Blabbermouse (1940) and Shop, Look, and Listen (1940).




As of the 1920s, the sidewalk pitchman had been around for more than a hundred years.  People were familiar with this man's spellbinding spiels.  If you want to know the pitchman's rich history, you can read Brooks McNamara’s "Step right up" or Ann Anderson’s "Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones."  Kenna had no patent on the pitchman as a comic character.  Comedians had a right to adapt this character to their own personal style and perspective.  I think that is what Fields did.  Fields originated the role of Prof. Eustace McGargle, a blustery carnival barker, in a 1923 Broadway musical, "Poppy."  He portrayed variations of this character, on and off, for the remainder of his career.


We have no recording of Kenna's act, but we do have recordings of his most prominent imitators, Hager and Stone.  Their fast-talking pitchman characters are notably different than the pitchman characters that Fields brought to the screen.  Fields delivered his spiels with a raspy drawl, which was quite different than Hager or Stone's snappy patter.  But, to be perfectly honest, I cannot say that the acts are entirely dissimilar.  Judge for yourself.

Clyde Hager


Sid Stone


W.C. Fields in The Old Fashioned Way


Fred Stone Rises to Great Heights

Fred Stone and Ella Hall
I made the point in a recent article that Douglas Fairbanks' comic acrobatics, which included the actor scaling high-rise buildings, had a significant influence on Harold Lloyd.  The first film that delivered Lloyd to dizzying heights was Look Out Below (1919), in which the comedian became perched on girder dangling far above the city.

Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels in Look Out Below (1919).

But, a year before Look Out Below, another comic actor looked to attract audiences by following Fairbanks' daring example.  The actor was Broadway star Fred Stone.  Stone and Fairbanks shared the same distributor - a short-lived Paramount subsidiary called Artcraft Pictures Corporation.  It could have been because Artcraft wanted to duplicate their success with Fairbanks that they put demands on Stone to be as robust and nimble as Fairbanks.

Publicists made it clear that stunts had the greatest prominence in Stone's first two Artcraft films, The Goat (1918) and Under the Top (1919).  The stories had been specifically designed to give Stone an excuse to perform midair feats.  Exhibitors Herald wrote of The Goat, "[Stone] makes his bow as a film star in a hodgepodge play written to exploit his gymnastics more than his acting ability."  A full-page ad in Moving Picture World showed Stone sitting atop a flagpole.  The stunts went over well with critics and exhibitors, but weak stories hampered the success of these films.
 
Fred Stone and Rhea Mitchell

The following two sentences from the American Film Institute catalog adequately summarized the plot for The Goat: "Chuck McCarthy, an intrepid young ironworker, longs to become an actor, despite the protests of his girl, Molly O'Connors, and his family.  In dashing up the frame of a building to catch actress Bijou Lamour's runaway pet monkey, he attracts the attention of the studio managers, who make him a stuntman."  The highlight of the film involved Stone acting as Lamour's stand-in for an ice skating scene.  Stone said that his ice skating tricks were intended as a spoof of the type of the tricks performed by German ice skater Charlotte Oelschlägel.



A Motion Picture News critic, P. S. Harrison, thought well of the film.  He noted, "The Goat is a succession of comedy and starling stunts, never forgetting a very human little love story that runs through to tie up the more spectacular events."  Unfortunately, I could find no one else who shared Harrison’s fondness for the film.

Edward Weitzel, a Moving Picture World critic, wrote, "Fred Stone is not at ease in the quiet scenes, but performs all the stunts with his well-known skill."


An exhibitor in Springfield, Illinois, expressed major dissatisfaction with the film in a letter to Motion Picture News.  He wrote, "Fred Stone's first photoplay proved a disappointment when shown at the Gaiety on Sunday, October 6.  Nearly all the fans had seen Stone on the stage in some of his great plays, and probably expected too much.  He did several new stunts, none of which had ever been equaled in daring, but the story was not the kind that took with the film patrons.  There were several good laughs, but not near as many as in Fairbanks' plays.  It is hoped that succeeding Stone pictures will be better, but this is hardly looked for now, as it was figured that the best of the three would be released first." 

The Film Daily critic could not have thought less of the film.  He reported that there was "hardly enough [story] for a split reel."  The critic said that the film is "painfully forced hokum [that] merely serves as a skeleton for athletic stunts of the star.  [The film is] obvious and unfunny [and] utterly fails to stir anything."  But he was not through with his merciless drubbing of the film.  He continued:
As motion picture entertainment, this flops miserably.  Fred Stone's stunts on the "legit" with the late Montgomery got over great — on the stage, but they utterly fail to stir anything on the screen because our various stars of the films have done these same stunts to death for several years and most of them have gone him several points better.

The story, if it can be called such, was obviously constructed to exploit the aforementioned stunts of the star and is the same old stuff that we've had many times in the past; there is no plot, no climax, no love interest—nothing, in fact, to offer an excuse for it having been produced in the first place.
William Sievers of St. Louis’ New Grand Central Theatre gave the most succinct opinion of The Goat when he told Exhibitors Herald, "Very poor story for Stone and one that does not please."


The plot was again weak for Stone's second feature, Under the Top.  Critics were especially annoyed that the hero's adventures turn out in the end to be a dream.  It is an old trick that audiences rarely enjoy.  The Film Daily critic noted, "[The film] is too forced to be convincing, a condition that authors John Emerson and Anita Loos, apparently recognized, otherwise they would not have turned it into a dream, which doesn't help even a little bit.  The plot hasn't the dream quality.  There aren't the elements of fantasy and poetry needed in a dream story. . ."


Stone plays Jimmie, a house painter who fantasizes of one day becoming a tightrope walker in the circus.  The Moving Picture World critic wrote, "[Jimmie] combines his skill with the brush with his cleverness at doing acrobatic stunts, and is able to paint a church tower while amusing the population with a series of hair-raising feats in midair."  The Film Daily reported, "Stone's introduction as a house painter, pursuing his calling at the perilous point of a church steeple, is effective."  Jimmie falls in love with Pansy, the daughter of a circus owner.  When Pansy's father dies in a fall, a conniving circus employee plots to cheat Pansy out of the circus by getting her to marry him.  Just as the film began with Stone in high place, the film ends with the actor in a high place.  IMDb critic Pamela Short wrote, "Pansy's guardians have her hypnotized so that she will marry one of them, but Jimmie steals the marriage license and eludes the pursuing circus hands by doing acrobatic feats to an audience's delight until Pansy emerges from her spell."


The Film Daily critic said of Under the Top (1919): "It's too bad that Fred Stone didn't draw a better story for his second picture appearance.  He hasn't yet had a really fair chance to show whether or not his type of comedy can he put across on the screen with the effectiveness that has made his name famous on the stage.  In time, Fred may get just the right kind of material: then he ought to start something, for he has a mighty likeable personality and when it comes to trick stunts he's in a class by himself. . . Stone's acrobatics are the real thing and, of course, it is highly appropriate that he should appear in a circus picture.  Many of your folks may be counted upon to enjoy a number of the scenes, considered individually, even if the production in its entirety leaves a negative impression."

Harold Lloyd, who understood the importance of telling a good story, went on to succeed where Stone had so dismally failed.  It is in examining the negative reaction to Stone's features that film historians should feel the greatest respect for Lloyd's well-developed skills as a filmmaker.


Additional note


Douglas Fairbanks fondness for climbing to the top of buildings inspired high-altitude climbs by a number of dramatic actors, including George Walsh (The Pride of New York, 1917) and William Russell  (The Sea Master, 1920).

The Team of André Deed and Max Linder


Georg Renken, a Max Linder authority, contributed valuable research to my recent article on the mirror routine.  Now, Mr. Renken has come forth with additional information on Linder that you might find interesting.

In 1906, Pathé Frères made history in their efforts to establish the film industry's first comedy stars.  They started out by introducing André Deed and then, only months later, they brought forth to the public Max Linder.  Their goal, in each instance, was to present a familiar figure that audiences would be glad to revisit week after week. 

The company did not see a need to note the actors’ names in their film titles or promotional literature until 1910, but Renken found an exception to the rule in 1908 ads that were published in a Brazilian newspaper, Gazeta de Noticias.  Linder was referenced in the ads by his full professional name, but Deed was referenced simply as "Did."  The ads have allowed Renken to identify missing credits for both actors.  More interesting, he discovered from the ads in Gazeta de Noticias as well as a Portugal newspaper that Linder and Deed appeared together in at least three films.  None of these films has been known to survive, but significant information about the films has been provided by catalog summaries, periodical ads and press reviews.   

My main interest has been to determine the roles that the comedians played in these films and the way in which they interacted.  This has proven to be an impossible task.  The extensive plot information that is available on the films fails to link specific actors to specific roles.  All that I am left with is conjecture.

The first film is Unwilling chiropodist (released originally in France as Pedicure par amour and released later in Brazil as Callista A Força).  The ad reads: "Resounding apotheosis of laughter and intense joy.  Ultra comical.  Scenes represented by celebrated actors DID and Max Linder.  Success of hilarity."  The "celebrated actors" reference and the fact that the actors were noted by name is proof that the comedians had attained early star power in Brazil.  In this instance, we have overwhelming evidence that Linder played the lead role in the film.  The film was re-released in 1913, by which time Linder’s name was being prominently featured in ads.  Also, a still from the film was published in a 1947 film history book.  Linder, in his suit and top hat, is an unmistakable figure in the photo.


Linder certainly laid claim to the film’s central comedy business, which he turned into a trademark sketch.  He performed it on stage from 1912 to 1914 and he featured it in yet another film, Max pedicure (1914).  


The plot of Unwilling chiropodist is appropriately silly.  Linder is carrying on an affair with a married woman.  When her husband arrives home unexpectedly, Linder pretends to be a chiropodist who has come to attend to the wife's aching feet.  Soon, he is having to tend to the husband's bunions and cut his toenails.  The Moving Picture World reported, "Then comes the man servant, the grocer, the coachman, they all require his skill and attention, and at last, unable to stand the strain any longer, our sham doctor rushes out into the street, much to the amusement of the revenged husband."  My guess is that Deed played one of the men who got a foot treatment from Linder.


The second film is Fake doctor (released in France as Consultation improvisee).  The ad reads, "Extra comical strip, real factory of laughter, whose result of the most frank joy.  Will reign amongst the honorable viewers.  Represented by Max Linder and Did."  New York Dramatic Mirror reported, "The best Pathe comedians work in this picture," which also suggests a joint effort by Linder and Deed.  We again have a false identity plot.  When the doctor is called away to the scene of an accident, his servant takes great pleasure in putting on the doctor's white coat and prescribing a variety of medications to the doctor's patients.  The servant role is well suited to Linder, who specialized in imposter roles.  We already saw Linder pretend to be a chiropodist and do his best to bluff his way through foot treatment.  How hard would it be to imagine him pretending to be doctor and dispensing pills?  Although the dandy character that the comedian came to epitomize was too self-important to ever work as a servant, his preoccupation with status and his obsession with impressing the ladies often caused him to pretend that he was someone that he really wasn’t.


The third comedy, The Music Teacher (released in France as La maitresse de piano), did not reach Portugal until December, 1910.  At the time, an ad that appeared for the film in a Portugal newspaper announced: "We call the attention of the public to this film, interpreted by the celebrated artists Dide and Max Linder."  In this film, a young man falls in love with a pretty young woman, but her father denies him entrance to their home.  The young man is desperate to see his beloved lady.  As it turns out, his solution is to dress in drag so that he can pretend to be the young woman's music teacher.  Yes, essentially the same plot was used decades later for Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).  This plot is well suited to Deed.  In fact, Deed went on to use the same plot for a 1911 comedy called Foolshead, Lady of Company (released originally in Italy under the title Cretinetti dama di compagnia).  Also, Linder was not a comedian who tended to engage in drag business.  The comedian dressed as a woman to undo a rival in the 1913 comedy Le duel de Max.  Otherwise, I cannot think of one other time that he donned a dress. 

Unfortunately, I cannot figure the role that Linder had in The Music Teacher.  But it is at least good to know that, in this brief farce, film's earliest comedy kings got to join forces to deliver "frank joy" and a "resounding apotheosis of laughter."


Additional notes

Renken identified Deed as the leading man of another 1908 comedy, The Pretty Typist (released in France as La jolie dactylographe).  The actor can be clearly identified in this photo from the film.  He is the forlorn office clerk who stands to the left of the other actors. 


The film’s plot involves Deed's character becoming enamored of the titular pretty typist.  The Moving Picture World reported, "As soon as he sees her at work on the typewriter, he begins to smile in her direction from his high stool, showing plainly that first sight is enough for him.  His arms now begin to fly about, his heart like[wise] flails, and in his enthusiasm he falls from his chair to the floor. . ."  He plans to talk to the typist, but he cannot take a step in her direction without his no-nonsense boss getting in the way.  The boss stands in the center of the photo ejecting another of the typist’s admirers from the office.  At first, I thought that the boss looked like Linder.  But the boss is significantly taller than Deed.  I could find no record of Deed’s height, but I do know that Linder was 5' 2" and few men could stand next to him and appear to be shorter.  Is the boss Linder or not?  I ask that you judge for yourself.


Manic Pixie Pain in My Ass


The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope essentially involves a glumly introverted boy meeting a wildly extroverted girl, who manages through her unremitting antics to teach her new acquaintance how to enjoy life.  The film generally credited with originating this formula is the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938).  But a sexually enchanting dream partner, girl or boy, is not needed to make this sort of film work.  Buddy comedies relied on the same premise long before a new wave of rom-com auteurs revived the Baby formula and ran it into the ground.  Consider The Producers (1967), The In-Laws (1979), and every Francis Veber comedy from A Pain in the Ass (1973) to Ruby & Quentin (2003). 

Hollywood varied this premise to a limited extent.  The main idea behind these films has always been that, despite the constant arguments and misunderstandings, the introvert and extrovert belong together.  We are asked to believe that these men, with their crucial differences, serve to temper one another and achieve success that neither man could achieve on their own.  So, for the purposes of a funny and satisfying story, this duo operates in a normal and proper way to achieve their goals and come to a happy ending.  If the filmmakers did their job well, the happy experience that the duo enjoys on screen is supposed to translate to a happy experience for the people sitting in the audience.  But is this at all realistic?


The characters in these films are not always identified as introvert and extrovert.  One might be called "repressed" and the other might be called "free-spirited."  One might be presented as "the timid novice" and the other might be presented as "the larger-than-life old hand."  A. A. Dowd of the A. V. Club noted that Noah Baumbach's Mistress America (2015), the latest introvert-meets-extrovert buddy comedy, "follow[s] a square seduced by the charms of a pretentious cool kid."  It is, no matter the character designations, essentially the same story. 

Let's talk about Mistress America.  Baumbach is refreshing in the way that he deconstructs this sort of relationship.  The director specializes in portraying painfully dysfunctional characters in painfully dysfunctional relationships.  Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, "[H]is characters are often so delusional or bitter or ignorant or self-aggrandizing or otherwise unpleasant that I find myself watching certain scenes through the cracks between my fingers."  These type of characters are exposed in full form in Mistress America.  The deficiency of the film's delusional and self-absorbed characters is obvious from the start.  Seitz wrote, "[Brooke] and Tracy match up in a way that they probably both think is marvelous but that quickly shows its downside: they aren't really talking to each other, but having adjacent monologues, with each waiting for a turn to chime in and talk about themselves."  How could these characters ever produce effective teamwork?


At first, the introvert-meets-extrovert formula is applied conventionally to Mistress America.  Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman, is feeling lonely as she tries to adjust to living away from home.  Her mother recommends that she call her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig).  Joe Neumaier of the Daily News wrote, "Tracy is expecting maybe a tour guide to New York.  What she gets is a life force.  Brooke is a ditsy moving windmill, never doing one thing when she could be doing four things. . ."  It isn't often that a character in a film is described as a "windmill," but many critics saw the high-voltage and coolly self-absorbed Brooke as something less than human.  The New York Times’ Stephen Holden called her "a dynamic human whirligig."  The Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper called her a "non-stop whirling dervish and talking machine."  Roeper added, "[Brooke] has an opinion about everything, is in the middle of a half-dozen AMAZING projects and seems to know all the coolest people and all the best places in New York."


In other films, everything miraculously works out for the extrovert no matter how reckless and ill-conceived their actions are.  But no divine force acts to protect Brooke.  Her downfall is inevitable.  Roeper wrote, "The problem with Brooke is she’s a human mirage. . ."  This free-spirited narcissist is dazzling in the first act, exasperating in the second act, and depressing in the third act.  San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle was not pleased that Brooke was denied Holly Golightly’s happy ending.  He wrote, "As an artist, [Baumbach] is attracted to dreamers and fantasists, but can’t resist puncturing their illusions and presenting them as losers.  He pities his characters, and his pity has nothing to do with sympathy."  Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "Baumbach wants to celebrate this charismatic gadfly but also take her down a peg or two."  

We have come to expect from odd couple comedies that, during the course of the couple’s exhilarating misadventures, the initial animosity between the two will dissipate and a joyful comradeship will develop in its place.  But that doesn’t happen in this case.  Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter called the film "a girl-bonding-and-breaking tale."  The joyful bonding that occurs at the start of the film disintegrates into bitter ashes by the final scene.

Filmmakers cannot resist the temptation of showcasing a flashy character.  They know that a character with a spirited nature will create action and make a film more vibrant.  But, beyond the vigor, enthusiasm and sparkle, there isn’t always much about the flashy character to admire.  They are undisciplined and unfocused and their spirited ways tend to lead only to chaos, pain and failure.  In the end, this is the sad and honest message of Mistress America.

Additional notes

For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I do not always get along well with extroverts.  This likely has colored my perspective of introvert-meet-extrovert films. 

When I think of extroverts, I think of my Uncle Sonny.  My uncle may be 81 years old but he acts as if he is 12.  I have dedicated my book about the man-child to my uncle.  This could be interpreted as a backhanded compliment, but the man was in truth an ongoing inspiration for the book.  And, don't get me wrong, I do appreciate his many good qualities and I do have love for him.  But our differences often create trouble. 

One day, I became terribly irritated with my uncle.  I don’t remember what got me mad, but I am sure that it wasn’t a single incident.  I was so fed up with him that I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him.  He explained the problem to my mother succinctly: "Anthony is an introvert and I am an extrovert."  He made it clear that he didn’t think much of the introvert.  His unsophisticated analysis of the introvert came down to one sentence: "They sit there and look at everyone."  My uncle believes that it is the dynamic life force of the extrovert that makes the Earth turn on its axis.  He doesn't, in any way, share my view that mankind's greatest accomplishments have come from the quiet observer.  Probably, neither of us is right. 

I say without hesitation that my uncle is the most extroverted person that I have known in my life.  His antic, attention-seeking behavior grates on my nerves at times.  He, as a classic extrovert, likes to seek out external stimulation.  He derives fulfillment from interacting with other people and engaging in rousing activities.  The most flashy, high-spirited extrovert can be categorized as an adventurous personality type.  They become terribly bored unless they are getting into mischief and taking risks.

One morning, I went with my uncle to a convenience store.  After I paid for my breakfast croissant, I found him outside the store smirking like Peck's Bad Boy.  He told me that he walked out of the store without paying for his coffee and no one even noticed him.  "Why would you do that?" I asked him.  He didn’t answer me.  Stealing the coffee had given him a thrill.  He was enjoying himself so much that I doubt he even heard my question.


It makes me think about society in general.  Our political differences may not be philosophical.  Maybe, the conservative vs. liberal war comes down to a war between introvert and extrovert or a war between left-brainers and right-brainers.  It would be nice to think that the two groups could complement one another and develop a joyful and trouble-free comradeship just like in the movies.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: "The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy"

 
I just finished reading Kliph Nesteroff's new book, "The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy."  Nesteroff proves my long-held opinion that comedy has a rich history.  His book is well written and well researched and it provides a fascinating history of stand-up comedy.  Nesteroff relies on extensive research to shed a light on long-forgotten performers.  His astute account of Frank Fay's career is one of my favorite parts of the book.


I have to say, though, that I do not agree with Nesteroff on every point that he makes.  I disagree with his assertions that drugs make comedians funnier, comedy never ages well, and the hippie movement created a marvelous renaissance that is immune to criticism.

We have truth in labeling when it comes to the "Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels" part of the book's title.  Comedians do not emerge from these pages as endearing figures.  They are egocentric, temperamental, rude, vulgar, angry, anxious, insecure, paranoid, deluded, bitter, self-destructive, alcoholic, and drug-addled.  The passage of the book that left the most lasting impression on me was the following:
Buddy Hackett abandoned [Lenny] Bruce after his first drug bust.  "The first time that Lenny got busted in Philadelphia, I called Buddy," says comic Frank Man. "I said, 'You hear what happened to Lenny?'  He said, 'Yeah, I heard.' I said, 'What can we do to help him?' He said, 'I'm not going to do anything to help him!  He’ll probably stick a needle in my kid’s arm!'  That was the end of the friendship between Buddy Hackett and Lenny Bruce."

Many of these comedians displayed personal habits so repulsive that, as Hackett suggested, their appearance should compel a right-minded person to hide their children.  Hackett, himself, was known to crazily pull out a weapon when he got angry.  The book documents incidents in which Hackett shot up a car in a hotel parking lot, shot a picture off a wall in a green room, and flung a knife at another actor on a movie set.  I'd say that, if you hung out with Hackett, you'd be wise to watch that the funny guy didn’t fire a bullet into your kid's leg.  It might just be that comedy is a form of insanity.  Pagliacci let us know that, when you strip away the clown make-up and the funny costume, you just might reveal something underneath that is dark and ugly.


I have devoted my blog to celebrating the work of comedians.  But, I admit, celebrating a comedian for their work is a far easier task than celebrating a comedian for their personal behavior.  I couldn't love a comedian more than I love Phil Silvers, but reading stories about Silvers' gambling addiction could if I let it poison my affection for the man.  The compulsive gambler is not, by anyone's standards, a beloved figure in our culture.  He is, to use the words of Casino's Nicky Santoro, a "lowlife" and a "degenerate."  It is disturbing to consider the possibility that our enjoyment of comedy comes down to having our funny bones tickled by lowlifes and degenerates.  But I realize that it is better I enjoy Silvers' comedy without ruminating over Silvers' gambling activities.  And maybe there was a lot more to Silvers' personal life than his gambling.

 
No one comes out untarnished in "The Comedians."  Jack Benny inevitably turns up in histories of vaudeville, radio and television as a saintly figure.  He wasn't an alcoholic.  He wasn't a womanizer.  He wasn't a gambler.  He treated his staff well.  He maintained a stable and happy marriage.  He was everyone's friend.  This is the first show business history that I read that casts Benny in a less than flattering light.  He was a plagiarist.  He was a jewelry smuggler.  He bad-mouthed the Marx Brothers.  He gave shitty career advice to Silvers. 

Of course, an argument could be made that the gossipy tome focuses the Hubbel Telescope on the comedy community's blemishes.  And maybe most people like it that way.  Hedda Hopper said, "Nobody's interested in sweetness and light."  But there is a difference between a warts-and-all account and an all-the-warts-all-the-time account. 

I had an editor who was willing to publish my Lloyd Hamilton biography if I removed all of the material about Hamilton's alcoholism.  He thought it would be better if I focused the book on Hamilton's work.  But I disagreed.  The plain and simple fact was that Hamilton was a great artist and a great drunk.  Those two aspects of the man had to be presented in a balanced way to accurately tell his story.

Honestly, this is just my personal impressions as a comedy enthusiast.  I offer these thoughts nothing more than a caveat.  It is in no way meant to diminish Nesteroff's fine work or to diminish the likely enjoyment that you will have reading his book.

Book Review: Pamela Tiffin: Hollywood to Rome, 1961-1974 (McFarland)

 
Tom Lisanti has written before about many different 1960s starlets.  He has referred to these women in his book titles as fantasy femmes, drive-in dream girls, and glamour girls.  But cult icon Pamela Tiffin is the first young actress so dreamy, glamorous and fantastic to merit the author’s loving and undivided attention for an entire book.


Lisanti expresses his disappointment that Tiffin never achieved the superstar status of contemporaries like Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch.  The author makes a persuasive case that Tiffin didn't acquire the roles that she deserved and didn't acquire the recognition that she deserved.  It is the unfortunate way of Hollywood.  An actor's career in the film industry can be scuttled by mistimings, misgivings, misperceptions, and misfires.

After the actress' strong start in Summer and Smoke and One, Two, Three (both 1961), Tiffin's bosses at Twentieth Century Fox designated her to play light and predictable roles in escapist formula pictures.  There were the usual teenage beach party frolics and the unending three-girls-looking-for-romance romps.  Lisanti contends that Tiffin, an ingénue who was both pretty and funny, confused producers, whose tendency at the time was to squeeze actors into safe niches.  They simply couldn't find a niche in which Tiffin would fit.


At the time, competition was fierce for a young actress in Hollywood.  This is a running theme in the book.  In the last ten years, I am not sure that Scarlett Johansson has had to fight off as many rival actresses for roles.  I remember once seeing E. J. Peaker on an episode of That Girl and thinking that the show would have been a lot better if she was the star rather than Marlo Thomas.  I then began to think of many other actresses who would have been funnier, more believable and more sympathetic as the series’ star than Thomas.  Of course, Thomas vaulted over many obstacles with the help of her superstar daddy Danny Thomas.  It's just how it is.


In the end, sheer talent is never enough.  You need drive and ambition.  You need strategy and marketing.  You need a resilient spirit and a scheming mind.  You need, as Thomas, a powerful supporter.  And, of course, you always need luck.   

Tiffin did not always serve her best interests.  She lacked the ruthless competitiveness of other actresses and she could at times be impulsive in making important decisions.  She wouldn't do television because she was uncomfortable with the fast pace of television production.  She took herself out of consideration for the Bonnie Parker role in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) because she got scared off hearing about Warren Beatty's womanizer ways.  She moved out of the United States because she was desperate to put distance between herself and her ex-husband. 

Much attention has been paid to Tiffin's physical beauty, but Lisanti explains convincingly that there was much more to Tiffin than her looks.  The book motivated me to review two of Tiffin's films, One, Two, Three (1961) and The Pleasure Seekers (1964), and it became obvious watching these films that Tiffin was indeed a special talent.


An actor's looks, in the end, do not matter much.  The other day, I was watching a Columbia Pictures comedy called Who Was That Lady? (1960).  The film exceeds any reasonable quota for youthful feminine pulchritude.  To start, the leading lady of the film was the lovely Janet Leigh.  But the film further treats male viewers with a supporting cast that includes Joi Lansing, Barbara Nichols and Barbara Hines.  If long legs and curvy hips made an actress, then this film would have the dramatic heft of Little Women.  But it doesn't.  It doesn't even have the dramatic heft of Robot Monster

Tiffin was a genuinely talented actress.  It is a point that Lisanti makes well, which is what makes this a fascinating and worthwhile book.  The book is especially engrossing when it details Tiffin’s experiences dealing with randy leading men, nastily competitive female co-stars and hopelessly inept directors.  It is a period drama of a period that has received great attention in recent years.  I kept expecting attractive bi-coastal actress/model Tiffin to have a run-in with attractive bi-coastal adman Don Draper.