Tuesday, May 3, 2016

DVD Release: Found at "Mostly Lost"

William and Edna Frawley in Ventriloquist (1927)
 
"Mostly Lost" is an annual workshop in which a sizable group, including writers, scholars, archivists, filmmakers, film buffs and students, gather together at the Library of Congress to identify archive films missing their main titles.  The workshop often turns up rare films that have significant historical or entertainment value (sometimes both).  The dependable Undercrank Productions has now put out a collection of these films called Found at "Mostly Lost."

Trav S. D. provided an excellent rundown of the films.  I don't see that I have too much more to say, but a talky fellow such as myself should be able to make a fair effort. 

Hank Mann in The Nickel Snatcher (1920)

It is true that The Nickel Snatcher (1920) has offensive (but funny) gags having to do with a fat woman boarding a street car.  The Kansas State Board of Review had this scene eliminated because Hank Mann and Vernon Dent get behind the woman to give her a shove, which ends up with them putting their grabby hands on the woman's chunky buttocks.  The board, which referenced the film under the title The Nickel Chaser, issued their demand of the scene's elimination with the following comment: "ELIM ALL OF SCENE OF MEN PUTTING HANDS ON FAT WOMAN AS THEY ASSIST HER ON CAR, AND USING DONKEY TO PUSH FAT [WOMAN]."  The board failed to mention that the donkey ends up kicking the woman squarely in her hindquarters.

 
 

Jerry's Perfect Day (1916) is an example of early queer cinema.  Trav perfectly describes the film's opening scene: "[George Ovey] sidles up to another tramp on a bench, falls asleep and dreams he is with his little wife.  When he wakes up, he is petting and kissing the other tramp."


Later, a group of brawny police officers abandon their wives to join together in a skinny-dipping frolic.

 

Most of all, though, one of Ovey's tramp friends acts overtly gay.

 
   
Fifteen Minutes (1921) is a good silent film comedy primer.  It derives gags from a bear, a mud puddle, a chase, a car driving into a lake, and hot-in-pursuit police officers.  Let me not forget a dog pulling Snub Pollard through the street on a skateboard.


I didn't know that skateboards existed in 1921.  I did a Google search on the history of the skateboard.  Skateboards were not being manufactured commercially until the 1940s, but it is believed that children were producing crude homemade skateboards as far back as the 1920s.  This is a 1920s style skateboard.


The best that the DVD set has to offer is two vaudeville acts staged for film cameras.  The first film is Ventriloquist (1927), which preserved for posterity the vaudeville act of William and Edna Frawley.  Mr. Frawley (the future "Fred Mertz") is hawking patent medicines to passersby.  To prove the potency of his product, he persuades a woman to swallow one of his pills.  The pill instantly causes the woman's body to go limp and gives her a serious case of rictus.  To draw customers, Mr. Frawley lifts the drugged woman onto his knee and uses her as a ventriloquist dummy.  Mrs. Frawley's impersonation of a ventriloquist dummy is certainly entertaining.  My overall grade for the film: creepy (but funny). 

The second film is The Joyride (1928), which features the long forgotten comedy team of George LeMaire and Joe Phillips.  I want to talk a bit about these men.


LeMaire started out as the straight man in a blackface duo, Conroy and LeMaire.  The act was featured in two Broadway revues, "The Passing Show of 1913" and "Fads and Fancies."  Their most popular routine was a doctor's sketch called "The Doctor Shop."  Conroy and LeMaire dissolved their partnership in 1919, at which time LeMaire took his doctor's sketch to "The Ziegfeld Follies."  Conroy's role in the act was now taken by Ziegfeld perennial Eddie Cantor.  LeMaire remained in great demand as a straight man.  His reputation was assured by his continued appearances in Broadway shows, including "George White's Scandals" and "The Broadway Brevities."

Joe Phillips made a name for himself working from 1911 to 1914 in a Butler, Lowrie & Jacobs burlesque show called "The Beauty Parade."  His straight man was a Jewish comedian named Harry Fields.  I think that I can best tell Phillips' story with excerpts from his newspaper reviews.

Variety (October, 1912)
Joe Phillips plays a patsy, doing his best work in a couple of numbers with Lilla Brennan.
Variety (November, 1912)
Joe Phillips as a "fresh guy" is a handy helper for Harry Fields, and the boy handles his material to good effect.  He also helps work up a couple of numbers in good shape.
The New York Clipper (September, 1913) 
Two of the big song hits with "The Beauty Parade" at the Columbia last week were "When It's Apple Blossom Time In Normandy," sung by the Countess Rossi, and ''You Made Me Love You," sang by Lilla Brennan and Joe Phillips as a response duet, appropriately worded.  This earned four or five encores at each show.
The New York Clipper - Philadelphia's Empire Theatre (January, 1914)
"The Beauty Parade" was a winner to overflowing crowds last week.  Harry Fields and Joe Phillips furnished plenty of amusement, while Lilla Brennan and Marie Flynn were the leaders of the female contingent.
Variety (March, 1914)
Joe Phillips, for three years with Butler, Lowrie & Jacobs attractions and who quit on the road a week ago, is in New York and may also line up with [Progressive Wheel's] Sim Williams for next season burlesque.
Williams put Phillips in his latest show, "The Girls from Joyland."  The reviews were good.

Variety (November, 1914)
Joe Phillips is a clean worker, wears his clothes like a regular juvenile and does not exaggerate the French character in the first part.  His number with Miss Sweet, "Please Do My Family a Favor," was one of the song hits of the last half.
The New York Clipper (November, 1914)
Joe Phillips, as the little Frenchman, looked and acted the part, and his work in the French song and in duets and solos was well liked.
Phillips returned to "The Beauty Parade" within months.

The New York Clipper - Chicago's Columbia Theatre (January, 1915)
"The Beauty Parade" packed 'em [for] the Saturday matinee.  A good show includes: Ruth Barbour, Lilla Brennan and Lillian Brooks, hard workers.  Miss [Hildegarde] Stone's has a pleasing singing voice.  Joe Phillips injects plenty comedy throughout, ably assisted by Ambark Ali [Arabian acrobat], Geo. F. Hayes, William Meehan and Mickey Curran.
At the end of 1915, Phillips contracted with The Strause and Franklyn Amusement Company for a featured role opposite Laura Houston in "Girls from the Follies."  The star of the show was a popular Jewish comedian, Harry Steppe.

Phillips had done well with female partners, especially Lilla Brennan and Laura Houston.  He teamed up with yet another female partner, Margaret Van Buren, in his next show, "Roseland."  Usually, his duets with the ladies got better notices than his comedy numbers.  This trend was to continue through much of his career. 

In 1917, Phillips worked in a big-budget revue called "Little Miss Flirt," which was staged at The Harlem Opera House.  The critic with The New York Clipper did not have much good to say about the show.  He wrote, "It appears as if considerable money was spent in putting this act together, but the turn itself is hardly strong enough to get very far."  But he did, as the following quote shows, single out Phillips and his new lady partner for praise.

The New York Clipper (May, 1917)
Joe Phillips and Marguerite De Von, who are featured in the tabloid, have no chance to show their talents except in the "daddy" song, which they sing well.
After the failure of "Little Miss Flirt," Phillips tried out a two-act with Anita Osgood, then Evelyn MacVey.  He eventually decided to strike out in a new direction.

Variety (March, 1920)
Jimmie Gildea and Joe Phillips were formally featured in different girl acts and were induced by Pantages [Theatre] to team up.  They scored the show's hit.  They are both clever comedians of contrasting types and have framed a dandy comedy routine full of good talking bits and business.  The ventriloquist finish stopped the show.
Variety (April, 1921)
[Eddie] Lambert steps upstage to make an announcement.  Male partner interrupts, bawling him out for trying to make a single out of a two-act.  The latter is Joe Phillips, from burlesque.  Lambert introduces him in a comedy speech.  Next a duet of burlesque opera, Phillips pulling laughs with a thin exaggerated falsetto voice.  A burlesque ventriloquist bit similar to Felix Adler's, with Phillips as the dummy seated upon Lambert's knee, for some crossfire and a song hit.  A good standard small time two-man comedy act.
It was at this point that Phillips united with LeMaire.

Variety (April, 1922)
George Le Maire in "At the Dentist" followed and was another comedy riot.  Le Maire is assisted by Joe Phillips from burlesque, who proves a happy selection. Two good-looking girls figure briefly.
Variety (April, 1922)
Patricia Deacon, a Minneapolis society girl, will make her stage debut at the Palace, New York, next week, appearing in the George LeMaire and Joe Phillips act.  The latter, who is out of burlesque, has joined with LeMaire.  They will offer a combination of the osteopath and dentist turns formerly played by Conroy and LeMaire.
Variety (April, 1922)
Joe Phillips (of burlesque) and two pretty girls.  In a condensed version of the former Conroy and LeMaire "Doctor Shop" and another C & L sketch. 

Le Maire, in white face, is an osteopath and dentist.  A special set of his office is shown.  Betty Dudley, a pretty brunette is a manicurist.  Phillips, an anemic-looking comic who does a semi-"nance," calls for treatment and subjects himself to LeMaire roughhouse curative methods, which include the extraction of a tooth, a funny bit of business in a dental chair, and an awful grueling [time] on an osteopath's table.  Phillips takes plenty of punishment during the action, all of it good for big laughs.  LeMaire in his usual unctuous straight.

At the finish Phillips decides he will become an osteopath to get even for the slugging received.  LeMaire tells him he can have the first patient who appears.  A swell-looking filly walks in, is grabbed and thrown on the table by the new doc.  LeMaire rescues her and throws his former patient out of a window.

It's hoke, but the kind they will relish. Le Maire is a past master at this type of comedy, and has surrounded himself with capable people.
Variety - 81st Street Theatre (August, 1922)
In the vaudeville George LeMaire and Joe Phillips, doubling the dentist and osteopath scenes with their slapstick, made the house giggle heartily.  Most of the stuff is done as LeMaire did it with Eddie Cantor in "The Follies" but that doesn't take away from Mr. Phillips, who gives a very comical performance of his own.  The hoke makes it sure fire for low comedy.
Variety (October, 1922)
LeMaire's "At the Dentist" is the vehicle which Eddie Cantor used in a revue and which now has Joe Phillips as the patient.  Phillips follows Cantor very closely and makes the offering laughable vaudeville fun.
Variety (October, 1922)
The novelty of the bill comes from the double appearance of George LeMaire.  In third position, reunited with his old partner, Frank Conroy, in "The Sharpshooters" and again in closing position in "At the Dentist,'' with Joe Phillips playing the patient.
Variety (October, 1922)
George LeMaire assisted by Joe Phillips opened the second half with "At the Dentist's" and the osteopath bit from one of the past shows.
Variety (January, 1923)
George LeMaire [performs] in the comedy smash "The Dentist," but holding the idea and most of the material of the osteopath from the "Follies" of several seasons back.  It's a whale of a low comedy turn, calculated for any grade of audience.  It would be a tough bird that wouldn't get a laugh out of LeMaire manhandling little Joe Phillips.  There is genuine, robust humor in the whole 17 minutes, and the right kind of laughter goes with it, the kind that starts at the diaphragm and comes in explosions.

Joe Phillips came on for a moment to do a bit with Eddie Nelson, the blackface comedian, a little man with a big voice and a way of getting rags, "blues" and "mammy" songs over that has a touch of Al Jolson himself, on whom doubtless Nelson has modeled his style.
After two years of great success, LeMaire and Phillips split up sometime in early 1924.  LeMaire went on to team up with a leading comedian of the day, Billy B. Van.  The two men started out playing vaudeville dates and then worked together in two revues: "The Dream Girl" (1924) and "Gay Paree" (1925). 

LeMaire and Phillips rejoined in 1926.  The audiences responded well to the familiar pair.  Variety noted, "[LeMaire and Phillips'] osteopathic hokum is well known."  Unfortunately, the reunion lasted less than a year.  Phillips did solo work for awhile.

Variety (April, 1928)
There may be comedy mopups at this house but it's doubtful if anything will run very far away over that which Joe registered.  A rough comic but the kind of hoke the pop neighborhoods eat up.
In 1929, LeMaire was hired by Pathe to write, direct and star in a series of comedy shorts.  At first, he hired Louis Simon to be his comic foil.  The two men were featured together in five shorts, including film adaptations of LeMaire's osteopath sketch (filmed as Go Easy, Doctor) and his dentist sketch (filmed as At the Dentist's).  But eventually LeMaire reunited with his old partner Joe Phillips for two shorts: Dancing Around and Joyride.

  
LeMaire died from a heart attack on January 20, 1930.  The show went on for Phillips.

Exhibitors Herald World (July 19, 1930)
Tom Patricola will be seen in the first of the new Ideal comedy series, featured with his vaudeville partner, Joe Phillips.  This talking comedy went into production at Educational studios a few days ago, under the direction of William Goodrich [Roscoe Arbuckle].
Exhibitors Herald World (September 20, 1930)
Sitting Pretty is a comedy which uses for its theme the latest species of individual to come to the attention of the world, the flagpole sitter.  Two comedians of Broadway revues, Harry Short and Joe Phillips, are featured with Ruth Donnelly and Cesar Romero.  Alf Goulding, the directorial Coast importation, who is working very nicely into the Brooklyn scheme of things, is holding the strings, guided by the script of A. D. Otvos.
The Film Daily (September 28, 1930)
[Sitting Pretty is a] mild comedy.  Even Joe Phillips, who ordinarily has no trouble at all getting the laughs, is unable to overcome the handicaps of the weak material given him in this comedy dealing with flag-pole sitting.
The Film Daily (October 12, 1930)
Joe Phillips, diminutive Hollywood comedian, now in New York, is featured in "Lodge Night," a Vitaphone Varieties comedy written by A. D. Otvos.
Variety (November, 1933)
Joe Phillips was the first to pick up the laughs, and he owed plenty to Aileen Cook, his foil.  Stooges nicely for Phillips and then brings the turn new life when she gathers up her skirts and starts to put over some smooth legmania.  Phillips stuff is not new, but so long as he spanks or threatens to spank his partner about every so often, he builds the laughs.  Nice style of working, and it would be interesting to see what he would really do with good material.
Variety (December, 1935)
Joe Phillips, next-to-closes with his comic chores.  Madeline Killeen and Margie Johnson foil with him to goodly results.  Gagging is a bit familiar by now, but still punchy.
Variety - New York's State Theatre (June, 1943)
Marion-Hall combo was a last-minute booking to substitute for the team of Joe Phillips and Marion Colby who have a new act but weren't quite ready to open.  They will come in two or three weeks hence instead.
Variety – New York's State Theatre (June, 1946)
Joe Phillips, the vet vauder now working with tall, statuesque Patricia Flynn, works a patter turn with antiquated material and while there are occasional laughs, amusement returns are small.
In October, 1948, Variety brought attention to Phillips appearing with Milton Berle and Maxie Rosenbloom in a "socko comedy bit" on "The Texaco Star Theatre."  At the time, Phillips was also appearing in a show called "For Love or Money" in Pittsburgh.

Variety (April, 1949)
"Meet My Sister," half-hour musicomedy starring the Keane Sisters and Joe Phillips, set for Procter & Gamble's "Fireside Theatre" next Tuesday night.  Felix Jackson writes, produces and directs the stanza.
Phillips had more partners through the years than his notices ever managed to cover.  Other partners include Thelma Temple and Billy Lang. 

I cannot say what became of Phillips after "Meet My Sister."  It surprised me that I couldn't find an obituary for the man in either Variety or Billboard.  But I know that, after 38 years of clowning, the performer was due for a rest.  For now, we at least know that the funny little fellow on the new DVD release was once a familiar face on burlesque and vaudeville stages.

I give the new DVD five enthusiastic donkey kicks.

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