Saturday, March 28, 2009

Axioms and Stomach Bumps from Billy Gilbert

In 1936, producer Al Christie teamed Billy Gilbert and Vince Barnett to create his own version of Laurel & Hardy. A-1 Video has assembled three of these comedies, Super Stupid, Just Another Murder and The Brain Busters, as part of a DVD collection titled Billy Gilbert Comedies.

Gilbert can be found in this series freely borrowing Hardy's mannerisms. He is at his most Hardyesque in The Brain Busters, where he demonstrates Hardy's courtliness, hand gestures and overly precise diction. He also likes to dispense axioms, which Hardy was prone to do. Gilbert's performance, though derivative, is clever and funny. I found myself laughing often at Gilbert and I may have liked these comedies overall if Christie had put someone better in the Laurel role than Barnett. It would have been interesting to see Harry Langdon in this role. Laurel & Hardy were at their best when they had a good adversary. Gilbert and Barnett, in the same way, benefit from having stalwarts Bud Jamison and James Morton as their adversaries.

This was not the first time that a producer tried to turn Gilbert into a Hardy clone. Hal Roach, who had brought Laurel and Hardy together, thought he might have do well to create a second team. In 1932, he introduced Gilbert and Ben Blue as cab drivers in The Taxi Boys series. A very funny article about this failed series appears on The Third Banana blog.

Other producers tried to find a partner for Gilbert. He was featured with Billy Bletcher in the Schmaltz Brothers series. He suffered a Laurel & Hardy-type misadventure with Cliff Nazarro in Shot in the Escape (1943). When Abbott & Costello were at the height of their success, Monogram Pictures got the idea of teaming Gilbert and Frank Fay for a series of feature comedies. The team debuted in Spotlight Revue (1943) as down-on-their-luck vaudeville performers. Fay was the conceited, conniving and dapper one while Gilbert was the fat, nervous and lovable one. The team was clearly meant to appeal to fans of Abbott & Costello. Fay left the series after this one film and he was promptly replaced by Shemp Howard, who starred opposite Gilbert in Three of a Kind (1944), Crazy Knights (1944) and Trouble Chasers (1945).

The remaining comedy shorts on the Billy Gilbert Comedies DVD are also entertaining.

Who's Looney Now?, an RKO comedy short from 1936, features Jack Norton as a husband at his wits' end. Norton has a nagging wife, a bratty little boy, a mean-spirited mother-in-law, and a parasitic brother-in-law. This sour depiction of family life was standard for RKO's comedy shorts of the period. A neighbor tells Norton that, rather than get upset with his family, he should react to them by laughing. "Laugh," he says, " and the world laughs with you." Norton's family finds it strange that Norton is laughing at everything and they decide to call a psychiatrist to cart him off to the funny farm. Gilbert is the befuddled psychiatrist who gets their call. The family insists that Gilbert get to their home as soon as possible. Gilbert puts on his jacket while talking on the phone and this causes the telephone line to get caught in his jacket sleeve. It is a testament to Gilbert's talent that, using a prop as simple as a phone, he is able to generate an amusing routine. Gilbert is finally able to untangle himself from the phone cord and make his way to Norton's house, but he gets confused and tries to strap a straitjacket on Norton's brother-in-law.

Crazy Like A Fox, a 1944 Columbia short subject, again pairs Gilbert with Norton. Gilbert and Norton get stuck together in a phone booth. It takes Gilbert bumping Norton with his stomach to push Norton out of the booth. The stomach bump is accompanied by the sound of bass drum, which is the same sound effect Columbia used when Curly bumped someone with his stomach in a Three Stooges comedy. The comedy was directed by Jules White, who was not known for subtlety. Gilbert no sooner gets out the phone booth then he runs across a hotel lobby and has his pants fall down around his ankles. That's probably the most subtle moment in this raucous film.

Gilbert looks much like Curly as he's running through rooms and hallways to evade an East Indian potentate determined to run him through with a saber. He repeatedly makes panicked cries like Curly, except he doesn't uses Curly's trademark "Woo-woo!" but the "Whooooah!" howl that had been used years earlier by Bob Woolsey.

Gilbert played a variety of roles in hundreds of films and he always managed to be funny. He could be Oliver Hardy for Al Christie. He could be Curly Howard for Jules White. When I think of Gilbert, I either remember him playing a big game hunter in Block-Heads (1938) or I remember him playing Joe Pettibone in His Girl Friday (1940). Those performances were entirely different but they were both hilarious. Gilbert was a special comedy talent indeed.

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