Friday, March 27, 2009

Hello, Dooley

Some fans of silent comedy love every comedian who worked in the field. They find find something charming in every comedian who performed a pratfall, ran away from a burly villain, or got into a zany car chase. It does not matter if the comedian was obscure or famous. It does not matter if the comedian was a star or a minor player. Their affections can even extend to the bathing beauties, the trained dogs, the cute children, whoever participated in the fun and tomfoolery that ended up on screen. I can understand that. Silent comedy is a wonderful lost art form. Whatever work has survived deserves to be treasured by fans. Some days, I feel that way, too. Other days, I think of Billy Dooley.

While researching my book on Lloyd Hamilton, I came across extensive promotional material on Dooley, whose comedies were distributed by the same company that distributed Hamilton's comedies. I took to disliking Dooley the very first time I saw his face filling up a one-page promotional sheet. I do not know why he managed to rub me the wrong way like he did. I saw other ads and other photos of Dooley. Dooley looked as if he was trying hard to be Harry Langdon, except he lacked the charming and intriguing qualities of Langdon. He looked like his whole purpose in posing for these pictures was to look as dumb as a person could possibly look. And as if the expression failed to clue me in to how dumb he was, he was wearing his trademark sailor shirt on backwards. His pants, which were too tight and too short, probably wouldn't help him to pass a dress inspection either. I think that a person could be intolerably stupid. On Amazon, a customer reviewing a Gomer Pyle DVD said that, if Gomer Pyle lived in the real world, he would get his ass kicked every day. I feel the same way about Dooley.

Producer Al Christie hired Dooley and his partner Frances Lee after seeing them perform in a vaudeville show. Christie, for some unknown reason, did not use Dooley and Lee together on screen. Lee worked as Bobby Vernon's leading lady for three years. Then, Christie gave Lee her own series, "Confessions of a Chorus Girl," which had no purpose other than to show just how cute and charming the starlet could look in bathing suits and lingerie. In the meantime, Dooley starred in a series about dimwitted sailor Billy Epsom. The name was supposed to be a play on words - Epsom was a salt and a sailor was called a salt. It's okay if you didn't laugh. It's not a great pun like "I couldn't quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me." Okay, fine, maybe puns are not funny in general. I don't watch silent comedies because I'm into wordplay.

Dooley can be compared to both Larry Semon and Harry Langdon. It was obvious that he wore the same white-face make-up that both Semon and Langdon wore. But, even more, he managed to combine Semon's clownishness with Langdon's childishness. As for distinguishing qualities, Dooley was, for what it's worth, taller and thinner than most comedians. And oh, yeah, there was the backwards sailor shirt.

Every day, I would pull out a new batch of pressbooks and there again would be Dooley's face. The photos were different but Dooley's expression never changed. He always had the same dazed, wide-eyed look. He always had the same dopey grin. It made my hatred grow more expansive and more lively.

I recently saw my first Dooley comedy, Sailor Beware. There isn't much of plot to this one-joke comedy. Salty sap Dooley, newly arrived from New Guinea, has brought back a Guinea pig as a pet for his girlfriend. It so happens that, on the same day, the newspaper has issued a warning that a Guinea pig carrying "deadly germs" has gotten loose from a laboratory. Dooley pulls the Guinea pig out of a box on a trolley car, which causes other passengers to panic and leap out of the doors and windows. This same situation is repeated again and again, with people panicking as soon as they set eyes on the Guinea pig. Dooley doesn't do much during these scenes. To get a laugh, he either looks at the camera and stretches out his dopey grin or he makes his gangly legs go all rubbery and runs away.

A title card introduces the "health squad" - an energetic group of men wearing rubber gloves, gas masks and white lab coats. They are armed with those old-fashioned garden sprayers with the long hand pump and the big can up front. Evidently, this mixture that they're spraying is some disinfectant meant neutralize airbourne germs, but the spray also has the effect of making people smile, stiffen, and topple over. I highly doubt that this is the part of the FDA-approved quarantine procedure in relation to contagious rodents. All in all, it's pretty dumb stuff. I have to think that the guys who wrote this were wearing their shirts on backwards, too.

Dooley gets his hands on a sprayer and squirts the chemical at people. At one point, he removes the masks from the health workers and sprays them directly into their faces. The rictus that the health workers develop make them look somewhat like Dooley. They have a big, goofy grin plastered across their faces and they have their eyes open wide in a dazed stare. It is as if Dooley is out to create his very own army of clones to take over the world.

I would be a liar if I said that I didn't laugh at all at Dooley. His attack with the sprayer got to be so silly that I couldn't help but laugh. But, please, don't tell anyone I told you that. As it stands, I would be willing to keep an open mind and watch some other Dooley comedies - maybe, Row, Sailor, Row, or A Briny Boob, or Off the Deck, or Gobs of Love.

After this series, Dooley played bit parts in feature films. These parts were so small that his name didn't usually appear in the credits. He played, at various times, a reporter, a janitor, a painter, a bartender, a drunk, a gas station attendant, and a taxicab driver. He was a pirate in Treasure Island (1934). He was "Nervous Man Trying to Cross Racetrack" in the Joe E. Brown comedy 6 Day Bike Rider (1934). He was "Postman delivering fishing rod" in You're Only Young Once (1937). He was "Banana Eater" in Married Before Breakfast (1937). He even got to play a sailor again in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet (1936). His most interesting role, though, was as a "Film crewman with spray gun" in A Star Is Born (1937). Dooley had surely proven in Sailor Beware that he was effective with a spray gun.

Dooley died from a heart attack in 1938. Goodnight and God bless, funnyman.

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