Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lions, Speedboats and Bathing Beauties

A-1 Video has also put together a compilation of Imperial Comedies, including Wine, Women and Sauerkraut, Twenty Thousand Legs Under the Sea, The Motor Boat Demon, A Lady Lion and A Bankrupt Honeymoon.

It has been said that a good physical comedian could walk onto a bare stage with nothing more than a step ladder and manage in no time to get an audience laughing. But physical comedy can flourish wonderfully on a grand scale. It can benefit from high production values, which make the action bigger, faster and splashier. This was proven by the big-budget Imperial Comedies that the Fox Film Corporation produced in the late 1920s. The casts were sizable, the sets and locations were lavish, and the gags were big and often catastrophic. The series was admirably supervised by George Marshall, who went on to a long and successful career directing features for Paramount, M-G-M, Universal and Twentieth Century Fox.

The primary weakness of the series was that it lacked star comedians. The leading men were not actors anyone knew. They were young, blandly good-looking actors with no particular talent for being funny. Richard Walling. Nick Stuart. George Harris. Gene Cameron. Allan Forrest. Not one true comedian in the bunch. These leading men were each, in his own way, a master of ceremony whose job it was simply to keep the plot moving. In the typical chase scene, these actors were more inanimate objects than active heroes. It was the job of the grotesque heavies to be funny while these actors kept ahead of them like the wooden rabbits in a dog race. Gags happen around them but they, themselves, are not responsible. A water tower bursts as handsome, dark-eyed Nick Stuart rushes past and a number of extras end up getting drenched, but Stuart merely keeps on moving to wherever it is he has to go.

The writers made sure to create stories that revolved around lots of pretty young ladies. The plot of Wine, Women and Sauerkraut (1927) involves chorus girls having to flee hotel detectives because they are unable to pay their bill. The chorus girls, interrupted in the middle of rehearsing a dance number, run down the street wearing white leotards and big black feathers. The chase climaxes with the chorus girls escaping on a handcar and nearly colliding with a speeding locomotive.

It was a big part of the series' appeal that the pretty young ladies were often presented in titillating situations. In Wine, Women and Sauerkraut, a chorus girl's costume gets torn off as she scrambles through a hole in a fence. She spends the remainder of the film struggling to remain covered up. She is able to wrap herself up in a towel but a dog locks his teeth on the towel and yanks it off. She hides in a barrel but barrel breaks apart. These scenes provide then-risqué glimpses of the chorus girl in her under garments. Look, they didn't have the Internet or Playboy magazine in those days. They didn't even have the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. A man has few options other than to sit watching an Imperial Comedy and get excited seeing a girl in a towel get into a tangle with a dog.

In Twenty Legs Under the Sea (1927), Richard Walling looks to get publicity for a resort by bringing together international bathing beauties to compete in a swimming race. A number of problems arise while the resort is preparing for the race. A dowager chases after a dog that has gotten away with her jewel-studded garter. Walling finds himself threatened by bomb-wielding foreign terrorists who want him to fix the race so that the contestant from their country wins. At one point, Walling falls under the suspicion of two hotel detectives, who decide to shadow him to see if he has the missing garter. Walling notices the detectives take a step forward when he takes a step forward and make a turn when he makes a turn. The wary young man performs an impromptu jig and the detectives, committed to following every move that he makes, duplicate the jig with perfect accuracy. These three men standing in a row and dancing in unison look like an early version of Riverdance. This well-staged scene is the funniest scene in the film. The film climaxes with the big race. The comely Miss America wins, the dowager gets back her garter, and the terrorists blow themselves up.

The only notable actor in The Motor Boat Demon (1927) is the seductive Anita Garvin, but this film is so fast-paced that the actors are a blur most of the time. The real stars of the film are a fleet of speedboats competing in a high-powered race. Speedboats cut past each other. Speedboats collide. One speedboat crashes through the support beams of a boathouse, which causes the boathouse to drop into the water. This is not CGI or toy models - it is stunt men risking their lives in real speedboats. It is a fun and exciting climax and a bigger climax than you would expect to find in a short comedy.

A Lady Lion (1928), which takes place at a picturesque winter resort, is about a young woman (Caryl Lincoln) looking to find herself a manly lover. Diminutive Billy Bletcher and hefty Fred Spencer are on hand to do the sillier stuff, like falling out of a tree, falling into the snow, falling off a ladder. Truth is, their attempts to get laughs in the first reel are pretty much limited to falling down. The one exception is Spencer getting his head stuck in a ladder rung. Spencer is not the most subtle comedian, relying on a great deal of mugging. But, despite his deficiencies, he is funny contending with the ladder, which seems to have a mind of its own.

The action gets wilder in the second half of the film. The wagon of a traveling circus breaks down and the owner puts his animals in a cabin so that they can keep warm while he gets the wagon fixed. Bletcher, Spencer and Lincoln come to the cabin, unaware of the animals, and soon find themselves at odds with a lion and a leopard.

The sprawling snow-covered hills that serve as the location do in fact enhance the action. This comedy certainly compares favorably with Swiss Movements (1927), a Christie comedy featuring Jimmie Adams being chased up a phony Swiss Alps by a guy dressed in a bear suit. The location that the Christie crew used did not look at all like the Swiss Alps. It was a craggy, barren hill hidden away somewhere in San Fernando Valley. Did the director, Robert Kerr, ever actually see a picture of the Swiss Alps? I could do a better job recreating the Swiss Alps by going into my backyard and sprinkling around a box of laundry detergent.

The title cards for A-1 Video's print of A Bankrupt Honeymoon (1926) are in Dutch, which makes it hard to follow the story at times. Evidently, though, Harold Goodwin plays a rich man who has run into financial trouble the day before he is supposed to get married. He doesn't even have enough money to pay a cabdriver who has given him a ride home. The cabdriver, played by Oliver Hardy, listens attentively as Goodwin makes a proposal. The title card reads, "Je kunt hier blijven slapen. . . morgan zal ik U wel betalen." It roughly translates into "You can stay here to sleep. . . Morgan will pay you in the morning." I know, it sounded worse to me, too. If someone told me to "slapen" his "blijven," I would have probably knocked the guy's lights out. But, as I learned from an online translator, "slapen" simply means "to sleep." Anyway, it's already morning by the next scene. The butler comes into the master bedroom to wake Goodwin. He is shocked when he pulls down the covers and Hardy, still in his cabbie uniform, pops up in Goodwin's bed. Not much "slapen" goes on for the remainder of this fast-paced comedy, which climaxes with Hardy getting banged on the head while driving a double-decker bus and lying unconscious across the steering wheel as the bus runs out of control. Don't ask me what Hardy was doing driving the bus, I ran across more title cards than I was willing to translate. Wait, does being knocked unconscious count as slapen?

The Imperial Comedies evolved out of an earlier series, the Sunshine Comedies. Fox spent a great deal of money to produce their silent comedies and the results were generally spectacular. It is a shame that so few of these comedies are still around.

The Sunshine series is discussed at length in my Hamilton biography. Hamilton starred in a number of Sunshine comedies, including the series very successful debut release Roaring Lions and Wedding Bells (1917). There would have never been A Lady Lion if not for Roaring Lions and Wedding Bells, which involved lions getting loose at a wedding.

Another of Hamilton's Sunshine "lion" comedies, Hungry Lions in a Hospital (1919), was shown recently at the 2009 Niles Mid-Winter Comedy Festival. Chris Snowden, who attended the festival, reviewed the film on his blog. Snowden put this particular comedy in the category of "slapstick farces that begin with silliness, escalate quickly to manic zaniness, and finally charge headlong into a frenzied insanity in which nothing makes much sense, everything’s bizarre, and it all comes at you so fast that you can only gape at the torrent of surreal action and rapid editing as it nearly makes your head explode." It sounds like a good time to me.

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