Monday, February 28, 2011

Lyons & Moran: The Comedy Non-Team

A bout of writer's block inspired me to take a sample of an experimental drug called NZT-48, which is supposed to allow me to access 100 percent of my brain and make me so clever that I will become fascinating to women as good-looking as Abbie Cornish. Unfortunately, no Abbie Cornish has come knocking on my door and the best article that my expanded mind could produce has to do with a pair of entertainers so old and forgotten that I could not find a decent photo of them.

Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran are regarded as one of the first major comedy teams in motion pictures, but I have come to question that distinction after recently discovering that the actors did not normally function as a team in their films. The duo worked apart for much of the time and tended to play adversaries rather than allies. This point will become obvious after we consider a selection of comedies from the duo's 1915 release schedule.

Starting off this group is When Her Idols Fell. The story is centered on a married couple played by Lyons and Victoria Forde. Eddie becomes jealous when he finds that Victoria is infatuated with the famous Italian violinist Slingarlic (Moran) and has invited the musical virtuoso to play at a reception at their home. Eddie, determined to discredit Slingarlic, treats the violinist's bow and strings with axle grease, which makes the violin extremely slippery as the musician tries to play it. This does not diminish his wife's fondness for the violinist, but the woman finds herself less enamored of Slingarlic when she learns that his wife and seventeen children have just arrived from the old country.

The next film is Eddie's Awful Predicament, in which the predicament is that Eddie has a limited amount of funds to take girlfriend Victoria (Forde, again) out to dinner. Victoria's friends, Mrs. Sponge and her daughter, see Eddie and Victoria in a restaurant and manage to squeeze in at the table for a free meal. Eddie, needing more money to pay the bill, excuses himself so he can go outside and sell his watch. Moran, playing a suspicious waiter, does no more than hover around Eddie through much of the film.

The last film, When He Proposed, starts out with Eddie going to meet Victoria's family to gain their consent to marry Victoria. The family, particularly Victoria's brother Lee (Moran), seems more interested in Eddie’s savings account than they are interested in Eddie. Lee is intrigued when Eddie tells him that he has put away money to buy furniture for a new home. Lee is able to persuade Eddie to use the money to buy a car, after which he virtually takes possession of the car.

Lyons and Moran's first feature-length film, Everything but the Truth (1920), made very little use of Moran. Billy Hervey (Lyons), a busy oil company executive, is about to marry his girlfriend, Helen Gray, and he has to make time for wedding preparations. Billy visits a bungalow that is to be a surprise wedding gift to Helen. While at the bungalow, he meets Annabelle Elton, who lives next door with her husband Jack (Moran). Billy learns that Annabelle wants to get fresh eggs from a chicken farm and volunteers to drive the woman to the farm in his car. When they arrive at the house, Billy and Annabelle are made prisoners by an escaped lunatic, who thinks he is running an insane asylum and that the visitors are patients. Following their escape the next day, Billy and Annabelle doubt that anyone will believe what happened to them and they decide to come up with a more likely story to explain their absence. Their story only succeeds in creating complications and arousing suspicions. It is only when the truth finally comes out that the couple is able to clear up the situation.

The comedians also did not act as a team in their next feature Fixed by George (1920). Moran, in the role of George, arranges a party at a country estate to expose an unethical psychiatrist played by Lyons.

I looked hard to find films where the comedians worked together. I was able to find only four examples. In Caught in the End (1920), Lyons and Moran pretend to be ill to remain away from a lecture attended by their wives. The wives return to find their husbands playing poker with friends. The fooling-the-wives genre of comedy is something that later came to be perfected by Laurel & Hardy. In Once a Plumber (1920), the two men are plumbers tricked by an unscrupulous millionaire to run a scam company. In A Political Tramp (1916), Lyons and Moran play a pair of hobos who steal the car of a touring politician and then pose as the politician and his secretary at a prohibition meeting.  By this time, Ham and Bud had patented this type of plot.  The tramp duo could assume a new trade for the day simply by stealing a uniform, a vehicle or a tool bag.  The last example of Lyons and Moran working together as a true team can be found in a "drag" farce called Little Egypt Malone (1915), the plot of which I will discuss in an upcoming book.

The success of a comedy team depends on the mutual dynamic of the partners, with humor largely derived from the partners' interaction. A team shares mutual goals and works together to resolve dilemmas. The scarcity of the interplay between Lyons and Moran makes it difficult to qualify them as a true comedy team.

Gag Revival of the Week

Larry Fine is hiding under a bed to avoid a jealous husband in the Three Stooges comedy Don't Throw that Knife (1951). A similar situation occurred in a recent episode of Chuck ("Chuck Versus the Seduction Impossible," 2010). One of the characters even makes mention of the Stooges.

Masters of the Quick Disguise

These are screen captures of a fun house mirror routine performed by the Three Stooges in Don't Throw that Knife (1951). The same routine was performed more than three decades earlier by Harold Lloyd in Number, Please? (1920).

It was surprising to me the large number of gags and routines that I was able to trace back to Lloyd. A balloon routine that Lloyd introduced in I Do (1920) was later performed by Harry Langdon in His New Mamma (1924) and Skirt Shy (1929), Jack Cooper in Raisin' Trouble (1926), and Curly Howard in Spook Louder (1943).

The tie-as-mustache gag pictured here was enacted by Lloyd in Hey There! (1918) and later recycled by Buster Keaton in Cops (1922).

Many years later, Harry Langdon used this dubious disguise in a 1944 Columbia comedy, Defective Detectives.

Gags involving a comedian creating an impromptu disguise were used often in situations where the comedian had to elude an angry rival or sneak past a wary police officer. The disguises could get silly. In Broken Bubbles (1920), Hank Mann quickly disguises himself by using a leafy plant as a fake beard. It wasn't as funny as the tie gag but at least Mann could call the gag his own.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

One of Jackie Chan's Greatest Stunts

Jackie Chan, a self-professed student of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, proved his dedication to the traditions of silent film comedy when he went sliding down the incline of a 21-story glass building in Who Am I? (1998). The scene is a combination of Keaton scrambling down a steep slope in Seven Chances (1925) and Lloyd scaling a skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923).

Commedia dell'arte Origins

The above screen capture from Boobs in Arms (1940) shows the Three Stooges performing a Commedia dell'arte routine called "Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back." The woman has passed out and Larry, who is hidden behind her, is substituting her arms with his own.

It was difficult for the purposes of The Funny Parts to trace comedy routines back to the Commedia dell'arte. Most of the Commedia dell'arte scenarios were not preserved in script form by their originators. Mel Gordon did the best job of cataloging scenarios in his book Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell'Arte, but Gordon's book discloses only a fraction of the 800 "lazzi" comedy acts discovered through literature translations and iconographic resources. Other book sources address this entertainment form from a broader perspective and provide spare information on specific scenarios.

Modern Commedia dell'arte troupes have been known to perform a routine called "Lazzo of the Cursed Coin," in which a trickster plants a coin in the road and paddles a passerby who bends to pick it up. This sounds similar to a scene in Laurel & Hardy's Sons of the Desert (1933) in which a prankster lays a billfold on the floor and the forever gullibile Oliver Hardy is paddled as soon as he bends to pick it up. However, no record of "Lazzo of the Cursed Coin" could be found in the books available on Commedia dell'arte. A number of experts were consulted on the subject. Jay Cross, who included the routine on the playlist for the i Sebastiani troupe, vaguely recalled reading about it in literature on the Casamarciano collection, which is preserved in the National Library of Naples. He also remembered a variation where the trickster places a ring on the ground. However, no other expert had recollection, vague or otherwise, of the routine. Mel Gordon did not recognize the title or the premise and said that it sounded "totally invented." The routine was also not acknowledged by Thomas Heck, a co-author of The Commedia dell'Arte in Naples: A Bilingual Edition of the 176 Casamarciano Scenarios. Barry Grantham, author of Commedia Plays, believed that, although "perfectly good as working Lazzi for students and certainly true to the traditions of Commedia," this scenario was not likely to have had its origins in antiquity.

A decision was made in the end that a Commedia dell'arte routine would not be referenced in The Funny Parts unless it was part of the official Gordon catalog.

The Gag that Ate Hollywood

I am pleased to report that my book has an official title. My publisher justifiably rejected the snarky titles that I, myself, suggested. I never really expected them to call the book Lies that Buster Keaton Told Me. In the end, we settled on the title The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags. The book largely focuses on gags and routines that were introduced on stage in the Commedia dell'arte, the circus, British pantomime and vaudeville and developed to their fullest in silent films. I intend at times to make use of my blog to go off the printed page and expand the discussion into other areas. This is one way to make use of material that never made it into the book.

I became inundated with gags during my research. Some gags I liked better than others. Some I didn't like at all. But I had to catalog the gags and, even if a gag failed to make me laugh, I could at least approach it with a degree of a clinical interest. One gag was an exception. It was the one gag that went as far as rousing my ire. Look carefully at this scene from National Lampoon's Vacation (1983) and you will catch the introduction of the most overused gag of modern times.

Yes, I am speaking of the accidental deployment of the airbag (although the airbag in this faltering first effort looked more like a garbage bag). The gag was expanded upon in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988).

Presumably, no time's a bad time for an airbag gag. This one occurs only moments after a dramatic death scene in Beverly Hills Cop III (1994).

Jim Carrey was no funnier than Murphy when, later that same year, he performed the identical gag in Dumb & Dumber (1994).

This is an impersonal gag that does not allow a comedian to distinguish himself in a significant way. It is for this reason that a movie fan expecting characterization or novelty from a comedian can quickly come to find the repeated use of this gag tiresome.

Here are a few other films in which this gag appeared:

All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 (1996)
Good Burger (1997)
Taxi 2 (2000)
Exit Wounds (2001)
Freaky Friday (2003)
Sleepover (2004)
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Clerks II (2006)
Pineapple Express (2008)
The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

Here is the Freaky Friday version of the gag:

The airbag gag was an offshoot of a time-honored genre of inflatables humor. Overinflated balloons and tires were the cause of comic troubles at first. Later, inflatable rafts became a device for comedy. These images are from an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show ("The Curious Thing About Women," 1962).

Woody Allen was memorably silly trapped inside an inflatable suit in Sleeper (1973).

Writers are wrong to think that, by adding a prurient twist to this overused gag, they can suddenly make it fresh and edgy. Take, for example, this scene from Scary Movie 2 (2001).

Or this scene from Family Guy:

The Simpsons and Family Guy have done a number of airbag gags.

I don't even know what to make of this American Dad clip.

No one is ashamed to recycle this gag. Within just the last year, the gag was featured prominently in the trailers for Date Night (2010), Furry Vengeance (2010) and Take Me Home Tonight (2011).

It also turned up in a recent commercial for the sitcom Traffic Light.

I feel compelled to do something to finally put an end to this. Perhaps, a strongly worded letter to studio executives will make them stop. I can get them to sign a pledge, an armistice, or something. But who am I kidding? This gag has taken on a power all its own. It has grown into this massive, snarling beast that cannot be stopped. No one can stop it - not Sumner Redstone, not Judd Apatow, not Ben Stiller, not the entire Wayans family. It is times like these that I am glad that I keep a laminated copy of the Serenity Prayer in my wallet. I need to clutch that card in my trembling hands and recite the prayer again and again as the unholy beast bangs against my door demanding to get in. I also need to delete the Lovecraft books on my Kindle.

Hand-Me-Down Cinema

This YouTube compilation assembled by barthesian shows that a powerful film scene can get deep inside the collective consciousness and come to be regenerated in a myriad of ways.

I have gotten together a few additional scenes.

Of course, advertisers also borrow from classic movies.

The idea of a baby carriage becoming imperiled during a mob riot was played for laughs in early slapstick comedies. An early example can be found in The Curtain Pole (1909), which was produced by D. W. Griffith for American Mutoscope & Biograph. The clips presented in these compilations make it clear that the comedians have, in the end, reclaimed their old gag.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gag Me!

I felt a great sense of relief to meet the February 1st deadline on my new book. It was an enjoyable experience exploring the rich heritage of comedy and tracing the history of gags and routines, but it was not generally the easiest task and it often took time away from other vital activities. I can say, with regret, that I gained weight by anchoring myself to my computer instead of going on my usual morning bike rides.

I come away from the experience realizing that classic comedy never dies. This point can be proven by a simple visit to the multiplex. I offer two examples.

In the manner of W.C. Fields, Robert Downey Jr. resorts to violence to deal with an annoying child in Due Date (2010).

In Gulliver's Travels (2010), Jack Black reprises a routine from Abbott and Costello's Pardon My Sarong (1942).

I would offer further examples if not for my promise to go out on a bike ride.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Killing (2007), a 20-hour Danish crime drama, is a cross between CSI and Groundhog Day. Detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) expects this to be her last day with the Copenhagen Police department as she is set to move to Sweden with her fiancé, but a 19-year-old girl is found raped and brutally murdered and her superior officer asks her to stay on to work the case. She is unwilling to change her plans until she finds a clue that she feels compelled to pursue. She agrees to stay an extra day to see where the clue leads, but one clue leads to another and the dedicated detective soon finds herself absorbed by an exhausting series of clues and suspects. Never in the history of crime dramas have more suspects piled up during the course of a single investigation. Lund, hopelessly trapped in this seemingly endless murder investigation, cannot bring this intended last day of work to a close. Along the way, characters are destroyed by breakups, breakdowns, bump offs, betrayals and cover-ups.

For this American viewer, the most engrossing aspect of the series is its exotic locale. The city of Copenhagen is depicted as an ominously dark and cold place. So little sunlight gets through that it becomes hard to tell if it is night or day. This allows viewers to identify with Lund, who becomes so obsessed with the case that she stops sleeping and loses track of time. Lund's obsession causes her to lose her fiancé, who breaks off their engagement, and her teenage son, who goes to live with his father. She looks increasingly drawn and wild-eyed and her sanity is eventually called into question. The series in this way resembles the 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia. Clearly, life is not sunshine and flowers for these Nordic murder investigators.

I am not one of those arm-chair detectives who can easily pick out the murderer in a murder mystery and yet I knew who the girl's murderer was from the very first episode. The murderer is the most obvious suspect with the most obvious motive and, in the end, all of the complications that the story presents are nothing more than false leads, blind alleys and red herrings. But the viewer has no way to know that for sure until the last hour. In the meantime, the confounding parade of suspects can serve to make the viewer feel as paranoid and disoriented as Lund. The series shares a dramatic device of House - everyone has to lie to hide dark secrets. It becomes the job of the detectives to jackhammer past the lies to arrive at a resolution. In the end, the drama remains addictive even as feints prolong the action and reoccurring formula tricks move the story into occasional self-parody.

One dramatic device that became laughable in its overuse was the-meeting-broken-up-by-a-cell-phone-call. Throughout the series, facts are introduced, conflicts arise and twists are sprung by way of coldly formal meetings that have characters sitting across from one another with lips tightened, eyes narrowed and hands folded. The series introduces these meetings, one after another, as suspects are interrogated, witnesses are questioned, victims are notified, experts are consulted, bosses are briefed, and colleagues strategize. Even a conversation between a husband and wife assumes the formality of a meeting - one spouse tells the other that he or she wants to "sit down and talk" and the couple then sit across a table from one another to discuss the topic at hand. But then a cell phone suddenly goes off, shocking news is delivered, and characters rush out of the room. No one seems to be aware of simple cell phone etiquette or the fact that a cell phone has an "off" switch.

The story also unfolds from the perspective of the victim's parents, who struggle to cope with the tragedy, and a local politician, who has been linked to the murder. Bjarne Henriksen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, as the grieving parents, stand out among a compelling cast of veteran Danish actors.

AMC will debut an American remake of The Killing in April. This version will only be half as long as the original, which means that many characters and subplots will be missing. The new series was shot Vancouver, British Columbia, which is meant to serve as a stand in for Seattle, Washington. It remains to be seen if the Vancouver/faux-Seattle setting can offer the same sort of cold and dark atmosphere as Copenhagen.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Sampling of Comedy Films from 1908

My research on comedy routines had me poring through 1908 to 1921 editions of Moving Picture World to glean plot details from the magazine's "Stories of the Films" and "Comments on the Films" sections. It was fascinating to see the way that the trends in comedy films changed from year to year. Pivotal changes were clearly evident in the 1908 releases.

A Pathé Frères comedy Une Belle-mere emballee (released in America as Runaway Mother-in-Law) is a slapstick style mother-in-law joke. The film opens with a mother-in-law barking orders at her family as they move into a new home. At one point, the woman pauses to take a rest on a two-wheeled cart loaded with family possessions. The woman accidentally slips the cart's brake loose and proceeds to ride the cart at rapid speed down a steep incline in the street.

A trend in prank comedies produced a Vitagraph comedy called Buried Alive. A young man, bored with the sun and sand at Coney Island, has his friends hide him under a mound of sand so that he can play pranks on the other sunbathers. When a baby is placed on the mound, he heaves his stomach to make the baby bounce up and down. When sweethearts sit on the mound to kiss, he pops out of the sand and stares blankly at them until they have become thoroughly unnerved.

An unlikely hero comes to the fore in the Lux comedy The Bewitched Tricycle. A thief looks to make a getaway by stealing a tricycle delivery cart, but he finds that he is unable to turn the handlebars to steer. The cart takes the thief on a wild ride through busy streets and finally delivers him into a lake, where he is apprehended by the police.

A number of other fantasy comedies on the schedule made use of the novel effects offered by the film medium. In Wonderful Fertilizer, fertilizer gets into a little girl's drink and causes her to grow to the size of a giant. These imaginative and outright silly films are the forerunners to many later films. The Bewitched Tricycle and Wonderful Fertilizer can be linked, respectively, to The Love Bug (1968) and Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992).

The general release schedule for 1908 shows that effects-driven comedies, the sole objective of which was to present impossible spectacle, were on their way to being replaced by slapstick comedies. The Bewitched Tricycle is interesting in that it attempted to combine the two forms - it had the wild action of Runaway Mother-in-Law and the magical action of Wonderful Fertilizer. But the magic was to contribute more subtly to the comedy in the coming years.