Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Stair Masters

The success of a routine depends in large measure on motives and performance.  A YouTube clip showing a man randomly walking up and down a flight of stairs would not be funny.  But Buster Keaton was able to handle this simple premise expertly in The Cameraman (1928).  His motive?  Keaton is in his room at a boarding house waiting anxiously for a girl to call.  Every time the phone rings in the lobby of the boarding house, he races down three flights of stairs to see if it is the girl on the phone.   His actions in this context are reasonable, relatable and funny.  His affection for this girl renders Keaton human even though the comedian, in his precision and tirelessness, whizzes back and forth across the screen like a wind-up toy.  See for yourself.

Now, let us see Jerry Lewis do the same basic routine in Artists and Models (1955).

Lewis plays the scene in complete contradiction to the way that it was played by Keaton.  Unlike Keaton, Lewis does not comes across as an inexhaustible athlete.  Lewis has no great stamina or coordination and it isn't long before he is reduced to a crawling, gasping mess.  It is an entirely different approach to the routine, but the scene works well and Lewis could not be funnier.

Still, the scene has one flaw.  You will have noticed that motive is different in this scene.  Lewis answers the phone for partner Dean Martin, who is upstairs in the bath.  Martin keeps sending Lewis up and down the stairs for more information from the caller.  This motivation is less than reasonable.  Lewis could have gotten the caller to provide him with all the necessary information before he started up the stairs.  He could have demanded that Martin get out of the tub and take the call himself.  Keaton has no other option - he will lose out on a date with the girl of his dreams if he misses her call.  This makes his character more sympathetic.

Keaton was able to capture himself running up and down the stairs in a single shot by using a cutaway set.  He had created a similar set for a chase scene in The High Sign (1921).  That earlier routine was more clownish, with the comedian racing upstairs and downstairs through a home using trapdoors instead of stairs.
Cutaway sets have been used to comic effect in a number of films.

The Ladies Man (1961)

Tout va bien (1972)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Wait, I hear the phone!

The Hat Mix-up Routine

A gag can sometimes travel an odd route.  Laurel & Hardy made it their stock-in-trade to occasionally mix up their derbies by mistake.  Hardy would look silly in a derby too small for his head and Laurel would look silly in a derby too big for his head.  The routine made its debut in Do Detectives Think? (1927).

Director Leo McCarey presided over a number of these derby mix-ups starting with one fast-paced version featured in the 1928 comedy We Faw Down

Years later, this comic business came up again when McCarey was put in charge of adapting the stage play The Awful Truth into a film.  The play had already been the subject of two previous film adaptations and McCarey decided to make his adaptation different by reshuffling scenes and inserting more exaggerated comedy into the proceedings.  As it worked out, he centered a pivotal scene on another hat mix-up.  Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are having second thoughts about finalizing their divorce.  Grant arrives at Dunne's home to discuss the matter without realizing that Dunne has another visitor - suave music professor Armand Duvalle (Alexander D'Arcy), who was the cause of their break-up in the first place.  Dunne quickly hides Duvalle in her bedroom for fear that Grant might get the wrong idea.  Grant is getting ready to exit the home when he picks up the wrong hat - Armand's hat - and the hat, which is much larger than his own, slips down over his eyes.  Grant becomes suspicious and soon discovers Armand.

Ray Milland recreated this scene in a musical remake of The Awful Truth called Let's Do It Again (1953).  Writer Richard Matheson was watching this very scene when a strange idea popped into his head.  Matheson imagined a man suddenly finding his clothes are getting smaller and coming to the realization that he is shrinking.  The strange idea went on to form the basis of the sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

Interestingly, Bob Hope got the idea he was shrinking when he mixed up hats in Never Say Die (1939).

In a span of thirty years, the hat mix-up routine went from inspiring slapstick comedy to inspiring screwball comedy to finally inspiring science fiction.  That is truly a hat trick.

The Headless Farce Man: A Brief Discussion of Decapitation Comedy

A darkly funny scene about a guillotine execution appears in the Carry On Gang's Don't Lose Your Head (1966).

Decapitation gags were popularized in early films by Georges Méliès.  An example can be found in Méliès' The Four Troublesome Heads (1898).

But comic decapitation had occurred on stage before Méliès.  In 1867, the popular Hanlon-Lees pantomime troupe presented a sketch called "The Village Barber" in which a barber accidentally cuts off a customer's head and then works diligently to glue the head back into place.

Comic labors to reattach a head can get more gruesome nowadays.  Take, for instance, this clip from Idle Hands (1999).

More on this subject can be found soon in The Funny Parts.



Distorting the camera's view of a comedian can be a source of laughs. Harold Lloyd achieved this effect with a funhouse mirror in Number, Please? (1920).

Larry Semon produced a number of twisted images of himself using a cracked mirror in Kid Speed (1924).


But a favorite of mine is the way in which a water cooler deforms the image of Jerry Lewis in Artists and Models (1955).

What's Russian for "Boobs"?

I found an American movie that works better in Russian. I can't decide if it's because the dialogue of Piranha 3D (2010) is so bad that it is better not to know what the actors are saying or because the scenes are uplifted by the enthusiasm of the Russian voice-over actors.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Elaborations and Commentary on the Banana Peel Gag

A gag as simple as a man slipping on a banana peel can develop into something elaborate.  In The High Sign (1921), Buster Keaton plays off audience expectations by revealing a banana peel in his character's path but then allowing his character to walk over the banana peel unharmed.  Keaton makes a defiant gesture to the camera before walking on and slipping on a second banana peel.  Years later, Keaton acknowledged that he added the second banana peel only after preview audiences failed to laugh at his character's cleverness.

In his very next film, Keaton staged the following gag.

The track switch gag, which has the comedian averting a disastrous encounter with one train only to fall victim to a second train, is nothing more than the banana peel gag writ large.

Red Skelton repeated the High Sign gag in The Fuller Brush Man (1948), making no changes except that he used roller skates in place of banana peels.  This was less contrived since it can be assured that, when one roller skate turns up, a second one must be lurking nearby.


Skelton had the opportunity to expand the routine when he received Keaton's assistance as a gag writer on The Yellow Cab Man (1950).  This time, Skelton is unable to see the banana peel because he is carrying a grandfather clock.  He misses stepping on the banana peel not because he is clever but because a sweeper happens at the right moment to push the banana peel out of his way.

But this reprieve from danger is momentary.  Skelton, still unable to see where he's walking, approaches an open shaft of a sidewalk elevator.  He is just about to take a tumble into the shaft when the elevator rises up and allows him to safely walk across.

Even though Skelton has not been clever or conveyed an arrogant attitude, it remains inevitable for him to suffer a downfall.  On cue, he enters the street and gets hit by a car.  From Keaton's perspective, fate is malevolent and it will not be cheated.  Keaton would have enjoyed the Final Destination movies.

Larry Semon, whose outlook was less pessimistic than Keaton's, often had his clownish character benefit from humorously fortuitous events.  A nearly identical version of the elevator gag was performed by Semon in The Bakery (1921).  But Semon did not feel the need to have his character defeated in the end.  It was in the same way that Harry Langdon's "Little Elf" character later came to survive many troubles by sheer luck.

Throughout his career, Keaton held to his belief in the perversity of fate.  Film critic Dan Callahan wrote, "[E]ven if things worked out, Buster knew everything would soon fall apart again, which led to some of the most ruthlessly unsentimental endings in film history."  Keaton left sentiment to Charlie Chaplin and optimism to Harold Lloyd.  Instead, he lamented about the banana peel that could be lying in wait around the next corner.

A Big Prop

A scene in A Southern Yankee (1948) features a wheel-like contraption that chases Red Skelton down a hill.  Wooden blades in the wheel make it look like a giant lawn mower.  The scene is set on an old Southern plantation and one could reasonably assume this type of wheel was something used in farming.  I am the last person in the world to identify the item as I grew up in the city and I do not know a harrow from a cultivator.  I sent screen captures out to Sue Cochran, who is an expert on antique farm equipment.  She consulted reference books, forwarded the screen captures to colleagues, and showed printouts of the screen captures at an antique exhibit.  This was not an apparatus that anyone was able to identify.  Some people speculated that it could be something the military devised to repel men and horses.  I am left to believe, though, that this was a prop specifically designed for the film and it has no practical purpose in the real world.  This belief is strongly supported by the fact that the likely author of the routine, Buster Keaton, was known for his imaginative props.  A good clown is not bound to reality when it comes to creating a funny prop.  That's how we got the rubber chicken and the squirting flower.    

Crazy, Stupid, Skanky

Caution: Angry Rant Ahead!  

It has been a long time since I sat in a theater and laughed at a film.  Each week, I search through theater listings to find the one new comedy that might possibly give me a chuckle.  I sometimes use the IPhone app Flixster to look at trailers.  I can't believe how bad some of these trailers are.  I get it, children like talking animal comedies.  But is it necessary for the trailer to Zookeeper to turn into a TGI Friday's commercial?  The most annoying are the the smutty trailers made for horny teenagers.  The sexual hijinks of Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses, which are meant to shock viewers into laughter, is wasted on me.  It simply doesn't get me convulsing with laughter to hear Cameron Diaz mutter that she'd like to sit on Justin Timberlake's face.     

I was outright offended by the trailer to Crazy, Stupid, Love.

The film cannot decide if it's a silly romantic comedy or a meaningful true-to-life relationship drama.  Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman said that the film has a "bone-deep sadness" and "observational shrewdness."  Is that what the film is when Carell learns that his wife has cheated on him and reacts by tumbling out of a moving car?  The trailer leads me to believe that the film is about how Carell takes lessons from a stud (Ryan Gosling) to become more of an alpha male so that he can win back his wife.  The lessons have something to do with a man wearing stylish suits and doing a massive amount of sit-ups to define his abs.  And it also has something to do with Gosling sticking his junk in Carell's face. 

The foolish wimp that Carell plays is too pathetic to earn my sympathy or hold my interest.  The film's perverse values are even less appealing.  The Hollywood principle is that, when a man cheats on his wife, he deserves to get kicked to the curb.  Some women would cry out for the man to be castrated, too.  However, a woman cheats on her husband and the husband is supposed to hang his head in shame and do everything he can to win back the cheating skank.  Oh, please, I feel a bone-deep nausea.

I saw Carell on Charlie Rose.  As he spoke about Crazy, Stupid, Love, he expressed no interest in making people laugh.  He was, by no indication, the old-fashioned clown willing to knock himself out in a commitment to the all-consuming make-'em-laugh ethos.  He came across, instead, as a serious artist only interested in indulging his own whims.  He made it clear in his remarks that he was content to have made the film that he set out to make.  He spoke about wanting to spend more time with his family (the reason he left The Office) and finding film projects that allowed him to work with actors whom he admired.  This was not a man willing to break a sweat to please his fans.  It was, in the end, all about him.

These days, a comedian does not need to create a substantial body of work to be declared an icon.  A comedian can have one big hit and coast on it for years.  Rose praised Carell for his work on The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), which is the film that made the actor a star, but he never mentioned the lesser films that followed.  It is probably wise not to talk about Evan Almighty (2007), Dan in Real Life (2007), Get Smart (2008), Date Night (2010) and Dinner for Schmucks (2010).  Date Night, which teamed Carell with Tina Fey, was actually a success at the box office, but no one would dare to call the film a comedy classic.  But Carell has no reason to worry.  His current net worth is $54 million.  His salary for Crazy, Stupid, Love alone was $15 million.  Here is a photo of the man's lavish estate.

Carell has enough money to live in luxury for the rest of his life if no one comes to see another one of his films.  He does not need to be a funny clown when he has the money to be a smug millionaire.

It could be that I got the wrong impression.  Maybe, Carell wasn't so jaded as he seemed.  It could be that the subdued setting of the Rose show put him into a more sober mood and he decided to save up all of his funny faces for the Jimmy Kimmel show.  Still, I might be feeling more gracious if I could see something funny from Carell or his illustrious peers.  Really, is Mr. Popper's Penguins the best that Jim Carrey has to offer these days?

The Benefit of Sharing

Today, comedians are willing to gather together as a posse to lynch a joke thief.  But it wasn't always like that.  At one time, comedians willingly shared material and it was through this sharing that routines were able to develop and improve.  We would have lost out on a lot of great comedy if comedians refused to ever borrow material from other comedians.  The following clip is from a golf sketch performed by Sid Field and Jerry Desmonde in 1946.

This became the inspiration for a much funnier and better known golf sketch performed by Jackie Gleason and Art Carney on The Honeymooners ("The Golfer," 1955).  

Lloyd Hamilton's The Optimist (1923)


During the last two years, I have been able to gain access to a number of Lloyd Hamilton films that were unavailable to me while I was writing my biography of Hamilton. A chapter of my upcoming book, Sixteen Comedians of Silent Film, will thoroughly examine these films. Here, as a sneak preview, are screen captures from The Optimist (1923).

Hamilton makes the mistake of feeding a starving bird, which draws other birds to his home and brings about a vicious attack.  The comic scene ideally anticipates the more scary bird attacks of Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). 

Hamilton tells the story of his Pilgrim ancestors, which leads to a clever dissolve to Hamilton in 17th Century America.


Hamilton keeps score as he shoots down Indians.


Hamilton protects the modesty of a toddler.

The Optimist is a funny film that shows Hamilton at his best.  My thanks to the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam for providing me with a copy of this rare film.