Sunday, December 18, 2011

The One-Man Band

George Méliès in L'homme orchestre (1900)

Buster Keaton in The Playhouse (1921)

Oscar Levant in American in Paris (1951)

OutKast in "Hey Ya!" music video (2003)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cartoon Network Series Carries On Old Comedy Traditions

Classic comedy routines have turned up a number of times on the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time. Three routines made their way into the latest episode, "Marceline's Closet."

Finn and Jake get bored waiting for their friend Marceline to get home and seek to break the monotony by playing Cloud Hunt (a variation of Hide-and-Seek). Jake hides inside Marceline's house despite the fact that he is not supposed to go into the house while Marceline is away. Finn sees Jake through the window, but Jake pretends to be Finn's reflection. This results in a variation of the famous mirror routine.

Finn goes into the house to get Jake, but Marceline arrives home suddenly and the pair rush into her closet to hide.  When Marceline opens the closet to investigate a noise, Jake crouches down and hides his face to avoid being noticed while Finn tries to squeeze himself inside a boot. 

Later, the two of them hide inside a coat.

Harold  Lloyd tried a lot of these same tricks to elude police in Bumping Into Broadway (1919).  At one point, Lloyd even disguised himself as a table. 

Finn never got around to the table gag, but he did try to disguise himself as a lamp by putting a lampshade on his head. 

Charlie Chaplin used the same trick to great effect in The Adventurer (1917).


These routines, which were used in various forms by a several different comedians, are discussed at length in two chapters of The Funny Parts - "How to Disguise Yourself as Furniture and Fool Your Friends" and "Into the Looking Glass."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"If I could walk that way I would not need talcum powder!"

Here are four versions of the classic "Walk this way" routine.

Is My Palm Read (1933)

 In Society (1944)

Don't Throw That Knife (1951)

Young Frankenstein (1974)

A variant routine involved a dance instructor who loses control of their actions while leading students through a dance number and the students, unaware of a problem, blindly follows the instructor's disorderly moves.  Here is a clip that shows Max Linder performing the routine in Max, professeur de tango (1912).  Max, who has had cocktails prior to the lesson, is more than a little tipsy.

A better known version of the routine, in which a bee flies down the back of the instructor's dress, was performed by The Three Stooges in Hoi Polloi (1935).

Here is one other version of the routine that turned up on a 1982 episode of Police Squad.

The Funny Parts, which traces the history of gags and routines, is now available on Amazon.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"The Funny Parts" is Now On Sale

My latest book, The Funny Parts, is now available. You can click on the links below to purchase the book.

Amazon is listing the book as "Temporarily out of stock," but I looked into this and found that the book is expected to be available from Amazon in a week.

The Funny Parts, which deals with a wide range of gags and routines, is recommended to anyone who is a fan of classic comedy. Below is a table of contents.

Table of Contents

Preface      1
Introduction      3

1 And Then There Were Pies      7
2 Mannequins and Other Dummies      16
3 Animals      34
4 Adventures in Eating      77
5 Attack of the Vamps      99
6 Indecent Exposure      107
7 Spooky Apparitions      118
8 Bombs and Burglars      130
9 How to Disguise Yourself as Furniture and Fool Your Friends      135
10 The Amazing Trapdoor Chase      145
11 Science and Magic      151
12 Tooth Extraction and Laughing Gas      158
13 Into the Looking Glass      162
14 Sleepless Nights      168
15 Fathers to Sons of the Desert      178
16 The Big Jangly Box, the Sliding Ladder and Other Comic Props      183
17 The Buster Keaton Variations      192
18 The Harold Lloyd Variations      222
19 Hysterical History      229
20 Bugs      241
21 Scared Black Servants, Dice-Playing African Cannibals, and the Most Racist Comedy in Silent Cinema History      245
22 Other Variations      259

Chapter Notes      299
Bibliography      303
Index      305

The chapter titles should give away most of the subject matter.  For instance, the "Hysterical History" chapter involves costume farces. 

The "Sleepless Nights" chapter deals with comedians struggling to sleep in Murphy beds, hammocks and train berths. 

Full chapters are devoted to Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy. Other comedians featured prominently in the book include Charlie Chaplin, Lupino Lane, Harry Langdon, Larry Semon, The Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, and The Three Stooges.

Thanks to generous photo contributors, the book features more than 100 photos, many of which have never before appeared in print.  I actually had more photos than I could use, which is the reason that I am using a few of the extra photos in this article.

This shaving routine is from Hello, Pardner! (1923). 

Harold Lloyd has trouble shaving in a communal washroom during a train trip in Now or Never (1921).

Harry Langdon later found himself in the same situation in The Luck o' the Foolish (1924).  Both Now or Never and The Luck o' the Foolish also include berth travails.

Here is Lloyd involved in other stock comedy business, including animal antics, vamp intrigue and mass transit hassles.

I hope that everyone enjoys the book.

Hello, Judge (1922)

I recently wrote on this site about one of my favorite silent film comedy directors, Fred Fishback. Here are stills from a Fishback comedy called Hello, Judge, which was produced as part of Universal's Century series in 1922. Lee Moran and Ena Gregory starred as a married couple plagued by an overbearing mother-in-law (played by Blanche Payson).


Saturday, November 19, 2011

The EYE Film Institute Presents Silent Film Comedy Online


The EYE Film Institute is in the process of digitizing their collection of silent films to make these rare works available on-line. One of the films already available is Hurry Up (1922), which features a somber-faced Jimmie Adams as a harried commuter. This one-reel comedy from Educational's Cameo series was directed by Fred Fishback, one of the great craftsman of silent film comedy. Among the major comedy stars to benefit from Fishback's many talents were Lloyd Hamilton, Mack Swain, Polly Moran and Baby Peggy (my Facebook friend, Diana Serra Cary).

Hurry Up produces laughs by transforming a commuter's struggle to get to work on time into a daredevil adventure. First, a train leaves the station without Adams.

Adams, determined to catch up to the train, scales a trestle to reach the top of a bridge and then leaps from the bridge onto the train as it speeds past.



Adams' problems are not over as he has to transfer to a trolley. Adams manages to get on board the trolley before anyone else, but a horde of passengers pack the vehicle so tightly that he gets pushed out on the other side.

Adams makes an effort to board a second trolley, but he cannot find the slightest space into which he can squeeze himself. He is left at the side of the road by the trolley, which departs with more than a dozen passengers hanging off its side.


Adams is less willing to give up when the next trolley comes along. He hangs off the side of the trolley by holding tightly onto another passenger's suspenders. When the suspenders snap, he goes tumbling back into the street.

Adams proceeds to dodge heavy rush hour traffic as he races on foot to his office. The nonstop race manages, under Fishback's skillful direction, to be both thrilling and funny. Fishback must have seen a great deal of humor in mass transit as he also dealt with the subject in Baby Peggy's The Straphanger (1922) and Lloyd Hamilton's Crushed (1924).

Another good film made available by the EYE Film Institute is Worries and Wobbles (1917). The film, written and directed by Larry Semon, imaginatively uses trick photography to convey the distorted perspective of a man who has had too much to drink. The drunken man is played by Jimmy Aubrey (pictured with an overturned soup bowl on his head on the cover of The Funny Parts). The premise of the film was not new, having previously served as the basis of Too Much Champagne (1908) and Distilled Spirits (1915). Key elements of the film can be traced further back to Georges Méliès' The Bewitched Inn (1897), which attributes the strange visions of the protagonist to supernatural spirits rather than distilled spirits. Specific gags from Worries and Wobbles were clearly carried over from The Bewitched Inn, including articles of clothing coming to life and a chair moving away as a man bends to sit down.


An optical effect used to open the film makes it seem as if the street is tilting in one direction and then the other as Aubrey staggers home. The Haunted House (1908), a Méliès-style film made by Segundo de Chomón, includes an entire room that dips back and forth in a similar manner (again, due to supernatural forces).


The de Chomón film also features its own inanimate objects that come to life, including a teapot that pours tea of its own volition.

A unique addition to Worries and Wobbles is a liquor bottle that comes to life, manifesting skinny arms and the bare outline of a face. Intolerant of a man who cannot hold his liquor, the bottle literally thumbs its nose at Aubrey. The film improves upon Méliès' old tricks and is elevated beyond these trippy effects by Aubrey, whose pratfalls and comic reactions make the procceedings all the more funnier.


I must add, too, that the print quality is excellent. Take this scene for example. The fact that details of houses far in distance are distinctly visible gives the scene a depth, realism and immediacy that is lacking in so many degraded prints.

I enjoyed a number of other comedies from the EYE collection, including The No-Account Count (1914), Operating on Cupid (1915) and Almost a Scandal (1915).

The No-Account Count (1914) unites the most shapely of ladies, Ethel Teare, with the most mugging of comedians, John E. Brennan. Brennan, posing as a count, is set to marry Teare until the real count shows up and spoils his plans. Brennan is determined to break up the new nuptials planned for his former fiancé and the count. He comes up with the perfect plan when he sees that Teare is secretly wearing a wig.


At the wedding, a snickering Brennan yanks off the bride's wig just as the couple is about to exchange vows. Teare is better off, though, as it turns out that the count is a black-hearted fortune hunter.


In Operating on Cupid (1915), Dr. Cutem (Neal Burns) needs to perform surgery on the patient in Room 9, but he reads his instructions from the wrong angle and thinks he is supposed to operate on the patient in Room 6. The fact that this patient is a romantic rival makes the doctor eager to cut into him.


A few other films caught my attention. Florence Turner plays a weepy lady in the Vitagraph comedy She Cried (1912).


Charlie Chaplin, in animated form, gets fried in the electric chair in Charley's Electric Dream (1916).


Larry Semon guides Hughie Mack through an early "high and dizzy" comedy, The Man from Egypt (1916).

Billie Rhodes (far left) is the charming star of Somebody's Widow (1918).

Also featured in the film is clean-shaven, pre-Sennett Billy Bevan (on the left).

Neely Edwards is so annoying that he gets socked in the face in Accidents Will Happen (1922). Wouldn't it be great to be able to punch annoying people?


Harold Lloyd kept it believable when he was perched precariously atop the ledge of a skyscraper.  But Edwards, as Hughie Mack had before him, was able to take a dive off a tall building without suffering the slightest injury.


 A comic duel from Almost a Scandal (1915) will be useful for an essay that I am writing on Billie Ritchie for an upcoming book.


I understand that, for the EYE Film Institute, this is just the beginning of the archive holdings to be uploaded on the net. I look forward to their other films with the greatest of anticipation.