Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book Release Announcement: Slaughterhouse Frome

 My latest book (and second novel) is Slaughterhouse Frome, a seriocomic science fiction story about a stressed expectant father who suddenly suffers a break from reality and imagines himself to be a futuristic warrior fighting in a cosmic war. 

Your response to this announcement might very well be, "Didn't this guy just announce the release of a book?"  Scrupulous time management and great (perhaps excessive) perseverance kept me going in the last three years while I worked to simultaneously complete three books - The Funny Parts, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film and Slaughterhouse Frome.  For my purposes, multitasking has its benefits.  Whenever I needed to step back and take a breather from one project, I was able to conveniently redirect my attention to one of my other projects.

I was allowed by my Frome novel, which explores the subjects of marriage, parenting and intergalactic travel, to let loose my creative energies and express sentiments and ideas of a more personal nature.  The objective assembly of facts for a biography or the identification of a film's essential features for a film analysis book is somewhat different than a novel, which must be crafted out of the author's own experiences and fantasies.  It is for this reason that I feel more exposed and vulnerable to be presenting this work to the public.  But bravery is a requirement of an author as much as, if not more, than the ability to turn a phrase.  I hope that the people who read Slaughterhouse Frome find it enjoyable.

Classic Comedy Routines that Live On

I have commented in the past about the creative efforts of Cartoon Network's Adventure Time to introduce classic comedy routines to a younger audience.  A recent episode of Adventure Time, "Ignition Point," featured variations of two popular Commedia dell'arte routines - “Lazzi of the Statue” and “Lazzi of the Sack.”  The "Lazzi of the Statue" routine involves a man pretending to be a statue.  This routine was performed in countless silent films.  It is not known for certain when the routine was first recorded on film, but it is very possible that the routine made its screen debut with Alice Guy Blache's The Statue (1905).  

Excerpt from The Statue

Adventure Time updates this routine with an imaginative flair. Jake's fantastic stretching powers comes into use as Finn and Jake pretend to be a painting.


The “Lazzi of the Sack” routine involves a man who conceals himself in a cloth sack without realizing that he is taking the place of a pig due to be slaughtered.  As it turns out, the man must struggle to free himself from the sack before he is set upon by a cleaver-wielding butcher.  Adventure Time presents a pork-free version of the routine.  Finn and Jake, who have a blue hue due to a flame-proofing spell, blend in well when they fall into a crate of blueberries.  Unfortunately, though, a baker assumes that the pair are oversized blueberries and promptly chases after them with a handy cleaver. 


As can be seen in the next screen capture, Finn wears one of the Commedia dell'arte's "zanni" masks at one point in the episode.

The final routine of the episode has its origins in a different source than the Commedia dell'arte.  Finn and Jake learn of a plot to kill the Flame King and are determined to root out the conspirators before they can execute their evil plan.  Our heroes join a theatrical troupe so that they can dramatize the murder plot on stage and thereby provoke a reaction from the would-be king-killers.  This idea was borrowed directly from Hamlet, but it might also remind comedy fans of a plan to expose a murderous Nazi spy in Abbott & Costello's Who Done It? (1942).  The eternal question "To be or not to be?" meets the eternal question "Who's on First?" 

But, as I watched the climax of "Ignition Point," I didn't think of Hamlet or Who Done It? as much as I thought of Wonder Man (1945), a comedy in which Danny Kaye takes part in an opera to expose a murderer to a district attorney seated in a theater box.  

Wonder Man

Adventure Time

I find it comforting that a number of classic comedy routines have survived into the 21st century.  Another classic routine, this one involving a man struggling clumsily to carry an unconscious woman, was recently revived by Two and a Half Men.  This is Buster Keaton performing the routine in Spite Marriage (1929). 

Now comes the new version, which essentially substitutes gracefulness with smuttiness.  I feel compelled to note that, despite his "tiger blood," Charlie Sheen needed help from Jon Cryer to carry his unconscious woman (Diora Baird).  I thank my brother, Francis, for bringing this episode of Two and a Half Men to my attention.

In the last hundred years, a variety of ferocious beasts and deadly monsters have been on the prowl to bring ruin and chaos to film and television weddings.  The origins of this silly business are detailed in The Funny Parts.  Recent examples of this trope include a wedding sent into disarray by prehistoric wolves in a 2011 episode of Primeval and a wedding brought to a bloody end by zombies in REC 3: Genesis (2012).  Here is a clip from Primeval.  

It is hard to fully understand the psychology of a popular routine and the reason that people feel compelled to come back to the routine again and again.  What would Bruno Bettelheim say was the hidden meaning of this comic fairy tale?  He might say that a great deal of fear and anxiety lies beneath the order and formality of a wedding and these monsters and beasts represent this undercurrent of dark emotions suddenly breaking loose.  In any case, I doubt we have seen the last of these wedding disasters.

Let me end this article by letting you know that I have added film clips to a few of my previous articles.

That's it for today. I thank you all for coming by.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The "Pellet with the Poison" Routine

The famous "pellet with the poison" routine from The Court Jester (1956) actually comes from an old vaudeville routine.  Variations of the routine turned up in films years before The Court Jester.  Let's take a look at the Court Jester routine and its precedents.

The Court Jester (1956)

Roman Scandals (1933)

Never Say Die (1939)

A Review of "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film"

I have a good deal of respect for Jordan Young, an entertainment historian whose books include "Spike Jones Off the Record," "Reel Characters" and "The Laugh Crafters," and I could not be more pleased to have Mr. Young review my latest film comedy book.  The review can be found here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Stan Without Ollie: Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927

Stan Laurel starred in nearly five dozen films before teaming with Oliver Hardy in 1927.  Ted Okuda and James L. Neibaur examine these films in depth in a new book, Stan Without Ollie: Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927

I must admit that, as great as think Stan Laurel is, I have generally found his solo work to be erratic and unfocused.  His style and characterizations vary wildly from film to film (and sometimes within a single film).  His performance can be subtle and patient in one outing and then frantic and exaggerated in the next.  But this book places these films into a clear context and brings into focus the performer's gradual development into the comedy legend that we know today.

Okuda and Neibaur, who have been writing film history books since the 1980s, are trustworthy guides.  Their last collaboration, The Jerry Lewis Films: An Analytical Filmography of the Innovative Comic, has remained for many years the most valuable book available on Lewis' work.  It is good to see these authors come together again on another worthwhile project.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Happy Art

I am grateful to Henly Sukandra for designing and illustrating the cover of Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  Henly is a talented artist who believes in the power of a smile.  He calls his artwork "Happy Art."  He wrote, "When we smile despite experiencing many difficulties, it will make us stronger to face this tough life.  When we smile, we believe that hope is there.  My art is, very simply, just to be enjoyed.  I hope my art will brighten the hearts of everyone who sees it and bring a person (at least) a smile!"

Here is the original layout of the cover.