Monday, June 2, 2014

"Rock me, ya big bum!"

I am happy to report that The Mishaps of Musty Suffer DVD collection is now available on Amazon

The title of today's article comes from a funny intertitle that appears in the collection.  I cannot explain the context of the remark as it would spoil a good gag.  But the same words were in my mind as I turned on my DVD player and waited to be excited by this hapless tramp known as Musty Suffer (Harry Watson, Jr.).  Rock me, ya big bum!  I was not disappointed.  The series was, at its best, highly original and entertaining.  Three films stand out in the collection - the farcical While You Wait (1916), the surreal Just Imagination (1916) and the zany Blow Your Horn (1916).

Blow Your Horn involves Musty's misadventures as a bicycle messenger.  The film includes a dummy routine in which Watson has one dummy attached to him in the front and a second dummy attached to him in the back.  A contemporary puppeteer named The Amazing Christopher has made a living from essentially the same act for the last 28 years.  Wooden rods are extended from the puppeteer's limbs to the limbs of life-size puppets so that, when the puppeteer moves his arms and legs, he moves the puppet's arms and legs as well.  The effect of the set-up is to make it look as if multiple men are moving together in unison.

Street performers have adopted the act.

The act has even been used for a television commercial.

Watson's dummies do not have the same degree of articulation that The Amazing Christopher's puppets have, but that does not make them any less clever or amusing.  Watson and his dummy friends, Speedy Rush and Inna Hurry, are connected by a simple device: an unnaturally elongated pair of shoes that joins the feet of Watson with the feet of the dummies.  I must admit, though, I was disappointed that this trio of bicycle messengers never took to their bicycles together.  I can imagine the trio astride a special tandem bicycle in which three bicycle frames are connected together side by side.

Another amusing scene from Blow Your Horn has Watson becoming increasingly uneasy when a buxom woman disappears behind a dressing screen and proceeds to toss garments over the top of the screen.  It seems as if the woman is stripping off her clothes in preparation of a wanton lovemaking session, but it is revealed in the end that the woman is simply rummaging through a trunk of clothing in search of a package.  Watson, who is deft in his expressions of discomfort, shows in this rare instance of the series that he could be subtly funny as well as broadly comic.

I couldn't help but think of Buster Keaton as I watched The Lightning Bell-Hop (1916), the main gags of which are associated with a horse-drawn elevator and a collapsible staircase.  Keaton later operated a horse-drawn elevator in The Bell Boy (1918) and fell victim to a collapsible staircase in The Haunted House (1921). 

The DVD extras include an excerpt from Hold Fast! (1916) in which Bickel & Watson perform a celebrated boxing routine that they introduced in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1907.  The routine had been so well-received in its initial run that it was held over for the 1908 edition of the Follies.  This time, though, Watson demonstrated his silly jabs and inept footwork opposite Karno veteran Billy Reeves.  It must have pleased Watson that, by the time that the new show debuted, the sketch had not grown the least bit tiresome with Broadway audiences.  A Variety critic singled out the burlesque boxing bout for praise, describing it as "the laughing hit of the piece."  It was an act that remained in demand.  Other comedians, including Will H. Ward and Edward Zoeller, accurately mimicked the action in their own stage shows.  Reeves beat Watson to the punch (pun intended) when he delivered the boxing routine to movie audiences in the 1915 Lubin comedy The Substitute.

That same year, Reeves and Watson rejoined to perform the routine at a ball hosted by the Lubin Annual Beneficial Association.  Bickel & Watson, the original pugilists, continued to present the act in various engagements.  By the time that Hold Fast! was produced, Watson had been performing the routine on stage for 9 years.  He had managed during this time to refine his fight moves.  Actual boxers use a wide variety of moves, including the slip and turn, the bob and weave, and the block and parry.  They are, in their own way, skilled dancers.  Their exclusive strategies and techniques are fair game for spoofing.  So, Bickel & Watson made the routine about the rhythms of the boxers' movements.  While they circle one another to find an opening for a punch, the boxers inadvertently transition into a waltz, then a jog, then patty cake.  Years later, funny boxing matches would be similarly choreographed by pantomime masters Keaton (Battling Butler, 1926) and Chaplin (City Lights, 1931).  A faint echo of Bickel & Watson's choreography can be detected in the City Lights routine.  Other comedians later made use of comparable moves.

This is not to say that boxing parodies are always planned out to this extent.  I get the impression that Jerry Lewis' boxing routine in Sailor Beware (1952) is something that was largely improvised.

In 1917, Watson revived the boxing routine under the title "Young Kid Battling Dugan" for the stage revue "Odds and Ends."  Watson saw no need to break new ground in his return to the theatre and, based on the response to the play, no one seemed to mind.  Variety's Sime Silverman, who saw an early preview of show in Atlantic City, reported that the boxing routine had "not lost its boisterous fun qualities."  The critic generally praised Watson for taking "old comedy ideas" and turning them into "big laughing bit[s]."  Silverman identified as the show's other "old comedy ideas" a sketch in which Watson drills a misfit army detachment and another bit of business in which Watson has difficulty making a phone call from a pay phone.  Silverman described the latter routine as follows: "Watson is a commuter loaded with bundles who wishes to phone his wife he may be delayed for dinner but he cannot secure a connection."  Watson seeks help from a switchboard operator, but he still can't get through to his wife and he expresses his frustration by mistreating the phone.  Critics reported that the routine got the biggest laughs of the show.  The routine was later brought to the movies by Abbott & Costello in Who Done It? (1942).  This version of the routine, known as "Alexander 2222," was performed by the duo for many years and remains appropriately enshrined in the comedy hall of fame.

It surprised me that Bickel plays only a small role in the series.  Not that the films suffer from Bickel's absence.  Watson receives able support from an appropriately silly troupe that is led by Dan Crimmins, H. H. McCullum and Maxfield Moree.    

It is a mystery why Watson retired from acting at the age of 50.  Production of the "Musty Suffer" series did have to be shut down at one point because Watson became ill and required surgery.  Health issues are usually a reason for an early retirement.

In his day, Watson was a popular star on the stage, a fact that cannot be overstated.  The talent that earned him his high status in Broadway and vaudeville revues is apparent in this collection.  Watson deserved better than to have been forgotten for these many years.  It was the dedicated efforts of Ben Model and Steve Massa that have finally made Watson's work available to the public again.  I recommend that you purchase the Musty Suffer DVD to see Watson's work for yourself.  A 48-page DVD companion guide can be purchased separately.  It includes a biography of Watson and a filmography of the "Musty Suffer" series.

Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang: The Misguided Love Affair of a Double-Crossin' Bobcat and a No-Good Rattlesnake

Melodrama is funny.  This is something that is well understood by the satirist.  Melodrama is drama that winds so far around the bend that it meets up with comedy on the opposite side.  An example of melodrama is the torrid beach scene in From Here to Eternity (1953), which has inspired many satirists. 

It might seem like a great idea to make love on a deserted, moon-lit beach while the waves are crashing onto the shore, but it's possible that the sand and surf will do more to inhibit lovemaking than enhance it.  The parodies have let us know that the tide can bring in many effects from the ocean depths, including seaweed (Airplane!, 1980), mermaids (Shrek 2, 2004) and sharks (The Simpsons, "HOMR," 2001), and the ocean spray that one would expect to be refreshing could nearly drown a person (Your Show of Shows, "From Here To Obscurity," 1954).

Your Show of Shows ("From Here To Obscurity," 1954)

The Seven Year Itch (1955)


The Private Navy of Sgt. O'Farrell (1968)

Airplane! (1980)

The Nutty Professor (1996)


The Simpsons ("HOMR," 2001)


Shrek 2 (2004)


Chariots of Fire's overly earnest, slow-motion running on the beach scene was parodied by everyone from The Muppets to Mr. Bean.  What did the filmmakers expect?  The beach scene was featured on posters with flatulent taglines, including "Two men chasing dreams of glory!" and "With Wings on their Heels and Hope in their Hearts."  Here are other spoofs of the scene.
Mr. Mom (1983)

National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

Married with Children ("Go for the Old," 1993)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

Old School (2003)

Bruce Almighty (2003)

Madagascar (2005)

The Middle ("Average Rules," 2010)

It surprises me that I have never seen a spoof of the sublimely campy climax of Duel in the Sun (1946).  This may be the most extreme example of melodrama that I have ever seen.  Fiery Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) agrees to meet her former lover, Lewt McCanles (Gregory Peck), but she really plans to kill the man to stop him from murdering his kind-hearted brother, Jesse (Joseph Cotten).  She rides out into the desert under a blazing sun.  She travels for days through rocks and cacti.  She is dry and dusty, but she forges on (At one point, she slurps water from a muddy puddle).  Dimitri Tiomkin's music swells.  Tiomkin didn't give as much oomph to the score of The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).  Pearl stops and looks up.  She has finally reached the meeting place.  When Lewt waves to her from a mountain ridge, Pearl hoists her rifle and fires at him.  Lewt is hit and topples over.  Though he is mortally wounded, Lewt manages to raise his rifle and apply deadly aim in a single shot fired at Pearl.  The couple is bleeding to death from the gunshot wounds that each has inflicted on the other, but they cry out lovingly to one another across the distance.  At one point, Lewt pauses in his expressions of love to take another shot at Pearl.  Pearl, determined to reach Lewt before he perishes, drags herself up the craggy mountain and claws her way through the dusty earth.  She barely has any strength left when she makes it to the top.  The two stare into each other's eyes and enter into a passionate embrace, at which point Lewt dies.  Pearl lays herself against Lewt's body before she, herself, dies.  The camera pulls back, revealing the couple in their death cuddle.

I expect that people who cried at this moment will hate me for not taking the scene seriously, but I could not help but laugh while this odd combination of fervent love scene and bloody shoot-out scene unfolded before my fragile little eyes.  For those who have not seen the film, I just have to say that words cannot describe the complete extent of this silliness, which the filmmakers stretch out for a total of ten minutes.  Trust me, the scene plays out far worse than my description.  It's bad drama, but good comedy.

The one thing that the Chariots of Fire, From Here to Eternity and Duel in the Sun scenes have in common is sand.  I guess, something about sand is funny.  Now, I dare anyone to tell me that my film analysis isn't insightful.

1979: A Funny Year

Film comedy has had exceptionally productive years: 1925 (The Freshman, The Gold Rush and Seven Chances), 1927 (The Kid Brother and The General) and 1933 (Duck Soup and Sons of the Desert).  But the most prolific year for Hollywood comedy surprisingly came years after the passing of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.  The year was 1979.

In the film industry, the biggest comedy stars of the 1960s were Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Jack Lemmon.  But the careers of these actors wound down in the 1970s and the time came for these old masters to pass the torch to a new generation of actors.
Blazing Saddles had been a phenomenal success in 1974.  It looked as if the film's director and co-writer, Mel Brooks, was destined to inherit the comedy crown.  However, the inspiration of Blazing Saddles proved to be limited and short-lived.  A sprinkling of parody films, including Young Frankenstein (1974), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), Murder by Death (1976), The Big Bus (1976) and The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), were released to a mixed response over the next three years.

A much greater impact was achieved four years after Blazing Saddles by National Lampoon's Animal House (1978).  It's not that Animal House was the only successful comedy of 1978 (three other laughable crowd pleasers of the year were Foul Play, La Cage aux Folles and Up in Smoke), but it was Animal House that created an explosion in popular culture, clearing the way for a new wave of comedy films.  This was the year in which Hollywood learned that they could have a box office hit with a Not Ready for Primetime Player from Saturday Night Live.  Not only did John Belushi become a movie star with Animal House, but Chevy Chase became a movie star with Foul Play.  Let's take a look at the next year.  The number of notable comedies that was produced that year was thirteen.  Here is the list:

Being There (1979) 
The In-Laws (1979)
The Jerk (1979)
Love at First Bite (1979)
Manhattan (1979)
Meatballs (1979)
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
The Muppet Movie (1979)
1941 (1979)
Real Life (1979)
Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)
Starting Over (1979)
10 (1979)

That is an impressive group of films.  By sheer volume, no other year can match that record.  Just as remarkable as the quality of the films was their diversity.  This group of films included a sex farce, a dark satire, a musical free-for-all, a relationship comedy, an historical takeoff, a horror parody, and a puppet romp.  Manhattan could not have been more different than MeatballsMonty Python's Life of Brian could not have been more different than The Muppet Movie.

Saturday Night Live remained the biggest influence this year.  Veterans of the series were featured in six of these comic films, The Jerk (Steve Martin), Meatballs (Bill Murray), Real Life (Albert Brooks), The Muppet Movie (Steve Martin, again), Starting Over (Candice Bergen) and 1941 (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi).  Film historians have often cited the failure of Steven Spielberg's 1941, but the film actually made substantial profits overseas and it has accrued its fair share of fans over the years.

Except for Brooks, members of Blazing Saddles' creative team had by now moved away from the parody genre.  Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor recently enjoyed great success with the comedy-thriller Silver Streak (1976).  Andrew Bergman, a co-writer of Blazing Saddles, wrote the script for The In-Laws.  Brooks and members of his stock company (Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise and Cloris Leachman) had brief roles in The Muppet Movie.  The parody trend had run its course (although one of the comedy hits of 1979, Love at First Bite, followed the example of Brooks' horror parody Young Frankenstein).

The following year, the team of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker turned out Airplane!, which might seem on the surface to be much like a Brooks film.  The fact is, though, that Brooks' films were significantly different.  Brooks, who professed his love of old-time westerns and horror films, burlesqued these genres with unabashed enthusiasm in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.  He also expressed great admiration for Alfred Hitchcock's films, which was his inspiration for High Anxiety (1977).  The fact that these films imitated a serious work in a funny and affectionate way made them parodies.  Brooks learned much about the art of parody while writing for Sid Ceasar, who liked to put a funny twist on celebrated films like From Here to Eternity, The Bicycle Thief and A Streetcar Named Desire Airplane!, though, was not a parody.  It was a spoof, mocking a mediocre film (Zero Hour) and a dubious genre (disaster films).  It is Airplane! that later paved the way for Scary Movie (2000) and its ilk.  There's no need to point out that, in the last few years, these spoofs have gone from bad to worse.

But let's get back to 1979 and the extraordinary comedy films that came out that year.  So many great comedy talents converged in the film industry at this one particular point in time.  Steve Martin, Albert Brooks and Bill Murray were hot new properties.  Dudley Moore expertly crossed over from London to Hollywood.  James L. Brooks made his feature film debut as the writer and producer of Starting Over.  Veterans talents were enjoying career peaks.  Alan Arkin had never been funnier than he was in The In-LawsManhattan was hailed by top critics as Woody Allen's masterpiece.  Peter Sellers' performance as Chance the Gardner in Being There earned the actor his second Best Actor nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Sellers was still enjoying acclaim for the role when he died on July 24, 1980).

Animal House ushered in a new golden age of comedy, which would continue to 1989.  It is easy to have nostalgia for this period when you consider the deplorable state that film comedy is in today.  I wretch every time that I see a promo for Neighbors

Life After Moving

I moved last month.  There has never been a funny film about moving because moving is a miserable experience.  Chaplin could have gotten a great deal of pathos out of the subject.  A picture with moving boxes is a picture with tears.  But I am happy to say that I am settled into my new home and busy at work on a new book.

The title of my new book is I Won't Grow Up!: What Comedy Films Have to Teach Us About Maturity, Responsibility and Masculinity.  I started out my research watching five films: Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), Being There (1979) and 10 (1979).  I had no intention of including a silent film comedy in my viewing schedule as I believed that I had fully addressed the important silent film comedies in my previous books.  But I couldn't watch Hail the Conquering Hero without thinking of Buster Keaton's Battling Butler (1926), I couldn't watch Being There without thinking of Harry Langdon's The Strong Man (1926), and I couldn't watch Mister Roberts without thinking of Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms (1918).  I realized that I could not thoroughly examine the films on my schedule without putting them into context with many earlier classics.  This meant that I ended up taking another look at Battling Butler, The Strong Man and Shoulder Arms.  To be honest, though, I have such a great affection for these films that I didn't at all mind watching them again.

During my study of the new films, I have occasionally found a gag or routine that reminds me of something that I wrote about before.  This happened twice the other day.

Not long ago, I wrote an article about The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).  A principal scene in the film features Leonardo DiCaprio fighting desperately to resist the disabling the effects of Quaaludes.  DiCaprio, who needs to tell a business associate that Federal agents have them under surveillance, struggles to talk coherently on the phone.  No matter how hard he tries, nothing that he says is comprehensible.  It occurred to me as I was watching this scene that I had seen a similar scene in another film.  I wracked my brain, but I couldn't remember the other film, or the actor, or the context of the scene.  It just so happened that, during my latest film study, I found that other scene again.  The film was 10 (1979).  Under the influence of Novocain, Dudley Moore struggles to talk coherently on the phone to his girlfriend (Julie Andrews).  Moore is desperate to make up with his girlfriend, who he insulted the night before with an insensitive comment.  Andrews assumes that a crazy man is at Moore's home and phones the police.


The next film on my agenda was The Seven Year Itch (1955), which is another film about a middle-aged man obsessed with a beautiful young woman.  This time, I found an early version of the "toe stuck in bathtub spout" routine.  I have included details of the scene in an update on my article "The Toe Stuck in the Bathtub Spout Routine."  Click here for the article.  (I also updated my "Sam and Diane: Delayed Romance Strategy" article.  Click here for the article.)

The Seven Year Itch's most famous scene, in which a breeze from a subway grate blows up Monroe's skirt, has precedent in a 1901 Edison comedy, What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City.

You know, I just thought of a comedy film about moving that did have a few laughs.  The film, which starred Lupino Lane, was Fool's Luck (1926).  Let me end this blog entry with a clip from that film.  Watch out for a familiar gag at the end.

Additional Note

I remembered another old routine that is, in other ways, similar to The Wolf of Wall Street scene.  The routine, which was presented on a 1969 episode of The Carol Burnett Show, featured Tim Conway as a trainee dentist and Harvey Korman as his unfortunate patient.  After accidentally injecting himself in the hand with Novocaine, Conway finds that his hand has gone numb and he can't grip forceps to extract his patient's tooth.  When he tries a second time to inject his patient, his limp hand drops to his side and the needle get stuck in his leg.  Now, he has trouble standing.  He supports his leg on an office chair, which he uses to wheel himself across the office.

I think that, this morning, I will have a bath rather than a shower.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Horror of High-Definition Television


A highlight of a 2009 30 Rock episode, "Dealbreakers Talk Show # 0001," was a spoof of high-definition television.  A high-definition camera, which can capture a person's slightest physical flaws, makes Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) look like a crone.

30 Rock ("Dealbreakers Talk Show # 0001," 2009)

The routine received much praise from fans and critics after its initial broadcast.

A similar routine turned up on a 1964 episode of The Jack Benny Show called "How Jack Found Dennis."

 The Jack Benny Show ("How Jack Found Dennis," 1964)

The poor quality of this clip obscures the quality of Benny's make-up, which was created by Jack Barron.  Barron had previously turned out scary make-up designs for the horror anthology series Thriller.  Here are two examples. 
"The Cheaters" (1960)

"The Incredible DokTor Markesan" (1962)

The Ultimate Cutaway Set Guide

I have discussed the cutaway set in three separate articles, which can be found here, here and here.  I have gotten new information on this topic from an article by A. D. Jameson called "Jerry Lewis’s 'The Ladies Man': The Dollhouse and the Forbidden Room."   I figured that I should gather together my information into one ultimate guide.

The earliest cutaway set that I could find was designed by innovative French director Maurice Tourneur for the crime drama The Hand of Peril (1916).

Charley Chase wrote and directed Ship Ahoy (1919), which used the cutaway set to show comedian Billy West being chased around a ship by a sea captain's evil henchmen.

Buster Keaton staged his own comic chase in a cutaway set for The High Sign (1921).

Busby Berkeley came up with this cutaway hotel set for a musical number of Footlight Parade (1933) called "Honeymoon Hotel."

The courtyard set of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) is not a cutaway set, but it shares many of the qualities of a cutaway set. 


The elaborate boarding house set that Jerry Lewis created for The Ladies Man (1961), which was used extensively throughout the film, left a lasting impression on viewers. 

Jean-Luc Godard, a French filmmaker who admired Lewis' work, designed an office set similar to Lewis' boarding house set for Tout va bien (1972).

Another homage to Lewis' set turned up in Absolute Beginners (1986).  It is also a boarding house.

Jameson pointed out the similarities of Lewis' boarding house and the restaurant Le Hollandais from Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989).  Jameson wrote, "Greenaway is cutting between different sets here, but his montage achieves a somewhat similar effect."  Both the restaurant and the boarding house are buildings with many different candy-colored compartments. 

A series of compartments with flamboyantly diverse designs appear in the 1998 music video for The Smashing Pumpkins' "Ava Adore."  Jameson wrote, "Obviously, the further we get from 1961, the less certain it is that any particular film is directly influenced by The Ladies Man.  Nonetheless, the video that Dom and Nic directed for Smashing Pumpkins’s 'Ava Adore' must count as some kind of descendant."

Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002) features a nightmarish version of Lewis' boarding house.  Methodist missionaries have converted an abandoned brewery into a warren of dark, cramped apartments to house the poor.


Finally, we have another cutaway ship set from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).