Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fun in a Telephone Booth

Lou Costello in Who Done It? (1942)
Today, we will look at the origins of the classic Abbott and Costello routine "Alexander 2222."  Here is the routine as I first saw it.

All evidence points to the fact that the routine was introduced by Harry Watson, Jr., as  part of the Broadway show "Odds and Ends," which ran for 112 performances from November 19, 1917 to January 18, 1918. 

Watson continued to perform his "Odds and Ends" routines, which also included his "Battling Dugan" boxing bit, on the vaudeville circuit from 1918 to 1921.  Reports in Variety show that Watson played the act extensively in New York theatres (Palace, Colonial, Riverside) as well as San Francisco's Orpheum theatre.  Reviews were consistently good.  In June, 1919, a Variety critic reported that Watson was "laughing hit" with his "funny telephone bit" at the Riverside theatre.  The critic added, "The present chaotic condition of the telephone service has made Watson's act funnier than ever."

Other comedians began to perform variations of the routine in other venues.  Joe Bennett performed the routine under the title "Telephone Tangle" at Chicago's Kedzie theatre in September, 1919.  But no vaudeville observer had any doubt as to the source of the material.  The Variety critic specifically praised Bennett for "elaborat[ing] on the idea carried out by Harry Watson in his specialty in 'Odds and Ends.'"  For years, Watson maintained his status as the originator of the routine.  The routine was duplicated in "Big Wonder Show," which debuted at New York's Columbia Theatre in September, 1921.  Variety noted that, by performing "a verbatim lift of Harry Watson, Jr.'s vaudeville act," George P. Murphy furnished "the funniest scene in the show."  Burlesque comics Benny Platt and Frank "Rags" Murphy struggled futilely to impress audiences with familiar routines in "Steppin' Out," a revue that debuted on the Mutual circuit in January, 1925.  Variety reported, "Platt and Murphy. . . [get] the most with a telephone booth idea probably inspired by Harry Watson's."  Elements of Watson's act could also be found in Harold Lloyd's struggles to make a call on a public phone in Number Please (1920).

Watson set aside the routine while he performed in other Broadway shows, including "The Passing Show of 1921" and "Tip-Toes."  He later revived the routine in 1925, showcasing his telephone booth antics in grand style at the Hippodrome theatre.  A Variety wrote, "Watson with little change from the now hardy perennial, the telephone and 'Battling Kid' skits, got plenty of laughs.  The audience didn't seem to have been surfeited with his stuff.  He now has a pair of banjoing boys between scenes, a welcome relief and a vivid surprise that Watson would change his act at all." 

The routine remained durable.  Watson returned to the Hippodrome with the act, now called "In a Telephone Booth," in December, 1928.  A report in Variety dated August 22, 1928 indicated that Fox had engaged Watson to film the sketch for a sound short.  Unfortunately, the short was never made.  As it turned out, Watson retired soon after his Hippodrome appearance.  

The routine was forgotten until it appeared again in the Abbott and Costello feature Who Done It? (1942).

A variation of the routine titled "Number Please" (the same title as the Harold Lloyd film) was performed by Keenan Wynn in The Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

A Motion Picture Daily critic reported, "This is the old gag about getting long distance calls through in two seconds but failing to reach a friend in the next block."  This certainly was a funny basis for a routine, which has allowed this comic business to remain as funny today as it was in 1918.  Thank you, Harry.

Let me now take this opportunity to give a rundown of other entertaining uses of the telephone booth.

The first telephone booth was installed in a Connecticut bank in 1889.  By 1902, telephone booths could be found throughout the United States.  Vaudeville entertainers soon recognized the comic potential of this device.  Rieny Craig and James A. Welch's 1907 act "Hello" was, according to Variety, built around a "burlesque telephone booth."  The same year, Euson's Theatre in Chicago introduced comedian Harry Bryant performing what Variety described as a "threadbare telephone booth episode."  In 1916, Tom Coyne performed at New York's Olympic Theater in a comedy act called "The Telephone Booth."  The routine had Coyne hiding inside a telephone booth to avoid an irate man.  The irate man, determined to harm Coyne, resorted to energetically rocking the booth.  If there was more to the act than that, it was not revealed in Variety's write up of the act.

A stock gag in early silent films had a fat comedian getting wedged inside a telephone booth.  In Losing Weight (1916), big-bellied Hughie Mack struggles to extract himself from a telephone booth, finally freeing himself when the strain of his great bulk causes the structure to burst apart. 

In 1921, the Six Juggling Bernsteins used a telephone booth at the center of an act called "Fun in a Telephone Booth."  According to Variety, the act was well-received.  The Variety critic wrote, "[T]heir quick passing of telephone books [was] loudly applauded."

Shipwrecked Among Animals, a 1922 short comedy produced for Universal's Century series, opens with the sinking of a steamship, the S. S. Sadness.  As he struggles to stay afloat in the ocean, sailor Harry Sweet sees a telephone booth floating among the ship's debris.  Sweet climbs inside the telephone booth and attempts to phone up a rescue party.  The Film Daily critic wrote, "In the middle of the sea he calls for a number but gets the busy reply."

In Three Ages (1923), Buster Keaton is able to escape from a police station when he unwittingly steps inside a telephone booth that is being moved out of the building.

In Out of Order (1923), Neely Edwards and Bert Roach have come up with a movable dummy telephone booth.  They simply need to set up their telephone booth on a busy street corner and wait for an unsuspecting patron to enter to make a call.  According to Exhibitor's Trade Review, "[T]he usual nickel is deposited and falls into a tube that sends it speeding into [a] waiting hat outside."

Eddie Cantor performs a comic monologue in a phone booth in the Paramount short That Party in Person (1928).

In Red-Headed Woman (1932), Jean Harlow corners Chester Morris in a telephone booth for some torrid smooching.

Laurel and Hardy get stuck in a telephone booth with a drunken Arthur Housman in Our Relations (1936).  Blogger Movie Mag described the scene as "Laurel and Hardy’s answer to the stateroom sequence in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera." 

Felix Adler, one of the film's writers, had scripted a similar scene for the Fox short The Complete Life (1926).  The earlier routine started out with a tipsy man stumbling into a phone booth, which he has mistaken for a cab. 
Kent Taylor locks feisty rival Irene Hervey in a phone booth in The Lady Fights Back (1937).

"Busy Line, 4142" (1938) was a radio drama that unfolded within the confines of a phone booth.  Essentially the same idea was behind Joel Schumacher's 2002 feature Phone Booth.

According to The Film Daily, a telephone booth helped to provide a "swell gag" to The Cavalcade of Stuff (1938).  The narrator,  F. Chase Taylor (radio's Colonel Stoopnagle), explains that the telephone booth is too cramped and hot to be comfortable.  Footage shows a sweaty fat man squeezing inside a telephone booth and a dithery woman with packages trying to settle herself inside a booth.

The pay phone became a source of laughs in a number of television sitcoms, including Gomer Pyle ("Gomer and the Phone Company," 1966), The Bill Cosby Show ("The Fatal Phone Call," 1969), Love, American Style ("Love and the Phone Booth," 1969) and The Brady Bunch ("Sorry, Right Number," 1969).  My favorite of these episodes, though, is the 1951 Amos 'n' Andy episode "The Rare Coin."  When Kingfish accidentally deposits Andy's valuable rare nickel into a pay phone, Andy tears apart the phone booth in a desperate effort to retrieve the coin.

Slacker buddies Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter travel through time in a telephone booth in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).

"Pay the Two dollars!"

Eugene and Willie Howard
A highlight of the Broadway show "George White's Scandals of 1936" was Willie and Eugene Howard's comedy sketch "A Slight Case of Murder."  Literature scholar Jim Bernhard, author of the "Words Going Wild" blog, described the routine as follows:
The sketch commences on a New York subway. Willie is an inoffensive milquetoast, accompanied by a friend who is an aggressive and belligerent lawyer [Eugene]. . . They argue, and Willie gets worked up and spits on the floor.  The subway conductor points to a sign indicating a $2.00 fine for spitting.  Willie wishes to pay the fine, but the lawyer, as a matter of principle, will not let him.  Penalties escalate, as the lawyer unsuccessfully fights the fine and Willie pleads, "Let's pay the two dollars."  But the lawyer is obsessed with vindication - and Willie is ultimately sentenced to death in the electric chair.  The lawyer finally obtains a pardon for Willie, and as they return home on the subway, Willie denounces the lawyer for destroying his life.   He becomes worked up again and inadvertently spits on the subway floor.  Blackout.
The routine was re-created with Victor Moore and Edward Arnold for the 1946 film Ziegfeld Follies.

The routine was extensively reworked for a 1952 episode of the Abbott and Costello Show called "Jail."

Bernhard explained that the phrase "Pay the two dollars" became a widely known idiom.  It came to essentially mean "Don't fight City Hall" or "Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill."  The line turned up in the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest (1959).  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman specifically credited the Willie and Eugene Howard sketch in the film's DVD commentary.

Additional Note

I expanded my handcuff routine article to acknowledge additional renditions of the routine, including an early version performed by Johnny Arthur and Anita Garvin.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Funny Medical Disorder

We are here today to talk about an involuntary contraction of the diaphragm, which is known by doctors as a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter.  It may be hard to believe, but this disorder has been a reliable source of comedy.  Amusement comes from the fact that, when a person experiences this contraction, their vocal cords are forced to close and they emit a loud "hic" sound from their throat.  The disorder is known by us more common folk as a hiccup.  The hiccup is something that people have likely laughed uproariously about since the beginning of mankind.  Hiccups have gotten more attention in comedy films than other similar afflictions, including coughs, yawns and sneezes.

Hiccups can be brought on by intense emotions, including fear, anxiety, excitement or happiness.  Home remedies for hiccups include headstanding, drinking several glasses of water, being frightened by someone, breathing into a bag, and eating a large spoonful of peanut butter.  Frightening a person with hiccups really helps.  A person reacts to a sudden fright with a gasp, which relaxes their diaphragm and reopens their vocal cords.  You can see that we have in this ailment the makings of good comedy.

Let me list hiccup routines of film and television in chronological order.

A 1909 Gaumont comedy, A Sure Cure, presents the comic efforts of a wife to rid her husband of the hiccups.  When a number of remedies prove unsuccessful, the wife sees that she needs to take more drastic measures.  The wife makes several attempts to frighten her husband, but nothing that she does works.  As a last resort, she summons her mother to their home.  The terrifying sight of his mother-in-law brings the husband immediate relief.

Charley Chase found a unique way to use hiccups in Tell 'Em Nothing (1926).  Chase, a divorce lawyer, receives an unexpected visit at his home from a pretty blonde client (Vivien Oakland).  He hides the woman under his bed when his wife (Gertrude Astor) arrives home suddenly.  Oakland gets an attack of hiccups, which Chase tries to conceal by pretending the hiccup noises are coming from him. 
Bebe Daniels helps to cure Neil Hamilton of hiccups in Take Me Home (1928).

Charlie Chaplin introduced humorous sound effects into his comic repertoire in City Lights (1931).  At a party, Chaplin accidentally swallows a penny whistle.  Having the whistle lodged in his throat brings on a distressing case of hiccups.  The funny twist is that, every time that he hiccups, he makes a whistling sound, which annoys a singer who is attempting to perform an aria.

Oswald does everything he can to cure his dog, Elmer, of hiccups in Elmer, the Great Dane (1935).

Fred MacMurray applies his unique expertise to cure Carole Lombard of hiccups in Hands Across the Table (1935).

A barber develops hiccups while cutting a man's hair in Once Over Lightly (1935).

Dopey hiccups bubbles after he accidentally swallows a bar of soap in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Joe Penner gets an attack of hiccups whenever he kisses a girl in Millionaire Playboy (1940).

A chronic case of hiccups causes Merle Oberon to seek medical help in That Uncertain Feeling (1942).  This film establishes that a hiccup can be a psychological tic that develops when a person is anxious.  When the film opens, Oberon has just recovered from one of her reoccurring hiccup episodes and she is being advised and comforted by close friends.

It is curious that the director, Ernst Lubitsch, avoided opening his film with his beautiful leading lady engaged in a comical hiccup fit.  Was hiccup humor not elegant or sophisticated enough for the classy director?  But, no, we do eventually see Oberon produce a hiccup.

Daffy Duck consults a doctor to cure his hiccups in The Impatient Patient (1942).

Dave O'Brien struggles to find a cure for his hiccups in the Pete Smith Specialty short Sure Cures (1946).

In Helter Skelter (1949), a detective (David Tomlinson) gets involved with a wealthy socialite who can't stop hiccuping.

In Hic-cup Pup (1954), Tom and Jerry's fighting abruptly wakes Spike's son Tyke, causing the puppy to suffer a violent onset of hiccups.

Hiccups became a considerable source of amusement on television.  An early example is an episode of The Honeymooners ("The Loudspeaker," 1956).  Ralph (Jackie Gleason) is excited to learn that he has been named Racoon of the Year, but he is in the midst of preparing his acceptance speech when he is stricken with hiccups.

This episode may have been the template for many sitcom episodes that followed.  A character would be nervous about a big event and their anxiety would arouse hiccups.  Many actors have tried to draw laughs by making a funny chirp, squeak or "huff" as they struggled with hiccups, but Gleason sets the bar high with his wildly agitated hiccups.  This same plot was recycled on a number of top-rated shows.  Wally Cox, a symphony percussionist who's nervous about performing with a big New York orchestra, develops a bad case of hiccups in an episode of The Lucy Show ("Lucy Conducts the Symphony," 1963).

Barney is afflicted with hiccups right before an important physical examination in The Andy Griffith Show ("Barney's Physical," 1964).  

Fred helps Barney to get rid of his hiccups in an episode of The Flintstones ("Barney the Invisible," 1962).

Of course, the hiccups are exaggerated to monstrous proportions in an episode of The Munsters ("Herman's Sorority Caper," 1966).

Grandpa (Al Lewis) performs the Transylvanian Brain Freezer to rid Herman (Fred Gwynne) of his hiccups.

Peter, who is nervous about performing in front of a big producer, gets a stubborn bout of hiccups in an episode of The Monkees ("Find the Monkees," 1967). 

Davey, Mike and Mickey attempt to cure Peter's hiccups by scaring him with monster masks.


Paula Prentiss is beset with hiccups as she gets ready for a party in an episode of He and She ("The Coming Out Party," 1967).

A explosive pill gives Woody Allen the hiccups in Casino Royale (1967).

Hiccups ruin a wedding night for Richard Dawson and Anjanette Comer in an episode of Love, American Style ("Love and the Hiccups," 1971).  The ruined wedding night was a staple of the series.

A fantasy element freshened up this old premise in an episode of Bewitched ("Sam's Psychic Slip," 1971).  Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) develops the strangest case of hiccups.  Every time she hiccups, a bicycle magically appears.

In a 1975 episode of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase plays a minister who gets hiccups while trying to deliver a eulogy.  The grieving family tries various methods to stop the hiccups.

A king's guard gets the hiccups in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

The anxiety premise returned after a brief respite in an episode of Alice ("Alice's Decision," 1979).  Alice (Linda Lavin) has her big break at a singing career thwarted by an attack of the hiccups.

Bull (Richard Moll) tries a range of remedies to get rid of hiccups in an episode of Night Court ("Futureman," 1990).

Roberto Benigni makes himself a nuisance with his chronic hiccups in Down By Law (1986).

Who knew that a rhythmic series of breathing spasms could be so funny?

The Three Stooges in Men In Black (1934)

The Transylvanian Brain Freezer


And Around and Around We Go!


In 1899, the world’s first revolving door was installed at Rector’s, a restaurant in Manhattan's Times Square.  It wasn't long after this event that comedians recognized the comic potential of the revolving door.  Several characters tangle with revolving doors in an early comedy film appropriately titled The Revolving Doors (1910).  In 1913, the team of Mahoney and Tremont used a revolving door for comic effect in their stage act.

Arbuckle had fun with a revolving door in His Wife's Mistakes (1916).  The most clever business in the scene occurs as Arbuckle struggles to recover his hat, which has become lost in the spinning doors.

Charlie Chaplin created an even more memorable revolving door routine in The Cure (1917).  The routine was meticulously choreographed and exquisitely performed.

Harold Lloyd, who was on his way to becoming Chaplin's chief rival, tried his hand at the revolving door routine in Next Aisle Over (1919).  I found footage of this routine that was included in a French television documentary.  Be warned, the quality is poor.

A revolving showcase was used similarly by Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy in The Bakery (1921).

The revolving door remained a centerpiece of comedy for decades. 

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd in The Soilers (1932)

The Ritz Brothers in The Hotel Anchovy (1934)

The Three Stooges in No Census, No Feeling (1940)

 Peter Sellers in Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

Anyone could get in on the action.  Asta the dog chases an escaping criminal around in a revolving door in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).

A baby crawls into a revolving door at a department store in Baby's Day Out (1994).

On television, the revolving door was central to a hotel sketch on a 1966 episode of The Danny Kaye Show.  In the sketch, Kaye plays a new bellboy whose misadventures with the revolving door infuriates the hotel manager (Harvey Korman). 

The animation community has loved these animated doors. 

Pluto's Judgement Day (1935)

A Date To Skate (1938)

Bellboy Donald (1942)

Rabbit of Seville (1950)

Dixieland Droopy (1954)

How does the revolving door fare in more modern comedy?

Elf (2003)

Comedy was once pantomime and choreography, but now it's flailing and vomiting.  But, the same year that Elf was released, Jackie Chan worked out a clever revolving door routine for Shanghai Knights (2003).

This way out, my friends.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Hollywood's BS History

Many genres of film satisfy an audience by merely being entertaining.  It is sufficient that they present an agreeable and transitory occupation of the mind.  But a good true-life drama should not be produced for the simple purpose of entertainment.  Its key objective should not be to produce the big laughs that are aroused by a slapstick comedy or the thrills that are aroused by an action film.  A true-life drama should be more ambitious, meaningful and honest than that. 

I emphasize the honesty part of this equation.  A documentary is able to remain engrossing by adhering to the facts.  Why should it be different with a biopic?  Fact is far more interesting than fiction.  The problem is, though, that most people do not go to a theater to see a documentary.  So, filmmakers don't care what works with a documentary.  They want to create a big studio drama that can, if marketed right, reach a wide audience.  It is their objective to make the story larger than life and follow tried-and-true dramatic conventions.  It doesn't matter to them if, in the process, they underestimate the intelligence of their audience.

I am not fond of films that allege to depict true stories but deviate wildly and purposefully from the facts.  It has nothing to do with efficient storytelling.  The inaccuracies in these films come down to cheating, manipulation and pandering.  Once a screenwriter allows himself to change major details for dramatic effect, he leaves behind the real world and enters a fantasy world.  There's a line that they have crossed and there's no guarantee that they will ever find their way back.

It has been more than fifty years since the release of Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and the film is still harshly judged for its inaccuracies.  The main criticism of the film is centered on the mild-mannered characterization of the original "Birdman," convict Robert Stroud.  Film historian Robert Niemi wrote that Stroud was "an extremely dangerous and menacing psychopath, disliked and distrusted by his jailers and fellow inmates."  So, forget about the tenderness and humanity that Burt Lancaster exquisitely conveys in the role.

The biopic has hit its peaks and valleys throughout the history of films.  The Jolson Story (1946) launched a wave of infamous show business biopics, including The Great Caruso (1951), Valentino (1951), The Story of Will Rogers (1952), The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), Houdini (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and The Buster Keaton Story (1957).  Unfortunately, the men who produced these films maintained the lowest of standards when it came to accuracy.  An introductory title for The Young Caruso (1951) describes the plot as "a poetic interpretation of [Caruso's] youth."  Lewis Allen, the director of Valentino, flatly admitted that the story that he presented of Valentino's life was "imaginary."  It was so imaginary that the producers were sued for libel by Valentino's family and a former Valentino co-star, Alice Terry.  Both cases were settled out of court.  This is not to say that respectable biopics did not emerge from this period.  I would include in this category The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), The Desert Fox (1951) and Jim Thorpe – All-American (1951) (although the makers of Thorpe did tack on a faux happy ending).

This period was followed by a twenty-year golden age for the biopic.  Here is a partial list of the acclaimed biopics produced during this time:

The Miracle Worker
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Papillon (1973)
Serpico (1973)
Lenny (1974)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
The Buddy Holly Story (1978)
The Elephant Man (1980)
Raging Bull (1980)
Gandhi (1982)

Hollywood has since returned to the shameless fictionalization of true life stories.  It's a problem that seems to only get worse.  A biopic is no sooner released to theaters then it is torn apart on the Internet for its fabrications and distortions.  As I recall, David Edelstein of New York Magazine was particularly critical of the inaccuracies of Frost/Nixon (2008).

Let me tell you about a biopic that I saw recently.  Filmmakers found their main hook in a relationship between the story's principal male character and its principal female character.  Early on in the film, a scene is presented to firmly establish this relationship.  The scene is bothersome to me because it is so crucial to the story but it is so, so untrue.  What was the name of the film?  Actually, this description fits several biopics that came out last year.  Where do I start?


Let's go to the first act of The Imitation Game.  A humorous scene set at the Government Code and Cypher School depicts Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) assessing Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly) for a cryptographer job.  Clarke and other applicants for the job are given a timed exercise in which they must complete a crossword puzzle in under six minutes.  Turing does not expect any of the applicants to pass the test.  He confides to a co-worker that he, himself, needed eight minutes to finish the puzzle.  But Turing is astonished when Clarke, who is the only woman in a room filled with men, cheerfully passes the test with several seconds to spare.  Yes, we have in this scene a celebration of female empowerment.  A woman gets to put a bunch of meathead men to shame.  This is an ideal example of pandering.  Truth be told, this scene never happened.  The truth is that Clarke was recruited to the Government Code and Cypher School by her former academic supervisor, Gordon Welchman, who offered her a job without needing her to work out a puzzle.  Turing was not at all involved in her hiring.

Let us now look at Big Eyes.  You are likely familiar with these paintings of big-eyed waifs, which at one time could be found everywhere.

As it turned out, the publicity that made these paintings so famous was a colossal lie.  Margaret Keaton, who produced this iconic work, toiled in obscurity while her husband, Walter Keane, took the credit.  Walter, who was a smooth talker, thought that the paintings could be better marketed if he acted as the frontman.   His deception was made worse by the vulgar way in which he reveled in his new-found celebrity.  But he was highly effective as a frontman and as a marketer.  He managed, in his promotion of his wife's paintings, to revolutionize the mass marketing of pop art.  This is America.  Isn't salesmanship everything?

In the film, Walter is excited that his wife's "Tomorrow Forever" painting is to be unveiled at the World's Fair.  But Walter becomes infuriated when art critic John Canaday writes a vicious review of the painting.  Walter confronts Canaday at a dinner party and attempts to stab the art critic with a fork.  Canaday makes use of amazingly fast reflexes to intercept the fork before it can pierce his flesh.  In real life, Walter did become upset with a bad review from Canaday.  Vanity Fair's Julie Miller wrote, "The fair’s organizers hung [the painting] at the Pavilion of Education and Walter Keane imagined the piece one day being celebrated as much as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel."  So, of course, he was upset.  But he never attacked Canaday at a dinner party.  Evidently, the filmmakers didn't think that they could convey Walter's distress by having him grumble bitterly or slam down the newspaper that contained the review.  So, instead, they had to create this overdone party scene.  But it gets worse.  Only minutes later, Walter goes on another rampage.  This time, he argues with Margaret and attempts to burn down their luxurious home.  This scene, too, is a fabrication.

"Tomorrow Forever" painting

Walter Keane is criticized in the film for creating a false history for himself, yet the scriptwriters feel no shame in creating their own false history for him.  I personally don't need stabbings and homes engulfed in flames to hold my attention.  I am not so dull-witted that I need to be stimulated by cheap, contrived, overblown drama.  If a story lacks real drama, why bother to tell it in the first place? 

Most of the changes in Big Eyes were designed to portray Walter as dangerous and abusive and to portray Margaret as helpless and frightened.  It became a feminist fable, which made it easy to market to critics.  Yes, a film about a marketing scam was in itself a marketing scam.  This tale about the evils of marketing and the evils of the 1960s era husband recalls, in ways, Mad Men.

Big Eyes' variation on The Imitation Game job application scene occurs fifteen minutes into the film.  It is a marriage proposal scene.  The filmmakers set up the scene so that Margaret won't have to take personal responsibility for her decision to marry Walter.  In the preceding scenes, they have shown the couple engaged in a whirlwind courtship.  Now, after the couple has been dating for two weeks, Margaret learns that her ex-husband has filed papers to remove their daughter from her custody.  Dialogue falsely proposes that the evil, women-oppressing judges of the era will inevitably remove a child from the custody of a single mother.  Walter offers to marry Margaret to assure that she can keep her daughter.  Not only is Margaret in a heady state over her budding relationship with Walter, but she is in dire fear of losing her daughter.  So, these heightened emotions conspire to push her into an unwise marriage with Walter.  The problem, yet again, is that none of this actually happened.  The couple knew each other for two years prior to marrying and Margaret's ex-husband was not trying to get custody of their daughter.  So, contrary to the film's claims, Margaret did not enter this marriage under duress and she had adequate time to become acquainted with Walter.  If marrying Walter was wrong, Margaret needed to own up to her bad judgment.  I doubt, though, that she ever really had regrets. 

This now brings us to the part of the film that bothered me the most.  The film makes it clear that Walter initiated the fraud without Margaret's knowledge and, when she found out about it, it was too late for her to do anything about it.  It makes sense in the context of the film.  We are supposed to believe that Margaret was a horribly oppressed wife who had no control over what her husband did.  Margaret, herself, wanted everyone to believe that she had been locked in a dungeon-like art studio with an ample supply of canvas and paint.  She said that she was brainwashed.  She said that Walter had Mafia connections and threatened to have her knocked off.  I'm sorry, I don't believe it.  Walter no doubt liked the money and the celebrity.  I can believe that he pressured Margaret to work long hours to churn out the paintings.  But I suspect that Margaret was culpable in the fraud.  She certainly benefited from it.  This was not a tragic story of plagiarism on par with The Phantom of the Opera.  Margaret didn't have acid thrown into her face.  She didn't have to live in the sewers of Woodside, California.  All in all, she made a lot of money and she has lived happily ever after.  Margaret admitted that she didn’t care at first that Walter had plagiarized her work.  She said, "After we started to make it, it didn't make any difference."


Margaret divorced Keane and moved to Hawaii and yet she maintained the fraud for another five years.  During this time, she continued to supply Walter with paintings to sell.  Why?  Because Walter knew how to make money for her.  This was a mutually beneficial relationship.

The same dreary biopic formula was applied again to The Theory of Everything.  This time, the couple is astrophysics student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and literature student Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones).  In real life, Hawking and Wilde had a creepily strange and enigmatic relationship that most filmgoers would likely have found off-putting.  The filmmakers shaved the rough edges off this relationship to make a more conventional love story.

Hawking and Wilde exchanged their addresses at a party just as it is depicted in the film, but neither was interested enough to contact the other to set up a date.  The pair happened to meet again months later on a train.  By then, Hawking had been diagnosed with ALS.  He revealed to Wilde that he was suffering a loss of muscle control, which made it difficult for him to stand or walk, and he was expected to die in approximately two years.  Wilde had Hawking's name and address for months and never bothered to contact him.  Now, she was willing to embark on a romantic relationship with this fatally ill man.  Why?  Wilde told The Observer that she never really considered his illness at the time.  She said, "[W]e had this very strong sense at the time that our generation lived anyway under this most awful nuclear cloud - that with a four-minute warning the world itself could likely end.  That made us feel above all that we had to do our bit, that we had to follow an idealistic course in life.  That may seem naive now, but that was exactly the spirit in which Stephen and I set out in the sixties - to make the most of whatever gifts were given to us."  This is not a satisfying answer to me.  Obviously, it was not a satisfying answer to the filmmakers, who altered the story so that the couple fell inexorably in love before Hawking's diagnosis. 

It gets even stranger.  Hawking is depicted in his relationship with Wilde as charming, attentive and gentle.  But Wilde admitted that, despite his charm, Hawking was often rude, arrogant and insensitive.  Wilde developed an intimate relationship with her church's choir director during the marriage.  Her in-laws believed that the third child that she conceived while married to Hawking was a product of that relationship.  I do not know how this situation was handled in the film because I was unable to get through more than half of the film.  Suffice to say, their relationship was not the bright romance that was showcased in the trailer.

I do not demand that biopics be perfectly accurate.  I have no issues with condensed timelines or composite characters.  In rare instances, a good filmmaker can produce a film that is so engrossing and enjoyable that the real facts hardly matter.  Film critic Hal Erickson reasonably called Houdini "highly fanciful but immensely entertaining."  At other times, a biopic can be so wonderfully campy that no one cares about the truth.  The films that fall into this category include Annie Get Your Gun (1950), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) and Ed Wood (1994).  But, in extreme cases, I cannot tolerate Hollywood's bullshit version of history.

The Snark

In 2013, the Nerdist website introduced James Bonding, a series of extensive podcast discussions on the long-running James Bond film franchise.  I made it a third of the way through an incredibly snarky discussion of Thunderball (1965) before I endured as much stupidity as I could take and refused to listen any further.  You would never know that Thunderball was a beloved classic from listening to this spiteful dissection of the film by hosts Scott Mosier, Matt Mira and Matt Gourley.  This podcast series is no doubt aimed at millennials, who insist on mocking or protesting any book or film that wasn't produced by their own wonderfully enlightened generation.  Oddly, though, Mira is the only true millennial of the group.  Mosier and Gourley, though they have the cranky and arrogant attitude right, were born nearly a decade too early to be part of this group.  They fall into the category of millennial wannabes or millennial pretenders.

Not surprisingly, the trio made it clear within the first few minutes of their discussion that they embrace politically correct views.  They expressed distress that a shark was harpooned during an underwear action sequence and thought that this might be a reason to dismiss the film altogether.  They were also upset that James Bond killed a SPECTRE assassin who had disguised himself as a woman.  It didn't matter that the assassin was wearing a dress simply to hide his identity.  The sight of Bond beating and ultimately strangling a man dressed as a woman did not meet their LGBT-friendly standards and it proved far too disturbing for their delicate sensibilities.


The fact that Bond snidely throws flowers on the corpse was, from their  perspective, a reference to the assassin's effeminate attire and proof to them of the super spy's terrible disdain for cross-dressers.


The trio admitted during their analysis of the scene that they had no idea what was going on.  They blamed their confusion on the filmmakers.  One of them said, "There's no information coming from that [scene]."  But the real problem was that they hadn't listened to expository dialogue in the previous scene.  It's difficult to pay attention to a film when you are too busy thinking of ways to attack or make fun of it.

The final aspect of this discussion that irritated me was the group's dissatisfaction with the film's special effects.  Our cranky critics singled out a scene in which Bond escapes from the assassin's accomplices by strapping on a jet pack and flying out of bullet range.  Their main complaint was that Bond flies "ten feet."  They hardly thought that the short flight made it worth Bond strapping on the jet pack.  Bond actually flies a lot farther than ten feet, but the scene was simply not spectacular enough for them.  They wanted to see Bond fly across London to M's office.  They thought that it would have been cool to see him fly past Buckingham Palace.  In other words, they wanted to see bigger-than-life CGI effects.  If you can't enjoy a film without CGI effects, then you need to stick with films from the last fifteen years.  Films that predate 2000 are just not for you.  I, myself, find the jet pack scene to be charming and amusing.  

Imagine walking around the Louvre and a couple of jerks behind you are constantly mocking the artwork.  One of them reaches up to tweak a breast on the Venus de Milo.  The two of them snigger every few moments.  It would get annoying, right?   I feel that way about the snarky young film critics that are multiplying frantically throughout the blogosphere.  They love to attack highly regarded old films. 

I found a review of a DVD set, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, written for the Washington Post by Philip Kennicott.  I had no reason to think the article was anything other than a straightforward review.  The article was titled, simply, "What Makes Comedy Tick?"  I am always interested in an intelligent, in-depth analysis of silent film comedy.  I especially love Harold Lloyd films.  So, I had every reason to think I would enjoy reading the article.  But then I read this:
"The films of Lloyd are very much steeped in both the charm and ugliness of their era. . . Scan his movies intently for a sign of the Other, people of different races, outsiders, and you realize that these films epitomize the last, regnant, unalloyed era of Whiteness.  . . Unlike Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, the Lloyd character - a young man with a blazingly pale face, set off by a shock of dark hair and often a dark suit - is utterly at home in his world.  He may be insecure, or poor, or reduced by love to ridiculousness, but he inhabits his world as if he owns it. . . He is the essence of pluck, the virtue that privileged men always recommend to the less fortunate, unaware that pluck and opportunity don't go hand in hand.  Pluck works for the right people, the ones for whom the rules have been written to ensure a happy ending."
Wow, could this man be more bitter?  Lloyd made some of the sweetest and most charming films of the 1920s.  How could Kennicott attack those films in this way?  Kennicott won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.  Is this the type of foul and twisted commentary that we get from a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic?


I have always identified with Lloyd's underdog characters and found their success inspiring.  I write in my new book, I Won't Grow Up!, about the helpful lessons that Lloyd's films teach about a young man assuming responsibility and becoming a true adult.   These film fables are valuable as both art and history.  They have a place among America's antiquities of the Twentieth Century.  If a film is a Rorschach test, I could use Kennicott's review to identify a serious thought disorder on the author's part.  Does this white man loathe himself for his own success?  Does he believe that, as a white man, he did not earn his success?  Should every successful white man who reads this loathe himself?  Or does Kennicott, in a way other than race, represent the "outsider" in Lloyd's world.  Only self-loathing or outsider status could explain the reason that Kennicott hates everything that Lloyd represents. 

This is equivalent to a jerk in the Lourve gathering up a wad of phlegm in his mouth and spitting it into the Mona Lisa's smiling face.  The Mona Lisa has nothing to prove.  It long ago established itself as a masterwork.  Even more important, it carries the weight of history.  The painting has been on display in a number of palaces for the last six hundred years.  It once hung in the bedroom of Napoleon.  Similarly lofty credentials apply to Lloyd's best films, including Safety Last! and The Kid BrotherSafety Last! is not the latest episode of New Girl, which a bunch of Internet commentators can thoughtlessly hash over.

A woman once tried to spray the Mona Lisa with red paint because she was upset that the museum did not do more to accommodate disabled people.  A Russian woman who was upset with France's immigration policies threw a souvenir terra cotta mug at the painting.  Kennicott is having a very similar tantrum in his critique of the great comedian's work.  No respect should be paid to idiotic political activists who recklessly and furiously tear down classic art.

A Brief Look at Gags and Routines


We all know that, in the history of film comedy, a select number of gags and routines have been recycled endlessly.  The recently released Marcel Perez Collection includes a smattering of familiar comic business.  The Commedia dell'Arte's "man disguises as chair" routine, known formally as "Lazzo of Hiding," turns up in two of the Perez comedies, Camouflage (1918) and Sweet Daddy (1921).

Camouflage (1918)


Sweet Daddy (1921)


Here is another version of the chair routine performed by Monty Banks in Nearly Married (1920).  This clip and many other clips in this post come from a YouTube channel created by film collector Tommie Hicks, Jr.

Disguising as a coat rack is another effective form of camouflage.  Herman learned this in an episode of The Munsters called "Herman's Sorority Caper" (1966).

Camouflage is shown to be an important part of military training in Dad's Army.

The vacuum cleaner routine has been featured in films for more than a hundred years.  Whenever it seems as if the routine has disappeared forever, it will suddenly resurface in a film or television show.  The routine recently made a brash return in an episode of The Odd Couple.

The message, very clearly, is that some gags can never die. 

This is a unique variation of a stock routine performed by Hank Mann in Hot Dogs (1920).

I keep coming across mannequin legs in comedy films.

This scene from Her Painted Hero (1915), which teamed Charlie Murray and Polly Moran, includes a military drill routine and a hose routine.  We even get the reliable gag of a baby doll being tossed around like a football.

The "baby doll tossing" routine figured prominently in the climax of Marcel Perez's You're Next (1919).

Andy Warhol took the baby tossing business to a ghastly extreme in Bad (1977).

Stan Laurel was fond of the military drill routine.  Here he performs a fairly standard version of the routine in Under Two Jags (1923).

This scene from Hot Sands (1924) features Monty Banks performing a mock fight routine that had previously been performed by Max Linder in Be My Wife (1921).

Charlie Chase later acted out this comic business in Mighty Like a Moose (1926).  This is the type of routine that could not do well in a sound film.  Sound gives force and weight to a fight.  The sounds that are made when two men get into a scuffle cannot be mimicked by a single man flinging himself around and clutching his own throat.  Chase's version of the routine is clearly the superior one.  Look at it and see if you agree.

Banks borrows this collapsible chair routine from Charlie Chaplin's A Day's Pleasure (1919).

The next routine has come up often in my writings. David Kalat recently dubbed this once popular laugh-getter the "Black Reveal" routine.  Monty Banks performs a variation of the routine during an amusement park ride in Hot Sands.  

Note that, once Banks recovers from the shock, he politely tips his hat to the woman.  The woman does not act as if she has been insulted.  Quite the contrary, she couldn't look more amused as she laughs off the poor man's shock and confusion.  It is not that Banks dislikes the woman or the woman dislikes him.  The simple fact is that, at the time, anti-miscegenation laws criminalized sexual relations between whites and blacks. 

Harold Lloyd provides a unique twist on this gag in Fireman, Save My Child (1918).

Under the circumstances, it was odd for this same routine to be transferred to a pair of children in Kid Tricks (1927).

An unconscious woman proves to be an unmanageable burden to Stan Laurel in Under Two Jags (1923).

A woman could be relied upon to periodically lose consciousness to force a comedian into an awkward situation.

How about dealing with a seemingly unconscious man?  In Room Service (1938), Harpo pretends to have committed suicide to forestall the hotel manager's efforts to evict him and his friends from their rooms.  The hotel manager, fearful of scandal, is agreeable to Groucho's plan to dump the "body" in the alley.

Sid Smith had similar troubles moving a seemingly dead man in An Auto Nut (1919).

Chaplin famously turned a massage into a wrestling match in The Cure (1917).

Snub Pollard attempted similar business in What a Whopper! (1921).  But Pollard was not as clever or expressive as Chaplin, which made it necessary to add a floppy dummy into the action to insure laughs.

This empty window pane gag was widely circulated among film comedians.  Here is yet another version of the gag that I discovered.  The comedian is Jack Cooper.

Monty Banks follows a lively comic dance with the torn trousers bit in Nearly Married (1920).

Lively food was frequently a source of comedy in silent films.  Hilliard Karr must contend with an uncooperative stalk of asparagus in Three Wise Goofs (1925).

What would classic film comedy be without men lumbering around in ape suits?  Bert Roach disguises as a chimp in a scene from Under a Spell (1925).

We find an oft-repeated scenario in Plumb Crazy (1923).  An inept plumber (Bobby Vernon) causes water pipes to burst, breaking up a high society party and flooding a luxurious home.

How about a few more hat mix-up routines?


The mirror routine has proliferated in countless numbers.  Here are two more examples.

Dick Powell and Lee Bowman in Model Wife (1941)
Mick Jagger and Jimmy Fallon on Saturday Night Live

For an episode of his NBC variety show, Jerry Lewis revives an old routine that had been performed before by Charlie Chaplin and W. C. Fields.  I discussed this routine in a previous post.

This clip should have been included in my retrospective on the "stuck in a tight enclosure" routine, which can be found here.  Herman (Fred Gwynne) and Grandpa (Al Lewis) get themselves locked over night in a bank vault in The Munsters episode "Don't Bank On Herman" (1965).

As long as we're looking at scenes from The Munsters, here is the complete coat rack scene that was mentioned at the beginning of this article.