Sunday, May 31, 2015

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: Prologue

I am proud to declare the week of May 31, 2015, to be Abbott and Costello Week on Anthony Balducci's Journal.  This is the first of seven daily articles that will look into the background of the team's most popular routines.  I think it's seven articles.  I used addition, multiplication and division to figure this out.

I came across a few interesting news items as I researched this series of articles.  In June, 1938, M-G-M executives had Abbott and Costello in consideration for roles in a musical comedy, Honolulu, and went as far as bringing the team to the studio for a screen test. As it turned out, the roles went to Burns and Allen.  Instead of being Abbott and Costello's first film appearance, it became Burns and Allen's last film appearance.  Other studios expressed interest in the team.  Motion Picture Daily published the following notice on December 14, 1938: "Abbott and Costello, of the Kate Smith program, are being considered for a picture berth by Warners."  We can only guess how Abbott and Costello would have fared if they had signed with M-G-M or Warners instead of Universal.

Abbott and Costello appeared throughout the summer of 1938 at the Steel Pier's Music Hall in Atlantic City.  Variety provided continuous coverage of the popular engagement with reviews and notices.  A review dated August 24 noted, "Abbott and Costello again borrow a burley standard."  The team was known from the start for specializing in burlesque standards.  Another review the following week stated, "Abbott and Costello grab off a few laughs with a magic skit."  This is more intriguing information.  A magic skit is not among the team's well-known business.  At first, I had no idea what the skit could be.  But, then, I remembered a sketch that the pair performed many years later on the Colgate Comedy Hour.

An early review in the Radio Mirror likened Abbott and Costello to a bickering comedy team named Tom Howard and George Shelton.  Let's see Howard and Shelton in action.

Here is a photo that shows Howard and Shelton literally at each other's throat.

Welcome to this celebration of Abbott and Costello.  I hope that you enjoy it.

Lloyd Hamilton in the News

While browsing through a magazine archive, I came across a few intriguing news articles on Lloyd Hamilton.

Let's begin our examination of these articles by going back to September 17, 1915.  An article published in Variety at that time addressed the status of Charlie Chaplin in relationship to other film comedians.  The journalist wrote, "Next to Chaplin, who is miles ahead of any others, the most popular film comedians at present are Billie Ritchie and Lloyd Hamilton."  It is curious that the author of this article failed to mention Roscoe Arbuckle, who was immensely popular at the time.  But, then, a similar comment appeared in Motion Picture News on October 2, 1915: "Reports. . . say that Charlie Chaplin is getting more popular every day there.  He is way ahead of everybody else in popularity, with Billie Ritchie, of Universal, and Lloyd Hamilton, of the Ham and Bud films, next in line."  Regardless of Arbuckle's absence from this group, we can take this as proof that Hamilton was highly regarded early on in his film career

The press liked to pose Hamilton and Chaplin as inexhaustible rivals.  Take for instance the following entry that turned up in Motion Picture magazine in April, 1918:
"[Lloyd Hamilton] has a five-weeks' vacation. . . and has been out every morning on the Griffith Park golf links, walking over eighteen holes, chasing the elusive ball.  Lloyd expects to get in good form very shortly, so he can hook up with Charlie Chaplin in a match game."

Motion Picture (May, 1918) 

"Lloyd Hamilton entertained Louis Bennison, star of 'Johnny Get Your Gun,' while the latter was playing at the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles.  'Ham' and Bennison were kids together, and used to have their own theater and company, composed of themselves and a few other kids in the neighborhood.  'Ham' took Bennison out to the Fox studios to see some scenes taken, after which the legitimate star decided that the stage was much safer for one's being than the motion picture game."

This news item is not completely accurate.  Both actors did grow up in Oakland, but Bennison was nine years older than Hamilton, which makes it unlikely that they would have been "kids together" as the author indicates.  It is possible, however, that the men had worked together in the same stage companies in Oakland and San Francisco. 

Despite his success as a stage actor, Bennison could not have been too averse to the "motion picture game."  Not long after this news item was written, the actor starred in a series of film westerns for Betzwood Studios.  He became known to fans as "The Smilin' Cowboy."

It is no surprise that Bennison was a heavy drinker.  Hamilton only had friends who were heavy drinkers.  It was due to their fondness for the bottle that that neither of these Oakland boys had a long or happy life.  In 1929, Bennison drunkenly used his cowboy revolver to fatally shoot his mistress and himself.  Film historian Joseph Eckhardt wrote, "After what may have been several days of hard drinking —forty empty gin bottles were found — Bennison had shot Margaret Lawrence while she slept, then turned the gun on himself.  Pinned to the door between the living room and kitchen was a nearly illegible note in Bennison’s handwriting: 'The sunset has a heart.  Look for us there.'"  An article about the complete incident can be found at  I recommend that you navigate through the entire website, which is devoted to the Betzwood Studios.  Mr. Eckhardt has done excellent work putting the site together.  I am in receipt of Mr. Eckhardt's new book, Living Large, which I will review in the near future. 

The circumstances of Bennison's death lie in sharp contrast to the actor's Hollywood image.  This man was not the gentle, caring and cheerful individual that he portrayed in his films.

Motography (July 13, 1918)

"Lloyd Hamilton is now on his fifth Sunshine comedy for William Fox, and is again appearing without his mustache.  He liked playing without it much more than when he wore it after viewing his last Sunshine Comedy, so decided that he would abandon it altogether."

Hamilton got a surprising amount of press attention for discarding his large stage mustache.  At the time, a film comedian's trademark mustache was invaluable.

The Film Daily (November 1, 1920) 

Review of The Simp: "Some really funny comedy business is of considerable value to this issue of the Mermaid series which generally holds up in reasonably good style.  There are several novel gags included and the action throughout is fast.  The manner in which Lloyd Hamilton pours water out of his shoe continually is the first big laugh, and thereafter they keep coming as a satisfactory rate.  The scene in which the cat enters the 'cukoo' [sic] clock is of merit and adds a touch that will score anywhere.  Another bit that will provoke mirth is that in which the thief starts to appropriate some of the funds collected at the gospel meeting and by causing "Ham" to remain unconscious, moves his hands in and out of the box in such a manner as to give the impression that the latter is responsible for what happens.  There is considerable splashing and spilling of water." 

It was unusual at the time for a critic to single out so many gags in a comedy.  These gags were unique enough and funny enough to have left a strong impression on the critic.  The "hands" gag that he mentions is the classic "Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back."

Motion Picture News (April 21, 1923)

"Lloyd Hamilton has completely recovered from his attack of flu, which laid the big comedian low immediately on completion of F. O. B., his next picture on the Educational program.  Hamilton was confined to his bed for ten days, but is now able to supervise the cutting and titling of this picture."

The "cutting and titling" reference is the significant part of this story.  At his prime, Hamilton was not just an actor for hire.  He was involved in every aspect of filmmaking from story development to editing.   The top comedians of the silent era were complete filmmakers.

Roscoe Arbuckle in the cutting room

Exhibitors Herald (April 5, 1924)

Roy L. Dowling of the Ozark Theatre in Alabama had unfavorable words for Lloyd Hamilton's Uneasy Feet (1923).  "Just fair," he wrote.  "Lloyd doesn't bring the laughs like he used to.  Come on, Lloyd, give us one like you used to.  You can do it."

Hamilton set high standards with his previous work.  Many of his ardent fans expected the best from him and they were disappointed if they didn't get it.  

Variety (October 5, 1927)

"'What Happened to Mrs. Flora Abrams' Flapper Doll?' will be the title of a story.  Lloyd Hamilton, screen comedian, will have a chance to explain in court, according to a suit filed against him in municipal court by Mrs. Abrams, his landlady.  The doll, worth about $3, is included in a list of articles alleged missing from Mrs. Abrams' home at 8287 Santa Monica boulevard after she rented the house to the comedian.  Mrs. Abrams is asking $237 which she alleges Hamilton owes her for unpaid electric light and gas bills, cleaning, breakage and other things."

This was one of many lawsuits that plagued Hamilton in the later years of his life.

Believe It or Not: Silent Film Comedy Edition

Fact: Billy West, who was billed as "the foremost Chaplin impersonator," got the idea for The Kid before Chaplin did.
Review of The Genius, The Moving Picture World (August 11, 1917): "[West] finds himself obliged for the time being to assume the paternity of a child which is not his, and the equivocal situations in which this circumstance betrays him are full of humor and bustling mirth."
West cares for a child in The Genius (1917)
Fact: West was a stalwart in comedy films from 1916 to 1927, but he ended his days in Hollywood as a dramatic actor.

That's the funny West that audiences had seen for years.  Now, here, West plays a surly convict in the crime thriller Motive for Revenge (1935).

Fact: We are familiar with Tod Browning's circus side show drama, Freaks (1932), but it is little known that this shocking horror classic had been preceded by a slapstick-heavy circus side show comedy also named Freaks.

Freaks, a Joker comedy, was released on July 17, 1915.  Moving Picture World reported:
"Max Asher, Gale Henry and Milburn Moranti appear in this story of a circus side show.  The scenes are not very attractive, particularly in and about the mess tent.  Some of the situations are quite funny, though the production as a whole is only of about average merit."
An exhibitor complained, "[T]he leads made up as freaks are anything but pleasant to look at.  Milburn J. Moranti especially, as the human skeleton, is quite repelling."

Browning went on to show audiences what repelling really was.  His side show attractions also gathered in a tent to share a meal.  Many did not find this scene very attractive either.

There's at least one other thing that these films had in common.  The Joker comedy featured a strong man named Herculo.  The Browning film featured a strong man named Hercules.

Believe it or not.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Pansy Dutch Act

Sam Bernard was an important comedian of his day.  He originated what Variety called the "pansy Dutch [act]," which was successfully copied for decades by other well-known comedians.

The "Five Corners" neighborhood

Bernard partnered with his brother Dick at the age of 12 to form a comedy and music act.  The two boys made their show business bow in 1876 at New York's Grand Duke Theatre, which was part of the notorious "Five Points" neighborhood.  The theatre was tucked away in a smoky, dark cellar under a saloon.  The brothers copied popular comedy teams, including Harrigan and Hart, Favor and Shields, and the Dockstader Brothers.  They did an Irish act, a Dutch act, and a blackface act.  After working with his brother for two seasons, Bernard created a solo act, which he performed at Morris & Hickman's New York Museum and the Herzog Museums in Washington and Baltimore.  When summer came, he worked at a theatre owned by master showman George C. Tilyou in Coney Island.

In 1885, Bernard toured the British music hall circuit.  He had an engagement at London's Middlesex Music Hall for six weeks in the summer of 1886.  It was during this time that he refined his act, doing a "Dutch" song and dance, a monologue, and imitations.  Variety reported that, by the time that he returned to America, he was "dressed in the tight-fitting clothes of the English type, with buttons and cap."  The outfit was designed to give him a foppish look.

Bernard's reputation increased when, in 1893, he partnered with Robert Manchester to create the "The French Folly" company, which toured in various burlesque houses.  The troupe specialized in using funny Dutch dialects in the burlesque of popular shows. 

Throughout the balance of the decade, Bernard mostly worked with Weber and Fields, who were the premier comedians of their day.  Variety wrote, "[Bernard] went to Weber & Fields' Music Hall as stage manager when the place was first opened by that firm.  He held this position for two seasons, acting in all the burlesques and staging all of the productions."

Sam Bernard
Bernard reached a career high when, in 1903, he signed a five-year contract with the legendary Broadway producer Charles Frohman, who featured the star in "The Girl from Kay's," "The Rollicking Girl" and "The Rich Mr. Hoggenheimer."  At this point, he was one of the biggest comedy stars on Broadway.  Year after year, he was showcased on stage by the most important theatrical producers, including Frohman, George Lederer, Lee and J. J. Shubert, and Florenz Ziegfeld.  The celebrated Shuberts, who were impressed by the large audiences that Bernard drew, kept the actor as a mainstay of their shows from 1908 to 1914.

Marie Dressler, a grand dame of comedy and tragedy, wrote in her 1924 autobiography The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling, "Bernard was, I think, the funniest comedian I ever worked with unless I except Harry Watson.  Bernard's stuff, or much of it, was impromptu and was so unctuous that it was side splitting."  She spoke of Bernard once stretching a two-minute act into twenty minutes.  She said, "We never knew where it would come from nor where it would go, but people used to rock in their chairs and we enjoyed it as much as they did."

Sam Bernard as Juliet and Marie Dressler as Romeo.
Dressler spoke even more fondly of Bernard in her second autobiography, My Own Life.  She wrote, "To this day, I think Sam the drollest, most spontaneous comedian I ever worked with.  Charlie Chaplin has more authentic genius, yes, but even the great Chaplin. . . lacked the trigger-like wit that convulsed Bernard's fellow players. . . Every night, Sam would introduce some new business, and, between us, we would put on a performance that was news to the author, the director, and even to ourselves.  People used to shout themselves hoarse encoring us."

Chaplin, himself, described Bernard as "a fine artist."  He ranked the comedian along with Al Jolson and Frank Tinney ("A Revelation in Burnt Cork") as one of his favorite actors on the American stage.

Bernard was a key inspiration to two popular comedians.  The first was Solly Ward.  Ward established himself working as the featured comedian for the Gayety Theatre from 1913 to 1919.

Ward's comic influences were not lost on critics.  In January, 1919, Variety's burlesque critic wrote, "Occasionally Ward reminds one of Sam Bernard, and more often of Leon Errol, especially in his staggering scenes, where he almost duplicated the 'souse' actions of Errol. . ."  In the 1920s, Ward appeared in various revue shows, including "The Music Box Revue" and "Babies."  A Pathé newsreel company was allowed to film scenes from "the Music Box Revue."  This scene features Ward and Renie Riano presenting a satire of modern dancing.

In 1931, Ward took time away from his theatre commitments to appear in a Paramount short, Coffee and Aspirin.  He found that he liked film acting.

In the late 1930s, Ward went to Hollywood and played character roles at RKO.

 This is Ward in a scene from RKO's Living on Love (1939).

Ward, in turn, became an inspiration to a number of young comedians.  I found one Variety review in which it was noted that Max Field "occasionally suggest[ed] Solly Ward" (Variety, October 8, 1915).  And then we have Bert Lahr.  Lahr dropped out of school at the age of 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act.  John Lahr wrote of his father, "Lahr had no idea at fifteen what his comic image was or would be."  Lahr was able to learn much about the comedy craft by observing Ward.  He introduced his own version of the pansy Dutch character in a 1920 show, "Folly Town."  "I guess I did copy Solly Ward," said Lahr.  "All German comedians copied someone when they were young.  I learned ways of working and delivery.  Maybe I copied a few of their mannerisms, not to a great extent, though. I copied ways of carrying the body, maybe a catch line here and there.  Finally, I found my own method and threw all those other mannerisms away."

At another time, Lahr said that it was Ward and Sam Sidman who were his greatest influences.  Sidman, another pansy Dutch comedian, happened to be the other significant comedian that Bernard inspired.  Sidman also garnered mention in Eddie Cantor's autobiography, in which both he and Junie McCree were cited as Cantor's earliest influences.

Eddie Cantor
Cantor clarified the reasons that he admired these comedians.  First and foremost, he held McCree in high esteem for his inventiveness.  McCree originated the "It was so cold. . ." jokes, which later became a notable part of Johnny Carson's act.  Cantor also liked an old barb attributed to McCree: "I wish I had a hotel with a hundred rooms and found him dead in every one of them."  Sidman, too, distinguished himself in many ways.  He had a popular catchphrase, which came in handy when Cantor made his stage debut in front of a rowdy audience at Miner's Bowery Theatre.  Cantor wrote, "Someone pushed me, rushed me out into a blaze of lights and Bronx cheers.  Things were flying into the stage.  Rotten fruit.  I ducked.  They wouldn't let me say a word.  Suddenly I had an inspiration.  In the burlesque show was a comedian named Sam Sidman who had a stock line.  He'd grimace, stamp his foot, put up one hand, and whine, 'Oh, dat makes me so mad!'  In my extremity I held up one hand, there was a slight pause in the clamor, and I whined, 'Oh, dat makes me so mad!'  They roared.  They let me go on.  There were even cheers from the gallery, 'Stick to it, kid, you're lousy!'  But coins began to pelt the stage.  I won first prize and picked up several dollars besides."

Notice that Sidman's catchphrase is included in this advertisement.

Sidman had his first big success in 1908 with a burlesque revue called "Follies of the Day."  Variety reported, "Sam Sidman gives a remarkably eccentric German and is legitimate.  It is a pleasure to see a comedian striving to win the plaudits with unassuming and sincere methods."  A follow-up review in Variety was even more enthusiastic.  The critic wrote, "For the pure comedy hit of the performance Sam Sidman as a 'Dutchman' walked away with the honors.  In the first act his catch line 'That makes me so mad,' uttered in a little squeaky falsetto, brought the laughs every time.  Mr. Sidman was consistently amusing. . . Sidman gave a letter delivery of [David] Warfield's much-imitated 'You Don't Want Her' speech than anyone else has succeeded in doing and going further with it."  The Shuberts tried to lure Sidman away from "Follies of the Day," but the "Follies" producer was unwilling to release his profitable star from his contract.  Sidman remained in demand for the next twenty years.  He did burlesque, he did vaudeville, and he did Broadway.  For this entire time, he remained influential in his field.  An unnamed Variety writer noted that his newspaper's files included many references to young comedians who had copied Sidman's mannerisms and expressions.  After he retired from the stage in 1929, the show business veteran briefly operated an actors' school.

Sam Sidman

Here is a scene of Eddie Cantor and Joan Davis in If You Knew Susie (1948).

The great Sam Bernard influenced a long line of talented comedians.  Bernard begat Solly Ward and Sid Sidman, who begat Eddie Cantor and Bert Lahr.  But a thin line exists between influence and plagiarism.  This is where our story turns ugly.  It's all fun and games until somebody gets poked in the eye with a film contract.

Lahr was a big success in the play "Hold Everything."  Warner Brothers purchased the rights to the play in late 1929.  The studio wanted to produce a screen version of the property with Lahr, but the play's producer Vinton Freedley was attracting large audiences with Lahr on tour and he refused to release the actor from his contract.  It upset Lahr greatly that he was unable to star in the film.

Comedian Joe E. Brown said that, while he was in Detroit, he went to see Lahr in the play.  He wrote:
After the first act I went backstage to meet the gang, many of whom I had known for years, and one of them jokingly said, "Hey, what's this I hear about you doing a picture of Hold Everything?"  Of course, he was just ribbing Lahr because Bert was an easy man to rib.

"What's that?" yelled Lahr, immediately on the defensive.

I fell in with the gag and said, "Well, you know, Bert, it's a pretty fair show.  I don't know what it would be like in pictures.  It's a good stage play and you've been pretty successful in it.  Of course, if I did it for pictures I'd make a lot of changes in it."  And I picked out Bert's big laugh scene in the act and said they'd probably cut that out.

Bert went for the gag hook, line and reel.  I didn't know that he had already been ribbed about it quite a lot.  Everyone knew he wanted more than anything to do the picture.
A few days later, Brown' agent Ivan Kahn was contacted by Warner Brothers' Jack Warner about Brown starring in the film version of "Hold Everything."  Lahr was sure now that Brown's ribbing at the Detroit theatre had been serious.

The year before, Warner Brothers had specifically designed the short film Faint Heart to showcase Lahr's talents.  At the time, Warner Brothers was not a studio known for comedy.  Their top actors were serious folk, including John Barrymore, George Arliss, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Walter Pidgeon.  The studio looked to lighten up their fare with comedians and hoped to find a comic flag bearer for the studio.  They developed vehicles for Winnie Lightner, Smith and Dale, and Frank Fay.  It is conceivable that the studio had big plans for Lahr and used the short as a way to test Lahr's ability as a film actor.  But, due to the circumstances of the "Hold Everything" film adaptation, this association was not to be.

Hold Everything was released on March 20, 1930.  Brown received favorable reviews for his performance.  A Variety critic wrote, "[T]he basic point of the picture is Brown.  . . What [Brown's] work in this film is going to do to Lahr when he goes on the road with his show is a big problem — for Lahr.  Brown is doing everything Lahr did in the same show unto the 'gong, gong, gong,' voice inflections on lines and mannerisms.  Brown must have seen 'Hold Everything' on the stage 18 times to lift as minutely as he screens here. . . Brown is plenty funny and the public will think that Lahr is doing a Brown when they see him. . . It's practically a cinch that this picture is going to ruin Lahr's golf for the summer."

Lahr was too upset to see Warners' Hold Everything for himself.  Brown later said that, if Lahr had seen the film, he would have seen that what the Variety critic said was not true.  The film is lost today, which makes it impossible for us to judge for ourselves.

Lahr shot off an angry letter to Variety.
March 28, 1930

Editor Variety:

I have read the criticism of the picture, "Hold Everything," in this week's Variety.

I am greatly surprised and amazed to find that Joe E. Brown boldly lifted my original business, mannerisms, methods and unique phrases, which I have been identified with for years, and which I interpolated in the part of Gink Shiner in the New York stage production of "Hold Everything."

It seems an outrage that a comedian can gain profit and recognition by deliberately lifting another comedian's style of work.  This is hurting my reputation, livelihood and future in talking pictures.

Surely there must be some redress for an artist who has worked these many years as hard as I have to establish and attain the reputation and recognition I have as an original comedian, gained by my creative and original style of work.

I am writing this in self-protection, to let the profession, the exhibitors and executives of the picture world understand that I am the originator of all business methods, mannerisms and unique phrases used by Joe E. Brown in the taking picture version of "Hold Everything."

Bert Lahr.
Lahr continued to be so bothered by the matter that, in April, he consulted an attorney, M. L. Malevinsky of O'Brien, Malevonsky and Driscoll. 

His son wrote, "Lahr was obsessed with the injustice. . . Lahr wanted to sue for defamation of character.  His lawyers advised him not to add weight to such absurd accusations by replying.  Inaction may have been wise, but it did not assuage Lahr’s temper.  He stewed over the situation for months. . ."

Lahr's letter received much attention in the press.  The following reaction from Motion Picture Classic was typical:
The first shot of another Broadway-vs.-Hollywood battle was fired when Bert Lahr, comedian of the stage version of "Hold Everything," threatened to throw eggs at the Warner Brothers' screen version of the same play.  And he didn't make any secret of the fact that his particular target would be Joe E. Brown, who essays his role on the screen.  Bert says that Joe copped his stuff.  He further says one comedian copping another comedian's "line" is in the same class as "lifting" plots and melodies.  He says that Joe traveled to New York to see his show and deliberately made use of his personal brand of humor, which includes "Some fun, some fun, eh, kid?" and other goof expressions. 

Out in Hollywood Joe says "phooey," or something to that effect, and calls attention to the fact that when a producer buys the rights to a stage play he is privileged to make use of the laugh lines.

This thoroughly reasonable explanation has in no way appeased the enraged Mr. Lahr.  He's out gunning with eggs!
I question if a film studio has the right to anything other than the words that the playwright set down in writing.  This is the official book of the play, which has nothing to do with the nightly adlibs and other embellishments of the star.  It certainly has nothing to do with an actor's individual stage persona.  Let's say that, when Paramount purchased the rights to Kaufman and Ryskind's "Animal Crackers," they were unable to get the Marx Brothers for the film.  Would Paramount have had the right to have four other comedians adopt the Marx Brothers' costume, make-up and mannerisms?  Would it have been acceptable for Ben Blue to adopt a curly blonde wig and chase women around while honking a horn?  Lahr shouldn't have lost ownership of his personal catchphrases just because he interweaved them into the scripted dialogue of the play.

Still, most people don't care about a comedian's influence.  They only want to know if the comedian could make them laugh.  A critic with Screenland wrote, "[Mr. Brown] works hard and fast; and if there are those on the Broadway Rialto who claim that he has imitated a certain other comedian named Bert Lahr, their contentions don't make Mr. Brown less funny."

A Variety critic dismissed any claims that Lahr might have to the ownership of his comedy character.  The man knew his stage history.  He wrote, "Lahr started doing pansy Dutch after watching Ward, who, in turn, had based his work on the late Sam Bernard.  Lahr is still really doing the same character today with variations. . ."

Sidman, who was by this time retired from the stage, read Lahr's letter and became irate.  He sent a letter to Variety from his home in Cleveland, Ohio.  He wrote, in part:
I consider Mr. Lahr's letter regarding Joe E. Brown's performance in the picture "Hold Everything," outrageously presumptive, wholly without warrant, and it rather suggests the upstart.

To me it savors too much of the fellow, who caught in the act, joins in the hue and cry of "stop thief."

Evidently Lahr has forgotten his past, and what he did to me, and as he gave me this opportunity, I am going to remind him, during his earlier career he took me for his copy.  He took all I had, my trick of voice, my style of work, my mannerism and my personality.  Lahr aped me in everything and yet he refers to himself as an original comedian, having gained his present position by his "creative" style of work.

Well, he's wrong.  He stripped me stark naked and stole all I had, yet through all those intervening years I did not even whimper or complain, nor did I seek recourse to a court of law as I read he is resorting to, regarding Mr. Brown.

By the way, Mr. Lahr (ceny), will you please look up "Sid" of Variety who reviewed the picture, and make this correction, tell him it was not Solly Ward whom you copied, but me.  You'll do that for me, won't you?

Unjustly, you feel yourself aggrieved, Mr. Lahr.  Long before you took up this line of business there was a mutual agreement between producer and actor that any interpolation by a performer in any production remained in the property of the producer.  Now try and get that through your thick skull.  What did you think Warner Bros. bought?  The title?  And that they would have their staff writers supply a new book? 

You may say this letter is poison.  How else could it be?  You have with deadly poison put poison into me. 

My fame will not be served much by the publication of this letter, but some one had to make an example of you, and I waited from the publication of your letter to now.  As no one else has replied I feel it my duty to do so and to show the theatre world that you are guilty of an act you so unjustly accused Joe E. Brown of.

You may resent any part, or all of this letter, and may want to take legal steps.  My address is 1044 East 123d Street, Cleveland, Ohio.  I shall be pleased to accept service.

I have left Broadway with an indifferent and light heart, still I may return - who can tell?

Looking forward to your repentant future, I subscribe myself.

Sam Sidman.
It is interesting to have an actor say that "any interpolation by a performer in any production remained in the property of the producer."  Sidman, himself, had the experience of leaving the  "Follies of the Day" revue in 1909 and having his replacement, Harry Lester Mason, use his catchphrases.  It is hard to believe that this was not something that bothered him.  

The controversy would not die easily.  In February, 1931, Lahr was on stage in Pittsburgh performing in the stage show "Flying High."  It was reported by Variety that an old friend, Ed Lowry, concealed a microphone in the back of a radio in Lahr's dressing room.  He then went into an adjoining room and transmitted a fake radio announcement through the microphone.  He started out, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Tattler.  He Sees All, Knows All."  He remarked that he saw no reason to go to the Alvin Theatre to see Bert Lahr at $3.85 when one could see Joe E. Brown on the screen for 25 cents.  He claimed that Lahr had "lifted" Brown's stuff entirely and it was the most obvious case of imitation that he had ever run across.  Variety noted that, in response, Lahr "hit the ceiling" and "snorted about the dressing room, threatening lawsuits."

A similar story turned up in Lahr's biography.  John Lahr wrote,
His friends never failed to infuriate him at the mention of Joe E. Brown.  When Lahr was playing Baltimore on a personal-appearance tour in 1933, Victor Moore and Bill Gaxton were appearing in the same town with "Of Thee I Sing," in which they both starred with Lois Moran.  When Lahr read the reviews of his opening night, he could not believe the print in front of him: "Bert Lahr, a comedian who is obviously making a living impersonating Joe E. Brown. . . It seems appalling that one comedian should be allowed to take material from another and make his livelihood …" As my father explains it, "I went over to their theater and talked to Gaxton and Moore.  I was furious. I said, 'How do you like this son-of-a-bitch doing this to me.' And they were steaming me up, saying 'It’s awful when you see this guy why don’t you punch him in the nose.'  And I said, 'Why I’m going down there and. . .'  His face shrivels up like a prune and his nostrils gape at me in mock defiance.  "Finally Lois Moran came to me and said, ‘Bert, this is a frame-up.  This reporter is a friend of mine and we were out one night with the boys— Gaxton and Moore — and they framed you.  He never even saw the show."
The news got far worse for Lahr.  Brown was signed by Warner Brothers to star in a series of films.  Variety reported, "On the strength of this effort, he of the wide grin grabbed himself a long and sweet starring contract with Warners."  Brown became the studio's resident comedian, which is role that could have and probably should have gone to Lahr.

It is likely that this incident caused some Hollywood executives to look warily on Lahr.  But Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to Lahr's next stage hit, "Flying High," and they contracted the comedian to recreate his role for their adaptation.  John Lahr wrote, "[Lahr] gave virtually his stage performance on screen; but to the disappointment of the moguls and himself, it failed to come across as richly as it did on stage.  He did not care about films at that time."

Here is one of Lahr's early film appearances in Henry The Ache (1930).

In time, Lahr toned down his screen persona for films.  He later became famous for his role as the Cowardly Lion, which made great use of the many "pansy" mannerisms and speech that he had perfected throughout the years.

Know that somewhere in the Cowardly Lion's DNA is Sam Bernard.

Additional notes

Variety's Artists' Forum was often a place where entertainers went to express their various grievances.  Let's take, for example, a letter posted to the forum on December 3, 1915.  Fred Whitfield of Whitfield and Ireland accused Raymond and Caverly of plagiarism.  Plagiarism claims were common in the forum, but the nature of this particular claim was somewhat new.  Whitfield argued that he and his partner had copyrighted their scenery, which included a "comedy curtain."   He wrote, "We played in the same western city with R. and C. in 1913.  At that time they were not using any comedy scenery in their act.  They beat us east and some months later introduced a comedy curtain and were given credit by press and public for a new idea. . . George Perry, of Perry and Heath, will attest to the above statement.  I am not the originator of comedy curtains, but I did originate the one we use and will protect same. " 

Sidman, who so fervently expressed his grievances against Lahr in the Artists' Forum, may have been hot-tongued by nature.  He once made derogatory remark to a fireman who was making a customary inspection of the backstage dressing rooms at a theatre.  Variety reported, "The fireman went back to the fire chief, and as a result Sidman was yanked off the stage in the middle of the matinee Monday." 

In 1914, Sidman traded barbs in Artists' Forum with comic acrobat Archie Royer, who had asserted that English entertainers were superior to American entertainers.  Royer wrote, "I never knew until now how far ahead of American performers English artistes were.  Why, America has nothing but ragtime singers, graduates from the kitchens and iron mills. . . As far as general show business is concerned, England is years ahead of America in everything.  The picture houses in England are better than the 'best time' over here.  My advice to all English performers is — stay in England.  Three shows a day is quite common in the best houses and five a day in the west.  I will always take off my hat to England.  Another important thing I want to tell Englishmen: Keep away from Canada.  In this town, Medicine Hat, beer is 15 cents a glass and one can't get a meal under a dollar, or rooms under $1.50 a night.  Railroad fares average 34 cents a mile and often 44 cents.  I have met eight or ten English boys that saw me in England and they all are sorry they came over.  These Canadians' are all right in their way, but they do not like a real Englishman.  I made it my special business to get to the bottom of this, and I had to 'slap' several of them for insulting England and Englishmen."

Sidman was not too pleased.  He began, "I believe it was the late Robert G. Ingersoll who said 'As soon as I reply to one who attacks me, I raise him to my level' and for that reason I feel rather reluctant to reply to the article headed, 'A Loyal American' in Variety May 1.  I have been in England now for one year and have seen nearly all the good comedians as well as some of the bad ones, and played on the same bills with a great many, but as comparisons are odious shall pass this subject, as the English artist does not enter into this discussion at all."  Sidman's reluctance to attack Royer did not stop or slow the discussion from turning into an ugly evisceration of Royer.  The man could not help himself.  He noted, "[T]his American (?). . . arouses in me the spirit of antagonism."  He knew that Royer was American.  The question mark was meant to signify his doubt of Royer's dedication as an American citizen.  Throughout the letter, he repeatedly referred to Royer in this manner.  He accused Royer of being a failure as an entertainer, pointing out that Royer's recent act "Our Cellar Door" could only get bookings in small towns.  He accused Royer of being a liar on the scale of Baron Munchausen.  He said in closing, "[T]he most manly thing [Royer] can do is to offer his most abject and humble apology to the American artists."  That is what you call a scathing attack.

Ben Welch
 At least one other comedian had an influence on young Lahr.  His name was Ben Welch.  Caroline Caffin wrote in her 1914 book Vaudeville, "Among the clever characterizations in [the Hebrew comedian] line is Ben Welch.  It is conceived in the true comedy vein, by which I mean that it is not grotesquely exaggerated.  The character is adhered to consistently and you are made to feel that in spite of his exuberant humor this is a real person.  Ben Welch has the true comedian's sense of the value of movement and the necessity of occasional repose.  Every gesture or twitch of muscle gives some addition of character to the impersonation.  No matter whether he is stumbling onto the stage with his shiftless, slouching, casual gait, or giving burlesque imitations of a Yiddishized Napoleon or Abraham Lincoln; or darting off the stage with bent knees and furtive stride; or by pantomime describing the jab of a hypodermic needle, the action is always exactly adjusted to the idea. There is no superfluous emphasis, no fidgety, meaningless motion ; but every muscle of limbs, face, and body is responsive and controlled. . . And, withal, he is genial, content with himself and everything around him. He finds nothing to criticize in life, for he is confident that if anything should happen to be wrong he will be able to turn it to his own advantage.  And there we get the touch of cynicism which completes the character."
Ben Welch in costume and make-up

An example of a Welch joke: "How do you like my suit?  A fine piece of merchandise.  I got it in a restaurant.  The fellow is still eating!"

Bert Lahr
Lahr never forgave Brown.  He liked to point out that Bert Wheeler also accused Brown of thievery.  Wheeler claimed that the "Little Mousie" routine that Brown often performed in fact belonged to him.  I must interject here that, of all of the comedy routines that I have ever seen, Brown's "Little Mousie" routine is by far the most unfunny.  If you don't believe me, you can see the routine for yourself.  I dare you to watch it.  Please, though, keep sharp objects out of your reach because you will be tempted to harm yourself.

Well-established stage actors like Sam Bernard and Harry Watson found film acting to be boring and frustrating.  Bernard worked briefly for the Keystone company in 1915.  Journalist Gene Fowler wrote of the comedian's Keystone stint, "Sam Bernard suffered the agonies of an overlooked actor.  Delay drove him crazy.  Finally, he discovered a bed on one of the sets.  He made a practice of reporting each morning, then retiring to the property bed. . ."

Book Sources

Brown, Joe E., and Hancock, Ralph.  Laughter is a Wonderful Thing.  New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1956.

Cantor, Eddie.  Take My Life.  New York: Doubleday, 1957.  p. 21.

Chaplin, Charlie.  My Autobiography.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.  p. 256.

Dressler, Marie.  The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling.  New York: Robert M. McBride & Company 1924.  p. 77.

Dressler, M., and Harrington, M.  My Own Story.  Boston: Little Brown, and Company 1934.  p. 121.

Fowler, Gene.  Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett.  Rahway, NJ: Quinn and Boden Company, 1934.  p. 374.

Lahr, John.  Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr. New York, Knopf, 1969.

The Sweet Spot

I was looking at promotional material for a series of Harry Sweet comedies distributed by Universal in the early 1920s.  The plots suggest that Sweet favored larger-than-life comedy situations.  Harry converts a bathtub into an automobile in Bath Day (1922).  He flies an airplane to Mars in Hello, Mars! (1922).  In Speed 'em Up (1922), Harry comes to a farm community to sell an energizing elixir called "Peppo."  When Peppo is put into chicken feed, the chickens produce a mountain of eggs.  A mischievous little boy (Johnny Fox) pours Peppo into ice cream served at a barn dance, which causes all of the revelers to become amorous. 

In No Brains (1922), Harry takes a job in a warehouse and soon infuriates his fearsomely large foreman.  With the foreman in hot pursuit, Harry uses a freight elevator to rush from one floor to another and back again.  This routine was no doubt a copy of the elevator chase scene in Buster Keaton's The Goat (1921).

An Exhibitors' Trade Review item on the hotel comedy Hee! Haw! (1923) provided the following description of Sweet's screen persona: "[Harry Sweet] is the mild-mannered and inoffensive boob who goes his unruffled way in absolute disregard of the slings and arrows of an outraged hotel personnel."

Sadly, the vast majority of Sweet's comedies are lost.  I, myself, have only seen one.  But we know enough from existing materials (films, stills and reviews) that Sweet was a unique and fascinating comedian.


The Mirror Routine: From Crocodile Soup to Duck Soup

I return to you today to once again discuss the venerated mirror routine.  Not long ago, I joked that I expected to one day find hieroglyphics to prove that this prolific and longstanding routine was performed in ancient times.  Well, guess what?  German sports historians Wolfgang Decker and Michael Herb found that "mirror dances" were documented in ancient Egyptian pictorial representations.  It's not exactly the scene from Duck Soup, but it establishes some basic elements of the routine.

The mirror has always been an intriguing theatrical device in its ability to raise deeply personal issues of vanity, identity and delusion. 

In honor of my German friends Decker and Herb, I hereby present two German versions of the routine.  This first scene adheres fairly closely to the Schwartz Brothers' version of the routine.

Wolf Albach-Retty and Theo Lingen in Seven Years of Bad Luck (1940)

The Schwartz Brothers deserve much credit for the success of this classic act.  They brought the act into prominence by turning it into a class satire - the crafty servant is able to burlesque his foolish master right under the man's nose.

Otto Waalkes and Olli Dittrich in Otto's Eleven (2010)

Here, as an added attraction, is the mirror routine performed by Bob Hope and Victor McLaglan in The Princess and the Pirate (1944).

Also, here is a version of the routine performed by Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes.

Reference Source

Decker, W., and Herb, M.  Bildatlas zum Sport im Alten Ägypten.  Leiden: Brill, 1994.

Vaudeville's "Ghost in a Pawnshop" Routine

Laurel & Hardy in A Chump at Oxford (1940)

A Photoplay reporter, Jack Wade, brought up this Chump at Oxford scene in an article entitled "We Cover the Studios."  He wrote, "Done up in Eton jackets and collars, [Laurel and Hardy are] practicing a screaming comedy gag which [screenwriter] Harry Langdon informs us is known as the old vaudeville 'ghost in the pawnshop' routine.  It consists of Stan sitting on a bench in front of a hedge and puffing a calabash pipe.  Meanwhile, through the hedge an arm steals, and mixes him all up with a cigar, matches, and what not.  It takes a long time for Stan to realize he has three arms, but meanwhile everyone else is howling."  The "Ghost in a Pawnshop" routine was, as Langdon said,  a "screaming comedy gag" in various vaudeville environs.  The routine was based on a Commedia dell'arte routine called "Lazzi of Fear."

Reference Source

Photoplay, Volume LIII., No. 7, July 1939.