Monday, June 8, 2015

"That's What They Call The Old Nightmare!"

Laughs and scares were promoted by a number of Commedia dell'arte routines, including "Lazzi of the Ghost," "Lazzi of Fear," "Lazzi of the Nightfall," and "Lazzo of the Living Corpse."  Similar routines later turned up in minstrel shows and medicine shows.  The most popular of these routines were "The Ghost in a Pawnshop," "What Happened in Room 44?," "The Three O'Clock Train," "Over the River, Charlie!," and "Razor Jim."  These sketches started out as distinct works, but elements of the works merged together in time and no one could remember which parts came from which sketches.  The haunted house comedy as we know it today is derived from these frightfully amusing playlets. 
I will tell you what I can about each of these routines.  I will skip "The Ghost in a Pawnshop" because I discussed this routine in a prior post.  Let us move on, instead, to "What Happened in Room 44?"  The premise of this routine is not particularly funny.  A hotel guest is put into a room where a man was murdered and is startled by repeated appearances of the murdered man's ghost.  The minstrel version of the skit had an extra plot detail.  The hotel proprietor purposely puts the black (blackface) comic in the room because having a black man sleep overnight in the room is supposed to remove the room of its murder-scene bedevilment.

"The Three O'Clock Train," which was written by minstrel performer Geo. H. Coes, cast the Comic in the role of a traveler passing through town.  He has to catch the three o'clock train the next day and he needs to find a place where he can spend the night.  He meets a man (The Straight Man), who offers him a place to stay.  Unfortunately, the Comic soon learns that the offer has a dire catch.
Straight: I've had the greatest time trying to find a nice house to live in.  I've hunted this city all over, and the only place I could find to suit me is this place; and now I've come here, the landlord tells me that the house is haunted; says there are ghosts walking around here at midnight; says the house hasn't been occupied for the last six years on account of it.  Now it's just the house I want.  I don't believe in ghosts.  I don't believe there was ever such a thing as a ghost.  So he told me I could stay here until twelve o'clock to-night, and if there was no ghost come, I could have the house for nothing for six months.  So I'll just sit down here and amuse myself with my banjo until that time, and if nothing comes along, why I've got a good thing as I want.
Coes, a talented musician, included the banjo into the routine so that a song could be introduced to further enliven the proceedings.  The title of this article is a lyric from that song. 

The Comic believes that the banjo-strumming Straight Man is being too nonchalant about the situation.  "Don't you understand?" he asks. "There's ghosts — spirits — hobgoblins — Beelzebubs  —  demons — and everything floating around here every night at midnight."  The Straight Man offers to give the Comic half of the house for nothing if he stays there with him until twelve o'clock.
Comic: Well, if these ghosts come, will you tackle them first?

Straight: Certainly, I will.

Comic: I'll take one hack at 'em anyway.
While the Straight Man plays his song, a horrible noise comes from the next room.  The Comic jumps, kicks his chair back, and trembles violently.
Straight: Say, what's the matter with you?

Comic: Did you hear that noise?

Straight: What noise?

Comic: Something went boo — oo — oo — that way.

Straight: Nonsense!  How can anybody make any noise when the house is empty?

Comic: I wish it was empty; I wish I was out of it.

Straight: Come on, sit down.

Comic (pulling back): What time did you say the three o'clock train went out?

Straight (pulls him in the chair): I never see a fellow get as scared as you.

Comic: I know, I got ears.  I heard him sure.

Straight: Now I'll sing the second verse.

Comic: Yes, it will be worse for us if we stay here.

(The Straight Man sings.  Gong sounds outside.)

Comic: Oh, don't.  Let's git out of here.  Come on.

(The Straight Man goes on singing.  While he is singing the chorus, the Ghost comes from left hand side and stands.  When the Comic sees him he jumps up, this time very much frightened, with one hand pointed left and the other up, shaking very violently.)

Straight: Say, what is the matter with you?

Comic: I seen him!

Straight: See what?

Comic: Ghost!

Straight: Nonsense!

Comic: Sixteen foot high!

Straight: Why, you're crazy!

Comic: All dressed up in white!

Straight: I tell you, you don't know what you are talking about.

Comic: Had horns on his head.

Straight: Oh, get out, you're frightened at nothing.

Comic: Went out through the keyhole.

Straight: Come on, don't be so foolish.

Comic: Don't you smell the brimstone?

Straight: Nothing of the kind.  Come on and sit down.

Comic: Don't you s'pose I know when I see him — great big fellow, blue fire coming out of his eyes, nose, and ears, and mouth.  I know I saw him easy enough.

Straight: Oh, you think you saw a ghost.  Now 'twas only imagination.

Comic: I don't know whether it was him or not, but I see him.

(The Ghost enters the room and taps the Straight Man on the shoulder; he sees him and runs off; then it goes right of the Comic, who sees him; then his hat flies off, wig goes up, general fright, noise, gong, etc.)
Coes added the following note at the end of the script: "The business of this act must be as natural as possible, and the actors must govern themselves accordingly.  It is a good act, and when done well, never fails to convulse the audience.  It should be rehearsed well before putting it on the stage, as the business is very particular."

It is probably best to start our discussion of "Over the River, Charlie!" with a explanation of the scene's title.  The two lead characters, Jake and Charlie, have gotten trapped in a haunted house.  Jake is a blubbering coward.  He becomes helplessly terrified after seeing a knife-wielding ghost.  He is sure that, at any moment, the ghost is going to return to "scalp" him.  He refuses to be left alone, but his friend Charlie needs to step out of the room.
Jake: What if something goes wrong? 

Charlie: I won't be far away.  You just yell out "Over the river, Charlie" and I'll be RIGHT HERE.
So, whenever something frightens him, Jake screams, "Over the River, Charlie!"  The routine was at one time committed to paper by a writer named O. E. Young.  Excerpts can be found online.  In time, the title and the catchphrase was shortened to "Oh, Charlie!" 

The highlight of "Over the River, Charlie!" was a scene in which Jake observes a candle, untouched by human hand, move back and forth across a table.  In another key scene, the ghost creeps up unnoticed behind Jake and Charlie.  The ghost taps Charlie on the shoulder.  Charlie turns and, terrified by what he sees, he silently exits the stage.  Jake, unaware of the situation, continues an argument that he was having with Charlie.  The ghost speaks up in a somber tone that Jake fails to recognize. 
Jake: You got a cold or sumpin, Boss?  Your voice sure changed sudden-like.  (Jake slowly looks around at the ghost, then runs offstage with the ghost riding on his back.)
The ghost was not at all scary by today's standards.  He was usually a man wearing pale make-up and a fright wig.  Or, he might simply be a man in a long white sheet.

The Gorilla (1927)

The stalking ghost scene became the most popular setpiece in haunted house comedies.  It evolved decade after decade until it reached perfect absurdity.  The comedian is being trailed by a fiendish figure, but he thinks that it's his friend behind him.  He doesn't want the two of them to get separated in the dark so he suggests that his friend take hold of his hand.  The fiend obligingly takes hold of his hand and is now able to follow the comedian even more closely than before.  This bit of business was a highlight of Ralph Spence's 1925 Broadway play "The Gorilla."  Two years later, the film version of the play established this as a stock situation in funny haunted house films.  But the routine undoubtedly goes back to "Over the River, Charlie!" and "Razor Jim."  Razor Jim distinguished himself from Jake and Charlie's ghost by the fact that he crept up on unsuspecting house guests with a ready straight razor.

These funny haunted house doings were among the first type of comic situations that transferred from stage to screen.  The above image shows Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan encountering a ghost in a 1915 comedy, The Spook Raisers.

Harry Ritz and Poe the Gorilla (Art Miles) in The Gorilla (1939)

One of my favorite versions of this routine was performed by the wonderful Harry Ritz in the 1939 remake of The Gorilla.

The Three Stooges did several versions of this routine.

At the end of "Charlie," Jake is captured by a mad scientist who assumes that he is a corpse and is prepared to dissect him.  This is the way that the scene is described in the script:
Dr. Kelly: Aha - alone at last!  (He lifts the cover from the face and jumps back in surprise.)  I do believe half the proof is right here, right now, that I was right.  The corpse is turning black already!  Dear me!  This means that I can't wait till tomorrow.  Let's see, I guess I'll start at this end.  (Indicates the head.  The doctor turns around and bends over to pick up a tool.  As he does, Jake hastily switches ends.  The doctor raises up cover and sees the feet where the head had been seconds before.)  Dear me!  I've worried so much over this I'm afraid I'm losing my mind.  I could have sworn the head was here moments ago.  Oh, well, I can work on his feet first, it really doesn't matter.  (He turns, bends over to exchange a tool, and Jake switches ends again.  Doctor sees that the feet are gone and the head is back.  He walks towards the footlights.)  Something is very strange here."

The critics remembered the old routines and they frequently mentioned them in their reviews.  A connection between "Over the River Charlie!" and Bebe Daniels' 1928 feature comedy Feel My Pulse (1928) was made by Exhibitors Herald.  The critic wrote of Feel My Pulse, "It proceeds to place [Daniels] in a supposed sanitarium that is really operated as a base for rum-runners.  It continues by modernizing 'Over the River Charlie' and a lot of other good old medicine show acts and finishes in a hand-to-hand battle by the entire company a la Sennett, Chaplin and the rest of the slapstickers."  Feel My Pulse has no moving candles or stalking ghosts.  But it is similar to at least one variation of "Over the River, Charlie" in which the haunted house turns out to be a base of operation for criminals, who have only been pretending to be ghosts to scare off interlopers.

A critic with Motion Picture Herald pointed out similarities between "Over the River, Charlie" and RKO's whodunit spoof Super-Sleuth (1937).  The similarities were obvious.  Mark Waltz, an Imdb critic, had no trouble summarizing the various stock gags.  He wrote, "There's really little amusement in this. . . until the ending confrontation in a haunted house where trapped doors and secret entrances keep the characters disappearing and reappearing."

An Oakland Tribune critic, Wood Soanes, discussed this matter at length in an article dated June 16, 1939.  He wrote: "Gracie Allen is matching her nitwits against those of the Ritz Brothers on the screen of the Fox Oakland this week, and while there is more suavity to Miss Allen's The Gracie Allen Murder Case, there is certainly more guffawing in the Ritz Brothers' The Gorilla.  The two productions even have one gag in common, a ghost-trailing sequence that first came to life back in the days of the 'box acts' when comedians didn't bother, because of complete unacquaintance with their A-B-C's to commit gags to paper.  It stems either from 'Razor Jim' or 'Over the River, Charlie,' pretty hilarious in the [1880s]."

Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940)

Roscoe Williams wrote of Columbia's 1940 comedy Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940) in Motion Picture Daily, "Dipping deeply into the 'haunted house' reservoir of comedy resources, reliable since the 'Over the River Charlie' of medicine show days, this sixth release in the 'Blondie' series hits a new high in entertainment value."  The Bumsteads find themselves in a spooky house with revolving walls and hidden passages.  A body falls out of a closet.  A maniac with a knife stalks the blundering Dagwood (Arthur Lake) through dark corridors.

The haunted house comedy reached a high point with Abbott and Costello's Hold That Ghost (1941).  Roscoe Williams (again) wrote in Motion Picture Daily, "Hold That Ghost is, with few modernizations and no trimmings, the classic skit of the medicine-show era, known variously as 'Over the River Charlie,' 'Oh Charlie,' etc., which had ghosts shuttling in and out of a haunted house or hotel to the consternation of the comedians and, of course, the onlookers.  Hold That Ghost has more ghosts, all phoney, and more shuttlings, all timed to a nicety, than your grandpappy ever dreamed of."

Hold That Ghost, with its "Oh, Chuck!" cries, its moving candles, its shadowy gangsters and its trailing ghost, relied on those old routines to a large extent.  The working title of the film was, in fact, Oh, Charlie!  But, in all likelihood, no one before had ever done this material better.

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