Tuesday, December 31, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 12 of 12: The final battle)

Chaplin Fan: Good evening and welcome to Classic Movies Revisited. Tonight we are going to dredge up a debate that’s been going on for over eighty years. That is, deciding who was the king of silent film comedians, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. I’m Chaplin Fan. And please, let’s stick to the films and not hold against Charlie his succession of teenage wives or any political views.

Keaton Fan: And I’m Keaton Fan. And yes, don’t hold against my guy that he later appeared in Beach Blanket Bingo.

Chaplin Fan: Deal. Go on.

Keaton Fan: My submission for the jury is Buster’s 1926 classic The General and since we need to have a short as well, I have chosen The Paleface from 1922. Why, The Paleface? Well, because I had a copy handy on VHS.

Chaplin Fan: My submission for the jury is Charlot’s 1931 classic City Lights and since I needed to pick a short as well, I chose The Pawnshop from 1916. Why did I choose The Pawnshop? Because I had a Super 8mm copy of this film in the 70’s. and I wanted to relive the memory. So make your case for The Great Stone Face.

Keaton Fan: Gladly. First of all, the most important question to answer about any silent comedy is: was it funny? Well, yes. Keaton films are damn funny. You want physical comedy? Nobody could do their own stunts like Keaton. He was an amazing visual artist. He could make something simple like about to get burned at the stake in The Paleface funny just by moving slightly away from where the tribe is about to light the fire underneath him. And the stunts on the train during The General are not only funny, they forwarded the plot and some of them makes you wonder how in the world did he do that? And he wasn’t all about stunts. Subtle scenes like the Union general burning a hole in the tablecloth and Keaton using the hole to catch a glimpse of his true love were great. Chaplin was always the one that had a reputation for demonstrating pathos or sympathy for his character, but look at the final scene of The General where Keaton states his occupation as “soldier.” I dare you not to shed a tear to that one. Now make your case for The Little Tramp.

Chaplin Fan: Thank you. In viewing The Pawnshop and City Lights, I noticed Charlie’s growth from the most popular movie star in the world to the greatest artist in the world. Charlie could find comic gold in getting caught in a ladder, fixing a cuckoo clock or accidentally foiling a heist. And in City Lights, how can you beat the opening scene of the unveiling of a statue with the Little Tramp on its lap. And the last shot of the tramp smiling when the blind flower girl regains her sight. Find a more touching ending of any movie. EVER! I haven’t even talked about the boxing scene. Hilarious, masterful and better every time you see it. Charlie always worked with great supporting foils and feemes. John Rand, Edna Purviance and others in his films were the greatest supporting comic actors of the day and Chaplin wasn't afraid to use them-

Keaton Fan: -Hold on a second. Why are we arguing?

Chaplin Fan: I don’t know. We’ve always argued about this.

Keaton Fan: Why don’t we work together? I think Chaplin was great, just not as great as Keaton.

Chaplin Fan: And I think Keaton was great, just not as great as Chaplin.

Keaton Fan: Isn’t it hard enough to get a modern audience to appreciate any black & white movie, yet alone a silent one?

Chaplin Fan: I’m with you. It’s a comic art form in cinema that was unique and will never come back. Let’s appreciate it.

Keaton Fan: Work together?

Chaplin Fan: Together.

Keaton Fan and Chaplin Fan shake hands.

Keaton Fan and Chaplin Fan stare at each other in silence.

Keaton Fan: (pointing) Keaton is number one!

Chaplin Fan: (pointing back) Chaplin is number one!

Keaton Fan huffs and exits stage left.

Chaplin Fan huffs and exits stage right.

A giant title card drops on the stage which reads: THE END

Sunday, December 29, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 11 of 12)

Steamboat Bill Jr.

Steamboat Bill Jr. really shows off the common Buster Keaton film theme of Buster having to prove himself. In Steamboat Bill Jr., he has to prove himself seaworthy to his seadog father and worthy of marrying the girl he loves.

My favorite bit in the movie has Buster trying to sneak some tools in a loaf of bread so his father can escape from the local jail. There's also a lot of fun bits with the acrobatic Keaton almost falling off the ship into the water time and time again.

But as with many of his films, the highlight of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is the final chase or action sequence. This time, we have a cyclone that destroys everything around Buster, and the special effects are...well, how the hell did they do all that in 1928?

I'm a little sad to see the last of the Keaton films on my list. (I do realize I can see others that aren't on the sacred 1001 movie scrolls, however!). It's been fun to have a reminder just what a special talent he was.

Friday, December 27, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 10 of 12)

The Kid Brother

When I think of silent film great Harold Lloyd, the first image I get (and I'm know I'm not alone) is of Harold hanging precariously off the side of a building clutching onto the hands of a clock in Safety Last. Possibly the second most famous Lloyd movie behind Safety Last is The Freshman, featuring Lloyd as a college football player. So it was a bit of surprise that the one movie that is listed in the 1001 movie book starring Lloyd is The Kid Brother, a movie that I admit to not being familiar with.

So I decided to watch all three. And I liked all three. Lloyd was a very inventive comedian and his movies also had strong plots to boot. The common theme in these three movies seems to be the need for Harold to impress someone (His brothers, father and the girl in The Kid Brother, the entire college in The Freshmen and the girl of his dreams in Safety Last.)

Which of these film did I like the best? I'd probably say I liked  The Freshman the most. Some very funny football scenes of Harold basically being used as a tackling dummy, an inventive dance scene where Harold's tailor has to constantly keep sewing up his suit as it comes apart, his speech before the student body and his repeated attempts to give someone that damn handshake.

However, The Kid Brother isn't too far behind. There are lots of inventive stunts (Including the laundry scene. How many films can you say there is a great laundry scene!) as well as a scene with a monkey that it still pretty mind blowing.

But how can you leave out Safety Last and Harold's famous climb up the side of a building? I guess the answer is you don't have to. Watch all three and see one of the greats of the era at work.

Safety Last

The Freshman

Wednesday, December 25, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 9 of 12)

Our Hospitality

I admit to watching all the Buster Keaton shorts for this blog through the magic of YouTube. And this one was good, though I admit to not enjoying it as much as Seven Chances or Sherlock Jr. 

But I don't think the problem was the film. The problem was the fact that the copy of the film I saw had no accompanying soundtrack.

In the late 70's I discovered a place to buy Super 8 movies called BlackHawk films. This was before there was a anything called vid-e-o ka-sets or Dee-Vee-Dee's. Since the Super 8 projector was silent, the best thing to get was, of course, silent films. I remember getting some shorts like Stan Laurel's Just Rambling Along, Laurel and Hardy's Liberty and Charlie Chaplin's The Pawnshop. We also had a short called Have Badge Will Travel, which was just a shortened silent version of Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops.

I certainly enjoyed them, but the one thing they didn't have was the music. I only bring this up because of how not having the music for this film really reminded me as to what I was missing.

If someone decides to post a YouTube of Our Hospitality with an accompanying score, I may be tempted to try it again. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 8 of 12)
Modern Times

Modern Times is probably my all-time favorite of the Chaplin films. Chaplin was about the only one with the power and skill to still make silent films in 1936, and this film was a tremendous achievement. Charlie's scene (above) that is an exercise to get the workers to eat lunch more efficiently is a classic, as well as his assembly line stunts.

I also liked the ebb and flow of this character continually getting into trouble, going to jail and then getting out before repeating the process.

There's also something about Chaplin's blindfolded skating and almost falling that I've always liked.

And Modern Times also finds the perfect woman counterpart for the little tramp in Paulette Goddard.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 7 of 12)

A Night at the Opera

When the Marx Brothers left Paramount studios and went to MGM in the mid-thirties, their first film at the studio is often considered by many to be their finest.

A Night at the Opera has many of the Brothers' famous moments. The party of the first part dialogue between Groucho and Chico, some of the best scenes between Groucho and Margaret Dumont, the impersonation of the three bearded aviators, the grand opera finale featuring Harpo and Chico in the orchestra pit and, of course, the crowded stateroom scene, perhaps the Marxes most famous single scene. There is also one of the funner musical interludes between Harpo and Chico (Full disclosure: I always enjoy Chico's piano playing more than Harpo's harp playing). We also have perhaps the Marxes best comic foil in the insufferable Herman Gottlieb, played by Sig Ruman.

We also have the bone of contention with many Marxist fans, that being the musical subplot. This one features the tenor played by Allan Jones and soprano played by Kitty Carlisle. Do their scenes get in the way here? A little. But the two actors are likable enough, can sing and the relationship of their characters to the Marx Brothers does move the plot along.

There is also the issue of the extravagant musical numbers that the boys never had at Paramount. The musical interlude on the ship bordered on being a bit much. However, the opera scene itself was an integral part of the plot and very fun to watch. However, I do think these musical numbers began to start being overblown by the time A Day at the Races came along.

But I shouldn't quibble, the Marxes only made a handful of films and just a couple of great ones.

And A Night at the Opera is certainly on the short list.

Monday, December 16, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 6 of 12)

Judge Priest

Name two things about Will Rogers.

 If you asked me this I would have said, "He said I never met a man I didn't like and he died in a plane crash with Wiley Post." I'm probably not alone in remembering him this way, but let us not forget that he starred in many very popular silent and sound pictures before his 1935 death. Of course, his newspaper column and witticisms were also read by millions during this period.

The 1001 movie entry with Will Rogers is Judge Priest. This film is an interesting animal. Set in a small Kentucky town in 1890, Will plays  the old country judge who dispenses homespun justice with humor while Civil War veterans sit in the gallery planning for a potential rematch with the Yankees. We also have local politics, candy pulls, lots of gossip, random acts of chivalry and a square dance (it's a John Ford picture, after all.).  Some of the humor is funny, some of it a little cringe worthy (A Rogers joke about lynching in particular). But I guess you got to take the bad and the good.

They don't make 'em like this any more. (I'm glad they don't, but I'm glad they did...How's that for a compromise?)

In defense of Judge Priest co-star Stepin Fetchit-I first heard of Stepin Fetchit (who was also a good friend of Will Rogers off camera) second hand. I have heard many African-American actors quoted as saying  something to the effect of not wanting to do any Stepin' Fetchit roles. That's all well and good, but should we hold this against the original? His character (at least from Judge Priest, but I'm sure in other roles as well) was lazy, stupid and constantly getting things mixed up. But did he have a choice for the kind of parts he was offered?  It's not like Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington type roles were around for him then. Give him a break and try to look at him in context and you might find him a pretty funny fellow.

Friday, December 13, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 5 of 12)

Sherlock Jr.

Sherlock Jr. packs an awful lot into its 44 minute running time. Buster Keaton has two passions in this film: as a projectionist and as an amateur detective. The two passions meld as Buster tries to solve the mystery of who robbed his finance's father. Of course, Buster is initially accused of the crime.

But the plot takes a back seat to the creativity and the final chase scene. The scene where projectionist Keaton's double jumps into the movie screen is still pretty impressive (Who needs CGI? And the Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo owes a debt of gratitude here.)

The chase finale is just as good as the one in Seven Chances. Buster jumps between trains, through traffic, over a bridge where two trucks come together and in and out many other tricky predicaments. Buster's car lands in the water and he creatively turns it into a sailboat. Without excessive use of special effects, it makes me wonder how these silent screen comedians survived to the end of the picture.

There are little pleasures here too. The scene of Buster walking instep directly behind the man he is shadowing is yet one of them.

There is also the great final punchline where Buster and his reconciled girl view other actors on screen and emulate what is going on in the screen.

Another Buster classic.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 4 of 12)

Sons of the Desert

Sometime during the 70's, I received a present of a book called Laurel and Hardy by John McCabe and Al Kilgore. It has pictures of the scenes and breakdowns of the plots of all the movies that the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made together. This coincided with the local channel 46 showing the Laurel and Hardy features and shorts just about every night. At least the talkies.

I first saw some of L & H's silent footage in some of the Robert Youngson film compilations I mentioned in an earlier post this month.

Laurel and Hardy, unlike many comedy teams, didn't have a straight man. You had dopey, skinny Englishman Stan and the constantly put upon, fat Southern gentleman Ollie. After they were first teamed in 1926, they made silent shorts until the advent of sound pictures. When they began making talkies at the Hal Roach studio, the team got even better. Almost all their best shorts and feature films were made during the thirties for Roach. And I'm glad to see an L and H movie listed in the 1001 movie book. The plot of Sons of the Desert involves Stan and Ollie as henpecked husbands (a common theme in their movies) and their desire to go to the Sons of the Desert lodge convention in Chicago. Of course, you know the wives are going to find out and this is where the main thrust of the comedy comes from. It also has a funny cameo by Hal Roach regular Charley Chase as a conventioneer.

I think they could have chosen some other L and H features like Pardon Us, Way Out West or Blockheads, but Sons of the Desert is a pretty good choice if you are going to narrow it down to one. In fact, Sons of the Desert has been the name of the Laurel and Hardy fan club for years.

But I would add that in order to be a complete historical moviegoer, you need to watch a couple of their talkie shorts. The Music Box, Another Fine Mess or Big Business are good places to start.

And don't forget to check out a couple of their silents as well.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy
(Post 3 of 12)

The Gold Rush

Charlie Chaplin's full length Klondike adventure The Gold Rush includes probably the Little Tramp's most famous bit of comic business, the starving man's dining off his shoes as if the nails were chicken bones and shoelaces were spaghetti. Other fun bits include his partner envisioning Charlie as a turkey and coming after him as if he was dinner. Chaplin said in Charles Chaplin: My Life in Pictures these comic ideas came from the idea of starving fortune hunters during the gold rush resorting to cannibalism.

Of course, we also have the love story of Charlie falling for the local saloon girl, who mocks him behind this back before eventually...well, you know she'll eventually discover she loves him too.

Chaplin's feature films are well represented in the 1001 movie book. (The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, Monsieur Verdoux) Though I really think they could have found room for The Great Dictator, too.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy
(Post 2 of 12)

Duck Soup & Animal Crackers

When I was in middle school, I had an assignment to work on a book report. Apparently there wasn't much in the way of guidelines, because I chose to do my report on a  book about The Marx Brothers called The Marx Brothers: Their World of Comedy by Allen Eyles that I had picked up at the local Walden Books. I can't remember what kind of grade that I received for this orignal book choice, but it did indicate I was a bit of a fan.

I was (and suppose still am) partial to the five Paramount movies featuring all four of the Marx Brothers.

Duck Soup

The Marx Brothers were:

The fast talking wordsmith Groucho, with his signature cigar and moustache

The mute, clownish harpist Harpo with his signature horn and top hat

The Italian Chico and his endless butchering of the English language

and Zeppo...I'm not really sure why Zeppo was there, but I kind of liked having him around anyway.

Of the Paramount Marx Brothers films, the only one to make the 1001 movie cut is Duck Soup.

It is one of the most famous comedies of all-time and certainly has as many funny gags as any of the Marxes movies. Highlights include the song Hail Fredonia, Harpo and Chico's constant confrontations with street vendor Edgar Kennedy, Groucho's many scenes with Margaret Dumont (a regular target of his barbs), the final gun battle scene with the Marxes representing the last stand for their country and the classic mirror scene with Chico and Harpo dressed up as Groucho.

No, you can't deny Duck Soup's place on the 1001 list.

But what about the others Paramount movies ?

These films include:

The Coconuts, the first Marx feature and based on their Broadway play.

Horse Feathers, the one set in a college with the football finale.

Monkey Business, the one where they are stowaways

These films have many great moments in their own rights, but none hit the target as consistently as Duck Soup.

However, one other of the Marx Paramount films would make my list.

That would be Animal Crackers.

Now I admit to having a sentimental attatchment to Animal Crackers.

For various reasons, the film had been out of circulation for many decades after it was released. After a restoration, it was re-released in 1974 and that is when I first viewed it. It was certainly the only Marx Brothers movie I went to see as if it were a new release!

The film itself has some of the Brothers best gags.

They include:

1. The party of the first part dictation from Groucho to Zeppo
2. Groucho (as Captain Spaulding) and his farfetched tales of African safaris
3. Groucho's songs "Hello, I Must Be Going," and "Hooray for Captain Spaulding."
4. Harpo and Chico's many scenes, including Chico looking for a flash and Harpo giving him everything but a flashlight.
5. The card playing scene featuring Harpo, Chico and Margaret Dumont.
6. Groucho's scenes with Margaret Dumont, of course
7. Chico's interminable piano rendering of Sugar Time.
8. The constant movement of the valuable Bogarde painting as if it were nothing more than a road map.
9. The overall comic writing of Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and George S. Kaufman.
10. And the finale, where Harpo knocks everyone out with his flit spray before spraying it on himself before passing out into the arms of a lovely blonde.

So Duck Soup and Animal Crackers remain my two favorites from the list, but I certainly enjoyed going back through all of them.

Animal Crackers

Sunday, December 1, 2013


The Golden Age of Comedy (Post 1 of 12)

Seven Chances

Robert Youngson isn't a name I've thought about for some time, but looking at some of the silent comedies from the 1001 movie book has made me think back to his theatrical compilations of the greats of comedy (mostly silent) in films like The Golden Age of Comedy, Days of Thrills and Laughter and Four Clowns.

I remember catching a few of Youngson's films on television during the 70's. And yes, there was a time when things like this were shown on television instead of How I Met Your Mother marathons  or endless showings of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days!

Anyway, these films had most of the greats: Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and Buster Keaton, among others. I believe I first saw the ending of Buster Keaton's classic Seven Chances in Four Clowns.

The plot of Seven Chances is simple. Buster's Uncle dies and his will bequeaths Buster seven million dollars if he marries by 7 o'clock on his twenty-seventh birthday. Of course, he finds out about this the day of his twenty-seventh birthday! The girl he loves won't marry him because she thinks she only wants to do it for the money. After this rejection, Buster tries unsuccessfully to find someone else to marry him. His business partner puts an ad in the paper which explains everything and Buster suddenly has hundreds of women wanting to marry him.

The plot is pretty silly when recounted and is mostly just an excuse for Keaton's sight gags and pratfalls. But the sight gags and pratfalls are, not just funny, but high art. The last half of Seven Chances where the brides to be chase Buster through the streets, through mountains and they all have to contend with falling boulders really defines why many still love silent comedy.

The comedic gags go so fast, I found myself going back and watching scenes again. I loved the scenes where the women ran roughshod over macho football players and construction workers.

But it's really about Buster. And it has been written often how he does it all with his body movement as his facial expression never conveys happiness. His stunts are amazing (I don't use the word amazing often, but I don't mind using it here) and still very funny.

If you've never seen a Keaton movie, this would be a great place to start.