Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: Playboy Laughs: The Comedy, Comedians, and Cartoons of Playboy

“Since the launch of Playboy magazine in 1953, two elements have been remarkably consistent: the first is the celebration of nubile, female flesh and the second is Playboy’s involvement in the music scene.  The Playboy experience was never just about sex but about lifestyle, and music—particularly the finest jazz, a personal passion of Hefner’s—has always been an essential component of that lifestyle.”  So states the biography of author Patty Farmer, acknowledged to be the expert on the entertainment side (performers, television, etc.) of the legendary magazine that introduced the phrase “I only read it for the articles” into the American lexicon.  Farmer chronicled “the rise, history, and cultural impact of the Playboy empire, including the magazine, clubs, music festivals, and television shows” in her book Playboy Swings—published in 2015 after the success of The Persian Room Presents (2013), a history of the Plaza Hotel’s famed nightclub.

Lenny Bruce
Patty’s follow-up to Swings—which will be released August 3—is Playboy Laughs, a book that concentrates on the comedic side of Hefner’s empire.  (You don’t need to be familiar with the earlier book to enjoy Laughs, because there are some stories repeated here.)  I should be honest—when I requested a review copy (many thanks to my Facebook compadre Jeff Abraham at Jonas PR, who slipped me the freebie) of this book I thought it was going to be a little out of my wheelhouse at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  I’m pleased to admit that I was stupendously wrong, for Farmer’s exhaustive history of the funny men who entertained appreciative audiences since the first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in February of 1960 is crammed with wonderful anecdotes about such comedy greats like Joe E. Lewis and Lenny Bruce, and first-hand accounts from stand-up practitioners as Professor Irwin Corey, Phyllis Diller, Tom Dreesen, Jackie Gayle, Shecky Greene, Dick Gregory, Joan Rivers, and Larry Storch.  Laughs is one of the best books I’ve read on stand-up since devouring my pal Kliph Nesteroff’s amazing The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy.

Milton Berle
Playboy Laughs is one of those books where you want to keep a notepad nearby while reading it so you can jot down anecdotes and relay them back to like-minded friends interested in the history of laughter.  One of the anecdotes that leapt out at me concerns “The Thief of Bad Gags” himself, Milton Berle—who had a bit of a reputation of being a putz where his contemporaries were concerned.  Comedian Lou Alexander relates that when he was just starting out in the business, “Uncle Miltie” took an interest in him and his act, telling him: “I’m going to come to your show once a week and I’m going to heckle you, but before the show I’ll go to your dressing room and tell you what I’m going to say.  This way you can think of things to say back to top me.”

That’s what this great man did for me.  He came in once a week and heckled me, and I’d have all the toppers—the comebacks—and I’d kill him.  He’d put on this act: “Look at this kid, he’s got me again.”  And after a while, maybe two months, it was all over town that there’s some schmucky kid killing Milton Berle at the Interlude.  I loved him.  I loved Berle.  We became very good friends. He was a great guy, a very kind, sweet man.

The Vagabonds
Another memorable passage from the book that has a tenuous connection to a recent post here at TDOY concerns the comedic vocal group known as The Vagabonds, who certainly made their presence known in the 1946 feature film People are Funny.  I’m not quite as enthusiastic as Farmer about the aggregation (she describes their People antics as “scene-stealing”—we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one) but she did provide me with some information with which I was not aware, in that the quartet were favorites on the nightclub circuit (they even owned and operated nightspots in Frisco and Miami) and made quite a few appearances on shows telecast during the medium’s Golden Age (The Colgate Comedy Hour, Ed Sullivan, etc.).  “With the Vagabonds, even tempo was funny,” she writes.  “Sometimes they’d go so fast they left the audience breathless; other times, they’d drag out a song at such a snail’s pace that listeners would sweat with suspense.  It was as if they were comic masters, always carefully calibrating their punch lines.  And of course, that is exactly what they were.”

Jack Cole's famous comic book creation
Farmer’s wonderful stories about the people and personalities that either started their careers at the Playboy Clubs or benefited from those venues after already establishing themselves comprises a goodly portion of Playboy Laughs…but there are also chapters dedicated to those artists who created the cartoons that dotted the pages of the magazine.  One of particular interest to me was a nice little history on Jack Cole—which I’ll need to set up here.  I knew of Cole because I owned a copy of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes as a kid (coincidentally, Feiffer also contributed cartoons to the magazine and has some wonderful stories in Laughs) as a kid and knew Jack as the creator of Plastic Man.  My father, on the other hand, was more familiar with Cole’s post-Plastic Man career as—you guessed it—a prolific contributor to Playboy.  (I admit—my opinion of the old man gained a few points that day after finding out he used to read the mag.)  Other cartoonists discussed in the pages of Patty’s book include Doug Sneyd, Shel Silverstein, Dean Yeagle, Arnold Roth (whose work I knew from TV Guide—his stories about assisting Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny are priceless), and Al Jaffee (the legendary MAD artist was a contributor, too).

Hugh Hefner and author Patty Farmer
Farmer does a bit of a sidetracking with histories on Playboy artists like (Alberto) Vargas and Olivia (De Berardinis); a little beyond the scope of a book on both humor and cartoons, in my opinion…but it won’t detract from your enjoyment—and it’s always nice learning about something you didn’t previously know.  As someone who actually did read Playboy for the articles (I had a subscription while I was in college—born to be mild, baby) I enjoyed Patty’s concluding take on Hugh Hefner (an informative history on the man and his pajamas) because anyone who put as much time, money, and effort to restore the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films my mother loves to watch is aces in my book.  Classic movie fans might get a kick out of this observation of Hef in Playboy Laughs: “At ninety, he carries on the tradition he started decades ago of hosting weekly dinners followed by movies.  One night a week is set aside for a current film, another for a classic film noir, and sometimes a third is added for one of his favorite Chaplin movies.”  Gooble, gobble, one of us!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #10: “It May Happen to You” (06/05/37)

This week’s Crime Does Not Pay outing has been discussed previously at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…but since our Friday excursions into MGM’s popular series of shorts allow me to go into a bit more comprehensive detail I’ll apologize in advance for the rehash.  CDNP not only provided work for character veterans, it also served as a showcase for future stars like Robert Taylor (starring in Buried Loot), Barry Nelson, and Cameron Mitchell.  The big name in It May Happen to You (1937) straddles the cinematic worlds of stardom and smaller character actor fame—it’s “that celebrated actor,” J. Carrol Naish, a two-time Academy Award nominee for his supporting performances in Sahara (1943) and A Medal for Benny (1945).  I use the term “celebrated actor” in a tongue-in-cheek manner because that’s how announcer Bob Lemond always introduced him in his starring role on radio’s Life with Luigi (like how I reverently refer to Mister John Dehner in recognition of his billing on radio’s Have Gun – Will Travel).

Philip Trent—last seen as “the MGM Crime Reporter” in The Public Pays (1936)—is back for this entry, but he doesn’t do much outside of introducing this week’s faux law enforcement official, Captain John Mallory—“chief of the larceny squad of the Metropolitan Police Force.”  Mallory is portrayed by character veteran Guy Usher, who appeared in a couple of chapters of The Green Hornet (1940) as an odious criminal type named “Lynch” (nice to see Trent and Usher together in this short, by the way).  Usher’s credited work includes such films as Penguin Pool Murder (1932), This Day and Age (1933), It’s a Gift (1934), and The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935—an Ellery Queen film where he plays Inspector Queen).

MALLORY: Police and the city health department often have to work close together to smash the activities of vicious racketeers…human rats worse than the carriers of bubonic plague…

Hey…hey…there’s no need for name-calling here.

MALLORY: If you think that criminals live in another world that can’t affect you, consider this case…recently, the state highway patrol was fighting a wave of truck hijackings…

There’s a whip-pan to a truck tooling down the road, with “Lathrop Canning Co.” displayed on the back.  (“When…it…says…Lathrop’s, Lathrop’s, Lathrop’s/On the label, label, label/You will like it, like it, like it/On your table, table, table…”)  A car follows the truck, and inside the vehicle are a gang of no-goodniks comprised of Bunco (Emmett Vogan), Torpedo (Eddie Marr), Musclebound (Dick Rich) …and our “celebrated actor” as their fearless leader, J. Carrol Naish as “Moxie.”  (“Make Mine Moxie!”)  Moxie instructs Bunco (who’s at the wheel) to “kill the lights,” then to pull up beside the truck as Torpedo gets out on the running board, smashes the truck’s passenger window, and orders the driver to turn off onto a side road.  Fortunately for the Lathrop employee, a couple of uniformed motorcycle patrolmen are nearby to witness what will surely be some major criminal activity…and after coasting down to where Moxie and his stooges have positioned the truck, shine their headlights to scatter the mob like cockroaches reacting to turned-on lights in the kitchen.  There’s a bit of gunfire exchanged, and Bunco takes some shrapnel before the crooks beat a hasty retreat.

A scene shift, and Moxie is at a pay phone talking with this gent:

Yes, it’s character legend Clarence Hummel Wilson—the beloved hatchet-faced thespian who’s been in countless shorts and features…but around Rancho Yesteryear, we remember him for roles in several Hal Roach-produced comedies (Our Gang’s Shrimps for a Day [1933], Charley Chase’s Public Ghost #1 [1935], etc.).  This is Wilson’s last CDNP outing (he was previously seen in Alibi Racket), and while we are unquestionably saddened by this he gets a great showcase here as the “brains” of the operation, Van Buren “Pop” Sheafor.

MOXIE: Bad news, Sheafor…that job fell through tonight…
SHEAFOR: Fell through?  How come? (Pause) All right—meet me at the warehouse in one hour…
MOXIE: Right…

As he hangs up the phone and exits the phone booth, we see that Moxie phoned “Pop” from a gymnasium…and that his fellow goons are whiling away their copious crook time watching a pair of amateur pugilists have at it for a few rounds.  Torpedo tells his boss that Bunco’s “slug went through his hand—but he’ll be okay.”

MOXIE: From now on we lay off the highways—those state cops are gettin’ too smart…we gotta figure out a new way to work…
TORPEDO: Gettin’ so a man can’t earn his livin’ no more…

Nice little laugh line from Marr—who had a most prolific acting career on radio (The Lux Radio Theatre, Suspense) in addition to motion pictures.  Moxie’s gang takes delight at watching an amateur (Arthur Rankin) display his unique boxing style, which consists of him hitting the other fighter’s glove repeatedly with his face, then falling to the mat.  Musclebound jokingly refers to him as “Horizontal Eddie.”

MOXIE: Why…that guy don’t look like a fighter…
MUSCLEBOUND: He ain’t!  He works for a livin’…checks out trucks at the Cassidy Meat Packin’ Company…
MOXIE: Meat packin’ company?

You can almost see the wheels a-turnin’ inside Moxie’s cranium as he begins to devise an eevillll scheme…he then visits young Edward in one of the locker rooms at the gym…

MOXIE: That’s a wicked left you got, kid…
EDDIE: Thanks…
MOXIE: I’m Moxie…
EDDIE: Yeah—I heard about you…

“Don’t get any ideas about my sister, though—she’s off-limits!”

MOXIE: Whaddya trainin’ for?
EDDIE: Oh…I just need to make a little extra money…
MOXIE: Well, you sure picked yourself a tough way to get ten bucks…

Moxie knows all about Eddie’s job at the meat packing company, of course—but he’s coy about it until Eddie brings it up.  The racketeer then goes to work on his mark’s financial insecurity: “Those joints never pay anything—even when you work up to somethin’.”  He’s got a little proposition for the money-minded young lad, and while there’s a fade-out as Moxie goes into the details, we get the gist of what he discussed with Edward in a conversation with “Pop” Sheafor.

MOXIE: …every morning he helps load those big refrigerator trucks and sees that they’re locked before they leave the plant…kid’s workin’ for peanuts—crazy about dough…it’s the perfect setup…
SHEAFOR: Hijack meat?
MOXIE: Why not?  Hah!  There’s big dough in fresh registered beef…
SHEAFOR: How are you gonna work it?
MOXIE: Never mind about that…if I get the stuff…can you sell it?
SHEAFOR: Sure!  I got several sellers on the east side who’d be glad to get some cheap…

Moxie asks Sheafor if he wants it brought to his hideout, and “Pop” is adamant about scotching that scheme.  “The health department inspectors are always nosing around the warehouse,” he explains.  Not a problem—Moxie will just need to take it to “the old garage” and “pile it up—throw some ice on it.”  I suppose I don’t need to tell those of you who don’t have extensive experience in food storage why this is not going to end well (there’s a reason why sides of beef are always stored in freezers, kids).  But I’m getting ahead of the short.

The next morning, Moxie is waiting for Eddie as the enterprising young soul leaves his modest apartment on his way to an early shift at the plant.  Eddie has given Moxie’s proposal a lot of thought, and he’s in—all he’ll need to do is slip Moxie the key to the lock on the truck headed for the nearby burg of Gardenia, and provide the proper info on what route that truck will be taking.  Eddie does have some misgivings, though:

EDDIE: Suppose they miss the key at the plant?
MOXIE: Well, they won’t for ten minutes…and that’s all I’ll need it for—I’ll get copies made by a guy I can trust… (Eddie hesitates) Now—what’s the matter?  You said you were interested in easy dough…
EDDIE: Well, I don’t know…I…
MOXIE: All right…forget about it…you’re the kind of a sucker who likes to work for a livin’…

Don’t you just hate those guys?  Moxie starts to walk off…but Eddie asks him to wait a minute, then gives him a big grin.  Looks like Eddie’s going to be kicking in on the tolls dotting the road to perdition.

The Great Beef Robbery goes according to plan.  As the driver (Jack Pennick) complies with a stop sign, Musclebound emerges from some bushes to puncture two of the truck’s tires, leaving the driver flat.  (I make leetle joke.)  Bunco then pulls up in a sedan, and when Driver explains the situation to him he offers to give him a lift to a phone so he can contact a tow truck.  As Bunco’s car drives off, Moxie, Torpedo, and Musclebound pull up in a truck of their own and help themselves to that sweet, sweet Cassidy beef once Musclebound unlocks the refrigerated section with that duplicate key.  There is then a scene shift to the plant, where the driver is being questioned by Cap’n Mallory as to the details of the theft.

DRIVER: …and when I got to Gardenia and opened the truck—it was empty…
MALLORY: Were the doors locked when you got there?
DRIVER: Yes, sir…
MALLORY (to the plant manager): You sure that truck didn’t go out empty?
MANAGER: These men loaded it…

He leads Mallory over to where a couple of plant employees are standing—Eddie is in the vicinity as well, seated at a desk.

MALLORY (to Eddie): What’s your job?
EDDIE: I check the load…and see that the doors are locked…and that the driver gets the invoice…
MALLORY: Were the doors locked?
EDDIE: Yes, sir…

Well, he was honest—he just left out the part about “…and then I gave the key to some greaseball hood who made himself a copy.”  Mallory is baffled by this case.  All the men at the plant have good records.  There are no discernible fingerprints on the truck (what prints do exist are all smeared) and “no jimmie marks on the locking devices.”  “Most hijacking is done at gunpoint or by violence,” muses Mallory.  He surmises that it must be an inside job, and he tells his man Reed (William Royle) to pore through the employees’ records with a fine-tooth comb.  A “Dr. Rexford” (Frank Dae) at the Health Department should also be contacted.

As the scene changes, a grocer (Rollo Lloyd) who answers to “Joe Mollock” is on the horn with Sheafor—salivating at the prospect of buying some cheap beef:

MOLLOCK: Three cents better than market?
SHEAFOR: Cash deal…and quick dough for both of us…
MOLLOCK: Quick dough, huh?  Okay—send me fifteen sides!

Getting off the phone with Mollock, Sheafor is one happy black marketer—crowing “Oh, what a racket!” and making me choke on my beverage.

MOXIE: It’s a pipe, isn’t it?
SHEAFOR: And easy to sell!  I’ve got orders for half that load already!
MOXIE: Where’d ya peddle it?
SHEAFOR: Outside of Joe Mollock, I’ve got three jobbers on the east
side I can trust—Ward, Wesley, and Britton…only they don’t want delivery before Thursday…so we’ll have to hold it for them before then…hope that stuff keeps in the garage for a couple of days…

“Torpedo!  Head out to the 7-11 for another bag of ice!”  Sheafor tells Moxie that he could use another load next week, and he asks his chief henchie if he can trust Eddie.  “I don’t trust him…I just keep an eye on him—he’ll do what I say” is his reply.  Sheafor suggests that Eddie pilfer some invoices from the Cassidy company—that way they can give them out to the “jobbers” and everything will be legit.

A scene dissolve, and Moxie and Torpedo are paying Eddie off at the gym…where Moxie asks the young criminal-in-training to score some “billheads.”

MOXIE (handing him $100): Bet that’s the easiest century that ever came your way, huh?
EDDIE: You said it!  It’s going right down on a yellow sport roadster…

You’re not even in the crime business a day, Eddie…and you’ve forgotten about sending some money home to your poor, gray-haired old mother.  Bad Eddie.  No hotrod.

MOXIE: Take it easy, kid—you don’t wanna start lookin’ too flush…we’re pullin’ another haul next week…
EDDIE: Sure…anytime… (He laughs) Simple…the cops don’t know where to start…

Rut roh, Raggy.  You see, Edward neglected to tell his hoodlum friends that the gendarmes paid the Cassidy people a visit after the meat robbery and started asking a lot of questions…this does not sit well with Moxie, though it’s Torpedo who grabs the little mook by the lapels, slamming him up against the lockers.

MOXIE: What did they say to you, Eddie…?
EDDIE: Oh, they just asked me a couple of routine questions…was the truck locked when it left?  I told them yes…and they asked me what I did…they questioned several other guys at the plant, too…don’t worry about it!
MOXIE: We’re not worried about it, kid…only watch your step…go on, beat it…

Well, we’re at the halfway point here and as you can tell by the newspaper headline—a couple of bags of ice is insufficient to keep meat from going bad.  Dr. Rexford informs Cap’n Mallory in one of the hospital wards that there’s been close to 200 cases of ptomaine—with four deaths—from “bad beef.”  “Forty-seven butcher shops and seven restaurants…had some of that spoiled beef,” he intones, adding that that’s why he’s called Mallory in on the case.  The three “jobbers” that handle Cassidy beef—Ward, Wesley, and Britton—have been vouched for (ha!) by Cassidy, and the plant has received a clean bill of health after being thoroughly inspected.

A distraught woman bursts out in tears as she is led out of the ward by an intern—sounds like she received some bad news.  “We’ve got to find the rest of that poisoned beef before it gets to any more people,” declares Rexford firmly.  “There’s no time to lose.”  What started out as a simple case of hijacking has turned into “a death threat.”  Mallory is still convinced that it’s an inside job…but since he’s had no luck with the leads, he turns to the Fourth Estate to flush the miscreants out.  Meanwhile—back at the hideout:

BUNCO: It’s no use…I can’t get rid of any more of that beef…the Health Department’s got the jobbers buffaloed…
MOXIE: How can the beef be bad—we got ice on it, haven’t we?

“Damn it, Jim—I’m a hoodlum, not a nutritionist!”

MUSCLEBOUND: Yeah…them headlines is just a copper’s gag…
BUNCO: We better drop it…maybe it is spoiled…
MOXIE: Now, listen—we got dough tied up in this!  Plenty!
SHEAFOR: That’s right…and we’re gonna sell it!  (To Moxie) We’ll make that beef look fresh with some chemicals…then we’ll re-stamp it with the Maxim Company stamp!
BUNCO (sarcastic): Oh—will that make it good?
MOXIE: Well, what’s the difference…as long as we get our dough!

Strategy session in a major corporation or powwow amongst the criminal element?  You make the call!  Moxie orders Musclebound to get his ass over to the garage and start preparing the beef… but he’s interrupted by the arrival of Torpedo, who produces this cherce headline:

“When that kid sees how bad it is…he’s gonna spill all over what he knows all over headquarters!” wails Sheafor.  “That’s what I’m thinkin’,” confirms Moxie.  Besides, Eddie has violated the “code” by buying that car after explicitly being told not to.  Ordinarily, an infraction like this would result in loss of supper and detention in one’s room the rest of the evening.  But the Moxie Gang plays for bigger marbles, and Moxie orders Bunco to grab a taxi and collect Eddie, who’s due off from work in twenty minutes.  “Tell ‘em we’re gonna let him in on a big job,” Moxie explains…then he adds “The heat’s on.”

Because Cap’n Mallory has also learned that Eddie’s become quite the plunger of late, he’s had the kid shadowed by Reed—he’s on the job observing that Bunco is waiting for Eddie in Eddie’s car when the whistle blows.

BUNCO: Moxie wants to see you…
EDDIE: Hey—what for?
BUNCO: He wants you to meet the Big Boss…they’re gonna bring you in on a real job…

“Gloriosky!  That sounds neat-o keen!”  Bunco has Eddie drive to Sheafor’s, where the kid can hardly contain his excitement that his friends will be taking him for a ride.  Moxie holds back to tell Bunco: “Take the kid’s car to the Dutchman…get what you can for it, and tell him to break it up…today.”  Reed can’t help but notice that Bunco drives off in Eddie’s car and so he follows the henchman…sadly, in taking his eye off Eddie he can do nothing when Torpedo later sends the kid to The Happy Hunting Ground while the hoods drive along a country road.

Eddie did not die in vain.  (It was more like in B.F.E.)  Since Reed told Mallory about the kid and Bunco arriving at Sheafor’s, it’s given the police a vital lead in that they leap into action to question those individuals who do business with “Pop” …and that leads them to the weaselly Joe Mollock, who “handled fifteen more sides of beef than his refrigeration allowed last week.”

REXFORD: You handled more meat than your refrigerators can take care of…
MOLLOCK: All right…I’ll pay the fine…
MALLORY (enraged): Say—you can’t settle this with a fine

“Who do you think you are—Goldman-Sachs?”

MALLORY: …two hundred people have been sick, four have died, and one was murdered because of the hijacking of some poisoned beef—and you handled fifteen sides of Cassidy’s beef that you can’t account for!
MOLLOCK: None of my meat poisoned anybody!  I never got a kickback!
MALLORY: No, but the health department did…you’re in a spot, Mollock…
MOLLOCK: I tell you that beef was okay!
MALLORY: Yeah?  Say, maybe we’ll slap a manslaughter charge on ya…we’re gonna close all your stores and hold you for investigation…

B-b-b-bad to the bone.

“Only if I don’t sing like a canary…and I’m going to do some warming up exercises right now!”  Mollock comes clean and confesses to the cops that he got the beef from Sheafor—still insisting the meat, however, was perfectly okay.  It’s all over but the shouting, cartooners—Moxie and the boys make separate deliveries to all three of Mollock’s stores (he won’t take the beef otherwise) and at each establishment, the cops are waiting to collar them (even Sheafor).  It’s all terribly anti-climactic, though I did chortle when they rounded up Bunco because he remarks “I had a hunch this was coming!” as he’s being slapped into handcuffs.  (Mama said there’d be days like this.)  When they arrest Musclebound at the same store, Rexford removes the tarpaulin from his truck and remarks of the beef: “Enough to kill a city…okay, pour the kerosene over it.”  (Yes, I was kind of surprised by this—I half-expected them to dole out the food out to the poor.)

Take us home, Mallory my man!

MALLORY: Moxie was right…the criminal can’t win…Bunco turned states’ evidence…Moxie and Musclebound went to the chair for Eddie’s murder…

I should point out that it was Torpedo who popped a cap in Eddie…but he was gunned down as the cops swarmed in on him at one of the stores.  (“He asked for it.”)

MALLORY: …Sheafor drew fifty years to life…and Eddie the working boy—who wanted to run with the so-called big shot gangsters—did not live long enough to find out that crime does not pay…thank you…

No…thank you, Captain Mallory.  Next time: a short with a title that’s just plain irresistible to a left-wing scalawag like me—Soak the Poor (1937)!  G’bye now!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

“He’s all speed…the fastest thing in horseflesh…”

In a booklet that was originally supposed to accompany the DVD collection Becoming Charley Chase (it’s still online—which was a tremendous relief because the copy I downloaded succumbed to the recent hard drive clusterfudge), Richard M. Roberts had this nice take on why the comedian didn’t do more feature film work: “He wasn’t particularly ambitious.  Chase never reached beyond the two-reel form with any seriousness, nor was he ever promoted by Roach with the zeal reserved for Laurel and Hardy, the reigning stars on the lot.  Chase was popular with audiences, and they expected and enjoyed his monthly appearance before the feature program.  They seemed satisfied with the twenty minutes they spent with him.  They never clamored for more, and he never offered.”

Patsy Kelly and Charley Chase in
Kelly the Second (1936)
Chase did appear in a handful of features.  His best known is his delightful turn as the obnoxious conventioneer (and brother-in-law of Oliver Hardy) in Sons of the Desert (1933), and three years later appeared alongside Patsy Kelly in the Hal Roach-produced Kelly the Second (1936).  The 1929 feature Chase made for Universal, Modern Love, was restored a few years back; I haven’t been fortunate to see this one but it did make the film festival circuit, notably Hollywood’s Cinecon (44) in 2008.  The only other feature on Charley’s cinematic C.V. (to my knowledge) is The King of Wild Horses (1924), which I did sit down with this week.  It features Mr. Chase (billed as Charles Parrott) in a “straight” role in a Roach feature starring the Rin-Tin-Tin of movie equines, Rex, the Wonder Horse.

The Wonder Horse goes by “The Black” in this oater (the nag actually answered to “Casey Jones” in his debut film before switching to “Rex” for subsequent films), and he’s the object of obsession by a cowpoke named Billy Blair (Léon Bary), who has sworn to capture and tame the wild stallion…and gets that opportunity when he saves The Black from perishing in a raging inferno that erupts in his stomping grounds.  Towards the end of the film, Blair decides to give The Black his freedom…and the horse briefly returns to his old environs before deciding that domestication isn’t such a terrible existence—after all, Billy is getting ready to settle down with a filly of his own, Mary Fielding (Edna Murphy).

Léon Bary, Pat Hartigan, Charley and Edna Murphy
Mixed into this story of a boy and his horse is a subplot involving Mary’s brother Boyd (Charley), who’s deep in debt to Wade Galvin, (Pat Hartigan) the unscrupulous foreman of his father’s (Sidney De Gray) ranch.  (A title card reads that Boyd’s precarious financial situation is due to “questionable gambling methods,” which made me laugh out loud.)  I’ve read in some places where Charley is described as the villain of the piece…which isn’t entirely accurate—he’s more like the poor boob who gets in over his head and is forced to do Galvin’s bidding.  Chase was cast in this movie about the time he was pressed into inaugurating the “Jimmie Jump” comedy series at Roach (once studio star Harold Lloyd struck out on his own), and I was tickled to no end seeing him doing something a bit out of his element.

That having been said, I don’t think Wild Horses is as good as the other Rex film I reviewed previously on the blog—No Man’s Land (1927), which features a pair of comedic faces in Oliver Hardy (as the despicable Sharkey Nye) and James Finlayson.  The weakness in Horses is that the plot concentrates on the taming of the “king,” which to be honest is a little bit of a tough slog at times—I think a better way to approach this would have been too have the Blair character reminisce to Mary Fielding how he made the acquaintance of his horse friend through flashbacks, allowing a lot of the dull man-and-horse sequences to be trimmed.  Land concentrates mostly on the human characters in its plot, and seems to only have Rex around whenever Hardy’s villain starts to display filthy intentions toward Barbara Kent’s heroine.

I’m not sorry I watched King of Wild Horses—it has been on my “must-see” list for a good while now—but I must come clean here and admit that I cheated on this one a bit.  See, I purchased a DVD from that paired Horses with No Man’s Land and as Horses started to unspool in my DVD player I couldn’t help but notice that the picture quality left a lot to be desired—it was a terribly dark and murky print.  (I knew reading the title cards was going to be tough even though the movie isn’t particularly dialogue-driven.)  Drawing on my imperfect memory, I vaguely remembered seeing it listed on YouTube…and while that print had its share of problems it wasn’t as much of a chore to watch as the Alpha version.  If you’re a Charley Chase fan (and if you aren’t—what’s your excuse, Bunky?), you’ll get a giggle out of seeing the man whose life was “one long embarrassing moment” ride tall in the saddle.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Adventures in Blu-ray: Abbott & Costello Rarities

Thunderbean Animation has firmly established itself in the Blu-ray/DVD field as the go-to label for classic cartoon releases, ranging from the oeuvre of Willie Whopper and Cubby Bear to their current project of restoring all 27 shorts from the Van Beuren Studio’s Rainbow Parade series (1934-35).  It’s a labor of love for Thunderbean CEO Steve Stanchfield, a cartoon historian and film preservationist dedicated to hunting up the best existing 16mm/35mm materials for these outstanding sets.  In May, Thunderbean’s long-anticipated Abbott & Costello Rarities—an outstanding collection of odds and ends spotlighting the great comedy duo—finally hit the streets, and if you’re as big a fan of Bud and Lou as your humble narrator, you need to track this down with all deliberate speed.

Lou, Bud, and Kate
I’ve had to cut back on the significant amount of DVD-age purchased for the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives of late, so I was most fortunate to score a free copy of the Rarities Blu-ray/DVD combo from a longstanding member of the TDOY faithful (he asked me to keep his identity secret so as not to interfere with his sideline of bringing maniacal supervillains to justice).  There’s something for everyone in this collection…but I’ll come clean and admit that my favorite features were those of the audio variety.  Rarities includes a March 10, 1938 excerpt from The Kate Smith Hour (the boys do a variation of the “betting parlor” routine that was later recycled in 1943’s It Ain’t Hay) and the July 3 premiere broadcast of their 1940 summer stint as replacements for Fred Allen’s show (I was only aware of one other It’s Time to Smile program in collector’s hands).  Another uncirculated broadcast is from November 4, 1943—the night that Lou returned to radio after he recovered from rheumatic fever…and the same night he learned of the drowning death of his infant son “Butch” earlier that day; Lana Turner is the guest, and Bud informs the audience of Lou’s tragedy at the end of the broadcast.  A rare recording of their Saturday morning series (The Abbott & Costello Children’s Show from June 20, 1948) is also included among the audio gems (audience warm-ups, actualities, etc.).

Bud and Jerry Lewis
The Rarities collection includes trailers from some of Bud and Lou’s classic film comedies (Buck Privates, In the Navy, etc.) and “blowups” (bloopers) from others like Pardon My Sarong and Little Giant (I really got a kick out of seeing the outtakes from Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, my favorite A&C vehicle).  There are newsreel clips, excerpts from Lou’s home movies, and an amazing collection of footage (Kodachrome) from the team’s 1943 war bond tour (where they sold nearly $85 million worth of bonds).  A favorite highlight of mine is an unearthed November 1, 1953 telecast of The Colgate Comedy Hour, in which Bud must work solo in Lou’s absence (Costello is ill) with an assist from Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.  The program includes clips from previous Colgate shows featuring Lou—one their famous “Rubdown” sketch (with stooges Sid Fields and Bobby Barber) and another hilarious skit where the duo goes to great lengths to get rid of a stolen necklace (the two men have difficulty keeping it together before the finish).  In addition to Dino’s singing (both solo and comedy songs accompanied by Jer’s clowning with Al Goodman’s orchestra), Peggy Lee does a few numbers (including the Halo shampoo jingle) and Gene Nelson dances (I kind of fast-forwarded through this).

Another favorite from this set: Lou, Bud, and Charles Laughton (as Bud's chauffeur!) make a plea for Christmas Seals.
Chris Costello, whose outstanding biography of her father (Lou’s on First) was written up for the blog in October of last year, provided much of the material for this release…and I’ll admit, the content more than surpassed my expectations (I was expecting a lot of the public domain A&C filler that’s been previously released).  At the risk of sounding like a parrot…this is a collection that Abbott & Costello fans will want for their bookshelf—a more-than-justified reward for those who have waited patiently all these years to see it come to fruition.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

From the DVR: The Goddess (1958)

Before winning Academy Awards for the screenplays to such Thrilling Days of Yesteryear favorites as The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976—a movie that becomes more and more eerily prescient every time I watch it), Paddy Chayefsky was one of the small screen’s most respected scribes, with contributions to such live television presentations as “Marty” (later adapted for the movies and winning Chayefsky his first Oscar) and “The Bachelor Party” (also becoming a big screen candidate in 1957).  The Goddess (1958) would be Paddy’s first original screenplay (and it also garnered an Academy Award nom), and I revisited this little gem last week after DVR’ing it from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.

Kim Stanley, Steven Hill
Newly-widowed Laureen Faulkner (Betty Lou Holland) has arrived in a small Maryland town with her four-year-old daughter Emily Ann to pick up the pieces by moving in with her brother (Gerald Hiken) and his wife (Joan Copeland).  Because Laureen is still in her 20s and anxious to have a little fun in life, she’s quite upset about being saddled with Emily Ann…and at one point even asks her in-laws to take the little girl in while she pursues other romantic interests (a man who wants to marry her doesn’t like children).  She expresses this wish within earshot of Emily Ann (who was eavesdropping while seated at the top of the stairs), an incident that surely scars the little tyke later when she’s turned eight (and played by a young Patty Duke) … and incapable of getting any love or attention from her indifferent, preoccupied mother.

Stanley, Hill, Betty Lou Holland
As Emily Ann (Kim Stanley) approaches adolescence, she becomes in many ways “her mother’s child”: she’s a capricious flibbertigibbet who dreams of respectability and acceptance by becoming a motion picture star.  She makes moves in that direction by marrying John Tower (Steven Hill), the son of a silent film legend; Tower is an irresponsible drunk who at least has enough decency to warn Emily that if they were to marry it would be an endless series of disappointments and heartbreak.  He’s right on the button on that score; things sour quickly in their marriage and Emily finds herself in a familiar situation when she tries to fob off her infant daughter on her mother.

Stanley, Lloyd Bridges
Five years later, Emily is now a Hollywood starlet renamed “Rita Shawn.”  She capitalizes on the ardor of ex-pugilist Dutch Seymour (Lloyd Bridges) by marrying him to give her career a boost…but that union turns out to be every bit as poisonous as her first marriage to Tower.  It does, however, achieve the desired effect of enhancing her status in the industry…particularly after a lecherous studio head (Donald McKee) offers her a lucrative contract.  Five years later, and Rita Shawn is one of the most bankable attractions in the industry…but she’s also a most unhappy one, with a never-ending battle with the bottle that led to a nervous breakdown.  Idolized by moviegoers, the woman formerly known as Emily Ann Faulkner is still stymied by her need for acceptance and to be loved.

Kim Stanley
The inspiration for the main character for The Goddess is readily apparent: it’s a thinly-disguised portrayal of Marilyn Monroe…though Paddy Chayefsky was always careful to disavow any obvious comparisons (particularly after Marilyn’s then-husband, playwright Arthur Miller, discussed the possibility of a lawsuit).  Other actresses that purportedly inspired the character of Emily Ann/Rita include Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, and Joan Crawford (though outside of Emily Ann’s assiduous ambition I don’t quite see this one); Kim Stanley, who portrays the Monroe clone, always thought her character more accurately mirrored Jayne Mansfield.  The irony is that Stanley’s personal life would later mimic that of the Emily Ann character; despite showcases in such films as Séance on a Wet Afternoon (for which she received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress) and TV shows like Ben Casey (winning an Emmy) and The Eleventh Hour, Stanley suffered a mental breakdown that scaled back her movie and TV appearances—she later became an acting teacher in her home state of New Mexico.  (Beginning in the 1970s, she returned to the small screen and then the big one, getting another Academy Award nomination for playing the mother of troubled actress Frances Farmer in 1982’s Frances and winning an Emmy in 1985 for her turn as “Big Mama” in the American Playhouse production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” [1984].)

Stanley, Holland
It’s been close to thirty years since revisiting The Goddess (I remember renting the VHS back when I worked for Ballbuster Blockbuster Video in the late 80s) and I was very surprised that it’s improved with age.  It’s not a perfect movie—it’s dramatically uneven (there were clashes between Chayefsky and veteran director John Cromwell) and many of the minor characters aren’t as fully developed as I would like—but I admire the film for resisting the attempt to put a big Hollywood happy ending on what transpires; by the time the credits roll no one is really satisfied with their lives and are simply resigned to taking as it comes.  Stanley is fantastic as a person who simply cannot satisfy her craving to be loved, and the scene where she tries and fails to reconcile with mother Holland (who’s morphed into a religious fanatic as she’s gotten older—a nice touch) is particularly heartbreaking.  The movie is also a nice showcase for Sea Hunt star Bridges, who handles his role as a frustrated ex-athlete with far more aplomb than I was expecting.

There are lots of future TV faces in The Goddess (notably future Oscar winner and Brooklyn Heights resident Patty Duke, in her first credited film role) including Steven Hill (billed as Steve), Joyce van Patten, Joanne Linville, Werner Klemperer, and David “You son of a gun!” White.  It’s TDOY fave Elizabeth Wilson, however, who commits cinematic larceny by practically walking away with the movie as Stanley’s protective assistant—a woman who’s resigned herself to the role as the actress’ surrogate mother (and caregiver), telling Hill’s character: “We got her to a psychiatrist for four months...then he said to me...she will never really respond to treatment...she will always be the same...she gets simple therapy now...I'll take her back to California...and she'll go on making movies...because that's all she knows to do...and whatever happens after that, happens...but I kind of love her...and I'll take good care of her...”  If you missed this one on TCM, it is available on MOD DVD from Sony…I will warn you, though—the feature is bleak and uncompromising…but life’s like that.