Saturday, September 30, 2017

Who’ll turn out the lights (in your world tonight)


It’s the last day of September in 2017, and tomorrow (October 1), Thrilling Days of Yesteryear will officially move to its new home at WordPress.  If you make it a point to stop by in an ever-so-casual fashion, you’ll notice that there’s been quite a bit of activity taking place at the blog’s new home; a little over 600 posts both old and new have already settled in and made themselves comfortable by calling dibs on the bunks.

Since switching from Salon Blogs (a venture that, in retrospect, I regret…because I have nothing to show for it, unless I want to fire up archive.org’s Wayback Machine) to Blogspot nearly a decade ago, I have to say things were pretty swell here.  Oh, occasionally there would be a minor problem to iron out but such inconveniences were few and far between.  To be completely honest, except for the Herculean task of transferring the content from old to new blogs, I’ve really been impressed with the look of the new WordPress TDOY.  I like the big pictures that start off each post, something that I have developed an infinity for since I started penning the Radio Spirits blog in May of 2012.  You’ll find that more than a few “classic” TDOY posts have spiffy new presentations in pictures; that’s what I have been enjoying about the transfer the most.

During my stay here at Blogspot, I racked up over 3,000 posts.  A large percentage of those…well, I never was all that good at math but let’s just say a buttload of them were “meat by-product.”  I posted a lot of personal rants, comic strips, and political cartoons back in those days…and they have not aged at all well, so I vetoed bringing them over to WordPress.  They have been released into the wilds of the blogosphere or taken upstate to romp around on someone’s farm (unless the material I posted had some relevance afterward in the post).  I’ve also erased many of the TV-coming-to-DVD announcements, Coming Distractions, and notifications of movies/TV shows on sale because, again, all of that was in the past and it’s not going to do anyone any good now (I’m betting a lot of that stuff has expired).  What’s past isn’t always prologue, I suppose.

I’ll be leaving a few items at the old Blogspot apartment for a while until I can figure out how I want to work them into the WordPress environs, namely the serials I did for Serial Saturdays and two of the blog’s signature features, Mayberry Mondays and Doris Day(s).  In the case of Mayberry, I’d like to go back and do some new screen grabs for the first season episodes seeing as I still have Season 1 of Mayberry R.F.D. on DVD.  (I want to go back and do screen caps for some of the older serials, too.)  So, if you get an R.F.D. jones, you’ll need to use the key I’m leaving under the mat…if you get a Google Chrome message that reads “Don’t play in that old house or you’ll put your eye out” I don’t know what to tell you.

At the WordPress blog…well, there’ll be a change or two in the works.  For a time now, I’ve set aside days for certain features: Overlooked Films on Tuesdays, B-Western Wednesdays, silent movies on Thursdays, etc.  I think that with the exception of Overlooked Films the new TDOY policy will be “I’ll-write-about-this-movie-whenever-I-darn-well-please.”  I’m really hoping to boost the daily/weekly/monthly/yearly content of TDOY once I get settled in, and if I’m not tied into a whole “Gee, I’d like to post something about this film but it’s out-of-sync with what usually goes here” thing it’ll work out for me so much better.

With all that out of the way, let me step inside the confessional and own up to this: the post I had planned for Monday is going to be postponed for a day or two because I’m still making my way through the material; I didn’t get a doggone thing accomplished after Tuesday of last week due to deadlines for other projects and outside irritations.  I’m really going to get better at a regular posting schedule, so if you’ll just hand me my ten Hail Marys I’ll be out of your hair.

Thanks for making the Blogspot Thrilling Days of Yesteryear one of your usual haunts…and I hope you’ll do the same for our new home at WordPress.  If you haven’t updated our new address on your blogroll, please do so as a solid to me.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Adventures in Blu-ray: One Million B.C. (1940)


The last Hollywood project that the legendary D.W. Griffith worked on before being ignored by the industry until his passing in 1948 was a fantasy-adventure film produced at Hal Roach’s “Lot of Fun,” One Million B.C. (1940).  Roach hired Griffith to produce that movie and his earlier Of Mice and Men (1939), requesting in a letter: “I need help from the production side to select the proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures.”

Roach would later avow that Griffith directed that some of the scenes in B.C., though accounts by some of the film’s cast members dispute this, noting D.W. only oversaw the screen and costume tests.  Mature even asserted as much, also adding: “They'd have been better off letting the old man direct the picture.  One day he just wasn't around any more.”  Griffith parted with B.C. because of a disagreement with Roach, and even though Hal advertised the picture in late 1939 with D.W. getting a producer credit, Griffith asked that his name be removed from the film.  (A more cynical person than myself might note that he wouldn’t blame David Wark for doing this…though the eventual success of B.C. might have opened a few doors for him.)

One Million B.C. is the latest Blu-ray release from our good friends at The Sprocket Vault, and I profusely thank them for providing me with a screener to sit down with a movie that I knew only by reputation.  Some members of the TDOY faithful might be more familiar with the remake released in 1966, One Million Years B.C.—which features Raquel Welch wearing a prehistoric ensemble that was apparently supplied (to borrow a Leonard Maltin joke) by Frederick’s of Bedrock.  While the original B.C. lacks the Welch factor, the lovely Carole Landis is certainly sufficient compensation…if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

A group of hikers stumble onto a cave, seeking shelter from a severe storm…and inside, an anthropologist (Conrad Nagel) who’s been studying the cave’s wall markings interprets for the travelers just what those odd scribblings mean.  He tells his audience a tale of two tribes, the Rock People and the Shell People; I’m guessing the Shell People handled the oil concession back then.  (The jokes are not going to get any better, people…so hang onto something solid and pray.)  Tumak (Mature), son of Rock Tribe leader Akhoba (Lon Chaney, Jr.), has a falling-out with his padre over who’s going to be the Big Swinging Dick amongst the Rock People, and he’s blithely kicked off a cliff by Dear Old Dad…only to awaken in time to be menaced by a mastodon (an elephant with tusks and wearing a fur coat).

Lon Chaney, Jr. and Victor Mature play father and son in One Million B.C. (1940)
Tumak is found by Loana (Landis) after floating down a river (the mastodon knocked the tree Tumak climbed into it); as a member-in-good-standing of the Shell clan, she calls upon her people to bring the still unconscious Tumak back to their cave where he is fed and looked after.  There’s a bit of a culture shock for Tumak when he eventually comes to; the Shells are a kinder, gentler people who take pains to look after their women, children, elderly, and infirmed.  In contrast, the Rock tribe takes care of Number One: the Rock hunters get the best of the feast, and the scraps work their way down to the “weaker” elements in the tribe.  (This is where “trickle-down economics” originated, by the way.)

Mature and Carole Landis
The Shell people introduce Tumak to their way of life (in turn, he helps the Shell children gather food and even rescues one from being attacked by an Allosaurus) but when he insists on going to great lengths to keep the spear he used in rescuing the kid in the Allosaurus incident (Tumak steals the spear…and a matching hammer) he finds himself banished from the tribe.  Loana, who’s got a thing for the big lug, insists on going with him; they eventually wind up back among the Rock people, where Loana’s gentleness initially perplexes a people accustomed to a philosophy of “I’ve-got-mine-you-get-yours.”  By the time the closing credits roll, the two tribes have achieved solidarity, after dealing with a volcanic eruption and those pesky dinosaurs heckbent on ruining a good time for everybody.

At the time of its release, One Million B.C. received mixed critical reviews.  The New York Times declared it “a masterpiece of imaginative fiction,” while Variety dissented: “There isn't much sense to the action nor much interest in the characters.”  I honestly tend to lean toward Variety’s view of the film; the storyline of B.C. is a bit thin (as is the direction by Hal Roach père et fils) and the special effects (Roy Seawright and Elmer Raguse’s work got an Academy Award nom, as did Werner R. Heymann’s musical score) a little (pardon the pun) primitive (though they are irresistibly goofy).  But the special effects footage from B.C. was recycled in scads of motion pictures to follow (Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, Two Lost Worlds, etc.) and the film itself was the #1 box office attraction of 1940 (when you exclude Gone with the Wind’s rollover receipts), so who am I to judge what puts derrières in theatre seats?

The presentation of One Million B.C. on this Sprocket Vault Blu-ray is first-rate for fans of this movie—here’s my suggestion on the best way to watch.  Since it’s not a dialogue-driven flick (Mature later joked “I had to 'ugh' my way through that picture”), put on B.C.’s subtitles (“Neecha!”) and listen to the informative commentary track by the man who cleans out the corral at 50 Westerns From the 50s, my film historian compadre (and former ClassicFlix colleague) Toby Roan.  The Blu-ray also contains an excellent photo gallery; you can always count on the folks at Sprocket/VCI/Kit Parker to go the extra mile for classic movie fans, and for them, One Million B.C. will not disappoint.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Johnny on the spot


My chum Rich from Wide Screen World left me a link on my Facebook page two days ago, pointing me to this article at Mediaite that asks the musical question: “Remember When Late Night Talk Shows Were… Entertaining?”

What in the heck has happened to late night comedy?  As a kid I remember Johnny Carson… He seemed to approach his show each night with one goal in mind: To entertain his audience. Look how far we’ve come!

The author, who answers to “Larry O’Connor” when he’s not running the cigar stand, complains about the “politicization” of the programs headlined by the likes of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel considering recent telecasts featuring failed Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton promoting her book of excuses, What Happened, and Kimmel’s calling out of GOP Senator Bill Cassidy’s (R-LA) draconian amendment to the kill Affordable Care Act in its crib.  O’Connor whines:

Regardless of your position on Obamacare or on the 2016 election, the bigger picture here is how ponderous and self-reverential and sanctimonious our late night shows (and their hosts) have become. Can we get back to entertainment please?  If I want political debates on candidates and issues, I’ve got plenty of cable channels to choose from.

Stephen Colbert interviews Hillary Clinton
Now—at the risk of stepping onto a soapbox myself, I don’t disagree with O’Connor’s premise that our formerly frivolous chat shows have ceased to be “Must-See TV” viewing…though I would take issue with his reasoning that it’s because Messrs. Colbert and Kimmel have started in with the proselytizing.  (For what it’s worth, I don’t budget any time to sit down with either gentleman…because I gave up late night talkfests when David Letterman announced his retirement.) The reason for my dissent is that Larry attempts to bolster his argument with a National Review piece written by conservative Dennis Prager, the sole purpose of that article seems to be to just wag a finger at “the Left.”

Along with virtually every other American, I never knew Johnny Carson’s politics. I would not have been surprised if he was a liberal or surprised if he was a conservative, a Democrat, or a Republican. In his 30 years as host of The Tonight Show on NBC, he never so much as hinted as to how he identified politically. He poked fun at whoever was in power, Republican or Democrat.

The reason he didn’t let on where he stood politically is that he believed that he had a much greater responsibility—to offer Americans of all political persuasions an island of good-natured fun, a place where everyone could laugh together, every night.

Jimmy Kimmel
Prager goes on to scold Colbert for some inelegant language Stephen’s used on past shows (calling the President a “prick-tator,” for example), and in a Claude-Rains-is-shocked-at-gambling-in-Casablanca tone, declares “it is inconceivable that he would have used the language Colbert used. Kids could watch The Tonight Show, because he—and we—lived in a pre-Left age, when grown-ups thought that they had a responsibility to be good models to young people, in other words, to be adults. But the Left has never been comfortable with growing up.”  (Your kids could watch The Tonight Show? Was there not a curfew in the Prager household?)

As fond as I am of movies, TV, and radio past…I acknowledge that with each passing generation, standards in the broadcast industry get loosened, and there are now a few words from the classic George Carlin routine that you can say on television that no one (well, those folks without a stick wedged up their keister) will bat an eyelash about.  Pundits like Praeger fall back on one reliable bit of shtick: the American discourse is coarsening, and it’s all the fault of “the Left,” godless Commie bastards that they are.  (I’m ashamed to have linked to Dennis’ article, because in its online state you can’t even use it to scrape off whatever’s on the bottom of your shoe.)

This is kind of a long-winded way to introduce this post, and I profusely apologize…it’s just that as I was being pointed to O’Connor’s pearl-clutching about how late night shows are becoming more vapid and tawdry with each passing season (and really—have you looked at the stuff they’re vomiting up in daytime lately?), I was serendipitously finishing a 6-DVD new-to-retail collection entitled The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: The Vault Series.  It’s due to be released tomorrow (September 26), on the heels of another hefty new-to-retail set of Carson reruns that came out last week (Sept. 19), Johnny and Friends: The Complete Collection.  My good friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications saw to it that I received copies of both these DVD compendiums, and I’ll have a review of Johnny and Friends ready for the TDOY faithful next week in this space (I’m still wading through the riches in that 10-DVD set).

Johnny Carson fans will naturally be curious to check out (and own, pending approval) each Time Life Tonight Show set that rolls off the assembly line…but in a hypothetical situation where you’re forced to divert your disposable income toward little luxuries like food, clothing, and shelter, The Vault Series is the one to get.  The reason is simple (and this is purely a matter of my personal preference—your mileage, as always, may vary): excepting an October 23, 1984 telecast (guests Paul McCartney and Mary Gross help Johnny celebrate his birthday) and a lengthy clip from 1987 featuring Letterman and Joe Piscopo on the Tonight Show couch, the remaining content is culled from classic Carson shows from the 1970s.  You even have the option of watching the original commercials for a real nostalgia wallow.

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson on the cusp of talk show immortality.
From January 1967 to September 13, 1980, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was telecast in a 90-minute format…and I think the hour-and-a-half shows spotlight The Official King of Late Night at his finest; my fellow Facebook friend Brent McKee (of I Am a Child of Television blog fame), in participating in the Facebook discussion that the Mediaite article generated, observed:

The big thing for me is that most shows—James Corden is the obvious exception—don't do the "couch thing" anymore. A guest comes on, promotes his or her movie or book, and leaves. Then the next guest comes on, rinse and repeat. There's no interaction between guests the way there was with Carson and Cavett and Griffin, and the way there is on British "chat shows". Another thing is the shift from 90 to 60 minutes. That meant that either sketch material or guests for cut and depending on the host it is usually guests.

I think Br’er Brent makes a solid, salient point about the ninety-minute-to-sixty-minute shift, and the telecasts on The Vault Series from 1972-76 generously allot ample time to allow for lively, fascinating byplay between Johnny and the scheduled guests.  (I need to point out in the interest of fairness that a few of the shows on this set feature the likes of Bob Hope and Dean Martin, who do come on and then beat a hasty retreat.  Some things never change.)  But nothing ever feels rushed, and there’s abundant time for Carson to squeeze in a “Tea Time Movie” sketch (as Art Fern) or Aunt Blabby (one of the shows on Vault features a “Blabby” skit, and it is falling-down hysterical).

Johnny breaks Ed up during an "Aunt Blabby" sketch from March 23, 1976.
My interest in the 1970s Tonight Show era has a lot to do with my firm belief that Carson had a better class of guest back then.  Brent and I don’t see eye-to-eye regarding a statement I made: “Outside of watching one of their movies, I care very little about either George Clooney or Angelina Jolie…and they probably feel the same about me.”  Brent responded: “But will you accept that there are those who care about George Clooney and Angelina Jolie?  And that the pool of guests available for these shows is going to be made up of people that have something to promote?”  It’s not for me to either accept or reject—if I don’t want to watch that nonsense, I have the option of switching it off.  (Unless I’m trapped in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, that is.)

Dean Martin introduces Johnny's 10th anniversary show in 1972. In a December 12, 1975 telecast included on The Vault Series set, Dino lets loose with some ad-libs that have to be bleeped by the censor...which kind of puts the lie to Dennis Prager's suggestion that The Tonight Show was always "kid-friendly."
The Vault Series kicks off with a telecast that is worth the price of admission: the October 2, 1972 show celebrating Carson’s 10th anniversary of captaining the S.S. Tonight Show.  Johnny welcomes this powerhouse lineup: Dean Martin (who does a bit at the beginning, spoiling the chance for a reunion with one-time partner Jerry Lewis, who also appears), Jack Benny, Governor Ronald Reagan, George Burns, Joey Bishop, Don Rickles, Dan Rowan & Dick Martin, Dinah Shore, and “Tea Time Lady” Carol Wayne (who gets to chat up Johnny in a short segment after spending the evening showing his guests to the deluxe couch).  With all those comedians on hand, you’re guaranteed a lot of laughs and ad-libs (my favorite was Bishop’s josh that the show is really Johnny’s sixth anniversary…and Joey’s fourth, referencing all the times Bishop guest-hosted)—but I also got a little sad while watching, knowing that my idol Jack Benny wouldn’t be with us much longer (he passed on in December of 1974).

Bing and Ray perform...to the accompaniment of Marvin Hamlisch on piano.  It just doesn't get any better than this.
Bing Crosby and Ray Bolger figure in another classic telecast (it’s one of four shows from the week of March 2-5, 1976—the March 4 program has Johnny singing his rendition of Rhinestone Cowboy), and again I got melancholy knowing Der Bingle was marking time, and that there have been few performers like Bolger since.  The 1970s allow me to see those Tonight Shows featuring classic movie and TV performers that are my favorite entertainers (and why I would probably sit stone-faced through a Jimmy Fallon interview with Miley Cyrus…because I care not one whit).  Other guests in the shows on this marvelous set include Buddy Hackett, John Denver, Dom DeLuise, Charles Nelson Reilly (who mentions his previous boob tube association with Dean Martin), Orson Welles, Sean Connery, Michael Caine (they promote The Man Who Would Be King), and Burt Mustin.  Burt Freaking Mustin!  There’s even an 11th anniversary telecast included in which Ken Norton and Muhammed Ali are on hand for a “weigh-in.”

"Like a rhinestone cowboy..."
Normally, I’d set these shows to play “without commercials”…but I left the ads in, because I get a kick out of seeing what was hawked on the TV set of my youth, watching Doris Roberts promote air freshener or Mariette Hartley sell Nestle’s Toll House morsels.  So, I respectfully disagree with Messrs. O’Connor and Prager as to why today’s hosts can’t compare with Johnny Carson—it’s because they could never match Carson’s one-of-a-kind unflappability and flawless ability to make the show look spontaneous (even when it wasn’t).  Even if they endeavored to behave like good little schoolboys.  Buy this set, people.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Holding pattern


Since I’m at the halfway point before Thrilling Days of Yesteryear makes its official move to the brand-spanking-new WordPress blog in October, I thought I’d post this to let you know why TDOY went silent this week.

I had planned to have a few reviews up but the post I penciled in for Monday got pushed to the side due to a Radio Spirits liner notes project I was trying to complete.  That activity took place all weekend, the time I utilize to plan what will go up on the blog for the week.  With my RS assignment completed, I had to further postpone posts because of that Irma thing (we were a lot luckier than some of our fellow Georgians in that our electricity didn’t go on vacation during the storm…but it did come and go a few times, interfering with the movie I was trying to watch) …and then a pair of doctor appointments (for the patriarch of Rancho Yesteryear, mi padre) ate up some more time.  I finally said ta heck wid it and vowed to get back to the blogging thing Monday.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a little hammering-and-nailing at the new site; there are close to 300 classic TDOY posts up there now, some with new photos added and a few tweaks and edits here and there.  I’ve also been doing a little pruning here at the old blog; I’ve made some editorial decisions about what to transfer and what to destroy—so if it looks as if the old blog has lost a little weight that’s the reason.  It’s simply going to be too Herculean a task to transfer everything to the new site, and some past posts will have to sit in the waiting room (most appropriate in light of the medical appointments this week) while others will simply vanish into the blogosphere, accessible only for those patient to sift through archive.org.

So that’s how things stand—come back by next week and I’ll have a thing or two to bend your ear about.  Have a great weekend, cartooners!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

So this is Harris


Alpha Video’s Brian Krey—the individual who should take a bow for providing a lot of the product that I review on this here blog—mentioned to me in an e-mail a while back that the company was preparing a collection of two-reel shorts along the lines of their successful “Ultra-Rare Pre-Code Comedies” releases.  The kicker was that since the two-reelers to be included in this set were going to be some released between 1936 and 1938, Alpha Video couldn’t exactly call them “pre-Code.”  (“I don't think ‘Ultra Rare POST-CODE Comedies’ would get anyone excited,” Brian joked.)

Well, this new collection was released in August…and if you’re an old-time radio fan like me, there’s plenty be excited about Rare Shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  It’s one of the strongest and most entertaining DVDs released by Alpha, because the first two shorts on the disc spotlight two solid radio favorites.  Rare Shorts kicks things off with Harris in the Spring (1937), a wonderful little musical outing starring Phil Harris—then making a name for himself as the lovable bandleader-comedian on The Jack Benny Program, and later star of his own successful situation comedy, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.

“Then making a name for himself” isn’t really accurate, however; Harris was already wowing audiences with a musical aggregation that played to SRO crowds at the famous Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel during the early 1930s.  (Harris co-starred in the 1933 RKO feature film Melody Cruise, and a three-reel short released the same year, So This is Harris, would win an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject.)  It’s fitting, then, that “Curly” plays himself in Harris in the Spring (the “Club Ambassador” where he works is a nod to his earlier Cocoanut Grove gig) and because he’s mobbed by female admirers everywhere he goes, he asks his pal George (played by Jack Rice, the brother-in-law in the RKO Edgar Kennedy shorts) to help him hide to avoid some enthusiastic fans.

Phil ends up in George’s office…where he’s given the onceover by socialite Betty Randolph (Ruth Robbins), and once she deems him “acceptable” she invites him out for the evening.  That’s when George informs Phil that Betty is looking for an escort (why Harris’ best friend is in this business goes unexplained) …and that’s jake with Philsie, provided Betty doesn’t learn who he is really is.  I’ll give you three guesses where the couple winds up on their date…the first two do not count.

Ruth Robbins and Phil Harris in Harris in the Spring (1937)
Harris in the Spring is a real delight, with its star performing several numbers (Sweet Like You, Parchesi) and two duets with Robbins in the same lyric-exchanging style Harris did professionally with vocalist Leah Ray (and that Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard also imitated).  (The couple’s rendition of The Woman Who Pays is performed in the back of a taxicab, and they’re joined at the end of the song by cabbie Jack Carson—also a later radio star—who belts out musically “You said it, sister!”)  But the highlight of Spring is Phil’s rendition of his signature tune, That’s What I Like About the South; in later years (on his own series and Benny’s program), Harris raced through the number like he was double-parked—the tempo of South is slowed considerably in Spring, giving it a kind of loping, barrelhouse piano feel.

Goodman and Jane Ace: "The Easy Aces"
On radio, Goodman Ace and his wife Jane were known as the Easy Aces—the stars of a popular radio comedy serial that had its origins on local KMBC in Kansas City in 1930 before moving to CBS a year later and bouncing back-and-forth from the Tiffany network and NBC until 1945.  (The show later became a syndicated series from 1945 to 1947, recycling earlier scripts, and then a half-hour program for CBS from February to December 1948 as mr. ace & JANEEasy Aces had what one would call a cult following—it was never really a ratings smash—but that following did get the duo a series of movie shorts, “first for Vitaphone and then, on a more regular basis, for Van Beuren” as Leonard Maltin relates in The Great Movie Shorts.

Dumb Luck (1935) was a short Goodman and Jane made for Educational…additional two-reelers were planned, but never got off the ground.  Jane has a winning sweepstakes ticket worth $50, but after a literal game of “telephone” (talking to her girlfriends on the Ameche) the word gets out that the Aces are sitting on a nice little nest egg of $50,000.  Two hoodlums (Richard Cramer, George Shelton) put the snatch on Mrs. A and demand a ransom of $25,000 for her safe return…but the demand gets smaller and smaller the longer the kidnappers spend with the scatterbrained Jane.

There are going to be Easy Aces purists who will decry Dumb Luck as not faithfully adhering to the radio show…and I shan’t disagree with them, but I enjoyed the two-reeler tremendously for novelty’s sake.  Jane is…well, Jane; telling one of her friends on the phone of Goody’s frugality she cracks “he's such a tightrope when it comes to things like that” …and later, when she demands her husband allow her to get a dog with her winnings:

ACE: A dog?
JANE: Yes, it's nice to walk down the street with a little dog...
ACE: On a leash, I suppose...
JANE: On a leash?  Oh, no--I thought I'd buy him outright...

I also got a kick out seeing Richard Cramer (billed as “Kramer”)—a character veteran I always remember as the “Constable” in W.C. Fields’ The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)—and George Shelton as the luckless kidnappers.  (To keep the OTR connection going, Shelton was later one of the three panelists on It Pays to Be Ignorant, a radio favorite from 1942 to 1951—“I used to woik in dat town!”)

Jack Norton poses with radio's "Brenda and Cobina"
(Elvia Allman and Blanche Stewart) in the 1940
feature film A Night at Earl Carroll's.
Jack Norton, the silver screen’s favorite inebriate, is stone cold sober in two of the entries on Rare Shorts from the Golden Age of Hollywood; the closest he comes to imbibing is having a mint julep in Who’s Looney Now (1936), in which he plays a henpecked husband whose next-door neighbor (Jack Good) gives him advice on how to win sympathy from his family—fake a heart attack.  The problem is, Jack’s family is anything but sympathetic…and they eventually become convinced that he’s a toy short of a Happy Meal.  So, the clan calls in a psychiatrist portrayed by Billy Gilbert…and any time you must rely on Billy’s expertise in the science of the mind—the results are not going to be pretty.  Looney manages to deliver the goods despite its timeworn premise; both Norton and Gilbert cannot not be funny, and there’s solid support from future Edgar Kennedy spouse Vivien Oakland (she’s married to Jack), Tempe Pigott (as the mother-in-law), and Dickie Jones—later both the voice of Pinocchio and Henry Aldrich on radio—as the obnoxious son.

Tom Kennedy in the "Torchy Blane"
feature Blondes at Work (1938).
Fight is Right (1936) is another short with a premise you’ve seen before—Norton convinces pal Tom Kennedy to accompany him ringside by snowing the wife (Maxine Jennings) into thinking Tom is sick (and Jack is the faux physician who’ll treat him).  It’s been done to death in every TV sitcom, of course (both Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone went to town with it) but if you execute it right and include some first-rate supporting players (Edgar Dearing plays—and I know this will surprise you—a cop who gets involved after pulling Norton over for speeding) you can always get a chuckle or two out of the finished product (I particularly enjoyed Fight’s windup gag).  Fight (and Looney) was directed by Leslie Goodwins (the later auteur of the Mexican Spitfire franchise), and Goodwins co-wrote Fight with comedian Monte (billed as “Monty”) Collins…which allows me to neatly segueway into…

…the fifth two-reeler on Rare Shorts, a 1935 comedy entitled Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!).  This short was a promotional gimmick funded by B.F. Goodrich, who wanted to alert the public on the dangers of reckless driving.  Monte is pal to Harry Langdon, who’s planning on wedding Diana Lewis…but Collins is really trying to sabotage the nuptials so he can have Diana and hug her and squeeze her and pet her and call her “George”; her father has warned Harry that if he gets one more traffic ticket the wedding is RIGHT OUT!—and of course, Monte is only too happy to get Harry in dutch with the police.  I was not a stranger to this short; it’s on the All Day Entertainment release of Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection and I think I said at the time “it’s not a bad little two-reeler.”  I’m still a fan—it’s got some inventive, Langdon-like gags (the bit with the four top hats produced a hearty chuckle) and as Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde note in Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon, “the film is on par with Langdon’s Educational shorts”—because it was produced by one of Educational’s units (I laughed more during Love than I have during some of Harry’s Roach shorts—that much I know).  Harter and Hayde note that Love, Honor and Obey (the Law!) was filmed before Langdon’s Columbia two-reeler His Bridal Sweet (1935) but released afterward; Sweet is my favorite of the comedian’s efforts for that studio.

Harry Gribbon
The final effort on the Rare Shorts DVD is unquestionably the weakest—Cactus Caballeros (1938), in which Harry Gribbon and Joey Faye (billed as “Fay”) play unemployed actors attempting to capture a notorious bandit in a Western town.  I’ve seen Gribbon in any number of Vitaphone shorts and he can make me laugh (though he’s usually outgunned by Shemp Howard, his frequent co-star) so I didn’t have a problem with Harry…but Faye’s character is so obnoxious, with a collection of verbal and facial tics that get on your nerves within the first five minutes of the short, that you soon start wishing for interactive TV so you can strangle him.  This was one of Faye’s first forays into film (love that alliteration); he made his name as a top “second banana” in burlesque and long claimed that he originated several of the routines popularized by Bud Abbott & Lou Costello including “Slowly I Turn” and “Who’s on First?”  Faye got better in movies and TV with each subsequent appearance…but in Caballeros, he’ll make you wish you were watching Ben Blue in a Taxi Boys comedy…and I do not make this statement in jest lightly.

Thanks again to Brian for providing the screener—Rare Shorts From the Golden Age of Hollywood is a keeper for fans of comedy and OTR (or both).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Mr. Bojangles


Southerner Jean Stratton (Anise Boyer) is willing to go to any lengths to find work in Harlem—even making a wish under the legendary “Tree of Hope” (the story goes that an actor did this under the same tree and learned upon returning to his boarding house a producer had a part for him).  Unfortunately, a few innocent inquiries to male passersby about how long she must wait for this job leads to a mix-up with the law, convinced that “going to any lengths” part involves the world’s oldest profession.  Jean is rescued by an observer in the crowd, “Money” Johnson (James Baskett), who offers her a position as a showgirl at his Acme Theatre (though he has ulterior motives, natch).

Anise Boyer and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
in Harlem is Heaven (1932)
More than just a Harlem impresario, Johnson has also done very well for himself in the “policy racket”…which provides the fundage to run the Acme and several other shady enterprises.  The history of show business is dotted with racketeers like Money (the start-up cash must come from somewhere), and as such it shouldn’t be surprising (though it certainly is disappointing) that “the world’s greatest tap dancer,” Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, is in Johnson’s employ.  (Robinson, God love him, has a gambling problem that causes him to go through greenbacks like eggs through a hen.)  Bill eventually comes to realize that he needs to run fast, run far where Johnson is concerned; he’s very impressed with Jean’s talents, and after a slight misunderstanding (he thinks she’s carrying a torch for him) gives his “copacetic” stamp of approval to her budding romance with his pal “Chummy” Walker (Henri Wessell).  You sharper members of the TDOY faithful can see where this is headed; Money is miffed when Jean spurns his amorous advances, and plots to make Chummy the fall guy by putting him in charge of one of his disreputable businesses (this one involves a fraudulent “hair straightener”).

While I would certainly not dispute that Harlem is Heaven, this 1932 musical of the same name—the first release from independent Lincoln Pictures, a studio that specialized in making motion pictures for African-American audiences despite being owned and operated by whites—is anything but Paradise.  Made for $50,000, it’s an incredibly inept production; the sound is sub-standard (it sounds like someone’s smacking their gum in the background during one scene) and the abysmal direction rarely rises above resembling capturing a dinner theatre presentation on film.  Irwin (R.) Franklyn is credited as director (he also wrote the script), and while I have not seen the other film he helmed, 1938’s Gone Harlem, I can only assume he got better on his second try.  (Franklyn did pen several later movie screenplays, including Minstrel Man [1944] and The Woman from Tangier [1948].)

Harlem is Heaven is a terrible film…but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit.  The (always reliable) IMDb notes that this is the film debut of Bill Robinson, but this is simply not true…unless that tap-dancing gentleman in Dixiana (1930) appropriated Bojangles’ name for his own nefarious purposes.  I’ve stated a previous criticism that the direction in Dixiana does Robinson a tremendous disservice but it’s freaking Orson Welles compared to Harlem is Heaven.  The only bright spot with Robinson’s footwork in Harlem (and a rare departure from Franklyn’s “I’ll-just-point-this-camera-at-the-stage” style) is an amazing staircase dance executed by Bill, which is some ways a blueprint for the later number he did with TDOY bête noire Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel (1935).  The World Cinema Review blog notes: “[I]n the original the simple set consisting of a small staircase of five steps up and five steps down better reveals his amazing footwork, and stunningly points up his simple but graceful dancing. And unlike the second ‘Step Dance,’ he does not have to play an old ‘darky’ to get the opportunity to strut his stuff.”

What I enjoyed most about Robinson’s performance in Heaven is seeing how the performer became more and more confident in front of a motion picture camera with each subsequent appearance.  He only had to dance in Dixiana…but Bill’s got to sing and act in Heaven, and he does a most impressive job despite his inexperience.  (In one scene, he reacts to Baskett’s Money Johnson referring to Boyer’s Jean as his “protégé” with this flawless retort: "You sure gotta a lot of funny names for it, Money...")  By the time of his next onscreen appearance, a great musical two-reeler called King for a Day (1934—I caught this sometime back when The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ had their Vitaphone shorts salute), Bill overwhelms the screen with his charm.  Robinson is the true strength of Harlem, he performs two musical numbers that are first-rate, The Bill Robinson Stomp and Is You or Is You Ain’t (with John “Spider Bruce” Mason).

Yes, it's TDOY fave Juano Hernandez in an uncredited bit as the cop who tries to run Anise Boyer's Jean in.

The opening cast credits of Harlem is Heaven note “The Following Players By Special Arrangement With ‘The Cotton Club’.”  Bob Sawyer and Alma Smith (as Johnson’s spurned girlfriend) don’t get much of an opportunity to make an impression, but James Baskett (billed as “Jimmy Baskette”) went on to a not-too-shabby movie career, culminating with winning a special Oscar for his performance as “Uncle Remus” in Walt Disney’s still controversial Song of the South (1946).  (Baskett passed away in 1948.)   I don’t know what Henri Wassell did after Harlem (this was his only film) but I hope he was able to make a living at something other than acting because he’s weak and embarrassing as Chummy.  Anise Boyer, on the other hand, continued her singing and dancing career and can be glimpsed in later films plying her trade including Stormy Weather (1943—which also features Robinson) and Carolina Blues (1944).  An IMDb commenter notes that there were people who thought Boyer was even more of a knockout than Lena Horne.  (I don’t wish to live in a world where the majority thinks this, by the way.  But it’s a shame Anise never made it into mainstream films since she’s very, very good here…though I strongly suspect she would have been saddled with a lot of “domestics” roles in a studio system.)

Spencer Williams and Edward Thompson in The Melancholy Dame (1929)

Alpha Video has just released Harlem is Heaven to DVD, and has paired the feature (it runs short…I’m convinced their available print was a truncated one) with a most amusing two-reeler, The Melancholy Dame (1929).  Real-life spouses Edward Thompson and Evelyn Preer play Permanent and Jonquil Williams in one of producer Al Christie’s “Darktown Birmingham” shorts (a series of early talkie shorts featuring African-American performers); Permanent runs a café where the featured attraction is dancing by—I swear I’m not making this up—Sappho Dill (Roberta Hyson).  (Sappho’s husband-pianist is played by Spencer Williams, later a director of Black Cinema in his own right and recognizable as “Andy” on the TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy.)  This production is a bit more polished (Christie was a well-known producer of shorts, many of which were released through Paramount) and the performances more professional—I didn’t even mind that I saw the punchline coming from a mile away (though the closing credits appear to be missing).  According to the IMDb, this one was remade as a Vitaphone short—The Black Network (1936)—that I’m curiously to track down if it turns up on TCM; TDOY fave Nina Mae McKinney plays the Hyson role, and fellow birthday celebrant Amanda Randolph essays the Preer-like “Mezzanine Johnson.”  (You would-be Moms out there—why not try to catapult “Jonquil” or “Mezzanine” onto the top baby name lists, huh?)

Thursday, August 31, 2017

“…timber!”


Lumber baron Thomas De Quincey (James Gordon) is excited to welcome home his son Jack (Kenneth Harlan)—newly graduated from Oxford, you know—because he needs a man to ride herd at his lumber camps and apparently De Quincey’s outfit is not a meritocracy.  “Bootleggers, bullies, and bolsheviks [sic] have about disorganized my camps!” he wails to Jack in a title card that made me giggle.  Jack is not entirely certain he has the right stuff to take on the family business…but one thing he does know is that he doesn’t want preferential treatment because his lineage.  His old man decrees that Jack won’t last a week without his protection, and the two men wager $10,000 on that outcome.

Viola Dana and Kenneth Harlan
Arriving at one of the camps, Jack soon becomes smitten with Marie O’Neill (Viola Dana), the daughter of the camp superintendent (DeWitt Jennings).  He’ll also run afoul of the bullying Pete (Frank Hagney), the self-proclaimed “boss” of the camp, and the two men eventually come to blows in a display of fisticuffs at a camp dance, which erupts after Jack commits a social fox paw by daring to dance with Marie even though Pete called first dibs.  Pete and his toady, “Dumb Danny” (Norman Deming), later attempt to bump off Jack but our hero is made of sterner stuff.  Yet Jack not only has to foil the misguided scheme of these two ineffectual villains…he must rescue Marie, who’s tied up in a boat that’s directly in the path of…The Ice Flood (1926).

Author Johnston McCulley cranked out hundreds of stories—not to mention fifty novels and an impressive outlay of movie and TV screenplays—during his lengthy literary career, and is perhaps best known for creating the masked avenger known as Zorro…who appeared in feature films, serials, and TV series on his journey to becoming a pop culture icon.  McCulley’s 1918 novelette, The Brute Breaker (published in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly), was adapted for the silver screen a year later in a Universal film starring Frank Mayo and Harry Northrup.  Because Hollywood loves to “adapt, adopt, and improve” its releases from the past, Universal decided to remake Breaker seven years later as The Ice FloodFlood was one of the studio’s “Jewel” productions—the name they gave their prestige product, for which they charged roadshow ticket prices to compensate for the bigger budget.  Universal’s Carl Laemmle apparently believed that the stature of a “Jewel” would invite SRO crowds to movie palaces…but it turned out to be a complete bust, and the studio abandoned “Jewels” in 1929.

Viola Dana
The Ice Flood isn’t a great silent film, but I cannot deny it’s not an entertaining one.  It’s simple and straightforward mellerdrammer, with a two-fisted he-man and starry-eyed ingenue predictably getting together by the time the closing credits roll.  The characters are drawn in broad strokes; for example, we know Pete is a complete potzer because in one scene he’s riding a seesaw with camp mascot Billy (played by Billy Kent Schaefer) and he allows the handicapped youngster to fall to the ground by quickly getting off his end.  (Later, Pete steps on Billy’s injured foot, complicating things further for the innocent tyke.)  Kenneth Harlan is the dependable leading man of Flood, with a long movie career (he appears in such films as The Penalty [1920] and The Toll of the Sea [1922] that began in silents and ended up in B-westerns and serials (he did a ton of chapter plays) before hanging it up to become an agent and restauranteur.  Viola Dana, last seen here on the blog in Open All Night (1924), is serviceable as Harlan’s love interest…though she seems a little subdued during Flood’s exciting climax (girlfriend, get your ass out of that boat!).

My Facebook compadre and fellow classic movie blogger Chris Edwards did a nice write-up of this movie on his Silent Volume blog in 2013, observing: “The Ice Flood packs a lot of action into sixty minutes.  Exuberant, if not breathless, action.”  (Chris also mentions a similar film, The White Desert [1925], that I’ll need to track down one of these days.)  It was co-scripted and directed by George B. Seitz, a veteran known for serials during the silent era (The Exploits of Elaine, The Lightning Raider) and with the advent of talkies helmed a substantial number of the Crime Does Not Pay shorts and features in the Andy Hardy franchise.  Seitz is not a showman, but he adds some nice touches to the narrative—particularly in the beginning; the elder De Quincey is bragging to his bidness associates that his son will soon be running things and one of them asks if that’s the one who “writes poetry.”  De Quincey replies in the affirmative, and above the heads of the two men is an image of a Nancy boy in Little Lord Fauntleroy clothing, dancing about with wild abandon.  (Seitz also does some effective cross-cutting between the impending ice flood disaster and the action at Harlan’s camp, commenting on the action with risible title cards like “A resistless, mighty monster straining at its Wintry leash!”)

Chris had the good fortune to see The Ice Flood at Syracuse’s Cinefest 33 in 2013…whereas I had to settle for sitting down with the just released Alpha Video DVD.  (On the plus side—I didn’t have to share my popcorn with anyone.)  The Ice Flood remains a first-rate example of why I love silent films so—it tells a cracking good story with a happy ending and gets the job done in 70 minutes without overloading my senses with a lot of purposeless CGI.