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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ed Watz on Wheeler and Woolsey

Interview by Doug Gibson

Ed Watz is the author of the above book, "Wheeler and Woolsey: The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films, 1927-1937," (McFarland). It's a successful genre book logging more than 3,000 sales. Another book of Ed's I enjoy is "The Columbia Comedy Shorts," (McFarland) that he co-authored with Ted Okuda.

Ed's written a lot on vintage comedy the past several decades, and later this year his newest book, "Buster Keaton in the Talkies: Laughter Louder Than Words," is being published by BearManor Media. It will deal with Keaton's films from 1929 to 1941.

I owe my enjoyment of Wheeler and Woolsey to Ed's book, and I asked him recently to talk about the famous comedy duo, which made a lot of films, and money, for RKO. He agreed and here's our chat.


Plan9Crunch: Tell us a little about Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey's success in vaudeville in the 1920s and how they came to RKO's eye.

Watz: Bert Wheeler was a major star of vaudeville for about a decade, from the mid-teens until 1926. In 1923 Bert and his first wife and stage partner, Betty, were chosen by the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld to appear in that year's Ziegfeld Follies revue. Robert Woolsey only briefly worked in vaudeville; he appeared in numerous touring companies of famous plays, eventually landing on Broadway and appearing in a major show almost every season. In 1926 Ziegfeld hired Wheeler and Woolsey as the comedy relief in his latest extravaganza, RIO RITA. Their parts were loosely sketched but both comedians were expected to furnish their own material. By the time the show opened in New York the following February, they perfected a series of routines together that practically stole the show. When Ziegfeld sold the movie rights of RIO RITA to RKO, Wheeler and Woolsey were the show's only stage players who were hired to repeat their performances on film.


The subtitle of my W and W book, "The Vaudeville Comedy Team and Their Films," is actually somewhat of a misnomer as they were never a team in vaudeville. My original title for the book was "Forgotten Laughter," but my publisher decided to change it.



Plan9Crunch: Some call W and W small-town knock offs of the Marx Brothers but their films sometimes were more successful than the Marx Brothers.Whom played off whom, or did both teams have their own unique styles?

Watz: Actually I doubt that any of the W&W starring films outgrossed any of the Marx Brothers films, but because the W&Ws were usually modestly budgeted -- what you might call a "lazy 'A'" picture -- costing on average of $250,000 to $300,000. their films usually returned a decent profit of around $100,000 to $150,000. Whereas the Marx Brothers at Paramount and later MGM had budgets ranging first from around $600,000 and later over $1 million, their films tended to return a much smaller profit, or in the cast of three of their MGM films, no profit at all.

The Marx Brothers' films grossed more money, but their higher budgets meant that the profits -- if there were any to be had -- were lower than Wheeler & Woolsey's. The films of Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello likewise had lower budgets and their films, like W&W's, usually returned a solid profit.

Wheeler & Woolsey, like Laurel & Hardy, were both star comedians in their own right; while they played off each other, neither was the straight man. If there is any team similar to them it certainly isn't Stan and Ollie, or Abbott &Costello; but the repartee and rivalry over a girl in the W&W films anticipates the Hope & Crosby pairings in the "Road" pictures.



Plan9Crunch: How important was Dorothy Lee (seen above with the pair} to the team's success? Is she comparable to a Margaret Dumont or Christine McIntyre as a valued cast player with a great comedy team?

Watz: Dorothy Lee is a charming asset to the W&W films, especially in those moments when she gets to sing and dance a duet with Bert Wheeler. She's not really a comedy character, and she rarely acts as a straight woman for the team. Dorothy herself usually dismissed her performances but she remains a fan favorite. Wheeler & Woolsey films are often populated by terrific supporting casts who do indulge in comic banter. The Marx Brothers' Margaret Dumont appeared with the team in two of their films. Others who contributed great support include Betty Grable, Lupe Velez, Edgar Kennedy, Marjorie White, Warren Hymer, Louis Calhern, Billy Gilbert and Noah Beery Sr., among others.


Plan9Crunch: What's your favorite Wheeler and Woolsey film and why?

Watz: I have two favorites: PEACH-O-RENO, in which Bert contributes a brilliant comedy performance in drag that matches for perfection Jack Lemmon's work in SOME LIKE IT HOT; and COCKEYED CAVALIERS, a period picture set in Restoration England where Bob Woolsey romances beautiful Thelma Todd and the team becomes involved in court intrigue when a jealous Baron (Noah Beery) mistakes the pair of the King's royal physicians. CAVALIERS is very much a blueprint for the "Road" comedies of the next decade. It has a solid plot with their best individual comedy scenes, plus it never meanders, moving swiftly and logically to a hilarious chase climax.

Plan9Crunch: They had a breakneck pace of making films in the 1930s. Was that a reflection of their popularity, and did it have an impact of wearing Robert down to an early death?

Watz: Wheeler & Woolsey were among RKO's biggest box office attractions from 1930 through 1935. Once the studio realized that big profits were to be made on their inexpensively produced films, they wasted no time in churning them out. Five W&W films were produced in 1930 alone. Ten years later, Universal put its new comedy team Abbott & Costello through a similar assembly-line production schedule. Bert and Bob, like Bud and Lou later on, finally rebelled and within a few years would restrict their output to two films a year.

Bob Woolsey was never a healthy person, and the tough filmmaking schedules (and later, personal appearance tours) doubtless wore him out. On top of that, he was an insomniac, and drank to put himself to sleep. Although Bob's death at age 50 was announced as due to kidney failure, Bert Wheeler attested that Woolsey died from cirrhosis of the liver.



Plan9Crunch: The pair seem mismatched but they click very well. Bert's lovesick charm with Robert's wisecracks and schemes. Why does it work and does it compare with other comedy teams? What can we learn about comedy from watching them today? They play often on Turner Classic Movies.

Watz: I think the takeaway one can get from watching Wheeler & Woolsey in their best films is that the world of 1930s comedy was much more diverse than just Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, and The Marx Brothers. Besides W&W, there are many great comedians like Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Joe E. Brown, Edgar Kennedy, and Leon Errol, to name a few, waiting to be rediscovered. Harry Langdon's work in talkies is a revelation; I know of some people who prefer his sound films to his more celebrated silents. In Wheeler & Woolsey's case, they provide us with a time capsule representing some of the best (and most delightful) of 1930s Musical Comedy. I'm pleased that Turner Classic Movies continues to show their films, and the success of my W&W book (over 3,000 copies sold) tells me that people do want to know and see more of Wheeler and Woolsey.



Plan9Crunch: Bert had a rough career after Woolsey's death and the end of the films. He did stay active, including in summer stock. Was he typecast from the earlier films, or was he a comedian who needed a partner?

Watz: There's one thing I'd like to address now. To be honest, Bert was disenchanted with film work towards the end of the Wheeler & Woolsey cycle. He preferred the live stage and returned to it as often as he could, the late films he did appear in where basically done when it was convenient and/or for quick cash. Like Abbott & Costello, Keaton, Langdon, John Barrymore, Chico Marx and other performers of that time, he had little regard for money and enjoyed spending it as quickly as it came in. What Wheeler did not take into account was that his absence from a mass media outlet like film, radio and later television basically ensured that he was overlooked by the public at large. When the film careers of other popular 1930s comedians stalled (Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Burns & Allen), they had already made inroads into radio and easily adapted to television, ensuring their popularity into the 1950s and beyond.

That said, it doesn't seem to have fazed Bert when in the latter half of the 1950s the major stage opportunities were few and the television work became an ever-rarer opportunity. "I make as much as I need," he replied when Jack O'Brian inquired about his well-being in the 1960s. I truly believe that he looked back on his career content and with great satisfaction, not bitterness.

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We really appreciate Ed sharing his insights on Wheeler and Woolsey with Plan9Crunch and its readers and we look forward to his new book on Buster Keaton.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy best as a familial biography


Review by Doug Gibson

It's been a long wait for a new biography, "Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy," (University Press of Kentucky, 2017). Author Gabriella Oldham began work on the project generations ago, with Langdon's wife, Mabel, who died in 2001. There was always talk of a biography from Mabel -- and indeed she is listed as a co-author, although the writing belongs to Oldham, a researcher of the silent film genre.

As noted early in the biography, an attempt is made to go beyond Langdon the showman and explore the businessman, the artist, the family man. And also his more "mature" years, after a career fall, that Oldham tells us produced a more humble man, able to plead for loans from friends, be closer to his family, and still thrill over a steady paycheck in front of or behind the camera. As Oldham notes, the book cover photo of Langdon (above) underscores her wish to present him in this serious light.

To be frank, the biography's main strength is in its familial tale of Harry and Mabel. The best parts of the book start when the pair are matched for a date. Their life anecdotes, clearly garnered from Mabel's recollections, convey a tale of two people who needed each other. He, impoverished by two divorces, worked hard for her and she, without a yen for the film industry, offered her husband a happy home and eventually a son, Harry Langdon Jr., who writes forward to the biography. (Harry Langdon Jr., now in his 80s, has enjoyed a successful career as a photographer.)

It's bittersweet that Langdon had to die with his son only 10 years old. As Oldham notes, having a wife and a son together with him was probably the happiest era of his life. Particularly enjoyable are accounts of Langdon, Mabel and baby Harry heading across to Australia where Langdon appeared in the play "Anything Goes." From there the family would eventually arrive in England where Langdon would act in one film and direct another.

There was a cheerful spontaneity to the family. When Harry wanted to make an effort to be on the stage in the  East Coast, Mabel quickly agreed to sell the house and leave, even if it meant leaving the piano with the new owners. The best parts of the book are accounts like this, including the very early years of Harry as a youngster in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he would put on plays, try to get into playhouses for adults and eventually, by his early teens, be a traveling performer.

Although I've read often of Langdon's death at age 60 in 1944 -- he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after a long day of soft shoe dancing for his final Columbia short, "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," the drama of the lingering days before his death is captured. As Oldham notes, he first thought he had a toothache. His descent must have been rapid because he was soon bedridden and unable to speak to his son or wife. Even then, as director Ed Bernds' notes reveal, his contemporaries were surprised he died.

I rarely am moved to tears, but Mabel's recollection of telling Harry Jr. that his father had died deeply touched this father of two sons, one deceased, the other 12. "He turned around, went to his room for over an hour, then came out as if I hadn't said anything at all." My heart breaks for the boy who began processing deep grief in that hour.

So, how does "Harry Langdon: King of Comedy" compare with two other biographies of Langdon, "Little Elf," by Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde, and William Schelly's "Harry Langdon: His Life and Films." This new book finishes third. There is, however, valuable information. The vaudeville years and his life with first wife, and acting partner, Rose, are covered quickly, but success with Mack Sennett and First National, followed by the fall, and the on-again off-again successes in sound cinema are not ignored.

The Frank Capra/Langdon  drama is interesting because Oldham, while certainly appropriately critical of Capra's less-than-truthful later observations of Langdon (the guy never seemed to get over being fired), also seems to infer that Langdon did indeed disrespect his gag man-turned-director. Anecdotes include Langdon's future second wife, Helen Walton, arrogantly sitting in Capra's director's chair, and an unpleasant scene where Langdon humiliates Capra for trying to get the star out for an extra shot in a scene.

Langdon had a swift fall at First National, and apparently it was ugly enough that Hal Roach verbally told Langdon he'd take none of the First National nonsense at his studio. Indeed, Langdon only lasted a season with Roach before moving to movies and shorts at other studios. He later worked a lot with Roach's studio behind the scenes and even starred with Oliver Hardy in "Zenobia."

Oldham is very critical of the Langdon-directed "Three's A Crowd" and "The Chaser," both flops. Langdon was also critical of "The Chaser" and the lost "Heart Trouble," his final First National film (and one film I dearly, desperately want found). Personally, I think the films Langdon had control over, "Long Pants," "Three's A Crowd," and "The Chaser" are more unique, cultish films than the hits, Harry Edwards' "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and Capra's "The Strong Man." But there's no denying that the first two films, fine movies, were more appealing to audiences.

Langdon was trying to take risks, to explore facets of his Little Elf character. Certainly a darker perspective was influenced by collaborator Arthur Ripley, but Langdon was the star, the director, the man responsible for the money. He lost First National several hundred thousand dollars with the final four films. I do agree with the assessment that Langdon was trying too hard to perfect individual parts of his movies at the expense of the overall success of the whole film. Audiences wanted underdog stories of the Elf overcoming adversity and getting the girl. They didn't want tragic and loveless endings for the Elf. Neverthless, "Three's A Crowd" is a surreal, dreamlike set masterpiece and it's an outrage that it's never aired on Turner Classic Movies.

Langdon was far more successful professionally than many might be aware of in the sound era. He made at least 30 shorts (several are lost), a lot of movies, including the big-budget "Zenobia" and "Hallelujah I'm a Bum," was on the stage a lot (as was Buster Keaton, another sound-era success), was a gag man with Roach, worked overseas, and was still headlining shorts and appearing in B movies until he died. Though most of his shorts were with Columbia, his best overall work was with Educational Pictures, with independent producer/director Arvid E. Gillstrom, of Mermaid Pictures.

These shorts, and some can be found at YouTube, are very strong. They often co-feature Langdon's close friend, Vernon Dent, who had worked with him since his silent Sennett days. Two I highly recommend are "The Hitchhiker" and "Knight Duty," but about all the Gillstrom films are great. (One can see Charles Chaplin's "City Lights" street sets in Gillstrom/Langdon/Dent's "The Big Flash.") Eventually Paramount released Gillstrom's shorts, which was a boon for Harry and Dent, who were almost becoming a team. But Gillstrom died, so the series ended and alas, today the Paramount Gillstrom shorts are lost. Most feature Harry and Vernon in roles similar to what Laurel and Hardy might do. One can only hope these Paramount shorts are one day discovered. What we do know is that there were no serious future efforts to co-star the two stars, although they appeared in films together often.

Late in his life, Harry, with good humor referred to his Columbia shorts, heavy on slapstick, as 'O Ouch O" comedies. Some are still pretty good. I enjoy "Tireman Spare My Tires," with Louise Currie, "To Heir is Human" with Una Merkel, and "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," with El Brendel, with whom Harry made several shorts. Harry also starred in a few low-budget comedy programmers for Monogram and PRC, the best of which is "Misbehaving Husbands," produced by Jed Buell, who ironically was the first filmmaker to sign vaudeville star Langdon almost 20 years earlier.

I've spoken very positively of the new biography. Overall, I like it. But there is one flaw that must be corrected in a Kindle version or future editions. I discovered several factual errors that are embarrassing. I'll mention a few here. (The fact I found several just through my read of the book worries me that there are other errors I did not catch). I urge University Press of Kentucky to fix this. Errors include:

Writing that Vernon Dent was a co-star in "Three's A Crowd." It was Arthur Thalasso.

Claiming that Raymond Rohauer, the admirable film scholar, bought and restored "Plain Clothes." He didn't.

Writing that "His New Mamma" is a lost film. It is not. I watched it yesterday.

Writing that "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" was a big monetary hit. It was not. It's a fine film but it went way over budget. The film was a major financial flop.

The Langdon short "Skirt Shy" is compared to "Saturday Afternoon" because Harry is dressed as a woman. I believe the author intended to use "The Chaser" and not "Saturday Afternoon."

And the writer implies that the Langdon Jam Handy film short "Sitting Pretty" still exists. It is, unfortunately, lost.

These are errors easily corrected, like typos in a newspaper, and they shouldn't take away from what is an enjoyable biography worthy of a spot in a bookcase. Like my other Langdon books, I'll read it often, but I hope the errors are corrected.

Langdon was a marvel of an actor; a minimalist genius, able to bring laughter and pathos to the smallest gestures and eye glances. He appropriately joins Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the four greatest silent comedy stars. His silent shorts, with Dent, "Saturday Afternoon," and "All Night Long," are among the best made. This biography has many photos of Langdon, his family and peers, as well as much of his artwork; he was a talented artist. (In fact, I just got a copy of The Harry Langdon Scrapbook, with lots of photos and text from Langdon Jr. It was released last fall and we will review it soon at Plan9Crunch).



Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter brings the best giant killer bunnies movie




By Steve D. Stones

If I didn't know any better, I could have easily mistaken “Night of The Lepus” for a Bert I. Gordon movie. Gordon, aka “Mr. B.I.G.,” is known for low-budget 1950s and ’60s science-fiction films that explore the theme of gigantism — giant grasshoppers, ants, mice, spiders, teenagers, and even a giant 50-foot man in a diaper, which is “The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957)

But in 1972’s “Night of The Lepus,” Rory Calhoun stars as Cole Hillman, a rancher whose property in Arizona is being invaded by a herd of rabbits. Hillman calls on the help of two zoologists — Roy and Gerry Bennett, played by Janet Leigh and Stuart Whitman — to control the rabbit population.

Roy and Gerry suggest controlling the population of rabbits through hormone injections instead of poisoning the herds. Their daughter Amanda switches one of the hormone-injected rabbits with another rabbit. The hormone-injected rabbit gets free and grows to a giant size. The rabbit's offspring also grows to a giant size and takes over the Hillman ranch.


Animal rights activists should steer clear of this film. Many scenes show the impact of gunfire on rabbits when it hits their bodies, even though it is fake. An opening sequence shows stock footage of ranchers with shotguns chasing after and rounding up herds of rabbits.

“Night of The Lepus” was filmed in Arizona with domesticated rabbits set against miniature sets and actors dressed in rabbit costumes. The film fails to depict rabbits as scary or threatening in any way. The furry critters come across as cute and cuddly, just like the Easter Bunny.

Enjoy an offbeat Easter by catching this flick tonight, April 15, 2017 on Turner Classic Movies at 9:30 p.m. MST.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hurray for 'Hollywood Hotel'

Review by Doug Gibson

I love the opening scene in "Hollywood Hotel," 1937, in which a perky, cute, girl next door type of hotel operator brightly says, "Hollywood Hotel!" The unnamed actress, in a few scenes, captures the innocent energy of this ensemble musical.

"Hollywood Hotel" is best known as the film that first featured the iconic song, "Hurray for Hollywood." The Busby Berkeley-directed film, lots of songs and Benny Goodman's band, is one of the type of films that were popular in the first decade after talkies replaced silent -- the upbeat, girl and guy makes good musicals with literally dozens of stars, billed and unbilled, in the cast. These films likely cheered up Depression era audiences, allowing escapism.

The plot involves handsome saxophonist Ronny Bowers (Dick Powell) who gets a 10-week contract from All-Star Pictures. He gets a great send off and once in Tinsel Town is shuffled aside. After Ronnie is used to be the escort of a stand in actress (Rosemary Lane) impersonating a temperamental star (Lois Lane) who won't go to her premiere, he's fired and paid off  by the studio after the angry star learns of the deception.

"Hollywood Hotel," however, is one of those films in which you know all's going to turn out well in the end. Ronnie becomes a singing waiter. He and the stand in are already falling in love, and a plan is hatched to make Bowers a star. He's allied in this by wisecracking, often disparaged photographer Fuzzy Boyle, played by the great Ted Healy, who tries his hand at being an agent to help Ronnie. 

Eventually, the path to stardom for Ronnie begins with an appearance at a popular radio show called Hollywood Hotel, hosted by Louella Parsons. Hollywood Hotel was a real show with actors recreating scenes. Parsons plays herself in the film.

I won't give away the rest of the plot except to say that at the end, Ronnie is re-signed by All Star Pictures at a higher salary! As mentioned, there are guest appearances galore by stars. I enjoyed seeing a pre-star Ronald Reagan as a radio broadcaster and veteran comedy character actor Hugh Herbert, with his "woo woos," as the temperamental star's father.

TED HEALY SHINES

But my favorite character in the film, and the reason I'm reviewing it, is Ted Healy's Fuzzy Boyle, celebrity photographer turned celebrity agent. His comedy relief is more appropriate in this type of film than his still talented turn in the truly horrifying pre-code horror "Mad Love." He's wonderful in the role, with crackling dialogue and strong comic timing. An example is an early scene where photographer Boyle uses his wit to con his way past a guard who wants to keep him away from a celebrity shoot. The scene is as polished as any comedy team's best work and I wonder if Healy had honed such a scene long ago on vaudeville. Scenes of Healy loyally working the waiting tables with Bowers and trying to boost his career are very entertaining. So are his scenes as an unenthusiastic potential romantic partner of the strikingly odd but funny actress Mabel Todd. Attractive blonde Glenda Farrell also has a small role.

The one drawback is that Healy, still a young 40, looks 10 years older. He would die soon after his 41st birthday in December 1937. He was beaten badly in a brawl while out on the town. For years it was suspected that his injuries killed him. However, it is more likely that years of hard living and neglected health contributed more to his death. Healy biographer Bill Cassara noted in his recent biography that kidney failure was a major cause of his death.

UPDATE! Bill Cassara, in a mention on a Facebook post, has provided the answer to who plays the Hollywood Hotel operator: (she's actually in the credits).

"And now the "mystery woman" of the opening seconds can be revealed: It was Duane Thompson who also started off the radio program of "Hollywood Hotel" with the same cheerful opening. For Vernon Dent fans, she used to be Vernon's little leading lady when he starred in the Folly Comedies back in 1921. Her stage name then was 'Violet Joy.'" ... ME: I wasn't looking for the name Duane.

Below, watch the opening scene of "Hollywood Hotel, along with the pretty telephone operator.