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Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies From Nickelodeon’s to Youtube – by Trav S. D.

51NF-vvToPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Trav S. D. is a professional vaudevillian and author who has written a history of vaudeville (No Applause – Just Throw Money, which I am currently reading) and a history of slapstick. Chain of Fools begins by briefly tracing slapstick’s long tradition from the ancient Greeks through commedia dell’ arte to the circus, acrobatics, vaudeville and finally cinema. The bulk of his book is about silent comedy, but he also includes several chapters on the slapstick that followed during the early talkies and TV to manifestations of slapstick today (Sacha Baron Cohen is, according to him, one of the few genuine contemporary “clowns” in the traditional sense). One of his main arguments is that silent film did not just come out of nowhere and disappear with the advent of sound, but is a timeless tradition with deep roots and great influence on later films.

His history is excellent. He discuses and analyzes the slapstick comedians we all know – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Mack Sennett, Fatty Arbuckle – but also highlights comedians most people are not familiar with, like Larry Semon, Raymond Griffith, Lupino Lane (Ida Lupino is his niece). I’m not sure if Charley Chase and Harry Langdon are considered well-known or not. They seem to occupy a middle tier.

Though he focuses on the silent era, he still provides a broad look at the careers of the silent comedians. He talks about how Chaplin’s lengthy popularity was partly owing to how he made himself timeless. By the 1920s, Chaplin could have been considered old-fashioned, a bit melodramatic and somewhat quaint. But his emotional instinct was right on and not being rooted in one time actually made him timeless. Trav S.D. also discusses what makes good comedy. For him, a pet peeve is the purposeless thrashing about or random happenings. Good comedians need motivations for what they do and a reason for us to care. It’s actually much funnier that way.

However, what I found most interesting – though I enjoyed his history and analysis of the different comedians – was his discussion of the cinema as a visual medium versus an aural one. The general narrative is that talkies, or sound, won out over silent movies, but he doesn’t buy that. With the popularity of radio and the novelty of sound, he believes that sound temporarily won out and people’s mode of receiving information temporarily was realigned from the visual to the aural. In particular in the ’30s, dialogue is emphasized, but ultimately movies became more about visuals than dialogue. He believes this began to happen in the 1970s (though he also credits Alfred Hitchcock).

He has a point. Movies that dominate the box office today are primarily visual rather than aurally driven. Perhaps most specifically action/adventure movies. He believes they are the descendants of silent, physical comedy. As he points out, in action movies, dialogue is primarily reduced to comic asides during an action scene. Replace the comic asides with intertitles, he says, and you have a silent comedy (he holds up Douglas Fairbanks as an example, both his action/romantic/comedies and later his action/adventures).

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Edna Purviance and Charlie Chaplin

If you think about it, there were a lot of movies adapted from books, plays and radio dramas in the 1930s and ’40s. Adaptations of plays, in particular, are not something you see now and they tend to be the most talky movies of all. It’s not that movies became all talky. Errol Flynn still swashbuckled and screwball comedy is part slapstick (Cary Grant can do a pratfall with the best of them). Preston Sturges in particular mined slapstick and gags in his films, though he often contrasted them with scenes of extended and funny wordiness.

But I wonder if that is why there were so many actors with distinctive voices during the ’30s and ’40s: Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Claude Rains. They are actors I love to listen to. Though not all actors relied as much on their voice. Gary Cooper was primarily a visual actor; he used body language far more than his voice to communicate emotion.

But as Trav S.D. points out, so many of the great “cinematic” moments during the golden age of Hollywood are actually theatrical moments caught on film. “Here’s looking at you, kid” from Casablanca, he argues, is a case in point. In contrast, the sight of Chaplin walking down the road in the short “The Tramp” with his feeble cane, shaking his leg, is a purely cinematic and visual one. Alfred Hitchcock films are also filled with purely visual moments.

Ultimately, he argues, the addition of sound wasn’t so much an “improvement” as it was an expanding of options.

This is not exactly on topic, but I watched a fascinating video about Jackie Chan, which talks about how to film action comedy, what makes it work and the affinity between comedy and action.

And just because I really enjoy this formulation of what makes Buster Keaton’s gags work so well.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2016 in Books

 

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The Rose of Washington Square (1939) – Not-So-Veiled Biopic of Fanny Brice

MV5BNDM4MjgzODM1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDk4NzE2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Ever since first being introduced to Alice Faye, I have liked her movies. Her voice, as Alice Faye said, was deeper than the plots of her films, but there is a warm, nostalgic charm in her films that I enjoy. And I especially enjoy her voice and her singing. Michael Feinstein comments in a feature on the DVD of The Rose of Washington Square that she was an excellent swing singer, but she is extremely moving when she sings ballads and has a rich, warm voice that is lovely to listen to.

The story of Rose of Washington Square is extremely basic: about the enduring love of a woman for her charming, but ne’er-do-well husband. During the 1920s (the era of vaudeville, speakeasies and booze just off the ships) Rose Sargent (Alice Faye) and Ted Cotter (Al Jolson) are struggling vaudevillians trying to land a contract with a big-time agent. However, before they can do so, Rose meets Bart Clinton (Tyrone Power) at a hotel and they fall in love instantly. Ted Cotter gets his contract with agent Harry Long (William Frawley – always fun to see in a film), but Rose is no longer his partner. 

Instead, she gets a job at a speakeasy, where she sings a fun swing song with Louis Prima (of King Louis fame in The Jungle Book), who accompanies her on his trumpet, and she runs into Bart again. Bart, it turns out, is something of a small-time crook who occasionally plays with the bigger-time crooks. He’s more of a con artist. When she first meets him at the hotel and they fall in love, he skips out that same night without telling her because the police caught up with him when he tried to con a very expensive necklace out of Tiffany’s. But when she meets him again, she tells him she doesn’t care what he does. She loves him and nothing he does can make any difference.

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Tyrone Power, Alice Faye

Naturally, Ted Cotter does not like Bart much, but puts up with him for Rose’s sake. His career skyrockets, however, and Jolson sings many of his most famous songs: “Mammy,” “Toot Toot Tootsie,” California, Here I Come.” Meanwhile, Bart and Rose marry and her career takes off as well. But Bart is still no good, immature, and incapable of staying honest and he goes from one scrape to another of increasing magnitude. Meanwhile, his wife continues to stand by his side, no matter what, even when he must stand a public trial for theft.

She never gets angry…not once (unlike in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, where Faye and Power’s interaction is decidedly more fiery). But Rose has simply decided that she doesn’t care what he does; she wants him and she’s going to stand by him and it’s definitely a decision, even if she does say that her love is more like a fever, something you can’t cure or control.

In one way, it is yet another one of those stories glorifying the suffering wife standing by her crummy husband, but it’s actually a not terribly subtle rip-off of real people and a real event. At the beginning of Rose of Washington Square, there is a disclaimer saying the events and people in the film are purely fictitious, but no one believed it. The story almost exactly mirrors the story of vaudevillian Fanny Brice and her marriage to professional gambler, Nicky Arnstein, and everyone, including Fanny Brice herself, recognized it. She sued 20th Century Fox, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Al Jolson. They evidently settled it out of court.

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Alice Faye, Al Jolson

Fanny Brice was primarily a comedian, one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s biggest stars, but she could also reportedly break your heart with a song and her most heartbreaking song was “My Man,” which Faye sings in Rose of Washington Square. In fact, Faye sings a number of songs that Brice was famous for, but “My Man” is the emotional climax of the film, where Rose declares to the world that nothing’s going to change how much she loves Bart. According to the featurette on the DVD, whenever Brice would sing “My Man,”everyone knew that she was really singing about her love for Nicky Arnstein and it was like a very public confessional, with Brice literally singing her heart out while the audience cried.

Rose of Washington Square is the first film I have seen Al Jolson in. I must admit that he initially took me aback. His acting style is fairly understated (at least in this film), but when he’s singing he’s full of frenetic energy, almost twitchy, his entire body constantly in motion, and he nearly pops off the screen at you. Jolson is essentially playing Jolson in the movie, who always performed his songs in black face. But I can see why he was so popular; that twitchy energy is magnetic, if highly individual and takes a little getting used to.

Alice Faye and Tyrone Power made three movies together: Alexander’s Ragtime BandIn Old Chicago, and The Rose of Washington Square, though I have not yet seen In Old Chicago. But Alice Faye and Tyrone Power are a good match and I give them great credit for making it seem both plausible and natural that they would fall in love at first sight in The Rose of Washington Square. Power is best remembered as a swashbuckler, but he played cads, crooks and shady characters very well. He could have just a touch of the smarmy about him, but he was handsome and boyish enough to carry it off and keep audience sympathy.

Alice Faye sings 'Rose of Washington Square"

Alice Faye sings ‘Rose of Washington Square”

All in all, it’s a very enjoyable film with some great songs. I have not seen Funny Girl (another not-so-disguised biopic of Fanny Brice, starring Barbra Streisand), but it is credited as the main reason people still remember Fanny Brice at all. However, Rose of Washington Square is actually supposed to be a more accurate portrayal of Fanny Brice’s marriage to Nicky Arnstein, though Alice Faye is not very like Fanny Brice. But it gets the core of Fanny’s love for her husband right.

Although recorded much later than 1939, here is Alice Faye singing one of Fanny Brice’s songs; “Rose of Washington Square.”

Al Jolson reprises “Toot, Toot, Tootsie” in Rose of Washington Square, one of his hits which he also sang in the 1927 The Jazz Singer. This clip is from The Jazz Singer.

This version of “My Man” was sung by Fanny Brice in 1938 on the radio.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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Hope: Entertainer of the Century – Richard Zoglin

downloadPublished in 2014, Hope: Entertainer of the Century is a first-rate biography of Bob Hope, who truly was an entertainer of the century. He was born in 1903 and died in 2003. His career spanned vaudeville, Broadway, radio, movies and television and he was at the top of every single medium (except Broadway – he was successful, but did not stay long and was never in the lead role). His career began in the 1920s and he finally retired in 1996.

The author, Richard Zoglin, argues that Bob Hope has been somewhat unfairly forgotten. He believes that he practically invented the stand-up comedy style, but very few comedians ever acknowledge his influence (with the exception of Woody Allen). Partially, he says, it is because it took Bob Hope too long too retire and he came to be seen as fuddy-duddy, conservative and even reactionary.

But Bob Hope was extremely hip when he first made it into movies in 1938. He started local in his native town of Cleveland, Ohio (though he was born in England, the fifth of seven sons), dancing and doing shows until he went on the road. He began with a partner, but eventually became a solo act and the highest earning vaudevillian in the early thirties. In 1934, he turned to radio and by 1940 he had even topped famous radio personalities like Jack Benny in the ratings.

He signed with Paramount Studios, but it took them a year to  figure out what kind of movies to put him in. His first good movie was the 1939 The Cat and the Canary, followed by The Ghost Breakers and The Road to Singapore, which began his collaboration with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. There would be seven Road To movies in all.

The Road To movies were my introduction to Bob Hope as a child and I still love them. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are always playing vaudevillians (and they do acts reminiscent of Bob Hope’s vaudeville days). There are the great contemporary songs written by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. Usually, Crosby will get a romantic song and Hope and Crosby will do a buddy song, as well as a vaudevillian song. Dorothy Lamour also sings a song. There is the constant (good-natured? they almost kill each other several times) rivalry.The costumes are always done by Edith Head and are some combination of beautiful, exotic and outlandish. And there is the constant breaking of the fourth wall: jokes poking fun at Paramount Studio, other actors, contemporary events, each other’s movies and personalities, and even the very act of making movies. I’ve found that the more I learn about the movies and events of the 1940s, the more I appreciate their jokes.

lamour-crosby-hope-road-to-bali-1952Bob Hope, both on radio and in movies, was something new. He was brash, energetic, fast talking, cocky, always on the make, with the humor often directed at himself. Even when he was no longer new, he was still popular. He moved to television in the 1950s and topped the ratings there. He also hosted and co-hosted the Academy Awards fourteen times, with his first in 1941 and his last in 1978 and including the 1953 Academy Awards, the first to be televised (can be viewed here).

Bob Hope is also remembered for entertaining the troops. He began during WWII, when he did a several month tour in Europe and the next year did a tour in Pacific. He would also entertain during The Korean War, The Vietnam War (garnering controversy), all the way up the the Persian Gulf War. He was sometimes criticized for using the troops to boost his own popularity and to make money, but Zoglin argues that there were far easier ways to do that. Conditions were rough when he traveled and he often lost money. He went through some rough flights, was in several cities that were bombed heavily by the Nazis and during the Vietnam War the hotel he was supposed to stay in was sabotaged. It was learned later that the Viet Cong and meant to kill him in the attack.

His reputation suffered during the Vietnam War. He supported the war and had some harsh words for the protesters (he was a good friend of Johnson, Ford and especially Nixon – he played golf with all the presidents from Johnson to Clinton, except Carter who did not play golf – it seems practically a prerequisite that you play golf to be president). He was also considered no longer in touch with the younger generation and did not really change his comedic presentation as he grew older.

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Paulette Goddard and Bob Hope in The Ghost Breakers

The book wisely does not focus too much on his private life, partially because he did not have much of a private life. Not even his four children (he and his wife, Dolores, adopted) knew him or even saw him much. He was married for 70 years, though he was an extreme philanderer. But what he mostly did was work. He hardly ever took a break and even when he was in his eighties people marveled at his energy and schedule. He would pack his week so full of shows and travel that most young people would have hesitated to undertake. He never seemed to suffer from burnout. Occasionally he had to slow down, but not for long and not often. He was the original energizer bunny.

One thing I appreciated was that Zoglin never falls into the biographer’s trap of thinking he has a special understanding of his subject and he does not try to analyze Bob Hope too much. He simply takes the man as he was. It is a respectful biography, not hagiographic or smutty. Bob Hope was a professional and he loved his fans and was conscientious about responding to letters. He could be demanding, loyal, distant, friendly, self-absorbed, a shrewd business man, a master at crafting his image, not a warm man. It was all about him and his career and his wife supported him in that.

Hope: Entertainer of the Century is not only a good biography, it is an interesting panoramic of entertainment in the 1900s, from vaudeville to radio to Broadway to movies to television. Few men embody the sweep of how entertainment was presented to Americans better than Bob Hope.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Biographies

 

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