Posted in 1920s, Movies, Silent film

When avoiding bad luck creates even worse luck

Though Max Linder (né Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle) made hundreds of films between 1905–1925 and was the original screen comedian, he’s sadly not nearly as well-known today as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or Roscoe Arbuckle. Even the overrated, creepy Harry Langdon seems to be more popular.

Like too many silent stars, Max also suffers from the misfortune of lost films. More than a few survive, but many others are lost. Thankfully, his daughter Maud (1924–2017) did a lot to resurrect his legacy and preserve his films.

Seven Years Bad Luck, released 6 February 1921, is not only one of Max’s best-known films, but is also widely considered one of his very finest among his surviving body of work.

Max gets absolutely schnockered at his bachelor party, and is so drunk he doesn’t even realize he’s in his own house when he comes home. In the morning, he awakens with a terrible hangover. But that isn’t the least of his troubles. Max woke up at the noise of a mirror breaking, caused by his amorous valet and maid.

John, the valet, immediately calls for a new mirror to be delivered to Max’s house, and lies to his employer that the noise was nothing but Mary, the maid, dropping a napkin. While Max is still in his room, John gets the chef, who very much resembles Max, to dress up as their employer and pretend to be him on the other side of the now-empty mirror frame.

The ruse works very well at first, as the chef exactly copies Max’s every single movement. However, Max eventually realizes there’s another person on the other side. When he leaves the room, the deliveryman arrives with the new mirror.

Max returns and throws a shoe at the mirror, thinking his chef is still standing there. Alas, the new mirror immediately breaks, and Max is horrorstruck. Being very superstitious, he believes he’s been dealt seven years of bad luck.

Max decides to call for his horse instead of taking his car to visit his fiancée Betty (Alta Allen), then imagines himself getting into a terrible accident and decides to just walk there. This proves even more dangerous than either driving or riding a horse, and Max barely makes it there in one piece.

While waiting for Betty, Max asks her supposed psychic maid to read his palm. She says she sees a dog threatening his happiness, and Max promptly grabs Betty’s cute little fluffy white dog Frizotto and sticks him in a vase.

Max tries to prevent Betty from seeing this, but she discovers it sooner rather than later, and is so outraged she calls off their engagement.

Betty’s mother phones Max and says Betty changed her mind and wants him to come back, then tells Betty she ought to give Max a second chance and not behave too rashly over something so silly. This attempted reconciliation ends in another breakup when Betty walks in on Max jamming on the piano to a jazz record as the maid dances. Betty is horrified by such “scandalous” behavior.

Max asks his best friend to pay a call on Betty and try to get her to relent in her cruel edict, little realizing his supposed buddy has designs on Betty. His friend, who isn’t named, lies to Betty that Max decided to marry an ex. Betty then asks how she might get revenge, and the friend suggests she marry him.

Before Max can find out about this shocking new development, he steps into a fight between two strangers on the street and ends up robbed of his wallet. Max had been planning to take a train trip, but now has no money to pay for it, and must find a way to sneak aboard.

The comic situations only escalate from there, as Max continues to court bad luck in his attempted pursuit of avoiding it.

Will Max ever defeat his string of bad luck and reconcile with Betty?

Posted in 1950s, holidays, Movies

An invisible boxer seeks exoneration and revenge

A&C Meet the Invisible Man was the third film in their popular A&C Meet… series, which eventually came to seven such mashups. It was originally intended as a straight horror film in the Invisible Man series, but the huge success of A&C Meet Frankenstein (1948) convinced Universal to rewrite the script as a comedy-horror film.

It was filmed from 3 October–6 November 1950, and released 19 March 1951. The special effects were the work of Stanley Horsley (son of English film pioneer David Horsley), who also did the special effects for The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, and Invisible Agent.

A&C actually first met the Invisible Man (voiced by Vincent Price) in the fun twist at the end of A&C Meet Frankenstein, but the one they meet and help in this film is entirely different.

Bud Alexander and Lou Francis are graduating from detective school, and very excited to start their new career. Soon after they go into business, a man (Arthur Franz) enters their detective agency, draws all the blinds, and asks if they’re interested in a case. Before he can give details, the radio reports an escaped murderer named Tommy Nelson, who exactly matches his description.

Lou is typically the first to realise their client is one and the same, while Bud takes a bit more convincing. However, as soon as Bud figures it out, he’s chomping at the bit to get the promised $5,000 reward.

Meanwhile, Tommy phones his fiancée Helen Gray (Nancy Guild) and arranges to visit her and her uncle, Dr. Philip Gray (Gavin Muir). Once he arrives in the lab, Tommy begs for the invisibility potion he’s working with. Dr. Gray steadfastly refuses, pointing out the long-known side effect of eventual madness. He tells Tommy about the sad case of the potion’s inventor, Jack Griffin, and points to his photo on the wall (Claude Rains, who played the original Invisible Man).

The cops pull up outside, and Dr. Gray and Helen stall them for time as Tommy hides. Against the dire warnings, Tommy injects himself.

Soon afterwards, Lou comes upon the scene, forced to be in a room alone with Tommy while Bud talks with the cops and demands the reward. Lou’s terror at being so close to a believed murderer increases when he shakes hands with Tommy and sees Tommy’s hand disappearing. Bit by bit, his entire body disappears, and all that’s left is a pile of clothes.

No one believes Lou’s story, and he’s sent to a shrink, Dr. James Turner (Paul Maxey). The therapy session fails miserably, as Lou instead hypnotizes not only Dr. Turner, but also several cops and anyone else who ventures into the room. Bud is outraged at Lou’s incompetence, particularly since it cost them a big reward.

Bud cheers up a bit when Helen comes to see them and begs them to prove Tommy’s innocence. She gives them $500 and a suitcase to deliver to Tommy in Riverside Park at night. Before she leaves, she asks them to tell Tommy her uncle’s working on the re-agent.

Of course, Lou is the one forced to go to the park alone at night while Bud waits by the car, dreaming of collecting the reward after all. Tommy emerges with his head wrapped in bandages, wearing the clothes from the suitcase. When the cops arrive, Tommy has once again disappeared.

Bud finally believes Lou’s story about invisibility when Tommy makes himself known and expresses outrage at Bud’s attempted double-crossing. While they’re driving away, Tommy explains what happened and why he’s innocent.

Their next stop is the gym, where Tommy elucidates a few more details. He then begins working a punching bag at incredible speed, making it look like Lou is doing it. The trainers are so impressed, they take Lou on as a boxer.

Many hilarious hijinks ensue, all while Tommy remains fixed on his goal—proving his innocence and getting revenge on the promoter who murdered his trainer. But the longer he’s invisible, the stronger the serum’s effects become, and the greater the chance of something going wrong during the big showdown in the ring.

Posted in 1950s, holidays, Movies

Wrapping up an era with mummified hijinks

Released 23 June 1955, A&C Meet the Mummy was the duo’s final Universal film, and penultimate film overall. By this point in their career, it’s obvious the films were more geared towards kids than their original adult fans. Newer, younger comedy teams were like Martin and Lewis had taken their place.

The boys were also getting on in years; Lou was in his late forties, and Bud was almost sixty. Not that there’s anything wrong with older comedians, but their age clearly shows. It kind of spoils the illusion of them as ageless clowns.

A big part of A&C’s act always was their less than lovey-dovey relationship, but here the backbiting seems a bit too real, like they’re getting out off-camera frustrations. Bud’s voice sounds really raspy and angry, beyond his usual screen persona.

Though Bud and Lou are respectively called Pete Patterson and Freddie Franklin in the closing credits and script, they call one another by their real names through the whole movie. Talk about phoning it in and not even trying!

Bud and Lou desperately need some cash splashed their way so they can leave Cairo and return to the U.S. Towards this end, they’re delighted to overhear Dr. Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch) talking about a sacred medallion on the mummy Klaris, a medallion pointing the way to Princess Ara’s treasure.

Also overhearing this conversation are Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) and a band of Klaris followers led by Semu (Richard Deacon). They all want that medallion for different reasons.

With dollar signs swimming in their eyes (and Bud as always planning to take the lion’s share), they go to Dr. Zoomer’s house to ask if they can accompany Klaris back to the U.S. Shortly before they arrive, however, Dr. Zoomer is murdered by two of Semu’s stooges. These assailants then steal Klaris.

There are a lot of mysterious disappearances and reappearances during Bud and Lou’s investigation through the house, with the “I saw what I saw when I saw it!” schtick they did so often. Some people feel it was really tired and worn out by this point, but I personally don’t have a problem with it. It’s just one of their trademarks for Lou to find something creepy, scary, weird, or suspicious, hysterically report it to Bud, find nothing when they return together, be accused of lying or seeing things, and then find it in another place when he’s alone again. Rinse, lather, repeat.

During their investigation, they of course stumble into finding that missing medallion, and now Semu’s band and Madame Rontru are in hot pursuit of them. 

The boys think they’re being helpful by taking photographs of Dr. Zoomer’s body and giving them to the newspaper, but thanks to the wrong images being used and the discovery of a joke tough guy recording Lou made with Dr. Zoomer’s tape recorder, authorities believe Bud is the murderer.

While they’re trying to evade discovery, we see the first of a running gag with Lou and snakes. Every time he plays the flute, a snake comes out of a basket behind him. Predictably, he freaks out and changes location, only for the same thing to happen all over again.

Madame Rontru offers $100 for the medallion, but Bud ups the asking price to $5,000, suspecting it’s worth far more. The deal is accepted, and Bud excitedly starts making plans for what they’re going to do with their newfound riches. Once again, he plans to give the most to himself and leave poor Lou with peanuts.

While they’re waiting for Madame Rontru at the Cairo Café, they discover the medallion is cursed. Both frantically try to pawn it off on the other, hiding it in a hamburger and switching their plates back and forth constantly.

Lou thinks he’s finally hoodwinked Bud into accepting the cursed burger, but the tables are turned, and Lou ends up eating it. Though we hear a lot of crunching, the medallion shows up in one piece in his stomach when he’s put under a fluoroscope.

Madame Rontru can’t read the hieroglyphics until Semu shows up, pretending to be an archaeologist and offering to lead the way to the treasure-laden tomb. Unbeknownst to any of the other parties, Semu’s followers have reanimated Klaris.

Now the scene is set for a murderous, mummified confrontation, which includes downright stupid scenes of Lou being chased by a bat and giant iguana, more “I saw what I saw when I saw it!,” and the fun “Take your pick” routine, hearkening back to “Who’s on First?”

Posted in Books, Laurel and Hardy

A comedy genius with a giant heart

Since yesterday, 23 February, was Stan Laurel’s 55th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), here’s a review of The Comedy World of Stan Laurel, which I wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2003–04. Surprisingly, it needed very little editing.

4.5 stars

This delightful out of print book by John McCabe isn’t a biography so much as a collection of Stan’s comedy sketches and transcripts of comedy bits he did with Oliver Hardy on tours across America and England. He also goes into detail about Stan’s early silent films, and his early years as a vaudeville performer in England and America.

The majority of the non-skit text consists of long quoted passages from those who knew him best, like friends, ex-wives, and his widow Ida. [2020 note: Like Charles Chaplin, Stan too found the great love of his life and most brilliantly successful relationship in his final wife. Ollie also found his greatest match in his final wife. Soulmates are worth waiting for.]

McCabe wrote two others books on Laurel and Hardy, including a full biography, so he didn’t want to do a lot of repeating. He was a personal friend of theirs, so he really knew his subject from the inside, not as a casual outsider doing secondhand research.

The previously undiscovered comedy sketches brought a smile to my face at a time when I was still newly getting over my heartbreak from “Max.” They also demonstrate Stan was the opposite of his onscreen personality. Everybody who knew him pointed this out; he may have written his character as a dimwitted simpleton and buffoon, but in real life he was extremely sharp, serious, and intelligent.

Oliver Hardy was also the opposite of his character—in real life he was the sweet, innocent one, not the high and mighty, smart and capable man always getting his great ideas foiled by his best friend’s utter idiocy.

Stan managed to come up with all of these great skits for radio plays, road tours, vaudeville, and movie shorts, with only a few that didn’t work well. The later movies he made with Hardy are said to supposedly suck because he had little or no creative output. [2020 note: The post-Hal Roach films are a mixed bag, but not nearly as across the board dreadful as popular wisdom has long insisted.]

It’s the reason he demanded to be paid twice the amount as Hardy, and succeeded; not because he felt he was twice as funny, but because he did twice the work while Hardy was off playing golf.

In the midst of this busy schedule, even to the end of his life, Stan always found time to do good for others. He was like his onscreen persona in that he had a really kind heart and loving spirit in real life. He never understood racial prejudice, kept his number in the phonebook so fans could talk to him, let people come to tour his house, gave a lot of money to friends or people who did him favours (the reason he didn’t have a lot of money when he died in 1965), and answered practically every single fan letter personally.

Stan felt that if someone took the time to write to him, he should respect him or her by taking time in return to write back. That is so rare in today’s world, someone who spends hours each day personally reading and answering fan mail, letting strangers walk through his or her house, and being willing to talk on the phone with any fan who might call. He was only made to curtail these activities towards the very end of his life when he got sick.

As great as the book is, it is a bit dated in some ways. Obviously, some of the sources in the bibliography are now quite out of date and/or out of print, and some of the celebrities he refers to I’ve never heard of. However, on the whole, this is a really fun book.

Stan Laurel holds Academy Awards Oscar presented to him for his creative pioneering in the field of cinema comedy on July 11, 1961. (AP Photo/Don Brinn)
Posted in 1920s, Movies

Welcome Danger

Released 12 October 1929, Welcome Danger was the great Harold Lloyd’s first talkie. A silent version was also made, for the many theatres not yet wired for sound.

While I’d give this film a solid 4 stars, it needed to be trimmed down a lot. There’s no reason this story needed to run almost two hours!

Botany student Harold Bledsoe is travelling home to San Francisco when he makes the acquaintance of Billie Lee (Barbara Kent). During a stop in Newbury, Colorado, Harold finds a double-exposed photo of the two of them, from a malfunctioning photo booth. He becomes smitten with Billie, little realising she’s the same woman who presently bangs him with a door.

There’s mechanical trouble soon after the train gets back on the road, and Harold is left behind thanks to fooling around with flowers. He then comes across Billie and her little brother Buddy, who are having car trouble. Harold is very annoyed with Billie’s incompetence, and thinks she’s a man because of her name and clothes.

Their carburetor accidentally drives off with someone who stopped to refuel them, and there’s more car trouble. They have no choice but to camp out for the night. Once again, Billie drives Harold up the wall.

Harold is stunned to finally discover Billie’s true sex when she emerges from the tent wearing a dress, her hair uncovered. He runs away in mortification, remembering how he kicked her. However, they’re soon reconciled.

Their romance isn’t long-lived, since very soon another train arrives and they must go their separate ways. After he boards the train, Harold realises he never got Billie’s surname or address.

In San Francisco, Harold is invited to work at the police station, and impresses Captain Walton (William Walling) on his first day by stopping a stickup in its tracks. He’s immediately fascinated by the forensic science of fingerprinting, and decides to fingerprint the entire station.

The other guys don’t exactly share his passion.

To get rid of Harold, the police send him on a dangerous mission to Chinatown, with the objective of catching criminal lord The Dragon.

Soon after he arrives in Chinatown, Harold happily makes the reacquaintance of Billie and causes a huge traffic jam when he jumps into her car. A cop, Patrick Clancy (awesome character actor Noah Young), chews him out, and follows him after he finally gets out of the car. During the attempted arrest, another guy knocks Clancy unconscious and makes off with his gun.

Harold, determined to help Clancy, runs after the miscreant and knocks out everyone in the building. All Chinese look alike to him, so he has no idea who the guilty party is.

Clancy is very impressed by his heroism, and changes his tune even more upon finding out his identity.

Harold buys a pot of flowers for Billie and roller-skates for Buddy. When he arrives, the famous Dr. Chang Gow (James Wang) is also there, and says his operation on Buddy’s leg has a very good chance of success.

Dr. Gow accidentally knocks over the flowerpot on his way out, revealing a little packet of opium. Harold tells him where he got the flowers, and says he stole it because the florists wouldn’t sell it.

Dr. Gow goes to confront the criminals, whom he previously voiced grave concerns about to the police, and is promptly kidnapped. While Harold is stammering his way through an attempted marriage proposal that night, the radio announces Dr. Gow was kidnapped.

Feeling Dr. Gow is the only chance to save Buddy’s leg, Harold rushes over there to try to rescue him. He soon runs across Clancy, who joins his dangerous mission.

Will they be able to rescue Dr. Gow in time?