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?

Posted in 1930s, Movies

Anarchy at the circus

Though the Marx Brothers’ post-Irving Thalberg films get a rather bad rap, they’re really not as awful as their reputation. Certainly they’re not as polished, classic, and consistent as everything which came before, but they’re hardly the bottom of the barrel. At the Circus, released 20 October 1939, is my favorite of their later films.

Unfortunately, this film does have one big thing going against it—their worst pseudo-Zeppo by a very large margin, the extremely annoying, Mickey Mouse-voiced Kenny Baker. At least the only real fault of Tony Martin in The Big Store (1941) is that he takes up way too much screentime and performs the cringey “Tenement Symphony,” not that his actual character is annoying.

Jeff Wilson (Kenny Baker)’s troubles go far beyond his annoying voice. Circus manager John Carter (James Burke) loaned him $10,000, which Jeff is ordered to repay before their agreed-upon Saturday deadline. If he doesn’t cough it up in time, Carter will take over.

Jeff’s wealthy aunt Suzanna Dukesbury (Margaret Dumont) disinherited him for joining the circus, which means he’s broke.

Jeff promises to give Carter the money that very night on the circus train.

Jeff’s buddy Tony Pirelli (Chico) calls lawyer J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) to help. When Loophole arrives, Tony gives him a hard time about getting on the train, since he hasn’t a badge. The badge scene is one of the film’s classic routines.

Also in the circus is strongman Goliath (Nat Pendleton)’s lookalike understudy Punchy (Harpo), who’d love to take over the role full-time. Tony suggests Loophole might make that dream come true if Goliath and his cohorts are booted.

After Loophole performs the classic novelty song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” Goliath knocks out Jeff by gorilla Gibraltar’s cage and steals his $10,000 for Carter.

Loophole, Punchy, and Tony set to work investigating who attacked Jeff and where the money disappeared to. They predictably, hilariously bungle everything, though they strongly suspect Goliath is behind it, and that he was aided by Little Professor Atom (Jerry Maren), the midget (to use the parlance of the era).

Tony later suggests Carter might know something about Jeff’s money, and that his girlfriend Peerless Pauline (Eve Arden), an upside-down walker, might thus have inside info too.

Loophole finds the money in Pauline’s trunk and sticks it in his pocket, but Pauline is wise to him, and sticks it in her cleavage. Loophole breaks the fourth wall to say “There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office.”

Loophole’s prayer is answered when Pauline demonstrates ceiling-walking, but when the money falls out, she jumps off the ceiling, grabs it, and runs off, leaving Loophole stuck on the ceiling. Punchy comes to his rescue.

Loophole’s next plan of attack is to visit Jeff’s aunt Mrs. Dukesbury and beg for $10,000. Mrs. Dukesbury jumps to the serendipitous conclusion that Loophole’s an associate of conductor Jardinet, who’s soon due to arrive. She agreed to pay him $7,500, which Loophole convinces her to up to $10,000 based on the exchange rate.

Back at the circus, Tony and Punchy are still hot on Goliath’s heels, and search his wagon. They don’t exactly choose the best time, since Goliath is there, albeit asleep when they arrive.

Jeff is thrilled to get a call from Loophole, announcing his aunt will provide the money. Loophole then sets to work getting rid of Jardinet and his orchestra.

Now the stage is set for one final confrontation between Carter’s henchmen and Tony, Punchy, and Jeff, complete with lots of comedic mayhem at Mrs. Dukesbury’s party.

The name J. Cheever Loophole was inspired by financier John Cheever Cowdin, who served as president of Universal and chairman of its board of directors from 1936–46. He loaned the studio $750,000 to finance Show Boat, and when the Laemmles were unable to repay the investors before release, Cowdin took control of the studio. Had the repayment request not been made till after release of that very successful film, the Laemmles easily would’ve been able to pony up the money and retain ownership of their family business.

Buster Keaton was famously a gag writer for At the Circus. His comedy style was rather at odds with that of the Marx Brothers, which frustrated both parties. At this point, Buster’s career was deep in the toilet (thanks to being sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, who also screwed over the Marx Brothers), and had to do whatever he could for money.

Posted in 1940s, holidays, Movies

A hypnotic murder mystery

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was so popular, a second Meet film was created for them. Originally, Meet the Killer was entitled Easy Does It and intended for Bob Hope, but Universal bought the rights and reworked it. A&C’s prior two films, Mexican Hayride and Africa Screams, weren’t exactly their strongest work, and they needed another hit.

Boris Karloff’s character was initially a woman named Madame Switzer, and the film was called Meet the Killers. Five days before shooting began, Karloff was hired, and the character became a swami.

In New Zealand and Australia, censors removed every scene with a corpse. Denmark banned the film because of a scene where corpses play cards.

Meet the Killer was filmed from 10 February–26 March 1949 and released on 22 August 1949. Sadly, Lou was stricken by a relapse of rheumatic fever after filming wrapped and bedridden for several months. That November, he had to have an operation on his gangrenous gallbladder. Because of his illness, the next A&C film didn’t begin production till 28 April 1950.

Freddie Phillips (Lou) and Casey Edwards (Bud), a bellboy and detective, respectively, at the Lost Caverns Resort Hotel, are swept up in a lot of trouble when famous, short-tempered criminal lawyer Amos Strickland checks in. Shortly after he has Freddie fired for his hilarious incompetence, Freddie goes to his hotel room to apologise.

Freddie doesn’t realise Strickland is a corpse, nor does he see a mysterious hand in a black glove reaching under the curtains. When it finally gets through to him, Freddie races to the lobby in terror.

Suspicion is cast on Freddie when guest Mike Relia reports someone broke into his room and stole his gun. Bellboys have keys to all the rooms, and he also yelled at Strickland and was fired shortly before the murder.

The missing gun turns up in Freddie’s room, which makes him look even worse. Casey believes his innocence, and goes with him to Relia’s room to return the gun. While in the room, they discover a damning telegram.

Freddie opens the door to check if the coast is clear while Casey plants the gun in a suit pocket, and up comes a swami who hynotises Freddie.

Inspector Wellman (James Flavin) and Sgt. Stone (Mikel Conrad) order Freddie kept in custody as a guest of the state in his hotel room until his name is cleared. This is hardly a punishment, as Freddie lives it up with room service and beautiful female employees giving him beauty treatments.

Freddie’s luck becomes even worse when his date Angela compels him to write and sign a confession, pretending the real killer will confess when he sees it.

Casey sends Relia’s fingerprints to HQ and reports he has a criminal history, with Strickland serving as his lawyer. The investigators don’t think this is damning evidence, since his criminal past is common knowledge and ancient history, and six of Strickland’s other past clients are also at the hotel and received the same telegram.

Angela falls under suspicion too when she’s accused of mixing a poisonous champagne cocktail.

The swami creeps into Freddie’s room that night and hypnotises him again. His orders entice Freddie into putting a noose around his neck, but Freddie is cowardly even under hypnosis, and falls backwards instead of jumping.

Not deterred, the swami asks Freddie to kill himself with a gun. This also fails, and the swami asks how he’d prefer to die. Freddie wisely answers “Old age.”

The swami asks him to jump out of a window next, but Freddie jumps backwards into the room. All these refusals make the swami angry, and he goes after Freddie with a knife, ordering him to plunge it into his heart.

Freddie still refuses to kill himself.

The swami thinks he’s finally found success when he asks Freddie if he’d plunge the knife into the heart of the man in the mirror, and Freddie says yes. Things don’t go as planned when Freddie tries to stab the swami, believing that was the man in the mirror.

Casey comes to the rescue after the swami scrams.

And then the bodies start turning up in Freddie’s closet. Even more damning, he comes into possession of a bloody handkerchief.

Several attempts are made on Freddie’s life, culminating in a mysterious voice ordering him to bring the handkerchief to the Lost Cavern.

Posted in 1930s, holidays, Movies

Horror and comedy commingle in an old dark house

Released 10 November 1939, The Cat and the Canary was the third screen adaptation of John Willard’s popular 1922 play. Unlike its two predecessors (one of which is lost), the 1939 version is mostly comedic.

The film opens as lawyer Mr. Crosby is taken by canoe to an old dark house on the Louisiana bayou. We soon find out he’s there for the reading of Cyrus Norman’s will at midnight. As in all old dark house films, the gathered parties must stay in the creepy house all night.

Crosby asks the Creole maid, Miss Lu, if she ever gets lonely living there alone these past ten years, and she says she’s got friends—ghosts. This bears out what the canoeist said about spirits living around the mansion.

We then meet three other people on their way to the reading of the will, Fred Blythe, Cicily Young, and Susan Tilbury. They’re not exactly pleased about being forced to come out there, but it’ll be worth it if the will reveals one of them is Norman’s heir.

Crosby discovers the envelopes of both parts of the will have been tampered with when he opens the safe, but Miss Lu insists that’s impossible. Only they know how to open the safe, and both swear they didn’t do it. Luckily, Crosby made a duplicate of the will and put it in a trust company.

Next to arrive are Charlie Wilder, comedic actor Wally Campbell (a brand-new character created just for Bob Hope), and sketch artist Joyce Norman (Paulette Goddard). Predictably, all three of the men are competing for Joyce’s attentions.

Norman’s relatives are spooked almost from the moment Crosby starts reading the will, and Miss Lu’s belief in ghosts doesn’t help matters. Miss Lu also says someone there will die by morning.

Joyce, the only one with the surname Norman, is declared the heir, and Crosby says there’s no need to open the second envelope to discover whom the backup heir is. However, since madness runs in the family, Joyce must remain sane for the next 30 days. There’s lots of incentive for the other relatives to kill her or drive her insane.

Miss Lu gives Joyce another envelope, for her eyes only. This increases the vendetta against her.

Terror breaks out when a guard arrives and says a murderer named The Cat has escaped from nearby loonybin Fairview.

Joyce finds a message on the envelope, directing her to sleep in Norman’s old room and open the letter there. Shortly thereafter, Crosby appears and tries to warn her about something, but while Joyce’s back is turned, Crosby is strangled and pulled through a revolving bookshelf door. No one but Wally believes her story about Crosby’s mysterious disappearance.

The stage is now set for a night of frights, suspicions, dangers, and mystery, served with a generous side serving of comedy and romance. The more the night wears on, the more terrifying the situation becomes, and the more everyone but Wally believes Joyce is a madwoman.

What really happened to Crosby, and will The Cat be captured? Most importantly, will Joyce make it out of that house alive and with her sanity intact?