Classic silent and early sound comedians, Part III

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This section showcases the Marx Brothers and Harold Lloyd.

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5. It’s a real wonder how I was still interested and willing to give the Marx Brothers another chance after I saw the worst possible film first, the abysmal 1949 Love Happy, which isn’t really even a team effort, since the three of them never appear together at the same time. At least it’s more of a team effort than 1957’s The Story of Mankind, where not even two of them appear together, but they all appear separately. I’m told that film is even more of a turkey and is only worth seeing because it’s your only chance to see them in colour.

The next film I saw, not all of it, but a part of it, was just about as worse, 1938’s Room Service, the only film they made for RKO Studios. There are a few good gags and funny situations, but nothing that would make most people roll on the floor in hysterics. It’s pricelessly ironic that one of the few funny bits involves a turkey! [Since then, I’ve seen Room Service all the way through and found it just as appalling at full length.]

Now that I’ve found out much more about them and their career, I understand why those two films were so bad. I thought maybe I just wasn’t getting it, or it was only mildly amusing now but funnier during the Depression, or they just weren’t for me, or it was much ado about nothing. I still remember the words my father used to dismissively describe Room Service: “There was this guy they were hiding in a hotel room, but he wasn’t supposed to be there, and whenever someone came in, he would dive under the covers, and then, you wouldn’t see him, and then at one point a turkey came in, and I guess that was supposed to be funny too.” The diving under the covers thing only happens once or twice and is not a recurring gag throughout the picture, and even most fans admit this isn’t a very good picture, very weak material.

The 5 films they made at Paramount (featuring their hunk of a baby brother, who’s sadly ignored, dismissed as unimportant, or made fun of by too many people) were great instant classics, and the first two they made for MGM were also; I should have seen those films first instead of having the disappointing first experience I ended up having. Louis B. Mayer didn’t like them, and so after Irving Thalberg passed away in 1936 during the filming of their last truly great film, A Day at the Races, there never again was such care, love, and concern put into their films.

They were given below-par material, put out to pasture, had a lot of creative control taken away, not allowed to preview the films to audiences to see if anything should be cut out or added to make it funnier, made out to be hapless buffoons (sense a pattern here of MGM destroying great comedians?). There was less anarchy and putting the monied classes in their place, and they were made out to be bumbling idiots who just bumbled into saving the day (after getting thoroughly humiliated and beaten down) instead of using their wits and brains to get back at the bad guys, coming out swinging and stronger than ever.

It’s not even that their post-1937 films are bad or unfunny, just taken in comparison to the stuff they’d produced five or ten years earlier, it’s mediocre and a step down, not as inventive or top-notch. Like Buster and Stan and Ollie, they did the best they could with below-par material. I actually really like 1939’s The Circus, which a lot of fans hate but some, as I do, view as one of their best MGM films, perhaps their third-best from that studio (although it’s really lame how grown men are supposed to be so afraid of what’s obviously a person in a gorilla suit!).

1940’s Go West is pretty strong too, with some good gags, but taken in comparison to their earlier glories, just not as consistently funny or solid, apart of course from the opening sequence when Groucho is milked out of most of his money and the final third or so, the antics on the train (though I was cringing through almost all of the hideously dated scene with the Native Americans, which makes some of their earlier scenes involving African-Americans look less eyebrow-raising; racial “humour” does not age well).

I even found 1941’s The Big Store to not be as bad as most people proclaim, though it’s certainly a huge step down; they’re more like guest stars in their own movie, and while before you could take or leave the musical numbers, here there are WAY too many musical performances, most notably “The Tenement Symphony.” [If you skip the musical scenes, you miss absolutely nothing plot-wise.]  Some people have also pointed out the pursuit at the end is too slapsticky for them and that Groucho only seems to be going after Margaret Dumont’s character in a half-assed way and not even insulting her, like he were bored with the entire proceedings. It was supposed to be their final film, but they returned in 1946 with A Night in Casablanca, which most fans hold in higher regard than their final MGM films, and then the hideous turkey I had the misfortune of viewing first.

Like with the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, you either love these guys or don’t get their humour. You shouldn’t use your favourite comedians (or your favourite anythings for that matter) to beat up the faves of other people; aren’t you secure enough in your own fandom that you don’t need to insult the choices of others? And interestingly, I almost shared my Jahrzeit with Groucho; he died on 19 August 1977, and the day that senile old careless, heartless, clueless bitch almost killed me with her ugly black 2004 Chrysler was 19 August 2003.

Like a number of the other comedians of that era, they also got started in vaudeville, having developed their respective screen characters long before ever appearing onscreen. The penultimate brother, Gummo, stepped out of the act in 1917 and never came back. He went into the Army to protect his three big brothers from the draft, and so their gorgeous baby brother replaced him as an understudy to the other three, so their act would still have four brothers.

Despite what’s been written and said about him, Zeppo was very talented, the funniest of them all despite playing the straight man, and really something was lost when he (amicably) left the group; the later actors who played the role he had just don’t measure up. And you can see onscreen how they’re looking after him, since he really was their baby brother, being born over ten years after they were.

It would be really interesting to see their lone silent film Humor Risk, but sadly it’s one of the far too many lost films. Oh, yes, and of course, like the Stooges, they were Nice Jewish Boys. And Chico and Harpo were fellow shorties; they were only a few inches taller than I am, and look like these cute little pixies whenever they’re near taller guys, just like Buster looks even sweeter and darling when his short stature is emphasised by the tall guys he’s around! Who wants to be tall and average like everybody else?

6. I had heard only the greatest of things about him, though it took me a little while to warm up to Harold Lloyd. He didn’t have a real screen persona like a dumb child-like man, tramp, stoneface, or pretended Italian, but his regular guy character evokes sympathy all the same. The only thing distinguishing his character from that of any other comedian also playing just a regular guy is that in 1917 he began donning a pair of lensless glasses onscreen.

Usually his foes weren’t mean people, the elements, or machinery, but rather his own limitations, like shyness, geekiness, meekness, cowardliness, fear. He may not be as well-known today despite being undisputedly the third major silent clown, but he’s just great, a very funny and sympathetic fellow, a guy you sympathise with because he’s just a sweet, shy, regular guy, the guy with the glasses and suit, the guy you could imagine getting picked on in school for being a nerd and coward.

We see this in the 1925 film The Freshman, where his niceness, well-meaningness, and naïveté are taken advantage of by almost everyone, leading him to believe they really like him and he’s so popular and in-demand when they’re really mocking him behind his back for his strange ways. He has to overcome his inner limitations to become the hero and save the day.

Like Buster, he was very physical, and usually got the girl at the end too; his first major leading lady was the great Bebe Daniels, and when Bebe went to work for another company in 1919, his leading lady became Mildred Davis, with whom he clicked so well they eventually got married in February 1923.

The stunts and feats he pulls off are so incredible, daring, unbelievable, that sometimes you forget he’s wearing a prosthetic glove on his right hand to hide the fact that the thumb and forefinger of that hand were amputated after his near-fatal bomb accident in 1919. The glove itself was so realistic you really have to look hard to notice it’s a fake and not his real hand.

Most people with all their fingers intact wouldn’t do the half of what Harold did; the climb up the building in Safety Last! just has to be seen to be appreciated, and is just as thrilling today as it was back then. My heart stopped beating countless times, and I even nearly gasped out loud several times, like when his pal whom he was climbing the building for throws him some rope which nearly slips out of Harold’s hands because the other fellow almost isn’t back in that room in time to grab the other end.

He owned the rights to all of his films and shorts, so they’re still with us today. He’s probably one of the funniest actors you’ve never seen.

How to choose and view silent films, Part II

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A continuation of my run-down of some of the most famous silents.

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The Sheik (1921) I almost wish this were a lost film too, because it’s usually the only silent film most outsiders have seen, and the campy hokey overacting and simplistic plot (not to mention the ridiculous eye-bulging) lead people to believe they’re all like this. Technically not a very good movie, but you can’t appreciate it as a really fun movie if you’re not familiar with the genre overall. I can’t believe I’d recommend seeing the sequel first, which isn’t Academy Award material either, yet is a very good movie, with a much more complex plot and MUCH better acting from everyone.

I would normally consider it bad form to read or watch the sequel first, but in this case I would; it’s entirely its own story, not really a continuation of the story in the original. (And in the sequel, unless you’re blind or REALLY naïve, there is zero doubt that Ahmed, Jr. does rape Yasmin; we obviously can’t see the actual rape, but we do see the prelude and aftermath, which leave us in no doubt of what’s about to happen and what just did happen.)

It’s based on a trashy bestseller from 1919, crawling with racism, violence against women, little more than a big long rape and kidnapping fantasy (which seems to have been the genre of the author, herself a woman!), about how a “new” liberated woman who’s grown up feeling herself the equal to men has to have her proud, free spirits broken and crushed, taught a lesson in servility, and forced to come to heel by a man whom she eventually falls in love with after he physically overpowers her.

The film actually softens a lot of what happens in the book; the film appears rather open-ended over whether or not Diana is raped by her captor. We see some intertitles that might suggest it happened, but we also see no scenes of manhandling like later occur when she’s kidnapped by Omair. We know Ahmed was preparing to rape her when he was told to go out to round up horses who’d gotten loose in a sandstorm, but when he comes back to the tent to pick up where he left off, he sees her knelt over the bed crying. Instead of bulging his eyes out yet again, his face floods with sympathy and he calls in a slave girl to comfort her, basically leaving her alone.

You can’t underestimate what a watershed event this film was; up till this point, the heroes in films were clean-cut all-American men, not dark-featured foreigners. Never before had it been okay for a woman to return the embraces of a dark-skinned lover onscreen. People began to realise women had sexual fantasies too, and not just directed towards the boring clean-cut all-American boys they’d been fed for years.

People also were beginning to change their perception of women’s sexuality; prior to this time in history, most people believed women who enjoyed sex, let alone initiated it, were disturbed deranged perverts and deviants. It wasn’t yet to the point where women could have as free a reign on their sexual fantasies as we do today, but in this era, this was a really hot fantasy. This is why it’s called a rape fantasy; in a fantasy you’re in total control of the event, not like if you were really being raped. Do we really think, due to how he’s portrayed, that Ahmed will really hurt Diana? The only sex women could safely fantasise about was rape; certainly they couldn’t have affairs or premarital sex without getting into trouble. If it were forced on them, it wouldn’t be looked upon as wrong and deviant to fantasise about.

Women fainted in the aisles over this film, even though most men hated it (jealous their women would fall for a dark-featured dark-skinned foreigner who was sensitive and romantic in addition to strong and manly). They too longed for a dark handsome stranger to come riding in on a white horse and pull her onto his steed, kidnapping her, taking her back to his tent, his heart and soul driven wild with desire for her, so much so he’d do anything to have her as his own. Nothing like this had ever been shown in films before, as campy and hokey as it might look to the average modern-day viewer.

The director George Melford was an ass though and wanted a popular film instead of highbrow entertainment; he also basically egged people on to overacting, combined with exaggerated makeup. And besides, the bulging eyes have also been attributed to nearsightedness and myopia; if someone with myopia refuses to wear glasses, of course you’ll see a look of strange-looking squints and eye-bulges.

Nosferatu (1922) Widely considered to be the original Vampyre movie; even though I personally feel it’s a little overrated and not nearly as scary as I’d been led to believe, if you’ve seen it, you just know Max Schreck IS Dracula, the ultimate Vampyre, no matter he isn’t seen doing too much vamping.

It takes place during the 19th century, in Germany; Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was one of the greatest directors of all time and really created a spooky eerie mood, no matter how it doesn’t seem very scary by modern sensibilities. Count Orlock is a creepy-looking mysterious fellow who goes around biting people on the neck and controlling people’s minds, as well as smuggling himself and a bunch of earth-filled coffins onto a ship so he can bring the Plague to town.

But, to be honest, all this eerie foreboding promise and the creepy mood build up to a whimpering, rather anticlimactic end instead of ending with something really scary and terrifying, ending with a real bang. And I know that back in 1922, filming technology wasn’t yet advanced enough to shoot scenes in the dark, but that means that this Vampyre spends an awful lot of time wandering about in broad daylight!

Nanook of the North (1922) This is an allegedly documentary film about an Eskimo named Nanook and his family. (I’m well aware of the fact that Eskimo is now considered an offensive term and that they prefer to be called Native Alaskans or Inuits, but I’m so used to using the word Eskimo from my frequent childhood trips to the Eskimo exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh; it’s like an older person still saying Indian, Negro, or mankind even though s/he knows the language has moved on in spite of his or her personal lifelong habit.) It’s a really great film, but I don’t view it in the same way upon finding out it was a hoax, that Nanook had indeed had prior contact and familiarity with Westerners and their way of life.

Safety Last! (1923) He’s not as well-known by many people today as Chaplin or Keaton, but Harold Lloyd was considered the third major comedian. He looked like a proper dignified British schoolmaster or professor, with his horn-rimmed glasses. This is the one where he’s hanging from the hands of a clock on the side of a building directly above traffic. Even more stunning about this stunt is the fact that Harold only had three fingers on his right hand, having had his thumb and forefinger amputated in 1919 when he used what he thought was a prop bomb to light a cigarette. The bomb exploded in his hand, nearly killing him. After a long stay in hospital, he was able to resume making comedies, and had even more success than before. [And that made him a fellow sinistral, even if he had to switch because of an accident instead of being born that way! I love seeing him writing and doing stuff with his left hand in his films, knowing this was the era when many people shamed and bullied southpaws out of their natural inclinations.]

The Gold Rush (1925) Chaplin’s most famous film and the one he most wanted to be remembered for, though in my opinion a little bit overrated. It was reissued in 1942 with the title cards deleted and Charlie narrating everything; that really takes away from what was really funny and sweet about it. Can you imagine having a full-on narration of a film like Steamboat Bill, Jr. explaining everything that’s going on? The beauty and genius of silent comedy is that it didn’t need to be narrated or explained to be funny. The narrated version also is shorter than the silent version, and changes the ending sequence a bit, ending with Georgia and the Tramp walking up the ladder to the deck of the ship from sterrage as opposed to Georgia and the Tramp kissing.

Even though I don’t personally find it the funniest of his films, it does have numerous funny bits, and of course the usual expected sentimentality. It’s also to be noted that Charlie’s most famous segment in this film, the Dance of the Rolls, wasn’t invented in this film. Roscoe Arbuckle had done a Dance of the Rolls in his 1917 film The Rough House, and Charlie liked it so much he decided to use it himself eight years later.