Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Ape Man -- Lugosi elevates Poverty Row again

The Ape Man, 64 minutes, 1943, Monogram, Directed by William Beaudine. Starring Bela Lugosi as Dr. James Brewster, Louise Currie as Billie Mason, Wallace Ford as Jeff Carter, Henry Hall as Dr. George Randall, Emil Van Horn as the ape, J. Farrell McDonald as Police Captain O'Brien and Minerva Urecal as Agatha Brewster. Schlock-meter rating: Seven stars out of 10.

Review by Doug Gibson

This is a screwball horror film, but a lot more entertaining than most viewers will expect. It's sheer pulp horror that doesn't take itself too seriously. The plot of The Ape Man involves a scientist (Lugosi) who for unexplained reasons accidentally turns himself into an ape man. Not trusting his sanity, he frequently locks himself up with an ill-tempered ape (Van Horn in a campy performance). Lugosi's ape man needs human spinal fluid to have even a chance to regain his former appearance and posture. This involves murder and when a colleague (Hall) refuses to help, Lugosi literally goes ape, and commits several murders. He's encouraged by his creepy sister (Urecal) a noted spiritualist who records the groans of ghosts. Lugosi's nemesis are a reporter/photographer duo who soon become wise to all the creepy occurrences.

Of such bizarre plots were Monogram cheapies of the 1940s created. It's a lot of fun to watch, even if the production values are predictably low. Lugosi, as usual, acts far above the product he's pitching, and he manages to make the audience feel sympathy for his plight. His ferocious temper tantrums are effective. He nearly strangles his sister in one scene. Urecal, by the way, is great as the slightly creepy sister. In an Los Angeles Times review (the paper actually liked the film) the reviewer suggested Urecal be given her own horror film to star in. So far as I know, it never happened, although she was also very good in the Lugosi vehicle The Corpse Vanishes. Currie and Ford as the wisecracking journalists have strong chemistry. B movie veteran actor McDonald is also an asset to the film. In a bit part is Earnest Morrison, better known as Sunshine Sammy Morrison of The East Side Kids.

The film is slightly marred by a truly goofy character who acts as a red herring, cutting into scenes for no reason and offering cryptic comments and warnings. At the end, he reveals himself to be the author of the tale. As The End is flashed on the screen, he remarks "Screwy, isn't it?"

Like any low-budget film, there are amusing contradictions. Why does Lugosi have an accent, and his sister doesn't? Also, why doesn't anyone seem to notice the ape-like Lugosi and his pet ape traipsing through the city? Of course, suspension of disbelief is a requirement to fully enjoy a Monogram film. So just sit back and take in the show. It's a fun hour of escapism and a great treat for those who enjoy the old C and B horror films. Notes: The film's shooting title was They Creep in the Night. In England, it was titled Lock Your Doors. There is a nostalgic reference to the times when Currie chides Ford for being 4F, and consequently not serving in World War II. He retorts that he's scheduled to enlist at the end.

The Ape Man plays occasionally on UEN's (Utah Educational Network) Sci Fi Friday and has a podcast to go along with it. There are many versions of the film. It is free to watch on the Web. Hopefully, Turner Classic Movies will air a pristine print of the film soon. Watch it below

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Charley Chase Scrapbook details a bittersweet life with laughter

Review by Doug Gibson

A while back I reviewed "... The Harry Langdon Scrapbook," a fascinating visual treat of the comic's life and career. It was a treat from small publishing house Walker and Anthony and it prompted me to want to read and review another vintage comic scrapbook subject, Charley Chase. It's "The Charley Chase Scrapbook."

Chase, with an iconic face, worked very had to build his career as Charles Parrott, comic actor. Once living in poverty, he moved himself into prominence as a vaudevillian and early silent comedy actor. He gained initial acting stature, starting as an extra, with movie man Al Christie, and moved to Keystone and Mack Sennett, mostly as a director and writer. Pay disputes prompted him to freelance a while, again directing more often. He worked, among others, with Fox-Films and Bulls-Eye, mostly behind the camera, often directing Billy West, a Chaplin imitator who was popular.

During these years he married a dancer and English teacher named BeBe Eltinge, and two girls were added over a few years, Polly, who later acted with her father, and June, many of whom's recollections were gathered and eventually used in the Scrapbook. Charley's marriage with BeBe was a strong union that remained until his death.

Chase eventually gained stardom with Hal Roach studios. About that time he took the "Chase" last name, selecting it out of a phone book. His younger brother, James Parrott, who acted as Paul Parrott, came to Hal Roach a little before Charley and was a director, writer and briefly an actor. By 1926, Chase's career was rolling; but James', due to poor health, was slowly receding The rise of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedy teams would eventually eclipse Charley Chase's stature at Roach's studio.

Concern over his brother, and a problem with alcoholism, would plague Chase the rest of his life. In the early days of sound, a medium he was well equipped for with a great singing voice, a bad ulcer nearly killed Chase. He rebounded with Roach studios working consistently for the first several years of the 1930s.

In my opinion, and many may disagree, Chase was at his best in the sound era. He was a very talented silent comedian, among the Top 10, but his voice and mannerisms work well with sound, and are well suited to talkies. In the Laurel and Hardy feature, "Sons of the Desert," Chase is superb as a pushy but likable prankster with the boys at a lodge convention. And although he did his best work overall with Roach studios, The Heckler, a Columbia comedy short he made late in life, captures Chase's talent so well as he plays an abrasive, jokester fan at a tennis match. He's great with an outraged Vernon Dent.

Eventually, Chase left Hal Roach studios. A note from Chase in The Scrapbook shows that he took his disappointing departure with humor and grace. Chase stayed busy, soon signing with Columbia's comedy shorts department, and doing what he was best at, acting, directing and writing. One of his better-known directed shorts is "Violent is the Word For Curly," from 1938.

Concern over the health of his deteriorating brother, James, wore Chase down in the 1930s. Before drug addiction literally destroyed his career, James directed the classic Laurel and Hardy short "The Music Box" and some Chase's films as well. But drug abuse demolished James' career, and eventually cost him his life in May 1939.

According to the Scrapbook, Chase blamed himself for his brother's death, and continued to drink heavily. Although he had a loving family and a still-strong career with Columbia, the excess drinking contributed to the heart attack that killed Charley Chase 13 months later, on June 20, 1940. He died in his home.

The Scrapbook is designed much like the Langdon one, with stills, posters, writings, drawings, family photos, handwritten entries, newspaper interviews, drawings, articles, and other communications providing a montage of his life. These scrapbooks provide readers glimpses into the personalities of the subjects. You witness Chase's drive and love of his craft. In this case, the picture is worth at least hundreds of words.

Many of the Scrapbook items are from Chase's personal collections, preserved by his grandson Charley Preshaw. The pictures of Chase, late in life, holding grandson Preshaw as an infant, provide a warm, human look at the comedy legend.

Chase rubbed acting shoulders with the best of his era. The book serves as a history of his era, a glimpse into a time capsule that fits on a coffee table. "The Charley Chase Scrapbook" is not inexpensive. It's a small press labor of love. It's a must for Chase fans, or fans of Hal Roach's vintage comedy. I recommend it for early film comedy fans as a fitting  inclusion in your genre bookcase.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Talking about A Werewolf Remembers with Frank Dello Stritto

Frank J. Dello Stritto has written some great books, essays and articles on classic horror films. I place him with Gary Rhodes and Arthur Lennig as the finest scholars chronicling the career of Bela Lugosi. Like his peers, Dello Stritto has written essays on many genre subjects, including King Kong, Svengali, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.

He's published a book of essays, "A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore," full of genre articles, many of which were published in Cult Movies Magazine. He, along with the best Bela Lugosi blogger Andi Brooks, broke new research ground with "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain," that detailed Lugosi's last major Dracula tour as well as provide strong overviews of his British films. The first edition was superb; a longer second edition even better.

Several years ago Frank published a memoir, "I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It" that recalled his life as a child, a Monster Boomer, becoming familiar with the films children loved in the "shock theater" TV days. As interesting is his account of how these films, particularly "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," extended their influence into adulthood, prompting him to search for films of that era he missed, leading him into fandom, and eventually scholarship.

Frank's latest book has just been released. It's "A Werewolf Remembers: The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot." It's a fascinating pseudo non-fiction "documentary" account of the "Wolf Man's life," and how it interacts with much of the monster genre of almost two generations of films. "A Werewolf Remembers" also contains the the "journal" of Talbot, detailing the many journeys of his existence. Frank introduced the book at the recent Monster Bash.

This is a work only a scholar could weave together. I plan to review it in a few weeks. I was fortunate enough to help proof a draft of the book six months ago. I'm happy to announce its publication on our blog and interview the author. This is a lengthy interview, but it's well worth your time and will whet your appetite for "A Werewolf Remembers."

Readers will be able to purchase "A Werewolf Remembers" very soon (we'll let you know when). It will be at Amazon, as well as the Cult Movies Press website where his other books are available.

In the meantime, enjoy this interview with Frank Dello Stritto, about "A Werewolf Remembers."

-- Doug Gibson


Why was Lawrence Talbot the primary individual to focus on? Is it his ubiquity in the films and his relationship to so many aspects of the genre?

DELLO STRITTO: Talbot certainly gets around. He is always searching, and thus crosses paths with a lot of people. In my book, he meets everyone seen in his movies, and he meets a lot more.
When I began the book, I did not plan that Lawrence’s tale would span so many of the horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, but that’s what happened. When I needed a character to advance the plot, or an adventure for him to have, I found them ready and waiting for me in movies, whether Lawrence appeared in them or not. In his movies, the only werewolf that Lawrence meets is Bela the Gypsy, who infects him. In my book, he encounters many characters from The Undying Monster, Return of the Vampire, Werewolf of London, The Mad Monster, The Cat People, and so on. He even meets Carl Denham. Lawrence is a real wanderer, and having so many characters cross his path was not hard.
I hope readers will enjoy the challenge of identifying the movies from where I plucked each character. Some are easy to spot, some are really hard.
Lawrence befriends the real-life writer Jack London. I could not resist bringing him into Talbot’s tale. The real London took the name of his stepfather. His birth father was (probably) an astrologer named William Chaney. With London’s tie to Talbot (played in his five films by Lon Chaney), and his apparent fixation on wolves (Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf), I had to bring him in. In my book, Talbot meets a few other real-life figures as well.
I can’t say that I was looking for excuses to bring other movie monsters into Talbot’s story, but when the chance arose, I jumped on it.
Talbot’s travels are not why he is the center of the story. Lawrence is a character whose story begs to be told. We know something about him from his movies, and my book fills in the gaps. From the films, we know that he is the son of a Welsh aristocrat, and that he left home at age 13. We know that young Lawrence went to America where he did a lot of jobs working with his hands. He worked at Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California. At age 31, he is summoned home. His older brother has died, and Lawrence is now heir to the Talbot estate. The first part of my book fleshes out the life of young Lawrence.
The theme of his life, before and after becoming a werewolf, is resolving his issues with his father. The doctors from whom he seeks help are surrogates for his father. But their real goal is to revive Frankenstein’s Monster, just as Sir John Talbot would bring back his older son if he could.

What kind of research was necessary, in both studies of the films and the first half of the 20th century, to create both parts of the book, the diary and the historical narration? 

DELLO STRITTO: I had to stay consistent with Talbot’s story as told in his five movies. When he meets a character from the real world, like Jack London, or from other movies, like Carl Denham, the narrative has to be consistent with their lives as well. So, I watched the movies a lot, and studied up on the real world figures to be sure that I got their stories straight. And from that I got a lot of ideas for the plot.
The big challenge is that I had to place those stories on a timeline consistent with the real world. Talbot’s last film appearance, in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, was in 1948. So, I anchored his last (known) day on Earth as February 25, 1948, and worked backed from there. That involved both World Wars, the Great Depression, and basically all of early 20th Century history. Sir John Talbot was an astronomer, and I involved him to the hunt to prove Einstein’s Relativity Theory. The Talbots live in Wales, so I read up on Welsh history. In The Wolf Man Sir John mentions a distant ancestor, “Red Talbot,” and so I made him the founder of the Talbot line. That was important, because in my book, Lawrence’s family history weighs heavily on him.

As I developed the narrative, I always knew what the Moon was doing. Fortunately, the dates of the Full Moons going back centuries are easy to find online. Also, lunar eclipses figure in Talbot’s tale, and their dates are also pretty easy to find. In my book, when the Moon is full, or when an eclipse occurs, it occurred in real life.
Of course, some things in the movies are really hard to reconcile with reality. In Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Talbot takes an airplane from London—after Full Moon sets—and arrives in La Mirada, Florida before the Moon rises again. Not easy to do now, and all but impossible in 1948. I managed to explain that in my book, but I can’t blame any readers who say “I don’t think so.”

I'm intrigued by your explanation for the immortality of Talbot, the Frankenstein Monster, and Dracula. It helps to explain the many deaths and resurrections of these characters. Explain your reasons for making Dracula the supreme evil and the monster a more sympathetic character? 

DELLO STRITTO: The Universal monsters—The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and—though he’s not in my book, The Mummy—are immortals. Thanks to super science or the supernatural, they are not bound by the same laws of life and death that we are. But they do go to apparent “deaths” for long periods until they return to “life.” For my book, I had to have Talbot go somewhere—which he calls “The Deep Darkness”—and I got a bit creative with that. I hope readers will be intrigued by those segments of the story when Talbot is supposedly “dead.”
It is Talbot who makes Dracula the supreme evil. One of the unexplained elements of Talbot’s tale as told in the movies is his drive to hunt down and destroy Dracula in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. In my book, I give Talbot a personal motive for hunting Dracula, and the vampire became more and more evil as the story developed. Another unexplained feature of Talbot’s movies is his return to lycanthropy after being cured at the end of House of Dracula. My story ties those loose ends together, but still leaves some mysteries for the reader to ponder.
I don’t think that I made The Monster more sympathetic than he is in the films. Dracula and The Wolf Man hunt for victims, but The Monster rarely acts for any other reason than self-defense. He is a tragic figure, an outcast, a victim of mad doctors who create and revive him with no regard for The Monster himself. Before he meets Talbot, he can be a murderer, particularly in Ghost of Frankenstein, but with Talbot he is quite a sympathetic figure.

Besides Universal, of course, other studios' efforts are included. I particularly enjoy The Cat People references and think it's great that even The Alligator People are included. What was the research process of tying so many films together? Did you need a solid outline to write this book?

DELLO STRITTO: I needed an outline for the first part of Talbot’s life, before the movies pick up his tale with The Wolf Man. And I needed an outline for the gap between the end of House of Dracula and the beginning of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The outline between those two segments really came from the plots of The Wolf Man movies, because I had to stay consistent with them.
Once assembled, think of the outline as a Christmas tree, and then you start hanging the ornaments. That’s the fun part. Talbot passes through New York City, on the way home to Wales (which is the start of The Wolf Man). So, I have him meet some characters from The Cat People (which takes place in New York).  Later, Talbot searches for a doctor to cure his lycanthropy. In the movies, he goes straight to Dr. Frankenstein (who dies before Talbot reaches him), but I had him go to a few others first: Lady Jane Ainsley (from Return of the Vampire) and Dr. Yogami (from Werewolf of London).
When I bring in those characters, I have to create lives for them outside of their movies. Since the actress who played Lady Jane (Frieda Inescort) also played the doctor in The Alligator People (which also stars Lon Chaney), I brought some of that movie into my story. I do that throughout the book with a lot of characters and movies.

Personally, who were some of the characters you enjoyed fleshing out beyond their activities in the actual films?

DELLO STRITTO: Almost every character had to be fleshed out quite a bit, particularly Lawrence’s father, Sir John. But the character who almost wrote himself was Vollaz Yogami. I gave him that first name, or maybe he gave it to me. Once I brought in Dr. Yogami, the writing took on a life of its own. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. It was as if I were not writing, but taking dictation. I am not a fast writer, but the chapters with Yogami wrote themselves very quickly.

As a Monster Boomer, do you have satisfaction in creating a narrative that brings the films together and works to solve so many continuity problems?

DELLO STRITTO: Definitely. When I first watched the movies as a child, any inconsistencies in the plots—and there are plenty—nagged at me. So did any plot disconnects between movies, and there are a lot of those, too. Of course, as I developed the plot for my book in detail, I uncovered more (like Talbot’s flight from London to La Mirada). A lot of these had to do with the timeline. Keeping the story consistent with the movies, and with a chronology that made sense was a challenge.
One of the inconsistencies is geography. The Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies confuse the villages of Frankenstein, Vasaria and Visaria. I resolved that, I think.
As a kid, I was always trying to resolve the discrepancies within the movies and between the movies, and it was fun to do it again in my book.

Do you think the book provides more than just a tale of Lawrence Talbot and his many interconnected experiences? Is there an intention to comment on any issue beyond the monster genre?

DELLO STRITTO: At face value, the book is, I hope, an exciting tale and a homage to the horror and monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The book’s dedication is “To Second Sons Everywhere, And Their Older Brothers.” Talbot’s relationship with his father, and his older brother is at the core of Talbot’s story, and at the core of my book. I expanded on it when I could, and I tried not to hammer the reader with it. If the book is any more than the tale it tells, it is how our closest blood relations, dead or alive, are never far from us. In the book, those relations are all male because in Talbot’s movies they are all male. I bring plenty of female characters into the story, including Talbot’s mother, but the basic tale is fathers, sons and brothers.  

How will the book be publicized? Do you have another one in mind?

DELLO STRITTO: A Werewolf Remembers is my fourth book. Whenever I finish one, I always think: that’s it, I have no more to say. That’s how I feel now, and have no plans to do another book. Time will tell. Whether or not I write another one may depend on another mode of writing. My first book (Vampire Over London – Bela Lugosi in Britain) is non-fiction history. My second one (A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films) is analysis and criticism. My third one (I Saw What I Saw When I Saw It – Growing Up in the 1950s & 1960s with Television Reruns and Old Movies) is a memoir. And A Werewolf Remembers – The Testament of Lawrence Stewart Talbot is fiction.
I did not set out to write on the same topic in different ways, but that’s what happened. I suppose a new mode is what I need to get the creativity. But I really don’t know—we will see.
Publicizing the book: well, I will go to movie conferences where the likely readers congregate. I will be getting my website ( overhauled soon. I will have to become more active and savvy in social media to get the word out. Honestly, I am not looking forward to that.

What's an issue I missed, something that you'd like readers to know about your book?

DELLO STRITTO: I would like to make the premise of the book clear.
Lawrence Talbot was last seen on Feburary 25, 1948 when he went off to confront Count Dracula. A few weeks later a steamer trunk arrived at the apartment house where he had rented a room. The landlord put it in storage room, and there it stayed for 30 years.
That landlord was my Uncle Joe. When he died, the trunk passed to me, and in it I found Lawrence Talbot’s journals. I read them, and thought them the fantasies of a delusional man. Yet, the deeper I looked into his story, the more it squared with any facts that I could uncover.

So, the book is both Lawrence Talbot’s story, and my investigations into his claims. It is a journey for me as well as for him.
ONE MORE THING: Enjoy this recent chat with Frank at Plan9Crunch that deals with Bela Lugosi's "Poverty Row" films.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Conqueror Worm -- not 'worse' than Multiple Maniacs

The Conqueror Worm (Also known as Witchfinder General)1968, United Kingdom, American International release, Color, about 88 minutes. Stars: Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, Hilary Dwyer as Sara, Rupert Davies as John Lowes, Robert Russell as John Stearne and Ian Ogilvy as Richard Marshall. Schlock-Meter rating: 9 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

(I was watching a couple of interviews (recent) with the great John Waters on YouTube and one comment he made, when discussing "Multiple Maniacs," tickled my funny bone. Reminiscing about the outraged reviews his films would receive in the 1970s, Waters recalled that one review called "Multiple Maniacs" even worse than "The Conqueror Worm."

Waters admitted he's never seen "The Conqueror Worm," but said he thought he'd like it.

He would; it's a great film and here's a review:)

Ever wanted to see how really evil a person Vincent Price could portray in a film? Go rent, or buy, the Conqueror Worm. This is a magnificent film about 17th Century England and witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (Price) who is the law in a war-torn land. The plot: The sadistic Hopkins and his henchman Stearne (Russell) terrorize towns by executing “witches” and collecting cash for their services. In Brandiston, they torture an aged preacher. In order to save the preacher’s life, his niece Sara (Dwyer) agrees to be Hopkins’ sex slave. But after Stearne rapes Sara, Hopkins loses interest in Sara and kills her uncle.

Back from the wars arrives Sara’s intended Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) and when he finds out how his fiance has been treated, he swears vengeance and goes after the witch hunter, who lays a trap for Marshall. I won’t give away the climax, except to say that the intensity of the last scene has been matched by few cult films.

Atmosphere keeps The Conqueror Worm moving at a fast pace. The characters seem believable, whether they are in a pub, at war or witnessing the execution of a “witch.” Critic Danny Peary describes Price as never having been better. Peary also talks about the triumph of evil, which “will emerge victorious” despite whether Hopkins or Marshall kills the other. In the film, the viewer is jolted into a sense of overwhelming pessimism of the situation. One wonders at the end if the protagonist (Marshall) is really any better than Hopkins.

Credit to the gloomy but effective mood of Conqueror Worm goes to the director Michael Reeves. He was a major new talent in Britain in the 1960s. Besides Conqueror, he directed The Castle of the Living Dead, 1964, and The Sorcerers, 1967, with Boris Karloff. Sadly, Reeves took his own life in 1969.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The W.C. Fields Films provides solid account of comic's career

Review by Doug Gibson

Genre author James L. Neibaur has done his usual, solid, well-researched, enjoyable recap of a film great with "The W.C. Fields Films," (here) recently published by McFarland, (800-253-2187).

Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton are among performers whom Neibaur has assessed. As with the others, the Fields book covers his films, chapter by chapter. Serving as bookends are an opening chapter on Fields' early life and work in vaudeville, and the final chapter covers his last years.

Neibaur is a talented enough researcher and writer to have the film chapters also provide a chronology of Fields' life. The plots, filmmaking intrigues, reviews, box office fates, cast reminiscing, also includes snippets of Fields' personal life, including his frequent health problems as he aged.

If you are a casual fan of Fields, like myself prior to reading this volume, you'll learn that he was a major vaudeville star who dipped his toes into films a little and then several years later, made the full leap, astutely realizing that was where the future, and money was. Some of the early silent films were remade in the sound era. A couple, both remade, that are on my list to see are "Running Wild" and "Sally of the Sawdust." (Remade as "Man on the Flying Trapeze" and "Poppy.")

Neibaur also notes that Fields struggled at times with silent films. Regretfully, some are lost, including all three of an ill-fated attempt to team Fields with comedian Chester Conklin. Ultimately, it was sound that moved Fields to higher stardom. Neibaur correctly points out that Fields' understated delivery of his lines became very popular with audiences. In fact, aside lines like Fields (in "The Bank Dick") muttering that he loves daughters, particularly those between 16 and 18, is dialogue that I don't think censors would have allowed less subtle actors to utter.

Fields' glory days were with Paramount, his shorts, including 'The Dentist" and films such as "It's' a Gift" and "Man on the Flying Trapeze," are classic gems. He had the ability to play a put-upon father, a conniving boozer father, a con man father and guardian, and still provide sympathy with audiences. Also, pairing Fields with a loud, overbearing spouse prone to overly loud proclamations was usually comic gold. Neibaur also notes Fields's care in determining the plots and dialogues of his films; a demand that perceptive directors usually followed.

Fields' is also an actor whose health deterioration one can track through his two decades of stardom. In "The Dentist," he's still relatively trim. By his last film, the offbeat, eccentric, original "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," he's a bloated, obese man with a large, alcoholic red nose. His Paramount and Universal tenures were cut short by bad health and poor health practices. Tragedy always affected his health adversely, from friends' deaths to a toddler drowning in a pond on his property.

In his book, Neibaur includes Fields successful comeback with Universal, with films such as "My Little Chickadee," a must-see with Mae West (The two egos survived peacefully long enough to make a great film), "The Bank Dick," and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break," a brilliant satire that Universal failed to understand, and played as a second-feature.

Prior to reading this book, I'd only seen Fields in "International House," which I bought to see Bela Lugosi," "The Dentist," "My Little  Chickadee," and "It's a Gift," a film I've seen at least 20 times. The "W.C. Fields Films" has a lot of company with other great books about Fields. It serves however as a great source to learn more about the unique vintage comedy star, one of the few silent veterans to prosper in the sound era.

Since I read this book, I've seen several more films with Fields. Some of my favorites include "It's a Gift," "Man on the Flying Trapeze," "The Bank Dick" and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break."

The prolific Mr. Neibaur, by the way, will soon have a book out on the Universal monster films.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rubin & Ed - Comic Weirdness By Trent Harris

Review by Steve D. Stones, art by Stones

"More psychedelic fun than a barrel of monkeys on mushrooms." - Details Magazine

Words cannot describe the comic weirdness, if not genius, of writer/director Trent Harris' 1991 cult classic - Rubin & Ed. The same can be said about his 1995 cult film - Plan 10 From Outer Space, which is a commentary on Mormon culture and Ed Wood's 1959 classic - Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I find Rubin & Ed to be the greater of the two films, but both make a great double-feature together.

Ed Tuttle, played by Howard Hesseman, is a down on his luck, middle aged loser who will do anything to prove to his wife Rula (Karen Black) that he can provide a living for her. The problem is, it's too late for Tuttle because his wife has left him and wants nothing to do with him. He wears old 70s leisure suits and a toupee to cover his balding hair. Apparently Tuttle has been a complete failure his entire life, but he refuses to give up, which is part of the charm of his character.

Tuttle attends a get-rich-quick, pyramid scheme seminar called "The Power of Positive Real Estate," also known as "The Organization." Attendants are brainwashed into thinking that they can achieve great wealth and success in their lives by bringing others into the group and selling real estate. Little do they know that the seminar is a scheme to take away their time and money.

While passing out pamphlets to promote "The Organization," Tuttle runs into his first and only sales subject, Rubin Farr, played by eccentric cult actor Crispin Glover. Farr lives with his mother in a hotel, wears bell bottom pants and platform shoes, and listens to the loud music of Mahler all day, while occasionally lounging by the pool.  Farr's mother is constantly on his case to make friends. This is where Tuttle makes his appearance. Two losers, Rubin and Ed, are now united.

Tuttle meets Farr at his hotel room and finds Farr's frozen dead cat in the kitchen freezer. Farr agrees to come with Tuttle to his seminar, but only if they can first find a proper place to bury the cat.  The frozen cat, named Simon, is placed in a Coleman cooler. What follows for the rest of the movie is a buddy themed, road trip across Goblin State Park in Utah - only this time Bob Hope and Bing Crosby are nowhere to be found.

One particularly funny dream sequence shows Rubin floating on a tube at Pineview Reservoir in Utah while his cat Simon is waterskiing behind a boat operated by a beautiful girl. Farr gives his most famous line in the film - "My cat can eat a whole watermelon!"

I was fortunate to have found a VHS copy of Rubin & Ed at a local thrift store for less than $1.00. Sources tell me that a used copy of Rubin & Ed on VHS will run anywhere from $40.00 to $100.00 on E-Bay and other movie sales sites. A new VHS copy will run you about $200.00. I often rented the film from Blockbuster Video and Hollywood Video in the 1990s from the "Cult Classics" section of both video stores.

I was also fortunate to have purchased a signed copy of Harris' Plan 10 From Outer Space on DVD at Sam Weller's book store in downtown Salt Lake City about 10 years ago. This is one of my most cherished movie collectibles, next to a clam-shelled 80s VHS copy of Andy Milligan's Torture Dungeon from Midnight Video.

To purchase Rubin & Ed on DVD or other films by director Trent Harris, visit his web store at Hooray for the Echo People! Happy viewing.

Friday, May 12, 2017

All about Vernon Dent; an interview with his biographer Bill Cassara

Interview by Doug Gibson

Vernon Dent is ubiquitous to vintage comedy film. Genre fans and scholars know him well. The more casual film fan, the one who, say, has only sampled the Three Stooges shorts, can't recall his name but they sure do know his face. And, most importantly, Vernon Dent makes them laugh.

Dent's "I know that guy" persona is a lot like, say, the character actor Donald Meek. My wife and I, watching WC Fields and Mae West in "My Little Chickadee," saw Meeks play a faux preacher "marrying" the stars. "I know that guy. What's his name?" my wife said. "He's also in "You Can't Take It With You," I reply. (And several hundred other films ...) ... Vernon, by the way, worked with WC Fields in films.

It's the same with Vernon. Last year, on a Fox News segment, background film was rolling as comic relief. Suddenly, there's Vernon from an old Stooges short. "I know that guy. What's his name," said my son, who loves the Stooges and Harry Langdon shorts. (Dent, of course, is also a veteran of hundreds of films).

Enough preface, let's get to the interview with author and vintage comedy scholar Bill Cassara, writer of "Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy -- Second Banana to the Three Stooges and Other Film Comedy Greats" (2013, BearManor Media). Bill has also written biographies of Edgar Kennedy and Ted Healy. We've reviewed the Dent biography and the Healy biography.

Enjoy the interview.

1)      Vernon Dent is a ubiquitous figure to the casual vintage comedy fan, the one who only watches The Three Stooges. He’s the face without a name they always recognize. Describe how Dent’s talents make him so memorable to fans when other frequent co-stars are less noticeable to casual fans?

CASSARA: In the Three Stooges comedies there had to be an authority figure to play against their humor, it's called "comedy contrast." While there were plenty of actors who could do that, Vernon brought with him a seemingly no-nonsense approach and dealt out the punishment. It helped too that Vernon who was not a tall man, nevertheless physically fit perfectly in the frame with the much shorter Stooges. If one watches the Stooges even casually, he shows up in 56 of their total product. That makes a lasting impression, so if one sees "Vernon Dent" in the opening credits you know that the boys are really going to get it!        
2)      Did the deaths of Vernon Dent’s parents, have an effect on his life, career or personal, in your opinion?

CASSARA: Vernon's father was the owner of a saloon in San Jose, Calif., and was murdered when Vernon was a boy. The local newspaper blamed the circumstance of the murder, not on the suspect but on the "evils of alcohol." Vernon's mother made the boy swear on his father's grave that he would never touch alcohol. Vernon's mother was a non-professional thespian and encouraged her son's budding talents, she died when he was only 20. 
3)      In his pre-Sennett career, what were Vernon Dent’s greatest strengths in the shorts he made? How did these early films, as well as Sennett shorts, set up his career as a foil to the stars of the shorts?

CASSARA: It should be noted that Vernon was influenced by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, while Roscoe sang illustrated songs at the Unique Theater in San Jose. Vernon was a singer first, even a published song writer. Vernon was the emcee while at Seal Beach, Ca. when Hank Mann saw possibilities of him as a comic "heavy" to Mann's comedies. Vernon graduated to his own starring series for "Folly Comedies 1921-1922. His character was very similar to Fatty Arbuckle's film persona to include a similar fitting hat. In those silent days, action was the key. Vernon proved himself adept at physical comedy; making pratfalls and big reactions. The Mack Sennett studios demanded a quick pace and sometimes very dangerous stunts, he was also a "fat" character so necessary to play off of others.     
4)      What are the three best Harry Langdon/Vernon Dent Sennett shorts and why?
CASSARA: 1) HIS FIRST FLAME: This is the sweetest little film full of charm and redemption. Harry is a naive nephew to Vernon's worldly Uncle who works as a fireman. Harry overcomes his physical limitations and wins the girl and his uncle's respect. This film holds up really well to modern audiences, the lessons to be learned are still fresh and humorous. 2). HIS MARRIAGE WOW : Harry almost plays the straight-man to Vernon's maniac character. It's a visual delight as Vernon drives his car crazily and seeing Harry as his captured passenger. 2) SATURDAY AFTERNOON: This short made in 1925 establishes both as buddies, Harry is hen-pecked and Vernon is his "wiser" friend who tries to fix them up with a couple of floozies. Tiny Harry and big Vernon are perfectly contrasted together, this predates Laurel and Hardy by a couple of years and might have been very influential. 

5)      You mention something interesting in your biography, that perhaps Harry Langdon would have had better success at First National had he taken his frequent Sennett co-star Vernon Dent with him. How could Dent have improved, say, “Three’s A Crowd,” if he had played Arthur Thalasso’s part, or the judge in “The Chaser.”

CASSARA: I'd hate to speculate other than saying Vernon would have enhanced any screen appearance.
6)      There was an effort to make Dent a comedy pair team with Monty Collins, and of course many say he and Langdon were teamed often without officially being a team. What were the challenges in the 20s and 30s against succeeding as a comedy team? What were the artistic challenges as well as the logistical challenges, such as exposure, play dates and marketing?

CASSARA: This is an interesting question. Comedy teams were certainly popular in vaudeville but often did not make it in film because one was a talking medium and the other visual (during the silent era. For film teams to emerge there has to be a business sense by the respective studio that the audience will be in demand of said team. The comedians also have to have a strong respect for each other; the typical set up is for a "comedian" and a "second banana" to help set up the gags. Many teams failed because both wanted to be the funny one. Stan Laurel for instance had a chance through the years to establish himself as a solo comedian to lukewarm response. Frankly, he was not ready in the early years to take on a partner. This changed when he was eventually paired with Oliver Hardy, at the Hal Roach Studios. Audience reaction at the two as a true team demanded more. The studio then marketed it to the distributors and the public as such. Vernon and Harry were never a "team" on equal footing, Harry was the star and Vernon was versatile in comic support. While Harry had a defined character, Vernon did not.  More importantly, Harry wasn't ready to be a team in the 20's. On reflection in later years he might have regretted it.         
7)      All of us want so badly to see the lost Arvid Gillstrom Educational/Paramount shorts. Synopses seem to tease us with plots for Vernon and Harry that would be appropriate for a regular comedy team (Laurel and Hardy). Do you believe Paramount was pitching the duo as a team, albeit maybe with a little more press toward Langdon?

CASSARA: Gillstrom is a name not heard of anymore, he was an important director and producer for Paramount in his day. I think he was in line to make Harry Langdon comedies and Vernon would have a big responsibility for the studio. As it was, Gillstrom directed Vernon Dent and Bing Crosby in "Please," a two-reel comedy written by Vernon. He also wrote the screenplays for Langdon/Dent series that are lost now. Gillstrom died suddenly in 1935 and that ended any hopes of bigger fame at Paramount.    

8)      Based on your biography, Vernon seemed to have a wonderful final marriage. He settled into an eventual well-paid character actor supporting role in Columbia shorts, with freedom to do other work. His settling down into that role, was it due to domestic happiness, and perhaps also that his diabetes was a growing concern

CASSARA: Vernon was married three times and his second wife passed away When Vernon was in this 30's. Vernon met his future wife at a party at the Langdon's home and he was so smitten, he proposed to her that night. Vernon was in love and they were both dedicated to each other though Mrs. Dent had no interest in the movie business. Vernon's wife worked at a bank for consistent income, aside from Vernon's acting income he was also vested in real estate and owned a concession stand in Westlake Park in Los Angeles. They both pitched in during the weekends.   
9)      What are Dent’s best dramatic roles?

CASSARA: Thomas Ince hired Vernon for his feature: "Hail the Women" (1921). It is unfortunately this is a lost film, Vernon had a prominent part. Mack Sennett cast Vernon as a sinister and overbearing suitor of Mable Normand in the feature, "The Extra Girl." (1923) He played a mean husband in the rarely seen "Dragnet Patrol" even out bullying screen heavy Walter Long. Vernon's most sensitive portrayal was the feature, "Beast of Berlin" (1939) when Vernon's character is German citizen (a bartender) who is terrorized by the Nazi soldiers. We hear Vernon cry in's heartbreaking.  
10)   What are the best examples of Dent singing in films

CASSARA: In the short Technicolor film, "Good morning, Eve." Vernon (as Nero) sings "Rhythm in the Bow," it's very catchy. He sings "There's No Place Like Home" to a sequestered jury in "The Jury Goes 'Round and Round" (1945). My favorites are when Vernon sings the old songs: "The Waning Honeymoon" (Fainting Lover (1931), "When You and I were Young, Maggie" (with Harry Langdon in Hooks and Jabs), and especially in Bing Crosby's short "Please," Vernon challenges Bing to a singing competition and bellows out "Dear Old Girl."  
11)   Has there ever been a comedian who had a stare as humorously menacing as Dent?

CASSARA: I think Vernon carved this out for himself and sustained it through out his years at Columbia. He forewarned the Stooges many times with his look of intolerance, Charley Chase and Shemp Howard both got those stares in the baseball-themed "The Heckler" and "Mr. Noisy." The audience could witness his many stages of body language, but never the comedians.   

12)   Who did Dent pair best with in films? I imagine the favorites are The Stooges or Langdon, or maybe you have another selection?

CASSARA: For sustained pairing there is no doubt; The Three Stooges for the sheer delicious physical comedy and Harry Langdon for the obvious chemistry between them. 
13)  In your research, how is Dent received by genre fans? Is he recognized for his supporting talents or seen as a comedy star who couldn’t quite reach star status?

CASSARA: Though Vernon appeared in over 400 films, most of them are unavailable for viewing. We'll never know what heights Vernon would have propelled to if Gillstrom had lived, the same could be said about Thomas Ince who also died after casting Vernon in a dramatic feature. Vernon knew everyone at Columbia Studios when he became one of their prized stock-players in 1936, so who wants to change history? I had the pleasure of giving a discourse at the last Three Stooges Convention in 2016, if the knowledgeable audience was any gauge, they held Vernon Dent in highest esteem for his comic support. 

14)   In your research, what more did you learn about the warm personal friendship between Dent and Langdon? (Vernon, Harry, and their spouses seen in above photo.)

CASSARA: In Harry Langdon Jr.'s new book, it is reaffirmed how close Vernon and Harry were. Harry's widow emphasized this to Junior, Vernon even took the boy to baseball games in his father's absence. Vernon never had children but he would have been a great dad.

15)  If someone were to put on a Vernon Dent film festival, what 12 films would you choose to include?
CASSARA: Some titles I have already mentioned, those would have to be included in any list. The rest go to just about any of The Three Stooges: "Slippery Silks," "An Ache in Every Stake,"Idle Roomers," "Half-Wits Holiday," "Three Little Pirates," "Sing a Song of Six Pants," "Squareheads of the Round Table," "Fuelin' Around," Malice in the Palace," (see Vernon above)  "Scrambled Brains," "The Tooth Will Out." 

Is there anything you have discovered since your book was released?

CASSARA: Most definitely. I heard from a woman who was a teenager when Vernon was at home and blind unable to work. She used to check on him while his wife was at work. One day she came in and she caught Vernon at the dinner table with TWO pies in front of him furnished by a buddy. Vernon sensed her presence and slightly panicked (he was on a strict diet). He tried to buy her off with "Keep your mouth shut and the other pie is yours." That's how much he valued his sweets. I also heard from a man who said he was Vernon's lawn mower as a boy. Vernon offered him any of his souvenirs and artifacts. Apparently Vernon collected stills from all his pictures and had them autographed by his co-stars. Where they went nobody knows.

I also found out something unique about Vernon that I'm not sure if he was conscious of himself.  The very uncommon surname of "Mann" seemed to pop up in his life: He went to Horace Mann school, Sam Mann was Vernon's stage idol and who encouraged Vernon to continue impersonating him with his foreign dialects, Gus Mann hired him for the "Jewel City Cafe," Hank Mann hired Vernon as his comic heavy, and Helen Mann played opposite of him in "The Girl Rush" (1931). If I were to ever write a play about Vernon I would start with the temperance movement, Vernon's father's death, and weave it around all the "Mann" coincidences. I can see it now...  

Thanks so much, Bill, for the interview.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Harry Langdon Scrapbook captures the feel of vintage comedy

Review by Doug Gibson

Harry Langdon Jr., whose father, film comedian Harry Langdon will be dead 73 years this December, recalls as a very young child visiting the set of "Zenobia," (1939)  in which his dad starred with Oliver Hardy. As Langdon Jr. recounts, he was given a handful of double-headed nails by a stage worker. Perplexed at the oddly shaped nails, his father explained to Junior that they were used to make it easier to tear down sets.

"Nothing on a stage is permanent," Langdon senior told his son.

That phrase is the title of a book released last year from Walker-Anthony Books, "Nothing On a Stage is Permanent: The Harry Langdon Scrapbook." It's available from Amazon, and you can buy it from the publisher here.

The stage anecdote is from the book's introduction. Langdon Jr. is the narrator of a scrapbook that offers photos, artwork, press clippings, promotional clippings, film posters, letters, pay stubs, and more.

The narration is appropriately understated; the scrapbook is what the book's about, but it appropriately moves the reader through the life of Langdon and his career. The book serves as a well-done illustrated history of his life.

Some of the early photos, when Langdon was in vaudeville, in blackface, with "lightning sketches" he performed on the stage, and scrapbook items from his later hits "Johnny's New Car" and "After the Ball ..." will be priceless to fans. The recent publications of photos capturing Langdon's vaudeville days finally draw to a deserved close the Capra-inspired myth that he was a simpleton who had to be taught to be a film star.

I love the scrapbook additions of the Principle Pictures films that are mostly lost, as well as the contract. We learn in the book that one unreleased film, and lost, his very first, "The Skyscraper," was in a Pathe catalog in 1925 under a different title, "Mail and Female."

The book is full of tidbits that are of great interest to Langdon fans and all vintage comedy fans. There is a two-page promotional sheet for the lost film, "Heart Trouble," that is worth the cost of the Scrapbook.

Langdon Jr. notes that his mother, Mabel Langdon, carefully preserved these items. She survived her husband's death for well over 50 years. Langdon's highly talented art is in the scrapbook, including newspaper comic strips he did.

His personal life has a role in the book too. One pay stub for a film, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," shows that two thirds of Langdon's about $20,000 salary went for alimony. Another pay stub shows Langdon, in his own handwriting, noting a portion that goes to alimony.

The book is divided into sections, taking the reader through Langdon's life. His death is as sadly abrupt in the Scrapbook as it must have been in December of 1944. It's ultimately pointless to ponder how a Langdon in his late 60s, 70s, and later may have fared in TV. But it's hard not to.

Fortunately, his reputation was installed by critic James Agee, who in the late 1940s, tabbed him as one of the Big Four of silent comedy, along with Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

In regards to Capra, the book doesn't shy away from that fact that Capra was correct that Langdon's move into more personal films, after "The Strong Man," hurt his career. It would be silly to refute the obvious. Also, Langdon took responsibility for those box office failures, and even criticized the later First National films.

I find beauty in "Three's A Crowd" and "The Chaser," but understand why they may have perplexed audiences 90 years ago. In his narration, Langdon Jr. doesn't flinch from pointing out the disaster Langdon's second marriage to Helen Walton was. The Scrapbook takes us through the lean years of the 1930s, when work was scarce, and trips around the world were required to make money. It also captures the happiness of Mabel and Harry's union, and Harry's joy to have a family with a son. Langdon Jr. notes that one reason he remembers his father so well is because the family revolved around Harry's life.

I hope this scrapbook sells well. It's a gem, easily worth its cost. I like that fans and others were involved in its creation. Film historian and author Ed Watz is credited for his contributions, as is former magazine publisher and writer Michael Copner. So is Cologne-based artist Birgit Kreps, who provides absolutely gorgeous hand coloring to many of the Scrapbook items. Finally, two of my dearest Facebook friends, super Langdon fans, Jessica Carlson and Nicole Arciola, are among those credited for their assistance.

It;s been a good year for Harry Langdon, heck a good decade-plus, with three biographies, some DVD releases, and this Scrapbook. What can we do to get Turner Classic Movies to air a Langdon First National Feature. How about accompanying it with an interview with his son featuring this scrapbook?

Sounds like a great idea to me.

Friday, May 5, 2017

'Invisible Ghost' - Bela Lugosi's first Monogram film

Review by Steve D. Stones

Thank goodness for Kino Lorber Video. They are a top of the line New York company who is dedicated to digitally restoring and distributing classic forgotten horror  films in the DVD and Blu-Ray format. Many of the films they distribute are in the public domain.  Kino Lorber's print of Invisible Ghost (1941) (buy it here) is sharp and beautiful, unlike the worn out quality of public domain prints.

Bela Lugosi plays kindly Dr. Kessler who thinks his wife has died and roams his home as a ghost. She appears at his window at night, causing him to go into a strange trance to commit murders.  Mrs. Kessler is actually held as a hostage by the gardener in the garage cellar of the Kessler mansion. She suffers from brain damage due to an automobile accident.

Dr. Kessler's first victim is the young maid, Cecile Mannix.  Mannix was once romantically involved with Ralph Dickson, played by John McGuire.  Dickson is the fiance of Kessler's daughter Virginia. Because of their romantic involvement, Dickson is accused of the murder and executed.

Ralph's brother Paul arrives to unravel the mystery as to why his brother was blamed for the murder. He is mistaken at first as the ghost of his deceased brother because the two look so much alike. Paul soon discovers that Kessler is the murderer.  Kessler is later arrested after going through a trance.

Some of the humor in the film is a bit politically incorrect for our time. For example, after Kessler's black butler Evans, played by Claurence Muse, mistakes Ralph's brother Paul for Ralph, he asks the gardener "Do I look pale? I sure feel pale." This is meant to be a strange joke with regard to Evans' skin color.

The film was also known as Murder By The Stars and The Phantom Monster. During production, it was known as The Phantom Killer. Producer Sam Katzman and actor Bela Lugosi made a total of nine films together for Monogram Pictures. Invisible Ghost is their first and considered one of their best.

As with all of Lugosi's work, he is a true professional in Invisible Ghost and gives a great performance. Even his more hammy scenes of walking slowly with his coat stretched out to strangle his victims seems to work in the film.  He dines at a long table, pretending to  speak with the spirit of his wife at the other end of the table as they both enjoy a meal.  A bit campy, but still fun to watch.

Speaking of Kino Lorber, don't miss their Blu-Ray print of Lugosi's 1931 horror classic - White Zombie. This is a must have for any serious fan of classic horror films. Like Invisible Ghost, the print is sharp and beautiful. Happy viewing. (Watch a non-Blu-Ray version above).

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.


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.