Friday, June 28, 2013
Review by Doug Gibson
There's a passage in "For Art's Sake," Steve Rydzewski's biography and compilation of silent film comedy star Ben Turpin's life (BearManor Media), in which actor Wallace Beery roughs up his co-star Turpin while making a comedy short. The somewhat sadistic encounter takes place just before Turpin, a literal pioneer of slapstick silent cinema, becomes a major star for producer Mack Sennett, earning more than $3,000 a week in his heyday.
Now flash 20-plus a few years, the elderly Sennett, getting close to 70, provides a bittersweet rational as to why he is rarely in the "talkies" cinema --no one has asked. Turpin is still active, whether on the stage or for other publicity endeavors. But he's proud of what he has accomplished, and doesn't want to go hat in the hand, begging for screen work.
Rydzewski's book is a dash of biography (much of it in his subject's early years) and a whole lot of research that is shared with readers, mainly in the form of newspaper clipping and press releases. The format works. The subject's life and events flow well and the information, which must have taken thousands of hours to gather, is fascinating.This is a treasure trove of history. (Just the accounts of obscure stage performances are fascinating) It's unlikely that another book will ever improve on detailing Turpin's life. Given that most readers of this genre book will be searching for details of the subject's life, the format is successful
There's a lot of pathos in these life anecdotes, clipping and biography, but Turpin's life was not a tragedy. He was a very successful man, who saved and invested his earnings so he didn't have to work all his life. He enjoyed two successful marriages that were only ended by death. Rydzewski has done an impressive job of detailing the comic performer's life about as well as anyone has done and will be able to do. As for myself, prior to reading "For Art's Sake, " I knew little about Turpin's life, other than recognizing his iconic cross-eyed countenance. Several years ago, I read an enjoyable feature article on Turpin in Cult Movies Magazine, where I learned that Ben as a teen was given a small bounty by his dad and told to seek his fortune. After Ben, born in 1869, lost the bounty gambling, he hit the rails as a hobo. In the book, Rydzewski quotes Turpin as saying that "Mulligan stew was my bread" in those days.
"For Art's Sake" provides lots of information on Turpin's early life. His father managed candy shops in New Orleans and New York City, where Turpin learned the art of taffy pulling, a skill he was paid for as an adult performer. Living a nomadic life for several years after leaving home, Ben gravitated to carnivals and theater work, particularly physical comedy. A brief first marriage hardly slowed him down. Although he traveled widely, working for very low wages, Chicago eventually became an early hub of his career.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Turpin gained notoriety for his "Happy Hooligan" performance. These types of characters required intense physical skill, including throwing one's legs up high in the air and falling on the back and quickly rising. These moves, as well as comedy acts that required climbing and hard knocks, would frequently send Turpin over the years to hospitals. (Although there are many "explanations" as to why Turpin developed crossed-eyes, Rydzeswki's research points toward the cumulative effect of Ben having to intentionally cross his eyes for long stretches to play Happy Hooligan as a likely reason.
In 1907, Ben married Carrie Le Mieux, a fellow performer and they settled in Chicago. It was a happy union that would last until her death in 1925. About this time, Ben started making silent comedy films for Essanay, a Chicago-based company. As Rydzewski explains, film was not as respected as the stage in that period. Scripts were not a part of short comedy films. It was go to the scene, stay away from the cops, and improvise your movie. In fact, as Rydzewski's book notes, Ben was once arrested, and spent several hours in jail shivering, for entering public waters in Chicago while filming. (Here is a look at Ben, a legitimate pioneer of slapstick silent cinema -- he was literally the first -- in a portion of the Essanay 1909 short "Mr. Flip.")
Although he was only paid $20 to $30 a week for several years, Ben stayed with Essanay for a long time, even heading with his wife, Carrie, when Essanay made the move to Hollywood. Most of his early films are lost but enough survive remain to fully appreciate Ben's talent for physical comedy timing as well as his facial expressions and aggressive persistence that demands that viewers pay attention to him. Frankly, Essanay exploited his talent, making a fortune with the peanuts they paid him. As Rydzewski notes, once Ben tried to quit Essanay, but lost, and came back to the same miserable pay.
It was Charlie Chaplin, hired by Essanay, who finally started to move Ben's career into well-paid stardom. Instantly noting Turpin's star power, Chaplin worked with him and then refused to work with him again -- as a compliment -- correctly noting Turpin was a star. When Chaplin left Essanay, it likely helped provide Ben the resolve to find better earnings. He signed with Sennett, amazed that they accepted his demand of $100 a week. (An interesting anecdote in Rydzewski's book is Turpin recounting how his accountant urged him to live on far less and save a lot. That likely underscores his frugal lifestyle, which kept the Turpins financially secure after the top-earning years were over.)
As mentioned, Ben sailed to super-stardom with Sennett, earning $3K-plus a week. Many of his Sennett shorts survive and they are a pleasure to watch. As his wife Carrie's life neared its end, Ben, a very devout Catholic, took her to religious shrines hoping for a cure. He suspended his career to care for her in her final months. After her death, there are several news clipping that capture how big the story was in the mid-1920 entertainment media of star Ben Turpin shucking off his career to care for his loved spouse.
Although very witty in his public appearances, Turpin lived a quiet life with Carrie. There were no children, evidently a life disappointment. (Rydzewski includes an odd tale of Ben and Carrie asking a poor man if they could raise his daughter -- the man declined). In any event, it's not a surprise Ben eventually married Babette Dietz in the summer of 1926. Their union lasted until Ben's death in 1940 at age 70.
Ben went back to comedies but did not make the change to talky comedies. He was financially secure. At age 60 he could still do stage work and add to his secure living. He had invested well. I'm just guessing but he may have looked at the artistic difficulties some of his peers (Langdon, Lloyd, Keaton and even Chaplin) were having making the transition. In the early '30s, comedy cinema was moving toward dialogue comedy, either battle of the sexes or the fast repartee of the Marx Brothers. Slapstick was popular in shorts, but the budgets were tiny, and the films less recognized than in the Sennett era.
The best chance to see Ben in a film is the 1940 Laurel and Hardy film, "Saps at Sea," where he plays -- in a quick cameo -- a cross-eyed plumber. Ben Turpin died of a heart attack on July 1, 1940. Born in 1869, he was a literal first in his class of silent slapstick. Rydzewski has done a tremendous service, both to fans and film historians, with this comprehensive work. The book also includes scores and scores of pages of photos.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
Hello cult film fans, this is Doug Gibson. My co-blogger Steve D. Stones and I, along with Jennifer Van Dyke and Alexander Van Dyke doing technical work, were in Morgan, Utah, and Portervile, Utah, on June 18, 2013, visiting some of the sets where that wonderful cult film, Troll 2, was filmed. We visited the now-empty building that was the "general store" in Morgan and then headed to the own of Porterville and visited the ruins of the historic Mormon church that was used as the exterior of the home of the "Goblin Queen." It was a lot of fun and we hope you enjoy our show! Here's some links to earlier posts we've done about Troll 2. Here is one, and here's another.
Friday, June 21, 2013
Besides being a genuinely frightening film, Shock Waves manages to have two great horror icons – John Carradine and Peter Cushing. The film follows in a long line of the Nazi zombie sub-genre of films that were shown in the 1970s at drive-ins. I would certainly rank Shock Waves as the best of the Nazi zombie films.
The real star of Shock Waves, in my opinion, is the eerie music score by Richard Einhorn. I can’t imagine viewing this film without the electronic synthesizer music by Einhorn. It holds the entire film together, and seems in sync with the march of the zombies.
Shock Waves manages to be scary without showing one drop of blood or extreme zombie gore. Most zombie films specialize in lots of gore. This film, however, does not, yet it still manages to entertain and horrify the viewer.
The plot follows a group of tourists on a dive boat off the coast of Florida. They collide one night with an old abandoned Nazi ship from World War II. The grumpy old captain, played by John Carradine, dives below the boat the next morning to inspect it for damages. He is later found dead, having drowned.
The tourist group, cook and captain’s first mate abandon the boat and row ashore. After arriving on a deserted island, the group encounters several zombies dressed in Nazi uniforms. They also find an old abandoned hotel inhabited by a Nazi commander, played by Peter Cushing. Cushing has been on the island since the ending of World War II, and informs the group that the German high command had developed a race of invincible soldier who could kill with their bare hands. He calls them the Death Corps, which is the alternative title of the film.
One by one, members of the boating group start to be attacked and murdered by the zombies. Most of them are pulled down into the water and drowned by the zombies. These are some of the most effective and creepy sequences in the film. Close up shots of the zombies submerging from the water makes goose bumps grow on your skin.
The original negative of Shock Waves is thought to be lost, so director Ken Wiederhorn released a print from his personal archive in 2002 to be released on DVD by Blue Underground. A VHS video of the film was also available in the 1980s by Prism Entertainment. The Blue Underground DVD has an interesting audio commentary by director Wiederhorn, make-up designer Alan Ormsby and still photographer-filmmaker Fred Olen Ray. An interview with actor Luke Halpin, who plays Carradine’s second mate in the film, is also on the DVD extras. Watch this film with another Nazi zombie film like Oasis of The Zombies or Zombie Lake. Enjoy!
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
By Doug Gibson
I watched Edgar Ulmer's 1945 Producers Releasing Corporation film Detour a couple of days. I've seen it often but it never fails to provide a punch-in-the-gut tribute to great film noir. What director Edgar Ulmer was able to capture on a shoestring budget with PRC is better than 99 percent of the major studios' efforts. Detour, by the way, would be a great double feature with Gun Crazy.
The casting of the two leads helps make the film so successful. Tom Neal, as Al Roberts, luckless pianist whose life is destroyed crossing the country to hook up with his girlfriend, is a good-lucking luckless anti-Humphrey Bogart. His fatality, fear and hesitance makes him, for most of the film, an easy foil to abuse for Vera, played by Ann Savage -- what an appropriate name!. Savage's performance is even more critical to the film than Neal's. She is pure hostility and real anger. Observing her, one can imagine Vera as being able to chew barbed wire to a cud and spit it out as masticated metal.
Yet there is a vulnerability to Vera. Observe the scene where she oh so subtly tries to seduce Neal's Al. It's a subtle moment of vulnerability from an ice woman. When Neal, in whiny fashion, appropriately rejects her overture, anger results so quickly that the initial hurt is barely observed.
The ending of Detour will always be debated. Did Al turn himself into the cop he abruptly meets? Did the cop arrest him, or is the cop just approaching what looks like a beaten down drunk? Or is the whole saga of Al's Detour a fantasy of a deeply disturbed man?
Saturday, June 15, 2013
There's also a long interesting essay on Lords of Magick from writer Sherman Hirsh on this blog
by Doug Gibson
Thursday, June 13, 2013
By Doug Gibson
"To Heir is Human" (imdb page is here) is one of comic legend Harry Langdon's more energetic late comedy shorts for Columbia, which featured other comic stars besides the Three Stooges. Released in early 1944, it stars Harry as window washer Harry Fenner, who is improbably located by telephone book deliverer Una, played by Una Merkel. It seems a sinister looking fellow asked Una to find Harry and deliver him to a forbidding domain where he'll inherit a fortune.The man, A Raven Sparrow, will give Una $1,000 to find Harry. Una drags a semi-reluctant Harry to the house, where naturally, a trio comprised of relatives and a thuggish handyman want to knock off Harry -- and Una -- and get all the inherited cash for themselves.
Although he's looking very old -- Langdon would die in December 1944 -- Harry is in excellent form the low-budget short, produced in Hugh McCollum's wing of Columbia's shorts studio. "The Elf" is in form in a few scenes, particularly during his initial refusal of Una's efforts to locate him, and more prominently in a later scene with his Vampish "kissing cousin," Velma, played by Christine McIntyre, who later gained iconic status as a Three Stooges regular. Langdon is hilarious with his mild surprise and resistance as Velma, one of the baddies, tries to provide him poisoned drinks. A Raven Sparrow, by the way, is played by Lew Kelly, who looked like a creepy cross between an aged Boris Karloff and John Carradine. The handyman is played by Bud Gribbon. His best scene is where he lowers a noose over Harry's head, who mistakes it for a tie. There are effective scenes in the house, particularly a room with an electric. Both A. Sparrow Raven and Una receive unpleasant but funny jolts as a result.
Now, I have not mentioned Una Merkel's contribution yet, because I've been saving it for her own paragraph or too. She absolutely marvelous in her role as dogged working girl Una. Merkel, who later gained a measure of consistent fame, had enjoyed a measure of stardom in the 1930s. However, by 1943 she was in a slump, and doing low-budget shorts. Nevertheless, her career slump doesn't show in this film.
Merkel has a tremendous eye for comedy, particularly slapstick, and she shows a lot of that in the film. She's literally manhandled in this film, getting thrown out of offices, having telephone directories thrown at her, being pulled by a thug who wants to kill her, fainting, and being electrocuted. Nevertheless, she never stops protecting her charge Harry, even if her main motivation for the $1,000 is to improve her appearance. Una Merkel reminds me of a slightly more intelligent version of Patsy Kelley in her shorts with Thelma Todd. Her pairing with the lower key Langdon works well. ... By the way, frequent Langdon co-star Vernon Dent has a cameo as a board chairman of a business. The scene is while Una is chasing Harry, and Langdon is funny as he intrudes into the speech.
This is an obscure film. A Langdon fan and film collector originally provided me a copy of the film, Look for it at Turner Classic Movies on the odd chance it will get on as an "extra." It is now on YouTube, however. Watch it here.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
All of these films are available via amazon for sale.
SANTO EN EL TESORO DE DRACULA: The 1969 Mexican masked wrestler battles with Dracula and a masked criminal in this insane, chaotic entry that blends time travel, the Lugosi Dracula tale and a search for Dracula's treasure in one convoluted flick. It's funnier than heck, though, particularly the time travel sequences, the cheesecake scenes of a Latina lovely in a sheer nighty, and the obligatory wrestling. And what's with that mask, Santo, do you ever take it off to sleep, shower, make love ...?
THE MONSTER: The presence of Lon Chaney Sr. as a mad scientist/doctor who is using patients at a sanitarium the imprison several is reason enough to watch this too-often stagy adaptation of a popular comedy thriller stage play of that era, 1925. Johnny Arthur, a comedian of that era, provides the laughs but Chaney's menace and strong facial emotions dominate the film.
THE SEX KILLER: Viewers will feel like they'll need a strong shower after watching this grimy, 1967 Barry Mahon directed "nudie roughie" filmed in that era just before grindhouses surrended and starting showing triple XXX. "The Sex Killer" would be an R today. It's about a loner who works in a manniquinn factory who progresses from peeping to rape and murder, although only breasts and flimsy nightwear is shown. The film is worth viewing only for the stark, lengthy shots of New York City in the 1960s. In fact, it's almost like a documentary of the city's grimy section of that era. The final scene, which scans the New Yorks business and industrial skyline, is great gonzo cinematography.
-- Doug Gibson
Friday, June 7, 2013
What! No Beer? 1933. B&W, MGM, 70 minutes. Directed by Edward Sedgwick. Starring Buster Keaton as Elmer J. Butts, Jimmy Durante as Jimmy Potts, Phyllis Barry as Hortense, Edward Brophy as Spike Moran and Charles Giblyn as Chief. Schlock-Meter rating: Five stars out of 10 stars.
I just recently watched this film again and upped it to five out of 10 stars. Jimmy Durante is still as bad as ever but Keaton grows on you in repeat viewings and there is a delightfully racy pre-code scene were Keaton's Elmer hides his eyes as the object of his love, Phylllis Barry's Hortense, slips out of her dress into some racy underwear. She's quite the dish. Also, the plot of the pair's adventures in a no-worth "brewery" improves on repeat viewings. Also, thanks to YouTube, one can watch the whole film ... see below (It has a catchy opening tune..)
What! No Beer? is a curio, a relic from the past. The plot of the mostly unfunny comedy deals with prohibition and efforts to repeal it, an issue which dominated headlines nearly 80 years ago. It was a box office winner due to its stars, Keaton and Durante, but is generally regarded as one of the unfunniest comedies of the 1930s. It was the pair's last film together. Keaton's drinking problem and absences from the set caused the studio to fire him even before the film was released. It was the start of a spiral into film oblivion for Keaton, and his career did not surge again until television began to thrive two decades later.
The plot: Jimmy Potts (Durante) is a barber and Elmer J. Butts (Keaton) is a luckless businessman. Potts, incorrectly thinking prohibition has been repealed, convinces Butts to invest his money in a long-closed brewery. The stone-faced Butts moons over a pretty gangster moll named Hortense (Barry). He wants to be a millionaire so he can win her love. Seeing no other way to earn the million bucks, he agrees to get into the beer business. Police quickly raid the brewery and arrest the pair, but discover there's no alcohol in the brew. Later, a hobo at the deserted plant confesses he was once a great brewer and real beer is made, which is a big hit. Soon the police and the mob muscle in on Potts and Butts.
The film is too often as unfunny as it sounds. Durante, in particular, is just pathetic. He bellows and brays and cracks unfunny jokes. It's painful to watch him flop on the screen. Although he is clearly half-bagged in many of the scenes, the best part of the film is comic great Keaton. His talent for physical comedy is on display in several scenes, and his naivete and trusting demeanor leads to misunderstandings that bring laughs, particularly a scene where gangsters, sent to muscle him, interpret his bland replies as extreme coolness under pressure, and leave impressed. What! No Beer? is not a good movie, but it's worth a rental to see an early sound Keaton offering.
-- Doug Gibson
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
By Doug Gibson
"Zenobia," a 1939 Hal Roach comedy feature is an charming film, albeit one that failed to attract audiences. It's mostly forgotten today, except for routine once-a-year airings on Turner Classic Movies. The film, from Hal Roach, pairs rotund Oliver Hardy with silent- and early-talkies era comedian Harry Langdon. This was because Hardy's iconic partner, Stan Laurel, was engaged in a contract dispute with Roach. Langdon, a close friend of both Laurel and Hardy, stepped in to film "Zenobia," with no real intention of taking Stan Laurel's place, although there was talk of a second Hardy/Langdon feature, that ended after "Zenobia" failed at the box office. Laurel eventually returned to Hal Roach, but soon after the pair left for good, moving to 20th Century Fox.
But let's talk about "Zenobia." It takes place in Carterville, Mississippi, in the post-Civil War deep South, although to be honest the residents there appear to have been spared the recent horrors of war. Hardy plays -- way out of character -- Dr. Henry Tibbett, a mild-mannered country doctor whose finances are a bit shaky because long ago he decided not to use his medical skills to get wealthy. Nevertheless, he lives in a rented mansion with Mrs. Tibbett (Billie Burke), his daughter Mary (Jean Parker) and their three servants, Zero (Stepin Fetchit) Dehlia (Hattie McDaniel) and their child Zeke (Phillip Hurlic). Daughter Mary is engaged to marry a rich young man, Jeff Carter, played by James Ellison. Jeff's snobbish mother, Mrs. Carter (Alice Brady) loathes the match is working to get back with a former girlfriend, Virginia, played by June Lang.
Despite this subplot, this is a gentle film, and no matter how dastardly the machination of Mrs. Carter and Virginia to dash Jeff and Mary's love, there's never any danger of the pair being split up. All ends well and even mean Mrs. Carter apologizes at the end. What's most interesting is that Burke -- who was Glinda the Good Witch in Wizard of Oz -- provides most of the comedy, and not Hardy. Burke proves herself adept at comedy, playing a scatterbrained but quick-witted, and loyal spouse to Hardy's gentle, good-natured Dr. Tibbetts. (watch a scene of Burke's wit above)
This domestic set up is damaged by the performance of Fetch-it as the servant, Zero, who perpetuates a racist stereotype that unfortunately was a part of Hollywood in that era. "Zero" mumbles, whines, cowers and cringes throughout the film. However, the contrast between his performance and that of McDaniel is interesting. McDaniel, who won an Oscar as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, delivers a strong performance, in which she never surrenders her dignity or self-respect.
Now, time to mention the main plot and Harry Langdon's excellent contribution to "Zenobia." Langdon plays Professor McCrackle, a traveling tonic salesman who also has an elephant, named "Zenobia," who travels with him. One day, when Zenobia is feeling poorly, McCrackle begs Dr. Tibbetts to treat his elephant. Because he's such a nice man, Tibbetts treats Zenobia. His treatment works so well that the elephant becomes enamored of the doctor and won't leave him alone, following poor Hardy's doctor and occasionally picking him up. Upset that he's no longer number one with his elephant, Langdon's McCrackle is convinced, with some help by the scheming Mrs. Carter, to file an alienation of affection lawsuit against Dr. Tibbetts.
It's an amusing plot, and Langdon is excellent in scenes with Hardy. He's too good a comedian and actor to try to imitate Laurel. Instead, Langdon utilizes his understated comedic talents and blend of timidity, deadpan blank face and "Little Elf" voice to generate a fair share of laughs. His best scenes with Hardy are when Zenobia is being treated by the doctor, as well as his efforts to keep the elephant away from Hardy's Tibbetts. In the final courtroom scene, which is the strongest point of the film, Langdon is hilarious as he is constantly interrupted while trying to testify using a memorized script.
So why did the film fail? It cost $637,000 and grossed only $351,000 worldwide, according to the Langdon biography "Little Elf. " It's not Langdon's fault. One reason may be that audiences were so used to Laurel and Hardy comedies that they couldn't accept Oliver Hardy in a role that was mostly non-comedy. In fact, when he's treating Zenobia is the closest he gets to traditional "Hardy comedy" and audiences probably wanted more. Also, while Burke is very good in comedy, and witty, it must have seemed strange to audiences to see her, and not Oliver Hardy, getting the laughs. Another reason may be that there is very little drama in this comedy. As mean as Mrs. Carter, Virginia, and others are, you don't really feel that there's any tension in the film. The New York Times described Zenobia as "Gone With the Wind" as devised by Hal Roach, and there's truth to that. Carterville seems like somewhere in NeverLand, an alternative multiverse. Finally the biggest reason Zenobia failed so badly was that the public didn't want to see Hardy with anyone else other than Stan Laurel.
The New York Times also gave props to Langdon, writing (from Wikipedia) "...Harry Langdon has adopted the partnership prerequistes formerly reserved for Stan Laurel...Harry Langdon's pale and beautifuly [sic?] blank countenance...has probably already excited the professional jealousy of Mr. Laurel..."
However, Langdon never intended to attempt to supplant Laurel, a man who went out of his way to help Langdon through tough stretches in the 1930s, and is due a lot of credit for providing momentum that insured the last several years of Langdon's career was fairly busy, and prosperous.
Zenobia is worth watching, and I'm glad it's frequently on TCM, as it provides both a glimpse at the versitility of Oliver Hardy and the comic talents of Harry Langdon.