Sunday, January 22, 2012

CMBA Comedy Classics Blogathon: "Sons of the Desert" and "Way Out West"

It is time for a week of merriment and memories as the Classic Movie Blog Association celebrates Classic Comedies with a Blogathon running January 22 - 27.


"You may be a movie buff if … you have more pictures of Laurel and Hardy about the house than of actual relatives." - Caftan Woman


Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and Oliver Norvell Hardy (1892-1957)

Stan Jefferson was born in England to a show business family so it is no surprise that the acting bug bit early in life. His father, A.J., was a theatre manager, writer, producer, director and actor. Stan’s mother acted in her husband’s plays. Stan’s comedic ambitions were encouraged and nurtured by his parents wo found him an apprentice job with a touring pantomime company during his teen years. Eventually Stan became a member of Fred Karno’s well known music hall troupe, honing his craft alongside young Charlie Chaplin. It was on his second tour of the U.S. with Karno that Stan decided to stay on the Vaudeville circuit in acts with various partners and changed his name to the more euphonious and, hopefully lucky, Laurel. Stan had some moderate success in film, notably with producer Joe Rock, but by the mid 1920s was happily and busily engaged as a gag man and director at the Hal Roach Studio and seriously considered giving up performing.

Norvell Hardy was the adored baby in his Georgia family. His father, Oliver, passed away when Norvell was a baby and in his teens Norvell took the name Oliver as his own as a tribute. While his family had no theatrical background, young Oliver’s musical ability and longing for the spotlight led to his mother agreeing to let him travel with the Charles Coburn (cousin of the future Academy Award winning actor of that name) Minstrel show before he was even 10 years old. Later, Hardy opened a movie theatre and studied music seriously for a time. Eager to enter the movie business, he moved to Florida where he learned about the movies from the ground up working for the VIM comedies while singing in nightclubs. He gained a reputation as a good “heavy” and inspired comedian. In fact, while Hardy was working with the popular Billy West, it was suggested to Stan by producer Joe Rock that he should consider working with “Babe” Hardy. Still seeking to establish his own screen persona, Stan thought it unwise to team with such a scene stealer.

The Roach Studio in the 1920s could boast of their Little Rascals and their Comedy All Stars including Charley Chase, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy, James Finlayson and Oliver Hardy. Leo McCarey, James Parrott, James Horne, Frank Butler, Stan Laurel and others were crafting the movies audiences loved. Stan was prevailed upon to return to the screen and when he appeared with Babe found their styles and dedicated approach to comedy were a perfect match. The creative minds on the lot, especially McCarey, the happy exhibitors and audiences took to the evolving team and the All Star Comedy output became the Laurel and Hardy films.

The Laurel and Hardy characters of the screen are a couple of well-meaning dolts. Well, aren’t we all at one time or another? Stanley of the halting thought process is the dumb guy. Ollie of the grand manners is the dumber guy because he thinks he is smarter than Stanley. Stan immersed himself in the creating, timing and editing of their films. Babe contributed his thorough preparation technique and total commitment to the team. The congenial working relationship between the two men grew into an abiding friendship during their years in film and most certainly their stage tours when the movies thought they could do without Laurel and Hardy.

Stan always felt that the short subject best suited the team because it is difficult for comedy – their type of comedy - to carry a feature length story. I’m not one to argue with a genius about his business, but there are copious laughs to be found in the Laurel and Hardy features such as the two remembered here.
SONS OF THE DESERT (1933)

Laurel and Hardy did not create the domestic comedy, but there was no better match for their na├»ve characters than the Battle of the Sexes and Sons of the Desert is that battle played out to perfection. The director was William Seiter, well known for Roberta, Shirley Temple pictures and Wheeler and Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs. The story is by Our Town’s famous stage manager Frank Craven and the screenplay was worked on by Seiter, Stan, Babe, Eddie Welch, Jack Barty and Glenn Tryon.

Members of the fraternal order the Sons of the Desert, Los Angeles Chapter, have sworn to one hundred percent attendance at the annual convention in Chicago. Stan is worried about having taken the oath without his wife’s permission causing a frustrated Ollie to remark: "Why don’t you pattern your life after mine? I go places and do things and then tell my wife.”

Few things are funnier than watching Ollie’s transitions from coy to assertive to cowed as he tried to wrangle his way to Chicago over the objections of his wife played by Mae Busch. The Australian born Mae has an interesting filmography having worked with Lon Chaney in While the City Sleeps and The Unholy Three, and Erich Von Stroheim in Foolish Wives, Souls for Sale and The Devil's Passkey. She joined Laurel and Hardy for 14 pictures and was a great foil for the boys in pictures such as Them Thar Hills, Tit for Tat, Their First Mistake and Oliver the Eighth.

In Sons of the Desert, Ollie gets no support from the dough-headed wax-eating Stan who is most certainly under the thumb of his rifle toting wife played by Dorothy Christy. Clearly a Byzantine plan involving a feigned nervous breakdown, a veterinarian and a cruise to Hawaii is the only way to fulfill the oath.
The diversions of the convention are joyously and innocently enjoyed by our heroes. Much admired comic actor Charley Chase is a loudmouthed practical joker who almost blows the boy’s cover. The night club floor show features a catchy Island inspired tune (they were all the rage at the time), Honolulu Baby performed by Ty Parvis with some bright-eyed and clunky chorus girls. The tune was written by Roach music director Marvin Hatley, who also composed the Sons of the Desert Song and the beloved Laurel and Hardy theme, Dance of the Cuckoos.

The boys return to hearth and home with a song of the islands and some pineapples. What could possibly go wrong? Well, what if the cruise ship was caught in a storm with the safety of the passengers in doubt? What if Mrs. Laurel and Mrs. Hardy were to see a newsreel of the Chicago convention highlighting two familiar fez-topped fellows? What if it rains? Rain can dampen even the most “finely formulated machinations in extricating us from this devastating dilemma”. Each complication, each reaction and the capper to it all always brings forth gales of laughter after 70 years.

WAY OUT WEST (1937)

Stan and Babe both felt that costume pictures such as The Devil’s Brother, The Bohemian Girl and March of the Wooden Soldiers were a perfect setting for their none too bright, but optimistic screen characters. Along that line we come to the oh-so-funny singing cowboy/melodrama/spoof Way Out West written by Jack Jevne, Charley Rogers, Felix Adler and James Parrott, and directed by James W. Horne, whose collaborations with Laurel and Hardy include Liberty, Laughing Gravy, Beau Hunks, Big Business, The Bohemian Girl and others.

Our heroes are entrusted (apparently no one else was available) with delivering the deed to a gold mine to a sweet-faced, sweet natured heroine working as a servant in a rough and wild western town. Canadian born Rosina Lawrence, who graced many Little Rascal shorts plus Charlie Chan’s Secret, plays Mary Roberts. Mary works for penny pinching saloon keeper Mickey Finn. Naturally, frequent and favourite co-star James Finlayson plays that role with his accustomed bluster. A beauty contest winner who appeared in pictures in the 1920s and 1930s, Sharon Lynn plays Finn’s wife, saloon singer Lola Marcel. Like her hubby, Lola is looking for a windfall to better their social position and honesty is not a factor.

The villains will have much to do with the boys, but first Stan and Ollie must reach town. Stan utilizes Claudette Colbert’s system from It Happened One Night to hitch a ride on a stagecoach. Upon reaching town, the boy’s find a mixed reception. The sheriff is not their friend as his wife was annoyed by their feeble attempt at flirting during the trip. On a more pleasant note, Chill Wills and his Avalon Boys are loafing and singing in front of the saloon leading to an impromptu dance that is one of the delights of this or any movie. I find a certain musicality in all that Laurel and Hardy present, a rhythm to their physical gags as well as their dialogue. The At the Ball, That's All (Commence to Dancin’) number showcases the two performers at their best, light on their feet and communicating pure joy to their audience. In second place for charm is the rendition of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine where we are treated to Ollie’s lovely voice and a little vocal trickery from Stan with dubbing help from Rosina Lawrence and Chill Wills. It is worth noting that Marvin Hatley received an Oscar nomination for "Best Music, Score" for Way Out West.  The award was given to Charles Previn for One Hundred Men and a Girl.

Swindled out of the deed by the duplicitous Finns, Stan and Ollie (like all true heroes) do not hesitate for a moment upon learning of their mistake. However, their efforts to retrieve the stolen document are doomed to hilarious failure especially when Lola traps a ticklish Stan in a locked room. Thrown out of town by the still irate sheriff, the boys must resort to burglary and their catlike tread resembles a Roman Legion in full attack mode. Success is ensured through the demand for a happy ending and includes a bucket as camouflage, a grand piano and a flying donkey.

The popularity of westerns is equaled by the popularity of western spoofs. Way Out West can be counted among the best and you need look no further than its stars to know why.

“People have always loved our pictures. I guess that's because they saw how much love we put into them.” - Stan Laurel

Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Ultimate Geek Moment


Five Doctors
William Hartnell look-alike Richard Hurndall, Peter Davison, Tom Baker, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee

Since 1963 the BBC serial adventures of a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey known as Doctor Who and his various companions have enthralled and excited viewers of all ages. I watched the program with my younger sisters when it aired on TVOntario and it became a delightful habit.
The Doctor was first played by the dour and professorly character actor William Hartnell. When he left the program, the role was recast, and The Doctor regenerated into the quick-witted Patrich Troughton. His leaving brought the dashing and caped Jon Pertwee into the mix. When Pertwee moved on, the rascally personality of Tom Baker made The Doctor an international phenomenon. The trouble with these British actors is that they are all so darn good at what they do. As each new Doctor stepped into the role, there would be anguish from fans followed by wholehearted acceptance of the most recent interpretation.

Four Doctors
Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Paul McGann, Sylvester McCoy

Following Baker was the wonderful Peter Davison who must hold some sort of record for TV series roles with 18 and counting, among them All Creatures Great and Small, Campion, The Last Detective and Law and Order UK. After Davison went on his busy way, Colin Baker became an enegmatic Doctor and then Sylvester McCoy's bemused Time Lord. Paul McGann played The Doctor in a 90s TV movie after the cancellation of the series in 1989.

In time Doctor Who became part of my past with a nostalgic glow and the occasional discovery of a paperback novel adaption found in a box in the back basement. In 2005 the series was relaunched by the BBC Wales with co-production from the CBC. I considered myself mildly curious about the whole thing, but thought my daughter Janet, who likes her sci-fi, might be interested. I think it was one second (well, maybe two or three) into the first episode of the new series starring Christopher Eccleston when they grabbed my imagination and Doctor Who became my only must-see television program.

Daleks!

The trailer for episode 6 spurred my ultimate geek moment. An old enemy was about to reappear in the form of - gasp! - the Daleks.

Janet!

My daughter smirked at the salt and pepper shaped adversary and commented "They don't look like much of a much." It was then I saw myself rise up to full height and point a shaking finger in Janet's direction. I heard my voice, coming from the depth of my being, coldly announce "You haven't lived through a Dalek invasion, Missy. I have!" My geekiness has always been on display, but never so fervently, never to be denied again.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for January on TCM

New year, same deal. Looking over the wonderful selection of films scheduled on TCM in January, if there were only one to watch I heartily recommend 1949s Intruder in the Dust, an adaption by Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle, No Down Payment) of William Faulkner's 1948 novel filmed by director Clarence Brown on location in Oxford, Mississippi.

I find in Clarence Brown's best work an empathy for the outsider, particularly as represented by youngsters in such films as Ah, Wilderness, Of Human Hearts, The Human Comedy, National Velvet, The Yearling and Angels in the Outfield.

The young star of The Yearling, Claude Jarman Jr., here plays teenaged Chick Mallison whose preconceptions about life and people are forever changed by his relationship with Lucas Beauchamp played by the commanding Juano Hernandez (Trial, Young Man With a Horn, Stars in My Crown). When the young Chick tries to pay Lucas for rescuing him from an accident he is rebuffed by the proud individual. It is behavior that is beyond Chick's comprehension of what is the norm between himself, a white boy, and a black man. Lucas continually confounds Chick's ideas, as he does most people. Lucas is not a communicative and friendly man to anyone. He lives life on his own terms. Lucas is also the prime suspect and is arrested when a racist bully played by David Clarke (The Set-Up, The Narrow Margin) is murdered. The outrage in the town is easily manipulated by the victim's brother played by a brutish Charles Kemper. Porter Hall is featured in a stand-out performance as the father.

Chick, fulfilling an obligation he knows he owes Lucas, convinces his lawyer uncle played by David Brian to defend Lucas. The law, in the form of the reluctant defender and the sheriff played by Will Geer, know that the day will end in a lynching and things are beyond their control. It is Chick with the enlisted help of his friend, the son of his maid, Aleck played by Elzie Emanual who takes a dangerous nighttime trek to a burial site to find forensic evidence that will clear Lucas. Only one thing will give the boys and the law the time they need by holding back the mob. A dozen years before the celebrated scene with Gregory Peck in 1962s To Kill a Mockingbird, we have the frail Elizabeth Patterson as schoolteacher Eunice Habersham setting up her rocking chair and facing down brutal mob mentality. It is a spirited and inspiring role that should have more acclaim.

Intruder in the Dust is an exciting, thought-provoking, unsentimental story that will live with you long past the viewing. TCM has the film scheduled for Monday, January 16 at 2:30 pm.