Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 8: "Hollywood Rat Race" (1998) plus "Trick Shooting with Kenne Duncan"

Hollywood Rat Race was published 33 years after it was written... and 20 years after its author had died.

"Who are these people who hate Hollywood? Perhaps a bunch of communists?"
-Edward D. Wood, Jr.

John Huston with the cast of 1982's Annie.
Every movie is a documentary, and every film a director makes is autobiographical to some degree.

Take the great John Huston as an example. He directed some of Hollywood's all-time classics in the course of his 46-year career, including The Maltese Falcon (1941, his directorial debut!), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and The African Queen (1951). Working as an actor and director until 1987, the year of his death, Huston helmed some well-received films in his final years, such as Prizzi's Honor (1985), The Dead (1987), and Under the Volcano (1984).

But that last decade also included one of Huston's most-puzzling, least-characteristic projects: Annie (1982), the expensive, gaudy, and utterly frivolous adaptation of a successful Broadway musical, which in turn was based on a long-running comic strip. The film barely earned back its then-astronomical $50 million budget and was considered a letdown for Columbia Pictures.

Many critics, including Roger Ebert, wondered what a respected dramatic director like Huston was doing with this silly cotton candy musical. But there's his name in the opening credits just the same. Huston even does a bit part as a radio actor, adding his own personal signature to the film in that manner. So when you sit down to watch Annie, you are witnessing not only a chapter of John Huston's autobiography but a snapshot of popular culture in 1982. Whether you end up liking the film or not (I can't wholly endorse it but feel the film has its merits), Annie does have value as a historical document. All movies do, to one degree or another.

Consciously or not, each film documents its own making as well as the era that brought it into being. We sometimes talk about separating "the artist" from "the work," but perhaps this is not possible or even advisable. An artist's life and work are conjoined twins. That is what I have learned in my study of Ed Wood's singular career in Hollywood. Even apart from the blatantly autobiographical Glen or Glenda? (1953), Ed Wood's screenplays and novels reflect the man's experiences, fears, obsessions, and tastes.

This is especially clear in the case of one posthumously published manuscript which was intended as an insider's guide to Hollywood but now reads like a case study in Ed Wood-ology 101. Of course, I am referring to...

(written circa 1965; published 1998)

An uncorrected proof of Ed Wood's Hollywood Rat Race.
Ed's posthumous work.
Alternate titles: None.

Availability: Hollywood Rat Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998; Da Capo Press, 1999) is still easy to acquire and quite affordable.

The backstory: "When I took on this project, I wanted to reminisce as well as get the point across as to what it's really like in my Tinsel Town." So wrote Edward Davis Wood, Jr. in Hollywood Rat Race, a most curious manuscript he penned during the LBJ years but which did not actually see publication until 1998, a full two decades after his death. The available edition has no introduction or explanatory notes, so relatively little is known of its existence. From clues in the text, however, it seems all but certain that it was written circa 1965. Ed mentions that he arrived in Hollywood in 1947 and has been there 18 years. He also mentions that the moon landing will occur in four years and repeatedly references the film Orgy of the Dead (1965) as being a new release.

The fact that the manuscript survived at all is a minor miracle, considering that many of Ed's personal belongings were thrown away during his sad and tumultuous final years as he slipped further into obscurity, poverty, and alcoholism. The book's edition notice grants a copyright to the "Estate of Edward D Wood, Jr.," and the photo of Ed on the back cover was supplied by his widow, Kathy, so evidently she either discovered this book among her late husband's personal effects or merely held onto it until she could find a publisher.

The book is partially a how-to guide for aspiring actresses and actors (mainly the former) who hope to move to Hollywood and break into the motion picture business. Most of his advice boils down to two oft-repeated words: "stay home." Essentially, he advises young starlets to try to get acting and modeling work near their own hometown because work is tough to come by in Tinsel Town. Newcomers will find that there's a lot of competition for each assignment. Living expenses are high in Hollywood, and the town isn't as glamorous as it used to be anyway.

For those who insist on coming to Hollywood, Ed has a few bits of practical advice. He says to be wary of sleazy scam artists, phony screen tests, disreputable beauty contests, and lustful movie producers who just want to get into your angora sweater (literally). He recommends getting professional headshots and says that screen actors will likely need an agent and a publicist if they're going to make any headway in the industry.

A last hurrah: Bela Lugosi in Plan 9.
Along the way, Ed manages to work in many details about his own life and career, including anecdotes about his films and the actors and actresses who starred in them. There are tidbits here about Criswell (pg. 20 and pg. 138, both about going to the Brown Derby with the famed psychic), Lyle Talbot (pg. 50), Tom Keene (pgs. 66-68), Kenne Duncan (pgs 104-105), plus the story of a truly harrowing accident which occurred on the set of one of Bud Osborne's westerns (pgs. 57-60).

Above all, though, Eddie's thoughts were with Bela Lugosi when he wrote this book. "A personal weakness stole his life and his fortune," Ed writes euphemistically on page 32, "but not his talents." By far, the book's single-longest showbiz anecdote (pgs. 93-104) concerns a personal appearance Bela made at a movie theater in San Bernadino, CA, accompanied by Ed Wood and Dolores Fuller (identified here as Bela's "lovely assistant" and a "motion picture actress in her own right" -- this was more than a decade after she and Eddie had split up).

Apparently, Bela was forlorn because his movies were making a splash on television, yet younger viewers didn't know whether he was alive or not. So Eddie decided that a personal appearance was the cure and set up the date for Bela, who was nervous because he had no "act" to speak of. But the appearance was a smash success, leading to Bela's own comedic Las Vegas revue (written by Eddie), which was contracted for four weeks but ran seven. "This was February of 1954," Ed writes, "so close to the end of Bela's life." You get the feeling Ed was proud of having the opportunity to give his hero, Lugosi, one last hurrah.

Speaking of which, elsewhere in Hollywood Rat Race, Ed dishes on the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space, although he still clearly prefers the title Grave Robbers from Outer Space. He confirms most of the usual bits of Wood-ian trivia (pgs. 118-120). Yes, the film was funded by Baptists. Yes, he and Tor Johnson were baptized in a swimming pool. And, yes, the script was written around footage of Bela Lugosi which had been shot for another project entirely. What I didn't know is that the infamous "Solarnite bomb" was a late-arriving inspiration which Eddie didn't conceive until the eighth day of a twelve-day shooting schedule (pg. 128). Ed also lets us know that Bride of the Monster was inspired, as one might guess, by a dream, while Final Curtain was written originally as a short story while Ed was studying drama in Washington D.C. (both pg. 125).

It's also rather amusing to learn (on pgs 115-116) that he thought Orgy of the Dead "looked pretty bad" when he was on the set but turned out great thanks to its director (Stephen Apostolof, not mentioned by name) and "could well become a classic" in its genre. As indeed it has... at least to me.

Jack Norton.
Perhaps most valuably, this book sheds some light on some of the lesser-known eras of Ed Wood's career. For instance, he discusses his campaign work for controversial LA mayor Sam Yorty (pg. 46; pg. 130). He fills us in on his stint making technical documentaries for the Autonetics technical research facility in the early 1960s (pg. 129). And he mentions any number of lost or forgotten projects, including a novel called The Inconvenient Corpse, a book inspired by character actor Jack Norton, who specialized in playing drunks but who sadly died before getting to read it (pg. 34). Most fascinatingly, on page 69, Ed tells us he wrote three films (The Gunslinger, War Dance, and Double Noose) for Tom Keene, the bland cowboy actor who had played an insurance investigator in Ed's Crossroad Avenger and who went on to be a real-life insurance salesman when his film career petered out. Wonder whatever happened to these?

The reading experience: Pure Eddie. The first mention of angora sweaters arrives on page four, and there are many to follow. Those looking for classic Ed Wood quotes will find many sentences in this manuscript which are written in his signature style -- stilted and convoluted, yes, but also strangely poetic. A few favorites:
  • The atomic bomb didn't just happen. Many people of many trades, skilled people of long apprenticeship and longer study were commissioned for such a magnificent undertaking. (page 62)
  • I liked the television series The Bell Brothers starring the Bell Brothers. (page 79)
  • Sex! It becomes all important. Sex! (page 79)
  • It's not the dark I fear -- it's the things that move around in it! (page 89)
  • By 1953, the baby art called television was a baby no longer, but a skeleton filling out toward the giant it was to become. (page 93)
  • Writing fiction is great fun. It's much like God creating his world and his people, putting them in a situation, then directing their every movement. (page 128)

One of Criswell's books
With lines like that, it's kind of a shame that Criswell wasn't around in 1998 to record the book on tape version of Hollywood Rat Race. Actually, this book is quite sensible and reasonable for the most part, other than some truly egregious references to angora sweaters... and one green taffeta dress (pg. 97). Well, there is one truly nutty suggestion. In a chapter called "How to Live in Hollywood Without Money," he semi-seriously advises his readers to sleep in Griffith Park (coincidentally, the location for "Lake Marsh" in Bride of the Monster).

It's hard to divine Ed Wood's true feelings toward Tinsel Town, as they change throughout this book. In a chapter called "Hate," Eddie rails against Hollywood's "haters" (half a century before that become a popular slang term) and says that those who complain about the town are likely to be commies (pg. 105). Just five pages later, though, he's more pragmatic: "Ah, our world, as well as my town is changing...and it's all because we're growing up." Throughout Hollywood Rat Race, there are references to the fact that androgynous "beatniks" are taking over the once-glamorous Sunset Strip, which would become a key plot element in Death of a Transvestite (1967).

By the end of the book, in a chapter simply called "Hollywood," Eddie's mood has become apocalyptic. He states on page 136: "Actually, there is no Hollywood any longer. It's become a kaleidoscope of meaningless ectoplasms which abound between reality and the unreality." He ends the book two pages later with this ultimate pronouncement: "That's the Hollywood as an insider knows it. Trouble. Problems. Heartache. Believe it or not, your life is more real than the Hollywood scene." Kinda makes you want to catch the next Greyhound bus headed west, doesn't it?

And now, I think it's as good a time as any to cover one of Ed's most obscure little films, since he mentions it rather prominently in Hollywood Rat Race.

(1952? 1961? mid-1960s?)

Alternate title: Kenne Duncan: The Face That is Known to Millions of TV and Western Movie Fans. The title under which this film is commonly known, i.e. Trick Shooting with Kenne Duncan, appears nowhere in the credits and seems to have been bestowed upon it ex post facto, possibly for DVD release.

Availability: The DVD collection Big Box of Wood (S'more Entertainment, 2010)

A smiling Kenne Duncan
The backstory: Sour-faced Kenne Duncan had been a C-list baddie in cheap western films for about 20 years when he appeared as yet another ornery desperado in Ed Wood's unsold TV pilot, Crossroad Avenger: The Adventures of the Tucson Kid (1953). He would go on to play the lead role of Dr. Acula, a part intended for Bela Lugosi, in Ed's Night of the Ghouls (1959). Kenne and Eddie were friends and socialized throughout the 1950s and 1960s, bonding over Ed's love of cowboy pictures and their shared fondness for booze.

No one seems to agree exactly when Eddie and Kenne made this short promotional film for Remington firearms. The IMDb has it as 1961. A very good Ed Wood tribute site places it in 1952, a fact repeated by Rob Craig's excellent book, Ed Wood: Mad Genius. But Ed himself talks about the Remington film in Hollywood Rat Race, which likely was written in 1965. As Wood states on page 105: "In 1951 Kenne even rode Emperor Hirohito's white horse down Tokyo's main street and he has color newsreel film to prove it. We recently used this footage in a film about Kenne's act." This tells me that the Japanese footage in Trick Shooting is from the early 1950s but that the rest of the movie was probably not made until the 1960s. Therefore I'm guessing the IMDb's date is closer to the truth.

Kenne shoots Necco wafers just to watch 'em die.
The viewing experience: Intriguing at first, then ultimately monotonous and stultifying.

The film sets up its pattern early, then repeats it over and over. In an unenthusiastic voiceover, Kenne tells us about some trick shot that he's going to perform, which almost always involves hitting a Necco wafer carefully positioned inside a small booth, then he does the trick shot successfully, we hear a metallic "PING!" on the soundtrack, and the process begins anew. Occasionally, he'll stop to give a pitch for Remington directly to the camera.

Throughout the film, there are cutaways to stills and posters from Kenne's movies (all obscure cowboy flicks) and personal appearances. It's like they're constantly trying to convince us that this guy is a star. His sharpshooting act, while impressive in a purely theoretical sense, is not very visually appealing. The infamous Japan footage arrives about eight minutes into this nine-minute movie, and it's not in color, as Ed had promised. It is rather amusing, though, to hear the Japanese newsreel announcer say the name "Kenne Duncan," which sticks out like a hot coal from the rest of his speech.

I guess the main point of interest for me, other than Kenne's "rhinestone cowboy" outfits, was the fact that his targets were Necco wafers. Kenne likes these because they shatter so well when shot, but for many Catholic kids, these candies are used as playtime substitutes for the eucharist wafers, lending the film a slightly sacrilegious air. Anyway, Kenne must have gotten tired of shooting candy wafers at state fairs, because he committed suicide by barbiturate overdose in 1972. His wake was held by the pool at Ed's place, with mourners delivering their eulogies from the diving board. I'd like to think Necco wafers were served -- or used as targets in a 21-gun salute.
Next week: I promised that once August was over, I'd jump back into Ed's movies. Guess what? I lied. You see, Ed wrote some short stories, too, and I want to devote at least one week of this series to those, since I've now gotten to read a few of them. Let's meet back here in seven days and talk all about it, huh?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #53: "All Star Extravaganza" (1931-1934)

Excerpt from an online chart comparing the quality of various prints of The Stolen Jools.

NOTE: This program consists of three shorts from the early 1930s with no obvious or hidden connections between them other than chronological proximity and similar length.

The first flick: The Stolen Jools (Paramount release of a National Variety Artists production, 1931) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.9

  • William C. McGann (directed such 1930s films as In Old California with John Wayne and Two Against the World with Humphrey Bogart; his special effects credits from the 1940s include The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Big  Sleep, Key Largo, and more)

Top-tier actors of note:
  • Our Gang (lineup includes Chubby, Mary Ann, Wheezer, Farina, Stymie, and Pete the Pup)

Second-tier actors of note:

Billy Rhodes.
The gist of it: The morning after a ball attended by (practically) every star in Hollywood, Norma Shearer (herself) finds that her jewels have been stolen and calls the police. A police inspector (Kane) travels around to restaurants, hotels, movie studios, and private residences interviewing all the actresses and actors who were there (the above-listed folks, all portraying themselves). Eventually, "pre-teen flapper" Mitzi Green solves the mystery.

My take: An extraordinary souvenir of Hollywood's golden days, The Stolen Jools is a short film produced by an organization called the NVA (National Variety Artists) to raise money for tuberculosis. Paramount distributed the film free of charge, while the other studios involved pooled their resources and stars to make it, while the good folks at Chesterfield Cigarettes paid for any incidental costs... rewarded only with two very prominent plugs for their product in the finished film. The idea is that theaters would show this film before the main feature, and then the ushers would collect donations from the audience.

An obvious patchwork job, Jools had at least a half-dozen directors and twice that many writers, including future Wizard of Oz scenarist Edgar Allan Woolf. The quality and entertainment value is all over the place, naturally, but the film's historical value is undeniable. What's most interesting is that the film treats its celebrity guests as equals in terms of screen time. Of all the luminaries in the cast, it's second-stringer Eddie Kane who's at the center of the story. Maybe he had more time on his hands. Who knows? Some of the stars have remained famous over the ensuing 80+ years. Others haven't held up so well. Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. The Stolen Jools plays a lot like those Warner Brothers cartoons from the 1930s which feature caricatures of the film stars of the day. I remember being both fascinated and baffled by those as a kid.

Perhaps one of the best things about this spotty film is that it is not maudlin or preachy in the least. There is not a single mention of tuberculosis in the script, nor any attempts to make the audience feel guilty. Nope. This is just silly entertainment with no attempt whatsoever at profundity. This is for the best, believe me. (Do you hear me, Billy Crystal?)

Is it funny: Yes and no. Scenes range from "quite funny indeed" to "not funny at all." The film cheerfully acknowledges its own lousiness, which takes the curse off it a bit. In one scene, Barbara Stanwyck (sharing screen time with her then-husband Frank Fay) is taken out and shot for her "comedic" poem. In another sequence, late in the film, a projectionist ("Gabby" Hayes) directs an errand boy (future Munchkin "Little BIlly" Rhodes) to take a print of the film and bury it. Many, many jokes fall dead to the floor, and not all the actors here are particularly adept at comedy.

Wallace Beery scores some decent laughs early on as a police sergeant who's unconcerned about murder and fire but goes ballistic when he hears of a car that's parked on the wrong side of the street. (That's LA for you!) Laurel & Hardy get another big laugh by appearing immediately after Inspector Kent promises to put his "best men" on the case. The appearance of the Our Gang kids is nice but too brief, and in their big scene, Wheeler and Woolsey remind us why they're mostly forgotten. Barton Fink fans, meanwhile, will note that both Jack Oakie and Wallace Beery are in this film, but there is no wrestling.

My grade: (as a Hollywood artifact) A-; (as a comedy) C+

P.S. - No negative ethnic or racial stereotypes here, unless you're offended by the Cisco Kid saying he doesn't "dance in English."

Crotchety Andy Cline stars in the rather obscure 1931 Mack Sennett laffer, Ghost Parade.

The second flick: Ghost Parade (Mack Sennett Comedies, 1931) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 4.5

Mack Sennett
DirectorMack Sennett (innovative "King of Comedy" who founded the landmark Keystone Studios in 1912, the first enclosed motion picture facility ever built; super-prolific actor/director/writer/producer with literally hundreds of credits from 1908 to 1935, when he went broke; worked only sporadically after that; won an Oscar for Wrestling Swordfish in 1932 and an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 1937; actors who started with Sennett include W.C. FieldsCharlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, the Keystone Cops, and Bing Crosby)

Actors of note
  • Harry Gribbon (The Cameraman, Baby Face)
  • Andy Clyde (It's a Wonderful Life, TV's Lassie)
  • Marjorie Beebe (F.W. Murnau's City Girl)
  • Marion Sayers (The Garden of Allah)
  • Frank Eastman (a handful of two-reelers from 1930-1932)
  • Babe Stafford (prop man and director for Sennett from late 1920s to mid-1930s)
  • Aline West (one and done, baby; this is it for her)

The gist of it: Befuddled codger Mr. Martin (Clyde) is trying to sell Mosby Manor, the spacious home of a deceased ancestor who died in the Civil War, but the spooky old mansion is plagued by noisy ghosts and even a runaway gorilla (Gemora). Martin's screechy, panicky secretary Marge Smith (Beebe) and the klutzy, cowardly Constable (Gribbon) are of no help whatsoever. But it's all a scam being perpetrated by a couple of swindlers (Sayers and Stafford) who want to scare Mr. Martin into selling them his oil-rich land at a deep discount. Fortunately, Martin's level-headed son, Frankie (Eastman), shows up at a crucial time to set things right.

An establishing shot of Mosby Manor.
My take: Mack Sennett's phenomenal, groundbreaking run in Hollywood was sputtering out when he made Ghost Parade, and after watching this misbegotten film, it's easy to see why. It's pure hackwork from start to finish -- amateurish, clumsy, dull, and (worst of all) virtually laugh-free. The script is unimaginative and witless, and the performances tend to grate on the nerves. So Sennett doesn't have much to work with, but his flat-footed direction only makes matters worse. Was the great man coasting or had he truly lost the knack? Maybe all the pie fights and pratfalls had taken their toll on him. From watching Ghost Parade, you'd never know that Sennett had any chops as a filmmaker at all. Simple jokes -- like a running gag in which a dog seems to speak with a human voice -- are so clumsily conveyed that they elicit only embarrassed silence from the viewer. I'd like to think that Mack was asleep at the switch here. It's too sad to think that he put his heart and soul into Ghost Parade.

Andy Clyde is fine, I suppose, but Harry Gribbon and Marjorie Beebe are intolerable. There are a few oddball touches I liked, though not necessarily comedic ones. Our first view of Mosby Manor is a rather whimsical cartoon designed to look like a worried human face. Perhaps this story would have worked better as an animated cartoon. Imagine what the Fleischer Brothers could have done with this material. Another scene which caught my attention was one in which the Constable chases a screaming Miss Smith around the house while wearing a demon mask. It makes no sense and adds nothing to the story, but I could not help but think of the terrifying sequence in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in which Leatherface chases Pam while wearing a mask of human skin. Masks tend to be terrifying because they hide the facial features, leaving their wearers unknowable. Even Jason's hockey mask or Michael Myers' plain-white William Shatner mask accomplish this.

Is it funny: Nah. This is just another "scaredy cats in a haunted house" plot, and there are dozens and dozens of better examples of this type of story to be found elsewhere. Some attempted running gags, like Miss Smith pronouncing the word xylophone as "zilla-phone," do not run so much as limp along painfully until they collapse. The one comedic saving grace here is Charles Gemora, but that's just because I'm always amused by guys in gorilla suits. Just the idea that this used to be a career is amusing to me.

My grade: C-

P.S. - Racial stereotypes? Yeah, this short's got 'em. Namely, it has a black domestic named Magnolia (West) who, when she first appears, is running away from "ghosts" and has her hair braided in the style of the dreaded "pickaninny" stereotype. It's an ugly word, and I'm sorry to have to use it, but it applies here. What can I say, folks? The world of our grandparents was very different.

A lovely hand-pained poster for the 1934 short film La Cucaracha starring Steffi Duna.

The third flick: La Cucaracha (RKO release of a Pioneer Pictures Production, 1934) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.8

Director: Lloyd Corrigan (minor 1930s writer-director; acting credits include The Manchurian Candidate, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Big Clock, and more)

Actors of note:
  • Steffi Duna (Waterloo Bridge, The Great McGinty)
  • Don Alvorado (The Old Man and the Sea, The Big Steal)
  • Paul Porcasi (Casablanca, King Kong, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, much more)
  • Plus the music of Eduardo Durant and his Rhumba Band (Groucho Marx's Copacabana)

Sexy psycho Steffi Duna
The gist of it: Renowned theater owner Señor Martinez (Porcasi) has come to a small club called El Oso to see if a dancer named Pancho (Alvarado) is worthy of hiring and taking back to Mexico City. But Pancho's jealous, scheming girlfriend Chaquita (Duna) does not want to lose Pancho and will do anything in her power to keep her man from being "discovered." First, she insults Martinez's taste in food and tricks him into pouring a lot of Tabasco sauce on his salad. Then, at the urging of the management, she sings a vengeful, fiery version of "La Cucaracha" obviously aimed at Pancho, who is perfectly willing to cast his "angel" aside if there's money in it.

When Pancho does take the stage, performing a routine to the famed "Mexican Hat Dance," Chaquita refuses to yield the floor. The performance becomes a musical battle between "La Cucaracha" and "Mexican Hat Dance." Pancho and Chaquita dance offstage in anger, but before the furious young man can murder his lover, Martinez walks in and tells them he loved their act and that he's taking both of them back to Mexico City!

My take: La Cucaracha was one of Hollywood's earlier (notice I didn't say earliest) Technicolor productions, and it seems clear that the film was largely made to show off the fancy, eye-grabbing process. There are numerous musical numbers with dancers in ultra-colorful costumes, lovingly shot as if this were a fashion show and not a musical comedy. I couldn't help but think of those early 3D films in which characters blatantly direct the action toward the camera in order to get the most out of the gimmick. Other than the color, the main attraction is obviously Hungarian-born singer-actress Steffi Duna. Duna is very sexy, and her acting and singing are passable, but her character is a complete nightmare. Chaquita is childish, clingy, pushy, paranoid, and downright annoying. She's one boiled rabbit away from being Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

Pancho is no better -- a vain, greedy twit who brags about the women he's dumped and who seems very close to committing murder or at least domestic battery at the climax of this film. Chaquita and Pancho are awful people who, I guess, deserve one another. But I really wasn't buying the "happy" ending of this film. By the way, I rarely get to hear the full version of "La Cucaracha," so this film reminded me that the chorus makes a very prominent reference to smoking marijuana. That chorus is repeated again and again, which would likely provoke unintended laughs from today's audiences.

Is it funny: Well, that depends. Is this truly intended as a comedy? The romantic psychodrama between Chaquita and Pancho is quite intense and not seemingly played for laughs. The designated funny moments occur between Chaquita and the Edgar Kennedy-esque Señor Martinez. She gets to be the Bugs Bunny to his Yosemite Sam here, and the film truly goes the "cartoony" route with Martinez's face literally turning bright red with rage. Steam doesn't come out of his ears, but that would not have been out of the question. I'd say these moments are comic relief in what is otherwise a fairly serious story. But I chuckled once or twice during them.

My grade: B-

Overall grade for All Star Extravaganza: B

P.S. - For obvious reasons, there are no negative black stereotypes here. As for its portrayal of Mexican characters.... well, I'd say that it's mostly unflattering. Martinez, Chaquita, and Pancho certainly are not role models. At best, they are fools. At worst, they are potential murderers. And they are not balanced by positive characters either. La Cucaracha largely seems like an American's view of life in Mexico. It's all eating, drinking, singing and dancing down there, right? We're dangerously close to Frito Bandito territory here.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #52, "Our Gang Festival" (1930-1937)

Aspiring tenor Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer is front and center in Our Gang Follies of 1938.

The dream team: Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla, and Spanky.
NOTE: This program consists of three episodes from producer Hal Roach's legendary Our Gang kiddie comedy series, which lasted from 1922 to 1944, spanning the transition from silent to sound, eventually amassing 220 short films (plus 1936's feature-length General Spanky) and featuring over 41 child actors. The series was produced by Roach's own studio until 1938, when financially-struggling Hal sold the rights to MGM Studios. Though the MGM shorts were not as well-received as the Roach films had been, the series continued for another six years in its new home. 
Roughly a decade later, the Our Gang comedies had an incredible second life when they were redubbed The Little Rascals and sold to television as a syndicated series in 1955. It is through this TV incarnation that most people are familiar with the series today. Since Our Gang centered around young children, the lineup naturally changed over the years as certain actors outgrew their roles. The lineup people remember -- Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat, etc. -- coalesced during the last few years of Hal Roach's stewardship of the series and was carried over to MGM for its final run. In fact, the MGM era was criticized for keeping the same cast members for too long and following them into their teen years. The shorts here are all from the Roach era, but only the first features the famous lineup.

The first flick: Our Gang Follies of 1938 (Hal Roach Studios, 1937) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.8

Director: Gordon Douglas (Niagara Falls)

Series regulars (and their tenures): George "Spanky" McFarland (1932-1942), Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (1935-1940), Darla Hood (1936-1941), Billie "Buckwheat" Thomas (1934-1944), Eugene "Porky" Lee (1935-1939), Darwood "Waldo" Kaye (1937-1940)

Other actors of note: Doodles Weaver (comedian, daytime TV host, member of Spike Jones' band in the 1940s; appeared in Hitchcock's The Birds, plus The Nutty Professor, Topper, and many more films; uncle of Sigourney), Annie Ross (legendary jazz singer, both solo and with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross; acted in Short Cuts, Superman III; still alive at age 83), Henry Brandon (The Searchers, The Ten Commandments, Assault on Precinct 13, much more), Dickie Jones (voiced the title character in Disney's Pinocchio)

Alfalfa's disastrous operatic debut.
The gist of it: Spanky stages an elaborate, heavily-advertised musical extravaganza, the Follies, in his makeshift basement theater, and all the neighborhood kids arrive to watch it. Though Buckwheat, Darla, and others participate in the show, the star attraction is clearly crooner Alfalfa, for whom all the girls swoon. But Alfalfa disappoints the crowd by attempting to sing opera, specifically an aria from The Barber of Seville. The crowd starts booing, and Spanky quickly closes the curtain.

Alfalfa explains that his voice is too good for mere crooning, and he haughtily leaves the theater, accompanied by sidekick Porky, to audition at the local opera house. There, impresario Barnaby (Brandon) humors the lad by signing him to a "contract" that will take effect in 20 years. Alfalfa returns to the Follies to brag about his success to Spanky, who remains unimpressed and tells him that the real money's in crooning.

Nonplussed, Alfalfa falls asleep in an easy chair and has a nightmare of his future in which he completely flops as an opera singer while Spanky has grown up to be the successful owner of a club that features plenty of swing music and crooning... but no opera. Impressed by the money Spanky, Darla, and Buckwheat have made, Alfalfa tries to switch back to his old style. But Barnaby cruelly holds him to the contract and forces him to sing his opera music on the street while begging for spare change.

The dream ends, and Alfalfa wakes up. Snapping back to reality, he immediately tears up the contract and reverts to his old crooning ways.

Tommy Bond as "Owl Jolson."
My take: Like many of you, I can remember watching The Little Rascals on television as a kid, and for whatever reason, this was one of the shorts that really stayed with me over the decades.

Mainly, I was both fascinated and a little horrified by Alfalfa's dream, in which he is twenty years older but still looks like a child as he makes his operatic debut in front of a merciless audience made up of other "adults" eerily played by other children. Alfalfa's entire act consists of howling the words "I'm the barber of Seville! Figaro! Figaro!" in a pinched, nasal voice again and again as he maniacally sweeps his razor back and forth across a leather strop attached to a barber chair.

The audience boos and throws vegetables and tomatoes at him, but Alfalfa does not cease his demented performance. He is frightened and confused by the crowd's hostile reaction, and his face and voice register his increasing panic. But the one line is all he knows, so he keeps repeating it, not so much like a mantra but like an incantation he hopes will protect him. His humiliation seems uncomfortably genuine. (Perhaps it was.) Later, reduced to a whimpering beggar on the street, he keeps repeating the same line as the glowering Barnaby forces him to perform for passersby on a snowy New York night. No wonder this pathetic vision of his future -- one nearly as bleak as the real-life fate of Carl Switzer -- causes him to reconsider his musical style. You can see how a thing like this might have haunted me.

The contrast between crooning and "serious" music reminded me a lot of the 1936 Warner Brothers cartoon I Love to Singa. Not coincidentally, that cartoon's main character, Owl Jolson (whose problem is the exact opposite of Alfalfa's), was voiced by Tommy Bond who played "Butch" in the Our Gang series.

Even more profoundly, Alfalfa's pretensions toward artistry at the expense of entertainment put me in mind of Preston Sturges' 1941 masterpiece, Sullivan's Travels. Joel McCrea's character suffers mightily for his abandonment of comedy in that film; at least Alfalfa's punishment is only doled out in dreamland here.

For the most part, Our Gang Follies of 1938 is an elaborate fantasy musical with small children mimicking the behavior of adults in lengthy production numbers like "The Love Bug'll Get You (If You Don't Watch Out)." It's right on the border between "cute" and "creepy," and starts to tip over to the latter category as the short wears on.

For me, a particular musical highlight was a jazzy version of "Loch Lomond" sung by an immediately recognizable (though pint-sized) Annie Ross. Ms. Ross would later go on to play the unfortunate woman turned into a Medusa-like semi-cyborg in Superman III, so she's been in at least two movies that gave me nightmares. Good for her.

Is it funny: Yes, frequently, though some of the musical numbers are not particularly comedic and do drag on a bit. The film's best source of comedy is the interaction between pragmatic, straight-shooting Spanky (whose talents gave a boost to Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus) and egocentric, delusional Alfalfa. Their inimitable dynamic provides most of the laughs here. I also liked it when Alfalfa flew through the air in a perfect arc as he was rudely ejected from the theater. (How nice of Porky to stick with him even during the worst of times.) Elsewhere, the fantasy sequence at Club Spanky provides one of the movie's better dialogue jokes, as Darla repeatedly uses the phrase "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to describe the success she and the other gang members have been enjoying thanks to their avoidance of opera.

My grade: A-

P.S. - Buckwheat, thankfully, is not presented in a stereotypical or demeaning way. He's just another one of the gang, leading the band at the Follies and dancing in a white tux at Club Spanky. One might question the appearance of a subservient black doorman at Spanky's nightery, but his appearance is brief. The only real troubling moment, racially speaking, is a chorus line of African-American boys and girls dressed as maids and chauffeurs. They're so young, and they're being conditioned to accept a servile role in society. To paraphrase Monty Python, isn't it a little early to be imposing ethnic stereotypes upon them?


Sorry, Alice Cooper, but the Little Rascals got there first. Note the Crane Sisters under the word "School's."

The second flick:  School's Out (Hal Roach Studios, 1930) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.8

Director: Robert F. McGowan (one of Hal Roach's top directors through the 1920s and early '30s; worked on Our Gang shorts for about a decade)

Series regulars: Jackie Cooper (1929-1931), Norman "Chubby" Chaney (1929-1931), Allen "Farina" Hoskins (1922-1933), Mary Ann Jackson (1928-1931), Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins (1927-1933), Matthew "Stymie" Beard (1930-1937), June "Miss Crabtree" Marlowe (1930-1932), Bobby "Bonedust" Young (1925-1931)

Other actors of note: Creighton Hale (Casablanca, Sunset Blvd, The Maltese Falcon, much more), Betty Mae & Beverly Crane (tap-dancing twin sisters who appeared in many 1930s Hal Roach shorts, usually reciting the opening credits)

School's Out publicity shot.
The gist of it: Lovestruck Jackie doesn't want to lose pretty Miss Crabtree as a teacher during summer vacation, so he and the other gang members (including Chubby, Mary Ann, and Farina) conspire to keep her from ever getting married. When her brother Jack (Hale) shows up at the schoolhouse, they mistake him for a suitor and try to scare him away with ridiculous lies about their beloved schoolmarm, including claims that she has a wooden leg and has been married multiple times.

Later, when Jack goes swimming in a nearby lake, the gang steal his clothes. Meanwhile, back at the school, "Bonedust" Bobby has sold flagrantly incorrect answers cribbed from a minstrel show joke book to his classmates, incurring Miss Crabtree's wrath when she quizzes her students and gets punchlines as responses. In a minor subplot, junior Gang members (including Stymie and Wheezer) steal food from the older children's lunches.

Real-life 1930s schoolkids: note their non-freakishness.
My take: Every once in awhile, a cultural critic will complain about the non-sequitur "randomness" of much of today's comedy. I'd recommend that these naysayers spend some time studying the comic strips, cartoons, novelty records, and short comedic films of the 1920s and 1930s. What they'll find is a treasury of surrealism and nonsense. School's Out is a perfect example.

The arbitrary, mix-and-match weirdness of this short film simply does not abate, and it all starts with the baffling title sequence. Seeming for all the world like precursors to the Grady twins from The Shining, the Crane sisters walk out in front of a curtain and stiffly recite the opening credits in a vacantly-cheerful monotone as if someone just offstage is forcing them to do this at gunpoint. Who are these girls? Where is this place? Why is this happening?

Then, the story actually gets underway, and the mystery deepens. The pacing of the action and dialogue is off-kilter, with disorienting cutaways, unexpected pauses, and just downright odd reaction shots that give School's Out the feel of a David Lynch film. Granted, this was relatively early in the series' reportedly "rocky" transition to sound, but even that does not explain away all the weirdness, specifically in the dress and demeanor of its child stars.

The children seem to live in a rural, lower-middle-class milieu, but they dress in the dandified manner of Little Lord Fauntleroy. The group's apparent leader, Jackie Cooper, brings an unexpected intensity to his line readings, furrowing his brow the way he would as an adult actor. "Chubby" Chaney, whose stout physique was the result of a glandular disorder that would drastically shorten his life, talks and moves like a grouchy, exhausted middle-aged man, frowning as he tells the gang how his father beat him with a leather strap. ("Fluently," he adds, in one of the movie's oddest punchlines.)

The androgynous Farina, the clear precursor to Buckwheat with his unlikely cereal-inspired name, wears a clown-like costume and affects a dreamy, detached manner. Leering, scheming Bobby aka "Bonedust" is an unwholesome sort, and the frequent cutaways to him during the classroom sequence give the viewer a queasy feeling. And Wheezer... well, I can't explain Wheezer other than to say that he always looks like he's staring directly into the sun.

Does the peculiarity end with the children? It does not. Jack looks and acts like a life-sized ventriloquist's dummy, and his schoolteacher sister is entirely too flirtatious with her very young students. In sharp contrast to the slick Our Gang Follies of 1938, which has a linear, sensible, cause-and-effect story, School's Out has a loose, stream-of-consciousness quality to it and a very vague timeline. Watching the film sort of replicates the experience of hovering between sleep and wakefulness.

Badass Mary Ann Jackson
Is it funny: Um.... I guess so? It's hard to tell. I laughed while watching School's Out, but was I laughing at the jokes or out of sheer disbelief at what I was seeing and hearing? Perhaps a little of both. To my mind, the best and funniest of the child performers (by a mile) is one Mary Ann Jackson, who was the female lead in the series at the time and a far, far cry from the demure, winsome Darla Hood of the later years. Tomboyish, freckle-faced Mary Ann is the anti-Darla.

As tough as the boys and insistent upon being treated as their equal, this tiny proto-feminist is a precursor to Tatum O'Neal's Addie Pray from Paper Moon as well as monster-hating Kassie Cucchiella, the notorious "kick his ask" girl of YouTube fame. Jackson was one of the rare Our Gangers (Our Gangsters?) to have previous acting experience. (Hal Roach preferred untrained amateurs who would behave more naturally on camera, quite an innovation at the time.) From 1926 to 1928, Jackson appeared as Bubbles Smith in a series of domestic comedies for producer Mack Sennett, with Mill Creek favorite Billy Gilbert playing her father.

In School's Out, Mary Ann has the film's absolute funniest scene opposite smarmy Creighton Hale, who keeps trying to put his arm around her. Not one to be condescended to or sweet-talked, she keeps pushing his arm away -- not violently, but purposefully. It's a scene I think would elicit cheers from modern-day audiences.

My grade: B, maybe? I don't really know what to say for this one.

P.S. - While Stymie is treated as an equal to the "junior" gang members, Farina does not fare so well. One of his first jokes has to do with eating watermelon, so he doesn't get off to a great start here. He speaks in a laconic, lazy drawl and seems to have no regard for traditional morals or values. His mother -- or "mammy" as he calls her -- has been married three times. His "pappy" is in jail. And he plans to avoid marriage altogether... and raise his children to do likewise. So, uh, maybe not a great role model for black youth. The inclusion of the "blackface and minstrel show" joke book seems gratuitous, but it's no cause for alarm. The jokes are the typical cornball gags that might appear anywhere -- placemats, popsicle sticks, etc. -- and are not of a racial nature. Example: what was Abe Lincoln's mother's name? Mrs. Lincoln, naturally!


If Davy Crockett can kill a bear at the age of three, then why not the Our Gang kids?

The third flick: Bear Shooters (Hal Roach Studios, 1930) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.8

Director: Robert F. McGowan (see above)

Charles Gemora, gorilla man.
Series regulars: Jackie, Mary Ann, Chubby, Farina, and Wheezer (see above), plus Pete the Pup (various dogs used throughout the series; this particular one also played Tige in the Buster Brown series)

Other actors of note: Leon Janney (Charley, The Wind), Fay Holderness (W.C. Fields' The Bank Dick, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Pride of the Yankees), Charles Gemora (one of Hollywood's busiest and most celebrated gorilla performers as well as a prolific make-up artist; acting roles include War of the Worlds, Island of Lost Souls, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, and a couple of Bing & Bob Road movies; makeup credits include Double Indemnity, Grapes of Wrath, Witness for the Prosecution, etc.), Bob Kortman (Sullivan's Travels [mentioned above], Ace in the Hole, The Big Clock, Sunrise), Charlie Hall (King Kong, Top Hat, Chaplin's Limelight, much more)

The gist of it: Spud (Janney) has a problem. He's supposed to go "bear shooting" with Jackie, Chubby, and Farina, but his mother (Holderness) says he has to stay home and take care of his baby brother, Wheezer, who has the croup and must be rubbed with goose grease whenever he coughs. Spud asks his sister, Mary Ann, to take over his Wheezer-greasing duties, and she agrees on one condition: that she be allowed to go with the gang on their hunting expedition. He reluctantly agrees, and they head off in their very rickety mule-drawn wagon. Unfortunately, their chosen hunting spot also happens to be the hideout of a couple of bootleggers (Kortman and Hall), who use a phony gorilla (Gemora) to scare them away. But the crooks and their gorilla-suited pals prove no match for the resourceful and violent children.

The fatal jar of cheese.
My take: "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids!" Ah, the last words of many foiled Scooby-Doo villains of the 1970s. That line isn't uttered in Bear Shooters (which pointedly features no bears and very little shooting), but it very well could have been. Like the Scooby gang, the Rascals have their own famous canine mascot -- Pete, the dog with the big black circle around his eye, courtesy of Max Factor. Pete (or Petey) is one of filmdom's most famous pooches, and his surprisingly eventful and complicated history is well worth checking out.

This short film's surrealism may surpass even that of School's Out. Again, rather than a linear "this happened so this happened"-type structure, Bear Shooters is more like a twenty-minute fever dream of nebulously connected images and plot points: the lumpy goose grease on Wheezer's neck, the actual goose used as a makeshift car horn on the ungainly mule-drawn carriage, the foul-smelling Stoltz brand Limburger cheese that "Chubby" eats directly from the jar and which (inevitably) is substituted for Wheezer's goose grease, etc. And we haven't even gotten to the guy in the gorilla suit whom Jackie attacks with a swarming bee hive.

Even more so than the previous film, this one places the children in a world of rural semi-poverty with dirt roads and tiny, ramshackle structures. By comparing this film to Our Gang Follies of 1938, one can see how Hal Roach took the series further away from its countrified roots as the films got more and more slick on the technical level.

The backroads austerity of Bear Shooters, a far cry from the swanky urbanity of Our Gang Follies of 1938.

Is it funny: See my answer for School's Out. As John Hay Beith might have put it, this film is both "funny peculiar" and "funny ha ha," the former more so than the latter. I don't really remember laughing out loud while watching this. I think I was mostly so confused as to what was supposed to be happening that I possibly forgot to laugh. When the ending finally came, my first thought was, "What the hell did I just watch?" Such is the magic of Hal Roach's Our Gang in its (relatively) early days.

My grade: B-


P.S. - Farina is treated a little better in Bear Shooters than he was in School's Out, but he's still slow-talking and slow-thinking. This is particularly noticeable during a sequence in which the pseudo "gorilla" menacingly approaches the children's picnic table, and Farina is very late to react.