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.