Thursday, November 26, 2020

A THANKSGIVING TRADITION CONTINUES: BABES IN TOYLAND (AKA MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS) (1934)

NOTE: This is a re-post of an entry I originally posted on Thanksgiving, 2010.

SPECIAL NOTES FOR 2020: WPIX Channel 11 in New York has a special treat in store for fans of this film: once again this year, they will be running the film in both the original black and white version as well as the colorized version (you may recall that last year, they ran the black and white version for the first time since 1990). It will also coincide with a mini-marathon of The Honeymooners, featuring two characters, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, who took a lot of influence from Laurel & Hardy.

You can see this year's schedule in the ad below:

In addition to the above news, I received an email from Robert Grippo a couple of years back that bears repeating:

"Just read your article on Babes In Toyland from last year! Good piece but just to update you WPIX here in NY actually owns the film as of course would Tribune. PIX got the film years ago when they took over the rights from PRIME TV films.

In the early '90s someone tried to get the film as a package for video release with Fox's Laurel and Hardy Films thinking Babes would be a selling point as Fox's titles were lesser quality films they went to PIX and they decided to also colorize the film. PIX wanted CBS Fox to pay for the colorization and they said no. That's when PIX went to Samuel Goldwyn and they did the deal. That's how it was colorized then released on VHS and later DVD. MGM bought Goldwyn's right to the Goldwyn library and that's how the VIDEO rights wound up at MGM, PIX and Tribune own the film and the rights!"

Robert has a terrific Facebook page of his own, celebrating the storied history of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, called The Big Parade History Project - click to check it out! 

So now, without further ado...

Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

RATING: *** & ¾ out of ****

AUTHOR’S NOTE #1: I’m running a review of this film today because the film is a Thanksgiving tradition in the New York Tri-State area where I grew up and still live. WPIX Channel 11 has run this film almost every year on Thanksgiving for the past 40 or so years (and is doing so again today) and I can not underestimate the impact this film had on me, truly an annual "event" I looked forward to year after year as a child.

AUTHOR’S NOTE #2: As of this writing I’m still debating whether to include this film among the main Laurel & Hardy horror-comedy entries or whether to place it in the “horror-onable mention” section. The film is not a horror-comedy per se – in fact, it is a children’s fantasy that makes ample use of classic fairy tale characters. Furthermore, a major motif in the film is Santa and his toymakers readying Christmas gifts for the children in the off-season. But its horrific moments and characters are quite palpable and place it in a unique category all its own. More on that in the review...

PLOT: The peace and tranquility of the citizens of Toyland (where all the famous nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters live along with Santa Claus and all his helpers) is threatened by its one bad apple: sinister Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon), a creepy landlord who holds the mortgages on most of the homes in the land, including the shoe-shaped home belonging to the old woman (who lived in a shoe). He also rules the frightening “Bogeyland” and the monstrous “Bogeymen” that inhabit it, a place where criminals are banished as punishment for major crimes. Barnaby is sweet on the old woman’s daughter Little Bo Peep. When Mother Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) can’t meet the mortgage payment on the shoe, Barnaby offers to forget the whole matter if she’ll consent to offering Bo Peep’s hand in marriage to Barnaby. Neither Mother nor Bo Peep, who is in love with Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (Felix Knight) are willing to submit to Barnaby’s demand and so he threatens to evict everyone out of the shoe. Enter two of the shoe’s tenants, Stannie Dumm (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy), who vow to get a loan from their boss the toymaker (William Burress) to prevent such a travesty. That doesn’t go over too well as the “boys” get in a heap of trouble with the toymaker after Santa does a spot check at the toy factory. St. Nick wants to see how things are coming along and learns that Stannie got his wooden soldiers order all mixed up – instead of 600 soldiers at one foot high, 100 soldiers each six feet high have been created! A series of triumphs and reversals follow for Stannie, Ollie, Bo Peep and Tom Tom and when it becomes apparent that Barnaby can no longer “trick” his way to achieving his evil desires, he enlists the aid of the ferocious half-men, half-monster Bogeymen to rout Toyland. Can our heroes find a way to defeat these abominable creatures, and what will become of Bo Peep, Tom Tom and the wooden soldiers?

REVIEW: Testament to the role this film has played in my life: I’ve seen it so many times I didn't even need to re-watch it to review it! Without question, this film, based on the Victor Herbert operetta is one of the most unique films ever made – as both a comedy film by major stars and as a holiday classic it stands pretty much alone. Only the all-star “Alice in Wonderland” which also stars Charlotte Henry in the title role (along with Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, Leon Errol, Jack Oakie, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles and others) comes close but ultimately it's no cigar – while that earlier film shares “Babe’s” weird and spooky oddness it lacks the charm and humor of the Laurel & Hardy opus which despite several terror-filled sequences is filled with hope and optimism. And “Alice” certainly doesn’t evoke any warm-fuzzy holiday feelings... it is most decidedly not a holiday classic.

Where can I even begin? This is one of those films that has to be seen – mere words cannot convey the wonders this film undolds. I suppose I’ll get the intentional and unintentional scares out of the way first:

Silas Barnaby, as performed with relish and flourish by Henry Brandon (real name: Kleinbach) is a dastardly villain of the highest order. He has a huge “creepy” and “spooky” factor, not unlike many of the fiends Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price essayed over their illustrious careers. It is a performance for the ages. Brandon treads that line between funny and purely evil that not many actors since have accomplished (Heath Ledger’s interpretation of Batman’s nemesis “The Joker” is the most recent example I can think of but there have been few and far between). Most amazing of all, Brandon did it at the tender age of 22. That is an amazing accomplishment not just because he’s playing a character much older but also because of all he was able to bring to the character – if you didn’t know Brandon’s real age you’d swear that he had already witnessed decades of villainy to inspire his portrayal. Brandon played many other notable roles through the years (including a part in the Martin & Lewis horror-comedy “Scared Stiff”) and even acted up until the year before his death in 1990 but when all is said and done it is not a stretch to claim that history will put Barnaby at the top of his most memorable roles.  Brandon returned to the character three years later and that turn was just as memorable as the original. In the short “Our Gang Follies of 1938” (filmed and released in 1937) Brandon is the Opera House impresario who signs famed Little Rascal Alfalfa to a crooked contract whose deception is worthy of those the devil dealt in “The Devil & Tom Walker,” “The Devil & Daniel Webster,” “Damn Yankees,” “Bedazzled” and so many other tales. The unbreakable contract requires Alfalfa to sing “The Barber of Seville” at his opera house… forever! The character is never called “Barnaby” by name in the short, but in the script he is identified as such.

Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

Barnaby has a manservant, naturally, and as the illogic in old movies usually goes, the villains always pick ineffective manservants like hunchbacks and mutes (sometimes they’re both at the same time). Here, the manservant is a diminutive dwarf played by John George. He is oddly creepy in his own right (which may be the context more than anything – the costumes in this film are creepy as is the lighting and Barnaby’s villainy and lair, and since George appears in those scenes, his character takes on those attributes as well… except when Barnaby laces into him, resulting in some audience sympathy toward the character). He is also somewhat reminiscent of Angelo Rossitto, another dwarf actor with a lengthy career who often appeared in the same manservant capacity, most notably alongside Bela Lugosi in various films including the East Side Kids horror-comedy, “Spooks Run Wild.” Rossitto also appears in "Babes," as one of the little pigs as well as one of the sandmen fairies during the lullaby scene (more on both below).

Barnaby’s minions, “The Bogeymen” are horrific monster-men designed to give children (and maybe a few adults) nightmares. Less frightening once you get past a certain age and spot the rubber faces and the pillow pads within their shaggy suits, they are also fairly unique considering the year the movie came out. The most natural comparisons would be movie werewolves and ape men but most of those types of films (such as “Werewolf of London” and “The Wolf Man” and “The Ape Man”) came out after “Babes.” Prior to “Babes,” the most notable example was “The Island of Lost Souls” a year earlier and perhaps some of Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent monster films. Like Barnaby, the Bogeymen (or at least A BogeyMAN) would return in an “Our Gang” short. Well, at least the costume and mask (without an actor inside) would, as Alfalfa, Buckwheat and Porky are scared witless by a Bogeyman that flings out of a hidden panel during an unplanned (and unrealized by the kids) journey through a spooky carnival funhouse in the last Hal Roach-produced “Our Gang” short , “Hide & Shriek” (1938). Not to be outdone, Barnaby is also evoked in an early scene that has "detektive" Alfalfa showing off his expertise at disguises - answering the door dressed as Barnaby complete with hat, cape and cane!

Barnaby and the Bogey Men are the obviously scary elements, but the whole production has an (appropriately) surreal and otherworldly sensibility that sometimes borders on the eerie, with even some of the favorite children’s characters rendered in slightly “off” costumes and masks that are downright spooky at times. These include the Three Little Pigs, played by dwarves (including the aforementioned cult film favorite Angelo Rossitto) and children (including Payne B. Johnson who is still with us as of this writing – I had the pleasure of meeting him at the 2006 Sons of the Desert convention in Atlanta, GA) in garish costumes. The masks make the faces of the pigs seem a little scary – they look old and wrinkled and not capable of showing much emotion (especially since you can’t really see their eyes), which heightens the bizarre feeling (a pig jumping up and down and clapping its hands in victory with an emotionless face is an odd thing indeed. There is also man in a cat suit (Pete Gordon, who played the Chinese cook in Laurel & Hardy’s horror-comedy classic “The Live Ghost”) with a fiddle, naturally, who comes off slightly scary – mostly unintentionally although there is one cheat scare when Ollie is explaining to Stan about the Bogeyman’s horrible claws… just as the “cat” puts its paw on Stan’s shoulder!

One scene that was edited out of many television prints through the years had Tom Tom, having been banished to Bogeyland after being falsely accused of pignapping (Barnaby framed him of of course) comforting Bo Peep, who had traveled into Bogeyland after her true love. Tom Tom sings Bo Peep to sleep with a lullaby while fairies (played by dwarves again… perhaps the producers of the still-a-few-years-away “Wizard of Oz” took notice of these diminutive thesps with big talents) dance overhead in spectral, see-through form. The ghostly figures make the scene more eerie than magical for me.

photo MickeyMouse2.jpg

Oddest of all however has to be... Mickey Mouse. You heard that right, Mickey Mouse. PLAYED BY A MONKEY! I always personally loved the monkey-in-a-mouse suit character, but I know others who were totally frightened by it. It is weird to say the least (I still wonder how the heck the monkey was able to breathe in that costume). The character is a mix of the plucky and resourceful Mickey from the 1930s black & white cartoons combined with the offbeat, bouncy movements of a typical monkey (the character gets a major moment of its own during the climactic battle with the Bogeymen, piloting a toy zeppelin and dropping explosives onto the monsters from overhead). The Hal Roach Studios (producers of the film) had a long-standing relationship with the Disney studio and their “stars” occasionally crossed over (Laurel & Hardy are prominent in the classic “Mickey’s Polo Team” and in the same year as “Babes” Mickey and Stan & Ollie co-starred again in the all-star MGM feature, “Hollywood Party”).  This friendly co-existence between Disney and Roach also extended to Disney granting Roach the rights to use the smash hit song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” in “Babes” (the award-winning animated “Three Little Pigs” Disney short having debuted the year before).

I have always found this film absolutely delightful. As a child I don’t remember being scared by the spookier elements; it’s only as I grew older that I realized how frightening some elements in this film are. But I am still delighted by it, for two reasons. First, Laurel & Hardy are simply sublime as usual in this film. Their comedy is warm, funny and at times magically surreal and the screen characters audiences had become used to remain intact in the middle of this high fantasy. Perhaps since I had seen so many other features and shorts by the duo as a child I knew that they “always came back” for another adventure, so I was certain that they would help defeat the marauding monsters (despite fearful moments of real terror and concern – such as when the Bogeymen snatch Toyland’s children from their beds). I also grew up in a time where Hollywood saw the value in the darker side of the fairy tale. Overcoming fears and learning important lessons through scary allegories were hallmarks of children’s stories. Disney knew this well – during Hollywood’s golden age his “Snow White & the Seven Dwarves” and “Pinocchio” didn’t pull any punches in the “scares” department. This approach lasted at least through the early 1970s with Gene Wilder’s masterful portrayal of the alternately whimsical/frightening title character of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Somewhere along the line, the “gatekeepers” decided that scares had to be skirted in children’s fantasies, leaving whole generations with much more homogenized stories lacking true heart and humanity.

“Babes in Toyland” has a slippery history. Hal Roach originally bought the rights to do a film version of the Herbert operetta "Babes" then realized it had very little plot, at least not one that would easily accommodate a feature film (it was fine for the stage where it worked perfectly as a lovely revue of childhood memories of the toy chest set to song). So Roach conceived a story with Stan and Ollie as “Simple Simon and the Pie Man.” The villain was a spider who turned into a man and put “hate” into the wooden soldiers so they could ravage the town and eliminate “love and happiness.” It sounds a lot like the Beatles’ classic animated feature “Yellow Submarine” which would be released 32 years later… but as envisioned by Roach, the studio would have been hard-pressed to convey the abstract elements of his idea and there hardly seems room for typical Stan and Ollie antics within. Thankfully Laurel, the creative architect of most of the team’s films (he wrote gags and stories and often directed many scenes – mostly uncredited) won out over Roach and collaborated with his own writers and gagmen to deliver the film we know and love today. As odd as it may sound, to me Laurel’s version anticipates Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (condensed from a combined ten plus hours to “Babe’s” compact 78 minutes) with the unlikely heroes (Stan & Ollie/Frodo & Samwise) routing the Mephistophelean villain (Barnaby/Saruman) and his minions (The Bogeymen/The Orcs). But maybe that’s just me...

The other side of this film’s checkered past has to do with its release history. (it’s so confusing in fact that I’m not even fully certain if the following is entirely accurate). The film was sold off by Roach to an independent distributor named Robert Lippert. It was reissued to theaters several times over the years under various names such as “March of the Toys,” “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (its most commonly known moniker) and the non-sequitur non de plum, “Revenge is Sweet.” It made the rounds of schools where it was shown to students on 16mm projectors. Ultimately it wound up on TV, where it became a staple broadcast around the holidays (run on or near Thanksgiving or Christmas and sometimes both). When the growing popularity of VCR’s made videotapes as attractive to buy as they were to rent, several companies released the film under the mistaken notion that the film was in the public domain. The truth was that the Tribune Broadcasting Company (owners of WGN in Chicago and WPIX in New York City) had an ownership stake. At some point they lost the rights and the Samuel Goldwyn Company snatched them up, colorizing the film for home video release and then a national syndication deal (which Tribune signed on for). This colorized version is broadcast on TV to this day. Meanwhile, the DVD age ushered in more home video releases by companies assuming the film was in the public domain (these included a newly colorized version from Legend Films that was an improvement over the original color job but still looks like kids using their Crayolas over old film frames to this reviewer). When MGM bought out Goldwyn’s assets, they ended up owning a film they had released and distributed in the first place. A couple years back they gave the world a wonderful Christmas present in the form of a DVD of the film in its pristine, original black & white form… complete with all scenes intact and the original “Babes in Toyland” title cards! ***PLEASE REFER TO MY NOTE ABOVE FOR UPDATES I RECEIVED FROM ROBERT GRIPPO ON THE FILM'S OWNERSHIP, AND THE NEWS THAT WPIX HAS RETURNED THE ORIGINAL, BLACK AND WHITE VERSION TO THE AIRWAVES.***

Cat Fiddle Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

The film as it stands is an amazing, unique achievement. The comedy of Stan & Ollie is in high gear and one can’t help but laugh and smile from ear to ear when they are onscreen. The horrific aspects are appropriate for a classic approach to fairy tales, the benevolent Toyland characters are warmly drawn and the rescue of Toyland by Stan, Ollie and the Wooden Soldiers is rousing indeed. While some of the songs sung by the romantic leads have a tendency to slow the film down in spots (the one thing that keeps me from giving it a full four star review), they don’t overpower it. The overall plot, while taking a few meandering detours still has a beginning, middle and end and adheres to the old adage from Chekhov wherein he states that if a gun is shown in the first act, it better go off in the third. The gun here is the wooden soldiers, and the resonance is the fact that the hero’s seeming mistake (Stan’s botching of the wooden soldiers order) is the very thing that ends up saving the day. Kind of like Frodo taking that ring...

BEST DIALOGUE AND GAGS (normally I separate these categories but in this film, as in most Laurel & Hardy sound films the verbal and visual gags are often intertwined)

Stan explains to Ollie that he borrowed money from their piggy bank to replace a “pee wee” – a little wooden peg that when hit with a stick returns like a boomerang. Unless you are Ollie, who pompously insists that anything Stan can do he can do… but he can’t! To add insult to injury, Ollie also learns he can’t do Stan’s finger tricks either.

Ollie and Stan have chased Barnaby down a well. “You better come up, dead or alive,” says Stan, alluding to the King’s edict that Barnaby is a wanted fugitive (when the King announces the award for bringing back Barnaby "Dead or Alive," Stan asks "Can't you make up your mind how you want him?"). “Now how can he come up dead when he’s alive,” protests Ollie. “Let’s drop a rock on him,” counters Stan. “Then he’ll come up dead when he’s alive!”

Stan and Ollie have a plan: Stan will show up at Barnaby’s door with a big box – a Christmas present! Inside is Ollie, who plans to sneak out once inside to find and destroy the shoe’s mortgage. Barnaby asks, “Christmas present… in the middle of July?” “We always like to do our Christmas shopping early,” retorts Stan. Their plan backfires when Stan says goodnight to Ollie and Ollie pops his head out of the crate, leading to them being put on trial.

When Ollie gets "dunked" in the lake as punishment for the attempted robbery of the mortgage, he hands Stan his watch for safe keeping. Distressed by the dunking Bo Peep consents to become Barnaby's wife... which means that the charges are withdrawn and Stan doesn't have to get dunked! Ollie doesn't like this and pushes Stan into the lake... and a soaked Stan emerges pulling Ollie's waterlogged watch out of his pocket!

When Bo Peep gives in to Barnaby’s marriage proposal, Ollie explains that Stan is so upset he’s not even going to the wedding. “Upset,” exclaims Stan. “I’m housebroken!” When Mother Peep determines to speak to Barnaby to try to change his mind, Stan says "Her talking to him is just a matter of pouring one ear into another and coming out the other side... can't be done!"

The boys realize that they can pass Stan off as Bo Peep as long as he keeps his face covered by the veil.  Their ruse is a success, but Stan is surprised when he can’t leave with Ollie. Ollie explains that now that Stan’s married, he has to stay with Barnaby. “But I don’t love him,” Stan wails!

During Tom Tom’s trial for pignapping, Stan and Ollie sit on the sidelines. The evidence (a plate of sausage links) is placed near where they sit. Stan asks Ollie what it is and Ollie explains that the sausage used to be Elmer the pig (allegedly at least). Stan takes a bite and says it doesn’t take like pig – it tastes like pork to him! This inspires Ollie to take a bite and brings Tom Tom’s innocence to the forefront as Ollie exclaims, “why that’s neither pig nor pork… it’s beef!”

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: My favorite Our Gang/Little Rascals kid, Scotty Beckett has a small part. He made several movies apart from the Gang shorts, but his only other recurring part was as Winky in the “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” TV series. He worked until 1957 then tragically died eleven years later due to a drug overdose.

Ellen Corby will forever be known as the grandmother on “The Waltons” but her roles are numerous. They include bit parts in two Laurel & Hardy classics (“Sons of the Desert” and “Babes in Toyland,” aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”), playing a maid in Abbott & Costello’s “The Noose Hangs High” appearing in Jerry Lewis’ “Visit to a Small Planet” and three major horror-comedy roles: playing one of the Gravesend clan in “The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters,” Mother Lurch in the classic “Addams Family” TV series, and Luther Hegg’s childhood schoolteacher in “The Ghost & Mr. Chicken.” In addition to her acting roles, apparently Corby was also a script supervisor at the Roach Studios on numerous Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly, etc., shorts and was also married at the time to Hal Roach cinematographer Francis Corby. 

Ironically, Billy Bletcher started out in silent movies, but his career would be made via his deep baritone voice. He appeared in many vintage comedy shorts alongside Laurel & Hardy, the Little Rascals (including “Hide & Shriek”), W.C. Fields and others; classic animated shorts from Disney and Warner Brothers, did a couple voices in “The Wizard of Oz,” and appeared in Red Skelton’s horror-comedy “Whistling in the Dark.” His voice was often utilized to portray villains (he was the voice of The Big Bad Wolf) as well as ghosts and other spooky characters (he lent his talents to the classic Mickey/Donald/Goofy horror-cartoon, “Lonesome Ghosts”). 

FURTHER READING: There are many great books on Laurel & Hardy out there but I will single out three that particularly highlight “Babes.” The coffee table book "Laurel & Hardy" by John McCabe and Richard W. Bann has some great production and promotional stills from “Babes.” Randy Skretvedt’s essential, impeccably researched “Laurel & Hardy: the Magic Behind the Movies” goes into deep detail about the behind-the-scenes trials and triumphs of this film, from Roach’s ill-conceived plot to young Henry Brandon getting into bar brawls when off-camera. Scott MacGillivray’s equally essential “Laurel & Hardy: from the Forties Forward” presents the story of the film’s second (and third and fourth and fifth, etc.) life as theatrical reissue, television staple and home video release. Just click on the above titles to access Amazon.com links for each book.

You'll also want to check out the following link to a Village Voice article that is more of a remembrance of the impact this film had on so many kids growing up with it on TV in the New York area – click here to read it.

BUY THE FILM: There are lots of versions out there – some unauthorized, some colorized, some butcherized (as in edited). But I really can only endorse the official MGM DVD release in glorious black & white which you can order from Amazon when you click here.

WATCH THE FILM: Here's the original trailer for “Babes in Toyland” (note that it uses Henry Brandon’s real name and also exaggerates the running time, claiming the film contains 12 minutes more than it actually does) ENJOY!... and have a Happy Thanksgiving! 



Friday, October 30, 2020

THIS HALLOWEEN, CELEBRATE THE SCREAMSON WITH SOME SPOOKY, KOOKY CARTOONS!


Greetings, Scared Silly fans! Hope you’re gearing up for Halloween. As I’ve been mentioning in previous posts about virtual screenings (like this one and this one), the events of this unprecedented year have led to many cancelations of live events. Thankfully, there are virtual options for horror-comedy fans to enjoy ghouls and fools.

This Halloween weekend, you’ll have two such opportunities. Both involve animation, including one with which I’m directly involved.

The fun kicks off this Saturday, Halloween day 2020 at 2:30 PST/5:40 EST. Thanks to my friends at the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, CA there will be a short little presentation to get you in the mood for boos. Before I get to the details, I’d like to fill you in on what we originally had planned. It was actually supposed to be a much bigger event. Though I’ve spoken at various classic film screenings through the years, the first weekend of October was going to be a dream come true: I was actually going to speak at four different screenings of horror-comedy shorts and trailers spanning the entire weekend! The event, curated by me would have included appearances by Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The Little Rascals, The Bowery Boys, Bob Hope, and The Three Stooges. It really would have been something, but alas, it just wasn’t meant to be….

…However, the alternative will be fun, too. As the Old Town Music Hall has been doing since the pandemic started, they will once again offer a brief, 20-ish minute presentation of the theater/concert venue and the fun, entertainment and culture it brings. The Old Town Music Hall is an historical institution, starting life as an original silent movie theater. A 5013C charity, they depend upon the support of gracious donors. If you believe in their mission of preserving the artforms of movies and music, I hope you will consider donating to them by clicking here

At the centerpiece is the theater’s crown jewel, the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. The amazing Edward Torres, the theater’s resident organist will regale everyone with a medley of frightfully delightful festive tunes for the season. The medley will be followed by a classic silent horror-comedy animated cartoon short, Koko Sees Spooks with Edward accompanying on the organ… and a short introduction from me.

Disclaimer time: I haven’t seen/heard the playback yet, but I feel it’s possible this isn’t the best introduction I’ve done. I’m a bit out of practice – the last time I spoke at a screening was 2017 so I’m a bit rusty. This was filmed in one take. I know I forgot to say some things I wanted to say, I know I missed my mark on the stage during filming, I was speaking to an empty theater, and I know I rushed through some of it. My hope is that the final result is better than I recall it being as it was happening, but if not, I hope you enjoy it just the same.

Now, down to some important thank yous: The restored version of Koko Sees Spooks, the Max and Dave Fleischer frolic has been graciously provided by animation historian and archivist, Tommy Jose’ Stathes. It’s available on his essential DVD/Blu-ray combo, Cartoon Roots: Halloween Haunts that you can order from Amazon by clicking here. It’s highly recommended by me, and your purchase goes to support the vital work Tommy is doing. Special thanks also goes to James Moll from the Old Town Music Hall for facilitating and filming the event, and of course to Edward Torres just for being such the amazing good will ambassador he is, in addition to his keyboard virtuosity.


Thanks to the duo I’ve dubbed, “J&J” – chanteuse Janet Klein and animation historian Jerry Beck, the Koko cartoon on Halloween is merely an appetizer. That’s because the day after Halloween Janet and Jerry are presenting what they’re calling, “The Halloween Hangover.” Janet and Jerry have been doing a number of virtual streams during this pandemic time. They feature the musical stylings of Janet Klein on ukulele and vocals, often adopting her best, coquettish Betty Boop voice; and of course, the vast, endless animation history knowledge stored in the mind of Jerry Beck. Half of the fun is reveling in how much their contrasting styles complement each other; they are clearly united in their love of classic animation and vintage music. In fact, think of Janet & Jerry as sort of a Sonny & Cher of the classic animation/vintage music scene… they definitely send off fun-filled vibes!

The cartoons Jerry & Janet have on tap are some real corkers. Featured will be:

- Let's Ring Doorbells (1935), Columbia cartoon with Scrappy and his brother Oopy

- Halloween (1931), RKO/Charles Mintz cartoon with Toby the Pup

- Betty Boop's Halloween Party (1931) Paramount/Fleischer Brothers Studio

- Midnight Frolics (1938) - a Color Rhapsody cartoon from Columbia, directed by Mickey Mouse's co-creator, Ub Iwerks

The Halloween Hangover happens on Sunday, November 1st at 5PM PST/8PM EST. Tickets are available from EventBrite when you click here.

Don’t miss out on all the hair-raising hijinks this weekend! Avail yourself of these classic horror-comedy cartoon streams!

And if you like what you see this weekend, consider getting yourself a copy of that Cartoon Roots: Halloween Haunts collection… you can watch a trailer for it below. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!! 



Saturday, October 17, 2020

SOME SILENT SCREAMS FOR YOU TO STREAM!



This Halloween season, you'll have two great chances to enjoy several fantastic horror-comedy shorts from the silent era... and in both cases, they'll feature live accompaniment on the piano by composer and film historian, Ben Model!

First up is this year's fifth annual "Knoxferatu" presentation. Film historian Kelly Robinson is behind this Knoxville, Tennessee event focusing on silent horror films. Usually an in-person event where patrons can watch the films in theaters while listening to live keyboard accompaniment, the events of 2020 have necessitated a pivot to a virtual screen. 

The fun unspools this Tuesday, October 20th at 7:30 Eastern time. Kelly has curated an eclectic mix of spooky laughs ranging from pioneering efforts, to one of the screen's first international superstars, and an earlier effort from half of one of the legendary comedy duos of all-time!

The pioneering films are The Thieving Hand and Dream of a Rarebit Fiend. The former was directed for Vitagraph by J. Stuart Blackton, a pioneer in the field of animation. The latter was directed for Edison by Edwin S. Porter - the pioneering filmmaker behind The Great Train Robbery - and based on comic strips conceived by pioneering comic artist and animator, Winsor McKay. Have I mentioned the word "pioneer?" Those two films alone offer a great history lesson in some of the leading lights and studios of filmmaking's formative years. They also happen to be surrealist masterworks loaded with imaginative effects that still have impact, and tons of humor, too!

Max Linder was a French film clown and filmmaker who is considered one of, if not the very first, International film stars (a title he ultimately shared with American funnyman John Bunny). Au Secours!, also known as Help! and The Haunted House is an early example of the "old dark house" horror-comedy template, inspired by books like Earl Derr Biggers' Seven Keys to Baldpate and Mary Rhinehart Roberts' play, The Bat. You know, that business about surviving the night in a "haunted" (or is it?) house and collecting an inheritance as a reward.

Stan Laurel needs no introduction to readers here. Of course he ended up in arguably the most beloved comedy duo to ever grace the silver screen, Laurel & Hardy. He found his true voice, and joy there. But on his way to comedy nirvana, he wore several other hats including supporting player, behind-the-scenes director and gag man, and attempts at solo stardom that ranged from everyman Charley Chase-style efforts to a series of film parodies. Those parodies resulted in some corkers like Mud & Sand wherein Laurel portrayed, "Rudolph Vaselino;" and the epic that Knoxferatu brings us, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde. And epic it is - man is it a well-mounted film loaded with extras and production values. And Stan in there pitching, bending Barrymore's profile toward his own madcap machinations!

Knoxferatu is being offered this year as a "donate what you can event." Just click here to reserve your ticket.

On Sunday, October 25th, Ben Model returns to the piano to regale everyone with more soundtracks created on the spot (yes, he composes as he goes along and his scores always perfectly match the action)! Ben Model and his colleague, film historian and author Steve Massa have been entertaining and edifying audiences just about every Sunday since the lockdown began with their Silent Comedy Watch Party. As you would expect, it's a funhouse full of silent comedy goodness, featuring not just some of the most beloved, well-known film clowns of all but also showcasing some lesser-known folks whose talents rival the superstars. 

Each episode of The Silent Comedy Watch Party streams "live" on its premiere Sunday at 12 Noon Eastern time, and shortly thereafter is archived on YouTube for later viewing, so you can watch whenever you'd like.

Ben and Steve's offerings for October 25th include an entry from the recently rediscovered "Musty Suffer" series starring Harry Watson, Jr. as Musty; a short from one of the earliest (pre-dating Laurel & Hardy) comedy duos, "Pokes & Jabs" (aka Bobby Burns & Walter Stull), and some guy named Buster Keaton. 

Musty Suffer, like the work of Charley Bowers, was heavily influenced by the "trick films" of artists like movie effects pioneer and stage magician, George Melies; and the aforementioned Blackton. And from what I've seen of Pokes & Jabs, the fast-paced slapstick hijinks of another early duo, Ham & Bud, as well as the rotund trio, the Ton of Fun, comes to mind. Though I've yet to see the Musty and Pokes & Jabs shorts Ben and Steve are showing, I'm certain they will be fun-filled efforts.

As for Buster Keaton, his astoundingly imaginative The Haunted House is the featured headliner. You can read my review of this classic short by clicking here. Just note one thing: I'm much more enamored of Keaton now than I was when I first wrote that review, so a tweak of what I wrote originally may be order. 

Click here to learn more about the Silent Comedy Watch Party, access links to past episodes, and get the link for the October 25th episode when it becomes available. And speaking of the Silent Comedy Watch Party... for all the East Side Kids fans reading this, Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison is actually being featured in this weekend's Silent Comedy Watch Party, in some early Our Gang silent shorts. Morrison played "Scruno" in all three of the East Side Kids' horror-comedy efforts, Boys of the City, Spooks Run Wild, and Ghosts on the Loose. When the team morphed into the Bowery Boys and continued mining laughs from the horror-comedy sub-genre, Morrison didn't transfer over, but he certainly is one of the most-loved of all the Our Gang and East Side Kids casts!

Be sure to mark your calendar so you can enjoy these spooky, kooky pre-Halloween treats!





Wednesday, September 2, 2020

SEE A RARE HORROR-COMEDY SHORT FOR FREE, STREAMED AS PART OF ANNUAL "CINECON" EVENT!

Hello, Scared Silly fans! I'm here today with some delightful news. 

Before I get to that news, I just want to acknowledge that my recent absence after getting this project back-on-track was unexpected. There were some real tough personal trials including the loss of a dear friend and collaborator that took me away from Scared Silly. I am only now getting myself in the swing of things again, and my hope is that I can bring this up to speed once more. I thank you as always for your patience. Now, onto the news... 

Cinecon is an annual, multi-day screening of classic films that usually takes place in Hollywood every Labor Day weekend. I had the pleasure of attending for the very first time last Labor Day and was treated to a day filled mostly with comedies and musical-comedies, chock full of classic movie comedians of all stripes - not just top bananas, but second, third, fourth and fifth bananas as well. All had a peel. (hey, you've gotta' expect the bad puns here, especially when we're talking about vaudeville board-trodders-turned-celluloid-zanies). 

Due to the pandemic, this year's event will be held online instead STARTING THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 3rd and running through SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 5th. And the best part is, it's FREE! Though donations to this very worthy cause are vital, and greatly appreciated if you're able (see the main page link below for details on how you can donate). 

One of the rarities being shown is a horror-comedy short from the sub-sub-sub-genre of robots (or guys in robot suits) run amok, THE TIN GHOST. It's one I can't wait to see, and you can see it, too. It runs FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 4th at 9:50 PM Eastern time and 6:50 PM Pacific. I hear from several reliable sources that it's a "scream" - what more can you ask for from a classic horror-comedy?! 

There will be other comedy offerings during the event, including an Andy Clyde short directed by Del Lord at Sennett (a sneak preview of Columbia Clydes to come), plus other shorts from Sennett, Roach, Vitaphone, Educational, RKO and others. In other words, hilarity aplenty!

Cinecon is brought to you as usual by Stan Taffel and his crew. Click here to see the full schedule of films, and click here to watch the films. 

Now here's an interview with Stan Taffel from one of the past Cinecon events... ENJOY!!! 

Sunday, June 7, 2020

MERCY, THE MUMMY MUMBLED (1918)


RATING: *** & 1/2 out of ****

SPECIAL NOTE: This short can be found on various places on the web, but I recommend the version that was restored by the Library of Congress. It is part of the Pioneers of African American Cinema DVD and bluray set from Kino Classics, which can be streamed on the Criterion Channel. At the time of this writing, Criterion has taken down the paywall so that pioneering efforts by black filmmakers and other films about the African American experience can be viewed on the site and help promote understanding of their history and heritage. Special thanks to film historian, author and guide for the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Historic Walking Tour, Karie Bible for mentioning this special collection streaming on Criterion during her most recent virtual presentation.

PLOT: An eccentric scientist, determined to bring a mummy back to life, tells his daughter’s boyfriend he’ll let him marry her if his experiment succeeds. Meanwhile, Egyptian officials have arrived in the US in search of a mummy stolen years earlier by Americans. When a mummy actually materializes, it’s “gauze for alarm” for everyone. But is this mummy everything it’s “wrapped up” to be?!

REVIEW: Within the horror-comedy sub-genre, there exist sub-sub-genres. The general sub-genre basically turns on two separate axis. The first axis is the “old dark house” trope, wherein people are forced to spend a night in a house where all sorts of spooky happenings such as sliding panels, hidden passageways, and fake spirits abound. The second axis maintains all the spookiness of the first, but with the added element of the spooky threat being a real ghost, monster or alien.

However, it’s within the sub-sub-genre entries that you get the most variety. For one example, what I like to call the “old dark boat” sub-genre has the action take place on “haunted” sea vessels with the sea hexes and aquatic legends of fishermen’s and pirates’ lore added to the mix. This formula was visited in shorts and features starring Laurel & Hardy, Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins, and the Bowery Boys.

Another sub-sub genre is that of rampaging mummies, real or faked. In and of themselves just within the realm of serious horror films, films featuring mummies are their own subset. Like the “old dark boat” films, they benefit from mysterious Egyptian legends of curses and reanimated corpses for anyone who dare disturb a mummy’s rest. Wheeler & Woolsey, Shemp Howard, the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello all mined treacherous tombs for goofy scares.

This subset is no surprise, given America’s intense fascination with Egyptian burial rites of princes, princesses, servants, stoneware, treasures and even the family cat. That fascination was probably never more intense than it was between the years 1904 and 1920, when a concerted effort to unearth King Tut’s tomb was undertaken. Mummies and those alien-to-Westerners rituals became fodder for countless serialized stories in newspapers, pulp magazines, novels, comic strips, and yes, movies… where the image of a bandaged individual could really be brought to life!

So, here we have an early entry in the mummy sub-sub genre of horror-comedies with the silent short, Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled. Distributed by Ebony Films, this was an all-black production in terms of the director, writers, production crew and actors. The main production company, however, was a white-led firm by the name of the Historical Feature Film Company. This (along with the production team's other comedy shorts) was target-marketed to both African American audiences and Caucasian. It’s a top-notch entertainment that should be celebrated, but there are some problematic details that have come to light since I first posted this review.

In the interest of fairness, I should point out my friend and fellow film historian Nelson Hughes has informed me that films from the Ebony company often received backlash for racial stereotypes. I agree that the merits or demerits of some elements in this short could be questioned, but I think this particular film could be shot scene for scene with an all-white cast, or a cast made up of any other ethnic group, and it would turn out the same. This one just seems to be a really funny situation, and played out wonderfully. But having said that, I have now had the opportunity to view two other comedy shorts from the Ebony company, and unfortunately, they are horribly racist in their characterizations, the way the dialogue is written on the title cards, and the gross caricatures used to promote the films. Based on these facts, I cannot endorse Ebony Films as a company, even though I did appreciate Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled, which may stand as an anomaly in its approach to the rest of the company's output.

On top of its entertainment value, it also features a portrayal of an African American as a scientist. As we know from so many films to follow once the sound era arrived, and especially within the horror-comedy genre, the standard portrayal of African Americans would soon be relegated to roles of servitude such as maids, porters, bellhops and the like. It would be quite some time before African American roles would expand to include portrayals from all walks of life.

The film is deft at compactly yet completely introducing its players and its setup. The scientist, Professor Pushee is obsessed to the point where one might say he’s a crackpot, perhaps even a “mad scientist,” walking hunched, clasping his hands together in glee when making breakthroughs, and having a tunnel-vision focus on his experiments. A more apt term would be "eccentric," however - unlike many of his screen brethren, this scientist doesn't appear to be motivated by anything but his curiosity. Meanwhile, his daughter is obsessed with her paramour, Bill and he’s mighty sweet on her. His sly glances betray to the audience just how enterprising he is; fortunately, the Professor is too distracted by his obsessions to notice.

There are wonderful character moments setting it all in motion. It all starts when the mad scientist places an ad in the newspaper offering to pay for a mummy to conduct experiments on. Until he can get his mummy, however, the professor will just have to settle for a duck… even though the duck isn’t settling for any of it!

A charming bit involves a young boy staring through the scientist’s window with wide-eyed awe, much like Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison’s delightful appearances in Harold Lloyd shorts as the curious neighborhood kid in such classics as Get Out and Get Under.

There’s also some game slapstick to be had as the Professor chases the duck he’s trying to inject. Futile are his many attempts to swat the duck back down with a broom. But hilarious of course is the Professor unexpectedly and inadvertently connecting with Bill’s head. Ditto Bill, who moments later throws a vase at the wayward duck only for it to bean the Professor on the back of his noggin.

Bill soon asks the Professor for his daughter’s hand in marriage, prompting the Professor to reply, “If my formula proves a success, then I will consent.” It sure is a non-sequitur of a disconnect but considering the flimsy nature of much that passes for inciting incidents in other horror-comedy films, it’s keeping good company. Especially when it sets up the next juicy bit of the film, wherein Bill spots the Professor’s newspaper ad and comes up with an idea: he’ll stage a phony mummy reawakening to gain the father’s consent! He procures a sarcophagus prop from a local costumer, along with materials to dress someone up as a mummy, and then offers $10 to the local shoe shiner to portray the mummy.

As if this film wasn’t already hilarious and inventive enough, the plot pulls another ace from the deck by introducing “Egyptian Emissaries who are searching for the mummy of the Royal Rambunctions stolen years previous by American souvenir hunters,” as the title card reads. The idea of legitimate Egyptologists or archaeologists searching for a mummy, or for some shady fortune hunters just out for free treasure, would fast become a trope in both serious and comical films featuring real or phony mummies.


It’s at this point I must stop to point out that Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled is at least a partial remake of the 1914 Vitagraph comedy short, The Egyptian Mummy. It borrows the conceits of a wacky scientist placing a want ad for a mummy to experiment on, and his daughter’s suitor concocting a scheme to fake bringing a mummy to life, albeit in not so grand fashion (the Vitagraph film merely has the romantic hero smear some paint on a drunk and stuff him in a sarcophagus).

The brilliance of Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled is the addition of the Egyptian emissaries entangling the plot like an endless coil of bandages. In this way, it bests its antecedent by ratcheting the comic chaos up substantially. That combination of “scientist wants to bring a mummy to life/boyfriend of scientist’s daughter fakes mummy resurrection to win father’s approval/party with a legitimate interest in mummies gets involved” all combines into one combustible cocktail of laughter.

Of course, the plot elements don’t do the job all on their own. This short is propelled by performances from amazingly gifted actors who more than likely “trod the boards” on vaudeville, learning their trade (sadly, I could find no information on the performers involved to cite them by name; hopefully that information will come to light some day). The result is simultaneously very broad with hilarious timing, but also very astute in the way that the characters think, act and react. Nothing is tossed off here. It’s all very well thought out, and much of the success goes to the actors, who are “all in” with imbuing each character with unique personality traits, facial expressions and body language.

The rest of the short goes into hyper-motion, as naturally you’d expect once the “mummy” is introduced. Bill carefully wraps up the shoeshine man and has him step into the sarcophagus and enlists a friend of his to feign being the seller when the Professor comes to pay for the goods. A scuffle ensues when the friend tries to take off with the thousand-dollar fee, but it’s the phony mummy who ends up grabbing a wad for humself, unseen and neatly tucked away in his bandages.

There’s plenty more laughs to be found when the couriers transport the “mummy” in horse-drawn carriage. Sliding out of the cab, the sarcophagus is riotously dragged along the ground, tethered to a rope. The lid coming slightly undone, the driver doesn’t even flinch at the site of the “mummy,” banging it on the head with a rolling pin. After the couriers deliver the cargo, they run into the inquiring Emissaries on the street below the Professor’s residence. The driver confirms, “The Professor called it an Egyptian Rummy.”

A quick note about effects: like many silent films of the time, special tricks are occasionally employed. In this film, a clonk on the head usually results in some animated “pain lines” emanating from the skull. These are similar to what you’d see in a comic strip or comic book, but all squiggly in motion like electrical bolts. The effect is always amusing.

While there is major image decomposition toward the end of what survives of this film, enough is visible to get an idea of what’s happening, even if the sight gags that may be unfolding onscreen can’t be altogether seen. A few things are certain: the phony mummy definitely doesn’t like being injected any more than the duck (“This Mummy sure must have been a tough one in his younger days,” reads the Professor’s title card after he tries to subdue the mummy). The Emissaries, summarily dismissed moments earlier by the Professor, return through the side window to get what they came for, spiriting away the phony monster.

The film stock becomes seriously deteriorated at this point, but just making a guess, it looks like the knocked-out mummy comes to just as the Emissaries are bowed down in prayer before it, and they jump out of a window in fright. It appears that the bandage is snagged on one of the Emissaries’ outfits, so as they tumble to the ground, the phony mummy becomes unraveled.

Without having seen it in its entirety, it’s hard for me to give this one a complete four out of four-star review, but my guess is, should an extant print ever emerge, that would be my final rating. Mercy, the Mummy Said is a pure joy for its comedy and for its imagination and should be applauded as a shining example of a superb all-black production crew and acting troupe working at peak powers.

Monday, June 1, 2020

THE ITCHING HOUR (1931)


RATING: * and ¾ out of ****

PLOT: Swimming champion Louise Fazenda is traveling with her husband, Elmer; her manager (Max Davidson) and her manager’s son. Needing a place to stay on an incredibly stormy night, they lodge at a hotel where not everything is as it seems... and there’s plenty to elicit some screams!

REVIEW: Here is a rarity. It’s a short produced within the first few years of sounds films. According to Edwin M. Bradley's book, "The First Hollywood Sound Shorts: 1926-1931," it was produced by independent producer Larry Darmour and distributed through RKO Pictures. At the time of this writing, it doesn’t exist in its entirety. It is only due to the kindness of film historian and collector Ralph Celentano that I’m able to view and review what’s left of this short at all. Thankfully, it seems that only a small portion is missing.

Let’s start there. Simply put, that “small portion” that is missing appears to be the impetus for the entire short. There are villains out to scare guests at a hotel, but we don’t know why they want to do that. We get enough to know they want to do this for some reason, and that they’ve been up to it for some time, from the following fragments:

First, we see an innkeeper and (presumably) his wife talking about recent, unusual activity. He says, “...scared to death – just like they’d seen the devil.” She replies, “Just like the man in 209, whose hair turned white overnight.”

We then cut to the balcony overhead, where a trio whose clothing makes them look like the hospitality staff. Their body language and expressions make them look like they are conspiring, although the curious line of dialogue from one of them sounds like, “...other guests that have seen things... and left.” Since there is obviously some dialogue missing, it’s hard to pinpoint the context of this conversation. But fear not... all will be conveniently revealed in the end!

It’s then that Lousie Fazenda and her entourage, including Max Davidson show up at the hotel, to take shelter from the raging storm outside.
Curiously, the housekeeper (who was not among the suspicious trip shown earlier) answers the door and turns them away, claiming the hotel is closed for the winter. She’s swiftly admonished by the innkeeper, who then lets the party in.

In his reprimand, the innkeeper says, “you know that we need guests” which helps fill in some more blanks in this story. Taking all the above facts together, it seems the scaring off of guests has been happening for some time.

There’s a couple of good moments when the guests check in. First, Max hilariously introduces his son as, “The Concentrated Spinach Baby.” Then, as he goes to sign the hotel ledger, all the rainwater collected in the brim of Elmer’s fedora rains down upon it. When he shakes the ledger off, all that water then hits Max and son in the face!

After the check-in shtick, the bellboy is instructed as to where to bring each guest. When told which room to give to Max, the bellboy replies, “Yes sir – that’s where the last gentleman was choked to death.” Of course, Max reaches toward his throat to protect it, a concerned look on his face. Once they arrive at Max’s room, the bellboy ominously tells Max, “You’ll have to share this room with Dr. Carver – the rest of hotel is closed,” while clutching at his own throat. Max is terrified, to say the least.

From here the short alternates between the happenings in each room, with a mix of general slapstick, misunderstandings, and ultimately spooky gags and tropes.

Among the shenanigans are Max having to share a bed with the aforementioned Dr. Carver, who just so happens to be a surgeon who sleeps with his scalpels. He’s also prone to making menacing-sounding comments in an unsettling monotone voice. They’re also some of the funniest lines in the short. One of the comments, “If I walk in my sleep, don’t wake me up... I become...” is cut off in what’s left of the print, but Max soon finds out just what happens.

Meanwhile, in Louise and Elmer’s room, Louise is doing her exercises with her resistance bands. She has Elmer hold the bands, which of course sends him soaring out of the bed and into the wall!

Inexplicable things happen in Max’s room, such as a visit from a someone who appears to be a child or little person wearing a Mardi Gras style mask that covers their whole body, and Dr. Carver sharpening his blades (“That’s the only foot I’ve got left,” Max exclaims). Max asks if the doctor is awake, and he declares “no,” so we know that he’s totally off-kilter when snoozing.

From here’s it’s full-tilt horror-comedy. The wall bed snaps back sending Elmer hurtling down a chute and outside onto the porch. A floating, “talking” candle warns Louise to “beware” and “don’t resist.” Her retort is quite funny – “I won’t... I’ll do anything you say... I’ve always been a good woman... name your price!” Max’s son’s bed also slides into the wall, and behind it stands a spooky figure in a sheet, blowing fire through its large skull mask (the spookiest effect in the short). The requisite running through rooms and hallways and clonking the wrong person on the head ensues, and then out of nowhere comes a seal who crawls into Louise’s bed in Elmer’s place! Shortly before the people in full body paint and Roman emperor garb show up...

It’s all fairly bonkers and nonsensical, but just slightly off the effect its going for due to pacing issues and the problems of early sound film.

The two main attractions here are of course, Louise Fazenda who was one of the leading ladies of silent comedy films, and Max Davidson, one of the male stars of silent comedy’s heyday. Now together in an early talkie, the overall short is hit-and-miss due to script and staging, but there’s no denying the energy with which the duo tackle their roles.

I should note here that Fazenda ultimately quit the film biz and settled into domestic life married to film producer Hal Wallis, but during her career there are two other films that may stand out to Scared Silly fans, and both like The Itching Hour are early talkies. One called The Terror is an early sound horror film, and an Edgar Wallace adaptation at that. The other, House of Horror is a lost film that, based on reviews upon its release, sounds like it was totally in the horror-comedy realm: its penchant for trap doors, falling objects and dashing in and out of rooms was duly noted. With Chester Conklin also in the cast, you know at the very least there’s a comic relief quotient.

Sometimes Fazenda tries just a little too hard in this short, with exaggerated line readings and facial expressions, but she’s trying. There is a flavor of post I Love Lucy-era Lucille Ball performance to her act. Anyone who recalls the color Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy remember that Lucy got even more broad in those shows.

Davidson also had a varied career that not only included much silent comedy but also a role in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, Intolerance. For classic comedy fans, Davidson can also be spotted in Clancy Street Boys, one of the best of the East Side Kids films; in the Three Stooges short, No Census, No Feeling; as well as in Charlie Chaplin’s classic feature, The Great Dictator. Of particular note for horror-comedy fans is Davidson’s role as the derelict maniac “haunting” the old, abandoned house those Our Gang/Little Rascals kids are busy exploring in Moan and Groan, Inc.

His stock-in-trade, particularly in sound films, was that of a stereotypical Jewish-dialect comedian. This was a time when dialect comedians had steady employment. El Brendel famously played a character with a Swedish dialect, while both Henry Armetta and Gino Corrado were Italian-American actors who did exaggerated versions of Italian characters; to name but three others in pretty well-populated field. When viewed today, some of these performances can come off as uncomfortably politically incorrect; there are mixed reports of how the acts went over with the groups they parodied. All things considered, in The Itching Hour, Davidson is pretty restrained.

Irving Bacon plays Louise’s husband. He has an amazing list of credits almost reaching 500 films, that includes some bona fide classics that are household names. For the comedy-minded, Bacon worked in several films with W.C. Fields and Abbott & Costello, and can also make a claim few others can: he has the distinction of appearing in Laurel & Hardy films produced at both Hal Roach Studios and 20th Century Fox. He most prolifically appeared in Blondie movies, mostly playing the beleaguered mailman run down by Dagwood.

Spec O'Donnell as Max’s son had a long career as well, almost spanning 200 films, starting from when he was a little boy. He often played quirky, freckle-faced characters who didn’t speak much but made up for it with often odd and hilarious facial expressions. Some notable distinctions for Spec include appearing in the Max Davidson short, Call of the Cuckoo which became a sort of ersatz Hal Roach All-Stars film in retrospect, seeing as how Charley Chase, Jimmy Finlayson and the a pre-teamed Laurel & Hardy all appeared in it. And in a true oddity, Spec got to play the same newsboy twice, eight years apart, in the films Princess O’Hara (at age 24) and its remake, It Ain’t Hay (at age 32); the latter starring Abbott & Costello.

One of the issues in reviewing this short today, apart from It being incomplete, is that the dialogue is hard to follow. Sometimes it’s just clipped so whole words or bits of words are missing. Other times It’s just muffled and muddled. This is particularly problematic when you can’t understand the parrot’s dialogue, which exists solely to add some laughs to the film.

With all that going against it, it’s hard to give a fair assessment to the film, because I feel like I haven’t really seen the film as intended. My just-about-average rating of one and 3/4 stars (almost 2) may seem generous to others who’ve watched this, but I have to at least credit the cast for their effort. They are trying, for sure. And if you’re in a generous mood, you may find some laughs in this one.

SPOTTED IN THE CAST:

Lon Poff is wonderfully macabre as Dr. Carver, delivering all his deadpan lines. He appeared in several shorts and features over the years, including playing one of the Adoop tribe members in Wheeler & Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs as well as part in the duo's The Rainmakers, the Andy Clyde shorts, His Royal Shyness and Alimony Aches, the Charley Chase short, Calling All Doctors, and both a silent and a sound Laurel & Hardy short – the classic silent, Two Tars; plus their celebrated horror-comedy, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

I'M NOT CLOWNING AROUND!


Friends – this has been a crazy hectic week indeed – and it’s only midway through! Some commitments to shore up my future career prospects have placed me a few beats behind where I was hoping to be with Scared Silly at the moment. However, I am happy to report there is now also a welcome development that will allow me access to a significant number of films I need to review for this project. So, there’s a whole lot more to look forward to. Until then, I hope your sweet tooth for spooky comedy will be satisfied by this silent little animated trifle, courtesy of the public domain... ENJOY!