Friday, December 31, 2010

NEW YEAR'S EVE IN A HAUNTED HOUSE - 2010 GIVING WAY TO 2011 EDITION!

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Well, here we are again, at the end of another year and the dawn of a new one.

And Father Time still looks scary as all heck! Or is that Father Christmas?

Either way, I have a ton of people to thank once again. Over the past 15 months, some have plugged this project on their blogs, websites, on Twitter and Facebook and the like; some have helped me out behind the scenes, and all have offered encouragement in general. And I appreciate all of you, I really do.

Here are a few of the folks whose support I am grateful for: Greg Hilbrich of The Columbia Shorts Department, Matthew Coniam of Carfax Abbey, Thomas Hall of Enlightened Words, Chris Well of Giant Monsters on the Loose, Aaron Neathery of The Third Banana, John Cozzoli of Zombo’s Closet of Horror, Shane Rivers of Only Good Movies, Pierre Fournier of Frankensteinia, Andre Dumas of The Horror Digest, Dave Whitney of Pete Kelly's Blog, John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows, Gret Boyd on Twitter, Rogue Evolent of The Roads of Autumn Dusk, Jay Stephens of Monsterama, Kerr Lockhart of 24 Times Per Second, Chris Cummins of MovieFanFare, Billie Rae Bates of BRBTV, movie reviewer and columnist Stephen Whitty who seems to be everywhere, most especially in one of New Jersey's foremost and longest-running newspapers, The Star-Ledger and so many more... I'm probably (unintentionally) forgetting someone, and if I have, sorry about that!

I'd like to give an extra special "shout-out" (or should that be a "scream out?") to Joe Dante, John Landis and the other fine folks (legendary movie directors and/or screenwriters all) at my very favorite website, Trailers From Hell for linking to my humble site.

And how could I ever forget Hollywood's favorite character actor Daniel Roebuck who has graciously agreed to write the foreword to the "Scared Silly" book?

Of course, more than anyone, I want to thank YOU - all the Scared Silly fans out there who are following this blog through one means or another. If you weren't interested, there'd be no need for this project - it would be "cut to fade" for sure! You have been very patient with me as I dance around many other commitments in-between reviews ad I truly appreciate your loyalty.

Among those fans are many folks from the world of Laurel & Hardy, Three Stooges, Abbott & Costello and Bowery Boys fandom who I am proud to call friends! You know who you are - there are several Scared Silly fans among you - for now I'll cite but eight - Lon and Cole, two top-notch silent film aficianados who have provided great help to this project; Brent, super knowledgeable about old comedy films and the best fact-checker I know; Paul F. - the grand shiek at my Sons of the Desert tent; Sean Paul Murphy, a good pal and terrific screenwriter; Cliff "Laughing Grave" Weimer from the fabulous In the Balcony website; noted author and film historian James Neibaur; and Rob K. - one of the most enthusiastic classic comedy fans I've ever met and someone who is very introspective when it comes to these films. And truly, everyone I mentioned in the previous paragraphs fits into this category as well - they all love classic films and are good friends to me and this site.

Last but not least, as always, I also need to thank my wife for humoring me as I comandeer the TV to watch some (often creaky) old films that may tickle my funny bone but that she (understandably) might not always be in the mood to watch!

And now, here's something I shared last year which I've decided to make a New Year's Eve holiday tradition: here is Vagabond Opera performing “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House,” composed by avant garde jazz legend Raymond Scott, the man behind many of the melodies heard in Looney Tunes cartoons:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

DO DETECTIVES THINK (1927)

Laurel Hardy Do Detectives Think

RATING: *** out of ****

PLOT: When Judge Foozle (James Finlayson) sentences “The Tipton Slasher” (Noah Young) for his heinous crimes, the murderer vows revenge. When The Slasher escapes prison, the Judge hires two private detectives (Laurel & Hardy) to guard him. The pair must survive an encounter in a graveyard on the way to the judge’s house, and then must face the judge’s butler – who has been knocked out and replaced by The Slasher! Can Stan & Ollie bring this killer to justice without being scared to death?

REVIEW: “Do Detectives Think” is probably one of the more contentious entries in this project. It is rarely mentioned in discussions of Laurel & Hardy’s horror-comedies, and there is some debate on whether it is truly an out-and-out horror-comedy. I am on the side of those that declare it a horror-comedy. While it is true that only about 6 & ½ minutes of its 19 minute running time are devoted to specifically “spooky scenes” (multiple scares in a graveyard plus some quick bits at the end evoking beheadings and ghosts), there is an overall tone of terror due to the villain of the piece being a “throat slasher” out for revenge against the judge who put him in jail on a dark and scary night. Like the Our Gang short “Shootin’ Injuns” and the classic Wheeler & Woolsey feature “The Nitwits,” the spooky material is so memorable and well done that it overpowers the non-spooky material in each and catapults each over the “horror-onable mention” wall. Additionally this film features a villain who inspires such dread over the entire proceedings – much like Harry Lime (Orson Welles) from “The Third Man” (total screen time: less than 15 minutes) and Hanibal Lechter (Anthony Hopkins) from “Silence of the Lambs” (total screen time: less than 17 minutes) – that the fear factor is palpable throughout. Finally, with its mystery, suspense and dread as The Slasher stalks our victims through the house in the dead of night, it does take on a legitimate “old dark house” atmosphere.

This film is a watershed entry in Laurel & Hardy’s canon. In this film, the boys, who had been tentatively teamed in previous shorts (since many of those entries merely co-starred the duo without actually pairing them) are actually partnered as detectives. Additionally, they are wearing traditional detective uniforms – suits and derbies! It is a look Laurel & Hardy would ultimately adopt (with some modifications to the suits) and utilize throughout their careers. Additionally, a few scenes in “Do Detectives Think” (as well as in their short “Duck Soup” released a few months prior, and not to be confused with the Marx Brothers’ classic) highlighted some of the personality traits that would become standard for the pair. There would be a few missteps to follow but ultimately the team would build upon the promise of this entry and develop both their “look” and relationship further to become the inseparable team of “men-children” that audiences would come to know and love over the years.

Laurel Hardy Do Detectives Think

As with most of the silent comedies produced by Hal Roach Studios, the humor didn’t rest entirely on the shoulders of the actors. Title card writer H.M. Walker was a witty fellow indeed and would often open these rib-ticklers with a great line, setting the tone for what was to follow. His opening card in “Do Detectives Think”:

“This story opens with a lot of people in court – most of them should be in jail.”

Additionally, Walker makes sure to pepper the title cards with appropriate gallows humor – as when he mentions that the accused had killed two men “both seriously.”

The first character we see is Judge Foozle (and another pointed joke as the title card reads that he charged the jury – “he always charged everything”), played by the inimitable James Finlayson. The use of “Fin” as a “third banana” in Laurel & Hardy shorts would also become a standard motif. Finlayson plays his patented authoritative but high-strung character here.

When the jury finds the defendant (“The Tipton Slasher,” played by the formidable and quite intimidating Noah Young) guilty, they recommend to “bump him!” The Slasher’s reaction is one that also became a classic device in comedy shorts and features, particularly those starring Laurel & Hardy. The device: he vows to escape and get even through some gruesome act. Here the object of the revenge is the judge but in other films it is usually Stan & Ollie themselves, as in “Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Going Bye Bye,” “The Bullfighters” and others.

We learn that The Slasher has escaped while the judge is having breakfast with his wife. As she reads the newspaper, the headline on the front page about The Slasher’s escape is in full view to the audience… and to the judge. Finlayson does a brilliant spit-take, his coffee practically spilling out into the theater audience! Finn quickly calls the local detective agency where the boss summons “Ferndinand Finkleberry – the second worst detective in the whole world” (Laurel) and “Sherlock Pinkham – the worst” (Hardy).

(It’s interesting to note that in this first scene that Laurel is presented as being smarter and more on-the-ball than Hardy, but when the scene changes it doesn’t take long for Hardy’s typical “take charge” attitude to set in).

As soon as their boss tells Stan and Ollie they have to guard the judge and that he lives “just beyond the Whitechapel Graveyard,” our heroes do a nervous double take. It doesn’t help that the boss adds, “This ‘Tipton Slasher’ will probably kill you – but you’ll be buried like heroes.” However, the boss is almost buried first as Stanley’s pistol goes off while he loads it, barely missing the head detective!

We are then treated to the wonderful scene of Stan and Ollie in the graveyard. What makes this particular scene remarkable is that it almost appears to have been dropped in from a later film, after their personas had already been perfected. The character deviances evident in their initial scene at the detective agency (such as the boys’ cigar-chomping and bravura) are gone – here in the graveyard we have the full-fledged duo that would become familiar to and beloved by audiences worldwide.

The scene in the graveyard is one for the books. As the boys walk past the cemetery’s open gate a forceful wind knocks their hats off and into the cemetery. Unlike the earlier scene where Stan is clearly smarter and in charge, in this scene Laurel exhibits some of the scared little boy traits – frightened facial expressions and tentative steps – that would become hallmarks of the “Stanley” character. As Stanley timidly reaches for the hats he sees the shadow he’s thrown on a mausoleum wall and runs back out to the sidewalk. Ollie’s familiar “take charge” pomposity, also missing from the earlier scene is evident when a title card has him yelling at Stan, “ Get them hats – I hate a man that’s scared!”

Laurel’s clever solution is to dive down onto the ground to get the hats – that way his shadow won’t be cast onto the wall! This leads to the introduction of a routine that would become a hallmark for the boys: the “mixed-up hats” routine. In this routine, Stan and Ollie keep handing each other what they think are each other’s hats… only to find when they put the hats on that they’ve gotten the wrong hat once again! This bit never fails to generate laughs and was “fall-back” shtick for the duo when in situations where they had no other material prepared, such as when newsreel photographers ran into the team on tours or on vacation and even in the Laurel & Hardy episode of “This is Your Life,” which caught the boys totally off-guard. The hats routine is capped by a goat wandering into the graveyard and casting a shadow that looks like Satan on the wall!

Do Detectives Think Oliver Hardy goat shadow

…and just like that, the “true” Laurel & Hardy exit… literally… as the pair uncharacteristically run out of the graveyard at top speed, a silent film comedy trope more appropriate for the likes of The Keystone Kops than for our more nuanced friends Stan & Ollie.

Overall key Laurel & Hardy character traits on display in the graveyard scene: both have a na├»ve childlike innocence, Ollie has an inflated opinion of himself and is deluded that he is “the smarter of the two” (when in reality he is just as dumb if not dumber than Stan), Stan treats Ollie like an older brother who will protect him (jumping into Ollie’s arms), Ollie is insistent on having Stan do his dirty work (forcing him retrieve their bowlers from the graveyard), Stan does his famous “cry” that would become a trademark throughout his career, as well as various childlike facial expressions and body language that would become standard for the “Stanley” character.

What Stan and Ollie don’t know is that The Slasher and his henchman have jumped the judge’s new butler (as he walks to the judge’s home for his first day on the job) and The Slasher is now masquerading as the family servant. The scenes where The Slasher tries to exact his revenge on the judge are simultaneously horrifying and hysterical. The Slasher gives the judge a drink from behind (so that the judge can’t see him) and as the judge indulges, The Slasher pulls out an absurdly long knife and threatens to do away with the judge, but quickly re-pockets the weapon and ducks out of the room when he hears the judge’s wife coming. The Slasher is truly scary in this scene, but both the ridiculousness of his knife and the fancy flourishes that the judge employs in the enjoyment of his drink acts as humorous counterbalance to the terror.

In typical fashion for a Hal Roach comedy, this bit is punctuated by an unexpected gag: it is the wife that the judge is frightened by, exuberantly and exaggeratedly throwing his drink into the air when she walks up behind him and places her hand on his shoulder.

Stan and Ollie arrive at the judge’s home and are let in by the faux butler. They have reverted back to being the wise-guy detective characters from the scene in the detective agency, chomping their cigars and acting with authority, as if they actually know what they’re doing.

This is short-lived, and soon enough the more recognizable Stan and Ollie are back. This is exemplified by a very Laurel & Hardy-esque gag where Stan has helped himself to mouthfuls of crackers and ends up spitting the crumbs in Ollie’s face as he answers his partner’s questions! Another Laurel & Hardy evergreen gag is a tit-for-tat exchange where the pair kick one another and step on each other’s feet like feuding children. The extra layer here is that they act as if nothing is wrong whenever the judge and his wife turn toward them. Yet another typical gag has the boys not noticing the obvious, as they stare at The Slasher’s photo in the newspaper but don’t immediately make the connection that he looks exactly like the butler.

The climax is a dizzying frenzy that finds The Slasher creeping in on the Judge’s wife in the bedroom while the judge limbers up in the rest room before his bath. Her screams rouse Stan and Ollie from their beds and the judge from his soapy tub. The Slasher moves into the restroom in search of the judge, but the judge ducks into the tub water to hide. A clever gag has his foot accidentally tugging the drain cap string, releasing all the water, but he still manages to go unnoticed by The Slasher.

As you’d expect, a wild chase ensues with The Slasher chasing everyone through the house, particularly Stan and Ollie. As was so often the case in Hal Roach films, the smaller laughs are only there to lead up to the bigger laughs. Earlier the absurdity of The Slasher’s long knife elicited chuckles; now the laugh is topped by The Slasher removing a gargantuan Arabian Nights-style sword from the wall to threaten our heroes.

From this point on the short brings in a couple more horror elements. First The Slasher finds Stan hiding behind a curtain and runs off into the distance after him. When they come back to the foreground, both Ollie and the viewing audience sees a headless Stan – he has ducked his head into the neck of his suit for protection! This of course evoked memories of the classic Washington Irving story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” which may have still been fresh in audiences' minds due to its first film adaptation (with popular humorist Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane) being released just five years earlier.

The next and final horror element occurs when the judge’s wife’s gun accidentally goes off and startles her husband, sending him hurtling down the stairs. The husband had just emerged from the bath wrapped in a white towel. Just as he’s about to reach the bottom, his flailing legs knock a tribal mask from the wall and it lands on the back of his head! The Slasher’s chase ends when he trips into the room to see the white-shrouded judge with the scary mask on and mistakes him for a ghost! The Slasher surrenders to Stan, who locks him in the closet where Ollie is hiding. Stan is then momentarily scared by the judge who approaches him with mask and sheet still on.

This is followed by a rather abrupt ending wherein a police squad arrives to take the Slasher away and Ollie gives Stan some black eyes to match those The Slasher gave to him. The boys then leave the judge’s home, but not before putting their derbies back on… which they’ve mixed up once again!

The supporting work here from James Finlayson, Noah Young, Viola Richard and Frank Brownlee is so strong that it’s debatable whether to label it “support” or to consider this short an “ensemble piece.”

Finlayson is familiar to long-time Laurel & Hardy fans (who affectionately refer to him as “Finn”). Over the years his numerous run-ins with the boys made him their number one foil, a role he perfected. His specialties were double takes, slow burns and his cry of “D’oh!” that cartoon voice-over actor Dan Castellaneta later appropriated for his role as Homer Simpson. Finn had a lengthy career running from the silent movie days (including a 1925 horror-comedy short, “The Haunted Honeymoon”) up through the early 1950s. Other comedy teams he ran up against included Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson and Clark & McCullough. He also appeared in the Jack Benny classic, “To Be or Not to Be” and acted in at least one “straight” horror film, “She-Wolf of London.”

Noah Young was an ex-champion weightlifter (In 1905 at the age of 17 he was declared a “weight-lifting prodigy” and in 1915 was named “The Strongest Man in the World”). He was rejected by the Navy for not having enough teeth, but welcomed by Hal Roach Studios as a hulking “heavy” (villain) for their shorts and features. While Young appeared in a handful of Laurel & Hardy and Snub Pollard films, he was used most frequently as a foil for the legendary comedian Harold Lloyd, including Lloyd’s classic silent horror-comedy “Haunted Spooks” and his talkie curio “The Cat’s Paw,” which isn’t a horror-comedy per se but does contain a scene that elicits great chills. While his size would appear to make him typecast, he developed his own style of facial expressions that enhanced his screen villainy.

Viola Richard as the judge’s wife is her usual vivacious self, yet also exhibits a flair for comedy and dramatics. The actress had a very short career in movies and one brief detour to Broadway. Her film work as we know it consists entirely of appearances (mostly uncredited bit parts including some mere walk-ons) in Hal Roach comedies, and mostly silent ones at that. Stars Richard appeared with included Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang (the Little Rascals), Charley Chase and Max Davidson. “Do Detectives Think” gave Viola more to do than many of her other films, and she took advantage of her screen time to make the most of her character.

Frank Brownlee also has a short but memorable turn as the head of the detective agency. He appeared in several Laurel & Hardy films both before and after “Detectives,” most often playing law enforcement and military officials. When he wasn’t seen cavorting with Stan & Ollie he could be found cantering his way through countless westerns. What makes Brownlee especially memorable here is that his whole look and how he carries himself reflects the archetype of the detective in “old dark house” comedies, particularly hotel detectives. Fred Kelsey would be the one to perfect this act (most notably in the short “The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case) and homages to it can be seen in everything from the classic Tex Avery animated short “Who Killed Who?” to Bud Abbott’s role as hotel dick Casey in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.”

Ultimately, there’s not much plot in “Do Detectives Think” and the Stan and Ollie characters are still finding their way but everything is performed by the boys and their supporting cast with such gusto that’s its easy to overlook this film’s shortcomings. Further, there is no denying that this film represents a historical entry in the careers of Laurel & Hardy, not just for featuring so many of their hallmark characteristics and really showing them as a team for the first time, but also as the first official Laurel & Hardy horror-comedy.

BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES: In addition to the courtroom and detective agency dialogue mentioned within the review, there are several other funny lines:

JUDGE (after sentencing The Slasher to hanging): ...an' I hope you choke!

JUDGE: Are you men good shots?

OLLIE: We come from a family of shooters – William Tell is my uncle!

OLLIE: You can go to bed – you’re as safe from danger as we are!

THE SLASHER (pretending to be the butler and tucking Stan and Ollie into their beds): I’ll leave you to a long, long sleep.

BEST GAGS: Without question the best horror-comedy gags come in the graveyard and are mentioned within the review, but there are other great visual gems to be had here as well:

Following up on the William Tell dialogue, Ollie decides to demonstrate his shooting skills by placing an apple on Stanley’s head and firing his pistol. He not only misses the apple but ends up toppling a statue from its pedestal… several feet away from Stanley!

In fact, Stan and Ollie prove to be terrible with guns throughout this short and often shoot off their guns in the wrong direction, at the wrong time or merely while pointing or loading their guns!

When the detectives realize The Slasher is in the house, Stan repeatedly jumps on Ollie’s back in fear, preventing him from leaving the bedroom. When Ollie finally manages to get the door open Stan ends up missing Ollie’s back and jumping right through the door and on top of the judge’s wife!

As Stan and Ollie tangle with The Slasher at in the hallway, Stan is seen scurrilously trying to slap handcuffs around The Slasher’s wrists. He pops a cigar in his mouth, confident that he has succeeded, only to see Ollie has risen with his hands shackled! This bit of “mistakenly subduing the wrong person” was a staple in film comedy and would later be used to great effect by teams including The Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello.

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: Wilson Benge plays Finn’s butler in “Do Detectives Think”… and played a butler and other servile roles (waiters, doormen, valets, etc.) in over 95% of his other movie, shorts and serial appearances. Of interest to genre fans are his appearances in Bela Lugosi’s “The Death Kiss” and one of the versions of Mary Rhinehart’s comedy horror template “The Bat” (a straight horror version called “The Bat Whispers”), roles in a few “Bulldog Drummond” and “Sherlock Holmes” mysteries, and the serials “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” “The Green Hornet” and “Captain America.” He also appeared in some bona fide classics including “The Palm Beach Story,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” In addition to appearing in several Laurel & Hardy films, he appeared in a variety of Three Stooges shorts and also made a brief appearance in “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.”

Will Stanton plays the Slasher’s henchman, an uncredited role in a career filled with uncredited roles. He is actually quite effective and comical in his own right (but I guess in the old days of brief credits on single title cards it just wasn’t cost efficient to credit everyone). A glance at his filmography shows that Stanton had the fortune of appearing in both several Laurel & Hardy films and in a couple of Abbott & Costello films (“It Ain’t Hay” and “Lost in a Harem”), too. He also acted in Charles Laughton’s friendly ghost tale, “The Canterville Ghost” and his final role was as a cab driver in the classic Tracy-Hepburn romcom, “Adam's Rib.”

BUY THE FILM: “Do Detectives Think” appears on DVD along with other classic Laurel & Hardy silent shorts on “The Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy Volume One,” which you can order here:














FURTHER READING: The best review you’ll find online is Cliff “Laughing Gravy” Weimer’s on his wonderful “In the Balcony” site. Cliff doesn’t share my fondness for this film’s spooky elements but he does have excellent insights, which you can read when you click here.

There are a lot of books about Laurel & Hardy that have been published over the years, but most offer an overview of their careers or specific facets (for example, you can buy books on the boys’ solo films, their 1940s films, their final film and their live tours) without any one being solely dedicated to their silent film work. In that regard, I’d have to give my highest recommendation to Walter Kerr’s seminal work, “The Silent Clowns” which you can order by clicking on the title below:

The Silent Clowns

WATCH THE FILM: As this is a short there is no trailer, but you can enjoy the graveyard scene right here:

Monday, December 27, 2010

SNOW FRIGHT!

Betty Boop Snow White

Greetings Scared Silly fans!

Well, my review of Laurel & Hardy' "Do Detectives Think" is written and ready to go pending some technical logistics that need to be worked out first... so look for that probably by mid-week.

In the interim, I thought I'd share this classic public domain cartoon. I'm sure all those on the East Coast currently buried under the post-Christmas blizzard can appreciate the snow, ice and chilly winds in the magnum opus, "Snow White" starring Betty Boop!

Produced by Max Fleischer, directed by Dave Fleischer and almost single-handedly animated by Roland Crandall, this bizarre short is a million miles away from the Disney feature-length classic... and makes it onto "Scared Silly" due to its spooky visualization of the legendary bandleader Cab Calloway's "St. James' Infirmary Blues." ENJOY!

Friday, December 24, 2010

NOW A HOLIDAY TRADITION: THE "CREEPS" OF CHRISTMAS!

Rudolph the Red-Noised Reindeer Bumble

THIS IS AN "ENCORE" POST - I ORIGINALLY POSTED THIS ENTRY LAST YEAR AND THOUGHT I'D RE-POST IT FOR ANYONE WHO MAY HAVE MISSED IT - MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Christmas is almost here, and I wanted to share some of the foremost holiday monsters with you. Only I didn’t want to do so on Christmas itself, as I take the holiday seriously from a spiritual standpoint (which is one of the reasons I’m taking a break from posting until December 30th).

Anyway, in the fictional legends that have sprung up over the years around the holiday, ghosts and monsters have played a major role. Just think of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for starters. A pure ghost story… with one seriously scary Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come!

So in the world of holiday fantasies, a few monsters stand out, and we’ll take a look at them now (with one caveat that should be noted: I know the following are not technically "horror-comedies" but since all contain some humor and give folks warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia, I'm being a bit generous in this post).

We have to begin of course with the Bogeymen from Laurel & Hardy’s 1934 classic “Babes in Toyland” (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”). These creatures from Bogeyland live in the bowels of the earth, in a horrible, frightening place that is the polar opposite of bright, happy Toyland, where Santa and his workers make the toys for the world’s children. And while their leader, the evil Silas Barnaby would like nothing more than to use his monster army to take over Toyland, he’s no match for toymakers Stannie Dumm and Ollie Dee… and 100 wooden soldiers each 6 feet high! As Ollie describes the Bogeymen, “they’re terrible looking things – they’re half man and half animal… with great big ears, and great big mouths, and long claws that they catch you with!” You can catch a glimpse of the Bogeymen toward the end of this trailer:



Next up is The Bumble (pictured at top) from the classic 1964 TV special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” This was produced by Rankin-Bass, the studio behind the classic horror-comedy “Mad Monster Party.” Utilizing their signature stop-motion animated puppet style (which they dubbed “Ani-Magic”), the special built upon the elements from the original 1939 story by Robert L. May, the famous song written by May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks (which became a huge hit for Gene Autry) and the 1944 animated theatrical short from Max Fleischer. Rudolph was given much more backstory in the Rankin-Bass special, and a larger supporting cast, including the Abominable Snow Creature known as “The Bumble.” The fearsome creature menaces Rudolph and his friends but as anyone who has seen this classic knows (and who hasn’t seen it?) there’s a very good reason for the Bumble’s agitation… and a happy ending for all!



The most recent spooky holiday star is "The Nightmare Before Christmas"'s Jack Skellington and all his friends from Halloweentown. Jack is simply enchanted by the magic in neighboring Christmastown and wants to bring some home for himself. And that’s where the trouble starts! This clash of the holidays originated as a poem from the limitlessly creative imagination of animator-director-producer Tim Burton. Director Henry Selick brought Burton’s concepts and designs to life in dynamic fashion in a mixed-media production that is equal parts stop-motion puppetry (a la one of Burton’s favorite films, “Mad Monster Party”) combined with cut-out designs and other special animated effects. Check out the trailer here.



While Jack Skellington wanted to abscond Christmas to share with his friends (a tinsel-clad Robin Hood) there is one nasty holiday horror who hated Christmas and didn’t want anyone to enjoy it: Dr. Seuss’s immortal Grinch! The famous book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” by writer-cartoonist Seuss (real name Ted Geisel, who once contributed to some classic Warner Brothers theatrical cartoons including adaptations of his children's books as well as the classic Snafu shorts made for the war department) detailed how this foul fiend with a heart two sizes too small tried to hijack the holiday. Of course, the operative word is “try,” as we all know the Christmas spirit will triumph in the end! Interestingly enough, the Grinch shares more in common with Jack Skellington than merely pilfering Christmas - the Grinch got himself all tangled up in Halloween, too in the 1977 special "Halloween is Grinch Night." As for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," most are familiar with the classic 1966 animated TV special directed by animation legend Chuck Jones... and I’ll leave it at that, as I prefer to think the live-action fiasco of a few years back never happened!



So here’s wishing all Scared Silly fans the happiest and safest of holidays, and every blessing for the New Year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

NOT RESTING ON MY LAURELS...

Stan Laurel Oliver Hardy Music Box

OKAY: Here is the post I had drafted earlier this week:

So I had this wacky idea in my head that I may spend a whole week posting reviews of Laurel & Hardy comedies leading into Christmas. And I still might do it, in whole or in part... but it dawned on me that it would be much better to post the reviews post-Christmas - in the days between Christmas and New Year's Day.

It would be better because it would give me more time to complete the reviews. So I'm not promising anything, but I'll give it my best. If nothing else I may get some (or at least one) up before the new year... be sure to check back after Christmas Day to find out!

Until then, you can read my previous Laurel & Hardy reviews - check out "The Live Ghost" by clicking here and click here to read about "Babes in Toyland," aka "March of the Wooden Soldiers."

NOW: Here is an update which I've just drafted hours before this entry posted - for both personal and professional reasons that have sprung up involving unforeseen (and both unfortunate and legitimate) circumstances, not to mention some technical difficulties it is unlikely I will be able to do a full week of Laurel & Hardy reviews as I originally intended. I will do my best to finish those reviews I've already started, with no guarantees. At the very least I hope to have at least one new Laurel & Hardy review up before the new year. So maybe I AM resting on my Laurels after all, but it's not by choice, it's by circumstance. My thanks to all for understanding.

More importantly, here's wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas in advance... enjoy these snowy Laurel & Hardy scenes to get you in the holiday spirit!

Friday, December 17, 2010

CHRISTMAS PRESENT... IN THE MIDDLE OF AUGUST?

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Sorry to paraphrase your line Silas (that would be Barnaby from March of the Wooden Soldiers, naturallY), but there's a method to my madness.

Turns out the good folks at Archie Comics are planning to release a paperback collection of some of the stories I wrote for the "Archie's Weird Mysteries" comic book series a few years back.

For the uninitiated, "Archie's Weird Mysteries" was an animated series based on the long-running comic book series about small-town high school teens... except with the added overlay of weird phenomena like ghosts, monsters and aliens being thrown into the mix!

Of course, flip-about is fair play, so it wasn't long before the TV cartoon show based on the comic book series spun off a comic book series based on the TV cartoon show based on the comic book series! While I wasn't the only writer (artist Fernando Ruiz contributed a few scripts of his own), I'm proud to say I wrote stories that appeared in all 24 issues (plus the additional 10 that followed when the series dropped the "Weird" to become simply "Archie's Mysteries"). You can learn more about the comic series by reading a 2009 interview intrepid reporter Billie Rae Bates did with me by clicking here.

Writing the "Archie's Weird Mysteries" comics was one of the highlights of my career, not just because I got to combine horror and comedy in ways that paid tribute to everything from "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" to "Kolchak the Night Stalker" to "Night of the Creeps;" (which I still say is the closest anyone's ever come to capturing Archie in live-action) but also because the amazing array of artistic talent contributing to the series included such top-notch folks as the aforementioned Fernando Ruiz plus Bill Golliher, Rich Koslowski, Stephanie Vozzo, Rick Taylor and Vicki Williams (hopefully I haven't forgotten anyone).

Photobucket

The series was unfairly compared to "Scooby Doo" but as I've always pointed out to anyone who'd listen, in "Archie's Weird Mysteries" the ghosts and ghoulies are all real... not crooked landlords looking to scare folks out of their inheritances with cheap Halloween masks! Although I did take the opportunity to spoof the 'ol pooch in one issue (see the image above -- I just couldn't resist)...

Anyhoo... I wanted to give all "Scared Silly" fans a head's up on this book's release. It's not scheduled to come out until August, 2011 but Amazon is taking pre-orders now and you can also order it in advance from your local comic shop (to find the comic shop nearest you use the Comic Shop Locator Service). So to tie this all back in to the Barnaby quote, the "Archie's Weird Mysteries" paperback makes a great gift for the holidays or any occasion!

Like anything else, it all comes down to the bottom line - if enough folks order this first collection of "Archie's Weird Mysteries" tales, then a second volume becomes more of a possibility... so if you have any interest in "Archie's Weird Mysteries" at all I'd truly appreciate you placing an order. Feel free to use the handy link below... and thanks!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

IT'S NEVER A "BLUE CHRISTMAS" WITH KING ON THE CASE!

Thomas Hall Daniel Bradford Blacklist Studios

My pals Tom Hall and Daniel Bradford are about to release the second issue of their horror-comedy comic book series, KING! You may recall when KING! appeared in an earlier Scared Silly blog post - if not, then just click here to read it. Needless to say, this rock ‘n roll monster hunter makes the perfect stocking stuffer - check out the press release for further details!

BUTLER, NJ (December, 2010) – ‘Twas the week during Christmas and in comic shops, hardly any new comics had even come out. The shelves were all lined with the prior week’s fare while customers wished some fresh ink would appear. When what to their wondering eyes should appear but a side-burned cool rocker displaying no fear. The King had come back to kick more monster butt and fans were relieved of the same old dull rut!

This holiday season, give that special someone in your life the gift that keeps on giving... a whupping! Yes, “KING!” is back with issue #2 and he’s ready to make burrito meat out of zombies and vampires everywhere.

“When I think of holiday heroes, I can’t help but think of ex-pro wrestlers who look like Elvis keeping the world safe from bloodsucking freaks,” says “KING!” artist/co-creator Daniel Bradford.

“’KING!’ is the perfect character to spread holiday cheer,” adds writer/co-creator Thomas Hall.

wrestling KING! Thomas Hall Daniel Bradford

To that end, Blacklist Studios is wishing all their fans the happiest of holidays as they release the second action-packed issue of “KING!” during the usually slow week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“Traditionally the larger distributors don’t ship during the holidays,” explains Hall, “so we decided to make something new and exciting available to comics fans so they don’t have to leave their LCS empty-handed!”

“KING!” #2 picks up where the last issue left off. Having dispatched a horde of demonic zombies from his favorite Blubber Tubber Burger ‘n Burrito joint, KING! now basks in the glory as he spins the tale in all is gory detail. But he hasn’t seen the last of the zombies… and worse, he’s been summoned to a nearby village that just happens to have one hell of a flying pest problem… the kind of pests that like to suck blood!

KING! Elvis vampires Thomas Hall Daniel Bradformd

Like their breakout hit “R-13,” the hero of the duo’s new series is adept at dispatching monsters. But unlike Robot-13, “KING!” knows all too well who he is… and he’s not afraid to have some fun as he bashes the baddies in this decidedly “comic” book.

“The ways that KING! kills monsters are only limited by our imaginations,” says Bradford, “and if you haven’t been paying attention, Tom and I have some pretty messed-up imaginations… but in a good way, of course!”

“Look, this guy looks like Elvis, battles monsters for bucks and is ready to read the riot act to anyone who gets in the way of his mouth and a burrito,” confirms Hall. “Can it get any more ‘comic’-al than this?”

Adding to the fun are pulse-pounding pin-ups from fan-favorites Jeff Slemons (“Hollow Earth,” “Beyond: Rude Awakening”) and AP. Furtado (“Heavy Metal,” “Elf ‘n Troll”).

Fans don’t have to stop with “KING!” comics, however – there’s also a KING! t-shirt available on the Blacklist Studios website. No one will mess with you when staring at the pistol-packin’, pompadour sportin’ monster killer on your chest!

The print edition of KING! #2 can be pre-ordered directly from Blacklist Studios (www.blackliststudios.com). The 32-page, full color comic retails for $3.99 US. Back issues of KING! and R-13 are also available on the Blacklist site. For wholesale purchases, distributors and retailers are encouraged to email Blacklist Studios’ Thomas Hall at tom@blackliststudios.com or contact Tony Shenton at shenton4sales@aol.com for terms and information.

...and as odd as this sounds, I've actually found a video clip of Elvis... fighting a monster... during the Christmas holidays!!! (with a keen eco-lesson embedded within to boot) ENJOY!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

DON'T GIVE UP THE GHOST!

Timmy the Timid Ghost Charlton Comics

Greetings fans... just resurfacing to let you know I'm trying my best to make the week leading into Christmas an "all Laurel & Hardy week" - but in order to do so I've had to put other reviews on the backburner.

Rather than leave you with nothing to look at in the interim I thought I'd share this great commentary from Adam Rifkin about the film the "Ghost & Mr. Chicken" (a film I reviewed this year on Halloween - you can read my review here)- directed by the similarly named Alan Rafkin! This comes courtesy of the essential "Trailers From Hell" website, of course. Take a look... and enjoy!

Monday, November 29, 2010

RIP LESLIE NIELSEN

Leslie Nielsen

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the passing of one of my all-time favorite funnymen, Leslie Nielsen, who died yesterday at the age of 84.

My current schedule doesn't permit me to go into great detail about his career but for those not in the know (and I doubt few reading this blog fall into that category), Nielsen spent approximately the first two decades of his career primarily doing "straight" roles in films like the sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet." That all changed with a fateful role in 1980's comedy smash "Airplane." Which in turn led to the short-lived (6 episodes) but brilliantly funny TV series, "Police Squad." Which in turn was spun off into the very successful (and funny) "Naked Gun" comedy film franchise.

He also played a memorable role in the 1982 George Romero/Stephen King horror anthology film "Creepshow," which is more horror than comedy but does have its tongue planted firmly in cheek in spots.

Along the way Nielsen had some chances to appear in modern-day horror-comedies, particularly "Reposessed" (as a priest out to exorcise Linda Blair - yes, it's a spoof of "The Exorcist"), Mel Brooks' "Dracula: Dead & Loving It" (as the title vampire) and a pair of entries in the "Scary Movie" spoof series (3 & 4 to be exact). The films themselves may be a mixed bag, but one thing is sure: Nielsen always brought his A-game, no matter how weak the script or direction of a film may have been.

So here's to you, funnyman! You will be missed.

Now let's let Dracula... er, I mean Leslie have the last word:

Thursday, November 25, 2010

BABES IN TOYLAND (aka MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS) (1934)

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 (a notable exception was last year, which led to the station receiving many protests – and lo and behold the film is back on the air this year, from 9AM to 11AM Thanksgiving morning).

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...

AUTHOR’S NOTE #3: If I can manage it, I am considering offering a whole week of reviews of Laurel & Hardy horror-comedies leading up to Christmas. Laurel & Hardy always remind me of Christmas – several of their films dealt with the holiday or mentioned it in some way (this one as well as “Big Business” and “The Fixer Uppers” and little bits here and there such as the “Mary Christmas” line in “Way Out West”). I am also aware that Stan & Ollie are something of a Christmas tradition in the UK, with marathons of their films run on TV during the holidays. So… let me know what you think of the idea. You can post in the comments section or send me an email. If I get enough positive feedback I will see if I can make it work, schedule-wise (note that to accommodate this I would need to spend the next few weeks without posting any new content on this blog leading up to the Laurel & Hardy Fest).

Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

RATING: *** & ¾ out of ****

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.

Mickey Mouse Babes Toyland Wooden Soldiers

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!

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. Last but not least, there are a lot of reviews of the film out on the internet but instead of those I’ll share these links - one is from Mark Evanier's site with his thoughts as well as those of Randy Skretvedt and Jim Hanley (primarily having to do with Roach's original story, the colorized versions and scenes that may have been deleted) which you can read when you click here; the other is a 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.

Laurel & Hardy Compiled by Al Kilgore, Filmography by Richard W Bann









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:














WATCH THE FILM: As of this writing, Hulu has posted the entire film on their site by special arrangement with MGM. You can enjoy the Hulu presentation right here on the Scared Silly site when you click here.

In the meantime, enjoy 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)... and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 19, 2010

SHOOTIN' INJUNS (1925)

Our Gang Little Rascals

RATING: *** out of ****

PLOT: In this silent short featuring Our Gang (aka “Little Rascals” – here played by Mickey Daniels, Jackie Condon, Johnny Downs, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Joe Cobb and Mary Kornman), the kids are a bit too fervent in their games of “Cowboys and Indians,” leading their parents to threaten to knock down the gang's “hideout” (aka “shack”). Undeterred, the kids set out west after nightfall in search of real Indians. They stumble upon a mysterious house that is actually a prototype “magnetic house” full of tricks and illusions that an inventor has created in hopes of a big sale to amusement park investors. Taking shelter from the storm outside, the group get more than they bargained for when they trip all the mechanical “funhouse” features and are scared out of their wits! Can they get out of the house with their nerves intact?

REVIEW: The *** out of **** rating I gave this film is an average. Based on the opening portion of this short alone I would have given the film one star or maybe even half a star. That’s because the opening concerns itself with the Our Gang kids involved in fantasy role play scenario as cowboys on the lookout for Indians. Some of what happens in these scenes is amusing in a cute way, but hardly laugh-out-loud funny. There are also a few uncomfortably un-PC overtones regarding how Indians are referred to in the title cards (both the “narration” and the kids’ “dialogue”) – although one of the kids’ mothers does reprimand her son saying the Indians should be left alone – they haven’t done any harm. If I were writing a book about western-comedies perhaps I’d feel differently, but the opening segment of “Shootin’ Injuns” presents little promise for the horror-comedy fan.

Thank goodness for broken promises! Once the film puts our protagonists inside the trick “magnetic” house that the kids think is haunted, the short becomes a wild free-for-all of wonderful “scare comedy” and stunning – even to modern audiences – special effects. This is the first ever Our Gang horror-comedy and I can truly say that of all their similar shorts to follow, not one tops its “scare” moments (although “Shivering Spooks” comes close). And so, the “spooky” portions of this short get a four star rating from me.

Average it out and you get a solid 3 star rating.

For this review then I’m going to spend less time on the western elements so I can get to the horror gags quicker.

The film starts in quaint fashion with a title card informing us that “In the life of every boy there comes the desire to go out west…” The kids are playing that old politically incorrect chestnut of a game “Cowboys and Indians” in their clubhouse, which is complete with secret tunnel entrance and elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions (Joe Cobb blows through a hose to announce his presence then Mickie flips a switch that opens the shrub like a trap door for Joe to climb down) . Each of the kids is introduced with their non de plume - the name of the legendary western character they’re playing (Micky as General Custer, Jackie as Daniel Boone, Johnny as “David” Crockett, and Farina as “Pancho Farina”)… except for Mary, who has been excluded from the game for suggesting that “some of the Indians might want to keep on living.”

Mary isn’t excluded for long - she strong-arms the gang into letting her into their cowboy games by threatening to tell her Mom, who she promises will “do some real scalping” if they persist to keep her out.
The film quickly shifts gears. After being told their shack will be knocked down the kids decide they need to literally head “out west” to find Indians and agree to meet at 8PM to begin their trek (“We’ll be in a foreign country by morning”). They don’t get far when the spooky stuff starts happening.

The fun starts with Farina, who is hiding under a sheet in the back of a laundry wagon. When the driver sees him he gets scared. Then both Farina and his driver see sheets on a clothesline eerily fluttering in the wind. Farina exclaims, “Splooks!”

Joe Cobb gets caught up in tree branches and the dangling laundry while Mickie and Johnnie are nearby dealing with scares of their own. First a black cat loudly knocks objects off a roof. This is followed by a tire blowing out. Finally a howling dog and a gunshot from a rifle toting man trying to get some sleep sends the boys completely off the deep end.

All of this is just a warm-up, for as the title card tells us, “The old inventor had perfected his Magnetic House – A magic maze of mechanical mysteries.” Magnets, mechanics, strings and electricity, to be exact. The inventor is trying to sell the house to investors who plan to put one “in every big amusement park in America!” Whether intentional or not, the inventor’s house acts as kind of a connecting device to the kids’ own gadgets from their hideout shown earlier in the film.

Needless to say, once the kids are inside the house the pace picks up considerably. There are lots and lots of tricks the totally frighten the kids, including:

• Doors that open on their own
• Lots of creepy paper mache’ heads that pop out of the floor and figures that plop out of closets and sit up in bed shooting guns.
• Spooky smoke emanating from sink drains.
• Arms that pop out of cakes.
• Cabinets with dancing products on their shelves.
• Skeletons that appear and disappear… and some that even grab the kids!
• Revolving secret doors in the walls,
• A 3-D portrait on the wall with googly eyes that pop out and a necktie for a tongue that flails about.
• Legs that pop out of the wall to kick the kids in the seat of the their pants.
• Revolving panels in walls.
• Solid windows – they look like real windows but when the kids try to jump through they just hit the wall. .
• Staircases that collapse as the kids climb them, sending them sliding down to the bottom.
• Balloons with flourescenet scary faces painted on their surfaces float around.
• Scary clown and elephant imagery add to the fright-fest.

In his seminal book “Our Gang: the Life & Times of the Little Rascals,” film historian Leonard Maltin singled out two sequences as being the most creative (which in this film full of creativity is saying a lot):

• A single skeleton at the top of the stairs multiplies into several skeletons, and then the various skeletons slide down the banister only to come back together as one skeleton at the bottom of the stairs!

• While running from a skeleton Farina actually freezes in place and a second shadow image of Farina actually leaps out of the skin of the original to accentuate how frightened the character is! Then Farina rejoins that shadow figure to become one again (this trick would be employed again in the classic sound era Our Gang short, “Mama’s Little Pirate”).

Farina skeleton Our Gang Little Rascals

All tolled it is a frenzy of amazing action. Like “Shivering Spooks” which followed a year later, some of the optical effects are truly frightening and must have really unnerved audiences. But most of the effects are so outlandish and exaggerated that the effect is more like a cartoon and less scary than some of “Shivering Spooks” scares. In any event the effects in “Shootin’ Injuns” trump those seen in “Shivering Spooks” – and given how amazing the scare scenes in “Shivering Spooks” that is quite the endorsement!

In the finale, the kids are saved by their concerned parents who have arrived on the scene… but not before the parents themselves are amusingly scared by the magnetic home’s tricks!

The sheer virtuosity and imagination at work here is unmatched even by some of the better horror-comedies, probably because it’s all so crazy that it’s unexpected – the viewer is surprised at every turn by the dizzying array of spectral spectacles on display. If you have an opportunity to see it on video, simply fast-forward to the haunted house scene and you will not be disappointed!

BEST DIALOGUE: This is a silent film so there isn’t any dialogue – just title cards. Most of the dialogue in this one is uncharacteristically mundane (the silents often had very witty title cards) or just plain politically incorrect, but Joe Cobb does get to make the understatement of the year (or at the very least this short) when he mutters “If I ever get outta' this alive, I’ll never run away from home a’gin!”

BEST GAGS: All the gags mentioned above!

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: A few notable adult actors. Richard Daniels, real-life father of Mickey plays the inventor here but often played Mickey’s dad (and other kids’ dads) in various silent Our Gang shorts. Rotund Martin Wolfkeil is Joe Cobb’s dad, “Tonnage.” Before Stan Laurel teamed with heavyweight Oliver Hardy, beefy Wolfkeil appeared in a variety of solo Laurel films. William Gillespie, playing yet another dad here has the most impressive resume of all, having had parts in several other Our Gang shorts as well as a half dozen classic Laurel & Hardy films (he’s the piano salesman in “The Music Box”), over a half dozen Harold Lloyd movies (including the classic horror-comedy “Haunted Spooks”), some Chaplin shorts and the sublime Snub Pollard short “It’s Gift,” where he played oil executive “Weller Pump.”

BUY THE FILM: This short has been released several times on various collections. The Lucky Corner, a site dedicated to Our Gang films has a listing of the various releases that include “Shootin' Injunss” that you can check out by clicking here.

FURTHER READING: There are two great blogs highlighting the horror comedies of Our Gang/the Little Rascals. Click here to read The Haunted Closet and click here to read Ghosts of Halloween Past.

As for books, the ultimate one on the kids is “Our Gang: the Life & Times of The Little Rascals” by Leonard Maltin. Buy the book here:













WATCH THE FILM: Since this is a short, and a silent one at that no trailer is available. However, you can enjoy this amazing clip: