Wednesday, November 30, 2011

BUY COMICS FOR THE HOLIDAYS & HELP A GREAT CHARITY!

Superheroes for Hospice

Greetings Scared Silly fans! Well, here it is - my final personal appearance of 2011 and it's a great opportunity to buy comics at deep discounts for the holidays while helping out a wonderful cause. Yes, I'm talking about the next “Superheroes for Hospice” charity comic convention which takes place this Saturday, December 3rd at the Saint Barnabas Health Hospice and Palliative Care Center at 95 Old Short Hills Road in West Orange, New JErsey. I will be there from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m autographing copies of my ARCHIE’S WEIRD MYSTERIES and VINCENT PRICE books along with various comic book projects.

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Also on hand will be my pal Thomas Hall who will be signing copies of his award-winning R-13 (aka ROBOT 13) as well as his horror-comedy project KING! (which I recently highlighted – click here to read all about it)...

Thomas Hall Daniel Bradford Elvis Presley

There will also be plenty of comics for sale from all decades to purchase as well as other great comics creators on hand to autograph comics, do sketches and sell original art. Among some of the great comics pros on hand will be famed Marvel and Papercutz artist Rick Parker, who is bringing "Tales from the Crypt" to a new generation; writer Erica Schultz, whose fine "M3" is quickly gaining a following and features the art of legendary horror comics artist Vincente Alcazar; and up-and-comer Nick Mockaviak, whose love for Universal Monsters is only surpassed by his love of drawing Universal Monsters! And that's just a small sampling of the talent appearing this Saturday.

Proceeds will support the patients and families of the Saint Barnabas Hospice and Palliative Care Center. Established in 1981, the Saint Barnabas Hospice and Palliative Care Center provides comprehensive care for patients with advanced illness, and their families, throughout ten counties in the State of New Jersey.

Midnight Marquee Actors Series Vincent Price

The Saint Barnabas Hospice and Palliative Care Center supports inpatient units at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, NJ, as well as Van Dyke Hospice at Community Medical Center in Toms River. It also provides home care and services for individuals in long-term care and assisted living facilities.

Now here’s a clip from the audio/video podcast, “Fever Keeps It Real” – the fine folks who run the show, Paul and Linda Wein dropped by the most recent “Superheroes for Hospice<” convention this past September and interviewed me about Archie’s Weird Mysteries and the charity starting at 3:46 – enjoy!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A THANKSGIVING TRADITION CONTINUES!

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

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

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 (a notable exception was two years ago, which led to the station receiving many protests – and lo and behold the film was back the very next year, and is on the air again 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...

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 18, 2011

TALL, DARK AND GRUESOME (1948)

Hugh Herbert

RATING: * & ¾ out of ****

PLOT: Playwright Hugh Herbert just can’t make headway on his latest script with all the noise going on outside his city office. He and his assistant Dudley Dickerson commence to a quiet country cabin but the quiet is soon undone by real live gorilla and some masqueraders in scary costumes. Will Hugh finish writing his play or will his attempts to write the play finish Hugh?!

REVIEW: A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a special presentation of silent films at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (click here to see my write-up about the event). These weren’t just any silent films – they were silent horror-comedies programmed by Bruce Lawton with wonderful piano accompaniment from Ben Model as part of their "Silent Clowns" film series.

But they were more than just silent horror-comedies, too. Mr. Lawton did a terrific job putting together a selection of shorts with a very specific theme: “Scary Shenanigans on the Second Reel.” Bruce’s concept: screen comedy shorts where the spooky stuff doesn’t happen until the second reel.

This idea of the second half of the film being the scary part worked beautifully in the shorts Bruce and Ben showed, including Harold Lloyd’s classic (and soon-to-be-reviewed-by-me) “Haunted Spooks” and two films I’ve previously reviewed, Buster Keaton’s “The Haunted House” and Our Gang’s “Shootin’ Injuns.” By no means is it a silent-film only concept, however. Some notable talkies that also went this route include such shorts as the Three Stooge’s “Idle Roomers” (reviewed here) and Laurel & Hardy’s “The Live Ghost” (reviewed here) as well as the final Hal Roach-produced Our Gang/Little Rascals short, “Hide & Shriek” (reviewed here). Even some features have followed this format – Bob Hope’s famed “The Ghost Breakers” has a rather lengthy prelude before the creepy stuff begins while the majority of spooky kookiness in Wheeler & Woolsey’s “The Nitwits” takes place in the third reel.

So here we have the great team of Hugh Herbert and Dudley Dickerson again. You may recall I waxed rhapsodic over their hysterical horror-comedy, “One Shivery Night.” I mostly love these two guys whether paired with each other, paired with others (like Hugh with Allen Jenkins in “Sh! The Octopus” and with Broderick Crawford in “The Black Cat”) or playing in solo or supporting roles (Herbert brilliant in Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Diplomaniacs” and Olsen & Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin;” Dickerson just as brilliant in Our Gang/Tthe Little Rascals’ “Spooky Hooky” and the Three Stooges’ “A Plumbing We Will Go” as well as several other Stooges shorts and Marx Brothers features).

Given the above, as well as the fact that, as reported by Ted Okuda and Ed Watz in their essential book, “The Columbia Comedy Shorts” this short was well-received by both movie exhibitors and audiences alike, I truly wanted to love “Tall, Dark and Gruesome.” But when compared to “One Shivery Night” and everything else I’ve mentioned, it just pales in comparison. It’s not terrible – it’s a typical two-reel comedy of its day – but it lacks the spark and wit we’ve come to expect from this twosome. Still, there are some late inning antics that help save the film from being a complete “miss.”

Alas, many of the best laughs in “Tall, Dark & Gruesome” come in the first reel, the setup before the scary stuff kicks in. The short starts with Hugh as a mystery writer quoting his own dialogue “You gangsters don’t scare me with those machine guns! You wouldn’t dare use them!,” he intones... and promptly leaps scared out of his chair as a jackhammer on the street below punctuates his prose! Ever observant, Hugh’s assistant Dudley offers that “Some of these days, boss you’re gonna’ scare yourself to death, writing all them mystery plays.” It is an effectively compact introduction to the two main characters, establishing both their roles and their relationship to each other.

Hugh gets hit with something (rotten fruit, perhaps – the resolution is none too clear) when he yells out the window to the construction workers, leading into a scene where he gets stuck halfway in and halfway out the window. This is where the hit-and-miss nature of this short comes into full view, as the “comedy” here is labored, strained and unfunny. It’s hard to pinpoint why – both masters like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello as well as lower-tier film clowns from yesteryear have mined laughs out of such scenarios, but here it just plays flat. It’s possible that the sight of Herbert, clearly a middle-aged man dangling from a window just doesn’t inspire the same funny/fear response in audiences as when they watch whimsical man-boys like Stan Laurel, Lou Costello and Curly Howard find themselves in similar situations.

We go from an unfunny bit to a funny bit, as Dudley actually vacuums up the pages of Hugh’s play script. The laughter is brief, however: as Hugh tries to retrieve the pages from the machine, the vacuum backfires spraying him with black soot and dust. This leads to a string of tasteless racial jokes as Hugh now appears to be in “blackface.” First Hugh talks into the mirror thinking he’s talking to Dudley, then Dudley tries to shoo Hugh away thinking Hugh is some sort of solicitor.

Dudley suggests that Hugh put on earmuffs to muffle the noise of the riveters. Then Hugh’s producer calls to prod him about the delayed play script and another labored gag occurs as Hugh takes the call with the earmuffs on continuously exclaiming he can’t hear a thing. In the hands of Stan Laurel, such a gag would come off as whimsical and cute but with Herbert’s advanced age and forced delivery, the sequence falls flat.

It does, however, lead to the plot device that enables the second reel to become a horror-comedy. When Hugh laments to his producer that it’s too noisy for him to finish the play, the producer suggests Hugh commence to a quiet country cabin of a friend named “Captain Dalton” who is away. Of course it’s shades of “Seven Keys to Baldpate” and all that’s really needed to get Hugh and Dudley out of their cityscape and into a climate of fear.

Shortly after Hugh and Dudley’s arrival, a big case is delivered to the cabin for the vacationing Captain Dalton. When Dudley informs Hugh about the case, Herbert muses that “Twelve Bodies Make a Case” would be a great title for a mystery play, easily the most cleverly written line of dialogue in this short.

Dudley raps on the case (including the obligatory “shave and a haircut – two bits”) and whatever is inside of course raps back. In a fourth wall busting moment, Dudley looks straight at the audience and asks, “did you hear what I heard!”

The audience soon gets a glimpse of the case’s occupant: a gorilla! Dudley has opened the latch but is distracted by Hugh calling out to him and doesn’t notice that the beast keeps reaching to grab him as he sweeps! Hugh requests a shave from Dudley while in the other room the gorilla breaks through the bars and out of the case. The surly simian walks in on Dudley shaving Hugh, unbeknownst to both… until Dudley spots the gorilla and passes out!

The gorilla becomes fascinated with the snoring Hugh, lulled into a deep snooze from his shave. He starts to use the blade on Hugh’s whiskers. Hugh starts making mildly funny comments about the rough shave but as he opens his eyes to see the gorilla there, what should be hysterical ends up hysterically unfunny as Herbert mugs in a rather inert fashion spouting out such unfunny lines as “where’s my mother” (as opposed to the clich├ęd but much funnier “I want my mommy.”

Hugh beats feet and then Dudley comes back into the room to continue giving Hugh a shave – not realizing the gorilla has taken Dudley’s place in the chair and has shaving cream smeared on his face. He laments that he had the craziest dream about a gorilla… and then realizes the gorilla is there in the chair. Unfortunately, Dudley catches Hugh’s broad bug from a moment before as his scare reaction is just as unconvincing and forced as Hugh’s, until saved a bit by some funny arm-waving and sped-up action.

Dudley Dickerson

The short has one more plot complication up its sleeve (and desperately needs it because it would be completely D.O.A. if it just had to rely on Hugh and Dudley’s encounters with the gorilla): a trio of lost partygoers arrive to ask directions. The party they were heading to? A masquerade party of course, with one man a devil, another a skeleton and a woman dressed as a ghost. The woman is the ubiquitous-to-Columbia shorts heroine, Christine McIntyre, statuesque blonde beauty who tussled a time or ten with many funnymen, most notably The Three Stooges (you can read Dave Whitney's affectionate tribute to this underrated comedienne when you click here). When the already skittish Dudley answers the door, he races screaming from the costumed trio.

The partiers find their way in and start chumming up to the gorilla, who they think is someone else going to the masquerade party. In fact, the devil is quite impressed: “You’re part of the masquerade, too! Say, that’s some costume – you oughtta’ win first prize!,” the faux Faust exclaims. It doesn’t take long for the partiers to realize they’re dealing with a real gorilla (or at least a very menacing brute in a gorilla suit) and scatter in various directions to elude him.

Hugh takes refuge in a bedroom where the skeleton-wearing man has plopped down into a chair and draped a cloth over himself. Hugh decides to have a cigarette to calm his nerves, but when the skeleton hand not only offers it to him but lights it Hugh goes running – first to a closet door where the ghost woman is hiding, then back to the bedroom door where the devil man is.

The bedroom bits are funny and the costumes remind one of the Faust players Buster Keaton tangled with in “The Haunted House” but when compared to the great “One Shivery Night” the screams and reactions from Hugh and Dudley are so forced this time that they become overreactions. Yet, old pros that they are the duo still have their moments. Dudley in particular gets to shine in the next sequence. He’s hiding under the bed, and when Hugh dives under it to join him Dudley retreats in sped-up motion… right into the room containing the case the gorilla was shipped in, now inhabited by the devil man! After much rocking of the case and screaming from Dudley, he makes another hasty retreat, right into a closet where the skeleton man is. The skeleton man grabs Dudley’s shoulder, which sends him careening toward the nearest exit. A very funny bit ensues with Dudley trying to open the door but having the door knob stretch out on and on forever like one of comic book hero Plastic Man’s dangling limbs.

Many horror-comedies, including some of the truly great ones defy all (or at least most) logic, but there is the nagging question here of why the masqueraders, obviously scared by the gorilla would not only stick around inside the house but persist to take delight in scaring the heebie-jeebies out of Hugh and Dudley. It is something of a disconnect. And come to think of it, just why has a gorilla been delivered to the cabin of the vacationing Captain Dalton?!

Just as Dudley’s bits improve the film in spots, so too do Hugh’s, as he has a great bit where he decides to fight back and take on the gorilla. He’s in a room with various ancient swords on the wall. As he swings a blade around in preparation, Dudley enters and just as quickly exits, thinking his boss has gone mad and is about to slice him up. Dudley decides the swords will just not do; lucky for him there’s a cannon in the room! Hugh gleefully taunts the gorilla to come in (“C’mon in gorilla – I dare ya’!” and “Whatssamatter – you afraid?!”) and positions the cannon directly opposite the a door, not realizing the gorilla will enter through an alternate entrance! A very funny turning of the tables finds Hugh cowering behind a couch as the gorilla aims the cannon right at him! This is a big dumb hairy beast though (the gorilla, not Hugh!) and soon the animal’s curiosity gets the best of him as he stares down the barrel of the cannon. Cut to Hugh’s reaction as the cannon goes off; the next hysterical shot showing the gorilla blown sky high atop the chandelier!

These bits lead to a rather socko ending. Hugh has run out of the room but Dudley’s luck isn’t as good: he comes into the room and the gorilla (complete with chandelier) lands right on top of him! Cut to Hugh driving away at top speed, delivering the funniest line in the film, “C’mon car you can do better than a hundred!” This laugh is topped by the sight of Dudley outracing the car on foot! “This guy must be going 200 miles,” muses Hugh. That would be a fine place to end, but the script throws in one last scare take, as the skeleton man emerges from the back seat to tap Hugh on the shoulder. Hugh passes out, leaving the skeleton to grab the steering wheel as the end credits roll.

The final bits help bring the short to just about an average rating. They’re so good in fact that they serve to point up the weak bits. It’s a shame the short isn’t better than it is, but if you’re a big fan of horror-comedies, Hugh and/or Dudley and of course, gorillas then “Tall, Dark & Gruesome” may be just the short for you!

SPOTTED IN THE CAST: A couple roles in this short are filled by some extremely busy character actors of yesteryear. Charles C. Wilson plays the producer of Hugh’s play, one of a long string of authoritative characters that include many stern bosses and gruff lawmen. Along the way, he had the good fortune to appear in many classic and notable films, including “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Meet John Doe,” “This Gun for Hire,” “Scarlet Street” and more. On the comedy front, he was in Joe E. Brown’s “Elmer the Great,” Danny Kaye’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the series entry “Blondie in College,” Laurel & Hardy’s “The Big Noise,” the Hope-Crosby “Road to Utopia,” and the classic Wheeler & Woolsey horror-comedy, “The Nitwits.” He was also in the 1943 “Batman” serial and even appeared in a film called “Tall, Dark and Handsome.” He previously appeared with Hugh Herbert in the Bette Davis starrer, “Fog Over Frisco.”

Deliveryman Charles Heine Conklin was a real veteran by the time this short was made. He had appeared in dozens of silent comedy shorts for famed Keystone Films producer Mack Sennett, was in Chaplin’s legendary “The Gold Rush” and “Modern Times” and continued to perform into the talkie era in a variety of notable genre films including many comedies… and a few co-starring Herbert. Among them, “Million Dollar Legs” with W.C. Fields, Leon Errol and Hugh Herbert; Wheeler & Woolsey’s “Diplomaniacs,” also with Herbert; Harold Lloyd’s “Professor Beware,” and a variety of Columbia shorts starring The Three Stooges, Andy Clyde He also appeared in such mystery entries as the Charlie Chan, Lone Wolf and Boston Blackie series. His career came full circle when he played a Keystone Kop in Olsen & Johnson’s “Crazy House” and a studio guard in “Abbott & Costello Meet the Keystone Kops.”

BEST DIALOGUE EXCHANGES:

HUGH: “Tell them to stop that noise – they’re driving me crazy!”

DUDLEY: “I did boss, but the places they told me you could go, my pastor wouldn’t let me repeat!”

DUDLEY: It’s so quiet here you can hear the flies walking on the ceiling!
(then after some knocks on the door): What was that?

HUGH: A couple of flies I guess…

HUGH: A couple weeks up here will help cure your nerves.

DUDLEY: Ain’t nothin’ wrong with my nerves, boss – why I could walk through a cemetery at midnight without… what am I saying?!

HUGH: If this is gonna’ be “gorilla” warfare, I’m gonna’ be prepared for it!

BEST VISUAL GAGS: As the entire short is very hit-and-miss, the visual highlights are few and far-between. There is a lot of running and screaming that should be funny but mostly isn’t. We’re left with a couple bits from the first reel, namely Dudley vacuuming up Hugh’s script pages and a stiff drink of furniture polish that sends Hugh’s hat flying straight up. The second reel delivers the bang-up gag of Dudley tussling with the door handle and he gorilla on the chandelier; as previously mentioned, pretty much all the business leading up to and including the finale are a hoot.

FURTHER READING: Ted Okuda and Edward Watz wrote an indispensible book called “The Columbia Comedy Shorts” and Leonard Maltin wrote one called “The Great Movie Shorts” (also known as “Selected Short Subjects”). You can order them here:

Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to the Three Stooges (Da Capo Paperback)












I also encourage you to visit The Columbia Shorts Department – Greg Hilbrich’s excellent site dedicated to the fun and frolics of this studio that gave the world The Three Stooges and so much more.

WATCH THE FILM: Enjoy this clip featuring of most of the spooky bits in this short:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

THE SON OF THE RETURN OF THE PENULTIMATE PERSONAL APPEARANCE STRIKES AGAIN!

Paul Castiglia Chris Allan

Well, here we go again, folks! It’s another personal appearance by yours truly… and the second-to-last for 2011. Pop on over to the New Jersey Comic Con (admission is FREE!) on Sunday, November 13th from 10 to 4 at the Clifton Recreation Center, 1232 Main Street in Clifton, NJ. It’s the 20th anniversary of the con so it promises to be a great one.

One of the main attractions is the special guest-of-honor, a good friend of mine and an artist supreme, Fernando Ruiz. Fernando was the artist on the “Archie’s Weird Mysteries” comic series I wrote and we’ll be signing copies of the paperback collection of that kooky, spooky horror-comedy while supplies last.

Photobucket

I’ll also have copies of the Midnight Marquee Actor Series Vincent Price book to which I contributed. I have an even more limited supply of those, so if you’re in the area and want to get a copy be sure to drop by. It contains my essay on Price’s trio of horror-comedies with Peter Lorre including such classics as “The Raven” and “The Comedy of Terrors.”

Midnight Marquee Actors Series Vincent Price

There will also be plenty of comics for sale from all decades to purchase as well as other great comics creators on hand to autograph comics, do sketches and sell original art. I might even bring a random sampling of some of the other comics I’ve written through the years, including those starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Superman’s Pal Bibbo. I’d love to meet you so please stop on by.

Now here’s a recent appearance I made this summer on the TV show, “Comic Book Conversations” hosted by Scott Golodner and co-starring David Levin. Enjoy!