Tuesday, April 28, 2020
So, the other day, I mentioned my college buddy, Brendan who I still interact with over 30 years later. For those who read the blog regularly, you know a recent exchange between us led to me posting a Popeye cartoon (click here if you missed that post).
Well, Brendan is also responsible for sharing this amazing animated short with me. It truly is a thing of beauty, and in addition to starring one of the foremost movie monsters ever, has more than a hint of Fleischer Brothers and other 1930s cartoon studios like Iwerks and Van Beauren about it.
The short is the handiwork of Richard Plata, who marvelously directed it, animated it, and designed all the characters and backgrounds. He was ably assisted by Fermin Mulett, who provided an excellent job of compositing.
Both gentlemen granted me their kind permission to share it here with all my Scared Silly readers.
And for those pondering the music, it’s comprised of “A Contest of Bandes” by Arthur Pryor’s Band (1906) and “Hungarian Rag” by Conway’s Band (1913).
So, what are you waiting for? Don’t delay... after all, your enjoyment is “at stake!”
Monday, April 20, 2020
I have a cherished friend from my college days named Brendan and we still communicate to this day. Which is easy as pie given our overlapping interests in vintage comedy films, comic strips and comic books, and classic animated cartoons.
One of the milestone characters we share an affinity for is Popeye, who began life as a bit player in E.C. Segar’s celebrated newspaper comic strip, Thimble Theater. As you can probably guess, the initially rather gruff sailor ultimately took over the whole thing and became the sun around which every other character in the strip revolved.
So, what’s prompted me to discuss Popeye here on this blog dedicated to live action funny folks getting mixed up in spooky shenanigans??
As is wont to happen, an interaction between Brendan and I over how many Three Stooges shorts utilize stock footage, how many are remakes of earlier shorts, and how many are remakes that simultaneously contain re-used footage, led to a similar discussion about cartoons that did the same thing. In particular, Popeye.
This particular 1954 Famous Studios color Popeye short, to the best of my knowledge doesn’t re-use any scenes from an earlier cartoon; however, it is at least a partial remake of one of the classic Fleischer Studios black and white Popeyes, Ghosks is the Bunk.
The major difference I’m most concerned with is that Fright to the Finish is in the public domain, while Ghosks is the Bunk isn’t, hence my running it here now worry-free, to provide a few laughs until the next classic live-action horror-comedy I review. ENJOY!
Monday, April 13, 2020
"Claws" and "Crack"... get it?!
Okay, I'll spare you any further "pun-ishment."
Here's a real oddity that's both jaw-dropping and hilarious. I'm sharing it because I think it would be of great interest to Scared Silly fans, even though I haven't quite decided yet if I'll actually be including a review of it in my book.
This is a silent film from 1928 called The Fresh Lobster, starring Billy Bletcher, who would go on to great heights in the talkie era as he was an amazing cartoon voice artist for Disney, Warner Brothers and others; and also appeared in many live-action comedies hob-nobbing with Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy, Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges and so many more.
Sprinkled among the many animated shorts, and live-action shorts and features Bletcher did were several efforts on the horror-comedy side, including one I've reviewed here, the last Hal Roach produced Our Gang short, Hide and Shriek.
The Fresh Lobster comes from a tradition of silent films often referred to as "trick films." These films (primarily shorts) concentrated on pulling off amazing visual illusions, filled with special effects. Sometimes short on story - utilizing scenarios that seem in place only so that the filmmakers could show off new effects they dreamed up - the films were documents of pioneers at work, pushing past the edges to see just how limitless film could be. Three of the most renown practitioners of the sub-genre were:
* George Melies, French stage magician-turned-filmmaker whose films such as A Trip to the Moon and The Kingdom of the Fairies influenced countless science fiction, horror and fantasy films to follow.
* J. Stuart Blackton, British-American producer-director considered one of the founding fathers of American animation. He also pioneered stop-motion effects in live-action/animated hybrid films like the horror comedy, The Haunted Hotel.
* Charley Bowers, American cartoonist and comedian whose work has only recently been rediscovered in the last couple of decades. Utilizing what he called the "Bowers Process," his mixes of live action and animation were even more wild, and quite a bit more surreal, than Blackton's.
The question I have is this: are "trick films" something I should consider covering in great detail in my book, or should I only limit my coverage to those films which are obviously right in the sweet spot of being spooky comedies, like The Haunted Hotel?
Which brings me back The Fresh Lobster. Where do I draw the line on this one? Do I include it simply because it's an early example of the "gigantisized animal who would otherwise be harmless" monster movie sub-genre that proliferated the 1950s, with atom bomb irradiated ants, spiders, lizards and the likes terrorizing small towns and big cities alike? Or do I consider it merely a hilarious, inventive and quite whimsical little trifle that has barely anything to do with scare comedies? I'm interested to hear what you think.
As for the genesis of this film, it seems to be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. No less an authority than Steve Stanchfield - animator and film historian who runs Thunderbean Animation, one of the foremost outfits curating animated treasures on DVD and Bluray for our personal enjoyment and edification, seems to know its origins. He wrote about it on the Cartoon Research website - and when not a single one of the esteemed members of the Cartoon Research team can easily pinpoint the background behind something, you know it's a real... and reel conundrum.
Speaking of foremost animation historians, Scared Silly friend Tommy Jose' Stathes of Cartoons On Film/Cartoon Carnival included The Fresh Lobster on his Bluray release Cartoon Roots: Halloween Haunts. This essential collection also includes the aforementioned Haunted Hotel from Blackton, and is loaded with animated gems in the horror-comedy tradition featuring such cartoon stars as Felix the Cat, Koko the Clown, and the original, humanoid versions of Tom & Jerry. It is required viewing for all Scared Silly connoisseurs! If you'd like a copy, just click here to order through Amazon (proceeds go to Tommy). I fully support Tommy's efforts to make animation history available to the public, and I encourage you to do so, too.
Oh, one last thing: that comic book cover above. That's Archie's Weird Mysteries issue #8, from September of 2000, written by yours truly. To this day, amazing artist Fernando Ruiz, who drew the stories I wrote for that series ribs me about making him draw a giant lobster running amok. When I set out to write this post, it was my intention to tell him it was just a coincidence that my story mirrors this old comedy short. But then I read the comments section in the Cartoon Research link above, where someone stated seeing the film on PBS's Matinee at the Bijou program. I watched that show religiously as a kid, so while I swore to myself I never saw the short before writing that comic book story in 2000; well, now I'm not so sure. You'd think I'd have a vivid memory of such an extraordinary film, but perhaps it was just embedded in my subconscious in the years between.
Now without further ado, here is Billy Bletcher in The Fresh Lobster. Note that this is a 1948 re-issue to which music was added. And remember to put your bib on before watching!
Monday, April 6, 2020
PLOT: Two former prize fighters, Max Baer and Maxie Rosenbloom set up a detective agency. Their first case: an heir named Horace Dwiggins, worried that his relatives plan to bump him off for his inheritance. Since the heir apparent has been living out of the country his whole life, Max gets the idea to masquerade as the client and attend the reading of the will… at the “Dismal Heights” estate! Can the two Maxes clear the air for the frightened heir, or will Dismal Heights be full of frights for the pugilist pair?
REVIEW: Right off the bat, it should be noted that this series presents an early example of “meta” comedy. The stars, former boxers Maxie Rosenbloom and Max Baer are actually playing exaggerated versions of themselves... right down to mention being made of their prior prize-fighting days.
That whole meta stance embeds why this series is a footnote in comedy shorts history today. It’s more a curio for boxing fans than a series ripe for rediscovery by classic comedy fans. Simply put, despite some inspired moments peppered along the way, the Maxes put over all the best good-will they can, but they’re just not as seasoned comedy performers as they were boxers. Which makes those moments where they do excel all the more impressive, in addition to entertaining.
The short opens on a shot of Maxie Rosenbloom proudly standing in front of a door that has KAYO DETECTIVE AGENCY painted on it. Rosenbloom tells us it’s their first day in business, declaring, “at last I’m a private eye... instead of a public nuisance.”
It’s a funny line, but the delivery is a bit off.
In general, though Maxie is pretty lovable, with his punch-drunk, malapropism-laden dialogue and body language (which he put to great use in The Boogie Man Will Get You with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre), so it comes as some surprise when he sometimes slips into Curly Howard mannerisms, such as he does while hanging their detective school diploma. He clearly doesn’t need to (perhaps there’s a behind-the-scenes story on this, given it’s a short from the Stooges’ home studio, Columbia, and directed by one of their directors, Ed Bernds), but the effect is underscored when Max Bear manhandles Maxie a bit, and calls him names like, “skillethead.” Watching Maxie get slapped by Max is a little harsher than when Moe slaps Curly, however.
For his part, Max Baer plays things blustery. He knows he’s the guy in charge. Like Rosenbloom, there are just some lines that are a bit stilted, with hesitancy and unnatural pauses that belie the fact that the two Maxes could use a few more rounds sparring in acting class. Things brighten up for the pair in the second half though, as they’re about to get some business...
Thankfully, the Columbia shorts unit pulled in one of their greatest secret weapons to aid the Maxes in this and a few of their other shorts. Erstwhile comic foil Emil Sitka, veteran of several horror-comedies with the Three Stooges and others, comes to the rescue halfway through the short with a burst of much-needed energy. He steals the show as a jittery man (as he describes himself, “a worried man… a frightened man”) living in British-Guyana who’s summoned back to America for the reading of his wealthy uncle’s will… said uncle perishing in a hunting accident.
Sitka’s vocal inflections, facial expressions, nervous ticks, fiddling with a cigarette, all provide a master class in acting for anyone with visions of becoming a comedic character actor. Things reach a crescendo when a manic, crazed Emil grabs Maxie by the jacket exclaiming, “they’ll kill me... they’ll kill me!” Fear was rarely funnier.
As mentioned above, the two Maxes truly come to life in the second half of the short. Once they show up for the reading of the will, and pretend to be the heir and his aid, they are “all in” to the spirit of the charade. From pretending to have British accents, to debating whether the heir is really nuts and his relatives are harmless, both Maxes seem more confident in both their bearings and deliveries of the lines.
After meeting the heir’s relatives (after meeting the homely “Aunt Ghastly,” Maxie asks, “how long you been fightin’?;” while Max finds himself on the receiving end of a rather seductive “sisterly kiss” from Horace’s attractive sibling), the pair are shown to their sleeping quarters, and it’s here where the horror-comedy trappings really start to take hold. A sampling:
- When the sultry sister says she wants a drink with Max, he replies “That’s for me, if it’s the last thing I ever do.” Once out of earshot, she purrs, “Could be, big boy… could be.”
- When the butler says he hopes the Maxes sleep well, Max replies, “We will – we’re practically dead!” “Practically dead?! Excellent” chimes the butler, laughing profusely as he exits the room.
- A ghoul masked figure pops into the Maxes room briefly to pull their guns off the dresser.
- Maxie intones, “I’ve been to movin’ pictures – I know what happens. If I go to the closet, open the door...” he finishes by waving his hand and making a “whooshing noise,” indicating a dead body falling out. “A corpse!”
- Maxie then does encounter what he believes to be a corpse in the closet... that of course isn’t there when he brings Max in to show him.
- Gaslighting antics by masked figures accelerate – removing and returning the guns to the table, poking through the other end of the medicine cabinet with a slingshot, chasing the boys, etc.
One of the funnier late-moment gags comes when a masked figure enters the room to confront the Maxes face-to-face. When they pick up their guns to shoot, they find out they were switched for water pistols!
The chaos continues as the various family members try to do away with Max (remember, they think he’s their long-lost brother, Horace the heir), with even Aunt Ghastly swinging a mace! Maxie grabs one of their monstrous detective masks to enter the hallway, figuring he won’t be a target if he looks like one of the family. Of course by this time, Max has grabbed the mace from Aunt Ghastly and clonks Maxie on the head with it!
The climax comes when the sister decides to collect on that drink with Max. Just as Max is about to take a sip, the ghastly figure from Maxie’s closet pops his head through a painting on the wall. Using a boxing glove on a stick (nice touch), he knocks the drink from Max’s hand, and its spilled contents end up killing a nearby potted plant! The plant’s death throes are hilarious – it shakes while it hyperventilates – and a startled Max hilariously exclaims, “baby I’m on the wagon from now on!”
Just when it looks like it’s all over for Max – the villains have him surrounded – the man from Maxie’s closet who saved Max’s life bursts into the room, waving a gun. It’s Uncle Elmer! Turns out the will was a fake that he drew up just to see how his potential heirs would behave. With the outcome, it furthers his resolve to not give the fiendish crew a single penny. Victory is short-lived as one of the relatives gets the upper hand, but the day is inadvertently saved by Maxie, who booby-trapped a bowling ball to come crashing down when a door opens. Inventively, Maxie forgets he did this and the bowling ball lands on his own head… and then promptly bounces off and crashes through the floor to the room below, careening down on the bad guy holding Elmer hostage!
All’s well that ends well, except that the two Maxes accidentally knock each other out, leading Elmer to declare, “well whaddaya’ know... it’s a draw!”
This short was almost a draw, too. I was tempted to award it just two and a half stars marking it as only “slightly above average” for its awkward opening bit. The always sublime work of Emil Sitka (playing as it turns out both Horace and Elmer) combined with the surprise of the Maxes rising to the occasion in the second reel allows me to declare this short a “technical knockout!”
BEST VISUAL GAGS/DIALOGUE:
MAXIE: You know something Max, I think I’m going to like this better than fighting for a living.
MAX: Yes, but you’ll have to get used to staying on your feet.
When Max tells Maxie to put the combination to their safe in a safe place…. Maxie locks the combination in the safe!
When Max tries on a disguise and tries to scare Maxie, Maxie isn’t afraid, but recognizes him right away. Only after Max removes the mask does Maxie get frightened!
While practicing interrogating a suspect by giving himself the third degree, Maxie also gives himself a “conclusion of the brain” – by clonking himself in the head with a rubber billy club.
Maxie delivers one of the funniest lines in the short, and it’s practically a throw-away. In the middle of Emil Sitka hilariously describing the harrowing events that have brought him to Kayo Detective Agency, when he gets the part where he mentions his uncle’s wealth, Maxie utters, “I’d like to be scared like that myself.” That quip elicits a “pipe down” from Max.
When the boys arrive at Dismal Heights for the reading of the will, Maxie pulls Max aside for this lively, funny exchange:
MAXIE: Hey Max – I don’t like this guy’s altitude.
MAX: Don’t be silly – they’re probably very nice people.
MAXIE: Yeah, but that nephew...
MAX: Ah, don’t be silly. The nephew’s just imagining things. He’s a skiptomaniac.
MAXIE: A skipto-who?
MAX: That’s a dope to you. He’s got a split personality.
MAXIE: Yeah – we’re gonna’ get a split skull if we don’t get outta’ here!
When Maxie asks the butler his name, he replies, “Coombs… it rhymes with tombs!”
SPOTTED IN THE CAST:
Symona Boniface appeared in countless Columbia shorts, often with the Three Stooges (including their horror-comedy classic, Spook Louder), Andy Clyde, and one of Hugh Herbert’s horror-comedies (Get Along Little Zombie). Boniface had a bonita face – she was quite the attractive foil most of the time, so she was a real trooper in this short allowing herself to get all ghouled up to play Aunt Ghastly. This was sadly one of her four final films – she died the same year it was released, of pancreatic cancer. Some of the shorts that followed utilized stock footage of her from earlier appearances. Other notable roles for her came in the The Black Cat (the 1934 horror version, not the 1941 horror-comedy), a Tarzan movie, and films with Laurel & Hardy, The East Side Kids and Abbott & Costello.
Butler-playing James Logan had a long-career that was capped with lots of TV work and roles in two notable 1964 films, Mary Poppins and The Candidate. Scared Silly fans will also spot and appreciate his appearances in Boris Karloff’s thriller Bedlam, cheapo sci-fi horrors like Dinosaurus and The Mole People, entries in the Bulldog Drummond and Lone Wolf mystery film series, as well as in The Bowery Boys’ Loose in London and Abbott & Costello’s The Noose Hangs High.
John Merton – Uncle Shark here – was a veteran of countless serials and westerns in addition to some Columbia comedy shorts... and just happened to play a member of that beloved fraternal organization, the Sons of the Desert in the Laurel & Hardy classic of the same name.