Sunday, April 27, 2008
Behold, below, two clips from one of the most extraordinary gatherings of filmmakers ever assembled on one prime-time talk show--scratch that, assembled anywhere. On a 1971 Dick Cavett show (when he was still on network), Cavett had Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman and Mel Brooks--all representing "young Hollywood" (though Brooks and Altman were each about fifty years old by then)--welcome the legendary Frank Capra, then seventy-five years old and promoting his newly published autobiography "The Name Above The Title". (Personal note: Capra, his films and his book are what influenced me to want to make my own films--his book still has a vibrant and tremendously appealing "call to arms" quality about the power and responsibility that being a filmmaker carries that makes it damn hard to read and not want to join Capra's "one man-one film" army.)
In the first clip, Capra comes on and talks about "It Happened One Night", "Dirigible" (an early pre "Capra-Corn" aviation/adventure flick) and "Lost Horizon". In part two, Cavett asks the group if "Hollywood" is dying; Capra's no-nonsense response and unapologetic assertion that filmmaking is the greatest of all story-telling mediums and CAN NEVER DIE evokes in me the same spirit of pride and righteousness that his book did.
But there is much else to enjoy in the below two clips: Bogdanovich's marvelous tirade against the odious critic John Simon; Cavett and Mel Brooks' "duet" reading of the commercial; the fact that everyone is smoking cigarettes on air; and Altman's peculiar reticence--he barely speaks up and seems decidedly ill at ease, while Brooks and Bogdanovich are clearly in their element; and Capra, as previously mentioned, is stirring, articulate and unapologetically optimisitic about the medium he devoted his life too. I knew Altman a little and got the distinct impression that he was most comfortable being the center of attention and distinctly uncomfortable being a part of any sort of group; Brooks I don't know at all but, given the multitude of personal appearences of his that I've seen, this appearence strikes me as less emphatic than most--he's not doing "crazy Mel" and is clearly making an effort to come off as "charming" and more than a little humble. Indeed, he makes a joking reference to his being called "a director" because he's only made two movies ("Blazing Saddles" and the big hits were still a few years away). Peter Bogdanovich, I'm honored to say, is a good friend and I find him as delightful and honest here as he remains in person, thirty years hence. One of these days I'll have to ask him for the behind-the-scenes story of this gathering of titans.
Why the hell aren't Dick Cavett's shows being re-broadcast, re-mastered, re-cycled on DVD, etc.? If there was a "Cavett Channel" I would gladly pay a premium for it. Not only was his ABC show a wonderful place to see truly in-depth interviews with some astonishing people (TCM has been playing a few of the ones featuring movie stars--Hepburn and Mitchum to name the ones that I've caught) but his later PBS show--which was a half-hour one-on-one format--was one of the singular television experiences of my youth; I recall seeing Olivier, Wells and John Cheever, to name just a few, talk in depth with Cavett who always--for my money--seemed to be both charming enough to relax the giants who he lured but also canny enough to know the right questions to ask them. If he was sometimes a bit fawning or goofy, he was still a major cut above James Lipton...and also represented something that it feels to me is disappearing: the art of being a fan. Cavett is/was an unabashed appreciator. In fact, I invented a word for this: enthusiator--a person whose station in life is to celebrate the talents of others. Am I being fogey-ish in thinking that in our current culture of perpetual "high-school" popularity contests, the art of the enthusiator is an endangered one?
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Long thought to be lost (and in some quarters even thought to have never existed), "The Stolen Jools" (also known by its foreign title "The Slippery Pearls" and mis-identified on this IMDB listing under that title) was an all-star short comedy shot in 1931 by the National Vaudeville Artists (NVA) as part of their "relief work" for the American Tuberculosis Society. It stars...everybody, more or less, in a sincerely puzzling tale of Norma Shearer's jewels having been stolen and the quasi-investigation that follows--though that makes it sound like there is something resembling a plot line which I assure you there isn't. Really it is just an excuse to get all of the big Hollywood stars of the day on screen--sometimes for mere seconds--in blackout sketches designed to aid a good cause. The film was then shown in theaters across the country, accompanied by a live speaker from the NVA asking for donations to help cure tuberculosis. Since the film has nothing to do with anything medical, it's hard to compute quite how this convinced audience members--at the pit of the depression--to part with a few bucks (nickels? pennies?) to cure a disease that at that time didn't seem to be anywhere near being stamped out. Perhaps the dizzying presence of so many stars--Gary Cooper, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Dix, Wallace Beery, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Joan Crawford, Jack Oakie and tons of others--all thrown together in a film that makes no sense and runs under twenty minutes was meant to daze and confuse the audience who, grateful that it was over, would pay for the privelege of not seeing it again. (In this way "The Stolen Jools" is a bit like the old joke about giving the sax player on the subway ten dollars--to not play.) Indeed, watching "The Stolen Jools" is reminiscent of nothing quite so much as the nightmare you might have after channel surfing through a bunch of old movies while eating a large cheese and pepperoni pizza (with plenty of cheap beer) at two am. One minute Wallace Beery is there, the next Laurel and Hardy, the next Loretta Young...all of them having little to do but being somehow connected.
Actually, I'm being hard on the poor thing. "The Stolen Jools" is certainly worth watching--primarily as an artifact of its time, as a piece of Hollywood archeology if you will. And it's plotlessness is no big deal--it's a sketch comedy one way or the other. What's curious to me, though, are the jokes that no longer make sense. A good many of the blackouts end on lines that are clearly timed to be punchlines--and which, in their day, might well have provoked belly laughs--but which now simply seem like premature fade-outs before the actual punchline has landed. In this sense, the film reminds me of a joke book that a friend of mine once gave me that dates from 1904. While there were certain old jokes in the book that still made sense, I was surprised at the number of jokes that merely seemed incoherent--as if translated (lamely) from another language. Humor, it turns out, does have an expiration date. A goodly amount of "The Stolen Jools" serves as ample proof of this fact.
Since both vaudeville and tuberculosis have, for the most part, disappeared from American life, the film raises a number of enigmatic questions none of which, I'm proud to say, I can answer; why, for instance, was the NVA particularly interested in tuberculosis? Was the disease particularly prevalent among vaudevillians? Was tuberculosis suspected to be linked to the generally poor conditions the performers lived and worked in? And how about all that asbestos they were regularly exposed to in the theaters in which they toiled?
Also curious is the fact that the film was made "in association with Chesterfield Cigarettes". This is particularly intriguing as it's hard, at this distance, to know truly how much people knew about the connection between cigarettes and lung disease. I know the prevailing wisdom is that "people didn't know smoking was bad for them" but a cursory glance at any period magazine's cigarette advertising disproves this assumption--many cigarette ads claimed that their product was "easier on the throat" or less "cough-filled" than a rival cigarette, so it's clear that at the time the film was made there was some sort of recognition in the air about smokings harmfulness. If that's the case, was Chesterfield's participation in the making of "The Stolen Jools" an early, guilty sop intended to show "concern" on Chesterfield's part about their poisonous (and highly profitable) product? If so, this pre-dates big tobacco's recent efforts at "educating" youth about smoking by a cool seventy or so years...and gives truth to the adage that, as far as con-games go, there truly is nothing new under the sun.
"The Stolen Jools" was rediscovered in 1972 in Britain, where it had been released in 1932 as "The Slippery Pearls," one of the Masquers Club comedy series for RKO. Subsequently a U.S. print was discovered (not sure by whom or how) and eventually the film's true title, origin and purpose were at last known. Look out for some very interesting (and brief) tid-bits: a view of a studio lot (RKO perhaps?) with Richard Dix leaving a soundstage; Joan Crawford camping it up with Billy Haines--who seems absolutely one-hundred percent comfortably out of the closet; Norma Shearer looking a good deal dishier than she did after marrying Thalberg and becoming MGM's reigning "ice-queen"; a fine glimpse of the great Wheeler and Woolsey--I really must write about them one day soon; a quite funny section with Gene Palette, Skeets Gallagher and Stu Erwin as newsmen--featuring Gary Cooper; and strangest of all Barbara Stanwyck and her then husband, vaudeville star Frank Fay--a ghost of the gay white way if ever there was one--in a truly weird bit in which Stanwyck recites poem she wrote...and is then, per Fay's request, taken outside and shot (!). Fay was a notoriously evil drunk who was intensely disliked by all of Hollywood--Stanwyck shook him fairly early on, after he threw their adopted baby into the swimming pool in a drunken rage. Many years later, after two decades of obscurity, Fay starred on Broadway in the original production of "Harvey" and once again earned everyone's enmity by associating himself--per his newly reclaimed celebrity--with a fascistic "America First" group. One of the jokes around Hollywood (recounted in Milton Berle's autobiography) at the time "The Stolen Jools" was made was: "Who's got the biggest prick in town?" Answer: "Mrs. Frank Fay."
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Why are blooper reels--which are never really all that funny--still so fascinating? Because they demonstrate that in every performance there exists a woefully thin line which seperates complete confidence from utter absurdity. Whenever we non-performers hear a perfectly delivered line or announcement, we can't help but wonder how the speaker/actor managed to get something so right that we non-pro's--under any circumstances--would find challenging. The answer--as provided by blooper reels--is that sheer dumb luck is mostly what is requried. Bloopers are proof that the most assured and polished of professionals are only a milli-inch away from rank amateurism. Indeed, if not for the miracle of editing, most professional actors would be exposed as the fraudulent amateurs they in fact are. At least that's how it feels after seeing a decent selection of bloopers...
Apparently, there was something called the "Warners Club"-an organization of actors, producers and crew under contract at Warner Brothers, who used to put together a ten minute reel of bloopers every year--exclusively bloopers commited by Warner Brothers actors in Warner Brothers movies. (To be screened where? On what occassion? I have no clue, but I bet it was a hell of a party.) These reels survive and have begun to appear as DVD extras on any number of Warner Brothers classic movie re-issues. I just found the below on youtube and must confess that, while hearing famous people go up on their lines and then spit meaningless invective isn't really all that funny, it is nevertheless eminently watchable and certainly beats most of the currently available programming on television. I think part of the fascination is in seeing precisely how the actors in questions lose face and deal with their problems: James Cagney pretends to find it funny, but you can see he's quite irritated with himself. Edward G. Robinson is jocular and unconcerned--he seems to find his own screwing up something of a release valve. Best of all is John Garfield who seems to have decided intentionally to say something inappropriate. Bogart, to my eye, is not happy with either his own gaffes or his co-stars: this allows us to see Bogart as possibly a good deal less secure than his screen persona would indicate.
More bloopers--and a detailed look at the life of blooper-king Kermit Shaeffer--to follow...
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
"I am just back from a weekend at Joe Cook's with Connelly, Ross, Chasen, etc. Very good time. Dinner every night at midnight, barbecued spare-ribs and the like, with a show before dinner in Joe's personal opera house. It seats nine people, including the chair in the box. I had that seat. It is the only seat that has opera glasses attached to it. It was not a restful week-end, as so many of the seats exploded when you sat down on them, but I had a good time."
(Alexander Woolcott in a letter to Harpo Marx, October 3, 1932)
Chances are, if you are reading this weblog, that you will know at least a couple of the above referenced names. Certainly Harpo Marx's still thuds resoundingly when dropped. Woolcott lives on primarily as the inspiration for the main character in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's still very funny (and very often revived) "The Man Who Came To Dinner." If you've gotten that far, you probably can infer that Ross is Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker magazine and Chasen is Dave Chasen, the founder of the now defunct but once famous Hollywood eatery "Chasen's." Even Connelly might still be a last name that a couple of people out there can provide a first name for--Marc, in this case, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning (and the almost certain to never be revived again) "The Green Pastures"--the bible in blackface, for those who haven't seen or read it.
Which leaves Joe Cook as the only true obscurity among the group. And it was his rather luxe sounding house that they were partying at...
So who was this ghost of the gay white way, Joe Cook, this performer of such note in the early thirties that the elite of New York came when summoned to his personal 26 acre New Jersey playground, named "Sleepless Hollow"? Cook was, for more than a minute but less than a decade, Broadway Comedy Royalty--a performer so beloved and now so utterly forgotten that it makes you wonder what, exactly, we would now know about the Marx Brothers had they not bothered to become movie stars. At his peak--which happened to be in the depths of the depression--he commanded a four-thousand dollar a week Broadway fee. When he went to Hollywood to film his hit show "Rain Or Shine", he was paid a stunning one-hundred grand. (I can't do the relative math, but in 1930 dollars that has got to be close to like...ten million? More?) At "Sleepless Hollow", in addition to the opera house with the exploding chairs that left Woolcott a tad bemused, there was also a saloon, a tiny objects museum and a nine-hole golf course.
Born Joe Lopez in Evansville Indiana in 1890, Lopez/Cook was an orphan who joined the circus and who somehow parlayed his big-top skills and talent into a Broadway debut in the Earl Carroll Vanities of 1923. (Just how this road of circus to vaudeville to Broadway was circumnavigated should make arresting reading--but you won't read it here; try as I have, I've found incredibly little about Cook in the usual sources and what material there is focuses on his Broadway years. Anyone with additional information, speak up...) It can be safely assumed, though, that Cook's prodigious talents and energy helped push him along into the big time. A 1909 advertisement for Cook reads: "Master of all trades. Introducing in a 15-minute act, juggling, unicycling, magic, hand balancing, ragtime piano and violin playing, dancing, globe rolling, wire-walking, talking and cartooning. Something original in each line -- Some Entertainment." A great many of these talents are evidenced in the clip I've posted below. But clearly--as said clip supports--it was Cook's incredible prowess as a juggler that made him a headliner--and which links him to two other "jugglers-gone-Broadway": Fred Allen and W.C. Fields.
In the late twenties, Cook starred in a vehicle designed specifically to feature his various and sundry circus-based talents. "Rain Or Shine" was a musical sensation of the 1928-29 season and propelled Cook to Hollywood--where Frank Capra, not yet on the A-list but a respectable up-and-comer, shot an early talkie version of the show, sans music. In Capra's occasionally fanciful autobiography, he claims credit for "throwing out the songs because they were lousy songs"--though in truth, by the time they got around to making "Rain Or Shine" the market was saturated with musicals and the public was beginning to weary of them. Credit Capra, at least, with forcing the film to be made instead of abandoned. For without the movie of "Rain Or Shine", we would have precious little on celluloid by which to examine Cook and his shenanigans. And like most period shenanigans, they are a little hard to fathom the appeal of. From the below clip, Cook's remarkable dexterity as a circus comedian is certainly evident--though it may be hard to see quite why he was embraced by the intelligentsia. Was this the "Harpo Complex" in action? The adulation by the sophisticated of the nearly retarded? Perhaps there was something of this in the air. Cook's foil in the below clip by the way is Dave Chasen--founder of the above mentioned restaurant which is still standing on the corner of Doheny and Beverly in West Hollywood. (Only now it is a Bristol Farms Market--where I often shop for good meat and wine)...
After the success of the film version of "Rain Or Shine", Cook returned to Broadway, where he had a huge hit in the 1930-31 season with "Fine And Dandy". But perhaps Broadway wasn't enough for him--seeing the Marx Brothers and their big-screen success, he may have felt that greener pastures (ahem) awaited him. Alas, what he found upon arriving in Hollywood was that his big moment in that fickle town had passed; the best he could do was get a deal for some short subjects at Educational Pictures, the bottom of the rung in terms of money, talent and distribution. These not-seen-or-heard-from-in-years shorts (who knows if they're lost or simply misplaced) have titles like "Give 'Im Air" and "A Nose For News"...which makes you wonder how much energy anybody was really putting into Joe Cook's screen career. One more feature--the unpromising sounding "Arizona Mahoney"--and he was back in New York...still a Broadway star but no longer a sensation. The thirties wore on and Red Skelton and Danny Kaye and the like stepped in to fill the shoes of the previous generation's purveyors of wack. His last stage appearence was in Broadway's first ice spectacular--"It Happened On Ice". In 1942 Cook was stricken with Parkinson's disease--which patiently waited seventeen long years to take him out. By the time he died in 1959, the wonder wasn't that he'd passed away--it was that he'd been alive all this time.
"Rain Or Shine" exists and is enjoyable on several levels. Capra's direction, as always, is a cut above the standards of the period--fast paced, inventive, endearingly sloppy (Capra never met a set of shadows that he left unmatched) and filled with the buoyant energy often to be found when Capra went on location. Cook and Chasen are terrific--though, as I said, the humor remains a bit untranslatable. And if some of the plot feels a little icky--the set-up for the below scene is that the performers in Joe's circus have "gone on strike"...with the result that Joe performs a one-man show for the audience, essentially scabbing and effectively breaking a labor union's contract...well, so what? These were still innocent times. (Or perhaps they were darker times then we care to remember. Lynching, after all, was still something that...happened regularly. Compared with that, what's a little strike breaking?)
I'm not sure where to place Joe Cook--in the first rank of those who shouldn't have been so quickly forgotten, or in the second rank of those who were--for whatever reason--a bit more popular than now seems reasonable? Cook's brand of zany was clearly specific to his time--perhaps the "circus" atmosphere that surrounded him lent him an air of the low-down that was fashionably appealing to the high-hats. And though big-time show-biz in general forgot completely about him once his disease forced him from the limelight, he remained alive in the minds of the magicians and jugglers and acrobats from whose culture he sprang. In 1954, according to a Juggling magazine, his wife, Alice Cook, ordered six special juggling balls and wrote, "As Joe is going to be 65 this March 29 I would like to surprise him with six new balls to work with. Despite his Parkinsons and the fact that he has trouble even handling his food alone, believe it or not, he can still juggle the balls."