Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Brown and Carney: The Monkees of Obscure Comedy Teams

On the obscure comedy front, Bill Sherman has posted an interesting blog entry re: the RKO comedy team of Brown and Carney. It seems that TCM has showcased a couple of Brown and Carney flicks this month as a part of their April Fools movie lineup. Unfortunately, the films TCM chose to showcase are B&C's Adventures of a Rookie (1943) and Seven Days Ashore (1944). It's as if TCM doesn't want people to like Brown and Carney! To those of you out of the obscure comedy team loop, Wally Brown and Alan Carney were a couple of lumpy, not entirely untalented utility comics RKO individually had under contact in the early 40s before suddenly slapping them together into a "comedy team", or, rather, an amazingly lifelike simulation of one. It has often been suggested that they were RKO's own version of Abbott and Costello, which I don't entirely buy. It's an unfair comparison (mostly to A&C) as it sets people up to expect a brand of comedy that Brown and Carney simply don't/can't/won't deliver. How are Brown and Carney not Abbott and Costello? Let me count the ways:


Abbott and Costello

Bud Abbott: Bud portrays a comic villain; a conniving, greedy, and frequently cruel con artist, a living symbol of man's inhumanity to man. Incapable of upward social mobility, he reaffirms his frail sense of superiority by kicking downwards.

Lou Costello: Lou portrays a hapless, bumbling everyman, the poor dope his mentor and "friend" Bud kicks downwards at. Sweet-natured Lou is so blissfully disconnected from the world around him that he frequently transcends "reality" and is capable of what appears to those around him to be impossible. A neurotic man-child in a world of cruel adults, Lou tragically clings to the opportunistic Bud as his father-figure which naturally leads to all sorts of zany, madcap situations.

Brown and Carney

Wally Brown: Brown plays a friendly sort of guy who has a bit of a cowardly streak. He pushes Carney around sometimes. Usually not, though. He sets up the straight lines so Carney can make with the funny comebacks. But that's not always the case, either.

Alan Carney: Carney portrays Brown's slightly dimmer foil when Brown isn't playing his foil. Seems frequently confused if not outright dazed.


Abbott and Costello

Bud Abbott: Tall and angular. Took to wearing a thin mustache in the 1950s which made him look even more like a racetrack tout from a Damon Runyon story.

Lou Costello: Short and pudgy yet capable at times of an almost balletic grace. Has the face of a disgraced cherub.

Brown and Carney

Wally Brown: Five foot six, slightly chunky with rubbery features.

Alan Carney: Five foot four, chunky with rubbery features.


Abbott and Costello

Much of this team's comedy derives from the friction between their characters. A&C possessed a seemingly bottomless bag of burlesque routines which they had honed to perfection after years of experience on the stage.

Brown and Carney

Completely dependent on who happens to be writing their lines, mostly RKO's reliable if unremarkable stable of B-movie scribes.

Here's the real connection between the teams: RKO, like the rest of Hollywood, reacted to Abbott and Costello's phenomenal success in Buck Privates (1941) by trying to cash in on what they saw as a new trend for military comedies; preferably military comedies starring comedy teams. 20th Century Fox hired Laurel and Hardy for the dreadful Great Guns (1941) while the smaller RKO decided to save scratch by simply manufacturing their own comedy team to star in a slew of Buck Privates-ish service comedies. But The Adventures of a Rookie is no Buck Privates, and neither is Rookies In Burma or Seven Days Ashore. With their nebulous characterizations and distinct lack of comic "business", Brown and Carney barely qualify as a pale imitation of Abbott and Costello. They were barely even a pale imitation of a comedy team.

However, after an abysmal start, things did improve for Brown and Carney once they left the service comedies behind, although they never really gelled as a team. Girl Rush (1944), a comedy western, is probably their best feature (and co-stars a young Robert Mitchum.. in drag, no less). They have more comic patter than usual here and they almost seem like a real comedy team rather than two comics standing next to each other. Brown and Carney also starred in a very strange horror comedy entitled Zombies On Broadway (1945) with Bela Lugosi and Sheldon Leonard. Freak that I am, I actually prefer Zombies On Broadway to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the horror comedy Universal released three years later. While A&CMF was Universal's burlesque of their famous monster movies, ZOB was RKO's comic follow-up to their own big 1940s horror hit, Jacques Tourneur's 1943 classic I Walked With a Zombie. Unlike Universal's horror burlesque, however, ZOB features some legit horror atmosphere and a few genuinely disturbing visuals. Brown and Carney's best film as supporting characters is 1944's Step Lively, a musical comedy based on the same Broadway play that served as the basis for RKO's 1938 Marx Brothers oddity Room Service. Frank Sinatra plays the Frank Albertson role of the idealistic playwright, while Brown and Carney stand in for Chico and Harpo (George Murphy plays Groucho's Gordon Miller role). The team was disbanded by RKO following their 1946 comedy mystery Genius At Work (co-starring Lugosi and, for the last time anywhere, Lionel Atwill).

Monday, April 25, 2005

Awards, Corrections, and Other Groovy Things

Phil Hall, Film Threat critic and journalist, has nominated this blog Hot Site of the Week at! Thanks, Phil!

"mb" notes in the comments for my Barry Mahon blog entry that a) Mahon didn't have to go to the Baum estate for permission to film The Wonderful Land Of Oz as the book's copyright lapsed in 1960 and b) the film was not shot at Pirate's World at all but at a small local studio in North Miami. I'd very much like to know which studio, so if anyone knows, please contact me.

Also in the Mahon comments, Rob Craig of suggested I see the full version of H. G. Lewis' The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967) for a true endurance test. I have and I'll be blogging about both of Lewis' kiddie matinee epics later this week.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Vintage Cartoon Matchbooks!

The Walt Disney Productions matchbook was a gift to me from animator Ed Henderson who worked at the Mouse Factory in the early 40s (he also spent time at Screen Gems and was later responsible for the Astrodome scoreboard cartoons in the 60s and 70s.. Remember the Home Run Spectacular?). The late-deco layout is spiffy, and the streamlined version of Mickey depicted here is my favorite design. The Terrytoons matchbook is a mystery to me. It's late 40s-early 50s vintage, so the comic books it refers to were being published by St. John (earlier, the Terry comic titles were handled by Timely/Marvel and, after St. John, by Pines) , but they're not mentioned anywhere so they're likely not responsible for the matchbook. Did the studio have these made? And how many matchbooks were made to advertise comic books in the 40s and 50s, anyway? I like the copy on the inside of the cover, praising Paul Terry for the general wholesomeness of his cartoons. A real animation businessman, Terry was obsessed with copyrights and trademarks. They're all over this matchbook. I can't think of any other golden age studio who went so far as to tack a "Reg. U.S. Pat. Off." onto their characters' logos.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Return of the Dollar DVDs!

Here are a few nuggets (some gold, some... other substances) that I've found over the last few weeks at my local Dollar Tree and 99 Cents Only stores.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (vol 1-3) - (Genius Entertainment) - This 1954 on-film TV series stars Ronald Howard (son of Leslie Howard) as a lighter, personable, if not downright flippant Holmes. The series' non-Doyle mysteries are original and fun, if not very complicated, and there is so much emphasis on comedy that the show is nearly a sitcom. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was shot in Paris and, rather inevitably, an entire episode is structured around the Eiffel Tower.

The Inspector General (1949) - (Treasure Box) - I'm not a big Danny Kaye fan, but this is a very pleasant little comedy just the same. Easily worth a buck for an incredible musical number in which, through the Miracle of Motion Picture Magic, Danny sings four part harmony with himself as three other characters.

The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959) - (Treasure Box) - Stark, stylish, and unnerving example of late Noir, starring Steve McQueen as a teen trying to prove himself by taking part in a bank heist. Probably one of the best films I've seen yet on a dollar DVD.

Daniel Boone, Trail Blazer (1956) - (Dollar DVD) - Lon Cheney Jr. turns in a nice, if rather blurry (he was heavily on the sauce in 1956), performance as an American Indian in this awful, awful attempt to steal the thunder from Disney's entertaining Davy Crockett movies. There's even a scene where a bunch of clean-as-a-whistle Aryan pioneer kids sing a sugary "Ballad of Davy Crockett"-ish song about Daniel Boone, played here by a plank of weather-treated pine named Bruce Bennett. Lots of gruelingly unfunny comic relief.

The Big Trees (1952) - (Genius Entertainment) - The kind of moderately-budgeted programmers Kirk Douglas was making before he started making real movies like Paths of Glory. It's the 1890s and lovable conman Douglas is all set to screw some Quakers out of their lumber rights and cut down the beautiful old Redwoods they've been protecting to boot. The Love of a Good Woman sets him straight. Nice print. Nice trees.

Sisters Of Death (1977) (Dollar DVD) - One of my favorite cheapo DVD titles. A girl is killed during a sorority "cult" initiation rite and, several years later, the members of the cult are lured (stupidly) out to an old house where someone starts bumping them off. This silly and trashy drive-in whodunit features little gore and has the overall tone of an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You?. Claudia Jennings (1970's Playmate of the Year) died two years later when she fell asleep behind the wheel of her VW convertible. Former Mouseketeer Sherry Alberoni was the voice of Alexandra in Josie and the Pussycats.

Good Against Evil (1979) - (Dollar DVD) - Not a movie, but a failed TV pilot starring the strangely-monickered Dack Rambo. Some network genius's attempt to turn The Exorcist into a weekly adventure series. "Good Against Evil" sounds more like a placeholder than a title ("All right, we'll have to think up a real title once we go to series.."). Kim Catrall shows up in a small role as Dack's ex. Of course she gets top billing on the cardboard sleeve. I got suckered by assuming that this was a TV movie, but, dammit, it doesn't have an ending! The damn thing just dumps you at a bus stop, staring at some presumably evil black cat after 74 very uneventful minutes.

Seven Alone (1974) - (Treasure Box) - Supposedly true pioneer saga that reflects real life in that it meanders all over the place, things happen that don't mean much, unappealing characters crop up now and then, and it has a very unsatisfactory ending. After Mom and Pop Pioneer die (quietly and peacefully, family movie style), their seven kids, led by the almost preternaturally unpleasant eldest son John (Stewart Petersen) must forge on, hoping to reach the Oregon Territory as per their parents' wishes. Kit Carson (Dean Smith) appears a few times and adds just about nothing to the story other than the sneaking suspicion that he's starring in a somewhat more interesting movie just off-camera.

Embryo (1976) - (Genius Entertainment) - Rock Hudson's film career continued its downward spiral with this cheap, nonsensical, but entertaining sci-fi thriller. Hudson is believable in his role as a scientist who inadvertently accelerates the growth of a fetus, resulting in a full-grown woman (Barbara Carerra) in only four days. She has a thick Nicaraguan accent, clearly common to fetuses accelerated to adulthood in only four days, and a homicidal streak. Watch for Roddy McDowell and Dr. Joyce Brothers at a party. Muddy, washed out print exactly like the one they used when I saw this film as the Friday afternoon Million Dollar Movie on Channel 13 in the mid 80s.

Gang Busters (1952) - (Genius Entertainment) - TV version of radio's loudest crime drama (hence the phrase "to come on like gangbusters"). The forerunner of shows like America's Most Wanted, Gang Busters was hosted by series creator Phillips H. Lord who intones woodenly from behind a desk. The true crime dramatizations are like Dragnet without the wit, suspense, insight, or panache.

Dragnet (vol 1-4) - (Genius Entertainment) - The best crime drama of the 50s. Although Frank Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon is featured on the sleeves, these are episodes of the 1951-59 series, not the lame anti-hippie Dragnet 1967/Dragnet 1968 series Morgan appeared in. Sgt. Joe Friday's partners here are Sgt. Ben Romero (Barton Yarborough), Sgt. Ed Jacobs (Barney Phillips) and Officer Frank Smith (Ben Alexander), his best and longest running partner (1952-59). Webb is one of the unsung geniuses of television, almost single-handedly creating the adult crime drama with Dragnet. As series director, Webb tried to make the performances more lifelike by insisting that the actors read their lines cold from teleprompters and cue cards (like radio actors read from scripts). The point was to strip self-conscious acting from the performances, but the result was that peculiar rapid-fire dialogue the series became known for (and was mercilessly parodied for). Even the talkiest, most static episodes feature lots of interesting camera angles and setups to keep the show visually appealing (IMO, Dragnet was only outdone in this regard when Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted in 1955). The series also broke with precedent by placing almost all of the emotional emphasis on the criminals and the victims rather than on the police. Sgt. Friday is less a human than a cog in the Justice machine, a cross between a cyborg, a career garbage man, and an angel of death. You don't want a visit from Sgt. Friday... ever.

Gabby (1940-41) - (Genius Entertainment) - After Max and Dave Fleischer produced and directed the world's second animated feature, Gulliver's Travels, in 1940, they spun off a number of the film's secondary characters into their own series. Sneak, Snoop, and Snitch, the spies, got a couple of cartoons, Twinkletoes the carrier pigeon got three, and Gabby the Lilliputian town crier got seven. Unfortunately, none of these characters warranted ONE cartoon between them. Sneak, Snoop, and Snitch and Twinkletoes aren't so much characters as interesting design concepts while lumpy, short-tempered Gabby, although a character, is unappealing in the extreme. Paramount was clearly pushing hard for the Gabby series. While Popeye languished in black and white in the 1940s, Gabby got Technicolor and lush watercolor backgrounds. The cartoons look excellent, only a notch below the Fleischers' Superman cartoons, but, damn, they're unfunny. They make me wish Dave Fleischer had taken animator/director Shamus Culhane's advice and built a series around Popeye's hamburger fiend sidekick Wimpy. Those couldn't have possibly turned out worse than these. This DVD features old UM&M and NTA TV prints of all seven Gabby cartoons, so the titles are mutilated by black bars (eliminating all references to Paramount), the prints are washed out and a hideous, eye-burning beet red is the most prominent color. You gets whats you pays for.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Burgess Meredith and Gautama Buddha Ate My Brain!!!

Well, thanks to the miracle of dollar DVDs I've finally seen something that I never thought I'd see in a trillion years.. the spectacle of Peter Lind Hayes and Jeff Bridges making out. Truly one of cinema's most "THIS CAN'T BE HAPPENING!!!" moments. The film is The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go (1970), written and directed by none other than Burgess "Penguin" Meredith. Mr. Go is a Fu Manchu-ish supervillain (played by James Mason with a set of false teeth) who is plotting to steal Professor Robert Bannister's (Peter Lind Hayes) "Sidewinder" anti-ballistic missile shield. Go blackmails Bannister by paying James Joyce-obsessive Nero Finnighan (Jeff Bridges) to bed him as he secretly records the proceedings with a fish-eye lens, psychedelic solarized film, and a groovy soundtrack. Watching Jack Lucas hungrily give Mr. Zabladowski a big open-mouthed kiss may be as surreal a moment as ever captured on film, but this scene stands alone in Mr. Go as it actually involves a modicum of cause and effect. The rest is an incoherent jumble that reminds me of a less-lucid version of Otto Preminger's Skidoo. Among the other wonders you'll witness in The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go are:

* A supposedly comic running gag about a gut-shot CIA agent who takes forever to die. The agent is Jack MacGowran, who died of the flu after appearing as Burke Dennings in The Exorcist three years later.

* Soundtrack music by a 5th Dimension sound-alike vocal group which crops up at the least likely moments. ("The Yiiin and the Yaaaaaaaang of Mr. Goooooooooo!!!!")

* Burgess Meredith as a zany and wise Chinese apothecary.

* Irene Tsu and James Mason getting busy inside a giant statue of the Buddha at Mr. Go's phoney funeral (all kinds of weird vibes there).

* Jeff Bridges sitting in Jack MacGowran's lap during a rickshaw ride.

* A man impaled on a wall of acupuncture needles (now that's comedy!).

* Jeff Bridges belting a CIA agent in the head with his portable typewriter (very Hunter S. Thompson).

And did I mention that the film is narrated by Gautama Buddha himself? Who uses his third eye to open Mr. Go's soul to the path of enlightenment? No? Well, you see, Gautama Buddha uses his third eye to open Mr. Go's soul to the path of enlightenment. Mr. Go also has a pet monkey that eats stew bones.

The only rational explanation I can imagine for The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go is that it must have been a thinly veiled excuse for Mason, Bridges, Meredith, and Tsu to head down to Hong Kong, hang out in clubs, get extremely stoned, and get paid for the privilege. Jeff in particular seems to have quite a nice buzz on throughout the movie. God bless dollar DVDs!

Friday, April 08, 2005

"I'd like you to meet Blodgett, my mental hazard..."

Bill Sherman has posted a very insightful analysis of Clark and McCullough and a pair of their shorts (titter, giggle, tee-hee) on his blog. I certainly agree with him that it would have been interesting to see how the most unjustly unsung comedy team in film history would have fared in a feature. The closest Clark and McCullough ever came was a 1929 Fox five-reeler, Clark and McCullough In Holland. As you can see in the publicity still above, Bobby indeed wore a real pair of lensless wireframe specs for this film instead of the greasepaint variety he developed during his circus days. Presumably, he gave them up temporarily at Fox's request. Groucho Marx was likewise ordered to drop the greasepaint mustache by Paramount management for The Cocoanuts so as not to disrupt the sense of "reality " audiences in 1929 supposedly demanded from their madcap comedies. Groucho happily told management to perform impossible sexual acts on themselves and the phony mustache stayed put until the late 40s. Clark's greasepaint glasses remained his trademark until the 1950s (he finally dropped them for his role as the Devil in the original Broadway run of Damn Yankees). No one seems to know how many of Clark and McCullough's groundbreaking talkies for Fox Movietone still exist. Film historians refuse to refer to them as truly "lost", but no one has had much luck tracking them down, either (all of their RKO shorts are held by the Library Of Congress. None of their Fox material is). Happily, at least one of their Fox shorts does still exist. A safety print of the two-reeler Belle Of Samoa (1929) did turn up on eBay a couple of years ago (I had the pants bid off me) and another print had previously turned up at a film convention I was unable to attend (bangs head against wall).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Incredibles and the Coming of the Ubermensch

It's a fun film.. how could it have NOT been? But the not-so-subtle Nietzchean subtext of The Incredibles left me cold. Despite the colorful action, wonderful performances and animation, Brad Bird's profoundly anti-democratic message gave me the willies. "If everyone is special, no one is" is the film's mantra, and I, for one, say BULL HOCKEY to that Ayn Rand claptrap.

There must be something in human nature that makes people want to submit themselves to a higher authority, undoubtedly benevolent, but what a miserable worldview.. Perceiving ourselves as so much cannon fodder, always looking to those "in charge" for answers instead of looking for our own. No dignity, no redemption, just some kind of eternal empty childhood. I'm sure I'm not the only one who picked up on Bird's tribute to the Ubermensch, but I wonder if many found it as off-putting as I do in an age where we're all supposed to be nameless extras in Dubya and Osama's Blockbuster Summer Spectacular (or, better yet, nameless yet noble extras on the front lines where the real action scenes are). So sue me for not offhandedly accepting the idea that the folk at the top of the chain are spiritually and ethically superior to people begging for change on streetcorners, or believing that Presidents are appointed by God. What are you left with if you really believe that the people who are gunned down in the streets every day in Iraq or the Sudan or who died horribly on 9/11 or who continue to die from neglect here in the richest, most powerful nation on the globe are simply nothing more than unwashed nobodies.. a vast faceless potentiality just waiting to be tapped by the chosen few? What kind of lunatic amorality does that kind of belief lead to? War? Genocide? Enron? Given America's pathological hero-worship, it seems nothing short of a miracle that we have anything resembling democracy left here. But now that we're electing action movie heroes governor, perhaps it won't be too long before the neocon Ubermensch save us from democracy, and our worthless selves, altogether.

The Incredibles is the perfect family film for the Bush era. A flashy, entertaining diatribe against equality and a call for "heroes" to function outside the "mediocre" constraints of law in order to save the inherently weak from themselves. The only way it could have been more perfect would have been a few scenes with the Incredibles in church. Screw you Nietzsche.