Movies in the Mountains
Six Merry Comedy Shorts For a Very Merry Christmas
The Great Depression combined with the technical lure of motion pictures (and its markedly lower ticket prices) along with the readily available entertainment delivered free into your parlor (after you purchased a radio receiver or a phonograph) doomed vaudeville as a profitable business, but its skilled talent and real estate assets remained valuable.
Tens of thousands of vaudeville theatres were converted into movie-houses, while many vaudevillians provided the talent for the new mechanical media— especially those who, after years of endless travel from one town to the next, welcomed the chance to settle into family life in sunny Hollywood or near exciting and sophisticated Manhattan where the network radio studios were broadcasting ever day, nearly all day.
From the earliest days of movies and radio, generations of stage performers and actors have chanced their luck on screen and over the air. Those who were successful brought with them the personas and acts they had perfected in front of live audiences.
George Burns (1896–1996)
& Gracie Allen (1895–1964)
George and Grace successfully teamed in vaudeville, movies, radio and television for thirty-six years. Burns originally wrote their act for himself as the act’s comedian and Gracie as his ‘feed’. But according to George, Gracie’s straight lines were getting bigger laughs than his jokes, so they switched roles. Theirs was one of many vaudeville ‘flirtation acts’ (wise guy and dumb Dora), but as they grew into their middle years, Burns changed the act to husband and daffy wife, the act they brought from radio to television. After Gracie’s early demise, George continued as a single act for thirty more years. and won and won an Oscar.
Stan Laurel & (1890–1965)
Oliver Hardy (1892–1957)
Stan and Ollie had long but middling vaudeville and solo movie careers before coming together at Hal Roach Studios where they filmed over 100 short films plus features.
Stan Laurel had come to the USA from Great Britain as part of a music-hall troupe that featured Charlie Chaplin. Oliver ‘Babe’ Hardy had grown up as a singer in small-time Southern vaudeville, then switched to acting for Georgia and Florida film companies, often playing villains.
Unlike many silent film clowns, Stan & Ollie segued from silents to talkies with nary a hitch, Since much of their comedy was visual, they retained their worldwide popularity for decades.
Despite their last relatively weak movies at other studios late in their careers, Stan & Ollie remain the all-time favorite comedy team from villages to cities in most countries around the world.
Trixie Friganza (1870–1955)
Trixie added to her early showgirl figure as well as her resume as she became a star of musical comedies and a vaudeville headliner. She was over fifty when she made her first (silent) films but songs and monologues were highlights of her ‘nut comic’ vaudeville act.
By the time talkies replaced silents, 60 year-old. Trixie was beset with arthritis and limited to small film roles. At 80 she was crippled and unable to work Fortunately she had invested wisely.
Al Shaw (1902–1985) &
Sam Lee (1891–1980)
The restoration of a cache of Vitaphone studio’s short sound films conferred a posthumous fame on Shaw & Lee that had eluded them since the fading of vaudeville.
New fans were astonished that the team’s 1920s and 1930s routines seemed imbued with a modern sensibility.
Hollywood never figured out (or tried to) how to fit Al & Sam into narrative plots, so their joint careers dwindled into bit parts. Burlesque and nightclubs provided much of their later work.
Bobbie Clark (1888–1960) &
Paul McCullough (1883–1936)
Their motto was “Never a help; always a hindrance,” and they did they zany and raucous best to live up to their billing.
They began as boyhood chums who practiced gymnastics and joined the circus as clowns. As the act grew into comedy, the partners segued into burlesque, vaudeville and then to Broadway where they rose to star attractions in a half-dozen big but usually witty revues at the same time they made twenty films between two- and four-reelers for RKO.
According to researchers, McCullough had been the leader of the duo, but gradually he slipped into Clark ‘s shadow looking like an overage frat boy Perhaps as their act grew more verbal and Bobby proved faster with the quip, Paul gave in and followed Bobby like an pudgy pup following an alpha dog intent on adventure The question is whether Paul’s slippage in status led to depression or vice versa. In either case, the depression led Paul to suicide in 1936.
After Bobby Clark recovered from Paul’s death, Clark worked solo in revues and musical comedies (lastly as the Devil in Damn Yankees), and moved into Classical theatre comedy acting in Restoration plays and Comedies of Manners. Clark was still in top physical form when he starred twice in the Sunday slot of television’s Colgate Comedy Hour a few years before his death.
Observers often compared Bobby to Groucho. Both were quick witted as well as physical comedians with greasepaint trademarks: Groucho because he felt it took too long to glue on a brush moustache. For Bobby, it was because real glasses did not stay in place as he cavorted around the stage.
C. Fields (1880–1946)
There was something sympathetic or loveable about most star comedians. Not W. C. Fields: he played a lying cheat, a cowardly braggart, a drunken failure. Few women liked what they saw; men saw something of themselves. Field’s film characterizations were echoes of characters from Commedia dell’arte and the comic fools of Restoration Comedy. No romantic heroes for him, Fields played a charlatan in checkered suit, a Pantaloon in golf togs.
Originally a silent juggler (the better to tour foreign-land stages and escape an unhappy marriage) Fields added patter that, back in American vaudeville, grew into a spoof of the ornamented oratory of side-show barkers—a braggadocio style well suited to sketches in Ziegfeld Follies.
His earliest movies were made in the silent era where his deft gesturing and manipulation of props compensated for the absence of speech.
The addition of recorded sound in ‘talkies’ allowed Fields’ comedy talent to flower further as his characters embellished their faults with grandiose commentary. His inimical verbal style enhanced his career in two dozen feature films plus five sound shorts and extended it into network radio after illness and the rise of younger comedians curtailed film work.
Thank you for being part of our 2019 season of Movies in the Mountains at the East Mountain Public Library in Tijeras. Please join us for our 2020 season. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.