Hello all, hope you’re doing well! I took a little break earlier this month because…well…I figured folks might be a bit distracted. *wink* What to do while we’re getting back to somewhat normal? Cover one of the least normal films of all time, of course!!
So if you haven’t seen The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, I…really don’t know how to prepare you for The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Gently, with a rose? With a joke-filled monologue? With a solemn discussion of its historical background? With a parental advisory label? This, after all, is a short that manages to be adult-themed, in bad taste, shocking and weirdly innocent all at the same time. I may need to ponder this on a remote mountaintop for a few weeks.
Or I could just hurl you right into the plot and hope for the best. Problem solved!
Judy Canova, Minnie Pearl, Louise Fazenda, Gale Henry, Mabel Normand, Lucille Ball in those I Love Lucy episodes where she blacks out teeth and wears hillbilly clothes–all of these talented ladies had fun bringing “country bumpkin” characters to the screen. Some did it part time (like Mabel) while others turned their rube characters into a full time career (like Minnie).
And those pigtails, funny hats and gingham dresses have hollered “bumpkin” to us ever since. But how often do you hear about their direct ancestor, Sis Hopkins? This great-grandmother of movie hillbillies was the creation of comedy pioneer Rose Melville. Her Sis was a very familiar character to audiences, debuting in the 1890s and appearing regularly in theaters across America for two straight decades.
It’s one of the most famous photos from silent comedy. Or from the silent era itself. Or, heck, from cinema itself. It’s the image that probably leaps to mind when you say “Keystone Kops.”
It’s also key to what I think is the ultimate championship trivia question: “This famous still comes from which lost film?” The winning answer–major props if you know it–is “In the Clutches of a Gang!” *Cue lots of applause and money showering from the ceiling*
For being such a wildly famous image, it’s surprising that In the Clutches of a Gang (1914) isn’t better known–as a title, at any rate. After all, the film itself has been lost for many decades, yet another casualty of delicate nitrate paired with the relentless march of time. What a pity that such a tantalizing piece of slapstick history should have been so thoroughly, and regrettably, lost.
This is my own entry for the Sixth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon. Hope you enjoy!
Ah, Buster’s talkies–few topics cause greater discussion among Keaton fans. We all agree that his own silent films are veritable masterpieces, but the talkies he was starred in? Let’s just say that opinions vary.
But while Buster’s MGM talkies are widely analyzed, his 1930s comedy shorts get less attention. Or, more likely, they’re written off as merely “inferior” to his solo work and that’s about it. While I can’t really disagree, I do think there’s some gems among the Educationals. And you really can’t put a price on getting several extra hours’ worth of Keaton performances–and in sound! Continue reading →
In his day, British music hall veteran Billie Ritchie was a popular film comedian with a mighty suspicious resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. Today, he might be best known as the hi-larious answer to a trivia question: Which obscure silent film comedian was kicked to death by an ostrich? Why, poor Billie of course! (Or maybe it was several ostriches–or maybe they bit him–the trivia question varies.)
This was taken years before the supposed attack, btw. Pictures and the Picturegoer, July 10 1915.
But maybe, like me, you’re wondering precisely how an ostrich-related injury could lead to someone’s death–a full two years after the fact, mind you. (Didn’t know about that time frame? Yup, it’s true.) And maybe you’re suspicious that the details about the ostriches vary so much–was the unfortunate Billie kicked or mauled by the savage birds? And how many birds were there? One or more than one? Since this is obviously is one of the most debated questions of the modern age, let us examine it more closely. Continue reading →
To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.
Skipping madly ahead of the lingering shadow of World War I, the 1920s was a time of optimism, invention, art, and ever-increasing speed. With its marvelous “modern conveniences” and improvements in nearly every aspect of living, it must’ve seemed like a veritable golden age of innovation.
Its atmosphere was also infused with whimsy and wonder. Many people had grown up with “fairy plays” and circuses, and comic strips dabbled in absurdity and surrealism. Puns and tall-tale style jokes were popular, and comedy films needn’t be logical as long as they were amusing.
Logic is never the point.
Only in this atmosphere could someone like Charley Bowers thrive–an animator (and former head of the Mutt & Jeff cartoon studio) whose oddball visions found a perfect home in cutting-edge stop motion animation. A figure only moderately known in his day and then completely forgotten until his rediscovery in the 1960s, Charley appeared in a series of live action “Whirlwind Comedies” enlivened by stop motion–which he dubbed his “Bowers Process.” My personal favorite of the surviving “novelties” is the ever-wondrous and quirky Egged On (1926). Continue reading →
UPDATE 7/18/19: And the winner of the Charley Bowers Blu-ray set is….
Congratulations David! We will be in touch. I hope you enjoy these Charley Bowers shorts as much as I do! And thank you to all who entered–this was a popular giveaway!
Calling all silent comedy fans!! Flicker Alley has a very exciting new release: a Blu-ray set of 17 shorts by the one and only Charley Bowers! And when I say “one and only,” I’m not just using a cliché–obscure comedian Bowers was truly one of the silent era’s most, err, creative individuals. Not familiar with this highly unique genius? (Admittedly, most people on the planet are not. Sadly.) Allow me to give you a brief introduction:
A former cartoonist, Bowers became the head animator for the 1910s Mutt and Jeff cartoon series before becoming fascinated with stop motion animation. In the mid-1920s he created a series of comedy shorts starring himself as a vaguely Keatonesque character with a love of crazy inventions. These shorts were basically showcases for his “Bowers process,” as he grandly dubbed his stop motion animation skills. In the trades they were advertised as “Whirlwind Comedies.” Continue reading →
Do you love exploring silent comedy? How about getting to know obscure silent performers? If your answer to both questions is “Heck yes!” (and why wouldn’t it be?) then you’ll probably be excited about the latest DVD set by Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions: The Alice Howell Collection.
Nowadays there’s a lot of hubbub about actresses in modern comedies, with plenty of well-meaning people proclaiming that the existence of Melissa McCarthy or Kristen Wiig proves that, at last, folks are figuring out that ladies can be funny too! It only took 130 years, y’all! No one has ever, ever noticed this before, and no, I’ve never heard of Mabel Normand or seen I Love Lucy, why do you ask?
“…Oh. But that was, like, in black and white.”
But, as the introduction to James L. Neibaur’s latest book The Hal Roach Shorts of Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly points out, the funny ladies of film have been with us far longer than that–since the darn dawn of cinema, I would add. A few perfect examples from the Golden Age of Comedy are Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, and Patsy Kelly, who starred together in a number of shorts in the 1930s (Todd and Pitts were a comedy team for a few years; when Pitts left the Roach studio in 1933 Patsy Kelly took over her half of the team). While there are a couple biographies of ZaSu available and several about Thelma (due to her tragic death in 1935), Neibaur’s book is the first to examine the short comedies of these frequently overlooked comediennes. Continue reading →
It not easy bein’ Larry Semon–not only is he almost completely forgotten, but the few who watch his work will often just scour it for evidence of why he’s ranked below the Big Four of silent comedy (Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and Langdon). “Sure, he was super popular back in the day,” they’ll say, “and okay, his popularity even rivaled Chaplin in some areas–butdid he create a cinematic masterpiece worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather and Tokyo Story?…yeah, I didn’t think so.”
It’s not like naysayers don’t have a point–Semon’s work can get pretty goofy, and he had a fondness for repeating certain gags almost ad nauseum (although this is more obvious when you’ve watched a bunch of his shorts in a row). He especially loved people falling into puddles, gals flying off swings, and birds doing various unsettling things (such as spitting out streams of water, because birds can do that, as everyone knows).
Ah, the ol’ “rooster drinking nitro glycerin” gag!
But what’s with this disdain for comedies that haven’t made it to “Best of…” lists? Why not just have fun watching something that was never meant to be taken too seriously to begin with? After all, it’s not like you’d limit all your feature films solely to entries on the Sight and Sound lists–right? Continue reading →