Thursday, January 27, 2011

General Spanky

Tuesday I watched part of the last night of TCM's Hal Roach tribute. First up  was Laurel and Hardy's Sons Of The Desert with Stan's and Ollie's teamwork at its zenith. I would now put up that one upthere with Duck Soup as my favorite comedy of all time. Then I saw a real curio for the first time, General Spanky.

On TCM, host Robert Osborne referred to this as the only feature-length "Our Gang" movie but as this poster shows it wasn't intended to be seen that way.  Only Spanky McFarland himself is listed. Going by this you wouldn't even know any of the other Our Gang kids were even in the film.  This picture comes off more as Roach's failed attempt to make Spanky into a big time child star after the fashion of Shirley Temple or Our Gang veteran Jackie Cooper.  Part of the problem is that someone at the studio got the bright idea to dump the modern-day setting of the shorts and stick Spanky in a Civil War movie, probably because that had worked so well for Temple. This is just one of the things that goes wrong with the movie.

The film actually starts out focusing on Buckwheat (Yes, some of the other kids are in this movie, if way down in the cast list.) He's a slave on a riverboat who gets separated from his master and hooks up with Spanky who here is an orphan shoe shine boy. They make friends with a young plantation owner who goes off to fight for the Confederacy when war breaks out and with some other kids, including Alfalfa, organizes a homemade "defense force" to protect the women and children while the men are fighting.

How many things are wrong here? First of all, instead of the kids being the center of attention as they always were in the shorts, a lot of time is spent on the various adults in the story with Spanky and the rest being just around the periphery. Also when adults figured into their best comedies, they were often fine comic actors like Billy Gilbert or Edgar Kennedy.  Here you get the bland likes of Phillips Holmes, Ralph Morgan and Irving Pichel playing it completely and boringly straight.  Pichel, in particular, seems really out of place. He plays the villain, a crooked gambler turned incompetent Union officer, with no hint of emotion.

Spanky is expsoed as not really having the acting range to carry the kind of comedy-drama this wants to be and outside of a couple of bits, like Alfalfa's one song, most of the kids' antics aren't that funny. Then there is the whole tenor of this being a sentimental view of the Civil War South. The great majority of these old movies that show contented black slaves laughing and grinning on the plantation don't bother me but this one is a little disturbing in that they are actually called "slaves" several times, a word I don't usually notice in these pictures. That word especially sounds nasty when used to refer to little Buckwheat. It's a bit grim at one point when, separated from his owner, he walks around asking other white men if they will be his Master.  He, Farina, Stymie and the other black Our Gang members may have been equal to their white pals in the shorts but this time things were clearly different.

It's no wonder this movie didn't do weel at the box office. There was far too little of everything that made Our Gang successful and nothing but dull Southern soap opera replacing it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Roach Rarities

Turner Classics Movie has been commanding more of my attention than usual this month because of their Hal Roach tribute, 24 hours of comedy shorts and other material from the Roach studio every Tuesday. I've yet to do the intelligent thing a movie buff should and buy a DVR or Tivo so I've been limited to watching just what I can when I'm not sleeping or at work. Nevertheless I've been able to see a lot of good comedies, some I'd seen before and some I hadn't.

    On the 4th it was 24 hours of Our Gang shorts, including a bunch of silent ones I'd never seen before. The earliest one shown was "Fire Fighters" from 1922 which oddly began with what seemed to be a clip from Roach's bizarre Dippy Doo Dads series, a couple of minutes of animals dressed up as humans, before switching to Our Gang, at that point just Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison and a bunch of guys named Fred, pretending to be firemen. I also noticed that several of the sound shorts were really remakes of the silent ones and that "Love Business", where Jackie Cooper and Chubby Chaney are rivals for the affection of their teacher, the beloved Miss Crabtree, still holds up as a very funny movie.

The 11th had a full day and night of my heroes, Laurel and Hardy. I'd already seen all of the ones I was around for but not for many years. The genteel brilliance of their style of slapstick was as funny as ever.

Last night started off a period of odds and ends. I saw another Our Gang classic, "The First Seven Years" with some footage that had always been missing from the TV prints I'd seen in the past. I also saw two early Charlie Chase talkies, "Whispering Whoopee" and "Fifty Million Husbands" that demonstrated how loosely put together the Roach shorts of that period were. All they seemed to do was come up with a premise and have the cast riff on it.  Thinking about it, this is true of the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedies but I was so familiar with those I hadn't noticed it there. It really shows up though in "Whoopee". The "plot" is Chase hiring three ladies to party with some small town elders he wants to sell land to. From that scrap of idea they work all sorts of slapstick gags culminating in everyone spraying each other with seltzer bottles for two or three minutes.

The real rarities of the month came last night when ten episodes of a 1955-56 Roach TV show, Screen Director's Playhouse, were shown. This was a video version of an old radio show where A-list movie directors would film a program with a story and cast of their choosing, usually with some big stars involved.  The five episodes I saw were a mixed bag.  The most hyped show was "Rookie Of The Year" directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. This was made around the time they did The Searchers together and featured Wayne as a sports reporter who stumbles across a potential big story that could ruin the career of a promising young baseball player. The story is well told enough and has good actors like Ward Bond, Vera Miles and James Gleason in it but it was very hard for me to buy the slow-talking Wayne as a slick, ambitious reporter.

"Lincoln's Doctor's Dog" which featured Robert Ryan as Abraham Lincoln didn't do much for me either. The other three were better. "Tom And Jerry" starred Peter Lawford and Nancy Gates as a married couple who decide to get a divorce on Christmas Eve. It could have been sappy but director Leo McCarey put some slapstick and an air of sophistication in the mix that hearkened back to his days directing Charlie Chase and Laurel and Hardy and also his screwball classic, The Awful Truth. It also had good supporting people like Marie Windsor and Arthur Q. Bryan AKA The Voice Of Elmer Fudd, as a sarcastic judge.

"The Silent Partner", which I'd seen before at Slapsticon, starred the sublime Buster Keaton (right) as a forgotten silent comic. It had plenty of time for Keaton for time to do his still hilarious physical comedy stunts and also featured Zasu Pitts, Joe E. Brown and Bob Hope.

Then there was "Number Five Checked Out" a crime drama directed by no less than Ida Lupino. It was much in the tenor of other noirish work she did, a story about two bank robbers who hide out in a deserted resort tended only by a deaf woman. There is a nice, dark fatalism to this story and good interplay between Teresa Wright as the deaf woman and William Talman, who had starred in Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker two years earlier, but the show is really stolen by the guy playing the other robber, Peter Lorre.
      Lorre is at his creepy best here, nonchalantly pouting and purring in his silken voice. When his partner yells at him about shooting someone needlessly during the robbery, he just shrugs and says "There was a change of plans." He doesn't really upset the balance of the story just makes it a little off center.

Next week this tribute finally ends with a day of Roach features. I don't know I'll see many but they are starintg with Laural and Hardy's masterpiece, Sons Of The Desert, and the one and only Our Gang feature, General Spanky, which is really just Spanky, Alfalfa and Buckwheat, dropped into the middle of a Civil War story. Those two I know I'll see.

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Buys

 These are the three latest additions to my CD pile.  I bought all three the first time I actually saw them in a store which is unusual for me. Junko Onishi is a Japanese pianist who I remember liking when she recorded for Blue Note back in the 90's. She reportedly took a sabbatical for several years and suddenly without any fanfare or notice here she is with a new CD on Verve.
   Dave Liebman seems to have suddenly released a bevy of new work in the last couple of months and this Ornette Coleman tribute is the one that has been winding up on a bunch of "Best of 2010" lists.
   The Imani Winds record which I just read about a few days ago on the blog of Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson is a set of classical woodwind pieces written by composers best known for jazz: Wayne Shorter, Jason Moran and Paquito D'Rivera. Iverson really raved about Shorter's piece which is evidently the first classical writing he's ever done. Given that and the high profile Moran has had this past year I'm kind of surprised this work didn't get more attention.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Finally Tooned In

As I hoped for back in October here, Antenna TV came to my cable system this month, even though it didn't seem to fully start until around the 8th instead of January 1 like it was supposed to. With it, came their series of  Columbia theatrical cartoons, Totally Tooned In, which is being shown in a three-hour block from 7 to 10 AM on Saturday mornings. I sat down and watched all three hours today and even though nothing really blew me away, it was still fun watching a shifting melange of over a decade of changing Hollywood animation styles through cartoons I'd never seen before.

The star attraction, of course was Mister Magoo, the studio's one enduring cartoon legend. There was one of his shorts in each half-hour show, which all sported the unique modernist look of UPA Productions.  There was also another UPA-era short by John Hubley, "Family Circus", about a little girl who goes berserk when her new baby brother hogs all of her father's attention. This one had a section of animated crayon drawings that looked pretty unique among all the traditional cartoon antics that surrounded it.

    The earlier work shown seemed to indicate that Columbia's cartoons weren't very different from all the competition before UPA came along. There were shorts from the 30's produced by Charles Mintz that were mostly psuedo-Disney cuteness full of round faced little kids, puppies and other small animals and birds with one dark exception I'll mention later. Cartoons shown from the 40's, particularly with the studio's other stars, The Fox and The Crow, (seen on the left in their comic book forms) were far more full of the aggressive slapstick that was then ruling the roost at places like Warners and Universal. I'm sure that wasn't an accident since I recognized a few names in the credits from other animation studios, one of them no less than Max Fleischer who produced the two Fox and Crow shorts but also composer Darrell Calker who did a lot of the music for Walter Lantz cartoons.

While there were no really outstanding moments in any of these cartoons on first viewing, a few had interesting touches.  In the Fox and Crow short, "Slay It With Flowers" the two get into a nasty fight over Crow eating the seeds out of Fox's garden but stop abruptly when Crow finds out Fox is planting a Victory Garden. (This cartoon was made during World War II.) "Mountain Ears" is a Tex Avery travelogue-style short about hillbillys featuring a narrator with a Jack Benny-style voice who continually argues with a bratty kid on screen. At one point the narrator's supposed hands come on screen and try to catch the kid.

The most impressive cartoon of this particular bunch was "The Little Match Girl", a 1937 Mintz era rendition of the Hans Christian Andersen story.  It was gorgeous to look at, particularly the scenes where the little girl dreams of angels and Heaven and it was no surprise to learn that this short was nominated for an Academy Award. One thing though, the televised print of this went right up to the tragic ending of the story, the little girl freezing to death in the snow but stopped short of showing that. According to Wikipedia, that ending was part of the original cartoon which means sadly that some editing has taken place on a few of these TV versions. I'm not complaining though. I'm just happy that I'm finally getting to see this stuff at all.

Friday, January 14, 2011


This is the time of year when everybody makes resolutions.  I need to make a lot of personal ones which I won't go into here but as far as this blog is concerned I'm going to try to post a lot more frequently (he said on January 14th).

I think my main reluctance in writing here has been feeling like I don't have much to say. I get a bit intimidated when I see the ground covered by a lot of the other film and music blogs I look at. As I said earlier, I don't make it to too many current films in theatres. Right now I know there's True Grit, The King's Speech, Blue Valentine, The Fighter and a few others out there that I would like to see but who knows if I'll get to them.  Music, even limiting it to the Jazz and improvising genres I like most, is an even more overwhelming proposition with scores of CDs from the past and present out there and, despite what people say about the music business dying, more and more coming out every week.

I'm going to try to resolve to not be overwhelmed by every appetizing thing I hear or read about but just deal with what I really have in front of me, the DVDs I rent from Netflix and ClassicFlix, a company that rents older movies including a lot of stuff available through the various studio MOD programs, plus what I have access to through On Demand, cable, and Netflix Streaming. In addition to that, I've actually bought a few things I've yet to completely go through, the set of early Charlie Chase silents I bought last summer at Slapsticon, a set of Stan Brakhage films from Criterion, collections of various public domain genre films and the highly touted box of the Thriller tv show which became a no-brainer purchase once Amazon put it on sale for less than half price.  Since I already review bunches of CDs for Cadence I'm less inclined to write here about the music I'm constantly buying and learning about but I'll try to include some of that too when the mood hits me.

I know I need to do a lot more reaching out in many aspects of my life and it's high time I started treating this blog like a good opportunity to do that.