All posts by Scott T. Rivers


‘All Curly, All the Time’: Reviews of 97 Three Stooges Shorts


In March 1934, Moe Howard, Larry Fine and the brilliant Curly Howard made their mark on popular culture when they entered the realm of the Columbia Short Subjects Department (headed by producer Jules White). A year after their Columbia debut, the Three Stooges were hitting their stride in the two-reel comedy field — thanks to the slapstick mastery of director Del Lord.

My introduction to the Stooges was in September 1969 on Kansas City station KMBC. I was 5 years old and the film was We Want Our Mummy — a total delight from beginning to end. Watching Moe, Larry and Curly for the first time was truly magical and I couldn’t get enough of them. The Flintstones, which followed the Stooges on weekday afternoons, paled by comparison to these live-action cartoons (with sight gags and sound effects galore). A continued success on movie and television screens, the two-reel format proved ideal for the team. The Stooges’ unique brand of physical humor thrived in short spurts.

From a childhood perspective, it was “All Curly, All the Time” no matter where I moved and regardless of what TV station aired the two-reelers. (I didn’t encounter Shemp Howard, Joe Besser and Curly Joe DeRita until the mid-1970s and those TV viewings were relatively brief. Though the show went on after Curly’s debilitating stroke in May 1946, it wasn’t the same.) As I grew older, my tastes in film comedy shifted to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers while the Stooges faded into the background.

The advent of home video in the early 1980s revived my interest in Moe, Larry and Curly and made them even more accessible — particularly since they had not been shown on my local TV station for several years. Jump ‘n the Saddle Band’s 1983 hit “The Curly Shuffle” (which peaked at #15 on the Billboard Hot 100) coincided with the home-video Stooge resurrection. By 1996, Columbia had released all the Curly two-reelers on VHS, including several titles that eluded me during childhood. Today, the entire 1934-1959 output is available on DVD and streaming.

Five decades after my first Stooge sighting, I have revisited the mostly glorious Curly era with brief reviews (including a four-star rating system) of all 97 shorts. Much has been written about the team over the years, but I hope this journey will provide some new insights while bringing back fond memories. Without further ado, let the Golden Age of Stoogery begin!

Woman Haters (May 5, 1934)

A rather inauspicious Columbia debut featuring Larry as the atypical lead and tiresome rhyming dialogue. Nevertheless, this pre-Code musical novelty has its pleasures — notably Marjorie White (who works well with the boys) and the memorable “My Love, My Life, My All.” Polished cinematography by the great Joseph August. Not the worst short by any means, but the next two-reeler will mark a tremendous leap forward.  **½


Punch Drunks (July 13, 1934)

“Pop Goes the Weasel” was not the theme to Punch Drunks, but it should have been. The first Stooge classic delivers a comic knockout, with the team’s immortal characterizations (Moe the arrogant leader, Larry the agreeable middleman, and Curly the childlike force of nature) firmly in place. Originally titled A Symphony of Punches, this 17-minute gem makes Woman Haters look like a glorified audition film. Nice to see Arthur Housman sober for a change.

In 2002, Punch Drunks was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry — the only Stooge short to receive that honor.  ****

Men in Black (September 28, 1934)

“Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard!”

Faster-paced than Punch Drunks yet a bit too frenetic for its own good. The Stooges’ only Oscar-nominated two-reeler (losing to the Technicolor snoozefest La Cucaracha) serves as a warm-up for greater triumphs such as Dizzy Doctors and Calling All Curs. Plenty of laughs, but Moe, Larry and Curly appear somewhat restrained. Though an enjoyable short with its fair share of signature moments, Men in Black does not feature the Stooges at full comic throttle.  ***  

Three Little Pigskins (December 8, 1934)

The first two-thirds of this Depression-era comedy represent vintage Stooges. However, the much-anticipated football climax delivers surprisingly few laughs (No Census, No Feeling did a better job in that department). Though Lucille Ball, Gertie Green and Phyllis Crane receive billing, it’s hard to believe Columbia didn’t give comic heavy Walter Long screen credit in his only Stooge appearance.  *** 

Horses’ Collars (January 10, 1935)

Curly breaks loose in this fifth Columbia short and the results are hysterical. Horses’ Collars has one or two slow spots, yet the overall laugh content surpasses the boys’ previous efforts. Casting “B-western” heavy Fred Kohler as Double Deal Decker was a nice touch. Though alcoholism ended Clyde Bruckman’s directorial career (his last credit was W.C. Fields’ The Man on the Flying Trapeze), he did a fine job on his only Stooge two-reeler.  ***½

Restless Knights (February 20, 1935)

Utilizing the sets from Boris Karloff’s The Black Room gives this medieval spoof a big-budget feel, but the pacing is surprisingly sluggish while the inconclusive ending falls flat. Despite some funny moments (notably Moe and Curly’s wrestling match and the welcome presence of Walter Brennan), one wishes Restless Knights had turned out better. The Stooge debuts of actor Stanley Blystone and director Charles Lamont.  **½

Pop Goes the Easel (March 29, 1935)

Del Lord rules! More than any Columbia director, Lord expanded upon the trio’s slapstick style while making the fastest two-reelers known to man. In terms of pacing, Pop Goes the Easel makes Restless Knights look like it was filmed in slow-motion. A memorable start for the Mack Sennett veteran, but Del and the Stooges were just getting warmed up. Perhaps the only clay fight in cinema history.  ***½


Uncivil Warriors (April 26, 1935)

Curly:  “I was lost! All by myself!”

A Stooge classic with one of my all-time favorite opening scenes. Felix Adler’s gag-filled script matches Del Lord’s razor-sharp direction. Though Curly is pure genius, the Civil War farce provides an equally good showcase for Moe and Larry. Special kudos to the great Bud Jamison as Colonel Buttz. The last film in which the Stooges were billed as “Howard, Fine and Howard” for studio publicity.  ****

Pardon My Scotch (August 1, 1935)

Moe, Larry and Curly have the right stuff for whiskey distribution, but high society remains another matter. The Del Lord winning streak continues in this beautifully constructed two-reeler. Curly’s dinner-time interpretation of “The Dance of the Rolls” — followed by Moe’s eye-poking use of breadsticks — is one of many highlights. Though a familiar supporting player in the Stooges stock company, James C. Morton only received screen credit for this short.  ****

Hoi Polloi (August 29, 1935)

Professor Richmond:  “I reiterate that environment is the keynote of social distinction.”

Professor Nichols:  “Nonsense! Heredity is the backbone of social life.”

For those who have seen the Dan Aykroyd-Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places (1983), this Stooge foray into social satire will undoubtedly be familiar. One of the team’s great two-reelers — miles ahead of the well-intentioned but historically melancholic Half-Wits Holiday. Hilarious moments galore (including a frenzied dance lesson with Geneva Mitchell that was later recycled in 1941′s In the Sweet Pie and Pie) plus some rare underscoring for a Del Lord short.  ****


Three Little Beers (November 18, 1935)

In the annals of comedy shorts, Three Little Beers remains as iconic as Easy Street, Cops and The Music Box. Moe, Larry and Curly hit a comic hole-in-one with a series of wild physical and verbal gags — topped by a destructive climax similar to Buster Keaton’s What! No Beer? (1933). The result is a mini-masterpiece. After four outstanding two-reelers in a row, the Stooges and Del Lord have found their slapstick niche.  ****

Ants in the Pantry (February 6, 1936)

A good start for Jules White’s older brother Jack (better known by his pseudonym Preston Black), who became an inspired yet regrettably short-lived director at Columbia. The Stooges make their debut as “pest men” in a chaotic return to high society. Unfortunately, the tacked-on “fox hunt” goes nowhere — the film should have ended at the 16:27 mark. Termites of 1938 is a definite improvement with a more satisfying conclusion.  ***

Movie Maniacs (February 20, 1936)

Moe:  “There’s a couple of thousand people in pictures who know nothing about it. Three more won’t make any difference.

Del Lord returns to the director’s chair as the boys enter the gates of “Carnation Pictures” and all hell breaks loose. Movie Maniacs has everything but a strong finish — a recurring problem throughout the Curly era. Evocative use of the Columbia backlot in this irreverent look at vintage Hollywood. Character actor Harry Semels has one of his best roles as frustrated director Cecil Z. Swinehardt.  ***½

Half Shot Shooters (April 30, 1936)

A rare misfire from director Preston Black/Jack White and my least favorite Stanley Blystone performance (due to the way his role was written). Clyde Bruckman’s ludicrous storyline is contrived even by Stooge standards. Unlike the boys’ other military shorts, most of the violence is painfully sadistic rather than funny. Legendary comic foil Vernon Dent makes his Stooge debut (he will remain an integral supporting player until his retirement in 1954). Best moment: Curly’s brief vocal interlude while loading the cannon.  **


Disorder in the Court (May 30, 1936)

Moe’s response to Larry’s jungle yell (followed by the proverbial slap): “You’re in a court, not in the woods, Tarzan.”

The quintessential Stooge two-reeler, Disorder in the Court has everything going for it. Moe, Larry and Curly shine in equal measure — complemented by a memorable supporting cast. Preston Black/Jack White’s best directorial effort and the only Curly short that unfolds in real time (no dissolves or wipes necessary).  After decades of variable public domain dupes, the print quality on the Volume One: 1934-1936 DVD is truly impressive. My personal favorite.  ****

A Pain in the Pullman (June 27, 1936)

Or Stooges on a Train. Another Preston Black/Jack White gem, which makes it a shame he stopped directing since he had a wonderfully anarchic style. A Pain in the Pullman is mostly great fun and one of the few times the boys added a pet monkey to the slapstick milieu. More proof that Bud Jamison and James C. Morton were essential members of the Stooges stock company.  ***½

False Alarms (August 16, 1936)

Del Lord’s best 1936 short. Though it lacks an iconic set piece, False Alarms delivers more than enough laughs to compensate for the lack of a proper ending (in John Grey’s original screenplay, the firefighting Stooges attempt to repair captain Stanley Blystone’s car). Blystone has a much better role this time around — especially when compared to his sadistic sergeant in Half Shot Shooters. Only Del could film a frenzied car chase through the streets of Los Angeles. False Alarms also serves as a shining example of why Moe and Larry are a great comedy team in their scenes without Curly. In retrospect, “The Two Stooges” wouldn’t have been a bad idea after Shemp’s death in 1955. (No Besser, no problem.)  ***½

Whoops, I’m an Indian! (September 11, 1936)

Whenever the Stooges venture into the great outdoors, the results are hilarious. Curly’s fishing scene is a highlight and the always-reliable Bud Jamison shines as Pierre (one of his finest roles). If the abrupt ending wasn’t such a letdown, I would rank this as a Stooge classic. In terms of print quality, Whoops, I’m an Indian! lacks the sharpness of the other Columbia two-reelers due to a lost or decomposed negative. There’s always hope that a pristine 35mm print will turn up.  ***

Slippery Silks (December 27, 1936)

Preston Black/Jack White returns with plenty of high-society slapstick. I initially found Slippery Silks rather uneven, but the overall short improves with repeated viewings. The cream-puff battle makes it all worthwhile — even better than In the Sweet Pie and Pie. Vernon Dent and Symona Boniface enjoy their first significant roles in the Stooges stock company.  ***½

Grips, Grunts and Groans (January 15, 1937)

Curly:  “If I’m gonna get beat up, I wanna get paid for it!”

This partial reworking of Punch Drunks has plenty of comic vitality along with some nice interaction between Curly and Larry. The wrestling climax is hysterical — one of the great Stooge endings. Grips, Grunts and Groans may lack the stature of Punch Drunks, but it’s damn funny and moves at a faster pace.  ***½


Dizzy Doctors (March 19, 1937)

Moe, Larry and Curly are “three of the best salesmen that ever saled” in one of the Top 10 Stooge classics. Del Lord made some of the speediest two-reelers in cinema history and Dizzy Doctors moves at warp speed. Charles Nelson’s editing is spot-on (he won an Academy Award for Picnic in 1956) with nary a wasted frame.  If there’s a faster-paced comedy short, I haven’t seen it.  ****

3 Dumb Clucks (April 17, 1937)

Del Lord’s weakest 1937 effort, but still worthwhile — second-tier Stooges are better than none. Curly excels in his only dual role and there’s hardly a dull moment. However, it’s a shame Del didn’t have a bigger budget for the climax, which needed a lavish sight gag (the flagpole climb falls flat). One of those rare shorts in which Curly’s stunt double has a full head of hair.  ***

Back to the Woods (May 14, 1937)

Preston Black/Jack White was an excellent director for the Stooges and it’s a shame Back to the Woods turned out to be his last effort. Slightly overlong, but the laughs keep coming. The recycled ending from Whoops, I’m an Indian! works surprisingly well. Another underrated two-reeler that gets better with age. Ideal viewing for Thanksgiving.  ***

Goofs and Saddles (July 2, 1937)

When it comes to a deck of cards, there is only one “Curly shuffle.” My favorite Stooge western — another two-reel triumph from Del Lord. Solid production values, hilarious support from Stanley Blystone and a surprisingly low slap quotient. Along with Dizzy Doctors, the trio’s best 1937 short.  ****


Cash and Carry (September 3, 1937)

“Gee, Mr. President, you’re a swell guy!”

A genuine anomaly, Cash and Carry emerges as a fascinating blend of slapstick, uncharacteristic sentimentality and New Deal optimism. With Del Lord at the helm, it all works. The first of seven Stooge outings photographed by the great Lucien Ballard. Though I enjoy the film’s offbeat quality, I’m glad the boys didn’t make another two-reeler in this vein. Author Rob King discusses Cash and Carry at length in his essential 2017 book Hokum!: The Early Sound Slapstick Short and Depression-Era Mass Culture.  ***½

Playing the Ponies (October 15, 1937)

A nice change of pace for the Stooges (Larry has a bigger role than usual) with a well-deserved happy ending and a great closing shot. Unlike the Marx Brothers’ incredibly overlong A Day at the Races, you don’t have to sit through bad musical numbers. Director Charles Lamont’s second (and last) Stooge effort — a definite improvement over the lackluster Restless Knights***

The Sitter Downers (November 26, 1937)

Once in a while, a potentially great Stooge comedy ends up being too short. This partial reworking of Buster Keaton’s housebuilding One Week could have used a few extra minutes to deliver a more satisfying wrap-up. Lacking the spectacular finish of Buster’s 1920  classic, the film abruptly ends at the 15-minute mark. Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy and the supporting cast is wonderful.  ***½


Termites of 1938 (January 7, 1938)

Though directed by Del Lord, Termites of 1938 has the imprint of co-producer Charley Chase (the underrated comic genius just started work at Columbia after a 15-year career at Hal Roach Studios) — particularly in terms of underscoring. With exterminators Moe, Larry and Curly mistakenly hired as escorts, the results are impossible to dislike. Memorable support from Bess Flowers in her Stooge debut. The closing gag with the gopher bomb makes for an inspired finale.  ***½

Wee Wee Monsieur (February 18, 1938)

One of the first Stooge two-reelers I remember seeing (who could forget that title?)  and it still holds up. Worth the price of admission for the enduring image of Moe, Larry and Curly as the Three Santas. Placing the trio in the French Foreign Legion makes Wee Wee Monsieur stand out among other Stooge comedies. Great fun in the Del Lord tradition.  ****

Tassels in the Air (April 1, 1938)

The lighthearted rapport between director Charley Chase and the Three Stooges is evident in the first of five Chase-directed shorts. Instead of cheese and perfume, Curly goes wild over tassels. Meanwhile, the boys are mistakenly hired as interior decorators for the nouveau riche (Bess Flowers and Bud Jamison). A Stooge favorite marred by another inconclusive ending, with a sloppy jumpcut in the closing shot. The first Stooge credit for longtime producer Hugh McCollum.  ***½

Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb (May 20, 1938)

A set-bound Stooge romp that never feels claustrophobic thanks to Del Lord’s brisk direction and a steady stream of laughs. The only problem is the jarringly abrupt finish. Time constraints weren’t an issue, since Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb runs a mere 16 minutes. I’m not a big fan of A Missed Fortune (1952), but at least the Shemp remake had a more satisfying conclusion.  ***


Violent is the Word for Curly (July 2, 1938)

What would make the Stooges more out of place than entering the world of academia? The high-water mark of the Charley Chase era — justly famous for Moe, Larry and Curly’s immortal rendition of “Swingin’ the Alphabet.” Plenty of laughs and super service along the way. Columbia used the same gas-station set in Chapter Four of its classic 1938 serial The Spider’s Web . . . except it was called “Dennis Service Station” instead of “Acme.”   ****

Three Missing Links (July 29, 1938)

A lively Stooge debut for director Jules White, with a shout-out to Monte Collins in one of his best supporting roles. No one would rank Three Missing Links among the finest Stooge entries, but the jungle mayhem improves with repeated viewings. Curly is a comedic dynamo, even in a gorilla suit.  ***

Mutts to You (October 14, 1938)

Or Three Stooges and a Baby. A childhood favorite (the inventive dog-washing machine was unforgettable) and a refreshingly offbeat short from director Charley Chase. One of the least violent Curly two-reelers, with a rare happy ending. The only Stooge comedy in which Bess Flowers (“Queen of the Hollywood Extras”) receives screen credit.  ***½

Flat Foot Stooges (December 5, 1938)

After three enjoyable shorts, Charley Chase really drops the ball on this one. Flat Foot Stooges is all over the map . . . and not in a good way. A few standout moments (the gunpowder-eating duck is an admirably bizarre touch) but Chase’s only Stooge screenplay proves an awkward fit. And what the hell happened to the ending? Quite a comedown from the firefighting antics of False Alarms**

Three Little Sew and Sews (January 6, 1939)

Curly:  “Gasoline don’t taste so good since Prohibition. They ain’t so careful like when they use it for makin’ gin.”

Del Lord returns with another Stooge gem. Joining the Navy as tailors, the boys get mixed up with spies and a top-secret submarine. Curly’s pantomime is comparable to Chaplin while the “black” ending is right out of a Warner Bros. cartoon. Three Little Sew and Sews marks the beginning of a remarkable three-year run with the Stooges at their creative peak.  ***½


We Want Our Mummy (February 24, 1939)

One of the greats. The Stooges’ first horror spoof finds Moe, Larry and Curly taking a taxi to Cairo in search of the missing King Rutentuten. Everyone is firing on all cylinders, thanks to an engaging script by Searle Kramer and Elwood Ellman. And, yes, that is Moe’s voice on the taxi radio. James C. Morton’s final Stooge appearance (he died in 1942).  ****

A Ducking They Did Go (April 7, 1939)

Del Lord’s follow-up to We Want Our Mummy doesn’t fare quite as well.  Nevertheless, A Ducking They Did Go is spirited fun — abetted by the Stooges stock company and Lucien Ballard’s glistening cinematography in the pond scenes. The look of infectious joy on Curly’s face after harmonizing with Bud Jamison remains among my favorite Stooge moments. A shame about the recycled footage from A Pain in the Pullman, which makes for a disappointing finish.

Extra Trivia: The Stooges’ last celluloid rendition of “You’ll Never Know Just What Tears Are.”  ***

Yes, We Have No Bonanza (May 19, 1939)

The best Stooge western after Goofs and Saddles (a pity that Shemp and director Edward Bernds never enjoyed the production values of early Del Lord). Curly has one helluva throw when he nails Moe with that rock during the prospecting scene — it never fails to crack me up.  The obvious stunt double for Curly in the climactic chase was regrettable but not ruinous. Nice musical interlude with the Stooges as singing waiters.  ***½

Saved by the Belle (June 30, 1939)

No classic, but considerably better than Charley Chase’s disappointing Flat Foot Stooges. Though it lacks any standout visual gags, the director’s final Stooge two-reeler moves at a breezy pace. Carmen LaRoux and LeRoy Mason provide good support in their only Stooge roles. For the most part, I enjoyed the Chase-helmed shorts and appreciated his offbeat approach to Stooge madness. The comedian’s untimely death in 1940 robbed the team of a valuable filmmaker.  ***


Calling All Curs (August 25, 1939)

A turning point in Stooge history as producer Jules White becomes one of the team’s regular directors. For better and (during the budget-strapped 1950s) worse, he called the shots on more Stooge two-reelers than Del Lord — hanging on until the brutal end with the 1959 stock-footage jamboree of Sappy Bull Fighters.

Calling All Curs is a childhood favorite that showcases Curly at his energetic best (for once, he inflicts some retaliatory punishment on Moe). With the boys running a pet hospital and battling dognappers, it has all the integral elements of a Stooge two-reeler . . . and a Jules White two-reeler. The 1939-40 shorts from Calling All Curs to Rockin’ Thru the Rockies represent White’s best hot streak.  ***½

Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise (October 6, 1939)

Growing up in the early 1970s, this Stooge classic was on a regular after-school rotation. Curly has a remarkable case of wish fulfillment as the boys help Widow Jenkins (Eva McKenzie) save her farm from swindlers. The scene in which Moe and Larry turn Curly into a “human cork” to stop an oil gusher remains among the great Stooge moments. Arguably director Jules White’s best short.  ****

Three Sappy People (December 1, 1939)

“The men you want are Doctors Ziller, Zeller and Zoller.”

Another gem from Jules White. Three Sappy People is a well-oiled slapstick machine with a terrific supporting cast (kudos to Lorna Gray, Don Beddoe and character actress Ann Doran in her only brush with Stoogery) and classy production values. Jules stages a pastry fight for the ages. A rare two-reeler in which Moe, Larry and Curly do not appear in the closing shot.  ***½

You Nazty Spy! (January 19, 1940)

Historically valuable as a political satire (predating Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator by nine months) but not the Stooges at their absolute best. You Nazty Spy! gradually runs out of steam after Moe Hailstone’s famous balcony speech, with the laughs becoming more sporadic in the second half. Even at 18 minutes, the short feels a bit long by Stooge standards. I’ll Never Heil Again (the only sequel of the Curly era) is a definite improvement — funnier, better paced and, most importantly, Moe wears his Hitler mustache throughout.  ***

Rockin’ Thru the Rockies (March 8, 1940)

“Where are those three sun-baked hams?”

This routine but undeniably hilarious two-reeler has more laughs than some of the Stooges’ best-known efforts. Curly is flat-out brilliant while character actress Kathryn Sheldon makes a splendid Nell. A pity that Rockin’ Thru the Rockies was Sheldon’s only Stooge appearance. Though an easy short to overlook among the riches of 1940, there are a few classic set pieces (notably the ice-fishing sequence) and the pace never lets up.  ***½


A Plumbing We Will Go (April 19, 1940)

Another example of why Del Lord remains my favorite Stooge director. A Plumbing We Will Go has everything you could want from Moe, Larry and Curly, with the Columbia two-reel factory at its slapstick apex. As the unfortunate cook, Dudley Dickerson will never be forgotten. When it comes to the 1949 Vagabond Loafers remake, you cannot improve upon perfection.  ****

Nutty but Nice (June 14, 1940)

Director Jules White’s first Stooge misfire. The sentimentality doesn’t work and the “kidnapped father” premise never gels. Moe, Larry and Curly are in top form, but the Clyde Bruckman-Felix Adler script is decidedly lackluster. Easily the weakest 1940 short.  **½

How High is Up? (July 26, 1940)

“Well, it looks like good solid construction.”

The Stooges find work and hilarity on the 97th floor. A funny Del Lord outing as the boys surpass Harold Lloyd in terms of skyscraper heights (with a little help from rear projection). Riveting stuff, even though the sweater routine goes on a bit too long.  ***

From Nurse to Worse (August 23, 1940)

Jules White bounces back. The Stooges venture into the world of insurance fraud with dogs and hospital chases galore. It’s nice to hear Moe’s voice on the police scanner. Compared to later Curly shorts, Jules’ use of stock footage is skillfully integrated and relatively brief. Great fun from beginning to end.  ***½

No Census, No Feeling (October 4, 1940)

Curly:  “Are you married or are you happy?”

The boys do their bit for the U.S. government as census takers and embark on some wild detours. Vintage Stooges all the way, with a football climax superior to Three Little Pigskins. Symona Boniface makes a welcome return as the hostess of an alum-spiked bridge party. Another Del Lord gem that delivers the goods. One of several Stooge two-reelers I didn’t see until the mid-1980s.  ***½

Cookoo Cavaliers (November 15, 1940)

An underrated Jules White effort featuring some of Curly’s best pantomime. Though she appeared in only a half-dozen shorts, Dorothy Appleby was a memorable addition to the Stooges stock company. Except for Moe, Larry and Curly, I cannot think of any film comedian who garnered laughs from operating a beauty salon. However, the vanishing dog is a major continuity error.  ***


Boobs in Arms (December 27, 1940)

Jules White strikes again as the Stooges go to war with hysterically fatal results. This partial reworking of The Fixer Uppers (1935) reveals how the boys could take Laurel & Hardy material and make it their own. Richard Fiske found his signature Stooge role as the combative drill sergeant — it’s hard to believe he was only 24 at the time of filming.  ***½

So Long Mr. Chumps (February 7, 1941)

Our heroes wind up in prison as they search for an “honest man” known as Convict #41144 (played by Stooge regular Eddie Laughton). One of Jules White’s finest directorial efforts, with an inspired Clyde Bruckman-Felix Adler script to match. The interaction between Curly and Moe is nothing short of sublime. Curly’s rock pile “ad lib” remains among the great Stooge endings.  ****

Dutiful but Dumb (March 21, 1941)

“I’m positive about the negative, but a little negative about the positive.”

Photographers Click, Clack and Cluck are sent to Vulgaria where, unbeknownst to them, picture-taking is verboten. Dutiful but Dumb has so many hilarious scenes that the abrupt “What the hell?” ending doesn’t matter. One of Curly’s shining moments on celluloid (oyster stew, anyone?) and the same goes for Bud Jamison. The Three Stooges and Del Lord at the peak of their comedic powers.  ****

All the World’s a Stooge (May 16, 1941)

Despite an uneven John Grey script, All the World’s a Stooge finds the Stooges in splendid form. The dentist scenes fare better than the “child refugee” mayhem. Leiah Tyler emerges as a good sport, but I couldn’t warm up to Emory Parnell as Mr. Bullion (the role cried out for Vernon Dent). Another detriment is the incredibly lame finish — having Mr. Bullion chase the boys with an axe just doesn’t cut it. Flawed but enjoyable.  ***


I’ll Never Heil Again (July 11, 1941)

A minority opinion, but director Jules White’s sequel to You Nazty Spy! improves upon its predecessor. I’ll Never Heil Again moves at an assured pace, delivers more laughs and Moe Hailstone never loses his “personality” (aka Hitler mustache). The inspired closing shot was Stan Laurel’s original “black” ending for Block-Heads (1938), but producer Hal Roach nixed it.  ***½

An Ache in Every Stake (August 22, 1941)

No Stooge fan can disagree with the enduring status of this Curly Classic. Del Lord doesn’t waste a single frame as the Stooges put their own spin on Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box. Curly reaches a new level of comic brilliance when he “shaves” the ice for Vernon Dent’s birthday dinner. Along with Dent, the inspired supporting cast includes Bud Jamison, Gino Corrado, Symona Boniface and Bess Flowers (in her last significant Stooge role). Story and screenplay by Lloyd French, who directed Stan and Ollie’s Busy Bodies and Dirty Work in 1933.  ****

In the Sweet Pie and Pie (October 16, 1941)

I wish I could give In the Sweet Pie and Pie four stars, but it’s difficult to overlook  the clumsy stunt doubling for Curly in the bunk-bed sequence. Even worse, there was no need for the Hoi Polloi stock footage (the film was long enough already).

This brings up an issue regarding producer-director Jules White’s penchant for recycled footage. It’s one thing for Jules to lift a scene from a short he directed, but unethical to lift an entire sequence from Del Lord and not give him credit. Another problem lies in the time span. When Jules utilized a Dizzy Doctors excerpt in From Nurse to Worse, the footage was only three years old and matched well. However, Hoi Polloi was filmed in 1935 and the six-year difference was painfully obvious. Happily, the prison scenes and legendary pie fight easily redeem these missteps.  ***

Some More of Samoa (December 4, 1941)

Curly:  “Beat me, Daddy, down to the floor!”

How can you go wrong with Moe, Larry and Curly as tree surgeons on the isle of Rhum Boogie? This politically incorrect Stooge adventure was never shown on my local TV station — I had to wait until its VHS debut in 1984. A wild romp thanks to its offbeat tropical setting, Some More of Samoa gets better with repeated viewings. Great stuff.  ***½

Loco Boy Makes Good (January 8, 1942)

In this admirable change of pace, the boys transform a nice old lady’s run-down hotel into a lavish nightclub to stave off foreclosure. The film’s second half becomes a Stooge variety show with the trio in splendid form. You can always count on Curly to liven up the dance floor. Jules White’s engaging, fast-paced direction stands in stark contrast to the sledgehammer approach of his later work.  ***½

We have reached the end of the Stooges’ three-year creative hot streak. The remainder of the Curly era will see reduced production values, fewer classics, plenty of good shorts and a fair share of misfires. Sadly, this gradual decline will become more evident in 1945 with the deteriorating health of Curly Howard.

Cactus Makes Perfect (February 26, 1942)

It’s hard to believe Del Lord directed this one. Cactus Makes Perfect starts off strong, then goes downhill. Monte Collins makes an inspired Stooge Mom in the opening scenes. However, once the boys leave home, the short becomes a tired rehash of earlier triumphs. The Stooges are willing, but the material is weak and the production quality below par (with terrible rear projection at the 5:23 mark).  **


What’s the Matador? (April 23, 1942)

The Stooges travel to Mexico in this second-tier effort — highlighted by Curly’s classic bullfight. A childhood favorite solely on the strength of that hilarious sequence. Final Stooge appearances of Suzanne Kaaren and Dorothy Appleby. (Except for Charley Chase’s The Old Raid Mule, all the Columbia shorts featuring Appleby were directed by Jules White.) The ever-reliable Eddie Laughton plays two roles.  ***

Matri-Phony (July 2, 1942)

A troubled production history (the shooting schedule stretched out to three weeks and required some uncredited help from Del Lord) explains the unevenness of Matri-Phony. Nevertheless, the Stooges and Vernon Dent garner some laughs, even though the crab scene is a pale shadow of Curly’s “oyster stew” routine in Dutiful but Dumb. Harry Edwards’ poorly staged ending may be the worst in Stooge history (you can briefly hear the director’s voice on the soundtrack, which would normally be deleted). When considering the comic potential of its Ancient Rome setting, one wishes Matri-Phony had turned out better.  **½

Three Smart Saps (July 30, 1942)

“The wedding bells will start to ring . . .”

With the exception of Loco Boy Makes Good, the best short of 1942. Curly’s rumba with Barbara Slater remains among the great Stooge moments. Larry also gets an opportunity to shine behind the curtain. In terms of plot structure, Three Smart Saps features an inspired cyclical ending — a rarity in Stooge history.  ***½

Even as IOU (September 18, 1942)

A real clunker from Del Lord. This Runyonesque short begins promisingly, then falls apart in a blaze of sickening sentimentality. One of the weakest Curly two-reelers. Watch the far superior Playing the Ponies instead. 


Sock-A-Bye Baby (November 13, 1942)

Or Three Stooges and a Baby, Part II. Always great to see Larry receive more screen time — he deserves it. One of those rare shorts in which Moe and Larry outshine Curly, who seems to lack his usual manic energy. The climactic chase partially compensates for the set-bound claustrophobia (they finally get out of the damn house at the 14-minute mark), which may account for Curly’s somewhat restrained performance. Preferable to sentimental misfires such as Nutty but Nice and Even as IOU***

They Stooge to Conga (January 1, 1943)

If you want Stooge ultra-violence, look no further than They Stooge to Conga. Everyone is at the top of their game in the trio’s best wartime comedy, which makes the *½ rating in The Three Stooges Scrapbook (1982) rather puzzling. The authors base their negative assessment on the infamous climbing-spike gag (which was cut from the TV print I watched on San Francisco station KBHK in the early 1970s). U-boat commander Frederick Giermann would later appear as Sig Ruman’s Nazi assistant in the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca. The last Curly Classic directed by Del Lord, whose remaining two-reelers cannot hold a candle to his earlier work.  ****

Dizzy Detectives (February 5, 1943)

Curly:  “I don’t wanna be dead! There’s no future in it!”

Was the dated Pardon My Scotch stock footage really necessary? Dizzy Detectives could have done without the Jules White padding. Nevertheless, it’s a high-energy short with the boys in splendid form. The only two-reeler from the Curly era in which the Stooges are recruited as police officers.  ***

Spook Louder (April 2, 1943)

Del Lord’s remake of his 1931 The Great Pie Mystery was the first Stooge comedy with a flashback structure. Spook Louder features character actor Charles Middleton in his only Stooge appearance as the butler. (Middleton also had a role in Columbia’s Batman serial around this time.) No classic, but plenty of creepy hijinks — not to mention flying pies.  ***


Back From the Front (May 28, 1943)

One of the few wartime shorts I remember seeing on television in the early 1970s and certainly among the best. Lots of great gags and wonderful support from Bud Jamison, Vernon Dent and Stanley Blystone. Moe’s final Hitler impersonation is a gem. Anyone notice that Curly leaves behind his Navy cap after the boys visit their girlfriends in the opening scene?  ***½

Three Little Twerps (July 9, 1943)

Director Harry Edwards’ second (and last) Stooge two-reeler is a slight improvement over the troubled production of Matri-Phony. The circus setting works better for the Stooges than the Marx Brothers, since I consider At the Circus one of their weakest films. Unfortunately, the short awkwardly begins while paperhangers Moe, Larry and Curly finish harmonizing. A pity their vocal interlude was cut, since the film only runs 15 minutes.  ***

Higher Than a Kite (July 30, 1943)

A lively wartime effort that I missed until its home-video debut in 1993. Larry enjoys some of the spotlight for a change . . . and we get to see Duke York sans monster makeup. Judging by the final shot, Del Lord made the most out of that European backlot street, which also shows up in Wee Wee Monsieur and Dutiful but Dumb. Another reason why 1943 was the last solid year of the Curly era.  ***½

I Can Hardly Wait (August 13, 1943)

No complaints about the first six minutes of I Can Hardly Wait. However, when Curly breaks his tooth, the proceedings become increasingly labored with the laughs fewer and farther between. I didn’t enjoy seeing my favorite Stooge in constant pain. Admittedly, the dream transition is rather imaginative on a visual level, but it’s not enough to salvage this Jules White misfire.  **

Dizzy Pilots (September 24, 1943)

Curly:  “Vice? I have no vice. I’m as pure as the driven snow.”

Set in the “Republic of Cannabeer,” the Stooges (known as the Wrong Brothers) attempt to make aviation history as Moe becomes the victim of some rubbery sight gags. The cartoonish Dizzy Pilots should have ended at the 14-minute mark. Unfortunately, Jules White’s tacked-on stock footage from Boobs in Arms diminishes a potentially great short.  ***

Phony Express (November 18, 1943)

The last Stooge western with Curly at full strength. Surprisingly disjointed for a Del Lord effort, but the laughs keep coming. Bud Jamison provides menacing support as outlaw Red Morgan. Silent-comedy veteran Snub Pollard appears unbilled as the town sheriff when the Stooges take over a traveling medicine show in their own inimitable fashion.  ***

A Gem of a Jam (December 30, 1943)

Ridiculously contrived yet consistently funny. When it comes to the Three Stooges, what more do you want? The boys turn Del Lord’s derivative script into something special. As much as I enjoy the Dudley Dickerson scenes, my favorite moment is Curly’s dance routine with an electrified Moe. Looking back, 1943 was a good year for the Stooges — certainly better than 1942.  ***


Crash Goes the Hash (February 5, 1944)

Director Jules White’s last Curly Classic and a fond farewell to longtime supporting player Bud Jamison (who died in September 1944). Our beloved slapstick icons portray undercover reporters at a swank dinner party where the gags come fast and furious. A welcome throwback to the team’s glory years, including a wild finish with Symona Boniface.  Thanks for the laughs, Bud.  ****

Busy Buddies (March 18, 1944)

Curly:  “Are you casting asparagus on my cooking?”

Though Busy Buddies is uneven, there’s much to enjoy in the first half when the Stooges run the Jive Cafe. Unfortunately, the cow-milking contest (a less-than-ideal comedic premise) simply fizzles. Try though he might, Del Lord’s screenwriting never approached the level of his directorial mastery.  **½

The Yoke’s On Me (May 26, 1944)

A painfully racist wartime outing, I didn’t see The Yoke’s On Me until its DVD debut in 2008. Curly’s fan dance stands out in this sluggish  anti-Japanese short. Moe, Larry and Curly lack their usual spark — weighed down by subpar scripting and direction. Perhaps the most cringeworthy ending of any Stooge two-reeler. 

Idle Roomers (July 16, 1944)

Duke York delivers a hair-raising performance as Lupe the Wolf Man in this horror comedy — one of Del Lord’s more successful efforts as writer-director. Worth the price of admission for the mirror scene between Curly and York. Glamorously talented Christine McIntyre joins the Stooges stock company (she will appear in six Curly-era shorts and emerge as a tremendous asset during the Shemp years). It’s too bad Columbia didn’t pony up the dough for the ending, which is astonishingly weak by Stooge standards.  ***


Gents Without Cents (September 22, 1944)

When I think about Niagara Falls, this short immediately comes to mind. Gents Without Cents was a childhood favorite and I always enjoyed the offbeat musical-comedy approach. A few lulls but generally entertaining, with a strong assist from acrobatic dancers Lindsay, Laverne, and Betty.  ***

No Dough Boys (November 24, 1944)

Compared to The Yoke’s On Me, this politically incorrect two-reeler marks a huge advance. Felix Adler’s wartime script is contrived nonsense, but the Stooges’ high-energy acrobatics and Vernon Dent’s villainous presence make it worthwhile (clumsy stunt doubles notwithstanding). The last Jules White-directed short with Curly in top form.  ***

Three Pests in a Mess (January 19, 1945)

Del Lord’s schizophrenic effort shifts gears from crime noir to traditional scare comedy with yet another unsatisfying wrap-up. Notable for being the only Stooge two-reeler minus a fadeout — instead, we get a jumpcut to the closing logo. The hilarious scene between Curly and seductive Christine McIntyre justifies your viewing time.  **½

Booby Dupes (March 17, 1945)

A partial reworking of Laurel & Hardy’s Towed in a Hole (1932) as the fish-peddling trio “cut out the middle man” by catching their own fish. The last film to feature Curly at full strength and director Del Lord’s penultimate Stooge short (he will return once more for Shemp’s 1948 Shivering Sherlocks). Apart from a contrived beach subplot with Curly, Vernon Dent and beautiful Rebel Randall, Booby Dupes is great fun and criminally underrated. In retrospect, it feels like the end of an era.  ***

Idiots De Luxe (July 20, 1945)

The Stooges venture into the great outdoors (via the Columbia backlot) to calm Moe’s shattered nerves. Idiots De Luxe deserves a few points for its flashback structure and giving Moe the spotlight. However, the results are only sporadically amusing and repeat viewings haven’t made the set-bound hijinks any funnier. Curly is no longer in his prime (especially on a vocal level) but fares better than most of his remaining two-reelers. The car-driving bear gets some of the best laughs.  **½

If a Body Meets a Body (August 30, 1945)

Idiots De Luxe revealed a noticeable decline in Curly’s energy level. Sadly, it gets much worse as the iconic Stooge’s listless performance weighs down this atmospheric remake of The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930). The first time I saw If a Body Meets a Body was on KPLR Channel 11 during a 1985 visit to St. Louis. From the beginning, I noticed something was wrong with Curly (who had suffered the first in a series of minor strokes), which hindered my enjoyment. Even though Moe and Larry have some good moments, I find the “old dark house” antics difficult to revisit.  **


Micro-Phonies (November 15, 1945)

Edward Bernds makes the transition from Columbia sound engineer to writer-director with his first Stooge release (though his third in production order). I have a slight preference for Three Little Pirates, but Micro-Phonies remains a first-rate short. Bernds knocks this one out of the park. Despite his illness, Curly splendidly rises to the occasion when he impersonates Señorita Cucaracha, with an unforgettable vocal assist from Christine McIntyre. Larry and Moe acquit themselves admirably as Señors Mucho and Gusto. The last Stooge appearances of Gino Corrado, Lynton Brent (stock footage notwithstanding), Chester Conklin and Bess Flowers.  ***½

Beer Barrel Polecats (January 10, 1946)

Brewmasters Moe, Larry and Curly:  “We all put the yeast in!”

A troubled production, but for reasons unrelated to Curly’s failing health. Scripted by former Hal Roach writer Gilbert W. Pratt, Beer Barrel Polecats was a reworking of the Laurel & Hardy prison comedy Pardon Us (1931). Shortly before filming, Harold Lloyd gave Columbia the heads-up on his copyright infringement lawsuit against the studio and screenwriter Clyde Bruckman. A one-time Lloyd collaborator, Bruckman recycled the magician’s coat routine from 1932′s Movie Crazy for the climax of Loco Boy Makes Good. As a result of Lloyd’s planned legal action, the scripted prison sequences lifted directly from Pardon Us were deleted and replaced with footage from So Long Mr. Chumps and In the Sweet Pie and Pie. Columbia later settled the suit out of court. (Special thanks to for this information.)

Knowing the actual circumstances behind the tacked-on stock footage, it’s a shame that producer-director Jules White inserted the 1941 prison scenes without coherent thought, re-editing or redubbing. Nevertheless, I would rather revisit Beer Barrel Polecats than sit through Jules’ mostly dispiriting 1946 output. The boys’ unique approach to brewing is a Stooge highlight, with a few brief flashes of the old Curly in the new footage.  **½

A Bird in the Head (February 28, 1946)

Edward Bernds’ directorial debut (released after Micro-Phonies) was this underrated foray into the mad scientist genre. A Bird in the Head might have been a first-rate short if Curly was at the top of his game. However, the relationship between the legendary Stooge and Erik the gorilla works surprisingly well. Curly does his best under the circumstances (he’s more effective at pantomime than dialogue), with Moe, Larry and Vernon Dent picking up the slack.  ***

Uncivil War Birds (March 29, 1946)

When you’re saddled with remaking one of Buster Keaton’s worst Columbia shorts (1939′s Mooching Through Georgia), you know you’re in trouble. Not even Curly in his prime could have redeemed this slow-paced Civil War clunker. Enjoy the opening proposal scene because it’s one of the last times you will see outdoor filming in the Curly era. 

The Three Troubledoers (April 25, 1946)

“Coney Island Curly” becomes sheriff of Dead Man’s Gulch in director Edward Bernds’ uneven sagebrush satire. Christine McIntyre stands out as the damsel in distress, but a woefully underused Larry gets the short end of Jack White’s script. Curly has a few bright moments impersonating the justice of the peace. I’m surprised Bernds didn’t come up with a more satisfying closing shot — after an explosion, the boys run down the street inexplicably unscathed. The last and least of the Curly westerns.  **½


Monkey Businessmen (June 20, 1946)

My favorite 1946 short after Three Little Pirates. Curly was reportedly in terrible shape during the filming of Monkey Businessmen yet he fares better than expected on screen. Writer-director Bernds keeps the proceedings moving at a good clip as Moe, Larry and Curly look forward to “a nice long rest” at Dr. Mallard’s crooked sanatorium. Kenneth MacDonald and Jean Willes make their Stooge debuts, with a memorable assist from veterans Fred Kelsey, Snub Pollard and Cy Schindell. An unappreciated gem.  ***

Three Loan Wolves (July 4, 1946)

Or Three Stooges and a Baby, Part III. The worst two-reeler of the Curly era is devoid of laughs and production value. Three Loan Wolves takes set-bound claustrophobia to painful depths — made even more unbearable by the irritating presence of a child actor who shall remain nameless. Jules White’s heavy-handed direction only emphasizes the deficiencies in Felix Adler’s uninspired screenplay. It’s nice to see Larry as the lead Stooge (poor Curly has little to do) but he deserved a much better film.  *

G.I. Wanna Home (September 5, 1946)

An improvement over Three Loan Wolves, this Stooge exploration of the postwar housing shortage never reaches its full potential — further hindered by a lame bunk-bed climax. Curly displays a little more energy compared to his final Jules White-directed outings. The last Curly short to utilize outdoor locations (evident in the first three minutes at the Columbia Ranch).  **

Rhythm and Weep (October 3, 1946)

Filmed after Three Little Pirates, Curly’s final complete performance includes one more “woo-woo-woo-woo” for the road. Despite a lackluster ending and an erratic Curly (his dialogue delivery is painful to hear), this rare musical-comedy remains director Jules White’s best 1946 release. Gloria Patrice, Ruth Godfrey and Nita Bieber provide the dancing this time around. Inferior to Gents Without Cents, but a welcome change of pace.  **½


Three Little Pirates (December 5, 1946)

Curly’s last hurrah — fondly remembered for the timeless “Maha-Aha” routine and equally memorable knife-throwing sequence. Thanks to Edward Bernds’ assured direction and a lively Clyde Bruckman script, the immortal Stooge rallies back for his best performance since Micro-Phonies. Moe, Larry and a fine supporting cast also shine in this 17th century romp. If the Curly era had ended with Three Little Pirates, it would have been a spirited finale to an impressive body of work.

Extra Trivia: The “Red Hot” pinball machine (complete with “Ye Olde Tilt”) was made by J.H. Keeney and Company in 1940.  ***½

Half-Wits Holiday (January 9, 1947)

As a child, I grew up loving this two-reeler . . . especially the climactic pie fight. However, recent viewings of Half-Wits Holiday have been less enjoyable. Not until the early 1980s did I learn that this reworking of Hoi Polloi was Curly Howard’s swan song as the third Stooge (a massive stroke on the last day of shooting prevented him from taking part in the pie-throwing melee). Except for a few inspired moments during the etiquette and party scenes, Curly’s performance is sad to watch — casting a pall over the entire short.

Given his penchant for stock footage, it’s surprising that director Jules White did not insert a few shots of Curly from In the Sweet Pie and Pie to make the comedian’s absence less conspicuous. By shifting the action to Moe and Larry, the pie fight relies on a few too many edits and awkwardly fades out with Moe washing his hair in the punch bowl — a disheartening finish to the Curly era. On a more positive note, Half-Wits Holiday introduced another longtime member of the Stooges stock company: character actor Emil Sitka. And there’s the classic “Sword of Damocles” encounter between Moe and Symona Boniface.  **


“When we lost Curly, we took a hit,” Larry Fine admitted in a 1973 interview. Jules White went further: “Curly was a great artist,” he said in Ted Okuda and Edward Watz’s The Columbia Comedy Shorts (1986). “Don’t get me wrong, I loved working with Shemp and thought he was a naturally funny guy, but when Curly left, the Stooge comedies were never the same.”

Curly’s early retirement created a void that could not be filled by his gifted older brother Shemp (originally replaced by Curly in 1932 when the trio got slapped around by vaudevillian Ted Healy), a miscast Besser and the serviceable DeRita. Even with Moe and Larry as a constant presence, each replacement made the Stooges feel like a different comedy team.

Beginning with Shemp’s return in Fright Night (1947) and continuing through the final bow of Moe, Larry and Curly Joe in Kook’s Tour (1970), the Three Stooges could still garner laughs. However, they were unable to recapture the surreal inventiveness that Curly brought to their films. “Try to imagine the Marx Brothers without Harpo,” Leonard Maltin wrote in his revised 1985 edition of Movie Comedy Teams. Everyone’s favorite Stooge was sadly missed.

Happily, Curly Howard left us with a more satisfying farewell than Half-Wits Holiday. In January 1947 (five years before his death at age 48), he felt well enough to film a surprise cameo in Hold That Lion: the Stooges’ 100th Columbia short and the only screen appearance of all three Howard brothers. Noticeably thinner and sporting a full head of hair, Curly plays the snoring train passenger discovered by Moe, Larry and Shemp. Lasting 30 seconds with nary a word of dialogue, the signature Curly mannerisms are unmistakable — one last glimpse of the old magic.

Grateful thanks to the Moronika website and the Curly Years discussion forum that helped inspire this article.


Hitchcock and Grant: Darkness Behind the Charm


Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant brought out each other’s best attributes in their four collaborations from 1941 to 1959. Hitchcock was the only director who exposed the dark, brooding side of Grant’s suave image, with a sexual tension that somehow evaded the censors. Grant’s presence, in turn, lent a sophistication and elegance rarely seen in Hitchcock’s other works.

Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959) explored Hitchcock’s themes of concealment, degradation and emotional manipulation. By expanding Grant’s acting range, Hitchcock revealed a dark romanticism behind the charm — screwball humor on the edge of a precipice.

Undoubtedly, both men benefited from their partnership. However, imagine if neither had made Notorious and North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s reputation would have endured regardless, but for Grant, those films were essential. In fact, it was Hitchcock who lured Grant from an early retirement to make To Catch a Thief and, in the process, helped revive the screen actor’s career.

Hitchcock and Grant shared a common bond that became more evident with each successive film. They were lonely, insecure men who came from lower middle-class English backgrounds. Furthermore, both were somewhat fearful of women, perfectionistic in their working methods, and enthusiastic about black humor. These character traits helped provide the foundation of their professional relationship.

The element of danger in Cary Grant first emerged in Suspicion. Cut from the same stylistic cloth as Rebecca, Hitchcock referred to Suspicion as the “second English picture I made in Hollywood.” However, Hitchcock began shooting with an unfinished script, resulting in a troubled production and an uncertain dramatic tone.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

Suspicion: A missed opportunity.

In this disappointing adaptation of Francis Iles’ novel Before the Fact, Hitchcock cast Grant against type as Johnnie — a reckless, irresponsible playboy who later marries the shy Lina (played by an ineffectual Joan Fontaine, who somehow won an Academy Award for her performance). Only after their marriage does the naive Lina discover that Johnnie is a habitual liar and spendthrift with no money of his own. Because of mounting circumstantial evidence, Lina suspects that her husband is a murderer.

At this point, the film deteriorates into an endless charade as Lina’s belief in Johnnie fluctuates between guilt and innocence. Lina’s psychological tug of war becomes ludicrous once it is revealed that Johnnie never was a murderer — thereby negating everything that has come before.

If Hitchcock and Grant had their way, Suspicion would have evolved into a disturbing thriller rather than a missed opportunity. Unfortunately, RKO had other ideas and altered the framework of Suspicion with the same callous insensitivity that marred Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons.

When interviewed by François Truffaut in 1962, Hitchcock expressed dissatisfaction with Suspicion and revealed his original ending: “Cary Grant [was] to bring [Joan Fontaine] a glass of milk that’s been poisoned and [she] has just finished a letter: ‘Dear Mother, I’m desperately in love with him, but I don’t want to live because he’s a killer.’ Then, Cary Grant comes in with the fatal glass and she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to Mother for me, dear?’ She drinks the milk and dies. Fade out and fade in on one short shot: Cary Grant, whistling cheerfully, walks over to the mailbox and pops in the letter.”


The illuminated glass of milk.

Seen today, Suspicion is the weakest Hitchcock-Grant collaboration even without RKO’s interference. Grant’s portrayal lacks the polish and depth that would become evident in his remaining work with Hitchcock. Furthermore, there is an absence of sexual chemistry between the Grant and Fontaine characters. Hitchcock also sensed this lack of rapport and, in future films, made certain that Grant was paired with more romantically compatible costars.

The most intriguing development in Suspicion is Hitchcock’s expansion of Grant’s screen persona. During the film’s first half, Grant plays his scenes in a screwball-comedy manner that often is grating. However, in the second half, Hitchcock slows the tempo of Grant’s performance, thus revealing Johnnie’s sinister undertones. Johnnie emerges as a seductive and sociopathic menace not unlike Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt or Bruno in Strangers on a Train. If Grant (and the studios) had been more daring, he could have played the Joseph Cotten and Robert Walker roles.

Suspicion should be viewed as a blueprint for a more rewarding collaboration: Notorious. Apart from being one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, the film represents Grant’s strongest dramatic performance. His portrayal of Devlin remains so emotionally cold that it leaves no room for his traditional humor. Ben Hecht’s detailed screenplay also includes a self-revelatory comment by Devlin: “I’ve always been scared of women. I’ll get over it.”

Notorious: Grant's finest dramatic performance.

Notorious: Grant’s finest dramatic performance.

In Hitchcock’s cruelest and most disturbing romance, Devlin emerges as an unsympathetic sadist. The counterspy seduces and manipulates Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), an alcoholic nymphomaniac, into helping the U.S. government obtain secrets by marrying the Nazi spy Sebastian (Claude Rains), who actually loves her more than Devlin does.

With the casting of Bergman and Rains, the love triangle in Notorious is similar to Casablanca. However, in Hitchcock’s world, there is no stirring display of patriotism or sentimentality. One feels sorrow for Sebastian when Devlin cruelly locks the car door and drives off with Alicia, leaving Sebastian to face certain death at the hands of his fellow Nazis. Ironically, the humanity of Sebastian makes him a far more sympathetic character than Devlin, who cares little about people, except for the secrets and sexual gratification he can extract from them.

Though Devlin saves Alicia from a poisonous fate, it doesn’t redeem his mean-spirited treatment of her. Even when Devlin tells Alicia that he was “a fat-headed guy full of pain,” it isn’t entirely convincing. Herein lies the brilliance of Hitchcock, who finally strips Grant of his protective charm.

A cruel romance.

A cruel romance.

Notorious should have been the start of a new dramatic phase in Grant’s career. Instead, he played it safe by starring in a succession of comedies from 1947 to 1953. With the exception of his intelligent performances in Richard Brooks’ Crisis and Joseph Mankiewicz’s People Will Talk, Grant avoided serious roles during that period. Much was lost in the process.

Hitchcock’s fortunes waned after the release of Notorious. The filmmaker would not have another major critical and commercial success until Strangers on a Train in 1951. By the time Hitchcock re-established his cinematic artistry, Grant had retired in 1953 after a string of box-office disappointments.

The retirement lasted two years. In the end, it was Hitchcock who convinced Cary Grant to return to filmmaking. The master of suspense gave the actor a script he couldn’t refuse . . . and some Hitchcockian words of encouragement: “There isn’t a thing wrong with you, old man, that a first-rate screenplay won’t cure.  You’d be perfectly splendid in the part. One last thing: Grace Kelly has agreed to play the girl and a good part of the picture will be shot on the Riviera.”

Grant signed on the dotted line and began work on To Catch a Thief (only his second Technicolor feature — the first being 1946′s Night and Day). Hitchcock considered the film a “lightweight story,” yet it remains an important work from one of his most prolific periods. The director’s renewed energy is evident in the vividness of Robert Burks’ cinematography and imaginative use of the newly developed VistaVision process.  Though not terribly suspenseful, To Catch a Thief ranks among Hitchcock’s most stylish and elegant achievements.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Grant in his second Technicolor feature.

Of course, the film’s soufflé-like quality would have collapsed without Grant’s flawless performance. As retired cat burglar John Robie, Grant revitalizes his screen presence. He is not playing Robie so much as he is playing Cary Grant — a suave, debonair man who looks good and knows it. This relaxed self-confidence is exactly what Hitchcock wanted.

The Hitchcock-Grant films utilize sex as a form of seduction and manipulation. To Catch a Thief is notable for the bold eroticism of Francie (played by a stunningly cool Grace Kelly) and her aggressive carnal desire for Robie. The offbeat nature of their romance adds to the lasciviousness, especially when Francie suddenly kisses Robie in the hotel corridor — her libido churning away. As in Notorious, Hitchcock effectively films Grant from behind in this brief encounter, making him the center of attention by focusing on the magnetism the viewer cannot see. When Grant turns to the camera, the look of bemused satisfaction on his face remains priceless.

Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto credited To Catch a Thief for its “classic Freudian notion of sex as larcenous” — a theme the director further developed in Psycho and Marnie. Most apparent is Hitchcock’s equation of jewelry to women’s bosoms, especially during Robie’s foray at the gambling tables and the now-classic “fireworks” sequence. When Francie invites Robie to her hotel suite, he knows what she is after and vice versa: “Look — hold them. Diamonds! The only thing in the world you can’t resist.”

Sex as larceny in To Catch a Thief.

Sex as larceny.

For Hitchcock, the fireworks scene in To Catch a Thief represented the cinematic equivalent of sexual rapture. “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful,” he told Truffaut. “If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense. Sex should not be advertised.”

Hitchcock’s fascination with the paradox between the inner fire and cool surface reached its apex in North by Northwest — his last collaboration with Grant.  In this legendary cross-country chase-thriller, both men were at their artistic zenith.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman crafted a story that he called “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” — incorporating various ideas and set pieces that Hitchcock never could fit into his previous films. Most important, the role of complacent ad executive Roger Thornhill was written specifically for Grant, who could combine fear and desperation with a light comedic touch. Without Grant, it’s unlikely Hitchcock would have made North by Northwest.

Once again, Hitchcock uses Grant’s charm in a dark and manipulative fashion. However, it is Thornhill who falls victim to a series of unpredictable, nasty surprises. North by Northwest emerges as Hitchcock’s belated revenge on the Grant persona.

The surreal Mount Rushmore climax.

Interestingly, the film has been described as an unofficial sequel to Notorious with its psychosexual relationships and espionage sacrifices. Unlike previous Hitchcock-Grant efforts, North by Northwest evolves into a travelogue of the absurd. Thornhill is mistaken for a man who doesn’t exist and spends most of the film trying to track down the elusive “George Kaplan.”

Nowhere is this surrealism more evident than during the Mount Rushmore climax, with its mind-boggling urgency leading to Thornhill’s moment of truth. The final seconds not only are a moral redemption for Thornhill in his rescue of double agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) but also one of sexual fulfillment — emphasized in the suggestive closing shot. It is fitting that the final Hitchcock-Grant thriller ends happily.

With so much written about the Mount Rushmore and crop-duster chases, the auction sequence tends to get lost in the shuffle. This beautifully written set piece is tailor-made for Grant’s unique talents.

The auction scene works on several levels. First, there are elements of sexual blackmail and enslavement — another parallel to Notorious — emphasized in the tension between Thornhill, Eve and Van Damm (James Mason), with Eve emerging as the object of value. Also evident is the surprisingly mature love-hate relationship between Thornhill and Eve, who plays conflicting roles throughout the film. (Saint deserves recognition as Grant’s finest Hitchcockian costar — sophisticated and sensual, yet ice-cold and dangerous. Unlike Francie in To Catch a Thief, Eve is more subtle in her sexual desire.)

“I’ll bet you paid plenty for this little piece of sculpture. She’s worth every dollar.”

After Eve and Van Damm depart from the auction, Thornhill again must use his ingenuity and performing skills to extricate himself from yet another predicament (not unlike Robert Donat’s improvised political speech in The 39 Steps). When Thornhill begins his outlandish bidding, the scene turns into a rare display of “screwball suspense” — nonconformist humor with a menacing undercurrent that captures the essence of Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek thriller.

In retrospect, it was easy to see why North by Northwest became Cary Grant’s last film with Hitchcock. At 55, Grant managed to look younger than James Stewart in Vertigo, but knew his days as a leading man were coming to an end. By the time he made Stanley Donen’s pseudo-Hitchcock thriller Charade in 1963, Grant was unable to disguise his age — nearing 60, he looked too old as a romantic hero. When Grant turned down the lead in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, it was because he no longer could play “Cary Grant.” Unwilling to make the transition to character roles, Grant retired for good in 1966.

Though directors such as Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks helped unearth the full range of Grant’s comic talents, it was Hitchcock who discovered the darkness that lurked within the actor’s seemingly carefree and debonair persona. Only with Hitchcock could Grant afford to take risks. Hitchcock, in turn, transformed the elegant film star into a complex screen legend. From a director-actor standpoint, they were a perfect match.


The Vision of Buster Keaton


The inimitable Buster Keaton has been acknowledged by some cinema historians as the master of silent-film comedy — surpassing Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  When examining his creativity throughout the 1920s, Keaton was a groundbreaking filmmaker whose somber but determined vision produced an enduring body of work.

Keaton’s stoic persona defied mainstream cinema as he transcended silent comedy by venturing into more dramatic territory.  This progression is evident when viewing three Keaton-directed features in chronological order:  Seven Chances (1925), Battling Butler (1926) and The General (1926).  Each film is distinctive in its comedic tone and cinematic style, while showcasing Keaton’s evolution as an artist.

Seven Chances is an example of Keaton placing his own personal and stylistic imprint on material not specifically tailored for him.  In fact, the premise seems ideal for Harold Lloyd:  on a certain day, a stockbroker belatedly discovers he will inherit $7 million if he marries by 7 p.m. that evening, yet only has a few hours remaining.  Under Keaton’s direction, what could have been a traditional thrill comedy emerges as a surrealistic nightmare brought to life.  It also reveals the epic scope of his filmmaking.

Like many of his features, Seven Chances maintains a natural tempo that enhances the humor of its individual scenes, particularly during the various proposals and rejections that Keaton encounters on his way to the altar.  In the words of Keaton biographer Rudi Blesh, the film begins “slower than other comedians and ends twice as fast.”

This deliberate, methodic pacing builds to one of the great climaxes in movie history, with hundreds of potential brides — and an avalanche of boulders — chasing Buster through the Southern California landscape.  Filmed entirely on location and utilizing expansive long shots, this 20-minute sequence is propelled by Keaton’s stunning athleticism and remarkable editing precision.

Ruthless romance in Seven Chances.

In a 1965 interview with British film critic John Gillett, Keaton described how he shot the spectacular chase: “When I’ve got a gag that spreads out, I hate to jump a camera into close-ups.  So I do everything in the world I can to hold it in that long-shot and keep the action rolling.  . . . Close-ups are too jarring on the screen and can stop an audience from laughing.”

Keaton seamlessly fuses his deadpan expressiveness with an expert command of the film medium.  In Seven Chances, he transforms a stage farce into a thought-provoking examination of ruthless romance in which deadly boulders are preferable to devouring women.  The film equates pain with redemption and reveals the seriousness of Keaton’s comic art.

The same can be said of Battling Butler, which was the closest Keaton ever came to making a dramatic film.  Though regarded by contemporary critics as one of his weaker efforts, Battling Butler was among Keaton’s personal favorites and made more money than any of his silent features.  The film also broke new ground in its directorial style and depth, thus paving the way for his masterpiece, The General.

Though a traditional Keaton comedy on the surface, Battling Butler has a subdued, gentle tone that eventually erupts into violent rage.  Buster plays foppish and pampered Alfred Butler, a millionaire’s son who falls in love with a country girl while camping in the mountains.  To gain acceptance from the girl’s family, he is willing to be mistaken for heavyweight boxer Battling Butler, who is training nearby.  The sadistic champ soon learns about the ruse and schemes to annihilate Alfred.

Rather than stage a humorous fight, director Keaton plays it straight with effective results.  Alfred receives a brutal beating in the champ’s dressing room as the girl watches.  The blows are painful.  Bloodied and humiliated, Alfred looks into the girl’s terrified eyes.  What follows is perhaps the most chilling of all Keaton transformations, as the weakling Alfred lashes out at the champ — knocking the boxer to the floor several times.  Alfred wins a personal victory and the girl’s love as he walks down the streets of New York wearing his top hat and boxing trunks.

A chilling Keaton transformation.

Despite the upbeat finish, Alfred’s abrupt change in personality lingers in the mind.  For the first time, Keaton “permitted comedy to give way to a greater urgency,” Walter Kerr observed in his 1975 critical study The Silent Clowns.  ”We have seen him be extraordinarily funny in a boxing ring earlier. Now, in the film’s closing reel, he suddenly seems no comedian at all.”

Keaton had the ability to step out of genre as an actor and filmmaker.  Battling Butler confirms this rare dramatic quality with its realistic fight sequence, which influenced Martin Scorsese when he directed Raging Bull (1980).  Like Keaton, Scorsese made certain his camera stayed in the ring. “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies was Buster Keaton,” he told biographer Marion Meade in 1995.

Clyde Bruckman, one of Keaton’s co-writers, was so impressed by Battling Butler that he gave Keaton a copy of William Pittenger’s 1863 book The Great Locomotive Chase.  It became the inspiration for The General — Keaton’s greatest feature (with Bruckman credited as co-director) and a cinematic masterpiece.  More than 93 years since its initial release, the film endures as a truly unique work that continues to resonate through generations.

Historians and critics often overlook Keaton’s ambition as a filmmaker.  Though Chaplin shot most of The Gold Rush (1925) in the studio, 90 percent of The General was filmed on location in Oregon.  In his quest for perfection, Keaton told his crew, “It’s got to be so authentic it hurts.” The result, in many respects, is the definitive Civil War epic, with Dev Jennings and Bert Haines’ superb cinematography evoking the photographic naturalism of Mathew Brady.

An independent filmmaker during most of the 1920s, Keaton had all the Hollywood resources at his disposal to create a very personal work not unlike Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) — commercial considerations be damned.  In retrospect, The General reveals as much about Keaton as it does the historic subject matter.

Keaton’s masterpiece: The General.

Welles was a great admirer of Keaton and praised The General on the 1971 PBS series The Silent Years:  “I think it’s the Civil War movie. Nothing ever came near it, not only for beauty but for a feeling of authenticity. Yet this is a farce — a farce without Chaplinesque sentiment, but imbued with a real and very curious sort of dignity.  . . . It’s a hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With the Wind.”

The General represents the ultimate fusion of man and machine, with the Civil War serving as a seriocomic backdrop in this larger-than-life escapade.  The film is an inventive chase through history while showcasing Keaton’s mastery of props and characterization.  “Think slow, act fast” was his modus operandi.

A recurring Keaton theme is the triumph of the outsider who relies on his own devices.  As engineer Johnnie Gray, Keaton overcomes elaborate obstacles in a world where the illogical appears logical.  He has the determination to fight terrible battles and prove his mettle to a society that initially rejects him.  Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, the emotionally detached Keaton has no time to feel sorry for himself — he must keep going.  Life has become an endless chase.

Inevitably, the chase must end.  The final scenes in The General represent those few opportunities where the Keaton persona stands still and reflects upon his accomplishments.  Johnnie Gray finds love, redemption and a military rank, but only after a grueling journey.  It seems that all Keaton characters must pay an emotional and physical price before they achieve success.

To realize his cinematic vision, Buster Keaton created an enigmatic and inventive universe that knew no bounds.  Through the tragicomic wisdom of Seven Chances, Battling Butler and The General, viewers may envision themselves in these surrealistic battles — running and fighting for their lives.  Such is the timeless poetry of Keaton, whose films move beyond the realm of slapstick comedy to reveal an expansive, darker portrait of American individualism.


The West of Fritz Lang


“I love westerns [because] they are based on a simple and essential ethical code,” Fritz Lang said in a 1959 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “The struggle of good against evil is as old as the world.”

Lang’s westerns are unique in cinema history.  The Return of Frank James (1940), Western Union (1941) and Rancho Notorious (1952) offer rugged individualism that differs from the epic grandeur of John Ford and Howard Hawks, thereby paving the way for the 1950s psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher.  The Austrian-German director utilizes the genre to study the nature of revenge, corruption, redemption and loss — recurring themes throughout his 41-year career.

How did an influential filmmaker find a niche in westerns?  First of all, Lang was fascinated by the American West and understood its mythology. “The western is not only the history of this country, it is what the Saga of Nibelungen is for the European,” he explained in Peter Bogdanovich’s critical study Fritz Lang in America (1967). “The development of this country is unimaginable without the days of the Wild West.”

Lang also was intrigued by the American Indian culture and lived on a Navajo reservation for several weeks in 1935 while MGM kept him on hold and waited for his one-year contract with the studio to expire.  However, the director fought back and soon made Fury (1936), a disturbing study of mob rule and obsessive vengeance — social themes that would be explored in his westerns.

In 1940, Darryl Zanuck gave Lang the opportunity to make his first western for 20th Century-Fox, a sequel to director Henry King’s Jesse James (1939).  When asked why he allowed Lang to make a western, the producer responded, “Because he’ll see things we don’t.”

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Western noir in The Return of Frank James.

Zanuck was correct in his assessment.  The Return of Frank James can be considered one of the first noir westerns. Lang’s attention to detail and atmosphere dominates this unusual tale of revenge.  The film has a look and feel unlike any western of the period as he elevates the genre to a higher visual and moral plane.

The Return of Frank James also marked a cinematic advance for Lang with its use of Technicolor and location photography, resulting in some magnificent shots of the High Sierras.  For a largely studio-bound filmmaker, this was literally a breath of fresh air.

Lang liked the Frank James script and had the freedom to make what few changes he deemed necessary.  However, due to the restrictive Production Code, the character of Frank James (reprised by Henry Fonda) was unable to seek retribution for his brother’s murder and, in fact, did not kill a single individual.  Instead, the men who killed Jesse — Bob and Charlie Ford — die by other means.

At its core, The Return of Frank James examines the struggle of the individual (Frank) versus the system (the railroad company).  Lang opens his film with the last scene from Jesse James (an interesting parallel to the director’s two-part Die Nibelungen saga) as the traitorous Ford brothers shoot Jesse in the back.  After a noirish montage of newspaper headlines trumpeting Jesse’s death, Frank is found enjoying a farmer’s life of peace and anonymity.  He is a man reluctant to seek revenge.  “There ain’t gonna be no trouble,” he assures his youthful friend Clem (Jackie Cooper).

Frank (Henry Fonda) watches the re-enactment of his brother’s murder.

However, this relative calm proves short-lived when Frank learns that the governor of Missouri has pardoned the Fords.  Twisting the blade further, the brothers receive the reward money.  Since it was the railroad’s money that “put Jesse in his grave,” Frank (in a subtle form of revenge) decides to rob the company in order to finance his Ford expedition, which takes him to Denver.

In one of the film’s best scenes, Frank attends a theatrical production in which the “heroic” Ford brothers re-enact Jesse’s murder.  Sitting in a darkened balcony, Frank watches the melodrama unfold and rises to let his presence be known.  When the cowardly Fords see Frank, they run in terror.

What follows is a picturesque chase through the Sierras — a spectacular action sequence that reveals Germanic atmosphere in Lang’s architectural rock formations and his use of dead trees in the foreground. The chase ends in a gunfight between Frank and Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen), which results in Charlie falling to his death.  Lang’s omission of background music and dialogue strengthens the tension and excitement of this scene — nothing is heard but the sound of gunfire.

At the halfway mark, the story takes an unexpected turn when Frank abruptly ends his quest for Bob Ford (John Carradine) and returns to Liberty, Missouri, in order to save his servant Pinky (Ernest Whitman) who was framed for murder by the railroad company.  The film unexpectedly evolves into a bitter and sometimes comical courtroom battle which ends in Frank’s exoneration by Southern sympathizers.  The Civil War resentments between the Northern prosecution and the Southern defense are startling; at one point, Frank’s attorney (who works as a newspaper editor) calls the railroad detective “Yankee scum.”

French poster.

French poster.

Once Frank is acquitted, he is free to track down Bob Ford.  However, an off-camera gunfight occurs in which Clem dies after shooting Ford.  What follows is the film’s most noirish scene as Frank confronts the mortally-wounded Ford in a darkened barn.  From a psychological perspective, Lang’s ominous and foreboding interior settings reveal Ford’s dying moments as those of a trapped animal.  When Frank finds Ford’s body, he has the satisfaction of seeing his brother avenged:  “That’s the other one, Jesse.”

The Return of Frank James ends optimistically with Frank returning to his Missouri farm, though Lang offers a provocative image in the final shot.  Riding out of town, Frank passes a tattered “wanted” poster of the James brothers; the wind strips away the names of Frank and Jesse as the film fades out.

Lang’s attention to historic and human details also play an integral role in Western Union — a fictitious account of the telegraph line’s evolution in the 1860s. Generally acknowledged as the first epic-scale western in Technicolor, the 1941 Fox production is the most conventional of Lang’s Hollywood endeavors.  Regrettably, producer Zanuck decided that Lang should film Robert Carson’s exposition-heavy screenplay as written.  Had the director been allowed to make his proposed script changes, Western Union might have emerged as a darker, less formulaic western.

Despite the excessive comic relief and overemphasis on romance, Lang was able to incorporate some of his fatalistic vision into the proceedings, embodied by the character of Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) — a reformed outlaw hired as a scout for the telegraph company. Lang’s individual shadings add moments of realism to what could have been an overblown Cecil B. DeMille-type spectacle.

Robert Young, Fritz Lang and Randolph Scott during the filming of Western Union.

Fritz Lang directs Robert Young and Randolph Scott.

Once again, Lang shot on location — utilizing portions of Kanab, Utah, and Arizona’s House Rock Canyon.  Compared to The Return of Frank James, the landscape of Western Union is more expansive with its canyon ranges and jagged desert rocks.  However, the interiors remain appropriately Langian.

Western Union is a standout among Lang’s westerns for its emphasis on technological progress and the coming of civilization.  In one scene, Shaw tells outlaw leader Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), “You can’t fight a thing as big and important as the Western Union.”  Symbolically, the telegraph’s arrival marks the beginning of the West’s demise.

Lang depicts Indian culture in a mostly sympathetic light.  Shaw takes a more pacifist approach towards the Indians than his romantic rival, Richard Blake (Robert Young), a naive Easterner who prefers killing the “savages.”  There is a great moment when Shaw knocks out Blake after the city slicker unnecessarily shoots an inebriated Indian.

Later in the film, Shaw and telegraph boss Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) receive the tribal chief’s permission to extend their wire through Indian territory. However, in Lang’s work, nothing is what it seems. After “Indians” attack the telegraph crew, it turns out they are members of Slade’s gang in disguise.  The outlaws call themselves “guerrillas for the Confederacy” — opportunists who exploit the Civil War by justifying their criminal acts.

Foreboding darkness in epic-scale Technicolor.

In the film’s most impressive action scene, Slade and his gang ignite a devastating forest fire that encircles the company camp.  It is an elaborate, studio-created blaze that rivals the flood in Metropolis (1927).  Lang’s use of color provides a brilliant fusion of flames and shadow, which makes for a terrifying sequence.

For all its epic grandeur, the narrative force of Western Union lies in Shaw’s moral struggle. Predictably, Shaw finds himself in the middle of the Slade/Western Union conflict and, because of his past, does not fully side with the telegraph company.  Only after Creighton fires Shaw does the reformed outlaw reveal that Slade is his brother, thereby leading to the obligatory showdown between Shaw and Slade — a Cain and Abel parallel that leads to Shaw’s death and redemption.

As in The Return of Frank James, Lang’s directorial touches lend a naturalistic quality to the Shaw/Slade shootout. “There is one scene in which [Shaw] — who has had his hands burned in a forest fire and has them bandaged — goes to the traditional last fight,” Lang told Bogdanovich in Fritz Lang in America. “[Shaw] takes the bandages off his right hand, and stretches his fingers to see if they are usable for the draw. This is the kind of touch that makes people believe in things.”

Randolph Scott as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Randolph Scott’s breakthrough role as reformed outlaw Vance Shaw.

Ironically, Western Union features the most expressionistic shot in Lang’s westerns.  In a stark composition, the viewer sees Shaw’s grave with telegraph poles standing sentinel in the background.  The inscription on the grave reveals that Shaw was buried as an employee of Western Union.  It is a tragic yet fitting conclusion.

Western Union was an influential film in its breakthrough casting of Randolph Scott.  As Vance Shaw, the actor revealed a darker edge that later would be explored in his collaborations with director Budd Boetticher.  Lang was the first filmmaker to recognize these brooding qualities in Scott (just as Alfred Hitchcock later would discover the same undertones in Cary Grant).

The commercial success of Western Union enabled Lang to return to the psychological thrillers that best suited him.  Another decade passed before he again directed a western — this time for RKO.  Rancho Notorious was Lang’s last western and, in many ways, his finest.  One of his bleakest works, the film also served as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, whose inimitable screen presence almost verged on self-parody.

Rancho Notorious is a perverse, stylized B-movie that distorts reality in its use of artificial backdrops and shadowy interiors.  Though largely a set-bound film, Lang reveals a painter’s eye in his moody, ominous shots of the sky and landscape.  (The exteriors may have been second-unit work, but the look is distinctively Langian.)  There also are expressionistic camera angles and grim close-ups that depict a claustrophobic, emotionally repressed environment.

A Langian dissolve.

Film scholar Jim Kitses observed in his influential 1969 book Horizons West that “strange and powerful works such as Rancho Notorious have been refused entry [into the genre] because they are somehow ‘not westerns.’  This impulse may well be informed by a fear that unless the form is defined precisely . . . it will disappear, wraith-like, from under our eyes.”

It is ironic that critical limitations were placed on the most expansive of film genres. With the exception of Western Union, none of Lang’s westerns are considered “traditional” works. Rancho Notorious defies rigid generalization and compares favorably to the artistry of director Anthony Mann. In Lang’s films, as well as those of Mann, fate deals the hero a nasty blow; however, with Lang, there is less emphasis on the hero’s struggle to resolve his own psychological malaise.

As in Mann’s work, there is a sense of loss that pervades Rancho Notorious, beginning with the murder of Vern Haskell’s (Arthur Kennedy) fiancée and his endless, obsessive quest for her killers.  The film’s flashback sequence emphasizes Altar Keane’s (Dietrich) faded glamour and social standing, though her mystique remains intact.  Finally, there is outlaw Frenchy Fairmont’s (Mel Ferrer) loss when Altar takes the bullet meant for him.

The criminal hideout of Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich).

Rancho Notorious incorporates elements of sadism and sexuality that became more prevalent in 1950s westerns.  There is the symbolic inference of rape when Vern’s fiancée reluctantly opens the safe while Kinch menaces her; after her murder, the doctor tells Vern that “she wasn’t spared anything.”  During the flashback sequence, we see Altar and the other dance-hall girls participating in a “horse race” with the saloon customers.  Later in the film, Frenchy and Vern engage in a shooting competition that suggests phallic symbolism.   When Vern equates Altar’s bedroom to a morgue before the final gunfight, the sexual expressiveness is complete.

Lang also wreaks vengeance on Hollywood’s Production Code by making revenge an integral part of the story, even though Vern does not kill the men responsible for his fiancée’s murder. “The revenge theme was so dominant that it could not be diverted, and was allowable because virtually everybody wound up dead,” film historian William K. Everson wrote in his 1992 book The Hollywood Western. “It was surely no coincidence that a ballad sung during the credits concluded with the emphasized words ‘hate, murder and revenge’ just as the credit ‘Directed by Fritz Lang’ flashed on screen.”

Social status plays an ironic role in this film.  At one point, it is noted that Altar prefers cowpunchers to cattle barons.  In fact, she forms a community of outlaws at the “Chuck-a-Luck” ranch not unlike the criminal organization in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse series.  Along with her dominance and self-assurance, Altar speaks the film’s most philosophical line: “Time is stronger than a rope.”

Spanish herald.

Spanish herald.

There are two communities in Rancho Notorious: “Chuck-a-Luck” and the corrupt town of “Gunsight.”  Despite the town’s emphasis on upholding the law, the sheriff is in cahoots with the disgraced politicians (“Give me an outlaw to these thieves anytime,” Vern says) and later is voted out of office in the “Citizens vs. Law and Order” election.  Nevertheless, evil dominates, especially when the law is not carried out to its full extent.

What makes Rancho Notorious a pessimistic western is Lang’s belief that man remains a lost individual resigned to his own fate.  In the final analysis, the West of Fritz Lang represents an emotional wasteland as Vern and Frenchy ride off in mourning to face an uncertain future. “We all get taken sooner or later.”


Technicolor Popeye


By the time animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer lost their studio to Paramount Pictures in May 1941, the best Popeye entries were behind them. Paramount renamed the operation Famous Studios in 1942 (retaining most of the key Fleischer personnel) and forged ahead with its breadwinning cartoon star. However, Max and Dave’s creative spark was sorely missed.

Though the wartime adventures brought Popeye a welcome relief from Disney-style conformity, what became evident during the Fleischer/Famous transition was the domestic blandness that surrounded Elzie Segar’s spinach-eating hero — resulting in mediocre fare such as Happy Birthdaze (1943). Fortunately, the long-running series would enjoy an upswing in quality when Famous switched from black-and-white to Technicolor.

After decades of faded TV prints (Paramount sold its color Popeye library to Associated Artists Productions — better known as a.a.p. — for syndication in 1957), the Famous one-reelers have been gloriously resurrected in Warner Archive’s long-overdue Popeye the Sailor: The 1940s, Volume 1. Remastered from the original 35mm Technicolor negatives, the uncut 1943-45 cartoons on this Blu-ray look absolutely stunning. The colors leap off the screen and there are no a.a.p. logos in sight.

Of course, these Famous shorts did not represent Popeye’s first foray into Technicolor. That distinction belonged to Fleischer’s elaborate two-reel specials:  the Oscar-nominated Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937) and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939).

We're on Our Way to Rio

We’re on Our Way to Rio

Famous evoked the lavishness of the Fleischer two-reelers with its third color Popeye release, We’re on Our Way to Rio (1944). A full-fledged musical extravaganza, this eight-minute gem finds Popeye and Bluto at a Brazilian nightclub, where they encounter an Olive Oyl-inspired dancer singing the infectious “Samba Lele.” Determined to win over the Latin dancer by eliminating the romantic competition, Bluto falsely promotes Popeye as a samba champion. Thanks to a spinach-fueled transformation, Popeye becomes a skillful dancer and gives Bluto a nicely choreographed thrashing.

Everything clicks in We’re on Our Way to Rio — highlighted by the vibrant animation of Jim Tyer, Ben Solomon and William Henning, with a strong assist from composer Winston Sharples. It should be noted that Isadore Sparber and Seymour Kneitel, the credited directors of the 1943-45 Popeye entries, were supervising producers while head animators such as Tyer, Dave Tendlar and Graham Place served as de facto directors.

One of the few Famous Popeyes to hold its own with Fleischer’s vintage 1933-38 output, We’re on Our Way to Rio would have been a stellar achievement for any animation studio. However, Paramount was more supportive of George Pal’s acclaimed “Puppetoon” series, which earned the stop-motion pioneer a special Oscar in 1944. Though many Famous cartoons were submitted for consideration, the studio never received a single Academy Award nomination in its 25-year history. None of this mattered to Paramount, whose only concern was the bottom line — making certain Famous avoided the financial woes that were a contributing factor to the demise of Fleischer Studios.

She-Sick Sailors

She-Sick Sailors

Despite Paramount’s “business as usual” indifference, Famous produced some of its best work during this period. Among the remaining 13 shorts in this Blu-ray collection, She-Sick Sailors (1944), Shape Ahoy (1945) and Mess Production (1945) come the closest to matching the excellence of We’re on Our Way to Rio.

She-Sick Sailors is the classic Superman parody in which a clean-shaven Bluto impersonates the Man of Steel to impress Olive . . . and viciously mows down Popeye with a machine gun! (Naturally, the bullets are lodged in his spinach can.)  Co-written by Felix the Cat creator and legendary animator Otto Messmer, the cartoon remains great fun. Sammy Timberg’s rousing Superman theme from the 1941-43 Fleischer/Famous series makes a welcome return.

Vigorously directed by Tyer, Shape Ahoy offers a rare opportunity to see Popeye and Bluto as bosom buddies until they discover castaway Olive on their “men’s only” island. The short boasts a vivid Technicolor palette, several funny moments and a “blow me down” surprise ending. Unfortunately, this rambunctious energy would later vanish from the Famous Popeye series.

Shape Ahoy

Shape Ahoy

In terms of overall artistry, Mess Production could be mistaken for a genuine Fleischer cartoon. Set in a wartime steel factory, Popeye and Bluto vie for the attention of co-worker Olive with unexpected (and dangerous) consequences. The detailed animation and industrial backgrounds are truly impressive — further enhanced by Sharples’ memorable score.

The Anvil Chorus Girl is a significant Popeye release. Apart from being the first Famous remake of an earlier Fleischer short (Shoein‘ Hosses), this 1944 outing marked Jackson Beck’s debut as the voice of Bluto, with Mae Questel returning as Olive Oyl after a six-year absence.  The inimitable Jack Mercer continued to voice Popeye — a job he began in 1935 with King of the Mardi Gras. A talented and indispensable trio, Mercer, Beck and Questel also worked on the King Features TV cartoons in the early 1960s.

As retreads go, The Anvil Chorus Girl was one of the better efforts and a solid cartoon in its own right. However, most Famous Popeye remakes were comparable to 1945′s For Better or Nurse — an energetic but less amusing rehash of the Fleischers’ Hospitaliky (1937). Even worse, the Famous version adds a dreadful “twist” ending that negates the entire short.

Puppet Love

Puppet Love

Far superior is Puppet Love (1944), an inventive change of pace from the usual Popeye formula. Written by Joe Stultz and directed by Tyer, the results are truly bizarre as Bluto creates a life-size Popeye marionette to make his rival look bad during a rendezvous with Olive. Not exactly kid-friendly (Popeye gets ready for the big date by painting his toenails!), the cartoon remains a particular favorite among animation historians.

Pitchin’ Woo at the Zoo (1944) and Tops in the Big Top (1945) add some new wrinkles to the Popeye-Olive-Bluto dynamic. Though both shorts are fitfully entertaining, the Famous artists take away some of the fun by making Bluto a more sadistic villain. This regrettable character development became part of the studio’s increasing reliance on mindless cruelty and violence.

The 4K restorations add new luster to inferior cartoons. Popeye’s first Technicolor one-reeler was the pleasant but unremarkable Her Honor the Mare (1943), which featured the return of his Disney-inspired nephews in one of their more tolerable outings. Two misguided entries — The Marry-Go-Round (1943) and Moving Aweigh (1944) — represent the final appearances of Popeye’s bespectacled sidekick Shorty, whose obnoxious presence was brought to a merciful end. In all three shorts, Popeye functions as an atypical comic foil, thereby weakening his heroic character.

Tops in the Big Top

Tops in the Big Top

Spinach Packin‘ Popeye (1944) boasts a great title card but emerges as a cost-saving “cheater” with a cop-out dream framework. For the first time, Famous used clips from the Sindbad and Ali Baba two-reelers without giving the Fleischers (and their artists) screen credit. A few years later, the studio began to recycle footage from its own cartoons — delivering an uninspired Popeye “cheater” on a near-annual basis.

By far the most notorious short is the blatantly racist Pop-Pie A La Mode (1945), which places the shipwrecked sailor at the mercy of hungry cannibals until the spinach arrives. Politically incorrect to the extreme, this cringeworthy effort wasn’t totally banned from television until the early 1990s. A beautiful transfer of a truly ugly cartoon.

The revitalized Popeye series maintained a high level of quality until Famous Studios fell into a formulaic rut in 1949. Apart from a rare winner such as How Green Is My Spinach (1950) and Tots of Fun (1952), the Famous product was no longer strong to the finish. Lower budgets resulted in more inferior remakes of classic Fleischer shorts. Nevertheless, Popeye remained a reliable moneymaker until 1957, when Paramount sold the Fleischer/Famous cartoons to a.a.p. — thus ending the immortal sailor’s 24-year movie career while becoming a TV phenomenon in the process.

Unlike the 1941-43 Popeye DVD set released in 2008, the Warner Blu-ray offers zero special features or commentary tracks. Though a bare-bones disc, the eye-popping restorations more than compensate for the lack of extras. Hopefully, Warner Archive will not wait 10 years to remaster the 1946-47 Famous Popeye cartoons.


‘Yellow Submarine’ Turns 50


Premiering at the London Pavilion on July 17, 1968, director George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine represented a landmark achievement in the history of animated feature films. Though influenced by the “Summer of Love” psychedelia of 1967, Yellow Submarine encompassed a rich tapestry of animation styles. Like the Beatles’ music, it has a timeless quality that defies categorization or emulation.

Yellow Submarine was a breakthrough effort. Not only did the film pave the way for more daring works such as Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1971) and Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976), but it also was the first full-length cartoon outside of Disney to become a resounding critical and commercial success. The popularity of Yellow Submarine was due, in part, to the Beatles’ association with the project. Nevertheless, it was the imagination of Dunning, art director Heinz Edelmann, producer/co-writer Al Brodax and numerous animators that propelled the film to remarkable visual heights.

The pre-credit sequence of Yellow Submarine establishes the film’s innovative style and serio-comic tone with its wistful, nostalgic depiction of Pepperland — utilizing vivid colors and offbeat character designs. This tranquil, distinctively British landscape is invaded by the grotesque Blue Meanies, who wish to rid the world of happiness, color and especially music. Interestingly, this plot element of Yellow Submarine was partly derived from the 1935 Ted Eshbaugh/Van Beuren short The Sunshine Makers in which cheerful dwarfs conquer grim-faced gremlins (who wear blue top hats much like the evil Apple Bonkers) with bottles of sunshine.

A pop culture history tour.

A magical pop-culture tour

In brief flashes, Yellow Submarine acknowledges its debt to the Golden Age of Animation, particularly the influential displays of psychedelia in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and The Three Caballeros (1944). Even the live-action cameo by the Beatles is somewhat reminiscent of Max Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series. Apart from animated cartoons, there are throwaway gags in the door-to-door sequence that evoke the art of René Magritte and Salvador Dalí. Nevertheless, the film’s visual and comedic style remains individualistic.

A classic example of Yellow Submarine‘s dazzling uniqueness is the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence — an inspired fusion of animation and music that captures the song’s haunting melancholia. Set in a decaying pop-art version of Liverpool, England, this segment combines stunning graphic design with imaginative utilization of rotoscoping, cutouts and still photography. In this prototypical music video, the film draws its strength as a visual complement to one of the Beatles’ finest recordings. On its own merits, the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence is a mini-masterpiece.

Yellow Submarine has the quality of a surreal children’s story akin to Lewis Carroll on acid. When Old Fred searches for help, he encounters a rather glum Ringo, who rounds up his mates in what appears to be a museum — resulting in a fascinating, free-wheeling tour of popular culture. The remaining three Beatles are lavishly introduced as pop icons not unlike Frankenstein, King Kong and The Phantom. In the minds of Dunning and Edelmann, the Fab Four have become museum pieces (or, perhaps more cynically, merchandised “action figures”). It is apparent that the animators had a great time creating this Carroll-inspired segment, which emerges as the visual equivalent to a Beatle non sequitur.

The film makes inventive use of still photographs when the submarine departs Liverpool at warp speed and passes various British locales, such as the White Cliffs of Dover, Oxford and London. Using more than 200 color photos and accompanied by an instrumental excerpt from “A Day in the Life,” this brief travelogue lasts no more than 30 seconds, yet the overall effect is enthralling.

The Sea of Holes.

The Sea of Holes

With John, Paul, George and Ringo finally on board, Yellow Submarine sacrifices its thin plot for a surreal, psychedelic odyssey in which the group encounters an endless array of time warps, bizarre creatures and, of course, the highly intellectual “Boob” known as Jeremy — certainly one of the most unusual characters in animation history. Though rather lengthy, this “modyssey” never fails to astonish with its wide spectrum of color and unique creations (once seen, the “vacuum monster” never can be forgotten).

The most imaginative “modyssey” segment is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which combines brightly colored, psychedelic artwork with the imaginative rotoscoping of early movie musicals. The abstract color effects are reminiscent of Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1935), while some of the rotoscoped dancing parallels Norman McLaren’s work in Pas de deux (1967). The “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sequence is a brilliant example of animation’s spellbinding power.

After reaching Pepperland and using their music to defeat the Blue Meanies (during the “Sgt. Pepper” number, “the one and only Billy Shears” turns out to be John instead of Ringo!), the Fab Four offer a pacifist gesture to the villains. The result is a lavish “Summer of Love” finale highlighted by impressive polarization effects set to George Harrison’s “It’s All Too Much.” Happily, Yellow Submarine concludes with a brief appearance by the Beatles in live action. The group’s playful cameo (filmed at the last minute) ends the proceedings with a nudge and a wink.

Original color model cel.

Original color model cel

Yellow Submarine has its faults. Running 90 minutes, the film is overlong (even more so with the 1999 restoration of the “Hey Bulldog” number) and would have benefited from Walt Disney’s strong sense of story structure. Though memorably introduced in the pre-credit sequence, the Blue Meanies are essentially forgotten until the Beatles reach Pepperland; the midsection could have used a cutaway scene that re-established the colorful antagonists, thereby giving the film more urgency in its pacing.

Not all the musical segments work. One number that should have been cut is the uninspired “Only a Northern Song,” a weak Harrison composition that gives the animators virtually nothing to expand upon in terms of visual ideas. The sequence relies mostly on oscilloscope effects and psychedelic-style illustrations of the Beatles that emerge as open-ended boxes.

Regrettably, the Beatles did not provide voices to their animated counterparts, which might have added more energy and humor to the overall film.  Instead, the producers hired Liverpool actors (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, Peter Batten and Paul Angelis) who did a passable job emulating the group’s deadpan wit. However, with the noted exception of Ringo, there was a decided lack of individuality to the Beatle characterizations.

Despite these quibbles, one cannot dismiss Yellow Submarine‘s impact on contemporary animation. Like Fantasia, the film exposed viewers to a new and innovative vision of the medium while revealing limitless artistic potential. By daring to be different, Dunning and Edelmann succeeded in charting unexplored visual territory. A half-century after its release, Yellow Submarine endures as a seminal work of sight and sound.



The Mutual Films: Chaplin’s Historic “Golden Dozen”


A century ago this month, Charlie Chaplin signed a one-year contract with the Mutual Film Corporation for $670,000. In addition to becoming the highest-paid entertainer in the world, he produced 12 two-reel comedies that represent some of his finest work.

The Mutual series captured the essence of Chaplin’s seriocomic brilliance while revealing an artist at the peak of his powers — a phenomenal success that enabled him to maintain his creative freedom.  When viewing the 12 shorts in chronological order, his astonishing maturity as a filmmaker and performer becomes evident.

The Floorwalker (May 1916) and The Fireman (June 1916) already show a marked improvement upon Chaplin’s previous films.  The rough-edged quality of the Keystone and Essanay shorts have been replaced by a more polished style, especially in terms of set design and cinematography.  There also is a stronger sense of ensemble with the menacing debut of Eric Campbell, who became regarded as the quintessential Chaplin heavy.  The David and Goliath relationship between Chaplin and Campbell is established immediately in their knockabout ballets — sparking an antagonistic yet symbiotic rapport that evolves throughout the Mutual series.

Though Chaplin has found a solid foundation in production and casting, the humor remains deeply rooted in the Keystone slapstick tradition.  Still, The Floorwalker and The Fireman expand upon Chaplin’s playful anarchy toward society by exposing the corruption and fraud within (i.e., embezzlement in a department store, a fire chief’s arson scheme).

Eric Campbell and Chaplin in The Fireman (1916)

Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin in The Fireman.

Charlie, the outsider, emerges as an unlikely hero in both films and, ironically, saves the institutions from ruin. However, there is a sense of detachment in his actions. “The discovery that he could not be anyone because it was too easy to be everyone unleashed a number of things in Chaplin,” Walter Kerr noted in his critical study The Silent Clowns (1975). “It is marvelous that he can enter so wholeheartedly into the activity that briefly engages him, [yet] shattering to realize that his heart is not in it at all.”

At this stage in his career, Chaplin was giving his audiences what they wanted.  Considering his salary at that time, he wasn’t going to depart from traditional slapstick until the success of The Floorwalker and The Fireman was assured.  Once proven, he took some tremendous leaps.

Photographed mostly outdoors, The Vagabond (July 1916) veers toward straight drama in the D.W. Griffith tradition. Charlie plays a street musician who saves a girl (Edna Purviance) kidnapped and enslaved by sadistic gypsies.  His rescue of the girl features a skillful tracking shot of the gypsies’ unsuccessful pursuit, filmed from inside the moving caravan — a fine example of Chaplin’s inventiveness with the camera.

Having established camp along a country road, Charlie takes care of the girl in a paternal, unromantic fashion.  Eventually, the girl falls in love with a traveling artist who paints her portrait, which later is discovered by the girl’s wealthy mother at an exhibit.  The artist then helps the mother locate her daughter.  Charlie, realizing that the girl and artist are meant for each other, stays behind as the others drive off.  Instead of the traditional Chaplin ending, the girl orders the driver to turn back and she drags Charlie into the car; however, it is unlikely he will co-exist in this upscale environment.

Charlie serenades Edna Purviance in The Vagabond.

Charlie serenades Edna Purviance in The Vagabond.

Despite its ambiguous ending, the film’s stark cultural contrasts emerge as social themes that Chaplin will explore in later Mutual comedies and in features such as The Kid (1921) and City Lights (1931). Though he has not found the ideal balance of humor and drama, The Vagabond remains one of Chaplin’s most unusual works.

One A.M. (August 1916) marks yet another Chaplin experiment.  The film represents his only solo vehicle, a one-man display of pantomimic virtuosity.  Chaplin’s expert turn as a bon vivant (who struggles with numerous inanimate objects in his attempt to reach his bedroom) cannot be faulted, yet the claustrophobic setting and one-joke premise soon grows monotonous.

For all his comic gifts, Chaplin benefited enormously from his Mutual stock company and the talents of Campbell, Purviance, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Without this unique chemistry, Chaplin’s creativity as a performer and filmmaker was less effective. One A.M. revealed that his presence alone could not sustain a two-reel comedy.

The Count (September 1916) returns Chaplin to familiar territory — reviving the time-worn premise of Charlie invading high society by impersonating an individual of stature and wealth. However, Chaplin avoids the usual contrast between the rich and poor by elevating his character’s social position.  Instead of the Tramp, he plays a tailor who is mistaken for a count and becomes the hit of the party until the real count arrives. Chaplin effectively ridicules the pretentiousness of the upper class in ways that predate the anarchic irreverence of the Marx Brothers, notably the scene in which Charlie masters the art of eating watermelon at a lavish dinner.

Eric, Charlie and Edna in The Count (1916).

Eric, Charlie and Edna in The Count.

Unlike the previous Mutuals, The Count contains a tremendous amount of vitality and comic precision.  The escalating battles between Chaplin and Campbell culminate in a superbly timed ballet of physical violence, with enough kicking and acrobatic chasing for several two-reelers.  After more than two years and 38 short films, Chaplin firmly establishes a stylistic fusion of direction and performance that becomes a hallmark in the Mutual series.

In terms of sustained inventiveness, The Pawnshop (October 1916) ranks among the best Chaplin comedies, particularly in his utilization of props.  As a pawnbroker’s assistant, Charlie makes creative use of objects ranging from stale doughnuts to an alarm clock that requires a surgical procedure. If there is a rope on the floor, he walks across it as though he were a high-wire artist.  Chaplin’s performance has an effortless, balletic grace rarely seen in his later films.

Perhaps the most revealing moment in The Pawnshop is the final shot in which Charlie emerges from a trunk to capture a thief, then bows to the camera, hugs the pawnbroker’s daughter and delivers a swift back-kick to his rival — all in one remarkable take.  Apart from the flawless timing and choreography, the sequence is another example of Chaplin’s playful detachment in a heroic situation.

The Pawnshop (1916).

Charlie at work in The Pawnshop.

Unfortunately, Chaplin jettisoned much of this comic detachment after he left Mutual and gradually became a more self-conscious performer, as if he wanted to belong.  Perhaps that is why the best of his post-Mutual films are The Pilgrim (1923) and Modern Times (1936). In both instances, Chaplin eliminates some of his pathos and recaptures the exhilaration of playfulness.

This lack of pretentiousness emerges as an underlying thread throughout the Mutual period. A lighthearted satire on moviemaking, Behind the Screen (November 1916) represents another throwback to Chaplin’s days at Keystone. The film also includes one of the most notable references to homosexuality in early cinema.  When stagehand Campbell catches Charlie kissing Edna (disguised as a boy), his bullying character reacts in a stereotypical gay manner — a surprising transformation even by today’s standards.

Despite these intriguing elements, Behind the Screen is a routine effort. The Rink (December 1916), on the other hand, provides a bravura showcase for Chaplin’s versatility. Not only does the Little Fellow become a skater of remarkable agility, but he also mixes a cocktail with elaborate flourish. Chaplin’s engaging performance turns a serviceable farce into a hilarious ballet on wheels — nicely abetted by his colorful ensemble cast (with Austin and Bergman in dual roles). One of the best-known Mutual shorts, The Rink is a timeless slapstick gem. For uninitiated viewers, it remains the perfect introduction to Chaplin’s comic artistry.

The Rink: Chaos on wheels.

The Rink: Chaos on wheels.

By 1917, Chaplin had become more of a perfectionist in his working methods and began to miss contractual deadlines.  Exhibitors would have to wait longer for his final Mutual releases, yet the results were worth the extra time and expense.

Easy Street (February 1917), Chaplin’s first masterpiece, incorporates elements of social criticism that would become evident in his later features. The film is an effective depiction of urban poverty with its realistic sets and harshness of tone — established by the dramatic opening scene that finds Charlie in a destitute state.

In one of Chaplin’s satirical jabs at religion, Charlie is “reformed” by a young mission worker (Purviance), upon which he returns the collection box he has stolen.  Encouraged to do good, Charlie bravely joins a failing police force and receives the dangerous assignment of patrolling Easy Street, a gang battlefield ruled by the towering Bully (Campbell in kabuki-style makeup).  The ingenious tactics Charlie uses to conquer the Bully represent the finest screen moments between Chaplin and Campbell — highlights of an exquisitely paced short. (Don Fairservice’s 2001 book Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice offers valuable insights into Chaplin’s editing methods on Easy Street and his remaining three Mutual comedies.)

Charlie the cop conquers the Bully of Easy Street.

Charlie the cop conquers the Bully of Easy Street.

Surrounded by bleak atmosphere, Easy Street contrasts sharply with the fashionable delirium of The Cure (April 1917).  In this sanitarium satire, Chaplin plays an inebriated gentleman who wreaks havoc upon a health spa when his liquor supply is dumped into the spa waters. Superior to One A.M., the film is a delightful record of Chaplin’s mastery as a comic drunk, with a strong assist from Campbell as the gout-ridden patient. Ironically, The Cure would have made a great vehicle for W.C. Fields — a devout Chaplin hater.

A brilliant weaving of pathos and humor, The Immigrant (June 1917) represents the high-water mark of Chaplin’s Mutual period.  By chronicling the plight of two lonely, poverty-stricken immigrants (Charlie and Edna) who are romantically reunited in a cheap restaurant, this two-reel masterwork has a narrative seamlessness that Chaplin never duplicated.

Chaplin’s rapport with Purviance adds a poignancy and depth to The Immigrant not seen in their other collaborations.  The relationship between their characters reveals an emotional impact conveyed without title cards, such as the moment when Charlie discovers that Edna’s mother has died.  This unique chemistry, sensitively handled by Chaplin, gives the film its soul.

The Immigrant: "Arrival in the Land of Liberty."

The Immigrant:  “Arrival in the Land of Liberty.”

Social commentary comes into play during the ironic scene in which the immigrants are treated like cattle while their ship passes the Statue of Liberty — a portent of the political troubles that would lead to Chaplin’s exile from America in 1952. Nevertheless, The Immigrant remains his most humanistic and endearing film. A few years before his death, Chaplin offered his own assessment in the illustrated memoir My Life in Pictures (1974): “[The Immigrant] touched me more than any other film I made.”

The last Mutual comedy, The Adventurer (October 1917), proved to be the most popular of the series.  It also marked the final screen appearance of Eric Campbell, who was killed in a car crash two months after the film’s release.  The loss was immeasurable to Chaplin, who never again found a comic villain equal to Campbell’s talent and screen presence.

Fast and furious, The Adventurer is slapstick par excellence. Chaplin delivers a beautifully timed performance as an escaped convict whose heroic deeds get him invited to a wealthy family’s home.  Adapting to the lavish lifestyle, Charlie battles with Eric for the affections of Edna until the prison guards discover his whereabouts.  Shot partly on location in Malibu, the film includes two of Chaplin’s most inventive chase sequences — providing ideal bookends to the temporary refuge of high society.

In many ways, The Adventurer was Charlie Chaplin’s farewell to the art of the two-reeler.  After his Mutual contract ended in 1917, he produced longer and more expressive films; however, few of those later efforts would recapture the exuberance and self-assuredness of that glorious 18-month period. As a body of work, the Chaplin Mutuals represent an indispensable part of film history.


The Noir Trilogy of Orson Welles


“It’s a bright, guilty world.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the distinctive film noirs of Orson Welles. The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958) represent an explorative trilogy of betrayal, corruption and irrationality.

Welles, the iconoclastic filmmaker, creates disorienting worlds enveloped by foreboding shadows and uncertainty, with the camera occasionally functioning as a voyeuristic observer.  His characters range from emotionally shattered and trapped individuals (Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai) to men of power and potential greatness (Franz Kindler in The Stranger, Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil) who sell their souls to cover their tracks.

Though The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai are stylistically rooted in the 1940s noir tradition, Welles alternately distorts and transcends the genre — culminating in his masterpiece Touch of Evil.  Viewed chronologically, the noirish elements in The Stranger serve as a springboard for the surreal odyssey of The Lady from Shanghai which, in turn, foreshadows the nightmarish Touch of Evil.  What flows between these films is a bleak undercurrent of paranoia and despair.

Many critics, including Welles himself, have labeled The Stranger as his most impersonal and mainstream film.  However, Welles imbues a haunting noir atmosphere into this postwar thriller, which emerges as a telling portrait of small-town America:  Shadow of a Doubt meets Notorious.  Beneath the simplistic surface of the film’s Connecticut community lies, in the words of Allied War Crimes Inspector Wilson (played by Edward G. Robinson), an “obscenity [that] must be destroyed.”  That “obscenity” is Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler (Welles).

In the guise of history professor Charles Rankin, Kindler becomes a dictatorial and isolated character who gradually loses all rationality when he realizes that Wilson has learned his identity — not unlike Quinlan’s psychological unraveling when Vargas discovers the planted evidence in Touch of Evil.  Once exposed, the viewer follows Kindler’s unstoppable descent into madness and guilt.

Edward G. Robinson as Inspector Wilson.

Edward G. Robinson as Inspector Wilson.

A particular noir characteristic is Kindler’s bizarre obsession with clocks, which he calls a “hobby that amounts to a mania.”  The clock motif is integral to Welles’ film noirs because Kindler and Quinlan are doomed individuals whose time has run out.  In The Stranger‘s climactic scene, Kindler is impaled on the sword of the clock tower, then falls to his death — a sordid end that parallels Quinlan’s undignified collapse in the murky canal waters.  The deaths of Kindler and Quinlan are disturbing and lonely acts that Welles depicts with a poetic sense of tragedy.  Welles’ unorthodox villains have an oddly sympathetic quality which add to their irrationality.

Another noirish aspect of The Stranger is the perverse relationship between Kindler and his small-town bride, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young).  On their wedding night, Kindler is more concerned with taking care of loose ends — such as burying the body of Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a former Nazi colleague who the Allied War Crimes Commission set free in the hope of tracking down Kindler.  In a disturbing sequence, Kindler confesses to his wife that he has committed murder.  However, Mary chooses to protect him and keep his admission a secret, despite Kindler’s revealing comment to her:  “Murder can be a chain — one link following another until it circles your neck.” When Wilson confronts Mary with information about her husband’s past in the form of Holocaust footage, she literally runs from the truth and into the dead of night.

Robinson’s performance as Wilson parallels his portrayal of Barton Keyes two years earlier in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which makes his casting predictable. Perhaps The Stranger might have been more intriguing if producer Sam Spiegel allowed Welles to use Agnes Moorehead in the Wilson role — thereby resulting in an offbeat gender reversal.

The most noirish scenes in The Stranger are weighed heavily during the first half-hour.  In the memorable opening sequence, Wilson ominously pursues Meinike through South America as the escaped Nazi nervously reassures himself, “I am traveling for my health.”  The cinematography of Russell Metty (who later collaborated with Welles on Touch of Evil) develops a shadowy, menacing atmosphere that reflects Meinike’s uncertain frame of mind.  Welles and Metty evoke noir stylistics in the unlikeliest of settings, such as a school gymnasium where Meinike knocks out the unrelenting Wilson.

The atmospheric cinematography of Russell Metty.

The atmospheric cinematography of Russell Metty.

In the most chilling and visually accomplished scene, Kindler strangles Meinike in the woods during their “absolution,” an unsettling image underscored by Metty’s fluid, naturalistic photography.  Predating Touch of Evil‘s now-legendary opening shot, the Kindler-Meinike confrontation was filmed in a single four-minute take. Unfortunately, the film has too few of these Wellesian touches.

While The Stranger remains a conventional thriller, The Lady from Shanghai flaunts its cinematic iconoclasm from beginning to end.  Welles defies Hollywood tradition with a nightmarish charade.  Like Touch of Evil, he places the viewer in the middle of an evolving psychological hell.  Since Orson’s Irish sailor is as unconvincing as Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale, The Lady from Shanghai can be viewed as a distorted, fun-house parody of classic noir.  Modern-day critics who bemoan the film’s confused plotting and bizarre motivations never acknowledge its stream-of-consciousness framework established by Welles’ tongue-in-cheek narration as Michael O’Hara.  There is a method to this chaos.

Told from O’Hara’s point of view, the viewer never is sure whether the film is a strange dream or the barroom ramblings of a drunken sailor. The Stranger and Touch of Evil focus on the gradual loss of power and sanity, but The Lady from Shanghai plunges into madness from the introductory moment when O’Hara says, “Some people can smell danger.  Not me.”  Though O’Hara supposedly is a romantic hero, there are no heroes in Wellesian noir — only trapped individuals tainted by evil.  O’Hara is the biggest sucker of them all, thus making him fair game in the hands of the Bannisters and George Grisby.

With its abrupt shifts in tone and locale, The Lady from Shanghai is a noir of never-ending jolts.  Like Touch of Evil, viewers never know exactly where they are, but they have a better idea than O’Hara as they follow his descent into the abyss.  The film’s uncertain landscape is abetted by Welles’ evocative shooting off the Mexican coast and in the San Francisco Bay Area, which lends a bizarre travelogue quality to O’Hara’s disorienting voyage.

Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth as the pitiful Bannisters.

Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth as the pitiful Bannisters.

There is an undeniable sensuality in The Lady from Shanghai which cannot be found in Welles’ other film noirs.  Hayworth’s Elsa Bannister is a highly desirable woman.  When Elsa entices O’Hara with an exotic job opportunity (“Would you like to work for me?  I’d like it”), it proves a temptation difficult to resist. However, this obsession goes beyond the character of O’Hara — the shots of Elsa swimming and sunbathing have a voyeuristic quality as Charles Lawton Jr.’s camera hovers provocatively over her body.  The predatory point of view could well be that of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a powerful attorney who believes that all people can be bought.

Like many noir protagonists, O’Hara is a foolish man willing to do foolish things, thereby leading to some irrational decisions.  Grisby (Glenn Anders) convinces O’Hara to accept $5,000 in exchange for taking the rap in Grisby’s fraudulent murder.  O’Hara agrees to the deal and, of course, Bannister’s creepy associate ends up dead.  Until his unfortunate exit, the eccentric Grisby lends a morbid touch of black humor to the proceedings, especially the manner in which he says “target practice.”

As the prime suspect in Grisby’s murder, O’Hara is “defended” by none other than Arthur Bannister, who offers his client these words of encouragement:  “I want you to live as long as possible before you die, Michael.”  Playing against convention, Welles adds comic punctuation to the courtroom scenes by making the attorneys orate like game-show hosts, having the jury continually sneeze and cough, and casting Erskine Sanford as an ineffectual judge.  Evidently, Welles has a low opinion of the legal system.  Ironically, O’Hara manages to escape before the verdict is read.

The Lady from Shanghai‘s famous “hall of mirrors” shootout parallels The Stranger‘s clock-tower climax.   Like Kindler, the Bannisters’ future is all used up.  Utilizing elements of German expressionism, Welles takes noir tradition and smashes it. After the bullets are fired and the mirrors (or psyches) are shattered, the viewer is left with a certain detachment and ambivalence toward the fate of O’Hara and the pitiful Bannisters.  “One who follows his nature, keeps his original nature in the end,” O’Hara reminds Elsa as she breathes her last.

Elsa Bannister fires away in the "hall of mirrors."

Elsa fires away in the “hall of mirrors.”

Elsa’s act of betrayal towards O’Hara and its outcome have less of an emotional impact than the Mary/Kindler and Menzies/Quinlan relationships.  “I made a lot of mistakes,” the self-pitying Elsa tells O’Hara.  “You can fight, but what good is it?  We can’t win.”  And she dies alone.  There is a cruel irony when the dying Bannister condescendingly tells his wife, “You made a mistake, lover. You should have let me live.  You’re going to need a good lawyer.”  Like Quinlan and Kindler, he dies unrepentant.

What remains is a sordid, corruptible wasteland as O’Hara walks away from the woman of his nightmares.  “Everybody is somebody’s fool,” he surmises.  And in The Lady from Shanghai, it is the fool who survives.

The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, for all of their visual bravura, remain wildly uneven works — flawed by studio interference (both films cry out for director’s cuts that never will be seen) and Welles’ eccentric miscasting in the pivotal roles of Kindler and O’Hara.  Yet they serve as stepping stones for his definitive noir statement: Touch of Evil.

Perhaps his most accomplished and assured film since Citizen Kane (1941), Welles paves the road upon which other contemporary noirs will follow.  More than 57 years after its release, Touch of Evil maintains a timeless quality.  Even a director as visually hyperbolic as David Lynch has yet to make a movie as unsettling as this one.

Best of all, Welles is superbly cast. There’s not a trace of “acting” in his complex portrayal of police captain Hank Quinlan, whose voice sounds as though it emerged from the bottom of a sewer.  Welles’ accomplishments as an actor always have been underrated in contrast to his filmmaking achievements, yet Touch of Evil reminds the viewer that he was a vital performer — not the hammy individual seen in The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai.  With the exception of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966), Quinlan represents Welles’ most detailed character study.

Welles as corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan.

Welles as corrupt cop Hank Quinlan.

Mostly shot on location in Venice, California, Welles creates a border-town hellhole bathed in darkness and surrounded by a gallery of disturbing characters.  The result is somewhat akin to a carnival freak show.  Strangely enough, viewers are so mesmerized by Welles’ seamless nocturnal vision that the daytime scenes (particularly those at the seedy Mirador Motel) appear somewhat jarring, as though the viewer has stepped out of a windowless, smoke-filled bar into the blinding sun of a midafternoon.

The breathtaking, expansive opening shot (culminating in the time-bomb explosion that kills millionaire Linnekar) establishes the film’s ominous tone, which is solidified once Quinlan arrives at the scene.  A brief exchange between narcotics investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and the cynical coroner (Joseph Cotten) provides a telling introduction to Quinlan — not only for Vargas, but for the viewer as well:

Vargas: “I’d like to meet [Quinlan].”

Coroner: “That’s what you think.”

Quinlan is an instinctively brilliant yet corrupt police captain mired in Shakespearean tragedy.  His monstrous, though sympathetic presence dominates the film (even when he is off-screen) and sets in motion a sleazy labyrinth of drugs, perversity, murder and lawlessness.  Touch of Evil proves to be an apt title, since every character (including Vargas) is tainted and corruptible.  There are no innocents in this decaying world.

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) gets a nasty surprise.

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) gets a nasty surprise.

Of all the Wellesian creations, Quinlan is the epitome of film noir.  Like Charles Foster Kane, he is a dictatorial individual plagued by regret, loneliness, immorality and loss (i.e., his wife’s murder).  For years, Quinlan has been an isolationist (he lives near the border yet refuses to learn Spanish) and a law unto himself; therefore, it is inevitable that Quinlan creates his own downfall in a confused, paranoic state of irrationality — predating Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up.  Welles’ distorted camera angles represent Quinlan’s tortured, inebriated frame of mind.  He is a man lost in his own excesses, hence the classic reference by bordello madam Tanya (Marlene Dietrich): “You’re a mess, honey.”

During the first Quinlan/Vargas confrontation, Vargas asks, “Who’s the boss: the cop or the law?”  In Wellesian noir, the law does not triumph — it remains hidden in the shadows. “Even though [Quinlan] doesn’t bring the guilty to justice, he assassinates them in the name of the law,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich in the 1992 book This Is Orson Welles. “He wants to assume the right to judge, and no one has the right to judge except under the authority of law. . . . But what he stands for is detestable.”

Touch of Evil follows the paralleling descent of Quinlan and Vargas.  They are moral opposites who, by the film’s conclusion, have much in common.

Quinlan was an honest cop who became corrupt through the tragedy of his wife’s strangulation — not unlike Vargas’ loss of control after his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), was drugged and framed for the murder of Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).  When Vargas enters Grandi’s bar and says, “I’m no cop now,” it is apparent that he has gone over the edge and lost the rationality to enforce the law.  Quinlan’s obsession for vengeance now has become Vargas’ — in fact, Vargas resorts to Quinlan-style methods to hunt down his nemesis.  Utilizing a bugging device (another Nixonian trait) to record Quinlan’s confession, Vargas has become what he despises and knows it.

Partners in betrayal:  Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and Quinlan.

Partners in betrayal: Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and Quinlan.

When Quinlan loses his power, he rapidly deteriorates.  The descent begins when Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting the sticks of dynamite to frame Sanchez, thereby making Quinlan vulnerable for the first time.  In retaliation, Quinlan forms an unholy alliance with the slimy Grandi (a character of black comedy not unlike Grisby in The Lady from Shanghai) to kidnap and drug Susan — a short-lived partnership that Quinlan’s loyal partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), observes with disgust and heartbreak.  When Quinlan strangles Grandi, he succumbs to irrevocable madness.  This leads to the ultimate betrayal as Menzies resolves his moral dilemma by helping Vargas bring down Quinlan, but only after he discovers Quinlan’s cane near the body of Grandi.

“Quinlan is the god of Menzies,” Welles said in a 1958 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “And, because Menzies worships him, the real theme of the scenario is treason, the terrible impulsion that Menzies has to betray his friend.”

However, Quinlan already has betrayed Menzies’ trust through his manipulative deceit and corruption.  “All these years, you’ve been playing me for a sucker,” Menzies angrily tells Quinlan.  It is ironic yet poetic destiny that Quinlan and Menzies end up killing each other.  For all his “famous intuition,” Quinlan’s disloyalty toward Menzies is the final act that does him in.

Touch of Evil can be considered a summary of the film noir themes Welles examined in The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. In his noir trilogy, the guilty are doomed to a violent demise in a world where evil is permitted and justice is distorted.  As for humankind, they are best represented by the philosophical Tanya, who delivers Touch of Evil‘s closing line (“What does it matter what you say about people?”) and walks away into a bleak, uncertain future.  In the end, the viewer remains surrounded by darkness.


Welcome to Fleischer World


The arrival of sound in the late 1920s added a new dimension to animated films.  Many of the early live-action “talkies” did virtually nothing but talk; however, the cartoon successfully combined the aural and visual without excessive dialogue. The animators most aware of this quality during the 1930s were Max and Dave Fleischer.

Produced for mainstream audiences, the early Betty Boop and Screen Song cartoons were daring, somewhat experimental works. In many ways, Fleischer classics such as Minnie the Moocher (1932), Snow White (1933), I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You (1932), I Heard (1933) and I Ain’t Got Nobody (1932) represent the first music videos with their ingenious fusion of animation and bluesy jazz. The shorts also helped promote the records and upcoming appearances of the guest performers.

Like some of the jazz artists, the Fleischer animators were gritty New Yorkers whose free-wheeling existence was reflected in their cartoons. If Disney, Warner and MGM maintained a sunny optimism in the early 1930s, Fleischer Studios took viewers on a wild ride through the Depression-era psyche.

The Fleischers’ cultural insulation was a significant factor in their best work. By embracing a world of sex, violence, hot jazz and bad times, the studio developed an absurdist vision of nonconformity that was unique in animation. The transition to sound only fueled the Fleischers’ playful anarchy. Until the Hays Office reared its head in 1934, there were no established rules for the East Coast animators to follow.

Electrocuted ghosts in Minnie the Moocher (1932).

Electrocuted ghosts in Minnie the Moocher (1932).

Perhaps the first Fleischer cartoon to seamlessly fuse its bizarre imagery with a Jazz Age bravura was Minnie the Moocher. The pairing of Betty Boop and Cab Calloway resulted in some of animation’s finest moments. In this striking display of music and movement, the rotoscoped Calloway emerges as a ghostly walrus who confronts Betty and her canine pal Bimbo in a darkened cave — singing the classic title song with its references to prostitution, cocaine addiction and venereal disease. The black-and-gray images are stunning as the Calloway walrus performs amid unusual backgrounds ranging from decayed fingers to jagged skulls.

In his 1994 book Cartoons, author Giannalberto Bendazzi singled out Minnie the Moocher as “a masterpiece of American animation” while its “visions and the allusions to danger and sex demonstrate the power of a totentanz, a dance of death.” The film also can be seen as a metaphor for the fears and uncertainties of the Depression.

Minnie the Moocher provided the framework for the dazzling Boop-Calloway masterpiece Snow White. A few historians have compared Snow White to the Salvador Dali-Luis Buñuel short Un Chien Andalou (1929) for its surreal, unconnected imagery — accompanied by Calloway’s downbeat song “St. James Infirmary Blues.”

The painted backgrounds in Snow White are dark and treacherous, particularly the “mystery cave” with its sleazy taverns and skeletal remains.  As in Minnie the Moocher, Calloway’s movements are rotoscoped; however, this time around, he is a metamorphosed Ko-Ko the Clown who leads a funeral procession through the cave with Betty literally “on ice.” In the Calloway song, the ice coffin is equated to a “long white table” in the morgue as Ko-Ko/Calloway mourns the loss of his “baby.” During the song, the evil queen transforms Ko-Ko/Calloway into an elongated ghost who visualizes the “St. James” lyrics by morphing into a “$20 gold piece” and “a shot of booze.”

A rotoscoped Cab Calloway in Snow White (1933).

A rotoscoped Cab Calloway.

In both Calloway-Boop cartoons, the animated songs evoke grim atmosphere with a plethora of throwaway gags. The Fleischers’ stream of cartoon consciousness appears limitless. Rich in detail, Minnie the Moocher and Snow White demand repeated viewings.

Featuring Louis Armstrong in one of his first film appearances, I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You swings in the best sense of the word — not only in terms of Armstrong’s music, but also in the Fleischers’  visual style. In this fast-paced Betty Boop cartoon, every aspect is in rhythmic motion:  trees, volcanoes, footprints, porcupine needles, and cannibals who transform themselves into bushes.

When Betty, Bimbo and Ko-Ko are captured by the cannibals, the latter two escape — only to be pursued by a live-action Armstrong. In fact, Ko-Ko runs so fast that his clown suit must catch up with him. Armstrong continues to chase Ko-Ko while crooning the title song, which focuses on adultery and includes the suggestive lyric “You gave my wife a bottle of Coca-Cola so you could play on her Victrola.” Welcome to Fleischer World.

Betty Boop and Bimbo go underground in I Heard (1933).

Betty Boop and Bimbo go underground in I Heard (1933).

Unlike previous Boop rhapsodies, the jaunty tone of I Heard evolves into a darkly surreal climax. Accompanied by Don Redman and His Orchestra (who introduce the cartoon in a rare film appearance), Betty delivers an infectious rendition of “How’m I Doin’?” as the workers at the “Never Mine” enjoy a hearty lunch in her tavern. The Fleischers provide a steady flow of gags to match the rhythm of Redman’s music.

After the steam whistle finishes its lunch, Betty and the coal miners discover gossip and baseball-playing ghosts down below.  One ghost hits a bomb to Betty and Bimbo — resulting in a back-and-forth escapade that leads to a mine explosion. In the bizarre closing shot, the ghosts fall into ready-made graves opened by Bimbo, who literally gets the last laugh in his final screen appearance.  Betty’s amorous co-star became a casualty of the repressive Production Code, which brought down the curtain on the “Boop-oop-a-doop” jazz extravaganzas.

Largely unavailable on home video (though resurrected on YouTube), the Fleischer Screen Song cartoons of the 1930s utilized wrap-around animation to showcase a musical performer in live action, along with the famous Bouncing Ball to lead the chorus. In some instances, the overall short truly benefited from the strength of its guest artist.

The Mills Brothers with the “Famous Bouncing Ball.”

The Mills Brothers with the famous Bouncing Ball.

I Ain’t Got Nobody, one of the finest Screen Song efforts, marked the film debut of the Mills Brothers, who are introduced as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The off-the-wall “premise” centers on a hypnotic lion who has the ability to make inanimate objects (except for a grumpy statue) sing the Mills Brothers’ hit “Tiger Rag.”  In a classic display of Fleischer animation, the entire living room harmonizes in unison — followed by a lion rug scat-singing in Mills fashion.

This inventive use of music complemented the Fleischers’ distinctive surrealism, which mirrored the Depression era better than any animation studio. If Disney’s early work revealed a rural midwestern quality, the Fleischer landscape was a black-and-white urban jungle — an ideal environment for artists such as Calloway, Armstrong, Redman and the Mills Brothers. The Betty Boop and Screen Song cartoons remain valuable cinematic records of the musical talents who accompanied Max and Dave Fleischer in their symphony of visual madness.



DVD Review: “A Night in Casablanca” (1946)


Let’s dispense with one myth right away:  the Marx Brothers did not make A Night in Casablanca to pay off Chico’s gambling debts. Though Chico always needed the money, Groucho and Harpo were itching for a big-screen comeback to erase the memory of their underwhelming MGM farewell film, The Big Store (1941).

Enter David L. Loew and the profit potential of independent production, which was appealing enough to end the brothers’ self-imposed cinematic retirement. The Marxes and Loew joined forces to create Loma Vista Productions, with United Artists handling the distribution chores on their low-budget venture.

Released in May 1946 to mixed reviews but solid box office, A Night in Casablanca would prove a fitting finale to the team’s movie career.  Perhaps their best effort since A Night at the Opera (1935), this postwar escapade features the trio in splendid form while recapturing some of the rough-edged spontaneity of their early Paramount comedies.

Before its DVD debut in 2004, A Night in Casablanca had an elusive history on the videocassette market — briefly issued by Independent United Distributors in 1983, followed by a GoodTimes budget release in 1990.  Castle Hill Productions (the copyright owner) finally rectified matters by teaming with Warner Home Video to give the film a long-overdue remastered version in excellent quality.


However, there is a comic irony associated with Warner Home Video’s involvement.  In 1945, Warner Bros. expressed concern over the storyline of A Night in Casablanca, fearing that the Marxian farce would emulate the studio’s legendary 1942 drama. Groucho fired off a letter to Warner that has since become a classic. In 1997, Groucho’s letter was read during the Library of Congress’ bicentennial celebration:

“Apparently, there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers.  . . . You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about Warner Brothers? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.  . . . This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you it’s not meant to.  I love Warners.  Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers.”

After Groucho explained the plot in a few bizarre follow-up letters, the Marxes heard no more from the Warner legal department. “It might have been better if we filmed the letters to Warner Brothers and left the picture we made in the can,” Groucho later remarked.

In truth, the Warner correspondence was a publicity stunt, which Groucho happily admitted in a private letter:  “I wish they would sue, but as it is, we’ve had reams in the paper.”  Nevertheless, the Marxes avoided a direct parody of the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic — except for the “round up all likely suspects” line (spoken by none other than Casablanca cast member Dan Seymour) and Harpo’s lively turn at the roulette wheel.

Groucho offers Harpo some brotherly advice: “Remember what happened in 1929?”

Groucho offers Harpo some brotherly advice: “Remember what happened in 1929?”

What makes A Night in Casablanca a standout among the later Marx efforts is the re-emergence of Harpo’s anarchistic brilliance, which was toned down after Duck Soup (1933).  Thanks to uncredited contributions from Frank Tashlin, Harpo dominates the proceedings from the start with the famous sight gag involving a collapsed building. After playing second fiddle to Groucho and Chico in the MGM films, the horn-honking pantomimist enjoys a long-overdue free reign.  In fact, Groucho and Chico do not appear until 10 minutes into the picture.

Directed by Archie Mayo — a Warner craftsman best known for The Petrified Forest (1936) and Black Legion (1937) — A Night in Casablanca dispenses with the MGM musical gloss and syrupy romance in favor of a more free-wheeling approach.  Set largely within the confines of the Hotel Casablanca, Groucho plays the iconoclastic manager and Chico is appropriately cast as a taxi-camel driver. Harpo initially appears as a disobedient valet to Heinrich Stubel (wonderfully played by character actor Sig Ruman — returning as a Marx foil for the first time since 1937′s A Day at the Races), an escaped Nazi who has stashed a valuable treasure in the hotel.

Amid this B-grade plot are several wild scenes and some memorable Groucho dialogue (“Never mind the staff. Assemble the guests. I’ll tell them what I expect of them”).  Placing the Marxes in a postwar setting may seem unusual, yet their shenanigans inside the Hotel Casablanca are a refreshing throwback to their first film, The Cocoanuts (1929).  In many ways, Groucho, Harpo and Chico have come full circle.

The frenetic (if somewhat belabored) climax finds the brothers on board a Nazi plane, with Harpo knocking out the pilot and taking over the controls with devilish glee. However, art historian and critic Erwin Panofsky found a deeper meaning to this sequence when A Night in Casablanca was first released:  “The disproportion between the smallness of [Harpo’s] effort and the magnitude of disaster is a magnificent and terrifying symbol of man’s behavior in the atomic age.” No doubt Chico would have responded to this social commentary by playing the “Beer Barrel Polka.”

Sig Ruman and Harpo Marx.

Sig Ruman and Harpo Marx.

Loew had little doubt that A Night in Casablanca would make money, but no one expected the picture to become one of 1946’s surprise hits.  Moviegoers and devoted fans welcomed back the Marxes with $2.7 million in worldwide ticket sales — resulting in the highest grosser of their career.

Despite renewed box-office success, the trio retired once again from the silver screen. “We decided we were coming down the stretch and that it was high time we quit while we were still partially alive,” Groucho wrote in his 1959 autobiography.  (For all intents and purposes, 1949’s Love Happy was a Harpo Marx vehicle, with Chico in support and Groucho as narrator and guest star. The three never share a single scene together.)

Though not without its faults, A Night in Casablanca is a better film than its critical reputation would suggest. And how do the Marx Brothers bid farewell as a full-fledged team?  They chase beautiful Lisette Verea through the streets of Casablanca — an appropriate finale for these anti-establishment pioneers.