Thursday, January 12, 2006

Never Mind the New Year, Gimme an Old One

So here we are in 2006. We’re 6 years (5 for purists) into the so called “New Millennium”and thus far I’m not impressed. Where are the flying cars we were promised? Huh? I have yet to see one lousy flying car in anyone’s garage, let alone everyone’s . And what about the personal rocket packs? I don’t have one, do you?

To be fair, it’s probably not the millennium’s fault. It’s me. After four and a half decades on the planet I have come to the conclusion that I was born in the wrong era.. I do not belong in this time, and I’d like to go home please.

Where is home? A darn good question. It could be the Warner Brothers back lot in the 1930's through to the 50's with side trips to RKO and Universal. In my fantasy previous life I am Thomas Mitchell, the great character actor. You know who Thomas Mitchell is...You’ve seen him countless times, although you may not know his name. His resume for the year of 1939 would be a satisfactory career for most people. In 1939 Thomas Mitchell appeared in Stagecoach, Mr. Smith goes to Washington, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Only Angels Have Wings, and Gone With the Wind...He would go on to be seen in a couple of other minor films entitled Our Town, Bataan, The Long Voyage Home, The Outlaw (admittedly a terrible film, but a classic nontheless) It’s a Wonderful Life, High Noon, While the City Sleeps, and Pocketful of Miracles among many, many more. He worked until he dropped essentially, in 1962.

If not Thomas Mitchell, I’d like to be Allen Jenkins...From 1931 to 1974 Allen Jenkins appeared in about 119 movies, 67 of them before 1940. While Jenkins may not have been in as many “prestige” pictures as Thomas Mitchell, he did his share including I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang, 42nd St., Dead End, Five Came Back, and Destry Rides Again. In addition he appeared in many Jimmy Cagney pictures (My favorite is The Irish in Us, where he plays Carbarn Hammerschlog, not his real name, a contrary never was fighter who goes ballistic whenever he hears a bell ring). He was also in a bunch of series movies (one of my many movie weaknesses, I’ll admit) such as the Warren William Perry Mason Series, The Falcon, he even took over the Barton MacLane role in the Torchy Blane series (admittedly only for one movie) He worked with the Rat Pack in Robin and the Seven Hoods. His last film appearance was in Billy Wilder’s remake of The Front Page in 1974. He died the same year.

Or Jerome Cowan. Jerome Cowan was Miles Archer...You know Sam Spade’s partner who gets bumped off in the opening minutes of The Maltese Falcon. Among the 130 some odd movies he appeared in, as if that weren’t enough, are such gems as Shall We Dance, The Gracie Allen Murder Case, Castle on the Hudson, High Sierra, Mr. Skeffington, The Song of Bernadette, Who Done it?, The Kid from Brooklyn, Young Man with a Horn, and Miracle on 34th St. to name a few. He worked with such varied Icons as Bogart, Reagan, Elvis, The 3 Stooges, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin (separately), Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Lucy, Bette Davis, Dick Van Dyke and was in over half a dozen movies in the Blondie series. According to IMDB. com, He also made 73 TV guest appearances. Now that, my friends, is a career. And that’s not taking the radio work all these guys did.

I am an old movie geek. I would much rather watch something from the 30's or 40's than much of what’s currently being offered. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part give me a Warner Bros. Gangster Epic or an RKO Film Noir over the latest special effects epic, or the predictably lame excuses for comedy being put out. I admit it. It’s not that I’m a prude or anything. I just prefer the style and energy of the older stuff. It’s more...oh what’s that word...entertaining....Yeah, that’s it.

Cartoons were better then. I miss Popeye and I can’t understand why noone has yet put together a collection of the Fleischer cartoons. Yes, they’re rough and crewd and that’s what I like about them. They’re anti-Disney. They’re urban and funky, as opposed to pastoral and pretty. And, despite advances in special effect, noone has yet to capture the beauty and exhilaration of what a man would look flying better than in the Fleischer Superman Cartoons. And the pre-fifties Warner Brothers cartoons are, with a few exceptions, far funnier than what came after.

I love the Saturday Afternoon Serials. I own a bunch of them and revel in their cheesy glory. “The Great Heroes League”(My as yet unpublished book) is a love letter to them. Yes, the writing and acting are usually terrible, but they move . They are pure action. At their best the Republic Fight Scenes are violent ballets. I have a special place in my heart for them, particularly The Mysterious Dr. Satan, Batman(1943), Zombies from the Stratosphere, Daredevils of the Red Circle, and The Masked Marvel.

But it doesn’t end with movies. My favorite writers come out of that era too. I love Hammett and Chandler, Kaufman and Hart, Dorothy Parker, Charles Finney, John Steinbeck. They speak to me more than my own generation does. What they have in common, apart from the fact that they’re all brilliant writers (and some drinkers), is the knowledge that all great writing throws in the occasional joke.

Add to this that I’m an Old Time Radio Show collector and I think that’s enough proof. There’s an old thing about preferring radio, because the “pictures”are better. And I totally agree. Here’s how much of a geek I am...I don’t understand why radio drama, and variety ever went away ( It hasn’t totally but it’s comparatively rare compared to what it was). I still think there should a station on the dial where you can turn to it now, and judging from the number of Online OTR Stations , I’m not alone. When I listen to them, I’m transported to another place and time before I existed, but where I feel as though I belong. What surprises me is how well they hold up, the comedies, in particular. When the visuals are taken away, you’re left primarily with words and character. Jack Benny is still funny. Burns and Allen are still funny. Abbott and Costello are still funny...

And while we’re on the subject...

For all intents and purposes the era of the Comedy team ended on July 15, 1957, when it was announced that Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were dissolving their partnership of twenty years. 355 days earlier, the other partnership that had dominated the era came to an end on the stage of the Copacabana when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis called it a night in front of a celebrity filled house.

Before teaming up they barely new each other. Abbott and Costello had been working with other partners, while Martin and Lewis had been slogging away at solo careers. If the legends are to be believed, the partnerships were formed out of necessity. Somebody didn’t show up(Costello’s straight man), or somebody (Jerry Lewis) promised something that didn’t actually exist. And then the miracle happens...

There are numerous similarities and just as many differences. You can play that game forever. 3 out of the 4 were born the east coast, New Jersey to be precise, while, ironically, the “Coolest” of the bunch came from the mid-west. 2 were Italians and Catholic , 1 was a WASP, 1 was a Jew. Ironically Lou Costello discovered Dean Martin and actually had him under contract first. None of that really matters. At their peak, both teams were riotously funny, and that was all that really mattered.

Bud was a straight man. In retrospect he was THE straight man. None before or since could match his flawless pacing or delivery. And he possessed a gift crucial to that vocation. He listened. There are dozens of individual recorded performances of their signature “ Who’s on First?”and no 2 of them are alike. It’s a difficult routine on its own. It requires Swiss precision watch timing, even without your partner ad-libbing (As Lou was famous for doing). The right cue has to be there at the right time, otherwise it becomes a house of cards. Or even worse. It’s not funny. The performances work because Bud Abbott is there with the right line at the right time and is able to gently nudge his partner back on the track to the end.

Lou Costello was the comic, but not in the joke telling sense. He was the patsy. If Bud was the Con Man, Lou was inevitably the Conned. He walks the Earth in perpetual confusion. He is the constant victim., and it’s his response to that victimization that makes him funny and unique. The reactions are unpredictable. He may scream, and rage but the rage is always impotent. He may actually start to participate in his own fleecing ( As in the “I Quit” routine where Bud explains through simple “logic” that although Lou was hired at a dollar a day, after a year of employment he is only owed a dollar).However, his best moments are saved for when he has to show fear. Starting with “Hold That Ghost” in 1941, Lou Costello basically ruined “Scare takes” for anyone who came after. He loses his voice, he gasps for air, he stutters, he cries, and eventually screams for help. When help arrives, of course, whatever frightened him has conveniently disappeared. A patsy again.

The dynamics of the great comedy teams are all different. The Straight Man/ Comic Paradigm only really works for Abbott and Costello. With Laurel and Hardy there is no straight man, though at first blush it would seem Oliver Hardy is the prime candidate for the role. They are both adept comedians. What makes Laurel and Hardy funny, among many things, is Ollie’s presumption that he’s the smarter of the two of them. If this were the case he would never utter the words to Stan that inevitably seal their doom “Why don’t you do something to help me?” It never occurs to him to ask anyone else, mostly because there is noone else. They are locked together as spiritual Siamese Twins. Laurel and Hardy also break the comedy team mold in that they always got along, genuinely loved each other, and never really broke up. Their partnership ended when Oliver Hardy died. (True, when Stan was ill, Ollie did a couple of separate projects, Zenobia, and The Fighting Kentuckian where he does the Gabby Hayes thing with John Wayne. It’s not the same, because at no time does Wayne break into hysterics, or scratch the top of his hair) What they have in common with the others is that one of the partners was the driving force while the other played golf.

The aggressives were Stan Laurel(who wrote and edited most of the material), Lou Costello and, of course, Jerry Lewis. Hardy’s main contributions happened during filming. Bud Abbott was a total professional, but was less concerned about the creative aspect. Dean Martin was so passive he would leave the meetings to Jerry, only to find himself gradually being edged out of his own movies.

With Martin and Lewis you also have two comedians, but their styles are so radically different that it becomes less a comedy team and more a physical manifestation of a Manic/Depressive disorder. Like Abbott, Martin’s timing is flawless. Unlike Abbott, Martin gets in his own on occasion. Like Costello, Lewis is the master of the reaction. Unlike Costello, the reactions are so far beyond reality that they become grotesque, yet he is so quick that by the time you respond, he’s already moved on. Understand I’m differentiating between the Movie Jerry and the radio and TV Jerry. The movie Jerry is generally a nebbish, sometimes a victim, but mostly just a screw up. On radio and TV he was more like a primeval Robin Williams, who breaks in and out character at the drop of a hat. The laconic and the insane merge into a frequently hilarious whole. So when they did break up, neither was ever entirely complete. Certainly Dean was the more versatile but, yes kids, there is such a thing as too cool. There are times in Dino’s solo career that he’s so laid back it borders on comatose. On the yang side Manic without anything to bounce off of becomes tiresome after a while. It becomes exhausting watching Jerry trying to manufacture with others, what came naturally with Dean and then, at a certain point, try to morph himself into Dean in other words trying to be his own straight man. Jerry has admitted that he was never as good as when he was with Dean. He’s absolutely right.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Why I was born in the wrong era... I get sidetracked.

I suppose it’s a longing for what was supposed to be a simpler time. This of course is Bullshit. There is no such thing as a simpler time, only the clothes change. I was thinking about this on the weekend when I went to the Masters of Comic Art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. In LA. I was particularly struck by seeing a set of original artwork by one of my favorite artists, Will Eisner. I won’t go into his history... This is the internet, y’all can look it up. Suffice to say that Will Eisner was a master story teller and illustrator. For all his exceptional talent as an artist, he just as good at writing, and that’s saying something. And his stories are grounded in the realities of his time. Granted, it is a heightened reality, but at its core is a world we all recognize. Eisner’s characters are people we know even if they wear masks (Actually the only one who does is the title character, externally at any rate). And He was doing this in the 40's, when comics were supposed to be just kid stuff. He is regarded by the people in the industry as a legend and rightly so. If it weren’t “Comics” he would be mentioned in the same breath with people like Mark Twain and O. Henry.

Maybe it’s not a longing for a simpler time as much as wishing we were at a place when people took more pride and put effort into what they did. When I saw the work I was struck by the amount of detail. I’ve done comic art, and I know how difficult it is, but my puny efforts are nothing by comparison. These guys are called masters for a reason. And when I look at what passes for comic art these days, I don’t see that. I don’t see that in most things today. Maybe what you lose in the never ending demand for speed and product, is craft and detail.

I dunno...

Maybe I miss originality in a time of clones and remakes

Or maybe I just like the clothes....