Dr. Rich Edwards

OUCH! A Salute to Slapstick - Films of the 1930s

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016 features slapstick films from the 1930s.

 

Use this thread to discuss your thoughts about the following films:

  1. Dollar Dizzy
  2. The Pip from Pittsburgh
  3. Sons of the Desert
  4. The Music Box
  5. A Night at the Opera
  6. Hips, Hips, Hooray
  7. Elmer the Great
  8. Movie Crazy
  9. Sweet Music
  10. Gold Diggers of Paris

Enjoy the discussions - this is a great group of films that showcase how slapstick evolved after the silent film era. 

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The plot of "The Music Box" is like the myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned for all eternity to push a huge boulder up an impossibly high and steep hill, only to have the boulder roll all the way back down just as it reaches the top. This film has all that frustration, but it's funny.

 

The physical comedy is so strong that this film could work as a silent comedy, with the dialogue conveyed with title-cards. However, we'd lose the fabulous sound effects, which were done live, just out of shot. Even the player-piano's medley was actually played live by Marvin Hatley, just out of shot.

 

The crated piano is almost a character itself, with a malicious instinct. So is Susie the horse who pulls Stan & Ollie's moving-wagon.

 

Stan, Ollie, and every other character could exist in the real world. Their traits and behaviours are exaggerated, but they're rooted in reality...except one, who is a complete cartoon.

 

Billy Gilbert's "Professor Schwartzenhoffen" shows Billy's limitations as an actor. He played every character so far over the top that he was halfway down the other side. This worked well in earlier Mack Sennett-style slapstick films with their outrageous characters and gags, but feels out of place in later films with more realistic characters and situations. It's as if everyone else is playing through a range of "6" to "9", but Billy's turned up all the way to "11", all the way through.

 

I've seen him in a couple of "Taxi Boys" shorts on YouTube, and he's doing the same over-the-top blustery schtick as he did in "The Music Box" and "County Hospital" and every other film I've seen him in, except "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (as the voice of "Sneezy") and "Fun and Fancy Free" (as the voice of "Willie the Giant").

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The “party of the first part” scene in A Night at the Opera is just wonderful. The “stateroom” scene is another favorite of mine. Both of these scenes got a Daily Dose and a Breakdown of a Gag treatment, respectively, and deservedly so.

 

And kudos to Kitty Carlisle: what a set of pipes! Leave it to the Marx Brothers to mix opera and slapstick. On the DVD version of the film, Kitty Carlisle says that she gets praise from her children and grandchildren for being in a Marx Brothers movie, not for her singing.

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There are a lot of great scenes in Night at the Opera but a small one that stood out was when Harpo knocks the one guy out (watched the film last week, & forget the context). Harpo then tries to relieve him and Chico says he's "Sorry," but no, Harpo knocks the guy out a second time. This works so well because of the character Harpo establishes, of being a sweetheart who would never hurt anyone, and the innocent look he maintains afterwards.

 

Completely different note but one thing I appreciated about The Pip of Pittsburgh is the structure to it. Charlie Chase's character tries to sabotage his date by doing three things and then backtracks to fix these exact same three things when he realizes his date is the amazing Thelma Todd. It goes back to idea of knowing in advance what Charlie's going to do, so the surprise comes instead from not knowing how he will do it.

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Sons of the Desert: apple-eating scene (note how when the scene speeds up it is Laurel himself and not the hand-cranking this time as it was in the silents; thanks for this note to Larynxa); evolution of the simple hot-water gag; the oldest comedy routine in the books, getting caught in a lie, esp as result of a tragedy; we saw the cab door/tripping over the luggage routine many times before (ie, in “Speedy”); did Laurel steal Langdon’s act or was his exaggeration of the crying gag a new form of slapstick?

 

 

 

The Music Box: Does the addition of sound effects really make it funnier? Backing up into the pool…straight out of Chaplin; carrying the piano back down wasn’t slapstick, it was stupid; and this is where abject stupidity takes the place of simple accident in creating slapstick. This is not to say that the entire concept was stupid, because Larynxa was spot-on, I think, in capturing what Laurel, Hardy and Parrot were up to in terms of reproducing the ancient myth on a comedic level. I simply think it failed at this one point and "rose" to that level of ridiculousness Keaton referenced in regard to the Marx Brothers.

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If it were not for Harpo and the Marx Brothers films, I do not believe I would be familiar with the Harp.

 

A Night at the Opera comes with beautiful opera melodies, plenty of punch lines delivered by Grouch, and lots of funny gags. It is one of my favorite zany slapsticks and always a delight to watch.

 

Lassparri: Never in my life, have I received such treatment. They threw an apple at me!

Driftwood: Well, watermelons are out of season.

 

Groucho could be so vivid!

 

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Movie Crazy: Again Lloyd finds situations that allow him to place gags that open up an entire line of slapstick pratfalls, one after the other, rather than having a series of gags that interrupt the story line. The rainy day in LA that turns into a flooded convertible; the screen test that goes on forever based on a mistaken identity based on the old switcheroo; and the whole relationship with Mary which is based on mistaken identity; then the magician coat switcheroo which leads to a series of gags at the ball; and then the “boat” scene. These ideas of mistaken identity, or the accidental switch of one identical item for another, are some of the oldest story ideas in Western Civilization, both in comedy and tragedy.

 

 

 

Sweet Music: Certainly this type of slapstick music, really the only slapstick in this film, was already popularized enough in order to be on film, and it was even directly referenced as such by Vallee when he remarks to the band something to the effect of, "Let's give them the old vaudeville routine." But it was the forerunner of the ever more popular Spike Jones in the 1940s and 1950s.

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I, too, wish to question Dale's definition in regard to the use of the word "breakneck," because often--and not only with the Marx Brothers--pausing for effect in dialogue is key to humor. Body language, facial expression, allowance for other actors in the scene, background action, etc., all have an opportunity to manifest while the dialogue is slowed down, somewhat. When the Marx Brothers intentionally slowed down the pace, allowing for what they knew would be laughter from the audience to subside so that this laughter would not interfere with the ensuing dialogue, you could no longer consider this "breakneck" dialogue. Nor could you in these other situations. I believe this is exemplified several times in the "party of the first part" clip, alone.

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I, too, wish to question Dale's definition in regard to the use of the word "breakneck," because often--and not only with the Marx Brothers--pausing for effect in dialogue is key to humor. Body language, facial expression, allowance for other actors in the scene, background action, etc., all have an opportunity to manifest while the dialogue is slowed down, somewhat. When the Marx Brothers intentionally slowed down the pace, allowing for what they knew would be laughter from the audience to subside so that this laughter would not interfere with the ensuing dialogue, you could no longer consider this "breakneck" dialogue. Nor could you in these other situations. I believe this is exemplified several times in the "party of the first part" clip, alone.

Yes.  I agree.  Breakneck dialogue is much more characteristic of Screwball Comedy.  Although there is crossover between the genres (e.g. "The Palm Beach Story" - screwball or slapstick?).

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somehow I am woefully behind everyone else on keeping up with all the films.  I can't stay up all night to watch them and so I record them and watch when I can during the day.

 

I just finished Laurel & Hardy's "Sons of the Desert" which was extremely funny and has all the elements of slapstick, both verbal and physical.  Exaggeration - with the eating wax apples routine, and hiding in the attic with the spring bed that lightning strikes, the bit about bing on a ship that sunk, and so much more.  Physical - with them tripping over suitcases, boxes, the horn in the attic, the taxi driver who somersaults over the suitcase and the landing in the pot of hot water in Oliver's living room.  Ritualistic - repeating the landing in water outside the house when they slide down from the roof. Make believe - with scenes from the Convention, and violent when they slap with a "slapstick" the next person who bends over at the convention.

 

Simply the best! :D  Interesting, too, is that Sons of the Desert is really an international fraternal organization devoted to the appreciation of Laurel & Hardy.  Great film.

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I admit that I had a hard time appreciating Charley Chase. Did anyone else feel that way? I was looking forward to his shorts, because they were new to me, but once I started DOLLAR DIZZY, I felt less engaged than I had with any of the other performers thus far. Maybe the topic was too dated for me  (gold digging females) and the gags too familiar. I did chuckle when Thelma Todd called the house detective and Charley answered the phone, though.

 

I love Laurel and Hardy, and The Music Box never fails to admuse me. I enjoyed seeing it again.

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Sons of the Desert: apple-eating scene (note how when the scene speeds up it is Laurel himself and not the hand-cranking this time as it was in the silents; thanks for this note to Larynxa)

They still used those undercranking techniques in the early sound era, but to nowhere near the same extent that they'd used it in the silent era. Look closely, and you'll see that some action-scenes (notably scenes of horses being ridden at full-speed in westerns or war films) and gags involving falls or people being catapulted through the air. These things would be shot silent and undercranked, and the sound effects and voices dubbed in, in post-production.

 

You can see examples of this in many Laurel & Hardy films, including "Helpmates" (when Ollie slips on the floor-sweeper and somersaults through the air, landing on his duff), and in "The Music Box" (for several of the piano's journeys down the steps, and when the fountain pen squirts Professor von Scwartzenhoffen in the face).

 

In "Sons of the Desert", the technique is used several times, including when Mae Bush falls into the tub of water. The undercranking is only for a second, but it adds a spurt of motion to her fall. Also, if you look closely at the parade scene, you can tell it was shot silent, at the slower frame-rate of silent-speed, and the sounds added later. The movements are slighly jerky and speeded-up.

 

BTW, I found several of Ben Model's demonstration videos of the technique, on YouTube. Just search for "undercranking: Keaton".

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Yes.  I agree.  Breakneck dialogue is much more characteristic of Screwball Comedy.  Although there is crossover between the genres (e.g. "The Palm Beach Story" - screwball or slapstick?).

As I've said elsewhere, I think Palm Beach was not the best example of Sturges' "slapstick." This was much more in the "screwball" or perhaps verbal slapstick vein, especially when you think about "the weenie king."

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They still used those undercranking techniques in the early sound era, but to nowhere near the same extent that they'd used it in the silent era. Look closely, and you'll see that some action-scenes (notably scenes of horses being ridden at full-speed in westerns or war films) and gags involving falls or people being catapulted through the air. These things would be shot silent and undercranked, and the sound effects and voices dubbed in, in post-production.

 

You can see examples of this in many Laurel & Hardy films, including "Helpmates" (when Ollie slips on the floor-sweeper and somersaults through the air, landing on his duff), and in "The Music Box" (for several of the piano's journeys down the steps, and when the fountain pen squirts Professor von Scwartzenhoffen in the face).

 

In "Sons of the Desert", the technique is used several times, including when Mae Bush falls into the tub of water. The undercranking is only for a second, but it adds a spurt of motion to her fall. Also, if you look closely at the parade scene, you can tell it was shot silent, at the slower frame-rate of silent-speed, and the sounds added later. The movements are slighly jerky and speeded-up.

 

BTW, I found several of Ben Model's demonstration videos of the technique, on YouTube. Just search for "undercranking: Keaton".

Wow! Thanks for this tip. I think I'd heard of this but it slipped through the cracks. This is such useful information. The idea that this was still used, and for such a long time after. The effect must have seemed so less natural to theater-goers after a while, yet, with more technological skills, has now become ever more natural again.
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I just couldn't get into Charlie Chase's films. I did watch them and for early sound it still had the elements of slapstick but I felt it wasn't to the same level of Laurel & Hardy or Lloyd. I've seen the Laurel & Hardy films many time and find them just as funny today as I did 50 years ago. The Music Box is better suited for sound because the sound bouncing down the steps was part of the gag. Night at the Opera is probably my favorite of the Marx Brothers. The delivery of both verbal and physicals are done well and don't detract from the story. My favorite scene is the one when Chico and Groucho are discussing the contract.

 

Unfortunately I didn't set my DVR for the rest of them.

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Movie Crazy (1932)

 

This film from Harold Lloyd (his third sound feature) opens with visual gags: Harold “hitches” a ride, holding on to a car while riding his bicycle so that he can listen to the radio; he picks up a delivered rolled magazine with his foot while he rides in the driveway of his home; and he rescues a duck in a hole by using water from a hose to lift the bird to the surface of the ground. The extended fight scene between Harold and Vance was a lot of fun. Harold (in character) kept insisting that he wasn’t acting, and it didn’t look staged. Even in this sound feature, Lloyd uses his physical comedy and relies on what he does best. The sound and the action are synchronized beautifully, but Harold Lloyd is still a master of physical comedy.

 

Spoiler (it would have been a spoiler for me!): Mary Sears meets Harold in the rain trying to put the top up on her convertible. But he actually meets her on set when she is playing the senorita who drops a rose and Vance, her costar, is supposed to pick it up. They’re the same actress, and I didn’t even notice it myself at first, not until her true identity was revealed in the film’s plot. This reveal really took me by surprise. I don’t know how many audience members were also taken by surprise, but I found that it added to the humor. Harold Hall fell for this case of mistaken identity and so did I!

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Unfortunately I could not watch all of these great films and my bad I have no DVR. But I've seen most with the exception of the last two.

I plan on seeking them out after reading about them and seeing everyone's comments.

 

One comment I would like to add is that I've been critical of Charley Chase's style of humor but thoroughly enjoyed watching the entire two reeler, "A Pip From Pittsburgh." I unabashedly admit that I was happily surprised that I laughed out loud after seeing the clip we watched in Daily Doozies in the context of the completed feature. But what really knocked me out was the scene where he and Thelma Todd are dancing and each time the lights go out he is seen taking back his suit from his friend until they have both traded off their entire wardrobes.

 

This is not I think an original Charley Chase gag but it is done so perfectly and is so comical with them sharing the jacket then the pants and all the muttering and gripping by both men that even though you know what is coming you can't help but laugh. So maybe Charley isn't my favorite slapstick comedian but I have gained a real appreciation for him and that's one reason why I enrolled. To not only gain a more in depth knowledge of Slapstick but to learn to see and appreciate this art form and its stars better. To understand the challenges that appear deceptively easy but instead are complicated, nuanced and often dangerous.

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The Music Box (1932)

 

This comedy short kept me laughing throughout. Even the supporting players get to be funny:

• Nanny (after getting kicked in the booty by Stan Laurel): “And not only that, he kicked me.”

• Police officer: “He kicked you?”

• Nanny: “Yes, officer. Right in the middle of my daily duties.”

 

Ollie goes down the full flight of stone stairs holding on to the piano in its box. It’s obviously a dummy going down the long flight, but that just made me laugh all the harder, for some reason.

 

I found the comedy bits about Laurel and Hardy’s bowler hats and the way they keep getting them mixed up really funny. It reminded me of the routine on The Dick Van Dyke show by Dick Van Dyke and Henry Calvin (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2z60xc). Dick Van Dyke was a great admirer of Stan Laurel. It also reminded me of Harold Lloyd’s running gag in Movie Crazy, although Lloyd’s running gag involved a straw boater.

 

Lots of borrowing and updating of gags about hats. I’m beginning to think that gags about hats are as important to comedians in the twentieth century as gags about banana peels.

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The Music Box (1932)

 

This comedy short kept me laughing throughout. Even the supporting players get to be funny:

• Nanny (after getting kicked in the booty by Stan Laurel): “And not only that, he kicked me.”

• Police officer: “He kicked you?”

• Nanny: “Yes, officer. Right in the middle of my daily duties.”

 

Ollie goes down the full flight of stone stairs holding on to the piano in its box. It’s obviously a dummy going down the long flight, but that just made me laugh all the harder, for some reason.

 

I found the comedy bits about Laurel and Hardy’s bowler hats and the way they keep getting them mixed up really funny. It reminded me of the routine on The Dick Van Dyke show by Dick Van Dyke and Henry Calvin (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2z60xc). Dick Van Dyke was a great admirer of Stan Laurel. It also reminded me of Harold Lloyd’s running gag in Movie Crazy, although Lloyd’s running gag involved a straw boater.

 

Lots of borrowing and updating of gags about hats. I’m beginning to think that gags about hats are as important to comedians in the twentieth century as gags about banana peels.

 

There's a great point. Slapstick comedians do so much with clothing. What do contemporary comedians do when clothing styles change? You can't keep relying on hat tricks when no one wears hats. Men stop wearing suits and ties as regular daily attire as they had for decades into the 1960s. For a while in the 70s a lot of jokes were built around "the leisure suit" when men were moving towards wearing jeans as everyday style. Where has that gone? And talk about tasteless, sexist jokes! What about all those gags about beatnik turtlenecks and berets, miniskirts, Twiggy and hippie beads from the 1950s and 1960s? We'll be seeing a lot of that coming up in the next two weeks.
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Sons of the Desert (1933)

 

This is a favorite of mine. Laurel and Hardy's facial expressions when reacting to adverse situation made them unique in my opinion. The story and gags are well thought out; I could never grow tire of them or this film. Charlie Chase makes an appearance here as a highly-energized prankster. 

 

Could be that no one wails quite like Oliver Hardy. Maybe the Stooges. We'll see them soon.

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After watching Movie Crazy, I have to say that Harold Lloyd has won me over with this performance. It is definitely the best new film I have seen in the course thus far. The story is very creative as are all the gags. I now want to see all his films.

 

The running gag (or joke) in the film, more so than the ruining-the-hat bits, is Harold Hall always finding himself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with everything going wrong, at every turn. He almost never catches a break. We laugh and sympathize at nearly every gag.

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Wheeler and Woosley are a double act I've never had the pleasure of watching. I liked it. Woosley reminds me of George Burns. I found they have lots of movies and will add these two to the bucket list. I loved the wake up scene and the innovative use of their digs.

 

I wasn't able to watch the films most of you discussed wasn't in town to set DVR so I have some catching up to do on these films. I did enjoy the Pip from Pittsburgh. Thelma Todd new what was going on the entire time and just let Chase continue to try and redeem his first impression.

 

The music box was phenomenal!! I had never seen it before and was at the edge of my seat every time the piano was about to dash down the stairs. The horses personality was great as well. There is something about animals being used in comedy which tickles me. I enjoy when they are portrayed as smarter than the chuckle head leading role.

 

Harpo is my favorite Marx Brother. I love he is the silent era in talkie films. Brilliant idea.

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The only film I have seen in the group is A Night at the Opera, and besides Duck Soup, it is my favorite of the Marx Brothers. When you see this and their other films, you realize how much of an influence they really are for comedy now. There is something technically genius about the way each gag is setup, especially the famous stateroom scene. You have to wonder how it was designed and choreographed, because it seemed to be a very tricky moment to create. That is the brilliance of classic comedy, where everything was done with patience and hard work. Comedy was better than it is now where everything can be done digitally. Digital can ruin the fun of certain comedy jokes and gags.

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some of the early 30s pieces definitely showed their slapstick roots...one of the biggest thing I picked up on was the use of their real names instead of character names Dollar Dizzy  and The Pip From Pittsburg are excellent examples of this idea.

 

I think Elmer the great was the first in the ones that I watched where I noticed actual character names :)

 

Laurel & Hardy were new ones on me, I'd never seen  of their works.

 

Wheeler & Woolsey's film was complete insanity but I kinda loved it :) I definitely noted the precode elements...it had a lot of inuendo...but what I really picked up on was the opening sequence with the girls in the bathtubs...it was like okay well that happened. 

 

The articles I read about it And movie crazy was very interesting, I completely got the "autobiographical" elements which was neat...but I wondered about him being called the worst actor by the studio head...I kept wondering if that was just for laughs or if he had a bit of self deprecation. 

 

A Night at the opera had some very memorable quotes for me that I was jotting down as it was going :) "I don't remember packing you boys" was probably one of my favorites I really don't know why lol I also really loved the pseudo sword fight in the orchestra pit and the backdrops going up and down during the performance. 

 

Sweet Music-the band's antics were awesome! they had this great sequence where Skipp was doing foreign accents. At one point he pretended at being a detective and was talking about going to a nudist camp undercover and he says he'd be "a little bare outside" which was awesome...but the last sequence in the movie was a little chauvinist for me. Normally those things don't bother me but for some reason it did here. 

 

Gold diggers in paris-the highlight was DEFINITELY the band :)

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