Oops, my bad

Every week my blog postings here are riddled with errors. Most of them are spelling glitches that I would like to blame on Apple, and my habit of writing these on my iPad with the aggressive spell-check feature turned on. But in amidst all my spelling mistakes are more serious errors–like my apparent inability to distinguish Jude Law from Rufus Sewell, or the fact that I thought Joel McCrea’s name was Joel McCrae. Not to mention all my grievous errors of thought (did I actually argue here that Star Trek The Motion Picture was a good movie? Why, yes, yes I did apparently)

So this week I pay tribute to all the errors that great filmmakers I admire left in great movies I love.

THREE_STOOGES_COLLECTION_1937_39

For example, let’s start with one of my heroes, Charley Chase. By the time he started directing shorts for the Three Stooges, he had a weight of extraordinary comedy achievements behind him. He was an acknowledged master of the form and knew what he was doing. He also had a reputation for working efficiently, which the Stooges and their production team greatly respected, given the usual slave-driving work habits of detail-obsessed Jules White.

But there’s a fine line between “efficient” and “in a hurry,” and at times Chase’s work with the Three Stooges veers uncomfortably into that later category.

Take for example Flat Foot Stooges, which is in places one of the funniest and freshest things the Stooges ever appeared in. But there’s this one weird moment where Moe and Curly clearly flub their lines and pause, waiting for Chase to call cut, only to realize he’s not going to. So they gamely plod on, trying to save the take, which really no one else should ever have seen:

[wpvideo NogSIV9o]

But the profusion of such odd moments lends this particular short a pleasing roughness–and Moe’s forgetting the dog’s name and Curly failing to offer up a smart-alecky response to being slapped are actually funnier than if they’d gotten the scene right.

Although that error is kind of obvious, sometimes errors are much harder to spot. For example, Shane Carruth’s Primer, which is one of my favorite movies and is highly recommended (he has a new movie out, which I haven’t seen, but my mouth is already watering). Anyway, here’s the thing: Carruth got it into his head that he needed to shoot Primer in a 1:1 shooting ratio, which no one has ever done because it’s a crazy idea. But unlike Charley Chase simply deciding that flubbed takes were good enough and not bothering to reshoot when things went screwy, Carruth’s attitude was that if the cast didn’t nail a scene on take one, he’d just drop the scene from the movie and move on.

primer-test

As a result, I don’t have any clips of his mistakes to show you, because they weren’t used–but the scenes they were supposed to be in weren’t used either. And in a movie that is already a sci-fi head scratcher, the sudden deletion of key moments of exposition only served to make the thing even more puzzling. There’s a huge game changing revelation late in the film in which our understanding of their time traveling experiments is suddenly rewritten and new mythology introduced, but almost all of this occurs off-screen and is barely mentioned, so the audience is left to guess at what happened and what it meant.

Other times, errors are used in the final cut get so integrated that they are hard to spot. For example, in Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages, he was supposed to leap from one skyscraper to another, but the stunt proved more challenging than predicted and he missed the rooftop. Keaton was injured by the accident and filming was suspended for months. By the time he was recuperated and ready to return, there was no question of tempting fate by trying the same stupid stunt a second time–instead he and his gag men cooked up a new routine around the fall that was so well orchestrated and clever that it probably never occurred to anyone watching that it hadn’t been planned all along.

[wpvideo N43JaoDY]

Which brings me to my last example, which turns this idea on its head. Here’s an error that appears to be a mistake, but which was planned.

It’s from Animal Crackers, a Marx Brothers vehicle adapted from their popular stage show of the same name. In this scene, Louis Sorin appears to mix up his character’s name with Groucho’s, and Groucho pounces on the flub to mercilessly taunt Sorin, and Sorin’s character.

[wpvideo t8grEwTj]

But what’s weird is how this bit occurs at the end of a scene in which Groucho and Roscoe W. Chandler have been obsessively and ritualistically introducing themselves to each other–repeating their names as a sort of vaudeville routine to mark off each round of jokes within the scene.  Of all the times to flub your name, to do it here?

I saw a stage revival version of Animal Crackers at Washington’s Arena Stage in 1999 starring Frank Ferrante in the Groucho role. And when that scene came up, Lawrence Redmond (as Roscoe W. Chandler) flubbed his line in the exact same way and Ferrante responded with the same barrage of apparent ad libs.

Then in 2009 I saw another revival performance in Chicago, in which Stanley Wayne Mathis and Joey Slotnick “flubbed” their lines again, and again recovered in the same way.

At both shows, the audience loved this apparent break, and afterward happily quoted the exchange. Even people who had seen the movie before, but not memorized it, still singled out this faux-faux pas as an example of the Groucho-worthy quick wit and irreverence of the performers. Because these are demonstrably not ad libs, I can only conclude that at some distant point in the evolution of the original Animal Crackers play, someone did flub their lines and it did get a response. And from what I’ve read by and about Groucho, I expect he responded by permanently ensconcing the mistake into the show’s book, and then carefully experimenting with his “ad libbed” riposte until he’d engineered the perfect laugh, which subsequent renditions have faithfully recreated.

Because sometimes a mistake is just a mistake, and sometimes it’s genius.

(Next week: a mistake that’s just a mistake!)

22 Responses Oops, my bad
Posted By swac44 : April 13, 2013 10:26 am

Reminds me of the time I went to see a friend’s play, and for some reason one of the cast members forgot she had a scene, and the two actors onstage simply skipped ahead to the end of the scene once they realized that actor #3 was not going to appear. I think she was supposed to come in and throw something out a window, which would have some sort of relevance later on, so my friend just did an adlib and did it himself, and no one was the wiser.

Posted By swac44 : April 13, 2013 10:26 am

Reminds me of the time I went to see a friend’s play, and for some reason one of the cast members forgot she had a scene, and the two actors onstage simply skipped ahead to the end of the scene once they realized that actor #3 was not going to appear. I think she was supposed to come in and throw something out a window, which would have some sort of relevance later on, so my friend just did an adlib and did it himself, and no one was the wiser.

Posted By Doug : April 13, 2013 11:28 am

High school dramatics-doing the play “Dracula” there’s a scene where the Count magically appears in the frame of a picture in Harker’s library, scaring a medical orderly, which in our production played by my friend Chuck.
Chuck walks around the library. Sneaks a look at the picture frame.
No Dracula.
Chuck peruses the painted books.
No Drac.
Chuck sits, puts his feet up on the desk and pretends to take a nap.
I was the stage manager, and I eventually found our vampire in one of the dressing rooms shooting the breeze.
When Drac finally appeared in the picture frame Chuck fell out of his chair.
David, that “Primer” movie sounds crazy-just deleting scenes if there’s a mistake? No pressure on the actors, right?
I’ve been on a Nero Wolfe kick lately-Rex Stout had an agreement with his publisher that what he wrote was published-no edits, period. There are a few (very few) misspellings in his work, but they are there.

Posted By Doug : April 13, 2013 11:28 am

High school dramatics-doing the play “Dracula” there’s a scene where the Count magically appears in the frame of a picture in Harker’s library, scaring a medical orderly, which in our production played by my friend Chuck.
Chuck walks around the library. Sneaks a look at the picture frame.
No Dracula.
Chuck peruses the painted books.
No Drac.
Chuck sits, puts his feet up on the desk and pretends to take a nap.
I was the stage manager, and I eventually found our vampire in one of the dressing rooms shooting the breeze.
When Drac finally appeared in the picture frame Chuck fell out of his chair.
David, that “Primer” movie sounds crazy-just deleting scenes if there’s a mistake? No pressure on the actors, right?
I’ve been on a Nero Wolfe kick lately-Rex Stout had an agreement with his publisher that what he wrote was published-no edits, period. There are a few (very few) misspellings in his work, but they are there.

Posted By Anonymous : April 13, 2013 1:39 pm

I was at the 92nd Street Y watching a show once with Larry Kert. He was singing a classic song which included a strenuous dance number. Unbeknownst to Kert, it became apparent that his dance costume was ripping open, in the worst possibly place, right in the front at the crotch. He kept dancing, giving it even more ‘jazz’ if you know what I mean, because at this point there was a definite response from the audience. Finally, as he got to the end of the number, he looked down, realizing that the audience response was not praise but instead a lot of tittering. He stepped forward and made a comment, I don’t really remember what he said, but it was a double entendre, at which point the crowd completely broke up. He wrapped his jacket around his waist, finished the number and got a standing ovation, followed by the crowd yelling for an encore. He had them in the palm of his hand. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It just shows you what you can do with a mistake.

Posted By Anonymous : April 13, 2013 1:39 pm

I was at the 92nd Street Y watching a show once with Larry Kert. He was singing a classic song which included a strenuous dance number. Unbeknownst to Kert, it became apparent that his dance costume was ripping open, in the worst possibly place, right in the front at the crotch. He kept dancing, giving it even more ‘jazz’ if you know what I mean, because at this point there was a definite response from the audience. Finally, as he got to the end of the number, he looked down, realizing that the audience response was not praise but instead a lot of tittering. He stepped forward and made a comment, I don’t really remember what he said, but it was a double entendre, at which point the crowd completely broke up. He wrapped his jacket around his waist, finished the number and got a standing ovation, followed by the crowd yelling for an encore. He had them in the palm of his hand. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. It just shows you what you can do with a mistake.

Posted By evan dorkin : April 13, 2013 2:20 pm

Nifty article and swell clips, but I don’t know if I’m convinced about the Animal Crackers flub being premeditated. Actors can flub a line at any point, and it’s possible the Animal Crackers stage plays folded in the movie dialogue. Has it been confirmed the flub wasn’t something they just rolled with and liked and kept? I can believe it was planned, but I can’t find anything more on it online (my Google-fu is weak, I admit) and I was wondering if you had more to go on.

Posted By evan dorkin : April 13, 2013 2:20 pm

Nifty article and swell clips, but I don’t know if I’m convinced about the Animal Crackers flub being premeditated. Actors can flub a line at any point, and it’s possible the Animal Crackers stage plays folded in the movie dialogue. Has it been confirmed the flub wasn’t something they just rolled with and liked and kept? I can believe it was planned, but I can’t find anything more on it online (my Google-fu is weak, I admit) and I was wondering if you had more to go on.

Posted By davidkalat : April 13, 2013 2:32 pm

@evan–

Excellent question. I’ve never read anything to verify my statement, and I have a fair bit of Marx-related reference material to work from. But re-watching the movie scene, it looks like they know what’s coming. Groucho doesn’t seem caught off guard, and Chandler delivers his flustered response in the same mannered way as he does his scripted lines.

That’s not proof, though. If anyone has actual information to confirm or deny my position, I’m open to being proven wrong (or vindicated, as the case may be)

Posted By davidkalat : April 13, 2013 2:32 pm

@evan–

Excellent question. I’ve never read anything to verify my statement, and I have a fair bit of Marx-related reference material to work from. But re-watching the movie scene, it looks like they know what’s coming. Groucho doesn’t seem caught off guard, and Chandler delivers his flustered response in the same mannered way as he does his scripted lines.

That’s not proof, though. If anyone has actual information to confirm or deny my position, I’m open to being proven wrong (or vindicated, as the case may be)

Posted By AL : April 13, 2013 5:41 pm

Thank you for your thoughts on PRIMER…

Posted By AL : April 13, 2013 5:41 pm

Thank you for your thoughts on PRIMER…

Posted By Stacia : April 13, 2013 9:58 pm

I don’t care what anyone says, Joel McCrea’s name is one of the hardest names in showbiz to spell. It took me months of deliberate work to remember Mae Clarke and Scorsese; with Joel McCrea, I just sigh and look it up every time. Don’t even try anymore.

This is not nearly the same level of mistakes you were referring to, but I was surprised when I recently re-watched the Bette Davis movie Deception to see so many errors, like shadows of the boom mic in almost every apartment scene, and even what looks like a camera cable underneath the piano.

Posted By Stacia : April 13, 2013 9:58 pm

I don’t care what anyone says, Joel McCrea’s name is one of the hardest names in showbiz to spell. It took me months of deliberate work to remember Mae Clarke and Scorsese; with Joel McCrea, I just sigh and look it up every time. Don’t even try anymore.

This is not nearly the same level of mistakes you were referring to, but I was surprised when I recently re-watched the Bette Davis movie Deception to see so many errors, like shadows of the boom mic in almost every apartment scene, and even what looks like a camera cable underneath the piano.

Posted By Ken Zimmerman Jr. : April 13, 2013 10:11 pm

I believe the clip from Animal Crackers was definitely a slip that Groucho made into a great routine. He was so good at the ad-lib, some of the best scenes in their films are his playing off other characters particularly Margaret Dumont. One of the writers of Duck Soup was on the set, while Groucho was speaking and said, “Stop. I think I just heard one of the original lines.”

Posted By Ken Zimmerman Jr. : April 13, 2013 10:11 pm

I believe the clip from Animal Crackers was definitely a slip that Groucho made into a great routine. He was so good at the ad-lib, some of the best scenes in their films are his playing off other characters particularly Margaret Dumont. One of the writers of Duck Soup was on the set, while Groucho was speaking and said, “Stop. I think I just heard one of the original lines.”

Posted By SergioM : April 13, 2013 11:54 pm

This piece reminds me of that other mistake in a Stooges short. In Pardon My Scotch there’s a gag where Moe is standing a table that Curly saws through. Moe takes a step and the table collapses with More hitting the floor. He sustained a several broken ribs and a concussion, but still got up and kept doing the scene. When the director yelled cut, Moe fainted

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODFMXGmd0Tw

Posted By SergioM : April 13, 2013 11:54 pm

This piece reminds me of that other mistake in a Stooges short. In Pardon My Scotch there’s a gag where Moe is standing a table that Curly saws through. Moe takes a step and the table collapses with More hitting the floor. He sustained a several broken ribs and a concussion, but still got up and kept doing the scene. When the director yelled cut, Moe fainted

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODFMXGmd0Tw

Posted By robbushblog : April 17, 2013 11:23 am

David- I recognize some of my corrections to your work in the first paragraph. I’m sorry for being such a stickler about things like that. I’m glad you don’t take it personally like so many others do.

That Buster mistake and his solution to it were brilliant, of course.

Posted By robbushblog : April 17, 2013 11:23 am

David- I recognize some of my corrections to your work in the first paragraph. I’m sorry for being such a stickler about things like that. I’m glad you don’t take it personally like so many others do.

That Buster mistake and his solution to it were brilliant, of course.

Posted By davidkalat : April 17, 2013 12:29 pm

No worries, robbushblog. It’s just the danger of working without a copy editor here–I take my chances.

(My favorite copy editor story: the editor of my 2007 J-Horror book called me up to note that I had more or less duplicated about 10 pages of content from one chapter in a later chapter. It wasn’t a cut and paste error–I’d just wandered off and written the same passage again, having forgotten I’d already done it. It took a while to figure out which version I wanted to keep, and how to restructure the other chapter once I’d cut that chunk out. I’m so glad someone caught that)

Posted By davidkalat : April 17, 2013 12:29 pm

No worries, robbushblog. It’s just the danger of working without a copy editor here–I take my chances.

(My favorite copy editor story: the editor of my 2007 J-Horror book called me up to note that I had more or less duplicated about 10 pages of content from one chapter in a later chapter. It wasn’t a cut and paste error–I’d just wandered off and written the same passage again, having forgotten I’d already done it. It took a while to figure out which version I wanted to keep, and how to restructure the other chapter once I’d cut that chunk out. I’m so glad someone caught that)

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