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April 16, 2016
David Kalat
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Abbott, Costello, Jekyll, Hyde

So, this weekend TCM has got it into its corporate head to screen the 1953 comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In case you didn’t already know, this is one of the lesser-regarded, least-loved entries in the already rather shopworn and degraded pile of B-movie fodder that is the Abbott and Costello oeuvre. I know I’m misusing several words there—both oeuvre and B-movie, at least—but I do so advisedly. I’m a sucker for Golden Age Hollywood comedies, and comedy teams, and slapstick, so I have a soft spot for old Lou and Bud, but seriously it’s hard to defend their Universal films as anything more than programmatic filler recycling some vaudeville schtick well past its sell-by date. That being said, Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is substantially better than its reputation suggests, and definitely worth the time of anyone who bothers to read my weekly rantings here. Just go in with sufficiently lowered, realistic expectations, and let the isolated bright spots of this thing impress and surprise you.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about this week. I’m more interested in the movie TCM won’t be screening, because it doesn’t exist. The movie that might have been, in some alternate universe, where the original ideas for this film didn’t get curtailed and redirected into stale formula. Because at one point, this movie was set to be called Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde. And boy, what a difference that extra letter makes.

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KEYWORDS: Abbott and Costello, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde
COMMENTS: 11
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The American Artist

While vacationing in Paris recently I was struck by how much Parisians love their artists.  The streets are named for major cultural figures, the city is awash in museums, and at the newsstand kiosks at the entrances to the subway you can find, nestled between the tabloids and porno mags, a huge portfolio of works by Modigliani.  That’s how they roll.  And it’s ever been thus: once upon a time, Auguste Rodin was commissioned to do a sculpture in honor of the author Balzac.  The resulting statue was perceived as being “too avant garde” and triggered outrage, public complaints, and threats of lawsuits.  Has anything remotely like this ever happened in the US?  Has there ever been an artist, in any media, who was so beloved and so intimately intertwined with our national sense of self that anyone would bother to complain that an honorary statue wasn’t sufficiently reverent?

(Well, I mean aside from Lucille Ball, naturally)

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March 19, 2016
David Kalat
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Arbuckle Up, It’s Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride

DVR alert: there is a fabulous block of Roscoe Arbuckle comedies coming up on Sunday night, way past your bedtime. Roscoe appears onscreen in only a couple of them, but taken together this is an opportunity to see the great Roscoe Arbuckle working and collaborating with a wide variety of comic talents of the teens and twenties: Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Lloyd Hamilton, and Johnny Arthur. (Don’t worry if you didn’t recognize that last name—you’re not missing out on much. But hopefully the other names rang some bells, and if not, just keep reading and I’ll catch you up).

Seeing Arbuckle’s collaborations with some many disparate talents is important, because it can help settle some misunderstandings—but I won’t tell you just why, yet, because I want you to click the dashed line below and keep reading. So, if you can’t already guess why comparing Arbuckle’s work with different comedians might be revealing, or if you’re burning with curiosity to find out why “Lloyd Hamilton” is, then come on, click the fold, and let’s party on!

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KEYWORDS: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, lloyd hamilton, Roscoe Arbuckle
COMMENTS: 4
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January 30, 2016
David Kalat
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The Immigrant

For the last several weeks I’ve been circling around the legacy of Charlie Chaplin, with posts about him, his influences, and his contemporaries. This week I return to where I started, the man himself, to look not as Chaplin’s aesthetics but his ethics. There’ s something very important about the little fella I haven’t remarked on, and now is the time.

Let’s just start by saying that The Immigrant is my favorite Chaplin film, but that it got to be that by earning the spot. You see, I used to go around to elementary schools with a 16mm projector and put on an hour-long show of short comedies. I’d originally intended it to be a rotating selection, chosen by my mood at the moment and whatever tied in best with what the class was working on at the time. Sometimes I might include Big Business if it was Christmastime, or some Melies shorts if the class had been studying France, and so on. But very quickly on, I realized that for every class and every time I did this, The Immigrant got the biggest reaction. It became the tentpole of the show, by default.

I’ve had kids come up to me, years later, and recognize me—you’re the guy who showed us that Charlie Chaplin film. I showed a bunch of stuff, but that’s the one they remember. Keaton’s One Week, the two reel version of Harold Lloyd’s Hot Water, Harry Langdon’s Remember When—those were fleeting, ephemeral moments. Chaplin’s The Immigrant made an impression on these kids, and I decided to start studying it closely.

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, The Immigrant
COMMENTS: 9
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January 23, 2016
David Kalat
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Musty Suffer

It’s March 1, 1916 (or its November 1915 if you want to be pedantic and argumentative. I know who you are, and I’m ready for you). Let’s start again: It’s March 1, 1916. There. This is the day that the first film in the “Mishaps of Musty Suffer” series is released: Cruel and Unusual.

For the next two years, Musty Suffer’s mishaps will unspool over a raucous cycle of unruly two-reel shorts, full of surreal imagery and violent slapstick. Largely forgotten today, but available to the curious in an outstanding set of DVDs, the Musty Suffer films are remarkable both for what they are and also for what they are not. They are artifacts of what happens when talented and inventive people go significantly out of their way to take the road not traveled. And to understand just why these singular oddities deserve special attention beyond their immediate joys, we need to focus on the significance of that date—these would make sense if they’d been a few years before, or a few years after. But 1916?

That’s just nuts.

 

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, Musty Suffer, Silent comedy, Slapstick
COMMENTS: 10
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January 16, 2016
David Kalat
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The Fall and Rise of Max Linder

There’s an autographed photo of Charlie Chaplin, inscribed “To the one and only Max, “The Professor”. From his disciple, Charlie Chaplin. May 12th 1917.”

The “Max” in this scenario was Max Linder, the seminal French comedian.  Chaplin was often stingy about acknowledging his debts to his various collaborators and peers, but he was never shy about praising Linder.  When Max Linder, died, Chaplin shuttered his studio for a day out of respect.

Linder’s influence extended far beyond Chaplin, though.  His screen comedy laid the groundwork for the entirety of the silent comedy era that followed: he made films full of absurd sight gags and slapstick, grounded in character and driven by farcical situations.  There’s scarcely a comedian who came in his wake whose work does not bear an overt and demonstrable debt to Linder’s.

That being said, Linder’s films are not nearly as well known as you’d expect given that background.  Some of his best works show up on TCM from time to time and are available on DVD; some of his pioneering early shorts are available on a Blu-Ray box set from France—true, true.  But being available and being watched are two different things.

Linder’s legacy is clouded, you see, by the unsettling facts of his life.  If I tell you “Max Linder is a genius of comedy, go see his films,” your next question is going to be, “Sounds great—tell me more about him.”  At which point, this whole conversation takes a sudden dark turn, and that’s the problem.

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KEYWORDS: Max Linder
COMMENTS: 6
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January 9, 2016
David Kalat
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Life, Police, and Trouble

Lately I’ve been enjoying the outstanding Blu Ray box set from Flicker Alley of Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay films from 1915-1916 (do you own one of your own?  Why not?). And while watching them, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. It’s a rabbit hole that other Chapliniacs (Chapliniados? Chaplinners? Chaplinians?) have fallen down before—some have even pursued it to absurd, quixotic lengths. But, being the obsessive fella that I am, I burrowed down this well-worn path too, and finally emerged for air. I’d like to take this week’s post to share my journey, perhaps to help spare some other poor sod from wasting as much time as I did.

This is the story of three movies. One of these movies was never made. The second was made, but has at times been alleged to be a wrongheaded bastardization of its creator’s true intentions. The third film is most decidedly a wrongheaded bastardization, but was deceptively promoted as being the real deal.

This is the story of Life, Police, and Triple Trouble.

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KEYWORDS: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Essanay, Police, Triple Trouble
COMMENTS: 6
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The Thin Man Marathon: Conjugal Concord

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If you are planning to spend New Year’s Eve at home this year you will find some great company on TCM where Nick and Nora Charles, as played by the dapper William Powell and charming Myrna Loy, will hold court while sipping cocktails, trading quips and solving crimes along with their lovable dog Asta. The party kicks off at 8PM EST/ 5PM PST beginning with the original The Thin Man (1934) followed by all five of the Thin Man sequels airing in chronological order; After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and Song of the Thin Man (1947). Tune in and you’ll encounter some holiday cheer as well as lots of laughs and mysterious goings-on set amid the urbane elegance of nineteen thirties New York and San Francisco.

There are many reasons to love the Thin Man films. They’re smart, funny, sophisticated and flat out entertaining mysteries but I’m particularly fond of the way they make marriage look so damn fun. Nick and Nora are best pals as well as romantic mates and their breezy back-and-forth banter suggests an intimacy that is sadly missing from many depictions of marriage on screen. Best of all, they share a similar sense of humor and as the old maxim goes, “a couple that laughs together, stays together.”

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The Circus Comes to Town

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This Tuesday’s daytime theme on TCM is Under the Big Top. Yes, the circus is coming to town with 12 hours of chronological carnival fun from 1928 through 1959, and I can’t help but feel that some mischievous TCM programmer purposefully lined up these goodies as a warm-up for the presidential debates happening later that evening. But, who knows? Maybe it was wholly serendipitous. Either way, let’s see who all got stuffed into the classic-movie clown car coming our way. [...MORE]

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November 21, 2015
David Kalat
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Goat-Staring for Fun and Profit

So here we are, in the middle of November, sandwiched between the release of the latest James Bond flick and the upcoming release of the new Star Wars.  The War on Terror rages on, with no end in sight.  The Coen Brothers have migrated to TV where Fargo is ripping it up.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if somehow, all these different experiences could be smoothed together into one event?  Wouldn’t that just save so much time?

So, I present to you, The Men Who Stare At Goats.   A spy-comedy derived as a fictionalized adaptation of a controversial non-fiction book about “psychic soldiers” fighting in Iraq, with overt Star Wars in-jokes…I can’t say it’s a good movie, but it has so much else going for it, quality might be beside the point.

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KEYWORDS: Ewan MacGregor, George Clooney, The Men Who Stare at Goats
COMMENTS: 2
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