The Funny Old Dark House


“Don’t big, empty houses scare you?”
“Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.”

That wry exchange is one of the many little asides that typifies The Cat and the Canary (1939), airing in prime time this Friday on TCM. This Paramount production (now part of the Universal library) is the earliest surviving sound version of the original old dark house chiller that started life as a stage play by John Willard, and it’s a savory bit of counter-programming to Universal’s ongoing parade of beloved movie monsters (which were being toned down in the early throes of World War II). The idea of Hope starring in a horror movie (especially so early in his career — he’d only been starring in features since 1938!) sounds bizarre on paper, but it works beautifully in practice. Part of the charm here is the smart pairing of Hope (more subdued and urbane than usual here) with the gorgeous and charming Paulette Goddard, who was married to Charlie Chaplin at the time and was best known for Modern Times (1936). The chemistry between Hope and Goddard was so good they were teamed up for another horror comedy in 1940, The Ghost Breakers, and in between she made her most familiar film for many TCM viewers, The Women (1939). And as you can see in that promotional shot above for The Cat and the Canary, she also knows how to rock a Halloween costume like nobody’s business. [...MORE]

Is It Still Funny: Revisiting Comedy with Mark Caro

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I lived in Chicago for almost 25 years before relocating to sunnier climates, and one of my favorite parts about the Windy City was that it was a cinephile’s paradise. Historic theaters hosted silent movies, film societies programmed classics, and the rarest of indies could be found at Facets Multi-Media or the Gene Siskel Film Center.

“Is It Still Funny? is a recent addition to Chicago’s eclectic cinematic scene. Hosted by film journalist Mark Caro, this terrific series showcases a variety of comedies in order to test their comic viability. The movies are shown once a month on the big screen at the Music Box, one of Chicago’s movie palaces. Afterward, audiences discuss and debate the movie’s comic merits. I knew TCM viewers would want to know more, and Mr. Caro graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his series. His comments are below.

TCM just wrapped “Ouch! A Salute to Slapstick,” which was a rousing tribute to physical comedy on the big screen. I discovered that some of the directors and films featured in “Ouch!” were also included in “Is It Still Funny?” I would love to hear from viewers who regularly watched the movies that were part of “Ouch!” to see if their thoughts were similar to those of Mr. Caro’s audiences.


Farewell to the Frisco Kid

The Frisco Kid 1
The much-mourned passing of comic actor, writer, and director Gene Wilder on June 11, 2016 was one of the saddest shocks in a year already full of them. A master of both physical and verbal comic timing as well as an underrated dramatic actor, Wilder will be honored on Thursday, September 29, with a four-film sampling of his formidable talents including Young Frankenstein (1974), Start the Revolution without Me (1970), and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), plus a double airing of his one-hour Role Model interview episode from 2008. Of course, you could easily program an entire day of Wilder without covering everything, so hopefully this will be enough to either get fans back in the mood to explore his output or awaken newbies to the riches in his filmography, which also includes such milestones as Blazing Saddles (1974), The Producers (1967), and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). [...MORE]

Law and Disorder: The Naked Gun (1988)


David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker were three wiseasses from Milwaukee who killed time watching movies. They gained an admiration for the stoic leading men in cheap genre productions, those actors who jutted their chins and remained expressionless through the most absurd scenarios. ZAZ’s whole comic ethos stems from these viewings – their main characters are virtuous idiots wandering through a world that explodes with gags around them. These dopes’ deadpan obliviousness provide the majority of punchlines in  Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun trilogy. And there was no one more virtuous or more idiotic than the fools portrayed by Leslie Nielsen – who was ZAZ’s platonic ideal for a comic actor. Often mistaken for his  Airplane!-mates Lloyd Bridges and Peter Graves, he had that aging leading man gravitas (and mane of gray hair) and could play everything straight, reciting the most ridiculous lines as if he was in an airplane disaster film like Zero Hour (1957, the model for Airplane!). ZAZ’s follow-up to Airplane! was the short-lived and joke-packed TV show Police Squad! (1982), a parody of M-Squad and other square-jawed cop shows. The TV version was canceled after four episodes (six would air), but strong reviews (and a lead actor Emmy nomination for Nielsen) kept the project alive until ZAZ adapted it into the  The Naked Gun, which airs tomorrow night on TCM as part of their “Salute to Slapstick.” It is with The Naked Gun that Nielsen fully displays his comic gifts, a tour-de-force of deadpan, face-pulling, and pratfall.


That Ealing Touch

Alec Guinness in The Lavendar Hill Mob
If you know the name “Ealing Studios,” chances are it makes you think of a string of astonishing comedies the British studio cranked out in the decade or so after World War II, usually starring Alec Guinness, including such essentials as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, seen above and airing this Saturday, September 10), The Ladykillers (1955), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and Whiskey Galore! (1949). If you haven’t seen any of those, put them at the top of your “to watch” list pronto! However, there’s much, much more to the Ealing name than most Americans ever saw, and only in recent years has it been possible to really appreciate the scope of its output.  [...MORE]

Tripping through England with The Wrong Box and Time Bandits

The Wrong Box This Saturday you’ll have a great opportunity to take a little crash course in British comedy courtesy of a double feature of two period films (more or less): Time Bandits (1981) and The Wrong Box (1966). In addition to featuring once-in-a lifetime rosters of talent in front of and behind the camera, both are the result of some of England’s most enduring contributions to comedic pop culture in radio, TV, and film, showing how profoundly media could shape the approach to screen humor from one decade to the next. [...MORE]

July 30, 2016
David Kalat
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I Did It My Way (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Buster Keaton’s Doughboys)

So, gentle readers, this is my farewell. I started writing for TCM’s website ten years ago; I joined the Movie Morlocks six years ago. Since my debut here in the fall of 2010 I’ve posted over 300 blog posts. Between the Morlocks posts and my work on the website, I’ve contributed significantly more than 500,000 words—the equivalent of something like 6 full-length books.

It has been a phenomenal experience. I’ve been so grateful for the opportunity to share the stage with my fellow Morlocks—an extraordinary collection of worldclass film writers—and speak to such an engaged, knowledgeable audience. It’s been a blast. But I’ve chosen to resign from TCM so I can spend more time yelling at the raccoons in my neighborhood. Raccoons have got to be an atheist’s best argument for evolution—what Intelligent Deisgner worth his salt would deliberately invent hyper-intelligent trash-eating scavengers with thumbs? And really, if after 500,000 words I haven’t totally exhausted everything I could possibly have to say about classic movies, you’ve got to agree I’ve certainly long ago run out of useful or interesting things to say.

In the spirit of going out as I came in, I’m going to take my final post as an excuse to once again bang the drum in favor of an unloved, underappreciated gem by a slapstick clown. My first post was about Charlie Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races, and today I’ll go down swinging in favor of Buster Keaton’s MGM talkie Doughboys. Yes. Seriously. Come on, click the fold to keep reading –this will be our last time together, let’s make it special!


KEYWORDS: Buster Keaton, Doughboys, MGM
July 9, 2016
David Kalat
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Gracie Allen Finds the Perfect Man

College students are coming to the Hotel Casa Del Mar–in pairs they come, two by two. It’s a veritable Noah’s Ark for young scholars. Why they have come is a matter of some debate, however. The new manager of the Casa Del Mar (Jack Benny) has told the coeds that they are going to be the summer entertainment for the hotel, a promotional gimmick to help rope in some tourists. And sure enough, he gets them to put on a show, full of elaborate song and dance numbers. But that’s just a ruse–the hotel’s deep in debt to a socialite (Mary Boland) with a fixation on using eugenics to engineer a new super-race, and the students are going to be her unwitting guinea pigs.


KEYWORDS: Ben Blue, Frank Tuttle, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Martha Raye
June 4, 2016
David Kalat
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First Things First

DVR alert—thanks to this month’s Marie Dressler tribute, coming up on June 6th TCM is running the 1914 comedy feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance. This is a hugely important work in film history—just about any film reference will tell you so. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “Tillie’s Punctured Romance is notable for being the first feature-length comedy in all of cinema.” Wow. I mean, right? Just wow.

Except… it’s hard to give credit to Tillie’s Punctured Romance for being the “first feature-length comedy in all of cinema” when there was another feature-length comedy released on August 10, 1914, four months earlier.

And you want to know the best bit? This earlier film, arguably the true first comedy feature in film history, is a gender-bending treat that suits today’s mood much better than the fusty old melodramatic complications of Tillie’s Punctured Romance. Click the fold below and let’s find out more!


KEYWORDS: A Florida Enchatment, Sidney Drew

Robert Fuest & His Abominable Creations

rfvpVincent Price & Robert Fuest on the set of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

TCM’s month-long celebration of American International Pictures comes to an end tonight with some of the company’s best productions from the seventies including Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), Brian De Palma‘s Sisters (1973), Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970) featuring one of Robert De Niro’s early screen appearances, William Crain’s Blacula (1972) and the little-seen A Matter of Time (1976), which was the last film directed by Vincente Minnelli. I haven’t seen the Minnelli film myself so I’m looking forward to finally catching up with it but today I thought I’d focus my attention on filmmaker Robert Fuest. Fuest directed the first AIP film airing in tonight’s impressive line-up, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) featuring Vincent Price in one of his most memorable roles.

The late Robert Fuest, who died in 2012 at age 84, has become one of my favorite filmmakers over the years thanks to his artistic direction and ability to mix fear and humor into a creative combustible cocktail that yielded such gems as The Abominable Dr. Phibes and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) as well as the brilliant, stylish and utterly bonkers Michael Moorcock adaptation, The Final Programme (1973). Other films in his impressive oeuvre include Just Like a Woman (1967), And Soon the Darkness (1970), Wuthering Heights (1970) and The Devil’s Rain (1975).

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