Apologies: this week’s post is about racially insensitive jokes in silent comedy (Yes, Ben Martin, this one’s for you), and so I’ve got some unpleasant screen grabs, illustrating some gags most of us probably wish hadn’t been filmed, and then to make matters worse I’m going to speak clumsily and awkwardly about these things while analyzing jokes. None of which is really all that great an idea.
As recent history has tragically shown, we’ve got a lot of work do to repair race relations in America. But that’s not to say it’s on no one’s short list of priorities to pick at the scabs of ninety-year-old silent comedies.
This is a classic movie blog, you know, so it’s supposed to be about classic movies. But there are different ways of defining “classic.” Personally I’m drawn to the definition offered up in a recent Frazz comic strip, that classic is defined by how it takes to forget something. But there are other definitions, too—and it’s worth remembering that “classic” doesn’t always mean “classy.” And that sometimes movies can be thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile without being classic. Because, let’s face it, Peter Yates’ 1976 Mother, Jugs, and Speed is not going to find itself on just about anyone’s roster of “classic films,” but it’s a surprising gem worth revisiting. It’s also not likely to turn up on TCM anytime soon, which is a shame, because it may have been too quickly forgotten for how well it works.
Posted by Susan Doll on October 20, 2014
A few years back, I was teaching the musical comedy when a male student remarked that he did not care for musicals because they were like chick flicks—too focused on romance and too filled with music that was old-fashioned. He did not find the production numbers with Fred Astaire from Top Hat to be particularly impressive; while he recognized that Astaire was good at his craft, anyone can take lessons and learn to dance, or so he claimed. For the next class, I came armed with a clip of the Nicholas Brothers performing their famous staircase dance from Stormy Weather (left). The class was dutifully impressed, and the student who dismissed musicals begrudgingly admitted that he liked the Nicholas Brothers whom he compared to athletes. The incident came to mind because today is Fayard Nicholas’s birthday, and it seemed fitting to acknowledge the talents of the Nicholas Brothers.
Posted by Susan Doll on August 26, 2013
To cap this year’s Summer Under the Stars series, TCM devotes the last day of August to British actor Rex Harrison, best remembered as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Harrison’s extensive career was more diverse and interesting than his signature role suggests, which is true of most actors whose life-long work has been reduced to one famous role.
During the 1940s, Harrison was under contract to 20th Century Fox, where he was cast in a variety of films, including Anna and the King of Siam, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Unfaithfully Yours. Supposedly, Harrison was unhappy at Fox because he felt the studio did not appreciate his talents for sophisticated romantic comedy. He was granted a release from his contract, though I suspect Fox’s decision to let him go had more to do with the scandal resulting from Harrison’s role in the suicide of Carole Landis. Frankly, this is the only phase of Harrison’s career that I find interesting. There is something unlikable about his movie-star image, which began as an arrogant, supercilious cad in the 1940s and evolved into a stuffy patriarch by the 1960s. The publicity surrounding his unsuccessful marriages and dalliances only furthered this aspect of his persona. At least his roles for Fox either used this persona to its best advantage or softened it.
Posted by David Kalat on August 17, 2013
While celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary at Walt Disney World a couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to think about racist content in family movies.
No, no–hold on, bear with me. I was having a great time and was fully immersed in the magical world of Disney like I was supposed to, but I ran across an interesting paradox that got me thinking. You see, over the years, Disney has retired some rides because their source material was deemed too obscure (bye bye Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), and even some that didn’t seem all that obscure got the axe to make way for attractions based on the latest releases (bye bye 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).
Given this policy, the enduring popularity of Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom is something to marvel at, since the ride is based on perhaps the most obscure work in the entire Disney canon, Song of the South. Weirder still, Splash Mountain debuted in 1989, a few years after its source material Song of the South was decommissioned and mothballed. It would have been easier to just forget Song of the South ever existed–but there’s something about this film that is not so easily forgotten.
Posted by David Kalat on March 5, 2011
Last week I posted an essay about 1930′s comedy star William Haines, and ignited some impassioned responses in the comments area from some Haines supporters who took umbrage at what I wrote. I like to provoke intense feelings—I can’t see much point to wasting my life writing about movies if I don’t generate some kind of response. I could be spending my time playing with my kids, or drinking. . . or drinking with my kids. So, I think angry comments are better than no comments at all—but this particular firestorm has encouraged me to write a sequel.
This week isn’t about Haines, though, but is about the issue that informed last week’s controversy: how changing cultural attitudes influences how we react to comedy. And the touchstone I’ll be using for this week’s discussion is blackface comedy of the 20s and 30s—I use the term “blackface” broadly, to cover not just white actors playing blacks but black actors playing crude black stereotypes. If you click on the “read more” button, you will be greeted with some images and film clips I fully expect to be offensive. Proceed advisedly.
Posted by David Kalat on January 8, 2011
One thing I love about blogging here is the sense of a real conversation developing with readers. Several weeks ago, I wrote about Laurel and Hardy’s first talkie, UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE, and the comments to that post inspired me to explore the larger story of the transition from silent to sound—and that post’s comments were so wide-ranging and inspiring I have my work cut out for me to just keep up. I’m not surprised that readers challenged my off-hand references to Buster Keaton’s talkies—and next week I’ll pick that thread back up—but I was surprised (read: thrilled) that the comments then spurted off in an unexpected tangent about Westerns.
Duke Roberts specifically asked: “Could you research why exactly the western died the way it did? The one western a year, or every other year, does not satisfy.”
Why have Westerns spiffled out as a genre? Well, I don’t want to just toss out half-baked ideas, so let me work through these things over the course of several posts.
I’d like to start off by taking a look at one particular issue: how Westerns portray Native Americans. The Cowboys ‘n’ Injuns storylines of a lot of older Westerns weren’t meant to have the kind of deep cultural complexity that they now do—and that means that modern Westerns either have to mostly ignore the native peoples, or directly address the complicated politics involved.
If scientists were to announce tomorrow that astronomers suddenly discovered that, y’know, outer space really doesn’t exist, and in fact all those things we call stars are just sparkly lights in a solid firmament located immediately in the sky, just like the ancients believed… well, that would have ramifications for people making SF movies, and we might be sitting here talking about why nobody makes films like STAR WARS anymore.
So, what I’d like to do is take you through a mirror world of Westerns from a parallel universe that has a wholly different take on the relationship between white settlers and natives—and may help shine a light on how universal the Western genre actually is.
Posted by David Kalat on November 27, 2010
12 ANGRY MEN is a dangerous movie. It’s one of the worst threats to my productivity of any movie ever made—if I’m unlucky enough to come across it while channel surfing, I’m stuck. I won’t be going anywhere until it’s over. And once, the movie sucked me in pretty much literally, until I found myself living inside it, with the fate of an actual human being in the balance.
Posted by David Kalat on November 20, 2010
Lillian Travers (Edith Story) makes a surprise visit to her boyfriend Dr. Cassadene (Sidney Drew). But the surprise is on her when she catches him in what sure seems like a comprising position with a wealthy widow. He makes the requisite apologies, they make up, and it all goes pear shaped again when he blows their next rendez-vous, once again caught with the same widow. She gives him a third chance—and as she comes out of her house to meet him, there he is, entangled in the clutches of three fawning women. If this were any other movie, you’d expect Lillian to blow her top and walk out on him, continuing the cycle of sitcommy complications that you’ve come to expect by this point. Oh, but A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT is not any other movie. And let us uncover its fabulousness in stages:
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