This arguably needs a Spoiler Alert. It's the last 25 seconds of "The Incredible Jewel Robbery," a half-hour episode of an anthology show called General Electric Theater. It was broadcast on March 8, 1959 on CBS and it represents the last real time the main three Marx Brothers appeared together on-screen. Incredibly, it was also the only time they all appeared together on any screen since A Night in Casablanca in 1946. In the interim years, there were a couple of projects in which all appeared (Love Happy, The Story of Mankind) but not in the same scenes.
The 1959 show was a funny caper film done almost completely in pantomime and starring Harpo and Chico as hapless crooks who disguise themselves as cops. Groucho, entering in the clip below for a surprise cameo, had the only line. (The man you'll see accusing them is, by the way, Benny Rubin who had a habit of appearing with great comedians and also being one himself.)
Shortly after this, the three brothers began filming on a TV pilot called Deputy Seraph in which they played angels. Halfway through shooting, production was halted because Chico was unable to perform. He had arteriosclerosis as was sadly evident in the few TV appearances he made before passing away on October 11, 1961. By that time, everyone had long since given up on Deputy Seraph. So since it never aired, these are the final moments of the Brothers Marx on-screen…
The fine artist Drew Friedman salutes the fine artist Frank Frazetta by showcasing some of Frazetta's work on movie posters. That work was not what he was best known for but there's some amazing things there. Some of it almost too good for the assignments. I did once hear Frazetta say, perhaps tongue in cheek, that art directors were not all that happy with what he handed in because no matter what he did, he was somehow unable to magically turn into Jack Davis.
Two small points. Drew speculates that some of the art on the poster for The Fearless Vampire Killers was by Gray Morrow. I don't know who did it but I doubt it was Morrow. It doesn't look that much like him to me. Also, a few years after this film came out, Morrow filled out a questionnaire for Jerry Bails' Who's Who in Comics project itemizing as many past credits as possible. Morrow listed poster jobs on a number of cheap, less prestigious films but he didn't list The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Secondly, Drew takes note of the revisions Frazetta made on his poster for The Night They Raided Minsky's. Bert Lahr was moved to a less prominent position and Drew says it was because Lahr died just before the film's release. Actually, Lahr died about halfway through the film's production and more than nine months before its release. I find it hard to believe Frazetta did the poster art long before the movie finished shooting. It seems more likely that someone just decided it was wrong for Lahr (in a supporting role) to get better placement on the poster than Norman Wisdom, who had the larger part. Frazetta also had to tone down the sexiness of the girls on the poster. (Talk about your false advertising: The dancers in the film couldn't have been less like the ladies Frazetta painted and still be of the same gender.)
But don't worry about these minor matters. Go look at the splendid Frazetta paintings.
Last evening, I attended a memorable event at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. As mentioned here, there's a new DVD coming out of a TV version of The Jazz Singer starring Jerry Lewis. (And before I forget: If you're in L.A., you might want to know that Jerry will be signing them tonight at 6 PM at the Barnes & Noble in The Grove.)
To kick things off, there was a private invitational event at the Paley. Mr. Lewis was interviewed by Leonard Maltin before an audience that included Martin Short, Jeff Garlin, Marty Ingels and Shirley Jones, Kevin Pollak, Judy Tenuta, Richard Lewis, Richard Kind, Ruta Lee, Kat Kramer, Ken Davitian and many others. Adam Sandler also put in a brief appearance but didn't stay for the show at which Leonard asked questions as did half the folks I just named. To those questions, Jerry gave answers…which is not to suggest that his answers had much to do with their questions. He had amazing energy for a man who's 85 and he did these long philosophical discourses in seeming response to what he was asked. But if I showed you the questions and then I showed you the answers and offered you a hundred bucks for every A you could match with a Q, you'd barely make a nickel.
Nevertheless, the audience found it fascinating. What he did say, rambling though it was, was not without interest…and what the hell? He's Jerry Lewis. If we wanted answers, we'd watch Jeopardy! Last night, we were all Jerry's Kids.
One thing he did answer: Leonard asked him about the status of the musical based on The Nutty Professor. Jerry said he was working on a movie now but in two months, he's going to New York and the show is on and he expects it to open on Broadway on (I wrote this down when he said it) November 20, 2012. I don't know why that date but that's what the man said. That's what he said, all right. That's what the man said.
Other than that, he talked a lot about "my partner" or "Paul" which is how he said he always addressed Dean. He talked a lot about his love for working. He said some very nice things about Leonard, describing him as one of the few members of "the press" who knows what he's talking about. He spoke very seriously about working with Robert DeNiro in King of Comedy and saying essentially that if his [Jerry's] performance was any good, it was because he fed off DeNiro's skill and some of it must have rubbed off. He also said a lot of stuff that I can't summarize because even though I was sitting about ten feet from Jerry and heard every word he said, I had no idea what he was talking about half the time. I think Martin Short got a lot of material for a new impression of the guy.
Friends ask me what it is that I like about Jerry Lewis. I dunno. That he's Jerry Lewis, I guess. He is in a way the last of a breed. Name me one other human being who starred in hit motion pictures in the fifties and sixties and is still standing…and who also was a genuine star on TV, in night clubs, on radio, even in comic books. There may be one but Leonard and I put our heads to the question at the after-party and we couldn't come up with a name. Jerry has these periodic moments of volatility, lashing out at critics and female comedians and imagined foes but against that, he has this massive body of important work and some genuine generosity…and it all seems to come from passion, not selfishness.
For some odd reason, the event last night was subtitled "60 Years of Comedy." None of us could figure out where they got sixty years because Jerry started performing on stage in 1931 and was billed as a solo act by around 1940. Martin and Lewis were hot enough to appear on the first Ed Sullivan TV show (then called The Toast of the Town) in 1948 and that's sixty-four years ago. I haven't been wild about a lot of the films and other appearances but I can sure respect the history.
The new DVD of his Jazz Singer is another piece of that history. If you'd like to get a copy of it, here's an Amazon link. The clips they showed last night made it look well worth viewing.
Ballots are going out to members of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) about a proposed merger of the two unions. Nearly everyone seems to think this is a good idea if not a necessity. Not everyone is convinced that the terms of the merger are good ones. You have two groups here with very different health plans and pension funds and dues structures and if you merge those, health insurance and pension plans change…and not everyone's will change for the better. Entrance requirements and dues will also change, going up for some and down for others.
There are solid reasons for the merger. Both unions used to negotiate in tandem but in the last strike, that pact crumbled and they separated. The result has been that AFTRA now undercuts SAG in almost every way, which displeases members of both unions. Something has to be done. I have no opinion on the terms of the merger; just that something of the sort needs to happen. My friends in SAG are grumbling a lot about what will happen to their health and pension plans as well as a few other things…but I think they're going to go along with it. To hang separately in the next contract negotiation would be worse.
I'll wager few of you are familiar with Charles Hutchison but he was kind of the Jackie Chan of silent movies. He started in films around 1914 when he was 35 years old, which seems late in life to begin a career doing dangerous stunts. As it happens, though all the promotion for his "Hutch" serials like Hurricane Hutch and Lightning Hutch swore that he performed all his own feats, most film historians think doubles were often employed. One source says Hutchison didn't employ stuntmen at first but after several injuries to his arms, it became necessary.
Anyway, he appeared in daredevil films for about ten years, then segued to less strenuous roles and to (mostly) directing and screenwriting. He died in 1949 and his last known film work was a non-stunt appearance in the 1944 Captain America serial.
Many of his films exist today only because John Hampton, the proprietor of the Silent Movie Theater here in L.A., found prints of them in the attic of some old, long-closed theater in the Mid-West. When Hampton ran them at his theater in the sixties, that may have been the first time they'd been projected since talkies were invented.
You can't really see him in these excerpts but Mr. Hutchison was a stiff, unimpressive looking man who was pretty boring when he (that is, allegedly he) wasn't diving from a great height into a lake or leaping from a moving train. In each chapter of his serials, he either did something like that or looked like he was about to — and you'd have to come back next week to see him actually do it.
It's been a long time since I've seen a "Hutch" film but I do recall a couple of outright cheats, not in the deeds but in the coverage of them. At the end of Chapter 8, you'd see him drive his car off a cliff and it would crash on the rocks below indicating certain death for its driver. At the beginning of Chapter 9, they'd start with the same footage…only this time, there'd be an insert shot of Hutch bailing out of the car just before it went over. Audiences at the Silent Movie Theater who'd seen both chapters would sit there and boo the long-deceased Charles Hutchison.
Here he is in action. Or maybe some of this is his stunt doubles in action…
Each year, we have this ceremony called the Golden Globe Awards and each year, my amigo Robert J. Elisberg writes some version of his annual column on why the awards are even more meaningless than you think. Click on Bob's name in the previous sentence and read this year's screed and remember two things: (1) Bob is absolutely, totally correct and no one disputes his facts and (2) No one cares that these awards are a farce because they help sell tickets and lots of folks enjoy the party, as spectators if not attendees.
And I should also add (3) which is that some people just love getting awards so much, they like to pretend they mean a lot more than they do.
Shane Shellenbarger sent me this link to an article that seeks to answer the question, "Why Do All Movie Tickets Cost the Same?" My guess is it's mainly Reason #2 in the article — theaters don't want you waiting for them to lower prices later on — and perhaps a fear that it'll make the higher priced tix feel like gouging. They think the customers will think, "Hey, it costs them to same to have me sit in Theater 1 as it does to sit in Theater 6. There's no reason they have to charge me more!" Yeah, I know that's not utterly logical but merchants cater to a lot of consumer notions that aren't logical.
I'm sorry. I'm not the least bit nostalgic for drive-in movies, nor do I resent their near-extinction. Obviously, a part of their appeal was that a guy and a girl could go to one on a date, ignore the film on the screen and have a wee bit of privacy for purposes of necking…but not much. Apart from that, I never understood why anyone had any use for them except as a good place to park or hold a swap meet during daylight hours.
Ours was the Olympic Drive-In, which was located at the corner of Olympic and Bundy in West Los Angeles. The three times my parents took me there, the place was crawling with kids who were running around between parked cars and drivers were honking horns continuously and there always seemed to be some poor guy wandering around with a tray of sodas and popcorn, having forgotten where his car was located and kept yelling, "Marge?" For some reason, it was always "Marge?" It all seemed about as conducive to romance as trying to make out in the middle of a Kmart during the Blue Light Special.
My folks took me to the Olympic to see the following movies: Gulliver's Travels (the Max Fleischer version), Onionhead (starring Andy Griffith), Alias Jesse James (Bob Hope) Visit to a Small Planet (Jerry Lewis), The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry again) and Once Upon a Horse (the film debut — and almost the demise — of Rowan and Martin). I remember the movies but not which was paired with which in double features. These spanned the years when I was six, seven and eight — 1958-1960.
I also remember the Olympic as a horrible place to watch a movie. You'd pull into a spot and take the speaker, on which you foolishly expected to hear the movie's soundtrack, from a little pole and hook it over your window…only the speakers rarely worked. If you found a good, vacant parking space it was probably vacant because its speaker didn't work…as my father would find out. He'd have to move the car again and again and sometimes even again…and then right in the middle of the movie, the speaker would conk out and he'd have to move us yet again. So there was yet another distraction. The cars next to you were always moving around. Even when you found a space with a dependable speaker, the odds were that one or both of the speakers next to you didn't work so other cars would be pulling in and out of those spaces throughout the evening.
So the sound was bad and occasionally non-existent. The image was also bad…projected on a screen miles away that was covered with bird dung and serious weather damage. The Olympic got prints that were on their last go-round and full of splices, and you could always count on each movie breaking once or twice. During Onionhead, it would just stop like clockwork every ten or so minutes and the screen would be blank for about three. I figured out later that they must have only had one working projector that night so every time they got to the end of a reel, the projectionist would have to take that one off and then mount the next reel on the projector.
Whenever there was no movie on the screen, everyone honked their horn and hooted until there was again. There was also a lot of honking when cars tried to leave and back out of their spots…
…and then there was the refreshment stand. Oh, Sweet God in Heaven…
It was located in front of the screen in a low building which also housed rest rooms which had not been cleaned since the marquee included the name of Lon Chaney…senior. There was also a little playground there with swings and teeter-totters. I have this indelible memory of my father taking me to the men's room right in the middle of one of the Jerry Lewis films and it was like a twenty-minute wait for the only working toilet. We were lined up outside and I was watching a grown-up woman who must have weighed 250 pounds, sitting on one side of the teeter-totter…and there were about six men pressing down on the other end, trying unsuccessfully to get her off the ground while she ate a meatball hero sandwich.
I laughed out loud. It was a lot funnier than the Jerry Lewis movie, not that that's usually a tough standard to beat.
Before we went back to the car, my father bought popcorn and sodas, which were the only thing in the refreshment stand that looked remotely edible. There were hot dogs there that looked radioactive…like they might actually get up and do the little dance that the animated hot dogs had done in the intermission cartoon. There was also a big tub of chili that, so help me, had something living in it.
We finally got the popcorn and drinks back to our car…which took a while because, of course, my father forgot where the car was. I think I suggested he try yelling "Marge?" even though my mother's name was Dorothy. Once we finally located the auto with her in it, I promptly spilled refreshments all over the back seat, which I later learned was pretty much expected when you took a kid to a drive-in movie. Or at least it should have been.
So I couldn't enjoy the movie and I couldn't eat. My mother had brought along my pajamas with the bizarre idea that if I got tired, they'd put me in them and I could doze off in the back seat. Like that was remotely possible. It was very awkward for her to change me into my jammies inside the car and between the sound of the movie and the car horns honking and people racing engines and the lost fathers wandering around the lot screaming "Marge?", I couldn't have gotten any shuteye if you'd administered a lethal injection. Add in the huge traffic snarl at the end and the long, long wait to get out of the lot and you can understand why I never had any use for drive-in movies. How anyone ever did is as big a mystery to me as what was lurking in that chili.
This probably comes too late to matter to any of you but it's fun to know. Greg Kelly informs me that if you start watching the movie The Apartment at 9:58 PM, the New Year's celebration in the film will coincide with your own reality.
Very early the morning of December 30, Turner Classic Movies is running The Comic, a 1969 comedy/tragedy written by Aaron Ruben and Carl Reiner and directed by the latter. In it, Dick Van Dyke plays an arrogant, unsympathetic silent comedian named Billy Bright, whose story combines elements from the lives of Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton, with a wee bit of Harry Langdon and some Whole Cloth tossed in. Mickey Rooney plays his sidekick and some of the scenes from Billy's later life (like the talk show appearance depicted above) actually play out like Mr. Rooney's last few decades. Wouldn't surprise me at all if Mssrs. Van Dyke, Reiner and Ruben were well aware they were basing scenes on Rooney while he performed in the film, oblivious to this.
The film has a stellar cast that included Michele Lee, Cornel Wilde, Pert Kelton and Nina Wayne, among others. The best joke belonged to a character actor named Ed Peck who managed to turn up at one time or another in every situation comedy of the sixties and in quite a few movies. He usually played some serious authority figure — a general or a cop — who turns out to be a cross-dresser or who gets a pie in the face. In The Comic, it was a pie. (One memorable exception: On an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, he played Buddy Sorrell's rabbi…but in another episode, he played a serious Army Captain who revealed that, deep down, he wanted to be a choreographer. That was the typical Ed Peck role.) He passed away in '92 and since then, Hollywood has lacked a good actor who can play an intense, all-business F.B.I. agent who later turns up in drag.
Those of you who are into Cartoon Voices or Industrial-Strength Trivia take note of the following: Paul Frees can be heard dubbing at least four parts in the film, and June Foray dubs one or two lines for a child actor. Also, the venerable Silent Movie Theatre (subject of this article) is the backdrop for one poignant scene.
That The Comic was not a hit, I can well understand. I seem to recall it playing less than one week in the first-run theaters of Westwood. I think I saw it on a Friday, recommended it to a friend on Saturday and when he tried to go the following Tuesday, it had been replaced by something else. The hero is unlikable in many of the wrong ways and the narrative places him pretty much in free-fall with few surprises en route to his inevitable end. Van Dyke is superb in the comedy scenes; not quite as wonderful when made-up, at times unconvincingly, as an old man. Still, enough treasures abound to make it all well worth the space on your TiVo and your taking the time to watch it.