Saturday, February 28, 2015

Discovering the Slate Brothers

[post 399]

I chanced upon the Slate Brothers in a star-studded but less-than-memorable film, College Swing (1938; available on Netflix). Just eight minutes into the movie, this bit comes out of nowhere:

You can imagine how that got my attention! I immediately thought Ritz Brothers, only they're not. My next thought was: they better be in this movie again... Yep, here they are singing, dancing, and slapping and poking each other silly, again ending in a big pile-up.

They make one more appearance in the movie, ending up in the same 3-person fall, as if there's just no way these guys can avoid it. For us pratfall aficionados eager to find a new way to commune with the ground, it's great to be able to study it from another angle.

So who the hell are these guys? Well, they're damn good eccentric dancers but it's pretty clear they're also part of that whole anarchistic "crazy comedy" tradition that includes the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Olsen & Johnson (Hellzapoppin'), and Britain's Crazy Gang, and that no doubt influenced the Goon Show and Monty Python.

Unfortunately, I have not unearthed a treasure trove of video clips. In fact, this next one is the last, at least so far. It's A Little Jive is Good For You (1941), a 3-minute "jukebox soundie" with Martha Tilton as the singing nurse whose dulcet tones miraculously get our crippled boys back in the groove.

The Slate Brothers are also listed as appearing in 
Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), a movie I could only find for sale or rental on Amazon. I love you guys so much that I plunked down $2.99 to rent it streaming for 24 hours, but I don't love you enough to have spent two of those hours watching the whole movie. Instead, I fast-forwarded through it a minute at a time — twice! — and never found our heroes, unless they are the bellhops doing nothing interesting for 10 seconds in the opening scene. Any more patient researchers out there?

Unlike the Ritz Brothers, who made sixteen films, the Slate Brothers mostly worked onstage, apparently very successfully, but they were denied the fame that major movies bring. According to Sid (see clip below), they did in fact appear in eight movies in the early 30s, but I find no record of these. Hopefully more clips will surface, and I am happy to see here that they made numerous appearances in early television, including three times on the Texaco Star Theatre when Milton Berle was hosting.

From The Milwaukee Journal, Sept.18, 1942

Meanwhile here's a bit more info:

• They were Jack (1909–1989), Henry, and Sid Slate, and they began as Charleston dancers in the 1920s. They worked as a trio until 1948 or 1956 (sources vary on the date), when Henry left the act, after which Jack and Sid performed as a duo.

• In their later years, they were co-owners of the Slate Brothers Club, a very successful night club  in Los Angeles. According to the insult comedian Don Rickles in his autobiography, this is where he got his start:

Lenny [Bruce], now a budding star, was playing The Slate Brothers when the owners took offense at his language. I don't know the details, but they considered Lenny, who others recognized as brilliant, too offensive for their audience. Now here's the funny part. They hired me, Mr. Good Taste, to replace Lenny Bruce.

And according to the NY Times:
Soon he [Rickles] found himself onstage at a nightclub called Slate Brothers, insulting gangsters and movie stars with alacrity. This was the scene of his first Sinatra sting: when Mr. Rickles turned to Sinatra, he told the singer he should make himself at home by hitting somebody. A friendship was forged. “Slate Brothers seated maybe 100 people,” Mr. Rickles said. “I used to get dressed in the kitchen. I sweated a lot onstage, and Harry Goins” — Mr. Rickles’s longtime friend and man Friday — “used to douse me with cold water in the alleyway while I stood stark naked.” Slate Brothers is long gone, as are many of the rooms Mr. Rickles used to work.

This incident is covered in more graphic detail in the book The Trials of Lenny Bruce.

• Henry Slate and Jack Slate had minor roles in various movies in the 70s and 80s.

That's it for now. Updates if and when I learn more.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Silent Films of Billy Crystal's Father

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Don't want to give away the joke, so just watch!

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend the source for this clip, Billy Crystal's one-man autobiographical show, 700 Sundays, available on HBO Go and on DVD. And if you like movies about comedians, I also recommend Crystal's Mr. Saturday Night (1992).

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Guest Post: Ben Robinson Reviews the Marcel Perez Collection

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The Return of Marcel Perez!
The DVD and Companion book

Ben Model / Steve Massa
reviewed by Ben Robinson
(Full Disclosure: I was one of the 150+ Kickstarter backers who contributed to the production of this work. The producers did not ask for my endorsement. —BR)

In 1968, the phone did not stop ringing at the New York City booking agency CTA. A twenty-year-old agent and co-founder of the booming business, Marty Hoberman (1949—1999) sat back completely satisfied. Many of his acts were touring nightclubs and performing in rock concerts. Each day the mail brought stacks of checks. Jim Morrison of The Doors had just been cited for contempt of court, and public indecency, and while The Doors management tore their hair out because of the recalcitrance of the lead singer, well-paying offers for The Doors did not slow down to Hoberman’s small agency. Hoberman had booked The Doors into the Miami concert where Morrison allegedly exposed himself to the audience.

Truth told, there were only three full-time employees that showed up for work around noon. Yet, the building foyer index noted at least ten different departments and as many as fifty agents in the company!

An act showed up in the later days of the agency complaining they’d not been paid for a date played six weeks earlier. Marty Hoberman tried to pay respect to the angry magician calling, listening politely as the act railed, “Why is it that I can book myself nationally, on TV, in films and you can’t even get me the lousy $400 you owe me for Westchester Community College?”

 When the breathless artist slowed his rant, the prescient agent offered:
“Sweetheart—yeah, you’re right. The check is in the process. No excuses. But, you don’t seem to realize one strong rule of show biz: If you worked under different names, offered different acts, you’d be working nightly instead of this weekend crap, and you wouldn’t be so hard up for the lousy four-hundred. You want to book yourself? Go ahead. But you better use a different name. No one who writes checks pays artists directly. It don’t happen.” Marcel Perez and his astonishingly prolific career is testament to what we might now call Marty’s Rule #1.

Perez disguising himself as garbage in Camouflage (1918)
Courtesy Undercrank Prods/Library of Congress

Marcel Perez, who author Steve Massa in his book Marcel Perez—The International Mirth Maker, calls “the greatest silent film clown you’ve never heard of,” worked under at least a half-dozen professional names:  Tweedledum, Marcel Fabre, Robinet, Fernando Perez, Tweedy, Bungels, and  Twede-Dan. He was an international star in the years between 1900 and his death in 1928.

In 1912 he made an astonishing 35 films that we know of. It is estimated by film historians Ben Model and Steve Massa, the producers of this wonderful DVD, that this great clown may have made over 200 movies, long and short. In 2015, Perez re-emerges as a force of nature largely because of Messrs. Model and Massa’s seeming archeological dig to find Perez’s films in France, Italy, the Netherlands and the massive 1.1 million films held by the Library of Congress. Both the Library of Congress and the EYE Filmmuseum of the Netherlands contributed 35mm and 16mm prints. Digitally remastered for global consumption, these charming short films are a spectacular follow-up to the Model–Massa 2014 release, The Mishaps of Musty Suffer (also available from Undercrank Productions on

Perez attempts to be a good Samaritan in Sweet Daddy (1921)
Courtesy Undercrank Prods/Library of Congress

 So, what do you get when you lay down your $$ on Amazon for both book and DVD?

Undercrank Productions has provided another first-rate edition to their expanding catalog of lovingly restored silent clown series. Perez is featured in five films made in the US, and another five made in Torino, Italy. Working under so many different names probably led to his productivity, as the production schedules noted and the many companies he worked for are staggering. Yet, having shed one clown skin for another seems to have worked well for this man who spoke many languages —with the exception of English! No matter: the language of silent film comedy and title cards changed to what language was needed, which was all that mattered to audiences who reveled in his films released in the first quarter of the 20th century.

In this DVD he appears first in a 1911 short titled Robinet’s White Suit. Any clown aficionado will immediately know that when a clown wears a white suit what is likely to ensue. Nevertheless, the invention of the dirtying of the suit is hilarious and not sentimentally inspired. What struck this writer immediately were his physical moves. Given what we know of George M. Cohan and his pigeon-toed arched dance moves…we can now wonder who came first; Cohan or Perez. A later reference will take clown scholars by surprise. Whirls, kicks and spins reminiscent of the great George Carl.

A lovely time-capsule bonus of these ten shorts, with new scores played by maestro Model, is seeing Torino, Italy from 100 years ago. Other locations all over Europe and the U.S. (Jacksonville, FL for instance) are also seen, and this gives us a touch of what the Lumière brothers had intended with their invention — “to bring the world to the world.”

In our fast-changing internet-driven society, the expectant viewer rushing to the cinema to see the latest “whirl” by Musty Suffer or the hyper-kinetic chases and daring acrobatics of Marcel Perez are given a shot of worldly adrenalin; the action is non-stop, we see another time, another world, and delight in the fashions, and the unchanging simplicity of what makes us laugh. The DVD provides a solid 2 hours of truly “otherworldly” entertainment. Largely the film world of Perez pre-dates the first World War.

While Perez is the focus and locus of Mr. Massa and Mr. Model’s Sherlockian dig into film history, the detective story to uncover who Perez was, what his real name was, and the facts of his sad demise are equally fascinating to film students and physical comedy fans.

Just as it seems that every magician who has the money to advertise in public is eventually compared to Houdini, so are silent film clowns compared to Charlie Chaplin. This is natural that the best-known arbiters of stage and cinema (Houdini was also a movie star) should naturally inspire and cast a long shadow for moderns. Yet, Perez began in film about 14 years before Chaplin ever made a single frame; hardly any of the films made in France 1900-10 survive. The comparisons between the two are, as Shakespeare glowered, “odious.”

No comparisons needed. All one needs to do is plunk down their coin (to adopt a phrase of the Perez period) and enjoy.

The DVD is very well authored and attractively produced. The companion book is chock full of well-produced production stills that support the tragic story of this clown who was written about as dying in 1928, “alone and ignored.”

“Laughing on the outside, and crying on the inside” is the cliché applied to many who use stage theatrics to make us guffaw. In the case of this internationally loved clown who wrought impossibly amazing gags such as a car driving over him (with no discernible switch to a dummy), his birth (possibly) in 1885, and assuredly his death in 1928, is as close as we come to the poetic appellation of the clown’s inside driving force.  An amputated leg because of a cancerous tumor wrought the beginning of his end. He directed, he produced; he made audiences howl and swell with glee. Yet, today and shortly after his demise, with the rampaging advent of sound entering films in 1927, Perez and a great body of his work seems to have frittered away to the sands of time.

However, like a great phoenix rising, Perez is lovingly brought back to life by both the book and DVD offered by Undercrank Productions. It’s worth every penny, and more. Can a price be put on delightful surprise in the fragile 21st century?

• The Marcel Perez Collection DVD available here from Amazon.
• The book Marcel Perez, The International Mirth Maker by Steve Massa available here from Amazon.
• A Perez web site
• An article about the date of his death

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Comedy Dance of ‪Jirí Kylián‬

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Last night I made it out to Triskelion Arts in Williamsburg for a totally fun double-bill of comedy dance with a Valentine's Day theme, and it got me thinking how some of the best physical comedy is to be found in the world of dance. [The double-bill was the Red Gloves'  Flannery and the Valentine’s Day Ninja, created by Billy Schultz and Geneviève Leloup; and Tough Cookie Dance's Love Letters, by Josselyn Levinson. If you happen to be reading this on Valentine's Day in NYC, don't miss the last performance tonight.]

All of which leads me to the subject of today's post, the very funny comedy dance of legendary Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián‬, whose main body of work was created with the Nederlands Dans Theater. While most of his work is more "serious," he has choreographed a few video pieces that I find hysterically funny.

The first two I think are actually excerpts from a 35-minute piece Birth-Day (2001) set to the music of Mozart. Clearly this hyper-kinetic work is made for video. The speeding up of the action is an exaggeration of silent film undercranking, and I'm assuming they were shot with slowed-down Mozart in the background to keep them on the beat. The first high-octane excerpt is this very funny bedroom romp:

And the companion piece, a richly detailed kitchen sketch with slaps, juggling, and percussion layered onto the comic movement and caricatures:

And if you're thinking I'm going to tell you not to try this at home, well, it's too late, because the Tel Aviv School of the Arts already did. Here's a video of their students reprising the piece, but with sevens pair of students each getting their 15 seconds of fame. If nothing else, an interesting classroom project:

Kylian's love of silent film is even more obvious in a movie he made with director Boris
Paval Conen that combines footage of silent film car chases with modern dancers and actors, filmed in and around an abandoned coal mine in the Czech Republic. It is set to the music of Georges Bizet, and the title of course is Car Men.

I haven't seen the whole film yet but I have just ordered the DVD. Not sure how all this mayhem translates into a half-hour film, but the descriptions says that the film characters are based on the original Carmen opera. Watch for an update to this post, but meanwhile, here's a short excerpt that gives some idea of what he's playing with.

• Though not comedy, the piece Stamping Ground has a lot of eccentric movement.
• Here's a 7-minute video where Kylián‬ discusses his study of animal movement in creating characters for his dancers.
• Kylián‬'s web site has a thorough listing of his creations, with video.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Willie, West & McGinty Get Plastered

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The carpenter gag or construction gag is a staple of physical comedy: large lumber merely missing unsuspecting heads; tools flying; wet concrete welcoming any descending pratfall. Classic stuff.

Circus star, teacher, and historian Judy Finelli recently wrote me asking if I had a copy of the legendary Willie, West & McGinty carpenter routine, and specifically their sound short Plastered. Being the great physical comedy expert that I am, I had never heard of it. The best resource was, not surprisingly, vaudeville and silent film historian Trav S.D., who did a nice blog post about them that you can find here.

The act itself spanned sixty years, though with different performers, originating in British music hall around the turn of the century and still being seen in the early days of the Ed Sullivan Show. IMDB lists five appearances on Sullivan, the last in 1958. It was a top vaudeville act but apparently didn't show up in the movies until the sound era. Plastered (1930) is probably the fullest version available, and we must presume film allowed them to do far more than they could have done on stage.

Plastered was in fact on YouTube but has since been removed. I was able to track down another copy, and here it is, plus a bonus. [WORD TO THE WISE: If you see a video you love online, make a copy of it. Links disappear!] What I find most remarkable is their precisely timed comic business. Characterization plays second fiddle to the action. They play everything pretty much straight-faced, indestructibly carrying on with the task at hand, barely phased by the non-stop disasters. The camera is always in full frame, favoring the gag mechanics at play over close-up reaction shots.

As Judy wrote, "They are carpenters who have no idea what they are doing and make the kind of mistakes anyone might make but one mistake will cause a chain reaction of other ones. So smooth and you don't see a thing. Zero calculations. All dealing with the props, which mess them up. The timing is amazing and you can't not laugh."

And here's Trav S.D. with similar admiration: "The act lay in the smooth, non-stop flow of the gag choreography. It worked almost like a Rube Goldberg cartoon, one gag after another, until every single prop and situation onstage had been used for a gag. No hammer, nail, saw, board, shovel of dirt, ladder, window, brick, etc etc etc that made it onstage with Willie, West and McGinty would be left out of the mayhem. And like cartoon characters, the three men would bounce back after every gaffe and simply return to work and the inevitable mishap that was only seconds away."

The trio made appearances in other movies, including The Big Broadcast of 1936 (released in 1935; see the full movie here). They make four appearances by way of the "Radio Eye," a sort of early television that is central to the movie's ludicrous plot. Here's a composite of all four segments, worth watching as it's not just a repeat of Plastered.

Click here for a blog post on Willie, West & McGinty by Aaron Neathery.
Click here for a Ringling Brothers construction gag.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Coolest Trick Ever

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Yes, I've been pretty much away from the blog for more than half a year, but I'm now trying to get back to it. As we all know, life gets complicated, and what with travel, travel, travel; a book project; a show project; and an injury, I just ran out of time. Can't do it all, etc., but I keep trying.  –jt

A long time ago, probably in the 70s, I saw what I thought was perhaps the coolest trick ever, performed by a trio of amazing Chinese acrobats. (Is that a redundancy?) I'm not even sure if I saw it live or on a video. What I do remember is this: they went from a 3-high column collapse (la colonne brisée) into a 3-person forward peanut roll, and then right back up into the 3-high via a backward 3-person peanut roll. If you don't know what these terms mean, well, you're about to.

Fast forward to last month, when I was chatting with Giuseppe Vetti, who with Salvatore Caggiari, make up Duo Dorant (A piece we worked together on in Barcelona can be seen at the end of this blog post). He happened to mention, out of the blue, having seen this trick. I of course was thrilled by the news and by the link to a video of the trio Cirque en Déroute doing it. It's part of a show reel (see the whole reel here), so there are some weird editing cuts, but this is the segment with the trick.


Well, technically, they do it, but with a lot of yanking and pauses.

Meanwhile I had contacted a few circus aficionados, amongst them Dominique Jando, who produces the amazing Circopedia web site. Dominique turned me onto another troupe currently doing the trick, the French acrobatic trio Les Petits Frères, who some of you no doubt saw on the west coast as part of Teatro Zin Zanni. Their version is indeed smoother, and ends with a true column collapse, though again camera editing gets in the way. (See the whole act here.)


Still, I remembered this as being done even more smoothly by the Chinese acrobats, but then NBC news anchor Brian Williams remembers being shot at in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003. In both cases the reality may have been different. But circus friends Karen Gersch and Jessica Hentoff have a similar memory, though they saw three Chinese women acrobats. My guess is that there was more than one Chinese trio doing this, but what Karen, Jessica and I do agree on is that the Chinese version was a far more fluid roll down and out and back and up.

If anyone has a lead to other versions of this, Chinese or otherwise, pretty please let me hear from you!

Update (2-9-15):  Dan Vie sends me this clip, which I'm sure you'll enjoy:


Okay, if you believe that was real, I've got a bridge to sell you, but fun nonetheless.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Your Delicious Physical Comedy Thanksgiving Leftovers

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Some of you may have noticed that I've been away from the blog (and Facebook) for a few months. Not to worry, just busy on other projects that I realized wouldn't get done if I overdid the multi-tasking thing. I'm plotting a return in the new year, but didn't want my favorite holiday to go by without thankfully sharing a few delicious morsels plucked from Cartoon Heaven. Yes, a few days late, but we all know they taste better that way.

And if you like these, then you may want to check out these earlier holiday treats you may have foolishly missed:

As always, click on any image to enlarge, and then you can even view all the visuals as a slide show.