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 Amazon.com).

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?

LINKS
• 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


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