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.