Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Movies Is Good: NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK & AFRICA SCREAMS

by JB
As the poet says, as one actor leaves the stage, other actors come to take his place…

Today, I am taking a look at two brand-new Blu-rays for people who are interested in movies that were made before 1970. (More on that in a little bit) The two discs are the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (W.C. Fields’ last film for Universal and his last starring vehicle) and the new Classic Flix/3D Archive restoration of that old Abbott & Costello chestnut (familiar to anyone looking through the dollar bin at Walgreens) Africa Screams.

I sometimes wonder in 2020 how many film buffs still remember W.C. Fields. There aren't quite as many pop culture references to him as there were when I was growing up. When I was but a lad, he was all over film and TV; you have a character in the original Friday the 13th movie doing an impression of Fields. Richard Dawson on the old Match Game used to break into his W.C. Fields impression, seemingly on a daily basis. W.C. Fields seemed like he was everywhere back then; maybe because he's so easy to imitate. I'm seeing a lot less Fields love in 2020, and that's a shame because he is hilarious.
I mentioned films that were made before 1970 because recently someone online shared a fascinating grid. (If it's possible I'll include it as a “visual aid” in this week's column.) This grid compares different streaming services, specifically Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and HBO Max. I guess Peacock, which I downloaded earlier this week and apparently receive free of charge because I subscribe to the Comcast “Pull Your Eye Out by Its Nerve Endings” cable package. I was a scrolling through the Peacock offerings a little bit and found them truly amazing because NBC owns Universal (or the other way around) and also own Comcast (or maybe Comcast or XFINITY or NBC or Universal owns everything except ABC and Disney) the offerings on Peacock are really impressive, including a whole slew of television shows, like Columbo and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and all of the classic Universal horror films from the '30s. (I think this is good, obviously.) The chart that I'm referencing right now does not include Peacock.

The chart compares WHEN the movies that are featured on the different streaming services were made, and it's a little sobering. (Although, because I was there at the genesis of Blockbuster Video, I not surprised. At the very beginning of Blockbuster Video, they had something for everyone, including an entire section of silent films and entire section of Westerns. Then, as time went by and their business plan changed, they became an entire wall of new releases and little else; if you liked older movies, you could go scratch.) In any case, back to this fascinating chart-- apparently less than 1% of the films offered on Netflix were made before 1970. (1970!) Hulu is exactly the same. Amazon Prime features 7% of films made before 1970. Thank the Lord for HBO Max (and I think part of this is because HBO Max features a channel that is curated by the Criterion Collection) a full 12% of HBO Max movies were made before 1970. I am gob-smacked by this data because quite honestly I prefer films that were made before 1970 (and if I'm pressed to the wall with a wolf’s head cane, I might even admit that I prefer movies from before 1950; you know, like the two movies I'm discussing this week.) How's that for a segue way back?
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break has always been one of my favorite WC Fields films (It might be my very favorite.) and one of my favorite comedies. The film is so weird; it's so much its own thing. It's so crazy and rough around the edges; it sometimes seems like it's only “half done,” or that it's five different movies where they took the best scenes out and cut them together into one mega-movie. It was Fields’ final film for Universal, and it's just so crazy and all over the place. Fields was encouraged to feature Universal starlet Gloria Jean. (She was the singing ingenue who hoped to follow in the same footsteps as big Universal star Deanna Durbin.) Gloria Jean is not only delightful and sings really well, but I love her in this movie because she's the one character in all of W.C. Fields’ movies who actually seems like him. She plays his niece, and she calls him “Uncle Bill,” and there seems to be a real affection between the two of them. If you've ever seen a W.C. Fields movie, it's always “Fields Versus the World” and all of the other characters in all of the other movies don't like him at all. In fact, there's a scene in this film where Fields is standing in front of a billboard for his previous Universal film, The Bank Dick, and a series of people walk by the billboard, talking about how much they hated that film! It's quite strange.

The plot goes all over the place; it revolves around Fields pitching a script to the Head of Production at Esoteric Pictures, in which he jumps out of an airplane to chase a bottle of whiskey that gets out of his hands, and he winds up in this strange country called Klopstokia, trying to seduce a young lady and then trying to marry her rich mother. The film goes back and forth between that plot and the Production Head at the Studio screaming that this script doesn't make any sense. Then, as if they couldn't figure out any other way to end the film, we have this crazy chase sequence that has nothing to do with anything that came before. It's a wonderful chase sequence; it's really well done and it's full of gags. So this film is a bunch of WC Fields sequences (including the famous one where he goes into an ice cream parlor and tells the audience that the scene was originally written for a saloon but that the censor nixed it; he proceeds to act in this ice cream parlor as if he's having a drink in a saloon) that are funny but don’t combine into any sort of compelling narrative whole. It's a crazy movie, but I love it a lot.
Kino Lorber's new disc is terrific; it's the best I've ever seen the film look, and it comes with two terrific supplementary features the commentary track by Eddy Von Mueller is informative with great production details. Kino-Lorber has also resurrected what looks like a television special from the '70s, featuring Canadian comic team Wayne and Schuster doing an hour-long special about Fields and how much they love him. The team show clips from all of his films, so it's a nice little slice of W.C. Fields career. I had never seen it before and it's very entertaining; I'd rather have it than not. I really recommend the new Never Give a Sucker an Even Break disc with all of my black little heart.

AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: as I was watching the new Kino Lorber disc of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, I started to remember that the first time I ever saw it was at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library from 16mm when I was 12 or 13 years old. The Audio-visual Director there had great taste in film, and very often he would schedule a series of films playing every Sunday afternoon for a month or two. I tried to see as many of them as I could because I was allowed to ride my bike to the library. The first time I ever saw a Never Give a Sucker an Even Break was at the Arlington Heights library, and the first time I ever saw Vincent Price in The Pit and the Pendulum was at the Arlington Knights library, and the first time I ever saw The Haunting was at the Arlington Heights library. This was a wonderful memory that came bubbling up. I remember at one point they were scheduling an evening of short comedies, and they had a sort of portmanteau title for it. I remember calling the library on the phone because I'd forgotten what time it started. Because all I did then was read and never talked about what I had read with anyone, I pronounced every word wrong, so I asked the librarian who picked up the phone what time the October POTT-PORIE began? There was a pause, and she said, “You mean the October POTPOURRI? I said… “Yes! Yes, that's it—POTPOURRI, and she told me. So that afternoon, I learned what time the films started AND how to pronounce that word. Great Memory. Fifteen years later, after I began teaching film, my buddy Dale and I hosted a film series at that very library where we curated screenings of important foreign films and lead lively discussions with the audiences afterwards. I can’t remember if Dale and I called one of these great evenings “An October Pottporie.”
The new Classic Flix/ 3D Archive Blu-ray of Africa Screams is both a revelation and a mixed bag. As part of their Universal Studios contract, Abbott and Costello were allowed to make one independent film a year. After the tremendous success of Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, Africa Screams was to be their independent film that year. Because it was not made for a major studio, it fell into the Public Domain, so for years and years and years, it was available in “dupey” transfers in every discount VHS ben and later discount DVD bin; all the prints were eyesores. This was a problem. The 3D Archive did a Kickstarter campaign, and 800 people contributed money to see the film restored. The 3D Archive has done this beautifully; they did a 4K restoration from the original negatives; I dare say that the film has never looked better. A & C expert Ron Palumbo does his usual terrific job on the audio commentary; it’s both conversational and packed with arcane production tidbits. The disc also features an entire Abbott & Costello 3D comic book from 1953 and a pair of red/green glasses to view it with. The disc also affords viewers with a 3D TV set-up to view the comic book using their system’s own stereo glasses. It’s as if the 3D Archive couldn’t be involved in a disc and NOT found a way to include 3D content!

That being said, Africa Screams is not the greatest Abbott & Costello film ever made; it seems a little tired. You would be hard-pressed to say any of the team’s routines in the film are among their best. The film is also crammed with guest stars that take up precious running time. It's almost as if, not wanting to ruin the comedy with musical numbers the way a lot of comedy teams did in the '40s and '50s, Abbott & Costello booked this film full of star cameos from the world of big-game hunting and boxing. Clyde Beatty, the famous lion tamer, shows up and he has a scene where he's taming lions. Frank Buck, the big game hunter, (“Bring ‘Em Back Alive!) has a scene where, by God, he goes big-game hunting. Max and Buddy Baer, who were both heavyweight boxers, show up as to hired-muscle goons, and there's a scene where they fight, so they get to show what made them famous. (Some of you might recognize Max Baer's name; much later Max Baer's son, Max Baer Jr., played Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies and became producer and director of low-budget drive-in movies like Macon County Line.)

I do not count Africa Screams as among Abbott & Costello’s best work; maybe nothing could compare to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (although I've read that when they were working on that film, Lou Costello was not happy and said that his nine-year-old son could have written a better script.) However, time has been very kind to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Time has not been particularly kind to Africa Screams. The comedy team play a pair of clerks in the book department of a major department store who are persuaded to join a shady safari because Costello has supposedly memorized an important map originally contained in a true-life adventure book that is now out of print. Hilarious hijinks are then supposed to ensue. The minute the pair get to Africa and are captured by African natives, you know what you're in store for, racially. Yes, the natives throw Abbott & Costello in big smoking pots and intend to cook them and eat them. (BIG IDEA: A remake of Cannibal Holocaust starring Abbott & Costello!) I think the most racially insensitive gag occurs when a few members of the tribe are very scared by a gorilla, and courtesy of clunky special-effects, their fear turns them WHITE! Now, this may have been funny in the '40s, but it really comes across as less funny… and more insensitive… today.
One thing that the two films have in common is a gorilla! Both films feature a man in a gorilla suit. I know for a fact that the gorilla in Africa Screams is Charlie Gemora, who was a very famous “gorilla guy” at the time. I only suspect that the gorilla in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break is played by Charlie Gemora, but I'd like to think that it was. Look up “Charles Gemora” on the IMDb machine sometime if you would like to see the definition of a long career: he plays the (usually uncredited) gorilla in Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), Where East is East (1929), the sound version of The Unholy Three (1930), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Marx Brothers’ At The Circus (1939), The Monster and the Girl (1941), and dozens more. If you're watching a movie from the '20s '30s or '40s and there's a gorilla in it, chances are it's Charlie Gemora. He also did a lot of make up behind the scenes, and in the original War of the Worlds, he was the alien! It’s Charlie, hunkered down in that little alien costume in the one scene where we actually get a good look at it. I have a lot of affection for Charlie Gemora.

The other thing that the two films have in common (and this is the reason for the remark I made at the beginning of the column) is that both Abbott & Costello and W.C. Fields’ worked for Universal Studios. W.C. Fields made his most famous films at Universal, but by the time he got to Never Give a Sucker an Even Break in 1941, he was looking at the end of his career. One of the reasons, ironically, that Universal didn't give W.C. Fields a lot of attention… is that Abbott and Costello had started making films for Universal about this time, and they quickly become their number one box office attraction in the country! In W.C. Fields’ case, being ignored leads to him making one of his greatest films; he's being ignored because Universal is spending all their time and money on Abbott & Costello. Then, eight years later, it's 1949 and Abbott & Costello are nearing the end of their filmmaking careers, and they make Africa Screams! This too I find ironic because W.C. Fields went out with a bang, and I Think Abbott & Costello went out with a whimper. This film should be called Africa Whimpers.

PLEASE NOTE: To those readers who missed the first installment of this series, this column was not proofread nor copy edited by anyone. It was dictated by JB, who promptly printed it, rolled it up, stuck it in a bottle, and threw it in the ocean.

BTW: Nuance Software’s Dragon Anywhere dictation program had a devil of a time deciphering the names of comedy team Abbott & Costello. In various places in the original document, the program mis-transcribed their names as “Abacus Stelevo,” “Old Avenue Castella,” “Emma Castello,” “Abacus Tell Off,” and “Abacus Fellow.” If anyone needs more proof that Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein is one of the pair’s greatest films, consider that whenever I mentioned THAT film, the dictation program spelled their names perfectly. Still, and I feel I am not alone in this, I await the triumphant resurgence in popularity for comedy legend Abacus Stelevo!

8 comments:

  1. That chart with the percentages of movies by decade is disturbing! I've never seen the data organized so clearly. Thanks for helping to keep the classics alive, Mr. B.
    Side note: I'm working my way through the ClassicFlix DVD of Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly shorts, and recently watched "Bum Voyage" from 1934. That short features stellar use of a gorilla suit, so I just looked up who was IN the suit, and sure enough, it's Charlie Gemora! I learned something today.

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  2. JB, I appreciate you stumping for pre-70s movies because I love them too! I think we'll continue to see the trend of streaming services featuring mostly contemporaneous films, as they develop more original content to lure viewers rather than relying on old favorites that they may have to pay additional royalties or obtain the rights to.

    Regarding your two film selections this week: I've never seen a W.C. Fields picture, which I'm sure is to my detriment. I guess I need to add that to my list. I have seen Africa Screams, however--it was one of my dad's favorites, even though most of my childhood was spent not being allowed to watch movies at all (more on that another time). I like Abbott and Costello, but I agree this is one of their weaker efforts.

    I had no idea that there was a go-to gorilla suit guy, so now I'm going to be looking up Charlie Gemora to see what else I might have seen him in. Speaking of gorilla suits, have you ever seen the John Huston movie Wise Blood? Great movie, super underrated, and there is a guy in a gorilla suit that plays a pivotal role.

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  3. I'll second Rosie here to say I really appreciate these articles, JB. I'm finding lately pre-1970's films is also what I'm most interested in, and I'm eating these up.

    I've just recently starting getting into a lot of classic comedians (Marx Bros, Chaplain, Keaton) and have never seen a W.C. Fields movie! I'll get that fixed soon, as you've made his movies sound pretty terrific.

    Great article, with interesting trivia. Old movies is good!

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  4. Agreed that graph is kind of sad. I thought one of the big deals of streaming sites is that studios can put their back catalogues on there for a few quick bucks. I guess it's human nature to be drawn that which is new and shiny.

    Also, it ain't a fit night out for man or beast.

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  5. Another one who didn't need to see that chart because it just proves what I knew to be true.... older films aren't likely to be streaming in any great quantity in future, and the prices of physical media for these films is going up profoundly because they are printing fewer and fewer discs.
    I know a lot of folks who no longer buy physical media in favor of buying digitally, but people like me who want older films are tethered to physical media not just because of availability, but tangibility. I don't think you can truly OWN something, if somewhere is a corporation who can decide to take it away, on purpose or by mistake. If the streaming service where you 'own' rights to view films decides that your account is invalid, you have lost all your media. Right now my discs are in bins under the bed, where I sleep on them soundly at night, like Smaug on dwarven gold.

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  6. And every night you can dream about your discs and call them “my precious.”

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