Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Fatal Glass of Beer

Fatal Glass of Beer(1933)
Directed by Clyde Bruckman
Written by W. C. Fields
Starring W.C. Fields, Rosemary Theby, George Chandler, Richard Cramer
IMDB Entry
Full movie at

I happen to like subtle humor – jokes that require you to think a moment to figure out.  Usually, that also overlaps with deadpan humor – jokes that are treated seriously by the characters involved.  I may be a minority in that view, but I think that even if you’re not, it’s worth watching the genius of The Fatal Glass of Beer, one of the funniest 20 minutes ever put on film.

W. C. Fields made five short subjects.  We all know him as a cultural icon, and Fields was one of the best and most wide ranging of the great comedians.  While he usually came from the same comic place, his characters were on a continuum, from those who were the curmudgeon we expect him to be, to others who accept life’s insults with little more than a quiet comment. 

The Fatal Glass of Beer is not what people typically think of Fields, and may not seem like much the first time around,* but the more you see it, the funnier it is.

The film opens in the Great White North, where Mr. Snavely (Fields) is in an isolated cabin while the wind blows wildly.  Constable Posthlewhistle of the Mounties drops in, and asks Fields about his son, Chester (George Chandler), who is about to be released from prison.  After singing a tuneless song outlining Chester’s fall – due to drink -- Fields returns to his wife (Rosemary Theby) to be there when Chester  returns.

The movie is a deadpan parody of adventures set in the Yukon. The acting is deliberately broad; Fields and everyone else declaim their lines like in an old time temperance melodrama.  The outdoor scenes are shot against a process screen and make no attempt to make it look like anything other than a process screen.  The plot is melodramatic in the extreme and the blowing snow is clearly cornflakes.

And that’s the whole point.  The movie is filled with subtly funny moments that you may not notice the first time, but the more you see them, the more delightful they become.  It’s made to be deliberately bad, which is part of the reason why it’s so great.

The snavelys at dinner.There are also some wonderful sight gags, great and memorable lines** that get added humor from the delivery.  The humor is often as subtle as the acting is broad and it’s one of the few comedies that gets funnier the more you see it.

An example:

Mrs. Snavely:  Captain Tippett of the Canadian Mounties has smuggled a police dog across the border for you.
Mr. Snavely:  Smuggled a police dog across the border for me?
Mrs. Snavely: Yes, and he says for you to keep it under your hat.
Mr. Snavely:  How big is it?
Mrs. Snavely:  (indicating about three feet off the floor) About so high.
Mr. Snavely:  He’s crazy!

A lesser comedian would have said “How can I fit that under my hat?”  “Or that’ll hurt my head.”  Fields has the genius to assume that the audience would know what the joke would be, and went beyond the obvious.

Fields made four other short films:  The Gold Specialist***, The Barber Shop, the Pharmacist, and The Dentist.  All are good, but The Fatal Glass of Beer is the finest.

*Theater owners reported that it wasn’t funny at all.

**And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” or “I think I’ll go out and milk the elk.”

***And adaptation of his vaudeville act.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Alive and Well in Argentina (music)

Zal Yanovsky
All Music Entry

Pop music success is like hitting the lottery:  the odds are against you, and once you hit the jackpot, it’s not likely to happen again.  Zal Yanovsky was a member of one of the great music acts of the 60s, but when that ended, he was forced to set out on his own. The result was Alive and Well in Argentina.

Yanovsky was born in Canada and started to be part of the folk scene in New York in the early 60s.  His first brush with fame was when he joined with other folkies of the time – Cass Eliott, Denny Doherty, John Sebastian, and James Hendricks* – to form the Mugwumps, a group that was legendary even without recording anything.  When they broke up, Denny and Cass became half of the Mamas and the Papas, where Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful.**

The Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the great acts of the mid-60s, putting out pop hit after pop hit, most written by Sebastian.  Not only were the successful, but they were critically praised.  I remember several interviews with top musicians of the time who said they never listed to top 40 radio – except for the Lovin’ Spoonful.

John Sebastian wrote nearly all their hit songs, but Zal was the most telegenic.  He was tall, wore cowboy hats and fringed jackets, and stood out whenever they were on TV.***  His ebullient personality made him a fan favorite.

Then it fell apart:  Zal was arrested for marijuana possession in 1967.

Now by that time, the charge didn’t hurt a rock musician’s career.  But Zal did the unthinkable:  under pressure from the police, and afraid he’d be deported back to Canada (or, at least, not allowed to return to the US if he ever went home), he named his supplier.

That was a betrayal. Fans were outraged, and it created tension in the group.  Zal left soon after.

In 1968, he released his solo album Alive and Well in Argentina. Even though he didn’t write much with the Lovin’ Spoonful, it had a similar sound – just goofier.

The songs were mostly cover versions of older songs, with a few originals.  Zal worked hard to make them fun to listen to.  “Little Bitty Prettey One” was a remake of a hit in from 1957, with a falsetto chorus and some nice harmonies.  “You Talk Too Much” was the same thing, and performed so that it was a humorous as possible.

The title tune was one of the few songs Yanovsky wrote by himself, a silly song about him ending up in South America, playing with the belief that Nazis moved down there after the war.  It has the sound of a wild party, and is, perhaps, commenting on Yanovsky exile from the rock scene.

The album didn’t crack the top 100, since it was probably too strange for mass appeal.  Zal also released a single, “As Long as You’re Here,” which was not on the original album, but was included on later versions.  It didn’t do wall.

After that, Zal disappeared from music.  He would occasionally show up unannounced at a John Sebastian concert, playing with his old friend, and had small gigs here and there, but spent his time running the Chez Piggy restaurant in Kingston, Ontario. He died in 2002.

*No, not that James Hendrix. 

**As the song went.

***Sebastian often played the autoharp on TV, which just looked strange for a rock ban.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Directed by
Tod Browning
Written by Tod Robbins
Starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Ogla Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harris Ford, Daisy & Violet Hilton, Johnny Eck, Prince Randian, Josephine Joseph
IMDB Entry
Full Movie at

It’s always fun to see how attitudes have changed over the years.  When it came out, Freaks was considered so horrifying that they cut almost a half hour out of it.  Nowadays, I doubt anyone would be particularly frightened, but it has a strong message of accepting people as human beings.

Director Tod Browning had been making silent films for years, and was riding high at the time after his Dracula was a sensation.  In this case he adapted a short story and, drawing on his experience in a circus, filmed a movie about the sideshow performers – the “Freaks” of the title.

The story is set in the circus, where the midget Hans (Henry Victor) has a crush on the trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova).  It’s clear from the start that Cleopatra only pays attention to Hans because he has money, and when she discovers he is heir to a large inheritance, plots with her lover Hercules (Henry Victor) to marry Hans.  But it all fallse apart at the wedding dinner, leading to retaliation.

Most of the film, however, is not so much plot driven, as it is a slice of life in the circus.  Browning cast real circus performers, and they are certainly strange in appearance, but they are portrayed as no different from anyone else.  The sideshow performers are a family and the film is very much from their point of view.  We see the cruelty to them at every turn, but, at the same time, get a glimpse into their lives.  Much of it is mundane in a slightly skewed way:  the bearded lady has a baby; her husband, the human skeleton, hands out cigars.  The performers work in their specialties, but in a matter-of-fact ways that make things like the armless woman drinking a glass of beer seem like everyday events of no particular note.  The two leads, Phroso (Wallace Ford) and Venus (Leila Hyams) treat the others as equals, indicating that the audience should, too.

Bearded Lady with her baby

The wedding feast sequence is duly famous, as the group celebrates the marriage and begin to discover what a horrible human being Cleopatra is.  It all a joke to her, until the others begin to chant “Gooble Gobble, We accept her. One of Us, One of Us” and her repulsion comes to the fore.

The horror sequence comes at the end, as the performers take on a sinister air as they target Cleopatra and Hercules in a thunderstorm, lurking under circus wagons and in the shadows.  It’s moody piece that still holds up well, but, unfortunately, the final revelation of horror looks pretty damn silly to modern eyes.  The original cut may have been more scary.**

When the film came out, though, it was a sensation – in a bad way.  People were repulsed by the characters, and the film did terrible business.  It was banned in the UK for 30 years, and the reception pretty much put an end to Tod Browning’s career. 

It wasn’t until years later that the movie was rescued from obscurity and took its place in the pantheon of horror films.  It may not be scary nowadays, but it’s a terrific movie.

*They take revenge on Hercules – a thoroughly nasty sort – by castrating him.  Even those the film was pre-code, this didn’t fly.  As a result, you don’t see what happens to him.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Best (book)

the best(1974)
by Paul Passell and Leonard Ross

Before The Book of Lists and before Internet listicles, people argued what was the best in just about any category.  And that was the concept behind The Best, a book that entertainingly lays out what the authors think is the best in dozens of categories – and the reason for it.

I don’t know where the idea or the authors came from, but it was an inspired idea.  Covering topics like “The Best Science Fiction Novel” (Arthur Bester’s The Stars My Destination). the best Pepperidge Farm Cookie (Geneva), the Best Television Show (The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show), the Best Vice President (which shows that snark existed even back then:  William Wheeler, who only lasted a month in office) and many other categories. 

It’s really the sort of thing that places like Cracked is doing now, though they didn’t always go for the laughs.  But the book was a big enough success to spawn a sequel in 1977, The Best, Encore,* with topics like The Best Chocolate Chip Cookie (Mrs. A’s Choco-Crunch),** the Best Roller Coaster (Thunderbolt in Pittsburgh), and the Best Way to Skin a Cat (dermestid beetles).

The series ended there.  The books are extremely dated by now – not only have prices for items gone up, but many of the names are obscure nowadays.  Still, it was an nice entertainment that was ahead of its time.

*by Passell only.

**This was one of their few actual tests comparing what they were talking about.  It’s a bogus taste taste, though, since it didn’t include Freihofer’s Chocolate Chip Cookies.