Tag Archives: 1940

Spelling Lesson #5: “A couple of tootins!”

Tootin /tu:tin/ n. 1. A person who uses the telephone to intimidate or provoke the irritation of others. 2. A fool

North America is rapidly becoming a frustrating place to tell interesting stories due directly to the intrusive presence of wireless ‘badgetry’, convergent idiocy and Gen. Digital Shenanigans (two-star General, that Gen. Digital Shenanigans). You simply can’t tell a dramatic story if everyone has access to same universe of information, there exists no barrier between public space and private space, and everyone is connected to anyone they want to no matter where they are or what time it is. If Hitchcock’s war with the MPAA censors during the 1950’s tells us anything about filmmaking, it’s that to realize the dream of total surveillance would be a most boring and meaningless experience.

No wonder then that the best Hollywood films and cable television circa 2012 take place in worlds and times where this function of reverse surveillance and instant mediation can be avoided. It’s one reason why the scenarios and plot devices at work in slapstick films are so appealing: it’s far easier to fall into a problematic situation where Time and Space (this is cinema, after all) are obstacles to one’s existence.

So, in comes this hilarious sight gag using a wired phone from Cold Turkey (1940) starring Harry Langdon and directed by 3 Stooges mainstay Del Lord. The prop carries a doubly deep sociological resonance for the actor. Harry Langdon was a giant in the silent era but in the sound era he was ruined, even though I think he has the best delivery of the silent clowns. [I actually think that his humor has always been a bit weird and dark, but once audience fit the voice with the actions this natural strangeness became more transparent and not to everyone’s taste (though biographers attribute his career downfall with a longstanding feud with the popular and powerful Frank Capra).] In Cold Turkey, four years before his death, Langdon uses a cousin of the microphone, the telephone, to signal why conversations over the phone can never be as funny as a gag that uses real time and space to it’s advantage, as was done one and two decades from this point.

Far from exhibiting mere post-modern self-reflexivity, we see the spectre of slapstick physically imposing itself into a world that has begun to forget it’s strength and will soon fully forget. The physical attributes of the phone are funny: its’ hard so you can hit someone with it; it’s connected by a wire so you can tug-o-war with it. But, the way society is hacked up and hung on display with them is, well, to a comic, more boring than tragic.

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Slapstick Signage #2

A crate in the back of The Last Gasp Saloon in Edward F. Cline’s My Little Chickadee, written by W.C. Fields and starring Mae West and Fields. On the box is written the words “Last Gasp” – a reference to the literal denouement of the film as well as the nurturing nature of the bar  – and, underneath, “Greesewood” – the name of the western town the film takes place. (Cline also directed most of the best Buster Keaton’s shorts, including the infamous Balloonatic, and was the best of all Field’s directors with the possible exception of Norman Z. McLeod)

Fields, like Groucho Marx, was known for his insinuating names for things and characters, and though not this film, often penned scripts using pseudonyms. His favorite pen-name, or at least the one hi chose most often, was Charles Bogle. He also used Mahatma Kane Jeeves and Otis Criblecoblis, the former in another of Cline’s directions: The Bank Dick.

The most frustrating element surrounding My Little Chickadee is that it’s not considered a screwball. This is a gross error even though the reasoning is simple: the characters are not in any way wholesome.

Conversely, in a typical screwball otherwise “normal” human beings are made mad or abnormal by their desires for each other, desires that neither one can speak of in any straight-and-arrow way, hence the clever use of innuendo and comedy.

But in My Little Chicakdee you have two unabashed heathens – Flower Belle Lee and Cuthbert Twillie – speaking with virtual clarity about their mismatched desire for nasty indecencies: Flower Belle shakes her hips for everyone except Twillie; and inversely, Twillie pines only for the shapely Flower Belle.

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