Monday, January 8, 2018

Book Review: The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day


[post 436]
Bottom Line: I wouldn't review this book if I didn't like it. I liked it a lot. I think you will too.

Format: Fiction. Connected short stories, but reads like a novel that jumps around in time, which most novels do these days anyway.

Author:  Cathy Day grew up in Peru, Indiana, winter home of several circuses, notably Hagenbeck-Wallace, fictionalized here as the Great Porter Circus. Peru bills itself as "the circus capital of the world" and since 1960 has hosted the Peru Amateur Circus. Day's great-great-uncle was an elephant trainer whose death at the hands (or trunk) of his star pachyderm is a pivotal event in the book. Day was never a circus performer, but was always closely associated with them. She teaches creative writing at the university level.

Storyline: The lives of circus people and their extended families when away from the circus, thus the title. It spans a century but everything connects, which is sort of the point of the book.

Themes:  Being content to stay in one place vs. seeing life as an adventure. The struggle just to survive.The search for happiness. How the stories we tell about our own lives and where we came from may or may not be totally true, but shape us nonetheless.

Portrayal of the Circus:  Very sympathetic but not that much detail on the acts, and less so on the training that went into them.

Clown Stuff:  Not much, but there's this:  "Their act was pretty standard. Big guy (Jo-Jo) terrorizes Little Guy (Mr. Ollie). Tables turn. Little guy gets revenge. Laughter. They'd done it hundreds of times, but that night they were drunker than usual, so drunk that Jo-Jo forgot to put on his wooden wig. When Mr. Ollie struck Jo-Jo's head with the hatchet, he felt not the familiar stick into the wooden wig, but rather a sickening give. Jo-Jo fell into the sawdust. Laughter! Clowns emerged with a stretcher to carry Jo-Jo away, but they'd grabbed a prop stretcher by mistake —they lifted the poles, leaving him on the ground. Laughter! The spotlight followed Mr. Ollie as he ran across the center ring crying, tripping on his big, floppy shoes. Laughter! Applause!"

Not so sure I believe the stretcher part. Anyway, Ollie clowns for several years more but then gives it up to open the Clown Alley Dry Cleaners in Peru, marries unhappily, and lives to see 100.

Quotes: "My mother told me there are basically two kinds of people in the world: town people and circus people. The kind who stay are town people and the kind who leave are circus people."
"As much as I love the Cumberland Valley at twilight, I probably won't live there forever, and this doesn't really scare me. That's how I know I'm circus people.”

Pros:  Strong characters, compelling narrative, unique perspective. In other words, she's a damn good writer.

Cons: You might find the book depressing. You won't find much in the way of happy characters here. I just re-read Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool and then his recent sequel, Everybody's Fool. He deals with similar characters, but most of them display more of a sense of humor, as does Russo. That didn't bother me here, but just so you know...

Another Reviewer: "If Alice Munro and Sherwood Anderson had a child, and that child was given up for adoption and subsequently raised by Ricky Jay, the child's name would be The Circus in Winter, and it would be an exquisite and profound collection of short stories." —Derek, on Goodreads

The Author's Blog:  http://cathyday.com/thebigthing/


Monday, January 1, 2018

The Acrobatic Artwork That Pretty Much Sums Up 2017

[post 435]


Happier new year one and all!

As some of you may know, in addition to laughing at physical comedy and admiring all that skill, I am also quite fond of finding Deep Meaning about the Human Condition in the simplest pratfall. Which is why I loved the "Mechanics of History" art installation by Yoann Bourgeois at the Pantheon in Paris. Here it is, in a video by Tony Whitfield.



I had way too much wine last night to even attempt to analyze the deeper meaning of this work, but luckily this piece in the NY Times by Wesley Morris saved me all that heavy thinking. Heck, I even stole the title!


You can read the whole article here.

I wasn't familiar with Bourgeois' work, though it reminded me of a marvelous trampoline-based nouveau cirque show I'd enjoyed in Paris many years ago but don't remember the name of. Maybe the same director? At any rate, a quick search led to another marvelous piece of his, Celui qui tombe (Whoever falls) which does indeed find meaning in falling.




Also similar, also wonderful, somewhat different... The Art of the Fugue.




You can see an earlier Bourgeois exploration with stairs and trampoline and background in this video

And speaking of Paris, I arrive there from London this Friday (Jan. 5) and am open to suggestions!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Ho! Ho! Ho! — A (Baker's) Dozen of Santa's Favorite Physical Comedy Acts

[post 434]
Your 3 Santas: Hovey Burgess (left), Mr. Clown (center), and yours truly

Here's a Winter Solstice-Chanukah-Christmas-Kwanza-New Year's present for you, a compilation of Santa's favorite physical comedy acts. This year you're being gifted self-contained acts, not physical comedy that's part of a narrative, which is why there are no movie clips from Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, and the rest of the gang in your stocking. Sure, some of these 13 acts are from movies, but they were just snuck in there like whiskey in the eggnog to punch things up.

So off we go, in no particular order. Happier holidays!


Larraine & Rognan
Her name is often listed as "Lorraine" but her actual name was Jean Larraine. Either way, she's fabulous. If you've never heard of them, that's because their career ended tragically in an airplane crash that killed him and left her with injuries too severe to continue dancing. You can read more about them in this previous blog post.




Walter Dare Wahl & Emmet Oldfield
I love the movement imagination of these guys. So inventive!



Donald O'Connor:  Make 'em Laugh
You could make a case for this being the best physical comedy act ever. It's got everything but the kitchen sink. I wrote a lot more about it here.




The Mathurins
HIgh-speed, high-caliber comedy acrobatics (even if the host says "it looks easy"). Not big on character, but boy do you get your money's worth!




George Carl
There are many versions of this amazing act available online, and I'm sure you've all seen at least one. Still, Santa would be remiss to leave him off the list.



Charlie Rivel:  Comedy Trapeze
The legendary Catalonian clown could do it all. This is from the movie, Acrobat-Oh!




Red Skelton:  Guzzler's Gin ("Smooth!")
Perhaps the classic drunk act. For more on Red Skelton, see my previous post.




Dick Van Dyke & Rose Marie: Mary's Drunk Uncle
I came across this piece since I wrote this post and this post about Van Dyke. As with Jean Lorraine, what I absolutely love here is Van Dyke's back-and-forth between two states of being.




Beijing Opera: The Fight in the Dark
This one goes back centuries, but it's a masterpiece of physical dexterity. This is the tradition Jackie Chan came from, and it's easy to see the connections. Fifteen minutes long, and it's not all comedy, but it's great.




The Wiere Brothers
A recent discovery, which you can read all about here, and see lots more videos.




Lupino Lane with Lillian Roth (The Love Parade, 1929)
Lupino Lane was one of the great silent film comedians, although his characters never registered as strongly as those of Keaton or Chaplin. He was, however, every bit their match as a physical comedian. A member of the legendary Lupino family, with theatre lineage dating back to the pantomime days of Joseph Grimaldi, he was a superb dancer and acrobat. As it turned out, he could also sing and act well enough to survive the transition to sound. Lubitsch's Love Parade, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald, was one of the first good movie musicals, and it signaled Lane's new career direction. Shortly thereafter he left Hollywood and returned to London, where he remained a star on stage and screen for decades. Lots more on Lane here and here.




The Jovers (1980)
Here's proof that you don't have to be skinny and you don't have to have 15 tricks in a row to do good physical comedy. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)



Alrighty then, that's twelve, one for each day of Christmas, but let's make this a baker's dozen in honor of all the people who never bake the rest of the year but are churning out cookies for Santa while we lazily sit around watching these videos.

Wilson & Keppel
Long before Steve Martin's King Tut, there was this sublimely silly sand dance performed by Jack Wilson, born in Liverpool in 1894, and Joe Keppel, born in Ireland a year later. Wilson and Keppel first performed together in New York in March 1919 as a comedy acrobatic and tap dancing act in vaudeville, and continued working together until 1963. Yep, that's 44 years together.



Ho! Ho! Ho! indeed.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Consider it Stolen! —the curious case of "Singin' in the Rain"

Donald O'Connor: "Make 'em Laugh"
[post 433]

Way back in the day, 1980 to be precise, when I was working with Joe Killian and Michael Zerphy, whenever we saw other performers do a bit we really liked, we'd say "consider it stolen!" I think the phrase originated with Joe, but he may have stolen it.

You know what they say, there's nothing new under the sun, and that mostly holds true for physical comedy. I'm always amused, for example, when the Marx Brothers (or even Lucille Ball) are given credit for originating the broken mirror routine (Duck Soup), when in fact it not only appears in many early silent film comedies, but is referenced in even earlier reviews of vaudeville acts. Sure, there's originality, but there's a whole lot of borrowing going on and —if we're lucky— creative reshaping of traditional materials.
Keaton as The Cameraman

The historian-detective in me has enjoyed tracing this kind of thing, for example in this post on what I call the oblivious gag. My return to this theme is inspired by some excellent detective work done by silent film pianist and historian Ben Model, showing how Singin' in the Rain (1952) borrowed from Buster Keaton's The Cameraman (1928). But we'll get to that juicy discovery a bit later...

You all know Singin' in the Rain, right? If not, you're in for a treat! It's a corny but delightful MGM musical from1952 starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor, all about the rough transition from silent film to sound. The remarkable thing about Singin' in the Rain is that it began not as a story idea but as a musical woven around old songs, but also a musical partially woven around old physical comedy material.

The big musical link was Arthur Freed. As Cecil Adams points out in this Straight Dope article, "Freed, the producer responsible for most of the MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s, began his career as a songwriter. "Singin' in the Rain" was part of Brown and Freed's score for MGM's first "all talking, all singing, all dancing" musical, The Hollywood Revue of 1929. In 1952, Freed decided to use his own songbook as the basis for an original musical, as he had done with Jerome Kern's songs in 1946 (Till the Clouds Roll By) and George Gershwin's in 1951 (An American in Paris)."

They had Freed's songs, might as well shape a show around them!

So the song Singin' in the Rain goes all the way back to one of the two first big MGM musicals of the sound era, which featured "30 MGM stars! More Stars Than There Are in Heaven!" Here it is, the show's big finale:



Not only did the songs come first, but the fact that they all came from the late 1920s gave screenwriters Comden & Green the idea for the story. According to this piece on the Cafe Songbook site, "Betty Comden and Adolph Green returned to M-G-M in May of 1950 to begin work on the screenplay for the movie they had been contracted to write, believing they were also contracted to write the lyrics for its songs. M-G-M clarified the terms of the contract to them. It was the studio's option regarding the lyrics and M-G-M's choice was that all the songs would be by the songwriting team of Arthur Freed (the film's producer) and Nacio Herb Brown, his songwriting partner. Furthermore, they would be almost exclusively songs from their existing catalog. While looking at these songs, Comden and Green noticed that Freed-Brown songs such as "Should I?," "All I Do Is Dream of You," "Good Morning," You Were Meant for me," "You Are My Lucky Star," "Singin' in the Rain," etc. were written in the late twenties which gave them the idea to create a story that came from that period; and the lynch pin of the plot they created was based on the disastrous results that sometimes occurred when silent screen actors and actresses were forced to talk on screen, to be heard no matter how awful they might sound."

All these songs made it into the film, or should I say "made the film"?


Donald O'Connor
A Tale of Two Tunes
The film was coming together, but co-director Stanley Donen still wanted a solo number for Donald O'Connor, who played Gene Kelly's comic sidekick and was a talented and very physical comedian. In fact, O'Connor's parents were vaudevillians, his father an Irish-born circus strongman, dancer, and comedian, and his mother a circus acrobat, bareback rider, tightrope walker, and dancer. There was nothing in the Arthur Freed oeuvre that fit, but that didn't stop MGM from doing some more borrowing. They just went back to an earlier MGM movie starring Gene Kelly, The Pirate (1948), and "borrowed" from Cole Porter instead.

Again according to Cecil Adams, "Donen suggested that Brown and Freed write a new song, pointing to Porter’s “Be a Clown” as the sort of thing he thought would fit in at that point in the script. Brown and Freed obliged —maybe too well— with “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Donen called it “100 percent plagiarism,” but Freed was the boss and the song went into the film. Cole Porter never sued, although he obviously had grounds enough. Apparently he was still grateful to Freed for giving him the assignment for The Pirate at a time when Porter’s career was suffering from two consecutive Broadway flops."

Grateful, or simply too afraid of MGM's power?

So that's the background. Ironically, Kelly sang the original "Be a Clown" song, and in Make 'em Laugh, it is O'Connor singing to cheer up Kelly's character. Here's a short comparison, brief excerpts from each so you can see the similarity between the two tunes and the message.



But it's not just the tune that was lifted.  The Make 'en Laugh lyrics directly paraphrase those of Be a Clown. Clever but barely disguised plagiarism:

In The Pirate, Kelly is about to be hung by his neck in the town square. O'Connor quotes what that immortal bard, Samuel J. Snodgrass, said "as he was about to be led to the guillotine."

While O'Connor's dad advised him to "be an actor my son, but be a comical one," Kelly was only three when his "clever" mom told him "I’ve got your future sewn up if you take this advice: be a clown, be a clown."

And why go into the funny business? Because you'll get rich, unlike in those other more effete professions. Kelly's mom asks him "Why be a great composer with your rent in arrears? Why be a major poet and you’ll owe it for years? A college education I should never propose. A bachelor’s degree won’t even keep you in clothes." Likewise, O'Connor's dad warns him that "you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite, and you could charm the critics and have nothing to eat."

But if you're funny, what happens?  Kelly is promised  a bright future where he'll "only stop with top folks" and "he'll never lack" and "millions you will win." O'Connor likewise will have "the world at your feet."

Okay, sounds good. But what does it take to be funny? Kelly's clown is instructed to...
• show ‘em tricks, tell ‘em jokes
• wear the cap and the bells
• be a crack Jackanapes
• give 'em quips, give 'em fun
• act the fool, play the calf
• stand on your head
• wiggle your ears
• wear a painted mustache
• spin on your nose
• quack like a duck

O'Connor's comical actor must...
• slip on a banana peel
• [perform] old honky-tonk monkeyshines
• tell ‘em a joke, but give it plenty of hoke.
• take a fall, butt a wall, split a seam.
• start off by pretending you’re a dancer with grace, wiggle till they’re giggling all over the place, then get a great big custard pie in the face

The actual acts differ more than the lyrics because they are structured around the individual talents of the performers. "Be a Clown" actually is done twice in The Pirate, first with Kelly and the fabulous Nicklaus Brothers, and is later reprised by Kelly and Judy Garland. In both cases, it's a partner number with more of a dance base to it. O'Connor, on the other hand, is both a better comedian and a far more skilled acrobat. The result, one of the greatest physical comedy acts ever, became his signature piece.

Here are the complete versions. Enjoy!


Be a Clown #1 (Kelly & the Nicklaus Brothers)


Be a Clown #2 (Kelly & Judy Garland)


Make 'em Laugh



The Plot Thickens
Keaton & Josephine the
monkey in The Cameraman

But that's just the beginning! As I said at the top, this blog post got jump-started by Ben Model unearthing a less obvious and even more fascinating Singin' in the Rain borrow. And this one is all the juicier because it involves our hero, Buster Keaton.

Take it away, Ben...



Wow! Like I said, great detective work. And as if that wasn't amazing enough, think back to the original version of the song from The Hollywood Revue of 1929.  In that cavalcade of stars, did you notice the one luminary who couldn't / wouldn't have "a smile on his face"?  Yep, that's "the great stoneface" himself at the 39-second mark.


The one thing I would add to Ben's chronology is that in the years before Singin' in the Rain (1952), Keaton was an uncredited gag writer for a bunch of MGM movies, including the Marx. Brothers, but especially a slew of Red Skelton vehicles, right up to his 1950 Watch the Birdie, which was partially a remake of The Cameraman, and two more 1951 Skelton films.  So if Keaton wasn't directly consulted on Singin' in the Rain, he was certainly still a presence at the studio. It was also in 1950 that his appearance on the Ed Wynn Show led to a lot of work on early television and made him less dependent on the Hollywood film industry.

Kelly & Skelton in Du Barry Was a Lady
And speaking of Red Skelton...
A talented pantomimist, Red Skelton, like Keaton, had grown up in show business, performing in medicine shows at the age of ten, and later burlesque and vaudeville. Keaton's work with him in the 1940s would be enough to fill another blog post (don't get me started!), but there are a couple of possible links between Skelton and Singin' in the Rain. Gene Kelly's "Broadway Ballet" fantasy sequence was apparently based on an idea that was used for MGM's Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), starring Skelton as a nightclub worker who dreams that he's King Louis XV. And who was his romantic rival for Lucille Ball's affections in that one? Gene Kelly, natch. (And before the film, it was a Broadway musical starring Bert Lahr chasing Ethel Merman.)

But even more interesting than that is the similarity between some of Skelton's pratfall moves from Du Barry and those of O'Connor, as seen in this comparison video. In the first part, Skelton and friend think they have tricked Gene Kelly into downing the drink with the Mickey Finn, but (of course!) the glasses have been switched, which leads to Skelton's wonderful drunk pratfall sequence. Skeleton is drunk, O'Conner is giddy, but the writhing around and the circular movements when on their side on the floor are strikingly similar.



Did O'Connor borrow this? Who knows? —but not necessarily. It's just as likely that these moves were standard fare. After all, the 108 pratfall was also common property (if you could do it!). Still, you need someone to preserve the vocabulary, and in the yakkety-yak-yak 1940s, that someone may well have been Red Skelton.

Of course, once you start making these connections, it's endless —ancestry.com run amok— so I'll stop the narrative here and just leave you with a few tidbits for dessert...

• When they made the biopic The Buster Keaton Story in 1957, can you guess who played Keaton? Dramatic pause. Are you really guessing? Space filler. Space filler Space filler. More space filler. Even more space filler. Yep, Donald O'Connor. This stuff's downright incestuous.

• Trav SD points out that Singin' in the Rain producer/songwriter Arthur Freed wrote material for the Marx Brothers’ act and performed in their sketches way back in their vaudeville days.

• As for the Nicklaus Brothers, according to Wikipedia "this dance sequence was omitted when shown in some cities in the South, such as Memphis, because it featured black performers the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, dancing with Kelly. It was the first time they had danced onscreen with a Caucasian, and while it was Kelly's insistence that they perform with him, they were the ones who were punished. Essentially blackballed, they moved to Europe and did not return until the mid-60s."

• Kevin Kline does his own version of "Be a Clown" in the 2004 Cole Porter biopic, De-Lovely. Interesting enough and a much bigger production number.

• In 2006 or so, Volkswagon did this commercial where they remade Gene Kelly's dance in the rain, using his face and choreography but a break dancer's body and moves. Very interesting!

• Anthony Balducci, whose Journal blog I highly recommend, has an excellent piece about gag borrowing/ stealing, with some interesting comparisons between the tv work of Ernie Kovacs and the sketches of the British comedy duo Morecambe & Wise.

• For a list of Keaton's uncredited gag writing, see Buster Keaton: Cut To The Chase by Marion Meade.

• Keaton's downward spiral as a star at MGM is chronicled in Kevin Brownlow's 2004 documentary, So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM. It is included as part of the DVD set, Buster Keaton Collection: (The Cameraman / Spite Marriage / Free & Easy).

Braggedy-brag-brag, but my personal show-biz DNA intersects with several of the performers mentioned here:
—My first acting job was just days past my 7th birthday, a skit with Skelton and Jackie Gleason on the Red Skelton Show. Skelton had worked extensively with Keaton, and Keaton had done a version of clown Sliver Oakley's classic one-man baseball pantomime in The Cameraman. The skit I did with Gleason & Skelton was —yep!— about a baseball game. Also, around this time, Skelton did some research for creating his Freddie the Freeloader tramp clown. He visited Coney Island and studied the clown Freddy the Tramp, later "borrowing" some of his bits for his new character. Freddy the Tramp was the father of my long-time clown partner, Fred Yockers. When Fred, Jan Greenfield, and I started the First NY International Clown-Theatre Festival in 1983, Skelton agreed to be honorary chairperson, though we never actually got to speak with him.
—Keaton was on the Ed Wynn Show in 1950, and I was on a tv show with Wynn about nine years later. (There's no way telling which of us Wynn preferred working with.)
— In The Pirate, the great character actor Walter Slezak played the town mayor who (spoiler alert!) is really the pirate Macoco. In 1958 I acted with Slezak on "Beaver Patrol," a comic drama on the U.S. Steel Hour about an eccentric New York uncle who visits relatives in Beverly Hills, takes over a scout troupe, and teaches the spoiled rich kids gritty New York City stuff. Yes, I'm the one looking at the camera. I do remember Slezak as being very affable and a pleasure to work with.






Sunday, December 10, 2017

Bizarro Cartoon Roundup

[post 432]

I collect cartoons —even wrote a book that had some great ones! Of course, I collect those that have something to do with physical comedy, directly or indirectly. One of my favorite cartoonists is Dan Piraro, whose Bizarro strip is consistently funny, on a daily basis no less. He seems to have a special interest in clowns and variety performers. Many of his cartoons are based on clichés —the clown car, the custard pie in the face, balloon animals, etc.— but a good number of them are still pretty damn funny. Here are some of my favorites. Enjoy!

































































For more cartoons on this blog, just enter "cartoons" in the search window at the top of the page and you'll find lots of past compilations!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

A Minor Discovery: The Three Loose Screws

[post 431]

The Wiere Brothers (previous post) are a hard act to follow. It's like when my clown partner Fred Yockers and I were in the Hubert Castle Circus and had to go on after the boxing kangaroo.

Fuhgeddaboudit!

But still, the Three Loose Screws are part of the same eccentric comedy tradition as the Wiere Brothers, and are a whole lot of fun, what with their rapid-fire medley of fancy footwork, one-liners, and slapstick acrobatics. Now that I think about it, they're also part of the same comic tradition as that boxing kangaroo.

It was in fact while researching the Wiere Brothers in the British Pathé collection that I stumbled upon this other screwy trio, filmed for archival purposes without a live audience. The two videos I found are all I know about them, period. The Great God Google has much to say about a California company of the same name that specializes in corkless wines, and likewise lists current prices and vendors for actual loose screws, but all it knows about our unsung heroes is that they appeared in a panto Cinderella in the 1939-40 Christmas pantomime season. So, no, I don't know the names of the performers or anything else about their career, but at least we have this six minutes of footage.







Yes, that's where it ends.

Once again a (slightly belated) shout out to the person(s) at British Pathé back in the 1930s who had the idea to archive all those brilliant variety artists. What a treat! And if anyone has more info on these guys, I trust you'll send it my way.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Incredible and Incredibly Funny Wiere Brothers

[post 430]
Harry, Herbert, and Sylvester Wiere


When I want to sound old, I like to tell the youngins about how it wasn't always quite so easy to study the work of the classic physical comedians. I'm talkin' back in the day, before YouTube, before the internet, before DVDs and CD-ROMs, yes even before our obscure heroes showed up on VHS. Yep, in the 1970s, we'd have to wait for one of the movie revival houses in Manhattan to run an annual festival of the works of Keaton or Lloyd or Chaplin. We'd go to the Elgin (now the Joyce) and study Keaton's shorts like the Holy Grail. And when I say we, I mean it seemed like half the clowns in NYC were in the audience, worshipping and taking notes.

Nowadays so much of our great tradition is at our fingertips, although a lot of young performers remain inexplicably, almost willfully, ignorant of most of it. But the best thing is that there are constant discoveries of great work from the vaudeville stage, silent film, the circus ring, and early television. Film footage sits in archives and private collections unnoticed, only to resurface decades or even a century later. It's almost as if we're living in 1917 and experiencing the original release of these works.

Which brings me to a new find, not quite so ancient, but decidedly vintage. And brilliant. Wolfe Browart turned me onto the Wiere Brothers, thank you very much, and I liked them so much I had to do me some more snooping. They were Harry Vetter (1906–1992), Herbert Vetter (1908-1999), and Sylvester Vetter (1909–1970). Growing up in a  show business family in Central Europe, they first performed together in the 1920s and became a big success on the variety stage. In 1937 they moved to the U.S. to escape the deteriorating situation in Europe, and it was thanks to their appearance here in a handful of movies and tv variety shows that we can still enjoy their work. Before I retrace their career for you, here's part of a performance from 1951 to get you started.




As you can see, we might label them "eccentric comedians." They are certainly part of the semi-absurdist "crazy comedy" tradition most often identified with the Marx Brothers, but well represented as well by the Ritz Brothers, the Slate Brothers, the Runaway Four, Olsen & Johnson (Helzapoppin'), and the British Crazy Gang, with a thru-line from there to the Goon Show, the Benny Hill Show, and Monty Python (minus a lot of the physicality, alas).

This combination of dry wit, eccentric dance, and hat manipulation can be seen in everything they did, but as you will see they grew as comedians over the decades without losing any of their physical chops. Most of the clips I've gathered repeat many of the same bits, but there are enough new wrinkles to warrant this little retrospective.

The earliest clip I have of the brothers is from July, 1931, a time when British Pathé was producing a series of film shorts, including documenting variety acts—thank you very much!— by filming them in their studio. There was no audience for these shoots, which makes any comedy act kind of strange, but at least we have the footage.


Also from Pathé, here they are two years later as "The Treble Tappers."



After coming to the U.S. in 1937, they were seen in two films that year, Variety Hour and Vogues of 1938 (later re-released as All This and Glamour Too!), but I haven't been able to find copies of either. But four years later they appear in The Great American Broadcast as one of the "specialties" alongside the equally amazing (but better known) Nicholas Brothers and the Four Ink Spots. The two Wiere Brothers numbers in the movie show just how far they had evolved as comedians. Here they are as "The Stradivarians."




And from the same movie, a very clever musical spoof of a cheese commercial. It being a radio commercial didn't stop them from doing a couple of visual gags!


These guys are funny, right?

Others may have noticed as well, which would be why they were cast in actual roles in Road to Rio (1947) as musical sidekicks to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. I admit to not yet  having watched every minute of the movie, but Hope and Crosby are stranded in Rio and are desperate to sell their "American" musical group to the local night club, even if they have to pretend that the Wiere Brothers are American. The brothers were actually born in Berlin (Harry), Vienna (Herbert), and Prague (Sylvester), but here they are Spanish-speaking musicians  —I guess this was before Brazilians started speaking Portuguese— who don't speak English but are supposed to.  The hiring scene:


The whole language thing doesn't go too well:
And now my favorite scene! Bob, Bing, and the boys are unceremoniously booted out, which leads to this wonderful hat scene that deftly showcases the comedic talents of all the performers, (Play all the way to end!)


Throughout these years, the brothers were headlining at night clubs across the land, but their next recorded performance looks to be this one on the Ford Festival television program in 1951. The finale of their act is what I showed you in the clip at the top of this post (the one-minute waltz), but here's the whole appearance:


The fifties and sixties saw appearances by the brothers in a variety of tv variety shows, including Colgate Comedy Hour, Ed Sullivan (twice), Perry Como, Dinah Shore, Gary Moore, Hollywood Palace, and Laugh-In, as well as in an Elvis Presley movie. Here they are with Jerry Lewis, reprising many of their old bits.

 Intriguingly, in 1960 they were given their own tv show. Only thirteen episodes were filmed, and these weren't broadcast until 1962. Other than this opening-credit clip, I haven't found any trace of this, not even at the Paley Center (museum of broadcasting). Unfortunately, it is likely that any kinescopes have long since been discarded or copied over.



The act broke up after Sylvester died in 1970 —after nearly a half-century in show business—but Harry and Herbert lived into the 1990s.

If I (or you!) ever find anything more worth sharing, there'll be another post!