Hello Canterbury, our genial hosts for another prune-infested evening of audio-visual gibberish, previously festering quietly in the Jazz video (& DVD) archives, but now given the chance to burble anew.
Charley Chase is best known today for his guest appearance in Laurel & Hardy’s feature-length masterpiece Sons of the Desert (1933), but his film career lasted more than 25 years, mostly at the Hal Roach Studios for whom he starred in over 150 comedy shorts, as well as working as a director for numerous other comedians. Chase specialised in the comedy of embarrassment, or of mounting confusion as the situations he kept finding himself in increasingly spiralled out of control. Most of his best films worked because the situations remained believable no matter how unlikely they became — as in Limousine Love (1928) where on the way to his wedding he has to try and avoid his wife-to-be finding out that (for entirely innocent reasons) he has a naked woman in the back of his car. But some of his films go much further into the realms of the surreal, and here’s a delightful example, directed by Leo McCarey, who later claimed that he learned everything he knew about directing from Chase. McCarey would go on to make some of Hollywood’s greatest comedy films, such as The Awful Truth (1937) with Cary Grant and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933).
J S Watson was one of the leading experimental film-makers working in America in the 1920s and 30s. He established his avant-garde credentials with a truly weird version of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928, but while most of his contemporaries continued to make silent films well into the 30s (usually because they couldn’t afford to buy sound cameras), Watson took a keen interest in the new technology, and in 1930 made this bizarre but accurate parody of the laborious and disconnected style of the early talkies. Unfortunately audiences couldn’t get enough of talking pictures, and (at least at the one showing this film received) didn’t take kindly to Watson making fun of them. Today it stands as one of the oddest films of the period — enjoy!
I was going to describe the recent DVD release of almost every one of Sturges’ films as a bit like that old cliché about buses — there’s none for ages then suddenly they all come at once. But actually that doesn’t even begin to describe it — unless the bus stop was in a baking desert and you were dying of dehydration and sunstroke, and the buses that suddenly arrived (eight of them, no less) brought crystal-clear ice-cold water, served to you by beautiful scantily-dressed women who then proceeded to massage you with soothing Oil of Olay and - er, well you get the idea.
Preston Sturges is one of the greatest comedy film-makers there’s ever been, and the quality and quantity of his work during a relatively short period of time is extraordinary. He was almost unique in a Hollywood dominated by the factory-like studio system — a writer at Paramount who worked his way up to become a director and (after winning an Oscar for his first effort, The Great McGinty in 1940) was allowed almost total control over the creation of his own films — at least as long as they remained popular at the box office. Over the next four years he made seven films, all of them superb, and four of them (Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1943)) ranking among the greatest comedy films of all time. But Paramount began losing interest and when Sturges complained they fired him. It took him four years to sign up with another studio, 20th Century-Fox, and they fired him after only two pictures (of which Unfaithfully Yours was the first). Disillusioned, he retired from film-making and spent most of the rest of his life in France lecturing and writing plays.
You can tell a Sturges film a mile off — they’re like nothing else around. They inhabit a world of their own, a world in which surreal storylines, beautifully crafted witty dialogue and broad slapstick happily co-exist. Nothing is taken for granted in these films — the slightest throwaway line has been carefully thought through, and even the smallest characters have interesting things to do — indeed Sturges was renowned for giving bit-part actors like William Demarest and Robert Greig the best roles of their careers. Look at the part he gives to Laurel & Hardy’s old sparring partner Edgar Kennedy in this film, for example. The wonderful lines, characters and situations all show Sturges’ talents as a writer, but as a director he was technically superb - there’s a zoom shot into Rex Harrison’s face in this picture that must have been a focus-puller’s nightmare yet is astounding in its fluidity.
Unfaithfully Yours is not Sturges’ best film (there’s no consensus but Sullivan’s Travels probably gets my vote) but it’s certainly the darkest and probably the most surreal, with dream sequences forming a major part of the action. You can certainly see quite clearly the enormous debt to Sturges owed by the Coen Brothers, nicely acknowledged in the title of their 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou? (a reference to Sullivan’s Travels). And if you like this I urge you to rush out and buy the box set of his Paramount films — or die alone and miserable in the desert!
Wonders never cease, and while just a few years ago I was doubtful of ever getting to see a complete episode of Spike’s TV masterpiece, I have now (through various nefarious means!) managed to accumulate 26½ of the 34 that are known to survive, of which the copies of Q6 are certainly the best in picture quality.
Spike had made the original Q5 in early 1969, and between then and this return to the Q brand six years later, all four series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus had appeared, not to mention Eric Idle’s solo show Rutland Weekend Television and the first series of Fawlty Towers. Spike had also been busy during this period — quite apart from his work on numerous films, books and radio shows, he also made several TV series — The World of Beachcomber (1968-9), Curry & Chips (1969), Oh in Colour (1970), A Milligan for all Seasons (1972-3), The Last Turkey in the Shop Show (1974) and The Melting Pot (1975); all but the second of these being written by Spike as well. So why revert to Q now? It may have been due to the failure of The Melting Pot, Spike’s first attempt to write a sitcom. It starred Spike and John Bird as illegal immigrants who arrive in Britain from Pakistan and end up staying in a boarding house with a Chinese cockney, a black Yorkshireman and various other racial oddities. In classic Spike style it was an attempt to show the pointlessness of racism by making fun of as many different races as possible. This was altogether too much for the BBC, who took the series off air after just one episode - the rest have sat on a shelf unseen ever since (if indeed they still exist). Hence Spike may have felt that his best bet was to go back to something he knew the BBC could cope with, and the result was arguably his most successful series — and four sequels followed it.
This new version of Q actually bears very little similarity to its original namesake, despite reuniting Spike with Q5’s producer Ian MacNaughton (who in between had been busy producing Python). With the exception of perennial co-star John Bluthal and pianist Alan Clare, none of the supporting cast was the same. Instead, Spike recruited a new gang of fellow lunatics, many of whom (David Lodge, Julia Breck, Robert Dorning, Stella Tanner and Rita Webb) went on to appear in future Q series. On board just for this series were comedy legend Peter Jones and a very young Chris Langham. The entire cast are clearly enjoying themselves enormously here, aided by some of Spike’s most imaginative scripts, deconstructing not just the sketch show but the whole process of television production. Quite simply, it’s terrific fun.
To conclude this clambake, two brief offerings from our last knees-up, back when the world was young and you could still buy video recorders in Dixons…