Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Stretch A Joke

Milking a joke for extended laughter is a comedian's stock in trade. Gifted stand-up comedians (Jack Benny, Irwin Keller) can keep the audience in stitches just by turning their head, altering their gaze, rolling their eyeballs, lifting an eyelid, or examining their fingernails while the audience remains convulsed with laughter.

However, the ability to keep a gag rolling through a film requires a bit more ingenuity. Mack Sennett proved that merely throwing one pie at a person was funny, but throwing lots of pies was funnier.

Buster Keaton, who performed all of his own stunts, became known for his ability to maintain a poker face no matter what was happening around him. In the following scene from Sherlock, Jr., the actor (who instructed his crews to keep filming until he either yelled "Cut' or was killed) does a masterful job of milking a motorcycle gag for all it is worth.

Most comedic films succeed in milking laughs from three basic sources:
  • A comic situation that may be embellished with each repetition.
  • A personality (a clown, sad sack, or nebbish) to whom embarrassing things always happen.
  • A fad or obsession that takes on a life of its own (in today's parlance, something that "goes viral").
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Allan Dwan's 1918 silent comedy, Mr. Fix-It, was one of the delights of last month's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. This good natured, 50-minute farce took a simple situation and layered joke after joke upon it.

When an American student at Oxford named Reginald Burroughs (Leslie Stuart) is called back to the United States by his wealthy and exceedingly prim family, he knows that the folks at home would never approve of his sweet young English fiancée (Marjorie Daw). When his best friend, Remington (Douglas Fairbanks), comes up with a brilliant idea, Reginald quickly agrees to the only way out of a disheartening situation: letting Remington impersonate him.

Upon his arrival in America, Remington ingratiates himself with his friend's relatives (who haven't seen Reginald in 15 years). Upon meeting Reginald's Aunt Agatha (Ida Waterman), Aunt Priscilla (Alice Smith), Aunt Laura (Mrs. H.R. Hancock), and Uncle Henry (Frank Campeau), the impostor learns that his friend's relatives have arranged for Reginald to marry Olive van Tassell (Margaret Landis), an unhappy young debutante who is in love with someone else. Meanwhile, Reginald's younger sister, Georgina (Katherine MacDonald), has been forced into an engagement with Olive's brother, Gideon van Tassell (Fred Goodwins), who shows no interest in her at all.

With his goals clearly articulated, "Mr. Fix-It" immediately goes to work. First, he charms the living daylights of his "newfound" relatives. Then he looks for ways to turn the Burroughs family's matrimonial plans upside down and inside out.

Douglas Fairbanks stars in Mr. Fix-It

When Remington falls head over heels in love with a poor orphan named Mary (Wanda Hawley), who is the sole support of her younger brothers and sisters, he brings them all back to the Burroughs household. The smallest children soon melt the cold hearts of Reginald's elderly aunts and uncle. After they have fallen in love with the children, Remington gives the signal for Reginald to bring his fiancée to America.

Upon Reginald's arrival, the charade moves into high gear. With lots of chase scenes and visual gags, Mr. Fix-It offered an endearing look at how a comic situation can be stretched out from one scene to another until resistance is futile. Needless to say, there was a happy ending for all.

Wanda Hawley co-starred opposite Douglas Fairbanks
as the young orphan, Mary McCollough, in Mr. Fix-It

Most people think of Douglas Fairbanks as a dashing pirate or adventure hero, but in Mr. Fix-It he had a chance to demonstrate a quick flair for comedy. Dennis James accompanied the screening on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ at the Castro Theatre.

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A long time ago (and along with many others) I started to lose interest in Woody Allen's films. Although most people thought his work untouchable, Allen's nebbishy, stuttering protagonist had grown stale and annoying to me. Imagine my surprise when the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented a German movie whose main character was obviously modeled on Woody Allen's screen roles!

The great joke behind Das Leben ist Zu Lang (Life Is Too Long) is that it is built around a Woody Allen "type" appearing in a better version of the kind of films Woody Allen once made. Written and directed by Dani Levy, this "comedy of the schlemiel" stars Markus Hering as Alfi Seliger, a once-famous filmmaker who is now struggling to raise funding for his next movie.

Although everyone fondly remembers Alfi's last film (The Blue Wonder), he's had an exceptionally long dry spell. Like Woody Allen, Alfi has a rather bizarre sense of humor. He wants his next film to be a comedy about the cartoonists who lampoon Islam and wants to call it "Mo-ha-hamed."

Poster art for Life Is Too Long (Das Leben ist zu Lang)

As the neurotic Alfi struggles to find funding, his personal and professional lives continue to disintegrate:
  • His investment banker (Kurt Kromer) informs him that the bank has lost most of Alfi's money in an economic downturn.
  • A hypochondriac who worries that he might have colon cancer, Alfi must suffer the humiliation of his teenage daughter (Hannah Levy), standing in the operating room and recording his colonoscopy on her smart phone.
  • Alfi's son (David Schlichter), thinks his father is a pathetic fool.
  • Not only is Alfi's wife (Meret Becker) having an affair with her director (Justus von Dohnanyi), as Alfi crosses a parking lot he sees Helen and John making out in the front seat of a car.
  • Alfi's shrink thinks the filmmaker might as well kill himself.
  • Alfi's potential producer, the wealthy Holger Miesbach Boronowski (Hans Hollman), is married to an extremely athletic Russian woman (Veronica Ferres) who has the hots for Alfi and wants to star in his new film.
  • When the sexually aggressive Natasha  corners Alfi in a storage room, the only way to escape their being discovered by her husband, Holger, is for Alfi to climb out the window and run for his life (you'll never see Woody Allen butt naked on screen).
  • Meanwhile, Alfi's narcissistic mother (played by the one and only Elke Sommer) is concerned about how her son's ongoing misdeeds will affect her social life.
Alfi's mother (Elke Sommer) stares at her nebbishy son (Markus Hering)

Is Alfi suffering from an overactive imagination, a constellation of neurotic delusions, or are these things really happening to him? The fun lies in following Alfi's pathetic path down the film's humiliating obstacle course. Here's the trailer:

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One of the unexpected treats of this year's Silent Film Festival was a 1925 Russian short entitled Chess Fever that starred Vladimir Fogel as a chess-obsessed hero who misses his own wedding ceremony and Anna Zemtsova as his frustrated girlfriend. Codirected by Vsevolod Podovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsy, it features some documentary footage of the Cuban world chess champion, José  Raul Capablanca, taken during that year's chess tournament in Moscow. Thanks to YouTube, the 19-minute film can be viewed in its entirety below. Although the titles are in Russian, the action pretty much speaks for itself.

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