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Teaming up to be funny: the gang's all here: Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Hope and Crosby, and Martin and Lewis.

WHEN Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis split up in 1956, the duo turned out to be Hollywood's last significant seemingly permanent comedy team. Ironically, a major neglected historical fact about Martin and Lewis was that their interaction was something new to America's time-honored movie team tradition. With the exception of "The Stooge" (1953), Martin and Lewis' formula was based upon a friendly rapport. (Paramount underlined that point by keeping "The Stooge" on the shelf for two years for fear at how the public would respond.)

In Lewis' multiple memoirs since the break up, he has defined their formula as a goofy, sickly man-child attempting to emulate a cool, casual older brother. For instance, in "Sailor Beware" (1952), arguably their best picture, the two meet at a Navy induction ceremony and Martin immediately begins looking out for Jerry's needy nerd, fittingly named Melvin.

In contrast, going back to film comedy team beginnings, hostility normally is what rules. For example, the America's first comedian to achieve international fame, the rotund John Bunny, usually was cast with hen-pecking screen wife Flora Finch. Their scores of short subjects, nicknamed "Bunnyfinches," made them cinema's first comedy team. Moreover, since Finch was Olive Oyl thin, they also pioneered the fat-skinny contrast for laughs.

A thumbnail sketch of notable teams during Hollywood's golden years--roughly the early 1920s until the mid 1950s--would start with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Their amazing late 1920s popularity was the catalyst for a renewed interest in teams. While Stan called the twosome "two brains without a single thought," plump Oliver definitely lorded it over lean Laurel. Thus, they also played the size contrast card. Plus, since their premier period bridged the coming of sound to Hollywood, many East Coast stage teams had an added incentive to head West.

The Marx Brothers made the most successful stage-to-screen transition. Their foursome always had the dominating Groucho belittling Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. However, Chico and Harpo invariably would outmaneuver the authoritative Groucho, while the underused Zeppo eventually left the team. Nevertheless, the normal-sized Groucho was cruelest to heavyset Margaret Dumont--another comic proportions clash--who played a wealthy widowed dowager in so many of their films that she sometimes was called the "Fifth Marx Brother." For example, during a quasi-proposal in "Duck Soup" (1933), while romancing her yet again for the money, Groucho says, "I can see you standing over a hot stove, but I can't see the stove."

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello continued the thin-fat visual gag on a more aggressive level. Their inspired verbal slapstick,--such as the "Who's on First" routine in 1945's "The Naughty Nineties"--showcased the tall and wiry Abbott as the consummate straight man to his portly partner. Still, Abbott's physical slapstick with Costello could get rough. Moreover, he often baited others to do the same, such as perennial comic bruiser Nat Pendleton, who played their sergeant in both "Buck Privates" (1941) and "Buck Privates Come Home" (1947).

Nonetheless, the ultimate ratcheting up of the mean meter goes to the Three Stooges' Moe Howard. His treatment of his fellow stooges, brother Curly Howard and Larry Fine, was a nonstop series of eye-poking, face-slapping, and head-thumping. Yet, it was made palatable by the cartoon-like indestructibility of Moe, Larry, and Curly. Plus, there was the equally cartoon-like sounds of Curly: "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk," "woob-woob-woob," and "soitenly [certainly]." (After Curly's 1946 stroke, he was replaced by a series of stooges, starting with his brother Shemp Howard.)

There is even a veiled hostility in the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby "Road" pictures. (This series had Paramount stumbling into the future direction of teams--two name actors periodically getting together for comic misadventures; for instance, although not heavyweights like Crosby and Hope, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson made 10 pictures together.) Regardless, the "Road" films constantly found Crosby putting his ski jump-nosed partner in danger, from selling him to a slave trader in "Road to Morocco" (1941) to planning new circus risks for him in "Road to Zanzibar" (1941). Moreover, in "Road to Utopia" (1946), the only time Hope got the series' leading lady (Dorothy Lamour), he eventually discovers he has been cuckolded by Crosby.

Of course, a single comedian also can be a team onto himself, such as Charlie Chaplin playing two roles in "The Idle Class" (1921), or Eddie Murphy playing seven characters in his 1996 remake of Jerry Lewis' "The Nutty Professor" (1963). Nevertheless, for plot purposes, even these situations often necessitate one of the characters being problematic. For instance, when Lewis did his "Nutty Professor," a parody of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," he played both a nerdy professor and ironically, a cool but crass Dean Martin-like creation called Buddy Love.

By this time, the narcissistic Lewis had learned what was obvious after Martin had joined a modern team nicknamed the "Rat Pack" (Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop). As defined by critic Shawn Levy, "Dean took the edges olf of Jerry's hysteria and Frank's egotism. He made each one go down easier.

Standing beside each of them with a look of bemusement and mild shock, he was us, but cool and breezy and easy on the eyes: entertainment even on his own."

Wes D. Gehring, Associate Media Editor of USA Today, is Distinguished Professor of Telecommunications at Ball State University, Muncie, bid., and the author of several books on cinema.

RELATED ARTICLE: A funny direction.

If forced to select the comedy director for each of the three sound film decades, before television forever killed old Hollywood, a curious thing happens....

The 1930s pick presents the greatest challenge. Prime candidates include Leo McCarey (1933's "Duck Soup," the Marx Brothers' most-inspired director); Howard Hawks (1938's 'Bringing Up Baby," a screwball comedy template); and Ernest Lubitsch (1939's "Ninotchka," in which "[Greta] Gartoo Laughs"). However, Frank Capra overwhelms with three Best Director Academy Awards in five years: "It Happened One Night" (1934), "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), and 'You Can't Take It With You" (1938).

The 1940s offers a less disconcerting but still dicey decision. McCarey pops up again (winning writing and directing Academy Awards for 1944's "Going My Way"). Capra also is on the short list, from the dark comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944) to the populist "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946). Yet, the meteorite-like 1940s writer-director Preston Sturges best captures the aura of the times. His oeuvre includes the political lampooning of 'The Great McGinty" (1940, Best Screenplay Oscar); the screwball comedy classics 'The Lady Eve" (1941) and 'The Palm Beach Story" (1942); and the quintessential small town satire, 'The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944).

The 1950s choice, surprisingly, garners little debate--Frank Tashlin. Who? Not to worry, this under-the-radar auteur would be a revelation to many film fans. Yet, he is all over the 1950s film comedy map. The name recognition is probably less for two reasons. Like Sturges, his feel for the public's comic pulse was brief. Plus, between the inroads already made by television, and the brain drain caused by the blacklisting antics of Sen. Eugene McCarthy (R.-Wis.), there was a dumbing down of 1950s film comedy. Ironically, even Tashlin's cartoon approach to live action likely added to this dumbing-down process.

So, who was Tashlin (1913-72)? Prior to his breakout decade, he had written the first of his satirically sardonic fables, 'The Bear That Wasn't' (1946), drawn a comic strip, and pursued animation success with Tinseltown's best cartoon companies, including Disney, Warner Bros., and the often neglected Ub Iwerks Studio. However, by the mid 1940s, Tashlin wanted to unleash his satirical cartoon outlook on live action. Soon he was a successful comic script doctor for name entertainers, including the Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, and Bob Hope. Indeed, the signature sight gag which opens "A Night in Casablanca" (1946) was Tashlin's: Harpo is leaning against a wall and, when kidded about holding up the building, the silent Marx grinningly moves and said structure collapses.

However, it was Hope who was most pivitol to Tashlin's transition. The former cartoonist co-wrote the comedian's hit movie "Paleface" (1948), Hope's then greatest solo commercial success. Yet, Tashlin hated how his script was shot and, like Sturges before him, decided the best safeguard was to direct, too. Again, Hope helped, though the Director's Guild denied Tashlin a credit on what became 'The Lemon Drop Kid" (1951). This Christmas movie, which introduced the Academy Award-winning song "Silver Bells," already had been shot, but Hope felt it was unreleasable. The comedian brought in Tashlin to rework the script and direct a series of new scenes. The result was another Hope hit. Soon, Tashlin had coscripted and directed Hope's international hit, "Son of Paleface" (1952).

Given that Tashlin's fables always involve put-upon animals and conformity, like 'The Bear That Wasn't' being forced to think he is human, having Roy Rogers and Trigger in "Son of Paleface" was a bonus. For instance, in "Duck Soup," Harpo merely shared sleeping quarters with a horse. Poor Trigger, meanwhile, has a lengthy fight for the covers with bunkmate Hope. Moreover, when Hope defies gravity by holding up the wheel-less axle of his speeding motor carriage, it is essentially Trigger who has to make like a Western AAA to save the day. Indeed, period reviews gave as much attention to Trigger as Hope's other costar, Jane Russell. Moreover, Hope gets a partial cartoon makeover: whiskey makes steam come out his ears; his cowboy hat revolves; and his head sinks into his neck.

Trigger's star turn reminds one that Tashlin's best subjects are animalistically inarticulate--childlike. Fittingly, the writer-director soon would megaphone two of the best Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis films, "Artists and Models" (1955) and "Hollywood or Bust" (1956), followed by a long collaboration with the solo Lewis. Prior to Tashlin, Lewis' comedy successfully had pushed the mentally confused button, but the director now placed him in a satirical cartoon context. For instance, "Artists and Models" involves a lengthy chiropractor caricature sequence in which Lewis' legs are contorted like a Bugs Bunny stand-in. Then the comedian plays doctor, too, orchestrating five people into a human pretzel.

Plus, while "Hollywood or Bust" is a splendid mockery of movies, "Artists and Models" is superior satire because it is Tashlin territory-Martin creates comic books based upon his propensity for comic book nightmares, in which he talks in his sleep. This parallels a period when Congress, no less, was investigating the subversive nature of comics.

Moreover, all of this merely was a warmup for Tashlin's satirical opus, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter" (1957), in which he skewers everything about the bigger is better acquiescing 1950s, including a star whose shape and talent (so to speak) already are cartoon-like, Jayne Mansfield. Funneled through an ad agency writer (Tony Randall), Tashlin inspiringly manages to shish kebob everything he detests: commercials, TV, Wall Street, Hollywood ballyhoo, and pop culture in general. The gag has Tashlin briefly reducing the movie screen to "boob tube" size in order to make the predominantly TV "booboisie" audience more comfortable. Aptly, Groucho Marx, who once sang, 'Whatever It Is, I'm Against It" ("Horse Feathers," 1932), has a closing cameo.

After Randall does everything for success, including wearing a costume somewhere between a Tashlin bear and a he-man (suitable to balance Mansfield's sizable cartoon shape), he opts for a simple farm life. Randall seems to be recycling Tashlin's own funny-sad mantra about his movies, "Ifs the nonsense of what we call civilization." However, maybe Tashlin gave civilization a sardonic out with the title of his only other significant satire, 'The Girl Can't Help If (1956).
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Author:Gehring, Wes D.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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