Saturday, February 26, 2011

To Fred Astaire with Love: The Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet

This delightful album has always been a personal favorite. Produced in 1975 for RCA Records, it is a very short (30 or so minutes) lp obviously tailored for radio play. The music however is sublime and beautifully played by one of the most unique and outstanding chamber jazz groups of all time.

Co-leaders Ruby Braff (1927-2003) on cornet and George Barnes (1921-77) on guitar were both masters of their instruments and well respected and represented in the traditional and jazz swing world. The group had a short run from 1973-5 and recorded for Chiarascoro, Concord and Improv.

Braff was a very original soloist with roots in Louis and Buck Clayton ,but with his own flowing,imaginative lines enhanced by his exploration of the cornet's lower register. Barnes too had a unique guitar sound and was a master at single string solos. The rhythm guitar of Wayne Wright and bass of Michael Moore gave the two soloists outstanding support and Barnes' harmonized lines with Ruby's cornet gave the group a bigger sound than it's four pieces. The group's arrangements were tasty but gave plenty of blowing room for the co-leaders. This album caught them in prime form-here are some highlights.

Cheek to Cheek- George's weaving riff intro takes us to Ruby with a swinging melodic statement. George continues the riff and harmonizes with Ruby's lead. This trademark gave the quartet a bigger sound than 4 men. Ruby and George playfully swap leads before a fugue-like bridge and return to the riff as a coda.

They Can't Take that Away from Me- Ruby starts with a tasty theme jumping all over the horn's range. George has the bridge and a bluesy full chorus. Ruby's next chorus is full of his great low register and smears. George returns to the lead joined by Ruby and a nice ascending coda a la String of Pearls.

Easter Parade- From Holiday Inn and the film of the same name. Nice interplay between Ruby and George leading to a modulation for the last half and a retard followed by a Louis-ish coda.

Shine on your Shoes- From The Bandwagon. A nice medium swing tempo with a closely voiced first chorus. George picks up Ruby's last lick for his chorus going down low. Ruby's strutting half brings us back to the close voiced coda. A nice track.

I'm Putting All my Eggs in One Basket- Recorded by Louis in 1936 and a favorite of this writer. More tight voicings from the co-leaders, a wailing Ruby going down to low register growls. George's swinging chorus leads to fours with Ruby before a harmonized rideout and a half step jump up to the coda.

They All Laughed- Our co-leaders lead off in close voicing before George takes a swinging spot with humorous touches. Ruby uncorks a lovely, winding solo before the out chorus with a neat Ruby/George voiced run on the coda.

Be Careful, It's my Heart- Also from Holiday Inn. Ruby's great use of the cornet's low register is a highlight on the intro and coda. In between George has a pretty lead picked up by Ruby. Mike Moore's closing bass arcos are a standout.

I'm Old Fashioned- The great Kern classic has George's highly personal sound on the lead picked up by delicate runs by Ruby. Ruby goes up high a la Louis before coming down low for the pretty coda.

Isn't this a Lovely Day?-Ruby and George trade leads with dancing runs around the melody. Ruby uses great rhythmic placement on his notes (another Armstrong hallmark). George gets off a classic, percussive chorus followed by a tasty Braff/Moore duet. Ruby jumps octaves on his horn effortlessly before Moore's acrobatic run to end the clever track.

Top Hat- A clever arrangement using the bridge as an intro. Ruby gets in some nice high register smears and George has a strutting, darting chorus. Ruby's next spot has some latin rhythm back ups and the out chorus returns us to the intro ending on a dissonant chord. A great finale to a classic album.

Despite the short running time of this album, it's a great example of this wonderful chamber group at their best. The solid support of Wright and Moore can't be ignored as they give Ruby and George the freedom to improvise and play off each other with leads, fours and close voicings.
I'm happy to say that the RCA lp is available on CD along with the group's first Chiarascuro lp.
You can go to Amazon and find it on 101 Distributors.

Ruby and George were both too strong willed to co-exist for more than two years but we treasure the wonderful recorded legacy they left us.
To Fred Astaire-With Love is the perfect starting point to re-discover this magical group.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Some Grace Notes on the Hal Roach Fun Factory

The recent (Jan. 2011) Hal Roach Festival on Turner Classic Movies brought a renewed interest in these wonderful comedy shorts and features that have been so dear to me for many years.
In addition there were many new additions and surprises to the Roach output. Here is a fond overview of that festival and the featured series.

Of course, we always think of Laurel and Hardy in discussions of Hal Roach comedies and they were well represented by all their talkie shorts and some selected features. Roach was a veteran actor, producer and gag man who developed a rival comedy studio to Mack Sennett, eventually eclipsing him in the early 30s. His studio boasted not only top talent such as Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Thelma Todd, Charley Chase etc. but top writers, directors, cameramen and one of the finest stock company of comedy actors. Roach's salad years were from the early 20s to the mid 30s when he started concentrating on feature films.

First up were the Our Gang silent comedies. I've only seen a few of these over the years and was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining they still are. As a die hard fan of the talkie gang comedies I thought I'd be disappointed in these early (1922-8) efforts. They have much of the charm and energy of the talkies. The mainstays of the cast Mary Kornman, Mickey Daniels, Farina Hoskins, Joe Cobb and Sunshine Sammy Morrison were all natural young performers and it's a treat to see talkie regulars Mary Ann Jackson,Wheezer Hutchins and Jean Darling pop up in the 1928 entries. Several episodes were either remade or refashioned for the talkie gang.
Uncle Tom's Uncle(1926) with it's play within the short was later used in Spanky. Love My Dog(1927) had the perennial bad guys out to put away the gang's pet pup( remade as The Pooch). The Fourth Alarm(1926) has the gang as junior firefighters and would return as Hook and Ladder. One Wild Ride(1925) with Farina's jalopy careening down hills recalls many of the talkie thrill comedies. High Society(1924) has a common theme-the gang thrown into a swanky adult part and Shivering Spooks(1926) gave us a scare comedy-a theme the gang would frequently revisit along with every comic from Chaplin to the Bowery Boys. Good Cheer(1926), a funny Christmas entry had fun gags with a store Santa Claus and snowballs catching various foils in the kisser!

Some of the gang members came and went but Mickey, Farina, Mary, Joe and Sammy were regulars who continued at Roach as young adults. The silent series was produced and frequently directed by Robert McGowan who guided the series right into the talkie era. Also contibuting were director Anthony Mack and some of the many talented Roach writers and gagmen such as Charley Rogers, Felix Adler, Lloyd French and James Parrott (brother of Charley Chase). In addition the gang was enhanced by the great "adult"Roach stock company including Charlie Hall, Edgar Kennedy, Anita Garvin, James Finlayson,Charley Chase, Baldwin Cooke and even Oliver Hardy who appeared in two silents.

The Our Gang talkies were also well represented. I only watched a few, seeing I have the wonderful complete DVD set put out by Genius Entertainment. These shorts of 1929-37 are the classics so many of us grew up with on Saturday morning TV.
The early shorts featured holdovers Wheezer, Farina, Mary Ann along with favorites such as Stymie, Chubby, Jackie Cooper, Dorothy and of course Spanky!
I have to single out some favorites including Pups is Pups (1930) a charming short combing Wheezer's adventures with his puppies and the gang invading a pet show at a swanky hotel. Who can forget Chubby "primping" his pet pig and society violinist Charlie Hall finding a pet frog at the end of his bow!
Helping Grandma(1931) is another standout combining high melodrama (even by 1931 standards) and classic Roach slapstick as the gang gets revenge on Grandma's evil stepson out to swindle her of her bonds. The gang's attack on meanie William Gillespie is something. This is a great cast of kids including Jackie Cooper, Mary Ann, Dorothy, Chubby and both Farina(growing into a teenager) and the new scene stealer, Stymie Beard.
Birthday Blues(1932)is another standout. Spanky was now aboard as Dickie Moore's kid brother.
The gang makes a giant birthday cake full of prizes to raise money for Dick's birthday present for his mom. A classic scene has the oven huffing and puffing with a bizarre "foghorn" type noise that would pop up again in other Roach comedies. We would be remissed if we failed to mention lovely June Marlowe as Miss Crabtree, the gang's pretty teacher who figured prominently in several classics. Of course, the mid 30s cast of Spanky, Alfafa, Darla, Buckweat and Butch was one of the best groups and made many classic shorts. I love the Our Gang Follies of 1938 (1937), a beautifully produced takeoff on Hollywood musicals with Alfafa shunning Spanky's show to sing opera. Spanky becomes a succesful clubowner with Darla and "Cab" Buckwheat the stars of his show. A young Annie Ross makes a cameo singing a swing version of Loch Lomond.

Next up were the talkie shorts of Laurel and Hardy. These 1929-35 films are classics of American film comedy. It was a delight seeing them again. We won't try breaking down the whole series but some personal favorites deserve a mention.
Hog Wild (1930) has some great slapstick as Ollie (with Stan's "help")tries to install a radio aerial atop his house with disatrous results. Ollie winds up clinging to a ladder aboard Stan's car careening thru the streets. Them Thar Hills (1934) and Tit for Tat (1935) have the memorable encounters with Charlie Hall and wife Mae Busch. Them Thar Hills was so succesful, it warranted a sequel. I've always been very fond of Me and My Pal (1933) , a standout short with bridegroom Ollie and bestman Stan getting so involved in a jigsaw puzzle that they forget to atend the wedding. The confrontation with father of the bride James Finlayson and a cop, butler and taxi driver result in a comedic free for all. Not every L & H was a classic, Be Big (1931) spends far too much time on a scenr trying to put Ollie's tight boots on for a loge meeting. The early talkie Berth Marks (1929) has an endless upper berth scene but these misfires are rare. With the great Roach stock company, writers and directors and the breezy melodies of Leroy Shields and Marvin Hatley you can't go wrong.

Three features Pardon Us (1931) , Pack up your Troubles (1932) and The Bohemian Girl (1936) were added following the shorts. Pardon Us, the boy's first feature is a fun prison comedy with the bonus of Ollie's lovely vocal, Lazy Moon accompanied by Stan's great dancing(a throwback to his music hall days). Pack Up is a lively feature staring with WW1 highjinks followed by the boys' misadventures trying to find the granparents of a comrades little girl.
The Bohemian Girl is one of L & H's best costume operettas. Darla Hood from Our Gang plays their adopted daughter. Thelma Todd died during the filming and only one opening scene features her. She was a great beauty and her comic timing enhanced all her Roach work. More on her coming up.

The next group of shorts by Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, The Boy Friends and The Taxi Boys are quite rare and haven't been much on commercial television.
The Harry Langdon series of 1929-30 was a comeback attempt by a comic who just a few years earlier rivolved Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton. Langdon's attempts at running his own productions were his downfall. Roach took a chance on him and the results are interesting if not great. His voice was fine for the talkies and he was still an engaging performer with that "babyface" innocence his trademark.
The Fighting Parson (1930) a comic western has good moments and some of Harry's vaudeville dancing. The lovely Thelma Todd has a small part,she would star in several of Harry's shorts lending her beauty and comic charm. The King (1930) is a cute costume spoof with Harry a lecherous monach with his eyes on queen Thelma and courtesan Dorothy Granger (another comedy pro best known as Leon Erroll's wife in his long running series). Some shorts like The Head Guy (1930) are pretty labored, Harry worked on some of Laurel and Hardy's Roach features as a writer and kept active in shorts at Columbia until his death in 1945. He was a consumate comic who could have gone much farther in the movies.

The Charley Chase shorts have also been woefully forgotten over the years. He was a great talent who also wrote and directed many of his own comedies and those of other Roach stars. Charley went back to Mack Sennett and had much comic experience by the time he got to Roach studios in 1921. His character was a brash but likeable go getter who usually got the girl despite his comic misadventures. He also loved to sing and most of his shorts featured his pleasant tenor voice in a song.
Thelma Todd again added her charm to several Chase comedies. The Pip from Pittsburg(1931) is one of his best with Charley looking his worst for a blind date and then doing his comic best to correct things when his date turns out to be lovely Thelma. His antics on the dance floor trying to change clothes with a buddy are classic.
Two Three Reelers High C's (1930) and Rough Seas (1931) make a nice short feature. The story is set in WW1 and folows Charley's misadventures with his barbershop quartet and French girlfriend (Thelma). Rough Seas has some fun gags as Charley tries to smuggle Thelma aboard ship. Fallen Arches (1933) is a top notch comedy with Charley hitting the road as a budding salesman and getting into some great automobile gags en route. Four Parts (1934) is a clever comedy of errors with Charley's girlfriend (Betty Mack) running into his three identical brothers during the course of a day. Also a standout is the Tarzan take-off Nature in the Wrong (1933) with Charley believing himself a relative of Tarzan complete with comic flashback.
We should mention several standout leading ladies such as Muriel Evans, Joyce Compton and Rosina Lawrence, a charming Roach protege who also played the teacher of Our Gang in the mid 30s.(she and Charley perform a neat song and dance in On the Wrong Trek(1936) also featuring a fun guest spot by Laurel and Hardy.)All the Chase comedies have their moments as did his later series at Columbia.

The Boy Friends series of 1930-32 deserves greater recognition. This fun loving group of colloge age kids was an extention of Our Gang including two alums, Mickey Daniels and Mary Kornman.
Also aboard were Grady Sutton as slow moving Alabam and Dave Sharpe, a great stuntman who always took some amazing falls and tumbles. Dorothy Granger and Gertie Messinger also were regulars and future Our Gang director Gordon Douglas appeared in some of the shorts.
Like Our Gang, the kids got into sticky situations always involving plenty of slapstick and many of the Roach regulars. The famed director George Stevens worked on most of the shorts as writer/director.
Love Fever (1931) is a charming comedy with Thelma Todd hamming it up as an actress rehearsing her scenes and running into each of the boys who try to woo her. She then vamps things up to get them back with their girls. The short is a delight and showcases Thema's beauty and comic abilities. Air Tight (1931) is a classic with the gang starting up a glider club and the misadventures of Alabam as he winds up going for a wild ride in a runaway glider. The sight gags are fantastic with many hair raising gags and standout performances by Sutton and Charlie Hall.
You're Telling Me (1932) is a fun situation comedy with Mickey and Grady driving Gordon's "dad" Billy Gilbert crazy during an extended visit. The series ended shortly thereafter but deserves to be enjoyed again. Thanks to Turner for resurrecting it.

Even rarer is the Taxi Boys series featuring Billy Gilbert and Ben Blue. Leonard Maltin in his exellent book, The Great Movie Shorts forewarned us that this series was one of Roach's weakest. Gilbert and Blue as bumbling taxi drivers are pretty lame and their characters quite obnoxious,however there is great slapstick thanks to director Del Lord. Lord, a former Keystone regular (he was the driver of the Keystone Kops' car) excells in the many auto and steet scenes.
The short What Price Taxi (1932) without Blue and with Clyde Cook and Franklin Pangborn added has some incredible gags involving the Taxi boys and runaway autos careening thru the Hollywood hills. Thundering Taxis has Billy Bevan and Cook as the principles and comedy veterans Bud Jamison and Stanley Blystone both appear as bosses of theTaxi Boys.
Not a classic series but certainly worth a look for some great gags.

The shorts continued with a sampling of the wonderful series of Thelma Todd and her partners, ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly. As we've already seen Thelma was an integral part of the success of the Roach shorts. She worked so well with all the Roach comics (also did several turns with the Marx Bros. and Wheeler & Woolsey). Her female Laurel and Hardy series was a natural for her beauty and comic gifts and both partners were talented cohorts. ZaSu specialized in fluttery ,bewildered characterizations where Patsy was more bombastic. They both played off the poised straight woman Thelma beautifully.
Highlights included Catch as Catch Can (1931) an early short with a boxing theme and a fun finale at the arena involving ZaSu's misadventures with a hat.Asleep in the Feet (1933) is a personal favorite. The girls take jobs as taxi dancers at Billy Gilbert's establishment and run afoul of pushy suitors and stodgy dancehall inspectors. ZaSu's attempts at getting "hot "are a riot and there is an interesting excerpt of Duke Ellington's Jubilee Stomp on the soundtrack. If any jazz or film buffs know how this got into the short please contact me. The Bargain of the Century (1933) is one of the girls' best comedies directed by Charley Chase. The plot involves a quirky cop staying with the girls and Billy Gilbert doing his patented German who's mistaken for a police chief. Lots of Roach slapstick and fun here.
Patsy Kelly took over in late 1933 and the series didn't skip a beat. Backs to Nature(1933) is a predictable but fun entry wth the girls roughing it on a camping trip. This short has a 3 Stooges feel to it and uses tried and true gags. Top Flat (1935) one of Thelma's last shorts is a classic. Patsy thinks Thelma has crashed high society (she's actually working as a maid) and visits her "penthouse" with two rowdy boyfriends. The ensuing chaos when Thelma's employers arrive is classic. A slapstick highlight are the "water bombs" the boys throw off the penthouse balcony and the expected results on passerbys.

Thelma's untimely death in December of 1935 put a sad end to the series (it remains one of Hollywood's great mystery deaths). Roach was obliged to put out three more shorts, first he teamed Patsy with Pert Kelton in Pan Handlers (1936). Miss Kelton was a fine comic but was forced to play staight lady. The last two 1936 shorts paired Patsy with Broadway entertainer/comic Lyda Roberti.This partnership had potential, Lyda played a naive but engaging foil for brassy Patsy and she could sing and dance well. Their first short At Sea Ashore was a good into as Patsy attempts to met Lyda at the immigration dept. of the harbor with comic results. Lyda gets to sing and dance, backed up by the Avalon Boys (including Chill Wills). The final short Hill Tillies was another roughing it comedy but more on the staid side. The film does have a rare appearance by sports great Jim Thorpe as an Indian (what else!). The girls appeared in one more film, the feature Nobody's Baby (1937) a fun musical comedy also featuring Rosina Lawrence and the Avalon Boys again. It showed how much potential the girls had but alas, Lyda also died young in 1938.

The finale of the Roach festival featured various features along with some tried and true favorites. Three Laurel and Hardy favorites, Way Out West(1937), Sons of the Desert(1934) and Bonnie Scotland(1935) were fun to revisit. I haven't seen Bonnie Scotland in a long time and it holds up as an exellent addition to their costume/military comedies a la Beau Hunks and Flying Deuces. It was nice to see Zenobia (1939) again, a curio made during a Laurel contract dispute with Hardy going solo in a genial Southern themed comedy. Although Ollie shares scenes with Harry Langdon, they were not a team in this film although Langdon has a nice character role as the old circus man. Another comedy of the Old South is General Spanky (1936), the only Our Gang feature and a showcase for Spanky and Buckwheat with Alfafa, Porky and the gang in support. Darla was absent, probably filming Bohemian Girl with L & H. The lovely Rosina Lawrence was also cast as a friend of the gang.Miss Lawrence was also featured in Pick a Star (1937), an all star production involving a young starlet's adventures in Hollywood including Lyda Roberti, Patsy Kelly, James Finlayson, Jack Haley and many of the Roach regulars including Laurel and Hardy in two funny cameos.

The other features were some of Roach's mainstream fare such as Topper, There goes my Heart, Merrily we Live and Captain Fury. A curio was the film Broadway Limited, a Victor McLaglen comedy that featured Thelma Todd's partners ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly teamed in some scenes. We should also mention the wonderful music of the Hal Roach comedies. These delightful "Hot Dance Band" sounds were a staple of the early films and enhanced the enjoyment of the comedies. Even casual listeners know them as the "Our Gang" music.
Most of the stock music was composed by LeRoy Sheild who joined Roach in 1930. Marvin Hatley was the Roach music director from 1930-9 and composed his own share of short and feature scores. He also added some mid 30s music to some of the early shorts that didn't have a score. The Beau Hunks Orchestra of Holland have used much of the Sheild/ Hatley material for their repertoire and have lovingly recreated the scores for full orchestra on CD and in concert.

What a treasure we have in Turner Classic Movies. Where else can you enjoy festivals aimed at Comedy Buffs along with Classic Cinema, Great Musical and Shorts and Guilty Pleasures such as The Bowery Boys, Andy Hardy, Joe McDoakes and Brown and Carney!
Long May they Wave!

Hal Roach continued producing and directing films into the Television age and lived to the ripe age of 100, passing on in 1992.
He left a huge and enjoyable legacy of some of America's greatest Film Comedy. So far not much of the Roach product is available on DVD. Even Laurel and Hardy have seen scant attention. There is a huge box set available from England. (in a different form of playback).
That makes Turner's contributions all the more valuable.

Till our next post-Keep Laughing!