Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Good Humor Man (1950) - Jack Carson Wonders, 'What Would Captain Marvel Do?'

In my younger years, when I would avidly watch the plethora of classic movies scheduled on television, Jack Carson was always one of those familiar faces that would turn up and was instantly identifiable with a certain type. He’d be the guy competing with the star for a girl’s affections, the big lunk with the smart comments who is ultimately outfoxed by our hero. All along the way you kind of felt sorry for him, as there was rarely any malice in his antagonistic role, yet he always lost the girl (who was usually Ginger Rogers). His nameless appearances had a sort of cumulative effect on me until suddenly the light went off above my head and I realized that this boorish yet good-natured guy was in fact named Jack Carson. I had initially seen him in films such as Stand-In, The Saint in New York and Carefree, but it was really his role alongside James Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde that crystallized my screen memories of him.

From there I started to seek out his appearances and enjoyed his comedic turns in The Bride Came C.O.D and The Male Animal as well as his excellent and under appreciated skill with dramatic parts in movies such as Blues in the Night, The Hard Way and of course Mildred Pierce. I’ve since found him a difficult fellow to categorize – not quite a leading man, yet far more than a character actor; a natural comic yet an accomplished actor. He was popular in film, radio and television yet is not quite forgotten but not well remembered either. Despite this, I feel his real talents lay in out and out comedy that required his trademark double takes and a healthy dose of physical comedy. To that end, you really can’t do better than The Good Humor Man. The picture belongs solely to Carson and for once is built around his character without the need to have him play off against the likes of Dennis Morgan or Doris Day (not that that's a bad thing either). Carson plays Biff, a big-hearted ice cream salesman who in reality is really just a grown up kid. He’s a favourite of the local children and is a member of their Captain Marvel fan club. In fact the whole movie seems to be a massive advertisement for Fawcett publications and Good Humor ice cream.

What immediately struck me when watching the film was how despite a solid cast, a seasoned director (Lloyd Bacon) and a good writer (Frank Tashlin), the art of making comedies by 1950 had kind of been lost. The script is good and contains lots of excellent ideas and gags but as soon as we are introduced to Biff, his persona and his ultimate goal (to win the heart of his girl, played by Lola Albright), the film moves awkwardly into a murder plot. This, of course was the formula for most 40s comedies, as if merely presenting an amusing character being funny wasn’t enough for an audience. It occurred to me that Harold Lloyd (for example) could have made a whole film about an ice cream seller trying to win the heart of a girl. In fact he pretty much made a whole career very successfully using that basic simple formula. What happened to comedy films in the 40s that simply exploring comic situations wasn’t enough? But I digress…

The Good Humor Man starts out looking like it is going to be one of those old style comedies with some rather well observed gags as we establish Carson’s character as he goes about his daily rounds. There’s a nice moment where a cute dog approaches him and begs for an ice cream. When he gets it, the dog runs off and we pan to a large pack of different sized doggies all waiting for their free ice cream too (cue double take!). Carson is shown not only being kind to (and exasperated by) animals, he also helps a kid out with some money and in case we don't believe his good intentions, is shown picking up litter! He then meets up with the local kids and their Captain Marvel fan club in their meeting hut, all decked out in capes and cool club t shirts that would doubtless go for an absolute fortune on Ebay these days. Carson uses his membership of the club to get close to the kid brother of his sweetheart, and the young lad, seeing a kindred spirit sympathizes with his plight. Ironically the cad that is stopping this love match is played by none other than George Reeves, giving in retrospect a little bit of a Captain Marvel versus Superman vibe (if Superman had turned evil, that is)

The film perfectly sets up the premise and the main character, and in true old school fashion, goes on to show a little vignette of the life of a Good Humor man. This involves Carson having to bring an ice cream to a man working at a furnace. Of course the ice cream keeps melting, and to add to the problems, Carson needs to keep his uniform pristine for a big date after work. The situation of worked out wonderfully with perfect timing from Carson, with his big eyes and bendy mouth constantly looking to the viewer for help as he gets further and further into trouble. It’s a lovely scene expertly written by Frank Tashlin, the sort that as previously mentioned was becoming quite a rarity by 1950 (except perhaps in Tashlin’s own films). Carson gets stuck inside his own van and when released has been turned into a human Popsicle. In a rather absurd pay off to the scene the six-foot iceman is then floats away and is promptly washed down a storm drain. Why? Who knows?

From here on, the murder mystery kicks in and the rather charming comedic episodes come crashing to a halt in favour of a second rate film noir pastiche. That’s not to say that the film loses it’s way, as luckily the characters (and Jack Carson’s central performance) are drawn so well that they remain engaging. It’s just that it’s all been done before (mostly by Bob Hope) and for the most part done better. What potential the movie had a comic vehicle is somewhat hampered until the climax. Carson still manages some nice moments though, in particular his discomfort at being seduced by the film’s femme fatale. When asked if he reads comic books, his innocent yet triumphant “Of course I do, everybody does!” is a rallying call to all young at heart dreamers.

The final scene takes place in a school and features a big showdown between Carson with his Captain Marvel fan club and a bunch of mobsters. On its own the scene is a tour de force example of the work of Frank Tashlin with its manic energy, silly visual gags, ridiculous props and camera tricks. It’s simultaneously very funny and really rather irritating unless I’d imagine you are a big fan of Tashlin’s work (I can take him in small doses). However, there are some great ideas as the fight works it’s way through the different rooms of the schoolhouse. The music room sees trombones, harps and cymbals being used as weapons (again, this scene is probably something Lloyd and his contemporaries could have developed into a couple of reels). In shop class Carson fights off the mobsters with saws and rulers until inexplicably an unruly buzz saw escapes and chases people round the swimming pool like a shark! The kids arrive to save the day (and in a nice touch, so does the ice cream loving doggie from the beginning!) and chant the Captain Marvel code word as they dispatch the villains.

Naturally the whole thing ends up with a massive custard pie fight (what else?) and much speeded up camera work. Proceedings are enlivened by the appearance of a donkey in a Captain Marvel outfit and more of the ice cream loving dogs. Come on, who can't resist a donkey in a cape?! By the end there is so much going on and the music has reached such a frantic crescendo that I felt like I needed a quiet sit down in a darkened room to recover from it all. It’s certainly a well built sequence but sadly very far removed from the gentle character comedy of the opening scenes. However, it was 1950, so what else could you expect? The film is certainly a mish-mash of ideas and styles, but luckily it’s all firmly held together by Jack Carson playing perhaps his quintessential comic role.

I always wondered if The Good Humor Man was ever considered a pilot for a series of Jack Carson films. Certainly, his unique comic persona was arguably never distilled better, and a series of vocational comedies exploiting this character (even written by Frank Tashlin) could have been very interesting and probably funny too. Sadly, it was not to be, but Jack Carson continued on with his career after The Good Humor Man and enjoyed many, many great moments, both comic and dramatic until his untimely death in 1963. I hopefully will continue to catch him unexpectedly in films, lending an air of assured quality to each production and despite often playing the bad guy, remaining one of the screen’s undeniably likeable personas. And by the way, don’t forget your Captain Marvel fan club secret code word – “Niatpac Levram!”

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Life with Father

I’m back from my (slightly longer than anticipated) sabbatical, and if you’ll just indulge me for a short moment, I’m in a reminiscing mood. A while back I mentioned that were it not for Stan Laurel and his films, that I would not be writing these words right now and that I would not have the interest in classic movies that I hold today. Though essentially true, the real catalyst for my love of film has been and continues to be my dad and his enthusiasm for all things cinematic. Whether it was our constant trips to the cinema, or seemingly endless nights watching television together, my foremost memories of growing up involved a mostly small, and sometimes large flickering screen. It was there that I encountered the stars of the golden age; it’s heroes, villains, clowns and monsters. To this concoction we add in the Star Wars phenomenon, a pile of Betamax tapes from the video store and the works of Peter Sellers and there, dear reader, you have my childhood in a nutshell. I spent hour upon hour watching and thinking about films, both old and new, and would listen to my dad talk at length about his favourite scenes from his favourite movies. To this day I feel like I know the whole script from Algiers but still have never seen it.

Growing up I would always ask my dad questions about the films he liked and in particular about the movies he watched when he was young. This was because it mostly involved tales of watching Laurel and Hardy and I really think that like me, his early connection with their films paved the way for a lifetime of viewing. He once told me that when he was young his aged great grandfather confessed that he had never actually seen a film, so my dad immediately took him out to the local fleapit to see Bonnie Scotland starring his favourite stars. The elderly man spent the entire picture howling with laughter and my dad asked if he wanted to go again the next week. He replied that no, he had seen a film once and felt no need to go again. I always thought that an odd anecdote, with the concept of cinema being an experience akin to seeing the Great Pyramid: something to be experienced once then filed away as a treasured memory.

Despite this, film played a big part in his early life – he had an uncle who looked like Edgar Kennedy (which resulted in me being probably the only ten year old at school to actually know who he was) and as a baby was often bounced on the knee of Sir Harry Lauder, a friend of his grandfather. Later he traveled to the big city and joined the local Film Guild where he discovered a love of the ‘art house’ cinema of the day and directors such as Tati, Fellini, Herzog and Kurosawa. He met Burt Lancaster, Julie Christie and James Robertson Justice and on several occasions went out drinking with Montgomery Clift. I always doubted that particular anecdote but years ago I got him to put all his memories of Clift on tape and the level of detail he gave me convinced me that the meetings actually happened. Perhaps I'll dig them out and write it up for a future blog entry. Not surprisingly, my own tastes from this era point in the same direction as his. All children need to be exposed to the genius of Henri-Georges Clouzot at an early age!

In terms of his tastes, apart from the greats of 50s and 60s world cinema, my dad seemed drawn to the fringes of popular film. He liked the short subjects, the cartoons and the genre pictures of the golden age – the westerns, science fiction and gangster pictures. Looking back, I realize that virtually all my tastes have derived from those years sat in front of the television set watching the films that my dad had chosen to watch. As a result, alongside being a junior Edgar Kennedy expert I was also introduced to the likes of Joe McDoakes, Pete Smith Specialties, Crime Does Not Pay, Clark and McCullough and Benny Rubin. Whatever obscure treasure turned up on TV, my dad could tell me a little about it and whet my appetite enough to look for more. He didn’t have much interest in stars, with the exception of a handful of western actors like John Wayne and Randolph Scott or larger than life screen characters such as Peter Lorre or Boris Karloff. When I asked him his opinion of my new favourite, Ronald Colman, his one word reply was “insipid”. I was crushed, but we agreed to disagree. More exciting to him were the ‘real’ stars of the screen, King Kong, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and even Robbie the Robot. Being young and a card carrying Star Wars fan, this was music to my ears.

When the video revolution of the mid 80s came it suddenly dawned on me that all these films were increasingly being used as a babysitting tool and that in reality I had no choice whatsoever in what came back from the video shop. By this time my parents had split up and my dad had to baby-sit me while my mother worked nights. Luckily, due to our now shared love of genre cinema and the influence of Star Wars, my nights were filled with a plethora of (mostly Italian) rip offs of Conan the Barbarian, Mad Max, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the aforementioned George Lucas epic. Ah, the glory years of 80s exploitation! Again, this area of cinema history is one that I’ve kept with me, and which keeps me entertained to this day though I’d do anything to go back in time and write down all the films I saw, as the memories are slightly fuzzy. Looking back I was exposed to an awful lot of violence (and some occasional nudity) but never gore and horror, which didn't appeal to him. As a result, until fairly recently it didn't appeal to me either, though I'm currently trying to make up for lost time...

In more recent years we kept going to the cinema, but mostly to see the latest blockbusters. I found that my dad had less and less time for the classic films, finding them hokey and old fashioned, instead being impressed by modern special effects and editing (though still complaining that there were no new stories). We’d still go out of our way to see a revived classic though mostly it was me dragging him, and he was always interested in whatever new epic was coming out of the Far East. Sadly, other than that I remained disappointed that he liked nothing better than watching a Steven Seagal movie on late night television. In a way, it was at least refreshing that he chose to embrace the present and the future rather than clinging to memories of the past. It's something I still try to keep in mind when I get too wrapped up and dogmatic about certain eras or artists.
As I said at the start, please forgive my rambling reminiscence but I felt that it needed to be said. My dad sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago and despite my mixed up emotions and memories and his flaws as a person and as a parent, I’ve been thinking long and hard about his influence on my life. I’ve come to the conclusion that my love of films, and especially classic films is really his lasting gift to me. I also realize now that my golden childhood was far from golden. I have happy memories of our times together as a child, but as an adult I now understand that the television was only being used as a baby sitting tool, as a mere pacifier. In all the time watching television and going to the cinema, the choices were always his and my opinions meant little. The films were an excuse to avoid his parenting duties and talk to me.
Regardless of his real motivations, it was still time we spent together and it gave me a chance to soak up his enthusiasm and knowledge for something he enjoyed. I know now that a television is a bad parenting tool and that as great as movies are, they can’t take the place of actually having a proper relationship with your father. Despite all this, I still loved him, and I knew that he meant well. Perhaps he found it difficult to know how to relate to me, or perhaps he really was selfish and not interested in my opinions. The truth, as usual is probably somewhere in the middle, but without ever realizing it he gave me a life long interest that continues to give me huge pleasure. So in a way, he will still always have an influence on me, albeit an unintended one. And as the years go on, I hope wherever he is, he realizes that each time I step into the company of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy, despite everything, I will think fondly of him.
Normal service will be resumed next time.