Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Friday, 22 October 2010

Mitzi Green - Pre Teen Flapper of the Screen!

It must have been a tough life being a child star. Regardless of the loss of a carefree childhood, the minute you start to grow up you instantly lose precisely the appeal that made you loved by millions in the first place. Even worse, in years to come all people will want to talk to you about is the work you did as a five year old that you can probably barely remember. Of course some child actors managed to reinvent themselves as fully-fledged stars as adults (mostly by starting as a teenager rather than a child it seems), though a magic formula for success in the transition was continually elusive. However, the vast majority did not make the transition, and once they reached a certain age, packed their bags and returned to civilian life, returning perhaps only for a short lived comeback as a young adult. Mitzi Green followed that pattern as far as her career in movies went, but luckily her talent was such that she crossed over to the bright lights of Broadway and continued to wow crowds throughout those ‘difficult’ years.

Mitzi Green, who would have turned 90 today, was a rather unusual child star in that despite being only nine years old on her screen debut appeared too grown up for a stint in Our Gang yet refreshingly dispensed with the sickly sweet sentiment associated with the Shirley Temples of the world. Miss Green appeared to be that rarity in the land of child actors: the child actor that isn’t precociously annoying. I mean that as no disrespect to the considerable talents of the likes of Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper and Shirley Temple but Mitzi Green created a screen persona that was the antithesis to the cliché of the Hollywood child star. She was worldly-wise, self aware, cheeky, manipulative, decidedly annoying (to other characters) and most of all, supremely talented for her age.

Though I’ve currently only seen a handful of her screen appearances (and I’m trying to get hold of more of her films as I speak!), from what I’ve seen she shows confidence, timing, poise and excellent physical and facial reactions. Of course, upon reading about her background this is no surprise. She was born in 1920 to a couple of vaudevillians and appeared in their act from the age of 3 or 4. Her natural talent was for mimicry and impressions and combined with her abilities in song and dance must have brought the house down on a regular basis. This translated very well to pictures and she made her screen debut in 1929’s The Marriage Playground. From her first moment on screen she looks at ease with the new medium.

The Marriage Playground is an interesting early talkie with an excellent cast including Mary Brian, Fredric March, Kay Francis, Lilyan Tashman and Anita Louise. Mitzi plays one of the children in a large family that are going to be split up due to the actions of their selfish socializing parents. With her round face and bobbed hair Mitzi Green stands out from the group of kids (almost a nine year old flapper!) and establishes herself as the brat of the family, cheekily asking everyone she meets for a present. She insults wayward mother Kay Francis about her “rotten taste in jewelry” (the pearls given for a present weren’t big enough it seems) and then puts her foppish boyfriend through his paces by riding him like a horse round the house (saying “Giddup you old nag!”) Later in the movie she dispenses marriage advice to lovelorn Mary Brian due to the fact that she once listened to Kay Francis’ character getting proposed to behind a door. Brian asks her what happened and Mitzi acts it out then innocently adds that after that “I couldn’t hear a thing for the looongest time!”

What’s interesting about her character in The Marriage Playground is that despite the wise cracking, know it all attitude she succeeds in making her character very funny and very appealing. Whether it’s chastising Fredric March’s (thirty-something) wife that “You gotta realize, you’ve lived your life!” or taking her little handbag with her as she shakes her fist at the characters to give them a piece of her mind like a middle aged warhorse wife, she makes every scene memorable and above all likeable. Of course, it helped that she paused to ask for presents first. It’s just astonishing to think that this fully formed little character was only nine and able to seemingly evoke so many reactions from an audience in just her first screen appearance.

Fast forward a few years and the twelve year old Mitzi Green is starring with Wheeler and Woolsey in Girl Crazy. I’ve already talked at length about the wonders of this film here, so I won’t go into much detail but in this picture we see Mitzi near the end of her career and seemingly in the movie for one reason only, to do her much vaunted imitations. In fact from her first appearance in the movie (as Bert Wheeler’s bratty kid sister) she asks everyone she meets “Would you like to hear my imitations?” The answer is a firm ‘no’, but in the meantime she at least gets to sing and dance a little, annoy the heck out of people and once again dispense advice to the lovelorn. She eventually breaks down their defences and she gets to do her imitations, though we have to wait until almost and hour into the picture for the pleasure.

Without having seen the appearances in between, it seems that by this time her screen persona had perfectly gelled into a well rounded, singing and dancing version of the 1929 one. Her timing, particularly in the bits of comic business she does with Bert Wheeler is excellent and her mannerisms get the most out of the material while also convincing the viewer that there is a real bond between her and her on-screen brother. Despite annoying him, she is always subtly looking out for him, whether fixing his love life, advising him what to do or trying to get him his money from scheming Robert Woolsey.

However, the real highlight of Girl Crazy is Mitzi Green’s famous imitations. Her routine is truly amazing and presents itself as a sort of bizarre and surreal late night cabaret act. The idea is basically the Gershwin tune “But Not For Me” as sung by a number of celebrities. Firstly, Bing Crosby ‘buh-buh-buh-buh’s through it, (only for Mitzi to comically run out of breath to follow up with the trademark whistle) Next up is a stuttering Roscoe Ates, which was pretty funny, but she tops it with her spot on and truly unsettling George Arliss (complete with what looks like an onion ring monocle!) The way her whole body and face change to actually ‘become’ Arliss is amazing and slightly terrifying! Finally we are given another picture perfect imitation of Edna Mae Oliver, complete with all the eye rolling and fussing one associates with her. The whole performance lasts only a minute or two but is a jaw dropping musical and comic tour de force. Disappointingly, she threatens a Maurice Chevalier impression earlier in the film but doesn't actually get to do it. It’s scenes like this that set her so far apart from her child star contemporaries. No need for scene stealing or sentiment, Mitzi was a truly unique talent, but sadly one with a definite shelf life in the movies.

Mitzi only had a few more film appearances before she packed her bags and left for Broadway. It was clear that she had an amazing combination of natural talent and it was not surprising that she found much success there. A movie and television comeback in the early fifties was short lived and she retired to raise her family. Sadly, she died of cancer aged only 48. Had she lived longer, I wonder how much she would have remembered of her days in Hollywood as a child star. Strangely though, seeing how confident and in command of her own talents she seemed on screen, I would like to have thought that it was a clear and hopefully pleasant memory for her. She certainly stood out from all the other child stars and presented a character that while no angel was just smart and sweet enough to win over audiences despite her sometimes beastly behaviour. More importantly, she achieved all this without resorting to the scene stealing, heart string pulling shenanigans of the curly haired brigade. No, Mitzi Green had far too much talent for all that.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

House of Errors (1942) - Harry Langdon on Poverty Row

I read a fascinating article years ago that theorized what could have happened to Laurel and Hardy had they chosen to join a studio other than Fox in 1940. Ideas were put forward as to the artistic and financial merits of signing with Columbia, Universal or even poverty row studios such as Monogram or Republic. Obviously Stan Laurel thought he could convince the big studios to let him exercise some creative control over his pictures, but ultimately it didn’t work out that way and years of artistic frustration were to follow. However, other comedians of the silent era down on their luck didn’t have the box office power of Laurel and Hardy and had no option other than to find a home with the likes of Educational or Pathe. It stands to reason that in a non-corporate, low budget setting the likes of Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon would be given more creative control in which to create their brand of comedy. I mean, surely a small time operator would bend over backwards to have a bona fide star (albeit a faded one) headline one of their productions?

Sadly, in Harry Langdon’s case, the freedom of a small studio did not equal a funnier, more creative film. Sure, some of his Educational shorts are very funny, but like Keaton he’s mostly just an actor rather than a creator. Perhaps in Langdon’s case it was just too late in the game for him to put himself heart and soul into the making of a new picture. Perhaps his reputation in the industry by the 1940s was such that producers merely saw him as a jobbing actor and not an artist. Perhaps he himself just saw movie work as a paycheck and was pleased to have income, no matter the quality of the material. Most likely he found, like his peers that the business model of the movie industry had changed since the 20s and that producers now called the shots.

This all brings us to House of Errors, a 1942 comedy starring Langdon for the Producers Releasing Corporation, a poverty row company mostly known for westerns. The movie is cheap and mostly cheerful, but what makes it interesting is the pairing of Langdon with former Laurel and Hardy gag man and director, Charley Rogers. The two had previously teamed up in Monogram’s Double Trouble in 1941 and the result must have garnered enough interest to warrant a second go. The pair work brilliantly together and despite the movie being slightly below par, they really come across as a double act with real chemistry. Harry Langdon by this time had evolved his “man-child form Mars” routine into a sort of permanently confused Hugh Herbert or Frank McHugh type of character, which played especially well off Charley Rogers’ fast talking, scheming Englishman. In fact, Rogers is so good at the character that I think he really missed his calling by not returning to his native land after the war, as he would have fitted in perfectly with the cast of music hall comedians making films in Britain in the late 40s and early 50s.

The plot of the film concerns wannabe reporters Langdon and Rogers (interestingly named Bert and Alf, the names of Stan and Ollie’s alter egos in Our Relations, a movie which Rogers had a big hand in writing) disguising themselves as home help for reclusive inventor in order to get a scoop on his latest idea, a new machine gun. Luckily, The Producers Releasing Corporation seemed to have had some faith in Harry Langdon as he is credited with the film’s story, and although it’s difficult to say with authority which bits were his, there is definitely an air of familiar Langdon-esque whimsy in the paper-thin plot.

What is really nice about the film is the little moments of comic business. Most of these come from the perfect timing and reactions of Langdon and Rogers. Langdon at times comes across a little like Stan Laurel but with the added layer of punch drunk buffoonery one associates with him (especially in sound). There’s lots of the usual vacuous blinking, bleary eye rolling, inept pointing, and inability to use limbs as nature intended, which due to Langdon’s advancing years (he was 57 when he made the film) make the whole childlike act all the more bizarre and incongruous. He also has an odd way of talking which involves saying…a lot of his lines…with…funny pauses. All in all he’s wonderfully entertaining and when paired with the fast talking Rogers, with his expert timing they produce a real winning combination.

The movie also has a number of quite charming visual gags which you have to assume were the work of Langdon, but which sadly never get the chance to evolve. On a side note, I’ve always found it interesting that Laurel and Hardy could easily pack a fully-fledged plot and a ton of well-worked gags into a 65 minute feature whereas movies like this at the same length collapse under the boredom of an inconsequential story interspersed with half formed routines. House of Errors (and its ilk) seems to take forever to end but Sons of the Desert does twice as much, ten times as good in less time. It raises the question, why did 40’s comedy producers feel the need to sideline comedians? Watching House of Errors, I could not care less about the nominal lead and his budding romance, and this goes for every Abbott and Costello or Ritz Brothers movie too. But I digress…

The aforementioned gags include Langdon’s heart beating out of his chest only to be moved by him to his other side (the accompanying line "I think he's got heart trouble", a sly mention of Langdon's final silent?), Langdon and Rogers doing housework and pushing air from a vacuum cleaner all the way under a carpet as well as playing a tune on a kettle. Also, in a flophouse the pair get involved with a flea circus (a nice cameo from Monte Collins) and Langdon traps his hand then does some ridiculous pantomiming as he tries to fix a crooked painting. All these situations are lovely while they last but unfortunately are brushed aside in favour of reporters, spies and plans for guns.

However there is a bit of redemption at the end where Langdon fires the new gun accidentally and in hitting some stock footage appears (I think) to kill the obnoxious hero! This done, the girl neatly falls into Harry’s lap, where being Harry he kisses her with his fingers then uses them to “eat her nose”! She seems a bit surprised as the credits roll…

House of Errors is by no means a good film, in fact it’s pretty terrible and sadly Harry Langdon is actually hardly in it. What makes in interesting is watching a former great in reduced circumstances, and regardless of the reasons for being there we can see tiny little glimpses of genius. I’d like to think that if Laurel and Hardy had ended up at the Producers Releasing Corporation that their films would have been just as awful too, yet similarly filled with glimmers of hope. In fact, anything they made for a poverty row studio would’ve been an improvement artistically over their 40s output at Fox and MGM.

The other interesting and unrealized part of the film is the pairing of Langdon and Rogers. It’s a more traditional double act than Langdon’s long-standing partnership with Vernon Dent (as good as that was) and really deserved more screen time. If only Columbia had seen the double act and decided to incorporate them into Harry’s then current series of shorts, it might have reached a degree of potential. As it is, all we have are a couple of films and a whole load of what ifs. But then again, Harry Langdon was probably pleased to get the work and a script credit and after all he had been through in his career perhaps that was more than enough.