Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tempus fidgets

In 1927, George O'Brien co-starred with Janet Gaynor in one of the greatest films of all time and co-winner of the first Best Picture Academy Award, Sunrise. In 1951, he played a cowboy hero named George O'Brien, co-starring with The Three Stooges in a low-budget indie made for the Saturday matinee audience called Gold Raiders. It's an odd coupling of a not-bad Stooges movie with a severely undernourished western. (The movie even starts with the kind of Western action that made me hate Westerns when I was a little kid and my older siblings watched them non-stop: a bunch of guys riding around Bronson Canyon for no discernible reason, firing guns at nothing in particular at regular, clock-like intervals. So boring!)

As I've discussed before, I'm coming to appreciate the Stooges as all-purpose showbiz pros. Ask them to sing, they sing well. Need some dancing? They acquit themselves acceptably. Sell a few corny old jokes, they'll do that. Their trademark is, of course, the eyepokes, face slaps and conks to the noggin, and they don't even need those patented Columbia Pictures sound effects to sell them, as those tricks predated their film years. (Gold Raiders is directed by Edward Bernds, who started as a sound cutter at Columbia before becoming a short subject director there, and he seems to have smuggled some of the Columbia sound effects with him to this independent production.) In Gold Raiders, if you need itinerant Jewish shyster peddlers (in Westerns, the term "Easterner" is code for (a) white shoe WASP; or (b) Jew) they'll do that. Need them to prop up a fading, pot-bellied George O'Brien and make the kids in the audience believe he's still a rootin'-tootin' Western hero? They'll do that, too.

What the Stooges were mostly called upon to do was carry a long series of short subjects, and most people feel they do that well. Personally, I don't think the Stooges are best left to their own devices, as were, for instance Laurel & Hardy or W.C. Fields, or in jazz, Art Tatum. The three last-named sometimes worked in support of others, but they were not at their best in that setting. They needed to freedom to explore, to wander down cul-de-sacs, to be their idiosyncratic selves. The Stooges characters were not of sufficient depth or resonance to be explored, so they necessarily repeated themselves. But placed in context with other people and perhaps even a larger story, and they acquit themselves well. In fact Gold Raiders is at its bleakest in the last 25 minutes when the Stooges virtually disappear and the story is being carried by the extremely minor character actor, Clem Bevans.

Incidentally, Clem is protecting his beloved granddaughter, Sheila Ryan, who has the distinction of co-starring with both the Stooges and Laurel and Hardy (twice!). Wish she'd been my grandma!

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