Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
      ( 4/06/2005 09:36:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"NEVER A HELP AND ALWAYS A HINDRANCE!" – With TCM smack dab in the midst of its April Fool's marathon, I recently spent part of my morning watching two shorts by a duo who didn't manage to make the cut: Clark & McCullough.

Another comedy pair who first made their name on Broadway in the 20's and 30's, the two starred in a series of shorts for RKO Pictures. They even shared the same house director (Mark Sandrich) as Wheeler & Woolsey, though to the best of my knowledge the pair never managed to graduate to regular sound features. Would've been interesting to see if the team could've maintained the comic energy that they put in their shorts for the length of an entire film, but, unfortunately, straight man Paul McCullough's suicide in the mid-thirties put an end to the team.

The two shorts on display for me, courtesy of C & McC fan Aaron Neathery (who even has a web page devoted to the twosome), deserve to be discovered by a larger audience, though. "The Iceman's Ball," in particular, is of interest to old movie comedy lovers, featuring as it does Laurel & Hardy nemesis James Finlayson (doing the same patented look-into-the-camera double takes that he developed in L & H shorts), Three Stooges authority figure Vernon Dent and a young lookin' Walter Brennan as cops being bamboozled by the boys. With dialog written by Bobby Clark and Sandrich, the short opens with our heroes being tossed out of the local Iceman's Ball (the only connection that the movie has to its title) – and Dent & Brennan's city cops showing up to haul in Clark & McCullough. Instead, the twosome swipes the police car, take it to the precinct house and convince the desk sergeant there that they’re new hires. In their new uniforms, they tool around in the commandeered cop car, looking for babes to impress. They find one (Shirley Chambers), only she turns out to be Dent's wife. The trio make their way to a swinging party at the Garfinkle Arms, where Clark spends his time making lecherous plays toward every women within eyeshot (including Betty Farrington, its zaftig hostess) and McCullough keeps coming onstage with a fresh cream pie in his hand. "Deep down in your heart, you know somebody's gonna get that pie," Clark notes, and, of course, he's right.

As a comedian, motormouth Clark has a lot of affinities with Groucho Marx. Though where the latter's seediness added just the slightest patina of defensiveness against a world that constantly let him down (you can see this best in the resigned way he frequently relates to his perpetually scheming co-stars), with Clark, you get the sense he's the way he is because he just likes being the way he is. He's an equal opportunity reprobate – as likely to go after the chubby hostess (without, as with Groucho, any ulterior motives) as he is the shapely blond bimbo. Like Marx, he's fond of double-talk wordplay and puns, and, occasionally, he'll speak in calculatedly archaic sentence construction for comic effect. ("Shall I take this money or shall I the not?") And as with Groucho with his moustache in the earliest Marx outings, Clark contains greasepaint on his face – a pair of painted on glasses, in his case, which rise and fall with every eyebrow cock he makes – without any concern for how phony they look on film.

McCullough is the chubbier, more childlike figure: with a shrill voice and a propensity for cackling at his own or his partner's gags. He's a much less dynamic presence than Clark, though the shorts move along so rapidly that you barely notice when he isn't really doing anything more than bringing in another pie. Clearly, Clark wrote himself more good lines than he did McCullough, but I'm not certain that the big guy would've pulled many of 'em off, anyway.

Both of the shorts I viewed provided an enjoyable blend of fast talk and slapstick, though a repeating gag featuring a nattering dispatcher in the police short got old long before the flick's twenty minutes were up. In "Snug in the Jug," the second C & McC, the two are ex-cons who get a job putting up wanted posters. They so plaster the town with 'em that Slug Mullins, the poster boy in question, decides to bump the twosome off. There's another party sequence where Clark is once more given opportunity to leer (and animal growl) at a full-figured babe plus some nonsense around a kidnapped criminologist and a jewelry robbery. Some of the Mullins scenes (most notably a bit where the boys plaster posters in the hallway outside his hideout) reminded me in places of those Three Stooges shorts where the boys run afoul of pugnacious mobsters, though C & McC don't indulge in the same level of extreme physical comedy so inseparable from the Stooges shorts.

There's a nice outlandish moment at the end of "Jug," though, where the boys find themselves in the same jail cell as Mullins. They do an immediate panic take then run toward the bars, which they magically manage to pass through like cartoon figures sprinting into a painted tunnel. They stop to momentarily consider the impossibility of what they've just done, then dash away to safety. The Stooges, you know, would've simply crashed through the prison wall, leaving it a pile of bricks and rubble, then been shown in long shot as they scurried away with their tails between their legs. Clark and McCullough, however, are afforded their own improbable moments of victory: nobody's fall guys, more like comic survivors in Depression Era America – where even a stint in jail meant you were at least guaranteed a roof and a meal. . .
# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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