From the silent era onwards, Hollywood has been a rich breeding ground for comedy. Solo clowns led by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields became giants in their field and their motion pictures are still entertaining worldwide audiences today.
Yet the comedic movie world wasn't dominated only by solo performers.
There were also remarkable double-acts and also formidable comedy teams
and here are four of my favorites…
To begin with, there was Laurel & Hardy.
Recently and lovingly portrayed in the 2019 feature film "Stan And Ollie", the universally popular Laurel and Hardy duo captivated cinema audiences for decades and re-runs of their films on television reignited their acclaim. The combination of British-born Arthur Stanley Jefferson
and Georgia-born Oliver Norvell Hardy made for the perfect pairing of two physically different gentlemen whose humor has transcended time and fashion. Their comical relationship and style was created in silent movies and effortlessly translated into sound pictures.
Here's a typical clip of Stan & Ollie's superb style of silent slapstick from one of their Hal Roach sound two-reelers "Busy Bodies" from 1933 where our two heroes were working at a sawmill. https://youtu.be/_NUGRbozY04
In addition, here's a clip on YouTube from the film "County Hospital" (MGM: 1932)
in which Stan visits Ollie whose injured leg is suspended in traction.
The havoc that ensues involves the doctor played by Billy Gilbert.
Laurel & Hardy's theme tune was DANCE OF THE CUCKOOS aka THE KU-KU SONG and it opened virtually all of their memorable films. It was composed by T. Marvin Hatley who also dubbed music for the boys when, in certain scenes in their films, they appeared to be playing instruments. These included Stan playing organ and Ollie playing double bass in the IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME sequence in "Below Zero" (1930), Stan playing the tuba in "Swiss Miss" (1938)
and Stan playing trombone in "Saps At Sea" in 1940.
Here's a YouTube link to Laurel & Hardy's famous musical performance of the 1913 ballad
TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE (Ballard MacDonald/Harry Carroll)
from the 1937 film "Way Out West"
Ollie & Stan sing the song accompanied by The Avalon Boys featuring off-camera bass singer
Chill Wills (dubbing for Stan). At the close of the song, Stan's 'high voice' was dubbed by Rosina Lawrence who played Mary Roberts in the film. Released as a single for the first time in the UK
in late '75. It reached #2 on the local charts!
These two guys created the ultimate pairing of a straight man (Bud Abbott) and a bumbling but lovable clown, Lou Costello. Their first taste of real success was on the radio in the late 30's and then significantly when their were given their own show in 1940. Universal signed them up and
put them in a series of hit movies and in the 50's, they starred in a half-hour comedy series on TV.
Here's a YouTube link to a 1953 television performance by Bud & Lou of their famous
"Who's On First" baseball routine:
In 1941, Abbott & Costello recorded "Laugh, Laugh, Laugh" (Abbott/Costello/Grant/Mills),
a comedy disc featuring dialogue banter by Bud & Lou interspersed with a song performed by
'The Sportsmen' Quartet. It was issued in '42 in two parts on a Victor 78.
George Burns & Gracie Allen were a husband and wife comedy team of which George was the cigar-smoking straight man and Gracie was his scatterbrained partner whose illogical
reasoning was the basis of her dialog. They appeared together in a number of films
including the three Paramount “Big Broadcast” movies of 1932, '36 & '37, "College Humor"
in 1933 and with Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine in "A Damsel In Distress" in '37 but their
major collaborative success was with their own radio series in the 30's & 40's and later
with their own television sitcom in the 50's.
Here's a clip from one of their TV shows which illustrates their comedic style: https://youtu.be/yDCjhLOaNZI
(Incidentally, the 1920 composition THE LOVE NEST (Otto Harbach/Louis A. Hirsch)
was used as the theme tune for their radio & TV series).
The magnificent team of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo created mayhem and chaos, originally in vaudeville and most memorably in a series of motion pictures, primarily for Paramount and MGM. Zeppo appeared in the first five Marx Brothers movies and then retired from the team. (Zeppo's second wife Barbara later married Frank Sinatra).
One of my personal favorite Marx Brothers comedy routines is the Password sequence with Groucho & Chico from "Horse Feathers" (Paramount: 1932):
Now, watch this priceless scene from "The Big Store" (MGM: 1941) in which Wacky (Harpo) needs to suddenly hide his cooking of an elaborate breakfast as Martha Phelps (Magaret Dumont) arrives at the office of so-called detective Wolf J. Flywheel (Groucho):
Music played a distinctive role in the Marx Brothers movies with both Chico and Harpo having their own tuneful segments. For example, in "A Night In Casablanca" (United Artists: 1946), Chico sat at the piano and played BEER BARREL POLKA and in "Love Happy" (United Artists: 1949), Harpo lived up to his name playing OLD FOLKS AT HOME(SWANEE RIVER).
Groucho was graced with a number of outstanding comical songs including LYDIA, THE TATTOOED LADY (Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg) which he sang onboard a train in "At The Circus" (MGM:1939). Most significant of all Groucho's other musical moments were the two Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby compositions HELLO, I MUST BE GOING and HOORAY FOR CAPTAIN SPAULDING which were performed in a medley in "Animal Crackers" (Paramount: 1930) by Groucho along with Margaret Dumont, Zeppo Marx and the cast. Here is the clip of both songs from the movie: https://youtu.be/5BMtqqHRvB8
HOORAY FOR CAPTAIN SPAULDING went on to become Groucho's theme tune and, when he hosted the 1950's TV game show "You Bet Your Life", it opened every episode.
Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby also wrote EV'RYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU for the the previously mentioned "Horse Feathers" (Paramount: 1932). I edited extracts from the soundtrack for a single release on MCA in the UK in 1982using Groucho & Chico’s versions for the A side.
Here's a link to all four performances of the song by (in order of appearance)
Zeppo, Harpo, Chico and Groucho:
Other comedy duos and teams from this side of the Atlantic included AMOS AND ANDY, THE KEYSTONE COPS, DEAN MARTIN & JERRY LEWIS, OLSEN AND JOHNSON, THE RITZ BROTHERS, ROWAN AND MARTIN, THE THREE STOOGES and WHEELER AND WOOLSEY.
But let's close by harking back to the days of vaudeville and the comedy duo
GALLAGHER AND SHEAN…
Ed Gallagher and Al Shean wrote their own theme song called MISTER GALLAGHER AND MISTER SHEAN which they introduced in "Ziegfeld Follies Of 1922".
Here's their original Victor recording:
The song became an instant hit in '22 and was successfully revived on a recording in 1938 by Bing Crosby duetting with Johnny Mercer. In addition, Al Shean (who in real life was the Marx Brothers' uncle) performed the song with Charles Winninger in the 1941 MGM musical "Ziegfeld Girl" and with Jack Kenney in the 1944 Republic film “Atlantic City”.
LET'S STRAIGHTEN IT OUT (Benny Latimore) by Latimore
Pro: Steve Alaimo (Glades: 1974) US #1 R&B, #31 Pop.
The link above is to the original five-minute version of this
heartache-filled blues-tinged ballad which perfectly showcased
Latimore's slow burn baritone voice. Also prominent on the track
is his Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Other artists who cut LET'S STRAIGHTEN IT OUT included
Clarence Carter, Millie Jackson, L.V. Johnson, B.B. King,
Gwen McCrae, The Boneshakers and also O.V. Wright.
In addition, Monica and Usher cut a version together.
Singer/songwriter/keyboardist Benny Latimore
hails from Charleston, Tennessee. He went to school in Nashville
and got a gig playing piano with R&B singer Joe Henderson's revue.
After moving to Miami, he began playing organ in local clubs.
Having met up with singer/producer Steve Alaimo,
he started recording for two of Henry Stone's labels,
Blade and Dade.
Switching to another T.K. label imprint Glades,
Latimore found chart success, initially with a revival
of T-Bone Walker's song STORMY MONDAY
and then with IF YOU WERE MY WOMAN
(Clay McMurray/Pam Sawyer/LaVern Ware),
an answer to Gladys Knight's 1970 success
IF I WERE YOUR WOMAN.
LET'S STRAIGHTEN IT OUT followed,
igniting Benny's career big time.
He cut an updated version of the song on his
Malaco album "I'll Do Anything For You" in '83.
Among Latimore's additional chart records were
DIG A LITTLE DEEPER (Benny Latimore)
(Glades: 1978) US #42 R&B in '79
KEEP THE HOME FIRE BURNIN'
(Benny Latimore/Steve Alaimo)
(Glades: 1975) US #5 R&B
SOMETHIN' 'BOUT 'CHA
(Glades: 1976) US #7 R&B & #37 Pop in '77
THERE'S A RED-NECK IN THE SOUL BAND
(Benny Latimore/Steve Alaimo/Willie Clarke)
(Glades: 1975) US #36 R&B.
He further scored with a revival of George McCrae's
1975 hit I GET LIFTED (Harry Wayne Casey/Richard Finch)
two years after the original.
Also worth noting is a duet that Latimore cut
with Denise LaSalle on her composition
RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME,
the title song from her 1984 album on Malaco.
STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN (Phillip Mitchell) by Mel & Tim
Pro: Barry Beckett & Roger Hawkins (Stax: 1972) US #4 R&B, #19 Pop
Cousins Mel Hardin and Tim McPherson (above) first scored with their own composition
BACKFIELD IN MOTION on Gene Chandler's Bamboo label in '69. Complete with an opening monologue,
STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN turned into this hook-driven soul ballad and became the duo's second chartstormer;
it was recorded at Muscle Shoals and the master sold to Stax Records.
Phillip Mitchell had actually written the song for Sam & Dave .
The song also charted Country first by Don Gibson on ABC/Hickory
(US #16 Country in '78)
and later by Razzy Bailey
on SOA (US #73 Country in '89).
In addition, STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN
was recorded by a host of other artists including
James & Bobby Purify, Bobby Blue Bland, Gwen McCrae,
Johnnie Taylor, Clarence Carter, Rita Coolidge, Sam & Dave
and also Daryl Hall & John Oates.
This was the 1979 Atlantic album “Top Of The Line”
by Prince Phillip Mitchell, the writer of STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN.
R&B singer/songwriter/musician/producer Prince Phillip Mitchell comes from Louisville, Kentucky,
and found particular success as a songwriter beginning in the early 70's when he was working with Muscle Shoals
session players Barry Beckett & Roger Hawkins.
In addition to STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN, his other successful compositions included:
CARRY ME (Phillip Mitchell/Ernie Shelby) by Joe Simon (Spring: 1974) US #12 R&B
DANCING TO YOUR MUSIC (Phillip Mitchell) by Archie Bell & The Drells
Pro: Phillip Mitchell (Glades: 1973) US #11 R&B , #61 Pop
FOREVER AND A DAY (Phillip Mitchell/Billy Clements) by Mel & Tim
Pro: Barry Beckett & Roger Hawkins (Stax: 1973) US #88 R&B in '74
HERE I AM AGAIN (Phillip Mitchell) by Candi Staton
Pro: Rick Hall (Warner Bros: 1975) US #35 R&B
HURTS SO GOOD (Phillip Mitchell) by Millie Jackson
Pro: Brad Shapiro (Spring: 1973) US #3 R&B, #24 Pop
(Originally released as IT HURTS SO GOOD by Katie Love & The Four Shades Of Black on Scepter in '71).
IF YOU CAN'T GIVE HER LOVE (Give Her Up) (Phillips Mitchell/Clayton Ivey) by Mary Wells
Pro: Bobby Womack (Reprise: 1974) US #95 R&B
IT BE'S THAT WAY SOMETIME (Philip Mitchell) by Joe Simon
Pro: Joe Simon & Raeford Gerald (Posse: 1982) - Sampled in MAGIC STICK by Lil' Kim Featuring 50 Cent
(Queen Bee: 2003) #2 R&B, #2 Pop
LEFTOVERS (Phillip Mitchell) by Millie Jackson/Pro: Brad Shapiro & Millie Jackson (Spring: 1975) US #17 R&B, #87 Pop
OH LA DE DA (Phillip Mitchell) by The Staple Singers
Pro: Al Bell (Stax: 1973) US #4 R&B, #33 Pop
A STAR IN THE GHETTO (Phillip Mitchell) by Average White Band & Ben E. King
Pro: Arif Mardin & Jerry Greenberg (Atlantic: 1977) US #25 R&B
THAT'S THE WAY I WANNA LIVE MY LIFE (Phillip Mitchell) by Mel & Tim
Pro: Barry Beckett & Roger Hawkins (Stax: 1973) US #79 R&B in '74
As a recording artist himself, Phillip cut some memorable 45's of other self-composed soul songs including
FREE FOR ALL (Winner Takes All) released on Shout in 1970 ONE ON ONE on Atlantic in '78 (US #32 R&B),
TURNING OVER THE GROUND on Hi in '73 and THERE'S ANOTHER IN MY LIFE
(Phillip Mitchell/Billy Clements) (Event: 1975) #58 R&B.
He was also the vocalist on Norman Connors' arrangement of his song ONCE I'VE BEEN THERE
(Buddah: 1977) (US #16 R&B) from Norman's Buddah album "Romantic Journey".
"If you enjoyed this week's edition of The Door To Yesterday,
there's more where that came from!"