Saturday, July 21, 2018

ON BEING FUNNY IN AN ALTERNATE HOLLYWOOD: BIFFLE & SHOOSTER WRITER-DIRECTOR MICHAEL SCHLESINGER



“Who are you?”

“B-I-double F-iffle. Biffle! S-H-double O-ooster. Shooster! We’re Biffle and Shooster! Need we say more?”

In 1928, the vaudeville comedy duo of Benny Biffle and Sam Shooster made the transition from the stage to the nascent medium of talking pictures with a pair of Vitaphone one-reelers. That move was a modest but immediate success, breaking ground on what would be a string of 20 comedy shorts made by the team for independent producer Sam Weinberg, which would both build on their reputations as worthy occupants of a comedy firmament anchored by stars like Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, but also cement Weinberg’s standing as a producer who liked to lean a little too heavily upon the blueprint of others. (After a preview of their ninth short, Imitation of Wife, Laurel & Hardy producer Hal Roach approached Weinberg and gently suggested that he “try and be a little more original next time.”) In 1938, Biffle and Shooster parted ways with Weinberg, but they continued to work sporadically in films, including a cameo appearance in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), which was cut from the film’s original theatrical release.

All of the above sounds the typical trajectory of a vaudeville-to-the-movies comedy team career but for one thing—it never happened. Biffle and Shooster, themselves and their comedy shorts, are actually lovingly crafted fictions, built on a foundation created by actors Nick Santa Maria (Biffle) and Will Ryan (Shooster) and expanded into a series of actual shorts by producer-director-writer Michael Schlesinger, which have recently been collectively released by Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-ray as The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster. (“Two Madcap Morons on a Mission of Mayhem!”) The collection consists of five of those 20 shorts (the five Schlesinger has filmed so far)—The Biffle Murder Case, a terrific riff on whodunits of the Philo Vance variety; Imitation of Wife, the duo’s aforementioned “tribute” to Laurel & Hardy; Schmo Boat, a late-period (1937) revue shot in two-color “Cinecolor”; Bride of Finkelstein, B&S’s dip into Universal monster/Abbott & Costello territory, which was, according to Schlesinger lore, deemed “too Jewish” by theaters in the South which refused to show it; and the team’s last collaboration, It’s a Frame-up!, which shows the boys to be as entertaining at the last as they were at the first, however hobbled they may have been by the accretion of recycled plots and drastically lowered budgets. (In the real world, It’s a Frame-up! was the first Biffle and Shooster short Schlesinger filmed.)

Misadventures is also a treasure trove of arcana for Biffle and Shooster fans—they’ll get their first peek at B&S’s second Vitaphone short, 1928’s First Things Last, as well as that Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World outtake, improbably unearthed from the Kramer estate, and an outtake from Wife spoken entirely in (badly phoneticized) Spanish. Plus, there’s a B&S Will Rogers PSA, a 1962 interview with the boys, plenty of bloopers, deleted scenes and outtakes, and complete audio commentaries for each short from Schlesinger, Santa Maria and Ryan.

It’s really peachy to have all these shorts collected together— Schlesinger’s craft at making them seem indisputably authentic to the period is a knockabout joy to behold, as are Ryan and Santa Maria’s fully committed performances. The Biffle and Shooster comedies have been created with such fealty to period style, production values, and even, most delightfully, wear-and-tear, that audiences not in on the joke going forward might easily assume that what they are watching is the real vintage deal, though featuring jokesters they may not precisely… remember. (I promise you, I have seen it happen.) However, as with real-life progenitors like Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy, the Ritz Brothers et al., audiences may find that prolonged exposure to one Biffle and Shooster short after another can becoming trying. (There are, of course, plenty of folks for whom this will not be a problem.) My suggestion is programming a Biffle and Shooster short as a warm-up before the classic film of your choice—The Biffle Murder Case would pair up with any number of terrific comic mysteries, starting with The Thin Man (1934) or even The Garden Murder Case (1936), and of course Bride of Finklestein will whet the appetite for any number of Universal monster classics. And then you’ll be ready to dig into the delicious package of extras that Kino Lorber, along with Schlesinger and his team of impeccable actors and craftsmen, have put together. 


Schlesinger himself is what I like to think of as a walking encyclopedia of Hollywood history (though far less musty than the average dormant World Book volume which may still be on your parents’ bookshelf), and that sensibility informs every lovingly recreated period detail of the Biffle and Shooster shorts. “I’ve pretty much run the gamut of the industry,” Schlesinger says, certainly a claim that’s far more authentic than anything he ever cooked up about Biffle and Shooster’s Hollywood history.
After starting out in Ohio booking movie theaters, then shifting into distribution, marketing and production after the inevitable move to Los Angeles, Schlesinger soon (well, probably not soon from his perspective) developed a reputation as a pillar in the field of classic film distribution and restoration over 25 years working with MGM/UA, Paramount and Sony (aka Columbia Pictures). Some of the movies returned to theaters or restored for home video under his watch were a slew of Budd Boetticher westerns and Buster Keaton shorts, as well as trifles like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Citizen Kane (1941), White Dog (1982), The Conformist (1970), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), The Boy Friend (1971) and seemingly countless others.

Working in Sony’s home entertainment division, he toiled to make numerous rare features, shorts and cartoons from the studio’s library available for the first time, and in 1993 he delivered the completed version of Orson Welles famously unfinished It’s All True to movie theaters. It’s a tribute to Schlesinger’s eclectic tastes and talents that he also wrote, produced and voice-directed the Americanized version of Godzilla 2000 (1999), which got such good reviews that even Toho Studios proclaimed Schlesinger’s monster a big improvement over their own released version. The emergence of Biffle and Shooster and the first produced short, It’s a Frame-up! (2012), was a natural development.
I was trying to make it as a screenwriter, but I don’t write rubbish, so that clearly was an impediment,” Schlesinger explains of his decision to bring Biffle and Shooster to life. “I finally had to make a picture on my own dime. Let’s see if it leads to anything…though it better be soon!”

Self-deprecating, informative, and entertaining to the last (pick up his audio commentary on last year’s Blu-ray of Billy Wilder’s One Two Three, if you don’t believe me), Michael Schlesinger is one of Hollywood’s genuine good guys. Recently I peppered this renaissance fella with some questions via e-mail vis-à-vis Biffle and Shooster, and, boy, did I get some answers.

Do you remember the moment, or the movie, that made you fall in love with the movies? Did you have parents who loved the movies?

Are you kidding? Eisenhower was president! I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. Anyway, it wasn’t a sudden “Aha!” moment, just a gradual growing love. I was an only child, so the TV set became my de facto sibling. My folks neither loved nor hated movies; they just went, because that’s what people did in those days. That said, I can definitely point to, of all pictures, The Satan Bug (1965) was the movie that cemented the idea in my head that this was what I wanted to do. Go figure.

Who, exactly, are Biffle and Shooster? Frequently when you hear people talk about these guys the names of Abbott and Costello are invoked, but I suspect the influences and roots run more extensively than that.

They’re a fairly conventional vaudeville comedy team: one rather dimmer than the other. They’re sort of an amalgam of all teams, with some of their own qualities, though they’re probably a bit closer to A&C than any of the others. I wanted not only for the shorts to be different from each other, but for them to be different as well, depending on the scenario. Thus, in Imitation of Wife, they’re like Laurel & Hardy, in Schmo Boat they’re Hope & Crosby, in It’s a Frame-Up! they’re the Stooges (or at least two of them), and so on. It was mainly to avoid repetition from setting in, as well as displaying the guys’ versatility.


Speaking of influences, one of the most delightful things about Biffle and Shooster is the seemingly endless vein of movie references and movie dialogue embedded in these shorts. What's your favorite in-joke reference from any of the shorts? The most obscure one?

Oh, man, there are so many. Two I particularly adore are the Max Davidson “Scream” painting in Frame-up, and Biffle invoking The Susquehanna Hat Company in Schmo Boat. I also love when Biffle slips into a Bing Crosby impression. Never gets a laugh, but it puts me on the floor. As for obscure, maybe the reference to “six delicious flavors” in The Biffle Murder Case; that was Jell-O’s slogan for many years. Nobody gets it, but audiences in 1935 would have, and in any event, it’s not presented as a punch line, so it doesn’t really matter if people miss it. Also in Murder Case, the photo on the table is of S.S. Van Dine, whose Philo Vance stories we were spoofing. In fact, that whole short is laced with whodunit Easter eggs. Bride of Finkelstein, which is my favorite of the bunch, also has a lot of specific horror movie hat-tips. For example, when Finklestein enters, it’s to an orchestral arrangement of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor—the exact same passage used for Karloff’s similar entrance in The Black Cat (1934). And of course, what would a good horror spoof be without a gorilla? Incidentally, the script merely said, “They do the mirror routine.” Nick and Chris Walas (the Academy Award-winning make-up artist who played the gorilla) worked that out on their own.

My favorite of the shorts is The Biffle Murder Case. I love everything about it, even the intro card describing the movie's supposed history.

Those Blackhawk cards are important for setting up the short for audiences unfamiliar with this kind of comedy. Again, they weren’t necessarily intended to be seen all at once, especially in theatres.

And the great Jackson family in-joke, which I won't spoil. And the special guest appearance by Detective Murphy, played by Robert Forster (“I got three sons and I'd kill 'em all and have a beer afterwards!”).

That’s Lieutenant Murphy! Don’t make me say it again!

But my favorite is Roosevelt, the family butler who, of course, is black. His surprised take during the dramatic stingers, when all the suspects get to look extra suspicious, is priceless. The whole short is a masterpiece not only of duplication of the sort of drawing-room murder mysteries like the Philo Vance stories, but it also leaves room for a lot of sharp observations about race and class, both of the time being referenced-- the late '30s-- and current times.

Well, that was somewhat of a concession to the PC era. If we had a black servant going, “Yassuh, Boss!” and things like that, I’d be roasted on a spit. So, I wrote him as the kind of character Paul Robeson might have played. Alas, the actor I cast dropped out at the very last second, but that got us Todd as a replacement. He was terrific, but he was also several inches shorter, so Roosevelt went from being taller than everyone else to shorter than everyone else. I adjusted his character accordingly, and, since Todd shaves his head, added a line in which Nance addresses him as Stymie. That’s another film buff joke I love that hardly anybody laughs at. As for class, that reminds me of another obscure bit of business. Andrew suspects Roosevelt of sneaking drinks of his scotch. Roosevelt replies that it’s gin, and Andrew replies, “Oh, that’s alright, then.” That’s not a non sequitur gag. Back then, scotch was considered a gentleman’s drink and gin was more the beverage of the lower class. So, Andrew really wouldn’t care if Roosevelt was drinking it; he probably only kept it for company.


I'm fascinated by the visual and aural authenticity you manage to achieve in these shorts-- the “earliest” Biffle & Shooster, First Things Last, is a real marvel in this regard. It's no wonder that several people know who've seen them weren't aware a first that these weren't actual shorts from the '20s and '30s, but instead lovingly recreated homages.

I have an authenticity fetish. Do it right or don’t do it. And it can be done—all you have to do is want to do it. I can’t tell you how it drives me up the wall when I see a period piece and they get everything wrong. I’m fortunate to have a great D.P., Doug Knapp, who knows how to light for B&W, and Scott Cobb, a fabulous production designer. But the real hero is my editor, Bill Bryn Russell, who’s a one-man post-production house. He’s done all of Larry Blamire’s films, so he knows this territory well. I love playing around with color, sound, aspect ratios, etc., and he enjoys this stuff, too. On the Vitaphone short, I told him I wanted a slug at some point when they weren’t moving around. He not only put one in, but he even added a fake bad-splice jump. It looks completely real. He also dug up some of the cartoonish sound effects we used. It’s simply amazing what can be accomplished with digital editing nowadays.

How long does it usually take to get a B&S short from initial concept and screenplay to the finished product? You've made several of these now. Is the process getting any faster?

I can’t answer the question satisfactorily because most of the scripts were written months before shooting, and the editing and post went on for a long time because Bill was squeezing me in between his regular big-time gigs. We shot Frame-up in December of 2012 and all the others consecutively in July of 2014. They were all filmed in 3-4 days each, which is about what most Columbia two-reelers took, so I doubt we could hustle much more than that.

Those intro cards before each feature describe the movies in such loving detail, craftily intertwining real Hollywood history with your made-up version. I’d love to see a Biffle & Shooster feature in which they interact with your alternate Hollywood.

I’m kicking an idea for a feature around, but it’ll have to be somebody else’s money. I do have one short outlined called Vitaphonies where they’re turned loose in a movie studio, so that could address some of those issues. I’m also considering doing one of their radio shows as a podcast, which would give them a chance to have big-name guest stars via impressions.

Are your actors, Nick Santa Maria, who plays Benny Biffle, and Will Ryan, who plays Sam Shooster, as well-versed in Hollywood arcana and lore as their writer-director?

Without question. Like me, they eat, sleep, breathe and live this stuff. It’s in our DNA. Don’t forget, they actually “created” the characters, though they were kind of nebulous before I jumped in and fleshed them out.

The screenwriting credit for The Biffle Murder Case goes to Lou Breslow, a real screenwriter who wrote, among many other terrific movies, Murder, He Says (1944) starring Fred MacMurray and the great Marjorie Main, a movie you introduced me to at the first TCM Classic Film Festival by describing it as a parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 30 years before that movie was even made. I'll always be grateful to you for making me aware of this movie, which has since become a personal favorite. But the Breslow touch in Murder Case is typical of your catch-all-of-old-Hollywood approach to these shorts. For those who may not know how IMDb works, who was Lou Breslow?

First of all, except for B&S and executive producer Sam Weinberg, all the names in the opening credits are real. Again, I want them to seem on the level. As for Breslow, I’m a huge fan. He started as a writer, and eventually directed as well. He did a lot of films I love, including No More Women (1934),  36 Hours to Kill (1936), You Can Never Tell (1951) and Gift of Gab (1934), and wrote for Laurel and Hardy, the Stooges and Bob Hope, among others. He had a terrific ear for dialogue, but also was a great constructionist. Most of the writers and directors in the fake credits match the content; for example, for the ones which blatantly rip-off other shorts, I use Clyde Bruckman as the writer. He was quite well-known for, shall we say, recycling.

What constitutes good comedy for the creator of Biffle and Shooster?

For starters, don’t insult my intelligence, don’t bore me, and above all don’t fall back on attitude or profanity as a crutch. You can be dirty, but at least do it as part of a joke. I dig Keaton and Lloyd, but I also love Michelle Wolf and Jim Jefferies. Once you’ve established your characters and a story arc, you can do whatever you want—as long as it’s funny. Still, the greatest TV series ever is The Dick Van Dyke Show, and the greatest movie ever is It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I can’t even hope to aspire to those heights.


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2 comments:

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Have you seen or even heard of “Morton and Hayes”, a very short-lived series (6 eps) with a similar premise? It was directed by Rob Reiner and starred Kevin Pollak and Bob Amaral. More of 2 Stooges vibe, or Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. We watched them when they aired, and loved them, but weren’t surprised when they were cancelled.

Mike Schlesinger said...

Are you asking Dennis or me?