Friday, July 06, 2018

it's a mad, mad, mad, mad accomplishment

Adroitly unassuming, "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" is a DVD collection of fully realized, '30s-style comedy shorts that deliver both the element of the unexpected and the sense of discovery absent from the plodding, predictable comedies being made today. It shouts "Surprise!"

The brainchild (and clearly a labor of love) of producer-director Michael Schlesinger, a veteran of the studios' home-entertainment divisions, the Kino Lorber release packages five shorts that showcase the eponymous nitwits, Benny Biffle and Sam Shooster (played by resourceful creators Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan, respectively), in as many genres. Think Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Or Laurel and Hardy. Or Bud and Lou.

And like the aforementioned comedy teams and others, one of the guys in this duo is a moron and knows it and the other is a moron who doesn't.

The comedy here, both physical and verbal, is refreshingly retro and shamelessly corny - and genuinely funny. Having struggled my way through one contemporary screen "comedy" after another, I actually forgot that movies once knew how to be funny and without having to resort to diarrhea jokes, cute little old ladies (or a nursery-age kid) casually tossing off the word "fuck," or millennials being titillated by the idea of "balls." 

This is not to imply that "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" is funny without being audacious. In the Biffle-&-Shooster horror spoof, "Bride of Finklestein," the good doctor's goal is to turn his brunette Jewish wife into a blonde shiksa (to her utter chagrin). 

Much of the humor here is Jewish, not surprisingly, because the comedy shorts of the 1930s and '40s were extensions of the kind of sketch comedy that was hugely popular in vaudeville, burlesque and the Borscht Belt as some of the comics of the time made the transition to film.

Schlesinger's omnibus opens with the (rather elegantly done) murder-mystery spoof, "The Biffle Murder Case," and continues with the musical "Schmo Boat," a free-for-all staged in an art gallery titled "It's a Frame Up!" and the ever-popular man-in-a-dress bit, "Imitation of Wife." 

Each comes with a healthy assortment of punch lines, double takes, slow burns and other comic curlicues - faux shorts nothing less than fastidious.

The cast of contemporary actors mimicking bygone actors playing ridiculous characters is flawless. (Each performer here is credited as an actor playing a character.) It's jaw-dropping, in fact, that Schlesinger was able to recruit so many game talents who are on the exact same wavelength that he, Ryan and Santa Maria travel. These impersonations are spot-on, as are the "poverty row" production designs that capture the look and feel of vintage shorts without ever a hint of condescension or eye-rolling sarcasm. This collection is not a parody. It's the real thing. 

Even the opening credits of each short share the same determined focus, with artists, studios, trademarks and release dates giving the impression that what we are about to watch is indeed the real thing. Mervyn LeRoy! Del Lord! (The end credits reveal Schlesinger & company as the culprits.)

For the educated movie buff of a certain age, "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" is a heartening experience, taking one back to a time when going to the movies was indeed a night out (or an afternoon) - one that included not just the feature attraction, but a newsreel, a travelogue, a cartoon (maybe two), previews of coming attractions and a comedy short.

And for those newbies who self-describe as "movie buffs" because of their obsession with Marvel/DC Comics movies exclusively, "Biffle and Shooster" could be a revelation - particularly if their idea of a good comedy sketch is something that passes as one on "Saturday Night Live."

Watching "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" also made me a little wistful, reminding me of how much I miss having access to the shorts of Leon Errol, Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy, Amos n' Andy and other comedy doodles that played with regularity on TV in the 1950s and early '60s. "The Three Stooges" remains ubiquitous and Turner Classic Movies, which should be a source, occasionally airs George O'Hanlon's Joe McDoakes/"Behind the 8-Ball" short subjects but not much else. 

After the studios abandoned their comedy shorts, elements of the genre lived on, eventually working their way into other areas of film and television. The influence has been wide-spread: Groucho and the Brothers Marx, Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes, the Abbott-&-Costello and Martin-&-Lewis films, Burns and Allen, the work of Mel Brooks, "The Carol Burnett Show" and, most definitively, in Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," which is essentially a ga-zillion comedy sketches gleefully edited together. It's no surprise that Mike Schlesinger is an enthusiastic fan of Kramer's comedy extravaganza; he worked on its BluRay edition.

"Biffle and Shooster" has the same enthusiasm. And it's an ardor that is downright contagious. More to the point, it's falling-down funny.

And it's not faux at all.

Note in Passing: This essential DVD is available directly from Kino Lorber or Amazon. And you might want to check out these takes on the collection by CineSavant's Glenn Erickson and Home Theater Forum's Robert Harris.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top)

~Nick Santa Maria, Trish Geiger and Will Ryan in an antic moment from "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster"
~photography: Kino Lorber 2018©

~Phil Baron as "Max Davidson" playing "Dr. Finkelstein" with Santa Maria and Ryan in another moment from "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster"
~photography: Kino Lorber 2018©

~The dust jacket for the DVD of "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster"


Marla M said...

sounds incredible! I'm ordering it tonight. Thank you, Joe, for bringing this to light.

mike schlesinger said...

Thank you so very much, kind sir. But one small correction: It's Del Lord, not Del Moore.

joe baltake said...

Yikes! Yes, Lord, not Moore. Correction made, Mike. Done. -J

Marvin J Halpern said...

Hey, Joe.

THE MISADVENTURES OF BIFFLE & SHOOSTER! would have to be wonderful for these two reasons (among others).

1. You yourself never miss in your recommendations of wonderfully obscure and just plain wonderful items to see.

2. Although I have never met Mike Schlesinger, I have read his comments frequently on your blog. Here is an astute, intelligent, analytical observer of films that is, unfortunately, very rare in today's world of know-nothings.


Marvin H.

Alex said...

Joe- This collection sounds like a real find. My guess is that it's not only funnier than the comedies I see these days but, from what you describe, better made. I look forward to appreciating the accuracy for myself!

Charlotte said...

There's no doubt that Turner should be airing more vintage short subjects and comedy shorts. It only seems to play old "making of..." featurettes made by MGM, most of which I find a little creepy.

Billy from Philly said...

Joe! You forgot The Little Rascals. I remember running home from school to watch them on Channel 6 here in Philly. I'd drink chocolate milk with a cheese sandwich and just sit on the floor and watch them. Love it. The hostess was a cowgirl named Sally Starr. Brings back great memories.

joe baltake said...

Billy- You also brought back memories. Sally Starr! Yes. And like The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals can still be seen - often on Turner. -J

Nick Santa Maria said...

Joe...What a lovely review. Thanks a million and one...(the one is for Shooster).

joe baltake said...

Nick- And thanks for the lovely note. I debated about detailing more of your and Will's performances in the five shorts but there was so much that was both inventive and familiar that I thought it would be best seen fresh, without any spoilers - a discovery on the level of what I experienced. And then there were the other players, all fabulous, and the cameos by actors like Dan Roebuck and Robert Picardo. Anyway, thanks in return. -J

Sheila said...

Joe, I purchased this DVD when I read a review of it on Trailers from Hell and I've watched and enjoyed it several times. I'm so happy that you wrote about it, too. It's a humbling reminder of what we're missing these days. -Sheila

gregory said...

"Slowly I turn..." Haven't heard that in ages. Love it. Like Sheila, I already had this in my DVD library. But now I have to watch it again.

Mike said...

There was a true dedication to being as authentic as possible in the production of the shorts. From the executive producer to the third company grip everyone was on board. The stages were hot because we were using tungsten lights, the set design was amazing, but I think my favorite behind the scenes moment to share is found in Schmo boat. Here all the performers, including the band, where on hot open mics. Everyone performed live, the only way to tell you really had the sound right was by listening through headphones or running a playback. It was shot exactly the way it would have been shot in 1938. And it turned out beautiful! Thanks for the review.

mike schlesinger said...

With regard to shorts airing on TCM, I think they're getting a bit of a bum rap here. They run shorts constantly, often quite obscure ones, usually in that 15-25 minute space between features. They never printed them in the now-defunct magazine, but they are generally listed in their on-line skeds.

And Marvin, thanks for the kind words!

Jesse Levy said...

Thanks Joe for your wonderfully kind review. I had a ball working on Bride of Finkelstein. I hope we get to make more of these.

Brian Lucas said...

Joe, I'm so happy that, at last, someone discerned the difference between movie buffs who grew up with films from the 1950s, '60s etc. and those current "buffs" whose film world began with (and exclusively revolves around) superhero movies. These kids (although most of them are adult men) may be movie fans but they're not real film buffs. Their tastes in movies is too limiting.

Alan said...

"The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" brings back wonderful memories when one of our local stations aired shorts from the '40s and '50s. I used to rush home from school to watch them with my after-school chocolate milk. When I read your post, I couldn't wait to see it and found a copy at our library. Huzzah! I love that the makers avoided smug overkill - no winking! - and produced these shorts with an eye for authenticity. I can't wait to get a copy of my own. Thanks for the recommendation. - Alan

Pamela West said...

Got this a while back. Very funny. Non-stop hilarity. The jokes keep coming and keep getting better. I'm not sure modern audiences would get it but for those of us in the know, it's great.

Stu said...

Based on your review and Alan's post, this sounds like a time capsule back to when movies were genuinely funny. I'm hoping it's on-demand.

Rod Thomas said...

I took a film course a couple decades ago and the professor teaching it made a pronouncement that made some of us gasp. He said that comedies worked better as shorts than as feature films because, after a while, the audience just stops laughing. Sometimes, less is more, he said. Sounds like this compilation of shorts proves his point. I think he’d approve.

Movie Nerd said...

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Achievement? I get it. I loved the Kramer film and this sounds as if it was inspired as much by that as by the shorts from the 1930s. I'm in!

D. Daly said...

I saw this a few months ago and agree totally with your assessment. It's inspired. I hope there's another disc of Biffle and Shooster shorts coming.

Ralph said...

Joe- I love comedies. I haven't seen many old ones like the ones posted here but I laugh at just about anything. My favorite is "Caddyshack." -Ralph

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Ralph- I like "Caddyshack," too. I reviewed it in another lifetime when I worked in Philadelphia. An aside: Years later, I received a strange email from a Philly person complaining that I panned the film. The email came out of nowhere and was wrong. Here's the link about the incident, if you care to check it out: