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Real & Faux Silent Footage Worth Watching

Features
by Leonard Maltin
May 21, 2012 2:27 PM
15 Comments
  • |

YouTube has unearthed a treasure trove of film footage, aside from videos of cats roller-skating: precious moments of W.C. Fields on Broadway, The Three Stooges fooling around in Atlantic City, and a contemporary comedy short that predates The Artist in its attempt to replicate the silent era. I first encountered that 30-minute short when it was new in 1996 and its creator, Robert Watzke, sent me a copy seeking my reaction. I screened it, enjoyed it, and then, frankly, it receded in my memory until just a few months ago when the filmmaker sent me an e-mail saying he’d posted it on YouTube.

Helen Slater in 'Heavenzapoppin'!'

Heavenzapoppin'! is a sweet, clever 30-minute short, shot on 35mm film (remember that?) about the denizens of a rural Eastern European village who magically find themselves in modern-day Hollywood. I won’t reveal any more of the premise, or describe how it’s executed, so you can experience it for yourself. Suffice it to say that I think the film is ingenious and very well executed; I enjoyed revisiting it after all these years. Writer-director-editor Watzke is also the star, along with a troupe called the Bubalaires, which tries to keep the spirit of Commedia dell’ Arte alive. You’ll probably recognize the filmmaker’s wife, Helen Slater, well-remembered as the star of Supergirl and The Legend of Billie Jean, and the late Bruno Kirby.

There isn’t much of a marketplace for short subjects, sorry to say, but at least the Internet has given them a home. You can watch Heavenzapoppin'! HERE and see the trailer HERE.

As for the genuine silent material I mentioned above, at least two amazing pieces of home-movie footage have found their way online from the archives of vaudevillian George Mann. The first is a blackout skit called “The Mormon’s Prayers,” performed by W.C. Fields in Earl Carroll’s Vanities, 7th Edition on Broadway in 1928 featuring the Great Man and a bevy of chorus-girl beauties. It’s only about minute long, but it’s wonderful to see the Fields on stage, and there’s a lovely bonus at the end.

W. C. Fields on Broadway (1928).

The Stooges footage is in color—eye-popping Kodachrome which, as many people know, tends not to fade over the years. While appearing at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City in 1938, Moe, Larry and Curly agreed to appear in this gag movie staged, just for fun, by Mann and featuring his wife, beautiful Barbara Bradford.

Barto and Mann were a living Mutt and Jeff duo, the very tall Mann paired with the diminutive Barto; their unique dance act is nicely preserved in Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933). All I know of Dewey Barto is that his daughter was actress Nancy Walker. It turns out that George Mann was a prolific shutterbug whose daughter-in-law, commercial photographer Dianne Woods, has selected one thousand shots and made them available for licensing through akg-images. You can see some of his precious black & white photos, evoking a lost era of show business, and life in decades past, HERE.

So, even as issues of privacy (or lack of it) and governmental control continue to flare, one can be grateful to the Internet for providing access to material that otherwise most of us would never get to see.

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15 Comments

  • Barbara Silver | May 29, 2012 2:30 PMReply

    Wonderful film! Thank you for bringing attention to this sweet story!

  • Mark Paladini | May 29, 2012 2:14 PMReply

    Love, love, love it! Thank you so much for posting this.

  • Deren Abram | May 29, 2012 8:33 AMReply

    Thanks for writing about Heavenzapoppin'! and for calling attention to a great artist, Robert Watzke! Thanks too for all that you do for the movies!

  • David Slater | May 29, 2012 2:59 AMReply

    Thank you for writing about Rob Watzke's gem of a film, Heavenzapoppin'. It stands the test of time and is as good now as when it first came out. We need more short films like this, and it is helpful that you brought attention to it.

  • gail in la.la | May 29, 2012 2:33 AMReply

    love this film! thanks Mr. Maltin for calling attention to a great artist, Mr. Robert Watzke!

  • Diana Hrabowecki | May 29, 2012 1:26 AMReply

    Thanks for sharing "Heavensapoppin'!" What a magical film! Shorts have ushered in the great innovations in filmmaking -- the first talkies and the first animated cartoons were all shorts -- so it's exciting that ingenious little films like this one have found a home on the greatest invention of all: the internet!

  • jdscott | May 29, 2012 12:49 AMReply

    Mr. Maltin - I discovered "Heavenzapoppin" many years ago as a studio executive and it has been one of my favorite shorts ever since. Since becoming a film professor, I have shown it repeatedly to my classes and the response is always one of positivity and delight. I'm also blessed to have made friends with Robert Watzke since then; and "The Bubalaires" still perform from time to time in Los Angeles and are always worth seeing. Thank you so much for sharing this link, I hope many other people discover this wonderful gem!

  • Tirosh Schneider | May 29, 2012 12:44 AMReply

    Great write-up of "Heavenzapoppin'!", which deserves to be seen by many as it is such a wonderful short. And thanks for sharing all the great clips that can be found on YouTube. Always nice to find out about the Internet's hidden treasures!

  • Eugene Rubenzer | May 24, 2012 7:30 PMReply

    Mr. Maltin, As the actor who played the father (and firebreather in ther opening scene) in "Heavenzapoppin' I want to thank you for your kind support of a labor of love. My influences to get into he acting field were Laurel and Hardy. It's always reassuring to know that the greats of the silent era (then sound) are still recognized.

  • David Price-Hughes | May 22, 2012 9:38 AMReply

    Thanks for the link to our story showcasing George Mann's fantastic black-and-white photography. We're really enjoying seeing the footage that Dianne is digitising and putting online, it is incredible, invaluable footage! Mann had a real cameraman's eye, both in moving and still images, his archive of photos is sensational. And yes, his wife Barbara Bradford was fabulously beautiful, too. (He was a looker, too!)

  • Rob Watzke | May 21, 2012 5:40 PMReply

    Leonard, thanks for the shout-out for Heavenzapoppin'!, which was a real labor of love for all involved. And thanks for everything you do for the movies!

  • Ted Wioncek Jr., President W.C. Fields Fan Club (WCFFC) | May 21, 2012 5:22 PMReply

    Thank you Leonard for mentioning The Mormon's Prayer W.C. Fields film clip. We (myself and the members of the WCFFC) are always thrilled when a newly discovered piece of film surfaces. I discovered news of the film clip just in time to include an article in the Spring 2012 Lompoc Picyune Intelligencer, the newsletter of the WCFFC. I first learned of this film clip from the W.C. Fields Yahoo Group email list.

    Thank you Leonard for being a long time member of the WCFFC and for you help in keeping the spirit of W.C. Fields alive.

    www.webtrec.com/WCFields

  • Dianne Woods | May 21, 2012 4:43 PMReply

    Thank you for acknowledging George Mann's home-movie footage of W.C. Fields and The There Stooges. We think they're wonderful too and are delighted you feel the same way. We have several more clips we will be posting as we have George's 16mm film digitized. I didn't see a link to the W.C. Fields clip, so let me provide it here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_3SVBSd9R0

    We enjoyed seeing the reference to Heavenzapoppin'! because Barto and Mann were headliners in the musical revue Hellzapoppin, which at the time (1938 -1941) was the longest–running Broadway musical.

  • Daisy Kenyon | November 18, 2012 9:15 PM

    Has there ever been like a Museum exhibition of George Mann's photography?

  • Norm | May 21, 2012 3:57 PMReply

    AWESOME...what a slice in time...Fields on Stage, trying to "juggle " a bedful of ladies..and the "original" Stooges". Classic ...You can just hear the waves on the Jersey shore crashing into the creative embrace of Moe, Larry(slightly underdressed), and the beloved Curly...timeless...
    Thanks Leonard ..you really know how to show your fans a great time...

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