Bowler Dessert Revisited

Willie McIntyre, Bowler Dessert editor extraordinaire and Call of the Cuckoos Grand Sheik and Beau Chumps Grand Sheik, Mike Jones, go back a looooong way. “Too long” if you ask Willie, but in spite of this, he was happy for the Chumps Website to look back at the illustrious history of the publication that has been a mainstay of the UK Tents since Laughing Gravy was but a ‘twinkle in his pop’s eye‘.

Bowler Dessert was for many years a quarterly and then six-monthly magazine which went online in April 1999 at https://www.bowlerdessert.com/ There is so much good stuff that went in the magazine over the years, it would be such a shame if it wasn’t to be seen by this and later generations of Sons, so Willie and Mike got together and here are the latest of what will be many reruns.

In this then, we focus on two pieces; Both translated by Robert Noks from separate editions of the Blotto magazine. The first, on one William Gilbert Barron, from Bowler Dessert #37 – Spring 1990, and the second, from Bowler Dessert #30, Summer 1988, features a piece on Anita Garvin.

Both articles contain a few bits that given time, we now know differently, and in translation, some of the grammar is a little off the mark, but both pieces are very interesting indeed, and are certainly worth viewing again.

A BOY SOPRANO WHO HAD A SNEEZING FIT

Billy Gilbert in The Music Box

William Gilbert Baron was born in the dressing-room of an opera house In Louisville, Kentucky, during a performance of Boris Godounov. It was September 12th, 1893 when Billy announced himself and his mother had to leave the stage in a hurry. Both his parents were attached to the opera. His father, Louis Baron, once a tenor in the Metropolitan Opera, taught his son to sing at an early age: when he was nine years old the boy soprano experienced his professional debut during an appearance of Sophie Tucker in a theatre in San Francisco. Billy was seated in a high side-box. During one of her songs, Mrs Tucker silenced the audience after a few bars with the words: “Listen! What a beautiful voice up there!” From that moment on the little angel continued to sing alone. Every night the changing audience thought it witnessed a grandiose discovery.

Gilbert in an early role

When his voice broke, Billy shifted his activities from singing to farce. On the posters of the vaudeville theatres he dropped his true last name and tried to make a living as Billy Gilbert. He developed into a “Dutch Comedian” – a type with grotesque gestures, a not too delicate humour originating from a small mental grasp and the famous German accent that lends itself so well to fits of rage. By the way, Gilbert prided himself on the fact that he made his accent into a hodge-podge of German. Greek and Italian, so that he would not offend one nation in particular.

On a blue afternoon in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the young Gilbert enlarged his comic arsenal with the sneezing act that would pursue him throughout the rest of his career, because over and over again they asked him to do it (with the Laurel and Hardy films as a remarkable exception). Later Gilbert remembered a badly filled auditorium and increasing boredom among the audience and players. Instinctively he felt that something had to happen, so on the spot and without any reason in his lines, he created his cataclystic sneeze, complete with the sniffing, gasping preamble and the liberating, thundering explosion that bubbled up from the depths of his by then already voluminous heart. Gilbert knew he was on the right track when the local critic confessed the next day in the newspaper that he never laughed so much.

Later Gilbert’s sneeze was heard all over the world because Walt Disney chose him for the dubbing of Sneezy, the dwarf with a cold in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Gilbert claimed that he never had a cold since 1918).

After long wanderings in the USA and Mexico, the eighteen-year-old Gilbert landed on Broadway where he performed for years, made a small fortune and lost it again in the Crash of 1929. He began to travel again until, a year later in Los Angeles, he had the good fortune that Stan Laurel was in the audience when Gilbert played the leading part in a revue. Laurel suspected talent among the scriptwriters and when the performance was over asked Billy who was responsible for the sketches. He had come to the right address because Gilbert had devised it all himself. This led to a five year contract with Hal Roach’s studio.

There are indications that Billy Gilbert was not engaged by Roach as an actor but as a director and especially as a gag-man. However, in an emergency all activities had to be carried out and that’s probably why Gilbert could soon be seen in small parts, among other things in ONE GOOD TURN where he is the drunk during the auction of the car.

Then came The Music Box.

Billy Gilbert’s wonderfully pompous Theodore Von Schwartzenhoffen M.D. A.D. D.D.S. F.L.D. F.F.F. und F. confronts the boys who have ‘successfully’ delivered the piano in a colorized version of The Music Box

Once Gilbert told his interviewers that he had to direct this film, but could not find anyone suitable for the part of the house owner to whom the piano should be delivered. When he played it to a misunderstanding actor he came across so convincingly that it was decided to give the role of the professor to Gilbert himself and to charge James Parrott with the direction.

Billy in Strange Innertube (1932) from the ‘Taxi Boys’ ‘series

It was the beginning of a busy time for Gilbert. After scoring time and time in the “Laurel and Hardy series” and after supporting parts in the not so successful “Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts series” (the ladies were meant by Roach as a kind of female Laurel and Hardy), Gilbert was assigned an important task in the creation of a new series around the Taxi Boys. Gilbert’s first opposite number was the Canadian comedian Ben Blue, who thought Billy had to be his stooge, but he didn’t get his cooperation. Both loved the great gesture and the result was mutual opposition instead of cooperation: their scoring off took on such baroque forms that it tired rather than amused the spectator.

The series had to be tinkered with. Gilbert dug out his accent, sneezed at least one time in every film and got a new opponent in the person of Billy Bletcher. After he too had adopted a German accent, the tazi background was thrown overboard in order to launch the duo as a kind of German Laurel and Hardy under the name “The Schmaltz Brothers”. It was of no avail. After ten films (the last of which Gilbert directed too) the series was stopped. A year later we find Gilbert again at Columbia, where he assists The Three Stooges.

Billy Gilbert as Herring in in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

As a big game hunter in Block-Heads (1938) Billy would return once more to Hal Roach. Before and after that he worked for practically every studio in Hollywood. His complete biography would contain hundreds of films. In Destry Rides Again he was the landlord who dives away behind the bar to avoid Marlene Dietrich’s fury; a year later he expires in Marlene’s arms in Seven Sinners. In A Night at the Opera he is responsible for two trifling roles: as a mechanic he enters the overcrowded cabin of Groucho Marx to check the heating and as the leader of an Italian orchestra he warns the Marx Brothers to keep their hands off the instruments. He was Goering in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and a sultan in Tin Pan Alley. Besides his film work he acted in plays on Broadway (some of them he directed).

A year before his last film (Five Weeks in a Balloon) his obituary appears in THE DAILY VARIETY of May 2nd, 1961. Gilbert calls the editorial office of a local paper with the announcement that on the contrary he is in perfectly good health. At the other end of the line they believe him only after he identifies himself by way of his enormous sneeze… The deceased appeared to be a namesake who worked at the prop deportment of Universal. Billy Gilbert Baron died on September 23rd, 1972.

Translated by Robert Noks from BLOTTO number 7

You can read more on Billy Gilbert in the ‘Supporting Cast’ https://beauchumps.wordpress.com/supporting-cast/ section of the Main website, or by clicking here https://beauchumps.wordpress.com/billy-gilbert/

FROM A DOLLOP OF BUTTER TO A CLOT OF WHIPPING CREAM

Anita Garvin in Be Big

In The Battle of the Century Anita Garvin had a heavy fall that would get her a place in movie history. At the end of this classic two-reeler, while the pies are flying all over the place, she finds herself with her behind in a pie. Anita does not lose her self-control. She gets up and, before walking along pertly, she shakes her leg for just a moment as if to get rid of some clots of dough from somewhere under that stylish black skirt.

In a film that already contains so much laughing material on a large scale, this small, slightly obscene gesture always causes a new wave of hilarity. Once Anita Garvin told an interviewer that it was her own idea to give something extra to the short scene in this way (that’s her only appearance in this film). She was ambitious and convinced of her comic talent. Then, in 1926, already she had a year-long experience in farces although she was only twenty years old.

A young Anita

At the age of twelve Anita succeeded in adding four years. She was engaged for a revue where she had to be sixteen. “I put on high-heeled shoes, had my hair up and reported to the agent I had heard about. I knew some other girls that had been accepted, so I thought there would not be much of a problem”.

She was right. That same day she was on the stage as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties who by then were so famous that they performed live on the stages of cinemas and theatres. It did not take long before she was a dancer with the famous revue of Florence Ziegfeld; there she held out for four years. She resigned when the Ziegfeld Follies were on tour and arrived in Hollywood; there she was offered a contract by Al Christie’s studio.

One of her first assignments there was slipping on a dollop of butter. Later she said that this was the nicest part of the entire film. Few actresses were prepared to do “low comedy” but Anita, still a teenager, did it with pleasure.

The ‘Pie scene’. The Battle of the Century

During a period of freelancing Anita Garvin met Stan Laurel for the first time on the grounds of the Universal Studio; he was making a number of parodies for the independent producer Joe Rock. Anita Garvin: “I still remember that I thought, ‘How clever Stan is that he can write, direct and play the leading part; and all that so well too.'” A year later, together with Mabel Normand, she obtained a role in Raggedy Rose, directed by Stan Laurel who later personally introduced her to Hal Roach. Although the scene with the custard pie in The Battle of the Century was her first real comic appearance in a Laurel and Hardy film, that same year she appeared in at least three other films of the duo. With Love and Hisses probably marks her debut with Laurel and Hardy. She plays the girlfriend of James Finlayson who, as Captain Bustle, attends the departure of a train with recruits.

At the top of the ‘Music Box Steps’ in Hats Off

In Sailors, Beware! she got a larger role as an international jewel thief who is married to a dwarf disguised as a baby. In Hats Off (still missing), a precursor of The Music Box with a washing machine instead of a piano, she is the customer on top of the stairs.

In 1928 there followed a relatively small part in Their Purple Moment as a “good time girl” who hooks Oliver. In these three films there were hardly any possibilities for Anita on the comic level. Rather, she developed the style of the elegant but severe woman with a poker-face and sparkling eyes; later that came in handy as she appeared as Stan’s wife.

Two times again her talent as a comedienne would come to light. In From Soup to Nuts (1928) she is the rich Lady Culpepper who by accident has hired Stan and 0llie as table servants. Her pursuit of a cherry with a spoon among and over the crockery is a highlight that overshadows Laurel and Hardy’s apearance in this film. Perhaps this led Hal Roach to involve her in an experiment that was meant to introduce a female Laurel and Hardy.

A signed Roach still: From Soup to Nuts
Marion Byron and Anita in Feed ‘Em and Weep (1928)

For that purpose the producer brought Anita Garvin together with Marion Byron; one of the results was A Pair of Tights. A clip from this force has become famous in the compilation movie When Comedy was King (1960). Edgar Kennedy is the avaricious lover who does not want to spend one dime on a nice evening and besides hardly dares to speak to Anita. Impassively she sits next to him until at lost he brings out the words: “Well, how are you?” Without blinking her eyes she answers: “Starving”.

The experiment fails and the duo Garvin and Byron is dissolved. Anita does not remain unemployed; with Roach she plays in films with Charley Chase and she starts freelancing again. In 1929 she appears in Greta Garbo’s last silent movie The Single Standard and she gets the leading part in Hot Rhythm of director Leo McCarey.

In 1930 Anita is back with Laurel and Hardy. In Blotto as well as in Be Big she plays Mrs Laurel and in both films she is the avenging justice that ends Stan and Ollie’s frivolous escapades with a shot. It lasts till 1938 before Anita returns to Laurel and Hardy. Her appearance in Swiss Miss is minimal; she is the housewife that hits Ollie on the head with a pan when he wants to show her one of his mouse-traps.

An astonished Anita in her final appearance with Laurel and Hardy – A Chump at Oxford, reprising her role in From Soup to Nuts

In 1940 follows a last, small guest role in A Chump at Oxford. Just as in her debut she is the partner of James Finlayson who plays Baldy Vandevere. Their scenes are cut from the American version but remain in the twenty minutes longer European version of this nice comedy. Till the beginning of the war Anita continues to work for Hal Roach and other studios. Then, at the age of 35, she decides to end her career and to go through life as o housewife. She was married to bandleader Red Stanley: they had two children.

A while ago (she lives in Van Nuys. California) she said in an interview: “I dreamed of Academy Awards and all that went with it. I was very ambitious.” Anita estimates that, all in all, she appeared in two hundred films, half of them with Hal Roach.

Translated by Robert Noks from BLOTTO number 5

Footnote: Anita Gavin Stanley lived out her final years at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California where she died in 1994 aged 87.

You can read more on Anita Garvin in the ‘Supporting Cast ‘ https://beauchumps.wordpress.com/supporting-cast/ section of the Main website including a splendid interview with her by Son of the Desert David Wyatt, or by clicking here https://beauchumps.wordpress.com/anita-garvin/

We hope you enjoyed our wander through the past, and if you have any thoughts, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. You will receive a response.

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2 thoughts on “Bowler Dessert Revisited

  1. Very good to see this entry, with all the additional illustrations, not possible for the original version. Well done, Mike.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Willie and thanks for your kind words.

      So glad you were happy for me go re run these and that you like it!

      Take care.

      Mike

      Like

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