Monday, November 2, 2009

Television Review: THE RED SKELTON SHOW- 'FANCY FOOTWORK' (1952, Martin Rackin)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 30 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Red Skelton, Charles Bronson.
Best one-liner: Not really.

Now, I know that everyone was really disappointed by the Halloween countdown because it meant less Bronson than usual (though I was able to fit in HOUSE OF WAX), but rest assured, my cast-iron commitment to providing you with the best Bronson coverage imaginable has not been compromised. So, today, I'm here to dole out your fix: Charles Bronson on THE RED SKELTON SHOW. It's only his fourth credited screen appearance, and already we can see inklings of the greatness which was to come.

The show begins with some pretty weak segments that clearly don't involve Bronson. I've certainly got nothing against Red Skelton, but I think that the problem with most comedian and variety show types (this, SNL, SCTV, etc.) is that people become convinced of their brilliance via the contrivance of 'greatest hits' clip shows. Once you slog through a random episode full of groan-mustering one-liners and skits that seem to go on for forever, trying to wring twenty laughs from a premise that wasn't even quite worth a polite smile... whew- Your face muscles start to hurt from anticipating laughs that never come, and when finally there's one decent skit in the midst of an entire hour of clunkers, you start to get resentful. Why couldn't the makers just have focused a little bit more, worked a little harder? Then we could've had an hour of decent entertainment instead of 8 alright minutes and 52 excruciating ones. I won't bore you with the unremarkable aspects of this program, so instead we'll look at the weird, the whacked-out, and the Bronson:

Early on, there's an odd skit starring Skelton that's basically an infomercial for a crudely constructed cleaning robot that resembles the Tin Man.

Skelton at one point threatens to blow up the audience with a grenade, then begins hawking said automaton. The robot naturally begins to go haywire and sticks Skelton's face in its crotch.

Not sure why he does that, exactly.

The skit ends with the robot reprogramming Skelton and steering him with a remote control. I can't say I was laughing, but I can say that I was making rather incredulous arches with my eyebrows.

'Laffs a plenty abound.

Then there's a performance by the musical guest- a barbershop quartet named "The Sportsmen," consisting of four Pointdexter-types wearing matching sweaters and bowties.

They conclude their number with a little gender-bending 'ring around the rosy'-style finale.

All I can say is that it's a good thing Bronson was still in the green room while this was going on.

Whew. Anyway, after more filler, it's time for "Fancy Footwork," the headlining skit. The plot is simple. Red Skelton plays "Cauliflower McPugg," a down-on-his-luck boxer who seems only to care about money, but he's terrible at his sport, so via this incongruity, hilarity ensueth.

A bemuscled young Bronson strides in, the new kid on the block– a fighter named "Perky." He challenges Cauliflower's manager– "I bet you five bucks I can cut him to ribbons!" Of course Cauliflower's ears prick up at the mention of five whole dollars, which is funny, because Cauliflower cares about money, yet we can tell from his rotund form that there's no way he can possibly defeat the Herculean Bronson.

Bronson shows what a tough guy asshole he is by waking up Cauliflower by taking a piss on his head.

Eh, not really. Enzo G. Castellari didn't direct this episode. Bronson instead shows what a tough guy asshole he is by flinging a wet towel at his head.

He then makes the big bet with Cauliflower's manager and makes some ape-like facial expressions while they shake on it:

It's extremely endearing to see Bronson do comedy. He's not exactly the yuckster of the century, but he really throws himself into his work. Bronson's background (coal mines, poverty, war injuries) transformed him into a tough but extremely sincere man. He's so happy to be play-acting instead of getting Black Lung that he is game for anything. There is no wink-and-nod shit going on here- this is Bronson sincerely tackling comedy. Bronson doesn't feel 'above' the material, he is giving it his all. This is what sets Bronson apart from the 'tough guys' of today. Will Smith? Gerard Butler? You people are killing me. Your personal trainers and master cleanse diets and all this crap. You can't even match Kurt Thomas in GYMKATA. Bronson's dressing room before appearing on this show was likely four cracked plaster walls covered with white lead-based paint, and goddammit, he was busy getting into character, not whining to his personal assistant. Sorry, I digress.

Bronson steps up and breaks the fourth wall–

"Pay attention, cause this is the big plot..."

Holy shit! I just fell out of my chair cause I thought Bronson was talking to me– and he was!

So then Bronson goes over and either staples or glues Cauliflower's feet to the floor. Don't ask me which- they recorded this thing in kinescope, I think, so in a long shot I can't tell what the fuck is going on. I'm not sure why Bronson, I mean 'Perky,' does this, because clearly he could beat the tar out of Cauliflower in a fair fight, so why cheat? It only risks invalidating the results. I guess it's just set-up for the final joke, which isn't exactly a joke at all, at least in the conventional sense.

At this point the skit becomes about running out the clock. This thing gets stretched to about 10 minutes, which is WAYYYY too long, but Bronson is game. Always listening and reacting (though not always successfully), Bronson is attentive where some would just phone it in.

He gets to smack Cauliflower around a bit, pre-fight,

and there's a drawn-out bit where Cauliflower's trainer must check his pulse to see if he's still alive. The trainer decides, "No pulse." Bronson exclaims "He MUST be DEAD!" with the exact enunciation, cadence, and arm movement that he would use to say "It's MY CAR!" in DEATH WISH 3, over thirty years later.

"He MUST be DEAD!"

"It's MY CAR!"

To keep the comedy going, the sound effect of a hammer striking an anvil plays every time anyone touches Bronson. The trainer even plays out the NBC tri-tone on Bronson's six-pack. Hoo-boy. Finally, Cauliflower comes to, and the skit is dragged out a bit longer with exchanges like:

Trainer: "We're gonna use strategy."
Cauliflower: "We're gonna use strategy! Strategy! That's it, we'll use strategy! ...(beat)... What's strategy?"

Bronson gets pissed off by all this waiting, and announces, "What's the matter– you get CHICKEN?"

(And we all know how Bronson feels about chicken. For the uninitiated, see my DEATH WISH 3 review.)

Finallllllly, they fight. Cauliflower is confused why his feet are stuck to the ground. He thinks his feet or shoes may be broken. They go for a few rounds. Perky is cocky.

Bronson gets in some good jabs and knocks Cauliflower on his ass. The skit's almost over. Bronson goes to the trainer to collect his five big ones. The trainer pulls out the five bucks and someone mentions "dollars," and...

Skelton pops up from his KO slumber and lifts his feet from the ground, ripping out entire planks of wood in a display of super-strength! See? He realllly likes money. And it's funny because he didn't use any of that super-strength in the fight itself, he just used it when he thought he could get himself some easy dollars. Now that's comedy, ladies and germs. Set 'em up, knock 'em down, and leave 'em laughing or something.

While this show clearly wasn't breaking any new ground, the audience that tuned in that night got to see something new, something special- got probably their first taste of Mr. Bronson- and ever since, they've been crying out for more...

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Speaking of Bronson, I watched that twilight zone episode "Two" the other day... I'll leave to your imagination what Bronson finds to eat somehow in a post apocalyptic world. Plus, I didn't recognize Elizabeth Montgomery until the end credits! I must be getting older because, I think I've seen episode of bewitched.

Also, two recommendations, just re-watched one of the best 80's horror flicks I'd forgotten about: The Funhouse(1981) and a very unique twilight zone episode and winner of Cannes film festival, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" which really hits home and is only 25 minutes.


Sean Gill said...

Ha, it's been a while since I watched "Two," obviously I need to see it again, post-chicken's good I like chicken-enlightenment. I saw The Funhouse a long time ago, and seem to remember enjoying it quite a bit. There's two more 80's Tobe Hoopers that have long been on my to-see list- INVADERS FROM MARS and SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION. And I totally agree with the only 'guest-produced' TWILIGHT ZONE adaptation of Owl Creek Bridge. It's hypnotic, artsy, and oddly impressionistic.

GuyR said...

Wow. Amen.
You sure provide the best Bronson coverage even.

GuyR said...

Err...I mean "ever".

Sean Gill said...

Thanks, Guy! I've hopefully got a few semi-rare Bronsons on the way- THE STONE KILLER, RIDER ON THE RAIN, and his Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. Not to mention I just received THE EVIL THAT MEN DO in my Netflix.