The Bootleg Files: The Gay Nighties

BOOTLEG FILES 588: “The Gay Nighties” (1933 short starring the comedy team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough plus James Finlayson).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In a public domain label collection of the team’s films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

No one is going to restore this orphaned gem.

Unless you are a near-rabid devotee to old-time comedy, you are probably unfamiliar with the team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough. They began their careers as circus acrobats before working their way through vaudeville and burlesque until they reached stardom on the New York and London stages during the 1920s. When sound came to movies, Clark and McCullough were recruited by Hollywood to star in a series of two-reelers, first under Fox and then under RKO.

But calling Clark and McCullough a team might be something of a stretch. As Lawrence J. Epstein noted in his 2004 book “Mixed Nuts,” the division of labor and laughs was weirdly divided. “It is odd to see the pair work because they aren’t really a team,” Epstein observed. “Clark dominates throughout, and McCullough lurks out of the spotlight, a second banana who observes and assists but stays out of the way of the laughs.”

The real problem here, at least in terms of their films, was that Clark was frequently more obnoxious than funny. This was because the comic never figured out how to readjust his performing from a theatrical setting to the movie camera. Clark even tried too hard in his appearance to be funny: he wore painted on glasses and an oversized jacket while he used a large cigar and a thick cane as props. And his grand line readings and gestures felt like they were being addressed to the last row of the theater. Too often, the camera magnified his vices instead of his virtues.

McCullough, however, seemed genuinely funny when he was given the chance to shine – he boasted a big smile and an infectious nasal laugh, and his costume of a ten-gallon hat, tiny clip-on mustache and bushy raccoon coat was amusing. Clark tried and failed to look like a fool, but McCullough really looked like a happy nut. Whenever he was ceded a funny line or gag, McCullough always stole the show from his partner.

The Clark and McCullough films were not particularly popular in their day – the reviews of the era stated their screen work was inferior to their stage performances – and their output is mostly dismissed by contemporary film critics, due in large part to Clark’s overbearing presence. Because their films were never part of the TV rerun culture in the manner that the Three Stooges or Laurel Hardy were, the team’s work is most unknown to today’s audiences. This is a shame, because some of their work is very amusing – especially the 1933 short “The Gay Nighties,” which took full advantage of the libertine environment encouraged in the Pre-Code years.

“The Gay Nighties” finds the duo as Hives and Blodgett, campaign strategists to would-be politician Oliver Beezley. Alas, no one wants to vote for Beezley – the delegates at a political convention are keen on Commodore Amos Pipp (played by Laurel and Hardy’s beloved nemesis, squinty-eyed James Finlayson). The Beezley team comes up with a plan to take advantage of Pipp’s weakness for women by catching him in the act of adultery in a hotel suite. Incredibly, the team decide to use McCullough in drag as a bait for this scheme – overlooking the fact that he has a mustache and a portly masculine physique that the frilliest of dresses and curliest of wigs cannot disguise. But Beezley’s wife (Dorothy Granger) agrees to be part of the scheme to frame Pipp, which is pulled off despite constant interruptions of gunfire exchanges between a hotel’s private detective (Monte Collins) and a machine-gun toting burglar.

“The Gay Nighties” was shot during the now-celebrated Pre-Code era, when sex, violence and taboo behavior were par for the celluloid course. Thus, the film has a reference to a “dope fiend” and several gratuitous gun battles, and it is also rich with salacious gags – including a myopic hotel detective peeking through a keyhole to see Clark putting his hand up the dress McCullough is wearing – that would be unthinkable one year later when Hollywood self-censored under the rigid Production Code. There is also a running gag with an aristocrat lady known as The Countess whose sleep walking arouses Clark and McCullough. “She’s a somnambulist,” remarks Clark, to which McCullough exclaims, “It doesn’t show on her.” Clark’s efforts to lure the sleepwalking Countess into a double bed is a running gag that is wrapped up with a splash of unexpected gay humor when an unexpected male intruder takes the place of The Countess.

But for sheer insanity, “The Gay Nighties” is punctuated with bizarre jokes that are tonic for their undiluted absurdity. Clark and a drag-wardrobed McCullough are together in bed when a woman walks into their hotel suite and pulls off their blanket – as she exits, Clark deadpans, “We must have forgot to pay the cover charge.” When Mrs. Beezley agrees to frame her husband’s opponent, Clark and McCullough lock arms and jump on their bed while chanting, “We’re going to frame the commodore!” And when a squadron of motorcycle cops ride through the hotel hallway, all logic officially ceases to exist.

“The Gay Nighties” was directed by Mark Sandrich, an underrated filmmaker responsible for the 1929 gem “The Talk of Hollywood” and who would later helm the Oscar-winning short “So This is Harris” and the classic features including “Top Hat” and “Holiday Inn.” Supporting performers Monte Collins, Dorothy Granger and, especially, James Finlayson, enriched many comedy films of the Golden Era, and their presence here raises “The Gay Nighties” considerably.

The copyright for “The Gay Nighties” was not renewed and the film fell into the public domain. Although some people may quibble that you cannot bootleg a film with a lapsed copyright, the sad fact remains that available copies of public domain film are frequently crummy dupe that are several generations removed from the original prints. That seems to be the case with “The Gay Nighties,” as a YouTube copy is faded and a tad blurry. A better version was released by Alpha Video in a collection of Clark and McCullough shorts, although it would be lovely if a proper restoration of this film was done. (Hello, Criterion?)

Admittedly, the Clark and McCullough brand of comedy is not everyone’s cup of tea. But, hey, you can keep your cup of tea – for rude, weird and wild comedy, Clark and McCullough is my poison!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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