Saturday, July 17, 2010

Pete or Pal?

After writing about Our Gang yesterday, and also including a dog tale in the post, I did some research on the dog named Pete in the Our Gang comedies.  Pete is one of the most recognizable animals to ever appear in film, mostly because of the ring around his eye.  That aspect of him opens up some urban legends.

According to IMDb, before making the Our Gang comedies, the same dog, named Pete the Dog, was used in the silent film series Buster Brown, and he played Tige from 1925 to 1929.  IMDb lists his birth name as Pal and death date as 1930.  Here is where IMDb shows itself as a less than accurate source for really obscure information.  There is another entry for Pal the Dog, that does not list Buster Brown or Our Gang and did not work at Hal Roach Studios.  Perhaps there were two Pals, I do not know, but follow me on this.

Pal the Dog has a listing of 15 films from 1920 to 1927.  His death date is shown as November 18, 1929.  Pete the Dog (our hero) made 61 films from 1925 to 1931.  His last film, The Slippery Pearls, was a promotional film to raise funds for a tuberculosis sanatorium, and must have been released after his death, probably using existing footage.

Pete the Dog appeared in his first three films in 1925 at Hal Roach Studios.  Two were with Babe Hardy (Somewhere in Wrong and Yes, Yes, Nanette, before Ollie began using Oliver as his screen name), and one (Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde) with Stan Laurel.  Then he moved into the Buster Brown series, and eventually worked with Our Gang from 1929 to 1930 where he made seven shorts.

Confusion alert!  There is also an entry for Pete the Pup on IMDb.  Pete the Pup made only three Our Gang shorts; The Kid from Borneo (1933), Teacher's Beau (1935), and Roamin' Holiday (1937).  All three dogs (Pal the Dog, Pete the Dog and Pete the Pup) were American Staffordshire terriers, or pit bulls.

I looked at the Allmovie web site and they list Pete the Pup appearing in 76 films, 75 of them are Our Gang films, from 1925 to 1928.  Perhaps they are listing the character name rather than the actor.  They do not list him as appearing in the Buster Brown series, so I searched for Pal the Dog.  That listing shows Pal the Dog as appearing in only 13 films from 1921 to 1943!  This cannot be accurate, because his last film listed was Lassie Come Home.  Pal was the name of the collie who played the first Lassie in movies, but that Pal was born on June 4, 1940.

Wikipedia has some, possibly accurate, information that at least makes sense.  Pal played Tige in Buster Brown and was the first Pete in the Our Gang films.  He was owned and trained by Lt. Harry Lucenay.  Pal sired a puppy who was born on September 6, 1929, and was named Lucenay's Peter.  This dog went on to play some of Our Gang as Pete (I think), so he may be Pete the Pup on IMDb, even though Pete the Pup is not his real name.

The difficulty with Wikipedia is that it contradicts the IMDb listings for Pete the Pup when it says that Harry Lucenay left Hal Roach in 1932 and moved to Atlantic City, NJ.  So which dog made those three movies from 1933 to 1937 that included Pete the Pup?  Wikipedia lists Pal as dying in 1930, and Lucenay's Peter in 1946.

For more confusion, just Google "Pete the Pup." has a complete biography of Pete the Pup with many more contradictions.  Various stories on the web have Pete being either poisoned or shot to death.  One site even posts a newspaper clipping, but it does not cite which paper or give a date.

Other dogs obviously played Pete in several Our Gang films, and I doubt anyone will ever get the entire list together.  Even the ring around his eye would change sides from film to film.  Apparently Pal the Dog had most of a ring and the rest was filled in with dye, so that started the identifying mark.  When Pal retired, Lucenay's Peter had the ring added to his face.  There is one account that said Max Factor was the makeup man who did the ring.  Who knows!  But, whatever you call him, Pete was a great Bit Actor.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Hal Roach's Rascals...Well, one of them!

My wife and I live in a condo and in our development we are allowed to have pets.  (No farm animals!)  One of our neighbors has a small dog named Wheezer, so that got me thinking about Our Gang and Hal Roach.  My mind travels in funny circles, often revolving around my youth and the movies I've seen.

Back in the early 1920's, Hal Roach was auditioning children for a film.  They were all over prepared and over dressed by their mothers, and he was suffering through it.  He noticed some children playing in a lumber yard with pieces of wood, and that was the inspiration for the Our Gang series of shorts. 

Hal wanted to make short films with children being themselves, and it worked.  From 1922 to 1944, 220 short comedies and one feature were made, using about 44 children and a variety of animals over the years.  I was very privileged to know Dorothy DeBorba for a few years while I was a member of the Sons of the Desert.  Dorothy played Little Echo from 1930 to 1933, starting when she was only five years old.

Back to Wheezer.  Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchens was born on March 29, 1925 and started his acting career in 1927, only 2 years old.  That silent film was called Baby Brother and the cast included Oliver Hardy and another acquaintance of mine, Anita Garvin.  I don't remember seeing this one, but I intend to look for it.  It is included in the collection at left.

Wheezer continued making movies into the talkie era, until 1933, appearing 65 times.  Only a small handful of his films were without the rest of the Our Gang kids.  The truly sad thing about these talented children was that none of them made anything from these films except their salary at the time, which ranged from $40 to $200 a week.  It took later efforts, in part by Penny Singleton (Blondie), to force the studios to compensate talent for profits made after the release of their films and on promotional products.

The Our Gang series was syndicated for television under the name "The Little Rascals," and I remember watching them all as a child.  TV didn't show many of the silent films, though, so those are worth looking for.

In 1938, Hal Roach sold the Our Gang series, including the contracts of the cast, to MGM for $25,000.  MGM continued making some films until 1944, but the spontaneity was lost and popularity declined.  Mostly because MGM wanted the films to be scripted and the children just weren't up to the task of delivering lines written by others.

Bobby Hutchins' acting career didn't continue after he started getting older, and it ended when he was just 8 years old.  In fact, none of the Our Gang members had much of a continuing career in film. The only real exception was Jackie Cooper who went on to stardom. 

On May 17, 1945, when Hutchins was just twenty years old, he was finishing his basic training with the Army Air Corps and was killed in a plane crash. 

I must ask if that dog in our development was named after Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Just for fun, I put my last name, Hefner, into IMDb to see what would come up.  Of course, I was expecting to see Hugh Hefner (no relation), but how many others would there be?

It turns out there are 45 Hefners listed in various positions in film making.  Hugh and his daughter Christie are the most famous in the list.  The breakdown: 12 of them are actors or actresses; 5 are writers; 3 art directors; 2 each in stunts, sound, editing, camera work and as directors; 1 each in visual effects, costumes and a producer; and the rest are listed as misc., thanks, or self.

OK, that's 12 actors and actresses in the family!  Well, let's not brag about it yet.  It appears that most of the female names in the list made adult movies, such as Strictly Sexual from 2008, rated R and featuring Sheri Hefner.  I guess they thought having a screen name with Hefner in it would be good for their career.  Most of the men only made a single film or TV show, except Jimmi Hefner who made one of each. 

So, back to Uncle Hugh, who is still no relation, but I like to call him uncle.  According to IMDb, Hugh M. Hefner was an actor in 6 films, and he appeared as himself in 193 productions.  If you look at the list, he was really only acting in 3 movies and 3 TV shows, and in one of the TV shows he played himself, so that one is mis-categorized.  He did play the President of the United States in Citizen Toxie - The Toxic Avenger IV in 2000.

How did daughter Christie do?  No acting roles and 9 appearances as herself, mostly documentaries and interviews.

I guess acting doesn't run in the Hefner family, except as Bit Players!  Have you checked your name in IMDb?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Blog Notes and Festus

I recently was accepted into the Classic Movie Blog Association.  There is now a link button on the right of my blog to the CMBA site, where you will find quite a variety of movie blogs on all sorts of subjects.  The CMBA has been around for nearly a year, so I am happy to be included so early in the game.  I found that when you are a member and you update your blog, it will appear at the top of the member list on their site.  At least until the next member updates.  That's probably how many of the foreign readers found me. 

I put a counter on my blog which can be found on the right hand side and down a ways. It is interesting to see that people from ten different countries have found this blog and may be reading some of what I have written. I hope you all enjoy it, but please note that I do not even try to be all encompassing, or even totally accurate. I remain at the mercy of the research available to me on the Internet, in my limited collection of books, and my limited knowledge of films.

I have also just joined Facebook.  I am still not sure how that all works, but it appears to want to take over your life so you spend all of your waking energy writing on your Facebook site.  I must come to terms with it...  (I will keep repeating, "Facebook does not own me. Facebook does not own me. Facebook does not own me.")

Let's cover just one bit actor today.  How about Ken Curtis?  Yes, Festus Haggen from TV's "Gunsmoke" was truly a bit actor.  He lived from 1916 to 1991.  When he started making movies, he made mostly B westerns. 

Curtis was a member of The Sons of the Pioneers...the wonderful, close harmony, cowboy singing group founded by Roy Rogers in 1933, when Rogers was still Leonard Slye.

Curtis' first film was a musical western, in the line of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.  The year was 1945 and the title, Rhythm Round-Up.  The Hoosier Hot Shots are listed in the cast.  On the Hot Shots' web site they are billed as "the creators of Midwestern Rural Jazz."  Quite an accomplishment.

Curtis made three early westerns (1945 and 1946) with Andy Clyde, and worked with Grady Sutton as well.  In several of his westerns he used the first name Curt, which was his real first name (Curtis Wain Gates).  I wonder how much creative control was left up to the actors back then.

His first big movie would have been Rio Grande (1950) with John Wayne and directed by John Ford who was his father-in-law, but he only had a small part.  He worked with John Wayne in seven more films, including The Searchers (1956). 

He appeared as a member of The Sons of the Pioneers in 1951's Fighting Coast Guard with Brian Donlevy.  In other non-westerns he was a yeoman 3rd class in Mister Roberts (1955), a priest in Spencer Tracy's The Last Hurrah in 1958, and he played a variety of other small roles. 

He started working seriously in TV around 1960 and it must have agreed with him.  He appeared multiple times on "Have Gun - Will Travel" and "Ripcord."  In the 1980's he was in a series unfamiliar to me called "The Yellow Rose" with Cybill Shepard.  And of course, his role as Festus on "Gunsmoke" is his biggest claim to fame.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Search for Bit Players

I had some doubts when I started this project that I may run out of subjects after a time.  Well, this is my 65th post and I haven't missed a single day except Independence Day.  That was my choice, not a lack of someone to write about.

I have now realized that my choice of subjects is partly determined by the definition of Bit Player, and since this is my blog and I can do whatever I want with it, that definition will be considered infinitely flexible.

One needs only to look at almost ANY film made in the 1930's through the 1950's to find a wealth of bit actors and actresses.  Many later stars were cutting their teeth in bit parts at that time, so they can be considered bit players.  Case in point, After the Thin Man from 1936.  This is my favorite from the Thin Man series with William Powell and Myrna Loy.

James Stewart had a supporting role in this film, his eleventh movie role.  You may consider it a bit part, since he hadn't had any starring roles yet, and it was two years before You Can't Take it with You, and three years before Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, arguably his first starring role.

How about some lesser known actors and actresses?  Penny Singleton and Paul Fix were in this movie.  George Zucco played Dr. Kammer, but he was in 96 other movies and played Prof. Moriarity in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from 1939, which introduced the team of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.  Also one of my favorites.

The really fun part of this movie, apart from the fact that Nick Charles is plastered through the entire film, is the cast of Nick's friends.  Every two-bit gangster character actor was seen.  Names like Fingers and Willie the Weeper were played by people who seemed destined to play only in 1930's detective movies.

Henry the butler was played by Tom Ricketts (1853 to 1939).  Can you image being alive during the Civil War?  Ricketts made 203 movies from 1908 until the year he died, when he appeared in Son of Frankenstein.  He worked with everybody!  In the 1930's he was in Top Hat, The Invisible Man and two others with Claude Rains, plus Show Boat, Gold Diggers of 1937, A Star is Born, and The Prince and the Pauper.

Sorry I spent so much time on poor Tom Ricketts, but I get carried away.  I am out of time for today, so let's see what tomorrow brings.

Monday, July 12, 2010

War of the Worlds

Have you noticed that newer movies seem to be longer than classic films?  My guess, at least in part, is that the credits at the end are longer.  These days, if you have ANY connection with the production of a movie in ANY small way, your name appears on film.  Right down to the interns who don't even get paid.

Another movie that was remade is War of the Worlds.  Actually I haven't seen the newer version from 2005, by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise.  But the 1953 Gene Barry film will do nicely.  Let's compare running times: 1953 was 85 minutes, and 2005 was 116 minutes.  Lots more credit time, so lets compare cast.  1953 has 90 listed cast members, 2005 has 126 in the cast.  So the newer version has 36 more...(probably extras), and 31 more minutes.

Enough math.  Gene Barry did appear in both films, going from star to bit actor.  Many of the uncredited extras in WotW 1953 had long careers in film and TV.  David McMahon was in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Bus Stop (1956), Elmer Gantry (1960) and a host of TV shows in addition to regular movie work.

Stunt man Joe Gray had 116 acting credits, from A Star is Born in 1937 to some small parts in the 1970s including Airport (1970) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes in 1971.  He also appeared in Guys and Dolls (1955), Some Like it Hot (1959), Bells are Ringing and Ocean's Eleven both in 1960.

Other great names (at least for me) are Henry Brandon, who I talked about on May 30th, and I am happy to have spent some time with Henry.  You can also see famous vocal artist Paul Frees who worked with Spike Jones and racked up well over 300 roles in film, TV and cartoons.  He was a voice heard in Some Like it Hot and Bells are Ringing.  On TV he was the voice of John Beresford Tipton in "The Millionaire" and he was the voice of Boris Badenov, Barney Google, and many others.

Great stars in a movie that was pretty darn good at the time.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Slowly I Turned...

I had a good time yesterday, watching Niagara from 1953 with Marilyn Monroe.  I think Niagara and Bus Stop (1956) are my favorite Monroe flicks.  Of course, Some Like it Hot (1959) is great, but these two films allow her to act.

Niagara has an almost Hitchcockian (Is that a word?) feel to it.  Pretty good suspense and an ending that makes you think Polly Cutler (played by Jean Peters) may not make it.  The helicopter from the Korean War era was neat!  I will try not to give away too much, in the off chance that a reader may not have seen the film.

1950's special effects aren't the greatest, but the lighting, the framing of the shots, and the way background shots of the falls and the surrounding area are incorporated make up for it.  Marilyn herself could suspend reality.  Just watch her walking away from the camera!  And after she gets out of the shower, her lipstick is perfect!

Now, the important stuff.  A movie this good could not have been made without a great supporting cast.  Let's start with Minerva Urecal.  She played the boarding house landlady who gets upset by all the phone calls looking for a bus station.  Ms. Urecal has 266 acting roles to her credit on IMDb.  She was born in 1894, started acting in films in 1933, and her last gig was on "Petticoat Junction" in 1966, the year she died.

She was in three W. C. Fields movies, had a small part in 1939's Destry Rides Again, worked with James Stewart again in Harvey and The Jackpot in 1950, and again in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation in 1962.  She made a lot of mysteries and westerns in the 30's, 40's and early 50's, until she started working on TV.

1957 to 1960 seemed to be her best TV years where she shows up as Jim Bowie's mother, stars as the title character in "Tugboat Annie", and has a regular spot on "Peter Gunn."  I think Turner Classic Movies show spotlight Minerva Urecal!

Other bit parts of note; we see taxi drivers played by Harry Carey, Jr. and Arch Johnson.  Carey started working in 1946 and is still active.  Johnson's career has 132 credits from 1953 (Niagara was his first film) to 1990.  And don't forget the boatman played by Will Wright, and Don Wilson as Mr. Kettering in his last movie role.

If you haven't seen Niagara, or if it has been a while, take a look at it soon.  A great movie.  (And I apologize for the Three Stooges title!!!)