Cooking up Laughs

it’s amazing what keeps turning up on YouTube. I was especially pleased to see a couple of rare shorts starring Joe Cook appear recently, in lovely transfers from the Library of Congress archives.

I’ve wanted to see these films for ages, as the few bits of Cook I’ve seen show him to be a unique and undeservedly forgotten comedian. With upturned nose, pointy chin and an enormous grin, he was was a caricaturist’s dream. He was also one of the very best and most versatile comic performers to come out of vaudeville.

Cook combined the best of many other Vaudeville characteristics that we now associate with better remembered performers. He combined traits of all three key Marxes (sorry, Zeppo): Groucho’s fondness for circular, nonsensical double talk, Chico’s sly conning and Harpo’s ‘White Magic’ all featured in his schtick. Like W.C. Fields, he was an incredible eccentric juggler, while his broad grin and amiable nature were reminiscent of Joe E Brown.

Yet Cook was unique, a force of nature all by himself. With that sunny smile, a symbol of his indefatigable attitude, he was perhaps more purely likeable than any of his contemporaries.

This quality was born out of adversity, and probably of necessity. Born Joseph Lopez of Spanish and Irish parents, he was orphaned at three, adopted, and left home early in his teens to join a medicine show. There, he played a comic sidekick helping sell ‘Doctor Dunham’s Cure-all Tonic’; the winning smile and fast-talking manner he developed surely began here as part of his salesman’s pitch.

Medicine show performers were expected to be endlessly versatile to provide a full show. In addition to his juggling, Cook learned to walk a slackwire, played guitar and ukulele and did a sharpshooting act. He became known as ‘A One-man Circus’ when he took his act into Vaudeville, and on to Carroll’s Vanities. Around this time, his juggling act was preserved as part of an interest reel for Educational Pictures:

Pretty nifty, but not a patch on his slackline routine, with added hoops!

The terrific clip above is from Cook’s first starring feature, RAIN OR SHINE. He was the perfect star for this circus-themed musical comedy, which was converted from stage to film by a young Frank Capra in 1930. The film shows Cook in excellent form, with plenty of chances to show off his multiple talents. Here’s a fun example of one of his breathless double talk routines, which circles around itself to become utterly meaningless, a Joe Cook trademark. (His stooge here is the estimable Tom Howard, also a performer who should be better remembered).

Cook flirted with a career in films, but RAIN OR SHINE failed to launch him in the way it should have done. Curious, when Hollywood was falling over itself to snap up Broadway stars in the early 30s. Cook would try again for Fox in 1933/4, starring in a handful of other features such as HOLD YOUR HORSES and FINE AND DANDY, but after this he primarily focused on stage and radio. like Clark & McCullough, he was largely content to keep his film work to shorts made quickly between other engagements. To this end, he signed with Educational Pictures in 1935, and made five shorts for them: MR WIDGET, NOSE FOR NEWS, THE WHITE HOPE, PENNY WISE and GIV ‘IM AIR.

Educational were clearly chuffed with their signing, featuring him prominently in publicity alongside their other big catch, Buster Keaton. Cook was given his head to contribute stories and screenplays, and the films feature a great collection of sight gags, double talk and wonderful nonsense. Special effort seems to have gone into the first, MR WIDGET. Cook plays a hapless salesman, but that’s really just a loose excuse for him to show off some of his goofy inventions, get involved in some crosstalk acts and indulge in some wonderfully surreal goings on. We first see him giving a nonsensical speech after receiving an award. This turns out to be just a dream as he wakes up in his mechanised bed, an appliance straight out of the Snub Pollard School of Classic Comedy Inventions (TM). There’s a white magic routine with a drinking fountain that Stan Laurel surely would have approved of, and a funny scene of Joe trying to buy an overcoat that has a superbly understated payoff as he arrives at his office.

Generally the supporting casts in Educational talkies are pretty wooden, but the exception here is an appearance by venerable, snarling baddie Dick Cramer. Cramer is out to get Cook, who distracts him by reading him a children’s story. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but the warmth with which Cook adopts the role of storyteller, and the slow thawing of Cramer’s thug, make it really funny. All in all, a great little short which augured well for Cook’s tenure at Educational. The only thing that lets the short down is an unfortunate bit of racial material at the end, other than that it’s a joyous two reels. Here it is, by kind courtesy of Joseph Blough’s excellent YouTube channel:

Almost as good is A NOSE FOR NEWS, a tale of breezy reporter Cook being held in jail after an opportunistic criminal (Dick Cramer again) swaps places with him. The highlight is a sequence of Cook’s attempts to escape from his cell, each time managing to destroy the wall, but being caught in the act by Cramer, who forces him to return. Lots of fun again:

I hope to catch up with the otehr three Joe Cook shorts one day. It’s just a shame that he didn’t make more. His last film was a Zane Grey B-Western comedy, ARIZONA MAHONEY, made in 1936. Apparently he was able to work in a fair bit of his medicine show/One-Man-Circus act into the old-time setting, but it was hardly a prestigious film. He turned his attention to radio, before early-onset Parkinsons sadly curtailed his career.

Joe Cook passed away in 1959. While it’s a shame that he didn’t leave more lasting relics for us to remember him by, the scraps that remain show a truly gifted, multitalented performer with bags of charisma. How many performers today could describe themselves as a One Man Circus?

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