“Never a help, always a hindrance!”
Bobby Clark 1888 – 1960
Paul McCullough 1883 – 1936
For fans of :
The Marx Brothers
Laurel and Hardy
Clark and McCullough were a mistral wind whirling through the world of two reel comedy in the 1930s. Words like ‘madcap’, ‘surreal’ and ‘zany’ are often bandied about when describing them. However, such words have become platitudinous clichés to describe anything vaguely unconventional, and scarcely do justice to their fresh and fiery comic approach. For a more accurate impression, perhaps nothing sums up their comedy better than their appearance. Clad in ill-fitting, mothball-stuffed overcoats, they accessorised with painted-on glasses and crepe hair moustaches, resembling nothing so much as a couple of circus clowns who’d bluffed their way to college. In fact, this wasn’t far from the truth! One-time circus performers, they mixed visual humour and slapstick chaos with the erudite wit and lack of conformity of college humour. They were misfits, but they didn’t care. In fact, their mad, leering grins made it clear that they loved it!
If they are mentioned at all today, it is usually only in comparison to The Marx Brothers. It’s a valid comparison, both visually (Clark’s painted on glasses and cigar) and stylistically (anti-authoritarian mayhem). Yet, it does Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough a disservice to think of them as a watered-down version of the Marxes. Vaudeville and burlesque begat legions of comedy teams ploughing similar furrows of wild, racy, high-pressure humour. The Marxes were the most successful of these, yes, but far from the only ones. It is important to realise that Clark and McCullough were not Marx imitators per se, rather relatives from another branch of the same, richly fruiting comedic vine. What one can say with certainty is that they were the leaders of this type of comedy in the two-reel format. Today, Clark and McCullough’s lasting legacy is a 5-year run of two-reelers for RKO between 1930 and 1933. Actually though, these came right at the end of the team’s career, and they themselves thought of them as only a minor addition to their body of work. Accordingly, before we get to those films, we need to go way, way back…
Boyhood friends, Bobby Clark (born 1888) and Paul McCullough (born 1883), met through a shared love of dancing, circus and acrobatics. They learned to clog dance and tumble together, developing a mute act of intricate pratfalls involving chairs and tables. They would maintain this act for several years before gradually adding dialogue. For an act that would later flourish with verbal humour, this is at first surprising! Actually though, this foundation in body control and movement helped them to transfer a fluidity and motion to their crosstalk acts. While many such acts stood painfully still, Clark and McCullough would literally run all over stage or movie sets while delivering their lines.
Another surprise for those familiar with the team is that Paul McCullough was initially the dominant force in the act. As the team developed, these roles did a complete 180 degree switch. As the team realised that there was “no future in acrobatics,” they began to add in comedy bits, and small bits of humorous speech. This was at the instigation of Bobby Clark, who began adding little comic introductions to their acrobatics and stunts, such as “I will now perform an imitation of a Bulgarian Weasel giving his mating call”. As his comic asides expanded, Bobby Clark developed into the driving force behind the team, ultimately becoming a superb rapid-fire patter comedian never lost for words. Quite a journey from the young, tumbling mute! Clark’s development as a comedian would be at the expense of McCullough, however, whose role would gradually regress over the years to be almost minimal by the mid-30s.
The team’s early career went on to include work in circuses before breaking into burlesque and vaudeville. By the mid-20s, they had settled on the dynamic that would earn their biggest success, and eventually be captured on film. This is how we remember them today. They still retained elements of their early clownish makeup in the cartoonish outfits and makeup they chose, but refined their image into a portrait of what Clark himself called ‘shabby-genteel dignity’. In an age before the terms ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ came to glorify old clothing, they were kings of the thriftstore, carefully cherry-picking items to build up their characters. McCullough took great pride in the tattered old carnival barker suit he owned, which he had bought from an undertaker nursing a fantastically inappropriate penchant for loud suits.
Both outifts had the flamboyance of smart-aleck college students, in Clark’s porkpie hat and overcoat, and McCullough’s extravagant furs. Yet, the threadbare, outdated style of the clothes revealed them as the outcasts they were. As the saying goes, “clothes make the man”, and it is likely that these costumes helped to inspire their eventual characters. Certainly, they are perfect fit for the non-conformist, outcast interlopers they developed.
Clark expanded on this in a 1932 interview:
“We had a choice to play well-to-do characters or tramps. Now, a tramp has no dignity but false dignity is one of the best comic themes. So, instead of playing two down-and-outs, we shifted into playing two fellows on the way down, but still putting up a bluff.”
Their bluff presented itself through making wisecracks and causing pandemonium. In character, Bobby Clark is a leering vaudeville dynamo, loping hither and thither across the stage. Like most such comedians, he smokes a cigar, cracks wise and chases women. His unique gimmick is the pair of eyeglasses painted on his face. Some have seen this as a pale imitation of Groucho Marx’s moustache; I’d argue it actually works even better as a character device, a fraudulent reversal of Harold Lloyd’s adoption of glasses. Lloyd’s glasses suggested a polite bookishness; McCullough’s a sly frat-boy disregard for convention. Lloyd’s glasses were without lenses, too, but added sympathy to his character. With Clark, however, the deception is blatant; he might be using the sign of respectability to help him fraudulently present intelligence, but he isn’t going to waste time doing it convincingly. Likely, he doesn’t care. Just dare to call him on his fake intelligence, go on, I dare you!
The real Bobby Clark was actually a very quiet, intelligent man, who wrote much of his own material. In another parallel to Groucho Marx, he was very well-read (In the 1940s, he appeared in Moliére comedies and even lectured on Restoration Comedy). This is reflected in his witty, meticulously worded dialogue, often rich in verbose asides and mock-theatrical delivery:
“Our motto is, ‘Omnia Cafeteria Rex: we eat all we can carry!”
(whilst dangling high above the street) “My kingdom for a sidewalk!”
“Ahh, what is home without a pig?!”
McCullough, by contrast, keeps his thoughts to himself. Bowler-hatted and toothbrush-moustached, he goes along with Clark’s schemes, often not adding much to the dialogue. He is undoubtedly thinking, though… and usually about food. In THE ICEMAN’S BALL, he spends most of the film in search of pies, his minimal dialogue distractedly running to the pastries he is devouring. While not always given much to do in the films, he is definitely more than just a straight man, and watching him closely can often be rewarding. At times, for instance, he has a Harpo-esque tendency for background mayhem, mimicking other character’s expressions or performing some quiet bit of business that almost goes unnoticed. Splashed with water, he will go into a mime of swimming, for instance. One of his best scenes comes in ‘EVERYTHING’S DUCKY’, where he shoves anything he can find, including Clark’s hat, into a mincer.
As a team, Clark and McCullough have been criticized for the uneven balance of material. Often, the question is asked of why Clark didn’t simply fly solo if he was taking the lion’s share of material. The usual reason given is loyalty to his old friend, but I do think it runs deeper than this. Comedically, a cartoonish outcast like Bobby Clark cannot exist on his own; he would just look foolish trying to cause mayhem without assistance, and would quickly be shot down. A ‘naughty boy’ type like Clark needs spurring on, feeding on the laughter and delight of the other less daring members of his gang. McCullough’s omnipresent cackle in the face of their antics is the embodiment of this. With apologies to Bobby and Paul, another parallel to the Marx Brothers: In ‘GROUCHO, HARPO, CHICO AND SOMETIMES ZEPPO’, Joe Adamson comments that Chico, while being a fairly limited comedian, is vital as the middle ground between Groucho and Harpo. McCullough exerts a similar ‘buffer’ effect between Clark and the rest of the world; he makes Clark’s schemes more forceful, and somehow more purposeful. And, the presence of a co-conspirator gives Clark’s asides a reason to exist, rather than just being pointless words tossed into the empty air. McCullough himself offered a resigned metaphor for his limited participation:
“Now, did you ever see the catcher walk out and tell the pitcher, ’You get back behind the plate, I’m going to pitch awhile’?” Well, Clark’s the pitcher and I’m the catcher. That’s why he has the jokes, or as we say, he has the answers and I have the questions.”
As their act developed into its anarchic format, it thrived. Vaudeville and Burlesque were ideal conditions for the development of such manic, anti authority humour. Just as working class nickelodeon audiences fuelled the puncturing of dignity in silent comedy, so did the similar demographic populating vaudeville houses. Material had to be crammed into short slots on the bill, and it was necessary to make an impression. The result was an act that relished in bringing chaos to convention. Typically, Bobby and Paul would have some encounter with a dignified type, or a classy occasion, and bring it down. This they would accomplish not just with words, but also with pantomime and slapstick. Their circus background played an important role in one of their key sketches, as Clark persuades McCullough to dress in a lion skin so he can wow the audience with a lion-taming act. Of course, the real lion appears, and Clark carries on unaware of the switch, offering encouragement and asides to the lion until McCullough appears at the finale and he realises what has happened.
Like the Marxes, they were lured first to bigtime vaudeville circuits, but their participation in the performers’ ‘Great White Strike’ of 1919 saw them blacklisted from the major circuits. They turned to burlesque, whose bawdy revues proved an even better home for them. Finding success in a series of Jean Bedini’s revues, such as ‘THE MUSIC BOX REVIEW’ they eventually found their way to Broadway. Their first Broadway show, ‘THE RAMBLERS’ was a smash, and ensured their place at the top table of stage comedians.
‘THE RAMBLERS’ would be followed by ‘STRIKE UP THE BAND’ and a series of other successful shows that coincided with the advent of sound films. Naturally, in the race to scoop up eligible stage talent, the movies came knocking on Clark & McCullough’s dressing room doors. In signing with Fox, one of the first studios equipped for sound, they actually had the jump on many other talents, including the Marx Brothers or Wheeler and Woolsey, in entering films.
The Fox contract was initially for shorts, though these would prove to be fluid in length. The first effort, ‘CLARK AND MCCULLOUGH in THE INTERVIEW’, was a mere one reel in length, though subsequent entries would run to four or five reels, almost feature length.
Unfortunately, this debut is currently unavailable for viewing. Worse still, most of their other Fox shorts share the same fate. ‘WALTZING AROUND’, a boxing comedy, is one of the few to survive, but has only received scattered screenings at film festivals.
While we cannot see them, it is clear from reviews, synopses and stills that these shorts present their comic modus operandi in full flower. Posing as ‘THE DIPLOMATS’ gave the team ample opportunities to puncture high society dignity . ‘THE BATH BETWEEN’ focused, like a number of their later shorts, on high-octane bedroom farce. Incongruity of setting plays a large role in both ‘IN HOLLAND’ and ‘BELLE OF SAMOA’. The former sees them ruining a farmer’s tulip crop and heading off on a mission for the Swiss Edelweiss as compensation. BELLE OF SAMOA, recently rediscovered although still elusive, was a musical featurette co-starring Lois Moran. The risqué humour and dances were noted with raised eyebrows even before the rigorous Production code was implemented. It seems that these pre-code Fox films especially indulged the ribald side of Clark and McCullough’s humour.
The Fox films featured lots of talent on and behind the screen. As well as Clark and McCullough, Anita Garvin turned up in support, and veteran comedy director Norman Taurog helmed several of the entries. Having worked with Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane and, especially, Larry Semon, his anything-goes, gagged up style was probably a good match for the team. Accordingly, the films received positive reviews.
Fox would no doubt have liked to have continued the series, or better yet, put the team in features. Successful Broadway shows like The Marx Brothers’ ‘COCOANUTS’ or Wheeler and Woolsey’s ‘RIO RITA’ were beginning to be filmed wholesale, and one would have expected Clark and McCullough to have followed with a filmic treatment of ‘THE RAMBLERS’. However, it seems they were no fans of movie production. Bobby Clark’s highly mobile performances must have been difficult to rein in for static early talkie set-ups, something that surely displeased him. Similarly, the ad-libbing madness of the team’s Broadway shows would have been out. In some of the films, Clark’s painted-on glasses were even replaced with real ones, the ultimate sacrilege!
Clark and McCullough opted to return to the format that they felt suited them best. ‘THE RAMBLERS’ would eventually be filmed, but starring Wheeler and Woolsey in place of its original stars. This version would be released as ‘THE CUCKOOS’ in 1930.
Back on Broadway, Clark and McCullough ploughed into ‘STRIKE UP THE BAND’, with music by George Gershwin. In fact, some tantalising footage exists showing the pair rehearsing and bantering with the composer, which as of this writing can be seen on YouTube.
‘STRIKE UP THE BAND’ continued their eminence on the Great White Way, but in the summer of 1930 they made a tentative return to film. Like other performers, they realised that films could provide a nice supplementary income, especially if filmed during the Summer months when Broadway shows traditionally closed. Advances in sound film production also meant that their lively performances could now be better accommodated. RKO-Radio pictures enticed them to make a short subject as part of their ‘BROADWAY HEADLINERS’ series*. Filmed in May of 1930, ‘A PEEP IN THE DEEP’ proved to be the start of a fruitful relationship with the company. Bluffing their way on board a ship, the pair manage to pass themselves off as the Captain and his assistant. They enjoy the privileges that this entails, but find themselves trapped and forced to sail the craft. Muddling through, they become hopelessly lost, but somehow make it back to the dock. All ends happily when it turns out they have set a new record for circumnavigating the world!
‘A PEEP IN THE DEEP’ was a big success for all concerned. Louis Brock at RKO offered Clark and McCullough a series of their own, to be filmed quickly during their breaks in performing. Having enjoyed their second attempt at films a lot more, the duo agreed to the offer. At the time, signing for a series of shorts when many Broadway stars were headlining in features must have seemed like a lesser move. However, Clark and McCullough had always trodden their own path in both humour and career moves, and this Anthony Slide’s Vaudeville encyclopedia reports that the duo receive
RKO at this time was also an excellent place to be making comedies. The short subjects made at the studios in the early ‘30s were of a very high quality yet remain a very under-rated group. They were well filmed, with good sets and some excellent directors. One director who would have a successful relationship with Clark and McCullough was Mark Sandrich, future director of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers ‘TOP HAT’. Sandrich shared C & McC’s penchant for offbeat gags and wild humour, and helmed some of their best shorts. In addition to talent behind the scenes, there was a reserve of excellent supporting cast members to draw from. In fact, many of these players are familiar from the Hal Roach shorts: James Finlayson, James C Morton, Charlie Hall, Max Davidson, Harry Bowen, Eddie Dunn and Constance Bergen all turn up here and there. As Roach wielded economy cuts and moved further into features, these stalwart players increasingly found a haven at RKO. (Although he never appeared with C & McC, a similar Roach refugee, Edgar Kennedy, became a star in his own series there following his dismissal by HRS. George Stevens would also make the move, becoming Kennedy’s director.). The great supporting players didn’t just roll in from Roach, either. They came in droves from Sennett, from Educational, and elsewhere; thus Harry Gribbon, Bud Jamison, Vernon Dent, Tom Kennedy, Monty Collins and others added their verve and skill to make the films even more enjoyable.
The Clark and McCullough films, however, were much more edgy and anarchic than the Roach films. Nonetheless, the supporting cast found some fine opportunities, adapting to the stylistic change nicely. Finlayson, in particular, has some of his finest moments opposite the pair, his pop-eyed incredulity and short fuse perfect matches for the comic anarchy they created. The most effective Clark & McCullough vehicles saw the pair with a strong nemesis, preferably someone that needed taking down a peg or two. This would give full reign to their naughty boy antics, and keep the audience on their side to prevent them seeming a little too obnoxious. Just like in Laurel and Hardy’s world, the comically blustering villains were not too real a threat to puncture the cartoon bubble world in which their adventures unfurled, but unpleasant enough to make us root for our antiheroes.
James Finlayson was the embodiment of this kind of villainy, and found a place in the series from the start. He is in fine form in ‘FALSE ROOMERS’, the earliest of the RKO shorts currently available for viewing. As a deaf landlord with strict rules on “Noooo cookin’!” in his boarding house, he of course meets his match in Bobby and Paul, who decide to pop corn in their room for the sheer hell of it. Throw in some bedroom farce moments with Eddie Dunn and his wife, and a healthy dose of random (the duo making their escape from the house in a midget car kept in an upstairs room), and you have a blueprint for their future entries in the RKO series. If ‘FALSE ROOMERS’ occasionally seems a little flat, it is because the studio had yet to master how to give full reign to the duo’s madness.
They learned quickly, however, the following year’s JITTERS THE BUTLER being one of the best Clark and McCullough shorts. As street cleaners who are more interested in playing with firecrackers than sweeping up, they arouse the ire of Fin, who is head of street cleaners and looking to advance himself politically. After setting off firecrackers under his car, they are discharged, and turn their sweeper’s white suits into summer outfits with the simple addition of Panama hats and canes. Strolling down the street, they are knocked over by Finlayson’s wife (Dorothy Granger). Fearful of the bad publicity for her husband’s campaign, she takes them home, where they proceed to offend guests and bring down the proceedings.
They also in engage in a battle of wits with Jitters, Fin’s prim and proper valet (Robert Greig, best known from a similar role in the Marxes’ ‘ANIMAL CRACKERS’). Told off by Granger, Jitters is told to apologise and do the guests’ bidding. Always careful to follow orders, Jitters becomes the picture of obsequiousness. When Clark kicks him in the rear, he responds with polite enjoyment: “Thank you Sir, I did enjoy that”. This becomes a running gag, to the point where he keeps interrupting Clark to ask for “just one more kick”. Clark, for his part, is happy to oblige but worries that his performance is becoming substandard: “I feel like I rushed that last one a little…” This kind of silly whimsy, with just a hint of satirical or risqué undertones, was a trademark of the team.
THE ICEMAN’S BALL, also from 1932, features the boys battling Fin again. This time, he is the Police Commissioner, who strikes cops Vernon Dent and off when they have their car and uniforms stolen. Guess who stole them? The boys are at their most anarchic, stealing the car so that they can cruise around and crash the parties they are supposed to be breaking up as policemen! (The debauched storyline of ‘THE ICEMAN’S BALL’ would never have been allowed just a couple of years later, after the 1934 Production Code was implemented.) It’s important to note, though, that even when playing such antiheroes, with no regard for the other characters in the films, or contemporary morality, Clark and McCullough always remain likeable in their films. This is mainly through their whimsical, ‘all-in-fun’ attitude to the proceedings, which works pretty much the same as for the Marxes. The whimsy of the kicking scenes or pie throwing antics in these two films lightens the tone of what would otherwise be unnecessarily savage slapstick. This lets them get away with all kinds of innuendo, physical violence and destruction and pass it off successfully as comedy.
Both ‘JITTERS THE BUTLER’ and ‘THE ICEMAN’S BALL’ are archetypal of one kind of Clark and McCullough film, which sees them crashing some form of polite society and causing havoc. Many of the films took this approach, but some of the best have them already in society, or a position of dubious authority, bringing the system down from within.
‘KICKING THE CROWN AROUND’ goes someway towards this, with the boys working on the inside from the beginning, as a couple of detectives working by royal appointment. It’s also an uproarious spoof of prohibition (one of the rare times that the team’s films focus their satire on a specific target, rather than more broad condemnation of authority or professions). In a mythical kingdom ruled by King Ferdinand Munier, there is a problem: Salami is being smuggled, despite a national sausage ban. The boys cause havoc on their mission to find the culprits, bouncing in bed with the king and tackling villainous monk Disputin. It turns out that Disputin is in league with the queen, who is the head of the Salami Ring. The boys track down the operation to a local tavern , where they discover the secret stashed mountain of sausages. Clarks conclusion? “What a load of Baloney!”
ODOR IN THE COURT (1934) is, justly, the most celebrated of all the team’s films. Again, as dubious lawyers, they have a position of authority at the film’s outset, and use it to extend their mania outwards. Right from the start, they are presented as crooked shysters who don’t really give a damn about their clients or anyone else. They don’t care, and neither do we, as the film is so fast and funny. We first meet them trying to summon up business on a street corner, handing out flyers while shouting a range of slogans:
“Cut-rate lawyers: no down payments!”
“Blackstone and Blodgett: we handle anything legal or nearly legal!”
“We’ll protect your rights until your last penny is gone!”
Gruff boxer Tom Kennedy passes by, and is nearly hit by a car. Blackstone and Blodgett are disappointed to find that he is unhurt, but decide to make a damage case anyway, ripping up his brand new suit and covering him with garbage with great relish. On finding out Kennedy didn’t see the car’s number plate, they make a swift exit, laughing gleefully.
Turns out that Kennedy is in league with slimy lawyer Thackeray D Ward (Jack Rice) on a racket to squeeze an innocent husband out of his alimony. The husband decides he needs a lawyer to protect his money, and heads to Blackstone and Blodgett’s offices. He finds them pitching horseshoes in their office, the furniture smashed up and the walls full of holes. There, he persuades them to take his case, and is knocked out by a horseshoe for his trouble.
The boys’ defence is initially based on one strategy: causing chaos. This they accomplish with aplomb, arriving in court amidst a full marching band and peanut vendors, in a brilliantly satirical comment on the spectator circus surrounding high profile trials. Clark proceeds to make a mockery of the court, with a constant series of quips, asking the orchestra to play chords at dramatic moments and by shouting “I OBJECT!” at every possible juncture. After having been warned not to object anymore, he shouts “I don’t object! It’s a lie, but I don’t object!”. Clark never had better material than in this film, the gags coming thick and fast, with not a clunker among them. McCullough, meanwhile, entertains himself cracking nuts under Ward’s thumping fist, pouring a drink in Clark’s school bell, and taking notes with a giant pencil.
The judge awards alimony of $25,000 dollars that the boys’ client must pay, causing Clark to exclaim, “You forgot to mention the National Debt! My client didn’t have a wedding, he had a war!”. Luckily, the boys had a backup plan, ‘Formula 27’; they have framed Ward in a compromising photograph with their female assistant. In light of this ‘new evidence’, Ward reconsiders his position and withdraws his request for any alimony. The boys leave the court victoriously with their marching band behind them, until they run into Kennedy again. He chases after them, Clark still shouting “I object!” as the film fades out.
‘ODOR IN THE COURT’ is fast and furious, without a wasted moment. Both Clark and, yes, McCullough, are on top form with excellent material. Best of all, their madness is allowed to completely take over, while still telling an effective story. This is their world, and while other characters might object, there is nothing they can do. Bobby and Paul are in control, triumphing not by hard graft but by being almost as conniving and dishonest as their opponents. Yet, they do it with such glee and enjoyment, we can’t help but root for them. As antiheroes in films like this, they reveal themselves as even more anti-authoritarian and free-spirited than the Marx Brothers; MGM could never have brushed them up into something like ‘A NIGHT AT THE OPERA’.
Truth be told, it was rare that they could keep the standard this high, in terms of both material and plot construction. However, while few of the shorts would reach the high standard of ‘ODOR IN THE COURT’, they remained almost uniformly entertaining, and an interesting mixture of styles. As well as the society settings and satires of professions, they also included a healthy dose of situation comedy, bedroom farce and risqué humour.
THE GAY NIGHTIES sees the team bringing down political campaigns, but finds them doing so through a riotous hotel bedroom sequence . As Hives and Blodgett, the team are political advisors in a race between two candidates. Not that they offer much useful advice to their candidate, preferring instead to frame his libidinous rival (Finlayson again) in a hotel room with a woman. Unfortunately, as no woman is around, the best they can do is McCullough in a Britannia costume, complete with trident and his usual toothbrush moustache! This clearly won’t do, so their candidate’s wife steps in to get some alone time with Fin. Clark finds himself distracted by a sleepwalking countess, trying to engineer her to sleep in his bed. The Countess’s somnambulist dithering, coupled with the interventions of a confused hotel guest and the suspicious hotel detective (Monte Collins) see the corridors and rooms becoming a constant merry-go-round of salacious activity. Ultimately, Fin is framed, but Clark’s desires go unfulfilled, as he finds himself in bed with McCullough at the film’s close. He turns over and disgustedly goes to sleep.
Though it isn’t one of the team’s best constructed shorts, shifting direction a couple of times with random events as plot fulcrums, ’THE GAY NIGHTIES’ does boast tremendous energy, a barrage of gags and a sterling supporting cast. These assets would not always prove enough to cover for lack of inspiration, but this short flies by as an invigorating two reels of quirky, racy comedy.
THE DRUGGIST’S DILEMMA’ features Fin in a farce again, as the eponymous character. He hires Bobby and Paul to work in his drugstore, where their casual attitude to shaking malted milks make waterproof outfits a necessity. They also entertain themselves making ice cream sundaes on the counter surface (“We’re a little shy of saucers today!”). A compulsive gambler, Fin disappears off to a poker game, and loses everything, including his pants. He phones the store with the number of his hotel room so they can bring him replacements before his harridan wife finds out. Unfortunately, McCullough has written the number on the back of a chest plaster which Clark has since sold to a wire-walking acrobat…Things move away from farce to surrealistic thrill comedy as the pair end up trailing the wire-walker inside a pantomime horse costume, high above the city streets.
These random plot points are a common feature in the team’s shorts. Sometimes, however, they did away with all semblance of rational plot or setup, and just let the random elements throw freely from the very beginning. IN A PIG’S EYE is probably the best of these films. It starts with the boys as Crotch and Blodgett, tailors, who have two main interests: making waffles, and their pet pig, Ajax. When a Scotsman, the Laird of Loch Looie, visits them, they steal his kilt for the hell of it, and hightail it with Ajax to the dinner party he was invited to. They cause the usual chaos and offence at the dinner party, highlighted by an exchange between Clark and a lady guest:
CLARK: Meet Ajax!
GUEST: He’s cute!
CLARK: But not like you!
(Clark shared with Groucho an ability to pass off devastatingly backhanded compliments).
The dinner party is given by inventor Bud Jamison, who has invented the Destructo explosive, which will explode at the slightest vibration. He has concealed it, as you would, inside a peppermint wafer… Guess what Ajax’s favourite food happens to be? After eating it, Ajax gets indigestion and runs round and round in circles squealing as everyone else cowers. Of course, things end in an explosion, and as the smoke clears, Ajax is playing the bagpipes!
It’s almost impossible not to smile at the sheer silliness of a film like this. Like ‘ODOR IN THE COURT’, ‘IN A PIG’S EYE’ moves fast and furious, with nary a dull moment. It was, however, dangerous to assume that randomness and chaos could cover when the comedy content wasn’t up to snuff. Given the rushed production of the films, the average rate of success was impressively high, but from time to time, the films fell into this trap. FITS IN A FIDDLE is maybe the worst example. In this yarn of the team crashing a radio station orchestra, the material is woefully thin, and the short just peters out before two reels are even filled.
EVERYTHING’S DUCKY is better, but still lacks the team’s earlier sparkle. Through the hodgepodge of different comedy styles in the team’s approach was usually an asset, it could also misfire. ’EVERYTHING’S DUCKY’ fires off in a million directions at once, but never quite succeeds at any of them. Eddie Gribbon is a boxer bizarrely attached to his pet duck, Ambrose. The boys are aluminium pan salesmen, whose gimmick is to cook a demonstration meal using their wares. They are not especially diligent at this, and have already been thrown out of one house when they arrive at Gribbon’s house. He is expecting some caterers to cook the luncheon his wife is throwing; seeing a money-saving opportunity, he happily accepts the boys’ offer of a demonstration.
The boys cause the expected carnage in the kitchen. While Clark throws pots and pans around, McCullough maniacally stuffs anything and everything he can find into a mincer. From here, the comedy gets a bit confused. Clark spills gravy down his pants and has to remove them. When the guests arrive, he uses a Persian rug as cover. Unlike their fresh variations on farce comedy, this is clichéd, and out of character. While it’s ok for Fin to be in this situation, at the mercy of the boys, Clark’s free spirit character really shouldn’t care that he’s running around in his long johns! Some good lines save the situation, but originality continues to plummet as the story goes on. The turkey destroyed, Ambrose the duck wanders into the kitchen and is quickly sacrificed to the guests’ appetites. There is one quite funny gag here as the boys inflate the duck to make it resemble a turkey, but everything fizzles into a warmed over version of Max Davidson’s classic ‘PASS THE GRAVY’. The guest being served his own pet worked wonderfully in that short, but that was down to characterization, the dread and embarrassment of the henpecked Max creating great comic tension. Here, C & McC are pretty much fearless to begin with, brazenly boasting that Ambrose is on the table. It all seems a bit heartless – unlike the rooster cooked by Davidson, Ambrose is domesticated, making his death seem that little more cruel.
Then, when the penny drops, they suddenly do act fearful and run away for a mediocre ending. Had they adopted either a purely heartless approach or the purely fearful approach, the comedy might have succeeded, but as it is it falls between two schools. This is symptomatic of the C & McC films at this time. Throwing in a few random surreal plot elements was not enough to cover for mediocre gags and clichés. Again like The Marxes, the more human and conventional Clark and McCullough’s films become, the less hilarious they are. It’s understandable that they would look for new ideas in the films, but shorts like ‘EVERYTHING’S DUCKY’ add little new to the table, they just stifle the old style.
Happily, other shorts did successfully try a new direction. ALIBI BYE BYE was the last of the 1935 season, and one of the team’s best shorts, period. This film is more situational, but gives the team a plausible place within a more realistic situation, whilst still maintaining their outcast domain, running on parallel lines to the real world.
After completing ‘ALIBI BYE-BYE’, the team went off on the road again. Between busy Broadway shows, US and European tours, not to mention their film work, they had been continually in demand for years, and had taken advantage of it. While Bobby Clark was a driven man whose life was his work, happy to spend hours perfecting lines of dialogue, the strain was beginning to catch up with Paul McCullough. In January 1936, he suffered a breakdown and was admitted to a sanitarium. By March, he seemed to have recovered enough to be discharged. Being driven home, he asked to stop in the small town of Medford, Masachusetts to visit a barber. He chatted genially with the barber, but a dark surge of despondency was about to grab him. In a seemingly spontaneous act of self-destruction, he reached for a blade as the barber’s back was turned, slashing his throat and wrists. The poor man survived for 2 days in hospital, before dying on March 25th, aged 52.
Is there any greater tragedy than that of self-destruction? The sadness is felt most keenly with the loss of those who have brought smiles and entertainment to others; it is hard to accept that those responsible for our happiness carry a burden too great to achieve some of their own. What leads a man to end his own life, especially in such a gruesomely violent way?
Inevitably, theories have been hashed out. As well as exhaustion, McCullough’s increasingly minor role in the team has been conjectured as a source of his depression. In the original act he was the funny man and lead tumbler, now sometimes he was barely in the films. Did years of being a stooge get to him? When discussing his catcher-pitcher theory, he had ruefully concluded with “You can’t be chums with someone for 40 years without knowing who is funnier.” The interviewer at the time noted that he followed this remark with “sorrowful silence.”
The blame has sometimes been laid at Bobby Clark’s feet for dominating the partnership, and easing his partner out. Some speculate that Clark was planning to go solo at this point, and McCullough sensed his impending obsolescence. What is rarely considered is the possibility that McCullough’s limited role may have been due to his problems. The seeds of McCullough’s mental health issues had likely been planted years earlier. Clark certainly could have weathered his career solo before this point had he so desired, but he may well have kept the act with his old friend out of loyalty to his partner.
Whether or not McCullough’s reduced role added to the problems is now lost to time, but certainly, the news shook Clark. He stepped out of the spotlight for almost a year after his partner’s death. He would utter little about his friend’s death in later years other than his great sorrow and a regret that he’d not “paid more attention to his problems”. Whether he felt guilt for dominating the act, overworking his partner or simply being unable to help an old, dear friend is anybody’s call. It scarcely matters now; McCullough’s death was a real tragedy, whatever caused it. One only hopes that in death he found the peace that he lacked in life.
Clark was now without his Blodgett, his partner in crime whose background cackle to his antics was the unchanging rock of the partnership. After a long break to reeavluate things, he resurfaced in the fall of 1936, appearing in a stage revue. His fears of going alone were unfounded, and he would go on to lead a distinguished stage career, if not at the heights he had previously enjoyed. He was also able to indulge his more highbrow interests, lecturing about, and appearing in, restoration comedies. Less distinguished, he also appeared in adverts to promote Smirnoff Vodka. He made only one more film appearance, however, in 1938’s ’GOLDWYN FOLLIES’. The film was a letdown in many ways, described by Clark as “the world’s longest commercial”. Things had gone full circle, as, in order to conform, Bobby was made to wear real glasses again. Sacrilege! On screen at least, Clark’s non-conformism would only be acceptable with McCullough by his side.
And, today, side by side is how we remember Clark and McCulllough. They are another act whose stage performances have now faded, leaving only a tiny fragment of their career available to few. Small it may be, and from late in their career, but Clark and McCullough’s celluloid output preserves their special brand of unique anarchy. They were fascinating clowns, who had very few peers in the two-reel field, and ,with good material and a fast pace on their side, made some absolute gems of comedy. Omnia Cafeteria Rex, indeed!
This article previously appeared in issue 8 of ‘THE LOST LAUGH’ magazine, available as a free digital download. Click the link for more details on how to subscribe!