Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Eccentrics of Comedy, by Anthony Slide

Eccentrics of Comedy, by Anthony Slide (Metuchen, NJ:Scarecrow Press, 1998), Hardcover (no dust jacket), $36.00, 168pp, ISBN 0-8108-3534-7.

I was sure the world had gone mad when I retrieved this from the mail. The idea of a book whose cover featured one of the most annoying characters in cinema history — the fake Swede of many a 1930s movie, El Brendel — was almost too terrifying to contemplate. Delving a bit further, I was reassured; this is an enjoyably pithy collection of essays on “eccentrics of comedy,” some unheralded or even unknown now, by that lovable curmudgeon Anthony Slide. Brendel is in appropriately odd company here — Phyllis Diller, Old Mother Riley, Ernest Thesiger, the Duncan Sisters, Bobby Clark, Milton Berle, Edward Everett Horton, Alice Howell, Margaret Rutherford, and Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle.

Slide is well known for his outspokenness, as evidenced in his many books (more than 60 by recent count) and his irresistible book review column in Classic Images. That personality is evident in these well-rounded, opinionated sketches. Slide covers all the basics for each of his subjects, including filmographies where appropriate. For Phyllis Diller he describes her film career, “literary” career (five humor books), television work, and nightclub work. But he’s also not averse to hard judgments. He doesn’t seem to like Diller and is plain about it. Of her claim that she was successful because housewives recognize her as “one of them,” he says: “It is very obvious . . . that [she] is no longer one of them or one of us. . . . She has come a long way — too far from her roots.” He cleverly connects the painful El Brendel to another dimwitted fake media Swede of recent times, Betty White’s “Rose” on The Golden Girls. “As his career declined,” Slide says gingerly, “the level of infantile humor increased.”

Other subjects deserve a sweeter treatment and get it. Those staple sissies of 1930s comedy, Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, are gently outed here (not that it wasn’t obvious already to most observers). Horton lived with Gavin Gordon (best remembered as the fruity Lord Byron in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein), but Pangborn apparently remained in the closet, always ready to deliver “five hard knuckles” to anyone who questioned his masculinity — a temptation many must have succumbed to in the case of mega-queen “Pangie.”

Some of the most interesting material here is in the dish Slide has unearthed that appears almost parenthetically to the subject at hand. Example: in the Horton section, Slide quotes Doris Nolan on her experience in Holiday: “I didn’t like Cary Grant — he was always very rude to me. Hepburn was trying to steal my boyfriend, Gregory La Cava, away from me for her companion, a wealthy society woman, and whenever I came across well in a scene, she would demand retake after retake.”

Slide returns an era long forgotten to the spotlight in his chapters on obscurities like radio wit Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle and vaudeville queens the Duncan Sisters. Their reappearance here, however brief, is one of the things that makes this book a pleasure to read.