Last week, this column had fun with one of the worst movies made by one of cinema’s best-loved comedy teams: “Jack and the Beanstalk” starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. This week, I am going the opposite way by highlighting one of the (very few) great films made by one of the least-appreciated comedy teams in movie history: Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough.
If you know the films of Clark & McCullough, you are either over 85 years old or a foaming-at-the-mouth film buff with a good connection into bootleg videos. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Clark & McCullough starred in a series of short comedies for the Fox and RKO Radio studios. Most of the Fox films – only three out of 14 have been confirmed as extant. The duo’s 21 RKO films, made from 1931 through 1935, still exist. Yet beyond the bootleg world, you won’t find them at all.
Clark & McCullough were not really a team, since the concept of a team implies equality. Bobby Clark was literally the whole show, which in retrospect was not the best thing. Clark & McCullough had careers in minstrel shows, circuses, vaudeville and Broadway before hitting Hollywood, but Clark never truly adapted to the basic tenets of film acting. Everything about his persona was broad and exaggerated: ridiculous painted-on eyeglasses, animated hand gestures, a Groucho-style lurching walk and a voice that was a size too loud for the microphone. Watching Clark on film, it is obvious he is trying to reach the last seat in the theater – except that he forgot he was acting for a camera and not a live audience.
McCullough, however, had virtually nothing to do in their films. The man was certainly amusing enough to look at: a fat, round-faced imp with a toothbrush mustache, he spoke in a high-pitched voice and wore what seemed to be a fur coat and ten gallon hat. While Clark hammed up the scenes (often with excruciating overkill), McCullough would stand by him nodding and grinning, usually punctuating a Clark punchline with an irrelevant declaration of “That’s right!” or some equally inane affirmation. As Bobby Clark wrote much of the material for the films, many people assumed he intentionally hogged the act. Yet by doing very little McCullough seemed to steal the show – it is impossible to watch the Clark & McCullough without wondering what the hell McCullough is even doing on-screen!
The Clark & McCullough films were, on the whole, fairly unfunny. Their material was strained and thin and Clark often seemed to be aping the Marx Brothers, complete with Groucho’s cigar and Harpo’s honking horn. Oddly, their last film was the one time they truly hit their mark: the 1935 “Alibi Bye Bye.” A ribald farce rooted in adultery, the film is very funny and uncommonly risque. Considering that Hollywood was already a year into the morally-crippling Production Code that bowdlerized screen content, the film’s existence is itself a minor miracle.
Clark & McCullough play Atlantic City alibi photographers. What is an alibi photographer? Simple: a cheating spouse in Atlantic City has Clark & McCullough take a phony tourist photograph against a fake backdrop that can be used as evidence of being somewhere else. Clark & McCullough find themselves with two clients: Mr. Nimrod (roly-poly Bud Jamison), who told his wife he was hunting moose in Maine, and the lovely Mrs. Nimrod (beautiful Dorothy Granger), who is pretending to be visiting Washington. However, Mr. and Mrs. Nimrod are completely unaware the other is in Atlantic City – and not only that, they are in hotel rooms across the hall from each other.
“Alibi Bye Bye” gets frenetic when Clark & McCullough, unaware that the Nimrods are married, seek to introduce the pair. Complicating matters is Mrs. Nimrod’s best friend, the hotel’s manager (whom Clark promises for Mrs. Nimrod), a gorgeous chambermaid, and a befuddled hotel detective who gets drenched in a shower, kicked in the rear, and battered with a door opening on his face. McCullough adds to the confusion by commandeering a liquor bottle and drinking it chug-a-lug in a bathroom. All of the characters wind up running past each other in a series of slamming door escapes. Eventually, Mr. and Mrs. Nimrod meet head-on, with the lady taking the moral high ground by escorting her husband out of the hotel with an angry demand to know what he is doing in Atlantic City. Clark & McCullough seek to escape by disguising themselves as a moose, only to have the hotel manager and hotel detective chase them with gunfire!
“Alibi Bye Bye” is a hilariously silly romp, with the characters running about in various degrees of lechery, confusion, panic and anger. Clark, as usual, overplays his hand (especially with the honking of his Harpo-style horn), but he does get to reel off some wonderfully warped one-liners (he reminds McCullough: “You know how much bathrooms depress you!”) and there is an inspired sight gag in which he uses a feather duster and a rug to disguise the hotel manager as an Indian chief (as a means to escape the perceived wrath of Mr. Nimrod).
Clark & McCullough never had a chance to build on the inspired madness of “Alibi Bye Bye.” In 1936, following a national tour of the revue “Thumbs Up!”, McCullough checked into a sanitarium in Massachusetts. It is not certain why he needed this – there was speculation involving a failed romance, a nervous breakdown and career misery. On March 23, 1936, McCullough checked out of the sanitarium and stopped by a barber shop in Medford, Massachusetts. After receiving a shave, he grabbed the razor from the startled barber and slashed his throat and wrists. He was taken to a hospital in Boston and died two days later.
Clark issued a cryptic statement on McCullough’s death: “I think it was just something Paul couldn’t help. Something that had been with him all the time and he didn’t even know it.” Clark resumed his career as a solo act with the 1936 edition of “The Ziegfeld Follies” and enjoyed a long career on Broadway. One of his stage triumphs was the 1939 revue “The Streets of Paris” that introduced Abbott and Costello to Broadway audiences; he also originated the starring role in the stage version of “Mexican Hayride,” which was later made into an Abbott and Costello comedy. Clark only appeared in one film without McCullough, the 1938 atrocity “The Goldwyn Follies,” in which he had a very small role.
RKO would reissue the Clark & McCullough comedies in 1950, to no particular audience enthusiasm. The films disappeared for years and would not turn up until the 1990s when unauthorized video compilations began to appear. I do not know if the Clark & McCullough shorts are public domain (relatively few RKO films are PD) or whether overenthusiastic cineastes are making rare flicks available without bothering to clear the copyrights. The prints I’ve seen on video look like well-worn 16mm copies; properly remastered prints have yet to find their way into official video or DVD release.
Clark & McCullough represent a curio corner of the world of movie comedy. Yet “Alibi Bye Bye” showed that even the stars of a mediocre short comedy series had the potential to create something that was truly funny. Had Paul McCullough not taken his life, perhaps they would’ve graduated to the proverbial bigger and better grade of movies. Sadly, we are left with a never-to-be-answered “what if?” and a genuinely priceless comedy short circulating its merry way through The Bootleg Files.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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