Marty Feldman, Ben Turpin and “Sight” Gags

Since I’ve been suffering major computer issues lately, I’ve been keeping a low profile on the blog-front. (It’s a little hard to post on the internet without a computer!). But here’s a little something to tide us over.

In 1969, director Richard Lester made The Bed-Sitting Room, based on a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus. It takes place in the future, in post-apocalyptic England, and is quite satirical and surreal. (One critic described it as being “like Samuel Beckett, but with better jokes.”) Featuring the likes of Sir Ralph Richardson, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, they wander from one decimated part of London to another, saying the most incomprehensible dialog. At one point, without warning, we’re introduced to the character Nurse Arthur with these shots:

Of course that’s British actor Marty Feldman, known to most as Igor in Young Frankenstein. Although he’d been writing comedy television in the UK for thirteen years, he’d only begun acting on TV in 1967. What’s important here, however, is that The Bed-Sitting Room was his first film and this shot—this wonderful sight gag—was his introduction to the big screen.

This film wasn’t very successful when it was released and it has lapsed into obscurity. I discovered it on late night TV 25 years ago and would frequently show to friends these Twelve Seconds of Feldman. (I’d do this a lot: talk about a film then show clips from it. I guess nowadays they’d call that a “live blog.”)

Meanwhile, after 15 years of thinking Spike Milligan and Marty Feldman cooked up that awesome joke, I saw Million Dollar Legs in 2000. This 1932 film is as equally obscure as The Bed-Sitting Room and just as surreal. Directed by Edward Cline and co-written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (who later co-wrote Citizen Kane), it takes place in the mythical country of Klopstokia, where political power is decided by physical strength. The president is played by W.C.Fields and the plot is somewhere between “non-existent” and “impossible to describe.” (It was made shortly after the Marx Bros. broke big, and I think this film was an attempt to cash in on that brand of illogical humor.) Among it’s myriad of sight gags is this, a shot of a spy at work:

The spy is played by Ben Turpin, probably the most famous cross-eyed movie star until Karen Black forty years later. He was a silent-film star who based his career on his afflicted eyes, and retired after 1929. Million Dollar Legs was one of his last performances, a cameo really.

I don’t favor one gag over the other, but they definitely have a different impact: in Feldman’s, his eyes are the punch line; in Turpin’s the binoculars are. Also, since Feldman was a famously devout fan of silent comedies, I’m fairly certain he was aware of Turpin’s joke and his is an homage. Hell, considering Marty’s eye affliction (a result of suffering Graves’ disease), it’s very likely he was keenly interested in Turpin’s body of work.

(By the way, I expect my very short clips seem to shortchange these sight gags, what with there being no visual context, but I can’t stress it enough that neither film has any “context.” Still, both films can be seen on YouTube, if you’re interested.)

Anyway, enough of the Joke Archaeology for today. But, man, remember the first time you saw Marty Feldman…

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Film, Plucked from Obscurity

One response to “Marty Feldman, Ben Turpin and “Sight” Gags

  1. Adam L

    check out these peepers!

    (:37 sec.)

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