Thursday, March 25, 2010


Today's my day off, which means I have more time than usual to write. I figured I'd probably post something about the odd series of dreams I've been having lately, or perhaps some musings on the blatant efforts of the Republican party to exploit the latent racism of the American people, or maybe say a word or two about the passing of actor Robert Culp.

Then I discovered El Brendel was born 110 years ago today, and that was that.

Okay, I can't really explain my El Brendel thing, but I can tell you it started almost exactly thirty years ago. The Science Center in Des Moines used to have an annual all-night science fiction movie festival (the films projected in glorious 16mm in those pre-video days), and in spring of 1980 the line-up included When Worlds Collide, Alien, Starcrash (!), The Day The Earth Stood Still...and Just Imagine.

I knew of Just Imagine from a passing reference in Jeff Rovin's A Pictorial History Of Science Fiction Films--a book that was practically my bible, and man, what a hopeless geek I was--but I didn't really know what it was about. The stills in Rovin's book showed a fantastic futuristic New York City clearly influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but it was barely mentioned at all in the text.

So watching the movie was pretty much a voyage into the unknown. It was about midnight, and all of us in the packed screening room were getting a little punchy. It wouldn't have taken much to entertain us, to make us laugh. But once Just Imagine started, and we realized it was nothing more than a vehicle for a punishingly unfunny comedian nobody had ever heard of, merely sitting through it became one of the cruelest slogs imaginable. It actually hurt to watch.

Naturally, for my brother and me, the fact that we endured this became something of a point of pride. And, in the form of El Brendel, it gave us a new reference standard for unfunny. So, for instance, we might greet the appearance of a new Rob Schneider movie by asking, Is it merely bad, or El Brendel bad?

Rob Schneider, incidentally, is the closest I can come to a contemporary version of Brendel; that is, someone so profoundly, obviously unamusing you can't believe anyone ever put him in front of a movie camera. But Schneider keeps getting work--although at this point, it only seems to be due to his friendship with Adam Sandler--and Brendel, well, evidently somebody used to find him funny.

Because way back when, people seemed to think he was, as the kids say, the shit. His fake Swedish accent and prop bow tie had 'em rolling in the aisles of vaudeville theaters, and he was popular enough that Hollywood came calling. He did character parts for William Wellman, Raoul Walsh and Preston Sturges, had a few leads in the early talkie days, and his own series of two-reelers for Columbia, occasionally teamed up with Shemp Howard.

And in all that time, he was never funny.

I realize fashions change, sensibilities change, things that were once popular are inevitably forgotten. But funny is funny, and I refuse to believe anyone, anywhere, ever ever found this guy even faintly amusing. Still, hey, judge for yourself. Here he is with his wife, Flo Bert, performing a portion of their vaudeville act. This appearance comes from an episode of the fifties show You Asked For It, and I must say, I find that title a bit of a misnomer. Nobody ever asked for El Brendel.