In the 1935 comedy short The Biffle Murder Case, deliverymen Benny Biffle (Nick Santa Maria) and Sam Shooster (Will Ryan) arrive at a stately mansion with a large crate:
ROOSEVELT (a butler): Yes, gentlemen—may I help you?
BIFFLE: We got a delivery…
ROOSEVELT: Indeed…and whom might you be?
SHOOSTER: Whom might we be? (Pointing to his partner) B-I-double F-iffle. Biffle. (Pointing to himself) S-H-double O-ooster. Shooster.
BOTH: Biffle and Shooster! Need we say more?
ROOSEVELT: Please don’t…all right, bring that thing in—but please be careful…
BIFFLE: Yes, sir!
BOTH: Biffle and Shooster are on the job!
“Two madcap morons on a mission of mayhem” is how the trade ads often described the wacky antics of Biffle and Shooster, one of motion picture comedy’s beloved mirth making duos whose two-reelers convulsed theatre audiences in the 1930s. Okay, what I’ve just told you is a small untruth (in case you were rushing over to the [always reliable] IMDb while muttering “Biffle and Shooster? Never heard of ‘em…”); the double act of Benny Biffle and Sam Shooster is the fictional creation of Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan, who technically made their B&S movie “debut” in a 2013 short, It’s a Frame-Up! The team’s “legacy” has been made available in a feature film compilation (consisting of four shorts including Murder Case) over digital platforms like Google Play and Vudu…but for those of us who will relinquish our physical media only when it’s pried from our cold, dead hands you can buy all their shorts on the Kino Lorber DVD release The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster (it debuted this Tuesday, May 22).
Though Nick and Will created the faux vaudeville comedians, it was writer-producer-director Michael Schlesinger who was responsible for the team’s launch onto the silver screen. Schlesinger, a film historian and classic film distributor whose employment with such home video entities as MGM, Paramount, and Sony is without question one of the reasons why films of that period are available on DVD to new generations of movie mavens, has had a long affinity with classics of the past; Mike played a pivotal role in the completion of It’s All True (1993), the documentary that restored much of the surviving footage from the aborted Orson Welles 1942 film project, and has produced two of director Larry Blamire’s valentines to old movies, Dark and Stormy Night (2009) and The Lost Skelton Returns Again (2009—a sequel to the 2001 cult favorite The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra). (Full disclosure: I’ve known Mike for many years, beginning with the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” lovingly referred to as Usenet, and he is currently one of my Facebook chums, as is Nick Santa Maria.)
It’s a Frame-Up! was the first release of Biffle and Shooster (though in the B&S “canon” it’s actually the last of the twenty shorts the pair made for independent producer “Sam Weinberg”), and it faithfully recreates the spirit of short comedies from that era, with down-and-out Benny and Sam hired by an art gallery owner (actor Andrew Parks as “Franklin Pangborn”) to watch the store while he attends to the whims of a haughty society dame (Alison Martin as “Symona Boniface”). The zany duo manages to make a shambles of the gallery thanks to some doctored lemonade (spiked by Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Picardo imitating beloved silver screen inebriate Arthur Housman), and the cast is rounded out by Daniel Roebuck (as “Edgar Kennedy”) and Sybil Darrow (as “Geneva Mitchell”). It’s a good first effort, stuffed with old vaudeville gags and winking in-jokes (the direction is credited to “Preston Black”—the nom de mise en scene of veteran director-producer Jack White, who used the “Black” alias at a time when he was going through a messy divorce and wanted to “keep the lawyers from molesting me”), but I think Schlesinger may have sensed that Frame-Up isn’t the strongest of the B&S offerings because a title card at the beginning reads “While such early titles as Bland Hotel and Flying Down to Leo were fairly successful, the constant recycling of plots and gags—many already shopworn—eventually caused audience interest to wane.”
The previously mentioned Biffle Murder Case followed Frame-Up (Case is the duo’s eighth short, released in 1935 according to canon), and while I enthusiastically love all the shorts on the DVD I think Murder Case might be my favorite. I know Mike has long championed the 1937 B-picture Sh! the Octopus (starring Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins as two dimwitted detectives investigating murder), and I suspect Octopus might have influenced this one (though you could also argue that “who-turned-out-the-lights?” mystery comedies have been a staple of the movies since Fred Ott started sneezing). Murder Case is a bit more plotty than the other B&S efforts (which might be why I enjoy it so—I’ve never believed that slapstick and plotting are mutually exclusive when it comes to comedy) and it amps up more of the in-joke/“breaking the fourth wall” content than the other shorts. Example: the surname of the family in Case is Jackson—patriarch Andrew (H.M. Wynant as “Montague Shaw”), and offspring Peter (Kevin Quinn as “Tyler Brooke”), Kate (Fay Masterson as “Phyllis Crane”), Glenda (Tegan Ashton Cohan as “Patsy Kelly”), and Samuel (Paul Bunnell as “Bob Burns”). (The corpse is named “Randy.”) There’s also a veddy British butler (Todd Roosevelt as “Sam McDaniel”), a hard-nosed cop (Robert Forster as “James Burke”), and a flamboyant detective named “Milo Nance” portrayed by Frank Dietz (imitating “Edmund Lowe”—the joke is that Lowe appeared in Biffle as “a lark” but had such a good time he agreed to play Philo Vance [for real] in the 1936 MGM whodunit The Garden Murder Case).
A sample of Biffle and Shooster’s humor, from The Biffle Murder Case:
SHOOSTER (after struggling with the large crate): Whew—that’s heavy!
BIFFLE: Yeah…I wonder what’s in it?
SHOOSTER: Sophie Tucker’s lunch?
BIFFLE: Al Jolson’s ego?
BOTH: Kate Smith! (imitating Smith) Hello, everybody!
BIFFLE: Come on—let’s get this moon over the mountain…
The next short in the series (#10 in the canon) is Bride of Finkelstein (2015), noted in a title card at the beginning as “the most widely-seen of their shorts” due to its horror-spoof theme (though there’s also a caveat that Southern audiences thought the content “too Jewish”). This one is a pip, thanks to Phil Baron’s dead-on impersonation of Hal Roach comedian Max Davidson as a mad scientist who seeks to bring his dear departed wife “Sadie” back to life. (It makes liberal use of the “And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast” gag in W.C. Fields’ The Fatal Glass of Beer , too.) There’s a heavy Roach influence in Imitation of Wife (2015) (#9 in the canon) as well, which borrows the time-honored comedy device of Shooster (married to Trish Geiger as “the ever-popular Mae Busch”) bringing the boss (Glenn Taranto as “Vernon Dent”) home for dinner to butter him up for a promotion; Mrs. Shooster storms off in a huff (or maybe it was a minute-and-a-huff) and Biffle dons drag so Mr. Dent suspects nothing. There’s even time for a Charley Chase-like musical number (B&S sing Ain’t We Got Fun) and the authenticity on display (it feels as if it could be a lost Roach short—the direction is credited to “Ray McCarey” with script by “Clyde Bruckman”) is far-and-away better than Rob Reiner’s “Morton & Hayes” comedies which aired on TV in 1991 (ambitious but rarely convincing).
These “fake” shorts work so well because the love for these classic comedies is present in every aspect of production (the B&S theme even “borrows” the same jaunty I Know That You Know tune of Joe McDoakes fame)—none more so than the performances from Santa Maria (his Biffle is a Lou Costello-clone, sprinkled liberally with Curly Howard and celebrity impressions galore) and Ryan (who transcends his Bud Abbott persona by being an equal partner in the comedy), who instill in Biffle and Shooster a Wheeler & Woolsey/Clark & McCullough vibe (to me). The presentation of the shorts on The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster even goes above and beyond the call of disc duty with such bodacious bonuses (behind-the-scenes footage, bloopers & outtakes, etc.) as a one-reel 1928 “Vitaphone” talkie with B&S, First Things Last, which replicates to the nth degree those old early talkie shorts down to the awkward, static silences (audiences were just thrilled back then to hear people talk). There’s a fake PSA on behalf of The Will Rogers Foundation (you’ve seen these in theaters), an outtake from Imitation of Wife in which the cast is reading phonetic Spanish off blackboards (as they did in the early Roach comedies), and a “rediscovered” clip of the team’s appearance in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), which was snipped from the final print. (Schlesinger is a big fan of Mad World, too.)
“This film was partially made with recycled material. Especially the jokes.” A disclaimer that appears in the “real” credits of each short on this DVD, and for a person weaned on not only Columbia/Hal Roach/Mack Sennett comedies but Warner Brothers cartoons since I was old enough to stand and change the channel. The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster is a wonderfully-wrapped gift to fans like me. (I think, however, that classic movie fans of all stripes will enjoy it as well.) I’m hoping that Mike Schlesinger and Company have future misadventures for us in store (as this article at Movie City News notes: “Biffle and Shooster represents his first effort as a director. He hopes it won’t be his last.”) because as another continuing credit on these entertaining pastiches reads: “In loving memory of all the comedic geniuses in whose wake we swim.” (And besides: Biffle and Shooster may return in Flop Hat!)