Our True Intent is All for Your Delight

On the Long Rise, Shocking Sundering, and Hurly-Burly Hollywood Larks of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough

On Monday, March 23rd of 1936, 52-year-old Paul McCullough was being driven to his Massachusetts home by his longtime friend, Frank T. Ford, when McCullough requested that Ford stop at a barber shop on Medford Square, his stated intention being to pop in for a shave. What transpired there, according to patrolman John Millis, quoted later in the Cincinnati Enquirer, was that McCullough got hold of a shaving razor and “before he could be subdued, had slashed his throat, wrists, and arms.” Reports vary in their specifics, some stating that McCullough was in the midst of a pre-shave lather when he made his lunge; others that his de-whiskering had just been finished, and that he had in fact been pleasantly talkative throughout.

McCullough was on his way to his residence in Brookline from the New England Sanitarium in Stoneham, where he had undergone treatment for nervous exhaustion. He had kept his household in Brookline, at 68 Windsor Rd., for some years, since marrying one Rae Carpenter of that city, when she was fifteen years old. He never got home, winding up instead at Lawrence Memorial Hospital in nearby Bedford, where, initially reported in a dangerous condition, he died of his self-inflicted injuries on Tuesday. A funeral service was held that Friday at Waterman’s Chapel in Kenmore Square; a mass followed at St. Aidian’s, a Catholic church in Brookline; and McCullough was laid to rest in Woodlawn cemetery in Everett. The details were handled by a Bobby Clark of New York, who had worked with McCullough for more than thirty years.

These events made national news, as McCullough was, with partner Clark, one half of the comedy duo Clark and McCullough, who had been performing together on stage and screen since the turn of the century, in the late 1920s and early-to-mid ‘30s appearing in a series of short films for first Fox, then RKO. It was given especial attention in Ohio because both men were natives of Springfield, an industrial hub in the southwest of the once-prosperous state, where they’d been raised and from where they’d launched their careers. The organist playing the high mass of requiem at St. Aidian’s, Lawrence O’Connor, had been tickling the keys at a Boston theater years ago when Clark and McCullough appeared there on stage during one of the endless tours, stretching across the span of decades, that facilitated their rise.

Clark had been the clown to McCullough’s straight man—or at least that is near enough to an accurate accounting of the arrangement to make some sense of their nonsense. In a contemporary eulogy in his syndicated column, Broadway, Ed Sullivan remembered McCullough’s trademarks, a “shaggy white fur overcoat, and a moustache that expressed futility in no uncertain terms. At each of Bobby Clark’s sallies, this moustache would seem to flutter in the wind, achieving the same effect of bewilderment as Zasu Pitts’ fluttering hands.” Clark had his own hallmarks: an ever-at-work cane, smoldering cigar, and an omnipresent pair of spectacles painted directly onto his face, first with burnt cork, later with eyeliner. In 1932 interview, Clark described the particulars of the characters that he and his partner had been playing variants of for such a long time: “We had a choice to play well-to-do characters or tramps. Now, a tramp has no dignity, but false dignity is one of the best comic themes. So, instead of playing two down-and-outs, we shifted into playing two fellows on the way down, but still putting up a bluff.” When searching for costumes, the men were inveterate trawlers of second-hand shops. McCullough had found his slightly scrofulous overcoat, a grey dog-skin number, at a shop in Toronto sometime around 1917; he was tickled when he learned the proprietor had been trying to move it for thirty years.

This performance of what Clark called “shabby-genteel dignity,” somewhat in the Micawberesque line, had earned Clark and McCullough impressive paydays, always divided down the middle—at the time of his death McCullough was able to keep a yacht, The Rambler, down in Miami, named for he and Clark’s breakthrough stage success. Plaudits were not always shared so equally. Sullivan’s column continued, with more than a dash of freewheeling speculation, to wonder as to if McCullough’s despair didn’t have its basis in a chronic slighting of the straight man, observing of his final moments that “in the final fadeout, McCullough was the star of the piece… When he committed suicide, he didn’t share the billing with Bobby Clark, and there was no audience”—not, it should be noted, strictly true. “I often wondered,” Sullivan continued, “if the jibes of Broadway didn’t bring about the melancholia which hastened his end. The Stem, always caustic, ever has delighted in ridiculing the ‘straight’ man of the stage and McCullough got more than his share of these slighting references… The movies often petitioned Bobbie [sic] Clark to get rid of Paul McCullough… but Clark’s answer always was a negative. Perhaps McCullough was thinking of those offers when he committed suicide. Perhaps he stepped out of the way voluntarily, for in the last scene, McCullough, true to his training, played ‘straight’ to Death.”

The Tears of a Clown pathos is laid on pretty thick here, and the whole production smacks of bloviating on deadline, expanding groundlessly on a private tragedy to make some larger point about the callousness of show-business and The Stem—the popular nickname for Broadway. But then the temptation is always there to psychologize when it comes to the comic double-act, as the maintenance of the double-act called for sustaining one of the most intimate and touchy arrangements in entertainment, and very often the material that the comic twosome performs involves making farce of what we now call toxic co-dependency. Laurel and Hardy, who helped to establish the standard by which all other screen double-acts would be judged, are usually found living together in a grotesque parody of miserable, long-accustomed domesticity, with Oliver the blustering, blowhard butch and Stan the weepy femme. Abbott and Costello, whose partnership began in 1935 at the Eltinge Burlesque Theatre on 42nd St., as Clark and McCullough’s was on the verge of fatal dissolution, upped the ante on animosity—Lou is the lovable, blubbery naif, Bud his cold, gruff, needlessly sadistic taskmaster handler, a sexless sharper oozing with punitive disdain. Martin and Lewis were a far more playfully chummy on-screen team, with Dino inclined to take a laissez-faire attitude towards his childish charge, but their real-life interpersonal relations were sufficiently complicated that Jerry was compelled to grind out a book-length mash note to his former partner, Dean and Me: A Love Story, published a full half-century after their teaming had been sundered, in which pussyhound Dean is tenderly remembered as helping to pick crab lice from his less experienced pal’s pubic hair.

Clark and McCullough stand apart from the above examples somewhat, for McCullough’s version of the straight man is distinctly crooked. Hardy, Abbott, and Martin all consider themselves the brains of their little operations, often preeningly proud of their intellect. McCullough, conversely, is always found in the subservient position of employee or assistant or “My mental hazard,” as Clark introduces him in Snug in the Jug (1933). He’s the stooge to a stooge, not trying to clean up his partner’s messes but in fact eagerly going along with his nitwit capers, cackling all the way—aside from providing a raspy laugh track for the Clark character’s jibes, his entire duties seem to be limited to taking down Clark’s periodically issued reminders. They are, Clark and McCullough, both mad as hatters, and both rather grating presences, neither given to moments of sweet simpering—as such, the duo they put me most in mind of, in an obscure fashion, isn’t any of their near American contemporaries, even of fellow psychopaths Olsen and Johnson, but of England’s Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall of Bottom (1991-95) and Guest House Paradiso (1997), Edmondson even having something like McCullough’s raspy, barked delivery.

A typical Clark and McCullough jape from their 1930-35 RKO run, which is almost entirely what we are left to judge them on, will introduce the boys imminently failing in some new profession. McCullough is generally hung with the somewhat Dickensian sobriquet “Blodgett,” while Clark’s moniker is often appropriate to whatever job they happen to of in a given film be making a hash: in Odor in the Court (1934), playing ambulance-chasing lawyers, they are Blackstone and Blodgett; in Alibi Bye Bye (1935), as a pair of studio photographers providing cheating spouses in Atlantic City with falsified photos of more innocent outings, they are Flash and Blodgett; in In the Devildog House (1934), as private dicks tracking unfaithful spouses (a favorite theme), they are Titwillow and Blodgett. (I said often appropriate to profession—sometimes it’s just a matter of what’s good for a larf.) Professionally, they are less than inept; they prepare a chocolate malted with flair as soda jerks in The Druggist’s Dilemma (1933), but what doesn’t end up splattered on the floor after the performance can fit into a thimble cup. Any ingenuity they display on the job is necessarily unrelated to the work at hand, as when they are found using a pants press to prepare waffles in In a Pig’s Eye (1934).

What they lack in skill, they more than make up for in duplicitous craftiness. Any contributing member of society who crosses their path—in fact, anyone who encounters them at all—will live to regret the occasion, though Clark and McCullough hardly show the brains or inclination to cultivate a real sense of malice or resentment. They are rather simple-minded mischief makers, pure agents of chaos whose lone objectives are to cadge a free meal where available and paw at pliable unattended wives, incidentally stirring up chaos along the way. A bit from the particularly dirty-minded The Iceman’s Ball (1932), in which they abscond with a policeman’s all-too-willing spouse, puts their modus operandi rather succinctly:

Clark: “We go! And our motto is, never a help…”

McCullough: “…Always a hindrance!”

As might be expected given the fact of their being burlesque comedians making films before the Breen blockade came along to keep the innuendoes out, Clark and McCullough are singularly libidinous, and most of the anarchy they engender comes as a result of their skirt-chasing or, just as often, the encouragement that they provide others to chase. Clark is remembered as the randier half of the duo, but this is only because he reserves himself rights to the choicest female morsels (Shoeing off McCullough in The Iceman’s Ball: “Well may you hang your head in shame, you poacher, you; he’s not the type at all for you my pretty pigeon.”) If Clark has a single signature move, it must be the manner in which he exhibits aroused sexual interest, tramping his feet on the ground like a kitten kneading a blanket with its forepaws and emitting a trilling tomcat growl.

The division of labor between the two men is less one of comic and straight man than of foreground and background, or of circus and sideshow. Clark’s capering and gamboling is front-and-center; as he has it in Fits in a Fiddle (1933): “I’m an artist; I play up front or not at all.” McCullough, meanwhile, generally dedicates himself to odd, un-emphasized bits of business on the corner of the frame: bracing himself on the edge of a desk and limbering up with a series of back-leg donkey kicks in In the Devildog House, quaffing bottles of hair tonic like they’re bathtub gin in Bedlam of Beards (1934), or mock-conducting a radio orchestra while Clark wreaks havoc in Fits in a Fiddle. He has plenty of lines, but rarely the choicest ones; as Clark notes in Snug in the Jug: “Blodgett, you say the tritest things, and so often.” Nevertheless, there is something winning and occasionally very funny in his embodiment of a low-expectations middle-aged mediocrity naturally accustomed to cheery subservience, as when, hopping to work when commended to play porter in Love and Hisses (1934), he chirps “Travellin’ man gave me a dime once!” In his patchy fur coat, which appears only sporadically in the films, he has the air of a gone-to-seed Ohio college boy who went out on a spree sometime during the McKinley administration and never found his way back to the dormitory.

It remains to Clark then to play the raucous raconteur of the two, given to sprinkling sprigs of song before himself as he skips merrily and mischievously along—the Tin Pan Alley hits of the 1910s are forever on his lips—in-between moments of stagey grandiloquence. A favorite line, expressed when reclining in the lap of a docile damsel, is “Ah, this is Arcady!”; also recurring are “Enough of this fol-de-rol!” and “Enough of this skylarking!”, both of which precede more of the same. While running his mouth, Clark is also usually running about, oft with stooped gait and hands clasped behind his back in the fashion of a seasoned ice skater. The duo started out as a tumbling act, and have a spryness unusual among the other pattering screen comedians of the period; according to a four-part 1947 New Yorker profile of Clark by Robert Lewis Taylor, “even in the mid-1930s, when he was in his late 40s, [Clark] was agile and able to jump three feet straight in the air”—and he does his fair share of knockabout stuff, corkscrew leaps that end on his splayed knees and casually punishing things like that. Fits in a Fiddle takes place in a radio studio, and glances sidelong the lone medium of their day that Clark and McCullough disdained entirely; as Taylor has it: “[Clark] has never appeared on the radio himself, and he detests radio humor.” We may extrapolate that the comedy of prattle and pratfalls were inextricably tied together for Clark, and the prospect of making do with one but not the other was to him abhorrent.

A most remarkable sustained bit of Clark clowning appears as his Blackstone gives a closing argument before the judge in a divorce proceeding in Odor in the Court, strutting back and forth like a carnival barker, pausing to dash off a bit of cigar ash on the opposing council, breaking into a soft-shoe that turns into a stumblebum backwards approach towards the bench that appears almost to be run in reverse, alarming the judge with a wolf howl, leaping towards the female plaintiff to address her first with that familiar feline claw-and-growl and then with a leaned-in mock-heroic pose and a fusillade of foolish questions, finally concluding his performance by winding up an arm like an umpire emphatically calling “Out” at home plate, all of this accomplished while keeping up a constant rat-a-tat cadence. (“In other words I would like to recapitulate… Blodgett, look that up in case I have to explain what it means later.”) Both men make minor sartorial adjustments from film to film, though Clark consistently can be found with his specs, cane, and cigar, the last two named items of which he makes use of extensively and elaborately—in The Gay Nighties (1933) he punctuates a mediocre one-liner by casually spitting his stogie into his outstretched hand, a thing of beauty.

At the time of Paul McCullough’s death, he and Bobby Clark were by some reckonings the oldest continually working double-act in the business, and this longevity is a source of much of their fascination. The story of Clark and McCullough, and then of Clark alone, spans a half-century of American popular entertainment minstrel shows, circus, vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, films, and television, and Clark’s palaver shows the marks of a man who’s spent a lifetime in theater, either on-stage, in the wings, or in the audience—preparing to fight a duel in Jitters the Butler (1932), he draws a puny dagger from a sabre-sized scabbard, and responds, dismayed, with Ethel Barrymore’s famous curtain-call pronouncement: “That’s all there is; there isn’t anymore.”

Their partnership had begun in Springfield around the turn of the century, when Clark, born 1888, was twelve, and McCullough, born 1883, was sixteen. McCullough was the son of a china shop proprietor, Cyrus, who was regarded as a bit of a local kook; as described by Taylor, he “wore a stovepipe hat summer and winter and drove a team of half-wild ponies.” Robert Edwin Clark was birthed in the rectory of the First Episcopal Church, where his family was living with his paternal grandfather, Ezra Clark, the sexton. Clark’s father, Victor, was a Pullman conductor; he died when Clark was six and, per Taylor, in the boy’s memory “never cracked a smile.” Clark met McCullough when he changed grammar schools in fourth grade, and the older boy introduced the younger to tumbling classes at the local YMCA.  

Together they practiced somersaults, bugle blowing, and clog dancing, all with an eye to a future life in show business, advertising their services in Billboard and another theatrical publication of the day, the Clipper. Accounts of their very first engagements are sketchy; one has it that they entertained fans of the Springfield Babes, a team in the old Central League, at the behest of retired St. Louis Browns catcher Jack Hendricks, but this can’t have been before Hendricks’s arrival in Springfield in 1905. What’s generally agreed upon is that, in 1903, when McCullough had already taken on a day job, Clark scored a booking performing in a two-man tumbling act with another classmate named Harry Limbert at a show sponsored by the Elks in Delaware, Ohio, featuring an aerial bar act by a duo called Wooley and Piers and a flying act called The Casting Ashtons, whose number included another young Buckeye destined for stardom, Joe E. Brown. (The year before Clark’s Elks engagement, in May, he had played an attendant on-stage at Springfield’s Grand Opera House, in a production of Mrs. Jarley’s Waxworks.)

Not long afterwards, Clark and McCullough were invited to join the Culhane, Chace & Weston Minstrels as bugle-blowers and blackface utility players, and thus disgracefully began a schedule of touring together that would only end more than thirty years later in McCullough’s death. Ditched in Harrington, Delaware by the show’s producer, who neglected to pay them a dime of their wages, they joined Kalbfield’s Greater California Minstrels in Atlanta and then, after working out a comic acrobatic act, signed in Cincinnati in 1906 with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Employed by the big top, they were variously billed as the Jazzbo Brothers, Sunshine and Roses, and the Prosit Trio—they would occasionally recruit a third man, but this was a revolving door position that disturbed not at all the sanctity of their special relationship. They toured South America with the Sells-Floto Circus, and then in the spring of 1907 came on with the Ringling Bros. Circus, performing in such celebrated arenas as the Chicago Coliseum and Madison Square Garden

It was in 1912 that Clark and McCullough made the leap to vaudeville, a then-booming brand of variety theater that, for these career-minded men, had over the circus the advantage of both properly billing and building up its acts. They appeared for the first time on a vaudeville stage under their own names on December 2nd at the Opera House in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Their act was adapted from the circus; playing clowns, they would encounter terrific complications attempting to lift a chair onto the top of the table. The New Yorker profile of Clark has it that their identifying traits were established from this first appearance onwards—McCullough in that ratty fur coat, Clark with his painted-on spectacles. (This was a holdover from the circus, Clark would later state—prop glasses could fly off during an arduous acrobatic act.) A 1937 news item, however, states that their eventual roles were initially reversed, noting in Clark’s dressing room “an old photograph of Clark and McCullough revealing the latter as the comedian. When the picture was taken in 1910 or thereabouts, Bobby Clark was the immaculate over-dressed straight-man of the period, while his partner was the bewhiskered ‘tramp’ comic of the team. Clark cherishes this particular picture, which the late McCullough autographed. It reads, ‘Pals Always.’”

The earliest reference that I can find to Clark and McCullough, billed as such, comes from the same year and month as the New Brunswick appearance, when they are billed at Wilmer & Vincent’s Orpheum in York, Pennsylvania. (“Matinee Every Day at 2:45. All Seats 10 cents. Every Evening at 7 and 9 o’clock. Always a good show.”) In the March 6, 1913 Norwich Bulletin of Connecticut, they are already working as headliners, identified as “a team of eccentric tramp comedians,” and of their recent performance at the local Empress, the Morning Tulsa Daily World of Oklahoma praises them as “the biggest laugh getters on the bill… their grotesque actions and happy monologue are a combination that would be hard to beat anywhere.” The Gazette of Cedar Rapids in 1914 notes that their parodies “are somewhat off color,” but the bookings kept coming still, and through the ‘teens they are on the move constantly: at the Colonial Theater in Akron; the Great Northern Hippodrome in Chicago; the Pantages in Vancouver; the Loew’s Bijou in Brooklyn; and the Scollay Square Olympia in Boston (Perhaps the “Great Pipe Organ” advertised here is the one played by O’Connor, who some years hence would play McCullough’s funeral mass.)

McCullough was by this point resigned to his role as the straight man, the duties of which he later explained thusly: “Now, did you ever see the catcher walk out and tell the pitcher, ’You get back behind the plate, I’m going to pitch awhile?’ Well, Clark’s the pitcher and I’m the catcher. That’s why he has the jokes, or as we say, he has the answers and I have the questions.” Off-stage, however, he was a boisterous, back-slapping bon vivant and, on the road, a habitué of the premiere saloons in every new stop. Clark, the antic clown before the crowd, was the more solitary of the two men, and during this period became an omnivorous reader. Paul was inspired by afternoons spent bending an elbow with brakemen, porters, and pool hall characters; Bobby by Shakespeare and Restoration comedies in the public library reading room; the products of their collaboration were acts titled “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Don’t Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You,” the content of which can only be guessed at. It was during this period, by Clark’s recollection, that McCullough became a bit of a fabulist; as the New Yorker has it: “Even as a straight man, he was funny, but he reached greater heights in the taprooms.”   

Clark and McCullough spent altogether five years on vaudeville and, if never consistently headlining, they were making a respectable living in a disreputable trade, splitting $300 a week by 1916. Their association with the White Rats Strike of that year, however, soured their relationships with the vaude chains, and led them to seek employment elsewhere. The White Rats of America, a fraternal organization of vaudevillians formed in 1900 who held their meetings above Koster & Bial’s Music Hall on 23rd St., had staged a strike to protest the mistreatment of performers by booking agencies, who forced wages down, kept performers on killing around-the-clock schedules, and battened themselves on the kickback they collected for preferential bookings. Clark and McCullough, effectively blackballed like so many others who’d participated in the strike, would struggle to find a stage on which to ply their wares, but when they finally did, at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, they came to the attention of an impresario called Jean Bedini who would introduce them to next phase of their careers, on the burlesque, or “burly,” circuit—theatrical variety shows like vaudeville, but principally promoted on the basis of the pulchritude of the chorus girls and soubrettes, and the ribald and risqué nature of the comedy acts.

Bedini was a émigré juggler steeped in the English music-hall tradition who claimed to be the inventor of the time-honored “eat the apple” trick, famed in the 1910s for drumming up business in each new town by having an assistant drop a one-pound turnip or beet off of the city’s highest building, which he would then catch with a fork held between his teeth. This ended in Washington D.C. in 1915, when a turnip dropped from a 12-story office building loosened several of Bedini’s front teeth. Robbed of his calling card stunt, Bedini turned to producing burlesque revues for the Columbia Amusement Company or Columbia “wheel,” a New York-based agency that booked a circuit of participating theaters, and in his capacity as producer promoted the careers of Clark and McCullough, Ted Healy, Joe Cook, and the dancer George White, who himself became a producer of an annual revue, George White’s Scandals. Writes Taylor, “Burlesque was the real beginning of Clark’s and McCullough’s fame. It was a medium for which they were perfectly suited—uninhibited, strenuous, devoted to free-for-all hilarity, and an unparalleled training ground for comedians. Burlesque fans came to look at the women and to laugh; disappointed on either ground, they were given to healthy, extroverted criticism. Comedians and women had to be talented to get by.”

Now under Bedini’s wing, Clark and McCullough toured with his shows “Peek-a-Boo,” “Puss Puss” and “Chuckles of 1921”; “Puss Puss,” which they debuted in at the Casino Theatre in Philadelphia, was a particularly spectacular popular success, grossing some $350,000. Of the typical Bedini show Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performances in America has the following to say: “Eschewing plots for his shows, he understood that his public wanted laughs, song, dancing and chorus cuties to ogle more than a story.” Thus ever has it been.

The next step in the Clark and McCullough saga began on a trip to England, not their first, when British producer Charles B. Cochran imported the duo as a readymade act to slot into the New Oxford, a theatre he’d leased in London’s West End. Bedini’s “Chuckles of 1921,” rechristened for “1922,” was a smash, and in the audience one night was a certain Irving Berlin, who promptly signed Clark and McCullough to appear in the second edition of the Music Box Revues that he co-produced with Sam Harris, the show slated to open on Broadway in the fall. Clark and McCullough made hay from the Music Box Revues, and in 1923-24 they toured with a new rather lavish revue, “Monkey Shines,” produced by the boys themselves, who had also written its book and lyrics, noted in contemporary accounts for travelling with “two seventy foot baggage cars full of scenery, effects, and costumes.”

Clark was by this time established as the star of the team, and critics were already drawing parallels between his act and that of another fast-rising hambone, the man born Julius Henry Marx, who with his brothers had been knocking around vaudeville since 1909. Says Vaudeville Old & New of Clark: “In burlesque, his character developed a randy quality, and good-natured lechery became part of Clark’s mutt-like character. He was compared to Groucho Marx; both had a swift, crouched walk, toyed with prop cigars and spouted non-sequiturs. Groucho had a greasepaint mustache and eyebrows; Bobby had greasepaint eyeglasses. Both were members of a madcap comedy team with an anarchist bent. Groucho’s character, however, was deceitful, cynical, occasionally morose and a low-grade gigolo in search of an easy life. Clark’s was a carefree, libidinous sprite whose pursuit of sexy women was prompted solely by his libido.” Groucho had still been doing a German-accented “Dutch Act” up until the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, around the time that Clark and McCullough moved over to burly and started horning it up a bit, and there is no persuasive evidence of either man having influenced the other, so this is perhaps a matter of two approximate contemporaries, rifling around through the tools of their trade, arriving at similar points at around the same time.

By 1926, Clark had become sufficiently famous to be sought out for good quote, and could be found describing the duo’s style as “bread and potatoes,” explaining: “There are certain staples of food and there are certain staples of laughter. The man who works in a frock coat and the man who works in overalls eat bread and potatoes every day of their lives, no matter how far apart the rest of their menu may be. Certain situations were funny the day the world was created. They got a laugh out of the first cave-man and they get a laugh out of the latest product of an effete civilization. Bob and I try to pick such situations. When we were in Paris we found that we could laugh at many things in the theater without understanding a word that was said—because the humor was of just this basic sort. We are students of human nature and we reproduce what we see. We have written and played hundreds of sketches and all the successful ones have been based on bread and potatoes.”

This was the same year that Clark and McCullough were induced to bring their bread and potatoes style to Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s two-act musical comedy The Ramblers, which featured Clark as a fraudulent fortune teller and McCullough as his doofus assistant, fleecing vacationers in Tijuana. Clark had been married at the beginning of the ‘20s to Lucette Gaignat, a Swiss-born chorus girl on “Puss Puss,” and had begun to weary of the road; McCullough, perhaps around the same time, would set up his homestead in Brookline, to which he regularly commuted. The show was more popular than praised, though in the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson lauded the boys’ performances, writing: “Here they are again, up to new as well as old antics, dressed elaborately in loose-fitting cloaks and variegated hats, passing gags back and forth at high pitch and winking confidentially at the audience. They masquerade as Professor Cunningham, spiritualistic medium, and Sparrow, servant-in-ordinary, fallen by chance into a motion-picture studio somewhere along the Mexico border. They teeter along the brass rail of a barroom squabble, ruffle up with militant defiance when such hollow bravery seems perfectly safe, and continually reappear, always beaming generously, in makeups successively more ridiculous. For all their swagger and bluster, however, one gathers that they are never far from abject failure. And that may be the secret of their matchless comedy—the transparency of their grand manner.”  

After previews at Werba’s Brooklyn Theater and in Philadelphia, The Ramblers arrived on Broadway, at the Lyric Theatre, and was sufficiently a hit with the punters to eventually be adapted into a screen comedy by RKO, 1930’s The Cuckoos, starring another double-act of the ay, Bert Wheeler an Robert Woolsey. The careers of Clark & McCullough and the Marx Brothers continued in the mid-‘20s to run along parallel lines: The songs for The Ramblers were written by one Sammy Lee, who’d handled the musical staging on the Marx Brothers’ Broadway vehicle The Cocoanuts, with music and lyrics by Berlin, which had been at the Lyric in 1925. Another footnote: Included in the cast of The Ramblers was a young Bob Hope.

If the Marxes, like Hope, come down to us through posterity in a way that Clark and McCullough have not, it’s because Clark and McCullough remained first and foremost a stage act: even at the height of their fame at RKO, they shot only during summertime, so the rest of the year could be kept free for other engagements. Rather than decamp to the movie colony full-time and work on their tans they made themselves available for Broadway engagements like 1930’s Strike Up the Band, 1931’s Here Goes the Bride, 1932’s Walk a Little Faster, and 1934’s Thumbs Up. Even when they began to make films, they favored the short format and its quick-in, quick-out demands. The Marxes, like Wheeler and Woolsey, seemed to see clearly that the future lay in motion pictures, and that fame lay in features—they would star in a 1929 film version of The Cocoanuts, shot at Paramount’s Kaufman-Astoria studio in New York, and in short order become a national phenomenon.

By the time The Cuckoos was going in front of the camera, Clark and McCullough had made their own forays into cinema, their first screen appearance in 1927’s Two Flaming Youths, a lost silent starring a vaudevillian who had successfully made the leap to pictures, W.C. Fields, and featuring a parade of the day’s most popular double-acts playing themselves. Alongside Clark and McCullough were Jack Pearl and Ben Bard, Clarence Kolb and Max Dill, Stanley Rogers and Jay Brennan (Rogers replaced Brennan’s partner Bert Savoy, a drag act pioneer who’d died in 1923 after being struck by lightning on a Long Island beach, his last words “Mercy, ain’t Miss God cutting up something awful?”), Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton, and the venerable team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields.

With the exception of Beery and Hatton, whose teaming had been devised for films, these acts, like Clark and McCullough, had cut their teeth in vaudeville , with Weber and Fields’s shared history reaching back more than forty years, to their first stage appearance together at Miner’s Bowery Theatre in 1885. Some had already dabbled in the picture business—Kolb and Dill, boyhood friends from Cleveland who’d taken inspiration from Weber and Fields, had shot a series of shorts in 1916-17, and in 1923 Weber and Fields had gone before the cameras for an early Lee DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film short, which recorded their pool hall routine for posterity. (Phonofilm captured Pearl and Bard’s act as well.)

By 1927, there was ample evidence of Hollywood’s ascendance over vaudeville. When, the following year, RKO Radio Pictures was founded, it formed through a merger, under the control of David Sarnoff’s Radio Corporation of America (RCA), between Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) and the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chain. RCA had Photophone, a sound-on-film system; FBO has studio facilities; and KAO had the theaters, many of them formerly dedicated vaudeville joints, soon to be outfitted for sound and turned over to the picture business. In New Brunswick—the town where Clark and McCullough had made their vaudeville debut—the Rivoli Theatre where they’d once performed with “Chuckles of 1921” was fully converted to become a moviehouse in 1935, and the same thing was happening all over the country. Burly was feeling the changing times, too; the fairly “clean” productions of the Columbia wheel just didn’t cut muster anymore, and the raunchier bump-and-grind shows had moved from Broadway to seedier joints in across the Hudson.  

The advent of sound-on-film technology that led to the creation of RKO also prompted Hollywood to vacuum up Broadway, vaudeville, and burlesque talent, including the double-acts whose clattering cross-talk could now be recorded for posterity. “Since the advent of talking pictures the nightly prayer of Broadway stage stars is: ‘Please, Heaven, put me in a show that will end its tour in Los Angeles,’” begins a 1928 item in the Brooklyn Standard, which proceeded to note that “footlight favorites have bloomed into the hothouse pets of the studio,” among them Clark and McCullough, doing a series of two-reelers at the home of Fox Movietone, having “popped in on Hollywood with The Ramblers and swept all before them, including the ashes from Clark’s famous cigar.” Their first Fox short, a one-reeler called Clark and McCullough in the Interview, could be seen as part of a Fox Movietone News program, playing alongside a sermon by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and footage of a bullfight at St. Sebastian, all playing before John Ford’s Fours Sons at the Fox on Flatbush Ave & Nevins St., among many other screens nationwide.

For stage performers still touring their acts, the movie camera was a mixed blessing; per Abel Green and Joe Laurie, Jr.’s Show Biz from Vaude to Video: “Vaudevillians quickly realized… that they were hurting themselves by doing their regular acts for Vitaphone, so they refused to appear except with special, substitute material.” Clark and McCullough, apparently, had no such compunctions. As the New Yorker profile has it, “Many of their movies were adaptations of skits they had done in vaudeville, burlesque, or musicals, and bore such titles as The Prizefight, In Dutch, The Music Masters, and The Courtroom. This last one, Clark believes, is the closest approach, thus far, to transferring burlesque successfully to the screen. In it, Clark was the judge in the trial of a strip-tease artist who had been arrested for immorality. Every time an attorney opened his mouth, Clark slapped him with a bladder and yelled, ‘You’re trying to inject hokum into this case!’ A knock-down, drag-out fight at length developed, involving not only the attorneys and the judge but the jury and the spectators; it was stopped by a suggestion that the stripper do her act for the judge in chambers. Then the judge and the girl made their exit. The short ended when Clark, after a suitable wait, opened his office door and cried ‘Case settled out of court!’”

Taylor has fudged the titles of the films; Music Masters is probably a reference to 1929’s Music Fiends and, as best as anyone can speculate, what he refers to as The Courtroom is probably Beneath the Law from the same year, one of the fourteen films that Clark and McCullough made at Fox. And speculate we must, for the Fox shorts are not readily viewable today, according to collectors Geno R. Cuddy and Ralph Celentano victims of the 1937 Fox vault fire in Little Ferry, New Jersey, which devastated the studio’s pre-1932 catalog. (Clark and McCullough’s RKO output, too, has not come to us wholly intact—only soundtrack elements remain of 1932’s The Millionaire Cat, which allow a listener to sample some of the bugle tooting of which Clark was so proud in his youth.) The surviving exceptions of the Fox blackout are Belle of Samoa and Waltzing Around, both released in 1929, and both uploaded to YouTube last December thanks to the efforts of Cuddy and Celentano.

Belle of Samoa, initially intended to play as an episode in a feature to be titled Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 but eventually released independently, finds the boys kicking around Polynesia, where they hustle their way into a temple housing the island’s maidens. A fez-topped Clark gets out a few decent wisecracks—introducing McCullough to Samoan princess Lois Moran: “That’s my valet; he looks like a hill, but he’s a valet”—before disappearing for the length of lavish musical numbers featuring a scantily clad Moran and “Queen Filoi and Her 60 Samoan Dancers.” Waltzing Around, a solid thirty minutes of mischief, is presumably more typical of the Fox shorts. It begins with an exquisite gag involving a country greenhouse—the boys make a bet as to who can throw a rock through its center windowpane, and then proceed to punch out twenty-six other panes with their wild pitches, leaving only the center glass intact—then moves to a boxing arena where, following an improbable series of circumstances, McCullough winds up in the ring with a towering bruiser called Young Krovatsky, while Clark duplicitously referees. (This is perhaps the film that Taylor mislabeled as The Prizefight, and it does bear a more than slight resemblance to his description of one of their burlesque routines, featuring the heavyweight pugilist Tom Roper.) Among the bits of business on trotted out is a Clark mainstay in which, discovering that his leg has fallen asleep, he sets to bringing it back to life with a series of kicks from the opposing foot and sharp blows from his cane, conducted in positions both seated and prone—he can be seen doing a variation of it more than twenty years later while guest hosting a 1951 episode of Michael Todd’s Revue, part of NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour, and it’s still pretty funny.   

Clark and McCullough did not sustain their relationship with Fox past 1929, their departure leaving the studio with comic Swede El Brendel as their lone comic heavy-hitter until the arrival of the Ritz Brothers with 1936’s Sing, Baby, Sing. Harry Sweet, the sometime actor and the director of Waltzing Around and several other comic shorts at Fox, had been hired on by RKO to head their short subjects department, where he established professional hothead Edgar Kennedy as a mainstay in his “Average Man” series, and helped to bring over Clark and McCullough. Their first RKO short, A Peep on the Deep, was released in 1930, and the following year RKO’s short subject producer Lou Brock announced the signing of Clark and McCullough for three more two-reelers, joining an RKO roster of short subject comic performers that included “Chic” Sale, Rosco Ates, Ned Sparks, and Jimmy Savo—all but Sparks figures with extensive vaudeville and/or burly backgrounds. Clark and McCullough would prove the most prolific of the lot, committing eventually to the output of six two-reelers annually, promoted early on as “talkomedies.” Their final output from this arrangement would be twenty-two films; from RKO they received a flat salary of $7,500 a week, divided evenly, as ever.

False Roomers, their second RKO short, from 1931, shows the basic plot pattern already in place that will be refined in their future ventures for the studio. Mildly titillating shenanigans ensue, in this case involving the shared bathroom in a boarding house, the boys invariably drawing the ire of much larger bruisers—Clark doesn’t look to be over five-and-a-half feet tall and McCullough isn’t much larger; both men run a little stout, though McCullough is the recipient of all of the fat jokes. A predilection for comically stingy Scotsmen is already evident here, the part here played by James Finlayson, frequent Laurel and Hardy foil, and one of the most-utilized Clark and McCullough repertory players.

The unifying feature of the shorts is a blithe disrespect and, yes, anarchic spirit that infects and overruns every milieu into which Clark and McCullough gain entrance, usually under false pretenses. Politics, both aristocratic and democratic, get the business. In Kickin’ the Crown Around (1933), set in Jugo-Jaggon, one of those fictitious European kingdoms so beloved of ‘30s comedians, they are diplomatic envoys employed to crack down on a salami smuggling ring; in The Gay Nighties, they are managers of a big-city political campaign; in both, ostensibly inspirational oaths of fealty—“To the King!”, “For the good of the Party!”—are played as running jokes, hollow mantras. High society, too, comes in for party crashing in Snug in the Jug, Jitters the Butler, and In a Pig’s Eye. In Jitters, Clark and McCullough spend their time among the swells ripping tailcoats and treating the flabby, masochistic manservant of the title to a series of kicks in the ass. In In a Pig’s Eye, they bring a pet porker named Ajax to a soiree thrown by the wife of munitions magnate who is trying to find a buyer for his new doomsday weapon, called “Destructo.” It ends with a bang, as things in these shorts tend to—in Fits in a Fiddle, it’s a load of dynamite planted in a bass fiddle that does the job; in Kickin’ the Crown Around, it’s a shipment of contraband 4% garlic salami crashing through the ceiling, with fermented meat and its consumers depicted throughout as dope and fiend.    

These are, all of them, fast, cheap movies, unbothered even with the inconvenience of re-taking for flubbed lines. Clark is frequently credited for stories and dialogue, but there is little to suggest that he grasped the potentialities of the medium that he was working in to a degree that would inspire him to explore them to the utmost, and by the time of that Taylor was profiling Clark in the pages of the New Yorker, the funnyman had edited his Hollywood experience down to a couple of pithy anecdotes that succinctly summarize a memory of professional disrespect. What real bitterness or foiled ambition might lay behind these well-rehearsed tales is as unknowable as the cause of the despair that caused McCullough to reach for the barber’s razor one day in Medford.

Clark was in the audience for the Golden Gloves fights at Madison Square Garden on the evening of March 23, 1936, when an usher arrived at his side to deliver a message, asking Clark to call the theatrical reporter at the Times, Sam Zolotow. It was Zolotow who delivered the news of McCullough’s suicide; “I thought he was joking, of course,” Clark would recall, “It took him a long time to make me understand what he was talking about.” Taylor writes: “In the thirty-six-year history of the act, Clark says, he had never known McCullough to be melancholy or emotionally unstable… McCullough was sometimes regarded as eccentric, but he seemed far from suicidal. ‘I think it was just something Paul couldn’t help,’ the comedian said recently. ‘Something that had been with him all the time and he didn’t even know it.’ Enormously depressed by the tragic ending of a partnership unique in the theatre, Clark went into seclusion for several months. He emerged to appear, alone for the first time since he entered show business, at the age of fourteen.”

On this occasion, September 30, 1936, Jack Stinnett’s A New Yorker at Large column caught up with Clark, now performing as a solo act, in the Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1936. “Backstage at the Winter Garden, Bobby Clark sat at the mirror in his dressing room, painting on those spectacles… and told us simply that he didn’t like to talk about it. ‘It sounds so sentimental, you know… because it is a sentimental thing,’ he said. And, of course, it is unbecoming of a comic to be sentimental. ‘It’s “laugh, clown, laugh” all the way, no matter if you do walk out on the stage for the first time in more than thirty years conscious of a something-wrongness that leaves you nervous before an audience for the first time in your life. That is over now but the first few nights it was pretty bad.” With Gypsy Rose Lee, a burly veteran who was among the nation’s first celebrity striptease artists, he sang “I Can’t Get Started,” and with Fanny Brice, performed in a sketch, “The Sweepstakes Ticket.”

Further Broadway engagements followed: Streets of Paris in 1939, Love for Love in 1940, a 1942 production of The Rivals at the Theater Guild and Star and Garter the same year, Mexican Hayride in 1944, starring in his own adaptation of Moliere’s The Would-Be Gentleman in 1946, then a 1948 revival of Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts—distinguished as the first revival on Broadway to outlast the original production. Clark was a favorite of Michael Todd, the producer, Cinerama pitchman, all-around showman, and future Mr. Elizabeth Taylor. Todd, who fostered a singular dedication to the continuance of the burly tradition on Broadway, underwrote Star and Garter, Mexican Hayride, and The Would-Be Gentleman, and then further employed Clark as a performer in his 1948 As the Girls Go, and as writer of the book on his 1950 Michael Todd’s Peep Show, which opened at the Winter Garden Theatre, and featured three songs written by the 22-year-old King Phumiphon Adulet of Siam.

As a former vaudeville and burlesque man out of Springfield, Clark hadn’t done so badly for himself; by the ‘40s his old boss, Bedini, was lucky to be able to trot out the old juggling act on a “Gay Nineties” bill at the Hippodrome in Baltimore. In addition to the Michael Todd’s Revue television appearance mentioned above, Clark appeared as the King of Hearts in a 1954 Kraft Television Theatre production of Alice in Wonderland, which makes him a living bridge from the minstrel show to the dawn of the cathode ray tube—two American entertainment traditions whose ultimate value is dubious at best, but whose significance is unquestionable. Nearing seventy, Clark came out of retirement to play his last major stage role as the Satanic Mr. Applegate in a touring production of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s Damn Yankees—the same role that, in 1995, would provide a 69-year-old Jerry Lewis his Broadway debut. Clark was valued for adding a touch of illegitimacy to the legitimate stage by way of his ad-libbing, force-of-nature scene-stealing, and generally running amok. Eva Le Gallienne, his director in The Rivals, was reported to have given him the following instructions: “I’ve never worked with anybody like you, Mr. Clark. I think you’d do a better job by yourself. I’ll just try to keep the other actors out of your way.”

A 1944 Talk of the Town item in the New Yorker catches up with Clark around the time of Mexican Hayride, in which, with co-star June Havoc, he had introduced Cole Porter’s “Count Your Blessings.” Lest it be forgotten, Clark and McCullough had once been near rivals to the Marx Brothers in popularity on Broadway, and by the ‘40s Clark had become something of an institution on the Stem, and a fairly wealthy man besides thanks to his famous frugality. He and his wife, the piece notes, had recently left the Park Central for a large apartment on W 55th St. “He walks to work every evening,” it continues, “and usually walks home right after the show to spend an hour or so reading Shakespeare or doing double-crostics.” His fondest ambition, we are told, is to play Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The author goes on to observe Clark’s habit of strolling into the Lambs or Players club “for a game of bridge or a talk”—unmentioned is the fact at one time he was president of the Burlesque Club, a fraternal organization for the men who’d worked the burly circuit, which started out with a clubhouse at 237 W 47th St. He was never recognized on the street without his glasses, but late in life he was still famous enough with them to warrant a Smirnoff ad and a Richard Avedon portrait. A man who liked nothing more than to curl up with a copy of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), he located his own funny business in a venerable tradition, and had no compunctions about playing the relic when his time came. When he died in February of 1960 and was laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery, with him went the lived experience of six decades of American entertainment that in the years to come would seem as distant as Alpha Centauri.

What was left behind once both Clark and McCullough had exited stage left was a ragged handful of enjoyably insubordinate two-reelers, their memory kept alive by 16mm collectors. The Clark and McCullough shorts were made to be guffawed at and forgotten, and as such not made with a degree of craft meant to weather the decades. Their most frequent directors at RKO were Mark Sandrich, best known for some of the studio’s Astaire and Rogers musicals like The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935), and Ben Holmes, not really known for much of anything. (At Fox they worked repeatedly with Norman Taurog, who at the peak of his talents was able to keep out of the way of great comic performers, later the director of six Martin and Lewis movies.) This is no competition for four Marx Brothers and a brain trust that included George S. Kaufman and Leo McCarey, or even for Fields, whose innate ability to put his personality over in anything that he appeared in is one of the mysteries of cinema. There are gags that don’t land in the Clark and McCullough shorts, and several that don’t even take off. Bedlam of Beards and Alibi Bye Bye both expect a lot of mileage out of keeping bodies circulating and misunderstandings accumulating through a network of interconnected rooms and swinging doors, and the former feels more than a tad stretched, though is of some interest in that it introduces the duo running a barber shop, a grim foreshadowing of McCullough’s fate.

But the finest of the extant Clark and McCullough shorts—let’s say Odor in the Court, In a Pig’s Eye, Jitters the Butler, The Iceman’s Ball, and The Druggist’s Dilemma—are brisk little things brimming with bad intentions, delightfully doltish crumb bum comedies made to entertain off-duty cabbies, pimply truants, and footsore cafeteria cashiers, about a couple of oversexed halfwit con men more self-deceived than deceiving, operating with a jolly conviction that comes of being totally incapable of understanding how far they’ve spun out from proper society. They threw a big, wet, throaty raspberry at that society, and maybe watching that happen was some kind of comfort or disturbance to people who wanted to cut their throat just from living in society, and maybe it was all only a collection of shopworn bits as old as minstrelry itself, and maybe Bobby Clark figured out something from all that Shakespeare, and maybe Paul McCullough knew something from sitting day-drunk on barstools from Tampa to Topeka, and maybe the whole shebang would be better off without the weight of pretension on its shoulders. The films, like the characters featured in them, never had a reputation to build or ruin, and they never will. That is a part of what makes them so disposable, and so altogether lovable.


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