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Coney Island Arbuckle Keaton

Happy New Year! ATZ is still on a holiday schedule, so our first post of 2015 is a classic movie. If you’ve never seen Coney Island, the 1917 silent comedy directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, with comic actor Al St. John and a young Buster Keaton, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve seen this film before, you know it never gets old.

The 25-minute short opens with stock footage of Coney Island’s Mardi Gras parade and the Electric Eden of Luna Park. The treat is seeing such early amusement rides as the Witching Waves and Chute the Chutes and a High Striker game used as props by masters of slapstick. The storyline has the three comedians competing for Keaton’s date Alice, who goes off first with St. John and then with Arbuckle, who in turn is eluding his bossy wife.

The funniest scenes are when the action shifts from the amusement park to the bathhouse and the beach. Unable to rent a swimsuit– yes, it was once the norm to rent swimsuits!–because of his size, Arbuckle spies the bathing costume of a portly lady and swipes it. He spends the last half of the movie in drag, a popular gag in early films, which he does brilliantly, even as he is battling his rivals and the Keystone Cops.

Chris Edwards’ blog Silent Volume has an insightful essay on Coney Island and Arbuckle, in which he writes:

The great silent comedians all connected with their audiences in different ways. Chaplin mixed his comedy with pathos; Keaton reflected our need for restraint in the face of chaos; Harold Lloyd tried to be average. But Arbuckle engaged the audience directly. The others we watch; with Arbuckle, you often feel as though you’re in on whatever scheme he’s hatched.

Related posts on ATZ…

December 29, 2014: Saturday Matinee: “On The Loose” in Coney Island (1931)

March 3, 2012: Saturday Matinee: Bluto & Popeye, Kings of Coney’s Mardi Gras

August 16, 2011: Video of the Day: “IT Girl” Clara Bow in Coney Island

January 15, 2011: ATZ Saturday Matinee: Shorty at Coney Island

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Released on December 26, 1931, On the Loose stars the comedy team of Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts as two gals whose parade of boyfriends never take them anywhere but Coney Island and they’re sick of it. Giggling as they recall “the refrigerator salesman from Schenectady” and other dates who won the chalkware prizes crowding the mantle in their apartment, they vow that today was their last trip to Coney. Well, of course it wasn’t. By 8:23 in the 20 minute film, the duo are back in Coney Island on a double date with two Englishmen who say it’s “very smart and quite original” and they’re going to do it all.

The gag is that ever since the days of silent movies, Coney Island, with its amusement rides that flung couples into each others arms, has been a popular setting for comedies. Among our faves are Coney Island (1917) with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton and It (1927), in which Clara Bow plays a shop girl who goes on a first date with her boss to Coney Island, though the film is said to have been made at Ocean Park Pier in California. The Coney Island scenes in Harold Lloyd’s Speedy were shot at four different amusement parks– two in Coney and two in California– according to film historian John Bengtson.

California’s Venice Pier, which like Steeplechase also had a Human Roulette Wheel, rotating Barrel of Love and Giant Slide, was a stand-in for Coney Island in On the Loose. Some of the funniest scenes have ZaSu and Thelma shushing the game attendants who remember them from previous visits and Thelma proving she’s a crack shot at the shooting gallery.

In the last few minutes of the film, Laurel and Hardy make a cameo appearance. We won’t spoil it by telling you what happens when they ask the two woman out on a date to where else but Coney Island. The film was directed and produced by Hal Roach, whose studio also made the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedies.

Related posts on ATZ…

December 8, 2013: Sunday Matinee: Princess Rajah’s Chair Dance (1904)

March 3, 2012: Saturday Matinee: Bluto & Popeye, Kings of Coney’s Mardi Gras

August 16, 2011: Video of the Day: “IT Girl” Clara Bow in Coney Island

January 15, 2011: ATZ Saturday Matinee: Shorty at Coney Island

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Nathan and Ida Handwerker

Nathan Handwerker and Ida Handwerker at the 50th anniversary of Nathan’s, 1966. Photo By Daniel Farrell. Courtesy of Loquat Films

Nathan Handwerker, the founder of Nathan’s Famous hot dog empire, is a mythic figure in Coney Island history. The story of the young Polish immigrant working at Feltman’s and saving his salary to open a competing restaurant where hot dogs sold for a nickel instead of a dime is the stuff of legend. His grandson Lloyd Handwerker’s documentary Famous Nathan humanizes him and at the same time makes us see that he truly was larger than life. The film premiered on Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be screened again on April 25 and 26.

The opening scene is a sweet first memory in a remarkably candid family memoir: Lloyd and his sister are children being fed loquats plucked from a tree by their grandfather. The documentary is told through home movies, archival photos and footage, the filmmaker’s interviews with a colorful cast of characters including family members and former Nathan’s workers, and the voice of Famous Nathan himself. A 16-minute oral history, condensed from nearly four hours taped by Lloyd’s cousin David Sternshein when their grandfather was 82 is central to the narrative. The cadence of Nathan’s voice and his story reverberate in the imagination even after the film is over: “I want to go to America. I was dreaming about it.”

Nathan says he could neither read nor write, but that he had common sense. His ingenuity is evident every step of the way, from sleeping with his money in his shoes during the voyage, to calling out customers’ orders one at a time at his first restaurant job since he didn’t know a word of English, to keeping the frankfurters from spoiling by storing them in a barrel between layers of ice. He courted his wife-to-be Ida when she opened a little stand next door to his own. Remember those vintage photos of Nathan’s in which the cars are double and triple parked out front? Well, no one ever got a ticket because the cops on the beat were paid $2 a day and all they could eat.

The other side of this successful immigrant’s story is that Nathan was a workaholic, who was by all accounts highly critical of the store’s managers including his sons Murray and Sol. “If he didn’t say anything, he wasn’t criticizing you,” says one of the former managers, who clearly idolized him nonetheless. When it came time to retire, Ida felt as if she were being punished instead of seeing it as a reward, says Lloyd’s uncle Murray. Nathan asked if he could sweep the street, and turned up at the store in Oceanside in a Cadillac and swept the parking lot, much to the surprise of workers who asked who he was.

At one point in the film, Lloyd asks his father Sol, who is now 88 and the only surviving child of Nathan, if he ever wanted him to go into the family business. Sol says he wanted him to have “a better life, a more interesting life.” Lloyd’s chosen career was cinematography and for the past 30 years he has been piecing together his family’s history.

“My grandfather died when I was 17. I knew him quite well,” the 57-year-old Brooklyn film-maker said in a previous interview with ATZ. His quest appears to have been propelled by the fact that Sol left the family business when Lloyd was 7. Growing up he’d only been to Coney Island a few times and he never worked at Nathan’s. “Why am I here? I guess I’m trying to recreate something of my grandfather,” he says into the camera, as a young man of 30, though he looks much younger, sitting in Nathan’s chair in his office. He has succeeded brilliantly.

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Related posts on ATZ…

July 14, 2015: ‘Famous Nathan’ Documentary Gets Theatrical Run, VOD and DVD Release

April 8, 2014: Photo Album: Classic Chevrolets at Nathan’s Coney Island

March 6, 2014: Tribeca Film Fest to Premiere ‘Famous Nathan’ Doc by Grandson Lloyd Handwerker

January 19, 2010: Nathan Slept Here! Coney Island’s Feltman’s Kitchen Set for Demolition

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