20 May 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Clark & McCullough were comedy giants
Comparisons between Bobby Clark and Groucho Marx are inevitable. Both comedians played fast-talking sharpies. Both used a cigar as a prop for comic business. Groucho's trademarks were his painted-on moustache and eyebrows. Bobby Clark's trademark was his painted-on eyeglasses. Late in his career, Groucho gave up the greasepaint and played a more realistic character with a genuine moustache. In Bobby Clark's last film ("The Goldwyn Follies", made after the death of his longtime partner Paul McCullough) he played a fairly realistic character wearing actual eyeglasses. Clark and Groucho were contemporaries, and often worked with the same actors. In "Jitters the Butler", Clark & McCullough square off against a snooty butler played by Australian actor Robert Grieg ... who had previously played the snooty butler in the Marx Brothers film "Animal Crackers".
In this one, the boys are cast as street sweepers who don formal wear to crash a posh party.
Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough were boyhood friends who started out as circus clowns (Clark's painted-on eyeglasses were originally part of his clown make-up) and worked their way up through vaudeville to become Broadway stars of the early 1930s. Like the Marx Brothers, their comedy was fast, loud and lowbrow ... yet (also like the Marxes) Clark & McCullough were popular with intellectual highbrow audiences as well ... or, at least, Clark was. McCullough wasn't. Unlike some comedy double-acts which pair a funny man with a straight man, Clark and McCullough were both SUPPOSED to be funny. Unfortunately, McCullough's comedic abilities were always subordinated to Clark's. Throughout their career, Bobby Clark got to do lots of solo comedy bits ... but McCullough never got to do anything funny except when he and Clark are working in tandem, such as in "Jitters the Butler" where both comedians keep sneaking up behind men wearing tailcoats and grabbing one tail apiece, then pulling in opposite directions to rip the men's coats up the seams.
Although not a traditional "straight man", McCullough was always the "feed" who spoke the straight lines so that Clark could get the punchlines. McCullough never gets a punchline unless Clark tops it with a bigger punchline. The intellectual critics who praised Bobby Clark as a comedy genius never found much praise for McCullough, which is unfair. If McCullough is less funny than Bobby Clark (which he is), it's probably because he's given less CHANCE to be funny. Paul McCullough's ending was tragic. In 1936, he was in a severe auto accident in which the car was destroyed. McCullough amazingly escaped with no injuries, but he became firmly convinced that he had died in the accident and he had to correct the discrepancy. Several days later, he was a passenger in a car that stopped for a traffic light outside a barbershop in which the barber was shaving a customer with an old-fashioned cut-throat razor. McCullough ran into the shop, seized the razor, and slit his own throat. Worse luck, he survived for several hours in agony. I've often wondered how much of McCullough's suicidal depression was caused by the fact that he was always short-changed as the weak half of his comedy team.
Clark continued to star as a solo act (on Broadway and elsewhere), with very few public expressions of grief for McCullough. But Clark & McCullough were hilarious, and "Jitters the Butler" is one of their best films, very typical of their style. Laurel & Hardy fans will be delighted by James Finlayson's role in this film. Make every effort to see this movie, and try to pay attention to McCullough while you're laughing at Bobby Clark. Paul McCullough deserves some of your laughter too.