Welcome to THE LOST LAUGH, a website and blog dedicated to the classic clowns of (roughly) the 1910s -1950s.
My name is Matthew Ross, and I’ve had a passion for silent and early sound comedy since I first saw Laurel and Hardy on TV when I was four years old. From there my interest spread to the other greats like Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Brothers, and kept on growing. As well as the classics, I’m fascinated by the fringes of the industry. Neglected and forgotten performers, who brushed greatness but whose names have not endured. Many of these now seem dated; some of them do not transcend cultural barriers. Some were of dubious value in the first place! But amongst them were some perfect fools, magical acrobats, superb pantomimists, skilled filmmakers and witty wordsmiths who still can provide so much entertainment. Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, Lloyd Hamilton, Harry Langdon, Will Hay, George Formby, Mabel Normand, Dan Leno, Clark and McCullough, Alice Howell, Jack Hulbert, Roscoe Arbuckle, Anita Garvin, Charley Bowers, Max Linder, Wanda Wiley, Poodles Hanneford, Gale Henry, Walter Forde…. the list goes on. THE LOST LAUGH is my tribute to those performers.
On this site, you’ll find a selection of articles, research, rare photos and film clips from these great and forgotten stars of silent comedy, sound shorts, music hall, radio, and so on. There are three basic elements to the site.
This blog, which I update semi-regularly with articles, film clips, photos and the like.
A more in-depth reference guide to classic comedy performers, people like those listed above. These are permanent web pages accessed through the menus at the top of the page. I’m slowly adding to these and hope to have a comprehensive guide to the comedians of this era one day.
THE LOST LAUGH MAGAZINE (formerly MOVIE NIGHT) is a free ezine started in 2011 that goes into even greater detail and contains exclusive material not reproduced on the site. It’s a labour of love, produced roughly once or twice a year (depending on what other projects I have going on) and features exclusive articles and photos, as well as contributions from guest writers. You can access back issues here – if you’d like to subscribe and have new issues sent direct to your email inbox, you can find more info on how to do that inside the magazines.
Thanks for reading. I hope you find some new favourite films and performers while you’re here!
Old films give us a window into the cultures, values and everyday norms of the past, and comedies sometimes hold up the mirror to society best of all. Although silent comedies rarely tackled politics head-on, they often took inspiration from current events and trends, and people’s attitude to them. Often this was in passing, but sometimes comics went the whole hog to make satires. The Suffrage moment became a favourite topic for comedy; many men in the male-dominated society felt threatened by the increasing voice of women, and this was reflected in comedic portrayals of fearsome battleaxes. As the 1920s rolled on, the increasingly confident and empowered flapper generation began to be represented in films, with wonderful performers like Clara Bow, Dorothy Devore and Marie Prevost flying the flag for contemporary women.
However, not all welcomed such developments. The narrow-minded mutterings in some quarters that skirts were getting too short and things really were going too far were ripe for spoofing. Emasculated men having to deal with the housework became a comedy staple, but the gagwriters at the Hal Roach studios went one step further and made some wonderfully silly and surreal films where genders were bent as men and women swapped roles fully. They weren’t trying to make a serious point, just having some fun and trying to make good comedy that would resonate with their audiences. Nevertheless, the films give a fascinating insight into what was considered conventional for each gender in the 1920s.
In 1922, the gagmen and performers had great fun playing with exaggerated gender stereotypes in Snub Pollard’s YEARS TO COME. Set in a future where men’s and women’s roles are reversed, it offers the amusingly goofy sight of the heavily moustached Pollard and the usually tough and burly Noah Young delighting in incongruous feminine mannerisms.
The Roach gagmen always liked to revist a good idea, and in 1926 they remodelled the basic idea of YEARS TO COME with another moustachioed comic, Clyde Cook. WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? was even dafter than the original, and mocks the more ridiculous gender conventions of Hollywood film for all they are worth. To this end, we get James Finlayson as a shrewish father-in-law (“about to bear up bravely as his little one is wrenched from his apron strings”), and Laura de Cardi as a caddish lounge-lizard, as well as a series of ridicuously surreal visions of an outlandish future.
This gag-happy little film was co-written by Stan Laurel and Frank Terry (It is Terry who makes a cameo as a man in a window, not Laurel as often stated. Sorry, Stan Fans!) For many years known primarily in a one-reel cutdown, WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? has been restored to its full glory, and kindly shared online by The San Francisco Silent Film Festival:
Roach comedian Charley Chase had a theory that comedy ideas could be recycled around every seven years. Sure enough, in the mid-30s he began reaching back to some older plots from the silent era. 1935’s OKAY TOOTS! was maybe inspired by the two previous films. Though not a remake of them, it takes a similar approach in playing with gender roles. In fact, it anticipates FREAKY FRIDAY as Charley and his wife Toots (Jeanie Roberts) swap bodies, each speaking with the other’s voice as Charley gets a lesson not to take all his wife does for granted. It’s a bizarre little film – unlike the previous two shorts, Charley and Jeanie do not outwardly look or dress like the opposite sex, but everyone accepts them as such without question. Chase’s impotent indignation as a group of housewives give him an enforced makeover is a highlight, as is his variation on a parallel parking routine used by Lloyd Hamilton and W.C.Fields. Look out for a funny bit from Charlie Hall at his most menacing too!
Though these films and the conventions they spoof are obviously very dated now, they remain interesting artefacts of their times – and more importantly, they’re still funny!
As we reach the point in the pandemic where anniversaries are being reported, a series of grim milestones remind us how long we’ve been dealing with all this. A more positive flipside of this is that many of the new initiatives and innovations that have managed to bring some sunshine into our lives are celebrating anniversaries of their own. The way we socialise and enjoy entertainment has completely been transformed in the last twelve months, and although some doors have shut, others have opened up new worlds of possibilities.
For silent film fans, the void seemed especially hard to fill. The whole essence of silent cinema revival usually centres around the live experience, after all. Silent comedy, in particular, needs an audience so that the viewer can roll on a wave of giggles and chortles. Laughter is always best when it is shared.
In March last year, the first episode of the nascent Silent Comedy Watch Party was aired. It couldn’t bring film fans together physically, but it could reproduce that feeling of an event, a shared experience. Quickly it became a huge success, uniting silent comedy fans and helping them to feel like they were sharing their laughter with others. Now, a year later the show’s hosts Ben Model and Steve Massa are just about to celebrate its one year anniversary. With the 50th Watch Party beckoning on Sunday, it has become so much more than just a live stream!
The idea of the show began when Ben returned from performing a weekend of shows in Nebraska and watched all his upcoming gigs for 2020 promptly get cancelled:
“Although I’d had the idea and tech to pull this off for some time,” says Model, “I hadn’t had a strong motivation to make a silent film show happen as a live-stream…but now there was a humanitarian need for this. I thought of all the people who could use a really good laugh to deal with the shutdown, the fear and stress of the pandemic, and not knowing when it would end. I called up Steve [Massa] about my idea for The Silent Comedy Watch Party, and we agreed this would be a great way to help people out.”
Laughter is the best medicine, after all, and coupled to the warm, community feeling of the events, the Watch Parties began to mean a great deal. Often they have been the highlight of empty or anxious weeks as the pandemic progressed. Although family commitments have meant I haven’t been able to catch every episode live, I’ve watched every single one thanks to the archive of shows on YouTube.
As the show’s press release reveals, “Messages, which came in over email and social media after the first live-stream, were full of gratitude for providing relief from the pandemic stress and for bringing viewers much-needed laughter. This has continued to be the case every week, with stories of families gathering to watch, spouses who’d never given the silents the time of day becoming fans, while other viewers told of how the show had helped them get through personal dark times and recovery from illnesses. “This is what gets me through the week” is a frequent comment Model sees about the show. During a period when days all run together, it’s become a weekly anchor of appointment TV for the 400-600 people who watch together, virtually, during the live-stream and the 1,500-3,000 people who watch the archived shows during the days after the stream.“
It’s not just the spirit of being at a live cinema event that’s being recreated, but something bigger, something global that silent film events have never been before. Now silent comedy fans from around the world who would never attend the same event in pre-COVID times can join in the fun together. Many of the films are rarities, from archives or obscure DVD releases and there are many that the viewers haven’t seen before, increasing that shared experience. In a way what we’re actually getting is something that brings us closer still to the original shared experience of silent cinema-going; seeing these films for the first time, and talking about them at the same time. I’ve really loved having chats with friends around the world each week about films that have just been screened, or seeing message boards and social media lighting up in praise of performers like Snub Pollard, Wanda Wiley or Charley Chase.
The celebration of these overlooked performers is one of the real highlights of the series of shows. Again, it creates something comparable to the original silent film experience; in the 1920s, it wouldn’t have been Keaton or Chaplin every week, but the likes of Bobby Dunn, Alice Howell, Paul Parrott or Joe Rock who filled the programmes at cinemas. It’s fantastic to see these kind of performers, so often overlooked by live cinema events, getting the most exposure that they’ve had in years. Quite naturally, live silent events often skew to the classic films, and while there are some great events showcasing rarities, it’s not often that you get such deep dives into the substrata of silent comedy. The global audience offered by the internet means that “will there be an audience for such obscure films?” is not a concern in the same way. We’ve seen a terrific slew of events, webinars and online festivals benefit from this over the last year, and on the punter side, it’s wonderful to be able to attend events that I’d always dreamed of without travelling across the world (I never did make it to a Slapsticon, to my eternal regret).
Of course, another advantage has been the ability to bring in guest hosts from around the world. The list of Silent Comedy watch Party contributors includes Suzanne Lloyd, grand-daughter of Harold Lloyd; Library of Congress curators, Rob Stone and Rachel Del Gaudio; Elif Rongen-Kaynakci from the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands; and filmmaker and artist, Ina Archer who is also a media conservator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Though undoubtedly we have missed out on the beauty of real world big screen events this year, we have gained something too. The Silent Comedy Watch Parties are a prime example of this and continue to be a real source of fun and inspiration. Congratulations to Ben & Steve for reaching their 50th show, and a big thanks for helping to make the last year miles better for silent comedy fans than it had any right to be. See you at the Watch Party on Sunday!
The first-anniversary show of “THE SILENT COMEDY WATCH PARTY” will live-stream on March 21, 2021, and will include the films: AN EYE FOR FIGURES (1920) with Hank Mann, shown on the very first episode; THE FADE-AWAY (1925), a Fleischer cartoon with Ko-Ko the clown, shown on episode 2, and QUEEN OF ACES (1925) starring Wanda Wiley, one of the forgotten funny ladies of silent films who’s become an SCWP fan favorite. Here’s the link to watch: The Silent Comedy Watch Party ep. 50 – 3/21/21 – Ben Model and Steve Massa – 1-year anniversary! – YouTube The show begins at 3PM EDT (that’s 7PM GMT ).
While you’re waiting for showtime, why not check out this piece on the shows from last year, when Ben very kindly stopped by The Lost Laugh Blog for a Q & A. Finally, in case you’re new to the shows (where have you been??) here’s some more info from the show’s press release:
THE SILENT COMEDY WATCH PARTY
Every Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, watch classic comedy shorts from the 1910s and 1920s on YouTube with new live musical scores by renowned silent film accompanist Ben Model, and with live introductions by film historian, Steve Massa. The show’s logo and graphic design are by Marlene Weisman; associate producer is Crystal Kui; Mana Allen and Susan Selig (Model’s and Massa’s wives) handle the camera, lights and stage management at the couples’ respective Manhattan apartments. The films programmed feature well-known stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as well as lesser-knowns such as Marcel Perez, Snub Pollard, Alice Howell, Gale Henry and more.
About Ben Model BEN MODEL is one of the nation’s leading silent film accompanists and performs on both piano and theatre organ. Ben works full-time presenting and accompanying silent films in a wide variety of venues around the USA and internationally – doing so virtually, now – carrying on a tradition he learned from silent film organist Lee Erwin (1909-2000).
Over the past 39 years Model has created and performed live scores for several hundred silent films. He is a resident film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) and at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre, and performs at theatres, museums, schools and other venues around the US and internationally. His recorded scores have been heard on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and on numerous home-video releases from Kino Lorber, Milestone Films and Model’s own label Undercrank Productions. Ben Model is also a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University (Connecticut), where he teaches a course on silent film. https://www.silentfilmmusic.com/
About Steve Massa STEVE MASSA is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy and Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and Bristol Slapstick Festival, as well as provided essays for the National Film Registry, the National Film Preservation Foundation, and the Criterion Collection. Steve has provided notes and commentaries for many comedy DVD and Blu-ray releases, as well as co-curated Undercrank Productions’ The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, Volumes 1 & 2, the award-winning Marcel Perez Collection, Volumes 1 & 2, The Alice Howell Collection, and the forthcoming Edward Everett Horton Collection. His most recent book is Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle.
There are underappreciated silent comedians, and then there are truly forgotten ones. Al Alt definitely belongs to the latter group.
Alexander Alt, to give him his full name, was a jobbing comic in the mid-late 1920s. He worked for independent companies like Century and RayArt, as well as making afew films for Educational Pictures.
According to Steve Massa’s wonderful book LAME BRAINS AND LUNATICS, Alt was part of a vaudeville team with Hazel Howell. The pair made a few films (not that great, apparently) before Al went on to appear in some of the Hall Room Boys series in 1923. This series about a pair of dapper down-and-outs had a revolving door policy on comics; as well as Al, Jimmie Adams, Neeley Edwards, Sid Smith, Harry McCoy, George Williams, Zip Monberg and others all took turns playing ‘Percy & Ferdie’.
The dapper but embarassed young character stuck with Al after he moved on from the Hall Room Boys films. In fact, he became a bit like Century’s version of Charley Chase: a pleasant young husband getting himself into akward situations. As well as starring in his own comedies – sometimes teamed with Harry McCoy – he appeared as leading lady to Wanda Wiley and with the Century Follies girls.
Sadly, most of Century’s comedies are now missing, so we can’t see most of the comedies he made. Synopses and stills make them look quite interesting – EAT & RUN featured Alt & McCoy with a bicycle-propelled lunch wagon, and also featured Max Davidson.
Al moved over to RayArt, making films with and directed by Bobby Ray (best known from a few films he made teamed with Oliver Hardy that anticipate Hardy’s teaming with Stan Laurel). At least one of these survives: THE MILLION DOLLAR DERBY, featuring the delightfully ridiculous plot of Al having to wear a silly hat for 6 months to get an inheritance!
Alt & Ray apparently tried to jump on the bandwagon of comics like Monty Banks & Syd Chaplin making films in Britain – Variety’s London correspondent of Nov 15th 1928 reports them on holiday in London and trying to raise interest in a feature. They had no luck, and Al ended up in some Cameo comedies at Educational Pictures. Educational was on a high at the time, and these were Al’s most prestigious films.
Educational’s Cameo comedies were efficient one reelers that milked simple situations for gags. Al’s shorts won praise and sound like good, fun little one reelers from existing reviews.
In LUCKY BREAKS, Al played a sailor on shore leave who has all sorts of troubles with his belongings on the train ride home. Film Daily praised the short:
“His bundles become unwieldy and almost animated. The way that Al retrieves them, apologises to passengers and registers confusion and embarrassment is a joy to behold”
The reviewer concluded:
“This Al Alt person has swooped across the short comedy horizon and it looks as though he is going to make ’em all sit up and take notice before very long.”
Sadly for Al, it was really too late for anyone to take notice of a new silent comedian, and he was lost in the shuffle of the talkie revolution. Though he made a couple of cheap indie two reelers in the East (RELATIONS and THE PEST) his starring career was fading out. He returned to Educational for a few bit parts, but then moved behind the scenes, initially as an editor, but working up to be assistant director on a number of films into the 1950s and 60s. Apparently he lived on until 1992!
Al Alt is never going to be rediscovered as a master comedian, but he’s another one of the silent comedy terracotta army who added to the richness of the era and is worth a second look.
Here’s a lovely surprise. The Harold Lloyd estate has started posting complete, HD restorations of the Lloyd Catalogue on their YouTube Channel. There are currently the beautiful Criterion prints of his features SPEEDY and SAFETY LAST, but the real gems are some less common one-reelers from 1917-1918. Featuring Harold alongside Snub Pollard and Bebe Daniels, the selection includes one of the very scarce surviving Lonesome Luke films. I feel like I’ve always neglected the Lloyd one-reelers a bit in favour of his ‘mature’ work, and I’m looking forward to acquainting myself with these. These prints look stunning, which really makes the films more enjoyable. Below are a couple of highlights, but be sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel for further updates. Thanks to the Lloyd Estate for making these available!
LOOK PLEASANT PLEASE – lots of fun gags in this one, and a great jazz score.
LONESOME LUKE, MESSENGER: One of the few examples of Lloyd’s Chaplinesque character to survive the fire in his vaults:
BASHFUL: A charming little film, an early example of Lloyd being a less brash, more shy character.
There’s also the fantastic Brownlow & Gill documentary, HAROLD LLOYD – THE THIRD GENIUS
FRESH PAINT is from 1920, when Hal Roach Studios was still known as Rolin. At this point, the films were being cranked out weekly, and hadn’t quite hit on their winning formula yet, but this is lots of fun. In the director’s chair was Alf Goulding, an old pal of Snub’s from Australia who he had toured extensively with in the juvenile troupe ‘Pollard’s Lilliputians’.
Some prime Roach studios menace is provided by – who else? – Noah Young. Oh, and look out for a gag with a lampshade pinched from Chaplin’s THE ADVENTURER.
The lucky 13th issue of The Lost Laugh magazine is here, and available to download below!
At over 50 pages, it’s the most packed issue yet. There are articles on Snub Pollard, Walter Forde, Lupino Lane, forgotten female comedian Wanda Wiley, Buster Keaton and lots more! There are also some great guest contributions from silent comedy experts David Glass and David Wyatt, plus the usual news and reviews.
Working on this issue has certainly kept me entertained through the latest lockdown. I hope it gives you some entertainment too.
Here are the full contents:
Snub Pollard, a career overview and a focus on the Laurel & Hardy-style films he made with Marvin Loback.
The career of forgotten female comedian Wanda Wiley, who gave many of the male slapstick comics a run for their money. Also includes a full filmography, with synopses of each film.
The second part of our article on Walter Forde, detailing his silent comedy features, and including never-before published research.
An exclusive article on newly rediscovered Lloyd Hamilton footage by film historian David Wyatt!
Lupino Lane – details on the new BluRay/DVD set, including insights into the restoration process from David Glass. Also a look at Lane’s fascinating book “How to Become a Comedian”.
Buster Keaton’s last film, THE SCRIBE
Two long-unseen films starring Harry Langdon
A review of a very rare, previously lost Johnny Hines comedy, THE WRIGHT IDEA
Plus news and reviews of books, DVDs, Blu-Rays and streaming events.
— As always, please do get in touch with comments, constructive criticisms and ideas for future issues, and please do share on social media etc.
Finally, The Lost Laugh will always be free, but if you enjoy reading the magazine & site, and are in a position to contribute a little to site running costs, then you can buy me a virtual coffee on Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/thelostlaugh Thanks! 🙂
LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBARA is an unusual 1935 short film. MGM turned out quite a lot of these little colour novelties in the 1930s, featuring a mixture of celebrities contributing bit parts, musical numbers and comic routines. This one capitalises on the celebs attending the annual Santa Barbara Fiesta. For comedy fans, it’s chiefly of interest today for containing a good hunk o’ Buster Keaton, in colour.
I just found an old digital file of this film that I’d forgotten I had. I also forgot quite how much Buster there is in it. In my cloudy memory it was a one-shot gag appearance but actually he gets a couple of cross-talk routines with Andy Devine, as well as refereeing an amusingly daft bullfight with an atrociously fake bull! His His scenes are intercut with lots of song and dance numbers, but I’ve edited them together for this video. As a bonus, there’s also Harpo Marx’s very brief appearance tagged on at the beginning!
This was Keaton’s first appearance in a MGM film since his firing in 1933. Louis Lewy, who produced the colour novelties, was married to Buster’s leading lady from THE GENERAL, Marion Mack, so maybe that helped get him the footage. Though he certainly seems better off than in his last MGM film WHAT! NO BEER?, Buster was still in a bad way in 1935 and sounds a bit hungover here.. Still, his scenes are a fun obscurity and it’s nice to see him in colour, if not quite in his prime. The narrator is Pete Smith, by the way.
LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBERA was nominated for an Academy Award at the 9th Academy Awards in 1936 for Best Colour Short Subject. Much as I love him, Buster’s attempt at a Spanish accent certainly wasn’t behind the nomination… Anyway, here it is. Sorry that the image quality isn’t the best, but enjoy!
Charley Chase’s talkies sometimes get a rough write-up compared to his silents . It’s true that Charley did take on a more freewheeling style that could be more hit-or-miss, especially in his 1932-33 series of films. Shorts like FALLEN ARCHES and MR BRIDE eschewed plot in favour of taking one gag as far as they possibly could. When the material was good, as in these two films, the results were excellent. However, there were a number of looser films where inspiration simply didn’t strike, with SHERMAN SAID IT being the nadir.
Chase seems to have had a word with himself, as the films he made in 1934 and 1935 are some of the tightest-plotted shorts he made since his silent masterpieces. Perhaps Charley was making a renewed effort to prove his storytelling skills in the hope of making a feature film, or perhaps he was just on a roll of great story ideas, but these films are some of his finest work for me.
The great series of Charley Chase DVDs from The Sprocket Vault hasn’t yet extended to the 1934-36 films, so I’ve uploaded one currently unavailable. IT HAPPENED ONE DAY is a great example of the economic storytelling Chase was using at the time. Charley arrives at his new workplace full of ambition to be promoted and marry the boss’s daughter. Even though he constantly annoys his new boss (Oscar Apfel) and has never even met the daughter (Betty Mack), a set of unlikely events lead all his predictions to come true by the end of his first day!
This is classic example of a Chase short where things start believably, but unlikely events soon pile on top of each other; it’s wonderful to see how one piece of action dovetails into the next so that everything percolates logically, without seeming contrived. An example: Betty asks Charley to post a parcel; he gets his hand stuck in the mailbox doing so. Trying to pry it open with an iron bar, he accidentally smashes a fire alarm. While panicking that a false alarm is a penitentiary offence, he drops his cigar in a waste bin. Before long, this catches fire just in time for the fire brigade to arrive and douse both bin and Charley!
IT HAPPENED ONE DAY is an underrated effort and one of my personal favourite Chase films. It’s not his funniest film, but definitely one of his slickest, and despite all the plot to fit in, he still manages to sing one of his charming songs. Enjoy!
PS. My copy is an old Film Classics print. With typical carelessness, the company misspelled the name of the film on the main title card. D’oh!
Here’s a sneak preview of the upcoming issue of The Lost Laugh magazine: part of an article on daredevil comedienne Wanda Wiley. This is an abbreviated version. The full article contains more detail, a full filmography and lots of rare images!
Of the precious few female comedians given a chance to star in their own films, Wanda Wiley is one of the most obscure. Sadly, about 90% of her short comedies are now missing, but those that remain reveal a very likeable performer who gets stuck into some wonderful physical and visual comedy.
Wanda was very much a 1920s woman. She wasn’t an eccentric-looking comic type like Alice Howell or Gale Henry; she was modern, attractive and fashionable, but not just a leading lady. She was a motivator of her own plots and always at the centre of the action. Her comic equipment included long limbs that sprawled in different directions as she ran, and a wide-eyed, startled look as action swirled around her. Something about Wanda still seems to leap off the screen. Game for anything, she engaged in dangerous stunts and slapstick with vigour, usually without a double.
Her talent at physical comedy is particularly remarkable considering that she did not come from a stage background and had only been in films a year or so before being starred. Wanda was born Roberta Prestina Wiley in 1902, and was originally from San Antonio, Texas. She actually planned on being a dentist, and it was apparently while at Dental College that a film crew at work on the campus spotted her. Allegedly, Wanda was asked to give the director a tour of the campus, and wound up with a part in his Western.
Wiley’s next appearances seem to have been in Universal’s ‘Leatherpushers’ series. In 1925 an interviewer for Movie Monthly chatted to Wanda about her first appearances:
She was telling me the other day about her stunts. When she broke into the game, barely a year and a half ago, she was given a boxing scene in which she had to suffer a prompt and inglorious knockout. Wanda took her tap on the chin, but in falling added some funny business which set everyone to laughing.
This talent led her to Universal’s Century Comedies, made by Abe and Julius Stern. Wanda made her first appearance as leading lady to Harry McCoy, going on to appear alongside the Century Follies Girls and uber-obscure comedian Al Alt in several films. Her roles became increasingly prominent; and she was featured prominently in ads from HER FORTUNATE FACE onwards. From the beginning of 1925, she had her own star series.
Jess Robbins was hired to direct the films, alternating with William Watson and Edward Luddy. These experienced directors knew how to stage elaborate visual comedy and bring out the best in Wanda. The titles of the shorts leave no doubt about their comedic style: A THRILLING ROMANCE, A SPEEDY MARRIAGE, FLYING WHEELS, JUST IN TIME… These were fast-paced comedies, often featuring the heroine in a race to meet some kind of deadline. As one exhibitor put it, “When Wanda plays, you can always expect some speedy entertainment”!
A SPEEDY MARRIAGE is a good example. It turned up several years ago at the Danish Film Institute and was available to view for a short time on their website. The action begins immediately, as Wanda is thrown out of bed by an electrical device, and then struck by lightning! Her lawyer phones to tell her that she must be married by 5 o’clock to collect an inheritance. She makes a date with her fiancé, and drives madly to meet him, pursued by traffic cops. After dodging them in and out of manholes and a toy shop, Wanda meets her man and speeds off, but they collide with another car. Fortunately, the other occupant is a minister so the speedy marriage takes place and all ends happily! There’s only a tiny clip currently online:
Only the climactic second reel of FLYING WHEELS exists, but it again involves a car chase. This time, Wanda dashes across town in a miniature racing car in a fine and thrilling slapstick sequence.
A THRILLING ROMANCE is a clever little short, with Wanda as a budding novelist; we open on her typing away in a room filled with scrunched up paper. When an open window sends the paper flying to litter the entire boarding house, she is evicted . Slipping on her way out, Wanda rolls down the stairs wrapped in the carpet and right out on to the street – narrowly missing being run over by Earl McArthur’s taxi. Helping her up, Earl is so busy gazing into her eyes that he fails to notice his cab rolling away. Wanda has her own troubles, as a dog climbs into her grip and runs away inside it. Wanda’s pursuit leads her across town, and along the way she accidentally comes into possession of a crook’s bankroll. With the crooks in pursuit, she summons Earl’s help, leading to a car chase that ends up on a cliff top. Just as Wanda and Earl are hurled off the edge, the scene dissolves back into Wanda’s flat; the action has all been the latest story she is typing. You can view the short in this episode of The Silent Comedy Watch Party:
QUEEN OF ACES is rather different, substituting farce for thrills. This time, we open with Wanda engaging in a bout of fencing (apparently a real-life hobby). She is considered too much of a tomboy by her boyfriend Al’s father, and he bans her from attending a party he is throwing. Undeterred, she dresses up as a man, and makes such a hit at the party that Dad invites her to a wild night at a gambling den. When the police raid, the pair hide in a pair of barrels that ultimately tumble from the roof! When they make it home, the father insists that (s)he spend the night in his son’s room: Wanda and Al are reunited.
Sadly, this handful of films are almost all we have to judge Wanda’s talent on for now. Century/Universal silent comedies are scarce, and Wanda Wiley’s films are no exception. Lots of the missing films sound like fun, action-packed little comedies. LOOKING DOWN features her attempts to ride an out-of-control bicycle (with a policeman on the handlebars!) before indulging in some Lloyd-type stunting on a half-built skyscraper. GOING GOOD features a race to secure a scientific formula in the face of “bearded giants, gorillas and ghosts”!
Action and stunting was the chief attraction of the Wiley comedies, and she did the majority of her stunts herself. She even recreated some live stunts involving cars on Broadway as a bit of publicity! As you’d expect, she suffered injuries as a result of her style of comedy. She was once thrown off a motorbike, but luckily escaped serious injuries, and was laid up for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle and broken arm after an accident with a horse.
For the 1926 -27 series, Wanda’s films were not billed as star comedies in the same way, but came under the bland umbrella title of the “What Happened to Jane?” comedies. The move to the rebrand the series was the first step downwards in Wiley’s career. It made her less of a focus not only in billing, but also in material; as the ‘Jane’ series went on, more and more of the comedy was devoted to her male co-stars. It seems curious that, after establishing Wanda as a star, Century would seek to anonymise her in such a way. It would have made much more sense (and sounded better) to call the series “What Happened to Wanda?”. However, if you look at the Stern Brothers’ other comedies of the time, a pattern becomes apparent: the focus was on making series, not stars. ‘The Newlyweds and Their Baby’ and ‘Let George Do It’ focused on characters and brands rather than star personalities . The advantage for the Sterns was that these characters could be played by different actors. It offered them a way to control stars’ demands, and to easily replace them if they got out of hand.
It’s quite possible that Wanda was unsatisfied with the treatment. Whether she jumped or was pushed, Wiley departed Century in late 1926 and moved to Bray Comedies (there was also a fire at the Stern studio at this point which suspended production – this could have influenced the move, too). For Bray, Wanda appeared in several episodes of the collegiate series, ‘Fistical Culture’. Sadly, she soon found that her appearances were equally subordinate to male lead Lew Sargent, and before long she gave up on the series. Her disappearance from the screen may have also been hastened by the trauma of narrowly escaping from a house fire.
By early 1928, Wanda was reported to be hitting vaudeville, so often the agonal breath of a film comic’s career. This was no exception; she quickly faded from the limelight, and the coming of sound extinguished her career for good.
The big shame is that Wanda Wiley never got a chance to work for Hal Roach. Her flair for physical comedy grounded in a realistic personality would have slotted right in at the studio. It was not to be. Despite some vague reports of Wanda planning a screen comeback in 1933, she never made another film. However, she did marry happily to a noted physician, a Dr Atkinson, and lived on until the 1980s. We can only hope that more of her wonderful little shorts resurface one day. Those that do exist are genuinely funny comedies, and an all-too-rare breath of fresh air from the male-dominated world of silent comedy.
Vaudeville teams were two-a-penny in the 1920s and 30s, but mainly forgotten today. Bob Carney & Si Wills played a couple of goofy collegiate playboys, all smiles and white suits, but with a subversive nature lurking below the surface. They made a handful shorts for Pathé in the early 30s – a couple of dreadful chorus girl revue-type things, a couple of the ‘Campus Comedies’ series, and then a pair of starring shorts: ONE NUTTY NIGHT & UNDER THE COCKEYED MOON.
Unlike many of the stagey filmed versions of acts around this time, UNDER THE COCKEYED MOON is a more cinematic effort. Like the Clark & McCullough films, it picks the team up and drops them in a new setting, rather than recreating their whole act. Also like the C & McC films, the pair came up with their own scripts. This comic Western is a lot of fun, with a pleasant mixture of surreal visual gags and verbal humour. Some of the puns are groan-worthy, others laugh-out-loud funny, with a couple that Chico Marx would have sold his pointy hat for:
“Can I hold your hand for a minute?”
“How will you know when the minute’s up?”
“I’ll need the second hand for that”
Also adding to the fun are several great supporting actors: always reliable Lew Kelly, playing a barmy prospector, squeaky voiced Gay Seabrook and burly Richard Cramer in a scenery-chewing turn. Playing villain ‘Bad-Eye Pete’ is little Bobby Dunn, who in real life wore a glass eye after losing his real one in a diving stunt.
The team petered out shortly after this film, both moving into supporting appearances. Si Wills later moved into scriptwriting and wrote for comedienne Joan Davis, who he married and started a family with. Though the team are no undiscovered geniuses, UNDER THE COCKEYED MOON is a fun little film, and I’d like to see ONE NUTTY NIGHT some day.