Welcome to THE LOST LAUGH.

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.

  1. This blog, which I update semi-regularly with articles, film clips, photos and the like.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

Wonderful Wanda

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.

Former dental student Wanda finds that making people laugh can be just like pulling teeth…

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”!

Another dash for Wanda in FLYING WHEELS

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. 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.

Carney & Wills

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.

A pipe smoking Tin Lizzie sets the scene for the two reels of daftness that is UNDER A 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.

A Night at The Museum with Lupino Lane

80-odd years before Ben Stiller, Lupino Lane made his version of ‘A Night at the Museum’! This Educational Pictures short is from his golden period, 1926, and was directed by Charles Lamont. The leading lady is Katherine McGuire, best known for appearing opposite Buster Keaton in SHERLOCK, JR and THE NAVIGATOR. Lane’s brother Wallace Lupino appears as the villain.

There are some great gags in the opening sequence, including a lovely reveal shot and a nice chase sequence which Lane later adapted for his 1931 sound feature NO LADY.

Sorry about the print quality – this one doesn’t seem to be online already though, so I figured poor quality Nip is better than none. Enjoy!

When Will met Walter

Walter Forde in the 1920s
The glorious Will Hay

In the UK, Talking Pictures TV continues to delight with unexpected rarities I never thought I’d see on the box. This week, they’re raiding the Imperial War Museum’s film archives to bring us GO TO BLAZES. This 1942 war office short stars master comedian Will Hay with Muriel George and a young Thora Hird. It was directed by former silent comedian Walter Forde.

After Forde moved away from his own career in front of the cameras, he became the premier  director of British comedies in the late 20s and early 1930s, and Will Hay was one of the top 1930s stars, so it is perhaps surprising that they only crossed paths once, on this short. Forde came to specialise in comedy mysteries/thrillers – a genre into which Hay’s masterpieces OH! MR PORTER, ASK A POLICEMAN and THE GHOST OF ST MICHAELS fit snugly. Hay’s regular director Marcel Varnel handled Hay’s films excellently, but it is surprising that Forde never worked with Hay before or since.

GO TO BLAZES was one of several shorts made by The Ministry of Information during WW2. They made a habit of enlisting comics to help sugarcoat the pill of serious wartime messages – amongst others, Claude Hulbert tackled careless talk in DID YOU EVER SEE A DREAM TALKING, and Tommy Trinder extolled the virtues of British restaurants. GO TO BLAZES deals with how to put out incendiary bombs, in Hay’s usual blundering style.

Hay’s bluffing pedagogue is the perfect character for one of these sort of films, typifying the ineffectual know-it-all who makes a mess of things, and providing the perfect excuse for George and Hird to demonstrate the proper way of doing things.

In a film like this, the message inevitably takes precedence over the comedy, but GO TO BLAZES manages to be an amusing little film, as well as effectively conveying the information it needs to. Sadly, both Hay’s and Forde’s careers ended prematurely within a few short years, but GO TO BLAZES remains an interesting crossing of paths.

The Hollywood Kid – complete!

One of the classic Mack Sennett scenes of the 1920s shows a “normal” day in Sennett’s office: the floor is littered with custard pies, two comedians battle to show him who is funnier, director Vernon Dent pitches an idea. Through the chaos, Sennett is unperturbed, even bored-looking. Then, the studio lion wanders in. While the others scatter, Sennett calmly finishes his phone conversation before shooing the lion out and telling his secretary “Keep that cat from coming in my office!”

This clip has been used several times in documentaries and film compilations to portray the madness of the Sennett studios. But, like many of the iconic Sennett scenes, its parent film remains obscure. THE HOLLYWOOD KID (1924) has most often been seen in a one-reel cut-down version, but now Dave Glass has done a fantastic job of recreating the whole film from a variety of sources.

In its entirety, the film is not just a day-in-the life of the studios, but a rags-to-riches story of Charlie Murray and Louise Carver as their little son is talent scouted by Vernon Dent. (The premise of Murray and Carver’s son being so photogenic is a gag in itself as they both habitually look like they’re sucking lemons!) Along the way there are backstage glimpses of Phyllis Haver, Madeline Hurlock and Ben Turpin, and an inevitable double-duty appearance by Andy Clyde, Sennett’s man of a thousand faces! The whole short is lots of fun, and it’s wonderful to see the whole thing.

If you’re not familiar with Sennett comedies of the 20s, this is an excellent place to start. All the key Sennett elements are here, but with a stronger plot thread than usual. If you are familiar with his films, then you’ll still find something new in this fab restoration.

A Hullabaloo in Woolloomooloo

You don’t see too many Australian silent comedies. Several familiar comedians – Snub Pollard, Billy Bevan, Clyde Cook, Daphne Pollard – were Aussies, but they only made films after moving to the USA.

At the time that American silent comedy was maturing, the Australian film industry was in the doldrums (partly because of the dominance of US film), but a few comedies were turned out.

One surviving example is THE KID STAKES, a charming kid comedy from 1927. Following the adventures of a bunch of street larrikins from Woollamoolloo and their pet goat, this freewheeling little film has the flavour of Hal Roach’s OUR GANG films.

Like the Gang, it’s an ensemble piece, but the bunch of characters aren’t a Roach rip-off. Actually, they are inspired by the Sunday News comic strip ‘Fatty Finn’, and cartoonist Syd Nicholls makes a cameo in the opening scene. ‘Fatty’ is the lead character, a bit reminiscent of Jackie Cooper’s goodhearted little tough guy (he even looks a little like Cooper). With logic reminiscent of A.A. Milne, a title tells us that “they called him Fatty because he was not fat”. He’s played by Robin ‘Pop’ Ordell, the son of director Tal Ordell. (Tal was a well known character actor who turned to directing for this lone film – he plays the comic radio announcer in this film.)

Apparently, goat-chariot racing was a thing in 1920s Australia! Fatty’s gang are planning to enter their pet goat, Hector, in a big race, but their rival Bruiser lets Hector loose. He finds his way to a garden full of rare flowers, and after eating his fill is impounded by the owner. With the help of a pair of eloping lovers, and the hindrance of a bumbling policeman, they recapture Hector and make it in time to win the race.

Like the OUR GANG films, THE KID STAKES is often more charming than outright funny, but very watchable. It’s always fascinating to see silents made outside the standard American locations we’re used to seeing, and there’s a real slice-of-life quality to the old scenes of Sydney, the backyard games and dialect titles – not to mention the bizarre spectacle of the goat race! The bumbling policeman and goat provide some good laughs too.

On the downside, the direction is a bit clunky here and there, and there are too many titles. Old kid comedies always contain a few moments that make the more wary modern viewer wince – kids swimming naked in a stranger’s backyard pool? Or writing their names in blood? Ick. “The past is a different country”, after all.

Overall though, this is a fun watch that throws a light on another forgotten side of silent comedy. It’s certainly a pleasant way to do some armchair travelling for an hour of lockdown. The print below also deserves special mention for the music – played live to the film by Ian Cooper. I’m always astounded by the skill that silent film accompanists show, but Cooper’s task was even more of an achievement – he was blind! Astounding.

EDIT: Here’s a more complete version of the film:

Festive Fun

What a year it’s been. Thanks for reading THE LOST LAUGH, and I hope the magazine and blog have been able to offer you a little entertainment and distraction. Wherever you are, I hope you’re able to squeeze some merriness out of the season, and here’s to a better 2021!

We’ve all seen Laurel & Hardy’s BIG BUSINESS, but here’s a trio of lesser-known Christmas-themed comedies to help kickstart the season.

First up, Charley Chase’s THERE AIN’T NO SANTA CLAUS, from 1926. One of his less-seen Pathé shorts, this features some great gags, including Charley’s attempts to carry a Christmas tree on his bike, and playing rival Santas with Noah Young (both fighting over the same beard!)

From the same year and the same studio, here’s Our Gang’s Christmas short, GOOD CHEER:

Another great rarity from the YouTube Channel Geno’s House of Rare Films, here’s KNIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS starring Karl Dane and George K Arthur . I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this forgotten comedy team, and have wanted to see more of their sound shorts for a while. This one isn’t quite as good as A PUT UP JOB, but it’s a lot of fun, as Karl brings George along to his family Christmas gathering. A great cast too, with Fern Emmet and Irving Bacon as Karl’s parents, plus some familiar Hal Roach players: Harry Bernard and Harry Bowen (hidden beneath a huge beard!).

Merry Christmas!

Hard Work for Wallace!

As if Dave Glass hadn’t been busy enough this year working on the new Lupino Lane DVD/Blu Ray set, he’s also been uploading heaps of rare silent comedies on his YouTube account. The latest is HARD WORK,a very rare short comedy from 1928 featuring Wallace Lupino (younger brother of Lupino Lane).

It’s a print from my collection. I lucked into the 8mm print of this very rare short a few years back. It was hoped to include it on the DVD set as an extra, but this print isn’t the best quality, and searches for a 16mm copy all came to naught. Now you can enjoy it for free on Dave’s YouTube channel. Here’s the video, and below you’ll find a bit more info about Wallace and the film.

A typical scene of domestic bliss in HARD WORK. Jackie Levine, Betty Boyd, Wallace Lupino. I once saw this still used to illustrate a national newspaper article on disciplining children!!

Wallace was a secret weapon in the Lane films, a versatile performer capable of portraying a range of parts. He can be seen playing parts ranging from threatening heavy to matronly woman, as well as ersatz Vernon Dent to Lane’s Langdonesque naïf. Schooled in the Lupino family tricks and traditions, he had been a performer since childhood too, appearing in pantomime as ‘Wee Wallace Lupino’. After war service and stage work in Britian, he later joined his elder brother in Hollywood, and was instrumental in helping Lane create the split second pantomime routines and double acts that make his films so wonderful. Though inevitably in his elder brother’s shadow, Wallace was also given a chance to star in his own shorts at Educational, starting with 1926’s SWEET BABY.

Educational’s series of Tuxedo and Cameo Comedies were one-reel shorts, simple gag-based endeavours starring less well-known performers like Johnny Arthur, Monty Collins and Cliff Bowes. Like Wallace, these were mainly performers better known for supporting roles, stepping up to the plate as stars. The films were a valuable career leg-up not just for performers, but also for directors. Particularly notable was the kid brother of Educational comedy producer Jack White; Jules White is best known today for his work with The Three Stooges, but before this, he cut his teeth on many Cameo comedies, including HARD WORK.

HARD WORK clearly bears White’s trademark of vigorous  slapstick gags. The short is a simple tale of Wallace and his family (Betty Boyd & Jackie Levine) trying to renovate their home. Nothing original in that premise, but the secret to a good one reefer was taking a simple premise and getting as many good gags as you could from it.  HARD WORK certainly does that; the film is saved from being so-so with some original, very funny gags involving animals, pianos and vacuum cleaners. And, for a one reeler, the scale of the destruction is pretty epic!  Particularly good is the scene where Wallace gets his head stuck through the ceiling – he certainly earned his paycheck for this film!
In sound films, I often find White’s predilection for big and violent sight gags unpleasant, but in the slightly dreamlike world of a silent one-reeler it works much better. (I think what I actually dislike about this most are the accompanying sound effects; Harry Langdon called White’s talkies the “oh-ouch-ow” comedies, and he was absolutely right. White seemed to think it was funnier if characters on the end of slapstick showed that they felt pain – but that’s not a problem in silents.)

Wallace is ably supported by two actors familiar from the Lupino Lane shorts. His long-suffering wife is ably played by Betty Boyd, who played leading lady in several Lane films like BATTLING SISTERS and PIRATES BEWARE.

Young Jackie Levine plays the bratty child. After appearing with Harold Lloyd in FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, he became a regular at Educational in the late silent years, often in the ‘Big Boy’ juvenile comedies (bit of an unfortunate name…). Little Jackie would play a thorn in Wallace (and Lupino Lane’s) sides again: he plays a bratty kid in SUMMER SAPS and JOY LAND. This overlap with the Lane shorts occurred often, reaching it’s apotheosis with CROWN ME, a short starring Wallace and directed by Lane. (I hope you’re following all this, as there will be a test at the end.)

A rare still from the lost short WEDDED BLISTERS. Wallace is on top of the furniture!

Wallace starred in several other shorts for Educational. As well as those mentioned above, titles included ALL SET, AUNTIE’S AUNTE, THE LOST LAUGH, HUSBANDS MUST PLAY and WEDDED BLISTERS. These generally stayed in the format of simple situational comedies – ALL SET involves Wallace’s attempts to obtain a dress suit, and WEDDED BLISTERS is a tale of moving furniture to a new home. Of all these, the only other surviving entry I’m aware of is the namesake of this blog, THE LOST LAUGH. Ben Model shared his unique print of this fun little comedy on his Accidentally Preserved DVD and on YouTube. Here it is:Several of these films were issued on 16mm in the 1930s, but few seem to survive. Unless someone knows more, I believe HARD WORK was the only one to be issued on 8mm (possibly derived from Mogull Films’ 16mm print, the sole Lupino title they carried). I certainly wasn’t expecting to see it turn up on eBay. The print was anonymously labelled as ‘Wallace Lupino/Charlie Chase’; I took a punt and it turned out to contain both HARD WORK and Chase’s SITTING PRETTY on the same reel. A bargain for £5.00 GBP! The print isn’t the best quality ever, but it’s a nice little rarity that helps add to our appreciation of this very underrated performer. Enjoy!

PS.  I wrote a longer article on Wallace’s career here.

This article originally appeared in issue 8 of The Lost Laugh magazine – you can download that for free here.

Arbuckle Without Keaton

To coincide with a showing of the very rare Roscoe Arbuckle short CAMPING OUT on The Silent Comedy Watch Party, here’s a run-down of the overlooked shorts Arbuckle made in 1918 & 1919… the ones that don’t feature Buster Keaton in the cast!

Roscoe Arbuckle’s series of shorts made for the Comique film corporation and released through Paramount in 1917-20, are among his best-known work. Certainly, they are the best represented on DVD. This is almost entirely due to the Keaton factor – the presence of a young Buster in most of the films. This bias is confirmed by the obscurity of the films in which Buster does not appear, made during his military service in 1918-19.

You won’t find these films on any of the Arbuckle-Keaton DVD sets!

When Keaton was drafted, the Comique series continued with Arbuckle and his regular foil, Al St John. While the popularity of Keaton has ensured that all but one of the Arbuckle-Keatons are now accounted for, the survival rate drops much further for the shorts made in his absence. Only a couple are known to exist, and only one has been restored and released. Details of many of the films are sparse, with a couple remaining mysteries.

Ever since critics first took an interest in Keaton, Arbuckle has always been in his shadow. At worst, the lazy critical opinion is that Arbuckle’s style was crude and unsophisticated, and that the only merit in the films came from Keaton’s input. Silent comedy aficianados know better, of course; nevertheless, an unfortunate legacy of this view is the lack of interest in this bunch of films. Along with their unavailability, this remains in stark contrast to those that came on either side of them.

Let’s take a look at this neglected group of films, hopefully waiting to be rediscovered. Here they are, in order of release:

THE SHERIFF (24th November 1918)

late 1917, the Arbuckle company had moved to California from the East Coast, partly enticed by the better backgrounds on offer. The desert settings of the west were seen to good advantage in the first film after moving, OUT WEST, and Arbuckle reused the theme in this short.
Arbuckle plays a Sheriff enamoured of the movie heroics of Douglas Fairbanks and William S Hart. After falling asleep and dreaming a dramatic rescue in a Mexican town where He gets the chance to try a real heroic rescue, when his schoolteacher girlfriend Betty is kidnapped by bandit Al.
THE SHERIFF is possibly the most intriguing of all these films, and sounds like it was an amusing little gem. Arbuckle surely got good comic contrast from impersonating Fairbanks and Hart, and THE SHERIFF is perhaps similar to the clever, cliché spoofing Arbuckle-Keaton short MOONSHINE. While OUT WEST had been an exercise in comic savagery, reviews of the time commented that THE SHERIFF was rather more subtle and sophisticated. Here’s a review from Motion Picture News of November 23, 1918:

THE SHERIFF is better by far than anything contributed to the Arbuckle Paramount program. For one thing, it is free from vulgarity & sloppiness. The classic kick shines by its absence. For another, the situations have been developed logically, producing maximum fun out of minimum action.


One of the common misconceptions about Arbuckle is that any sophistication in his films came from Keaton’s input. While there’s no denying that Keaton had big creative input into the films, Arbuckle, rather like Charley Chase, liked to play with different styles and could happily jump from wild gags and slapstick to gentle situation comedy. Some of his earlier Sennett films, made with Mabel Normand, like HE DID AND HE DIDN’T, show a gentle and sophisticated side to Roscoe before Keaton ever appeared on the scene.

Nevertheless, Arbuckle definitely felt the loss of Keaton in his supporting cast, and hired another diminutive comic to take his place: Mario Bianchi (the future Monty Banks). His leading lady in this film is also notable; Betty Compson would become a star in features, her career getting a boost the following year when she appeared with Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN.

Incidentally, spoofing William S Hart came up again in Keaton’s later short THE FROZEN NORTH. It was an idea contributed by a writer who remained uncredited… Roscoe Arbuckle! In the short, Keaton made a mockery of Hart’s tendency to always have a scene where he cried in his films. Roscoe apparently did the same in THE SHERIFF.

SCRAPS OF PAPER (aka A SCRAP OF PAPER – Autumn 1918)

part of the regular series but made at the same time, this is Arbuckle’s equivalent of Chaplin’s THE BOND. Like that film, it is a propaganda effort designed to promote the Canadian War Bond fundraising effort. As well as each making a promotional film, Chaplin and Arbuckle made public appearances together to promote the loan drive, and newsreel footage of one of these events still exists. Like THE BOND, SCRAPS OF PAPER features our hero coming face to face with the Kaiser (Glen Cavender) and the ‘clown quince’ (Al St John). After mocking the goose-step marching of the Kaiser’s soldiers (one of whom is Monty Banks), Arbuckle tells him that there’s one thing he hasn’t considered, and unleashes a snowstorm of Liberty Bonds which engulf the Germans. Roscoe addresses the audience directly (via intertitle) telling them to do their bit and invest in the Liberty Loan Drive. Not much of a comedy, but an effective piece of propaganda and an interesting historical curio.

CAMPING OUT (5th January 1919)

CAMPING OUT is a rare survivor from this group of films, existing from two incomplete nitrate sources (one Italian print and one from the Netherlands). A composite print has received a number of screenings (most recently on the Silent Comedy Watch Party) and is held at the EYE film institute. Arbuckle again took advantage of the West Coast climate and locations, filming the short on Catalina Island in November 1918. If THE SHERIFF showcased a more subtle side of Arbuckle, then this film returned to the cruder slapstick milieu of films like THE BUTCHER BOY and THE ROUGH HOUSE. Within the first five minutes alone, there are jokes about vomiting, spitting and seagull droppings!

The basic premise of CAMPING OUT recalls FATTY AT CONEY ISLAND, a tale of Arbuckle playing hookey from his wife, and enjoying the freedom by flirting with other men’s wives. Unable to stomach his wife’s dreadful cooking, he escapes for a while, taking the ferry to Catalina for a camping trip. En route, he (inevitably) meets Al St John, and his pretty wife Alice Lake. In the the ensuing tussle Roscoe throws Al overboard. Fatty and Al’s wife proceed to the campsite, where the grizzled, one-legged camp owner is also played by St John. The highlight of the film follows as Roscoe indulges in some of his trademark food preparation gags. Here he demonstrates novel ways of shaving potatoes, and making doughnuts and mashed potatoes with the aid of St John’s wooden leg! Another highlight is his plan to filch food from grocer Monty Banks.

Inevitably, Roscoe’s chickens come to roost as his wife (armed with guns and knives!), Al and Monty all show up for a slapstick battle royale to round out the short.

Though CAMPING OUT is far from Roscoe’s most sophisticated effort, it’s a ton of fun, and the sunny location shooting around Catalina Island and the streets of Avalon only add to the summery, freewheeling tone of the film. Watch the film as part of the Silent Comedy Watch Party live stream here:

THE PULLMAN PORTER (? unfinished/unreleased film)

THE PULLMAN PORTER is a curiosity, an elusive mystery film. The Arbuckle shorts were popular and well publicised, with Paramount often placing full-page ads in the trade papers for them. For THE SHERIFF, we can piece together lots of information, for instance. But for this film, the trail runs cold. So far, I’ve found no reports of the production, no stills, no reviews… nuthin. Nada. Zilch. But, it does have a cited release date, Feb 16. It does seem strange that an Arbuckle short released at this time would receive next to no coverage in the trades.

There has been confusion between releases in the series before, for instance the earlier short A RECKLESS ROMEO was actually filmed earlier for Keystone, but bought and released by Paramount. There also seemed to be various other reisues of earlier Arbuckle shorts occurring at this time, so could THE PULLMAN PORTER fall into one of these categories?  It seems most likely that it a tentative idea, scrapped and replaced during filming. 

LOVE (2nd March 1919)

LOVE is a wonderful little short that survives complete. The film was preserved just in time, and issued on Laughsmith Entertainment’s terrific 2005 DVD set THE FORGOTTEN FILMS OF FATTY ARBUCKLE.
The short is in the classic rural barnyard slapstick mould, one of Arbuckle’s favourite motifs. However, LOVE is way more sophisticated than the earlier Keystone shorts, Arbuckle had come as a comedian and director since those times. While the knockabout is still rough, it is developed into some terrific, well-developed set pieces .
Roscoe makes one of his best entrances, riding on a country road in his “economy model” Ford (a glorified go-kart) and using a pair of bellows to blow away huge boulders in his path. He is courting farmer Frank Hayes’ daughter (Winifred Westover), but Hayes has plans to marry her off to local boy Al St John in return for some land.
Among the comic set pieces around the farm yard is a scene where Hayes falls down a well, and Roscoe and Monty Banks try to winch him up; each time something goes wrong, sending Hayes plummeting down the well again and again. Then, we’re into a classic version of the ’broom-bashing’ routine memorably used in THE WAITER’S BALL. (Of course, the routine was originally pinched from The Three Keatons’ vaudeville act, so Buster does have a little influence over this film after all. It would be nice to think its inclusion here was a tribute from Arbuckle to his absent friend). This version is even better, turning into a nice four-handed version with Roscoe, Monty, Frank and Al St John.


Roscoe tries to elope with Winifred, but is foiled when his ladder breaks, catapulting him into the house, and leaving Winifired dangling from a first floor window. (Poor Winifred Westover takes quite a lot of punishment in this short—no wonder it was her only film with Arbuckle!)

Though there are occasional lapses in taste (like the scene mentioned above) where the slapstick maybe gets a bit too violent, the comedy scenes in the first half of LOVE are some of the best in the whole Comique series.
The second half of the short involves Roscoe’s plan to sneak into the house and sneak Winifred away from the wedding. Sneaking soap into the cook’s stew to get her fired, he dresses in drag and takes her place. Suggesting that they stage a rehearsal ceremony with the preacher, Roscoe takes the groom’s place. Once they have said “I do”, Monty pulls strings attached to Roscoe’s dress and wig, revealing his true identity.
LOVE contains several of Roscoe’s pet routines, and is a thoroughly enjoyable two reels, brim-full of exuberant gags. As a farewell to the barnyard setting, it was a high note to go out on.

THE BANK CLERK (? Unfinished/unreleased film)

Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, details about THE BANK CLERK are sparse. Initial reports in the trades that Arbuckle had embarked on a film of this title, in which he works as a window cleaner in the bank, but (excuse the pun) climbs the ladder to a career in finance. However, in April 1919, Film Daily reported that filming had to be abandoned due to both weather conditions in L.A., and for Arbuckle to make revisions to the story. It seems that his solution to both inclement weather and an unsatisfying story was to scrap it and head back to the desert to make another Western film. Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, THE BANK CLERK was probably never finished. That the two films were never released is supported by adverts for later reissues of the Comique films, which list all but this pair of titles.

A DESERT HERO ( 15th June 1919)

Arbuckle was obviously very fond of Western settings at this point in his career; this is third film in just over a year to play on the genre. Down the years, this has meant confusion for Arbuckle &
Keaton scholars, with the three films (OUT WEST, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO) often being mixed up, especially when they turned up in prints without main titles. As late as the 1970s, A
DESERT HERO often found its way into Keaton filmographies, with stills from OUT WEST being attributed to this film instead.


It’s not surprising, as there is a strong overlap between the all three films. In OUT WEST, Alice
Lake had a prominent role as a Salvation Army girl; here, Molly Malone takes on a similar part.
Arbuckle’s burlesque of William S Hart from THE SHERIFF is also revisited in this short.
The long-faced, wiry Hart played solemn tough guys, and Roscoe plays on this for comic effect
here. An opening title introduces “a gaunt, thin boned stranger from the desert”, before cutting
to the very non-gaunt Roscoe! Arbuckle carried on spoofing Hart through the film, as the press
books tell us: “He’s the toughest, hardest, roughest Western cuss that ever lived, in “A Desert
Hero”! He eats ’em alive ! Breaks rocks with his teeth he’s so ornery!”

Roscoe reforms when he meets Molly and joins her in the salvation army. Surviving stills show
lots of comic business with brass band instruments, before Molly is kidnapped by Al St John and
Roscoe has to rescue her. Molly continued with Roscoe for the remainder of the series.
Though A DESERT HERO was his last Western short, Arbuckle would return to the genre one last
time, for his debut feature THE ROUND UP the following year.


Keaton’s war service in France was over in early 1919, and after a hospital stay, he rejoined
Arbuckle in May. The Arbuckle-Keaton partnership returned to the screen for three more shorts,
BACK STAGE, THE HAYSEED and THE GARAGE, before Arbuckle moved to features.
Many of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts are deservedly well-regarded, but we shouldn’t neglect the
films Roscoe made without Buster. As a comic creator, he was at the top of his game, as
evidenced by LOVE. Hopefully one day, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO, will be available for us
to enjoy again, too.

A version of this article originally appeared in issue 12 of The Lost Laugh magazine, published May 2020. (c) Matthew Ross.

Thanks to Ben Model & Steve Massa from the Silent Comedy Watch Party, and to Elif from the Eye Filmmuseum for making CAMPING OUT available for us to enjoy again!

For more on Roscoe Arbuckle, see Steve Massa’s recent, phenomenal book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rediscovering-Roscoe-Films-Fatty-Arbuckle/dp/1629334529