Baby Talk

Harry-Langdon-comedian

The series of Harry Langdon shorts made at Hal Roach are an obscure, strange and fascinating group of films. Their reputation has traditionally been terrible, not helped by a long time when they weren’t very easy to see. The films are frequently bizarre and sometimes bewildering, but often hilarious, and certainly much better than they’ve been given credit for.

Although it was the dawn of the sound era before Langdon and Roach joined forces, Roach had had his eye on Harry for a long time. Harold Lloyd had seen Langdon’s vaudeville act in 1923 and recommended him to the producer; that time round, Roach lost out to Sol Lesser, and ultimately to Mack Sennett. Langdon, of course, went on to hit great heights at Sennett as one of the great silent clowns with his innocent ‘little elf’ character “who only God can save”. In 1926 began a contract for 6 prestigious features with First National.

However, by 1928 circumstances were very different. After initial success in features, Harry’s increasing dalliance with offbeat, avante-garde ideas in his comedies was not to the taste of the general public . Although his later films have their supporters (I’m one of them) Langdon’s star was falling fast. Of ‘HEART TROUBLE’, Photoplay’s review was brief, but brutal; “With HEART TROUBLE, Harry Langdon writes his own finish in pictures.” Losing his appeal, and woefully over budget, Langdon was let go by First National. He sought a contract with United Artists, but to no avail, and returned to vaudeville. To add to his woes, former colleague Frank Capra, who had been fired by Langdon, was bitterly trying to regain his reputation by spreading the word that Langdon was impossible to work with. Meanwhile, Hal Roach had gone from strength to strength and, in the wake of his huge successes producing Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy films, could easily afford to hire the comedian. He gave Harry his second chance in December of 1928, contracting him to make a talking feature. However, the Roach studios had not yet installed their sound equipment, and a long closure of the studios was necessary to enable this. Langdon, probably not wanting to be away from the screen for too long through fears of being branded a has-been, cancelled his contract and waited for other offers. There must not have been too many forthcoming, because in April of 1929 he resigned with Roach. The contract had been downgraded from a feature to a series of shorts; perhaps the high cost of sound installation necessitated this, or maybe it was because of the uncertainty surrounding Langdon’s appeal and willingness to play ball at the time.

Harry’s reputation was in tatters, and much of his publicity around this time goes to great pains to paint him as contrite, realising that he had behaved badly and eager to eat humble pie. To whit, an article in Photoplay of 1929 quotes Harry as saying “I really want to make people laugh again, if I get this second chance”. Not for the last time, he was being compared to the helpless child he portrayed on screen, an unfortunate trend that has,  annoyingly, often been the standard when discussing Langdon’s career.

A similar undercurrent runs through a promo reel made to launch the series to MGM executives. Harry appears in a brief sketch also featuring fellow new signings Thelma Todd, as a housewife, and Eddie Dunn as a drunk. The skit is principally full of rather tedious in-jokes for the audience, namedropping executives like Fred Quimby. Tellingly, however, Eddie Dunn steps out of character at the end of the footage to tell us that “Mr Roach has the greatest confidence in the world in Mr Langdon, and Harry is eager to go” . Reading between the lines, this might as well be “Mr Roach has agreed to give Mr Langdon this chance, and Harry has agreed to get off his high horse and do as he’s told. That’ll learn him.” (It’s also worth recalling that Hal Roach, despite being a friend of Langdon’s, felt the need to warn him “none of that high-handed stuff you pulled at First National”.)

images

The promo reel is also the first time we get to hear Langdon speak on film. His reputation in sound, from Leonard Maltin et al, was that he had a “thin voice”, that was unsuited to his character and “babbled incoherently like an idiot”. In actual fact, Harry’s voice is just fine for his character. Personally, I think it’s a better match than Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd’s. As for the babbling, this is truthfully only something he experimented with for his first few sound films, but the worst example we have is in this reel. If transcribed, a typical line of dialogue might read: “Well, well, well, well, well…how are you? And well, well, well, well….uh? Uh oh! Uh Oh! Well, well, well, well, well…” Maltin’s assertion is right in this film – Harry does get extremely irritating, even in the short running time!

It’s hard to ascertain if Harry kept on gabbling like this in his first two proper releases – HOTTER THAN HOT & SKY BOY – as they currently only survive without their soundtracks, and are locked away in the vaults.

Certainly, though, they set the pace for one aspect of the series by having bizarre plots. Coupled with sometimes equally strange gag sequences, the films often seem like the kind of odd dreams that leave you scratching your head in the morning. This surreal style, having much in common with Langdon’s last few features, is definitely something of an acquired taste, and has perhaps helped account for the poor reputation of these films. This offbeat aspect had always been part of the Langdon package though, so its likely that he was partly behind the plot decisions. ‘HOTTER THAN HOT’ definitely bore his influence, as it was initially based on ‘THE MESSENGER’, the act he had been touring in Vaudeville with. In it, he aparently plays a pyromaniac who chases fire engines, and eventually gets trapped in a burning building with Thelma Todd. SKY BOY has an even weirder storyline; Harry and rival Eddie Dunn end up stranded on an iceberg after a plane crash!

The First of the Langdons to survive complete is ‘SKIRT SHY’, in which Harry, as May Wallace’s butler, poses in drag to help her win a marriage proposal from her shortsighted lover. Overall it’s not a great film by any means. It’s clunky, there’s far too much footage given over to the slapstick violence between May Wallace’s rival suitors without any real sight gags, and not enough of quiet moments with Harry. Still, we should remember that this is still a very early talkie. ‘BERTH MARKS’ wasn’t too much of a gas, either.

However, if Langdon kept up his gabbling in the previous two films, he’s starting to tone it down by this point. He keeps a childlike, halting style to his delivery, but is perfectly comprehensible, and the moments where he stumbles over or repeats words are more refined, adding to his character rather than making him infuriating.

Obviously, he was still adapting his sound technique in the face of new technology, and doing a fairly good job for only his fourth talkie appearance. Talking does make him a little less magical of course, but he has a handful of totally wordless scenes where we can see the brilliance of the silent Langdon shine through.   One such moment is a lovely little scene where Harry stands beneath an apple tree, and an apple lands in his hand. Delighted, he takes a bite, but the joy drains from his face; either it’s rotten, or he’s just found half a worm! He tosses it away, and another one instantly hits him on the head; he tentatively tries it, but it’s bad too. Again, another apple hits him. This one tastes fine, and his delight is palpable! It’s a great little moment that relies totally on Harry’s pantomime and facial expressions, and returns to the classic Langdon theme of forces beyond his control; he won’t fetch an apple himself, but he’ll keep biting until fate puts a nice one in his hand.

harry_langdon_hal_roach_shorts_001

THE HEAD GUY, featuring Harry as deputy stationmaster mixed up with a travelling dance troupe, is another bizarre, dreamlike little film. While still quite clunky, it comes off a bit better. There’s also one of the oddest scenes in any of the shorts, as Harry, ditched by his girlfriend, blubs uncontrollably while stuffing his mouth with a sandwich! It’s the kind of fascinatingly, bizarrely funny sequence that Langdon very fond of, and excelled at, but Hal Roach later recalled the frustration of the film crew as he would drag on scenes for far too long, unwilling to take advice from anyone on how to make them faster and funnier. Again, this is the sort of comment that has become gospel and helped to account for the poor reputation of the films, but how true was it really?

Well, looking at the filming dates of the shorts shows them to have not taken any longer than the average Roach two-reeler to film. Perhaps Harry’s unhappy marriage to Helen Walton made him less personable than usual, but he certainly seems to have had no problems getting along with his regular director Charley Rogers. The films they made are generally smoother than many other early talkies, and move at a good clip. Far from finding Langdon insufferable to work with, Rogers seems to have struck up an effective friendship and partnership with him; the pair later teamed up again to write gags for several Laurel and Hardy features, and themselves starred in two 1940s B-pictures, ‘DOUBLE TROUBLE’(1942) and ‘HOUSE OF ERRORS’(1943).

MGM certainly seemed pleased with the films, and gave a good deal of publicity to them; reviewers generally shared their enthusiasm. A certain amount of revisionism appears to have gone on to fit in with the accepted legend of Langdon being a helpless has-been. I’d suggest that, if Langdon did have difficulties assimilating in to the Roach style, it was less in terms of gags and acting than his story ideas; Roach Studios plots were generally grounded in reality, whereas Harry’s surreal stories were a very different kettle of fish. One of the most surreal scenes in any of the films climaxes ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’, as Harry , in a boxing match, puts his gloves on the ends of broom handles, which he hides Inside his jumper. This gives him the appearance of having arms that grow ever longer, enabling him to keep his distance from his opponent while hitting him. It’s a very, very strange image that sticks with you long after the film is over, and its also very funny. ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’ isn’t perfect; it suffers from some clunky early sound filming and long, tedious silent stretches, but it’s a definite improvement over the previous Langdon films. For one thing, its surrealism is more filled out with little sight gags, as well as some unexpected delights like Harry tap-dancing, and a tantalising fragment of him singing ‘Frankie and Johnny’, accompanying himself on the banjo.

Now, the Langdon series was really starting to gel; the next film, ‘THE BIG KICK’, is by far the best of the bunch. It’s fast-moving and full of great gags and pantomime routines. For anyone who thinks that Harry babbles incoherently in every film, take a look at this one; he barely even speaks at all! Possibly because it was also filmed in Spanish, as ‘EL ESTACION GASOLINA’, dialogue is at a minimum, and the result is the nearest to a silent comedy that Harry made at Roach. In this respect, a great addition is a background music track (much of it taken from the Vitaphone track for Laurel and Hardy’s ‘LIBERTY’), which really helps pick up the pace. This was something that was sorely lacking from the earlier films, which suffered from a barren soundtrack during Harry’s long pantomime routines.

‘THE BIG KICK’ begins with detectives Edgar Kennedy and Baldwin Cooke chasing some bootleggers. They stop at the garage where Harry works but there’s no answer; Harry is asleep. There follows a leaisurely routine of him struggling to wake up and go about his morning routine, much of it repeated from his ilent feature ‘THREE’S A CROWD’. Particularly funny is his elaborate, childlike way of washing his face with as little water as possible. This scene, in particular, benefits immeasurably from the background music. Next, we’re into a beautifully played pantomime routine, as a customer with a horrifically noisy engine pulls up to the garage, and attempts to hold a conversation with Harry over the din. Here’s a creative use of sound, that paradoxically gives reason for silent comedy to take place. This was Buster Keaton’s philosophy for sound in a nutshell; I wonder if he tried to use this scene as an example in his struggles with the MGM writing staff? The bootleggers show up again at the garage later on. They’ve concelaed their moonshine in a busload of dummies. A shootout follows when the police turn up, and Harry, confused as always, tries to save the dummies, as the bus is shot full of holes and liquor pours out everywhere. Finally aware of the mixup, he knocks the heads off a long line of the dummies with a mallet, but fails to notice a policeman has appeared at the end, and hits him with the mallet too. Exit, running.

Although much of its pantomime needs to be seen rather than described, ‘THE BIG KICK’ is, to my mind,  genuinely as good as any other Roach product of the time, and no excuses need to be made for it. Almost as good, though just a notch below, was the next film, ‘THE SHRIMP’. As the title character, Harry is constantly bullied by residents in the boarding house where he lives, but stays because of his love for the landlord’s daughter Nancy. He gets the chance to stand up for himself when scientist Max Davidson injects him with a serum containing  “the spirit of the bulldog”. The treatment works, and Harry licks the bullies, but an unexpected side effect is revealed as he takes off in pursuit of a cat, pausing only to contemplate the use of a lamp post…

The film has one of the strongest storylines of the eight shorts, and provides good opportunities for playing with Harry’s character, but is somewhat uneven in quality. The film is composed of three distinct segments, and a problem is that the first two are necessary to build up to the third. In a two-reeler, this accounts for nearly half the time being taken up by exposition, making the whole seem off-balance. The first shows Harry’s cruel treatment at the hands of bully Jim (James Mason) and his girlfriend (Thelma Todd).. Much of the intended humour actually just makes us feel sorry for Harry, but there are some nice little sight gags mixed in. The middle section, Harry being treated by Max Davidson, is disappointingly played as a fairly straight scientific demonstration; there would have been more fun to be had if Harry had somehow been injected by accident.

However, the final third more than makes up for the shortcomings of what came before, as Harry returns to the boarding house and teaches everybody a lesson in a wild, gag-packed finale. Arriving home, he engages in a tit-for-tat routine with Thelma Todd. Harry continually knocks her hat to the ground, and each time she bends over to retrieve it, fights the temptation to kick her in the behind. It’s one of those things more easily seen than described, but his wonderful timing and movement give it an almost balletic quality.

After this, he marches through the house, yelling orders left, right and centre (“STOP EATING CANDY!” he yells to a fat man), and finally takes on Jim in a slapstick battle. The scene is full of funny little touches, including a moment where Langdon plays with his voice, using a deeper tone to sound more sinister. It’s an intriguing little bit he also tries in his next film, and shows him to be confident playing with the possibilities of the sound medium. Although it has some shortcomings, ‘THE SHRIMP’ builds to a hilarious climax and contains the funniest moments of any of the shorts.

Langdon rounded out the series with THE KING, which revisits his Sennett four-reeler ‘SOLDIER MAN’, and mixes in elements of his feature ‘THE CHASER’. The result is another playful film that experiments with his ‘little elf’ character. In ‘THE KING’, rather than the innocent, eager-to-please man-child we usually see, he is very definitely the spoiled naughty boy; if you will, the little Harry-shaped devil on the little elf’s shoulder. This naughty-boy Harry yields to the temptations of the many women who throw themselves at his majesty, and threatens to stay out late, but remains childlike; his misbehaviour doesn’t extend beyond the level of playing postman’s knock, or peeking at the queen as she undresses. The chief joke in the film is that Harry, despite being the king, is actually totally subordinate to the Queen (thelma Todd) and his new advisor (James Parrott, in his only speaking role).

The entire two reels are basically riffs on this idea; some of the gags work, and others don’t. All in all, it’s again quite uneven, but fascinating nonetheless, and with several very funny moments. Perhaps the best gag to sum up his character in the film is his wonderful opening scene. Searching for the king, Parrott looks all around the opulent palace and grounds , through all the trappings of wealth and immense power, and is eventually told the king is out “hunting in the woods.” Sure enough, there is the monarch, dressed in full regalia, shooting at a tin can on a wall like a little boy!

Following completion of the film, Langdon received a tantalising offer to make a high profile feature, ‘A SOLDIER’S PLAYTHING’, and left Roach to do so. Ultimately, this turned out to be a mistake, as the film gradually sank in prestige until it was a low budget film that sank without trace. Langdon would return to Roach as gagman and occasional actor at Roach in the late 30s, but would spend his next few years freelancing, and in shorts at Educational and Columbia.

The shorts we’re left with are an odd bunch to be sure. Langdon is already a divisive figure amongst film fans, and these 8 shorts polarise opinion perhaps more than any other he made. Certainly, next to the more universal comedy of L& H, Our Gang et al, they can seem like failures. Perhaps at this juncture in his career, it would have done Langdon more good to make some more straightforward two reel comedies to win back some of his alienated fanbase, and then experimented more later. But, to quote Mr Laurel, there’s no use crying over split milk, and there is lots to enjoy in what we do have. Yes, the films are uneven and often bizarre, but they all have fantastic moments. Let’s not forget, 1929-30 was hardly a golden year for many of the Roach series. They all went through an inevitable period of adjustment to sound technique. In fact, cinematically, the Langdon talkies are much better films than many of the other Roach product of the time, and move a heck of a lot smoother. Even SKIRT SHY, just about the weakest of the surviving Langdon talkies, is preferable over the clunky early OUR GANG films. With one or two exceptions, the films just got better as the series progressed, and it’s a real shame that the series ended just as the films had started to gel. If Harry had stayed at Roach into the golden era of 1930-1933, who knows what classics we might have had? Still, what we do have, whilst inevitably not up to his silent heights of brilliance, are definitely worth looking at again; a group of weird, wacky and hugely fascinating films that show Langdon in character and on great form.

This post first appearewd as an article in issue 2 of  Movie Night/ The Lost Laugh Magazine. (c) Matthew Ross 2012

 

“Just call me Charlie”

Here’s a wonderful BBC interview with Charlie Chaplin (I believe it’s actually from late 1952) discussing both his then current film, LIMELIGHT, and various aspects of his career and life.  Chaplin is sometimes given an unfair reputation of being a bit of an overly serious bore in his later years, but actually, he comes across as a very engaging speaker. Cerebral, yes, but also lighthearted and surprisingly modest. In reference to doing everything himself on his films, for example: “I know lots of people could do it, but it’s just a matter of having the money to be able to afford it” . There’s extra interest in the panel of filmmakers he is interviewed by, including Sir Michael Balcon and John Mills. Overall, a great and illuminating listen.

 

The Rediscovery of the Century?

A belated report on a screening of the restored ‘BATTLEOF THE CENTURY’–
lh_battle_of_the_century_1928
Recently, happy coincidence presented the opportunity for me to see several ‘new’ Laurel and Hardy films in a short space of time. Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend presented newly rediscovered footage from ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ as well as two L & H solo films,  and shortly after came the chance to see the newly restored, almost complete version of ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. For so many years a frustratingly fragmented film, this has finally had its iconic pie fight reinstated at full length. Re-premiered last year, the film has, I believe, only had two previous screenings in the UK, both in London, and both of which I was crushingly unable to attend. It was with great excitement that I saw the film was being shown as part of the Leeds International Film Festival, in support of Harold Lloyd’s wonderful ‘SPEEDY’.
 battle5
The venue was The City Varieties theatre, a Victorian marvel which, like the films, has been newly restored to its former glory. It was also an appropriate venue for a silent comedy show, as both Chaplin and Keaton once trod the boards here (Chaplin as a young performer, Buster in his later years).
 Accompaniment was by Jonathan Best and Trevor Bartlett. Their accompaniment, of piano and percussion, was magnificent, one of the very best I’ve heard.
And the films? ‘SPEEDY’, my favourite Lloyd feature, was wonderful as ever, and shimmered magnificently in its new Blu Ray version. As good as it is though, ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’ was inevitably the big star here. The restoration looked absolutely beautiful on the big screen, and I found myself in a childlike state of excitement and wonder as the new footage unfolded.
We’ll get to the prodigal pie fight in a minute, but first, a word on the opening scenes.
The boxing scenes looked stunning, much less dark than the previously available version. Comedically, I’ve always thought this a very  underrated sequence: some nice physical comedy, superb ‘heavy’-ing from Noah Young, and wonderful reactions from both Stan and Babe. It’s also a rare foray into topical satire, albeit loosely, for L & H. ‘The Battle of the Century’ was how the 1927 Dempsey v Tunney prize fight was billed, and it became notorious for its ‘long count’. The Chicago Tribune takes up the story:

“Amid a screaming crowd of 104,943 spectators, reporters at ringside said it took champion Gene Tunney somewhere from 12 to 15 seconds to regain his feet after being knocked down byformer champion Jack Dempsey.

It should have taken referee Dave Barry 10 seconds to count out Tunney, making Dempsey a winner by a knockout in the seventh round. But Dempsey ignored the rule that he first had to go to a neutral corner. He thereby transformed those few seconds into legend.Barry escorted Dempsey to a corner, then began a delayed count. Tunney rose before it reached 10.

In his autobiography, Dempsey conceded that he forgot all about the rule: “It’s hard to stop what you’re doing, standing over a guy and waiting for him to get up.”

Tunney, who floored Dempsey briefly in the ninth round, won the 10-round fight and retained the title.”

So, actually, the whole scene is a directly comic version of the real life event. It also struck me while watching the prizefight scenes that this is where ‘Stan’ is really born. While THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS  and PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP were both wonderful comedies with terrific performances from Laurel, he’s a bit too spirited and spritely in both  to fully represent the later Stan we know and love. Perhaps the mellowing was present in ‘HATS OFF’, too, but the surviving still photographs and cutting continuity cannot reveal whether the nuance of performance we see in ‘BATTLE’ began in the earlier film. Until that magical date when we can see ‘HATS OFF’, ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’ represents the real birth of ‘Stan’.
 With the boxing scenes over, the sense of anticipation rose in the audience. The scene which followed, with insurance man Eugene Pallette persuading Babe to take out some insurance on Stan, is still elusive. It was replaced by the same selection of bridging title cards and stills we’ve always been familiar with. But then, the last still faded, there was a brief, pregnant pause, and up in silver light shone a different corner of the Roach studios. Our two heroes walked into the frame and it was true. This was something I’d never seen before! 
 Battle Of The Century
Here they were, bringing to life images we’ve previously only known as still photographs, lost frozen images in books. Here was Babe, imperiously leading the way, and sneakily dropping a banana peel ahead of Stan; here was Stan, walking right over it in bland-faced, blissful ignorance. It was really happening. The whole scene was very well developed as a comic sequence. Feigning indecision over which direction to take, Babe repeatedly leads Stan for a walk back and forward along the same small piece of street. Each time, he gets to subtly shows his frustration with an understated “Damn!” gesture. Wonderfully funny underplaying from Mr Hardy.
Eventually, it is not Stan but a cop who slips on the peel. This begins a running gag of Babe trying to plant the rest of the banana on Stan. When he finally succeeds in doing so, the scene plays out beautifully slowly, a fine example of the L & H breakthrough in pacing. The cop looks at the banana, then at Stan. Stan looks at the banana, then back at the cop. The cop removes Stan’s hat, which Stan looks at curiously. Then, and only then, does the cop exact retribution on the Laurel cranium. Stan continues playing the scene slowly, glazing over and replacing his hat. Finally, he begins to cry. Early in the game of the L & H characters, the cry is set up wonderfully; there was not just laughter but real sympathy in the audience at Leeds!
Babe investigates the damage; a large lump has risen on Stan’s head. “I’ll get $100 dollars for that pineapple!” he crows. Stan, like Harry Langdon, seeks solace in food, but Babe snatches the banana from him before it can reach his mouth. This leads us into where the existing footage previously picked up: Pieman Charlie Hall slipping on the peel and Babe trying to plant the peel back on Stan. However, it soon becomes clear just how much Youngson edited down the footage. Practically every sequence or shot we’re used to has at least some extra material to it, in many cases full omitted gags. Careful examination of the film shows the joining points, as the ‘new’ footage is just a tiny bit less sharp.
The initial altercation with Charlie Hall, for instance, reinstates a previously unknown tit for tat sequence with ‘the little menace’. After Babe (this time unsuccessfully) again tries to plant the peel on Stan, Hall flicks his nose, messes his tie, and generally gives him a classic, finger-wagging Hall telling off before resorting to a pie! It’s easy to see why Youngson edited this down after dispensing with the previous scene: it works much better in the context of Ollie getting his come-uppance after leaving poor Stan at the mercy of the policeman.
the-battle-of-the-century-pie-fight
After this, Dorothy Coburn receives Babe’s  pie and marches over, demanding, via title “Who threw that poultice?” She returns the favour, after Stan has carefully moved Hall out of the way.
 Youngson’s footage has some judicious edits from this sequence, including the disappearance of the moment where Stan receives a pie of his own.
Also now reinstated is the reappearance of the insurance salesman, who cries out “Don’t you know it’s foolish to throw pies without insurance?”, and is roundly pelted.
Added to the recipients of pastries are a chairwoman beating a rug (“Who threw that goober?!”), and several others. We’ve already seen a man receiving a pie on his freshly shined shoes; now, the shoeshine man also gets a delivery of his own. Ditto, the photographer whose subject is a victim. In the bakery, we see a customer make the demand , via title card, “Gimme a pie!”, before his wish is fulfilled. These little details, previously lost, add a great deal to the previously known footage. Without trying to sound pretentious, the sequence now flows much more organically, as the filmmakers intended it to be seen. Laurel’s later observation that they “made every pie count” stands truer than ever and the even greater plethora of variations on the gag is increased testament to the gag writers’ talent.
Of course, one of the most justly celebrated gags in the whole thing is a cameo by Anita Garvin. Recalling that she did it as a favour to Stan on his lunchbreak, it’s a testament to her talent that she can make a quick, off the cuff shot perhaps the funniest moment in the picture. Falling on the ground, the pie landing beneath her skirt, she registers shock, disgust and embarrassment all at once in a marvellously subtle facial expression, before getting up awkwardly, and pausing to shake her leg ever so gently to dislodge some pastry.  This is where the previous version ended, but the celebrated scene now has a tag – we cut back to the boys, having seen her, laughing away, and Stan even imitating her leg waggle. At this point, the cop re-enters.
“Did you start that pie fight?” He asks.
“What pie fight?” asks Babe, his face a picture of earnest and cherubic helpfulness beneath the pastry; cut to the view of the entire city block consumed by the ritualistic pastry orgy.
Right on cue, a pie lands square in the cop’s face. The boys stifle a laugh, and attempt to saunter nonchalantly off, but turn to running as the cop gives chase. Fade to The End title, and it was all over too soon.
In an age of DVD box sets, eternally cycling YouTube playlists and instant availability of classic (and not so classic) film footage, it’s easy to take for granted how much we have.  The discovery of small chunks of important footage like this, at a time when our L and H wish list is so mercifully small, really make us pore over them and appreciate every frame. And what a wonder it is to be treated to new scenes, rather like bumping into an old, beloved friend in the street and unexpectedly embarking on a new adventure. As such, I found it really quite moving to witness ‘brand new’ footage after all these years. Of course, it’s impossible not to be left wanting more – the one remaining missing scene from BATTLE, and of course the complete HATS OFF – but even if this turns out to be the last major L & H rediscovery, it’s a fitting jewel in the crown of their catalogue.
**By the way, you can catch the new version,of “BATTLE” at the Hippodrome Film Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland next month, and due to demand there’s a repeat showing in April. It’s also planned to be part of the 2017 Silent Laughter Weekend. Watch this space for details!**

More back issues now available

I’ve now uploaded all the back issues of The Lost Laugh Magazine, including its earlier incarnations as ‘Movie Night’ to the magazine’s page on this site. Obviously a lot of the news content in the earlier issues is now out of date, and I didn’t have the experience I now have of putting them together, but I hope there’s something to enjoy in there anyway. After a hiatus due to work and family commitments, I’m back to plugging away at issue 11, which I hope won’t be too far away. I always do welcome submissions of anything, from a bit of news on a DVD release or film festival, reviews or full-blown articles. Please do get in touch via the comments section or drop me an email (you can find my gmail address inside the magazine) if you’d like to add something – I always love hearing from you!

More Laurel & Hardy Revelations

This is the second in a series of posts  about Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend, where a host of rare and obscure silent comedies were shown.

hundredyears

I keep saying it, but it’s a damn good time to be a silent film fan. We’ve seen so many rediscoveries of classic comedy footage lately, some that we didn’t even know existed in the first place! For Laurel & Hardy fans, of course the big news has been the rediscovery of the complete pie fight from ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’, but there have been other discoveries too. Last year, we saw a new, much improved version of their early short ‘DUCK SOUP’; now comes a similar upgrade for ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’, as well as two previously lost solo films.

At Silent Laughter Weekend, these were introduced by L & H experts Glenn Mitchell and David Wyatt, who provided some context for the rediscoveries. When Robert Youngson was compiling his silent comedy compilation films like ‘THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY and ‘WHEN COMEDY WAS KING’ in the late 50s, he was the first person to access many of the silent comedy films for years. He was able to access the films before they decomposed, and the excerpts he chose are in many cases the only surviving material of the films now. However, as well as taking the footage he needed, it turns out that he had a habit of sneakily making copies of whole films that he particularly liked. He kept quiet about this, presumably so he didn’t get into trouble, and the prints went undetected. Meanwhile, by the time companies like Blackhawk got around to issuing commercial prints of the films, many of the masters had gone forever. Youngson’s orphan prints, which have only just come to light, preserved these in the nick of time. This is how the ‘BATTLE’ footage came to be, and is also the provenance of ‘new’ prints of ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ and ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, found by Jon Mirsalis, while examining other films in the Gordon Berkow (ex-Youngson) collection.

second-100

In contrast to the large chunks of ‘new’ footage in ’BATTLE…’, the new discoveries in ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ are less revelatory. They are, however, still worth noting. Essentially, there are a few scenes which go on a bit longer, presumably because advanced decomposition later led to these segments being cut. While these can be seen as fairly minor differences, they do restore the full film to us as the filmmakers intended it to be seen, for the first time since the late 1920s. Here are the key differences I spotted while watching it through:

1) Opening scene: The UK Universal DVD set introduces Stan to us as ‘Little Goofy’, but not Babe. This version offers a tiny bit of extra footage of the pair at the outset, as well as an intro for Ollie: “Big Goofy— convicted on purely circumstantial evidence—- they caught him with both hands in the cash register”. I believe this was included in the US ‘Lost films’ version, but certainly for UK fans this is new.

2) The flooded office: We get a couple of seconds of extra footage, showing Frank Brownlee stepping into the office and falling in the water that has risen through Stan and Ollie’s tunnel.

3) The paint scene: this is the most interesting new bit of footage, as it’s a completely new, albeit short, scene of L & H. After Stan has painted Dorothy Coburn’s behind, the pair run in and out of some parked cars , and the scene fades out, ending the sequence. The Youngson version adds a tag: we fade up on the title “Four hours later—- “ and see the cop still in pursuit of the boys in the dark! Stan drops his paint can, and the cop ends up tripping over and landing in it. This is where the scene was supposed to end.

4) Finally, there’s a little extra footage of the French prison governors as they are introduced, following the scene above.

While studio publicity referred to this as the first film starring Roach’s new team, and many historians accept it as such , it never seemed quite so clear cut to the studio just what the team would be billed as. Publicity refers to “Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy”, “Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel”, and even “the new comedy trio, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and James Finlayson”! How did the original titles decide it? Revealed for the first time here, they fudge the issue by not giving team billing at all! The film is titled as ‘Hal Roach presents ‘THE SECOND 100 YEARS’’, with the cast following on the next title, like this:

With

Stan Laurel

  Oliver Hardy

    James Finlayson

      Stanley J Sandford

Perhaps the lack of a joint star billing above the title explains the reason why neither Stan nor Babe considered ‘THE SECOND 100 YEAR’ to be their ‘official’ first film, both instead giving this claim to ’PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’. As L & H fans know, ’PHILIP’ is actually far less like an official L & H film than this one; what it does have, however, is the billing ’Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy in…’ before the title. Perhaps ‘PHILIP’ represents the moment when the matter of billing crystallised, a small but significant moment in their history. Speaking of ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, the new version from Youngson’s collection doesn’t contain any new footage, but does offer an upgrade in image quality. Hopefully both prints will be restored and available soon.

the-second-hundred-years-press-sheet

SOLO DISCOVERIES

We were also treated to the UK premieres of two L & H solo films. Both come from Italy’s Cineteca Nazionale, and accordingly have Italian titles. Translation voiceovers were ably provided for us on the day by Susan Cygan.

I wrote about the rediscovery of Stan Laurel’s solo film ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ a while ago, and particularly one two minute scene that made it to YouTube. To recap briefly, this was a spoof of Rudolph Valentino’s ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, and the only one of Stan’s 12 films for Joe Rock not to be around in some form. However, only 7 minutes of fragments have been recovered. On viewing the full extract, it turns out that the surviving footage is not one or two scenes, but a quick tour through the whole film. We open with Stan, as Rhubarb Vaselino, “practising his favourite hobby”: doing his make up. This is a parallel scene to one in Stan’s other Valentino spoof ‘MUD AND SAND’, both mocking Valentino’s legendary vanity. Here, Stan, applies beauty spots and goes about his ritual with comically oversized accessories.

monsieur_dont_care__still1_Next, we have a brief dinner table scene where Stan enjoys some bathtub gin, and a card table scene, where Stan is playing against a count, and accuses him of cheating. This leads to him having to flee, disguising himself as a barber, a per the Valentino original. There are the brief bones of a comic barber sketch, before we cut into the flirtation scene I discussed at greater length in the last issue: Stan is attempting to escort the lady across a puddle in the street to an anachronistic yellow taxi cab. He lays down his coat, Walter Raleigh style, on top of the puddle. Stepping on it, Stan and escort disappear beneath the water; yup, it’s an early example of the famous L & H bottomless mudhole™! Here’s that scene, courtesy of the Cineteca’s YouTube account:

Following this scene, a title informs us that “ a new lady makes her entrance into society”: cue a great scene of a vampy Stan swaggering along that holds lots of promise. Alas, this is where the footage ends, so we can only wonder what happened next!

‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ looks like it was great fun, up there with the best of the Laurel parodies. Frustratingly, the surviving footage always cuts to another scene before any gags have the chance to build, but there are some very funny moments peppered throughout.

Finally, the Universe’s laws of equilibrium have been preserved, as , to accompany the new Laurel solo discovery, there’s a new Hardy solo film too! Hooray! ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is more complete than ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’; it is ,however, both much less funny and rather less interesting. The star is Jimmy Aubrey, a Karno colleague of Laurel and Chaplin, who made a string of alliteratively titled films (SQUEAKS & SQUAWKS, DAMES & DENTISTS, etc)  like this one for Vitagraph in the late teens and early 20s. While I can usually find something to enjoy in practically any comedian, I have to admit Aubrey leaves me cold in these films. He later showed, in character parts, (eg L & H’s ‘THAT’S MY WIFE’) that he could be very funny, but gets little chance to show any natural gag or pantomime ability in his own films, or at least the ones I’ve seen so far.

movpicwor471movi_0013Take this film, for example. It’s mainly crude knockabout set in a department store, based rather obviously on Chaplin’s ‘THE FLOORWALKER’, right down to a central staircase prop. Here, it’s a precursor of the collapsing staircase Keaton used in 1921’s ‘THE HAUNTED HOUSE’. Did Buster get the idea from here? Whatever, it’s a perfect example of why Keaton was head and shoulders above performers like Aubrey; in ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’, there’s no reason for the prop to be there, and the only gags that happen are people falling down it. Keaton, on the other hand, furnishes a reason for the staircase, and adds in a host of different variations on its use, that almost make it a character in itself.

The best scene in ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is actually outside the department store, as Babe chases Jimmy. Jimmy hides amongst some dummies and Babe searches for him, slowly becoming more and more suspicious. It’s a fun little moment of quiet between the slapstick madness, and significant that Aubrey is funniest when doing pretty much nothing, and leaving the reacting to Babe. The (unintentionally) most amusing moment of all though, is surely when the heroine writes a note describing Aubrey as “cuddly and charming”! What had she been drinking? I can’t think of any two less suitable adjectives!

Hardy almost certainly wouldn’t have used this description, as Aubrey had him fired from the series shortly after for upstaging him. It’s easy to see why, based on the evidence of ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’. Even behind his huge prop moustache and eyebrows, the touches of humour Babe added to his traditional ‘heavy’ roles really shine through in a film with few genuinely amusing gags, and show how sophisticated his acting style was compared to most of the other performers in the film. Speaking of other performers, there’ s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him scene of Monty Banks, and director Dick Smith (Alice Howell’s husband) also has a small role. It might not be a classic, but ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is an interesting film to see, and helps paint a fuller picture of Hardy’s solo career.

These two films have been rescued and restored in 4k by the Cineteca Nazionale. Many thanks to them, both for their efforts in doing so, and for allowing the films to be shown as part of Silent Laughter Weekend.

Silent Laughter: Banjo Eyes & The It Girl

Take a couple of dozen silent comedians, rare and rediscovered film, brilliant accompanying musicians, special guests, some insane acrobatics, bomb duels, a murdered rooster, a song and dance craze and one very drunk pantomime horse, and what do you get?

The London Silent Laughter Weekend, of course! Hosted by the wonderful folk at The Kennington Bioscope, magnificently curated by silent comedy expert David Wyatt and upgraded from last year’s inaugural one day event, the festival consisted of 12 shows turning the spotlight on some unfairly neglected but often brilliant performers (Oh, and Jimmy Aubrey…). Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be revisiting some of the films we saw, including stars such as Syd Chaplin, Lupino Lane, Dorothy Devore, Walter Forde, Harry Langdon, Max Linder and Laura La Plante

Over the course of the weekend, we had a peek into several different areas of silent comedy not often seen. For instance, it’s easy to forget that, as well as the very visual, film-trained Hollywood performers,several Broadway stars made silent films. Will Rogers, Leon Errol, Eddie Cantor, WC Fields all came from the Ziegfeld Follies and all, improbably enough, transferred their largely verbal acts to silent films.sometimes, they transferred stage hits directly (in fact, even The Marx Brothers very nearly made a silent film version of THE COCOANUTS). While these stars all had much bigger success in films once sound came in, several of their siLents hold up very nicely indeed. Eddie Cantor’s KID BOOTS(1926) , kicking off the show, was a nice example. He had been playing in the hit show for three years when he made this film version. To atone for anything that was lost in translation from stage to screen, Paramount added in Clara Bow, just on the threshold of ‘It girl’ mega stardom, and a host of visual comedy sequences.

kid-boots-ad

Ol’ Banjo Eyes is Kid Boots, a tailor’s assistant. He is fired but can keep his job if he sells burly Malcolm Waite a suit. He makes a mess of it, of course, and makes a hasty exit before bumping into Clara, who is Waite’s girlfriend. Gazing into her eyes, he offers to sew her skirt, but distractedly sews his own suspender into it at the same time; this leads to a great sequence where he is pulled along the road after Clara. Bumping into Waite again, Kid Boots hides in a hotel, and finds himself becoming a key witness in Lawrence Gray’s divorce case. Gray has come into a fortune, which is enough to persuade his conniving ex wife (Natalie Kingston) that maybe she doesn’t want a divorce after all… Gray hides out at a golf resort with Kid Boots to escape the ex and her lawyer; who should be staying there but Clara and Malcolm? Things gather pace now as Cantor tries to woo Bow, while avoiding Malcolm, and Gray tries to avoid his ex and her lawyer, who are trying to frame him in a compromising situation to nullify the divorce.

There are some great sequences to replace the dialogue comedy of the original show. Some are slightly adapted versions of familiar silent comedy material—a brutalkid-boots physio routine borrowed from Chaplin’s ‘THE CURE’, some high and dizzy thrills and a race to the courthouse that owe a debt to Lloyd’s ‘GIRL SHY’, and others more original. The highlight is a sequence where Kid Boots tries to make Clara jealous; his date has stood him up, but that won’t stop him! With the aid of a carefully placed screen door, he acts out a date with himself, baring his left arm and adding powder and a bracelet to simulate an imaginary girlfriend’s arm. Milking it for all it’s worth, he manages, in a pantomimic tour de force, to make it appear as though his ‘girlfriend’ can’t keep her hands off him. One of the funniest sequences we saw all weekend, this scene shows that Cantor, despite his predominantly verbal style, could master visual comedy as well as anyone.

Mention must also be made of Clara Bow’s great performance. She simply pops off the screen with life and vitality in every scene, and adeptly handles comic timing. It’s plain to see that super stardom was about to happen to her, and indeed it did. By the time KID BOOTS was released, the NYPD had to hold back crowds at the film’s premier. All in all, KID BOOTS is a wonderful little film, and appeared even more so in a beautiful new restoration by Paul Gierucki.

.Take a look at the whole film here: (not as nice a looking print, but certainly decent enough)

 

 

 

 

 

Next up: some Laurel & Hardy rediscoveries!

Pierre Etaix 1928 – 2016

pierre etaix 2Sad, sad news.  Pierre Etaix, though hardly as well-known as Jacques Tati, was a masterful pantomimist, comedy constructionist and perhaps the last genuine heir to the silent clowns. It was a thrill to see him in person at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival a few years ago. So many of the performers I love passed on years before I could ever hope to catch a glimpse of them in the flesh, so to see M. Etaix in real life was an absolute treat.

After the showing, I wrote an article about him, which I revisited in a blog post earlier this year.

The Guardian has published a well-composed obituary here.

And here’s how Pierre Etaix needs to be remembered. His best short film, ‘HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE’ (‘HAPPY ANNIVERSARY’) from 1962:

 

 

Rarities on the Big Screen: October & November

Autumn’s well and truly here in the UK, and as the dark nights creep into the daytime, it’s good to know there are lots of upcoming silent comedy screenings coming up as light relief, including some very rarely seen films.

The excellent Silent Film Calendar website is a great go-to for keeping updated on these, but here are a few that stand out:

SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND

silent laughter logo

I’ve plugged the London Silent Laughter Weekend a couple of times before, but it’s now less than two weeks away (October 22nd-23rd)  so if you haven’t booked tickets yet, now is definitely the time to do so! Amongst the programme are Harold Lloyd’s classic ‘WHY WORRY’ as well as newly discovered Laurel & Hardy footage (a ‘new’version of THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, plus newly rediscovered solo films from Stan and Babe) and many classic forgotten comedies including Harry Langdon in ‘TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP’, Laura La Plante in ‘HOME JAMES’, Syd Chaplin in ‘THE BETTER OLE’, Dorothy Devore in ‘HOLD YOUR BREATH’ and Lupino Lane in ‘THE LAMBETH WALK’, plus some of his classic silent shorts. For the die-hards, there’s plenty of rarely seen stuff, and if you’re just tipping your toe in past Chaplin, Keaton or Laurel & hardy, this is a great place to start! With live accompaniment and introductions from historians including Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson, it’s a steal at just £16 for a day ticket or £28 for the whole weekend!

I’ll be posting a couple of blog entries about some of the films in the next couple of weeks, but in the meantime there’s more information here and here

 

THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY & MORE AT LEEDS FILM FESTIVAL

battle_of_the_century

As if that wasn’t enough rare Laurel & Hardy for you, there’s another chance to see the newly rediscovered ‘BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’, featuring the complete, uncut version of Stan and Ollie’s epic pie fight, “as nature intended”! There’s still no sign of a DVD release for this version, so it’s worth catching if, like me, you had to miss the screenings last year. ‘BATTLE’ is showing as a double bill with Harold Lloyd’s ‘SPEEDY’ (my favourite Lloyd film)

sppedy adJust before this screening is another double bill: the wonderful ‘EXIT SMILING’ (1926) and Keaton’s ‘MY WIFE’S RELATIONS’. ‘EXIT SMILING’ stars Beatrice Lillie in one of her regrettably few films. In this tale of a travelling theatre troupe, Lillie shows that she is equally adept at both wonderful visual comedy and touching moments of Chaplinesque pathos. That she didn’t make more films is a great loss. The version of ‘MY WIFE’S RELATIONS’ being shown is Lobster Films’ new restoration, featuring a completely different end scene!exit

Both shows are at the wonderful City Varieties Theatre in Leeds on Monday 7th November, ‘EXIT SMILING’ at 17.45, and ‘SPEEDY’ at 20.15. Combined tickets are available for just £13, or £10 concession. (Elsewhere as part of the festival, not a comedy but a wonderful film, is the new restoration of Abel Gance’s ‘NAPOLEON’)

 

CAMBRIDGE FILM FESTIVAL1333255352

Cambridge Film Festival offers some morew goodies: A double bill of Keaton’s magnificent ‘THE CAMERAMAN’ with ‘THE HIGH SIGN’ on 22nd October, and a rare chance to see a René Clair comedy, LES DEUX TIMIDES (TWO TIMID SOULS), on 24th October.

Good times indeed for silent comedy film fans, at least in the UK!

 

 

Les Aventures de Monsieur Keaton

Who says Buster Keaton never made a decent sound feature? His 1934 French film, ‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ÉLYSÉES’ is an obscure and often overlooked gem. le-roi-1

After falling from the heights of making prestigious features at MGM to taking whatever low-budget work he could get in the mid 30s, not to mention going through a rough patch in his personal life, it’s perhaps not surprising that Buster had a fairly low opinion of the work he was doing at this point. For all that, his first films after leaving in MGM, a series of two-reelers for Educational Pictures, have some fine moments amongst them. Clearly, this was a great demotion for him though,  and he jumped at the chance to regain his slipping stardom when the offer came for him to appear in a feature length film. The only catch was that he had to go to France to do so; Buster was still revered in Europe at a time when America had put him on the scrap heap. Happily, this meant he was pretty much guaranteed a sympathetic ear to his ideas.

So, in the early summer of 1934, with two Educational shorts under his belt (‘THE GOLD GHOST’ & ‘ALLEZ OOP’) Buster and his then-wife, Mae, left for France. Travel expenses weren’t included in the contract, so they travelled by freighter to save money.

As might be inferred from this, the budget of the film was not bottomless; while certainly much more generous than the Educational films, there were financial troubles from the start. The production company, Margot films, became unable to complete the production due to financial difficulties, and proceedings were picked up by producer Seymour Nebenzal. Nebenzal ran Nero Film, a Berlin-based company whose top successes had been director Fritz Lang’s ‘DR MABUSE’ series. As the Nazis’ stranglehold began to tighten on Germany, Nebenzal, Lang and the rest of the company had relocated to Paris.

The change in production was probably a good thing; while the budget was still relatively small, Nebenzal was an experienced man and used to juggling costs to sensitively fit the budget to the film ; The shooting schedule was a fairly hasty 12 weeks, and the film isn’t as elaborate as the best of the Keaton silents, but in other areas there was no skimping; there’s a full orchestral score, some lavish sets and plenty of location shooting.

 

The plot of the film is strong and fairly elaborate. Buster Garnier works as a publicist for an ailing company, but dreams of becoming a great actor. His job is to hand out ‘bank note’ flyers while pretending to be a millionaire; meanwhile, the company has just received 5,000 francs in cash to solve its financial worries;. Of course, there’s a mix-up, and Buster ends up giving out the real banknotes to all of Paris, including a pretty young waitress (Paulette Dubost) who he falls in love with. Fired from his job, he contemplates suicide, but his mother (Madeleine Guitty) gets him a job in a theatre production, “Le Roi des Champs Elysees. It’s been fairly simple thus far, but now things start to get a bit more involved. Buster’s part in the play is an escaped convict; the same night, an American gangster, Jim Le Balafre (also played by Keaton), escapes and his gang pick up the wrong Buster and take him back to their hideout! After a variety of mix-ups, there’s a wild chase back to the theatre, where Buster arrives back on stage, captures the crooks, makes the play a roaring success, and gets the girl!

 

le-roi-4

Buster on location in Paris; the Café du Trocadero is still in business today!

The film opens with scenes of Buster riding in the back of a car down the Champs-Elysees, throwing away bundles of his fake money. As Buster rides past famous landmarks like the Arc De Triomphe and L’Opera, it’s almost as if the scenes were filmed just to say “Look! We’ve really got Buster Keaton here! In Paris! Wow!”. Nevertheless, the wonderfully bright and sunny atmosphere stops the sequence becoming gimmicky and captures the feel of silent comedy nicely.

 

 

In fact, ‘LE ROI…’ is closer to the spirit of a silent comedy than perhaps any other of his sound films (far more subtly so than his later pastiches). There are lots of throwaway pantomime bits, and many of the sight gags, especially during the early scenes, are very subtle and witty. When handing out the genuine money, Buster wanders through a wedding party. One minute the groom is declaring his undying love to his homely bride; when Buster hands him the money, he runs away down the street shouting “SAVED! SAVED!”

 

There is barely any dialogue at all until at least 20 minutes in; Keaton’s lines were purposely reduced to bypass his need to speak French. The film has recently been subtitled, but is so primarily visual that it makes perfect sense even if you don’t speak the lingo. Of course, this fits Keaton’s own sound dictum of only using talk when necessary, and Buster is the calm at the eye of the hurricane, remaining passive as he causes havoc around him. He’s surrounded by some rather stereotypically verbose European actors, but none of them mow him down like Jimmy Durante had, and in fact it makes a rather good contrast to his stoic demeanour.

His first meeting with Paulette Dubost is entirely wordless, and yet beautifully expressive, as he becomes totally captivated with her and just looks deeply into her eyes. As he eventually leaves, he keeps popping back round the street corner to have one last look at her. It’s a bit reminiscent of Harold Lloyd’s meeting with Jobyna Ralston in ‘THE KID BROTHER’, but only Keaton could create such a convincing expression of lovelorn longing with such minimal action.

When he does speak, he’s dubbed in a rather slimy and unappealing voice. Why this was deemed necessary is puzzling; while not a great linguist, Keaton could at least get by in French, and had spoken it in phonetic versions of his MGM films. Furthermore, he obviously did speak the lines in French before he was dubbed over; his lip movements match, and in some scenes, a few utterances like “Oui” and “Moi?” remain in Keaton’s own husky voice. At the very least, they could have let him use his own voice for the American gangster character, for which his accent would have been perfectly acceptable.

No matter, most of Keaton’s performance is pantomime anyway. It should also be mentioned how well he plays his dual role; his deadpan demeanour works surprisingly effectively as a villainous trait, and he imbues each character with different traits, never leaving you in any doubt which Buster you’re watching.

le-roi-5

Two Busters for the price of one!

 

 

Another strong suit of the film is its wonderful music score; obviously expense was not spared on this. The result is perfect, jaunty in the comedy sections, beautifully wistful in all the romantic spots, rousing in the chase sequences, and often very carefully synchronised to the action onscreen. There’s even an overture before the film begins, and exit music! Best of all, the clunky wordless segments that characterised some of the Educational films are filled, giving a real rhythm to the film.

Many of the gag sequences return to familiar themes in ‘LE ROI…’: Buster’s unsuccessful attempts at suicide recall ‘HARD LUCK’, the gangster’s tricked up hideout ‘THE HIGH SIGN’ and his wrecking of a stage show is familiar from both ‘SPITE MARRIAGE’ and ‘SPEAK EASILY’.

Interestingly, it’s not just Buster’s own past that is revisited; the final chase sequence, with Buster trying to get the entire police force to chase him, is lifted from Harold Lloyd’s short ‘FROM HAND TO MOUTH’ (1920). The cheap budget necessitated use of stock footage from Fritz Lang’s ‘THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE’ to fill out the sequence, but it’s used sensitively and effectively. The scene, and the onstage slapstick battle that follows it, is an exciting and effective climax to the film. It’s also not the only Lloyd gag to be seen in the film. As well as the previously mentioned similarity to ‘THE KID BROTHER’, there’s also one suicide gag lifted from ‘NEVER WEAKEN’(1921). It’s interesting to speculate whether this was Buster’s decision, or if the credited scenarist Arnold Lipp threw them in. If it was Buster’s call, then was it in homage to Harold, or due to a lack of inspiration on his own part?

Probably, like the Educational films, the short shooting time didn’t leave Buster with the luxury of all the time he needed to dream up the perfect gags. My main criticism of the film is that we do get rather too many gags that riff on the theme of Buster getting stuck on ladders, door frames, chandeliers, etc. Of course, he always performs them well, but such scenes of frustration are hardly the trademark of swift-paced silent Keaton, nor as inventive.

le-roi-6The other rather un-Keatonesque thing about the film is his smile at the film’s fadeout. Yes, you read that right; in the final scene, Buster tentatively kisses Paulette, then grabs her in his arms, purrs “Ohhh Baby!” in his dubbed French voice and breaks into a massive grin! Keaton had fought this his entire career; he told Rudi Blesh how director Chuck Reisner insisted on a smile to close ‘STEAMBOAT BILL, JR”, but how the audience hooted it off the screen at preview, and faced the same fight when making ‘THE CAMERAMAN’ at MGM. It’s puzzling that he agreed at this point; perhaps the more emotional Europeans insisted on it, substituted it for a stone-faced ending in the cutting room, or maybe Buster was just losing the will to fight.

 

The film did good business in France, and was exported across Europe, but was destined never to make it across the Atlantic. Unlike the market for Spanish-language films with the large Hispanic community in some areas of Los Angeles, there was not a large ex-pat community of French speakers in America. Long before the dawn of the Art-house cinema, Paramount, or anyone else just didn’t have a market for French language films. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when William K Everson turned up a 16mm print, that American audiences would get the chance to see Buster’s French almost-classic.

 

Most likely, this failure to reach America and and re-invigorate his stardom, was Buster’s main reason for his subsequent low opinion of the film. As you can probably tell by now, I’m really a big fan of ‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ELYSEES’, and so, in terms of quality alone, I find his views puzzling. As with his Educational films, part of the blame probably lies with the fact that it was generally an unhappy time in his life that he later wanted to forget (of his marriage to Mae, he later said “it didn’t last very long, which is the nicest thing about it that I remember”!) .Additionally, Keaton’s purist nature must have hated both the restricted budget and, especially, the idea of using stock footage, no matter how intelligently it was done. In fact, it’s very likely that he never saw the finished film! Had he seen how well it was put together, with careful editing and an excellent score, he may have had a better opinion.

‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ÉLYSÉES’ has always been one of the most obscure Keaton films to pick up, but it’s definitely worth the effort. For the time being, at least, it’s on YouTube, in a print apparently off Spanish TV. Even with a fraction of a budget of the MGM sound films, for me it manages to surpass them all. Take a look and enjoy this most underrated of Bk films:

 

le-roi-7

This article is adapted from one I wrote for issue 2 of The Lost Laugh magazine (then called ‘Movie Night’)