This weekend, Kennington Bioscope presented SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY, an all-day smorgasbord of classic and rare silent comedy curated marvellously by David Wyatt. Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging a run-down of the day, including many of our favourite lost comedians…
Kicking off things was the terrific 1925 film ‘PATHS TO PARADISE’ a Raymond Griffith-Betty Compson feature film. Griffith and Compson star as rival crooks, who are initially in a constant battle of wits to steal a priceless diamond necklace. This is a beautifully suave and witty comedy, a great showcase for the silk-hatted sophistication of Griffith. Owing something to Max Linder, he nevertheless has a subtle, laid-back style uniquely his own and is incredibly watchable. Constantly presenting himself under an array of pseudonyms, Griffith manages to bluff his way as a detective into the home where the diamonds are stored. Compson has also managed to find her way in, posing as a maid, and after several rival attempts, the pair eventually a Decide to team up. Things gather speed in some terrific night-time scenes inside the house. Dumbbell detective Edgar Kennedy is guarding the safe, and Griffith and Compson’s attempts to get to the necklace are both suspenseful and very funny. There’s one especially wonderful gag sequence as a dog steals Kennedy’s torch. Trying to wrestle it back, the spotlight is constantly turned on Griffith; whichever way he turns, somehow the light ends up following him. Eventually, an exhausted Griffith admits defeat and surrenders in the spotlight, but Kennedy is so embroiled in dealing with the dog that he doesn’t notice. Griffith reconsiders and makes a swift getaway. This scene is a nifty variation on the routine most famously done by Chaplin in ‘THE GOLD RUSH’, where he constantly ends up with a gun pointing at him as two men fight over it.
After lots of twists and turns, Griffith and Compson finally outwit the detectives, and make off with the necklace. Up to now, this has been a very sophisticated drawing room-type comedy, so it’s a surprise to see a brilliant chase sequence at the end, more the sort of thing associated with Lloyd or Keaton than with this kind of ‘light’ comedy. Even better, it’s a terrific one, really climaxing the film effectively. Driving south toward the Mexican border, more and more cops join in the chase until there are literally hundreds following Griffith and Compson’s car. Throw in some great visual gags ( a hilariously efficient tyre change; Griffith refuelling the car on the move) and you have a tremendously satisfying topper to the film that went over gangbusters with the Kennington Crowd. Sadly, the ending proper is missing from the film. The film peters out just as the couple reach the Mexican border. In a moment of doubt, they wonder whether they should give themselves up. Apparently, the film originally ended with them high-tailing back through all the cops to return the necklace, footage now lost to us. Nevertheless, the existing film does end at a perfectly acceptable point, and the loss did not detract from its overall effect.
‘PATHS TO PARADISE’ was introduced by the great Kevin Brownlow, who offered insight into Griffith’s failure to stay in the top rank of comedians. He recalled interviewing gag writer. Monte Brice, who had spoken of Griffith’s stubborn nature and perfectionism in constructing his films.
Another reason for Griffith’s dwindling screen career lay in his voice, or rather, lack of it. He was left with little more than a hoarse whisper after apparently acting in a stage melodrama where he had to scream every night. This was obviously going to be a problem as talkies beckoned.
Aptly, Griffith’s last film role was a wordless one, as a dying soldier in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. However, whilst his on-screen career may have been over, he remained busy as a producer for 20th Century Fox. He died in 1957.
Sadly, in words I’m going to repeat a lot on this site, we’re left with precious little by which to judge his work. Most of the Paramount comedies he made went up in flames years ago, and those that do survive tend to be locked away in the vaults. The following year’s ‘HANDS UP’ is considered to be his masterpiece, and is available from http://www.grapevinevideo.com