A British Silent Film Comedian? YOU’D BE SURPRISED…

The influence of British comedians and their music hall heritage on silent comedy in Hollywood cannot be overstated. Chaplin and Laurel are just two of the comedians who made a huge impression on the scene. And, of course, as they reached huge popularity, their styles influenced other comedians. Then there were the hundreds of other comics, supporting actors, writers and directors all bringing their memories of the music hall and British sense of humour in to the huge melting pot of ideas: Lupino Lane, Andy Clyde, Syd Chaplin, James Finlayson, Billie Ritchie and Charlie Rogers to name a few.

But what about those who stayed behind in dear old Blighty? There are many primitive comedies from the 1900s. From the teens we have Fred Evans (‘Pimple’), Billy Merson and an early series of Lupino Lane films. WW1 certainly slowed the flow, but even as the industry picked itself up, comedy remained conspicuous by its absence. It was the golden age of comedy in America, and no-one seemed to want to compete with the flow of classic shorts and features.

No-one, except for Walter Forde.

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If Walter Forde is remembered at all today, it is primarily as a very good director of British comedies and thrillers in the 1930s (ROME EXPRESS, THE GHOST TRAIN, BULLDOG JACK, SAILORS THREE). Before this, though, he was Britain’s premier silent film comedian. Indeed he was sometimes billed as “Britain’s ONLY comedian”. A little hubristic, perhaps, but he was certainly the only comedian appearing in comedies styled after American films.

London-born, Forde was a musical prodigy and music hall performer from a child. His father, Tom Seymour, was also a music-hall performer, and wrote Walter into his sketches. In 1921 they decided to enter film production together, writing and directing the films. These independent films, such as ‘WALTER MAKES A MOVIE’, show them learning the ropes. Walter’s character is at this point very Chaplin-esque in action and movement, without being nearly as loveable. Unlike many of the Chaplin fanciers though, he wears a costume of his own. The straw hat, blazer and Oxford ‘bags’ (a kind of trouser then in fashion in 1920s England) marked him as an Englishman. This home-grown quality helped the films do well enough for him to try his luck in Hollywood.

in 1923, he made a couple of long-vanished shorts for Universal, ‘GOOD DEEDS’ and ‘RADIO ROMEO’. The latter features  a rather bizarre concept for a silent film; Walter is a romantic poet whose readings on the wireless send housewives into a frenzy, and soon all the husbands are after him. Neither film set the world on fire, and he was let go, becoming a house painter for a while.

In 1925 he returned to the U.K., and for a while found it hard to break back into the industry. In 1926, though, he made another series of shorts, a great improvement on the first. This time, he was without the assistance of his father, who stayed on as a gag man, apparently at Hal Roach studios.

Films like ‘WALTER THE SLEUTH’ and ‘WALTER’S DAY OUT’ showed Forde developing a more subtle, less Chaplin-esque character.  They also show him gaining a greater hold on his film-making and gag construction abilities. Off the back of these he was able to bluff his way into making a feature.

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The result, ‘WAIT AND SEE’ is a very respectable first effort, if sometimes derivative of other comics. The storyline and final chase are clearly influenced by Lloyd, and  W.C. Fields’ famous golf routine is lifted wholesale. Part of the reason for this surely lies in the lack of industry geared towards comedy film-making. Unlike Lloyd and Keaton, with their teams of gag man to support and refine their ideas, Forde had no such experienced film gag men around him.

However, he took steps forward with ‘WHAT NEXT?’, a comedy thriller, and ‘WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?’, which is generally believed to be where he hit his stride. (You can see this one at the Leeds Film Festival next week!)

‘WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT’ won great praise from reviewers in the UK, feted as a comedy to finally rival the American stars. It smashed box office records, being held over at the London Pavilion for 22 weeks. However, the film was obsolete as it was released. A contemporary advert, from March 1930, for the Preston Palladium cinema tells all. While encouraging patrons to “See this laugh riot and then you will believe it!”, it adds an ominous footnote: “After this week we go definitely over to talkies, regretting that we can no longer accede to our patrons’ requests for silents.”

All this brings us to Forde’s last starring film, ‘YOU’D BE SURPRISED’. Long thought lost, it turned out to have been lurking in the depths of the BFI, and was shown, for the first time in 84 years, as the highlight of Kennington Bioscope’s ‘Silent Laughter Saturday’.

I’ve been writing several other posts about the films shown on the day (here, here and here). However, I realise I’ve been amiss in not acknowledging the contribution made by the musicians accompanying the films. Nothing made me realise this more than seeing ‘YOU’D BE SURPRISED’, which benefited from a truly heroic effort on the part of pianist John Sweeney and a few other helping hands. It’s a tale that deserves telling in full.  As the talkies beckoned, Forde made this film as a part-talkie: mainly silent with synchronised music and sound effects, but also with some full sound sequences.

In fact, the whole film centres around sound. Walter, as in real life, has been passionate about music since birth. This is shown in some flashbacks to him to him as a toddler, and then a small boy struggling to play an enormous piano. Moving forward to 1930, he is an aspiring songwriter, seen playing his latest song at a piano. However, he hasn’t quite made it yet, and in a great camera ‘reveal’ gag, we see he is actually playing the piano in the back of a moving van. Writing songs might be his dream, but moving pianos pays the bills!

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The next two reels of the film deal with his attempts to get his song heard by a publisher, including sound sequences… Unfortunately, the accompanying sound track had long since vanished. Normally, this wouldn’t be too much of a loss, but the whole film centres around music, and some of the key comedy sequences involve various noises interrupting him as he tries to sing it! The day’s organisers were suddenly thrown into a bit of a panic… how  could the film be shown without sound when it was so explicitly designed for it?

The solution, with a herculean effort from all concerned, was to recreate a live soundtrack to match the original as closely as possible. This involved John Sweeney finding the original song music in the British library and transcribing it. Next, a vocalist was found to sing the song live. Sound effects – wind, thunder, aeroplanes, etc –  were located to run at key points in the film. Best of all were the effects used in the film’s funniest and most charming sequences. In the first, Forde attempts to sing the song at a piano in an Impresario’s office. Gradually, various noises and interruptions overcome his efforts: a typist chewing gum, legions of typewriters, doors slamming, telephones, a clock being wound. As the sequence goes on these become more improbable – a tap dancer, for instance – culminating in the typist’s chewing gum becoming stuck all over the keyboard and Walter’s hands. All this was matched by some great live sound effects courtesy of Dave Wyatt and Susan Cygan, the highlight of which was Susan’s tap dancing in time to the film!

“The only instrument he’ll listen to is a telephone,” concludes Walter glumly. This give him an idea…

Fade in on Walter singing down the phone… Unfortunately, the box is disconnected and carried away on the back of a lorry, right across the town before he notices! Back to the old drawing board.

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Next up, Walter decides to sing the song outside the impresario’s window. Unfortunately, at this moment, legions of buskers playing all kinds of improbable instruments arrive on the scene! Walter makes the best of it, and corrals them into joining in with his song. At the cinema museum, the  live accompaniment now continued, not with just piano and vocal, but with an army of buskers! A gang of us grabbed musical instruments -trumpets, ukuleles, accordion, tambourine, and harmonica – and emulated the cacophony of the buskers. Then, a strange thing happened. We found ourselves, led by Cyrus’ great accordion abilities, actually joining in with the rhythm and tune of the song, matching the action on-screen of the buskers.

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I absolutely loved joining in with this (despite my limited musical skill!), and it was more amazing still that the harmonica I picked happened to be in the right key! I now have an even greater respect for  the amazing skills of the accompanists on the day, John Sweeney, Cyrus Gabrysch and Lillian Henley. Never have I seen a silent film benefit more from its accompaniment than ‘YOU’D BE SURPRISED’, and it was a privilege to be a very small part of that.

The rest of the film took a bit of a detour, as the young songwriter is mistaken for a convict and handcuffed to a murderer making his escape. Nevertheless, it remained light and entertaining, if not up to his best standards. This turned out to be Walter Forde’s last starring film. By all accounts a very shy man, possibly he tired of being in the limelight. Certainly, ‘YOU’D BE SURPRISED’ shows a real flair for direction, and he already had two dramatic pictures to his credit. Many of the later films he made are well-known and loved, but his own certainly need more appreciation and screening. I’ve been inspired to seek more of them out and research his life and work. Hopefully I’ll post more of my findings here in due course.

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