Month: January 2016

The Return of Rhubarb Vaselino!

 

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As the silent film era recedes further from living memory, it’s a constant source of amazement to me how many ‘lost’ films continue to turn up. In the last few years, we’ve witnessed the rediscovery of unknown Chaplin and Keaton films, missing films by Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and Charley Bowers, and the prized second reel of Laurel & Hardy’s ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. Truly, it’s a good time to be a silent comedy fan.

The latest discovery seems to be one of the most interesting of Stan Laurel’s solo films. 1924’s ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ was one of his independent series of comedy shorts for producer Joe Rock. It was, until now, the only one of the 12 comedies not known to exist in any form. However, in November last year, a restored 7 minute fragment found in Italy was revealed to the world again at a screening at MoMA in New York. It seems to have received little fanfare – I can’t find any reviews or comments on the screening as of yet. Nevertheless, for Stan fans, this is an exciting discovery.

Before teaming with Oliver Hardy, Laurel’s niche was parodying popular film hits of the day. ‘BLOOD AND SAND’ becomes ‘MUD AND SAND’, ‘UNDER TWO FLAGS’ becomes ‘UNDER TWO JAGS’, ‘DR JEKYLL & MR HYDE’ becomes ‘DR PYCKLE & MR PRYDE’, and so on. These are the films that first made him stand out from the masses of baggy pants film comedians, and so form a crucial part of his development as a comic. Many of them are also great, fun comedies in their own right, prescient of the Monty Python style of robust burlesque. Since Stan’s great Robin Hood parody ‘When Knights Were Cold’ turned up (or some of it, anyway), ‘MONSIEUR..’ has been just about the only one of Stan’s parody films not around in any form. Even more interestingly, it revisits Stan’s parody of Rudolph Valentino in his earlier classic ‘Mud and Sand’. Stan’s version of the great lover is given the glorious appellation of ‘Rhubarb Vaselino’, and presents lots of opportunity for the silly parody that the British sense of humour does so well.

Here, Stan turns his sights on another Valentino film, ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, in which he portrayed a favourite courtier of Louis XIV, forced to flee to England and pose as a barber. As a vehicle for Valentino, it was perfect, allowing for lavish costumes, swashbuckling duels and romance. Stan’s version apparently followed the original story fairly closely, but obviously put a comic twist on the scenes.

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Rudolph Valentino in the original ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’ (1924)

 

As with ‘MUD AND SAND’, much of the comedy no doubt came from Stan’s straight-faced appearance in the ridiculously lavish costumes and his comic variations on it; one frame grab from the discovered footage (below) shows him matching a ridiculous wig with a  20s vamp’s dress!

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On its original release, the Kinematograph Weekly sniffily griped that there was an excess of slapstick in the film, surely missing the point that its contrast with the high society and great romantic dignity of the Valentino original was a source for comedy. Anyway, few could do slapstick like Stan Laurel.  The other Rock films are generally all very good, and start to show signs of Stan’s talent maturing, so I’m certainly hopeful for this one. The most similar film from the series to ‘MONSIEUR…’ is ‘DR PYCKLE & MR PRYDE, which is the best of all his parodies, perhaps even his best solo film. With a little luck, this film matches up to its high standard.

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Hopefully, we’ll all get a chance to judge ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’, even in it’s fragmentary form, soon, with more screenings or a DVD release. Come to think of it, it’d be a nice extra on a DVD of ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’!

In the meantime, there’s more on the original discovery, with some frame grabs, and details of an Oliver Hardy discovery, ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ here. Be warned, you need to be fluent in Italian!!

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Stan chews on Syd Crossley. Interestingly enough, Crossley was originally meant to take Hardy’s part in the early L & H film ‘DUCK SOUP’. Laurel & Crossley? Hmm…

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THE STREETS WHERE MAGIC HAPPENED

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Standing on the shoulders of Munchkins, and walking in the steps of Comedy Giants in Culver City…

Culver City is a pleasant district to the South West of Los Angeles, not far from LAX airport. Not one of the tourist hotspots of L.A, it barely registers in guidebooks, but to classic comedy fans it is a special place of pilgrimage. Once home to both MGM and the Hal Roach Studios, it was the birthing pool of countless treasured films.

Nucleated around Culver and Venice Boulevards, Culver City was founded by Newspaperman Harry Culver in 1917. Thomas H Ince established the first studio there in 1918, followed by Hal Roach a year later. Most prestigiously, The Goldwyn studios were built in the early 20s, and later inherited by MGM. This behemoth of a studio survives, given a new lease of life as Sony Pictures Studios. It is even open to the public for daily tours.

‘THE LOT OF FUN’

Unlike MGM, Hal Roach’s elegant white wooden-fronted studio has not survived. It was torn down in the early 60s and now nothing remains. Yet, paradoxically, more of the spirit of the ‘Lot of Fun’ remains, in the streets and buildings of Culver City. While MGM’s stars generally remained cloistered on studio sets, Roach’s film-makers took every opportunity to film out on the streets. Time and time again, recognisable landmarks pop up as backdrops to the comedic action: the pie-slice-shaped Culver Hotel, the squat store-fronts of the buildings, the wide intersections where mayhem takes place. All of these, clean and sunlit in the then brand new suburb, become almost as recognisable as the bit part players, offering a comfortable familiarity to the viewer and a continuity to the films.

Until last Summer, I had never been there before, but yet I felt I knew the place already. While passing through LA I had to make a visit to this magical place home to so much laughter in the films I’ve grown up with and still love. Of course, I was prepared for disappointment. Surely time would have warped the streets beyond all recognition, the love and laughter put into the films long since departed…

Well, happily I was wrong. Naturally many things have changed, but these are still recognisably the same locations immortalised on film. What helps is that, despite having the whole of Los Angeles as a playground, the Roach film makers were particularly fond of a small handful of streets. This means that we have seen these locations countless times, from all angles. Best of all, it is this handful of locations that have remained the most unchanged. Unlike the scuzzy downtown locations favoured by Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, Culver City is also a very pleasant part of L.A. Recently it has been promoted as an art and food quarter, and makes very pleasant strolling. The traffic lights even emit a ‘kuku’ noise when it is safe to cross! Coincidence…?

Washington and Venice boulevards divide at the heart of Culver City, moving apart in a ‘V’ shape. Between them lies Main Street, a short road lined with storefronts, trees and alleyways. Main’s intersection with Washington is spacious; on the southeast side sits the elegant Culver Hotel. This small collection of roads and buildings formed the bulk of backgrounds in Roach films. The use of these locations reaches its apex in the MGM silents from 1927-29. Though many earlier and later films also used them, this particular run of films all seemed to feature crowds gathering on streets, to watch a Max Davidson dilemma, Charley Chase embarrassment or Laurel and Hardy fracas. Pick any Roach silent from this time and you can pretty much play Culver City Bingo!

Main Street, with its single storey shops, very much gives the appearance of a small town high street. Anytime street scenes were required that weren’t filmed on the backlot, they were usually filmed here. Laurel and Hardy’s bootlegging plans are made here in ‘PARDON US’, as are their attempts to busk on street corners. The Max Davidson films ‘DUMB DADDIES’ and ‘THE BOY FRIEND’ also make prominent use of the street, as does Thelma Todd’s ‘ON THE LOOSE’. In between the shops are alleyways, a staple of slapstick chase scenes. One of the alleyways on here was the scene of L & H’s infamous pants-changing in ‘LIBERTY’, and also appeared in their pre-teaming short ’45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD’.

Many times, this one little street was shot from different angles and made to represent a whole host of different locations in one go. ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’ is one of the most notable examples of this; L & H’s adventures all over town are actually a merry dance up and down the same short length of street! The presence of the Culver Hotel is a giveaway to this. Looking out for the looming building is a key to spotting scenes filmed on Main Street. In ’45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD’, a tourbus heads down this way, as do the open topped buses in Chase’s ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’ and, again, ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’!

The Culver Hotel, built in 1923 by Harry Culver, was the focal point of Culver City, and remains so today. It’s elegantly austere exterior meant it could stand in for civil buildings, an office block or fancy restaurant, as well as a hotel. It’s even a dentist’s office in ‘LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING!’. The unusual shape means that it also had entrances on the corners. This made quite a visually arresting, ‘clean’ space to film a scene, with little in the background to distract. Charley Chase’s wedding, in ‘LIMOUSINE LOVE’ , for instance, takes place here. The hotel’s ‘island’ status, surrounded by roads, adds to the plot as Charley drives around and around it, unable to stop because of the naked woman in his car!

The back entrance, on is also the entrance where Laurel begins chasing Dorothy Coburn in ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, as seen in the still below. Into the Talkie era, the hotel seemed a natural taxi pickup point for ‘THE TAXI BOYS’ in films like ‘HOT SPOT’ and ‘BRING ‘EM BACK A WIFE’. The hotel also played a key role, albeit offscreen, in later film history. When ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ’ was filmed at MGM in 1939, it became living quarters for the Munchkins, who famously held debauched parties here!

With the hotel in the background, the Washington-Main intersection is where crowds all gather in the famous scenes from ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’.

Washington itself, busier and more recognisably metropolitan than Main Street, is featured in a number of car chases – ‘THE TAXI BOYS’ films, notably, and Chase’s ‘THE COUNT TAKES THE COUNT’. Walk a little further southwest, and you come to the site of the Culver City Hall. This was disguised as a courtroom in L & H’s ‘GOING BYE-BYE’, and was the eponymous ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’. Sadly, the original was demolished, but an impressive replica façade has been erected in the exact same spot.

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A replica facade stands on the spot of the former Culver City Hall, once ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’.

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Filming ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’ at the same spot.

So many films took place in this little area that it is impossible to list them all. Indeed, I struggled to even process them all while there. While the Music Box Steps in Silverlake are justifiably iconic, allowing you to follow in L & H’s footsteps, Culver City is actually a much more immersive experience. My favourite thing about standing in the spots where my heroes stood was not the chance to do a copycat photo, but to look out at the view they would have seen as they filmed. Suddenly, they weren’t confined to frames of film. The disappeared scene around those frames filled out; I could see the colours, hear the noise of traffic, feel the heat of the California sun. I imagined Stan Laurel or Charley Chase briefing the cameraman on the angle they wanted, then walking back to take their position, ready to be immortalised. I imagined the halted traffic on Washington Boulevard, or the crew walking back down Main Street, satisfied with a funny scene. Perhaps they conferred on this street corner, or under the shade of that awning, shaping the scenes that we now know and love. In such a well-filmed part of town, surely each corner had some part to play. If you use your imagination, you can step back in time in Culver City, and imagine you are part of it too.

Alas, time has marched on, and the Lot of Fun is long gone. So too are the laughter-makers, and in their places only the naked streets remain. The secret of Hal Roach studios was never in these streets themselves. There’s no magic in the humdrum concrete, no secrets in the fabric of the walls. But, on these pleasant yet unremarkable streets, a crowd of immensely talented people passed by briefly to weave their dreams. They congregated daily, on a mission to create laughter. On the plain concrete and through dark alleyways, in the shadow of that big hotel, they did so, giving of themselves to make audiences forget their troubles. Almost 100 years later, new audiences are still doing so in their company. The people responsible have long since gone, but they transcended these everyday streets into a place that feels special, an inventory of happy memories and smiles. Now, that is magic after all…

Mack Sennett: still the King of Comedy?

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January 17 marked the 136th anniversary of comedy producer Mack Sennett’s birth. Sennett’s name is instantly evocative of the golden age of comedy, and of slapstick film making in particular. He was a true trailblazer in the field, opening the first dedicated comedy studio, and for 20 years creating an anarchic vision of chaos to become the self-styled “King of Comedy” (the name of his memoirs). This went unchallenged for many years, but is Sennett still the rightful owner of his royal title? The recent silent comedy revival has, in fact, tended to overlook his studio‘s efforts. Books and documentaries have focused on the iconic faces of big name comedians rather than producers, and if the subject does come up, Hal Roach is usually the first name mentioned.

 

The Roach and Sennett styles present an obvious contrast. Roach films focused on characterisation, pausing to reflect on humanity’s foibles. Sennett’s style was anarchic, freewheeling, joyously madcap; a whirlwind of cross-eyed and moustachioed men racing like flesh cartoons through explosions, log cabins and frenzied car chases in a dazzling display of inventive visual gags. Roach allowed the individual to flourish; Sennett star comics were subsumed into the fast-paced madness. True, more individual personalities like Chaplin and Harry Langdon worked for Sennett. Significantly though, they got the best opportunities to develop their characters elsewhere. Roach films organically developed a story that could happen; at Sennett, continuity and common sense were trifling matters to be swept aside as long as something funny was happening.

Of course, this is a sweeping generalisation that can’t be totally accurate for hundreds of films; there was some overlap between the two styles but, on the whole, it is a fair comparison.  I must admit that my personal preference has always been for the Roach style, but why should there be only one way to make a comedy? Modern preference for the subtler side certainly doesn’t mean that Sennett should go unmentioned. People spend so much time comparing and choosing between Chaplin and Keaton, Beatles or Rolling Stones, sweet or savoury, and so forth. It isn’t really productive and misses a key point; one of the joys of silent comedy is the infinite number of variations on a theme. Watch Laurel and Hardy wreck their car as a result of carefully built squabbling arising from their characters; then watch Billy Bevan do the same in a series of dazzling stunts in a Sennett film. Both scenes are fun and the fact that two different approaches could exist is what makes silent comedy such a bubbling pool of inspiration.

In recent years we have, I think, come to place more value on character and story when we evaluate silent comedy. Partly, this is a defensive reflex. No longer widely seen on television, silent films easily slip into annoying, lazy stereotypes in the human consciousness. As anyone who has seen ‘THE GENERAL’, ‘LIBERTY’ or ‘THE KID’ knows  those under-cranked pastiches accompanied by tinny piano are way off the mark. But how many people have seen the inspiration of these films? To try and stand up for slapstick, we focus on its most sophisticated elements – the satire, the production values, the carefully developed characters – when presenting it to an often indifferent and hostile world. Ergo, we play up Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase, and play down Ben Turpin, Keystone madness and Del Lord’s car chases.

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I don’t think this emphasis is always so conscious though. Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin and Keaton have all been on TV in recent years. From a personal point of view, I was introduced to them all in this way, and then went on to buy videos and DVD as a result.

Until the recent centenary celebrations on TCM, when was the last time a Mack Sennett comedy was scheduled on TV? Or available in any extensive form on home video? Until recently, Sennett films had dropped out of sight, denied the restoration that they deserved.

Significantly, Sennett’s profile was much higher when Silent comedy last had a boom, in the 1960s. The difference is that, then, Sennett films were seen in the Robert Youngson compilations, in series like ‘COMEDY CAPERS’ and ‘THE FUNNY MANNS’, and on their own account on TV. It must be said, that perhaps a change in our sampling methods has had something to do with it. We’re fortunate now to be able to seek out complete versions of these films in nice DVD prints and at cinema showings. Compilation films sampling short clips and highlights from many films have dropped out of favour, yet they are probably the best way to see Sennett films. As Glenn Mitchell remarked in his ‘The A-Z of Silent Film Comedy’, they are often schizophrenic and look better as clips than in their entirety. Retrospective samplings enable all the strong points to be seen, rather than in more diluted form, exposing the weaknesses in plot. When you look at the whole film, one often comes away having laughed heartily for 20 minutes but with a feeling that the film was somehow unfinished, or disappointing as a narrative.

 

However, the more you think about this modern, revisionist way of thinking, the more illogical it becomes. Think about more recent comedy; Sketch shows move from one unrelated scene to another.

Spike Milligan, who grew up on visual comedy, essentially created a verbal version of the Sennett world in ‘THE GOON SHOW’, later recreating it on TV in his ‘Q’ series. The MONTY PYTHON films move abruptly from one unlikely dream to another. More recent comedies like ‘THE MIGHTY BOOSH’, ‘FATHER TED’ and ‘FAMILY GUY’ are all about surreal, randomly motivated plot points and are loved for it. Comedy has become edgy. Well, Sennett’s films were pretty edgy. Lest we forget, to portray policemen as Sennett did in the 1910s was little short of anarchy! Even by modern standards, there’s much that is pretty edgy throughout his oeuvre. There’s black humour (stuntman Ben Turpin left to drown by his indifferent coworkers when it’s their lunch break, Billy Bevan accidentally blowing up a dog), surrealism, gags about futuristic technology (regular allusions to TV as early as the 20s) and gags that are risqué even now.

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Sennett may have had to move over from his sole position as ‘king of comedy’. His standards of storytelling may have not been consistently up to Hal Roach’s, or have dated as well, but amidst the Sennett catalogue are classic films, and many brilliant, iconic gags that still entertain and surprise. His studio designed the template for silent comedy. Others may have taken it to greater heights, but the landscape would have been very different without its founding fathers. Let Chaplin be king of pantomime and Roach be the king of situation comedy, but we must not overlook Sennett as king of the anarchic gag. It’s great to see that Bristol’s Slapstick Festival is paying tribute to Sennett this year; in the meantime, here’s my pick of some of the best of Sennett…

 

A SMATTERING OF SENNETT…

I’ve chosen a handful of Sennett films that, I think, show Sennett’s studios at their mad, king of comedy peak. These aren’t necessarily the very best films to come out of the studio, but they are some of the ones that I think best exhibit elements of the Sennett house style. For that reason, there’s no Chaplin, Arbuckle etc, and only a smattering of Langdon…

 

THE DAREDEVIL (1923)

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Ben Turpin is a physical embodiment of the Sennett style; zany, unbelievable and prone to extreme slapstick. The Sennett gag team used this to their advantage by casting him in melodramatic settings. To write a Ben Turpin scenario, all one really has to do is place him in a situation where he looks ridiculous (and of course, the beauty is that he looks ridiculous pretty much anywhere!). This reaches its apotheosis in ‘THE DAREDEVIL’ as he plays a stunt double in the movies… How could Ben Turpin double for anyone?! It’s a glorious joke, and with this premise in place, the Sennett gagwriters have a field day. Ben is constantly forgotten about in the middle of stunts by his careless film crew; cruel, surreal Sennett humour at its finest.

SUPER HOOPER DYNE LIZZIES (1925)

 

Another key ingredient in the Sennett cauldron of madness was the use of crazy car chases and gags. Director Del Lord made this his specialty, and here the subgenre reaches its zenith. This film contains the classic sequence where Billy Bevan pushes his broken down car up a hill, oblivious to the fact he has bumped into, and begun pushing, a whole line of parked cars. This film is let down by some standard scare comedy stuff (and a couple of extremely dubious racial gags) in the second reel, but the first reel is top notch stuff.

HIS MARRIAGE WOW (1925)

Harry Langdon’s work only really flourished when he managed to replace the Sennett style with his own brand of delicate pantomime. However, on occasion, the over the top madness actually formed an effective backdrop to Langdon’s style, making his quiet talent even more apparent. This film, while not his funniest, shows the stylistic contrasts meshing nicely. In a runaway car with Vernon Dent, this could have easily become another Del Lord gagfest, but Langdon shifts the focus of the scene from the chase itself to his helpless reactions.

WHISPERING WHISKERS (1926)

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Some of the best and best-known Sennett films are the mid-20s series teaming his regulars Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde as a couple of hoboes. This one contains the classic gag where the pair are asleep on the railway tracks, but have set their alarm for the precise time where they need to roll over to avoid the oncoming express train. Plotwise, it falls into the standard “one title card to explain a complete change of location and plot” Sennett cliché, but the individual gags are of such high quality there’s not too much time to grouch.

 

FLIRTY FOURFLUSHERS (1927)

THE BEST MAN (1928)

Two films that show Sennett could adapt his style to the sophistication of the late 20s. The former features Billy Bevan and Madeline Hurlock as two everyday folk who pretend to be rich in order to hook themselves millionaires; of course, they end up wasting their time trying to chase each other! It’s a snappy proto-screwball comedy that relies on situation to pull it through, and the commitment to the new era is shown by the drastic step of removing Bevan’s prop moustache! Without it, his plump, partridge-like face is revealed, wearing a startled expression that befits a man who probably hadn’t seen his top lip in years…

‘THE BEST MAN’ is perhaps the best of the late 20s Sennetts. It has Bevan as hapless, obnoxious best man to nervous bridegroom Vernon Dent. Dent is an unsung hero of the Sennett films, and his underplayed frustration is a beautiful contrast to Bevan’s antics losing the ring, destroying Dent’s suit and setting fire to the bridal suite. The chaos in these scenes builds naturally, and is all the more funny for it; as Simon Louvish said ‘Stan Laurel couldn’t have done a better job’. Incidentally, the similarity to the Hal Roach style is carried further by the use of Culver City locations.

SPEED IN THE GAY 90s (1932)

Who says Sennett couldn’t do talkies? This Andy Clyde short revisits the Sennett car chases of yore, adding an extra humorous dimension by shifting the setting to the early days of motoring. There’s plenty of potential for gags based on the primitive cars, and there are some nice, bizarre extra touches, such as Andy designing a bird-man costume, and absentmindedly walking around still wearing it while going to meet the mayor. The period setting also helps to keep the film from seeming as dated as many other early talkies.

 

 

THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER (1933)

W.C. Fields’ four sound shorts are the best known of Sennett’s talkie shorts, and this faux-melodrama is the most off-the-wall. Sennett himself actually hated this short and tried to veto it being made, so you might think it an odd choice to include here. However, when you look closely, it actually dovetails nicely with the absurdist Sennett style. The studio’s comedies had a long, proud heritage of parodying melodrama that went right back to the Keystone era; this reached it’s apotheosis in the ridiculous Ben Turpin parodies. ‘THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER’ is a clear stylistic cousin of these films, especially Turpin’s frozen north parody ‘YUKON JAKE’.

 

Coming this weekend to Bristol’s Slapstick Festival…

Mack Sennett: King of Comedy. Bristol Watershed, Friday 22nd January at 11.30

David Robinson* film critic, author and Chaplin’s official biographer will be celebrating the mastermind of early slapstick comedy, the actor and producer, Mack Sennett. David will take you on a journey through his best comedy shorts from the 1910s and 1920’s featuring amongst others Charlie Chaplin, himself and the hilarious Keystone cops . With live accompaniment by John Sweeney on Piano.

With live accompaniment by John Sweeney on Piano.

 

 

Ben Turpin: improbable facts about Silent Film’s most improbable star

 

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Of all the silent comedians, none was more bizarre looking than Ben Turpin. The antithesis of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd’s realism, his equipment – crossed eyes, scrubbing brush moustache, and long neck with globular Adam’s apple – made him almost totemic for silent comedy’s wilder, more surreal side. In fact, when James Agee wrote the 1949 ‘Life’ magazine article that inspired the first serious silent comedy revival, it was Turpin’s mug that adorned the cover. That Turpin could not just become a star, but join the company of ‘Life’ cover stars including (at that point) Eisenhower, Rita Hayworth, Marshall Tito and Stalin is just one of the many improbabilities in his career. In fact, his whole screen career was based on unlikeliness: many of his funny films have him wonderfully out of place masquerading as Rudolph Valentino or Erich von Stroheim!

Here are  a few other unlikely truths about this living gargoyle..

1. Turpin was actually of French parents, although born in New Orleans. In his sound  films, you can detect the hint of an accent.

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2. His eyes were genuinely crossed. At the height of his fame, Turpin famously had his eyes insured by Lloyd’s of London as a publicity stunt.

3. Various stories circulated regarding the source of his miasma. The simple truth is much less exciting: after playing the cross-eyed character ‘Happy Hooligan’ in vaudeville several times a day, he found that one day, his right eye was stuck in position as a result of the repeated strain.

4.Turpin had an extremely restless spirit. He voluntarily became a hobo as a young man, choosing to ride boxcars in preference to finding a job. He did so for several years.

5.After finally settling with a variety of menial jobs, he played in vaudeville before being signed up by Essanay studios. Stardom? Well, not quite. Although he acted in films during the day, he was also required to sweep out the studio, collect props and box up films for shipment!

6.Ben allegedly took the first on-screen pie in the face, in 1909’s ‘Mr Flip’.

 

7. Behind his two-dimensional façade, it’s sometimes hard to recall his real life struggles: he dropped out of acting at the peak of his stardom to nurse his terminally ill wife, Carrie.

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The offscreen Turpin. Almost dapper.

 

8. Well into his 60s, he was a master of the perilous ‘108 fall’, involving kicking a leg up into the air, turning a somersault and landing on the floor. He would apparently often do it in random places around Hollywood, often accompanied by a cry of “I’m Ben Turpin -earn 2,000 dollars a week!”. Fellow comic Lupino Lane once recalled seeing Turpin stop traffic in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard to do his trademark fall! You can see him do it (alongside Lane, coincidentally) a few minutes into this sketch from ‘The Show of Shows’:

 

You can catch Ben Turpin’s films at Bristol’s Slapstick festival next week.

To find out more about his fascinating life, there’s also a great book available (click picture for link):

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The Lost Laugh Encyclopedia of Comedians: updates

As well as blog posts, I’m slowwwwwwly developing the site into a directory with feature pages for the silent and sound comics featured here.

In time, each encyclopedia entry will feature a gallery, biography and analysis of their work, video links  and complete filmographies with reviews. I’ll also include links to any blog posts relevant to that performer.

Obviously, this will be a long term project, but eventually I hope for this to be a useful reference source for comedy buffs worldwide.

I’ve split perfomers into three categories for now:

The Silent Clowns

The Brits: music hall and stage/film stars of Britain

The Talking US clowns: American stars whose biggest success was from the 1930s onwards.

 

By navigating the menu on the site header, you can access these pages, which will continue to be added to. I’ll also post updates on this home page. In the meantime, I’ve added five biographies:

Lloyd Hamilton

Charley Bowers

Clark & McCullough

Alice Howell

Lupino Lane

Keep checking back, and if there’s someone you’d especially like to see covered, or you have stills to share, please get in touch!

Harold Lloyd: in praise of ‘SPEEDY’

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Harold Lloyd’s ‘SPEEDY’ is not an obscure or rare film, but one that manages to be consistently overlooked. It was Lloyd’s last silent film. As Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift, he’s a baseball fanatic who can’t keep his mind on his work long enough to stay in a job for more than a day at a time. Eventually, he gets work driving his girl’s grandfather’s horse-drawn tramcar, just as the big railroad company tries to force it out of business. The tram must run once a day to keep its franchise, and Speedy is charged with keeping the service running, despite all the big company’s attempts at sabotage. He manages to overcome all the obstacles to save the day, allowing Grandpappy to sell the line at a profit.  Alongside all his other classic silent features, it’s often overlooked. Alright; it probably isn’t his best film – there’s nothing as iconic as the building climb in ‘SAFETY LAST’ here, and the story isn’t as evenly sustained as in ‘THE KID BROTHER’, but personally, it’s my favourite of all Lloyd’s films.

So, what sets it apart for me? Well, first of all, SPEEDY has a rather different quality to many of his other films. Most of the other Lloyd features fall into two groups; the first, including ‘THE KID BROTHER’, ‘DR JACK’ and ‘GIRL SHY’ are based in small, rural towns. The other, more Metropolitan films, are comedies of jazz age city speed and thrills, like ‘SAFETY LAST’ or ‘FOR HEAVENS’ SAKE’. These all take place in the metropolis of Los Angeles, although it is never explicitly stated. ‘SPEEDY’ on the other hand, has a definite geographic setting, on the opposite coast. It specifically takes place in New York, with landmarks like the Yankee Stadium and Coney Island integral to the film’s plot. It even features real life baseball star Babe Ruth as himself. Neither before nor since in Lloyd’s career was the fantasy quite so inextricably linked with reality.

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Most unusually for Lloyd, his character has already won the girl before the film starts; he’s confident and self-assured, and so we get a change from the usual ‘weakling has to impress girl by making a man of himself’ plot. While Harold still gets to save the tramcar and succeed in making a fortune, the plot is a bet less contrived than in some of the others. In fact, his relationship with Ann Christy is probably the most realistic and genuine of any of his films, having a real, winsome charm to it.   Their scenes at Coney Island are one of the highpoints of the film, and there is a lovely little scene where they catch a lift back to town in a furniture van, setting up home and dreaming of the future during the ride back.

This charming quality applies to the film as a whole; the outdated streetcar is matched by the now-vanished Coney Island funfair scenes, always a highlight. From here, through backstreets of New York, to hot dogs, yellow taxi cabs and baseball, Lloyd celebrates icons of Americana. None of his other films reflect the title of his autobiography, “AN AMERICAN COMEDY”, quite so well. With the passing of time, this has taken on an even greater nostalgic quality. Indeed, the whole film is permeated by an atmosphere of celebrating the old ways as the modern world changes everything. Is it just a coincidence that this is the film that Lloyd was making as Sound technology threatened to change the movie industry and the careers of the silent comedians beyond all recognition? (As a footnote, It’s interesting that Keaton’s last independent silent, ‘STEAMBOAT BILL JR’, also celebrates an obsolete form of technology).

Truthfully, ‘SPEEDY’ is somewhat haphazardly constructed, but there are lots of high spots, with Harold’s continued failed attempts to hold down a job provide for plenty of good gag sequences. The best is probably his short-lived career as a taxi driver, which even includes a cameo by Babe Ruth! To top it all off, there’s a classic Lloyd chase through the streets of New York, as he races to the finish line, driving the streetcar like a chariot. Lloyd later recalled how an accident when he crashed the streetcar was worked into the film, a brilliant example of the fluidity and spontaneity of silent technique, soon to be lost with the crushing rigidity of the talkies.

SPEEDY is a real charmer, and a fine way to draw the curtain on the silent era. Lloyd’s next film, the talkie ‘WELCOME DANGER’ is best forgotten. I prefer to leave him at the high point of SPEEDY, racing his streetcar to the finish line.

Here are a couple of my favourite scenes. First, Harold’s trip on the subway…

… and two icons of Americana together: Harold meets Babe Ruth…