Month: April 2016

Lessons in punctuation with Stainless Stephen (open brackets, exclamation mark,close brackets)

StainlessstephenIn the hectic world of variety, performers needed a niche to stand out from the crowd. ‘Stainless Stephen’ found an especially idiosyncratic one. Taking his moniker from his Sheffield origins (then centre of the U.K.’s stainless steel industry), he continued the gimmick by  wearing a stainless steel waistcoat and steel-rimmed bowler hat.

Such gimmickry was ‘Stephen’s forte; in addition to his costume, the core of his act was to soliloquize in a whistling Robb Wilton deadpan, speaking all the punctuation, and adding in other asides:

“What a wonderful year 1930 was, semi-colon, said Stainless Stephen, semi-conscious. Thousands of new motorists took to the road, comma, and as a result thousands of pedestrians took to the pavements”

A little of this obviously goes quite a long way, and its no surprise that he never carried full films or shows on his own, but as a short turn on the radio, or on a 78, he was good fun. He made but one film appearance, in the all-star extravaganza RADIO PARADE (1933). While it sadly presents him out of his bizarre regalia, his 3 minute routine playing a railway guard is really quite funny and one of the highlights of the film.

Stephen’s real name was Arthur Baynes and his day job was as a school teacher, a job he continued for some time after finding success, meaning he could only make appearances at weekends and during school holidays!

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Stainless Stephen’s day job was at the former Crookes Endowed School in Sheffield. Coincidentally, it’s about a mile from my home.

 

 

Legend has it that Stainless’ lessons on Friday were always a bit light on the ground, as he spent most of the time leaving his classes to it whilst he wrote his radio material for the weekend! Baynes retired in 1952 to become a gentleman farmer in Kent, describing himself as “stainless, painless, brainless, shameless, aimless, semi-conscious and approaching semi dotage.” He died in 1957.

(On a teacher’s note, there is currently much panic over the introduction of a new punctuation and grammar test for primary school children. This would surely have been a breeze for Stainless Stephen’s classes!)

 

 

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The Full Monty!

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This terrific poster features Monty Banks, in a scene from ATTA BOY. Monty was, even in his day, a bit undervalued, so it’s no wonder he’s not mentioned much these days. A tubby yet dapper little Italian, he presented an appealing cross between Charley Chase’s farces and the Keaton-Lloyd model of thrill-climaxed gangbusters silent comedy. His most famous film nowadays is ‘PLAY SAFE’, or at least an extract titled ‘CHASING CHOO-CHOOS’. It features a stunt-filled train climax that ranks with anything by Keaton or Lloyd. His other starring features, among them HORSESHOES and A PERFECT GENTLEMAN, were of a similarly high calibre (these two films actually shared Keaton & Lloyd’s collaborator Clyde Bruckman as director). Here’s a clip from HORSESHOES. If you’ve seen the 1940 Buster Keaton Columbia short ‘PARDON MY BERTH MARKS’, you’ll notice that writer Bruckman lifted much of that film wholesale from here…

Despite the fact that he got to make features, and despite the evident quality of his work, Monty Banks never seems to have quite ‘broken through’ to full success. Perhaps audiences were just spoiled in the 20s by having such an outpouring of comedy films (generally two a year from Keaton & Lloyd, plus Chaplin’s sporadic efforts, not to mention Banks and all the other contenders). As a result, it was harder to stand out during a time of such riches. Despite Monty’s films being released by Pathe to replace the Harold Lloyd films they had lost to Paramount, he seems to have not been as financially successful as hoped, leaving him to head to England to escape bankruptcy proceedings in 1928.

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The Russians though, seem to have been fond of Monty, at least if their wonderful posters of him are anything to go by. Here’s another great Soviet poster, for A PERFECT GENTLEMAN. I recently watched the BFI’s copy of this film, and it’s an absolute gem of a farce comedy.

The English, too, were Monty Banks fans. Making his home there, he was welcomed by the film industry (as with Lupino Lane) as both star comic (‘ADAM’S APPLE’, ‘WEEKEND WIVES’, ‘SO YOU WON’T TALK’) and director (many films, most notably George Formby’s ‘NO LIMIT’ and ‘KEEP YOUR SEATS PLEASE!’ and several with Gracie Fields). In fact, these days he is best remembered as Mr Gracie Fields; they were married in 1940.

Certainly, his films need re-evaluating and to reach a wider audience. Based on what I’ve seen so far, they’re great fun.

 

Works in progress…

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It’s been all quiet here lately, but there’s plenty going on behind the scenes…

I’m putting the last few touches to issue 10 of The Lost Laugh magazine as we speak. There have been some great articles submitted by guest writers  on Oliver Hardy and Marjorie Beebe, and you can also read about British comic Will Hay and Charley Chase’s films for Columbia, as well as lots more exclusive content! If you’re already a subscriber, you should receive your copy in the next couple of weeks or so (depending on how much my day job gets in the way!). If not, and you’d like to receive the magazine FREE by email, then find out more about subscribing here. In the meantime, here’s a teaser of the next issue’s cover…

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Also in the works,  last year’s Silent Laughter Saturday event at London’s Cinema Museum in October was such a success that it’s going to be repeated this year. This time, however, it will be  a full weekend devoted to silent (and perhaps a bit of sound) comedy! We’re in the process of sifting through goodies to be shown and a new website will be launching shortly. Watch this space!

Finally, a longer term project I’ve been toying with is a book devoted to Laurel & Hardy’s co-stars: not just Fin & Charlie Hall, but Arthur Housman, Tiny Sandford, Anita Garvin et al.It’ll be a long way off yet, but I’m finally starting to go about it seriously.

I’ll be continuing to update the blog and site here too though, so don’t go away!