Kennington Bioscope’s SILENT LAUGHTER events continue to explode the traditional picture of silent film comedy, busting some time-worn myths and expanding our perceptions with obscure delights, discoveries and unjustly forgotten performers. This year’s event, curated by esteemed historian Glenn Mitchell was no exception.
That old myth that only Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd could survive in feature films, for example? Well, actually we saw terrific features starring Monty Banks and Max Linder, both of whom made several (as many silent features as Chaplin, for that matter). The efforts of Monty and Max prove that the problem was not sustaining themselves at feature length, rather breaking through into a market jammed with brilliant comedies. Incidentally both were Europeans, whose style and personality differences from the American ‘norm’ possibly made their task harder. Nevertheless, both men made very entertaining films.
Monty Banks’ FLYING LUCK (1927) is typical of his slickly-made comedies, mixing light humour, slapstick and action in the manner of Harold Lloyd. Monty became adroit at high-speed, high-risk sequences which seemed desperate to outdo Keaton and Lloyd. 1923’S ‘RACING LUCK/ saw him driving racing cars, ATTA BOY (1926) features a rousing climax with Banks atop a ladder on a speeding car, and his most famous film, ‘PLAY SAFE’ (1927) closes with a magnificent and extremely dangerous train chase. With ‘FLYING LUCK’ from the same year, he turned his attention to aeroplanes, no doubt looking to cash in on the aviation craze sweeping the world as competitors attempted to fly the Atlantic.
Monty plays an amateur aviator who dreams of being another Lindbergh. His maiden flight crashes into a recruiting office, and some white lies from the recruiters convince him to join the air corps (“They’ll give you a new plane every day!”). En route to camp he meets pretty jean Arthur and not-so-pretty sergeant Kewpie Morgan, establishing the love triangle that will dominate the film. His arrival at camp is mixed up with that of a visiting aviation committee, and he is shown the high life before being found out and thrown to the mercy of Sgt Morgan. All ends happily when he competes in an air polo competition and wins the day through sheer luck.
‘FLYING LUCK’ sags a little in the middle with some standard ‘hopeless new recruit’ business but wins through with some great set pieces and a charming performance from Monty as the hopeless but cocksure little man bungling through. It was to be his last America starring film though, as Pathé cancelled his contract. Banks fled to Britain, where he would make two more silent features, ‘WEEKEND WIVES’ and ‘ADAM’S APPLE’ before becoming a notable comedy director. In this role, he would work with Stanley Lupino, Laura La Plante, George Formby, and of course Gracie Fields, who he married in 1940. The pair remained happily married until Monty’s death from a heart attack in 1950.
Linder’s BE MY WIFE likewise came from the tail end of his starring career. A very funny farce concerning Max getting mixed up with an expensive dress, a bathtub gin parlour and some extramarital goings on, it packed in several terrific set pieces that show why Chaplin considered Linder ‘the professor’. A case in point: Linder’s first dance at his wedding, where his rival releases a white rat into his trousers. For many lesser silent comics, this would have been the prelude to much gurning and frenetic leaping. Linder builds the comedy magnificently, from his first, subtle elucidations that everything ain’t just alright, through some determined scratching, and culminating in some brilliantly funny spontaneous dance moves.
This was just one highlight among many others, including Max’s charade of defeating an imaginary burglar, trying to outwit the dog that is determined to get him, and getting caught up in an elaborate hidden speakeasy set. A wonderful little film that went down a storm with the Kennington crowd, ‘BE MY WIFE’ was shown in a new restoration by Lobster Films.
Max was back as one of the ‘Hapless Husbands’ featured in a programme showcasing matrimonial comedies, ably introduced by Michelle Facey. ‘MAX WANTS A DIVORCE’ (1917) is another recently found film, made in the USA when Essanay courted him as a successor to Chaplin. Max is newly married, but will inherit a fortune only if he remains a bachelor. He plots a plan to stage an affair as grounds for divorce, bribing his new bride with the promise of a pearl necklace. A date and detective are summoned to an empty apartment, but a parade of mentally unhinged patients visiting a doctor in the same building make things anything but smooth. This film was a bit light on gags overall, but worked up to a fine and frenzied (if slightly insensitive) climax in the doctor’s office.
Michelle noted that in many cases, the husbands brought the worst on themselves! This was certainly true of the title character in ‘ROBINET IS JEALOUS’. An Italian short from 1914, this features Marcel Perez (aka Tweedy, among other names) as the eponymous character. When his wife goes out but refuses to disclose her whereabouts, he is consumed by jealousy, following her to an office block. He searches each floor, each time paying a price for his jealousy: each office seems to be occupied by various degree of psycppath, who all pounce on him as he enters the door! Thus, Robinet is subjected to dentistry, a boxing match and an incredibly violent massage (with rolling pins, of all things!). Violent stuff, but savagely funny. Finally, he locates his wife and it transpires that she has been secretly having a bust made of him as a present.
Secret presents featured in another European comedy, ‘DER PERSER’ (THE PERSIAN CARPET, 1919). This featured a very obscure German comic, Gerard Damman, who was a discovery of Glenn Mitchell’s. Damman plans to buy his wife a Persian carpet as an anniversary gift, but his furtive behaviour leaads her to be suspicious and think he is ill. Meanwhile, he sneaks out and gets the carpet, but the trams are on strike so he is forced to carry it back through the streets, in a rehash of ‘THE CURTAIN POLE’. The material was spread rather thinly, but Damman was excellent, an enjoyable quiet and subtle performer at a time when few comedians were. A highlight: his attempts to estimate the size of carpet he needs using leaps and bounds, unaware that his wife and a doctor are watching him.
Rounding out the programme was the always wonderful and charming Charley Chase, in INNOCENT HUSBANDS. From early in his two-reel career, it nevertheless shows his style already gelling perfectly with director Leo McCarey, and a wonderful cast including plump Kay Deslys, a moustache-less James Finlayson, and beautiful, icy Katherine Grant. Katherine is always convinced that Charley is up to something, and is persuaded to visit a spiritualist for more evidence of his infidelities. Charley, meanwhile, just wants to spend a quiet night in but is dragged out to a party by his bachelor neighbour and reluctantly set up with Kay,. The party have made their way to Charley’s flat as the séance relocates there, leaving Charley with three women and a man caught in his bedroom. His attempts to smuggle them out as ‘spirits’ during the séance are just brilliant. Typing that plot makes me realise how action packed ‘INNOCENT HUSBANDS’ is, but it never seems too contrived or plot-heavy. Charley and Leo McCarey were masters of telling complicated stories and putting them over in a brilliantly funny way. Their shorts are some of the best ever made, and this was acknowledged in the fantastic response given to the film.