Month: September 2019

More than a man on a train: Monty Banks’ Feature Films

A version of this article also appears in the newest issue of THE LOST LAUGH magazine. Click the link to download this and previous issues.


If Monty Banks is remembered today at all, it is chiefly for being Gracie Fields’ director and husband. However, being “Mr Gracie Fields” effectively subsumed Banks’ own prior identity as a successful silent comedian. On the rare occasions his silent film work is mentioned, it is generally condensed down to one scene: a stunt-filled runaway train sequence, with Monty hanging off a boxcar by a loose plank. This excerpt from PLAY SAFE appeared in Robert Youngson’s DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER and was later reissued as CHASING CHOO-CHOOS. It’s the only widely seen bit from all of Banks’ films (even the rest of PLAY SAFE remains obscure), despite the fact he made many other stunt-packed comedy sequences equally worthy of revival. And so, Monty Banks speeds through collective memory, a blurred little fellow clinging to his speeding freight train. “We remember the film,” wrote Walter Kerr, “yet we do not quite remember the man”.

The fact that Banks is often forgotten is especially unfair, as he was one of the few comics beyond “the big three” of Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd to graduate from two-reelers to features successfully. In fact, he spent much of the 20s making full length comedies. His initial success came by learning from the model defined by Keaton, Lloyd and their gagmen – having a solid story premise building to a climax combining sight gags, action and thrills. Although they were clearly derived from trying to replicate this model, Monty’s own silent features were hardly cheap, thoughtless knockoffs. Far from it, they remain high quality, and belie the notion that none of the second-string comics could sustain a career in full-length comedies.

To put things in perspective, Banks made nine features. That’s more than Langdon managed and almost as many as Keaton & Lloyd. Unlike those comedians, Banks may have lacked the special ingredient that made his films as timeless, but he was nevertheless a very capable comic. Particularly adroit at high-speed, high-risk, comic thrill sequences, he could also handle situation comedy with aplomb, and came to develop his own particular style. However, while he managed to carve more of a niche for himself in the industry than many silent clowns, it was by no means easy. Monty Banks’ feature films were the culmination of years’ hard graft; his story is full of setbacks, after which he continually bounced back and reinvented himself. He was, perhaps, one of the hardest working, most resilient men in all of silent comedy.

Born in 1898 in Cesena, Italy as Mario Bianchi, he spoke virtually no English on arriving in the states in 1914. Originally hoping to be a dancer, instead Bianchi found himself drawn to comedy films. He later claimed that his linguistic limitations got him his break: inability to understand the director resulted in him ad-libbing his own funny business, which turned out to be funnier than the planned gags.

From these inauspicious beginnings, he spent the late teens as one of the legions of shuffling, toothbrush-moustached Chaplin derivatives employed in Hollywood. Flitting between independent companies (one possibly apocryphal story tells of him filming comedies in the daytime, and laying pavements as a sideline after filming was done) he gradually carved a niche for himself. Among his more notable appearances are a WW1 spoof, THE GEEZER OF BERLIN, as well as in some of Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique shorts. Buster Keaton’s war service left a vacancy for a supporting comic in the series, and young Mario filled it in films like LOVE (1919) and A DESERT HERO (1919). After Buster’s return, he still appeared briefly in ‘THE GARAGE’ as the chap being chased by Luke the dog. As well as the experience, the work with Arbuckle had a more lasting legacy: his screen name. It was Roscoe who gave Bianchi his new identity, reportedly saying “you’re always playing mountebanks, why don’t you call yourself Monty Banks?”

Like Keaton, independent production gave him his break to starring shorts. Starting with A RARE BIRD (1920), he produced films for Grand-Asher. During the course of these films (documented fully in the recent book ‘Monty Banks: the short comedies’) he began to reinvent his character. Shabby tramp clothes were out; dapper suits and an impeccably tailored moustache were in. Taking his cue from Lloyd rather than Chaplin, Monty now played an amiable, everyday kind of fellow. His small size and chubbiness marked him a little out of step with the romantic ideals he held, but he remained an optimist in the face of embarrassment and disaster. The title of one of his films, KEEP SMILING, just about sums his persona up. If his character wasn’t as firmly delineated as Lloyd’s or Keaton’s, he was nevertheless very likeable and a proficient comedy performer.

Banks’ surviving shorts like WEDDING BELLS and PAY OR MOVE reveal a fertile comic mind and are full of great gags. A typical example: Monty is a florist, who has absent-mindedly played “She loves me not” with half the flowers in his shop, leaving a giant pile of petals on the floor. ALMOST LATE features a terrific sequence of Monty rushing to work on his bicycle, shaving, eating breakfast and reading his newspaper all while speeding along the road. It’s a wonderful milking of a gag situation, with a great pay-off: Monty has been in such a rush, he has left the coat hanger in his jacket. As he passes a lorry carrying a ladder, he is hooked on it and whisked away on his bike, to be delivered outside the shop where he works.

The series of shorts flourished, but were always somewhat on the fringes of the silent comedy scene. Distribution on the states-rights market gave them a more ephemeral quality, and established Banks as something of an outsider (an image he would struggle to shake). Moreover, it has made the films more obscure to this day; it’s difficult to research many of them as the states-rights markets were barely covered in the trade press. Even exact titles of some of the films remain uncertain.

Nevertheless, the shorts were successful enough for Banks to persuade Grand-Asher to finance a feature film. Banks was clearly a savvy fellow; as well as his comic ability, he was able to promote himself effectively. The arc of his career, from minor companies to negotiating his own outfit and into features and beyond, suggests he also talked a good game (there are several adverts in the trade papers featuring him talking himself up and promoting his latest releases ). This is quite a contrast from the inarticulate young immigrant of a few years before! The development of his comic style over the years also shows that he had his finger on the pulse of what was popular in screen comedy. On the verge of making features, he had seen the success of the Keaton & Lloyd films mixing sight gags, thrills and speed with a compelling story arc. Now it was his turn.

Camera (Nov 17, 1923) reported on Banks’ plans , quoting his director Herman Raymaker: “We’ve got a corking story” […] “Its first, middle and last names are – speed! At that, a title hasn’t been chosen. We’re trying to get something that will be adequate, and express the vim and dash of the story properly.”

That title turned out to be RACING LUCK. Whether it was vim-ful and dashing enough is hard to say now, as the film has not been screened in many years, although copies do exist in Belgian and Russian archives. Synopses and reviews make it clear that the film was definitely modelled after the Keaton & Lloyd It’s not surprising as writers Jean Havez and Lex Neal were both Keaton & Lloyd collaborators; like other comics Banks was aware that a good chunk of the Keaton-Lloyd feature formula lay not just with the stars, but with their team of gagmen, men like Ted Wilde, Havez and Clyde Bruckman. However, he also put a lot of himself into the film, and RACING LUCK had a distinct splash of autobiography. Drawing on his experiences coming to the US, it features him as an Italian immigrant planning on being a dancer. The autobiographical element even extends to naming his character Mario Bianchi. Our hero gets confused with a racing driver, and ends up having to drive an experimental new car in a race.

If the racing car element was somewhat more fanciful, it was also a pet subject of Banks’. He had a passion for fast cars, which would lead him to many future altercations with the traffic police; the film trade papers reported charges against Banks of reckless driving and speeding at regular intervals throughout the decade!

With the finished film in hand, Banks and Grand-Asher now had to find a distributor. Banks set up camp at the Hotel Astor, taking out a series of full-page ads in the trades inviting distributors to come and see him. Eventually, he struck a deal with Associated Exhibitors to release the feature. Reviews were excellent, with one exhibitor quoted as saying “They liked it more than SAFETY LAST here.”

This was good enough for Associated-Exhibitors, who commissioned more of the same…and got it. The follow up to RACING LUCK would be a calculated attempt to repeat a successful formula. This time, speedboats were substituted for racing cars in a similar race to the finish line. Begun under the title ‘HOT WATER’, the new would ironically have to be changed when Lloyd released his own film of that name; subsequently it became known as ‘WATER SHY’ before settling on the more generic ‘KEEP SMILING’.

To help guarantee success, an extra helping hand was on the writing staff. Former sportswriter Clyde Bruckman had worked on some of Banks’ shorts as a titlewriter. Since that time he had become one of the industry’s gold-dust gagmen after working with Keaton. Like Havez, Bruckman had worked on all of Keaton’s features (THE THREE AGES, OUR HOSPITALITY, SHERLOCK JR, THE NAVIGATOR and SEVEN CHANCES) and was perhaps his closest collaborator. Lloyd would soon purloin him for FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, but other stars like Banks also came calling at Bruckman’s door, keen to get a piece of the magic. Other comedy experts on the KEEP SMILING team included co-directors Albert Austin, one of Chaplin’s longest serving associates, and Sennett veteran Gil Pratt.

Like its predecessor, KEEP SMILING is extant but rarely seen. Certainly on paper, it has lots going for it. Monty plays a young man whose fear of water has led him to invent a life-saving device. After using it to save Anne Cornwall from drowning, he is given a letter of introduction to an investor, who turns out to be her father. The letter is accidentally swapped with another one introducing a captain of a new speedboat. Before he knows it, the water-shy Monty finds himself driving the boat in a river race! This brought the film to a rousing climax, with ‘Moving Picture World’ commenting: “The various things that happen to the boat are utterly improbable, but cleverly worked out and keep the laughs coming”.

While not as well-received as its predecessor, KEEP SMILING proved popular enough with audiences to affirm Monty’s success in features. Now, with car and boat chases ticked off the list, Banks and his storywriters turned their formula to trains. The Exhibitors Herald reported on Aug 29, 1925 that Banks had begun working on his next story, PLAY SAFE, assisted by Malcolm Stuart Boylan. Joseph Henabery was assigned to direct by November, with Charles Gerrard and Virginia Lee Corbin joining the cast as villain and leading lady respectively. Henabery is now best known for appearing as Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s ‘THE BIRTH OF A NATION’, but had been forging a career as a director throughout the 1920s. Corbin was a former child star, and just 15 when ‘PLAY SAFE’ was made. Gerrard is best remembered today for his future role as Lord Plumtree in Laurel & Hardy’s ‘ANOTHER FINE MESS’.

The resulting film is Banks’ most famous, thanks to its hugely exciting runaway train stunt sequence, which remains the only sizeable chunk of Monty Banks film that many people have seen. Much more rarely viewed is the rest of the film which builds up to the sequence.

In its complete form, PLAY SAFE is the tale of a runaway factory heiress (Corbin) who is escaping a forced marriage to her crooked trustee (Charles Gerard). Monty is one of the workers at the factory who offers her shelter when she is hiding from some thugs in a rainstorm. When Gerard finds out they are falling in love, he plans to frame Monty as the leader of a kidnapping plot, aided by henchman Bud Jamison. Virginia isn’t fooled, so the villains change their plan to a real kidnap, trapping her in a box car on a runaway train. Meanwhile, Monty escapes the clutches of Jamison, and commandeers a horse and cart to give chase, with the thugs hot on his heels. Realising the wagon is full of fruit, he dispatches the villains by releasing banana peels all over the road. Just as the cart crashes into a fence, Monty makes a leap to the horse’s back; falling off, he is entangled in the horse’s reins and is forced to run along behind until he can free himself. Next, he gets a lift from a racing car driver, who speeds alongside the train as Monty attempts to make a grab for the box car. Of course, he ends up trapped between the two, clinging to the side of the train with his feet still in the back seat of the car. As another train comes speeding towards them, the car driver bails, leaving Monty clinging to the abandoned car; he manages to climb aboard just before the train passes. The villains spot him and give chase along the train’s roof, but are knocked into a river by a water spout. Monty manages to duck and remain on the train, swinging down into Viriginia’s box car using a rope. The two attempt to climb back up on top to escape, but Monty slips and ends up hanging from the rope as the train passes above a cliff edge. His attempts to climb are further hindered by a mailbag a chicken he picks up on the way, and his fraying rope!

Things get worse as he attempts to uncouple the caboose, but manages to get on the wrong part of the train, which runs alongside the caboose on a parallel track. Monty tries to use a plank as a bridge between the two boxcars, but slips and ends up dangling over the precipice as the train speeds along. After a hair-raising sequence, he manages to climb aboard. He and Virginia are thrown safely into a pile of hay as the rest of the train crashes over the cliff edge.

Here’s the sequence:

Worthy to stand beside many of Lloyd and Keaton’s thrill sequences, this is a rousing finale to the film with some great moving camerawork, mixed alongside use of models and doubling from stuntman Harvey Parry. While we now regard this as a classic sequence, amazingly enough, PLAY SAFE sat in the can for almost a year before release. The film was previewed at Hollywood’s Melrose theatre and New York’s Bunny Theatre in February, 1926, and then…disappeared before it could be released. The reason was not through any fault with the picture, however. Before it could be given a release, Associated Exhibitors folded and was merged into Pathé. ‘PLAY SAFE’ was one of the films lost in the shuffle.

For Banks, this was potentially a crisis. Fortunately, he was able to persuade Pathé to take on his contract. This actually proved to be a beneficial move, as Pathé could offer greater distribution and prominent advertising. Still smarting from their loss of Harold Lloyd to Paramount, the company directly promoted Banks as Lloyd’s successor.

Accordingly, they went great guns on promoting their new star as, “Monty Banks, the grandson of laughter!” His first release was not PLAY SAFE, still languishing on the shelf, but a newly filmed feature. Film Daily reported that Banks had reached an arrangement to film on the Hal Roach lot during the studios’ annual summer closedown. So, in June of 1926, Banks, his crew and director Edward H Griffith, moved in to film a reporter story, ATTA BOY.

Monty Milde is a lowly copyboy, who dreams of promotion to fully-fledged reporter. Tricked into believing he has been promoted, he sets out to get an interview, and becomes embroiled in the story of a millionaire’s kidnapped child. Tracking the kidnappers to a nightclub, Monty disguises himself as a waiter. His cover is soon blown, but he manages to find the kidnapped child. Escaping down a ladder balanced on a car, Monty is left stranded atop the ladder when the driverless car moves off, racing up and down hills. After a wild ride through the streets, the child is rescued and Monty gains his promotion.

The closing sequence is excellent, but the funniest part of ATTA BOY is a much more low-key gag sequence. Monty has innocently come into possession of a bottle of bootleg liquor, and detective Fred Kelsey (who else?) is on his trail. Monty nonchalantly tries to rid himself of the bottle in an escalating series of gags where somehow, the bottle always seems to find its way back to him. The scene is testament to Banks’ skill at milking an idea for as many laughs as possible.

Released on October 24, 1926 amidst a high-octane publicity campaign, ATTA BOY was perhaps Banks’ most successful film on its original release. No doubt to keep the momentum of their new star, the already-completed PLAY SAFE was finally allowed release in cinemas, less than three months after its predecessor. Despite the reputation it has subsequently gained, the film was not especially well-received by the critics. Despite the skill of the gags and the thrill of the train sequence, reviews weren’t overenthusiastic. One exhibitor’s review was “If you want to play safe, stay away from this.”

Perhaps it was this subdued response to his stunt-filled train ride, or maybe just osmosis from being at the Roach studios, but Banks’ next film would mark a distinct change of pace. HORSE SHOES is a much more situational comedy of embarrassment than his previous efforts, akin to the films Charley Chase was making. In fact, Chase would years later condense the central situation into one of his own two-reelers, the masterful IT HAPPENED ONE DAY (1934).

Clyde Bruckman was back on the unit, this time in the director’s chair and fresh from co-directing Keaton’s THE GENERAL. Like that film and PLAY SAFE, trains would play a large role in the new effort, albeit less dramatically. HORSE SHOES introduces us to Monty, a flustered junior lawyer with a superstition for good-luck horseshoes. He has two ambitions: to make a success of being a lawyer, and to marry the boss’s daughter (a young Jean Arthur). Coincidentally, he bumps into her on the street after he has just been knocked over by a car. Their meeting is a lovely little scene, with Jean standing in front of an angel statue; from Monty’s viewpoint, the wings seem to belong to her. She helps him up and finds they are bound for the station to catch the same train. Bumping into a newly married couple on his way there, Monty accidentally picks up a ‘just married’ sign, which attaches itself to his back. The passengers on the train assume that Monty and Jean are married, and a comedy of errors results. At night time, Monty tries to get to his bunk, but finds it is above Jean’s, leading to lots of embarrassment as he tries to get to bed under the nosy gaze of the other passengers. There’s a particularly fun gag as Monty spots Jean’s arm protruding from her booth, seeming to wave in a “come here” motion (actually, she’s applying lotion to her arm). As he approaches, the arm changes to a “go away” gesture, before beckoning him forward again, leaving him completely confused as to her intentions.

Eventually, Monty ends up helping out Jean and her father by defending them in court; the hearing descends into a free-for-all, but Monty triumphs, winning the case and marriage to Jean, this time for real!

Buster Keaton fans may recognise much of the train section of the plot; Bruckman, ever a recycler of material, lifted the sequence wholesale for Keaton’s Columbia short PARDON MY BERTH MARKS in 1940, right down to gags and even camera setups. HORSE SHOES moves quickly with snappy gag sequences such as these, and Banks is well-suited to the more situational comedy. Again, reviews were mainly positive, but for all his efforts, it wasn’t quite successful enough to be a breakthrough effort giving him the prominence he deserved. One suspects his films were simply lost in the sheer glut of great comedy product flooding the market in the mid- late 1920s. Films like HORSE SHOES or ATTA BOY, which still stand up well today, couldn’t get the credit they deserved amongst all the competition from Keaton, Lloyd et al. It’s perhaps indicative of how many great comedies were being made at the time that something the quality of ‘PLAY SAFE’ could be denounced as ‘pretty poor’ by Photoplay.

What could Banks do to get noticed? Ever savvy, he took inspiration from the news headlines. As he looked for inspiration in the Spring of 1927, the eyes of the world were on the sky. The race to fly across the Atlantic was on, with national pride (not to mention the $125,000 Orteig prize) at stake. Aviation caught the public imagination as never before, dominating the news and inevitably filtering through to popular entertainment.

Aeroplanes had been providing increasingly frequent thrills in films for several years by the time the aviation boom reached its peak. Aerial stunt work in movies was becoming a reliable source of income for pilots. Some, such as the French pilot Charles Nungesser, even starred in their own films. The use of aeroplanes in silent films would reach its glamorous zenith with Clara Bow’s WINGS, filmed in early 1927 at a budget of $2million. For Banks, aviation was a perfect subject for his next comedy. He announced that his next picture would be “a flying comedy entitled ‘AN ACE IN THE HOLE’” in April 1927.

The timing couldn’t have been better. As spring cleared fog over the Atlantic, the race was on for transatlantic glory, and the hopefuls were busy preparing and beginning their attempts. By the time outside contender Charles Lindbergh (nicknamed ‘The Flying Fool’ by a sceptical New York Times) completed his successful flight on 21 May, excitement was at fever pitch. Banks and his distributors at Pathé must have been rubbing their hands with glee as filming went ahead during all of this. To further capitalise on Lindbergh’s fame, the film’s title changed to THE FLYING FOOL in early June, but by the time production wrapped in the summer, it had been retitled FLYING LUCK. Clearly Banks hoped to hark back to his early success of RACING LUCK (in fact, he even used the same director, Herman C Raymaker).

FLYING LUCK presents Monty as a keen amateur pilot who idolises Lindbergh. He joins the flying corps, but soon gets on the wrong side of sergeant Kewpie Morgan, especially when the two of them vie for the hand of Jean Arthur, the colonel’s daughter. Banks is predictably ill-suited to military life, but redeems himself in a match of air polo.

The aerial sequences are well-filmed, but the novelty value of aviation doesn’t quite cover for the fact that the love-triangle plot and military ’fish out of water’ sequences are fairly standard comedy, compared to Banks’ previous efforts. FLYING LUCK is an enjoyable and charming little comedy, but in a year when it was up against THE GENERAL and THE KID BROTHER, couldn’t help but pale in comparison. Perhaps the lack of Clyde Bruckman was partly responsible; Banks was able to entice him back for his next effort, A PERFECT GENTLEMAN, shot in late 1927.

Happily, this turned out to be a real return to form. Banks, Bruckman and Horan returned to the more situational style of HORSE SHOES, peppering it with fast-moving, original sequences of great visual gags. While it can’t compete with the suspenseful climax of PLAY SAFE, A PERFECT GENTLEMAN is for my money, the funniest comedy he made. It might even be the best of the Monty Banks features.

Like HORSE SHOES, this film is very much in Charley Chase’s white collar idiom. Monty is a bank teller engaged to the boss’s daughter (Ruth Hiatt), unaware that his colleague is planning to abscond with money to South America to help fund a revolution. Things start going badly when Monty is knocked out en route to his wedding; his chauffeur Syd Crossley attempts to revive him with brandy, but Monty accidentally consumes the whole bottle. Sozzled at the wedding, Monty become mischevious and spends half of it trying to play practical jokes on the guests, ending up with him kicking his prospective mother-in-law in the rear! The wedding cancelled, Monty discovers he has been framed for the theft. The villain persuades him to leave for South America, hiding the money in a compartment in Monty bag so that he will unwittingly smuggle it on-board the ship.

Things come to a head on the high seas as the villains try to reclaim the money, while Monty tries to convince Ruth and her father, also on board, of his innocence. A further complication is added in the form of burly purser Arthur Thalasso, who keeps finding Monty in embarrassing situations with his own wife! The combination of these three elements produce some brilliant, precision-timed comedy sequences full of original gags. Best of all is a scene where Monty finds himself with the purser’s comatose, seasick wife. As he tries to support her, somehow her dress unfastens, and Monty’s panicked attempts to fix it only makes things worse. He somehow manages to swap all her clothes around, leaving her in an entirely different outfit. It’s a gag that plays better than it reads, but Monty’s rising panic and the clever way he performs the routine make it an outstanding moment.

After a hair-rising ride on the ship’s anchor, Monty manages to win the money back and reunite with Ruth. On film there were happy endings, but in real life trouble was looming for Banks. A PERFECT GENTLEMAN was as good a film as he, or anyone else, could have made, but by the time it was released in January 1928, he had already been dropped by Pathé.

His films were always popular, but he never had quite broken through to the extent Pathé hoped. Certainly, he was no match for the earnings they’d been gaining from Harold Lloyd. The company wasn’t doing too well in the late 20s, and with the additional uncertainty of sound film on the horizon, Banks was let go. This was catastrophic news for him, and meant he was facing bankruptcy. Rather than face the proceedings, he fled to Britain, where an offer had come in to make a film from the newly formed British International Pictures.

The arrangement was mutually beneficial. The new company got the benefit of Banks’ Hollywood experience; in return, he got “big fish in little pond” star treatment and some much-needed cash. Also moonlighting from Hollywood with him was another Lloyd collaborator. Tim Whelan had been a writer for Lloyd on WHY WORRY, GIRL SHY and THE FRESHMAN, as well as some other gentle comedies like Bea Lillie’s EXIT SMILING and Mary Pickford’s MY BEST GIRL.

ADAM’S APPLE picks up on the transition shown by ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’ to a more farcical style influenced by Charley Chase; with the more refined Whelan replacing the gag-happy Bruckman, it was a more gentle comedy with less outlandish sight gags and more focus on situation. Monty and his bride (Gillian Dean) plan a wonderful honeymoon in Europe. Unfortunately for Monty, Gillian’s crabby mother-in-law is tagging along too, with her pet dog, cat and parrot! Monty spends most of the sea voyage trying to get some time alone with his new wife, but only succeeds in innocently getting tangled up with jealous Colin Kenny’s wife. When Gillian is kidnapped, Monty sets off to rescue her, culminating in him hanging off the side of a building in a Lloyd-type scene before the couple are reunited. Banks’ performance is excellent and understated, a series of frustrations and embarrassments. In terms of comedy, ‘ADAM’S APPLE’ is a bit below his American releases; the gags not coming quite as fast and having a bit too much British politeness about them. It still remains an enjoyable effort, if not up to the standards of the gag-filled ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’.

British audiences were impressed though, and B.I.P. were delighted. Monty would stay with them as actor and director well into the next decade. Keen to use their new star, they gave him two new projects. The first was off-screen, directing Danish comedy team Pat & Patachon in ‘COCKTAILS’, a story of two pickpockets who accidentally get mixed up in cocaine smuggling. Then, he was back to acting in ‘WEEKEND WIVES’. This is a real change of step for Banks, that goes fully down the bedroom farce route hinted at in his last couple of films. It’s also more of an ensemble film in which he is just one of four main characters (on some posters he was fourth billed). Coming off the success of ADAM’S APPLE, this seems a curious demotion at first. However, the film was actually a fairly prestigious Anglo-French production, shot on location in Deauville, and a chance for the ever-adaptable Banks to try his hand at something new. One suspects that BIP also wanted to capitalise on their new star by putting him into any film they had going. Amidst the story of a rowing husband and wife who both take trips to Deauville with other partners, Banks plays a womanising playboy off to Deauville, who ends up picking up the wife. He gets a couple of good sight gags in, including accidentally being carted off on a luggage trolly, but this just isn’t that kind of film, on the whole. While Banks copes very well with the different performance style (the highlight being his panic when he thinks the husband is about to murder him), WEEKEND WIVES is just too sedate, moving at a glacial pace. Variety amusingly noted , with a little exaggeration, on its US release, “Every foot of film exposed […] seems to have gotten by the cutting room. Reels are devoted to close-ups of bacon and eggs, dresses, conversations and trunk-packing. Too bad the director didn’t give as much thought to the story as the irrelevant details.”

If nothing else, WEEKEND WIVES shows Banks’ skill at adapting to different mediums. A more direct follow up to ADAM’S APPLE in his usual style was planned. The planned ‘A COMPULSORY HUSBAND’ was to be based on a play, but would feature sight gags and a big thrill finish in his best style. However, before it could be finished, BIP went over to sound, and the film was restarted as a talkie. For Monty Banks, the silent era had been quite the wild ride. From ignominious bit parts as a gauche young immigrant, he had worked incredibly hard to build and maintain his career in feature films. While he was never quite capable of achieving a place in the comedy A-list, he fashioned films that are skilfully made and with many original gags. His features deserve to be seen more widely so we can appreciate his efforts.

Buster on the Radio

Here’s an odd one: a radio appearance by Buster Keaton from 1936. At the time, he had just made the brilliant GRAND SLAM OPERA, in which he appears as a juggler on a radio amateur hour (!). While it has received latter day praise from Keaton fans, even at the time it was received as something special. There were great review and Educational Pictures went all out with the publicity, taking full page ads in the trades. Someone at Educational obviously realised that it would ge a great tie-in to get Buster to actually appear on the radio, and that’s exactly what he did here.

It’s a bit of an odd listen to be sure. Part of the reason that GRAND SLAM OPERA works so well is that it presents the incongruity of Buster doing a visual act on the radio (and makes a sly comment on his perceived obsolescence in the process).

On the real radio, of course we can’t see any of the visual stuff, and Buster has no option but to jump in to the All-talking world he spoofs in the film. The material is a variation on the interrupted act from the film, but this time a dramatic monologue rather than juggling. His handling of dialogue is fine, but the material isn’t amazing and this isn’t really his thing. In fact, this is more like one of the routines MGM might have had him do. Still, an interesting little curio of two worlds colliding.

Here’s GRAND SLAM OPERA, the film which inspired it..

(Coat) Tales from the BFI Basement

Just come back from a trip to the BFI’s basement, having sifted through some more of their silent comedies. While the BFI’s online catalogue makes it now much easier to find a lot of the stuff they have, there are still things given generic titles (‘FAT MAN IN KNOCKABOUT’!), alternate ones left over from reissues, or occasionally completely wrong ones. One print marked as Larry Semon’s DUMMIES, for instance, turned out to be an extract from his THE STUNT MAN instead.

It is always fascinating to try and identify the proper identity of such films. Two Ben Turpin films were on our list, one called THE WRONG COAT, and the other given the catchy title ‘Comedy with Restaurant and Picture Stealing ‘.

Both were clearly from early in Turpin’s career. THE WRONG COAT instantly hooked us in with a prominent appearance by Snub Pollard, as a salesman who battles with Turpin over the eponymous coat in the opening scenes.

Here are a couple of screengrabs of Snub (Sorry about the awful quality, it’s taken on a phone, off a TV screen showing a VHS transfer of an awful quality 16mm print!).

This was a knockabout tale of two coats being mixed up between two wives. Not a comedy classic, but a fun little film. Turpin has a particularly a nice bit of pantomime as he realises a cop is stood behind him by feeling for his badge – a great little moment that brings to mind his former Essanay colleague Mr Chaplin.

Looking at Turpin’s filmography suggested the real identity of the film as A COAT TALE (1915) , confirmed by looking at the film’s synopsis from MOTOGRAPHY:

The other Turpin literally did what it said on the (film) can, and provided us with scenes in a restaurant, where Turpin and another crook (Rube Miller) plot to steal a valuable picture. In the ensuing chaos, they accidentally poison themselves and the film closes with them having their stomachs pumped – a light comedy, this is not! Still, some funny scenes, not least in Turpin and Miller’s comic overacting when drinking the poison! Steve Rydzewski’s excellent Turpin book identifies this one as PICTURE PIRATES, a Vogue-Mutual from 1916.

The random assortments of silent comedies held by archives always offer some unusual gems, and it was great to see these. Not comedy classics, but rare and fun films that we’re lucky to be able to see. More to come on some of the other interesting BFI stuff in future posts…

Not-so-silent Racket: More Charley Chase classics on DVD

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I’ve been away travelling for a few weeks and have only just had time to digest the magnificence of Sprocket Vault’s latest heroic venture into the Hal Roach vaults.

If you’ve had a browse around this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a huge Charley Chase fan. Playing an ordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened, his mixture of natural human comedy with outlandish plots and gags are a knockout combination. To me, Chase had one of the most fertile minds of any of the great comics, and yes, I include Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel et al in that. He’s also one of the most charming performers. Add to his comedic gifts the wonderful Hal Roach stock company and Le Roy Shield music so familiar from the Laurel & Hardy films, and you have an incredibly likeable body of work.

As with volume 1 of this series, I have to begin by awarding this DVD five stars simply for existing. It’s too easy to forget the limbo these films were in for far too long, difficult to see without access to a 16mm print library. Quite simply, nobody wanted to put this stuff out there. I remember first reading about these films in Leonard Maltin’s book THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS years ago and longing to see them. After spotty acquisitions of the forbidden fruits via TCM, Ebay, old VHS from friends, mailing lists and the like, I finally picked up an almost-complete set of the films on bootleg DVD in 2009. Looking at these beaten up ex-VHS or 16mm transfers made my eyes water and did the films no favours at all. Nevertheless, I treasured those discs as the rare jewels they were, and assumed it was the best I would ever get.

Not so. Fast forward ten years and here’s the second chronological set in Sprocket Vault’s series. Not only are the films now on an official DVD, but they look beautiful, feature original titles and come with authoritative commentaries. If that weren’t enough, there are bonus features, including an incredibly rare Spanish-language version of Chase’s LOOSER THAN LOOSE, UN CANA EL AIRE!

What about the films themselves, though? How do those forbidden fruits taste? Well, if you’re not a completist and this is your first Chase purchase, you won’t be disappointed. Of the shorts featured here, at least four are among my all-time favourite Chase films, and most of the rate between good and excellent, too.

For a bit of context, these fifteen shorts were all made in 1932-33. Chase had settled into sound well by now and so the early talkie clunkiness is now almost entirely gone. He was starting to change his approach, adopting a more fussy, nervous character more suited to a man approaching 40 than the young man about town of his earlier work. For several of the films here he worked with brother James Parrott as director, an always fruitful partnership that inspired some creative comedies.

YOUNG IRONSIDES is one of the best films he ever made, full of original sight gags and situations that come thick and fast as Charley is hired to prevent Muriel Evans from taking part in a beauty competition. It develops into a three way game of cat and mouse between Charley, Muriel and a suspicious house detective tailing them both, with the highlight coming as Charley fashions himself a grass skirt of collars and enters the pageant as ‘Miss Hamburg’!

HIS SILENT RACKET is another classic, with Charley conned into being a partner in James Finayson’s failed dry cleaning business. Lots of great characters and visual gags in this one.

FALLEN ARCHES, IN WALKED CHARLEY, GIRL GRIEF and MR BRIDE are all other favourites of mine. The last is a particularly daring (for 1932) comedy in which Charley must act as a bride for his fastidious boss Del Henderson on a rehearsal honeymoon! The scenes of Charley being forced into a feminine role amidst everyone’s presumptions that they are a gay couple are very unusual, and take Chase’s comedy of embarrassment to new extremes.

Even more experimental are the technocratic NOW WE’LL TELL ONE, surreal ARABIAN TIGHTS and bizarre Tarzan spoof NATURE IN THE WRONG. Ever wanted to hear a lion speak with the voice of James Finlayson? Of course you have. Well, here’s your chance!

In fact, for L & H fans, there are lots of moments where the familiar stock company players shine: Anita Garvin vamps Charley in HIS SILENT RACKET; Billy Gilbert does his best Germanic bluster in LUNCHEON AT TWELVE; James C Morton and Eddie Dunn pop up in FALLEN ARCHES. You also get an introduction to some other great Roach co-stars who didn’t appear with the boys, including Gale Henry and Jimmie Adams. Richard Roberts’ commentaries fill in lots of great detail on these performers, by the way.

The leading lady for most of these films is Muriel Evans, who is a charming performer, if not quite Thelma Todd. Thelma does make one appearance, in THE NICKEL NURSER, a wonderful, underrated comedy with Charley an efficiency expert hired to teach a millionaire’s daughters the value of money. Throw in a Greta Garbo-esque maid, a jealous butler and some deception, and you have a bedroom farce worthy of Chase’s silents.

Of course, being a chronological set, you do get the ebb and flow of inspiration that naturally comes with any art form. Chase’s personal and professional lives were both strained at the time, and occasionally it shows with less inspired films like SHERMAN SAID IT or FIRST IN WAR. However, even the lesser efforts are watchable, thanks to Chase’s charm and natural humour.

In conclusion, if you’re at all a fan of the Hal Roach studios, this (along with volume 1) is an essential purchase. If this set is your entry point to Chase, I envy you – there’s loads to enjoy here and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. If, like me, you’re familiar with the films, you’ll see them with fresh eyes in this quality and learn lots from the commentary tracks. Of course, for Chase devotees, the inclusion of UNA CANA EL AIRE is worth the price of admission alone. Like many of Roach’s phonetic versions, it’s much longer than its English language equivalent, and features extra gags. Among the gems are some funny toupee gags, and a brilliant moment as Charley tries to cross a crowded dancefloor.

I’m so grateful that this DVD exists. Thanks to Richard M Roberts and Kit Parker at The Sprocket Vault for making it happen.

So, what are you waiting for? Go buy it!

Oh, and if you want more detailed discussion of the films, take a look at the Chase article in issue 9 of THE LOST LAUGH MAGAZINE, which covers his films from this period.