(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…

3 comments

  1. Wow. I’m so sorry I just saw this now but, such an enjoyable write up on two Turpin films I’ve never seen; but would love to. Is A Coat Tale complete? And you mention Picture Pirates being only a fragment? I’d love to get copies of these if possible, dont think I can get to the BFI anytime soon. Thanks so much for your nice words about the Turpin book. Looking forward more of your fantastic film finds! Thank you! – Steve Rydzewski, Philadelphia

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    1. Hi Steve.
      Sorry for my hugely slow reply, I missed your comment somehow! It’s a little while since I viewed these now, but as I remember A COAT TALE was more or less complete. A PICTURE PIRATE seemed to be less than the full thing. I’m afraid I haven’t got copies of them – I viewed them at the BFI, but unlike the LOC or Eye, they don’t generally share digitised copies. A COAT TALE was a ropey VHS copy, and my screenshots are taken off the TV screen. A PICTURE PIRATE was on 16mm.
      Hopefully one day the BFI will digitise and share a few more of their silent comedy holdings so people outside the U.K. can view them too!
      Best,
      Matt
      PS. Always a pleasure to plug your Turpin book, it’s terrific! 🙂

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