Neal Burns is one of those “nice young men” of silent comedy who is usually forgotten. You know the ones; the Bobby Vernons and Glenn Tryons who were meant to be like the boy next door – the whole point of them was to be average, and to blend in with other average Americans. Often, they had the girl already at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the comedy was gentle and situational. Burns fit the idiom nicely. He was normal-looking, a bit like a scrubbed-up version of Al St John. Occasionally they put glasses on him to heighten the similarity to Harold Lloyd.
If this sounds like I’m bashing Neal, I’m not. He was a perfectly capable comedian, and made some fun little films, but among the many unique and unusual-looking comedians of the era, he doesn’t stand much of a chance of being singled out.
Well, here’s a moment in the spotlight for him. This short is NO PARKING, courtesy of the EYE film institute. It’s kind of like a much milder version of ONE WEEK, featuring his attempts to build, and then move, a portable house. Not full of belly laughs, but a fun watch (be warned, there is one unfortunate bit of racial stereotyping though). Neil cranked out dozens of these light comedies for the Al Christie studios throughout the 1920s, but they are seldom seen today.
And here’s one more from the ACCIDENTALLY PRESERVED DVDS, where he’s co-starred with Jack Duffy in LOOSE CHANGE:
Incidentally, also in the cast of this film is fellow Christie comic Eddie Barry, whose real name was Eddie Burns… yup, he was Neal’s brother. Guess they tossed a coin to decide who got to keep the family name.
The best Neal Burns short I’ve seen so far is GIDDY GOBBLERS, which is a very funny Charley Chase-style farce centred around his attempts to get a Turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Also lots of fun is CALL THE WAGON, available on the American Slapstick vol 2 DVD.
In the sound era, Neal descended into bit parts (you can see him in a bunch of Columbia shorts), but he was another of the hard-working comics who deserves his due every now and then.