I spent all of Saturday out in some dismal November weather, but when I got home my spirits were instantly lifted by the parcel waiting on my doormat:
Lupino Lane is one of the silent comedians who really made me take an interest in the forgotten performers of the era, and for years I’ve longed for a high quality release of his films. This year, silent comedy experts and all round good eggs Dave Glass and Dave Wyatt made this unlikely project come to life with a successful kickstarter campaign.
Included on the Blu Ray (DVD also available) are 8 of Lane’s classic short films, including some incredibly rare ones that I’ve longed to see for years. The project has been a remarkable work of coordination and restoration spearheaded by Dave Glass,involving a slew of archives, musicians and film collectors, not to mention Lane’s granddaughter Sara Lupino Lane. I’ve been honoured to contribute to the project in my own little way, conducting an interview with Sara and writing notes for the accompanying booklet.
So, on to the contents. The eight films are HELLO SAILOR, the classic Three Musketeers spoof SWORD POINTS, FISTICUFFS, GOOD NIGHT NURSE, BATTLING SISTERS, SUMMER SAPS, JOY LAND and the talkie FIRE PROOF. The selection of films shows off Lane (or Nip, to use his lifelong nickname) at his very best.
The rarest of these films (and completely new to me) are FISTICUFFS, JOY LAND and FIRE PROOF. FISTICUFFS is a comedy set in the 1830s, “when people could still remember how bad the good old days were”, and is based around a village blacksmith where Nip is the apprentice, and his brother Wallace an amateur boxer. There is some funny slapstick business with hot horseshoes and a great little scene of Nip in drag, wearing a hoop skirt that he can’t quite control. Wallace is kidnapped before the fight and so Nip takes his place, resulting in a string of original boxing gags. As with many of Lane’s best scenes, the boxing sequence is as much choreographed as directed – the laughs all come from intricately timed falls and funny body movements. It’s also a surprise to see Chaplin’s ally Albert Austin turn up as one of the boxing seconds (his only appearance in a Lane film, to my knowledge). A really fun little film that it’s great to have after many years in obscurity.
JOY LAND contains an iconic sequence of Lane diving in and out of trapdoors; this has been excerpted, but the rest of the film has seldom been seen. Would the rest of the film live up to its reputation based on the trapdoor scene? Absolutely! The first scene of Nip at work in a toy shop is full of some excellent material, particularly another classic pantomime routine where he and Wallace find themselves sharing two pairs of trousers, creating confusion as they try to work out who the third leg belongs to! There are also some good gags with bratty child Jackie Levine and his mother. In the second reel, Lane dreams himself into the Toy Land setting – what is really nice about the sequence is the way details from the first reel like toys, dolls, masks and characters reoccur in Nip’s fantasy. The marvellous trapdoor sequence is much longer than the excerpts we’ve seen, with pursuit by Bonzo the Dog adding extra complications! (In our interview, Sara Lupino Lane revealed the detail that this was actually George Atterbury, a live-in companion of the Lanes who Nip had trained to work in an animal skin). JOY LAND absolutely exceeded my expectations and might be my favourite Lane film of all.
Also much better than expected was FIRE PROOF, one of only four talkie shorts Lane made. The others that I’ve seen are a little clunky and dialogue-heavy, but this one was really good for a 1929 sound short. There’s dialogue humour added, but Lane’s acrobatics are present, including a brilliant moment where he does a step-and-somersault from off a fire engine. The tumbles are presented smoothly, and don’t sound clompy as in many early sound films – Lane’s light-footed gymnastic training obviously paid off in this respect. Fired from the force, he sets out to start his own fire brigade. The firefighting theme and antique fire engine he uses were both seen earlier in the silent A HALF-PINT HERO, but this is definitely not a remake, with an entirely different set of gags! Among them is a very Laurel & Hardy-like sequence where Nip and Wallace indulge in some clothes ripping tit-for-tat. Lots of fun, and made me wish that Lane had stuck around for another season or two of talkie shorts.
The other films were more familiar to me, although several of them like SUMMER SAPS contain extra footage usually missing. Dave Glass has used multiple sources to make the most complete versions possible. A real labour of love. HELLO SAILOR and SWORD POINTS were already among my favourite Lane shorts, but now are even more enjoyable.
All the films look astonishingly good, especially GOOD NIGHT NURSE, which has elements of a 35mm nitrate print saved from destruction just in time and looks gorgeous. The detail is so great that you can read posters on the wall, see the dimple in Nip’s chin and spot Muriel Evans laughing in the background as he does a gag.
Particularly for obscure, hitherto unrestored films like the Lane comedies, most of my viewing experience has previously consisted of blurry images running too fast accompanied by indifferent ragtime piano on a maddening loop. While Lane’s astonishing stunts and acrobats can survive even this, the intricacies of the individual gags and his smaller-scale charms can be lost unless seen in good quality prints. Although I was already a Lupino Lane devotee, I came away with a whole new appreciation for his pantomime talents and skill at facial expression. There’s a special Lupino body language that was obviously part of the family training. Both Nip and Wallace have a certain way of reacting – a flickering glance here, a brief surprised opening of the mouth there – that is unique to them and very amusing. There are lots of other little grace notes that you can appreciate better now – for instance, in HELLO SAILOR, Nip falls in water and his clothes shrink. He and Wallace get to brawling and Wallace nearly falls in too. Nip stops him, shaking his head quickly and shooting a warning glance as he gestures to his shrunken bell bottoms.
GOOD NIGHT NURSE and BATTLING SISTERS are two cases in point; I always thought of these as two comparatively weaker shorts, Actually, I’d just seen dreadful copies of them. Now, in these beautiful versions I appreciated all sort of gags and nuances in a new way.
The pantomime business between Nip and Wallace in GOOD NIGHT NURSE, especially, is really great. The first reel has some intricately timed prop business involving a cane chair, a bowler hat, a watch and a stethoscope. How wonderful it must have been to see them do this kind of thing live on stage! Seeing it in this quality is the next best thing though.
The exemplary musical accompaniment from Meg Morley, Neil Brand and Donald Mackenzie further enhances enjoyment of the films. Their scores are just perfect, and it’s great to have a choice of organ or piano for each title.
Lastly, there are extra features. Two bits of candid footage show Lane filming THE FIGHTING DUDE and doing a bit of backwards-filmed clowning for the camera. There’s a workprint of Bob Monkhouse’s MAD MOVIES, featuring him introducing GOOD NIGHT NURSE, and best of all, the interview with Sara Lupino Lane. Sara was very kind and generous in sharing both her time and memories of her Grandad and family; we had a wonderful visit and came away with some terrific stories and facts that I don’t believe were previously known. Dave Glass has done a great job of intercutting the interview with some film clips and shots of Sara’s memorabilia and family scrapbooks.
As a huge fan of Lupino Lane who had a bit of involvement in the project, I’m obviously a bit biased but I think this is a simply wonderful collection that shows off this wonderful perfomer in the quality he deserves. An amazing effort from Messrs Glass and Wyatt. I hope you’ve all ordered a copy!
Heres more info on the project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/reelcomedy/lupino-lane-silent-comedian