Author: Matt Alexander

Every one a Howell!

CCP_Fig163d_Howell_WFP-HOW021Silent film accompanist, historian and DVD producer Ben Model has produced some wonderful releases over the last few years, highlighting forgotten comics such as Marcel Perez, Monty Banks and Johnny Hines. Now he’s just announced his next Kickstarter project: some prime works from wonderful but forgotten comedienne Alice Howell.

Alice was a big star in the late teens and early 20s; she was one of the few women permitted to be funny in her own right in the male-dominated world of screen comedy. Her image was quite unique; piled-up frizzy red hair and a permanently surprised expression made look rather like a manic doll. With her scatty but carefree working girl was an ancestor to Lucile Ball. You can read more on her here.

 Sadly, all but a few of her films have been lost, and many of those only exist forgotten in archives. This release hopes to free some from the vaults of the Library of Congress. A worthy project indeed, and one I’ll certainly be backing. Here’s the info direct from Ben’s page, and the link below.

“This Kickstarter will fund a project that brings 6 extremely rare Alice Howell silent comedy shorts to DVD, made from 1915-1925, selected by me (Ben Model) and by silent comedy film historian Steve Massa. The films that will be on the DVD will be seen in new digital scans of archival 35mm and 16mm materials preserved by the Library of Congress, and will be scanned by the Library of Congress’ lab. I will create a brand new custom musical score for each film.

All of the films will require exposure adjustments and some may need new intertitles or main titles.

The DVD box art will be created by professional graphic designer and silent era aficionado Marlene Weisman. The DVDs will be professionally authored and they will be made available for sale on Amazon.com, as I have been doing using successfully for 18 of my DVD releases, and will be publicized.

This Kickstarter covers all costs for the DVD’s production and release, as well as of the making of and shipping of backer DVDs.

Films scheduled to be on the DVD (subject to change):

  • How Stars are Made (1916)
  • In Dutch (1918)
  • A Convict’s Happy Bride (1920)
  • His Wooden Legacy (1920)
  • Distilled Love (1920)
  • Under a Spell (1925)”

Go buy! THE ALICE HOWELL DVD PROJECT

 

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That’s That!

One of the Laurel & Hardy items I’ve wanted to see for the longest is ‘THAT’S THAT!’. It was a gag reel compiled by Hal Roach Studios editor Bert Jordan, on the occasion of Stan Laurel’s 47th Birthday. It’s been shown at a couple of L & H conventions, and a really ropey off-screen dupe of a short section once appeared on YouTube, but now it’s been fully restored by UCLA and put online. And it’s a strange eight minutes, to be sure…

Jordan had access to all sorts of outtakes, bloopers and sound effects in the Roach vaults, and used them to cobble together a bizarre little stream-of-consciousness short, replete with non-sequitirs, random effects, animations and amusing juxtapositions ending up like something Spike Milligan would have been proud of!

It begins with full Roach titles; THAT’S THAT was the original working title for THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE. Alternate takes from MURDER CASE form a large part of the footage, along with its Spanish language counterpart NOCHE DE DUENDES. There are also chunks of OUR WIFE, LAUGHING GRAVY, DIRTY WORK and the then-current WAY OUT WEST. Outtakes from the latter include a shot of Tiny Sandford in costume (replaced by Stanley Fields in the finished version) and Stan’s double Ham Kinsey reciting the declaration of independence!

L & H co-star Charley Chase makes an appearance, messing up a scene from MANHATTAN MONKEY BUSINESS and cursing; Edgar Kennedy provides a wrap-up comment for the short. There are also glimpses of Mae Busch, Jimmy Finlayson, Charlie Hall, Babe London and Gordon Douglas.

Most interesting of all is a very brief deleted gag from SONS IN THE DESERT, from the attic scene. Stan is attempting to pull something on a string up to the attic, but manages to get it caught on a radio set, which falls over and explodes.


Moments like this make you wonder what else was once lurking in the vaults and now vanished. A fascinating, if bizarre, way to spend eight and a half minutes… Many thanks to UCLA and their funding donors for making this available! We really are spoiled these days… If you want to give a little something back you can support UCLA’s Laurel & Hardy Preservation fund here: https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/support/laurel-and-hardy

Here’s ‘THAT’S THAT’ online:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AapRK62 … e=youtu.be

 

April on Talking Pictures TV: Laurel & Hardy, Norman Wisdom, Will Hay, Frank Randle & more.

Lots more goodies on TPTV this month for fans of classic comedy, particularly old British stuff. Here are some of the top picks…

Laurel & Hardy films continue to be shown:

Sun 08 April 19:35   Helpmates

Tue 10 Apr 18 13:35 Brats
Wed 11 Apr 18 10:15 Below Zero
Thu 12 Apr 18 11:20 Towed In A Hole
Fri 13 Apr 18 23:05 Our Relations
Sat 14 Apr 18 9:35 Below Zero
Sun 15 Apr 18 9:35 Tit for Tat Mon 16 Apr 18
4:25 Private Life Of Oliver the 8th
Tue 17 Apr 18 10:20 Pack Up Your Troubles
Tue 24 Apr 18 18:40 Sons of the Desert
Wed 25 Apr 18 18:35 Pardon Us
Mon 30 Apr 18 15:50 The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case

No new titles that haven’t been shown already, but there are rumours that some of L & H’s shorts, including their silents, are to appear soon…

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Walter Forde

 

Speaking of silents, you can see L & H co-stars Charley Chase and Mae Busch in the early Keystone comedy SETTLED AT THE SEASIDE. It’s on at 15.00 on Tuesday 10th April.  Obscure British silent comedian Walter Forde even makes an appearance! His 1922 short WALTER WANTS WORK shows on Friday 13 April at 7.50. Later a notable director of comedy and thrillers, three more of his films are airing: GASBAGS with The Crazy Gang on Thurs 12th April at 8.00, the Jimmy Durante vehicle LAND WITHOUT MUSIC on Thu 26 Apr 18 6:00, and at the beginning of May, ROME EXPRESS: Fri 04 May at 14:30.

There’s also the tail end of TPTV’s Will Hay Season, with

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‘BOYS WILL BE BOYS’ (1935). An early effort, it’s just a notch below his best and he hasn’t found stooges Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt yet, but there are some great examples of his bumbling schoolteacher routine. You also get the amusing Claude Dampier in a supporting role. ‘BOYS WILL BE BOYS’ shows on Thursday 5th April at 10:40, and is repeated at 12pm on Sunday 8th.

 

The films of another music hall/variety legend also get an airing. The ramshackle works of Frank Randle are a whole lot less polished than the Will Hay films, and can be difficult to sit through in their entirety. Randle was an utterly fascinating comic though, a manic force of nature, and his films certainly have their moments. Often the anarchic Randle was shown in an army setting, a perfect mismatch for his contrarian persona. SOMEWHERE IN CAMP is one example, showing in the small hours of 27 April at 2.45am.  WHEN YOU COME HOME is Randle’s most polished film, a curious piece which makes him much more of an underdog. It’s on at 9.30 on Tuesday 24th April.

A later star comic, Norman Wisdom also gets a look-in with THE BULLDOG BREED at 21.00 on Weds 4th April, and UP IN THE WORLD

Also from the 1950s, there are several other British comedies, amongst them:

Wed 11 Apr 18 6:00 The Naked Truth (1957), a Terry-Thomas vehicle.

Sat 14 Apr 18 6:00 Chance of a Lifetime (1950).  Basil Radford, Bernard Miles, Kenneth More, Patrick Troughton & Hattie Jacques in the tale about the staff of an engineering firm who take over after going on strike.

Tue 17 Apr 18 14:00 Keep It Clean – Ronald Shiner comedy about a dry cleaning business.

Thu 19 Apr 18 6:00 Innocents In Paris . A great cast of comic actors, including Alastair Sim & Margaret Rutherford.

Mon 23 Apr 18 9:45 The Madame Gambles (1951). Comedy. The owner of a dress shop gambles the shop away to her bookie who inherits, not only the shop, but the manager.  Starring Richard Hearne (Mr Pastry) and Petula Clark.
Mon 23 Apr 18 11:20 The Galloping Major 1951. Director: Henry Cornelius. Stars Basil Radford, Sidney James, Jimmy Hanley & Janette Scott. A very Ealing comedy feel to this tale of a racehorse.

Sun 29Apr 18 13:50 Three Men In A Boat 1956. Laurence Harvey, Jimmy Edwards & David  Tomlinson star in this adaptation of Jerome K Jerome’s novel.

Lots more goodies, too. The full schedule is available at talkingpicturestv.co.uk/schedule . Thankyou TPTV for continuing to show such a diverse range of films!

 

 

A note from ‘Nipper’

Here’s something I just picked up on eBay for the princely sum of £1.75… An original autographed postcard from Lupino Lane’s career as a boy comedian. In those days he was billed as Master ‘Nipper’ Lupino Lane. The nickname came from the expression ‘little nipper’, but Lane grew to dislike it as a ‘nipper’ was also slang for a pickpocket. He preferred to be known as ‘Nip’, an appellation which would stick with him for the rest of his life.

The eBay listing dates it as 1910 but I’m fairly certain it’s from before then; Lane looks much younger than 18 in the photo, so I’d date it from the first half of the 1900s. There’s a note on the back soliciting ticket sales. I wonder if it was successful..

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Keaton in Conversation

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It’s always a pleasure to hear Buster Keaton speak. That deep and rasping voice so full of life and stories. Here he has a genuine audience in interviewer Fletcher Markle, who seems fascinated by him, and has at least read his autobiography. The interview takes place at Buster’s ‘ranch’ home, and there are some nice shots of him and Eleanor at home in the garden.

Some of Keaton’s answers ramble away from the question a bit, but they are always entertaining, and he seems engaged in the conversation. There are some chunks missing here and there, so occasionally the subject of conversation changes abruptly. Overall, this is a fascinating document though. What wouldn’t you give to be a fly on the wall…?

Fletcher Markle interview

 

(Whispering) Whoopee! Charley Chase talkies on DVD

Charley Chase: At Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume One 1930-31Charley Chase has gone from being an under-represented figure  on home video releases to having much of his classic work out there in superior quality. Thanks to DVD releases from Kino, AllDay Entertainment and Milestone films, a majority of his existing silent work can now be widely seen. In recent years, even his late sound shorts for Columbia have even been pulled from the vaults and released by Sony.

All this is extremely heartening, but the holy grail has always been his Hal Roach sound shorts. Picking up from where he left off in silent days, Chase kept on churning out little gems at Roach until 1936. The distinctive charm of the Roach films, with their stock company and background music, along with Chase’s excellent performances and some great gags, made these a wonderful bunch of films. More’s the pity that they’ve been so hard to see! There was a period when the films  were aired semi-regularly on TCM in the USA, and it has been possible to cobble them together through a ragbag assortment of bootlegs from off-air recordings, VHS transfers and  often ropey 16mm prints, but a legitimate and comprehensive release, in nice quality, has remained elusive.

 No longer. Step forward expert comedy historian Richard M Roberts and The Sprocket Vault, who have achieved what no-one else has been able to in bringing some of Chase’s sound shorts to DVD (it’s the first in a planned series of volumes, which will hopefully work through all the other Chases). Simply by existing, this set would be automatically brilliant; that it presents the films in the best quality possible, with great extras and authoritative commentaries, makes it an absolute  triumph.

Chase’s earliest talkies are currently unavailable, so this set picks up with THE REAL McCOY, his first release of 1930, and goes through to his last release of 1931. Within these parameters, you get some of his all time best, including WHISPERING WHOOPEE, LOOSER THAN LOOSE, THE HASTY MARRIAGE and, of course, THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG. Disc 1 covers 1930, and disc 2 1931. The chronological nature means that you get to see how Charley developed his approach to comedy during the early sound era.  This was a transitional period for Chase, and while sound gave him no cause for alarm, it did give him pause for thought, and to try some new approaches and variations in character. As well as films in the vein of his silent farces like LOOSER THAN LOOSE and DOLLAR DIZZY , several  of the 1930 films are particularly offbeat and experimental in nature. FIFTY MILLION HUSBANDS is a really fun little short full of quirky bits of business and GIRL SHOCK is a particularly unusual comedy, with Charley bordering on Harpo Marx-style mania every time a girl touches him. This one was new to me, and while it’s not one of Chase’s all-time best, I find it a fascinating film. Present also are his experiments at making mini musicals, HIGH Cs and its wonderful companion piece, ROUGH SEAS. Not all the experiments are entirely successful, but that said, practically everything Chase did is diverting and most watchable, especially for L & H buffs, who can enjoy seeing familiar Roach faces like James Finlayson and Charlie Hall in other roles.

See the source imageOf course, the most famous supporting player to feature opposite Charley is the pip herself, Thelma Todd. Their partnership resulted in some absolutely charming comedies, of which THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG endures the most. This simple tale of Charley’s attempts to turn off a blind date, then trying to undo his work when it turns out to be Thelma, is elegantly told and full of great sight gags. As a fascinating extra, the Spanish phonetic version, LA SENORITA DE CHICAGO, is included. While it loses Thelma Todd, it gains an extra reel, including a song from Charley and some bridging scenes that actually make it flow much better than the English original  (for more details on  THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG and Chase & Todd’s other films together, take a look here)

While PIP is most definitely a highlight, some of the less vaunted shorts are just as delightful.  Personal favourites:

See the source imageLOOSER THAN LOOSE, a charming romantic situation comedy, where much of the humour is down entirely to the wonderful performances of the cast;

HASTY MARRIAGE, full of great sight gags and slapstick in a tale of streetcar romance;

ONE OF THE SMITHS, a hillbilly comedy with some terrific mechanical gags, and a much funnier update of L& H’s upper berth sequence, as Charley tries to share his tiny berth with a large tuba!

THE PANIC IS ON, riffing on black humour gags spoofing the depression. There’s an added bonus of a nice little cameo from Laughing Gravy.

Richard Roberts provides detailed and entertaining commentaries for all the film. It’s clear that this is a labour of love, and we owe a huge vote of thanks for the effort in creating the set. As he has said, it is hoped that other volumes in this series will follow; that just depends on how well this first volume sells. So what are you waiting for? Buy, buy, buy!  I’m certain you won’t regret it. It’s hard not to like Charley Chase, and this set is a must-have if you have even the slightest interest in his work, or that of Laurel & Hardy and the Hal Roach studios. While the Chase talkies are generally looser than his impeccably constructed silents, there’s a heckuva lot of talent in these films, and a heckuva lot of fun, too. And there’s plenty more where that came from: Many of the films that the prolific Chase made in 1932 and beyond, such as YOUNG IRONSIDES, HIS SILENT RACKET, NURSE TO YOU, MANHATTAN MONKEY BUSINESS and POKER AT EIGHT, are as good as anything he ever did, so here’s (greedily) hoping for more volumes soon!

Buy Charley Chase at Hal Roach: the Talkies, volume 1 from Amazon. Buy them for your friends too, while you’re there!

Lame Brains, Lunatics, Lost films & Noisy silents: Silent Laughter, day 2.

 What’s better than a whole day of rare silent comedies on the big screen? A whole weekend of it! After an action-packed Saturday, the second and final day of SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND saw even more rare screenings, along with some very special guests. So, it was back into the Cinema Museum early on a grey and sleepy Sunday morning…

And how better to wake up on a sleepy sabbath day than with some fast-paced slapstick comedies? The LAME BRAINS & LUNATICS programme showcased the more manic, knockabout end of the silent comedy spectrum in a programme curated by American expert Steve Massa (whose authoritative book the programme was named after). Thanks to the technical wizardry of David Glass, we were able to see filmed introductions by Mr Massa to each of the five shorts, full of details, and entertainingly presented. These were rare films; as far as we know, at least two or three of them are the only known copies. We’d taken a look at these in the BFI archive and thought they were worth showing; now, inn beautiful prints on the big screen and with expert musical accompaniment by John Sweeney, the films sprang to life.

First up was a rare Arbuckle short, ‘LOVERS’ LUCK’ (1913). A standard piece of rural knockabout from ‘The Prince of Whales’, this features Arbuckle at typically violent odds with Al St John for the hand of Minta Durfee (Arbuckle’s real life wife). With extra support from Frank Hayes as a parson and Phyllis Allen as a harridan, this was an unsophisticated but very fun short. There was an especially neat conclusion, as Parson Hayes finds himself on the wrong side of a jealous husband, and hides in a wardrobe.; hiding from Minta’s parents, so does Arbuckle. Minta is also locked in there by her parents until she agrees to marry Al, but she and Roscoe are able to be married by the parson inside the wardrobe.

Also from the teens was ‘HIS BUSY DAY’ (1918). This starred Toto the clown, an eccentric character whose success in circuses did not translate to films. Hal Roach found this out to his cost; Toto hated film making, objecting to the whir of the camera and refusing to be dunked in water. Eventually, he broke his contract to return to the circus.

See the source imageOn-screen, he is an odd creature to be sure; his slithery, amphibious movements inside oversized clothes and a bucket-shaped hat give him the appearance of a strange, giant newt. His saucer-shaped eyes and slow blink anticipate a little of Langdon, but nothing else indicates any real kind of character. HIS BUSY DAY, as its title suggests, was a fairly generic little trifle, with parks, pretty girls, pies and a lack of continuity: Toto steals a pie, dresses as a woman to escape a policeman, gets a job as a newsreel cameraman for a bit, then gives it up after he angers the newsreel proprietor (Bud Jamison). Even allowing for some missing footage, this was clearly a fairly run of the mill effort. Toto did have good timing however, as the highlight of the film showed: a scene where he hides from Bud Jamison behind a pivoting wooden sign, at one point attaching himself to it in the splits position! Ultimately, Toto’s biggest contribution to film comedy was in leaving films, thus opening the door for Roach to hire a young Stan Laurel as his replacement.

This was a beautiful, albeit incomplete, print from the BFI, found under the title TOTO CAMERAMAN, we were able to identify the real title after viewing it last year. I believe this is the only print around?

Next up was another European, Marcel Perez, the man of a thousand names. Robinet, Marcel Fabre, Tweedledum, Tweede-Dan and Tweedy were some of his screen names over the years. Billed under the latter moniker in ‘SWEET DADDY’ (1921), Perez was already a veteran of the screen; his European films dated back to 1906! Like Max Linder, he had come to the U.S. during WW1, making several seriesSee the source image of independent comedies and also working as a director. ‘SWEET DADDY’ was a simple tale of a henpecked husband who seizes his hour of freedom when sent out for the groceries, but it was full of some great gags, and snappily directed by Perez. Particularly there was a charming sequence in which he gazes at a girl on a poster, who seems to come to life and flirt with him. Perez’ career was sadly coming to an end; cancer cost him a leg in 1923, and while he continued as a director, the illness returned and took his life in 1928. Nevertheless, he was obviously a real talent, and it’s been mainly due to the efforts of Steve Massa and Ben Model that we’re able to see his films again: they’ve put together two volumes of his surviving shorts on DVD.

The final two films were both Mermaid comedies, produced by Jack White, described by Steve as “silent comedy’s boy wonder!”. A fully-fledged producer by the age of 21, White specialised in fast and furious comedies full of stunts and sight gags. A typical example was DANGER! (1922), a magnificently elaborate gag fest starring Lige Conley. It’s hard to believe quite how much technical effort went into staging a little two-reeler like this, which contained chases, undercranked gags, wild stunts and animated trick gags, such as Conley’s eyebrows seeming to twirl around his forehead in surprise. No time to worry about characters in a film like this, but when it’s done so well, who cares? Even the borrowings were done well, as Conley appropriates Chaplin’s gag from THE ADVENTURER, where he utilises a lampshade as a disguise. Here, an extra twist was added, as Conley’s ‘lamp’ is next to the bed of the villain. The villain decides he wants to read, pulling Conley’s pyjama cord as the lightswitch, forcing him to continuously light matches to keep up the charade until he burns his fingers and the jig is up.

Similarly action packed was Al St John’s SKYBOUND (1926). Very much in the mould of the Roscoe Arbuckle shorts, this was full of slapstick grocery store gags, but Al’s performance was much more toned-down and almost Keatonesque. The second half had a rather arbitrary plane chase that was well filmed with trick shots, and had a great final gag as Al’s parachute blows him away down a very long, dusty road. This film came with an additional introduction from St John expert Annichen Skjaren in Norway, who shared entertaining tales about the film, and added that St John was in real life a wing walker capable of doing aerial stunts.

The more manic films like those that made up this programme are often shunned as being unsophisticated. Of course, they aren’t enduring classics, but you have to marvel at the sheer gusto and ingenuity that went into making them, and they can often be very funny indeed, especially when contextualised by experts such as Steve Massa and Annichen Skjaren. Many thanks to them for sharing their time with us, and to David Glass for coordinating the programme.

SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK pic 1Next up was ‘SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK’ (1921), perhaps Max Linder’s best feature. It’s now famous for having one of the best versions of that broken mirror routine, some 12 years before the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP, but the whole film is most entertaining. David Robinson’s introduction paid a heartful tribute to Max’s daughter Maud Linder, who passed away last year. It was her zealous promotion of her father’s talents that has ensured he is still remebered today, almost 100 years after his death.

There was an extra Linder-shaped bonus in the form of ‘LES EFFETS DE PILULES’, or ‘LOVE AND GOOD FELLOWSHIP PILLS’. One of his French shorts, this was in a new restoration by Bob Geoghegan of the Archive Film Agency. Max is down in the dumps, and is prescribed the eponymous pills; they raise his spirits enormously. His wife also takes some, with even more vivid results: she’s soon launching herself at every man she meets in the street! Max is in hot pursuit, challenging each man to a duel! In the missing final sequence, all the men show up for a duel, but Max shares the pills around and all is forgotten. A great fun little short that shows how much more sophisticated Max was than his contemporaries.

Sophisticated was certainly not a word that applied to WE’RE IN THE NAVY NOW (1926). A vehicle for the team of gruff Wallace Beery and shrimp Raymond Hatton, this was a standard service comedy, basically a series of all-too-familiar blackout gags involving hammocks, scrubbing floors, peeling potatoes, etc etc. Still, perhaps audiences hadn’t seen it all 3000 times before in 1926; certainly the Beery-Hatton team were very popular, making 4 such service pictures that also took them through the army, air force and fire service. In fact, the commercial success of their teaming possibly inspired the Laurel & Hardy pairing. Certainly, the opening scenes in which boxer Beery is knocked cold and wakes up in the ring hours later was influential on the opening scenes of L & H’s ‘BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. L & H, of course, made the situation much funnier by making the smaller member of the team the boxer, and added in Hardy’s exasperated camera looks to make something timeless. There was one superb gag in the original sequence though: Beery has landed on a chair when he is knocked out; when he finally comes round hours later, we see that he has been sat on a very crumpled Billy Bletcher the entire time!

Kevin Brownlow’s introduction admitted the failings of the film, and he recalled that he had offered director Eddie Sutherland the chance to view the film in later years. Sutherland repeatedly declined… ‘nuff said!

We're_in_the_navy_now_lobby_card

wont talk

Next up was the return of Monty Banks, in a talkie! ‘SO YOU WON’T TALK’ (1935) is a rare sound starring vehicle for Banks, and is a wonderfully creative idea for a silent comedian: he spends most of the film unable to speak. This give him lots of opportunity for communicating in pantomime and sight gags. The reason is another one of those improbable inheritance plots –if he can go thirty days without talking, he will inherit a fortune – but it’s set up very well in the exposition; we get to meet the soon-to-be-deceased, a real grouch who is driven mad by his chatty, fortune-hunting family and understand his motivation for making the will. Banks is the family outcast, an incessantly talkative Italian waiter (a nice cover to make Banks’ strong Italian accent more acceptable to contemporary audiences), who staying silent will be a real challenge for. The build up to the will is quite slow, but it really sets the situation up well. Highlights of Banks’ silence include his attempts to mime what drink he wants, a wrestling match as the family attempt to find his birthmark, and Banks’ seduction by Enid Stamp-Taylor. A strong cast, including wonderfully dopey Claude Dampier, and snappy direction from William Beaudine, helped get lots of laughs from this film. If only more silent clowns had got to make a talkie like this. One can only wonder what Keaton might have done with the idea…

From talkies full of silence to silent filled with noise… it was time for some NOISY SILENTS! Hosted by masterful silent accompanist Neil Brand, this programme presented some of the silent shorts whose gags relied on noise. As well as Neil’s accompaniment, there was an orchestra of cacophony providing live sound effects ranging from kazoos and trumpets to ukuleles, squeakers, drums, car horns, pots and pans! A special shout out must also go to cellist Emily, who stepped in at the last moment and did a fantastic job. Her cello was an integral sound for Harry Langdon’s wonderful FIDDLESTICKS, a tale of Harry’s attempts to make a living busking. Lupino Lane’s SUMMER SAPS, a tale of a holiday from hell in a noisy boarding house, and Our Gang’s NOISY NOISES, both offered comedy of frustration and chance for some creative sound effects!

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A selection of the sound effects for NOISY SILENTS…

 

tootinWe finished off in fine style with some audience participation for Laurel & Hardy’s YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’, in which the pants-ripping finale was replicated through the ripping of newspapers placed under each chair in the auditorium. This programme was great fun, and a real variation on the usual silent film accompaniment. No kazoos were hurt during the screening of these films.

And just like that, it was time for the final show of the weekend. It was a fine finish, with a very special guest. Roy Hudd, one of the last links to the music hall and variety tradition, presented his favourite visual comedy clips, in conversation with Glenn Mitchell. This was a real treat; Roy was a fantastic, funny storyteller, and had real enthusiasm and ROY HUDD for programme noteknowledge for the old comedians. Among the highlights were clips from Tati’s MON ONCLE, Lupino Lane’s JOYLAND, and Roy’s own semi-silent film ‘THE MALADJUSTED BUSKER’. Finally, we concluded with a full showing of the complete ‘BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. I’ve written about this film before, but it was as marvellous tonight as the first time I saw the ‘new’ footage; simply one of the iconic silent comedy scenes, now once again “as nature intended”.

As the lights came up for the final time, I felt incredibly lucky and grateful. Lucky that films like ‘BATTLE’ still exist, against the odds; luckier still that we are able to see them, especially with terrifically talented musicians and with informative introduction. Most of all, I felt lucky to be able to be able to share all this with other likeminded people in a warm and happy atmosphere. There’s a danger that watching old films in darkened rooms, sometimes alone, can become a very solitary hobby, but the chance to enjoy it as a shared experience, especially with the lovely folks at the Kennington Bioscope, is something else entirely.

Huge thanks to all the KB folk, especially to David Wyatt, who curated the event magnificently, and of course to Kevin Brownlow. Thanks too, to all the musicians and speakers. The Silent laughter events are something very special; here’s to the next one!

For more comprehensive info, here are the full programme notes, courtesy of the Kennington Bio website.

A Perfect Gentleman, the sheik of slapstick and the funniest woman in the world: A weekend at the Kennington Bioscope (part 1)

DX8lxP1WsAEtrNa.jpgI’ve just returned from SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND at London’s Cinema Museum. The fourth such event run by the lovely folk at Kennington Bioscole, these are now a real highlight of my year, and I was privileged to have some involvement in selecting and presenting  a few films. Of course, we’re lucky to have silent comedies so freely available on DVD, YouTube and everywhere else, but the real way they’re meant to be seen is like this: on a big screen, as a shared experience with other cinemagoers, and with live musical accompaniment. Stand up and take a bow, John Sweeney, Meg Morley. Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulos, Cyrus Gabrysch, whose wonderful playing brought these films to life. To hear the expert introductions of historians such as Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson only heightened the experience. Here’s part one of a review of the weekend. Part two to follow!

The weekend began with THE NIGHT CLUB (1925), starring Raymond Griffith (promoted as ‘The New Sheik of Slapstick!”). His first starring feature, it is a wonderful vehicle for his understated, unique comic style. The film launched his career in features with a high pedigree; produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, it was directed by his protégées Paul Iribe and Frank Urson and based on a play by DeMille’s brother.

raymond_griffithThis is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women but has to undergo an arranged marriage to inherit a fortune. He genuinely falls in love with his arranged bride (Vera Reynolds), but she thinks he’s only after her for the money. A despondent Griffith pays a bandit (Wallace Beery) to bump him off, but Vera finds out the truth and they are reconciled. Now Griff’s only problem is to tell the bandit that no, thank you, he doesn’t want to die anymore…

It’s a complicated story and even that summary doesn’t take account of many of the tangents and subplots that arise. It’s easy to see why it was a failure as a play, but as a Griffith vehicle it succeeds admirably. Our hero wins through with a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.

There are also great performances from Beery, William Austin and Louise Fazenda, not to mention some great suicide gags and lovely location shooting on the dusty paradise of Catalina Island.

Director Eddie Sutherland contended that Griffith’s failing as a comic was that he tried to mix too many styles, but the inclusion of sight gags and slapstick alongside more gentle material makes films like THE NIGHT CLUB much more entertaining than many of the light comedies of the era.

Griffith’s best films were yet to come, as he refined his suave, sly style; his best surviving films are probably PATHS TO PARADISE and HANDS UP. THE NIGHT CLUB, however, remains a fun and different comedy. By the way, if you’re wondering where the night club of the title comes in… it doesn’t. Kevin Brownlow explained in his introduction that this was a side effect of the studios’ block booking system. Often films were sold to exhibitors before they were filmed or even written. Paramount had promised a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, so they delivered a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, even though their new story had nothing at all to do with one!

Next it was on to a programme of British shorts, titled THE BRITISH ARE COMING and presented by Tony Fletcher. Now, these can be a mixed bag. There are some fantastic British silent comedies, but many are a bit too polite and ponderous. Certainly, they were created in a different idiom to the American model of silent comedy.This programme had a higher batting average than many, showcasing some offbeat efforts.

‘BOOKWORMS’, made in 1920, is a charming little vehicle for Leslie Howard. Written by A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories), it shows Milne’s literary instincts in a witty modern fairytale pastiche. Substituting suburban villas for castles and fiery housemaids for dragons, this is an updated Rapunzel-style tale of Howard’s attempts to contact Pauline Johnson, who is locked away by her Aunt and Uncle, and made to read books all day. Howard’s love note arranging a rendezvous, sent inside her library book, also reaches three other people, resulting in a farcical meeting of several different characters, each thinking the other has sent it. This is a mild, but very charming tale. Much of the humour comes from the breaking of the fourth wall, especially in the intertitles.

This was a pet tactic of director Adrian Brunel, who loved to play with the medium of film. More of Brunel’s whimsical humour was seen in CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA. A spoof travelogue, this skewers the pomoposity of the genre superbly. Again, much of the humour coems through intertitles, juxtaposition of images and bizarre use of stock  footage. In its sublime silliness, the short anticipates Spike Milligan’s work (especially sketches from ‘Q’, like ‘First Irish Rocket to the Moon’)

Also experimental was THE FUGITIVE FUTURIST, in which an inventor produces a magic device that shows visions of the future. Through the magic of double exposure, animation and an effect that makes the emulsion seem to melt off the film, we see waves lapping at the shores of Trafalgar square, Tower Bridge turned into a monorail, and houses that build themselves. A bizarre little film!

There was a chance to glimpse behind the scenes at the film industry (and film fandom) with STARLINGS OF THE SCREEN. This short chronicles the progress of a competition run by Picture Show magazine, whereby 3000 young ladies entered to be in with a chance of winning a film role; kind of ‘THE X FACTOR’ of its day! The 15 shortlisted provincial candidates are seen trying their hardest to act at a series of screen tests at Oswald Stoll’s studios. Also on hand is comic actor Moore Marriott, later best known as one of Will Hay’s sidekicks, who puts the girls through their paces in a series of short little sketches. This was a great little item: a fascinating time capsule, often (unintentionally) hilarious. There was also a touch of poignancy in the doomed ambitions of the film hopefuls, who simply didn’t have ‘it’ and would soon return to obscurity. Nancy Baird of Glasgow, and Sheilagh Allen of Londonderry, whatever became of you?

So far, so good. The only one of these films to disappoint was ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’. Starring Guy Newall & Ivy Duke, this too played with the medium of cinema, having a prologue breaking the fourth wall, in which Duke & Newall invite the public to join them in their dressing rooms preparing for the film. The story itself was the tale of Duke’s perpetual discomfort caused by her woollen underwear. At the theatre, Newall is sat behind her, absentmindedly fiddles with a thread he sees dangling from the bottom of her chair and soon has unravelled her entire vest. It was a nice little idea for a throwaway gag, but stretching it out to almost half an hour was fairly infuriating! I could have seen Lloyd or Keaton doing a similar gag, but as a little aside, rather than building a whole film around it! Nevertheless, an interesting little item, and overall this showed that British films were often very creative and playful.

the_nickel_nurser__poster___stan_taffel_After lunch, I was thrilled to be able to present an overview of CHARLEY CHASE. Chase is one of my absolute favourite silent (and sound comedians), and he’s often been a neglected figure, so it’s always a pleasure to show his films to new audiences. The 1920s, with their increased focus on human comedy, were Chase’s decade. In front of the camera, he played an eternally embarrassed young man, while behind it he was an enormously inventive, prolific and consistent comedy craftsman.

An extract from ALL WET (1924) provided an early example of a classic Chase situation, escalating from simple, believable beginnings to peaks of absurdity. Charley is on his way to meet a train in his car; he helps another motorist out of a mud puddle, and in doing so becomes stuck himself. His attempts to free the car end in it being completely submerged, necessitating Charley’s repairs of the car from underwater. ALL WET builds gags brilliantly, and is a fine example of the teamwork between Chase and its director, future Oscar-winner Leo McCarey (who once said “Everything I know, I learned from Charley Chase”).

Together Chase and MccCarey thrived off each other, developing a unique style of intricate storytelling. When Chase’s films were expanded to two reels, they were able to use the extra space to construct beautifully elaborate farces, mini-masterpieces packed with gags, situations and great characters. To illustrate this, we saw large excerpts from ‘WHAT PRICE GOOFY’, ‘FLUTTERING HEARTS’ and ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’, the latter getting some of the biggest laughs of the weekend with its split-second timed multiple exchanges of trousers.

Two things struck me forcefully while selecting the clips:

1 – it’s incredibly hard to take excerpts out of Chase’s films, as they are so tightly and masterfully constructed.

2 – Chase really realised the value of his supporting casts. Perhaps it was background as a director, but he never seems egotistical about his own performances, always allowing others to shine; his films are true ensemble pieces. Oliver Hardy, Katherine Grant, Gale Henry, Thelma Todd, Tom Dugan, Vivian Oakland and Buddy the Dog are just some of the performers given great opportunities in the films we saw.

The closing scenes from ‘THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG’ showcased Charley’s illustrious career in talkies, and we finished off with the complete ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’. The apotheosis of Charley’s taking a simple idea to ridiculous extremes,  this tale follows him and and his wife as they both have plastic surgery, fail to recognise each other and embark on an affair! This has righty been recognised as a masterpiece, and has been added to the USA’s National Film Registry along with other classics like ‘THE GENERAL’ and ‘BIG BUSINESS’.

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It was a real delight to hear the laughter at Chase’s films, with several people in the audience commenting that it was their first time seeing them. Charley didn’t live long enough to see his work being appreciated; if only he could have heard the response his films got on Saturday…

Also in the comedy of embarrassment mould was Monty Banks’ 1927 feature ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. We saw it in a pristine 35mm copy from the BFI, albeit with Spanish intertitles. Monty was, for my money, one of the hardest working silent comedians. He was an Italian, real name Mario Bianchi, who arrived in the US in 1915.  He spoke very little English, but through hard work and a good deal of good luck,  scraped by in a series of Chaplinesque film roles. These included supporting Roscoe Arbuckle, who gave him his new screen name. Making a series of comedies for obscure and independent companies, he eventually found a toehold in the industry with a cheerful little character, trying his best to be dapper, but always on the back foot. In the 1920s he shifted focus to vehicles with a Lloydian mix of comedy with thrills and speed, turning out a series of features that pitted him against racing cars, speedboats and runaway trains. From 1926, Pathé had been promoting him as Lloyd’s successor, but had more or less given up on him by the time of ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. With some evidence of budgets being cut, it features less of the high-speed stunt climaxes, but makes up for it with brilliantly gag-packed sequences and situation comedy. Monty works in a bank, and is due to marry the president’s daughter. En route to his wedding he innocently becomes drunk; suffice to say, his wedding does not end well, especially as he spends much of the time trying to kick his future mother-in-law in the rear!

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Meanwhile, Monty’s colleague has robbed the bank, planning to pin the robbery on Monty. Waking with a terrible hangover to a broken engagement, Monty decides to leave town, but mixes his bags, and ends up with the stolen money. The rest of the film takes place on board a ship and follows Monty’s attempts to:

  1.  foil the crooks trying to get the money back
  2. win back his girl who is aboard the ship
  3. return the money to her father and prove his innocence.

He might be on a ship, but plain sailing, it ain’t! A new complication arises as Monty is constantly caught in compromising situations with the purser’s wife, a running gag that has some brilliant variations. Best of all is a sequence where Monty, finding her unconscious, accidentally tears her dress off. His attempts to remedy the situation end up making even more of her clothes fall off, but he manages to improvise an entirely new outfit for her. A wonderful routine of physical comedy, in a film full of them; it’s the funniest Banks film I’ve yet seen.

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Part of the credit is surely due to Clyde Bruckman, one of the very best silent gagmen, hired by Banks due to his work with Keaton & Lloyd. A PERFECT GENTLEMAN does indeed borrow some gags from the Keaton/Lloyd vehicles. Overall though, it shows Monty moving from a direct Lloyd influence to a more farcical style redolent of Charley Chase. In fact, this could have been the ideal vehicle to launch Chase in features. A great little film, and one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Nevertheless, however good performers like Banks or Raymond Griffith are, the following programme, KEATON CLASSICS, made it clear just why Buster Keaton has attained his mythical status in comparison to the more forgotten comics. Four authors – Kevin Brownlow, David Robinson, Polly Rose & David McLeod – presented their favourite sequences from Buster’s features. Each sequence was, of course, magnificent, and I almost felt like I was seeing them for the first time again. It was a lovely idea to have personal introductions, as Keaton means so many different things to so many people.

David Robinson praised the dramatic strength of OUR HOSPITALITY, reminding us that it was a stunning debut in feature directing (THE SAPHEAD was not directed by Keaton and THREE AGES planned as three shorts glued together, in case it didn’t work out; ergo, HOSPITALITY was BK’s first planned feature). He had picked the river scene that culminates in Buster’s dramatic plunge across a waterfall to rescue Natalie Talmadge, a sequence that gives me the shivers every time I see it.

 

Kevin Brownlow’s choice was the wonderfully action-packed Tong War sequence from THE CAMERAMAN, and David McLeod opted for the iconic cyclone climax of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. Most fascinating of all was Polly Rose, a newcomer to writing about BK; an editor by trade, she was ideally placed to share discoveries about how Keaton achieved his visual effects walking into the cinema screen in SHERLOCK, JR. Through her research, she also shared discoveries about alternate versions of the scene, in which Buster seemed to enter the screen on a beam of light shone from his projector, before being spat back out into a tangle of film. Polly shared evidence of this version being previewed from at least three trade papers, and found clues in publicity stills that point to the action that might have occurred. A fascinating theory and who knows? Maybe one day one of those preview prints will turn up. Stranger things have happened!

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I know Keaton’s films so well by know that I sometimes take for granted how incredible they are. Seeing excerpts like this from different films reminded me just how diverse and special his films were, for not just his performances and gags, but also his storytelling, stunts and technical wizardry, not to mention that intangible quality that makes him so compelling.

How to follow four of Keaton’s finest sequences? Step up to the plate, Beatrice Lillie! Miss Lillie made only 7 films in her long career, and 1926’s EXIT SMILING is her sole silent. Nevertheless, her brief stay in Hollywood elicited devotion from the West Coast royalty; Chaplin described her as “my female counterpart”, while Buster Keaton guarded her hotel room door, “lying there like Old Dog Tray”. EXIT SMILING shows exactly why. One of the sadly few silent feature comedies to really show a female comedian to good advantage, it gives her opportunity for both great comic acting and genuine pathos. As Violet, Bea is a dogsbody with a travelling theatre company who longs to play the part of a vamp. She gets her chance to act not on the stage, but in real life, where she has to seduce a villain to save the man she loves. The scenes of her vamping the villain are simply brilliant, especially the moment where her pearl necklace disintegrates. If only shexite’d made more films!

EXIT SMILING was given a marvellously authoritative introduction by Michelle Facey, who summed up Bea’s career and appeal brilliantly. Accompaniment was by the wonderful Meg Morley. The screening was, in fact, of Beatrice Lillie’s personal 16mm copy of the film, and the personal connection of the evening didn’t end there. The last word must go to David Robinson, who shared his poignant story of attending a screening of the film with Beatrice Lillie in 1968.

“She was starting to forget things… They’d taken her to see the film ‘STAR’ that afternoon, so I asked her how she liked the film.

“What film?” she said. She didn’t seem like a star, she was just a little, worried old lady, who was always asking where her coat and purse were. It would be “Where’s my coat?” then “Where’s my purse?”

“So we went on and on, the coat, the purse, the coat, the purse… until the time came to go into the theatre.

“Where’s my coat?” she said, again. I told her I’d carry it, but she just said “I must have my coat”.

“We walked into the auditorium, and I was wondering what on earth was going to happen… then I noticed she was dragging the coat along behind her.

“Come along, Fido!” she said, and everyone roared with laughter. She came to life and kept doing these little bits of business, but knew exactly when to stop. Throughout the film, I heard the sound of her laughter.

Afterwards, I asked her what she thought of it.

“Oh, it was very good,” replied Beatrice Lillie, “and she’s so funny. And you know, she does things just like me!”

 

*Part two coming soon!*

 

Will Hay season on Talking Pictures TV

Talking Pictures TV just keeps getting better and better. In addition to continuing Laurel & Hardy screenings, they’ve now added the classic films of Will Hay to their roster.

Hay’s succession of incompetent authoritarians – policemen, firemen, railwaymen and most especially, schoolmasters – are simply brilliant character portraits, and remain surprisingly  relevant today. Hay’s talents, along with those of sidekicks Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt, director Marcel Varnel, and scriptwriters Val Guest, Marriott Edgar and J.O.C Orton, produced the best British comedies of the pre-war era. Tune in and catch Will on Thursdays and Saturdays during March & April (details below), and for more info on Hay’s career, there’s an overview here.

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Silent Laughter Approacheth…

It’s nearly here: Silent Laughter Weekend offers the UK’s most diverse lineup of classic and rarely seen silent comedies, showcased at London’s Cinema Museum. I’ve spent the last few snowy days editing together the programme notes for the twelve different programmes and I’m now really excited for the weekend. Here are some of my highlights of the programme:

raymond_griffithTHE NIGHT CLUB showcases Raymond Griffith, a real individual among silent comedians. Certainly, he bore very little stylistic similarities to Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. His closest evolutionary relative was probably Max Linder, with whom he shared a suave sophistication and silk-hatted swagger (try saying that with a lisp). To Linder’s breezy, debonair attitude, Griffith added a slyness and air of wry amusement that were entirely his own. This is one of his few surviving features.

1902869_1001306219882168_8346693282609805506_nI’m delighted to be screening a programme of CHARLEY CHASE excerpts. Putting it together has been much harder than I expected, purely because of the sheer volume of excellent films Chase turned out. I’ve also discovered how hard it is to take excerpts from many of his films, as their careful construction means that practically every frame counts, and it’s hard to cut anything out. Not that watching Chase films back-to-back is particularly bad homework to have… After doing so, I’ve come away with a whole new appreciation for not just his comic performances, but also his incredibly meticulous comedy construction. One thing is for definite: there’ll be a complete screening of his all-time classic, ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’, which is undoubtedly the funniest plastic surgery farce you’ll ever see!

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A PERFECT GENTLEMAN is a real gem, and also a very rare film. One of Monty Banks’ starring comedies, this is something like a cross between a Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase film, and is very funny. As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t been screened publicly in many years, and is a rare complete 35MM print from the BFI.

 

SKYBOUND is a rarity starring AL ST JOHN (Roscoe Arbuckle’s nephew) that showcases his wild brand of slapstick with some rousing aeroplane stunts. Silent Comedy expert and author Steve Massa has programmed this and three other rare shorts from silent comedy’s anarchic fringe in a programme named after his wonderful book, ‘LAME BRAINS & LUNATICS’. he’s also compiled some encyclopedic screening notes for this and the other, rarely seen shorts, some of which are the only known copies.

exitEXIT SMILING is one of Beatrice Lillie’s few excursions into film, and her only starring silent feature. What a shame! This is a terrific comedy giving lots of opportunity to see why Chaplin described her as his female counterpart.

FIDDLESTICKS is my favourite Harry Langdon short, and an excellent way to begin your acquaintance with him. It’s one of several ‘NOISY SILENTS’, which will be presented with live sound effects to reflect the cacophony depicted within them! Harry’s attempts at busking will also be accompanied by Our Gang’s NOISY NOISES, Lupino Lane’s SUMMER SAPS and Laurel & Hardy’s YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’.

Speaking of L & H, the weekend will be rounded off with a showing of the ‘new’, nearly complete THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, as part of a programme hosted by comedian Roy Hudd. A real treat!

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For the full programme, see www.kenningtonbioscope.com. Tickets are still available, and it’s the perfect antidote to this never-ending winter! Hope to see some of you there.