Author: Matt Alexander

Silent Laughter 2018: programme revealed!

silent laughter 2018 flyer

It’s here! Straight from The Cinema Museum website, this is the programme for the 2018 Silent Laughter Weekend!

SATURDAY MARCH 10TH

10.00 The Night Club (1925)
A silent feature-length comedy starring Raymond Griffith, whose surviving films are few but which delight audiences at festivals around the world (as with his Paths to Paradise (1925) and Hands Up! (1926) at previous KB screenings). Contemporary critics made such comments as `Comedy along all lines from subtle wit, through burlesque to slapstick, and in every style he gets the laughs’ and `The picture is crammed with gags, most of them new’ … and with more than a nod towards Harold Lloyd’s Why Worry? (1923), shown at our comedy weekend last year. We defy anyone to see a connection between the title and the film! Introduced by Kevin Brownlow – who perhaps will explain!

11.30 The British are Coming!
Tony Fletcher introduces a selection of 1920s British comedies, including Adrian Brunel’s glorious spoof travelogue Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924), A.A. Milne’s Bookworms (1920) starring Leslie Howard, also Variety legend Leslie Sarony singing a comic song or two in a rare DeForest Phonofilm, one of the pioneering British-made talkies that predate Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929).

13.00 LUNCH

14.00 Charley Chase
Charley ChaseMatthew Ross highlights the career of Charley Chase, a brilliant, influential and – at least until relatively recent years – overlooked comedian and director of the 1920s and 1930s. A master of both the sight gag and situational humour, this selection of prime Chase comedies will conclude with one of his funniest silent shorts.

15.35 A Perfect Gentleman (1928)
Monty Banks is perhaps best remembered today for having married (and directed) Gracie Fields, something which has unjustly eclipsed his career as a star comedian in shorts and features (his 1927 film Flying Luck opened our comedy day last November). In this, one of his best starring roles, Banks gets involved in tracking down a stolen fortune, his adventures culminating in a whirlwind, gag-filled climax at sea.

17.15 Keaton Classics
Following our 100th anniversary celebration of Buster Keaton’s film career in last November’s comedy day, we are delighted to present a programme of classic Keaton material. Noted Keaton authors David Robinson, Kevin Brownlow and David Macleod reveal their favourites and researcher Polly Rose illustrates some of her new discoveries about Buster’s 1924 feature Sherlock Jr.

18.45 Dinner

20.00 Exit Smiling (1926)
Exit SmilingRenowned stage comedienne Beatrice Lillie – a Canadian-born British star whose reputation spanned both continents – made regrettably few films. Fortunately one of these is the 1926 MGM feature Exit Smiling, produced and directed by one of Harold Lloyd’s key associates, Sam Taylor. `Bea’ Lillie – as she was often known – plays Violet, the dogsbody for a travelling theatrical troupe who harbours ambitions to act – or, as a title card informs us, has played `Nothing’ in Much Ado About Nothing! A true classic, introduced by Michelle Facey.

22.00 approx. Close

 

SUNDAY MARCH 11TH

10.00 Lame Brains and Lunatics
Lame Brains and Lunatics coverOur thanks to American author Steve Massa, who has selected some of the ‘good, the bad and the forgotten’ silent clowns from his book bearing the same title as this programme. Assisting his presentation from this side of the pond will be Dave Glass, to whom we also offer thanks. Can you afford to miss Al St.John, Toto, Marcel Perez or Paul Parrott? (Don’t answer that!)

11.35 Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)
After his early successes as a star of Pathé comedies in his native France, Max Linder made two forays into American film-making. Our recent Silent Laughter Saturday included examples from both visits, Max Wants a Divorce (1917) and Be My Wife (1921), the latter representing part of a series of features produced and directed personally by Linder. In Seven Years Bad Luck, perhaps the best of these, the fun starts when Max’s butler breaks a full-length mirror. Bad luck seemingly ensues as Max escapes the police, unwittingly hiding in a lion’s cage. In addition to Seven Years Bad Luck, the programme will include a recently discovered Max Linder short from 1910, Les Effects des Pilules. Introduced by David Robinson.

13.00 Lunch

14.00 Surprise Programme
A surprise programme of rare material hosted by award-winning editor and director Christopher Bird.

15.35 So You Won’t Talk (1935)
Monty BanksContinuing from yesterday’s screening of A Perfect Gentleman (1928), here’s a chance to see silent comedian Monty Banks in a rarely-shown British talkie – except he doesn’t talk (mostly!). In what may have been a means of translating his silent comedy methods into the talkie era, the plot sees Banks becoming weary of all the chatter surrounding him and, in order to win a bet, guaranteeing not to talk. Cue lots of silent comedy as complications ensue …

17.15 Noisy Silents
Some silent comedies have always looked as though they were intended to have soundtracks, even though none were provided at the time; these examples, including films starring Harry Langdon, Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy will be provided with the extra sound accompaniment we feel they need – in the final case, we hope, by the audience. Hosted by musician and composer Neil Brand.

18.45 Dinner

20.00 Roy Hudd
Roy HuddWe are delighted to welcome comedian, actor and writer Roy Hudd, who will be in conversation with former News Huddlines writer – and Kennington Bioscope regular – Glenn Mitchell. As with their previous shows at the Cinema Museum, Roy and Glenn will be discussing and screening clips of great comedians from film, theatre and television. This time the emphasis is expected to be on essentially visual humour … but we’ll wait and see what they come up with!

21.45 Roy Hudd talk concludes with   the newly restored Battle of the Century (1927), starring Laurel and Hardy, and the pie fight to end all pie fights!

22.00 approx. Close

 

Tickets & Pricing

Weekend Ticket £30 / One Day £18 / After 2pm £12. These are available online from Ticket Tailor.

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More Laurel & Hardy on Talking Pictures: February showings

Oh, Talking Pictures TV, where would we classic film fans be without you? It’s been so long since I switched the TV on and came upon a black and white film by chance. Best of all, it’s not just repeats of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (I love both those films, but c’mon, FIlm4, there are many others to choose from!)

Now available on Freeview too (channel 81), the schedules for TPTV just keep getting better and better, as they’ve expanded into a wider range of films. Notably, they returned Laurel & Hardy to TV screens for the first time in years last Autumn. Now they’re having a season of L & H shorts, too.

Here are upcoming screenings:

Sat 03 Feb 18 17:35 Below Zero
Sun 04 Feb 18 14:05 Oliver the Eighth
Sun 04 Feb 18 20:20 The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case
Wed 07 Feb 18 11:15 County Hospital
Wed 07 Feb 18 13:35     Brats
Wed 07 Feb 18 20:15 Laughing Gravy
Sun 11 Feb 18 9:20 The Music Box
Mon 12 Feb 18 17:35 Helpmates
Sat 17 Feb 18 9:35 Busy Bodies
Sun 18 Feb 18 9:35 Tit for Tat
Sun 18 Feb 18 19:50 Saps At Sea
Sat 24 Feb 18 9:20 The Music Box
Sun 25 Feb 18 9:20 Laughing Gravy
Tue 27 Feb 18 18:00 Towed In A Hole
Sat 03 Mar 18 9:25 Towed In A Hole
Sun 04 Mar 18 9:35 Them Thar Hills
Sun 04 Mar 18 20:30 Oliver the Eighth
Sun 04 Mar 18 4:20 The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case

Bravo, Talking Pictures! This is only the tip of the iceberg though. This month’s schedule incudes lots more seldom-seen-on-TV comedies, from Peter Sellers, Jack Hulbert, Alastair Sim, Flanagan & Allen and even British silent clown Walter Forde! Find full listings here: http://talkingpicturestv.co.uk/schedule/

 

SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY 2017: Of Monty, Max and matrimony!

 

pg1 front -SECOND SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY PROGRAMME FRONT - FINAL

Kennington Bioscope’s SILENT LAUGHTER events continue to explode the traditional picture of silent film comedy, busting some time-worn myths and expanding our perceptions with obscure delights, discoveries and unjustly forgotten performers. This year’s event, curated by esteemed historian Glenn Mitchell was no exception.

That old myth that only Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd could survive in feature films, for example? Well, actually we saw terrific features starring Monty Banks and Max Linder, both of whom made  several (as many silent features as Chaplin, for that matter). The efforts of Monty and Max prove that the problem was not sustaining themselves at feature length, rather breaking through into a market jammed with brilliant comedies. Incidentally both were Europeans, whose style and personality differences from the American ‘norm’ possibly made their task harder. Nevertheless, both men made very entertaining films.

Monty Banks’ FLYING LUCK (1927) is typical of his slickly-made comedies, mixing light humour, slapstick and action in the manner of Harold Lloyd. Monty became adroit at high-speed, high-risk sequences which seemed desperate to outdo Keaton and Lloyd. 1923’S ‘RACING LUCK/ saw him driving racing cars, ATTA BOY (1926) features a rousing climax with Banks atop a ladder on a speeding car, and his most famous film, ‘PLAY SAFE’ (1927) closes with a magnificent and extremely dangerous train chase. With ‘FLYING LUCK’ from the same year, he turned his attention to aeroplanes, no doubt looking to cash in on the aviation craze sweeping the world as competitors attempted to fly the Atlantic.

flying luck

Monty plays an amateur aviator who dreams of being another Lindbergh. His maiden flight crashes into a recruiting office, and some white lies from the recruiters convince him to join the air corps (“They’ll give you a new plane every day!”). En route to camp he meets pretty jean Arthur and not-so-pretty sergeant Kewpie Morgan, establishing the love triangle that will dominate the film. His arrival at camp is mixed up with that of a visiting aviation committee, and he is shown the high life before being found out and thrown to the mercy of Sgt Morgan. All ends happily when he competes in an air polo competition and wins the day through sheer luck.

flying luck 2.png‘FLYING LUCK’ sags a little in the middle with some standard ‘hopeless new recruit’ business but wins through with some great set pieces and a charming performance from Monty as the hopeless but cocksure little man bungling through.  It was to be his last America starring film though, as Pathé cancelled his contract. Banks fled to Britain, where he would make two more silent features, ‘WEEKEND WIVES’ and ‘ADAM’S APPLE’ before becoming a notable comedy director. In this role, he would work with Stanley Lupino, Laura La Plante, George Formby, and of course Gracie Fields, who he married in 1940. The pair remained happily married until Monty’s death from a heart attack in 1950.

Linder’s BE MY WIFE likewise came from the tail end of his starring career. A very funny farce concerning Max getting mixed up with an expensive dress, a bathtub gin parlour and some extramarital goings on, it packed in several terrific set pieces that show why Chaplin considered Linder ‘the professor’. A case in point: Linder’s first dance at his wedding, where his rival releases a white rat into his trousers. For many lesser silent comics, this would have been the prelude to much gurning and frenetic leaping. Linder builds the comedy magnificently, from his first, subtle elucidations that everything ain’t just alright, through some determined scratching, and culminating in some brilliantly funny spontaneous dance moves.

BE MY WIFE 2 - please credit Lisa Stein Haven

This was just one highlight among many others, including Max’s charade of defeating an imaginary burglar, trying to outwit the dog that is determined to get him, and getting caught up in an elaborate hidden speakeasy set. A wonderful little film that went down a storm with the Kennington crowd, ‘BE MY WIFE’ was shown in a new restoration by Lobster Films.

Max was back as one of the ‘Hapless Husbands’ featured in a programme showcasing matrimonial comedies, ably introduced by Michelle Facey. ‘MAX WANTS A DIVORCE’ (1917) is another recently found film, made in the USA when Essanay courted him as a successor to Chaplin. Max is newly married, but will inherit a fortune only if he remains a bachelor. He plots a plan to stage an affair as grounds for divorce, bribing his new bride with the promise of a pearl necklace. A date and detective are summoned to an empty apartment, but a parade of mentally unhinged patients visiting a doctor in the same building make things anything but smooth. This film was a bit light on gags overall, but worked up to a fine and frenzied (if slightly insensitive) climax in the doctor’s office.

Michelle noted that in many cases, the husbands brought the worst on themselves! This was certainly true of the title character in ‘ROBINET IS JEALOUS’. An Italian short from 1914, this features Marcel Perez (aka Tweedy, among other names) as the eponymous character. When his wife goes out but refuses to disclose her whereabouts, he is consumed by jealousy, following her to an office block. He searches each floor, each time paying a price for his jealousy: each office seems to be occupied by various degree of psycppath, who all pounce on him as he enters the door! Thus, Robinet is subjected to dentistry, a boxing match and an incredibly violent massage  (with rolling pins, of all things!). Violent stuff, but savagely funny. Finally, he locates his wife and it transpires that she has been secretly having a bust made of him as a present.

HAPLESS HUSBANDS - THE PERSIAN CARPET

Gerard Damman in ‘DER PERSER’

 

Secret presents featured in another European comedy, ‘DER PERSER’ (THE PERSIAN CARPET, 1919). This featured a very obscure German comic, Gerard Damman, who was a discovery of Glenn Mitchell’s. Damman plans to buy his wife a Persian carpet as an anniversary gift, but his furtive behaviour leaads her to be suspicious and think he is ill. Meanwhile, he sneaks out and gets the carpet, but the trams are on strike so he is forced to carry it back through the streets, in a rehash of ‘THE CURTAIN POLE’. The material was spread rather thinly, but Damman was excellent, an enjoyable quiet and subtle performer at a time when few comedians were. A highlight: his attempts to estimate the size of carpet he needs using leaps and bounds, unaware that his wife and a doctor are watching him.

HAPLESS HUSBANDS - INNOCENT HUSBANDS posterRounding out the programme was the always wonderful and charming Charley Chase, in INNOCENT HUSBANDS. From early in his two-reel career, it nevertheless shows his style already gelling perfectly with director Leo McCarey, and a wonderful cast including plump Kay Deslys, a moustache-less James Finlayson, and beautiful, icy Katherine Grant. Katherine is always convinced that Charley is up to something, and is persuaded to visit a spiritualist for more evidence of his infidelities. Charley, meanwhile, just wants to spend a quiet night in but is dragged out to a party by his bachelor neighbour and reluctantly set up with Kay,. The party have made their way to Charley’s flat as the séance relocates there, leaving Charley with three women and a man caught in his bedroom. His attempts to smuggle them out as ‘spirits’ during the séance are just brilliant. Typing that plot makes me realise how action packed ‘INNOCENT HUSBANDS’ is, but it never seems too contrived or plot-heavy. Charley and Leo McCarey were masters of telling complicated stories and putting them over in a brilliantly funny way. Their shorts are some of the best ever made, and this was acknowledged in the fantastic response given to the film.

Silent Laughter wouldn’t be the same without the Kennington Bioscope’s home, The Cinema Museum. It’s a wonderful place, but its future is in grave peril. Please take a look, sign and share!

 

Programme revealed for Kennington Bioscope’s SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY

A month from today, SILENT LAUGHTER returns to London’s Cinema Museum. The third in a series of successful events, this year brings more rare and classic comedy presented with introductions by authors and historians, and the best silent film accompaniment around. The provisional programme is below; go to www.kenningtonbioscope.com for more info and to book tickets ( just £18 for the whole day!)

  

SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY – 11 NOVEMBER 2017 doors open 9.00am

 

PROVISIONAL PROGRAMME:

09:45 FLYING LUCK (1927) with Monty Banks and Jean Arthur – introduction by Matthew Ross (that’s me!)  (DVD)

11.00 TWO MINUTES SILENCE during which extracts from REVEILLE (1924) will be shown, unaccompanied

11.25 BRITISH SHORTS  introduced by Tony Fletcher –  35mm and 16mm programme includes Hepworth’s VIVAPHONE sound films from the Teens (DVD) and Walter Forde’s WALTER MAKES A MOVIE (1922)

12.30 LUNCH (Cinema Museum café and bar only)

1:30 HAPLESS HUSBANDS  introduced by Michelle Facey – DVD shorts programme includes:  ROBINET IS JEALOUS (Marcel Perez), INNOCENT HUSBANDS (Chase), the rare Max Linder comedy MAX WANTS A DIVORCE and others

3.05 LE PETIT CAFE (1919) with Max Linder – introduced by John Davies (Toulouse Archive 35mm print) – subject to rights clearance, final 3.05 programme TBC  

4.45 KEATON CENTENARY presented by David Wyatt and Susan Cygan.  

6.10 ANTHONY SLIDE TALK ABOUT ALICE HOWELL – followed by a signing of his new book on Alice Howell – complete shorts to be screened: CINDERELLA CINDERS (1920), ONE WET NIGHT’ (1924)

8:15 NEPTUNE’S NAUGHTY DAUGHTER (1917) with Alice Howell – premiere of the new restoration

8.45 THE KID BROTHER (1927) with Harold Lloyd – Kevin Brownlow will introduce and screen his own 16mm print  

10:15 END plus late bar

 

The Emperor of Lancashire

George Formby was the UK’s biggest box office attraction for years on end. The grinning ukulele player and singer of funny, innuendo-riddled little songs (“With my little ukulele in my hand”; “I blew a little blast on my whistle”, etc – you get the idea) was mobbed all over the country as he played, and his tunes and catchphrases have entered the national consciousness.

He’s still loved by many, retaining a far more prominent profile than your average 1930s comedian, yet he is something of a guilty pleasure. Many look down on him snobbily, and he is the target of endless pastiches and parodies. (It’s amazing and a bit sad that many of the same old North-South divide prejudices that Formby faced in his lifetime are still here today).  This nice little documentary from UK comedian Frank Skinner gives him his due, explaining his appeal and talent as a performer rather nicely.

Even this documentary doesn’t give much space to his films, which are often overlooked. Formby made 23 films, and all are usually dismissed as lightweight fluff in a sentence or two in most books or articles. Actually, beyond his songs, he was a fine performer, providing an updated version of the classic silent comedy model. They may not be terribly sophisticated, but his films are an important link between silent comedy, the music halls and the classic post-war Ealing comedies.  Look at them with fresh eyes, and there’s plenty to enjoy, including some terrific visual gags, not to mention George doing his own stunts . I’ve added a page to the directory of comedians that mainly focuses on his film career, with a bit of biographical info added in:

George Formby

And if you haven’t seen any Formby films, I’d probably start with LET GEORGE DO IT, KEEP YOUR SEATS PLEASE!, TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN, NO LIMIT, GET CRACKING  or TROUBLE BREWING.

trouble brewing

Good Time Charley & The Pip from Pittsburg

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Charley Chase is one of my very favourite comedians. Charming, wildly inventive and prolific, he turned out dozens of genuine comedy classics in the silent and sound eras. His sound films have always been difficult to see, but thanks to recent showings on TCM, are now coming to light, albeit via non-legit sources such as bootleg DVDs and, of course, YouTube. I’ve collated a few in this post for your viewing pleasure.

The received wisdom among comedy buffs and film critics is that Chase’s talkies are not quite up to the quality of his silents. Ok, it is true that the precision and consistency of his work from 1925-27 was never quite reached again. . Charley’s later films, beginning with his last silents, experimented more, having a more laissez faire approach to the comedy from film to film. Inevitably, some of these ideas were more successful than others, and so the films seemed less consistent.

 If some of the films didn’t quite work out, they were balanced by an equal number of films that worked beautifully, succeeding to equal his silent work, often pushing his comedy in exciting new directions.

One particular group of films that most everyone agrees really did  work out are those featuring his partnership with Thelma Todd. Chase and Todd made an absolutely wonderful team, appearing in romantic comedies with a real human warmth to them. Charley was always generous with his co-stars; unlike many comedians who barely used their leading ladies as more than decoration, he allowed Thelma to thrive as much more than just a pretty face. In contrast to many of the comedies of the time, they seem like a genuine couple, sharing human foibles. You can’t fake such chemistry, and it’s no surprise to hear that Chase and Todd were very close in real life, with many rumours of offscreen affairs.

snappy sneezer

First meeting: Charley & Thelma in ‘SNAPPY SNEEZER’

 

Their first film together was ‘SNAPPY SNEEZER’ (1929), and gradually Thelma’s roles built up to be more substantial. Even in the films where her role is fairly small, the chemistry between her and Charley is the highlight of the film. ALL TEED UP is a prime example; mainly less than stellar comedy of Chase as a rookie golfer, it’s highest spot comes at the beginning as Charley bumps into Thelma at a soda fountain and the pair are mistaken for a couple. Charley knew a good thing when he saw it and Thelma’s roles soon became much more prominent. In the best of their collaborations, the pair are virtually co-starred, each adding to the comedy and story.  WHISPERING WHOOPEE has a great role for Thelma to show her versatility as a gum-chewing good-time gal hired by Charley to help ‘persuade’ some businessmen to buy his property. When they turn out to be strait-laced, Charley has to pass her off as a society girl.

DOLLAR DIZZY sees Charley inherit a fortune, and so he books himself into a swanky retreat. He soon becomes aware that gold-diggers are everywhere, as a series of girls all try similar tricks to woo him. Locking himself in his hotel room, he is unaware that millionaires Thelma has been double-booked into the same room. Thelma is also on guard for fortune hunters, and the pair each become convinced that the other has broken in to get a piece of the money. This sort of proto-screwball comedy, with Charley and Thelma both strong-willed and possessed of human weaknesses, is one of the special aspects in these films. Thelma isn’t just a piece of eye candy on a pedestal; she contributes actively to the comedy of the films.

LOOSER THAN LOOSE is, for me, one of the most under-rated Chase-Todd films of all. Charley has just got engaged to Thelma when his boss calls up. Charley is required to entertain one of the company’s clients. Unfortunately, this Mr Henderson insists on wild parties with good time girls, much to Thelma’s jealousy. She insists that she come along as one of the girls. Things go from bad to worse at the nightclub; the other girl is cackling Dorothy Granger who humiliates Henderson and comes on to Charley. This leads to an escalating scene wherein Thelma takes her revenge by costing up to Henderson; Charley responds by snuggling with Dorothy, leading Thelma to up the ante, and so on.  With a similar plot to WHISPERING WHOOPEE, to me it stands above that film thanks to some subtle plot changes that heighten the effectiveness of the comedy. For one thing, the film places a focus on Charley and Thelma’s relationship at the centre of the situations, making us care about them more. Much of the funniest moments come less from gags, than their facial expressions: Charley’s pained look when he realises he’ll be in hot water with Thelma; a wonderfully acted scene of disappointment as Thelma sees her new engagement ring for the first time; the pair’s false smiles through gritted teeth. Best of all is the scene where the pair try to make each other jealous by flirting with their new partners: their giggly smiles are amusingly punctuated with snarls and sneers at each other!  Secondly, Charley is now an underdog; he only goes along with the evening because his boss insists, and because he is at the mercy of the client’s whims. It’s a great little film, with a wonderful supporting cast and that catchy Leroy Shield music that makes Roach films of this era such a breeze.

Of course, most famous of all these films is THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG. This wonderful blind date comedy has written about many times before, so I won’t add anything – but here it is. Sadly, this is the only online version I can find – an off 16mm copy. But it’s better than nothing. This film really needs to be on DVD in proper quality! A Charley Chase box set would be nice actually… Well, I can dream, can’t I?

Charley and Thelma’s partnership was, ultimately, a victim of its own success. While Charley wanted to make the teaming permanent and make features, Hal Roach had other ideas. Thelma was made a star in her own right, teamed with Zasu Pitts, and later Patsy Kelly, in an attempt at creating a female Laurel & Hardy. While those films are great fun, they rarely rose to the height of the best Chase-Todd films, and we can only wonder what they might have done next. Thelma would be allowed back to co-star with Charley in one last short, ‘THE NICKEL NURSER’ (1932). This story of Charley being hired to teach a millionaire’s daughters the value of money, was a gem in its own way, featuring  the return of the usual chemistry alongside some great sight gags, and a devastating Greta Garbo parody!  Oh, and there’s Billy Gilbert, too. What’s not to like?

After Thelma moved on to other things, Charley changed direction too. He moved to playing a less confident, more henpecked character he called his ‘nance’ (THE NICKEL NURSER marks one of the first steps in this direction), and subsequently moved into more domestic comedies. He would continue to make some absolutely brilliant films that remain criminally underrated, but the special warmth and magic of these films with Thelma would never quite be repeated. How sad to think that these two young, vital and charming performers would both be gone less than a decade after the films were created. But what a pair they made.

Help bring Lloyd Hamilton to DVD!

LONESOME

Lloyd Hamilton

Exciting news! In a post last year I mentioned viewing an exceptionally rare Lloyd Hamilton comedy ‘A HOME MADE MAN’ courtesy of David Glass & David Wyatt, and that there were tentative plans for a Lloyd Hamilton DVD set. Well, now it’s coming to fruition, courtesy of Kickstarter, and you can be a backer!

Hamilton’s comedy style was truly original. Like Harry Langdon’s, it was nuanced and reaction-based, but much more sardonic than any of the major comics. Each film saw him stumble from catastrophe to calamity, hopelessly trying to maintain his ill-fitting sense of dignity and superiority. Chaplin, Keaton and Sennett all remembered him in later years as a major talent, but the majority of his films are lost, so this chance to see his films on DVD is a not-to-be-missed opportunity.

 

The films to be featured are:

THE SIMP (1920)

MOONSHINE (1920 – directed by Charley Chase and featuring him in a small role)

APRIL FOOL (1920 – Also directed by Chase)

DYNAMITE (1920)

HIS MUSICAL SNEEZE (1919) A very rare Fox short, recently rediscovered, courtesy of the Danish Film Institute

A HOME MADE MAN (1928)

 

You can read more about Hamilton here.

And below is the link to pledge for a copy of the DVD. Go, go, go!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/321833650/lloyd-hamilton-silent-comedian

The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival Returns

Just a quick one – If you’re in the UK, the truly excellent Yorkshire Silent Film Festival is returning this month. A county-wide travelling picture show, it features fabulous films with wonderful accompaniment, in a selection of great venues.

Amongst the highlights for comedy buffs are Buster Keaton’s wonderful ‘THE CAMERAMAN’ and ‘SHERLOCK JR’, as well as two rare Soviet comedies: ‘DOM NA TRUBNAYA’ and ‘THE GIRL WITH THE HAT BOX’.

There’s lots more information and the full programme here:

http://www.yorkshiresilentfilm.com/calender/

Baby Talk

Harry-Langdon-comedian

The series of Harry Langdon shorts made at Hal Roach are an obscure, strange and fascinating group of films. Their reputation has traditionally been terrible, not helped by a long time when they weren’t very easy to see. The films are frequently bizarre and sometimes bewildering, but often hilarious, and certainly much better than they’ve been given credit for.

Although it was the dawn of the sound era before Langdon and Roach joined forces, Roach had had his eye on Harry for a long time. Harold Lloyd had seen Langdon’s vaudeville act in 1923 and recommended him to the producer; that time round, Roach lost out to Sol Lesser, and ultimately to Mack Sennett. Langdon, of course, went on to hit great heights at Sennett as one of the great silent clowns with his innocent ‘little elf’ character “who only God can save”. In 1926 began a contract for 6 prestigious features with First National.

However, by 1928 circumstances were very different. After initial success in features, Harry’s increasing dalliance with offbeat, avante-garde ideas in his comedies was not to the taste of the general public . Although his later films have their supporters (I’m one of them) Langdon’s star was falling fast. Of ‘HEART TROUBLE’, Photoplay’s review was brief, but brutal; “With HEART TROUBLE, Harry Langdon writes his own finish in pictures.” Losing his appeal, and woefully over budget, Langdon was let go by First National. He sought a contract with United Artists, but to no avail, and returned to vaudeville. To add to his woes, former colleague Frank Capra, who had been fired by Langdon, was bitterly trying to regain his reputation by spreading the word that Langdon was impossible to work with. Meanwhile, Hal Roach had gone from strength to strength and, in the wake of his huge successes producing Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy films, could easily afford to hire the comedian. He gave Harry his second chance in December of 1928, contracting him to make a talking feature. However, the Roach studios had not yet installed their sound equipment, and a long closure of the studios was necessary to enable this. Langdon, probably not wanting to be away from the screen for too long through fears of being branded a has-been, cancelled his contract and waited for other offers. There must not have been too many forthcoming, because in April of 1929 he resigned with Roach. The contract had been downgraded from a feature to a series of shorts; perhaps the high cost of sound installation necessitated this, or maybe it was because of the uncertainty surrounding Langdon’s appeal and willingness to play ball at the time.

Harry’s reputation was in tatters, and much of his publicity around this time goes to great pains to paint him as contrite, realising that he had behaved badly and eager to eat humble pie. To whit, an article in Photoplay of 1929 quotes Harry as saying “I really want to make people laugh again, if I get this second chance”. Not for the last time, he was being compared to the helpless child he portrayed on screen, an unfortunate trend that has,  annoyingly, often been the standard when discussing Langdon’s career.

A similar undercurrent runs through a promo reel made to launch the series to MGM executives. Harry appears in a brief sketch also featuring fellow new signings Thelma Todd, as a housewife, and Eddie Dunn as a drunk. The skit is principally full of rather tedious in-jokes for the audience, namedropping executives like Fred Quimby. Tellingly, however, Eddie Dunn steps out of character at the end of the footage to tell us that “Mr Roach has the greatest confidence in the world in Mr Langdon, and Harry is eager to go” . Reading between the lines, this might as well be “Mr Roach has agreed to give Mr Langdon this chance, and Harry has agreed to get off his high horse and do as he’s told. That’ll learn him.” (It’s also worth recalling that Hal Roach, despite being a friend of Langdon’s, felt the need to warn him “none of that high-handed stuff you pulled at First National”.)

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The promo reel is also the first time we get to hear Langdon speak on film. His reputation in sound, from Leonard Maltin et al, was that he had a “thin voice”, that was unsuited to his character and “babbled incoherently like an idiot”. In actual fact, Harry’s voice is just fine for his character. Personally, I think it’s a better match than Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd’s. As for the babbling, this is truthfully only something he experimented with for his first few sound films, but the worst example we have is in this reel. If transcribed, a typical line of dialogue might read: “Well, well, well, well, well…how are you? And well, well, well, well….uh? Uh oh! Uh Oh! Well, well, well, well, well…” Maltin’s assertion is right in this film – Harry does get extremely irritating, even in the short running time!

It’s hard to ascertain if Harry kept on gabbling like this in his first two proper releases – HOTTER THAN HOT & SKY BOY – as they currently only survive without their soundtracks, and are locked away in the vaults.

Certainly, though, they set the pace for one aspect of the series by having bizarre plots. Coupled with sometimes equally strange gag sequences, the films often seem like the kind of odd dreams that leave you scratching your head in the morning. This surreal style, having much in common with Langdon’s last few features, is definitely something of an acquired taste, and has perhaps helped account for the poor reputation of these films. This offbeat aspect had always been part of the Langdon package though, so its likely that he was partly behind the plot decisions. ‘HOTTER THAN HOT’ definitely bore his influence, as it was initially based on ‘THE MESSENGER’, the act he had been touring in Vaudeville with. In it, he aparently plays a pyromaniac who chases fire engines, and eventually gets trapped in a burning building with Thelma Todd. SKY BOY has an even weirder storyline; Harry and rival Eddie Dunn end up stranded on an iceberg after a plane crash!

The First of the Langdons to survive complete is ‘SKIRT SHY’, in which Harry, as May Wallace’s butler, poses in drag to help her win a marriage proposal from her shortsighted lover. Overall it’s not a great film by any means. It’s clunky, there’s far too much footage given over to the slapstick violence between May Wallace’s rival suitors without any real sight gags, and not enough of quiet moments with Harry. Still, we should remember that this is still a very early talkie. ‘BERTH MARKS’ wasn’t too much of a gas, either.

However, if Langdon kept up his gabbling in the previous two films, he’s starting to tone it down by this point. He keeps a childlike, halting style to his delivery, but is perfectly comprehensible, and the moments where he stumbles over or repeats words are more refined, adding to his character rather than making him infuriating.

Obviously, he was still adapting his sound technique in the face of new technology, and doing a fairly good job for only his fourth talkie appearance. Talking does make him a little less magical of course, but he has a handful of totally wordless scenes where we can see the brilliance of the silent Langdon shine through.   One such moment is a lovely little scene where Harry stands beneath an apple tree, and an apple lands in his hand. Delighted, he takes a bite, but the joy drains from his face; either it’s rotten, or he’s just found half a worm! He tosses it away, and another one instantly hits him on the head; he tentatively tries it, but it’s bad too. Again, another apple hits him. This one tastes fine, and his delight is palpable! It’s a great little moment that relies totally on Harry’s pantomime and facial expressions, and returns to the classic Langdon theme of forces beyond his control; he won’t fetch an apple himself, but he’ll keep biting until fate puts a nice one in his hand.

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THE HEAD GUY, featuring Harry as deputy stationmaster mixed up with a travelling dance troupe, is another bizarre, dreamlike little film. While still quite clunky, it comes off a bit better. There’s also one of the oddest scenes in any of the shorts, as Harry, ditched by his girlfriend, blubs uncontrollably while stuffing his mouth with a sandwich! It’s the kind of fascinatingly, bizarrely funny sequence that Langdon very fond of, and excelled at, but Hal Roach later recalled the frustration of the film crew as he would drag on scenes for far too long, unwilling to take advice from anyone on how to make them faster and funnier. Again, this is the sort of comment that has become gospel and helped to account for the poor reputation of the films, but how true was it really?

Well, looking at the filming dates of the shorts shows them to have not taken any longer than the average Roach two-reeler to film. Perhaps Harry’s unhappy marriage to Helen Walton made him less personable than usual, but he certainly seems to have had no problems getting along with his regular director Charley Rogers. The films they made are generally smoother than many other early talkies, and move at a good clip. Far from finding Langdon insufferable to work with, Rogers seems to have struck up an effective friendship and partnership with him; the pair later teamed up again to write gags for several Laurel and Hardy features, and themselves starred in two 1940s B-pictures, ‘DOUBLE TROUBLE’(1942) and ‘HOUSE OF ERRORS’(1943).

MGM certainly seemed pleased with the films, and gave a good deal of publicity to them; reviewers generally shared their enthusiasm. A certain amount of revisionism appears to have gone on to fit in with the accepted legend of Langdon being a helpless has-been. I’d suggest that, if Langdon did have difficulties assimilating in to the Roach style, it was less in terms of gags and acting than his story ideas; Roach Studios plots were generally grounded in reality, whereas Harry’s surreal stories were a very different kettle of fish. One of the most surreal scenes in any of the films climaxes ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’, as Harry , in a boxing match, puts his gloves on the ends of broom handles, which he hides Inside his jumper. This gives him the appearance of having arms that grow ever longer, enabling him to keep his distance from his opponent while hitting him. It’s a very, very strange image that sticks with you long after the film is over, and its also very funny. ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’ isn’t perfect; it suffers from some clunky early sound filming and long, tedious silent stretches, but it’s a definite improvement over the previous Langdon films. For one thing, its surrealism is more filled out with little sight gags, as well as some unexpected delights like Harry tap-dancing, and a tantalising fragment of him singing ‘Frankie and Johnny’, accompanying himself on the banjo.

Now, the Langdon series was really starting to gel; the next film, ‘THE BIG KICK’, is by far the best of the bunch. It’s fast-moving and full of great gags and pantomime routines. For anyone who thinks that Harry babbles incoherently in every film, take a look at this one; he barely even speaks at all! Possibly because it was also filmed in Spanish, as ‘EL ESTACION GASOLINA’, dialogue is at a minimum, and the result is the nearest to a silent comedy that Harry made at Roach. In this respect, a great addition is a background music track (much of it taken from the Vitaphone track for Laurel and Hardy’s ‘LIBERTY’), which really helps pick up the pace. This was something that was sorely lacking from the earlier films, which suffered from a barren soundtrack during Harry’s long pantomime routines.

‘THE BIG KICK’ begins with detectives Edgar Kennedy and Baldwin Cooke chasing some bootleggers. They stop at the garage where Harry works but there’s no answer; Harry is asleep. There follows a leaisurely routine of him struggling to wake up and go about his morning routine, much of it repeated from his ilent feature ‘THREE’S A CROWD’. Particularly funny is his elaborate, childlike way of washing his face with as little water as possible. This scene, in particular, benefits immeasurably from the background music. Next, we’re into a beautifully played pantomime routine, as a customer with a horrifically noisy engine pulls up to the garage, and attempts to hold a conversation with Harry over the din. Here’s a creative use of sound, that paradoxically gives reason for silent comedy to take place. This was Buster Keaton’s philosophy for sound in a nutshell; I wonder if he tried to use this scene as an example in his struggles with the MGM writing staff? The bootleggers show up again at the garage later on. They’ve concelaed their moonshine in a busload of dummies. A shootout follows when the police turn up, and Harry, confused as always, tries to save the dummies, as the bus is shot full of holes and liquor pours out everywhere. Finally aware of the mixup, he knocks the heads off a long line of the dummies with a mallet, but fails to notice a policeman has appeared at the end, and hits him with the mallet too. Exit, running.

Although much of its pantomime needs to be seen rather than described, ‘THE BIG KICK’ is, to my mind,  genuinely as good as any other Roach product of the time, and no excuses need to be made for it. Almost as good, though just a notch below, was the next film, ‘THE SHRIMP’. As the title character, Harry is constantly bullied by residents in the boarding house where he lives, but stays because of his love for the landlord’s daughter Nancy. He gets the chance to stand up for himself when scientist Max Davidson injects him with a serum containing  “the spirit of the bulldog”. The treatment works, and Harry licks the bullies, but an unexpected side effect is revealed as he takes off in pursuit of a cat, pausing only to contemplate the use of a lamp post…

The film has one of the strongest storylines of the eight shorts, and provides good opportunities for playing with Harry’s character, but is somewhat uneven in quality. The film is composed of three distinct segments, and a problem is that the first two are necessary to build up to the third. In a two-reeler, this accounts for nearly half the time being taken up by exposition, making the whole seem off-balance. The first shows Harry’s cruel treatment at the hands of bully Jim (James Mason) and his girlfriend (Thelma Todd).. Much of the intended humour actually just makes us feel sorry for Harry, but there are some nice little sight gags mixed in. The middle section, Harry being treated by Max Davidson, is disappointingly played as a fairly straight scientific demonstration; there would have been more fun to be had if Harry had somehow been injected by accident.

However, the final third more than makes up for the shortcomings of what came before, as Harry returns to the boarding house and teaches everybody a lesson in a wild, gag-packed finale. Arriving home, he engages in a tit-for-tat routine with Thelma Todd. Harry continually knocks her hat to the ground, and each time she bends over to retrieve it, fights the temptation to kick her in the behind. It’s one of those things more easily seen than described, but his wonderful timing and movement give it an almost balletic quality.

After this, he marches through the house, yelling orders left, right and centre (“STOP EATING CANDY!” he yells to a fat man), and finally takes on Jim in a slapstick battle. The scene is full of funny little touches, including a moment where Langdon plays with his voice, using a deeper tone to sound more sinister. It’s an intriguing little bit he also tries in his next film, and shows him to be confident playing with the possibilities of the sound medium. Although it has some shortcomings, ‘THE SHRIMP’ builds to a hilarious climax and contains the funniest moments of any of the shorts.

Langdon rounded out the series with THE KING, which revisits his Sennett four-reeler ‘SOLDIER MAN’, and mixes in elements of his feature ‘THE CHASER’. The result is another playful film that experiments with his ‘little elf’ character. In ‘THE KING’, rather than the innocent, eager-to-please man-child we usually see, he is very definitely the spoiled naughty boy; if you will, the little Harry-shaped devil on the little elf’s shoulder. This naughty-boy Harry yields to the temptations of the many women who throw themselves at his majesty, and threatens to stay out late, but remains childlike; his misbehaviour doesn’t extend beyond the level of playing postman’s knock, or peeking at the queen as she undresses. The chief joke in the film is that Harry, despite being the king, is actually totally subordinate to the Queen (thelma Todd) and his new advisor (James Parrott, in his only speaking role).

The entire two reels are basically riffs on this idea; some of the gags work, and others don’t. All in all, it’s again quite uneven, but fascinating nonetheless, and with several very funny moments. Perhaps the best gag to sum up his character in the film is his wonderful opening scene. Searching for the king, Parrott looks all around the opulent palace and grounds , through all the trappings of wealth and immense power, and is eventually told the king is out “hunting in the woods.” Sure enough, there is the monarch, dressed in full regalia, shooting at a tin can on a wall like a little boy!

Following completion of the film, Langdon received a tantalising offer to make a high profile feature, ‘A SOLDIER’S PLAYTHING’, and left Roach to do so. Ultimately, this turned out to be a mistake, as the film gradually sank in prestige until it was a low budget film that sank without trace. Langdon would return to Roach as gagman and occasional actor at Roach in the late 30s, but would spend his next few years freelancing, and in shorts at Educational and Columbia.

The shorts we’re left with are an odd bunch to be sure. Langdon is already a divisive figure amongst film fans, and these 8 shorts polarise opinion perhaps more than any other he made. Certainly, next to the more universal comedy of L& H, Our Gang et al, they can seem like failures. Perhaps at this juncture in his career, it would have done Langdon more good to make some more straightforward two reel comedies to win back some of his alienated fanbase, and then experimented more later. But, to quote Mr Laurel, there’s no use crying over split milk, and there is lots to enjoy in what we do have. Yes, the films are uneven and often bizarre, but they all have fantastic moments. Let’s not forget, 1929-30 was hardly a golden year for many of the Roach series. They all went through an inevitable period of adjustment to sound technique. In fact, cinematically, the Langdon talkies are much better films than many of the other Roach product of the time, and move a heck of a lot smoother. Even SKIRT SHY, just about the weakest of the surviving Langdon talkies, is preferable over the clunky early OUR GANG films. With one or two exceptions, the films just got better as the series progressed, and it’s a real shame that the series ended just as the films had started to gel. If Harry had stayed at Roach into the golden era of 1930-1933, who knows what classics we might have had? Still, what we do have, whilst inevitably not up to his silent heights of brilliance, are definitely worth looking at again; a group of weird, wacky and hugely fascinating films that show Langdon in character and on great form.

This post first appearewd as an article in issue 2 of  Movie Night/ The Lost Laugh Magazine. (c) Matthew Ross 2012

 

“Just call me Charlie”

Here’s a wonderful BBC interview with Charlie Chaplin (I believe it’s actually from late 1952) discussing both his then current film, LIMELIGHT, and various aspects of his career and life.  Chaplin is sometimes given an unfair reputation of being a bit of an overly serious bore in his later years, but actually, he comes across as a very engaging speaker. Cerebral, yes, but also lighthearted and surprisingly modest. In reference to doing everything himself on his films, for example: “I know lots of people could do it, but it’s just a matter of having the money to be able to afford it” . There’s extra interest in the panel of filmmakers he is interviewed by, including Sir Michael Balcon and John Mills. Overall, a great and illuminating listen.