Rarities on the Big Screen: October & November

Autumn’s well and truly here in the UK, and as the dark nights creep into the daytime, it’s good to know there are lots of upcoming silent comedy screenings coming up as light relief, including some very rarely seen films.

The excellent Silent Film Calendar website is a great go-to for keeping updated on these, but here are a few that stand out:

SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND

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I’ve plugged the London Silent Laughter Weekend a couple of times before, but it’s now less than two weeks away (October 22nd-23rd)  so if you haven’t booked tickets yet, now is definitely the time to do so! Amongst the programme are Harold Lloyd’s classic ‘WHY WORRY’ as well as newly discovered Laurel & Hardy footage (a ‘new’version of THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS, plus newly rediscovered solo films from Stan and Babe) and many classic forgotten comedies including Harry Langdon in ‘TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP’, Laura La Plante in ‘HOME JAMES’, Syd Chaplin in ‘THE BETTER OLE’, Dorothy Devore in ‘HOLD YOUR BREATH’ and Lupino Lane in ‘THE LAMBETH WALK’, plus some of his classic silent shorts. For the die-hards, there’s plenty of rarely seen stuff, and if you’re just tipping your toe in past Chaplin, Keaton or Laurel & hardy, this is a great place to start! With live accompaniment and introductions from historians including Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson, it’s a steal at just £16 for a day ticket or £28 for the whole weekend!

I’ll be posting a couple of blog entries about some of the films in the next couple of weeks, but in the meantime there’s more information here and here

 

THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY & MORE AT LEEDS FILM FESTIVAL

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As if that wasn’t enough rare Laurel & Hardy for you, there’s another chance to see the newly rediscovered ‘BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’, featuring the complete, uncut version of Stan and Ollie’s epic pie fight, “as nature intended”! There’s still no sign of a DVD release for this version, so it’s worth catching if, like me, you had to miss the screenings last year. ‘BATTLE’ is showing as a double bill with Harold Lloyd’s ‘SPEEDY’ (my favourite Lloyd film)

sppedy adJust before this screening is another double bill: the wonderful ‘EXIT SMILING’ (1926) and Keaton’s ‘MY WIFE’S RELATIONS’. ‘EXIT SMILING’ stars Beatrice Lillie in one of her regrettably few films. In this tale of a travelling theatre troupe, Lillie shows that she is equally adept at both wonderful visual comedy and touching moments of Chaplinesque pathos. That she didn’t make more films is a great loss. The version of ‘MY WIFE’S RELATIONS’ being shown is Lobster Films’ new restoration, featuring a completely different end scene!exit

Both shows are at the wonderful City Varieties Theatre in Leeds on Monday 7th November, ‘EXIT SMILING’ at 17.45, and ‘SPEEDY’ at 20.15. Combined tickets are available for just £13, or £10 concession. (Elsewhere as part of the festival, not a comedy but a wonderful film, is the new restoration of Abel Gance’s ‘NAPOLEON’)

 

CAMBRIDGE FILM FESTIVAL1333255352

Cambridge Film Festival offers some morew goodies: A double bill of Keaton’s magnificent ‘THE CAMERAMAN’ with ‘THE HIGH SIGN’ on 22nd October, and a rare chance to see a René Clair comedy, LES DEUX TIMIDES (TWO TIMID SOULS), on 24th October.

Good times indeed for silent comedy film fans, at least in the UK!

 

 

Les Aventures de Monsieur Keaton

Who says Buster Keaton never made a decent sound feature? His 1934 French film, ‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ÉLYSÉES’ is an obscure and often overlooked gem. le-roi-1

After falling from the heights of making prestigious features at MGM to taking whatever low-budget work he could get in the mid 30s, not to mention going through a rough patch in his personal life, it’s perhaps not surprising that Buster had a fairly low opinion of the work he was doing at this point. For all that, his first films after leaving in MGM, a series of two-reelers for Educational Pictures, have some fine moments amongst them. Clearly, this was a great demotion for him though,  and he jumped at the chance to regain his slipping stardom when the offer came for him to appear in a feature length film. The only catch was that he had to go to France to do so; Buster was still revered in Europe at a time when America had put him on the scrap heap. Happily, this meant he was pretty much guaranteed a sympathetic ear to his ideas.

So, in the early summer of 1934, with two Educational shorts under his belt (‘THE GOLD GHOST’ & ‘ALLEZ OOP’) Buster and his then-wife, Mae, left for France. Travel expenses weren’t included in the contract, so they travelled by freighter to save money.

As might be inferred from this, the budget of the film was not bottomless; while certainly much more generous than the Educational films, there were financial troubles from the start. The production company, Margot films, became unable to complete the production due to financial difficulties, and proceedings were picked up by producer Seymour Nebenzal. Nebenzal ran Nero Film, a Berlin-based company whose top successes had been director Fritz Lang’s ‘DR MABUSE’ series. As the Nazis’ stranglehold began to tighten on Germany, Nebenzal, Lang and the rest of the company had relocated to Paris.

The change in production was probably a good thing; while the budget was still relatively small, Nebenzal was an experienced man and used to juggling costs to sensitively fit the budget to the film ; The shooting schedule was a fairly hasty 12 weeks, and the film isn’t as elaborate as the best of the Keaton silents, but in other areas there was no skimping; there’s a full orchestral score, some lavish sets and plenty of location shooting.

 

The plot of the film is strong and fairly elaborate. Buster Garnier works as a publicist for an ailing company, but dreams of becoming a great actor. His job is to hand out ‘bank note’ flyers while pretending to be a millionaire; meanwhile, the company has just received 5,000 francs in cash to solve its financial worries;. Of course, there’s a mix-up, and Buster ends up giving out the real banknotes to all of Paris, including a pretty young waitress (Paulette Dubost) who he falls in love with. Fired from his job, he contemplates suicide, but his mother (Madeleine Guitty) gets him a job in a theatre production, “Le Roi des Champs Elysees. It’s been fairly simple thus far, but now things start to get a bit more involved. Buster’s part in the play is an escaped convict; the same night, an American gangster, Jim Le Balafre (also played by Keaton), escapes and his gang pick up the wrong Buster and take him back to their hideout! After a variety of mix-ups, there’s a wild chase back to the theatre, where Buster arrives back on stage, captures the crooks, makes the play a roaring success, and gets the girl!

 

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Buster on location in Paris; the Café du Trocadero is still in business today!

The film opens with scenes of Buster riding in the back of a car down the Champs-Elysees, throwing away bundles of his fake money. As Buster rides past famous landmarks like the Arc De Triomphe and L’Opera, it’s almost as if the scenes were filmed just to say “Look! We’ve really got Buster Keaton here! In Paris! Wow!”. Nevertheless, the wonderfully bright and sunny atmosphere stops the sequence becoming gimmicky and captures the feel of silent comedy nicely.

 

 

In fact, ‘LE ROI…’ is closer to the spirit of a silent comedy than perhaps any other of his sound films (far more subtly so than his later pastiches). There are lots of throwaway pantomime bits, and many of the sight gags, especially during the early scenes, are very subtle and witty. When handing out the genuine money, Buster wanders through a wedding party. One minute the groom is declaring his undying love to his homely bride; when Buster hands him the money, he runs away down the street shouting “SAVED! SAVED!”

 

There is barely any dialogue at all until at least 20 minutes in; Keaton’s lines were purposely reduced to bypass his need to speak French. The film has recently been subtitled, but is so primarily visual that it makes perfect sense even if you don’t speak the lingo. Of course, this fits Keaton’s own sound dictum of only using talk when necessary, and Buster is the calm at the eye of the hurricane, remaining passive as he causes havoc around him. He’s surrounded by some rather stereotypically verbose European actors, but none of them mow him down like Jimmy Durante had, and in fact it makes a rather good contrast to his stoic demeanour.

His first meeting with Paulette Dubost is entirely wordless, and yet beautifully expressive, as he becomes totally captivated with her and just looks deeply into her eyes. As he eventually leaves, he keeps popping back round the street corner to have one last look at her. It’s a bit reminiscent of Harold Lloyd’s meeting with Jobyna Ralston in ‘THE KID BROTHER’, but only Keaton could create such a convincing expression of lovelorn longing with such minimal action.

When he does speak, he’s dubbed in a rather slimy and unappealing voice. Why this was deemed necessary is puzzling; while not a great linguist, Keaton could at least get by in French, and had spoken it in phonetic versions of his MGM films. Furthermore, he obviously did speak the lines in French before he was dubbed over; his lip movements match, and in some scenes, a few utterances like “Oui” and “Moi?” remain in Keaton’s own husky voice. At the very least, they could have let him use his own voice for the American gangster character, for which his accent would have been perfectly acceptable.

No matter, most of Keaton’s performance is pantomime anyway. It should also be mentioned how well he plays his dual role; his deadpan demeanour works surprisingly effectively as a villainous trait, and he imbues each character with different traits, never leaving you in any doubt which Buster you’re watching.

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Two Busters for the price of one!

 

 

Another strong suit of the film is its wonderful music score; obviously expense was not spared on this. The result is perfect, jaunty in the comedy sections, beautifully wistful in all the romantic spots, rousing in the chase sequences, and often very carefully synchronised to the action onscreen. There’s even an overture before the film begins, and exit music! Best of all, the clunky wordless segments that characterised some of the Educational films are filled, giving a real rhythm to the film.

Many of the gag sequences return to familiar themes in ‘LE ROI…’: Buster’s unsuccessful attempts at suicide recall ‘HARD LUCK’, the gangster’s tricked up hideout ‘THE HIGH SIGN’ and his wrecking of a stage show is familiar from both ‘SPITE MARRIAGE’ and ‘SPEAK EASILY’.

Interestingly, it’s not just Buster’s own past that is revisited; the final chase sequence, with Buster trying to get the entire police force to chase him, is lifted from Harold Lloyd’s short ‘FROM HAND TO MOUTH’ (1920). The cheap budget necessitated use of stock footage from Fritz Lang’s ‘THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE’ to fill out the sequence, but it’s used sensitively and effectively. The scene, and the onstage slapstick battle that follows it, is an exciting and effective climax to the film. It’s also not the only Lloyd gag to be seen in the film. As well as the previously mentioned similarity to ‘THE KID BROTHER’, there’s also one suicide gag lifted from ‘NEVER WEAKEN’(1921). It’s interesting to speculate whether this was Buster’s decision, or if the credited scenarist Arnold Lipp threw them in. If it was Buster’s call, then was it in homage to Harold, or due to a lack of inspiration on his own part?

Probably, like the Educational films, the short shooting time didn’t leave Buster with the luxury of all the time he needed to dream up the perfect gags. My main criticism of the film is that we do get rather too many gags that riff on the theme of Buster getting stuck on ladders, door frames, chandeliers, etc. Of course, he always performs them well, but such scenes of frustration are hardly the trademark of swift-paced silent Keaton, nor as inventive.

le-roi-6The other rather un-Keatonesque thing about the film is his smile at the film’s fadeout. Yes, you read that right; in the final scene, Buster tentatively kisses Paulette, then grabs her in his arms, purrs “Ohhh Baby!” in his dubbed French voice and breaks into a massive grin! Keaton had fought this his entire career; he told Rudi Blesh how director Chuck Reisner insisted on a smile to close ‘STEAMBOAT BILL, JR”, but how the audience hooted it off the screen at preview, and faced the same fight when making ‘THE CAMERAMAN’ at MGM. It’s puzzling that he agreed at this point; perhaps the more emotional Europeans insisted on it, substituted it for a stone-faced ending in the cutting room, or maybe Buster was just losing the will to fight.

 

The film did good business in France, and was exported across Europe, but was destined never to make it across the Atlantic. Unlike the market for Spanish-language films with the large Hispanic community in some areas of Los Angeles, there was not a large ex-pat community of French speakers in America. Long before the dawn of the Art-house cinema, Paramount, or anyone else just didn’t have a market for French language films. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when William K Everson turned up a 16mm print, that American audiences would get the chance to see Buster’s French almost-classic.

 

Most likely, this failure to reach America and and re-invigorate his stardom, was Buster’s main reason for his subsequent low opinion of the film. As you can probably tell by now, I’m really a big fan of ‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ELYSEES’, and so, in terms of quality alone, I find his views puzzling. As with his Educational films, part of the blame probably lies with the fact that it was generally an unhappy time in his life that he later wanted to forget (of his marriage to Mae, he later said “it didn’t last very long, which is the nicest thing about it that I remember”!) .Additionally, Keaton’s purist nature must have hated both the restricted budget and, especially, the idea of using stock footage, no matter how intelligently it was done. In fact, it’s very likely that he never saw the finished film! Had he seen how well it was put together, with careful editing and an excellent score, he may have had a better opinion.

‘LE ROI DES CHAMPS ÉLYSÉES’ has always been one of the most obscure Keaton films to pick up, but it’s definitely worth the effort. For the time being, at least, it’s on YouTube, in a print apparently off Spanish TV. Even with a fraction of a budget of the MGM sound films, for me it manages to surpass them all. Take a look and enjoy this most underrated of Bk films:

 

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This article is adapted from one I wrote for issue 2 of The Lost Laugh magazine (then called ‘Movie Night’)

Hooray for Captain Spaulding (and a toast to Mrs Rittenhouse)

Today marks 126 years to the day since Julius Henry Marx (Groucho to you and me) entered the world. Here’s some prime Groucho, from ‘ANIMAL CRACKERS’:

35 years later, after the passing of Chico and Harpo, Groucho re-enacted this sketch while hosting TV’s ‘HOLLYWOOD PALACE’. While he was without his brothers, legendary foil Margaret Dumont turned up for one last appearance alongside him. Aged 82, she’s still recognisable as the same statuesque dowager who added so much to the Marxes’ shows and films. It has sometimes been said that she could pull of such parts convincingly because she was in real life bereft of humour and bemused by the brothers’ antics, but I’ve never bought this. She certainly seems to be having a good giggle at Groucho during this scene, anyway! Sadly, just a few days after filming this, she too passed away.

 

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Of course, before it was ever a film, ‘ANIMAL CRACKERS’ was a hit Broadway musical. The Marxes’ musicals and stage tours are all set to be covered in a new book. ‘FOUR OF THE THREE MUSKETEERS: THE MARX BROTHERS ON STAGE’ by Robert S Bader promises to be”the first comprehensive history of the foursome’s hardscrabble early years honing their act in front of live audiences”. It’s available October 15, with a list price of $35.00. Here’s some more information.

 

Lupino Lane on DVD!

If you’ve been stopping by this site for a while, you’ll have probably noticed that Lupino Lane is one of my favourite silent clowns. He may not have reached the character based heights of Chaplin, Keaton or Laurel & Hardy, for instance, but he was a very special talent indeed. Nobody could do out-and-out slapstick like him.Steeped in his family’s tradition of pantomime, music hall and acrobatics, he was almost without equal at creating dazzling, lightning-paced routines out of almost nothing at all. If you’re a fellow fan, there’s some great news of two DVDs featuring his work. If you’ve not discovered him yet, both are a great place to start discovering his often jaw-dropping physical comedy.

Firstly, there’s a volume of five of his silent shorts amongst Grapevine Video’s new releases:

These are from his heyday in Hollywood, working for the (inappropriately named) Educational Pictures.

MAID IN MOROCCO (1925) was his first short for the company. Directed by Charles Lamont, it features Lane honeymooning in Morocco. His blissful time is spoiled when the local Caliph (his brother Wallace Lupino, omnipresent in these films) decides to steal Lane’s new bride for his harem. Lane’s attempts to rescue her produce some great, gag-packed chase sequences, including his amazing stunt of running 360 degrees around the inside of a Moorish arch!
MOVIE LAND (1926) is a great little comedy, with some wonderful routines as Lane makes a date with actress, Kathryn McGuire, accidentally stands her up, then tries to crash the studio to apologise. Best of all is his routine disguised as a stunt dummy. Complete prints of this film contain a Lloyd Hamilton cameo, but it most often circulates as a cut-down edition. Time will tell how complete this print is.
Kathyrn McGuire is again the love interest in
NAUGHTY BOY (1927). A notch below the other two films for gag-packed excitement, this is still a very entertaining two-reeler. It’s closer to a Hal Roach situation comedy in its plot than usual, as Lane is forced to pose as a young boy when is father remarries and lies about his age.
The last two films on this disk showcase Lane’s fondness for dropping his bewildered, mild little character into dramatic or epic settings to provide comic contrast. FANDANGO (1928) has him as an unlikely bullfighter, caught up with serenading sultry Anita Garvin and his rival toreador Wallace Lupino. Directed by Lane under the pseudonym Henry W George, this is one of his best-made comedies, with some wonderful camerawork. BATTLING SISTERS (1929) is a bizarre, futuristic gender-bending semi-spoof of ‘THE BIG PARADE’, with men and women’s roles reversed. One of the rarest films here, it’s also by far the strangest, offering the spectacle of Wallace Lupino, in drag, vamping the helpless house husband Lane!

Grapevine lists a running time of 100 minutes, with music scores by David Knudtson. Order here

Lane didn’t abandon his silent comedy technique totally when sound came in. After returning to his native Britain in 1930, he starred in and directed the comedy feature ‘NO LADY’. Essentially an extended reworking of his silent short ‘SUMMER SAPS’, it’s a bit creaky, but once it gets going it features a host of his classic silent comedy routines (including that ‘running round the arch’ gag) amidst some fantastic vintage location shooting in the seaside resort of Blackpool. The final chase, melding silent comedy to strategically place sound elements, seems to me exactly what Buster Keaton wanted to be doing at this point.

51lpyxejfl__sy300_ql70_Incredibly enough, ‘NO LADY’ has been pulled from obscurity and newly released on a triple-film DVD, ‘The Lupino Collection’, alongside films starring other members of the Lupino showbiz clan. Lane’s brother Wallace supports in the fairly dire ‘ SHIPMATES O’ MINE’, while his niece (and the most famous Lupino) Ida appears in ‘HER FIRST AFFAIRE’. This one’s not so great either, but ‘NO LADY’ is more than worth the price. Order here

Finally, if you’re in the UK and want a rare chance to see some Lane films on the big screen, I’ll be showing excerpts from his career, alongside extracts from his book ‘How to become a Comedian’, at Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend in London.  We’ll also be showing two very rare LL films in their entirety: his 1927 short ‘ A HALF PINT HERO’, an acrobatic riff on Chaplin’s ‘THE FIREMAN’, as well as the sound film of his hit stage show ‘Me and My Girl’, ‘THE LAMBETH WALK’ (1939)

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Lane is about to exact revenge on brother Wallace Lupino in ‘A HALF PINT HERO’. Tom Whiteley looks on.

SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND: programme revealed!

Well, the programme for Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend is here at last! There are still a few additions and potential small changes to come, as well as exact show times, but the majority of the films being shown are now online.

The idea is to showcase silent comedy beyond Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. That’s not to put down the magnificence of the eternal trio, but to give a broader picture of the many other fine talents whose films don’t see the light of day enough. Of course, the old favourites make appearances in the programme too, so hopefully there’s something for all silent comedy fans, from those with a casual interest to the more seasoned enthusiasts! All but a handful of these films are unavailable on DVD, and we’re also proud to be presenting several UK premieres of newly rediscovered or restored films.

Below is the programme, mirrored from www.silentlaughter.org. All events take place at London’s Cinema Museum, Kennington.

Each day’s films will begin at 10am. Exact show times to be announced soon!

 SATURDAY 22ND OCTOBER

kid-bootsKID BOOTS  (1926)

Great American entertainer Eddie Cantor made his screen debut in this adaptation of his 1923 Broadway musical. ‘IT’ girl Clara Bow is wonderfully perky as his love interest. the result is a sparky romantic comedy featuring two American jazz age icons for the price of one! We’re proud to present the premiere of a newly restored version of this wonderful film.

EARLY DAYSfilm_linder

Before Chaplin and Keystone, when Hollywood was still just a sunkissed patch of orange groves, the world centre of film-making was in Europe. Legendary film historian David Robinson introduces the first film comedy stars – Max Linder (deemed ‘the professor’ by Chaplin), Charles Prince and more. The prints being shown today are on the archaic 28mm gauge, and are very nearly as  old as the films themselves. Chris Bird and Brian Giles, who will be running them on equally vintage projectors, are a little younger!

 

LAUREL & HARDY – AND STILL THEY COME!

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It’s hard to believe, but unseen Laurel and Hardy footage is still turning up almost 70 years after their last on-camera appearance. We present a treat for L & H fans, with a host of UK premieres of long lost footage. Among them are ‘new versions’ of classic silent shorts from Robert Youngson’s personal collection, featuring scenes not seen since their original release. Also showing will be two of L & H’s solo films, recently restored by the Cinemateca Nazionale: Stan Laurel’s Pythonesque Rudolph Valentino parody ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’, and the Hardy solo film ‘MAIDS AND MUSLIN’.

 

HOME JAMES! (1928)

Laura La Plante, best known for Universal’s ‘THE CAT & THE CANARY’, had several hits in comedy roles. This rarely seen film shows her to winning effect, as a small town girl trying to make it big in a New York department store. Introduced by legendary film historian Kevin Brownlow, from whose collection this print comes.

 

counting relativesLUPINO LANE – A LOCAL HERO

British comedian Lupino Lane  was something of a local hero to this part of town, being the originator of the ‘Lambeth Walk’ dance craze in his hit musical ‘ME AND MY GIRL’. Long before that, he made a string of wonderful silent comedy shorts, featuring finely honed slapstick and acrobatic skills to surpass even Buster Keaton! We revisit his career with the aid of film clips and extracts from Lane’s book ‘HOW TO BECOME A COMEDIAN’. Includes a full showing of the rare two reel comedy ‘A HALF PINT HERO’ (1927).

THE LAMBETH WALK (1939)

Did someone mention Lambeth? We sneak into the sound era to show this exuberant, long-lost film version of ‘ME AND MY GIRL’. Starring Lupino Lane, it enables him to show off several of his favourite silent comedy routines.

 

SUNDAY 23RD OCTOBER:

SILENT SURPRISES

Our first programme of the day will contain a few surprises! Among them, we are hoping to show a very rare Harold Lloyd short, and a few more familiar faces…

SLAPSTICK IN SKIRTS

While silent comedy was dominated by males, it was by no means an exclusive field; there were some terrifically talented female comedy stars out there, too. Michelle Facey showcases two overlooked ladies; Dorothy Devore rivals Harold Lloyd’s high-rise antics in ‘HOLD YOUR BREATH’, while Martha Sleeper shines in the Max Davidson classic ‘PASS THE GRAVY’.

MACK SENNETT’S FUN FACTORY

Mack Sennett was the silent era’s first ‘King of Comedy’, responsible for starting the film careers of Chaplin, Harry Langdon, Roscoe Arbuckle and many others. David Glass explains what made his studio so great, assisted by Brent Walker (author of the definitive Sennett book). Includes clips and films restored by David himself.

342_HL-LongPants-portraitTRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP(1926)

Eternal baby Harry Langdon was at one point considered to be Chaplin’s successor. Today, his idiosyncratic talent is sadly neglected, but he made some wonderfully individual films. Featuring Harry as hapless participant in a cross-country race, this is one of his greatest and funniest films.  Matthew Ross introduces the film, and the context in which Langdon’s unique talent developed.

 

Walter Forde 2WAIT AND SEE (1927)

Walter Forde, Britain’s best silent comedian, and later an eminent director, in his first (and perhaps funniest) feature film. A great chance to see classic silent comedy played out against vintage English backdrops. Introduced by Geoff Brown, author of the only book on Walter Forde.

 

THE BETTER ‘OLE (1926)

Warner Brothers’ first comedy feature to have a Vitaphone soundtrack, this features Charlie Chaplin’s brother Syd in an adaptation of the wartime comic strip by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather. The sterling cast also includes Edgar Kennedy and Harold Goodwin. Introduced by Barbara Witemeyer, daughter of chief Vitaphone sound engineer Jack Watkins.

Tickets are available through www.kenningtonbioscope.com

Rare Ham

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Lloyd Hamilton exists now like one of those dusty, anonymous portraits hanging in a long corridor. To most people, if his image is seen at all, it is a faded likeness of the flesh and blood he once was, the achievements of his life almost totally forgotten. While this analogy could go for a good majority of the performers I write about here, none have faded or fallen so far from their previous colourful heights as Hamilton.

With his offbeat humour and fantastic reaction-based comedy, ‘Ham’ was once considered among the funniest men in the world (he was reportedly a favourite of both Chaplin and Keaton). But his career was dogged by spectacularly persistent bad luck. This continued beyond his early death, as his best films went up in smoke, leaving only a fraction of his works scattered in archives. Most of these are from the bookends of his career, either embryonic versions of the style he later perfected, or tired re-workings that his heart clearly wasn’t in. Only in snatches of classics like ‘THE VAGRANT’, ‘CRUSHED’ or ‘MOVE ALONG’ can we see what really made him special.

So, when a scarce or previously unseen Hamilton film turns up, it’s a pretty big deal for Ham’s fans (all 17 of us). Could each new discovery be the one, the film that restores his tattered reputation beyond doubt? A couple of years ago, a very rare example of his films, ‘A HOME MADE MAN’, turned up on eBay in a 16mm print. I placed several bids but lost out. The film never resurfaced; I figured it had gone to someone who didn’t want to share it with the world. That is, until I mentioned it to a friend, and it turned out that they had known the person who bought it. (Not only this, but there were some potential plans to have it telecine-ed (sic) with some other rare Ham films in the hope of possibly putting together a DVD of a few of his films. Excitingly, I finally got the chance to see the film a little while ago.

The stakes were high,  but the chances of it being a classic were pretty low. It was among Hamilton’s last silents, as problems with alcohol were taking their toll. Of another 1928 release, ‘ALMOST A GENTLEMAN’ critic Raymond Ganly’s review was short but brutal: “Remember how good Lloyd Hamilton used to be? Weep when you see him in this.” These late silent shorts tended to eschew his character based comedies for random gags and gratuitous slapstick. Would ‘A HOME MADE MAN’ be any different?

Well, as expected, it’s not the holy grail of Hamilton films. But, I doubt it would have made Mr Ganly weep, either. It was a pretty good comedy, below the Hal Roach comedies of the same time and Hamilton’s better previous work, but enjoyable. Like another late period Ham short, ‘BLAZING AWAY’, it has two distinct halves, and is based around Ham finding a job.

In the first reel, Ham has been sent by the employment agency to a soda fountain-cum-gym run by Kewpie Morgan. Morgan takes one look at him and winces, but he’s desperate, so Ham gets the job. Next we get the incompetent soda jerk routines you’d expect, with ice cream splattered, eggs broken and plates smashed. In fact, it’s all quite similar to the early scenes of Buster Keaton’s ‘COLLEGE’, from the year before. However, Hamilton is able to show what made him special. The way he delivers hackneyed gags in this line is uniquely his own, and it is not the slapstick itself that causes the laughs, but rather his hurt dignity. As a result, you feel less like you’re watching a Keaton rip-off, and more a reaction comedy that anticipates Oliver Hardy’s attempts to master simple tasks. As a result, the soda bar gags are the best moments of the film.

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Another typical Hamilton twist on standard material: he is carrying a huge pile of plates, that wobble to and fro. He loses his footing, and theplates are sliding all over the place…. but the crash never happens as he safely reaches the counter. Morgan and Hamilton sigh with relief; “I never broke a plate in my life,” says Lloyd. However, he has placed them on top of his apron on the counter top, and as he walks off, the plates finally crash to the ground.

Fearing for his remaining crockery, Morgan sends Hamilton in to the gym as a personal trainer. After all, if you can’t trust someone with breakables, then why not trust them with peoples’ health? Here, he predictably makes an equal mess of things, first trying to instruct a line of athletes in a nicely choreographed sequence, then taking to the gym equipment himself. Things go downhill from here, as his efforts on the rings lead to him swinging out of the window and clinging on to the ledge in a pretty feeble Harold Lloyd ripoff.

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Once he is safely back inside, the film ends with him pitted against Morgan in a boxing match, which he surprisingly wins. Ham victoriously leaves the gym behind.

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OK, so it’s not the classic  we could hope for. But, it does show what Hamilton could do, even with mediocre material, and as such I’m very glad to have seen it. Certainly it’s a decent comedy short for the time, and he makes the most of his opportunities, even when the material is subpar. Hamilton was without doubt a great, individual comic performer with his own distinct style. Yet again, after viewing one of his films, I’m left with the question: What could he have done with better material?

 

 

 

 

Silent Laughter Weekend: Tickets now on sale!

Tickets are now on sale for Silent Laughter Weekend at London’s Cinema Museum. It’s just £28 for a weekend ticket – access to more than 10 screenings of rare and classic films with live accompaniment. The programme can’t quite be confirmed yet, due to waiting for archives and screening rights to come through, but it will be here very soon.

Tickets are available here….

… and you can read a few hints about what will be shown here

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New issue of the Lost Laugh magazine

THE LOST LAUGH #10

It’s here, finally! 1001 things seem to have got in the way of completing it, but here we are. Inside you’ll find the final part of our look at the great Charley Chase’s films, an in-depth appreciation of master British comedian Will Hay, details of other British comics coming to DVD, a guest article about forgotten comedienne Marjorie Beebe, reports from last year’s Silent Laughter Saturday, plus all the usual news and views.

Right -click the link, and choose ‘Save target as…’ to download:

THE LOST LAUGH #10

Why not make sure you never miss an issue? Send an email to movienightmag <AT> gmail.com for details of how to subscribe to the mailing list. It’s free!

Oh, and don’t forget that back issues of ‘Movie Night’ (before we rebranded) are available to download from the magazine page.

Happy Reading!

 

Silent Laughter returns to London!

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Last October, Kennington Bioscope presented an all-day feast of silent comedy, which I wrote about here, here, here and here. Now, Silent Laughter returns to London’s Cinema Museum for a full weekend!

The programme is just days away from being revealed, but in the meantime, save the date of October 22 – 23, 2016.

More info will be available at http://www.kenningtonbioscope.com  and also at http://www.silentlaughter.org. I’ve also made a dedicated page on this site.

Tickets are a steal at just £28 for  weekend pass, or £16 for a day.

Watch this space for more details as they come!

Rhubarb Vaselino rides again!

A little while back, I posted about the discovery, in November last year, of the lost Stan Laurel solo film ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’, or 7 minutes of it, at least.

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The film revisits Stan’s parody of Rudolph Valentino in his earlier classic ‘MUD AND SAND. Stan’s version of the great lover -‘Rhubarb Vaselino’ – gives him lots of opportunity for the silly parody that the British sense of humour does so well. Here, he parodies another Valentino film, ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, in which the Latin lover portrayed a favourite courtier of Louis XIV, forced to flee to England and pose as a barber.

So, why am I returning to this? Well, 2 minutes of the rediscovered footage has been posted on YouTube, and it provides some interesting talking points. It’s a brief scene of Stan parodying Valentino’s reputation as a vainglorious ladies’ man, flirting with another man’s wife, and attempting to escort her into a taxi.

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The footage, jumpy though it is, has some great moments. There’s a healthy dose of the comic anachronism that makes Laurel’s other parodies, like ‘WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD’, such a delight, as New York yellow cabs roam the streets of 17th Century France. Most interestingly, at the end of the scene, there’s a forerunner of the legendary Hal Roach bottomless mudhole™ that enlivened so many Laurel & Hardy films. Stan is attempting to escort the lady across a puddle in the street, and lays down his coat, Walter Raleigh style, on top of the puddle. Stepping on it, Stan and escort disappear beneath the water. Sound familiar? With the coat replaced by a kilt, the scene is reworked as a running gag in the seminal L & H film, ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’. Considering this, and the atypical role of Stan as woman chaser in that film, and it turns out a big chunk of ‘PHILIP’ was quite possibly inspired by ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’. Who knew?

The scene in ‘MONSIEUR’ also has  a great punchline: as Stan resurfaces from the water he is most concerned with redoing his hair, in a parody of Valentino’s famous vanity. But, while Stan’s lost dignity (and his refusal to acknowledge it) here is good for a laugh, it took Oliver Hardy’s sense of real hurt pride to make it into a great comic scene.

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It’s always fascinating to see more footage of L & H turning up, especially when it helps to fill in pieces of the puzzle we didn’t even know were missing. Here’s hoping we can see the whole 7 minute extract soon.

Here’s the 2 minute extract…

…. and the similar scene from ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’