A Big Kick: Harry Langdon talkies on DVD

 

langdon dvd

The Sprocket Vault continue their terrific mission to release rarely seen classics from the Hal Roach archives. The latest volume, out next week, covers the series of sound shorts made by the great Harry Langdon.

These are an offbeat and sometimes bizarre group of films, but I find them absolutely fascinating and often quite wonderful. Click here to read a detailed piece I wrote about them a few years ago, and below is my favourite of the shorts, THE BIG KICK. It’s an almost silent short with some wonderful bits of pantomime from Harry, and some truly strange gag ideas!

As usual, the disc is packed with real treats. For Langdon’s devotees, the real holy grail is the inclusion of his first two talkies, HOTTER THAN HOT and SKY BOY. These now only exist in silent versions without their soundtracks, and haven’t  been seen in many, many years. There’s also a Spanish phonetic version of THE BIG KICK! Many find Langdon’s speaking voice strange in English.. imagine what it must be like in Spanish. There are also commentaries on the films by Richard Roberts. All in all, a wonderful gift for these troubled times.

Here’s the link to buy on Amazon, and the burb follows below:

After falling from Hollywood stardom at the end of the Silent Era, quirky silent film comedian Harry Langdon made not only his first talking films, but also his first screen comeback with a series of eight two-reelers for comedy producer Hal Roach. This pre-code series offers an interesting and entertaining look at what critic James Agee referred to as Langdon’s ”baby dope fiend” characterization, presented for the only time in sound as the undiluted comic creation he made famous in silent films. Langdon had developed a strange, stream-of-consciousness vocal patter in vaudeville, as showcased here. With another fifteen years to go in talkies after he made these shorts, Harry Langdon would never again deliver to films full-force his truly bizarre humor. Along for the ride is the beautiful comedienne Thelma Todd in some of her earliest film appearances at the Lot of Fun, as well as others from the Hal Roach Stock Company like Edgar Kennedy and Max Davidson.

This is Harry Langdon at his most surreal:

  • 1929: Hotter Than Hot
  • 1929: Sky Boy
  • 1929: Skirt Shy
  • 1930: The Head Guy
  • 1930: The Fighting Parson
  • 1930: The Big Kick
  • 1930: The Shrimp
  • 1930: The King

Bonus Material:

  • ”La estación de gasolina” (Spanish language version of ”The Big Kick”)
  • ”Hal Roach Presents Harry Langdon” (1929)
  • ”Hal Roach Studio Auction”(1963)
  • Commentary by Richard M. Roberts
  • Photo Gallery
  • Supplemental music composed and performed by Andrew Earle Simpson

 

Never work with Children & Animals…

“Never work with children and animals” was a message that never seemed to reach director William S Campbell. Campbell specialised in films combining both, including this rarity from the EYE film institute, SCHOOLDAY LOVE (1922). Bears, monkeys, dogs and donkeys abound; among the children are Doreen Turner, Coy Watson, Jr and Laurence Licalvai.

william s campbellCampbell had previously worked on a series of films starring ‘Joe Martin’, an orang-utang (“the world’s only monkey comedian!”) in the late teens, then moved on to Chester Comedies starring ‘SNOOKY THE HUMANZEE’.

His work was well-regarded enough in the industry for his name to brand a series of ‘Campbell Comedies’, distributed through Educational Pictures. These began with ‘THE STORK’S MISTAKE’, which was a big success. ‘SCHOOL DAY LOVE’ was the follow-up, and while reviews were positive, it was noted that it wasn’t quite as good as the initial entry. Indeed, the novelty soon wore off the Campbell comedies, and series didn’t continue as one of Educational’s mainstays.

campbell comedies

These days, old films manipulating animals seem cruel and unnecessary, but we can’t deny that they were popular at the time, and formed an unusual sideshow to the comedy film industry. As such, they do have a historical interest.

As for Campbell, maybe he disproves the old saying, as he outlived most of his contemporaries who worked with humans! He lived on to the age of 87, passing away in 1972.

Join the Silent Comedy Watch Party!

Thanks to COVID-19, upcoming silent film screenings and film festivals have been decimated. But, necessity is the mother of invention, and now you can join a live streaming silent comedy watch party every Sunday!

This terrific idea comes courtesy of historian and silent film accompanist Ben Model and author/historian Steve Massa. After already giving us a string of crowdfunded DVDs and magnificent books between them, the pair have once again proved to be heroes of silent comedy fandom!

How does it work? Ben livestreams the films from his home, giving wonderful accompaniment to them on his piano. Steve contributes introductions to the films via video link. Simple but ingenious.

You can find all the details at https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Movie-Theater/The-Silent-Comedy-Watch-Party-104795847832966/ and https://www.silentfilmmusic.com/category/The-Silent-comedy-watch-party/

Thehttps://www.silentfilmmusic.com/category/The-Silent-comedy-watch-party/ next stream can be found here:

https://youtu.be/_FAYLPqFwm0

The stream begins at 3pm EDT (that’s 8pm for those of us here in Britain).

Last week’s episode gave us some rare treats. A clever ‘Out of the Inkwell’ cartoon kicked things off followed by Snub Pollard in the wonderful chase comedy FIFTEEN MINUTES. Snub is tired of being dragged around by his wife, and sits on a bench to rest for a little while. Or so he thinks… this is a wonderful example of director Charles Parrott/Charley Chase’s skill at starting with a mundane situation, and escalating it to absurdity. Snub has a washerwoman’s tub of water tipped over him; when he protests, her husband Noah Young comes after him. Soon, he has lost his trousers, is being shot at, has half the L.A police department after him, and ends up stuck in a tree with a bear! Just wonderfully ridiculous (and did I possibly see a cameo from Mr Parrott as one of the men shooting?)

Next up was a real rarity, the surviving reel of a manic Harry Sweet comedy, THE TWO JOHNS. Sweet comes across as a capable but bland performer, and it’s no coincidence he was better known as a director (he directed some of Stan Laurel’s solo shorts, and later initiated the RKO Edgar Kennedy series). No matter, for THE TWO JOHNS was more concerned with elaborate stunts and slapstick than its star performer. Ben and Steve described it as “like a Larry Semon comedy on steroids!” and that’s a great summation. Heaps of fun and wonderful to see one of the rare Fox Sunshine comedies.

Lastly, we had a terrific Joe Rock short called THE WHIRLWIND.

Best known today as a producer, Joe Rock made films both as a team with earl Montgomery and on his own. THE WHIRLWIND is one of those wonderful milkings of a single gag – Joe is stuck in a town being ravaged by a cyclone. There were some great gags, particularly a funny scene as Joe is thrown out of his girl’s house, but repeatedly blown back in by the wind causing the father to become more and more irate.

What a treat this was, and I can’t wait for the next edition. Its so great to see silent film screenings being kept alive at a time when we need laughter more than ever. Make sure you tune in!

The Sheik of Silent Comedy

raymond_griffithThere was no-one else in silent comedy quite like Raymond Griffith.  He certainly bore very little stylistic similarity 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. In the 20s, Paramount billed him as ‘THE NEW SHEIK OF SLAPSTICK’; while slapstick was only a very small part of his modus operandi, there is something in the ‘sheik’ part of the description. His cool, effortlessly suave lounge lizard was very much a product of the 1920s jazz age, and like Harry Langdon, he was a reaction to the manic, larger-than-life style of many comics. Also like Langdon, his singular take on silent comedy was hugely appreciated by audiences clamouring for something different.

Griffith’s style was an example of the move towards greater sophistication in film comedy during the middle ’20s. At the extreme end of this movement were the ‘light comedies’, very polite films which were sometimes so light that they now barely seem like comedies at all. Griffith was able to balance the refined, sophisticated approach of light comedy with a more dynamic blend of sight gags and visual humour.

Partly, his visual instincts came from his training with Mack Sennett, for whom he appeared in shorts during the late teens.

He had then worked up to supporting parts in features. After garnering some great reviews for his roles, notably as a drunk in OPEN ALL NIGHT (1924), Griffith was promoted to starring status at Paramount; THE NIGHT CLUB launched his career in features with a high pedigree. It was produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, and directed by his protégées Based on the novel AFTER FIVE, it is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women and plots suicide, reconsidering when he inherits a fortune. (If you’re wondering where the eponymous night club features in all this, it doesn’t! Studios occasionally fabricated titles as “placeholder” listings in their upcoming film schedules – this was one such example. When it came to releasing the film, Paramount had promised something called THE NIGHT CLUB, so they delivered the unrelated film they had made under this title!)

Random title aside, it’s a warm and entertaining film. Griffith gives a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.

THE NIGHT CLUB was a critical success, paving the way for several more Raymond Griffith features. The New York American echoed the sentiments of many when it commented that “Raymond Griffith gives Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or any of our million-dollar-a-year men a race for laurels.”

untitled

His next film was PATHS TO PARADISE, a terrific screwball-type tale of two rival cat-burglars. Griffith and Betty Compson are both wonderful in this witty and stylish comedy, constantly playing a game of one-upmanship before deciding to join forces to steal a diamond. The film shows exactly what made Griffith special; it’s hard to imagine any of the other major clowns playing a role on the wrong side of the law like this in their mature work. That Griffith plays a rogue and gets away with it speaks volume for his skill at creating a character. The film also benefits from snappy direction by Clarence Badger, and some excellent comic support (as always) from Edgar Kennedy. A scene where Griffith tries to dodge Kennedy’s torchbeam in a darkened room is simply wonderful.

Griffith & Compson in 'PATHS TO PARADISE'

Another highlight is the closing car chase, in which the two thieves make for Mexico with the police in hot pursuit. It’s a thrilling ride with some terrific visual gags thrown in, but sadly, the final couple of minutes of the film, in which they decide to turn themselves in and go straight, no longer exist.

Sadly, this is portentous for the fate of most of Griffith’s other work. The two that do survive, the civil war comedy ‘HANDS UP!’ and ‘YOU’D BE SURPRISED’, reveal a truly unique and gifted talent.

In common with Keaton’s THE GENERAL, HANDS UP is a civil war comedy told from the point of view of the South. Griffith plays Jack, a cunning spy sent on a mission to destroy a gold mine that could help the Union troops win the war. The film isn’t available complete online, though the opening scenes below give a flavour. (The complete film is available to purchase from Grapevine video).

The Griffith feature available for viewing is YOU’D BE SURPRISED, a detective story that doesn’t quite come up to the standards of the previous two films, but is an enjoyable treasure nonetheless.

Sadly, we can no longer judge the quality of elusive films like WET PAINT, WEDDING BILLS or TRENT’S LAST CASE, so it’s hard to get a handle on his complete canon of work today.

With his individual approach, Griffith remained popular until the close of the silent era. Alas, he more than any other silent comedian, had much reason to fear the microphone. Griffith didn’t have a bad voice; he had virtually no voice, a previous illness having left him with little more than a hoarse whisper. He did make a pair of talkie shorts, ‘THE SLEEPING POR2081153,6smqz__aIic26rMDSBg+6ve0dXjWDMr9BzUEy88u3tZBjmePWMNeFgd3fPSbJjq6wzKb_fFyuTeHO9i+18XSGw==CH’ and ‘POST MORTEMS’, which provided excuses for his voice, but clearly this could only go on for so long. His final role was wordless, as a dying soldier in ‘ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT’. While his acting career may have been over, he remained busy as a producer for 20th Century Fox, passing away in 1957.

 

Griffith was very much a unique talent, and we can only hope some more of his features turn up in the future.

 

Welcome to THE LOST LAUGH.

Welcome to THE LOST LAUGH, a website and blog dedicated to the classic clowns of (roughly) the 1910s -1950s.  You’ll find a selection of articles, rare photos and film clips from these great stars of silent comedy, sound shorts, music hall, radio, and so on. In the words of The Kinks, “God save Donald Duck, Vaudeville and Variety”.

As well as the classics -Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, etc – I’m fascinated by the fringes of the industry. Neglected and forgotten performers, who brushed greatness but whose names have not endured. Many of these now seem dated; some of them do not transcend cultural barriers. Some were of dubious value in the first place! But, amongst them, were some perfect fools, magical acrobats, superb pantomimists, skilled filmmakers and witty wordsmiths who still can provide so much entertainment. Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, Lloyd Hamilton, Harry Langdon, Will Hay, George Formby, Mabel Normand, Dan Leno, Clark and McCullough, Alice Howell, Jack Hulbert, Roscoe Arbuckle, Anita Garvin, Charley Bowers, Max Linder, Poodles Hanneford, Walter Forde…. the list goes on.

There are three basic elements to this site:

  1. This blog, which I update semi-regularly with articles, film clips, photos and the like.
  2. A more in-depth reference guide to classic comedy performers, people like those listed above. These are permanent web pages accessed through the menus at the top of the page. I’m slowly adding to these and hope to have a comprehensive guide to the comedians of this era one day.
  3. THE LOST LAUGH MAGAZINE  (formerly MOVIE NIGHT) is a free ezine started in 2011 that goes into even greater detail and contains exclusive material not reproduced on the site. It’s produced roughly once or twice a year (depending on what other projects I have going on) and features exclusive articles and photos, as well as contributions from guest writers. You can access back issues here – if you’d like to subscribe and have new issues sent direct to your email inbox, you can find more info on how to do that inside the magazines.

Thanks for reading. I hope you find some new favourite films and performers while you’re here!

Matthew Ross, March 2020.

 

A Teddy Tale

The EYE film institute in the Netherlands has a terrific YouTube channel, with an especially rich selection of early European comedies. Here’s one that jumped out at me from it’s title: TEDDY A MANGÉ DES GRENOUILLES, or ‘Teddy eats Frogs’!  This is a delightfully bizarre variation on the typical one-gag chase films made in the 1900s. Here, the little gendarme Teddy steals a man’s breakfast, overindulges on frogs’ legs and feels some side-effects. Soon, he can’t stop jumping, and is causing havoc on the streets of Paris with half the town in pursuit. It’s a wonderfully silly short, with great acrobatics and some dangerous stunting – at one point, he jumps all over the roof of a moving steam engine, while a lady is being dragged behind it!

I’d never seen a ‘Teddy’ film before. Turns out his real name is Édouard Pinto. In common with most of the early European clowns like Robinet, Polycarpe and Cretinetti, Pinto worked under a screen character name used in each film.

He was born in Lisbon in 1887 (How many other Portuguese silent comedians can you name?) and  began performing on stage from the age of eight. He played ‘Pif-Paf’, in an act with his older brother, and together they toured around Europe and Africa. It was in 1906 that he was talent-scouted by Pathé to make films for them. After an eighteen month contract, he moved on to the Lux Company, where the above film was made.

Pinto later went on to direct himself, but WW1 interrupted his career. Like Max Linder, he suffered gas attacks and injuries in the conflict, and was invalided out in 1916. Fortunately, he was rehabilitated enough to resume his film career.

teddy pinto

From July 1919 to January 1920 he played in LE FILS DE NUIT,  a serial shot in Algeria and France. Filming a scene in Saint-Remy-de-Provence he had a terrible accident: “The bridge that was supposed to give way under its weight gives way too soon. Teddy, with his horse, fell ten metres and crashed into the bottom […] he was pulled in a pitiful state: open left shoulder, dislocated arm, sprained wrist, dislocated right knee. Teddy, after three months of care, still uses his left arm with some discomfort.”

The experience put Pinto off films. After a couple more appearances, he retired from the screen. It’s sometimes been said that physical comedy and ballet aren’t too far apart ( W.C. Fields referred to Chaplin as “a goddamn ballet dancer”), and Pinto is perhaps more proof. He spent the rest of his career as a teacher of modern dance.

The Unknown Marx Brothers

THE UNKNOWN MARX BROTHERS is a superb documentary from 1993, which presents a biography of the brothers, while also focusing on rare and unseen clips from the history of their act. Highlights include Harpo’s silent film cameo in TOO MANY KISSES (1926), trailers for THE BIG STORE and DUCK SOUP, their 1931 routine from THE HOUSE THAT SHADOWS BUILT, outtakes from the aborted TV pilot THE DEPUTY SERAPH (1959), and Groucho’s YOU BET YOUR LIFE SERIES, assorted solo TV spots and various home movies.

There are also valuable interviews with family members and co-workers. Lots of great stuff packed into 85 minutes!

Lifting Lockdown Spirits

Hope you’re all doing ok out there in this strange new world. Thank goodness for technology, which means we have a wealth of entertainment at our fingertips, and what a tonic the great comics can be in troubled times. I’m digging through some old favourites and finding some new gems to share here.

It seems like there’s never been a better time to share this classic radio episode of Hancock’s Half Hour, in which Tony and his housemates Sid James, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques try to pass a Sunday stuck indoors. It’s one of the best examples of Hancock’s humorous despair, finding comedy in the mundane everyday. Incidentally, it was a favourite of Stan Laurel, who kept a tape copy in his collection.

On a similar note, here’s Lupino Lane on enforced lockdown during a rainy holiday, in SUMMER SAPS (1929).  Wherever you’re isolating, I hope you have better neighbours than this!!

On a serious note, I hope that this terrible situation isn’t treating you too badly. Stay safe and well, and keep smiling!

Chaplinitis!

I just stumbled across some screening notes I wrote for a programme of ‘imitation Chaplin’ comedies at last year’s Silent Laughter Weekend. I’ve reproduced them here, adapted slightly to incorporate some video links. Hope you enjoy!

trampCharlie Chaplin’s phenomenal popularity in the mid-teens was dubbed ‘The Chaplin Craze’ or ‘Chaplinitis’ by the press. His rise to fame had been made possible by a huge boom in mass-amusement culture, beginning at the end of the Victorian era. Additionally, the new technology of silent cinema enabled a universal recognition for performers beyond previously insurmountable language and travel barriers. With his instantly recognisable image, Chaplin arrived on screen just in time to act as a kind of divining rod for these forces.

Chaplin’s was celebrity on a scale never seen before. He was as astonished as anyone, later remarking, “I knew I was famous but didn’t know what fame meant.”

He was soon to find out. Puppets, dolls, toothbrushes, sweets… all kinds of merchandise imaginable soon bore the familiar image of the tramp. There were Charlie Chaplin songs, dances, fancy dress parties and lookalike competitions (the oft-told story of Chaplin entering one such contest and coming second is now believed to be apocryphal, however!)

chaplin-liberty-chaplins

Some took their impersonations a step further and turned it into their own act. Among the legions ‘doing Chaplin’ were some future stars: Bert Wheeler and Walter Forde both started on the stage in this way, for instance. Stan Laurel, previously Chaplin’s understudy in Fred Karno days, also included an ersatz Mabel Normand and Chester Conklin in his act “The Keystone Trio”. British comedian Frank Randle was chased away from Blackpool Pier after busking his act there, and his contemporary Sid Field was also a Chaplin street performer.

Within the film industry, desire for Chaplin product outstripped the speed with which the increasingly methodical comedian could turn it out. Many of his earlier films would be repackaged and reissued (Essanay studios, in particular, excelled themselves at milking leftover scraps of Chaplin footage, expanding ‘A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN’ to twice its original length, and making an entirely new film, ‘TRIPLE TROUBLE’ from scenes Chaplin had discarded). Even these efforts did not fulfil public desire, and it was inevitable that other companies would attempt to get a piece of the pie.

A series of ‘Charley’ cartoons made by Otto Messmer are an early example. These actually received a helping hand from Chaplin himself, who provided a series of portraits in various poses to assist Messmer’s drawings. The cartoonist would later incorporate a considerable Chaplin influence into his most famous character, Felix the Cat.

Cartoons were one thing, but screen imitators provided a direct threat of competition. Practically all film comedians of the late teens took some influence from Chaplin, but some did so more blatantly than others. Devoted to redefining the word ‘blatant’ was Billy West, whose deception extended to sleeping with his hair in curlers, and learning to play the violin left-handed! He also poached Chaplin’s Essanay co-star Leo White to add to the illusion in a series of films for the King Bee corporation. West’s impersonation attracted derision from some quarters at the time, and he is still often dismissed outright. However, he was a capable comedian and his Chaplin imitations provide some good laughs. He also got a big helping hand from some other comic minds; Oliver Hardy was his heavy, made up to resemble Chaplin’s ‘Goliath’, Eric Campbell. His director was also a gifted comedy craftsman: Charles Parrott, the future Charley Chase.

west billy

Billy West, with Babe Hardy on the left.

Here’s a prime example of the West-Hardy-Parrott triple-threat: ‘HIS DAY OUT’, from 1918

And here’s THE CANDY KID (1917), directed by Arvid E Gillstrom before Parrott joined the series,

Charles Parrott would later work  with another Chaplin impersonator, Harry Mann in films like ‘THE FLIRTS’ (featured on the ‘Becoming Charley Chase’ DVD set) and ‘DON’T PARK THERE’.

ritchieBilly Ritchie is one of the most interesting Chaplin lookalikes, gaining a certain notoriety for claiming that Chaplin actually copied him. Glaswegian Ritchie claimed that he had been wearing a similar costume for years on stage before Chaplin used it. There is probably some legitimacy to his claim (not to mention a strong possibility that Chaplin & Ritchie were actually related) but truthfully the bowler, cane and moustache were all fairly standard parts of the music hall comic’s attire.

It’s clear that Ritchie’s take on the tramp was a very different animal. While the early Chaplin was given to bouts of violence, Ritchie can be downright hostile! His default expression is a scowl, and he’s generally given to cruder body language, sticking his rear out as he walks. Chaplin’s tramp may have been anti-authoritarian, but Ritchie was an anarchist!

To this day, he has some fierce defenders who feel he was robbed. No doubt, he hasn’t received his due as an original comedian in his own right, but he was never really going to be a timeless performer. Unlike Ritchie, Chaplin developed his character  to be not just a suit of funny clothes, but a real human. As a knockabout comedian, Ritchie could be excellent,  but he was probably never going to make ‘THE KID’. He certainly wasn’t going to while working in fast-paced, violent comedies for L-KO under the direction of Henry Lehrman.

Lehrman’s penchant for savage knockabout was to be Ritchie’s undoing – one film, POOR POLICY, saw him bizarrely savaged by ostriches, setting off a bout of ill-health ending with his death from stomach cancer in 1921. (I’ve seen this film, and the way he treats the ostriches, I’m not surprised they bit back!)

Here’s Billy in happier times, in ‘ALMOST A SCANDAL’ (1915)

L-KO were also responsible for another Chaplin spin-off. Chai Hong, billed as “The Chinese Charlie Chaplin”, was actually Korean. While it was his Chaplin impersonation in ‘PLAYING MOVIES’ that brought him to attention, this was a one-off. His other films had him playing his own, if stereotypically ‘oriental’ character. He starred in several shorts before disappearing from the screen in the early 20s. Hong later became valet to actor Lew Cody.

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While these are examples of outright Chaplin copies, many other performers evoked Chaplin in essence. Monty Banks’ early appearances are extremely Chaplinesque, and Harold Lloyd’s ‘Lonesome Luke’ character was a self-admitted inversion of the Chaplin costume. Crucially, the really gifted comedians realised that imitation proved a blind alley and would forge their own paths into the 1920s.

Even for those not copying Chaplin’s appearance or behaviour, his genius routines and plots would be re-used by many other comics. A few examples among the multitudes: Buster Keaton’s ‘THE ELECTRIC HOUSE’ features a central escalator surely inspired by that in THE FLOORWALKER, Monty Banks revisits ‘EASY STREET’ in ‘PEACEFUL ALLEY’ and Laurel & Hardy rework ‘LAUGHING GAS’ for ‘LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING’. While these examples all took the material to a new place, sometimes the ‘borrowing’ of ideas was downright brazen. The BFI holds a rare Educational Pictures one-reeler called  ‘CUT LOOSE’ (1924) that mimics ONE AM right down to its bizarre selection of stuffed animal props! The star is Phil Dunham, another British comedian, and allegedly a Cambridge graduate. Dunham remained busy at Educational, and in small parts elsewhere well into the sound era.

Today it’s easy to sneer at the unoriginality of the copycats in the shadows of Chaplin’s genius, but the picture was more complex than this. For struggling vaudeville and film performers, money had to take precedence over artistic integrity and a good Chaplin impersonation meant money. There were many good comedians among the impersonators, many of them still funny today. If nothing else, they provide a fascinating sidelight to Chaplin’s story, and remind us just how special the man himself was.

Speaking of which, here he is at his best!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memories of Baby Peggy

baby peggy

Yesterday, we lost the last direct link to the silent film era. Diana Serra Cary, the child star ‘Baby Peggy’, has passed away, aged 101.

As ‘Baby Peggy Montgomery’, she was one of the most charming child stars of the silent era, and one of the most adept at comedy. Appearing in almost 150 shorts and several features, she was one of the most popular child stars of the 1920s.

I first became aware of her  at a screening of her Century comedy, THE KID REPORTER, at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival about 15 years ago. The print of this short film was rather beaten up, and only had foreign titles (David Robinson ad-libbed translations of them as the film was shown) but Peggy’s terrific performance shone through. Accompanied by a Brownie the Wonder Dog (with whom she made many films), the intrepid infant adopts a series of disguises to help solve a crime, exhibiting terrific comic timing in the process – and she was only three years old! The short got one of the best responses of the whole festival. So much so, that the following year she was invited to attend in person.

Sadly, THE KID REPORTER isn’t around online, but here are a couple of clips from two other shorts to give you a flavour of her skill. Those facial expressions are priceless, and what comic timing!

The following year, she introduced a showing of one of her feature films, CAPTAIN JANUARY (1924). It’s no wonder that she was snapped up for features; her ability to switch between comedy routines and genuine pathos was phenomenal. This warm comedy drama also went down a storm, and Ms Carey’s introduction was sharp and insightful. Afterwards, I was very fortunate to have a brief chat with her – she was patient and kind to this awkward 17 year old, and signed a wonderful old still photo to me. Losing that photo in a house flood a few years later was a very real disappointment.

Baby Peggy’s time at the top included a string of feature films, including THE DARLING OF NEW YORK and  HELEN’S BABIES (alongside Clara Bow). At her peak, she was reportedly earning up to $1.5 million annually, but was soon to learn the harsh flipside of child stardom. When her father had a disagreement with producer Sol Lesser, her contract was abruptly cancelled. She managed only one more small part in APRIL FOOL (1926) before work dried up. This, coupled with the Wall Street Crash, forced her to endure gruelling vaudeville tours and extra work to support her family.

Unlike many other child stars, she had the fortitude to survive these indignities and hardships. Although the 30s and 40s were very difficult times for her, she ultimately triumphed. In later life, she successfully reinvented herself as an author and silent film historian. She even published her first novel at age 99!. Her books ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?’ and ‘Hollywood’s Children’ are fascinating reads, which share the stark realities of child stardom without ever being maudlin. It’s a wonder that she was able to come through it all and become so well-balanced.

In her last years, she was feted at film screenings and festivals, and lived a happy, well earned retirement. 101 years very well-lived.

Diana Serra Cary/ Baby Peggy-Jean Montgomery, October 29, 1918 – February 24, 2020.

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