There are underappreciated silent comedians, and then there are truly forgotten ones. Al Alt definitely belongs to the latter group.
Alexander Alt, to give him his full name, was a jobbing comic in the mid-late 1920s. He worked for independent companies like Century and RayArt, as well as making afew films for Educational Pictures.
According to Steve Massa’s wonderful book LAME BRAINS AND LUNATICS, Alt was part of a vaudeville team with Hazel Howell. The pair made a few films (not that great, apparently) before Al went on to appear in some of the Hall Room Boys series in 1923. This series about a pair of dapper down-and-outs had a revolving door policy on comics; as well as Al, Jimmie Adams, Neeley Edwards, Sid Smith, Harry McCoy, George Williams, Zip Monberg and others all took turns playing ‘Percy & Ferdie’.
The dapper but embarassed young character stuck with Al after he moved on from the Hall Room Boys films. In fact, he became a bit like Century’s version of Charley Chase: a pleasant young husband getting himself into akward situations. As well as starring in his own comedies – sometimes teamed with Harry McCoy – he appeared as leading lady to Wanda Wiley and with the Century Follies girls.
Sadly, most of Century’s comedies are now missing, so we can’t see most of the comedies he made. Synopses and stills make them look quite interesting – EAT & RUN featured Alt & McCoy with a bicycle-propelled lunch wagon, and also featured Max Davidson.
Al moved over to RayArt, making films with and directed by Bobby Ray (best known from a few films he made teamed with Oliver Hardy that anticipate Hardy’s teaming with Stan Laurel). At least one of these survives: THE MILLION DOLLAR DERBY, featuring the delightfully ridiculous plot of Al having to wear a silly hat for 6 months to get an inheritance!
Alt & Ray apparently tried to jump on the bandwagon of comics like Monty Banks & Syd Chaplin making films in Britain – Variety’s London correspondent of Nov 15th 1928 reports them on holiday in London and trying to raise interest in a feature. They had no luck, and Al ended up in some Cameo comedies at Educational Pictures. Educational was on a high at the time, and these were Al’s most prestigious films.
Educational’s Cameo comedies were efficient one reelers that milked simple situations for gags. Al’s shorts won praise and sound like good, fun little one reelers from existing reviews.
In LUCKY BREAKS, Al played a sailor on shore leave who has all sorts of troubles with his belongings on the train ride home. Film Daily praised the short:
“His bundles become unwieldy and almost animated. The way that Al retrieves them, apologises to passengers and registers confusion and embarrassment is a joy to behold”
The reviewer concluded:
“This Al Alt person has swooped across the short comedy horizon and it looks as though he is going to make ’em all sit up and take notice before very long.”
Sadly for Al, it was really too late for anyone to take notice of a new silent comedian, and he was lost in the shuffle of the talkie revolution. Though he made a couple of cheap indie two reelers in the East (RELATIONS and THE PEST) his starring career was fading out. He returned to Educational for a few bit parts, but then moved behind the scenes, initially as an editor, but working up to be assistant director on a number of films into the 1950s and 60s. Apparently he lived on until 1992!
Al Alt is never going to be rediscovered as a master comedian, but he’s another one of the silent comedy terracotta army who added to the richness of the era and is worth a second look.
Here’s a lovely surprise. The Harold Lloyd estate has started posting complete, HD restorations of the Lloyd Catalogue on their YouTube Channel. There are currently the beautiful Criterion prints of his features SPEEDY and SAFETY LAST, but the real gems are some less common one-reelers from 1917-1918. Featuring Harold alongside Snub Pollard and Bebe Daniels, the selection includes one of the very scarce surviving Lonesome Luke films. I feel like I’ve always neglected the Lloyd one-reelers a bit in favour of his ‘mature’ work, and I’m looking forward to acquainting myself with these. These prints look stunning, which really makes the films more enjoyable. Below are a couple of highlights, but be sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel for further updates. Thanks to the Lloyd Estate for making these available!
LOOK PLEASANT PLEASE – lots of fun gags in this one, and a great jazz score.
LONESOME LUKE, MESSENGER: One of the few examples of Lloyd’s Chaplinesque character to survive the fire in his vaults:
BASHFUL: A charming little film, an early example of Lloyd being a less brash, more shy character.
There’s also the fantastic Brownlow & Gill documentary, HAROLD LLOYD – THE THIRD GENIUS
FRESH PAINT is from 1920, when Hal Roach Studios was still known as Rolin. At this point, the films were being cranked out weekly, and hadn’t quite hit on their winning formula yet, but this is lots of fun. In the director’s chair was Alf Goulding, an old pal of Snub’s from Australia who he had toured extensively with in the juvenile troupe ‘Pollard’s Lilliputians’.
Some prime Roach studios menace is provided by – who else? – Noah Young. Oh, and look out for a gag with a lampshade pinched from Chaplin’s THE ADVENTURER.
The lucky 13th issue of The Lost Laugh magazine is here, and available to download below!
At over 50 pages, it’s the most packed issue yet. There are articles on Snub Pollard, Walter Forde, Lupino Lane, forgotten female comedian Wanda Wiley, Buster Keaton and lots more! There are also some great guest contributions from silent comedy experts David Glass and David Wyatt, plus the usual news and reviews.
Working on this issue has certainly kept me entertained through the latest lockdown. I hope it gives you some entertainment too.
Here are the full contents:
Snub Pollard, a career overview and a focus on the Laurel & Hardy-style films he made with Marvin Loback.
The career of forgotten female comedian Wanda Wiley, who gave many of the male slapstick comics a run for their money. Also includes a full filmography, with synopses of each film.
The second part of our article on Walter Forde, detailing his silent comedy features, and including never-before published research.
An exclusive article on newly rediscovered Lloyd Hamilton footage by film historian David Wyatt!
Lupino Lane – details on the new BluRay/DVD set, including insights into the restoration process from David Glass. Also a look at Lane’s fascinating book “How to Become a Comedian”.
Buster Keaton’s last film, THE SCRIBE
Two long-unseen films starring Harry Langdon
A review of a very rare, previously lost Johnny Hines comedy, THE WRIGHT IDEA
Plus news and reviews of books, DVDs, Blu-Rays and streaming events.
— As always, please do get in touch with comments, constructive criticisms and ideas for future issues, and please do share on social media etc.
Finally, The Lost Laugh will always be free, but if you enjoy reading the magazine & site, and are in a position to contribute a little to site running costs, then you can buy me a virtual coffee on Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/thelostlaugh Thanks! 🙂
LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBARA is an unusual 1935 short film. MGM turned out quite a lot of these little colour novelties in the 1930s, featuring a mixture of celebrities contributing bit parts, musical numbers and comic routines. This one capitalises on the celebs attending the annual Santa Barbara Fiesta. For comedy fans, it’s chiefly of interest today for containing a good hunk o’ Buster Keaton, in colour.
I just found an old digital file of this film that I’d forgotten I had. I also forgot quite how much Buster there is in it. In my cloudy memory it was a one-shot gag appearance but actually he gets a couple of cross-talk routines with Andy Devine, as well as refereeing an amusingly daft bullfight with an atrociously fake bull! His His scenes are intercut with lots of song and dance numbers, but I’ve edited them together for this video. As a bonus, there’s also Harpo Marx’s very brief appearance tagged on at the beginning!
This was Keaton’s first appearance in a MGM film since his firing in 1933. Louis Lewy, who produced the colour novelties, was married to Buster’s leading lady from THE GENERAL, Marion Mack, so maybe that helped get him the footage. Though he certainly seems better off than in his last MGM film WHAT! NO BEER?, Buster was still in a bad way in 1935 and sounds a bit hungover here.. Still, his scenes are a fun obscurity and it’s nice to see him in colour, if not quite in his prime. The narrator is Pete Smith, by the way.
LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBERA was nominated for an Academy Award at the 9th Academy Awards in 1936 for Best Colour Short Subject. Much as I love him, Buster’s attempt at a Spanish accent certainly wasn’t behind the nomination… Anyway, here it is. Sorry that the image quality isn’t the best, but enjoy!
Here’s a sneak preview of the upcoming issue of The Lost Laugh magazine: part of an article on daredevil comedienne Wanda Wiley. This is an abbreviated version. The full article contains more detail, a full filmography and lots of rare images!
Of the precious few female comedians given a chance to star in their own films, Wanda Wiley is one of the most obscure. Sadly, about 90% of her short comedies are now missing, but those that remain reveal a very likeable performer who gets stuck into some wonderful physical and visual comedy.
Wanda was very much a 1920s woman. She wasn’t an eccentric-looking comic type like Alice Howell or Gale Henry; she was modern, attractive and fashionable, but not just a leading lady. She was a motivator of her own plots and always at the centre of the action. Her comic equipment included long limbs that sprawled in different directions as she ran, and a wide-eyed, startled look as action swirled around her. Something about Wanda still seems to leap off the screen. Game for anything, she engaged in dangerous stunts and slapstick with vigour, usually without a double.
Her talent at physical comedy is particularly remarkable considering that she did not come from a stage background and had only been in films a year or so before being starred. Wanda was born Roberta Prestina Wiley in 1902, and was originally from San Antonio, Texas. She actually planned on being a dentist, and it was apparently while at Dental College that a film crew at work on the campus spotted her. Allegedly, Wanda was asked to give the director a tour of the campus, and wound up with a part in his Western.
Wiley’s next appearances seem to have been in Universal’s ‘Leatherpushers’ series. In 1925 an interviewer for Movie Monthly chatted to Wanda about her first appearances:
She was telling me the other day about her stunts. When she broke into the game, barely a year and a half ago, she was given a boxing scene in which she had to suffer a prompt and inglorious knockout. Wanda took her tap on the chin, but in falling added some funny business which set everyone to laughing.
This talent led her to Universal’s Century Comedies, made by Abe and Julius Stern. Wanda made her first appearance as leading lady to Harry McCoy, going on to appear alongside the Century Follies Girls and uber-obscure comedian Al Alt in several films. Her roles became increasingly prominent; and she was featured prominently in ads from HER FORTUNATE FACE onwards. From the beginning of 1925, she had her own star series.
Jess Robbins was hired to direct the films, alternating with William Watson and Edward Luddy. These experienced directors knew how to stage elaborate visual comedy and bring out the best in Wanda. The titles of the shorts leave no doubt about their comedic style: A THRILLING ROMANCE, A SPEEDY MARRIAGE, FLYING WHEELS, JUST IN TIME… These were fast-paced comedies, often featuring the heroine in a race to meet some kind of deadline. As one exhibitor put it, “When Wanda plays, you can always expect some speedy entertainment”!
A SPEEDY MARRIAGE is a good example. It turned up several years ago at the Danish Film Institute and was available to view for a short time on their website. The action begins immediately, as Wanda is thrown out of bed by an electrical device, and then struck by lightning! Her lawyer phones to tell her that she must be married by 5 o’clock to collect an inheritance. She makes a date with her fiancé, and drives madly to meet him, pursued by traffic cops. After dodging them in and out of manholes and a toy shop, Wanda meets her man and speeds off, but they collide with another car. Fortunately, the other occupant is a minister so the speedy marriage takes place and all ends happily! There’s only a tiny clip currently online:
Only the climactic second reel of FLYING WHEELS exists, but it again involves a car chase. This time, Wanda dashes across town in a miniature racing car in a fine and thrilling slapstick sequence.
A THRILLING ROMANCE is a clever little short, with Wanda as a budding novelist; we open on her typing away in a room filled with scrunched up paper. When an open window sends the paper flying to litter the entire boarding house, she is evicted . Slipping on her way out, Wanda rolls down the stairs wrapped in the carpet and right out on to the street – narrowly missing being run over by Earl McArthur’s taxi. Helping her up, Earl is so busy gazing into her eyes that he fails to notice his cab rolling away. Wanda has her own troubles, as a dog climbs into her grip and runs away inside it. Wanda’s pursuit leads her across town, and along the way she accidentally comes into possession of a crook’s bankroll. With the crooks in pursuit, she summons Earl’s help, leading to a car chase that ends up on a cliff top. Just as Wanda and Earl are hurled off the edge, the scene dissolves back into Wanda’s flat; the action has all been the latest story she is typing. You can view the short in this episode of The Silent Comedy Watch Party:
QUEEN OF ACES is rather different, substituting farce for thrills. This time, we open with Wanda engaging in a bout of fencing (apparently a real-life hobby). She is considered too much of a tomboy by her boyfriend Al’s father, and he bans her from attending a party he is throwing. Undeterred, she dresses up as a man, and makes such a hit at the party that Dad invites her to a wild night at a gambling den. When the police raid, the pair hide in a pair of barrels that ultimately tumble from the roof! When they make it home, the father insists that (s)he spend the night in his son’s room: Wanda and Al are reunited.
Sadly, this handful of films are almost all we have to judge Wanda’s talent on for now. Century/Universal silent comedies are scarce, and Wanda Wiley’s films are no exception. Lots of the missing films sound like fun, action-packed little comedies. LOOKING DOWN features her attempts to ride an out-of-control bicycle (with a policeman on the handlebars!) before indulging in some Lloyd-type stunting on a half-built skyscraper. GOING GOOD features a race to secure a scientific formula in the face of “bearded giants, gorillas and ghosts”!
Action and stunting was the chief attraction of the Wiley comedies, and she did the majority of her stunts herself. She even recreated some live stunts involving cars on Broadway as a bit of publicity! As you’d expect, she suffered injuries as a result of her style of comedy. She was once thrown off a motorbike, but luckily escaped serious injuries, and was laid up for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle and broken arm after an accident with a horse.
For the 1926 -27 series, Wanda’s films were not billed as star comedies in the same way, but came under the bland umbrella title of the “What Happened to Jane?” comedies. The move to the rebrand the series was the first step downwards in Wiley’s career. It made her less of a focus not only in billing, but also in material; as the ‘Jane’ series went on, more and more of the comedy was devoted to her male co-stars. It seems curious that, after establishing Wanda as a star, Century would seek to anonymise her in such a way. It would have made much more sense (and sounded better) to call the series “What Happened to Wanda?”. However, if you look at the Stern Brothers’ other comedies of the time, a pattern becomes apparent: the focus was on making series, not stars. ‘The Newlyweds and Their Baby’ and ‘Let George Do It’ focused on characters and brands rather than star personalities . The advantage for the Sterns was that these characters could be played by different actors. It offered them a way to control stars’ demands, and to easily replace them if they got out of hand.
It’s quite possible that Wanda was unsatisfied with the treatment. Whether she jumped or was pushed, Wiley departed Century in late 1926 and moved to Bray Comedies (there was also a fire at the Stern studio at this point which suspended production – this could have influenced the move, too). For Bray, Wanda appeared in several episodes of the collegiate series, ‘Fistical Culture’. Sadly, she soon found that her appearances were equally subordinate to male lead Lew Sargent, and before long she gave up on the series. Her disappearance from the screen may have also been hastened by the trauma of narrowly escaping from a house fire.
By early 1928, Wanda was reported to be hitting vaudeville, so often the agonal breath of a film comic’s career. This was no exception; she quickly faded from the limelight, and the coming of sound extinguished her career for good.
The big shame is that Wanda Wiley never got a chance to work for Hal Roach. Her flair for physical comedy grounded in a realistic personality would have slotted right in at the studio. It was not to be. Despite some vague reports of Wanda planning a screen comeback in 1933, she never made another film. However, she did marry happily to a noted physician, a Dr Atkinson, and lived on until the 1980s. We can only hope that more of her wonderful little shorts resurface one day. Those that do exist are genuinely funny comedies, and an all-too-rare breath of fresh air from the male-dominated world of silent comedy.
Vaudeville teams were two-a-penny in the 1920s and 30s, but mainly forgotten today. Bob Carney & Si Wills played a couple of goofy collegiate playboys, all smiles and white suits, but with a subversive nature lurking below the surface. They made a handful shorts for Pathé in the early 30s – a couple of dreadful chorus girl revue-type things, a couple of the ‘Campus Comedies’ series, and then a pair of starring shorts: ONE NUTTY NIGHT & UNDER THE COCKEYED MOON.
Unlike many of the stagey filmed versions of acts around this time, UNDER THE COCKEYED MOON is a more cinematic effort. Like the Clark & McCullough films, it picks the team up and drops them in a new setting, rather than recreating their whole act. Also like the C & McC films, the pair came up with their own scripts. This comic Western is a lot of fun, with a pleasant mixture of surreal visual gags and verbal humour. Some of the puns are groan-worthy, others laugh-out-loud funny, with a couple that Chico Marx would have sold his pointy hat for:
“Can I hold your hand for a minute?”
“How will you know when the minute’s up?”
“I’ll need the second hand for that”
Also adding to the fun are several great supporting actors: always reliable Lew Kelly, playing a barmy prospector, squeaky voiced Gay Seabrook and burly Richard Cramer in a scenery-chewing turn. Playing villain ‘Bad-Eye Pete’ is little Bobby Dunn, who in real life wore a glass eye after losing his real one in a diving stunt.
The team petered out shortly after this film, both moving into supporting appearances. Si Wills later moved into scriptwriting and wrote for comedienne Joan Davis, who he married and started a family with. Though the team are no undiscovered geniuses, UNDER THE COCKEYED MOON is a fun little film, and I’d like to see ONE NUTTY NIGHT some day.
80-odd years before Ben Stiller, Lupino Lane made his version of ‘A Night at the Museum’! This Educational Pictures short is from his golden period, 1926, and was directed by Charles Lamont. The leading lady is Katherine McGuire, best known for appearing opposite Buster Keaton in SHERLOCK, JR and THE NAVIGATOR. Lane’s brother Wallace Lupino appears as the villain.
There are some great gags in the opening sequence, including a lovely reveal shot and a nice chase sequence which Lane later adapted for his 1931 sound feature NO LADY.
Sorry about the print quality – this one doesn’t seem to be online already though, so I figured poor quality Nip is better than none. Enjoy!
As an appetiser for the upcoming issue of the magazine featuring Snub Pollard, here’s another great little Snub comedy. IT’S A GIFT wasn’t the first of his shorts to feature some inspired gadgetry, and here we’ve got bathtubs that emerge from walls and a novel solution to not having a lift… Enjoy!
In the UK, Talking Pictures TV continues to delight with unexpected rarities I never thought I’d see on the box. This week, they’re raiding the Imperial War Museum’s film archives to bring us GO TO BLAZES. This 1942 war office short stars master comedian Will Hay with Muriel George and a young Thora Hird. It was directed by former silent comedian Walter Forde.
After Forde moved away from his own career in front of the cameras, he became the premier director of British comedies in the late 20s and early 1930s, and Will Hay was one of the top 1930s stars, so it is perhaps surprising that they only crossed paths once, on this short. Forde came to specialise in comedy mysteries/thrillers – a genre into which Hay’s masterpieces OH! MR PORTER, ASK A POLICEMAN and THE GHOST OF ST MICHAELS fit snugly. Hay’s regular director Marcel Varnel handled Hay’s films excellently, but it is surprising that Forde never worked with Hay before or since.
GO TO BLAZES was one of several shorts made by The Ministry of Information during WW2. They made a habit of enlisting comics to help sugarcoat the pill of serious wartime messages – amongst others, Claude Hulbert tackled careless talk in DID YOU EVER SEE A DREAM TALKING, and Tommy Trinder extolled the virtues of British restaurants. GO TO BLAZES deals with how to put out incendiary bombs, in Hay’s usual blundering style.
Hay’s bluffing pedagogue is the perfect character for one of these sort of films, typifying the ineffectual know-it-all who makes a mess of things, and providing the perfect excuse for George and Hird to demonstrate the proper way of doing things.
In a film like this, the message inevitably takes precedence over the comedy, but GO TO BLAZES manages to be an amusing little film, as well as effectively conveying the information it needs to. Sadly, both Hay’s and Forde’s careers ended prematurely within a few short years, but GO TO BLAZES remains an interesting crossing of paths.