Buster Keaton & Harpo Marx in colour

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!

Charley’s Busy Day

Betty Mack & Charley

Charley Chase’s talkies sometimes get a rough write-up compared to his silents . It’s true that Charley did take on a more freewheeling style that could be more hit-or-miss, especially in his 1932-33 series of films. Shorts like FALLEN ARCHES and MR BRIDE eschewed plot in favour of taking one gag as far as they possibly could. When the material was good, as in these two films, the results were excellent. However, there were a number of looser films where inspiration simply didn’t strike, with SHERMAN SAID IT being the nadir.

Chase seems to have had a word with himself, as the films he made in 1934 and 1935 are some of the tightest-plotted shorts he made since his silent masterpieces. Perhaps Charley was making a renewed effort to prove his storytelling skills in the hope of making a feature film, or perhaps he was just on a roll of great story ideas, but these films are some of his finest work for me.

The great series of Charley Chase DVDs from The Sprocket Vault hasn’t yet extended to the 1934-36 films, so I’ve uploaded one currently unavailable. IT HAPPENED ONE DAY is a great example of the economic storytelling Chase was using at the time. Charley arrives at his new workplace full of ambition to be promoted and marry the boss’s daughter. Even though he constantly annoys his new boss (Oscar Apfel) and has never even met the daughter (Betty Mack), a set of unlikely events lead all his predictions to come true by the end of his first day!

This is classic example of a Chase short where things start believably, but unlikely events soon pile on top of each other; it’s wonderful to see how one piece of action dovetails into the next so that everything percolates logically, without seeming contrived. An example: Betty asks Charley to post a parcel; he gets his hand stuck in the mailbox doing so. Trying to pry it open with an iron bar, he accidentally smashes a fire alarm. While panicking that a false alarm is a penitentiary offence, he drops his cigar in a waste bin. Before long, this catches fire just in time for the fire brigade to arrive and douse both bin and Charley!

IT HAPPENED ONE DAY is an underrated effort and one of my personal favourite Chase films. It’s not his funniest film, but definitely one of his slickest, and despite all the plot to fit in, he still manages to sing one of his charming songs. Enjoy!

PS. My copy is an old Film Classics print. With typical carelessness, the company misspelled the name of the film on the main title card. D’oh!

PPS. More on Charley Chase’s underrated talkies in issues 8 and 9 of The Lost Laugh Magazine

Wonderful Wanda

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.

Former dental student Wanda finds that making people laugh can be just like pulling teeth…

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”!

Another dash for Wanda in FLYING WHEELS

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.

Carney & Wills

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.

A pipe smoking Tin Lizzie sets the scene for the two reels of daftness that is UNDER A 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.

A Night at The Museum with Lupino Lane

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!

When Will met Walter

Walter Forde in the 1920s
The glorious Will Hay

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.

The Hollywood Kid – complete!

One of the classic Mack Sennett scenes of the 1920s shows a “normal” day in Sennett’s office: the floor is littered with custard pies, two comedians battle to show him who is funnier, director Vernon Dent pitches an idea. Through the chaos, Sennett is unperturbed, even bored-looking. Then, the studio lion wanders in. While the others scatter, Sennett calmly finishes his phone conversation before shooing the lion out and telling his secretary “Keep that cat from coming in my office!”

This clip has been used several times in documentaries and film compilations to portray the madness of the Sennett studios. But, like many of the iconic Sennett scenes, its parent film remains obscure. THE HOLLYWOOD KID (1924) has most often been seen in a one-reel cut-down version, but now Dave Glass has done a fantastic job of recreating the whole film from a variety of sources.

In its entirety, the film is not just a day-in-the life of the studios, but a rags-to-riches story of Charlie Murray and Louise Carver as their little son is talent scouted by Vernon Dent. (The premise of Murray and Carver’s son being so photogenic is a gag in itself as they both habitually look like they’re sucking lemons!) Along the way there are backstage glimpses of Phyllis Haver, Madeline Hurlock and Ben Turpin, and an inevitable double-duty appearance by Andy Clyde, Sennett’s man of a thousand faces! The whole short is lots of fun, and it’s wonderful to see the whole thing.

If you’re not familiar with Sennett comedies of the 20s, this is an excellent place to start. All the key Sennett elements are here, but with a stronger plot thread than usual. If you are familiar with his films, then you’ll still find something new in this fab restoration.

A Hullabaloo in Woolloomooloo

You don’t see too many Australian silent comedies. Several familiar comedians – Snub Pollard, Billy Bevan, Clyde Cook, Daphne Pollard – were Aussies, but they only made films after moving to the USA.

At the time that American silent comedy was maturing, the Australian film industry was in the doldrums (partly because of the dominance of US film), but a few comedies were turned out.

One surviving example is THE KID STAKES, a charming kid comedy from 1927. Following the adventures of a bunch of street larrikins from Woollamoolloo and their pet goat, this freewheeling little film has the flavour of Hal Roach’s OUR GANG films.

Like the Gang, it’s an ensemble piece, but the bunch of characters aren’t a Roach rip-off. Actually, they are inspired by the Sunday News comic strip ‘Fatty Finn’, and cartoonist Syd Nicholls makes a cameo in the opening scene. ‘Fatty’ is the lead character, a bit reminiscent of Jackie Cooper’s goodhearted little tough guy (he even looks a little like Cooper). With logic reminiscent of A.A. Milne, a title tells us that “they called him Fatty because he was not fat”. He’s played by Robin ‘Pop’ Ordell, the son of director Tal Ordell. (Tal was a well known character actor who turned to directing for this lone film – he plays the comic radio announcer in this film.)

Apparently, goat-chariot racing was a thing in 1920s Australia! Fatty’s gang are planning to enter their pet goat, Hector, in a big race, but their rival Bruiser lets Hector loose. He finds his way to a garden full of rare flowers, and after eating his fill is impounded by the owner. With the help of a pair of eloping lovers, and the hindrance of a bumbling policeman, they recapture Hector and make it in time to win the race.

Like the OUR GANG films, THE KID STAKES is often more charming than outright funny, but very watchable. It’s always fascinating to see silents made outside the standard American locations we’re used to seeing, and there’s a real slice-of-life quality to the old scenes of Sydney, the backyard games and dialect titles – not to mention the bizarre spectacle of the goat race! The bumbling policeman and goat provide some good laughs too.

On the downside, the direction is a bit clunky here and there, and there are too many titles. Old kid comedies always contain a few moments that make the more wary modern viewer wince – kids swimming naked in a stranger’s backyard pool? Or writing their names in blood? Ick. “The past is a different country”, after all.

Overall though, this is a fun watch that throws a light on another forgotten side of silent comedy. It’s certainly a pleasant way to do some armchair travelling for an hour of lockdown. The print below also deserves special mention for the music – played live to the film by Ian Cooper. I’m always astounded by the skill that silent film accompanists show, but Cooper’s task was even more of an achievement – he was blind! Astounding.

EDIT: Here’s a more complete version of the film:

Festive Fun

What a year it’s been. Thanks for reading THE LOST LAUGH, and I hope the magazine and blog have been able to offer you a little entertainment and distraction. Wherever you are, I hope you’re able to squeeze some merriness out of the season, and here’s to a better 2021!

We’ve all seen Laurel & Hardy’s BIG BUSINESS, but here’s a trio of lesser-known Christmas-themed comedies to help kickstart the season.

First up, Charley Chase’s THERE AIN’T NO SANTA CLAUS, from 1926. One of his less-seen Pathé shorts, this features some great gags, including Charley’s attempts to carry a Christmas tree on his bike, and playing rival Santas with Noah Young (both fighting over the same beard!)

From the same year and the same studio, here’s Our Gang’s Christmas short, GOOD CHEER:

Another great rarity from the YouTube Channel Geno’s House of Rare Films, here’s KNIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS starring Karl Dane and George K Arthur . I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this forgotten comedy team, and have wanted to see more of their sound shorts for a while. This one isn’t quite as good as A PUT UP JOB, but it’s a lot of fun, as Karl brings George along to his family Christmas gathering. A great cast too, with Fern Emmet and Irving Bacon as Karl’s parents, plus some familiar Hal Roach players: Harry Bernard and Harry Bowen (hidden beneath a huge beard!).

Merry Christmas!