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.
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.
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!).
As if Dave Glass hadn’t been busy enough this year working on the new Lupino Lane DVD/Blu Ray set, he’s also been uploading heaps of rare silent comedies on his YouTube account. The latest is HARD WORK,a very rare short comedy from 1928 featuring Wallace Lupino (younger brother of Lupino Lane).
It’s a print from my collection. I lucked into the 8mm print of this very rare short a few years back. It was hoped to include it on the DVD set as an extra, but this print isn’t the best quality, and searches for a 16mm copy all came to naught. Now you can enjoy it for free on Dave’s YouTube channel. Here’s the video, and below you’ll find a bit more info about Wallace and the film.
Wallace was a secret weapon in the Lane films, a versatile performer capable of portraying a range of parts. He can be seen playing parts ranging from threatening heavy to matronly woman, as well as ersatz Vernon Dent to Lane’s Langdonesque naïf. Schooled in the Lupino family tricks and traditions, he had been a performer since childhood too, appearing in pantomime as ‘Wee Wallace Lupino’. After war service and stage work in Britian, he later joined his elder brother in Hollywood, and was instrumental in helping Lane create the split second pantomime routines and double acts that make his films so wonderful. Though inevitably in his elder brother’s shadow, Wallace was also given a chance to star in his own shorts at Educational, starting with 1926’s SWEET BABY.
Educational’s series of Tuxedo and Cameo Comedies were one-reel shorts, simple gag-based endeavours starring less well-known performers like Johnny Arthur, Monty Collins and Cliff Bowes. Like Wallace, these were mainly performers better known for supporting roles, stepping up to the plate as stars. The films were a valuable career leg-up not just for performers, but also for directors. Particularly notable was the kid brother of Educational comedy producer Jack White; Jules White is best known today for his work with The Three Stooges, but before this, he cut his teeth on many Cameo comedies, including HARD WORK.
HARD WORK clearly bears White’s trademark of vigorous slapstick gags. The short is a simple tale of Wallace and his family (Betty Boyd & Jackie Levine) trying to renovate their home. Nothing original in that premise, but the secret to a good one reefer was taking a simple premise and getting as many good gags as you could from it. HARD WORK certainly does that; the film is saved from being so-so with some original, very funny gags involving animals, pianos and vacuum cleaners. And, for a one reeler, the scale of the destruction is pretty epic! Particularly good is the scene where Wallace gets his head stuck through the ceiling – he certainly earned his paycheck for this film! In sound films, I often find White’s predilection for big and violent sight gags unpleasant, but in the slightly dreamlike world of a silent one-reeler it works much better. (I think what I actually dislike about this most are the accompanying sound effects; Harry Langdon called White’s talkies the “oh-ouch-ow” comedies, and he was absolutely right. White seemed to think it was funnier if characters on the end of slapstick showed that they felt pain – but that’s not a problem in silents.)
Wallace is ably supported by two actors familiar from the Lupino Lane shorts. His long-suffering wife is ably played by Betty Boyd, who played leading lady in several Lane films like BATTLING SISTERS and PIRATES BEWARE.
Young Jackie Levine plays the bratty child. After appearing with Harold Lloyd in FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, he became a regular at Educational in the late silent years, often in the ‘Big Boy’ juvenile comedies (bit of an unfortunate name…). Little Jackie would play a thorn in Wallace (and Lupino Lane’s) sides again: he plays a bratty kid in SUMMER SAPS and JOY LAND. This overlap with the Lane shorts occurred often, reaching it’s apotheosis with CROWN ME, a short starring Wallace and directed by Lane. (I hope you’re following all this, as there will be a test at the end.)
Wallace starred in several other shorts for Educational. As well as those mentioned above, titles included ALL SET, AUNTIE’S AUNTE, THE LOST LAUGH, HUSBANDS MUST PLAY and WEDDED BLISTERS. These generally stayed in the format of simple situational comedies – ALL SET involves Wallace’s attempts to obtain a dress suit, and WEDDED BLISTERS is a tale of moving furniture to a new home. Of all these, the only other surviving entry I’m aware of is the namesake of this blog, THE LOST LAUGH. Ben Model shared his unique print of this fun little comedy on his Accidentally Preserved DVD and on YouTube. Here it is:Several of these films were issued on 16mm in the 1930s, but few seem to survive. Unless someone knows more, I believe HARD WORK was the only one to be issued on 8mm (possibly derived from Mogull Films’ 16mm print, the sole Lupino title they carried). I certainly wasn’t expecting to see it turn up on eBay. The print was anonymously labelled as ‘Wallace Lupino/Charlie Chase’; I took a punt and it turned out to contain both HARD WORK and Chase’s SITTING PRETTY on the same reel. A bargain for £5.00 GBP! The print isn’t the best quality ever, but it’s a nice little rarity that helps add to our appreciation of this very underrated performer. Enjoy!
To coincide with a showing of the very rare Roscoe Arbuckle short CAMPING OUT on The Silent Comedy Watch Party, here’s a run-down of the overlooked shorts Arbuckle made in 1918 & 1919… the ones that don’t feature Buster Keaton in the cast!
Roscoe Arbuckle’s series of shorts made for the Comique film corporation and released through Paramount in 1917-20, are among his best-known work. Certainly, they are the best represented on DVD. This is almost entirely due to the Keaton factor – the presence of a young Buster in most of the films. This bias is confirmed by the obscurity of the films in which Buster does not appear, made during his military service in 1918-19.
When Keaton was drafted, the Comique series continued with Arbuckle and his regular foil, Al St John. While the popularity of Keaton has ensured that all but one of the Arbuckle-Keatons are now accounted for, the survival rate drops much further for the shorts made in his absence. Only a couple are known to exist, and only one has been restored and released. Details of many of the films are sparse, with a couple remaining mysteries.
Ever since critics first took an interest in Keaton, Arbuckle has always been in his shadow. At worst, the lazy critical opinion is that Arbuckle’s style was crude and unsophisticated, and that the only merit in the films came from Keaton’s input. Silent comedy aficianados know better, of course; nevertheless, an unfortunate legacy of this view is the lack of interest in this bunch of films. Along with their unavailability, this remains in stark contrast to those that came on either side of them.
Let’s take a look at this neglected group of films, hopefully waiting to be rediscovered. Here they are, in order of release:
THE SHERIFF (24th November 1918)
late 1917, the Arbuckle company had moved to California from the East Coast, partly enticed by the better backgrounds on offer. The desert settings of the west were seen to good advantage in the first film after moving, OUT WEST, and Arbuckle reused the theme in this short. Arbuckle plays a Sheriff enamoured of the movie heroics of Douglas Fairbanks and William S Hart. After falling asleep and dreaming a dramatic rescue in a Mexican town where He gets the chance to try a real heroic rescue, when his schoolteacher girlfriend Betty is kidnapped by bandit Al. THE SHERIFF is possibly the most intriguing of all these films, and sounds like it was an amusing little gem. Arbuckle surely got good comic contrast from impersonating Fairbanks and Hart, and THE SHERIFF is perhaps similar to the clever, cliché spoofing Arbuckle-Keaton short MOONSHINE. While OUT WEST had been an exercise in comic savagery, reviews of the time commented that THE SHERIFF was rather more subtle and sophisticated. Here’s a review from Motion Picture News of November 23, 1918:
THE SHERIFF is better by far than anything contributed to the Arbuckle Paramount program. For one thing, it is free from vulgarity & sloppiness. The classic kick shines by its absence. For another, the situations have been developed logically, producing maximum fun out of minimum action.
One of the common misconceptions about Arbuckle is that any sophistication in his films came from Keaton’s input. While there’s no denying that Keaton had big creative input into the films, Arbuckle, rather like Charley Chase, liked to play with different styles and could happily jump from wild gags and slapstick to gentle situation comedy. Some of his earlier Sennett films, made with Mabel Normand, like HE DID AND HE DIDN’T, show a gentle and sophisticated side to Roscoe before Keaton ever appeared on the scene.
Nevertheless, Arbuckle definitely felt the loss of Keaton in his supporting cast, and hired another diminutive comic to take his place: Mario Bianchi (the future Monty Banks). His leading lady in this film is also notable; Betty Compson would become a star in features, her career getting a boost the following year when she appeared with Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN.
Incidentally, spoofing William S Hart came up again in Keaton’s later short THE FROZEN NORTH. It was an idea contributed by a writer who remained uncredited… Roscoe Arbuckle! In the short, Keaton made a mockery of Hart’s tendency to always have a scene where he cried in his films. Roscoe apparently did the same in THE SHERIFF.
SCRAPS OF PAPER (aka A SCRAP OF PAPER – Autumn 1918)
part of the regular series but made at the same time, this is Arbuckle’s equivalent of Chaplin’s THE BOND. Like that film, it is a propaganda effort designed to promote the Canadian War Bond fundraising effort. As well as each making a promotional film, Chaplin and Arbuckle made public appearances together to promote the loan drive, and newsreel footage of one of these events still exists. Like THE BOND, SCRAPS OF PAPER features our hero coming face to face with the Kaiser (Glen Cavender) and the ‘clown quince’ (Al St John). After mocking the goose-step marching of the Kaiser’s soldiers (one of whom is Monty Banks), Arbuckle tells him that there’s one thing he hasn’t considered, and unleashes a snowstorm of Liberty Bonds which engulf the Germans. Roscoe addresses the audience directly (via intertitle) telling them to do their bit and invest in the Liberty Loan Drive. Not much of a comedy, but an effective piece of propaganda and an interesting historical curio.
CAMPING OUT (5th January 1919)
CAMPING OUT is a rare survivor from this group of films, existing from two incomplete nitrate sources (one Italian print and one from the Netherlands). A composite print has received a number of screenings (most recently on the Silent Comedy Watch Party) and is held at the EYE film institute. Arbuckle again took advantage of the West Coast climate and locations, filming the short on Catalina Island in November 1918. If THE SHERIFF showcased a more subtle side of Arbuckle, then this film returned to the cruder slapstick milieu of films like THE BUTCHER BOY and THE ROUGH HOUSE. Within the first five minutes alone, there are jokes about vomiting, spitting and seagull droppings!
The basic premise of CAMPING OUT recalls FATTY AT CONEY ISLAND, a tale of Arbuckle playing hookey from his wife, and enjoying the freedom by flirting with other men’s wives. Unable to stomach his wife’s dreadful cooking, he escapes for a while, taking the ferry to Catalina for a camping trip. En route, he (inevitably) meets Al St John, and his pretty wife Alice Lake. In the the ensuing tussle Roscoe throws Al overboard. Fatty and Al’s wife proceed to the campsite, where the grizzled, one-legged camp owner is also played by St John. The highlight of the film follows as Roscoe indulges in some of his trademark food preparation gags. Here he demonstrates novel ways of shaving potatoes, and making doughnuts and mashed potatoes with the aid of St John’s wooden leg! Another highlight is his plan to filch food from grocer Monty Banks.
Inevitably, Roscoe’s chickens come to roost as his wife (armed with guns and knives!), Al and Monty all show up for a slapstick battle royale to round out the short.
Though CAMPING OUT is far from Roscoe’s most sophisticated effort, it’s a ton of fun, and the sunny location shooting around Catalina Island and the streets of Avalon only add to the summery, freewheeling tone of the film. Watch the film as part of the Silent Comedy Watch Party live stream here:
THE PULLMAN PORTER (? unfinished/unreleased film)
THE PULLMAN PORTER is a curiosity, an elusive mystery film. The Arbuckle shorts were popular and well publicised, with Paramount often placing full-page ads in the trade papers for them. For THE SHERIFF, we can piece together lots of information, for instance. But for this film, the trail runs cold. So far, I’ve found no reports of the production, no stills, no reviews… nuthin. Nada. Zilch. But, it does have a cited release date, Feb 16. It does seem strange that an Arbuckle short released at this time would receive next to no coverage in the trades.
There has been confusion between releases in the series before, for instance the earlier short A RECKLESS ROMEO was actually filmed earlier for Keystone, but bought and released by Paramount. There also seemed to be various other reisues of earlier Arbuckle shorts occurring at this time, so could THE PULLMAN PORTER fall into one of these categories? It seems most likely that it a tentative idea, scrapped and replaced during filming.
LOVE (2nd March 1919)
LOVE is a wonderful little short that survives complete. The film was preserved just in time, and issued on Laughsmith Entertainment’s terrific 2005 DVD set THE FORGOTTEN FILMS OF FATTY ARBUCKLE. The short is in the classic rural barnyard slapstick mould, one of Arbuckle’s favourite motifs. However, LOVE is way more sophisticated than the earlier Keystone shorts, Arbuckle had come as a comedian and director since those times. While the knockabout is still rough, it is developed into some terrific, well-developed set pieces . Roscoe makes one of his best entrances, riding on a country road in his “economy model” Ford (a glorified go-kart) and using a pair of bellows to blow away huge boulders in his path. He is courting farmer Frank Hayes’ daughter (Winifred Westover), but Hayes has plans to marry her off to local boy Al St John in return for some land. Among the comic set pieces around the farm yard is a scene where Hayes falls down a well, and Roscoe and Monty Banks try to winch him up; each time something goes wrong, sending Hayes plummeting down the well again and again. Then, we’re into a classic version of the ’broom-bashing’ routine memorably used in THE WAITER’S BALL. (Of course, the routine was originally pinched from The Three Keatons’ vaudeville act, so Buster does have a little influence over this film after all. It would be nice to think its inclusion here was a tribute from Arbuckle to his absent friend). This version is even better, turning into a nice four-handed version with Roscoe, Monty, Frank and Al St John.
Roscoe tries to elope with Winifred, but is foiled when his ladder breaks, catapulting him into the house, and leaving Winifired dangling from a first floor window. (Poor Winifred Westover takes quite a lot of punishment in this short—no wonder it was her only film with Arbuckle!)
Though there are occasional lapses in taste (like the scene mentioned above) where the slapstick maybe gets a bit too violent, the comedy scenes in the first half of LOVE are some of the best in the whole Comique series. The second half of the short involves Roscoe’s plan to sneak into the house and sneak Winifred away from the wedding. Sneaking soap into the cook’s stew to get her fired, he dresses in drag and takes her place. Suggesting that they stage a rehearsal ceremony with the preacher, Roscoe takes the groom’s place. Once they have said “I do”, Monty pulls strings attached to Roscoe’s dress and wig, revealing his true identity. LOVE contains several of Roscoe’s pet routines, and is a thoroughly enjoyable two reels, brim-full of exuberant gags. As a farewell to the barnyard setting, it was a high note to go out on.
THE BANK CLERK (? Unfinished/unreleased film)
Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, details about THE BANK CLERK are sparse. Initial reports in the trades that Arbuckle had embarked on a film of this title, in which he works as a window cleaner in the bank, but (excuse the pun) climbs the ladder to a career in finance. However, in April 1919, Film Daily reported that filming had to be abandoned due to both weather conditions in L.A., and for Arbuckle to make revisions to the story. It seems that his solution to both inclement weather and an unsatisfying story was to scrap it and head back to the desert to make another Western film. Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, THE BANK CLERK was probably never finished. That the two films were never released is supported by adverts for later reissues of the Comique films, which list all but this pair of titles.
A DESERT HERO ( 15th June 1919)
Arbuckle was obviously very fond of Western settings at this point in his career; this is third film in just over a year to play on the genre. Down the years, this has meant confusion for Arbuckle & Keaton scholars, with the three films (OUT WEST, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO) often being mixed up, especially when they turned up in prints without main titles. As late as the 1970s, A DESERT HERO often found its way into Keaton filmographies, with stills from OUT WEST being attributed to this film instead.
It’s not surprising, as there is a strong overlap between the all three films. In OUT WEST, Alice Lake had a prominent role as a Salvation Army girl; here, Molly Malone takes on a similar part. Arbuckle’s burlesque of William S Hart from THE SHERIFF is also revisited in this short. The long-faced, wiry Hart played solemn tough guys, and Roscoe plays on this for comic effect here. An opening title introduces “a gaunt, thin boned stranger from the desert”, before cutting to the very non-gaunt Roscoe! Arbuckle carried on spoofing Hart through the film, as the press books tell us: “He’s the toughest, hardest, roughest Western cuss that ever lived, in “A Desert Hero”! He eats ’em alive ! Breaks rocks with his teeth he’s so ornery!”
Roscoe reforms when he meets Molly and joins her in the salvation army. Surviving stills show lots of comic business with brass band instruments, before Molly is kidnapped by Al St John and Roscoe has to rescue her. Molly continued with Roscoe for the remainder of the series. Though A DESERT HERO was his last Western short, Arbuckle would return to the genre one last time, for his debut feature THE ROUND UP the following year.
Keaton’s war service in France was over in early 1919, and after a hospital stay, he rejoined Arbuckle in May. The Arbuckle-Keaton partnership returned to the screen for three more shorts, BACK STAGE, THE HAYSEED and THE GARAGE, before Arbuckle moved to features. Many of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts are deservedly well-regarded, but we shouldn’t neglect the films Roscoe made without Buster. As a comic creator, he was at the top of his game, as evidenced by LOVE. Hopefully one day, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO, will be available for us to enjoy again, too.
A version of this article originally appeared in issue 12 of The Lost Laugh magazine, published May 2020. (c) Matthew Ross.
Thanks to Ben Model & Steve Massa from the Silent Comedy Watch Party, and to Elif from the Eye Filmmuseum for making CAMPING OUT available for us to enjoy again!
TCM have made Laurel & Hardy their stars of the month for December (while here in the UK, they’re noticeably absent from the Christmas TV schedules again). As part of the celebration, the channel has commissioned a short video about the boys by actor Mark Hamill (best known for playing Luke Skywalker).
He’s done a great job. The clip is informative and personal, obviously done from a place of great affection for Stan and Babe, and really gets to the heart of their partnership. Take a look here:
Following on from my recent post about existing colour footage of the silent clowns, I remembered that Mack Sennett pioneered the use of colour in some of his late silent and early talkie films. Silent films like THE CAMPUS VAMP (an early film to feature Carole Lombard) contained colour sequences amongst the black and white, mostly to show off the famous Sennett beauties!
According to Brent Walker’s marvellous book, ‘Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory’, Sennett was wary of the costs of using Technicolor, and so developed his own process, setting up his own colour lab at his Studio City facilities. His process was a variation on two-strip red/green Technicolor, but in Sennett’s case the nitrate film was coated in blue dye on one side, and orange on the other.
The results were first used tentatively in a couple of early sound comedies (one, BULLS AND BEARS, was filmed in both colour and B & W, but the colour version was never released as it was decided it wasn’t up to scratch). Subsequently, a one reel series of Sennett-Color shorts was launched in late 1930, starting with Andy Clyde’s THE BLUFFER. Several of these ‘Mack Sennett Brevities’ capitalised on the colour process by including exotic backdrops such as the Selig Zoo or the Catalina Bird Garden in STRANGE BIRDS. In the tradition of some of Sennett’s early Keystone films, they simply dropped in a couple of comedians in an interesting setting and let them do their stuff. In the case of STRANGE BIRDS, it’s the underrated comedienne Marjorie Beebe appearing with ( the definitely not underrated) dialect comic Luis Alberni.
Ever wanted to see Marjorie Beebe attacked by a small duck? Of course you have! Here’s your chance, courtesy of the wonderful YouTube channel, Geno’s House of Rare Film.
Beebe and Alberni returned in another colour short from the following year, MOVIE TOWN. Beebe’s current boyfriend also makes an appearance: Mack Sennett himself! Sennett’s sporadic appearances onscreen were famously a bit awkward, but it’s nice to see him pop up anyway. MOVIE TOWN is no classic, but another interesting curio.
With his studio increasingly becoming a money pit in the depression, Sennett abandoned his colour experiments at the end of 1931. His reign as ‘King of Comedy’ was drawing to a close, but he must be given credit for making a bold experiment like Sennett-Color after so many years in the business. The results are an interesting footnote in the story of his studio.
The Cineteca Milano has just published a collection of rare (and great!) silent comedy bits and pieces featuring some underrated comics. (As a heads-up, you need to register – it’s free – to watch the films, and I did have some difficulty getting them to play in my browser. They wouldn’t work on my laptop, but played fine on my smartphone… It’s not often you read the word smartphone on a silent comedy blog, is it?)
In my opinion, Monty Banks is one of the great unsung silent comedians. The dapper little Italian had a pleasing personality and a way with a gag that was quite his own, yet even in his day he was somewhat on the fringes of the scene. A lot of his shorts were independent films released on a states-rights basis, meaning they’ve remained much more obscure than those of the major comedy studios. The ones that survive reveal a fertile comic mind and excellent performer.
Physically, he resembled the typical put-upon “little man” comics and started out in a Chaplinesque vein, but by the early 1920s he’d settled on a more dapper costume and situational humour. In his films he became the tubby little man striving to be a leading man type, but always finding himself in embarrassing situations. In this he had some similarities Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase; certainly, he shared with Chase panache for mixing situational humour sight gags, with just a hint of the surreal. However, it’s not fair just to compare Monty to other comics – he managed to put his own unique spin on his material and made some very fun films. The more I see of his work, the more I like him.
The Cineteca has published an 11 minute fragment called ‘Vitio Coniugale’ – it seems to be from one of his Grand-Asher comedies, HOME COOKED (1924). Bill Blaisdell, the heavy in the other Grand-Ashers, appears as Monty’s dad, and I believe his regular leading lady, Ena Gregory, plays his wife here. This is a simple domestic comedy of Ena’s struggle to learn to cook, and Monty’s struggle to learn to eat her food! The footage begins with Monty’s attempts to eat the meal she has prepared. The pancakes are so tough that they take the wheels off a car when he throws them out of the window, and when he pours her coffee in a pot plant, the plant has animated convulsions. The comic situation of an unpalatable meal isn’t exactly original, but Monty’s underplaying of the situation and the twists on the gags add something new and appealing.
With his family coming to meet the newlyweds, Monty engages in some damage limitation and says he will help Ena prepare a meal for them. The pair plan a goose dinner, which leads to a funny series of gags of Monty plucking the feathers from the bird. His execution of the bird takes place off screen – Monty walks into a room with the goose, and seconds later a ridiculously large number of feathers fly out of the door. Monty emerges covered in feathers, which subsequently transfer to a car and a dog. All ridiculous, but handled adroitly and very funny. eventually, the goose shrinks in the oven and Monty has to steal a replacement from his neighbours, but there the footage stops. I’d love to see the whole thing; like ALMOST LATE and other Banks shorts that exist in fragments, it has a lot of promise. Here’s the link:
Monty Banks may be unsung, but it’s fair to say that Jimmy Aubrey is downright unloved by many comedy fans. Ok, so it’s understandable to a degree. He is one of your classic anonymous, moustachioed comics running around at high speed without much personality, and some of his surviving films just aren’t that funny. But, let’s give Jimmy his due. He was a graduate of Fred Karno’s Army, and starred in films for Vitagraph, Joe Rock and Weiss Brothers for over a decade, so he can hardly have been completely talentless. His supporting role in Laurel & Hardy’s THAT’S MY WIFE is very funny, too.
Part of the reason for his lowly status in the annals of Si-Com lore is probably his cantankerous nature; Babe Hardy recollected Aubrey being jealous and unpleasant towards him, and in late-life interviews (he lived until the early 1980s) he rarely had a nice word to say for anyone. This has coloured modern views of him but, well, that’s a can of worms now, isn’t it? There are many performers who probably weren’t very nice people (especially in bitter old age), but a lot of them didn’t live long enough to get interviewed and show it off! Let’s judge the Cineteca’s Aubrey film on its own merits. (‘Fridolen defenso del dieblo’ is, I believe, the Aubrey Vitagraph Comedy TENDERFOOT LUCK. It was filmed under the working title THE PROSPECTOR in June-July 1922 on location in Northern California, with J.P. Smith directing, and Frank ‘Fatty Alexander in the cast.) Here’s the link:
You know what? It’s not bad. It’s true that Aubrey doesn’t have much charm, but in this comedy the gags are decent enough that it doesn’t matter too much. Rather like Ben Turpin, Aubrey wasn’t a comic innovator, and his films stand or fall on the quality of his gags rather than he himself (significantly, many of the funniest gags feature him in long shot, so his personality adds little to them).
In this one, Jimmy is a railroad stowaway who winds up in a Western town, falling in with Helen Kessler and her prospector father. He falls afoul of the town assayer (by blowing his hair and beard off with nytroglycerine, as you do!) and then sheriff Frank Alexander.
The best moment is a wonderful trick gag where Aubrey, pursued by Alexander, hides behind a narrow post. Thanks to double exposure, he seems to completely disappear. That gag has been done before, but what really makes it something else is the seamless way it is filmed. Just after Jimmy disappears, Frank walks right around the post, and even picks it up before Jimmy reappears. The topper comes when an angry mule also emerges from behind the post, chasing Jimmy and the sherriff away. A great bit of camera trickery, really presented well and made convincing by this little flourish.
Here’s an excerpt of that bit, courtesy of Dave Glass’s YouTube channel:
Ultimately Jimmy saves Helen from some marauding braves by improvising a catapult from a skinny tree. In the vast scheme of things, TENDERFOOT LUCK is no classic, and I doubt that any film is going to reveal Jimmy Aubrey as a master at work, but he was a hard working comic, and the film deserves 18 minutes of any silent comedy fan’s time.
Gag-happy Western comedy is also the order of the day in the next film, starring Lige Conley & Jimmie Adams. Some of the first comedies made by Jack White’s Mermaid Comedies featured these two diminutive comics – wild-haired Lige and balding, toothbrush-moustached Adams – in fast paced gags and stunts. The Cinemateca’s offering, BANG! (1921) shares with DANGER! an exclamatory title that sums up its breakneck comic method.
Gags come way before story in these shorts, and it’s best to abandon all worry about plot or characters. Instead, just jump into their slipstream-of-consciousness. Though BANG! is, roughly, a tale of Lige and Jmmie’s attempts to thwart corrupt sherriff Earl Montgomery, it’s all about the gag sequences and there are plenty of left turns to follow a comic whim. The Mermaids had good budgets and were often pretty elaborate, meaning a lot of these gags are impressive.
The short opens with a wonderful reveal gag of Adams in bed, apparently very elongated, before it’s revealed that the legs actually belong to Conley, hidden under the covers. Then we’re into some Rube Goldberg-esque business of their automated alarm clock and breakfast (similar to scenes in Keaton’s THE SCARECROW and Snub Pollard’s IT’S A GIFT) before a totally random scene of a dog, cat and mouse chasing each other!
The western saloon provides a nice surreal pool table gag, and some dark humour based around shootings. Then we’re into an exciting horse chase with some impressive stunts, and a good trick gag whereby Conley seems to jump across a river in one leap. Add some stolen money, a chimney, that cat again and you have a veritable gag whirlwind; leading lady Dorothy Wood has little else to do but watch the madness unfold.
This sort of material always benefits from a good print, and this is a beautiful tinted copy. The titles are in Italian, but you’re not really going to miss out on much story now, are you?
There’s yet more Western spoofing in a fragment of HER SCREEN IDOL, a 1918 Sennett directed by Eddie Cline. Ford Sterling plays a conceited Cowboy star who agrees to attend a showing of his new film in a small town cinema, where superfan Louise Fazenda is in attendance. Sterling is best known for his scenery chewing Keystine performances, but here he’s very funny as the self-important star watching himself on the screen and marvelling at his own performance. We don’t get to see the wonderful Louise Fazenda do much in the existing footage, but look put for a glimpse of Ben Turpin and Heinie Conklin as two inept musicians in the orchestra pit. View it here: https://www.cinetecamilano.it/film/2548
It’s wonderful that the Cineteca Milano has released these rarities from their archives. It’s the films of lesser known, jobbing comics like Aubrey, Conley and Adams that fill out our picture of the silent era.
I spent all of Saturday out in some dismal November weather, but when I got home my spirits were instantly lifted by the parcel waiting on my doormat:
Lupino Lane is one of the silent comedians who really made me take an interest in the forgotten performers of the era, and for years I’ve longed for a high quality release of his films. This year, silent comedy experts and all round good eggs Dave Glass and Dave Wyatt made this unlikely project come to life with a successful kickstarter campaign.
Included on the Blu Ray (DVD also available) are 8 of Lane’s classic short films, including some incredibly rare ones that I’ve longed to see for years. The project has been a remarkable work of coordination and restoration spearheaded by Dave Glass,involving a slew of archives, musicians and film collectors, not to mention Lane’s granddaughter Sara Lupino Lane. I’ve been honoured to contribute to the project in my own little way, conducting an interview with Sara and writing notes for the accompanying booklet.
So, on to the contents. The eight films are HELLO SAILOR, the classic Three Musketeers spoof SWORD POINTS, FISTICUFFS, GOOD NIGHT NURSE, BATTLING SISTERS, SUMMER SAPS, JOY LAND and the talkie FIRE PROOF. The selection of films shows off Lane (or Nip, to use his lifelong nickname) at his very best.
The rarest of these films (and completely new to me) are FISTICUFFS, JOY LAND and FIRE PROOF. FISTICUFFS is a comedy set in the 1830s, “when people could still remember how bad the good old days were”, and is based around a village blacksmith where Nip is the apprentice, and his brother Wallace an amateur boxer. There is some funny slapstick business with hot horseshoes and a great little scene of Nip in drag, wearing a hoop skirt that he can’t quite control. Wallace is kidnapped before the fight and so Nip takes his place, resulting in a string of original boxing gags. As with many of Lane’s best scenes, the boxing sequence is as much choreographed as directed – the laughs all come from intricately timed falls and funny body movements. It’s also a surprise to see Chaplin’s ally Albert Austin turn up as one of the boxing seconds (his only appearance in a Lane film, to my knowledge). A really fun little film that it’s great to have after many years in obscurity.
JOY LAND contains an iconic sequence of Lane diving in and out of trapdoors; this has been excerpted, but the rest of the film has seldom been seen. Would the rest of the film live up to its reputation based on the trapdoor scene? Absolutely! The first scene of Nip at work in a toy shop is full of some excellent material, particularly another classic pantomime routine where he and Wallace find themselves sharing two pairs of trousers, creating confusion as they try to work out who the third leg belongs to! There are also some good gags with bratty child Jackie Levine and his mother. In the second reel, Lane dreams himself into the Toy Land setting – what is really nice about the sequence is the way details from the first reel like toys, dolls, masks and characters reoccur in Nip’s fantasy. The marvellous trapdoor sequence is much longer than the excerpts we’ve seen, with pursuit by Bonzo the Dog adding extra complications! (In our interview, Sara Lupino Lane revealed the detail that this was actually George Atterbury, a live-in companion of the Lanes who Nip had trained to work in an animal skin). JOY LAND absolutely exceeded my expectations and might be my favourite Lane film of all.
Also much better than expected was FIRE PROOF, one of only four talkie shorts Lane made. The others that I’ve seen are a little clunky and dialogue-heavy, but this one was really good for a 1929 sound short. There’s dialogue humour added, but Lane’s acrobatics are present, including a brilliant moment where he does a step-and-somersault from off a fire engine. The tumbles are presented smoothly, and don’t sound clompy as in many early sound films – Lane’s light-footed gymnastic training obviously paid off in this respect. Fired from the force, he sets out to start his own fire brigade. The firefighting theme and antique fire engine he uses were both seen earlier in the silent A HALF-PINT HERO, but this is definitely not a remake, with an entirely different set of gags! Among them is a very Laurel & Hardy-like sequence where Nip and Wallace indulge in some clothes ripping tit-for-tat. Lots of fun, and made me wish that Lane had stuck around for another season or two of talkie shorts.
The other films were more familiar to me, although several of them like SUMMER SAPS contain extra footage usually missing. Dave Glass has used multiple sources to make the most complete versions possible. A real labour of love. HELLO SAILOR and SWORD POINTS were already among my favourite Lane shorts, but now are even more enjoyable.
All the films look astonishingly good, especially GOOD NIGHT NURSE, which has elements of a 35mm nitrate print saved from destruction just in time and looks gorgeous. The detail is so great that you can read posters on the wall, see the dimple in Nip’s chin and spot Muriel Evans laughing in the background as he does a gag.
Particularly for obscure, hitherto unrestored films like the Lane comedies, most of my viewing experience has previously consisted of blurry images running too fast accompanied by indifferent ragtime piano on a maddening loop. While Lane’s astonishing stunts and acrobats can survive even this, the intricacies of the individual gags and his smaller-scale charms can be lost unless seen in good quality prints. Although I was already a Lupino Lane devotee, I came away with a whole new appreciation for his pantomime talents and skill at facial expression. There’s a special Lupino body language that was obviously part of the family training. Both Nip and Wallace have a certain way of reacting – a flickering glance here, a brief surprised opening of the mouth there – that is unique to them and very amusing. There are lots of other little grace notes that you can appreciate better now – for instance, in HELLO SAILOR, Nip falls in water and his clothes shrink. He and Wallace get to brawling and Wallace nearly falls in too. Nip stops him, shaking his head quickly and shooting a warning glance as he gestures to his shrunken bell bottoms.
GOOD NIGHT NURSE and BATTLING SISTERS are two cases in point; I always thought of these as two comparatively weaker shorts, Actually, I’d just seen dreadful copies of them. Now, in these beautiful versions I appreciated all sort of gags and nuances in a new way.
The pantomime business between Nip and Wallace in GOOD NIGHT NURSE, especially, is really great. The first reel has some intricately timed prop business involving a cane chair, a bowler hat, a watch and a stethoscope. How wonderful it must have been to see them do this kind of thing live on stage! Seeing it in this quality is the next best thing though.
The exemplary musical accompaniment from Meg Morley, Neil Brand and Donald Mackenzie further enhances enjoyment of the films. Their scores are just perfect, and it’s great to have a choice of organ or piano for each title.
Lastly, there are extra features. Two bits of candid footage show Lane filming THE FIGHTING DUDE and doing a bit of backwards-filmed clowning for the camera. There’s a workprint of Bob Monkhouse’s MAD MOVIES, featuring him introducing GOOD NIGHT NURSE, and best of all, the interview with Sara Lupino Lane. Sara was very kind and generous in sharing both her time and memories of her Grandad and family; we had a wonderful visit and came away with some terrific stories and facts that I don’t believe were previously known. Dave Glass has done a great job of intercutting the interview with some film clips and shots of Sara’s memorabilia and family scrapbooks.
As a huge fan of Lupino Lane who had a bit of involvement in the project, I’m obviously a bit biased but I think this is a simply wonderful collection that shows off this wonderful perfomer in the quality he deserves. An amazing effort from Messrs Glass and Wyatt. I hope you’ve all ordered a copy!
Recently, a whole load of colourised silent films have been appearing on YouTube. I won’t wade into the colourisation debate here (let’s save that for tedious flame wars on Internet forums) but it did get me thinking about genuine colour footage of silent comedians. Unsurprisingly, there’s not much about, as a) the use of colour was limited in the era and b) lots of early colour footage has decomposed. Still, there are some examples out there…
In the silent era, colour was mainly used in small doses to add some prestige to feature films. Harry Langdon filmed a fantasy sequence for LONG PANTS (now sadly lost) and Buster Keaton created a colour prologue for SEVEN CHANCES. Happily, this does exist and has been restored to current copies. It must be said that the faded 2-strip Technicolor isn’t exactly vivid, having faded to more of a sepia effect, but it’s still nice to have it, and if you squint hard enough you can imagine Buster in living colour.
Keaton’s long career kept him working to the point where colour was much more widespread in the film and TV industry. As a result, there is lots of nice colour footage of him in his later years, but to see him looking more like the Buster we know from his classic silents, the best bet is HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE. This 1939 feature was a vague retelling of the Mack Sennett story and Buster appears in an on-set pie throwing sequence (thus perpetrating the myth that he was another Keystone clown). It’s beautiful vivid colour, and there are even some lovely outtakes from the film showing Buster throwing pies and laughing. Sadly, neither film nor outtakes appear to be on YouTube, but there’s a brief snippet at 9:15 in this episode of the wonderful Keaton documentary A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW.
Though there is no colour footage of Chaplin from the silent era, there are a set of remarkable colour photographs taken by Charles C Zoller in 1918. These show Chaplin on the steps of his new studio and on the set of A DOG’S LIFE:
Similar in spirit are these shots of Laurel & Hardy horsing around on the Hal Roach lot in 1938:
The most famous Laurel & Hardy colour footage is the 1940s public information short THE TREE IN A TEST TUBE, which features some mute film of them clowning around with wood products. Their first colour film was actually made over a decade earlier; THE ROGUE SONG was an MGM musical starring Lawrence Tibbett, with the boys added for some comic relief. Alas, this is another early colour film that has decomposed, but a small fragment of the boys’ footage does remain. Murphy’s law of course dictates that the existing scene takes place almost in a dark cave so there’s not much colour to be had! Here’s the clip, which ends with that famous stage direction, “exit, pursued by bear!”