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!”
George Eastman Museum has just shared the sound file of an extensive interview with Buster Keaton from 1958. A few snippets of this found their way into the documentary A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW, but this is the first time the complete audio has been available, allowing us to eavesdrop on the conversation.
Like other Keaton interviews, it starts out a little slow, but Buster always warms up after a few minutes. This one is an hour and a half in length, and after a few familiar repeated stories, Buster really loosens up and it turns into a great conversation. With a lot of these interviews, I find myself wishing the interviewer had done a bit more research or asked better questions. This time round, the interviewer really has his facts right and is clearly a fan. He’s clued up on the details of Keaton’s career and manages to tip into some nooks and crannies not covered elsewhere.
Some highlights include:
* Buster’s memories of his classic shorts like THE PLAYHOUSE, THE ELECTRIC HOUSE, THE FROZEN NORTH and THE BOAT. (It’s especially fascinating to hear that he considered THE BOAT to be the sequel to ONE WEEK, and even considered editing them together as a feature!).
*His work with Arbuckle, and his fondness for the short THE GARAGE.
*Details of an unfinished script idea that would have seen Buster in Harold Lloyd territory, stranded on top of a skyscraper with his girl.
*His thoughts on keeping spontaneity in films
*Shooting the illusions in SHERLOCK JR and re-enacting them on Ed Sullivan’s TV show (does this still exist?)
*Details of the leading ladies in his short films
*Filming on location for THE NAVIGATOR, GO WEST and THE GENERAL.
*An even-handed account of his time at MGM. Interestingly, apart from SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (“the world’s worst picture!”), he describes all the other pictures there as “good or fair” (even WHAT! NO BEER?).
*Working with Chaplin in LIMELIGHT.
All in all, this is a great immersion into Buster’s world. His career is covered in detail, and it’s wonderful to hear that characterful, gravelly voice telling these stories with real warmth and humour. What wouldn’t you give to have been a fly on the wall..? Take a listen below.
In the 1950s and 60s, Buster Keaton found a nice sideline making ‘Industrial’ films. These varied from company training films to promotional advertisements, and even one (1952’s PARADISE FOR BUSTER) that was a pure comedy to be shown as a treat for employees of John Deere.
In October 1965, shortly after his 70th birthday, Keaton travelled to Canada for another industrial assignment. He didn’t know it then, but it would turn out to be his last appearance before a camera.
Some years earlier, he had been involved with an abortive film called TEN GIRLS AGO. Among the journalists covering that project was editorial photographer John Sebert; now Sebert found himself helming an industrial safety film for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario. The acquaintance was renewed and Keaton had a job.
THE SCRIBE is very obviously an instructional film, its purpose being to hammer home company safety policy ‐ “16 steps to LIVE!”. Buster’s job is to brighten proceedings by demonstrating how flouting each step can cause accidents, in his inimitable manner.
Given the set-up, it’s not fair to hold the film to the same standards of your average Keaton comedy. Certainly, nobody could call THE SCRIBE a forgotten classic, but for what it is, it’s not half bad.
Buster plays a janitor at a newspaper office, who promotes himself to journalist when a call comes in to investigate industrial safety at a building site.
Once there, he finds a list of safe working guidance rules, and wanders around the building site trying to enforce them, but usually making matters worse. It’s a pretty efficient way of getting the message across, but more importantly allows Keaton to indulge in little sight gag vignettes. Sebert is obviously a fan of Keaton’s comedy, and lets him do his thing. Some are better than others; Sebert sometimes bites off more than he can chew, and sequences of Buster being hoisted aloft on a crane or dangling from a rope are unconvincing, especially as a lanky, much younger double is used. Some gags are also sabotaged by the fact that the rest of the cast are genuine construction workers… as actors, they’re very good builders!
Much better are the simple visual gags: Buster’s constant loss of his hard hat, or his fascination with an ominous red button. Best of all, there are a handful of throwaway gags that don’t serve any health and safety purpose at all ‐ a falling door gag gives just a hint of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR, and Buster even uses a ladder gag from Laurel and Hardy’s THE FINISHING TOUCH. These are surely on-set additions by Buster himself, proof that his comic mind was active right until the end.
You can tell that all isn’t well with him though. As well as the use of a double, scenes of Buster running show his movements much slower than usual. With hindsight, we now know that he was terminally ill, and making this film at all was quite an achievement.
If THE SCRIBE isn’t the wonderful final hurrah that THE RAILRODDER had been, there certainly could be a less fitting final role. 46 years earlier, Buster’s first starring short had been ONE WEEK, based around house construction. Now, in 1965, with the wooden house changed to a skyscraper, here he was, still pottering about a building site, making gags with planks and doors and cement. There’s something quite touching about Buster persevering in the brave new world of the atomic age, as plans were made to put a man on the moon, and as The Beatles were recording RUBBER SOUL. It was a totally different era, but after all he’d been through in his career, he was still in demand and still funny.
The final scenes see him re-enacting one of his earliest comic routines, a floor scrubbing scene from THE BELL BOY (1918). While he is immersed in this, the ‘End’ title appears on the screen. Buster looks up and taps it away; a nice playfully cinematic final gag for a comedian who had always stretched the possibilities of film for comedy.
Harry Langdon: The ‘Little Elf’ grown up with a moustache in the late ’30s
Naughton & Gold: ‘The Napoleons of Fun!”
Some of the most intriguing moments in the history of any art form are those where paths of prominent artists meet. Sometimes, these are premeditated collaborations between heavyweight artists. At other times, they are more coincidental, dictated by circumstance.
The era of classic comedies brought about many such occurrences. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin performing a routine in ‘LIMELIGHT’ is perhaps the most famous; Roscoe Arbuckle’s partnership with Keaton the most productive. Charley Chase guesting in Laurel and Hardy’s ‘SONS OF THE DESERT’ is perhaps the most beloved. Less high-profile, these encounters became more and more frequent as silent comedy became a niche of ever decreasing circles. Stars on their way down clustered together to make a living, for at Educational pictures and Columbia for instance, and later on television. Thus, in later years we get Buster Keaton directed by Mack Sennett, Snub Pollard supporting the Three Stooges, and Keaton with Billy Gilbert on TV, amongst many others. Some of these obscure, ephemeral appearances are among the most interesting for comedy devotees, if not the most entertaining.
One to definitely file under this curiosity category is ‘WISE GUYS’ (1937). This is a long-vanished British film, directed by none other than comedy great Harry Langdon and starring an obscure team of Music Hall comedians! Just the notion of Langdon, who directed few films, helming a British film of the 30s, is bizarre in itself. So how did this come about?
Contrary to the myths perpetrated by Frank Capra and others, Langdon was far from hapless in the sound era. He had starred in many successful short films throughout the late 20s and early 30s. Whilst his hopes for a full comeback remained unfulfilled, he remained popular and visible in supporting roles in a variety of features. By 1936, this work had started to dry up a little however, and for a change of pace he took up with a stage show, ‘ANYTHING GOES’. The play, in which he played a comically bumbling gangster, took a year-long tour to Australia. This was very successful, and the presence of a Hollywood star was rare indeed. In contrast to the USA, Langdon was feted by the press.
After a successful stay, and without too much demand at home, he found himself taking a leisurely wayward journey back to the states. With wife Mabel and son Harry, Jr in tow, they saw a little of Paris and then travelled on to London. Whilst there, Harry obtained a small part in a musical, ‘STARDUST’ (re-released as both ‘MAD ABOUT MONEY’ and ‘HE LOVED AN ACTRESS’) with Ben Lyon, and also found himself asked to direct a film.
Quite how this came about is lost to time, although possibly through the influence of Ben Lyon, who was an old co-star of Harry’s. In the fumbling British B-picture industry of the 1930s, the presence of any Hollywood stars was seen as something of a coup. ‘STARDUST’, featuring Lyons and Langdon as well as Lupe Velez, was just one example of this kind of ‘booster’ film, and probably someone connected with the production saw a chance to cash in on Langdon’s name.
The stars were Charley Naughton and Jimmy Gold, a long standing Scots comedy team. They had a history on the Music Halls dating back to 1908 and were considered real veterans. In the mid-30s they were finding a new prominence as members of ‘THE CRAZY GANG’. Alongside the other teams of Flanagan & Allen and Nervo & Knox, they starred in a series of successful shows at the Palladium, as well as branching into film.
The Crazy Gang have been referred to as ‘The English Marx Brothers’, but this isn’t really a very accurate assessment. Though they shared with the Marxes a penchant for excruciating puns, their humour was much less cerebral. It was certainly lively and boisterous, though, a high-spirited mixture of slapstick, word play, cross-talk and jokes that creaked like the deck of a ghost ship.
Flanagan and Allen proved the most enduring of the constituent teams, with a creative line in fumbling wordplay, based on the lovably bedraggled Flanagan’s attempt to pronounce words:
Naughton and Gold are probably the lesser lights of The Crazy Gang. They chatter away in Scottish accents, and witter around not doing anything especially funny, at least in the films. One of the problems with The Crazy Gang was that its individual members were sometime lost in the chaos; Naughton and Gold, as the least distinictive comedians, suffered the worst from this.
Their records, without the other members of the gang, allowed them more prominence. These tend to play on their Scottish heritage, such as ‘IN SEARCH OF THE LOCH NESS MONSTER’. Their modus operandi in sketches like this veers much more to creaky puns than to character. Examples like this would make Chico Marx wince:
“That monster must weigh half a ton.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw the scales on his back…”
The problem with this sort of comedy is that it needs to be delivered with the knowing slyness of Groucho or Chico. With a few exceptions, Brit comedians of the time, like Naughton and Gold, were mostly just too polite to have the audacity to really deliver these puns. (Flanagan and Allen are an exception – they got away with it by acknowledging the awfulness of the punchlines with their cry of “Oi!” at the jokes’ conclusions).
Despite their failings on film and record, it could be that these just weren’t the right media to capture Naughton and Gold. They were stage comedians first and foremost, with 30 years experience polishing their act. This longevity must speak for a certain amount of skill. Originally debuting as tap dancers, they subsequently shifted their athleticism toward slapstick. Gold came from a family trade of painters and decorators, and the duo’s most praised act centred on paste and paper slapstick. Inevitably, in the time their films date from, they were getting on in years; we know them from a time when they were trading more on dated whimsy than slapstick. Among the louder members of the Crazy Gang, this is somewhat lost. Whether or not they fared better in their ‘solo’ starring vehicles is hard to say now, as both ‘HIGHLAND FLING’ (1936) and ‘WISE GUYS’ have vanished. Both were made for the cheapie studio Fox British, which churned out ‘Quota Quickies’, films made quickly to satisfy a ruling that a percentage of films shown in Britain must be made domestically.
The context of the manufacture doesn’t make one hold out great hope for the quality of ‘WISE GUYS’, but who knows? Langdon had common ground with Naughton and Gold in whimsy, visual humour and a long history of stage training prior to films. Charlie Naughton’s character had some similarities with Langdon’s ‘little elf’, with a curious mixture of middle aged man and pudgy baby about him. Indeed, he was often the put-upon child-figure of the Crazy Gang. Perhaps Langdon adapted some comic bits for him.
The story of WISE GUYS is another play on Naughton & Gold’s Scottish origins. As extreme spendthrifts, they find themselves related to a rich racehorse owner, Phineas MacNaughton (Robert Nainby), and determine to prove themselves members of the rich family. Unfortunately, this involves them – shudder – spending money! The few stills I’ve managed to track down show them trying to show themselves splashing out in a fancy restaurant, and . Unfortunately, their efforts are all in vain as they are pipped to getting a piece of the racehorse, and the family fortune, by their cousin Audrene Brier. The boys are kicked out of the house and return to spendthrift happiness.
The story has potential for some good sequences, and plenty of fish-out-of-water comedy. One particularly amusing still shows the pair in the swanky restaurant, trying to show off living the high life, but still on a budget: they have ordered the tiniest roast chicken ever seen:
The overall success of ‘WISE GUYS’ would have been limited by the rushed shooting schedule and limited budget. Langdon’s direction has also been a bone of long contention. At this point, he hadn’t directed a film since 1933’s ragbag short ‘THE STAGE HAND’ (cobbled together from outtakes from a planned feature, THE SHOW GOAT), and had not helmed a feature since 1928’s HEART TROUBLE, the film that was effectively his last as a major star. Langdon’s own direction has often been cited as the reason for his crash-and-burn from stardom, though THREE’S A CROWD and ‘THE CHASER’ have picked up many fans in recent years following DVD release. The jury is still out on his skills as director, though it’s important to note that, like Stan Laurel, he was the unofficial director on many of his films. His idiosyncratic style so set the style and pace of most of his films, that he had an influence way above that of star. ‘WISE GUYS’ is the only time he directed other comedians, which makes its disappearance that more frustrating. However, the following piece, syndicated in The Bournemouth Graphic on May 7th, 1937, presents an on-set account of Langdon directing the film – one of the very few first-hand accounts of him at work in the director’s chair. Most interesting is the quote that “watching [Langdon] work, it made me realise just how important the director is in making a comedy and just how little credit he gets.”(Irony of ironies, the writer then goes on to make a comparison to the work of Frank Capra!). Clearly, Langdon was in full control of proceedings, and adding his own comedy touches. Here’s the full piece:
For what it’s worth, The Era’s positive review of WISE GUYS on 12 August, 1937, stated that “Mr Langdon’s handling of the material is in the best tradition of Hollywood’s laugh-winning skill.”
WISE GUYS would be the last film that Langdon directed. Following completion, he headed back to the States, and would live with Stan Laurel for a while while he sorted out work. Laurel would lead him to more behind-the-scenes work, at Hal Roach Studios. After writing for L & H’s ‘BLOCKHEADS’ he would find himself at another of those curious cinematic crossroads. In 1939 he starred with Oliver Hardy in ‘ZENOBIA’, after Roach fired Laurel. Despite this, the Laurel-Langdon friendship remained firm until Harry’s untimely death in 1944.
As for Naughton and Gold, the Crazy Gang concept now gathered steam, with their 1937 film ‘O-KAY FOR SOUND’ being a smash. They would make a run of other successful comedies together, including ‘ALF’S BUTTON AFLOAT’ and ‘THE FROZEN LIMITS’, as well as a long, long run of stage shows lasting to the early 1960s. Making their final performance together in 1962, Naughton and Gold secured a record as the longest running double act in British history: 54 years!
In that lengthy career, ‘WISE GUYS’ was a mere brief moment. It’s unlikely that this long forgotten feature was an out and out classic. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to see the fruit borne by this unlikely meeting of comic minds.
Neal Burns is one of those “nice young men” of silent comedy who is usually forgotten. You know the ones; the Bobby Vernons and Glenn Tryons who were meant to be like the boy next door – the whole point of them was to be average, and to blend in with other average Americans. Often, they had the girl already at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the comedy was gentle and situational. Burns fit the idiom nicely. He was normal-looking, a bit like a scrubbed-up version of Al St John. Occasionally they put glasses on him to heighten the similarity to Harold Lloyd.
If this sounds like I’m bashing Neal, I’m not. He was a perfectly capable comedian, and made some fun little films, but among the many unique and unusual-looking comedians of the era, he doesn’t stand much of a chance of being singled out.
Well, here’s a moment in the spotlight for him. This short is NO PARKING, courtesy of the EYE film institute. It’s kind of like a much milder version of ONE WEEK, featuring his attempts to build, and then move, a portable house. Not full of belly laughs, but a fun watch (be warned, there is one unfortunate bit of racial stereotyping though). Neil cranked out dozens of these light comedies for the Al Christie studios throughout the 1920s, but they are seldom seen today.
And here’s one more from the ACCIDENTALLY PRESERVED DVDS, where he’s co-starred with Jack Duffy in LOOSE CHANGE:
Incidentally, also in the cast of this film is fellow Christie comic Eddie Barry, whose real name was Eddie Burns… yup, he was Neal’s brother. Guess they tossed a coin to decide who got to keep the family name.
The best Neal Burns short I’ve seen so far is GIDDY GOBBLERS, which is a very funny Charley Chase-style farce centred around his attempts to get a Turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Also lots of fun is CALL THE WAGON, available on the American Slapstick vol 2 DVD.
In the sound era, Neal descended into bit parts (you can see him in a bunch of Columbia shorts), but he was another of the hard-working comics who deserves his due every now and then.
It came! After weeks of waiting for Trans-Atlantic deliveries to return to normality, yesterday HARRY LANGDON AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES 1929-30 finally dropped into my mailbox.
A DVD release of these much maligned, obscure little films is a wonderful thing indeed. These shorts have had a decidedly mixed reputation, but were well received at the time and deserve a fresh viewing.
Even in his best work, Harry Langdon always arouses quite visceral reactions, and these films are maybe the most contentious of his entire career. Partly this is because they were hugely obscure for a long time, and partly because when they were written about it, it was often by someone who didn’t enjoy them (most notably by Leonard Maltin in THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS) . Well, recent showings of some of the films on TCM have enabled people to at last judge for themselves. Now, they’re out in the real world again on this wonderful DVD from The Sprocket Vault, which collects all eight of the shorts, including the incredibly rare HOTTER THAN HOT and SKY BOY.
The shorts brought Langdon to the Hal Roach studios for the first time. His career in features had crashed, coinciding with the arrival of sound. Harry’s return to the short comedy was celebrated as a comeback, and though I have some favourites among his features, I do feel that this was the idiom that suited him best. Langdon’s comedy was all about creating his own little world, and in twenty minutes the real world doesn’t need to impinge on his fantasies too much.
Langdon fully capitalises on that here. His childlike ‘little elf’ character always tended toward the surreal (in one of his silent films he has a bearded woman as his leading lady!). These shorts continued that trend, with the new era of sound seeming to encourage him to be more experimental. Harry always babbled away in his silent films – now you can hear him as well as see him! Much has been made of his use of his voice, and it did take him a little while to get it right, but I think his voice actually suits his character really well. It’s not all talk, anyway. In the best of these films, there are terrific pantomime routines and some, like THE BIG KICK are practically silent comedies. There are some wonderful sight gags and images in these shorts that, if they weren’t quite so bizarre, might be considered iconic: Harry sat with his fingers in his ears and a firecracker fizzing away in his mouth, for instance, or in a cartoonish boxing match, his gloves floating around on the end of long poles coming out of his jumper!
It doesn’t always work, and the early sound technology does create some pacing problems, but there’s a lot to enjoy here. While films like SKIRT SHY and THE HEAD GUY are a little unsure of themselves, there is some vintage Harry on show, with THE BIG KICK and THE SHRIMP near-classics.
If you’re on the fence about Langdon (or his sound work), give this set a go; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. There are some terrific moments, and you also get to enjoy some choice moments of Hal Roach players like Thelma Todd, Edgar Kennedy and Max Davidson into the bargain.
Of course, if you’re already a Langdon fan, then buying this set is a no-brainer. For one thing, this is your first chance to see HOTTER THAN HOT & SKY BOY in 90 years!
These two films, contrasting tales of fire and ice, are among the most offbeat of all Langdon’s work (against some stiff competition!). HOTTER THAN HOT might just be one of my new favourite Langdon shorts. Harry plays a pyromaniac of all things, who is chasing a fire engine when Edgar Kennedy bribes him to take a ‘Dear John’ letter to Thelma Todd’s apartment. There are some lovely sight gags in this one, including Harry trying to cross a slippery floor, his attempts to retrieve a key that an unconscious Thelma has hidden in her dress, and his manipulation of a doll so that it seems to have Thelma’s legs. The film was based on Langdon’s own vaudeville skit THE MESSENGER, so he was intimately familiar with the material and pulls it off wonderfully.
SKY BOY has him marooned on an iceberg with Thelma, Eddie Dunn and a bear! The striking iceberg setting is an unusual but fitting backdrop for Langdon’s minimalism, and the centrepiece of the film is a long routine of Harry trying to shave the bullying Eddie Dunn. The angelic Langdon character often had darkness lurking not far away, and there’s a wonderful example here, as Thelma tries to persuade him to cut Eddie’s throat; add to this a fishing line attached to Harry’s wrist that causes his hand to jerk dangerously all over the place and you have a great little routine that’s suspenseful as well as funny.
Both these films are missing their original soundtracks, but subtitles and music from Andrew Earle Simpson carry them along nicely. After all, the visual is the essence of Langdon’s beautiful pantomime performances. Even if he never made me laugh, I could happily sit and watch him act for hours. Do you know what, though? He made me laugh a lot in these shorts. I laughed out loud, in fact.
Leonard Maltin got it so wrong when he called these shorts “horrible”. That’s like criticising Picasso for getting his faces all mixed up. Sure, they’re quirky, sometimes surreal and abstract, but that was Langdon’s vision. What you have here is a master comedian still pushing the envelope and creating something that no other comedian could have. Often, he manages to be very funny in the process. Maltin said that the “blame” for the films “surely lies with Langdon himself”. Change “blame” to “credit”, and now you’re talking!
As far as the DVD goes, the presentation of these films is exemplary. I once owned a print of LONG PANTS that was so bleached out that you could barely see Harry’s facial expressions. Without this ability, it became virtually unwatchable. You need to see every nuance of Langdon’s being, and the terrific digital restorations here make that possible. The films benefit hugely from this.
Like the previous Charley Chase and Thelma Todd DVD sets, all the shorts come with tremendously detailed commentaries from Richard Roberts. So, even if the films aren’t your cup of tea, you can still listen and learn a great deal not just about Langdon and these films, but about the Hal Roach studios in general.
Bravo to Richard Roberts and Kit Parker for making this, the most improbable of all DVDs, available for us to enjoy. The Sprocket Vault continue to give us chance to appreciate films that no-one else would even consider releasing, with the best possible presentation. If you’re still not convinced to buy, just remember that incredibly niche projects like this can only continue if we support them. Here’s the Amazon link… https://www.amazon.com/Harry-Langdon-Roach-Talkies-1929-1930/dp/B07ZW9Y36M
Here’s a new book that looks fascinating. CHASE! A Tribute to the Keystone Cops is a compendium of writing about the Keystone Cops by a collection of great silent comedy writers, edited by Lon & Debra Davis.
Though the humour of the Keystone films may seem primitive today, the impact and influence of the Cops was enormous. Authority had never been shown to be so incompetent as a subject of comedy before this, in the stuffy Edwardian era of polite manners. Early film comedy was as rebellious, in its way, as rock and roll later was, and the Cops were at the forefront of comic anarchy. They represent the alternative comedy movement of their day!
Even those who know little about silent comedy probably have some vague notion of the Keystone cops. Yet, despite the fact that they are such icons, this is surprisingly the first book devoted solely to them. Over the years, false rumours have become taken as fact, misinformation has been perpetrated and films have been mislabelled. Who were the cops? How did they originate? What films did they appear in?
CHASE! answers these questions and many more. The book’s contributors include silent-era historians of the first rank, including Joe Adamson, John Bengtson, Lon Davis, Rob Farr, Paul E. Gierucki, Sam Gill, Michael J. Hayde, Rob King, Chris Seguin, Randy Skretvedt, Lea Stans, Brent E. Walker, Marc Wanamaker, and Mark Pruett (see the image of the contents page below for details of the contents). The book promises over 300 seldom-seen photos, press book illustrations, lobby cards, and trade ads and bios of 56 performers who appeared as cops over the years.
The book is available from Bear Manor Media, and also through Amazon and other online retailers. All the proceeds are being donated to film preservation, so there’s no excuse not to! I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into this one. Here’s the link, and the back cover and contents pages are below.
The new issue of The Lost Laugh Magazine is now available! There are exclusive articles, rare photos, reproduced articles from trade magazines and news and reviews.
Our cover star this time is British silent comedian Walter Forde; in this issue we focus on his early career and short films (including a complete filmography) , with his feature films to follow in the next issue.
Last time we looked at Monty Banks’ starring comedies. Issue 12 continues his story into the sound era, examining his handful of starring films, and his work as a director.
Other articles include:
*some of Roscoe Arbuckle’s most obscure films
*A Q & A with Ben Model, all about The Silent Comedy Watch Party
*Mabel Normand’s missing film ONE HOUR MARRIED.
*New DVDs featuring Lupino Lane, Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase and Harry Langdon
*Screening notes on some rare films from Hal Roach and Mack Sennett studios.
Click on the link below to open the pdf of the magazine, or right click and ‘save target as’ to download the file:
For classic comedy fans in lockdown, The Silent Comedy Watch Party provides a weekly ray of sunshine. This wonderful weekly live streaming event takes place every Sunday on YouTube and is the brain child of Silent film accompanist and historian Ben Model and author/historian Steve Massa.
Presenting three comedy shorts with Ben’s terrific piano accompaniment and Steve’s insightful intros (streamed in via FaceTime), the watch parties make for wonderful viewing and are preserving the essence of live silent cinema in the most difficult circumstances. They are especially a joy for those outside of the US, who wouldn’t normally get to see the shows put on by Ben & Steve!
Ben very kindly took the time to give some insight into the shows for us:
The Lost Laugh: Hi, Ben! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Can you tell us a little about the silent comedy watch party and how the idea for the shows came about?
Ben: I’ve had the idea to do a live-streamed silent film show for a few years, actually. I was always reticent to take the plunge and give it a shot because my main interest is in promoting attendance at shows. I didn’t want to do something that would make staying home from an art house or museum or whatever palatable. Then the week of March 8th I watch all my gigs topple like dominoes, gradually over the course of a week. One thing that occurred to me was that a cancelled show meant two things: that I wasn’t going to do a show and, maybe more importantly, that each of those shows meant 50 or 100 or 400 people weren’t going to get to see that silent film they were looking forward to.
I already had all the bits of equipment I needed, tech-wise. Some I had picked up in my recent years’ interest in iPhone filmmaking, and some I’d had for a while. And I had this light-bulb moment where all the puzzle pieces came together in my head — including the fact that my YouTube account was approved for live-streaming — and I decided to give it a shot. The response has been, frankly, moving. Even from the first test pilot show we did on March 15. Folks had been in their homes a week already and were looking at movie theaters and more shutting down, knowing they wouldn’t be going out for movies for a while.
This became more than a replacement for a live show for people, almost immediately. It meant so much more to people who were watching, to be able to go into that crazy universe of silent film comedy to laugh and get relief from what everyone is going through.
Have there been any challenges in setting up and performing these live streaming events?
Most of it came together for the first show, and we’ve just gotten used to the routine of it. My wife and I practically have to have a sign-up sheet to figure out what function our living room will be at any given moment, since we’re both teaching our university courses, and having Zoom meetings and coffee klatsches and phone calls. My wife’s a musical theater educator and performer, and hasn’t done camera work like this before, but she’s gotten the hang of it pretty well.
I’m looking at a few different softwares that allow you to bring in a second performer or guest in a split screen, and to feed the video signal directly into the streamed feed. We want to keep the informal and home-made feel, of course, but if there’s an opportunity to tidy up some of the presentation so parts of it look and sound better, I’d like to head in that direction. I’m getting close, testing out one particular program, and we’ll see if I can get it to do what I want.
It’s also given me an opportunity to try and keep the piano in some semblance of being in tune, and I tidy it up every week or two.
Programming the shows hasn’t been too difficult. Steve Massa and I have programmed lots of comedy shorts shows over the years at MoMA. We’ve been very fortunate in the cooperation we’ve gotten from the people who’ve released these films on DVD or online as far as permissions, like Kino Lorber, Milestone Films, the EYE Filmmuseum, and Lobster Films and the Blackhawk Collection. Between that and the great responses we’ve had to films with really obscure comedians from my Undercrank Prods releases, we’re like kids in a candy store.
How do you go about creating the music for the films you accompany?
Most of it’s improvised, like it is at a regular show. What’s different for me, and it took me about 2 or 3 shows to realize this, that I’m playing for someone who’s six feet away. I’d initially been playing like I was at a theater, and I had to remind myself to dial it back. I was already doing this in my intros, trying to talk like the person watching was in the room with me. It’s like doing radio, where you are performing for an audience of 1. It’s what Ernie Kovacs referred to as “an intimate vacuum”, where it’s just you and the person at home, and you don’t have to project or have a bigger energy.
Can you remember your first encounter with silent film? What was it that hooked you in?
I can’t remember it — my parents tell me I discovered Charlie Chaplin on TV when I was a toddler. Back in the 1960s the Chaplin comedies were on TV in the daytime, and that’s what got me hooked. For some kids it’s trains or construction equipment or zoo animals; for me it was silent comedies.
Looking ahead to the world beyond lockdown… Have you thought about continuing with some live streaming events once we’re on the other side?
You know, I’ve gotten emails and social media comments from people all over the world about the show, people for whom there wasn’t a place for them to go see silent film with live music before March 8th. Initially I’d figured I’d stop once the cinemas opened up again and public gatherings resumed. But I’ve realized, from connecting with so many people who are watching every week, that this is the show with live music they can attend. I don’t know that I’ll be able to continue on a weekly basis — ordinarily, I have shows a two or three times a month on Sunday afternoons — but I think I’d consider continuing the live-streamed shows in some way.
You’ve also produced some fantastic DVDs through your label Undercrank Productions, including the ACCIDENTALLY PRESERVED series, and recent volumes of Alice Howell & Douglas MacLean films. Do you have any plans for future DVDs that you can share?
I had about a half dozen projects percolating when everything shut down in March. Until everyone can go back to work and films can get pulled, inspected and scanned, there’s no sense in talking about anything. At the moment, the companies that do DVD duplication are still duplicating, and the MOD company I work with is still MOD-ing for orders that come in on Amazon, TCM Shop, DeepDiscount et al. I do have one project that could actually move ahead, but I need to wait at least a month before I can consider launching a Kickstarter for it, and it’s another bunch of silent comedy shorts that haven’t been available to the public since they were in release in the 1920s. (It’s not Hank Mann, though.)
You can find out more about the shows, and the link to the latest episode (8pm CDT, 3pm GMT) here:
In the U.K. in the 1920s, Walter Forde was virtually alone in dedicating himself to comedy film-making in the manner of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, et al. Today he is forgotten by all but handful of film buffs, and even then is usually better remembered for his work directing sound-era comedy thrillers such as ‘THE GHOST TRAIN’ or ‘THE GAUNT STRANGER’.
However, he did some fine work in his two series of comedy shorts and four features in the silent era, and these are more than worth reviving. In recent years his features – ‘WAIT AND SEE’, ‘WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?’, the recently discovered ‘WHAT NEXT?’ and part-talkie YOU’D BE SURPRISED have begun to be shown, but his short comedies still remain quite obscure. Many exist courtesy of cut-down editions on the obsolete 9.5mm gauge, and 16mm prints also circulate; the BFI holds most of the efforts complete. You can even see a few of the shorts (or parts of them) on YouTube.
Walter made two series of films (1921-22 and 1926-27), punctuated by a short, unsuccessful stay in Hollywood. The first group were made for ‘Zodiac Films’, and the latter ‘British Super Comedies’. Here’s the first of his Zodiac two-reelers, WALTER FINDS A FATHER in a nice print, courtesy of Ben Model’s YouTube channel. Not startlingly original, but a lot of fun, especially the second reel.
As you can see, Forde’s early style is pretty Chaplinesque (he had originally been a Chaplin impersonator on stage). In ‘WALTER MAKES A MOVIE’, he plays a particularly Chaplinesque bum and petty thief who steals an actress’s purse and then winds up playing the villain in the movie she’s starring in. This shows a clear parallel to Charlie’s early tramp (“He was a bum with a bum’s philosophy – he would steal if he got the chance” – Buster Keaton’s description), and Walter’s body language, funny walk and all, is certainly reminiscent of Charlie. There’s also this restaurant scene that harks back to Charlie’s food filching in ‘A DOG’S LIFE’ and to the restaurant scenes in THE IMMIGRANT).
WALTER’S TRYING FROLIC (snappy titles weren’t Walter’s thing!) has him in a double role as Lord Montmorency Gadabout and his usual character. Beginning with his attempts to sell his dilapidated old car, it develops into Forde’s version of Chaplin’s ‘THE IDLE CLASS’ as he attends a costume party. Sorry about the watermark on this one, it’s the only copy I can find online.
To his credit, Forde played down the Chaplin influence as his career went on, and accordingly the films got better. They were well received in Britain, and in 1923, he was invited to made a couple of films in Hollywood. Quickly he realised that he was a small fish in a big pond and soon returned home. Things weren’t much better back in Britain; with no film offers forthcoming he spent two years playing piano in cinemas before getting a second chance to make a two-reel series. The second batch of films are smoother and more sophisticated, with less frenetic slapstick and more space given to developed gag routines. Walter’s character is a little more sophisticated, too; it’s immediately apparent that he has shifted from Chaplin as his main influence to the lighter, “boy-next-door” style of Harold Lloyd. To this end, his costume is smartened up with shiny-buttoned blazer and ‘Oxford bag’ trousers, then in vogue. Instead of a bum or petty thief, he is now a smart young man struggling to get by in the modern world. Gone are the building sites and farmyards of the earlier films, replaced with white collar jobs in offices, insurance and tailor’s shops. The gag sequences are more carefully built.
Here’s a brief 9.5mm snippet from WALTER’S WORRIES, featuring some fun tailor shop gags.
And lastly, WALTER’S DAY OUT, my favourite of his short films, shot in the seaside town of Margate in September 1925.
In 1927, Forde was given the chance to star in feature films, and turned out four efforts that are most enjoyable, and worthy of a DVD release (come on, BFI!). In the wake of his future successes, his two reelers were largely forgotten. Viewed today, they seem undeniably crude compared to the contemporary efforts of the best Hollywood comedians, but on their own terms are an enjoyable novelty, not to mention an incredibly valuable training ground for his talent. It’s not quite fair to judge them by the same standards as the Hollywood comedians; the British film industry was simply not geared to producing quality comedy films at speed, and so the opportunity to learn ‘on the job’ was never as available. The slow advances of his career in films meant that he was never going to improve as quickly as Harold Lloyd, for instance, who took dozens of films to reach a mature version of his ‘glasses’ character. Forde made only about 15 silent shorts in twice the time, but nevertheless you can see an outline of a character coming into focus, comic technique developing. One has to admire Forde’s efforts at forging a film career, trying to develop a unique style. The films, while not comedy classics, are entertaining and fascinating for the glimpses they offer of a vanished Britain.
I’ve done quite a bit of research on Forde lately; you can read the full story of Forde’s early career and his short films in the upcoming issue ofTHE LOST LAUGH MAGAZINE, which will be free to download soon. Stay tuned!