1894 – 1935
“Lloyd Hamilton was one of the funniest men in pictures” – Buster Keaton.
“Lloyd Hamilton had it. Comic Motion. He would just walk across the room and apparently do nothing, but just make you laugh” – Mack Sennett.
“He would always ask himself, “How would Ham Hamilton play this?”” – Billy Gilbert, on Charley Chase.
Lloyd Hamilton was a comedian’s comedian. He was popular with the public, his peers and the critics. Inventive and influential, he was allegedly described by Chaplin as “the one actor I am jealous of”. Yet, despite being all these things, Lloyd Hamilton is also forgotten. Go figure.
On the surface, it does seem extremely odd that a performer so revered could be so neglected. Why are his films not shown? Well, unfortunately, to sing Lloyd Hamilton’s praises is to immediately start with a disclaimer. A dismaying chunk of his filmography is nowhere to be seen. Of the existing films, many are disappointing examples from the bookends of his career: early films before he developed his style, or from later in life, when his work was marred by personal problems and weak material. Between these extremes, though, lay the magic so vividly described in contemporary sources. Thankfully, there are scattered fragments left of is for us to enjoy, but nonetheless we are left with the pieces of a detective puzzle: just what is it that made Lloyd Hamilton so special?
Perhaps the key to his appeal in his day, and his strongest claim to an enduring greatness, is his unique approach to his work. Certainly, this goes a good way to explaining his popularity as a “comedian’s comedian”. For Hamilton owed very little to Chaplin at a time when most others did, certainly nothing to Harold Lloyd’s cheery optimism. Although he shared similarities with Keaton, Hamilton went far darker than Buster, greeting his misfortunes with despair rather than stoicism.
It is surely significant that the most relevant comparisons are to performers who achieved their greatness after Hamilton had peaked. Only Oliver Hardy would suffer as continually; only W.C. Fields could present such a negative worldview and still be likeable. When Robert Youngson described Charley Chase’s screen life as “one long, embarrassing moment” he could have easily been referring to Hamilton. Chase might have possessed more debonair equipment, but he had explicitly considered Hamilton when forming his approach to his films, and was the first to admit the influence.
The eventual unique Hamilton formula was some years in the making. Born in California in 1891, Lloyd Vernon Hamilton had initially sought a career in repertory theatre. He subsequently showed an interest in directing, and then acting in, the nascent motion picture industry. His earliest big performing successes were at Kalem studios, where he formed half of the ‘Ham & Bud’ comic team with tiny Bud Duncan. Ham and Bud were essentially a pair of vicious tramps, totally lacking in audience sympathy. Worse, Hamilton, later known for his exquisite facial reactions, wears a behemoth moustache that totally obscures them all!
Hamilton later looked back on these early films dismissively, calling them “very crude”. He wasn’t joking. A typical example of these films is ‘HAM AMONG THE REDSKINS’, in which they decide to go beat up some Native Americans. Feeling a little rusty on their ethnocentric psychopathy, they first capture a small child and practice beating him with their clubs… It’s fairly safe to assume that this isn’t the film that earned Chaplin’s admiration; even his roughest Keystones pale in comparison! He had, of course, long moved past this kind of thing, and it’s instructive to note the Ham and Bud approach to a situation versus the Chaplin approach. Both Chaplin’s ‘THE PAWNSHOP’ (1916) and Ham & Bud’s ‘A FLYER IN FLAPJACKS’ (1917) contain a scene detailing the sale of an alarm clock. From this simple premise, Chaplin fashions a pantomimic tour de force; all Ham and Bud can manage is to start a fight over the clock.
Hamilton was clearly looking to spread his wings, and in 1917 jumped ship to LKO, beginning an unfortunate habit of working for studios whose films have now vanished. In the few films that survive from this period, like recent discovery ‘HIS MUSICAL SNEEZE’, one can see the beginnings of a more distinctive style emerging. Gone is the huge moustache, revealing a round, baby face. This means that Hamilton can now start to react to things, and accordingly there is more space in the films for him to do this.
In 1920, Hamilton began his own unit at the newly founded Educational Pictures, working alongside director Jack White. Educational Studios would remain Hamilton’s home for the next decade, and it is here that he really built his reputation. The ‘Mermaid Comedies’ produced here gave him chance to really crystallise his character, working alongside craftsmen like White, Charley Chase and future director Archie Mayo. Beginning with ‘DUCK INN’, the series continued the focus on a more innocent, hapless character. ‘APRIL FOOL’, directed by Chase, has him suffering a barrage of practical jokes, edging toward the eventual Hamilton formula. Gradually, the process described by Walter Kerr as “an outline becoming a character” began to take shape, as Hamilton’s natural equipment suggested deeper possibilities.
The baby face had already suggested innocence. Now, the tubby physique stuffed into slightly-too-small clothes created a sense of shabby dignity. Hamilton also added an ill-fitting checkered cap that sits atop his head like a pancake, its balancing act seeming to mirror his teeter-totter walk; this prissy way of walking was actually the result of a leg injury, but added greatly to the character. Like Chaplin’s tramp, Ham carried himself with high dignity totally unmerited by his lowly status. Unlike Chaplin’s tramp, who usually comes out on top, Ham is merely setting himself up for a fall. As the elements of a character coalesced, the “real” Lloyd Hamilton emerged, as a sort of overgrown mummy’s boy, naively carrying his sense of self-importance headlong into disaster.
The earliest surviving masterpiece to feature this character is a 1921 film called ‘THE VAGRANT’. Virtually plotless, the key elements are Hamilton being constantly shoved around by a harsh world and moved along by a suspicious cop. It might not sound much, but the gags come thick and fast, leaving the viewer breathless with laughter. Perhaps the most representative gag is a moment where Hamilton finds himself with one foot on a jetty, and the other on a boat drifting further from the quay. A simple gag used elsewhere by Buster Keaton and Lupino Lane, Hamilton makes it his own. While he is swaying perilously, a man appears, observes his plight, and runs off in panic. A moment later, he returns, not with any sort of assistance but with his camera. Imploring Hamilton to “hold that pose!”, he snaps a photo and walks off, satisfied, as Hamilton takes a dip.
Lane and Keaton would employ this gag for suspense and to showcase their acrobatics. Hamilton shifts the focus from the thrill or the splash to how the world reacts to it, and in doing so makes the gag his own. He had found his style. Consider these similar gag instances, for instance:
- Superstitious Ham sees a black cat sat in his path. He decides to decoy it out of the way with a saucer of milk. Suddenly, from nowhere, he is showered with about 50 more black cats.
- Ham needs to tie his shoelace. Spying an ashcan to rest his foot on, he is constantly prevented from reaching it by pushy passers-by. When he finally makes it to the ashcan, the refuse men arrive to haul it away. Ham sits on the back of their street-cleaning truck and is sprayed by water.
- Dressing for work, Ham’s jacket is too tight, and the buttons pop off. Bending to pick them up, his sleeve becomes detached and falls off. Flinging it in the bin in disgust
The key theme here is the methodical, almost gleeful, destruction of his character’s dignity. While the situations are funny in themselves, what really makes them hilarious is Hamilton’s reaction comedy. That baby face would be soured by some side-splitting looks of disdain, disgust and hurt pride. Like Oliver Hardy, Hamilton turns a pratfall or pie in the face into high comedy by simple little gestures; a slow-burn glare and roll of the eyes, a twiddle of the fingers and a dignified waddle away from the scene. In his best films, he doesn’t even need gags as such, just a selection of misfortunes to gang up on him. He does the rest.
There was almost a tragicomic quality to his films, the humour lying close to despair. This was reflected in the titles of the shorts; ‘LONESOME’, ‘CRUSHED’, ‘NOTHING MATTERS’ and ‘NO LUCK’ sound more like works by Kafka than silent comedy laugh riots! Lloyd trod the fine line between humour and pathos brilliantly, winning increasing acclaim for his unique approach.
Alas! The fertile creative period heralded by ‘THE VAGRANT’ is the greatest gap in the Lloyd Hamilton filmography. Just as he hit his stride, producing work critically revered and hugely popular with audiences, the films disappear. These years were the source of classic two-reelers that became yardsticks in his career; his later films would often be judged against films like ‘POOR BOY’, ‘ROLLING STONES’ or, especially, ‘MR ROBINSON CRUSOE’.
While we can no longer enjoy these films, it is clear from reviews that they must have been very funny indeed, as well as continuing Hamilton’s idiosyncratic approach. ‘THE OPTIMIST’ was an elaborate parody of the pilgrim fathers; ‘THE ADVISOR’ featured him giving counsel to a selection of former US presidents! ‘POOR BOY’ was one of the few silent comedies to make humour from church-going, which was quite daring at the time, really.
Hamilton’s standing as a truly great comic really does rest on these films, so it is difficult to assess him fairly. However, if his later great comedies really do pale in comparison to these earlier shorts, then the loss is nothing short of tragic. Happily, films start resurfacing from 1924 onwards. ‘JONAH JONES’ is a fun short featuring his romance with tubby Babe London; even better is ‘CAREFUL PLEASE’, which begins almost as Lloyd Hamilton’s version of ‘EASY STREET’. We are introduced to a dead-end street, where “the people are so tough they pour maple syrup on stove lids and eat them for hot-cakes”. Chief amongst these is the burly Dick Sutherland. Enter Hamilton as a debt collector coming to repossess Sutherland’s furniture. The master of the house is out when Lloyd arrives, but he does encounter the harridan Mrs Sutherland, and their baby son, who sits in his highchair sharpening a razor! With his customary officiousness, Lloyd begins removing the furniture by hurling it out into the street below. Enter Mr Sutherland, who looks less than pleased. Without saying anything or missing a beat, Hamilton turns and begins returning all the battered furniture. On the rough street, Ham discovers a kidnapped heiress and effects a rescue; in gratitude he is invited home for tea. This consists of sardine sandwiches; unfortunately, the sardines keep falling out into his lap, something which Hamilton is unaware of until he comes the subject of feline attention. This is the comedy highlight of the film, giving Hamilton full reign to his facial reactions. (This routine was such an ideal showcase that he used variants many times, with a menagerie of animals; he is bothered by butterflies in ‘HIS DARKER SELF’, deluged with dogs in ‘MY FRIEND’ and . Is it fanciful to suggest that Chaplin’s inspiration for the scene with the monkeys in ‘THE CIRCUS’ could have been Hamilton’s animal adventures?)
The fish-out-of-water setting of ‘CAREFUL PLEASE’ was also a good match for Hamilton’s comedy. Another 1924 film, ‘GOOD MORNING’, sees him invited to officiate at a local bazaar after rescuing the townsfolk from a bear! Trying to fit in and act the dignified host, his efforts meet failure at every turn. Highlights are his trying to sing in a quartet whilst suffering from hiccups, and a literal slow-burn scene as he gives a speech, becoming increasingly aware that his jacket has caught fire.
‘THE MOVIES’ was one of three Hamilton silents directed by Roscoe Arbuckle. It has the intriguing prospect of Hamilton playing his usual character and himself. When the real Lloyd Hamilton injures himself, the ‘other’ Lloyd is enlisted to complete his film, with predictably disastrous results.
While many of these films have somewhat convoluted plots on paper, this is usually just an excuse to knit together as many extended sequences for Hamilton as possible. A case in point is 1925’s ‘CRUSHED’. The story is a patchwork quilt, beginning with Hamilton as a small-town inventor who has invented an anti-mosquito device. This is then completely forgotten as he goes to the city to collect an inheritance; however, he must be married to claim it and ends up married to the Amazonian Blanche Payson. There’s enough plot for three two-reelers, but no matter. All this is just an excuse for the central sequences of ‘CRUSHED’, namely Hamilton’s adventures on the New York Subway.
With Hamilton, like Laurel and Hardy, plot isn’t really that important. Like L & H, many of his best films actually have barely any plot at all. In fact, all Lloyd Hamilton really needed to make a classic comedy was to have a really, really bad day! ‘MOVE ALONG’has no plot at all, and has come to be considered the best of all the surviving Hamilton shorts. A reworking of ‘THE VAGRANT’, all it involves is Hamilton constantly beinbg moved along by a cop, and eventually trying to set up house in the street when he is thrown out of his lodgings. In place of plot, it provides one deft gag sequence after another, all linked by the constant reappearance of the grumpy policeman. Highlights include Hamilton’s ‘sympathetic’ enjoyment of a man’s meal as he watches outside a restaurant window. While thus absorbed, he is unaware that a waiter’s tray, piled high with food, has found its way to the top of his head! Later, he has a beautifully linked series of gags trying to tie his shoelace that was justly celebrated in Walter Kerr’s ‘THE SILENT CLOWNS’
Very nearly as good was ‘NOBODY’S BUSINESS’ (1927). Chronicling a typical working morning for Hamilton, it takes us from his struggle to dress himself in his moth-eaten clothes, to a crowded commute on the streetcar, to his workplace at a lunch wagon, which ends up in the sea.
These stream-of-consciousness films afforded him lots of opportunity for gag sequences and reaction comedy, and critics raved about the films. Eventually, his rise in two-reel comedies led to offers of bigger things. Could he make it to features and be considered alongside the greats? Well, sadly, it didn’t work out that way.
From the start, things kind of got off on the wrong foot. Hamilton got his ‘big break’ in features as replacement for Al Jolson, of all people. D.W, Griffith was planning a minstrel film featuring Jolson, who was of course the king of this act at the time. When Jolson baulked, Hamilton was chosen to appear in the film. However, soon after, Griffith’s enthusiasm waned and he quietly exited the project. Hamilton did his best to turn the film into his own idiom, but it had been sold on blackface shtick that simply wasn’t his forte. Of course, this material doesn’t stand up well today either, especially under the wince-inducing release title, ‘HIS DARKER SELF’. The surviving two-reel abridgement does have some good gags, but doesn’t approach his shorts in quality. One reviewer seemed to speak for most when he said “Hamilton’s performance proves that Jolson should have done it”.
His next effort, ‘A SELF-MADE FAILURE’ had Hamilton responsible for an orphan boy and caught up with a failing sanitarium. Again, it’s a missing film. Sadly, its title proved to be prophetic.
‘A SELF MADE FAILURE’ got excellent reviews, but this didn’t translate to especially good box-office. Nor did this necessarily make the film a good showcase for Hamilton. For one thing, he was hampered by a rigorous script. In his Hamilton biography, Antony Balducci analyses the existing script and notes that there aren’t even that many comedy scenes for Lloyd to play, with more of the content being saved for maudlin drama. Although Hamilton undoubtedly made the most of the opportunities he had (and let’s not forget that a printed script could hardly capture the full effect of his subtle reaction comedy), the fact is that it just wasn’t enough. Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd had entered features with a bang from their first efforts; Hamilton had two damp squibs behind him and his chances were waning. Mr Balducci notes further that, at the same time, Harry Langdon was rising, and about to usurp Hamilton in the vacancy for the next big feature-film comedian.
It was back to shorts with a heavy heart, and this is really where Hamilton’s upward rise starts to plateau out. Ironically, this is also the point where his films start to reappear for our viewing in large numbers. Initially, there is no loss in quality, the aforementioned ‘NOBODY’S BUSINESS’ and ‘MOVE ALONG’ dating from this time. However, looking a little deeper, we can see that ‘MOVE ALONG’ reworks much of ‘THE VAGRANT’s earlier themes; another 1926 film, ‘NOTHING MATTERS’ reworked the same film’s climax. ‘AT EASE’ and ‘JOLLY TARS’ warmed over standard military comedy. It’s clear that, while still making some very funny films, some of the drive to innovate was starting to go out of Hamilton’s career. The 1926 films would be his last real classics, and in 1927 the decline really sets in. ‘BREEZING ALONG’ is perhaps the most widely available of all Hamilton’s shorts; it’s also one of the very weakest. It has him working that old clichéd routine, hoovering a room and accidentally sucking up a dog’s fur. Few of the other gags are better, and this is certainly no way to begin your appreciation of Lloyd Hamilton.
‘SOMEBODY’S FAULT’ is little better. One review noted that “kudos should go the special effects men for supplying most of the humour in Lloyd Hamilton’s latest comedy”. That’s because much of the ‘humour’ comes from the effect of him being electrocuted. Hardly vintage comedy.
Not all of the later films were bad as such. ‘BLAZING AWAY’ is a fun little comedy concerning the rivalry between taxi drivers Lloyd and Kewpie Morgan; this extends from the taxi ranks to their participation in a football game. There are some elaborate, well-done gags, such as Hamilton’s cab splitting in two during his journey, and the back half overtaking his portion. The problem is that almost all the comedy comes from the gags, not from personality or reaction. Furthermore some of them are just too contrived; there happens to be an ostrich in a pen right next to the football ground, with the inevitable result that an egg is substituted for the ball. Really? It’s hard to believe that is a comedy starring a man who once decried the use of mechanical gags in films. While it’s a slickly made, funny comedy, that special ingredient that made Lloyd Hamilton stand apart is almost gone. It didn’t go unnoticed. Reviewing ‘ALMOST A GENTLEMAN’, Motion Picture News’ Raymond Ganly opened with “remember how good Lloyd Hamilton used to be? Weep when you see him in this one”.
The decline in quality was also being noticed by Educational Pictures. Once the company’s brightest star, Hamilton was now slipping further down the list in their trade advertisements. Most of the big guns now went to promoting the more consistent Lupino Lane, and even the ‘Big Boy’ kid comedies were nipping at his heels.
Part of the trouble undoubtedly lies in Hamilton’s disillusionment with the way his career was going. Previously, his shorts had been an entrée to appearing in features; now they were more of a grind, if anything a step down. His troubled private life was playing a part too. Beset by marriage troubles for some years, Hamilton had always been a heavy drinker. This began to affect his work, and as work became more unsatisfying, vice versa. It was a vicious cycle, leading him into trouble. Scandals around his alcoholism, women trouble and an (innocent) connection to a speakeasy murder piled up. In 1928 Hamilton was given a year’s ban from appearing in films by the excessively moral screen authorities. His alcoholism worsened, and incredibly, the one-time ‘Next Big Thing’ of comedy became homeless. Found unconscious one day, he was carried into a health club and gradually began a climb back to sobriety.
By the time his year-long ban was over, he was fit and healthy again. In the meantime, sound had arrived too, giving a double impetus to his comeback. Old friend Marshall Neilan gave him a part in feature ‘BLACK WATERS’, and there was also a role in Warner Brothers’ ‘THE SHOW OF SHOWS’, appearing alongside Ben Turpin, Lupino Lane, Bert Roach and Lee Moran. Educational also welcomed him back, in a new series of sound shorts, promoted with great fanfare.
The available Hamilton talkies are not bad at all, certainly better than his last mediocre silents. However, on the whole they didn’t live up to his classic films; something of the spark seemed to have gone during his absence. There were certainly flashes of inspiration showcasing the old Hamilton genius, however. ‘PRIZE PUPPIES’ begins with a priceless scene of his trying to drown out some noisy neighbours as he cooks his breakfast. Here’s an odd little film, ‘CAMERA SHY’, with a typically off-kilter Hamilton plot:
Hamilton’s later Educational talkies are hard to see, but sound like they have some very intriguing and promising setups. This is especially true of a handful directed by Roscoe Arbuckle; ‘MARRIAGE ROWS’ has him in a love triangle with Al St John as the other man, while ‘UP A TREE’ sees Hamilton taking up residence in a treehouse in protest at his wife’s treatment of him!
In 1932, Hamilton began a series for Universal; amongst these was a remake of his hallmark film, ‘MR ROBINSON CRUSOE’. Sadly, the remake, like the original, doesn’t seem to be around in complete form. The Universal shorts were apparently a step down in quality; Hamilton’s initial rejuvenation at the dawn of the sound era was beginning to wear thin. The spectres of bad luck and alcoholism again appeared to taunt him; drunkenly stumbling down the highway, he was hit by a car and broke a leg. During his recovery, he apparently stumbled out of bed and… broke his other leg! The tragicomedy of his screen career began to blur perilously with his real life.
As his alcoholism worsened, Hamilton began to run out of chances, his reputation simply too dangerous and unreliable. Hal Roach considered hiring him, but had enough tippling stars with Stan Laurel and Charley Chase, and couldn’t face another! A shame, as Hamilton’s character comedy was a great match for the Roach studios. It was Roach’s rival Mack Sennett who came to Hamilton’s aid, signing him for a handful of shorts. Though late in his career, these films are some of his best work in sound films. ‘DOUBLING IN THE QUICKIES’ is an amusing spoof of the movie industry, with Hamilton as sweetheart/would-be agent to budding starlet Marjorie Beebe. Marjorie thinks she has been hired as an actress, but is actually wanted as a double for the real star, forcing her to be subjected to all sorts of indignifying stunts. Hamilton shows real charm in his part, amazing considering the messy state of his life at the time. His best opportunity at Sennett came by chance. W.C. Fields had been planning a new short for Sennett before disagreements with the studio led him to leave. Sennett held on to the scenario, re-fashioning it slightly for Hamilton. Inheriting some great material from Fields that fitted his character nicely, not to mention a great director in Clyde Bruckman, Hamilton has a field day (Fields day?) in ‘TOO MANY HIGHBALLS’.
‘HIGHBALLS’ is a pitch-black comedy that meshes beautifully with Hamilton’s own dark style. Ham is fed up with his freeloading brother-in-law (Tom Dugan). He’s especially miffed at Tom always drinking his best whisky, and replaces it with castor oil. Thinking he’s been poisoned by Lloyd, Tom
Meanwhile, Lloyd gets the tip-off of a sure thing at the dog-track from a friend. To arrange for him to miss work, the friend telephones Ham’s boss, claiming that Hamilton’s mother-in-law has just died. Of course, the news spreads and soon wreaths are arriving for the mother-in-law at the family home. Ham returns home, having of course lost his money, to find himself accused of not only poisoning his brother-in-law, but of plotting to make mother-in-law next! All works out happily in the end in this slickly plotted and made comedy. It really is a winner throughout, giving Lloyd plenty of opportunities for reaction comedy, and time for some great gag sequences amongst the situation comedy. Best of all is a routine that Fields recycled for ‘THE MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE’, featuring Ham trying to manoeuvre his way out from between some tightly parked cars.
‘TOO MANY HIGHBALLS’ is a great little short all round, but it was to be Hamilton’s last starring film. The bottle was catching up with him, and he announced his retirement on health grounds. He would return to the screen for a few small, supporting roles, shadows of his former glory, opposite Andy Clyde and Billy Bevan.
His last appearance was in late 1934, in ‘STAR NIGHT AT THE COCANUT GROVE’. Hamilton appears right at the tail-end of this Technicolor extravaganza, playing, of all things, a Hawaiian king. Someone behind the scenes must have been an old friend, as he really isn’t in any shape to be performing. Truth be told, he doesn’t really perform at all. Looking painfully thin, he sits, in front of some hula dancers, happily manipulating a marionette and smoking a cigar; he doesn’t really seem aware of where he is. Then in long shot, he sways slowly to the music as the scene fades out. It’s a tragic end for a performer who could provoke gales of laughter from the tiniest carefully considered gestures.
Friend and contemporary Buster Keaton was in a similar way to Hamilton this time, but Hamilton would not be as lucky as Keaton. He would not have the recovery nor the critical rehabilitation that Buster later enjoyed. Lloyd Hamilton passed away in January 1935, aged only 43. Continuing his bad luck in death, as in life, a fire in the Educational archives destroyed the negatives of almost all his golden silents. Thankfully, home-release 16mm prints and bootleg prints saved the fragments that we have left to enjoy today.
So, is Lloyd Hamilton a great silent comedian? The jury’s still out until more of his best films turn up, but he certainly was a unique performer who shines through in flashes of inspiration. Often his material wasn’t up to snuff, but when he had everything on his side, he turned out some brilliant little short films to be treasured.