‘The Half Pint Hero’
Rubber-limbed British comedian who originated ‘The Lambeth Walk’.
1892 – 1959
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Lupino Lane was a unique and wonderful perfomer, for my money one of the most underrated silent comedians. I remember being instantly intrigued by the first photograph I saw of him (above), in Glenn Mitchell’s ‘A-Z of Silent Comedy’. His blankly inquisitive stare and fey kiss curl reminded me of Harry Langdon, yet his huge, soulful eyes (Walter Kerr likened him to a lemur) were closer to Buster Keaton. The inverted monocle he wore hinted at an off-kilter sense of humour. I made it my mission to seek out some of his films as soon as possible.
When I eventually cornered a few of his silent shorts, I wasn’t disappointed; Lane is an extraordinary clown. With limbs contorting in unnatural directions, he looks as though he’s made of rubber and seemingly follows his own unique laws of physics. Pick 2 minutes from more or less any of his films at random, and you’ll probably witness him turn somersaults, perform gravity-defying pratfalls and acrobatics, not to mention his trademark, putting himself in the splits, then jack-knifing instantly to standing position without putting so much as a hand to the ground. I’m going to whisper this, and don’t tell anyone I said it, but as a pure acrobat, he leaves even Keaton standing.
Although posterity hasn’t allowed him a place among the most immortal names of silent comedy , he deserves much better. His silent films, principally made for Educational in the 1920s and now the most accessible way of watching him work, are chock full of inventive gags, funny parodies and amazing acrobatics. Even so, they made up only a small part of his career. Lane’s life was an interesting one, and, while his success was never as great or universal as some of his contemporaries, he managed to be constantly in demand during a career that lasted almost 60 years. Beginning in the English pantomime and Music hall as a boy, his career trajectory took him to Broadway and Hollywood, and ultimately back to British films and the stage.
The Lupino family were a long standing theatrical dynasty of Italian origin. Lane proudly traced his family tree as far back as 1642, when Georgius Luppino, a refugee puppeteer from the high courts of Bologna, arrived in England with his young son. Despite the barriers of language and poverty, Georgius established himself as an entertainer and was able to find work in London. His son contnued the act, and gradually the family settled down to become a well-known entertainment dynasty in British pantomime, theatre and music hall. They achieved a proud distinction when King George V nicknamed them ‘the royal family of greasepaint’.
The Lupino that we’re concerned with appeared as the newest branch on the family tree under the name of Henry William George Lupino, on June 16th 1892. His father, Harry Lupino, was one of ‘The Brothers Lupino’; the act involved him impersonating an inquisitive dog whilst his brother Arthur attempted to play the cello. With young Henry’s noble origins, there was never really any doubt what he would do for a career, and he began appearing on stage in plays, pantomimes and acrobatic acts from the age of three. To ensure the limber qualities that he later became famous for developed properly, he would be commanded to spend hours a day practicing acrobatics. When he was tired, he would be allowed to sit down and read for half an hour: in the ‘splits’ position!
His unusual moniker was adopted when he was ten. His wealthy aunt Sara Lane wanted her name to live on in the family, and offered to leave her favourite nephew a large inheritance should he adopt it. The Lupino family were incensed at this, and the resulting hybrid name was a compromise to satisfy both parties.. Unfortunately, Sara Lane died before she could change her will, young Henry’s only inheritance being his new name. (It seems that Lane never did legally change his name; on his 1917 marriage certificate he is still Henry Lupino).
Aunt Sara also left the boy the nickname of ‘Nipper’, which would stick for life. Although he did initially bill himself and sign autographs as ‘Nipper’ Lupino Lane, he disliked the nickname in full, as the term was also slang for a pickpocket. He much preferred to be known as ‘Nip’, and would be addressed as such by friends and family for his entire life, as well as using the name for many of his film characters.
His theatrical upbringing and long apprenticeship entrenched him in the spirit of the British Pantomime and the great clowns of the harlequinade. More than any other silent comedian, he brought the tricks, props and traditions of pantomime clowning to his film career, setting his films apart from the rest. To watch a Lupino Lane comedy is to see centuries of comedy expertise distilled with concision, into a small but perfectly formed package.
While the stage was always his first love and the part of his work he saw as most important (his 1957 biography, ‘BORN TO STAR’, skips over his film work in little more than a chapter, and most of the information is incorrect), his films are now his best remembered legacy as memories of stage performances fade.
Lane initial attempts at film stardom were for the O.G. film company, an amateurish concern he formed with fellow comedians Billy Merson and the Brothers Egbert. It must have been enticing for Lane to have a permanent record of his act and acrobatics. These long-vanished one-reelers, like ‘HIS COOLING COURTSHIP’ and ‘NIPPER’S BANK HOLIDAY’, were filmed ad-hoc, on the streets of London. Without a licence, the crew would find themselves constantly on the run from the law, and would employ a ‘look-out’ man to delay policemen with long discussions about what kind of licence was needed, how it could be obtained, and other such distractions until the scene was completed and the guerrilla film-makers could scatter! Lane’s earliest surving film seems to be THE DUMMY, a curious tale featuring a cross-country run and some pickpockets posing as a robotic makeover machine.
His next films were made for the slightly larger Ideal Films corporation between 1917 and 1919. The films were a little more ambitiuous and experimental; his friend Jack Raines had invented a distortion lens that formed the basis of a novelty series, ‘THE BLUNDERS OF MR BUTTERBUN’. The eponymous character was possessed of a magic ring, an effect conveyed by the distortion effect. (One surviving example, ‘TRIPPS AND TRIBUNALS’, can be viewed on the BFIPlayer website).
Although these films were slightly more elaborate than his initial efforts, the production was still rather amateurish; Lane filled his home with thousands of feet of rushes, which he edited at home. It was during this time he met and married actress Violet Blythe in Leeds. She had turned down an aristocrat to marry him, and one wonders if an uninsurable flat full of highly flammable nitrate film made her question her decision! Lane realised that the real place to make films was in America, and when appearing in ‘AFGAR’ on Broadway, he met Fox representative J.J. McCarthy, who arranged for him to make a screen test, with a cameraman borrowed from Pearl White. Fox gave both this and a subsequent trial two-reeler a cool reception, but audience reaction was favourable and he was ultimately given a contract. On being told the good news by William Fox, Lane reacted by taking a stunned pratfall; when asked to repeat the trick for Fox’s chauffeur, he jokingly retorted “the next time I do that, you’ll be paying for it!” Before he could complete his contract, he returned home to play a pantomime season in ‘ALADDIN’. Despite his film success, Nip’s ties to his home land and family remained strong, and he would regularly return home throughout his time in America. In fact, for a while in the early ‘20s he held parallel careers on both sides of the Atlantic, spending roughly a year at a time on Broadway and in films, and on the British stage
The Fox Pictures like ‘MY HERO’, ‘THE REPORTER’ and ‘THE PIRATE’, made in 1922 and 1923 were well-reviewed at the time but remain elusive today. After the success of the shorts, Lane made a five real feature ‘A FRIENDLY HUSBAND’. This tale of a camping road trip did rather less well, and he returned to the stage.
In 1924 he appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, made a comic relief appearance in D.W. Griffith’s ‘ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL?’ and then starred in his own revue show. During this run he was signed by Educational Pictures to make a series of 2 reelers that would last for 4 seasons. These films are his main legacy today, and represent his most mature, satisfying, and widely seen work in short films. Created as an independent unit, the Lupino Lane Comedies gave their star great creative input into the writing and direction of the films (he would direct many of them under the pseudonym ‘Henry W. George’.) He also had a large say in the casting, and his ties to family and friends remained strong; his brother, Wallace Lupino, his wife Violet Blythe, and a friend who had appeared on stage with him, Tom Whiteley, would all make regular appearances in the films.
The first to be made, ‘MAID IN MOROCCO’, kicked off the series on a high note, and remains one of Lupino Lane’s all-time best. The plot concerns Lane as a rich and rather naïve tourist who is honeymooning in Morocco with his new bride (Helen Foster). He is so intent on taking photographs that he fails to notice a villainous Caliph (Wallace Lupino) capture her for his harem. When he eventually cottons on, he attempts to rescue her, but must dodge the scheming queen of the harem (Violet Blyth) as well as all the palace guards. The story is strong and action-packed and Lane comes across as very likeable. Furthermore, his acrobatics, sometimes thrown in willy-nilly in later films, are all integrated seamlessly into classic sight gags; his first appearance has him seated in a chair leaning perilously backward over a pond, oblivious as he concentrates on painting a watercolour. It’s a great suspense gag that shows beautiful body control. The most celebrated moment is where he runs a whole 360 degrees around the inside of a Moorish arch – twice! Although close examination reveals assistance from a wire, it’s still a remarkable physical feat that must be seen to be believed.
The second film, ‘THE FIGHTING DUDE’, was very nearly as good. Another film with him as rich idiot, here the character is a little more obnoxious, but ultimately wins out in a hilarious boxing ring sequence. This was the first of a few Lane films to be directed by ‘William Goodrich’ (aka Roscoe Arbuckle). Lane recalled Arbuckle fondly, and in ‘How To Be A Comedian’ recounts an anecdote that took place on the set of ‘HIS PRIVATE LIFE’. The film features a pie fight as its climax, and when directing these scenes, Arbuckle called lunch while Nip was covered in sticky blueberry pie; he told him that it ruin continuity if he wiped it off, forcing Lane to endure a lunchtime in which he was paid maximum attention by “all the flies in Hollywood”. After lunch, Arbuckle told him that it had all been in vain as they needed to retake the scene after all, and to hurry up and get clean! Lane took the joke in good spirit, but nevertheless jumped at the chance for revenge; during the pie fight scene, he managed to position himself so that Arbuckle was behind him, and ducked at just the right time to ensure Arbuckle got a face-full of pastry! It’s possibly an apocryphal story, but charming nonetheless.
FOOL’S LUCK, also directed by ‘Goodrich’, features Lane as another idle rich type. When his father cuts off his allowance, he is evicted, along with all his furniture, and ends up riding on top of a runaway wagon.
Lane had maintained a fairly consistent character, that of the lazy upper class ‘dude’ , in these initial films. However, soon he began to drop this for a more universal everyman character. Films like ‘FOOLS LUCK’, while very funny, did not present an especially likeable character. Furthermore, there was a strongly implied Englishness about his persona that he was keen to phase out. Perhaps he was conscious that he would be less likely to have a universal appeal when so strongly portraying the traits of one nation, or perhaps he was just fed up with being stereotyped because of his roots. Lane later spoke of his real life frustration of being mocked for his nationality; this led him on more than one occasion into fights. On one of these occasions the person on the receiving end of his retaliation was cowboy star Tom Mix. Lane responded to his taunting and mimickry with a swift sock on the jaw; Mix begrudgingly admitted that the Englishman wasn’t as fey as he’d assumed, and the two eventually formed a strong friendship.
The new Lane character, while less strongly defined, was a slightly dumb and rather innocent little fellow, who nevertheless strived to please and had a plucky nature to see him through. Although sometimes this character gets lost in the shuffle of acrobatics and gags, the ‘Nip’ we see is certainly more likeable than the ‘Lord Lane’ of some of the earlier films.
Interestingly, Lane’s adoption of this more innocent persona is concurrent with Harry Langdon’s rise to fame, and there is certainly something of Harry Langdon’s innocence about him. As Lane was transitioning his character, Langdon was in the process of his meteoric ascent to stardom, and, as many other comedians did at this time, Lane absorbed bits of Langdon into his act. It’s not an out-and-out imitation, but certainly owes something to Harry’s ‘little elf’
A further strong suit of the Lane comedies was his partnership with Wallace, who provided overtones of Vernon Dent to Lane’s essence of Langdon. The casting of Wallace as, variously, ally, foil and heavy, was more than mere nepotism; Wallace was an able comedian and character player himself (he would star in a handful of ‘cameo’ comedies for Educational), and the brothers’ partnership, honed over many years, had evolved into perfect split-second timing. ‘HELLO SAILOR’, presenting them as shipmates, with Lane tagging along behind Wallace on shore leave, is one of the best examples. Incidentally, Wallace later married Buster Keaton’s cousin Rose; just imagine what those family gatherings must have been like!
The quality of the films remained high, but unfortunately a number of Lane’s films remain scarce. The Educational vault fire of 1937 that wiped out most of Lloyd Hamilton’s work also laid waste to the central archive of Lane’s films. However, thanks to 16mm prints and private collections, all the shorts exist in at least fragmentary form, though often inaccessible in archives. The survival rate is better than most of the other Educational series however, and rediscoveries do still continue; ‘FISTICUFFS’ has recently turned up in France and been issued to DVD; ‘SOME SCOUT’ has also been found in the Netherlands.
In 1927, Lane hit upon a concept that worked well for his character. He would use grand or epic backdrops such as ancient Rome, the wild west or the Great North Woods for his comedies; the incongruity of seeing the dimunitive Nip in these settings, traditionally full of tough, macho types, gave maximum comic mileage and allowed for a convincing plot of his innocent character trying to prove himself. Furthermore, the rotation of settings gave variety and stopped the films becoming stale, as well as giving Lane the opportunity to indulge in parody. The parody genre was something that Lane would become excellent at. In common with Stan Laurel, he would produce much of his best work when burlesquing current hits. The parodies provided a readymade storyline, and helped to make up for the lack of a more defined, individual character.
Some of the parodies are aimed at whole genres; ‘HECTIC DAYS’ was a western spoof, and ‘FANDANGO’ places him in a Spanish setting, in the unlikely role of a latin lover a la Valentino and Ramon Navarro. In this film, the results are greatly enhanced by the presence of Anita Garvin as a sultry Spanish vamp, and the scene where she attempts to seduce him is glorious.
Other of Lane’s parodies took aim at more specific targets. ‘ROAMING ROMEO’ is a brilliant spoof of ‘BEN HUR’ (this was reflected in its British title, ‘BENDING HER’)
The most well-known of his parodies, and one of the best, is ‘SWORD POINTS’ (aka ‘CROSSED SWORDS’), a wonderful parody of Fairbanks’ ‘THE THREE MUSKETEERS’. It’s full of wonderful acrobatics and pratfalls, and as with the best of Lane’s film s, some truly creative visual gags. Best of all is a sequence involving a wine cellar; Lane manages to turn a simple task – drawing a flagon of wine – into a slapstick catastrophe ending up with him swimming around drunkenly in the flooded cellar. It’s a magnificent example of the music hall comedian’s ability to draw every bit of comedy business from a simple prop or situation.
Fairbanks enjoyed the parody of ‘SWORD POINTS’ enough to be photographed with Lane on the set. Later the same year, Lane would again turn his attention to Fairbanks, this time ‘THE BLACK PIRATE’, which he spoofed as ‘PIRATES BEWARE’. Lane’s Fairbanks spoofs hold up especially well; with his agile body and determination to succeed despite the setbacks of his own clumsiness, he makes a good little swashbuckler. As Lane points out in ‘How to be a Comedian’, one must have to be excellent at falls and tricks before you can appear to make a mess of them; his superior athletic skills mean he can do Fairbanks stunts and then put his own comic twist on them.
Sadly, ‘PIRATES BEWARE’ is one of the rarest Lane films, although the EYE Film Institute holds a nitrate copy. The stills that survive show this to be a truly epic little two-reeler, full of beautiful sets and costumes, and there’s an interesting twist in the storyline by having Lane shanghaied by a female pirate, Betty Boyd.
Lane played with gender roles again in one of his most bizarre parodies from this period ,‘BATTLING SISTERS’ (1929). Partially a parody of MGM’s war epic ‘THE BIG PARADE’, it is also reminiscent of Snub Pollard’s ‘YEARS TO COME’, taking place in a strange future where men’s and women’s roles are reversed. While the women are off to fight, Lane and the other men dress in camp morris dancer-type costumes and keep the home fires burning. The surreal comedy reaches its peak in a scene where Violet Blyth and Wallace Lupino (in drag) try to take advantage of the innocent ‘housewife’ Nip! Lane plays the role of vulnerable woman for all it’s worth, and his mock melodramatic gestures and fluttering eyelashes are hilarious.
Lane’s fondness for parody would continue beyond his two-reelers; a 1934 Pathe reel captures him enacting a mock melodrama sketch as Napoleon to Beatrice Lillie’s Josephine.
Another common theme in the Lane comedies is the plot device of multiple and mistaken identities (also a favourite of Buster Keaton). The plot of ‘MONTY OF THE MOUNTED’ relies on a dual role by Wallace Lupino, ‘HOWDY DUKE’ has Nip hired to impersonate his doppelganger, the Duke of Worcestershire, and ‘HELLO SAILOR’ has Nip and Wallace in mixups with twin sisters. In many of the films, the theme is enhanced by Lane playing multiple characters within one film. His versatility, no doubt borne through appearing in many different sketches in review, was something he was proud of. In his 1945 book ‘HOW TO BECOME A COMEDIAN’, he mentions the importance of learning different dialects, makeups and characters. Lane certainly applied this wholeheartedly to his film work, portraying a veritable plethora of characters, from drunks, to pensioners,to naughty children, and often incorporates the ‘dame’ tradition of music hall by appearing in drag.
The ultimate example of this is ‘ONLY ME’ (1929), in which he plays all 28 characters. Eat your heart out, Peter Sellers! The film crosses Fred Karno’s famous ‘Mumming Birds’ sketch with Keaton’s ‘THE PLAYHOUSE’. Perhaps more than any other film he made, it symbolically melds the traditions of his music hall origins with the film technique he had picked up and the American silent comedy style.
ONLY ME’ is a brilliant film, but its very versatility also serves to illustrate one of Lane’s shortcomings in comparison with other comedians; he adopts the many masks because he doesn’t have one strong character of his own, and so his various characters all remain one-dimensional. While Keaton and Chaplin, for instance, always played any part as an extension of their established characters, Lane doesn’t have this unifying factor. His drunk lacks Chaplin’s nuances, such as his sniff of distaste, and his put-upon old man lacks the subtle stoicism of Keaton’s old fogey in ‘THE PLAYHOUSE’ .
Without the support of a parody or a character, the limitations of Lane do become apparent. Thus, more standard films like ‘GOODNIGHT NURSE’ are little more than a string of acrobatics. They are of course impressive and perfectly executed, but once you’ve seen a few of the films it can become a case of diminishing returns as the same gags and stunts appear. As Walter Kerr said, we sometimes scarcely see him doing the gags at all, and it was likely this lack of a strongly defined, continual character from one film to the next, that kept him from reaching the very top. Paradoxically, his tremendous abilities at stage tricks, traditional routines and stock characters actually limited his potential as a top-drawer comedian of the cinema, as he would rely on these to carry the films rather than embracing the possibilities of storytelling and character in the way that the best comedians did. Nevertheless, his films remained consistently good, and on their own terms are very creative and often wildly funny. Their success at the box office continued until the dawn of the sound era.
Lane, although totally confident with his voice through his stage work, was in no rush to abandon the silents; he would fulfil his quota of silent shorts while concurrently filming his talkies. His last silent, ‘JOY LAND’, features him as a toymaker’s assistant who falls asleep and imagines himself in a strange land where all the toys come to life. More than any other film he ever made, it feels like watching a pantomime . One stunning sequence, with Nip darting in and out of trapdoors, had its origins in a scene from his 1926 pantomime ‘ALADDIN’, in which he proudly set a record for going through 83 of the traps in 3 minutes!
‘JOY LAND’ is a perfect farewell to Lupino Lane’s unique blend of pantomime heritage and silent film. Highly original and full of everything that made him special, its one of those late silents that make you sad the era had to come to an end.
Although he would drift away from short comedies in the sound era, Lane was able to continue his wonderful visual style, and had his greatest success still to come. In the wake of this, his silent films would be forgotten by many, but they are real gems of visual humour and slapstick done with great finesse, that need to be seen more often.
COMING SOON: LUPINO LANE – THE SOUND YEARS.