One of the greatest assets to the American silent comedy was the influx of talent from the British Music Halls. Aside from the obvious examples of Chaplin and Laurel, there were many, many more players who brought their training on the boards with them to the screen. Not all of these found stardom, often remaining part of the terracotta army of supporting players and gag writers who contributed to the industry. Amongst these, one of the most talented of was Wallace Lupino. Yet another member of the prospering Lupino dynasty, he is most familiar from the films of his brother, Lupino Lane. Wallace was certainly integral to the success of those films, adaptable as heavy, straight man or partner in comic two-man slapstick routines. However, he also added support to many other films, as well as starring in his own.
Born in Scotland on 23rd January 1898, whilst his family were on tour, Wallace was five and a half years his brother’s junior. The elder Lupino had been busy in those 5 and a half years however, already finding fame as a child star under the billing of ‘Nipper’ Lupino Lane, or ‘Little Nipper’. Although Wallace had been born into the same environment as his brother, the family’s efforts were already focused on the career of ‘Nipper’. Subsequently, though Wallace would receive the same schooling as his brother, he would never achieve the same prominence. He was also a little stockier, and not as tailor-made for tumbling. However, this certainly did not prevent him from finding a berth in the family trade. From reading ‘HOW TO BE A COMEDIAN’, Lane’s study of his family’s techniques, it is clear that acrobatics was only part of their arsenal. For Wallace, this meant that there were a whole host of other skills to master: character comedy, accents, impersonations, knockabout, light comedy. He would master many of them, showcasing them both on stage and later in films.
Starting his career at age 8 alongside his brother and father, ‘Wee Wallace Lupino’ appeared in a variety of pantomimes and shows. He also apparently spent some time in the Royal Air Force during World War 1. He was a keen boxer, and later publicity claimed that he was a welterweight champion during this time. However, he was also on hand for the first films made by Lane, in the UK in 1916-1919. The two brothers would always remain close, both in their personal and professional lives. Wallace never seems to have minded playing second fiddle to his brother, and ‘Nip’ appreciated his talented support. It is important to realise that Wallace’s appearances are down to far more than just nepotism; he had developed into a deft and versatile comic actor. This is evidenced by his success in shows without his brother.
Wallace did not accompany Lane on his first trip to the U.S. in 1922-23, keeping busy in stage shows such as ‘ROUND IN 50’, a vehicle for George Robey based on ‘AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS’. In that show, he was teamed up with another relation, cousin Barry Lupino, as a pair of bumbling detectives trailing Robey around the world. The Era commented that, “The amusing Lupinos were both in their element with their remarkable acrobatic dancing and trap-door business.” The show was a smash, and after 469 performances at the London Hippodrome, toured for much of 1923.
When Lane made his next trip to the USA in 1925, Wallace was along for the ride. He became a fixture of the Lupino Lane comedies made for Educational Pictures between 1925 and 1929. The close-knit unit saw Wallace acting in a similar capacity to Syd Chaplin on the set of Charlie Chaplin’s films. He had input behind the scenes (more on that at the end of the article), as well as acting a variety of roles showcasing his versatility. In some of the shorts, like ‘THE FIGHTING DUDE’ or ‘HOWDY DUKE’, he plays a fairly standard comic heavy, but other films gave him more chance to shine. In ‘MAID IN MOROCCO’, he plays a villainous Caliph, in ‘FANDANGO’ a suave gaucho. ‘HELLO SAILOR’ and ‘ROAMING ROMEO’ allow him to practically co-star, engaging in dexterous and wonderfully-timed physical comedy set-pieces with his brother. Perhaps his most impressive roles are some brilliant moments in drag in both ‘LISTEN SISTER’ and ‘BATTLING SISTERS’. In both films, Wallace portrays matronly dowagers, who he convincingly makes into real characters funny in themselves. One of the funniest moments in all of Lane’s films is in BATTLING SISTERS, as he and Wallace enact a parody of romantic melodramas in reverse: it is the matronly Wallace trying to seduce the innocent Lupino!
As fantastic a comedian and acrobatic as Lupino Lane was, characterization wasn’t his strongest suit. Wallace’s closely observed characters and versatility filled a gap in the films; in fact, while Lane was the superior comedian and acrobat, Wallace was arguably the finer comic actor.
Accordingly, his talent did not go unnoticed at Educational. Soon, he was being headhunted for supporting roles in other comedians’ films made by the studio. Amongst others, he appeared opposite child star ‘Big Boy’ Sebastian in ‘NO FARE’ and ‘SEA SCAMPS’ with Jack Lloyd in ON AGAIN, OFF AGAIN.
Wallace’s personal life was also on the up at this time. In 1927, he met Winona Shirley, who was appearing in small parts at Educational. They were married soon after, and together they had a son, Richard Lupino. Richard would also go on to become an actor, appearing in the title role of some 1930s ‘JUST WILLIAM’ films.
Around this time, Wallace was also promoted to some starring roles. Educational’s ‘Cameo’ series of comedies were one reel shorts that allowed up-and-coming talent to have chance to star; several of these starred supporting players like Wallace, or Monte Collins. As the least prestigious of Educational’s product, the Tuxedo films were turned out fairly quickly. They usually had a domestic set-up, taking a basic gag or situation and riffing on it until the reel was up. This was assembly-line comedymaking, and as a group, there is a fair bit of overlap between them. However, the talent involved in front of and behind the camera meant that, individually, they were well-crafted, entertaining little films.
Wallace starred in a handful of Cameos, and was promoted to the ‘Tuxedo’ shorts, which were the next step up Educational’s production schedule. Of these, only 2 or 3 seem to circulate today. His relaxed, character-based approach served him well in these down-to-earth domestic stories. Ironically, ‘THE LOST LAUGH’ is one of the few survivors, and has been issued on the ‘ACCIDENTALLY PRESERVED’ DVD.
‘HARD WORK’ is similar domestic, slapstick comedy. Wallace, with young wife Betty Boyd and bratty son… in tow, arrives at a farmhouse he has just purchased. Of course, the house is a tumbledown old place in severe need of repair.
The Cameo films were not just a development ground for budding stars; rookie directors also began here. Jules White, future Stooges overlord, helmed ‘HARD WORK’ as one of his early efforts. As you might expect, it contains much of White’s signature vigorous slapstick. Some especially savage gags include. However, while this could seem a bit too rough and painful in sound films, the gags in ‘HARD WORK’ succeed very well. Slapstick dominates, but it is handled with panache, and the destruction is so total that it becomes very funny.
Sadly, most of Wallace’s other shorts are elusive today. They included ‘AUNTIE’S ANTE’,’HUSBANDS MUST PLAY’ and ‘WEDDED BLISTERS’. the latter of which featured him moving all his furniture, and a gobby mother-in-law, across town on a small horse and cart. ‘CROWN ME’ is a dentist comedy that would be especially interesting to see as it was directed by Lupino Lane.
The starring shorts ended with Educational’s reorganisation for talking pictures, but Wallace shows up in the four sound shorts made by Lupino Lane in 1929.
When Lane left to return to England in 1930, Wallace went too, and together they rebuilt their careers at home. Britain welcomed them back with open arms, and the Lupino brothers were prominent in the UK film industry as talking pictures arrived. Whatever Lane appeared in, it was guaranteed that Wallace would find a part. ‘NO LADY’, one of their first big successes, actually sees Wallace taking on three roles, as a cabbie, a fisherman and a foreign spy! One of their most notable films together was the now missing ‘TRUST THE NAVY’, which saw them paired together in a remake of the silent short ‘HELLO SAILOR’. He was also on hand to offer support in the films of another family member, cousin Stanley Lupino. Wallace has a very funny part in the 1931 feature THE LOVE RACE.
Again, Wallace’s talent was recognised outside the family. He was used in supporting roles in many other films, including one of the ‘JOSSER’ films starring Ernie Lotinga, ‘UP IN THE AIR’ .
His most high-profile appearance was in Alexander Korda’s version of the HG Wells fantasy story ‘THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES’. Mild-mannered Roland Young discovers that he can somehow make anything happen that he wants to simply by saying it. He has just discovered this and is experimenting by making trees appear when up comes suspicious police constable Wallace. Acting officiously, he gets on Young’s nerves, to the point where he tells him to “Go to blazes!”. In a flash, PC Wallace finds himself in Hades, surrounded by flames. His response is to take out his notebook and continue his officious business by taking notes, until his notebook catches fire! Meanwhile, Young is feeling guilty, but is in a quandary: he can’t bring him back as he will be arrested, but doesn’t want him to suffer. His solution is to send him somewhere else, far across the world; in another flash, PC Wallace is wandering the streets of San Francisco, totally bewildered!
As Lupino Lane returned to the stage, Wallace usually found a part in his productions. He had a prominent role as Parchester the lawyer in Lane’s greatest success, ‘ME AND MY GIRL’, both on stage and film. Other shows he appeared in included ‘MEET ME VICTORIA’, ‘SWEETHEART MINE’, and ‘LA-DE-DA’. He also made time to appear in other films throughout the war years, notably ‘WATERLOO ROAD’ (1945).
In his later years, Wallace retired from performing due to the onset of arthritis and took on the lease of a pub, the Wooden Fender, in Ardleigh (near Colchester, Essex). He outlived his brother by two years, dying in 1961.
Wallace Lupino’s work had been so tied up with Lupino Lane’s that inevitably he remained in his brother’s shadow for much of the time. However, he was a very talented comic and supporting actor in his own right, and added immeasurably to both the films of his brother and of others.