Ben Turpin

(Coat) Tales from the BFI Basement

Just come back from a trip to the BFI’s basement, having sifted through some more of their silent comedies. While the BFI’s online catalogue makes it now much easier to find a lot of the stuff they have, there are still things given generic titles (‘FAT MAN IN KNOCKABOUT’!), alternate ones left over from reissues, or occasionally completely wrong ones. One print marked as Larry Semon’s DUMMIES, for instance, turned out to be an extract from his THE STUNT MAN instead.

It is always fascinating to try and identify the proper identity of such films. Two Ben Turpin films were on our list, one called THE WRONG COAT, and the other given the catchy title ‘Comedy with Restaurant and Picture Stealing ‘.

Both were clearly from early in Turpin’s career. THE WRONG COAT instantly hooked us in with a prominent appearance by Snub Pollard, as a salesman who battles with Turpin over the eponymous coat in the opening scenes.

Here are a couple of screengrabs of Snub (Sorry about the awful quality, it’s taken on a phone, off a TV screen showing a VHS transfer of an awful quality 16mm print!).

This was a knockabout tale of two coats being mixed up between two wives. Not a comedy classic, but a fun little film. Turpin has a particularly a nice bit of pantomime as he realises a cop is stood behind him by feeling for his badge – a great little moment that brings to mind his former Essanay colleague Mr Chaplin.

Looking at Turpin’s filmography suggested the real identity of the film as A COAT TALE (1915) , confirmed by looking at the film’s synopsis from MOTOGRAPHY:

The other Turpin literally did what it said on the (film) can, and provided us with scenes in a restaurant, where Turpin and another crook (Rube Miller) plot to steal a valuable picture. In the ensuing chaos, they accidentally poison themselves and the film closes with them having their stomachs pumped – a light comedy, this is not! Still, some funny scenes, not least in Turpin and Miller’s comic overacting when drinking the poison! Steve Rydzewski’s excellent Turpin book identifies this one as PICTURE PIRATES, a Vogue-Mutual from 1916.

The random assortments of silent comedies held by archives always offer some unusual gems, and it was great to see these. Not comedy classics, but rare and fun films that we’re lucky to be able to see. More to come on some of the other interesting BFI stuff in future posts…

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Ben Turpin: improbable facts about Silent Film’s most improbable star

 

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Of all the silent comedians, none was more bizarre looking than Ben Turpin. The antithesis of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd’s realism, his equipment – crossed eyes, scrubbing brush moustache, and long neck with globular Adam’s apple – made him almost totemic for silent comedy’s wilder, more surreal side. In fact, when James Agee wrote the 1949 ‘Life’ magazine article that inspired the first serious silent comedy revival, it was Turpin’s mug that adorned the cover. That Turpin could not just become a star, but join the company of ‘Life’ cover stars including (at that point) Eisenhower, Rita Hayworth, Marshall Tito and Stalin is just one of the many improbabilities in his career. In fact, his whole screen career was based on unlikeliness: many of his funny films have him wonderfully out of place masquerading as Rudolph Valentino or Erich von Stroheim!

Here are  a few other unlikely truths about this living gargoyle..

1. Turpin was actually of French parents, although born in New Orleans. In his sound  films, you can detect the hint of an accent.

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2. His eyes were genuinely crossed. At the height of his fame, Turpin famously had his eyes insured by Lloyd’s of London as a publicity stunt.

3. Various stories circulated regarding the source of his miasma. The simple truth is much less exciting: after playing the cross-eyed character ‘Happy Hooligan’ in vaudeville several times a day, he found that one day, his right eye was stuck in position as a result of the repeated strain.

4.Turpin had an extremely restless spirit. He voluntarily became a hobo as a young man, choosing to ride boxcars in preference to finding a job. He did so for several years.

5.After finally settling with a variety of menial jobs, he played in vaudeville before being signed up by Essanay studios. Stardom? Well, not quite. Although he acted in films during the day, he was also required to sweep out the studio, collect props and box up films for shipment!

6.Ben allegedly took the first on-screen pie in the face, in 1909’s ‘Mr Flip’.

 

7. Behind his two-dimensional façade, it’s sometimes hard to recall his real life struggles: he dropped out of acting at the peak of his stardom to nurse his terminally ill wife, Carrie.

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The offscreen Turpin. Almost dapper.

 

8. Well into his 60s, he was a master of the perilous ‘108 fall’, involving kicking a leg up into the air, turning a somersault and landing on the floor. He would apparently often do it in random places around Hollywood, often accompanied by a cry of “I’m Ben Turpin -earn 2,000 dollars a week!”. Fellow comic Lupino Lane once recalled seeing Turpin stop traffic in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard to do his trademark fall! You can see him do it (alongside Lane, coincidentally) a few minutes into this sketch from ‘The Show of Shows’:

 

You can catch Ben Turpin’s films at Bristol’s Slapstick festival next week.

To find out more about his fascinating life, there’s also a great book available (click picture for link):

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