The mid-late 1940s are an interesting time in Buster Keaton’s career. The comedy short market was pretty much dead in the water, but he hadn’t yet made his television debut. In the middle ground between these two fields, he made several supporting roles in feature films. Some, like FOREVER & A DAY or SAN DIEGO, I LOVE YOU, were quite prestigious, but there were several more obscure ones that are seldom seen today. GOD’S COUNTRY is one of the most obscure of all.
Released in April 1946, this feature was a low-profile B-Western/outdoor adventure film starring Robert Lowery and Helen Gilbert. It was directed by Robert Emmett Tansey, a veteran of the genre. The main plot concerns Lowery hiding out in the backwoods of the NorthWest when he is wrongly accused of murder. Adding a little light to this heavy plot, Keaton plays “Old Tarp”, a coonskin wearing bumbler. Though many silent comedians – among them Snub Pollard, Andy Clyde and Keaton’s old buddy Al St John – had often essayed the comic Western sidekick role, this is a rare diversion into the genre for Buster.
Sadly, he doesn’t get much to do, but does get one comedy routine to himself, attempting to making a Chilli while being interrupted by a raven, squirrel and raccoon. It’s hardly a classic Keaton routine, and he’s further stymied by Tansey’s direction, but it does have some amusing moments. It’s always nice to see Buster doing his thing, and here there’s the extra bonus of seeing him do it in Cinecolor. Enjoy!
The lucky 13th issue of The Lost Laugh magazine is here, and available to download below!
At over 50 pages, it’s the most packed issue yet. There are articles on Snub Pollard, Walter Forde, Lupino Lane, forgotten female comedian Wanda Wiley, Buster Keaton and lots more! There are also some great guest contributions from silent comedy experts David Glass and David Wyatt, plus the usual news and reviews.
Working on this issue has certainly kept me entertained through the latest lockdown. I hope it gives you some entertainment too.
Here are the full contents:
Snub Pollard, a career overview and a focus on the Laurel & Hardy-style films he made with Marvin Loback.
The career of forgotten female comedian Wanda Wiley, who gave many of the male slapstick comics a run for their money. Also includes a full filmography, with synopses of each film.
The second part of our article on Walter Forde, detailing his silent comedy features, and including never-before published research.
An exclusive article on newly rediscovered Lloyd Hamilton footage by film historian David Wyatt!
Lupino Lane – details on the new BluRay/DVD set, including insights into the restoration process from David Glass. Also a look at Lane’s fascinating book “How to Become a Comedian”.
Buster Keaton’s last film, THE SCRIBE
Two long-unseen films starring Harry Langdon
A review of a very rare, previously lost Johnny Hines comedy, THE WRIGHT IDEA
Plus news and reviews of books, DVDs, Blu-Rays and streaming events.
— As always, please do get in touch with comments, constructive criticisms and ideas for future issues, and please do share on social media etc.
Finally, The Lost Laugh will always be free, but if you enjoy reading the magazine & site, and are in a position to contribute a little to site running costs, then you can buy me a virtual coffee on Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/thelostlaugh Thanks! 🙂
LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBARA is an unusual 1935 short film. MGM turned out quite a lot of these little colour novelties in the 1930s, featuring a mixture of celebrities contributing bit parts, musical numbers and comic routines. This one capitalises on the celebs attending the annual Santa Barbara Fiesta. For comedy fans, it’s chiefly of interest today for containing a good hunk o’ Buster Keaton, in colour.
I just found an old digital file of this film that I’d forgotten I had. I also forgot quite how much Buster there is in it. In my cloudy memory it was a one-shot gag appearance but actually he gets a couple of cross-talk routines with Andy Devine, as well as refereeing an amusingly daft bullfight with an atrociously fake bull! His His scenes are intercut with lots of song and dance numbers, but I’ve edited them together for this video. As a bonus, there’s also Harpo Marx’s very brief appearance tagged on at the beginning!
This was Keaton’s first appearance in a MGM film since his firing in 1933. Louis Lewy, who produced the colour novelties, was married to Buster’s leading lady from THE GENERAL, Marion Mack, so maybe that helped get him the footage. Though he certainly seems better off than in his last MGM film WHAT! NO BEER?, Buster was still in a bad way in 1935 and sounds a bit hungover here.. Still, his scenes are a fun obscurity and it’s nice to see him in colour, if not quite in his prime. The narrator is Pete Smith, by the way.
LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBERA was nominated for an Academy Award at the 9th Academy Awards in 1936 for Best Colour Short Subject. Much as I love him, Buster’s attempt at a Spanish accent certainly wasn’t behind the nomination… Anyway, here it is. Sorry that the image quality isn’t the best, but enjoy!
To coincide with a showing of the very rare Roscoe Arbuckle short CAMPING OUT on The Silent Comedy Watch Party, here’s a run-down of the overlooked shorts Arbuckle made in 1918 & 1919… the ones that don’t feature Buster Keaton in the cast!
Roscoe Arbuckle’s series of shorts made for the Comique film corporation and released through Paramount in 1917-20, are among his best-known work. Certainly, they are the best represented on DVD. This is almost entirely due to the Keaton factor – the presence of a young Buster in most of the films. This bias is confirmed by the obscurity of the films in which Buster does not appear, made during his military service in 1918-19.
When Keaton was drafted, the Comique series continued with Arbuckle and his regular foil, Al St John. While the popularity of Keaton has ensured that all but one of the Arbuckle-Keatons are now accounted for, the survival rate drops much further for the shorts made in his absence. Only a couple are known to exist, and only one has been restored and released. Details of many of the films are sparse, with a couple remaining mysteries.
Ever since critics first took an interest in Keaton, Arbuckle has always been in his shadow. At worst, the lazy critical opinion is that Arbuckle’s style was crude and unsophisticated, and that the only merit in the films came from Keaton’s input. Silent comedy aficianados know better, of course; nevertheless, an unfortunate legacy of this view is the lack of interest in this bunch of films. Along with their unavailability, this remains in stark contrast to those that came on either side of them.
Let’s take a look at this neglected group of films, hopefully waiting to be rediscovered. Here they are, in order of release:
THE SHERIFF (24th November 1918)
late 1917, the Arbuckle company had moved to California from the East Coast, partly enticed by the better backgrounds on offer. The desert settings of the west were seen to good advantage in the first film after moving, OUT WEST, and Arbuckle reused the theme in this short. Arbuckle plays a Sheriff enamoured of the movie heroics of Douglas Fairbanks and William S Hart. After falling asleep and dreaming a dramatic rescue in a Mexican town where He gets the chance to try a real heroic rescue, when his schoolteacher girlfriend Betty is kidnapped by bandit Al. THE SHERIFF is possibly the most intriguing of all these films, and sounds like it was an amusing little gem. Arbuckle surely got good comic contrast from impersonating Fairbanks and Hart, and THE SHERIFF is perhaps similar to the clever, cliché spoofing Arbuckle-Keaton short MOONSHINE. While OUT WEST had been an exercise in comic savagery, reviews of the time commented that THE SHERIFF was rather more subtle and sophisticated. Here’s a review from Motion Picture News of November 23, 1918:
THE SHERIFF is better by far than anything contributed to the Arbuckle Paramount program. For one thing, it is free from vulgarity & sloppiness. The classic kick shines by its absence. For another, the situations have been developed logically, producing maximum fun out of minimum action.
One of the common misconceptions about Arbuckle is that any sophistication in his films came from Keaton’s input. While there’s no denying that Keaton had big creative input into the films, Arbuckle, rather like Charley Chase, liked to play with different styles and could happily jump from wild gags and slapstick to gentle situation comedy. Some of his earlier Sennett films, made with Mabel Normand, like HE DID AND HE DIDN’T, show a gentle and sophisticated side to Roscoe before Keaton ever appeared on the scene.
Nevertheless, Arbuckle definitely felt the loss of Keaton in his supporting cast, and hired another diminutive comic to take his place: Mario Bianchi (the future Monty Banks). His leading lady in this film is also notable; Betty Compson would become a star in features, her career getting a boost the following year when she appeared with Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN.
Incidentally, spoofing William S Hart came up again in Keaton’s later short THE FROZEN NORTH. It was an idea contributed by a writer who remained uncredited… Roscoe Arbuckle! In the short, Keaton made a mockery of Hart’s tendency to always have a scene where he cried in his films. Roscoe apparently did the same in THE SHERIFF.
SCRAPS OF PAPER (aka A SCRAP OF PAPER – Autumn 1918)
part of the regular series but made at the same time, this is Arbuckle’s equivalent of Chaplin’s THE BOND. Like that film, it is a propaganda effort designed to promote the Canadian War Bond fundraising effort. As well as each making a promotional film, Chaplin and Arbuckle made public appearances together to promote the loan drive, and newsreel footage of one of these events still exists. Like THE BOND, SCRAPS OF PAPER features our hero coming face to face with the Kaiser (Glen Cavender) and the ‘clown quince’ (Al St John). After mocking the goose-step marching of the Kaiser’s soldiers (one of whom is Monty Banks), Arbuckle tells him that there’s one thing he hasn’t considered, and unleashes a snowstorm of Liberty Bonds which engulf the Germans. Roscoe addresses the audience directly (via intertitle) telling them to do their bit and invest in the Liberty Loan Drive. Not much of a comedy, but an effective piece of propaganda and an interesting historical curio.
CAMPING OUT (5th January 1919)
CAMPING OUT is a rare survivor from this group of films, existing from two incomplete nitrate sources (one Italian print and one from the Netherlands). A composite print has received a number of screenings (most recently on the Silent Comedy Watch Party) and is held at the EYE film institute. Arbuckle again took advantage of the West Coast climate and locations, filming the short on Catalina Island in November 1918. If THE SHERIFF showcased a more subtle side of Arbuckle, then this film returned to the cruder slapstick milieu of films like THE BUTCHER BOY and THE ROUGH HOUSE. Within the first five minutes alone, there are jokes about vomiting, spitting and seagull droppings!
The basic premise of CAMPING OUT recalls FATTY AT CONEY ISLAND, a tale of Arbuckle playing hookey from his wife, and enjoying the freedom by flirting with other men’s wives. Unable to stomach his wife’s dreadful cooking, he escapes for a while, taking the ferry to Catalina for a camping trip. En route, he (inevitably) meets Al St John, and his pretty wife Alice Lake. In the the ensuing tussle Roscoe throws Al overboard. Fatty and Al’s wife proceed to the campsite, where the grizzled, one-legged camp owner is also played by St John. The highlight of the film follows as Roscoe indulges in some of his trademark food preparation gags. Here he demonstrates novel ways of shaving potatoes, and making doughnuts and mashed potatoes with the aid of St John’s wooden leg! Another highlight is his plan to filch food from grocer Monty Banks.
Inevitably, Roscoe’s chickens come to roost as his wife (armed with guns and knives!), Al and Monty all show up for a slapstick battle royale to round out the short.
Though CAMPING OUT is far from Roscoe’s most sophisticated effort, it’s a ton of fun, and the sunny location shooting around Catalina Island and the streets of Avalon only add to the summery, freewheeling tone of the film. Watch the film as part of the Silent Comedy Watch Party live stream here:
THE PULLMAN PORTER (? unfinished/unreleased film)
THE PULLMAN PORTER is a curiosity, an elusive mystery film. The Arbuckle shorts were popular and well publicised, with Paramount often placing full-page ads in the trade papers for them. For THE SHERIFF, we can piece together lots of information, for instance. But for this film, the trail runs cold. So far, I’ve found no reports of the production, no stills, no reviews… nuthin. Nada. Zilch. But, it does have a cited release date, Feb 16. It does seem strange that an Arbuckle short released at this time would receive next to no coverage in the trades.
There has been confusion between releases in the series before, for instance the earlier short A RECKLESS ROMEO was actually filmed earlier for Keystone, but bought and released by Paramount. There also seemed to be various other reisues of earlier Arbuckle shorts occurring at this time, so could THE PULLMAN PORTER fall into one of these categories? It seems most likely that it a tentative idea, scrapped and replaced during filming.
LOVE (2nd March 1919)
LOVE is a wonderful little short that survives complete. The film was preserved just in time, and issued on Laughsmith Entertainment’s terrific 2005 DVD set THE FORGOTTEN FILMS OF FATTY ARBUCKLE. The short is in the classic rural barnyard slapstick mould, one of Arbuckle’s favourite motifs. However, LOVE is way more sophisticated than the earlier Keystone shorts, Arbuckle had come as a comedian and director since those times. While the knockabout is still rough, it is developed into some terrific, well-developed set pieces . Roscoe makes one of his best entrances, riding on a country road in his “economy model” Ford (a glorified go-kart) and using a pair of bellows to blow away huge boulders in his path. He is courting farmer Frank Hayes’ daughter (Winifred Westover), but Hayes has plans to marry her off to local boy Al St John in return for some land. Among the comic set pieces around the farm yard is a scene where Hayes falls down a well, and Roscoe and Monty Banks try to winch him up; each time something goes wrong, sending Hayes plummeting down the well again and again. Then, we’re into a classic version of the ’broom-bashing’ routine memorably used in THE WAITER’S BALL. (Of course, the routine was originally pinched from The Three Keatons’ vaudeville act, so Buster does have a little influence over this film after all. It would be nice to think its inclusion here was a tribute from Arbuckle to his absent friend). This version is even better, turning into a nice four-handed version with Roscoe, Monty, Frank and Al St John.
Roscoe tries to elope with Winifred, but is foiled when his ladder breaks, catapulting him into the house, and leaving Winifired dangling from a first floor window. (Poor Winifred Westover takes quite a lot of punishment in this short—no wonder it was her only film with Arbuckle!)
Though there are occasional lapses in taste (like the scene mentioned above) where the slapstick maybe gets a bit too violent, the comedy scenes in the first half of LOVE are some of the best in the whole Comique series. The second half of the short involves Roscoe’s plan to sneak into the house and sneak Winifred away from the wedding. Sneaking soap into the cook’s stew to get her fired, he dresses in drag and takes her place. Suggesting that they stage a rehearsal ceremony with the preacher, Roscoe takes the groom’s place. Once they have said “I do”, Monty pulls strings attached to Roscoe’s dress and wig, revealing his true identity. LOVE contains several of Roscoe’s pet routines, and is a thoroughly enjoyable two reels, brim-full of exuberant gags. As a farewell to the barnyard setting, it was a high note to go out on.
THE BANK CLERK (? Unfinished/unreleased film)
Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, details about THE BANK CLERK are sparse. Initial reports in the trades that Arbuckle had embarked on a film of this title, in which he works as a window cleaner in the bank, but (excuse the pun) climbs the ladder to a career in finance. However, in April 1919, Film Daily reported that filming had to be abandoned due to both weather conditions in L.A., and for Arbuckle to make revisions to the story. It seems that his solution to both inclement weather and an unsatisfying story was to scrap it and head back to the desert to make another Western film. Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, THE BANK CLERK was probably never finished. That the two films were never released is supported by adverts for later reissues of the Comique films, which list all but this pair of titles.
A DESERT HERO ( 15th June 1919)
Arbuckle was obviously very fond of Western settings at this point in his career; this is third film in just over a year to play on the genre. Down the years, this has meant confusion for Arbuckle & Keaton scholars, with the three films (OUT WEST, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO) often being mixed up, especially when they turned up in prints without main titles. As late as the 1970s, A DESERT HERO often found its way into Keaton filmographies, with stills from OUT WEST being attributed to this film instead.
It’s not surprising, as there is a strong overlap between the all three films. In OUT WEST, Alice Lake had a prominent role as a Salvation Army girl; here, Molly Malone takes on a similar part. Arbuckle’s burlesque of William S Hart from THE SHERIFF is also revisited in this short. The long-faced, wiry Hart played solemn tough guys, and Roscoe plays on this for comic effect here. An opening title introduces “a gaunt, thin boned stranger from the desert”, before cutting to the very non-gaunt Roscoe! Arbuckle carried on spoofing Hart through the film, as the press books tell us: “He’s the toughest, hardest, roughest Western cuss that ever lived, in “A Desert Hero”! He eats ’em alive ! Breaks rocks with his teeth he’s so ornery!”
Roscoe reforms when he meets Molly and joins her in the salvation army. Surviving stills show lots of comic business with brass band instruments, before Molly is kidnapped by Al St John and Roscoe has to rescue her. Molly continued with Roscoe for the remainder of the series. Though A DESERT HERO was his last Western short, Arbuckle would return to the genre one last time, for his debut feature THE ROUND UP the following year.
Keaton’s war service in France was over in early 1919, and after a hospital stay, he rejoined Arbuckle in May. The Arbuckle-Keaton partnership returned to the screen for three more shorts, BACK STAGE, THE HAYSEED and THE GARAGE, before Arbuckle moved to features. Many of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts are deservedly well-regarded, but we shouldn’t neglect the films Roscoe made without Buster. As a comic creator, he was at the top of his game, as evidenced by LOVE. Hopefully one day, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO, will be available for us to enjoy again, too.
A version of this article originally appeared in issue 12 of The Lost Laugh magazine, published May 2020. (c) Matthew Ross.
Thanks to Ben Model & Steve Massa from the Silent Comedy Watch Party, and to Elif from the Eye Filmmuseum for making CAMPING OUT available for us to enjoy again!
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.
Many of the great comedians had come up through the stage and had to be all-round entertainers. When sound film came in, one of the benefits was allowing them to show off these talents. Many of the silent clowns seemed to enjoy the novelty of performing a song or dance once in a while, and of course performers who primarily worked in this area now had a new outlet for their talents. These routines always make me smile, so here are a choice selection.
Let’s kick off with Laurel & Hardy doing a bit of a dance. Nope, not that dance! While their moves to ‘At the ball, that’s all’ in WAY OUT WEST are iconic, this scene from BONNIE SCOTLAND is less well-known, but has a charm of it’s own. There’s a kind of infectious joy to L & H’s dancing moments, and this one is no exception.
Fellow Roach studios comic Charley Chase positively flourished with the chance to strut his stuff in talkies. Chase had a deep love of music, writing his own songs and choreographing routines for them to use in his comedies. This example, from his penultimate Roach short ON THE WRONG TREK, is a real charmer.
Over to Britain now. The bright and breezy Jack Hulbert had made his name in musical comedies on stage, often partnered with his wife Cicely Courtneidge. His lanky frame made him quite a talent as an eccentric dancer, and here he gives us a song and a bit of tap. This is from JACK OF ALL TRADES (1936), one of several dated but extremely charming romantic comedies he made for Gainsborough Pictures in the 30s.
Another British comic who made his career in musical comedy (though opposite in build to Hulbert!) was Stanley Lupino. This routine comes from OVER SHE GOES, one of his plays adapted for film in 1937. Leslie Halliwell was right on the money when he called this scene “one of the most dextrous routines I’ve ever clapped eyes on”. It’s glorious.
Did someone mention Lupinos? Here’s Stanley’s cousin, Lupino Lane, in a wonderful slapstick ballet with Lillian Roth. It’s from THE LOVE PARADE (1929), and is one of my very favourite scenes of his. That Lupino family training really paid off, didn’t it?? (By the way, if you like what you see of Mr Lane, don’t forget there’s currently a Kickstarter appeal running to get some of his films on DVD). This clip is a little slow to get going, but kicks in at about the 1.50 mark..
Carrying on the theme of slapstick dance, here’s a wonderful routine from Buster Keaton. Buster’s MGM sound features were undoubtedly a waste of his talents compared to his silent masterpieces, but they do have some charming moments of 100 proof Keaton in them. The studio’s zeal for making the most of sound with singing and dancing lets us see another side of Keaton’s talents not often displayed. Like the other comics here, he was a stage veteran too, so could pull off this stuff very well indeed, even if it’s not really the idiom we expect of him. Here he is in the highlight of DOUGHBOYS, an Apache dance routine. Quite a few comedians incorporated their knockabout into one of these , but Keaton’s superior athleticism makes this really something special.
And, to finish off, just a tiny but more Buster. Here’s his international dancing medley from the short GRAND SLAM OPERA (1936). He’s waiting backstage at a radio station when hearing the band spurs him into motion… Great fun.
Here’s a nice bit of Buster Keaton I’ve not seen before: his appearance on TV series BURKE’S LAW, from 1964. Buster is being interviewed as a suspect in a murder case, but unfortunately he has laryngitis. This provides up the perfect excuse for a nice bit of pantomime, as he acts out his witness statement. It’s a funny little scene that raises to a nice level of absurdity as the two hard-boiled detectives gradually get more and more excited by their attempts to guess the meaning, turning the whole thing into a party game.
Here’s an odd one: a radio appearance by Buster Keaton from 1936. At the time, he had just made the brilliant GRAND SLAM OPERA, in which he appears as a juggler on a radio amateur hour (!). While it has received latter day praise from Keaton fans, even at the time it was received as something special. There were great review and Educational Pictures went all out with the publicity, taking full page ads in the trades. Someone at Educational obviously realised that it would ge a great tie-in to get Buster to actually appear on the radio, and that’s exactly what he did here.
It’s a bit of an odd listen to be sure. Part of the reason that GRAND SLAM OPERA works so well is that it presents the incongruity of Buster doing a visual act on the radio (and makes a sly comment on his perceived obsolescence in the process).
On the real radio, of course we can’t see any of the visual stuff, and Buster has no option but to jump in to the All-talking world he spoofs in the film. The material is a variation on the interrupted act from the film, but this time a dramatic monologue rather than juggling. His handling of dialogue is fine, but the material isn’t amazing and this isn’t really his thing. In fact, this is more like one of the routines MGM might have had him do. Still, an interesting little curio of two worlds colliding.
Here’s GRAND SLAM OPERA, the film which inspired it..