What a year it’s been. Thanks for reading THE LOST LAUGH, and I hope the magazine and blog have been able to offer you a little entertainment and distraction. Wherever you are, I hope you’re able to squeeze some merriness out of the season, and here’s to a better 2021!
We’ve all seen Laurel & Hardy’s BIG BUSINESS, but here’s a trio of lesser-known Christmas-themed comedies to help kickstart the season.
First up, Charley Chase’s THERE AIN’T NO SANTA CLAUS, from 1926. One of his less-seen Pathé shorts, this features some great gags, including Charley’s attempts to carry a Christmas tree on his bike, and playing rival Santas with Noah Young (both fighting over the same beard!)
From the same year and the same studio, here’s Our Gang’s Christmas short, GOOD CHEER:
Another great rarity from the YouTube Channel Geno’s House of Rare Films, here’s KNIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS starring Karl Dane and George K Arthur . I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this forgotten comedy team, and have wanted to see more of their sound shorts for a while. This one isn’t quite as good as A PUT UP JOB, but it’s a lot of fun, as Karl brings George along to his family Christmas gathering. A great cast too, with Fern Emmet and Irving Bacon as Karl’s parents, plus some familiar Hal Roach players: Harry Bernard and Harry Bowen (hidden beneath a huge beard!).
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!”
The new issue of The Lost Laugh Magazine is now available! There are exclusive articles, rare photos, reproduced articles from trade magazines and news and reviews.
Our cover star this time is British silent comedian Walter Forde; in this issue we focus on his early career and short films (including a complete filmography) , with his feature films to follow in the next issue.
Last time we looked at Monty Banks’ starring comedies. Issue 12 continues his story into the sound era, examining his handful of starring films, and his work as a director.
Other articles include:
*some of Roscoe Arbuckle’s most obscure films
*A Q & A with Ben Model, all about The Silent Comedy Watch Party
*Mabel Normand’s missing film ONE HOUR MARRIED.
*New DVDs featuring Lupino Lane, Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase and Harry Langdon
*Screening notes on some rare films from Hal Roach and Mack Sennett studios.
Click on the link below to open the pdf of the magazine, or right click and ‘save target as’ to download the file:
With his upside-down Kaiser Wilhelm ‘tache and permanently startled expression, Snub Pollard is another one of those moustachioed icons on the silent comedy Totem pole. Like Billy Bevan and Ben Turpin, he was a gift to caricaturists, a flesh cartoon. Realism was never the idiom of these comics; instead, they traded in fast-paced sight gags. They might not have had deeply developed characterisations, but what gags they had!
There’s sometimes a snobbery towards the one-and-two reelers full of slapstick and sight gags, which is totally unmerited. Yes, there was a lot of filler turned out by the industry, but many of these comedies have wonderfully inventive gags and routines, and amazing stunts. Pollard’s films are some of the best examples of these.
Snub was an Australian, real name Harry Fraser, who adopted his stage name after working as part of the ‘Pollards Liliputians’ juvenile theatrical troupe. He made early films at Essanay in the teens, appearing opposite Chaplin and Ben Turpin. It was also at Essanay that he met Hal Roach.
When Roach set up in independent production, he hired Pollard to be second comic and villain to Harold Lloyd, before promoting him to his own series in 1919. The Kaiser moustache was a remnant of his more villainous roles, but came to suit his starring character well. As he came to play roles of the little man, always being trodden on, the ‘tache became a perfect match for his drooping, put-upon countenance.
Snub starred in films for Roach until 1924 (though a couple were held back and released into 1926), and is best remembered today for this wonderful little short. IT’S A GIFT is a beautifully zany little two reeler featuring his many Rube Goldberg-esque inventions. Wallace and Gromit, eat your heart out!
Thanks to being featured in Robert Youngson’s WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, IT’S A GIFT has long been hailed as one of the classic silent shorts. However, the side effect is that it’s often the only Pollard film ever mentioned. It’s the easy (read: lazy) Silent Comedy 101 option to write that IT’S A GIFT is Pollard’s magnum opus, but there are many other great ones out there! While you wouldn’t rank Pollard with comic auteurs like Keaton or Laurel, he was surrounded by hordes of brilliant gagmen and directors at the Hal Roach studios who kept cranking out wonderfully funny gags and situations for him. One of these was Charles Parrott/Charley Chase, who helmed many of the best Pollard films.
Here are two examples, the terrific FIFTEEN MINUTES (recently pieced together by David Glass) and WHAT A WHOPPER. Both feature a classic Chase premise of a mundane beginning that swiftly escalates to become absurd, yet somehow believable.
Another of my favourite Chase-Pollard collaborations is SOLD AT AUCTION. Again, it starts simply: Pollard is an auctioneer, and does a house clearance. Trouble is, he’s gone to the wrong house! Cop James Finlayson is none-too-pleased to find his house empty and demands that Snub recovers every single item, including a runaway grand piano and a pair of false teeth being worn by an airplane pilot! Like the best of Snub’s films, it’s wonderfully absurd, but remains human. The whole film is on YouTube, but only in awful, retina-detaching quality; here’s a much better looking excerpt, courtesy of Ben Model:
Many of the Pollards only exist thanks to home movie excerpts, especially 9.5mm Pathex cutdowns. Here’s one such example. ‘CALIFORNIA OR BUST’ is a tale of Snub and his wife (regular leading lady, the charming Marie Mosquini) driving west with a wagonful of all their possessions. You can guess that they don’t make it, but the inevitable destruction of their belongings takes place in some wonderfully original ways. A favourite grace note is Snub struggling to play a game of Pool in the back of the wagon; only when it has been smashed to smithereens is he able to steady the balls to pot them! There’s only about half the original film here, but the essence is preserved nicely.
Snub Pollard’s films are full of ingenious gags, snappily performed, and deserve a wider audience. Kickstarter, anyone…?
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.
I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I’ve been away travelling for a few weeks and have only just had time to digest the magnificence of Sprocket Vault’s latest heroic venture into the Hal Roach vaults.
If you’ve had a browse around this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a huge Charley Chase fan. Playing an ordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened, his mixture of natural human comedy with outlandish plots and gags are a knockout combination. To me, Chase had one of the most fertile minds of any of the great comics, and yes, I include Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel et al in that. He’s also one of the most charming performers. Add to his comedic gifts the wonderful Hal Roach stock company and Le Roy Shield music so familiar from the Laurel & Hardy films, and you have an incredibly likeable body of work.
As with volume 1 of this series, I have to begin by awarding this DVD five stars simply for existing. It’s too easy to forget the limbo these films were in for far too long, difficult to see without access to a 16mm print library. Quite simply, nobody wanted to put this stuff out there. I remember first reading about these films in Leonard Maltin’s book THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS years ago and longing to see them. After spotty acquisitions of the forbidden fruits via TCM, Ebay, old VHS from friends, mailing lists and the like, I finally picked up an almost-complete set of the films on bootleg DVD in 2009. Looking at these beaten up ex-VHS or 16mm transfers made my eyes water and did the films no favours at all. Nevertheless, I treasured those discs as the rare jewels they were, and assumed it was the best I would ever get.
Not so. Fast forward ten years and here’s the second chronological set in Sprocket Vault’s series. Not only are the films now on an official DVD, but they look beautiful, feature original titles and come with authoritative commentaries. If that weren’t enough, there are bonus features, including an incredibly rare Spanish-language version of Chase’s LOOSER THAN LOOSE, UN CANA EL AIRE!
What about the films themselves, though? How do those forbidden fruits taste? Well, if you’re not a completist and this is your first Chase purchase, you won’t be disappointed. Of the shorts featured here, at least four are among my all-time favourite Chase films, and most of the rate between good and excellent, too.
For a bit of context, these fifteen shorts were all made in 1932-33. Chase had settled into sound well by now and so the early talkie clunkiness is now almost entirely gone. He was starting to change his approach, adopting a more fussy, nervous character more suited to a man approaching 40 than the young man about town of his earlier work. For several of the films here he worked with brother James Parrott as director, an always fruitful partnership that inspired some creative comedies.
YOUNG IRONSIDES is one of the best films he ever made, full of original sight gags and situations that come thick and fast as Charley is hired to prevent Muriel Evans from taking part in a beauty competition. It develops into a three way game of cat and mouse between Charley, Muriel and a suspicious house detective tailing them both, with the highlight coming as Charley fashions himself a grass skirt of collars and enters the pageant as ‘Miss Hamburg’!
HIS SILENT RACKET is another classic, with Charley conned into being a partner in James Finayson’s failed dry cleaning business. Lots of great characters and visual gags in this one.
FALLEN ARCHES, IN WALKED CHARLEY, GIRL GRIEF and MR BRIDE are all other favourites of mine. The last is a particularly daring (for 1932) comedy in which Charley must act as a bride for his fastidious boss Del Henderson on a rehearsal honeymoon! The scenes of Charley being forced into a feminine role amidst everyone’s presumptions that they are a gay couple are very unusual, and take Chase’s comedy of embarrassment to new extremes.
Even more experimental are the technocratic NOW WE’LL TELL ONE, surreal ARABIAN TIGHTS and bizarre Tarzan spoof NATURE IN THE WRONG. Ever wanted to hear a lion speak with the voice of James Finlayson? Of course you have. Well, here’s your chance!
In fact, for L & H fans, there are lots of moments where the familiar stock company players shine: Anita Garvin vamps Charley in HIS SILENT RACKET; Billy Gilbert does his best Germanic bluster in LUNCHEON AT TWELVE; James C Morton and Eddie Dunn pop up in FALLEN ARCHES. You also get an introduction to some other great Roach co-stars who didn’t appear with the boys, including Gale Henry and Jimmie Adams. Richard Roberts’ commentaries fill in lots of great detail on these performers, by the way.
The leading lady for most of these films is Muriel Evans, who is a charming performer, if not quite Thelma Todd. Thelma does make one appearance, in THE NICKEL NURSER, a wonderful, underrated comedy with Charley an efficiency expert hired to teach a millionaire’s daughters the value of money. Throw in a Greta Garbo-esque maid, a jealous butler and some deception, and you have a bedroom farce worthy of Chase’s silents.
Of course, being a chronological set, you do get the ebb and flow of inspiration that naturally comes with any art form. Chase’s personal and professional lives were both strained at the time, and occasionally it shows with less inspired films like SHERMAN SAID IT or FIRST IN WAR. However, even the lesser efforts are watchable, thanks to Chase’s charm and natural humour.
In conclusion, if you’re at all a fan of the Hal Roach studios, this (along with volume 1) is an essential purchase. If this set is your entry point to Chase, I envy you – there’s loads to enjoy here and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. If, like me, you’re familiar with the films, you’ll see them with fresh eyes in this quality and learn lots from the commentary tracks. Of course, for Chase devotees, the inclusion of UNA CANA EL AIRE is worth the price of admission alone. Like many of Roach’s phonetic versions, it’s much longer than its English language equivalent, and features extra gags. Among the gems are some funny toupee gags, and a brilliant moment as Charley tries to cross a crowded dancefloor.
I’m so grateful that this DVD exists. Thanks to Richard M Roberts and Kit Parker at The Sprocket Vault for making it happen.
It’s back! Kennington Bioscope presents another weekend of classic & rare silent comedy at the historic cinema museum. Lots to enjoy in a packed programme, including classics like Chaplin’s ‘THE GOLD RUSH’ and Lloyd’s ‘GRANDMA’S BOY’, plus rarely seen films starring Marion Davies, Gloria Swanson, W.C. Fields & more. There’s also a chance to see Laurel & Hardy’s recently rediscovered ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’, and I’m looking forward to presenting some of Charley Chase’s finest silent shorts.
As always, films will be accompanied by the cream of silent film accompanists. Best of all, it’s only £30 for a weekend pass! Don’t miss it – tickets available at www.kenningtonbioscope.com
One of the Laurel & Hardy items I’ve wanted to see for the longest is ‘THAT’S THAT!’. It was a gag reel compiled by Hal Roach Studios editor Bert Jordan, on the occasion of Stan Laurel’s 47th Birthday. It’s been shown at a couple of L & H conventions, and a really ropey off-screen dupe of a short section once appeared on YouTube, but now it’s been fully restored by UCLA and put online. And it’s a strange eight minutes, to be sure…
Jordan had access to all sorts of outtakes, bloopers and sound effects in the Roach vaults, and used them to cobble together a bizarre little stream-of-consciousness short, replete with non-sequitirs, random effects, animations and amusing juxtapositions ending up like something Spike Milligan would have been proud of!
It begins with full Roach titles; THAT’S THAT was the original working title for THE LAUREL-HARDY MURDER CASE. Alternate takes from MURDER CASE form a large part of the footage, along with its Spanish language counterpart NOCHE DE DUENDES. There are also chunks of OUR WIFE, LAUGHING GRAVY, DIRTY WORK and the then-current WAY OUT WEST. Outtakes from the latter include a shot of Tiny Sandford in costume (replaced by Stanley Fields in the finished version) and Stan’s double Ham Kinsey reciting the declaration of independence!
L & H co-star Charley Chase makes an appearance, messing up a scene from MANHATTAN MONKEY BUSINESS and cursing; Edgar Kennedy provides a wrap-up comment for the short. There are also glimpses of Mae Busch, Jimmy Finlayson, Charlie Hall, Babe London and Gordon Douglas.
Most interesting of all is a very brief deleted gag from SONS IN THE DESERT, from the attic scene. Stan is attempting to pull something on a string up to the attic, but manages to get it caught on a radio set, which falls over and explodes.
Moments like this make you wonder what else was once lurking in the vaults and now vanished. A fascinating, if bizarre, way to spend eight and a half minutes… Many thanks to UCLA and their funding donors for making this available! We really are spoiled these days… If you want to give a little something back you can support UCLA’s Laurel & Hardy Preservation fund here: https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/support/laurel-and-hardy
Charley Chase has gone from being an under-represented figure on home video releases to having much of his classic work out there in superior quality. Thanks to DVD releases from Kino, AllDay Entertainment and Milestone films, a majority of his existing silent work can now be widely seen. In recent years, even his late sound shorts for Columbia have even been pulled from the vaults and released by Sony.
All this is extremely heartening, but the holy grail has always been his Hal Roach sound shorts. Picking up from where he left off in silent days, Chase kept on churning out little gems at Roach until 1936. The distinctive charm of the Roach films, with their stock company and background music, along with Chase’s excellent performances and some great gags, made these a wonderful bunch of films. More’s the pity that they’ve been so hard to see! There was a period when the films were aired semi-regularly on TCM in the USA, and it has been possible to cobble them together through a ragbag assortment of bootlegs from off-air recordings, VHS transfers and often ropey 16mm prints, but a legitimate and comprehensive release, in nice quality, has remained elusive.
No longer. Step forward expert comedy historian Richard M Roberts and The Sprocket Vault, who have achieved what no-one else has been able to in bringing some of Chase’s sound shorts to DVD (it’s the first in a planned series of volumes, which will hopefully work through all the other Chases). Simply by existing, this set would be automatically brilliant; that it presents the films in the best quality possible, with great extras and authoritative commentaries, makes it an absolute triumph.
Chase’s earliest talkies are currently unavailable, so this set picks up with THE REAL McCOY, his first release of 1930, and goes through to his last release of 1931. Within these parameters, you get some of his all time best, including WHISPERING WHOOPEE, LOOSER THAN LOOSE, THE HASTY MARRIAGE and, of course, THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG. Disc 1 covers 1930, and disc 2 1931. The chronological nature means that you get to see how Charley developed his approach to comedy during the early sound era. This was a transitional period for Chase, and while sound gave him no cause for alarm, it did give him pause for thought, and to try some new approaches and variations in character. As well as films in the vein of his silent farces like LOOSER THAN LOOSE and DOLLAR DIZZY , several of the 1930 films are particularly offbeat and experimental in nature. FIFTY MILLION HUSBANDS is a really fun little short full of quirky bits of business and GIRL SHOCK is a particularly unusual comedy, with Charley bordering on Harpo Marx-style mania every time a girl touches him. This one was new to me, and while it’s not one of Chase’s all-time best, I find it a fascinating film. Present also are his experiments at making mini musicals, HIGH Cs and its wonderful companion piece, ROUGH SEAS. Not all the experiments are entirely successful, but that said, practically everything Chase did is diverting and most watchable, especially for L & H buffs, who can enjoy seeing familiar Roach faces like James Finlayson and Charlie Hall in other roles.
Of course, the most famous supporting player to feature opposite Charley is the pip herself, Thelma Todd. Their partnership resulted in some absolutely charming comedies, of which THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG endures the most. This simple tale of Charley’s attempts to turn off a blind date, then trying to undo his work when it turns out to be Thelma, is elegantly told and full of great sight gags. As a fascinating extra, the Spanish phonetic version, LA SENORITA DE CHICAGO, is included. While it loses Thelma Todd, it gains an extra reel, including a song from Charley and some bridging scenes that actually make it flow much better than the English original (for more details on THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG and Chase & Todd’s other films together, take a look here)
While PIP is most definitely a highlight, some of the less vaunted shorts are just as delightful. Personal favourites:
LOOSER THAN LOOSE, a charming romantic situation comedy, where much of the humour is down entirely to the wonderful performances of the cast;
HASTY MARRIAGE, full of great sight gags and slapstick in a tale of streetcar romance;
ONE OF THE SMITHS, a hillbilly comedy with some terrific mechanical gags, and a much funnier update of L& H’s upper berth sequence, as Charley tries to share his tiny berth with a large tuba!
THE PANIC IS ON, riffing on black humour gags spoofing the depression. There’s an added bonus of a nice little cameo from Laughing Gravy.
Richard Roberts provides detailed and entertaining commentaries for all the film. It’s clear that this is a labour of love, and we owe a huge vote of thanks for the effort in creating the set. As he has said, it is hoped that other volumes in this series will follow; that just depends on how well this first volume sells. So what are you waiting for? Buy, buy, buy! I’m certain you won’t regret it. It’s hard not to like Charley Chase, and this set is a must-have if you have even the slightest interest in his work, or that of Laurel & Hardy and the Hal Roach studios. While the Chase talkies are generally looser than his impeccably constructed silents, there’s a heckuva lot of talent in these films, and a heckuva lot of fun, too. And there’s plenty more where that came from: Many of the films that the prolific Chase made in 1932 and beyond, such as YOUNG IRONSIDES, HIS SILENT RACKET, NURSE TO YOU, MANHATTAN MONKEY BUSINESS and POKER AT EIGHT, are as good as anything he ever did, so here’s (greedily) hoping for more volumes soon!
I’ve just returned from SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND at London’s Cinema Museum. The fourth such event run by the lovely folk at Kennington Bioscole, these are now a real highlight of my year, and I was privileged to have some involvement in selecting and presenting a few films. Of course, we’re lucky to have silent comedies so freely available on DVD, YouTube and everywhere else, but the real way they’re meant to be seen is like this: on a big screen, as a shared experience with other cinemagoers, and with live musical accompaniment. Stand up and take a bow, John Sweeney, Meg Morley. Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulos, Cyrus Gabrysch, whose wonderful playing brought these films to life. To hear the expert introductions of historians such as Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson only heightened the experience. Here’s part one of a review of the weekend. Part two to follow!
The weekend began with THE NIGHT CLUB (1925), starring Raymond Griffith (promoted as ‘The New Sheik of Slapstick!”). His first starring feature, it is a wonderful vehicle for his understated, unique comic style. The film launched his career in features with a high pedigree; produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, it was directed by his protégées Paul Iribe and Frank Urson and based on a play by DeMille’s brother.
This is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women but has to undergo an arranged marriage to inherit a fortune. He genuinely falls in love with his arranged bride (Vera Reynolds), but she thinks he’s only after her for the money. A despondent Griffith pays a bandit (Wallace Beery) to bump him off, but Vera finds out the truth and they are reconciled. Now Griff’s only problem is to tell the bandit that no, thank you, he doesn’t want to die anymore…
It’s a complicated story and even that summary doesn’t take account of many of the tangents and subplots that arise. It’s easy to see why it was a failure as a play, but as a Griffith vehicle it succeeds admirably. Our hero wins through with a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.
There are also great performances from Beery, William Austin and Louise Fazenda, not to mention some great suicide gags and lovely location shooting on the dusty paradise of Catalina Island.
Director Eddie Sutherland contended that Griffith’s failing as a comic was that he tried to mix too many styles, but the inclusion of sight gags and slapstick alongside more gentle material makes films like THE NIGHT CLUB much more entertaining than many of the light comedies of the era.
Griffith’s best films were yet to come, as he refined his suave, sly style; his best surviving films are probably PATHS TO PARADISE and HANDS UP. THE NIGHT CLUB, however, remains a fun and different comedy. By the way, if you’re wondering where the night club of the title comes in… it doesn’t. Kevin Brownlow explained in his introduction that this was a side effect of the studios’ block booking system. Often films were sold to exhibitors before they were filmed or even written. Paramount had promised a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, so they delivered a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, even though their new story had nothing at all to do with one!
Next it was on to a programme of British shorts, titled THE BRITISH ARE COMING and presented by Tony Fletcher. Now, these can be a mixed bag. There are some fantastic British silent comedies, but many are a bit too polite and ponderous. Certainly, they were created in a different idiom to the American model of silent comedy.This programme had a higher batting average than many, showcasing some offbeat efforts.
‘BOOKWORMS’, made in 1920, is a charming little vehicle for Leslie Howard. Written by A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories), it shows Milne’s literary instincts in a witty modern fairytale pastiche. Substituting suburban villas for castles and fiery housemaids for dragons, this is an updated Rapunzel-style tale of Howard’s attempts to contact Pauline Johnson, who is locked away by her Aunt and Uncle, and made to read books all day. Howard’s love note arranging a rendezvous, sent inside her library book, also reaches three other people, resulting in a farcical meeting of several different characters, each thinking the other has sent it. This is a mild, but very charming tale. Much of the humour comes from the breaking of the fourth wall, especially in the intertitles.
This was a pet tactic of director Adrian Brunel, who loved to play with the medium of film. More of Brunel’s whimsical humour was seen in CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA. A spoof travelogue, this skewers the pomoposity of the genre superbly. Again, much of the humour coems through intertitles, juxtaposition of images and bizarre use of stock footage. In its sublime silliness, the short anticipates Spike Milligan’s work (especially sketches from ‘Q’, like ‘First Irish Rocket to the Moon’)
Also experimental was THE FUGITIVE FUTURIST, in which an inventor produces a magic device that shows visions of the future. Through the magic of double exposure, animation and an effect that makes the emulsion seem to melt off the film, we see waves lapping at the shores of Trafalgar square, Tower Bridge turned into a monorail, and houses that build themselves. A bizarre little film!
There was a chance to glimpse behind the scenes at the film industry (and film fandom) with STARLINGS OF THE SCREEN. This short chronicles the progress of a competition run by Picture Show magazine, whereby 3000 young ladies entered to be in with a chance of winning a film role; kind of ‘THE X FACTOR’ of its day! The 15 shortlisted provincial candidates are seen trying their hardest to act at a series of screen tests at Oswald Stoll’s studios. Also on hand is comic actor Moore Marriott, later best known as one of Will Hay’s sidekicks, who puts the girls through their paces in a series of short little sketches. This was a great little item: a fascinating time capsule, often (unintentionally) hilarious. There was also a touch of poignancy in the doomed ambitions of the film hopefuls, who simply didn’t have ‘it’ and would soon return to obscurity. Nancy Baird of Glasgow, and Sheilagh Allen of Londonderry, whatever became of you?
So far, so good. The only one of these films to disappoint was ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’. Starring Guy Newall & Ivy Duke, this too played with the medium of cinema, having a prologue breaking the fourth wall, in which Duke & Newall invite the public to join them in their dressing rooms preparing for the film. The story itself was the tale of Duke’s perpetual discomfort caused by her woollen underwear. At the theatre, Newall is sat behind her, absentmindedly fiddles with a thread he sees dangling from the bottom of her chair and soon has unravelled her entire vest. It was a nice little idea for a throwaway gag, but stretching it out to almost half an hour was fairly infuriating! I could have seen Lloyd or Keaton doing a similar gag, but as a little aside, rather than building a whole film around it! Nevertheless, an interesting little item, and overall this showed that British films were often very creative and playful.
After lunch, I was thrilled to be able to present an overview of CHARLEY CHASE. Chase is one of my absolute favourite silent (and sound comedians), and he’s often been a neglected figure, so it’s always a pleasure to show his films to new audiences. The 1920s, with their increased focus on human comedy, were Chase’s decade. In front of the camera, he played an eternally embarrassed young man, while behind it he was an enormously inventive, prolific and consistent comedy craftsman.
An extract from ALL WET (1924) provided an early example of a classic Chase situation, escalating from simple, believable beginnings to peaks of absurdity. Charley is on his way to meet a train in his car; he helps another motorist out of a mud puddle, and in doing so becomes stuck himself. His attempts to free the car end in it being completely submerged, necessitating Charley’s repairs of the car from underwater. ALL WET builds gags brilliantly, and is a fine example of the teamwork between Chase and its director, future Oscar-winner Leo McCarey (who once said “Everything I know, I learned from Charley Chase”).
Together Chase and MccCarey thrived off each other, developing a unique style of intricate storytelling. When Chase’s films were expanded to two reels, they were able to use the extra space to construct beautifully elaborate farces, mini-masterpieces packed with gags, situations and great characters. To illustrate this, we saw large excerpts from ‘WHAT PRICE GOOFY’, ‘FLUTTERING HEARTS’ and ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’, the latter getting some of the biggest laughs of the weekend with its split-second timed multiple exchanges of trousers.
Two things struck me forcefully while selecting the clips:
1 – it’s incredibly hard to take excerpts out of Chase’s films, as they are so tightly and masterfully constructed.
2 – Chase really realised the value of his supporting casts. Perhaps it was background as a director, but he never seems egotistical about his own performances, always allowing others to shine; his films are true ensemble pieces. Oliver Hardy, Katherine Grant, Gale Henry, Thelma Todd, Tom Dugan, Vivian Oakland and Buddy the Dog are just some of the performers given great opportunities in the films we saw.
The closing scenes from ‘THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG’ showcased Charley’s illustrious career in talkies, and we finished off with the complete ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’. The apotheosis of Charley’s taking a simple idea to ridiculous extremes, this tale follows him and and his wife as they both have plastic surgery, fail to recognise each other and embark on an affair! This has righty been recognised as a masterpiece, and has been added to the USA’s National Film Registry along with other classics like ‘THE GENERAL’ and ‘BIG BUSINESS’.
It was a real delight to hear the laughter at Chase’s films, with several people in the audience commenting that it was their first time seeing them. Charley didn’t live long enough to see his work being appreciated; if only he could have heard the response his films got on Saturday…
Also in the comedy of embarrassment mould was Monty Banks’ 1927 feature ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. We saw it in a pristine 35mm copy from the BFI, albeit with Spanish intertitles. Monty was, for my money, one of the hardest working silent comedians. He was an Italian, real name Mario Bianchi, who arrived in the US in 1915. He spoke very little English, but through hard work and a good deal of good luck, scraped by in a series of Chaplinesque film roles. These included supporting Roscoe Arbuckle, who gave him his new screen name. Making a series of comedies for obscure and independent companies, he eventually found a toehold in the industry with a cheerful little character, trying his best to be dapper, but always on the back foot. In the 1920s he shifted focus to vehicles with a Lloydian mix of comedy with thrills and speed, turning out a series of features that pitted him against racing cars, speedboats and runaway trains. From 1926, Pathé had been promoting him as Lloyd’s successor, but had more or less given up on him by the time of ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. With some evidence of budgets being cut, it features less of the high-speed stunt climaxes, but makes up for it with brilliantly gag-packed sequences and situation comedy. Monty works in a bank, and is due to marry the president’s daughter. En route to his wedding he innocently becomes drunk; suffice to say, his wedding does not end well, especially as he spends much of the time trying to kick his future mother-in-law in the rear!
Meanwhile, Monty’s colleague has robbed the bank, planning to pin the robbery on Monty. Waking with a terrible hangover to a broken engagement, Monty decides to leave town, but mixes his bags, and ends up with the stolen money. The rest of the film takes place on board a ship and follows Monty’s attempts to:
foil the crooks trying to get the money back
win back his girl who is aboard the ship
return the money to her father and prove his innocence.
He might be on a ship, but plain sailing, it ain’t! A new complication arises as Monty is constantly caught in compromising situations with the purser’s wife, a running gag that has some brilliant variations. Best of all is a sequence where Monty, finding her unconscious, accidentally tears her dress off. His attempts to remedy the situation end up making even more of her clothes fall off, but he manages to improvise an entirely new outfit for her. A wonderful routine of physical comedy, in a film full of them; it’s the funniest Banks film I’ve yet seen.
Part of the credit is surely due to Clyde Bruckman, one of the very best silent gagmen, hired by Banks due to his work with Keaton & Lloyd. A PERFECT GENTLEMAN does indeed borrow some gags from the Keaton/Lloyd vehicles. Overall though, it shows Monty moving from a direct Lloyd influence to a more farcical style redolent of Charley Chase. In fact, this could have been the ideal vehicle to launch Chase in features. A great little film, and one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Nevertheless, however good performers like Banks or Raymond Griffith are, the following programme, KEATON CLASSICS, made it clear just why Buster Keaton has attained his mythical status in comparison to the more forgotten comics. Four authors – Kevin Brownlow, David Robinson, Polly Rose & David McLeod – presented their favourite sequences from Buster’s features. Each sequence was, of course, magnificent, and I almost felt like I was seeing them for the first time again. It was a lovely idea to have personal introductions, as Keaton means so many different things to so many people.
David Robinson praised the dramatic strength of OUR HOSPITALITY, reminding us that it was a stunning debut in feature directing (THE SAPHEAD was not directed by Keaton and THREE AGES planned as three shorts glued together, in case it didn’t work out; ergo, HOSPITALITY was BK’s first planned feature). He had picked the river scene that culminates in Buster’s dramatic plunge across a waterfall to rescue Natalie Talmadge, a sequence that gives me the shivers every time I see it.
Kevin Brownlow’s choice was the wonderfully action-packed Tong War sequence from THE CAMERAMAN, and David McLeod opted for the iconic cyclone climax of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. Most fascinating of all was Polly Rose, a newcomer to writing about BK; an editor by trade, she was ideally placed to share discoveries about how Keaton achieved his visual effects walking into the cinema screen in SHERLOCK, JR. Through her research, she also shared discoveries about alternate versions of the scene, in which Buster seemed to enter the screen on a beam of light shone from his projector, before being spat back out into a tangle of film. Polly shared evidence of this version being previewed from at least three trade papers, and found clues in publicity stills that point to the action that might have occurred. A fascinating theory and who knows? Maybe one day one of those preview prints will turn up. Stranger things have happened!
I know Keaton’s films so well by know that I sometimes take for granted how incredible they are. Seeing excerpts like this from different films reminded me just how diverse and special his films were, for not just his performances and gags, but also his storytelling, stunts and technical wizardry, not to mention that intangible quality that makes him so compelling.
How to follow four of Keaton’s finest sequences? Step up to the plate, Beatrice Lillie! Miss Lillie made only 7 films in her long career, and 1926’s EXIT SMILING is her sole silent. Nevertheless, her brief stay in Hollywood elicited devotion from the West Coast royalty; Chaplin described her as “my female counterpart”, while Buster Keaton guarded her hotel room door, “lying there like Old Dog Tray”. EXIT SMILING shows exactly why. One of the sadly few silent feature comedies to really show a female comedian to good advantage, it gives her opportunity for both great comic acting and genuine pathos. As Violet, Bea is a dogsbody with a travelling theatre company who longs to play the part of a vamp. She gets her chance to act not on the stage, but in real life, where she has to seduce a villain to save the man she loves. The scenes of her vamping the villain are simply brilliant, especially the moment where her pearl necklace disintegrates. If only she’d made more films!
EXIT SMILING was given a marvellously authoritative introduction by Michelle Facey, who summed up Bea’s career and appeal brilliantly. Accompaniment was by the wonderful Meg Morley. The screening was, in fact, of Beatrice Lillie’s personal 16mm copy of the film, and the personal connection of the evening didn’t end there. The last word must go to David Robinson, who shared his poignant story of attending a screening of the film with Beatrice Lillie in 1968.
“She was starting to forget things… They’d taken her to see the film ‘STAR’ that afternoon, so I asked her how she liked the film.
“What film?” she said. She didn’t seem like a star, she was just a little, worried old lady, who was always asking where her coat and purse were. It would be “Where’s my coat?” then “Where’s my purse?”
“So we went on and on, the coat, the purse, the coat, the purse… until the time came to go into the theatre.
“Where’s my coat?” she said, again. I told her I’d carry it, but she just said “I must have my coat”.
“We walked into the auditorium, and I was wondering what on earth was going to happen… then I noticed she was dragging the coat along behind her.
“Come along, Fido!” she said, and everyone roared with laughter. She came to life and kept doing these little bits of business, but knew exactly when to stop. Throughout the film, I heard the sound of her laughter.
Afterwards, I asked her what she thought of it.
“Oh, it was very good,” replied Beatrice Lillie, “and she’s so funny. And you know, she does things just like me!”