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!”
I just stumbled across some screening notes I wrote for a programme of ‘imitation Chaplin’ comedies at last year’s Silent Laughter Weekend. I’ve reproduced them here, adapted slightly to incorporate some video links. Hope you enjoy!
Charlie Chaplin’s phenomenal popularity in the mid-teens was dubbed ‘The Chaplin Craze’ or ‘Chaplinitis’ by the press. His rise to fame had been made possible by a huge boom in mass-amusement culture, beginning at the end of the Victorian era. Additionally, the new technology of silent cinema enabled a universal recognition for performers beyond previously insurmountable language and travel barriers. With his instantly recognisable image, Chaplin arrived on screen just in time to act as a kind of divining rod for these forces.
Chaplin’s was celebrity on a scale never seen before. He was as astonished as anyone, later remarking, “I knew I was famous but didn’t know what fame meant.”
He was soon to find out. Puppets, dolls, toothbrushes, sweets… all kinds of merchandise imaginable soon bore the familiar image of the tramp. There were Charlie Chaplin songs, dances, fancy dress parties and lookalike competitions (the oft-told story of Chaplin entering one such contest and coming second is now believed to be apocryphal, however!)
Some took their impersonations a step further and turned it into their own act. Among the legions ‘doing Chaplin’ were some future stars: Bert Wheeler and Walter Forde both started on the stage in this way, for instance. Stan Laurel, previously Chaplin’s understudy in Fred Karno days, also included an ersatz Mabel Normand and Chester Conklin in his act “The Keystone Trio”. British comedian Frank Randle was chased away from Blackpool Pier after busking his act there, and his contemporary Sid Field was also a Chaplin street performer.
Within the film industry, desire for Chaplin product outstripped the speed with which the increasingly methodical comedian could turn it out. Many of his earlier films would be repackaged and reissued (Essanay studios, in particular, excelled themselves at milking leftover scraps of Chaplin footage, expanding ‘A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN’ to twice its original length, and making an entirely new film, ‘TRIPLE TROUBLE’ from scenes Chaplin had discarded). Even these efforts did not fulfil public desire, and it was inevitable that other companies would attempt to get a piece of the pie.
A series of ‘Charley’ cartoons made by Otto Messmer are an early example. These actually received a helping hand from Chaplin himself, who provided a series of portraits in various poses to assist Messmer’s drawings. The cartoonist would later incorporate a considerable Chaplin influence into his most famous character, Felix the Cat.
Cartoons were one thing, but screen imitators provided a direct threat of competition. Practically all film comedians of the late teens took some influence from Chaplin, but some did so more blatantly than others. Devoted to redefining the word ‘blatant’ was Billy West, whose deception extended to sleeping with his hair in curlers, and learning to play the violin left-handed! He also poached Chaplin’s Essanay co-star Leo White to add to the illusion in a series of films for the King Bee corporation. West’s impersonation attracted derision from some quarters at the time, and he is still often dismissed outright. However, he was a capable comedian and his Chaplin imitations provide some good laughs. He also got a big helping hand from some other comic minds; Oliver Hardy was his heavy, made up to resemble Chaplin’s ‘Goliath’, Eric Campbell. His director was also a gifted comedy craftsman: Charles Parrott, the future Charley Chase.
Billy West, with Babe Hardy on the left.
Here’s a prime example of the West-Hardy-Parrott triple-threat: ‘HIS DAY OUT’, from 1918
And here’s THE CANDY KID (1917), directed by Arvid E Gillstrom before Parrott joined the series,
Charles Parrott would later work with another Chaplin impersonator, Harry Mann in films like ‘THE FLIRTS’ (featured on the ‘Becoming Charley Chase’ DVD set) and ‘DON’T PARK THERE’.
Billy Ritchie is one of the most interesting Chaplin lookalikes, gaining a certain notoriety for claiming that Chaplin actually copied him. Glaswegian Ritchie claimed that he had been wearing a similar costume for years on stage before Chaplin used it. There is probably some legitimacy to his claim (not to mention a strong possibility that Chaplin & Ritchie were actually related) but truthfully the bowler, cane and moustache were all fairly standard parts of the music hall comic’s attire.
It’s clear that Ritchie’s take on the tramp was a very different animal. While the early Chaplin was given to bouts of violence, Ritchie can be downright hostile! His default expression is a scowl, and he’s generally given to cruder body language, sticking his rear out as he walks. Chaplin’s tramp may have been anti-authoritarian, but Ritchie was an anarchist!
To this day, he has some fierce defenders who feel he was robbed. No doubt, he hasn’t received his due as an original comedian in his own right, but he was never really going to be a timeless performer. Unlike Ritchie, Chaplin developed his character to be not just a suit of funny clothes, but a real human. As a knockabout comedian, Ritchie could be excellent, but he was probably never going to make ‘THE KID’. He certainly wasn’t going to while working in fast-paced, violent comedies for L-KO under the direction of Henry Lehrman.
Lehrman’s penchant for savage knockabout was to be Ritchie’s undoing – one film, POOR POLICY, saw him bizarrely savaged by ostriches, setting off a bout of ill-health ending with his death from stomach cancer in 1921. (I’ve seen this film, and the way he treats the ostriches, I’m not surprised they bit back!)
Here’s Billy in happier times, in ‘ALMOST A SCANDAL’ (1915)
L-KO were also responsible for another Chaplin spin-off. Chai Hong, billed as “The Chinese Charlie Chaplin”, was actually Korean. While it was his Chaplin impersonation in ‘PLAYING MOVIES’ that brought him to attention, this was a one-off. His other films had him playing his own, if stereotypically ‘oriental’ character. He starred in several shorts before disappearing from the screen in the early 20s. Hong later became valet to actor Lew Cody.
While these are examples of outright Chaplin copies, many other performers evoked Chaplin in essence. Monty Banks’ early appearances are extremely Chaplinesque, and Harold Lloyd’s ‘Lonesome Luke’ character was a self-admitted inversion of the Chaplin costume. Crucially, the really gifted comedians realised that imitation proved a blind alley and would forge their own paths into the 1920s.
Even for those not copying Chaplin’s appearance or behaviour, his genius routines and plots would be re-used by many other comics. A few examples among the multitudes: Buster Keaton’s ‘THE ELECTRIC HOUSE’ features a central escalator surely inspired by that in THE FLOORWALKER, Monty Banks revisits ‘EASY STREET’ in ‘PEACEFUL ALLEY’ and Laurel & Hardy rework ‘LAUGHING GAS’ for ‘LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING’. While these examples all took the material to a new place, sometimes the ‘borrowing’ of ideas was downright brazen. The BFI holds a rare Educational Pictures one-reeler called ‘CUT LOOSE’ (1924) that mimics ONE AM right down to its bizarre selection of stuffed animal props! The star is Phil Dunham, another British comedian, and allegedly a Cambridge graduate. Dunham remained busy at Educational, and in small parts elsewhere well into the sound era.
Today it’s easy to sneer at the unoriginality of the copycats in the shadows of Chaplin’s genius, but the picture was more complex than this. For struggling vaudeville and film performers, money had to take precedence over artistic integrity and a good Chaplin impersonation meant money. There were many good comedians among the impersonators, many of them still funny today. If nothing else, they provide a fascinating sidelight to Chaplin’s story, and remind us just how special the man himself was.
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
Here’s a wonderful BBC interview with Charlie Chaplin (I believe it’s actually from late 1952) discussing both his then current film, LIMELIGHT, and various aspects of his career and life. Chaplin is sometimes given an unfair reputation of being a bit of an overly serious bore in his later years, but actually, he comes across as a very engaging speaker. Cerebral, yes, but also lighthearted and surprisingly modest. In reference to doing everything himself on his films, for example: “I know lots of people could do it, but it’s just a matter of having the money to be able to afford it” . There’s extra interest in the panel of filmmakers he is interviewed by, including Sir Michael Balcon and John Mills. Overall, a great and illuminating listen.