Take a couple of dozen silent comedians, rare and rediscovered film, brilliant accompanying musicians, special guests, some insane acrobatics, bomb duels, a murdered rooster, a song and dance craze and one very drunk pantomime horse, and what do you get?
The London Silent Laughter Weekend, of course! Hosted by the wonderful folk at The Kennington Bioscope, magnificently curated by silent comedy expert David Wyatt and upgraded from last year’s inaugural one day event, the festival consisted of 12 shows turning the spotlight on some unfairly neglected but often brilliant performers (Oh, and Jimmy Aubrey…). Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be revisiting some of the films we saw, including stars such as Syd Chaplin, Lupino Lane, Dorothy Devore, Walter Forde, Harry Langdon, Max Linder and Laura La Plante
Over the course of the weekend, we had a peek into several different areas of silent comedy not often seen. For instance, it’s easy to forget that, as well as the very visual, film-trained Hollywood performers,several Broadway stars made silent films. Will Rogers, Leon Errol, Eddie Cantor, WC Fields all came from the Ziegfeld Follies and all, improbably enough, transferred their largely verbal acts to silent films.sometimes, they transferred stage hits directly (in fact, even The Marx Brothers very nearly made a silent film version of THE COCOANUTS). While these stars all had much bigger success in films once sound came in, several of their siLents hold up very nicely indeed. Eddie Cantor’s KID BOOTS(1926) , kicking off the show, was a nice example. He had been playing in the hit show for three years when he made this film version. To atone for anything that was lost in translation from stage to screen, Paramount added in Clara Bow, just on the threshold of ‘It girl’ mega stardom, and a host of visual comedy sequences.
Ol’ Banjo Eyes is Kid Boots, a tailor’s assistant. He is fired but can keep his job if he sells burly Malcolm Waite a suit. He makes a mess of it, of course, and makes a hasty exit before bumping into Clara, who is Waite’s girlfriend. Gazing into her eyes, he offers to sew her skirt, but distractedly sews his own suspender into it at the same time; this leads to a great sequence where he is pulled along the road after Clara. Bumping into Waite again, Kid Boots hides in a hotel, and finds himself becoming a key witness in Lawrence Gray’s divorce case. Gray has come into a fortune, which is enough to persuade his conniving ex wife (Natalie Kingston) that maybe she doesn’t want a divorce after all… Gray hides out at a golf resort with Kid Boots to escape the ex and her lawyer; who should be staying there but Clara and Malcolm? Things gather pace now as Cantor tries to woo Bow, while avoiding Malcolm, and Gray tries to avoid his ex and her lawyer, who are trying to frame him in a compromising situation to nullify the divorce.
There are some great sequences to replace the dialogue comedy of the original show. Some are slightly adapted versions of familiar silent comedy material—a brutal physio routine borrowed from Chaplin’s ‘THE CURE’, some high and dizzy thrills and a race to the courthouse that owe a debt to Lloyd’s ‘GIRL SHY’, and others more original. The highlight is a sequence where Kid Boots tries to make Clara jealous; his date has stood him up, but that won’t stop him! With the aid of a carefully placed screen door, he acts out a date with himself, baring his left arm and adding powder and a bracelet to simulate an imaginary girlfriend’s arm. Milking it for all it’s worth, he manages, in a pantomimic tour de force, to make it appear as though his ‘girlfriend’ can’t keep her hands off him. One of the funniest sequences we saw all weekend, this scene shows that Cantor, despite his predominantly verbal style, could master visual comedy as well as anyone.
Mention must also be made of Clara Bow’s great performance. She simply pops off the screen with life and vitality in every scene, and adeptly handles comic timing. It’s plain to see that super stardom was about to happen to her, and indeed it did. By the time KID BOOTS was released, the NYPD had to hold back crowds at the film’s premier. All in all, KID BOOTS is a wonderful little film, and appeared even more so in a beautiful new restoration by Paul Gierucki.
.Take a look at the whole film here: (not as nice a looking print, but certainly decent enough)
Next up: some Laurel & Hardy rediscoveries!