Educational Pictures

Al Who?

There are underappreciated silent comedians, and then there are truly forgotten ones. Al Alt definitely belongs to the latter group.

Alexander Alt, to give him his full name, was a jobbing comic in the mid-late 1920s. He worked for independent companies like Century and RayArt, as well as making afew films for Educational Pictures.

According to Steve Massa’s wonderful book LAME BRAINS AND LUNATICS, Alt was part of a vaudeville team with Hazel Howell. The pair made a few films (not that great, apparently) before Al went on to appear in some of the Hall Room Boys series in 1923. This series about a pair of dapper down-and-outs had a revolving door policy on comics; as well as Al, Jimmie Adams, Neeley Edwards, Sid Smith, Harry McCoy, George Williams, Zip Monberg and others all took turns playing ‘Percy & Ferdie’.

The dapper but embarassed young character stuck with Al after he moved on from the Hall Room Boys films. In fact, he became a bit like Century’s version of Charley Chase: a pleasant young husband getting himself into akward situations. As well as starring in his own comedies – sometimes teamed with Harry McCoy – he appeared as leading lady to Wanda Wiley and with the Century Follies girls.

Sadly, most of Century’s comedies are now missing, so we can’t see most of the comedies he made. Synopses and stills make them look quite interesting – EAT & RUN featured Alt & McCoy with a bicycle-propelled lunch wagon, and also featured Max Davidson.

Al moved over to RayArt, making films with and directed by Bobby Ray (best known from a few films he made teamed with Oliver Hardy that anticipate Hardy’s teaming with Stan Laurel). At least one of these survives: THE MILLION DOLLAR DERBY, featuring the delightfully ridiculous plot of Al having to wear a silly hat for 6 months to get an inheritance!

Alt & Ray apparently tried to jump on the bandwagon of comics like Monty Banks & Syd Chaplin making films in Britain – Variety’s London correspondent of Nov 15th 1928 reports them on holiday in London and trying to raise interest in a feature. They had no luck, and Al ended up in some Cameo comedies at Educational Pictures. Educational was on a high at the time, and these were Al’s most prestigious films.

Harold Goodwin, Al & Babe London in TOP SPEED (1929)

Educational’s Cameo comedies were efficient one reelers that milked simple situations for gags. Al’s shorts won praise and sound like good, fun little one reelers from existing reviews.

In LUCKY BREAKS, Al played a sailor on shore leave who has all sorts of troubles with his belongings on the train ride home. Film Daily praised the short:

“His bundles become unwieldy and almost animated. The way that Al retrieves them, apologises to passengers and registers confusion and embarrassment is a joy to behold”

The reviewer concluded:

This Al Alt person has swooped across the short comedy horizon and it looks as though he is going to make ’em all sit up and take notice before very long.”

Scene from LUCKY BREAKS

Sadly for Al, it was really too late for anyone to take notice of a new silent comedian, and he was lost in the shuffle of the talkie revolution. Though he made a couple of cheap indie two reelers in the East (RELATIONS and THE PEST) his starring career was fading out. He returned to Educational for a few bit parts, but then moved behind the scenes, initially as an editor, but working up to be assistant director on a number of films into the 1950s and 60s. Apparently he lived on until 1992!

Al Alt is never going to be rediscovered as a master comedian, but he’s another one of the silent comedy terracotta army who added to the richness of the era and is worth a second look.

Hard Work for Wallace!

As if Dave Glass hadn’t been busy enough this year working on the new Lupino Lane DVD/Blu Ray set, he’s also been uploading heaps of rare silent comedies on his YouTube account. The latest is HARD WORK,a very rare short comedy from 1928 featuring Wallace Lupino (younger brother of Lupino Lane).

It’s a print from my collection. I lucked into the 8mm print of this very rare short a few years back. It was hoped to include it on the DVD set as an extra, but this print isn’t the best quality, and searches for a 16mm copy all came to naught. Now you can enjoy it for free on Dave’s YouTube channel. Here’s the video, and below you’ll find a bit more info about Wallace and the film.

A typical scene of domestic bliss in HARD WORK. Jackie Levine, Betty Boyd, Wallace Lupino. I once saw this still used to illustrate a national newspaper article on disciplining children!!

Wallace was a secret weapon in the Lane films, a versatile performer capable of portraying a range of parts. He can be seen playing parts ranging from threatening heavy to matronly woman, as well as ersatz Vernon Dent to Lane’s Langdonesque naïf. Schooled in the Lupino family tricks and traditions, he had been a performer since childhood too, appearing in pantomime as ‘Wee Wallace Lupino’. After war service and stage work in Britian, he later joined his elder brother in Hollywood, and was instrumental in helping Lane create the split second pantomime routines and double acts that make his films so wonderful. Though inevitably in his elder brother’s shadow, Wallace was also given a chance to star in his own shorts at Educational, starting with 1926’s SWEET BABY.

Educational’s series of Tuxedo and Cameo Comedies were one-reel shorts, simple gag-based endeavours starring less well-known performers like Johnny Arthur, Monty Collins and Cliff Bowes. Like Wallace, these were mainly performers better known for supporting roles, stepping up to the plate as stars. The films were a valuable career leg-up not just for performers, but also for directors. Particularly notable was the kid brother of Educational comedy producer Jack White; Jules White is best known today for his work with The Three Stooges, but before this, he cut his teeth on many Cameo comedies, including HARD WORK.

HARD WORK clearly bears White’s trademark of vigorous  slapstick gags. The short is a simple tale of Wallace and his family (Betty Boyd & Jackie Levine) trying to renovate their home. Nothing original in that premise, but the secret to a good one reefer was taking a simple premise and getting as many good gags as you could from it.  HARD WORK certainly does that; the film is saved from being so-so with some original, very funny gags involving animals, pianos and vacuum cleaners. And, for a one reeler, the scale of the destruction is pretty epic!  Particularly good is the scene where Wallace gets his head stuck through the ceiling – he certainly earned his paycheck for this film!
In sound films, I often find White’s predilection for big and violent sight gags unpleasant, but in the slightly dreamlike world of a silent one-reeler it works much better. (I think what I actually dislike about this most are the accompanying sound effects; Harry Langdon called White’s talkies the “oh-ouch-ow” comedies, and he was absolutely right. White seemed to think it was funnier if characters on the end of slapstick showed that they felt pain – but that’s not a problem in silents.)

Wallace is ably supported by two actors familiar from the Lupino Lane shorts. His long-suffering wife is ably played by Betty Boyd, who played leading lady in several Lane films like BATTLING SISTERS and PIRATES BEWARE.

Young Jackie Levine plays the bratty child. After appearing with Harold Lloyd in FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, he became a regular at Educational in the late silent years, often in the ‘Big Boy’ juvenile comedies (bit of an unfortunate name…). Little Jackie would play a thorn in Wallace (and Lupino Lane’s) sides again: he plays a bratty kid in SUMMER SAPS and JOY LAND. This overlap with the Lane shorts occurred often, reaching it’s apotheosis with CROWN ME, a short starring Wallace and directed by Lane. (I hope you’re following all this, as there will be a test at the end.)

A rare still from the lost short WEDDED BLISTERS. Wallace is on top of the furniture!

Wallace starred in several other shorts for Educational. As well as those mentioned above, titles included ALL SET, AUNTIE’S AUNTE, THE LOST LAUGH, HUSBANDS MUST PLAY and WEDDED BLISTERS. These generally stayed in the format of simple situational comedies – ALL SET involves Wallace’s attempts to obtain a dress suit, and WEDDED BLISTERS is a tale of moving furniture to a new home. Of all these, the only other surviving entry I’m aware of is the namesake of this blog, THE LOST LAUGH. Ben Model shared his unique print of this fun little comedy on his Accidentally Preserved DVD and on YouTube. Here it is:Several of these films were issued on 16mm in the 1930s, but few seem to survive. Unless someone knows more, I believe HARD WORK was the only one to be issued on 8mm (possibly derived from Mogull Films’ 16mm print, the sole Lupino title they carried). I certainly wasn’t expecting to see it turn up on eBay. The print was anonymously labelled as ‘Wallace Lupino/Charlie Chase’; I took a punt and it turned out to contain both HARD WORK and Chase’s SITTING PRETTY on the same reel. A bargain for £5.00 GBP! The print isn’t the best quality ever, but it’s a nice little rarity that helps add to our appreciation of this very underrated performer. Enjoy!

PS.  I wrote a longer article on Wallace’s career here.

This article originally appeared in issue 8 of The Lost Laugh magazine – you can download that for free here.

Never work with Children & Animals…

“Never work with children and animals” was a message that never seemed to reach director William S Campbell. Campbell specialised in films combining both, including this rarity from the EYE film institute, SCHOOLDAY LOVE (1922). Bears, monkeys, dogs and donkeys abound; among the children are Doreen Turner, Coy Watson, Jr and Laurence Licalvai.

william s campbellCampbell had previously worked on a series of films starring ‘Joe Martin’, an orang-utang (“the world’s only monkey comedian!”) in the late teens, then moved on to Chester Comedies starring ‘SNOOKY THE HUMANZEE’.

His work was well-regarded enough in the industry for his name to brand a series of ‘Campbell Comedies’, distributed through Educational Pictures. These began with ‘THE STORK’S MISTAKE’, which was a big success. ‘SCHOOL DAY LOVE’ was the follow-up, and while reviews were positive, it was noted that it wasn’t quite as good as the initial entry. Indeed, the novelty soon wore off the Campbell comedies, and series didn’t continue as one of Educational’s mainstays.

campbell comedies

These days, old films manipulating animals seem cruel and unnecessary, but we can’t deny that they were popular at the time, and formed an unusual sideshow to the comedy film industry. As such, they do have a historical interest.

As for Campbell, maybe he disproves the old saying, as he outlived most of his contemporaries who worked with humans! He lived on to the age of 87, passing away in 1972.

Rare Ham

ham

Lloyd Hamilton exists now like one of those dusty, anonymous portraits hanging in a long corridor. To most people, if his image is seen at all, it is a faded likeness of the flesh and blood he once was, the achievements of his life almost totally forgotten. While this analogy could go for a good majority of the performers I write about here, none have faded or fallen so far from their previous colourful heights as Hamilton.

With his offbeat humour and fantastic reaction-based comedy, ‘Ham’ was once considered among the funniest men in the world (he was reportedly a favourite of both Chaplin and Keaton). But his career was dogged by spectacularly persistent bad luck. This continued beyond his early death, as his best films went up in smoke, leaving only a fraction of his works scattered in archives. Most of these are from the bookends of his career, either embryonic versions of the style he later perfected, or tired re-workings that his heart clearly wasn’t in. Only in snatches of classics like ‘THE VAGRANT’, ‘CRUSHED’ or ‘MOVE ALONG’ can we see what really made him special.

So, when a scarce or previously unseen Hamilton film turns up, it’s a pretty big deal for Ham’s fans (all 17 of us). Could each new discovery be the one, the film that restores his tattered reputation beyond doubt? A couple of years ago, a very rare example of his films, ‘A HOME MADE MAN’, turned up on eBay in a 16mm print. I placed several bids but lost out. The film never resurfaced; I figured it had gone to someone who didn’t want to share it with the world. That is, until I mentioned it to a friend, and it turned out that they had known the person who bought it. (Not only this, but there were some potential plans to have it telecine-ed (sic) with some other rare Ham films in the hope of possibly putting together a DVD of a few of his films. Excitingly, I finally got the chance to see the film a little while ago.

The stakes were high,  but the chances of it being a classic were pretty low. It was among Hamilton’s last silents, as problems with alcohol were taking their toll. Of another 1928 release, ‘ALMOST A GENTLEMAN’ critic Raymond Ganly’s review was short but brutal: “Remember how good Lloyd Hamilton used to be? Weep when you see him in this.” These late silent shorts tended to eschew his character based comedies for random gags and gratuitous slapstick. Would ‘A HOME MADE MAN’ be any different?

Well, as expected, it’s not the holy grail of Hamilton films. But, I doubt it would have made Mr Ganly weep, either. It was a pretty good comedy, below the Hal Roach comedies of the same time and Hamilton’s better previous work, but enjoyable. Like another late period Ham short, ‘BLAZING AWAY’, it has two distinct halves, and is based around Ham finding a job.

In the first reel, Ham has been sent by the employment agency to a soda fountain-cum-gym run by Kewpie Morgan. Morgan takes one look at him and winces, but he’s desperate, so Ham gets the job. Next we get the incompetent soda jerk routines you’d expect, with ice cream splattered, eggs broken and plates smashed. In fact, it’s all quite similar to the early scenes of Buster Keaton’s ‘COLLEGE’, from the year before. However, Hamilton is able to show what made him special. The way he delivers hackneyed gags in this line is uniquely his own, and it is not the slapstick itself that causes the laughs, but rather his hurt dignity. As a result, you feel less like you’re watching a Keaton rip-off, and more a reaction comedy that anticipates Oliver Hardy’s attempts to master simple tasks. As a result, the soda bar gags are the best moments of the film.

img_5413

Another typical Hamilton twist on standard material: he is carrying a huge pile of plates, that wobble to and fro. He loses his footing, and theplates are sliding all over the place…. but the crash never happens as he safely reaches the counter. Morgan and Hamilton sigh with relief; “I never broke a plate in my life,” says Lloyd. However, he has placed them on top of his apron on the counter top, and as he walks off, the plates finally crash to the ground.

Fearing for his remaining crockery, Morgan sends Hamilton in to the gym as a personal trainer. After all, if you can’t trust someone with breakables, then why not trust them with peoples’ health? Here, he predictably makes an equal mess of things, first trying to instruct a line of athletes in a nicely choreographed sequence, then taking to the gym equipment himself. Things go downhill from here, as his efforts on the rings lead to him swinging out of the window and clinging on to the ledge in a pretty feeble Harold Lloyd ripoff.

img_5425

Once he is safely back inside, the film ends with him pitted against Morgan in a boxing match, which he surprisingly wins. Ham victoriously leaves the gym behind.

img_5429

OK, so it’s not the classic  we could hope for. But, it does show what Hamilton could do, even with mediocre material, and as such I’m very glad to have seen it. Certainly it’s a decent comedy short for the time, and he makes the most of his opportunities, even when the material is subpar. Hamilton was without doubt a great, individual comic performer with his own distinct style. Yet again, after viewing one of his films, I’m left with the question: What could he have done with better material?