You don’t see too many Australian silent comedies. Several familiar comedians – Snub Pollard, Billy Bevan, Clyde Cook, Daphne Pollard – were Aussies, but they only made films after moving to the USA.
At the time that American silent comedy was maturing, the Australian film industry was in the doldrums (partly because of the dominance of US film), but a few comedies were turned out.
One surviving example is THE KID STAKES, a charming kid comedy from 1927. Following the adventures of a bunch of street larrikins from Woollamoolloo and their pet goat, this freewheeling little film has the flavour of Hal Roach’s OUR GANG films.
Like the Gang, it’s an ensemble piece, but the bunch of characters aren’t a Roach rip-off. Actually, they are inspired by the Sunday News comic strip ‘Fatty Finn’, and cartoonist Syd Nicholls makes a cameo in the opening scene. ‘Fatty’ is the lead character, a bit reminiscent of Jackie Cooper’s goodhearted little tough guy (he even looks a little like Cooper). With logic reminiscent of A.A. Milne, a title tells us that “they called him Fatty because he was not fat”. He’s played by Robin ‘Pop’ Ordell, the son of director Tal Ordell. (Tal was a well known character actor who turned to directing for this lone film – he plays the comic radio announcer in this film.)
Apparently, goat-chariot racing was a thing in 1920s Australia! Fatty’s gang are planning to enter their pet goat, Hector, in a big race, but their rival Bruiser lets Hector loose. He finds his way to a garden full of rare flowers, and after eating his fill is impounded by the owner. With the help of a pair of eloping lovers, and the hindrance of a bumbling policeman, they recapture Hector and make it in time to win the race.
Like the OUR GANG films, THE KID STAKES is often more charming than outright funny, but very watchable. It’s always fascinating to see silents made outside the standard American locations we’re used to seeing, and there’s a real slice-of-life quality to the old scenes of Sydney, the backyard games and dialect titles – not to mention the bizarre spectacle of the goat race! The bumbling policeman and goat provide some good laughs too.
On the downside, the direction is a bit clunky here and there, and there are too many titles. Old kid comedies always contain a few moments that make the more wary modern viewer wince – kids swimming naked in a stranger’s backyard pool? Or writing their names in blood? Ick. “The past is a different country”, after all.
Overall though, this is a fun watch that throws a light on another forgotten side of silent comedy. It’s certainly a pleasant way to do some armchair travelling for an hour of lockdown. The print below also deserves special mention for the music – played live to the film by Ian Cooper. I’m always astounded by the skill that silent film accompanists show, but Cooper’s task was even more of an achievement – he was blind! Astounding.
EDIT: Here’s a more complete version of the film: