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…?