kennington bioscope

Lame Brains, Lunatics, Lost films & Noisy silents: Silent Laughter, day 2.

 What’s better than a whole day of rare silent comedies on the big screen? A whole weekend of it! After an action-packed Saturday, the second and final day of SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND saw even more rare screenings, along with some very special guests. So, it was back into the Cinema Museum early on a grey and sleepy Sunday morning…

And how better to wake up on a sleepy sabbath day than with some fast-paced slapstick comedies? The LAME BRAINS & LUNATICS programme showcased the more manic, knockabout end of the silent comedy spectrum in a programme curated by American expert Steve Massa (whose authoritative book the programme was named after). Thanks to the technical wizardry of David Glass, we were able to see filmed introductions by Mr Massa to each of the five shorts, full of details, and entertainingly presented. These were rare films; as far as we know, at least two or three of them are the only known copies. We’d taken a look at these in the BFI archive and thought they were worth showing; now, inn beautiful prints on the big screen and with expert musical accompaniment by John Sweeney, the films sprang to life.

First up was a rare Arbuckle short, ‘LOVERS’ LUCK’ (1913). A standard piece of rural knockabout from ‘The Prince of Whales’, this features Arbuckle at typically violent odds with Al St John for the hand of Minta Durfee (Arbuckle’s real life wife). With extra support from Frank Hayes as a parson and Phyllis Allen as a harridan, this was an unsophisticated but very fun short. There was an especially neat conclusion, as Parson Hayes finds himself on the wrong side of a jealous husband, and hides in a wardrobe.; hiding from Minta’s parents, so does Arbuckle. Minta is also locked in there by her parents until she agrees to marry Al, but she and Roscoe are able to be married by the parson inside the wardrobe.

Also from the teens was ‘HIS BUSY DAY’ (1918). This starred Toto the clown, an eccentric character whose success in circuses did not translate to films. Hal Roach found this out to his cost; Toto hated film making, objecting to the whir of the camera and refusing to be dunked in water. Eventually, he broke his contract to return to the circus.

See the source imageOn-screen, he is an odd creature to be sure; his slithery, amphibious movements inside oversized clothes and a bucket-shaped hat give him the appearance of a strange, giant newt. His saucer-shaped eyes and slow blink anticipate a little of Langdon, but nothing else indicates any real kind of character. HIS BUSY DAY, as its title suggests, was a fairly generic little trifle, with parks, pretty girls, pies and a lack of continuity: Toto steals a pie, dresses as a woman to escape a policeman, gets a job as a newsreel cameraman for a bit, then gives it up after he angers the newsreel proprietor (Bud Jamison). Even allowing for some missing footage, this was clearly a fairly run of the mill effort. Toto did have good timing however, as the highlight of the film showed: a scene where he hides from Bud Jamison behind a pivoting wooden sign, at one point attaching himself to it in the splits position! Ultimately, Toto’s biggest contribution to film comedy was in leaving films, thus opening the door for Roach to hire a young Stan Laurel as his replacement.

This was a beautiful, albeit incomplete, print from the BFI, found under the title TOTO CAMERAMAN, we were able to identify the real title after viewing it last year. I believe this is the only print around?

Next up was another European, Marcel Perez, the man of a thousand names. Robinet, Marcel Fabre, Tweedledum, Tweede-Dan and Tweedy were some of his screen names over the years. Billed under the latter moniker in ‘SWEET DADDY’ (1921), Perez was already a veteran of the screen; his European films dated back to 1906! Like Max Linder, he had come to the U.S. during WW1, making several seriesSee the source image of independent comedies and also working as a director. ‘SWEET DADDY’ was a simple tale of a henpecked husband who seizes his hour of freedom when sent out for the groceries, but it was full of some great gags, and snappily directed by Perez. Particularly there was a charming sequence in which he gazes at a girl on a poster, who seems to come to life and flirt with him. Perez’ career was sadly coming to an end; cancer cost him a leg in 1923, and while he continued as a director, the illness returned and took his life in 1928. Nevertheless, he was obviously a real talent, and it’s been mainly due to the efforts of Steve Massa and Ben Model that we’re able to see his films again: they’ve put together two volumes of his surviving shorts on DVD.

The final two films were both Mermaid comedies, produced by Jack White, described by Steve as “silent comedy’s boy wonder!”. A fully-fledged producer by the age of 21, White specialised in fast and furious comedies full of stunts and sight gags. A typical example was DANGER! (1922), a magnificently elaborate gag fest starring Lige Conley. It’s hard to believe quite how much technical effort went into staging a little two-reeler like this, which contained chases, undercranked gags, wild stunts and animated trick gags, such as Conley’s eyebrows seeming to twirl around his forehead in surprise. No time to worry about characters in a film like this, but when it’s done so well, who cares? Even the borrowings were done well, as Conley appropriates Chaplin’s gag from THE ADVENTURER, where he utilises a lampshade as a disguise. Here, an extra twist was added, as Conley’s ‘lamp’ is next to the bed of the villain. The villain decides he wants to read, pulling Conley’s pyjama cord as the lightswitch, forcing him to continuously light matches to keep up the charade until he burns his fingers and the jig is up.

Similarly action packed was Al St John’s SKYBOUND (1926). Very much in the mould of the Roscoe Arbuckle shorts, this was full of slapstick grocery store gags, but Al’s performance was much more toned-down and almost Keatonesque. The second half had a rather arbitrary plane chase that was well filmed with trick shots, and had a great final gag as Al’s parachute blows him away down a very long, dusty road. This film came with an additional introduction from St John expert Annichen Skjaren in Norway, who shared entertaining tales about the film, and added that St John was in real life a wing walker capable of doing aerial stunts.

The more manic films like those that made up this programme are often shunned as being unsophisticated. Of course, they aren’t enduring classics, but you have to marvel at the sheer gusto and ingenuity that went into making them, and they can often be very funny indeed, especially when contextualised by experts such as Steve Massa and Annichen Skjaren. Many thanks to them for sharing their time with us, and to David Glass for coordinating the programme.

SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK pic 1Next up was ‘SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK’ (1921), perhaps Max Linder’s best feature. It’s now famous for having one of the best versions of that broken mirror routine, some 12 years before the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP, but the whole film is most entertaining. David Robinson’s introduction paid a heartful tribute to Max’s daughter Maud Linder, who passed away last year. It was her zealous promotion of her father’s talents that has ensured he is still remebered today, almost 100 years after his death.

There was an extra Linder-shaped bonus in the form of ‘LES EFFETS DE PILULES’, or ‘LOVE AND GOOD FELLOWSHIP PILLS’. One of his French shorts, this was in a new restoration by Bob Geoghegan of the Archive Film Agency. Max is down in the dumps, and is prescribed the eponymous pills; they raise his spirits enormously. His wife also takes some, with even more vivid results: she’s soon launching herself at every man she meets in the street! Max is in hot pursuit, challenging each man to a duel! In the missing final sequence, all the men show up for a duel, but Max shares the pills around and all is forgotten. A great fun little short that shows how much more sophisticated Max was than his contemporaries.

Sophisticated was certainly not a word that applied to WE’RE IN THE NAVY NOW (1926). A vehicle for the team of gruff Wallace Beery and shrimp Raymond Hatton, this was a standard service comedy, basically a series of all-too-familiar blackout gags involving hammocks, scrubbing floors, peeling potatoes, etc etc. Still, perhaps audiences hadn’t seen it all 3000 times before in 1926; certainly the Beery-Hatton team were very popular, making 4 such service pictures that also took them through the army, air force and fire service. In fact, the commercial success of their teaming possibly inspired the Laurel & Hardy pairing. Certainly, the opening scenes in which boxer Beery is knocked cold and wakes up in the ring hours later was influential on the opening scenes of L & H’s ‘BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. L & H, of course, made the situation much funnier by making the smaller member of the team the boxer, and added in Hardy’s exasperated camera looks to make something timeless. There was one superb gag in the original sequence though: Beery has landed on a chair when he is knocked out; when he finally comes round hours later, we see that he has been sat on a very crumpled Billy Bletcher the entire time!

Kevin Brownlow’s introduction admitted the failings of the film, and he recalled that he had offered director Eddie Sutherland the chance to view the film in later years. Sutherland repeatedly declined… ‘nuff said!

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Next up was the return of Monty Banks, in a talkie! ‘SO YOU WON’T TALK’ (1935) is a rare sound starring vehicle for Banks, and is a wonderfully creative idea for a silent comedian: he spends most of the film unable to speak. This give him lots of opportunity for communicating in pantomime and sight gags. The reason is another one of those improbable inheritance plots –if he can go thirty days without talking, he will inherit a fortune – but it’s set up very well in the exposition; we get to meet the soon-to-be-deceased, a real grouch who is driven mad by his chatty, fortune-hunting family and understand his motivation for making the will. Banks is the family outcast, an incessantly talkative Italian waiter (a nice cover to make Banks’ strong Italian accent more acceptable to contemporary audiences), who staying silent will be a real challenge for. The build up to the will is quite slow, but it really sets the situation up well. Highlights of Banks’ silence include his attempts to mime what drink he wants, a wrestling match as the family attempt to find his birthmark, and Banks’ seduction by Enid Stamp-Taylor. A strong cast, including wonderfully dopey Claude Dampier, and snappy direction from William Beaudine, helped get lots of laughs from this film. If only more silent clowns had got to make a talkie like this. One can only wonder what Keaton might have done with the idea…

From talkies full of silence to silent filled with noise… it was time for some NOISY SILENTS! Hosted by masterful silent accompanist Neil Brand, this programme presented some of the silent shorts whose gags relied on noise. As well as Neil’s accompaniment, there was an orchestra of cacophony providing live sound effects ranging from kazoos and trumpets to ukuleles, squeakers, drums, car horns, pots and pans! A special shout out must also go to cellist Emily, who stepped in at the last moment and did a fantastic job. Her cello was an integral sound for Harry Langdon’s wonderful FIDDLESTICKS, a tale of Harry’s attempts to make a living busking. Lupino Lane’s SUMMER SAPS, a tale of a holiday from hell in a noisy boarding house, and Our Gang’s NOISY NOISES, both offered comedy of frustration and chance for some creative sound effects!

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A selection of the sound effects for NOISY SILENTS…

 

tootinWe finished off in fine style with some audience participation for Laurel & Hardy’s YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’, in which the pants-ripping finale was replicated through the ripping of newspapers placed under each chair in the auditorium. This programme was great fun, and a real variation on the usual silent film accompaniment. No kazoos were hurt during the screening of these films.

And just like that, it was time for the final show of the weekend. It was a fine finish, with a very special guest. Roy Hudd, one of the last links to the music hall and variety tradition, presented his favourite visual comedy clips, in conversation with Glenn Mitchell. This was a real treat; Roy was a fantastic, funny storyteller, and had real enthusiasm and ROY HUDD for programme noteknowledge for the old comedians. Among the highlights were clips from Tati’s MON ONCLE, Lupino Lane’s JOYLAND, and Roy’s own semi-silent film ‘THE MALADJUSTED BUSKER’. Finally, we concluded with a full showing of the complete ‘BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. I’ve written about this film before, but it was as marvellous tonight as the first time I saw the ‘new’ footage; simply one of the iconic silent comedy scenes, now once again “as nature intended”.

As the lights came up for the final time, I felt incredibly lucky and grateful. Lucky that films like ‘BATTLE’ still exist, against the odds; luckier still that we are able to see them, especially with terrifically talented musicians and with informative introduction. Most of all, I felt lucky to be able to be able to share all this with other likeminded people in a warm and happy atmosphere. There’s a danger that watching old films in darkened rooms, sometimes alone, can become a very solitary hobby, but the chance to enjoy it as a shared experience, especially with the lovely folks at the Kennington Bioscope, is something else entirely.

Huge thanks to all the KB folk, especially to David Wyatt, who curated the event magnificently, and of course to Kevin Brownlow. Thanks too, to all the musicians and speakers. The Silent laughter events are something very special; here’s to the next one!

For more comprehensive info, here are the full programme notes, courtesy of the Kennington Bio website.

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A Perfect Gentleman, the sheik of slapstick and the funniest woman in the world: A weekend at the Kennington Bioscope (part 1)

DX8lxP1WsAEtrNa.jpgI’ve just returned from SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND at London’s Cinema Museum. The fourth such event run by the lovely folk at Kennington Bioscole, these are now a real highlight of my year, and I was privileged to have some involvement in selecting and presenting  a few films. Of course, we’re lucky to have silent comedies so freely available on DVD, YouTube and everywhere else, but the real way they’re meant to be seen is like this: on a big screen, as a shared experience with other cinemagoers, and with live musical accompaniment. Stand up and take a bow, John Sweeney, Meg Morley. Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulos, Cyrus Gabrysch, whose wonderful playing brought these films to life. To hear the expert introductions of historians such as Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson only heightened the experience. Here’s part one of a review of the weekend. Part two to follow!

The weekend began with THE NIGHT CLUB (1925), starring Raymond Griffith (promoted as ‘The New Sheik of Slapstick!”). His first starring feature, it is a wonderful vehicle for his understated, unique comic style. The film launched his career in features with a high pedigree; produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, it was directed by his protégées Paul Iribe and Frank Urson and based on a play by DeMille’s brother.

raymond_griffithThis is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women but has to undergo an arranged marriage to inherit a fortune. He genuinely falls in love with his arranged bride (Vera Reynolds), but she thinks he’s only after her for the money. A despondent Griffith pays a bandit (Wallace Beery) to bump him off, but Vera finds out the truth and they are reconciled. Now Griff’s only problem is to tell the bandit that no, thank you, he doesn’t want to die anymore…

It’s a complicated story and even that summary doesn’t take account of many of the tangents and subplots that arise. It’s easy to see why it was a failure as a play, but as a Griffith vehicle it succeeds admirably. Our hero wins through with a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.

There are also great performances from Beery, William Austin and Louise Fazenda, not to mention some great suicide gags and lovely location shooting on the dusty paradise of Catalina Island.

Director Eddie Sutherland contended that Griffith’s failing as a comic was that he tried to mix too many styles, but the inclusion of sight gags and slapstick alongside more gentle material makes films like THE NIGHT CLUB much more entertaining than many of the light comedies of the era.

Griffith’s best films were yet to come, as he refined his suave, sly style; his best surviving films are probably PATHS TO PARADISE and HANDS UP. THE NIGHT CLUB, however, remains a fun and different comedy. By the way, if you’re wondering where the night club of the title comes in… it doesn’t. Kevin Brownlow explained in his introduction that this was a side effect of the studios’ block booking system. Often films were sold to exhibitors before they were filmed or even written. Paramount had promised a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, so they delivered a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, even though their new story had nothing at all to do with one!

Next it was on to a programme of British shorts, titled THE BRITISH ARE COMING and presented by Tony Fletcher. Now, these can be a mixed bag. There are some fantastic British silent comedies, but many are a bit too polite and ponderous. Certainly, they were created in a different idiom to the American model of silent comedy.This programme had a higher batting average than many, showcasing some offbeat efforts.

‘BOOKWORMS’, made in 1920, is a charming little vehicle for Leslie Howard. Written by A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories), it shows Milne’s literary instincts in a witty modern fairytale pastiche. Substituting suburban villas for castles and fiery housemaids for dragons, this is an updated Rapunzel-style tale of Howard’s attempts to contact Pauline Johnson, who is locked away by her Aunt and Uncle, and made to read books all day. Howard’s love note arranging a rendezvous, sent inside her library book, also reaches three other people, resulting in a farcical meeting of several different characters, each thinking the other has sent it. This is a mild, but very charming tale. Much of the humour comes from the breaking of the fourth wall, especially in the intertitles.

This was a pet tactic of director Adrian Brunel, who loved to play with the medium of film. More of Brunel’s whimsical humour was seen in CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA. A spoof travelogue, this skewers the pomoposity of the genre superbly. Again, much of the humour coems through intertitles, juxtaposition of images and bizarre use of stock  footage. In its sublime silliness, the short anticipates Spike Milligan’s work (especially sketches from ‘Q’, like ‘First Irish Rocket to the Moon’)

Also experimental was THE FUGITIVE FUTURIST, in which an inventor produces a magic device that shows visions of the future. Through the magic of double exposure, animation and an effect that makes the emulsion seem to melt off the film, we see waves lapping at the shores of Trafalgar square, Tower Bridge turned into a monorail, and houses that build themselves. A bizarre little film!

There was a chance to glimpse behind the scenes at the film industry (and film fandom) with STARLINGS OF THE SCREEN. This short chronicles the progress of a competition run by Picture Show magazine, whereby 3000 young ladies entered to be in with a chance of winning a film role; kind of ‘THE X FACTOR’ of its day! The 15 shortlisted provincial candidates are seen trying their hardest to act at a series of screen tests at Oswald Stoll’s studios. Also on hand is comic actor Moore Marriott, later best known as one of Will Hay’s sidekicks, who puts the girls through their paces in a series of short little sketches. This was a great little item: a fascinating time capsule, often (unintentionally) hilarious. There was also a touch of poignancy in the doomed ambitions of the film hopefuls, who simply didn’t have ‘it’ and would soon return to obscurity. Nancy Baird of Glasgow, and Sheilagh Allen of Londonderry, whatever became of you?

So far, so good. The only one of these films to disappoint was ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’. Starring Guy Newall & Ivy Duke, this too played with the medium of cinema, having a prologue breaking the fourth wall, in which Duke & Newall invite the public to join them in their dressing rooms preparing for the film. The story itself was the tale of Duke’s perpetual discomfort caused by her woollen underwear. At the theatre, Newall is sat behind her, absentmindedly fiddles with a thread he sees dangling from the bottom of her chair and soon has unravelled her entire vest. It was a nice little idea for a throwaway gag, but stretching it out to almost half an hour was fairly infuriating! I could have seen Lloyd or Keaton doing a similar gag, but as a little aside, rather than building a whole film around it! Nevertheless, an interesting little item, and overall this showed that British films were often very creative and playful.

the_nickel_nurser__poster___stan_taffel_After lunch, I was thrilled to be able to present an overview of CHARLEY CHASE. Chase is one of my absolute favourite silent (and sound comedians), and he’s often been a neglected figure, so it’s always a pleasure to show his films to new audiences. The 1920s, with their increased focus on human comedy, were Chase’s decade. In front of the camera, he played an eternally embarrassed young man, while behind it he was an enormously inventive, prolific and consistent comedy craftsman.

An extract from ALL WET (1924) provided an early example of a classic Chase situation, escalating from simple, believable beginnings to peaks of absurdity. Charley is on his way to meet a train in his car; he helps another motorist out of a mud puddle, and in doing so becomes stuck himself. His attempts to free the car end in it being completely submerged, necessitating Charley’s repairs of the car from underwater. ALL WET builds gags brilliantly, and is a fine example of the teamwork between Chase and its director, future Oscar-winner Leo McCarey (who once said “Everything I know, I learned from Charley Chase”).

Together Chase and MccCarey thrived off each other, developing a unique style of intricate storytelling. When Chase’s films were expanded to two reels, they were able to use the extra space to construct beautifully elaborate farces, mini-masterpieces packed with gags, situations and great characters. To illustrate this, we saw large excerpts from ‘WHAT PRICE GOOFY’, ‘FLUTTERING HEARTS’ and ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’, the latter getting some of the biggest laughs of the weekend with its split-second timed multiple exchanges of trousers.

Two things struck me forcefully while selecting the clips:

1 – it’s incredibly hard to take excerpts out of Chase’s films, as they are so tightly and masterfully constructed.

2 – Chase really realised the value of his supporting casts. Perhaps it was background as a director, but he never seems egotistical about his own performances, always allowing others to shine; his films are true ensemble pieces. Oliver Hardy, Katherine Grant, Gale Henry, Thelma Todd, Tom Dugan, Vivian Oakland and Buddy the Dog are just some of the performers given great opportunities in the films we saw.

The closing scenes from ‘THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG’ showcased Charley’s illustrious career in talkies, and we finished off with the complete ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’. The apotheosis of Charley’s taking a simple idea to ridiculous extremes,  this tale follows him and and his wife as they both have plastic surgery, fail to recognise each other and embark on an affair! This has righty been recognised as a masterpiece, and has been added to the USA’s National Film Registry along with other classics like ‘THE GENERAL’ and ‘BIG BUSINESS’.

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It was a real delight to hear the laughter at Chase’s films, with several people in the audience commenting that it was their first time seeing them. Charley didn’t live long enough to see his work being appreciated; if only he could have heard the response his films got on Saturday…

Also in the comedy of embarrassment mould was Monty Banks’ 1927 feature ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. We saw it in a pristine 35mm copy from the BFI, albeit with Spanish intertitles. Monty was, for my money, one of the hardest working silent comedians. He was an Italian, real name Mario Bianchi, who arrived in the US in 1915.  He spoke very little English, but through hard work and a good deal of good luck,  scraped by in a series of Chaplinesque film roles. These included supporting Roscoe Arbuckle, who gave him his new screen name. Making a series of comedies for obscure and independent companies, he eventually found a toehold in the industry with a cheerful little character, trying his best to be dapper, but always on the back foot. In the 1920s he shifted focus to vehicles with a Lloydian mix of comedy with thrills and speed, turning out a series of features that pitted him against racing cars, speedboats and runaway trains. From 1926, Pathé had been promoting him as Lloyd’s successor, but had more or less given up on him by the time of ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. With some evidence of budgets being cut, it features less of the high-speed stunt climaxes, but makes up for it with brilliantly gag-packed sequences and situation comedy. Monty works in a bank, and is due to marry the president’s daughter. En route to his wedding he innocently becomes drunk; suffice to say, his wedding does not end well, especially as he spends much of the time trying to kick his future mother-in-law in the rear!

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Meanwhile, Monty’s colleague has robbed the bank, planning to pin the robbery on Monty. Waking with a terrible hangover to a broken engagement, Monty decides to leave town, but mixes his bags, and ends up with the stolen money. The rest of the film takes place on board a ship and follows Monty’s attempts to:

  1.  foil the crooks trying to get the money back
  2. win back his girl who is aboard the ship
  3. return the money to her father and prove his innocence.

He might be on a ship, but plain sailing, it ain’t! A new complication arises as Monty is constantly caught in compromising situations with the purser’s wife, a running gag that has some brilliant variations. Best of all is a sequence where Monty, finding her unconscious, accidentally tears her dress off. His attempts to remedy the situation end up making even more of her clothes fall off, but he manages to improvise an entirely new outfit for her. A wonderful routine of physical comedy, in a film full of them; it’s the funniest Banks film I’ve yet seen.

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Part of the credit is surely due to Clyde Bruckman, one of the very best silent gagmen, hired by Banks due to his work with Keaton & Lloyd. A PERFECT GENTLEMAN does indeed borrow some gags from the Keaton/Lloyd vehicles. Overall though, it shows Monty moving from a direct Lloyd influence to a more farcical style redolent of Charley Chase. In fact, this could have been the ideal vehicle to launch Chase in features. A great little film, and one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Nevertheless, however good performers like Banks or Raymond Griffith are, the following programme, KEATON CLASSICS, made it clear just why Buster Keaton has attained his mythical status in comparison to the more forgotten comics. Four authors – Kevin Brownlow, David Robinson, Polly Rose & David McLeod – presented their favourite sequences from Buster’s features. Each sequence was, of course, magnificent, and I almost felt like I was seeing them for the first time again. It was a lovely idea to have personal introductions, as Keaton means so many different things to so many people.

David Robinson praised the dramatic strength of OUR HOSPITALITY, reminding us that it was a stunning debut in feature directing (THE SAPHEAD was not directed by Keaton and THREE AGES planned as three shorts glued together, in case it didn’t work out; ergo, HOSPITALITY was BK’s first planned feature). He had picked the river scene that culminates in Buster’s dramatic plunge across a waterfall to rescue Natalie Talmadge, a sequence that gives me the shivers every time I see it.

 

Kevin Brownlow’s choice was the wonderfully action-packed Tong War sequence from THE CAMERAMAN, and David McLeod opted for the iconic cyclone climax of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. Most fascinating of all was Polly Rose, a newcomer to writing about BK; an editor by trade, she was ideally placed to share discoveries about how Keaton achieved his visual effects walking into the cinema screen in SHERLOCK, JR. Through her research, she also shared discoveries about alternate versions of the scene, in which Buster seemed to enter the screen on a beam of light shone from his projector, before being spat back out into a tangle of film. Polly shared evidence of this version being previewed from at least three trade papers, and found clues in publicity stills that point to the action that might have occurred. A fascinating theory and who knows? Maybe one day one of those preview prints will turn up. Stranger things have happened!

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I know Keaton’s films so well by know that I sometimes take for granted how incredible they are. Seeing excerpts like this from different films reminded me just how diverse and special his films were, for not just his performances and gags, but also his storytelling, stunts and technical wizardry, not to mention that intangible quality that makes him so compelling.

How to follow four of Keaton’s finest sequences? Step up to the plate, Beatrice Lillie! Miss Lillie made only 7 films in her long career, and 1926’s EXIT SMILING is her sole silent. Nevertheless, her brief stay in Hollywood elicited devotion from the West Coast royalty; Chaplin described her as “my female counterpart”, while Buster Keaton guarded her hotel room door, “lying there like Old Dog Tray”. EXIT SMILING shows exactly why. One of the sadly few silent feature comedies to really show a female comedian to good advantage, it gives her opportunity for both great comic acting and genuine pathos. As Violet, Bea is a dogsbody with a travelling theatre company who longs to play the part of a vamp. She gets her chance to act not on the stage, but in real life, where she has to seduce a villain to save the man she loves. The scenes of her vamping the villain are simply brilliant, especially the moment where her pearl necklace disintegrates. If only shexite’d made more films!

EXIT SMILING was given a marvellously authoritative introduction by Michelle Facey, who summed up Bea’s career and appeal brilliantly. Accompaniment was by the wonderful Meg Morley. The screening was, in fact, of Beatrice Lillie’s personal 16mm copy of the film, and the personal connection of the evening didn’t end there. The last word must go to David Robinson, who shared his poignant story of attending a screening of the film with Beatrice Lillie in 1968.

“She was starting to forget things… They’d taken her to see the film ‘STAR’ that afternoon, so I asked her how she liked the film.

“What film?” she said. She didn’t seem like a star, she was just a little, worried old lady, who was always asking where her coat and purse were. It would be “Where’s my coat?” then “Where’s my purse?”

“So we went on and on, the coat, the purse, the coat, the purse… until the time came to go into the theatre.

“Where’s my coat?” she said, again. I told her I’d carry it, but she just said “I must have my coat”.

“We walked into the auditorium, and I was wondering what on earth was going to happen… then I noticed she was dragging the coat along behind her.

“Come along, Fido!” she said, and everyone roared with laughter. She came to life and kept doing these little bits of business, but knew exactly when to stop. Throughout the film, I heard the sound of her laughter.

Afterwards, I asked her what she thought of it.

“Oh, it was very good,” replied Beatrice Lillie, “and she’s so funny. And you know, she does things just like me!”

 

*Part two coming soon!*

 

Silent Laughter Approacheth…

It’s nearly here: Silent Laughter Weekend offers the UK’s most diverse lineup of classic and rarely seen silent comedies, showcased at London’s Cinema Museum. I’ve spent the last few snowy days editing together the programme notes for the twelve different programmes and I’m now really excited for the weekend. Here are some of my highlights of the programme:

raymond_griffithTHE NIGHT CLUB showcases Raymond Griffith, a real individual among silent comedians. Certainly, he bore very little stylistic similarities to Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. His closest evolutionary relative was probably Max Linder, with whom he shared a suave sophistication and silk-hatted swagger (try saying that with a lisp). To Linder’s breezy, debonair attitude, Griffith added a slyness and air of wry amusement that were entirely his own. This is one of his few surviving features.

1902869_1001306219882168_8346693282609805506_nI’m delighted to be screening a programme of CHARLEY CHASE excerpts. Putting it together has been much harder than I expected, purely because of the sheer volume of excellent films Chase turned out. I’ve also discovered how hard it is to take excerpts from many of his films, as their careful construction means that practically every frame counts, and it’s hard to cut anything out. Not that watching Chase films back-to-back is particularly bad homework to have… After doing so, I’ve come away with a whole new appreciation for not just his comic performances, but also his incredibly meticulous comedy construction. One thing is for definite: there’ll be a complete screening of his all-time classic, ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’, which is undoubtedly the funniest plastic surgery farce you’ll ever see!

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A PERFECT GENTLEMAN is a real gem, and also a very rare film. One of Monty Banks’ starring comedies, this is something like a cross between a Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase film, and is very funny. As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t been screened publicly in many years, and is a rare complete 35MM print from the BFI.

 

SKYBOUND is a rarity starring AL ST JOHN (Roscoe Arbuckle’s nephew) that showcases his wild brand of slapstick with some rousing aeroplane stunts. Silent Comedy expert and author Steve Massa has programmed this and three other rare shorts from silent comedy’s anarchic fringe in a programme named after his wonderful book, ‘LAME BRAINS & LUNATICS’. he’s also compiled some encyclopedic screening notes for this and the other, rarely seen shorts, some of which are the only known copies.

exitEXIT SMILING is one of Beatrice Lillie’s few excursions into film, and her only starring silent feature. What a shame! This is a terrific comedy giving lots of opportunity to see why Chaplin described her as his female counterpart.

FIDDLESTICKS is my favourite Harry Langdon short, and an excellent way to begin your acquaintance with him. It’s one of several ‘NOISY SILENTS’, which will be presented with live sound effects to reflect the cacophony depicted within them! Harry’s attempts at busking will also be accompanied by Our Gang’s NOISY NOISES, Lupino Lane’s SUMMER SAPS and Laurel & Hardy’s YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’.

Speaking of L & H, the weekend will be rounded off with a showing of the ‘new’, nearly complete THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, as part of a programme hosted by comedian Roy Hudd. A real treat!

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For the full programme, see www.kenningtonbioscope.com. Tickets are still available, and it’s the perfect antidote to this never-ending winter! Hope to see some of you there.

 

More Laurel & Hardy Revelations

This is the second in a series of posts  about Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend, where a host of rare and obscure silent comedies were shown.

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I keep saying it, but it’s a damn good time to be a silent film fan. We’ve seen so many rediscoveries of classic comedy footage lately, some that we didn’t even know existed in the first place! For Laurel & Hardy fans, of course the big news has been the rediscovery of the complete pie fight from ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’, but there have been other discoveries too. Last year, we saw a new, much improved version of their early short ‘DUCK SOUP’; now comes a similar upgrade for ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’, as well as two previously lost solo films.

At Silent Laughter Weekend, these were introduced by L & H experts Glenn Mitchell and David Wyatt, who provided some context for the rediscoveries. When Robert Youngson was compiling his silent comedy compilation films like ‘THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY and ‘WHEN COMEDY WAS KING’ in the late 50s, he was the first person to access many of the silent comedy films for years. He was able to access the films before they decomposed, and the excerpts he chose are in many cases the only surviving material of the films now. However, as well as taking the footage he needed, it turns out that he had a habit of sneakily making copies of whole films that he particularly liked. He kept quiet about this, presumably so he didn’t get into trouble, and the prints went undetected. Meanwhile, by the time companies like Blackhawk got around to issuing commercial prints of the films, many of the masters had gone forever. Youngson’s orphan prints, which have only just come to light, preserved these in the nick of time. This is how the ‘BATTLE’ footage came to be, and is also the provenance of ‘new’ prints of ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ and ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, found by Jon Mirsalis, while examining other films in the Gordon Berkow (ex-Youngson) collection.

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In contrast to the large chunks of ‘new’ footage in ’BATTLE…’, the new discoveries in ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ are less revelatory. They are, however, still worth noting. Essentially, there are a few scenes which go on a bit longer, presumably because advanced decomposition later led to these segments being cut. While these can be seen as fairly minor differences, they do restore the full film to us as the filmmakers intended it to be seen, for the first time since the late 1920s. Here are the key differences I spotted while watching it through:

1) Opening scene: The UK Universal DVD set introduces Stan to us as ‘Little Goofy’, but not Babe. This version offers a tiny bit of extra footage of the pair at the outset, as well as an intro for Ollie: “Big Goofy— convicted on purely circumstantial evidence—- they caught him with both hands in the cash register”. I believe this was included in the US ‘Lost films’ version, but certainly for UK fans this is new.

2) The flooded office: We get a couple of seconds of extra footage, showing Frank Brownlee stepping into the office and falling in the water that has risen through Stan and Ollie’s tunnel.

3) The paint scene: this is the most interesting new bit of footage, as it’s a completely new, albeit short, scene of L & H. After Stan has painted Dorothy Coburn’s behind, the pair run in and out of some parked cars , and the scene fades out, ending the sequence. The Youngson version adds a tag: we fade up on the title “Four hours later—- “ and see the cop still in pursuit of the boys in the dark! Stan drops his paint can, and the cop ends up tripping over and landing in it. This is where the scene was supposed to end.

4) Finally, there’s a little extra footage of the French prison governors as they are introduced, following the scene above.

While studio publicity referred to this as the first film starring Roach’s new team, and many historians accept it as such , it never seemed quite so clear cut to the studio just what the team would be billed as. Publicity refers to “Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy”, “Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel”, and even “the new comedy trio, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and James Finlayson”! How did the original titles decide it? Revealed for the first time here, they fudge the issue by not giving team billing at all! The film is titled as ‘Hal Roach presents ‘THE SECOND 100 YEARS’’, with the cast following on the next title, like this:

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Stan Laurel

  Oliver Hardy

    James Finlayson

      Stanley J Sandford

Perhaps the lack of a joint star billing above the title explains the reason why neither Stan nor Babe considered ‘THE SECOND 100 YEAR’ to be their ‘official’ first film, both instead giving this claim to ’PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’. As L & H fans know, ’PHILIP’ is actually far less like an official L & H film than this one; what it does have, however, is the billing ’Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy in…’ before the title. Perhaps ‘PHILIP’ represents the moment when the matter of billing crystallised, a small but significant moment in their history. Speaking of ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, the new version from Youngson’s collection doesn’t contain any new footage, but does offer an upgrade in image quality. Hopefully both prints will be restored and available soon.

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SOLO DISCOVERIES

We were also treated to the UK premieres of two L & H solo films. Both come from Italy’s Cineteca Nazionale, and accordingly have Italian titles. Translation voiceovers were ably provided for us on the day by Susan Cygan.

I wrote about the rediscovery of Stan Laurel’s solo film ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ a while ago, and particularly one two minute scene that made it to YouTube. To recap briefly, this was a spoof of Rudolph Valentino’s ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, and the only one of Stan’s 12 films for Joe Rock not to be around in some form. However, only 7 minutes of fragments have been recovered. On viewing the full extract, it turns out that the surviving footage is not one or two scenes, but a quick tour through the whole film. We open with Stan, as Rhubarb Vaselino, “practising his favourite hobby”: doing his make up. This is a parallel scene to one in Stan’s other Valentino spoof ‘MUD AND SAND’, both mocking Valentino’s legendary vanity. Here, Stan, applies beauty spots and goes about his ritual with comically oversized accessories.

monsieur_dont_care__still1_Next, we have a brief dinner table scene where Stan enjoys some bathtub gin, and a card table scene, where Stan is playing against a count, and accuses him of cheating. This leads to him having to flee, disguising himself as a barber, a per the Valentino original. There are the brief bones of a comic barber sketch, before we cut into the flirtation scene I discussed at greater length in the last issue: Stan is attempting to escort the lady across a puddle in the street to an anachronistic yellow taxi cab. He lays down his coat, Walter Raleigh style, on top of the puddle. Stepping on it, Stan and escort disappear beneath the water; yup, it’s an early example of the famous L & H bottomless mudhole™! Here’s that scene, courtesy of the Cineteca’s YouTube account:

Following this scene, a title informs us that “ a new lady makes her entrance into society”: cue a great scene of a vampy Stan swaggering along that holds lots of promise. Alas, this is where the footage ends, so we can only wonder what happened next!

‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ looks like it was great fun, up there with the best of the Laurel parodies. Frustratingly, the surviving footage always cuts to another scene before any gags have the chance to build, but there are some very funny moments peppered throughout.

Finally, the Universe’s laws of equilibrium have been preserved, as , to accompany the new Laurel solo discovery, there’s a new Hardy solo film too! Hooray! ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is more complete than ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’; it is ,however, both much less funny and rather less interesting. The star is Jimmy Aubrey, a Karno colleague of Laurel and Chaplin, who made a string of alliteratively titled films (SQUEAKS & SQUAWKS, DAMES & DENTISTS, etc)  like this one for Vitagraph in the late teens and early 20s. While I can usually find something to enjoy in practically any comedian, I have to admit Aubrey leaves me cold in these films. He later showed, in character parts, (eg L & H’s ‘THAT’S MY WIFE’) that he could be very funny, but gets little chance to show any natural gag or pantomime ability in his own films, or at least the ones I’ve seen so far.

movpicwor471movi_0013Take this film, for example. It’s mainly crude knockabout set in a department store, based rather obviously on Chaplin’s ‘THE FLOORWALKER’, right down to a central staircase prop. Here, it’s a precursor of the collapsing staircase Keaton used in 1921’s ‘THE HAUNTED HOUSE’. Did Buster get the idea from here? Whatever, it’s a perfect example of why Keaton was head and shoulders above performers like Aubrey; in ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’, there’s no reason for the prop to be there, and the only gags that happen are people falling down it. Keaton, on the other hand, furnishes a reason for the staircase, and adds in a host of different variations on its use, that almost make it a character in itself.

The best scene in ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is actually outside the department store, as Babe chases Jimmy. Jimmy hides amongst some dummies and Babe searches for him, slowly becoming more and more suspicious. It’s a fun little moment of quiet between the slapstick madness, and significant that Aubrey is funniest when doing pretty much nothing, and leaving the reacting to Babe. The (unintentionally) most amusing moment of all though, is surely when the heroine writes a note describing Aubrey as “cuddly and charming”! What had she been drinking? I can’t think of any two less suitable adjectives!

Hardy almost certainly wouldn’t have used this description, as Aubrey had him fired from the series shortly after for upstaging him. It’s easy to see why, based on the evidence of ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’. Even behind his huge prop moustache and eyebrows, the touches of humour Babe added to his traditional ‘heavy’ roles really shine through in a film with few genuinely amusing gags, and show how sophisticated his acting style was compared to most of the other performers in the film. Speaking of other performers, there’ s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him scene of Monty Banks, and director Dick Smith (Alice Howell’s husband) also has a small role. It might not be a classic, but ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is an interesting film to see, and helps paint a fuller picture of Hardy’s solo career.

These two films have been rescued and restored in 4k by the Cineteca Nazionale. Many thanks to them, both for their efforts in doing so, and for allowing the films to be shown as part of Silent Laughter Weekend.

Silent Laughter returns to London!

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Last October, Kennington Bioscope presented an all-day feast of silent comedy, which I wrote about here, here, here and here. Now, Silent Laughter returns to London’s Cinema Museum for a full weekend!

The programme is just days away from being revealed, but in the meantime, save the date of October 22 – 23, 2016.

More info will be available at http://www.kenningtonbioscope.com  and also at http://www.silentlaughter.org. I’ve also made a dedicated page on this site.

Tickets are a steal at just £28 for  weekend pass, or £16 for a day.

Watch this space for more details as they come!

Four Silent Comedy Contenders

I’m blogging about comedy films seen at Kennington Bioscope’s SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY.

The first show of the afternoon was my turn to take the stage, presenting some shorts starring forgotten silent comedians. Time has slimmed down  our view of popular culture so that a few names dominate – to the novice, Chaplin and maybe Keaton. To the slightly more dedicated film fan – Harold Lloyd, L & H, maybe at a pinch Harry Langdon. But silent comedy was a huge, rich field. So many talented names are unfairly forgotten, so it was a privilege to give these neglected talents some of the exposure they deserve. The four SILENT CONTENDERS I selected were great comedians all, at one time or another, tipped to be the next Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. That they didn’t quite make it was down was down to a variety of factors ( the studio system, time and place, personal demons, etc). Nevertheless, they turned out some work that I think is quite, quite wonderful in its own right.

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First up, was a comedian who pre-dated even Chaplin. Max Linder was one of the first international comedians. He was French, and making films from the mid 1900s for Pathe. These little films, with their cardboard painted sets, are primitive in their look, but Linder’s acting and directing are amazingly sophisticated for films over 100 years old. He played a suave yet often embarrassed boulevardier, a silk-hatted Romeo who got himself into farcical situations like fighting duels and hiding inside suits of armour. Chaplin was a fan, dedicating a photo to him “ To the one and only Max- the professor”. He could well have made it.
visuel_15But then, WW1 intervened, just as Chaplinmania was striking. It was a fulcrum of Linder’s career for two reasons. For one thing, it decimated the French film industry. Linder managed to get around this by going to America to make films. At a time when anything vaguely. Chaplin-related was gold dust, an endorsement from the man himself was irresistible to the American studios. However, the war had also had a more personal, and sinister, impact on Linder; called up and severely injured in conflict, his experiences affected him mentally and physically. He would never quite have the strength to capitalise on his opportunities, and eventually his demons won with his 1925 suicide.

Before this tragedy, he did make a run of 3 superb feature films in the U.S.. ‘Seven Years bad luck’, ‘The Three must Get There’s’ and ‘Be My Wife’, failed to win the audience they deserved to give Max a breakthrough to the big time. Despite this, they are really quite excellent. We showed a scene from seven Years bad luck that is an antecedent of the famous ‘mirror routine’ in Duck Soup. A  masterpiece of timing and comic reaction, It went over a treat with the audience.

The other three ‘contenders’ were comics who flourished in short films, but never made it to features. Over time, feature films came to be seen as the acid test for greatness, but this wasn’t always the case. In the beginning, all comedy films were short. When Mack Sennett made the feature length ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’, they said it couldn’t be done. When Chaplin made ‘THE KID’ , publicity marvelled at the 6 reel picture “ upon which the famous comedian has worked a whole year!” If only they’d known how long it would later take him to make ‘CITY LIGHTS’.

Of course, Chaplin’s features were a great success; features became the norm. Shorts, over time, became the Cinderella. Today, the comics best remembered are the ones who took on the challenge of feature length films – carrying the fuller, more developed stories showed their skill, and these are indeed the films that endure the best.

However, there’s been this image of the comics in shorts, with a view that anyone who couldn’t make it in features was a lesser talent. That it was all just moustachioed men falling in water and flinging custard pies around like  But shorts, in their own way, are a separate art form. To tell a story, keeping a constant ripple of laughter is no mean feat. I think it’s a good analogy to the classic sitcoms of the 70s. Dad’s Army, Porridge, Are You Being Served? They all tried to make feature versions, but they’re always disappointing. Some things are just better in miniature.

Of course, with so many thousands of shorts being turned out, yeah, there’s a lot of dreck. But there are also many, many gems, including some by our next three comedians.

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Lloyd Hamilton was a comedian’s comedian. Keaton said he was, “one of the funniest men in pictures,”, while Mack Sennett said “[he] had comic motion. He could do nothing except walk across the screen, and still he’d make you laugh.” What appealed to fellow performers was his unique style of reactionary comedy; playing an overgrown mama’s boy, he relied less on mechanical gags and slapstick than reacting to an endless series of disasters that befell him. His comic equipment included a tottering walk ill-matched to his eternal sense of dignity, a silly pancake hat and a range of hilarious facial expressions. Hamilton could show disgust or disdain better than perhaps any other performer at that time. Oliver Hardy certainly picked up some hints for camera looks from him. Unlike many comedians, he didn’t especially need a strong strong storyline, just to have a really, really bad day! The titles of his films, such as  ‘CRUSHED’, ‘LONESOME’ or ‘NOBODY’S BUSINESS’ reflect this; they sound more like Kafka novels than comedies!

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Unfortunately, most of Hamilton’s best work went up in smoke years ago. Scattered examples do exist, but it was a challenge to find a film in projectable quality that represented him well. We had to settle for THE SIMP, an early, embryonic film in his canon. It’s not one of his very best, but has some good examples of his anti-hero style. For instance, there are some amusing gags involving him trying to get rid of a pesky dog (don’t worry, dog lovers, apparently the dog was his own and not hurt during filming). We were lucky to be able a newly reconstructed 22 minute version of THE SIMP  compiled by David Glass. It didn’t get quite the laughs I’d hoped for, but was a rare treat to see nonetheless.

Here’s a better Ham film, 1926’s ‘MOVE ALONG’:

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Our next comic was actually one of Lloyd Hamilton’s directors in his early days. Charley Parrott, or as he later became better known, Charley Chase, was one of the top comedy directors in the teens and early 20s. He had a happy berth working in this capacity at Hal Roach studios, before fate intervened. Harold Lloyd, Roach’s top star, left to produce independently. Now, Roach’s remaining comics were all very good, but none had the human appeal of Lloyd. Roach realised his talented, good-looking director might fit the niche perfectly and put him in a series of one-reelers.

From the get-go, Chase had his comic style in place. While he was slightly reminiscent of Lloyd, he actually owed more to Max Linder, an eternally embarrassed bon vivant fallen on hard times, always winding up in farcical situations. Chase could not have existed in his full capacity before the jazz age, though; he was especially interested in risqué gags and plotlines to heighten his character’s embarrassment, and the permissive ways of the late 20s gave him perfect opportunities to do so. A prime example of this is LIMOUSINE LOVE (1928), which we showed to a terrific response. It’s also a great forum for Chase’s ability to take a simple, everyday beginning to a story, then pile on loads of ridiculous, absurd complications, yet still have these plot twists seem believable. In LIMOUSINE LOVE, he is just a normal guy, heading to his wedding. He’s run out of gas though, and time is ticking on. While Charley goes off to find some gas, a young lady (Viola Richard) is soaked in a mud-puddle. Seeing his seemingly abandoned car on the country road, she hops in the back to change her clothes and dry off.

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Charley returns, unaware of this, and drives off. Viola’s clothes fall out of the window, and he is left with a naked woman in the back of his car on the way to his wedding. Things go from bad to worse as he picks up a hitch-hiker, who of course, turns out to be her husband… Charley’s attempts to get rid of Viola without her husband or his fiancée knowing make up one of the funniest sequences in silent comedy.

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Sadly, this film isn’t on YouTube, so here’s another. It’s another great example of Charley’s absurd, yet warm and believable stories. ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’ (1926) is the story of a homely husband and wife who have plastic surgery to surprise each other. Trouble is, they then fail to recognise each other, and embark on an affair. This goofy sounding story actually seems totally natural when you see it told by Chase and director Leo McCarey. Throw in great performances, terrific set-pieces and you have one of the greatest silent comedies ever made. With shorts as good as this, who says features are better?

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The talents of Lupino Lane were very different to Charley Chase. Lane was British, but born of a long line of entertainers tracing their roots back to 17th Century Italy. From the time he could walk, he had been trained in the rich pantomime tradition. He would later recall that, as a small child, his father made him sit in the splits for half an hour every day! All this training paid off; he was a master of comic timing, slapstick and acrobatics. Within seconds, he could backflip from a table, tumble across a room and fall into the splits, then raise himself up to standing position without putting so much as a hand to the ground. On film, he wore a perpetually startled expression enhanced by his huge eyes, almost as if these acrobatics happened by accident. A little chap, he used his size to contrast comically with the epic background his films placed him in: he might be a misfit gaucho, pirate, explorer or Mountie.

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‘SWORD POINTS’ is his version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and is one of his best films. Even better, we were able to show it in a sparkling print that enhanced the whirlwind of gags and acrobatics.

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SWORD POINTS has two centrepieces. The first relies not on acrobatics, but is a carefully constructed wine cellar sequence that showcases an alternative facet of the music hall comedian: an ability to squeeze any possible gag out of a handful of props and a simple task. Here, Lane is sent to the wine cellar to fetch some tankards of wine. Over the course of the next few minutes, he manages to get all his hands and feet stuck in jugs, and flood the wine cellar, eventually swimming off with the tray of tankards atop his head.

The second is a maelstrom of rolls, flips and trips through some secret trapdoors, which also packs in some amusing take-offs on Fairbanks’ casual swashbuckling style. The speed and energy of these scenes must be seen to be believed. Sadly, ‘SWORD POINTS’ is another film not on the ‘tube, but Lane turned out dozens of these great little films. Here’s FANDANGO, also from 1928, and another good ‘un.

Lane’s talents were probably better off in short films than stretched across a full feature film. However, as I’m sure the Kennington audience would agree, he was still an incredible comedian and acrobat. The other silent contenders, in their own ways, were all real individuals whose efforts to bring laughter to the world deserve better remembrance. It was a pleasure to share them, both at The Cinema Museum, and here, with some new audiences.

LOST CLOWNS: A baker’s dozen!

Fresh from a fantastic weekend in London for Kennington Bioscope’s ‘SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY’, the blog is now ready to launch properly. Reviews of films from the weekend to follow, but before we get to that, here’s a brief rundown of some of the greatest forgotten comics you’ll find here. Sure, we’ll be featuring Keaton, Laurel & Hardy etc, too, but these are some of the comics who need a bit more information and appreciation about them on the internet, the core purpose of this site. As time goes on, I’d like to add pages for each of these performers to the site to hopefully become a definitive reference source, but for now, here’s a brief introduction to some of my favourite lost comedians…

  1. DAN LENO

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Going right back to the music hall days, it’s impossible to conceive of many of the later British comedians without Dan Leno. His sketches and whimsy were beloved by the Karno comics, and absorbed into their acts. Just look at that bowler-hatted, vacantly grinning face and tell me you don’t see Stan Laurel. Chaplin loved Leno, too. Leno died young at the turn of the century, and has left only scraps of his act, but he left a long shadow in British comedy.

2. MAX LINDER

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Just as influential, in his own way, was Frenchman Max Linder. Stage-trained Linder made films from the mid-1900s for Pathé. These films may look primitive, with their cardboard, painted sets, but Linder’s acting is remarkably subtle and sophisticated. As a silk-hatted boulevardier, he maintains this pleasingly low-key style as he is pulled into ridiculously farcical situations, such as being carried through the streets of Paris in his bath!

Chaplin, again, was a huge fan. He became friends with Linder (below), dedicating a photo to him, “To the one and only Max, the Professor. From his disciple, Charles Chaplin.” Linder’s sophisticated, dapper style in the face of eternal embarrassment was also a huge influence on two other great silent comics, Raymond Griffith and Charley Chase.

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3. ROSCOE ARBUCKLE

circa 1920: A full-length studio portrait of the silent screen comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933) wearing a black hat and sticking his finger in his mouth. (Photo by Mitchell/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s amazing how many of these underappreciated comedians had such an influence on the more enduring names. It was Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, then Mack Sennett’s biggest star, who persuaded the producer not to fire a young, temperamental Chaplin. He’s also said to have provided the original tramp costume’s oversized pants. The eternally generous Arbuckle later had an even more profound impact on the young Buster Keaton,giving him his first screen roles and teaching him the ropes of film-making. On his own account, he made some really charming and funny screen comedies, before his career was unduly and unfairly stopped by a 1921 scandal. To this day, it’s impossible to write a paragraph about him without mentioning it, so I’m just going to shout from the rooftops, “HE WAS INNOCENT!” once more.

4. MABEL NORMAND

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The first really popular screen comedienne, Mabel was also a pioneering female director. From the mid 1910s, she was directing her own films at Keystone, later moving into feature films for Goldwyn. She’s great proof that women could be both funny and attractive at the same time, which was a difficult thing to achieve in such a male-dominated industry. Mabel was a wonderfully lively performer, who deserves remembering more for her pioneering work.

5. ALICE HOWELL

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Alice Howell took a more clownish approach to her humour. Her round, eternally started kewpie doll face, topped off with a mass of frizzy red hair was instantly amusing, and totally suited the ditzy characters she played on film. However, she was still a true original, almost a forerunner of Lucille Ball. Her films are sadly scarce, but reveal a uniquely funny lady. “Everyone a Howell!” was her strapline.

6. LUPINO LANE

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To see one of Lupino Lane’s films is to suspend belief in the laws of physics; he was a phenomenal acrobat who surpasses even Keaton. Tracing his family’s history in entertainment back to 1642, he was a proud inheritor of the pantomime tradition, and could do pretty much anything: acrobatics, dancing, singing, crosstalk routines, juggling. He later added starring in, writing and directing Hollywood comedies to his resumé. These films are great little two reelers, maybe not deep in characterisation, but they make up for it in a whirlwind of gags and acrobatics. Lane’s signature stunts include rising up from the splits, somersaulting down flights of stairs, and running 360 degrees around the inside of a proscenium arch! In later years, he returned to England, where he originated the role of Bill Snibson in ‘ME AND MY GIRL’, along with the famous dance, ‘The Lambeth Walk’. He should be recognised as a national treasure in Britain, but is undeservedly forgotten.

7. CHARLEY BOWERS

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The films of Charley Bowers are as jaw-dropping as Lupino Lane’s, but for different reasons. Bowers isn’t an astounding performer, but he was an incredibly talented animator and gagman. In two series of comedies in the late 1920s, he mixed his wild, incredibly realistic stop motion animation into live action films starring himself. The results are incredible, a world where pussy willow trees sprout living cats, mice fire guns, cars hatch from eggs and the figures inside paintings come to life. Beloved by surrealists like André Breton, Bowers was just way ahead of his time, and returned to obscurity before being rediscovered in recent years.

8. HARRY LANGDON

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Langdon is usually cited as one of the “big 4” names of silent comedy, with Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but he’s far, far less well remembered than those performers. Part of the reaon, I think, is that he is very much an offbeat, reactionary performer, a minimalist in reaction to the overblown chaos of Mack Sennett madness. Now that we’re less familiar with this, it’s harder to place Langdon’s curious, quiet style. He played an overgrown baby of indeterminate age, his performances marked by long silences and the tiniest flinches in facial expression. He was proclaimed as the next Chaplin in his day, but crashed and burned through a combination of factors. He’s kind of a marmite performer, an acid test for your appreciation of silent comedy. Those who ‘get’ him revere him. Among them were Chaplin, Keaton and Stan Laurel. That must count for something.

9. LLOYD HAMILTON

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You might recognise the photo above from our header image. Lloyd Hamilton (on the left) is another comedian’s comedian, a reactionary type who has a similarly ‘marmite’ appeal to Harry Langdon. Playing a curious overgrown Mama’s Boy type, he walked with a prissy waddle and treated everything with disdain. A typical Hamilton film has little story, but is simply a string of disasters to showcase his fine reactionary comedy. However, he’s hamstrung (pardon the pun) by the lack of most of his best films, and the fractured and scattered nature of what remains. But, as Mack Sennett said, “[Lloyd Hamilton] had comic motion. He’d do nothing but walk across the screen and make you laugh.”

10. CHARLEY CHASE

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I simply adore Charley Chase. Debonair, charming and a multi-talented gagman, director and story-constructionist, he had a knack for creating beautiful little farce comedies that escalate to heights of absurdity yet remain completely believable throughout. For example, ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’, in which he and his wife have plastic surgery without telling each other, meet on the street, and then embark on an affair. It’s a totally ridiculous story, yet made believable and human by the warmth and skill of Chase and his team. Chase continued doing some great, charming work in the talkies, making short films at Hal Roach studios that need to be seen more widely.

11. WALTER FORDE

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Walter Forde was once billed as ‘Britain’s only comedian!”. That’s rather stretching it, but he was the only comedian making film comedy shorts and features in Britain for most of the silent era. Forde’s work in this area continues to be undervalued, but is slowly being re-evaluated. He played a likeable chap, “two parts Chaplin, three parts Harold Lloyd,” as one reviewer put it, and directed his films himself. A shy man, he gave up performing in 1930, and instead became a renowned director of both comedies and dramas.

12. WILL HAY

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Taking Walter Forde’s place as premier comic of British films in the sound era was Will Hay. Hay’s music hall character was an incompetent ignorant schoolmaster who was barely a step ahead of his pupils. This enabled him to follow a rich line of comedy, transferable in films to any position of seedy authority: ship’s captain, shyster lawyer, policeman, or stationmaster in his all-time classic ‘OH, MR PORTER!’. Hay’s films are acknowledged as classics, but as a performer he needs some more love. he’s another superb reactionary comedian, a master of pauses, sniffs and shady glances to sell material that looks feeble on paper. He’s also one who stands up very well today, as British bureaucracy and incompetence hasn’t gone anywhere in the 65 years since his passing…

13 CLARK & McCULLOUGH

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We close with a wonderfully vibrant act who flourished in sound comedies. Clark and McCullough were successful on Broadway before making a great little series of sound two-reel shorts for RKO in the early 1930s. They are often considered Marx Brothers rip-offs (partly due to Bobby Clark’s painted-on glasses), yet turned out a brand of humour uniquely their own, rich in movement, dialogue, pantomime and farce.

As I leave off here for now, I’m already thinking of the other comics I haven’t included here today… Raymond Griffith,  Jack Hulbert, Stanley Lupino, Snub Pollard, Thelma Todd… Rest assured, they’ll all have their place here. I hope you’ll bookmark this site and keep dropping by from time to time to share these great performers with me. Next up, some highlights from ‘SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY’, featuring some of the names above.