lost film

Rhubarb Vaselino rides again!

A little while back, I posted about the discovery, in November last year, of the lost Stan Laurel solo film ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’, or 7 minutes of it, at least.

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The film revisits Stan’s parody of Rudolph Valentino in his earlier classic ‘MUD AND SAND. Stan’s version of the great lover -‘Rhubarb Vaselino’ – gives him lots of opportunity for the silly parody that the British sense of humour does so well. Here, he parodies another Valentino film, ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, in which the Latin lover portrayed a favourite courtier of Louis XIV, forced to flee to England and pose as a barber.

So, why am I returning to this? Well, 2 minutes of the rediscovered footage has been posted on YouTube, and it provides some interesting talking points. It’s a brief scene of Stan parodying Valentino’s reputation as a vainglorious ladies’ man, flirting with another man’s wife, and attempting to escort her into a taxi.

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The footage, jumpy though it is, has some great moments. There’s a healthy dose of the comic anachronism that makes Laurel’s other parodies, like ‘WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD’, such a delight, as New York yellow cabs roam the streets of 17th Century France. Most interestingly, at the end of the scene, there’s a forerunner of the legendary Hal Roach bottomless mudhole™ that enlivened so many Laurel & Hardy films. Stan is attempting to escort the lady across a puddle in the street, and lays down his coat, Walter Raleigh style, on top of the puddle. Stepping on it, Stan and escort disappear beneath the water. Sound familiar? With the coat replaced by a kilt, the scene is reworked as a running gag in the seminal L & H film, ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’. Considering this, and the atypical role of Stan as woman chaser in that film, and it turns out a big chunk of ‘PHILIP’ was quite possibly inspired by ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’. Who knew?

The scene in ‘MONSIEUR’ also has  a great punchline: as Stan resurfaces from the water he is most concerned with redoing his hair, in a parody of Valentino’s famous vanity. But, while Stan’s lost dignity (and his refusal to acknowledge it) here is good for a laugh, it took Oliver Hardy’s sense of real hurt pride to make it into a great comic scene.

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It’s always fascinating to see more footage of L & H turning up, especially when it helps to fill in pieces of the puzzle we didn’t even know were missing. Here’s hoping we can see the whole 7 minute extract soon.

Here’s the 2 minute extract…

…. and the similar scene from ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’

 

 

 

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Keaton & Karl

I love those mysterious stills that turn up from the silent era, asking more questions than they answer. Here’s an interesting one with Buster Keaton, that tells a great story.

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First, a bit of background to the picture: you might recognize the other chap in the picture as Karl Dane. Dane was (appropriately) a Danish actor working at MGM. Originally a carpenter, and then a farmer, his lumbering size had him handpicked for a role s a blustering sergeant in ’THE BIG PARADE’. Subsequently, MGM kept him on playing comedic variations on this role. In 1927 they decided to team Dane with moon-faced English actor George K Arthur. Their initial teaming vehicle, ‘ROOKIES’, was a smash success. In the wake of this, and of Laurel & Hardy’s success, comedy teams were the in-thing and the partnership was assured of continuing . Several other films followed, including ‘ALL AT SEA’, ‘DETECTIVES’ and ‘BROTHERLY LOVE’ (1928) which is where this photograph is believed to originate.

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The mystery Keaton -Dane still has caused a bit of consternation. Does it merely show MGM’s newest comic dropping in to visit the set of another comedy? Is it an off-the-cuff gag shot? Or, does it show an unknown scene from this missing film? It certainly seems to show the middle of a scene. Certainly, reviews of the film mention a barbershop scene. However, there is no mention of Keaton. Of course, there is the possibility that such a scene was filmed but deleted from the release print. Certainly, Keaton made several other cameos in MGM films in this period; he craved performing and was frustrated with the lengthy process of getting films started at the studios. In the period between 1928 and 1930 he performed a stunt in the Lew Cody vehicle ‘THE BABY CYCLONE’ (1928), a routine in ‘HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929’ and a small part in an unfinished film ‘TIDE OF EMPIRE’ . It is distinctly likely that the po-faced studio heads of MGM frowned on ad-hoc scenes being added to their prestigious and rigorously plotted films (a difficulty that Keaton would come to know all too well). If this were true, a Buster scene in ’BROTHERLY LOVE’ could well have been removed. They may also have been concerned that Keaton could devalue his box office appeal if he appeared too frequently in small parts. Of course, this is just speculation on my part and it is just as likely that no such scene was ever filmed.

Supporting the still-only hypothesis is a theory dating the photograph to 1930. Keaton’s costume seems to match the suit he wears in that year’s ‘FREE AND EASY’. In the scenes in which Keaton’s hapless ‘Elmer’ crashes MGM’s studios, an array of personalities make cameos: Fred Niblo, Dorothy Sebastian, Cecil B DeMille and… Karl Dane. Dane is filming a scene involving an explosion. In walks Buster and accidentally steps on the plunger… Could the still have been taken as a gag while Keaton and Dane were on the set together?

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Karl as he appears in Buster’s ‘FREE AND EASY’.

 

One thing that is certain, however, is that this photograph is a potent reminder of the power of MGM. Here, the two comedians were at the height of their fame and success. Neither could have known that the studio would leave him on the scrapheap within a few short years. Keaton’s difficulties at the studios and in his personal life are well-known and by 1933 he was unemployed, divorced and an alcoholic. As we know, Keaton had the resilience to bounce back, but Karl Dane’s fate was more tragic. His Danish accent hampered his success in talkies, and despite some early attempts by MGM to use him, he was quickly dropped. 

It’s a real shame that this had to be the case. Karl Dane was a talented comic actor with real charisma. His accent, while undeniably thick, is hardly impenetrable; Greta Garbo did alright for herself in talkies, after all! In fact, it’s a good match for his lumbering but good-natured burliness. But, of course, elocution was everything in early Hollywood, and although one of the most tragic cases, Karl Dane was one of many to be brushed aside by the talking craze.

The Dane-Arthur partnership initially continued, reduced to appearing in shorts, which mostly remain obscure. By 1932, even this had fizzled out. In a final connection with Keaton, one of Dane’s last (if not the last) appearances was a tinybit part in Keaton’s ‘SPEAK EASILY’. It’s a shame MGM didn’t actually team Dane with Keaton; he certainly would have been a better match than Jimmy Durante and his limited English wouldn’t have been a problem in Keaton’s dialogue-free idiom.

Such a venture was not to be, and Karl embarked on a doomed mining venture. When that failed he wound up, incredibly, operating a hot dog stand outside the studio gates where once he was a star. Such an enterprise was an unpleasant reminder of the perilous nature of celebrity, and MGM’s stars stayed away in droves. Depression and self-loathing engulfed poor Karl, and he put a pistol to his head in April 1934.

Forget whether Keaton appeared in ‘BROTHERLY LOVE’ or not, the photograph of Keaton and Dane together is more important as a chilling reminder of the studio system’s dark side. MGM could destroy not just careers, but lives as well.

On a more positive note, Karl Dane has been achieving some belated love lately. Laura Belogh has produced a biography of him, along with a superb website remembering this forgotten comic who brought laughter to millions before suddenly finding himself out in the cold.

 

 

 

The Mystery Mirth-maker

Now, here’s an obscure comedian…

Nicol Parre

I came across this ad while flicking through old editions of ‘The Exhibitor’s Review’, an old film trade magazine available to browse through online at The Media Digital History Library. One of the joys of digitally leafing through these is the fact that little oddities like this turn up. I’ve certainly never heard of Nicol Parre before, and no reviews seem to exist of this film, which begs the question of if it ever found a release at all.

A further search through the archives revealed only one more mention of Nicol Parre, not as star, but as producer for the ‘N.P. Film Company’ in another prominent ad in ‘The Exhibitor’s Review’:

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However, if we look a bit closer, I’d say the star they’re now promoting, ‘Dom Ferre’, is actually the same guy. Probably a classic example of trying to make a one-man operation seem bigger than it actually is. There’s a hint of desperation, too, in that blurb: “open to contract with any distributors”. Certainly, the surnames are suspiciously similar.

Both names sound French to me; was Nicol/Dom an ex-pat with previous experience in the French industry? Or was he of a French immigrant family in New York, trying his luck at films? We’ll probably never know, and I doubt ‘THE FARMER’ was much more interesting than its title. Still, an interesting reminder that for all the clichéd stories of extras and studio janitors crashing the movies, it could actually be pretty hard to break in as an independent film maker or comedian.

As a footnote to the story, the address above, 412 Lake Street, appears to be still standing on Google Street View.

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I wonder if there are any film cans buried in the backyard…?

 

 

 

The Return of Rhubarb Vaselino!

 

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As the silent film era recedes further from living memory, it’s a constant source of amazement to me how many ‘lost’ films continue to turn up. In the last few years, we’ve witnessed the rediscovery of unknown Chaplin and Keaton films, missing films by Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and Charley Bowers, and the prized second reel of Laurel & Hardy’s ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. Truly, it’s a good time to be a silent comedy fan.

The latest discovery seems to be one of the most interesting of Stan Laurel’s solo films. 1924’s ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ was one of his independent series of comedy shorts for producer Joe Rock. It was, until now, the only one of the 12 comedies not known to exist in any form. However, in November last year, a restored 7 minute fragment found in Italy was revealed to the world again at a screening at MoMA in New York. It seems to have received little fanfare – I can’t find any reviews or comments on the screening as of yet. Nevertheless, for Stan fans, this is an exciting discovery.

Before teaming with Oliver Hardy, Laurel’s niche was parodying popular film hits of the day. ‘BLOOD AND SAND’ becomes ‘MUD AND SAND’, ‘UNDER TWO FLAGS’ becomes ‘UNDER TWO JAGS’, ‘DR JEKYLL & MR HYDE’ becomes ‘DR PYCKLE & MR PRYDE’, and so on. These are the films that first made him stand out from the masses of baggy pants film comedians, and so form a crucial part of his development as a comic. Many of them are also great, fun comedies in their own right, prescient of the Monty Python style of robust burlesque. Since Stan’s great Robin Hood parody ‘When Knights Were Cold’ turned up (or some of it, anyway), ‘MONSIEUR..’ has been just about the only one of Stan’s parody films not around in any form. Even more interestingly, it revisits Stan’s parody of Rudolph Valentino in his earlier classic ‘Mud and Sand’. Stan’s version of the great lover is given the glorious appellation of ‘Rhubarb Vaselino’, and presents lots of opportunity for the silly parody that the British sense of humour does so well.

Here, Stan turns his sights on another Valentino film, ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, in which he portrayed a favourite courtier of Louis XIV, forced to flee to England and pose as a barber. As a vehicle for Valentino, it was perfect, allowing for lavish costumes, swashbuckling duels and romance. Stan’s version apparently followed the original story fairly closely, but obviously put a comic twist on the scenes.

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Rudolph Valentino in the original ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’ (1924)

 

As with ‘MUD AND SAND’, much of the comedy no doubt came from Stan’s straight-faced appearance in the ridiculously lavish costumes and his comic variations on it; one frame grab from the discovered footage (below) shows him matching a ridiculous wig with a  20s vamp’s dress!

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On its original release, the Kinematograph Weekly sniffily griped that there was an excess of slapstick in the film, surely missing the point that its contrast with the high society and great romantic dignity of the Valentino original was a source for comedy. Anyway, few could do slapstick like Stan Laurel.  The other Rock films are generally all very good, and start to show signs of Stan’s talent maturing, so I’m certainly hopeful for this one. The most similar film from the series to ‘MONSIEUR…’ is ‘DR PYCKLE & MR PRYDE, which is the best of all his parodies, perhaps even his best solo film. With a little luck, this film matches up to its high standard.

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Hopefully, we’ll all get a chance to judge ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’, even in it’s fragmentary form, soon, with more screenings or a DVD release. Come to think of it, it’d be a nice extra on a DVD of ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’!

In the meantime, there’s more on the original discovery, with some frame grabs, and details of an Oliver Hardy discovery, ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ here. Be warned, you need to be fluent in Italian!!

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Stan chews on Syd Crossley. Interestingly enough, Crossley was originally meant to take Hardy’s part in the early L & H film ‘DUCK SOUP’. Laurel & Crossley? Hmm…

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