Lupino Lane

A note from ‘Nipper’

Here’s something I just picked up on eBay for the princely sum of £1.75… An original autographed postcard from Lupino Lane’s career as a boy comedian. In those days he was billed as Master ‘Nipper’ Lupino Lane. The nickname came from the expression ‘little nipper’, but Lane grew to dislike it as a ‘nipper’ was also slang for a pickpocket. He preferred to be known as ‘Nip’, an appellation which would stick with him for the rest of his life.

The eBay listing dates it as 1910 but I’m fairly certain it’s from before then; Lane looks much younger than 18 in the photo, so I’d date it from the first half of the 1900s. There’s a note on the back soliciting ticket sales. I wonder if it was successful..

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Lupino Lane on DVD!

If you’ve been stopping by this site for a while, you’ll have probably noticed that Lupino Lane is one of my favourite silent clowns. He may not have reached the character based heights of Chaplin, Keaton or Laurel & Hardy, for instance, but he was a very special talent indeed. Nobody could do out-and-out slapstick like him.Steeped in his family’s tradition of pantomime, music hall and acrobatics, he was almost without equal at creating dazzling, lightning-paced routines out of almost nothing at all. If you’re a fellow fan, there’s some great news of two DVDs featuring his work. If you’ve not discovered him yet, both are a great place to start discovering his often jaw-dropping physical comedy.

Firstly, there’s a volume of five of his silent shorts amongst Grapevine Video’s new releases:

These are from his heyday in Hollywood, working for the (inappropriately named) Educational Pictures.

MAID IN MOROCCO (1925) was his first short for the company. Directed by Charles Lamont, it features Lane honeymooning in Morocco. His blissful time is spoiled when the local Caliph (his brother Wallace Lupino, omnipresent in these films) decides to steal Lane’s new bride for his harem. Lane’s attempts to rescue her produce some great, gag-packed chase sequences, including his amazing stunt of running 360 degrees around the inside of a Moorish arch!
MOVIE LAND (1926) is a great little comedy, with some wonderful routines as Lane makes a date with actress, Kathryn McGuire, accidentally stands her up, then tries to crash the studio to apologise. Best of all is his routine disguised as a stunt dummy. Complete prints of this film contain a Lloyd Hamilton cameo, but it most often circulates as a cut-down edition. Time will tell how complete this print is.
Kathyrn McGuire is again the love interest in
NAUGHTY BOY (1927). A notch below the other two films for gag-packed excitement, this is still a very entertaining two-reeler. It’s closer to a Hal Roach situation comedy in its plot than usual, as Lane is forced to pose as a young boy when is father remarries and lies about his age.
The last two films on this disk showcase Lane’s fondness for dropping his bewildered, mild little character into dramatic or epic settings to provide comic contrast. FANDANGO (1928) has him as an unlikely bullfighter, caught up with serenading sultry Anita Garvin and his rival toreador Wallace Lupino. Directed by Lane under the pseudonym Henry W George, this is one of his best-made comedies, with some wonderful camerawork. BATTLING SISTERS (1929) is a bizarre, futuristic gender-bending semi-spoof of ‘THE BIG PARADE’, with men and women’s roles reversed. One of the rarest films here, it’s also by far the strangest, offering the spectacle of Wallace Lupino, in drag, vamping the helpless house husband Lane!

Grapevine lists a running time of 100 minutes, with music scores by David Knudtson. Order here

Lane didn’t abandon his silent comedy technique totally when sound came in. After returning to his native Britain in 1930, he starred in and directed the comedy feature ‘NO LADY’. Essentially an extended reworking of his silent short ‘SUMMER SAPS’, it’s a bit creaky, but once it gets going it features a host of his classic silent comedy routines (including that ‘running round the arch’ gag) amidst some fantastic vintage location shooting in the seaside resort of Blackpool. The final chase, melding silent comedy to strategically place sound elements, seems to me exactly what Buster Keaton wanted to be doing at this point.

51lpyxejfl__sy300_ql70_Incredibly enough, ‘NO LADY’ has been pulled from obscurity and newly released on a triple-film DVD, ‘The Lupino Collection’, alongside films starring other members of the Lupino showbiz clan. Lane’s brother Wallace supports in the fairly dire ‘ SHIPMATES O’ MINE’, while his niece (and the most famous Lupino) Ida appears in ‘HER FIRST AFFAIRE’. This one’s not so great either, but ‘NO LADY’ is more than worth the price. Order here

Finally, if you’re in the UK and want a rare chance to see some Lane films on the big screen, I’ll be showing excerpts from his career, alongside extracts from his book ‘How to become a Comedian’, at Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend in London.  We’ll also be showing two very rare LL films in their entirety: his 1927 short ‘ A HALF PINT HERO’, an acrobatic riff on Chaplin’s ‘THE FIREMAN’, as well as the sound film of his hit stage show ‘Me and My Girl’, ‘THE LAMBETH WALK’ (1939)

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Lane is about to exact revenge on brother Wallace Lupino in ‘A HALF PINT HERO’. Tom Whiteley looks on.

The Little Chap with a Big Nerve: Rediscovering Stanley Lupino

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Network DVD’s groundbreaking ‘The British Film’ series continues to illuminate the murky waters of 30s British film comedy. The dominant Film History 101 myth of 30s cinema tells us that the only worthwhile British comedies were Will Hay, Gracie Fields and George Formby. Occasionally, Jack Hulbert or The Crazy Gang get a mention, but mostly everything else is brushed over. Actually, there are hundreds of other 30s British comedies out there, and some hidden gems among them, too.

A gamut of Stanley Lupino films have made their appearance out of the archives for the first time. To me, these are really the highlights of this DVD series. Lupino is a terrific performer, who also took a big hand in the writing of his scripts and musical numbers; indeed, the majority of his films are based on his own musical plays. Lupino’s persona is that of a little cockney playboy, often an aspiring songwriter; usually, he’s down on his uppers. He’s a small fellow, and a little peculiar looking, but he has a whole lot of nerve, and relies on this, as well as his energy, quick wit and acidic sense of humour to pull him through. A typical Lupino put-down, delivered with a sickly mock-earnest grin:

DOORMAN: Your face makes me tired.

LUPINO: And yours gives me insomnia!

And another:

MAN IN BRIGHT SUIT: Be careful! You nearly spoiled my suit!

LUPINO: Impossible!

Lupino was another member of the illustrious Lupino family. Here, he hams it up with a rather awkward interviewer, discussing his heritage and career:

Stanley was cousin to Lupino Lane, and sure enough, the two performers share a certain comic technique derived from their family training. If you’ve seen Lupino Lane’s films, then Stanley’s wide-eyed, darting glances and jerky, bird-like movements in the face of danger will be familiar. While Stanley was certainly limber enough, he didn’t take the acrobatic slant of Lane, directing ,most of his energies into musical numbers and farce comedy instead.

Typically his plays and films followed one, some or all out of the following formulae: quirky variations on farces (‘THE LOVE RACE’ ‘HONEYMOON FOR THREE’, YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU), moonstruck quests for a girl in a crowd (‘YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU’, ‘CHEER UP’, ‘FACING THE MUSIC’) or a similarly dogged mission to sell an invention, song or play (‘HAPPY’, ‘CHEER UP’ ). All feature some great musical numbers, including comic songs like ‘STEAK & KIDNEY PUDDING, I ADORE YOU’, and creative dance routines. These reach their zenith in ‘OVER SHE GOES’: a perfectly synchronised 3-man song-and-dance routine, ‘SIDE BY SIDE’, filmed with a continuous 360 degree camera pan.

 

the love race It was Lupino Lane who scaffolded Stanley’s entry into films, directing his first two efforts. ‘LOVE LIES’, his debut, remains elusive, but ‘THE LOVE RACE’ has been released in a sparkling print. It’s is a good early effort, obviously stage-based in it’s country house settings, but with a zip to it that transcends a typical 1931 stage adaptation. Based on his play, it features Stanley as Reggie Powley, best buddy to Jack Hobbs, even though their families are fierce rivals. He’s also engaged to Hobbs’ sister Ida. Unfortunately he’s had a baggage mix up and up turns Rita Payne with his case.(Keeping things further in the family, the girls Ida and Rita are named after Stanley’s daughters, by the way)

The contents of the bags get mixed, and Reggie’s fiancé arrives just in time to sees his pyjamas fall out of her bag. Hobbs gets flustered and passes her off as his sister. Confused yet? Well, ‘THE LOVE RACE’ takes delight in piling on complications. Adding to the confusion, Hobbs’ mother has remarried silly ass Ferdinand Fish (Wallace Lupino, here billed as Wallace Arthur—was he just one Lupino too many?). He arrives unbeknown to the mother, and makes himself at home in his new house. Lupino and Hobbs think he’s nuts, and humour him. There’s a terrific scene of Stanley repeatedly conning Wallace out of hisdrink by manipulating a swivelling table. Each time his lips find the glass empty, he mutters “Well, well, well, dear, dear dear…”, rising in incredulity each time. It’s a great example of music hall pantomime, executed by some of its finest exponents.

When the Furious father turns up, now Rita is passed off as Stanley’s wife! Throw in a drunken cabbie looking for his hat, and a gawky spinster determined to wed Lupino, and you have a very entertaining, if highly improbably, high speed farce. The speed becomes literal in a racing car climax which features an amusing cameo from Lane as a race spectator.

His later films streamline the farcical ingredients, to their advantage, but still provide original twists. ‘HONEYMOON FOR THREE’ sees him drunkenly entering the wrong flat and waking up, innocently, in a girls’ bed. The girl’s father happens to be meeting Lupino’s father on business; when the two men find Stanley and the girl together, they insist on their getting married and going on a honeymoon. Stanley agrees to go along with it, promising he will give her a divorce as soon as the honeymoon cruise is over. Her fiancé, furious at being spurned, tags along, threatening Lupino at every turn. Eventually, of course, the newlyweds really do fall in love, and the divorce never happens.

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Stanley Lupino and Thelma Todd in ‘YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU’

One of Lupino’s most unusual films was made in 1933, and it is also one of his best. ‘YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU’ is one of a series of early 30s English films by British International Pictures featuring Hollywood stars in an attempt to bring prestige to the domestic industry. As such it features lots of resources thrown at it. There’s wonderful comedienne Thelma Todd moonlighting from appearances in Hal Roach comedies, during a promotional trip taken with Roach and Charley Chase. Rather than a jarring contrast, Todd’s Hollywood glamour is a great foil to Lupino’s English musical comedy and pantomime heritage. The film is ably directed by slapstick comedian Monty Banks, who himself makes a cameo. To top it all off, the last ingredient in this cinematic hodgepodge is a screenplay by Frank Launder, based on Shakespeare’s ‘THE TAMING OF THE SHREW’! Unlike many of the films made by comedians in unfamiliar foreign studios (Atoll K, The Invader, El Moderno Barba Azul, anyone) works out just dandy, thank you very much.Such a contrived confection really should be dreadful, but there’s so much talent in here that everything comes off beautifully. The performances are pitch-perfect by all concerned, and the script zings with one-liners and comebacks. Stanley Lupino’s usual moonstruck lover, small but determined to get his way and laugh in the face of bad luck, is made for this film; having seen Thelma, he is determined to win her over, even when he finds out she’s a holy terror. He hatches a plan to “treat her mean”, with lots of comic contrivances along the way, including cheerily putting her through an awful honeymoon, before everything turns out happily. The whole film is a barely believable piece of fluff, but it is packed with such energy, humour and movement that it carries off its unlikely ingredients with aplomb.

Similar in tone, and very nearly is good is ‘FACING THE MUSIC’, which sees Lupino again in dogged pursuit, this time to the beautiful secretary to a temperamental opera singer. Once more, it’s Lupino’s energy that really carries the film through some great visual comedy and dance routines.  Films like these prove Stanley Lupino to be one of the most under-rated English film comedians, his films glossy, well produced and action packed.  He undoubtedly offers the most rewards of any comic performer yet rehabilitated by Network’s ‘The British Film’ series. See for yourself here!

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Laurel & …Lane?

 

The British Newspaper Archive is a tremendous place to procrastinate. A fully searchable database of regional and specialist British newspapers from the last couple of hundred years, it’s great for searching film listings, theatre appearances and careers of British-born stars. One of the most interesting offerings is the complete archive of theatrical newspaper ‘The Era’. I was idly searching Laurel & Hardy clippings within its pages when I found this curio from March, 1936, linking Stan Laurel with terrific acrobatic comedian Lupino Lane :

Stan Laurel Lupino Lane The Era March 18 1936

Two of my favourite comedians together! Now, there’s a show I’d love to see.

But was it ever really  going to happen? Well, for starters, I don’t believe that Lane and Laurel had ever “worked together on the English stage years ago.” This is probably lazy journalism alluding to their both being graduates of the English Music Halls. However, I guess they could have worked on the same bill in their early days. Lane was at this point billed as ‘Master ‘Nipper’ Lupino Lane, the boy comedian’, a more successful contemporary of young Stan Jefferson. As Stan’s stock rose, perhaps the two became acquainted; although I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any reference to them being friends, Stan did love to surround himself with music hall types so it seems like they would have got on. However, it should also be mentioned that Lane, in his memoirs, is quite a name dropper! Is this just another example, coincidentally providing some publicity for his current show…?

On the other hand, in early 1936, Laurel was at quite an uncertain point in his career. He and Hal Roach had already had a serious rift, based around disagreements over ‘BABES IN TOYLAND’. For a time, Roach had announced the break up of the L & H partnership, threatening to replace it with ‘The Hardy Family’, teaming Babe with Patsy Kelly and Spanky McFarland. Facing an uncertain future, perhaps Laurel was open to moonlighting on the London stage, combined with the attraction of visiting his homeland again. The rapturous reception greeting him on his 1932 visit would surely have been fresh in his mind at times when Hollywood seemed unwelcoming. Perhaps he really was considering the venture at one point.

Of course, it all remains speculation at this point. Both men had spectacular successes around the corner that would preclude any such collaboration if it had really been intended. Laurel had, by mid 1936, patched up his differences with Roach. The formation of Stan Laurel productions allowed him greater creative control (and pacified his ego), resulting in two of the very best L & H pictures, ‘OUR RELATIONS’ and ‘WAY OUT WEST’.

As for Lane, his then-current show, ‘TWENTY TO ONE’, proved so successful that he developed a sequel in which he played the same cockney character. ‘ME AND MY GIRL’ became the apotheosis of his life’s work on stage, a long-running hit that begat the dance craze ‘THE LAMBETH WALK’ and is still revived to this day. Here’s an early TV recording of Lane onstage at the Victoria Palace:

Speaking of famous dances, Stan didn’t too badly with his dancing either in the future, come to that…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Turpin: improbable facts about Silent Film’s most improbable star

 

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Of all the silent comedians, none was more bizarre looking than Ben Turpin. The antithesis of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd’s realism, his equipment – crossed eyes, scrubbing brush moustache, and long neck with globular Adam’s apple – made him almost totemic for silent comedy’s wilder, more surreal side. In fact, when James Agee wrote the 1949 ‘Life’ magazine article that inspired the first serious silent comedy revival, it was Turpin’s mug that adorned the cover. That Turpin could not just become a star, but join the company of ‘Life’ cover stars including (at that point) Eisenhower, Rita Hayworth, Marshall Tito and Stalin is just one of the many improbabilities in his career. In fact, his whole screen career was based on unlikeliness: many of his funny films have him wonderfully out of place masquerading as Rudolph Valentino or Erich von Stroheim!

Here are  a few other unlikely truths about this living gargoyle..

1. Turpin was actually of French parents, although born in New Orleans. In his sound  films, you can detect the hint of an accent.

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2. His eyes were genuinely crossed. At the height of his fame, Turpin famously had his eyes insured by Lloyd’s of London as a publicity stunt.

3. Various stories circulated regarding the source of his miasma. The simple truth is much less exciting: after playing the cross-eyed character ‘Happy Hooligan’ in vaudeville several times a day, he found that one day, his right eye was stuck in position as a result of the repeated strain.

4.Turpin had an extremely restless spirit. He voluntarily became a hobo as a young man, choosing to ride boxcars in preference to finding a job. He did so for several years.

5.After finally settling with a variety of menial jobs, he played in vaudeville before being signed up by Essanay studios. Stardom? Well, not quite. Although he acted in films during the day, he was also required to sweep out the studio, collect props and box up films for shipment!

6.Ben allegedly took the first on-screen pie in the face, in 1909’s ‘Mr Flip’.

 

7. Behind his two-dimensional façade, it’s sometimes hard to recall his real life struggles: he dropped out of acting at the peak of his stardom to nurse his terminally ill wife, Carrie.

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The offscreen Turpin. Almost dapper.

 

8. Well into his 60s, he was a master of the perilous ‘108 fall’, involving kicking a leg up into the air, turning a somersault and landing on the floor. He would apparently often do it in random places around Hollywood, often accompanied by a cry of “I’m Ben Turpin -earn 2,000 dollars a week!”. Fellow comic Lupino Lane once recalled seeing Turpin stop traffic in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard to do his trademark fall! You can see him do it (alongside Lane, coincidentally) a few minutes into this sketch from ‘The Show of Shows’:

 

You can catch Ben Turpin’s films at Bristol’s Slapstick festival next week.

To find out more about his fascinating life, there’s also a great book available (click picture for link):

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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.