Max Linder

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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SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY 2017: Of Monty, Max and matrimony!

 

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Kennington Bioscope’s SILENT LAUGHTER events continue to explode the traditional picture of silent film comedy, busting some time-worn myths and expanding our perceptions with obscure delights, discoveries and unjustly forgotten performers. This year’s event, curated by esteemed historian Glenn Mitchell was no exception.

That old myth that only Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd could survive in feature films, for example? Well, actually we saw terrific features starring Monty Banks and Max Linder, both of whom made  several (as many silent features as Chaplin, for that matter). The efforts of Monty and Max prove that the problem was not sustaining themselves at feature length, rather breaking through into a market jammed with brilliant comedies. Incidentally both were Europeans, whose style and personality differences from the American ‘norm’ possibly made their task harder. Nevertheless, both men made very entertaining films.

Monty Banks’ FLYING LUCK (1927) is typical of his slickly-made comedies, mixing light humour, slapstick and action in the manner of Harold Lloyd. Monty became adroit at high-speed, high-risk sequences which seemed desperate to outdo Keaton and Lloyd. 1923’S ‘RACING LUCK/ saw him driving racing cars, ATTA BOY (1926) features a rousing climax with Banks atop a ladder on a speeding car, and his most famous film, ‘PLAY SAFE’ (1927) closes with a magnificent and extremely dangerous train chase. With ‘FLYING LUCK’ from the same year, he turned his attention to aeroplanes, no doubt looking to cash in on the aviation craze sweeping the world as competitors attempted to fly the Atlantic.

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Monty plays an amateur aviator who dreams of being another Lindbergh. His maiden flight crashes into a recruiting office, and some white lies from the recruiters convince him to join the air corps (“They’ll give you a new plane every day!”). En route to camp he meets pretty jean Arthur and not-so-pretty sergeant Kewpie Morgan, establishing the love triangle that will dominate the film. His arrival at camp is mixed up with that of a visiting aviation committee, and he is shown the high life before being found out and thrown to the mercy of Sgt Morgan. All ends happily when he competes in an air polo competition and wins the day through sheer luck.

flying luck 2.png‘FLYING LUCK’ sags a little in the middle with some standard ‘hopeless new recruit’ business but wins through with some great set pieces and a charming performance from Monty as the hopeless but cocksure little man bungling through.  It was to be his last America starring film though, as Pathé cancelled his contract. Banks fled to Britain, where he would make two more silent features, ‘WEEKEND WIVES’ and ‘ADAM’S APPLE’ before becoming a notable comedy director. In this role, he would work with Stanley Lupino, Laura La Plante, George Formby, and of course Gracie Fields, who he married in 1940. The pair remained happily married until Monty’s death from a heart attack in 1950.

Linder’s BE MY WIFE likewise came from the tail end of his starring career. A very funny farce concerning Max getting mixed up with an expensive dress, a bathtub gin parlour and some extramarital goings on, it packed in several terrific set pieces that show why Chaplin considered Linder ‘the professor’. A case in point: Linder’s first dance at his wedding, where his rival releases a white rat into his trousers. For many lesser silent comics, this would have been the prelude to much gurning and frenetic leaping. Linder builds the comedy magnificently, from his first, subtle elucidations that everything ain’t just alright, through some determined scratching, and culminating in some brilliantly funny spontaneous dance moves.

BE MY WIFE 2 - please credit Lisa Stein Haven

This was just one highlight among many others, including Max’s charade of defeating an imaginary burglar, trying to outwit the dog that is determined to get him, and getting caught up in an elaborate hidden speakeasy set. A wonderful little film that went down a storm with the Kennington crowd, ‘BE MY WIFE’ was shown in a new restoration by Lobster Films.

Max was back as one of the ‘Hapless Husbands’ featured in a programme showcasing matrimonial comedies, ably introduced by Michelle Facey. ‘MAX WANTS A DIVORCE’ (1917) is another recently found film, made in the USA when Essanay courted him as a successor to Chaplin. Max is newly married, but will inherit a fortune only if he remains a bachelor. He plots a plan to stage an affair as grounds for divorce, bribing his new bride with the promise of a pearl necklace. A date and detective are summoned to an empty apartment, but a parade of mentally unhinged patients visiting a doctor in the same building make things anything but smooth. This film was a bit light on gags overall, but worked up to a fine and frenzied (if slightly insensitive) climax in the doctor’s office.

Michelle noted that in many cases, the husbands brought the worst on themselves! This was certainly true of the title character in ‘ROBINET IS JEALOUS’. An Italian short from 1914, this features Marcel Perez (aka Tweedy, among other names) as the eponymous character. When his wife goes out but refuses to disclose her whereabouts, he is consumed by jealousy, following her to an office block. He searches each floor, each time paying a price for his jealousy: each office seems to be occupied by various degree of psycppath, who all pounce on him as he enters the door! Thus, Robinet is subjected to dentistry, a boxing match and an incredibly violent massage  (with rolling pins, of all things!). Violent stuff, but savagely funny. Finally, he locates his wife and it transpires that she has been secretly having a bust made of him as a present.

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Gerard Damman in ‘DER PERSER’

 

Secret presents featured in another European comedy, ‘DER PERSER’ (THE PERSIAN CARPET, 1919). This featured a very obscure German comic, Gerard Damman, who was a discovery of Glenn Mitchell’s. Damman plans to buy his wife a Persian carpet as an anniversary gift, but his furtive behaviour leaads her to be suspicious and think he is ill. Meanwhile, he sneaks out and gets the carpet, but the trams are on strike so he is forced to carry it back through the streets, in a rehash of ‘THE CURTAIN POLE’. The material was spread rather thinly, but Damman was excellent, an enjoyable quiet and subtle performer at a time when few comedians were. A highlight: his attempts to estimate the size of carpet he needs using leaps and bounds, unaware that his wife and a doctor are watching him.

HAPLESS HUSBANDS - INNOCENT HUSBANDS posterRounding out the programme was the always wonderful and charming Charley Chase, in INNOCENT HUSBANDS. From early in his two-reel career, it nevertheless shows his style already gelling perfectly with director Leo McCarey, and a wonderful cast including plump Kay Deslys, a moustache-less James Finlayson, and beautiful, icy Katherine Grant. Katherine is always convinced that Charley is up to something, and is persuaded to visit a spiritualist for more evidence of his infidelities. Charley, meanwhile, just wants to spend a quiet night in but is dragged out to a party by his bachelor neighbour and reluctantly set up with Kay,. The party have made their way to Charley’s flat as the séance relocates there, leaving Charley with three women and a man caught in his bedroom. His attempts to smuggle them out as ‘spirits’ during the séance are just brilliant. Typing that plot makes me realise how action packed ‘INNOCENT HUSBANDS’ is, but it never seems too contrived or plot-heavy. Charley and Leo McCarey were masters of telling complicated stories and putting them over in a brilliantly funny way. Their shorts are some of the best ever made, and this was acknowledged in the fantastic response given to the film.

Silent Laughter wouldn’t be the same without the Kennington Bioscope’s home, The Cinema Museum. It’s a wonderful place, but its future is in grave peril. Please take a look, sign and share!

 

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.