The Cineteca Milano has just published a collection of rare (and great!) silent comedy bits and pieces featuring some underrated comics. (As a heads-up, you need to register – it’s free – to watch the films, and I did have some difficulty getting them to play in my browser. They wouldn’t work on my laptop, but played fine on my smartphone… It’s not often you read the word smartphone on a silent comedy blog, is it?)
In my opinion, Monty Banks is one of the great unsung silent comedians. The dapper little Italian had a pleasing personality and a way with a gag that was quite his own, yet even in his day he was somewhat on the fringes of the scene. A lot of his shorts were independent films released on a states-rights basis, meaning they’ve remained much more obscure than those of the major comedy studios. The ones that survive reveal a fertile comic mind and excellent performer.
Physically, he resembled the typical put-upon “little man” comics and started out in a Chaplinesque vein, but by the early 1920s he’d settled on a more dapper costume and situational humour. In his films he became the tubby little man striving to be a leading man type, but always finding himself in embarrassing situations. In this he had some similarities Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase; certainly, he shared with Chase panache for mixing situational humour sight gags, with just a hint of the surreal. However, it’s not fair just to compare Monty to other comics – he managed to put his own unique spin on his material and made some very fun films. The more I see of his work, the more I like him.
The Cineteca has published an 11 minute fragment called ‘Vitio Coniugale’ – it seems to be from one of his Grand-Asher comedies, HOME COOKED (1924). Bill Blaisdell, the heavy in the other Grand-Ashers, appears as Monty’s dad, and I believe his regular leading lady, Ena Gregory, plays his wife here. This is a simple domestic comedy of Ena’s struggle to learn to cook, and Monty’s struggle to learn to eat her food! The footage begins with Monty’s attempts to eat the meal she has prepared. The pancakes are so tough that they take the wheels off a car when he throws them out of the window, and when he pours her coffee in a pot plant, the plant has animated convulsions. The comic situation of an unpalatable meal isn’t exactly original, but Monty’s underplaying of the situation and the twists on the gags add something new and appealing.
With his family coming to meet the newlyweds, Monty engages in some damage limitation and says he will help Ena prepare a meal for them. The pair plan a goose dinner, which leads to a funny series of gags of Monty plucking the feathers from the bird. His execution of the bird takes place off screen – Monty walks into a room with the goose, and seconds later a ridiculously large number of feathers fly out of the door. Monty emerges covered in feathers, which subsequently transfer to a car and a dog. All ridiculous, but handled adroitly and very funny. eventually, the goose shrinks in the oven and Monty has to steal a replacement from his neighbours, but there the footage stops. I’d love to see the whole thing; like ALMOST LATE and other Banks shorts that exist in fragments, it has a lot of promise. Here’s the link:
Monty Banks may be unsung, but it’s fair to say that Jimmy Aubrey is downright unloved by many comedy fans. Ok, so it’s understandable to a degree. He is one of your classic anonymous, moustachioed comics running around at high speed without much personality, and some of his surviving films just aren’t that funny. But, let’s give Jimmy his due. He was a graduate of Fred Karno’s Army, and starred in films for Vitagraph, Joe Rock and Weiss Brothers for over a decade, so he can hardly have been completely talentless. His supporting role in Laurel & Hardy’s THAT’S MY WIFE is very funny, too.
Part of the reason for his lowly status in the annals of Si-Com lore is probably his cantankerous nature; Babe Hardy recollected Aubrey being jealous and unpleasant towards him, and in late-life interviews (he lived until the early 1980s) he rarely had a nice word to say for anyone. This has coloured modern views of him but, well, that’s a can of worms now, isn’t it? There are many performers who probably weren’t very nice people (especially in bitter old age), but a lot of them didn’t live long enough to get interviewed and show it off! Let’s judge the Cineteca’s Aubrey film on its own merits. (‘Fridolen defenso del dieblo’ is, I believe, the Aubrey Vitagraph Comedy TENDERFOOT LUCK. It was filmed under the working title THE PROSPECTOR in June-July 1922 on location in Northern California, with J.P. Smith directing, and Frank ‘Fatty Alexander in the cast.) Here’s the link:
You know what? It’s not bad. It’s true that Aubrey doesn’t have much charm, but in this comedy the gags are decent enough that it doesn’t matter too much. Rather like Ben Turpin, Aubrey wasn’t a comic innovator, and his films stand or fall on the quality of his gags rather than he himself (significantly, many of the funniest gags feature him in long shot, so his personality adds little to them).
In this one, Jimmy is a railroad stowaway who winds up in a Western town, falling in with Helen Kessler and her prospector father. He falls afoul of the town assayer (by blowing his hair and beard off with nytroglycerine, as you do!) and then sheriff Frank Alexander.
The best moment is a wonderful trick gag where Aubrey, pursued by Alexander, hides behind a narrow post. Thanks to double exposure, he seems to completely disappear. That gag has been done before, but what really makes it something else is the seamless way it is filmed. Just after Jimmy disappears, Frank walks right around the post, and even picks it up before Jimmy reappears. The topper comes when an angry mule also emerges from behind the post, chasing Jimmy and the sherriff away. A great bit of camera trickery, really presented well and made convincing by this little flourish.
Here’s an excerpt of that bit, courtesy of Dave Glass’s YouTube channel:
Ultimately Jimmy saves Helen from some marauding braves by improvising a catapult from a skinny tree. In the vast scheme of things, TENDERFOOT LUCK is no classic, and I doubt that any film is going to reveal Jimmy Aubrey as a master at work, but he was a hard working comic, and the film deserves 18 minutes of any silent comedy fan’s time.
Gag-happy Western comedy is also the order of the day in the next film, starring Lige Conley & Jimmie Adams. Some of the first comedies made by Jack White’s Mermaid Comedies featured these two diminutive comics – wild-haired Lige and balding, toothbrush-moustached Adams – in fast paced gags and stunts. The Cinemateca’s offering, BANG! (1921) shares with DANGER! an exclamatory title that sums up its breakneck comic method.
Gags come way before story in these shorts, and it’s best to abandon all worry about plot or characters. Instead, just jump into their slipstream-of-consciousness. Though BANG! is, roughly, a tale of Lige and Jmmie’s attempts to thwart corrupt sherriff Earl Montgomery, it’s all about the gag sequences and there are plenty of left turns to follow a comic whim. The Mermaids had good budgets and were often pretty elaborate, meaning a lot of these gags are impressive.
The short opens with a wonderful reveal gag of Adams in bed, apparently very elongated, before it’s revealed that the legs actually belong to Conley, hidden under the covers. Then we’re into some Rube Goldberg-esque business of their automated alarm clock and breakfast (similar to scenes in Keaton’s THE SCARECROW and Snub Pollard’s IT’S A GIFT) before a totally random scene of a dog, cat and mouse chasing each other!
The western saloon provides a nice surreal pool table gag, and some dark humour based around shootings. Then we’re into an exciting horse chase with some impressive stunts, and a good trick gag whereby Conley seems to jump across a river in one leap. Add some stolen money, a chimney, that cat again and you have a veritable gag whirlwind; leading lady Dorothy Wood has little else to do but watch the madness unfold.
This sort of material always benefits from a good print, and this is a beautiful tinted copy. The titles are in Italian, but you’re not really going to miss out on much story now, are you?
There’s yet more Western spoofing in a fragment of HER SCREEN IDOL, a 1918 Sennett directed by Eddie Cline. Ford Sterling plays a conceited Cowboy star who agrees to attend a showing of his new film in a small town cinema, where superfan Louise Fazenda is in attendance. Sterling is best known for his scenery chewing Keystine performances, but here he’s very funny as the self-important star watching himself on the screen and marvelling at his own performance. We don’t get to see the wonderful Louise Fazenda do much in the existing footage, but look put for a glimpse of Ben Turpin and Heinie Conklin as two inept musicians in the orchestra pit. View it here: https://www.cinetecamilano.it/film/2548
It’s wonderful that the Cineteca Milano has released these rarities from their archives. It’s the films of lesser known, jobbing comics like Aubrey, Conley and Adams that fill out our picture of the silent era.
A version of this article also appears in the newest issue of THE LOST LAUGH magazine. Click the link to download this and previous issues.
If Monty Banks is remembered today at all, it is chiefly for being Gracie Fields’ director and husband. However, being “Mr Gracie Fields” effectively subsumed Banks’ own prior identity as a successful silent comedian. On the rare occasions his silent film work is mentioned, it is generally condensed down to one scene: a stunt-filled runaway train sequence, with Monty hanging off a boxcar by a loose plank. This excerpt from PLAY SAFE appeared in Robert Youngson’s DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER and was later reissued as CHASING CHOO-CHOOS. It’s the only widely seen bit from all of Banks’ films (even the rest of PLAY SAFE remains obscure), despite the fact he made many other stunt-packed comedy sequences equally worthy of revival. And so, Monty Banks speeds through collective memory, a blurred little fellow clinging to his speeding freight train. “We remember the film,” wrote Walter Kerr, “yet we do not quite remember the man”.
The fact that Banks is often forgotten is especially unfair, as he was one of the few comics beyond “the big three” of Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd to graduate from two-reelers to features successfully. In fact, he spent much of the 20s making full length comedies. His initial success came by learning from the model defined by Keaton, Lloyd and their gagmen – having a solid story premise building to a climax combining sight gags, action and thrills. Although they were clearly derived from trying to replicate this model, Monty’s own silent features were hardly cheap, thoughtless knockoffs. Far from it, they remain high quality, and belie the notion that none of the second-string comics could sustain a career in full-length comedies.
To put things in perspective, Banks made nine features. That’s more than Langdon managed and almost as many as Keaton & Lloyd. Unlike those comedians, Banks may have lacked the special ingredient that made his films as timeless, but he was nevertheless a very capable comic. Particularly adroit at high-speed, high-risk, comic thrill sequences, he could also handle situation comedy with aplomb, and came to develop his own particular style. However, while he managed to carve more of a niche for himself in the industry than many silent clowns, it was by no means easy. Monty Banks’ feature films were the culmination of years’ hard graft; his story is full of setbacks, after which he continually bounced back and reinvented himself. He was, perhaps, one of the hardest working, most resilient men in all of silent comedy.
Born in 1898 in Cesena, Italy as Mario Bianchi, he spoke virtually no English on arriving in the states in 1914. Originally hoping to be a dancer, instead Bianchi found himself drawn to comedy films. He later claimed that his linguistic limitations got him his break: inability to understand the director resulted in him ad-libbing his own funny business, which turned out to be funnier than the planned gags.
From these inauspicious beginnings, he spent the late teens as one of the legions of shuffling, toothbrush-moustached Chaplin derivatives employed in Hollywood. Flitting between independent companies (one possibly apocryphal story tells of him filming comedies in the daytime, and laying pavements as a sideline after filming was done) he gradually carved a niche for himself. Among his more notable appearances are a WW1 spoof, THE GEEZER OF BERLIN, as well as in some of Roscoe Arbuckle’s Comique shorts. Buster Keaton’s war service left a vacancy for a supporting comic in the series, and young Mario filled it in films like LOVE (1919) and A DESERT HERO (1919). After Buster’s return, he still appeared briefly in ‘THE GARAGE’ as the chap being chased by Luke the dog. As well as the experience, the work with Arbuckle had a more lasting legacy: his screen name. It was Roscoe who gave Bianchi his new identity, reportedly saying “you’re always playing mountebanks, why don’t you call yourself Monty Banks?”
Like Keaton, independent production gave him his break to starring shorts. Starting with A RARE BIRD (1920), he produced films for Grand-Asher. During the course of these films (documented fully in the recent book ‘Monty Banks: the short comedies’) he began to reinvent his character. Shabby tramp clothes were out; dapper suits and an impeccably tailored moustache were in. Taking his cue from Lloyd rather than Chaplin, Monty now played an amiable, everyday kind of fellow. His small size and chubbiness marked him a little out of step with the romantic ideals he held, but he remained an optimist in the face of embarrassment and disaster. The title of one of his films, KEEP SMILING, just about sums his persona up. If his character wasn’t as firmly delineated as Lloyd’s or Keaton’s, he was nevertheless very likeable and a proficient comedy performer.
Banks’ surviving shorts like WEDDING BELLS and PAY OR MOVE reveal a fertile comic mind and are full of great gags. A typical example: Monty is a florist, who has absent-mindedly played “She loves me not” with half the flowers in his shop, leaving a giant pile of petals on the floor. ALMOST LATE features a terrific sequence of Monty rushing to work on his bicycle, shaving, eating breakfast and reading his newspaper all while speeding along the road. It’s a wonderful milking of a gag situation, with a great pay-off: Monty has been in such a rush, he has left the coat hanger in his jacket. As he passes a lorry carrying a ladder, he is hooked on it and whisked away on his bike, to be delivered outside the shop where he works.
The series of shorts flourished, but were always somewhat on the fringes of the silent comedy scene. Distribution on the states-rights market gave them a more ephemeral quality, and established Banks as something of an outsider (an image he would struggle to shake). Moreover, it has made the films more obscure to this day; it’s difficult to research many of them as the states-rights markets were barely covered in the trade press. Even exact titles of some of the films remain uncertain.
Nevertheless, the shorts were successful enough for Banks to persuade Grand-Asher to finance a feature film. Banks was clearly a savvy fellow; as well as his comic ability, he was able to promote himself effectively. The arc of his career, from minor companies to negotiating his own outfit and into features and beyond, suggests he also talked a good game (there are several adverts in the trade papers featuring him talking himself up and promoting his latest releases ). This is quite a contrast from the inarticulate young immigrant of a few years before! The development of his comic style over the years also shows that he had his finger on the pulse of what was popular in screen comedy. On the verge of making features, he had seen the success of the Keaton & Lloyd films mixing sight gags, thrills and speed with a compelling story arc. Now it was his turn.
Camera (Nov 17, 1923) reported on Banks’ plans , quoting his director Herman Raymaker: “We’ve got a corking story” […] “Its first, middle and last names are – speed! At that, a title hasn’t been chosen. We’re trying to get something that will be adequate, and express the vim and dash of the story properly.”
That title turned out to be RACING LUCK. Whether it was vim-ful and dashing enough is hard to say now, as the film has not been screened in many years, although copies do exist in Belgian and Russian archives. Synopses and reviews make it clear that the film was definitely modelled after the Keaton & Lloyd It’s not surprising as writers Jean Havez and Lex Neal were both Keaton & Lloyd collaborators; like other comics Banks was aware that a good chunk of the Keaton-Lloyd feature formula lay not just with the stars, but with their team of gagmen, men like Ted Wilde, Havez and Clyde Bruckman. However, he also put a lot of himself into the film, and RACING LUCK had a distinct splash of autobiography. Drawing on his experiences coming to the US, it features him as an Italian immigrant planning on being a dancer. The autobiographical element even extends to naming his character Mario Bianchi. Our hero gets confused with a racing driver, and ends up having to drive an experimental new car in a race.
If the racing car element was somewhat more fanciful, it was also a pet subject of Banks’. He had a passion for fast cars, which would lead him to many future altercations with the traffic police; the film trade papers reported charges against Banks of reckless driving and speeding at regular intervals throughout the decade!
With the finished film in hand, Banks and Grand-Asher now had to find a distributor. Banks set up camp at the Hotel Astor, taking out a series of full-page ads in the trades inviting distributors to come and see him. Eventually, he struck a deal with Associated Exhibitors to release the feature. Reviews were excellent, with one exhibitor quoted as saying “They liked it more than SAFETY LAST here.”
This was good enough for Associated-Exhibitors, who commissioned more of the same…and got it. The follow up to RACING LUCK would be a calculated attempt to repeat a successful formula. This time, speedboats were substituted for racing cars in a similar race to the finish line. Begun under the title ‘HOT WATER’, the new would ironically have to be changed when Lloyd released his own film of that name; subsequently it became known as ‘WATER SHY’ before settling on the more generic ‘KEEP SMILING’.
To help guarantee success, an extra helping hand was on the writing staff. Former sportswriter Clyde Bruckman had worked on some of Banks’ shorts as a titlewriter. Since that time he had become one of the industry’s gold-dust gagmen after working with Keaton. Like Havez, Bruckman had worked on all of Keaton’s features (THE THREE AGES, OUR HOSPITALITY, SHERLOCK JR, THE NAVIGATOR and SEVEN CHANCES) and was perhaps his closest collaborator. Lloyd would soon purloin him for FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, but other stars like Banks also came calling at Bruckman’s door, keen to get a piece of the magic. Other comedy experts on the KEEP SMILING team included co-directors Albert Austin, one of Chaplin’s longest serving associates, and Sennett veteran Gil Pratt.
Like its predecessor, KEEP SMILING is extant but rarely seen. Certainly on paper, it has lots going for it. Monty plays a young man whose fear of water has led him to invent a life-saving device. After using it to save Anne Cornwall from drowning, he is given a letter of introduction to an investor, who turns out to be her father. The letter is accidentally swapped with another one introducing a captain of a new speedboat. Before he knows it, the water-shy Monty finds himself driving the boat in a river race! This brought the film to a rousing climax, with ‘Moving Picture World’ commenting: “The various things that happen to the boat are utterly improbable, but cleverly worked out and keep the laughs coming”.
While not as well-received as its predecessor, KEEP SMILING proved popular enough with audiences to affirm Monty’s success in features. Now, with car and boat chases ticked off the list, Banks and his storywriters turned their formula to trains. The Exhibitors Herald reported on Aug 29, 1925 that Banks had begun working on his next story, PLAY SAFE, assisted by Malcolm Stuart Boylan. Joseph Henabery was assigned to direct by November, with Charles Gerrard and Virginia Lee Corbin joining the cast as villain and leading lady respectively. Henabery is now best known for appearing as Abraham Lincoln in D.W. Griffith’s ‘THE BIRTH OF A NATION’, but had been forging a career as a director throughout the 1920s. Corbin was a former child star, and just 15 when ‘PLAY SAFE’ was made. Gerrard is best remembered today for his future role as Lord Plumtree in Laurel & Hardy’s ‘ANOTHER FINE MESS’.
The resulting film is Banks’ most famous, thanks to its hugely exciting runaway train stunt sequence, which remains the only sizeable chunk of Monty Banks film that many people have seen. Much more rarely viewed is the rest of the film which builds up to the sequence.
In its complete form, PLAY SAFE is the tale of a runaway factory heiress (Corbin) who is escaping a forced marriage to her crooked trustee (Charles Gerard). Monty is one of the workers at the factory who offers her shelter when she is hiding from some thugs in a rainstorm. When Gerard finds out they are falling in love, he plans to frame Monty as the leader of a kidnapping plot, aided by henchman Bud Jamison. Virginia isn’t fooled, so the villains change their plan to a real kidnap, trapping her in a box car on a runaway train. Meanwhile, Monty escapes the clutches of Jamison, and commandeers a horse and cart to give chase, with the thugs hot on his heels. Realising the wagon is full of fruit, he dispatches the villains by releasing banana peels all over the road. Just as the cart crashes into a fence, Monty makes a leap to the horse’s back; falling off, he is entangled in the horse’s reins and is forced to run along behind until he can free himself. Next, he gets a lift from a racing car driver, who speeds alongside the train as Monty attempts to make a grab for the box car. Of course, he ends up trapped between the two, clinging to the side of the train with his feet still in the back seat of the car. As another train comes speeding towards them, the car driver bails, leaving Monty clinging to the abandoned car; he manages to climb aboard just before the train passes. The villains spot him and give chase along the train’s roof, but are knocked into a river by a water spout. Monty manages to duck and remain on the train, swinging down into Viriginia’s box car using a rope. The two attempt to climb back up on top to escape, but Monty slips and ends up hanging from the rope as the train passes above a cliff edge. His attempts to climb are further hindered by a mailbag a chicken he picks up on the way, and his fraying rope!
Things get worse as he attempts to uncouple the caboose, but manages to get on the wrong part of the train, which runs alongside the caboose on a parallel track. Monty tries to use a plank as a bridge between the two boxcars, but slips and ends up dangling over the precipice as the train speeds along. After a hair-raising sequence, he manages to climb aboard. He and Virginia are thrown safely into a pile of hay as the rest of the train crashes over the cliff edge.
Here’s the sequence:
Worthy to stand beside many of Lloyd and Keaton’s thrill sequences, this is a rousing finale to the film with some great moving camerawork, mixed alongside use of models and doubling from stuntman Harvey Parry. While we now regard this as a classic sequence, amazingly enough, PLAY SAFE sat in the can for almost a year before release. The film was previewed at Hollywood’s Melrose theatre and New York’s Bunny Theatre in February, 1926, and then…disappeared before it could be released. The reason was not through any fault with the picture, however. Before it could be given a release, Associated Exhibitors folded and was merged into Pathé. ‘PLAY SAFE’ was one of the films lost in the shuffle.
For Banks, this was potentially a crisis. Fortunately, he was able to persuade Pathé to take on his contract. This actually proved to be a beneficial move, as Pathé could offer greater distribution and prominent advertising. Still smarting from their loss of Harold Lloyd to Paramount, the company directly promoted Banks as Lloyd’s successor.
Accordingly, they went great guns on promoting their new star as, “Monty Banks, the grandson of laughter!” His first release was not PLAY SAFE, still languishing on the shelf, but a newly filmed feature. Film Daily reported that Banks had reached an arrangement to film on the Hal Roach lot during the studios’ annual summer closedown. So, in June of 1926, Banks, his crew and director Edward H Griffith, moved in to film a reporter story, ATTA BOY.
Monty Milde is a lowly copyboy, who dreams of promotion to fully-fledged reporter. Tricked into believing he has been promoted, he sets out to get an interview, and becomes embroiled in the story of a millionaire’s kidnapped child. Tracking the kidnappers to a nightclub, Monty disguises himself as a waiter. His cover is soon blown, but he manages to find the kidnapped child. Escaping down a ladder balanced on a car, Monty is left stranded atop the ladder when the driverless car moves off, racing up and down hills. After a wild ride through the streets, the child is rescued and Monty gains his promotion.
The closing sequence is excellent, but the funniest part of ATTA BOY is a much more low-key gag sequence. Monty has innocently come into possession of a bottle of bootleg liquor, and detective Fred Kelsey (who else?) is on his trail. Monty nonchalantly tries to rid himself of the bottle in an escalating series of gags where somehow, the bottle always seems to find its way back to him. The scene is testament to Banks’ skill at milking an idea for as many laughs as possible.
Released on October 24, 1926 amidst a high-octane publicity campaign, ATTA BOY was perhaps Banks’ most successful film on its original release. No doubt to keep the momentum of their new star, the already-completed PLAY SAFE was finally allowed release in cinemas, less than three months after its predecessor. Despite the reputation it has subsequently gained, the film was not especially well-received by the critics. Despite the skill of the gags and the thrill of the train sequence, reviews weren’t overenthusiastic. One exhibitor’s review was “If you want to play safe, stay away from this.”
Perhaps it was this subdued response to his stunt-filled train ride, or maybe just osmosis from being at the Roach studios, but Banks’ next film would mark a distinct change of pace. HORSE SHOES is a much more situational comedy of embarrassment than his previous efforts, akin to the films Charley Chase was making. In fact, Chase would years later condense the central situation into one of his own two-reelers, the masterful IT HAPPENED ONE DAY (1934).
Clyde Bruckman was back on the unit, this time in the director’s chair and fresh from co-directing Keaton’s THE GENERAL. Like that film and PLAY SAFE, trains would play a large role in the new effort, albeit less dramatically. HORSE SHOES introduces us to Monty, a flustered junior lawyer with a superstition for good-luck horseshoes. He has two ambitions: to make a success of being a lawyer, and to marry the boss’s daughter (a young Jean Arthur). Coincidentally, he bumps into her on the street after he has just been knocked over by a car. Their meeting is a lovely little scene, with Jean standing in front of an angel statue; from Monty’s viewpoint, the wings seem to belong to her. She helps him up and finds they are bound for the station to catch the same train. Bumping into a newly married couple on his way there, Monty accidentally picks up a ‘just married’ sign, which attaches itself to his back. The passengers on the train assume that Monty and Jean are married, and a comedy of errors results. At night time, Monty tries to get to his bunk, but finds it is above Jean’s, leading to lots of embarrassment as he tries to get to bed under the nosy gaze of the other passengers. There’s a particularly fun gag as Monty spots Jean’s arm protruding from her booth, seeming to wave in a “come here” motion (actually, she’s applying lotion to her arm). As he approaches, the arm changes to a “go away” gesture, before beckoning him forward again, leaving him completely confused as to her intentions.
Eventually, Monty ends up helping out Jean and her father by defending them in court; the hearing descends into a free-for-all, but Monty triumphs, winning the case and marriage to Jean, this time for real!
Buster Keaton fans may recognise much of the train section of the plot; Bruckman, ever a recycler of material, lifted the sequence wholesale for Keaton’s Columbia short PARDON MY BERTH MARKS in 1940, right down to gags and even camera setups. HORSE SHOES moves quickly with snappy gag sequences such as these, and Banks is well-suited to the more situational comedy. Again, reviews were mainly positive, but for all his efforts, it wasn’t quite successful enough to be a breakthrough effort giving him the prominence he deserved. One suspects his films were simply lost in the sheer glut of great comedy product flooding the market in the mid- late 1920s. Films like HORSE SHOES or ATTA BOY, which still stand up well today, couldn’t get the credit they deserved amongst all the competition from Keaton, Lloyd et al. It’s perhaps indicative of how many great comedies were being made at the time that something the quality of ‘PLAY SAFE’ could be denounced as ‘pretty poor’ by Photoplay.
What could Banks do to get noticed? Ever savvy, he took inspiration from the news headlines. As he looked for inspiration in the Spring of 1927, the eyes of the world were on the sky. The race to fly across the Atlantic was on, with national pride (not to mention the $125,000 Orteig prize) at stake. Aviation caught the public imagination as never before, dominating the news and inevitably filtering through to popular entertainment.
Aeroplanes had been providing increasingly frequent thrills in films for several years by the time the aviation boom reached its peak. Aerial stunt work in movies was becoming a reliable source of income for pilots. Some, such as the French pilot Charles Nungesser, even starred in their own films. The use of aeroplanes in silent films would reach its glamorous zenith with Clara Bow’s WINGS, filmed in early 1927 at a budget of $2million. For Banks, aviation was a perfect subject for his next comedy. He announced that his next picture would be “a flying comedy entitled ‘AN ACE IN THE HOLE’” in April 1927.
The timing couldn’t have been better. As spring cleared fog over the Atlantic, the race was on for transatlantic glory, and the hopefuls were busy preparing and beginning their attempts. By the time outside contender Charles Lindbergh (nicknamed ‘The Flying Fool’ by a sceptical New York Times) completed his successful flight on 21 May, excitement was at fever pitch. Banks and his distributors at Pathé must have been rubbing their hands with glee as filming went ahead during all of this. To further capitalise on Lindbergh’s fame, the film’s title changed to THE FLYING FOOL in early June, but by the time production wrapped in the summer, it had been retitled FLYING LUCK. Clearly Banks hoped to hark back to his early success of RACING LUCK (in fact, he even used the same director, Herman C Raymaker).
FLYING LUCK presents Monty as a keen amateur pilot who idolises Lindbergh. He joins the flying corps, but soon gets on the wrong side of sergeant Kewpie Morgan, especially when the two of them vie for the hand of Jean Arthur, the colonel’s daughter. Banks is predictably ill-suited to military life, but redeems himself in a match of air polo.
The aerial sequences are well-filmed, but the novelty value of aviation doesn’t quite cover for the fact that the love-triangle plot and military ’fish out of water’ sequences are fairly standard comedy, compared to Banks’ previous efforts. FLYING LUCK is an enjoyable and charming little comedy, but in a year when it was up against THE GENERAL and THE KID BROTHER, couldn’t help but pale in comparison. Perhaps the lack of Clyde Bruckman was partly responsible; Banks was able to entice him back for his next effort, A PERFECT GENTLEMAN, shot in late 1927.
Happily, this turned out to be a real return to form. Banks, Bruckman and Horan returned to the more situational style of HORSE SHOES, peppering it with fast-moving, original sequences of great visual gags. While it can’t compete with the suspenseful climax of PLAY SAFE, A PERFECT GENTLEMAN is for my money, the funniest comedy he made. It might even be the best of the Monty Banks features.
Like HORSE SHOES, this film is very much in Charley Chase’s white collar idiom. Monty is a bank teller engaged to the boss’s daughter (Ruth Hiatt), unaware that his colleague is planning to abscond with money to South America to help fund a revolution. Things start going badly when Monty is knocked out en route to his wedding; his chauffeur Syd Crossley attempts to revive him with brandy, but Monty accidentally consumes the whole bottle. Sozzled at the wedding, Monty become mischevious and spends half of it trying to play practical jokes on the guests, ending up with him kicking his prospective mother-in-law in the rear! The wedding cancelled, Monty discovers he has been framed for the theft. The villain persuades him to leave for South America, hiding the money in a compartment in Monty bag so that he will unwittingly smuggle it on-board the ship.
Things come to a head on the high seas as the villains try to reclaim the money, while Monty tries to convince Ruth and her father, also on board, of his innocence. A further complication is added in the form of burly purser Arthur Thalasso, who keeps finding Monty in embarrassing situations with his own wife! The combination of these three elements produce some brilliant, precision-timed comedy sequences full of original gags. Best of all is a scene where Monty finds himself with the purser’s comatose, seasick wife. As he tries to support her, somehow her dress unfastens, and Monty’s panicked attempts to fix it only makes things worse. He somehow manages to swap all her clothes around, leaving her in an entirely different outfit. It’s a gag that plays better than it reads, but Monty’s rising panic and the clever way he performs the routine make it an outstanding moment.
After a hair-rising ride on the ship’s anchor, Monty manages to win the money back and reunite with Ruth. On film there were happy endings, but in real life trouble was looming for Banks. A PERFECT GENTLEMAN was as good a film as he, or anyone else, could have made, but by the time it was released in January 1928, he had already been dropped by Pathé.
His films were always popular, but he never had quite broken through to the extent Pathé hoped. Certainly, he was no match for the earnings they’d been gaining from Harold Lloyd. The company wasn’t doing too well in the late 20s, and with the additional uncertainty of sound film on the horizon, Banks was let go. This was catastrophic news for him, and meant he was facing bankruptcy. Rather than face the proceedings, he fled to Britain, where an offer had come in to make a film from the newly formed British International Pictures.
The arrangement was mutually beneficial. The new company got the benefit of Banks’ Hollywood experience; in return, he got “big fish in little pond” star treatment and some much-needed cash. Also moonlighting from Hollywood with him was another Lloyd collaborator. Tim Whelan had been a writer for Lloyd on WHY WORRY, GIRL SHY and THE FRESHMAN, as well as some other gentle comedies like Bea Lillie’s EXIT SMILING and Mary Pickford’s MY BEST GIRL.
ADAM’S APPLE picks up on the transition shown by ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’ to a more farcical style influenced by Charley Chase; with the more refined Whelan replacing the gag-happy Bruckman, it was a more gentle comedy with less outlandish sight gags and more focus on situation. Monty and his bride (Gillian Dean) plan a wonderful honeymoon in Europe. Unfortunately for Monty, Gillian’s crabby mother-in-law is tagging along too, with her pet dog, cat and parrot! Monty spends most of the sea voyage trying to get some time alone with his new wife, but only succeeds in innocently getting tangled up with jealous Colin Kenny’s wife. When Gillian is kidnapped, Monty sets off to rescue her, culminating in him hanging off the side of a building in a Lloyd-type scene before the couple are reunited. Banks’ performance is excellent and understated, a series of frustrations and embarrassments. In terms of comedy, ‘ADAM’S APPLE’ is a bit below his American releases; the gags not coming quite as fast and having a bit too much British politeness about them. It still remains an enjoyable effort, if not up to the standards of the gag-filled ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’.
British audiences were impressed though, and B.I.P. were delighted. Monty would stay with them as actor and director well into the next decade. Keen to use their new star, they gave him two new projects. The first was off-screen, directing Danish comedy team Pat & Patachon in ‘COCKTAILS’, a story of two pickpockets who accidentally get mixed up in cocaine smuggling. Then, he was back to acting in ‘WEEKEND WIVES’. This is a real change of step for Banks, that goes fully down the bedroom farce route hinted at in his last couple of films. It’s also more of an ensemble film in which he is just one of four main characters (on some posters he was fourth billed). Coming off the success of ADAM’S APPLE, this seems a curious demotion at first. However, the film was actually a fairly prestigious Anglo-French production, shot on location in Deauville, and a chance for the ever-adaptable Banks to try his hand at something new. One suspects that BIP also wanted to capitalise on their new star by putting him into any film they had going. Amidst the story of a rowing husband and wife who both take trips to Deauville with other partners, Banks plays a womanising playboy off to Deauville, who ends up picking up the wife. He gets a couple of good sight gags in, including accidentally being carted off on a luggage trolly, but this just isn’t that kind of film, on the whole. While Banks copes very well with the different performance style (the highlight being his panic when he thinks the husband is about to murder him), WEEKEND WIVES is just too sedate, moving at a glacial pace. Variety amusingly noted , with a little exaggeration, on its US release, “Every foot of film exposed […] seems to have gotten by the cutting room. Reels are devoted to close-ups of bacon and eggs, dresses, conversations and trunk-packing. Too bad the director didn’t give as much thought to the story as the irrelevant details.”
If nothing else, WEEKEND WIVES shows Banks’ skill at adapting to different mediums. A more direct follow up to ADAM’S APPLE in his usual style was planned. The planned ‘A COMPULSORY HUSBAND’ was to be based on a play, but would feature sight gags and a big thrill finish in his best style. However, before it could be finished, BIP went over to sound, and the film was restarted as a talkie. For Monty Banks, the silent era had been quite the wild ride. From ignominious bit parts as a gauche young immigrant, he had worked incredibly hard to build and maintain his career in feature films. While he was never quite capable of achieving a place in the comedy A-list, he fashioned films that are skilfully made and with many original gags. His features deserve to be seen more widely so we can appreciate his efforts.
I’ve just returned from SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND at London’s Cinema Museum. The fourth such event run by the lovely folk at Kennington Bioscole, these are now a real highlight of my year, and I was privileged to have some involvement in selecting and presenting a few films. Of course, we’re lucky to have silent comedies so freely available on DVD, YouTube and everywhere else, but the real way they’re meant to be seen is like this: on a big screen, as a shared experience with other cinemagoers, and with live musical accompaniment. Stand up and take a bow, John Sweeney, Meg Morley. Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulos, Cyrus Gabrysch, whose wonderful playing brought these films to life. To hear the expert introductions of historians such as Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson only heightened the experience. Here’s part one of a review of the weekend. Part two to follow!
The weekend began with THE NIGHT CLUB (1925), starring Raymond Griffith (promoted as ‘The New Sheik of Slapstick!”). His first starring feature, it is a wonderful vehicle for his understated, unique comic style. The film launched his career in features with a high pedigree; produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, it was directed by his protégées Paul Iribe and Frank Urson and based on a play by DeMille’s brother.
This is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women but has to undergo an arranged marriage to inherit a fortune. He genuinely falls in love with his arranged bride (Vera Reynolds), but she thinks he’s only after her for the money. A despondent Griffith pays a bandit (Wallace Beery) to bump him off, but Vera finds out the truth and they are reconciled. Now Griff’s only problem is to tell the bandit that no, thank you, he doesn’t want to die anymore…
It’s a complicated story and even that summary doesn’t take account of many of the tangents and subplots that arise. It’s easy to see why it was a failure as a play, but as a Griffith vehicle it succeeds admirably. Our hero wins through with a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.
There are also great performances from Beery, William Austin and Louise Fazenda, not to mention some great suicide gags and lovely location shooting on the dusty paradise of Catalina Island.
Director Eddie Sutherland contended that Griffith’s failing as a comic was that he tried to mix too many styles, but the inclusion of sight gags and slapstick alongside more gentle material makes films like THE NIGHT CLUB much more entertaining than many of the light comedies of the era.
Griffith’s best films were yet to come, as he refined his suave, sly style; his best surviving films are probably PATHS TO PARADISE and HANDS UP. THE NIGHT CLUB, however, remains a fun and different comedy. By the way, if you’re wondering where the night club of the title comes in… it doesn’t. Kevin Brownlow explained in his introduction that this was a side effect of the studios’ block booking system. Often films were sold to exhibitors before they were filmed or even written. Paramount had promised a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, so they delivered a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, even though their new story had nothing at all to do with one!
Next it was on to a programme of British shorts, titled THE BRITISH ARE COMING and presented by Tony Fletcher. Now, these can be a mixed bag. There are some fantastic British silent comedies, but many are a bit too polite and ponderous. Certainly, they were created in a different idiom to the American model of silent comedy.This programme had a higher batting average than many, showcasing some offbeat efforts.
‘BOOKWORMS’, made in 1920, is a charming little vehicle for Leslie Howard. Written by A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories), it shows Milne’s literary instincts in a witty modern fairytale pastiche. Substituting suburban villas for castles and fiery housemaids for dragons, this is an updated Rapunzel-style tale of Howard’s attempts to contact Pauline Johnson, who is locked away by her Aunt and Uncle, and made to read books all day. Howard’s love note arranging a rendezvous, sent inside her library book, also reaches three other people, resulting in a farcical meeting of several different characters, each thinking the other has sent it. This is a mild, but very charming tale. Much of the humour comes from the breaking of the fourth wall, especially in the intertitles.
This was a pet tactic of director Adrian Brunel, who loved to play with the medium of film. More of Brunel’s whimsical humour was seen in CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA. A spoof travelogue, this skewers the pomoposity of the genre superbly. Again, much of the humour coems through intertitles, juxtaposition of images and bizarre use of stock footage. In its sublime silliness, the short anticipates Spike Milligan’s work (especially sketches from ‘Q’, like ‘First Irish Rocket to the Moon’)
Also experimental was THE FUGITIVE FUTURIST, in which an inventor produces a magic device that shows visions of the future. Through the magic of double exposure, animation and an effect that makes the emulsion seem to melt off the film, we see waves lapping at the shores of Trafalgar square, Tower Bridge turned into a monorail, and houses that build themselves. A bizarre little film!
There was a chance to glimpse behind the scenes at the film industry (and film fandom) with STARLINGS OF THE SCREEN. This short chronicles the progress of a competition run by Picture Show magazine, whereby 3000 young ladies entered to be in with a chance of winning a film role; kind of ‘THE X FACTOR’ of its day! The 15 shortlisted provincial candidates are seen trying their hardest to act at a series of screen tests at Oswald Stoll’s studios. Also on hand is comic actor Moore Marriott, later best known as one of Will Hay’s sidekicks, who puts the girls through their paces in a series of short little sketches. This was a great little item: a fascinating time capsule, often (unintentionally) hilarious. There was also a touch of poignancy in the doomed ambitions of the film hopefuls, who simply didn’t have ‘it’ and would soon return to obscurity. Nancy Baird of Glasgow, and Sheilagh Allen of Londonderry, whatever became of you?
So far, so good. The only one of these films to disappoint was ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’. Starring Guy Newall & Ivy Duke, this too played with the medium of cinema, having a prologue breaking the fourth wall, in which Duke & Newall invite the public to join them in their dressing rooms preparing for the film. The story itself was the tale of Duke’s perpetual discomfort caused by her woollen underwear. At the theatre, Newall is sat behind her, absentmindedly fiddles with a thread he sees dangling from the bottom of her chair and soon has unravelled her entire vest. It was a nice little idea for a throwaway gag, but stretching it out to almost half an hour was fairly infuriating! I could have seen Lloyd or Keaton doing a similar gag, but as a little aside, rather than building a whole film around it! Nevertheless, an interesting little item, and overall this showed that British films were often very creative and playful.
After lunch, I was thrilled to be able to present an overview of CHARLEY CHASE. Chase is one of my absolute favourite silent (and sound comedians), and he’s often been a neglected figure, so it’s always a pleasure to show his films to new audiences. The 1920s, with their increased focus on human comedy, were Chase’s decade. In front of the camera, he played an eternally embarrassed young man, while behind it he was an enormously inventive, prolific and consistent comedy craftsman.
An extract from ALL WET (1924) provided an early example of a classic Chase situation, escalating from simple, believable beginnings to peaks of absurdity. Charley is on his way to meet a train in his car; he helps another motorist out of a mud puddle, and in doing so becomes stuck himself. His attempts to free the car end in it being completely submerged, necessitating Charley’s repairs of the car from underwater. ALL WET builds gags brilliantly, and is a fine example of the teamwork between Chase and its director, future Oscar-winner Leo McCarey (who once said “Everything I know, I learned from Charley Chase”).
Together Chase and MccCarey thrived off each other, developing a unique style of intricate storytelling. When Chase’s films were expanded to two reels, they were able to use the extra space to construct beautifully elaborate farces, mini-masterpieces packed with gags, situations and great characters. To illustrate this, we saw large excerpts from ‘WHAT PRICE GOOFY’, ‘FLUTTERING HEARTS’ and ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’, the latter getting some of the biggest laughs of the weekend with its split-second timed multiple exchanges of trousers.
Two things struck me forcefully while selecting the clips:
1 – it’s incredibly hard to take excerpts out of Chase’s films, as they are so tightly and masterfully constructed.
2 – Chase really realised the value of his supporting casts. Perhaps it was background as a director, but he never seems egotistical about his own performances, always allowing others to shine; his films are true ensemble pieces. Oliver Hardy, Katherine Grant, Gale Henry, Thelma Todd, Tom Dugan, Vivian Oakland and Buddy the Dog are just some of the performers given great opportunities in the films we saw.
The closing scenes from ‘THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG’ showcased Charley’s illustrious career in talkies, and we finished off with the complete ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’. The apotheosis of Charley’s taking a simple idea to ridiculous extremes, this tale follows him and and his wife as they both have plastic surgery, fail to recognise each other and embark on an affair! This has righty been recognised as a masterpiece, and has been added to the USA’s National Film Registry along with other classics like ‘THE GENERAL’ and ‘BIG BUSINESS’.
It was a real delight to hear the laughter at Chase’s films, with several people in the audience commenting that it was their first time seeing them. Charley didn’t live long enough to see his work being appreciated; if only he could have heard the response his films got on Saturday…
Also in the comedy of embarrassment mould was Monty Banks’ 1927 feature ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. We saw it in a pristine 35mm copy from the BFI, albeit with Spanish intertitles. Monty was, for my money, one of the hardest working silent comedians. He was an Italian, real name Mario Bianchi, who arrived in the US in 1915. He spoke very little English, but through hard work and a good deal of good luck, scraped by in a series of Chaplinesque film roles. These included supporting Roscoe Arbuckle, who gave him his new screen name. Making a series of comedies for obscure and independent companies, he eventually found a toehold in the industry with a cheerful little character, trying his best to be dapper, but always on the back foot. In the 1920s he shifted focus to vehicles with a Lloydian mix of comedy with thrills and speed, turning out a series of features that pitted him against racing cars, speedboats and runaway trains. From 1926, Pathé had been promoting him as Lloyd’s successor, but had more or less given up on him by the time of ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. With some evidence of budgets being cut, it features less of the high-speed stunt climaxes, but makes up for it with brilliantly gag-packed sequences and situation comedy. Monty works in a bank, and is due to marry the president’s daughter. En route to his wedding he innocently becomes drunk; suffice to say, his wedding does not end well, especially as he spends much of the time trying to kick his future mother-in-law in the rear!
Meanwhile, Monty’s colleague has robbed the bank, planning to pin the robbery on Monty. Waking with a terrible hangover to a broken engagement, Monty decides to leave town, but mixes his bags, and ends up with the stolen money. The rest of the film takes place on board a ship and follows Monty’s attempts to:
foil the crooks trying to get the money back
win back his girl who is aboard the ship
return the money to her father and prove his innocence.
He might be on a ship, but plain sailing, it ain’t! A new complication arises as Monty is constantly caught in compromising situations with the purser’s wife, a running gag that has some brilliant variations. Best of all is a sequence where Monty, finding her unconscious, accidentally tears her dress off. His attempts to remedy the situation end up making even more of her clothes fall off, but he manages to improvise an entirely new outfit for her. A wonderful routine of physical comedy, in a film full of them; it’s the funniest Banks film I’ve yet seen.
Part of the credit is surely due to Clyde Bruckman, one of the very best silent gagmen, hired by Banks due to his work with Keaton & Lloyd. A PERFECT GENTLEMAN does indeed borrow some gags from the Keaton/Lloyd vehicles. Overall though, it shows Monty moving from a direct Lloyd influence to a more farcical style redolent of Charley Chase. In fact, this could have been the ideal vehicle to launch Chase in features. A great little film, and one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Nevertheless, however good performers like Banks or Raymond Griffith are, the following programme, KEATON CLASSICS, made it clear just why Buster Keaton has attained his mythical status in comparison to the more forgotten comics. Four authors – Kevin Brownlow, David Robinson, Polly Rose & David McLeod – presented their favourite sequences from Buster’s features. Each sequence was, of course, magnificent, and I almost felt like I was seeing them for the first time again. It was a lovely idea to have personal introductions, as Keaton means so many different things to so many people.
David Robinson praised the dramatic strength of OUR HOSPITALITY, reminding us that it was a stunning debut in feature directing (THE SAPHEAD was not directed by Keaton and THREE AGES planned as three shorts glued together, in case it didn’t work out; ergo, HOSPITALITY was BK’s first planned feature). He had picked the river scene that culminates in Buster’s dramatic plunge across a waterfall to rescue Natalie Talmadge, a sequence that gives me the shivers every time I see it.
Kevin Brownlow’s choice was the wonderfully action-packed Tong War sequence from THE CAMERAMAN, and David McLeod opted for the iconic cyclone climax of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. Most fascinating of all was Polly Rose, a newcomer to writing about BK; an editor by trade, she was ideally placed to share discoveries about how Keaton achieved his visual effects walking into the cinema screen in SHERLOCK, JR. Through her research, she also shared discoveries about alternate versions of the scene, in which Buster seemed to enter the screen on a beam of light shone from his projector, before being spat back out into a tangle of film. Polly shared evidence of this version being previewed from at least three trade papers, and found clues in publicity stills that point to the action that might have occurred. A fascinating theory and who knows? Maybe one day one of those preview prints will turn up. Stranger things have happened!
I know Keaton’s films so well by know that I sometimes take for granted how incredible they are. Seeing excerpts like this from different films reminded me just how diverse and special his films were, for not just his performances and gags, but also his storytelling, stunts and technical wizardry, not to mention that intangible quality that makes him so compelling.
How to follow four of Keaton’s finest sequences? Step up to the plate, Beatrice Lillie! Miss Lillie made only 7 films in her long career, and 1926’s EXIT SMILING is her sole silent. Nevertheless, her brief stay in Hollywood elicited devotion from the West Coast royalty; Chaplin described her as “my female counterpart”, while Buster Keaton guarded her hotel room door, “lying there like Old Dog Tray”. EXIT SMILING shows exactly why. One of the sadly few silent feature comedies to really show a female comedian to good advantage, it gives her opportunity for both great comic acting and genuine pathos. As Violet, Bea is a dogsbody with a travelling theatre company who longs to play the part of a vamp. She gets her chance to act not on the stage, but in real life, where she has to seduce a villain to save the man she loves. The scenes of her vamping the villain are simply brilliant, especially the moment where her pearl necklace disintegrates. If only she’d made more films!
EXIT SMILING was given a marvellously authoritative introduction by Michelle Facey, who summed up Bea’s career and appeal brilliantly. Accompaniment was by the wonderful Meg Morley. The screening was, in fact, of Beatrice Lillie’s personal 16mm copy of the film, and the personal connection of the evening didn’t end there. The last word must go to David Robinson, who shared his poignant story of attending a screening of the film with Beatrice Lillie in 1968.
“She was starting to forget things… They’d taken her to see the film ‘STAR’ that afternoon, so I asked her how she liked the film.
“What film?” she said. She didn’t seem like a star, she was just a little, worried old lady, who was always asking where her coat and purse were. It would be “Where’s my coat?” then “Where’s my purse?”
“So we went on and on, the coat, the purse, the coat, the purse… until the time came to go into the theatre.
“Where’s my coat?” she said, again. I told her I’d carry it, but she just said “I must have my coat”.
“We walked into the auditorium, and I was wondering what on earth was going to happen… then I noticed she was dragging the coat along behind her.
“Come along, Fido!” she said, and everyone roared with laughter. She came to life and kept doing these little bits of business, but knew exactly when to stop. Throughout the film, I heard the sound of her laughter.
Afterwards, I asked her what she thought of it.
“Oh, it was very good,” replied Beatrice Lillie, “and she’s so funny. And you know, she does things just like me!”
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
Rounding 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.
This terrific poster features Monty Banks, in a scene from ATTA BOY. Monty was, even in his day, a bit undervalued, so it’s no wonder he’s not mentioned much these days. A tubby yet dapper little Italian, he presented an appealing cross between Charley Chase’s farces and the Keaton-Lloyd model of thrill-climaxed gangbusters silent comedy. His most famous film nowadays is ‘PLAY SAFE’, or at least an extract titled ‘CHASING CHOO-CHOOS’. It features a stunt-filled train climax that ranks with anything by Keaton or Lloyd. His other starring features, among them HORSESHOES and A PERFECT GENTLEMAN, were of a similarly high calibre (these two films actually shared Keaton & Lloyd’s collaborator Clyde Bruckman as director). Here’s a clip from HORSESHOES. If you’ve seen the 1940 Buster Keaton Columbia short ‘PARDON MY BERTH MARKS’, you’ll notice that writer Bruckman lifted much of that film wholesale from here…
Despite the fact that he got to make features, and despite the evident quality of his work, Monty Banks never seems to have quite ‘broken through’ to full success. Perhaps audiences were just spoiled in the 20s by having such an outpouring of comedy films (generally two a year from Keaton & Lloyd, plus Chaplin’s sporadic efforts, not to mention Banks and all the other contenders). As a result, it was harder to stand out during a time of such riches. Despite Monty’s films being released by Pathe to replace the Harold Lloyd films they had lost to Paramount, he seems to have not been as financially successful as hoped, leaving him to head to England to escape bankruptcy proceedings in 1928.
The Russians though, seem to have been fond of Monty, at least if their wonderful posters of him are anything to go by. Here’s another great Soviet poster, for A PERFECT GENTLEMAN. I recently watched the BFI’s copy of this film, and it’s an absolute gem of a farce comedy.
The English, too, were Monty Banks fans. Making his home there, he was welcomed by the film industry (as with Lupino Lane) as both star comic (‘ADAM’S APPLE’, ‘WEEKEND WIVES’, ‘SO YOU WON’T TALK’) and director (many films, most notably George Formby’s ‘NO LIMIT’ and ‘KEEP YOUR SEATS PLEASE!’ and several with Gracie Fields). In fact, these days he is best remembered as Mr Gracie Fields; they were married in 1940.
Certainly, his films need re-evaluating and to reach a wider audience. Based on what I’ve seen so far, they’re great fun.