music hall

A note from ‘Nipper’

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

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

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New issue of the Lost Laugh magazine

THE LOST LAUGH #10

It’s here, finally! 1001 things seem to have got in the way of completing it, but here we are. Inside you’ll find the final part of our look at the great Charley Chase’s films, an in-depth appreciation of master British comedian Will Hay, details of other British comics coming to DVD, a guest article about forgotten comedienne Marjorie Beebe, reports from last year’s Silent Laughter Saturday, plus all the usual news and views.

Right -click the link, and choose ‘Save target as…’ to download:

THE LOST LAUGH #10

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Oh, and don’t forget that back issues of ‘Movie Night’ (before we rebranded) are available to download from the magazine page.

Happy Reading!

 

Lessons in punctuation with Stainless Stephen (open brackets, exclamation mark,close brackets)

StainlessstephenIn the hectic world of variety, performers needed a niche to stand out from the crowd. ‘Stainless Stephen’ found an especially idiosyncratic one. Taking his moniker from his Sheffield origins (then centre of the U.K.’s stainless steel industry), he continued the gimmick by  wearing a stainless steel waistcoat and steel-rimmed bowler hat.

Such gimmickry was ‘Stephen’s forte; in addition to his costume, the core of his act was to soliloquize in a whistling Robb Wilton deadpan, speaking all the punctuation, and adding in other asides:

“What a wonderful year 1930 was, semi-colon, said Stainless Stephen, semi-conscious. Thousands of new motorists took to the road, comma, and as a result thousands of pedestrians took to the pavements”

A little of this obviously goes quite a long way, and its no surprise that he never carried full films or shows on his own, but as a short turn on the radio, or on a 78, he was good fun. He made but one film appearance, in the all-star extravaganza RADIO PARADE (1933). While it sadly presents him out of his bizarre regalia, his 3 minute routine playing a railway guard is really quite funny and one of the highlights of the film.

Stephen’s real name was Arthur Baynes and his day job was as a school teacher, a job he continued for some time after finding success, meaning he could only make appearances at weekends and during school holidays!

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Stainless Stephen’s day job was at the former Crookes Endowed School in Sheffield. Coincidentally, it’s about a mile from my home.

 

 

Legend has it that Stainless’ lessons on Friday were always a bit light on the ground, as he spent most of the time leaving his classes to it whilst he wrote his radio material for the weekend! Baynes retired in 1952 to become a gentleman farmer in Kent, describing himself as “stainless, painless, brainless, shameless, aimless, semi-conscious and approaching semi dotage.” He died in 1957.

(On a teacher’s note, there is currently much panic over the introduction of a new punctuation and grammar test for primary school children. This would surely have been a breeze for Stainless Stephen’s classes!)

 

 

The Little Chap with a Big Nerve: Rediscovering Stanley Lupino

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

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

DOORMAN: Your face makes me tired.

LUPINO: And yours gives me insomnia!

And another:

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

LUPINO: Impossible!

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU

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

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

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

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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.