You don’t see too many Australian silent comedies. Several familiar comedians – Snub Pollard, Billy Bevan, Clyde Cook, Daphne Pollard – were Aussies, but they only made films after moving to the USA.
At the time that American silent comedy was maturing, the Australian film industry was in the doldrums (partly because of the dominance of US film), but a few comedies were turned out.
One surviving example is THE KID STAKES, a charming kid comedy from 1927. Following the adventures of a bunch of street larrikins from Woollamoolloo and their pet goat, this freewheeling little film has the flavour of Hal Roach’s OUR GANG films.
Like the Gang, it’s an ensemble piece, but the bunch of characters aren’t a Roach rip-off. Actually, they are inspired by the Sunday News comic strip ‘Fatty Finn’, and cartoonist Syd Nicholls makes a cameo in the opening scene. ‘Fatty’ is the lead character, a bit reminiscent of Jackie Cooper’s goodhearted little tough guy (he even looks a little like Cooper). With logic reminiscent of A.A. Milne, a title tells us that “they called him Fatty because he was not fat”. He’s played by Robin ‘Pop’ Ordell, the son of director Tal Ordell. (Tal was a well known character actor who turned to directing for this lone film – he plays the comic radio announcer in this film.)
Apparently, goat-chariot racing was a thing in 1920s Australia! Fatty’s gang are planning to enter their pet goat, Hector, in a big race, but their rival Bruiser lets Hector loose. He finds his way to a garden full of rare flowers, and after eating his fill is impounded by the owner. With the help of a pair of eloping lovers, and the hindrance of a bumbling policeman, they recapture Hector and make it in time to win the race.
Like the OUR GANG films, THE KID STAKES is often more charming than outright funny, but very watchable. It’s always fascinating to see silents made outside the standard American locations we’re used to seeing, and there’s a real slice-of-life quality to the old scenes of Sydney, the backyard games and dialect titles – not to mention the bizarre spectacle of the goat race! The bumbling policeman and goat provide some good laughs too.
On the downside, the direction is a bit clunky here and there, and there are too many titles. Old kid comedies always contain a few moments that make the more wary modern viewer wince – kids swimming naked in a stranger’s backyard pool? Or writing their names in blood? Ick. “The past is a different country”, after all.
Overall though, this is a fun watch that throws a light on another forgotten side of silent comedy. It’s certainly a pleasant way to do some armchair travelling for an hour of lockdown. The print below also deserves special mention for the music – played live to the film by Ian Cooper. I’m always astounded by the skill that silent film accompanists show, but Cooper’s task was even more of an achievement – he was blind! Astounding.
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.
There was no-one else in silent comedy quite like Raymond Griffith. He certainly bore very little stylistic similarity to Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. His closest evolutionary relative was probably Max Linder, with whom he shared a suave sophistication and silk-hatted swagger. Try saying that with a lisp.
To Linder’s breezy, debonair attitude, Griffith added a slyness and air of wry amusement that were entirely his own. In the 20s, Paramount billed him as ‘THE NEW SHEIK OF SLAPSTICK’; while slapstick was only a very small part of his modus operandi, there is something in the ‘sheik’ part of the description. His cool, effortlessly suave lounge lizard was very much a product of the 1920s jazz age, and like Harry Langdon, he was a reaction to the manic, larger-than-life style of many comics. Also like Langdon, his singular take on silent comedy was hugely appreciated by audiences clamouring for something different.
Griffith’s style was an example of the move towards greater sophistication in film comedy during the middle ’20s. At the extreme end of this movement were the ‘light comedies’, very polite films which were sometimes so light that they now barely seem like comedies at all. Griffith was able to balance the refined, sophisticated approach of light comedy with a more dynamic blend of sight gags and visual humour.
Partly, his visual instincts came from his training with Mack Sennett, for whom he appeared in shorts during the late teens.
He had then worked up to supporting parts in features. After garnering some great reviews for his roles, notably as a drunk in OPEN ALL NIGHT (1924), Griffith was promoted to starring status at Paramount; THE NIGHT CLUB launched his career in features with a high pedigree. It was produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, and directed by his protégées Based on the novel AFTER FIVE, it is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women and plots suicide, reconsidering when he inherits a fortune. (If you’re wondering where the eponymous night club features in all this, it doesn’t! Studios occasionally fabricated titles as “placeholder” listings in their upcoming film schedules – this was one such example. When it came to releasing the film, Paramount had promised something called THE NIGHT CLUB, so they delivered the unrelated film they had made under this title!)
Random title aside, it’s a warm and entertaining film. Griffith gives a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.
THE NIGHT CLUB was a critical success, paving the way for several more Raymond Griffith features. The New York American echoed the sentiments of many when it commented that “Raymond Griffith gives Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or any of our million-dollar-a-year men a race for laurels.”
His next film was PATHS TO PARADISE, a terrific screwball-type tale of two rival cat-burglars. Griffith and Betty Compson are both wonderful in this witty and stylish comedy, constantly playing a game of one-upmanship before deciding to join forces to steal a diamond. The film shows exactly what made Griffith special; it’s hard to imagine any of the other major clowns playing a role on the wrong side of the law like this in their mature work. That Griffith plays a rogue and gets away with it speaks volume for his skill at creating a character. The film also benefits from snappy direction by Clarence Badger, and some excellent comic support (as always) from Edgar Kennedy. A scene where Griffith tries to dodge Kennedy’s torchbeam in a darkened room is simply wonderful.
Another highlight is the closing car chase, in which the two thieves make for Mexico with the police in hot pursuit. It’s a thrilling ride with some terrific visual gags thrown in, but sadly, the final couple of minutes of the film, in which they decide to turn themselves in and go straight, no longer exist.
Sadly, this is portentous for the fate of most of Griffith’s other work. The two that do survive, the civil war comedy ‘HANDS UP!’ and ‘YOU’D BE SURPRISED’, reveal a truly unique and gifted talent.
In common with Keaton’s THE GENERAL, HANDS UP is a civil war comedy told from the point of view of the South. Griffith plays Jack, a cunning spy sent on a mission to destroy a gold mine that could help the Union troops win the war. The film isn’t available complete online, though the opening scenes below give a flavour. (The complete film is available to purchase from Grapevine video).
The Griffith feature available for viewing is YOU’D BE SURPRISED, a detective story that doesn’t quite come up to the standards of the previous two films, but is an enjoyable treasure nonetheless.
Sadly, we can no longer judge the quality of elusive films like WET PAINT, WEDDING BILLS or TRENT’S LAST CASE, so it’s hard to get a handle on his complete canon of work today.
With his individual approach, Griffith remained popular until the close of the silent era. Alas, he more than any other silent comedian, had much reason to fear the microphone. Griffith didn’t have a bad voice; he had virtually no voice, a previous illness having left him with little more than a hoarse whisper. He did make a pair of talkie shorts, ‘THE SLEEPING PORCH’ and ‘POST MORTEMS’, which provided excuses for his voice, but clearly this could only go on for so long. His final role was wordless, as a dying soldier in ‘ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT’. While his acting career may have been over, he remained busy as a producer for 20th Century Fox, passing away in 1957.
Griffith was very much a unique talent, and we can only hope some more of his features turn up in the future.
Just come back from a trip to the BFI’s basement, having sifted through some more of their silent comedies. While the BFI’s online catalogue makes it now much easier to find a lot of the stuff they have, there are still things given generic titles (‘FAT MAN IN KNOCKABOUT’!), alternate ones left over from reissues, or occasionally completely wrong ones. One print marked as Larry Semon’s DUMMIES, for instance, turned out to be an extract from his THE STUNT MAN instead.
It is always fascinating to try and identify the proper identity of such films. Two Ben Turpin films were on our list, one called THE WRONG COAT, and the other given the catchy title ‘Comedy with Restaurant and Picture Stealing ‘.
Both were clearly from early in Turpin’s career. THE WRONG COAT instantly hooked us in with a prominent appearance by Snub Pollard, as a salesman who battles with Turpin over the eponymous coat in the opening scenes.
Here are a couple of screengrabs of Snub (Sorry about the awful quality, it’s taken on a phone, off a TV screen showing a VHS transfer of an awful quality 16mm print!).
This was a knockabout tale of two coats being mixed up between two wives. Not a comedy classic, but a fun little film. Turpin has a particularly a nice bit of pantomime as he realises a cop is stood behind him by feeling for his badge – a great little moment that brings to mind his former Essanay colleague Mr Chaplin.
Looking at Turpin’s filmography suggested the real identity of the film as A COAT TALE (1915) , confirmed by looking at the film’s synopsis from MOTOGRAPHY:
The other Turpin literally did what it said on the (film) can, and provided us with scenes in a restaurant, where Turpin and another crook (Rube Miller) plot to steal a valuable picture. In the ensuing chaos, they accidentally poison themselves and the film closes with them having their stomachs pumped – a light comedy, this is not! Still, some funny scenes, not least in Turpin and Miller’s comic overacting when drinking the poison! Steve Rydzewski’s excellent Turpin book identifies this one as PICTURE PIRATES, a Vogue-Mutual from 1916.
The random assortments of silent comedies held by archives always offer some unusual gems, and it was great to see these. Not comedy classics, but rare and fun films that we’re lucky to be able to see. More to come on some of the other interesting BFI stuff in future posts…