silent comedy

Baby Talk

Harry-Langdon-comedian

The series of Harry Langdon shorts made at Hal Roach are an obscure, strange and fascinating group of films. Their reputation has traditionally been terrible, not helped by a long time when they weren’t very easy to see. The films are frequently bizarre and sometimes bewildering, but often hilarious, and certainly much better than they’ve been given credit for.

Although it was the dawn of the sound era before Langdon and Roach joined forces, Roach had had his eye on Harry for a long time. Harold Lloyd had seen Langdon’s vaudeville act in 1923 and recommended him to the producer; that time round, Roach lost out to Sol Lesser, and ultimately to Mack Sennett. Langdon, of course, went on to hit great heights at Sennett as one of the great silent clowns with his innocent ‘little elf’ character “who only God can save”. In 1926 began a contract for 6 prestigious features with First National.

However, by 1928 circumstances were very different. After initial success in features, Harry’s increasing dalliance with offbeat, avante-garde ideas in his comedies was not to the taste of the general public . Although his later films have their supporters (I’m one of them) Langdon’s star was falling fast. Of ‘HEART TROUBLE’, Photoplay’s review was brief, but brutal; “With HEART TROUBLE, Harry Langdon writes his own finish in pictures.” Losing his appeal, and woefully over budget, Langdon was let go by First National. He sought a contract with United Artists, but to no avail, and returned to vaudeville. To add to his woes, former colleague Frank Capra, who had been fired by Langdon, was bitterly trying to regain his reputation by spreading the word that Langdon was impossible to work with. Meanwhile, Hal Roach had gone from strength to strength and, in the wake of his huge successes producing Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy films, could easily afford to hire the comedian. He gave Harry his second chance in December of 1928, contracting him to make a talking feature. However, the Roach studios had not yet installed their sound equipment, and a long closure of the studios was necessary to enable this. Langdon, probably not wanting to be away from the screen for too long through fears of being branded a has-been, cancelled his contract and waited for other offers. There must not have been too many forthcoming, because in April of 1929 he resigned with Roach. The contract had been downgraded from a feature to a series of shorts; perhaps the high cost of sound installation necessitated this, or maybe it was because of the uncertainty surrounding Langdon’s appeal and willingness to play ball at the time.

Harry’s reputation was in tatters, and much of his publicity around this time goes to great pains to paint him as contrite, realising that he had behaved badly and eager to eat humble pie. To whit, an article in Photoplay of 1929 quotes Harry as saying “I really want to make people laugh again, if I get this second chance”. Not for the last time, he was being compared to the helpless child he portrayed on screen, an unfortunate trend that has,  annoyingly, often been the standard when discussing Langdon’s career.

A similar undercurrent runs through a promo reel made to launch the series to MGM executives. Harry appears in a brief sketch also featuring fellow new signings Thelma Todd, as a housewife, and Eddie Dunn as a drunk. The skit is principally full of rather tedious in-jokes for the audience, namedropping executives like Fred Quimby. Tellingly, however, Eddie Dunn steps out of character at the end of the footage to tell us that “Mr Roach has the greatest confidence in the world in Mr Langdon, and Harry is eager to go” . Reading between the lines, this might as well be “Mr Roach has agreed to give Mr Langdon this chance, and Harry has agreed to get off his high horse and do as he’s told. That’ll learn him.” (It’s also worth recalling that Hal Roach, despite being a friend of Langdon’s, felt the need to warn him “none of that high-handed stuff you pulled at First National”.)

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The promo reel is also the first time we get to hear Langdon speak on film. His reputation in sound, from Leonard Maltin et al, was that he had a “thin voice”, that was unsuited to his character and “babbled incoherently like an idiot”. In actual fact, Harry’s voice is just fine for his character. Personally, I think it’s a better match than Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd’s. As for the babbling, this is truthfully only something he experimented with for his first few sound films, but the worst example we have is in this reel. If transcribed, a typical line of dialogue might read: “Well, well, well, well, well…how are you? And well, well, well, well….uh? Uh oh! Uh Oh! Well, well, well, well, well…” Maltin’s assertion is right in this film – Harry does get extremely irritating, even in the short running time!

It’s hard to ascertain if Harry kept on gabbling like this in his first two proper releases – HOTTER THAN HOT & SKY BOY – as they currently only survive without their soundtracks, and are locked away in the vaults.

Certainly, though, they set the pace for one aspect of the series by having bizarre plots. Coupled with sometimes equally strange gag sequences, the films often seem like the kind of odd dreams that leave you scratching your head in the morning. This surreal style, having much in common with Langdon’s last few features, is definitely something of an acquired taste, and has perhaps helped account for the poor reputation of these films. This offbeat aspect had always been part of the Langdon package though, so its likely that he was partly behind the plot decisions. ‘HOTTER THAN HOT’ definitely bore his influence, as it was initially based on ‘THE MESSENGER’, the act he had been touring in Vaudeville with. In it, he aparently plays a pyromaniac who chases fire engines, and eventually gets trapped in a burning building with Thelma Todd. SKY BOY has an even weirder storyline; Harry and rival Eddie Dunn end up stranded on an iceberg after a plane crash!

The First of the Langdons to survive complete is ‘SKIRT SHY’, in which Harry, as May Wallace’s butler, poses in drag to help her win a marriage proposal from her shortsighted lover. Overall it’s not a great film by any means. It’s clunky, there’s far too much footage given over to the slapstick violence between May Wallace’s rival suitors without any real sight gags, and not enough of quiet moments with Harry. Still, we should remember that this is still a very early talkie. ‘BERTH MARKS’ wasn’t too much of a gas, either.

However, if Langdon kept up his gabbling in the previous two films, he’s starting to tone it down by this point. He keeps a childlike, halting style to his delivery, but is perfectly comprehensible, and the moments where he stumbles over or repeats words are more refined, adding to his character rather than making him infuriating.

Obviously, he was still adapting his sound technique in the face of new technology, and doing a fairly good job for only his fourth talkie appearance. Talking does make him a little less magical of course, but he has a handful of totally wordless scenes where we can see the brilliance of the silent Langdon shine through.   One such moment is a lovely little scene where Harry stands beneath an apple tree, and an apple lands in his hand. Delighted, he takes a bite, but the joy drains from his face; either it’s rotten, or he’s just found half a worm! He tosses it away, and another one instantly hits him on the head; he tentatively tries it, but it’s bad too. Again, another apple hits him. This one tastes fine, and his delight is palpable! It’s a great little moment that relies totally on Harry’s pantomime and facial expressions, and returns to the classic Langdon theme of forces beyond his control; he won’t fetch an apple himself, but he’ll keep biting until fate puts a nice one in his hand.

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THE HEAD GUY, featuring Harry as deputy stationmaster mixed up with a travelling dance troupe, is another bizarre, dreamlike little film. While still quite clunky, it comes off a bit better. There’s also one of the oddest scenes in any of the shorts, as Harry, ditched by his girlfriend, blubs uncontrollably while stuffing his mouth with a sandwich! It’s the kind of fascinatingly, bizarrely funny sequence that Langdon very fond of, and excelled at, but Hal Roach later recalled the frustration of the film crew as he would drag on scenes for far too long, unwilling to take advice from anyone on how to make them faster and funnier. Again, this is the sort of comment that has become gospel and helped to account for the poor reputation of the films, but how true was it really?

Well, looking at the filming dates of the shorts shows them to have not taken any longer than the average Roach two-reeler to film. Perhaps Harry’s unhappy marriage to Helen Walton made him less personable than usual, but he certainly seems to have had no problems getting along with his regular director Charley Rogers. The films they made are generally smoother than many other early talkies, and move at a good clip. Far from finding Langdon insufferable to work with, Rogers seems to have struck up an effective friendship and partnership with him; the pair later teamed up again to write gags for several Laurel and Hardy features, and themselves starred in two 1940s B-pictures, ‘DOUBLE TROUBLE’(1942) and ‘HOUSE OF ERRORS’(1943).

MGM certainly seemed pleased with the films, and gave a good deal of publicity to them; reviewers generally shared their enthusiasm. A certain amount of revisionism appears to have gone on to fit in with the accepted legend of Langdon being a helpless has-been. I’d suggest that, if Langdon did have difficulties assimilating in to the Roach style, it was less in terms of gags and acting than his story ideas; Roach Studios plots were generally grounded in reality, whereas Harry’s surreal stories were a very different kettle of fish. One of the most surreal scenes in any of the films climaxes ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’, as Harry , in a boxing match, puts his gloves on the ends of broom handles, which he hides Inside his jumper. This gives him the appearance of having arms that grow ever longer, enabling him to keep his distance from his opponent while hitting him. It’s a very, very strange image that sticks with you long after the film is over, and its also very funny. ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’ isn’t perfect; it suffers from some clunky early sound filming and long, tedious silent stretches, but it’s a definite improvement over the previous Langdon films. For one thing, its surrealism is more filled out with little sight gags, as well as some unexpected delights like Harry tap-dancing, and a tantalising fragment of him singing ‘Frankie and Johnny’, accompanying himself on the banjo.

Now, the Langdon series was really starting to gel; the next film, ‘THE BIG KICK’, is by far the best of the bunch. It’s fast-moving and full of great gags and pantomime routines. For anyone who thinks that Harry babbles incoherently in every film, take a look at this one; he barely even speaks at all! Possibly because it was also filmed in Spanish, as ‘EL ESTACION GASOLINA’, dialogue is at a minimum, and the result is the nearest to a silent comedy that Harry made at Roach. In this respect, a great addition is a background music track (much of it taken from the Vitaphone track for Laurel and Hardy’s ‘LIBERTY’), which really helps pick up the pace. This was something that was sorely lacking from the earlier films, which suffered from a barren soundtrack during Harry’s long pantomime routines.

‘THE BIG KICK’ begins with detectives Edgar Kennedy and Baldwin Cooke chasing some bootleggers. They stop at the garage where Harry works but there’s no answer; Harry is asleep. There follows a leaisurely routine of him struggling to wake up and go about his morning routine, much of it repeated from his ilent feature ‘THREE’S A CROWD’. Particularly funny is his elaborate, childlike way of washing his face with as little water as possible. This scene, in particular, benefits immeasurably from the background music. Next, we’re into a beautifully played pantomime routine, as a customer with a horrifically noisy engine pulls up to the garage, and attempts to hold a conversation with Harry over the din. Here’s a creative use of sound, that paradoxically gives reason for silent comedy to take place. This was Buster Keaton’s philosophy for sound in a nutshell; I wonder if he tried to use this scene as an example in his struggles with the MGM writing staff? The bootleggers show up again at the garage later on. They’ve concelaed their moonshine in a busload of dummies. A shootout follows when the police turn up, and Harry, confused as always, tries to save the dummies, as the bus is shot full of holes and liquor pours out everywhere. Finally aware of the mixup, he knocks the heads off a long line of the dummies with a mallet, but fails to notice a policeman has appeared at the end, and hits him with the mallet too. Exit, running.

Although much of its pantomime needs to be seen rather than described, ‘THE BIG KICK’ is, to my mind,  genuinely as good as any other Roach product of the time, and no excuses need to be made for it. Almost as good, though just a notch below, was the next film, ‘THE SHRIMP’. As the title character, Harry is constantly bullied by residents in the boarding house where he lives, but stays because of his love for the landlord’s daughter Nancy. He gets the chance to stand up for himself when scientist Max Davidson injects him with a serum containing  “the spirit of the bulldog”. The treatment works, and Harry licks the bullies, but an unexpected side effect is revealed as he takes off in pursuit of a cat, pausing only to contemplate the use of a lamp post…

The film has one of the strongest storylines of the eight shorts, and provides good opportunities for playing with Harry’s character, but is somewhat uneven in quality. The film is composed of three distinct segments, and a problem is that the first two are necessary to build up to the third. In a two-reeler, this accounts for nearly half the time being taken up by exposition, making the whole seem off-balance. The first shows Harry’s cruel treatment at the hands of bully Jim (James Mason) and his girlfriend (Thelma Todd).. Much of the intended humour actually just makes us feel sorry for Harry, but there are some nice little sight gags mixed in. The middle section, Harry being treated by Max Davidson, is disappointingly played as a fairly straight scientific demonstration; there would have been more fun to be had if Harry had somehow been injected by accident.

However, the final third more than makes up for the shortcomings of what came before, as Harry returns to the boarding house and teaches everybody a lesson in a wild, gag-packed finale. Arriving home, he engages in a tit-for-tat routine with Thelma Todd. Harry continually knocks her hat to the ground, and each time she bends over to retrieve it, fights the temptation to kick her in the behind. It’s one of those things more easily seen than described, but his wonderful timing and movement give it an almost balletic quality.

After this, he marches through the house, yelling orders left, right and centre (“STOP EATING CANDY!” he yells to a fat man), and finally takes on Jim in a slapstick battle. The scene is full of funny little touches, including a moment where Langdon plays with his voice, using a deeper tone to sound more sinister. It’s an intriguing little bit he also tries in his next film, and shows him to be confident playing with the possibilities of the sound medium. Although it has some shortcomings, ‘THE SHRIMP’ builds to a hilarious climax and contains the funniest moments of any of the shorts.

Langdon rounded out the series with THE KING, which revisits his Sennett four-reeler ‘SOLDIER MAN’, and mixes in elements of his feature ‘THE CHASER’. The result is another playful film that experiments with his ‘little elf’ character. In ‘THE KING’, rather than the innocent, eager-to-please man-child we usually see, he is very definitely the spoiled naughty boy; if you will, the little Harry-shaped devil on the little elf’s shoulder. This naughty-boy Harry yields to the temptations of the many women who throw themselves at his majesty, and threatens to stay out late, but remains childlike; his misbehaviour doesn’t extend beyond the level of playing postman’s knock, or peeking at the queen as she undresses. The chief joke in the film is that Harry, despite being the king, is actually totally subordinate to the Queen (thelma Todd) and his new advisor (James Parrott, in his only speaking role).

The entire two reels are basically riffs on this idea; some of the gags work, and others don’t. All in all, it’s again quite uneven, but fascinating nonetheless, and with several very funny moments. Perhaps the best gag to sum up his character in the film is his wonderful opening scene. Searching for the king, Parrott looks all around the opulent palace and grounds , through all the trappings of wealth and immense power, and is eventually told the king is out “hunting in the woods.” Sure enough, there is the monarch, dressed in full regalia, shooting at a tin can on a wall like a little boy!

Following completion of the film, Langdon received a tantalising offer to make a high profile feature, ‘A SOLDIER’S PLAYTHING’, and left Roach to do so. Ultimately, this turned out to be a mistake, as the film gradually sank in prestige until it was a low budget film that sank without trace. Langdon would return to Roach as gagman and occasional actor at Roach in the late 30s, but would spend his next few years freelancing, and in shorts at Educational and Columbia.

The shorts we’re left with are an odd bunch to be sure. Langdon is already a divisive figure amongst film fans, and these 8 shorts polarise opinion perhaps more than any other he made. Certainly, next to the more universal comedy of L& H, Our Gang et al, they can seem like failures. Perhaps at this juncture in his career, it would have done Langdon more good to make some more straightforward two reel comedies to win back some of his alienated fanbase, and then experimented more later. But, to quote Mr Laurel, there’s no use crying over split milk, and there is lots to enjoy in what we do have. Yes, the films are uneven and often bizarre, but they all have fantastic moments. Let’s not forget, 1929-30 was hardly a golden year for many of the Roach series. They all went through an inevitable period of adjustment to sound technique. In fact, cinematically, the Langdon talkies are much better films than many of the other Roach product of the time, and move a heck of a lot smoother. Even SKIRT SHY, just about the weakest of the surviving Langdon talkies, is preferable over the clunky early OUR GANG films. With one or two exceptions, the films just got better as the series progressed, and it’s a real shame that the series ended just as the films had started to gel. If Harry had stayed at Roach into the golden era of 1930-1933, who knows what classics we might have had? Still, what we do have, whilst inevitably not up to his silent heights of brilliance, are definitely worth looking at again; a group of weird, wacky and hugely fascinating films that show Langdon in character and on great form.

This post first appearewd as an article in issue 2 of  Movie Night/ The Lost Laugh Magazine. (c) Matthew Ross 2012

 

Silent Laughter: Banjo Eyes & The It Girl

Take a couple of dozen silent comedians, rare and rediscovered film, brilliant accompanying musicians, special guests, some insane acrobatics, bomb duels, a murdered rooster, a song and dance craze and one very drunk pantomime horse, and what do you get?

The London Silent Laughter Weekend, of course! Hosted by the wonderful folk at The Kennington Bioscope, magnificently curated by silent comedy expert David Wyatt and upgraded from last year’s inaugural one day event, the festival consisted of 12 shows turning the spotlight on some unfairly neglected but often brilliant performers (Oh, and Jimmy Aubrey…). Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be revisiting some of the films we saw, including stars such as Syd Chaplin, Lupino Lane, Dorothy Devore, Walter Forde, Harry Langdon, Max Linder and Laura La Plante

Over the course of the weekend, we had a peek into several different areas of silent comedy not often seen. For instance, it’s easy to forget that, as well as the very visual, film-trained Hollywood performers,several Broadway stars made silent films. Will Rogers, Leon Errol, Eddie Cantor, WC Fields all came from the Ziegfeld Follies and all, improbably enough, transferred their largely verbal acts to silent films.sometimes, they transferred stage hits directly (in fact, even The Marx Brothers very nearly made a silent film version of THE COCOANUTS). While these stars all had much bigger success in films once sound came in, several of their siLents hold up very nicely indeed. Eddie Cantor’s KID BOOTS(1926) , kicking off the show, was a nice example. He had been playing in the hit show for three years when he made this film version. To atone for anything that was lost in translation from stage to screen, Paramount added in Clara Bow, just on the threshold of ‘It girl’ mega stardom, and a host of visual comedy sequences.

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Ol’ Banjo Eyes is Kid Boots, a tailor’s assistant. He is fired but can keep his job if he sells burly Malcolm Waite a suit. He makes a mess of it, of course, and makes a hasty exit before bumping into Clara, who is Waite’s girlfriend. Gazing into her eyes, he offers to sew her skirt, but distractedly sews his own suspender into it at the same time; this leads to a great sequence where he is pulled along the road after Clara. Bumping into Waite again, Kid Boots hides in a hotel, and finds himself becoming a key witness in Lawrence Gray’s divorce case. Gray has come into a fortune, which is enough to persuade his conniving ex wife (Natalie Kingston) that maybe she doesn’t want a divorce after all… Gray hides out at a golf resort with Kid Boots to escape the ex and her lawyer; who should be staying there but Clara and Malcolm? Things gather pace now as Cantor tries to woo Bow, while avoiding Malcolm, and Gray tries to avoid his ex and her lawyer, who are trying to frame him in a compromising situation to nullify the divorce.

There are some great sequences to replace the dialogue comedy of the original show. Some are slightly adapted versions of familiar silent comedy material—a brutalkid-boots physio routine borrowed from Chaplin’s ‘THE CURE’, some high and dizzy thrills and a race to the courthouse that owe a debt to Lloyd’s ‘GIRL SHY’, and others more original. The highlight is a sequence where Kid Boots tries to make Clara jealous; his date has stood him up, but that won’t stop him! With the aid of a carefully placed screen door, he acts out a date with himself, baring his left arm and adding powder and a bracelet to simulate an imaginary girlfriend’s arm. Milking it for all it’s worth, he manages, in a pantomimic tour de force, to make it appear as though his ‘girlfriend’ can’t keep her hands off him. One of the funniest sequences we saw all weekend, this scene shows that Cantor, despite his predominantly verbal style, could master visual comedy as well as anyone.

Mention must also be made of Clara Bow’s great performance. She simply pops off the screen with life and vitality in every scene, and adeptly handles comic timing. It’s plain to see that super stardom was about to happen to her, and indeed it did. By the time KID BOOTS was released, the NYPD had to hold back crowds at the film’s premier. All in all, KID BOOTS is a wonderful little film, and appeared even more so in a beautiful new restoration by Paul Gierucki.

.Take a look at the whole film here: (not as nice a looking print, but certainly decent enough)

 

 

 

 

 

Next up: some Laurel & Hardy rediscoveries!

Rare Ham

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Lloyd Hamilton exists now like one of those dusty, anonymous portraits hanging in a long corridor. To most people, if his image is seen at all, it is a faded likeness of the flesh and blood he once was, the achievements of his life almost totally forgotten. While this analogy could go for a good majority of the performers I write about here, none have faded or fallen so far from their previous colourful heights as Hamilton.

With his offbeat humour and fantastic reaction-based comedy, ‘Ham’ was once considered among the funniest men in the world (he was reportedly a favourite of both Chaplin and Keaton). But his career was dogged by spectacularly persistent bad luck. This continued beyond his early death, as his best films went up in smoke, leaving only a fraction of his works scattered in archives. Most of these are from the bookends of his career, either embryonic versions of the style he later perfected, or tired re-workings that his heart clearly wasn’t in. Only in snatches of classics like ‘THE VAGRANT’, ‘CRUSHED’ or ‘MOVE ALONG’ can we see what really made him special.

So, when a scarce or previously unseen Hamilton film turns up, it’s a pretty big deal for Ham’s fans (all 17 of us). Could each new discovery be the one, the film that restores his tattered reputation beyond doubt? A couple of years ago, a very rare example of his films, ‘A HOME MADE MAN’, turned up on eBay in a 16mm print. I placed several bids but lost out. The film never resurfaced; I figured it had gone to someone who didn’t want to share it with the world. That is, until I mentioned it to a friend, and it turned out that they had known the person who bought it. (Not only this, but there were some potential plans to have it telecine-ed (sic) with some other rare Ham films in the hope of possibly putting together a DVD of a few of his films. Excitingly, I finally got the chance to see the film a little while ago.

The stakes were high,  but the chances of it being a classic were pretty low. It was among Hamilton’s last silents, as problems with alcohol were taking their toll. Of another 1928 release, ‘ALMOST A GENTLEMAN’ critic Raymond Ganly’s review was short but brutal: “Remember how good Lloyd Hamilton used to be? Weep when you see him in this.” These late silent shorts tended to eschew his character based comedies for random gags and gratuitous slapstick. Would ‘A HOME MADE MAN’ be any different?

Well, as expected, it’s not the holy grail of Hamilton films. But, I doubt it would have made Mr Ganly weep, either. It was a pretty good comedy, below the Hal Roach comedies of the same time and Hamilton’s better previous work, but enjoyable. Like another late period Ham short, ‘BLAZING AWAY’, it has two distinct halves, and is based around Ham finding a job.

In the first reel, Ham has been sent by the employment agency to a soda fountain-cum-gym run by Kewpie Morgan. Morgan takes one look at him and winces, but he’s desperate, so Ham gets the job. Next we get the incompetent soda jerk routines you’d expect, with ice cream splattered, eggs broken and plates smashed. In fact, it’s all quite similar to the early scenes of Buster Keaton’s ‘COLLEGE’, from the year before. However, Hamilton is able to show what made him special. The way he delivers hackneyed gags in this line is uniquely his own, and it is not the slapstick itself that causes the laughs, but rather his hurt dignity. As a result, you feel less like you’re watching a Keaton rip-off, and more a reaction comedy that anticipates Oliver Hardy’s attempts to master simple tasks. As a result, the soda bar gags are the best moments of the film.

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Another typical Hamilton twist on standard material: he is carrying a huge pile of plates, that wobble to and fro. He loses his footing, and theplates are sliding all over the place…. but the crash never happens as he safely reaches the counter. Morgan and Hamilton sigh with relief; “I never broke a plate in my life,” says Lloyd. However, he has placed them on top of his apron on the counter top, and as he walks off, the plates finally crash to the ground.

Fearing for his remaining crockery, Morgan sends Hamilton in to the gym as a personal trainer. After all, if you can’t trust someone with breakables, then why not trust them with peoples’ health? Here, he predictably makes an equal mess of things, first trying to instruct a line of athletes in a nicely choreographed sequence, then taking to the gym equipment himself. Things go downhill from here, as his efforts on the rings lead to him swinging out of the window and clinging on to the ledge in a pretty feeble Harold Lloyd ripoff.

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Once he is safely back inside, the film ends with him pitted against Morgan in a boxing match, which he surprisingly wins. Ham victoriously leaves the gym behind.

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OK, so it’s not the classic  we could hope for. But, it does show what Hamilton could do, even with mediocre material, and as such I’m very glad to have seen it. Certainly it’s a decent comedy short for the time, and he makes the most of his opportunities, even when the material is subpar. Hamilton was without doubt a great, individual comic performer with his own distinct style. Yet again, after viewing one of his films, I’m left with the question: What could he have done with better material?

 

 

 

 

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

Why not make sure you never miss an issue? Send an email to movienightmag <AT> gmail.com for details of how to subscribe to the mailing list. It’s free!

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

Happy Reading!

 

Silent Laughter returns to London!

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Last October, Kennington Bioscope presented an all-day feast of silent comedy, which I wrote about here, here, here and here. Now, Silent Laughter returns to London’s Cinema Museum for a full weekend!

The programme is just days away from being revealed, but in the meantime, save the date of October 22 – 23, 2016.

More info will be available at http://www.kenningtonbioscope.com  and also at http://www.silentlaughter.org. I’ve also made a dedicated page on this site.

Tickets are a steal at just £28 for  weekend pass, or £16 for a day.

Watch this space for more details as they come!

Rhubarb Vaselino rides again!

A little while back, I posted about the discovery, in November last year, of the lost Stan Laurel solo film ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’, or 7 minutes of it, at least.

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The film revisits Stan’s parody of Rudolph Valentino in his earlier classic ‘MUD AND SAND. Stan’s version of the great lover -‘Rhubarb Vaselino’ – gives him lots of opportunity for the silly parody that the British sense of humour does so well. Here, he parodies another Valentino film, ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, in which the Latin lover portrayed a favourite courtier of Louis XIV, forced to flee to England and pose as a barber.

So, why am I returning to this? Well, 2 minutes of the rediscovered footage has been posted on YouTube, and it provides some interesting talking points. It’s a brief scene of Stan parodying Valentino’s reputation as a vainglorious ladies’ man, flirting with another man’s wife, and attempting to escort her into a taxi.

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The footage, jumpy though it is, has some great moments. There’s a healthy dose of the comic anachronism that makes Laurel’s other parodies, like ‘WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD’, such a delight, as New York yellow cabs roam the streets of 17th Century France. Most interestingly, at the end of the scene, there’s a forerunner of the legendary Hal Roach bottomless mudhole™ that enlivened so many Laurel & Hardy films. Stan is attempting to escort the lady across a puddle in the street, and lays down his coat, Walter Raleigh style, on top of the puddle. Stepping on it, Stan and escort disappear beneath the water. Sound familiar? With the coat replaced by a kilt, the scene is reworked as a running gag in the seminal L & H film, ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’. Considering this, and the atypical role of Stan as woman chaser in that film, and it turns out a big chunk of ‘PHILIP’ was quite possibly inspired by ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’. Who knew?

The scene in ‘MONSIEUR’ also has  a great punchline: as Stan resurfaces from the water he is most concerned with redoing his hair, in a parody of Valentino’s famous vanity. But, while Stan’s lost dignity (and his refusal to acknowledge it) here is good for a laugh, it took Oliver Hardy’s sense of real hurt pride to make it into a great comic scene.

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It’s always fascinating to see more footage of L & H turning up, especially when it helps to fill in pieces of the puzzle we didn’t even know were missing. Here’s hoping we can see the whole 7 minute extract soon.

Here’s the 2 minute extract…

…. and the similar scene from ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’

 

 

 

The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival

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Yesterday was the first night of a brilliant new silent film festival for the North of England. The Yorkshire Silent Film festival, spearheaded by festival producer and silent film pianist Jonathan Best, presents a great new approach to silent film programming.

Rather than settling in one city, the Yorkshire Silent Film festival will crisscross the county throughout the month of July, taking in cinemas, theatres and village halls in a pioneering new approach. Amongst the many towns to be visited are leeds, Sheffield, Halifax, Hebden Bridge, Scarborough and Doncaster.

As far as the programme is concerned, there is a wide range of silents on offer, from Houdini’s THE GRIM GAME and Louise Brooks’ PANDORA’S BOX, through to a sizeable comedy selection. This strand includes shorts from Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel &Hardy and the classic Hal Roach ‘All Star’ short, ‘A PAIR OF TIGHTS. A wonderful gem, this short features Anita Garvin and Marion Byron as Hal Roach’s attempts at a ‘female Laurel & Hardy’ team, with great support from EDGAR KENNEDY. There is also SAFETY LAST and Colleen Moore’s ‘ORCHIDS AND ERMINE’.orchids and ermine.png

 

Musical accompaniment comes from, amongst others, Jonathan Best and Lillian Henley. Here’s wishing the festival’s novel approach the best of luck. Let’s hope it’s the first of many!

Details of all screenings can be found at

http://www.yorkshiresilentfilm.com/festival-screenings/

Come and support this great new festival, and see a bit of Yorkshire along the way!

The Full Monty!

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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.

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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.

 

Pierre Etaix: The Forgotten Frenchman

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Running late again and battling traffic this morning, I found my thoughts turning to a film I saw a couple of years ago. ‘HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE’ is a short film starring the French comedian Pierre Étaix , which follows his frustrated attempts to rush home for an anniversary dinner with his wife. He must contend with rush hour Paris (the traffic is so gridlocked that the drivers read novels, polish their vehicles and play cards between occasional movements inching forward). While he struggles with driving home, parking, and picking up an anniversary  present, his wife tires of waiting, drinks all the wine and ends up comatose by the time he finally arrives home. Happy anniversary, indeed.

Although he is from a much later heyday than most of the comics featured here, Pierre Étaix fits right beside them. A disciple of classic silent comedy, he also found himself unfairly cast aside by history.  Most of the comedians featured on this site are largely forgotten because they are long dead, and many of their films do not exist anymore. In the case of  Étaix, neither of these statements are true.  He is still alive at 87, and his films, although admittedly few in number, all still exist. And yet, if he has been written about at all, it has been as a footnote to the career of Jacques Tati.

Originally pursuing the ambition to be a circus clown, Étaix was instead drawn into illustration and cabaret work. He met Jacques Tati, and was hired to work on designing and co-directing his 1958 film ‘MON ONCLE’. In 1961, he set out to work on his own in a series of shorts and features. Although his style contained elements of Tati, the most frequent stylistic comparison is to Buster Keaton, with whom Pierre shared a stoic demeanour as the dapper little man who fate confounds at every turn. However, he absorbed not just Keaton but all the great clowns, adding a leisurely Gallic twist to the comedy to make something uniquely his own. Étaix’ cinematic output was small – just 3 shorts and 5 features in the 1960s – but each was full of golden moments of witty visual comedy.

In old age, the silent clowns found themselves forgotten as their films disappeared from view due to forces beyond their control. In a bitterly ironic comparison to the clowns he so admired, the same fate, for years, fell Pierre Étaix. It is not nitrate decomposition or changes in taste that are to blame however, but an unpleasant saga of legal battles and rights issues. For 40 years, the rights to his classics were held by unsympathetic companies who treated them as assets and nothing more (a situation similar to, but much more prolonged than, Hallmark’s treatment of the Laurel and Hardy films in the USA.). The films disappeared from cinemas and TV. A fickle public soon forgets when they are not given a reason to remember, and with Pierre Étaix’ films in this legal purgatory, he soon slipped to footnote status in the textbook of comic history.

Finally, the murky clouds of litigation have cleared. Étaix  has been on the comeback trail, restoring his reputation with DVD releases and screenings at festivals, such as Cannes and the 2012 Bristol Slapstick festival.

At Slapstick, it was a thrill to see a great clown in the flesh. Sat hunched beside the screen, M Étaix was a small, lugubrious looking man with great, watery eyes. The comparisons to Keaton aren’t just stylistic; he shares Keaton’s passive stocism and  has the same kind of cheekbones that make the silver light from the cinema screen fall dramatically on his face as he watches himself. Watching the opening clip, an excerpt from ‘LE SOUPIRANT’ (1963), he seldom smiled whilst the rest of us rocked with laughter, and I had a twinge of worry that he would be a saddened and withdrawn man. However, in conversation there is nothing at all morose about him; in fact, he’s a complete charmer, who frequently breaks into animated bouts of mime accompanied by an infectious gap-toothed grin. His gift for visual business is undimmed by the years, and frequently he uses it to get over the language barrier; asked the reason for his films’ disappearance, he responds with a very funny, but obviously heartfelt mime of lawyers stuffing money in their pockets.  Similarly, while he holds Keaton as “a demi-God”, when asked who his favourite comedian of all is, his response was an absolutely pitch-perfect mime of Stan Laurel mannerisms.

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Monsieur Étaix receives his award at the Slapstick festival in 2012

Both Laurel and Keaton’s slapstick helplessness with props are evident in ‘RUPTURE’, the first film he made. This short takes a simple premise, Pierre trying to write a reply to his girlfriend’s break-up letter, and extracts a great deal of comedy business from it as he struggles with broken pens, stubborn desk drawers and an uneven surface that his writing materials slide about on.  HEUREUX ANNIVERSAIRE takes these to even greater levels.

The dapper dignity that he tries to keep up in the face of slapstick calamity came to hallmark Étaix’ work and was, he says, inspired by a tremendously po-faced opera singer; “Something as trivial as losing a button would be catastrophe to him, and I find that idea very funny”. This character also fitted into natural, situational comedy. Unlike the bewildering modernity that Jacques Tati stranded his oddball character M. Hulot in, Pierre Étaix had all the material he needed in the day-to-day trials of love and life. After making 5 feature films (the last of which, LE GRAND AMOUR features a brilliant fantasy sequence in which beds replace cars on the roads), Étaix focussed his attentions on TV and setting up the French National Circus School.

Like almost everyone else, I’d almost never seen most of his work until that evening in Bristol, but I’ve since been working through the long overdue box set of his films. M. Étaix absolutely charmed the Bristol crowd, and is on his way to regaining his standing  as the third great clown of French Cinema, alongside Max Linder and Jacques Tati. There are lots of jewels amongst his films, which provide more out and out laughter than much of Tati’s work.

It is fitting, given all the comparisons that have been made between Étaix and Buster Keaton, to finish with a nod to Buster; In Rudi Blesh’s book ‘Keaton’, written during the twilight of its subject’s life, he poignantly describes Keaton’s race against time to restore his reputation.

“It is a timely restoration, with the public tired of stand up and one-line comedy and turning back eagerly to the visual gag and the timeless silent art of the mime. But it still is late, late evening for the mime himself. His race with time quickens.”

Pierre Étaix today finds himself in the same circumstances, and, in his 88th year, the same race against time. Already, though, the films of this sweet, humble and quietly brilliant man are beginning to be seen again and earn the praise and following they should have had for the last 45 years. They are wonderfully creative visual comedies. Don’t miss a chance to see them; we owe it to him.

EDIT 15/10/16. After the paragraph cited above, Rudi Blesh had to update his biography with a poignant last sentence noting Keaton’s passing. Unfortunately, today the same is necessary for Pierre Etaix. It is at least of some consolation that he got to see his reputation restored, but deeply sad that perhaps the last truly visual film clown has left us. Sleep well, Pierre, and thanks for the laughs.

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Étaix is also a talented artist, as evidenced by this lovely, minimalist Keaton piece.

Pierre’s films haven’t made it to DVD in the UK, but are available subtitled on this American release, or in their original French versions.

This article by Matthew Ross has been adapted from one included in issue 3 of The Lost Laugh Magazine

Laurel & …Lane?

 

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

Stan Laurel Lupino Lane The Era March 18 1936

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

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

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

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

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

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