silent comedy

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Mystery Mirth-maker

Now, here’s an obscure comedian…

Nicol Parre

I came across this ad while flicking through old editions of ‘The Exhibitor’s Review’, an old film trade magazine available to browse through online at The Media Digital History Library. One of the joys of digitally leafing through these is the fact that little oddities like this turn up. I’ve certainly never heard of Nicol Parre before, and no reviews seem to exist of this film, which begs the question of if it ever found a release at all.

A further search through the archives revealed only one more mention of Nicol Parre, not as star, but as producer for the ‘N.P. Film Company’ in another prominent ad in ‘The Exhibitor’s Review’:

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However, if we look a bit closer, I’d say the star they’re now promoting, ‘Dom Ferre’, is actually the same guy. Probably a classic example of trying to make a one-man operation seem bigger than it actually is. There’s a hint of desperation, too, in that blurb: “open to contract with any distributors”. Certainly, the surnames are suspiciously similar.

Both names sound French to me; was Nicol/Dom an ex-pat with previous experience in the French industry? Or was he of a French immigrant family in New York, trying his luck at films? We’ll probably never know, and I doubt ‘THE FARMER’ was much more interesting than its title. Still, an interesting reminder that for all the clichéd stories of extras and studio janitors crashing the movies, it could actually be pretty hard to break in as an independent film maker or comedian.

As a footnote to the story, the address above, 412 Lake Street, appears to be still standing on Google Street View.

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I wonder if there are any film cans buried in the backyard…?

 

 

 

The Return of Rhubarb Vaselino!

 

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As the silent film era recedes further from living memory, it’s a constant source of amazement to me how many ‘lost’ films continue to turn up. In the last few years, we’ve witnessed the rediscovery of unknown Chaplin and Keaton films, missing films by Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and Charley Bowers, and the prized second reel of Laurel & Hardy’s ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. Truly, it’s a good time to be a silent comedy fan.

The latest discovery seems to be one of the most interesting of Stan Laurel’s solo films. 1924’s ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ was one of his independent series of comedy shorts for producer Joe Rock. It was, until now, the only one of the 12 comedies not known to exist in any form. However, in November last year, a restored 7 minute fragment found in Italy was revealed to the world again at a screening at MoMA in New York. It seems to have received little fanfare – I can’t find any reviews or comments on the screening as of yet. Nevertheless, for Stan fans, this is an exciting discovery.

Before teaming with Oliver Hardy, Laurel’s niche was parodying popular film hits of the day. ‘BLOOD AND SAND’ becomes ‘MUD AND SAND’, ‘UNDER TWO FLAGS’ becomes ‘UNDER TWO JAGS’, ‘DR JEKYLL & MR HYDE’ becomes ‘DR PYCKLE & MR PRYDE’, and so on. These are the films that first made him stand out from the masses of baggy pants film comedians, and so form a crucial part of his development as a comic. Many of them are also great, fun comedies in their own right, prescient of the Monty Python style of robust burlesque. Since Stan’s great Robin Hood parody ‘When Knights Were Cold’ turned up (or some of it, anyway), ‘MONSIEUR..’ has been just about the only one of Stan’s parody films not around in any form. Even more interestingly, it revisits Stan’s parody of Rudolph Valentino in his earlier classic ‘Mud and Sand’. Stan’s version of the great lover is given the glorious appellation of ‘Rhubarb Vaselino’, and presents lots of opportunity for the silly parody that the British sense of humour does so well.

Here, Stan turns his sights on another Valentino film, ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, in which he portrayed a favourite courtier of Louis XIV, forced to flee to England and pose as a barber. As a vehicle for Valentino, it was perfect, allowing for lavish costumes, swashbuckling duels and romance. Stan’s version apparently followed the original story fairly closely, but obviously put a comic twist on the scenes.

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Rudolph Valentino in the original ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’ (1924)

 

As with ‘MUD AND SAND’, much of the comedy no doubt came from Stan’s straight-faced appearance in the ridiculously lavish costumes and his comic variations on it; one frame grab from the discovered footage (below) shows him matching a ridiculous wig with a  20s vamp’s dress!

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On its original release, the Kinematograph Weekly sniffily griped that there was an excess of slapstick in the film, surely missing the point that its contrast with the high society and great romantic dignity of the Valentino original was a source for comedy. Anyway, few could do slapstick like Stan Laurel.  The other Rock films are generally all very good, and start to show signs of Stan’s talent maturing, so I’m certainly hopeful for this one. The most similar film from the series to ‘MONSIEUR…’ is ‘DR PYCKLE & MR PRYDE, which is the best of all his parodies, perhaps even his best solo film. With a little luck, this film matches up to its high standard.

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Hopefully, we’ll all get a chance to judge ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’, even in it’s fragmentary form, soon, with more screenings or a DVD release. Come to think of it, it’d be a nice extra on a DVD of ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’!

In the meantime, there’s more on the original discovery, with some frame grabs, and details of an Oliver Hardy discovery, ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ here. Be warned, you need to be fluent in Italian!!

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Stan chews on Syd Crossley. Interestingly enough, Crossley was originally meant to take Hardy’s part in the early L & H film ‘DUCK SOUP’. Laurel & Crossley? Hmm…

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THE STREETS WHERE MAGIC HAPPENED

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Standing on the shoulders of Munchkins, and walking in the steps of Comedy Giants in Culver City…

Culver City is a pleasant district to the South West of Los Angeles, not far from LAX airport. Not one of the tourist hotspots of L.A, it barely registers in guidebooks, but to classic comedy fans it is a special place of pilgrimage. Once home to both MGM and the Hal Roach Studios, it was the birthing pool of countless treasured films.

Nucleated around Culver and Venice Boulevards, Culver City was founded by Newspaperman Harry Culver in 1917. Thomas H Ince established the first studio there in 1918, followed by Hal Roach a year later. Most prestigiously, The Goldwyn studios were built in the early 20s, and later inherited by MGM. This behemoth of a studio survives, given a new lease of life as Sony Pictures Studios. It is even open to the public for daily tours.

‘THE LOT OF FUN’

Unlike MGM, Hal Roach’s elegant white wooden-fronted studio has not survived. It was torn down in the early 60s and now nothing remains. Yet, paradoxically, more of the spirit of the ‘Lot of Fun’ remains, in the streets and buildings of Culver City. While MGM’s stars generally remained cloistered on studio sets, Roach’s film-makers took every opportunity to film out on the streets. Time and time again, recognisable landmarks pop up as backdrops to the comedic action: the pie-slice-shaped Culver Hotel, the squat store-fronts of the buildings, the wide intersections where mayhem takes place. All of these, clean and sunlit in the then brand new suburb, become almost as recognisable as the bit part players, offering a comfortable familiarity to the viewer and a continuity to the films.

Until last Summer, I had never been there before, but yet I felt I knew the place already. While passing through LA I had to make a visit to this magical place home to so much laughter in the films I’ve grown up with and still love. Of course, I was prepared for disappointment. Surely time would have warped the streets beyond all recognition, the love and laughter put into the films long since departed…

Well, happily I was wrong. Naturally many things have changed, but these are still recognisably the same locations immortalised on film. What helps is that, despite having the whole of Los Angeles as a playground, the Roach film makers were particularly fond of a small handful of streets. This means that we have seen these locations countless times, from all angles. Best of all, it is this handful of locations that have remained the most unchanged. Unlike the scuzzy downtown locations favoured by Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, Culver City is also a very pleasant part of L.A. Recently it has been promoted as an art and food quarter, and makes very pleasant strolling. The traffic lights even emit a ‘kuku’ noise when it is safe to cross! Coincidence…?

Washington and Venice boulevards divide at the heart of Culver City, moving apart in a ‘V’ shape. Between them lies Main Street, a short road lined with storefronts, trees and alleyways. Main’s intersection with Washington is spacious; on the southeast side sits the elegant Culver Hotel. This small collection of roads and buildings formed the bulk of backgrounds in Roach films. The use of these locations reaches its apex in the MGM silents from 1927-29. Though many earlier and later films also used them, this particular run of films all seemed to feature crowds gathering on streets, to watch a Max Davidson dilemma, Charley Chase embarrassment or Laurel and Hardy fracas. Pick any Roach silent from this time and you can pretty much play Culver City Bingo!

Main Street, with its single storey shops, very much gives the appearance of a small town high street. Anytime street scenes were required that weren’t filmed on the backlot, they were usually filmed here. Laurel and Hardy’s bootlegging plans are made here in ‘PARDON US’, as are their attempts to busk on street corners. The Max Davidson films ‘DUMB DADDIES’ and ‘THE BOY FRIEND’ also make prominent use of the street, as does Thelma Todd’s ‘ON THE LOOSE’. In between the shops are alleyways, a staple of slapstick chase scenes. One of the alleyways on here was the scene of L & H’s infamous pants-changing in ‘LIBERTY’, and also appeared in their pre-teaming short ’45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD’.

Many times, this one little street was shot from different angles and made to represent a whole host of different locations in one go. ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’ is one of the most notable examples of this; L & H’s adventures all over town are actually a merry dance up and down the same short length of street! The presence of the Culver Hotel is a giveaway to this. Looking out for the looming building is a key to spotting scenes filmed on Main Street. In ’45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD’, a tourbus heads down this way, as do the open topped buses in Chase’s ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’ and, again, ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’!

The Culver Hotel, built in 1923 by Harry Culver, was the focal point of Culver City, and remains so today. It’s elegantly austere exterior meant it could stand in for civil buildings, an office block or fancy restaurant, as well as a hotel. It’s even a dentist’s office in ‘LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING!’. The unusual shape means that it also had entrances on the corners. This made quite a visually arresting, ‘clean’ space to film a scene, with little in the background to distract. Charley Chase’s wedding, in ‘LIMOUSINE LOVE’ , for instance, takes place here. The hotel’s ‘island’ status, surrounded by roads, adds to the plot as Charley drives around and around it, unable to stop because of the naked woman in his car!

The back entrance, on is also the entrance where Laurel begins chasing Dorothy Coburn in ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, as seen in the still below. Into the Talkie era, the hotel seemed a natural taxi pickup point for ‘THE TAXI BOYS’ in films like ‘HOT SPOT’ and ‘BRING ‘EM BACK A WIFE’. The hotel also played a key role, albeit offscreen, in later film history. When ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ’ was filmed at MGM in 1939, it became living quarters for the Munchkins, who famously held debauched parties here!

With the hotel in the background, the Washington-Main intersection is where crowds all gather in the famous scenes from ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’.

Washington itself, busier and more recognisably metropolitan than Main Street, is featured in a number of car chases – ‘THE TAXI BOYS’ films, notably, and Chase’s ‘THE COUNT TAKES THE COUNT’. Walk a little further southwest, and you come to the site of the Culver City Hall. This was disguised as a courtroom in L & H’s ‘GOING BYE-BYE’, and was the eponymous ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’. Sadly, the original was demolished, but an impressive replica façade has been erected in the exact same spot.

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A replica facade stands on the spot of the former Culver City Hall, once ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’.

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Filming ‘COUNTY HOSPITAL’ at the same spot.

So many films took place in this little area that it is impossible to list them all. Indeed, I struggled to even process them all while there. While the Music Box Steps in Silverlake are justifiably iconic, allowing you to follow in L & H’s footsteps, Culver City is actually a much more immersive experience. My favourite thing about standing in the spots where my heroes stood was not the chance to do a copycat photo, but to look out at the view they would have seen as they filmed. Suddenly, they weren’t confined to frames of film. The disappeared scene around those frames filled out; I could see the colours, hear the noise of traffic, feel the heat of the California sun. I imagined Stan Laurel or Charley Chase briefing the cameraman on the angle they wanted, then walking back to take their position, ready to be immortalised. I imagined the halted traffic on Washington Boulevard, or the crew walking back down Main Street, satisfied with a funny scene. Perhaps they conferred on this street corner, or under the shade of that awning, shaping the scenes that we now know and love. In such a well-filmed part of town, surely each corner had some part to play. If you use your imagination, you can step back in time in Culver City, and imagine you are part of it too.

Alas, time has marched on, and the Lot of Fun is long gone. So too are the laughter-makers, and in their places only the naked streets remain. The secret of Hal Roach studios was never in these streets themselves. There’s no magic in the humdrum concrete, no secrets in the fabric of the walls. But, on these pleasant yet unremarkable streets, a crowd of immensely talented people passed by briefly to weave their dreams. They congregated daily, on a mission to create laughter. On the plain concrete and through dark alleyways, in the shadow of that big hotel, they did so, giving of themselves to make audiences forget their troubles. Almost 100 years later, new audiences are still doing so in their company. The people responsible have long since gone, but they transcended these everyday streets into a place that feels special, an inventory of happy memories and smiles. Now, that is magic after all…

Ben Turpin: improbable facts about Silent Film’s most improbable star

 

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Of all the silent comedians, none was more bizarre looking than Ben Turpin. The antithesis of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd’s realism, his equipment – crossed eyes, scrubbing brush moustache, and long neck with globular Adam’s apple – made him almost totemic for silent comedy’s wilder, more surreal side. In fact, when James Agee wrote the 1949 ‘Life’ magazine article that inspired the first serious silent comedy revival, it was Turpin’s mug that adorned the cover. That Turpin could not just become a star, but join the company of ‘Life’ cover stars including (at that point) Eisenhower, Rita Hayworth, Marshall Tito and Stalin is just one of the many improbabilities in his career. In fact, his whole screen career was based on unlikeliness: many of his funny films have him wonderfully out of place masquerading as Rudolph Valentino or Erich von Stroheim!

Here are  a few other unlikely truths about this living gargoyle..

1. Turpin was actually of French parents, although born in New Orleans. In his sound  films, you can detect the hint of an accent.

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2. His eyes were genuinely crossed. At the height of his fame, Turpin famously had his eyes insured by Lloyd’s of London as a publicity stunt.

3. Various stories circulated regarding the source of his miasma. The simple truth is much less exciting: after playing the cross-eyed character ‘Happy Hooligan’ in vaudeville several times a day, he found that one day, his right eye was stuck in position as a result of the repeated strain.

4.Turpin had an extremely restless spirit. He voluntarily became a hobo as a young man, choosing to ride boxcars in preference to finding a job. He did so for several years.

5.After finally settling with a variety of menial jobs, he played in vaudeville before being signed up by Essanay studios. Stardom? Well, not quite. Although he acted in films during the day, he was also required to sweep out the studio, collect props and box up films for shipment!

6.Ben allegedly took the first on-screen pie in the face, in 1909’s ‘Mr Flip’.

 

7. Behind his two-dimensional façade, it’s sometimes hard to recall his real life struggles: he dropped out of acting at the peak of his stardom to nurse his terminally ill wife, Carrie.

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The offscreen Turpin. Almost dapper.

 

8. Well into his 60s, he was a master of the perilous ‘108 fall’, involving kicking a leg up into the air, turning a somersault and landing on the floor. He would apparently often do it in random places around Hollywood, often accompanied by a cry of “I’m Ben Turpin -earn 2,000 dollars a week!”. Fellow comic Lupino Lane once recalled seeing Turpin stop traffic in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard to do his trademark fall! You can see him do it (alongside Lane, coincidentally) a few minutes into this sketch from ‘The Show of Shows’:

 

You can catch Ben Turpin’s films at Bristol’s Slapstick festival next week.

To find out more about his fascinating life, there’s also a great book available (click picture for link):

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Harold Lloyd: in praise of ‘SPEEDY’

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Harold Lloyd’s ‘SPEEDY’ is not an obscure or rare film, but one that manages to be consistently overlooked. It was Lloyd’s last silent film. As Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift, he’s a baseball fanatic who can’t keep his mind on his work long enough to stay in a job for more than a day at a time. Eventually, he gets work driving his girl’s grandfather’s horse-drawn tramcar, just as the big railroad company tries to force it out of business. The tram must run once a day to keep its franchise, and Speedy is charged with keeping the service running, despite all the big company’s attempts at sabotage. He manages to overcome all the obstacles to save the day, allowing Grandpappy to sell the line at a profit.  Alongside all his other classic silent features, it’s often overlooked. Alright; it probably isn’t his best film – there’s nothing as iconic as the building climb in ‘SAFETY LAST’ here, and the story isn’t as evenly sustained as in ‘THE KID BROTHER’, but personally, it’s my favourite of all Lloyd’s films.

So, what sets it apart for me? Well, first of all, SPEEDY has a rather different quality to many of his other films. Most of the other Lloyd features fall into two groups; the first, including ‘THE KID BROTHER’, ‘DR JACK’ and ‘GIRL SHY’ are based in small, rural towns. The other, more Metropolitan films, are comedies of jazz age city speed and thrills, like ‘SAFETY LAST’ or ‘FOR HEAVENS’ SAKE’. These all take place in the metropolis of Los Angeles, although it is never explicitly stated. ‘SPEEDY’ on the other hand, has a definite geographic setting, on the opposite coast. It specifically takes place in New York, with landmarks like the Yankee Stadium and Coney Island integral to the film’s plot. It even features real life baseball star Babe Ruth as himself. Neither before nor since in Lloyd’s career was the fantasy quite so inextricably linked with reality.

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Most unusually for Lloyd, his character has already won the girl before the film starts; he’s confident and self-assured, and so we get a change from the usual ‘weakling has to impress girl by making a man of himself’ plot. While Harold still gets to save the tramcar and succeed in making a fortune, the plot is a bet less contrived than in some of the others. In fact, his relationship with Ann Christy is probably the most realistic and genuine of any of his films, having a real, winsome charm to it.   Their scenes at Coney Island are one of the highpoints of the film, and there is a lovely little scene where they catch a lift back to town in a furniture van, setting up home and dreaming of the future during the ride back.

This charming quality applies to the film as a whole; the outdated streetcar is matched by the now-vanished Coney Island funfair scenes, always a highlight. From here, through backstreets of New York, to hot dogs, yellow taxi cabs and baseball, Lloyd celebrates icons of Americana. None of his other films reflect the title of his autobiography, “AN AMERICAN COMEDY”, quite so well. With the passing of time, this has taken on an even greater nostalgic quality. Indeed, the whole film is permeated by an atmosphere of celebrating the old ways as the modern world changes everything. Is it just a coincidence that this is the film that Lloyd was making as Sound technology threatened to change the movie industry and the careers of the silent comedians beyond all recognition? (As a footnote, It’s interesting that Keaton’s last independent silent, ‘STEAMBOAT BILL JR’, also celebrates an obsolete form of technology).

Truthfully, ‘SPEEDY’ is somewhat haphazardly constructed, but there are lots of high spots, with Harold’s continued failed attempts to hold down a job provide for plenty of good gag sequences. The best is probably his short-lived career as a taxi driver, which even includes a cameo by Babe Ruth! To top it all off, there’s a classic Lloyd chase through the streets of New York, as he races to the finish line, driving the streetcar like a chariot. Lloyd later recalled how an accident when he crashed the streetcar was worked into the film, a brilliant example of the fluidity and spontaneity of silent technique, soon to be lost with the crushing rigidity of the talkies.

SPEEDY is a real charmer, and a fine way to draw the curtain on the silent era. Lloyd’s next film, the talkie ‘WELCOME DANGER’ is best forgotten. I prefer to leave him at the high point of SPEEDY, racing his streetcar to the finish line.

Here are a couple of my favourite scenes. First, Harold’s trip on the subway…

… and two icons of Americana together: Harold meets Babe Ruth…

Four Silent Comedy Contenders

I’m blogging about comedy films seen at Kennington Bioscope’s SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY.

The first show of the afternoon was my turn to take the stage, presenting some shorts starring forgotten silent comedians. Time has slimmed down  our view of popular culture so that a few names dominate – to the novice, Chaplin and maybe Keaton. To the slightly more dedicated film fan – Harold Lloyd, L & H, maybe at a pinch Harry Langdon. But silent comedy was a huge, rich field. So many talented names are unfairly forgotten, so it was a privilege to give these neglected talents some of the exposure they deserve. The four SILENT CONTENDERS I selected were great comedians all, at one time or another, tipped to be the next Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. That they didn’t quite make it was down was down to a variety of factors ( the studio system, time and place, personal demons, etc). Nevertheless, they turned out some work that I think is quite, quite wonderful in its own right.

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First up, was a comedian who pre-dated even Chaplin. Max Linder was one of the first international comedians. He was French, and making films from the mid 1900s for Pathe. These little films, with their cardboard painted sets, are primitive in their look, but Linder’s acting and directing are amazingly sophisticated for films over 100 years old. He played a suave yet often embarrassed boulevardier, a silk-hatted Romeo who got himself into farcical situations like fighting duels and hiding inside suits of armour. Chaplin was a fan, dedicating a photo to him “ To the one and only Max- the professor”. He could well have made it.
visuel_15But then, WW1 intervened, just as Chaplinmania was striking. It was a fulcrum of Linder’s career for two reasons. For one thing, it decimated the French film industry. Linder managed to get around this by going to America to make films. At a time when anything vaguely. Chaplin-related was gold dust, an endorsement from the man himself was irresistible to the American studios. However, the war had also had a more personal, and sinister, impact on Linder; called up and severely injured in conflict, his experiences affected him mentally and physically. He would never quite have the strength to capitalise on his opportunities, and eventually his demons won with his 1925 suicide.

Before this tragedy, he did make a run of 3 superb feature films in the U.S.. ‘Seven Years bad luck’, ‘The Three must Get There’s’ and ‘Be My Wife’, failed to win the audience they deserved to give Max a breakthrough to the big time. Despite this, they are really quite excellent. We showed a scene from seven Years bad luck that is an antecedent of the famous ‘mirror routine’ in Duck Soup. A  masterpiece of timing and comic reaction, It went over a treat with the audience.

The other three ‘contenders’ were comics who flourished in short films, but never made it to features. Over time, feature films came to be seen as the acid test for greatness, but this wasn’t always the case. In the beginning, all comedy films were short. When Mack Sennett made the feature length ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’, they said it couldn’t be done. When Chaplin made ‘THE KID’ , publicity marvelled at the 6 reel picture “ upon which the famous comedian has worked a whole year!” If only they’d known how long it would later take him to make ‘CITY LIGHTS’.

Of course, Chaplin’s features were a great success; features became the norm. Shorts, over time, became the Cinderella. Today, the comics best remembered are the ones who took on the challenge of feature length films – carrying the fuller, more developed stories showed their skill, and these are indeed the films that endure the best.

However, there’s been this image of the comics in shorts, with a view that anyone who couldn’t make it in features was a lesser talent. That it was all just moustachioed men falling in water and flinging custard pies around like  But shorts, in their own way, are a separate art form. To tell a story, keeping a constant ripple of laughter is no mean feat. I think it’s a good analogy to the classic sitcoms of the 70s. Dad’s Army, Porridge, Are You Being Served? They all tried to make feature versions, but they’re always disappointing. Some things are just better in miniature.

Of course, with so many thousands of shorts being turned out, yeah, there’s a lot of dreck. But there are also many, many gems, including some by our next three comedians.

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Lloyd Hamilton was a comedian’s comedian. Keaton said he was, “one of the funniest men in pictures,”, while Mack Sennett said “[he] had comic motion. He could do nothing except walk across the screen, and still he’d make you laugh.” What appealed to fellow performers was his unique style of reactionary comedy; playing an overgrown mama’s boy, he relied less on mechanical gags and slapstick than reacting to an endless series of disasters that befell him. His comic equipment included a tottering walk ill-matched to his eternal sense of dignity, a silly pancake hat and a range of hilarious facial expressions. Hamilton could show disgust or disdain better than perhaps any other performer at that time. Oliver Hardy certainly picked up some hints for camera looks from him. Unlike many comedians, he didn’t especially need a strong strong storyline, just to have a really, really bad day! The titles of his films, such as  ‘CRUSHED’, ‘LONESOME’ or ‘NOBODY’S BUSINESS’ reflect this; they sound more like Kafka novels than comedies!

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Unfortunately, most of Hamilton’s best work went up in smoke years ago. Scattered examples do exist, but it was a challenge to find a film in projectable quality that represented him well. We had to settle for THE SIMP, an early, embryonic film in his canon. It’s not one of his very best, but has some good examples of his anti-hero style. For instance, there are some amusing gags involving him trying to get rid of a pesky dog (don’t worry, dog lovers, apparently the dog was his own and not hurt during filming). We were lucky to be able a newly reconstructed 22 minute version of THE SIMP  compiled by David Glass. It didn’t get quite the laughs I’d hoped for, but was a rare treat to see nonetheless.

Here’s a better Ham film, 1926’s ‘MOVE ALONG’:

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Our next comic was actually one of Lloyd Hamilton’s directors in his early days. Charley Parrott, or as he later became better known, Charley Chase, was one of the top comedy directors in the teens and early 20s. He had a happy berth working in this capacity at Hal Roach studios, before fate intervened. Harold Lloyd, Roach’s top star, left to produce independently. Now, Roach’s remaining comics were all very good, but none had the human appeal of Lloyd. Roach realised his talented, good-looking director might fit the niche perfectly and put him in a series of one-reelers.

From the get-go, Chase had his comic style in place. While he was slightly reminiscent of Lloyd, he actually owed more to Max Linder, an eternally embarrassed bon vivant fallen on hard times, always winding up in farcical situations. Chase could not have existed in his full capacity before the jazz age, though; he was especially interested in risqué gags and plotlines to heighten his character’s embarrassment, and the permissive ways of the late 20s gave him perfect opportunities to do so. A prime example of this is LIMOUSINE LOVE (1928), which we showed to a terrific response. It’s also a great forum for Chase’s ability to take a simple, everyday beginning to a story, then pile on loads of ridiculous, absurd complications, yet still have these plot twists seem believable. In LIMOUSINE LOVE, he is just a normal guy, heading to his wedding. He’s run out of gas though, and time is ticking on. While Charley goes off to find some gas, a young lady (Viola Richard) is soaked in a mud-puddle. Seeing his seemingly abandoned car on the country road, she hops in the back to change her clothes and dry off.

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Charley returns, unaware of this, and drives off. Viola’s clothes fall out of the window, and he is left with a naked woman in the back of his car on the way to his wedding. Things go from bad to worse as he picks up a hitch-hiker, who of course, turns out to be her husband… Charley’s attempts to get rid of Viola without her husband or his fiancée knowing make up one of the funniest sequences in silent comedy.

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Sadly, this film isn’t on YouTube, so here’s another. It’s another great example of Charley’s absurd, yet warm and believable stories. ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’ (1926) is the story of a homely husband and wife who have plastic surgery to surprise each other. Trouble is, they then fail to recognise each other, and embark on an affair. This goofy sounding story actually seems totally natural when you see it told by Chase and director Leo McCarey. Throw in great performances, terrific set-pieces and you have one of the greatest silent comedies ever made. With shorts as good as this, who says features are better?

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The talents of Lupino Lane were very different to Charley Chase. Lane was British, but born of a long line of entertainers tracing their roots back to 17th Century Italy. From the time he could walk, he had been trained in the rich pantomime tradition. He would later recall that, as a small child, his father made him sit in the splits for half an hour every day! All this training paid off; he was a master of comic timing, slapstick and acrobatics. Within seconds, he could backflip from a table, tumble across a room and fall into the splits, then raise himself up to standing position without putting so much as a hand to the ground. On film, he wore a perpetually startled expression enhanced by his huge eyes, almost as if these acrobatics happened by accident. A little chap, he used his size to contrast comically with the epic background his films placed him in: he might be a misfit gaucho, pirate, explorer or Mountie.

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‘SWORD POINTS’ is his version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and is one of his best films. Even better, we were able to show it in a sparkling print that enhanced the whirlwind of gags and acrobatics.

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SWORD POINTS has two centrepieces. The first relies not on acrobatics, but is a carefully constructed wine cellar sequence that showcases an alternative facet of the music hall comedian: an ability to squeeze any possible gag out of a handful of props and a simple task. Here, Lane is sent to the wine cellar to fetch some tankards of wine. Over the course of the next few minutes, he manages to get all his hands and feet stuck in jugs, and flood the wine cellar, eventually swimming off with the tray of tankards atop his head.

The second is a maelstrom of rolls, flips and trips through some secret trapdoors, which also packs in some amusing take-offs on Fairbanks’ casual swashbuckling style. The speed and energy of these scenes must be seen to be believed. Sadly, ‘SWORD POINTS’ is another film not on the ‘tube, but Lane turned out dozens of these great little films. Here’s FANDANGO, also from 1928, and another good ‘un.

Lane’s talents were probably better off in short films than stretched across a full feature film. However, as I’m sure the Kennington audience would agree, he was still an incredible comedian and acrobat. The other silent contenders, in their own ways, were all real individuals whose efforts to bring laughter to the world deserve better remembrance. It was a pleasure to share them, both at The Cinema Museum, and here, with some new audiences.

LOST CLOWNS: A baker’s dozen!

Fresh from a fantastic weekend in London for Kennington Bioscope’s ‘SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY’, the blog is now ready to launch properly. Reviews of films from the weekend to follow, but before we get to that, here’s a brief rundown of some of the greatest forgotten comics you’ll find here. Sure, we’ll be featuring Keaton, Laurel & Hardy etc, too, but these are some of the comics who need a bit more information and appreciation about them on the internet, the core purpose of this site. As time goes on, I’d like to add pages for each of these performers to the site to hopefully become a definitive reference source, but for now, here’s a brief introduction to some of my favourite lost comedians…

  1. DAN LENO

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Going right back to the music hall days, it’s impossible to conceive of many of the later British comedians without Dan Leno. His sketches and whimsy were beloved by the Karno comics, and absorbed into their acts. Just look at that bowler-hatted, vacantly grinning face and tell me you don’t see Stan Laurel. Chaplin loved Leno, too. Leno died young at the turn of the century, and has left only scraps of his act, but he left a long shadow in British comedy.

2. MAX LINDER

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Just as influential, in his own way, was Frenchman Max Linder. Stage-trained Linder made films from the mid-1900s for Pathé. These films may look primitive, with their cardboard, painted sets, but Linder’s acting is remarkably subtle and sophisticated. As a silk-hatted boulevardier, he maintains this pleasingly low-key style as he is pulled into ridiculously farcical situations, such as being carried through the streets of Paris in his bath!

Chaplin, again, was a huge fan. He became friends with Linder (below), dedicating a photo to him, “To the one and only Max, the Professor. From his disciple, Charles Chaplin.” Linder’s sophisticated, dapper style in the face of eternal embarrassment was also a huge influence on two other great silent comics, Raymond Griffith and Charley Chase.

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3. ROSCOE ARBUCKLE

circa 1920: A full-length studio portrait of the silent screen comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle (1887-1933) wearing a black hat and sticking his finger in his mouth. (Photo by Mitchell/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It’s amazing how many of these underappreciated comedians had such an influence on the more enduring names. It was Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, then Mack Sennett’s biggest star, who persuaded the producer not to fire a young, temperamental Chaplin. He’s also said to have provided the original tramp costume’s oversized pants. The eternally generous Arbuckle later had an even more profound impact on the young Buster Keaton,giving him his first screen roles and teaching him the ropes of film-making. On his own account, he made some really charming and funny screen comedies, before his career was unduly and unfairly stopped by a 1921 scandal. To this day, it’s impossible to write a paragraph about him without mentioning it, so I’m just going to shout from the rooftops, “HE WAS INNOCENT!” once more.

4. MABEL NORMAND

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The first really popular screen comedienne, Mabel was also a pioneering female director. From the mid 1910s, she was directing her own films at Keystone, later moving into feature films for Goldwyn. She’s great proof that women could be both funny and attractive at the same time, which was a difficult thing to achieve in such a male-dominated industry. Mabel was a wonderfully lively performer, who deserves remembering more for her pioneering work.

5. ALICE HOWELL

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Alice Howell took a more clownish approach to her humour. Her round, eternally started kewpie doll face, topped off with a mass of frizzy red hair was instantly amusing, and totally suited the ditzy characters she played on film. However, she was still a true original, almost a forerunner of Lucille Ball. Her films are sadly scarce, but reveal a uniquely funny lady. “Everyone a Howell!” was her strapline.

6. LUPINO LANE

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To see one of Lupino Lane’s films is to suspend belief in the laws of physics; he was a phenomenal acrobat who surpasses even Keaton. Tracing his family’s history in entertainment back to 1642, he was a proud inheritor of the pantomime tradition, and could do pretty much anything: acrobatics, dancing, singing, crosstalk routines, juggling. He later added starring in, writing and directing Hollywood comedies to his resumé. These films are great little two reelers, maybe not deep in characterisation, but they make up for it in a whirlwind of gags and acrobatics. Lane’s signature stunts include rising up from the splits, somersaulting down flights of stairs, and running 360 degrees around the inside of a proscenium arch! In later years, he returned to England, where he originated the role of Bill Snibson in ‘ME AND MY GIRL’, along with the famous dance, ‘The Lambeth Walk’. He should be recognised as a national treasure in Britain, but is undeservedly forgotten.

7. CHARLEY BOWERS

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The films of Charley Bowers are as jaw-dropping as Lupino Lane’s, but for different reasons. Bowers isn’t an astounding performer, but he was an incredibly talented animator and gagman. In two series of comedies in the late 1920s, he mixed his wild, incredibly realistic stop motion animation into live action films starring himself. The results are incredible, a world where pussy willow trees sprout living cats, mice fire guns, cars hatch from eggs and the figures inside paintings come to life. Beloved by surrealists like André Breton, Bowers was just way ahead of his time, and returned to obscurity before being rediscovered in recent years.

8. HARRY LANGDON

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Langdon is usually cited as one of the “big 4” names of silent comedy, with Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, but he’s far, far less well remembered than those performers. Part of the reaon, I think, is that he is very much an offbeat, reactionary performer, a minimalist in reaction to the overblown chaos of Mack Sennett madness. Now that we’re less familiar with this, it’s harder to place Langdon’s curious, quiet style. He played an overgrown baby of indeterminate age, his performances marked by long silences and the tiniest flinches in facial expression. He was proclaimed as the next Chaplin in his day, but crashed and burned through a combination of factors. He’s kind of a marmite performer, an acid test for your appreciation of silent comedy. Those who ‘get’ him revere him. Among them were Chaplin, Keaton and Stan Laurel. That must count for something.

9. LLOYD HAMILTON

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You might recognise the photo above from our header image. Lloyd Hamilton (on the left) is another comedian’s comedian, a reactionary type who has a similarly ‘marmite’ appeal to Harry Langdon. Playing a curious overgrown Mama’s Boy type, he walked with a prissy waddle and treated everything with disdain. A typical Hamilton film has little story, but is simply a string of disasters to showcase his fine reactionary comedy. However, he’s hamstrung (pardon the pun) by the lack of most of his best films, and the fractured and scattered nature of what remains. But, as Mack Sennett said, “[Lloyd Hamilton] had comic motion. He’d do nothing but walk across the screen and make you laugh.”

10. CHARLEY CHASE

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I simply adore Charley Chase. Debonair, charming and a multi-talented gagman, director and story-constructionist, he had a knack for creating beautiful little farce comedies that escalate to heights of absurdity yet remain completely believable throughout. For example, ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’, in which he and his wife have plastic surgery without telling each other, meet on the street, and then embark on an affair. It’s a totally ridiculous story, yet made believable and human by the warmth and skill of Chase and his team. Chase continued doing some great, charming work in the talkies, making short films at Hal Roach studios that need to be seen more widely.

11. WALTER FORDE

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Walter Forde was once billed as ‘Britain’s only comedian!”. That’s rather stretching it, but he was the only comedian making film comedy shorts and features in Britain for most of the silent era. Forde’s work in this area continues to be undervalued, but is slowly being re-evaluated. He played a likeable chap, “two parts Chaplin, three parts Harold Lloyd,” as one reviewer put it, and directed his films himself. A shy man, he gave up performing in 1930, and instead became a renowned director of both comedies and dramas.

12. WILL HAY

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Taking Walter Forde’s place as premier comic of British films in the sound era was Will Hay. Hay’s music hall character was an incompetent ignorant schoolmaster who was barely a step ahead of his pupils. This enabled him to follow a rich line of comedy, transferable in films to any position of seedy authority: ship’s captain, shyster lawyer, policeman, or stationmaster in his all-time classic ‘OH, MR PORTER!’. Hay’s films are acknowledged as classics, but as a performer he needs some more love. he’s another superb reactionary comedian, a master of pauses, sniffs and shady glances to sell material that looks feeble on paper. He’s also one who stands up very well today, as British bureaucracy and incompetence hasn’t gone anywhere in the 65 years since his passing…

13 CLARK & McCULLOUGH

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We close with a wonderfully vibrant act who flourished in sound comedies. Clark and McCullough were successful on Broadway before making a great little series of sound two-reel shorts for RKO in the early 1930s. They are often considered Marx Brothers rip-offs (partly due to Bobby Clark’s painted-on glasses), yet turned out a brand of humour uniquely their own, rich in movement, dialogue, pantomime and farce.

As I leave off here for now, I’m already thinking of the other comics I haven’t included here today… Raymond Griffith,  Jack Hulbert, Stanley Lupino, Snub Pollard, Thelma Todd… Rest assured, they’ll all have their place here. I hope you’ll bookmark this site and keep dropping by from time to time to share these great performers with me. Next up, some highlights from ‘SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY’, featuring some of the names above.