silent comedy

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 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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mystery Mirth-maker

Now, here’s an obscure comedian…

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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…