snub pollard

Gifts from Snub

dumbbell-SnubPollardWith his upside-down Kaiser Wilhelm ‘tache and permanently startled expression, Snub Pollard is another one of those moustachioed icons on the silent comedy Totem pole. Like Billy Bevan and Ben Turpin, he was a gift to caricaturists, a flesh cartoon. Realism was never the idiom of these comics; instead, they traded in fast-paced sight gags. They might not have had deeply developed characterisations, but what gags they had!

There’s sometimes a snobbery towards the one-and-two reelers full of slapstick and sight gags, which is totally unmerited. Yes, there was a lot of filler turned out by the industry, but many of these comedies have wonderfully inventive gags and routines, and amazing stunts.  Pollard’s films are some of the best examples of these.

Snub was an Australian, real name Harry Fraser, who adopted his stage name after working as part of the ‘Pollards Liliputians’ juvenile theatrical troupe. He made early films at Essanay in the teens, appearing opposite Chaplin and Ben Turpin. It was also at Essanay that he met Hal Roach.

When Roach set up in independent production, he hired Pollard to be second comic and villain to Harold Lloyd, before promoting him to his own series in 1919. The Kaiser moustache was a remnant of his more villainous roles, but came to suit his starring character well. As he came to play roles of the little man, always being trodden on, the ‘tache became a perfect match for his drooping, put-upon countenance.

Snub starred in films for Roach until 1924 (though a couple were held back and released into 1926), and is best remembered today for this wonderful little short. IT’S A GIFT is a beautifully zany little two reeler featuring his many Rube Goldberg-esque inventions. Wallace and Gromit, eat your heart out!

 

Thanks to being featured in Robert Youngson’s WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, IT’S A GIFT has long been hailed as one of the classic silent shorts. However, the side effect is that it’s often the only Pollard film ever mentioned. It’s the easy (read: lazy) Silent Comedy 101 option to write that IT’S A GIFT is Pollard’s  magnum opus, but there are many other great ones out there! While you wouldn’t rank Pollard with comic auteurs like Keaton or Laurel, he was surrounded by  hordes of brilliant gagmen and directors at the Hal Roach studios who kept cranking out wonderfully funny gags and situations for him.  One of these was Charles Parrott/Charley Chase, who helmed many of the best Pollard films.

Here are two examples, the terrific FIFTEEN MINUTES (recently pieced together by David Glass) and WHAT A WHOPPER. Both feature a classic Chase premise of a mundane beginning that swiftly escalates to become absurd, yet somehow believable.

Another of my favourite Chase-Pollard collaborations is SOLD AT AUCTION. Again, it starts simply: Pollard is an auctioneer, and does a house clearance. Trouble is, he’s gone to the wrong house! Cop James Finlayson is none-too-pleased to find his house empty and demands that Snub recovers every single item, including a runaway grand piano and a pair of false teeth being worn by an airplane pilot! Like the best of Snub’s films, it’s wonderfully absurd, but remains human. The whole film is on YouTube, but only in awful, retina-detaching quality; here’s a much better looking excerpt, courtesy of Ben Model:

Many of the Pollards only exist thanks to home movie excerpts, especially 9.5mm Pathex cutdowns. Here’s one such example. CALIFORNIA OR BUS’ is a tale of Snub and his wife (regular leading lady, the charming Marie Mosquini) driving west with a wagonful of all their possessions. You can guess that they don’t make it, but the inevitable destruction of their belongings takes place in some wonderfully original ways. A favourite grace note is Snub struggling to play a game of Pool in the back of the wagon; only when it has been smashed to smithereens is he able to steady the balls to pot them! There’s only about half the original film here, but the essence is preserved nicely.

Snub Pollard’s films are full of ingenious gags, snappily performed, and deserve a wider audience. Kickstarter, anyone…?

(Coat) Tales from the BFI Basement

Just come back from a trip to the BFI’s basement, having sifted through some more of their silent comedies. While the BFI’s online catalogue makes it now much easier to find a lot of the stuff they have, there are still things given generic titles (‘FAT MAN IN KNOCKABOUT’!), alternate ones left over from reissues, or occasionally completely wrong ones. One print marked as Larry Semon’s DUMMIES, for instance, turned out to be an extract from his THE STUNT MAN instead.

It is always fascinating to try and identify the proper identity of such films. Two Ben Turpin films were on our list, one called THE WRONG COAT, and the other given the catchy title ‘Comedy with Restaurant and Picture Stealing ‘.

Both were clearly from early in Turpin’s career. THE WRONG COAT instantly hooked us in with a prominent appearance by Snub Pollard, as a salesman who battles with Turpin over the eponymous coat in the opening scenes.

Here are a couple of screengrabs of Snub (Sorry about the awful quality, it’s taken on a phone, off a TV screen showing a VHS transfer of an awful quality 16mm print!).

This was a knockabout tale of two coats being mixed up between two wives. Not a comedy classic, but a fun little film. Turpin has a particularly a nice bit of pantomime as he realises a cop is stood behind him by feeling for his badge – a great little moment that brings to mind his former Essanay colleague Mr Chaplin.

Looking at Turpin’s filmography suggested the real identity of the film as A COAT TALE (1915) , confirmed by looking at the film’s synopsis from MOTOGRAPHY:

The other Turpin literally did what it said on the (film) can, and provided us with scenes in a restaurant, where Turpin and another crook (Rube Miller) plot to steal a valuable picture. In the ensuing chaos, they accidentally poison themselves and the film closes with them having their stomachs pumped – a light comedy, this is not! Still, some funny scenes, not least in Turpin and Miller’s comic overacting when drinking the poison! Steve Rydzewski’s excellent Turpin book identifies this one as PICTURE PIRATES, a Vogue-Mutual from 1916.

The random assortments of silent comedies held by archives always offer some unusual gems, and it was great to see these. Not comedy classics, but rare and fun films that we’re lucky to be able to see. More to come on some of the other interesting BFI stuff in future posts…