Here’s a fun little rarity, one of the few talkie shorts made by light comedian Johnny Hines. It’s an Educational Short from 1930; although Educational’s sound shorts have a reputation for being cheap, at this point they still had a bit more prestige, with decent budgets and good supporting casts. DON’T LEAVE HOME is a tightly plotted farce showing what happens when Johnny and his wife (Jean Reno) are forced to spend time apart and plan a surprise visit for each other. Hines is pretty good as a talking comedian, and the short gives him a nice mixture of dialogue, sight gags and reaction comedy to get his teeth into. It also has a juicy comic role for James Finlayson as a cynical cab driver, and a talking bit for Snub Pollard (he’s the plumber, without his usual moustache!)
There’s a blackface gag that it would have been better off without, but the rest of it is really pretty good, and it’s nice to see some silent veterans doing their thing in a strange new idiom. This is just one of the many delights on Joseph Blough’s YouTube channel, which has recently been spoiling us with many rare 1930s shorts, including Joe Cook, Ernest Truex and Lloyd Hamilton. Thanks Mr Blough for sharing these rarely seen gems!
Old films give us a window into the cultures, values and everyday norms of the past, and comedies sometimes hold up the mirror to society best of all. Although silent comedies rarely tackled politics head-on, they often took inspiration from current events and trends, and people’s attitude to them. Often this was in passing, but sometimes comics went the whole hog to make satires. The Suffrage moment became a favourite topic for comedy; many men in the male-dominated society felt threatened by the increasing voice of women, and this was reflected in comedic portrayals of fearsome battleaxes. As the 1920s rolled on, the increasingly confident and empowered flapper generation began to be represented in films, with wonderful performers like Clara Bow, Dorothy Devore and Marie Prevost flying the flag for contemporary women.
However, not all welcomed such developments. The narrow-minded mutterings in some quarters that skirts were getting too short and things really were going too far were ripe for spoofing. Emasculated men having to deal with the housework became a comedy staple, but the gagwriters at the Hal Roach studios went one step further and made some wonderfully silly and surreal films where genders were bent as men and women swapped roles fully. They weren’t trying to make a serious point, just having some fun and trying to make good comedy that would resonate with their audiences. Nevertheless, the films give a fascinating insight into what was considered conventional for each gender in the 1920s.
In 1922, the gagmen and performers had great fun playing with exaggerated gender stereotypes in Snub Pollard’s YEARS TO COME. Set in a future where men’s and women’s roles are reversed, it offers the amusingly goofy sight of the heavily moustached Pollard and the usually tough and burly Noah Young delighting in incongruous feminine mannerisms.
The Roach gagmen always liked to revist a good idea, and in 1926 they remodelled the basic idea of YEARS TO COME with another moustachioed comic, Clyde Cook. WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? was even dafter than the original, and mocks the more ridiculous gender conventions of Hollywood film for all they are worth. To this end, we get James Finlayson as a shrewish father-in-law (“about to bear up bravely as his little one is wrenched from his apron strings”), and Laura de Cardi as a caddish lounge-lizard, as well as a series of ridicuously surreal visions of an outlandish future.
This gag-happy little film was co-written by Stan Laurel and Frank Terry (It is Terry who makes a cameo as a man in a window, not Laurel as often stated. Sorry, Stan Fans!) For many years known primarily in a one-reel cutdown, WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? has been restored to its full glory, and kindly shared online by The San Francisco Silent Film Festival:
Roach comedian Charley Chase had a theory that comedy ideas could be recycled around every seven years. Sure enough, in the mid-30s he began reaching back to some older plots from the silent era. 1935’s OKAY TOOTS! was maybe inspired by the two previous films. Though not a remake of them, it takes a similar approach in playing with gender roles. In fact, it anticipates FREAKY FRIDAY as Charley and his wife Toots (Jeanie Roberts) swap bodies, each speaking with the other’s voice as Charley gets a lesson not to take all his wife does for granted. It’s a bizarre little film – unlike the previous two shorts, Charley and Jeanie do not outwardly look or dress like the opposite sex, but everyone accepts them as such without question. Chase’s impotent indignation as a group of housewives give him an enforced makeover is a highlight, as is his variation on a parallel parking routine used by Lloyd Hamilton and W.C.Fields. Look out for a funny bit from Charlie Hall at his most menacing too!
Though these films and the conventions they spoof are obviously very dated now, they remain interesting artefacts of their times – and more importantly, they’re still funny!
FRESH PAINT is from 1920, when Hal Roach Studios was still known as Rolin. At this point, the films were being cranked out weekly, and hadn’t quite hit on their winning formula yet, but this is lots of fun. In the director’s chair was Alf Goulding, an old pal of Snub’s from Australia who he had toured extensively with in the juvenile troupe ‘Pollard’s Lilliputians’.
Some prime Roach studios menace is provided by – who else? – Noah Young. Oh, and look out for a gag with a lampshade pinched from Chaplin’s THE ADVENTURER.
The lucky 13th issue of The Lost Laugh magazine is here, and available to download below!
At over 50 pages, it’s the most packed issue yet. There are articles on Snub Pollard, Walter Forde, Lupino Lane, forgotten female comedian Wanda Wiley, Buster Keaton and lots more! There are also some great guest contributions from silent comedy experts David Glass and David Wyatt, plus the usual news and reviews.
Working on this issue has certainly kept me entertained through the latest lockdown. I hope it gives you some entertainment too.
Here are the full contents:
Snub Pollard, a career overview and a focus on the Laurel & Hardy-style films he made with Marvin Loback.
The career of forgotten female comedian Wanda Wiley, who gave many of the male slapstick comics a run for their money. Also includes a full filmography, with synopses of each film.
The second part of our article on Walter Forde, detailing his silent comedy features, and including never-before published research.
An exclusive article on newly rediscovered Lloyd Hamilton footage by film historian David Wyatt!
Lupino Lane – details on the new BluRay/DVD set, including insights into the restoration process from David Glass. Also a look at Lane’s fascinating book “How to Become a Comedian”.
Buster Keaton’s last film, THE SCRIBE
Two long-unseen films starring Harry Langdon
A review of a very rare, previously lost Johnny Hines comedy, THE WRIGHT IDEA
Plus news and reviews of books, DVDs, Blu-Rays and streaming events.
— As always, please do get in touch with comments, constructive criticisms and ideas for future issues, and please do share on social media etc.
Finally, The Lost Laugh will always be free, but if you enjoy reading the magazine & site, and are in a position to contribute a little to site running costs, then you can buy me a virtual coffee on Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/thelostlaugh Thanks! 🙂
As an appetiser for the upcoming issue of the magazine featuring Snub Pollard, here’s another great little Snub comedy. IT’S A GIFT wasn’t the first of his shorts to feature some inspired gadgetry, and here we’ve got bathtubs that emerge from walls and a novel solution to not having a lift… Enjoy!
With 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 BUST’ 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…?
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…