What’s better than a whole day of rare silent comedies on the big screen? A whole weekend of it! After an action-packed Saturday, the second and final day of SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND saw even more rare screenings, along with some very special guests. So, it was back into the Cinema Museum early on a grey and sleepy Sunday morning…
And how better to wake up on a sleepy sabbath day than with some fast-paced slapstick comedies? The LAME BRAINS & LUNATICS programme showcased the more manic, knockabout end of the silent comedy spectrum in a programme curated by American expert Steve Massa (whose authoritative book the programme was named after). Thanks to the technical wizardry of David Glass, we were able to see filmed introductions by Mr Massa to each of the five shorts, full of details, and entertainingly presented. These were rare films; as far as we know, at least two or three of them are the only known copies. We’d taken a look at these in the BFI archive and thought they were worth showing; now, inn beautiful prints on the big screen and with expert musical accompaniment by John Sweeney, the films sprang to life.
First up was a rare Arbuckle short, ‘LOVERS’ LUCK’ (1913). A standard piece of rural knockabout from ‘The Prince of Whales’, this features Arbuckle at typically violent odds with Al St John for the hand of Minta Durfee (Arbuckle’s real life wife). With extra support from Frank Hayes as a parson and Phyllis Allen as a harridan, this was an unsophisticated but very fun short. There was an especially neat conclusion, as Parson Hayes finds himself on the wrong side of a jealous husband, and hides in a wardrobe.; hiding from Minta’s parents, so does Arbuckle. Minta is also locked in there by her parents until she agrees to marry Al, but she and Roscoe are able to be married by the parson inside the wardrobe.
Also from the teens was ‘HIS BUSY DAY’ (1918). This starred Toto the clown, an eccentric character whose success in circuses did not translate to films. Hal Roach found this out to his cost; Toto hated film making, objecting to the whir of the camera and refusing to be dunked in water. Eventually, he broke his contract to return to the circus.
On-screen, he is an odd creature to be sure; his slithery, amphibious movements inside oversized clothes and a bucket-shaped hat give him the appearance of a strange, giant newt. His saucer-shaped eyes and slow blink anticipate a little of Langdon, but nothing else indicates any real kind of character. HIS BUSY DAY, as its title suggests, was a fairly generic little trifle, with parks, pretty girls, pies and a lack of continuity: Toto steals a pie, dresses as a woman to escape a policeman, gets a job as a newsreel cameraman for a bit, then gives it up after he angers the newsreel proprietor (Bud Jamison). Even allowing for some missing footage, this was clearly a fairly run of the mill effort. Toto did have good timing however, as the highlight of the film showed: a scene where he hides from Bud Jamison behind a pivoting wooden sign, at one point attaching himself to it in the splits position! Ultimately, Toto’s biggest contribution to film comedy was in leaving films, thus opening the door for Roach to hire a young Stan Laurel as his replacement.
This was a beautiful, albeit incomplete, print from the BFI, found under the title TOTO CAMERAMAN, we were able to identify the real title after viewing it last year. I believe this is the only print around?
Next up was another European, Marcel Perez, the man of a thousand names. Robinet, Marcel Fabre, Tweedledum, Tweede-Dan and Tweedy were some of his screen names over the years. Billed under the latter moniker in ‘SWEET DADDY’ (1921), Perez was already a veteran of the screen; his European films dated back to 1906! Like Max Linder, he had come to the U.S. during WW1, making several series of independent comedies and also working as a director. ‘SWEET DADDY’ was a simple tale of a henpecked husband who seizes his hour of freedom when sent out for the groceries, but it was full of some great gags, and snappily directed by Perez. Particularly there was a charming sequence in which he gazes at a girl on a poster, who seems to come to life and flirt with him. Perez’ career was sadly coming to an end; cancer cost him a leg in 1923, and while he continued as a director, the illness returned and took his life in 1928. Nevertheless, he was obviously a real talent, and it’s been mainly due to the efforts of Steve Massa and Ben Model that we’re able to see his films again: they’ve put together two volumes of his surviving shorts on DVD.
The final two films were both Mermaid comedies, produced by Jack White, described by Steve as “silent comedy’s boy wonder!”. A fully-fledged producer by the age of 21, White specialised in fast and furious comedies full of stunts and sight gags. A typical example was DANGER! (1922), a magnificently elaborate gag fest starring Lige Conley. It’s hard to believe quite how much technical effort went into staging a little two-reeler like this, which contained chases, undercranked gags, wild stunts and animated trick gags, such as Conley’s eyebrows seeming to twirl around his forehead in surprise. No time to worry about characters in a film like this, but when it’s done so well, who cares? Even the borrowings were done well, as Conley appropriates Chaplin’s gag from THE ADVENTURER, where he utilises a lampshade as a disguise. Here, an extra twist was added, as Conley’s ‘lamp’ is next to the bed of the villain. The villain decides he wants to read, pulling Conley’s pyjama cord as the lightswitch, forcing him to continuously light matches to keep up the charade until he burns his fingers and the jig is up.
Similarly action packed was Al St John’s SKYBOUND (1926). Very much in the mould of the Roscoe Arbuckle shorts, this was full of slapstick grocery store gags, but Al’s performance was much more toned-down and almost Keatonesque. The second half had a rather arbitrary plane chase that was well filmed with trick shots, and had a great final gag as Al’s parachute blows him away down a very long, dusty road. This film came with an additional introduction from St John expert Annichen Skjaren in Norway, who shared entertaining tales about the film, and added that St John was in real life a wing walker capable of doing aerial stunts.
The more manic films like those that made up this programme are often shunned as being unsophisticated. Of course, they aren’t enduring classics, but you have to marvel at the sheer gusto and ingenuity that went into making them, and they can often be very funny indeed, especially when contextualised by experts such as Steve Massa and Annichen Skjaren. Many thanks to them for sharing their time with us, and to David Glass for coordinating the programme.
Next up was ‘SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK’ (1921), perhaps Max Linder’s best feature. It’s now famous for having one of the best versions of that broken mirror routine, some 12 years before the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP, but the whole film is most entertaining. David Robinson’s introduction paid a heartful tribute to Max’s daughter Maud Linder, who passed away last year. It was her zealous promotion of her father’s talents that has ensured he is still remebered today, almost 100 years after his death.
There was an extra Linder-shaped bonus in the form of ‘LES EFFETS DE PILULES’, or ‘LOVE AND GOOD FELLOWSHIP PILLS’. One of his French shorts, this was in a new restoration by Bob Geoghegan of the Archive Film Agency. Max is down in the dumps, and is prescribed the eponymous pills; they raise his spirits enormously. His wife also takes some, with even more vivid results: she’s soon launching herself at every man she meets in the street! Max is in hot pursuit, challenging each man to a duel! In the missing final sequence, all the men show up for a duel, but Max shares the pills around and all is forgotten. A great fun little short that shows how much more sophisticated Max was than his contemporaries.
Sophisticated was certainly not a word that applied to WE’RE IN THE NAVY NOW (1926). A vehicle for the team of gruff Wallace Beery and shrimp Raymond Hatton, this was a standard service comedy, basically a series of all-too-familiar blackout gags involving hammocks, scrubbing floors, peeling potatoes, etc etc. Still, perhaps audiences hadn’t seen it all 3000 times before in 1926; certainly the Beery-Hatton team were very popular, making 4 such service pictures that also took them through the army, air force and fire service. In fact, the commercial success of their teaming possibly inspired the Laurel & Hardy pairing. Certainly, the opening scenes in which boxer Beery is knocked cold and wakes up in the ring hours later was influential on the opening scenes of L & H’s ‘BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. L & H, of course, made the situation much funnier by making the smaller member of the team the boxer, and added in Hardy’s exasperated camera looks to make something timeless. There was one superb gag in the original sequence though: Beery has landed on a chair when he is knocked out; when he finally comes round hours later, we see that he has been sat on a very crumpled Billy Bletcher the entire time!
Kevin Brownlow’s introduction admitted the failings of the film, and he recalled that he had offered director Eddie Sutherland the chance to view the film in later years. Sutherland repeatedly declined… ‘nuff said!
Next up was the return of Monty Banks, in a talkie! ‘SO YOU WON’T TALK’ (1935) is a rare sound starring vehicle for Banks, and is a wonderfully creative idea for a silent comedian: he spends most of the film unable to speak. This give him lots of opportunity for communicating in pantomime and sight gags. The reason is another one of those improbable inheritance plots –if he can go thirty days without talking, he will inherit a fortune – but it’s set up very well in the exposition; we get to meet the soon-to-be-deceased, a real grouch who is driven mad by his chatty, fortune-hunting family and understand his motivation for making the will. Banks is the family outcast, an incessantly talkative Italian waiter (a nice cover to make Banks’ strong Italian accent more acceptable to contemporary audiences), who staying silent will be a real challenge for. The build up to the will is quite slow, but it really sets the situation up well. Highlights of Banks’ silence include his attempts to mime what drink he wants, a wrestling match as the family attempt to find his birthmark, and Banks’ seduction by Enid Stamp-Taylor. A strong cast, including wonderfully dopey Claude Dampier, and snappy direction from William Beaudine, helped get lots of laughs from this film. If only more silent clowns had got to make a talkie like this. One can only wonder what Keaton might have done with the idea…
From talkies full of silence to silent filled with noise… it was time for some NOISY SILENTS! Hosted by masterful silent accompanist Neil Brand, this programme presented some of the silent shorts whose gags relied on noise. As well as Neil’s accompaniment, there was an orchestra of cacophony providing live sound effects ranging from kazoos and trumpets to ukuleles, squeakers, drums, car horns, pots and pans! A special shout out must also go to cellist Emily, who stepped in at the last moment and did a fantastic job. Her cello was an integral sound for Harry Langdon’s wonderful FIDDLESTICKS, a tale of Harry’s attempts to make a living busking. Lupino Lane’s SUMMER SAPS, a tale of a holiday from hell in a noisy boarding house, and Our Gang’s NOISY NOISES, both offered comedy of frustration and chance for some creative sound effects!
A selection of the sound effects for NOISY SILENTS…
We finished off in fine style with some audience participation for Laurel & Hardy’s YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’, in which the pants-ripping finale was replicated through the ripping of newspapers placed under each chair in the auditorium. This programme was great fun, and a real variation on the usual silent film accompaniment. No kazoos were hurt during the screening of these films.
And just like that, it was time for the final show of the weekend. It was a fine finish, with a very special guest. Roy Hudd, one of the last links to the music hall and variety tradition, presented his favourite visual comedy clips, in conversation with Glenn Mitchell. This was a real treat; Roy was a fantastic, funny storyteller, and had real enthusiasm and knowledge for the old comedians. Among the highlights were clips from Tati’s MON ONCLE, Lupino Lane’s JOYLAND, and Roy’s own semi-silent film ‘THE MALADJUSTED BUSKER’. Finally, we concluded with a full showing of the complete ‘BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. I’ve written about this film before, but it was as marvellous tonight as the first time I saw the ‘new’ footage; simply one of the iconic silent comedy scenes, now once again “as nature intended”.
As the lights came up for the final time, I felt incredibly lucky and grateful. Lucky that films like ‘BATTLE’ still exist, against the odds; luckier still that we are able to see them, especially with terrifically talented musicians and with informative introduction. Most of all, I felt lucky to be able to be able to share all this with other likeminded people in a warm and happy atmosphere. There’s a danger that watching old films in darkened rooms, sometimes alone, can become a very solitary hobby, but the chance to enjoy it as a shared experience, especially with the lovely folks at the Kennington Bioscope, is something else entirely.
Huge thanks to all the KB folk, especially to David Wyatt, who curated the event magnificently, and of course to Kevin Brownlow. Thanks too, to all the musicians and speakers. The Silent laughter events are something very special; here’s to the next one!
For more comprehensive info, here are the full programme notes, courtesy of the Kennington Bio website.