There are underappreciated silent comedians, and then there are truly forgotten ones. Al Alt definitely belongs to the latter group.
Alexander Alt, to give him his full name, was a jobbing comic in the mid-late 1920s. He worked for independent companies like Century and RayArt, as well as making afew films for Educational Pictures.
According to Steve Massa’s wonderful book LAME BRAINS AND LUNATICS, Alt was part of a vaudeville team with Hazel Howell. The pair made a few films (not that great, apparently) before Al went on to appear in some of the Hall Room Boys series in 1923. This series about a pair of dapper down-and-outs had a revolving door policy on comics; as well as Al, Jimmie Adams, Neeley Edwards, Sid Smith, Harry McCoy, George Williams, Zip Monberg and others all took turns playing ‘Percy & Ferdie’.
The dapper but embarassed young character stuck with Al after he moved on from the Hall Room Boys films. In fact, he became a bit like Century’s version of Charley Chase: a pleasant young husband getting himself into akward situations. As well as starring in his own comedies – sometimes teamed with Harry McCoy – he appeared as leading lady to Wanda Wiley and with the Century Follies girls.
Sadly, most of Century’s comedies are now missing, so we can’t see most of the comedies he made. Synopses and stills make them look quite interesting – EAT & RUN featured Alt & McCoy with a bicycle-propelled lunch wagon, and also featured Max Davidson.
Al moved over to RayArt, making films with and directed by Bobby Ray (best known from a few films he made teamed with Oliver Hardy that anticipate Hardy’s teaming with Stan Laurel). At least one of these survives: THE MILLION DOLLAR DERBY, featuring the delightfully ridiculous plot of Al having to wear a silly hat for 6 months to get an inheritance!
Alt & Ray apparently tried to jump on the bandwagon of comics like Monty Banks & Syd Chaplin making films in Britain – Variety’s London correspondent of Nov 15th 1928 reports them on holiday in London and trying to raise interest in a feature. They had no luck, and Al ended up in some Cameo comedies at Educational Pictures. Educational was on a high at the time, and these were Al’s most prestigious films.
Educational’s Cameo comedies were efficient one reelers that milked simple situations for gags. Al’s shorts won praise and sound like good, fun little one reelers from existing reviews.
In LUCKY BREAKS, Al played a sailor on shore leave who has all sorts of troubles with his belongings on the train ride home. Film Daily praised the short:
“His bundles become unwieldy and almost animated. The way that Al retrieves them, apologises to passengers and registers confusion and embarrassment is a joy to behold”
The reviewer concluded:
“This Al Alt person has swooped across the short comedy horizon and it looks as though he is going to make ’em all sit up and take notice before very long.”
Sadly for Al, it was really too late for anyone to take notice of a new silent comedian, and he was lost in the shuffle of the talkie revolution. Though he made a couple of cheap indie two reelers in the East (RELATIONS and THE PEST) his starring career was fading out. He returned to Educational for a few bit parts, but then moved behind the scenes, initially as an editor, but working up to be assistant director on a number of films into the 1950s and 60s. Apparently he lived on until 1992!
Al Alt is never going to be rediscovered as a master comedian, but he’s another one of the silent comedy terracotta army who added to the richness of the era and is worth a second look.