it’s amazing what keeps turning up on YouTube. I was especially pleased to see a couple of rare shorts starring Joe Cook appear recently, in lovely transfers from the Library of Congress archives.
I’ve wanted to see these films for ages, as the few bits of Cook I’ve seen show him to be a unique and undeservedly forgotten comedian. With upturned nose, pointy chin and an enormous grin, he was was a caricaturist’s dream. He was also one of the very best and most versatile comic performers to come out of vaudeville.
Cook combined the best of many other Vaudeville characteristics that we now associate with better remembered performers. He combined traits of all three key Marxes (sorry, Zeppo): Groucho’s fondness for circular, nonsensical double talk, Chico’s sly conning and Harpo’s ‘White Magic’ all featured in his schtick. Like W.C. Fields, he was an incredible eccentric juggler, while his broad grin and amiable nature were reminiscent of Joe E Brown.
Yet Cook was unique, a force of nature all by himself. With that sunny smile, a symbol of his indefatigable attitude, he was perhaps more purely likeable than any of his contemporaries.
This quality was born out of adversity, and probably of necessity. Born Joseph Lopez of Spanish and Irish parents, he was orphaned at three, adopted, and left home early in his teens to join a medicine show. There, he played a comic sidekick helping sell ‘Doctor Dunham’s Cure-all Tonic’; the winning smile and fast-talking manner he developed surely began here as part of his salesman’s pitch.
Medicine show performers were expected to be endlessly versatile to provide a full show. In addition to his juggling, Cook learned to walk a slackwire, played guitar and ukulele and did a sharpshooting act. He became known as ‘A One-man Circus’ when he took his act into Vaudeville, and on to Carroll’s Vanities. Around this time, his juggling act was preserved as part of an interest reel for Educational Pictures:
Pretty nifty, but not a patch on his slackline routine, with added hoops!
The terrific clip above is from Cook’s first starring feature, RAIN OR SHINE. He was the perfect star for this circus-themed musical comedy, which was converted from stage to film by a young Frank Capra in 1930. The film shows Cook in excellent form, with plenty of chances to show off his multiple talents. Here’s a fun example of one of his breathless double talk routines, which circles around itself to become utterly meaningless, a Joe Cook trademark. (His stooge here is the estimable Tom Howard, also a performer who should be better remembered).
Cook flirted with a career in films, but RAIN OR SHINE failed to launch him in the way it should have done. Curious, when Hollywood was falling over itself to snap up Broadway stars in the early 30s. Cook would try again for Fox in 1933/4, starring in a handful of other features such as HOLD YOUR HORSES and FINE AND DANDY, but after this he primarily focused on stage and radio. like Clark & McCullough, he was largely content to keep his film work to shorts made quickly between other engagements. To this end, he signed with Educational Pictures in 1935, and made five shorts for them: MR WIDGET, NOSE FOR NEWS, THE WHITE HOPE, PENNY WISE and GIV ‘IM AIR.
Educational were clearly chuffed with their signing, featuring him prominently in publicity alongside their other big catch, Buster Keaton. Cook was given his head to contribute stories and screenplays, and the films feature a great collection of sight gags, double talk and wonderful nonsense. Special effort seems to have gone into the first, MR WIDGET. Cook plays a hapless salesman, but that’s really just a loose excuse for him to show off some of his goofy inventions, get involved in some crosstalk acts and indulge in some wonderfully surreal goings on. We first see him giving a nonsensical speech after receiving an award. This turns out to be just a dream as he wakes up in his mechanised bed, an appliance straight out of the Snub Pollard School of Classic Comedy Inventions (TM). There’s a white magic routine with a drinking fountain that Stan Laurel surely would have approved of, and a funny scene of Joe trying to buy an overcoat that has a superbly understated payoff as he arrives at his office.
Generally the supporting casts in Educational talkies are pretty wooden, but the exception here is an appearance by venerable, snarling baddie Dick Cramer. Cramer is out to get Cook, who distracts him by reading him a children’s story. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but the warmth with which Cook adopts the role of storyteller, and the slow thawing of Cramer’s thug, make it really funny. All in all, a great little short which augured well for Cook’s tenure at Educational. The only thing that lets the short down is an unfortunate bit of racial material at the end, other than that it’s a joyous two reels. Here it is, by kind courtesy of Joseph Blough’s excellent YouTube channel:
Almost as good is A NOSE FOR NEWS, a tale of breezy reporter Cook being held in jail after an opportunistic criminal (Dick Cramer again) swaps places with him. The highlight is a sequence of Cook’s attempts to escape from his cell, each time managing to destroy the wall, but being caught in the act by Cramer, who forces him to return. Lots of fun again:
I hope to catch up with the otehr three Joe Cook shorts one day. It’s just a shame that he didn’t make more. His last film was a Zane Grey B-Western comedy, ARIZONA MAHONEY, made in 1936. Apparently he was able to work in a fair bit of his medicine show/One-Man-Circus act into the old-time setting, but it was hardly a prestigious film. He turned his attention to radio, before early-onset Parkinsons sadly curtailed his career.
Joe Cook passed away in 1959. While it’s a shame that he didn’t leave more lasting relics for us to remember him by, the scraps that remain show a truly gifted, multitalented performer with bags of charisma. How many performers today could describe themselves as a One Man Circus?
As we reach the point in the pandemic where anniversaries are being reported, a series of grim milestones remind us how long we’ve been dealing with all this. A more positive flipside of this is that many of the new initiatives and innovations that have managed to bring some sunshine into our lives are celebrating anniversaries of their own. The way we socialise and enjoy entertainment has completely been transformed in the last twelve months, and although some doors have shut, others have opened up new worlds of possibilities.
For silent film fans, the void seemed especially hard to fill. The whole essence of silent cinema revival usually centres around the live experience, after all. Silent comedy, in particular, needs an audience so that the viewer can roll on a wave of giggles and chortles. Laughter is always best when it is shared.
In March last year, the first episode of the nascent Silent Comedy Watch Party was aired. It couldn’t bring film fans together physically, but it could reproduce that feeling of an event, a shared experience. Quickly it became a huge success, uniting silent comedy fans and helping them to feel like they were sharing their laughter with others. Now, a year later the show’s hosts Ben Model and Steve Massa are just about to celebrate its one year anniversary. With the 50th Watch Party beckoning on Sunday, it has become so much more than just a live stream!
The idea of the show began when Ben returned from performing a weekend of shows in Nebraska and watched all his upcoming gigs for 2020 promptly get cancelled:
“Although I’d had the idea and tech to pull this off for some time,” says Model, “I hadn’t had a strong motivation to make a silent film show happen as a live-stream…but now there was a humanitarian need for this. I thought of all the people who could use a really good laugh to deal with the shutdown, the fear and stress of the pandemic, and not knowing when it would end. I called up Steve [Massa] about my idea for The Silent Comedy Watch Party, and we agreed this would be a great way to help people out.”
Laughter is the best medicine, after all, and coupled to the warm, community feeling of the events, the Watch Parties began to mean a great deal. Often they have been the highlight of empty or anxious weeks as the pandemic progressed. Although family commitments have meant I haven’t been able to catch every episode live, I’ve watched every single one thanks to the archive of shows on YouTube.
As the show’s press release reveals, “Messages, which came in over email and social media after the first live-stream, were full of gratitude for providing relief from the pandemic stress and for bringing viewers much-needed laughter. This has continued to be the case every week, with stories of families gathering to watch, spouses who’d never given the silents the time of day becoming fans, while other viewers told of how the show had helped them get through personal dark times and recovery from illnesses. “This is what gets me through the week” is a frequent comment Model sees about the show. During a period when days all run together, it’s become a weekly anchor of appointment TV for the 400-600 people who watch together, virtually, during the live-stream and the 1,500-3,000 people who watch the archived shows during the days after the stream.“
It’s not just the spirit of being at a live cinema event that’s being recreated, but something bigger, something global that silent film events have never been before. Now silent comedy fans from around the world who would never attend the same event in pre-COVID times can join in the fun together. Many of the films are rarities, from archives or obscure DVD releases and there are many that the viewers haven’t seen before, increasing that shared experience. In a way what we’re actually getting is something that brings us closer still to the original shared experience of silent cinema-going; seeing these films for the first time, and talking about them at the same time. I’ve really loved having chats with friends around the world each week about films that have just been screened, or seeing message boards and social media lighting up in praise of performers like Snub Pollard, Wanda Wiley or Charley Chase.
The celebration of these overlooked performers is one of the real highlights of the series of shows. Again, it creates something comparable to the original silent film experience; in the 1920s, it wouldn’t have been Keaton or Chaplin every week, but the likes of Bobby Dunn, Alice Howell, Paul Parrott or Joe Rock who filled the programmes at cinemas. It’s fantastic to see these kind of performers, so often overlooked by live cinema events, getting the most exposure that they’ve had in years. Quite naturally, live silent events often skew to the classic films, and while there are some great events showcasing rarities, it’s not often that you get such deep dives into the substrata of silent comedy. The global audience offered by the internet means that “will there be an audience for such obscure films?” is not a concern in the same way. We’ve seen a terrific slew of events, webinars and online festivals benefit from this over the last year, and on the punter side, it’s wonderful to be able to attend events that I’d always dreamed of without travelling across the world (I never did make it to a Slapsticon, to my eternal regret).
Of course, another advantage has been the ability to bring in guest hosts from around the world. The list of Silent Comedy watch Party contributors includes Suzanne Lloyd, grand-daughter of Harold Lloyd; Library of Congress curators, Rob Stone and Rachel Del Gaudio; Elif Rongen-Kaynakci from the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands; and filmmaker and artist, Ina Archer who is also a media conservator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Though undoubtedly we have missed out on the beauty of real world big screen events this year, we have gained something too. The Silent Comedy Watch Parties are a prime example of this and continue to be a real source of fun and inspiration. Congratulations to Ben & Steve for reaching their 50th show, and a big thanks for helping to make the last year miles better for silent comedy fans than it had any right to be. See you at the Watch Party on Sunday!
The first-anniversary show of “THE SILENT COMEDY WATCH PARTY” will live-stream on March 21, 2021, and will include the films: AN EYE FOR FIGURES (1920) with Hank Mann, shown on the very first episode; THE FADE-AWAY (1925), a Fleischer cartoon with Ko-Ko the clown, shown on episode 2, and QUEEN OF ACES (1925) starring Wanda Wiley, one of the forgotten funny ladies of silent films who’s become an SCWP fan favorite. Here’s the link to watch: The Silent Comedy Watch Party ep. 50 – 3/21/21 – Ben Model and Steve Massa – 1-year anniversary! – YouTube The show begins at 3PM EDT (that’s 7PM GMT ).
While you’re waiting for showtime, why not check out this piece on the shows from last year, when Ben very kindly stopped by The Lost Laugh Blog for a Q & A. Finally, in case you’re new to the shows (where have you been??) here’s some more info from the show’s press release:
THE SILENT COMEDY WATCH PARTY
Every Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, watch classic comedy shorts from the 1910s and 1920s on YouTube with new live musical scores by renowned silent film accompanist Ben Model, and with live introductions by film historian, Steve Massa. The show’s logo and graphic design are by Marlene Weisman; associate producer is Crystal Kui; Mana Allen and Susan Selig (Model’s and Massa’s wives) handle the camera, lights and stage management at the couples’ respective Manhattan apartments. The films programmed feature well-known stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as well as lesser-knowns such as Marcel Perez, Snub Pollard, Alice Howell, Gale Henry and more.
About Ben Model BEN MODEL is one of the nation’s leading silent film accompanists and performs on both piano and theatre organ. Ben works full-time presenting and accompanying silent films in a wide variety of venues around the USA and internationally – doing so virtually, now – carrying on a tradition he learned from silent film organist Lee Erwin (1909-2000).
Over the past 39 years Model has created and performed live scores for several hundred silent films. He is a resident film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) and at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre, and performs at theatres, museums, schools and other venues around the US and internationally. His recorded scores have been heard on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and on numerous home-video releases from Kino Lorber, Milestone Films and Model’s own label Undercrank Productions. Ben Model is also a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University (Connecticut), where he teaches a course on silent film. https://www.silentfilmmusic.com/
About Steve Massa STEVE MASSA is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy and Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and Bristol Slapstick Festival, as well as provided essays for the National Film Registry, the National Film Preservation Foundation, and the Criterion Collection. Steve has provided notes and commentaries for many comedy DVD and Blu-ray releases, as well as co-curated Undercrank Productions’ The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, Volumes 1 & 2, the award-winning Marcel Perez Collection, Volumes 1 & 2, The Alice Howell Collection, and the forthcoming Edward Everett Horton Collection. His most recent book is Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle.
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.
Charley Chase’s talkies sometimes get a rough write-up compared to his silents . It’s true that Charley did take on a more freewheeling style that could be more hit-or-miss, especially in his 1932-33 series of films. Shorts like FALLEN ARCHES and MR BRIDE eschewed plot in favour of taking one gag as far as they possibly could. When the material was good, as in these two films, the results were excellent. However, there were a number of looser films where inspiration simply didn’t strike, with SHERMAN SAID IT being the nadir.
Chase seems to have had a word with himself, as the films he made in 1934 and 1935 are some of the tightest-plotted shorts he made since his silent masterpieces. Perhaps Charley was making a renewed effort to prove his storytelling skills in the hope of making a feature film, or perhaps he was just on a roll of great story ideas, but these films are some of his finest work for me.
The great series of Charley Chase DVDs from The Sprocket Vault hasn’t yet extended to the 1934-36 films, so I’ve uploaded one currently unavailable. IT HAPPENED ONE DAY is a great example of the economic storytelling Chase was using at the time. Charley arrives at his new workplace full of ambition to be promoted and marry the boss’s daughter. Even though he constantly annoys his new boss (Oscar Apfel) and has never even met the daughter (Betty Mack), a set of unlikely events lead all his predictions to come true by the end of his first day!
This is classic example of a Chase short where things start believably, but unlikely events soon pile on top of each other; it’s wonderful to see how one piece of action dovetails into the next so that everything percolates logically, without seeming contrived. An example: Betty asks Charley to post a parcel; he gets his hand stuck in the mailbox doing so. Trying to pry it open with an iron bar, he accidentally smashes a fire alarm. While panicking that a false alarm is a penitentiary offence, he drops his cigar in a waste bin. Before long, this catches fire just in time for the fire brigade to arrive and douse both bin and Charley!
IT HAPPENED ONE DAY is an underrated effort and one of my personal favourite Chase films. It’s not his funniest film, but definitely one of his slickest, and despite all the plot to fit in, he still manages to sing one of his charming songs. Enjoy!
PS. My copy is an old Film Classics print. With typical carelessness, the company misspelled the name of the film on the main title card. D’oh!
Here’s a sneak preview of the upcoming issue of The Lost Laugh magazine: part of an article on daredevil comedienne Wanda Wiley. This is an abbreviated version. The full article contains more detail, a full filmography and lots of rare images!
Of the precious few female comedians given a chance to star in their own films, Wanda Wiley is one of the most obscure. Sadly, about 90% of her short comedies are now missing, but those that remain reveal a very likeable performer who gets stuck into some wonderful physical and visual comedy.
Wanda was very much a 1920s woman. She wasn’t an eccentric-looking comic type like Alice Howell or Gale Henry; she was modern, attractive and fashionable, but not just a leading lady. She was a motivator of her own plots and always at the centre of the action. Her comic equipment included long limbs that sprawled in different directions as she ran, and a wide-eyed, startled look as action swirled around her. Something about Wanda still seems to leap off the screen. Game for anything, she engaged in dangerous stunts and slapstick with vigour, usually without a double.
Her talent at physical comedy is particularly remarkable considering that she did not come from a stage background and had only been in films a year or so before being starred. Wanda was born Roberta Prestina Wiley in 1902, and was originally from San Antonio, Texas. She actually planned on being a dentist, and it was apparently while at Dental College that a film crew at work on the campus spotted her. Allegedly, Wanda was asked to give the director a tour of the campus, and wound up with a part in his Western.
Wiley’s next appearances seem to have been in Universal’s ‘Leatherpushers’ series. In 1925 an interviewer for Movie Monthly chatted to Wanda about her first appearances:
She was telling me the other day about her stunts. When she broke into the game, barely a year and a half ago, she was given a boxing scene in which she had to suffer a prompt and inglorious knockout. Wanda took her tap on the chin, but in falling added some funny business which set everyone to laughing.
This talent led her to Universal’s Century Comedies, made by Abe and Julius Stern. Wanda made her first appearance as leading lady to Harry McCoy, going on to appear alongside the Century Follies Girls and uber-obscure comedian Al Alt in several films. Her roles became increasingly prominent; and she was featured prominently in ads from HER FORTUNATE FACE onwards. From the beginning of 1925, she had her own star series.
Jess Robbins was hired to direct the films, alternating with William Watson and Edward Luddy. These experienced directors knew how to stage elaborate visual comedy and bring out the best in Wanda. The titles of the shorts leave no doubt about their comedic style: A THRILLING ROMANCE, A SPEEDY MARRIAGE, FLYING WHEELS, JUST IN TIME… These were fast-paced comedies, often featuring the heroine in a race to meet some kind of deadline. As one exhibitor put it, “When Wanda plays, you can always expect some speedy entertainment”!
A SPEEDY MARRIAGE is a good example. It turned up several years ago at the Danish Film Institute and was available to view for a short time on their website. The action begins immediately, as Wanda is thrown out of bed by an electrical device, and then struck by lightning! Her lawyer phones to tell her that she must be married by 5 o’clock to collect an inheritance. She makes a date with her fiancé, and drives madly to meet him, pursued by traffic cops. After dodging them in and out of manholes and a toy shop, Wanda meets her man and speeds off, but they collide with another car. Fortunately, the other occupant is a minister so the speedy marriage takes place and all ends happily! There’s only a tiny clip currently online:
Only the climactic second reel of FLYING WHEELS exists, but it again involves a car chase. This time, Wanda dashes across town in a miniature racing car in a fine and thrilling slapstick sequence.
A THRILLING ROMANCE is a clever little short, with Wanda as a budding novelist; we open on her typing away in a room filled with scrunched up paper. When an open window sends the paper flying to litter the entire boarding house, she is evicted . Slipping on her way out, Wanda rolls down the stairs wrapped in the carpet and right out on to the street – narrowly missing being run over by Earl McArthur’s taxi. Helping her up, Earl is so busy gazing into her eyes that he fails to notice his cab rolling away. Wanda has her own troubles, as a dog climbs into her grip and runs away inside it. Wanda’s pursuit leads her across town, and along the way she accidentally comes into possession of a crook’s bankroll. With the crooks in pursuit, she summons Earl’s help, leading to a car chase that ends up on a cliff top. Just as Wanda and Earl are hurled off the edge, the scene dissolves back into Wanda’s flat; the action has all been the latest story she is typing. You can view the short in this episode of The Silent Comedy Watch Party:
QUEEN OF ACES is rather different, substituting farce for thrills. This time, we open with Wanda engaging in a bout of fencing (apparently a real-life hobby). She is considered too much of a tomboy by her boyfriend Al’s father, and he bans her from attending a party he is throwing. Undeterred, she dresses up as a man, and makes such a hit at the party that Dad invites her to a wild night at a gambling den. When the police raid, the pair hide in a pair of barrels that ultimately tumble from the roof! When they make it home, the father insists that (s)he spend the night in his son’s room: Wanda and Al are reunited.
Sadly, this handful of films are almost all we have to judge Wanda’s talent on for now. Century/Universal silent comedies are scarce, and Wanda Wiley’s films are no exception. Lots of the missing films sound like fun, action-packed little comedies. LOOKING DOWN features her attempts to ride an out-of-control bicycle (with a policeman on the handlebars!) before indulging in some Lloyd-type stunting on a half-built skyscraper. GOING GOOD features a race to secure a scientific formula in the face of “bearded giants, gorillas and ghosts”!
Action and stunting was the chief attraction of the Wiley comedies, and she did the majority of her stunts herself. She even recreated some live stunts involving cars on Broadway as a bit of publicity! As you’d expect, she suffered injuries as a result of her style of comedy. She was once thrown off a motorbike, but luckily escaped serious injuries, and was laid up for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle and broken arm after an accident with a horse.
For the 1926 -27 series, Wanda’s films were not billed as star comedies in the same way, but came under the bland umbrella title of the “What Happened to Jane?” comedies. The move to the rebrand the series was the first step downwards in Wiley’s career. It made her less of a focus not only in billing, but also in material; as the ‘Jane’ series went on, more and more of the comedy was devoted to her male co-stars. It seems curious that, after establishing Wanda as a star, Century would seek to anonymise her in such a way. It would have made much more sense (and sounded better) to call the series “What Happened to Wanda?”. However, if you look at the Stern Brothers’ other comedies of the time, a pattern becomes apparent: the focus was on making series, not stars. ‘The Newlyweds and Their Baby’ and ‘Let George Do It’ focused on characters and brands rather than star personalities . The advantage for the Sterns was that these characters could be played by different actors. It offered them a way to control stars’ demands, and to easily replace them if they got out of hand.
It’s quite possible that Wanda was unsatisfied with the treatment. Whether she jumped or was pushed, Wiley departed Century in late 1926 and moved to Bray Comedies (there was also a fire at the Stern studio at this point which suspended production – this could have influenced the move, too). For Bray, Wanda appeared in several episodes of the collegiate series, ‘Fistical Culture’. Sadly, she soon found that her appearances were equally subordinate to male lead Lew Sargent, and before long she gave up on the series. Her disappearance from the screen may have also been hastened by the trauma of narrowly escaping from a house fire.
By early 1928, Wanda was reported to be hitting vaudeville, so often the agonal breath of a film comic’s career. This was no exception; she quickly faded from the limelight, and the coming of sound extinguished her career for good.
The big shame is that Wanda Wiley never got a chance to work for Hal Roach. Her flair for physical comedy grounded in a realistic personality would have slotted right in at the studio. It was not to be. Despite some vague reports of Wanda planning a screen comeback in 1933, she never made another film. However, she did marry happily to a noted physician, a Dr Atkinson, and lived on until the 1980s. We can only hope that more of her wonderful little shorts resurface one day. Those that do exist are genuinely funny comedies, and an all-too-rare breath of fresh air from the male-dominated world of silent comedy.
80-odd years before Ben Stiller, Lupino Lane made his version of ‘A Night at the Museum’! This Educational Pictures short is from his golden period, 1926, and was directed by Charles Lamont. The leading lady is Katherine McGuire, best known for appearing opposite Buster Keaton in SHERLOCK, JR and THE NAVIGATOR. Lane’s brother Wallace Lupino appears as the villain.
There are some great gags in the opening sequence, including a lovely reveal shot and a nice chase sequence which Lane later adapted for his 1931 sound feature NO LADY.
Sorry about the print quality – this one doesn’t seem to be online already though, so I figured poor quality Nip is better than none. Enjoy!
What a year it’s been. Thanks for reading THE LOST LAUGH, and I hope the magazine and blog have been able to offer you a little entertainment and distraction. Wherever you are, I hope you’re able to squeeze some merriness out of the season, and here’s to a better 2021!
We’ve all seen Laurel & Hardy’s BIG BUSINESS, but here’s a trio of lesser-known Christmas-themed comedies to help kickstart the season.
First up, Charley Chase’s THERE AIN’T NO SANTA CLAUS, from 1926. One of his less-seen Pathé shorts, this features some great gags, including Charley’s attempts to carry a Christmas tree on his bike, and playing rival Santas with Noah Young (both fighting over the same beard!)
From the same year and the same studio, here’s Our Gang’s Christmas short, GOOD CHEER:
Another great rarity from the YouTube Channel Geno’s House of Rare Films, here’s KNIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS starring Karl Dane and George K Arthur . I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this forgotten comedy team, and have wanted to see more of their sound shorts for a while. This one isn’t quite as good as A PUT UP JOB, but it’s a lot of fun, as Karl brings George along to his family Christmas gathering. A great cast too, with Fern Emmet and Irving Bacon as Karl’s parents, plus some familiar Hal Roach players: Harry Bernard and Harry Bowen (hidden beneath a huge beard!).
To coincide with a showing of the very rare Roscoe Arbuckle short CAMPING OUT on The Silent Comedy Watch Party, here’s a run-down of the overlooked shorts Arbuckle made in 1918 & 1919… the ones that don’t feature Buster Keaton in the cast!
Roscoe Arbuckle’s series of shorts made for the Comique film corporation and released through Paramount in 1917-20, are among his best-known work. Certainly, they are the best represented on DVD. This is almost entirely due to the Keaton factor – the presence of a young Buster in most of the films. This bias is confirmed by the obscurity of the films in which Buster does not appear, made during his military service in 1918-19.
When Keaton was drafted, the Comique series continued with Arbuckle and his regular foil, Al St John. While the popularity of Keaton has ensured that all but one of the Arbuckle-Keatons are now accounted for, the survival rate drops much further for the shorts made in his absence. Only a couple are known to exist, and only one has been restored and released. Details of many of the films are sparse, with a couple remaining mysteries.
Ever since critics first took an interest in Keaton, Arbuckle has always been in his shadow. At worst, the lazy critical opinion is that Arbuckle’s style was crude and unsophisticated, and that the only merit in the films came from Keaton’s input. Silent comedy aficianados know better, of course; nevertheless, an unfortunate legacy of this view is the lack of interest in this bunch of films. Along with their unavailability, this remains in stark contrast to those that came on either side of them.
Let’s take a look at this neglected group of films, hopefully waiting to be rediscovered. Here they are, in order of release:
THE SHERIFF (24th November 1918)
late 1917, the Arbuckle company had moved to California from the East Coast, partly enticed by the better backgrounds on offer. The desert settings of the west were seen to good advantage in the first film after moving, OUT WEST, and Arbuckle reused the theme in this short. Arbuckle plays a Sheriff enamoured of the movie heroics of Douglas Fairbanks and William S Hart. After falling asleep and dreaming a dramatic rescue in a Mexican town where He gets the chance to try a real heroic rescue, when his schoolteacher girlfriend Betty is kidnapped by bandit Al. THE SHERIFF is possibly the most intriguing of all these films, and sounds like it was an amusing little gem. Arbuckle surely got good comic contrast from impersonating Fairbanks and Hart, and THE SHERIFF is perhaps similar to the clever, cliché spoofing Arbuckle-Keaton short MOONSHINE. While OUT WEST had been an exercise in comic savagery, reviews of the time commented that THE SHERIFF was rather more subtle and sophisticated. Here’s a review from Motion Picture News of November 23, 1918:
THE SHERIFF is better by far than anything contributed to the Arbuckle Paramount program. For one thing, it is free from vulgarity & sloppiness. The classic kick shines by its absence. For another, the situations have been developed logically, producing maximum fun out of minimum action.
One of the common misconceptions about Arbuckle is that any sophistication in his films came from Keaton’s input. While there’s no denying that Keaton had big creative input into the films, Arbuckle, rather like Charley Chase, liked to play with different styles and could happily jump from wild gags and slapstick to gentle situation comedy. Some of his earlier Sennett films, made with Mabel Normand, like HE DID AND HE DIDN’T, show a gentle and sophisticated side to Roscoe before Keaton ever appeared on the scene.
Nevertheless, Arbuckle definitely felt the loss of Keaton in his supporting cast, and hired another diminutive comic to take his place: Mario Bianchi (the future Monty Banks). His leading lady in this film is also notable; Betty Compson would become a star in features, her career getting a boost the following year when she appeared with Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN.
Incidentally, spoofing William S Hart came up again in Keaton’s later short THE FROZEN NORTH. It was an idea contributed by a writer who remained uncredited… Roscoe Arbuckle! In the short, Keaton made a mockery of Hart’s tendency to always have a scene where he cried in his films. Roscoe apparently did the same in THE SHERIFF.
SCRAPS OF PAPER (aka A SCRAP OF PAPER – Autumn 1918)
part of the regular series but made at the same time, this is Arbuckle’s equivalent of Chaplin’s THE BOND. Like that film, it is a propaganda effort designed to promote the Canadian War Bond fundraising effort. As well as each making a promotional film, Chaplin and Arbuckle made public appearances together to promote the loan drive, and newsreel footage of one of these events still exists. Like THE BOND, SCRAPS OF PAPER features our hero coming face to face with the Kaiser (Glen Cavender) and the ‘clown quince’ (Al St John). After mocking the goose-step marching of the Kaiser’s soldiers (one of whom is Monty Banks), Arbuckle tells him that there’s one thing he hasn’t considered, and unleashes a snowstorm of Liberty Bonds which engulf the Germans. Roscoe addresses the audience directly (via intertitle) telling them to do their bit and invest in the Liberty Loan Drive. Not much of a comedy, but an effective piece of propaganda and an interesting historical curio.
CAMPING OUT (5th January 1919)
CAMPING OUT is a rare survivor from this group of films, existing from two incomplete nitrate sources (one Italian print and one from the Netherlands). A composite print has received a number of screenings (most recently on the Silent Comedy Watch Party) and is held at the EYE film institute. Arbuckle again took advantage of the West Coast climate and locations, filming the short on Catalina Island in November 1918. If THE SHERIFF showcased a more subtle side of Arbuckle, then this film returned to the cruder slapstick milieu of films like THE BUTCHER BOY and THE ROUGH HOUSE. Within the first five minutes alone, there are jokes about vomiting, spitting and seagull droppings!
The basic premise of CAMPING OUT recalls FATTY AT CONEY ISLAND, a tale of Arbuckle playing hookey from his wife, and enjoying the freedom by flirting with other men’s wives. Unable to stomach his wife’s dreadful cooking, he escapes for a while, taking the ferry to Catalina for a camping trip. En route, he (inevitably) meets Al St John, and his pretty wife Alice Lake. In the the ensuing tussle Roscoe throws Al overboard. Fatty and Al’s wife proceed to the campsite, where the grizzled, one-legged camp owner is also played by St John. The highlight of the film follows as Roscoe indulges in some of his trademark food preparation gags. Here he demonstrates novel ways of shaving potatoes, and making doughnuts and mashed potatoes with the aid of St John’s wooden leg! Another highlight is his plan to filch food from grocer Monty Banks.
Inevitably, Roscoe’s chickens come to roost as his wife (armed with guns and knives!), Al and Monty all show up for a slapstick battle royale to round out the short.
Though CAMPING OUT is far from Roscoe’s most sophisticated effort, it’s a ton of fun, and the sunny location shooting around Catalina Island and the streets of Avalon only add to the summery, freewheeling tone of the film. Watch the film as part of the Silent Comedy Watch Party live stream here:
THE PULLMAN PORTER (? unfinished/unreleased film)
THE PULLMAN PORTER is a curiosity, an elusive mystery film. The Arbuckle shorts were popular and well publicised, with Paramount often placing full-page ads in the trade papers for them. For THE SHERIFF, we can piece together lots of information, for instance. But for this film, the trail runs cold. So far, I’ve found no reports of the production, no stills, no reviews… nuthin. Nada. Zilch. But, it does have a cited release date, Feb 16. It does seem strange that an Arbuckle short released at this time would receive next to no coverage in the trades.
There has been confusion between releases in the series before, for instance the earlier short A RECKLESS ROMEO was actually filmed earlier for Keystone, but bought and released by Paramount. There also seemed to be various other reisues of earlier Arbuckle shorts occurring at this time, so could THE PULLMAN PORTER fall into one of these categories? It seems most likely that it a tentative idea, scrapped and replaced during filming.
LOVE (2nd March 1919)
LOVE is a wonderful little short that survives complete. The film was preserved just in time, and issued on Laughsmith Entertainment’s terrific 2005 DVD set THE FORGOTTEN FILMS OF FATTY ARBUCKLE. The short is in the classic rural barnyard slapstick mould, one of Arbuckle’s favourite motifs. However, LOVE is way more sophisticated than the earlier Keystone shorts, Arbuckle had come as a comedian and director since those times. While the knockabout is still rough, it is developed into some terrific, well-developed set pieces . Roscoe makes one of his best entrances, riding on a country road in his “economy model” Ford (a glorified go-kart) and using a pair of bellows to blow away huge boulders in his path. He is courting farmer Frank Hayes’ daughter (Winifred Westover), but Hayes has plans to marry her off to local boy Al St John in return for some land. Among the comic set pieces around the farm yard is a scene where Hayes falls down a well, and Roscoe and Monty Banks try to winch him up; each time something goes wrong, sending Hayes plummeting down the well again and again. Then, we’re into a classic version of the ’broom-bashing’ routine memorably used in THE WAITER’S BALL. (Of course, the routine was originally pinched from The Three Keatons’ vaudeville act, so Buster does have a little influence over this film after all. It would be nice to think its inclusion here was a tribute from Arbuckle to his absent friend). This version is even better, turning into a nice four-handed version with Roscoe, Monty, Frank and Al St John.
Roscoe tries to elope with Winifred, but is foiled when his ladder breaks, catapulting him into the house, and leaving Winifired dangling from a first floor window. (Poor Winifred Westover takes quite a lot of punishment in this short—no wonder it was her only film with Arbuckle!)
Though there are occasional lapses in taste (like the scene mentioned above) where the slapstick maybe gets a bit too violent, the comedy scenes in the first half of LOVE are some of the best in the whole Comique series. The second half of the short involves Roscoe’s plan to sneak into the house and sneak Winifred away from the wedding. Sneaking soap into the cook’s stew to get her fired, he dresses in drag and takes her place. Suggesting that they stage a rehearsal ceremony with the preacher, Roscoe takes the groom’s place. Once they have said “I do”, Monty pulls strings attached to Roscoe’s dress and wig, revealing his true identity. LOVE contains several of Roscoe’s pet routines, and is a thoroughly enjoyable two reels, brim-full of exuberant gags. As a farewell to the barnyard setting, it was a high note to go out on.
THE BANK CLERK (? Unfinished/unreleased film)
Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, details about THE BANK CLERK are sparse. Initial reports in the trades that Arbuckle had embarked on a film of this title, in which he works as a window cleaner in the bank, but (excuse the pun) climbs the ladder to a career in finance. However, in April 1919, Film Daily reported that filming had to be abandoned due to both weather conditions in L.A., and for Arbuckle to make revisions to the story. It seems that his solution to both inclement weather and an unsatisfying story was to scrap it and head back to the desert to make another Western film. Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, THE BANK CLERK was probably never finished. That the two films were never released is supported by adverts for later reissues of the Comique films, which list all but this pair of titles.
A DESERT HERO ( 15th June 1919)
Arbuckle was obviously very fond of Western settings at this point in his career; this is third film in just over a year to play on the genre. Down the years, this has meant confusion for Arbuckle & Keaton scholars, with the three films (OUT WEST, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO) often being mixed up, especially when they turned up in prints without main titles. As late as the 1970s, A DESERT HERO often found its way into Keaton filmographies, with stills from OUT WEST being attributed to this film instead.
It’s not surprising, as there is a strong overlap between the all three films. In OUT WEST, Alice Lake had a prominent role as a Salvation Army girl; here, Molly Malone takes on a similar part. Arbuckle’s burlesque of William S Hart from THE SHERIFF is also revisited in this short. The long-faced, wiry Hart played solemn tough guys, and Roscoe plays on this for comic effect here. An opening title introduces “a gaunt, thin boned stranger from the desert”, before cutting to the very non-gaunt Roscoe! Arbuckle carried on spoofing Hart through the film, as the press books tell us: “He’s the toughest, hardest, roughest Western cuss that ever lived, in “A Desert Hero”! He eats ’em alive ! Breaks rocks with his teeth he’s so ornery!”
Roscoe reforms when he meets Molly and joins her in the salvation army. Surviving stills show lots of comic business with brass band instruments, before Molly is kidnapped by Al St John and Roscoe has to rescue her. Molly continued with Roscoe for the remainder of the series. Though A DESERT HERO was his last Western short, Arbuckle would return to the genre one last time, for his debut feature THE ROUND UP the following year.
Keaton’s war service in France was over in early 1919, and after a hospital stay, he rejoined Arbuckle in May. The Arbuckle-Keaton partnership returned to the screen for three more shorts, BACK STAGE, THE HAYSEED and THE GARAGE, before Arbuckle moved to features. Many of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts are deservedly well-regarded, but we shouldn’t neglect the films Roscoe made without Buster. As a comic creator, he was at the top of his game, as evidenced by LOVE. Hopefully one day, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO, will be available for us to enjoy again, too.
A version of this article originally appeared in issue 12 of The Lost Laugh magazine, published May 2020. (c) Matthew Ross.
Thanks to Ben Model & Steve Massa from the Silent Comedy Watch Party, and to Elif from the Eye Filmmuseum for making CAMPING OUT available for us to enjoy again!
TCM have made Laurel & Hardy their stars of the month for December (while here in the UK, they’re noticeably absent from the Christmas TV schedules again). As part of the celebration, the channel has commissioned a short video about the boys by actor Mark Hamill (best known for playing Luke Skywalker).
He’s done a great job. The clip is informative and personal, obviously done from a place of great affection for Stan and Babe, and really gets to the heart of their partnership. Take a look here:
The Cineteca Milano has just published a collection of rare (and great!) silent comedy bits and pieces featuring some underrated comics. (As a heads-up, you need to register – it’s free – to watch the films, and I did have some difficulty getting them to play in my browser. They wouldn’t work on my laptop, but played fine on my smartphone… It’s not often you read the word smartphone on a silent comedy blog, is it?)
In my opinion, Monty Banks is one of the great unsung silent comedians. The dapper little Italian had a pleasing personality and a way with a gag that was quite his own, yet even in his day he was somewhat on the fringes of the scene. A lot of his shorts were independent films released on a states-rights basis, meaning they’ve remained much more obscure than those of the major comedy studios. The ones that survive reveal a fertile comic mind and excellent performer.
Physically, he resembled the typical put-upon “little man” comics and started out in a Chaplinesque vein, but by the early 1920s he’d settled on a more dapper costume and situational humour. In his films he became the tubby little man striving to be a leading man type, but always finding himself in embarrassing situations. In this he had some similarities Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase; certainly, he shared with Chase panache for mixing situational humour sight gags, with just a hint of the surreal. However, it’s not fair just to compare Monty to other comics – he managed to put his own unique spin on his material and made some very fun films. The more I see of his work, the more I like him.
The Cineteca has published an 11 minute fragment called ‘Vitio Coniugale’ – it seems to be from one of his Grand-Asher comedies, HOME COOKED (1924). Bill Blaisdell, the heavy in the other Grand-Ashers, appears as Monty’s dad, and I believe his regular leading lady, Ena Gregory, plays his wife here. This is a simple domestic comedy of Ena’s struggle to learn to cook, and Monty’s struggle to learn to eat her food! The footage begins with Monty’s attempts to eat the meal she has prepared. The pancakes are so tough that they take the wheels off a car when he throws them out of the window, and when he pours her coffee in a pot plant, the plant has animated convulsions. The comic situation of an unpalatable meal isn’t exactly original, but Monty’s underplaying of the situation and the twists on the gags add something new and appealing.
With his family coming to meet the newlyweds, Monty engages in some damage limitation and says he will help Ena prepare a meal for them. The pair plan a goose dinner, which leads to a funny series of gags of Monty plucking the feathers from the bird. His execution of the bird takes place off screen – Monty walks into a room with the goose, and seconds later a ridiculously large number of feathers fly out of the door. Monty emerges covered in feathers, which subsequently transfer to a car and a dog. All ridiculous, but handled adroitly and very funny. eventually, the goose shrinks in the oven and Monty has to steal a replacement from his neighbours, but there the footage stops. I’d love to see the whole thing; like ALMOST LATE and other Banks shorts that exist in fragments, it has a lot of promise. Here’s the link:
Monty Banks may be unsung, but it’s fair to say that Jimmy Aubrey is downright unloved by many comedy fans. Ok, so it’s understandable to a degree. He is one of your classic anonymous, moustachioed comics running around at high speed without much personality, and some of his surviving films just aren’t that funny. But, let’s give Jimmy his due. He was a graduate of Fred Karno’s Army, and starred in films for Vitagraph, Joe Rock and Weiss Brothers for over a decade, so he can hardly have been completely talentless. His supporting role in Laurel & Hardy’s THAT’S MY WIFE is very funny, too.
Part of the reason for his lowly status in the annals of Si-Com lore is probably his cantankerous nature; Babe Hardy recollected Aubrey being jealous and unpleasant towards him, and in late-life interviews (he lived until the early 1980s) he rarely had a nice word to say for anyone. This has coloured modern views of him but, well, that’s a can of worms now, isn’t it? There are many performers who probably weren’t very nice people (especially in bitter old age), but a lot of them didn’t live long enough to get interviewed and show it off! Let’s judge the Cineteca’s Aubrey film on its own merits. (‘Fridolen defenso del dieblo’ is, I believe, the Aubrey Vitagraph Comedy TENDERFOOT LUCK. It was filmed under the working title THE PROSPECTOR in June-July 1922 on location in Northern California, with J.P. Smith directing, and Frank ‘Fatty Alexander in the cast.) Here’s the link:
You know what? It’s not bad. It’s true that Aubrey doesn’t have much charm, but in this comedy the gags are decent enough that it doesn’t matter too much. Rather like Ben Turpin, Aubrey wasn’t a comic innovator, and his films stand or fall on the quality of his gags rather than he himself (significantly, many of the funniest gags feature him in long shot, so his personality adds little to them).
In this one, Jimmy is a railroad stowaway who winds up in a Western town, falling in with Helen Kessler and her prospector father. He falls afoul of the town assayer (by blowing his hair and beard off with nytroglycerine, as you do!) and then sheriff Frank Alexander.
The best moment is a wonderful trick gag where Aubrey, pursued by Alexander, hides behind a narrow post. Thanks to double exposure, he seems to completely disappear. That gag has been done before, but what really makes it something else is the seamless way it is filmed. Just after Jimmy disappears, Frank walks right around the post, and even picks it up before Jimmy reappears. The topper comes when an angry mule also emerges from behind the post, chasing Jimmy and the sherriff away. A great bit of camera trickery, really presented well and made convincing by this little flourish.
Here’s an excerpt of that bit, courtesy of Dave Glass’s YouTube channel:
Ultimately Jimmy saves Helen from some marauding braves by improvising a catapult from a skinny tree. In the vast scheme of things, TENDERFOOT LUCK is no classic, and I doubt that any film is going to reveal Jimmy Aubrey as a master at work, but he was a hard working comic, and the film deserves 18 minutes of any silent comedy fan’s time.
Gag-happy Western comedy is also the order of the day in the next film, starring Lige Conley & Jimmie Adams. Some of the first comedies made by Jack White’s Mermaid Comedies featured these two diminutive comics – wild-haired Lige and balding, toothbrush-moustached Adams – in fast paced gags and stunts. The Cinemateca’s offering, BANG! (1921) shares with DANGER! an exclamatory title that sums up its breakneck comic method.
Gags come way before story in these shorts, and it’s best to abandon all worry about plot or characters. Instead, just jump into their slipstream-of-consciousness. Though BANG! is, roughly, a tale of Lige and Jmmie’s attempts to thwart corrupt sherriff Earl Montgomery, it’s all about the gag sequences and there are plenty of left turns to follow a comic whim. The Mermaids had good budgets and were often pretty elaborate, meaning a lot of these gags are impressive.
The short opens with a wonderful reveal gag of Adams in bed, apparently very elongated, before it’s revealed that the legs actually belong to Conley, hidden under the covers. Then we’re into some Rube Goldberg-esque business of their automated alarm clock and breakfast (similar to scenes in Keaton’s THE SCARECROW and Snub Pollard’s IT’S A GIFT) before a totally random scene of a dog, cat and mouse chasing each other!
The western saloon provides a nice surreal pool table gag, and some dark humour based around shootings. Then we’re into an exciting horse chase with some impressive stunts, and a good trick gag whereby Conley seems to jump across a river in one leap. Add some stolen money, a chimney, that cat again and you have a veritable gag whirlwind; leading lady Dorothy Wood has little else to do but watch the madness unfold.
This sort of material always benefits from a good print, and this is a beautiful tinted copy. The titles are in Italian, but you’re not really going to miss out on much story now, are you?
There’s yet more Western spoofing in a fragment of HER SCREEN IDOL, a 1918 Sennett directed by Eddie Cline. Ford Sterling plays a conceited Cowboy star who agrees to attend a showing of his new film in a small town cinema, where superfan Louise Fazenda is in attendance. Sterling is best known for his scenery chewing Keystine performances, but here he’s very funny as the self-important star watching himself on the screen and marvelling at his own performance. We don’t get to see the wonderful Louise Fazenda do much in the existing footage, but look put for a glimpse of Ben Turpin and Heinie Conklin as two inept musicians in the orchestra pit. View it here: https://www.cinetecamilano.it/film/2548
It’s wonderful that the Cineteca Milano has released these rarities from their archives. It’s the films of lesser known, jobbing comics like Aubrey, Conley and Adams that fill out our picture of the silent era.