The Lost laugh

(Whispering) Whoopee! Charley Chase talkies on DVD

Charley Chase: At Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume One 1930-31Charley Chase has gone from being an under-represented figure  on home video releases to having much of his classic work out there in superior quality. Thanks to DVD releases from Kino, AllDay Entertainment and Milestone films, a majority of his existing silent work can now be widely seen. In recent years, even his late sound shorts for Columbia have even been pulled from the vaults and released by Sony.

All this is extremely heartening, but the holy grail has always been his Hal Roach sound shorts. Picking up from where he left off in silent days, Chase kept on churning out little gems at Roach until 1936. The distinctive charm of the Roach films, with their stock company and background music, along with Chase’s excellent performances and some great gags, made these a wonderful bunch of films. More’s the pity that they’ve been so hard to see! There was a period when the films  were aired semi-regularly on TCM in the USA, and it has been possible to cobble them together through a ragbag assortment of bootlegs from off-air recordings, VHS transfers and  often ropey 16mm prints, but a legitimate and comprehensive release, in nice quality, has remained elusive.

 No longer. Step forward expert comedy historian Richard M Roberts and The Sprocket Vault, who have achieved what no-one else has been able to in bringing some of Chase’s sound shorts to DVD (it’s the first in a planned series of volumes, which will hopefully work through all the other Chases). Simply by existing, this set would be automatically brilliant; that it presents the films in the best quality possible, with great extras and authoritative commentaries, makes it an absolute  triumph.

Chase’s earliest talkies are currently unavailable, so this set picks up with THE REAL McCOY, his first release of 1930, and goes through to his last release of 1931. Within these parameters, you get some of his all time best, including WHISPERING WHOOPEE, LOOSER THAN LOOSE, THE HASTY MARRIAGE and, of course, THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG. Disc 1 covers 1930, and disc 2 1931. The chronological nature means that you get to see how Charley developed his approach to comedy during the early sound era.  This was a transitional period for Chase, and while sound gave him no cause for alarm, it did give him pause for thought, and to try some new approaches and variations in character. As well as films in the vein of his silent farces like LOOSER THAN LOOSE and DOLLAR DIZZY , several  of the 1930 films are particularly offbeat and experimental in nature. FIFTY MILLION HUSBANDS is a really fun little short full of quirky bits of business and GIRL SHOCK is a particularly unusual comedy, with Charley bordering on Harpo Marx-style mania every time a girl touches him. This one was new to me, and while it’s not one of Chase’s all-time best, I find it a fascinating film. Present also are his experiments at making mini musicals, HIGH Cs and its wonderful companion piece, ROUGH SEAS. Not all the experiments are entirely successful, but that said, practically everything Chase did is diverting and most watchable, especially for L & H buffs, who can enjoy seeing familiar Roach faces like James Finlayson and Charlie Hall in other roles.

See the source imageOf course, the most famous supporting player to feature opposite Charley is the pip herself, Thelma Todd. Their partnership resulted in some absolutely charming comedies, of which THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG endures the most. This simple tale of Charley’s attempts to turn off a blind date, then trying to undo his work when it turns out to be Thelma, is elegantly told and full of great sight gags. As a fascinating extra, the Spanish phonetic version, LA SENORITA DE CHICAGO, is included. While it loses Thelma Todd, it gains an extra reel, including a song from Charley and some bridging scenes that actually make it flow much better than the English original  (for more details on  THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG and Chase & Todd’s other films together, take a look here)

While PIP is most definitely a highlight, some of the less vaunted shorts are just as delightful.  Personal favourites:

See the source imageLOOSER THAN LOOSE, a charming romantic situation comedy, where much of the humour is down entirely to the wonderful performances of the cast;

HASTY MARRIAGE, full of great sight gags and slapstick in a tale of streetcar romance;

ONE OF THE SMITHS, a hillbilly comedy with some terrific mechanical gags, and a much funnier update of L& H’s upper berth sequence, as Charley tries to share his tiny berth with a large tuba!

THE PANIC IS ON, riffing on black humour gags spoofing the depression. There’s an added bonus of a nice little cameo from Laughing Gravy.

Richard Roberts provides detailed and entertaining commentaries for all the film. It’s clear that this is a labour of love, and we owe a huge vote of thanks for the effort in creating the set. As he has said, it is hoped that other volumes in this series will follow; that just depends on how well this first volume sells. So what are you waiting for? Buy, buy, buy!  I’m certain you won’t regret it. It’s hard not to like Charley Chase, and this set is a must-have if you have even the slightest interest in his work, or that of Laurel & Hardy and the Hal Roach studios. While the Chase talkies are generally looser than his impeccably constructed silents, there’s a heckuva lot of talent in these films, and a heckuva lot of fun, too. And there’s plenty more where that came from: Many of the films that the prolific Chase made in 1932 and beyond, such as YOUNG IRONSIDES, HIS SILENT RACKET, NURSE TO YOU, MANHATTAN MONKEY BUSINESS and POKER AT EIGHT, are as good as anything he ever did, so here’s (greedily) hoping for more volumes soon!

Buy Charley Chase at Hal Roach: the Talkies, volume 1 from Amazon. Buy them for your friends too, while you’re there!

A Perfect Gentleman, the sheik of slapstick and the funniest woman in the world: A weekend at the Kennington Bioscope (part 1)

DX8lxP1WsAEtrNa.jpgI’ve just returned from SILENT LAUGHTER WEEKEND at London’s Cinema Museum. The fourth such event run by the lovely folk at Kennington Bioscole, these are now a real highlight of my year, and I was privileged to have some involvement in selecting and presenting  a few films. Of course, we’re lucky to have silent comedies so freely available on DVD, YouTube and everywhere else, but the real way they’re meant to be seen is like this: on a big screen, as a shared experience with other cinemagoers, and with live musical accompaniment. Stand up and take a bow, John Sweeney, Meg Morley. Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulos, Cyrus Gabrysch, whose wonderful playing brought these films to life. To hear the expert introductions of historians such as Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson only heightened the experience. Here’s part one of a review of the weekend. Part two to follow!

The weekend began with THE NIGHT CLUB (1925), starring Raymond Griffith (promoted as ‘The New Sheik of Slapstick!”). His first starring feature, it is a wonderful vehicle for his understated, unique comic style. The film launched his career in features with a high pedigree; produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, it was directed by his protégées Paul Iribe and Frank Urson and based on a play by DeMille’s brother.

raymond_griffithThis is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women but has to undergo an arranged marriage to inherit a fortune. He genuinely falls in love with his arranged bride (Vera Reynolds), but she thinks he’s only after her for the money. A despondent Griffith pays a bandit (Wallace Beery) to bump him off, but Vera finds out the truth and they are reconciled. Now Griff’s only problem is to tell the bandit that no, thank you, he doesn’t want to die anymore…

It’s a complicated story and even that summary doesn’t take account of many of the tangents and subplots that arise. It’s easy to see why it was a failure as a play, but as a Griffith vehicle it succeeds admirably. Our hero wins through with a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.

There are also great performances from Beery, William Austin and Louise Fazenda, not to mention some great suicide gags and lovely location shooting on the dusty paradise of Catalina Island.

Director Eddie Sutherland contended that Griffith’s failing as a comic was that he tried to mix too many styles, but the inclusion of sight gags and slapstick alongside more gentle material makes films like THE NIGHT CLUB much more entertaining than many of the light comedies of the era.

Griffith’s best films were yet to come, as he refined his suave, sly style; his best surviving films are probably PATHS TO PARADISE and HANDS UP. THE NIGHT CLUB, however, remains a fun and different comedy. By the way, if you’re wondering where the night club of the title comes in… it doesn’t. Kevin Brownlow explained in his introduction that this was a side effect of the studios’ block booking system. Often films were sold to exhibitors before they were filmed or even written. Paramount had promised a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, so they delivered a film called ‘THE NIGHT CLUB’, even though their new story had nothing at all to do with one!

Next it was on to a programme of British shorts, titled THE BRITISH ARE COMING and presented by Tony Fletcher. Now, these can be a mixed bag. There are some fantastic British silent comedies, but many are a bit too polite and ponderous. Certainly, they were created in a different idiom to the American model of silent comedy.This programme had a higher batting average than many, showcasing some offbeat efforts.

‘BOOKWORMS’, made in 1920, is a charming little vehicle for Leslie Howard. Written by A.A. Milne (author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories), it shows Milne’s literary instincts in a witty modern fairytale pastiche. Substituting suburban villas for castles and fiery housemaids for dragons, this is an updated Rapunzel-style tale of Howard’s attempts to contact Pauline Johnson, who is locked away by her Aunt and Uncle, and made to read books all day. Howard’s love note arranging a rendezvous, sent inside her library book, also reaches three other people, resulting in a farcical meeting of several different characters, each thinking the other has sent it. This is a mild, but very charming tale. Much of the humour comes from the breaking of the fourth wall, especially in the intertitles.

This was a pet tactic of director Adrian Brunel, who loved to play with the medium of film. More of Brunel’s whimsical humour was seen in CROSSING THE GREAT SAGRADA. A spoof travelogue, this skewers the pomoposity of the genre superbly. Again, much of the humour coems through intertitles, juxtaposition of images and bizarre use of stock  footage. In its sublime silliness, the short anticipates Spike Milligan’s work (especially sketches from ‘Q’, like ‘First Irish Rocket to the Moon’)

Also experimental was THE FUGITIVE FUTURIST, in which an inventor produces a magic device that shows visions of the future. Through the magic of double exposure, animation and an effect that makes the emulsion seem to melt off the film, we see waves lapping at the shores of Trafalgar square, Tower Bridge turned into a monorail, and houses that build themselves. A bizarre little film!

There was a chance to glimpse behind the scenes at the film industry (and film fandom) with STARLINGS OF THE SCREEN. This short chronicles the progress of a competition run by Picture Show magazine, whereby 3000 young ladies entered to be in with a chance of winning a film role; kind of ‘THE X FACTOR’ of its day! The 15 shortlisted provincial candidates are seen trying their hardest to act at a series of screen tests at Oswald Stoll’s studios. Also on hand is comic actor Moore Marriott, later best known as one of Will Hay’s sidekicks, who puts the girls through their paces in a series of short little sketches. This was a great little item: a fascinating time capsule, often (unintentionally) hilarious. There was also a touch of poignancy in the doomed ambitions of the film hopefuls, who simply didn’t have ‘it’ and would soon return to obscurity. Nancy Baird of Glasgow, and Sheilagh Allen of Londonderry, whatever became of you?

So far, so good. The only one of these films to disappoint was ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’. Starring Guy Newall & Ivy Duke, this too played with the medium of cinema, having a prologue breaking the fourth wall, in which Duke & Newall invite the public to join them in their dressing rooms preparing for the film. The story itself was the tale of Duke’s perpetual discomfort caused by her woollen underwear. At the theatre, Newall is sat behind her, absentmindedly fiddles with a thread he sees dangling from the bottom of her chair and soon has unravelled her entire vest. It was a nice little idea for a throwaway gag, but stretching it out to almost half an hour was fairly infuriating! I could have seen Lloyd or Keaton doing a similar gag, but as a little aside, rather than building a whole film around it! Nevertheless, an interesting little item, and overall this showed that British films were often very creative and playful.

the_nickel_nurser__poster___stan_taffel_After lunch, I was thrilled to be able to present an overview of CHARLEY CHASE. Chase is one of my absolute favourite silent (and sound comedians), and he’s often been a neglected figure, so it’s always a pleasure to show his films to new audiences. The 1920s, with their increased focus on human comedy, were Chase’s decade. In front of the camera, he played an eternally embarrassed young man, while behind it he was an enormously inventive, prolific and consistent comedy craftsman.

An extract from ALL WET (1924) provided an early example of a classic Chase situation, escalating from simple, believable beginnings to peaks of absurdity. Charley is on his way to meet a train in his car; he helps another motorist out of a mud puddle, and in doing so becomes stuck himself. His attempts to free the car end in it being completely submerged, necessitating Charley’s repairs of the car from underwater. ALL WET builds gags brilliantly, and is a fine example of the teamwork between Chase and its director, future Oscar-winner Leo McCarey (who once said “Everything I know, I learned from Charley Chase”).

Together Chase and MccCarey thrived off each other, developing a unique style of intricate storytelling. When Chase’s films were expanded to two reels, they were able to use the extra space to construct beautifully elaborate farces, mini-masterpieces packed with gags, situations and great characters. To illustrate this, we saw large excerpts from ‘WHAT PRICE GOOFY’, ‘FLUTTERING HEARTS’ and ‘THE WAY OF ALL PANTS’, the latter getting some of the biggest laughs of the weekend with its split-second timed multiple exchanges of trousers.

Two things struck me forcefully while selecting the clips:

1 – it’s incredibly hard to take excerpts out of Chase’s films, as they are so tightly and masterfully constructed.

2 – Chase really realised the value of his supporting casts. Perhaps it was background as a director, but he never seems egotistical about his own performances, always allowing others to shine; his films are true ensemble pieces. Oliver Hardy, Katherine Grant, Gale Henry, Thelma Todd, Tom Dugan, Vivian Oakland and Buddy the Dog are just some of the performers given great opportunities in the films we saw.

The closing scenes from ‘THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG’ showcased Charley’s illustrious career in talkies, and we finished off with the complete ‘MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE’. The apotheosis of Charley’s taking a simple idea to ridiculous extremes,  this tale follows him and and his wife as they both have plastic surgery, fail to recognise each other and embark on an affair! This has righty been recognised as a masterpiece, and has been added to the USA’s National Film Registry along with other classics like ‘THE GENERAL’ and ‘BIG BUSINESS’.

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It was a real delight to hear the laughter at Chase’s films, with several people in the audience commenting that it was their first time seeing them. Charley didn’t live long enough to see his work being appreciated; if only he could have heard the response his films got on Saturday…

Also in the comedy of embarrassment mould was Monty Banks’ 1927 feature ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. We saw it in a pristine 35mm copy from the BFI, albeit with Spanish intertitles. Monty was, for my money, one of the hardest working silent comedians. He was an Italian, real name Mario Bianchi, who arrived in the US in 1915.  He spoke very little English, but through hard work and a good deal of good luck,  scraped by in a series of Chaplinesque film roles. These included supporting Roscoe Arbuckle, who gave him his new screen name. Making a series of comedies for obscure and independent companies, he eventually found a toehold in the industry with a cheerful little character, trying his best to be dapper, but always on the back foot. In the 1920s he shifted focus to vehicles with a Lloydian mix of comedy with thrills and speed, turning out a series of features that pitted him against racing cars, speedboats and runaway trains. From 1926, Pathé had been promoting him as Lloyd’s successor, but had more or less given up on him by the time of ‘A PERFECT GENTLEMAN’. With some evidence of budgets being cut, it features less of the high-speed stunt climaxes, but makes up for it with brilliantly gag-packed sequences and situation comedy. Monty works in a bank, and is due to marry the president’s daughter. En route to his wedding he innocently becomes drunk; suffice to say, his wedding does not end well, especially as he spends much of the time trying to kick his future mother-in-law in the rear!

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Meanwhile, Monty’s colleague has robbed the bank, planning to pin the robbery on Monty. Waking with a terrible hangover to a broken engagement, Monty decides to leave town, but mixes his bags, and ends up with the stolen money. The rest of the film takes place on board a ship and follows Monty’s attempts to:

  1.  foil the crooks trying to get the money back
  2. win back his girl who is aboard the ship
  3. return the money to her father and prove his innocence.

He might be on a ship, but plain sailing, it ain’t! A new complication arises as Monty is constantly caught in compromising situations with the purser’s wife, a running gag that has some brilliant variations. Best of all is a sequence where Monty, finding her unconscious, accidentally tears her dress off. His attempts to remedy the situation end up making even more of her clothes fall off, but he manages to improvise an entirely new outfit for her. A wonderful routine of physical comedy, in a film full of them; it’s the funniest Banks film I’ve yet seen.

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Part of the credit is surely due to Clyde Bruckman, one of the very best silent gagmen, hired by Banks due to his work with Keaton & Lloyd. A PERFECT GENTLEMAN does indeed borrow some gags from the Keaton/Lloyd vehicles. Overall though, it shows Monty moving from a direct Lloyd influence to a more farcical style redolent of Charley Chase. In fact, this could have been the ideal vehicle to launch Chase in features. A great little film, and one of the highlights of the weekend for me. Nevertheless, however good performers like Banks or Raymond Griffith are, the following programme, KEATON CLASSICS, made it clear just why Buster Keaton has attained his mythical status in comparison to the more forgotten comics. Four authors – Kevin Brownlow, David Robinson, Polly Rose & David McLeod – presented their favourite sequences from Buster’s features. Each sequence was, of course, magnificent, and I almost felt like I was seeing them for the first time again. It was a lovely idea to have personal introductions, as Keaton means so many different things to so many people.

David Robinson praised the dramatic strength of OUR HOSPITALITY, reminding us that it was a stunning debut in feature directing (THE SAPHEAD was not directed by Keaton and THREE AGES planned as three shorts glued together, in case it didn’t work out; ergo, HOSPITALITY was BK’s first planned feature). He had picked the river scene that culminates in Buster’s dramatic plunge across a waterfall to rescue Natalie Talmadge, a sequence that gives me the shivers every time I see it.

 

Kevin Brownlow’s choice was the wonderfully action-packed Tong War sequence from THE CAMERAMAN, and David McLeod opted for the iconic cyclone climax of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. Most fascinating of all was Polly Rose, a newcomer to writing about BK; an editor by trade, she was ideally placed to share discoveries about how Keaton achieved his visual effects walking into the cinema screen in SHERLOCK, JR. Through her research, she also shared discoveries about alternate versions of the scene, in which Buster seemed to enter the screen on a beam of light shone from his projector, before being spat back out into a tangle of film. Polly shared evidence of this version being previewed from at least three trade papers, and found clues in publicity stills that point to the action that might have occurred. A fascinating theory and who knows? Maybe one day one of those preview prints will turn up. Stranger things have happened!

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I know Keaton’s films so well by know that I sometimes take for granted how incredible they are. Seeing excerpts like this from different films reminded me just how diverse and special his films were, for not just his performances and gags, but also his storytelling, stunts and technical wizardry, not to mention that intangible quality that makes him so compelling.

How to follow four of Keaton’s finest sequences? Step up to the plate, Beatrice Lillie! Miss Lillie made only 7 films in her long career, and 1926’s EXIT SMILING is her sole silent. Nevertheless, her brief stay in Hollywood elicited devotion from the West Coast royalty; Chaplin described her as “my female counterpart”, while Buster Keaton guarded her hotel room door, “lying there like Old Dog Tray”. EXIT SMILING shows exactly why. One of the sadly few silent feature comedies to really show a female comedian to good advantage, it gives her opportunity for both great comic acting and genuine pathos. As Violet, Bea is a dogsbody with a travelling theatre company who longs to play the part of a vamp. She gets her chance to act not on the stage, but in real life, where she has to seduce a villain to save the man she loves. The scenes of her vamping the villain are simply brilliant, especially the moment where her pearl necklace disintegrates. If only shexite’d made more films!

EXIT SMILING was given a marvellously authoritative introduction by Michelle Facey, who summed up Bea’s career and appeal brilliantly. Accompaniment was by the wonderful Meg Morley. The screening was, in fact, of Beatrice Lillie’s personal 16mm copy of the film, and the personal connection of the evening didn’t end there. The last word must go to David Robinson, who shared his poignant story of attending a screening of the film with Beatrice Lillie in 1968.

“She was starting to forget things… They’d taken her to see the film ‘STAR’ that afternoon, so I asked her how she liked the film.

“What film?” she said. She didn’t seem like a star, she was just a little, worried old lady, who was always asking where her coat and purse were. It would be “Where’s my coat?” then “Where’s my purse?”

“So we went on and on, the coat, the purse, the coat, the purse… until the time came to go into the theatre.

“Where’s my coat?” she said, again. I told her I’d carry it, but she just said “I must have my coat”.

“We walked into the auditorium, and I was wondering what on earth was going to happen… then I noticed she was dragging the coat along behind her.

“Come along, Fido!” she said, and everyone roared with laughter. She came to life and kept doing these little bits of business, but knew exactly when to stop. Throughout the film, I heard the sound of her laughter.

Afterwards, I asked her what she thought of it.

“Oh, it was very good,” replied Beatrice Lillie, “and she’s so funny. And you know, she does things just like me!”

 

*Part two coming soon!*

 

SILENT LAUGHTER SATURDAY 2017: Of Monty, Max and matrimony!

 

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Kennington Bioscope’s SILENT LAUGHTER events continue to explode the traditional picture of silent film comedy, busting some time-worn myths and expanding our perceptions with obscure delights, discoveries and unjustly forgotten performers. This year’s event, curated by esteemed historian Glenn Mitchell was no exception.

That old myth that only Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd could survive in feature films, for example? Well, actually we saw terrific features starring Monty Banks and Max Linder, both of whom made  several (as many silent features as Chaplin, for that matter). The efforts of Monty and Max prove that the problem was not sustaining themselves at feature length, rather breaking through into a market jammed with brilliant comedies. Incidentally both were Europeans, whose style and personality differences from the American ‘norm’ possibly made their task harder. Nevertheless, both men made very entertaining films.

Monty Banks’ FLYING LUCK (1927) is typical of his slickly-made comedies, mixing light humour, slapstick and action in the manner of Harold Lloyd. Monty became adroit at high-speed, high-risk sequences which seemed desperate to outdo Keaton and Lloyd. 1923’S ‘RACING LUCK/ saw him driving racing cars, ATTA BOY (1926) features a rousing climax with Banks atop a ladder on a speeding car, and his most famous film, ‘PLAY SAFE’ (1927) closes with a magnificent and extremely dangerous train chase. With ‘FLYING LUCK’ from the same year, he turned his attention to aeroplanes, no doubt looking to cash in on the aviation craze sweeping the world as competitors attempted to fly the Atlantic.

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Monty plays an amateur aviator who dreams of being another Lindbergh. His maiden flight crashes into a recruiting office, and some white lies from the recruiters convince him to join the air corps (“They’ll give you a new plane every day!”). En route to camp he meets pretty jean Arthur and not-so-pretty sergeant Kewpie Morgan, establishing the love triangle that will dominate the film. His arrival at camp is mixed up with that of a visiting aviation committee, and he is shown the high life before being found out and thrown to the mercy of Sgt Morgan. All ends happily when he competes in an air polo competition and wins the day through sheer luck.

flying luck 2.png‘FLYING LUCK’ sags a little in the middle with some standard ‘hopeless new recruit’ business but wins through with some great set pieces and a charming performance from Monty as the hopeless but cocksure little man bungling through.  It was to be his last America starring film though, as Pathé cancelled his contract. Banks fled to Britain, where he would make two more silent features, ‘WEEKEND WIVES’ and ‘ADAM’S APPLE’ before becoming a notable comedy director. In this role, he would work with Stanley Lupino, Laura La Plante, George Formby, and of course Gracie Fields, who he married in 1940. The pair remained happily married until Monty’s death from a heart attack in 1950.

Linder’s BE MY WIFE likewise came from the tail end of his starring career. A very funny farce concerning Max getting mixed up with an expensive dress, a bathtub gin parlour and some extramarital goings on, it packed in several terrific set pieces that show why Chaplin considered Linder ‘the professor’. A case in point: Linder’s first dance at his wedding, where his rival releases a white rat into his trousers. For many lesser silent comics, this would have been the prelude to much gurning and frenetic leaping. Linder builds the comedy magnificently, from his first, subtle elucidations that everything ain’t just alright, through some determined scratching, and culminating in some brilliantly funny spontaneous dance moves.

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This was just one highlight among many others, including Max’s charade of defeating an imaginary burglar, trying to outwit the dog that is determined to get him, and getting caught up in an elaborate hidden speakeasy set. A wonderful little film that went down a storm with the Kennington crowd, ‘BE MY WIFE’ was shown in a new restoration by Lobster Films.

Max was back as one of the ‘Hapless Husbands’ featured in a programme showcasing matrimonial comedies, ably introduced by Michelle Facey. ‘MAX WANTS A DIVORCE’ (1917) is another recently found film, made in the USA when Essanay courted him as a successor to Chaplin. Max is newly married, but will inherit a fortune only if he remains a bachelor. He plots a plan to stage an affair as grounds for divorce, bribing his new bride with the promise of a pearl necklace. A date and detective are summoned to an empty apartment, but a parade of mentally unhinged patients visiting a doctor in the same building make things anything but smooth. This film was a bit light on gags overall, but worked up to a fine and frenzied (if slightly insensitive) climax in the doctor’s office.

Michelle noted that in many cases, the husbands brought the worst on themselves! This was certainly true of the title character in ‘ROBINET IS JEALOUS’. An Italian short from 1914, this features Marcel Perez (aka Tweedy, among other names) as the eponymous character. When his wife goes out but refuses to disclose her whereabouts, he is consumed by jealousy, following her to an office block. He searches each floor, each time paying a price for his jealousy: each office seems to be occupied by various degree of psycppath, who all pounce on him as he enters the door! Thus, Robinet is subjected to dentistry, a boxing match and an incredibly violent massage  (with rolling pins, of all things!). Violent stuff, but savagely funny. Finally, he locates his wife and it transpires that she has been secretly having a bust made of him as a present.

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Gerard Damman in ‘DER PERSER’

 

Secret presents featured in another European comedy, ‘DER PERSER’ (THE PERSIAN CARPET, 1919). This featured a very obscure German comic, Gerard Damman, who was a discovery of Glenn Mitchell’s. Damman plans to buy his wife a Persian carpet as an anniversary gift, but his furtive behaviour leaads her to be suspicious and think he is ill. Meanwhile, he sneaks out and gets the carpet, but the trams are on strike so he is forced to carry it back through the streets, in a rehash of ‘THE CURTAIN POLE’. The material was spread rather thinly, but Damman was excellent, an enjoyable quiet and subtle performer at a time when few comedians were. A highlight: his attempts to estimate the size of carpet he needs using leaps and bounds, unaware that his wife and a doctor are watching him.

HAPLESS HUSBANDS - INNOCENT HUSBANDS posterRounding out the programme was the always wonderful and charming Charley Chase, in INNOCENT HUSBANDS. From early in his two-reel career, it nevertheless shows his style already gelling perfectly with director Leo McCarey, and a wonderful cast including plump Kay Deslys, a moustache-less James Finlayson, and beautiful, icy Katherine Grant. Katherine is always convinced that Charley is up to something, and is persuaded to visit a spiritualist for more evidence of his infidelities. Charley, meanwhile, just wants to spend a quiet night in but is dragged out to a party by his bachelor neighbour and reluctantly set up with Kay,. The party have made their way to Charley’s flat as the séance relocates there, leaving Charley with three women and a man caught in his bedroom. His attempts to smuggle them out as ‘spirits’ during the séance are just brilliant. Typing that plot makes me realise how action packed ‘INNOCENT HUSBANDS’ is, but it never seems too contrived or plot-heavy. Charley and Leo McCarey were masters of telling complicated stories and putting them over in a brilliantly funny way. Their shorts are some of the best ever made, and this was acknowledged in the fantastic response given to the film.

Silent Laughter wouldn’t be the same without the Kennington Bioscope’s home, The Cinema Museum. It’s a wonderful place, but its future is in grave peril. Please take a look, sign and share!

 

The Emperor of Lancashire

George Formby was the UK’s biggest box office attraction for years on end. The grinning ukulele player and singer of funny, innuendo-riddled little songs (“With my little ukulele in my hand”; “I blew a little blast on my whistle”, etc – you get the idea) was mobbed all over the country as he played, and his tunes and catchphrases have entered the national consciousness.

He’s still loved by many, retaining a far more prominent profile than your average 1930s comedian, yet he is something of a guilty pleasure. Many look down on him snobbily, and he is the target of endless pastiches and parodies. (It’s amazing and a bit sad that many of the same old North-South divide prejudices that Formby faced in his lifetime are still here today).  This nice little documentary from UK comedian Frank Skinner gives him his due, explaining his appeal and talent as a performer rather nicely.

Even this documentary doesn’t give much space to his films, which are often overlooked. Formby made 23 films, and all are usually dismissed as lightweight fluff in a sentence or two in most books or articles. Actually, beyond his songs, he was a fine performer, providing an updated version of the classic silent comedy model. They may not be terribly sophisticated, but his films are an important link between silent comedy, the music halls and the classic post-war Ealing comedies.  Look at them with fresh eyes, and there’s plenty to enjoy, including some terrific visual gags, not to mention George doing his own stunts . I’ve added a page to the directory of comedians that mainly focuses on his film career, with a bit of biographical info added in:

George Formby

And if you haven’t seen any Formby films, I’d probably start with LET GEORGE DO IT, KEEP YOUR SEATS PLEASE!, TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN, NO LIMIT, GET CRACKING  or TROUBLE BREWING.

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Good Time Charley & The Pip from Pittsburg

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Charley Chase is one of my very favourite comedians. Charming, wildly inventive and prolific, he turned out dozens of genuine comedy classics in the silent and sound eras. His sound films have always been difficult to see, but thanks to recent showings on TCM, are now coming to light, albeit via non-legit sources such as bootleg DVDs and, of course, YouTube. I’ve collated a few in this post for your viewing pleasure.

The received wisdom among comedy buffs and film critics is that Chase’s talkies are not quite up to the quality of his silents. Ok, it is true that the precision and consistency of his work from 1925-27 was never quite reached again. . Charley’s later films, beginning with his last silents, experimented more, having a more laissez faire approach to the comedy from film to film. Inevitably, some of these ideas were more successful than others, and so the films seemed less consistent.

 If some of the films didn’t quite work out, they were balanced by an equal number of films that worked beautifully, succeeding to equal his silent work, often pushing his comedy in exciting new directions.

One particular group of films that most everyone agrees really did  work out are those featuring his partnership with Thelma Todd. Chase and Todd made an absolutely wonderful team, appearing in romantic comedies with a real human warmth to them. Charley was always generous with his co-stars; unlike many comedians who barely used their leading ladies as more than decoration, he allowed Thelma to thrive as much more than just a pretty face. In contrast to many of the comedies of the time, they seem like a genuine couple, sharing human foibles. You can’t fake such chemistry, and it’s no surprise to hear that Chase and Todd were very close in real life, with many rumours of offscreen affairs.

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First meeting: Charley & Thelma in ‘SNAPPY SNEEZER’

 

Their first film together was ‘SNAPPY SNEEZER’ (1929), and gradually Thelma’s roles built up to be more substantial. Even in the films where her role is fairly small, the chemistry between her and Charley is the highlight of the film. ALL TEED UP is a prime example; mainly less than stellar comedy of Chase as a rookie golfer, it’s highest spot comes at the beginning as Charley bumps into Thelma at a soda fountain and the pair are mistaken for a couple. Charley knew a good thing when he saw it and Thelma’s roles soon became much more prominent. In the best of their collaborations, the pair are virtually co-starred, each adding to the comedy and story.  WHISPERING WHOOPEE has a great role for Thelma to show her versatility as a gum-chewing good-time gal hired by Charley to help ‘persuade’ some businessmen to buy his property. When they turn out to be strait-laced, Charley has to pass her off as a society girl.

DOLLAR DIZZY sees Charley inherit a fortune, and so he books himself into a swanky retreat. He soon becomes aware that gold-diggers are everywhere, as a series of girls all try similar tricks to woo him. Locking himself in his hotel room, he is unaware that millionaires Thelma has been double-booked into the same room. Thelma is also on guard for fortune hunters, and the pair each become convinced that the other has broken in to get a piece of the money. This sort of proto-screwball comedy, with Charley and Thelma both strong-willed and possessed of human weaknesses, is one of the special aspects in these films. Thelma isn’t just a piece of eye candy on a pedestal; she contributes actively to the comedy of the films.

LOOSER THAN LOOSE is, for me, one of the most under-rated Chase-Todd films of all. Charley has just got engaged to Thelma when his boss calls up. Charley is required to entertain one of the company’s clients. Unfortunately, this Mr Henderson insists on wild parties with good time girls, much to Thelma’s jealousy. She insists that she come along as one of the girls. Things go from bad to worse at the nightclub; the other girl is cackling Dorothy Granger who humiliates Henderson and comes on to Charley. This leads to an escalating scene wherein Thelma takes her revenge by costing up to Henderson; Charley responds by snuggling with Dorothy, leading Thelma to up the ante, and so on.  With a similar plot to WHISPERING WHOOPEE, to me it stands above that film thanks to some subtle plot changes that heighten the effectiveness of the comedy. For one thing, the film places a focus on Charley and Thelma’s relationship at the centre of the situations, making us care about them more. Much of the funniest moments come less from gags, than their facial expressions: Charley’s pained look when he realises he’ll be in hot water with Thelma; a wonderfully acted scene of disappointment as Thelma sees her new engagement ring for the first time; the pair’s false smiles through gritted teeth. Best of all is the scene where the pair try to make each other jealous by flirting with their new partners: their giggly smiles are amusingly punctuated with snarls and sneers at each other!  Secondly, Charley is now an underdog; he only goes along with the evening because his boss insists, and because he is at the mercy of the client’s whims. It’s a great little film, with a wonderful supporting cast and that catchy Leroy Shield music that makes Roach films of this era such a breeze.

Of course, most famous of all these films is THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG. This wonderful blind date comedy has written about many times before, so I won’t add anything – but here it is. Sadly, this is the only online version I can find – an off 16mm copy. But it’s better than nothing. This film really needs to be on DVD in proper quality! A Charley Chase box set would be nice actually… Well, I can dream, can’t I?

Charley and Thelma’s partnership was, ultimately, a victim of its own success. While Charley wanted to make the teaming permanent and make features, Hal Roach had other ideas. Thelma was made a star in her own right, teamed with Zasu Pitts, and later Patsy Kelly, in an attempt at creating a female Laurel & Hardy. While those films are great fun, they rarely rose to the height of the best Chase-Todd films, and we can only wonder what they might have done next. Thelma would be allowed back to co-star with Charley in one last short, ‘THE NICKEL NURSER’ (1932). This story of Charley being hired to teach a millionaire’s daughters the value of money, was a gem in its own way, featuring  the return of the usual chemistry alongside some great sight gags, and a devastating Greta Garbo parody!  Oh, and there’s Billy Gilbert, too. What’s not to like?

After Thelma moved on to other things, Charley changed direction too. He moved to playing a less confident, more henpecked character he called his ‘nance’ (THE NICKEL NURSER marks one of the first steps in this direction), and subsequently moved into more domestic comedies. He would continue to make some absolutely brilliant films that remain criminally underrated, but the special warmth and magic of these films with Thelma would never quite be repeated. How sad to think that these two young, vital and charming performers would both be gone less than a decade after the films were created. But what a pair they made.

Help bring Lloyd Hamilton to DVD!

LONESOME

Lloyd Hamilton

Exciting news! In a post last year I mentioned viewing an exceptionally rare Lloyd Hamilton comedy ‘A HOME MADE MAN’ courtesy of David Glass & David Wyatt, and that there were tentative plans for a Lloyd Hamilton DVD set. Well, now it’s coming to fruition, courtesy of Kickstarter, and you can be a backer!

Hamilton’s comedy style was truly original. Like Harry Langdon’s, it was nuanced and reaction-based, but much more sardonic than any of the major comics. Each film saw him stumble from catastrophe to calamity, hopelessly trying to maintain his ill-fitting sense of dignity and superiority. Chaplin, Keaton and Sennett all remembered him in later years as a major talent, but the majority of his films are lost, so this chance to see his films on DVD is a not-to-be-missed opportunity.

 

The films to be featured are:

THE SIMP (1920)

MOONSHINE (1920 – directed by Charley Chase and featuring him in a small role)

APRIL FOOL (1920 – Also directed by Chase)

DYNAMITE (1920)

HIS MUSICAL SNEEZE (1919) A very rare Fox short, recently rediscovered, courtesy of the Danish Film Institute

A HOME MADE MAN (1928)

 

You can read more about Hamilton here.

And below is the link to pledge for a copy of the DVD. Go, go, go!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/321833650/lloyd-hamilton-silent-comedian

Baby Talk

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The series of Harry Langdon shorts made at Hal Roach are an obscure, strange and fascinating group of films. Their reputation has traditionally been terrible, not helped by a long time when they weren’t very easy to see. The films are frequently bizarre and sometimes bewildering, but often hilarious, and certainly much better than they’ve been given credit for.

Although it was the dawn of the sound era before Langdon and Roach joined forces, Roach had had his eye on Harry for a long time. Harold Lloyd had seen Langdon’s vaudeville act in 1923 and recommended him to the producer; that time round, Roach lost out to Sol Lesser, and ultimately to Mack Sennett. Langdon, of course, went on to hit great heights at Sennett as one of the great silent clowns with his innocent ‘little elf’ character “who only God can save”. In 1926 began a contract for 6 prestigious features with First National.

However, by 1928 circumstances were very different. After initial success in features, Harry’s increasing dalliance with offbeat, avante-garde ideas in his comedies was not to the taste of the general public . Although his later films have their supporters (I’m one of them) Langdon’s star was falling fast. Of ‘HEART TROUBLE’, Photoplay’s review was brief, but brutal; “With HEART TROUBLE, Harry Langdon writes his own finish in pictures.” Losing his appeal, and woefully over budget, Langdon was let go by First National. He sought a contract with United Artists, but to no avail, and returned to vaudeville. To add to his woes, former colleague Frank Capra, who had been fired by Langdon, was bitterly trying to regain his reputation by spreading the word that Langdon was impossible to work with. Meanwhile, Hal Roach had gone from strength to strength and, in the wake of his huge successes producing Our Gang, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy films, could easily afford to hire the comedian. He gave Harry his second chance in December of 1928, contracting him to make a talking feature. However, the Roach studios had not yet installed their sound equipment, and a long closure of the studios was necessary to enable this. Langdon, probably not wanting to be away from the screen for too long through fears of being branded a has-been, cancelled his contract and waited for other offers. There must not have been too many forthcoming, because in April of 1929 he resigned with Roach. The contract had been downgraded from a feature to a series of shorts; perhaps the high cost of sound installation necessitated this, or maybe it was because of the uncertainty surrounding Langdon’s appeal and willingness to play ball at the time.

Harry’s reputation was in tatters, and much of his publicity around this time goes to great pains to paint him as contrite, realising that he had behaved badly and eager to eat humble pie. To whit, an article in Photoplay of 1929 quotes Harry as saying “I really want to make people laugh again, if I get this second chance”. Not for the last time, he was being compared to the helpless child he portrayed on screen, an unfortunate trend that has,  annoyingly, often been the standard when discussing Langdon’s career.

A similar undercurrent runs through a promo reel made to launch the series to MGM executives. Harry appears in a brief sketch also featuring fellow new signings Thelma Todd, as a housewife, and Eddie Dunn as a drunk. The skit is principally full of rather tedious in-jokes for the audience, namedropping executives like Fred Quimby. Tellingly, however, Eddie Dunn steps out of character at the end of the footage to tell us that “Mr Roach has the greatest confidence in the world in Mr Langdon, and Harry is eager to go” . Reading between the lines, this might as well be “Mr Roach has agreed to give Mr Langdon this chance, and Harry has agreed to get off his high horse and do as he’s told. That’ll learn him.” (It’s also worth recalling that Hal Roach, despite being a friend of Langdon’s, felt the need to warn him “none of that high-handed stuff you pulled at First National”.)

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The promo reel is also the first time we get to hear Langdon speak on film. His reputation in sound, from Leonard Maltin et al, was that he had a “thin voice”, that was unsuited to his character and “babbled incoherently like an idiot”. In actual fact, Harry’s voice is just fine for his character. Personally, I think it’s a better match than Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd’s. As for the babbling, this is truthfully only something he experimented with for his first few sound films, but the worst example we have is in this reel. If transcribed, a typical line of dialogue might read: “Well, well, well, well, well…how are you? And well, well, well, well….uh? Uh oh! Uh Oh! Well, well, well, well, well…” Maltin’s assertion is right in this film – Harry does get extremely irritating, even in the short running time!

It’s hard to ascertain if Harry kept on gabbling like this in his first two proper releases – HOTTER THAN HOT & SKY BOY – as they currently only survive without their soundtracks, and are locked away in the vaults.

Certainly, though, they set the pace for one aspect of the series by having bizarre plots. Coupled with sometimes equally strange gag sequences, the films often seem like the kind of odd dreams that leave you scratching your head in the morning. This surreal style, having much in common with Langdon’s last few features, is definitely something of an acquired taste, and has perhaps helped account for the poor reputation of these films. This offbeat aspect had always been part of the Langdon package though, so its likely that he was partly behind the plot decisions. ‘HOTTER THAN HOT’ definitely bore his influence, as it was initially based on ‘THE MESSENGER’, the act he had been touring in Vaudeville with. In it, he aparently plays a pyromaniac who chases fire engines, and eventually gets trapped in a burning building with Thelma Todd. SKY BOY has an even weirder storyline; Harry and rival Eddie Dunn end up stranded on an iceberg after a plane crash!

The First of the Langdons to survive complete is ‘SKIRT SHY’, in which Harry, as May Wallace’s butler, poses in drag to help her win a marriage proposal from her shortsighted lover. Overall it’s not a great film by any means. It’s clunky, there’s far too much footage given over to the slapstick violence between May Wallace’s rival suitors without any real sight gags, and not enough of quiet moments with Harry. Still, we should remember that this is still a very early talkie. ‘BERTH MARKS’ wasn’t too much of a gas, either.

However, if Langdon kept up his gabbling in the previous two films, he’s starting to tone it down by this point. He keeps a childlike, halting style to his delivery, but is perfectly comprehensible, and the moments where he stumbles over or repeats words are more refined, adding to his character rather than making him infuriating.

Obviously, he was still adapting his sound technique in the face of new technology, and doing a fairly good job for only his fourth talkie appearance. Talking does make him a little less magical of course, but he has a handful of totally wordless scenes where we can see the brilliance of the silent Langdon shine through.   One such moment is a lovely little scene where Harry stands beneath an apple tree, and an apple lands in his hand. Delighted, he takes a bite, but the joy drains from his face; either it’s rotten, or he’s just found half a worm! He tosses it away, and another one instantly hits him on the head; he tentatively tries it, but it’s bad too. Again, another apple hits him. This one tastes fine, and his delight is palpable! It’s a great little moment that relies totally on Harry’s pantomime and facial expressions, and returns to the classic Langdon theme of forces beyond his control; he won’t fetch an apple himself, but he’ll keep biting until fate puts a nice one in his hand.

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THE HEAD GUY, featuring Harry as deputy stationmaster mixed up with a travelling dance troupe, is another bizarre, dreamlike little film. While still quite clunky, it comes off a bit better. There’s also one of the oddest scenes in any of the shorts, as Harry, ditched by his girlfriend, blubs uncontrollably while stuffing his mouth with a sandwich! It’s the kind of fascinatingly, bizarrely funny sequence that Langdon very fond of, and excelled at, but Hal Roach later recalled the frustration of the film crew as he would drag on scenes for far too long, unwilling to take advice from anyone on how to make them faster and funnier. Again, this is the sort of comment that has become gospel and helped to account for the poor reputation of the films, but how true was it really?

Well, looking at the filming dates of the shorts shows them to have not taken any longer than the average Roach two-reeler to film. Perhaps Harry’s unhappy marriage to Helen Walton made him less personable than usual, but he certainly seems to have had no problems getting along with his regular director Charley Rogers. The films they made are generally smoother than many other early talkies, and move at a good clip. Far from finding Langdon insufferable to work with, Rogers seems to have struck up an effective friendship and partnership with him; the pair later teamed up again to write gags for several Laurel and Hardy features, and themselves starred in two 1940s B-pictures, ‘DOUBLE TROUBLE’(1942) and ‘HOUSE OF ERRORS’(1943).

MGM certainly seemed pleased with the films, and gave a good deal of publicity to them; reviewers generally shared their enthusiasm. A certain amount of revisionism appears to have gone on to fit in with the accepted legend of Langdon being a helpless has-been. I’d suggest that, if Langdon did have difficulties assimilating in to the Roach style, it was less in terms of gags and acting than his story ideas; Roach Studios plots were generally grounded in reality, whereas Harry’s surreal stories were a very different kettle of fish. One of the most surreal scenes in any of the films climaxes ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’, as Harry , in a boxing match, puts his gloves on the ends of broom handles, which he hides Inside his jumper. This gives him the appearance of having arms that grow ever longer, enabling him to keep his distance from his opponent while hitting him. It’s a very, very strange image that sticks with you long after the film is over, and its also very funny. ‘THE FIGHTING PARSON’ isn’t perfect; it suffers from some clunky early sound filming and long, tedious silent stretches, but it’s a definite improvement over the previous Langdon films. For one thing, its surrealism is more filled out with little sight gags, as well as some unexpected delights like Harry tap-dancing, and a tantalising fragment of him singing ‘Frankie and Johnny’, accompanying himself on the banjo.

Now, the Langdon series was really starting to gel; the next film, ‘THE BIG KICK’, is by far the best of the bunch. It’s fast-moving and full of great gags and pantomime routines. For anyone who thinks that Harry babbles incoherently in every film, take a look at this one; he barely even speaks at all! Possibly because it was also filmed in Spanish, as ‘EL ESTACION GASOLINA’, dialogue is at a minimum, and the result is the nearest to a silent comedy that Harry made at Roach. In this respect, a great addition is a background music track (much of it taken from the Vitaphone track for Laurel and Hardy’s ‘LIBERTY’), which really helps pick up the pace. This was something that was sorely lacking from the earlier films, which suffered from a barren soundtrack during Harry’s long pantomime routines.

‘THE BIG KICK’ begins with detectives Edgar Kennedy and Baldwin Cooke chasing some bootleggers. They stop at the garage where Harry works but there’s no answer; Harry is asleep. There follows a leaisurely routine of him struggling to wake up and go about his morning routine, much of it repeated from his ilent feature ‘THREE’S A CROWD’. Particularly funny is his elaborate, childlike way of washing his face with as little water as possible. This scene, in particular, benefits immeasurably from the background music. Next, we’re into a beautifully played pantomime routine, as a customer with a horrifically noisy engine pulls up to the garage, and attempts to hold a conversation with Harry over the din. Here’s a creative use of sound, that paradoxically gives reason for silent comedy to take place. This was Buster Keaton’s philosophy for sound in a nutshell; I wonder if he tried to use this scene as an example in his struggles with the MGM writing staff? The bootleggers show up again at the garage later on. They’ve concelaed their moonshine in a busload of dummies. A shootout follows when the police turn up, and Harry, confused as always, tries to save the dummies, as the bus is shot full of holes and liquor pours out everywhere. Finally aware of the mixup, he knocks the heads off a long line of the dummies with a mallet, but fails to notice a policeman has appeared at the end, and hits him with the mallet too. Exit, running.

Although much of its pantomime needs to be seen rather than described, ‘THE BIG KICK’ is, to my mind,  genuinely as good as any other Roach product of the time, and no excuses need to be made for it. Almost as good, though just a notch below, was the next film, ‘THE SHRIMP’. As the title character, Harry is constantly bullied by residents in the boarding house where he lives, but stays because of his love for the landlord’s daughter Nancy. He gets the chance to stand up for himself when scientist Max Davidson injects him with a serum containing  “the spirit of the bulldog”. The treatment works, and Harry licks the bullies, but an unexpected side effect is revealed as he takes off in pursuit of a cat, pausing only to contemplate the use of a lamp post…

The film has one of the strongest storylines of the eight shorts, and provides good opportunities for playing with Harry’s character, but is somewhat uneven in quality. The film is composed of three distinct segments, and a problem is that the first two are necessary to build up to the third. In a two-reeler, this accounts for nearly half the time being taken up by exposition, making the whole seem off-balance. The first shows Harry’s cruel treatment at the hands of bully Jim (James Mason) and his girlfriend (Thelma Todd).. Much of the intended humour actually just makes us feel sorry for Harry, but there are some nice little sight gags mixed in. The middle section, Harry being treated by Max Davidson, is disappointingly played as a fairly straight scientific demonstration; there would have been more fun to be had if Harry had somehow been injected by accident.

However, the final third more than makes up for the shortcomings of what came before, as Harry returns to the boarding house and teaches everybody a lesson in a wild, gag-packed finale. Arriving home, he engages in a tit-for-tat routine with Thelma Todd. Harry continually knocks her hat to the ground, and each time she bends over to retrieve it, fights the temptation to kick her in the behind. It’s one of those things more easily seen than described, but his wonderful timing and movement give it an almost balletic quality.

After this, he marches through the house, yelling orders left, right and centre (“STOP EATING CANDY!” he yells to a fat man), and finally takes on Jim in a slapstick battle. The scene is full of funny little touches, including a moment where Langdon plays with his voice, using a deeper tone to sound more sinister. It’s an intriguing little bit he also tries in his next film, and shows him to be confident playing with the possibilities of the sound medium. Although it has some shortcomings, ‘THE SHRIMP’ builds to a hilarious climax and contains the funniest moments of any of the shorts.

Langdon rounded out the series with THE KING, which revisits his Sennett four-reeler ‘SOLDIER MAN’, and mixes in elements of his feature ‘THE CHASER’. The result is another playful film that experiments with his ‘little elf’ character. In ‘THE KING’, rather than the innocent, eager-to-please man-child we usually see, he is very definitely the spoiled naughty boy; if you will, the little Harry-shaped devil on the little elf’s shoulder. This naughty-boy Harry yields to the temptations of the many women who throw themselves at his majesty, and threatens to stay out late, but remains childlike; his misbehaviour doesn’t extend beyond the level of playing postman’s knock, or peeking at the queen as she undresses. The chief joke in the film is that Harry, despite being the king, is actually totally subordinate to the Queen (thelma Todd) and his new advisor (James Parrott, in his only speaking role).

The entire two reels are basically riffs on this idea; some of the gags work, and others don’t. All in all, it’s again quite uneven, but fascinating nonetheless, and with several very funny moments. Perhaps the best gag to sum up his character in the film is his wonderful opening scene. Searching for the king, Parrott looks all around the opulent palace and grounds , through all the trappings of wealth and immense power, and is eventually told the king is out “hunting in the woods.” Sure enough, there is the monarch, dressed in full regalia, shooting at a tin can on a wall like a little boy!

Following completion of the film, Langdon received a tantalising offer to make a high profile feature, ‘A SOLDIER’S PLAYTHING’, and left Roach to do so. Ultimately, this turned out to be a mistake, as the film gradually sank in prestige until it was a low budget film that sank without trace. Langdon would return to Roach as gagman and occasional actor at Roach in the late 30s, but would spend his next few years freelancing, and in shorts at Educational and Columbia.

The shorts we’re left with are an odd bunch to be sure. Langdon is already a divisive figure amongst film fans, and these 8 shorts polarise opinion perhaps more than any other he made. Certainly, next to the more universal comedy of L& H, Our Gang et al, they can seem like failures. Perhaps at this juncture in his career, it would have done Langdon more good to make some more straightforward two reel comedies to win back some of his alienated fanbase, and then experimented more later. But, to quote Mr Laurel, there’s no use crying over split milk, and there is lots to enjoy in what we do have. Yes, the films are uneven and often bizarre, but they all have fantastic moments. Let’s not forget, 1929-30 was hardly a golden year for many of the Roach series. They all went through an inevitable period of adjustment to sound technique. In fact, cinematically, the Langdon talkies are much better films than many of the other Roach product of the time, and move a heck of a lot smoother. Even SKIRT SHY, just about the weakest of the surviving Langdon talkies, is preferable over the clunky early OUR GANG films. With one or two exceptions, the films just got better as the series progressed, and it’s a real shame that the series ended just as the films had started to gel. If Harry had stayed at Roach into the golden era of 1930-1933, who knows what classics we might have had? Still, what we do have, whilst inevitably not up to his silent heights of brilliance, are definitely worth looking at again; a group of weird, wacky and hugely fascinating films that show Langdon in character and on great form.

This post first appearewd as an article in issue 2 of  Movie Night/ The Lost Laugh Magazine. (c) Matthew Ross 2012

 

“Just call me Charlie”

Here’s a wonderful BBC interview with Charlie Chaplin (I believe it’s actually from late 1952) discussing both his then current film, LIMELIGHT, and various aspects of his career and life.  Chaplin is sometimes given an unfair reputation of being a bit of an overly serious bore in his later years, but actually, he comes across as a very engaging speaker. Cerebral, yes, but also lighthearted and surprisingly modest. In reference to doing everything himself on his films, for example: “I know lots of people could do it, but it’s just a matter of having the money to be able to afford it” . There’s extra interest in the panel of filmmakers he is interviewed by, including Sir Michael Balcon and John Mills. Overall, a great and illuminating listen.

 

The Rediscovery of the Century?

A belated report on a screening of the restored ‘BATTLEOF THE CENTURY’–
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Recently, happy coincidence presented the opportunity for me to see several ‘new’ Laurel and Hardy films in a short space of time. Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend presented newly rediscovered footage from ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ as well as two L & H solo films,  and shortly after came the chance to see the newly restored, almost complete version of ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. For so many years a frustratingly fragmented film, this has finally had its iconic pie fight reinstated at full length. Re-premiered last year, the film has, I believe, only had two previous screenings in the UK, both in London, and both of which I was crushingly unable to attend. It was with great excitement that I saw the film was being shown as part of the Leeds International Film Festival, in support of Harold Lloyd’s wonderful ‘SPEEDY’.
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The venue was The City Varieties theatre, a Victorian marvel which, like the films, has been newly restored to its former glory. It was also an appropriate venue for a silent comedy show, as both Chaplin and Keaton once trod the boards here (Chaplin as a young performer, Buster in his later years).
 Accompaniment was by Jonathan Best and Trevor Bartlett. Their accompaniment, of piano and percussion, was magnificent, one of the very best I’ve heard.
And the films? ‘SPEEDY’, my favourite Lloyd feature, was wonderful as ever, and shimmered magnificently in its new Blu Ray version. As good as it is though, ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’ was inevitably the big star here. The restoration looked absolutely beautiful on the big screen, and I found myself in a childlike state of excitement and wonder as the new footage unfolded.
We’ll get to the prodigal pie fight in a minute, but first, a word on the opening scenes.
The boxing scenes looked stunning, much less dark than the previously available version. Comedically, I’ve always thought this a very  underrated sequence: some nice physical comedy, superb ‘heavy’-ing from Noah Young, and wonderful reactions from both Stan and Babe. It’s also a rare foray into topical satire, albeit loosely, for L & H. ‘The Battle of the Century’ was how the 1927 Dempsey v Tunney prize fight was billed, and it became notorious for its ‘long count’. The Chicago Tribune takes up the story:

“Amid a screaming crowd of 104,943 spectators, reporters at ringside said it took champion Gene Tunney somewhere from 12 to 15 seconds to regain his feet after being knocked down byformer champion Jack Dempsey.

It should have taken referee Dave Barry 10 seconds to count out Tunney, making Dempsey a winner by a knockout in the seventh round. But Dempsey ignored the rule that he first had to go to a neutral corner. He thereby transformed those few seconds into legend.Barry escorted Dempsey to a corner, then began a delayed count. Tunney rose before it reached 10.

In his autobiography, Dempsey conceded that he forgot all about the rule: “It’s hard to stop what you’re doing, standing over a guy and waiting for him to get up.”

Tunney, who floored Dempsey briefly in the ninth round, won the 10-round fight and retained the title.”

So, actually, the whole scene is a directly comic version of the real life event. It also struck me while watching the prizefight scenes that this is where ‘Stan’ is really born. While THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS  and PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP were both wonderful comedies with terrific performances from Laurel, he’s a bit too spirited and spritely in both  to fully represent the later Stan we know and love. Perhaps the mellowing was present in ‘HATS OFF’, too, but the surviving still photographs and cutting continuity cannot reveal whether the nuance of performance we see in ‘BATTLE’ began in the earlier film. Until that magical date when we can see ‘HATS OFF’, ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’ represents the real birth of ‘Stan’.
 With the boxing scenes over, the sense of anticipation rose in the audience. The scene which followed, with insurance man Eugene Pallette persuading Babe to take out some insurance on Stan, is still elusive. It was replaced by the same selection of bridging title cards and stills we’ve always been familiar with. But then, the last still faded, there was a brief, pregnant pause, and up in silver light shone a different corner of the Roach studios. Our two heroes walked into the frame and it was true. This was something I’d never seen before! 
 Battle Of The Century
Here they were, bringing to life images we’ve previously only known as still photographs, lost frozen images in books. Here was Babe, imperiously leading the way, and sneakily dropping a banana peel ahead of Stan; here was Stan, walking right over it in bland-faced, blissful ignorance. It was really happening. The whole scene was very well developed as a comic sequence. Feigning indecision over which direction to take, Babe repeatedly leads Stan for a walk back and forward along the same small piece of street. Each time, he gets to subtly shows his frustration with an understated “Damn!” gesture. Wonderfully funny underplaying from Mr Hardy.
Eventually, it is not Stan but a cop who slips on the peel. This begins a running gag of Babe trying to plant the rest of the banana on Stan. When he finally succeeds in doing so, the scene plays out beautifully slowly, a fine example of the L & H breakthrough in pacing. The cop looks at the banana, then at Stan. Stan looks at the banana, then back at the cop. The cop removes Stan’s hat, which Stan looks at curiously. Then, and only then, does the cop exact retribution on the Laurel cranium. Stan continues playing the scene slowly, glazing over and replacing his hat. Finally, he begins to cry. Early in the game of the L & H characters, the cry is set up wonderfully; there was not just laughter but real sympathy in the audience at Leeds!
Babe investigates the damage; a large lump has risen on Stan’s head. “I’ll get $100 dollars for that pineapple!” he crows. Stan, like Harry Langdon, seeks solace in food, but Babe snatches the banana from him before it can reach his mouth. This leads us into where the existing footage previously picked up: Pieman Charlie Hall slipping on the peel and Babe trying to plant the peel back on Stan. However, it soon becomes clear just how much Youngson edited down the footage. Practically every sequence or shot we’re used to has at least some extra material to it, in many cases full omitted gags. Careful examination of the film shows the joining points, as the ‘new’ footage is just a tiny bit less sharp.
The initial altercation with Charlie Hall, for instance, reinstates a previously unknown tit for tat sequence with ‘the little menace’. After Babe (this time unsuccessfully) again tries to plant the peel on Stan, Hall flicks his nose, messes his tie, and generally gives him a classic, finger-wagging Hall telling off before resorting to a pie! It’s easy to see why Youngson edited this down after dispensing with the previous scene: it works much better in the context of Ollie getting his come-uppance after leaving poor Stan at the mercy of the policeman.
the-battle-of-the-century-pie-fight
After this, Dorothy Coburn receives Babe’s  pie and marches over, demanding, via title “Who threw that poultice?” She returns the favour, after Stan has carefully moved Hall out of the way.
 Youngson’s footage has some judicious edits from this sequence, including the disappearance of the moment where Stan receives a pie of his own.
Also now reinstated is the reappearance of the insurance salesman, who cries out “Don’t you know it’s foolish to throw pies without insurance?”, and is roundly pelted.
Added to the recipients of pastries are a chairwoman beating a rug (“Who threw that goober?!”), and several others. We’ve already seen a man receiving a pie on his freshly shined shoes; now, the shoeshine man also gets a delivery of his own. Ditto, the photographer whose subject is a victim. In the bakery, we see a customer make the demand , via title card, “Gimme a pie!”, before his wish is fulfilled. These little details, previously lost, add a great deal to the previously known footage. Without trying to sound pretentious, the sequence now flows much more organically, as the filmmakers intended it to be seen. Laurel’s later observation that they “made every pie count” stands truer than ever and the even greater plethora of variations on the gag is increased testament to the gag writers’ talent.
Of course, one of the most justly celebrated gags in the whole thing is a cameo by Anita Garvin. Recalling that she did it as a favour to Stan on his lunchbreak, it’s a testament to her talent that she can make a quick, off the cuff shot perhaps the funniest moment in the picture. Falling on the ground, the pie landing beneath her skirt, she registers shock, disgust and embarrassment all at once in a marvellously subtle facial expression, before getting up awkwardly, and pausing to shake her leg ever so gently to dislodge some pastry.  This is where the previous version ended, but the celebrated scene now has a tag – we cut back to the boys, having seen her, laughing away, and Stan even imitating her leg waggle. At this point, the cop re-enters.
“Did you start that pie fight?” He asks.
“What pie fight?” asks Babe, his face a picture of earnest and cherubic helpfulness beneath the pastry; cut to the view of the entire city block consumed by the ritualistic pastry orgy.
Right on cue, a pie lands square in the cop’s face. The boys stifle a laugh, and attempt to saunter nonchalantly off, but turn to running as the cop gives chase. Fade to The End title, and it was all over too soon.
In an age of DVD box sets, eternally cycling YouTube playlists and instant availability of classic (and not so classic) film footage, it’s easy to take for granted how much we have.  The discovery of small chunks of important footage like this, at a time when our L and H wish list is so mercifully small, really make us pore over them and appreciate every frame. And what a wonder it is to be treated to new scenes, rather like bumping into an old, beloved friend in the street and unexpectedly embarking on a new adventure. As such, I found it really quite moving to witness ‘brand new’ footage after all these years. Of course, it’s impossible not to be left wanting more – the one remaining missing scene from BATTLE, and of course the complete HATS OFF – but even if this turns out to be the last major L & H rediscovery, it’s a fitting jewel in the crown of their catalogue.
**By the way, you can catch the new version,of “BATTLE” at the Hippodrome Film Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland next month, and due to demand there’s a repeat showing in April. It’s also planned to be part of the 2017 Silent Laughter Weekend. Watch this space for details!**

More Laurel & Hardy Revelations

This is the second in a series of posts  about Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend, where a host of rare and obscure silent comedies were shown.

hundredyears

I keep saying it, but it’s a damn good time to be a silent film fan. We’ve seen so many rediscoveries of classic comedy footage lately, some that we didn’t even know existed in the first place! For Laurel & Hardy fans, of course the big news has been the rediscovery of the complete pie fight from ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’, but there have been other discoveries too. Last year, we saw a new, much improved version of their early short ‘DUCK SOUP’; now comes a similar upgrade for ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’, as well as two previously lost solo films.

At Silent Laughter Weekend, these were introduced by L & H experts Glenn Mitchell and David Wyatt, who provided some context for the rediscoveries. When Robert Youngson was compiling his silent comedy compilation films like ‘THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY and ‘WHEN COMEDY WAS KING’ in the late 50s, he was the first person to access many of the silent comedy films for years. He was able to access the films before they decomposed, and the excerpts he chose are in many cases the only surviving material of the films now. However, as well as taking the footage he needed, it turns out that he had a habit of sneakily making copies of whole films that he particularly liked. He kept quiet about this, presumably so he didn’t get into trouble, and the prints went undetected. Meanwhile, by the time companies like Blackhawk got around to issuing commercial prints of the films, many of the masters had gone forever. Youngson’s orphan prints, which have only just come to light, preserved these in the nick of time. This is how the ‘BATTLE’ footage came to be, and is also the provenance of ‘new’ prints of ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ and ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, found by Jon Mirsalis, while examining other films in the Gordon Berkow (ex-Youngson) collection.

second-100

In contrast to the large chunks of ‘new’ footage in ’BATTLE…’, the new discoveries in ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ are less revelatory. They are, however, still worth noting. Essentially, there are a few scenes which go on a bit longer, presumably because advanced decomposition later led to these segments being cut. While these can be seen as fairly minor differences, they do restore the full film to us as the filmmakers intended it to be seen, for the first time since the late 1920s. Here are the key differences I spotted while watching it through:

1) Opening scene: The UK Universal DVD set introduces Stan to us as ‘Little Goofy’, but not Babe. This version offers a tiny bit of extra footage of the pair at the outset, as well as an intro for Ollie: “Big Goofy— convicted on purely circumstantial evidence—- they caught him with both hands in the cash register”. I believe this was included in the US ‘Lost films’ version, but certainly for UK fans this is new.

2) The flooded office: We get a couple of seconds of extra footage, showing Frank Brownlee stepping into the office and falling in the water that has risen through Stan and Ollie’s tunnel.

3) The paint scene: this is the most interesting new bit of footage, as it’s a completely new, albeit short, scene of L & H. After Stan has painted Dorothy Coburn’s behind, the pair run in and out of some parked cars , and the scene fades out, ending the sequence. The Youngson version adds a tag: we fade up on the title “Four hours later—- “ and see the cop still in pursuit of the boys in the dark! Stan drops his paint can, and the cop ends up tripping over and landing in it. This is where the scene was supposed to end.

4) Finally, there’s a little extra footage of the French prison governors as they are introduced, following the scene above.

While studio publicity referred to this as the first film starring Roach’s new team, and many historians accept it as such , it never seemed quite so clear cut to the studio just what the team would be billed as. Publicity refers to “Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy”, “Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel”, and even “the new comedy trio, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and James Finlayson”! How did the original titles decide it? Revealed for the first time here, they fudge the issue by not giving team billing at all! The film is titled as ‘Hal Roach presents ‘THE SECOND 100 YEARS’’, with the cast following on the next title, like this:

With

Stan Laurel

  Oliver Hardy

    James Finlayson

      Stanley J Sandford

Perhaps the lack of a joint star billing above the title explains the reason why neither Stan nor Babe considered ‘THE SECOND 100 YEAR’ to be their ‘official’ first film, both instead giving this claim to ’PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’. As L & H fans know, ’PHILIP’ is actually far less like an official L & H film than this one; what it does have, however, is the billing ’Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy in…’ before the title. Perhaps ‘PHILIP’ represents the moment when the matter of billing crystallised, a small but significant moment in their history. Speaking of ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, the new version from Youngson’s collection doesn’t contain any new footage, but does offer an upgrade in image quality. Hopefully both prints will be restored and available soon.

the-second-hundred-years-press-sheet

SOLO DISCOVERIES

We were also treated to the UK premieres of two L & H solo films. Both come from Italy’s Cineteca Nazionale, and accordingly have Italian titles. Translation voiceovers were ably provided for us on the day by Susan Cygan.

I wrote about the rediscovery of Stan Laurel’s solo film ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ a while ago, and particularly one two minute scene that made it to YouTube. To recap briefly, this was a spoof of Rudolph Valentino’s ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, and the only one of Stan’s 12 films for Joe Rock not to be around in some form. However, only 7 minutes of fragments have been recovered. On viewing the full extract, it turns out that the surviving footage is not one or two scenes, but a quick tour through the whole film. We open with Stan, as Rhubarb Vaselino, “practising his favourite hobby”: doing his make up. This is a parallel scene to one in Stan’s other Valentino spoof ‘MUD AND SAND’, both mocking Valentino’s legendary vanity. Here, Stan, applies beauty spots and goes about his ritual with comically oversized accessories.

monsieur_dont_care__still1_Next, we have a brief dinner table scene where Stan enjoys some bathtub gin, and a card table scene, where Stan is playing against a count, and accuses him of cheating. This leads to him having to flee, disguising himself as a barber, a per the Valentino original. There are the brief bones of a comic barber sketch, before we cut into the flirtation scene I discussed at greater length in the last issue: Stan is attempting to escort the lady across a puddle in the street to an anachronistic yellow taxi cab. He lays down his coat, Walter Raleigh style, on top of the puddle. Stepping on it, Stan and escort disappear beneath the water; yup, it’s an early example of the famous L & H bottomless mudhole™! Here’s that scene, courtesy of the Cineteca’s YouTube account:

Following this scene, a title informs us that “ a new lady makes her entrance into society”: cue a great scene of a vampy Stan swaggering along that holds lots of promise. Alas, this is where the footage ends, so we can only wonder what happened next!

‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ looks like it was great fun, up there with the best of the Laurel parodies. Frustratingly, the surviving footage always cuts to another scene before any gags have the chance to build, but there are some very funny moments peppered throughout.

Finally, the Universe’s laws of equilibrium have been preserved, as , to accompany the new Laurel solo discovery, there’s a new Hardy solo film too! Hooray! ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is more complete than ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’; it is ,however, both much less funny and rather less interesting. The star is Jimmy Aubrey, a Karno colleague of Laurel and Chaplin, who made a string of alliteratively titled films (SQUEAKS & SQUAWKS, DAMES & DENTISTS, etc)  like this one for Vitagraph in the late teens and early 20s. While I can usually find something to enjoy in practically any comedian, I have to admit Aubrey leaves me cold in these films. He later showed, in character parts, (eg L & H’s ‘THAT’S MY WIFE’) that he could be very funny, but gets little chance to show any natural gag or pantomime ability in his own films, or at least the ones I’ve seen so far.

movpicwor471movi_0013Take this film, for example. It’s mainly crude knockabout set in a department store, based rather obviously on Chaplin’s ‘THE FLOORWALKER’, right down to a central staircase prop. Here, it’s a precursor of the collapsing staircase Keaton used in 1921’s ‘THE HAUNTED HOUSE’. Did Buster get the idea from here? Whatever, it’s a perfect example of why Keaton was head and shoulders above performers like Aubrey; in ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’, there’s no reason for the prop to be there, and the only gags that happen are people falling down it. Keaton, on the other hand, furnishes a reason for the staircase, and adds in a host of different variations on its use, that almost make it a character in itself.

The best scene in ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is actually outside the department store, as Babe chases Jimmy. Jimmy hides amongst some dummies and Babe searches for him, slowly becoming more and more suspicious. It’s a fun little moment of quiet between the slapstick madness, and significant that Aubrey is funniest when doing pretty much nothing, and leaving the reacting to Babe. The (unintentionally) most amusing moment of all though, is surely when the heroine writes a note describing Aubrey as “cuddly and charming”! What had she been drinking? I can’t think of any two less suitable adjectives!

Hardy almost certainly wouldn’t have used this description, as Aubrey had him fired from the series shortly after for upstaging him. It’s easy to see why, based on the evidence of ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’. Even behind his huge prop moustache and eyebrows, the touches of humour Babe added to his traditional ‘heavy’ roles really shine through in a film with few genuinely amusing gags, and show how sophisticated his acting style was compared to most of the other performers in the film. Speaking of other performers, there’ s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him scene of Monty Banks, and director Dick Smith (Alice Howell’s husband) also has a small role. It might not be a classic, but ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is an interesting film to see, and helps paint a fuller picture of Hardy’s solo career.

These two films have been rescued and restored in 4k by the Cineteca Nazionale. Many thanks to them, both for their efforts in doing so, and for allowing the films to be shown as part of Silent Laughter Weekend.