The Lost laugh

Lockdown Laughter: a Q & A with The Silent Comedy Watch Party’s Ben Model

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For classic comedy fans in lockdown, The Silent Comedy Watch Party provides a weekly ray of sunshine. This wonderful weekly live streaming event takes place every Sunday on YouTube and is the brain child of Silent film accompanist and historian Ben Model and author/historian Steve Massa.

Presenting three comedy shorts with Ben’s terrific piano accompaniment and Steve’s insightful intros (streamed in via FaceTime), the watch parties make for wonderful viewing and are preserving the essence of live silent cinema in the most difficult circumstances. They are especially a joy for those outside of the US, who wouldn’t normally get to see the shows put on by Ben & Steve!

Ben very kindly took the time to give some insight into the shows for us:

ben modelThe Lost Laugh: Hi, Ben! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Can you tell us a little about the silent comedy watch party and how the idea for the shows came about?

Ben: I’ve had the idea to do a live-streamed silent film show for a few years, actually. I was always reticent to take the plunge and give it a shot because my main interest is in promoting attendance at shows. I didn’t want to do something that would make staying home from an art house or museum or whatever palatable. Then the week of March 8th I watch all my gigs topple like dominoes, gradually over the course of a week. One thing that occurred to me was that a cancelled show meant two things: that I wasn’t going to do a show and, maybe more importantly, that each of those shows meant 50 or 100 or 400 people weren’t going to get to see that silent film they were looking forward to.

I already had all the bits of equipment I needed, tech-wise. Some I had picked up in my recent years’ interest in iPhone filmmaking, and some I’d had for a while. And I had this light-bulb moment where all the puzzle pieces came together in my head — including the fact that my YouTube account was approved for live-streaming — and I decided to give it a shot. The response has been, frankly, moving. Even from the first test pilot show we did on March 15. Folks had been in their homes a week already and were looking at movie theaters and more shutting down, knowing they wouldn’t be going out for movies for a while.

This became more than a replacement for a live show for people, almost immediately. It meant so much more to people who were watching, to be able to go into that crazy universe of silent film comedy to laugh and get relief from what everyone is going through.

Have there been any challenges in setting up and performing these live streaming events?

Most of it came together for the first show, and we’ve just gotten used to the routine of it. My wife and I practically have to have a sign-up sheet to figure out what function our living room will be at any given moment, since we’re both teaching our university courses, and having Zoom meetings and coffee klatsches and phone calls. My wife’s a musical theater educator and performer, and hasn’t done camera work like this before, but she’s gotten the hang of it pretty well.

I’m looking at a few different softwares that allow you to bring in a second performer or guest in a split screen, and to feed the video signal directly into the streamed feed. We want to keep the informal and home-made feel, of course, but if there’s an opportunity to tidy up some of the presentation so parts of it look and sound better, I’d like to head in that direction. I’m getting close, testing out one particular program, and we’ll see if I can get it to do what I want.

It’s also given me an opportunity to try and keep the piano in some semblance of being in tune, and I tidy it up every week or two.

Programming the shows hasn’t been too difficult. Steve Massa and I have programmed lots of comedy shorts shows over the years at MoMA.  We’ve been very fortunate in the cooperation we’ve gotten from the people who’ve released these films on DVD or online as far as permissions, like Kino Lorber, Milestone Films, the EYE Filmmuseum, and Lobster Films and the Blackhawk Collection. Between that and the great responses we’ve had to films with really obscure comedians from my Undercrank Prods releases, we’re like kids in a candy store.

How do you go about creating the music for the films you accompany?

Most of it’s improvised, like it is at a regular show. What’s different for me, and it took me about 2 or 3 shows to realize this, that I’m playing for someone who’s six feet away. I’d initially been playing like I was at a theater, and I had to remind myself to dial it back. I was already doing this in my intros, trying to talk like the person watching was in the room with me. It’s like doing radio, where you are performing for an audience of 1. It’s what Ernie Kovacs referred to as “an intimate vacuum”, where it’s just you and the person at home, and you don’t have to project or have a bigger energy.

Can you remember your first encounter with silent film? What was it that hooked you in?

I can’t remember it — my parents tell me I discovered Charlie Chaplin on TV when I was a toddler. Back in the 1960s the Chaplin comedies were on TV in the daytime, and that’s what got me hooked. For some kids it’s trains or construction equipment or zoo animals; for me it was silent comedies.

Looking ahead to the world beyond lockdown… Have you thought about continuing with some live streaming events once we’re on the other side?

You know, I’ve gotten emails and social media comments from people all over the world about the show, people for whom there wasn’t a place for them to go see silent film with live music before March 8th. Initially I’d figured I’d stop once the cinemas opened up again and public gatherings resumed. But I’ve realized, from connecting with so many people who are watching every week, that this is the show with live music they can attend. I don’t know that I’ll be able to continue on a weekly basis — ordinarily, I have shows a two or three times a month on Sunday afternoons — but I think I’d consider continuing the live-streamed shows in some way.

You’ve also produced some fantastic DVDs through your label Undercrank Productions, including the ACCIDENTALLY PRESERVED series, and recent volumes of Alice Howell & Douglas MacLean films. Do you have any plans for future DVDs that you can share?

I had about a half dozen projects percolating when everything shut down in March. Until everyone can go back to work and films can get pulled, inspected and scanned, there’s no sense in talking about anything. At the moment, the companies that do DVD duplication are still duplicating, and the MOD company I work with is still MOD-ing for orders that come in on Amazon, TCM Shop, DeepDiscount et al.  I do have one project that could actually move ahead, but I need to wait at least a month before I can consider launching a Kickstarter for it, and it’s another bunch of silent comedy shorts that haven’t been available to the public since they were in release in the 1920s. (It’s not Hank Mann, though.)

You can find out more about the shows, and the link to the latest episode  (8pm CDT, 3pm GMT) here:

http://silentcomedywatchparty.com 

Why not support the shows by becoming a patron on Patreon?

Or you could buy one of the many great DVDs from Ben’s label Undercrank Productions! I especially recommend the Marcel Perez and Alice Howell collections! Real gifts to fans of obscure silent comedy.

Steve Massa has also produced several wonderful books. No self-respecting silent comedy shelf should be without LAME BRAINS AND LUNATICS, SILENT COMEDY DIVAS, or his newest opus, REDISCOVERING ROSCOE: THE FILMS OF FATTY ARBUCKLE  (These also come in extremely reasonably priced kindle editions if postage is a problem for you at the moment).

Huge thanks again to Ben for answering this Q & A -and of course for putting on the shows and helping to spread the laughter in these trying times! It really is a wonderful idea.

Finally, here’s last week’s show for you to view, while you wait for Sunday to roll around!

Keep Smiling!

 

Walter’s Winning Ways

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In the U.K. in the 1920s, Walter Forde was virtually alone in dedicating himself to comedy film-making in the manner of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, et al. Today he is forgotten by all but handful of film buffs, and even then is usually better remembered for his work directing sound-era comedy thrillers such as ‘THE GHOST TRAIN’ or ‘THE GAUNT STRANGER’.

However, he did some fine work in his two series of comedy shorts and four features in the silent era, and these are more than worth reviving. In recent years his features – ‘WAIT AND SEE’, ‘WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?’, the recently discovered ‘WHAT NEXT?’ and part-talkie YOU’D BE SURPRISED have begun to be shown, but his short comedies still remain quite obscure. Many exist courtesy of cut-down editions on the obsolete 9.5mm gauge, and 16mm prints also circulate; the BFI holds most of the efforts complete. You can even see a few of the shorts (or parts of them) on YouTube.

Walter made two series of films (1921-22 and 1926-27), punctuated by a short, unsuccessful stay in Hollywood. The first group were made for ‘Zodiac Films’, and the latter ‘British Super Comedies’.
Here’s the first of his Zodiac two-reelers, WALTER FINDS A FATHER in a nice print, courtesy of Ben Model’s YouTube channel. Not startlingly original, but a lot of fun, especially the second reel.

As you can see, Forde’s early style is pretty Chaplinesque (he had originally been a Chaplin impersonator on stage). In ‘WALTER MAKES A MOVIE’, he plays a particularly Chaplinesque bum and petty thief who steals an actress’s purse and then winds up playing the villain in the movie she’s starring in. This shows a clear parallel to Charlie’s early tramp (“He was a bum with a bum’s philosophy – he would steal if he got the chance” – Buster Keaton’s description), and Walter’s body language, funny walk and all, is certainly reminiscent of Charlie. There’s also this restaurant scene that harks back to Charlie’s food filching in ‘A DOG’S LIFE’ and to the restaurant scenes in THE IMMIGRANT).

WALTER’S TRYING FROLIC (snappy titles weren’t Walter’s thing!) has him in a double role as Lord Montmorency Gadabout and his usual character. Beginning with his attempts to sell his dilapidated old car, it develops into Forde’s version of Chaplin’s ‘THE IDLE CLASS’ as he attends a costume party. Sorry about the watermark on this one, it’s the only copy I can find online.

To his credit, Forde played down the Chaplin influence as his career went on, and accordingly the films got better. They were well received in Britain, and in 1923, he was invited to made a couple of films in Hollywood. Quickly he realised that he was a small fish in a big pond and soon returned home. Things weren’t much better back in Britain; with no film offers forthcoming he spent two years playing piano in cinemas before getting a second chance to make a two-reel series.
The second batch of films are smoother and more sophisticated, with less frenetic slapstick and more space given to developed gag routines. Walter’s character is a little more sophisticated, too; it’s immediately apparent that he has shifted from Chaplin as his main influence to the lighter, “boy-next-door” style of Harold Lloyd. To this end, his costume is smartened up with shiny-buttoned blazer and ‘Oxford bag’ trousers, then in vogue. Instead of a bum or petty thief, he is now a smart young man struggling to get by in the modern world. Gone are the building sites and farmyards of the earlier films, replaced with white collar jobs in offices, insurance and tailor’s shops. The gag sequences are more carefully built.

Here’s a brief 9.5mm snippet from WALTER’S WORRIES, featuring some fun tailor shop gags.

And lastly, WALTER’S DAY OUT, my favourite of his short films, shot in the seaside town of Margate in September 1925.


In 1927, Forde was given the chance to star in feature films, and turned out four efforts that are most enjoyable, and worthy of a DVD release (come on, BFI!). In the wake of his future successes, his two reelers were largely forgotten. Viewed today, they seem undeniably crude compared to the contemporary efforts of the best Hollywood comedians, but on their own terms are an enjoyable novelty, not to mention an incredibly valuable training ground for his talent. It’s not quite fair to judge them by the same standards as the Hollywood comedians; the British film industry was simply not geared to producing quality comedy films at speed, and so the opportunity to learn ‘on the job’ was never as available. The slow advances of his career in films meant that he was never going to improve as quickly as Harold Lloyd, for instance, who took dozens of films to reach a mature version of his ‘glasses’ character. Forde made only about 15 silent shorts in twice the time, but nevertheless you can see an outline of a character coming into focus, comic technique developing. One has to admire Forde’s efforts at forging a film career, trying to develop a unique style. The films, while not comedy classics, are entertaining and fascinating for the glimpses they offer of a vanished Britain.

I’ve done quite a bit of research on Forde lately; you can read the full story of Forde’s early career and his short films in the upcoming issue ofTHE LOST LAUGH MAGAZINE, which will be free to download soon. Stay tuned!

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Our Gang on tour

SEEING THE WORLD is a curio in the OUR GANG series. Purporting to show a school trip around Europe led by their teacher (Mr “D’oh” himself, Jimmy Finlayson), it is a comic travelogue with scenes shot on location in London, Paris, Rome and more.

Look a little closer and you’ll spot that actually it’s a cunning mixture of location footage and bits shot on the Roach backlot, and with back projection.  Finlayson and Gang director Robert MacGowan shot footage on a holiday around Europe, but the kids never went along.  In Leonard Maltin & Richard W Bann’s book THE LITTLE RASCALS, Joe Cobb recalled “They took our clothes and got these other kids to wear them, and then they photographed those kids together in all the long, long shots you see, so you can’t tell it isn’t really us. And then we made the rest back in the studio. A lot of people say “Oh, you went to Europe, I saw that picture and you were there. No, well, I wasn’t!”

Back at the studio, a few other Roach regulars were roped in, too. Charlie Hall plays the chauffeur, and two other Englishman appear in a small cameo: Frank Butler and… Stan Laurel!

A fun little curio. Enjoy!

Gifts from Snub

dumbbell-SnubPollardWith his upside-down Kaiser Wilhelm ‘tache and permanently startled expression, Snub Pollard is another one of those moustachioed icons on the silent comedy Totem pole. Like Billy Bevan and Ben Turpin, he was a gift to caricaturists, a flesh cartoon. Realism was never the idiom of these comics; instead, they traded in fast-paced sight gags. They might not have had deeply developed characterisations, but what gags they had!

There’s sometimes a snobbery towards the one-and-two reelers full of slapstick and sight gags, which is totally unmerited. Yes, there was a lot of filler turned out by the industry, but many of these comedies have wonderfully inventive gags and routines, and amazing stunts.  Pollard’s films are some of the best examples of these.

Snub was an Australian, real name Harry Fraser, who adopted his stage name after working as part of the ‘Pollards Liliputians’ juvenile theatrical troupe. He made early films at Essanay in the teens, appearing opposite Chaplin and Ben Turpin. It was also at Essanay that he met Hal Roach.

When Roach set up in independent production, he hired Pollard to be second comic and villain to Harold Lloyd, before promoting him to his own series in 1919. The Kaiser moustache was a remnant of his more villainous roles, but came to suit his starring character well. As he came to play roles of the little man, always being trodden on, the ‘tache became a perfect match for his drooping, put-upon countenance.

Snub starred in films for Roach until 1924 (though a couple were held back and released into 1926), and is best remembered today for this wonderful little short. IT’S A GIFT is a beautifully zany little two reeler featuring his many Rube Goldberg-esque inventions. Wallace and Gromit, eat your heart out!

Thanks to being featured in Robert Youngson’s WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, IT’S A GIFT has long been hailed as one of the classic silent shorts. However, the side effect is that it’s often the only Pollard film ever mentioned. It’s the easy (read: lazy) Silent Comedy 101 option to write that IT’S A GIFT is Pollard’s  magnum opus, but there are many other great ones out there! While you wouldn’t rank Pollard with comic auteurs like Keaton or Laurel, he was surrounded by  hordes of brilliant gagmen and directors at the Hal Roach studios who kept cranking out wonderfully funny gags and situations for him.  One of these was Charles Parrott/Charley Chase, who helmed many of the best Pollard films.

Here are two examples, the terrific FIFTEEN MINUTES (recently pieced together by David Glass) and WHAT A WHOPPER. Both feature a classic Chase premise of a mundane beginning that swiftly escalates to become absurd, yet somehow believable.

Another of my favourite Chase-Pollard collaborations is SOLD AT AUCTION. Again, it starts simply: Pollard is an auctioneer, and does a house clearance. Trouble is, he’s gone to the wrong house! Cop James Finlayson is none-too-pleased to find his house empty and demands that Snub recovers every single item, including a runaway grand piano and a pair of false teeth being worn by an airplane pilot! Like the best of Snub’s films, it’s wonderfully absurd, but remains human. The whole film is on YouTube, but only in awful, retina-detaching quality; here’s a much better looking excerpt, courtesy of Ben Model:

Many of the Pollards only exist thanks to home movie excerpts, especially 9.5mm Pathex cutdowns. Here’s one such example. ‘CALIFORNIA OR BUST’ is a tale of Snub and his wife (regular leading lady, the charming Marie Mosquini) driving west with a wagonful of all their possessions. You can guess that they don’t make it, but the inevitable destruction of their belongings takes place in some wonderfully original ways. A favourite grace note is Snub struggling to play a game of Pool in the back of the wagon; only when it has been smashed to smithereens is he able to steady the balls to pot them! There’s only about half the original film here, but the essence is preserved nicely.

Snub Pollard’s films are full of ingenious gags, snappily performed, and deserve a wider audience. Kickstarter, anyone…?

A Big Kick: Harry Langdon talkies on DVD

 

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The Sprocket Vault continue their terrific mission to release rarely seen classics from the Hal Roach archives. The latest volume, out next week, covers the series of sound shorts made by the great Harry Langdon.

These are an offbeat and sometimes bizarre group of films, but I find them absolutely fascinating and often quite wonderful. Click here to read a detailed piece I wrote about them a few years ago, and below is my favourite of the shorts, THE BIG KICK. It’s an almost silent short with some wonderful bits of pantomime from Harry, and some truly strange gag ideas!

As usual, the disc is packed with real treats. For Langdon’s devotees, the real holy grail is the inclusion of his first two talkies, HOTTER THAN HOT and SKY BOY. These now only exist in silent versions without their soundtracks, and haven’t  been seen in many, many years. There’s also a Spanish phonetic version of THE BIG KICK! Many find Langdon’s speaking voice strange in English.. imagine what it must be like in Spanish. There are also commentaries on the films by Richard Roberts. All in all, a wonderful gift for these troubled times.

Here’s the link to buy on Amazon, and the burb follows below:

After falling from Hollywood stardom at the end of the Silent Era, quirky silent film comedian Harry Langdon made not only his first talking films, but also his first screen comeback with a series of eight two-reelers for comedy producer Hal Roach. This pre-code series offers an interesting and entertaining look at what critic James Agee referred to as Langdon’s ”baby dope fiend” characterization, presented for the only time in sound as the undiluted comic creation he made famous in silent films. Langdon had developed a strange, stream-of-consciousness vocal patter in vaudeville, as showcased here. With another fifteen years to go in talkies after he made these shorts, Harry Langdon would never again deliver to films full-force his truly bizarre humor. Along for the ride is the beautiful comedienne Thelma Todd in some of her earliest film appearances at the Lot of Fun, as well as others from the Hal Roach Stock Company like Edgar Kennedy and Max Davidson.

This is Harry Langdon at his most surreal:

  • 1929: Hotter Than Hot
  • 1929: Sky Boy
  • 1929: Skirt Shy
  • 1930: The Head Guy
  • 1930: The Fighting Parson
  • 1930: The Big Kick
  • 1930: The Shrimp
  • 1930: The King

Bonus Material:

  • ”La estación de gasolina” (Spanish language version of ”The Big Kick”)
  • ”Hal Roach Presents Harry Langdon” (1929)
  • ”Hal Roach Studio Auction”(1963)
  • Commentary by Richard M. Roberts
  • Photo Gallery
  • Supplemental music composed and performed by Andrew Earle Simpson

 

Never work with Children & Animals…

“Never work with children and animals” was a message that never seemed to reach director William S Campbell. Campbell specialised in films combining both, including this rarity from the EYE film institute, SCHOOLDAY LOVE (1922). Bears, monkeys, dogs and donkeys abound; among the children are Doreen Turner, Coy Watson, Jr and Laurence Licalvai.

william s campbellCampbell had previously worked on a series of films starring ‘Joe Martin’, an orang-utang (“the world’s only monkey comedian!”) in the late teens, then moved on to Chester Comedies starring ‘SNOOKY THE HUMANZEE’.

His work was well-regarded enough in the industry for his name to brand a series of ‘Campbell Comedies’, distributed through Educational Pictures. These began with ‘THE STORK’S MISTAKE’, which was a big success. ‘SCHOOL DAY LOVE’ was the follow-up, and while reviews were positive, it was noted that it wasn’t quite as good as the initial entry. Indeed, the novelty soon wore off the Campbell comedies, and series didn’t continue as one of Educational’s mainstays.

campbell comedies

These days, old films manipulating animals seem cruel and unnecessary, but we can’t deny that they were popular at the time, and formed an unusual sideshow to the comedy film industry. As such, they do have a historical interest.

As for Campbell, maybe he disproves the old saying, as he outlived most of his contemporaries who worked with humans! He lived on to the age of 87, passing away in 1972.

The Sheik of Silent Comedy

raymond_griffithThere was no-one else in silent comedy quite like Raymond Griffith.  He certainly bore very little stylistic similarity to Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd. His closest evolutionary relative was probably Max Linder, with whom he shared a suave sophistication and silk-hatted swagger. Try saying that with a lisp.

To Linder’s breezy, debonair attitude, Griffith added a slyness and air of wry amusement that were entirely his own. In the 20s, Paramount billed him as ‘THE NEW SHEIK OF SLAPSTICK’; while slapstick was only a very small part of his modus operandi, there is something in the ‘sheik’ part of the description. His cool, effortlessly suave lounge lizard was very much a product of the 1920s jazz age, and like Harry Langdon, he was a reaction to the manic, larger-than-life style of many comics. Also like Langdon, his singular take on silent comedy was hugely appreciated by audiences clamouring for something different.

Griffith’s style was an example of the move towards greater sophistication in film comedy during the middle ’20s. At the extreme end of this movement were the ‘light comedies’, very polite films which were sometimes so light that they now barely seem like comedies at all. Griffith was able to balance the refined, sophisticated approach of light comedy with a more dynamic blend of sight gags and visual humour.

Partly, his visual instincts came from his training with Mack Sennett, for whom he appeared in shorts during the late teens.

He had then worked up to supporting parts in features. After garnering some great reviews for his roles, notably as a drunk in OPEN ALL NIGHT (1924), Griffith was promoted to starring status at Paramount; THE NIGHT CLUB launched his career in features with a high pedigree. It was produced and co-scripted by Cecil B DeMille, and directed by his protégées Based on the novel AFTER FIVE, it is a farcical tale in which Griffith is stood up by his bride, renounces all women and plots suicide, reconsidering when he inherits a fortune. (If you’re wondering where the eponymous night club features in all this, it doesn’t! Studios occasionally fabricated titles as “placeholder” listings in their upcoming film schedules – this was one such example. When it came to releasing the film, Paramount had promised something called THE NIGHT CLUB, so they delivered the unrelated film they had made under this title!)

Random title aside, it’s a warm and entertaining film. Griffith gives a wonderfully understated performance that sells the far-fetched story, and shows his trademark skill in creating laughter with subtle gestures and facial expressions.

THE NIGHT CLUB was a critical success, paving the way for several more Raymond Griffith features. The New York American echoed the sentiments of many when it commented that “Raymond Griffith gives Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or any of our million-dollar-a-year men a race for laurels.”

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His next film was PATHS TO PARADISE, a terrific screwball-type tale of two rival cat-burglars. Griffith and Betty Compson are both wonderful in this witty and stylish comedy, constantly playing a game of one-upmanship before deciding to join forces to steal a diamond. The film shows exactly what made Griffith special; it’s hard to imagine any of the other major clowns playing a role on the wrong side of the law like this in their mature work. That Griffith plays a rogue and gets away with it speaks volume for his skill at creating a character. The film also benefits from snappy direction by Clarence Badger, and some excellent comic support (as always) from Edgar Kennedy. A scene where Griffith tries to dodge Kennedy’s torchbeam in a darkened room is simply wonderful.

Griffith & Compson in 'PATHS TO PARADISE'

Another highlight is the closing car chase, in which the two thieves make for Mexico with the police in hot pursuit. It’s a thrilling ride with some terrific visual gags thrown in, but sadly, the final couple of minutes of the film, in which they decide to turn themselves in and go straight, no longer exist.

Sadly, this is portentous for the fate of most of Griffith’s other work. The two that do survive, the civil war comedy ‘HANDS UP!’ and ‘YOU’D BE SURPRISED’, reveal a truly unique and gifted talent.

In common with Keaton’s THE GENERAL, HANDS UP is a civil war comedy told from the point of view of the South. Griffith plays Jack, a cunning spy sent on a mission to destroy a gold mine that could help the Union troops win the war. The film isn’t available complete online, though the opening scenes below give a flavour. (The complete film is available to purchase from Grapevine video).

The Griffith feature available for viewing is YOU’D BE SURPRISED, a detective story that doesn’t quite come up to the standards of the previous two films, but is an enjoyable treasure nonetheless.

Sadly, we can no longer judge the quality of elusive films like WET PAINT, WEDDING BILLS or TRENT’S LAST CASE, so it’s hard to get a handle on his complete canon of work today.

With his individual approach, Griffith remained popular until the close of the silent era. Alas, he more than any other silent comedian, had much reason to fear the microphone. Griffith didn’t have a bad voice; he had virtually no voice, a previous illness having left him with little more than a hoarse whisper. He did make a pair of talkie shorts, ‘THE SLEEPING POR2081153,6smqz__aIic26rMDSBg+6ve0dXjWDMr9BzUEy88u3tZBjmePWMNeFgd3fPSbJjq6wzKb_fFyuTeHO9i+18XSGw==CH’ and ‘POST MORTEMS’, which provided excuses for his voice, but clearly this could only go on for so long. His final role was wordless, as a dying soldier in ‘ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT’. While his acting career may have been over, he remained busy as a producer for 20th Century Fox, passing away in 1957.

 

Griffith was very much a unique talent, and we can only hope some more of his features turn up in the future.

 

A Teddy Tale

The EYE film institute in the Netherlands has a terrific YouTube channel, with an especially rich selection of early European comedies. Here’s one that jumped out at me from it’s title: TEDDY A MANGÉ DES GRENOUILLES, or ‘Teddy eats Frogs’!  This is a delightfully bizarre variation on the typical one-gag chase films made in the 1900s. Here, the little gendarme Teddy steals a man’s breakfast, overindulges on frogs’ legs and feels some side-effects. Soon, he can’t stop jumping, and is causing havoc on the streets of Paris with half the town in pursuit. It’s a wonderfully silly short, with great acrobatics and some dangerous stunting – at one point, he jumps all over the roof of a moving steam engine, while a lady is being dragged behind it!

I’d never seen a ‘Teddy’ film before. Turns out his real name is Édouard Pinto. In common with most of the early European clowns like Robinet, Polycarpe and Cretinetti, Pinto worked under a screen character name used in each film.

He was born in Lisbon in 1887 (How many other Portuguese silent comedians can you name?) and  began performing on stage from the age of eight. He played ‘Pif-Paf’, in an act with his older brother, and together they toured around Europe and Africa. It was in 1906 that he was talent-scouted by Pathé to make films for them. After an eighteen month contract, he moved on to the Lux Company, where the above film was made.

Pinto later went on to direct himself, but WW1 interrupted his career. Like Max Linder, he suffered gas attacks and injuries in the conflict, and was invalided out in 1916. Fortunately, he was rehabilitated enough to resume his film career.

teddy pinto

From July 1919 to January 1920 he played in LE FILS DE NUIT,  a serial shot in Algeria and France. Filming a scene in Saint-Remy-de-Provence he had a terrible accident: “The bridge that was supposed to give way under its weight gives way too soon. Teddy, with his horse, fell ten metres and crashed into the bottom […] he was pulled in a pitiful state: open left shoulder, dislocated arm, sprained wrist, dislocated right knee. Teddy, after three months of care, still uses his left arm with some discomfort.”

The experience put Pinto off films. After a couple more appearances, he retired from the screen. It’s sometimes been said that physical comedy and ballet aren’t too far apart ( W.C. Fields referred to Chaplin as “a goddamn ballet dancer”), and Pinto is perhaps more proof. He spent the rest of his career as a teacher of modern dance.

The Unknown Marx Brothers

THE UNKNOWN MARX BROTHERS is a superb documentary from 1993, which presents a biography of the brothers, while also focusing on rare and unseen clips from the history of their act. Highlights include Harpo’s silent film cameo in TOO MANY KISSES (1926), trailers for THE BIG STORE and DUCK SOUP, their 1931 routine from THE HOUSE THAT SHADOWS BUILT, outtakes from the aborted TV pilot THE DEPUTY SERAPH (1959), and Groucho’s YOU BET YOUR LIFE SERIES, assorted solo TV spots and various home movies.

There are also valuable interviews with family members and co-workers. Lots of great stuff packed into 85 minutes!

Chaplinitis!

I just stumbled across some screening notes I wrote for a programme of ‘imitation Chaplin’ comedies at last year’s Silent Laughter Weekend. I’ve reproduced them here, adapted slightly to incorporate some video links. Hope you enjoy!

trampCharlie Chaplin’s phenomenal popularity in the mid-teens was dubbed ‘The Chaplin Craze’ or ‘Chaplinitis’ by the press. His rise to fame had been made possible by a huge boom in mass-amusement culture, beginning at the end of the Victorian era. Additionally, the new technology of silent cinema enabled a universal recognition for performers beyond previously insurmountable language and travel barriers. With his instantly recognisable image, Chaplin arrived on screen just in time to act as a kind of divining rod for these forces.

Chaplin’s was celebrity on a scale never seen before. He was as astonished as anyone, later remarking, “I knew I was famous but didn’t know what fame meant.”

He was soon to find out. Puppets, dolls, toothbrushes, sweets… all kinds of merchandise imaginable soon bore the familiar image of the tramp. There were Charlie Chaplin songs, dances, fancy dress parties and lookalike competitions (the oft-told story of Chaplin entering one such contest and coming second is now believed to be apocryphal, however!)

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Some took their impersonations a step further and turned it into their own act. Among the legions ‘doing Chaplin’ were some future stars: Bert Wheeler and Walter Forde both started on the stage in this way, for instance. Stan Laurel, previously Chaplin’s understudy in Fred Karno days, also included an ersatz Mabel Normand and Chester Conklin in his act “The Keystone Trio”. British comedian Frank Randle was chased away from Blackpool Pier after busking his act there, and his contemporary Sid Field was also a Chaplin street performer.

Within the film industry, desire for Chaplin product outstripped the speed with which the increasingly methodical comedian could turn it out. Many of his earlier films would be repackaged and reissued (Essanay studios, in particular, excelled themselves at milking leftover scraps of Chaplin footage, expanding ‘A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN’ to twice its original length, and making an entirely new film, ‘TRIPLE TROUBLE’ from scenes Chaplin had discarded). Even these efforts did not fulfil public desire, and it was inevitable that other companies would attempt to get a piece of the pie.

A series of ‘Charley’ cartoons made by Otto Messmer are an early example. These actually received a helping hand from Chaplin himself, who provided a series of portraits in various poses to assist Messmer’s drawings. The cartoonist would later incorporate a considerable Chaplin influence into his most famous character, Felix the Cat.

Cartoons were one thing, but screen imitators provided a direct threat of competition. Practically all film comedians of the late teens took some influence from Chaplin, but some did so more blatantly than others. Devoted to redefining the word ‘blatant’ was Billy West, whose deception extended to sleeping with his hair in curlers, and learning to play the violin left-handed! He also poached Chaplin’s Essanay co-star Leo White to add to the illusion in a series of films for the King Bee corporation. West’s impersonation attracted derision from some quarters at the time, and he is still often dismissed outright. However, he was a capable comedian and his Chaplin imitations provide some good laughs. He also got a big helping hand from some other comic minds; Oliver Hardy was his heavy, made up to resemble Chaplin’s ‘Goliath’, Eric Campbell. His director was also a gifted comedy craftsman: Charles Parrott, the future Charley Chase.

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Billy West, with Babe Hardy on the left.

Here’s a prime example of the West-Hardy-Parrott triple-threat: ‘HIS DAY OUT’, from 1918

And here’s THE CANDY KID (1917), directed by Arvid E Gillstrom before Parrott joined the series,

Charles Parrott would later work  with another Chaplin impersonator, Harry Mann in films like ‘THE FLIRTS’ (featured on the ‘Becoming Charley Chase’ DVD set) and ‘DON’T PARK THERE’.

ritchieBilly Ritchie is one of the most interesting Chaplin lookalikes, gaining a certain notoriety for claiming that Chaplin actually copied him. Glaswegian Ritchie claimed that he had been wearing a similar costume for years on stage before Chaplin used it. There is probably some legitimacy to his claim (not to mention a strong possibility that Chaplin & Ritchie were actually related) but truthfully the bowler, cane and moustache were all fairly standard parts of the music hall comic’s attire.

It’s clear that Ritchie’s take on the tramp was a very different animal. While the early Chaplin was given to bouts of violence, Ritchie can be downright hostile! His default expression is a scowl, and he’s generally given to cruder body language, sticking his rear out as he walks. Chaplin’s tramp may have been anti-authoritarian, but Ritchie was an anarchist!

To this day, he has some fierce defenders who feel he was robbed. No doubt, he hasn’t received his due as an original comedian in his own right, but he was never really going to be a timeless performer. Unlike Ritchie, Chaplin developed his character  to be not just a suit of funny clothes, but a real human. As a knockabout comedian, Ritchie could be excellent,  but he was probably never going to make ‘THE KID’. He certainly wasn’t going to while working in fast-paced, violent comedies for L-KO under the direction of Henry Lehrman.

Lehrman’s penchant for savage knockabout was to be Ritchie’s undoing – one film, POOR POLICY, saw him bizarrely savaged by ostriches, setting off a bout of ill-health ending with his death from stomach cancer in 1921. (I’ve seen this film, and the way he treats the ostriches, I’m not surprised they bit back!)

Here’s Billy in happier times, in ‘ALMOST A SCANDAL’ (1915)

L-KO were also responsible for another Chaplin spin-off. Chai Hong, billed as “The Chinese Charlie Chaplin”, was actually Korean. While it was his Chaplin impersonation in ‘PLAYING MOVIES’ that brought him to attention, this was a one-off. His other films had him playing his own, if stereotypically ‘oriental’ character. He starred in several shorts before disappearing from the screen in the early 20s. Hong later became valet to actor Lew Cody.

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While these are examples of outright Chaplin copies, many other performers evoked Chaplin in essence. Monty Banks’ early appearances are extremely Chaplinesque, and Harold Lloyd’s ‘Lonesome Luke’ character was a self-admitted inversion of the Chaplin costume. Crucially, the really gifted comedians realised that imitation proved a blind alley and would forge their own paths into the 1920s.

Even for those not copying Chaplin’s appearance or behaviour, his genius routines and plots would be re-used by many other comics. A few examples among the multitudes: Buster Keaton’s ‘THE ELECTRIC HOUSE’ features a central escalator surely inspired by that in THE FLOORWALKER, Monty Banks revisits ‘EASY STREET’ in ‘PEACEFUL ALLEY’ and Laurel & Hardy rework ‘LAUGHING GAS’ for ‘LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING’. While these examples all took the material to a new place, sometimes the ‘borrowing’ of ideas was downright brazen. The BFI holds a rare Educational Pictures one-reeler called  ‘CUT LOOSE’ (1924) that mimics ONE AM right down to its bizarre selection of stuffed animal props! The star is Phil Dunham, another British comedian, and allegedly a Cambridge graduate. Dunham remained busy at Educational, and in small parts elsewhere well into the sound era.

Today it’s easy to sneer at the unoriginality of the copycats in the shadows of Chaplin’s genius, but the picture was more complex than this. For struggling vaudeville and film performers, money had to take precedence over artistic integrity and a good Chaplin impersonation meant money. There were many good comedians among the impersonators, many of them still funny today. If nothing else, they provide a fascinating sidelight to Chaplin’s story, and remind us just how special the man himself was.

Speaking of which, here he is at his best!