What a year it’s been. Thanks for reading THE LOST LAUGH, and I hope the magazine and blog have been able to offer you a little entertainment and distraction. Wherever you are, I hope you’re able to squeeze some merriness out of the season, and here’s to a better 2021!
We’ve all seen Laurel & Hardy’s BIG BUSINESS, but here’s a trio of lesser-known Christmas-themed comedies to help kickstart the season.
First up, Charley Chase’s THERE AIN’T NO SANTA CLAUS, from 1926. One of his less-seen Pathé shorts, this features some great gags, including Charley’s attempts to carry a Christmas tree on his bike, and playing rival Santas with Noah Young (both fighting over the same beard!)
From the same year and the same studio, here’s Our Gang’s Christmas short, GOOD CHEER:
Another great rarity from the YouTube Channel Geno’s House of Rare Films, here’s KNIGHTS BEFORE CHRISTMAS starring Karl Dane and George K Arthur . I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for this forgotten comedy team, and have wanted to see more of their sound shorts for a while. This one isn’t quite as good as A PUT UP JOB, but it’s a lot of fun, as Karl brings George along to his family Christmas gathering. A great cast too, with Fern Emmet and Irving Bacon as Karl’s parents, plus some familiar Hal Roach players: Harry Bernard and Harry Bowen (hidden beneath a huge beard!).
To coincide with a showing of the very rare Roscoe Arbuckle short CAMPING OUT on The Silent Comedy Watch Party, here’s a run-down of the overlooked shorts Arbuckle made in 1918 & 1919… the ones that don’t feature Buster Keaton in the cast!
Roscoe Arbuckle’s series of shorts made for the Comique film corporation and released through Paramount in 1917-20, are among his best-known work. Certainly, they are the best represented on DVD. This is almost entirely due to the Keaton factor – the presence of a young Buster in most of the films. This bias is confirmed by the obscurity of the films in which Buster does not appear, made during his military service in 1918-19.
When Keaton was drafted, the Comique series continued with Arbuckle and his regular foil, Al St John. While the popularity of Keaton has ensured that all but one of the Arbuckle-Keatons are now accounted for, the survival rate drops much further for the shorts made in his absence. Only a couple are known to exist, and only one has been restored and released. Details of many of the films are sparse, with a couple remaining mysteries.
Ever since critics first took an interest in Keaton, Arbuckle has always been in his shadow. At worst, the lazy critical opinion is that Arbuckle’s style was crude and unsophisticated, and that the only merit in the films came from Keaton’s input. Silent comedy aficianados know better, of course; nevertheless, an unfortunate legacy of this view is the lack of interest in this bunch of films. Along with their unavailability, this remains in stark contrast to those that came on either side of them.
Let’s take a look at this neglected group of films, hopefully waiting to be rediscovered. Here they are, in order of release:
THE SHERIFF (24th November 1918)
late 1917, the Arbuckle company had moved to California from the East Coast, partly enticed by the better backgrounds on offer. The desert settings of the west were seen to good advantage in the first film after moving, OUT WEST, and Arbuckle reused the theme in this short. Arbuckle plays a Sheriff enamoured of the movie heroics of Douglas Fairbanks and William S Hart. After falling asleep and dreaming a dramatic rescue in a Mexican town where He gets the chance to try a real heroic rescue, when his schoolteacher girlfriend Betty is kidnapped by bandit Al. THE SHERIFF is possibly the most intriguing of all these films, and sounds like it was an amusing little gem. Arbuckle surely got good comic contrast from impersonating Fairbanks and Hart, and THE SHERIFF is perhaps similar to the clever, cliché spoofing Arbuckle-Keaton short MOONSHINE. While OUT WEST had been an exercise in comic savagery, reviews of the time commented that THE SHERIFF was rather more subtle and sophisticated. Here’s a review from Motion Picture News of November 23, 1918:
THE SHERIFF is better by far than anything contributed to the Arbuckle Paramount program. For one thing, it is free from vulgarity & sloppiness. The classic kick shines by its absence. For another, the situations have been developed logically, producing maximum fun out of minimum action.
One of the common misconceptions about Arbuckle is that any sophistication in his films came from Keaton’s input. While there’s no denying that Keaton had big creative input into the films, Arbuckle, rather like Charley Chase, liked to play with different styles and could happily jump from wild gags and slapstick to gentle situation comedy. Some of his earlier Sennett films, made with Mabel Normand, like HE DID AND HE DIDN’T, show a gentle and sophisticated side to Roscoe before Keaton ever appeared on the scene.
Nevertheless, Arbuckle definitely felt the loss of Keaton in his supporting cast, and hired another diminutive comic to take his place: Mario Bianchi (the future Monty Banks). His leading lady in this film is also notable; Betty Compson would become a star in features, her career getting a boost the following year when she appeared with Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN.
Incidentally, spoofing William S Hart came up again in Keaton’s later short THE FROZEN NORTH. It was an idea contributed by a writer who remained uncredited… Roscoe Arbuckle! In the short, Keaton made a mockery of Hart’s tendency to always have a scene where he cried in his films. Roscoe apparently did the same in THE SHERIFF.
SCRAPS OF PAPER (aka A SCRAP OF PAPER – Autumn 1918)
part of the regular series but made at the same time, this is Arbuckle’s equivalent of Chaplin’s THE BOND. Like that film, it is a propaganda effort designed to promote the Canadian War Bond fundraising effort. As well as each making a promotional film, Chaplin and Arbuckle made public appearances together to promote the loan drive, and newsreel footage of one of these events still exists. Like THE BOND, SCRAPS OF PAPER features our hero coming face to face with the Kaiser (Glen Cavender) and the ‘clown quince’ (Al St John). After mocking the goose-step marching of the Kaiser’s soldiers (one of whom is Monty Banks), Arbuckle tells him that there’s one thing he hasn’t considered, and unleashes a snowstorm of Liberty Bonds which engulf the Germans. Roscoe addresses the audience directly (via intertitle) telling them to do their bit and invest in the Liberty Loan Drive. Not much of a comedy, but an effective piece of propaganda and an interesting historical curio.
CAMPING OUT (5th January 1919)
CAMPING OUT is a rare survivor from this group of films, existing from two incomplete nitrate sources (one Italian print and one from the Netherlands). A composite print has received a number of screenings (most recently on the Silent Comedy Watch Party) and is held at the EYE film institute. Arbuckle again took advantage of the West Coast climate and locations, filming the short on Catalina Island in November 1918. If THE SHERIFF showcased a more subtle side of Arbuckle, then this film returned to the cruder slapstick milieu of films like THE BUTCHER BOY and THE ROUGH HOUSE. Within the first five minutes alone, there are jokes about vomiting, spitting and seagull droppings!
The basic premise of CAMPING OUT recalls FATTY AT CONEY ISLAND, a tale of Arbuckle playing hookey from his wife, and enjoying the freedom by flirting with other men’s wives. Unable to stomach his wife’s dreadful cooking, he escapes for a while, taking the ferry to Catalina for a camping trip. En route, he (inevitably) meets Al St John, and his pretty wife Alice Lake. In the the ensuing tussle Roscoe throws Al overboard. Fatty and Al’s wife proceed to the campsite, where the grizzled, one-legged camp owner is also played by St John. The highlight of the film follows as Roscoe indulges in some of his trademark food preparation gags. Here he demonstrates novel ways of shaving potatoes, and making doughnuts and mashed potatoes with the aid of St John’s wooden leg! Another highlight is his plan to filch food from grocer Monty Banks.
Inevitably, Roscoe’s chickens come to roost as his wife (armed with guns and knives!), Al and Monty all show up for a slapstick battle royale to round out the short.
Though CAMPING OUT is far from Roscoe’s most sophisticated effort, it’s a ton of fun, and the sunny location shooting around Catalina Island and the streets of Avalon only add to the summery, freewheeling tone of the film. Watch the film as part of the Silent Comedy Watch Party live stream here:
THE PULLMAN PORTER (? unfinished/unreleased film)
THE PULLMAN PORTER is a curiosity, an elusive mystery film. The Arbuckle shorts were popular and well publicised, with Paramount often placing full-page ads in the trade papers for them. For THE SHERIFF, we can piece together lots of information, for instance. But for this film, the trail runs cold. So far, I’ve found no reports of the production, no stills, no reviews… nuthin. Nada. Zilch. But, it does have a cited release date, Feb 16. It does seem strange that an Arbuckle short released at this time would receive next to no coverage in the trades.
There has been confusion between releases in the series before, for instance the earlier short A RECKLESS ROMEO was actually filmed earlier for Keystone, but bought and released by Paramount. There also seemed to be various other reisues of earlier Arbuckle shorts occurring at this time, so could THE PULLMAN PORTER fall into one of these categories? It seems most likely that it a tentative idea, scrapped and replaced during filming.
LOVE (2nd March 1919)
LOVE is a wonderful little short that survives complete. The film was preserved just in time, and issued on Laughsmith Entertainment’s terrific 2005 DVD set THE FORGOTTEN FILMS OF FATTY ARBUCKLE. The short is in the classic rural barnyard slapstick mould, one of Arbuckle’s favourite motifs. However, LOVE is way more sophisticated than the earlier Keystone shorts, Arbuckle had come as a comedian and director since those times. While the knockabout is still rough, it is developed into some terrific, well-developed set pieces . Roscoe makes one of his best entrances, riding on a country road in his “economy model” Ford (a glorified go-kart) and using a pair of bellows to blow away huge boulders in his path. He is courting farmer Frank Hayes’ daughter (Winifred Westover), but Hayes has plans to marry her off to local boy Al St John in return for some land. Among the comic set pieces around the farm yard is a scene where Hayes falls down a well, and Roscoe and Monty Banks try to winch him up; each time something goes wrong, sending Hayes plummeting down the well again and again. Then, we’re into a classic version of the ’broom-bashing’ routine memorably used in THE WAITER’S BALL. (Of course, the routine was originally pinched from The Three Keatons’ vaudeville act, so Buster does have a little influence over this film after all. It would be nice to think its inclusion here was a tribute from Arbuckle to his absent friend). This version is even better, turning into a nice four-handed version with Roscoe, Monty, Frank and Al St John.
Roscoe tries to elope with Winifred, but is foiled when his ladder breaks, catapulting him into the house, and leaving Winifired dangling from a first floor window. (Poor Winifred Westover takes quite a lot of punishment in this short—no wonder it was her only film with Arbuckle!)
Though there are occasional lapses in taste (like the scene mentioned above) where the slapstick maybe gets a bit too violent, the comedy scenes in the first half of LOVE are some of the best in the whole Comique series. The second half of the short involves Roscoe’s plan to sneak into the house and sneak Winifred away from the wedding. Sneaking soap into the cook’s stew to get her fired, he dresses in drag and takes her place. Suggesting that they stage a rehearsal ceremony with the preacher, Roscoe takes the groom’s place. Once they have said “I do”, Monty pulls strings attached to Roscoe’s dress and wig, revealing his true identity. LOVE contains several of Roscoe’s pet routines, and is a thoroughly enjoyable two reels, brim-full of exuberant gags. As a farewell to the barnyard setting, it was a high note to go out on.
THE BANK CLERK (? Unfinished/unreleased film)
Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, details about THE BANK CLERK are sparse. Initial reports in the trades that Arbuckle had embarked on a film of this title, in which he works as a window cleaner in the bank, but (excuse the pun) climbs the ladder to a career in finance. However, in April 1919, Film Daily reported that filming had to be abandoned due to both weather conditions in L.A., and for Arbuckle to make revisions to the story. It seems that his solution to both inclement weather and an unsatisfying story was to scrap it and head back to the desert to make another Western film. Like THE PULLMAN PORTER, THE BANK CLERK was probably never finished. That the two films were never released is supported by adverts for later reissues of the Comique films, which list all but this pair of titles.
A DESERT HERO ( 15th June 1919)
Arbuckle was obviously very fond of Western settings at this point in his career; this is third film in just over a year to play on the genre. Down the years, this has meant confusion for Arbuckle & Keaton scholars, with the three films (OUT WEST, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO) often being mixed up, especially when they turned up in prints without main titles. As late as the 1970s, A DESERT HERO often found its way into Keaton filmographies, with stills from OUT WEST being attributed to this film instead.
It’s not surprising, as there is a strong overlap between the all three films. In OUT WEST, Alice Lake had a prominent role as a Salvation Army girl; here, Molly Malone takes on a similar part. Arbuckle’s burlesque of William S Hart from THE SHERIFF is also revisited in this short. The long-faced, wiry Hart played solemn tough guys, and Roscoe plays on this for comic effect here. An opening title introduces “a gaunt, thin boned stranger from the desert”, before cutting to the very non-gaunt Roscoe! Arbuckle carried on spoofing Hart through the film, as the press books tell us: “He’s the toughest, hardest, roughest Western cuss that ever lived, in “A Desert Hero”! He eats ’em alive ! Breaks rocks with his teeth he’s so ornery!”
Roscoe reforms when he meets Molly and joins her in the salvation army. Surviving stills show lots of comic business with brass band instruments, before Molly is kidnapped by Al St John and Roscoe has to rescue her. Molly continued with Roscoe for the remainder of the series. Though A DESERT HERO was his last Western short, Arbuckle would return to the genre one last time, for his debut feature THE ROUND UP the following year.
Keaton’s war service in France was over in early 1919, and after a hospital stay, he rejoined Arbuckle in May. The Arbuckle-Keaton partnership returned to the screen for three more shorts, BACK STAGE, THE HAYSEED and THE GARAGE, before Arbuckle moved to features. Many of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts are deservedly well-regarded, but we shouldn’t neglect the films Roscoe made without Buster. As a comic creator, he was at the top of his game, as evidenced by LOVE. Hopefully one day, THE SHERIFF and A DESERT HERO, will be available for us to enjoy again, too.
A version of this article originally appeared in issue 12 of The Lost Laugh magazine, published May 2020. (c) Matthew Ross.
Thanks to Ben Model & Steve Massa from the Silent Comedy Watch Party, and to Elif from the Eye Filmmuseum for making CAMPING OUT available for us to enjoy again!
TCM have made Laurel & Hardy their stars of the month for December (while here in the UK, they’re noticeably absent from the Christmas TV schedules again). As part of the celebration, the channel has commissioned a short video about the boys by actor Mark Hamill (best known for playing Luke Skywalker).
He’s done a great job. The clip is informative and personal, obviously done from a place of great affection for Stan and Babe, and really gets to the heart of their partnership. Take a look here:
The Cineteca Milano has just published a collection of rare (and great!) silent comedy bits and pieces featuring some underrated comics. (As a heads-up, you need to register – it’s free – to watch the films, and I did have some difficulty getting them to play in my browser. They wouldn’t work on my laptop, but played fine on my smartphone… It’s not often you read the word smartphone on a silent comedy blog, is it?)
In my opinion, Monty Banks is one of the great unsung silent comedians. The dapper little Italian had a pleasing personality and a way with a gag that was quite his own, yet even in his day he was somewhat on the fringes of the scene. A lot of his shorts were independent films released on a states-rights basis, meaning they’ve remained much more obscure than those of the major comedy studios. The ones that survive reveal a fertile comic mind and excellent performer.
Physically, he resembled the typical put-upon “little man” comics and started out in a Chaplinesque vein, but by the early 1920s he’d settled on a more dapper costume and situational humour. In his films he became the tubby little man striving to be a leading man type, but always finding himself in embarrassing situations. In this he had some similarities Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase; certainly, he shared with Chase panache for mixing situational humour sight gags, with just a hint of the surreal. However, it’s not fair just to compare Monty to other comics – he managed to put his own unique spin on his material and made some very fun films. The more I see of his work, the more I like him.
The Cineteca has published an 11 minute fragment called ‘Vitio Coniugale’ – it seems to be from one of his Grand-Asher comedies, HOME COOKED (1924). Bill Blaisdell, the heavy in the other Grand-Ashers, appears as Monty’s dad, and I believe his regular leading lady, Ena Gregory, plays his wife here. This is a simple domestic comedy of Ena’s struggle to learn to cook, and Monty’s struggle to learn to eat her food! The footage begins with Monty’s attempts to eat the meal she has prepared. The pancakes are so tough that they take the wheels off a car when he throws them out of the window, and when he pours her coffee in a pot plant, the plant has animated convulsions. The comic situation of an unpalatable meal isn’t exactly original, but Monty’s underplaying of the situation and the twists on the gags add something new and appealing.
With his family coming to meet the newlyweds, Monty engages in some damage limitation and says he will help Ena prepare a meal for them. The pair plan a goose dinner, which leads to a funny series of gags of Monty plucking the feathers from the bird. His execution of the bird takes place off screen – Monty walks into a room with the goose, and seconds later a ridiculously large number of feathers fly out of the door. Monty emerges covered in feathers, which subsequently transfer to a car and a dog. All ridiculous, but handled adroitly and very funny. eventually, the goose shrinks in the oven and Monty has to steal a replacement from his neighbours, but there the footage stops. I’d love to see the whole thing; like ALMOST LATE and other Banks shorts that exist in fragments, it has a lot of promise. Here’s the link:
Monty Banks may be unsung, but it’s fair to say that Jimmy Aubrey is downright unloved by many comedy fans. Ok, so it’s understandable to a degree. He is one of your classic anonymous, moustachioed comics running around at high speed without much personality, and some of his surviving films just aren’t that funny. But, let’s give Jimmy his due. He was a graduate of Fred Karno’s Army, and starred in films for Vitagraph, Joe Rock and Weiss Brothers for over a decade, so he can hardly have been completely talentless. His supporting role in Laurel & Hardy’s THAT’S MY WIFE is very funny, too.
Part of the reason for his lowly status in the annals of Si-Com lore is probably his cantankerous nature; Babe Hardy recollected Aubrey being jealous and unpleasant towards him, and in late-life interviews (he lived until the early 1980s) he rarely had a nice word to say for anyone. This has coloured modern views of him but, well, that’s a can of worms now, isn’t it? There are many performers who probably weren’t very nice people (especially in bitter old age), but a lot of them didn’t live long enough to get interviewed and show it off! Let’s judge the Cineteca’s Aubrey film on its own merits. (‘Fridolen defenso del dieblo’ is, I believe, the Aubrey Vitagraph Comedy TENDERFOOT LUCK. It was filmed under the working title THE PROSPECTOR in June-July 1922 on location in Northern California, with J.P. Smith directing, and Frank ‘Fatty Alexander in the cast.) Here’s the link:
You know what? It’s not bad. It’s true that Aubrey doesn’t have much charm, but in this comedy the gags are decent enough that it doesn’t matter too much. Rather like Ben Turpin, Aubrey wasn’t a comic innovator, and his films stand or fall on the quality of his gags rather than he himself (significantly, many of the funniest gags feature him in long shot, so his personality adds little to them).
In this one, Jimmy is a railroad stowaway who winds up in a Western town, falling in with Helen Kessler and her prospector father. He falls afoul of the town assayer (by blowing his hair and beard off with nytroglycerine, as you do!) and then sheriff Frank Alexander.
The best moment is a wonderful trick gag where Aubrey, pursued by Alexander, hides behind a narrow post. Thanks to double exposure, he seems to completely disappear. That gag has been done before, but what really makes it something else is the seamless way it is filmed. Just after Jimmy disappears, Frank walks right around the post, and even picks it up before Jimmy reappears. The topper comes when an angry mule also emerges from behind the post, chasing Jimmy and the sherriff away. A great bit of camera trickery, really presented well and made convincing by this little flourish.
Here’s an excerpt of that bit, courtesy of Dave Glass’s YouTube channel:
Ultimately Jimmy saves Helen from some marauding braves by improvising a catapult from a skinny tree. In the vast scheme of things, TENDERFOOT LUCK is no classic, and I doubt that any film is going to reveal Jimmy Aubrey as a master at work, but he was a hard working comic, and the film deserves 18 minutes of any silent comedy fan’s time.
Gag-happy Western comedy is also the order of the day in the next film, starring Lige Conley & Jimmie Adams. Some of the first comedies made by Jack White’s Mermaid Comedies featured these two diminutive comics – wild-haired Lige and balding, toothbrush-moustached Adams – in fast paced gags and stunts. The Cinemateca’s offering, BANG! (1921) shares with DANGER! an exclamatory title that sums up its breakneck comic method.
Gags come way before story in these shorts, and it’s best to abandon all worry about plot or characters. Instead, just jump into their slipstream-of-consciousness. Though BANG! is, roughly, a tale of Lige and Jmmie’s attempts to thwart corrupt sherriff Earl Montgomery, it’s all about the gag sequences and there are plenty of left turns to follow a comic whim. The Mermaids had good budgets and were often pretty elaborate, meaning a lot of these gags are impressive.
The short opens with a wonderful reveal gag of Adams in bed, apparently very elongated, before it’s revealed that the legs actually belong to Conley, hidden under the covers. Then we’re into some Rube Goldberg-esque business of their automated alarm clock and breakfast (similar to scenes in Keaton’s THE SCARECROW and Snub Pollard’s IT’S A GIFT) before a totally random scene of a dog, cat and mouse chasing each other!
The western saloon provides a nice surreal pool table gag, and some dark humour based around shootings. Then we’re into an exciting horse chase with some impressive stunts, and a good trick gag whereby Conley seems to jump across a river in one leap. Add some stolen money, a chimney, that cat again and you have a veritable gag whirlwind; leading lady Dorothy Wood has little else to do but watch the madness unfold.
This sort of material always benefits from a good print, and this is a beautiful tinted copy. The titles are in Italian, but you’re not really going to miss out on much story now, are you?
There’s yet more Western spoofing in a fragment of HER SCREEN IDOL, a 1918 Sennett directed by Eddie Cline. Ford Sterling plays a conceited Cowboy star who agrees to attend a showing of his new film in a small town cinema, where superfan Louise Fazenda is in attendance. Sterling is best known for his scenery chewing Keystine performances, but here he’s very funny as the self-important star watching himself on the screen and marvelling at his own performance. We don’t get to see the wonderful Louise Fazenda do much in the existing footage, but look put for a glimpse of Ben Turpin and Heinie Conklin as two inept musicians in the orchestra pit. View it here: https://www.cinetecamilano.it/film/2548
It’s wonderful that the Cineteca Milano has released these rarities from their archives. It’s the films of lesser known, jobbing comics like Aubrey, Conley and Adams that fill out our picture of the silent era.
In the 1950s and 60s, Buster Keaton found a nice sideline making ‘Industrial’ films. These varied from company training films to promotional advertisements, and even one (1952’s PARADISE FOR BUSTER) that was a pure comedy to be shown as a treat for employees of John Deere.
In October 1965, shortly after his 70th birthday, Keaton travelled to Canada for another industrial assignment. He didn’t know it then, but it would turn out to be his last appearance before a camera.
Some years earlier, he had been involved with an abortive film called TEN GIRLS AGO. Among the journalists covering that project was editorial photographer John Sebert; now Sebert found himself helming an industrial safety film for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario. The acquaintance was renewed and Keaton had a job.
THE SCRIBE is very obviously an instructional film, its purpose being to hammer home company safety policy ‐ “16 steps to LIVE!”. Buster’s job is to brighten proceedings by demonstrating how flouting each step can cause accidents, in his inimitable manner.
Given the set-up, it’s not fair to hold the film to the same standards of your average Keaton comedy. Certainly, nobody could call THE SCRIBE a forgotten classic, but for what it is, it’s not half bad.
Buster plays a janitor at a newspaper office, who promotes himself to journalist when a call comes in to investigate industrial safety at a building site.
Once there, he finds a list of safe working guidance rules, and wanders around the building site trying to enforce them, but usually making matters worse. It’s a pretty efficient way of getting the message across, but more importantly allows Keaton to indulge in little sight gag vignettes. Sebert is obviously a fan of Keaton’s comedy, and lets him do his thing. Some are better than others; Sebert sometimes bites off more than he can chew, and sequences of Buster being hoisted aloft on a crane or dangling from a rope are unconvincing, especially as a lanky, much younger double is used. Some gags are also sabotaged by the fact that the rest of the cast are genuine construction workers… as actors, they’re very good builders!
Much better are the simple visual gags: Buster’s constant loss of his hard hat, or his fascination with an ominous red button. Best of all, there are a handful of throwaway gags that don’t serve any health and safety purpose at all ‐ a falling door gag gives just a hint of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR, and Buster even uses a ladder gag from Laurel and Hardy’s THE FINISHING TOUCH. These are surely on-set additions by Buster himself, proof that his comic mind was active right until the end.
You can tell that all isn’t well with him though. As well as the use of a double, scenes of Buster running show his movements much slower than usual. With hindsight, we now know that he was terminally ill, and making this film at all was quite an achievement.
If THE SCRIBE isn’t the wonderful final hurrah that THE RAILRODDER had been, there certainly could be a less fitting final role. 46 years earlier, Buster’s first starring short had been ONE WEEK, based around house construction. Now, in 1965, with the wooden house changed to a skyscraper, here he was, still pottering about a building site, making gags with planks and doors and cement. There’s something quite touching about Buster persevering in the brave new world of the atomic age, as plans were made to put a man on the moon, and as The Beatles were recording RUBBER SOUL. It was a totally different era, but after all he’d been through in his career, he was still in demand and still funny.
The final scenes see him re-enacting one of his earliest comic routines, a floor scrubbing scene from THE BELL BOY (1918). While he is immersed in this, the ‘End’ title appears on the screen. Buster looks up and taps it away; a nice playfully cinematic final gag for a comedian who had always stretched the possibilities of film for comedy.
Harry Langdon: The ‘Little Elf’ grown up with a moustache in the late ’30s
Naughton & Gold: ‘The Napoleons of Fun!”
Some of the most intriguing moments in the history of any art form are those where paths of prominent artists meet. Sometimes, these are premeditated collaborations between heavyweight artists. At other times, they are more coincidental, dictated by circumstance.
The era of classic comedies brought about many such occurrences. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin performing a routine in ‘LIMELIGHT’ is perhaps the most famous; Roscoe Arbuckle’s partnership with Keaton the most productive. Charley Chase guesting in Laurel and Hardy’s ‘SONS OF THE DESERT’ is perhaps the most beloved. Less high-profile, these encounters became more and more frequent as silent comedy became a niche of ever decreasing circles. Stars on their way down clustered together to make a living, for at Educational pictures and Columbia for instance, and later on television. Thus, in later years we get Buster Keaton directed by Mack Sennett, Snub Pollard supporting the Three Stooges, and Keaton with Billy Gilbert on TV, amongst many others. Some of these obscure, ephemeral appearances are among the most interesting for comedy devotees, if not the most entertaining.
One to definitely file under this curiosity category is ‘WISE GUYS’ (1937). This is a long-vanished British film, directed by none other than comedy great Harry Langdon and starring an obscure team of Music Hall comedians! Just the notion of Langdon, who directed few films, helming a British film of the 30s, is bizarre in itself. So how did this come about?
Contrary to the myths perpetrated by Frank Capra and others, Langdon was far from hapless in the sound era. He had starred in many successful short films throughout the late 20s and early 30s. Whilst his hopes for a full comeback remained unfulfilled, he remained popular and visible in supporting roles in a variety of features. By 1936, this work had started to dry up a little however, and for a change of pace he took up with a stage show, ‘ANYTHING GOES’. The play, in which he played a comically bumbling gangster, took a year-long tour to Australia. This was very successful, and the presence of a Hollywood star was rare indeed. In contrast to the USA, Langdon was feted by the press.
After a successful stay, and without too much demand at home, he found himself taking a leisurely wayward journey back to the states. With wife Mabel and son Harry, Jr in tow, they saw a little of Paris and then travelled on to London. Whilst there, Harry obtained a small part in a musical, ‘STARDUST’ (re-released as both ‘MAD ABOUT MONEY’ and ‘HE LOVED AN ACTRESS’) with Ben Lyon, and also found himself asked to direct a film.
Quite how this came about is lost to time, although possibly through the influence of Ben Lyon, who was an old co-star of Harry’s. In the fumbling British B-picture industry of the 1930s, the presence of any Hollywood stars was seen as something of a coup. ‘STARDUST’, featuring Lyons and Langdon as well as Lupe Velez, was just one example of this kind of ‘booster’ film, and probably someone connected with the production saw a chance to cash in on Langdon’s name.
The stars were Charley Naughton and Jimmy Gold, a long standing Scots comedy team. They had a history on the Music Halls dating back to 1908 and were considered real veterans. In the mid-30s they were finding a new prominence as members of ‘THE CRAZY GANG’. Alongside the other teams of Flanagan & Allen and Nervo & Knox, they starred in a series of successful shows at the Palladium, as well as branching into film.
The Crazy Gang have been referred to as ‘The English Marx Brothers’, but this isn’t really a very accurate assessment. Though they shared with the Marxes a penchant for excruciating puns, their humour was much less cerebral. It was certainly lively and boisterous, though, a high-spirited mixture of slapstick, word play, cross-talk and jokes that creaked like the deck of a ghost ship.
Flanagan and Allen proved the most enduring of the constituent teams, with a creative line in fumbling wordplay, based on the lovably bedraggled Flanagan’s attempt to pronounce words:
Naughton and Gold are probably the lesser lights of The Crazy Gang. They chatter away in Scottish accents, and witter around not doing anything especially funny, at least in the films. One of the problems with The Crazy Gang was that its individual members were sometime lost in the chaos; Naughton and Gold, as the least distinictive comedians, suffered the worst from this.
Their records, without the other members of the gang, allowed them more prominence. These tend to play on their Scottish heritage, such as ‘IN SEARCH OF THE LOCH NESS MONSTER’. Their modus operandi in sketches like this veers much more to creaky puns than to character. Examples like this would make Chico Marx wince:
“That monster must weigh half a ton.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw the scales on his back…”
The problem with this sort of comedy is that it needs to be delivered with the knowing slyness of Groucho or Chico. With a few exceptions, Brit comedians of the time, like Naughton and Gold, were mostly just too polite to have the audacity to really deliver these puns. (Flanagan and Allen are an exception – they got away with it by acknowledging the awfulness of the punchlines with their cry of “Oi!” at the jokes’ conclusions).
Despite their failings on film and record, it could be that these just weren’t the right media to capture Naughton and Gold. They were stage comedians first and foremost, with 30 years experience polishing their act. This longevity must speak for a certain amount of skill. Originally debuting as tap dancers, they subsequently shifted their athleticism toward slapstick. Gold came from a family trade of painters and decorators, and the duo’s most praised act centred on paste and paper slapstick. Inevitably, in the time their films date from, they were getting on in years; we know them from a time when they were trading more on dated whimsy than slapstick. Among the louder members of the Crazy Gang, this is somewhat lost. Whether or not they fared better in their ‘solo’ starring vehicles is hard to say now, as both ‘HIGHLAND FLING’ (1936) and ‘WISE GUYS’ have vanished. Both were made for the cheapie studio Fox British, which churned out ‘Quota Quickies’, films made quickly to satisfy a ruling that a percentage of films shown in Britain must be made domestically.
The context of the manufacture doesn’t make one hold out great hope for the quality of ‘WISE GUYS’, but who knows? Langdon had common ground with Naughton and Gold in whimsy, visual humour and a long history of stage training prior to films. Charlie Naughton’s character had some similarities with Langdon’s ‘little elf’, with a curious mixture of middle aged man and pudgy baby about him. Indeed, he was often the put-upon child-figure of the Crazy Gang. Perhaps Langdon adapted some comic bits for him.
The story of WISE GUYS is another play on Naughton & Gold’s Scottish origins. As extreme spendthrifts, they find themselves related to a rich racehorse owner, Phineas MacNaughton (Robert Nainby), and determine to prove themselves members of the rich family. Unfortunately, this involves them – shudder – spending money! The few stills I’ve managed to track down show them trying to show themselves splashing out in a fancy restaurant, and . Unfortunately, their efforts are all in vain as they are pipped to getting a piece of the racehorse, and the family fortune, by their cousin Audrene Brier. The boys are kicked out of the house and return to spendthrift happiness.
The story has potential for some good sequences, and plenty of fish-out-of-water comedy. One particularly amusing still shows the pair in the swanky restaurant, trying to show off living the high life, but still on a budget: they have ordered the tiniest roast chicken ever seen:
The overall success of ‘WISE GUYS’ would have been limited by the rushed shooting schedule and limited budget. Langdon’s direction has also been a bone of long contention. At this point, he hadn’t directed a film since 1933’s ragbag short ‘THE STAGE HAND’ (cobbled together from outtakes from a planned feature, THE SHOW GOAT), and had not helmed a feature since 1928’s HEART TROUBLE, the film that was effectively his last as a major star. Langdon’s own direction has often been cited as the reason for his crash-and-burn from stardom, though THREE’S A CROWD and ‘THE CHASER’ have picked up many fans in recent years following DVD release. The jury is still out on his skills as director, though it’s important to note that, like Stan Laurel, he was the unofficial director on many of his films. His idiosyncratic style so set the style and pace of most of his films, that he had an influence way above that of star. ‘WISE GUYS’ is the only time he directed other comedians, which makes its disappearance that more frustrating. However, the following piece, syndicated in The Bournemouth Graphic on May 7th, 1937, presents an on-set account of Langdon directing the film – one of the very few first-hand accounts of him at work in the director’s chair. Most interesting is the quote that “watching [Langdon] work, it made me realise just how important the director is in making a comedy and just how little credit he gets.”(Irony of ironies, the writer then goes on to make a comparison to the work of Frank Capra!). Clearly, Langdon was in full control of proceedings, and adding his own comedy touches. Here’s the full piece:
For what it’s worth, The Era’s positive review of WISE GUYS on 12 August, 1937, stated that “Mr Langdon’s handling of the material is in the best tradition of Hollywood’s laugh-winning skill.”
WISE GUYS would be the last film that Langdon directed. Following completion, he headed back to the States, and would live with Stan Laurel for a while while he sorted out work. Laurel would lead him to more behind-the-scenes work, at Hal Roach Studios. After writing for L & H’s ‘BLOCKHEADS’ he would find himself at another of those curious cinematic crossroads. In 1939 he starred with Oliver Hardy in ‘ZENOBIA’, after Roach fired Laurel. Despite this, the Laurel-Langdon friendship remained firm until Harry’s untimely death in 1944.
As for Naughton and Gold, the Crazy Gang concept now gathered steam, with their 1937 film ‘O-KAY FOR SOUND’ being a smash. They would make a run of other successful comedies together, including ‘ALF’S BUTTON AFLOAT’ and ‘THE FROZEN LIMITS’, as well as a long, long run of stage shows lasting to the early 1960s. Making their final performance together in 1962, Naughton and Gold secured a record as the longest running double act in British history: 54 years!
In that lengthy career, ‘WISE GUYS’ was a mere brief moment. It’s unlikely that this long forgotten feature was an out and out classic. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to see the fruit borne by this unlikely meeting of comic minds.
Neal Burns is one of those “nice young men” of silent comedy who is usually forgotten. You know the ones; the Bobby Vernons and Glenn Tryons who were meant to be like the boy next door – the whole point of them was to be average, and to blend in with other average Americans. Often, they had the girl already at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the comedy was gentle and situational. Burns fit the idiom nicely. He was normal-looking, a bit like a scrubbed-up version of Al St John. Occasionally they put glasses on him to heighten the similarity to Harold Lloyd.
If this sounds like I’m bashing Neal, I’m not. He was a perfectly capable comedian, and made some fun little films, but among the many unique and unusual-looking comedians of the era, he doesn’t stand much of a chance of being singled out.
Well, here’s a moment in the spotlight for him. This short is NO PARKING, courtesy of the EYE film institute. It’s kind of like a much milder version of ONE WEEK, featuring his attempts to build, and then move, a portable house. Not full of belly laughs, but a fun watch (be warned, there is one unfortunate bit of racial stereotyping though). Neil cranked out dozens of these light comedies for the Al Christie studios throughout the 1920s, but they are seldom seen today.
And here’s one more from the ACCIDENTALLY PRESERVED DVDS, where he’s co-starred with Jack Duffy in LOOSE CHANGE:
Incidentally, also in the cast of this film is fellow Christie comic Eddie Barry, whose real name was Eddie Burns… yup, he was Neal’s brother. Guess they tossed a coin to decide who got to keep the family name.
The best Neal Burns short I’ve seen so far is GIDDY GOBBLERS, which is a very funny Charley Chase-style farce centred around his attempts to get a Turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Also lots of fun is CALL THE WAGON, available on the American Slapstick vol 2 DVD.
In the sound era, Neal descended into bit parts (you can see him in a bunch of Columbia shorts), but he was another of the hard-working comics who deserves his due every now and then.
It came! After weeks of waiting for Trans-Atlantic deliveries to return to normality, yesterday HARRY LANGDON AT HAL ROACH: THE TALKIES 1929-30 finally dropped into my mailbox.
A DVD release of these much maligned, obscure little films is a wonderful thing indeed. These shorts have had a decidedly mixed reputation, but were well received at the time and deserve a fresh viewing.
Even in his best work, Harry Langdon always arouses quite visceral reactions, and these films are maybe the most contentious of his entire career. Partly this is because they were hugely obscure for a long time, and partly because when they were written about it, it was often by someone who didn’t enjoy them (most notably by Leonard Maltin in THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS) . Well, recent showings of some of the films on TCM have enabled people to at last judge for themselves. Now, they’re out in the real world again on this wonderful DVD from The Sprocket Vault, which collects all eight of the shorts, including the incredibly rare HOTTER THAN HOT and SKY BOY.
The shorts brought Langdon to the Hal Roach studios for the first time. His career in features had crashed, coinciding with the arrival of sound. Harry’s return to the short comedy was celebrated as a comeback, and though I have some favourites among his features, I do feel that this was the idiom that suited him best. Langdon’s comedy was all about creating his own little world, and in twenty minutes the real world doesn’t need to impinge on his fantasies too much.
Langdon fully capitalises on that here. His childlike ‘little elf’ character always tended toward the surreal (in one of his silent films he has a bearded woman as his leading lady!). These shorts continued that trend, with the new era of sound seeming to encourage him to be more experimental. Harry always babbled away in his silent films – now you can hear him as well as see him! Much has been made of his use of his voice, and it did take him a little while to get it right, but I think his voice actually suits his character really well. It’s not all talk, anyway. In the best of these films, there are terrific pantomime routines and some, like THE BIG KICK are practically silent comedies. There are some wonderful sight gags and images in these shorts that, if they weren’t quite so bizarre, might be considered iconic: Harry sat with his fingers in his ears and a firecracker fizzing away in his mouth, for instance, or in a cartoonish boxing match, his gloves floating around on the end of long poles coming out of his jumper!
It doesn’t always work, and the early sound technology does create some pacing problems, but there’s a lot to enjoy here. While films like SKIRT SHY and THE HEAD GUY are a little unsure of themselves, there is some vintage Harry on show, with THE BIG KICK and THE SHRIMP near-classics.
If you’re on the fence about Langdon (or his sound work), give this set a go; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. There are some terrific moments, and you also get to enjoy some choice moments of Hal Roach players like Thelma Todd, Edgar Kennedy and Max Davidson into the bargain.
Of course, if you’re already a Langdon fan, then buying this set is a no-brainer. For one thing, this is your first chance to see HOTTER THAN HOT & SKY BOY in 90 years!
These two films, contrasting tales of fire and ice, are among the most offbeat of all Langdon’s work (against some stiff competition!). HOTTER THAN HOT might just be one of my new favourite Langdon shorts. Harry plays a pyromaniac of all things, who is chasing a fire engine when Edgar Kennedy bribes him to take a ‘Dear John’ letter to Thelma Todd’s apartment. There are some lovely sight gags in this one, including Harry trying to cross a slippery floor, his attempts to retrieve a key that an unconscious Thelma has hidden in her dress, and his manipulation of a doll so that it seems to have Thelma’s legs. The film was based on Langdon’s own vaudeville skit THE MESSENGER, so he was intimately familiar with the material and pulls it off wonderfully.
SKY BOY has him marooned on an iceberg with Thelma, Eddie Dunn and a bear! The striking iceberg setting is an unusual but fitting backdrop for Langdon’s minimalism, and the centrepiece of the film is a long routine of Harry trying to shave the bullying Eddie Dunn. The angelic Langdon character often had darkness lurking not far away, and there’s a wonderful example here, as Thelma tries to persuade him to cut Eddie’s throat; add to this a fishing line attached to Harry’s wrist that causes his hand to jerk dangerously all over the place and you have a great little routine that’s suspenseful as well as funny.
Both these films are missing their original soundtracks, but subtitles and music from Andrew Earle Simpson carry them along nicely. After all, the visual is the essence of Langdon’s beautiful pantomime performances. Even if he never made me laugh, I could happily sit and watch him act for hours. Do you know what, though? He made me laugh a lot in these shorts. I laughed out loud, in fact.
Leonard Maltin got it so wrong when he called these shorts “horrible”. That’s like criticising Picasso for getting his faces all mixed up. Sure, they’re quirky, sometimes surreal and abstract, but that was Langdon’s vision. What you have here is a master comedian still pushing the envelope and creating something that no other comedian could have. Often, he manages to be very funny in the process. Maltin said that the “blame” for the films “surely lies with Langdon himself”. Change “blame” to “credit”, and now you’re talking!
As far as the DVD goes, the presentation of these films is exemplary. I once owned a print of LONG PANTS that was so bleached out that you could barely see Harry’s facial expressions. Without this ability, it became virtually unwatchable. You need to see every nuance of Langdon’s being, and the terrific digital restorations here make that possible. The films benefit hugely from this.
Like the previous Charley Chase and Thelma Todd DVD sets, all the shorts come with tremendously detailed commentaries from Richard Roberts. So, even if the films aren’t your cup of tea, you can still listen and learn a great deal not just about Langdon and these films, but about the Hal Roach studios in general.
Bravo to Richard Roberts and Kit Parker for making this, the most improbable of all DVDs, available for us to enjoy. The Sprocket Vault continue to give us chance to appreciate films that no-one else would even consider releasing, with the best possible presentation. If you’re still not convinced to buy, just remember that incredibly niche projects like this can only continue if we support them. Here’s the Amazon link… https://www.amazon.com/Harry-Langdon-Roach-Talkies-1929-1930/dp/B07ZW9Y36M
The new issue of The Lost Laugh Magazine is now available! There are exclusive articles, rare photos, reproduced articles from trade magazines and news and reviews.
Our cover star this time is British silent comedian Walter Forde; in this issue we focus on his early career and short films (including a complete filmography) , with his feature films to follow in the next issue.
Last time we looked at Monty Banks’ starring comedies. Issue 12 continues his story into the sound era, examining his handful of starring films, and his work as a director.
Other articles include:
*some of Roscoe Arbuckle’s most obscure films
*A Q & A with Ben Model, all about The Silent Comedy Watch Party
*Mabel Normand’s missing film ONE HOUR MARRIED.
*New DVDs featuring Lupino Lane, Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase and Harry Langdon
*Screening notes on some rare films from Hal Roach and Mack Sennett studios.
Click on the link below to open the pdf of the magazine, or right click and ‘save target as’ to download the file:
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:
The 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: