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!