Lamebrains and Lunatics

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I think I can say with perfect confidence that Steve Massa is one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of early movie comedy. He has been at it since childhood, and has remained curious and hungry, constantly picking up new information and pushing back the frontier of re-discovered worlds until he has reached that enviable point of mastery:  as complete a picture in one’s head of the silent comedy universe as it is possible to get (given how much is forever lost). Massa knows WHO was at WHICH studio WHEN. He knows not only the major players, but the minor players, and the minor MINOR players. He knows how to read the hieroglyphics; when he watches a silent movie he doesn’t see what you or I see. While we’re following the story, he’s doing that AND going, “Oh! That’s so-and-so! They must have been on loan from such and such that month!” That doesn’t mean he’s lost his sense of humor, not by a long shot. A former actor himself, he got into this game (like me and many others) as a fan or a buff; the scholarship is a by-product, more than an end in itself, but the end result is just the same. It’s actually a better result, because it’s done with more freedom and affection than an academic would be allowed to bring to it.

I’ve conversed with him and read his program notes at the Silent Clowns film screenings for over a decade now. Even from those fragmentary experiences, one could get a sense of the enormous depth, breadth and range of his command of the subject. But I (and dozens of others I know) have been chomping at the bit to get a peek at his view of the big picture. And it’s finally here. Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, the Bad and the Forgotten is a collection of essays comprising not the sum-total of what he’s learned (that would be impossible), but some of the juiciest, most exciting stuff he’s come across. The whole point of such pathfinders is in showing the seasoned traveler where to go next (and, in the cases of extreme rarities, where the entire field needs to go next).

If you’re not a silent comedy film buff (and why aren’t you?) the best analogy I can give you is, say you’re  Beatles fan. Your favorite record in the world is Sgt. Pepper but you can’t ALWAYS listen to one record. Still, you need to come as close as you can to rediscovering that original experience. After a time you resort to listening to lesser Beatle records, say, Let it Be. When that loses its lustre, you’re on to bootlegs like the Get Back sessions, Beatles Christmas records, ex-Beatle solo work, and Beatles apocrypha (there actually is some). And also, other groups that are as much like the Beatles as possible. Well, something similar happens with silent comedy. First you see The Gold Rush. Then everything by Chaplin. Then everything by Keaton, and then pretty soon…everything. But what next?

One needs to prioritize. But also it’s not strictly about one’s greedy need for new experiences. There’s the justice and the reward of discovering the work of neglected artists. There’s valuable stuff here that ought to be appreciated. It’s a two way street. So someone like Massa, who’s well at the head of the pack provides a valuable service by letting the rest of us know where to look next. (Ultimately that ought to be the job of all critics).

Massa’s tome is pretty thick, and everyone has a different threshold for what’s new/ what’s old, but here is some stuff in his book I found totally valuable:

* Several essays devoted to neglected female comedians. Among the general public, there has been a broad misconception at work for well over half a century now that Lucille Ball was the first slapstick comedienne. On the contrary, silent movies and early talkies were actually FULL of gifted female physical comedians; they’ve mostly fallen by the wayside because their films were lost, forgotten or unavailable. That’s all changing right now, and it promises to keep changing as stuff makes it way out of private collections and archives and gets distributed. In Chain of Fools I tried to give Mabel Normand her deserved prominence (which is more than a lot of writers have done for her), and I mentioned a few of the others, but Massa’s book tantalizes with complete essays on Alice Howell, Gale Henry, Fay Tincher and Marie Dressler. The earlier book Clown Princes and Court Jester’s by Kalton C. Lahue and Sam Gill does have essays on all of these ladies, I believe, but Massa has the benefit of the decades of discoveries that have happened since that book was written, and has managed to see a lot more of the work. If there isn’t an entire book on this topic yet, I have no doubt there soon will be, given the recent explosion of access. Most of these women had their own starring series of shorts in their time. Alice Howell was called the Female Charlie Chaplin.

* Keaton copycats. Most buffs know about the many Chaplin copycats, and (through Massa) I’d also known about the Langdon copycats (and Massa talks about them all in the book as well) but I had no idea about the many comedians who attempted to fill Keaton’s slapshoes. One of them, to my delight, was George Chandler, a character actor you’d recognize in a second if you saw him onscreen. (I know him best for his role as the son Chester in W.C. Fields’ The Fatal Glass of Beer).

* An appreciation for the normally disparaged Chaplin rival Billie Ritchie. Massa’s take on the films really makes me want to see them (most of them are hard to see)

* Al St. John’s solo work. (Most know his work with the Keystone ensemble and with Arbuckle and Keaton at Comique — here’s an appreciation for his own starring series).

* One thing you will get from Massa that I guarantee you will not get from any other silent comedy writer is an appreciation for all-simian comedy teams. I already learned about Snookie the Humanzee at his knee; now he tells about Napoleon & Sally as well as Max, Moritz & Little Pep, a.k.a. the Fox Monkeys 

* Some valuable detective work on long-forgotten cross-eyed comic George Rowe

* An introduction to Marcel Perez,a  great comedian who may have fallen through the cracks because he changed his screen name too many times

And more, more, (really much) more, including lots and lots of cool photos, most of which I’d never seen before. And written in a brisk style that gets the facts across while communicating (as many writers don’t) that the people he is writing about were actually very funny. This is one that will be on my shelf always, although increasingly dog-eared as time goes on. In fact, it’s already coffee-stained (sorry, Steve), but in my library that’s known as the Brown Badge of Courage.

Order your own copy here. 

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