Lloyd Hamilton: Near the Top of Silent Comedy’s Pantheon

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Today is the birthday of comedian Lloyd Hamilton (1891-1935). Hamilton is one of those ones whom, for months I’ve been going, “Wha-? I haven’t done a post on him yet? Ever???” It’s because I wrote about him quite a bit in Chain of Fools, and so I just sort of have been feeling like it MUST be on the blog. But it’s not. Here we go!

Lloyd Hamilton’s competitors had nothing but praise for him. Buster Keaton called him “one of the funniest men in pictures”; Charlie Chaplin said he was the one comedian of whom he was jealous. Charley Chase (who directed him in two shorts) admitted to using Hamilton’s work as a guide and a model for his own. Hamilton was considered “one of the ones to watch.”

He had gotten his start in films about a decade earlier. After working as a supernumerary in the theatre, he began to get bit parts in films for the Lubin Company in 1914. The following year, he achieved his first widespread attention, as one half of the team of Ham and Bud in a series of one-reelers for the Kalem Company. Ham and Bud were one of the screen’s first comedy teams, by some measures the first. At six-foot-tall, 200 lbs, Hamilton was scarcely the hugest man in the world, but standing next to his 4’11” partner Bud Duncan he seemed a colossus. The difference in their sizes was highly reminiscent of Weber and Fields and also the comic strip characters Mutt and Jeff, first brought to the screen in 1911. In addition, there was a good bit of Chaplin influence. The two characters were generally a couple of tramps – much more like Beckett’s Didi and Gogo than Laurel and Hardy ever thought of being. They both wore shabby clothes and the goofy mustaches still in vogue on comedians in the teens. (Bud even wore a Chaplin-style toothbrush mustache).  Their make-up is grotesque and even disturbing.

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The general Ham and Bud formula starts with the pair of them loitering on a park bench or a sidewalk. They take a job or some other opportunity, foul things up, then run away (often from a policeman) in really fast motion.

After Kalem folded and the team split in 1917, Hamilton went to work with Henry Lehrman and Jack White (later of Columbia) to develop his solo character at Fox, Mermaid, and later Educational. The character he arrived at is vastly different from “Ham” of the earlier comedies. Now he is a sort of large sissy boy, vaguely reminiscent of Arbuckle’s persona in certain films. The fully realized Hamilton wore a flat “pancake” cap and flowing Windsor tie. He had a sort of swishy walk and used mincing mannerisms, but there was no implication that he was gay, merely an effeminate, impish little boy in the body of a man. For fans of ‘50s and ‘60s television, Hamilton’s persona was a pretty obvious influence on Jackie Gleason’s “Poor Soul” and Fenwick Babbitt characters.

After a series of popular shorts, Hamilton got his big break in 1923. Al Jolson had been slated to make his much ballyhooed motion picture debut in a D.W. Griffith film called Black Magic. After shooting some scenes, however, the famously temperamental Jolson got frustrated with the alien process of film-making (no live audience, continuity, or out-sized physical gestures) and walked off the picture, and—so everyone thought—his film career. Hah!

Hamilton was hired as Jolson’s replacement. This seemed like an exciting development, but once Hamilton was signed (thus contractually obligated to complete the project), Griffith dropped out, and a lesser director was assigned. The film was released in 1924 as His Darker Self. And it is some specimen. Black Magic? His Darker Self? A comedy vehicle devised by D.W. Griffith for Al Jolson? Are you beginning to get the picture? This is a movie that has blackface at its center, with a sort of thin rationale to work it into the plot. Hamilton portrays a mystery writer who goes undercover in burnt cork to expose a Negro bootlegging racket. Given the tenor of the times it’s doubtful that it was the racism that kept audiences away. The film, now available only in a two-reel version later released to salvage sagging box office, simply isn’t very funny.

Hamilton had one more chance to prove himself in features. Released later that year, A Self Made Failure has the dubious distinction of being the longest comedy feature released until that time—eight reels. The film is now lost, but historian/author Anthony Balducci has made a study of the screenplay and over 100 production stills for his book Lloyd Hamilton: Poor Boy Comedian of the Silent Cinema (2009)According to Balducci, A Self Made Failure is one of those melodrama comedies, striving constantly for pathos, and lacking in gags. Ham plays a tramp who is the adopted father of an orphan (shades of The Kid). The two and their pet dog enact various schemes to help an elderly woman save her rooming house. Further, Ham’s character is presented as a “hopeless imbecile,” a common mistake made by comedy writers and comedians. If your character is too incompetent, he can’t plausibly solve the problems of the plot. Hamilton would hardly be the first or the last to go there. Also, at eight reels, the film had all sorts of sub-plots that didn’t star Hamilton.

With these two flops, Hamilton was finished in features, but that is not to say that he was finished. He went back to making comedy shorts, many of which did very well. But the realization that his moment seemed to have come and gone hit Hamilton hard. Already suffering from an alcohol dependency, his problems grew drastically worse. In 1927, he was present at a murder in a speakeasy, was arrested several times for public drunkenness, and got divorced from his wife. Educational let him go from his contract and the MPPDA banned him from films. For a time he was homeless. In 1929, a friend discovered him and helped him dry out. Hamilton returned to making (now talking) shorts until his death in 1935 during a stomach operation.

And now, Lloyd Hamilton in Breezing Along (1927) with score by Ben Model

And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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One Response to “Lloyd Hamilton: Near the Top of Silent Comedy’s Pantheon”

  1. Splendid post. The more Hamilton films I see, the more I like him! One of the sidelines of Hamilton’s career is how many times he was directed by Roscoe Arbuckle, then banned from the screen and in his “William Goodrich” phase at Educational Pictures.

    Funny, the “helpless imbecile” characterization is what sinks everything from 1920’s Christie Comedies starring Billy “The Goofy Gob” Dooley to Buster Keaton talkies in which the greatest of comedians plays the moronic “Elmer” to Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr. Bean” for me.

    Like

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