Important Lost Silent Comedies

A little survey I’ve been sitting on about important silent comedies that remain lost. Amazing strides have happened in the last couple of decades thanks to the proliferation of the internet…many (scores? hundreds!) of silent films and early talkies long thought lost have turned up in the last few years, a truly joyous development. But some really important films are still missing as of this writing, and may well never be recovered. Here’s a short, subjective list of stuff some comedy fans and scholars would give anything to see:

FEATURES

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Heart Trouble (1928), Harry Langdon

This film tops my list. We are in the midst of a major reassessment of Langdon, and I’m a huge advocate for this idiosyncratic and famously temperamental comedian. Heart Trouble was the third and last of his self-directed features, after ditching his dream team of Harry Edwards, Arthur Ripley and Frank Capra. His previous two features were critical and popular failures (though I happen to love them). Langdon was new to directing and learning the ropes in the most public way possible. And by all contemporary critical accounts, Heart Trouble was better. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough of a rebound. First National dropped him, but more importantly, talkies had now become universal. So Langdon had to start everything from scratch again, making a series of talking shorts for Hal Roach, then Educational, then Columbia. I’m in the midst of wading through those now. Langdon eventually found his way in talkies but had to thrash around a bit first. But, having seen all of his silent films, I am dying to see the missing link, Heart Trouble, which by all counts could do still more to enhance his reputation as “the Fourth genius”

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Half of W.C. Fields’s Silent Features

While several of the silent features W.C. Fields made for Paramount in the 1920s survive,  five do not. The reason why is not hard to fathom — they did not do well. Tellingly, four of these films were among Fields’ last five of the silent era. At that point, he was in decline and these films were not much watched, and clearly no one cared to save them. The missing silent features are That Royle Girl (1925), The Potters (1927), Two Flaming Youths (1927), Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1928),  and Fools for Luck (1928). He played a smaller role in That Royle Girl, so that’s less of a loss, but one bemoans the loss of the other four, for The Potters was co-written by J.P. McEvoy, author of the Fields stage revue The Comic Supplement and it forms the basis of Fields’ many later domestic comedies. And the last three vehicles all co-star Chester Conklin, a historic teaming of which we have NO record to look at. Two Flaming Youths has a carnival setting that anticipates You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and is chock full of cameos of top vaudevillians, including Weber and Fields, Clark and McCullough, The Duncan Sisters, Savoy and Brennan, Moran and Mack, Kolb and Dill, Jack Pearl, et al, AND it features some bona fide sideshow freaks, including Fat Lady Anna Magruder. Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a critically panned, much altered version  of the Mack Sennett film of 14 years earlier, transplanted to a circus, and including in addition to Fields and Conklin, Louise Fazenda, Mack Swain (who’d also been in the original), and Tom Kennedy. 

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Two by Larry Semon:

Semon famously melted down in features: he overspent and went bankrupt, no doubt contributing to the health problems which killed him in 1928. But like Langdon, he is presently undergoing a reappraisal, and I personally rank him high. Some of his shorts are incredibly well made and hilarious, and though his version of The Wizard of Oz (1925) is terrible I rather liked his feature The Perfect Clown (1925) and others have praised Spuds (1927). The record is just mixed enough! To properly gauge his talent it would be so very useful to be able to see his two missing features The Girl in the Limousine (1924), and Stop, Look and Listen (1926). Of added interest, the latter film was based on an Irving Berlin Broadway show.

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Fatty Arbuckle’s Post-Scandal Features

Arbuckle grows on me all the time. Others have been quicker to rank him near the top of the pantheon. I have been slower to see it, but now that I have seen almost all of his work (and some of his directing work), my respect has increased, and I too would have to put him near the top.  Complicating matters is the fact that his features are less personal — they are studio product in which he was just an actor. I have seen a couple that have survived, The Round-Up and Leap Year, both what they used to call “straight comedies” as opposed to slapstick. They are okay, but dull compared to the features of the Big Four. Seeing more of that work would help that assessment, and he certainly pumped out a downright sick number of features in that year before scandal ruined his career as a star. Among the lost features are The Fat Freight, Brewster’s Millions, The Dollar a Year Man and Traveling Salesman, all 1921. These were made prior to the scandal but many were never distributed once the scandal hit and no one bothered with them in the aftermath for obvious reasons. No one dreamt that decades later people would actually care about the films of this washed-up comedian.

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Mabel Normand’s Goldwyn films

As with her frequent co-star Arbuckle, Normand moved away from slapstick in her features and consequently they are a little duller to watch. Still her work was excellent and in recent years we have seen the rediscovery of the features she made with Mack Sennett (Mickey, Molly O, Suzanna, The Extra Girl). Today it’s possible to see many of her features, but we’re largely missing the numerous features she made for Sam Goldwyn during the years 1918-1922. Sis Hopkins (pictured above) is of special interest being as it was a famous stage vehicle associated with Rose Melville.

From "Wedding Bill$", lost Griffith feature from 1927

From “Wedding Bill$”, lost Griffith feature from 1927

Raymond Griffith features

Often called the Sixth Genius, Griffith too is enjoying a Renaissance thanks to surviving comedy features such as Hands Up and Paths to Paradise. But Griffith (much like Arbuckle and Normand) made a ton of features for Paramount. In those days the big studios seemed to pump them out the way Sennett, Roach et al did shorts. Griffith and Paramount parted ways acrimoniously, no doubt contributing to the fact that we have so little to look at today.

SHORTS

Charlie Chaplin, Her Friend the Bandit (1914)

This is the only missing Chaplin film. It’s easy to glean why there is such a high survival rate for Chaplin films; essentially they never went out of circulation. There has always been demand for practically ALL of them. There seems to be some debate and confusion about whether Her Friend the Bandit even actually existed. But there is some evidence that it did. More here. 

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Arbuckle and Keaton, A Country Hero (1917)

This, in turn is the only known missing Keaton film, though he is second billed behind Arbuckle. Learn more about it here.

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Laurel and Hardy,  Hats Off  (1926)

Oh this one is a major loss. By all accounts it’s the prototype for their popular Oscar winning classic The Music Box, with the boys moving a washing machine instead of a piano, and a large hat fight at the end.  So easy to see in the mind’s eye — but how I wish we could see the real thing.

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Harold Lloyd shorts:

We of course have dozens of comedy shorts by the prolific Harold Lloyd to see and enjoy today. Lloyd was also a pioneer in the field of film preservation, a fact which resulted in an ironic tragedy. In the 1930s he’d bought up negatives to all his films and stored them in the same vault. See where I’m going? In 1943 he had a major fire in which the only known copies of many of his earliest films were lost. The specific reason why this was especially unfortunate was that 53 of these lost shorts were ones in which he played his previous comedy character Lonesome Luke. Luckily a few Lonesome Luke movies survive (I’ve seen a couple), but how much better to have been able to evaluate those other 53. Also lost were 18 of his earliest “glasses character” comedies.  Learn more here: http://haroldlloyd.us/the-films/the-state-of-the-lloyd-films/

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W.C. Fields, His Lordship’s Dilemma (1915)

Fields’ second silent comedy short, after which he quit making films for an entire decade. It would be nice to see for ourselves what might have convinced him to stop for awhile. Learn more here. 

ENTIRE STUDIOS! 

In the mid-teens, many of Mack Sennett’s comedy stars bolted to other studios, notably L-KO, a kind of Sennett defection led by Henry “Pathe” Lerman, and Fox. Only 10% of L-KO’s output remains. Nearly all of Fox’s silent comedy library was destroyed in a 1937 fire that also destroyed nearly all of the silent comedy films of Educational Pictures, another important slapstick factory.  And Universal, which had its own major comedy shop, destroyed most of their films from the silent era in 1948 on purpose! The odds of recovering prints of any of that stuff are very small and it. is just. maddening.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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7 Responses to “Important Lost Silent Comedies”

  1. SuzyJane71 Says:

    I can’t believe Humorisk isn’t there! It’s handily my dream lost silent picture, but I think the Marx Brothers are the funniest comedy team (and Groucho THE funniest comedian) ever. I know taste is subjective, but I’m so crazy about them I had to put it out there… If only… Sigh. 😦

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  2. I didn’t include it in this post because it’s really about films by silent comedians per se. Humor Risk was a bit of a one off fluke!

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  3. I must admit I’ve always thought it a bit bizarre that W C Fields has silent films, even as I’ve seen several. He just feels inherently a speaking comic actor somehow, but that might reflect the vocalizations used to parody and reference him.

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  4. What about Leon Errol? He was so busy as a comedian & director on Broadway he had little time tomake silent films, but I believe two of his silent featurtes are missing: Clothes Maker th Pirate (1925) and Lunatic at Large (1927). If anyone doubts Leon Errol’s stage eminence look at his credits for Broadway between 1910 and 1930 at: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0259816/otherworks?ref_=nm_pdt_wrk_sm.
    Can anyone name another Broadway stage comedian who was more active and or a bigger star during that period? He was the lead comedian in 5 Ziegfeld Follies and was the stage directorof several of them as well as productions by Raymon Hitchcock and Arthur Hammerstein. Leon Errol initiated the first major interracial comedy tream when he chose to write and co-star eith Bert Willisms in four Follies.

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    • Thanks Frank! Leon Errol was indeed a genius, we’ve written about him many times on this blog. It would indeed be a boon to see his missing silent features

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