Today is International Firefighters Day as well as the anniversary of Paris’s terrible fire at Le Bazar de la Charité, inspiration for that terrific tv show. It is fitting that we show firefighters appreciation and respect. Here in NYC, the guys at the FDNY assumed something like superhero status after 9/11 (some of them, sadly, eternally, as martyrs) and I spent many a moment last year rooting for California smoke-eaters during their unprecedented rash of wildfires. Firefighters do one of the world’s hardest and most valuable jobs, and they have to internalize horrible sights which most of us, happily (knock wood) will never encounter. It ain’t no fit subject for jokes. But little guys trying to do that hard job and failing, that can be funny. And in a way, it’s a tribute, for it is an expression of how difficult the job is. So here are some famous comedy firemen from the era of classic comedy. Several of them are available to watch on Youtube; today would be an appropriate day to check them out. As always, follow the links to learn more.
Chaplin often rushed in where other fools feared to tread. He made comedies about poverty, starvation, and war. So it’s not surprising that he would break ground on this dark topic as well. The Fireman is one of his two-reelers from his Mutual period. His little fireman is a ne-er-do-well who oversleeps, makes coffee out of the water in the steam engine, and frequently answers the wrong bell. But in the end, he does rescue folks. That’s the arc of most of these comedies.
Harold Lloyd in Fireman Save My Child (1918)
This the first of at least four comedies that bear this title. In this one, non-fireman Harold vies for the hand of Bebe Daniels against fire chief Snub Pollard, her parents preferred marriage candidate. To win her, Harold joins the fire department. His first rescue turns out to be his intended bride.
This is the last short Keaton and Arbuckle would appear in together before Arbuckle went off to do features and Buster began to star in his own shorts. In this one they play a couple of guys who work in a combination car garage and fire station in a small town. At the climax they must save the boss’s daughter from a fire started by the dude that’s been pestering the girl. Several gags where they can’t get water out of a hose will probably give actual firefighters nightmares.
Our Gang in Fire Fighters (1922) , et al
Fire Fighters was just one of several comedy shorts in which the kids from Our Gang played at having their own miniature all-kid fire company. This one and the later Fourth Alarm (1926) are silent. The later Hook and Ladder (1932) is a talkie with some of the more familiar Little Rascals cast like Dickie Moore and Stymie now in place.
Harry Langdon plays a young college graduate who simply adores women. His uncle the fire chief (Vernon Dent) is a woman-hater. His uncle’s extreme attitude seems to be borne out when the girl Harry is mooning over turns out to be a heartless gold-digger (Harry has an inheritance). When the uncle lies and tells her Harry’s got no money, she loses interest. Fortunately, the gold-digger’s much nicer sister secretly loves Harry for himself. At any rate, wouldn’t it just be Harry’s luck (and ours) that Harry is in the fire station when a call comes in…an opportunity for gags, and then heroism. I don’t know what it is but there is something kind of iconic for me about Langdon in a fireman’s uniform. Other comedians, such as Chaplin, had played fireman before, but there is something about the child-like Harry that’s especially cartoonish. He’s like Mickey Mouse or something.
Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton (a sort of loose comedy team at the time) play two firemen who encounter constant hurdles over the course of their duties not the least of which is the daughter (Josephine Dunn) of the fire chief (Tom Kennedy) repteadly calling in false alarms, so she can get lots of attention.
Prior to his film career, in his down time between vaudeville and circus engagements, Joe E. Brown had played professional baseball, a skill he puts to use in several of his comedies. Here, he’s a small town fireman who absolutely loves his job. He has invented a new “fire extinguishing bomb” (containing a chemical that smothers fires) and needs dough to manufacture it — and not incidentally to marry his fiancé. He takes a job as a baseball player just so he can better spot fires (the ball field is on top of hill) and becomes quite successful at the sport at the professional level. Meanwhile a femme fatal is working on him so she can take his money. Obviously this makes the girl he really loves unhappy. The funniest scene in the picture occurs when he is showing his fire extinguishing bombs at a company but has brought the wrong bag and sets the office on fire, nearly burning the place down. (The scene seems very much modeled on W.C. Fields’ in So’s Your Old Man and You’re Telling Me!). Anyway, of course he puts everything right in the end. And wins the (right) girl.
Ed Wynn in The Chief (1933)
Ed Wynn gained national fame playing “The Fire Chief” on Texaco’s radio show from 1930 to 1935. This comedy short is the only movie he made as the character. Directed by comedy auteur Chuck Reisner it also features Chic Sale, Dorothy Mackaill, and a very young Mickey Rooney as “Boy Throwing Firecrackers”.
Buster Keaton in Blue Blazes (1936)
Silent comedy buffs all remember the classic scene in Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), when Buster is a reporter trying to make good who hops onto a speeding fire truck so he can take pictures at the fire, only to have the truck pull immediately into the fire station (it was on the way BACK from a blaze). Suprisingly, Keaton didn’t get to play a fireman until his CAREER was on its way back to the station, two decades after contemporaries Chaplin and Lloyd (not counting The Garage, which was an Arbuckle picture, and the characters were only part-time firemen). Blue Blazes was partr of a series of shorts Keaton made for low budget Educational Pictures. The plot is by now familiar: bumbling fireman proves himself by rescuing several women.
Fireman Save My Child (1954)
The Joe Besser era Three Stooges have a cameo in this all-star comedy classic as three firemen at the airport. Later, Sterling Holloway has a funny turn as the fireman atop the ladder when the protagonists are all hanging on the fire escape (“You’ll be sorry!”) with the voice of Lenny Weinrib issuing warnings from below.
For more on silent and classic comedy, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.