Travalanche Reviews “Fred Karno: The Legend Behind the Laughter”

As promised nearly two months ago, our review of David Crump’s epochal new biography Fred Karno: The Legend Behind the Laughter. Though I have had the book for weeks, it’s taken me that long to get you the good word because I wanted to do it justice. It is a dense 500+ pages of pure pleasure. I started out trying to absorb every word on every page, but finally took New Year’s weekend to barrel through the rest.

Unless you really know me you’ll suspect unwarranted hyperbole, but I assure you that this book will be joining a very short list of others, like Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and Charlie Chaplin’s own flawed but wonderful autobiography, as part of my indispensable core library — and at my age, it’s been a long while since I added a new one of those. The reasons I rate it so high are several: 1) There have been no decent books about Fred Karno heretofore; 2) Crump’s is definitive, full of original primary research and then digested and turned into perceptive and entertaining prose; and 3) Karno is such a key figure.

To the latter point, Crump’s book is going to open a lot of people’s eyes, I think. There is a tendency to restrict Karno mentally to the British music hall in which he was so central, and to associate him almost entirely with his two best known creative progeny (Chaplin and Laurel). But that doesn’t do him enough justice. Given the minor fact that between them Chaplin and Laurel largely wrote the rules for screen comedy, it might be well to think of Karno as a Socrates to their Aristotle and Xenophon. In that respect, he has hands over all of 20th century culture. Crump’s strongly worded formulation is the one we should all now go by, calling Karno “the most significant exponent of sketch comedy and physical slapstick the stage has ever seen”. Karno himself was also a huge figure in British culture, while he was alive at any rate. Only his inability to get his foot in the door in film has made him an obscure figure today. One especially rewarding aspect of the book is Crump’s knowing inclusion of Karno’s interactions with the music hall giants of his time such as Dan Leno, Vesta Tilley, Marie Lloyd, and dozens of others. This broad ranging story even intersects with the Crippen Murder (Karno’s wife knew the victim Belle Elmore). The book has a terrific photo of young Syd and Charlie Chaplin with Olga Petrova!

Crump (a theatrical professional himself) gives a vivid sense of Karno’s own humor and personality, his rapid rise, and what his product was like (by virtue of several reviews and other descriptions of his sketches, as well as excerpts and quotations from his scripts). The book gives plenty of context on the historical events that shaped Karno’s life and career, such as economic conditions, wars, government censorship, and the like.

Comparisons with similar entrepreneurs are inevitable. Karno is revealed to have had a Barnumesque flair for publicity. To advertise his sketch Jail Birds, he got several of his comedians to show up at the theatre in a Black Maria (i.e. a police van of the type we used to insensitively call a Paddy Wagon in America). He invested in new-fangled inventions to enhance his act, things like phonographs and motor vehicles (the latter would attract audiences outside theatres. He also transported his casts around on attention-grabbing buses when such a thing was a rarity. The fact that he could FILL buses with his companies was news by itself). Like Walt Disney, he built his own holiday resort, a fabulous island hotel called Karsino, that was the jewel of his empire before its failure finally brought him down. Comparisons with the other Fun Factory mogul Mack Sennett are also inevitable. Like Sennett, Karno was constantly beset with defections, thefts, rivalries, copycats (Gus Hill was one), and the like. (Although the fact that he had stolen his own stage name from another acrobat named Karno should maybe have taken some of the starch out of his collar with regard to such outrages). And much like Sennett, we are sometimes apt to forget that before he became a businessman, Karno was a comedian himself. And also like Sennett, time passed him by. Just as Sennett couldn’t last very long into the talkie era, Karno couldn’t get a real toehold in movies at all. It’s so strange to me, when major guys like these can’t get backing, stigmatized as old warhorses from earlier eras.

The book also contains the exciting news that, in addition to Karno’s cultural legacy, there are at least two PHYSICAL survivals. The building that housed his Fun Factory still stands. And his fancy houseboat Astoria is still on the water — and is owned by none other than Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who has a recording studio on it!

It’s hard to overstate how momentous a development the advent of this book is for serious hard-core physical comedy fans, at least ones interested in the history of that art form. More importantly, future historians and biographers will absolutely want to rely on it should they chance to write about any alum of Karno’s company, or about British popular theatre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Past authors are going to want to rewrite their books (as I’ve just tweaked my own blogpost on Fred Karno). Get yours here.