Lame Brains and Lunatics 2: More Good, Bad and Forgotten of Silent Comedy

In the entirely forgivable event that you’ve already purchased all of my books and CDs as holiday presents, and still need to find a gift for the vintage entertainment lover in your life, here’s another item I highly recommend.

I’ve no idea how I missed the memo that Steve Massa has penned a sequel to his indispensable Lame Brains and Lunatics, and if you had broached the concept, I might have been skeptical that such a thing would be possible. The first was devoted to poking in the deepest and most obscure nooks and crannies to expose slapstick comedians (many of them once quite famous, and most of them objectively excellent) who have become so obscure that even reasonably well educated screen buffs, even ones who are comedy fans, have likely never heard of them, let alone caught one of their movies. The thing is, the search goes on, and discoveries are always being made, and Massa remains in the vanguard of that effort. It is a valuable service to both fields: history and comedy. (Those are the only two fields, as far as I’m concerned! History and comedy).

So, yes, Massa has dug up new stuff to introduce us to in the new book. But he has also written some wonderful new essays about more familiar comedians, considered from angles the reader may not have considered. NB: Massa is a genuine scholar. While your correspondent occasionally resorts to scholarship (i.e., going directly to primary sources) I only ever do so as a last resort. As a general rule, I rely heavily on the work of guys like Massa (and credit them when they are the only source). So, while you will find links to my own posts in this review, please know that, as an inviolable rule of thumb, Massa’s book(s) are going to contain much, much more, and in cases where facts differ, his would be the more authoritative source. Massa is also rare among his breed for being an entertaining and excellent writer, always managing to catch the flavor of his subjects. It can be tricky to describe funny pictures in words — and convey the comedy literarily, but Massa has that gift. His affection for his subjects shines through.

Volume Two is a wonderful collection of essays ranging in topics from the well known (again, from new angles) to the incredibly obscure. Of the former sort, there are two pieces adapted from Massa’s liner notes on DVD releases of the silent comedies of Edward Everett Horton and Musty Suffer. The Horton films on that DVD, and some others of his I’ve seen, have indeed made me wonder if we should begin to include him in the pantheon of silent comedy greats. I’m pretty sure we should. (I think the upshot of the present exciting era of discovery is that all the books are going to need to be rewritten in a few years, once the dust settles down, and everything has been screened, evaluated and digested. Might be decades! But the volume is finite, so at some point it should be possible to sketch a proper revised portrait of the silent comedy universe). Massa has also written a nice appreciation of the silent comedies of director Leo McCarey, who is today best known for his later classic features but started out down in the trenches choregraphing slapstick on the Hal Roach lot. My favorite essay in the book is a nice balanced snapshot of the career of Larry Semon, who has been too much maligned (I feel) by modern aficionados who mostly disparage him for a whole host of reasons that would have meant nothing to the audiences who loved Semon in his own time. And I agree with Massa that Semon’s early comedies are his best — so good, in fact that they are comparable in quality to many of the shorts of the so-called Big Four (ChaplinKeatonLloydLangdon). Only later did Semon become repetitious. But even in those ones I would say he compensated with outlandish spectacle.

The first chapter in the book is practically a book unto itself. Taking up nearly 150 pages, it’s a wonderful and very useful chronicle of the many British physical comedians who followed Charlie Chaplin out to Hollywood, including Billie Ritchie, Sydney Chaplin, Billy Reeves, Leo White, Eric Campbell, Stan Laurel, and many many others. There is also an entire chapter of comedies starring animals — there were far more of them during the silent comedy era than you can imagine.

And finally, introductions to many early screen artists I’d never heard of, including director Edward I. Luddy (Edward Ludwig), who’d worked at Vitagraph and Century early in his career, and also comedians such as Joseph Burke, Billy Slade, Earl Mohan, Fred Kovert, Bubbly Berry, Gene Cameron and many others.

Like the first volume, which came out (yikes!) ten years ago, Lame Brains and Lunatics 2 is a wonderful roadmap for the silent comedy explorer. This guide won’t steer you wrong. Get your copy here.