Archive for the Douglas Fairbanks Category

On Douglas Fairbanks’ Contributions to American Comedy

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2017 by travsd

The foregoing is adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

Douglas Fairbanks’ early career is today overshadowed by his later reputation as a swashbuckling adventure hero. Largely forgotten is the fact that his first five years upon the screen (roughly a quarter of his film career), were spent as a light comedian. And as such he was a huge star, the third most popular screen actor in the country after Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. When he collaborated with those two and Griffith to found United Artists in 1919, he did so as a comedy star; his conversion to historical costume adventures was still a couple of years away. If he had never made a swashbuckling picture, Fairbanks would still have been significant in the history of Hollywood cinema on the strength of this first leg –the comedy stretch — of his career alone. I concur with Gerald Mast who wrote in The Comic Mind that any history of silent comedy is incomplete without him.

It was Fairbanks and his creative team who essentially solved the problem of how to take comedians into features. These folks form one of the most vital links in the Chain of Fools, yet are usually left out of silent comedy histories, mostly because Fairbanks, while both “physical” and a “comedian”, was not per se a “physical comedian”.  That is, while athletic, agile and acrobatic, he was more what we think of as a high comedian than a low one: upper class, charming, generally not clumsy or given to ungentlemanly scraps. He was good looking and, in the end, heroic. As a swashbuckler, he was the prototype of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, but as a comedian, also of Cary Grant, William Powell, and Ronald Colman. His comedy tended to be more sophisticated and dignified than that of the slapstick clowns. Any time the comedian is also the romantic lead as opposed to mere comic relief the lineage is bound to lead back to Fairbanks.

Already 32 by the time he joined D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts division of Triangle in 1915, Fairbanks had been acting on the stage since he was a teenager, with a couple of brief detours into the business world, life experience that would greatly impact his stage personality. By the mid-teens he was a well-known light comic actor who’d been featured in several hits on Broadway and had toured big time vaudeville in comedy sketches. George M. Cohan had even written a vehicle for him, Broadway Jones, but Cohan had liked the part so much he decided to play it himself.

Before even going into films Fairbanks was well on the way to forging his famous persona, and had begun incorporating his natural athleticism and gymnastic ability into his stage roles. Reliable accounts of Fairbanks’ childhood in Denver make him sound something close to what we now call hyperactive; he was forever jumping off of roofs and causing disruptions at school. As a young man, he became an early convert to what was then called “physical culture”. This was the age of Teddy Roosevelt’s gospel of “the Strenuous Life”, of Sandow the Strongman, of the seemingly invincible Harry Houdini. Fairbanks religiously spent time every day applying himself to self-improvement in the gymnasium.  He was unique in incorporating his athleticism into a stage character that in turn owed something to George M. Cohan’s image: lively, American, vigorous, kinetic. Whereas Cohan was somewhat urban, pushy and “street”, Fairbanks was every inch the All-American milk drinking WASP and somewhat aristocratic in mien, cloaking his upbringing in a broken home in the Wild and Woolly state of Colorado.

Not just light on his feet but light on his hands — a heartstopping handstand at the rim of the Grand Canyon in “Wild and Woolly”

One of the first things Fairbanks did upon arriving at Griffith’s studio was set up a makeshift gym of his own, allowing him to indulge in highly public workouts on the rings, the pommel horse, and so forth. The serious-minded Griffith reportedly had no use for this kind of cheeky showboating. Nor did he think much of Fairbanks, whom he felt had been foisted on him by the back office. Griffith’s opinion was that the vigorous upstart would be better off with the Mack Sennett division of Triangle, where he could leap and gambol to his heart’s content. Fairbanks found the concept insulting. He considered himself an actor, not a clown, backflips notwithstanding. The decision to remain in Griffith’s division was the correct one. By way of illustration:  in his very first film The Lamb (1915), Fairbanks does indeed take a pratfall within the first five minutes of the movie, absentmindedly leaning on a hedge as he talks to a girl and tumbling to the ground.  By contrast, in a Sennett comedy such events would happen within the first five seconds and then at five second intervals thereafter. That is the difference. Sennett didn’t care enough about story to devise a sustainable feature (he made 18 features; it’s a question how sustainable any of them were). The ideal length for a Sennett farce was 10-20 minutes, and even at that, some of them seem excessively long. Fairbanks was a Broadway star, he demanded film vehicles that would be comparable in scope and quality to his recent stage successes.

The Lamb was just that. An adaptation of his most recent Broadway hit The New Henrietta, it established the formula that would continue for the next several years: an effete but healthy and good-hearted rich boy from the Northeast is busy having a good time, but lacks a purpose, a mission. Then like the heroes of old, he is called and he ends up proving himself, usually in some more challenging milieu, most often the American West. In The Lamb, Fairbanks plays a young society fellow who must fight to keep the attention of his fiancé from straying to the virile chap from Arizona they have recently met.  In the end, he defeats a bloodthirsty band of Mexican cut-throats using a machine gun and his new jiu-jitsu skills. That’ll do it.

Fairbanks’ humor is an outgrowth of his personality and his unique attainments as an amateur gymnast. He is insanely likeable. In the films, you watch him charm the other actors even as he’s charming you. It’s a “gosh, gee whiz” sort of personality, mixed with the assertiveness we associate with old-fashioned salesmanship. In theory, it may sound off-putting. In practice, one is disarmed. Fairbanks’ bonhomie is genuine. One gets a real sense of him being an American’s idea of a gentleman, which might best be described as the opposite of the European idea. The American conception is not a matter of birth or class, but of manners – someone who is absolutely nice and respectful to everyone he meets no matter who they are, rich, poor, black or white. And Fairbanks embodies that in these films, even if, as in The Americano (1916), the black man is unfortunately played by a Caucasian in blackface. The key is that Fairbanks’ overwhelmingly cheerful, positive personality has physical manifestations. He literally jumps for joy, clicks his heels, turns handsprings. In American Aristocracy (1916) he is so energetic that he appears to have trouble restraining himself from humping a tent pole. And this is just in the early parts of his films. In the third act when he is busy saving the day, the dynamo kicks into overdrive. That’s when Fairbanks scurries up the facades of buildings, leaps across roofs, swings on tree branches, scales trellises and telephone poles. And he is really doing those things; it is not a stunt man. Fairbanks’ audiences were buying tickets to a true spectacle.

Defying gravity in “The Matrimaniac”

I mentioned Fairbanks’ creative team earlier. His public image benefitted from the input of many collaborators. One of the most frequent of his scenario writers, but by no means the only one, was Anita Loos, best known nowadays for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which she wrote a few years later. Loos had been writing for D.W. Griffith since 1912. One of Hollywood’s first salaried screenwriters, she had penned some of Griffith’s best known early films, including 1912’s The New York Hat (with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore) and the path-breaking 1912 urban crime film The Musketeers of Pig Alley (featuring Lillian Gish and Elmer Booth). At the moment she was writing the titles for Intolerance, but was only too happy to be part of the staff that would devise original vehicles for Fairbanks.

In His Picture in the Papers (1916), Loos would strike a new note that would become a major dimension of the Fairbanks idea for the next half dozen years: satire. In that movie, Fairbanks plays a decidedly meat-eating son of a vegetarian health food magnate. The young man is challenged by his father to bring in some positive publicity for their family-owned company, much as a tribal chieftain might instruct his heir apparent to prove himself by going to bag a wild boar. This was the age of Pulitzer and Hearst, mind you – Loos was identifying a brand new phenomenon that would only intensify with the advent of radio, television and the internet. Fairbanks’ persona lent itself very nicely to ironic nose-tweaking of American foibles. In many of his films, not just the ones penned by Loos, this would be an important ingredient in the mix.

A surprising number of variations could be rung on Fairbanks’ character. In Manhattan Madness (1916) he plays a young westerner who bets his New York friends that nothing exciting will happen to him while he is in the city (as compared with the riding and roping fun to be had back home.) He is of course immediately entangled with crooks and kidnappers (a development which turns out to have been an elaborate prank arranged by his friends). In The Habit of Happiness (1916) he is a privileged young man who preaches the gospel of laughter for health and wealth. He proves the efficacy of his doctrine by getting a girl, a job and the acceptance of his father by implementing his philosophy. (The next year, Fairbanks emulated his own character by releasing a self-help book called Laugh and Live).

In perhaps his most famous film from his comedy period Wild and Woolly (1917) he plays the son of a railroad magnate who’s obsessed with the Wild West. When Pater wants to build a spur line to an Arizona mine, he sends the boy as his advance man to investigate. The town folk, seeking to impress the kid, put on an old west charade so their modern town will seem more like what he expects. Meanwhile a crooked Indian agent and his hotel clerk lackey conspire to do actual crimes while Fairbanks is distracted with fake ones. Naturally he surprises everyone (including himself) by solving all and saving the day.

Some of the films play somewhat more like fairy tale romances than comedies. Reaching for the Moon (1917), a full blown Loos satire, starts the trend. Fairbanks’ plays an overeager office boy who drives everyone crazy with his dreams of glory until the day he learns that he is a European prince and gets more of a taste of what real rulers face than he bargained for. Subsequent movies, however, lavish happy endings upon him without the didacticism. In The Americano he is a young mining engineer sent to a Central American country during a coup. In this one, he not only gets the girl and the job – but control of the army! In His Majesty, the American (1919) the character learns that he is the heir apparent to the throne of a troubled Eastern European country.  Just so we know that he’s an alright guy, though, he announces that he plans to run it like America. These pictures pave the way for the shift in emphasis in the twenties, when he will be taking on fare like Robin Hood and The Thief of Baghdad.

Seldom a climax without climbing: from “A Modern Musketeer”

The Fairbanks films are an interesting hybrid; comic in tone until the last act, when his character must come to the rescue in dead earnest. We are still wowed by his physical feats, but we are no longer laughing at him, we are rooting for him to accomplish his goals. This aspect of the Fairbanks formula would influence not only Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton but films down to modern times. (I am dating myself I guess by thinking of examples like Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop).

So it was Fairbanks as much as Chaplin who pioneered something like real story telling in the comedy film, providing a pathway for comedians like Harold Lloyd and many others to come.  Others who emulated Fairbanks included Douglas MacLean, Reginald Denny and Johnny Hines. Of these, only Lloyd made so lasting an impression in silents that his popularity has survived until the present day.

For much, much more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my 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

Douglas Fairbanks: “Reggie Mixes In”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on June 11, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks comedy Reggie Mixes In (1916).

“Fresh from college”. When we first met Doug he is sleeping in bed, doesn’t want to wake up—that is frequently how we first meet his character in his comedies: pampered, privileged. His butler (Wilbur Higby) is his sidekick throughout the movie, an awesome formula which would be repeated many times. Doug’s version of morning calasthenics—he does a trick on a chair, leaps over a table, does a handstand.

His girlfriend calls and comes over; you can tell he’s not crazy about her. She assumes they’ll be married. Then one day he is driving with his butler and sees a little ragamuffin by the side of the road. She says she’s lost. He brings her home….which turns out to be a tenement house.

While there, Doug spies a girl he fancies a great deal (Bessie Love). He conceives of a scheme. He and his butler dress like two common men of the neighborhood…a very funny scene where this is introduced. They take a room in the neighborhood. They go to a local saloon where she works as a waiter girl. (Great gag: avoiding a gang fight at one point he jumps up on chandelier and hangs there above it). The girl teases him about being afraid. Later when she is leaving, a masher won’t stop bothering her,. Doug beats him down. Her boss sees and hires him to be the bouncer. He has an altercation with the boss one day when he expects the girl to be “friendlier” with the customers. He is about to be fired, but then the boss relents and admits that he’s right. Doug is such a good scout that he refrains from kissing his girl goodnight, just shakes her hand.

Meantime, the former bouncer, the guy Doug beat down earlier, assigns guys from his gang to plug him. The guy jumps him as he’s leaving her place, they fight. Doug bests him. As he leaves the building. he sees another suspicious character with a gun following him. He climbs up the outside of the building and waits, then jumps down on the guy., knocking him out. He throws the guy through the window of the gang’s hangout. The guys try to follow him but the cops stop them.

Meanwhile, Doug’s mother throws a costume ball to try to lure him back home. He shows up, does a funny dance. Everyone thinks he’s wearing a costume, but it’s just his clothes from the neighborhood. (Doug is always the definition of a gentleman. He doesn’t hate the people from his old world — he likes them. He is simply above class. He isn’t trying to convince anyone else to be him). He sees his old girl, realizes she’s not for him. She does however send him a note which his new girl finds. She is hurt and angry. She sits with the bad guys. Doug straightens everything out. The bad guy challenges him to the old “two guys go in a room, one comes out” bit (a but which he also used in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, released on the same day and also featuring Bessie Love).  Of course Doug is the one who comes out. Now he tests the girl…he fakes a $100k inheritance for he so she’s rich. Then he shows up as poor guy and proposes marriage. She accepts. He comes back a few minutes later in evening clothes. They embrace.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history 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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For more on show biz historyconsult 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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Douglas Fairbanks in “The Matrimaniac”

Posted in Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , on December 16, 2014 by travsd

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December 16, 1916 was the release date of The Matrimaniac, starring Douglas Fairbanks and Constance Talmadge.

This is one of the most physical, action-packed Fairbanks comedies, the whole picture essentially one long white-knuckle chase. Fairbanks and Talmadge are on their way to elope, with the girl’s father and a rival for her hand in hot pursuit. Doug manages to put his girl on a train, but misses it himself when he goes to get the minister. So then it’s a race to catch up to the train in various conveyances before the father and boyfriend can reach the girl. Later the sheriff comes into it — and Fairbanks’ acrobatic heroics are truly breath-taking. To stop the rival from stealing his bride, he leaps between buildings, hops over a six foot man, climbs on electrical wire, scales the side of a house, jumps from a cliff onto a tree….needless to say in the end, he achieves his objective. I often think of this comedy as a model for the climax to Harold Lloyd’s Girl Shy. Quite possibly the most watchable of all of Fairbanks’ romantic comedies.

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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Douglas Fairbanks in American Aristrocracy

Posted in Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks romantic comedy American Aristocracy (1916).

This has always been a special Fairbanks film for me because it was shot in the town where I was born, Westerly, Rhode Island — to be specific the seaside resort of Watch Hill, an area of mansions and hotels where many of New York’s upper crust would spend their summers, and where Fairbanks himself often vacationed. In the Fairbanks film (written by Anita Loos), the name has been changed to mash-up of two other Rhode Island resorts, Narragansett and Newport, becoming “Narraport”. One of the points of interest of this film is seeing a milieu we associate with Henry James and Edith Wharton — in roughly the real time, in the real place. The post-war Jazz Age and the burgeoning middle class of the Roaring Twenties would change the energy of the entire country, but this movie is a rare window into the period before all that.

It’s all centered in a big hotel (the actual Ocean House hotel, built 1868). Jewel Carmen plays the daughter of a millionaire hatpin manufacturer (Charles De Lima). Doug plays a scion of older money from Virginia, also vacationing there. He doesn’t seem to have a job; he’s an amateur entomologist who goes around catching butterflies. He is full of pep and life and falls instantly in love with the girl. But the father doesn’t approve; he is a kind of reverse snob who believes only in useful work, and doesn’t seem to know or care that Doug’s character is rich. The father seems to be setting the girl up to marry the young head of a malted milk factory (Albert Parker). This character is, of course, evil and sinister. Unbeknownst to the other characters, he is a smuggler; we see him passing messages to a certain “dark skinned” bell boy.  Doug pokes around the guy’s factory and learns that it produces gunpowder to send to Mexico. The bad guys catch him and knock him out, leaving him in the factory. Then they kidnap the girl and her father and take them on their boat. Fairbanks comes to and rescues them by flying out in a hydroplane, then swimming over to the boat, holding the bad guys at gunpoint until a Navy destroyer pulls up and sailors come over and seize all the crooks. In the end, the hero ends up inventing an improved hatpin so we know he’ll be permanently in good with the family. (This is the patented Loos satirical touch).

To learn more about comedy film history please 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 learn 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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Douglas Fairbanks in “The Lamb”

Posted in Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , on November 7, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of Douglas Fairbanks’ first film The Lamb (1915). An adaptation of his most recent Broadway hit The New Henrietta, The Lamb established a formula for Fairbanks that would continue for the next several years: an effete but healthy and good-hearted rich boy from the Northeast is busy having a good time, but lacks a purpose, a mission. Then like the heroes of old, he is called and he ends up proving himself, usually in some more challenging milieu, most often the American West. In The Lamb, Fairbanks plays a young society fellow who must fight to keep the attention of his fiancé from straying to the virile chap from Arizona they have recently met.  In the end, he defeats a bloodthirsty band of Mexican cut-throats using a machine gun and his new jiu-jitsu skills. That’ll do it.

To learn more about comedy film history please 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 learn 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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Douglas Fairbanks in “Manhattan Madness”

Posted in Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , on October 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks feature Manhattan Madness (1916), directed by Allan Dwan.

Doug plays a wealthy young man who returns to New York from time spent out in Nevada. He goes and visit friends at his club and whoops it up. Over lunch, they get into a friendly dispute: East vs. West. In several illustrated flashbacks he illustrates the virtues of the wide open country, until his bragging about his exploits gets insufferable. His pals bet him $5,000 he’ll get plenty of thrills in New York before he returns to Nevada. He is of course immediately entangled with crooks and kidnappers (a development which turns out to have been an elaborate prank arranged by his friends).

To learn more about comedy film history please 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 learn 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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Douglas Fairbanks in “His Majesty, The American”

Posted in Comedy, Douglas Fairbanks, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , on September 1, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Douglas Fairbanks feature His Majesty, the American (1919).

His Majesty, the American was the first film ever to be released by United Artists. It opens with an announcement as to this fact…Doug jumps through the words and gives us his slangy hopes that we’ll like it.

No clips are available online so here’s my encapsulation of its events:

The first act is the best and funniest part of the film. Doug is a rich young man, the source of whose wealth is a mystery. He’s just grown up being taken care of by servants and handlers. Meanwhile he’s become a thrill hound and a sort of amateur adjunct to the police and fire departments. His house is full of memorabilia and equipment. When he gets word of a fire (he has an alarm bell in his house) he goes down a fire pole which leads to his garage, races to a spectacular tenement fire, swings over to the burning building on rope from a building across the street and rescues a family one by one — including a kitten.  Then he gets a ticker tape message from the police department and races to a crime scene where a wanted man is hiding out. Cops raid the house, but figure to have lost the man again, but Doug spots him (disguised in drag) and catches the guy.

Then, bad news: a new official at city hall neuters the police and fire departments. The police are now all sissies and the firemen all fat. There is nothing going on (seems like there ought to be MORE going on, with no one to catch crooks or put out fires, but no matter). Doug leaves town looking for a little excitement. He heads to Mexico, hoping to get in on a little Pancho Villa action. On the way there, he gets off the train at a Texas town that sounds lively (he literally hears explosions.) He learns too late that he’s only been hearing Fourth of July firecrackers.

He then heads into Mexico on foot, with donkeys. A long sequence in the desert. It is so hot, he is able to light a cigarette on a rock. Finally, he makes it to the town he was looking for—it’s called “Murdero”. Unfortunately all the bad guys are dead. Then it looks like some action is on the way.  Pancho Villa’s men are coming. A very impressive spectacle, scores of guys on horseback ride through town….and keep going! They wont be back for a year. Doug is disappointed.

Then he gets a telegram. He is summoned to the mythical European country of Allaine. He arrives and gets drawn into intrigues. The people are restless. The king’s plan is to give them a bill of rights and political say. But his unscrupulous cabinet minister insists that the way to quiet them is through an advantageous marriage. There follows all sorts of business with notes and spies. It finally turns out (of course) that Doug is the hereditary prince of this country. He arrives just in time to stop the king from signing a document he is being coerced into signing. There’ll be a coronation. He announces from now on American principles “By the People, For the People” etc.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too! Fairbanks’ early films often walk this very line, mixing elements of fairy tale and aristocracy with Americanism. Audiences embraced it despite all the inherent contradictions. Come to think of it, the American audience remains confused about that same philosophical oxymoron to this day.

To learn more about early comedy film history please 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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

To find out more 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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