Archive for the Larry Semon Category

Slapstick Comedies of World War One

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by travsd

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of America’s entry into World War One. In honor of the day, we look at several WWI films from the era of classic comedy:


The Bond (1918)

September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds”. The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.


Shoulder Arms (1918)

Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (initially called Camouflage), was first planned to come in at five reels, about fifty minutes, which was no shorter than many features in those days.  As originally conceived, the film would have had an opening act showing the Little Fellow’s home life with his wife and kids. Then it would take him into the process of being inducted into the army. It would then have had a closing act wherein the Little Fellow is celebrated as a war hero, before inevitably being awakened from a dream. Chaplin eventually decided to cut it to just the middle – the Little Fellow’s service in the war.


As comic subject matter this film was unprecedentedly dark, not just for Chaplin, but for the movies. No one had ever done a comedy that included trench warfare, gas masks, bullets, barbed wire, and No Man’s Land. Not only was Shoulder Arms the first war comedy, it was also the first black comedy, introducing a side of Chaplin that would come to full flowering in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. It’s hard to imagine much of Stanley Kubrick’s work, for example, in particular Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) without the precedent of Shoulder Arms. Fortunately, Chaplin had already inoculated himself against charges of being unpatriotic or unserious about the war by participating in a nationwide bond drive and making the propaganda film The Bond. And the fact that Shoulder Arms was funny covered all manner of sins. Memorable takeaways included scenes where Charlie made his way through enemy territory disguised as a tree, tried to sleep in an underground barracks neck deep in water, and used his gas mask as protection against limburger cheese.


Huns and Hyphens (1918)

Larry Semon’s war comedy is set on the home front, with Larry as a waiter at a restaurant run by German spies. He is also masquerading as a wealthy suitor to a young lady who has invented a gas mask. The plot is not unlike many Chaplin “masquerade” comedies, with Semon’s patented extravagant gags and hair-raising chase finish. Also in the cast are a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel and his wife Mae, and Frank “Fatty” Alexander. 


A Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)

This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres. The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask!


The Better ‘ole (1926)

This World War One comedy has a long pedigree. First it was a cartoon drawn by English humorist Bruce Bairnsfather. In 1917 it opened as a West End musical comedy running for 811 performances starring Arthur Bouchier as the main character “Old Bill”. The following year a Broadway version opened, starring Charles Coburn. 

With his years of music hall experience, Syd Chaplin was perfect for the comical part of Old Bill, a 30 year regular army vet who knows how to look out for his creature comforts. With his walrus mustache, and omnipresent pipe, the character has the kind of broad visual outline that any self-respecting Chaplin would know just what to do with. Jack Ackroyd plays his sidekick, “Little Alf”.  Edgar Kennedy plays the tough sergeant who constantly bedevils him.

There are some sight gags and funny pantomime business, but the film leans heavily on comical cockney intertitles. Bill is always napping, goofing off, getting into trouble. In one routine worthy of the younger Chaplin brother, Bill is playing with his dog, and accidentally drills an entire company of soldiers who overhear his instructions to the pooch and follow them. He spends a lot of time on trash detail.  The story starts to take off when he is putting on a camp show dressed in a horse costume, then gets stuck behind German lines still wearing the disguise. He steals some German uniforms and winds up having to serve a German general breakfast though he doesn’t understand the language. He knocks out a guard and meets fellow Brit who warns him of an immanent attack. He must warn the English army. He races in stolen car, then crashes it. Then he gets a motorcycle and plunges into a river. He is rescued and brought to a place where a detonation plunger is located. He knocks his captors out and saves and entire town. Then he is caught by Brits who think he is a spy out to sabotage his own army. He is bout to be executed but is saved at the last minute and made sergeant. He uses the opportunity to finally deck his nemesis Edgar Kennedy.


Soldier Man (1926)

Soldier Man was Harry Langdon‘s last short before leaving Mack Sennett to do features. It’s one of his most creative and elaborate ones, containing enough for two separate shorts (since it has two completely different parts, each with a separate premise.)

In the first half he’s a soldier who doesn’t realize World War One has ended, so he is still roaming around having misadventures in German territory.  He escaped from a prison camp just when the German troops were celebrating the end of the war but he didn’t understand. Now he is wandering around a country at peace in constant fear for his life. Coming upon an area where a farmer is using dynamite to blow up tree stumps, he thinks he’s being shelled. He, winds up accidentally dragging some dynamite with him. Sees it, throws it, tries to shoo a cow out of the way. When the cow does run by Harry has his eyes closed. Dynamite lands in smokehouse, sending pieces of meat flying over to Harry. He thinks it was the cow.

In the second half.  In the little country of Bomania…there is a king who looks exactly like Harry (How many movies have we seen with that premise?). The king is is drunken and dissolute, always insults his wife. The people are on the verge of revolution. A minister spies Harry and hires him to be a double for the king. It winds up with the King’s wife trying to kiss Harry so she can plunge a knife into his back. Harry wakes up in his bed with his wife shaking him. It’s the present day, it was all a dream.


A Soldier’s Plaything (1930)

Harry Langdon co-stars with Ben Lyon in this World War One service comedy (with serious overtones — and a few songs, although most were cut prior to American release when musicals went out of favor. It’s a fairly routine service comedy, but it has its share of laughs – including several pre-code mounds of horse manure. Furthermore, Harry is playing a character not too removed from his silent one. The difference? He’s in the hands of a real director. Michael Curtiz keeps the reins tight on Harry here. He’s plausible comic relief in this major motion picture. It’s a rare chance to see Langdon starring in a major motion picture during the talking era.


Doughboys (1930)

Doughboys, directed by Eddie Sedgwick, is Buster Keaton ’s Shoulder Arms. It’s probably his best talkie feature, certainly his best one for MGM. Buster plays a millionaire who accidentally enlists in the army during World War I. The movie was co-written by legendary comedy scribe Al Boasberg and co-stars Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (whose most famous role is Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio). Because Keaton’s character is more like a human being in this one, and the story hangs together better, it is closer in spirit to his silents even if there are still very few gags. Keaton has a funny musical duet with Cliff Edwards and a funny dance number in the army talent show. There are also a couple of Keatonesque gags. One of them–very grim—has Keaton propped up in a trench looking like a corpse and suddenly popping up awake. The whole movie is almost ruined by an extremely annoying drill sergeant who keeps yelling. What movie executive thought this kind of thing was funny, I’ll never know, but there sure is a lot of it in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Still, it’s a movie worth seeing.

Poster - Half Shot at Sunrise_01

Half Shot at Sunrise (1930)

In this one, Wheeler and Woolsey are a couple of dough boys AWOL in Paris during World War One. They spend all their time sweet talking the ladies. Wheeler (as always) falls for Dorothy Lee, whose father just happens to be the colonel who’s been pursuing them. And Woolsey romances the colonel’s mistress (Leni Stengel), who has a bad habit of sending love letters to the colonel, a device which later allows the boys to blackmail themselves out of their difficulties. There are some battle scenes in the trenches, and a funny scene in which the boys are waiters, waiting on the colonel and his wife in a restaurant.  The colonel’s wife is of course played by the inevitable Edna May Oliver. Interestingly, one of the screenwriters (among five) was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.


Pack Up Your Troubles (1932)

Laurel and Hardy’s second feature for Hal Roach, is as close as the team came to organically being Chaplinesque, with the film mixing elements of Shoulder Arms and The Kid. In the first act of the film, they are drafted as soldiers — their drill sergeant is of course Jimmy Finlayson, with predictable results. They next go over to France to fight in The Great War, befriending a fellow soldier who happens to have a baby (a rather grown-up problem.) When Eddie is killed in action, the boys feel obligated to bring the infant back to the States to find the child’s grandparents (the baby’s mother too having been killed). This being a Laurel and Hardy comedy their actual attempts to achieve their mission will be pitifully fruitless; only coincidence will win the day.


Blockheads (1938)

Originally intended to be Laurel and Hardy‘s last Hal Roach film (and it was their last Roach film for MGM though they made a couple more with Roach for other distributors) there would have been a nice symmetry to their career at Roach if it had been so, as Blockheads is essentially a remake of their first Roach talkie Unaccustomed as We Are (grafted onto We Faw Down). Like all of their features, it’s essentially the content of a short, stretched to go just over an hour. But this one works for me — it’s densely packed with comic material with little filler to speak of.

The pair are army buddies in WWI. Unfortunately Stan never gets the memo about the Armistice and winds up standing guard in a trench for 20 years. Returned to a convalescent home, he is taken in by Ollie — much to the perturbation of Mrs. Hardy (Minna Gombell). Left to fend for themselves, they find themselves entangled with the hotsy-totsy neighbor lady (Patricia Ellis), which gets them in Dutch with her shotgun wielding husband (Billy Gilbert). But just as life is all about the journey, comedy is all about the gags, and the pleasure of this movie is in just letting them wash over you, one after the other.


The Great Dictator (1940)

While Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is the World War TWO comedy par excellence , it does begin with an extended World War One section, a sort of prologue in which the Little Barber grapples with a ridiculous cannon named Big Bertha and flies upside down in a bi-plane with Reginald Gardiner. Chaplin’s injured character will spend several years in a sanitarium, emerging to find that his country has gone insane. More about the film here. 

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 etc etc etc


Dorothy Dwan: Larry Semon’s Leading Lady

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Dorothy Dwan (Dorothy Ilgenfritz, 1906-1981).  Today she is best known (when she is known at all) as the leading lady and wife of Larry Semon, although the majority of her films were without him — most of them westerns.

Originally from Missouri, she moved to the Hollywood area with her single mom who became a movie publicist. Through her influence, the gorgeous teenager began to get parts at Vitagraph starting in 1922. (Her screen name was taken from director Allan Dwan). Semon began to cast her in 1924, when she was still only 18. Her films with him include Her Boy Friend (1924), Kid Speed (1924), The Wizard of Oz (1925, as Dorothy!), The Dome Doctor (1925), The Cloudhopper (1925), The Perfect Clown (1925), My Best Girl (1925), Stop Look and Listen (1926), and Spuds (1927). She was married to Semon from 1925 through his death in 1928.

Fortunately, she had a movie career of her own to cushion the blow. She’d been appearing in westerns, mysteries and other kinds of films right along, in fact many more of them than comedies she made with Semon. She appeared opposite the top western stars of the day, guys like Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Tim McCoy. Her career lasted until the early days of the talking era. Her last film was The Fighting Legion (1930). She retired in 1931 to raise a family.

Now here she is one of her first roles, Her Boyfriend, with Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy:

For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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 etc etc etc


To find out 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.


Larry Semon in “The Perfect Clown”

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on December 15, 2014 by travsd


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Larry Semon feature length comedy The Perfect Clown (1925).

The plot concerns a young clerk who is charged with the task of delivering $10,000 to the bank to be deposited. Finding the bank closed, he is placed in the nerve-wracking predicament of hanging onto the money overnight. This is complicated by the fact that he can’t go home; ironically, he doesn’t have the back rent to give his landlady. He winds up spending the night in a spooky barn during a thunder storm: there’s any good comedian’s third act right there. The Perfect Clown privileges gags over character, but we do keep to a single plot with a minimum of digression, which is more than can be said for many of Semons shorts. Directed by frequent Harold Lloyd collaborator Fred Newmeyer, the film also features usual Semon stock company members such as Dorothy Dwan, Oliver Hardy, Frank Alexander and Spencer Bell.

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 etc etc etc


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.


Important Lost Silent Comedies

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2014 by travsd

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:



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”


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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:


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. 


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 etc etc etc


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.


Larry Semon and Stan Laurel in “Frauds and Frenzies”

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Movies, Stan Laurel (Solo) with tags , , , on November 18, 2014 by travsd


Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Vitagraph comedy Frauds and Frenzies (1918), co-starring Larry Semon and Stan Laurel. 

There are many interesting things about Semon, whom I believe belongs in the pantheon of silent comedy greats. One intriguing fact is that he was one of the few comedians who had worked with both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, separately before their teaming. In the twenties Hardy would be part of Semon’s stock company, usually as second or third comedian. Between 1918 and 1926, Hardy supported Semon in scores of comedies.

Laurel’s position was different. Though Laurel got into films several years later than Hardy, he was almost always the star or co-star of his films. While he had been a supporting player in two earlier Semon comedies, in Frauds and Frenzies, he was co-star. Though Semon was the writer, director and more established star of this picture, I would be shocked to learn that Laurel didn’t contribute any business or gags, particularly since prison comedies would prove to be a specialty of his. With Hardy, he would make The Second Hundred Years (1927), The Hoose-gow (1929), and Pardon Us (1931).

Frauds and Frenzies also seems to owe something to Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer, released a year earlier. Chaplin’s film is about an escaped convict, pursued by guards, who then pauses to woo a girl, only to run into guards again. Same here. Frauds and Frenzies was Semon’s second prison comedy of 1918; the earlier one was Stripes and Stars. 

But this movie stands on its own. It’s excellently constructed, highly kinetic and rich in gags. And much more focused storywise than Semon’s comedies tend to be. Yet after this film, Semon and Vitagraph dropped Laurel. He went back to working in vaudeville and at other movie studios.

For some reason, the Italians have always been particular fans of Larry Semon, whom they call “Ridolini”. Thus I am not surprised to see the one copy available on Youtube comes by way of The Boot:

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 etc etc etc


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.


Spencer Bell a.k.a. “G. Howe Black”

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on September 25, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of pathbreaking black comedian Spencer Bell (1887-1935). Originally from Lexington, Kentucky, Bell started out in minstrel shows and vaudeville before breaking into pictures in 1919, mostly supporting Larry Semon and Lige Conley, but also to be found in movies starring Billy Bevan, Poodles Hanneford, Bobby Vernon, Al St. John, Jimmie Adams, Neal Burns and others. His best known picture nowadays is Semon’s notorious 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz. 

Bell’s (real) name deserves to be better known, being as he was one of the first African Americans to make his way in the film industry — a decade before the likes of Stepin Fetchit came to the fore, for example. His parts were almost invariably egregious stereotypes and one-off sight gags. His billing in many films was “G. Howe Black”, his parts were usually servants or menials or some sort (named Snowball or the like), and the gags often revolved around his superstitious fear, or the fact that he’d fallen into a white substance (flour, talcum powder) making him resemble a Caucasian (at least in the film’s twisted world). But this didn’t stop him from being pretty darned funny, which is undoubtedly why he was hired and frequently employed in the first place. (His running-in-place-while-terrified routine is a showstopper). In the last years of silents and in the early years of talkies he worked most frequently in bit parts for Mack Sennett. He died during a stomach operation at age 47

Here is one of the Semon comedies in which Bell appears as G. Howe Black. In Horseshoes (1923), Bell is punched in the face by boxer Oliver Hardy — and gets a WHITE eye!

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


To find out more about vaudeville 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.


Larry Semon: Second Only to Chaplin?

Posted in Clown, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2013 by travsd

8. Semon0001

From the late teens through the late twenties, Larry Semon was one of the most successful silent comedians in the country, second only to Chaplin in popularity and salary. This despite a last name more appropriate for a porn star!

Born the son of a vaudeville magician named Zera the Great while touring in West Point, Mississippi in 1889, Semon participated in the act until he was 13, doing acrobatics and pantomime. His father’s dying wish, however, was that Larry honor his talent for drawing by going to art school, which he subsequently did. By his early twenties, Semon was a popular cartoonist for the NY Evening Sun. As we have seen in our description of Willie Hammerstein, famous cartoonists drawing cartoons onstage were occasionally considered a vaudeville viable act. In 1913, Semon made his vaudeville debut at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.

Semon had an inventive gag mind. It was only natural that the silent film industry would hire someone whose brain worked like his to write and direct comedies. Vitagraph snatched him up in 1916. By the next year, he’d convinced them to let him star. He was a weird looking clownish dude, and the gags he invented were enough to make him a big hit with audiences despite the fact that he was no actor. Successful shorts included Huns and Hyphens, Frauds and Frenzies and Bears and Badmen (they all had titles like that). Among his collaborators were director Norman Taurog, who was to be a director of awful Hollywood comedies for the next fifty years, and Stan Laurel.

Semon with a young Stan Laurel in “Frauds & Frenzies” (1918)

He amassed his own stock company, whose members included Oliver Hardy (still separate from Laurel), Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Spencer Bell, and leading lady Dorothy Dwan. 

Semon contends with an animated bee

Semon had a highly distinctive style, characterized by surreal, nonsensical, extravagant gags sometimes involving specially designed props or animation. In Chain of Fools, I made the case that he was an influence on Buster Keaton. He also did at least one “thrill comedy” prior to Harold Lloyd. Semon was big into spectacle and he can often be said to even top Mack Sennett in the large scale of his gags, which often involved the destruction of trains, planes and automobiles, and even entire buildings. He loved to blow things up with TNT. And he loved goo and mess: jam, glue, pie filling, ink, paint, flour, whipped cream. There’s usually a scene where one of those substances gets spilled all over a room. Critics then and now have found fault that he was repetitive, was uninterested in story or character, and didn’t do his own stunts, as most others, like Keaton and Lloyd did. But I have learned to really appreciate his comedies. In all justice he belongs near the top of the pantheon of silent comedy masters, and hopefully he’ll be restored to his rightful place in the public’s mind (at least the portion of the public that pays attention to silent comedy).

Semon never forgot the fundamental fact, as others sometimes did, that his only responsibility was to make people laugh

Semon’s ultimate undoing was features. When he tried the longer format in the mid-twenties he ran aground on his inability to sustain a story. (his most notorious is his 1925 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which we described at length here). And he spent too much on his films, eventually resorting to putting up his own money to please the public. In 1928 he went bankrupt, had a nervous breakdown, and died of TB, in that order.

We are coming up on the centennial of Larry Semon’s debut as a comedy star, so expect to hear lots more from me on this topic. Meantime, there are a TON of his comedies on Youtube. Partake! But if you do, remember this: he’s great, but small doses are best. His comedies weren’t meant to be watched all at once.

To learn more about silent and slapstick film, including stars like Larry Semon, 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 etc etc etc. To find out more about  the history of vaudevillein which Larry Semon also performed, consult 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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