Archive for the Silent Film Category

Stars of Slapstick #226: Walter Forde

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2017 by travsd

April 21 is the natal day of British actor/ comedian/ director Walter Forde (Thomas Seymour Woolford, 1898-1984). Forde was the son of music hall comedian Tom Seymour, joining his father onstage as a child, where he learned to be an actor and physical comedian. In 1920, he wrote and starred in a series of British silent comedy two-reelers, playing a bungling character named “Walter”. The films were created in collaboration with his father, and Walter’s character often wore a straw boater and shared certain similarities in personality with Harold Lloyd. In 1923, Forde and his father tried their luck at Universal in the U.S. Forde only stayed a short time; Seymour remained in Hollywood. Forde went back to London and resumed the Walter series, directing several of them, and achieved even greater success in his home country. In 1928 he began directing features and phased out the Walter character by 1930.

Forde’s career as a director in the sound era is interesting, for it suggests a different path somebody like Lloyd might have gone down had they been so declined. Lloyd had co-directed many of his films; after retiring as an actor he produced a couple, but after that he pretty much left the business. What if he’d tried his hand at directing?  Among the slapstick comedy men, Forde’s post-silent career trajectory seems closest to somebody like George Stevens, who’d begun as cinematographer on Laurel and Hardy pictures, moved up to directing shorts for Hal Roach, and then moved up to feature film directing in all genres, not just comedy. Forde was a very different kind of director from Stevens, but like him, he was by no means restricted to screwball comedy; he also did work in other genres, especially mysteries, crime dramas, thrillers, etc. Two of his better known films today are The Ghost Train (1931 and later remade again by Forde in 1941) and Rome Express (1932). Much like Alfred Hitchcock, he worked in close collaboration with his wife Culley, a former continuity girl. In the post-war era he had difficulty getting films made; his last was Cardboard Cavalier (1949). He retired to Los Angeles for his net three and a half decades.

Many of his films, including some Walter comedies are available on Youtube; you should check ’em out!

For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my 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. 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.

The Ups and Downs of Lina Basquette

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Child Stars, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by travsd

Lina Basquette (Lena Copeland Baskette) was born on April 19, 1907. Basquette was a star of stage and screen through several different phases, but is perhaps best remembered today for her eight marriages, most notably the first one, to Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, with much ensuing personal drama.

Basquette was the child of an ambitious stage mother. Her life took a sharp turn at the tender age of eight when she was spotted dancing in her father’s drug store by a rep from RCA Victor, who hired her to dance in the company’s exhibit at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. This led to a film contract with Universal Pictures, and she began starring (at age nine) in a series of films called Lena Baskette Featurettes. Her mother embraced the new life; the father did not. He committed suicide and her mother married choreographer and dance director Ernest Belcher. (Dancer/choreographer Marge Champion is the daughter of Belcher and Gladys Baskette and the half-sister of Lina Basquette).

Film work seemed to dry up an the end of the decade, so her dance skills were put to use on Broadway in a succession of shows. She appeared in John Murray Anderson’s Jack and Jill (1923), Charles Dillingham’s Nifties of 1923, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 and 1925, and Rufus LeMaire’s Affairs (1927).

Meanwhile in 1925, she had married movie mogul Sam Warner, who famously died on the eve of the opening of his seminal project The Jazz Singer (1927). There followed a bizarre custody battle between Basquette and the Warner family over her daughter (whom the Warners wanted to raise as one of their own in the Jewish faith, and probably by someone who wasn’t a famous Siren) which lasted many years.

The Godless Girl, 1929

In 1927, Basquette returned to films. In 1928 she was voted one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars. The biggest hit of this period (and her career) was Cecil B. DeMille’s semi-talkie The Godless Girl (1929). Her film career lasted until 1943, but her battles with the Warners resulted in a loss of star billing in the talkie era. Her parts got much smaller, sometimes even bit roles, and often in B movies. At the same time, she was making live appearances in night clubs.

In 1943, she was raped and robbed by an off-duty soldier whom she had picked up while hitchhiking. This traumatic event seems to have prompted a major life change for her. She took her savings, bought a farm in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, and reinvented herself as one of the nation’s top breeders of Great Danes! In addition to raising and breeding purebred dogs, she wrote books on the subject and judged shows with the American Kennel Club, an involvement that lasted until the end of her life.

In 1991, she released her memoir Lina: DeMille’s Godless Girl, and emerged from retirement after 48 years to appear in the film Paradise Park. She passed away in 1994.

To find out more about show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film 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

100 Years Ago Today: America Enters WWI (and Its Impact on Vaudeville)

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War One.

We who have not felt the sting of a proper World War in over six decades years cannot appreciate the deuced inconvenience such a development can be, especially where important matters like show business are concerned. Prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, successful British and American entertainers spent a good deal of their time on boats. Performers like Houdini, Will Rogers and W.C. Fields literally had steamer trunks with customs stamps from the great world capitals plastered on them. When the shooting started, all that dried up. Americans were deprived of their favorite British Music Hall stars for the most part; though some brave Americans continue to travel to the embattled countries. Some, like the indefatigable Elsie Janis traveled right into the war zones to entertain the troops.

Patriotism in the era amounted to a mania. Prior to America’s entry into the conflict, thespians like Alla Nazimova could present pacifist playlets in the vaud houses. Once we entered the war, such messages were out; George M. Cohan “Over There” (introduced by Nora Bayes) was more in keeping with the times.

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As will happen in wartime, even the most heterogeneous cultural institution of all — vaudeville — spoke with a single voice on this issue. Shortly after America joined the war, Cohan called a special meeting of vaudevillians to see who would join the war effort. Every hand shot up.Vaudeville vets like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks did their part by crisscrossing the nation selling millions in war bonds.

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Gummo Marx was drafted; he ended up leaving his family act the Marx Brothers and being replaced by Zeppo. At the same time, many so-called Dutch or German dialect comedians, such as Grouch Marx, feeling the weight of anti-German sentiment, dropped those kinds of characters from their repertoire. And some were to pay the ultimate price. Vernon Castle, one-half of the nation’s premier dance team enlisted in the RAF (he was Canadian) and died in a crash. James Reese Europe commanded a whole musical unit — and was finally murdered by one of his own musicians while he was still in uniform.

Now save the date! Metropolitan Playhouse’s 25th Anniversary Gala is April 25 & I’m organizing and hosting a World War One tribute as the entertainment!  We have Peter Daniel Straus and Chris Rozzi as Weber and Fields! Gay Marshall singing Parisian songs of the era! The one and only Lorinne Lampert doing George M. Cohan material! The Two and Only Jonathan M. Smith doing English music hall! A presentation of Nazimova’s famous starring vehicle War Brides directed by Ivana Cullinan and starring Alyssa Simon, Victoria Miller, Morgan Zipf-Meister, and Amy Overman Plowman! and Charlie Chaplin’s The Bond, accompanied by Ben Model! And more! Hosted and interpreted by yours truly Trav SD! It’s going to be a memorable evening — In fact, I remember it already! Tickets, reservations and information all here. 

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments. And don’t miss 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

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 amazon.com etc etc etc

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On Another Famous Davis: Jack, of “Our Gang”

Posted in Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Jack Davis (1914-1992) has a birthday of April 5. Not to be confused with another famous Jack Davis, the Mad Magazine illustrator, whom we’ll undoubtedly get around to celebrating at some point. This Jack Davis is related to another well-known Davis, but (amusingly) NOT Bette Davis, who also has an April 5th birthday and whom we just done writing about. This Jack Davis was the kid brother of Mildred Davis, Harold Lloyd’s leading lady for several years prior to becoming his wife.

Mildred’s career had begun in 1916. Her boss Hal Roach was just launching Our Gang in 1922 when 8 year old Jack was thrown into the mix, usually playing tough bully characters. He was featured in some 19 comedies (with some of the footage recycled in some later shorts). Lloyd married Mildred in 1923. and packed the poor kid off to military school, thus ending the careers of two members of the Davis family at the same time. I hope they were grateful! (Actually, Jack, now known as John, probably was — he ended up being a prominent doctor). Davis also somehow found time to play bit parts in films and on tv from the early 1940s through the mid 1980s.

Davis’s  daughter Cindy married Robert Mitchum’s son Christopher, also an actor. Their children and and grandchildren carry on the family business.

For more on the history of film comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

The Great Comedians and Their Studios

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2017 by travsd

After years of navigating this treacherous terrain myself, today I felt it was high time to share this little road map of the great comedians of the studio era, and the factories in which they primarily toiled. Our principal field of concentration is the so-called classic era (roughly 1920s through 1950s), although some of them have roots extending back much further, when the landscape was very different. Thus while we mention important companies like Keystone and Roach and other early ones, our main focus is on those that would become the major studios of the sound era.

 

Fields and Costello, two top Universal ccomedy stars of the 1940s

Universal 

Universal played a major role in two different phases of classic comedy, at the beginning and at the end. If you were to graph it, it would resemble a bar-bell. During neither phase were they known for developing their own comedians, but for plundering those brought along by other studios for the most part.

The studio was formed in 1912 by the acquisition and consolidation of some of filmdom’s earliest film companies, one of which was Nestor, which came with future comedy auteur Al Christie. Universal also came up with several comedy brands of their own (such as “Joker”), which would wind up competing directly with Mack Sennett’s Keystone. They stole Augustus Carney from Essanay, changing him from “Alkali Ike” to “Universal Ike”.  They poached Ford Sterling and Henry Lehrman from Keystone and gave them their own production units.  Important comedians at the various brands included Max Asher, Billy Franey, Gale Henry, Louise Fazenda, Harry McCoy, Billie Ritchie, Alice Howell, Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran and others (again, many of them former Keystone people).

Then comes the skinny period at the studio for comedy. By the late ’20s and early 30s Universal had discovered a cash cow in the form of horror. They made some talkie shorts with Slim Summerville and others, but relatively few compared with other studios. And unfortunately — unthinkably — Universal destroyed most of its silent film cache in 1948 to save costs, so we can’t see most of the films from the early silent period to evaluate.

But the second phase of Universal comedy is well known, easily as well known as Paramount’s great comedy period or that of the Columbia Shorts Department.  It happened late in the game, just around the time some of the studios seemed to be be making less of an effort on the comedy front, allowing Universal to pick up a lot of great comedians at what amounted to a fire sale. They picked up the Dead End Kids from Warner Brothers in 1938, W.C. Fields from Paramount in 1939, the Ritz Brothers from Fox in 1940, and Olsen and Johnson (formerly with Warner Brothers) in 1941. But they did create their own mega-comedy stars in the form of  Abbott and Costello (1940-1956), the team for which they remain best known today. They also developed the popular late comedy series Ma and Pa Kettle which ran 1947-1957.

A quarter century separates Universal’s early and late periods. And, given that the later period includes many comedy classics (including some of W.C. Fields’ most enduring films, the screen version of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin and any number of Abbott and Costello favorites) one can’t help but wonder how the earlier period would measure up. They had some great talent in the bullpen.

(20th Century) Fox

Fox launched their own comedy units in 1916,  including one under the direction of Charles Parrott (later known as Charley Chase), another under Henry Lehrman after he departed Universal. Like Universal, Fox offered many separate brands to exhibitors, such as Foxfilm, Sunshine, and Imperial, and they had great comedy stars like Hank Mann, Billie Ritchie, Dot Farley, Heinie Conklin, Clyde Cook, and Al St. John. As with Universal, many of these were plundered from Keystone and Sennett.

Fox also distributed the product of Educational Pictures which, starting in the mid, 1920s included comedies by the likes of Lupino Lane, and Lloyd Hamilton and later (in the talkie period) Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton. (Educational is essential the most obvious linking element between the silent period and the talking period at Fox.  Clark and McCullough started their movie career at Fox in 1928. Fox stopped carrying shorts in 1937, around the time they merged with the 20th Century Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox.

Major Fox comedy stars of the 1930s included Will Rogers; Shirley Temple (who’d come to the studio via Educational’s Baby Burlesks and Frolics of Youth); and The Ritz Brothers (who’d also come via Educational).  In their declining years (early 1940s) Laurel and Hardy made some of their worst comedies for the studio.

Sadly, most of Fox’s silent product (and thus also much of Educational’s) was lost in a fire in the 1930s. It’s great loss for many reasons. One would be interested in comparing the early silent Fox comedies with those of their competitors. But it also would be interesting to measure them against the studio’s comedy product of the ’30s, which was on the weak side to put it mildly. There may have been some redemption and more vigor in the comedies of the teens — like Keystone product, but slicker. I think it’s likely that there was.

Paramount 

Of all the major studios, Paramount may have the longest and best known association with comedy. It begins with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who launched his own independent production company Comique in 1917, releasing the films through Paramount. In 1920, he bequeathed Comique to Buster Keaton and went to work as a star for Paramount directly, until the scandal of 1921 derailed his career. Others who made silent comedy features at Paramount included Raymond Griffith (1924-1927), and W.C. Fields (1925-1928). Harold Lloyd’s independently produced features were distributed by Paramount from the mid 20s through 1936, and he starred in the Paramount comedy Professor Beware in 1938.  The Marx Brothers made their best movies for the studio from 1929 through 1933. Mack Sennett released comedies through Paramount from 1932 to 1933, which led to W.C. Fields getting picked up by the studio again for a second stretch (1932-1938). Burn and Allen worked for the studio from 1930 through 1939, first in their own series of comedy shorts, then usually integrated into feature comedies with ensemble casts, e.g., the Big Broadcast series. Mae West made her classic films for Paramount from 1932 through 1937. In the ’30s both Bob Hope and Bing Crosby came to the studio, occasionally teamed in their own “Road” comedies. And the line stretches all the way to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (1949-1956), then Lewis’s solo comedies through the mid 1960s. That’s a good half century of solid, reputable comedy output. And, while we’re not not focusing on directors in this post, we’d be remiss in not mentioning that the great Preston Sturges made his masterpeices of the 1940s for Paramount as well. Does Paramount win? One is tempted to assert so — until we recall the minor fact that they also fired Arbuckle, the Marx Brothers, West and Fields. Get your head out of your ass, Paramount!

Columbia

Like the studio itself, Columbia’s comedies have been dissed over the years, but are nowadays garnering well deserved respect. The Cohn Brothers and Joe Brandt began as CBC Film Sales, producing the Hall Room Boys, based on a comic strip (1918-1923), and distributing the Mickey McGuire comedies (1927-1934), starring a very young Mickey Rooney. Frank Capra, the studio’s principle earner, arrived in 1928 to keep the studio solvent. And while Capra essentially invented the screwball comedy with It Happened One Night (1934) and can be called one of America’s greatest comedy directors (You Can’t Take It With You, Arsenic and Old Lace, not to mention his early pre-Columbia work with Our Gang and Harry Langdon) his labors were entirely separate from the low comedy happening at the legendary Columbia shorts department (1933-1958). Jules White was the main man there and he created the shop’s signature style, which was fast-paced, violent, and full of cartoon sound effects. The main stars of their stable were The Three Stooges, and for most part the remainder were refugees from the ruins of Roach and Educational, like Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase etc etc. When the shorts department closed in 1958, the Stooges continued to make features for the studio through 1965. Another notable Columbia comedy product was the Blondie series (1938-1950), adapted from the comic strip and starring Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake (himself a veteran of comedy shorts at the various studios since the earliest days of talkies.)

Red Skelton, “A Southern Yankee”

MGM

Considered by many to be the greatest of the classic era Hollywood studios overall, MGM was easily the worst studio for comedy, apart from the films they merely distributed. Throughout the 1920s MGM and Metro (one of the companies that was merged to create it) distributed Buster Keaton‘s features, which are comedy masterpieces. And from 1927 through 1938 they distributed Hal Roach films, including the very best output of Laurel and Hardy , and the comedies of Our GangCharley Chase, and many others. This adds up to some of the best comic product in the business, and you can see how proud they are of these associations in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a showcase film in which we have the rare spectacle of seeing Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton in the same movie.

But MGM’s merciless machine was a comedy killer. It seems like whenever their management got their hands on comedians, they succeeded in killing what was excellent about them. Keaton became a contract player in 1929. By 1933, after 4 years of terrible films, he vamoosed, returning later only as a gag man. The Marx Brothers arrived in 1935; by 1941 they were so disgusted with their MGM experience they retired. When MGM took over direct production of Our Gang in 1938, they killed the essential spirit of the franchise. And when Laurel and Hardy escaped from Fox briefly in the ’40s to see if MGM could do any better for them, they were sorely disappointed.

The only comedy star that can truly be called MGM’s creation is Red Skelton, who made his comedies there from 1941 through 1954. Red had starred in some shorts prior to this, but it was MGM that made him a star (with guys like Buster Keaton in the wings to spruce up the gags). Nearly all of the films are excrutiatingly dull — the prevailing MGM comedy aesthetic. The same can be said of the Maisie series (1939-1947), starring the otherwise winning Ann Sothern. The credits promise racy comedy; but the actual product is fairly barren of laughs. You need freedom and independence to make comedy, and you don’t have those when you’re a cog in a machine.

RKO

On the other hand, the most under-rated and unsung studio for comedy from the classic era has got to be RKO. After Paramount, Universal and Columbia, I would have to place RKO in the comedy studio rankings. This despite the fact that the studio had a short life compared to the rest of them — less than 30 years. RKO was founded in 1928, in a move that included a merger of the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit and Film Booking Offices, which had earlier absorbed the Mutual Film Corporation, which had earlier swallowed up Keystone, Lone Star, Majestic, Reliance-Majestic and others, brands associated with major comedy founding names Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and others. Their product included the features of Wheeler and Woolsey (1929-1938); the shorts of Edgar Kennedy (1930-1947), Clark and McCullough (1930-1935), and Leon Errol (1934-1951), the Mexican Spitfire series starring Lupe Velez (1939-1943); Hal Peary’s Gildersleeve comedies (1942-1944); and the brief teaming of Alan Carney and Wally Brown (1943-1945). But there are many amazing things to remember RKO for, including the musicals of Fred and Ginger, the spectacle of King Kong, and the masterpiece that was Citizen Kane. We can perhaps be forgiven of not thinking of their comedians first, but they had great ones.

Warner Brothers

Similarly we have other reasons to think of Warner Brothers before comedy: gangster pictures, swashbucklers, and Depression Era tap musicals.  But there’s a comedy legacy here as well. In 1924 the Warner Brothers acquired the old Vitagraph studios (where Larry Semon was the big comedy star). This is why their famous sound process would be called Vitaphone when it premiered a couple of years later. In 1928, they merged with First National, which had released many of the masterpieces of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon in earlier years.

Most of the early Vitaphones were more like documentary recordings of vaudeville acts than comedy shorts. They might star comedians like Burns and Allen but in a film like Lambchops they’re just doing their stage act. But some of the Vitaphones of the late ’20s and early ’30ss are proper, plotted comedy shorts, featuring comedians like Shemp Howard, Jack Haley and Lionel Stander. Best of all are a half dozen made by Fatty Arbuckle just as he was returning to pictures to make his comeback in 1932. Olsen and Johnson made three features at Warner Brothers in 1930 and 1931. Not surprisingly a half dozen of the Dead End Kids pictures were made there in the late ’30s with stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. These tend to be more gritty than funny, as they later grew to be.

But the greatest of all Warner Brothers classic comedy stars was Joe E. Brown, who made features at the studio from the late ’20s through the late ’30s. If you’re only going to have one comedy star, that’s a good one to have. Brown was so popular a star in the early ’30s it was as good as having a whole stable of comedians.

Odds and Ends

Charlie Chaplin was one of the founders of United Artists. UA released all his movies from A Woman of Paris (1923) on. They also distributed all of Eddie Cantor’s comedies of the 1930s, which were produced by Sam Goldwyn.

Starting in 1940 the former Dead End Kids became the East Side Kids and Bowery Boys at low-budget Monogram (through 1958).

For more  on silent and slapstick film don’t miss 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 To find out more about show biz history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Tomorrow: The Silent Clowns Presents the Greatest Silent Comedy Feature You’ve Never Seen

Posted in AMERICANA, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2017 by travsd

Tomorrow, March 11, 2017 at 2:30pm, at Lincoln Center Library, the Silent Clowns Film Series will present the hilarious Raymond Griffith feature Hands Up! (1926).

Griffith’s stock has been rising in recent years, thanks largely to screenings like this, and most aficionados today rank him as something like “the 5th or 6th genius of silent comedy”, somewhere just behind Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Of those I just mentioned Griffith has the most in common, I suppose, with Lloyd, in being less clown-like, more of a comic actor, although his character is very different from Lloyd’s. (For more on Griffith, read my full tribute).

At any rate, my provocative title presumes you’ve already seen every feature by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. Hands Up! (1926) is close to them in quality. It is considered Griffith’s finest and best known film. It is a Civil War comedy told from the point of view of the South — released an entire year before Keaton’s The General.  Griffith plays a dashing Confederate spy on a mission to steal Yankee gold. Along the way, he constantly gets into fixes and coolly extricates himself from each one. Its most famous sequence has Griffith up against a wall in front of a firing squad. He gets himself out of the pickle by throwing dinner plates into the air at the crucial second, which his executioners are then obliged to shoot at, thinking they are clay pigeons.  The father of both of his love interests (he is equally in love with two sisters) is played by Mack Swain, in his first role after The Gold Rush.

Full details at the Silent Clowns web site. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film 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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