Archive for silent comedy

A Muchness of Mabel’s Movies at Midnight

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on January 15, 2017 by travsd

Tonight at Midnight (Eastern) TCM will be screening several silent comedy shorts featuring the incomparable Mabel Normand:

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The Bangville Police (1913) 

The Bangville Police is the comedy short containing what is considered by many to be the first appearance of The Keystone Kops (others consider the first to have been  1912′ Hoffmeyer’s Legacy). To muddy the water some, the kops aren’t uniformed in this one, they’re an all-volunteer force in a rural community called Bangville, quite different from the urban Los Angeles settings we’re accustomed to seeing the Kops run amok in. (One wonders if it isn’t a riff on Essanay’s “Snakeville” series).

At any rate Fred Mace plays the head Kop in this one. Ford Sterling, who normally plays the Kops’ Chief is in it, but just as a regular officer. Other Kops in this film include Edgar Kennedy, Hank Mann and Al St. John. Mack Sennett directed. Mabel Normand plays a young farm girl who thinks she hears robbers in the barn and calls the police in. After much brouhaha and fol-de-rol, the Kops arrive and break into the barn, only to find that all the commotion has been caused by — oh but wait! Why should I tell you? Watch for yourself!

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Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913) 

Directed by Mack Sennett, starring Sennett, Normand, and Alice Davenport. It’s a great little film: mama’s boy Mack disses his girlfriend, the housemaid (Mabel) who runs off to the big city and becomes a star. The coolest part of this film is the scene in the theatre, giving us an invaluable glimpse at what attending the cinema was like in the days of nickelodeons.

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Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Directed by Sennett and co-starring Mabel and Charlie Chaplin In this film Chaplin plays a character somewhat unlike his more recognized Little Fellow. Here he is a middle class husband in a top hat. And Normand, not Chaplin, is still the above-the-title star at this early stage. There are several ironclad laws in the Keystone universe. One of them is, if you are in the park with your wife NEVER LEAVE HER ALONE ON A PARK BENCH. Mabel plays Charlie’s wife in this one, and the instant he steps away, masher Mack Swain shows up to harass her. When he gets back, Charlie doesn’t do much to punish the man. Later, Mabel brings home a dressmaker’s dummy for Charlie to practice punching on. That night, he comes home three sheets to the wind, mistakes the dummy for a prowler, and has a hilarious fight with it.

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Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)

Directed by and co-starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Normand. In the two years following Chaplin’s departure from Keystone (1915-1916) Arbuckle-Normand team-ups were Mack Sennett’s most formidable box office combination. The pair appeared in dozens of films together, most frequently as a domestic couple. It’s especially exciting and instructive to watch the ones towards the end of this period, when the confidence that comes with prolonged stardom informs their performances, and when Arbuckle’s skills as a director blossom. Shortly after this, Arbuckle went on to his own starring series for his own company Comique, and Normand went on to her own starring series of features for Sam Goldwyn. These 1916 Fatty-Mabel shorts are kind of like Beatles records from 1968 or 1969. You’re experiencing artists who are about to be big solo stars, but still interacting in a format they’re beginning to outgrow, in this case the ensemble comedy short. The product of that tension can be very rich.

The plot of Fatty and Mabel Adrfit is very simple. Sweethearts Fatty and Mabel get married and take their honeymoon at a seaside cottage, along with another of Arbuckle’s frequent Keystone co-stars, Luke the Dog. Unfortunately, Fatty’s rival for Mabel’s hand (played as usual by Al St. John) is not through fighting. He and his several henchmen put the little house out to sea. Fatty and Mabel wake up the next day to find themselves far away from shore in a house full of water. The climactic scenes of this comedy are spectacular, on a scale we usually associate with Larry Semon or with Arbuckle’s protege Buster Keaton. Sennett rarely shelled out for such big budget extravagances, but at this stage he was trying to keep both co-stars happy so they wouldn’t “pull a Chaplin” by leaving him. (As we said, they both soon did anyway). How can Fatty and Mabel escape their dire predicament? Perhaps their heroic pooch will be of some help…

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He Did and He Didn’t (1916)

One of Arbuckle’s and Norman’s last movies for Sennett. Quite a good little movie — maybe even Arbuckle’s best film, as it has a bit of emotional depth to it, while still being funny. Fatty and Mabel are a rich married couple. He’s a doctor (although that part of the exposition doesn’t emerge very clearly). They live in a mansion with servants. It opens with them dressing for dinner and bickering.  The dinner guest is her childhood sweetheart (William Jefferson). Fatty is very jealous of their little endearments. Later he is called away to a housecall (a false alarm), then returns to confront his rival — and a pair of burglars led by Al St. John (who does a spectacular stunt on the chandelier). We can hardly believe our eyes when our heroes shoot each other…until it turns out to be a bad dream, spurred on by the lobster they had for dinner.

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Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) 

In this one, Fatty and Mabel are in rural mode, with Mabel as a farmer’s daughter and Fatty as the farmhand who loves her. Lots of fun at the expense of cows and calves is had during their flirtation. But there is trouble in this bucolic paradise. In parody of the old stage melodramas, Al St. John arrives as the son who holds the mortgage on the farm. The farmer (Josef Swickard) is behind in his payments. Mabel must marry St. John or the farm will be seized! Fatty and Mabel flee, pursued by St. John, the father and cops. The climax is most enjoyable. People fly through the air and fall down wells! And of course Fatty and Mabel succeed in their escape and get married.

The Water Nymph (1912) 

An early one starring Normand, Sennett, Sterling, et al.  In The Water Nymph Mabel basically reprises a role she first played for Sennett in her very first movie for him The Diving Girl (Biograph, 1911). Her scandalous appearance in her bathing suit made her something of a sensation, and she was known as “The Diving Girl” for some time after. The buzz helped put Sennett on the map, and epitomized the sort of outrageousness Keystone became known for. In time, he would develop an entire stable of Bathing Beauties.

Tonight on TCM: Silent Comedies with Dogs

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd with tags , , , , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd

Today Turner Classic Movies is showing canine related films most of the day. As a digestif, they have also devoted Silent Sundays to the same theme. The fun starts at midnight.

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Love My Dog (1927)

In this silent Our Gang short, Farina and Joe Cobb’s dog Oleander (Pete the Pup) is taken to the pound and the kids have to raise the money to spring him! Tiny Sandford plays a lawyer.

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Number, Please? (1920)

While the climax to this Harold Lloyd short is one of the film’s best parts, the set-up is convoluted. Harold and a rival (Roy Brooks) vie for the attentions of a girl (Mildred Davis) at an amusement park. When her dog gets lost, she wants to go up in a hot air balloon operated by her uncle. The balloon will only hold two. The girl announces she will go up with whichever beau gets her mother’s permission first. The rival heads for the mother’s house in a car. Harold runs to a telephone so he can call the mother for permission. This would seem easy…but it’s a public phone in a hotel. The hilarious part is the succession of obstacles which prevent him from doing this simple thing. Then he winds up with a lost purse, which he finally gives to a goat to eat so he won’t be arrested for stealing. But it turns out to have been the girl’s purse, complete with the balloon tickets….

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Fatty’s Faithful Fido (1915)

For a time, Fatty Arbuckle was sharing his billing with a pooch named Luke. In this little short Luke has Fatty’s back in a rivalry with spiffy dude Al St. John over the the attention of Minta Durfee. After Fatty and Luke give Al a beat-down in the streets (and on the roofs) of Chinatown, Al literally marks Fatty for revenge, drawing an “x” on his back, the better for two hired thugs to identify him at the dance that night so they can give him a drubbing. Al’s plan gets thwarted though. And how’s it end? Well, what’s the default ending in half the Keystone comedies? That’s right — everyone falls into a tub of water.

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Fatty’s Plucky Pup (1915)

As he often does, in this film Roscoe plays a good-for-nothing layabout who lives with his mother (Phyllis Allen). He smokes in bed and starts a fire. Then he gives a dog a bath in a washtub, ruining the laundry. He is also fond of flirting with Lizzie the girl next door (Josephine Stevens). Later he brings Lizzie to an amusement part, where she will be kidnapped by a gang of shell game operators led by Edgar Kennedy. Luke the Dog alerts Fatty to the situation and the two of them (joined by the Keystone Kops) come to her rescue. The film contains a memorable shot of Mack Sennett’s famous treadmill-scrolling backdrop combo that gave a very cartoonish impression of the subject running (or riding a bike as the case may be) with the background going by behind them.

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Dog Daze (1925)

In this earlier Our Gang short, the kids all have pooches that perform specialty tricks. When they manage to stop rich girl Mary’s runaway pony, she invites them to her ritzy party, where the dogs reveal that they are not all angels.

 

100 Years Ago: Chaplin’s Mutual Period

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on May 15, 2016 by travsd

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100 years ago today Charlie Chaplin released The Floorwalker, the first of twelve classic comedy shorts he would make for the Mutual Film Corporation.

Mutual was the firm that had previously distributed Keystone comedies. Mack Sennett had just left to set up his new venture, the Triangle Film Corporation with D.W. Griffith and the “Father of the Western” Thomas Ince as the other two points of the triangle. Tasked with filling the void left by Keystone, Chaplin was set up with his own unit called The Lone Star Studio. With what amounted to unlimited resources at his fingertips, Chaplin was now to take all sorts of steps that boosted the quality of his films to unprecedented levels.

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For example, now he was able to construct more imaginative, original, and lavish sets.  Now we have a department store with a working escalator, a health spa with a revolving door, and a bi-level house with a treacherous cuckoo clock.  The construction of these playgrounds of comedy potential was also the genesis of the stories of the films themselves. Chaplin would start with nothing more than an idea for a locale and then order the set built. He would then devise the movie in situ, as though the whole apparatus of the film studio was his pipe organ to compose upon. Unlike even Sennett, he didn’t write a story out on paper. He showed up to work in the morning armed with nothing more than some ideas in his head, many of them vague. Then he created his movies on the fly. For a surprisingly long time, Chaplin was able to maintain the pace he had established at Essanay using this method. But then, starting with The Cure in early 1917 he started to take even longer to make each film. Instead of one month to make a two-reeler, it now took two or three. Here again, his working method was enabled by resources. He had the wherewithal to indulge his muse. He could actually do the unthinkable and wait for inspiration to come.

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As his old mentor Fredo Karno had done, Chaplin’s method of direction was to show every player his part, literally. He was a mime, after all. Trying to communicate in words what he wanted to accomplish would only be a hindrance, a frustration, and ultimately less effective. So he would act out every role in the movie, show each actor in each scene precisely how they should do their part in each bit. Working in this method necessitated a special kind of stock company, one that would be willing to yield entirely to his control. Chaplin’s ideal cast members are either non-actors, i.e. tabulae rasae (such as most of his leading ladies and a certain famous five-year-old) or people from the same professional background who possessed the same gestural vocabulary as he, and to whom he could speak in a sort of shorthand. Edna Purviance answered the description of the first type. Officially his leading lady by this point both on and off the screen, there was no question but that she would follow Chaplin to the new studio.

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As to the second type, Chaplin was fortunate in recruiting two fellow veterans of the Karno company to anchor his new troupe at Mutual. As the heavy, he brought in Eric Campbell, a mammoth Scotsman with the grace of a gazelle and a comic instinct to rival Chaplin’s. Big enough (6’4”, close to 300 lbs) to make Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain or Bud Jamison seem like pipsqueaks, Campbell and his boss collaborated to make his characters as terrifying as possible, usually enhancing his impressive size with a garnish of Satanic facial hair. Campbell’s function was to torture and menace The Little Fellow in any given plot. Other than the Hero and The Girl, the heavy is the most important ingredient in any comedy cast, and Campbell proved to be the greatest Chaplin ever had. He is easily the most memorable and cherished member of any Chaplin stock company after Chaplin himself. Only his untimely death in 1917 would prevent him from going on to even greater stardom. The other Karno alum Chaplin brought on staff was Albert Austin, a tall, slim utility man who glides in and out of Chaplin’s stories like the well-trained Karno cog that he is, to help set the pace and tone of the proceedings for the rest of the cast and keep the machine moving forward. Also notable in the new cast was Henry Bergman, a musical comedy veteran with a wide range. Large enough to be a heavy in any company that didn’t include Campbell, to him were usually relegated authority figures: fathers and rich men, mostly, although he could also be relied upon to play something farther afield, like the violent masseur in The Cure or the pawn broker in The Pawnshop (October, 1916). Bergman was such an excellent character actor he would often play two or more roles in a single film and audiences would be none the wiser.  For comic variety in body types the company also included James T. Kelley, a diminutive Irishman (he looks scarcely over five feet tall) whom one sees in many Mutuals playing bellhops and elevator operators, usually with a beard that goes all the way down to his waist.

With all of these elements in place, Chaplin now inaugurated a string of pathbreaking films that would remain essentially unbroken for forty years. It was during his year and a half at Mutual that Chaplin got a handle on the storytelling—creating what many regard as the first silent film comedies that are still watchable as pure entertainment (as opposed to historical curiosities) even today. In these movies, for the most part, nothing is random. No gag is a throwaway. Everything contributes toward the whole. Others, like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, and Laurel and Hardy would later excel at this form. Some would even exceed the master in keeping the gags germane to the plot (Chaplin was content to keep them consistent in terms of character, setting, and theme.) But the improvements these later comedians made were tweaks compared to the advances Chaplin made at Mutual. It is too strong perhaps to say that he invented the comedy short. But he did define it. It is the same basic structure the public knows well from the later shorts of the Three Stooges and animated cartoons, even if they have never seen the silent comedies that set the template.

We All Fall Down: "The Rink"

We All Fall Down: “The Rink”

Many consider the short the ideal form of comic cinema. Unburdened with any of the more earthbound elements necessitated by a longer narrative, the short is free to be purely comic, generating more concentrated laughter. Because the films are short, they can’t get too serious. In ten or twenty minutes there’s no time to get too deeply into character or relationships. The stress is on a structure of funny events. As a rough metaphor, it is very much like dessert.

So Chaplin would impose a structure, a form on Keystone-style chaos. If Keystone was about throwing everything against the wall, Chaplin was now about gathering everything up, chucking away the chaff, and organizing the remainder into a coherent, organic whole. If a story element or a gag doesn’t relate to the theme of the film, it doesn’t make the cut. If the proposed action is something the character wouldn’t logically do, he doesn’t do it. Bizarre events are naturally countenanced—this is comedy after all. But when the unexpected happens we generally get a plausible explanation for it and it enhances rather than undermines the comedy. In The Vagabond (July, 1919), the Little Fellow plays a lively tune on his fiddle, causing Edna’s gypsy girl to go at her washing chores at a preposterous speed. Many are the comic minds of the day who would have been happy to direct someone to behave in that strange a fashion for no reason at all. But Chaplin believes in cause and effect. If a gag is not connected to what came before or what will follow, it takes us out of the story. And once out it’s very difficult to get back in.

There is nothing highfalutin about any of this. Chaplin may have had his pretensions, hob-knobbed with authors and scholars and so forth, but these little affectations came AFTER he’d already distinguished himself as an artist and attracted those people to him on the strength of his output. Contrary to what many people imply, you don’t have to be some egghead to make art. The reverse is closer to the reality. Art is about instinct. Visual art is about having an eye. The bird building her nest has such an eye: this twig goes here, that twig goes there—and no other place. The bird has no conscious thought about it. It is merely fulfilling the laws of nature and taking the required care to make something right. The same is true of how humans make art. There are some rules of composition that can be taught, but beyond that, at least at a formal level, it’s all instinct.

Chaplin’s new deal at Mutual would allow him for the first time enough freedom to take the necessary care to get it right. There was no one breathing down his neck pooh-poohing his integrity as he tried to work out his story problems. Thus he was able to solve them. And that’s why people are still watching his films, as opposed to those of his contemporaries who only wanted to turn over a fast buck.  

It all seemed to start with a spark inside him. You can see it in his performances. He is so bursting with life on occasion he’ll break out into balletic dance moves or curtsy like a girl. In The Adventurer he clambers up a sheer cliff face like one demonically possessed. He brings this same energy to how he conceives and directs the films. Burning with inspiration, Chaplin was easily the most imaginative filmmaker since Méliès. He wasn’t just punching a time clock. He seemed to say to himself, “I have all the power in the world at my fingertips. Where can my imagination go today? Because this is a movie. We can go anywhere.”

After seeing The Floorwalker (May, 1916), Chaplin’s first film for Mutual, the highlight of which is a series of pratfalls on an escalator, Mack Sennett famously asked, “Why in hell didn’t we think of a moving staircase?” Probably because you weren’t particularly thinking of anything at all, Mr. Sennett! After a certain point, innovation wasn’t on Sennett’s agenda. Crankin’ em out was. How many Sennett movies are set in, on, and around park benches? As an NYU film school alum, where 85 percent of the student movies are set in Washington Square Park, I can tell you that such a location isn’t arrived at because the filmmaker loves parks, and he’s so inspired that he’s just burning to make a movie that takes place in a park. It’s because the park is…right over there. You don’t have to rent it or build it. You just have to go a short distance, and there it is. At times this seems like admirable resourcefulness. At other times, it seems more like the filmmaker can’t be bothered to get off his ass. Look at the number of Keystones set in a movie studio. How lazy is that? In those ones, they couldn’t even be bothered to drive over to the park! They just yelled “roll film” and started fooling round right where they were already standing. With only Keystone films to go by (Lord knows how such a thing would come to pass) an alien from another planet might be forgiven for thinking that the entire human race either lives at the park, or works in a movie studio.

While Chaplin would regress a couple of times at Mutual (notably in Behind the Screen [May, 1916], his umpteenth comedy set at a movie studio), for the most part he takes us to a variety of interesting settings, places he and we are both curious about, and explores their possibilities: a health spa, a ship crossing the Atlantic, a gypsy caravan.

Again, there is nothing profound about any of this. Chaplin is simply a more creative person. He sees the possibilities in people, places, and objects. You see how his mind works as early as His Favorite Pastime at Keystone, in which he gets into a drunken fight with a pair of seemingly malevolent washroom doors. This is the same antic spirit that will lead to his escapades with an escalator in The Floorwalker, a revolving door in The Cure, an entire room in One A.M. (August, 1916), and an alarm clock in The Pawnshop. He likes to play with stuff.

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Like Ovid he is infatuated with the concept of metamorphosis. Like theatrical wizards from Shakespeare to Artaud he is enchanted with the actor’s alchemical ability to transform people and objects. The most frequently cited example, probably because it is his most lengthy and overt “dissertation” on the subject, is the section in The Pawnshop where a customer (Albert Austin) brings in an alarm clock to hock. In his appraisal of the clock, Chaplin in succession becomes a jeweler, a physician, a safecracker, even a housewife opening a can of tuna. By the time he is done with the clock it is just a pile of junk. He tells the poor man so and sends him on his way.

In Chaplin’s hands a mere prop can even become another character. This was surely an instinct strong within him his entire performing career. It appears in some of his earliest films, such as Getting Acquainted where he lewdly pokes a woman with his cane and then spanks and scolds the naughty walking stick. This anthropomorphizing is really a puppeteer’s instinct and it makes any Chaplin film not just funny but magical.

Charlie is whoever she needs to be

Charlie is whoever she needs to be

This preoccupation, which has its origins in simple playfulness, has profound implications when Chaplin applies it to his own character. Unlike a lot of screen comedians of the time, Chaplin’s Little Fellow assumes a wide variety of interesting guises from picture to picture:  a fireman, a waiter, a rich man, a burglar—sometimes a tramp. The fact that he is often a tramp adds yet another level of masquerade, for the tramp, closely related to the American archetype the confidence man, is himself a person of malleable, shifting identity. In The Tramp circumstances temporarily make him a farm hand. In more movies than you can count (including The Count [September, 1916]) he misrepresents himself as some nobleman or other important person. To add a third level of complexity, in any given moment Chaplin’s Little Fellow can magically transform as the need arises, as when he dons drag in A Woman, or disguises himself as a floor lamp in The Adventurer. This mercurial property of Chaplin’s would find later manifestations in the screen characters of the Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny. Adapting one’s very identity to circumstances, adapting one’s surroundings to fit one’s needs.

There is something distinctly American about this aspect of Chaplin’s screen character. A dynamic of constant change is the mode not only of the actor or the con man but of any ambitious person in the free enterprise system, where one’s status is in constant shift, either through the result of one’s own actions, or simply by the cruel hand of Fate. One’s position is not rigidly fixed, as in an aristocracy. A poor man can become a rich man, and vice versa. Chaplin knew about this firsthand. He himself had transformed from a Cockney pauper to one of the world’s richest men in just a few years.

Such alteration in a character’s circumstances, and the internal transformations that go with them, are the essence of what makes a compelling story. Here is where Chaplin makes one of his primary contributions to cinema. What journey have we really taken when we reach the end of a Sennett comedy? We’ve had some laughs, that’s about it. The odds are pretty good we’ll have forgotten what we’ve just seen on the way home from the theatre. We have formed no emotional attachment. Chaplin showed that in following a character’s ups and downs, it was possible to make the audience care about the outcome without killing the laughs.

And it didn’t have to have a happy ending. The conclusions to Chaplin’s pictures seldom were. The closest to such during the Mutual period perhaps would be Easy Street (January, 1917), in which he becomes a policeman, cleans up the most notorious neighborhood in the city single-handedly, and then marries the girl.

But in a Chaplin film we have the impression that such transformations are at best temporary. Yes, the Little Fellow may become someone else by the end of the picture, but the odds are good that if we were to look in on him sometime after, we would find him experiencing new reversals and undergoing future adaptations and transformations. He’s never in any one place for very long. He always has one eye on the back door.

For example, I’ve always found the end of The Immigrant (June, 1917) unsettling. Not only does the Little Fellow coerce Edna into marrying him (using his cane to grab her, no less), but he starts off the relationship by sponging off the two dollars she is earning as an artist’s model. I can’t help but imagine a third act in which he transforms into something like the Eric Roberts character in Star 80.

Underneath the penguin suit lies the soul of an escaped prisoner

Underneath the penguin suit lies the soul of an escaped prisoner

Perhaps the more rewarding and realistic Chaplins are the cyclical ones, where we go on a long, winding journey and end up back at the same place: the road. The best example of this may be Chaplin’s last film for Mutual, The Adventurer. Charlie plays an escaped criminal who has the good fortune to save the lives of several members of a wealthy family mere minutes after having evaded the army of prison guards who were chasing him. Even better, he seems to have tremendous romantic chemistry with the millionaire couple’s daughter, played by Edna. In an alternate universe perhaps, this might be his last stop, the end of all his worries. Change his name, marry the daughter, blend in, go straight, and be set for life. But that’s not who he is, and that’s what he can never be. His rival for the girl’s hand (Eric Campbell) rats him out to the cops. After a lengthy and hilarious chase, we get our happy ending, but it’s not the usual one. The Little Fellow does escape. But he doesn’t get the girl, nor will he ever be able to. And in houses like these, he is ever an interloper. Which is how Chaplin, a poor immigrant who came to America and lucked into a fortune, must have ever felt, even in his own house. The question is always, “When will the other shoe drop?”

For Chaplin the man, the other shoe wouldn’t drop almost another forty years.

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 Mediaalso 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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11 Rare Film Gems Are “Found at Mostly Lost”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2016 by travsd

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Each year the Library of Congress sponsors a workshop where experts from around the country congregate and watch old films (mostly silent) and segments of film which lack I.D. information, such as titles or even who the actors are. Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions has just released a wonderful DVD, containing some of the fruits of those efforts. Found at Mostly Lost contains several silent comedies starring performers who will be familiar to readers of this blog, as well as some silent dramas, and two THRILLING vaudeville talkies, and one other interesting curio. These releases of Ben’s are like catnip to me — pieces of history and entertainment at the same time. So often the REAL illumination on the past comes from stuff that’s not a classic; and just as often the performers are delightful and interesting. I could watch films like this all the time — if it were possible. But the word “rare” is used to describe them for a reason. That just makes me more ravenous. The DVD includes:

The Nickel Snatcher (1920):  Hank Mann ‘s the conductor of a horse drawn street car taking a lot of bathing beauties to the beach. Along the way, he foils a bank robbery! (Get ready for a completely offensive joke about a fat lady. It’s not silent comedy unless someone’s getting offended.)

Fidelity (1911): A  touching melodrama about a faithful family dog, starring the stage actress Gertrude Norman. When her daughter is killed in a fire, a woman’s life falls apart and she begins to wander the earth — but there’s one friend who’ll never leave her: her heroic pooch. I found this one interesting. Though produced by Pathe Studios, one of the top outfits of the day, and starring an actress with Broadway credits, most of the other actors seem to be amateurs. My favorite moment was when the dying girl looked off camera for her cue to expire. So if you think silent dramas are too dull to watch, they do have their rewarding compensations.

The Paperhangers’ Revenge (1918):  Bud Duncan, formerly of the team of Ham and Bud, here trying his darnedest to make comedy with an inadequate Lloyd Hamilton substitute in a one-reeler that owes more than a little to Charlie Chaplin’s WorkTwo scabs defy the paperhangers union to take a job sprucing up somebody’s mansion. Will goo slosh out of buckets? Will ladders get swung? Will things happen with wallpaper and glue? You be the judge.

A Brass Button (1911):  Another melodrama, this one produced by the Reliance studios. A maid steals a necklace and tries to frame some other people, but is caught out in the end because a clue is left at the scene: a BRASS BUTTON from her sleeve. I’m not sure, but it looks to me like the actress playing the maid is wearing just a bit of make-up in order to make her complexion appear darker.

Jerry’s Perfect Day (1916): Minor comedian George Ovey plays a tramp in trouble. First he sidles up to another tramp on a bench, falls asleep and dreams he is with his little wife. When he wakes up, he is petting and kissing the other tramp. Happens every day! A bunch of cops on their way to a company picnic then arrest “Jerry” and take him to their outing in handcuffs, intending to take him to jail after their frolics. Unfortunately, Jerry escapes and steals their uniforms while they’re skinny-dipping. The rest is so much comedy algebra.

One Million B.C. (1940): The briefest of treats — some test footage of lizards in dinosaur costumes for Hal Roach ‘s prehistoric classic. Some of the dinosaurs that didn’t make the cut are quite hilarious indeed.

Ventriloquist (1927): This and the other vaudeville clip below alone would be worth the price of this DVD to me.  This is a film of William Frawley and his wife and vaudeville partner Edna Frawley’s vaudeville act. It is a funny crosstalk sketch, with Frawley as a fast talking street hawker of patent medicines, with loads of funny jokes and the eventual payoff of Edna becoming a ventriloquist dummy (quite disturbing) and Frawley doing the ventriloquism. It will make you laugh and may also give you nightmares — and I’m a sucker for entertainment that can accomplish both. (Interesting footnote, Gummo Marx was said to have started out in vaudeville with an act very similar to this, playing the dummy to his uncle).

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Fifteen Minutes (1921):  This one seemed like a fragment, missing a beginning and an end, so we lack both the set-up which explains the situation, and the big pay-off which silent comedies usually conclude with. But there are several entertaining gags nonetheless. Snub Pollard is a hapless dude in a silk top hat who is being pursued for some reason. As part of his ordeal, he is pulled down the street by a dog on a skateboard; finds himself in a driverless, speeding car that lands in a river; and is followed by a bear. It is a small bear, but a bear is a bear.

In and Out (1920/21): Italian comedian and director Monty Banks has just married his new bride, who causes no end of commotion what with her lack of cooking skills, and her brouhaha with the iceman and a book agent. The latter bit is especially original and funny. But one could be forgiven for expecting another sort of cinematic experience from a honeymoon film titled “In and Out”.

Grief (1921): Not at all the best title for this movie, as it really evokes nothing, unless it refers to something else that was going on at the time (titles of silent movies are often parodies of other movies or plays.) Jimmie Adams plays a chap who is wanted by authorities as the notorious masher “Bert the Flirt”, who will be easy to spot because he wears a certain type of hat. Jimmie has no end of trouble getting rid of his chapeau. One of the cleverest parts of this film is that he is pursued by two matching plainclothesmen who move in tandem, creating an impression not unlike Tin-Tin’s Thomson and Thompson. For some reason I missed, the film has a sort of prologue in which a number of street urchins re-enact a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. 

The Joyride (1928): Another funny vaudeville crosstalk act starring George LeMaire and Joe Phillips. I found the later comedian to be of especial interest. A diminutive fellow, he compulsively emits a “woo-woo-woo” sound of just the sort we associate with Curly Howard. I am almost willing to bet that the latter comedian (who had not been a professional performer previously and had to step into his role as a stooge quickly when Shemp quit the act) instinctively fell into a routine he knew and liked when the pressure was on, essentially appropriating Phillips’ moves. Just a feeling I have. Anyway, this guy must be looked into. The team are complemented by two women (as yet identified) who sing a charming song. Then there’s business with a broken down car — I can’t help wondering if that cumbersome and expensive prop was part of their vaudeville act. Harry Langdon had worked with a car prop in vaudeville for years.

Am I endorsing this DVD? I’m endorsing and then some! Buy it here.

Stars of Slapstick #220: Alice Davenport

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Women with tags , , , , , , on February 29, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Alice Davenport (Alice Shepphard, 1864-1936). Born in New York, Alice went on the stage as a child and acted in stock and melodrama productions for decades. She was briefly married to stage and screen actor Harry Davenport, of a famous theatrical family (we’ll inevitably blog about them). Mr. Davenport is best known to modern audiences as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind. The couple had two daughters, Dorothy (who married Wallace Reid) and Ann.

She went into films in 1911. She worked for the Nestor and Horsely companies, before coming to Biograph in 1912 where she became part of Mack Sennett’s stock company in films like A Spanish Dilemma and Mabel’s Lovers. Sennett loved types, and Davenport was perfect for playing dowagers, mothers-in-law, and “battle-ax” wife characters. She stayed with him at Keystone, and she is a staple of many of Charlie Chaplin’s first films, and comedies starring Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and others. In 1919, she left Sennett to appear in Fox Sunshine comedies, although she does appear in Sennett’s Oh, Mabel Behave (1922). She has a bit part in the audience on Larry Semon’s The Show. Her regular film credits end in 1924. She returned to Broadway in 1929 and 1930, took one last role as an extra in the western The Dude Wrangler (her only talkie) and then retired. The prolific Davenport appeared in 140 films — many of them classics of silent comedy.

To learn more about comedy film history 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 still 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.

Stars of Slapstick #219: Edward “Eddie” Dillon

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , on January 1, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Edward “Eddie” Dillon (1879-1933). New York native Dillon was a professional horse jockey who transitioned into acting in stage plays with the likes of Otis Skinner, Dustin Farnum and Rose Melville. He broke into films at Biograph circa 1908, where he appeared in Griffith classics like Enoch Arden (1911), eventually gravitating toward the comedies of Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson. By 1913 he was directing his own films at Biograph, then moved with Griffith to Reliance/ Majestic. He directed comedies with Fay Tincher, De Wolf Hopper and others. His directing career ended in 1926, but he continued acting in character parts (including roles in Hal Roach comedy shorts) through 1932.

Now: I normally use these posts as an excuse to plug my own book Chain of Fools. But you know what? Virtually all this information came from another invaluable book, and I’d like to start the new year off right by plugging that one. It’s Steve Massa’s crucial Lame Brains and Lunatics — read my review it right here.  You can learn much more about Eddie Dillon and dozens of others there.

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Charlie Chaplin’s “Burlesque on Carmen”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2015 by travsd

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December 18, 1915 was the release date of Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen.

Chaplin’s last official film for Essanay,  Carmen would represent the fruit of his dawning ambition, of the new direction he hoped to take. 1915 had seen two cinematic versions of the opera Carmen, one by Cecil B. de Mille, one by Raoul Walsh. Chaplin decided that he, too, would throw his derby hat into the ring by making his own parody version, Charlie Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen. This master stroke would allow Chaplin to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, the film was just what he said it was: a Mack Sennett style burlesque of a popular hit of the day. At the same time, it allowed Chaplin to get his hands on a tragic narrative, to feel his way through the story points, to get inside a real work of art, even if only to caricature it.

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Unfortunately, Essanay butchered the film, ignoring Chaplin’s own cut, adding many of his out-takes and a subplot featuring Ben Turpin, in order to pad it to a longer running time. From the existing version it is hard to tell what its merits might have been. Nor was this the last of their villainy. The enterprising grave robbers at Essanay would manage to make three additional movies out of discarded Chaplin footage after he left the studio. Following this, Chaplin made sure contractually that this indignity would never happen to him again.

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.  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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