"Cruel and Unusual Comedy"...on the air on NPR

Elif Rongen-Kaynakci and Steve Massa were guests on the Leonard Lopate Radio Program on March 16, 2012.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

"Drag Shows"

Wednesday, May 20 at 4:00
Drag Shows: Cross-Dressing the Sexes
Getting Rid of Trouble (1912) with Charlie Murray
Sweedie Learns to Swim (1914) with Wallace Beery
Chasing the Chaser (1925) with James Finlayson
Get ‘Em Young (1926) with Stan Laurel
Good Night Nurse (1917) with Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton
silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model

Men appearing in drag is a time-honored stage tradition that goes back to the Commedia dell' Arte and probably further. It was a staple of the English music hall and pantomimes, where some of the best practitioners like Stan Laurel and Syd Chaplin got their training. Today the use of drag carries all kinds of sexual and political ramifications, but on film in the ‘teen and 1920s it was used for its inherent physical silliness. John Epperson, the well-known drag performer Lypsinka, hosted our class version of this program and was surprised at how innocent and fun these silent comedy uses are. Drag was often set-up as a disguise (i.e. CHASING THE CHASER and GOOD NIGHT NURSE), or to provide a cartoon portrayal of large, ungainly women (i.e. GETTING RID OF TROUBLE and SWEEDIE LEARNS TO SWIM). At this point there’s no hint of actual transvestism or sexual thrill in the dressing up – it’s just an easy way to get laughs.

Getting Rid of Trouble (9/5/1912) Prod: Biograph Co. Dir: Del Henderson. Writ: William Acker. 1 reel. Cast: Charles Murray, Edward Dillon, Kathleen Butler, William J. Butler, W. Christie Miller, J. Waltham, Gus Alexander.

When Mack Sennett left the Biograph Company in mid-1912 to form his Keystone studio two of his regular performers, Del Henderson and Edward Dillon, were put in charge of comedy units. Turning out a steady stream of one-reelers they shared the stock company of Gus Pixley, Sylvia Ashton, David Morris and others, but the star in the majority of the shorts was Charlie Murray. Said to have started his stage career at age ten and worked his way up through circuses, not to mention pony and medicine shows, Murray hit big time vaudeville when he teamed with Ollie Mack and became an Irish Weber & Fields. The pair starred in successful shows like SHOOTING THE CHUTES and THE SUNNY SIDE OF BROADWAY, plus had been a team for over twenty years when they split in 1910. It didn’t take Charlie long to find his way into the infant film industry, and by 1912 he was one of the leading comics at Biograph. There he created his screen persona of the layabout Irishman named “Skelley,” which he essentially played for the rest of his career.

In 1914 Charlie migrated to Keystone, where his character was re-named “Hogan.” Working frequently with Louise Fazenda, Slim Summerville and Polly Moran, Murray was one of Sennett’s top stars until 1922, when he began freelancing in shorts and numerous features. In 1926 he was first teamed with comic George Sidney in the film THE COHENS AND THE KELLYS. Thinly adapted from the smash Broadway hit ABIE’S IRISH ROSE, its story of Irish and Jewish families struck comic pay dirt and spawned six sequels. Becoming a popular film team, he and Sidney were mismatched in many features and shorts. Although he made a good transition to sound Murray’s career slowed down in the 1930s. His last appearance was in the Eddie Cline directed feature BREAKING THE ICE (’38), and he passed away in 1941.

The tough Irish cook was a popular stereotype featured in tons of films, where it was usually played by someone like Kate Price. Murray’s very masculine bearing puts a funny spin on the cliché, and Del Henderson’s direction keeps the pace moving. Canadian-born Henderson was a long-time stage actor who switched to films in 1908 as part of the ensemble at Biograph. Originally more dramatic, he soon gravitated to comedy and in 1912 became a full-time comedy director. After Biograph he directed at Keystone, and by 1916 was helming features of all kind until THE RAMBLING RANGER in 1927. At this point he returned to acting, turning in excellent character performances in films such as THE PATSY, THE CROWD and SHOW PEOPLE (all ’28). Having made a smooth transition to sound he continued working until 1950.

This film is another of the many many Biograph films in MoMA's collection. Screening print is a 16mm reduction from preservation materials. We've screened a lot of the Del Henderson-directed Biograph comedies. Their comedic style tends to be somewhere between what one sees in a Biograph light drama and the sort of picture Sennett was beginning to turn out.

Sweedie Learns to Swim (10/12/1914) Prod: Essanay. Dir: (often credited to Wallace Beery). 1 reel. Cast: Wallace Beery, Leo White, Ben Turpin, Betty Brown.

Wallace Beery is remembered today for 1930s MGM classics such as THE CHAMP (’31) and GRAND HOTEL (’32), but much of his early film career was spent in silent slapstick. Coming from a background of circuses and the stage, in 1913 Beery began working for the Essanay Film Co. in Chicago, appearing in their GEORGE ADE FABLES and making his first mark in this series as a big lummox Swedish girl. In 1914 and 1915 about 29 episodes of Sweedie’s misadventures were filmed, with Beery directing as well as starring. Soon Essanay sent him to their Niles, California studio to replace Roy Clements as director of the last leg of their Snakeville Comedies.

When the Niles plant closed Beery worked briefly for Mack Sennett, and then moved over to Universal where he directed and starred in Victor and Nestors, in addition to helming Carter De Haven’s “TIMOTHY DOBBS, THAT’S ME” comedy series. By the late Teens his comedy skills gave him the opportunity to break into features as a busy character actor, and the arrival of sound made him more popular than ever and solidified his screen persona of the loveable rogue. His comedy chops continued to come in handy, especially in his teamings with Marie Dressler and Marjorie Main.

In support of Beery are a youngish Leo White and Ben Turpin, who were part of the ensemble at the Chicago Essanany studio. A couple of years later they would both be taken to California by Charlie Chaplin after he used them in his first Essanany short HIS NEW JOB (’15). Turpin of course went on to become one of the big comedy stars of the 1920s, and Leo an indispensible part of silent comedy, working everywhere with everybody, continuing right up to his death in 1948.

As was mentioned elsewhere in the notes for this series, films in an archives' collection are not necessarily always 35mm prints struck of nitrate camera negatives. Collectors prints get donated to archives (Walter Kerr's 16mm collection resides with Eastman House, for instance) and sometimes what may be available on a film is a 16mm print sold to the home market. This print is one sold by Blackhawk Films, and is complete and a pretty good print all things considered. Blackhawk Films is greatly responsible for hooking film buffs and collectors on silents – by making these films available decades before home video existed.

Chasing the Chaser (7/5/1925) Prod: Hal Roach. Dir: Stan Laurel. Dist: Pathe. Writ: Laurel & James Parrott. Photo: Art Lloyd. 2 reels. Cast: James Finlayson, Fred Kovert, Lyle Tayo, William Gillespie, Fay Wray, Jackie “Husky” Haines.

In 1925 producer Hal Roach decided to give supporting comic James Finlayson a big build up and star him in his own vehicles. CHASING THE CHASER was one of the first, and others such as YES, YES NANETTE, UNFRIENDLY ENEMIES and MOONLIGHT AND NOSES (all ’25) had Stan Laurel firmly behind the scenes as director and writer. Probably the ultimate screen sourpuss, Finlayson was born in Scotland and entered show business at an early age touring the British Isles and music halls. Hooking up with the company of Sir Harry Lauder’s brother Alec, Jimmy’s big stage success was in Graham Moffat’s play BUNTY PULLS THE STRINGS. BUNTY brought Fin to America, running for 18 months on Broadway, and afterward he toured vaudeville which brought him to California.

He gave films a try in 1916, working for Thomas Ince and in comedies at L-Ko, Century and Arrow. By 1919 Jimmy made his way to Mack Sennett comedies, where in shorts like MA AND PA (’22) he specialized in comic villains. In 1923 he moved over to Hal Roach and fulfilled a similar function for Snub Pollard and Stan Laurel. Although Fin didn’t take off as a star after his big build up, he settled at the top of the supporting comics heap, and was indispensable in the Roach comedies, particularly with Laurel & Hardy. He even found time to appear as support in some First National features like the hilarious LADIES NIGHT IN A TURKISH BATH (’28). Sound revealed his Scottish burr, which only seemed to make him more irascible and blustery. Continuing in the Roach product, Fin also appeared in shorts at RKO and many features into the 1940s. He retired, due to ill health, a few years before his death in 1953.

Co-starring with Fin in this film as the detective in drag is Fred Kovert (a.k.a. Frederick Ko Vert), an interesting and overlooked figure. A female impersonator and dancer in vaudeville, in addition to gracing sheet music cover photos, Kovert made his film debut in AN ADVENTURESS (’20 - a.k.a. ISLE OF LOVE) where he starred opposite the most famous female impersonator of the day, Julian Eltinge. Although he originally appeared in dramatic films Kovert moved into silent comedies such as Ben Turpin’s THE REEL VIRGINIAN (’24), STARVATION BLUES (’25) with Clyde Cook, and the Bert Lytell feature THE FIRST NIGHT (’27). For Larry Semon’s THE WIZARD OF OZ (’25) Kovert not only does a bizarre turn as “the Phantom of the Basket,” but designed all the costumes as well. After his movie days, he opened a photography studio and became “Kovert of Hollywood,” a pioneer in male physique photography. Said to have had much trouble with the LAPD’s vice squad, Kovert shot and killed himself in 1949.

Every once in a while one of these rare comedies turns up in 35mm with complete original main and intertitles, and this film is one of them, listing complete credits (direction by Stan, photography by Art Lloyd, etc.), giving us a chance to see the film just as audiences did in its original release, in terms of visual quality and completeness.

Get ‘Em Young (10/31/1926) Prod: Hal Roach. Dir: Fred Guiol. Dist: Pathe. Writ: Hal Yates, James Parrot & Stan Laurel. Photo: Harry Gersted. Titles: H.M. Walker. 2 reels. Cast: Harry Myers, Eugenia Gilbert, Stan Laurel, Max Davidson, Charlotte Mineau, Fred Malatesta, James T. Kelly, Mickey Bennett, Monty Collins.

In 1926 producer Hal Roach hit upon the idea of hiring established feature film stars to appear in, and thereby give class to, his two-reel comedies. This was similar to a scheme used by Harry Aitken back in 1915 when he sought out big stage stars for Triangle films, but of course the only feature stars that Roach could get a hold of were past their prime. On top of that, with the exception of Mabel Normand and Harry Myers, the rest – Theda Bara, Priscilla Dean, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Rawlinson, Agnes Ayres – were all dramatic performers with no experience in sight gag comedy. Roach’s solution was to have the bulk of the physical business fall to his regular crew of clowns such as James Finalyson, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, etc., or as he told Motion Picture News: “People asked me why I tried to make Theda Bara a comedienne. The answer is: I didn’t. I surrounded her with a comedy and her name appeared in electric lights.” Although name star Harry Myers had a long career in silent comedy, in GET ‘EM YOUNG most of the comedic heavy lifting is still done by Stan Laurel, with help from Max Davidson.

This was Laurel’s third sojourn at the Roach studio. After years spent in the English music hall and American vaudeville stage, Stan stuck his first toe into the cinematic waters in 1917 and in addition to Roach bounced around to Universal, Vitagraph, Metro, and Joe Rock. Never really settling onto a specific character his early films were usually built around occupations or popular movie parodies. By 1926 Stan was primarily working behind the scenes at Roach writing and directing. GET ‘EM YOUNG is a milestone as it brought him back in front of the camera again. He was originally set to direct, but when Babe Hardy had an accident Stan took over the role. Soon they were appearing together and film history was made.

Harry Myers, chiefly remembered today as the drunken millionaire in Chaplin’s CITY LIGHTS (’31), spent ten years on the stage before he entered films in 1910 as a leading man with the Lubin company. Soon switching to comedies and directing his own films, by 1914 he teamed up with (and soon married) actress Rosemary Theby. Becoming popular in a series of polite one and two-reelers, they moved to Universal, Vim, and Pathe. Sadly these domestic situational comedies are virtually impossible to see today. In the 1920s Myers moved into starring vehicles such as A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (’21) and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE (’22) , but by the end of the decade his career had waned and, after his brief regeneration in CITY LIGHTS, he declined to walk-ons in sound films until his death in 1938.

As always Max Davidson supplies a large number of laughs with his repertoire of shrugs, lifted eyebrows, and tilts of the head that conveyed the mounting frustrations of his put upon characters. After years of stage and movie work Max started coming into his own in 1925 when he co-starred with Jackie Coogan in the features THE RAG MAN and OLD CLOTHES. Hired by Hal Roach to support stars like Charley Chase and Mabel Normand, he soon got his own starring series where he was able to take the stereotypical Jewish tailors and merchants he specialized in and flesh them out a bit, while at the same time creating a screen family with excellent players like Lillian Elliott, Spec O’ Donnell, and Martha Sleeper.

This film survives in better shape elsewhere – check out disc 2 of the Kino/Lobster Stan Laurel Collection Vol. 2, where the film is seen in a sharp print (although it's been transferred too slow) with its original intertitles recreated for video – making this another opportunity to demonstrate the variety of prints on an extant comedy short. Screening print is a 16mm reduction from a print with flash titles. The basic plot, outlined in reel one, is a bit tricky to follow without the titles, and at the showing we will clue everyone in on the set-up.

Good Night Nurse (7/6/1918) Comique Film Corp. Prod: Joseph M. Schenck. Dir/Writ: Roscoe Arbuckle. Dist: Paramount. Photo: George Peters. 2 reels. Cast: Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St John, Alice Lake, Kate Price, Dan Albert.

By 1916, with shorts like FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT and HE DID AND HE DIDN’T, Roscoe Arbuckle was one of the most skillful comedy creators and directors on the Keystone roster. To continue to develop, artistically and financially, Arbuckle left Sennett and signed with producer Joseph M. Schenck, who set up the Comique Film Corp. to make shorts that would be released through Paramount. While Roscoe’s later Sennett films had become more sophisticated, for his Comique shorts he returned to roughhouse on such a grand scale that they became veritable slapstick ballets. Having brought nephew Al St John along with him from Keystone, Arbuckle added former vaudevillian Buster Keaton to the mix, and with the three best tumblers in the business many of the ensuing shorts seem like a contest to see who can top who.

GOOD NIGHT, NURSE is one of the most surreal of the Comiques. Possibly Arbuckle’s recent experiences with a nasty leg carbuncle may have fueled some of this nightmarish take on sanitariums. Skilled as a drag performer from his days on stage Roscoe often found ways to work in it into his films, usually as a disguise to elude irate husbands or his overbearing wife, although in films such as MISS FATTY’S SEASIDE LOVERS (’15) he plays an actual female character and gives Marie Dressler and Merta Sterling a run for their money. In addition to his drag routine Arbuckle also recycles a gag with a garden hose from his early Keystone A NOISE FROM THE DEEP (’13), and uses a climatic footrace that would be repeated six years later when he directed Al St John in STUPID BUT BRAVE (’24). The title was a popular one for silent comedy shorts as “Smiling Billy” Mason used it in 1913, Neal Burns in 1916, Alice Howell in 1920, and Lupino Lane in 1929.

The regular Comique crew of Keaton, Al St John and Alice Lake are on hand. Buster would do one more short with Arbuckle (THE COOK) before he ended up in the army, spending most of his time entertaining the troops. Al St John would go out on his own in 1919 in shorts for Paramount/Warners and Fox, and in 1924 dropped his country boob character to become the clean-cut (but still bumbling) man-about-town or young hubby in shorts for Reel Comedies,Inc. and Jack White. Of course in the mid-30s he grew a beard and got rid of his teeth to become sidekick “Fuzzy Q. Jones” in tons of western oaters. Irish character comedian Kate Price turns up like she did in THE WAITER’S BALL (’16), so that Roscoe can wear her clothes. In a long career that included work at Vitagraph, Edison and Vim, she did countless features and was actually the real-life older sister of Al Christie’s “foxy grandpa” comic Jack Duffy.

Probably one of the greatest of Roscoe's "Comique" series (1917-1920), this title survives in a print in the Danish Film Archive, and which this one is made from. The Rohauer/Douris prints on this title are off the Danish print as well, although in the circulating Rohauer prints (and the video edition of this film) some of the intertitle text has been reworded and some titles are left out completely – like the one in which Dr. Buster explains to patient Roscoe that the reason Alice Lake keeps twirling her arms around manically is that she believes she is a windmill.

"Race Riots"

Wednesday, May 27 at 4:00
Race Riots: Beyond Black and White

Black and White (1913) with David Morris
A Change of Complexion (1914) with Henry Bergman.
Haunted Spooks (1920) with Harold Lloyd, Sunshine Sammy
Below Zero (1925) with Lige Conley, Spencer Bell
A Natural Born Gambler (1916) with Bert Williams
silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model

In the very early days of cinema it was the norm to have white actors wear blackface to portray black characters. Although an embarrassment today, this practice was a holdover from the stage, whose traditions of minstrel shows and vaudeville had a huge effect on silent film comedy. At that time practically all of the black characters shown on screen were subservient, shuffling, and superstitious. By the 1920s real black performers had mostly taken over these roles, but they remained demeaning and stereotypes. This program gives us a variety of the ways that silent comedy used black characters and performers. BLACK AND WHITE is an example of white actors in blackface. A CHANGE OF COMPLEXION shows characters being blackened up without their knowledge, which was a re-occurring theme in these films. Sometimes the aftermath of an explosion, or absent-mindedly wiping their face with a greasy rag, etc. –– the resulting embarrassment and confusion was a standard laugh producer. HAUNTED SPOOKS and BELOW ZERO showcase two popular black performers. The first is Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison who, non-threatening because he was a child, became the closest thing to a black silent movie star, while Spencer Bell specialized in the subservient sidekick, but still found ways to get legitimate laughs. Finally, A NATURAL BORN GAMBLER captures on film the phenomenon of Bert Williams, the black comic who was able to transcend stereotypes and make tremendous progress in the white stage and recording worlds.

Black and White (8/28/1913) Prod: Biograph Co. Dir: Del Henderson. Writ: William Beaudine. 1 reel. Cast: David Morris, Clarence Barr, Sylvia Ashton.

Today the Biograph Studio is remembered for D. W. Griffith, and as the place where Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and the Gish sisters got their start. When anyone discusses the beginnings of American film comedy they’ll often mention Griffith’s THE CURTAIN POLE ('09), but then skip to the formation of Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio. The truth is that before Keystone, Sennett had his own comedy unit at Biograph where he laid the foundation for his later work and success.

Griffith began directing for Biograph in 1908, and in order to provide a well-rounded program of films had to turn out comedies as well as dramas. Since he was never interested in comedy, by 1910 a unit was set up for comedies under the direction of Frank Powell, leaving Griffith free for dramas. Sennett became one of the main players and assistants on the Powell comedies, and when Powell left the studio Sennett inherited the unit. When Sennett himself left in 1912, his right-hand men Del Henderson and Edward Dillon got their directing break.

Henderson and Dillon did a wide variety of subjects, including a number of comedies such as A RAG-TIME ROMANCE, MISTER JEFFERSON GREEN, and COME SEBEN, LEBEN (all '13) that were set in an area referred to as "Dark Town," or even worse "Coonville," with white actors in blackface playing the denizens. BLACK AND WHITE is a bit different since it concerns a white hobo who mistreats his black manservant. Although the black characters are still played by whites in make-up, at least this film has elements of social commentary with the black servant coming out on top and turning the tables on his abusive "master." Actually it’s the black woman who's the cleverest character and masterminds taking the white man down a few pegs.

The cast features two neglected silent comedy performers – David Morris, who plays the mean white man, and Sylvia Ashton as the black woman. Ashton was a heavy-set, matronly actress who after working on the stage began her movie career at Biograph working for Sennett and Henderson. She also worked in the early days for Nestor, Komic Comedies, and Bison. In the late Teens she made her way to Keystone for shorts like HER FAME AND SHAME ('17), and moved into features such as Cecil B. DeMille's OLD WIVES FOR NEW ('18). Very busy in the 1920s playing mothers and aunts (she was known as “Mother Ashton” at the studios), one of her most memorable roles was as Mama Sieppe opposite Chester Conklin in Erich von Stroheim’s GREED (’24). She retired due to ill health at the end of the silent era. The pop-eyed and often manic David Morris was a supporting comic who specialized in eccentrics, and started in films at Selig in 1912. His varied stage background included stints with Cohan and Harris, Klaw and Erlanger, George W. Lederer, and Singer Amusement Co. During 1912 to 1914 Morris was in residence at Biograph usually playing older characters such as fathers, uncles, and bosses. After Biograph he made the rounds to practically every unit that was making comedies – Keystone, Kalem, L-Ko, Christie, Universal and Fox Sunshine. By the mid-1920s he’d settled in at the Sennett studio where he kept busy supporting the likes of Billy Bevan and Ben Turpin. Sadly, despite his stage experience, Morris didn’t transfer well to sound pictures and ended up being demoted to uncredited bit roles, which he did until 1949.

We chose this film because of its being so early and because of its use of blackface for two of its main characters. There is a great deal made of "status", i.e. who is in charge and who is subservient. Morris browbeats Barr, but when Barr befriends Ashton the cook, she does the same to Morris, hitting him with the whip. Notice also the hand-held pies, slid out of their metal pan and then held and eaten like a large sandwich.

Like many of the Biograph shorts in the MoMA collection, this print is missing its titles; each spot where a title should go has a couple frames of black with the word "title". What the text is that should go in place of these "slug" frames is not known. The upside, though, is that MoMA's material on these films is strikingly sharp and from original Biograph materials, printed on the Biograph printer itself. The film's few and simple set-ups make this a performance-driven picture, and relies heavily on the actors explaining things to each other, and sometimes to us, before and after they do them. Notice the Biograph "AB" logo in the background, on the side of the house in some shots. By 1913, studio's placing their logo on the sets was seen less and less, so it's interesting to spot it here.

A Change of Complexion (5/26/1914) Prod: Crystal Film Co. Dir: Phillips Smalley. Dist: Universal. ½ reel. Cast: Vivian Prescott, Henry Bergman, Caroline Rankin.

Crystal Films was a small company that distributed through Universal. Most of their split-reel and one-reel comedies were written and directed by Phillips Smalley, the partner and husband of woman film pioneer Lois Weber. In addition to the more slap sticky one-shot comedies like this one or HOW MOSCHA CAME BACK (’14), Crystal also produced a series of polite situational comedies that starred Pearl White, before she became “Queen of the Serials,” and Chester Barnett. A huge number were made from 1912 to 1914, and actually spun off another group, the “Baldy” Belmont series. Joseph “Baldy” Belmont was a long-time stage veteran who often wore a toupee, and would frequently lose his flip-top for comic effect. The Belmonts ran in 1913 and 1914 where he was teamed with Vivian Prescott who plays the disgruntled cook in this film. The Manhattan-based Crystal closed up shop in 1914.

It’s quite a surprise to see Henry Bergman as one of the leads here, as he’s become so synonymous with the film universe of Charlie Chaplin. The German-born Bergman had much experience in opera and comedy before entering films, appearing in twenty-three Broadway shows, many of them musicals such as THE YANKEE GIRL (’10) with Blanche Ring. His first films were for Pathe and Universal, and he appeared in other Crystal comedies such as WILLIE’S DIGUISE (’14). When Henry “Pathe” Lehrman set up his L-Ko comedy company later that year Bergman was part of the original supporting ensemble for star comic Billie Ritchie, in addition to starring in occasional outings like THE BLIGHTED SPANIARD or THE BARON’S BEAR ESCAPE (both ’14). He remained with L-Ko into 1916 when he left to join Chaplin, becoming his screen support, assistant director and confidant until his death in 1946.

Bergman’s wife is played by Caroline Rankin, who billed herself as “The Thinnest Woman on the Screen.” Her stick figure frame paired with Bergman’s 300 plus pounds makes the perfect “Jack Spratt and his Wife” combination. Also known as “Spike,” Rankin was a silent comedy regular who supported everyone from Lloyd Hamilton to Max Linder, working in tons of shorts as well as features. The name star of A CHANGE OF COMPLEXION is Vivian Prescott, although she exits early after setting up the comic situation, who was featured in many Crystal shorts, often teamed with Charlie De Forrest. A child stage actress who starred in hit shows such as A CHILD OF THE REGIMENT ('07) and SAL THE CIRCUS GAL (’09), Prescott entered films in 1909 for the Biograph company. While there she worked for D.W. Griffith and Frank Powell, although her best roles came with Mack Sennett in shorts like THE MANICURE LADY (’11) and WITH A KODAK (’12). After a couple of years she went to Lubin and Imp before landing at Crystal, who publicized her as “The Refined and Cyclonic Comedienne” (which seems to cover all the bases). After marriage she left the screen and disappeared from the public eye in 1917.

This was another one of the surprises we had in the screening process, both for spotting Bergman and because we were so surprised by the prank that Bergman and Rankin's characters play on one another. Steve and I were so stunned by its outrageousness the first time we saw it – especially when Bergman runs out into the street and people begin pelting him with snowballs (??!!) – we ran it again. Our guest speaker for the class, filmmaker and historian Donald Pruden, pointed out the the gist of the prank played is about social hierarchy. The subservient maid is chided by her employers for associating with the visiting actor (someone from the theater being socially beneath her). Her revenge on her employers is to put them in a place socially beneath even an actor...someone who is black. It's not certain as to where this film was made, either Chicago or NYC/Bronx, probably the former.

Haunted Spooks (3/31/1920) Prod: Hal Roach. Dir: Roach & Alf Goulding. Dist: Pathe. Photo: Walter Lundin. Titles: H. M. Walker. 2 reels. Cast: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Wallace Howe, William Gillespie, “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Edgar Blue.

Ernest Fredric Morrison, better known as Sunshine Sammy, was the son of a chef and born in 1912. Entering films in 1917, he gained a good deal of attention as the comic relief in a number of Pathe features that starred Baby Marie Osborne. Sammy’s popularity quickly grew and in 1918 he appeared in the Roscoe Arbuckle two-reeler THE SHERIFF, and possibly a few starring shorts of his own. The 8/24/1918 Motion Picture News reported:

“The first two-reel Pathe-Diando Comedy featuring the little negro who is known as Sunshine Sammy has been completed under the direction of Walter McNamara, and is titled “Black Cupid.”

Hal Roach signed him in 1919, making Sammy the first black performer to be signed to a long term Hollywood contract, and outside of his future Our Gang cohort Farina, possibly the only black silent comedy star. Black stage comic Bert Williams had starred in only a couple of shorts before his early death in 1922, and although talented black adult comics turn up in supporting roles in tons of shorts they were rarely given anything to do but be scared or whip out dice to shoot craps with. But on the Roach lot Sammy was allowed to be what he really was – a tough, smart kid with an infectious personality and smile. Most of his time was spent giving Snub Pollard, Eddie Boland and Paul Parrott a run for their money. Even Harold Lloyd was no match for Sammy’s crack comic timing as can be seen in this short and GET OUT AND GET UNDER ('20).

In 1922 the Roach studio created Our Gang by surrounding Sammy with other talented kids and focusing on their feelings and take on the world. Of course the series became an instant hit and became one of the studio’s mainstays until Roach sold the franchise to MGM in 1938. Sammy’s last Our Gang comedy was CRADLE ROBBERS (’24), when he left the movies to headline in his own vaudeville act. Billed as “Sunshine Sammy – Our Gang star,” he sang and danced his way across the country before returning to Hollywood in 1940 to spend three years as part of another gang – the East Side Kids. After a number of cheaply-made adventures like SPOOKS RUN WILD (’41) and CLANCY STREET BOYS (’43), Sammy joined the army and entertained troops during World War II as part of the USO. Later leaving show business, he spent the last part of his life being feted for his con tributions to black film history.

Print being screened is a good 16mm, possibly from British materials, and which was an edition that has circulated widely among collectors for years, and sold by Blackhawk Films for the home market. It is complete and while the intertitles are not from the original release they are from some silent-era issue and the text is the same as the original film. Interesting to note that, in spite of all the stereotypically frightened black characters in the film, it is Sunshine Sammy who becomes Lloyd's ally and helps him out of his troubles. The negative black stereotype that is the core of the ruse perpetrated by the lawyer – that black men are easily frightened into a panic by ghosts – is now so old it's hard to comprehend as having even been funny in the first place, and what remains is that we just know that it's wrong to find this funny now. By the way, that bridge Lloyd stands on to shoot himself in reel one still stands today, in Echo Park...although if you visit you'll find it's locked off by a locked gate. (Did someone from L.A.'s parks dept see this film?)

Below Zero (7/7/1925) Prod: Jack White. Dir: Norman Taurog. Dist: Educational Pictures. 2 reels. Cast: Lige Conley, Estelle Bradley, Spencer Bell, Robert Kortman, Robert Graves, Bert Young.

Working in comedy shorts was a thankless and often physically dangerous occupation for black comics in silent pictures. Stereotyped roles, skimpy pay, hazardous stunts, and little recognition was their lot in life. In the 'teens there was a company called Ebony Films that made comedies with black casts, and later a group called the Custard Nine, but for the most part the black performers were on their own and at the mercy of the white industry. The following comment from Jack White (The White Brothers, DGA 1990), one of the biggest comedy producers of the 1920s, gives a good picture of how they were treated:

“We always had one or two black actors. It just happened that way. There was no problem about it. I had some blacks that were funnier than the whites. They were real funsters. They didn’t know they were funny, but I knew it. I paid them $75 a week to be a janitor and an actor. They were working all the time and had a check every Saturday night.”

Some of the “funsters” that White refers to includes Ray Turner, Edgar Blue, Curtis McHenry, and Henry Trice, but perhaps the most high-profiled of this group was Spencer Bell. Coming from a background of minstrel shows and vaudeville, Bell appeared on the Hollywood scene in the early 1920s, and had most of his best opportunities working with Larry Semon and Lige Conley. Despite having to work within the stereotype of “scared darkey,” Bell had frequent chances to show his stuff – extreme athleticism, split-second timing, and the funniest legwork in pictures. Sometimes when working with Conley he’s practically the co-star, but there was never any focus on him in the Educational press sheets – he’s always “and Spencer Bell the funny colored man of these comedies.” Jack White remembered:

“The one who appeared the most was Spencer Bell. He could imitate a mule kick. Norman Taurog gave him the nickname “Thou” because he was always quoting the Scripture.”

His character name in the White comedies was usually “Moonlight,” the ones in the Semon comedies were worse – “Snowball” or “G. Howe Black.” Bell appeared everywhere - shorts for Fox and Sennett, plus features such as THE OUTLAW DOG (’27), THE PEACOCK FAN (’29), and SMART MONEY (’31). He passed away young in 1935.

In preparing our playlists for the class edition of this 5-session series, we had intended to show this, but wound up cutting one film off each program to allow time for discussion, and so this short was not screened as part of the course. When this public screening edition of the series allowed us to put titles back in, this one went right back on this program. There are a few Lige Conley shorts where Spencer Bell is his sidekick and the two are almost a team, and in which Spencer is not doing crazy fright gags or playing dice, etc (see also FAST AND FURIOUS...click on the link to watch an edition with a score by Ben Model on YouTube). BELOW ZERO is one of these "team" shorts with Conley and Bell, and we wanted to include to show that, if only occasionally, there was some balance.

A Natural Born Gambler (7/24/1916) Prod: Biograph Co. Dir/Writ: (often credited to Bert Williams). 2 reels. Cast: Bert Williams, Sam Lucas, Billy Harper.

Bert Williams was the first black media star – popular on stage and in recordings as a comedian, singer, and writer. Initially making his name as part of the team of Williams & Walker in all black shows like IN DAHOMEY (’02) and ABYSSERIA (’06), after Walker’s early death William’s broke the color barrier by becoming a regular comic in the all-white Ziegfeld Follies along with the likes of W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Leon Errol and Eddie Cantor.

His Follies and recording success led to a movie offer from the Biograph Company in 1916. Sadly only two shorts – A NATURAL BORN GAMBLER and FISH (’16) – were released before the company went under, but both are fascinating records of a great clown, with GAMBLER capturing his famous pantomimed poker game routine. Biograph had also begun shooting a feature starring Williams that was left unfinished when the studio folded, the rushes of which have been preserved by MoMA. Using many of the same players and sets as GAMBLER, this elaborate production would have been the first full-length film to star a black comic, not to mention presenting him as the hero of the piece.

Williams left the Follies in 1919, and appeared with Eddie Cantor in BROADWAY BREVITIES (’20). In 1921 -22 he starred in a tour of UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE. After his Biograph shorts other film projects were announced for him, but none seem to have come to fruition. Williams died of pneumonia while touring in UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE on March 4, 1922.

This new (2007) 35mm print is made off the 35mm nitrate camera neg, and has its original tints in place. If you've only seen this film on video or on any other print, you will be amazed...not only by the image quality on this subject but in Williams' superbly comic, underplayed, character-driven performance. You can easily see the line of his wig on his forehead, and where the blackface he wears (although not all the performers in the film wear it) begins and ends. Between this film and FISH, and listening to the many recordings Williams made, we can assemble in our minds an idea of what he might have been like in performance. Here's a streaming audio file of one of Williams' recordings of "Nobody" (found at archive.org)

"Gratuitous Violence"

Wednesday, May 27 at 7:00
Gratuitous Violence: No Turn Unstoned
Their First Execution (1913) with Ford Sterling
The Phoney Cannibal (1915) with Lloyd Hamilton, Bud Duncan
The Counter Jumper (1922) with Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy
A Deep Sea Panic (1924) with James Parrott
Cold Hearts and Hot Flames (1916) with Billie Ritchie
Silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model.

Gratuitous violence is a part of practically every slapstick comedy, but the films in this program take this basic ingredient and run with it. Using extreme physical stunts, impossible sight-gags, and breakneck pacing, they create a mad, surreal universe rarely seen outside of an animated cartoon. Chicanery, false imprisonment, and rampant seasickness are all on the menu. Master carpenter Mack Sennett starts us off with THEIR FIRST EXECUTION, which explores the recreational uses of the electric chair, and is followed by Ham & Bud, the Burke and Hare of silent comedy, up to no good in THE PHONEY CANNIBAL. THE COUNTER JUMPER and A DEEP SEA PANIC take us to the alternate universes of Larry Semon and director Roy Del Ruth, and for the finale we finish up with the cutting edge comedy of Billie Ritchie in COLD HEARTS AND HOT FLAMES. When we did the series as a course at MoMA, our guest speaker was vaudeville historian and variety performer Trav S.D., author of No Applause Just Throw Money, the Book that Made Vaudeville Famous.

Their First Execution (5/15/1913) Prod & Dir: Mack Sennett. 1 reel. Cast: Sennett, Ford Sterling, Raymond Hatton, Nick Cogley, Edgar Kennedy, Joseph Swickard, Glen Cavender, Rube Miller, Charles Avery, Bill Hauber, Dave Anderson.

This short gives us a good look at Ford Sterling, Keystone’s first break-out star, who got so big that he left for his own company in 1914. Today the majority of silent comedy aficionados and scholars scratch their heads on the subject of Sterling. Seen now as a joke that’s lost its original context, much of what he was about was a spoof on well-known melodramatic cliches and characters, so his exaggerated, semaphore-like gestures and huge faces were accepted as parody. When viewed today Sterling’s broad comedy works best in extreme situations – say, when he’s surrounded by a roomful of snakes, hanging for dear life onto a safe that’s been dynamited into orbit, or when, as in this film, he’s strapped into an electric chair.

This early one-reeler was a nice surprise for us during the screening process. Not only is it a really nice print, but the idea of death in the electric chair as a source of humor – the chair had been in use since 1890 – was something we'd not seen in slapstick comedies. Some of the sets, especially that of the prison cell, have the look of the Melies workshop about them, and Keystone fans will recognize some of the exteriors.

Their First Execution is seen here in a very nice, complete 35mm print of WWI-era re-release – note the titles show the company name is "Liberty Films". For many years, circulating prints of Mabel's Dramatic Career were from this series of reissues. Made in 1913, the performers are still relying on explaining things to each other (and us) before doing them as part of the storytelling language, and are still moving in a manner borrowed from the stage and not quite adapted to being shown faster-than-real-time, and some of these play better at 20fps and some at 21fps. We've looked at this at both speeds and are running it at 21fps (after running it at 20fps in the class). The 1913 Arbuckle shorts THE GANGSTERS and A NOISE FROM THE DEEP, which were a part of the Arbuckle retro we did in 2006, were shown at 20fps.

Mack Sennett liked to portray himself as a country boob or an unsophisticated ex-boilermaker. Many of his former employees later played along with this myth, practically painting him as some kind of film comedy idiot savant. The truth is that Sennett had much experience in different levels of show business before he even entered the movies. He learned filmmaking from D.W. Griffith and Frank Powell, and for about 20 years was a savvy producer who had his finger on the pulse of what audiences found funny (or at least his derriere, as it was said that if he rocked in his rocking chair while previewing a film it was funny – if he didn’t, it wasn’t).

Sennett’s major accomplishment was that he took the principles of the early French comedies and set up the first assembly-line to mass-produce Hollywood slapstick shorts. There he created the template for the genre and established most of the big comics of the era, almost all of whom eventually left him for greater fame and larger salaries.

The Phoney Cannibal (4/27/1915) Prod: Kalem. Dir: Chance E. Ward. 1 reel. Cast: Lloyd Hamilton, Bud Duncan, Marin Sais, Wesley Barry, Charles Inslee, Martin Kinney.

The Kalem Company started Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan as “Ham and Bud” in their series of Ham Comedies in 1914. Hamilton came from Lubin and Frontier, Bud Duncan from Nestor, Biograph and Apollo. They were first used as support for Ruth Roland and Marshall Neilan, but were stealing so much attention and footage that Kalem gave them their own shorts.

In more than 100 one-reelers from late 1914 into 1917, the pair played tramps whose only distinguishing characteristic was that one was a big scuzzy bum and the other a little scuzzy bum. Rough and primitive, their hearts were filled with murder and mayhem, plus they were always ready and able to knife each other in the back. Since their shorts were ground out like sausages many of them are nondescript, but occasionally a keen sense of surrealism bubbles to the surface making Ham and Bud classics like THE PHONEY CANNIBAL, HAM AND THE SAUSAGE FACTORY ('15) and A SAUERKRAUT SYMPHONY ('16) great fun today.

When the series came to an end in 1917, Lloyd Hamilton moved over to Fox Sunshine Comedies, then waddled on to great success at Educational in the 1920s. Things didn’t go as well for Bud Duncan, who spent much of the rest of his career making cheapies for independent concerns like National Film Corp., Reelcraft and Weiss Brothers.

The Phoney Cannibal is a gorgeous 35mm print, with all original main and intertitles and is complete all the way to the end, including the animated Kalem spider logo. There are some great exterior scenes, and clearly local townspeople have been recruited for the two or three crowd scenes. There are actually many, many of these Ham & Bud shorts extant, a majority of them in 16mm prints made for the home market. A H&B short that looks this good and is as funny as this one is (although appreciation of Ham & Bud can be an acquired taste) made it a definite for our playlist for the series.

The Counter Jumper (12/9/1922) Prod: Vitagraph. Dir: Larry Semon. Photo: Reggie Lyons. AD: Joe Basil. 2 reels. Cast: Semon, Lucille Carlisle, Oliver Hardy, William McCall, Fred DeSilva, Jack Duffy, Al Thompson, Bill Hauber, Eva Thatcher, Spencer Bell, Burt Young.

Look up “silent movie clown” in the dictionary and you’re liable to find Larry Semon’s picture. The heavy white make-up on his horse face that made him look like a slapstick version of Nosferatu, the wind-up toy movements, the clodhopper shoes, bowler hat and chest-high balloon trousers – all of the above merged together in the character of a happy dumbbell caught up in a whirlwind of chaos.

As a director the plots of Semon’s films were just excuses to set his gags in motion. THE COUNTER JUMPER is from his peak of popularity – the early 1920s – when he was second only to Chaplin and Arbuckle, and his fondness for explosions, chases, crashes, and spectacular falls from high places, created a mad, surreal world.

Sadly, Semon is generally overlooked and sometimes derided today because his most accessible films happen to be from his later after-his-prime period. In the early '20s he was one of the kings of the comedy short, but when Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton moved into features Larry decided that he should too. Although he tried to adapt his screen persona it proved too one-dimensional and he wasn’t able to develop strong feature-length storylines. Always working hard and spending freely on his pictures, when he slipped in audience favor he panicked and began repeating his old gags ad nauseum, which eventually bankrupted him financially and emotionally, leading to a nervous breakdown and his death from tuberculosis in 1928.

The Counter Jumper does not survive elsewhere, and while the very beginning as well as the last minute or so of this film are missing in this print, this is a very sharp 35mm print and nice to see on a Semon title. The titles are not flashed and so if you understand Czech you'll be able to read them. Even if you can't, you'll still be able to follow the thin plot of this picture. We're running this at 24fps, ideal speed for any Larry Semon film, which are really like live-action cartoons. They're nearly 1-dimensional in story, and a lot of the gags are reliant on speed and how much (or little) they're undercranked.

A Deep Sea Panic (9/29/1924) Prod: Fox. Dir: Roy Del Ruth. 2 reels. Cast: James Parrott, Mildred June, Kalla Pasha, Bobby Burns, Hilliard Karr, Jerry Mandy, Cameo.

A DEEP SEA PANIC is a classic example of the “everything but the kitchen sink” school of silent slapstick. As a rule the Fox studio liked to make their comedies “big,”and director Roy Del Ruth was the right man for the job. Remembered today for fast-paced Warner Brothers sound pictures like TAXI! and BLESSED EVENT (both’32), Del Ruth was the brother of the Sennett Studio’s general manager Hampton Del Ruth and entered films as a gagman there. When his brother took over Fox Sunshine Comedies Roy began directing shorts in 1920 and later returned to Sennett to helm comedies with Billy Bevan and Harry Langdon. Del Ruth liked his comedies fast and furious, and A DEEP SEA PANIC is very representative of his style. In 1925 he moved into features when he hooked up with Warner Brothers, piloting titles like HAM AND EGGS AT THE FRONT (’27 ) and BLONDE CRAZY (’31). Later he moved to Fox and MGM, then back to Warners, and directed a lot of television in the early 1950s. His last feature, before his death in 1961, was the cult classic THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (’59).

This film is actually a remake of SHANGHAIED LOVERS (’24), a Harry Langdon comedy that Del Ruth had directed at Sennett six months before. Kalla Pasha repeats his original role, while Harry Langdon’s part is taken over by James Parrott, who got his start in the film business thanks to his older brother Charles (better known as Charley Chase). When Charles was directing at Fox he brought James in, used him in small roles, and continued casting him in shorts for Bulls Eye and Reelcraft. At the same time James set out on his own, working as a day player on the Hal Roach lot, and co-starring in a few low-budget Holly Comedies, such as AN AUTO NUT (’19), with comic Sid Smith. Doing well at Roach and writing gags, James recommended Charles who was immediately hired and soon became the supervisor for the entire studio. In 1922 James was renamed Paul Parrott, billed as “the doodlewit of screen comedy,” and given his own series of gag happy one-reelers.

By 1924 the Roach style was growing more sophisticated, so Parrott’s three-year run came to an end. After a couple of starring shorts for Fox, he moved behind the camera as a writer and full-time director – helming much of the Roach product, particularly the Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy shorts. Said to have been an erratic personality, possibly due to epilepsy, Jimmy’s problems escalated in the mid 1930s when his drinking made it impossible to work steadily. This curtailed his directing, although he continued writing, but BLOCKHEADS (’38) was the last. Jimmy died in 1939, officially of a heart attack, but it’s rumored to have been suicide because of his problems and inability to work.

This film is one of hundreds of slapstick comedies MoMA preserved from material held in the Czech film archive, and so it has Czech flash-titles – intertitles that have been cut down to just a few frames – but you really don't need titles to follow the "plot" in this film. While preservation materials are in 35mm, this screening print is in 16mm. 24 fps. MoMA also has material on the Langdon short SHANGHAIED LOVERS.

Cold Hearts and Hot Flames (9/20/1916) Prod: L-Ko Comedies. Dist: Universal. Dir: John G. Blystone. 2 reels. Cast: Billie Ritchie, Gladys Tennyson, Vin Moore, Bert Roach, Joe Murphy, James T. Kelly, Monty Banks (2 roles), Charles Lakin, Eva McKenzie.

Billie Ritchie is remembered today along with Billy West as a Charlie Chaplin imitator, but that description isn’t fully accurate as Ritchie carved his own niche in silent comedy history by presenting possibly the most low-down, despicable and unlikeable character ever seen on the screen. A Fred Karno veteran who shared gags, routines and body language not only with Charlie and Syd Chaplin, but also Stan Laurel, Billie Reeves and Jimmy Aubrey, Ritchie was brought to the screen by Henry “Pathe” Lehrman, who stressed the similarities in make-up and costume to Chaplin, and soon became the Andy Kaufman of the Teens by pushing the envelope and practically daring audiences to detest him.

In COLD HEARTS AND HOT FLAMES Billie is as usual up to no good – this time as a layabout who pretends to have inherited a fortune so he can marry the pretty daughter of a hotel proprietor. When his scheme falls apart Billie decides to burn the hotel for the insurance money, which leads to a climax of explosions, flames, spraying fire hoses, mud, and bodies flying through the air on piano wires.

Out of the 50 plus L-KO's that Ritchie cranked out between 1914 and 1916 only a handful exist today. He stayed connected to Lehrman and went on to make shorts for Fox and First National, but died young in 1921, said to have been the victim of an ostrich attack while shooting a film scene. Thanks to Charlie Chaplin’s enduring popularity Ritchie’s name is still bandied about as a Chaplin imitator eighty years after his death. Considering the fate of silent comics such as Marcel Perez, Fred Ardath, Wanda Wiley, Eddie Nelson, Charles Puffy and Jess Devorska, being misremembered seems preferable to being completely forgotten.

Another nice gem from our screenings, both because of its rarity and the fact that it is a good 35mm print, and you can really see the wires...which means the original audiences saw them, too. The film holds up well, in spite of having German flash titles. MoMA has a few other Ritchie titles from this time period.

"Animals and Children"

Friday, May 29, 4:00
"Animals and Children: No Harm Done"
An Elephant on His Hands (1912) with George Ober
Cat, Dog, and Co. (1929) with Our Gang
Mind the Baby (1924) with Pal the dog
The Knockout (1923) with the Dippy-Doo-Dads
When Summer Comes (1922) With Billy Bevan
silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model

It’s an old rule among actors never to work with babies or animals, as they are natural scene stealers. Because of this quality they played an important part in silent comedy – sometimes used for cute throw-away gags, and often as stars of their own series. Performing animal acts were a vaudeville staple, but they were always the repetition of a set routine that the animal had learned. In films innocent babes and critters were often thrown into situations that involved pratfalls, runaway autos, burning buildings – things they didn’t understand and couldn't tell weren’t actual reality. According to former child performers such as Baby Peggy, these film scenes were mostly just as dangerous as they looked and frequently went awry.

Watching slapstick comedies now it’s one thing to enjoy physical knockabout with adult performers who willingly subjected themselves to the ordeals involved, but it crosses way over the comfort line with kids and animals who don’t know what’s going on. Audiences at the time seemed to have had no problem with this, so this program presents a cross-section of many things that could not be gotten away with today. AN ELEPHANT ON HIS HANDS shows the usual routines of a household disrupted by a roughly-handled little pachyderm. Next are two films from the Hal Roach studio. The first, CAT, DOG AND CO., has kids and animals together in one of the most bizarre episodes of their famous Our Gang series. Following is THE KNOCKOUT, an example of Roach’s Dippy-Doo-Dad comedies, which created an alternate, all-animal universe. The animal-as-star films is represented here by MIND THE BABY, where Pal the dog is the hero who risks life and limb to save a clearly traumatized toddler. Finally, the wild and ragtag WHEN SUMMER COMES gives us a look at “lion comedies” – a very popular comedy genre from about 1918 to 1924 – which always put adult actors in real peril working with unpredictable felines.

An Elephant on His Hands (10/16/1912) Prod: Vitagraph. Dir: Frederick Thomson. Writ: Gene Mullen. 1 reel. Cast: George Ober, Kate Price, Lillian Walker, Flora Finch, Robert Gaillard, Charles Eldridge, the elephant.

The basic story of AN ELEPHANT ON HIS HANDS was an often-filmed one in the early days of cinema. This version concerns an older gentleman in his cups who buys a little pachyderm and brings it home to his horrified family, but the usual plot had someone receive the beast as an inheritance from a rich uncle. This handy story was re-worked to fit monkeys, dogs, or lions. Made by Vitagraph in Brooklyn, the studio must have had easy access to elephants at this time as they also produced DIANA’S LEGACY and MAMMOTH LIFE SAVERS (both ’12) which teamed Flora Finch with elephants.

Although the main title is missing, this is otherwise a complete, beautiful, sharp 35mm print with all original intertitles. There a a number of elephant comedies that survive and this one was chosen because of its vintage and the print quality. What's interesting to note about this film is the fact that the elephant is more cooperative with the Vitagraph players than it is with the real animal trainer who shows up toward the end of the film to collect the animal, poking, prodding and shoving the poor creature through the house and down the front steps. The Vitagraph product from the early 'teens belies the stereotype that, other than Griffith, silent films are shot head-on with general over-head diffuse lighting. In screening many Vitagraph shorts from MoMA's collection (ask us about The Tangled Tangoists, with John Bunny and Flora Finch, BTW) we've seen that the good directors at Vitagraph often composed shots on a slight angle, grouping actors in specific ways to complement this and staging two and sometimes three playing areas. Regardless of the star being an elephant, these characteristics are in evidence in this fine short, as are use of local Brooklyn locations. Notice the interior stairwell scenes, which look like they may have been shot in an actual home.

Cat, Dog and Co. (9/14/1929) Prod: Hal Roach. Dist: MGM. Dir: Anthony Mack. Titles: H.M. Walker. 2 reels. Cast: Joe Cobb, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Bobby “Wheezer” Hutchins, Jean Darling, Mary Ann Jackson, Pete the pup, Harry Spear, Donnie “Beezer” Smith, Hedda Hopper, Chet Brandenberg, Silas Wilcox, Dorothy Vernon, Harry Bowen, Jack Hill, Clara Guiol, Adele Watson, Bob Saunders, Jack O’Brien, Robert McGowan.

Animals were always an important part of Hal Roach’s long-running Our Gang series. Pete the pup became a full member in the late 1920’s and there were always various chickens, dogs, skunks, and mules named Dinah. In CAT, DOG AND CO. the feral co-stars take over in a plot that concerns Wheezer happily torturing all the critters he sees until he has a terrible nightmare where he’s put on trial by giant animals for his acts of cruelty.

This off-beat entry was directed by Anthony Mack (real name Robert Anthony McGowan), nephew of Our Gang founder Robert F. McGowan. Thanks to the usual Hollywood nepotism the younger McGowan directed fifteen shorts that were for the most part lackluster, although this one and DOG HEAVEN (’27) are the oddest in the series entire history. Mack’s last directorial effort on the series was the early talkie BOXING GLOVES (’29), but wasn’t the end of his association with Our Gang. Nine years later when the series moved over to MGM, Mack, under his real name of Robert A. McGowan co-wrote the screenplays for practically all of those dismal shorts. It’s hoped that the giant animals from CAT, DOG AND CO. had the opportunity to put him on trial for cruelty to audiences.

The silent Our Gang shorts are far more inventive and surreal than their talkie counterparts, and this short is no exception. This short is included because of its showing of both sides of animal treatment, as well as a well-made dream sequence in which Wheezer gets his come-uppance in an animal-run trial and is attacked by giant versions of the chickens he taunts early in the film. Plus, the film's climactic final third features a large menagerie of critters. MoMA's screening print is struck from a print with Dutch flash titles, and image quality is just okay. While this film does survive in good 16mm prints, this is an example of the fact that an archive's collection can include a range of materials, and isn't necessarily all 35mm nitrate camera negatives. The film does hold up well, even if you can't follow the intertitles. BTW, the woman from the animal society who gives the kids a lecture on how to treat animals is soon-to-be Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper. Roach film fans will recognize bit players and street sets in the 2nd half of the film, when all the animals get loose (spoiler alert!).

Mind the Baby (9/10/1924) Prod: Century Comedies. Dist: Universal. Dir: Al Herman. 2 reels. Cast: Pal, Louise Lorraine, Fred Spencer, Ernie Shields.

In the 1920's, Century Comedies was the home of a number of animal stars – there was Mr. & Mrs. Joe Martin (orangutans), Queenie (horse), Maude (mule) and Charlie (bull elephant). Producers Abe & Julius Stern were the brothers-in-law of Universal founder Carl Laemmle and notoriously cheap, so it’s very likely that their thinking was that feral Barrymores wouldn’t get swelled heads from all the publicity and public adoration and demand more bones or peanuts in salary.

The Stern’s first canine star was Brownie the wonder dog. After he passed on (probably due to sheer over-work) he was replaced by the star of this short, Pal. Owned by trainer Harry Lucenay, Pal generally had better timing and more personality than his human co-stars, and is rumored to be the father of Pete the pup (also trained by Lucenay). Working until around 1928, Pal also appeared with Harry Sweet, Our Gang, Jerry Madden and Big Boy.

Parts of MIND THE BABY have to be seen to be believed, and Pal’s baby co-star must have grown up wondering why he always had a panic attack whenever he’d see an alligator handbag or shoes.

This was one of those films that was at the top of the list when we were assembling the program themes for the series, mainly because of the toddler-'gator-pup fight in the middle. It's also a nice example of the Pal series which, like the Snookie-the-Humanzee shorts, features an animal as hero in a slapstick version of the Rin-Tin-Tin formula. This print is a good 16mm reduction from MoMA's 35mm preservation materials, which were struck from 35mm nitrate in the Czech film archive. The original material, like a majority of the slapstick shorts held in that archive and preserved by MoMA during Eileen Bowser's tenure, have Czech flash titles. However, this film is so out there you don't really miss them; all you need to know is there is a kidnapping plot afoot (although it doesn't get off the ground until reel 2). Most of reel 1 is shot at Echo Park in Los Angeles.

The Knockout (10/28/1923) Prod: Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir & Photo: Len Powers. 1 reel. Cast: The Dippy-Doo-Dads.
photo (R): Director/Photographer Len Powers with some of his wild thespians
Silent comedy was rife with Simian stars – there was Napoleon & Sally, their daughter Snooky the human-zee, and the Fox chimps Max, Moritz and Pep – but the cream of the monkey comedies was Hal Roach’s Dippy-Doo-Dad series. Its inspiration may have been William S. Campbell’s short-lived Campbell Comedies, which featured kids and their animal helpmates. MONKEY SHINES (’22) is the only circulating example today, and has very Dippy-Doo-Dad-ish scenes of Josephine the monkey doing her morning exercises and ablutions. Trainer Tony Campanaro had supplied the animals, and when the series ended Roach took the animal idea and spun it off into its own surreal universe, using Campanaro’s menagerie.

Roach studio staff photographer Len Powers became the auteur for the series, handling both the directing and photographing chores. The early entries were simple stories like BE HONEST and THE WATCH DOG (both ’23) where the feral stars were cavorting in a barnyard or hanging around a vegetable stand, but soon the shorts became spoofs of movie genres encompassing love triangles (LOVEY DOVEY ’23), the evils of drink (THE BAR FLY ’24) and rousing Northwest Mountie sagas (NORTH OF 50-50 ’24). THE KNOCKOUT takes on boxing melodramas, complete with detailed miniature sets and costumes. Roach discontinued the series in 1924, but Jules White and Zion Myers co-opted the idea in sound for their ever-popular Dogville Comedies.

Print is a beautiful, complete 35mm print with original intertitles. This film was one of the shorts from the class version of this series chosen for MoMA's January "PopRally" event. Called "Silent But Deadly", the evening consisted of three comedy shorts from the list and "response videos" made by a number of comedians. Two of the videos were in reponse to THE KNOCKOUT. One was made by comedy duo Gabe & Jenny called Where's the Tickets? which had a live score performed by Ben Model, and another by comedian Joe Mande was a mock director's interview á la a Criterion Collectors edition extra called The Knockout: 15 Years Later. Click here to see the website for this PopRally program which has all six of the response videos embedded on it.

When Summer Comes (9/23/1922) Prod: Mack Sennett. Dist: First National Pictures. Dir: Roy Del Ruth. 2 reels. Cast: Billy Bevan, Mildred June, Billy Armstrong, Kewpie Morgan, Tiny Ward, Cubby, Jack Cooper, John Rand, Gordon Lewis, Hughie Mack, Edgar Blue.

Comedies that featured lions menacing human actors became an extremely popular genre in the late 'teens and early 1920s. Studios such as Universal and Fox, who cranked out tons of titles like WILD WOMEN AND TAME LIONS (’18) and WILD LIONS AND FEROCIOUS CHEESE (‘20), had stables of lions ready at all times. Not wanting to be outdone the other comedy producers jumped on the bandwagon, including “King of Comedy” Mack Sennett.

This short is an early Sennett foray into the genre, where he tended to hold the lions back for the big climax. In addition to the lions, the general surreal mix includes Billy Bevan, Cubby the bear, a rustic hunting lodge, an elongated car with Hebrew-script license plates, and a wax-eating Native American. Other Sennett lion sagas are THE LION AND THE SOUSE (’24), SCAREM MUCH (’24), THE LION’S WHISKERS (’25), and what is likely the first sound entry THE LION’S ROAR (’28).

And, yes, those are swastikas on the Indian's tent in reel one. The symbol was used by many southwestern Native American tribes, especially the Navajo. The film contains a number of trademark Sennett car-lengthening gags (see also LIZZIES OF THE FIELD on June 1st). As much as there is trick photogaphy in the scenes with the lions, it's breathtaking or startling to see how many times the comedians are in the same frame with the lions, who get a heck of a workout going through all those transoms. The print is a 35mm with flash titles, and is probably the choppiest one on this program, but that's how a lot of these comedy shorts survive, with the heads and tails of reels gone due to decomp, etc...but what survives is in great shape, and it's great to see a crazy, surreal 1920's Sennett short in a sharp 35mm print (and in a theater, too!).

"The Machine Age"

Monday, June 1 at 4:00
The Machine Age: Mack Sennett vs. Henry Ford

Lizzies of the Field (1924) with Billy Bevan
His Bread and Butter (1916) with Hank Mann, Slim Summerville
Get Out and Get Under (1920) with Harold Lloyd
Squeaks and Squawks (1920) with Jimmy Aubrey, Oliver Hardy
Neck and Neck (1924) with Lige Conley
Silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model.

The automobile was the symbol of modernity in the early part of the 20th Century. By the time the ‘teens and 1920s rolled around the middle class had begun acquiring them, so they became an indicator of social standing as well. From the beginning most people had a strong love/hate relationship with their cars – their tendency to break down and the putting of unheard of speed in the hands of sometime inexperienced drivers made them a prime source for comic frustration and misadventures. An interesting link between the film and automotive industry is that Mack Sennett took Henry Ford’s assembly-line concept and mated it to the themes and ideas of the early French film comedies to create Keystone – the first film factory devoted to mass-producing knockabout comedies.

Sennett’s staff always took great pleasure in destroying cars whenever they could, and LIZZIES OF THE FIELD is the ultimate in demolition derbies. HIS BREAD AND BUTTER has Hank Mann getting his wife a job so that he won’t have to20ride the trolley to work anymore, but of course he gets more than he bargained for. Harold Lloyd’s car is his pride and joy in GET OUT AND GET UNDER, but his affection isn’t reciprocated by the tin lizzie. In SQUEAKS AND SQUAWKS Jimmy Aubrey is a one-man weapon of mass destruction to anything on four wheels, and NECK AND NECK shows Lige Conley coping with an apocalyptic traffic jam.

Lizzies of the Field (9/7/1924) Prod: Mack Sennett. Dir: Del Lord. Dist: Pathe. Photo: George Spear, Bob Ladd & Ernie Crockett. Titles: J. A. Waldron. 2 reels. Cast: Billy Bevan, Sid Smith, Barbara Pierce, Jack Richardson, Jack Lloyd, Spencer Bell, Jack Richardson, Andy Clyde, Tiny Ward.

From 1923 to 1927 director Del Lord and comic Billy Bevan teamed for a series of zany and surreal Mack Sennett gag fests. Titles include DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHOES (’23), WANDERING WILLIES (’26), ICE COLD COCOS (’26), and this short, which is the ultimate in auto race slapstick. The Canadian-born Del Lord was an associate of the actor William Collier Sr., and when Collier began working for Mack Sennett in 1915 Del tagged along as his stand-in and stunt double. According to legend he then became the stunt driver for the Keystone Cops – able to maneuver cars into any kind of perilous situations and come out intact – which began his love of automotive slapstick. LIZZIES OF THE FIELD is possibly the most extreme of his valentines to cars and comedy. The mid-1920s saw Lord become one of Sennett’s top directors, and after a rocky period in the early 1930s (when he was temporarily out of movies and selling cars) he brought the Sennett style of zaniness to the Three Stooges, directing some of their best shorts like THREE LITTLE BEERS (’35) and AN ACHE IN EVERY STAKE (’41). His post-Stooges work included some Hugh Herbert shorts and a number “B” features for Columbia.

Along with Ben Turpin, Billy Bevan was one of Mack Sennett’s biggest stars of the 1920s, specializing in a screen persona that alternated between a comic everyman caught up in chaos and a roguish, practical joker who caused misfortunes to befall others. Born in Australia, Billy joined the comic opera company Pollard’s Lilliputians at a young age, which brought him to the Northern-part of the U.S. and Canada. Over here he worked in vaudeville and musical comedy with the Isobel Fletcher stock company and at G. M. (Broncho Billy) Anderson’s Gaiety Co. in San Francisco. Billy’s film debut came with L-Ko in 1916 as support to stars like Billie Ritchie and Alice Howell, and then he moved around to Strand, Fox Sunshine, and Century Comedies.

Hired by Sennett in 1919, Billy quickly became indentified with his big brush moustache, derby, and breezy personality. By the late 20s he was doing a “Tired Businessman” series that was more situational, and he even occasionally appeared without his trade mark moustache. Making the transition to sound in shorts, in 1930 he turned in an excellent dramatic performance in James Whale’s feature JOURNEY’S END. For the rest of his career Aussie Billy became one of Hollywood’s favorite Cockneys, and settled into character parts in features like THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (’40) and CLUNY BROWN (46) until his retirement in 1950.

In LIZZIES OF THE FIELD Billy shares the screen with Sennett regulars such as Jack Richardson, Andy Clyde and Tiny Ward, but his real co-star is Sid Smith, a hard-working comic who was one of the many diminutive comedians with a small moustache that were as numerous as weeds during the silent era. Born in 1893, Sid entered the movies around 1914, and some of his first were for the Selig Co., where he was a regular member of the “Chronicles of Bloom Center,” a series about the denizens of a rural small town and a rip-off of Essanany’s “Snakeville” comedies. Through the rest of his career Sid seemed to bounce around more than any other silent comic.

Although he wasn’t one of the original Hallroom Boys when the shorts premiered in 1919, Sid was in the series the longest and was paired with the likes of Harry McCoy, Jimmie Adams, and George Williams (a.k.a. George “Zip” Monberg). He starred in series for big companies such as Sennett, Jack White and Fox, but also performed for independent units like Grand Asher, Federated, Standard, and even the bottom-tiered William Pizor Productions. While there was never much depth to his persona, he had comic agility and crisp timing. Always a pleasant screen presence, he was working for Al Christie in 1928 when he died from drinking bad bootleg booze at a weekend party.

We inadvertently discovered the uncut first reel of this film in MoMA's collection when prints were called in for the Nov/Dec 2008 class version of this series. At a prep screening we noticed two cans marked LIZZIES OF THE FIELD, one 16mm – which we were expecting – and one 35mm. What everyone's seen on this film for decades is a version with an abridged first reel. The film doesn't seem incomplete this way, but it gets to the road race -- which you'll probably recognize from TV commercials -- awfully quick. We had the projectionist thread up the 35mm to see what it was and it turned out to be the complete first reel, with gags in the garage none of us had seen before. While it doesn't have the pun-filled Sennett intertitles (Dutch flash titles, instead), the image quality is quite good. What we did in class, and will attempt to do again for this showing, is run the 35mm followed by the 16mm (a Blackhawk Films print) at the point where reel two would begin...sort of a live restoration. You'll be the second audience to see the "complete" film.

His Bread and Butter (4/9/1916) Prod: Mack Sennett. Dir: Eddie Cline & Hank Mann. Dist: Triangle Film Corp. Photo: K.G. MacLean. 2 reels. Cast: Hank Mann, Peggy Pearce, Slim Summerville, Bobby Dunn, Eddie Baker, Wayland Trask, Mal St Clair, Bobby Vernon, Nick Cogley, Claire Anderson, Robert Kerr.

Hank Mann is one of the most underrated and overlooked comics of silent comedy, with a performing style that was dry and underplayed. Having some stage experience he was an early Keystone participant, joining up in 1912. After eighteen months Hank began roaming – first going to support Ford Sterling at his Sterling Co., and then becoming a lead comic at L-Ko for a year before coming back to Keystone. By this time his screen get-up had solidified into a brush moustache, bowl haircut, and bashful eyes. HIS BREAD AND BUTTER is from this return to Sennett, but it wasn’t long before Hank was off again – this time for a starring series at Fox where he was teamed up with director Charles Parrott (a.k.a. Charley Chase) for shorts like THERE’S MANY A FOOL and THE CLOUD PUNCHER (both ’17).

In 1919 he began a series of one-reelers for Morris Schlank with distribution by Arrow which blossomed into two-reelers and was the peak of Hank’s career. Surviving examples such as THE BILL POSTER (‘20) show a strong surreal streak, not to mention a flair for parody illustrated by MYSTIC MUSH (‘20) that roasts movie serials to a tee. After making two or three seasons of these independent, states rights shorts, they remained in circulation for a long time after the shooting was done so Hank took to working behind the scenes as a gag writer for comic Lloyd Hamilton and producers Jack White and Al Christie. It’s easy to spot films that Hank worked on as he usually turns up in a cameo. Features also provided work with supporting roles in THE BOOB (‘26) and SPITE MARRIAGE (’29), plus writing assignments such as KID BOOTS (‘26) with Eddie Cantor. When sound came in he kept working although for the most part his roles were reduced to little bits. Hank’s most memorable later work was two appearances with Charlie Chaplin – first as the suspicious boxer in CITY LIGHTS (’31), and then as one of the “Keystone” storm troopers in THE GREAT DICTATOR (’40).

Playing Hank’s wife is Peggy Pearce, one of the most beautiful of the early silent comedy leading ladies. Very busy in the ‘teens, she began her career at Biograph in 1913 and soon ended up at Keystone. Like Hank, Peggy moved to the Sterling Co. and L-Ko and then found her way back to Sennett. Although not funny on her own, Pearce added a lot of appeal to the comedies with her warm personality and striking looks. She later did shorts and features for Triangle, and in one of her last films was support to Louise Glaum in SEX (’20). (If you go to imdb you’ll see Peggy listed as also having worked under the name Viola Barry. This is incorrect as they were two separate actresses).

Creating problems for Hank and trying to steal every scene they are in are Slim Summerville and Bobby Dunn. Both began doing bits and stunts at Keystone around 1914 and worked their way up to regular featured clowns. Around this time they were teamed to make a “Mutt and Jeff” pair of pals who weren’t above doing each dirt in shorts like THE WINNING PUNCH (’16) and VILLA OF THE MOVIES (’17). Over the years they would continue the teamwork in shorts for Fox and Universal. Separately, Bobby did a starring series for Arrow in the early 1920s, and Slim, while he continued to appear on screen, began directing shorts for Fox, Joe Rock, and Universal. When sound came in, Slim fared better than Bobby. His excellent performance in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (’30) put him in demand, and through the 1930s he was generally a supporting player in “A” features and a star in “B’s.” Often teamed with Zasu Pitts, he worked right up to his death in 1946. Bobby drifted into bit roles and died young at age forty-six from a heart attack in 1937.

Co-director Eddie Cline was one of the great film comedy collaborators, and said to have been one of the nicest and easiest going guys in the business – which came in handy when he worked with W. C. Fields on five pictures. Cline started in films as an extra, and landed at Keystone where he did bit parts and became an assistant to Del Henderson. Soon he was directing with Hampton Del Ruth, then on his own, films such as A BEDROOM BLUNDER (’17) and HEARTS AND FLOWERS (’19), before moving over to Fox Sunshine Comedies. In 1920 he hooked up with Buster Keaton, and was his collaborator on 17 shorts and first feature THE THREE AGES (’23). Following his work with Buster, Cline returned to shorts for Sennett, while doing occasional features for Jackie Coogan and others. In sound he famously worked with Fields, Wheeler & Woolsey, and Olsen & Johnson, directing classics like MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (’32), SO THIS IS AFRICA (’33), THE BANK DICK (’40) and CRAZY HOUSE (’43). He finished his career doing “Maggie and Jiggs” programmers for Monogram, plus contributing to the TV shows of Buster Keaton and Spike Jones.

Getting to see more of the work of this great and overlooked comedian has been one of the many delights we've had screening shorts from MoMA's vast collection. He seemed to grasp that in the midst of all the baggy-pants and push-broom mustache comics, his big soulful eyes could be something to draw the audience in and allow it to connect with him. The gags in his films are always very inventive and have a little more thought in them for the year they're made in -- there's a short from 1921 we looked at where Hank does the same gag at a party, eating spaghetti and then mistakes a streamer for a strand of pasta, that Chaplin would do 10 years later in CITY LIGHTS.

Get Out and Get Under (9/12/1920) Prod & Dir: Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe.Photo: Walter Lundin. Titles: H.M. Walker. 2 reels. Cast: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Fred McPherson, “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Frank Terry, Molly Thompson, Wallace Howe, William Gillespie, Charles Stevenson, Noah Young.

GET OUT AND GET UNDER finds Harold Lloyd right on the brink of major stardom. In the eight years since entering the film industry as an extra in 1913 he’d worked his way up the movie ladder. Not only had he created two popular screen characters and developed his own theories on screen comedy, but had also survived a disfiguring accident to find himself more popular than ever.

In 1919 Harold’s leading lady of three years, Bebe Daniels, went off to star in features, so he and Hal Roach had to find a replacement. At this time their shorts were growing more sophisticated – although they were still slapstick they were trying to refine the elements and make them more realistic. Bebe had been tough and scrappy – always ready to return a kick or a slap and fully participated in the knockabout action. For her replacement they picked the exact opposite – blonde, soft, and frilly Mildred Davis. Where Bebe had been a pal, Mildred was a goal to be obtained which propelled the plots and ultimately made it possible for Lloyd to make the jump into features in 1921. Mildred’s first film with him was FROM HAND TO MOUTH (’19), but while shooting the third, HAUNTED SPOOKS (’20), Harold had his accident, and while he recovered Mildred got more screen experience as leading lady for Snub Pollard. Once Harold resumed Mildred remained onscreen with him until 1923’s SAFETY LAST, and when the couple married afterward she basically retired from acting. Interestingly, Jobyna Ralston, Harold's next leading lady, was a combination of Mildred and Bebe Daniels.

Hal Roach had amassed a stock company of seasoned supporting comics who appeared in every Lloyd and Snub Pollard comedy (often more than once). In the opening of GET OUT AND GET UNDER Harold’s neighbor is played by Frank Terry, a colorful character who was the first official gagman of the Roach studio. Terry, earlier known as Nat Clifford, toured the world as a child acrobat, and then became a popular singer-songwriter in England in the 1890s. A scandal caused him to flee the country and he ended up in American vaudeville where he made his way to California. His earliest known film appearance is from 1917 and he remained a jack-of-all-trades for Hal Roach throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, but still managed stray credits for Universal, Bray and Mack Sennett comedies. William Gillespie makes a brief appearance as the junkie whose dope Harold borrows to get his car started again. Gillespie’s earliest appearances were in Chaplin’s Mutual comedies – EASY STREETS’s drug addict, the café violinist in THE IMMIGRANT (both ’17) – and from there he joined the Roach company. He then spent the next 16 years playing everything from snooty department store managers to old tobacco-chewing farmers, remaining a ubiquitous presence into the early 1930s. Also on hand in little bits are Molly Thompson, Wallace Howe, Charles Stevenson, Noah Young and Sunshine Sammy Morrison (see HAUNTED SPOOKS notes).

GET OUT AND GET UNDER was Harold’s eighth two-reeler, and he was beginning to chafe within the short film format. He was instinctively looking for more time to develop his stories and characters, and a year later his first feature A SAILOR-MADE MAN (’21) was released. This was followed by GRANDMA’S BOY (’22), whose success led to Lloyd’s becoming one of the great stars and most creative producers of the 1920s.

This print, in addition to having flash titles, is missing its opening scene in the photographer's studio. This is not an unusual edition...in fact an almost identical print, but with color tints in some scenes, survives at the Danish Film Institute. Interesting that an edition of this film circulated with the opening scene removed but with the heroin addict gag intact. The film gets its title from a popular song hit first published in 1913 and which the film-going public still knew. Here's a recording of Billy Murray singing it:

Squeaks and Squawks (3/29/1920) Big V Special Comedy. Prod: Vitagraph. Dir: Noel M. Smith. Writ: Anthony W. Coldeway. 2 reels. cast: Jimmy Aubrey, Oliver Hardy, Dixie Lamont, Dick Dickinson.

In the early ‘teens the Vitagraph Studio was the bastion for clever and polite situational comedies that starred Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, Florence Turner, Wally Van, Lillian “Dimples” Walker, and most famously John Bunny and Flora Finch. This completely changed after 1916 – Bunny died in 1915, the Drews, Finch, Van, and Turner exited to greener pastures, and a young newspaper cartoonist named Lawrence Semon came in as director and writer. Semon brought the surreal gags and anarchistic spirit of comic strips to Vitagraph, and the comedic emphasis was now on slapstick. By 1919 the studio’s comedy stars were Semon, Earl Montgomery & Joe Rock, and last, and probably least, Jimmy Aubrey.

Born to an English pantomime family Jimmy Aubrey was a veteran of Fred Karno’s Speechless Comedians where he played roles like the Terrible Turk in MUMMING BIRDS. Coming to America with a Karno tour, he soon went out on his own touring vaudeville and even worked in logging camps and cattle ranches between theatrical jobs. He entered films in 1915 with the Mittenthal Film Co. where he was teamed with Walter Kendig as “Heinie & Louie” in Starlight Comedies. After two years of playing these Weber & Fields clones Aubrey moved to Vitagraph to support Hughie Mack, and then got his own series that was initially directed by Larry Semon.

His stay at Vitagraph was the peak of Aubrey’s career, as he had solid direction and talented co-stars. Never a subtle performer, Aubrey’s character was that of a combative bum with an oddly parted brush moustache that looked like he had a caterpillar growing out of each nostril. Having a difficult and disagreeable nature, Aubrey had frequent clashes with Vitagraph and left in 1923. This started a downward spiral that led to independent shorts for Chadwick, a couple of seasons in Joe Rock produced comedies, shorts for Weiss Brothers Artclass, and by the end of the 1920s small turns in other comic’s films, like Laurel & Hardy’s THAT’ MY WIFE (’29). He had been playing bit parts in features since 1925, and continued after sound arrived, appearing in many B westerns. Living to age 94, he remained in character and had nothing good to say about any of the colleagues that he had outlived.

As the main support in the bulk of Aubrey’s Vitagraph shorts, Babe Hardy steals everything but the film’s sprocket holes. A completely natural actor, Hardy always realized that less is more and even before Laurel & Hardy was able to take an audience into his confidence with sly looks to the camera. After working for Lubin, Vim, and King Bee, Vitagraph was a jump up the studio food chain for Babe, and he was soon to move to the films of the studio’s top comic Larry Semon. Director Noel M. Smith was a solid comedy craftsman who in addition to Vitagraph worked for L-Ko, Sennett, Henry Lehrman, Fox and Century, plus was married to Louise Fazenda. In the mid-1920s he began directing action features with the likes of Richard Talmadge and Silver Streak the dog. The sound era saw him mostly at Warner Brothers piloting entertaining B films such as SECRET SERVICE OF THE AIR and THE COWBOY QUARTERBACK (both ’39).

Neck and Neck (2/3/1924) Prod: Jack White. Dir: Fred Hibbard. Dist: Educational Pictures. 2 reels. Cast: Lige Conley, Peg O’Neal, Hank Mann, Olive Borden, George Ovey, Fay Holderness, Spencer Bell, Cliff Bowes.

Billed by Educational as “The Speed Boy of Comedy,” Lige Conley’s breezy personality and ability to perform stunts provided the springboard for a six-year series of lightning-paced action comedies. Born Elijah Crommie in 1899, he grew up a couple of miles from the Keystone studio and in 1915 began turning up in Sennett comedies, soon branching out to shorts for Hal Roach, Reelcraft and Fox. Jack White began starring Lige in 1920, first teamed with Jimmie Adams and then on his own. The title of his best remembered short, FAST AND FURIOUS (’24), is a good description of his entire series, and NECK AND NECK is no exception – chock-full of rapid fire gags and well-staged physical stunts.

Director Fred Hibbard was actually Fred Fishback, known for his work at Sennett, Fox and Century comedies. After being an attendee at Roscoe Arbuckle’s infamous Labor Day party, plus a participant in the much publicized trials, Fishback changed his name to Hibbard and continued turning out large quantities of shorts for Century, Jack White and Lloyd Hamilton before his death from cancer in early 1925. The cast of supporting comics includes stalwarts such as Peg O’Neal, George Ovey, Cliff Bowes and Hank Mann. There’s not much info available on Peg O’Neal, although the Educational press sheet for this film guarantees she’s “as homely as ever and twice as funny.” The press sheet for another Conley short gives this dollop of background data:

“Peg O’Neal, who supports Lige Conley in “Casey Jones Jr.,” was a dramatic actress before she entered comedy. She played Shakespearian parts, and other tragedies.”

Born in Ireland and beginning her film career at age 15, she was a regular in the Conley shorts of 1923 and 24. George Ovey had been a star in his own shorts for Gaiety and Pacific Film Co., but at this point his career was winding down into bit parts, which he would do without credit until 1951. Cliff Bowes was a vaudevillian who began showing up in Sennett comedies in 1916. By 1920 he was working for Century, Warner Brothers and Jack White comedies, then in 1923 White began starring Bowes in one-reel Cameo Comedies, usually teamed with Virginia Vance. Cliff worked on and off for White until 1929 when he died at the age of 34. Finally we come to Hank Mann, who was working at this time as a gagman for Jack White comedies and turns up in a funny cameo early in the film.

When Conley’s series for Jack White ended in 1926 he made a few starring shorts for Fox and Sennett, but soon lost his star status and drifted behind the camera writing gags. After the arrival of sound he’s known to have made a few appearances with Lloyd Hamilton, but then disappears. Sporadically working behind the scenes, while helping a stalled auto he was struck and killed by a passing car in 1937.

This particular short is also notable for being Olive Borden's first noticeable screen role; she'd only appeared in PONJOLA (1923) but is not easily spotted (or at all) in that film, so this could be considered her first. Print is a sharp 35mm preserved from nitrate held by the Czech film archive, hence the film's abrupt opening, flash titles and ending "crash" (lingo for a film ending too soon because of nitrate decomp).