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Friday, May 1, 2009

"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 cafĂ© 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).

1 comment:

  1. Wm. Charles MorrowJune 2, 2009 at 9:26 PM

    This was a very enjoyable program, and I especially appreciate your efforts to screen lesser-known performers and rare titles. It isn't every day film buffs get the chance to enjoy the work of Lige Conley, Jimmy Aubrey, etc. I hope Cruel & Unusual Comedy will become a regular series, and I also hope that more screenings can be scheduled in the evenings and on weekends, so those of us who are interested can attend more often. Anyhow, keep up the good work!