"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

"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.

1 comment:

  1. great show. great to see what my great great grandfather morris was probably watching when he got off the boat...i loved the go for broke passion and invention of these filmmakers...they were clearly making it up as they went along. also, the 'human cartoon' aspect was very bold -- i have to say the three stooges must have been inspired by some of this...thanks

    ken krimstein