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Monday, October 4, 2010

Class War: How the Other Half Lives

"Class War: How the Other Half Lives"

(film notes written by Steve Massa)

Bunny Dips Into Society (a.k.a. Bunny and the Bunny Hug) (5/17/1913) Dir: Wilfred North. Prod: Vitagraph Co. One reel. Cast: John Bunny, Earle Williams, Leah Baird, Ned Finley, Leo Delany, Lillian Hayward.

According to legend, in 1910 a rotund stage actor presented himself at the Vitagraph studio in Brooklyn looking for work. In a career that had encompassed 22 years, John Bunny had appeared in minstrel shows, circuses, vaudeville and worked with legends like William Brady, Lew Fields and Raymond Hitchcock. Despite this long track record he had decided that movies were the coming thing and that “he would rather be behind the guns than in front of them.” Bunny, who looked like Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch come to life, made an immediate impression on moviegoers and became a favorite.

In 1911 he began working regularly with Flora Finch. The combination of the expansive Bunny with the severe Finch created an instant combative chemistry, and although their most popular films were made together it’s been said that they had an active dislike for each other. Playing a variety of “salt of the earth” characters such as flirty husbands, old bachelors, crusty sea captains, etc., Bunny was a film actor years ahead of his time who got many of his laughs from a subtle look, or when a conflict of emotions would play across his broad face.

Although physically filling the stereotype of the jolly fat man, it’s rumored that Bunny was bad-tempered and egotistical, and, due to his extreme weight, narcoleptic, even able to snooze away in a complete standing position. In 1914, despite declining health, the comedian began doing double duty in films and on stage. Overwork, combined with kidney disease, caused his death on May 1, 1915. Tributes from around the world eulogized Bunny, predicting that he and his films would always be cherished by future generations, but sadly within only a few years the memory of him dimmed and most of the films disappeared.

Luke’s Shattered Sleep (12/31/1916) Prod: Rolin. Dir: Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. One reel. Cast: Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard, Bebe Daniels, Charles Stevenson, Fred Newmeyer, Sammy Brooks, Bud Jamison, Earl Mohan, Noah Young, Harry Todd, Gus Leonard.

In the 1920s Harold Lloyd became one of the top box-office attractions, and with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton came to be regarded as one of the three greatest comedians of the silent era. But Lloyd’s early film apprenticeship lasted much longer than Chaplin or Keaton’s as he searched for the right comedic approach and film persona. Harold came to films with a theatrical background, but unlike his rivals it was strictly dramatic. He originally had no desire to be a comedian, but after breaking into pictures as an extra, and beginning a friendship with a fellow extra named Hal Roach, Harold was thrust into the position of comedian when Roach received an inheritance and set up his own production company. With his customary combination of enthusiasm and hard work, Harold began learning film comedy and in a few years became one of its most able practitioners.

His first character was a bum called Willie Work, who can be observed in one of his earliest surviving shorts JUST NUTS (’15 – in MoMA’s collection). Soon Willie was re-worked and renamed Lonesome Luke, but both were heavily influenced by Charlie Chaplin. As Lonesome Luke Harold had a cat-like moustache, wore too-tight fitting clothes, and slapping and kicking was his main activity. Despite this Luke did become popular, giving Lloyd and Roach a toe-hold in the industry, but when the series graduated to two-reels Pathe and Roach were happy – but Harold was not. Feeling that Luke couldn’t develop any further Lloyd talked Roach into letting him try a new character – a sort of boy next door with glasses. At first this new persona was just Luke with glasses – the same roughhouse – but soon the gags softened and became tailored to this peppy idealist. Harold was soon on his way, and subsequent features like GRANDMA’S BOY (’22) and SAFETY LAST (’23) made him one of the biggest stars of the silent era.

Another important ingredient in Lloyd’s success was the talented supporting comics that Roach surrounded him with. Yeoman service was done by Snub Pollard and Bebe Daniels as his co-stars. A graduate of Pollard’s Lilliputians, Snub could be Harold’s ally or rival, and would often carry a sizeable chunk of a film while Harold was offscreen. Bebe was not a shrinking and demure leading lady, but a feisty tomboy who gave back as good as she got. The rest of the cast was made up of the Hal Roach stock company of players which included Charles Stevenson, Earl Mohan, Dorothea Wolbert, Gus Leonard, Bud Jamison, Bill Blaisdel, Noah Young, Margaret Joslin, Harry Todd, and Sammy Brooks, who all appeared in almost every short (sometimes in more than one role) and could be relied upon to get the most out of their screen time. As the years went by Roach continued to develop this group and it would later include the likes of George Rowe, William Gillespie, Mark Jones, Martha Sleeper, Tiny Sanford, Charlie Hall, and James Finlayson.

Time Flies (2/7/1926) Prod: Jack White. Dir: Jess Robbins. Dist: Educational Pictures. Two reels. Cast: Lupino Lane, Gwen Lee, Otto Fries, Virginia Vance, Wallace Lupino, Bert Young.

Along with Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks, Lupino Lane was one of the greatest acrobats of the screen. Born a member of the Lupino family – a famous theatrical clan that started its reign in the 1600s – he was raised in English pantomime and variety with a thorough training in tumbling, juggling, mime, and even shooting through “star traps” (trap doors in the stage floor that were connected to catapults that would allow a performer to suddenly pop into a scene). Known as “Little Nipper” as a child, he began working in British films as early as 1913 and when he hit international fame with the show AFGAR the tour brought him to America in the early 20s. After appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies and other Broadway shows he made his first venture to Hollywood to make a few shorts for Fox such as THE PIRATE (’22) and the feature A FRIENDLY HUSBAND (’23 – both in MoMA’s collection).

Following a return to England he began a series of comedies produced by Jack White and distributed by Educational Pictures. With the screen persona of a befuddled innocent who stumbles his way to success, Lane used all the physical tricks that he had learned on stage. The films are marvels of comic action, with Lane as the diminutive dervish that sets all the other elements spinning. Many of his shorts, like SWORD POINTS and PIRATES BEWARE (both ’28), were spoofs of Doug Fairbanks pictures, and he also used westerns, historical epics, and mountie melodramas for material. Early in the series the shorts were piloted by top-notch comedy directors like Jess Robbins, Norman Taurog, William Goodrich (a.k.a. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and Mark Sandrich, but in 1928 Lane took over the reins himself under the name Henry W. George. Lane made a smooth transition to sound, continuing his shorts into 1929, and appearing in prestigious features like Ernst Lubitish’s THE LOVE PARADE (’29). Despite all the success in Hollywood the family was homesick and returned to England in 1930. There Lane continued making films and had his greatest stage triumph in the late 1930s in the original production of ME AND MY GIRL.

TIME FLIES was directed by Jess Robbins, an overlooked pioneer who started his career as a cameraman at Essanay in 1908. He went out west with G.M. Anderson and eventually the division settled in Niles, CA. where Robbins became the general manager in 1913. After supervising Charlie Chaplin’s unit for Essanany, the studio soon closed and he went to Fort Lee to set up space for Anderson to make features. Moving out on his own he directed at L-Ko, and from 1920 to 1921 helmed Jimmy Aubrey’s two-reelers for Vitagraph. During that time Oliver Hardy was Aubrey’s support and when Robbins hooked up again with G.M. Anderson to direct the Stan Laurel “try-out” short THE LUCKY DOG (’21), it was Robbins that brought Hardy into the project. The 1920s saw Robbins involved in features such as A FRONT PAGE STORY (’22) and THE BUSINESS OF LOVE (’25), both with Edward Everett Horton, plus writing and directing shorts for Billy West, Jack White and Fox. After directing his final feature, the British made SKIRTS (’28) with Syd Chaplin, Robbins brought his career full-circle by having his last film be the Weiss Brothers short TAKING THE COUNT (’29) starring Ben Turpin, one of the people he had started with at Essanay in 1908. Running a taxi service, operating a machine screw factory, and being a machinist at a water purifying equipment company kept Robbins busy post movie career until his death in 1973.

Sweetie (4/25/1923) Century Comedy. Prod: Abe & Julius Stern. Dir: Alf Goulding. Two reels. Cast: Baby Peggy, Jerry Mandy, Louise Lorraine, Max Asher, James T. Kelly, William Irving.

Diana Serra Cary, better known as Baby Peggy, made her film debut at age nineteen months in 1920. Discovered by director Fred Fishback (a.k.a. Fred Hibbard), she started in Universal’s Century Comedies as support to Brownie the wonder dog, worked with Teddy and Lee Moran, and soon became the star of her own series. Tiny and cute, but in a character sort of way with her pug nose, big eyes, and bowl hair cut, Peggy became a miniature working girl in shorts like THE KID REPORTER (’23) or spoofed rival movie stars in PEG O’ THE MOVIES and CARMEN JR. (both ’23). She also headlined a series of loose fairy tale adaptations, HANSEL AND GRETEL (’23) and JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (’24), and moved into features such as THE DARLING OF NEW YORK (’23) and CAPTAIN JANUARY (’24). Her immense popularity led to all kinds of Baby Peggy merchandise – dolls, cut-outs, books, etc. – but by age 6 she found she was getting over the hill. Her Hollywood fame secured her appearances in vaudeville, but she was never able to get a foothold in pictures again. Many years later she re-emerged as a talented writer who has chronicled her life, and the experiences of other child performers in early Hollywood. Today, over 90 years old, she remains a feisty presence preserving film history and presiding over screenings of her films.

Century Comedies was founded and run by Abe and Julius Stern, brothers-in-law of Universal’s Carl Laemmle, and in the 1920s they had the market cornered on child and animal stars (no doubt due to the lower salaries involved). Peggy’s expert support in SWEETIE is the trio of James T. Kelly, Max Asher and William Irving, all of whom were comedy regulars and frequently on hand in her shorts. A long-time stage performer and vaudevillian James T. Kelly is best remembered today for the decrepit old men he played in Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual comedies, but he spent many years in shorts and features working with Harold Lloyd, Al St John, Billie Ritchie, Lloyd Hamilton, Hank Mann, and Snub Pollard until the late 1920s. Max Asher was a former vaudeville magician and “Dutch” comic who became the star of Universal’s Joker Comedies in 1913, eventually becoming a supporting character comic in all kinds of shorts and features. After the arrival of sound he was a studio make-up man and operated a popular magic shop in Ocean Park, CA. William Irving, a veteran of vaudeville and comic opera, specialized in comic villainy. He began his film career at L-Ko and worked in numerous shorts plus occasional features like TWIN BEDS (’20) with Mr. & Mrs. Carter De Haven before becoming an Al Christie regular in 1923, where he was the studio’s resident rival for the leading lady. In the sound era almost all of his appearances are uncredited, but he had a memorable encounter with Our Gang in MIKE FRIGHT (’34) and contributed comic bits in shorts and features up to his death in 1943.

Alf Goulding, was a long-time comedy pro who directed a dozen of Baby Peggy’s shorts. One of the many graduates of the Pollard’s Lilliputians theatrical troupe, he began his film career as a director and gagman for Hal Roach in 1917. After working on numerous Harold Lloyd and Snub Pollard shorts he switched to Century comedies with Brownie the wonder dog and Baby Peggy. The latter 1920s found him making a few on screen appearances in films such as THE LADY (’25) with Norma Talmadge, and directing many of the “Smith Family” comedies at the Sennett studio. In the early sound era he worked for RKO, Vitaphone, and Universal, then with the exception of L& H’s A CHUMP AT OXFORD (’40) spent the much of the final leg of his career in England on films like DICK BARTON:SPECIAL AGENT (’48). His career wound down after his Musty Suffer feature LAFFING TIME (’59), and he passed away back in Hollywood in 1972.

The Vagrant (9/25/1921) A Mermaid Comedy. Prod: Jack White. Dir: Hugh Fay. Dist: Educational Pictures. Two reels. Cast: Lloyd Hamilton, Irene Dalton, Tom Wilson, Lige Conley, Frank J. Coleman, Hugh Fay.

Lloyd Hamilton was one of the most original comedians of the 1920s. Largely unknown today to the fans of the “Crowned Heads of Comedy” (Keaton, Chaplin, etc.) due to the loss of most of his prime films, he frequently becomes a favorite of viewers lucky enough to catch him in action. Best described as an over-grown mama’s boy, he was prissy and courtly in a flat checkered cap, with a swishy, duck-waddle walk that became his trademark. Starting in pictures in 1913, his early work encompassed playing the Ford Sterling-ish “Pretzel” for Frontier Films, then he was teamed with little Bud Duncan for Kalem’s “Ham and Bud”comedies (Ham was the big skuzzy bum and Duncan the little skuzzy bum). The H & B shorts were primitive and cut-throat knockabout, but Hamilton refined his screen persona during a stint with Fox Sunshine Comedies where he connected with young director Jack White. In 1920 they launched their own series through Educational Pictures, which made Ham one of the top comics in short comedies.

The omnipresent cop who shadows Hamilton through the entire film is played by Tom Wilson, best remembered today for his work (also as a cop) in Charlie Chaplin’s First National comedies such as A DOG’S LIFE (’18) and THE KID (’21). Wilson came from the stage, where he had specialized in blackface roles, and began his film career as part of D.W. Griffith’s company at Reliance/Majestic and Fine Arts, appearing in THE BIRTH OF A NATION (’15) and INTOLERANCE (’16), plus shorts and other features supervised by “the master.” During this time he also appeared in a number of Doug Fairbanks early pictures, which may have led to him becoming part of Chaplin’s regular stock company in 1918. The 1920s saw him in numerous features and shorts – in blackface and out. Features include Hamilton’s HIS DARKER SELF (’24), BATTLING BUTLER (’26) with Buster Keaton, not to mention co-starring with Heinie Conklin and Cameo the dog in the blackface WWI comedy HAM AND EGGS AT THE FRONT (’27). After sound arrived he had a few prominent roles, but was soon relegated to small character bits, which he continued until 1963. Irene Dalton is the damsel in distress for whom Ham finds a novel use for a hammer to help sell corn plasters. An attractive comedy leading lady in the early 1920s, Dalton appeared in many Christie shorts and even a couple of features. In addition to working with Hamilton in six two-reelers she later became his second wife (for just a few months in 1927 to 1928). Her last film was in 1923, and she died young at age 33, passing away in 1934 just a year before Hamilton.

Director Hugh Fay is chiefly remembered today for an interview director Eddie Sutherland gave in the 1950s where he identified Fay as the Keystone drug dealer, claiming that he started Mabel Normand and others on the road to ruin. Since then no evidence has turned up to either prove or disprove the charge, but it has effectively overshadowed any interest in his work as a comedy performer and writer/director. Named for his father Hugh Fay Sr., who was part of the popular Irish comedy team Barry & Fay, Hugh was born into show business as was his sister Elfie Fay, who in the early part of the 20th Century was one of the rivals of Marie Dressler and Josie Sadler for the title of funniest woman on the New York stage. Young Hugh had his own career on stage and in vaudeville before joining Keystone in 1915 where he turns up in shorts such as A HASH HOUSE FRAUD (’15) and BATH TUB PERILS (’16). From Sennett he moved on to headline in Fox Sunshine Comedies and Hall Room Boys Comedies, but in the early 1920s he focused on directing. In addition to piloting a number of the Hamilton comedies, he worked for Bull Montana, Snub Pollard (including the famous IT’S A GIFT in 1924), Weiss Brothers and Jack White comedies, plus made late onscreen appearances as villainous characters in the features LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY (’25) and SPUDS (’27). Fay was very busy when he died in December of 1926 from stomach problems, with a number of his films released after his death.

(film notes copyright © 2010 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved)

Unsocialized Medicine: Health Care Comedies

"Unsocialized Medicine: Health Care Comedies"

(film notes written by Steve Massa)

Bunny Backslides (10/30/1914) Dir: George D. Baker. Prod: Vitagraph Film Co. One reel. Cast: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Josie Sadler, Charles Eldridge.

In addition to the rotund John Bunny (see BUNNY DIPS INTO SOCIETY), BUNNY BACKSLIDES features two excellent and overlooked character comediennes – Flora Finch and Josie Sadler. Skinny Finch, one of the earliest comedy stars in American films, specialized in spinsters and domineering wives, particularly when working with her frequent co-star Bunny. Born in Surrey, she began her career on stage in England with Ben Greet. After coming to the U.S. she began appearing in films while trying to establish herself on the American stage. Starting at Biograph in 1908 she caught the attention of D.W. Griffith, and made an impression in the “Jones Family” shorts and other comedies like ALL ON ACCOUNT OF THE MILK (’10). That year she moved pver to Vitagraph and was soon teamed with Bunny. The thin Finch and corpulent Bunny made a perfect physical contrast, and were audience favorites until Bunny’s death in 1915. Sadly the peak of Flora’s career was her years with Bunny, afterward she was never able to recapture the same popularity. Leaving Vitagraph in 1916, the next year she set up the Flora Finch Film Corporation and turned out a series of two-reelers that were cooly received by audiences and exhibitors. She returned to the supporting ranks and kept very busy, turning up in a few Johnny Hines films like THE EARLY BIRD (’25) and in high profile features such as QUALITY STREET and THE CAT AND THE CANARY (both ’27). Flora was also regular support in “Carrie of the Chorus,” a series of live-action shorts made by Max and Dave Fleischer. By the time that sound arrived, outside of an occasional character bit in an independent feature like THE SCARLET LETTER (’34) or her funny cameo in the opening of Laurel & Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST (’37), she was mostly confined to anonymous extra work.

Josie Sadler, who was as round as Finch was angular, was one of the best-loved stage comediennes at the beginning of the 20th Century. Small and rotund, she began her career at age 9 after being discovered by impresario Tony Pastor, and became famous for playing naïve immigrant girls in shows like PRINCE PRO TEM (1899), THE SILVER SLIPPER (’02) and her biggest success PEGGY FROM PARIS (’03). Running the gamut from Dutch, Cockney, French, Swedish and German, Sadler wrote many of her own musical specialty numbers, a few of which she recorded for Victor. Joining the Vitagraph ensemble in 1913, Sadler at first turned up in support of Bunny, Sidney Drew and Norma Talmadge. Soon the studio began tailoring films to her stage fame – THE COMING OF GRETCHEN (’13) and THE MAID FROM SWEDEN (’14) were about the misadventures of immigrant women, and then launched in her own series of “Josie” comedies. 5 episodes about a German household drudge were made, after which she did BUNNY BACKSLIDES as her last film for Vitagraph. Slowing down the pace of her work she made only occasional stage appearances and only two more pictures. In 1920 she completely retired from show business to run the electrical business of her late husband, and died in 1927. Today she’s part of the huge list of neglected comediennes, and although her film career was brief her immigrant servant girl persona was a forerunner for ladies like Louise Fazenda, Jane Bernoudy, and Alice Howell who would soon follow.

A Professional Patient (1/19/1917) Dir: Sidney Drew. Prod: Vitagraph Company. 1 reel. Cast: Sidney Drew, Lucille McVey (Mrs. Sidney Drew), Donald McBride, Bobby Connolly.

In the ‘teens an alternate to the rough and ready slapstick shorts were the witty and sophisticated comedies of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew. For a few years the Vitagraph studio was the bastion for this type of picture, with not only the Drews but also Wally Van’s “Cutey” series, Lillian Walker’s “Dimples” shorts, and most famously the Bunny-Finches. By early 1917 the tide had turned when all of the above players moved on, and Vitagraph comedies were taken over by Larry Semon.

Sidney Drew was a light comedian from the stage who entered films in 1911 and embraced the medium much more than the rest of his illustrious theatrical family (Lionel, John and Ethel Barrymore) to become an innovative writer and director. His early films were for Kalem, then he joined Vitagraph in 1913 with his first wife Gladys Rankin (who wrote under the name of George Cameron). Mrs. Drew died soon after and Sidney married Lucille McVey, a young actress who had recently joined Vitagraph after six years of presenting recitations on the concert stage, and was working under the name Jane Morrow.

In 1914 they launched their series which chronicled the misadventures of an average married couple that became known as “Henry and Polly.” The Drews worked together on the scripts and direction, while Sidney’s dry and expert performances put them over on the screen. Becoming immensely popular the pair left Vitagraph and continued the series for Metro. At ten minutes their shorts revolved around a simple situation or misunderstanding taken to the Nth degree, as in this entry where Sidney loses his job and ends up being a living advertisement for a painless dentist.

Later the Drews moved to the V.B.K. Film Corp. with distribution through Paramount, and appeared together on the stage. Sidney Drew’s health rapidly declined after the death of his son (director S. Rankin Drew) in World War I, and he died at the peak of his fame in 1919. After his death Mrs. Drew continued on – fulfilling their V.B.K. contract with shorts like BUNKERED (’19), later moving to Pathe for a few that she wrote, directed and starred in. She also directed the Vitagraph feature COUSIN KATE (’21) before her own premature death in 1925.

The Snow Cure (4/23/1916) Keystone Comedy. Dir: Arvid E. Gilstrom. Prod: Mack Sennett. Dist: Mutual. Two reels. Cast: Ford Sterling, Fritz Schade, Marie Manly, Alice Davenport, James Donnelly, Slim Summerville, Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Lee Morris, Otto Fries, Bert Gillespie, Harold “Josh” Binney, Coy Watson Sr., Clarence Lyndon, Bruno the bear.

THE SNOW CURE is a wild and wacky Mack Sennett farce that dumps large helpings of snow, fat men in bathing suits, a jealous husband, telegraph poles, and a long-suffering bear into its artistic blender and turns it on puree. The nominal star is Ford Sterling (see HEARTS AND FLOWERS), but most of the heavy comedic lifting is done by Fritz Schade and Bruno the bear. Schade, the human half of the duo, is a forgotten roly-poly comic who did yeoman work at Keystone from 1913 to 1917. Born in Germany, where he had extensive stage experience before coming to American to work for the Olympia Opera Company, he made his film debut at Universal before taking up residence at Sennett. He appeared frequently with Chaplin in 1914, but the next year was the headliner in a series of one-reelers where he was often paired with a young Charles Parrott (a.k.a. Charley Chase). Schade took a lot of physical abuse in the name of comedy, and usually played excitable characters named Fritz, or something more exotic like Baron von Hassenfeffer. After his stint with Sennett he moved on to Triangle Komedies, and finished his film career at Fox Sunshine Comedies in 1918. Illness forced him to retire and he died following brain surgery in 1926. Bruno the bear was one of the many animals who appeared at the studio, some like Teddy the great dane and Pepper the cat were regular studio stars. Bruno was a silent comedy veteran, turning up in other films such as Gale Henry’s HER WEEK-END (’19), and is responsible for a lot of the laughs in this picture.

The afore-mentioned fat guys in bathing suits are Frank “Fatty” Alexander, Bert Gillesppie, Josh Binney, and Otto Fries. Frank Alexander was probably the heaviest “heavy” in silent comedy, and although today best remembered for his supporting Larry Semon and being the ringleader in the Ton of Fun comedies, he also carried weight in shorts for Sennett, L-Ko, Century, Fox, plus plenty of features. The large person who spends much of his screen time floating on his back in the spa’s swimming pool is Bert Gillespie, a cannonball shaped actor who was only 5’3’’ but weighed 355 pounds. He appeared in comedies for Sennett, Fox, and Henry Lehrman Specials but died in 1922 at age 33. Harold “Josh” Binney worked for Biograph, Imp, Vogue, and Sennett before setting up his own production company to make “Josh Binney Comedies” that starred another hefty comic, Hilliard “Fatt” Karr, as “Funny Fatty Filbert.” Perhaps the slimmest of this herd is Otto Fries – he may just qualify as husky – who was a silent and sound comedy veteran for many years (see WHAT A NIGHT). Also on hand are bean pole Slim Summerville (see ASCHOOLHOUSE SCANDAL), plus character players James Donnelly and Alice Davenport.

Arvid E. Gillstrom is the director and skilled traffic cop of this production. Born in Sweden, he came to the United States as an infant and was a mining engineer, prospector, and ball player before entering films as a stunt man. After working his way up to an assistant director at Kalem, he became a full-fledged director at Sterling Comedies and moved over to Keystone in 1915. THE SNOW CURE was his first solo directorial credit at the studio, but after being one of the many uncredited contributors to the Mabel Normand feature MICKEY (’18) he became director general for Chaplin imitator Billy West’s King Bee Comedies. From this point he traveled all over the silent comedy map – helming the moppets Jane and Katherine Lee for Fox, Muriel Ostriche’s series for Arrow, Century Comedies, Jack White Comedies, FBO, Weiss Brothers, and finished the silent era at Christie Comedies. Only occasionally piloting features like CLANCEY’S KOSHER WEDDING (’27), his sound films included shorts for Educational and Paramount starring names such as Harry Langdon and Bing Crosby. He died young at age 43 in 1935.

Naughty Nurses (3/1920) Arrow-Hank Mann Super Comedy. Prod: Morris R. Schlank. Dir: ?. Dist: Arrow. Two reels. Cast: Hank Mann, Vernon Dent, Madge Kirby.

In the silent era the American film industry was still in its formative stages, with the studios not really taking over and making everything regimented until the end of the 1920s. There were numerous independent producers who relied on distribution organizations to get their productions to the public. The Arrow Film Corporation was one of the larger of these outfits and handled all kinds of films – shorts, serials, and features – of all genres – comedy, westerns, melodramas, sports pictorials, etc. Arrow was formed in 1915 by W.E. Shallenberger as a production unit, but soon switched to brokering other producer’s productions. By the early 1920s it was one of the largest independent distributors around, and its comedy shorts included the work of Eddie Lyons, Bobby Dunn, Muriel Ostrich, and Billy West, not to mention Reggie Morris’ Special Comedies, the Cruelyweds series, and Fred Ardath’s XLNT Comedies. Arrow ceased to be in 1924 when the vice-president, W. Ray Johnston, formed Rayart Productions, which produced their own low-budget films while distributing outside product. Rayart had comedy shorts that starred Bobby Ray and Al Alt, plus four comedy features that included THRILLING YOUTH (’26) and LUCKY FOOL (’27 – both in MoMA’s collection) that starred and were produced by former Chaplin imitator Billy West. Rayart was re-organized as Monogram Pictures in 1930, which became beloved for its B films with the likes of Bela Lugosi and the Bowery Boys.

Hank Mann cranked out a record number of these shorts in a three year period (see THE GUM RIOT), and the man with the money was producer Morris Schlank. In addition to Hank’s series Schlank also produced Broadway Comedies with Eddie Barry and Vera Reynolds, Spotlight Comedies with Billy Fletcher (a.k.a. Bletcher) and Violet Joy, western features with Al Hoxie and Jack Perrin, plus action thrillers directed by J.P. McGowan. Schlank later moved his product to Rayart, and kept producing right up to his death in 1932.

Hank’s leading lady in this Arrow series, and the main naughty nurse of the title, is British born Madge Kirby. Coming to the U.S. at age nine, she went on the stage at 14 appearing with Richard Carle and Lew Fields, in addition to performing in vaudeville with Fred Walton. She began her film career in 1912 with the Biograph Company. During her four years there she played the dark-haired ingénue in shorts such as THE BOOB AND THE MAGICIAN (’14), and when she left them she became one of the most prolific comedy leading ladies of the ‘teens. In 1916 she joined Rube Miller and Arthur Tavares in the ensemble at Vogue Comedies, and passed through Imp, Victor, American, Fox, and LaSalle Comedies before landing at Vitagraph with Larry Semon. On the way to hooking up with Larry she’d begun wearing a blonde wig, and is always the heroine in distress in shorts like BATHING BEAUTIES AND BIG BOOBS (’18), and TRAPS AND TANGLES (’19). Never having the opportunity to be funny on her own, she embodied the part of the heroine in peril, and fulfilled much the same function when she joined Hank’s ensemble in 1919. As the girl the bashful Hank flirts with from afar as in THE BILL POSTER (’20), or as usual needing rescue in A HAREM HERO (’19) and MYSTIC MUSH (’20), Kirby is warm and plucky and seems like she should have moved on to greater use in the 1920s, but she drops off the film map at the end of this series. Hopefully she was one of the many movie ingénues to marry millionaires and happily retire from the screen.

Good Night Nurse (4/28/1929) Lupino Lane Comedies. Prod: Jack White. Dir: Henry W. George (Lupino Lane). Dist: Educational Pictures. Cast: Lupino Lane, Wallace Lupino, Fay Holderness, Muriel Evans, Eleanor Fredericks.

This is the next to last silent short from Lupino Lane (see TIME FLIES), who’d already released SHIP MATES (’29), his first sound comedy. Lane didn’t really change his style all that much to adapt to the new technology, which gave him the opportunity to show off his singing and dancing skills as well. After returning to England in 1930 one of his first films there was NO LADY (‘31) which contains several silent comedy set pieces from his Educational shorts re-worked for sound. All of his later films left plenty of room for physical business.

An important ingredient in Lane’s films was his younger brother Wallace Lupino, who had the same upbringing and training in the English theatre. The brothers had worked together on stage and in early British films, so when Lane embarked on his series for Jack White Comedies Wallace was tapped as his main support – playing villains, rivals, or buddies. Where Lupino Lane was pure clown, Wallace was a versatile comic character actor, and among his many roles were a Moroccan sheik, a fiery gaucho, and, in LISTEN SISTER (’28), even a boarding school head mistress. Besides supporting his brother and other comics on the lot, White starred Wallace in some of his own one and two-reel comedies such as HARD WORK and THE LOST LAUGH (both ‘28), which garnered good reviews and praise for Wallace. The shorts successfully continued through 1929 and the coming of sound, but in 1930 the family returned to England. The pair continued to work together on stage and in films, and Wallace also appeared with cousin Barry Lupino, in addition to turning excellent character performances in THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES (’37) and WATERLOO ROAD (’45). He later teamed with his nephew Laurie Lupino Lane in a club act, but after finding that the onset of arthritis made physical knockabout too painful, he retired.

GOOD NIGHT NURSE is almost totally a tit-for-tat routine between the brothers Lupino – the kind of thing they’d been doing together their whole lives. Although the pair are really the whole show, there are a couple of regular comedy players who turn up as nurses. Appearing fleetingly as the doctors’ office nurse is Muriel Evans, who would become one of Charley Chase’s favorite leading ladies in shorts such as OLD IRONSIDES (’32) and HIS SILENT RACKET (’33). After working with Charley she moved to bits in features like QUEEN CHRISTINA (’33) and HOLLYWOOD PARTY (’34) before finally becoming a western sweetheart for Buck Jones, William Boyd, and Tex Ritter in low-budget oaters until she retired in 1940.

The large nurse at the sanitarium that tries to dispense the hot mustard plaster is Fay Holderness, a somewhat smaller version of Blanche Payson with dark circles under her eyes, who specialized in hen-pecking wives and bossy matrons. Born in 1888, little is known about her pre-film life, but she started working in 1914 although not making an impression until she played the Innkeeper in D.W. Griffith’s HEARTS OF THE WORLD (’18). At the same time she can be spied as a dance hall girl in Chaplin’s A DOG’S LIFE (’18), as well as being a stock player in Billy West’s later King Bee comedies. Although she worked everywhere – L-Ko, Fox, Christie, and Jack White – she’s probably most familiar for her roles at the Hal Roach studio in support of Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Max Davidson, Clyde Cook, and others. Her feature appearances include THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (’24 – MoMA’s collection) and LONESOME (’28), and she remained busy in sound films until the early 1950s.

(film notes copyright © 2010 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved)

Altered States: Under the Influence

"Altered States: Under the Influence"

(film notes written by Steve Massa)

Mabel’s Married Life (6/20/1914) Prod: Keystone. Dir: Mack Sennett. Dist: Mutual. One reel. Cast: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Eva Nelson, Charlie Murray, Harry McCoy, Hank Mann, Frank Opperman, Alice Davenport, Dixie Chene, Alice Howell, Grover Ligon, Wallace MacDonald.

Doing a drunk act was a specialty for Charlie Chaplin, as he made his name on the stage playing the “inebriated swell” in the popular Fred Karno sketch MUMMING BIRDS (re-titled A NIGHT IN AN ENGLISH MUSIC HALL in America). This led to his hiring by Mack Sennett, and at Keystone Chaplin captured his drunk routine on film a number of times in shorts such as THE ROUNDERS, HIS FAVORITE PASTIME, and this one. Even if Charlie isn’t out and out plotzed in a Keystone he’s usually had a few drinks or doing his best to obtain some. The world of Sennett’s Keystone films was filled with eccentric and lower class characters that were very similar to the denizens of Karno’s stage universe. So after a brief transition it didn’t take long for Chaplin to get his footing and become the most famous man in motion pictures. It is ironic that so much of Chaplin’s early career revolved around his inebriation portrayal since Charlie never really drank, and his father had been a terrible alcoholic and died due to drink at a very early age.

Of course the Mabel of the title is Mabel Normand, preeminent star of the Sennett lot, often billed as “the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit.” In American silent comedy Mabel is really the acorn from which all the other star comediennes grew as she was both leading lady and clown. She also has the distinction of being the first slapstick shorts star to be moved into features, as she predates Roscoe Arbuckle’s jump by two years. Most of the silent comics came from the stage, but Mabel was a teenage model for photographers and artists such as James Montgomery Flagg. Being in New York the fledgling movie industry was all around her, and by 1911 she was appearing in Vitagraph comedies and D.W. Griffith dramas for Biograph. Although she had no formal experience as an actress she was spontaneous and spunky, and the camera loved her. A professional and personal relationship with Sennett led to her becoming his leading lady – first at Biograph and then at his own Keystone studio.

The often slapdash and usually rowdy early Keystones rarely stopped to give her an opportunity to do more than perform slapstick roughhouse and react to the gyrations of Sennett, Ford Sterling, and Fred Mace. But soon she began directing many of her own shorts (one of only a handful of women to do so), and when she worked with Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle the breakneck pace was slowed and there was more concentration on characterization, particularly in the popular “Fatty and Mabel” series which combined physical slapstick with situational and domestic comedy. As mentioned earlier Mabel moved into features in 1918 with a slew of films for Samuel Goldwyn and the Sennett-produced MICKEY. Sadly bad luck and health plagued the latter part of her career, and today she’s often better remembered for her early death and the scandals she was linked to than for the almost twenty years she spent entertaining audiences. The good news is that over the past few years a number of her lost films, including three features, have resurfaced, so there’s now a greater opportunity for viewers to rediscover and re-examine her place in silent comedy history.

In addition to Keystone regulars like Hank Mann, Alice Davenport, Charlie Murray, Harry McCoy, and Frank Opperman, Charlie’s antagonist is the great Mack Swain, who was always in a class by himself. After a background in vaudeville and musical theatre, Swain started his career at Keystone in 1913. Working frequently with Chaplin and Chester Conklin, he became very popular with his character of Ambrose, a put upon everyman with dark-circled eyes, a brush moustache, and a peak of hair gathered on his forehead. Leaving Sennett in 1917 Mack continued Ambrose for L-Ko, Fox Sunshine, and the independent Poppy Comedies. His career stalled in the early 1920s when he was blacklisted by an influential producer, but his old screen mate Chaplin came to the rescue and made Mack part of his stock company in films such as THE IDLE CLASS (’21) and THE PILGRIM (’23). After his hilarious performance in THE GOLD RUSH (’25) Mack was back in demand and rode the wave of a comeback as support in features such as HANDS UP! (’26), MOCKERY (’27) and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (’28), and would continue playing major parts into the early sound era. For many years the actress playing the role of Mack’s wife was misidentified as Alice Howell (who does turn up later as an inhabitant of the boarding house), but it’s actually forgotten comedienne Eva Nelson. Little is known about Nelson but she began regular appearances at Keystone in 1914, and soon left to become a featured performer in Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s L-Ko Comedies, where she was frequently cast as Billie Ritchie’s battling and long-suffering wife in shorts like LIVE WIRES AND LOVE SPARKS (’16). She later appeared in Lehrman’s Fox Sunshine Comedies, and then disappeared from the screen.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish (6/11/1915) Prod: Fine Arts. Dir: Christy Cabanne & John Emerson. Dist: Triangle. Three reels. Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, A.D. Sears, Alma Rubens, Joe Murphy, Tom Wilson, Charlie Stevens, George Hall.

Since Douglas Fairbanks is remembered as the great optimist and swashbuckler of the silent screen, not to mention having been the king of Hollywood with his wife Mary Pickford as his queen, it’s a pleasant shock to see him play the strung-out Coke Ennyday in this spoof of Sherlock Holmes-style detectives. Fairbanks began his career on the stage where he spent a number of years as one of Broadway’s best light leading men. In 1915 the Triangle Film Corporation brought well-known stage stars like Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, DeWolf Hopper, William Collier, and Fairbanks to Hollywood to give class to the movies. At first Doug’s larger-than-life personality took everyone aback (particularly D.W. Griffith), but soon he found he was able to express himself physically on film in ways that he never could on the stage, and he was an immediate hit with audiences. THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH is his 8th film, and definitely an oddity in his total output. It was made as the special opener to kick off a series of shorts for D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Studio, which continued with two-reelers starring Fay Tincher. LEAPING FISH is a completely bizarre spoof of detectives, drug use, and yellow peril films, all put together with a George Melies elan.

In 1917 Fairbanks set up his own production company with distribution through Paramount Pictures, and alternated smart, satirical comedies (often written and directed by the husband and wife team of John Emerson and Anita Loos) with light-hearted action vehicles. Seeking greater control, he co-founded United Artists in 1919 with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith to produce and distribute their films. In the 1920s Fairbanks switched from out and out comedies to swashbucklers such as THE MARK OF ZORRO (’20), ROBIN HOOD (’24), THE BLACK PIRATE (’26) and THE IRON MASK (’29). Sound film effected Fairbanks very much as it did Buster Keaton – they seemed boxed in, unable to give the incredible physical performances that were the whole point of their silent films. Suddenly the quicksilver Fairbanks seemed middle-aged and listless. He continued making films for a while but eventually grew disinterested. His rousing adventures ended quietly at age 56 in 1939.

Comedy players Tom Wilson (see THE VAGRANT) and Joe Murphy turn up in small roles. The tall and chinless Murphy was an ex-vaudevillian who had performed a “Mutt and Jeff” act on stage with diminutive Bobby Vernon, and when Vernon got settled in films he got bits for his ex-partner. After playing roles at practically every shorts unit in Hollywood – L-Ko, Keystone, Triangle, Fox Sunshine, National, Reelcraft, and Educational, where his extreme height and goofy looks always made him stand out, Murphy achieved stardom in 1924 when he was cast as Andy Gump in Universal’s live-action version of The Gumps. His reign was brief, as at the end of the series he went back to the supporting ranks, but he continued to pop up in sound shorts, most notably with the Three Stooges in YOU NATZY SPY (’40). The script for this short was written by Tod Browning, famous today for FREAKS (’32) and silent thrillers with Lon Chaney. After a background in carnivals and circuses, Browning became an actor in the Komic Komedies that D. W. Griffith supervised for the Reliance/Majestic studio, and it wasn’t long before Browning began writing and directing his own pictures, in addition to being one of the many assistants on INTOLERANCE (’16). “Cruel and Unusual” would be an apt description of Browning’s cinematic world, and you can certainly see the future creator of THE UNHOLY THREE (’25) and THE DEVIL-DOLL (’36) in this script.

MYSTERY has two directors – W. Christy Cabanne and John Emerson – both important players in the beginning of Fairbanks’ film career. Christy Cabanne’s early days were spent in the U.S. Navy, after which he went on the stage, and in 1910 joined D. W. Griffith’s unit at the Biograph studio. Soon becoming one of the masters apprentices, writing and directing under his supervision, he eventually assisted on the mega productions THE BIRTH OF A NATION (’15) and INTOLERANCE (’16). Cabanne remained connected to Griffith when he set up his Fine Arts Studio, and became its Chief of Staff while directing all types of films – westerns, melodramas, and some of Fairbanks’ first features. After this early promise with Griffith the rest of Cabanne’s career was prolific but lackluster. One item of interest is that he shot the Technicolor nativity scene for BEN HUR (’25), but outside of GRAFT (’31) and THE MUMMY’S HAND (’40) he essentially made potboilers until 1948. Co-director John Emerson was a Broadway actor who, like Fairbanks, had been one of the theatre names acquired by Triangle. Although he had been hired to direct and act in dramas, Emerson ended up having more success with comedies, particularly after he teamed up with the young screenwriter Anita Loos. Their first picture together was Fairbanks’ HIS PICTURE IN THE PAPERS (’16) and more hits followed with THE MATRIMANIAC and THE AMERICANO (both ’16). In 1917 the pair moved with Doug over to Paramount for more films, and the next year Paramount gave them their own production unit where they wrote comedies for Shirley Mason, Marion Davies, and Fred Stone. After marrying in 1919 they began writing for Constance Talmadge, a collaboration that created a dozen feature comedies and lasted until 1925. Emerson continued writing and producing until the mid 1930s.

How Dry I Am (12/7/1919) Prod: Rolin. Dir: Charles Parrott. Dist: Pathe. One reel. Cast: Snub Pollard, Mildred Davis, Sunshine Sammy, Noah Young, Eddie Boland, Gaylord Lloyd.

Snub Pollard is still one of the most recognizable faces of silent comedy. Born Harold Frasier in Australia in 1886, he came to America with a children’s comic opera troupe called Pollard’s Lilliputians and took Pollard as his name after the group disbanded. He began appearing in Essanay films around 1914, turning up in Chaplin’s BY THE SEA and POLICE (both ’15), and, more importantly, was a member of the general stock company in comedies directed by Hal Roach. Soon Roach set up his own production company and hired Snub to support his star comic Harold Lloyd. In 1919 Snub was given his own one-reel series, cranking out as many as forty a year. His character was that of a goofy goon with a Fu Manchu moustache. His breezy, anything-for-a-laugh style of films were closer to the Mack Sennett school of comedy, and when the Roach house style became more sophisticated in the mid 1920s Snub’s series was discontinued. After a return to vaudeville in 1926 he moved over to the independent Weiss Brothers Artclass Pictures for a series of poverty-row shorts that teamed him with corpulent Marvin Lobach in pale and outright imitations of Laurel & Hardy films. Reduced to bit parts in sound films, he plugged away in shorts, features and television until his death in 1962, even appearing as himself in films about old Hollywood such as MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (’57).

Snub always got a lot of help from his friends in his Roach comedies, with Mildred Davis and Sunshine Sammy Morrison on hand in HOW DRY I AM. Mildred had already been working with Harold Lloyd, but while he was re-cooperating after his bomb accident she kept busy as Snub’s leading lady. Sunshine Sammy had recently come from supporting Baby Marie Osborne and “Fatty” Arbuckle, not to mention doing a few starring shorts of his own, to being the comedy secret weapon of the Roach lot. After working with Lloyd, Snub, Eddie Boland, and Paul Parrott, Roach built Our Gang around Sammy in 1922 where he stayed until he left pictures for vaudeville in 1924. Another of Snub’s frequent supports in his early one-reelers was comedian Eddie Boland, a stage veteran who had appeared in Universal’s Joker Comedies. Roach soon moved Boland into his own series with the Vanity Fair Girls, but as his character was rather nondescript the series only lasted into 1922. Boland was much more effective as support in features where he was usually cast as a boozer or a con man. His most memorable appearance was probably as the carnival barker in Harold Lloyd’s THE KID BROTHER (’27), and he also did some great work in a number of mid 20s Lloyd Hamilton shorts. He continued appearing in features until his death in 1935.

One of the most ubiquitous faces on the Roach lot was pug-ugly Noah Young. A former champion weight-lifter, according to Hal Roach he was turned down for World War I service because of bad teeth, and in 1918 he began menacing and manhandling every comic at the studio until the end of the silent era. Although busy at Roach he still found time to play support in various comedy and western features. Harold Lloyd’s first talkie WELCOME DANGER (’29) revealed that Noah had a voice that was very similar to Mickey Mouses’ pal Goofy, and his roles dwindled to walk-ons and bits. His last known appearances were in 1935 Roach titles such as THE FIXER UPPERS and VAGABOND LADY. Also appearing is Harold Lloyd’s older brother Gaylord. A member of the Roach stock company from its inception (JUST NUTS (’15) in MoMA’s collection), as kids Gaylord got Harold his first stage role, and the two remained close all their lives. Gaylord did whatever was needed on camera and off for the fledgling Roach company, and when the studio decided to revive Lonesome Luke in 1921 he was given the role. Five shorts were made, but despite a nice build up, good production values, and funny gags, Gaylord didn’t have the appeal of Harold. Continuing to do small bits, when Harold set up his own corporation in 1923 Gaylord became its casting director and assistant director on many of the Lloyd features. He still worked on other films, and on the set of SCARFACE (’32) lost an eye in an incident that was similar to Harold’s 1919 accident with a live bomb. After receiving a small settlement from the production company, Gaylord worked for Harold until his death in 1943.

The Gum Riot (1920) Arrow-Hank Mann Super Comedy. Prod: Morris R. Schlank. Dir: ?. Dist: Arrow. Two reels. Cast: Hank Mann, Vernon Dent, Madge Kirby, Jess Weldon, Jack Richardson.

Hank Mann is considered the comedian’s comedian of the silent era with his underplayed style and dry wit. He began at Keystone in 1913, made a name for himself there, and then starred at L-KO, back again at Sennett, and finally Fox Films before he began this series for producer Morris Schlank in 1919. Starting as one-reelers they expanded to two the next year with BROKEN BUBBLES (’20 – in MoMA’s collection). The shooting of these comedies was non-stop during 1919 to 1921, and the Feb. 14, 1920 issue of the Exhibitor’s Herald describes the process – “In order to produce twenty-six two-reel comedies this year, Morris Schlank, the producer, is working two companies with two directors. Just as soon as one comedy is completed Mr. Mann steps into the picture that has been started by the second director, while the first director cuts and edits the completed picture.”

Over forty comedies were completed during that three year period, and although the films have no official director credit the trade magazines list Charles Parrott (a.k.a. Charley Chase), Tom Gibson, Herman C. Raymaker, Al Santell, and Robert Kerr as being behind the megaphone at various times. After all the shorts were made they remained in circulation for the next few years, and it appears that Hank’s trademark character with the brush moustache, bowl haircut and derby was under contract to producer Schlank while they played. In the meantime he worked as a gag writer for Lloyd Hamilton, Jack White Comedies, and Christie Comedies where he often turns up in funny cameo bits “au natural.” He wouldn’t appear again his old comedy get-up until a 1926 series for Tennek/Sava Films.

Hank’s heavy and second banana in this series was his discovery Vernon Dent, who became one of the rocks of early screen comedy. Dent was a vaudevillian and singer in cafes when Mann tapped him for these comedies, and it wasn’t long before he was starring in his own series of Folly Comedies for the Pacific Film Co. There was more than a little “Fatty” Arbuckle in this group of shorts, from Vernon’s costume to the rural settings and situations. After free-lancing a bit, he was hired by Mack Sennett in 1923 and became a fixture on the lot where he provided the comic gravity to counterpoint the antics of clowns such as Billy Bevan and Harry Langdon. Always in demand he appeared in features like THE CAMERAMAN and GOLF WIDOWS (both ’28), plus some late silent shorts for Jack White Comedies where he was teamed with Monty Collins. He continued in sound pictures without missing a beat, turning up in features and sound shorts for Educational, Sennett, Vitaphone, and Paramount. In 1935 he joined the stock company at the Columbia shorts department where he stayed for over twenty years making screen life difficult for the Three Stooges, Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, Vera Vague, Hugh Herbert, El Brendel, Quillan & Vernon, and Bert Wheeler. His last appearance (via stock footage) was with the Stooges in GUNS A-POPPIN (’57), and he died in 1963.

Another fixture in Hank’s Arrow comedies was little Jess Weldon, who usually played his boss or some other authority figure. Sometimes described as a dwarf, he seemed to have been born old and was as big around as he was tall. His screen appearances started in the late ‘teens in Fox Sunshine and Vitagraph Comedies, and his feature films include playing the head eunuch in Douglas Fairbanks’ THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (’24). Weldon died in 1925 the day before he was to stand trial on drug trafficking charges. Also getting some early exposure in this series was Jack Richardson, who later became known for his comic villainy at the Sennett studio. Born in London, Richardson began his career in the music halls and variety, and later appeared in stock in Vancouver, B.C. It’s been reported that Jack worked with Charlie Chaplin on the stage and made his first screen appearance with the Chaplin company, and from there he moved on to Vitagraph, First National, Fox Sunshine, and Hank’s series. In 1920 he settled into a five year run at Sennett where he connived and bullied the likes of Ben Turpin and Billy Bevan in comedies such as STEP FORWARD (’22) and SUPER-HOOPER-DYNE-LIZZIES (’25). After leaving Sennett in 1925 he turned up in comedies for Samuel Bischoff and the West Brothers – including a stint as Rotten Rudolph in their Hairbreadth Harry series – and in Jack White Comedies. His features include A SMALL TOWN IDOL (’21), Billy West’s THRILLING YOUTH (’26) and BARE KNEES (’28). In the early days of sound he appeared in small bits in Hal Roach and Mack Sennett shorts, and continued in many features like MOVIE CRAZY (’32), THE ROARING TWENTIES (’39), and MEET JOHN DOE (’41) up to his death in 1942.

What a Night (11/30/1924) Mermaid Comedy. Prod: Jack White. Dir: Norman Taurog. Dist: Educational Pictures. Two reels. Cast: Lige Conley, Otto Fries, Louise Carver, Clem Beauchamp, Phil Dunham, Al Thompson, Jack Lloyd, Bert Young.

Although overlooked today Lige Conley was a popular comic of the mid 1920s, in a series of fast and furious two-reelers for Jack White Comedies. Billed as “the Speed Boy of the Screen,” Conley was a local California boy who began appearing in Keystone films as a teen, and through stints at Sennett, Roach, L-Ko, Lehrman, and Reelcraft worked his way up to a starring position. Sadly his popularity didn’t last long after leaving White in 1926, and following a starring series for Fox he was relegated to mostly behind the scenes work until his death in 1937. Conley’s Jack White comedies were distributed by Educational Pictures, probably the biggest independent distributor of comedy shorts in the 1920s, best remembered for its Aladdin’s lamp trademark with the slogan “The Spice of the Program.” Educational was founded by E.W. Hammons in 1915 with the idea of supplying educational films to schools. When that proved to not be lucrative Hammons turned to distributing “short subjects” – newsreels, cartoons, travelogues – to fill out the typical movie program. His specialty became comedy shorts, and during the 20s he handled the product of Jack White, Al Christie, C.C. Burr, Chester Comedies, Hamilton Comedies, Charley Bowers, and others. The change-over to sound and the depression brought a cheapening of his offerings, but Hammons stayed in slugging until economic issues finally forced him out of the business in 1939.

Producer Jack White was the boy wonder of silent comedy and today is its forgotten mogul. Born in Hungary as Jacob Weiss, his family came to America, anglicized their name, and settled in Edendale, California where the movie industry was shooting up all around them. Jack began his career as an office boy at Keystone in 1912, where he was frequently used in kid’s roles in shorts like FATTY JOINS THE FORCE and HIS SISTER’S KIDS (both ’13). Fired by Sennett for inadvertently delivering a rival job offer to Ford Sterling that led him to leave and star at Sterling Pictures, White spent the next few years working for Henry “Pathe” Lehrman – first at Sterling, then learning editing at L-Ko, and directing Fox comedies by age 19. At Fox he met and formed a partnership with Lloyd Hamilton, and became a full-fledged producer in 1920 at age 21 when they began distributing their shorts through Educational. The 1920s was a golden decade for White when he released Mermaid, Tuxedo, Ideal and one-reel Cameo Comedies starring the likes of Lloyd Hamilton, Lige Conley, Jimmie Adams, Lupino Lane, Al St John, Johnny Arthur, Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian, Sid Smith, Jerry Drew, Wallace Lupino, Monty Collins, and Cliff Bowes. Behind-the-scenes talent that worked for White included Norman Taurog, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (as William Goodrich), Fred Hibbard, Charles Riesner, Lloyd Bacon, Gilbert Pratt, Stephen Roberts, and his younger brother Jules White. When sound arrived White plowed ahead with his Jack White All-Talking Comedies, but the changes in the industry combined with the depression, a nasty divorce, and nervous exhaustion led to the filing of bankruptcy that was the end of the company. Although only in his early 30s White was never able to regain his footing in the industry and mostly worked on and off for his brother Jules at the Columbia Shorts Department writing, and occasionally directing the Three Stooges and Andy Clyde (billed as Preston Black). White died in 1984 at age 87.

Director Norman Taurog had been one of Jack White’s gagmen/assistants at Fox, and became one of his best and most prolific directors in the 1920s. Having been a child actor on the stage, Taurog hated the way he photographed on film so he moved behind the camera. After being an assistant at Fox he really started his directing career when he signed with Larry Semon at age 20 in 1920 (so young his mother had to sign the contract). From working with Semon for three years he jumped around to Joe Rock, Century, and other Universal shorts, before settling in with the White unit. In the early sound era he moved into features, and won a Best Director Oscar for SKIPPY (’31). Prestigious films such as THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER and BOY’S TOWN (both ’38) followed, and the last leg of his long career was spent working mostly with Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley, where his years of experience directing kids and animals surely came in handy.

WHAT A NIGHT has a large assortment of stalwart comedy supporting players who were not only Jack White regulars but turned up all over the silent comedy map. Large and fierce Louise Carver was married in real-life to supporting comic Tom Murray. Hard to beat as the cigar-chomping cook in Harry Langdon’s THE FIRST 100 YEARS (’24), another great Carver moment is in MASKED MAMAS (’25) when Billy Bevan sees her at a masquerade party and tries to pull off her face, thinking it’s an ugly party mask. Burly Otto Fries was an all-purpose heavy for Sennett, Roach, Fox, and every place in between, who also appeared in features like PARDON US (’31) and EVERY DAY’S A HOLIDAY (’38) before his death at 50. British-born Phil Dunham played leads in L-Ko, Century and the one-reel Cameo Comedies, in addition to support in the Mermaid series. He later became a screenwriter for features such as THE DUKE IS TOPS (’38) and TWO-GUN TROUBADOUR (’39). Lige’s drunken pal is played by Clem Beauchamp, who started in films as a stuntman before becoming a supporting comic and director. In the late 20s White starred him as Jerry Drew in a two-reel series about a Raymond Griffith type playboy. Sound saw Beauchamp become an ace assistant director, winning an Oscar for his work on LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER (’35), before retiring in 1967. Jug-eared Al Thompson specialized in taking the brunt of physical punishment for Larry Semon, Jack White Comedies, and the Columbia Shorts Department in a career that lasted into the late 1950s. Last but not least, Jack Lloyd and Bert Young were unsung players who toiled without attention, but were seasoned straightmen. Lloyd, an English actor with no comic persona, was a utility man and could play any character that was needed. The best description of Bert Young was that of “a mug.” When a lazy brother-in-law, an irate customer in a diner, or a drunken lout was needed Bert filled the bill into the 1930s.

(film notes copyright © 2010 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved)

Gender Benders: Masculine Women/Feminine Men

"Gender Benders: Masculine Women/Feminine Men"

(film notes written by Steve Massa)

Rowdy Ann (5/25/1919) Christie Comedy. Prod & Dir: Al Christie. Two reels. Cast: Fay Tincher, Harry Depp, Eddie Barry, Katherine Lewis, Al Haynes, George B. French, Edgar Blue.

In general silent comediennes have been overlooked, and one of the most neglected is Fay Tincher. Although she entertained audiences for almost twenty years, few of her films are available to viewers today. Her background was in musical comedy, where she was a chorus girl in shows starring Weber & Fields, Lillian Russell, and William Collier when she was “discovered” for films by D.W. Griffith. She played a vamp in his 1914 feature THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES and became part of his stable of performers at Reliance/Majestic. Deciding that her gifts lay in comedy he put her in a series of Komic Komedies surrounded by performers like Max Davidson, Tammany Young, Tod Browning, and Edward Dillon, who also directed. When they began a series of “Bill the Office Boy” comedies Fay became a star playing a gum-chewing, no-nonsense stenographer named Ethel who dressed completely in black and white, with loud garish stripes that made her look like a human zebra.

Staying with Griffith on his move to the Fine Arts Studio, Fay supported stage star DeWolf Hopper in features such as DON QUIXOTE and SUNSHINE DAD (both ’16), plus continued in shorts written by Anita Loos, with the black and white outfits as her trademark. By 1919 she was no longer with Griffith and signed a contract with Al Christie. A new persona, that of a wild and western cowgirl, was devised for Fay, and popular shorts like ROWDY ANN, DANGEROUS NAN MCGREW, and GO WEST YOUNG WOMAN (all ’19) ensued. Fay left Christie in the early 20s and was co-starred with Joe Murphy in Universal’s live-action version of the comic strip The Gumps, which lasted from 1923 to the end of the silent era. When the series ended so did Fay’s career, and she slipped below the radar until her death in Brooklyn in 1983 at the age of 99.

Producer Al Christie was one of the biggest names in film comedy, although today it doesn’t have the ring of Mack Sennett or Hal Roach. Born in London, Ontario in 1879, he began his career as a stage manager for various companies which eventually brought him to New York. In 1909 he became a director for David Horsley’s Nestor Film Co. and had his first success with a live-action “Mutt and Jeff” series. Nestor and Christie moved to Hollywood in 1911, where they made one-reelers distributed by Universal. Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran became popular under Al’s direction, but in 1916 he severed his connection, and with his brother Charles produced comedies under his own name for the independent market. In the 1920s he distributed his films first through Educational, then Paramount, and his stars like Bobby Vernon, Dorothy Devore, Neal Burns, and Jimmie Adams were some of the most popular of the day. Although he jumped right into sound production the new medium didn’t treat him very well. The combination of the changes in the industry with the depression drove him into bankruptcy, and in the mid 30s he became supervisor for the East Coast productions of Educational Pictures, overseeing the shorts with New York stage stars such as Joe Cook, Bert Lahr, and Danny Kaye. After Educational closed at the end of the decade Christie had trouble getting work, and finally retired from films in 1942 to work for the Douglas Aircraft Company until his death in 1951.

Fay’s school teachers are played by Christie stalwarts Eddie Barry and George B. French. The older brother of star Neal Burns, Barry came from a stage background and began working for Al Christie in 1916. He spent most of his career there, although he did find time to appear at L-Ko, Century, and Bulls Eye, plus a few late 20s low-budget western and action features. Having a near brush with stardom in the early 20s when he headlined in Christie shorts like MR. FATIMA (’20), not to mention a few vehicles at Universal and an independent series with Vera Reynolds, by 1924 he was firmly set in the supporting ranks. After making only two or three talking films Barry retired in 1930. Playing the head of the school is George B. French, an ex-stock company and vaudeville actor who was a standard ingredient in Christie Comedies for a decade. Starting at Nestor in 1915 French supported all the Christie stars and even found time to play a reoccurring character in the features TARZAN OF THE APES and its sequel THE ROMANCE OF TARZAN (both ’18). In the mid 1920s he left Christie and switched his allegiance to the Hal Roach studio, appearing in many Our Gang shorts like THUNDERING FLEAS (’26) and TEN YEARS OLD (’27), not to mention features such as Monty Banks’ HORSE SHOES (’27) and GRINNING GUNS (’27) with Jack Hoxie. In the sound era he worked in uncredited bits until 1943.

Hearts and Flowers (6/22/1919) Sennett Comedy. Dir: Edward Cline. Dist: Paramount. Two reels. Cast: Louise Fazenda, Ford Sterling, Phyllis Haver, Billy Armstrong, Jack Ackroyd, Kalla Pasha, Edgar Kennedy, Eva Thatcher, Bert Roach, Charles “Heinie” Conklin, Virginia Fox, Sybil Sealy, Sennett Bathing Girls.

Louise Fazenda and Phyllis Haver were two of Mack Sennett’s biggest female stars of the late ‘teens and early 20s, and HEARTS AND FLOWERS gives us a good look at both. Louise Fazenda is mostly remembered today for the pig-tailed, country bumpkin character that she made popular at this time. She came from the stage and in 1913 began working in Universal’s Joker Comedies alongside Max Asher, Gale Henry and Bobby Vernon, often playing the young ingénue. By 1915 she was with Sennett where she became a star and would stay until 1921. At first she played a variety of roles, but soon became the country girl who was usually taken advantage of by some conniving fellow. Louise roughhoused with the best of them, but besides being a wonderful comedienne was also a fine actress who made all her outlandish comedy roles very believable. After leaving Sennett she starred in shorts for Punch Comedies and Jack White, then made the jump to features in the mid 1920s. From supporting roles in films like THE NIGHT CLUB (’25) and THE BAT (’26), she signed with Warner Brothers and starred in a string of features that included FOOTLOOSE WIDOWS (’26) and A SAILOR’S SWEETHEART (’27). In sound films she continued in major supporting roles until 1939. Married to producer Hal Wallis, she retired and devoted herself to charity work until her death in 1962.

Blonde and beautiful Phyllis Haver was one of the few Sennett Bathing Girls to become a full-fledged star, and to move onto a substantial career outside of the Sennett studio. Born Phyllis O’Haver, she moved from Kansas to California in 1907, and while in high school played piano accompaniment to films, in addition to doing extra work at Keystone and Paramount. In 1917 she began getting featured roles at Sennett, and like her high school friend Marie Prevost soon became the leading lady in shorts such as HIS LAST FALSE STEP (’19) and LOVE AND DOUGHNUTS (’21). She made a very good impression in Sennett features like LOVE, HONOR AND BEHAVE (’20) and A SMALL TOWN IDOL (’21), so much so that Sennett had plans to star her in features starting with THE EXTRA GIRL (later filmed with Mabel Normand in 1923), but she left the production and the studio. Proving to be a fine dramatic actress in prestigious films such as THE CHRISTIAN (’23), SO BIG (’24), WHAT PRICE GLORY? (’26), and THE WAY OF ALL FLESH (’28), she still appeared in comedy items like UP IN MABEL’S ROOM and THE NERVOUS WRECK (both ’26). Probably her best starring role was as Roxie Hart in CHICAGO (’27), which has recently been restored and made available on video. After a few early talkies she married millionaire William Seeman and retired from the screen. Sadly the marriage didn’t last, and at age 61 Haver took an overdose of pills and died in 1960.

Ford Sterling co-stars with the ladies, giving a funny and subtle performance, which shows how well he had adapted his style from the early Sennett days. Remembered for his over-the-top performances circa 1913 and 1914, Sterling was Sennett’s second breakout star and like Fred Mace would in the ‘teens move away to headline his own companies, but then return to the Sennett fold. When HEARTS AND FLOWERS was made in 1919 he was just about to leave Sennett for good to begin freelancing as a supporting character actor in features such as HOLLYWOOD (’23), HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (’24) and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (’28). Ford even had the lead in THE SHOW-OFF (’26), and made a good transition to sound in pictures like HER MAJESTY LOVE (’31) and ALICE IN WONDERLAND (’33). He also starred in shorts for Christie, Paramount, and RKO, but was besieged by health problems and died in 1939.

Prominent in the supporting cast, which includes Kalla Pasha, Edgar Kennedy, Eva Thatcher, and two future Buster Keaton leading ladies – Virginia Fox and Sybil Sealey, is Billy Armstrong, an English music hall and Fred Karno veteran who entered films in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin, playing rowdy janitors and crooked preachers in his Essanay comedies. Moving off on his own Billy turned up at Cub Comedies, Keystone Triangle, L-Ko, Roach, Century, and Sennett. Occasionally he would star, but was usually in support, often in more than one role. In his last appearances, such as SMILE PLEASE and CONDUCTOR 1492 (both’24), Armstrong looks terrible – years older than his actual age – probably due to the tuberculosis that killed him in 1924. Practically stealing the picture as Louises’ stunted and slow-on-the-uptake suitor is little Jack Ackroyd, another British stage refugee who was ubiquitous in Sennett and Roach shorts of the early 1920s. Usually playing eccentric characters much older than his real age, he can also be spotted in Christie, Jack White, Samuel Bischoff, Hallroom Boys, Fox Imperials and Special Comedies. Among his features are THE CRUISE OF THE JASPER B and THE BETTER ‘OLE (both ’26), where he had his best role and gave a touching performance as Syd Chaplin’s army buddy Little Alf. Ackroyd continued playing bits in American films into the early 1930s.

Shanghaied Lovers (3/30/1924) Prod: Mack Sennett. Dir: Roy Del Ruth. Dist: Pathe. 2nd reel of 2. Cast: Harry Langdon, Alice Day, Kalla Pasha, Andy Clyde, Roscoe “Tiny” Ward, Joe Young, George Cooper, Gordon Lewis, Billy Armstrong, Eli Stanton.

Harry Langdon was the silent comedy rocket that blasted off with his shorts for Mack Sennett, only to sputter out of control after his feature LONG PANTS (’27). His silent screen persona is usually described as an adult baby, but he was also very much like a modern Rip Van Winkle, awakened after a hundred year nap to find everything around him new, strange and frightening. All that slow blinking seems like he’s trying to clear decades of sleep from his eyes. Harry’s character came together during his time with Sennett, with his independent features explorations of where and how this shrimp could possibly survive in the universe. Many of Harry’s Sennett comedies like this one, HIS NEW MAMA or LUCK OF THE FOOLISH (all ’24) have only been available in fragmentary form. This is the second reel of SHANGHAIED LOVERS, while the first reel has recently turned up in a television version the separate footage has yet to be officially put together. In the first part of the film honeymooners Harry and Alice are shanghaied, and Alice dresses as a man to escape the advances of the ship’s captain.

In our last go-round we showed A DEEP SEA PANIC (‘24) a Fox Comedies remake of this Sennett original, redone by the same director Roy Del Ruth with burly Kalla Pasha repeating his role of the tough sea captain. Pasha, whose real name was the less threatening Joseph T. Rickard, was a live-action version of Popeye’s rival Bluto and one of the great comedy foils. His background was a combination of stage, carnivals and circuses, plus professional boxing and wrestling, where he was billed as “The Terrible Turk.” Beginning in 1919 he menaced all the comics on the Sennett lot, and after 1924 began free-lancing in Fox, Christie and Hal Roach comedies, while his feature appearances included Tod Browning’s THE WICKED DARLING (’19) and WEST OF ZANZIBAR (’28). After sound arrived his roles were reduced to bit parts, and he soon began acting out some of his screen antics in real life. In a 1932 altercation with a streetcar conductor he broke an ink bottle over the man’s head, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the Mendocino State Hospital. He died there a year later in 1933.

Harry’s forlorn wife is played by Alice Day, a pretty actress who worked her way up from being a bathing beauty to one of Sennett’s main stars of the 1920s. The pert and perky Day was the recipient of Sennett’s move into light romantic comedies and starred in shorts such as TEE FOR TWO (’25) and A LOVE SUNDAE (’26). Her younger sister Marceline also graduated from Sennett and supported Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN (’28). Moving into features such as THE GORILLA (’27) and THE SMART SET (’28) Alice continued briefly in talking films but retired in 1932. Last, but not least, the ship’s cook is the enormous Roscoe “Tiny” Ward, a silent comedy regular who was in the 6’ 7’’ ballpark. After playing college football, Ward made his screen debut in 1918 and appeared everywhere with practically everyone until the mid-1940s.

A Sorority Mix-Up (3/19/1927) A Sunkist Comedy. Prod: Al Nathan. Dir: Joseph Basil. Dist: Bray Productions. 2 reels. Cast: Buddy Messinger, Anne Porter, Madalynn Field, Henry Roquemore, Mr. X (chimp), Alice Belcher, the Sunkist Bathing Beauties.

Melvin Joe Messinger, better known as Buddy, started in films at age 9 in 1916. Along with his sisters Gertie and Marie he had been part of the child ensemble in Chester and Sidney Franklin’s witty feature-length fairy tale epics like ALADDIN AND HIS WONDERFUL LAMP (’17) and ALI BABA AND HIS FORTY THIEVES (’18), plus was a regular in the Goldwyn “Edgar Comedies” which starred Edward Piel Jr. as Johnny Jones. Good roles in features such as SHADOWS (’22) and PENROD AND SAM (’23) followed and Buddy was tapped by Century Comedies for his own series of shorts from 1923 into 1925. Frequently supported by some soon to be well-known kids like Martha Sleeper and Spec O’Donnell, almost all of these comedies are lost thanks to Universal’s particularly bad survival rates. In 1926 Bray launched the now teenaged Buddy in this series about college hi-jinks (most of which revolved around him in female attire) and teamed him with a chimp named Mr. X. From here Buddy finished the 1920s in a few features and more shorts for Universal and Weiss Brothers like FLIRTING WITH THE MOVIES (’27), but he really didn’t click in sound pictures and played uncredited bit roles into the 1940s. When the 1950s rolled around he’d become an assistant director on television shows and movies as diverse as THE ATOMIC KID (’54), GIANT (’56) and THE CLOWN AND THE KID (’61), but died young at 58 in 1965.

As mentioned before Buddy’s co-star was a chimp referred to as M. X, which sometimes was in the person of a real chimp, and other times a midget in a bad chimp costume (perhaps when the script was very bad and the chimp refused to work). Also in support are two Mack Sennett regulars Madalynn Field and Alice Belcher. As “Beefy,” who’s gleefully in charge of paddling the new sorority recruits, large Madalynn Field (6,” 250 lbs.) steals the film. Entering movies as a teenager in 1925 her size made her a comedy natural and she appeared in shorts for Fox, Universal, Bray, and William Pizor, plus features such as Colleen Moore’s ELLA CINDERS (’26). Often in tiny bits as the big girl the boys aren’t interested in, she made an impression in Mack Sennett’s 1927-28 “Sennett Girl Comedies” such as RUN, GIRL, RUN (’28) where she became best and lasting friends with the series star Carole Lombard. After sound arrived Field mostly retired from the screen, becoming the unofficial business manager for Carole Lombard and marrying director Walter Lang. Ugly Alice Belcher was beautiful in her homeliness, as her mirror-cracking face resembled Frank Hayes in drag. Her first movie appearances were in 1916, and she worked everywhere – most frequently at Sennett, but also for Roach and Educational, and many features. Most typically Belcher was used as a gag pay-off, the usual situation would have her turn up as a flirty spinster in a long veil so the star comic could do a big take when finally getting a look at her face. In sound she continued turning up with everyone from Laurel & Hardy to The Three Stooges, and was even profiled in a 1938 Paramount “Unusual Occupations” short before her death the next year.

Producer Al Nathan is officially credited as director for this series, but they were really helmed by a variety of silent comedy professionals on the order of director Edward Luddy. The director for A SORORITY MIX-UP is Joseph Basil, who is one of the forgotten foot soldiers of silent comedy who toiled for many years in front of and behind the camera, but because he usually worked on lower budgeted independent shorts his contributions are hard to trace. In fact, many sources such as IMDB mix Basil up with Joe Rock. While they started together at Vitagraph at the same time they are two different people (Rock at that time was working under his real name of Joe Simburg). Born in Brooklyn, Joe Basil’s early years were spent as an athlete and swimming instructor, both which came in handy when he entered films at Vitagraph’s Flatbush studio. Becoming a part of the Big V Riot Squad – a group of comedy second bananas that also included Joe Rock, Earl Montgomery and Pete Gordon – Basil ran, leapt, fell, and sometimes flew through the air in support of star Larry Semon. Eventually becoming an assistant to Semon, contributing gags and co-directing, Basil set out on his own in 1920 and worked for the short-lived King Cole Comedies and Reelcraft Comedies before returning to Semon for 1922 and 1923. Through the rest of the decade he assisted on indie features such as A DESPERATE MOMENT (’26) and was on the writing staff for comedy series made by Larry Darmour Productions such as Mickey McGuire and A Ton of Fun.

Crushed (11/23/1924) Hamilton Comedies. Dir: Fred Hibbard. Dist: Educational Pictures. Two reels. Cast: Lloyd Hamilton, Blanche Payson, Dorothy Seastrom, Robert McKenzie, Louise Carver, Mark Hamilton, Jack McHugh, Tommie Hicks.

Of the major silent comedians Lloyd Hamilton is probably the one with the most missing films. There seems to be many more of his early and rough Ham & Bud comedies available than his mature work of the 1920s. The shorts he made between 1921 through 1923 were regarded as his creative peak, but out of those fifteen comedies only MOONSHINE and THE VAGRANT (both’21) circulate today. Starting with 1924 a number of his shorts exist in varying degrees of completeness – GOOD MORNING (’24), HOOKED (’25) and NOTHING MATTERS (’26) only survive in one reel, while the recently resurfaced JONAH JONES (’24) is condensed. Luckily some excellent examples like CRUSHED (’24), THE MOVIES (’25), CAREFUL PLEASE and NOBODY’S BUSINESS (both ’26) exist in full versions to give us a good idea of Hamilton’s output at that time.

The epitome of the phrase “large and in charge” is 6’4,” 234 pound Blanche Payson. An ex-California policewoman, Blanche is remembered as the large cave-woman from Buster Keaton’s THE THREE AGES (’23). Although Buster claimed to have started her career at that time, she actually began at the Sennett studio in 1916 after getting local attention protecting ladies from mashers at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. Her first film appearance was in Sennett’s WIFE AND AUTO TROUBLE (’16) and after 1918 she menaced everyone in silent comedy – Lloyd Hamilton, Harold Lloyd, Billy West, Harry Langdon, Lupino Lane – plus was a regular in shorts for Sennett, Vitagraph, Fox Sunshine, Al Christie, Jack White, Century and Joe Rock. In addition to innumerable comedy features, she was even mean to Lillian Gish in the dramatic LA BOHEME (’26). After sound arrived she could still be seen scowling with her hands on her hips in many Hal Roach comedies, most memorably DOGS IS DOG (’31) and HELPMATES (’32), and went on to work in Columbia shorts and many features until the early 1940s.

Blonde Dorothy Seastrom was Ham’s leading lady in five shorts. Texas-born, and a former dancer at the Coconut Grove, Seastrom also appeared in Jack White comedies such as OH, TEACHER (’24) as well as small roles in features like IT MUST BE LOVE (’26). The first wife of comedy director/ cameraman Francis Corby, she died of tuberculosis at 26 in 1930. Director Fred Hibbard was Ham’s main collaborator at this time. Born in Romania, he began his career as Fred Fishback with Thomas Ince, working on the “Shorty” Hamilton comedies. After moving over to Keystone he became an assistant to Roscoe Arbuckle, and then a full-fledged director, helming many of Mack Swain’s “Ambrose” comedies. After a brief stay at Fox Sunshine Comedies he settled in at Century where he worked on Baby Peggy’s and the Century Lion series. Having been an attendee at Arbuckle’s 1921 Labor Day party and involved in the infamous trials, he changed his name to Hibbard and switched over to Jack White Comedies to work on Lige Conley and Cameo Comedies. Not long after hooking up with Hamilton, Hibbard developed cancer but continued working until the end. CRUSHED came out a little more than a month before he died in January of 1925 at age 30, and his last two films – HOOKED and HALF A HERO (both’25) – were released after his death.

(film notes copyright © 2010 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved)