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Monday, October 4, 2010

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)

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