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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)


  1. Great screening tonight Ben. The graphics on the screen before the films started were a wonderful addition and your accompaniment was especially spirited and on the money tonight.

    I was introduced to Lupino Lane at a recent MoMA screening of The Love Parade. He was great in that, but his acrobatic skills were just amazing in tonight's film. I noticed that the young woman in the backless dress had a small tattoo on her back--is that Gwen Lee? I imagine that a woman with a tattoo was a real rarity in 1926.

    thanks again--

  2. Hello Richard -- Glad you enjoyed the screening. Yes, the woman with the tatoo on her back is Gwen Lee (don't know whether it was real or make-up for the character). Later she became a blonde and appeared in features like HER WILD OAT ('27) and LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH ('28). -- Steve

  3. Thank you for all this great information. Re Hugh Fay, I am related to his wife, Elsie Mynn. Did you know that they had a child named Hugh Hamilton Fay. I realise know that he was named for Lloyd Hamilton.