"Cruel and Unusual Comedy"...on the air on NPR

Elif Rongen-Kaynakci and Steve Massa were guests on the Leonard Lopate Radio Program on March 16, 2012.

Listen here:

Monday, October 4, 2010

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 ingĂ©nue. 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)

No comments:

Post a Comment