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Monday, October 4, 2010

The Surreal Life: Dalliance with the Absurd

"The Surreal Life: Dalliance with the Absurd"

(film notes written by Steve Massa)

Some Hero
(10/23/1916) A Tweedledum Comedy. Prod: Eagle Film Co. Dir: Marcel Perez. One reel. Cast: Marcel Perez, Babette Perez, Jerry Jellman, Jim McGowan, Charles Sharp, Billy Slade.

In the history of silent film comedy there are many “unknown soldiers,” who for various reasons have slipped through the cracks into total obscurity. Charley Bowers is an example of someone who has only recently been rescued from this group, while Century Comedies comedienne Wanda Wiley and the Danish comedy team of Pat and Patachon are still neglected. Another whose career is in dire need of re-examination is Marcel Perez. One of the earliest screen clowns, by 1911 Perez was known world-wide. He came to America in 1915 and worked over here as a comedian, director and writer until 1927. Along with Max Linder he was one of the few direct links between European and American silent comedy, but unforeseeable events brought his performing career to an abrupt end and shortened his life. Much better remembered in Europe for his work there, his American films, despite a prolific output and some excellent surviving examples, are completely forgotten today.

Born in Madrid, Perez spent most of his youth in Paris where he grew up clowning in circuses and music halls. He entered films in 1900 and worked for Pathe, Eclipse and Éclair. His first big success was the 1907 Eclipse comedy THE SHORT-SIGHTED CYCLIST (in MoMA’s collection) where he plays a bike messenger who loses his glasses and runs into pedestrians, horsecarts, shop displays, and anything else in his path. In 1910 he began a series of Robinet comedies for the Ambrosio Company of Italy, starring and directing under the name of Marcel Fabre. Becoming popular around the world, he was nicknamed Tweedledum in America and England and was joined in the films by Nilde Barrachi as Robinette. His best-known film from this period is AMOR PEDESTRE (LOVE AFOOT ’14) which showcases his sophistication and ingenuity as a director with a clever version of a love triangle soap opera that is performed entirely by the actor’s feet.

After five years as Robinet the outbreak of World War I brought him to the U.S. in 1915 where he ended up in Jacksonville, Florida, a beehive of film activity in the latter part of the ‘teens. Working first for Vim, Perez soon moved to the Eagle Film Co. where he used his anglicized character name of Tweedledum for 11 misadventures of his bungling hero, who’s always in hot water but comes up with incredible schemes to get himself off the hook. SOME HERO is a spoof of cliffhanger serials with wonderful cartoon gags that has Tweedledee (his wife Nilde Barrachi now called Babette Perez) kidnapped and tortured by a gang of thugs with Tweedledum in hot pursuit to save her.

Never staying in one place very long, Perez left Eagle after a year and moved to other independent companies like Jester Comedies, Reelcraft and Sanford Productions, constantly changing his name and the moniker of his screen character. His birthname was Manuel Fernandez Perez but he worked variously as Marcel Perez, Marcel Fabre and Fernandez Perez, while his character’s names consisted of Robinet, Bungles, Tweedledum, Tweede-Dan and Tweedy as he made his gypsy-like way through early screen comedy. His performing career came to an end in 1922 during his series for Sandford Productions. While shooting a scene he fell on an upturned rake. The teeth of the rake sank into his leg penetrating the bone, resulting in the leg having to be amputated. The accident impaired his health for the remainder of his life, but after a two-year absence he was back in harness in 1924 directing and writing two-reelers for producer Joe Rock. He also directed a few western features and worked on the script for Reginald Denny’s OUT ALL NIGHT (’27).

Director Robert Florey, in his memoir HOLLYWOOD D’HIER ET D’AUJOURD ‘HUI, wrote about Perez’s accident and his last days. Although an actual obituary has yet to turn up it appears that Perez passed away sometime at the end of 1927 or in early 1928. Florey visited him at the hospital and describes him as being alone and ignored, which is also a good description of the way he’s been treated by posterity. Although many of his films exist, most are impossible to see outside of the major film archives, so the rarity of his work combined with his constant name-changing has kept him in the shadows. Over the last few years more of his American comedies have re-surfaced, so it’s hoped that they will make their way into the hands of comedy fans so they can experience and enjoy his unique talents.

A Schoolhouse Scandal (12/7/1919) Fox Sunshine Comedy. Dir: Edward Cline. Prod: Fox Films. Two reels. Cast: Slim Summerville, Polly Moran, Harry Booker, Ethel Teare, Tom Kennedy, Jack Cooper, James Donnelly, Francis Carpenter.

One of the “Holy Grails” of silent comedy is the Fox Sunshine Comedies, a series of two-reelers produced by the Fox Film Co. from 1917 to 1925. Out of 163 shorts produced something around only 25 are known to exist today. The survivors are tantalizing glimpses of a wild and crazy series filmed on a huge budget, full of extremely elaborate gags and a surreal, anything-for-a-laugh cartoon sensibility. Founded by comedy pioneer Henry “Pathe” Lehrman, the participants on and behind the screen make up an “A list” of who was who in silent comedy – Lloyd Hamilton, Jack White, Billie Ritchie, Eddie Cline, Chester Conklin, Jack Cooper, John G. Blystone, Al St John, Roy Del Ruth, William Watson, Fred Fishback, Harry Sweet, Frank Griffith, Poodles Hanneford, Norman Taurog, Bobby Dunn, and Edgar Kennedy, to name only a few.

One of Sunshine’s top players, as a director as well as star, was Slim Summerville. Previous to his joining Keystone in 1914, beanpole Slim had hoboed around the country and appeared in small theatre companies. Having an early beginning at Sennett and at first doing bits and stunts, Slim worked his way up to regular featured clown in support of Charlie Murray, Syd Chaplin, and Louise Fazenda. In 1916 Sennett teamed Summerville with little Bobby Dunn in shorts like THE WINNING PUNCH (’16) and VILLA OF THE MOVIES (’17), where they made a natural “Mutt and Jeff” combo playing opportunistic buddies not above doing dirt to each other to get ahead. Their partnership lasted for a number of years, continuing at Fox and also for a series of 1924 Universal one-reelers. In 1920 Slim began concentrating on directing and under his real first name of George helmed comedies for Fox, Joe Rock and Universal all through the 1920s. At the same time he continued turning up in shorts and played support in features such as THE BELOVED ROGUE (‘27). Slim’s career fared better than many silent comics, as the arrival of sound gave it a shot in the arm. After his wonderful performance in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (’30) he starred in some talking shorts for Universal, but was generally a supporting player in “A” films and a star in “B’s.” Often teamed with Zasu Pitts, he worked up until his death in 1946.

Slim’s co-star in A SCHOOLHOUSE SCANDAL, and a regular star of Fox Sunshines, is zany Polly Moran. Remembered today for her sound films opposite Marie Dressler, Polly was a vaudeville headliner who appeared in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and even Antwerp, singing, dancing and mugging her way into audience’s hearts. On joining Sennett in 1915 she was paired with Charlie Murray, usually as a janitor and his slattern wife, in a broad and grotesque portrayal of an Irish working-class couple. Polly’s style was always outrageous – if she saw a laugh opportunity she would confront it head on and wrestle it to the ground until it cried “uncle.” Around mid 1917 Polly emerged in a new character, Sheriff Nell, a rough and tumble lady marshal, which provided chances for turning gender roles on their head and plenty of room for western parody. Sheriff Nell was so popular that Polly took her over to Fox Sunshines when she left Sennett in 1918, and even carried her over to a series of independent two-reelers for CBC in the early 20s. After a return to vaudeville she took Hollywood hostage again in 1927 when she signed a contract with MGM to be their resident comic frump and played a succession of maids and landladies in dramatic pictures such as THE DIVINE WOMAN and WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (both ’28). Soon she had her first teamings with Marie Dressler, and when sound arrived their popular series included POLITICS (’31) and PROSPERITY (’32). After Dressler’s death Polly’s direct and earthy style kept her in demand with depression audiences, but she slowed down the pace to just occasional appearances. Near the end of her life she suffered from heart trouble but came back to MGM and did bits in pictures like ADAM’S RIB (’49) and died at the age of 68 in 1952.

All Wet (9/2/1922) Al St John Comedy. Dir: Al St John. Prod: Fox Films. Two reels. Cast: Al St John, Otto Fries, Sy Jenks, Ford West, Tiny Ward.

ALL WET stars Al St John, one of the most prolific but underrated comedians of the silent era. Chiefly remembered today for the country villain character that he played in support of his uncle Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, in his overlooked solo films Al showed much more skill and versatility than he’s been given credit for. Al began working at Keystone a millisecond after his uncle Roscoe, and from 1913 to 1916 was part of the supporting ensemble at the studio, usually as bellboys, waiters, and of course bumbling cops. He even enjoyed an occasional juvenile lead, as in SHOT IN THE EXCITEMENT (’14) opposite Alice Howell. Bigger roles came his way in Arbuckle’s comedies and the signature character that developed was something like an evil gremlin’s country cousin. Al was the ultimate dumb (and dangerous) hick outfitted in checkered pants, long slapshoes, suspenders, and plaid shirts. Long and lean, he was the perfect physical contrast to the rotund Arbuckle. Sometimes his nose would be red, other times he had large freckles, and often he had missing teeth, but Al’s character was always ready to take offense and was bloodthirsty in his revenge.

Having become Roscoe’s right hand man and assisting him in the direction of the films, Al moved along with Roscoe when he left Sennett for his own Comique Company. Buster Keaton was added to the mix, and shorts like THE BUTCHER BOY (’17) and BACKSTAGE (‘19) were so popular that Arbuckle was moved into features, leaving Buster and Al to go on to their own shorts series. Al got a deal with Warner Brothers, and the next year ended up at the Fox Studio. ALL WET is part of this group, and while still playing a rube Al has toned down his performance style, adopting a new comic seriousness and underplayed style. “Keatonesque” is the term that comes to mind, and it’s possible that he was influenced by his former colleague’s approach to comedy. The film starts out as a remake of 1916’s FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT, while the second reel turns into “Al St John meets George Melies,” as it depicts Al’s adventures under the sea with giant fish, a squid, a few mermaids, and other sea creatures.

Although the direction is credited to Al, it’s likely that his uncle Roscoe was behind the camera. Due to his famous Labor Day party scandal and subsequent murder trials Arbuckle had been off the screen, but it’s known that to keep busy he worked behind the scenes with his apprentices Keaton and St John. In fact, starting in 1922 not long after the last Arbuckle trial, Al began to take regular directorial credit on the shorts, a perfect situation for Roscoe’s involvement. Arbuckle’s fingerprints are not only on ALL WET in its re-working of FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT, using many of the same locations and camera set-ups, but other survivors have big comedy set pieces that are directed with the kind of crisp staging and split-second timing that was an Arbuckle trademark. In OUT OF PLACE (’22) there’s even a “Fatty” clone in the person of Hilliard Karr, who dresses like Roscoe, engages in signature knockabout with Al, and re-enacts gags from one of Arbuckle’s very first Keystone comedies PASSIONS, HE HAD THREE (’13).
When Al left Fox in 1924 all remnants of his country boob character were gotten rid of. He finished out the 1920s in series for Reelcomedies, Inc (definitely directed by Arbuckle) and Jack White Comedies where he was now the clean-cut (but still bumbling) man-about town or young hubby. When sound arrived Al continued in comedy shorts for a while but by the late 1930s had re-packaged himself, with a beard and no teeth, as a popular western sidekick. For the next twenty years he supported cowboys like Buster Crabbe, Fred Scott, Don “Red” Barry, and Lash Larue, providing the much-needed comic relief with his old routines and falls. In 1952, unhappy with how cheap his oaters were getting, Al retired from films but continued making personal appearances with rodeos, circuses, and wild west shows. While waiting backstage to go on for one of these shows he suffered a massive heart attack and died in 1963.

Kiss Me Quick (a.k.a. Don’t Tickle) (10/7/1920) Fox Sunshine Comedy. Dir: John G. Blystone. Prod: Fox Films. 2 reels. Cast: Clyde Cook, Blanche Payson, Bobby Dunn, Frank “Fatty” Alexander.

KISS ME QUICK is a perfect showcase for the unusual and rubber-limbed comic Clyde Cook – known as “the Kangaroo Boy” due to his Aussie origins. Born in Port McQuarie, Australia, Cook began his eccentric dancing and acrobatics at age 6. At 16 he went to London and worked his way up through the halls and variety to tour the world, and eventually headlined at the Alhambra and Follies-Bergere. After World War I service in the Royal Navy he came to America and became a big hit at the New York Hippodrome, where in 1920 he was contracted for a series of Fox Sunshine Comedies. CHASE ME (’20) was the first, and 15 others such as THE GUIDE (’21), LAZY BONES (’22), plus the features SKIRTS (‘2 ) soon followed. In addition to his stunning acrobatics, Cook developed a deadpanned persona of a downtrodden and often hen-pecked individual who was always the victim of circumstances.

After leaving Fox in 1923 he made a couple of shorts at Buster Keaton’s studio for producer Joseph Schenck, and ended up on the Hal Roach lot in 1925 for 8 comedies that were mostly written or directed by Stan Laurel. Funny shorts like MOONLIGHT AND NOSES (’25) and WANDERING PAPAS (’26) ensued, but he left to star in Warner Brother features with Louise Fazenda. He was soon an in demand character player in big films such as BARBED WIRE (‘27), WHITE GOLD (‘27) and DOCKS OF NEW YORK (’28). Like fellow Australian Billy Bevan, Cook often played cockneys in sound films, and he continued to concentrate on comic relief roles until his retirement in 1963.

Director John G. Blystone began his career as Jack Blystone when a property man and sometime actor at Universal in the very early ‘teens. Working his way up to staff director, in 1915 it was announced that he and Harry Edwards became L-Ko directors under Henry “Pathe” Lehrman. When Lehrman “disengaged” himself from the company in 1916 Abe and Julius Stern took over and made Blystone the director-general. A year later when the Sterns started Century Comedies to showcase Alice Howell Blystone piloted all the first shorts, while still supervising the L-Ko product. At the very end of 1918 he re-joined Lehrman at Fox Sunshine Comedies, and again outlasted him there, working into the early 1920s on shorts with Clyde Cook and Lupino Lane. In 1923 he made the leap to directing features with A FRIENDLY HUSBAND starring Lupino Lane, and continued with Keaton’s OUR HOSPITALITY (’24) and the sci-fi comedy THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (’24 – in MoMA’s collection), not to mention ten of Tom Mix’s popular light-hearted westerns. Through the 1930s he worked steadily directing all types of features, but at the very end returned to his slapstick roots by piloting Laurel & Hardy’s SWISS MISS and BLOCKHEADS (both ’38). Sadly he died of a heart attack at age 45 just two weeks before BLOCKHEADS’ release.

Egged On (9/6/1926) A Whirlwind Comedy. Prod: R-C Pictures. Dir: Charley Bowers & H.L. Muller. Writ: Ted Sears. Dist: FBO. Two reels. Cast: Charley Bowers, Winifred Leighton, Fred Conklin, Dorothy Lewis.

For decades Charley Bowers was the “nowhere man” of silent comedy – so completely forgotten that when a few of his films started turning up in the 1970s it took a while to identify who he actually was. That he could be so overlooked is surprising as his comic vision is singular and unique. His seamless combination of live-action and amazing stop-action animation effects reveal him to be a direct heir of George Melies, making the impossible come true before our eyes. Eggs hatch into full-sized autos, a bewhiskered ghost appears and disappears through walls, plants grow so fast that they shoot up the planter’s pant leg and impale him in mid-air, and a little kilt-wearing insect is the assistant to a detective.

Born in Cresco, Iowa, many of the people who worked with Bowers described him as a congenital liar, and tall tales are an important theme in his films. His stories about his youth include being a child circus tightrope walker, bronco busting, directing Broadway plays, working as a jockey, and designing scenery. What we know for sure is that he was a newspaper cartoonist for papers such as The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Star, and through that became a pioneer in early film animation. Entering the industry in 1916 teamed with Raoul Barre, the pair produced the animated adventures of Bud Fisher’s famous newspaper duo Mutt and Jeff. Despite repeated fallings out with Barre and Fisher, Bowers continued the Mutt and Jeffs and other animation until the mid 1920s.

While producing these cartoons, he began experimenting with a process of combining stop-action and live-action, and launched a series with himself as star in 1926. EGGED ON was the first of 12 Whirlwind Comedies produced by R-C Pictures and distributed by FBO, in which Charley frequently played a daffy inventor in a quest to perfect unbreakable eggshells, automated restaurants, and slipless banana peels. In 1928 he moved to Hollywood and Educational Pictures for six more shorts, which included the mind-boggling THERE IT IS and SAY AHH (both ’28), and was Bowers last regularly produced series as when sound arrived his output became very sporadic. IT’S A BIRD (’30) was the last of his live action/animation combos, as the remainder of his surviving shorts are puppet films such as PETE-ROLEUM AND HIS COUSINS (’39 – made for the New York World’s Fair) and WILD OYSTERS (’40). Struck down with a debilitating illness in 1941 he was unable to work and lingered until 1946. Sadly at the time of his death his work had been forgotten and his films lost.

Even more neglected than Bowers is his main collaborator H. L. Muller, who photographed and co-directed the shorts. Harold L. Muller was born in London in 1893 and entered pictures in 1908 as an office boy with the Paul Urban Co. He worked for Kinemacolor in Britain and the U.S., shooting some of their 1914 Weber & Fields comedies, and became an official photographer for the U.S. Army during World War I. After a stint as chief photographer for Talking Motion Pictures, Inc. he hooked up with Bowers in New York, and they worked together for almost fifteen years. Although no information exists as to the exact division of their responsibilities, it would seem that Muller’s years of experience behind the camera supplied much technical know-how for Bower’s flights of fancy. Little is known about Muller after Bower’s 1941 retirement. His Variety obituary states that he was a projectionist in New York and died on Christmas Day in 1963.

Better known to animation buffs is the name Ted Sears, who was writer/gagman for the Whirlwind series. Born in 1900, Sears began working on Bower’s Mutt and Jeff cartoons at age 17, and spent a few years freelancing - lettering movie title cards, doing trick photography, as well as animating commercials for local New York businesses. In the mid 20s he hooked up with Bowers again, not only writing the Whirlwinds, but also going to Hollywood for the Educational shorts. After this he worked for Max and Dave Fleischer, and in 1931 found a permanent home at the Walt Disney Studio. He became the studio’s first Story Department head, and worked on all their major films, including SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO, THE THREE CABALLEROS, and SLEEPING BEAUTY, until his death in 1958.

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

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