"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:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Cruel and Unusual Comedy, Part 4 – Sept 11-17, 2013

Lame Brains and Lunatics: 
Cruel and Unusual Comedy, Part 4
September 11–17, 2013

Silent-era slapstick tackled social, cultural, political, and aesthetic themes that continue to be central concerns around the world today. Issues of race, sexuality, public order, and industrialization have traditionally been among the most vital sources for rude forms of comedy. Drawing from the Museum’s holdings of silent comedy, acquired largely in the 1970s and 1980s by former curator Eileen Bowser, Cruel and Unusual Comedy presents an otherwise little-seen body of work to contemporary audiences from an engaging perspective. The series continues with comical takes on crime and punishment, movie making, sports, eating habits, and the rituals of romance. All films are from the U.S. and are silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model. Each screening is introduced by Steve Massa, author of Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy. (pasted from MoMA's calendar)

Organized by Ron Magliozzi, Associate Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art; Steve Massa, historian; and Ben Model, historian and accompanist.

Read film notes by Steve Massa for each program at:

Program 1 – "Love Sick: Mating Rituals"

Program 1:
"Love Sick: Mating Rituals"

Wed. Sept. 11, 7:00pm and Mon. Sept. 16, 7:00pm

piano accompaniment by Ben Model

film notes by Steve Massa; ©2013 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved

Tangled Tangoists (4/24/1914) Vitagraph. Dir: George D. Baker. 1 reel. Cast: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Louise Beaudet, Charles Wellesley, Jack Brawn, Mary Anderson, William Shea, Arthur Cozine.John Bunny and Flora Finch began working together in 1911, and the combination of the expansive Bunny with the severe Finch created an instant combative chemistry. Audiences loved them together and many assumed that they were married in real life, referring to their pictures as “Bunnyfinches.” Although the fans adored them teamed it’s rumored that they had an active mutual dislike for each other (when asked about Bunny by an interviewer years later the best thing Finch had to say about him was that he was very clean for a fat man), and not long after this short they went their separate ways – primarily working with other Vitagraph players . Bunny died of kidney disease in May of 1915, and Ms. Finch left Vitagraph to form the Flora Finch Film Corporation. When her independent comedies weren’t well received she returned to the supporting ranks, and was busy in popular features such as QUALITY STREET (‘27) with Marion Davies, and THE CAT AND THE CANARY (‘27). She continued working in bit roles until her death in 1940.

A third person who contributed to the success of the “Bunnyfinches” was director George D. Baker. After working in a bank, and then as a cartoonist, he decided to become an actor and had years of experience with people such as Nance O’Neil, McKee Rankin, and John Griffith. He also began adapting properties such as GRAUSTARK and THE GOOSE GIRL for the stage, wrote original plays, and designed posters. With the rise of movies he joined the Vitagraph family in the early teens, and directed a majority of John Bunny’s films, with and without Ms. Finch. Some of his best known titles include A TRAIN OF INCIDENTS, HEARTS AND DIAMONDS, and SWEENEY’S CHRISTMAS BIRD (all ‘14). In 1916 he began directing Vitagraph features, and then moved on to Cosmopolitan, Goldwyn, Sawyer-Lubin, Selznick, and Metro. Many were dramas, but he continued in comedy with May Allison and Gareth Hughes before he retired in 1924.

There and Back (8/11/1916) Vitagraph. Dir: Lawrence Semon. Writ: Semon & Graham Baker. 1 reel. Cast: Hughie Mack, Patsy De Forest, Frank Kingsley, Alice Mann, Eddie Dunn, Ethel Corcoran, Josephine Earle, Harry Hammil.
*new MoMA print*

Thanks to the success of John Bunny and Fatty Arbuckle it was practically a prerequisite that every comedy company have a fat man. Members of the cinematic over 300 pounds club included John Brennan, Bert Gillespie, Marvin Loback, Ralph McComas, Walter Hiers, and Frank Alexander. While many of them were basically used for the sight-gags inherent in their large size, others such as Oliver Hardy and Vernon Dent, of course, had the goods and were great comics. Fat men were so popular that in 1914 Vitagraph actually had three – Bunny, Jay Dwiggens, and the star of THERE AND BACK Hughie Mack.

Born in Brooklyn in 1884 as Hugh McGowan, by day he was an undertaker but due to his outgoing nature he became involved in amateur theatricals and became popular appearing at clubs and societies. It was while entertaining at a club supper that he was seen by an influential member of the Vitagraph staff, and soon became a member of the studio’s supporting ensemble. Appearing with the likes of Bunny, Flora Finch, and Wally Van, Mack became an audience favorite, bridging the studio’s transition from situation comedy to out and out slapstick. In 1916 he became a star in his own right, with his films directed by the young Larry Semon, but soon moved on to headline at L-KO and Century Comedies. After more shorts for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach he broke into supporting roles in features, becoming a favorite of director Erich von Stroheim, for whom he appeared in GREED (‘23), THE MERRY WIDOW (‘25), and THE WEDDING MARCH (‘28). His other features included TRIFLING WOMEN (‘21), MARE NOSTRUM (‘26) and FOUR SONS (‘28), before the busy Mack died of a heart attack at age 42 in 1927.

Two forgotten comedy ingénues, Patsy De Forest and Alice Mann, are in support of Hughie. De Forest began her film career at Lubin after two years on the stage as the leading lady for Clarence Elmer in his “Patsy” series, and for Davy Don in his “Otto” comedies. In mid -1916 she transferred to Vitagraph and played Hughie’s love interest until she was bumped up to Vitagraph features in 1917. Breaking out to independent features like BULLIN’ THE BULLSHEVIKI (‘19), her last two pictures were the Fox Buck Jones westerns SQUARE SHOOTER and SUNSET SPRAGUE (both ‘20). Alice Mann also began her career at Lubin and worked there with Patsy De Forest when they were both supporting Davey Don. THERE AND BACK was her first short for Vitagraph, and after about a year there she moved over to Roscoe Arbuckle’s New York based Comique films HIS WEDDING NIGHT, OH DOCTOR, and CONEY ISLAND (all ‘17). After this she sporadically appeared in mostly independent features on the order of SCRAMBLED WIVES and THE FAMILY CLOSET (both ‘21) until 1925.

Lend Me Your Wife (1916) Eagle Films. Dir: Marcel Perez. 2 reels. Cast: Marcel Perez, Babette Perez, Louise Carver, Tom Murray.

Marcel Perez, along with Max Linder, was one of the few direct links between early European and American silent comedy. A graduate of circuses and music halls, Perez began appearing in French films in 1900 and scored a hit in 1907 with his comedy THE SHORT-SIGHTED CYCLIST for the Eclipse Company. Launched in his own series in 1910 for the Ambrosio Co. of Italy, where he played a bungler named Robinet, the films were popular world-wide and Perez came to the United States in 1915. After brief stops for Joker and Vim, in 1916 he embarked on a series for the Eagle Film Co. in Jacksonville, Florida.
The area around Jacksonville was a beehive of film activity in the teens. Besides Eagle, there was Vim, Lubin, Kalem, Jaxon, Gaumont, Klever Komedies, King Bee, and Josh Binney Comedies. All were based, or had production units, there.

Perez’ wife and co-star from his Ambrosio films, Nilde Baracchi, had come with him from Europe, and under the name Babette Perez was his leading lady at Eagle. Also on hand are Louise Carver and Tom Murray, real-life husband and wife and former vaudevillians, who were part of the Eagle stock company and would soon head to California to become silent comedy regulars. Louise Carver is best known for the homely battleaxes she played in tons of Mack Sennett comedies such as THE FIRST 100 YEARS (‘24) and FROM RAGS TO BRITCHES (‘25). Tom Murray excelled as tough customers like Black Larsen in Charlie Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH (‘25) and Harry Langdon’s marathon rival in TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (‘26). Both turned up in shorts and features through the early sound era. Murray passed away in 1935, and Carver, after retiring in 1941, lived until 1956.

After this series for Eagle, Marcel Perez continued to make independent comedies for companies such as Jester, Reelcraft, and Sanford, in addition to directing western and society melodrama features. The loss of a leg in 1922 brought an end to his performing career, but he carried on writing and directing. For years an obituary for Perez couldn’t be found, but recently his death certificate finally turned up. Working for Joe Rock and Universal until 1927, he was struck by lung cancer and lingered until February 1929. Due to his frequent name changes as he made his gypsy-like way through early film, his work and accomplishments fell into almost total obscurity, but recently his films have started to be revived and his reputation and place in silent comedy history re-examined.

Name the Day (8/21/1921) Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir:   1 reel. Cast: Snub Pollard, Marie Mosquini, Noah Young, Sunshine Sammy Morrison, Sammy Brooks, James T. Kelly, William Gillespie.

Hal Roach initiated his Snub Pollard comedies in 1919. Snub had been Harold Lloyd’s second banana and when Harold was laid up following an accident with a live bomb Snub was put into his own film START SOMETHING (‘19). The series took off, and Roach, who had been trying out potential new series with the likes of Toto, Beatrice La Plante, and Dee Lampton, had a new success on his hands. Unlike the Lloyd comedies, which were getting more realistic, the Pollard films were wild gag fests the faster the better. Snub was like a living cartoon character with his upside-down Kaiser Wilhelm moustache, and could pull off the most outrageous sight-gags in a nonchalant manner. In 1920 a move was made to move the Pollard films into Harold Lloyd territory – his moustache was removed and he was given a more middle-class setting – but the experiment was unsuccessful and they soon return to the slapstick absurdity.
The one link to some kind of reality in the Pollard shorts was his regular leading lady Marie Mosquini. Born in Los Angeles, at age fourteen she became the “girl Friday” of the fledgling Roach studio. Besides her duties of answering phones, ordering props, checking out costumes, and even patching films, she began playing various bits in the comedies. These appearances increased and after being teamed up with Snub in 1920, she became a full-time actress. Marie was usually the gooney Snub’s long-suffering wife or love interest. These breezy, anything-for-a-laugh shorts were close in spirit to the Mack Sennett style of comedy with Marie the only voice of reason or sanity in the madcap whirl. After appearing in umpteen shorts together, they went their separate ways in 1923. At that point Marie began working with Will Rogers, Stan Laurel, and Paul Parrott, and after leaving the Roach lot in 1924 , she worked in Universal shorts with Charles Puffy and a few features, most notably SEVENTH HEAVEN (‘27). In 1930, she retired from the movies when she married Dr. Lee De Forest of audion tube and Phonofilms fame.

The Hal Roach stock company always got a brisk workout on the Pollard films, and besides the much appreciated Sunshine Sammy and Noah Young, a special nod should be given to the indispensible  William Gillespie and Sammy Brooks. The Scottish-born William Gillespie spent three years with the Selig Co. before turning up in the later Chaplin Mutual comedies EASY STREET, THE CURE, and THE IMMIGRANT (all ‘17). He joined the Roach company in late 1917 and would remain there for sixteen years, until 1933. During that time he played everything – prissy department store floorwalkers, tobacco-chewing old farmers, twitching drug addicts, and pretentious French artists – supporting every star comic on the lot. Besides his innumerable shorts, he also turned up in many of Harold Lloyd’s features, and an occasional other like Larry Semon’s STOP, LOOK, AND LISTEN (‘26) and EXIT SMILING (‘26) with Beatrice Lillie. Gillespie retired from films in 1938 and died in 1980 at the age of eighty-six.

The 3 foot, 10 inch Sammy Brooks was born Sammy Rochenberg in Brooklyn, NY, and appeared in stage shows such as SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, plus vaudeville with LASKY’S HOBOES, and THE KATZENJAMMER KIDS with The World of Mirth Company. Before joining Roach in 1916 he was in CINDERELLA (‘14) for Famous Players, Selig’s “Hans and Fritz” series, and in the “Heinie and Louie” comedies for Starlight. Because of his small stature Brooks was often used as a human sight-gag and generally knocked around by the likes of Snub and Paul Parrott. But the feisty Brooks always gave back as good as he got, and usually turned the tables on whoever thought they could take advantage of him. Sammy stayed with Roach until 1938’s SWISS MISS, when he left films due to losing his sight and ran a concession stand until his death in 1950.

Two Time Mama (1/23/1927) Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir: Fred Guiol. 2 reels. Cast: Glenn Tryon, Vivien Oakland, Anita Garvin, Tyler Brooke, Gale Henry, Oliver Hardy, Joseph “Baldy” Belmont.

In 1923 Harold Lloyd moved out on his own, so the Hal Roach Studio looked for a replacement. They settled on Glenn Tryon, a handsome twenty-five year old actor from stock and touring companies who had been appearing in small bits in their shorts and had just gotten some attention playing a fey cowboy in Stan Laurel’s THE SOILERS (‘23). Plucked from obscurity, Tyron was starred in two Roach features THE BATTLING ORIOLES and THE WHITE SHEEP (both ‘24), plus was put into a series of two-reelers that lasted from 1924 to 1927. Usually cast as a young hubby or a
country boy, Tryon came off as a junior Charley Chase in some very entertaining comedies that benefitted greatly from the Roach Studio expertise and its company of supporting comics. In 1927 Tryon went over to Universal where he finished the 1920s in breezy features such as THE POOR NUT (‘27) and BARNUM WAS RIGHT (‘29), in addition to an occasional dramatic piece like LONESOME (‘28). The change-over to sound eventually brought an end to his performing career, but he moved behind the camera as a writer, director, and producer where he worked on projects such as SONS OF THE DESERT (‘34) and HELLZAPOPPIN (‘41) until his retirement in the early 1950s.

Some of the best of the late 1920s Hal Roach stock company members are on hand lending sterling support. Dapper but dippy Tyler Brooke was in residence at Roach from 1925 to 1927, playing bungling suitors and playboy sons.  For many years a song and dance man in musical comedies and vaudeville, he was hired by the studio after being spotted in the L.A tour of NO, NO, NANETTE. Later he moved over to Fox where he was support in features like THE CRADLE SNATCHERS (‘27), plus took over the lead in their “Adventures of Van Bibber in Society” two-reelers. When sound arrived he had a few interesting roles in important features such as THE DIVORCEE (‘30) and MORNING GLORY (‘33), but was soon demoted to uncredited bit. Unhappy with the direction of his career he took his own life in 1943.
Besides Oliver Hardy and Anita Garvin, whose murderous glare could cut through solid lead, attention must be paid to Vivien Oakland and Gale Henry. Despite a few early films Vivien Oakland came from a popular vaudeville act with her husband John T. Murray to be the vivacious blonde “other woman” in scores of Roach comedies with Glenn Tryon and Charley Chase, with her most memorable performance being the judge’s drunken wife in Laurel & Hardy’s SCRAM (‘32). Although later getting a bit matronly, she kept busy playing wifely comedy foils at RKO for Edgar Kennedy and Leon Errol until her retirement in 1951. Snoopy the maid is Gale Henry, one of the great comediennes of the silent era. Spending the teens as part of the ensemble at Joker Comedies, and having her own starring series for Bulls Eye, in the 1920s she became an ace supporting player in features and other people’s shorts. Working regularly on the Roach lot she was frequently paired with Charley Chase, where in shorts such as HIS WOODEN WEDDING (‘25) and A ONE MAMA MAN (‘27) she steals everything but the film’s sprocket holes. Continuing to work with Chase in the early days of sound, she retired in 1934 to manage the movie career of her dog Skippy, who was better known as Asta.

Director Fred Guiol started his career as a prop boy on features such as D.W. Griffith’s HEARTS OF THE WORLD (‘18) before joining the Roach organization in 1919 as a cameraman. Working on the Harold Lloyd films as a general assistant he began directing shorts in 1923 with the likes of the Spat Family, Will Rogers, Glenn Tryon, and Laurel & Hardy. Although his work is generally taken for granted he did helm some genuine classics such as PASS THE GRAVY, LIMOUSINE LOVE, and THE BOYFRIEND (all ‘28). After some early Roach talkies he directed sound shorts for Pathe and RKO, in addition to a few features such as THE RAINMAKERS (‘35) and MUMMY’S BOYS (‘36) with Wheeler & Woolsey, plus some Roach “streamliners” like MISS POLLY (‘41) and HAY FOOT (‘42). His most fruitful work was spent as an associate of fellow ex-Hal Roach cameraman George Stevens, where Guiol was the scriptwriter on Steven’s films GUNGA DIN (‘39) and GIANT (‘56), as well as associate producer and director on PENNY SERENADE (‘41), TALK OF THE TOWN (‘42), A PLACE IN THE SUN (‘51) and SHANE (‘53).

Dad’s Choice (1/7/1928) Hollywood Productions (Harold Lloyd). Dist: Paramount. Dir: J.A. Howe. 2 reels. Cast: Edward Everett Horton, Sharon Lynn, Otis Harlan, Josephine Crowell, Silas Wilcox, James Gordon, Gus Leonard, Elinor Vander Veer.
Edward Everett Horton is remembered as a master of befuddlement and the double-take for his sound film appearances in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, and comedies such as HOLIDAY (‘38) and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (‘44). It’s not generally recalled that he had a substantial career in silent films as well. Going on the stage as a young man he spent many years in stock companies all over the country before settling in Los Angeles in 1919. Working in the theatre at night left him free for films during the day and he made his debut in 1922, starring in features like TOO MUCH SUCCESS (‘22), RUGGLES OF RED GAP (‘23), BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK (‘25), POKER FACES (‘26), and TAXI, TAXI (‘27).

In 1927 Harold Lloyd produced eight two-reelers starring Horton under the company name “Hollywood Productions,” with distribution through Paramount. Written and directed by Lloyd’s regular production staff, DAD’S CHOICE was the third entry, and the series chronicled Eddie’s misadventures as a persnickety man-about-town or young hubby. Even while Horton was making these silent shorts, he was adapting very well to sound films, appearing in the early “all-talking” THE TERROR (‘28) and talkie two-reelers for Educational Pictures. By the mid-1930s he settled into the groove that would keep him busy in films, on stage, radio, and television (as the narrator for FRACTURED FAIRY TALES among other things) up to his death in 1970.

Josephine Crowell (R), with Harold Lloyd
Besides the silent comedy rank and file of Gus Leonard and Silas Wilcox, Horton gets excellent support from Josephine Crowell, Sharon Lynn, and Otis Harlan. Having made her name in dramatic parts in D. W. Griffith epics such as THE BIRTH OF A NATION (‘15) and HEARTS OF THE WORLD (‘18), Josephine Crowell was a busy character actress who was equally at home in comedy. Some of her most memorable comedic moments are with Harold Lloyd in HOT WATER (‘24), in Charley Chase’s DOG SHY (‘26), and her last film, WRONG AGAIN (‘29), with Laurel & Hardy. As an ingénue Sharon Lynn had starred in the features CLANCY’S KOSHER WEDDING and JAKE THE PLUMBER (both ‘27), and with a background as a nightclub singer and songwriter she was in demand for early musicals such as SUNNYSIDE UP and FOX MOVIETONE FOLLIES OF 1929 (both ‘29). Sadly her career never really took off, and her last major role was as James Finlayson’s paramour Lola Marcel in Laurel & Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST (‘37).

The “Dad” of the title is played by Otis Harlan, a well-known stage comic who made his film debut for Selig in 1915’s THE BLACK SHEEP. In the 1920s he became a regular character player in features on the order of THREE BAD MEN (‘26) and SHOW BOAT (‘29), plus was an excellent comedy foil for Reginald Denny in OH! DOCTOR (‘25), THE CHEERFUL FRAUD (‘26) and WHAT HAPPENED TO JONES? (‘26). Working steadily in sound films, Harlan’s parts got a bit smaller after 1935’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, but he remained active until 1940.

Program 2 – "Movie Mania: Fun in the Dark"

Program 2:
"Movie Mania: Fun in the Dark"

Thurs. Sept. 12, 7:00pm
piano accompaniment by Ben Model

film notes by Steve Massa; ©2013 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved

The Dumb-Bell  (7/16/1922) Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir: Charles Parrott. Photo: Robert Doran. Edit: T. J. Crizer. Titles: H.M. Walker. 1 reel. Cast: Snub Pollard, Marie Mosquini, Sammy Brooks, William Gillespie, Charles Stevenson, Noah Young, George Rowe, Wallace Howe, Roy Brooks.
Along with Mack Sennett, Hal Roach is remembered as a “King of Comedy” of the silent era, and Roach’s reign continued into the early 1950s and television. Primarily thought of for his films with Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang, Roach’s roster of stars also included Snub Pollard, Charley Chase, Clyde Cook, Paul Parrott, and many others, but it was his association with Harold Lloyd that created his studio. Roach started at the bottom rung of the film industry as an extra. Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and most of the other early producers had all been successful merchants who switched from selling furs, gloves, and even junk to a new product – movies. Roach on the other hand had been a muleskinner, prospector, and cowboy before he entered the movies. After working at various studios and striking up a friendship with fellow extra Lloyd, Roach received a small inheritance in 1914 and decided to set up his own production unit. The first person he hired was Lloyd because “he was the hardest working actor I had ever seen.”

Despite early ups and downs that included distributors stealing their films, and Lloyd briefly heading off to work for Sennett while Roach directed one-reelers for Essanay, they finally clicked with some comedies and scored a contract with Pathe. Settling down to a series of Lonesome Luke shorts, slowly but surely the studio made progress, and with the development of Lloyd’s “glasses character” his popularity soared and Roach began expanding his operations. Due to necessity when Lloyd was laid up after an accident with a live bomb Snub Pollard was moved into his own series, but it was a hit and continued apace after Harold returned to production.
In 1921 a young director/writer was brought in to helm the Pollard series. Charles Parrott got his early experience in vaudeville specializing in comic monologues and songs. Breaking into films in 1914 with a brief stint at Nestor Films, he soon settled in at the premiere laugh factory of the day – Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio. Because his youthful and dapper appearance limited his onscreen roles in the exaggerated Keystone universe, he also began contributing gags and stories in addition to becoming an assistant director. By 1916 he was a full-fledged comedy director helming shorts such as A DASH OF COURAGE (‘16) on his own and at this time he left Sennett to become a veritable silent comedy bee – flying from studio flower to studio flower.

The first place he lit was Foxfilm Comedies where he directed Hank Mann and Heinie Conklin, but he kept moving – helming the Billy West Comedies for King Bee, some entries for L-KO, a return to the Billy West unit but this time for Bulls Eye, Hank Mann at Arrow, Mr. & Mrs. Carter De Haven for Paramount, and even a couple of Lloyd Hamilton shorts for the fledgling Jack White Company. By the time he settled in at Roach in 1921 Charley had an impressive track record and solid comedy expertise. Put in charge of the Pollard series, Parrott made good use of his well-developed sense of the absurd and the films took a decided upswing. Impressed with his taste and creativity, Roach soon made Charley director-general of the entire studio, where he oversaw all comedy production (except the Harold Lloyd films). As supervisor one of his most important assignments was the creation of Our Gang, Roach had the idea and Charley put together a top-notch unit to develop the series. The peak of the Pollard comedies was during Parrott’s tenure, as when Charley stepped down for other duties the series straggled on with other directors such as George Jeske and Ward Hayes but petered out by 1926.

The Picture Idol (5/31/1912) Vitagraph. Dir: James Young. 1 reel. Cast: Clara Kimball Young, Maurice Costello, Charles Eldridge, James Morrison, Mary Maurice, George Cooper, Dorothy Kelly, Tom Powers.

When one thinks of comedies from the Vitagraph Studio the names John Bunny, Flora Finch, Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, and Larry Semon come to mind, but there were others such as the “Jarr Family Comedies,” Josie Sadler, Frank Daniels, and the husband and wife team of James Young and Clara Kimball Young who made major contributions to the excellence of the studio’s output (also see GOODNESS GRACIOUS).

Another who starred in many comedies was Maurice Costello, Vitagraph’s leading man par excellence. Although really a matinee idol, Costello still managed to use his warm presence in a number of light comedies like THE PICTURE IDOL for the “Big V.”
Costello began acting in vaudeville in 1894, and was soon roaming the country in all kinds of stock companies. Popular in shows such as THE KENTUCY FEUD and SCOTLAND YARD, he joined Edison in 1906 but switched over to Vitagraph the next year to become one of their biggest stars. Two of his best known films were A TALE OF TWO CITIES (‘11) and THE FIRST VIOLIN (‘12), and although he excelled as a romantic leading man his comedies included AN INNOCENT BURGLAR (‘11), IT ALL CAME OUT IN THE WASH (‘12) and DELAYED PROPOSALS (‘13). He also directed many shorts, usually starring himself. His wife Mae and their daughters Dolores and Helene appeared in numerous films, with the girls continuing as adults. Dolores became quite popular in the late 1920s and married John Barrymore. Her son John Barrymore Jr. was the father of Drew Barrymore, making Maurice Costello the great-grandfather of the current star.

Like many of the first movie stars, Costello’s popularity began waning by 1915, and never having saved his money he had to take whatever films he could get. By the 1920s he was a supporting player, and eventually ended up as an unbilled extra in the 1930s. The mantle of “has-been” settled on him early, so this, and the fact that he was estranged from his daughters for many years, made him a frequent subject for the press. Plagued by ill health he went to live at the Motion Picture Country Home in 1946, and died there in 1950 at the age of seventy-three.

Playing Clara Kimball Young’s long-suffering parents are the first-class supporting players Mary Maurice and Charles Eldridge who graced a majority of the Vitagraph product. Ms. Maurice came to the studio at age sixty-five after a stage career that encompassed Shakespeare, THE ARKNSAS TRAVELER, RIP VAN WINKLE, and taking time off to have a family. Joining the company in 1909 she played everyone’s mother or grandmother, and became known as “Mother Maurice” or just plain “Mother” among the company. Whether it was in dramas such as THE BATTLE CRY OF PEACE (‘15) or comedies like Sidney Drew’s IS CHRISTMAS A BORE? (‘15), Ms. Maurice worked non-stop for Vitagraph right up to her death in 1918.

Charles Eldridge also came from a long stage career during which he’d performed blackface song and dance, plus appeared as part of various comedy teams to work his way up to act under Charles Frohman, Augustin Daly, and A.A. Woods. Starting in 1910 Eldridge supported all the studio’s stars in a warm and low-keyed manner, and outside of a brief stint with Imp in 1914 he stayed with the “Big V” until 1916 when he moved out into supporting roles in features for Metro, Famous Players-Lasky, Maurice Tourneur Prods., and Goldwyn such as SUNSHINE NAN (‘18) and MADE IN HEAVEN (‘21) until his death in 1922.

Buster’s Frame Up (6/6/1927) Century. Dist: Universal. Dir: Gus Meins. 2 reels. Cast: Arthur Trimble, Doreen Turner, Pete the pup.

R.F. Outcault’s famous comic strip character Buster Brown had first been brought to the screen by the Edison Company in 1903 and then revived in 1914. Century Comedies launched their version in 1925 with Arthur Trimble as Buster, Doreen Turner as Mary Jane, and Pete the pup as Tige. Distributed by Universal the series was a hit and brought Pete to the attention of movie goers. Nine year-old Arthur Trimble had been starring in independent shorts since the early 1920s and joined Century around 1924. More than slightly effeminate, the prescribed Buster Brown outfit and Dutch – boy haircut cut contributes to Trimble’s troubling androgyny. Little is known about his life after the series except that he shot his wife and then himself at age thirty-one in 1948. Doreen Turner had appeared in features and had been a regular in the 1921-1922 Campbell Comedies, a series produced and directed by William S. Campbell about kids and their animal friends. She stayed with the series before leaving it and films in early 1929.
The real star of the show was Pete, who already had the famous ring around his eye, and garnered most of the laughs and attention from reviewers. He was owned by a French-born former actor/wrestler named Harry Lucenay and his father was Pal, another of Lucenay’s dogs. Pal was a star of his own series of Century Comedies in 1923 and 1924 and also worked with the likes of Buster Keaton, Monty Banks, Big Boy, and other popular comics. Lucenay started Pete in films when he was six months old and along the way he appeared with Stan Laurel, Al St John, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, and A Ton of Fun. By the time he joined Our Gang in 1927 he was a seasoned pro. Director Gus Meins, who piloted about half of the shorts, started his career as a gagman at Fox in 1919, and soon moved over to assistant directing for Mack Sennett. He eventually found a home with Stern Brothers/Universal, handling a large chunk of their Buster Brown, The Newlyweds and their Baby, Keeping Up with the Jones, Let George Do It, and Mike & Ike franchises. In the sound era he ended up with Hal Roach for many Our Gang, Charley Chase, and Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly shorts. After directing some “B” features such as SCATTERBRAIN (‘40) he committed suicide while awaiting trial on morals charges against six young boys.

The early years of the series are best. Changes that occurred after 1927 – the replacement of Pete by a dog with a scarily made-up face, and the taking over of direction by the untalented Francis Corby and Sam Newfield – brought the comedies down to a pretty dire standard. Even the addition of funny little Hannah Washington as Buster’s friend Oatmeal wasn’t much help. The series limped along before finally expiring in 1929.

The Studio Rube (1922) Prod: Fox. Dir: Gilbert Pratt. 2 reels. Cast: Al St John, Billy Engle, Marvin Loback.

Chiefly remembered today as the country hick nemesis to his uncle Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Al St John went out on his own in 1919 and had a long-running solo career. In 1921 he began this starring series for Fox, and what’s striking is how spare and subtle his performing style became with a new comic seriousness that’s very “Keatonesque.” Out of the 29 shorts he made for Fox only four are known to exist today – THE STUDIO RUBE, SPECIAL DELIVERY, ALL WET, and OUT OF PLACE (all ‘22) – but they are some of his best surviving films. From here he moved to comedies for Reelcomedies, Inc. and Jack White to finish out the 1920s, and in the sound era he switched to low-budget westerns, developing a new screen persona. With a beard, and without his teeth, Al became “Fuzzy Q. Jones,” sidekick to cowboys Buster Crabbe, Don “Red” Barry, and Lash Larue, providing much needed comic relief with his old routines and falls. Retiring in 1952, Al passed away in 1963.
In this short Al gets support from two of the most ubiquitous faces in silent comedy. Little Billy Engle was a native of Austria and a graduate of burlesque who began his film career in 1919. Small, with a bald-pate comb-over and usually a moustache, Engle appeared non-stop in shorts for Fox, Universal, and Roach, but spent a major part of the 1920s working for Al Christie. His sound career consisted of uncredited bits into the 1950s. Marvin Loback was an adept comic foil who found a ready place in comedies due to the fact that his extreme weight made him a walking sight-gag. He first began turning up around 1917 in L-KO, Sennett Triangle, and Harold Lloyd comedies. A good part in Universal’s special THE GEEZER OF BERLIN (‘18) gave him some visibility, leading him to become part of the regular stock company on both the Sennett and Roach lots. In the mid-1920s he was unofficially teamed with Ralph Graves for a number of shorts at Sennett, and later for Weiss Brothers Artclass he was hooked up with Snub Pollard for a series that cashed in on the thick and thin popularity of Laurel & Hardy. He spent the rest of career doing bits in shorts and features until his death in 1938.

THE STUDIO RUBE’s director is the neglected Gilbert Pratt, a solid utility man who never settled in one place but instead worked everywhere. Al St John, Lloyd Hamilton, Harold Lloyd, Montgomery & Rock, and A Ton of Fun are just a few of the stars whose comic misadventures he piloted. Originally a bank teller and auto salesman, amateur theatricals led Pratt to the movies where he started at Kalem as an actor. He was soon playing heavies and assistant directing on Harold Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke shorts, and when the comedian switched to his new “glasses character” Pratt became a full-time director. By 1920 he was turning up all over – Federated, Fox, Jack White, Christie – and would continue for the rest of the decade. He also worked on scripts for features such as CLANCY’S KOSHER WEDDING and TWO FLAMING YOUTHS (both ‘27), and in sound it was as a writer that he did most of his work. His later credits include being a gagman on Laurel & Hardy’s SAPS AT SEA (‘40) and contributing to some mid-1940s Columbia shorts. He died in L.A. in 1954.

Goodness Gracious, or Movies as they Shouldn’t Be (4/24/1914) Vitagraph. Dir: James Young.  3 reels. Cast: Sidney Drew, Clara Kimball Young, James Lackeye, Ned Finley, James Young.

Here’s another comedy from the team of James Young and Clara Kimball Young (also see THE PICTURE IDOL), and this one is far ahead of its time in its skewering and spoofing movie clichés. Clara Kimball Young is a name that pops up often in literature about American silent cinema, but her films are rarely shown and her work has been overlooked. Her brief heyday as an actress and a producer came in the mid-teens, but was cut short by bad decisions and relationships. Born in the proverbial trunk she began performing at age two, and was the daughter of touring actors Edward M. Kimball and Pauline Kimball, both of whom followed Clara into pictures for Vitagraph, Solax, and World. As a young actress she met and married the popular James Young and the pair joined Vitagraph in 1909. Under his direction she became a star at the studio, mostly in charming comedies in which she seems to have been the successor to Florence Turner in her skill and appeal. Clara appears to have been more interested in being a great dramatic star, and focused on melodramatic features after leaving Vitagraph.

She also acted the role of diva in real life as she became involved with her producer Lewis Selznick and later producer-director Harry Garson. Estranged from James Young, their relationship problems hit the newspapers when Young sued Selznick for alienating his wife’s affections, and even more so when Young attacked Harry Garson with a knife in 1917. There were also legal lawsuits with Selznick, with he and Clara suing and counter-suing each other. Clara eventually married Garson, and her last big success was EYES OF YOUTH (‘19). After this Garson insisted on directing her films, and bad pictures as well as unwise management derailed her career. Her last starring role was in 1925, after which she hit the end of vaudeville in an act that traded on her former movie fame. She returned to Hollywood in 1931 for small parts in low-budget and independent features, in addition to the Three Stooges’ short ANTS IN THE PANTRY (‘36) where she’s a society matron who hires the trio to take care of the ants in her mansion. She retired in 1941, but when silent films began to be shown on television in the 1950s her name became known again and she made various personal appearances, but in poor heath she moved to the Motion Picture Country Home and died in 1960.

The other star of GOODNESS GRACIOUS is Sidney Drew, a fairly recent recruit to the Vitagraph family. Drew was a light comedian from the stage, and was a member of the famous Drew and Barrymore theatrical clans. After many years in the theatre he entered films at Kalem in 1911 with his first wife Gladys Rankin. Mrs. Drew died soon after the pair joined Vitagraph in 1913 so Sidney was part of the regular acting ensemble but soon started appearing in marital comedies such as JERRY’S MOTHER-IN-LAW (‘13) and PICKLES, ART, AND SAUERKRAUT (‘14),
where his spouses were played by Clara Kimball Young and Louise Beaudet. When Sidney married Lucille McVey, a young actress and writer in the company who worked under the name Jane Morrow, they became a team and found fame with the 1914 launching of their series that chronicled the misadventures of an average married couple. Mrs. Drew contributed most of the scripts, together they directed, while Mr. Drew’s performances put them over on the screen. Hugely successful, they moved on to Metro and Paramount, but after the death of his son in World War I, Sidney Drew died at the peak of his fame on April 9, 1919.

James Young was Clara’s husband during their days at Vitagraph, and is an almost completely forgotten director today. Born in Baltimore in 1878, he had an extensive and successful stage career, during which he worked with the likes of Sir Henry Irving, Augustin Daly, and Minnie Maddern Fiske. In addition to numerous Shakespeare productions he was very popular as the lead in plays written by his first wife Riba Johnson Young such as BROWN OF HARVARD. At the same time he appeared in “high class vaudeville” performing  famous Shakespearian characters such as Hamlet, Shylock, and Marc Anthony, as well as presented lectures on the Bard’s plays. Young and Clara joined Vitagraph’s stable of actors in 1909, and he began directing in 1912. Handling everything from melodramas and Shakespearian adaptations to historical dramas, his best surviving work are comedies such as GOODNESS GRACIOUS, and CUTEY AND THE CHORUS GIRLS, JERRY’S MOTHER-IN-LAW, and DELAYED PROPOSALS (all ‘13).

In addition to writing many of his films, he and Clara moved to features for the “Big V’ in 1914, but soon jumped across the river to Fort Lee, New Jersey to work for the World Film Co. The couple became estranged when Clara became involved with producer Louis Selznick and later producer-director Harry Garson. Despite all the personal problems Young kept working and continued into the 1920s with good pictures  such as WANDERING DAUGHTERS (‘23) and THE BELLS (‘26). He had even directed a substantial part of Mabel Normand’s hit MICKEY (‘18) although he didn’t finish the film and the credit went to F. Richard Jones. He directed his last film in 1928, but not due to a lack of trying. His papers at the New York Public Library are filled with numerous inquiries about directing positions, even to a company making educational shorts for children. Sadly there were no takers, and he returned to Broadway as an actor in the 1930s, and continued his Shakespeare lectures until his death in 1948.

Program 3 – "Food Fights: Chaos á la Carte"

Program 3:
"Food Fights: Chaos á la Carte"

Fri. Sept. 13, 7:00pm
piano accompaniment by Ben Model
film notes by Steve Massa; ©2013 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved.

Hash and Havoc (12/4/1916) Vitagraph. Dir: Lawrence Semon. Writ: Semon & Graham Baker. 1 reel. Cast: Hughie Mack, Patsy De Forest, James Aubrey, Eddie Dunn, Frank Brule, Billy Bletcher.
In the early teens the Vitagraph Studio was the bastion of sophisticated and polite situational comedies, but by 1916 the style had undergone a radical sea change. John Bunny had died, and others stars such as Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, Flora Finch, Wally Van, and Lillian Walker had moved on to other studios. A newspaper cartoonist named Lawrence Semon was hired to write and direct the comedies, and brought with him an antic and rag-tag style of slapstick.

HASH AND HAVOC shows Larry very much in charge as director at this early stage, but in his first movie days he had a great teammate in Graham Baker, who wrote most of Semon’s comedies until 1918. Having started as a writer at Vitagraph in 1915, Baker first worked with Larry on these Hughie Mack comedies such as TUBBY TURNS THE TABLES and A VILLAINOUS VILLAIN (both ‘16). He also wrote for Frank Daniels “Captian Jinks” shorts, and directed a bit more sophisticated comedies like HIS WIFE’S HERO (‘17) and THEIR GODSON (‘18). The 1920s saw him writing all types of features, even hooking up with Larry again on THE GIRL IN THE LIMOUSINE (‘24), THE DOME DOCTOR (‘25) and DUMMIES (‘28), and some of his best-known sound films are THE SINGING FOOL (‘28), YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (‘37), STAND-IN (‘37) and SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON (‘40). He worked up to his death in 1950.

Besides Patsy De Forest (see THERE AND BACK) and Jimmy Aubrey, Hughie has future Hal Roach wise-guy Eddie Dunn and little Billy Bletcher as support. In 1915 Eddie Dunn started turning up in small bits in the films of John Bunny and Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew. Although it’s unverified he appears to be the older brother of Vitagraph leading man William Dunn, who preceded him at the company by four years, and also a Stanley Dunn who played small parts. When Larry Semon took the helm of the Hughie Mack comedies Eddie got bigger supporting roles and stayed with the “Big V” through 1917. After that he worked in a few of the 1919 and 1920 features produced by former Vitagraph head J. Stuart Blackton, and then resurfaces in the mid-1920s in the New York-made Whirlwind Comedies of Charley Bowers. Eddie’s on hand in FATAL FOOTSTEPS (‘26), MANY A SLIP (‘27) and NOTHING DOING (‘27), and then relocated with Bowers in Hollywood for SAY AHH (‘28), and WHOOZIT (‘28).

In 1929 Dunn began the best known phase of his career – as a supporting player and gagman at the Hal Roach Studio. He even gets director credit on a few of Charley Chase’s mid-1930s comedies.  Always loud and not-so-bright, Dunn often functioned as the comic heavy and excelled as exasperated cab drivers, sarcastic cops, or combative doormen in countless shorts and features up to his death in 1951. Two of his memorable later appearances are as one of the “Keystone Kop” Nazi storm troopers in Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (‘40), and as a harassed chauffer who gets unwanted advice from W.C. Fields in THE BANK DICK (‘40). Billy Bletcher was another ubiquitous comedy face who began his career in the teens at Vim and Vitagraph. In 1919 and 1920 under the name Billy Fletcher he headlined in a series of Spotlight Comedies with Violet Joy, and did some Universal Star Comedies, but soon returned to Bletcher and worked prolifically in Christie Comedies and as support in all kinds of films, was an in demand voice performer for Disney and others, plus made television appearances into the 1970s.

Jus Passin Through (10/14/1923) Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. Dir: Charles Parrott. 2 reels. Cast: Will Rogers, Marie Mosquini, Noah Young, Earl Mohan, Vera White, Emma Tansey, Wallace Howe, Leo Willis, Jackie Condon, James Finlayson, Jack Ackroyd, Lyle Tayo, Billy Engle, Charley Young.

Will Rogers was born Nov. 4, 1879 on a ranch near Oologah, I.T (Indian Territory), now Oklahoma. Thank to a persistent father Will managed to get an education, but his obsession was roping, and he spent countless hours practicing throws and tricks. After a few years of working as a cowboy he began performing his rope tricks in Wild West Shows, which were a cowboy version of vaudeville that featured re-enactments of famous battles, with trick-shots, riders, and ropers as the headliners. Billed as “The Cherokee Kid” he toured South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Madison Square Garden with different shows, sometime along with future movie cowboy Tom Mix. When he made the leap to vaudeville in 1905 Will’s act was silent, but he began verbally introducing each trick. His dry delivery and wry outlook on things made audiences laugh, which upset him initially, but other performers convinced Will that the audiences were laughing with him and he soon developed jokes and routines – mostly comments on items that he read in newspapers. In 1915 he hit the big time when he was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld whom he would work for until 1925, with several breaks for motion pictures in California. 
He began features for Samuel Goldwyn in 1918. Surviving examples are light-comedy dramas that present Rogers as a shy and straight-forward salt of the earth, with his jokes and observations used as titles. The pictures were popular but the Goldwyn Company went belly-up in 1922 and Will decided to produce his own films. THE ROPIN’ FOOL (‘22) and another couple of shorts were made but the venture collapsed and Rogers’ savings went with it. To recoup he went back to the Follies, appeared in a couple of features, and in 1923 signed with producer Hal Roach for a series of fourteen two-reelers that took pot-shots at politics, western life, and other movies. After this, Will appeared in two more silent features, TIP TOES and A TEXAS STEER (both ‘27), and became the “Unofficial Ambassador of the United States” for a series of Travelogues which had the Rogers family visiting European capitals with Will’s pithy comments related via titles. When sound arrived, his first talkie, THEY HAD TO SEE PARIS (‘29), was a huge hit. Now Will could give his wisecracks to movie audiences himself, often delivering them directly to the camera, which created an intimacy and familiarity which he hadn’t been able to achieve in silent films. Through his movies, newspaper columns, and radio appearances he became one of the most beloved personalities in America until his untimely death in a plane crash on August 15, 1935.

During his stay at the Hal Roach Studio Rogers had support from a crack team behind and in front of the camera. JUS’ PASSIN THROUGH’s direction was by Charles Parrott, the Renaissance man of silent comedy, better known today as Charley Chase (see THE DUMB-BELL notes). Two of the character players deserve special nods. The deputy sheriff is played by Earl Mohan, a longtime member of the Roach company, who started in the late teens with Harold Lloyd in the Lonesome Luke and early “glasses character” comedies, and continued with Charley Chase, Stan Laurel, and others. In 1924 Roach teamed him with little Billy Engle, called them “Hunky Dorrey,” and made a series of one-reelers such as FAST BLACK (‘24), ALL WOOL (‘25) and RIDERS OF THE KITCHEN RANGE (‘25). Unfortunately there was little interest, and after the series was cancelled Earl turned up less frequently at Roach but increased his appearances elsewhere – shorts for Educational and Fox, plus features like Lloyd’s FOR HEAVEN’ SAKE and THE GENERAL (both ‘26). Mohan died young at 39 in 1928. Roach’s perennial hardboiled mug Leo Willis began his career in 1914 in Thomas Ince productions, so he can be spotted in William S. Hart westerns such as THE BARGAIN (‘14) and HELL’S HINGES (‘16). He worked on many of Hart’s later films, as well as all kinds of features for Triangle, Universal, and Metro. Turning up at Roach in 1924 he spent the next twelve years making life difficult for every comic on the lot, while continuing his work in features like THE KID BROTHER (‘27), ROMAN SCANDALS (‘33), and ROOM SERVICE (‘38) until 1938.

King of the Kitchen (10/30/1918) L-Ko. Dist: Universal. Dir: Frank Griffin. 2 reels. Cast: Harry Gribbon, Eva Novak. Rosa Gore, Mae Emory, Oliver Hardy, Billy Armstrong, Merta Sterling.

L-Ko Komedies was the brainchild of Henry “Pathe” Lehrman (Lehrman Knock-Out Komedies) who formed the company under the auspices of Universal Pictures head Carl Laemmle. Lehrman’s first move in 1914 was to do a talent raid of his former home, the Keystone Studio, and although unsuccessful luring away Mabel Normand he did nab Hank Mann, Alice Howell, Rube Miller, Peggy Pearce, and others. After two years Lehrman left – either of his own accord or was ousted – and L-KO was taken over by Carl Laemmle’s brothers-in-law Julius and Abe Stern. Their pilfering of Sennett personnel continued, and one of the most popular to come over was Harry Gribbon.
Nicknamed “Silk Hat Harry,” Gribbon had a long stage career which started at age sixteen and went through vaudeville, legitimate shows like FLO FLO, and the 1913 Ziegfeld Follies, in addition to working for the Shuberts and George M. Cohan. Hired by Mack Sennett in 1915 from the Gayety Company at the Morosco Theatre, Gribbon sooned moved all over the silent comedy map, going from Keystone to L-KO, back to Sennett, then back to L-KO, and on to shorts for Fox, Al Christie, and Universal – all by 1921. In the 1920s he spent more time in vaudeville before coming back to films as support in features such as THE CAMERMAN and SHOW PEOPLE (both’28). Early sound was good for Harry as he headlined in Sennett talkies from 1929 to 1932, and from there continued working in features and New York-made shorts for Vitaphone and Educational. He later returned to Broadway in shows like MR. BIG (‘41) and the mega-hit ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (‘43) in which he replaced John Alexander as Teddy Brewster. Sadly drinking ruined his career and health, and he died in the Motion Picture Home and County Hospital in 1961.

In KING OF THE KITCHEN Gribbon has support from the well-known Oliver Hardy and a number of other comedy professionals, including his real-life wife May Emory, who was frequently his partner on stage as well as film. Statuesque and a bit zaftig, Ms Emory was often ogled by the likes of Ford Sterling in shorts such as THAT LITTLE BAND OF GOLD (‘15) or played the alluring “other woman” as she does in TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE (‘17). She joined her husband at L-KO, but returned to Sennett and soon retired to run a beauty parlor. She passed away in New York thirteen years before Harry in 1948. Leading lady Eva Novak began as an ingénue at L-KO in 1917 and worked there until she broke into features in 1919. Her comedies included UP IN MARY’S ATTIC (‘20) with Harry Gribbon, and Leo McCarey’s first unsuccessful directorial effort SOCIETY SECRETS (‘21). She soon became in demand opposite male stars such as William S. Hart, Jack Holt, and most frequently Tom Mix. She retired in 1930, and worked only occasionally until 1945, when she began doing numerous unbilled bit roles in films and TV shows until 1966.

Also on hand are character comics Rosa Gore and Billy Armstrong. The tall and skinny Rosa Gore had been a vaudeville favorite in an act called WHAT ARE THE WILD WINDS SAYING? with her husband Dan Crimmins. The pair entered films in 1914, working for Pathe, Reliance, and as regulars in THE MISHAPS OF MUSTY SUFFER series. Their careers, during which they worked with practically everyone in silent comedy, lasted until the mid-1930s, and Ms. Gore passed away in 1941. Billy Armstrong was an English music hall veteran, and was a principal comedian with Fred Karno when he was recruited by Charlie Chaplin for his Essanay films. Not following Chaplin to Mutual, Armstrong worked for David Horsley, Keystone Triangle, L-Ko, Roach, Century, Speed Comedies, and Sennett. Occasionally he would star, but was usually in support, often in more than one role. In his last appearances, such as THE EXTRA GIRL (‘23) and SMILE PLEASE (‘24), he looks terrible – years older than his actual age – probably due to the tuberculosis that killed him in 1924.

Fish (11/20/1916) Biograph. Dir, Writ & Cast: Bert Williams. 1 reel.

Bert Williams was the first black media superstar, a pioneer who broke the color barrier by becoming a regular comic in the all-white Ziegfeld Follies, sharing the stage with W.C. Fields, Leon Errol, Eddie Cantor, and Will Rogers. He first made his name teamed with George Walker, and Williams & Walker starred in all black shows such as DAHOMEY (‘02) and ABYSSERIA (‘06). Having to go solo after Walker’s early death he hit the Follies in 1910, and at the same had a huge success with his song recordings.

In 1916 the Biograph Company signed him for films, and released two shorts, FISH and A NATURAL BORN GAMBLER. Both are invaluable records of a great clown, and incorporate many elements and ideas from his songs and sketches. Biograph also had begun shooting a feature starring Williams, but when the studio folded the shorts had been released but the feature was unfinished. The rushes have been preserved by MoMA and are a fascinating look at Williams and his working methods. This elaborate production would have been the first full-length film to star a black performer, in addition to presenting him as the romantic hero of the film.

After leaving the Follies, Williams appeared in 1920 with Eddie Cantor in BROADWAY BREVITIES, and undertook a 1921 – 22 tour of the show UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE. Although other film projects were announced for him none came to fruition. While touring in UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE he died of pneumonia on March 4, 1922.

Feed ‘Em and Weep (12/8/1928) Hal Roach. Dist: MGM. Dir:   2 reels. Cast: Anita Garvin, Marion Byron, Max Davidson, Silas Wilcox, Frank Alexander, Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Hall, Charley Young.

In 1928 the Hal Roach studio was enjoying a huge success with the teaming of Laurel & Hardy. Hoping that lightning might strike twice, Anita Garvin and Marion Byron were put together as a female equivalent. Where Stan and Ollie had the “fat and skinny” physical contrast going, the girls had “tall and small.” Garvin, with her worldy-wise manner and proven slow-burn was a shoo-in for the “Hardy” role, and sweet, innocent, and slightly ditzy Marion was given the “Laurel” part. 

Anita Garvin was born in New York City in 1907, and at the tender age of twelve became a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, appearing in the Sennett stage show SEEING BROOKLYN and at publicity and promotional events. From there she became a showgirl for the legendary Flo Ziegfeld in his Follies and other shows, and when the tour of SALLY hit Los Angeles in 1924 Anita quit for the movies; “The very first thing I did was a picture with Bobby Vernon. I was supposed to be dancer on the floor, and Vernon flipped a piece of butter on the floor and I took a pratfall.” This was in the Christie Comedy BRIGHT LIGHTS (‘24), which exists in MoMA’s collection, and in addition to her exactly described big scene there’s footage of her fixing a couple of her soon-to-be-famous murderous glares on Bobby. Young and ambitious Anita soon moved to other comedy units such as Century, Jack White, Fox, and, very importantly, the Standard Cinema Corporation, where she first met and worked for Stan Laurel. Impressed with her comedic skills, Laurel brought her over to the Roach lot for RAGGEDY ROSE (‘26), and it was in the creative and family atmosphere at Roach that her talents and screen persona bloomed, leading to the performances for which she’s remembered today.

Marion Byron was born La Mae Bilenkin in 1911. The youngest of five sisters born to Russian immigrants, one of Marion’s older sisters became a vaudeville performer under the name Betty Byron so Marion adopted Byron as a last name too. Like Garvin, Marion started her career on stage as a chorus girl, and on the west coast had roles in TIP-TOES, THE CRADLE SNATCHER, and THE MUSIC BOX REVUE. She entered films in 1926 and gained a great deal of attention as Buster Keaton’s leading lady in STEAMBOAT BILL JR. (‘28). Later that year Hal Roach signed Marion and put her to work in his “All Star” Comedies. Nicknamed “Peanut” because of her tiny and petite size (4’11’’, 88 lbs), she was extremely cute and sexy but still had a little girl quality with her big eyes and flat chest.

The girls made three films together, with the first two very strongly based on the Laurel & Hardy blueprint. Number one FEED ‘EM AND WEEP presents them as waitresses hired for a big rush at Max Davidson’s train depot diner. Echoes of FROM SOUP TO NUTS (‘28) abound, including a note from their employment agency describing them as “the best we could do under the circumstances,” frequent falls with trayfuls of food, and Marion serving in her long underwear. The third short A PAIR OF TIGHTS (‘29) took the girls in a different direction that moved away from the L&H hand-me-downs and focused on the type of troubles that single girls have on dates – much more organic and grounded in reality than their previous outings. Sadly they never got to develop the single girls theme any further as Marion Byron left the Roach lot and they went their separate ways.

Program 4 – "Police Brutality: Wrong Arm of the Law"

Program 4:
"Police Brutality: Wrong Arm of the Law"

Sat. Sept. 14, 7:00pm - Special Musical Presentation, with new scores composed by Peter Bufano and Ben Model, performed by Bufano (accordion), Model (piano), and Mike Dobson (percussion).
Tues. Sept. 17, 7:30pm - piano accompaniment by Ben Model
film notes by Steve Massa; ©2013 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved.

Father’s Chicken Dinner (8/18/1913) Biograph. Dir: Del Henderson. 1 reel. Cast: David Morris, Charlie Murray, Sylvia Ashton, Gus Pixley.

Along with Vitagraph and Edison, the third major New York studio turning out a regular schedule of comedies was Biograph. Today Biograph is remembered for D.W. Griffith, and as the place where Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, and the Gish sisters got their start. When Griffith began directing for the studio in 1908 he had to provide a well-rounded program, so he had to turn out comedies as well as dramas. Since he was never interested in comedies, by 1920 a comedy unit was set up under the direction of Frank Powell. Mack Sennett became one of the main players and assistants on the Powell comedies, and well Powell left the studio in 1911 Sennett took over the unit. When Sennett himself left the next year to form Keystone, his right-hand men Del Henderson and Edward Dillon got their breaks.

Del Henderson was a long-time stage actor who started at Biograph in 1908 as part of the ensemble in Griffith’s films. Starting in dramas he soon gravitated to comedies, and in 1912 became a full-fledged comedy director. Leaving Biograph in 1915 he directed at Keystone, and the next year was helming features of all kinds until THE RAMBLING RANGER in 1927. At this point he returned to acting, giving excellent character performances in films such as THE PATSY, THE CROWD, and SHOW PEOPLE (all ‘28). Having made a successful transition to sound he continued working until 1950.

The Biograph comedies directed by Henderson and Dillon had a regular stock company of players that included Gus Pixley, Sylvia Ashton, David Morris, and Charlie Murray. Said to have started his stage career at age ten, Charlie Murray worked his way up through circuses, and pony & medicine shows, to hit the big time in vaudeville when he teamed with Ollie Mack. The pair became the Irish equivalent of Weber & Fields and starred in successful shows such as SHOOTING THE CHUTES and THE SUNNY SIDE OF BROADWAY. The team split in 1910 and Murray found his way to the infant film industry, and by 1912 was one of the leading comics at Biograph. He migrated to Keystone in 1914 and continued his success, working frequently with Louise Fazenda, Slim Summerville, and Polly Moran, remaining one of Sennett’s top stars until 1922 when he began freelancing in numerous shorts and features. In 1926 he was first teamed with comic George Sidney for a number of “Cohens and Kellys” films. Although he made a good transition to sound Murray’s career slowed down in 1930s. His last appearance was in the Eddie Cline-directed feature BREAKING THE ICE (‘38), and he passed away in 1941.

Charley Murray
The pop-eyed and often manic David Morris was a supporting comic who specialized in eccentrics, and started in films for Selig in 1912. His varied stage background included stints with Cohan & Harris, Klaw & Erlanger, and Singer Amusement Co. During 1912 – 1914 Morris was in residence at Biograph, usually playing older characters such as fathers, uncles, or bosses. After Biograph he made the rounds to practically every unit making comedies – Keystone, Kalem, L-KO, Christie, Universal, and Fox Sunshine. By the mid-1920s he’d settled in at the Sennett studio where he kept busy supporting the likes of Billy Bevan and Ben Turpin. Sadly despite his stage experience, Morris didn’t transfer well to sound pictures and ended up being demoted to uncredited but roles, which he did until 1949.

Sylvia Ashton was a heavy-set, matronly actress who after working on the stage began her movie career at Biograph working for Sennett and Henderson. In the late teens she made her way to Keystone for shorts like HER FAME AND SHAME (‘17) and moved into features such as Cecil B. DeMille’s OLD WIVES FOR NEW (‘18). Very busy in the 1920s playing mothers and aunts, one of her most memorable roles was as Mama Sieppe in Erich von Stroheim’s GREED (‘24). She retired due to ill health at the end of the silent era. The overlooked Gus Pixley was a stage veteran and a regular in Biograph comedies. Pixley also appeared in the early New York shot Keystones such as AT CONEY ISLAND and A GROCERY CLERK’S ROMANCE (both ‘12), but remained working in the east when the company moved west. He later ventured to Hollywood and worked in Fox Sunshine Comedies before his death in 1923.   

The Star Boarder (6/2/1919) Vitagraph. Dir & Writ: Larry Semon. 2 reels. Cast: Semon, Lucille Carlisle, Frank Alexander, Snookie the chimp.

With a homely face that made him look like a slapstick version of Nosferatu when it was covered with clown white make-up, Larry Semon used his background in comic strips and as the son of a touring stage magician to create a mad and surreal universe where he was the not-so-bright feather blown around in the whirlwind of chaos. Semon was at his peak from around 1918 to 1923, making amazingly antic and fast-paced one and two-reelers full of animated cartoon gags, incredible chases, and dangerous stunts. In 1924 Semon tried to make the jump to features but his character and style of comedy was too one-dimensional to jive with a more detailed plot and the character motivations needed for a full-length story. Financial disaster and career panic set in, sending Semon into mental collapse. He died of a nervous breakdown and pneumonia in 1928.

Larry’s regular leading lady (on screen and off) in the early 1920s was the beautiful, dark-haired Lucille Carlisle, who before appearing with Semon entered show business when she won a 1916 Photoplay Magazine “Brains and Beauty” contest, and the next year appeared in the G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson produced Broadway musical HIS LITTLE WIDOWS. BOODLES AND BANDITS (‘18) was her first film with Larry and she was soon busy playing vamps, innocents country girls, aristocrats, or using her musical background when she played the stars of the shows in THE STAGE HAND (‘20) and THE SHOW (‘22). Originally billed as Lucille Zintheo, she switched over to Carlisle with THE STAR BOARDER, and worked with Larry until 1923’s NO WEDDING BELLS, a very appropriate title as it appears she left the comedies due to the ending of their off screen relationship. Although it’s said that she was up fpr the role of Esmeralda in the Lon Chaney THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (‘23), she left the movies and married successful business man Leland H. Millikin. Outside of doing some radio work before and during the second world war, she retired into private life and died in 1958.

Frank Alexander (center) in a "Ton of Fun" comedy
Playing the prison warden and Lucille’s father is the heaviest heavy of silent comedy Frank “Fatty” Alexander. Weighing in at 350 pounds, Alexander was a talented comic who worked for producers such as Sennett, Century, and Vitagraph, in addition to being the perfect fall guy to comics like Joe Rock, Syd Chaplin, Lige Conley – but mostly Larry Semon. Starting in 1918 he spent almost a decade taking tremendous falls from high towers, being blown up, and getting covered with vats of suds and goo in service to Mr. Semon. In 1925 he had a fling at comedy stardom as the ringleader of A Ton of Fun, which had the large Alexander teamed with the fellow plus-sized comics Hilliard “Fatt” Karr and Bill “Kewpie” Ross. The usual format of the series consisted of putting the fatties into situations where fat men should fear to tread and then milking all the weight gags possible, reflected in titles such as TANKS OF THE WABASH and WANDERERS OF THE WAISTLINE (both ‘27). A clever and funny series, it lasted until 1928, and afterwards Alexander turned up in small roles in early talkies and passed away in 1937.

The Gangsters (5/29/1913) Keystone. Prod: Mack Sennett. Dist: Mutual. Dir: Henry Lehrman. 1 reel. Cast: Fred Mace, Roscoe Arbuckle, Evelyn Quick (a.k.a. Jewel Carmen), Nick Cogley, Rube Miller, Charles Avery, Edgar Kennedy, Bill Hauber.

THE GANGSTERS was Roscoe Arbuckle’s debut for Mack Sennett after a stage career of singing “illustrated songs” with slides and touring with stock companies, where “on the road” in the U.S. and Asia from 1904 to 1913 he became a well-seasoned performer and comedian. His first brush with the movies occurred in 1909 for the Selig Company, and after more sporadic appearances there and at Nestor his film career took off in earnest at Keystone. Appearing in a one-reeler almost every week he learned film basics from Sennett and Henry Lehrman – two of the most important pioneers of American silent comedy. His screen persona rapidly solidified into a moon-faced, fun-loving fat boy, and while perhaps not as complex a character as Chaplin or Keaton’s he became an international star.

By early 1914 he was directing his own shorts and from the beginning showed an easy mastery of setting up and shooting physical action in a clean and precise manner. By 1916 his huge success led him to leave Sennett, make shorts for his Comique Film Co., and begin starring in polite comedy features. The infamous scandal that followed his 1921 Labor Day Party ended the amazing climb of his career, but he continued performing on stage and wrote, produced, and directed shorts and a couple of features for other comics. In 1932 he got the opportunity to appear again in front of the camera, and was in the midst of a successful comeback when he died of a heart attack at age 46 on June 28, 1933.

Since this was Arbuckle’s first short for Sennett, the star of THE GANGSTERS was Fred Mace, one of Keystone’s first headliners. Although overlooked today, Mace was one of the biggest of the early comedy stars. Never developing a constant persona that he played from film to film, he was instead a versatile character man. In THE GANGSTERS he’s featured as the tough and blustery gang leader, but he was equally adept with effeminate mama’s boys, obtuse janitors, and punch-drunk prizefighters. Mace had been popular on the stage and toured with shows and revues like FLORADORA, PIFF! PAFF! POUF!, and THE UMPIRE. Mack Sennett had appeared in a small role in a show with Mace, and soon began using Fred in leads in comedies he was directing for Biograph. Some of the best included A VOICE FROM THE DEEP, WHEN THE FIRE BELLS RANG, and ALGY, THE WATCHMAN (all ‘12).

Mace eventually left Biograph for Imp, but when Sennett formed Keystone Fred joined Mack, Mabel Normand, and Ford Sterling as the company’s quartet of stars. Becoming hugely popular, by the time THE GANGSTERS was released Mace had moved on to an independent series of “One-Round O’Brien” shorts and then a long string of Apollo Comedies. He formed The Fred Mace Feature Film Co. to direct WITHOUT HOPE (‘14), plus directed and starred in WHAT HAPPENED TO JONES? (‘15), but by this time his extreme popularity of 1913 had waned so he returned to Sennett for some very funny shorts like A JANITOR’S WIFE’S TEMPTATION (‘15) and BATH TUB PERILS (‘16). His last comedy for Mack was HIS LAST SCENT (10/15/1916) and it proved to also be his last film. Planning to set up another company, the thirty-eight year-old was found dead of a stroke in his rooms at the Hotel Astor in New York in Feb. 21, 1917.

Besides Mace and Arbuckle, the Keystone regulars Nick Cogley, Rube Miller, Bill Hauber, Charles Avery, and Edgar Kennedy are also on hand to lend their comedy expertise and supply plenty of stunts. The object of Fatty and Fred’s battle is played by Evelyn Quick, who became better known under the name of Jewel Carmen. Not long after the release of THE GANGSTERS the very young Ms. Quick was involved in a case as one of a number of underage girls that were entertaining men at the Vernon and Venice Country Clubs. For some reason this sent Sennett and the bulk of the Keystone male comics to location shooting in Mexico until the whole thing blew over. Changing her name to Jewel Carmen she became a popular leading lady for Douglas Fairbanks in FLIRTING WITH FATE, MANHATTEN MADNESS, THE HALF-BREED, and AMERICAN ARISTOCRACY (all ‘16), and continued in many more features. She married director Roland West in 1918 and appeared in his NOBODY (‘21) and her last film THE BAT (‘26). Later a business partner with West (by then her ex-husband) and his current girlfriend Thelma Todd in the restaurant Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, she retired from the public eye after the investigation into Thelma Todd’s death and died in her eighties in 1984.

A Twilight Baby (1/24/1920) Prod: Henry Lehrman. Dist: First National. Dir: Jack White. 3 reels. Cast: Lloyd Hamilton, Virginia Rappe, Billie Ritchie, Harry Todd, Charles Dorety, Harry McCoy, Lige Conley.

Henry “Pathe” Lehrman is usually remembered today for his relationship with Virginia Rappe, or for his difficult nature which led some of the comics who worked for him to dub him “Mr. Suicide” for the cavalier way he had of putting them in physical danger. What’s overlooked is that along with Mack Sennett, Lehrman was an important comedy pioneer and one of the biggest comedy producers of the teens. The early parts of Sennett’s and Lehrman’s careers were entwined, first at Biograph and then in the formation of Keystone, where Lehrman was influential in creating the studio’s style and maintaining the output. He left in 1914 for a brief sojourn directing Ford Sterling at Sterling Comedies, but then he secured a deal with Universal’s Carl Laemmle to form L-KO (Lehrman Knock-Out) Comedies.

By 1916 he’d split with L-KO and aligned himself with William Fox to set up Fox Sunshine Comedies, but again clashed with the front office and this time set up his own independent unit. 1919 saw the announcement of Henry Lehrman Productions, with a distribution deal with First National, and a modern studio built in Culver City. A TWILIGHT BABY was the first release, but financial issues soon came crashing down and it was nine months before the next, THE KICK IN HIGH LIFE, came out. WET AND WARMER and two others followed sporadically, but Lehrman lost his studio and home, plus acquired debts it took him years to pay off. It also erased his standing as an industry leader, and he spent the rest of his career as a director-for-hire and later jack-of-all-trades at 20th Century Fox. Lehrman passed away at age sixty-five in 1946.

The star of A TWILIGHT BABY is Lloyd Hamilton who had worked for Lehrman at Fox, and would go on from here to great success in his starring shorts for Educational Pictures. His leading lady is much more infamous than famous – Virginia Rappe. Known for dying four days after Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1921 Labor Day party and the scandal that ensued, Ms. Rappe was practically deified by the press during Arbuckle’s trials, and is now often vilified by people rushing to defend Arbuckle. After all the years and distortion, the truth concerning her life is hard to determine. Born in 1891 she became a fashion model touring around the country doing live fashion shows, in addition to posing for advertising and photographers. She even tried designing her own line of clothing, but by 1916 she moved to Hollywood determined to break into the movies.

She continued modeling, and started getting film work from producer Fred Balsofer in his features PARADISE GARDEN (‘17) and OVER THE RHINE, which starred female impersonator Julian Eltinge and was released as AN ADVENTURESS in 1920. She had started a relationship with Henry Lehrman in 1917 and appeared in a number of his comedies for Fox and First National. Besides A TWILIGHT BABY she’s known to be in HIS MUSICAL SNEEZE (‘19), THE PUNCH OF THE IRISH (‘21) and A GAME LADY (‘21). In these surviving appearances she comes across as a pleasant and calm presence surrounded by the overactive comedic goings on, but it’s hard to tell if her film career would have continued or advanced if the events surrounding Labor Day of 1921 had unfolded differently.

The Uneasy Three (11/15/1925) Hal Roach. Dir: Leo McCarey. 2 reels. Cast: Charley Chase, Katherine Grant, Bull Montana, Fred Kelsey, Jerry Mandy, Sue O’Neal, Lyle Tayo, Jack Akroyd, Earl McCarthy.

In 1924, after a decade working in film comedy as a performer, writer, director, and supervisor, Charles Parrott was re-christened Charley Chase and launched in a starring series of one-reelers for the Hal Roach Studio. At first he collaborated with regular Roach directors like J.A. “Kitty” Howe, Percy Pembroke, and his brother James, but with the tenth short, PUBLICITY PAYS (‘24), he began working with young newcomer Leo McCarey.

McCarey had been an assistant to Tod Browning at Universal, but after directing the unsuccessful feature SOCIETY SECRETS (‘21) he ended up at Roach writing gags for Our Gang. Chase and McCarey made a great team and soon moved the series into two reelers which were built around webs of misunderstanding and embarrassments that dragged Charley into deeper and deeper hot water. McCarey always credited Chase with teaching him film comedy, and after working with him directed some great shorts for Max Davidson and became director-general of the Roach Studio, where he’s credted with teaming Laurel & Hardy. Like fellow silent comedy grad Frank Capra, McCarey went on to become one of the top Hollywood directors of the 1930s and 40s.

At the time UNEASY THREE was made Charley’s regular leading lady was Katherine Grant. Very good at playing shrewish or suspicious wives, Grant was a beauty contest winner who had worked on stage with Gus Edwards and began her screen career as an extra at Roach in 1921. After working in Fox and Universal shorts she returned to Roach as support for Stan Laurel. Although she appeared in Chase classics like INNOCENT HUSBANDS and HIS WOODEN WEDDING (both ‘25) she suddenly disappears from films in early 1926. Sadly, this is reported to have been due to her being hit by a car near the studio, and afterwards spending time in and out of sanitariums.

Members of the Hal Roach stock company such as Jerry Mandy, Lyle Tayo, and Jack Ackroyd are aboard to lend their expertise, but most important is the third of the UNEASY THREE’s trio of crooks, Bull Montana. Born in Italy, Luigi Montagna became a wrestler and toured the U.S. as Bull Montana. He began appearing in films around 1917, working frequently in Douglas Fairbanks’ pictures like IN AGAIN, OUT AGAIN (‘17), DOWN TO EARTH (‘17), and WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (‘19). Although an imposing presence, Montana came across as just a big mug and leaned toward comedy and self-parody. In the early 1920s he became a two-reel comedy star with a series of shorts produced by Hunt Stromberg that included GLAD RAGS (‘22), THE PUNCTURED PRINCE (‘22), and the Robin Hood spoof ROB ‘EM GOOD (‘23). In demand in features he played everything from a comic Cardinal Richelieu in Max Linder’s THE THREE MUST-GET-THERES (‘22) to a heavily made-up missing link in THE LOST WORLD (‘25). Frequently turning up with Chase and other Roach comics, ON THE FRONT PAGE (‘26), THE STING OF STINGS (‘27), and THE FIGHT PEST (‘28) were some of his other appearances at the studio. Sadly the changeover to sound wasn’t kind to Montana. Not really an actor, and with a thick Italian accent, his roles plummeted to unbilled walk-ons, such as in the serial FLASH GORDON (‘36) where he’s on screen for a few moments as a feral monkey man. Retiring from films in 1937, he passed away in 1950.

Program 5 – "Leisure Time: Recreational Hazards"

Program 5:
"Leisure Time: Recreational Hazards"

Sunday, Sept 15 at 5:00
piano accompaniment by Ben Model
film notes by Steve Massa; ©2013 by Steve Massa, all rights reserved

Love and Sour Notes (5/19/1915) L-Ko. Dist: Universal. Dir: John G. Blystone. 2 reels. Cast: Billie Ritchie, Peggy Pearce, Henry Bergman, Fatty Voss, Frank J. Coleman.

Bursting on the screen in 1914 and becoming the raging psychotic of silent comedy, Billie Ritchie’s years of experience in English music hall and American vaudeville made him the perfect choice for producer Henry “Pathe” Lehrman’s bid to hop on the Charlie Chaplin gravy train. Although sharing gags routines, and body language with the likes of Charlie and Syd Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Billie Reeves, and Jimmy Aubrey, Ritchie, while dressed like Chaplin, does not mimic him. His gestures are blunt and brusque with none of the contrasting delicacy of Chaplin’s, and with his rear end defiantly sticking out at the back and his jaw and chest aggressively jutting out in the front, he comes across as a living dose of spleen that’s waiting to be vented. At L-Ko, Fox, and in Lehrman Specials, the comedian was much the alter ego of the difficult Henry Lehrman, and starred in some very funny rough and ready comedies.

Playing Ritchie’s significant other is Peggy Pearce, one of the most beautiful of the early silent comedy leading ladies. Very busy in the teens, she began her career at Biograph in 1913 and soon ended up at Keystone, but then moved on to Sterling and L-Ko before finding her way back to Sennett. Although not funny on her own, Pearce added a lot of appeal to the comedies with her warm personality and striking looks. She later did shorts and features for Triangle, and in one of her last films was support to Louise Glaum in SEX (‘20). (If you go to imdb you’ll see Peggy listed under the name Viola Barry. This is incorrect as they were two separate actresses).

Director John G. Blystone was a long-time comedy specialist who began his career at Universal as a property man and sometime actor in the very early teens, and eventually became one of their staff directors. In January of 1915 he joined L-Ko Comedies, and in July of 1916 when Henry Lehrman “disengaged” from the company Abe and Julius Stern took over and made Blystone director-general. A year later when the Sterns started Century Comedies to showcase Alice Howell Blystone piloted all the shorts while still supervising the L-Ko product. At the very end of 1918 he rejoined Lehrman at Fox Sunshine Comedies and again outlasted him there, working into the early 1920s on shorts with Lupino Lane and Clyde Cook. In 1923 he made the leap into 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), not to mention ten of Tom Mix’s popular light-hearted westerns. Through the 1930s he worked steadily directing all types of features, but his last two films, Laurel & Hardy’s SWISS MISS and BLOCKHEADS (both ‘38), marked a return to his slapstick roots. Sadly he died of a heart attack at age forty-five just two weeks before BLOCKHEADS was released.

Getting to the Ball Game (11/7/1914) Edison. Dir: Charles France. 1 reel. Cast: Arthur Housman, Yale Benner, Helen Bauer, Charles Sutton, Charles McGee, George Robinson, Gladys Hulette.
*new MoMA restoration*

One of the most overlooked comedy units in early American cinema is the crew at Edison Films from about 1912 through 1916. While the overall output of the studio is generally neglected, their situational and character based one-reel comedies were particularly strong and even gave Vitagraph’s a run for their money. On the comedies their behind the scenes writing and directing talents included Charles M. Seay, Mark Swan, Ashley Miller, Charles Ransom, Will Louis, and the very unsung C. J. Williams, while their crack ensemble of players consisted of William Wadsworth, Alice Washburn, Herbert Prior, Andy Clark, Raymond McKee, Jessie Stevens, Edward O’Connor, Caroline Rankin, Dan Mason, and even briefly in 1915 Oliver Hardy. One of the company’s main comedy headliners was Arthur Housman.

Today Housman is remembered as one of the favorite screen drunks of the 1930s, but earlier in his thirty-year film career he had an extensive stay in silents where he was relatively straight and sober. Born in New York City he worked on stage in musical comedies such as QUEEN OF THE MOULIN ROUGE, plus did a pantomime act in vaudeville. Joining Edison in 1912 he was used first in support and worked his way up to comedy leads, in addition to spending a good amount of time in 1914 – 1915 teamed with character man William Wadsworth in a series of “Waddy & Artie” comedies. From Edison he moved around – Lubin, New York-made shorts with Leon Errol and Victor Moore, and in the early 1920s even had one starring feature, THE SNITCHING HOUR (‘22), made for his short-lived Housman Comedies Company. Later he worked frequently for Fox as part of their “Married Life of Helen and Warren” comedies, and did features for Paramount such as ROUGH HOUSE ROSIE (‘27) and PARTNERS IN CRIME (‘28). The early 1930s saw him become typecast as the funny drunk which saw him through to the end of his career in 1941. Unlike other screens boozers like Jack Norton, Housman really did have a drinking problem, and died of pneumonia at age fifty-two in 1942.
The Edison comedy unit during production.
The old coot that Housman gives a lift to on the way to the ballgame is Yale Benner, a versatile player who came from a twenty-year stage career in vaudeville and repertory. He started at Edison in 1911 after dropping by the studio and inquiring on work and ended up staying until 1916, during which time he essayed all types of roles – in comedies such as THE DUMB WOOING (‘12) and THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF (‘14) or dramas like THE MAN IN THE DARK (‘14) and the series OLIVE’S OPPORTUNITIES (‘14 -15). The latter part of his film career saw him move to the Thanhouser Company, and also features such as 1917’s A WIFE BY PROXY. His last film credit was Harry Houdini’s THE MAN FROM BEYOND (‘22).

Director Charles H. France was an early comedy specialist and something of a forerunner to Robert McGowan as he helmed kid’s series at more than one studio. Before coming to films he spent twenty-five years on stage as a comedian in productions with Charles A. Hoyt and Kehoe & Davis, plus had his own vaudeville act in the U.S. and England. His film debut came at Selig in Chicago where he spent two years directing comedies including their “Buster” series, which in survivors such as BUSTER IN NODLAND  (‘12) chronicled the misadventures of little Buster Johnson. In 1912 he made the switch to Edison, where in addition to handling one shot comedies like GETTING TO THE BALLGAME, he was also in charge of the “Andy” series which starred ten year-old Andy Clark, and helmed the revived “Buster Brown” comedies with Norris Millington as Buster and James Harris in a large dog suit as Tige. After leaving Edison in 1915 he worked for the mysterious independent Colonial and Dra-Ko companies on comedies such as WON BY A LAP and HIS WEDDING MORN with Will Philbrick. In 1917 he set up Charles H. France Productions and produced, directed, and starred in the feature THE NATURAL LAW. This was his last film, and he died in 1940.

Rough and Ready Reggie (3/26/1917) Klever Komedy. Dist: Paramount. 1 rl. Cast: Victor Moore, Emma Littlefield, Davey Don.

source: silentfilmstillsarchive.com
Roly-poly Victor Moore was one of the best loved and most famous clowns of the Broadway stage. With his large cueball head, lumpy body, and timorous gestures and voice, Moore looked like a giant baby and always seemed to be wearing diapers under his trousers. After years in vaudeville with the sketch CHANGE YOUR ACT, OR BACK TO THE WOODS he hit the big time in 1906 when he co-starred with Fay Templeton in George M. Cohan’s FORTY-FIVE MINUTES FROM BROADWAY. In 1915 he was one of the “famous players” brought to the screen by Famous Players-Lasky, for whom he starred in comedy features such as SNOBS (‘15) and CHIMMIE FADDEN (‘15), in addition to more dramatic fare like THE CLOWN (‘16).

The Klever Komedies organization was set up in 1916 to star Moore in one-reelers to be distributed by Paramount. Playing down the slapstick, this series concentrated on Moore as a befuddled everyman who experiences all kinds of complications in various domestic situations. Shooting began in Jacksonville, Florida before moving to Manhattan in the summer of 1917. After the end of the shorts in 1918 Moore’s career continued unabated until his retirement in 1957, and along the way some of his great successes include the stage shows OF THEE I SING and ANYTHING GOES, not to mention films like SWING TIME (‘36) and MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (‘37).

Supporting Moore in ROUGH AND READY REGGIE, and other entries of the series, are Emma Littlefield and Davey Don. In real-life Littlefield was Mrs. Victor Moore and had been his stage partner for many years. Her only films are this series with her husband, and she passed away in 1934. Davy Don had a distinguished career where he appeared in big New York productions such as BELLE OF NEW YORK and THE RED MILL. On screen he appeared in comedies for Éclair and Crystal, and at Lubin had his own series of “Davey Don Comedies” where he played a character named Otto in shorts such as OTTO THE TRAFFIC COP and OTTO’S CABARET, which ran through 1916. After the feature THE HIDDEN (‘19) he retired and passed away in 1949.

Broken Bubbles (1919) Prod: Morris Schlank. Dist: Arrow. 2 reels. Cast: Hank Mann, Madge Kirby, Vernon Dent, James T. Kelly.

Hank Mann is one of the most underrated and overlooked starring comics of the silent era. After some stage experience he began at Keystone in 1913, made a name for himself there and then moved to L-KO, before returning to Sennett and then going off to Fox. In 1919 he began a one-reel series for producer Morris Schlank, and with BROKEN BUBBLES made the jump to two-reels. The films were distributed by the Arrow Film Corp., one of the largest distributors around for releasing independent producer’s productions. Besides Hank’s comedies, Arrow also put out Schlank’s Spotlight Comedies, as wells as shorts with Eddie Lyons, Bobby Dunn, Muriel Ostrich, and Billy West, not to mention Reggie Morris’ Special Comedies, the Cruelywed series, Fred Ardath’s XLNT Comedies.

The shooting of Hank’s series lasted a couple of years, but they remained in circulation for a much longer time. Appearing to have been on an exclusive contract with Schlank for his regular comic make-up and character while the films were still in theatres, Hank took to working behind the scenes as a gag writer for comic Lloyd Hamilton and producers Jack White and Al Christie, often turning up in out–of-make-up cameos in the films he worked on. Even when he returned to his old character in the late 1920s he continued writing gags for features such as KID BOOTS and THE BETTER ‘OLE (both ‘26). There’s a unique gag in BROKEN BUBBLES where Hank eats a long piece of confetti stream at a party that was repeated famously by Charlie Chaplin in CITY LIGHTS (‘31). Hank worked on the Chaplin film playing the boxer that Charlie has to fight, and it’s very probable that he was contributing gags and perhaps suggested this one from BROKEN BUBBLES.

Hank’s second banana in his Arrow series was Vernon Dent, whom Mann had discovered singing in California cafes. Also having experience in vaudeville, after the Mann comedies Dent moved on to his own Folly Comedies for the Pacific Film Co., where his character was more than a little close to Fatty Arbuckle. After freelancing a bit he settled in at the Mack Sennett Studio in 1923 and became a fixture on the lot and provided the comic gravity to counterpoint the antics of Billy Bevan and Harry Langdon. He was also in demand for features such as GOLF WIDOWS (‘28), plus some late silent Jack White shorts where he was teamed with Monty Collins. He continued into the 1950s in sound films, features and shorts for Educational, Sennett, Vitaphone, Paramount, and especially Columbia, where he stayed for over twenty years and made screen life difficult for the Three Stooges, Andy Clyde, Harry Langdon, and others. His last appearance (via stock footage) was with the Stooges in GUNS-A-POPPIN (‘57) and he died in 1963.

Also in support is eternally old James T. Kelly, who’s remembered from Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual comedies where he specialized in playing decrepit bellhops and Irish laborers, which isn’t surprising as he was born in Castlebar, Ireland in 1854. Raised in Baltimore, his years in the theatre encompassed the Pete Daly Company and vaudeville, in addition to being the principal comedian at the Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco. The Tivoli was something of a glorified beer hall when Kelly starred in drag as the lead in THE WIDOW O’BRIEN in 1886. When he began his film career at Essanay in 1915 he was already sixty-one years old. In addition to Chaplin’s Essanay shorts he worked in the comedies being directed there by a young Hal Roach with people like Bud Jamison and Snub Pollard, and when Roach set up his own production unit Kelly appeared in some of the earliest Lonesome Luke comedies such as 1915’s TERRBILY STUCK-UP and FRESH FROM THE FARM. If you discount TRIPLE TROUBLE (‘18) Kelly’s last bit with Chaplin was in A DOG’S LIFE (‘18), and from there he was a ubiquitous face in silent comedy supporting Harold Lloyd, Hank Mann, Baby Peggy, Lloyd Hamilton, Snub Pollard, Monty Banks, and Big Boy until 1929. He passed away close to the eighty year mark in 1933.

Free and Easy (12/11/1921) Prod: Jack White. Dist: Educational. 2 reels. Cast: Jimmie Adams, Lige Conley, Elinor Lynn (a.k.a. Marion Mack), Otto Fries, Sunshine Hart.

Jimmie Adams and Lige Conley were an on again / off again team in a number of early Jack White Mermaid Comedies such as A FRESH START (‘20) and BANG (‘21). Headlining for Mermaid was a break for Jimmie Adams who most recently had been at Century Comedies playing second fiddle to Joe Martin the orangutan and the Century Lions. After time on the stage Adams originally entered films in 1917 at Fox Sunshine Comedies, and following his time working for Jack White in the early 1920s he moved over to Christie Comedies in 1923. The next few years were the peak of his career, and although not a particularly inventive comic Jimmie did everything with a breezy nonchalance and his shorts were fast and funny. In addition to his busy schedule for Christie he found time to appear in features such as TRIUMPH (‘24) and HER MAN O’WAR (‘26). His starring career came to an abrupt end in 1928, possibly due to illness from drinking bad bootleg booze. A year or so later he returned to the screen in small bits, mostly in his old pal Charley Chase’s talkies as part of the singing group the Ranch Boys. He died in 1933 at age forty-five.

Lige Conley had appeared in stock and vaudeville as a child, and having grown up near the studios began turning up in small bits. While a cartoonist at the Los Angeles Express he continued pursuing films and in the teens worked for Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, Henry Lehrman, and Century Comedies. By 1922 he was starring in his own series of Jack White Mermaids, including some still popular items like FAST AND FURIOUS and AIR POCKETS (both ‘24). After leaving Mermaid in 1926 he briefly headlined in a few shorts for Fox and Sennett, but soon ended up working mostly behind the scenes as a gagman. He died in 1937 after being struck by a car while helping someone with a stalled auto.

FREE AND EASY’s leading lady is Elinor Lynn, who is better known today as Marion Mack, the spunky heroine of Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL (‘26). Under her real name of Joey McCreery she had won some Hollywood beauty contests to become a Mack Sennett girl, and soon ended up as leading lady to Lige Conley in Jack White Mermaids and CBC’s The Hallroom Boys. In 1923, as Marion Mack, she wrote and starred in the first Columbia Pictures feature MARY OF THE MOVIES (recently found in New Zealand). MARY was co-written by her soon to be husband Louis Lewyn, and after a few more films such as THE CARNIVAL GIRL (‘26) and the short ALICE IN MOVIELAND (‘28) she retired from performing to assist her husband on the shorts series he produced such as VOICE OF HOLLYWOOD, HOLLYWOOD ON PARADE, and others. Before she died in 1989 much of the time of her later years was spent talking about Buster Keaton and the making of THE GENERAL.

Also on hand are two stalwarts of silent comedy – Sunshine Hart and Otto Fries. The 250 pound Hart was the quintessential slapstick fat lady, who made her film debut in 1914 after having appeared on stage for the Shuberts and in “tab” shows. Making herself at home in Sennett and Jack White shorts she also turned up in features such as THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG and Mary Pickford’s MY BEST GIRL (both ‘27), but following some Fox Movietone talkie shorts she died at forty-three in 1930. Otto Fries was a ubiquitous utility man, who at a burly six feet and 226 pounds made a perfect comic heavy for the likes of Lige Conley, Al St John, Lloyd Hamilton, and Stan Laurel at Sennett, Roach, Jack White, Fox, Metro, Universal, Artclass, and more. In addition to innumerable silent and sound shorts he also worked in features such as HOTEL IMPERIAL (‘27), RILEY THE COP (‘28), PARDON US (‘31), and A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (‘35) before passing away in 1938.

The Duck Hunter (2/13/1922) Prod: Mack Sennett. Dist: First National. Dir: Roy Del Ruth. 2 reels. Cast: Billy Bevan, Mildred June, George O’Hara, Kewpie Morgan, Irene Lentz, Teddy, Pepper, Jack Cooper, Kalla Pasha.

Mack Sennett’s halcyon days were in the teens when he established his studio and made his approach to film comedy a brand name. By the time the 1920s rolled around the studio’s output boiled down to three different styles, each represented by a star performer. Ben Turpin’s scrawny scarecrow looks lent itself to spoof and parody, so a good deal of his screen time was spent mocking movie melodramas, especially those of Erich von Stroheim and Rudolph Valentino. The films that starred Ralph Graves were Sennett’s adaption to the more situational style of his rivals Hal Roach and Al Christie. Sennett would continue this trend with the more domestic Smith Family, Sennett Girl, and Alice Day series. Finally, gag crazy, wild, and surreal shorts such as THE DUCK HUNTER were the territory of Billy Bevan, who acted as a sort of walrus-mustachioed feather being blown about in a whirlwind of chaos.

Mildred June
Born William Bevan Harris in Australia (New South Wales) in 1887, Bevan joined the juvenile comic opera company Pollard’s Lilliputians at a young age, which brought him to the northern part of the U.S. and Canada. He continued his work in vaudeville and musical comedy with the Isobel Fletcher Stock Company and G.M. (Broncho Billy) Anderson’s Gaiety Co. in San Francisco. Billy’s film debut came with L-Ko in 1916 where he supported stars like Billie Ritchie and Alice Howell, and then he moved around to Strand, Fox Sunshine, and Century Comedies. Hired by Mack Sennett in 1919, Billy quickly became identified with his big brush moustache and derby, and his screen persona alternated between a comic everyman caught up in events beyond his control, and a roguish practical joker who caused misfortune to befall others. In the mid-1920s he was teamed with Andy Clyde and director Del Lord for a series of crazy gag fests like CIRCUS TODAY and WANDERING WILLIES (both ‘26).

By the late 1920s Billy’s “Tired Businessman” series was more situational, and he even occasionally dropped his trademark moustache. Making the transition to sound in shorts, in 1930 he turned in an excellent dramatic performance in James Whale’s feature JOURNEY’S END. For the rest of his career Aussie Billy became one of Hollywood’s favorite portrayers of Cockneys, and settled into character roles in features such as A TALE OF TWO CITIES (‘35), THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (‘40) and CLUNY BROWN (‘46) until his retirement in 1950.