"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.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

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.

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