"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 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.

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