Kennington Bioscope Silent Laughter Weekend 2016

The Cinema Museum, London

22-23 October 2016


We’re back today, bright and early, at the Cinema Museum for the second annual Kennington Bioscope Silent Laughter Festival and we already know that its going to be at least twice as good as last year’s event because its twice as long, so we’ve got a whole weekend of silent comedy to look forward to.

First up is Kid Boots (Dir. Frank Tuttle, 1926) in which Samuel ‘Kid’ Boots (Eddie Cantor) is rescued from a bully by rich playboy Tom Sterling (Lawrence Grey).  In return, Kid agrees to help Tom get a divorce from his gold-digging wife Carmen Mendoza (Natalie Kingston).  Along the way, Kid falls for the bully’s girlfriend Clara McCoy (Clara Bow) and the film’s climax is a death defying chase in Harold Lloyd style through a precipitous mountain pass before ‘Kid’ succeeds in helping Tom ‘loose’ his wife while winning a girl of his own.

Kid Boots was Cantor’s first silent feature, intended to re-create his Broadway Kid Boots role on film (albeit in a heavily re-scripted form to suit the new medium). Despite being celebrated for his singing and his distinctive voice, Cantor proved a natural at silent comedy while Clara Bow, now well on the way to super-stardom, just lights up every scene she’s in.  Together, they make a surprisingly good partnership, high-spirited, funny, energetic, and with excellent comic timing.  I particularly enjoyed the scene where ‘Kid’ is trying to convince Clara he is having tea with another woman.  Partially concealing himself behind an open door, he roles up one sleeve, disguises his arm as a woman’s and very convincingly has tea with himself.  Cantor’s talent for physical comedy is further demonstrated when he gets a real manhandling from the bully while in the physio’s office (although what legitimate role the electric chair has in here I’m at a loss to explain!).  All in all, a great start to the weekend, nicely complemented by Meg Morley with a zingy accompaniment on the piano.    (Kid Boots is available on DVD from Big House Productions and can also be viewed on-line.  NB.  IMDb and Wikipedia both give a 77 minute running time, but the version we saw today plus the DVD and online version were all 60mins)

Next up was a real treat.  Not only was noted film historian David Robinson to talk about pre-1914 European silent film comedies but we were going to get a chance to see some of these in Pathe’s 28mm format, introduced in 1912.  And not only that, some would even be screened using an original hand cranked K.O.K. projector with its integral dynamo lighting. How’s that for cinema history! But these 28mm Pathe films, intended for the home market, present similar problems to the Vitagraph 9.5mm films shown earlier this year at the Ken Bio in that many were edited down and re-titled from the original cinema releases, yet many silent films would be lost forever were it not for the versions that survived on 28mm.

David Robinson went on to detail how the five years prior to WW1 were a boom time for silent comedy in Europe, in which the style and language of the medium were developed.  Between 1910 and 1914 there were around 1500 silent comedies produced in Italy alone.  European film comedy actors became internationally renowned names and the star system was created. The first true comedy star was France’s Andre Deed, initially making films under the character name Boireau in France and then as Cretinetti when he moved to Italy. David also discussed the careers of, amongst others, Max Linder, Charles Prince, Little Moritz and Romeo Bosetti.  But with the outbreak of war in 1914 European studios went into decline and many comedy stars began moving to the United States where silent comedy output was rising, led principally by Mack Sennett and based upon European comedy styles. The golden age of European silent comedy was over and is now almost forgotten.

Amongst the films screened were;

Boireau’s Apprenticeship (1907) with Andre Deed in which a teenage Boireau (in reality Deed was 28!) was dragged by his father to various apprenticeships which invariably went wrong.  The willingness of everyone to give Boireau a good cuffing around the ears when he messed up was very funny but today would probably be termed child abuse!

Foolshead Pays His Debts (1909) again with Andre Deed, this time as Foolshead, his British moniker, in which the star actually tries to avoid paying his debts, using some very clever double exposure and stop motion tricks. 

Wonderful Armour with some even more clever multiple exposure work as several suits of armour come to life.

The Man Who Hanged Himself with Max Linder literally hanging around while various officials figure out how to save him.  (Ironically, Linder himself was to die by suicide in 1925 aged just 41)

And lastly there was Duel With Shrapnel (1913), with Ernesto Vaser, probably one of the most surreal silents I’ve ever seen, in which two protagonists competing for the same lady’s affections fight a duel with shrapnel shells tied to their backs, the object being to strike with a hammer the shell of the opponent to detonate it.  Truly bizarre but very amusing.    

All in all this was a fascinating session with some unique films covering a little known period of cinema history.  Lillian Henley performed wonders on the piano, accompanying films covering a multiplicity of styles and coping with the occasional technical hold-up (ironically it was the more modern projector that broke, not the 1912 K.O.K!)    (Most of these films may well be unique as there is no trace of any either on DVD or on-line.)

 Then came  a treat for Laurel & Hardy fans with David Wyatt and Glenn Mitchell introducing recently discovered additional footage for two of their films together plus two recently discovered films of them acting individually, all receiving their UK premiership.  First up was The Second Hundred Years (1927) in which the boys are jailbirds looking for a means of escape.  Their tunnel leads, inevitably, to the governor’s office.  When they eventually do escape, they end up returning to the same prison in the guise of French prison officials on a fact finding trip.  The highlight is Stan’s efforts to chase down a cherry at the official dining table.  Second up was Putting Pants On Philip (1927), starring L&H but made before they become a real partnership.  Ollie is Piedmont J. Mumblethunder, a pillar of society, waiting at dockside to welcome his cousin Philip (Stan) from Scotland.  But Philip is a sex-mad Scot in a kilt who sets about chasing attractive Dorothy Coburn at every opportunity.  This was a L&H film new to me but which proved to be great fun.  The highlights included a revelation of what Scotsman Stan did or did not wear under his kilt and the long running gag of Ollie being tipped off whenever trouble was afoot by the crowds of people rushing to view what Stan was up to.  We then had a chance to see Stan acting on his own in a recently discovered but heavily edited version of Monsieur Don’t Care (1924), a pastiche of the then recently released Valentino film Monsieur Beaucaire.  Sadly, with just seven minutes of the original 2 reels extant it was difficult to make sense of the film.  Also recently discovered was Ollie solo picture Maids and Muslin (1920), a knockabout farce with Jimmy Aubrey which featured Ollie as the ‘heavy’.  While the newly discovered footage for the L&H films may have brought a sense of completeness, it didn’t really add much to the films (its hard to improve on perfection!) while the two solo films served to enhance the view that  L&H together really were greater than the sum of their parts.  Cyrus Gabrysch complemented the duo beautifully with his piano accompaniment.  (The Second Hundred Years and Putting Pants On Philip are both available on DVD and online.  Clips from Maids and Muslin are available online.)

This was followed by what I have to admit is one of my favourite silents, Home James (1928), in which Laura Elliot (Laura La Plante), while trying to find fame and fortune in the big city, is forced to take a job at a department store where she mistakes the son of the boss (Charles Delaney) for a chauffer. Chaos ensues when Laura’s relatives come to town to see how she is doing.  The film was introduced by acclaimed film historian Kevin Brownlow who spoke glowingly about the film’s director William Beaudine and efforts to resurrect his reputation.  La Plante is probably best known for her role in the comedy horror The Cat And The Canary (1927) which I have yet to see.  I only know her from the melodrama Smouldering Fires (1925) so it was a pleasant surprise on first viewing this film to see her great sense of comic timing. Standout scene is probably the one in which she impersonates in silhouette her cigar chomping boss supposedly telling her off for her poor performance  while the floor walker (Arthur Hoyt) looks on from the adjacent office, oblivious of the deception.  It might not be a classic, but this film is great fun with uniformly good performances from the whole cast. Enjoyment was enhanced as always by John Sweeney’s great accompaniment on piano.  (Somewhat surprisingly Home James doesn’t seem to be available on DVD or online.)

We then had Matthew Ross (editor of Movie Night magazine) introducing a session on the career of Lupino Lane.  Best known for his 1930s hit stage musical Me And My Girl and its signature tune The Lambeth Walk, Lane had a long and prestigious grounding in silent film in the 1920s, excelling in arduous physical comedy.  Matthew outlined the Lupino family’s long tradition in the entertainment business going back some 300 years as well as Lane’s strenuous training regime as a child.  He also showed some fascinating extracts from Lane’s own book, How To Be A Comedian, which implied that as long as you followed the simple diagrams you too could become a supreme physical comedian and acrobat (although I suspect that there’s a bit more to it than that!).  Matthew showed clips from several Lane films highlighting aspects of his abilities including Movieland (1926), Toyland (1929) and Only Me (1929) but the real delight were the two full films shown.  In Half Pint Hero (1927) Lane and his brother Wallace are firemen competing for the affections of a girl (Toy Gallagher) with Lane displaying incredible athleticism in trying to save her from a burning building (although praise also goes to the dog pushing a bed under the window to break Lane’s fall!).   But I particularly enjoyed Hello Sailor (1927) in which Lane again with brother Wallace play two sailors on shore leave, each heading off to meet with the girl they have been corresponding with. However, it looks like both have been corresponding with the same girl!  But all is not quite what it seems.  Its real knock-about humour, juvenile stuff perhaps….but so funny!    (Quite a few Lupino Lane silents are available on various compilation DVDs as well as online but neither Half Pint Hero or Hello Sailor appear to be amongst them.)

The last feature on day one was, whisper it quietly, a talkie!  In The Lambeth Walk (1939), a film recreation of  Lupino Lane ‘s hit stage musical Me And My Girl, Lane plays Bill Snibson, a chancer from South London.  Informed that he has inherited a title and castle provided he is able to convince his new relations that he has enough aristocratic bearing, Bill soon faces having to choose between his new life and his girlfriend Sally.  Almost a lost film, only a single print of The Lambeth Walk survives and that with French sub-titles so this was a very rare screening indeed.  While the film serves as record of Lane’s enormously successful stage show and as a tribute to a multi-talented performer I can’t say that it is one I will but aching to see again. A case of caricature South Londoners meet caricature toffs, some of it was positively cringeworthy!  

Day two got off to a great start with Michelle Facey introducing two silents featuring female stars, neither of which I had seen before.  First up was Hold Your Breath (1924) starring Dorothy Devore.  Forced to take a job as a reporter to support her family Devore manages to gain an interview with a reclusive millionaire (Tully Marshall) but when an organ grinder’s monkey snatches a piece of jewellery from the apartment Dorothy gets the blame and attempts to escape by climbing up the outside of the building.  Made very much in the style of Lloyd’s Safety Last, this was great fun, watching Devore’s hair-raising efforts to retrieve the necklace as the monkey climbs higher up the building.  There are some lovely running gags including the canny businessman who takes advantage of the growing crowd to hawk his wares and the increasingly desperate efforts by Devore’s boyfriend to cushion her landing should she fall.  This was followed by Pass The Gravy (1928) starring Martha Sleeper, which has to go down as one of the funniest silent comedies I’ve ever watched.  Max Davidson and Bert Sprott are warring neighbours who are persuaded to sit down for a meal to settle their differences.  Unfortunately the chicken they are tucking in to is Bert’s prize rooster, killed by Max’s son.  The joy of the film lies in the facial reactions of those around the table as they gradually realise what they are eating while Martha Sleeper and co-star Gene Morgan’s game of charades as they try to convey to Max what has happened is just priceless.  These were two superb films, both great in their own right but seen together presenting a fantastically entertaining contrast between the physical, hair-raising comedy of Hold Your Breath and the more nuanced comedy of manners on show in Pass The Gravy. A great combination, ably accompanied by Meg Morley on piano.  (Pass The Gravy is available on an  Edition Filmmuseum Max Davidson compilation DVD and online.  Hold Your Breath doesn’t seem to be available in any format.)

Next up was another of my favourites, Harold Lloyd in Why Worry (1923).  Lloyd plays Harold Van Pelham, a wealthy young hypochondriac. To improve his health he travels with his nurse (Jobyna Ralston) and trusty valet (Wallace Howe) to the island of Paradiso.  But instead of paradise, he finds himself caught up in a revolution (although it takes him a hilariously long while to become aware of this!).  Escaping from jail with a friendly giant (John Aasen) he manages to defeat the rebels, overcome his hypochondria and get the girl.  This may not be Lloyd’s best film but for me it’s his most enjoyable. There are some wonderful scenes, in particular Lloyd’s attempts to remove an aching tooth from the giant, his signing of what he thinks is the hotel guestbook which is in fact the jail’s list of inmates for execution and the use made of the giant as a human artillery piece.  The climax, where the rebels are defeated with the help of a length of pipe, a cigar, a big drum and a bag of coconuts is pure genius.  And Jobyna Ralston, in the first of five starring roles opposite Lloyd, puts in a great performance as his put-upon but quietly determined nurse, out to get her man.   Lillian Henley on piano accompaniment did superbly well to keep up with the frantic pace on film.     (Why Worry is available on DVD and online)

We them had a very slick presentation by David Glass in person and Brent Walker on screen from Hollywood with a profile of the career of Mack Sennett and his Keystone company. Canadian born Sennett started in the movie business at Biograph, honing his skills as actor and director from 1908 onwards under studio head D W Griffith and perfecting his art of movie comedy, drawing heavily from the film comedy styles then prevalent in Europe.  By 1911, he was producing around 100 films a year.  Leaving Biograph in 1912 to found Keystone, an early Keystone film, Barney Oldfield’s Race For Life (1913), with studio stalwarts Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling and Al St John, came to (somewhat inaccurately) epitomise the girl-tied-to-a-railway-track image of silent films (below left).  By 1913 Keystone films were achieving a growing sophistication, typified by Won In A Cupboard, Mabel Normand’s first film as director.  Under Sennett, Keystone was responsible for advancing the careers of Chaplin, Lloyd and Langdon amongst many others. As well as numerous film clips, the presentation was also fascinating in giving a virtual tour of the surviving Keystone studio with comparisons between now and then.  There was also an intriguing look at the Keystone ‘cyclorama’, a revolving stage which produced the impression of movement for chase sequences.  All in all an enthralling look at one of silent comedy’s giants and one in which the many clips kept accompanist John Sweeney very much on his toes. 

This was followed by a film new to me by the sadly underappreciated Harry Langdon.   Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Dir. Harry Edwards, 1926) was Langdon’s first film for First National Pictures.  In it he plays Harry Logan, son of a penniless shoemaker who enters a cross country walking race to raise find money to prevent his father’s eviction.  Harry has a crush on a model advertising Burton Shoes who turns out to be the daughter of the race’s sponsor.  Harry’s rival is champion walker Nick Kargas who does his best to sabotage his chances but Harry eventually emerges victorious, gets his girl and produces a Harry Jr.  The film has some classic Langdon little-boy-lost scenes, for example when he decisively tells his father he “will raise the money in three months if it takes a year” but as soon as he steps outside he is innocently torn as to which direction to go in.  And the scene when he first meets the real life girl of his dreams (Joan Crawford, who doesn’t really have much to do in the film other than smile nicely) is just a delight.  There are also some genuine thrills as Harry skids down a cliff on a piece of fencing while his attempts to shower in the middle of a cyclone are classic comedy.  And yet, despite Langdon’s undisputed genius as a silent comedian I always find there to be an innate sadness to his films with his seeming portrayal of a child struggling to survive in an adult’s world, never quite comprehending what is going on around him and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is no exception.   In accompanying this mixture of comedy, thrills and pathos Costas Fotopoulos did a great job on piano.  (Tramp,Tramp, Tramp is available on DVD and online.)

We then had a movie from one of the almost forgotten stars of British silent comedy, Walter Forde, here directing and starring in Wait And See (1927). Walter plays Monty Merton, a factory worker tricked by his mates into believing he has inherited a fortune.  Monty’s previously hopeless chances of marrying the factory owner’s daughter suddenly improve when the owner realises that Monty’s money could save his struggling business.  But it is only after Monty quits his job that he realises it was all a trick and he is still penniless.  Then it’s a race between Monty and his rival to find a new backer for the factory, with the winner getting the girl’s hand.  I’d only previously seen one other Walter Forde feature, You’d Be Surprised (1930), shown at last year’s KenBio Silent Laughter Saturday.  That film was moderately amusing but succeeded mainly on account of the innovative musical accompaniment and I have to say that I didn’t think Wait and See was really any better,  with Forde as actor not strong enough to carry the film.  The long chase finale was moderately gripping but mainly on account of the superb accompaniment by Cyrus Gabrysch which really carried the film.  But the cup of tea scene at the end was at least a late laugh-out-loud moment. Guess I’m just not cut out to be a Walter Forde fan.   (I couldn’t find any trace of this film on DVD or online….I couldn’t even find a still image!)

And then, all too soon, we were on to our last film of the weekend, The Better ‘Ole (Dir. Charles Reisner, 1926).  This was the second full length silent film to be given a music and effects score using the sound-on-disc Vitaphone system and tonight’s screening had an added piquancy by being introduced by  Barbara Witemeyer, daughter of chief Vitaphone sound engineer Jack Watkins who worked on this very film.  The Better ‘Ole is based on the World War 1 cartoons of Bruse Bairnsfather with Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s older brother) playing Old Bill, the laconic British Army veteran with a bushy moustache.  It seemed a slightly odd subject for such a prominent US film, with not an American in sight, especially as some of Old Bill’s intertitles would require American sub-title translations but the film seemed to be both a critical and popular success on its first release.  As for the plot, in between avoiding the bullying of his corporal, Old Bill manages to discover a German spy ring, save his regiment from being blown up and earn his own stripes.  I wasn’t overly impressed with the first half of the film and was starting to think the weekend’s finale would be a bit of a damp squib but then we got to the drunk pantomime horse scene and pretty soon I and all the rest of the audience were laughing fit to bust.  The longer the scene went on the funnier it got, the look the real horses gave when the pantomime horse started drinking from their water trough and the sight of a drunk pantomime horse with a real dog’s head will live with me forever.  The rest of the film was a mix of high comedy and thrills as Old Bill saved the day.  Although the Vitaphone music and sound effects worked well I can’t help but feel that I’ve now been so spoiled by seeing so many silent films with live accompaniment that a recorded soundtrack now leaves the impression that I’m missing out on something. So, despite the slow start, this was definitely a film worth catching up with (but watch out, several websites give a significantly different plot line for the film so there is likely to be more than one version in existence). (The Better ‘Ole is available on Warner Archive DVD.)

And that was it, the Silent Laughter Weekend was over. But it was another big success for the Kennington Bioscope.  An eclectic collection of quality films, some great guest speakers, top quality accompanists and a fantastic venue in the Cinema Museum.  Can’t wait for the next one.