Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, Lambeth
11 November 2017
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
The weather was dull, wet and overcast. So what better way to spend such a day than tucked up inside watching silent films. And where better to watch them than Lambeth’s awesome (and still under threat!) Cinema Museum. The event was the Kennington Bioscope’s second annual Silent Laughter Saturday and as usual those KenBio chaps (and chapesses) had a packed and varied programme lined up, with some great guests and a whole host of superb accompanists.
The day started with Flying Luck (Dir. Herman C Raymaker, US, 1927) starring and scripted by the often overlooked comedian Monty Banks and introduced by Matthew Ross (author of the excellent on-line silent film magazine ‘The Lost Laugh’).
In the film, ambitious but amateurish would be flyer Monty is tricked into joining the army in the belief he will get to be a pilot. Arriving at his unit he is mistaken for a member of a visiting foreign delegation. With the error discovered, he fall’s into the Colonel’s bad books but attracts the affection of his niece (Jean Arthur). Bullied by the drill sergeant (Kewpie Morgan) and ridiculed by his fellow squaddies he is tricked into believing the Colonel wants him to fly in an Army vs Navy flying competition and is humiliated when he discovers the joke. But when a plane in the competition lands nearby he takes to the air and is instrumental in winning the competition for the army, thereby winning the praise of the Colonel and, more importantly, winning the heart of Jean Arthur.
This was a nice film with which to start the day. Perhaps not a classic but a good solid comedy with some well thought out situations and plenty of laughs so that a contemporary review. “…a two-reeler padded with extra falls” now seems a little harsh. Banks, apparently doing all his own stunts, could take a fall as well as Harold Lloyd although there were times in the film when his degree of uncomprehending innocence was more reminiscent of Harry Langdon. The big set-piece moments were well staged but more intimate scenes, particularly that on the bus heading to camp, were equally well done. Jean Arthur didn’t have much to do but she did it well and Kewpie Morgan got a chance to act rather than simply feature as a stooge. A stalwart of comedy films for more than a decade, Morgan did get the occasional serious role, for example in Beggars of Life (Dir. William A Wellman, US, 1928).
Italian born Banks arrived in the ‘States in 1914 and started out in vaudeville but before long had joined the Keystone studio, subsequently graduating from shorts and two-reelers to features and picking up writing and directing credits along the way. His career highlight was probably Play Safe (Dir. Joseph Henabery, US, 1927), a frantic chase caper set on board a runaway freight train. But the writing was already on the wall for Banks. Although Flying Luck, made later the same year, was a commercial success Pathe were already cancelling his contract. In a bid to avoid the bankruptcy this would cause him Banks fled to Britain.
Why did Monty Banks never achieve greater prominence as a screen comedian? Matthew Ross speculated that his performances were simply obscured by the sheer glut of comedy product flooding the market at the time. Writer Walter Kerr puts it down to his lacking a stronger visual presence, “ It is almost impossible now to describe a once-popular comedian like Monty Banks by speaking of his mannerisms; he doesn’t seem to have any. He is short, on the plump side, possessed of a miniature moustache that would seem suave on a head waiter but it is somehow a badge of apprehension on him. He is likeable. But, after a long and rigorous training at Warner Brothers and elsewhere, when he came to make features independently he took refuge in “thrill” comedies that owed a great deal to Harold Lloyd.. .. The stunting is impeccable, worth keeping in film anthologies; but we cannot quite remember the man.” There was also the issue of his strong Italian accent. With talkies on the way by 1927, he was unlikely ever to make a successful transfer.
But that wasn’t the end of the Monty Banks story. In England he became a solid director of screen comedies, the first of which, Cocktails (1928) starring Danish comedy duo Pat and Patachon, got a rare screening at this year’s British Silent Film festival in Leicester. He went on to work with a host of big British stars including Stanley Lupino and George Formby as well as Gracie Fields whom he married in 1938. Banks died of a heart attack in 1950 aged just 52.
Accompanying the film on piano, Meg Morley coped admirably with the often frenetic pace of the action.
( NB Flying Luck is available on Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions. It does not seem to be viewable anywhere on-line.)
Next up, we had a selection of British short comedies, introduced by Tony Fletcher. These consisted of;
I Do Like To Be Where The Girls Are (Dir. ?, UK, 1912) –
Produced by the Hepworth Studio using the Vivaphone sound-on-disc system the film consisted of Hepworth comedian Harry Buss lip-syncing the title song to a disc recorded by vocalist Jack Charman. In the digitised restoration we saw, the syncing was superb with vision and sound now locked together permanently. The result was a nice rendition of an old music hall favourite. But back in 1912 when the film was made, getting sound and vision in sync would have been the stuff of nightmares and was one of the reasons for Vivaphone’s demise. Find out more about Hepworth’s Vivaphone system here.
The Curate’s Double (Dir. Walter R Booth, UK, 1907?)
In the film, while the godly curate gets changed for a sea dip, his hard-drinking double is being thrown out of a bar, pursued by his angry and umbrella wielding wife. Spotting the curate’s clothing left in the changing booth he decides to take on a new persona. But his wife, once she’s stopped hitting the real curate, is soon on his trail for a frantic sea chase finale. An early product of the Charles Urban production company, this largely location shot film was probably directed by Walter Booth, a conjurer, magician and early film pioneer who had previously worked for R W Paul (and according to Tony Fletcher may be the magician who appears at the end of the film). Its an amusing if not exactly uproariously funny story but is notable for the almost comic book level of violence meted out by the umbrella wielding wife. Urban’s company is much more widely known for its colonial news-reel films and for the development of the Kinemacolor process (so beautifully illustrated in a presentation by Luke McKernan at the BFI in October).
Kelly Takes His Missus To Southend (Dir. ?, UK,1913) –
Shot on location in London and Southend, the film follows the aforementioned Kelly and his ‘missus as a prize win affords them a trip to Southend (Yeay!!) Ever one with an eye for the ladies (and looking something like a latter-day Abraham Lincoln with his stovepipe hat) Mr Kelly is forever being walloped back in to line by his wife (another woman adept with an umbrella). As with the previous film, there is a lot of comic book violence (which is always quite amusing) but also some nice location shots, particularly of the Kursall funfair in Southend, one of the world’s first purpose-built amusement parks.
A Merry Night (Dir. ?, UK, 1914) –
The film follows a very merry gent as he walks home after an evening out, struggles with the coat stand, engages in battle with a living room picture and struggles to get undressed for bed. Despite its stick-thin plot line, this film was just an amazing delight. The director, J H Martin (about whom I can find no more information) used every then current cinematic trick to highlight the gent’s inebriated progress. Tilting the camera from side to side, we see the drunken gent’s world sway. Stop motion footage sees him ‘slide’ up the stairs while an inverted set and at times inverted camera sees him walking on the ceiling. But more than that, the film is a surrealist treasure trove. The street lamp magically shrinks so the gent can light his cigarette from it, the coat stand turns into the embrace of a woman, crenelated battlements in the picture on his wall suddenly open fire on the gent but hastily raise the white flag when he fires back and every time the gent gets undressed he suddenly finds himself fully re-clothed. This was a film that Bunuel and Dali could have been proud of! There was even a first take on the real-person-in-the mirror sketch developed by Max Linder in Seven Years Bad Luck (Dir. Max Linder, US, 1921) and perfected by the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (Dir. Leo McCarey, US, 1933).
Walter Makes A Movie (Dir. Walter Forde/Tom Symore, UK, 1922) –
Made apparently at the Windsor Studios in Catford (which was never likely to be South-East London’s answer to Hollywood!), the film sees petty thief Walter (Walter Forde) stealing a purse from film-star Pauline Highbrow (Pauline Peters). Later, hearing screams for help, Walter bursts in to a building to ‘save’ Pauline, only to discover that its a film studio and she is making a film. Having knocked out the male lead, Walter is recruited to take his place, but the police are on his trail and a frantic chase ensues. Just as Walter thinks he has won Pauline’s heart he is caught and Pauline is left distraught.
Although it has one or two amusing scenes, particularly involving Walter operating the film studio’s stage lift, overall the film was somewhat disappointing, being a rather poor English derivative of the the style of film Chaplin was making in America a good five or six years earlier, full of simplistic sight gags, knock-about humour and frenetic chases. Forde may be remembered as Britain’s best silent comedy performer but on the strength of this film its difficult to see why. In fact, I’ve generally been disappointed in other Forde films I’ve seen, such as Wait and See (1927) or You’d Be Surprised (1930). For my money he was a better sound era director than silent era star, with titles to his credit including The Ghost Train (1941) with Arthur Askey and Its That Man Again (1943) with Tommy Handley.
The Rollicking Rajah (Dir. ?, UK, 1914) –
There was then another of the Hepworth studios Vivaphone films, again starring Harry Buss, this time in black-face make-up as an Indian rajah with a voice-over from Harry Fay. The word ‘excruciating’ doesn’t even come close, a film perhaps more valuable for historical rather than entertainment reasons.
Rising admirably to the challenge of accompanying this varied collection of films was John Sweeney.
(NB Walter Makes a Movie is available to watch on YouTube while the two Hepworth Vivaphone films can be watched on the BFI-Player. None of the other films appear to be available on disc.)
We then had a collection of four films under the title ‘Hapless Husbands’ with an entertaining and informative introduction from Michelle Facey ( aka @best2vilmabanky). The films were;
Robinet is Jealous (Dir. Marcel Perez, It, 1914) –
Directed by and starring Marcel Perez, who Undercrank Productions describe as “Perhaps the best silent film comedian whom no one’s ever heard of..”, the film finds Perez as Robinet, a man driven to suspicion and jealousy by his wife’s mysterious departure from the house one day. Determined to find out what she is up to he sets of in disguise and follows her in to a building. But as he enters rooms on each floor looking for her he first has a tooth extracted by an over-eager dentist, then gets knocked out by two boxers and finally gets a pummeling from a group of masseurs. Eventually he discovers that his suspicions of his wife were groundless.
Despite its relatively simplistic plot line, this was an entertaining comedy, helped along by Perez’s gift for physical comedy and a healthy dose of comic book violence. Spanish born Perez started out as a circus clown and music hall entertainer before moving on to film work. This ‘Robinet’ film was one of a series he made in Italy (comprising some 150 pictures) prior to moving to America. Sadly his career in front of the cameras was curtailed in 1923 when he lost a leg to cancer but he continued to work as a writer and director until the return of the cancer cost him his life in 1929. But there was more to Perez than just knock-about comedy. In particular, two of his early films demonstrated the potential (perhaps somewhat unfulfilled) for more interesting film work. Firstly, The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913), a highly inventive feature-length fantasy adventure film featuring mysterious sea creatures, a race of intelligent apes, a battle between hot-air balloons and a whole host more. Then there was Amor Pedestre (1914), a clever, almost surreal , story of a love affair in which only the feet of the characters are visible. Almost forgotten until recent years, Perez’s lack of recognition may have been as a result of the dizzying range of names he used ( Marcel Fabre, Fernandez Perez, Marcel F. Perez, as well as Marcel Perez) as well as the various screen personas he was known by ( Robinet, Bungles, Tweedledum, Twede-Dan, and Tweedy!) in his different film roles. But now, thanks largely to the work of film accompanist and historian Ben Model, Perez’s films are at last reaching a wider audience.
(NB Robinet is Jealous is available on DVD from Undercrank Productions in The Marcel Perez Collection Vol 1. There is no sign of it being available to watch on-line. )
Max Wants A Divorce (Dir. Max Linder, US, 1917) –
Next we had a film starring Max Linder, a French silent screen comedian perhaps better remembered than Marcel Perez but one who’s career followed not only a similar trajectory but also came to a similarly tragic and premature end. In Max Wants A Divorce, Max has just finalised his marriage to fiancé Martha Mansfield when he receives a message that a deceased relative has left him a fortune provided he remains a bachelor. When Max suggests to his wife they get a divorce, she takes it badly but is brought off by the promise of a new string of pearls and a re-marriage once he gets the money. Max plans an amorous encounter with a lady friend which will give his wife the necessary grounds for the divorce. At a dance, his wife picks out the ugliest woman for him to approach but Max of course picks the prettiest and his wife’s jealousy scuppers the plan. Net, Max and his wife decide to rent an apartment to take forward their divorce plan but unbeknownst to them an eminent psychiatrist has also managed to rent the same apartment. Max arranges to meet his lady friend at the apartment and his wife hires a detective to catch them ‘in flagrante’ . But just to keep an eye on her husband, Martha goes along to the apartment disguised as a maid. Meanwhile, in another room , unaware of Max’s presence, the psychiatrist is seeing his first patients. When the lady friend arrives, Martha sets out to make sure Max doesn’t get too ‘fresh’ with her before the detective arrives. But when he does turn up, the psychiatrist assumes that he, Max, his wife and the lady friend are all patients. In in the chaos that ensues, however, Max and his wife finally get their grounds for divorce. But on arriving home they get a new message saying that there has been a mistake in the will and that to get the inheritance Max must be married!
Although the overall premise of the film is is relatively simplistic, the detailed plotting is more complex and multi-stranded making for a tightly woven but well structured storyline, very much along the lines of a Georges Feydeau style-farce. The acting from both Linder and Martha Mansfield (image, left) is impeccable, producing numerous laugh-out loud scenes. I particularly liked the conversation via notes exchanged through a locked door and Martha’s beautifully pitched cream cake when Max starts getting too fresh with the lady friend. Altogether, this was a nice example of Linder’s work and a delight to watch.
Unfortunately for Linder, it was also at this stage that both his career and his life began to unravel, culminating in a tragic end. Prior to World War 1, he had risen to become a huge star in Europe. Charles Chaplin credited Linder as a major influence and the two became firm friends. But after signing up for active service in the French army during the war Linder was invalided out with both physical and mental health problems. Despite this, he accepted an offer from Chaplin’s Essanay Studio to work in America. However, the three films he made there were not successful and his contract was revoked. This sense of failure served only to deepen his depression and Linder returned to France. Another attempt to crack the US market in 1921 fared no better although one film he made there, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921) is now considered his best work. Eventually his depression resulted in a suicide pact with his young wife in 1925.
As with Marcel Perez it is possible that Linder could have become just another forgotten star of silent film were it not for the efforts of his daughter, Maud (image, right) . Barely a year old at the time of Linder’s death she subsequently devoted much of her life to maintaining the memory of her father’s work by preserving his films, putting together compilations of his work and documenting his life in film and book. Maud Linder died in 2017 at the grand old age of 93.
(NB Max Wants A Divorce is available on disc from Lobster Video. It can also be watched on-line (YouTube).
The Persian Carpet (Der Perser) (Dir. Gerhard Dammann, Ger, 1919) –
Next up in this whirlwind tour of European silent film comedians was the now completely forgotten Gerhard Dammann. He stars as Herr Grunmann, fretting over what to get his wife for an anniversary present. He eventually decides upon a Persian carpet and sets of to purchase on. Unfortunately the delivery drivers are on strike so he has to carry the carpet home over his shoulder. Meanwhile, his wife is out buying a statue as a present for her husband. Due to a tram strike she also has to carry her present home on foot. Arriving home first she puts the statue in pride of place but upon arriving home with the unwieldy carpet her husband demolishes everything in the room, including the statue.
For a film made in 1919, The Persian Carpet looks incredibly primitive, harking back to US slapstick comedies from the early Keystone era. Yet even by that standard the film remains somewhat weak and barely raises a smile. But it is interesting in being shot largely on location in the streets of (presumably) Berlin, notable for their almost complete lack of traffic. The film may also reflect the political unrest prevalent in Wiemar Germany at that time, with its focus upon strikes affecting all aspects of life. Born in 1883, Dammann (image, right) started work as an acrobat and had begun film work by 1911 (or perhaps even as early as 1907). He had a minor role in Lang’s Frau im Mond (1929) and starred in the acclaimed silent melodrama Under The Lantern (Dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, Ger, 1928). He also appeared in director Lamprecht’s early talkie Emil and the Detectives (1931). Dammann continued to appear in German films until 1945 albeit in increasingly minor roles, eventually amassing over 220 screen credits. He was married to actress Hansi Dege who also played his wife in The Persian Carpet.
(NB The Persian Carpet in neither available on disc or on-line.)
Innocent Husbands (Dir. Leo McCarey, US, 1925) –
Moving on from Europe to America, the last film in this section featured Charley Chase, playing Melvin, the long suffering but wholly innocent husband of the title, forced to contend with the continuing suspicions of his wife (Katherine Grant). While his wife is out at a seance, trying to find evidence of her husband’s non-existent infidelity, all Melvin wants to do is play chess with his bachelor friend (William Gillespie) across the hall. But the bachelor is having a wild party and arranges for Melvin to meet with a female friend to make up the party numbers. Bringing along Mitzi (Kay de Lys) a girl of some girth, Melvin attracts the attention of the house detective while Mitzi ends up in Melvin’s own apartment just as his suspicious wife gets home. Its then a frantic effort to get Mitzi out before Melvin’s wife finds her. In the end, Melvin even manages to turn the tables on his wife and point the finger of suspicion at her.
Innocent Husbands is a lovely example of the much under-rated Charley Chase’s work. Its beautifully plotted, so well acted by all concerned and frequently laugh out loud funny. Chase has some great scenes, particularly his ineffective efforts to convince his wife he has committed suicide and his attempt to ward of the affections of Mitzi in the cab ride home And the whole seance scene in the apartment is just a gem, particularly the looks on the sheik (Philip Sleeman)’s face as he appears to successfully conjure up apparitions from the past. Great fun.
Having worked through much of the silent comedy era, Chase looked to have successfully made the transition to talkies, in particular with a leading role in Laurel and Hardy’s classic Sons of the Desert (Dir. Walter A Seiter, US, 1933). But his long term alcohol problems, added to feelings of guilt over his failure to prevent his brother’s death through drug addiction, contributed to his fatal heart attack in 1940, aged just 46.
(NB Innocent Husbands is available on disc as part of a Charley Chase compilation from Kino Video. It can also be watched on YouTube. )
It was then time for film academic Jon Davies to introduce a feature-length Max Linder comedy, Be My Wife (Dir. Max Linder, US, 1921). In the film, Max is smitten with Mary (Alta Allen) and she is equally taken with Max. But Mary’s aunt Agatha (Caroline Rankin) much prefers Archie (Lincoln Stedman) as a suitor for her niece, while Archie’s dog is equally keen to see off Max. But not to be outdone Max comes up with a cunning plan, convincing Aunt Agatha that there is an intruder in the house in the knowledge that Archie will be too terrified to act. It is then Max who ‘comes to the rescue’, seeing off the phantom intruder, gaining Aunt Agatha’s approval and winning the hand of Mary.
But at Mary and Max’s wedding Archie has his revenge, releasing a large mouse (or is it a rat?) up Max’s trouser leg which seriously enlivens his dance routine. Once married, both Mary and Max seperately frequent a women’s dress shop, which is really a front for a prohibition drinking den. Suspicions arise amongst the couple and their friends as to who is having an affair with whom, while the police are eager to break-up the drinking den. After a few particularly frenetic scenes, Mary and Max are relieved to discover that their suspicions of each other are ill-founded and they are reconciled once more.
Although there is much to find laugh-out-loud funny in Be My Wife, this is a curious amalgam of a film. It could almost be three short comedies grafted together to make a feature length picture. The first third, concerning Max’s rivalry with Archie, is the most self-contained part, which could stand alone as a very good 15 minute comedy. In particular, Max’s fight with the imaginary intruder is gloriously funny. There is then the extended marriage scenes which, despite some amusement generated by the errant mouse, didn’t really add a great deal to the film. And with the third part, centered around the dress shop, we were once again firmly back in Faydeau farce territory, with marriage infidelity and amorous assignations with various spouses, not to mention the police, in hot pursuit. Although this final section was well structured and shot, with much of it very funny (particularly the scenes with Max hiding in the stiflingly hot boiler room) it was so out of sync with the film’s earlier style that it could almost have been a different picture. And the sight of Max in a state of shock, with his hair standing on end weirdly brought to mind David Lynch’s Eraserhead !! So, all in all, a bit of a curate’s egg of a film!
Having covered Linder’s career above, what then of his co-stars. Of Alta Allen (Mary), very little is known. She appears to have made only nine films, including another with Linder, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), before all trace of her disappears. Lincoln Stedman as Archie, was a second generation silent film star whose parents, Marshall and Myrtle Stedman, had been active in film since around 1910. He made his first film appearance in 1917 but his career had pretty much petered out by the mid-1930s.
Coping admirably with the varying styles of the film, not to mention the frequently frenetic pace, was accompanist Lillian Henley.
(NB Be My Wife is available on disc in the compilation laugh With Linder from Image Entertainment. Only the first third of the film appears to be available to watch on line, at dailymotion.com.)
It was then time for Buster, with David Wyatt and Susan Cygan offering some thoughts on the life and work of silent comedy legend Buster Keaton to mark the centenary of his first film appearance in The Butcher Boy (Dir. Roscoe Arbuckle, US, 1917). We got to see a clip of Keaton’s scene in that film where he was glued to the floor by a spilled jug of molasses. It was then fascinating to see Keaton reprise the same sketch (perhaps to even funnier effect) in a US TV appearance some 40 years later. Then it was time for a Keaton classic short, One Week (Dir. Edward F Cline/Buster Keaton, US, 1921). In the film, Keaton and his wife (Sybil Seely) receive a build-it-yourself house as a wedding gift. However, a disgruntled rival for Seely’s affections switches round all of the numbers on the boxes, resulting in Keaton and Seely’s completed house resembling something from a surrealist nightmare. Then, as the guests arrive for a house-warming party a violent thunderstorm strikes revealing the house’s less than watertight qualities. The following day, they are told that their house has been built on the wrong lot so, hitching up house to car, they attempt to tow it to the correct location. However, while crossing a railway track the house is struck by a passing train. Placing a ‘For Sale’ sign on the wreckage, Keaton and Seely walk off hand-in-hand.
This is probably my second favorite Keaton short, after The Goat (Dir. Mal St Clair/Buster Keaton, US, 1921), and its his first starring role, having been second lead to Roscoe Arbuckle in his earlier films. Its also Keaton’s first stab at directing (in partnership with Edward Cline), but it is clear that he learnt fast from Arbuckle as the film is seamlessly crafted and jam-packed with inventive jokes and spectacular stunts. No matter how many times you’ve seen it its still a joy to watch. The train crash sequence is a masterful sleight of hand. Everyone knows what is going to happen and Keaton knows that everyone knows, so he makes it just that little bit different to catch people out. But aside from the spectacular, the film is filled with smaller though equally well staged gags. It also contains a delightful early example of breaking the ‘fourth wall’, as a hand covers the camera lens to protect Sybil Seely’s modesty when she takes a bath. Co-star Seely displayed a nice sense of comic timing in One Week, so much so that she successfully went on to appear in a number of other Keaton comedies including Convict 13 (1920), The Boat (1921) and The Frozen North (1922) before retiring from film in 1922.
(NB One Week is available on disc from Eureka amongst others and can be viewed on line with several different musical accompaniments.)
The day’s penultimate presentation came from eminent US film historian and writer Anthony Slide, here to extol the comedic skills of the almost forgotten Alice Howell. Yet Howell was one of very few comediennes to succeed in the traditionally male arena of rough-house, physical comedy (and with her characteristic hair style we were almost back in Eraserhead territory again). Sub-titled ‘She Could Be Chaplin’ (which is also the title of his new biography of Howell), his introduction emphasised the popularity of Howell in the 1910s and 20s but, with nearly all of her 100-plus screen appearances now lost, her reputation subsequently faded dramatically. Additionally, despite her fine comedic skills Howell had, according to Anthony, little if any interest in developing her screen persona through scripting or directing her own films. Her sole motivation for film work appeared to be accumulation of money with which to buy up Los Angeles real estate, in which she was apparently very successful. We then got a welcome opportunity to see three of Alice Howell’s surviving films.
In the first, Cinderella Cinders (Dir. Fredrick J Ireland, US, 1924), Howell starts out serving in a diner but she is eventually sacked, subsequently getting a job as a maid in a wealthy household. To preserve the reputation of her employers when a visiting Count and Countess fail to arrive for a swish social event they are hosting, Alice and the butler agree to take the place of the count and his wife. But when Alice discovers the punch to be laced with prohibition gin she chooses a progressively larger glass from which to take another drink….and another, resulting in increasingly bizarre and frenetic behaviour. But when the real Count and Countess eventually do show up, they are revealed to be crooks and are captured by Alice and the butler.
Cinderella Cinders is probably a good example of Howell’s work in that it highlights her slapstick ability, not only in the drunken party scenes but particularly in the manic chase across town to secure the maid’s job, using a runaway bicycle and dog powered roller-skates. But the earlier scenes in the diner show up her wonderful sense of comic timing as she first stylishly doles out the food and then ‘conducts’ the noisy soup slurpers in the style of an orchestra leader. Playing the butler was Dick Smith, Alice’s real life husband who would also direct a number of her films.
We then had One Wet Night (Dir. William H Watson, US, 1924) in which Alice and her husband (Neely Edwards) are due to host a dinner party on a wet evening with another couple. The husband gets soaked on the way home only to discover that the butler (Bert Roach) has left all his other clothes hanging on the line in the rain. When the guests arrive an errant blast from a shotgun one of the guests is examining bursts a pipe in the ceiling and water cascades in. When the butler bursts another pipe in the floor the guests are resigned to a wet evening, inside or out.
One Wet Night was one of a long series of films Alice Howell made with Edwards and Roach, one film per week for almost two years, all featuring the same domestic set-up, almost like a contemporary TV sit-com. This one was a fairly crude and simplistic slapstick comedy, with Howell in very much a supporting role, more reminiscent of films made half a decade earlier. Although the series apparently proved popular, this was something of a lame comedy, with the dog helping Alice to wind wool getting the film’s biggest laugh with this audience.
Last up was Neptune’s Naughty Daughter (Dir. John J Blystone, US, 1917), a much earlier example of Howell’s work and apparently something of a pastiche of a now-lost Annette Kellerman film, Neptune’s Daughter (Dir. Herbert Brennon, US, 1914). In this film, Alice is the daughter of a domineering fisherman father. She would rather be out playing on the beach like the people she sees from her window but instead she’s doing chores or fighting with her smaller sister. Her father forbids her from seeing her sailor boyfriend but she escapes with him and heads off to a cabaret bar where she also attracts the attention of the sinister Captain Brown (Robert McKenzie). Shocked at the brazen-ness of the bar’s hula dancers she tries to cover them up with a tablecloth and is about to be thrown out when she is saved by Captain Brown. When the sailor protests, they all sit down for some drinks. Soon, a drunken Alice is dancing along with the hula girls until the sailor attempts to take her home. But they are caught by her father who throws Alice out. Later, now working in a diner, she subdues a violent customer with the overpowering smell of garlic and ‘sails’ him out of the diner. She is then kidnapped by Captain Brown and taken to his ship. But the sailor sets out to rescue her via a bellows-powered sailing dingy. While Alice fends off the Captain, the sailor ‘tunnels’ his way into the ship and they eventually escape together, leaving Captain and crew in the water.
If ever there was a film to illustrate the phrase ‘violent, knock-about comedy’ this must be it. With lashings of comic book violence, it at times resembles the carnage of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. But Alice certainly proves here that she can hold her own against the best of the male slap-stick comedians and is certainly game for anything the director and story-writer can dole out, from being surreptitiously dumped in the ocean to climbing a ship’s rigging. There is one superb stunt in particular as Alice climbs on the spokes of a moving carriage wheel and goes round with the wheel before climbing back into the carriage. And as for the violence, she is certainly no shrinking violet. If you like slapstick, this is a film for you, but subtle it certainly ain’t. Coming from a background of poverty, Alice Howell’s determination to attain financial security was perhaps understandable so when, by 1927 she felt she had achieved this she simply retired, putting the movie business behind her until her eventual death in 1961, aged 72.
Piano accompaniment for these three films was shared equally (and equally well) by Meg Morley, John Sweeney and Lillian Henley.
(NB One Wet Night is available on disc on Silent Comedy Marathon Vol.3 from Alpha Home Entertainment and can be viewed on YouTube. Cinderella Cinders is available on disc in a joint feature with Colleen Moore’s Ella Cinders (1926) from ReelClassicDVD. No sign of it on-line. There is also no sign of Neptune’s Naughty Daughter on disc but it can be viewed on the Danish Film Institute’s website, here.)
Then all too soon we were on our last film, but it was to be a cracker, Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother (Dir. Ted Wilde, US. 1927). Perhaps not as well known as some of Lloyd’s other feature length films, The Kid Brother opens with Mary Powers (Jobyna Ralston) and her travelling medicine show approaching the town of Hickoryville. The town’s leading citizen, Sheriff Jim Hickory has three sons, the two eldest are big strapping lads, the third is Harold (Lloyd), he mainly does the washing and the cooking and is looked down upon by his father and brothers as a bit of a milksop. But he dreams of acting tough! Sheriff Jim’s ambition is to raise the money to build a town dam to improve its fortunes. With the sheriff and two sons are at a town meeting to discuss the dam project, Harold is left at home day-dreaming of being the sheriff. Playing up to his ego, Mary’s two assistants Farrell and Sandoni get Harold to sign a sheriff’s permit allowing their show to open in Hickoryville. Meanwhile, at the town meeting, the sheriff is put in charge of holding all of the money collected for the dam project.
While Mary is out walking she meets Harold and he saves her from the unwanted attentions of Sandoni. When the sheriff discovers that Harold has given the medicine show permission to perform he tells him to go and close it down. But in trying to do so Harold is humiliated by Farrell and Sandoni. In the confusion the medicine show is burnt down. The next day, the money for the dam project is discovered to be missing and the sheriff gets the blame for stealing it. He suspects Farrell and Sandoni are the real culprits but when his two eldest sons can find no trace of them the townsfolk are all for hanging the sheriff. When Mary is also suspected of involvement in the robbery Harold tries to protect her but is knocked out and left to float down river in a rowing boat. When he comes round he sees a large derelict ship and discovers Farrell and Sandoni on board with the money. After a frantic chase Harold manages to get the get the money back to town just in time to save his father who who finally praises him as ‘a real Hickory’ and he and Mary depart arm in arm.
Although less well known than other Lloyd films such as Safety Last (Dir.Fred Newmeyer/Sam Taylor, US, 1923 ), Girl Shy (Dir. Fred Newmeyer/Sam Taylor, US, 1924) or Speedy (Dir. Ted Wilde, US, 1928), The Kid Brother is perhaps Lloyd’s most well rounded film, perfectly balancing action, comedy and sentiment. While the action perhaps lacks the sheer daredevil element of Safety Last, some of the chase scenes are breathlessly frenetic, particularly as Harold battles with Sandoni in the derelict ship, richly demonstrating his continued physical prowess, even though Lloyd was by now in his mid-thirties. Meanwhile, the comedy was almost relentless, with frequent laugh-out-loud moments. The scenes in which Harold used the embarrassment of his brothers to be seen in their night gowns in front of Mary in order to protect himself from them were skill-fully and hilariously choreographed. Similarly, the sight of his brothers each bringing Harold breakfast in bed thinking that he was Mary was a delight. And as for Lloyd and leading lady Jobyna Ralston, in this their sixth film together, they had evolved into a superb and natural partnership. The scene in which Harold gradually climbs a tree to keep Mary in sight as she walks away was beautifully shot, as the the camera gradually rose up to keep pace with Lloyd’s ascent.
The Kid Brother was Lloyd’s penultimate silent film, followed by Speedy in 1928. Although his next film, Welcome Danger (Dir. Mal St Clair/Clyde Bruckman, US, 1929) was originally intended as a silent, it was subsequently re-shot with dialogue and was a big hit. But Lloyd’s career began to stall by the late 1930s and he had largely given up film making by the end of the decade although radio and TV work continued. Lloyd retained copyright control of most of his film work and his high financial demands for screening rights meant that they were rarely seen, which probably helped account for his long relative obscurity in comparison to other silent screen comedians such as Keaton and Chaplin. But by the 1960s, helped by his own release of compilations of his films, there was renewed interest in and growing recognition of his work which has continued to this day.
Cyrus Gabrysch worked wonders with his excellent piano accompaniment to the film, capturing the humour and helping to ramp up the tension of the final chase.
(NB The Kid Brother is available on disc in The Definitive Collection from Optimum Home Releasing and can be watched on-line (YouTube) with a variety of musical accompaniments. )
And that was it for the KenBio’s Silent Laughter Saturday for 2017. Four features, thirteen shorts, some great guest speakers and cracking piano accompaniment. And while some of the films perhaps fell a little short in the laughter stakes, there were none that were wholly without interest from a silent film history perspective. But what stood out most? Lloyd’s The Kid Brother and Keaton’s One Week are certainly classics but very familiar ones, Charley Chase’s Innocent Husbands was very funny and rarely seen and the introduction to the work of Alice Howell was fascinating, but my stand out moment had to be A Merry Night, not only for its cinematic trickery and humour but for the surrealist element, so surprising in a British film of this era.
And as for the negatives? Well there were only two really. Firstly, and unusually for KenBio, was the apparent willingness of some audience members to talk through the entire proceedings which was annoying to say the least. One can but hope they learn better behaviour in future or don’t bother turning up again! Secondly, there was the fact that this was just a one day event when compared to last year’s Laughter Weekend. The good news is that this has already been addressed and next year will see a return to the KenBio Silent Laughter Weekend, so make sure you get 10-11th March 2018 in your diaries right now.