This past weekend, the “Silent Clowns” series in Manhattan screened a fantastic comedy feature, “Conductor 1492”, starring the somewhat forgotten silent comic, Johnny Hines. The film was a perfect example of the creative gag writing that prevailed in comedy throughout the 1920s, even outside the films of the “major” comedians.
The plot involves a young Irishman, Terry (played by Hines) who heads to Ohio to work as a streetcar conductor. Once there, he falls in love with the boss’s daughter. The owner is on the verge of being forced to resign unless he can locate some missing shares from the company’s stock, and get the shareholder to vote with him to keep him as the head of the company. Naturally, Terry sets out to help, and when his father (Dan Mason) arrives from Ireland, the climax of the film proves to be both thrilling and surprising, once the identity of the missing stockholder is revealed.
I had first read about Hines’ work in Walter Kerr’s “The Silent Clowns”. As Steve Massa noted in his introduction to the film, Hines falls into the category that Kerr described as “The Demi-Clowns”. Hines, I think, can be seen as part of the Hal Roach tradition of silent comedy (although he never worked for Roach), which is to say that he favored situational humor rather than the purely character-driven work of a Chaplin or a Keaton. It’s difficult to judge by this one film, of course, but it was mentioned that this ranks among the best of the surviving Hines films (according to Steve Massa, Hines’ short film comedies, made in Fort Lee, New Jersey, are all lost).
The print that was screened came from a gorgeous 16mm copy that was tinted in the style of many silent films of the period. As a film, it served as an interesting glimpse at the feature film work being done at the time by comics other than the “big three”. As I mentioned earlier, the film seems to owe something to the approach Harold Lloyd took in constructing his features around a strong storyline (for Chaplin and Keaton, on the other hand, the narrative was often nothing more than a clothesline on which to string a series of brilliant comic sequences).
Also on the program was “Whose Baby Are You?”, a Roach comedy featuring Glenn Tryon. Tryon was apparently being tried out as a kind of replacement for Lloyd, who left Roach in 1923. The most surprising part of this short was the delightful performance of the baby who plays opposite Tryon, really participating in the gags and working well as a comic partner. As with many Roach comedies, the emphasis is on gags but within a “believable” universe. Lacking the kind of cartoonish humor of the Sennett films (especially of the same period), Roach comedies such as this one feature an emphasis on character and “ordinary” situations, albeit with a comic twist. Tryon never caught on as a major comic, but the style in which he was working, which really owes much to Lloyd, continued to prove successful for Charley Chase and, to a certain degree, Laurel and Hardy (who always knew how to milk “ordinary” situations for maximum comic potential). In the excellent program notes for the series, written by Steve Massa, he mentions that Tryon would continue working in comedy as a writer, and his credits include Laurel and Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert”, one of their best-constructed vehicles.
The audience had a wonderful time, and it was apparent that the comedy of Johnny Hines still worked very well, even though he is unfamiliar to many viewers today. Special mention should be made of the wonderfully informative introductions to the films made by historian Steve Massa, series curator Bruce Lawton, and musician Ben Model (whose delightful piano scores are the perfect accompaniment to these films).
“The Silent Clowns” continues their series of silent comedies next weekend. Check out their website for more information.