One of the things I love about the “Silent Clowns” series is that it affords me the opportunity to see the work of comedians who I’d only ever read about before. That was certainly the case with the screening on Sunday March 21st, which featured five wonderful and brilliant comedies from a host of different comic talents.
This week’s program was also an important reminder of how many of these silent comedies only exist in cut-down versions prepared for the home market, or for theatrical re-release in the sound era, when they were frequently “enhanced” with narration and sound effects. Such was the case with the first film on the program, “Love’s Intrigue”, which is a 1940 re-editing of a 1922 Sennett comedy, “Gymnasium Jim”, starring Billy Bevan supported by such Sennett stalwarts as Kewpie Morgan, Jack Cooper and Marvin Loback. The film was screened without its soundtrack, instead accompanied by a fun score composed and performed by Ben Model. This is a delightfully cartoonish film in the tradition of many of Sennett’s 1920s films. Some of the technical effects are really awe-inspiring, including Bevan’s high dives into a bucket.
Next on the bill was “Up on the Farm” (1924), featuring Lee Moran. As Steve Massa mentioned in his program notes, Moran was part of the team of Moran & Lyons, the most popular movie comedy team prior to Laurel and Hardy. The film opens with a sequence in which Broadway Smith (Moran) has to race to a house to hear the reading of a will, at which he finds out he will be inheriting a farm. In order to stay in the city, he moves the farm to the top of an office building. In one thrilling sequence, his horse-drawn cart teeters over the edge in a moment of thrill humor reminiscent of that of Harold Lloyd.
“Movieland” (1926) is part of a subgenre of silent comedy that deals with a comic let loose on the backlot of a movie studio. Examples can be seen in the Keystone comedies at least as far back as 1914. In this particular case, the comic in question is the brilliant acrobat, Lupino Lane. Lane, as Massa notes, was part of a prestigious British theatrical family, and remains one of the most impressive physical comics in silent films. Lane’s brother, Wallace, also appears alongside him in this picture, and they share a scene in which Lane-posing as a stunt dummy, is brought into the prop shop and watches in horror as the propman saws the heads and arms off of the dummies. The sequence is reminiscent of the scene in “Sleeper” in which Woody Allen poses as a robot and is taken in for repairs.
“What! No Spinach” (1926) stars the forgotten Henry Sweet. Sweet plays a sort of “everyman” character in this film, about a man who stands to inherit a fortune if he marries within 48 hours. Comedienne Gale Henry turns in a splendid comic performance as the landlady, with expert mugging and timing. The plot is reminiscent of Keaton’s “Seven Chances”, although the sequence of Sweet being pursued by a cluster of would-be brides can be traced all the way back to the Edison film, “How the French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personals Column” (1904).
Finally, Snub Pollard’s “The Old Sea Dog” (1922) shows off the skills of not only its star, but also director Charles Parrott (soon to achieve fame in his own series as Charley Chase). A fun two-reeler, there are a lot of good sight gags in this one, and Pollard gets a chance to play opposite Roach heavy Noah Young, who was always seen to good advantage in the films of Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy. Pollard’s films are driven more by gags rather than by character, but his presence on-screen is always fun. The film also features superbly funny titles by H.M. Walker, who created the memorable titles for so many Roach comedies.
This season, The Silent Clowns continues to showcase "Jewels and Gems" from a variety of film collections. These prints came from the Streamline Films collection. The series is curated by Bruce Lawton, features music composed and performed by Ben Model, and excellent program notes by historian Steve Massa.
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