|Betty Compson and Raymond Griffith|
Today we were only two degrees of separation from some of the greats with a talk from David Robinson, long-time director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and former Times film critic who once interviewed Laurel and Hardy for Sight and Sound as well as Kevin Brownlow for whom it might be easier to list those he hadn’t met.
The film was directed by Clarence Badger and was a lively caper movie featuring triple-crosses and a police motorcycle chase sequence that would have exhausted even Smokey and his bandit.
Compson plays a moll called Molly (see what they did…) part of a gang that dupe innocent thrill-seekers hoping to see life in the underworld. They do a quick change routine depending on what brand of criminality you want and when a gent (Griffith) comes looking for some Chinese crims they make ready the opium smokers and incense. Just as they think they've duped the rube he turns the tables posing as a policeman and makes off with a generous contribution to the police fund before Molly spots that his badge is for the gas inspectorate…
|Partners in crime?|
The film is missing its final reel but ends on a perfectly acceptable moment of success or doubt… As KB said, hopefully one day someone in New Zealand will find they have the reel in their loft.
Laurel & Hardy Revelations
Next up were some Laurel & Hardy recollections from Mr Robinson interspersed with rarities including an un-censored version of Duck Soup (1926) complete with poor Stan dressed as a maid trying to avoid seeing his temporary mistress through to her bath. This film has recognisable dynamics between Stan and Ollie but was made a few years before their relationship was cemented.
The print came from the BFI and is far better than version on released DVDs – they will hopefully be remastered for the film's 90th.
|Madeline Hurlock, William Austin, Oliver and Stan in Duck Soup|
The final short was the surviving second half of a rather fine Stan Laurel solo spoof called When Knights Were Cold (1923) in which our hero is Lord Helpus. He and indeed all the knights ride pantomime horses and it looks for all the world like an outtake from The Holy Grail especially when Stan’s “horse” drains a water trough in one go.
|Of course it's a horse...|
Stanley did most of the talking and enabled Robinson to produce a summation of their career at a time when their critical stock was very low – “only popular with the public” and even regarded as “dross for the news theatre” by a young Kevin Brownlow. This new generation was about to reverse that impression in a major way: genuine “game changers” in their own right.
The Silent Contenders
But, what about those comics who are still little remembered? Of the Big Four even Harry Langdon is perhaps not so well remembered now but what of Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, Lloyd Hamilton and others?
Matthew Ross, editor of Movie Night magazine, gave a fascinating talk on the other silent comic contenders starting with Max Linder the man Chaplin used to call The Professor.
|Charlie and The Professor|
|Ham Hamilton and Charley Chase|
Sadly, many of Ham’s films are lost and the same is true of Charley Chase who must have been close to the Champions League of silent comedy: a complex persona combining elements of Lloyd and the nasty side of early Chaplin he was another good “actor” as well, like Linder.
|Lupino Lane before he points his sword|
David Robinson had pointed to the importance of critical re-evaluation in ensuring a performer’s legacy and we should make the most of what primary evidence survives for these performers.
Buster Keaton and Kevin Brownlow - A Hard Act to Follow
One comedian for whom the case is already rock solid is Buster Keaton and this is in part due to the efforts of Kevin Brownlow who in the eighties produced an Emmy Award-winning, three part series for British TV pulling together what he could of radio interviews with Keaton and one filmed interview.
|A dog and a Buster|
Kevin’s reminiscences were interspersed with clips from the programme as well as the films including The General (of course) and a short excerpt from a British series with Richard Hearne (Mr Pastry... before my TV-time) and an alternative ending to My Wife’s Relations (1922) which even Mr B had not seen before.
Interviewed by The Bioscope's David Wyatt, who worked on the series, Kevin Brownlow was in his element and threw in a James Mason anecdote in which the actor found a treasure trove of films after buying Buster’s House. Mason’s favourite was The Playhouse whilst he also found a stack of Talmadge features and was full of respect for the acting of Norma (another who deserves a reputational uplift in my humble… someone clean up those Frank Borzage films!)
Up until last Wednesday I’d never heard of Walter Forde but now I was watching a second film directed by and starring probably Britain’s leading silent comic - The Bioscope is an education.
Then another of those second degree connections… Tony Slide, author of over 70 books on silent film and a friend of Forde’s during his last years in Hollywood, gave a personal insight into a man he felt deserved a lot more respect and work from the domestic film industry.
One delivery is to the home of a West End star, Maisie Vane (Joy Windsor) who hears one of his compositions as he “tests” her new piano. She arranges for him to play the song to her producer convinced he will pick it up and the rest of the film pretty much involves Walter’s increasingly desperate efforts to get heard.
|Joy Windsor glams it up in 1928|
Hats off to an extraordinary accompaniment from John Sweeney and a specially assembled Bioscope Ensemble including today's other two pianists Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch along with special guests… The film originally came with a music and effects track which is lost although some elements survive such as the theme song which plays a major part. It was a significant challenge to re-orchestrate and John and his not-motley-at-all, merry band did so with some style blowing and hitting anything that moved to produce one of the highlights of the day.
The last film was Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy which sadly I had to miss as domestic responsibilities loomed – Harold and Jobyna will have to wait but I do have the DVD.,,
A thoroughly entertaining, informative and inspirational day which must have taken some organising: they really walk the walk in Lambeth!