Sunday, 25 October 2015

We were surprised… Silent Laughter Saturday, Kennington Bioscope

Betty Compson and Raymond Griffith
Back to the Islington of the South and the walk along the graceful Georgian high-sides of Kennington Park Road, in the quiet hours of a Saturday morning when the city is still stunned after the week and the Friday night before…. A hearty breakfast was had at a café near the park and then into the Cinema Museum for a day of silent comedy re-connection.

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.

and again...
First up was a film from Mr Brownlow’s collection, Paths to Paradise (1925), featuring the bonny Betty Compson and Raymond Griffith who Kevin felt could have been amongst the very best had it not been for a “difficult” nature and a way with the studios that made Louise Brooks look like an arch diplomat.

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?
Soon Molly and the gent - The Dude from Duluth according to IMDB (he does abide…) – are chasing the same mark as an old millionaire (Bert Woodruff) somehow trusts him with protecting a diamond necklace for his daughter’s wedding. The heat is on and Molly teams up with the Dude for that amazing chase sequence which gave accompanist John Sweeney ample scope for some high-speed playing: careering off in dangerous directions but always keeping his eyes firmly on the road!

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
A clip was played from Leave ‘em Laughing (1928) in which Stanley has a tooth-ache. The couple started filming the bed scene and laughed so hard that nothing was committed to film for the first few days: they had fun so did we.

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...
David’s recollections of his meeting with the boys in the Brixton Empress Theatre were precious. It was the boys' last tour – Ollie was overweight and in ill health but they were very welcoming and, as the young journalist met them with pad but no pencil, Oliver duly lent him his.

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
Linder was ahead of his time in the pre-war years with a subtle style in contrast to the slapstick craze. He fought in the Great War and was invalided out after a gas attack suffering psychiatric problems until his untimely death in 1925. He made some excellent features in Hollywood such as The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922) and Seven Year’s Bad Luck (1921) from which was shown a sequence in which Max’s servants try to prevent him seeing that they have broken his mirror – the Marx Brothers were watching as their Duck Soup shows.

Ham Hamilton and Charley Chase
Lloyd “Ham” Hamilton was next – a laconic mummy’s boy who specialised in misfortune and the art of disdain. Mac Sennett praised his “comic motion” and you could see this even in one of his relatively early films called The Simp (1920) in which he tries to win the heart of a very forgiving Marvel Rae (there’s a name to conjure with!).

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
Last up was a Brit, Lupino Lane, a relative of Ida Lupino and part of a theatrical family that could trace its stage lineage back to the 1600s. He had decades of stagecraft under his belt and was a supreme athlete with a signature move involving elevating himself from the splits… We were shown Sword Points (1928) a parody of those Musketeers and the style of Douglas Fairbanks who was present on set at one point – mutual respect.

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
Keaton’s widow was heavily involved and there were contributions from surviving contemporaries even though there were difficulties in the reliability of some witnesses (no naming and shaming, whatever happens in The Bioscope, stays in The Bioscope…) and availability of outtakes.

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!)

Those relations
You’d Be Surprised (1930)

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.

Walter Forde
This was a neatly produced romp that was infused with wit and which ended with a cracking gag – the very British sense of the daft! It concerned the musical “journey” of a composer, Walter (Forde) who’s initial movements only involve working for a piano removal firm.

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
He enlists the help of an orchestra of street musicians, gets accused of murdering a bagpipe player (c’mon, fair do’s…) and then handcuffed to an escaping prisoner (a vicious turn from Douglas Payne). It’s light but likeable and hasn’t been seen in public for much of the past 80 years.

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!


  1. Paul, I am always incredibly jealous of all of the silent cinema screenings you attend. This looks like a beauty! Charley Chase is one who I enjoy a lot - Mighty Like a Moose is just great, I recommend it if you haven't seen it already.

    Second thing - I wanted to nominate you for a Liebster award. Have a look here for the details :)

  2. We're very lucky in and around London - but it does feel like the silent word is spreading! I will check out more of Mr Chase - a class act!

    Thank you very much for the Liebster award - that takes care of my next post!

    Best wishes