10 November 2009 | wmorrow59
Lions, ostriches, harem girls . . . just another day at the studio
This is a short for buffs who like their silent comedies wacky and bizarre. If you have a taste for surreal gags, non-linear plotting that rambles from event to event like a strange dream, and actors who look like grotesque puppets with facial hair, then this is the movie for you.
Our leading man Paul Parrott was the brother of Charley Chase. When Paul was at his peak in the early '20s, he and his brother resembled each other so closely that they could easily be mistaken for one another. (In fact, there's a print of this particular short currently on YouTube that misidentifies Paul as Charley in the opening credits.) Charley went on to develop a screen character for himself that was recognizably human: a basically decent young man who dresses normally, usually works in an office, and gets into the kinds of scrapes that could happen to anyone -- well, to anyone with extremely bad luck. But Paul Parrott never went in that direction in his own starring series. No matter where he was working, his comedies followed the style associated with Mack Sennett: the comedians wear outrageous makeup and clothes, the girls are pretty, the gags are crazy, and the plot doesn't matter.
Whispering Lions, made for the Hal Roach Studio, is a prime example of this approach. It's moderately amusing, and it flashes by so quickly there's no time to be bored. It all begins at an athletic meet, where a Fat Men's Race is to take place; we're told that it's open to anybody who weighs under a ton and a half. (Or do they mean "over"?) Paul, wearing an obviously padded suit, is vying against a genuinely hefty rival. Once the race is under way our hero seizes the advantage by stealing an ostrich from a nearby ostrich farm, and riding him past the finish line. Somehow the big bird takes to the sky, carrying Paul and a pretty young woman (Jobyna Ralston) who seems to be our leading lady. They land in an exotic setting that may be in the Middle East, or, more accurately, the Hollywood notion of the Middle East. It looks like a Valentino movie except the dancing girls are a little past their prime, and The Sheik who rules the place is about four feet tall. When our hero offends this tiny but powerful Sheik he is thrown to the lions, and must fight for his life.
I won't give away the ending -- which is startling, even for an oddball comedy like this one -- but I will say that the fight with the lion is the highlight of the show. Instead of what we expect, i.e. a man in a cheesy lion suit, an actual lion was clearly on the set, and a stunt double closely resembling Paul Parrott actually wrestled him for the cameras. The dedication to "realness" comes as kind of a jolt.
Paul Parrott's last series of short comedies for the Hal Roach Studio came to an end in 1923, but for some reason the studio held a number of them back, including this one, and released them over a three-year period stretching into 1926. By that point they must have already looked a little old-fashioned; taste in comedy was changing, and filmmakers were moving away from cartoon-y material. The more realistic mode favored by Charley Chase was in vogue, and his brother would eventually join the team as a director under the name James Parrott, making his most lasting contribution to screen comedy guiding some of the best films of Laurel & Hardy.