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The Crazy World of Laurel and Hardy

"Two funny gentlemen -- and two funny, gentle men."
This well-intentioned but flawed compilation film has never been popular with Laurel & Hardy fans. Objectively speaking it's easy to understand why, but it's difficult for me to be objective about it. On its first release I went to see this movie in a packed auditorium, and had a great time. My father took me to see it. He'd loved these comedies as a boy, and knew I enjoyed Stan & Ollie on TV, so we made the trek to our neighborhood cinema. As I recall, the place was packed with middle-aged dads and their kids. Going to see this movie was like a Father and Son banquet, only more relaxed and a lot more fun. A comedy tradition was being passed from one generation to the next, and in the best possible way: in a theater full of laughter.

'The Crazy World of Laurel & Hardy' was made by the Jay Ward organization, best known for such Saturday morning cartoons as Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle. (Cheaply produced, but witty and enjoyable fare, especially compared to the competition.) I don't question the Ward team's sincerity in producing this L&H tribute, or their fondness for the subject matter. Plainly they loved old movies, as their cartoons are packed with inside jokes aimed at movie buffs. Ward & his colleagues were surely familiar with the silent comedy compilations of Robert Youngson, which were quite popular at the time. They chose to take a different approach, and focus on Laurel & Hardy's talkie shorts and features. That in itself is not a drawback, but their handling of the material is dubious.

The most effective passages in 'Crazy World' are the ones with the least amount of tampering. There are some great routines from Busy Bodies, Towed in a Hole, and other favorites. But there are too many sequences featuring gags chopped into quick montages, some of which are devoted to certain props, such as hats, doors, or automobiles. This is contrary to the more leisurely pace the guys favored, and the comic impact is weakened through repetition. To make matters worse, cartoon-style sound effects have been added. (The Roach studio did use such effects at times, though sparingly.) But for fans of L&H the biggest issue here is the musical score. In an attempt to 'modernize' the material those familiar, beloved musical pieces by Roy Shield and Marvin Hatley were stripped from the soundtrack, and newly composed music was added. It has the feel of a '60s sitcom, and is jarringly out of place.

But for all that, somehow the comedy of Laurel & Hardy mostly comes through intact. 'Crazy World' worked well enough for audiences of its time, as I can attest. Nowadays of course anyone who wants to experience these films as they were intended to be seen has multiple options. That was not the case in the pre-video, pre-internet days. This production -- whatever its aesthetic flaws -- served its purpose. It kept Laurel & Hardy before the public and provided an enjoyable experience for undiscerning viewers. One can hardly fault the producers for that.

Alice's Day at Sea

"I dreamed that I was shipwrecked!"
This is one of earliest entries in Walt Disney's Alice in Cartoonland series, and it's different from the others I've encountered. The distinctive gimmick of the series was that Alice, a real girl, would interact with cartoon animals. In the shorts I've seen most of the footage is animated, looking very much like typical cartoons of the period, only with the addition of a live-action Alice who pops up at odd moments. Here, however, the first half of the short is entirely live action. After a few minutes, you may begin to wonder how this qualifies as a "Cartoonland" short.

The film begins with an amusing sequence involving Alice's dog. He wakes up, drops his alarm clock into a garbage bin, and shimmies into his harness. Next we meet Alice herself (blonde Virginia Davis), who travels with the dog in a kiddie car to the beach. There they chat with a friendly sailor, who tells them about the time his ship was pulled to the bottom of the sea by an octopus. The tall tale he relates is animated, but in a very rudimentary fashion, like something drawn on a chalkboard. When the sailor is called away, Alice and her dog climb into a beached sailboat and promptly fall asleep.

The girl and her dog are charming, and the tone is akin to an Our Gang comedy. As Alice falls asleep, the cartoon proper begins. She dreams she's on a ship at sea, tossed about by a wild storm. Abruptly, her ship sinks straight to the bottom. Alice swims out of the wreckage unharmed, and observes the sea creatures around her. Some fish are having a party, playing music and dancing. We also find some very odd looking creatures, zoo animals such as elephants, giraffes, etc., only with mermaid-like fins. A fish in a cop uniform directs traffic-a gag that would return in many subsequent cartoons. But danger rears its ugly head: first, a sinister octopus appears and threatens Alice, then a large fish attempts to swallow her whole. Just as things look bleak, naturally enough, Alice awakens and finds that all is well.

This is a pleasant short for the most part, although one macabre gag took me by surprise: it's a shock when the octopus seizes an inoffensive fish, slices him in two, and gobbles up half his remains. Whoa, that's pretty harsh! Otherwise, the humor is low-key and innocuous. Alice's Day at Sea is lightly amusing, not especially memorable, but of interest to animation buffs, and anyone curious about the early days of the Disney phenomenon.

Katchem Kate

An apprentice detective outshines her teacher
Prior to the autumn of 1912, before Mack Sennett founded his Keystone Studio, he learned the fundamentals of filmmaking at American Biograph under the tutelage of D.W. Griffith. It was at Biograph that Sennett was assigned his own unit to make comedies, working with three of the principal players who would later rise to stardom at Keystone: Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, and Ford Sterling. In the short films produced for Biograph during 1911-2, Sennett and his crew honed their skills and began to establish some favorite themes they would develop further at Keystone.

Katchem Kate, which stars Mr. Mace and Miss Normand, is an enjoyable effort that plays very much like an early Keystone. Fred runs a school for detectives, although his "lessons" seem to consist merely of showing his students how to apply fake mustaches to their faces and wave pistols around. Our heroine Kate (played by Mabel) works at a dry-cleaning establishment, where her job is dreary. When she spies an ad for the detective school in a newspaper she promptly signs up. Before you know it she's a proud graduate of Fred's academy, complete with badge, pistol, and her very own fake mustache. She soon happens upon a den of anarchists, who hold their meetings in a shabby lair. They behave in a furtive fashion, and identify each other by means of a secret knock and a "high sign." Mabel (sorry, I mean Kate) dons male drag and manages to infiltrate the gang, and is briefly locked in their hideout, but escapes and enlists the help of her erstwhile instructor, Fred. Together they attempt to thwart the gang before the bad guys can set off a bomb-one of those old-fashioned cartoon-y bombs, which resembles a bowling ball with a fuse. In the end, Kate (i.e. Mabel) succeeds in thwarting the evildoers while Fred, her instructor, makes a mess of things.

Keystone fans will recognize a number of familiar motifs here, such as the gang of scoundrels who meet in a secret hideaway, cross-dressing used as a disguise, and, of course, inept police work. Certainly those funny-looking bombs would be very much in evidence in subsequent Keystone comedies. It's a treat to see Mabel Normand looking so fresh and energetic, and as a bonus we also get a glimpse of teenage Jack Pickford (Mary's kid brother) as an office boy. Fred Mace gives a spirited performance, and his scenes running his bogus detective academy are amusing. Katchem Kate is engaging and funny, and moves along at a brisk tempo; over all I'd call it one of the best Sennett Biograph shorts I've seen. And although audiences of 1912 didn't know it, Katchem Kate, simple as it was, would serve as a forerunner to a vast outpouring of comic films, from Hollywood's first great comedy producer.

Hotter Than Hot

Harry Talks! . . . but we can't hear him
This is a film I've heard about for ages, but never thought I'd see. Hotter Than Hot was Harry Langdon's first talkie, as well as the first two-reel comedy he made for the Hal Roach Studio. It was long believed to be lost, but in recent years both reels have been recovered intact. Unfortunately the sound track, which was recorded on discs, has not been located. Even so, this rarity was included in a recent DVD release of Langdon's output for Roach, supplemented with subtitles and a piano score, and happily it's quite enjoyable in its present form. Much of Harry's comic shtick comes across visually, while Thelma Todd and Edgar Kennedy provide their usual fine support.

The story was adapted from a stage sketch called "The Messenger" which Langdon performed in vaudeville during the 1928-9 season. At this point his film career was in serious trouble, after the box office failure of several features he'd made for First National, but Roach was willing to take a chance on him, and signed him to star in a series of sound shorts. Langdon told the press his vaudeville stint was intended to improve his voice for the talkies. (Which may be true as far as it goes, but he also needed the ready cash.) In the subsequent comedies he made for Roach-that is, the ones with surviving soundtracks-it's evident his voice suited his odd, grownup baby-man persona.

In Hotter Than Hot, our star comedian looks and acts very much as he did in his best Sennett comedies from a few years earlier. (Hard to believe he's in his mid-40s here.) We meet Harry when he shows up unexpectedly at Thelma's apartment, carrying a note for her. As ever he seems other-worldly, as if he just arrived from his own planet. One new element to his persona is on display: he's something of a pyromaniac. We learn in a flashback Harry was chasing a fire truck when a stranger (Edgar Kennedy) approached him with a note to deliver to the young lady. As an added inducement, he is presented with his own cigarette lighter, which fascinates him, so he agrees to act as messenger.

Comic bits include Harry skidding on the slippery floor, misplacing the note he's supposed to deliver, and handing over the wrong document. In a rather risqué routine he sits with Thelma and a doll, then confuses the doll's legs (and undergarments) with Thelma's. In the finale Edgar bursts in and chaos ensues, complete with an amusing fadeout gag involving the fire department.

It's possible the soundtrack discs may yet turn up, which would certainly be great news for Langdon fans, but Hotter Than Hot is a fun comedy even in its present form. Meanwhile, we can be grateful the film survives and is available to be enjoyed.

Dad's Day

Someday, Father will know best
When cable TV came along in the 1970s, there was a station in the Midwest that aired RKO's 'Average Man' comedies. This was a series of two-reel shorts, produced from the early 1930s to the late '40s, starring familiar character player Edgar Kennedy as the beleaguered father of a suburban family. I saw many of these comedies, and usually enjoyed them. Regardless of the material, Kennedy was always reliably amusing. He'd been a prolific performer since the early silent days, and worked with practically every popular comedian of the era: Chaplin, Normand, Arbuckle, etc. In the late '20s he wound up at the Hal Roach Studio, where he appeared in support of every comic on the lot, and even directed two of Laurel & Hardy's best silent shorts.

Kennedy also played leads in a few Roach comedies during this period, as silent cinema gave way to talkies. These films are hard to find nowadays, but I happened to catch Dad's Day a few years ago at the Museum of Modern Art, where a rare print was shown as part of a Leo McCarey retrospective. Ironically, McCarey probably had little or nothing to do with the final product, which was released after he departed from the Roach lot. His story credit on this short could mean that a scenario he left behind was adapted by others, but it's also possible the credit was granted McCarey strictly as a contractual obligation.

In any case, Dad's Day concerns the misadventures of Pa Kennedy, who is trying to relax at home on a Sunday despite the disruptive presence of his family. Most annoying of all is Jimmie, the obnoxious boyfriend of his young adult daughter. Driven to distraction, Pa leaves home and heads for the beach. At Jimmie's behest, the whole family follows. Even at the beach, Pa has aggravations. The swimming suit he rents from a belligerent attendant (Charlie Hall) turns out to be too big. While Pa is swimming the suit comes off, so he pulls Jimmie into the water and manages to purloin his suit. When he returns to the changing room, the attendant won't let him enter, so Pa scales the wall-but accidentally winds up in the women's dressing area, and is mistaken for a masher. The police are called. Pa's perfect day ends badly.

That's the gist of it. And while there's an amusing moment or two along the way, I have to say I didn't enjoy Dad's Day as much as I'd anticipated, or as much as I liked the later RKO series. The difference, I believe, is not so much in the material as in the characterizations. In the later series, Kennedy is gruff and easily vexed, but basically likable. He was often irritated with his dotty wife (usually played by Florence Lake) and steamed at his lazy brother-in-law (Jack Rice) or his grouchy mother-in-law (Dot Farley), but underlying it all was a sense of family, in every sense of the word: that is, they may drive you crazy sometimes, but they're FAMILY. In this short, however, that familial feeling isn't there. The actress playing Mrs. Kennedy barely registers as a presence. Pa has very little interaction with her, or with his son or daughter. The hostile relationship with Jimmie is central. Beyond that, the film has a harsh tone that undercuts the comedy. We're given little reason to like or care about any of the characters. Whatever fondness we might feel for Dad is a residual effect of seeing Edgar Kennedy elsewhere, because the guy he's playing here is generally unsympathetic.

When Dad's Day was screened at MoMA it was introduced by a film historian, who told us there were no follow-ups made at the Roach Studio because exhibitors were not enthused about the Kennedy Family comedies. I took this to mean they weren't a hit with audiences, either. Despite occasional amusing moments in Dad's Day, I can well understand the lukewarm response. On a brighter note, however, Kennedy must have learned a thing or two from the experience, because his subsequent RKO comedy shorts were of higher quality, and the series ran for well over fifteen years!

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

An unsung trailblazer finally gets her due
One evening in Paris in March of 1895, cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière hosted a special event, the very first public screening of projected motion pictures. In the audience that night were Leon Gaumont, maker of cameras and photographic equipment, and his secretary, 21 year-old Alice Guy. What they saw were "actualities," basic documentary works that were brief and simple, such as the now-familiar scene of workers leaving the Lumière factory. Guy was impressed, but felt the subject matter could be improved upon. So she sought permission from her employer to make her own motion pictures -- ones that told stories -- and it was granted. Her film-making career was underway.

The Gaumont concern became a motion picture plant, and from 1896 to 1906 Alice Guy was the company's head of production. Dozens of short films were made under her direction, in every genre: comedies, dramas, fantasies, Biblical epics, and even Westerns. She experimented with special effects, including double-exposure and synchronized sound. She married Herbert Blaché in 1907 and the two worked together, first in France and then in the U.S. They co-founded the Solax Company on the East Coast; Alice now ran her own studio.

She continued making films of all kinds, including features, eventually in Hollywood. But for a number of reasons, both personal and professional, the filmmaking career of Alice Guy-Blaché came to a premature halt shortly after the First World War. She returned to France in 1922 and made no more films. And for the rest of her long life, Guy-Blaché struggled to establish her place in motion picture annals. This proved to be a battle, for most of her films were lost or unavailable, and film historians tended to overlook her achievements or ascribe them to others.

Pamela Green's fascinating new documentary should help rectify the injustice done to this pioneer. I happened to see it the same weekend I caught Peter Bogdanovich's new Buster Keaton documentary, and the difference between the two is striking. While I enjoyed the Keaton tribute, it's traditional in every way, following the standard format for such works as it cuts back and forth between film excerpts, photos, and interviews. And of course, Keaton's life story and his comedies are familiar to buffs. But Green, whose subject is far more obscure, takes a more audacious approach: she gives us not only biographical material about Guy-Blaché, complete with the expected footage and photos, but also details her own efforts to dig up material on Alice Guy-Blaché and complete the documentary. This is illustrated throughout with lively animated graphics, which help clarify complicated details and keep the viewer engaged.

Happily, in addition to the excerpts from Guy-Blaché's films, Green also found two interviews with the filmmaker from her later years. It's fascinating to hear the woman herself discuss her life and career. We get the sense she was somewhat frustrated but nonetheless even-tempered and philosophical about setbacks as she describes her ongoing efforts to locate her surviving work and establish her claim as a genuine pioneer. A videotaped interview with Guy-Blaché's daughter conducted in the 1980s helps fill in some of the gaps.

In sum, this is a captivating story, told in a fresh, innovative fashion. It's must for anyone interested in the birth of the motion picture as an art form and an industry.

Jack's Joke

A 100 year-old comic sketch, preserved for posterity
Vaudeville in its heyday offered not only variety performers such as singers, jugglers, magicians, etc., but also one-act plays. These could be dramatic tear-jerkers or comic sketches, but one thing they all needed to be was simple. That is, they required a basic situation, easy to grasp quickly, with a sharp payoff. This fascinating short "Jack's Joke," made as an experimental sound short way back in 1913, is a prime example of the sort of playlet one might see in a vaudeville house at the time.

Edward Boulden plays Jack, an inveterate practical joker. When he bumps into his college chum Ned, who is visiting New York and lonely, he brings him to the home of his sweetheart Bess, then decides to play a prank on them both. Jack tells each one separately that the other is deaf, then leaves them alone together. Ned and Bess take turns shouting at one another, until finally Bess' Aunt Jane enters, and all is revealed. But Ned and Bess turn the tables on Jack by going off together to see a show, leaving him alone. "Stung!" he exclaims, as he sinks down into a chair.

Although the prank itself -- like many practical jokes -- is in dubious taste, this premise works well as a comic notion, and is ideal for the primitive recording equipment used by the Edison Studio to make this short. The players give us an interesting sample of what stage acting of the era looked like. Special casting note: Ned is played by Arthur Housman, familiar to film buffs from his many appearances in short comedies and features of the '30s, almost always as a comic souse. Here he's amazingly youthful, sober and clear-eyed.

A new edition of this short, restored by the Library of Congress along with several other Edison Kinetophone films of the period, is available on DVD from Undercrank Productions, in association with Greenbriar Picture Shows.

Incidentally, the skit offers an ironic remark at one point, when Bess (still under the impression Ned is deaf) expresses surprise that he likes to go to stage shows: "I should think you would enjoy motion pictures." Why? Because they're silent!


Worth the wait
When Walter Kerr published his authoritative work "The Silent Clowns" in 1975 he devoted a chapter to missing films, i.e. the movies we can no longer evaluate or enjoy because no prints are known to survive. One of the illustrations depicts Bebe Daniels in her 1927 feature-length vehicle 'Señorita,' in which she's wearing male garb, complete with fake mustache. We're told the film is a "Zorro-like romp," but is also, sadly, among the missing. When I first read the book I found this loss especially unfortunate, for I've always enjoyed Bebe, whether she's playing support to Harold Lloyd in his early comedies or starring in her own later work. Happily for Bebe's fans, however, a print of 'Señorita' turned up in Europe in the 1990s, and was restored by preservationists at the Royal Belgium Film Archive in Brussels. The rediscovered print has French title cards, and is missing a couple of sequences, but is nonetheless substantially complete and in generally good condition.

Recently, this restored version was screened under the auspices of the Library of Congress as part of their "Mostly Lost" film workshop. 'Señorita' was the hit of the event, a real crowd-pleaser, as enjoyable in its way as the Doug Fairbanks vehicles it deftly parodies. While it isn't a direct satire of the Zorro tale there are notable similarities, but even so this movie stands on its own as a clever and engaging comic adventure saga.

The plot concerns two upper-class families in Spain who have been long engaged in a bitter feud. Don Francisco Hernandez (Josef Swickard), the patriarch of the Hernandez clan, is visiting California on the night his grandchild is born. Before he sails back to Spain, the Don is assured that a boy has been born who will carry his name -- and someday carry on the battle with the hated Oliveros clan. But this info is slightly less than accurate: the baby is a girl, and no one has the courage to tell the old man before he departs. Twenty years pass, and, based family correspondence, the Don still believes that his grandchild, who he has never seen, is a boy. (Quite a credibility stretcher, but we just have to roll with it.) Meanwhile, Francesca (Bebe Daniels) has grown up to be something beyond a tomboy, more of a wildcat. We first see her playing a fierce game of polo alongside men, and when another player deliberately fouls her she has to be restrained from wreaking havoc on the fellow. When she is summoned to Spain to meet her grandfather at long last, she initially intends to reveal her true gender, but an ugly encounter with Manuel Oliveros (William Powell) at the dock upon her arrival leads her to disguise herself as Francisco, complete with fake moustache.

One of the funniest sequences in the film comes when young 'Francisco' arrives at his family estate, where everyone expects to him to be a big, strapping macho man -- and instead, behold this rather odd, scrawny little person who seems hardly big enough to mount a horse. (Good visual gag: the men of the household all raise their tankards of ale to propose a toast as Francisco walks in . . . and then slowly lower their tankards in shock when they see him.) But he manages to prove himself worthy in his first run-in with the Oliveros gang, and earns the respect of his family.

Complications develop when Francesca, now back in female guise -- in fact, skinny-dipping in a pond -- encounters handsome Roger Oliveros (James Hall). They quickly fall for one another, but neither one knows the other is a member of the hated rival clan. And the situation gets more tangled at a village festival, where 'Francisco' is compelled to switch roles (and genders) back and forth, depending on who "he" or "she" is dealing with at any given moment.

Sound confusing? Well, the plot isn't easy to describe, but thanks to the craftspeople who made this film it all unfolds smoothly and charmingly. This is a plum role for Bebe, one that gives her ample opportunity to demonstrate her versatility as a comic performer and leading lady -- and action hero! There are a number of stand-out performers in the supporting cast as well, but it's especially fun to see William Powell in another of his silent era villain roles. Here he's a somewhat hapless, inept bad guy, and it's gratifying to see him get his comeuppance when he challenges 'Francisco' at the festival.

'Señorita' builds to a rousing action finale, although it must be pointed out, regrettably, that the final scenes were in fragmented condition when the sole surviving print was rescued in the '90s, and the ending is unfortunately a little choppy. Even so, we can be grateful that this film survives at all. It deserves wider exposure, more screenings, and, if possible, a home video release. This is a movie that will gladden the hearts of silent film fans, everywhere.


Recently restored, and praise be!
Let me begin by thanking everyone involved in the recent rescue and restoration of this film. Like so many releases from the Fox Studio, 'Transatlantic' in its original form was lost to posterity due to a 1937 film vault explosion in New Jersey. The original negative was destroyed, and for many years the only known surviving print was one found in Europe, dubbed in French. The credits and all written inserts (newspaper headlines, etc.) were in French as well. But in recent years an almost complete audio recording of the English language soundtrack was recovered, and subsequently new credits and inserts were created which closely match the originals. 'Transatlantic' is once more being screened in a version fairly close to its original release print. Unfortunately, a few random moments of the soundtrack remain missing, but those brief passages have been bridged by subtitles.

Was all this effort worthwhile? Absolutely! 'Transatlantic' is a terrific movie, a first rate popcorn flick, especially impressive as a product of the early talkie era. If you didn't know it was produced in 1931 you'd guess it was done much later: the editing tempo is brisk, camera work is smooth and unconstrained, and the performances are sharp. There's no sign of the slow pacing or awkwardness one sometimes finds in films of this era. The opening sequence, when the ship where most of the action takes place sets sail, serves as an exciting, beautifully edited introduction to our main characters. And once the voyage is underway, several storylines are deftly juggled, in a tight scenario that builds to a genuinely suspenseful finale.

As others have mentioned, this is essentially 'Grand Hotel' on the high seas. (It was produced the year before MGM's famous film, but two years after the publication of that film's source novel.) Edmund Lowe plays Monty Greer, a character rather like John Barrymore's familiar jewel thief. He's a debonair gambler, embarking on this voyage one step ahead of the law, but we know he's a decent sort because he refuses to throw in with a gang of ruthless crooks also on board the ship. They've set their sights on wealthy financier Henry Graham (John Halliday), who has absconded with funds one step ahead of his bank's failure. Graham, for his part, keeps his wife Kay (Myrna Loy) at a distance while he steps out with his mistress Sigrid (Greta Nissen), who is also on board. Sigrid, as it happens, was formerly on intimate terms with Monty. He, meanwhile, befriends kindly old Mr. Kramer (Jean Hersholt) who has worked hard for many years as a lens grinder while raising his daughter Judy (Lois Moran). At long last Mr. Kramer is able to retire and travel-but his life's savings are kept in Henry Graham's bank, and its failure, which Kramer hears about during the voyage, means that he's wiped out.

Those are the central plot threads. It may sound complicated, but it all unfolds neatly and clearly as the ship sails on. There are occasional touches of comedy relief as well, frequently provided by a steward named Hodgkins (played by silent comedy veteran Billy Bevan), whose conversation consists of windy, oft-repeated platitudes. And, as noted above, the various story threads build to a highly suspenseful climax, a shoot-out in the ship's boiler room that is a dazzling cinematic tour-de-force. Kudos to director William K. Howard, cinematographer James Wong Howe, and editor Jack Murray for their work on this film. And again, many thanks to the restoration artists who helped make this delightful flick available once more!

The Mad Game

A long lost crime drama resurfaces
When we talk about gangster flicks of the early '30s certain actors immediately spring to mind: Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Paul Muni. (Muni played a gangster only once in the Pre-Code era, but that performance was unforgettable.) One name seldom if ever mentioned is Spencer Tracy. He played a mob boss twice -- that is, twice as often as Muni did -- and yet he isn't usually associated with the genre. Perhaps this was because he worked for the Fox Studio, not Warner Bros. Many of the early talkies produced at Fox are scarce or missing entirely, largely due to a 1937 vault explosion which destroyed much of the studio's output. Tracy's two crime films survive but are seldom screened. He first played a racketeer in the underrated Quick Millions in 1931, and two years later portrayed mob boss Ed Carson in The Mad Game. The latter, long out of circulation, was recently restored and has been screened at the Museum of Modern Art to packed houses.

Ed Carson is a "beer baron," a successful bootlegger. His gang does the dirty work while Carson lives the high life. He has a beautiful mistress and a seemingly dedicated lawyer who fends off trouble. Ed enjoys seeing his picture in the papers, and has a friendly relationship with reporter named Jane Lee (Claire Trevor), who has a soft spot for him. But as Prohibition comes to an end, everything changes. Carson's lieutenant Chopper Allen (J. Carrol Naish) proposes the gang take up kidnapping as a new racket, but for personal reasons Carson opposes this vehemently. Before he knows what is happening Ed is betrayed by his supposed allies and lands in prison. There he reforms, and when the nation is hit with a wave of kidnappings - many of them masterminded by Chopper Allen and pulled off by Ed's former gang - he volunteers to help. After his facial features are altered by plastic surgery, Carson is released under an assumed identity and goes undercover to break his former mob.

This is the kind of fare we tend to associate with Warner Bros., not only because of the gangland element but because it boasts that ripped-from-the-headlines topical quality, as it was made at a time when high profile kidnappings were frequently in the news. And like those WB classics, The Mad Game offers vivid performances and sharp production values, and moves at a brisk tempo. Director Irving Cummings manages to avoid cliché with some imaginative touches, especially in one sequence when he conveys the information that two key characters have been bumped off with a visual flourish reminiscent of the best silent dramas.

Spencer Tracy, young and energetic, plays Carson with his customary intensity. We know from the beginning that, although he's said to be ruthless, there is integrity buried deep inside which may yet emerge. It does so when his right-hand man "Chopper" (Naish is downright scary in this role) takes over his gang. And when Carson reforms, we believe it. Claire Trevor, in one of her first Hollywood roles, makes a strong impression. Her Jane Lee is self-sufficient and smart, but also warm; you can see why the mobsters trust her. And there are a number of other notable players in support, including Ralph Morgan, gorgeous Kathleen Burke, and the underrated John Davidson as an exhausted, corrupt doctor, a man who is almost catatonic, yet who serves underworld clients for reasons unknown. While Tracy and Trevor are the standouts, there is no shortage of top drawer talent here.

For me, the only serious problem with The Mad Game comes in the second half, when Carson undergoes plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Everything hinges on the credibility of the result; that is, we're expected to believe it when close associates of the man completely fail to recognize him. To my eyes, the "new" Ed Carson still looks pretty much like Spencer Tracy, perhaps on his way to a costume party as a thug. When his longtime chum McGee (Matt McHugh) doesn't know him, I didn't really buy it. But the performances are so earnest, you just roll with it anyway, as you would while listening to a radio drama. In sum, The Mad Game is well written, well directed, and especially well acted. Now that it's been restored I do hope it finds the audience it deserves.

Too Busy to Work

Jubilo talks!
The film career of Will Rogers began in the silent days, with a series of feature films produced by Sam Goldwyn. 'Jubilo,' released in 1919, was the biggest box office success of them all, so when sound technology came to Hollywood a decade later it was only natural this property would be dusted off and remade as a talkie. Retitled 'Too Busy to Work,' the new version was released in 1932, at the height of Rogers' popularity as a star of stage, screen, and radio. I've seen both versions ('Jubilo' is one of three features Rogers made for Goldwyn that survives), and while I prefer the silent original each has its merits.

Our central character is Jubilo, a middle-aged hobo with no fixed address, no prospects, and a decided aversion to work. For reasons that are initially unclear he seeks a judge named Hardy (NOT Lewis Stone!), a prosperous man running for high office who Jubilo blames for his lowly condition. He travels to Hardy's town and gets a job at the judge's home as a hired hand. Aside from his antagonistic relationship with the hired man already employed there, Jubilo manages to charm everyone else, especially the judge's pretty stepdaughter, Rose (Marian Nixon). Eventually we learn that years earlier, when Jubilo was away at war, Hardy stole his wife and daughter away. The wife has since died, and daughter Rose doesn't recognize her true father. After various complications involving Rose's fiancée, who is also her step-brother (young Dick Powell in a non-singing role), and a dramatic confrontation with the judge, Jubilo resolves his unfinished business with the Hardy family and moves on.

One reason I prefer the silent version of this material is that the story was much simpler there. Too Busy to Work is, well, a little too busy: over-plotted that is, with a lot of backstory concerning events which took place long before the action begins. We hear about these events, but have to fill in some significant info ourselves, which strikes me as a drawback. But this film is really more about character and atmosphere than plot. There are moments of low-key charm along the way, as well as a mildly amusing sequence when Rose attempts to teach Jubilo how to drive a car, although the humor is undercut by rather obvious rear-screen projection effects.

Rogers is a performer who requires a bit of adjustment for some viewers, as he tends to mumble and throw away his lines. He's very offhand, seemingly unfocused, although I believe he knew exactly what he was doing. At any rate, once you adapt to this star's approach he can be quite appealing; audiences of his era certainly thought so! Too Busy to Work, while not the best movie he ever made, is a pretty good example of a typical Will Rogers vehicle. If you enjoy this one, you might want to try some of the others, such as Life Begins at 40 or Doctor Bull. You may find that the Will Rogers style grows on you.

Jes' Call Me Jim

Featuring an impressive performance by the lead, who always insisted he was no actor
The best remembered phase of Will Rogers' movie career is the period of his stardom at Fox Films in the early '30s, when he made features such as State Fair and Judge Priest. He also did a stint at the Hal Roach studio in the mid '20s, where he appeared in a series of two-reel shorts, and most of those comedies are available to be viewed today. But the silent features he made for producer Sam Goldwyn -- a baker's dozen, made between 1918 and 1921 -- are almost entirely forgotten. The reason is both obvious and unfortunate: most of the films are lost, and the handful of works that do survive are not readily accessible. For fans of the great humorist this is an unhappy state of affairs. "Jes' Call Me Jim," one of the survivors, is well made and interesting, and deserves a wider audience.

Although Rogers was a humorist, known for his homespun wit, most of his films were not really comedies in the traditional sense, or at least not like the ones his contemporaries Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were making at the time. "Jes' Call Me Jim" (named after a line of dialog spoken at a key moment) is a melodrama with occasional comic moments. Rogers always insisted he was no actor, and sometimes disparaged movie acting as "making faces," but his performance in this film is exceptionally moving, and understated in a way that feels modern. There's none of the over-the-top histrionics one sometimes finds in early films, the kind that can provoke the wrong sort of laughter at public screenings. I'm sure this film would score a hit with viewers supportive of silent drama.

Will plays Jim Fenton, a simple hunter who lives with his dog in a cabin in a remote forest. (Incidentally, I don't know where this movie was filmed but the locations are beautiful.) He's sweet on Miss Butterworth (Irene Rich), who runs a hat shop in a nearby village. Although the lady is unattached, she looks after a boy whose mother is dead, and whose father Paul Benedict (Raymond Hatton) is an inventor locked up in an insane asylum, a horrible place run like a prison. He was confined there by wealthy mill owner Belcher (Lionel Belmore) who, we're told, stole the man's patents and had him committed under false pretenses. Miss Butterworth seeks justice for Benedict, an old family friend. When she's unable to secure his release, Jim steps in and, in a highly dramatic courtroom finale, publicly exposes Belcher as a villain.

As the plot synopsis indicates, this is no comedy. Will's character Jim Fenton will occasionally delivers a wry quip about his situation, and in one amusing scene he flirts awkwardly with Miss Butterworth in her hat shop, but the situation itself is not at all funny, and the whole cast plays it straight. Rogers is especially impressive in a sequence with Hatton-a fine character actor who worked steadily through the silent era, and for many years thereafter. Benedict, Hatton's character, has escaped form the asylum and is staying at Fenton's cabin. He is gravely ill, and it is believed that he may die. Jim takes responsibility for his condition, and feels terribly guilty and distraught; when Benedict narrowly survives, Jim weeps with relief. It's a beautifully played scene, and a memorable highlight.

So, in sum, this little-known film offers very good performances, rich atmosphere, an engrossing story and nice touches of humor. Why is it so obscure? I think there's a ready audience of silent film fans who would greatly enjoy "Jes' Call Me Jim" if it were more widely available.

The Exquisite Thief

The Enticing Fragment, I'd call it
Perhaps the most bizarre event in the annals of film preservation took place in the Yukon in the 1970s, when over 500 reels of nitrate film were discovered buried in permafrost under a long-abandoned public swimming pool. That story is told in a fascinating documentary entitled 'Dawson City: Frozen Time,' highly recommended for buffs. Meanwhile, one of the many items recovered from the tundra was a reel of Tod Browning's The Exquisite Thief, starring Priscilla Dean. This represents about 8 minutes of what was originally a feature-length release, running about an hour, total. As far as I know this fragment is all that survives, which is a shame because the sequence suggests this is an exciting, well-made crime thriller. On the other hand, 8 minutes of The Exquisite Thief is decidedly better than nothing.

The story concerns a career criminal known as Blue Jean Billie (played by Priscilla Dean), who, dressed in formal evening wear, somehow crashes a fashionable dinner party in the home of prosperous people. Mid-way into the dinner, she pulls a gun and robs the attendees of jewelry, furs, etc.-this is where the surviving footage begins-and then escapes in a car with an accomplice. Three men pursue in another car. When Billie's car crashes she manages to fend off her pursuers, then takes one of them hostage, and flees in their car. Billie's captive is Lord Chesterton (Thurston Hall), an elegant English gentleman. Once they reach her hideout Billie binds him to a chair. The dinner party host reports the robbery of his guests and the abduction of this prominent nobleman to the police. While Billie is changing clothes Lord Chesterton manages to slip out of his bonds, but rearranges them so it appears he is still tied. Billie goes to the kitchen to make coffee for her "hostage," who looks ready to spring at her. And there, darn it, the footage ends!

An awful lot of incident is packed into those surviving eight minutes. The cinematography is excellent, and the pace is breathless. Performances are good, too. Priscilla Dean was a popular star during the late 'teens and early '20s, and worked frequently with director Browning, often in roles like this one. Thurston Hall is a familiar face to film buffs, as he worked in character parts in movies and TV right through the '50s. The two leads play off each other well in this sequence. I was able to find a plot synopsis for this film in 'Dark Carnival,' a biography of Tod Browning. As it turns out, "Lord Chesterton" isn't what he seems; he too is a thief, and he manages to save Billie's bacon when one of her former accomplices attempts to turn her in for a reward. Ultimately, our two elegant crooks fall in love with each other, and decide to reform. Which is to be expected I suppose, and sounds a tad predictable, but I'd love to see the rest of this movie anyway. What survives is terrific, a real popcorn flick of its era.

The Model Husband

Guess what? Mr. Cherub is Mr. Hypocrite!
This cleverly conceived short film, just recently rediscovered and preserved, offers proof—if any is needed—that silent comedy had a lot more to offer than pie-throwing and wild car chases. The Model Husband is a social satire, reminiscent of the sophisticated comedies of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, and like entries in their popular series it finds humor in recognizable, everyday human foibles rather than slapstick. Theater buffs may be reminded of Moliere's Tartuffe, because this is the story of a supposedly virtuous, even saintly man who is exposed as a hypocrite. And like that play, it is both amusing and highly satisfying.

Harry Myers, best remembered as the drunk in Chaplin's City Lights, plays Mr. Cherub, "so good and pure he wears a halo," according to a title card. And yes, he certainly does! In the introductory scenes a halo literally hovers over Mr. Cherub's head as he glides about his apartment, serving breakfast in bed to his wife and children. And we observe he is more righteous than other men: when he joins a group of regular guys who are chatting on a sidewalk, he literally drops in from the sky (on a wire of course), lingers a few moments, and is whisked away again. Incidentally, it appears that Mr. Cherub's male companions don't much enjoy his company.

This opening sequence is so funny, dreamlike and over-the-top we suspect it's a fantasy of some sort, a make-believe version of Mr. Cherub's public image, not the reality. And so it is. We know this, because next we're shown the man's actual behavior, i.e. the way he behaves when he's not on public display: he's mean to his wife, and even throws crockery at her. (Mrs. Cherub is played by Rosemary Theby, best remembered as the long-suffering wife of W.C. Fields in his classic talkie short The Fatal Glass of Beer.) But when he steps outside, he once again behaves like a saint. He serves as president of the Society for Honor & Virtue, he is called upon to counsel a man with a drinking problem—because, of course, Mr. Cherub is believed to be a teetotaler—and he is even proposed as a candidate for Mayor. But cracks begin to appears in his facade, as word gets out that the "cough medicine" he drinks in secret is actually booze, and that his motivation for "counseling" a young woman in his office after hours is something other than Platonic or paternal in nature. And Mr. Cherub's reputation, job, and marriage all come crashing down!

Is this a timely story, or what? Although it was produced over 100 years ago, we find nowadays that stories very much like this one are playing out again and again in the worlds of politics, show business, and public life in general. The Model Husband is not only a clever and amusing silent comedy from 1916, it's a strangely prescient morality tale for viewers in the 21st century.

A Busy Night

"This fellow Tweedledum seems to be the whole show."
The Playhouse, one of Buster Keaton's most fondly remembered short comedies, offers an unforgettable prologue set in a vaudeville theater, where Buster portrays every performer on stage—including an entire minstrel troupe—as well as every member of the audience. It's a virtuoso display. In 1929, eight years after The Playhouse was produced, Lupino Lane crafted a comedy called Only Me, in which he took the same basic idea and expanded it to two reels: his film, also set in a vaudeville theater, offers multiple Lupino Lanes (some of which were doubled by his brother, Wallace Lupino) on stage and in the audience. But surprisingly, another and lesser known silent film comedian, Marcel Perez, actually got there first, and explored this idea years ahead of either Keaton or Lane, in a long-forgotten short from 1916 called A Busy Night.

Born in Madrid, Perez was appearing in films in Europe as early as 1907, then came to the US after the outbreak of the Great War. He appeared in dozens of American-made short comedies for a variety of companies, but never achieved the stardom enjoyed by the era's top comedy stars, perhaps in part because he changed his screen name repeatedly: he was variously known as Robinet, Bungles, Tweedledum, Tweedie, etc. In recent years Perez has finally gained appreciation among silent comedy buffs, thanks largely to the efforts of film historian Steve Massa, who has written a biography of the man and endeavored to make his surviving films available through public screenings and DVD releases.

A Busy Night should serve as an ideal introduction to this under-appreciated performer. In the very first shot, we are shown a life size cutout of Perez, dressed in a tux like a stage magician, displaying a number of miniature images of himself in various guises. And then the star himself, looking very dapper, steps out in front of the cutout and grins at the camera. What follows initially appears to be a conventional comedy: Perez, or "Tweedledum" as he is called here, is a drunken swell who creates a disturbance at a posh club for men. Ejected from the premises, he stumbles home. Alone in his apartment he waxes eloquent, condemns all humankind for incivility, and exclaims: "Ah, if everyone was like me in this world! Some Paradise!" Whereupon he passes out, falls into a deep dream state, and gets his wish.

It all begins with a Big Bang: the very earth itself explodes, and Tweedledum is blown into the air, lands on a desert island—somewhere in the cosmos?—and finds that the only other inhabitant is a flirtatious native girl (also played by Perez). Romance blossoms. A title card helpfully announces: "1,000 Years After," and we find this mysterious planet populated with Tweedledum clones. After that outlandish set-up, the story which unfolds seems superficially like a typical Keystone-style comedy: a wife conducts a romance with a lover behind her husband's back; her husband goes hunting, shoots game out of season and runs afoul of a local sheriff; the hunter returns home unexpectedly, forcing the lover to hide in the closet; the lover is discovered and chased; police are summoned, etc. But here there's one major difference: every character on screen is played by Marcel Perez.

How does he do it? Very cleverly. The trick effects combine precise inter-cutting, doubling (i.e. by an actor of the same height & build as Perez who keeps his face turned away from the camera), and occasional deftly executed split-screen effects. The filmmakers pull this off with admirable skill. And beyond the camera trickery Perez displays great energy and resilience as a performer: the short reaches a climax when he is hoisted out of the ocean by an immense crane and dumped onto a pier, a genuinely impressive stunt. The film as we see it today ends somewhat abruptly, but my guess is that it originally concluded with a wrap-up sequence depicting Tweedledum's rude awakening.

According to the opening credits, Marcel Perez plays a total of sixteen parts in A Busy Night. I didn't stop to add them up, but that sounds about right. What the plain arithmetic doesn't capture is the sheer exhilaration of the experience, as conveyed by Perez and his colleagues. They look like they were having a blast doing this! And that pleasure still comes across when we view the film today.

The Lamb

Introducing Douglas Fairbanks
In 1887 popular author Bronson Howard premiered his new play, 'The Henrietta.' Some twenty-five years later, after the playwright's death, it was revived on Broadway in a revised version entitled 'The New Henrietta,' and this time around it starred popular leading man Douglas Fairbanks in the central role, that of a timid young man named Bertie, nicknamed "the lamb." When Doug made his first feature film two years later in 1915, an adaptation of the hit play was the logical choice for his screen debut; or at least, that's how the story is told in various books and articles on Fairbanks. One look at the surviving film tells a different tale.

It appears the first thing the filmmakers did when it came time to adapt this material was throw out Howard's plot, rename their timid protagonist Gerald, and keep the "lamb" nickname for the title. Otherwise it's a completely new scenario, freshly conceived for the motion picture medium. That said, the plot may seem more than a little familiar if you've seen some of Fairbanks' other comedies, the ones made in the 'teens before he turned to swashbuckling. Understandably, The Lamb is not as polished or as witty as the vehicles subsequently crafted for the star, but this is where it all started, that is, where the template for those comedies was created.

Our central figure Gerald is the son of a Wall Street financier—that's practically the only element kept from the play—a soft and pampered fellow who speaks in an affected, pseudo-British fashion. He is courting Mary, a respectable young lady whose parents approve of the match largely because of Gerald's inherited wealth. But a complication arises when a virile young man from Arizona named Bill appears on the scene. Bill (amusingly called "the cactus fed giant" in title cards) is handsome and macho. Mary is smitten with him. And one day at the beach, when a drowning swimmer calls out for help, it's Bill who bravely rescues her while Gerald looks on passively. Mary denounces her fiancée as a coward, and he's ashamed.

While Mary and several members of her social set visit Bill's Arizona ranch, located near the border with Mexico, Gerald tries to improve himself with lessons in boxing and Jiu-Jitsu. He then departs to join his friends out west, but is waylaid en route by a pair of thieves, and stranded in the desert. Eventually he makes his way to Arizona, just as a rebellion breaks out across the border in Mexico. Both Gerald and Mary are abducted by rebels; Bill, meanwhile, reveals his true colors by fleeing rather than helping Mary. Now strengthened by his experiences, Gerald turns the tables on his captors and protects Mary long enough to allow for their rescue by U.S. Army troops.

That's the plot concocted for this film, and if you've seen any of Doug's other vehicles you'll instantly recognize some of the themes that would become familiar in follow-ups: the effete young weakling who must become tough, the impact of money on courtship and marriage, the superiority of strenuous living out West over stuffy society back East, etc. These elements would be reworked in various combinations, in such films as Double Trouble, Wild and Woolly, The Mollycoddle, etc. Next to those more polished efforts The Lamb is comparatively rough sledding. The tempo is slow in the opening scenes, and the title cards are awkwardly worded throughout. (Anita Loos & John Emerson would write witty text for the subsequent Fairbanks comedies; I gather Miss Loos worked on the titles for this film, but if that's correct she hadn't yet found the right tone to suit Doug's style.) This film also has the unhappy distinction of offering the star's all-time worst performance, in the scene where Gerald laments his cowardice after Bill rescues the drowning woman. Doug grimaces, rakes his face with his hand, turns one way and then the other, flings his arms in the air and then falls face forward into the sand! It's way over the top, and looks like a parody of bad acting. No wonder that, in later productions, Doug was inclined to underplay scenes of high emotion.

In any case, while it doesn't hold up as well as his best features, The Lamb marked a highly significant career milestone for Douglas Fairbanks, and will therefore be of interest to anyone who enjoys his mature work. All the great stars had to begin somewhere. This is where Doug's screen career was launched, and considering how many early films are lost we can be grateful it survives at all.

Almost a Scandal

Ritchie claimed Chaplin stole his act? That's almost a scandal!
Even if you've never seen a Billie Ritchie comedy, when you watch him in Almost a Scandal you may find that he looks vaguely familiar. He has a little square mustache under his nose and wears a derby, plus a tight jacket, checked vest and baggy pants; and he carries a bamboo cane that he swings wildly as he turns corners. Oh, and he also wears big shoes and totters about with a funny little waddling walk. Does this sound like any other silent movie comedian you might know?

Okay, obviously, to our eyes he comes off like a Chaplin impersonator. But to hear Ritchie tell it, Chaplin was imitating HIM. Billie put out a press release saying he'd been playing the 'Tramp' role for decades, yet the evidence does not entirely support his claim. Like many of his colleagues in comedy from the U.K., including Chaplin, Ritchie was a veteran of Fred Karno's stage troupe. Ritchie, who was older than Chaplin, joined the troupe several years ahead of him. More significantly, Ritchie toured the U.S. in the Karno sketch "Mumming Birds" playing the comic drunk, a role Chaplin later assumed. (Ritchie did not originate the role, but definitely played it before Chaplin did.) Where the tramp costume and persona are concerned, Ritchie's claims are more dubious. Stage clowns were known to wear baggy pants, many of them had "funny walks," and lots of them wore derbies. As for facial hair, Ritchie's mustache was quite bushy in his first film appearances, but was likely trimmed so that his expression would read better; and thus, it came to resemble Chaplin's already-familiar mustache.

Beyond these surface details, however, we're left with the performers themselves. Even if Ritchie originated everything Chaplin did in the movies, every gesture and every gag—which of course is extremely unlikely—the fact remains that Chaplin won the popularity contest. Billie Ritchie was one of many moderately well-known comedians in a comedy-rich era, and never came close to attracting a mass audience the way Chaplin did. If anything, based on his surviving films, Ritchie seems to have taken a perverse pleasure in playing the most unlikable character imaginable. Admittedly, in his earliest appearances at Keystone, Chaplin was often a rascal or even an outright villain, while other popular stars such as Ford Sterling frequently played rogues and scoundrels. Yet somehow, in those instances, the performances are so over-the-top you know it's all in fun. With Billie Ritchie you catch yourself wondering if the guy really was a mean-spirited S.O.B. (or I do, anyway). That may be unfair, he may have been a perfectly nice person behind the scenes, but we'll probably never know.

Almost a Scandal is one of Ritchie's earliest surviving films. It was made for L-KO, a Keystone offshoot studio run by Henry Lehrman, a Sennett protégé who had recently departed from his mentor's company, taking a number of comedians and crew members in the bargain. As it turned out, Lehrman's taste in comedy was very much like Sennett's. This short, which Lehrman directed, could easily pass for a product of the Keystone fun factory: it's full of extramarital flirtation, excessive drinking, and startling violence, all here in abundance. Yippie!

Henry Bergman and Louise Orth play a couple who seem far more interested in seducing other people than in being together. In the course of running an errand at the bank she flirts enthusiastically with two guys in turn, i.e. Billie and the cop on the beat. (The cop, by the way, sports the biggest pair of mutton-chop sideburns since Chester Alan Arthur.) As soon as the lady returns home, her husband, perhaps suspecting something, reminds her that he's armed with two pistols, which he displays. So, we figure there's probably trouble ahead. Henry goes to a nearby saloon where he meets Billie, and they compare notes on their romantic conquests; but of course, Henry has no idea that Billie is messing with his wife. Later, Billie and Louise have an assignation at the very same beer garden where Henry brings his own date, and, needless to say, after a few near misses the truth is revealed to all, and Henry takes after Billie to wreak vengeance.

It's all very Keystone-like, and amusing at times. Hank Mann has a brief bit as a drunken bum in the saloon, and performs an impressive backward roll when Billie strikes him. Mann also has a good follow-up gag, when he starts to hit Billie with a bottle, weighs it in his hand thoughtfully, reconsiders, and walks off with the bottle instead. The most starling gag comes during the climactic fight, when Billie and Henry engage in a sword fight. When Billie is about to make a thrust the camera cuts away to the shocked faces of spectators; seconds later, we see that Henry has been completely run through with a sword! But he is unfazed. Like a cartoon character he shows no ill effects, and immediately draws one of his pistols and starts shooting wildly.

As for Billie Ritchie, he comes off as an able comic performer here. He isn't as disagreeable as in some of his other appearances, but that doesn't mean he's a sweetheart, either; at one point during the beer garden sequence, he's so pleased with the way things are going, he pointlessly kicks a chair out from under a sleepy old man. That's jolly behavior by Ritchie standards. This film isn't the best or funniest of his surviving comedies, but it's typical of his work. If you're curious about this comedian, and want to see the guy who dubiously claimed that Chaplin was a Billie Ritchie imitator, Almost a Scandal is as good a place to start as any.

Toodles, Tom and Trouble

Honey, a dog ran off with our kid
This brief silent comedy, produced by the Thanhauser Film Co. of New Rochelle NY, will appeal to buffs who enjoy a dark comic premise. Although this same premise could be played, with minor tweaks, as a melodrama or even a tragedy, the filmmakers who created Toodles, Tom and Trouble took a wildly cartoon-y, high energy approach to the project, so that even when the situation takes a nightmarish turn towards the end, the effect is somehow funny rather than grim.

The set-up is rather elaborate and, it must be said, not exactly credible. Tom is asked by his wife to take their baby ("Toodles") to the park while she and her friends go shopping. Plainly he's not happy about it; after his wife has departed he even shakes his fist at the baby. But he complies. Once in the park however, Tom sees someone he knows, sets the baby aside on a bench, and goes to chat with his friend, leaving the baby unattended. Soon thereafter, a gentleman comes along, finds the baby, becomes concerned, and carries her away, looking for the parents. Moments later, a little girl with a baby doll wanders off from her nursemaid, sits down on the same bench, and places her doll precisely where Baby Toodles was resting. When the girl is called back by the nursemaid, she leaves her doll behind. And wouldn't you know, Tom happens to glance back just as a dog comes along, snatches up the doll, and runs off with it. Of course, Tom is horrified.

And that's our set-up: a "baby switch," dependent on several rather unlikely coincidences. (For instance, the doll is wrapped in a blanket identical to the one in which Toodles is wrapped.) But as long as you're willing to suspend disbelief and roll with it, you can enjoy what follows. Tom, naturally enough, believes Toodles has been seized by the dog, and gives chase. The dog, reversing the Rin-Tin-Tin style 'heroic canine' behavior we expect in movies, goes out of his way to put the baby in one dangerous situation after another.

Early on, the dog simply drops the doll in the middle of a street, just as a car is coming. At this point we're treated to some rudimentary animation, as the oncoming car appears to sail over the dog and baby. As a punch-line, the car's headlights sprout human eyes, which wink at the camera. (Of course, this dreamlike gag signals viewers that we shouldn't take any of this film's events too seriously.) Meanwhile, as Tom chases after the dog, the man who found Toodles approaches various people to ask if this might be their baby. But most of the action concerns poor Tom, who dashes this way and that, while for some unknown reason the determined pooch doggedly tries to destroy the doll.

What eventually happens to the dog would be horrible in real life, but here it's presented in such an outlandish, over-the-top fashion we can't take it to heart. (And clearly, no harm came to the actual dog seen in the film.) Let it suffice to say that Tom is reunited with Baby Toodles, the baby is returned to his mother, and order is restored. We hope Tom has learned a thing or two about childcare duties. And for those of us viewing this short, so many years after it was produced, Toodles, Tom and Trouble may still provide some chuckles and a jolt or two.

The Transformation of Mike

In which Mike is reformed—or so we hope—by a good woman
Once you've watched a lot of early silent dramas you notice certain themes which recur on a regular basis. A popular motif in nickelodeon days was that of the criminal who reforms and chooses a better mode of life, usually thanks to the love of a good woman who believes in him. This plot turns up often, especially in the Westerns of William S. Hart (and others), as well as in contemporary crime stories. By the mid-1910s the reformation trope was so familiar it was ripe for spoofing; Charlie Chaplin utilized it in his two-reel comedy 'Police,' which was itself a reworking of His Regeneration, a serious drama starring Broncho Billy Anderson in which Chaplin had appeared in a cameo role.

D. W. Griffith's short drama The Transformation of Mike, made for the American Biograph Company in 1912, uses the theme in a straightforward fashion. Familiar leading man Wilfred Lucas, who also wrote the scenario, plays Mike, a young man who takes a room in a tenement. He encounters a young woman (Blanche Sweet) who lives in the same building with her father and brother. Despite their modest lodgings Blanche's father is fairly prosperous, and he makes the mistake of flashing a wad of bills in a tavern. Mike notices the man's money, but is unaware that he's Blanche's father.

Later, when Mike sees Blanche at a neighborhood party, he invites her to dance with him. Her friends warn her away, however; it seems he has a reputation as a dubious character. She refuses him and dances with a bland young fellow instead. Mike brusquely cuts in and orders the other man away. Blanche is offended by this, and steadfastly refuses to dance with him. They argue, and we get the sense that, despite his anger, Mike rather admires her spirit.

Soon afterward, back at the tenement, Mike breaks into the apartment where the prosperous man lives, ties him up, and robs him. Blanche and her brother, in the next room, react fearfully and take cover; the boy escapes in a dumbwaiter and alerts the police. And then Mike and Blanche see each other, and Mike realizes he's robbing her father. He's shocked of course, and so is she. (Talk about awkward!) They talk it over briefly, and Mike is ashamed. When the police arrive, Blanche helps him escape, and it's implied he'll go straight and become a better person. We never find out whether Mike is truly "transformed," so the ending is ambiguous, but hopeful.

The Transformation of Mike tells its tale in a direct and uncluttered fashion, and is performed with the earnest intensity we associate with the Biograph players. One unusual aspect of this film is that an unedited print exists; that is, a reel of the original rushes, as they appeared before Griffith edited them into the finished product. While it's common knowledge that movies are usually filmed out of sequence, it's nonetheless interesting to see how the director and his crew organized this raw material. For instance, all the scenes at the top of the tenement stairs were filmed back to back; and then, all the scenes at the bottom of the stairs were done the same way. Various characters come and go, the police dash in and out, etc. It looks like a jumble, but of course, by 1912 Griffith had become quite expert at assembling these random pieces of film into a perfectly coherent and satisfying whole. The Transformation of Mike, in its finished form, stands as a good example of what made Griffith's Biograph output the top dramatic short films of the era.

The Old Actor

Simple, straightforward and touching
When director D.W. Griffith tackled social issues in the short dramas he made for the Biograph company, he often turned his attention to the plight of older people. One of his best known such films asked in its title, with disarming directness, What Shall We Do with Our Old? That film's leading man, W. Chrystie Miller, an actor born in 1843, appropriately takes the lead in this short, The Old Actor, in the title role.

Miller plays an aging stage performer named Brant. When first seen, he is rehearsing his latest role at home, before his wife and daughter (played respectively by Kate Bruce and Mary Pickford). But when he arrives at the theater he's told that a younger actor has been hired to take his role, specifically because Brant is considered too old for the part. His daughter, meanwhile, is in the midst of a courtship with a young man. When Brant returns home he's unable to tell his family the bad news, in part because his daughter is so happy.

Earlier, when he was on his way to rehearsal, Brant had passed a beggar and given him a coin. Brant happens to be passing again when the unfortunate man collapses. He helps the beggar back to his shabby apartment where the man dies. Soon, unable to find work, Brant has an idea. He approaches the beggar's widow, buys the man's ragged clothes from her, and proceeds to "play" the man—and beg for change in his former location. This novel plan for raising ready cash causes Brant painful embarrassment when his daughter and her suitor happen by. Without offering any spoilers about the ending I can say that Brant's unhappy situation is resolved in a way that is both credible and gratifying.

This is not one of Griffith's better known Biograph shorts, but it's satisfying in its quiet, low-key way. Often I find that a second viewing of these brief dramas reveals small but telling details, those moments that help put the story across with full emotional impact. Here, for instance, while Mary's young suitor is present her behavior is restrained, and we're not certain whether she likes him or not, but the moment he leaves she grins broadly, tosses her hat in the air and catches it—and we know, very well, that she likes him! It's a little detail, but by underscoring her happiness we understand why her father, returning home soon afterward, just can't bear to tell his family that he's lost his job. These subtle dramatic touches remind us why Griffith and his troupe at Biograph were considered the best in the business during their heyday.

Josh's Suicide

"Now for a joy ride, by gum!"
This very brief comedy, directed for the American Biograph Company by Mack Sennett, offers a rudimentary version of the sort of marital farce the director would develop further, embellish, and perfect. At Biograph Sennett had been granted his own comedy unit, and his work on shorts such as this one would eventually lead to his departure, along with several of his key players, and the founding of his legendary fun factory Keystone the following year.

Our featured comic in this short is Fred Mace, one of Sennett's early stars. His Josh is a rustic character who provokes friction with his wife Matilda, when she hosts a party and he shows up in his ragged work clothes. Ordered out, he loses his temper and decides to go on a spree. Before doing so, he leaves her a note that implies he has taken his life. Instead, he takes a train to New York City, and goes on a sight-seeing tour with a pair of young lovelies. Matilda—who does not appear to be especially grief stricken at the loss of her husband—also decides, meanwhile, to go to NYC with a young admirer. Needless to say, the paths of Josh and Matilda soon cross.

The plot is very much the sort of thing that would later serve as a blueprint for Keystone stars such as Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, etc. In this early incarnation the comedy is fairly low-key, compared to the sort of wild slapstick eruptions that would become a Sennett specialty. When Josh and Matilda encounter each other on a double-decker bus the ensuing fireworks are rather mild, although it's a safe bet this short must have amused viewers in 1911.

Josh's Suicide is a recent rediscovery, and it has been beautifully restored. Happily, the film is complete and picture quality is excellent. Perhaps the most interesting element for today's viewers is the travelogue aspect. Josh's spree in the big city offers us images of the old Pennsylvania Station, Grant's Tomb, the shops of Fifth Avenue—visible in a beautifully composed shot from the top of a double-decker bus—and the New York Public Library, seen here the very year it opened. Unless someone invents a "Wayback Machine," this is the closest any of us are going to come to seeing what the world of the early 20th century actually looked like.

Wilful Peggy

A diamond in the rough
Mary Pickford got her start in pictures in 1909 at the Biograph studio, where she worked for legendary director D.W. Griffith in dozens of short films, in all kinds of roles. When this comedy 'Wilful Peggy' was made in 1910, Pickford's name was still unknown to the general public. She was just another up-and-coming actress, not a star, and had not yet developed a familiar screen persona or settled on favorite themes for her vehicles. And yet, looking back with hindsight, we can find in this short some of the key ingredients that would contribute to Mary's phenomenal popularity, and become familiar motifs in her great feature-length vehicles.

Wilful Peggy is set in 18th century Ireland, and from the first scene it is plain that this was a place and time when social distinctions were of crucial importance. Henry Walthall is the Lord of the Manor, a middle-aged and unmarried aristocrat, perhaps a widower. He finds Peggy (Mary Pickford), a lower-class barmaid, asleep before the tavern where she works, awakens her gruffly and demands service. But instead of deferring to him she is angry and uncooperative, that is, until he doffs his hat and is polite to her. After that she's all smiles, and the Lord is plainly smitten with this attractive "rough diamond." Later, when a young man from the village tries to kiss Peggy, she gives him a brisk beating. The Lord witnesses this from a concealed place, and is thoroughly won over. He proposes marriage. Peggy's mother is delighted, but her daughter is startled and dismayed by this turn of events, in part because of the age difference between herself and her suitor, but more importantly because of their sharply dissimilar social status. Nonetheless she gives in, and they are wed.

Soon we find that "the peasant bride" must struggle to adjust to her new position in society. She's uncomfortable wearing finery, and when the Lord's servants bow to her she's embarrassed. Peggy's unhappiness reaches a peak at a posh garden party when she falls over while attempting to curtsy, provoking mean-spirited laughter from her husband's friends. She stomps out in a huff. At this point she's approached by the Lord's nephew, who fancies her. He proposes that she don male attire and accompany him to an inn for some carousing, and, "in the spirit of deviltry," she agrees to go. Once they're alone at the inn, he attacks her. Her husband, meanwhile, rides to the rescue, but arrives to find that Peggy can take care of herself; in fact, she has given his lecherous nephew a furious thrashing!

As the plot summary may suggest, Wilful Peggy is a light-hearted comedy, and yet in the course of its brief running time it touches upon some serious themes. From Peggy's point of view, acute discomfort with her new husband's exalted station in life is no laughing matter, nor is her humiliation at the garden party. The Lord is amused at her audacity and finds the trait attractive, but his attitude is somewhat patronizing, and we have to wonder how happy or healthy such a marriage could ever be. However, this short was created only to entertain, not to provoke any troubling thoughts about class distinctions. Mary is adorable, and it's easy to see why she quickly became an audience favorite. Like the Lord of the Manor, we admire her for her pluck, and for the fact that she does not kowtow to her social superiors. In the prime of her career Pickford would explore culture clash issues in several of her great feature films, such as Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, Stella Maris, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. This short comedy plays like an early, abbreviated edition of the material she would develop to perfection in later years. It also serves as a reminder of how succinctly and clearly director D. W. Griffith and his crew at Biograph could tell their stories, as they adeptly convey a great deal of information in a few quick shots. Wilful Peggy is miles ahead of most other films of its period, and still entertaining today.

Three Women

Melodrama, with the Lubitsch Touch
Over the years I've enjoyed a number of the silent features Ernst Lubitsch directed in Hollywood. His 1920s output includes some dazzling gems, such as Lady Windermere's Fan, The Marriage Circle, and So This is Paris. But until recently I'd never seen Three Women, a film that seldom receives public screenings, and isn't available in any format suitable for home viewing. This past weekend a rare print was shown at NYC's Film Forum, with live piano accompaniment provided by Steve Sterner, and it proved to be an engrossing, entertaining drama. Three Women bears the hallmarks of its director's famous style, yet at the same time its story ventures into a darker and more melodramatic realm.

This is the story of Mabel Wilton (played by stage veteran Pauline Frederick), a wealthy widow of a certain age who is worried about the relentless passage of time. When we first meet her she's nervously weighing herself on a bathroom scale, and is distressed at the results. Actually she's a perfectly attractive middle-aged lady, but the fact that her daughter is now a college undergrad—and has just reached her 18th birthday—is a disturbing reminder of her own advancing age. Daughter Jeanne (May McAvoy) yearns for a closer relationship with her mother, and can't understand why Mabel pushes her away. Into this uneasy mother-daughter relationship steps the disreputable Mr. Lamont (Lew Cody), a slick but shady businessman, a "womanizer" and spendthrift who struggles to keep his many creditors at bay. When he's introduced to Mrs. Wilton at a society ball Lamont coolly sizes her up, and this is conveyed to us in a very Lubitsch-like fashion: with a series of closeups noting the lady's jewels and expensive trinkets. That's all this guy can see.

Lamont approaches Mrs. Wilton to discuss a business deal, but before long his sales pitch turns into a courtship. In the midst of their affair Lamont meets Jeanne, and swiftly pivots to her instead. She's flattered, and feels lonely due to her mother's neglect; this, despite the attentions of a nice young medical student from college who is devoted to her. Unwisely, Jeanne agrees to marry Lamont. Her mother is initially shocked and hurt, naturally enough, but comes to accept the relationship. All too soon, however, Lamont is seeing another woman, Harriet (Marie Prevost), the third woman of the title. Tensions escalate into heated conflict and sudden death.

As even a brief synopsis suggests, we're not in typical Lubitsch territory here, story-wise. The first half of Three Women plays very much like a characteristic Lubitsch comedy-drama, complete with those stylish "touches" we associate with his work, such as the witty sight gags which convey the characters' true feelings, sometimes at odds with their outward show of behavior. A good example of an emblematic directorial technique comes when the young medical student Fred Colman (Pierre Gendron) is indecisive about giving Jeanne the gift of a bracelet. He hesitates, delays, decides to give her the bracelet, then changes his mind—and this is all conveyed with close shots of his hand reaching for his jacket pocket, where we know the bracelet rests. Very cinematic, and very much in the Lubitsch tradition. But the film's final scenes, especially the trial, with its tense build-up to the jury's verdict, feel quite different from this director's usual fare. A moralistic theme is introduced and emphasized, suggesting that Mabel Wilton deserves punishment for being a frivolous, negligent mother. This motif may come as a surprise to anyone expecting more continental-style sophistication along the lines of, say, The Marriage Circle.

In sum, I found Three Women well-made and interesting, if not on par with the best silent era work by this director. I especially admired the strong and sympathetic performance by Pauline Frederick, while Lew Cody is, as usual, a first-rate scoundrel; he really cornered the market in those roles in the '20s. He's such a cad, you have to wonder why an urbane lady of the world such as Mabel Wilton doesn't spot him for what he is more quickly. Maybe she should have gone to the movies more often!

Corporal Kate

Kate & Becky venture into No Man's Land
At the beginning of 1925 director Cecil B. DeMille was at loose ends, having recently been forced out of Paramount, a company he helped create. He chose to become an independent producer, formed his own production company, and proceeded to release feature films through a company called Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC). He personally directed some of these films, while assigning a slate of program pictures to contract directors. Corporal Kate is an example of a programmer DeMille produced but did not direct, a B-picture with solid production values but without top stars. It's moderately entertaining, but not entirely satisfying over all, as both the story and the leading players leave something to be desired.

This is the tale of two women who go to war—so, right off the bat, it's unusual. Kate Jones (played by Vera Reynolds) and Becky Finklestein (Julia Faye) are manicurists when America enters the Great War. They're patriotic and want to do their part, so they sign up to go overseas and entertain the troops with their song and dance routine. Are they any good? Nope, barely passable. While the soldiers may be starved for entertainment—or simply the sight of attractive young women—they're not terribly impressed with Kate and Becky's act.

However, the plucky duo make the best of it. Stationed in a small French village the girls are forced to lodge in a stable, and only after cleaning out a space formerly inhabited by pigs. When a soldier named Clark Jackson (Kenneth Thomson) comes to Kate's rescue in a dangerous situation she initially resists his charms, but he's persistent. They enter into a wartime romance. Becky also loves 'Jake," as she calls him, though he regards her only as a friend and is oblivious to her true feelings. The romantic triangle is complicated further when Evelyn, a lady from Clark's past, arrives on the scene, now working as a Red Cross nurse. Like him, she is well born and wealthy, and her presence points up the social divide between Clark and the two working class girls who have fallen for him.

Kate perceives Evelyn as a rival for Clark's affections, unaware that Evelyn is interested in someone else, a flier she plans to marry. Just as her jealousy towards Evelyn reaches a fever pitch, the war intervenes: the village is shelled by the Germans. Becky is mortally wounded, and, as she lies dying, calls for "Jake." He comes to her side, insists—at Kate's behest—that he loved her all along, and kisses her as she dies. Kate is also gravely wounded. Evelyn survives unharmed, but receives word that her fiancée has been killed. After the battle we find that Kate, who is now recovering in a military hospital, has resumed entertaining the troops as a solo act. She's reunited with Clark just as word comes that the Armistice has been signed.

As this synopsis should make clear, what's striking about the scenario of Corporal Kate are its sharp shifts in tone. It starts as a comedy, then becomes a romantic melodrama, and, in the climactic section, abruptly turns into a grim saga of warfare and tragedy. The combat sequences are well handled, and offer the film's strongest and most memorable scenes. But in the end we're left with an oddity that feels like three very disparate two-reel shorts patched together into an unwieldy feature. I'm not convinced that even DeMille, had he directed, could have smoothly handled the sharp transitions. It doesn't help that the lead players simply aren't charismatic enough to carry the show. In the title role Vera Reynolds is pleasant but little more. (If this had been an A-picture, Clara Bow would have been ideal.) Kenneth Thomson, as her sweetheart, doesn't make much of an impression either. (Imagine Buddy Rogers in the role.) Julia Faye, as Becky, comes off best by default. (Rather like an understudy for Marie Prevost.) We're left with the impression that PDC lacked a strong bench of players, and thus the producers were compelled to use second-stringers. Variety's critic Sime Silverman summed it up succinctly: "Not a big time picture."

PDC itself did not survive the silent era. Despite a handful of hits such as The King of Kings, there were too many flops in the company's ledgers. By the summer of 1928 DeMille had been forced out of his own production company. Corporal Kate, which was one of PDC's flops, survives as an example of this short-lived company's bread-and-butter product. It's mildly entertaining, offbeat and interesting in some respects, but today it largely serves as a prime example of why Cecil B. DeMille's independent production company was, ultimately, a failure.

Now We're in the Air

Two rowdy comics meet Our Miss Brooks
In the late 1920s, at the peak of her Hollywood film career, Louise Brooks was one of many promising starlets being groomed for bigger things. She was under contract to Paramount, and worked with a number of the studio's prominent stars, including W.C. Fields, Richard Arlen, Evelyn Brent, Adolphe Menjou, and William Powell. Meanwhile she worked for a number of the era's top directors, including Malcolm St. Clair, James Cruze, Howard Hawks and William Wellman. Behind the scenes Brooks was considered somewhat temperamental, but no more so than many of her colleagues. Her future looked bright. And yet, just as talkies hit Hollywood, throwing everything into a state of uncertainty, she abruptly departed for Europe where she appeared in two films in Berlin for director G. W. Pabst, and an additional feature in France. When she returned to a very changed Hollywood in 1931 Brooks was unable to restart her career, and never again appeared in a lead role in a quality production. At the age of 25 she was regarded as a has-been.

Starting in the 1950s Brooks began to forge a new career for herself as an essayist, working closely with James Card at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Ironically, the three European films that helped kill her career at its peak earned her an exalted reputation among film buffs in this period. Those films, along with her essays, gave her a lofty new status as an iconic star of the Roaring Twenties, a status that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years earlier.

Frustratingly, many of the films Brooks made during her brief Paramount heyday remain missing. This included—until recently—all four features in which she appeared in 1927, a key year in her career. It's a big deal for fans when "new" footage of Louise Brooks is discovered, and, happily, this occurred last year, when portions of the 1927 comedy feature Now We're in the Air were found in an archive in Prague.

Now We're in the Air was a vehicle for Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton, who had become a popular team with Behind the Front (1926), a hit comedy set during the First World War. Eight years had passed since the Armistice that ended the fighting, and it seemed audiences would now accept military-themed lightweight slapstick. Beery & Hatton had followed up their big success with sequels: first, We're in the Navy Now, and then Now We're in the Air; which brings us to the footage discovered in Prague. This feature originally consisted of six reels, and ran a little over an hour. The material newly found derives from Reels 2, 3, and 5, and runs about twenty-three minutes. The segments are choppy and lack context, but nonetheless give us a fair idea of the feature's tone.

According to a contemporary review of this film I found in Variety, Wally & Ray have signed up for the Air Force accidentally, while trying to get their hands on their Scottish grandfather's inheritance. None of this plot exposition is to be found in the newly recovered footage, however. The first portion that survives consists of a rowdy sequence at an airfield in France, where Wally & Ray struggle with a parachute. They wind up on a target range, and can't seem to understand that they're in danger. The tone of the slapstick reminded me of a later team: Abbott & Costello, struggling to deal with WWII military life in Buck Privates.

Next, Wally & Ray are at a circus, and this is where we meet Louise Brooks. She works as a performer, and has a nice entrance, stepping out of her trailer wearing a fetching black tutu. According to plot synopses of the film Brooks appeared in a dual role, as twins; one of her characters is sympathetic to the French cause while the other favors the Germans, but in the surviving footage we see only the French Louise, at the circus. She interacts sympathetically with Wally & Ray. (We also see actor Malcolm Waite, best remembered as Charlie Chaplin's nemesis in The Gold Rush, once again in an unsympathetic role.) Soon, our heroes find themselves in an observation balloon that goes astray, and they sail through the air across enemy lines while Louise watches from the ground in dismay—and that's the last we see of her, to our own dismay. In the final sequence, Wally & Ray board a plane and try to return to friendly territory. Their scenes in the air, perhaps influenced by the recent success of 'Wings,' were impressively filmed.

Needless to say, the recovered portion of Now We're in the Air gives us only a taste of the complete feature, although it does give us a sense of the film's comic style. The aforementioned review in Variety mentions another "highly indelicate" scene, still missing, in which Wally & Ray hide in a prop cow costume, one of those vaudeville style two-man outfits, and then have to avoid being milked by a near-sighted soldier. The critic calls the sequence "fun that poises perilously balanced between vulgarity and robust amusement." Sounds pretty funny to me, and in keeping with the material that has miraculously turned up. I do wish that more of the Louise Brooks scenes had been recovered, but perhaps it's best to express appreciation for what we have rather than what's still missing. One third of Now We're in the Air is a whole lot better than nothing.

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