Archive for October, 2010

The Comedy Crypt of Lonesome Luke by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on October 31, 2010 by mchoffman

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“Not only was the get-up imitative but it was an offense to the eye originally. I cleaned it up as time went on until it was self-respecting before it died, but I do not like to recall it and I am sorry that it is necessary to exhume it for this autopsy.” —Harold Lloyd

“Harold, you’ve got to be the low comedian. Think up some funny get-up and let’s get busy.” –Hal Roach to Harold Lloyd, 1915

In the annals of screen comedy, only a select few movie characters become immortal. They live on long after the generation that spawned them is gone. Three of the most iconic characters are the subjects of the Park Ridge Public Library’s Legends of Laughter series: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Buster Keaton’s Great Stoneface and Harold Lloyd’s Glass(es) Character.

The Glass Character, an ordinary boy in a straw boater and horn-rims, was unique because he was the first comic character like us– not a grotesque from the primitive days of slapstick or an eccentric we could never hope to be. Lloyd’s defining screen persona was also, in large part, a reflection of himself– the all-American go-getter whose enthusiasm and optimism carries him above life’s hardships. His character’s climb up a building in Safety Last! paralleled Lloyd’s own climb to success in the 1920s.

Since Legends showcases the heights of these three comics, I thought it would be of interest here to start in the valley of Lloyd’s career. Theatregoers in 1917 saw, on a weekly basis, the slow transformation of a mere copy to an emerging original. This evolution would ultimately place Harold Lloyd on a plateau of his own.

Unlike Chaplin or Keaton, Lloyd’s famous character did not come to him immediately. Before entering films, Lloyd had always seen himself as a dramatic actor on the “legitimate” stage. It was with filmmaker/producer Hal Roach that Harold Lloyd stepped into the world of comedy and wore the hat of a lead comic. His first incarnation was a character whom he called “Willie Work”– essentially an imitation of Chaplin’s Tramp. Lloyd’s second character was yet another Chaplin-inspired creation: “Lonesome Luke.” 

Little of what was in the Lonesome Luke series was memorable, and there were few hints of the ingenuity to come with the Glass Character. Photos do exist from these films which can be found in Jeffrey Vance & Suzanne Lloyd’s superb Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian. I noted an amusing still from Luke’s Movie Muddle (1916) only because the image of Lloyd entangled in film recalls the one of Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. (1924). The Lonesome Luke series did, however, benefit from a supporting cast that included the Australian comic with the upside-down Kaiser Wilhelm mustache, Harry “Snub” Pollard, as well as leading lady Bebe Daniels, who really didn’t have too much to do in these early short films.

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When you enter the mausoleum of failed comedy– the cause of death either artistic or commercial– you will find crypts that contain cinema’s unnecessary resurrections, abortions, and dead-on-arrival messes like the “New” Laurel & Hardy, for instance. (Thankfully, they departed after just one film.) There are many from the earliest days of the movies, now emulsified, ravaged by time, destroyed by nitrate, or just plain forgotten. The remains of Lonesome Luke rest somewhere here, a footnote of a character whose visual history has not yet completely vanished despite a couple scares in the crematorium. A faint trace of cellu-Lloyd Lonesome survives.

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This subject’s case history can be found in author Annette D’Agostino Lloyd’s highly informative and inspired book Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses.

Lonesome Luke was born in 1915 with the film Spit-Ball Sadie. (Many of the early scenarios had been written by sports cartoonist Tad Dorgan.) Lloyd starred in a total of 67 of these comedies. Of which, 53 were one-reelers (about 10 minutes each) and 14 were two-reelers. Fourteen are known to survive today. He was, to use Lloyd’s own word, a “strange” character. From the little I’ve seen of him in Lloyd documentaries, Luke was a somewhat aggressive comic without any of Chaplin’s subtlety. This style was in keeping with the broad, knockabout humor that was prevalent at the time.  With his unusual make-up, his lineage was clearly part of the grotesque tradition that dominated early slapstick.

It was Harold Lloyd’s father who helped find the articles of clothing that defined the character. As Harold tells it, “In a haberdashery dad found a black-and-white vertical-striped shirt and bought out the stock. The coat of a woman’s tailored suit, a pair of very tight and short trousers, a vest too short, a cut-down collar, a cut-down hat and two dots of a mustache completed the original version of Lonesome Luke. The cunning behind all this, you will observe, was to reverse the Chaplin outfit. All his clothes were too large, mine all too small. My shoes were funny, but different; my mustache funny, but different.”

The films themselves were predominantly chase films a la Mack Sennett. They were shot by Hal Roach and improvised on location. Roach explained, “The entire city of Los Angeles was my property room. We would go to Westlake Park or some other location with Harold, a pretty girl, and maybe a policeman and I would start with one idea and we would work with that as a starting point. The actors would make suggestions, but we had nothing written down on paper.”

Where it all began in 1915: Hal Roach’s Rolin Film Company in the Bradbury Mansion in Los Angeles.

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In Harold’s defense, he never tried to mimic Chaplin while he was making these films. He attempted to make his Luke character as different as possible in terms of costume, and he consciously tried not to copy any of Chaplin’s mannerisms. Despite this, Lloyd was never happy with the character and would have preferred not to have continued with him for as long as he did. The Lonesome Lukes were, surprisingly, commercially successful. What drew the public to him is anyone’s guess, but despite the popularity, audiences recognized he was just a Tramp knockoff. The perception of the character was unavoidable. It was a character that had no real future as long as Charlie Chaplin was in the business. Unless he broke the mold, Lloyd would always be “that fellow who tries to do like Chaplin.”

This is what exhibitors wanted at the time: Chaplin imitations. Lloyd’s distributor, Pathe, was paying them to make a product that was very much in-demand. It was the comedy standards of the time that forced Lloyd to carry on with the low comedy antics. But it is to Harold’s credit that, finally, he was able to force the issue of creativity and give life to a new character different from Luke– and anything else on the screen.

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“… I had the feeling, and rightly so, that I would never get any farther with Lonesome Luke than I had. Because, underneath it all, he was a comedy character that couldn’t possibly rise to the heights that Chaplin had, and in some ways, while you didn’t directly try to imitate Chaplin, he was a character that dropped into that category.”

By the end of 1917, the public had seen the last of Lloyd as Lonesome Luke. Despite a popularity that may or may not have continued,  Luke’s time of death came on December 2 with the release of  We Never Sleep. (There would be a feeble attempt to revive the character in 1921 with Harold’s older brother, Gaylord, in the role!) Afterward, Lloyd worked to fine-tune a new character that debuted in 1917. It was one that would truly be his own– one that reflected his own personality. The character of “The Boy” with glasses would find immortality on the screen and endearment in the hearts of movie audiences.

The Rogues’ Gallery of Slapstick by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on October 20, 2010 by mchoffman

A friend asked me if I would be working some of the other great silent comics into Legends of Laughter— Laurel & Hardy, for instance… Some Snub Pollard… Maybe a little Charley Chase? Chase was an ordinary-looking craftsman of domestic comedy who thrived almost exclusively in two-reelers.

Check out the sight gag with the policeman!

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I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that one of the above names might make a “cameo” in the Park Ridge Public Library’s Legends series, but the program will be almost exclusively concerned with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin. There were many fine solo comedians in the silent era, but only three were artists.

Laurel and Hardy, those patron saints of comedy, are in that genius category as well, but we shall keep them separate as a comedy team. They are certainly my favorite duo of all time, but I want to concentrate on the three master comedians. As much as I would love to play a Laurel & Hardy two-reeler, it would be out of place if for no other reason than because their style was removed from the earlier comics. They changed the rhythm of silent comedy by creating laughter from their pauses. Secondly, it would necessitate removing  a Keaton or Lloyd or Chaplin short.  I don’t want to do that. There are just so many great shorts of The Big Three to choose from — films that really need to be seen– and there’s so much material to work in.

Regarding the other comics, as much as I’d like seeing ol’ Snub tooling around in his “Magnet Car”– or making (Turpin) time for the cross-eyed comic–  I don’t want to drift off course with a complete history of slapstick. Besides, there are reasons why these lesser comics (or lesser-known) are on a second tier. Whether it’s questionable comic timing, which was sometimes the case with Snub Pollard, or simply a limited availability of their films, as with the thoroughly unique but nearly invisible Raymond Griffith, there are very definite reasons why I’m not trying to sell them. Ben Turpin got a lot of work, but he always struck me as a one-joke comic. He’s cross-eyed. We get it.

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If I still operated the LaSalle Bank theatre (now called Bank of America Cinema), I could’ve done a whole series on silent cinema. Unlike the 2011 library series, there’s more opportunity for discovery in a theatre. You have more time to work in various films. You can take greater chances. The venue itself attracts the die-hards. At a revival theatre it’s easier to get away with showing films that might not attract an audience anywhere else. Had I done a theatrical “Silent Laughter” series, I could’ve shown the other solo comics like Buster Keaton’s mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Though his comic invention may have been lacking, Arbuckle was a fresh archetype to movie audiences– the beloved fat man. That alone may explain his popularity.

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Those days so long ago: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle with Buster Keaton.
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And Harry Langdon, whom some consider the fourth genius. He may very well have become that if his arrogance to be like Chaplin hadn’t made him lose sight of what had made him famous in the first place. He made a couple good films with Frank Capra guiding him, but after that? “Langdon rose rapidly to stardom,” narrator Dwight Weist tells us in Robert Youngson’s When Comedy Was King (1960). “Then, at the height of his career he turned, in films directed by himself, to a new, strange, offbeat kind of comedy full of pathos and even despair. It was like a trumpeteer reaching for a celestial high note somewhere beyond human range. Audiences stopped laughing. And the little fellow slid into oblivion.”

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At the revival theatre there was a strong core audience of neighborhood seniors, but as a programmer, I never catered to their desire for nostalgia. I didn’t show Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musicals just to make the older folk happy. I played Busby Berkeley extravaganzas and Ernst Lubitsch operettas because, besides being nostalgic, they have a value. As a result, I was able to get more film students involved during my time there.

Fastforward six years to the present and I’m preaching cineliteracy, a knowledge and appreciation of film art. But you want to have some fun while doing it though. This is a comedy series afterall. I’ve never been highbrow when it comes to film study because as a programmer, I was just as likely to show B-films that I admired or certain movie serials. I only go on the offensive when I see what attracts the general public. People who are reading this blog might be shocked by the number of library patrons who won’t check out a black and white movie because their hands are so filled with teenage sex comedies and Roland Emmerich epics. If there was ever anything that should be lost, it’s this dreck.

Slapstick comedy is certainly a lost art with the visual sight gag of yesteryear  now replaced with crude, lowbrow humor. A typical Oscar night telecast might package the history of comedy into a three minute montage in which you’ll see clips from films like When Harry Met Sally and There’s Something About Mary. Modern memories are dominated by the likes of Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, Steve Martin…. Maybe the Academy will throw in a couple clips of Chaplin for the sake of history, but that’s about it. (The distant, pre-Some Like It Hot period becomes a little hazier for the Academy with each passing year.) But just because something is modern and up-to-date with contemporary tastes, it doesn’t mean it’s better or funnier than what had preceded it. You have to dig under a mountain of garbage to find the real treasures of the past.

My mission in Park Ridge is to bring those treasures to the surface and get younger people active and interested in our cinema heritage– to show that these films are vibrant and well-crafted and not decrepit relics from a high contrast past. But to hook a suburban library audience, you need to thread up the projectors with the absolute best. When you show that a Jazz Age throwback like Harold Lloyd can be hip and funny in this modern age, then on their way out the door patrons can seek out the lesser-known Charley Chases and Snub Pollards and all the other greats of the past who helped define an important chapter in American comedy.

The following clip is originally from the Snub Pollard film It’s A Gift (1923). The narrator that you hear is Dwight Weist from the excellent compilation film When Comedy Was King.

I don’t take it for granted that younger audiences already know who Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were. In fact, many don’t. People know The Tramp image and they may have seen Buster Keaton’s famous stoic deadpan, and perhaps some have even seen the iconic image of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock twelve stories above  a city street. But a small percentage in our society have viewed the films. There are so many great films– a tremendous body of work from which to put a program together. I could do a whole series on Harold Lloyd alone. However, Chaplin and Keaton give Legends a balance and a diversity that maintains a thematic unity.

These three are the most accessible to the public, so as part of a library series I had to play titles that are available on dvd so patrons can check them out afterward. Such would not have been the case with Harry Langdon, whose films are not easily available. Even the Laurel and Hardy catalogue is surprisingly limited. Many of their great silent and sound two-reelers are not available on dvd in this country!

But for those wishing to learn more about these characters and other comedy pioneers,  I recommend reading the finest book on the silent era:

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Also, a great dvd collection you should own is the Slapstick Encyclopedia, a 5-disc set released by Image Entertainment (from the Blackhawk Films collection). This includes many short films made by Mack Sennett. Whether you will laugh or not at these films is a question best answered at home rather than in a library film series. Though they have a historical importance, there is a crudeness and tediousness in their design, especially with the Keystone stuff. These were the early signs of life in the womb of movie comedy, so they can have about as much entertainment value as watching images from an ultrasound. I think their popularity at the time had more to do with the newness of the medium rather than any innovation. Nevertheless, there are some shorts that possess an out-there quality with their lunatic construction and pace. Their best moments can be delightful.
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The following is Part 1 of a BBC documentary (available on Youtube) called “Laurel & Hardy: Living Famously.”


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NOTE: Though Laurel & Hardy will not be featured in my spring program, they will have the honor of closing out the film series at my old theatre. After nearly forty years of movies on Saturday night, the Bank of America Cinema (4901 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago) will be closing its doors on December 18, 2011, after a 35mm screening of Laurel & Hardy’s Babes in Toyland.

DVD Recommendation by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on October 13, 2010 by mchoffman

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Anytime you recommend dvds of The Big Three you have to start with the essentials; namely, Kino’s definitive (albeit pricey) The Art of Buster Keaton, the out-of-print (and even more expensive) Chaplin Collection, and the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection– the latter being a great buy for what you get.

In preparing for the Park Ridge Public Library’s 2011 Legends series, I’ve been stocking up on my own Buster Keaton collection. I recently picked up off Amazon a wonderful dvd for the hard-core Keaton enthusiast. It’s called Industrial Strength Keaton. This two-disc set contains several rarities including commercials from the 1950s and 1960s as well as non-theatrical industrial films. There’s also a nice mini-documentary by Jack Dragga on Keaton’s famous Italian Villa (featured in the film Parlor, Bedroom and Bath, also available on Disc 1). An informative booklet is included which contains several essays about what you find on each disc. The complete contents of the collection are worth listing:

Disc 1: Archival & Promotional Films

“The Playhouse” (1921) with commentary; “Character Studies” (Mid-1920s) with commentary; Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) with commentary; “1 Parlor, 5 Bedrooms and 6 Baths” (2005) documentary; “Seeing Stars” (Circa 1922); “The Voice of Hollywood #10 (1929); “Hollywood on Parade #A-6 (1932); An Old Spanish Custom (1935) with commentary.

Disc 2: Live Television & Commercials

Can of Molasses Sketch: “The Butcher Boy” (1917), “The Ed Wynn Show” (1949), “The Ken Murray Show” (1952), “You Asked For It” (1957)

“The Martha Raye Show” (1956): “The Concert”  

“Circus Time” (1956)

Commercials: Alka Seltzer, Country Club Malt Liquor, Northwest Orient Airlines, Simon Pure Beer, Shamrock Oil, Lessons in Living, Milky Way, Ford Econoline, Pure Oil.

Industrial Films: “The Devil to Pay” (1960), “The Home Owner” (1961), “The Triumph of Lester Snapwell” (1963)