Friday, October 3, 2014

The Surreal and the Satirical: Early European Comedy Cinema

Today, let us examine a number of early European film comedies.  A fine tutorial on this subject is provided by Richard Abel's The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914, which has served as the main reference source for this article.

Reverse motion effects were used to comic effect in many early films.  An ideal example is the 1903 Pathé Frères comedy A Painter's Misfortune (released originally in France under the title Les Mésaventures d'un artiste).  The film has no real plot.  A painter is busy painting a picture beside a river when, suddenly, a gang of troublemakers sneak up behind him and shove him into the water.  Reverse motion causes the painter to unexpectedly rise out of the water and fall back into the clutches of villains, who merrily repeat their grabbing and jostling.  This action reoccurs a number of times in an effort to elicit increasing laughs.

A surreal gag punctuates a 1910 Gaumont comedy Mind the Wasps! (released originally in France under the title La Guêpe).  Again, the film has a simple plot.  A man sitting at a sidewalk café table is suddenly bothered by a wasp.  While flailing to kill the wasp, he manages to overturn tables, chairs, and a billiard table.  When the wasp takes a swim in a glass of beer, the man figures to be finally rid of the wasp by consuming the beer and swallowing the pest along with the frothy brew.  He smiles as soon as he empties the glass.  But then he is overcome by a sickening feeling.  As a crowd gathers around him, he goes into a contorted cakewalk dance, his stomach bulges and, finally, he regurgitates a fully formed wasps' nest.

Filmmakers of the day found creative ways to justify a chase.  Abel provided the following description of Rembrandt de la rue Lepic (1911):
[A]n artist sells a 'genuine' Rembrandt to a man in a crowded restaurant, a woman accidentally sits on it, the painted image transfers to her white dress, and the man rudely tries to reclaim his purchase.  The woman will have none of this, of course, and a fight breaks out, clearing the restaurant and spilling out into the street.  The ensuing chase, once enlivened by fast motion, destroys one social space after another — including a petit-bourgeois dining room, a garret bedroom, and a bourgeois drawing room (hosting a private concert) — and ends with the women rolled up in the canvas awning of a grocery shop. . . Despite getting his money back at the artist's studio, the obsessed buyer still cuts the 'painting' out of the exhausted woman's backside as his rightful possession.
Abel discussed an unidentified Gaumont film that was most likely produced in 1910.  The plot was certainly peculiar.  Abel wrote, "[The film] probably would have offended American viewers with its wildly inventive parody of Paris newlyweds who fall into a sewer, live in harmony with rats, use the carcass of a dead dog to divert a flood of water, and pop out of a gutter opening, one year later, with no less than four kids!"

In Les Trois Willy (1913), a married couple makes plans to bring their son to meet his grandfather for the first time.  But the grandfather, who is unwavering in his belief that a married couple should have at least three children, will not consent to the visit.  The couple figures to make the grandfather happy by pretending to have three sons.  They tell the grandfather that, to avoid tiring him, they will send the sons to visit him one at a time.  They rely on their clever son, Willy, to pretend to be three separate children: a rude brat, a haughty boy wearing a monocle, and a sweet-natured boy who shows up with a bouquet of flowers.

An absurd modern fable is to be found in Onésime and his donkey (released originally in France under the title Onésime et son âne).  The film is described by Abel as follows:
Onésime [Ernest Bourbon] has promised his only companion, an ass named Aliboron, that he will share any wealth he comes to possess.  One day, in a variation on the féerie fable of the hen that laid the golden egg, the ass literally begins to shit golden coins.  As promised, the comic treats Aliboron royally — after all, as a piece of property, the ass has turned into a rentier's 'dream machine.'  Indeed, the comic himself now turns into a servant in a series of repeated gags — bathing and dressing Aliboron, serving him dinner in a restaurant, putting him to sleep in a proper bed . . . [I]n the end, the coins prove to be fake, and Onésime reverts to his former state, except for the reversed master-servant relationship that the ass has 'earned' and to which he has grown accustomed.  The film's final [shot] has Onésime, still a 'slave' to his property, now pulling Aliboron comfortably seated in a cart.
Suicide comedies were commonplace during this period.  These comedies could get extremely silly in spite of their grave premise.  Let's take, for example, the 1911 Pathé Frères comedy Rigadin's Nose (released originally in France under the title Le Nez de Rigadin).  This film, as others in this genre, reminds us that love brings heartbreak more often than joy.  Rigadin (Charles Prince) is harshly rejected by a woman due to his large, upturned nose.  He tries to fool the woman by wearing a fake nose, but a dog snatches the prosthetic proboscis off his face.  Dejected, Rigadin attempts to hang himself, but the noose gets caught on his nose. 

More involved is the 1912 Gaumont comedy Onésime et le chien bienfaisant (the translation of which is Onésime and the benevolent dog).  Onésime (Bourbon) has fallen in love with a pretty young woman, but the woman has been promised by her father to another man.  Onésime, according to Abel, "plunges. . . into a funk."  He sees no other option other than to kill himself.  Abel wrote, "The father's big black poodle is dismayed at the choice, however, and determines to rectify this situation.  First, the poodle saves Onésime from asphyxiating himself — it jumps in one of his windows and carries off several smoking logs."  Later, the poodle fetches a woman's undergarment and delivers it to the rival's bedroom to make it look to the father as if the man is having an illicit affair.

Man's enduring hostility towards mothers-in-law is at the basis of the 1912 comedy Alone at Last (released originally in France as Finalmente soli!).  Ernesto Vaser is fed up with an interfering mother-in-law who has joined him and his bride on their honeymoon and has insisted on sleeping between the couple in the marital bed.  Vaser finally disposes of the woman by setting her aloft in a large helium balloon.

Another man feels ill will towards his mother-in-law in the 1911 Pathé Frères comedy Jobard a tué sa belle-mère.  Lucien Cazalis dresses up as a ghost to scare his mother-in-law.  When the woman faints, Cazalis fears that he has killed her.  The film must have been a success because Cazalis later reworked the premise for Le crime de Caza (1915, Pathé Frères).  Harold Lloyd used the same premise several years later in Hot Water (1924).  Lloyd soaks his mother-in-law's handkerchief in chloroform to put the irritating woman into a sound sleep for the evening.  However, he panics when it appears that the chloroform has put the woman into a permanent sleep.

Yet another disgruntled son-in-law turns up in the 1910 Pathé Frères comedy The Crocodile (released originally in France under the title Le Caïman).  The film opens with a husband visiting a shipping office to claim a crocodile that has arrived from Egypt.  The man has concocted a scheme to have the crocodile devour his mother-in-law, ridding him of this bane of his existence.  Abel wrote, "[F]reed from its crate, the animal cordially seals their agreement with a handshake."  Back at the apartment, the husband sends the crocodile into the mother-in-law's bedroom, where it slips under her bedcovers.  The woman's flailing feet suggest that she is being eaten alive.  But the husband feels guilty when his wife expresses concern about her mother's whereabouts.  He fires a revolver at the crocodile, after which he slices open the animal's stomach and pulls out his mother-in-law alive and intact.

André Deed performs an early version of the "bridal run" routine in Cretinetti troppo bello (1909, Itala).  Unique to this variation of the routine is the surreal and macabre ending.

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Various emotional states are explored in a 1911 comedy called Foolshead's Christmas (released originally in Italy as Il Natale di Cretinetti).  Deed bumps into a postman while rushing home with Christmas packages.  He drops the packages and accidentally picks up a packet containing three bottles of ether.  At home, Deed accidentally breaks the bottles one by one.  The gaseous mixtures have the strange effect of changing the mood of the home's occupants from fearful to happy to angry.

Cretinetti in the cinema (1911)
In Le Negre blanc (1910), Charles Prince plays a black man who has fallen in love with a white woman.  Knowing that neither the woman nor her father will accept him due to his skin color, he seeks out a coloring expert to lighten his skin.  The coloring expert gives his anxious patient a special concoction to drink.  Prince starts out drinking half the mixture, which turns half his face white, and then he drinks the rest of the mixture to complete the effect.  Upset to learn that the young woman has consented to marry another man, Prince slips the skin-coloring concoction into the woman's champagne glass and proposes that they toast to her engagement.  The woman no sooner drinks the champagne then she becomes black.  At this point, she is promptly rejected by her fiancé, who storms out of the home in disgust.  The woman is also rejected by her own father and even Prince, who finds himself so loath to associate with a dark-skinned lady that he haughtily turns on his heels and departs the premises.    

Anxiety about interracial romance reached a bizarre peak in the 1911 comedy An Odd Adventure of Foolshead (released originally in France under the title Una strana avventura di Cretinetti).  A large black woman (a white man in drag and blackface) takes a romantic interest in Deed.  She chases her reluctant lover through the city with a bow and arrow.  After much destruction occurs in her desperate pursuit, she finally manages to take Deed captive.  An intertitle indicates that three years have passed.  Deed and the woman are now surrounded by several children who are half white on one side and half black on the other.       

Max pédicure (1914) features Max Linder as a bourgeois dandy interested in having an affair with a married woman (Lucy d'Orbel).  When he calls on the woman, he is startled by the sudden arrival of the woman's husband.  Abel wrote, "Max goes into a panic, racing around the room like a caged animal . . ."  Max assumes the guise of a pedicurist who has arrived at the home for a scheduled appointment.  When the husband enters, Max is busy working a tiny file on the woman's toenails.  The situation takes a turn for the worse when the husband requests that Max give him a pedicure.  Max dons gloves so that he doesn't have to make direct contact with the man's feet, but this does not make his job any less disagreeable.  He becomes nauseous as he cautiously works at getting off the man's dirty socks.  The comedian uses his extraordinary expressiveness as an actor to make the most of this scene.


Linder was successful at elaborating on other filmmakers' ideas.  Audiences of the day were amused by the simple plot of the 1907 Pathé Frères comedy Spot on the Phone (released originally in France under the title Médor au téléphone).  Abel described the plot as follows: "[A] man goes to have a drink at a sidewalk café, realizes he has left his dog at home, and calls the dog on the telephone to tell it where to find him."  The dog is shown perched atop a high stool so that it can bark into the phone.  Linder expanded on this premise in a 1912 comedy Max and Dog Dick (released originally in France under the title Max et son chien Dick).  This time, the dog phones its master to alert him that his wife has brought a lover into their home.


 A popular music hall comedian, Félix Galipaux, was well-known for a routine in which he pretended to be an adolescent who smokes his first cigar.  This pantomime routine was ideal for silent films.  Galipaux performed the routine on camera for a 1903 comedy, Cadet's First Smoke (released originally in France under the title Premier Cigare du collégien).  The film was described in the Edison Catalog as follows: "[A cadet] starts to smoke his first cigar.  He begins with a smile of contentment and many ludicrous facial expressions, but after proceeding a short time with his smoke his nerves begin to forsake him.  A pained expression passes over his face and he begins to perspire. Then he becomes deathly ill.  The facial contortions that follow keep the audience in continued laughter."  Linder recreated the routine in Le Premier Cigare d'un collégien (1908).  Abel wrote, "[Linder is] puffing on the cigar and smiling and then looking at it strangely; puffing again, frowning, and looking a bit ill; puffing a third time, belching, and, with his eyes suddenly bulging, holding a handkerchief to his mouth."  See the film for yourself.

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William Sanders performed the routine in a 1911 Éclair comedy, Willie's First Cigar (originally released in France under the title Le premier cigare de Willy).  Lloyd Hamilton performed the routine in No Luck (1923).  In this instance, the film speed slows to suggest the dulling effect that the cigar has on Hamilton's mental facilities.  This was an ideal routine for Hamilton, who chiefly derived humor from his distinct reactions.  A simple scene that allowed the comedian to get laughs with nothing more than facial expressions generally drew praise from critics.  Take, for example, a scene from The Educator (1922).  Hamilton contorts his face and rolls his eyes as he struggles to brush aside a persistent fly that has landed on his nose.  In Exhibitors Trade Review, a critic devoted the entire first paragraph of his review to an extensive discussion of this scene. 

Every action builds to a silly payoff gag in the 1910 Gaumont comedy Jiggers Buys a Watch Dog (released originally in France under the title Calino achête un chien de garde).  Gaumont's resident boob, Calino (Clément Mégé), discovers his home has been ransacked by robbers.  This motivates him to purchase a ferocious watchdog.  The household — husband, wife, butler, maid, and gardener — prepare for the dog's arrival by constructing an immense doghouse and nailing up a "Danger" sign.  Abel wrote, "At the kennel, Calino chooses the largest, nastiest beast available — it takes two men to wrestle it into a crate on a cart — but fails to tip one of the dog handlers. . ."  The disgruntled dog handler vows to take revenge.  The crate is later delivered to Calino's home.  His family is fearfully trembling in anticipation of meeting the beastly dog.  The group is, however, prepared for the worse.  They are, according to Abel, "dressed in odd bits of armor [and] clasping guns."  Calino opens the crate and tugs on a large chain.  Finally emerging from the crate is a tiny, harmless dog.

Deed's influence was evident in the mass destruction that often occurred in the "Calino" series.  In Calino a peur du feu (1910), a haggard old fortuneteller warns Calino that, unless he is careful, he is going to perish by fire.  Frightened, Calino immediately tosses his cigarette into the gutter and stamps his foot down on it.  Then, he straps a huge fire extinguisher on his back and strolls through the city spraying water at people smoking cigarettes and automobiles belching exhaust fumes.  The film climaxes with Calino climbing a townhouse roof to extinguish a series of smoking chimneys.  Abel wrote, "An extended sequence follows, alternating between the rooftop, the townhouse dining room (where water pours out of a fireplace to soak a bourgeois couple), the adjacent kitchen (where water erupts out of the stove and splashes the maid), and finally the street below (where two smoking policemen are hit by a cascade of water)."  After Calino is finally arrested, the film still has one last gag to offer.  Abel wrote, "[A]s the police chief lights a cigarette, Calino goes into a quaking fit and then sprays him, too, with his seemingly inexhaustible extinguisher."  The film was remade in 1913 as Fricot and the fire extinguisher (released originally in Italy under the title Fricot e l'estintore).

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This is a poster for Calino sourcier (1913).


Abel summarized the film's plot as follows: "Calino is equipped with a divining rod that makes water spring out of the most unlikely places.  When he is arrested and taken off to the police station, the rod promptly causes jets of water to erupt out of a wall painting, a desk inkwell, and even one cop's ear.  In a clever twist at the end, Calino himself magically dissolves away in a jail cell, leaving water spraying from every direction." 

These films were wonderfully surreal and satirical.  The comedians who later achieved success in silent films were in one way or another influenced by the early work of these European comedians, including Max Linder, André Deed, Clément Mégé, Ernest Bourbon, Marcel Perez, and Charles Prince.


Lloyd Hamilton Scrapbook

 
I was pleased to have recently acquired additional plot details for Lloyd Hamilton's No Luck (1923) from newly digitized issues of The Film Daily and Exhibitors Herald.  A critic wrote in The Film Daily, "The ladylike comedian is first seen trying his luck as a fisherman.  The fish bite everything imaginable but the bait, finally jumping inside his shirt and biting him."  The fish gag was nothing new for Hamilton.  A variety of animals found their way inside Hamilton's shirt or pants at one time or another. 


Describing Hamilton as a "ladylike comedian" was not unusual either.  Hamilton's comic character was boyish and fussy.  He had a distinctly swishy walk.  This was enough for critics to refer to the comedian as "prissy," "sissyish," or even "ladylike."  The second half of No Luck takes place at a society ball.  During the scene, Hamilton finds himself unable to pull off a sticky pair of rubber gloves.  Later in the scene, Hamilton performs the fast-paced ragtime dance known as balling the jack. 

Here are images that I obtained from these digitized magazines.

Hamilton had a reputation for dressing stylishly.

Lloyd's Hamilton's Mom



Lloyd Hamilton had a close relationship with his mother, Mary.  This is something that came out clearly during the research that I conducted for Hamilton's biography.  Take, for instance, the following quote that appeared in a Motion Picture News article from June 24, 1927: "Hamilton admits one hobby - that of journeying to Oakland to see his mother after the completion of each comedy."  However, despite everything that I read about Mary Hamilton, I was never able to find a photo of her.  I long imagined that she resembled the white-haired little old ladies that attended to Hamilton's boyish comic persona in films.  I have now found a photo of Mrs. Hamilton.  Yes, as I suspected, she was a white-haired little old lady.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Can Such Things Be?: Marcel Perez's Wild and Surreal Antics Draw Criticism

Marcel Perez
Carl H. Claudy, a writer with The Moving Picture World, expressed open disgust of foreign comedies in a 1911 article, "Foibles of the Photoplay."  Claudy said that the films of André Deed showed no "standard or class."  He described the work of Marcel Perez as "slush."  He was particularly upset by a recent Perez comedy called Tweedledum's April Fool Joke (originally released in Italy as Pesce d'aprile di Robinet).  He accused the film of being "horse play of the childish order."  In the film, Perez plays a do-nothing son.  His father becomes so resentful of the young man that he cuts off his funds and kicks him out of the house.  Out of spite, the son places an ad in the local newspaper to notify the public that his father will provide food and shelter to vagrants.  This, of course, causes vagrants to swarm to his parents' home.  "So," wrote Claudy, "[paupers] ransack the house, tear it to pieces, [and] get gloriously drunk."  In the final moments of the film, Perez strolls into the home with a sign that reads "April Fool."  He is joined by his parents and the vagrants in a hearty laugh.  The film ends.

It undoubtedly rankled Claudy that the main character of the film was a "very devil of a fellow," but the critic expressed even greater dissatisfaction over the unbelievability of the plot.  Claudy, who had worked for newspapers, couldn't imagine an editor printing an ad that summoned the community's poor to a soiree at a private residence.  He also had to shake his head in disbelief to see the parents laughing hilariously after their home has been destroyed.

Marcel Perez in Tweedledum and Friscot Wager for a Wife (1913, Ambrosio)
Claudy asserted that, compared to foreign film producers, American film producers possessed humor and wit on "a far higher plane."  He offered as proof a recent Edison comedy called Department Store (1911), which featured a sympathetic character and a realistic situation.  He said that the audience "laughed, applauded and understood."  He maintained that the worst American comedies (specifically, Essanay's "Hank and Lank" series) were a "few degrees" better than the best foreign comedies.

Hank and Lank
A fair-minded person could not possibly consider Hank and Lank less devilish than Perez's waggish son.  Hank and Lank, as played by Victor Potel and Augustus Carney, are lazy tramps forever on the lookout for a scheme to cheat people out of money.  This is a still from They Dude Up Some (1910), in which the tramps pretend to fall down an open manhole so that they can collect payment for their scrapes and bruises.


In Blind Men (1910), the tramps pretend to be blind as a way to solicit public charity.  The series producer, G. M. Anderson, assured exhibitors from the start that the series would be wholesome fare.  He said, "[G]reat care will be exercised to keep the exaction of the story away from the slapstick variety of comedy.  Each story of the escapades of Hank and Lank will be legitimate in its way, and the producing of each will aim at giving point to the humor of a situation without resorting to horseplay or vulgarity."  So, maybe, the absence of violence and adultery is all that it takes to make a comedy wholesome.


Other American critics shared Claudy's view, reacting more kindly to the gentle, relatable work of Vitagraph's John Bunny than the wild and far out comedy that was imported from Europe.  It is hard to imagine that someone could be offended by one of Max Linder's boulevard farces.  But let's look at the opening scene from the 1910 comedy Max is Absent Minded (released in France as Max est distrait).  The scene introduces Max at breakfast.  Because he is preoccupied reading a newspaper, he pours coffee into his top hat.  It is a simple gag.  It is a gag that likely made viewers laugh.  But a Chicago-based critic for The Nickelodeon wrote, "Max is a bit disgusting in this film, where he pours coffee into his silk hat and then drinks it."  Presumably, it was the fact that Max drank the milk that pushed the critic over the edge.


A 1910 Gaumont comedy, A Dummy in Disguise, also offended a critic of The Nickelodeon.  The critic complained, "[T]he piece drops to the level of helter-skelter farce, with everybody hitting somebody else; and the final picture is one of those inexcusable bits of vulgarity, where an enlarged head is thrown upon the scene, the actor twitching and mouthing, and screwing up his face in an effort to be comical.  Why do the French, who are the very soul of wit, allow such disgusting horse-play?"

This could have largely been a case of national loyalty.  It would make sense in this context for a critic to favor homegrown product and hold resentment for foreign product that had dominated the market for years.  American film companies sporadically produced comedies during the early years of film production.  Essanay finally established a permanent comedy unit in 1907.  Other companies eventually followed their example - Biograph and Vitagraph in 1909, Edison in 1910, and Kalem in 1912.  Before 1909, the demand for comedy in the marketplace was mostly satisfied by European companies, including Gaumont, Williamson Kinematograph, Pathé Frères, George Albert Smith Films, Lumière, Robert W. Paul, Hepworth, Warwick, Lux, Itala, Aquila and Ambrosio.

Marcel Perez in Tweedledum on His First Bicycle (1910)
Claudy cannot be faulted for preferring likeable protagonists.  I, myself, get little pleasure from the comedy anti-heroes that populate films and television series today.  It can make a film more satisfying when a character responds to a dilemma with genuine emotion rather than mass destruction.  I also complain often about the overuse of CGI, which is often more important today than characters and story.  But silent film comedy was artful in its wild, fantastic and often destructive action.  American film comedy would have never risen to its great heights if it had never broken free of John Bunny's drawing room.

Helen Costello and John Bunny in Mr. Bolter's Niece (1913)
Another critic with The Moving Picture World half-heartedly defended Deed's films, which were known in America as the "Foolshead" comedies.  He wrote, "It may be that all sorts of faults can be pointed out in these 'Foolshead' films.  Their improbability and impossibility being the most important, but the average audience seems to accept them as they come.  The films are enjoyed and apparently the more absurd the performances the more the audience likes the pictures.  It would be difficult to say anything else.  It is scarcely right to commend these films, as they violate even common sense.  The fact remains, nevertheless, that they are popular and that the average audience will applaud them and ask for more."  In Foolshead Swallows a Crab (1909), Deed finds after he has eaten a crab that he is behaving much like a crab.  At one point, he walks backwards.  Is that believable?  Does it cause me to feel empathy?  No, but I can say that it makes me laugh.

André  Deed is tossed out of a hotel room in A Lodging for the Night (1913).

Department Store, which involved department store workers who come together to help a co-worker who has been robbed, may have been a touching film, but the same story could have easily been enacted on a theatre stage.  Deed and Perez provided impossible dreamlike visions that you could never see in a live theatre show.

Little did Claudy know that American comedy was soon to be coarsened by the Keystone studio, which would create a sensation the following year.  He would one day get to enjoy the tender and sympathetic comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, but he would first have to endure years of low comedy from Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain.

Carl H. Claudy
Claudy later achieved success as a science fiction writer, often depicting wholesome American astronauts battling ugly space aliens.  If he expected his readers to suspend their disbelief about invisible beings from Venus prowling the Earth, then he could suspend disbelief about Perez's surreal antics.


The back cover for Claudy's The Mystery Men of Mars features, in bold letters, a forthright expression of disbelief - "Can Such Things Be?"  The European comedies of this early period were wonderfully creative and absurd.  Such things could exist through a writer's imagination, an actor's expressions, and a technical crew's ingenuity.  Welcome to the cinema of the fantastic.

You can read more about Deed, Perez and Linder in my book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film


Reference Sources

Claudy, C. H.  "Foibles of the Photoplay."  The Moving Picture World, Volume 8, Number 20, (May 20, 1911). 

The Moving Picture World (April 15, 1911) 

The Nickelodeon (October 1, 1910).  p. 200-201.

Early Max


My favorite resource for information on silent films is The Moving Picture World.  The other day, I was skimming through early issues of the magazine when I came across reviews and summaries for the pioneering work of a talented newcomer named Max Linder.  Now, I need to point out that Linder's name was not emblazoned in ad leaders or noted in bold typeface in review headlines.  It was standard practice at the time for a film actor to go uncredited for his efforts.  This meant that the magazine's writers never knew Linder by name.  A critic who wished to praise Linder for his performance could only refer to him as "the Pathé comic" or "the Pathé funny man."  By 1910, this would change.  Evidence of the change can be found in an issue of Variety dated June 1, 1910.  A columnist for Variety's London Notes reported, "[S]everal of the London picture places are advertising certain pictures with the names of the players."  As incredible as this may seem now, this was major news at the time.  The writer specifically noted that Linder, "probably the best known of the picture actors," was one of the actors receiving star billing at these theaters.


Of course, it could be wrong to assume that a person today would be astounded to see a movie poster without the stars' names prominently featured.   CGI spectacles have replaced movie star vehicles, which means that actor names are barely visible in many of today's movie posters.  For all of the acclaim that Bryan Cranston has received as an actor, he is not going to get prominent billing next to Godzilla.


Compare this to promotion for an older film, The Patriot (2000).  Although the film depicted epic, real-life battles of the American Revolutionary War, it was the name and likeness of star Mel Gibson that dominated the poster.

Movie star poster with star billing

CGI poster without star billing

In my perusal of Moving Picture World, I became interested in the summaries of three Linder comedies.  The stories were not the sort found in Linder's most celebrated work.  The comedian, who was at his best playing a dapper boulevardier, is miscast as a workman in one film.  In the other two films, the comedy sometimes depends more on camera tricks than on the clever actor himself.  The most appropriate vehicle is Tormented by his Mother-in-law, which finds Linder obsessing over domestic woes.  Understandably, Linder was still refining his style of comedy at the time.     


The action in these films, as described, was nonetheless amusing.  Let us now go through complete summaries of the action.

A Glorious Start (1907)

Max looks forward to a carefree flight in a balloon.  Unfortunately, he fails to pull the grapnel into the basket.  The grapnel, which drags along beneath the balloon, catches onto a police officer's coat, carries the officer into the air, and eventually dumps him into a canal.  It then tears off the roof of a building, panicking the building's occupants.  But this is just the beginning of the havoc.  The grapnel latches onto a newspaper kiosk, then a doghouse, then a baby carriage.  One by one, the items and their respective occupants are dropped to the ground.  The people below are frightened when the kiosk and the doghouse suddenly drop out of the sky and burst into pieces.  Eventually, the balloon becomes deflated and gets caught in a treetop.  An angry mob awaits Max as he climbs out of the tree.  This is the type of mass destruction comedy that would become a specialty of André Deed and Marcel Perez.  Perez in fact reworked the plot of A Glorious Start twice - first in 1910 with Tweedledum's Aeronautical Adventure (released in France as Robinet appassionato pel dirigibile) and then in 1911 with Tweedledum, Aviator (released in France as Robinet aviatore).  A print of A Glorious Start (under its original French title Les débuts d'un aéronaute) is being held in the Lobster Films archive. 


The Hanging Lamp (1908)

This is an early iteration of the clumsy workman comedy.  A homeowner hires Max to install a heavy brass lamp in the ceiling of his living room.  In the apartment above, a gentlemen has trouble putting on his boots because his oversized stomach is preventing him from bending forward in his chair.  He sits on the floor to make the task easier, but it is just at this moment that Max drills a hole into the ceiling.  The drill bores straight into the man's backside, causing the man to let out a terrible cry.  The man tries to scramble to his feet, but he finds it impossible to break free from the drill.  A Moving Picture World critic wrote, "[The drill] gnaws at his vitals like a hungry wolf, and won't let go of his struggling prey."  The homeowner, who has heard his neighbor's cries, rescues the neighbor and tosses Max into the street.  [The film was released in France as La suspension.]


Tormented by his Mother-in-Law (1908)

Max imagines his hated mother-in-law wherever he goes.  At a restaurant, he sees the woman in a bottle of soda.  He becomes so agitated that he accidentally spills the soda on other patrons and gets ejected from the restaurant.  He then sees his mother-in-law in a car mirror and shatters the mirror into pieces.  He is at his wits' end when a woman on a park bench suddenly transforms into his mother-in-law.  In the end, Max has to be committed to an insane asylum.  [The film was released in France as L'obsession de la belle-mère.]



I also came across a few non-Linder curios that were produced during the 1909-1916 period.
   

The Old Lord of Ventnor (1909, Kliene)

A lord orders his wife to be beheaded for dancing with the peasants.  The clever wife uses a dummy's head to fake her execution. 


Cat in the Pot (1909)

This European comedy, distributed in the United States by the Chicago Film Exchange, is somewhat gruesome.  At a farm house, a starving tramp removes a boiling chicken from a soup pot and replaces it with the farmer's pet cat.  The farm hands realize that something is amiss as soon as they taste the bitter soup.  The men finally expose the tramp's deception when they reach inside the pot and pull out the bedraggled corpse of the cat.


Snowball (1909, Itala)

A group of boys hurl a barrage of snowballs at a homely, long-haired violinist.  The snowball fight quickly escalates.  The film ends with the violinist being rolled inside a huge snowball to the front door of his home.


The Ghost (1909, Eclair)

A drunk man gets tangled up in his bed sheets and, while trying to free himself, he falls down a flight of stairs and tumbles out into the street.  It isn't long before the ghostly appearance of the shrouded man is terrifying passersby and causing a widespread panic in the neighborhood.


House Full of Agreeables (1909, Aquila)

A man moves into an apartment which the owner has advertised as quiet, but his neighbors' quarreling and playing of musical instruments create a sufficient din to drive the new tenant from his rooms.


Save Us from Our Friends (1910, Pathé Frères)

A newlywed couple is preparing for their honeymoon night when the groom's best man enlists the aid of other wedding guests to play pranks on the blissful pair.  The guests find it amusing to throw cabbage down the chimney and stick a hose into the window to spray cold water at the couple.




When We Called the Plumber In (1910, Clarendon)

A plumber and his assistant manage through their clumsy efforts to flood a family's home.  The highlight of the film occurs when the plumber cracks the water main under the floor.  He attempts to plug the spurting leak by moving a bed on top of it, but the jet is so powerful that it lifts the bed high into the air.

 
From what I could determine, this film initiated a longstanding trend of comic plumbers demolishing homes.  Similar comedies, including A Fair Exchange (1910, Essanay) and The Plumber (1911, Selig), followed soon after.


For Professional Services
(1912, Edison)

Tom (William Wadsworth) comes up with a gimmick to meet Alice (Cora Williams), a pretty female doctor.  He attaches a dummy's arm to his shoulder so that he can pretend that his arm has been broken and needs to be set.  A similar routine turns up in Jewish Prudence (1927), in which Johnny Fox uses a fake leg to make insurance investigators believe that his leg was paralyzed in a trolley car accident. 


Funnicus Has an Idea (1913, Eclair)

Funnicus and Tortillard watch through a window as a maid inside prepares a hearty meal.  Funnicus figures to frighten away the maid so that they can steal the meal for themselves.  The two men rob a pair of balloons from a toy merchant and draw grotesque faces on them.  Then, they deftly fasten the balloons to their collars and tuck their heads under their coats.  As expected, the maid is alarmed to see these strange balloon-head beings and runs to find the police.  Before the maid can return, the pair make off with the coveted meal.  The film was originally released in France under the title Gavroche forte tête.  The film's star, Paul Bertho, was featured in many comedies for Lux and Éclair from 1911 to 1914.

Funnicus Invests His Savings (1913)

Softy's Little Way (1913, Eclair)

Softy is knocked unconscious when a box falls out of an upper window and hits him in the head.  Softy finds when he regains consciousness that he cannot resist spinning around in circles.  An eminent surgeon opens Softy's injured cranium and extracts a spinning top that entered his skull when the box struck.  The surgery ends successfully, restoring Softy to his normal state. 


Blood Tells (1916, Ideal)

A blood transfusion from a burglar transforms a purity league chairman (George Robey) into a rake.


You can read more about Monsieur Linder and early film comedy in my book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film


Here are a few photos that I found in The Moving Picture World. 

This is a photo of Augustus Carney, who was leading film comedian from 1910 to 1914.
Alkali Ike's Motorcycle (1912)

Madge Evans was a busy child actress in the silent era.

 
In the 1930s, the actress had no problem transitioning into adult roles at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  She co-starred opposite several popular leading men, including Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney and Clark Gable.



This ad for The Stage Child (1911, Thanhouser) is proof that the controversy of child actors goes back more than a hundred years.


Lige Conley's antics got more than their fair share of attention from the press.




This is Chaplin imitator Ray Hughes in In and Out (1918).



I have no idea where this production still came from.