I recently completed a book about silent film comedian Lloyd Hamilton. Hamilton had a number of tragedies in his life. At the worst point in his life, he had to simultaneously contend with alcoholism, divorce and bankruptcy. Will Hays, who enforced the Production Code, felt that Hamilton's lifestyle reflected poorly on the Hollywood community and banned the comedian from working in films. Hamilton suffered a painful illness for several years before dying at the age of 43. Still, as bad as all this was, I found the greatest tragedy of his life to be the final one - a studio fire that destroyed his greatest work. Hamilton invested everything he had to make those films funny and, without a doubt, he looked to those films as his greatest source of pride. In writing this book, I could make sense of most of the bad things that had happened to Hamilton, but I could never make sense of the neglect behind the loss of his films.
Filmmaking is essentially about a variety of camera shots being spliced together to tell a story, but film images cannot be arranged or displayed before they are captured and preserved. It is a film's standing as a lasting and duplicatable record, as much as its standing as art or entertainment, that gives it extraordinary power. Other permanent art, like a painting, must travel from museum to museum to be viewed by the general public. Other performance art, like a live play, can only be viewed once and never again. But when a film actor performs for a camera, he can expect his performance to be widely distributed at once and he can expect fans to be able to view his work as many times as they want. This is something fully appreciated today by the average movie fan, who maintains his own personal and often extensive DVD collection.
I personally own hundreds of DVD's, films from all genres and all ages. But my favorite films, the ones I watch the most, are the classic comedies. As a movie fan, nothing thrills me more than to be able to witness a master comedian at the peak of his abilities. I might be laughing at Groucho Marx today or Buster Keaton tomorrow. I love a good comedian and I cannot find enough of this unique sort of genius. It is the reason I seek out comedians I have never heard of before. It is how I came to learn about a forgotten comedian named Lloyd Hamilton.
I sometimes think of the great comedians I missed because the film camera wasn't around in their time. The Commedia dell'Arte was an improvisational comedy troupe popular in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their skits, which typically revolved around a romantic complication or a plot to steal money, mocked human vices such as cowardice, deceit and gluttony. In between plot developments, an actor would enliven a scene by performing a somersault, juggling a wine bottle, or executing a high kick. Aspects of the troupe's theatrical performances were preserved through written accounts, drawings and legacy, but only the people present to witness the troupe were able to fully enjoy their performances. Most of the stylish details and personal flourishes of the performers was lost to subsequent generations. It truly bothers me that I am unable to enjoy the Sixteenth Century W. C. Fields or the Seventeenth Century Abbott & Costello. Perhaps, in all those years, the Commedia dell'Arte had, among its star performers, a comedian even more caustically funny than Fields or even more lovably foolish than Costello.
The advent of motion pictures should have changed that unfortunate situation. We should, in all reason, have a complete record of Hamilton's work in films. But we don't. The problem is that the motion picture was regarded for years as a passing diversion, a form of entertainment that could satisfy an audience for the day but not maintain sufficient commercial value for future exhibition. Silent films, in particular, were seen as worthless when sound films became popular. These films, and all the performances and stories they contained, were allowed to decay, they were discarded to make shelf space, or they were destroyed so that the studio could reclaim the silver content. Poor storage habits caused flammable film stock to burn up in vault fires, which is the way that most of Hamilton's films were lost.
I read the strangest story on this subject in Rod Serling's Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour. Producer Herb Wright was talking about a meeting he had with Universal vice president Taft Schreiber in the early 1970's. Wright had called the meeting to discuss crumbling nitrate stock that he had noticed in a number of warehouses on the lot. "The meeting didn't last long," recalls Wright. "[Schreiber] told me as far as he was concerned, once those films had made their money, they were veritable trash. They'd been using the old nitrates for years at M-G-M and Columbia for fire effects, unreeling old movies and burning them."
It has been estimated that as many as 90 percent of silent films are gone forever. Hamilton's films, taken alone, did not fare any better. That, indeed, was a senseless loss.