Last weekend, I pulled out a random selection of silent comedies from my DVD collection. The quality of these comedies was decidedly mixed. There was good, there was bad, and there was just plain mediocre.
Lupino Lane starred in the two funniest comedies, Be My King and Maid in Morocco. Lane's breezy character wasn't a character with much depth or substance, but it doesn't make his comedies any less funny. Lane, a naturally likeable performer with unlimited energy and great agility, was one of the most engaging comedy stars of silent films. His outlandish, fast-paced comedies often resemble a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
In Be My King, Lupino Lane is a cabin boy shipwrecked on an island inhabited by cannibals. A native warrior tries to chase Lane into a dome-shaped hut, but Lane keeps rotating the hut so the entrance keeps moving out the warrior's way and the warrior keeps banging into the wall.
The funniest business in Be My King happens when Lane first arrives on the island. A leopard emerges out of the jungle while Lane's back is turned and then, before the sailor has time to notice, the great feline casually disappears back into the jungle. Lane takes another couple of steps and turns in a different direction. This time, a lion passes unnoticed behind him. No sooner does he miss the passing lion then he turns forward to the camera and an elephant walks heavily but swiftly across the background. This flawlessly staged scene is thoroughly entertaining.
In Maid in Morocco, a harem guard swings a battleaxe at Lane. Rather than jump back to avoid the blade, Lane leaps up on top of the weapon. The guard creates enough momentum as he swings the axe to send Lane flying across the room. Later, Lane runs up the side of an archway with such speed that centrifugal force carries him upside down along the top of the archway and brings him back down on the other side. Momentum. Centrifugal force. Lane is classical mechanics in action.
Maid in Morocco includes a clever scene where Lane, who is trying to get away from the Caliph, comes up with a plan to disguise himself. Lane, in possession of a long, curled staff, disappears down a corridor out of camera view. The staff is extended out from the corridor in time to hook a pudgy old guard and pull him down into the corridor. A moment later, the guard comes running out in a panic with part of his uniform missing. He gets pulled back and reemerges with even more of his uniform gone. He gets pulled back one last time. This time, Lane reemerges in the full uniform.
My least favorite comedy in the group was a 1928 Poodles Hanneford comedy, Help Wanted. Hanneford plays a bum sleeping in the park. He is down to his last quarter, which he plans to spend on a badly needed meal, but he has trouble holding onto the coin. First, the coin drops into a soup urn and then it falls down a sidewalk grating. It's a conventional silent comedy routine, just the type that would be presented on a 1960's television variety show as a homage to silent comedy. I could easily imagine Red Skelton performing the routine as a "Freddie the Freeloader" sketch. Later, Hanneford gets a job as a paperhanger, which is another overused silent comedy situation.
Still, in all fairness, Hanneford was a talented performer capable of original work. He manages, between losing his quarter down the grating and taking the paperhanging job, to use the wonderful trick riding skills he developed in the circus to stop a little boy's runaway horse.
The problem, I suspect, was that Hanneford, whose experience was largely in the circus, wasn't sure what worked in movies and was willing to borrow from the comedians who had been successful in the medium. Hanneford is blatant enough to wear Buster Keaton's trademark pork pie hat while he performs a scene from Keaton's Sherlock Jr. - a well-timed routine where he follows a man step-for-step down the street. Hanneford, at one point, gives a woman one of Harry Langdon's pursed-lipped smiles.
I get the impression that, in the late 1920's, the influences of Keaton and Langdon were prevalent in silent comedy. I look at comedies from this period and I see comedians employing gags, mannerisms and situations that can easily be traced back to Keaton and Langdon. Lane, in fact, performs gags from Keaton's Paleface in Be My King.