Saturday, August 24, 2013
Illuminations from Lantern
Lantern is a new online search platform that allows researchers access to more than 800,000 pages of digitized film periodicals. My first effort using Lantern turned up a few interesting trade ads and articles. I eagerly noted the various tidbits of information offered by this content. For instance, I learned from Film Daily that Lloyd Hamilton performed a wood-chopping routine at the beginning of the lost film Poor Boy (1922). This is important information for a man who has spent years cataloging Hamilton's comic business.
I also learned that Hamilton had fans in Japan. These days, Japan's moviegoing public has little interest in American comedians. The antics of Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell are simply not something they find funny. In the last five years, the one American film comedy to rank high on Japan's box office charts was Ted, which starred a foul-mouthed CGI teddy bear. How do you say "Fuck me!" in Japanese? The Japanese prefer homegrown comedy. Take a look at the 2008 trailer for Hansamu sûtsu (English translation: The Handsome Suit).
As you can probably tell from the trailer, the film involves a homely oaf who discovers a magical suit that can make its wearer look attractive to the opposite sex. It's The Nutty Professor on sake. The highest grossing comedy in the Asian region is China's Lost in Thailand (2012), which has earned more than $200 million. The film is no groundbreaking masterpiece. Except for the presence of a Buddhist monk and a Muay Thai, the film is pretty much Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
It's not that the storylines of American comedies are unappealing to the Japanese. It is just that, while the Japanese can accept foreign action heroes, they want comic heroes that are more like themselves. The silent film comedians leapt over language and cultural barriers, which brings me back to Mr. Hamilton. According to a news item in Moving Picture World, Hamilton was pleasantly surprised to receive a copy of the prestigious Japanese theatrical journal Genbunsha and find that the periodical contained a three-page article about his film work. Evidently, the Japanese were fascinated with Hamilton-san. Hamilton was not the only Hollywood comedian who attracted an interest from the comedy fans of faraway lands. Larry Semon, who was a big favorite of Italian film fans, was awarded the Medal D'Onore at the Milan Fair.
Here is a news item about the production of Hamilton's Lonesome (1924). The source is a Photoplay issue dated February 12, 1924.
This set of photos casts Larry Semon as Pagliacci.
But Semon was no tragic clown. Writers of the day were obsessed with the idea of the tragic clown, which likely had to do with Chaplin's popular a-smile-and-a-tear methodology. A Photoplay writer defined Harry Langdon as a tragic clown before Langdon first thought to introduce somber elements into his films. He spoke specifically of Langdon's "doleful face and pathetic figure." But I do not see this as an accurate description of the comedian in his pre-Three's a Crowd days.
A Photoplay writer was surprised to find that Semon didn't tote around a script during filming. He noticed instead that Semon occasionally dug his hand into the big pockets of his overalls and pulled out a little black book, which was filled with notes that the comedian had scribbled down at home. Semon explained, "I write it up every night, like a diary, with the next day's work."
The writer was struck by the scene that Semon was shooting that day. It was the sort of scene that that could be found in almost any Semon comedy. He wrote, "A fat man stood on a platform about twenty feet high and dropped a large pail filled with very gooey, smeary, thick soapsuds on the unprotected and innocent head of another fat man below. . . [T]he soapsuds Niagaraed all over the man's head and eyes and mouth and nose and ears and down his open shirt front, and seeped through his collar and trickled down his back. Then they took a big towel and wiped him off and dried his hair and brushed it so that it looked all nice and then - they did it all over again." The writer found it batty for actors to subject themselves to this sort of punishing work. But Semon certainly knew how to get laughs with a fat man and a pail of goo.
Here we have a photo of Billie Ritchie riding an ostrich. The fact that Ritchie was notoriously injured by an ostrich during the making of a film lends perverse novelty value to the photo.
This may be the scene that launched Frank Hayes into playing ugly old maids in various comedies for Fox, Sennett, Roach and Larry Semon.
The film is the Fox Sunshine comedy Wild Women and Tame Lions (1918). Hayes is braiding the long locks of his wig when a lion quietly strolls into the room and creeps up behind him. Hayes, unaware of the lion's presence, proceeds to braid the lion's tail into his wig.
Here is a trope that I never thought about before.
This is a rare image of early Edison comedy team Waddy and Arty.
One last find for today is a publicity still for the French comedy The Terrors of Rigadin (1911).