Monday, October 12, 2015

The Rise of the Comedy Feature, Part 1: The Demi-Clowns of 1915


It is widely believed that Keystone's Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) was the first feature-length comedy film.  This is not exactly true.  More knowledgeable silent film enthusiasts have tried to make a finer and more accurate distinction by calling the film the first feature-length slapstick comedy.  Wikipedia plays it entirely safe by calling this melodrama spoof "the first feature-length film produced by the Keystone film company."

Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler and Edgar Kennedy in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914).
A number of comedy features came before Tillie's Punctured Romance, but the Keystone feature was something that stood apart from the rest.  Unlike the previous comedy features, it pursued laughs with silly costumes, grotesque make-up, and riotous activity.  The cast engaged shamelessly in anything-for-a-laugh antics.  It was, to put it simply, pure comedy.  Prior to Tillie's Punctured Romance, film companies regarded this sort of broad and blatant comedy as inappropriate content for a prestigious feature film.  When producing a comedy feature, filmmakers favored restrained and lighthearted storytelling that focused more on developing characters and generating sentiment than stimulating laughs.  The action was devoid of the illogic, the exaggeration and the implausibility that was typically found in a Keystone comedy.  It did without the constant surprises and various incongruities that placed Keystone's characters and situations outside of everyday reality.  What the film companies chose to produce were light comedy features (emphasis on light) and comedy-drama features (emphasis on drama).  It was a light comedy, Paramount's Brewster's Millions (1914), that to my knowledge was the first feature-length comedy film that was ever produced. 

The next comedy feature prominent on comedy fans' radar is Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms (1918), but many comedy features were produced between Tillie's Punctured Romance and Shoulder Arms.  A surge in comedy features occurred in the months that followed the release of Tillie's Punctured Romance, but not a single studio rushed forward to replicate the rough-and-tumble formula of the Keystone farce.  Sennett, himself, did not attempt another film like this for more than four years. 

The comedy feature films of the period mostly involved romantic couples hopelessly entangled in farcical complications.  Among these films were Mrs. Plum's Pudding, The Tale of the Night Before and Over Night.   Let’s take, for instance, the plot of Over Night.  Two couples are boarding a steamboat to Albany when one of the women realizes that she left a piece of luggage on the dock.  In the ensuing effort to retrieve the woman's luggage, the husband of one couple and the wife of the other couple get separated from their respective mates.  At the close of the scene, they find themselves stranded on the dock as the ship sails away without them.  Their shipbound spouses pose as husband and wife throughout their voyage to avoid a scandal.  Complications build upon complications.  Wikipedia summarizes the last act of the film as follows: "When the boat docks, [the couple learns] that the last train left.  Forced to spend the night in the hotel, they continue in their fiction.  The next morning, arriving at Albany, they are shocked to see the other couple posing as newlyweds as they stroll hand in hand through the hotel lobby.  The catch, however, is easily explained and the two couples, finally reunited, are recomposed."


No one slipped on a banana peel at any point in the story.  The filmmakers preferred comic complications over comic bits.  The situations, no matter how restrained, still retained a decidedly humorous flavor.  Can we fairly distinguish between pure comedy, as Tillie’s Punctured Romance might be described, and pratfall-free quasi-comedy, as Over Night might be described, and then separate the two into distinctively different categories?


In 1915, Moving Picture World reported, "John Barrymore will gladden the hearts of the many film followers in an indescribably funny picturization of Leo Ditrichstein's celebrated farce, Are You a Mason?"  The American Film Institute described the plot of Are You a Mason? as follows:
While his wife Helen is away visiting her mother, Frank Perry [Barrymore] is nearly arrested when he accidentally enters the wrong house after a night of drinking at his New York club.  When Helen returns, Frank tries to pretend that the incident was an initiation rite of the Masons, a society to which his wife has always wanted him to belong.  When Helen comes home, she is accompanied by her father who also has pretended to be a Mason for years.  Each man acts out supposedly secret Masonic rituals while the other imitates him.  After a variety of misadventures, including blackmail, Frank is allowed to join the Masons by Bob Trevors, a real member who wants to marry Helen's sister Nora.
As most feature-length comedies of the period, Are You a Mason? was adapted from a Broadway play.  Film studios recognized that Broadway farces provided proven stories and characters for the new long-form comedies.  Of course, the farces were accompanied by the farceurs.

Alonzo Price, John Barrymore and Henry Hull in the play "Believe Me Xantippe" (1913).
Barrymore had made light domestic comedies his specialty on Broadway.  Before he was engaged as a film actor by Famous Players, Barrymore had his greatest success on stage as the star of the light comedy "The Fortune Hunter," which ran for 345 performances at Broadway’s Gaiety Theatre.  Are You a Mason?, much like "The Fortune Hunter" and the actor’s earlier Famous Players' film American Citizen (1914), had no boisterous comedy in it at all.  It had none of the boldly ambitious set-pieces that would later be found in Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923) or Buster Keaton's The General (1926).  It was appropriately described by film historian Hal Erickson as "inconsequential fluff."  Are You a Mason? is hardly a comedy in the sense that Chaplin's Shoulder Arms (1918) is a comedy.  Barrymore cannot pretend to be a clown next to a funny little guy who dresses up as a tree.


Walter Kerr had a name for the light comedy actors.  He called them "demi-clowns" because they were too normal to be regarded as full-fledged clowns.

Clown v Demi-clown: W. C. Fields and John Barrymore
Are You a Mason? does, however, include one stock routine shared by Barrymore and Chaplin.  Erickson wrote, "[D]irector Thomas M. Heffron attempted at one point to stage a drunk scene from the drunk's besotted point of view."  This, as the critic noted, was also a routine that Chaplin later performed in One A. M. (1916).  Besides the drunk routine, the secret rituals scene described by the American Film Institute could qualify as an appropriately silly and unbounded comedy routine.  So, does this nudge the film out of the category of demi comedy and into the category of pure comedy?


As long as we are talking about film adaptations of Broadway plays, it should be noted that Tillie's Punctured Romance was based on the Broadway play "Tillie's Nightmare," which starred the incomparably talented Marie Dressler.  It was inevitable that Dressler would be called upon to recreate her stage role for the film adaptation.  The opening scene of the film explicitly shows Dressler making a transition from the story's original stage setting to its new film setting.


In 1915, Douglas Fairbanks made a highly successful film debut in The Lamb, an adventure comedy in which a dangerous situation motivates a weak-willed mama's boy to release his inner grit.  By the final reel, Fairbanks has completed a dynamic transformation into an undeniably masculine hero.  This film belongs to the same lineage as Keaton and Lloyd's features.  Keaton in fact remade The Lamb as his first feature film, The Saphead (1920).  Both Keaton and Lloyd later used key elements of the Lamb’s engaging formula to generate their most successful features, including Girl Shy (1924), The Navigator (1924), The Kid Brother (1927) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928).


In considering these facts, it may not be fair to call Fairbanks a demi-clown.  Fairbanks could be as playful as Chaplin. . .


he could be as unexpected as Keaton. . .


and he could be as resourceful as Lloyd.


The other actors who starred in feature-length comedies this year were mostly like Fairbanks and Barrymore.  They were handsome and gracious men who didn't take pratfalls.  They had sidekicks to do that.

"The Galloper," Richard Harding Davis’ 1906 Broadway farce, was adapted into a feature film by Path√© Exchange.  The lead role was played by Clifton Crawford, a Scottish actor who first became popular singing and telling jokes in English music halls.  Crawford was best known for introducing the song "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag" in the Broadway musical "Her Soldier Boy."  The Galloper film, like the play, used the 1897 Greco-Turkish War as a backdrop.  A young American millionaire impersonates a disreputable war correspondent to travel into the war zone and meet up with a beautiful Red Cross nurse that he encountered in his recent travels.  Again, complications build upon complications.  To start, the nurse is not really a nurse.  She lied her way into the war zone to dig up a hidden treasure.  Also, Greek military officials are looking to execute the journalist for his unfavorable reporting.  The filmmakers added a funny Turkish spy to the story to bring a bit of broad comedy to the proceedings.


The Moving Picture World praised Crawford for his "brilliant work."  The magazine added, "Clifton Crawford proves himself to be an artist of the first rank."

Crawford abandons a hunting trip to Africa to follow a nurse to a war front in Athens.
Noted humorist George Ades had a success on Broadway with his 1912 play "Just Out of College."  Charles Frohman, who produced the play, turned out a screen version through his film company Frohman Amusement Corporation.  W. Stephen Bush of The Moving Picture World wrote of the film, "There is no pretense at anything like strong dramatic action; indeed the whole performance is or at least is intended to be pure comedy. . . Here and there the full force of the Ade humor breaks through and at such moments no audience can help enjoying itself and being noisy in its demonstrations of approval."

 
Take note, Bush described the film as "pure comedy."  Let us take a look at the plot to make sure.  A young college graduate, Edward Swinger (Eugene O'Brien), is intent on marrying Caroline Pickering (Marie Wells), but her rich businessman father Septimus Pickering (Ben Hendricks) doesn't see Edward as being worthy to marry his daughter.  Pickering, who has established a pickle empire, has developed a large ego in his rise to the top.  He now takes great pride being known in the business world as "The Pickle King."  During a visit to Pickering’s office, Edward meets Mrs. Jones, who worked as a housekeeper at his old boarding house.  Mrs. Jones has failed in an effort to sell Pickering on her special brand of pickles.  Edward figures to make an impression on Pickering by using Mrs. Jones’ recipe to launch a rival pickle company.  He invests the only money that he has on making a showy presentation of his proposed Bingo Pickle Company at the Pure Food Exposition.  He gets attention by having models dressed in beautiful costumes parade on the exposition floor.  Pickering becomes so worried that Edward will lure his customers away from him that he agrees, on the spot, to buy out the young man’s interest in Bingo Pickle.  Film historian Jim Beaver aptly summarized the film's plot on the Internet Movie Database: "Edward Swinger contrives to win the hand of the lovely Caroline Pickering by selling her father his business - a business that doesn't actually exist."  That plot is, indeed, pure comedy.  

Gertrude Kellar, Sydney Deane, Wallace Eddinger and Carol Hollaway in Gentleman of Leisure (1915).

Broadway veteran Wallace Eddinger took the lead role in A Gentleman of Leisure, an adaptation of a P. G. Wodehouse novel produced by Jesse Lasky.  The essential plot is similar to the plot of Just Out of College.  A young millionaire, Robert Edgar Willoughby Pitt (Eddinger), finds himself charmed by the lovely Molly Creedon (Carol Hollaway), who is the daughter of Deputy Police Commissioner Phillip "Big Phil" Creedon (Frederick Montague).  Pitt figures to earn the man’s respect by outwitting him with a bold criminal endeavor.  He goes on to wager a friend that he can rob the police commissioner’s house without being arrested.  Along the way, he gets help from a professional burglar, Spike Mulligan (Billy Elmer).  The Spike character is able to furnish the rougher comedy.  The Pit role was previously played on stage by Fairbanks (New York's Playhouse Theatre, 1911) and Barrymore (Chicago’s McVicker's Theatre, 1913).

Frank Daniels as Abel Conn in the play "The Idol's Eye" (1897).
Possibly closer to Kerr's notion of a comedy star was Frank Daniels, who looked funnier and acted funnier than either Barrymore or Fairbanks.  Daniels was featured in Vitagraph’s Broadway Star Feature Crooky (1915), the plot of which involved an escaped convict who steals the identity of a wealthy rancher.  In the film, Daniels showed his adeptness at relatively restrained, character-driven comedy.


 
Daniels quickly followed up Crooky with a second feature, What Happened to Father? (1915).  Daniels had been retired from acting when Vitagraph persuaded him to star in Crooky.  After making two feature films, the veteran actor abandoned the rigors of feature films and settled into making a series of short comedies.  He returned to the pleasure and serenity of retirement in 1919.
 
A retired Frank Daniels in 1933.
Even more clownish than Daniels was Victor Moore.  Producer Jesse Lasky contracted Moore for five features - Snobs (1915), Chimmie Fadden (1915), Chimmie Fadden Out West (1915), The Race (1916) and The Clown (1916).


The Lasky Company made a special effort to promote Moore's debut outing, Snobs.  The plot pointed to the difficulties that a man can have rising up from middle class to upper class.  The film opens in the law offices of Mr. Phipps (Ernest Joy).  Phipps is gloomy because his business is on the verge of bankruptcy.  He sees no way out of his financial straits until he learns that a milkman, Henry Disney (Victor Moore), is heir to the title and fortune of the late Duke of Walshire.  The lawyer arranges for his sister to seduce Disney, but it isn't long before Disney realizes that the young woman is only interested in his money.  Unfortunately, she is not the only one who pretends to like Disney in the hope of attaining a monetary benefit.  According to the American Film Institute catalog, "the social snobs. . . . fawn at him but mock him behind his back."  Disney gets fed up with his rapacious admirers.  Erickson wrote, "[I]n the film's dramatic highlight, [Disney] tells off an assemblage of aristocrats at a fancy-dress ball."  A critic with the Lompoc Journal reacted enthusiastically to Moore's performance.  He reported, "Moore, fortunately, has just the kind of expressive face and rollicking personality which surely ‘goes over’. . . He can’t exactly be compared with any comedian now on the screen.  He sets a new style — and doubtless be paid the tribute of having many imitators. . . [H]e is so full of humor and ‘snap’ combined."  For all of his snap, Moore took no pratfalls throughout the story and the reviews indicate that the best parts of his performance came out of his dramatic moments in the film. 


Moore's next film, Chimmie Fadden, was also well-received.  Moore’s title character, Chimmie Fadden, is a good-hearted Irish immigrant.  Fritzi Kramer, the author of the Movies Silently blog, wrote, "Chimmie rescues a rich do-gooder from a Bowery masher and is engaged as a footman in her house.  However, Chimmie’s brother has conspired with another servant to relieve the rich lady of her silver.  Chimmie must save his brother – and himself - when he is accused of the robbery!  DeMille and Moore made sure that Chimmie was funny but not slapstick. . . Chimmie Fadden received excellent reviews, with Moore in particular receiving praise for his funny and touching performance."

Joe Welch was an acclaimed stage comedian who specialized in playing downtrodden Jewish merchants.  His gloomy catchphrase was "I vish dot I vas dead!"  Welch had come to bring poignancy to his merchant character after he moved from vaudeville to the Broadway stage, where he starred in "The Peddler" and "The Shoemaker."  In 1915, Welch was contracted to star in a six-reel feature called Time Lock No. 776 (originally titled Going Big).  The film provided no hint of comedy whatsoever.  The actor, with all of his funny quirks, had been subsumed by the drama.  It seemed inevitable at the time that the comedy aspects of Welch’s sympathetic merchant would be diluted by the dramatic elements that were required to develop a long-form story.  It took Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd to figure a way to build a credible, meaningful and affecting story around a clown character without losing sight of the tomfoolery.


As I bring this article to a close, I still cannot say for sure that Chimmie Fadden belongs in the same category as Steamboat Bill Jr.  But Chimmie Fadden was undoubtedly a comedy film and its genial star, Mr. Moore, was nothing less than a comedian.  Moore proved for decades that he had no problem making an audience laugh. 

William Gaxton and Victor Moore in Leave It to Me! (1938).

It is wrong for film historians, including myself, to leave Chimmie Fadden or Are You a Mason? or The Lamb out of discussions of Hollywood's comedy feature.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916).

Additional notes


Entertainment history is filled with sad stories.  Clifton Crawford suffered a tragic death only five years after making The Galloper.  His death is explained plainly on the Internet Movie Database: 
Fell 60 feet to his death from his room at the Queens Hotel in Leicester square.  The coroner of Westminster ruled his death accidental, finding no evidence that Crawford was suicidal or drunk, only that he may have been under the influence of a sedative.  On his death one reporter wrote, "An evening with Clifton Crawford drove away the little troubles and annoyances of life; and a man that can do that can ill be spared."

3 comments:

  1. Please pardon my ignorance, Mr.BALDUCCI! I should have found your Blog long ago.
    I am researching "The Hall Room Boys" in an effort to strengthen my sketchy evidence that HAZEL POWELL changed her name to HAZEL HOWELL about the time she left HAROLD LLOYD. This led me to your FABULOUS Blog and your Journal of about Sept of 2015.
    Further reading led me to the rise of the comedy feature and eventually "Skirts". The more you know, the more you find out you DON'T know. I couldn't stop reading.
    Your research with references, photos, newspaper snips, generous links (and credit) to other researchers sets the "GOLD STANDARD" for silent film aficionados.(And you are so willing to share it.)
    The "thing" that sets you apart is your writing style. As I read, you are sitting across the table talking to me like we've known each other for years. You'll state a lot of facts and a question will "pop into my head" and the next thing I know, you are answering it as if you are reading my mind!
    Your article on eggs in comedy reminded me of the STAN LAUREL solo film, "The Egg" (1922). I've been looking for his female lead, DRIN MORO. I have about 70% confidence that I've found her (only about 60% confidence that HAZEL POWELL is HOWELL).
    Compared to you, I'm a piker of a researcher!

    I don't know how many years it will take to catch up but you've got me "hooked" and I'll be going back to your first article and reading them all.
    You are such a joy to read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Please pardon my ignorance, Mr.BALDUCCI! I should have found your Blog long ago.
    I am researching "The Hall Room Boys" in an effort to strengthen my sketchy evidence that HAZEL POWELL changed her name to HAZEL HOWELL about the time she left HAROLD LLOYD. This led me to your FABULOUS Blog and your Journal of about Sept of 2015.
    Further reading led me to the rise of the comedy feature and eventually "Skirts". The more you know, the more you find out you DON'T know. I couldn't stop reading.
    Your research with references, photos, newspaper snips, generous links (and credit) to other researchers sets the "GOLD STANDARD" for silent film aficionados.(And you are so willing to share it.)
    The "thing" that sets you apart is your writing style. As I read, you are sitting across the table talking to me like we've known each other for years. You'll state a lot of facts and a question will "pop into my head" and the next thing I know, you are answering it as if you are reading my mind!
    Your article on eggs in comedy reminded me of the STAN LAUREL solo film, "The Egg" (1922). I've been looking for his female lead, DRIN MORO. I have about 70% confidence that I've found her (only about 60% confidence that HAZEL POWELL is HOWELL).
    Compared to you, I'm a piker of a researcher!

    I don't know how many years it will take to catch up but you've got me "hooked" and I'll be going back to your first article and reading them all.
    You are such a joy to read.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I am truly grateful for your comments, Jarvis. I apologize for taking so long to respond. The
    Blogger does not notify me of comments. It is likeky that I do not have my Blogger account set up correctly. Good luck with your research.

    ReplyDelete