Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lame Brains and Lunatics

Steve Massa's Lame Brains and Lunatics, which brings to light an assortment of talented, hardworking and groundbreaking film comedians that long ago vanished into the mists of time, is sure to deliver readers into the deepest depths of film comedy history.  The mist-clearing is handled well by Massa, who has devoted 45 years to the study of silent film comedy.  A lame brain will fail to see the value in the excellent chapters on Billie Ritchie, Marcel Perez, Lige Conley, and others too numerous to mention.  A lunatic will be unable to appreciate the exhaustive research that went into the selected filmographies.  But everyone else will, without a doubt, enjoy the book.

Lame Brains and Lunatics is rich in biographical detail.  Massa writes about these performers with great knowledge and sensitivity.  He has a particular soft spot for the ladies, which is evident in his chapters on Alice Howell, Gale Henry, Marie Dressler and Fay Tincher.

I am a big believer in drawing attention to lesser known film comedians, but you know that Massa is the ultimate champion of the underdog when you see that his book includes a chapter on cross-eyed comedian George Rowe.  Rowe worked from 1919 to 1925 at the Hal Roach studio, where he turned up as a supporting player in various series.  The frequent appearances that he made to assist Roach's comic leads, including Snub Pollard, Stan Laurel, Eddie Boland and Paul Parrott, were almost guaranteed to get a laugh.  Realize that, in the silent film comedy hierarchy, Rowe ranks below Eddie Boland.  "Eddie, who?" you ask.  Exactly. 

It is hard, when taking into the consideration the many comedians that populated silent films, to work out a proper hierarchy.  Where, for example, do you fit Jack Cooper or Sid Smith?  Let's use Smith as an example.  Smith was consistently featured in lead roles in short comedies from the time he entered the film industry in 1913 to his death of alcohol poisoning in 1928.  The diminutive comedian with the pencil-thin moustache was trusted to head up ably crafted campaigns of comic mayhem by most of the major producers, including Mack Sennett, Jack White and Al Christie.  The comedian's greatest success came starring in the "Hall Room Boys" for Harry Cohn from 1919 to 1923.  But Smith is barely remembered today and, frankly, I could not make a case that he deserves to be rediscovered.  I admit that I have been able to see little of his work, but what I have seen has left me cold.  But Massa offers such passionate and eloquent accolades in reference to Smith that I am compelled to rethink my evaluation.  Massa is the James Herriot of silent film comedy.  He has an undying appreciation of all comedians great and small.

Massa has a special talent for describing the grotesque figures that populated silent film comedy.  I like, for instance, when he describes Rowe as being "made up of odd mismatching parts" and proceeds to catalog a rich assortment of freakish traits.  It makes it clear that the funny, heavily made-up characters that showed up in many silent comedies were as weird and wonderful as something out of a carnival sideshow. 

Massa has gained extraordinary access to archive prints and research materials.  I am envious that Massa has had the opportunity to see a number of Marcel Perez's US releases, including You're Next (1919) and Sweet Daddy (1921).  I have seen Perez's A Busy Night (1916), which is extraordinary.

I have never seen a review of a film book in which the photos were specifically reviewed, but I was captivated by the many rare photos in this book.  Sometimes, nothing can make a point better than an illustration.  Many have recognized the influence that Harry Langdon had on Stan Laurel, but this will become more apparent if you turn to page 336 and take a look at a still of a hesitant, white-faced Laurel from A Manadrin Mix-up (1924).  You might have heard that the 1925 pairing of Oliver Hardy and Bobby Ray anticipated Hardy's epic partnership with Laurel.  Turn to page 256 and see a Laurel & Hardy-style image from Hardy and Ray's Hey, Taxi (1925), which resolves any possible dispute on the matter. 

Okay, fine, I have said enough.  Buy it!

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