Monday, July 16, 2012

I Love to Laugh!

A few weeks ago I wrote about Rene Clair’s 1928 classic The Italian Straw Hat, a stage farce turned into a perfect silent film comedy. Today I would like to spread the love to a few favourite shorts and features which highlight the remarkable depth of style of the silent film comedy.

Stan, Ollie, Fin

“The story of a man who turned the other cheek – And got punched in the nose.”

James W. Horne and Leo McCarey directed Laurel and Hardy in 1928s Big Business, the popular team’s last silent short. As door to door Christmas tree salesmen our boys are a bust and yet they persevere. It might have been prudent to change careers when perpetual foil James Finlayson answers the door, but these lads are made of stern stuff. If you are going to bring Christmas trees to doorsteps there is a chance that a branch might get stuck in a door. It might get stuck in a door more than once. So might a coat. The short-fused Finlayson might take exception. A pair of righteous peddlers might reciprocate. Things might get out of hand.

The location of Dunleer Drive in Los Angels in 1928 was a sweet neighborhood of cunning little bungalows, as well as the site of deliberate and delicious slapstick mayhem. Finn methodically begins wrecking the boy’s car and the boys, in turn, destroy Finn’s house. A curious crowd gathers and a cop takes notes from the sidelines as the destruction escalates to an emotional and cynical climax. What’s so funny about the destruction of private property, you may well ask. I will tell you that it is all in the attitude with which the deeds are committed, the sense of purpose and imagination behind the acts, plus the physicality. I am convulsed with laughter at the sight of Finn wrestling the Christmas trees. I am supposed to be convulsed with laughter. Mission accomplished. 
Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox

Written and directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline 1920s Neighbors is a back alley Romeo and Juliet story that is a sublime showcase for leading man Keaton. The Boy (Buster) and The Girl (Virginia Fox) are in love, but kept apart by their feuding folks. Buster incorporates thrilling and funny stunts involving the fence that separates him from his girl, the clothesline and a telephone pole. The neighborhood is filled with feisty folk and there’s always a cop around when you don’t need one. The whole kit and caboodle end up in court where a judge convinces them to give up their shenanigans and let the kids marry. Please note the table of wedding gifts which includes an instruction book by Gentleman Jim Corbett! The wedding day brings its own problems including and especially wardrobe and jewellery malfunctions leading to a daring acrobatic and romantic finish. I first saw Neighbors at a theatrical presentation where the full house laughed and cheered. It is the perfect introduction to the genius that is Buster Keaton.

Bessie Love, Johnnie Walker

Perhaps you’re looking for a little more tenderness in your romantic comedy than Buster usually provides. You want Frank Capra’s 1928 feature The Matinee Idol, a charming comedy/drama/romance with an intriguing backstage setting. The film stars the wonderful Bessie Love as the daughter and leading lady in a family of troupers. A very likeable Johnnie Walker co-stars as a successful actor taken with Miss Love. Consequently, he takes up with the small town thespians, throwing himself into their sincere, yet corny theatrics.

When the troupe’s melodrama is brought to the big town and faces scorn from the critics and sophisticated audiences, romance is there to ease the sting of rejection. The movie is a delightful look at another time and place, filled with director Frank Capra's insights and affection for all types of people.

Buddy Rogers, Mary Pickford

Another gem in the romantic comedy line is Sam Taylor’s 1927 starring vehicle for Mary Pickford, My Best Girl. The boss’ son (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) goes to work in the shipping department of his family’s department store and falls for poor, but honest and totally beguiling Maggie Johnson (our Mary). The fact that Maggie’s beau isn’t who she thinks he is may be the least of the complications in the road to their happy ending. There’s “Joe’s” high society mother and fiancée. There’s Maggie’s problematic family including her theatre-mad flapper sister, overbearing Mom and indolent Pop. My Best Girl is sweet without being cloying and funny in its ring-true characterizations. The chemistry between Mary and Buddy is touching and joyful.

William Boyd, Louis Wolheim

Lewis Milestone’s 1927 feature Two Arabian Knights is an Oscar winner in the unjustly long abandoned “Best Director, Comedy Picture” category. A buddy movie and an adventure comedy starring handsome William Boyd and rough around the edges Louis Wolheim as, respectively, W. Dangerfield Phelps III and Sergeant Peter O’Gaffney. These two opposites are WWI POWs who escape their captors and end up on board a ship with a lovely Arabian princess played by Mary Astor. PS: Don’t blink as they leave the ship or you’ll miss Boris Karloff!

The beguiling princess is betrothed to the powerful and jealous Shevkit Ben Ali played by Ian Keith. Many comedies through the years have been described as a “romp” and I don’t think many fit that description better than Two Arabian Knights. The rollicking humour comes from the personalities and performances of our two Yankee daredevils as they battle each other and everyone else they encounter in their bid for freedom and the pursuit of romance. Boyd and Wolheim make quite a team and Two Arabian Knights is quite a picture.

Everything you look for in a talkie and more can be found in a silent comedy. What more could you need after a good laugh?


  1. In recent years I have begun to rely on 1920's comedies more and more. They are some of the funniest movies ever made and I love them dearly. Buster Keaton will always be my favorite and "Neighbors" is hysterical. I would love the opportunity to see Keaton shorts on the big screen. You have inspired me to sit down today and watch Keaton shorts. Thanks for the great post.

  2. I have had the opportunity to see Buster on the big screen many times and the thrill of sharing those laughs with an audience never grows old.

    The most recent time was last month with my daughter's first time seeing "The Cameraman". I think she laughed louder than anyone else in the theater. I found it especially gratifying since her birthday is the same as Buster's - October 4.

    Enjoy the movies!

  3. You've dug up some gems here. I think my favorite is Buster. All he has to do is enter the room with that deadpan and I'm snickering. I'd love to see him on the big screen with an audience.

  4. JTL, my second youngest sister MissMcCrocodile and I introduced her friend Carmen from Peru to Buster at that screening of "Neighbors". When we left the theatre Carmen said "Everybody tells me Charlie Chaplin was the best, but I don't see how he could be better than Buster!" She was on quite a high after all those guffaws.

  5. Great article! I love the silent films. I try to watch them with my wife and all she says is she prefers to watch stuff that was made after her grandfather was born! UGH.

    There is nothing like a great silent film though - true art.

  6. Thanks, DL. We'll arrange a movie night for your wife and my hubby.

  7. Oh, now you are talking my language! "Big Business" is one of my favorite comedies - long, short, silent or sound. Charlie and Buster are truly gods to me and Harold Lloyd - well, for pure laughs, he is golden. This was truly a golden era and I am so grateful these films are still available to us. Wonderful post! I was so excited when I saw your topic!

  8. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post. Great comedy truly is timeless. When I'm happy a silent comedy adds to the joy and when I'm blue my spirits will be lifted.

  9. Some great titles here. I don't think I've ever seen "Neighbors" and it sounds great. I have "The Matinee Idol" on DVD but have yet to watch it. Sounds like I have part of my weekend viewing planned now.

    About 40 years ago, in that pre-video era, my dad a 16mm copy of the great Laurel and Hardy short "Liberty" (the one where they have to change pants and wind up on the skeletal frame of a skyscraper under construction). We showed it some family friends and they loved it.

    About a year or two later, their oldest daughter was teaching school on an island in the South Seas (I think it was Saipan), and remembered how funny it was. She asked my dad if he could loan her "Liberty" as she thought her students and their families would love it.

    He sent it to her and about a month later she sent us a letter with the happy news.

    One evening, setting up a screen outside on a beach and using a generator to run a 16mm projector, they showed "Liberty" to a beachful of villagers on the island and she said she has never seen a crowd laugh so hard. She was asked to repeat the film several times that evening and at later special events to bigger and bigger laughs each time.

    Silent film was truly a universal language, and the great comedies of the era will live on forever throughout the world, even a tiny island in the South Pacific.

  10. Kevin, the "Liberty" story is wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing. The movie is indeed one of the funniest and never gets old. To this day I have a fear of heights and of changing my pants in public!

  11. An excellent selection - but then, I already knew that you have good taste in comedy. I happen to have seen all of those films and enjoyed them all (though "enjoy" is really too weak a word for the Keaton and L&H shorts.

    Speaking of Capra, I am just embarking on a whale of a recently published Harry Langdon biography titled "Little Elf", and it will be especially interesting to see what it has to say about the Capra/Langdon controversy. Even more, however, I'm looking forward to learning more about Harry's 40 years before he entered the movie biz, his vaudeville experience.

    Cheers from "Rollo" of the CFB. ;)

  12. Rollo! Hello! Yes, we'll have to come up with something more accurate than "enjoy" but not too over-the-top as to become meaningless. H'm.

    Somewhere between Capra's recollections and the Langdon biography will lay the truth of that collaboration. I look forward to the information you will have to impart and a possible recommendation for "Little Elf". I have found with a lot of actor biographies that I turn to them became of my fondness for the movies, but find the "before the screen" part of their lives much more interesting.

  13. Thanks for this article. There are some movies on this list that I'm unfamiliar with and will be watching for them the first chance I get. :)

  14. I'm sure you'll enjoy the movies when you get the chance to check them out. I'd love to hear your reactions whenever that opportunity arises.

  15. I also love to laugh and I just love Mary Pickford.. I have always thought that she was charming and witty. Mary's eyes, express her every mood.

    I will have to check out of favorite comedies..

  16. Mary did have a way about her, didn't she? Her stardom is not surprising.

    I know you're a girl who likes to laugh and I think these movies do the trick.

  17. Found this site through the LAMB, looks like a great read.



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