Archive for March 9, 2011

Raymond Griffith: A Physiognomic Appreciation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by dcairns

You’ll be hearing a lot about this young fellow!

I first took note of him after stumbling across THE SURF GIRL, a better-than-average Keystone knockabout. Griffith intrigues in it by his lack of exaggeration and ability to suggest more than one thought or emotion flickering across his countenance at a time: an unheard of thing at the Sennett studio.

Now I’ve seen a few more of his features (cinematic, not facial) and will be writing about all of them as Griffith strikes me as a major and, yes, Forgotten talent.

But first, his face.

Although svelte of form, Griffith has heavy, slightly jowelly lower features. Rather like Doug Fairbanks in that sense, perennially super-fit and nimble as he appeared: zero per cent body fat, sixty per cent chin fat. The bell-bottomed face is really the only unattractive thing about Raymond, in principle, but he exults in using his face to create delightfully unpleasing effects: but not by any contortion or grimacing. He just smiles in a subtly but distinctly horrible way (the curl of the lip), or otherwise makes himself uglier than he naturally is.

It’s a sort of inverse William Powell effect. Powell had a face like a raccoon, but made himself suave and dashing through elegant styling and an air of almost genetic debonairness. He could act handsome and make you believe it. Raymond Griffith was a decent-looking fellow who enjoyed making himself seem positively indecent.

While other comics of the period celebrated the moustache in all its more baroque and rococo variations, Griffith adorned his philtrum area with a simple, Dabney Coleman-type brush, such as you might see hanging around any street corner. Even today, when the facial fuzz is less favoured, you might still pass a half-dozen moustaches of the Griffith style in a day’s perambulation and think little of it. It’s an upper-lip decoration that refuses to draw attention to itself.

So with Griffith, although he makes sure he gets your attention.

Here he is in two sequences from HANDS UP!

Broad stuff — the Warners cartoon style avant la lettre. But Griffith keeps his own contribution simple. Other scenes in the movie play in a slower and more subtle register altogether. There are two entire features on YouTube, HANDS UP! and PATHS TO PARADISE. Well, I say entire — all prints of PTP are missing the final reel, but it’s still a very satisfying film.

It’s taken me forty years of film viewing to stumble on Griffith, with a little help from Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns. Based on this, I’d be inclined to call him the most shamefully neglected performer in Hollywood history.