The Sunday Intertitle: Before Comedy was King

An evening of Laurel without Hardy and Hardy without Laurel sounded uncertain — I was reminded of the cheap tapes and DVDs that would package together whatever low-quality public domain bits they could scrape together and publish, without a shred of honest, as “The Best of Laurel and Hardy.” But, viewing as an amateur historian, and without the residual feeling of having been cheated, this was pretty great.

This is the intertitle, folks.

THE SERENADE (1916) stars Plump & Runt — an early attempt at putting Ollie in a double-act based on physical opposites: this time, a fat guy and a short guy. Well, that doesn’t work. Absorbing the twosome into a larger troupe, as musicians in a slapstick band, also doesn’t help things. When Stan & Ollie appeared as musicians early on, they made sure they were the only funny ones except for irate conductor James Finlayson.

Hmm, Babe made thirty-eight of these suckers, so I guess they thought they’d established things… I have zero recollection of ever reading about this series.

There are one or two ACTUAL SHOTS in this, such as the introduction of Runt (Billy Ruge) from behind his own feet. And some neat trick shots. Lots of stuff of Ollie blasting people out of frame with his mighty tuba, a kind of early sonic weapon. It isn’t any damn good, but it has spurts of invention.

Larry Semon rips off EASY STREET in THE RENT COLLECTOR (1921) with Babe Hardy in the Eric Campbell part, looking like Paul Sorvino in a spray-on beard. Hardy played heavy a lot in his early films, but whereas the examples I’ve seen were notable for how similar to his later performance style Ollie’s characterisations were, in this one it’s more interesting to see how unformed the persona is.

(There’s that wild west one where villainous O.N.H. spots the heroine skinny-dipping, and displays lustful scheming by hitching up his pants with a side-to-side rotation of the waistline, a pure Ollie gesture employed in unexpected and very unfamiliar circs.)

Larry Semon is funny-looking (hire Paul Rubens for the remake), and distinctive, though when he adds a jacket to his derby and baggy dungarees he again seems to be ripping off That Other Clown.

Some inventive special effects, jump cuts and undercranking and even overcranking, so you could fairly say, as the saying goes, it’s both good and original, but the parts that are good etc…

NB: Larry Semon definitely faked his own death. DEFINITELY.

Ollie has a henchman, another fat guy who’s even fatter. Two fat guys NEVER works.

Then we moved on to Stan Laurel in DETAINED — the title is funny, somehow. An escaped convict forces Stan into that stripy prison attire he’d be seen in several times in later years, resulting in his immediate incarceration — in other words, it’s Keaton’s CONVICT 13, and promptly devolves into a series of spot gags featuring Stan’s nascent idiot persona. He grins a lot, especially at us, and is much more, uh, proactive, than his later incarnations. There’s an electric chair scene played in a vaulted dungeon which is probably a recycled set from the Chaney HUNCHBACK — see also Stan’s DR. PYCKLE AND MR. PRYDE.

Some of Stan’s “freak gags” appear — his neck is literally stretched by a noose. Hal Roach might have actually been right about those — they’re always unsettling and rarely funny. Still, the tunneling to freedom stuff does show Stan annoying another, larger convict, and the foreshadowing of THE SECOND 100 YEARS is very clear. Towards the end, he does some running about in a panic, and some weeping, so it feels like he’s getting born.

Argh, take it away!

MOONLIGHT AND NOSES (1925) is a vehicle for Clyde Cook, paired with the reliably gruesome Noah Young, as a couple of burglars. Stan directed this one. and thriftily recycled chunks in future shorts — at first it looks like he’s using the burglars sketch his father wrote, and which he kept trying to turn into a successful short, but then it throws in a mad scientist (James Finlayson in fulsome side-whiskers) and grave-robbing, and a certain ingenue named Fay Wray, and turns into a practice run for HABEAS CORPUS.

Cook plays a hapless idiot, and Young plays a domineering idiot — you see where this is going — it’s like a rehearsal for mature Laurel & Hardy comedy, with a shopsoiled Chuckle Brother and a murderous gargoyle cast as the boys. Absolutely fascinating. Not a laugh in it. But I’m really glad I saw it. It has the quality of a dream, where all your familiar friends have been replaced by unsuitable stand-ins.

The byplay between Cook & Young is actually skilled, and I like comedy of terror a lot, so I had a fairly good time with this. Maybe no laughs but some muted snorts of appreciation.

And then comes WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923), one of Stan’s parody films, which are often outrageously funny (remember Rhubarb Vaselino?). This one, though incomplete, is a joy. The ridiculous gags mainly consist of throwing everything at the situation — whatever’s easiest. This being a Fairbanks Robin Hood parody, we get anachronisms and absurdities from the off. (Well, the actual off is missing, but from the off that’s left.)

Stan enters on horseback, but it’s a puppet horse he’s wearing, with floppy fake human legs draped over the saddle. British comedian Bernie Clifton used to wear an outfit like this, only he rode an ostrich I believe it was. You can ride anything using this technique.

Stan is being chased by an army of knights, all wearing their horses in the same manner. It’s very MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, only he found a more expensive way of doing the coconuts, which wouldn’t have worked in a silent movie, I guess.

Much battling on recycled sets ensues — Mae Laurel is glimpsed, I think — and the gags come (extremely) thick and fast. When an enemy is booted from a window, he lands on some power lines just for added cruelty and anachronism. The incessant piling-on of jokes means that Stan doesn’t get to make that much of an impression as an actor — you could substitute anybody you like, including Bernie Clifton, and it would make not too much difference. But it’s a riotous and unrelenting guffaw-generator, completely stupid and wonderful from (truncated) beginning to end, and fully justified the whole evening’s conceit.

Neil Brand’s piano throughout this programme brought the films to life, not in a ghastly electro-galvanistic way, which nobody would thank him for, but by infusing zest and charm and basic coherence where it needed to be and wasn’t always to be found, and brought into being the final short’s very specific musical requirement: a ragtime version of The Wedding March.

Frame grabs by Mark Fuller, mostly, to whom appreciation is due as always.

5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Before Comedy was King”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    It sounds like Laurel didn’t really worry about parodying Fairbanks per se. Doug loaded his films with stunts and gags so they were are tough to satirize.

    Max Linder’s take on “Three Musketeers” is closer to pastiche than parody. The best non-anachronism gags don’t comment on Fairbanks but emulate him.

    A favorite Laurel is “The Sleuth”, which may be a genre sendup rather than a specific parody. It’s on one of the Kino Stan Laurel collections and looks complete, although I suspect a few intertitles are missing. It’s frantic enough that Stan does TWO drag bits.

  2. “It sounds like Laurel didn’t really worry about parodying Fairbanks per se. Doug loaded his films with stunts and gags so they were are tough to satirize.”

    Right – what you see is Stan goes after fusing the genre with the ridiculous rather than ridiculing the genre, or our man Fairbanks.

    Plus I don’t think Stan Laurel had a thing for genre or milieu, except as a laboratory in which he could test the limits of various gags, another way of thinking about what Welles said about train sets (wherein Hal Roach’s shop was the equivalent of RKO for Stan). Just a hunch for me so far, but the three Laurel films shown at Pordenone seem unified by my notions.

  3. […] The Sunday Intertitle: Before Comedy was King […]

  4. Simon Kane Says:

    The opening of this video in which modern day stuntmen lose, if you’ll excuse me, their shit over Larry Semon gives me a very warm feeling… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP9rV-J5lVs&t=320s

  5. Oh, that’s great! They should do more old stuff. Good channel, though.

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