Archive for Hal Roach

The Sleeper Awakes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2021 by dcairns

Guest-post from Jaime Christley —

Recently I got sidetracked from my viewing queue by one Leo McCarey / Charley Chase short, then another, then another. Presently following a McCarey compulsion as far as it will go; clearing out several rarities per week. (I’ve seen all the major sound features except SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, if that one is considered “major”.)

Oh and PART TIME WIFE; can’t seem to find that one.

I no longer get much out of arguing auteurism pro or con, but the concept is quite a bit more interesting as one catalogs McCarey from 1929 and walking backwards from there: job titles like “Director” get a bit cloudy with the addition of “Supervising Director” (McCarey has been both), and it’s common knowledge that Laurel and Chase conceived and wrote the largest part of their own stories and gags. 

Still, when I think McCarey is really feeling his oats, the difference is palpable, especially in the Chases. It helps that I don’t find Chase all that funny (but I don’t dislike him, far from it), so I find myself grouping the more successful 1- and 2-reelers by how much a film is managing to achieve equilibrium with/against what I’ve come to think of as “Hal Roach hijinks”… i.e. the notion that actors behaving funny is funny enough. (I’m recalling a very early Mack Sennett short that ends with a guy wearing a funny disguise biting down on a curtain rod.

An auteurist like me has to make peace with the fog, as well as the dominance of bigger voices and “truer” authors. And I believe in Stan Laurel’s genius, he probably did as much for the cinema as anybody. Nevertheless the hunt for McCarey-ness continues apace, and I even feel, here and there, vindicated. The unassuming and seemingly minor-register BROMO AND JULIET, during this survey, has been the closest to a triumph, even as the reasons why I think it’s a near-masterpiece elude me. It’s just one of those cases where the souffle rises rather than doesn’t.

I think of it like this: take this frame from MUM’S THE WORD. Credit Chase for devising a meet-cute prompted by Martha Sleeper shooting him in the butt (she was fighting off a purse thief). (Chase liked to have Jimmy Jump get shot in the butt. I guess he thought you don’t get hurt back there?) But those onlooking passengers in the background, sort of audience surrogates watching the seeds of a future romance … that’s something McCarey would make sure was part of the bit.

Jaime Christley

The Sunday Intertitle: Before Comedy was King

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2020 by dcairns

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Kind That Has A Club That Belongs To Him

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 28, 2019 by dcairns

I got curious about Lonesome Luke, Harold Lloyd’s pre-glasses character (I’m *still* curious about Willie Work, his OTHER pre-G.C.).

Turns out that Lloyd, like Chaplin (HIS PREHISTORIC PAST), Keaton (THE THREE AGES) and Laurel & Hardy (THUNDERING FLEAS FLYING ELEPHANTS) had a Stone Age jaunt, via dream sequence in this case.

As it’s directed by Hal Roach, it gets bogged down pretty quickly. A bunch of characters in pelts pelt each other with clubs. One becomes conscious of the potential for confusion in a society where a blow on the head can be part of a mating ritual OR an act of aggression. It would be pretty easy to misread the signals, especially when suffering blunt force trauma to the brain.

This whole caveman bit is people hitting each other with clubs. It makes the average Punch and Judy show look like À la recherche du temps perdu. They don’t even vary it by having a woman heft a bludgeon. Matriarchal society my ass. It would be fair to say that Stone Age comedy gets old fast.

The anarchic brutality of the framing story is quite a bit more entertaining.

Hal Roach used to worry about the tran slation onf intertitles, something that was out of his hands. Here, we get, alternatively, “Officer 728 was like two rounds of fries,” and “Officer 728 couldn’t get a headline.” I don’t find the context any help, either.

Fascinating to see many of Harold’s familiar expressions and mannerisms emerge through a totally different character. Like Mr. Laurel, he can play someone different, but watching today we can’t help notice the similarities, because the same face muscles are being used.

Obviously, though — REALLY obviously — there’s no meaningful delineation between Lloyd/Luke and Snub Pollard as his chum. That’s going to need fixing.