Archive for The Silent Clowns

The Sunday Intertitle: Ham

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 11, 2013 by dcairns

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Just discovered another silent clown. Lloyd Hamilton was admired by Chaplin and Keaton but his career combusted in a welter of alcohol and violence.

You wouldn’t think it to look at him: Ham’s screen persona is rather diffident, with a fear of sex that recalls both Harry Langdon and Laurel & Hardy. He’s chubby, with a baby’s face that’s also a bit feminine. Seeing him feels like discovering the actual person that Peter Bull is a caricature of. Not particularly acrobatic (a stuntman seems to be employed for the tricky stuff here) he’s still a physically graceful actor, and his facial reactions are a delight.

Walter Kerr, the greatest of all writers on silent comedy, describes Hamilton thus ~ “a plumpish man with dainty fingers, a waddle for a walk, and a pancake hat set horizontally on the prim, doughy moon of his face,” which is bang on.

Lloyd Hamilton from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The striking weakness of this movie, which has several very strong sequences (the kittens!), is the total lack of structure. Most Laurel & Hardy films of the period had tight, farce plotting in which nothing was inessential but everything was presented as if it were throwaway. The Fatty Arbuckle films Buster Keaton starred in typically fell into two, rather unrelated halves. But this one is a triptych — Lloyd as hapless debt collector is followed by a misadventure with a woman (the only hint of story planning is the way she’s established at the start before she’s needed) and the adventure is rounded off with a Harold Lloyd type high-rise thrill sequence which has nothing to do with anything and which necessitates the invention of two chums for Lloyd — although why they’re actually necessary I’m not sure.

I don’t think the freeform approach is a deliberate choice — I assume that when you’re churning these films out on a weekly basis, the first draft of anything is good enough. When some of us sit down and write, what comes out has a kind of shape automatically, defective though it may be. This work was probably the product of competing gag men and whoever shouted loudest got their bit in the film. Not a sensible way to work, but the film has energy and some very big laughs and I want to see more of this Hamilton fellow.

Anthology Series: Forgotten Comics – Vol. 3
Lloyd Hamilton Talkies, 1929-1933

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.

Intertitle of the Week: Sunnyside Up

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on August 2, 2009 by dcairns

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So, I finished reading Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside, which left me feeling emotionally fragile and with a lump in my throat. Amazing book. Among Gold’s many accomplishments is the weaving together of three distinct narratives, two of which deal with World War One, while the remaining one covers Charlie Chaplin’s travails making SUNNYSIDE, one of his worst films — and Gold manages to get us to take Chaplin’s artistic difficulties seriously, even while men are dying over there — and there’s no sense of distortion in this. Chaplin’s problems ARE serious, but obviously on a different level from the life-and-death stuff. Gold also manages to make us care about Chaplin while being scrupulously honest about his many vices.

Both Gold in Sunnyside and Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns are pretty scathing about SUNNYSIDE, a complete misfire that failed critically, commercially and artistically. Chaplin was still trying to reach beyond the simple comedies that had made his name, and would not find a successful formula to do so until THE KID, one film later. During the hideously protracted shooting of SUNNYSIDE, he tried many different stories and gimmicks to create emotional depth or sidestep easy story solutions. What he ended up with was, it has to be said, a mess.

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This intertitle is singled out by both authors as an example of Chaplin’s bad faith. It seems to imply, “There you go. This is the kind of shit you like, isn’t it?” Still, the Finnish subtitles in my crappy copy are a nice touch, don’t you think?

The jumble of story — TWO dream sequences, and a movie set in the countryside yet based around a hotel, a romance that only gets started halfway through, and a romantic rival who doesn’t appear until nearly the end — is quite dismaying. Even Keystone comedies paid more attention to structure than this. Still, there are pleasures. The mistreatment of the idiot brother (blindfolded and sent out to play in traffic) is cruel enough to seem modern, and a relief from the cloying business around it, and then there’s this –

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This surreal moment, in which the bleating of a baby goat makes Chaplin think his piano has a flat note — a sound gag in a silent movie — is reprised, minus the goat, in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Chaplin had a long memory for comedy business.

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