Archive for The Silent Clowns

Great Directors Made Little: The Little Fellow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2014 by dcairns


Part of an occasional series of baby photographs of the great auteurs. Because.

Chaplin’s background of grinding poverty made family portraiture unlikely, but thankfully the nice people at his primary school in Kennington, in between beating him for being left-handed, took a memorial snap of the year’s waif intake.

Charlie is the one with a circle round his head and a cunning plan to get out of this.


Images from Paul Merton’s fine study Silent Comedy, about which my only complaints are (1) no Raymond Griffith and (2) insufficient Charley Chase. Merton hasn’t been able to see Griffith projected, and eschews tatty video copies, which is fair enough, and he’s not a Chase fan, which is something of a liability in the business of appreciating silent comedy. What he says about Chase is fair enough, there just isn’t enough of it — needs about twenty pages more.

Mind you, Walter Kerr, the greatest critic of silent comedy, doesn’t rate Chase that highly either, but his account of WHY is sharp and beautiful ~

“…and Charley Chase could be counted on to fill a release schedule with a steady supply of more that acceptable two-reelers. But there was no pushing Chase beyond a sprightly domestic base, or toward features: his trim face and manner had no fairy-tale excess in them, no line to invite a caricaturist’s ballooning, no mystery to be wrestled with. He would always be at his best as a faintly fussed Mr. Normal,  condemned–in his best comedy, Movie Night–to hustling his children to the bathroom across the resisting knees of patrons trying to watch the screen. At his less than best he would manufacture gags too transparent for surprise: having padded his thighs with sponge because he is going to play Romeo in tights, he carelessly–and really inexplicably–walks across a lawn covered with revolving sprinklers; as we expect, and as he ought to have expected, the sponge inflates wildly, providing him with the legs of an overfed frog. Chase was a craftsman, and would often be of help, behind the camera, to others on the lot, Laurel and Hardy included; but he was trapped between the arbitrary gagging of his Sennett origins and the sheer, not unattractive, ordinariness of his appearance.”

Maybe… BUT (1) only in the world of silent comedy could Chase’s bizarre elongitude be classed as ordinary, and (2) I am already laughing at the image of Chase with overinflated legs — and I haven’t seen that film. (One of Kerr’s skills is evoking visual gags for us).

This all leads, somehow, to Roger Corman’s monster-maker, Paul Blaisdel ~

“…Corman retained Blaisdell to make a mutated human horror for the film THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED.  Working from a pair of long underwear and carefully cutting, gluing, and painting pieces of foam rubber and carpet padding, Blaisdell produced the three-eyed, crab-shouldered “Marty the Mutant.” [ …]  It was also in this film that Blaisdell had his first brush with death as a stuntman — during a rainstorm sequence, the foam rubber began to soak up water, causing him to collapse under its weight and nearly drown in the absorbed water.”


My Chaplin piece.

Click thru to explore the possibility of buying Merton’s fine volume: Silent Comedy

The Sunday Intertitle: Ham

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


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.


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