Thursday, March 08, 2012

This Blog's Favorite Checkered Cap Schlemiel: Lloyd Hamilton

"One of the funniest men in silent pictures." Buster Keaton

I admit to a certain fascination with comedians from the silent and early talkie eras. With the exception of Harold Lloyd, they were not ambitious regular guys who made good. They were sticky wickets and hellraisers who could not be constricted or contained. The truly inspired ones, Buster Keaton in particular, have that indefinable visionary quality that Captain Beefheart termed "sun zoom spark"; almost a century later, their films and inventive ideas are still outside the box, way outside the box.

Arguably, the most brazen combination of comic genius, originality and offscreen rock star recklessness - other than Keaton and Charley Chase - belonged to the guy known as "the comedian's comedian", Lloyd Vernon Hamilton (1891-1935), a.k.a. "Ham". Nearly 80 years after his death in January 1935, Mr. Hamilton's original onscreen persona - cranky, quirky, dangerous - manages to command our short 21st century attention spans and funny bones.

Known for his incessantly put-upon sad sack characterization, Mr. Hamilton ranks high on my short list of all-time favorite screen comics. Yet, if not for such groundbreaking books as Leonard Maltin's The Great Movie Comedians and Walter Kerr's The Silent Clowns (which reviews Ham's classic 1926 short Move Along in detail), he may well have entirely slipped through the cracks and not even merited a momentary mention in the film history books.

Hamilton first rose to fame by starring as part of a knockabout team with diminutive Bud Duncan in the Kalem Studio's 1914-1917 Ham & Bud series. The m.o. of these rude n' crude one-reelers - and a "louder faster shorter" trend in screen comedy that corresponded with the WW1 years - is "incredibly bad taste".

Even well into Lloyd Hamilton's later solo career, but especially with the Ham & Bud series, the viewer's never quite sure if he is merely aiming for sheer surreal shock value or presenting a "sick sick sick" National Lampoon-ish parody of execrable taste.

Some Ham & Bud comedies are unrelentingly horrendous, absolutely designed to offend, while others serve up the team's totally indefensible, beyond all redemption behavior with a certain "wink wink nudge nudge" quality that equals what film historian Richard M. Roberts described as "crass with panache".

So here are Ham & Bud, directed by Marshall "Mickey" Neilan. Simply horrid or a surreal guilty pleasure? You be the judge.

After the Kalem series ended, Lloyd moved on to work in the infamous Henry "Suicide" Lehrman's fast and furious Fox Sunshine comedies and subsequently develop a new screen characterization for a starring series in 1920.

On the surface, his character resembled an overgrown boy but was actually more than a bit of a rake and a scoundrel, as well as a "poor sap" schlemiel who always carried himself as a shabby-genteel dandy. Hamilton developed his character, who got even less respect than Rodney Dangerfield, with the assistance of directors Lehrman, Jack White and Norman Taurog.

Ham's dark sensibility and refreshingly post-modern cynical viewpoint would have, without a doubt, struck a responsive chord with historians and cineastes decades later - if his films actually existed!

A principal reason for Ham's relative obscurity, by comparison to his contemporaries is straightforward: the very low survivability rate of his work, due to a 1937 vault fire that singlehandedly wiped out the 35mm nitrate negatives of his 1920's Fox and Educational series. Only Universal Pictures comedienne Alice Howell fared worse in terms of the utter scarcity of surviving screen comedy work.

A few of Hamilton's starring vehicles have surfaced. Ham's character is perpetually broke and down on his luck, but fundamentally sympathetic. While not heroic in the same sense as Harold Lloyd fighting off bad guys, or Buster Keaton tackling the elements and the insurmountable, this "good guy just trying to get by" framework provides a solid foundation for the comedy.

Here's Ham, the checkered cap schlub of schlubs, in Jonah Jones, which also features the excellent comedienne and character actress Babe London. He carries the "everything happens to me" concept to brilliant and funny extremes, quite different from any other comedian before or since. The splendid musical score is by film historian-accompanist Ben Model.

Offscreen, Hamilton was as dogged by bad decisions, bad fortune, bad whisky and downright bad ju-ju as his checkered cap "Poor Soul" character was born under a bad sign onscreen.

The worst career decision, and very likely the one which got Ham permanently excluded from subsequent histories of film comedy, was to star in His Darker Self, A.K.A. Black Or White, originally crafted by D.W. Griffith as a blackface vehicle for Al Jolson. Griffith pondered replacing Jolson with Eddie Cantor, but settled on Lloyd Hamilton. The storyline and concept were not overhauled top-to-bottom to fit Hamilton's very specific characterization and the new star (as was the case with both of his First National features) had zero creative control over the project. Griffith abandoned the project shortly after Hamilton was signed. The word fiasco would be quite the understatement.

Hamilton's second feature, A Self Made Failure, is a lost film. The ubiquitous William Beaudine directed and co-stars included Patsy Ruth Miller, child actor Ben Alexander (yes, that's right - the same guy from the 1950's version of Dragnet) and Sennett studio "canine comedienne" Cameo The Dog.

Hamilton's comment on the film, "it was three reels too many." The film is gone, but the finished script does exist and indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of Ham's characterization and its nuances - he's dumb rather than sly and crafty.

One can only conjecture without a finished film available for viewing, but it appears, from what's left of the continuity and numerous surviving stills, that this was an effort to do comedy + pathos much along the lines of Chaplin's The Kid. This does not sound like the right call, given Hamilton's outwardly prissy yet cranky and rakish characterization.

Of course, a principal reason for Ham remaining highly regarded, but seldom ranked by latter-day film historians above the second tier, was that he, like fellow performer-gagman-director (and drinking buddy) Charley Chase, did not make the transition from starring in shorts to headlining a series of successful feature comedies. Hamilton's starring short subjects, however, were frequently brilliant and right up there with Chaplin and Keaton in sheer inventiveness.

After the two unsuccessful feature films, Hamilton returned to Educational Pictures. While the fact that he didn't ascend to stardom in feature length comedies alongside Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd couldn't have had a tempering effect on Hamilton's hard-partying lifestyle, he continued starring in and writing comedy shorts that were consistently original, funny and imaginative into the early sound era.

Arguably, the most important element that separates Ham from Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon is that he does periodically tweak with his characterization. He plays an overgrown mama's boy in some films, while in others portrays an "always on the lam" fellow who's a bit of a scoundrel and not above overt dishonesty. The mama's boy character headlines the following short subject from the silent comedy DVD set Accidentally Preserved Volume 2.

This writer feels strongly that the more rakish and conniving Hamilton's character is, the funnier he is.

On the other hand, the bittersweet 1926 comedy short, Move Along, not only both epitomizes Hamilton's wonderfully caustic vision, but also makes his "one step ahead of the gendarmes" persona actually a pretty nice guy - albeit not above a tiny bit of skullduggery for the right reasons.

Such beautifully conceived short subjects as Move Along refute the inaccurate and seldom challenged conventional wisdom that "only feature films count".

Generally, silent movie comedians who only headlined several features that tanked (Larry Semon), whose films either range from hard-to-find to lost (Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Raymond Griffith) or were not produced in the U.S. (Max Linder) get the "sorry, bud - you're not The Big Three and no icon to boot" treatment all these decades later.

Although the following clips from his guest shot on The Show Of Shows and an appearance in a Hollywood On Parade short demonstrate that Lloyd adapted quite well to sound, personal problems and poor health overwhelmed him as the 1930's progressed.

The sole screen comedian working with an anti-hero characterization even remotely similar to Hamilton, W.C. Fields, did successfully switch from shorts to features, after a decade of trying, and make a film, "It's A Gift", that, with tweaks, could absolutely be a Lloyd Hamilton starring vehicle. Conversely, when W.C. quit making the Mack Sennett Star Comedy series, the last film on the contract, Two Many Highballs, was completed with a haggard-looking Ham as the star - and would later be remade by scenarist Clyde Bruckman as the 1935 Fields classic Man On The Flying Trapeze. It's a good film and decent swan song, but needed to be rewritten to fit Lloyd's characterization.

After much tragedy in his life and a protracted, losing battle with alcoholism, Hamilton died young and thus totally missed out on both the 1940's re-casting of longtime comedy veterans by Preston Sturges at Paramount and the re-discovery of silent movies in the 1950's and 1960's via television and the silent comedy compilation features by Robert Youngson (The Golden Age Of Comedy, When Comedy Was King, 30 Years Of Fun, Days Of Thrills And Laughter, Laurel & Hardy's Laughing 20's).

As fate would have it, more "Ham & Bud" one-reelers survive than Hamilton solo vehicles. Both "Ham & Bud" extravaganzas and later Hamilton solo vehicles are available on DVD via sets from Manchester silent comedy restoration specialists Looser Than Loose and Grapevine Video. I found the few "Lloyd Hamilton Talking Comedies" I've viewed on these DVD sets quite funny, but they are generally, like his silents, also rare and difficult to see.

History aficionados, classic comedy and silent movie fans note: Anthony Balducci, author of The Funny Parts: A History Of Film Comedy Routines And Gags, penned a compelling and well-researched biography of Lloyd Hamilton, which is available via Amazon.

A few years after Lloyd Hamilton's death, Jackie Gleason created a silent comedy tribute character, The Poor Soul, who wears the same outfit as Ham, right down to the checkered cap. While The Poor Soul's snakebit "everything happens to me" m.o. is dead-on Hamilton, the characterization owes as much or more to baby faced wide-eyed innocents Harry Langdon and Stan Laurel - and even more to Gleason's distinctive timing. It appears that Jackie clearly made a point of paying tribute to the "checkered cap" persona without appropriating Ham's very specific mannerisms and sourpuss persona.

Although Ham got his star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, there still, frankly, isn't tons of information on him besides Anthony Balducci's book, but he does get mentioned on the Silent Comedians and Silent Comedy Mafia discussion boards, as well as occasionally on Nitrateville.

R.I.P. Silent Comedy's Poor Soul - you were one of a kind.

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