Tuesday, September 04, 2012
The Spice Of The Program, Part Two
Lloyd Hamilton and Mermaid Comedies producer/director/writer Jack White
One wonders just how Earle W. Hammons' Educational Pictures transitioned from riding high in the 1920's by distributing Otto Messmer's internationally popular Felix The Cat cartoons, classic silent comedies (many directed by the incredibly, mind-numbingly prolific Norman Taurog) starring Lloyd Hamilton, Al St. John, Lupino Lane, Larry Semon and Charley Bowers to a largely different roster and alarmingly low budget films in the 1930's.
Let's start with what happened to the studio's headliners. In 1923-1924, the principal star of Educational's Mermaid Comedies, silent comedy's favorite sourpuss, Lloyd Hamilton, attempted to branch out from his popular and acclaimed series of short subjects by starring in two feature length films.
One, A Self-Made Failure, directed by the ubiquitous William Beaudine, is a lost film. His Darker Self, originally titled Black And White, was designed by D.W. Griffith as a vehicle for stage star Al Jolson. When Jolson abruptly quit the project, Griffith asked Hamilton to replace him in the starring blackface role.
This was a bad career move, very bad idea and by all accounts - and if what footage exists is any indication - an even worse film.
After Hamilton returned to comedy shorts in 1926 and starred in such classics as Move Along, he was banned from making films for the entire 1928-1929 season. How? Hamilton and character actor Johnny Sinclair happened to be present when a certain barroom brawl took place in which pugilist Eddie Diggins was killed. Hamilton wasn't responsible for the stabbing death of Diggins, but his presence at the drunken donnybrook was enough to get him a one year ban from films.
The suspension was neither good for Educational nor the gifted yet booze-soaked comedian. At one point, Hamilton ended up homeless. The ban meant that an excellent opportunity to hit the ground running in a smooth transition to talkies was lost - and Hamilton's voice fitted his world-weary yet shabby genteel characterization to a T.
Al St. John?
Before re-inventing himself with panache as prolific western sidekick Fuzzy Q. Jones, Al continued to star in Mermaid Comedies, some directed by Stephen Roberts (later known for the ultra-racy pre-Code melodrama The Story Of Temple Drake) and moved into talkies without a hitch in Educational's Cameo Comedies series, many helmed by Roscoe "William Goodrich" Arbuckle. Even in the most threadbare of low budget 1-reelers, Al, ever the pro's pro, gets laughs.
Only equaled by St. John and Buster Keaton as an acrobatic and gymnastic comedian-athlete, Lane, also a pro's pro, starred in his last U.S. comedy short subjects, including a few early talkies, in 1929.
After plum supporting roles in the musicals The Love Parade and Bride Of The Regiment, this brilliant physical comic appeared in one of the all-time bombs, Golden Dawn.
This early talkie musical was a golden turkey of golden turkeys, in spite of some very funny and spirited performances by Lane, Marion "Peanuts" Byron and Lee Moran.
Following the release of this 1930 stinker, Lane did what any reasonable actor would do, flee the U.S. and return to the United Kingdom!
There, he would become an enormous star of the stage and enjoy renewed prestige as one of England's premier show business icons! Lupino Lane became the mainstay of the musical comedy smash Me And My Girl.
Larry Semon, the uncrowned king of prop comedy and elaborate sight gags, early 1920's style and key predecessor of "Three Stooges" style slapstick? Died in 1928. Although Semon's career had taken quite a bad turn since his heydey as the very popular star of lightning-paced, sight gag-filled Vitagraph shorts, his success in latter 1920's character roles (especially in Josef von Sternberg's gangster flick, Underworld) pointed towards a comeback. Unfortunately for Larry, a young man (39) at the time of his passing - and film history - that second act in sound films as a director, character actor, storyboard artist, animator, scenarist or gagman didn't happen.
The great stop-motion animator and reluctant 2-reeler star Charley Bowers?
Alas, the Bowers Comedies series, delighting the Dadaist/Surrealist movement in Paris while dumbfounding small-town movie audiences worldwide, officially ended in 1928 - and not without leaving some amazing imagery behind.
Bowers continued to sporadically function as an independent producer with such remarkable stop-motion films as the following early talkie, It's A Bird.
Bowers subsequently joined the story department of the Walter Lantz studio and produced occasional strikingly imaginative and bizarre stop-motion cartoons, but did not appear on-camera again.
So, as the 1920's ended, most of the Educational Pictures comedy stars had moved on - and the essential alliances also changed.
At the beginning of the decade, Hammons cut a deal to distribute the Al Christie Studio's "Torchy" series starring Johnny Hines around the same time he contracted with Jack White. Christie, who had supplied tons of comedy films to Educational Film Exchange, signed a three-year deal with Paramount starting with the 1926-1927 season.
Educational responded to the loss of the Al Christie Studio and its prolific short subjects production units by contracting with Mack Sennett.
Sennett's Fun Factory continued cranking out 2-reelers, first for Educational release, then later for Paramount. The best known Sennett talkies feature Andy Clyde and W.C. Fields. Other "Mack Sennett Star Comedies" include the last appearances of a rather haggard and spent looking Lloyd Hamilton, as well as comedienne Marjorie Beebe (who Lucille Ball must have been aware of).
Even cartoons were affected; Felix The Cat was lost to Jacques Kopstein and Copley Pictures - and Paul Terry's Terrytoons were lined up as the replacement.
We'll get into what the heck happened to Educational when the movie business made the painful transition between silents and talkies and the 1930's progressed in Part Three.