Thursday, May 23, 2013

Classic Comedy Fans: Buy This Book!

This new release is a must-addition to the Comedy Buff Bookshelf: Lame Brains And Lunatics: The Good, The Bad And The Forgotten Of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa. The classic movie website Nitrateville has posted an interview about the book, an indispensable history of the lesser-known yet rewarding far corners of silver screen humor.

Mr. Massa, as classic film buffs are well aware, programmed the Silent Clowns and Cruel & Unusual Comedy film series at The Museum Of Modern Art in collaboration with historian/accompanist/archivist Ben Model and is the curator of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Both Steve and Ben have forgotten more about silent film humor and history than most of us will ever know.

In an exceptionally well-researched tome, silent screen headliners Marie Dressler, Max Linder, Al St. John, Alice Howell, Fay Tincher, Marcel Perez, Gale Henry, Max Davidson, stage star turned Vitagraph Pictures comedienne Josie Sadler, Educational Pictures "thrills, spills and chills" specialist Lige Conley, ubiquitous Roach Studio background player George Rowe (A.K.A. the cross-eyed comic not named Ben Turpin) and many more at long last get their due.

The chapters on comedy teams are quite illuminating. A decade before the debut of Laurel & Hardy as a team, Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran made dozens of sophisticated farces with just a hint of slapstick and cartoonish humor for Nestor and Universal.

Also getting their due are some of the most aggressively bizarre and notoriously iconoclastic silent era comedians, including the Mean Misanthrope Of Mean Misanthropes and principal L-KO studio star, Billie Ritchie, A.K.A. "The Man From Nowhere".

The architect of the series: The Dark Lord of nihilistic silent screen humor and former Sennett Studio director, as well as an unrelenting foe of minimal personal safety precautions for film actors, the infamous Henry "Suicide" Lehrman (whose brand name, Lehrman Knock-Out Comedies, also accurately described injuries suffered on the set by too many cast members and extras).

Billie Ritchie has been wrongly (yet repeatedly) identified as a Chaplin imitator for many decades, even though the two only had the derby/shabby suit/cane outfit and Fred Karno Troupe training in common.

While the getup, hairdo and mustache that Ritchie and Charlie Chaplin use are indeed identical, the characterizations and signature mannerisms could not be more different. Ritchie, an ever-confrontational mean bastard, struts, juts, flips off everyone and jumps around like a crazy man in such films as Just A Scandal - and could not be farther stylistically from Chaplin's rowdy yet increasingly balletic approach to 1915-1916 style slapstick.

While on the one hand, the Billie Ritchie m.o. is "lowdown-est slimiest starring character in the history of comedy films", on the other hand, there's something weirdly and savagely funny in the The Man From Nowhere's shameless, brazen and unending pursuit of booze, married dames and ill-gotten gains.

Bear in mind, the year 1915 unleashed a veritable barrage of "sick humor" (not to be seen again until the unapologetic "bad taste" of National Lampoon magazine 55 years later), led in the fullest anal sense by Billie Ritchie's vile nastiness, Kalem's disgusting anti-team of Ham & Bud, the early Rolin Co. knockabout 1-reelers starring an unrecognizable Harold Lloyd as raucous Lonesome Luke and Essanay's appalling yet fascinating "greasepaint meets surrealism" Mishaps Of Musty Suffer series, starring Harry Watson, Jr.

So even the most nose-thumbing, derriere-kicking, brick-heaving early Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay is a far cry from the insanity of these series.

Massa compares the vile and bilious Lehrman comedies anti-protagonist to a controversial comedian/actor from many decades later, the chaos-loving Andy Kaufman, in their shared sense of provoking audience hatred while enjoying spreading unmitigated mayhem (although, frankly, Mr. Kaufman in his most gleefully anarchic "performance art" form seems like quite the sweetheart by comparison to Billie Ritchie's scoundrel characterization - and besides, Andy's Latka/Foreign Man character strikes this correspondent as his personal riff on the post-1929 Harry Langdon).

Now, curiously enough, one of the former Sennett Studio comedy creators who found his way to the historically important yet utterly misbegotten L-KO studio gets the spotlight for his remarkable work as a prolific director of everything from slapstick to genteel farce.

That director would be Charles Parrott, soon to return to performing as Charley Chase and star in some of the very best silent film comedies. The chapter on Parrott's highly varied directorial career in Lame Brains And Lunatics: The Good, The Bad And The Forgotten Of Silent Comedy is in itself worth the price of admission.

After directing a gazillion comedy shorts for every studio around from 1916-1924, Chase began his own starring series at Hal Roach, producing masterpiece after masterpiece - and, unlike most of his contemporaries, carrying that formidable comedy mojo well into the sound era: most notably in several tremendously funny, romantic and charming farces co-starring the most beautiful, talented comedienne whose name was not Carole Lombard, the underrated Thelma Todd. Author James L. Neibaur, who seems to finish a new, crisply written, informative and enjoyable film history book about every 5 minutes, has done it yet again in 2013 with his upcoming study of Charley Chase's sound films.

When it comes to movie comedy history, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are in the midst of a renaissance. This includes Steve's tome, Michael Hayde and Chuck Harter's book on the great Harry Langdon, Anthony Balducci's biography of brilliant silent and early sound era comedian Lloyd Hamilton, studies Trav S.D. has penned about classic movies and vaudeville, PLUS the first volume, Smileage Guaranteed, of what will be an extensive "no available rare footage left unscreened" comedy film history series by Richard M. Roberts and more. Also in the pipeline: Annichen Skaren's biography covering the life, times and films of Al St. John and Mr. Blogmeister's most Psychotronic meditations on multi-genre movie mayhem, That's Not Art!

To order these books - and thus, enroll in an advanced course of study in The College Of Classic Comedy Knowledge:

There are more worthy books on the topic of silent comedy that are no longer in print, but definitely still available via Kindle.

With respectful tips of the Jimmie Hatlo/Fred Astaire/Jack Buchanan top hat to Sam Gill and Leonard Maltin, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are now going to take a break and watch some cool vintage silent comedies. Cheers!

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