Charlie Chaplin – Early Life

Charlie Chaplin – Early Life

Exclusive extract from David Robinson’s new biography

This year Slapstick Festival’s Comedy Gala returns bigger and better than ever with a spotlight on the 1921 Chaplin masterpiece the Kid.

Many of Chaplin’s admirers regard The Kid as his most beautiful and most personal film. In honour of this year’s screening over the coming weeks we’ll be looking at the heartache that inspired this beloved classic. As a special treat, we’ve got our hands on extracts from David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin.
Patron and filmhistorian, David Robinson, is a renowned film critic and scholar, whose books Hollywood in the Twenties (1968), The History of World Cinema (1973) and official biographies of both Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin have been critically acclaimed. We’ll be serialising parts from David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin, which looks in greater depth than ever before at Chaplin’s humble beginnings and the events in his life that motivated his work.

Charlie Chaplin's the Kid

Chaplin’s childhood

For those who have never delved into the history of silent comedy, Chaplin’s life started with great upheaval. He was born in 1889 to Hannah Chaplin and Charles Chaplin, Senior. Both his parents were music hall entertainers, but sadly never achieved fame. The temptations of the music halls meant both Charlie’s parents were distracted and often unable to take care of him. His parents married, but separated when Charlie was small.

His mother Hannah, suffered with mental illness most likely brought on by syphilis. Accepting this was incredibly difficult for Charlie, who often tried to be by her side as much as he could until her death in 1928. Charlie and his stepbrothers George and Sydney had to fend for themselves from an early age, and all had to suffer the hardships of workhouses when Hannah could not take care of them. By the age of nine Charlie had been sent to a workhouse twice. The workhouses were harsh places, effectively a prison for the poor. Despite all this Charlie was a resilient and plucky child, who remained determined and lively even given all the hardships he faced. Coping in London as two young boys, with no parents and little guidance, must have been terrifying. Born from his turbulent childhood, , The Kid shows some of the loneliness and desperation Chaplin must have felt, at this difficult time in his life.

Extract one : A london Boyhood

The Early life of Charlie chaplin

The career of Charles Chaplin Senior [Charlie Chaplin’s father] had a slower start than Hannah’s [his mother] but a more promising progression. At first he worked as a mimic, but soon developed into what was called a ‘dramatic and descriptive singer’ exerting a strong attraction upon his audiences. Chaplin described him as a quiet, brooding man with dark eyes, and said that Hannah thought he looked like Napoleon. The portraits that appear on the sheet music of his song successes show him with dark eyes that seem somewhat melancholy despite the broad prop grin.

Drink was the endemic disease of the music halls. They had evolved from drinking establishments and the sale of liquor still made up an important part of the managers’ incomes. When they were not on stage the artists were expected to mingle with the audiences in the bars, to encourage conviviality and consumption – which inevitably was best achieved by example. Poor Chaplin was only one of many who succumbed to alcoholism as an occupational hazard.

In 1890, however, he was still leaping from success to success. In the summer he was invited to sign for an American tour, and in August and September was appearing in New York at the Union Square Theatre.[1] The American trip, however, seems to have marked the final break-up of the Chaplins’ marriage[2]. Hannah had given birth to Leo Dryden’s son, George Dryden Wheeler.  Thus the young Charles Chaplin found himself fatherless, but with another half-brother. He was three and a half; Sydney was four years older. In his autobiography he recalls that at this time the children and their mother were still living in some affluence. However the comfort which sheltered Chaplin’s first three or four years was soon to end. Hannah’s liaison with Leo did not long survive the birth of their child. Hannah seems to have been a devoted, affectionate and protective mother, and to have loved the new baby as fiercely as she did her older sons. It is easy then to appreciate the shock that she must have suffered in the spring of 1893 when the appalling Dryden entered her lodgings and snatched away their six-month-old son. The baby was to vanish from the lives of the Chaplins for almost thirty years.

Soon after Charlie’s sixth birthday, the family’s situation reached a new crisis. Hannah became ill – it is not certain with what, but Chaplin recalls that she suffered from acute headaches. On 29 June she was admitted to the Lambeth Infirmary, where she .stayed until the end of July. On 1 July Sydney was taken into Lambeth Workhouse,[3] and four days later placed in the West Norwood Schools, which accommodated the infant poor of Lambeth.

In September Hannah was again taken into the Infirmary, and Sydney and Charlie, now eleven and seven, were admitted to the workhouse, ‘owing to the absence of their father and the destitution and illness of their mother’’.[4] Charles Chaplin Senior was traced and reluctantly appeared before the District Relief Committee. Somewhat heartlessly, he told them that while he was willing to take Charlie, he would not accept responsibility for Sydney, who was born illegitimate.

The Committee retorted that since Chaplin had married the boy’s mother, he was now legally liable for Sydney’s maintenance. At this stage, however, Hannah intervened to reject the idea of the boys living with their father as wholly repugnant, since he was living with another woman. Charles was not slow to point out her own adultery. No doubt somewhat bewildered by the family bickering, the Relief Committee decided that it was desirable to keep the boys together and that the best solution would be to place them in the Central London District Poor Law School at Hanwell.

Post script

From his incredible hardship in his earlier years to the famous persona we all know today as the iconic Chaplin; Chaplin’s dramatic ‘rags to riches’ story is an extraordinary tale of determination and ambition. In our next series of blogs, we’ll be exploring Chaplin’s later years looking at howhe attracted attention as a young performer, and track the route he took to stardom in America.

We’ll also be sharing Chaplin trivia acorss our social channels so don’t forget to follow us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram to find out more about Chaplin, and other famous silent stars.

[1] The Era, August 1890.

[2] Glenn Mitchell, op.cit. cites an intriguing ‘personal ad’ in The Entr’acte of 29 January 1887: ‘To Charles Chaplin – send address to “L.H.”, 56 Darwin Street, Old Kent Road, Very ill’.  If ‘L.H.’ was Hannah, it may be that the irregularities of the Chaplin marriage had begun before the birth of Charles Junior

[3] Renfrew Road (Lambeth) Workhouse Register, GLC Archives.

[4] Southwark Workhouse Register, GLC Archives

Charlie Chaplin’s Life – The Beginnings

Charlie Chaplin’s Life – The Beginnings

Exclusive extract from David Robinson’s new Biography

Charlie Chaplin is still known as the world’s most famous film star. Despite his huge success in the movies, Chaplin came from difficult beginnings. In our first blog, we looked at his childhood in workhouses, where Charlie and his stepbrother Sydney had to fend for themselves during their early adolescent years. In this extract, we look at how Charlie and Sydney coped in this ever-changing environment, and how both boys went on to become entertainers. Unlike his earlier childhood days, luck began to shine on Chaplin. Read on to find out more.

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Extract Two

[Hannah] had dermatitis and her body was covered in bruises. No one troubled or dared to inquire into the cause of her injuries; they were most likely explained by violent encounters with other patients as a result of her mental condition. The doctor has scribbled the abbreviation ‘Syp.’ in the corner of the form recording her physical condition on admission, suggesting that he may have supposed or suspected tertiary syphilis as the cause of her disorder. There is no other evidence to support this, though Chaplin to the end of his life appears to have been fascinated and frightened by this venereal disease.  Hannah was committed to Cane Hill Asylum, the doctors reporting:

Has been very strange in manner – at one time abusive & noisy, at another using endearing terms. Has been confined in P[added] R[oom] repeatedly on a/c of sudden violence – threw a mug at another patient. Shouting, singing and talking incoherently. Complains of her head and depressed and crying this morning – dazed and unable to give any reliable information. Asks if she is dying. States she belongs to Christ Church (Congregation) which is Ch. of E. She was sent here on a mission here by the Lord. Says she wants to get out of the World.clothes.[1]

On 12. November 1898 she was discharged from Cane Hill Asylum,[2] and soon afterwards gathered up her sons from 289 Kennington Road. The three of them moved into a room at 39 Methley Street, behind Haywards’ pickle factory which exuded a pungent atmosphere throughout the neighbourhood. Their home was next to a slaughterhouse; and Chaplin remembered the horror with which he realised that a merry slapstick chase after a runaway sheep was destined to end in tragedy and the slaughter of the entertaining animal.

The beginning of his career: Background

Charlie first performed at the age of twelve, when he got a chance to act in a stage show. He left school permanently at thirteen and followed his ambition to become an actor. It’s extraordinary that Chaplin was so determined to do this, given the fates both his parents suffered in pursuit of the same.  Chaplin worked hard from a young age, and his comic performances were quickly noticed by critics who saw him in his early shows, like Jim, A Romance of Cockayne.

By the age of sixteen Chaplin had toured the country twice with different theatre companies. His older brother Sydney had also had some success, and brought Charlie along with him. Charlie met Fred Karno (who ran a prestigious comedy company) but didn’t impress him at first. Karno said Charlie was ‘pale, puny and sullen-looking.’ But within a few months Charlie had become the star of the company, and went to America with Karno’s support.

Chaplin toured America twice with Karno’s comedy group, and on the second tour was invited to join the New York Motion Picture Company. By 1913 Chaplin was earning $150 a week, and had the promise of a new life. He went on to become an international superstar, America’s highest paid actor and still one of Hollywood’s most iconic faces. His childhood, though difficult, had given him the resilience and drive to conquer the American film industry.

Extract Three

On Friday 25 November 1898 Charlie Chaplin was now to become a professional entertainer. In early interviews he occasionally gave rather romantic accounts of his discovery by William Jackson, the founder of the Eight Lancashire Lads:

One day I was giving an exhibition of the ordinary street Arab’s contortions, the kind so common in the London streets, when I saw a man watching me intently. ‘That boy is a born actor!’ I heard him say, and then to me, ‘Would you like to be an actor?’ I scarcely knew what an actor was in those days, though my mother and father had both been connected with the music hall stage for years, but anything that promised work and the rewards of work as a means of getting out of the dull rut in which I found myself was welcome.

In his autobiography Charlie remembered that he had to rehearse his clog dancing for six weeks before he was allowed to appear – almost paralysed with stage fright. His debut may, then, have been at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, where the troupe appeared in the Christmas pantomime Babes in the Wood which opened on Christmas Eve. If so, Charles Chaplin Senior would have been on hand to watch his son’s first steps: he opened on Boxing Day at the Manchester Tivoli. Certainly Charlie was working with the troupe by 9 January 1899, when he was enrolled by Mrs Jackson at the Armitage Street School, Ardwick, Manchester.[3]

Even to a ten-year-old in a troupe of clog dancers, the music halls of those times must have provided an incomparable schooling in method, technique and discipline. A music hall act had to seize and hold its audience and to make its mark within a very limited time – between six and sixteen minutes. The audience was not indulgent, and the competition was relentless. The performer in the music hall could not rely on a sympathetic context or build-up: Sarah Bernhardt might find herself following Lockhart’s Elephants on the bill. So every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo – a beginning, a middle and a smashing exit – to grab the applause. He had to learn to command every sort of audience, from a lethargic Monday first-house to the Saturday rowdies

Ill fortune had not done buffeting the Chaplins. Charles was aware that his mother was sick again. She had grown listless, seemed unconcerned when the sweat shop for whom she sewed stopped giving her work and took back the sewing machine, and neglected the little room. In May Charlie arrived home to be told by other children around the door that his mother had gone insane. He had the job of leading her to the Infirmary in Renfrew Road and then, as her nearest known relative, reporting the case to the authorities. He had just turned fourteen. The medical certificate records: ‘Charles Chaplin, son, 3 Pownall Terrace, Kennington Road, states she keeps on mentioning a lot of people who are dead and fancies she can see them looking out of the window and talking to imaginary people – going into strangers’ rooms etc.’ Hannah’s delightful window entertainments had passed into the region of madness.[4]

While waiting for Sydney’s return, Charlie remembered making friends with some wood-choppers – also working in a mews behind Kennington Road – and that one of them treated him to a gallery seat at the South London Music Hall in London Road, Lambeth. The star act was Fred Karno’s Early Birds. This was his first encounter with the company in which he was first to achieve fame. Sydney finally arrived home, and Charlie at last could share his troubles. They went to Cane Hill to visit Hannah and were shocked at how ill she looked. Charlie was long and deeply troubled by her reproach, ‘If only you had given me a cup of tea that afternoon I would have been all right.’

Sydney announced that he had come home for good. He had saved enough to live on for the next few months, and had determined go on the stage. It was an ambition which his younger brother shared. Many years later he was to tell his son (a third Charles Chaplin), ‘Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the streets trying to find enough to eat to keep alive, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world. I had to feel that exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without that you go down to defeat’.[5]

Facts you might not have known about Chaplin

  • Chaplin could play piano, violin and cello, all of which he taught himself as a child
  • Charlie Chaplin never shot a film from a completed script once in his career. The scripts would simply say ‘Charlie enters a shop’ or something vague, and Chaplin would work out the gags once on set.
  • Chaplin was meticulous about his work, and took longer to complete his pictures than any other filmmaker at the time[6]
  • In the Kid, it took 53 takes to achieve every finished take that appeared in the final cut.
  • Charlie married four times, and had 11 children
  • In the 1950s, he was accused of being a communist and was deported from the US. He lived in Switzerland with his fourth wife for the rest of his life.

We hope this has given you an insight into the background that gave Chaplin such depth, and pathos as a performer. His dramatic ‘rags to riches’ story inspired the Kid, and is an extraordinary tale of determination and ambition.

Next up we look at David Robison’s study of Chaplin’s early life.  You can also follow us on Twitter or Facebook to find out more about Chaplin, and the equally wonderful stars of the silent era.

[1] Lambeth Board of Guardians, Lunacy Examinations Book, 12 September 1898, GLC Archives.

[2] Renfrew Road (Lambeth) Workhouse Register, GLC Archives.

[3] Armitage School Register. The school registers have now disappeared, but the entry was illustrated in a Manchester newspaper (unidentified cutting in Chaplin family archive) in 1921

[4] Lambeth Board of Guradians, Lunacy Reception Order, 9 May 1903, GLC Archives.

[5] Charles Chaplin Jr., 1960, My Father, Charlie Chaplin.

  • [6] Louvish, Simon (2010). Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. London: Faber and Faber, p.228

Neil Innes 1944 – 2019

Neil Innes 1944 – 2019

On 30th December 2019, we learnt the sad news that Neil Innes, long-time friend and supporter of the festival, had sadly passed away.

Festival Director Chris Daniels made the following statement about Neil:

“We are deeply saddened to learn of Neil’s sudden passing.

“Neil was more than just a patron and a regular guest at Slapstick Festival, he was a real friend to us.

“His satirical genius through his songwriting, his eloquent lyrics and wonderful, intelligent observations engaged everyone who met or worked with him. You couldn’t wish for a more generous, good-hearted and warm natured human being.

“We will sorely miss his presence as one of the great satirical musicians of our time.

“Our hearts go out to Neil’s family.”

– Chris Daniels

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Slap Up Feast of Fun © Paul Lippiatt Slapstick Festival 40 copy 1024×677 1

Modern Times | Charlie Chaplin The Composer

Modern Times | Charlie Chaplin The Composer

Modern Times | Charlie Chaplin The Composer

Charlie Chaplin, one of cinema’s most famous stars, was a man of many talents… actor, director, writer, and composer are among his many credits. With the upcoming screening of Modern Times at the Bristol Hippodrome, I thought I would take a bit of time to talk about Chaplin’s work as a composer… especially since the score for Modern Times contains the iconic melody of “Smile,” one of the most beloved songs of the 20th Century that has been covered by many recording stars. Although he had received a couple of honorary Oscars for his work in film, his first Academy Award was awarded for his score of Limelight in 1973.

In making his films, Chaplin had almost complete control over production. With the advent of sound…. he could also have control over an entirely new aspect of cinema production… the film score. The first film that Chaplin composed the score for was City Lights – a film that could have been made as a talkie, but Chaplin resisted, and it remained silent… but it did mean that he could score the film as he wanted. Before sound in cinema, Chaplin had control over the pieces that he wished to accompany his films. After sound, he became a composer. After the success of City Lights, Chaplin went back to his earlier films and composed scores for them as well.

Not a classically trained musician, Chaplin was able to play some instruments by ear and sing melodies. He had assistants who would then transpose these melodies into a finished score for his films. He was also very much influenced by his early experiences in the English music hall tradition. He would also use counterpoint in his compositions. In scenes where characters are living in poor conditions, he would often compose music that would evoke richer surroundings. Chaplin did not want his scores to sound comedic. In his mind, the music should not overshadow the comedy that was showing on screen. He wanted the scores to express the sentimentality of the narrative of his films.

Some of Chaplin’s melodies would go on to become popular songs. “Smile” has already been mentioned, but “Eternally” was adapted from his score for Limelight and “This is my Song” was from A Countess from Hong Kong. The lyrics for “Smile” were written by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. Petula Clark had a number one hit with “This is my Song,” and “Smile” has been famously covered by Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and Michael Jackson.

Join us on February 10th to hear Chaplin’s masterful score to Modern Times played by the Bristol Ensemble and conducted by Günter Buchwald. The evening will be hosted by Marcus Brigstocke and will also include two short silent comedies: Laurel and Hardy’s Bacon Grabbers and Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow. Comic magician John Archer will also be appearing to round out an evening of fantastic entertainment!

More information about the evening can be found here – and for a limited period, we’re running a 2-4-1 offer on gala tickets! To take advantage put the code ‘241 Tickets’ in the box as you check out!

Finally, a quick throwback to Slapstick 2014 when we organised a flashmob prior to our gala with Paul McGann, the City of Bristol Choir and the Bristol School’s Chamber Choir singing Smile. Enjoy!

Three Ages Program Notes

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Three Ages

THREE AGES (1923)

Directed by Buster Keaton

USA 63 mins U

Three Ages is the first feature-length film that Buster Keaton wrote, directed, produced and starred. The film contains three different stories set in three different time periods of human history: the Stone Age, ancient Rome, and modern times (the Jazz Age). The film was shot in this manner as a kind of insurance for the studio. If it failed, the film could easily be broken up into individual shorts.  The film also works as a satire of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), which was a film that told four different stories over the span of 2,500 years. Three Ages was made in 1923, and starred Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, and Wallace Beery.

The three time periods that are depicted in the film have characters portrayed by the same actors. In the Stone Age, Keaton is a caveman who competes in a show of strength with another bigger, brawnier caveman (Wallace Beery) for the attentions of a cavewoman (Margaret Beery). In Ancient Rome, Keaton is shown in a rivalry to gain the affections of a Roman noblewoman. Keaton participates in a chariot race and is thrown into a lion’s den. In the modern age (Jazz Age), Leahy is to marry another man, but Keaton discovers that he has been charged with forgery and bigamy.

Three Ages was the first feature-length film where Keaton wore so many hats, but Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature-length film was in The Saphead (1920). He was recommended for the role in The Saphead by Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks had played the role onstage but had other commitments and, as the film was to have a more comedic slant, put Keaton’s name forward for the role.

This was the only film that Margaret Leahy made. She was discovered in a beauty pageant in England that was seeking new film stars. The stars were then flown out to Hollywood to make a film. Her first attempt was not a success and she was dropped from the film. She ended up making Three Ages, but never acted again after this film. Instead of moving back to England, Leahy chose to remain in California.

Wallace Beery was at one point the world’s highest paid actor. He started out in silent films at the Essanay Studios portraying a Swedish maid in drag named Sweedie. Beery made several of these films including one with his wife, Gloria Swanson. His most notable silent films include: The Lost World (1925), Robin Hood (with Douglas Fairbanks – 1922), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), and Beggars of Life (with Louise Brooks – 1928). He was fired from the studio with the advent of sound, but was contracted by Irving Thalberg to MGM as a character actor. Beery was nominated twice for the Best Actor Academy Award, winning one of them.

Introduction by Peter Lord. Piano accompaniment by Daan van den Hurk.

Keaton: The MGM Years Program Notes

SO FUNNY IT HURT: BUSTER KEATON AND MGM (2004)

Directed by Kevin Brownlow

UK 38 mins U

Buster Keaton is currently the most popular comedian of the silent era.  But in the late 20s, he was giving anxiety to his producer, Joseph M. Schenck.

Schenck decided that since his releases for United Artists were not as successful as he had hoped, he would pass him over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, owned by his brother Nicholas.  Here he could be sure his comedies would have stronger support, both in production and release.  And so it turned out – to begin with.

Despite his string of brilliant comedies, MGM insisted that he worked from a script, something he had not done before, Buster dutifully made The Cameraman just as MGM wanted.  It was a tremendous success.  Spite Marriage was another.  But thereafter, problems assailed him.  Sound became a fact of life.  Coming from vaudeville, Keaton had no fear of talk, but MGM did not yet know how to handle it.   The front office arranged his subjects, and the writers to work on them, and Buster was less and less involved.  Gone was his free and easy picture-making style when he could make it up as he went along, stop if he got stuck and play baseball, spend as much as the project required.

He was given a supervisor.  At least one MGM director had left after having that indignity forced upon him.  And it wasn’t as if the supervisor knew anything about Keaton’s style of comedy.  Lawrence Weingarten specialised in sophisticated, light comedy.  The company kept borrowing the co-workers he depended upon and not giving them back.  On top of which Buster was experiencing marital trouble, was being denied access to his sons, and was drinking heavily.

During Prohibition drink swept through Hollywood like a tidal wave.  Keaton was one of those alcoholics who only needed a couple of drinks to make him incapable.  His state is all too apparent in some of his later MGM pictures, where this once athletic actor had to play sitting down.  He also gambled for high stakes – often with the very producers who were crippling his career.  Of course, it was all done with his best interests at heart.  Having made one film he didn’t care for, he was obliged to repeat it three or four times for foreign versions.  In an attempt to increase his popularity, he was given a partner – the silent Buster was teamed up with the garrulous Jimmy ‘Schnozzle’ Durante.  But his popularity didn’t need increasing – even his bad films were huge box office successes, something which him all the more depressed.

He moved out of his bungalow into a land yacht which, parked on the backlot, became notorious for wild parties.  Finally, Louis B Mayer confronted Keaton and ordered him off the lot.  ‘You studio people warp my character’ said Buster.

Keaton eventually returned, on a far lower salary, as a gag-writer, helping to create some of the funniest sequences in film history.

So Funny It Hurt is the story of Keaton’s years at MGM.  It includes rare footage, such as a home-movie shot in New York in 1928 of The Cameraman in production, and it is presented from the old MGM studios by the actor James Karen, a close friend of Buster’s from the 1950s.

Program notes from Kevin Brownlow.

Kevin Brownlow will be in discussion with David Robinson.

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The Vagabond Queen Program Notes

THE VAGABOND QUEEN (1929)

Directed by Géza von Bolváry

UK 62 mins U

This unparalleled essay in European absurdism was one of the most regrettable casualties of the coming of sound. Released as a silent in May 1929, it was re-issued with synchronized music and sound effects in August 1930 – but too late. Variety, reviewing the new version on its London release, admitted that its production values (with fine photography by Charles Rosher) were far superior to most British pictures, yet mercilessly damned its chances: “Picture doesn’t mean anything in these talker days.” Significantly, perhaps, the same page carried a review of the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers.

The film represents an extraordinary marriage of a native British nonsense tradition with the sprightliness of Hungarian operetta. The story is by Douglas Furber (1885-1961), one of the most prolific English writers of revue and musical plays between the wars (his songs included “The Lambeth Walk” and “The Bells of St Mary’s”). The story is a merciless send-up of Ruritanian romance and in particular The Prisoner of Zenda. Betty Balfour plays the dual role of Sally, maid-of-all-work in a seedy London lodging house, and Princess Xonia of Bolonia, a revolution-prone Balkan state. Sally is carried off to Bolonia to take the Princess’s place in the forthcoming coronation procession, at which a regicide is confidently anticipated. Luck and nonsense naturally save the day.

The prolific Géza (von) Bolváry (1897-1961) began directing in his native Hungary in 1920, but from 1923 to 1958 he mostly worked in Germany. In 1928-9 he made a group of films in Britain or as Anglo-German co-productions: these included the excellent The Ghost Train (1927), Number 17 (1928), with Ivor Novello, Bright Eyes (Champagner, 1929), which teamed Novello with Betty Balfour, and finally The Vagabond Queen.

The musical score added to the film is of particular interest both in the evolution of music from silent to sound cinema, and in the subsequent progression of Bolváry’s career. It was assigned to the composer-compiler-conductor John Reynders, and was almost certainly prepared in close collaboration with the director. Reynders was London’s best-known cinema compiler-conductor of the silent film period. From its opening as a cinema in 1923 until the end of the silent period, he was musical director of the Tivoli Theatre, where he presented much-admired scores for the British premieres of – among numerous others – Greed, Ben-Hur, The Merry Widow, and Moulin Rouge. Subsequently he became a prolific composer of sound film music. His score for The Vagabond Queen is brash and energetic, and contributes very positively to the comedy, with its own jokes and aural commentary. It is particularly interesting that the film was actually extended by 1042 feet when the sound was added; the orchestral score accentuates the distinctly musical rhythm of the action. The creation of this novel comic balletic style may well have influenced Bolváry’s direct progression into film operetta, starting with Zwei Herzen im 3/4-Takt, which was to exert a great influence upon the development of German and Austrian musicals in the 1930s.

In addition to its star, the film boasts an excellent cast. Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961) – a favourite embroidery companion of the Dowager Queen Mary, he practically qualifies as a “Funny Lady” himself – has one of his most abandoned comedy roles as Lidoff the Bolonian diplomat. Patrician by birth and originally a painter, Thesiger had an unbroken theatrical career from 1909 to the end of his life, creating among other roles that of the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan. He made his first film appearance in 1916 and his last (in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) in 1961. His most memorable appearances were in James Whale’s The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, though nowhere is he as extravagant as in The Vagabond Queen. Glen Byam Shaw (1904-1986), the juvenile lead, made his stage debut in 1923, and went on to become a distinguished Shakespearean actor and director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (1953-1959).

Program notes courtesy of David Robinson. Introduction by Lucy Porter.

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The Vagabond Queen

Skinner’s Dress Suit Program Notes

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Skinners Dress Suit2 300×273 1

SKINNER’S DRESS SUIT (1926)

Directed by William A. Seiter

USA 70 mins PG

This show is intended to revive the reputation of a comedian of the silent era – not on the scale of a Lloyd or a Keaton, but extremely amusing and entertaining in his own right. I have several of his Universal comedies in my collection – they were released on 16mm by both Kodascope and Universal’s Show-at-Home library and tonight’s film is a good-quality copy of one of these.

Denny had been his father’s stage name – he was W H Denny, the Gilbert & Sullivan singer. Reginald adopted it when became an actor. He was born in Richmond, Surrey in 1891 as Reginald Leigh Dugmore – and he died in Richmond, Surrey in 1967. He was educated at St Francis Xavier College in Mayfield, Sussex. He felt he had been educated enough for a theatrical career, so ran away at 16 and got a job as an extra at the Duke of York’s theatre in London. He was hired as a chorus man by a prominent major American producer and opened in The Quaker Girl in New York in 1911. He is supposed to have made a film in 1912 but his memoirs don’t mention it. He signed a contract as a leading baritone with the Bandmann Opera Co touring India and the Orient. Rehearsals were held aboard ship bound for Bombay. It was obvious that Denny was not experienced enough, nor was his baritone deep enough, so he was relegated to lesser roles. He went into partnership with a crook, found himself stranded but managed to raise enough money to get back to America. In 1914 he played his first film role with Hazel Dawn for Famous Players in Niobe, directed by Hugh Ford. He had plenty of roles in the theatre, but this was 1917, and when America entered the war, he decided it was time to enlist. He was shipped by to England to train for the Royal Flying Corps. While he was on his pilot’s training course at Hastings, he won the Brigade Heavyweight Boxing Championship. The Armistice was signed before he finished his course, and on his discharge he returned to America. He found work at the World Studios in Fort Lee, in Bringing Up Betty and The Oakdale Affair, both with Evelyn Greely and both made in 1919. Denny was starred in a boxing series called The Leather Pushers. The money ran out, but Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, took an interest in them and with studio finance they became one of the most popular series of the 1920s. He was sent to California and starred in a series about the North West Mounted Police. With no riding experience, he was thrown and broke an ankle. Which was fortunate, because he then starred in a Jack London story, The Abysmal Brute (1923) about a backwoods boy who becomes a boxer. At Denny’s insistence, light comedy was injected into the melodrama. Universal quickly capitalised on his talent – realising that combining humour with handsome physique was what had made Douglas Fairbanks a star. Not too long afterwards, Denny became the highest-paid English star next to Chaplin.

Bryant Washburn had played this Skinner role in 1917 for Harry Beaumont at Essanay, and it was so successful he made two more Skinner stories. Glenn Tryon remade it in 1929 as Skinner Steps Out directed by Wm James Craft with Glenn Tryon and Merna Kennedy.

As you’ll see, Denny’s characterisation was that of a typical young American entangled in the problems of suburban life. The trouble was that Harold Lloyd did the same thing and was strong competition. And when talking pictures revealed an impeccable English accent, Denny’s career as a star comedian was over. He began a second career as a featured player – appearing in everything from Romeo and Juliet with Barrymore to Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He became one of America’s favourite Englishmen. His career in silent pictures was forgotten, not only by audiences but by Denny himself.

In the 1960, I went down to Palm Springs to meet Laura la Plante. She was a delightful person, and very funny, but pathologically shy. How she managed to become a leading lady is beyond my comprehension. She pleaded with me not to bring a film crew down. We did go down, but only to interview her husband, Irvin Asher for the Hollywood series. However, she did say how much she enjoyed working on this film, and praised Denny highly… She must have enjoyed her experience because director Bill Seiter became her first husband.

Here are some extracts from my diary for my first trip to California in December, 1964,

I was staying at the house of film collector David Bradley in the Hollywood Hills. Bradley had gone to spend Christmas in Chicago and he arranged with his partner, Tom Webster to give me the run of his collection and to do all the driving. It could not have been a better arrangement.

December 12th; Tom picked me up and we headed for the Pasadena Freeway to meet Reginald Denny. Los Angeles was full of signs for Denny’s – a coffee shop which had nothing to do with him. But on Hollywood Boulevard we passed a model shop named Reginald Denny’s, and it turned out that in 1936 he had begun working on a radio-controlled system for model planes. He adapted it for use with anti-aircraft gunnery. These models were designated TDD – which stood for Target Drone Denny.

When we located his street, we saw a tall, unmistakable figure standing on the kerb, lit by the light from his open door. It was a particular thrill to meet Denny, because I knew his younger self so well thanks to Bill Eversons’ screenings. He looked older than I expected and while he talked enthusiastically of his youth, I had the impression that he had thought little of his films. He admitted that he had not seen any of his silent for over twenty years. He clearly had little idea of how good he was and it took some persuasion before he agreed to see Skinner’s Dress Suit.

Dec 14;

Tonight is our Reginald Denny screening, to be held at Bradley’s house. Tom and I go out to buy a lot of drink (which no one drinks). And as we return, the crowd arrives. Reginald Denny and his wife, who played opposite him in a late silent, Night Birds, Reginald Denny jr, Denny’s daughter, Joan and son-in-law, awaiting the show with a trace of nervousness. We settled them in and started with an episode from The Leather Pushers, the boxing series which brought Denny to Hollywood. This showed him as a likable but rather flat character, what humour there was came from the other members of the cast. But it was a surprise to see a leading man box so convincingly.

Then Skinner’s Dress Suit – Bradley’s print was a faded amber with bits missing, but although the audience seemed to miss some of the subtlety, it seemed to go over well. Smooth directed by Wm Seiter, it showed Denny at his best – as a comedian whose polish and technical brilliance never outshone his genuine warmth.

As the Denny family watched this 1926 comedy, the atmosphere noticeably changed. The picture’s gags at first received restrained, relieved chuckles. But as the story took hold, the audience, which included Sennett comedienne Minta Durfee, gave the film their whole-hearted approval. Mrs Denny spotted herself as an extra, and identified Janet Gaynor as another.

The children were very pleased to see that their father was so good as an actor and Denny himself was very bucked. At the end, he was assailed with congratulations. Grinning shyly, he confessed that he had expected the film to creak. “It stands much better than I thought it would,” he said. Then they all left, purring with delight.

Please note that there are a couple of short section missing.

Program notes provided by Kevin Brownlow. Introduction by Kevin Brownlow. Piano accompaniment by Daan van den Hurk.

Spite Marriage Program Notes

SPITE MARRIAGE (1929)

Directed by Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton

USA 76 mins PG

Spite Marriage is the tale of a tailor who is madly in love with an actress… so in love, that he’s gone to see her play countless times! He is given the chance to marry the woman of his dreams, but what he does not know, is that she is only marrying him to make her old flame jealous!

The film was made in 1929 and stars Buster Keaton, Dorothy Sebastian, and Edward Earle. Spite Marriage was directed by Edward Sedgewick and Buster Keaton. It was written by Lew Lipton, Ernest Pagano, Richard Schayer, and Robert E. Hopkins.

Dorothy Sebastian’s most famous films were in the late 1920s. She was contracted to MGM, and when her contract was over she was relegated to smaller parts. Her other well-known films include A Woman of Affairs (1928) and Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Sebastian and Keaton were romantically linked during the production of Spite Marriage. Edward Earle was a leading man during the early 1920s with roles in East Lynne (1921), False Fronts (1922), and A Dangerous Flirtation (1924).

Edward Sedgwick directed most of Keaton’s films during their time at MGM. They had a shared love of baseball and shared an office on MGM’s backlot. Sedgwick also directed Laurel and Hardy and is credited as discovering Lucille Ball.

This film has the distinction of being Buster Keaton’s last silent film. It is also the second film that he made for MGM after becoming a contract player. The previous film was The Cameraman, also directed by Edward Sedgwick. The Cameraman was a financial success for MGM. In addition to being his last silent, Spite Marriage was also the last film where Keaton was allowed any creative control. When MGM signed Buster Keaton, one of their concerns was over the budgets of his films. In crafting his films, Keaton often used a lengthy improvised approach. MGM wanted Keaton to stick to a shooting script.

Keaton’s original idea for the film was to make a sound comic western. Keaton realised that the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927 was a signal that the age of silent film was about to end. At the time, MGM only had one stage that was used for making sound films. Sound was being reserved for other types of films. It was felt by MGM that comedies that used physical humour where much better made as silent films. Buster Keaton wanted to use sound effects in his films, but keep the dialogue to a minimum.

One of the film’s funniest scenes involves Buster Keaton putting his drunk wife to bed. This scene was recreated with much lesser comedic effect by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953). Buster Keaton would go on to recreate the scene himself on stage in the 1950s with his wife, Eleanor Keaton.

Accompanied live by Günter A. Buchwald, Frank Bockius, and Romano Todesco performing as The European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

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Spite

It’s Just a Jump to the Left!

It’s Just a Jump to the Left!

Slapstick 2018 is just around the corner! We’ve got so many great events in January to help brighten those cold winter days and nights! Make sure you check out our full programme as we have four days chock-full of laughs, music and classic comedy with some great special guests. One of our events might have you braving the chill in fishnet stockings! Slapstick is proud to present The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Special guest, Jason Donovan!

I think everyone has their own Rocky Horror story. It’s amazing to think that this film has been screening in cities around the world for over 40 years! I first watched the film in high school, went to a few interactive screenings in St. Louis (in costume!), and finally saw the stage production a couple of times here in the U.K. It’s quite interesting that in the U.S. people mainly experience the film and in the U.K most people are exposed to the stage production. Both the film and stage versions have their own energy when you see them, but I have to say that I much prefer watching the film with an enthusiastic audience.

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rhps soundtrack 298×300 1

My first experience with Rocky Horror was watching it on video. I had seen my brother’s soundtrack CD and was very confused by the cover… I had no clue that the main photo was of Tim Curry! He had rented the film from Blockbuster (yes, I’m that old!) and I sneakily watched it on my own one evening. “Dammit Janet” is the song that captured my attention! I had heard about screenings and decided to read what I could online. I learned some of the call back lines and very much enjoyed watching the film for the first time with a very raucous crowd! I’ve not seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show with an audience for many years, so I’m very much looking forward to our screening!

What I love about going to see a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that it is a film experience like no other. Audience members are encouraged to dress up, bring props and shout at the film. Some screenings have cast members that act out the film as it’s being projected behind them. I’ve put a clip below from Fame that shows exactly what I mean:

I guess it goes without saying… but water pistols are a strict no no at Colston Hall!

Rocky Horror has had such a cultural impact. “The Time Warp” is a Halloween party staple. So many films and television shows have referred to the phenomenon. One of my favourite examples is this clip from Sesame Street with Susan Sarandon and the Count:

Richard O’Brien wrote the original stage musical and adapted it for film. He also starred as Riff Raff. In New Zealand, there is a statue commemorating him in his most famous role. Near the statue there is a wall that gives the dance instructions for “The Time Warp”. There is a even a web camera set up so that the world can view visitors to the statue and their dancing skills!

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IMG 0107 300×154 1

Join us for an evening of “absolute pleasure” on Saturday, January 27th! Tickets and more info can be found here.