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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
Join us for an evening of “absolute pleasure” on Saturday, January 27th! Tickets and more info can be found here.
January is just around the corner! We are busy, busy, busy in Slapstick HQ getting everything prepped for the festival. One of the new additions to our programme this year is called Young Slapstick! The events are happening on Saturday the 27th and it is a great way to introduce the little ones to the joyful fun of slapstick comedy. The main event will consist of two shorts and some clips hosted by Mark Olver. Following that is a workshop in the physical art of slapstick – pratfalls and all – hosted by Circomedia. Later in the afternoon, there will be a Punch and Judy show. I thought I’d take this opportunity to write a little bit about Punch and Judy and their connection to slapstick comedy.
The term “slapstick” originated from an actual stick that was used as a sound effect in theatre performances. It was a club that was comprised of two slats of wood that when hit against something (or someone!) would create a very loud slap sound. It originated in Italy’s Commedia dell’arte and was later integrated into the Punch and Judy puppet show. Mr. Punch usually holds a slapstick during a performance. Punch and Judy shows are known for their exaggerated use of physical violence.
Punch and Judy shows also had their roots in Italy dating back to the 16th century and stem from the same Commedia dell’arte tradition. Marionettes were the first type of puppets used in the Punch and Judy show. Mr. Punch even has an official birthday in the UK – May 9th, 1662. This was the date that Samuel Pepys saw a show with the characters in a performance in Covent Garden. Punch and Judy shows were popular in other countries during the period. George Washington even went to see a show in the American colonies. The glove-puppet style that most modern shows use was gradually adopted in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Slapstick is welcoming Prof. Patel and his very unique Punch and Judy show in January. He is the first Asian Punch and Judy Professor in the UK. There will be two performances – one of a traditional Punch and Judy show, the other is Prof. Patel’s re-imagining of the characters with a bit of Bollywood panache. The show looks to be a lot of fun and I look forward to watching it myself!
The subject of this post was originally going to be on an entirely different topic, which will be saved for a later time!
When I was doing research for that topic, I came across this TedxEmory talk on YouTube. The title of this video is, “Technology and the New Aesthetics of Violence.” I will warn you, there are some violent images shown from certain films in this video. So, viewer be warned! What does this video have to do with the Slapstick Festival? Well, there are a couple of reasons why I have decided to share this video.
The main reason why I even came across this video is that I was looking up the person presenting the lecture. Dr. Eddy Von Mueller is a lecturer at Emory University, and a former professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. More specifically, he was one of my professors while I was doing my film degree at GSU. Dr. Von Mueller had a dramatic impact on my education, and what areas of film history, theory, and criticism that I decided to focus on during my studies. In fact, you could say he was one of my favourite professors!
One of Dr. Von Mueller’s areas of expertise is in the study of animation. During the intro to this lecture, he explains that what he is attempting to explore is why violence in cinema can either make us laugh, cringe in fear or disgust, or make us cheer for a hero. Although most of the lecture is about gun violence is displayed in film, it can easily be transposed to other types of cinematic violence. It certainly makes a good starting point for how film studies explore how violence is portrayed in cinema and how different aesthetics can impact how an audience will react to that violence.
I’ve put a link to the video below… it’s a fascinating 20 minutes and takes me back to the film lectures that I absolutely loved!
Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance created one of television’s most enduring comic duos – Lucy and Ethel. Lucy and Ethel were neighbours and best friends on the beloved sitcom, I Love Lucy. The two were constantly getting into trouble with all of Lucy’s crazy schemes! I remember growing up watching these two in reruns and never failing to laugh at their antics! One of the most famous scenes involves the duo working in a chocolate factory and trying to keep up with the production line. The comic gem is below.
One of the surprises that I discovered when I was trying to do some research about Lucy and Ethel is the amount of references to these two characters in everyday life! So many articles came up about friends who describe themselves as Lucy and Ethel… or a situation that Lucy and Ethel would have gotten themselves into. I love this facet of popular culture… that something can endure and transcend its original medium. Two people can call themselves the “Lucy and Ethel” of their town and the meaning behind this is immediate, even if you aren’t fully aware of the source behind these names. I think I could even describe one of my own friendships as though the two of us were Lucy and Ethel!
There is so much written about I Love Lucy, and it has a fascinating spot in television history. The show had so much impact on American culture. I just wanted to write a little bit more about Lucy and Ethel. Apparently, Lucille Ball was quite lukewarm to the casting of Vivian Vance as Ethel. Ball had originally envisaged a much older woman in the role. Vance was made to wear frumpier clothes and was made to look older than she was. Ethel was married to Fred Mertz. Fred was portrayed by William Frawley who was 22 years older than Vivian Vance. It was rumoured that Ball and Vance did not get along during the filming of I Love Lucy. Fortunately, this rumour was false. Lucille Ball eventually warmed to the presence of Vivian Vance and her professionalism, and this led to them becoming close friends.
I Love Lucy is over 60 years old, but still holds a fond place in many hearts. Yes, some parts of it have aged… but it is still worth revisiting! Watching an episode almost always guarantees a smile and some laughter. Much of this laughter comes from the enduring friendship and antics of Lucy and Ethel.
Anita Garvin and Marion Byron – A Classic Comedy Duo
I hope everyone has seen our exciting event coming up in June! It’s so great that we will be able to present the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend award to that fantastic comedic duo, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders! The event has now sold out… so I’m hoping that everyone who wanted a ticket could get one! French & Saunders join a prestigious group of previous recipients, all of whom can be seen here.
I thought I would use the next few blog posts to look at famous female comedy teams of the past.
Hal Roach, producer of the Laurel & Hardy shorts, wanted to establish a female version of the comedic double act. Anita Garvin and Marion Byron were one of his attempts at a female pairing. They only made three shorts together, but one of them in now regarded as a classic of silent slapstick.
A Pair of Tights tells the story of two women out a on double date with two very cheap men (the tights of the title). The film follows the two pairs as they drive in a car that leads to a very funny and failed attempt at buying ice cream! I’ve included a link to an excerpt from the short below (ignore the annoying commentary, the quality was better than the full short that I found).
Both Garvin and Byron came from prestigious comedy backgrounds. Anita Garvin worked very frequently with Laurel & Hardy. One of her most acclaimed performances was the role of Laurel’s wife in Blotto. Garvin also appeared in shorts with Max Davidson, Charley Chase and James Finlayson. Marion Byron made him film debut opposite Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. She was hired by Hal Roach and worked in shorts with Max Davidson, Edgar Kennedy and Charley Chase. Both women retired from acting quite early, but it is great to have their performances preserved on film.