I’m still in an amusement park mood. But I haven’t got a good cartoon amusement park on hand. I can give a couple examples of 1960s cartoons but they’re, you know, episodes of Atom Ant or things like that. I’d thought about silent movies, although the one I most want to point out — Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1917 Coney Island I already wrote up last year. Onward I dig.
By The Sad Sea Waves, here, is a Harold Lloyd film originally released the 30th of September, 1917. It’s one of the first pictures Lloyd did in the “Glasses” character. You know, The Default Harold Lloyd character. He had been in dozens of shorts before, and even developed the Lonesome Luke character in a series of shorts. With “Glasses”, or “The Boy” as he’s often credited, he got his big hit. Here he’s still getting his character sorted out; he looks to me kind of like he’s trying to play Bill Gates. This is what happens when you’re ahead of your time.
The storyline’s a straightforward one. Glasses dons a lifeguard suit to better his chances with some of the women on the beach, and has to keep up the scam. Venice Beach and its amusement pier linger in the far background, just visible but secondary to being on the beach. I suppose if we start from the premise he’s pretending to be a lifeguard there’s not a way to get onto the pier for very long. But I was excited when things got onto the trolley and I wondered if they’d get a few stunts in before the end of the short. No luck; it’s just a little too short.
Yes, I noticed that appearance of cabana number 23. Supposedly the early 20th century saw 23 as the most inherently funny number, per Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide To The Formerly Funny. Our more mature audiences of today give that role to 17 and, for more nerdy audiences, 42.
ZaSu Pitts. Not really a household name anymore, although at least a name you sometimes heard, when I was growing up. Probably it’s from the way the syllables fall together. What I wouldn’t realize until I got into old-time radio was that she was, to me, the perfect expression of a particular type of comic actor. I was surely primed for that by the imitations and impersonations of her, especially in the way Olive Oyl has always been played. Thelma Todd, I admit, I thought about less. She had a less catchy name, even if she was in some of the Marx Brothers’ best movies. And she died longer ago.
Nevertheless, they’re both solidly funny people. And Hal Roach, looking as ever for good comic pairings, tried them out together. One of the results is the short I want to show off this week, On The Loose. It was originally released the 26th of December, 1931, which seems like a strange release date to me. That’s because the short is mostly a trip to Coney Island.
The Coney Island thread is what drew my attention to this short. I’d been thinking of amusement parks and movies which feature them. The premise is that Pitts and Todd — playing themselves, or at least the Screen Versions of themselves — are stuck always being taken to Coney Island for dates and are fed up with it. This does inspire the question of whether anyone in a live-action short goes to an amusement park for fun or whether it’s all frustration and anxiety. But never mind that.
What most fascinates me here is the accidental-documentary nature of it. The rides and attractions as shown are more or less what you could really experience in Coney Island in the 30s, at least by reports, down to, yes, sitting in stands watching people come out of the funhouse and get jabbed by clowns. They were different times, is what we have to remember. And I love getting to see the rides that may not have been the biggest draws or the most famous stunts but were just normal and unremarkable and, happily, preserved on film.
I’m embarrassed to have missed the exact centennial of this. Well, it’s a year full of exciting centennials. Fortunately vaudeville and comedy-history enthusiast Trav SD noticed the day. So, please, a tiny bit late, appreciate the anniversary of the debut of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.
For this Saturday morning I’d like to offer Pat Sullivan’s Felix in Fairyland. Felix the Cat is one of those cartoon stars who managed to become so famous in his prime that he’s been kind of remembered ever since even though there hasn’t really been a lot to remember him for in a lifetime. There’ve been revitals in the 1950s and 1990s, and a direct-to-video movie in 1991 that featured some staggeringly ugly computer animation, but I can’t say any of it since the 1930s has been all that interesting. Nevertheless, he’s still somewhat recognizable, and gets rated as among the top cartoon characters of all time, so, why not look to one of the originals?
This nine-minute short, as promised, sends Felix to a fairy-tale land after an act of kindness, and once there he stands up for Little Miss Muffet and then comes to the aid of the Little Old Woman Who Lives In A Shoe. Cartoons would do a lot of fairy-tale fracturing and recombining in decades to come, and I’d be surprised if this were the first cartoon to do that, but it must be among the earlier ones since cartoons were only something like two decades old at this point.
The cartoon shows its age, in ways besides being silent. The worst of these ways is the pacing, as it takes its time establishing stuff and making sure everyone knows the setup. Felix doesn’t even get to Fairyland until two and a half minutes in. But the best of these ways is in the loose way that anything can be anything else, given a moment to change. Reality could be a very fluid thing before animation got very good at telling stories, and before sound and color added a kind of heavy reality to objects. When it was all black ink and white background, a spider could be a witch and Felix could climb a ladder of his own question marks with dreamy ease.
I realized I’ve got a shocking lack of Harold Lloyd video in my little humor blog here, so let me correct that by referring you loyal readers to the 1919 Hal Roach-directed short A Sammy In Siberia, which is surely one of the few American comedies set against the backdrop of the Allied invasion of Siberia in 1918. Archive.org has the video in reasonably archival form, though YouTube again has the form easier to embed in a WordPress site. Don’t read the comments [*].
I admit it’s the setting that’s making me choose this one. The short doesn’t really show Lloyd (or Roach) at his best, despite a couple nicely done stunts and fast action. But when do you see any kind of pop cultural representation of the Siberian Intervention? And I wonder also where Hal Roach filmed this, since there’s a good bit of what looks like stuff filmed outdoors in the snow. (On the other hand, the establishing shot of the cabin with the mountains in the background looks like a set to me.) Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database don’t seem to have much about this film. That’s often a danger with silents, though, to get distracted by looking at the stuff that isn’t the actors.
[*] It’s funny because back then you could stereotype Russians as big fat guys in silly hats the way you can’t anymore since political correctness destroyed humor? Seriously, guy, you want to put that thought out on the Internet where people can read it?
I’d like to offer another silent comedy bit today, so, let me offer The Mechanic, from 1924, starring Jimmy Aubrey, who I admit I don’t know much about. Wikipedia offers that he worked with Charlie Chaplin and with Laurel & Hardy, but that’s not so distinguishing a set of properties as you might think as Chaplin, Laurel, and Aubrey worked for Fred Karno. Karno was one of the leading producers for music hall performances, and brought quite a few of the greats of British stage comedy to British and to American attention, and so is one of the basic links to use if you need to connect any early 20th century stage performers. (And maybe later ones: Wikipedia delights me by noting that Karno’s houseboat, the Astoria, is still afloat at Hampton, Middlesex, where Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour uses it as a recording studio.)
The Mechanic is at archive.org, although it’s obviously not complete: credits, particularly, are missing, and if someone cut scenes from the reel before archive.org got hold of it I wouldn’t know. The jokes are stagy and somewhat padded, I admit, but the timing of jokes, particularly slapstick ones, has gotten generally much faster over the decades. The short, like many silents, also has the distracting value that if you look away from the action you can see actual Los Angeles of that time, and for that matter just the view of a garage back in the days when garages might be called things like Gasoline Alley are interesting. On archive.org the film is in two bits, a fifteen-minute main sequence and for some reason thirteen seconds that didn’t quite fit. Embedded below ought to be a YouTube copy of the first portion of this, and I trust you can find the last quarter-minute.
I haven’t the time to be entertaining on my own today, so let me instead point you to Ben Turpin’s 1909 short feature Mr. Flip. It’s got a lot of what you imagine to see in silent comedies, including what Wikipedia credits as the first filmed pie-in-the-face gag. I certainly accept that it’s an early one, since the pie-in-the-face isn’t framed very well or set up as clearly as it probably would be if the director, “Broncho Billy” Anderson (who played three roles in The Great Train Robbery), or Ben Turpin realized they were producing the first filmed instance of such a slapstick icon. (It’s in the final scene, at about 3:35 into the action.)
Ben Turpin achieved his greatest fame in Mack Sennett comedies and if his face looks familiar it’s probably because, well, it’s a very distinctive face and you probably saw him in clips from the Sennett shorts.
As before, the Archive.org link above is probably going to be a lasting URL, but it’s easier to embed from YouTube so here’s that.