In The Silent Clowns, his seminal tome on those wonderful practitioners of silver screen mirth, Walter Kerr had this to say about Raymond Griffith: “Griffith seems to me to occupy a handsome fifth place—after Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon—in the silent comedy pantheon, a place that is his by right of his refusal to ape his contemporaries and his insistence on following the devious curve of an entirely idiosyncratic eye.” A “forgotten clown” whose trademark was the donning of a silk hat, white tie, and tails, Raymond Griffith was “the personification of cool,” observes Leonard Maltin in The Great Movie Comedians. “In the midst of comic chaos, he never loses his poise.”
The very first feature of Griffith’s that I saw was Hands Up! (1926)—his best-known film, and one that a stray detractor or two has wrongly charged inflates the comedian’s reputation. (Hands Up! was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2005.) I’ll concede that basing one’s opinion of an artist on just one movie can be fraught with pitfalls…but fortunately, more and more of Griffith’s work has started to resurface over the years (though not as much on home video as a silent comedy fan like myself would like, obviously). (And let’s be honest—Hands Up! is an outstanding comedy feature film.) Grapevine Video not only has Hands Up! available on DVD (I can’t swear to it, but I think this may have been the very first disc I purchased from them) but Open All Night (1924), Miss Bluebeard (1925—reviewed on the blog in October 2014), and You’d Be Surprised (1926). Grapevine also has what some people—notably my good Facebook chum Bruce Calvert and friend of the blog/capo di tutti capi of the Silent Comedy Mafia Richard M. Roberts—consider to be Ray’s finest film, Paths to Paradise (1925).
In Paradise, Griffith is “The Dude from Duluth”—a confidence man who has his eye on a diamond that a wealthy man (Bert Woodruff) is planning to gift his daughter for her wedding. “Duluth” has some competition, however, in Molly (Betty Compson)—“Queen of the Counterfeiters”—who’s managed to infiltrate the millionaire’s residence posing as a domestic; the Dude himself is incognito as a private detective. Much hilarity results from the pair’s efforts to “liberate” the gem from the household; though the couple is loath to work as a team as first (both declare during the film that whenever they work with a partner trouble invariably results) they eventually join forces both to take the diamond and experience a little happy-ever-aftering as well.
I’m going to assume it’s a safe bet Compson and Griffith’s characters wind up together—the Grapevine DVD of Paths to Paradise comes to an abrupt conclusion, but that’s because there doesn’t appear to be a surviving print that has the last reel intact. (The Wikipedia entry on Paradise notes it’s “usually filled in with synopsis by historians and film fans.” My historian was still at the cleaners.) The missing content will not, however, detract from your enjoyment in watching the movie; I was thoroughly entertained by Paradise—it’s an amazingly well-constructed comedy, with not one moment dedicated to filler (the Grapevine edition runs 65 minutes) and it moves lickety-split with many hysterical moments along the way.
If you’re going to seek this one out, I will warn you up front: there’s a sequence at the beginning of Paradise where Molly and her cohorts are shown running scams on tourists in a Frisco dive humorously titled “The Bucket O’Blood.” Told by a lookout there’s a patsy on the way who wants to visit a place with some Asian atmosphere, the bar’s contingent quickly sets up a pseudo opium den for their visitor (the action while they do this is sped up, which makes it that much funnier) and don “yellowface” (ouch) to masquerade in front of their mark. The mark, of course, is Griffith’s “Dude”—who capably (with the help of a stooge played by a recognizable Fred Kelsey) relieves them of some excess weight in their wallets and beats a hasty retreat…seconds before Compson discovers Griffith was using a gas inspector’s badge.
Paths to Paradise was adapted for the screen by Keene Thompson from a 1914 play by Paul Armstrong, The Heart of a Thief. (It would be reprised as the basis for an Eddie Bracken-Betty Hutton romp released twenty years later, Hold That Blonde!) It would be the second of three collaborations between Griffith and director Clarence Badger—who supervised the silk-hatted comedian in the earlier Red Lights (a 1923 mystery starring Marie Prevost) and the later Hands Up! Ray would make only four additional features after Hands Up!; his onscreen career came to an end once the talkie era was ushered in (an injury to his vocal cords rendered him unable to talk above a hoarse whisper) and after a part of sound shorts and an appearance as a dying soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Griffith embarked on a second career behind the scenes as a production manager, associate producer, and producer.
Bruce wrote a wonderfully informative article about Raymond Griffith (“Raymond Griffith: Silk Hat Comedian”) for the February 2005 edition of Classic Images that’s available at his Silent Film Still Archive website, but on a Griffith thread at Silent Comedy Mafia he has this to say about Paths to Paradise: “One big reason that [Paradise] is better is that Betty Compson is a great co-conspirator for the film. It doesn’t hurt to have Edgar Kennedy as a bumbling detective in the film either.” Asking me to choose between Hands Up! and Paradise would be like asking me to choose my favorite kid (well…if I had kids); I think they’re both exemplary comedies (check them out if you haven’t already) and I’m really looking forward to cracking open my copies of Open All Night and You’d Be Surprised in future. (Grapevine also has a 1923 film on hand where Griffith plays a dramatic role—White Tiger, directed by Tod Browning.) “Was he really that big of a deal, or is he an overrated figured foisted by Walter Kerr’s fancy in 1975?” asks a silent film comedy historian about the underrated comedian at the beginning of that aforementioned SCM thread.
“Yes, he’s that big a deal,” replies Richard M. Roberts, never one to mince words. And that’s the truth, Ruth.