Back in October 2016, I reviewed a Grapevine Video collection of Lupino Lane shorts that brought a great deal of pleasure into my occasionally dismal existence. Lane was an acrobatic film comedian (whose antics could rival those of Buster Keaton) who made a most entertaining series of two-reel comedies for Educational Pictures beginning in 1924; he then went on to work in the “talkies” before finding great fame on other side of the pond (in stage musicals like Me and My Gal, where he introduced “The Lambeth Walk”), and perhaps the only reason why “Nip” (as he was known to family and friends) never reached the heights of “The Big Three” can be explained by something Leonard Maltin once opined as far as his shorts were concerned, “there was nothing tangible or human underneath the surface gags.” Pish and tosh, says I; I enjoy watching Lane’s comedies and anytime I’m able to watch one I’ve not seen before it is a real hot-fudge-sundae delight.
Lane’s 1927 comedy Hello Sailor (directed by future Astaire-Rogers helmer Mark Sandrich) is a good representation of the comic’s work. It’s not in the same major league as some of the Lane shorts I’ve seen (Maid in Morocco, Sword Points) but it has its moments: Lupino and his younger brother Wallace (who appeared in quite of few of his older sibling’s comedies) are gobs on shore leave who are unaware that they share the same female pen pal (she’s requested they stop by whenever they’re in town). There are some really inventive gags in this one (whenever Wallace snatches Lupino’s cap off his head and throws it, it comes back like a boomerang) but the one I enjoyed the most has Lupino chasing after a streetcar; as a truck passes him, he runs up two long cardboard containers hanging out the back like a ramp and then leaps onto to the streetcar he needs to catch. Lane also does (three times!) his trademark jackknifing into a “cheerleader split” before returning to his standing position (though the first time he attempts this, it’s because he’s got one leg on the dock and the other on a boat that’s drifting away).
Hello Sailor is one of several shorts on The Movie Man’s Matinee, Volume 2, a recent Alpha Video DVD release (October 23) featuring silent comedy treasures from the voluminous vaults of film buff/historian John K. Carpenter (the “Movie Man” in the DVD’s title). John is a fellow Facebook fiend, and since I reviewed his previous volume of shorts back in May of this year, he asked me to do an encore via a screener he sent. You may have deduced by now that I don’t need a lot of encouragement in this arena; I enjoy the silent comedians of the past and share John’s mutual passion for classic film. As the notes on Volume 2 inform potential buyers, John confesses: “Like an Indiana Jones of film history, I started hunting for 16mm prints when I was still in short pants.” (He also hates snakes, Jacques.)
Lupino Lane is joined on Volume 2 by his fellow Educational (“The spice of the program!”) employee Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian, a tiny rugrat who made a number of ersatz-Our Gang two-reelers for the studio between 1925 and 1929. I did a review of a Grapevine release of “Big Boy” comedies in 2014 and I had this to say at the time:
My fellow classic movie bloggers are well aware that I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to kiddie thespians, but I’m convinced my problem with some of the Big Boy shorts is that young Malcolm often appears ready to burst out crying at any moment. (“If you don’t nail this shot, Malcolm, there’ll be no pudding for dessert. Oh, and we’ll shoot your dog.”)
I thought about this last statement as I was watching Sea Scamps (1926), a “Big Boy” effort on the Movie Man’s Matinee 2 DVD; a group of kids from an orphanage are invited by wealthy dowager Mrs. Bullock (Margaret Mann) to an all-day outing sailing the bounding main…but she informs the juvenile throng that their menagerie of pets (including a goat) are staying home. This means Big Boy can’t bring his beloved dog Pal, and as the kids and Mrs. B drive off to the boat, B.B. runs along behind the car, bawling his little eyes out. I really felt bad for the little mook, and I must have been sick that day they were teaching “Crying Children” in Comedy 101 because it was uncomfortable as opposed to being funny. Scamps does have some fun moments—they all belong to Pal, who rolls a ship’s officer trapped in a barrel off one of the upper decks to a lower one (causing the barrel to break)…and earlier, gains entry to the sea craft by maneuvering up one of the mooring ropes like a tightrope walker (I was pretty impressed by this).
Also of interest in Sea Scamps is the presence of Harry Spear (as “Ginger”)—who, admittedly, escaped my notice in other Big Boy comedies I’ve watched like Baby Be Good (1925) and Raisin’ Cain (1926)—who later went on to appear in Our Gang. (The [always reliable] IMDb also reports that Wallace Lupino appears in Scamps but I do not have the talents of the “Mostly Lost” crowd to pick him out.)
Even if you only have a passing familiarity with the greatest movie comedy team of all time, you’re probably aware that Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel were active in motion pictures before they got together to make true movie magic. Ollie is represented on The Movie Man’s Matinee, Volume 2 with two one-reel comedies, the first being The Servant Girl’s Legacy (1914; Lubin), in which he’s billed as “Babe” Hardy. Ollie is poor-but-honest Cy, whose girlfriend Mandy (Mabel Paige) is about to come into a boatload of money; Mandy hopes that her fortune will free her from her slavey duties for a wealthy family…then she gets a telegram telling her she’s richer by $25. (But Cy never wavers in his love!) Something in Her Eye, a Novelty Film/Mutual release from the following year, features Babe as one in a trio of suitors for the hand of Billie Rhodes…who’s encouraged her potential fiancés because she got some dust in her eye walking past a construction site, saddling her with a come-hither wink. Neither of these comedies are what I call remarkable but it was a treat seeing Ollie so young and learning his craft.
The same could be said about the comedy featuring Mr. Hardy’s friend Mr. Laurel; a 1925 comedy, The Sleuth, isn’t the strongest of the Laurel comedies I’ve watched (Facebook compadres Ted Okuda and Jim Neibaur, in their book Stan Without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films, call it “the weakest of Stan’s films for Joe Rock”) but it has some wonderfully funny moments (like opening your eyes while sneezing, it’s impossible not to laugh at Stan). Stan is Webster Dingle, a consulting detective hired by a woman (Alberta Vaughn) to investigate her philandering husband (Glen Cavender), who is apparently also consorting with a band of crooks. The Sleuth is confusingly disjointed at times (Ted and Jim describe a scene in the short that wasn’t in the print I watched) but does feature a very funny sequence with Stan in drag (the look Vaughn gives him is hysterical), posing as the couple’s new maid (Stan dons drag a second time to masquerade as a “vamp” to round up the gang), and there’s a sight gag with Laurel smoking a meerschaum pipe the size of a terrier that made me laugh out loud. (The major debit: Sleuth completely wastes the always-delightful Anita Garvin as ”the other woman.”) Laurel would later rework some of the material from Sleuth into a James Finlayson comedy he directed once he went to work for Hal Roach in the mid-1920s, Chasing the Chaser (1925).
The cheating husband in The Sleuth, Glen Cavender, also figures in another comedy on Volume 2: Villa of the Movies (1917), a Mack Sennett-Keystone two-reeler in which Cavender plays a Mexican revolutionary who acquires the services of Bobby Dunn—a landlord tricked by his delinquent tenant (George “Slim” Summerville) into smuggling gunpowder across the border. Most of the laughs in Villa come toward the end of this short—Dunn has been made airborne by a cannon missile, and in passing by a flagpole, he’s able to grab it and slide down to safety—but it was fun watching Slim in one of his early shorts (I’m more familiar with the movies he made with ZaSu Pitts and some shorts he made for Columbia in the 1940s). The final Volume 2 offering also offers airborne hijinks as Larry Semon attempts to rescue his girlfriend’s (Florence Curtis) dog, who’s been sent into the wild blue yonder thanks to a mischievous kid and some helium balloons. (This Vitagraph short, Plagues and Puppy Love, was also released in 1917.)
As a bonus, The Movie Man’s Matinee Volume 2 includes an animated cartoon, Felix the Cat in False Vases (1929). “Felix the Cat cartoons are not only unusually surreal,” notes Carpenter in the DVD’s back notes, “but also packed with what is now thought of as politically incorrect humor.” He’s not kidding on that score; False Vases is rife with uncomfortable Asian stereotypes that may keep you from enjoying an otherwise clever cartoon (Felix breaks a valuable vase…and when he’s unwilling to pony up the tariff for a replacement, “digs all the way to China” to get another). The Movie Man’s Matinee, Volume 2 would be an ideal gift for the silent comedy fan in your family (my clan has just the one, sadly); as John notes: “These shorts demonstrate how many of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon’s contemporaries are just as funny as those icons on ‘The Mount Rushmore of Silent Comedy.’”