In his day, British music hall veteran Billie Ritchie was a popular film comedian with a mighty suspicious resemblance to Charlie Chaplin. Today, he might be best known as the hi-larious answer to a trivia question: Which obscure silent film comedian was kicked to death by an ostrich? Why, poor Billie of course! (Or maybe it was several ostriches–or maybe they bit him–the trivia question varies.)
This was taken years before the supposed attack, btw. Pictures and the Picturegoer, July 10 1915.
But maybe, like me, you’re wondering precisely how an ostrich-related injury could lead to someone’s death–a full two years after the fact, mind you. (Didn’t know about that time frame? Yup, it’s true.) And maybe you’re suspicious that the details about the ostriches vary so much–was the unfortunate Billie kicked or mauled by the savage birds? And how many birds were there? One or more than one? Since this is obviously is one of the most debated questions of the modern age, let us examine it more closely. Continue reading →
To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.
Skipping madly ahead of the lingering shadow of World War I, the 1920s was a time of optimism, invention, art, and ever-increasing speed. With its marvelous “modern conveniences” and improvements in nearly every aspect of living, it must’ve seemed like a veritable golden age of innovation.
Its atmosphere was also infused with whimsy and wonder. Many people had grown up with “fairy plays” and circuses, and comic strips dabbled in absurdity and surrealism. Puns and tall-tale style jokes were popular, and comedy films needn’t be logical as long as they were amusing.
Logic is never the point.
Only in this atmosphere could someone like Charley Bowers thrive–an animator (and former head of the Mutt & Jeff cartoon studio) whose oddball visions found a perfect home in cutting-edge stop motion animation. A figure only moderately known in his day and then completely forgotten until his rediscovery in the 1960s, Charley appeared in a series of live action “Whirlwind Comedies” enlivened by stop motion–which he dubbed his “Bowers Process.” My personal favorite of the surviving “novelties” is the ever-wondrous and quirky Egged On (1926). Continue reading →
UPDATE 7/18/19: And the winner of the Charley Bowers Blu-ray set is….
Congratulations David! We will be in touch. I hope you enjoy these Charley Bowers shorts as much as I do! And thank you to all who entered–this was a popular giveaway!
Calling all silent comedy fans!! Flicker Alley has a very exciting new release: a Blu-ray set of 17 shorts by the one and only Charley Bowers! And when I say “one and only,” I’m not just using a cliché–obscure comedian Bowers was truly one of the silent era’s most, err, creative individuals. Not familiar with this highly unique genius? (Admittedly, most people on the planet are not. Sadly.) Allow me to give you a brief introduction:
A former cartoonist, Bowers became the head animator for the 1910s Mutt and Jeff cartoon series before becoming fascinated with stop motion animation. In the mid-1920s he created a series of comedy shorts starring himself as a vaguely Keatonesque character with a love of crazy inventions. These shorts were basically showcases for his “Bowers process,” as he grandly dubbed his stop motion animation skills. In the trades they were advertised as “Whirlwind Comedies.” Continue reading →
Do you love exploring silent comedy? How about getting to know obscure silent performers? If your answer to both questions is “Heck yes!” (and why wouldn’t it be?) then you’ll probably be excited about the latest DVD set by Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions: The Alice Howell Collection.
Nowadays there’s a lot of hubbub about actresses in modern comedies, with plenty of well-meaning people proclaiming that the existence of Melissa McCarthy or Kristen Wiig proves that, at last, folks are figuring out that ladies can be funny too! It only took 130 years, y’all! No one has ever, ever noticed this before, and no, I’ve never heard of Mabel Normand or seen I Love Lucy, why do you ask?
“…Oh. But that was, like, in black and white.”
But, as the introduction to James L. Neibaur’s latest book The Hal Roach Shorts of Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly points out, the funny ladies of film have been with us far longer than that–since the darn dawn of cinema, I would add. A few perfect examples from the Golden Age of Comedy are Thelma Todd, ZaSu Pitts, and Patsy Kelly, who starred together in a number of shorts in the 1930s (Todd and Pitts were a comedy team for a few years; when Pitts left the Roach studio in 1933 Patsy Kelly took over her half of the team). While there are a couple biographies of ZaSu available and several about Thelma (due to her tragic death in 1935), Neibaur’s book is the first to examine the short comedies of these frequently overlooked comediennes. Continue reading →
It not easy bein’ Larry Semon–not only is he almost completely forgotten, but the few who watch his work will often just scour it for evidence of why he’s ranked below the Big Four of silent comedy (Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and Langdon). “Sure, he was super popular back in the day,” they’ll say, “and okay, his popularity even rivaled Chaplin in some areas–butdid he create a cinematic masterpiece worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as The Godfather and Tokyo Story?…yeah, I didn’t think so.”
It’s not like naysayers don’t have a point–Semon’s work can get pretty goofy, and he had a fondness for repeating certain gags almost ad nauseum (although this is more obvious when you’ve watched a bunch of his shorts in a row). He especially loved people falling into puddles, gals flying off swings, and birds doing various unsettling things (such as spitting out streams of water, because birds can do that, as everyone knows).
Ah, the ol’ “rooster drinking nitro glycerin” gag!
But what’s with this disdain for comedies that haven’t made it to “Best of…” lists? Why not just have fun watching something that was never meant to be taken too seriously to begin with? After all, it’s not like you’d limit all your feature films solely to entries on the Sight and Sound lists–right? Continue reading →
We silent fans all know a certain type of person. This is that person who, when you share your deep and abiding love of movies made before the Great Depression, chortles incredulously. When he realizes you’re being serious, he tries to feign interest in your quaint obsession with cobbled-together Victorian melodramas (as he assumes) and nods obligingly as you try to find words to describe the wonder and excitement of that pioneering era. (This is always when regular ol’ words fail you, too.)
You probably know more than one of these people. Okay, quite a few of these people. Alright, just about everyone you come into contact with during your daily life.
I feel ya, classical statue.
What to do, then, when you’re aching to share your passion for movies that most uninitiated friends and family dismiss with an eyeroll? Continue reading →
Greetings, lovers of pratfalls and other priceless bits of physical comedy! This post is especially for MovieMovieBlogBlog‘s See You In The Fall ‘thon. Thanks for taking the time to enjoy this post–I hope you check out all the others too!
When I saw that my friend Steve was hosting a blogathon devoted to favorite moments in physical comedy, one scene jumped to my mind right away. But just before putting my fingers to the keyboard, I told myself, “Now, wait a sec. Let’s sift through some other favorite moments first, in case there’s another one out there that’s equally hilarious and inspiring and will cause rivulets of scintillating wit and insight to flow from your brain and become immortalized on the softly glowing laptop screen. And calm down, already.”
But it was useless to resist. Simply useless. My favorite scene in silent comedy, for sheer laughs, and for sheer novelty value when it comes to the presence of a certain comedian, is–and probably always will be–the “flirting scene” from Roscoe Arbuckle’s Good Night, Nurse! (1918).
In these first weeks of September 2015, silent Hollywood lost two more of its own. On September 4th Jean Darling, one of the child actors in “Our Gang” shorts during the late ’20s, passed away at the age of 93. Not long after this news sunk in (and before I had time to post an appropriate piece on Jean), another Our Gang alumni passed away on September 10: 89-year-old Dickie Moore, who debuted in silent films as a baby and starred in the famous series during the Depression era.
If you are intent on becoming a Keystone Film Company afficionado, as most people are, am I right, an essential film to have under your belt is the cute and charming split-reeler Bangville Police (1913).
This might be the film that you most often hear associated with the Keystone Kops, even though it was made relatively early in Keystone’s history. In 1913, Sennett’s company was still getting its footing, although its popularity was beginning to skyrocket. Continue reading →