Sometimes a silent film book comes along that you never knew you needed, about silent era performers you hadn’t looked at too closely, and somehow, that book clocks in at a mighty 480 pages of historical info, trivia, and rare photos. And, it has a fantastic cover. (The designer is the talented Marlene Weisman, who also did covers for Slapstick Divasand various Undercrank Productions releases.)
Pokes & Jabbs: The Before, During And After Of The Vim Films Corporation by film archivist and historian Rob Stone is just such a book, and it’s not only a mighty trove of information but certainly a labor of love, first taking shape during the research process for Stone’s 1996 book Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. (Ollie was in quite a few of the Pokes and Jabbs films, and starred in Vim’s “Plump and Runt” comedies.) Historian Steve Massa points out in the forward of Pokes & Jabbs that this research was begun in the pre-Media History Digital Library days, when–gasp!–you had to travel to archives around the country to find surviving copies of trade magazines. This is a fact that you’ll quickly learn to appreciate once you take in the hundreds–and I do mean hundreds–of film stats, synopses, and contemporary reviews packed into this book.
One of the most charming “Fatty and Mabel” comedies, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) manages to hit a number of birds with one stone: it’s rural-themed, it riffs on the popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm” theme, it riffs on the equally popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm unless he can marry the pretty daughter” theme, adds a romantic triangle, has hijinks around a hand-cranked well, throws in a couple Keystone Kops, and finds time for some surrealism.
One of the most common questions I get through my blog is this: “My great uncle/grandfather/great grandfather was an original Keystone Kop, his name was John Doe, how can I find out more about him?”
99% of the time when I try to help with this question–usually by consulting my other Bible (Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory) or asking around in the film history community or looking up old studio directories–I’m finally forced to reply: “There doesn’t seem to have been anyone named John Doe who worked at Keystone. Is it possible he went by a different name at the time? Or worked at a similar comedy studio?” What I don’t say is, well, this: “Hate to break it to ya, but it looks like ol’ John was lying for a few decades. Or maybe the ol’ family lore wasn’t that accurate…!”
You see, over the years a surprisingly large number of actors claimed that they totally used to be Keystone Kops. Their numbers really swelled during the ’50s and ’60s, when silent comedy nostalgia was peaking. Sometimes it seems like every guy who had ever accidentally wandered on camera in the 1910s had somehow been a Kop–forget such petty details like whether they were even living in California at the time. Oh, and they usually weren’t just any old Kop, mind you, but an original Kop.
Sometime ago, I saw this still on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s site (a site I have lauded in the past) for a film that was being restored:
A Sennett short–from the late 1910s, probably my favorite period of of the silent era–loaded with goofy slapstick–AND it starred Louise Fazenda! I waited with bated breath for it to become available.
I had bated breath for a pretty long time, but my lack of oxygen was worth it because The Village Chestnut is now freely available on the NFPF site! And it’s a beaut, too, one of those scratchy-but-clear prints that does silent fans’ hearts good. And it’s probably one of the best showcases for Louise’s slapstick skills I’ve seen yet–not every actress was willing to fall in mud puddles or do tough, dizzying pratfalls quite the way she did. Continue reading →
While I’d originally hoped to put out two more posts, this is going to be the last one for Forgotten Comedians Month 2–it needed a bit more care. I hope you enjoyed following along! It was fun to have a “round two” of this theme month, so maybe it could become a recurring series…? I’d be down, just sayin’!
If you’ve been lurking around Silent-ology for awhile, you might’ve found my little bio for an apparently random bit player named Joe Bordeaux (sometimes spelled “Bordeau”). Why did I decide to write about this obscure person? Well, there’s a story involved. And a quasi-drinking game, of my own invention. I’ll explain.
Pictured in cop garb on the far left: our subject.
Have you ever had an actor who grew on you? Someone you really didn’t care for at first, but who finally won you over? For me, it was a comedian you may or may not have heard of: Al St. John, nephew of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and a key player at the legendary Keystone Film Company.
Why didn’t I care for him? Well…
Let’s just say he was a little much. But only at first! …Let’s take a look. Continue reading →
Happy weekend everyone! In honor of Forgotten Comedians Month 2, I’m resharing this post from a few years back. I sure had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you have fun reading it too!
Welcome, my friends, to the very first induction ceremony for our prestigious new Silent Comedy Mustache Hall of Fame! Some of the names of the following gentlemen may be familiar to you, while others have been obscured by the mists of time. But all have been judged worthy for one of the highest honors in all of screen comedy history: the eternal enshrinement of their contributions to pop culture within these sacred walls. I would like to thank the architect, Leopold Plumtree, for this magnificent structure, the first building of its kind to be shaped like a handlebar mustache.
In the modern mind, film comedies of the early 20th century are associated with three dominant tropes: cream pies, banana peels, and fake mustaches. While the first two cliches were not as ubiquitous as society may believe, there certainly was a rich crop of crepe mustaches glorifying movie screens across the globe. For bearing the finest of these enrichments of celluloid mirth, we are pleased to honor the following inductees: Continue reading →
It’s one of the most famous photos from silent comedy. Or from the silent era itself. Or, heck, from cinema itself. It’s the image that probably leaps to mind when you say “Keystone Kops.”
It’s also key to what I think is the ultimate championship trivia question: “This famous still comes from which lost film?” The winning answer–major props if you know it–is “In the Clutches of a Gang!” *Cue lots of applause and money showering from the ceiling*
For being such a wildly famous image, it’s surprising that In the Clutches of a Gang (1914) isn’t better known–as a title, at any rate. After all, the film itself has been lost for many decades, yet another casualty of delicate nitrate paired with the relentless march of time. What a pity that such a tantalizing piece of slapstick history should have been so thoroughly, and regrettably, lost.
Hold the candlestick phone! Another new book on silent comedy is available to brighten our bookshelves? And it’s the first-ever book on the Keystone Cops?!
“It is? Seriously?“
Why yes indeed! I’m happy to help spread the word that the fine new book CHASE! A Tribute to the Keystone Cops is now available from BearManor Media. It represents a dream team effort by a number of historians and writers, all compiled by editors Lon and Debra Davis. Many of the names you probably know already: Sam Gill, Joe Adamson, Michael J. Hayde, Rob King, Mark Pruett, Chris Seguin, Paul E. Gierucki, John Bengtson, Randy Skretvedt, Rob Farr, Brent E. Walker, Mark Wanamaker, Stanley W. Todd, Lon Davis himself, and Lea Stans.
Wait–Lea Stans? Why yes, that is me, and I’m very proud to announce that this is the first time my writing is appearing in a good ol’ turn-the-pages book! Continue reading →