If you’re a classic film fan, and you live near or plan to visit New York City, The Silent Clowns Film Series should be on your must-see list.
Since 1997, this free, monthly series has been presenting hard-to-find silent short subjects and features on Saturday afternoons on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with live accompaniment and a post-screening Q&A with the curators. Programmed by archivist Bruce Lawton (whose great-grandfather was a Silent Era cinematographer), accompanist Ben Model (a fixture at the piano at MoMA silents for nearly 30 years) and film historian Steve Massa (who pens the liner notes for each screening), the series is currently exploring the work of forgotten comic Raymond Griffith (1895-1957).
I had never even heard of Griffith before yesterday’s Silent Clowns screening of HANDS UP! (1926) at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, let alone seen him on the big screen. According to his official 1927 biography from Paramount Pictures (where he was a contractee), the Boston native started his career on stage at the tender age of 15 months, playing, not surprisingly, a baby. His career as a stage actor was curtailed by a vocal injury, but he went on to work in the circus, toured Europe in a pantomime troupe, and spent a decade appearing in one- and two-reelers, first for the L-KO Kompany (1915’s GERTIE’S JOY RIDE), and later for Mack Sennett. In 1925, he graduated to his first leading role (opposite Wallace Beery) in Paramount’s THE NIGHT CLUB, which was screened earlier in this series.
Writer and theater critic Walter Kerr (from whose 1975 book The Silent Clowns this series takes its name) described Griffith’s formally dressed, unflappable screen persona as “natty, lithe (and) un-mugging,” and Lawton, in his introductory remarks prior to the screening, compared him to a “live action Bugs Bunny.” It seems an apt comparison, considering the wealth of slapstick in the film, artfully staged by Sennett veteran Clarence Badger, who went on to direct IT (1927) with Clara Bow.
HANDS UP! is a delightful farce, with Griffith playing Jack, a Confederate spy dispatched to Nevada to hijack gold from a mine to benefit the South’s cause late in the Civil War. In route, he encounters two young women, Mae (Marian Nixon) and Alice (Virginia Lee Corbin), the daughter of the mine owner Silas Woodstock (Mack Swain, the prospector in Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH). Both fall victim to his charms, which leads to a hilarious epiphany – courtesy of Brigham Young – and a stagecoach that carries the three lovers off to an apparent very happy ending in Salt Lake City.
It’s one of the hippest endings I’ve ever seen in a film from the Silent Era. It’s also one that not all audiences for the Paramount release got a chance to see back in 1926.
“That ending was censored or cut in certain parts of the country,” Lawton said after the show, generating a knowing laugh from the capacity crowd. “A lot of the prints that survive were like that.”
Lawton had the print for yesterday’s screening specially made, combining a truncated version with missing footage from other sources. The result may have been one of the only theatrical screenings of the complete film in recent years.
Because of it’s Civil War setting, HANDS UP! has been compared to Buster Keatons’ THE GENERAL, which was released a year later to fewer critical accolades (and box office receipts) than the Griffith film. I’ve seen THE GENERAL many times, and I love it, unequivocally. It’s one of the most enduring silent films of all time, and it’s still frequently screened to the delight of audiences of all ages. But I have no doubt that, given the opportunity, the kids I’ve seen at screenings of THE GENERAL would like HANDS UP! just as much as Keaton’s more famous film, if not more.
In THE GENERAL, Keaton’s comedic antics never push the narrative off the tracks (pun intended). That may be why I don’t like it as much as some of Buster’s more anarchic, earlier comedies. HANDS UP! is far less concerned with linear storytelling, halting the action regularly for absurd and anachronistic set pieces, like Griffith’s character teaching Indians the Charleston, playing craps with the chief, and escaping a firing squad by painting a picture of himself on the wall.
And why exactly is he wearing a top hat and tails in the middle of the desert? None of it really makes sense, which is a big part of why I enjoyed it so much.
Also screened on Saturday was DOG SHY (1926), a two-reeler starring Charley Chase and Buddy the Dog, one of the many Silent Era canine stars upon whom the pooch in THE ARTIST was based. Directed by frequent Chase collaborator Leo McCarey (who would go on to helm comedy classics like DUCK SOUP and THE AWFUL TRUTH), DOG SHY is the story of a everyday schlub (Chase) with a horror of dogs. Through some well-constructed misunderstandings, Carely ends up as the butler at the home of a young woman being forced to marry a boorish rich man.
Charley’s first assignment in his new job is to give “The Duke” a bath. The lady of the house means the dog, of course, but it’s the actual annoying aristocrat who ends up in the tub. It’s amazing how much of Silent Era comedy arises from the class struggle between the 99% and the wealthy, a debate that is still at the forefront of our national dialogue.
As for Raymond Griffith, like many other silent film stars, his movie career was silenced by the advent of talkies. After a brief but memorable appearance as a French soldier in Lewis Milestone’s ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930), he went on to an active career behind the camera, working as a production manager, associate producer and producer. He died from asphyxiation in 1957 at the age of 62.
On Saturday, August 4 the Silent Clowns Film Series will screen the final installment in the Griffith series, YOU’D BE SURPRISED (1926) with Ben Model at the piano. If you’re anywhere near New York City, I suggest you check it out.
HANDS UP! is available from Grapevine Video
DOG SHY is available on Fandor