Astray from the Steerage (4/24/1921) Prod: Mack Sennett. Dist: Paramount. Dir: Frank Powell. 2 reels. Cast: Billy Bevan, Louise Fazenda, John Henry Jr., Eddie Gribbon, Lige Crommie (Lige Conley), Harriet Hammond, Dot Farley, Garry O’Dell, John Rand, Tiny Ward, Pat Kelly, Al Cooke, Gordon Lewis.
Two of Mack Sennett’s most popular comics are teamed up in Astray from the Steerage – Billy Bevan and Louise Fazenda. Billy Bevan had a screen persona that alternated between a comic everyman caught up in chaos and a roguish practical joker who caused misfortune to befall others. Born in Australia, as a child he toured the world with the comic opera troupe Pollard’s Lilliputians, and after American vaudeville made his film debut at L-Ko in 1916. He moved around to Strand, Fox Sunshine and Century Comedies before joining Mack Sennett in 1919, where he quickly became identified with his brush mustache, derby, and breezy personality. In the sound era Aussie Billy became one of Hollywood’s favorite Cockneys, and settled into character parts in features like The Long Voyage Home (’40) and Cluny Brown (’46) until his retirement in 1950.
Louise Fazenda is remembered for the pig-tailed, country bumpkin character she made popular for Mack Sennett from 1915 to 1921. She entered films in 1913 for Universal’s Joker Comedies, and after moving over to Keystone she played a variety of roles before becoming the country girl who was usually taken advantage of by cads like Ford Sterling or Charlie Murray. Louise could roughhouse with the best of them, but in addition to being a wonderful comedienne she was also a fine actress who made all her outlandish roles very believable. In the mid 1920s she became a supporting player in features, which continued up to her retirement in 1939. Married to producer Hal Wallis, she devoted herself to charity work and died in 1962. (Steve Massa)
A Deep Sea Panic (9/29/1924) Prod: Fox. Dir: Roy Del Ruth. 2 reels. Cast: James Parrott, Mildred June, Kalla Pasha, Bobby Burns, Hilliard Karr, Jerry Mandy, Cameo.
A Deep Sea Panic is a classic example of the “everything but the kitchen sink” school of silent slapstick. As a rule the Fox studio liked their comedies “big,” and director Roy Del Ruth was the right man for the job. Remembered today for his fast-paced Warner Brothers pictures such as Taxi (’32) and Blessed Event (’32), Del Ruth was the brother of the Sennett studio’s general manager Hampton Del Ruth and got his start in silent comedies. He later moved to Warners, and directed features into the 1950s, ending with the cult classic The Alligator People (’59). Del Ruth liked his comedies fast and furious, and Panic is very representative of his style.
This film is actually a remake of Shanghaied Lovers (’24), a Harry Langdon comedy that Del Ruth had directed six months before. Kalla Pasha repeats his original role, and James Parrott takes over Langdon’s part. Parrott was the brother of Charley Chase (Charles Parrott) and had just finished a run of one -reelers as Paul Parrott for the Hal Roach Studio. Parrott would soon return to Roach as a writer and director, where he piloted many of the Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy shorts. Although a top comedy creator, due to epilepsy and drinking Parrott was an erratic personality, which sadly curtailed his ability to work and led to an early death in 1939. (Steve Massa)
The Janitor (1919) Prod: Morris Schlank. Dist: Arrow Film Corp. Dir: unknown. 2 reels. Cast: Hank Mann, Madge Kirby, Merta Sterling.
Hank Mann is considered the “comedian’s comedian” of silent comedy with his underplayed style and dry wit. He began at Keystone in 1913, and is often cited as being one of the original Keystone Cops. Working his way up quickly from bits to good supporting roles, he became a headliner when he moved over to L-Ko Comedies and developed a bashful character with a brush mustache and bowl haircut. In 1916 he returned to Sennett as a star before going on to a series for Fox where he worked with director Charles Parrott on shorts such as There’s Many a Fool (’17) and The Cloud-Puncher (’17). The Janitor is one of the numerous comedies that Hank made for producer Morris Schlank from 1919 to 1923.
Over 40 shorts were completed during that period as Schlank had two units working at the same time so Mann could finish one short and step into another, while the first director would cut and edit the completed picture. The films from this series have no official director’s credits but the trade magazines of the time list Charles Parrott, Tom Gibson, Herman C. Raymaker, Al Santell, and Robert Kerr as being behind the megaphone at various times. After this group of shorts Hank worked as a gag writer for Lloyd Hamilton, Jack White, Al Christie, and features such as Kid Boots (’26). He also continued as a performer, turning up in all kinds of supporting and bit roles in shorts, features, soundies, and television shows up to 1960. (Steve Massa)
Just Nuts (4/19/1915) Prod & Dir: Hal Roach. Dist: Pathe. One reel. Cast: Harold Lloyd, Jane Novak, Roy Stewart, Gus Alexander, Gaylord Lloyd.
Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd became friends while working as extras in films such as The Patchwork Girl of Oz (’14) and Samson (’14). When Roach received an inheritance he set up his own production unit, hired Lloyd as one of his stars, and began turning out shorts like Pete, the Pedal Polisher (’15) and Close-Cropped Clippings (’15). Initially his films were handled by whatever distributor he could get to release them, but he finally set up an arrangement with Pathe and settled into regular production. Just Nuts is the earliest known existing Roach film, not to mention the only example of Harold Lloyd’s first comic character Willie Work, a trouble-making tramp in the Chaplin/Billie Ritchie mold.
At this point Lloyd’s stage experience had been as a dramatic actor and he had no real desire to be a comedian, but since Roach needed one he became a comic by default. Comedies were relatively cheap and easy to make – all that was needed was a few actors and a park, or some other public place. After Just Nuts Harold came up with a new persona, Lonesome Luke, whose popularity gave the fledgling outfit some stability, but the real success of Harold’s subsequent “glasses character” enabled Roach to expand and develop, building a new studio in Culver City in 1920. By the time Roach and Lloyd parted ways in 1923, the studio would continue on firm footing with popular series starring Snub Pollard, Our Gang, Charley Chase, and Laurel & Hardy. (Steve Massa)
No Children (3/10/1929) Prod: Van Buren. Dist: Pathe. Dir: George Marshall. 2 reels. Cast: Donald Haines, Jackie Combs, Joseph “Baldy” Belmont, Maude Truax, George Ovey, Billy Franey.
The late 1920s saw an onslaught of kid comic strips making their way to the big screen. The melee included Buster Brown, The Newlyweds and their Baby, and Mickey McGuire (from Toonerville Folks). Another entry was the Van Buren studio’s film version of Walter Berndt’s strip “Smitty,” about an office boy and his pals. Starting in 1928 the series was distributed by Pathe and starred Donald Haines as Smitty, along with Jackie Combs, and Betty Jane Graham. A selling gimmick for this series was star cameos, or as the Pathe exhibitor ads put it “Big Seat Selling Names in Each Comedy.” The first release, No Picnic (‘28), boasted boxing champ Jack Dempsey as the guest star, and later shorts had Lloyd Hamilton and Billy Bevan. Freckled-faced Donald Haines made his debut with this series, and after its two-year run he turned up as “Speck” in a number of early 1930s Our Gang entries. A familiar face in Monogram’s East Side Kids features, he worked in films until World War II service and his death in 1943.
Playing Smitty’s harassed father is Joseph “Baldy” Belmont, a long-time stage veteran who entered films in the early teens and turned up all over the silent comedy map for many years. Also on hand is Maude Truax, a frequent portrayer of flirty fat women, as Smitty’s mother, plus the old pros George Ovey and Billy Franey who are out to steal every frame of film they can. George Marshall began directing westerns in 1916, and by the 1920s migrated to comedy. He helmed the “Van Bibber” series for Fox, and soon became supervisor for their comedy short subjects. After sound arrived he directed shorts for Warners, Hal Roach, and Mack Sennett and in 1934’s Eve Since Eve inched his way into features. Some of his best known include You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (‘39), Destry Rides Again (’39) and Monsieur Beaucare (’46). A frequent collaborator of Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis, Marshall finished his career in TV piloting episodes of Here’s Lucy, Daniel Boone, and The Odd Couple. (Steve Massa)
The Pest (12/4/1922) Prod: G.M. Anderson. Dist: Metro Pictures. Dir: unknown. 2 reels. Cast: Stan Laurel, Vera Reynolds, Glen Cavender, Silas Wilcox, Joy Winthrop, Mae Laurel.
Stan Laurel’s solo film career was a search to find the right comic persona. Due to his English music hall training with the Fred Karno Company he was a veritable storehouse of comedy routines and gags, but his screen persona hadn’t gelled and changed from film to film. Sometimes he would be a brash go-getter, another times a mama’s boy, and then the next time he’d combine the two into sort of an aggressive milktoast. He also worked too hard, often laughing at his own antics as if to nudge the audience into laughing along. Because of this lack of an identifiable character Stan’s most successful early comedies were either built around an occupation (The Pest, Kill or Cure, etc.) or parodies of well-known movies (When Knights Were Cold, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, etc.).
The Pest was produced by G.M. Anderson, better known as “Broncho Billy” Anderson and one of the founders of Essanay. In 1920 Anderson set up the Amalgamated Producing Company, and having seen Stan in vaudeville decided that a comedy series would be an ideal part of Amalgamated’s output. After making the pilot film, The Lucky Dog (where Stan first worked with Oliver Hardy), the series proper began in the beginning of 1922. Seven shorts were made, with some such as Mud and Sand (’22) and When Knights Were Cold (’23) being the best film work that Laurel and had done so far. Although this group of comedies was the last hurrah for Anderson, they were an important step in Stan’s career – establishing him as a film comedian of note and paving the way for his subsequent work for Hal Roach and Joe Rock, not to mention his eventual teaming with Oliver Hardy. (Steve Massa)