Tag Archives: Silent Comedy

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 356 – Neil Brand Presents Laurel and Hardy

Listen on the players above, Apple PodcastsAudible, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Listen to our podcast on three of Stan and Ollie’s sound films here.

Composer and musician Neil Brand brings a live show to the Electric Cinema as part of Flatpack Festival – Neil Brand Presents Laurel and Hardy is touring around the country, giving audiences a taste of Stan and Ollie’s work before they were paired together, and showing us what their double act was like before the development of sound cinema. The show culminates in screenings of two of their silent shorts, Big Business and Liberty, accompanied on the piano, of course, by Neil.

It’s a great introduction to both Laurel and Hardy and silent comedy in general, which thrives when accompanied live. Neil’s own passion for the duo, whose films he grew up with, is evident, describing their appeal to him and showing a clip of Stan, a drama he wrote about Stan visiting Ollie on his deathbed. He introduces us to the term “reciprocal destruction”, a term that brilliantly distills something you immediately realise you associate with both Laurel and Hardy and the cartoons their comedy inspired: when someone attacks an opponent, the assailant must then wait for the victim to attack them in return, only then returning fire, each volley increasing in aggression and destructive power, until chaos reigns. And although we take issue with one of the chosen clips, of an early Stan Laurel film that includes a gay stereotype that is used uncritically here to earn laughs, it’s a blip in an accomplished, well-constructed and entertaining show that we recommend you see.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 116 – The Marvellous Mabel Normand

Flatpack’s Silent Night series continues with a screening, at Birmingham Cathedral, of The Marvellous Mabel Normand, a programme of four silent comedy shorts from the BFI National Archive. Normand was the leading silent comedienne of her day but neither Mike nor José was familiar with her, and the programme provides a great introduction to her work, as not just a star but also a director.

We saw Mabel’s Blunder (1914), which she directed, Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913), His Trysting Place (1914) and Should Men Walk Home? (1927). Each stars Normand, and alongside her are such names as Mack Sennett, Oliver Hardy, Eugene Pallette and one Charlie Chaplin.

José finds himself in thrall to Normand’s magnetism and emotional openness, finding her incandescent with screen presence. The nuances she brings to her physical and facial performances, the way she types or jumps out of the way of an onrushing car, light up the screen and make her memorable.

Mike, it must be said, is less impressed, suggesting that she doesn’t elevate some weak material as a better actor might, though that’s not to say he sees nothing to appreciate about her performances. But what he takes away above all else is how seeing one Chaplin film amongst other silent shorts provides incontrovertible proof of his comedic genius, His Trysting Place a geyser of creativity and comic charm.

We also consider how key figures of silent comedy are remembered or not, particularly thinking of the disparity between Mack Sennett’s importance and name recognition, and how Chaplin remains a worldwide icon perhaps to an extent comparable only to religious figures. José holds forth on the talents and career of Leo McCarey, director of Should Men Walk Home?, and we discuss the programme’s newly commissioned score by The Meg Morley Trio, who performed it live during the screening.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.


Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Harry Edwards, USA, 1926)

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The impact of Joan’s image

Seeing that extraordinary close-up of Joan Crawford being swayed by John Garfield’s music in Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, USA, 1946) reminded me that Joan Crawford’s stardom had begun in the silent era. Rifling through my file on Crawford films, I noticed that I had never seen Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (Harry Edwards, USA, 1926). Now Joan Crawford in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp would be one thing but sadly it turned out to be Harry Langdon in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, which has quite different connotations. Though second-billed, Crawford’s role is really merely that of ‘the girl’ and could have probably been played by almost any attractive actress of the period.

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Joan already inspiring dreams and desires

The plot is basic. Burton shoes is running a huge nationwide campaign, and the face of Burton shoes in posters across America is Betty (Joan Crawford), the boss’s daughter, inviting everyone in America to ‘walk with her’ wearing the ‘sole of the nation’. The campaign is so successful it’s wiping out smaller shoe shops like Amos Vogel and Son. The son is Harry (Harry Langdon), so besotted with the image of Betty that he splashes the walls of his bedroom with it and even brings it/her to bed. When their landlord gives them three months to find money for rent, Harry joins the Burton contest to walk across America. Whoever gets there first will win 25,000. Intriguingly, though nothing much is made of it in the film, the nasty landlord is one of the contestants. Needless to say, Harry wins the contest, gets the girl, and even gives himself a little number as his and Betty’s son being just as inept as the father in a crib at the end of the film.

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Harry caught between Joan and her image

Frank Capra ostensible wrote the film and co-directed it with Edwards, though the credits of the print I saw give no evidence of this. It’s an interesting example of the rise of advertising in America and its effects on mass culture, an issue so live in the twenties that it was already drawing debate by leading American thinkers (one thinks of the work of Walter Lippman). Harry Langdon’s charms are lost on me but the film has several imaginative set-pieces (Harry hanging from a cliff, nailing his sweater to a wooden fence and sliding down the hill on the fence; Harry in a prison work-gang; Harry in the middle of a cyclone, first losing all his clothes while attempting to take a bath, then defeating it with rocks like David and Goliath – they’re all very well-done).

What interested me most was Crawford, whose image is already presented as one evoking dreams and desire across America, and a charming little vignette of Harry’s father going to the pictures and seeing his son on screen (see clip above), which evokes something of what going to the cinema in a small town must have been like in the 1920s.


José Arroyo