Thursday, April 10, 2014

Book: Lame Brains & Lunatics -- April 10, 2014

I finally finished reading Steve Massa's excellent book Lame Brains & Lunatics/The Good, the Bad and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy

I was happy to learn from his introduction that his first film-related magazine was Forrest Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland.  I saved my quarters to buy that magazine.  He learned a lot from Daniel Blum's A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen.  I enjoyed that one, too, frequently taking it out from the Richmond Branch Library.  I was sad that some pages and some individual photos had been cut out. 

Steve starts his book with a chapter on comedy teams of the Teens.  He talks about some that I knew, like the Snakeville comedies of Essanay and John Bunny and Flora Finch at Vitagraph, and some that I did not know, like Heinie and Louie and Lyons and Moran.  He talks about Montgomery and Rock.  I'm sorry to see that most (all?) of their movies are lost.  I remember reading a book which featured a long interview with Joe Rock. 

A short chapter on Mack Sennett comes before a long one on Roscoe Arbuckle.  I liked the description of Arbuckle's skill as a director.  Massa has dug up information I didn't know about Billie Ritchie, who claimed that Chaplin was imitating him.  Ritchie "deserves his own place in silent comedy history for presenting possibly the most low-down, despicable, and unlikeable character ever seen on the screen." 

Alice Howell gets a chapter of her own.  Two little-known Vitagraph series, Josie and the Jarr family have a chapter.  Then Gale Henry has one. 

Moving Picture World, October 14, 1916
To me the most interesting chapter was the one about Marcel Perez, who had a significant career in both French and American comedies.  Perez went by many names and his characters went by many names, including Tweedledum, Dweedledum and Tweedie.  I don't remember reading about him before I read Steve Massa's book.  "Tweedy's Tangled Tale" is a good title for the chapter. 

Charles Parrott, Charley Chase, gets a well-deserved chapter, which traces the influences his early directing and writing had on his later star vehicles. 

The chapter on Fay Tincher shows how, unlike many comedians who strove to develop a single, consistent character, that Tincher had three distinct characters. 

The chapter on Al St John answered the question of how Al was related to Roscoe Arbuckle.  Al's mother was Roscoe's sister.  It also gave me a better appreciation of the way that Al moved away from the psycho-rube-hillbilly he played at Keystone and Comique and became a more well-rounded performer in the 1920s. 

The chapter on Marie Dressler shows how her career rocketed up and down in the Teens and Twenties. 

The Max Linder chapter ends with a portrait of Max that shows the effects of his terrible problems. 

The chapter on comedy teams of the Twenties, like the chapter on the Teens, includes teams I know about, like the Hallroom Boys and Adams and Conley, and teams that I didn't know like Virginia Vance and Cliff Bowes and Al Cooke and Kit Guard.  I learned about Cooke and Guard in this book and then got to see them soon after in the second Accidentally Preserved DVD ( 

"Keaton and the Silent Comedy Grapevine" talks about Buster Keaton's influence and imitators.   Massa talks about how Larry Semon and Charley Bowers shared Buster's tendency towards surrealism. 

I enjoyed the chapter on cross-eyed George Rowe.  Massa quotes Sam Gill on his efforts to track Rowe down after someone mentioned that he had bumped into him on Hollywood Boulevard in 1966.  Massa tried to find death information about Rowe, but the commonness of the name frustrated his efforts. 

 Film Daily, 16-September-1926

I also enjoyed the chapter on Our Gang/Little Rascals and their imitators. 

Massa talks about Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon, and how Stan learned from Harry, in a two-page chapter. 

The text concludes with chapters on Max Davidson and WC Fields. 

A long appendix has selected filmographies for most of the comedians discussed in the book. 

Run out and buy a copy of Lame Brains & Lunatics.  Don't fall into a mud pit or slip on a banana peel. 

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