This section includes spotlights on Roscoe Arbuckle and the seriously underrated but hilarious Charley Chase. Since writing this, I’ve been able to see most of Abbott and Costello’s films, and while I’ve grown to enjoy them, I just haven’t grown to like them enough to consider them favorites. It really makes me uncomfortable to watch and hear how Bud treats Lou, since there’s no sense that he loves him underneath it, unlike when we see Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges slapping one another around or berating one another. (Although I must admit Bud was pretty handsome in his physical prime.) I might have chuckled once or twice during their so-called funniest film, A&C Meet Frankenstein. Personally, they’re just not the type of comedians who make me frequently laugh out loud.

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7. I really like Burns and Allen from what I’ve seen and heard of them so far. They were in movies and shorts, but they also had a radio show, which was just as hilarious. My mother used to give her parents tapes of the old radio shows from the Forties and Thirties for holiday presents, and in June of ’97 when I was with my grandparents, maternal aunt, and my cousin, on our way to and from Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, some of the comedy tapes they played included Burns and Allen (not my first exposure to them), and I was so enamoured I brought out my Laurel and Hardy laugh!

The skit I was laughing hardest over is one where Gracie signs George up for what she thinks is entertainment, as a birthday surprise, only it’s for having tests run on him. The doctors can’t understand why she’s so eager to do this for her husband, and wonder what kind of man George is for being willing to do this.

George is really thrown for a loop when he goes there and it’s revealed he’s not going to be entertaining people but really undergoing medical tests. He’s sitting there singing “I’m Writing Her a Letter,” really anxious for the party to begin, wondering why these fellows aren’t moving things along. “Can we start soon, ’cause I’m raring to go!”

They wonder what kind of guy he is, and one of the doctors points out that the other guy met his wife, which might explain things (Gracie is a bit of a flake). When George hears the words, “Now, we’d like you to take your clothes off,” he’s really taken aback, wondering what kind of people these fellows are, what kind of guy they think he is, and what in the world Gracie signed him up for!

8. Bebe Daniels was a very funny, talented, comedically gifted woman who sadly has all but fallen into obscurity today. Mabel Normand was the silent comedy queen, but Bebe came in pretty close after Mabel. She made quite a number of shorts as Harold Lloyd’s leading lady (particularly in his earliest shorts as “Lonesome Luke,” before he began donning the glasses), until she went to work for a different studio and was replaced by Mildred Davis, who later became Harold’s real-life wife.

Bebe also played Princess Henriette in the disastrous (but technically great, gorgeous, and very well-meaning and ambitious) Monsieur Beaucaire and Zaida in 1927’s She’s a Sheik (which some sources inaccurately list as lost), as well as Dorothy in the original 1910 Wizard of Oz.

She played many types of roles equally well—slapstick, romantic comedy, Shakespeare, musicals (she transitioned to sound very successfully because of her lovely singing voice), Vamps, dancing, drama. She married actor Ben Lyon in 1930, having a long happy successful marriage that only ended when Bebe died in 1970.

9. Abbott and Costello are viewed by some as dated, since not all people find their brand of slapstick and verbal humour appealing or funny to modern-day sensibilities. You like them or you don’t. Lou Costello was the short chubby guy, yet another innocent man-child, and Bud Abbott was the tall jowly straight man. They were in movies, burlesque, radio, vaudeville, and Broadway; undoubtedly their most famous and best-known act is the radio sketch “Who’s on First?” [And please, NEVER pull this on someone if you find out his or her favorite band is The Who, unless you’re the reincarnation of one of these fellows. It’s not funny or original. Don’t think you’re the first person who’s ever tried that on a Who freak, because you’re not.]

Not all of their films were as great or classic as 1941’s Buck Privates (which is about new Army recruits, even though by modern sensibilities the title sounds like a porn movie!), though where there were a lack of characterisation and plot, there was a lot of good slapstick. A lot of their films, however, were hit and miss, and as the years went by, great films became farther and fewer in between, with each film worse than the last. Their best latter-day success came on television.

To each his or her own; I haven’t seen enough of their work to date to really judge them, but it’s apparent that many people find their work hit and miss, or consisting of a few comedy classics plus a bunch of stuff whose humour techniques don’t hold up very well today. And yet, they still do have a lot of fans, though while they’re legends, I just get the abiding impression that they’re not quite as beloved and esteemed as certain of the other comedy groups listed on here.

10. Charley Chase is possibly one of the funniest best comedic actors you’ve never seen or heard of. At one point he was the top-paid, most popular star at Hal Roach Studios; Hal Roach himself repeatedly said Charley was the funniest fellow he’d ever known. Like Harold, Charley was also more or less just a regular guy who got into normal trouble and situations, which would proceed to get wilder and more out of control.

Charley usually played a dapper, newly-rich guy, though a bit shy, and was also very inventive at getting out of trouble and saving the day. Sound was also very kind to him, as he had a wonderful speaking voice, and a great singing voice to boot. His career was ultimately ended because Hal Roach felt he couldn’t make the move to full-length features, never even giving him a chance to prove himself when most of the major studios were making the move from shorts to full-length features and making the short a thing of the past.

From what I’ve seen of him on the shorts included in the nine-volume series The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy, I really really like him and find him incredibly funny. I’m looking forward to the upcoming two-disc collection of his shorts, which has a LOT more material than the only current DVD offering besides the shorts on the abovementioned collection, The Charley Chase Slapstick Symposium. [Since writing this in 2005, I have indeed seen many, many of his shorts, both silent and sound, as many of them have finally become available on DVD since then.]

11. Roscoe Arbuckle is unfortunately associated nowadays with the scandal that destroyed his reputation and career; most people don’t even know or care about his real name. If you’re a real fan, or if you at least care about him as a person, call him Roscoe, his real name, or at least say or write Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was NEVER addressed as “Fatty” offscreen, and he would correct people who mistakenly called him such, sometimes saying, “I have a name, you know.”

He was a wonderful comedian, very very funny, head and shoulders above a lot of the crude primitive stuff going on in the early days of comedy in the Teens, had wonderful supporting actors around him (Mabel Normand, his nephew Al St. John, who usually played the bad guy, Buster Keaton, who became his best friend and protégé, and their canine pal Luke), and was a genuinely warm, sweet, shy, chaste, generous person offcamera.

You can see he’s a nice, sweet, friendly guy, and despite being quite a big boy (he was 14 pounds when he was born!), it was all muscle, not flab. A fat guy couldn’t do all the physical stuff Roscoe was doing. His transition from shorts to full-length features in the early Twenties was kind of shaky, but he’d just signed a new contract with a different studio, in which he would’ve had a lot of creative control (Roscoe had already written and directed many of his earlier shorts) and possibly more opportunities for success with features.

The heart breaks watching how happy everyone is in these shorts from the Teens, how much fun they’re all having, and knowing how not so long down the line, this terribly sweet, funny, darling, dear man, this gentle giant, was accused of raping and killing some aspiring starlet. People didn’t care he was eventually fully exonerated and given an unprecedented apology by the jury for the great wrong done him, that it was determined Virginia Rappé had died of peritonitis and a botched abortion (and possibly an untreated STD), that at the hospital Miss Rappé had tried to tell them Roscoe hadn’t hurt her, that he’d found her lying on the floor of his bathroom in the hotel suite and had been trying desperately, with much care and concern, to help her, even though he knew she was an unscrupulous figure of questionable morals whom many people in the business had given the pink slip to, how he said in the piece he wrote telling the story in his own words that he never did those things to her, that he would never hurt or rape a woman.

Before the scandal, he was second only to Chaplin, and in some polls even came in before him. Had the scandal not occurred, he most certainly would’ve gone down in history as one of the Top 3 silent clowns. His buddy Buster ended up replacing him in that position, and Harry Langdon was added to the list [by some, not all] as the fourth great silent clown, while Roscoe languished in obscurity and ridicule thanks to the scandal.

Had he paid Mrs. Maude Delmont, who was there when he was trying to help Miss Rappé, the money she was asking, there might never have been a scandal. It exposed the system of how bribery had been previously used to silence scandals. Now when people hear his name, they think of rape and getting away with it, not the fact that he didn’t do it, was cleared and found innocent (legally, factually, medically, the whole nine yards), and just how funny and sweet he really truly was.

Some people have posited the valid criticism that they don’t find Roscoe’s stuff funny or well-aged because he doesn’t really have a well-honed act or screen personality to fall back on besides the fact that he’s fat. We can predict how Buster, Charlie, Harold, Charley Chase, Stan and Ollie, the Marxes, and the Stooges, for example, would react to any given situation and what they’d do to get out of it, save the day, get the girl, but Roscoe’s character does seem to fluctuate depending upon the situation.

Harold and Charley played normal, regular guys too, but at least they had characteristics distinguishing their characters from ordinary regular guys off the street. We know he’s funny and a nice, sweet, kind, inventive guy (and frequently very sneaky), but there still really isn’t a well-established persona. His reactions and solutions are of course great, just that some people don’t care for him because he has no established film persona coming up with these solutions to problems.

Some people have also criticised him for how many times a short will jump around all over the place, changing plot and location without seeming rhyme or reason, such as how 1917’s The Butcher Boy begins in a general store and winds up at a girls’ school, where Roscoe, Buster, and Al have snuck in dressed as girls so Roscoe can be reunited with his sweetheart Amanda, who was shipped off there for punishment at the end of the first reel.

Still, a lot of that unpredictability is what makes early comedy so great, fun, funny, and unpredictable. I was enamoured of him from the first I saw of him, and, like with Buster, the more I’ve seen of him, the more I like him.

2 thoughts on “Classic silent and early sound comedians, Part IV

  1. I’ve noticed you writing a lot about Silent Films lately. Did you see the one they did on Good Morning America today? Really cute . . . of course a lot of the late night comedians are doing spoofs of it with the Oscars coming up . . .can’t wait to watch:)

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    1. I thought it was really cute too, and loved the dog. I love a movie or book with animals.

      After I lost my old website, I was able to recover a fair amount of files before they all disappeared, and among those files were most of the essays and writings I did on silents. (A few I couldn’t recover, like one entitled “The Voices Behind the Faces.”) I figured I’d include them among the old files I want to repost here, only broken down. I never had a word-counting feature at Angelfire, and while I knew a number of my writings were very long, I never realized just how long some of them were!

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