There were so many worthwhile film books this year that they necessitated a second piece, a look at new books on early comedy. As was true with this year’s general selection of film books, the best among this early comedy group are biographies, a couple of which break new ground by being the first on their subject or by shining light on otherwise little known aspects of cinema history. There is also a book which will prove handy for those seeking a guided tour of the field. So, without further ado, here they are, the “Best Film Books of 2017: Silent Comedy Edition.”
Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy (BearManor Media) by Steve Massa
One can't say enough about this book, and that’s why it’s included in this round-up as well as in my earlier piece on the “Best Film Books of 2017.” This book looks at the careers of the many funny ladies of early film—who, compared to their male colleagues, haven’t received the attention they rightly deserve. Besides the better known Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand, and Marion Davies, Massa’s book looks at the careers of Flora Finch, Louise Fazenda, Alice Howell, Madge Kennedy, Dorothy Devore, Edna Purviance, Dot Farley, Baby Peggy, Ethel Teare, Merta Sterling and numerous other “droll divas” and “film comedy Eves.” It includes hundreds of rare illustrations, as well as capsule biographies of once famous, now little remembered or wholly forgotten screen comediennes. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Steve Massa has written a highly recommended book which belongs on the shelves of anyone interested in early film comedy or women’s film history.
Mr. Suicide: Henry "Pathe" Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy (BearManor Media) by Thomas Reeder
Reeder’s impressive, 767 page, heavily detailed book is billed as a “cautionary tale for all aspiring artists whose dreams exceed their grasp.” It tells the story of the otherwise little known actor, screenwriter, producer and director Henry Lehrman, and in doing so sets out to untarnish and restore his reputation in film history. Considered the architect of silent comedy and acknowledged for his absurd, frenetic, gag-filled films, Lehrman helped launch the film career of newcomer Charles Chaplin while both were working for Mack Sennett at Keystone; Lehrman directed a few of Chaplin’s very first shorts in 1914. Early comedy greats Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand and others likewise benefited from his guidance and friendship. By 1919, Lehrman’s rapid rise led to the fulfillment of his dream: complete artistic control in the form of his own, namesake studio. And then it all collapsed. Lehrman’s career hit the skids with the studio’s failure, which was followed by his association with the era’s most notorious scandal—the alleged rape and subsequent death of Lehrman’s fiancé, Virginia Rappe, at the hands of his friend Roscoe Arbuckle. Lehrman kept on working into the 1930’s, but never at the heights he once envisioned—and briefly attained. Along with an extensive filmography, Mr. Suicide: Henry "Pathe" Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy includes a foreword by Sam Gill and an introduction by Steve Massa.
Charlie Chaplin's Red Letter Days: At Work with the Comic Genius (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) by Fred Goodwins, edited by David James and Dan Kamin
This 300+ page book is made up of a gathering of thirty-five articles, dating from 1915 and 1916 and reproduced here for the first time since, which provide a vivid account of daily goings-on at the Chaplin studio. Their author is Fred Goodwins, a British actor who joined Chaplin’s stock company in early 1915 and began writing short pieces which he submitted to a British magazine, Red Letter. The articles have been edited by film historian David James and annotated by Chaplin expert Dan Kamin, to which have been added introductory material and rare images. All together, it adds up to a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at a comic genius.
Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy (University Press of Kentucky) by Gabriella Oldham and Mabel Langdon, with a Foreword by Harry Langdon Jr.
Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd stand out as the three kings of early comedy. Their prince is Harry Langdon, who parlayed his considerable pantomime talents and remarkable, wide-eyed, childlike face into silent-era stardom in classic films like Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), The Strong Man (1926), and Long Pants (1927). Each was produced by Langdon, and each was directed by the great Frank Capra. After Langdon fired Capra, Langdon’s popularity dimmed, and his career declined. This biography, which features behind-the-scenes accounts and personal recollections compiled by Langdon's late wife, provides a considered picture of this multifaceted entertainer—as well as his meteoric rise and fall. [If you don’t already own a copy, Langdon fans will also want to check out last year’s Nothing on the Stage is Permanent: the Harry Langdon Scrapbook (Walker & Anthony Publications) by Harry Langdon Jr., who provided the foreword to this new book.]
100 Essential Silent Film Comedies (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) by James Roots
Film lovers still remember and laugh at the cinematic clowning of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon, as well as Laurel & Hardy, Roscoe Arbuckle, Charley Chase and others. In this new book, Roots looks at the major comedies produced in the first three decades of the twentieth century, ranging from brief shorts to epic farces. Each entry includes details on the cast and crew, a synopsis, critical evaluation, and commentary. 100 Essential Silent Film Comedies is a useful book, as is Roots’ 2014 title, The 100 Greatest Silent Film Comedians.
There were a few other notable books on early comedians published this year. Three that caught my attention include Max Linder: Father of Film Comedy (BearManor Media) by Snorre Smári Mathiesen, The Silent Films of Marion Davies (CreateSpace) by Edward Lorusso, and The W.C. Fields Films (McFarland) by James L. Neibaur.
Max Linder was a French comedian and director whose early start made him one of the first international movie stars, even before Charlie Chaplin. Mathiesen, a Norwegian cartoonist and film buff, tells Linder’s tragic story. Marion Davies was a charming and brilliant comedian who produced and starred in two of the great silent films, The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928), but whose reputation was eclipsed by her longtime relationship with William Randolph Hearst. W. C. Fields got his start during the silent era in films like It’s the Old Army Game (1926), but went on to even greater acclaim in the sound era in films like The Bank Dick (1940) and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). Neibaur’s book surveys his work.
Along with idiosyncratic books on Rudolph Valentino and Lon Chaney, Kevin Scott Collier is an industrious self-published author who has also written and/or compiled short books on a few early comedians. If you are interested, or a complete-ist, then you may want to check out these 2017 Collier titles: Film Comedian John Bunny: Funny Bunny (CreateSpace), Mack Swain: The Ambrose Years (CreateSpace), Billy Dooley: The Misfit Sailor: His Life, Vaudeville Career, Silent Films, Talkies and more! (CreateSpace), and Luther J. Pollard: Ebony Film Corp. (CreateSpace). The latter looks at what has been called the first company to feature an entirely black cast in their films, a string of comedy shorts in 1917 to 1918.
Thomas Gladysz has been writing about early film for more than 20 years. His work has appeared in PopMatters, Classic Images, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and in programs for Telluride, Syracuse Cinefest, Ebertfest, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. He is also the author of two recent books on the films of Louise Brooks, one of which includes the 1927 Wallace Beery / Raymond Hatton comedy, Now We’re in the Air.