When Comedy Was King (1960) ***

The 1960s was as much devoted to old movies as to new – the production shortage sent studios and producers back to the vaults to find anything that could fill a slot on a cinema program – and one of the most surprising beneficiaries of this was the silent movie.

It’s impossible to understand the 1960s without realizing what underpinned both the revival of slapstick comedy in such movies as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and The Great Race (1965) and, just as crucially, brought to the attention of a new public other non-comedic stars from Hollywood’s “golden age,” the revival of whose movies in turn prompted a reissue boom and a decade or so further on provided the stimulus for the restoration of forgotten masterpieces.

The innovator in the silent comedy field was Robert Youngson, a two-time Oscar-winner (in the one-reel documentary category), who had set the ball rolling with The Golden Age of Comedy (1957).

When Comedy Was King sports a greater repertoire of stars and in essence presents a tribute – though not necessarily a greatest hits – to some of the best of the silent comedians The line-up includes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy, Mabel Normand and the Keystone Cops.

It was renamed “The Parade of Joy” for European markets.

None of the shorts featured are necessarily an individual artist’s greatest work – Chaplin’s contribution, for example, is drawn from a trio of 1914 pictures, The Masqurader, Kid Auto in Venice and His Trysting Place, none of which would be seen to represent the actor at his height. But they do give an idea of what silent comedy was all about.

Buster Keaton’s contribution is selected from the 18-minute Cops (1922) with well-timed gags, slapstick and car chases. Mutual self-destruction is a hallmark of Laurel and Hardy and Big Business (1929) sees the pair get into an argument with a customer, ending up demolishing everything in sight.  This is probably the pick of the compilation since the pair’s comedy relies on their relationship with each other and with anyone who gets in their way.

Appreciation of the particular talents of Fatty Arbuckle scarcely survived the scandal that ended his career while memory of Mabel Normand would also have been hazy so Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) is a good example of their comedy styles. They play a couple whose bed ends up floating on the sea.

Youngson was not above cashing in on a star’s future fame even when the example used of the person’s work could hardly be considered their best. In the case of Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard, 1950) she was unrecognizable especially as she was only 12-years-old and being billed at the time as Gloria Dawn. Her inclusion is taken from the short Jimmie the Fox (1911) later renamed Bobby’s Sweetheart. Certainly, she is displaying none of the dramatic ability which made her the highest paid actress of the 1920s.

For all the varying quality of the actual footage, it does work as a showcase for the various stars, even though they would achieve greater success in later films. As importantly, it opened up for the 1960s generation the world of silent comedy and seemed to make that decade’s audience laugh as much as it had done previously.

Youngson would go on to make another five of these compilations throughout the decade. Without his initial forays into old school comedy, big-budget 70mm roadshows like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World would never have seen the light of day, nor would more modest efforts like the British-made The Plank (1967), written, directed and starring Eric Sykes.

The Plank (1967) ****

Hilarious credit sequence – I dare you not to laugh at the banana gag – sets the standard for this virtually silent slapstick vehicle featuring the cream of British television comedians. Hapless construction workers Eric Sykes (The Liquidator, 1965) and Tommy Cooper (The Cool Mikado, 1963) meet their match in the shape of a piece of wooden flooring. Running gags involve a car, a policeman with a bigger eye for a pretty girl than his duty, a car that is soon denuded of all its working parts, paint, rubbish and a pub.

But mostly this is driven by the antics of the bewildered pair, masters of the double-take and pained expression. Even when you think you can see the joke coming a mile off, some other piece of clever invention will take the idea in a completely different direction. Not reliant on clever dialogue, it’s one brilliantly imagined sequence after another. The plot, such as it is, is nothing but a succession of funny incidents.

British audiences were enjoying a small run of semi-silent comedies from A Home of Your Own (1965) through to Futtock’s End (1970), the hand of Bob Kellett behind this series of unlinked movies, but the difference between these and a gem like The Plank is that the latter was written and directed by a comedian (Eric Sykes) who understood timing and above all comic possibility. Clearly silent comedy classics provided much of the inspiration and Sykes has the sense not to spoof that genre but to create twists on originals.

The all-star comedy cast includes Jimmy Edwards (Bottoms Up, 1960), Carry On alumni Hattie Jacques and Jim Dale, Roy Castle (Dr Who and the Daleks, 1965), Sunday Night at the London Palladium television host Jimmy Tarbuck making his movie debut, Graham Stark (The Wrong Box, 1966) and the only straight actor among them Stratford Johns (BBC’s crime drama Z Cars, 1962-1965).

Too short at 45 minutes to qualify as a feature, it played for several years as a support to different movies and was often far more entertaining than the films it supported.

The Liquidator (1965) ****

Brilliant premise, brilliant execution, brilliant acting. The best send-ups are driven by their own internal logic and this is no exception: spy boss, known simply as The Chief (Wilfred Hyde White), determines in most un-British fashion to get rid off a mole in the operation by eliminating all potential suspects. Bristling Colonel Mostyn (Trevor Howard) recruits Boysie Oakes (Rod Taylor) for the job, believing Oakes showed particular gallantry during World War Two, unaware this was pure accident. Oakes is given all the perks of a super spy – fast cars, fashionable apartment – and attracts women in a way that suggest this is also a perk and once realizing that being a killer is outside his comfort zone delegates the dirty work to another hit man Griffen (Eric Sykes).

The sweet life begins to unravel when Oakes takes a weekend abroad with Mostyn’s secretary Iris MacIntosh (Jill St John) and is kidnapped. Forced to battle for survival, another Oakes emerges, a proper killer.  Cue the final section which involves trapping the mole.

Where films featuring Matt Helm and Derek Flint imitated the grand-scale espionage they aimed to spoof, the laughs here come from small-scale observation and attacks on bureaucracy. According to regulations, Oakes’ liaison with MacIntosh is illicit. There is endless paperwork. Apart from an aversion to needless killing, Oakes has terrible fear of flying. Nobody can remember code names or passwords. Oakes’ automobile numberplate is BO 1 (the letters in those days being a standard acronym for “body odor”). It is all logical lunacy. And even when the story gets serious, it follows logic, a ruse, a dupe, a climax pitting resolve against human weakness.

Best of all, the parts appear custom-made for the players. Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963), in his first venture into comedy, displays a knack for the genre without resorting to the slapstick and double takes requisite in the Doris Day pictures to follow. And he is a definite screen charmer.

By this point in his career the screen persona of Trevor Howard (Von Ryan’s Express, 1965) had been shorn of subtlety. He was generally one choleric snort away from a heart attack. Here, while the narrative pricks his pomposity, he remains otherwise ramrod certain. The audience is in on the joke, but nonetheless his genuine ability as a spy master is not in question. On the other hand Jill St John (Who’s Minding the Store, 1963) is allowed considerable leeway in the subtlety department, as a demure English rose rather than the sexier roles into which she was later typecast.  In some respects British television comedian Eric Sykes is miscast. It is a particular English joke to present him as a killer since on television (in shows unlikely to be shown in America) he was hapless.

And it is worth mentioning Akim Tamiroff whose villainous stock-in-trade is allowed greater depth. David Tomlinson (Mary Poppins, 1964) and Gabriella Licudi (You Must Be Joking!, 1965), have small parts. Aso watch out for future British television stars Derek Nimmo (Oh, Brother, 1968-1970) and John Le Mesurier (Dad’s Army, 1968-1977) as well as Jennifer Jayne (Hysteria,1965) and Betty McDowall (First Men in the Moon, 1964).

Director Jack Cardiff had tried his hand at comedy before with My Geisha (1962) starring Shirley Maclaine but was better known for Oscar-nominated drama Sons and Lovers (1960) and action picture The Long Ships (1964).  John Gardner, who wrote seven books in the Boysie Oakes series, later penned James Bond novels.

It is well worth considering whether The Liquidator would have punctured the success of both Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) and sent spy spoofery in a different direction. It had premiered in the U.K. prior to both but litigation held up its American launch  until long after that pair had gone on to hit box office heights.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog are Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships, Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) and Hotel (1967) and Trevor Howard in Operation Crossbow (1965) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965).

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