Today, and for the next three days it is the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon, a bloggers’ festival of slapstick organised by Film of the Year. Numerous blogs are taking part, and Bioscopists are warmly encouraged to follow up the other blogs, add comments and so forth.
The Bioscope’s main contribution to the Blog-a-Thon is a survey of the great European comedians of the early cinema, whose names are sadly known only to the few these days, but whose fame once easily matched that of the Keystone stable and other American comics.
Here’s part one…
André Deed (1879-1935) was a French music hall comedian whose film career started with Georges Méliès in 1901, but took off when he joined Pathé Frères in 1906. He established a comic character, Boireau, appearing under that name in numerous shorts, and enjoyed a growing screen reputation throughout Europe. The success of the character inspired numerous imitators at other studios, and essentially created the star comedy genre. His film career blossomed further when he joined Itala in 1908 and established a new character, Cretinetti (known as Foolshead in Britain and Gribouille in France). Cretinetti was an engaging mixture of dim-wittedness and sharp-wittedness, readily stumbling into chaotic situations but triumphantly working his way out of them. He went back to Pathé in 1911 and resumed the character of Boireau. He made hundreds of comic shorts in his career, whose anarchic quality seems to ally them with Dada and Surrealism. He made some further Cretinetti films in Italy from 1915, before his career faded away in the 1920s.
Max Linder (1883-1925) was arguably the greatest of all European silent film comedians, and in retrospect the most tragic. He was born Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle but took the stage name Max Linder, and began working in Pathé films, initially in minor roles, from 1905. Gradually he built up the character of Max, a sophisticated, elegant figure with top hat and cane, something akin to the flâneur of literary imagination, who could get caught up in foolery without ever losing his dignity. Max was a natural romantic, though his attempts to win the girl were frequently held up the booby-traps of everyday life. In contrast to the popular European comedians of the day, his style was more subtle, less pantomimic, and his comedy had a touch of grace about it that won his international admirers, none more so than Chaplin. His period of fame started around 1910 and he made hundreds of Max films up to 1914, becoming one of the most popular stars of the screen of that time. The war brought an end to his fame, and though he had a brief period in the USA at the Essanay studios in 1916, he was not a success, and his career gradually petered out. He made a few feature films (such as The Three-Must-Get-Theres in 1922), but he suffered badly from depression, and in 1925 he and his wife committed joint suicide.
Fred Evans (1889-1951) was second only in popularity to Chaplin in Britain at the height of his career. He was the nephew of a well-known music hall comedian, Will Evans, and trod the boards himself before entering films in 1910 for Cricks and Martin, with the character Charley Smiler. The films were crudely-constructed affairs, but two years later Evans came up with the character of Pimple, a white-faced clown, perpetually accident-prone. Hundreds and hundreds of Pimple films were made, most of them routine knockabouts, but he also developed a taste of parodies, and in films like Pimple’s Battle of Waterloo (1913) he displays a proto-Pythonesque humour of the absurd while sending up the British epic film The Battle of Waterloo. In many of them he collaborated with his brother Joe. His comedy is sometimes held up by a weakness for punning intertitles, and few of his surviving films raise much a laugh nowadays, but at his best his comic inventiveness does indeed point the way to Python, The Young Ones, The Fast Show and a long British tradition of the gleefully absurd. He continued to make many films through the war years, and ended his film career as an extra in the 1930s.
Charles Prince (1872-1933) appeared in Pathé films as Rigadin, whose character was generally that of a bashful lover. He already enjoyed some fame as a theatre performer before joining Pathé in 1908, and he went on to appear in over 200 Rigadin films up to 1920, writing the senarios for many of them. In Britain and America he was known as Whiffles. Rigadin’s most interesting films were those that took on contemporay themes, such as Rigadin Peintre Cubiste (1912), where he mocked modern art by appearing as an angular figure, and Rigadin aux Balkans (1912) where he plays a war cameraman who gleefully fakes scenes for the camera in France rather than travel to the Balkan War. He ended his film career playing small roles throughout the 1920s and 30s.
More European comedians tomorrow… and don’t forget to read all the other Slapstick Blog-a-Thon posts.
(Acknowledgments to the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema for some facts and figures).