Lives in film no. 3 – Dan Leno

Dan Leno, from

In 1921 Charlie Chaplin returned home to Britain to an ecstatic welcome. Touring his old London haunts, however, he found one shop-owner less than overawed by his worldwide fame. Chaplin went to a photographer’s shop on Westminster Bridge Road where he recalled seeing a framed picture of his comic idol, Dan Leno. It was still there. This conversation then followed:

My name is Chaplin … You photographed me fifteen years ago. I want to buy some copies.

Oh, we destroyed the negative long ago.

Have you destroyed Mr. Leno’s negative?

No, but Mr. Leno is a famous comedian.

Such is fame, as Chaplin notes. The man in the picture, Dan Leno, was for anyone of Chaplin’s generation the epitome of comedy. He was among the funniest and the most loved of comedians of the Victorian age, one whose career formed a bridge between the pantomime clowning of the Joe Grimaldi early-19th century era and the era of motion pictures that was to bring about the unprecedented fame of Leno’s successor as public favourite, Chaplin himself.

Dan Leno (1860-1904) was one of the greatest of all comedians. Born George Wild Galvin, the child of entertainers (as was Chaplin), he was raised in poverty in London, first trod the boards aged just four, and first rose to prominence by winning a world clog-dancing competition in Leeds in 1880. He made it to the main London stages by 1885, immediately acclaimed as a comic master, and soon established as a national favourite, particularly on account of his peformances in Drury Lane pantomimes. His artistry was built around an uncanny ability to mimic the trials and absurdities of everyday living. Leno excelled in making his comic characters as realistic as they were comic, products of an acute sense of human characteristics. As a railway guard, waiter, shop-walker, lodger, recruiting sergeant, swimming instructor or Widow Twankey (he was the archetypal pantomime dame), Leno’s befuddled demeanour reflected life’s puzzlements in a form that all could recognise and delight in. Max Beerbohm wrote of him:

Dan Leno’s was not one of those personalities which dominate us by awe, subjugating us against our will. His was of that other, finer kind — the lovable kind. He had, in a higher degree than any other actor I have ever seen, the indefinable quality of being sympathetic. I defy anyone not to have loved Dan Leno at first sight. The moment he capered on, with that air of wild determination, squirming in every limb with some deep grievance that must be outpoured, all hearts were his.

Leno’s humour was grounded in character observation and word-play, but as with all great comedians it was a shared understanding with his audience that made him special. He pinpointed what Beerbohm identified as “the sordidness of the lower middle class, seen from within” while making that “trite and unlovely material … new and beautiful”. How we laugh at ourselves is how Dan Leno made us laugh.

Dan Leno is now the subject of a new biography, the first since 1977. Barry Anthony’s The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius is published by I.B. Tauris and it is a delight from start to finish. Anthony (previously co-author with Richard Brown of A Victorian Film Enterprise: The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company and a fine booklet on the Kinora) is well-known among a small coterie of music hall historians for his meticulous research and encyclopaedic knowledge. He also writes beautifully. The research is worn lightly, the observations are acute, the characters stand out vividly, and the material is handled in an engaging style that makes the Victorian music hall era come alive. There is much on the Victorian music hall in general, so that the book serves as a valuable general history as well as biography. It is particularly good at giving you the essence of Leno’s performances (and those of others), as if a motion picture camera had been there.

But, as Anthony points out, towards the end of Leno’s career, the motion picture cameras were there. Leno’s later career coincided with the rise of mass media as means to package and spread fame, and Leno was filmed on several occasions. Interestingly, the films that were made of Leno for the most part did not attempt to record his performances but rather focussed on his celebrity. There was a surprising number of films made of Leno – at least a dozen. But the reason why he seldom turns up in film histories is that only one of these films survives, and that in a non-film state.

Leno was first filmed on 23 June 1899 on a trip by the music hall society the ‘Water Rats’ to Box Hill in Surrey. Impresario A.D. Thomas had them filmed on the road to Mitcham travelling in coaches (‘The Rats’ off on a Picnic), at play befor a crowd of spectators (‘The Rats’ at Play) and picnicing (‘The Rats’ at Dinner). Alongside Leno were such notables as Herbert Campbell, Joe Elvin, George Robey, Will Evans and Harry Randall. A few days later Thomas filmed the Music Hall Sports at Herne Hill in London, the sports being interspersed with comic performances intended to raise money for the Music Hall Benevolent Fund. Dan Leno featured in Burlesque Indian Attack on Settlers’ Cabin, Dan Leno’s Attempt to Master the Wheel (in the character of his famous role of Mrs Kelly) and Burlesque Fox Hunt. All titles were subsequently included in the Warwick Trading Company catalogue.

Leno was filmed at other charity events. Birt Acres filmed Dan Leno’s Cricket Match in July 1900 at another mix of charity and sports, where Leno again took a turn on a bicycle. A year later, in September 1901, he was back on the cricket field (at Stamford Bridge) for Warwick’s Dan Leno’s Day Out, paired with Dan Leno, Musical Director, where he mock-conducted the Metropolitan Police Band in ‘A Little Bit Off the Top’. A few days later he appeared before the 70mm camera of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company for Dan Leno’s Record Score, which showed him in comic argument with a wicket-keeper (for photographs from the day in Black and White Budget see the excellent Arthur Lloyd website). Anthony records that the film was exhibited alongside genuine cricket film of C.B. Fry and Ranjisinhji. Another Biograph film was Mr Dan Leno, Assisted by Mr Herbert Campbell, Editing ‘The Sun’ (1902) in which Leno and the frequent partner in pantomime, a comic promotional film for a journal run by the notorious Horatio Bottomley. This was the only film to show an acted peformance from Leno, apart from Bluebeard (1902), an extract from a Drury Lane pantomime in which Leno played Sister Anne, produced by Warwick.

Dan Leno and his wife Lydia in The Obstinate Cork (1902), from The King’s Jester: The Life of Dan Leno, Victorian Comic Genius

Biograph produced the only film of Leno that exists today. Its 70mm products were often issued in flip-card or flip-book form through a variety of devices for viewing at seaside arcades (through the Mutoscope) or in the home (through the Kinora). Biograph made two films in 1902 of Leno with his family in the garden at their home in Clapham, one of which showed Leno and his wife Lydia struggling to open a bottle of champagne and eventually resorting to a giant property axe to do so. The Obstinate Cork survives – in private hands – as a Kinora reel (i.e. a set of flip-cards for exhibiting in a Kinora) and forms the only moving image that exists of the great comedian.

As said, most of these films did not present Leno in performance but rather Leno the celebrity, seen clowning in public, playing up to his popular persona. They crossed the barrier between fiction and non-fiction. If any were to be discovered they wouldn’t so much show us Leno’s art as his popularity, and that would be so precious in itself. Leno the comic giant belonged to his time. Nothing dates so remorsely as humour. What makes one generation roll in the aisles makes the succeeding generation shrug its shoulders or wince with embarassment. What matters for our understanding of the history of comedy is not whether we would find Grimaldi, Leno or Chaplin funny today (though we might) but that we appreciate just what they meant to the people of their time. This is what Barry Anthony’s book achieves so well. It tell us enough to give a good idea of Leno’s comedy, but still more it shows us how key he was to his times, how people identified with his humour, how much he was of his times and yet transcended his times. The films that were made of him were not intended to replicate his act but to reflect the profound affection with which he was held by millions.

Dan Leno suffered throughout his professional life from a series of mental and physical breakdowns, brought on by the pressures of huge popularity. He died in 1904, aged just 43.

Finding out more
Leno made a number of sound recordings, and unlike his motion picture legacy, all of these survive. Recordings from 1901 and 1903 can be heard Music Hall Perfomers site, while his famous number ‘The Grass Widower’ can be heard on YouTube. Peter Preston has written an interesting piece in The Guardian comparing Leno’s passing fame to that which endures for Marlon Brando – as unlikely a pairing as one could imagine. Paul Morris’ essay on the English Music Hall site evocatively sums up Leno’s art. Finally, Leno’s comical pseudo-autobiography, Dan Leno Hys Booke (1899) is available online from the Internet Archive.

7 responses

  1. Thanks for reminding people about Dan Leno. I remember reading what Chaplin said in his autobiography and wanting to learn more. When I got to college, I found a reprint of “Hys Booke” in the library. I will seek out the recordings you mentioned.

  2. ‘The Obstinate Cork’ was released as part of a set of DVDs of Music Hall and Variety performers, through the pages of ‘Call Boy’ the magazine of the British Music Hall Society about two years ago. I’ll try and put it on youtube.
    CP Lee

  3. It’s great news that it has been made available in that way. I assume that The Call Boy or the owner or whoever would be OK with publishing it on YouTube? – here at the Bioscope we’re quite particular about that sort of thing.

    Honoured, by the way, to have CP Lee as a Bioscope reader.

  4. C.P. Lee has now put The Obstinate Cork on YouTube:

    Fleeting, and maybe his wife ends up being funnier than he is, but it’s all we have – so treasure it.

  5. If you compare the clip with the illustration (from the 1905 biography) you will see small differences, indicating that British Biograph made two takes.
    I still haven’t given up hope of finding more Leno footage in flip-book form. Other Kinora reels might have been made, commercial Mutoscope reels showing Dan were issued, as was a hand-held booklet called the Bio-Gem.
    Come on, someone out there must know something.
    Barry Anthony

  6. The call must go out to the nation (actually, having a Bioscope ‘Missing Believed Lost’ call might be an idea worth pursuing).

    Intrigued to learn that there were two takes (well spotted, by the way). Might than mean that they shot one film with the 68mm camera and one with the 35mm, which they were bring in around that time?

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