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Stars of the silent screen faced oblivion when the talkies came

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Monday, 2 December 2013

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This edited article about cinema first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 471 published on 23 January 1971.

Buster Keaton, picture, image, illustration

Buster Keaton

Whatever happened to the custard pie film comics of the 1920s?

Where did they go, those scatter-brained heroes of the silent cinema? Their flickering ghosts, revived by television, are famous again, but what happened to the flesh and blood originals?

What of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin and Harold Lloyd? They were the makers of laughter without words. Some of them became very rich and very famous. Then suddenly they were gone. Their films were put away on dusty shelves to be taken out now and again and glanced at in snippets or rather when some run-down cinema wanted a cheap footage of film.

The films were mutilated: the reels were cut up, or simply lost. Others that were bought up by the big Hollywood film companies of the 1930s were despised, deliberately destroyed or deep stored. Some of the actors suffered similar fates.

Dead pan Buster Keaton was probably the most ingenious and independent film-maker of all. Keaton began his working life as a toddler with his mother and father on the Vaudeville (American music hall) stage.

He entered films in 1917 when he was 21 and eventually made a total of a dozen feature films and thirty or so “shorts.”

Keaton worked out the plots and the visual gags of his films. His powers of invention demanded that he should have a free rein.

By 1928 film-making was changing. Small studios were dissolving into big business corporations. The big companies were taking over everywhere, not only the studios but also the cinemas, with the result that independent film makers could find few cinemas in which to show their films. Keaton gave up his own studio to join Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was a disastrous mistake. He was swamped in the vast organisation, his independence was lost, his ingenuity was suffocated. At the age of 33 Buster’s career ended.

For the next 25 years his life was one of all-round failure. He could find little work, his marriage and health failed, and he took to drink.

Then his fortunes changed. He remarried, happily. A film was made of his life and he had more work than he could handle including the piecing together of the surviving remnants of his old films. So when he died in 1966, he died happy.

Meanwhile, cross-eyed Ben Turpin, whose hideous squint earned him fame and fortune in the silent era, dropped completely from sight with the arrival of sound.

Harold Lloyd, the exponent of the “thrill comedy,” famed for antics on high girders, survived the advent of sound, but his imagination could not adapt to the change in the shape of films. Cinemas no longer showed one feature film and a short one- or two-reeler. The fashion was for two feature films in every performance. It became difficult to find ideas to suit his style of acting that would fill a feature film.

So Harold Lloyd retired to his mansion with 25 acres of golf course and forest in Hollywood, and plunged energetically into his hobbies, which ranged from microscopes to tennis, dog breeding and handball. He made a brief re-entry into film acting with Mad Wednesday (1947) and put out collections of his old films as Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962) and The Funny Side of Life (1964).

The Lancashire comedian, Stan Laurel, and his big American partner, Oliver Hardy, overcame the problems of sound and were able to adapt and add amusing dialogue to their visual humour. They were able to extend their talents from short two-reel comedies to full-length features and, along with Charlie Chaplin, were the only comedy kings of the ’20s to prosper in the ’30s.

Laurel and Hardy were making films well into the ’40s without much alteration to their original style, custard pie throwing included, with stage appearances after that. Big Ollie died in 1957 and Stanley in 1965.

Charlie Chaplin, who now lives in Switzerland, also weathered the storm of change, although his lonely little tramp character was finally elbowed off the screen by more serious portrayals of characters such as M. Verdoux, Hitler in The Great Dictator and the story of an ageing music hall entertainer in Limelight.

These men were some of the pioneers of an art and an industry – there were many others, not only custard pie comedians, but also directors, dancers, actors and writers. Few remain alive today – but whatever happened to them, their films will always be their memorial.

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