Friday, January 23, 2015

'Lamebrains and Lunatics' an excellent guide to silent film comedy

Review by Doug Gibson

Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy“ (BearManor Media), by Steve Massa is a very comprehensive account of the "forgotten" stars of silent comedy 90 and 100 years ago. There's less of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and more of Billie Ritchie, Fay Tincher, Alice Howell and Max Linder.

To be honest, I will soon have a review of this book published in the Standard-Examiner newspaper, of which I am the features and entertainment editor. But I want to give readers a glimpse of the book as well as solid recommendation that they dip into their savings and purchase it from Bear Manor, either the dead tree edition or the inexpensive Kindle edition.

The book, which includes a comprehensive index of the silent comedy era and an excellent index, which is a luxury we sometimes don't see in genre book, covers silent comedy in two ears. Its early years, which started in the years after 1910, and the later period of the 20s. There are some poignant tales of silent stars who died early, including Ritchie, a model for Charles Chaplin, who lingered on and died after being attacked by ostriches. There's the tragic life of French superstore Max Lindor, who eventually, with his wife, committed suicide several years after dealing with the horrors of World War I.

There's the obscurity-to-stardom tales of Alice Howell, who was just toiling in pictures to help her family, and chubby toddler Joe Cobb, who visited Roach studios on a vacation with his parents and gained a starring role in the Our Gang series. Massa also explains how the low-key comedy talents of Harry Langdon inspired Stan Laurel to create the memorable Laurel half with Hardy as a teammate. It was a rough business, silent comedy, with lots of stars and studios crowding for market share. From star to has been in a year or two was not uncommon.

I could go on but let's wait for the review. In the meantime, "Lamebrains and Lunatics" is solid addition to the scholarship of silent cinema. Although it's depressing to think that the vast majority of these early comedians' work is gone, lost forever, Massa is optimistic that still more films of this era, as well as information of the performers, is waiting to be discovered.

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