Thursday, October 20, 2016

On the Grapevine – Lane closure


Okay, apologies for the lame title of this post.  I couldn’t come up with anything nearly as clever as some of the two-reelers that comprise Lupino Lane Comedy Shorts, a Grapevine Video release that came out last month.  I got wind of this DVD a while back at the Silent Comedy Mafia website, where capo di tutti capi Richard M. Roberts mentioned that a few of the items on Grapevine’s Lane menu would originate from his voluminous movie library.  (I would have ordered my copy the second the announcement hit my e-mailbox…but I was without funds at the time.)

The comedian who often draws strong comparisons to silent comedy legends Buster Keaton (for his athleticism and inventive physical gags) and Harry Langdon (for his vacant stare and innocent child-like persona) was born to a famous theatrical family (Ida Lupino is a second cousin) on June 16, 1892 in London—sources are occasionally contradictory about his birth name (given as Henry William George Lupino); BusterKeaton.com proprietor David B. Pearson writes here that the Lupino family named the future film star “Lupino Lane” because a maiden aunt had planned to will her future heir £200,000 if the Lane clan complied.  To family and friends, Lupino was known as “Nipper” (though Lane himself preferred “Nip”—“nipper” is English slang for a pickpocket.)

Lane was a talented circus acrobat and tumbler who had appeared in British movie comedies since 1915, and he made his first U.S. film in 1922.  After spending two years at Fox (Lane also has a role in D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful? [1924], which I’ll be covering in this space in a few weeks), Lupino signed with Educational Films (“The Spice of the Program”) where he hit his stride with some very entertaining two-reel comedies, produced by Jack White.  Five of them are featured on this Grapevine set.

The collection kicks off with the best of the bunch, Maid in Morocco (1925); Lupino is a groom whose bride (Helen Foster) has attracted the roving eye of Ben Hammered (Wallace Lupino—the star’s younger brother, who appeared in most of the Lane comedies but also did some solo work [his 1928 comedy The Lost Laugh is on Accidentally Preserved, Volume 1]), the Caliph of Ginfez.  Even though Ben already has a harem numbering 200 wives, he figures one more won’t make that much difference…so The Groom is forced to infiltrate the palace and rescue his love.  Morocco features one of the comedian’s best-remembered gags: during a frantic chase with the Caliph’s guards, Lane does a gravity-defying run up one side and down the other of an archway (he does this twice in the short!).  Morocco is a true comedy gem, with Lane constantly in motion (Steve Massa describes him in Lame Brains & Lunatics as “the diminutive dervish who sets all the other elements spinning”)—there’s even a spirited chase at the end that requires him to do some Keatonesque sprinting to evade his adversaries.

Movie Land (1926), the second short on the DVD, is also most enjoyable…with Lupino as a gazillionaire (the appropriately-titled “Lester Limberleg”) who’s fallen for actress Kathryn McGuire.  After a mishap involving his dress clothes (you kind of have to see this to believe it), he unintentionally slights Kathryn and when he visits her at the movie studio the next morning to make amends she informs studio security that he’s to escort Mr. Limberleg off the lot by any means necessary.  This is an invitation for some hilarious physical comedy (the mattress gag is sidesplitting), which culminates with Lester impersonating a stunt dummy that nevertheless allows him to experience a few blissful moments of romance in the arms of his lady love. 

Movie Land was written and directed by future Oscar winner Norman Taurog, while Morocco and Naughty Boy (1927), another entertaining comedy, were helmed by the prolific Charles Lamont (he directed a lot of Abbott & Costello’s vehicles in the 1950s).  Boy has a bit of a farfetched premise—Lupino has to impersonate a child (here’s where the Langdon influence is most noticeable) because his father has told his bride-to-be he’s thirty—but it’s got funny gags aplenty and an energetic performance from the star.  Fandango (1928) stars Lane as “The Lonesomest Man in Town”; a caballero who competes with Wallace Lupino for the attentions of a fetching senorita (Marjorie Moore).  It’s not one of the strongest Lupino shorts I’ve seen, but it’s redeemed by the presence of TDOY fave Anita Garvin, who plays Lane’s seductive dance partner in the two-reeler’s highlight.  Rounding out the disc is Battling Sisters (1929), which really doesn’t go anywhere once its one-joke premise has been established (in the future [1980!], women fight in the wars while men “keep the home fires burning”).  (Hey—you can’t hit one out of the park every time you’re up to bat.)

Fandango and Sisters allowed Lupino Lane to embrace his inner auteur; he directed these shorts under the nom de cinema “Henry W. George.”  Lane’s work behind the camera would reach its apex with Only Me (1929), a two-reeler that features him playing all twenty-four roles in the short!  (Influenced by Buster Keaton’s The Play House [1921], no doubt; Only Me is available on the Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD collection.)  Massa observes: “Lane also benefited from the direction of Keaton mentor Roscoe Arbuckle in his early comedies The Fighting Dude (1925), Fool’s Luck (1926), and His Private Life (1926).”  (Fool’s Luck turns up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time, so keep an eye peeled for it.)

Of the five shorts on Grapevine’s Lane collection, I was already familiar with three of them (Morocco, Boy, and Fandango) as a result of a previous purchase of Alpha Video’s Lupino Lane Silent Comedy Collection, Volume 1; that set also features one of the comedian’s best shorts (I just wish Alpha’s print was better) in Roaming Romeo (1928—a.k.a. Bending Her), Who’s Afraid? (1927), and a sound effort from Lupino, Purely Circumstantial (1929).  Alpha put out a second collection in January of 2014 that features four additional shorts including 1928’s Sword Points (with a memorable sequence of Lane leaping in and out of trapdoors hidden in a wall).  (Ask Andrew “Grover” Leal how he happened to acquire a copy of this DVD sometime—hint: it involves me not remembering I previously purchased the disc.)

My lifelong love for Buster Keaton might explain why I enjoy the Lupino Lane comedies so much; the gags are really imaginative and Lane executes some stunts that even surpass The Great Stone Face—including his trademark routine, where he does a “split” and then jack-knifes back to a standing position without putting a hand on the ground.  Leonard Maltin writes in The Great Movie Comedians: “But Lane suffered from the same problem that plagued so many of his colleagues: there was nothing tangible or human underneath the surface gags.  Even those acrobatics became familiar after a couple of films and started to lose their fresh appeal…”  Pearson muses that if Lane had been employed at Hal Roach, where the writers were able to develop meatier stories, his prominence in the Kingdom of Comedy might be markedly different.  (And let’s not overlook the fact that Lane became an even bigger name on the other side of the pond as the originator of “The Lambeth Walk” in the hit stage musical Me and My Gal.)

But that’s all frog dissection: when the Lupino Lane comedies are good, they’re very, very good.  I highly recommend a purchase of Grapevine’s collection, and perhaps in future we’ll see a release with better prints of Roaming Romeo and Sword Points.

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