Thursday, March 23, 2017

On the Grapevine: The Perfect Clown (1925)


Because I had developed little to no interest in athletics (football, baseball, etc.) in my formative years, my adolescence was occupied by my mania for movies—with a minor in silent film comedy.  As such, my initial education on Larry Semon—who, during his prime, was second only to Chaplin in terms of moviegoer popularity—was fueled by reading reference books penned by Walter Kerr (The Silent Clowns) and Leonard Maltin (The Great Movie Comedians).  Kerr’s recollections of seeing Semon’s feature film The Wizard of Oz (1925) were summed up by this terse statement: “It is a film that ought to have bankrupted everyone associated with it.”

Larry Semon
I didn’t have access to any of Larry’s shorts and features at that stage of my cinema development (the initial run of PBS’ Silent Comedy Film Festival had come and gone), so it wasn’t until I was much older that I was able to sample the comedian’s work with shorts like The Sawmill (1921) and Golf (1922).  Director Norman Taurog, who helmed many of Semon’s comedies (including Sawmill), bluntly assessed Larry’s talent thusly: “He wasn’t funny.  That’s honest.  I loved the man but he wasn’t funny.”  But this does Semon a disservice: I think many of his short comedies have their moments (I like The Sawmill a lot), even though I would agree with Maltin that the comedian was “cold, and his constant use of such stunt men as Bill Haubor kept his comedy at arm's length from the audience.”

Larry Semon has been the subject of reassessment (notably a comprehensive series of Classic Images articles by film historian/friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts published in 1999) in recent years—Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen, written by Claudia Sassen, goes a long way towards meticulously chronicling the funster’s “quick rise to film comedy fame, his manic scramble to stay at the top, and his painful decline by the late ’20s,” as my Classic Movie Blog Association colleague Lea relates in her Silent-ology review.  I also think that Steve Massa—author of Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy—has a spot-on take on the onscreen Semon:  “His screen character was pure clown with windup toy movements, chest-high balloon trousers, clodhopper shoes, and a bowler hat, topped off with heavy white make-up on his horse face that made him look like a slapstick version of Nosferatu.”  (I’m not going to lie to you: the Nosferatu reference made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in a Larry Semon comedy.)

I’m prefacing this review of The Perfect Clown (1925) with all this critical commentary because I must be brutal in my honest assessment of this film.  It’s not very funny.  The plot, which focuses on young stockbroker Larry Ladd’s (Semon) attempts to protect a satchel containing $10,000 when he’s unable to deposit the contents at the bank in time, is stretched out over 51 minutes…and I have never been so happy to see a movie end in my experience.  This would have made a so-so two-reel comedy (though I probably would have played it safe and cut it by a reel), but the material simply cannot maintain its feature length.

I had two brief periods of amusement: I smiled at a gag in which Larry, tightly clutching his money-filled briefcase, lays the contents down on the running board of an automobile after knocking a woman down, her parcels scattered on the sidewalk.  He gallantly helps her collect her things while the vehicle continues down the street.  Noticing his briefcase is gone, Semon experiences a mild panic attack before realizing what’s happened, and he goes running off in pursuit of the car.

The other bit that produced a more substantial titter is also automobile-related: Larry and his sidekick (Spencer Bell, embarrassingly billed as “G. Howe Black”) have had their car commandeered by a pair of cops looking for two escaped convicts.  (Larry and “Snowball” are wearing those same stripey prison pajamas—how they got into them is a plot point you wouldn’t believe even if I explained it to you with charts and graphs.)  Larry feigns car trouble, so the police appropriate another vehicle…and once they’re gone, the two “convicts” continue their mad dash (Larry is obsessed with getting the money bag back to his boss).  They round a corner…and there are the two cops, experiencing real car trouble.  Seeing as how their first choice of transport is working again, the gendarmes hop back in.

Much of The Perfect Clown is preoccupied with “fright” gags that wouldn’t have passed muster in a Columbia short.  I know that many film fans advocate you shouldn’t watch comedies without an audience, but in the case of this movie I honestly don’t see where it would make a difference.  Clown will generate some slight interest in that Oliver Hardy (billed as O.N. Hardy, which also made me grin) has a small role as “Babe” Mulligan, the son of Semon’s character’s landlady (Kate Price).  Frank “Fatty” Alexander, later a member of the “Ton of Fun” trio, also appears briefly in the beginning as the man with a novel method for rug beating.

I don’t want this review to sour anyone on exploring the surreal comic world of Larry Semon; the straight dope is that feature films were not his strong suit, and after several flops he returned to the two-reeler arena, where as Massa observes he “panicked and began repeating his old gags ad nauseum.  This bankrupted him financially and emotionally, which led to a nervous breakdown and his death from pneumonia in 1928.”  (Most tragic, since Semon showed much potential as a character actor on the strength of a semi-serious turn as “Slippy” in the 1927 gangster film Underworld.)  As such, I’d be most hesitant to recommend a purchase of this film from Grapevine Video…though there is a small saving grace in that The Perfect Clown is paired with a classic Lloyd Hamilton short, Move Along (1926)—which I first saw on the aforementioned Silent Comedy Film Festival in those cherished days of my youth.

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