We all have our list of favorite two-reel silent comedies and comedians who starred in them. Yours may be an early Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton or Langdon before they got into feature films exclusively. You may prefer some of those who specialized in two-reelers such as Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Bowers, Lupino Lane or a host of others.
But have you ever thought about how much different our favorite two-reel comedies would be if the female lead were a different person or someone not quite so "perfect" for the part? We don't often say, "I want to see that comedy because it has Sybil Seeley in it!" or "Anything with Anita Garvin is going to be good!" Yet, these two, along with many other beautiful ladies of the silent era added much to these comedies through, not only their beauty, but their comedic timing, their expressive features, their ability to "play off of" these comedy geniuses, and more.
Just as there are hundreds of wonderful silent two-reelers to enjoy today, there are dozens of beautiful co-stars who have graced these films and added so much to their enjoyment. However, below are a few personal favorites - both the comedy and the leading lady - very highly recommended comedy gems that would have lost some of their lustre if the leading ladies had been someone else.
Marion Byron was seen frequently in the Hal Roach shorts and was a delightful addition to many of that studio's two-reelers. Byron was a petite, dark-haired beauty with a very attractive figure. However, her most memorable feature was her large, expressive eyes that were put to good use in "A Pair of Tights."
Although this film actually has four stars (Edgar Kennedy and Stu Erwin co-starred), the show was completely stolen by Byron and her roommate in the story, Anita Garvin. Erwin comes to pick up girlfriend Byron and brings along a blind date (Kennedy) for Garvin. The two girls, especially Garvin, could care less about their dates - they just want someone to take them out to a nice restaurant for an expensive meal. However, the two tightwads (hence the title, "A Pair of Tights") do everything they can to avoid spending money on a big meal and figure getting some ice cream (a less expensive alternative) may spoil the girls' appetites.
Marion is elected to go get the ice cream while Anita and the boys circle the block (there's no place to park). However, each time she comes out of the door holding the four ice cream cones, she runs into trouble. The first time, she encounters a playful pup who keeps jumping up on her to get to the ice cream. She tries her best to "shoo" him away, but holding two cones in each hand severely restricts her defenses. Byron turns her back to the dog trying to push him away with her posterior to no avail. She tries kicking at the dog, but he keeps coming back. The whole sequence is a beautiful comedic ballet, and Byron is excellent throughout.
More troubles are encountered in this sequence including a lengthy run-in with Roach's ubiquitous rotten kid, Spec O'Donnell. Probably the most hilarious part comes when Marion lays the cones of ice cream down in a car seat while she pulls up her falling hose. While her back is turned, a very dignified, well-dressed lady gets in the car and sits on them. When Marion turns around, she sees the expression on the lady's face and realizes what has happened. Marion turns to face the camera, eyes wide in disbelief and hand to mouth as she utters "Oh, my!" A very funny bit made all the funnier by Byron's reaction.
By the way, another outstanding performance for Byron was as Buster Keaton's leading lady in his 1928 feature "Steamboat Bill, Jr." - a fine bit of casting by Keaton.
Byron's co-star in "A Pair of Tights,"
Anita Garvin, is no less enjoyable, but she has another film in
which her role is more significant to the plot and gives her more
opportunity to get the laughs - something she does with skill
In "From Soups to Nuts," Laurel & Hardy have been hired as butlers for the wealthy Mrs. Culpepper (Garvin) who is ignorant of the social graces but wants to impress her snobbish friends with a dinner party. Of course, Laurel & Hardy bring in a gag-filled two-reel comedy with many memorable moments, but Garvin makes an equal contribution to the enjoyment of the film and has her own special moments, as well.
For example, everyone who's seen the film remembers her attempts to chase down a cherry that has fallen from the dessert dish to her plate with a very small spoon. Laurel & Hardy were masters at taking a simple gag and continuing to milk it for laughs for quite some time. Garvin shows that she is equally adept as she spends several minutes of screen time trying to get the little cherry from the plate to her mouth without success.
This "chase" is assisted by an uncooperative tiara that keeps falling down over her eyes. Just as she is about to put the cherry into her mouth, the tiara falls and causes her to lose it again. Another time, she succeeds in getting the cherry on the spoon, assumes a very satisfied expression at her accomplishment, and then is given a congratulatory slap on the back from Laurel causing the cherry to leap from the spoon AND the tiara to fall back down over her eyes!
Garvin appeared in many Laurel & Hardy shorts and literally shone brightly in all of them. Her forté was her expressions of exasperation and anger. Teeth clenched and lips held tightly as she uttered whatever venomous words were appropriate for the situation - Garvin was funny and a joy to watch but still an extremely attractive lady through it all.
Pretty, dark-haired Sybil Seely was, according to author Jim Kline, "one of Keaton's favorite and most charming leading ladies" - and charming she was. Seely appeared in only five of Keatons' shorts and none of his features - and this certainly was Keaton's, and our, loss. But she did add considerably to the films in which she did appear - much more so than Virginia Fox who took Seely's place in eight of Keaton's shorts.
Seely was appropriately cast and effectively counterbalanced Keaton's antics in every film in which she appeared, but, for some reason, her first film with the deadpan comedian, "One Week," is slightly more charming than the rest.
Maybe this has to do with the fact that Buster and Sybil are newlyweds in this two-reeler who work hand-in-hand to construct their new prefab house. Almost graciously, Sybil stands by her man and suffers each mishap and setback with a pragmatic acceptance - unruffled and ready to move on to the next task at hand.
Seely wasn't above joining in some of the risky or messy slapstick, either. In one tricky gag that makes the viewer's heart leap, she is sitting in the unfinished window downstairs while Buster is in the window upstairs, both of them with their feet dangling outside. Suddenly, the entire wall flips, and we find Sybil upstairs and Buster downstairs. The fact that she held on is amazing. Of course, the wall eventually falls, and there's Sybil hanging on from another second story wall.
As for messy, we see her in a quick gag preparing a meal for the two of them. She punches the cardboard top on the milk bottle and milk spews all in her face and everywhere eliciting a shocked look from the comedienne.
Seely's most memorable scene in the movie is meant to tease the male viewers and does so successfully. Contributing nothing to the plot, we see Seely in a bathtub scrubbing away. The camera is positioned so the side of the old box-shaped tub comes just high enough to modestly reveal Seely's shoulders and above. Suddenly, she drops the soap on the floor. Now, the viewer quickly thinks, "How is she going to get the soap without getting out of the tub and revealing herself?" As she looks toward the camera, we see an unknown hand come from the side of the frame and cover the camera lens. When the hand is removed, Seely is back in the tub scrubbing away with the soap. But the most adorable "cap" to the scene comes next. Seely looks straight into the camera and gives a flippant little laugh as if to say, "Fooled you, didn't I?"
Seely's performances are marked by their restraint while providing enough energy and presence so that she's not just a fixture in the films. She's also one of Keaton's most attractive leading ladies, and it's really a shame he didn't use her in at least one of his features (too bad he didn't dump Natalie Talmadge for Seely in "Our Hospitality").
Why Phyllis Haver appeared in only one Buster Keaton short is a mystery - and a shame! However, her one appearance, in "The Balloonatic," was a very fortunate pairing as the two could have easily made a series of fims together - a pairing that brings to mind the Harold Lloyd-Bebe Daniels matchup and how well they "clicked."
"The Balloonatic" has no plot but is a series of outdoor gags Keaton built around the sportsman's life at a mountain stream. By coincidence, he meets Haver there, who has come to enjoy the outdoors herself with a bit of fishing and swimming.
Each of Keaton's encounters with Haver is a sheer delight, and it's hard to imagine anyone else in the part but her. After a short sequence showing her fishing, we are treated to a view of the lovely Haver in a bathing suit, standing on a rock, stretching back and about to dive into the stream. Unfortunately, she dives right on top of Keaton, who, through one of his many mishaps, is being swept down the swiftly moving mountain stream. When Haver regains her composure after the collision and realizes who this is (Buster came out on the losing end earlier in the film when he tried to kiss Haver in a tunnel of love), she begins a verbal attack on Buster, and he wisely begins an immediate retreat.
This love-hate relationship is carried throughout the film, and we are teased with the possibility that she may warm up to Buster at some point. The opportunity arises when Phyllis is backed against a hillside by a bull and shouts for Buster's help. Of course, his attempts to be of some help are useless, and Phyllis takes the bull by the horns (literally!) and throws him down - much to Buster's amazement. She runs to a safer location, regains her composure, and then looks for Buster - and she doesn't look happy! She shouts to Buster, stompng her foot and pointing to the ground demanding that he, "Come here!" Buster will have no part of this bull-wrestling female and once again retreats - but Phyllis persists, demanding that he "Come here!" She eventually runs after him, but Buster keeps running. In this sequence, Haver is both cute and feisty, making the scene all the more funny and enjoyable.
We get at least one medium close-up of Haver in "The Balloonatic," which, as in so many "vignettes" in the short comedies of the silent era, contributes nothing to the plot. However, it does give a chance to show just how beautiful and expressive Haver was. She has just prepared a cup of hot coffee, puts it too her mouth, and almost scalds herself. She jerks the cup away, and a big puff of steam emanates from her lips. She rounds out her mouth, runs her tongue around the lips to assess the damage, and then blows hard with a "Whew!" Very cute indeed!
The fact that Keaton used Haver (the blonde pairing with Keaton was a nice contrast to the dark-haired Seely and Fox) only once is certainly odd, since they played so well together, but the fact that Haver's role was much different than the other female leads in Keaton's shorts was unusual, too. Haver is a dominant figure in the film, equal to, and in some instances much stronger than, Keaton's character. Keaton retracts from her anger as he would a male nemesis in his films - Joe Roberts, for example. Keep in mind, too, there are no other roles in this film (that is unusual in itself). The whole film is carried by Keaton and Haver alone, and - certainly with much credit given to Haver - it is one of his best shorts.
Harry Langdon made some great shorts while he was with Mack Sennett, and "Saturday Afternoon" is one of the best . . . and of his four co-stars in the film (Vernon Dent, Alice Ward, Peggy Montgomery and Ruth Hiatt), petite, dark-haired, wide-eyed Ruth Hiatt by far contributes the most to the film. She is pert, cute, lively, simply adorable and absolutely perfect for the part.
Vernon convinces Harry to join him on a Saturday afternoon double date with Ruth and Peggy. The only trouble is . . . Harry's married. Of course, all sorts of mishaps occur so the date turns into a disaster, but Hiatt's chance to shine is in the first half of the film, and shine she does!
After Vernon has introduced Harry to the girls, he pulls his little friend aside and tries to convince him to go out with them. Vernon gives a very apt description of Hiatt when he tells Harry, "The little one with the swell lamps is dyin' to meet you." As they walk home, Hiatt is full of life and exceedingly playful. Literally skipping down the street, she holds Harry's hand and swings their arms high in the air, grabs his lunch box and takes it away, pushes his hat to one side and pulls his overalls strap down - all of which is very annoying to the bashful Harry. At one point she weaves her arm through his, then twists her body around and in front of him while still holding on so she's looking right into his face. All of this playfulness is so cute, we wonder how Harry can resist.
Hiatt is superb at little nuances and bits that add so much to her character. For example, as they stand in front of her house, she straightens Harry's collar and hat, and gives him a kiss by touching her hand to her lips and then to his. She then scampers up to her front porch, turns to give a final, admiring look at her new found date, and runs into the house. Later, when she comes back outside to retrieve her dog who has chased after Harry, she stands in the middle of the street looking over at him, smiles lovingly, and, with a heaving of the chest, throws two kisses his way and again scampers back to her house.
Hiatt's loveliness is displayed well in the few seconds of film that give her a very nice, full-face close-up. She looks up at Harry, bats those large, lovely eyes at him, then smiles one of the prettiest smiles of any silent movie starlet.
Hiatt did co-star in one of Langdon's features, "His First Flame" (1927), but because her part is so limited, "Saturday Afternoon" actually provides a much better venue for her beauty and talent.
Viola Richard is another of those dark-haired beauties who seemed to have been so plentiful at the Hal Roach lot. Of course, just as the other ladies who supported the silent era's multitude of zanies, she had to be ability to convey a wide range of emotions with her facial expressions - surprise, fear, embarrassment, frustration, anxiety, anger, relief, joy, and that constantly called-upon false smile. Oddly enough, in Charley Chase's two-reel gem, "Limousine Love," it was necessary for Richard to display all of these emotions - and JUST with her face! Wanta know why? Well, for about 90 percent of her screen time she is naked - so, obviously, her face is going to be ALL we see!
"Limousine Love" is one of the all-time favorite two-reel comedies for silent film buffs. The main reason, no doubt, is the presence of Chase, and certainly he is one of the comic geniuses of the silent era. Another reason is the great story line. The gag writers came up with a "pip" (one of Chase's favorite words) of a script that is hard to beat. But let's not underestimate Richard's contribution to the success of this film, either. As noted, she's called upon to do all her acting from the neck up, and she meets the challenge admirably.
In the film, Viola oveturns her car in a water-filled ditch. Although unhurt, her clothes are drenched. She finds an abandoned touring car on the country road, jumps in the back seat, pulls down the shades, undresses, and hangs her clothes outside the window on a makeshift clothesline to dry. It turns out that the car belongs to Charley who ran out of gas on the way to his wedding. After filling up with more gas, he jumps in and hurriedly drives off. As he pulls away, Viola's clothes are lost in a water-filled culvert, and Charley must modestly help the young lady get some clothes while getting to his wedding on time AND keeping the whole affair (no pun intended) from his fianceé. Hitchhiker Edgar Kennedy adds to the fun as he assists Charley with his dilemma.
As noted, Richard is called upon to give us a variety of reactions to the incidents in the story while all we see of her is from the neck up. When Charley goes to retrieve her clothes, he returns only with an elastic garter. Tapping on the back window, we see Viola's head pop up in front of the shade. From behind the glass, she sees the tiny garter, and her mouth pops open in disbelief. Then the expression turns to a "what am I gonna do?" look before disappearing behind the shade again.
In one of the more hilarious sequences, Charley is stopped by a cop looking for rum-runners. Charley tries his best to wrestle the cop and keep him from looking in the back seat, but his efforts go in vain. The cop finally opens the back door, but sees nothing out of the ordinary. Charley looks very tentatively into the back seat himself, and there is Viola completely covered with a newspaper up to her neck looking as if she's simply checking up on the latest news. All we see is the newspaper and a smile (albeit a nervous smile). The look Viola gives is just what we would expect from someone in this same predicament (that is, IF anyone in the world was EVER in such a predicament!)
Throughout the film, as events are taking place outside the car, we get close-up glimpses of Richard's face so we can see her reaction to the ongoing series of near-misses that keep her from getting some clothes. Each time, the gag is enhanced by Richard's reactions - each perfectly suited for what's going on around her.
Although no single stand-out film comes to mind, another Hal Roach comedienne deserves recognition for her contributions and the special beauty she brought to many of the comedies. Edna Marian (sometimes spelled Marion) was a very petite blonde beauty with big, dark eyes, a small mouth and a somewhat prominent nose. She was perfect for the younger girl, more innocent than the characters Richard or Garvin would play. She figures very prominently into "Limousine Love" as Chase's fianceé and does an admirable job of being frustrated with Chase's silly behavior as he attempts to keep her from finding out about the naked lady in his back seat.
Marian was used often by Chase in his comedies during the 1926-27 period, and silent movie fans should also remember her as the young daughter in Laurel & Hardy's "Sugar Daddies" (1927). Another chance to see Richard and Marian together is in Laurel & Hardy's "Should Married Men Go Home? (1928). Both are given the perfect opportunity to display their beauty in their cute 1920's sports outfits on a golf course, but, of course, this is a Laurel & Hardy film, so, before it's over, they are both seen at their messiest after being caught up in one of the comedy team's melees in a mudhole.
Harold Lloyd can claim to have had one of the best leading ladies with Bebe Daniels - and there's no doubt she was a beauty. However, not much more can be said about her that hasn't already been said by a hundred others who have written about Daniels' talent and beauty. Also, Daniels differs from those mentioned above in that she went on to become a star in her own right in feature films.
And let's not forget the beautiful and ethereal Edna Purviance who contributed so much to the best of Charlie Chaplin's two-reel comedies. Probably less of a comedienne than those already mentioned, Purviance was no less a beauty and certainly was no less a presence in Chaplin's two-reel comedies than any of the other ladies were in theirs.
So, it's OK to have a favorite comedian,
and it's OK to have a favorite short or two that we like to watch
over and over and recommend to anyone we can find who hasn't seen
them, but let's not overlook the "leading ladies." They
may not be remembered as well or get the mention in history books
that some of the leading ladies in feature comedies receive, but
when you really think about your favorite two-reelers . . . weren't
these ladies great?!
copyright 2000 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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