Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Four and a half minutes into 1921’s “The Lucky Dog” comedy short, cinematic history is made. The film’s hero – a penniless young man with a surprisingly emo take on eye make-up – is chasing the eponymous lucky dog when he embroils himself in a mugging. As this is the knockabout world of early film comedy, the hold-up does not go according to plan, and the intended victim ends up racing off with more money than when he started, the oversized brute (do brutes come in any other size?) in hot pursuit.
What makes this particular moment historic is the identity of both mugger and muggee. The former is played by Oliver “Babe” Hardy, already a veteran with over a hundred comedy shorts under his belt. His intended victim, a relative newbie to Hollywood but already in leading roles, is Stan Laurel.
It’s not quite the birth of the comedy duo; after this film they were to race along separate high-speed paths in Hollywood for a few more years before being officially paired together by Hal Roach in 1926. But it’s this moment – their first shared scene together – that ensures the film is much more known than so many others made around this time.
And it’s this memorable status which means it’s incredible easy to re-watch this moment. It exists all over the internet, and when I discovered this fact it got me watching version after version – all of different lengths and variable picture quality. As I fell down the online rabbit-hole, I was repeatedly reminded of something jarring about how many of my generation experienced silent films.
For years the television syndication and commercial home release of silent films perpetuated a terrible crime against the era. Stock jaunty piano riffs were played over the footage, oblivious to whatever might be happening on screen, a strangely hectic muzak that became synonymous with the genre. In “The Lucky Dog” Oliver Hardy’s criminal returns near the end, and there’s a slow-building gag that pays off with the surprise firing of his pistol. On the versions I was watching the music just ignored this sudden shock – it happily noodled away to itself without a care in the world.
I remember watching a VHS of a Buster Keaton film which had had this cliched soundtrack dropped over it. Two thirds of the way through, the music ends. The stock record they had used ran out. Frenetic on-screen gags play over complete silence, before, seemingly, a studio engineer had realised what had happened and just pressed reset. The exact same jaunty music that played at the film’s opening now began sound tracking the climax.
It’s a shame that this era of film making has acquired the name “silent film”. Everyone involved making these films did not expect them to be seen in silence. When cinemas would show the film, in-house musicians would improvise a soundtrack, tailoring what they played to help sell the visual punchline to every gag. And this would not necessarily be on the piano. Theatre owners, especially those outside the big cities, would be happy to employ whatever musicians they could afford – a ukulele or a trumpet or even a single set of drums might be part of the film-goers experience.
Which brings me back to my online odyssey through the versions of “The Lucky Dog” available. Although it reminded me of all the clichés I’d associated with the genre, it also reminded me that in more recent times, things have been getting better. Silent films are re-emerging from beneath the numbing cloud of stock piano noise, the turning point perhaps being Carl Davis’ brilliant 1989 score for Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! Since then re-issues from this era have often enjoyed new, specially composed scores, with the biggest beasts of silent film enjoying full orchestral scores.
And even the idea that live music should be part of the theatrical exhibition of these pictures is coming back. Way back in my distant youth, my then-girlfriend and I used to housesit for one of the two people in the United Kingdom left who had the skills to play live music accompanying a film. Back then, in the folly of my youth, I wrote that off as a dying art, a talent surplus to requirements. In the decades since, more arthouse cinemas have embraced the idea that reshowing silent classics should come with a live performance. And new talent in this area is emerging, taking their name from the title of the film I opened with: “The Lucky Dog Picturehouse” are fiendishly talented, scarily young folk whose live shows playing alongside films from the era I would definitely recommend.
The last video I watched online was different to the others. It had no soundtrack to it at all. And as I watched in silence I realised there was nothing stopping anyone, anywhere from adding their own soundtrack. So I would recommend that if, after this article, you are tempted to check this film out, why not do so with a friend or two? And sit there with a couple of instruments, maybe kazoos, and make your own entertaining accompaniment to this freely-available marvel. It’s fun, interactive and will give a better sense of the communal, noisy pieces of silliness that these silent comedies were meant to be.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.