I’ve been a fan of silent films since I was a little gaffer—particularly the works of the great comedians. I’m not entirely sure when and how this came about, though I’ve long suspected that my exposure to Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase in their Columbia two-reelers would go a long way toward explaining it. I’m also old enough to remember the hoopla surrounding the return of Charlie Chaplin to the United States (not knowing at the time, of course, that the U.S. was responsible for kicking him out in the first place) to participate in the 1972 Academy Awards. A few years later, I made a point to borrow from the town library Walter Kerr’s seminal reference tome The Silent Clowns—not long after its publication, the author/critic appeared occasionally on a program that I watched on our local PBS affiliate entitled The Silent Comedy Film Festival.
But enough about my truly odd childhood. This October 15th and 17th, the Museum of Modern Art has scheduled showings of Hands Up! (1926), Raymond Griffith’s Civil War comedic masterpiece. I’d certainly love to be there (although Pam says the popcorn really sucks) but since I cannot, I spend last night (through the courtesy of Grapevine) watching it in the confines of my own home, where the popcorn is assuredly better. Hands Up! is acknowledged by many silent comedy fans to be Raymond Griffith’s best feature, even earning a spot on the National Film Registry in 2005. Author Kerr enthusiastically championed Griffith in Clowns, writing: “Raymond Griffith seems to me to occupy a handsome fifth place—after Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon—in the silent comedy pantheon, a place that is his by right of his refusal to ape his contemporaries and his insistence on following the devious curve of an entirely idiosyncratic eye.”
It would be difficult for someone like myself to argue with Mr. Kerr’s assessment (though I do take issue with his assigning Langdon to fourth place—I think a strong case can be made for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) since I’ve only seen the one Griffith vehicle—and in fact, more knowledgeable fans than I demur based on the reality that many of Griffth’s films have been lost to the ravages of time. In a February 2005 article in Classic Images, Bruce Calvert informs readers that only two of Griffith’s best comedies—Hands and Paths to Paradise (1925)—are available on video; some of his supporting performances also exist in that medium, but the rest of his starring films still extant remain locked away in private archives. (In the case of
Paradise, nearly every available
print is missing the film’s final reel.)
But rather than lament what’s unavailable, allow me to praise what is: Hands Up! is a first-rate feature comedy, featuring
as a Confederate spy assigned to keep a Nevada
gold mine out of the hands of the Union Army (represented by Captain Montagu
Love). During the course of his mission,
he faces a firing squad (one of the film’s most memorable sequences, as he
cavalierly tosses plates in the air to distract his would-be executioners) and
Indians on the warpath, and manages to fall in love with both daughters (Marian
Nixon, Virginia Lee Corbin) of the mine owner (Mack Swain)—a sticky wicket
resolved at the end with a gag that I’m certain raised more than a few eyebrows
at the time. Griffith’s
unflappable character (adorned in silk hat and tuxedo) makes the comedic
entanglements work, displaying a breezy insouciance that is positively
engaging. I also find Hands Up! intriguing in that like
Keaton’s The General, both of its
protagonists are backing the Confederate cause…even though we all know (with
the possible exception of a few people hanging out in my neck of the woods) how
that turned out.
In The Silent Clowns, Kerr states that “…’Hands Up!’ contains some work that is daring—for its period, certainly—and some that is masterfully delicate; the work of an inventive, unaggressive, amiably iconoclastic intelligence.” To me, the test of a really good silent film is whether or not it encourages me to seek other entries by the same artists (actors, directors, writers, etc.) and in the case of Hands Up! it’s passed the exam with flying colors.