Nominated for the 2022 Richard Wall Memorial Award
Q & A with Steve Massa, author of Lame Brains and Lunatics 2:
I must say, after the impressively hefty Rediscovering Roscoe volume I was surprised (and delighted) to see another sizeable book from you so soon! How long has Lame Brains and Lunatics 2 been in the works?
I have to admit that I was also surprised at how hefty Lame Brains 2 turned out to be – some of this I think is because this was my pandemic shutdown project, and I had plenty of time to work on it. Like all my previous books LB2 was actively in the works for about two years, but the research gathering started years before.
What made you decide to write Lame Brains 2, and how do you choose your subjects?
Actually, my subjects choose me – they’re always subjects that there’s very little information on and for various reasons I need and want to find out more about. Almost nothing has been written on the silent comedy animals stars and their trainers, likewise people such as director Edward Luddy, or the performers Earl Mohan, Ingram “Seven Foot” Pickett, Fred Kovert, and the Harry Keaton (nee Keatan) that was not Buster’s brother.
Others chapters grew from research begun for other projects. The Mishaps of Musty Suffer and Edward Everett Horton essays came from work done for Undercrank Productions DVD sets, preparations for a Leo McCarey retrospective that Dave Kehr and I presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato and the Museum of Modern Art led to the McCarey piece, and The Trouble with Larry essay was initially a contribution to another author’s volume on Larry Semon that never materialized.
There are still plenty of neglected silent comedy subjects to explore which don’t necessarily warrant a full book-long study, so that’s why after tackling single themed books like Slapstick Divas and Rediscovering Roscoe I decided to return to the essay format of my first Lame Brains and Lunatics.
How did your interest in silent comedy begin?
I was always movie crazy as a kid, and at a young age got hooked on silent comedies watching television programs such as Who’s the Funny Mann? and Comedy Capers, where shorts were edited down and repackaged for children. From that early beginning I tried to see as many of the films and gather as much information on them as possible. For years this was my personal hobby, but in 1985 I got invited to the FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) Slapstick Symposium at the Museum of Modern Art. This opened up a whole archival world to me – I was able to access hard to see films, and in 1990 I began curating silent film programs for film museums and festivals. Things have snowballed from there.
You covered many, many names for this book, including a lot of names that even the most hardcore silent film fans probably don’t know. Are there any who could stand to be further researched and hopefully be rediscovered by new audiences?
There are two – Lupino Lane and Clyde Cook. They were comedy stars in the 1920s and headlined in their own pictures, but over the years have become forgotten. Both had years of experience on stage, and were able to preserve a lot of those traditions and routines on film. Amazing acrobats, like Buster Keaton they were able to make the unbelievable believable, and were also funny and prolific comedy creators.
There are more of Lupino Lane’s silent comedies available today – the shorts he made for Educational Pictures. Many of them are film parodies like Sword Points (1927), Monty of the Mounted (1927), and Roaming Romeo (1928) – but all of his pictures have rapid action with lots of acrobatics. A few of the Clyde Cook shorts are around, mostly the ones made for the Hal Roach Studio that were often written or directed by Stan Laurel. Cook went on to become a character actor in Hollywood features, often turning up in Cockney roles into the early 1960s.
Can you give us a bit of insight into the research process? I was impressed to see so much detail on lost films, as well as all those rare photographs.
The archival research for Lame Brains and Lunatics 2 was extremely extensive. I happen to work at a major arts archive, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, so much of my research always starts there with our amazing collection of clipping files, motion picture trade journals, photographs, and other ephemera. The Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, George Eastman Museum, the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, EYE Filmmuseum, Netherlands, the Cineteca di Bologna, and the Royal Belgian Cinematheque were among the other major archives visited or where info and material like films and images were accessed. Private collectors are an important source, and now an amazing amount of research can be done from home with the Media History Digital Library’s Lantern Search.
Did you get to watch any forgotten gems that you think deserve to be given a DVD (or Blue-ray) treatment in the future?
I did watch many overlooked films in my research for the book, and I think what would make an excellent DVD or Blu-ray release would be a selection of shorts with the silent comedy animal stars. They were very entertaining and clever, and the animal performers such as Brownie, Joe martin, Pal, Snooky, Teddy, the Fox Chimps, and Pete the pup were extremely charismatic with loads of personality. Many of the animal comedies were spoofs of dramatic feature films, so the plots and intertitles are witty. They were well made, and today it’s interesting to compare these films with the ones made with human stars like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel & Hardy.
Do you have any favorites among these forgotten comedians?
I have a favorite – he’s not a forgotten comedian but there’s a whole forgotten segment of his career. It’s Edward Everett Horton. He’s well-remembered for the movies he made in the 1930s and 1940s such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Top Hat (1935), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) where he supports the likes of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, or Cary Grant. Hardy anyone remembers that in the 1920s he starred in a number of silent comedy features, and finished the decade in eight two-reel comedies that were produced by Harold Lloyd and made by his company.
People always remember Mr. Horton’s voice (he was the narrator of Fractured Fairy Tales on The Adventures of Ricky & Bullwinkle), but it turns out that he was just as funny without it. And in the silent era he was more of star as the pictures were all built around him. In the sound era he was always solid support for the leads. A few of his silent features are around, and the eight shorts just came out on a DVD from Undercrank Productions.
Which authors of film do you turn to for inspiration? Is there any writing on film outside of the silent that are important to you, or criticism on the other arts?
Authors who have influenced me are William K. Everson, Leonard Maltin, Sam Gill, Kalton C. Lahue, Richard W. Bann, Brent Walker, Rob Stone and Randy Skretvedt. I like a no-frills style that really focuses on the subject from a historical point of view. I hate academic or theoretical film books, where it takes twelve pages and copious footnotes to the describe the relevance and implications of a gag or comic moment that takes only ten seconds to watch. Silent comedies above all are fun, so I think writings about them should be fun too. I try to keep things loose, incorporate humor, and avoid being dry or boring. I go out of my way not to be academic – I purposely don’t use footnotes, and try to be as conversational as possible. I also always try to find and use quotes from my subjects, as I think it’s important to give a suggestion of their own voice. I hope I’m successful in keeping things fun – most of the feedback I get on the books leads me to think I am.
How important is the silent film community to your work? I see much evidence in your book, such as your citations from other film historians.
Being a part of the silent film community is extremely important in doing a book like this. Such a wide variety of material is needed – information, images, access to films – there’s no one-stop shopping. Having been programming and involved in silent comedy shows for thirty years I have a great group of colleagues who are very generous, who go out of their way to share what they or their archives have, and are ready to brainstorm and suggest other sources (you can’t go wrong with input from someone like Kevin Brownlow). It’s a very passionate group of experts who help each other out, as the common over-all goal is to showcase the films and get the word out on them.
Lastly, do you have any research tips for budding film historians?
Look for a subject that’s been puzzlingly overlooked. Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, etc., have been way overdone (that is unless you come up with an under-examined part of their career such as Michael J. Hayde’s excellent Chaplin’s Vintage Year). Work to be thorough – seek out primary source material and just don’t go with what’s on imdb and the internet. I’ve seen a number of little macro-published books pop up recently – many of them just made up of easily available online material. As I mentioned before the Media History Digital Library gives you access to trade and entertainment journals, which is important if you’re not near major research facilities like LOC, the Margaret Herrick Library, or the NYPL.
Just go with the subjects that really interest you and that you have a burning desire to find out more about.