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Al Christie + Vitagraph Comedies: Remembering Cinema’s Merry Pioneers

11 minutes read

Al ChristieAl Christie (1886–1951) was a movie comedy pioneer alongside his brother, Charles Christie (1882–1955), general manager of the Christie Film Company. Among their players were Dorothy Devore, Lloyd Hamilton, Al St. John, and future star Betty Compson (The Docks of New York, The Barker).
  • Film historian Anthony Slide remembers pioneer comedy producer Al Christie, subject of the new biography Al Christie: Hollywood’s Forgotten Film Pioneer, and several Vitagraph Studios comedy players – among them John Bunny and Larry Semon – whose shorts are included in Kino Classics’ three-disc DVD/Blu-Ray collection “Vitagraph Comedies.”

Remembering prolific movie comedy pioneer Al Christie, writer-producer of hundreds of shorts from the early silent era to the late 1940s

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Al Christie is a recurring name in the history of early silent comedy.

Yet, until now, very little was known about him. And what was known and what one took away from his efforts was the notion of a producer who failed to make few, if any, films worthy of major attention – one whose name had long been eclipsed by those of Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, and others.

One reason for this is that the comedians associated with Al Christie – including Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran, and Neal Burns – are hardly in the upper echelon of comedy stars. Besides, when Christie did have a better-remembered performer in his company, such as Laura La Plante,[1] it must be noted that she became prominent only after she had moved on from him.

Brilliant Dorothy Devore

That being said, there are at least two actresses at the Christie Film Company for whom I have great admiration and respect: Billie Rhodes and Dorothy Devore. The latter is quite brilliant as a female Harold Lloyd in the 1924 feature Hold Your Breath, in which her exploits climbing a downtown Los Angeles building in pursuit of a monkey are truly spectacular.

Both Babe London[2] and Priscilla Bonner[3] talked with me about Dorothy Devore’s relationship to Al Christie – she was his mistress. And it is very obvious that the actress was important to Christie both on a personal and a professional level. He also liked to have her impersonate young boys on screen, which, of course, raises both eyebrows and an apparently unresolved issue.

By the way, if one is wondering, Priscilla Bonner appeared for Al Christie in his 1925 production of Charley’s Aunt, starring Sidney Chaplin. It’s one of Christie’s major films of the 1920s.

Giving Al Christie his due

I am discussing Al Christie now thanks to a new biography, Mark Kearney’s Al Christie: Hollywood’s Forgotten Film Pioneer (BearManor Media, 2023), which begins with the producer’s birth in London, Ontario, and goes on to document the start of his film activities in 1913 all the way to the end of his career in the 1940s.

My only objection to Hollywood’s Forgotten Film Pioneer is a rather personal one.

Kearney quotes my opinion on several occasions, and as I read what I wrote about Al Christie many years ago, I am struck that I don’t always agree with myself. Yes, on the whole I think his productions are often dull and not very funny, but there are exceptions – a number of them – and I’ve been unfair in not giving the man his due.

Larry SemonLarry Semon (1889–1928) is one of the early silent-era comedians featured in Kino Classics’ three-disc DVD/Blu-ray set “Vitagraph Comedies.“ Semon’s health and finances took a dive after the release of the 1925 The Wizard of Oz, a flop that he produced, directed, adapted, and costarred in.

‘Vitagraph Comedies’ DVD/Blu-ray set: Revisiting the Vitagraph Studios’ comedy players of more than a century ago

Just prior to reading Al Christie: Hollywood’s Forgotten Film Pioneer, I completed a marathon 9½ hours of audio commentary for Kino Classics’ January 2024 release “Vitagraph Comedies,” consisting of some 40 of the studio’s shorts produced between 1907 and 1922.

If I was to compare the Vitagraph comedy shorts to those of other silent producers, I would have to place them pretty much on a par with those produced by Al Christie. There is the occasional hint of Mack Sennett slapstick, while the presence of Oliver “Babe” Hardy in many of them suggests a link to Hal Roach. But while the style varies perhaps more so than in the Al Christie comedies, the humor is generally not great.

Curiously, one player who shows up in a couple of the Vitagraph shorts is Jack Duffy, whom one usually associated with Christie comedies. He’s a young man who always plays ancient types with fake whiskers. And he is rather irritating. With the coming of sound he turned from acting to make-up consulting, showing newcomers how to use make-up to become old on screen.

Pleasant surprises

Now, the Vitagraph shorts do offer some pleasant surprises.

I am most impressed by Earl Montgomery and Joe Rock, seen in their only surviving comedy, Damsels and Dandies (1919). Edith Storey is truly a revelation; she was a comedienne with a unique style, willing completely to uglify herself – even blacking out her middle tooth – while playing the character of plain Jane in Jane Was Worth It (1915) and Jane’s Bashful Hero (1916).

John Bunny[4] is, of course, represented, and he is his usual unfunny self. But the two most frequent comedians are Sidney Drew[5] (mostly partnered with his second wife, billed, in those pre-politically correct days, as Mrs. Sidney Drew) and Frank Daniels.

I have to confess that I was totally unaware of the latter, who had starred prominently on stage – billed as “The Comic Opera King.” He’s a short guy with an expressive face, starring in three series, Captain Jack, Captain Jinks, and Kernel Nutt. As with the Sidney Drew films, it is the story that is amusing, rather than the performances.

Larry Semon

The most famous of the Vitagraph comedians is Larry Semon, represented with some six films, the majority running in excess of 20 minutes. Semon is a difficult comedian to appreciate, with acrobatics, contributed by a number of stuntmen, dominating his productions.

I will, however, acknowledge that Semon’s comedies are well choreographed and edited. And let’s give major credit to cinematographer Hans Koenekamp, who worked on all of the comedian’s films. Semon spent a lot of money on these shorts – much to the chagrin of Vitagraph head Albert E. Smith – and it certainly shows.

The funniest of the Larry Semon shorts found in Kino Classics’ Vitagraph collection is the earliest, Hindoos and Hazards (1918). If I was to judge Semon by this short alone, I might well be inclined to hail him as a major silent comedian.

European appreciation

Having previously mentioned Mark Kearney’s book on Al Christie, I should also take note of Claudia Sassen’s Larry Semon: Daredevil Comedian of the Silent Screen (McFarland, 2015), which is actually more detailed than the Al Christie book.

Ms. Sassen, who happens to be German, must have spent literally years researching Semon’s life. She obviously admires the comedian greatly, and perhaps this is another example, rather like the French and Jerry Lewis, of Europeans appreciating American comedians more than their American counterparts.

Still much to learn

The Vitagraph comedies have all been preserved and restored by the Library of Congress, to which all praise.

Both the Kino Classics compilation and Mark Kearney’s book are reminders of just how much there is still to learn about early comedy. There is so much that is unknown, so much that is obscure, and, sadly, so much that is forgotten.

“Al Christie + Vitagraph Comedies: Remembering Cinema’s Merry Pioneers” notes

Laura La Plante

[1] Pert blonde Laura La Plante (1904–1996) became a top Universal star in the mid-1920s.

Three of her best-known vehicles are Paul Leni’s “haunted house” comedy The Cat and the Canary and mystery thriller The Last Warning, and Harry A. Pollard’s part-talkie adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat (also with elements from Jerome Kern’s Broadway musical hit).

Babe London

[2] Initially with Vitagraph and later with the Christie Company, comic actress Babe London (1901–1980) – whose excessive weight seems to have been her key comedy asset – was featured in dozens of silents, mostly shorts.

Priscilla Bonner

[3] A leading woman and second lead in both comedies and dramas, Priscilla Bonner (1899–1996) was seen in several dozen features throughout the 1920s.

Besides Charley’s Aunt, notable titles include the Lon Chaney star vehicle Shadows, Walter Lang’s prostitution drama The Red Kimono, the Harry Langdon comedy The Strong Man, and the Clara Bow romantic comedy It.

John Bunny

[4] A former stage performer and possibly cinema’s first major American comedy star, the rotund John Bunny (1863–1915) starred in dozens of short domestic comedies opposite skinny Flora Finch.

In 2011, the 1912 Bunny-Finch pairing A Cure for Pokeritis was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

Mr. and (the 2) Mrs. Sidney Drew

[5] An uncle of Ethel Barrymore, John Barrymore, and Lionel Barrymore, and great-granduncle of Drew Barrymore, Sidney Drew (1863–1919) starred opposite wife Gladys Rankin (1870–1914) on stage and in a handful of early silent short comedies. The couple were known as Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew.

Following Rankin’s death, Drew married Vitagraph screenwriter Lucille McVey (1890–1925), who became the new Mrs. Sidney Drew in dozens of popular domestic comedy shorts during the second half of the 1910s (e.g., The High Cost of Living, Nothing to Wear).

In addition to starring opposite her husband, the second Mrs. Drew also co-wrote and co-directed many of their star vehicles.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics website.

Watch “An Evening with Anthony Slide” on YouTube. (Part 2 can be found here.)

“Al Christie + Vitagraph Comedies: Remembering Cinema’s Merry Pioneers” last updated in September 2023.

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