Friday, September 29, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Hands Up!' (1926)

Hands Up!

Dir: Clarence D. Badger

Scr: Monte Brice, Lloyd Corrigan

Pho: H. Kinley Martin

Ed: unknown

Premiere: Jan. 14, 1926

70 min.

There was a lot more to silent comedy than Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd (thank goodness we are beginning to forget about poor Harry Langdon), though we are never exposed to it, much less educated about it. For every comic superstar of the period there was a multitude of lesser lights, each of some appeal in their own way.

First of all, I must direct you to the superlative explanatoryessay on this film by Steve Massa, on the National Film Registry website. (It rightly credits the writing of Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns as being responsible for reviving interest in him.) It covers the backgrounds of most of the principals involved in Hands Up!, and provides many new facts about the life of its lead player, Raymond Griffith.

An aspiring comic film performer, Griffith’s early lack of success was due to his lack of a comic persona. Quickly, he moved behind the camera and gained a reputation as a solid gagman. Finally, in 1922 he devised a comic character utterly unlike that of the sad, sentimental heroes of most comic features – Chaplin the winsome Tramp, Keaton the stolid buffoon, Lloyd the eager beaver.

Griffith styled himself as a calm, debonair, and quiet man about town – complete with white tie and tails, opera cape, top hat, and cane. His character was intelligent, and much faster on the draw than those around him. He is seldom surprised and never shamed, moving gracefully from one trajectory to another, as fortune whiplashes him, with effortless grace. In a world of crazy people, Griffith is the grown-up in the room.

This film, one of his few surviving creations, takes place in the same period as Buster Keaton’s The General, the Civil War. (Released the same year, Griffith’s film did surprisingly better business than Keaton.) Griffith is Jack, a Confederate spy whose mission is to thwart the shipment of Yankee gold from Nevada to President Lincoln.

Even in the wildest of wild wests, Griffith is at gentlemanly ease. Slapstick events may transpire, but Griffith is nonplussed. He never mugs for the camera – that would be far too unseemly. Instead, he relentlessly underplays his reactions, letting the jokes do the work. He befuddles a squad of men sent out to shoot him as a spy. He mistakes an Indian attack for that of a bee. He foils the plans of the tribe by shooting craps with its chief (played by the versatile Noble Johnson), and ends up teaching them the Charleston.

He deftly juggles the affections of two sisters while struggling with his Union counterpart (Montagu Love). His efforts backfire. His attempt to blow up the gold mine just reveals a bigger vein. He can’t get the wagon full of gold out onto the road. Eventually, he gets the horses out but nothing else. And so on.

Throughout, Griffith retains his sense of calm equanimity. In defeat, he is graceful. And he comes up with an unexpected solution to his dilemma of loving two women at the same time.

Griffith starred in 10 features. Unfortunately, he had a damaged voice that rendered him incapable of working in sound film. His last role was as the poignant, nonspeaking soldier who dies in a shell hole in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). After this, he turned his assured hand to producing, crafting a number of winning films. Now, we only have fragments of an output to mark his fascinating, short-lived silent comedy career.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Mighty Like a Moose.




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