One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley briefly announced yet another new arrival:
Lupino Lane, the English comedian, who has been appearing in Afgar, has arrived in California. He will at once commence work as a filmer with Fox.
People just kept coming to Hollywood to try their luck, but Lane had more reason than most to think he’d be a success: his style of acrobatic comedy works well in silent film. I think the reason Kingsley kept it so short was that Afgar didn’t play in Los Angeles, and only the most dedicated readers of New York-based papers would have heard of him. Exhibitors’ Herald gave their readers a better introduction:
With his original and screamingly funny pranks and acrobatic works he broke through the toughened shell of the blasé first-nighters and make them hold their sides in laughter…Lupino Lane was not a sudden find or a comedy genius discovered overnight. He was dedicated to his career as a funmaker at 3 years of age. In keeping with English and Continental tradition, he is descended from a long aristocracy of stage folk. He is a member of the famous family of Lupino whose name was famous at old Covent Garden.
Lupino Lane deserves more attention now. According to Matthew Ross, who blogs at The Lost Laugh, “Lupino Lane was a unique and wonderful performer, for my money one of the most underrated silent comedians… To watch a Lupino Lane comedy is to see centuries of comedy expertise distilled with concision, into a small but perfectly formed package.”
Exhibitors’ Herald was correct that he came from a famous stage family; Henry George Lupino was born June 16, 1892 to Harry and Charlotte Lane Lupino and both sides of his family were noted actors and theater managers in Great Britain. However, he managed to wait until he was 4 years old to make his debut, not 3. He changed his name at the request of his aunt Sara Lane, who didn’t want her surname to die out. He was to work steadily in show business for the rest of his life.
By 1915 he’d become a stage star, and he realized his act would work well on film. He made several shorts independently in the U.K. for the O.G. Film Company with some theatrical friends, filming during the day and appearing on stage at night. Then Ideal Films hired him, and between 1917 and 1919 he made more shorts, sometimes co-staring his wife Violet Blythe whom he married in 1917. Picture Show magazine called his Clarence Crooks and Chivalry (1919) “frolicsome” and said, “some of the stunts in it are said to out-rival anything attempted by the great Charlie Chaplin himself.” *
In 1920, he and Blythe made their American debuts in the show Agfar, a musical comedy with a Moorish setting and gorgeous costumes. Its main draw was the first appearance in the United States of a French actress, Alice Delysia, who was hugely popular in London, but according to the review in the New York Times, Lane held his own:
Stunning Delysia, however, was obliged to share the honors of the evening with Lupino Lane, one of those Lupinos whose comedy and knockabout talents have so long provided the most amusing interludes of the London pantomimes. He is not of a style familiar on this side of the water; he is perhaps best comparable to Fred Stone. He has all of Stone’s comedy knack and a good deal of his acrobatic talent, if not his versatility. Last night his acrobatics definitely halted the show in the first act.
A representative from the Fox studio caught a performance, and William Fox gave him a contract. He arrived in Hollywood in January 1922 where he made three shorts and one feature all directed by John Blystone, who had been making two-reel comedies with stars like Chester Conklin, Clyde Cook, and Tom Mix since 1915 (now he’s most famous for co-directing Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923), plus 70 other silent and sound features).
While Lane was in Los Angeles, he had got to perform on stage with all sorts of actors in the Hollywood Follies. Put on by the Screen Writers’ Guild, the all-volunteer performance on April 22nd was just for fun, not for a noble fundraising cause. L.A. Times film editor Edwin Schallert reviewed the “good-natured burlesques on the films, the censors, California and other things” that played to a packed house and said:
The time, so the program informed us, was any day except Sunday; the place was Hollywood, and the rest you may guess if you like, but it won’t be as much fun as if you had actually seen the Writer’s Revue, which was staged under the auspices of the screen scribes by the stars of the picture firmament last night at the Philharmonic Auditorium. You missed a new thrill and a lot of entertainment if you didn’t.
The satires on current films included Dumbbell Wives and The Four Horsemen of the Apothecary. Schallert singled out Lane’s D’Artagnan in a Three Musketeers sketch as a highlight. The closing act was Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on the Nile in a sketch called Our Movie Queen; she “was accorded a tremendous ovation.”
Lane returned to the London stage before his movies were released. They got terrific reviews. The first one, The Reporter, came out on August 20th and Laurence Reid in Motion Picture News predicted he’d be as successful as Keaton and Clyde Cook. Furthermore:
The much advertised Lupino Lane and his first comedy will be accepted as clever entertainment everywhere. The English comedian has seemingly set a high standard for himself with his initial effort…Lane has something of Doug’s ability to execute stunts. He is not only a stunt artist, but he knows something about novel and up-to-date gags. One stunt, especially, will earn a big laugh. It shows Lane plodding along with a telegraph pole tied to his back and tumbling about the ground. His effort to adjust himself by pulling one leg over the other is good for a large guffaw anywhere.
Lane has arrived.
His second short, The Pirate, impressed Moving Picture World just as much:
Lupino Lane’s unique skill as a comedian scores again in this Fox release in two reels. As a minstrel in Venice he is a ragged romanticist, realizing the narrow line between pathos and humor, that always marks the work of the most successful comedian. He submits to a generous amount of ungentle treatment and gets some very ludicrous effects by contortionist stunts…This is an exceptionally good comedy.
He also made a five-reel feature called A Friendly Husband. The plot involved Lane setting off on vacation with his wife in a travel trailer, and he manages to stay amiable even as their vacation is ruined by an assortment of her relatives joining them. Then he saves her from a gang of bandits. The movie came out in January 1923 and Exhibitors’ Trade Review anticipated great things for it:
Here is a comedy that should get over big in any place that it is shown. There are of course many of the laugh provoking stunts that have been used but also a wealth of new fun that is bound to please.
We imagine that there will be one continuous roar of laughter from the beginning to the end when this picture is shown to the public..Lupino Lane is a comedian of real worth and his ability to do this sort of thing is well displayed in this picture. He possesses every requirement of expression, acting before camera, and he is a clever acrobat.
Both A Friendly Husband and The Pirate have been preserved at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
After such good reviews, there were plans for him to come back to Hollywood. In October 1922, Motion Picture News reported that he wrote from London and said he’d be back in January 1923 for more film work. Unfortunately, according to Glenn Mitchell in the booklet accompanying a Lane DVD, while they did well with test audiences, the Fox films didn’t make money so the studio didn’t renew his contract.
Despite this, Lane went on to a very successful career. He continued to be a star on the London stage, and he signed a contract to make shorts for Educational Films in 1925 where he stayed for four years. He also appeared in several features including Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929). He left Hollywood for good in 1931 and made films in the U.K. throughout the 1930’s. He also co-produced two big hits on stage, Twenty to One and Me and My Girl; the latter’s success made him rich. It featured a dance number, “The Lambeth Walk,” which became a fad around the world.
The dance was so big that they called the 1939 film The Lambeth Walk, not Me and My Girl.
Lupino Lane died on November 10, 1959 in London.
I think Lane is due for a revival, just like Charlie Bowers got a few years ago. Matthew Ross is working on a biography of him, and David Glass and David Wyatt put together a DVD with some of Lane’s Educational shorts. Here’s a trailer for it:
*Surprisingly, Lane wasn’t often compared to Chaplin in reviews, even though they were both from the English music hall tradition. Perhaps it was because by the early 1920’s Chaplin had moved away from acrobatic comedy. In 1915 he did perform a Charlie Chaplin number called “That Charlie Chaplin Walk” in the show Watch Your Step at the Empire, London, in which he and 20 members of the chorus were made up like the movie star. Variety reported “it scored strongly.”
“Delysia Resplendent,” New York Times, November 9, 1920.
“Educational Head is Here for Conference,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1925.
“A Friendly Husband,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, January 20, 1923, p.425.
“Hollywood Follies Huge Local Premier,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1922.
“London’s Chaplin Number, Variety, September 15, 1915, p.4
“Lupino Lane Signed by Fox Film to Star in Two-Reel Special Comedies,” Exhibitors’ Herald, January 7, 1922, p. 55.
“Lupino Lane Signs with Fox,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1923.
“Lupino on the Screen,” The Picture Show, January 17, 1920, p. 3.
Laurence Reid, “The Reporter,” Motion Picture News, October 28, 1922, p. 2185.
Edwin Schallert, “Film Revue Real Frolic,” Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1922.
“The Pirate,” Moving Picture World, October 7, 1922, p. 509.
“Studio and Player Brevities,” Motion Picture News, October 28, 1922, p. 2206.