Film Forum’s “Great American Comedy” series (through June 7) is the most ambitious retro ever held in the house: more than 100 comedies, featuring silent clowns, ’30s screwballs, and latter-day lunatics, from Chaplin and Keaton to Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. While the show consists mainly of well-known classics, there are rarities in the “Sunday Afternoon Rediscoveries” sidebar of silent features and shorts.
Aviation is the order of the day with a May 5 program coupling William Craft’s feature A Hero for a Night (1927) and George Stevens’s two-reeler Air Tight (1931). This short is one of the few films in which Hollywood’s most stereotyped “sissy,” Grady Sutton, was given a principal role—most of it is devoted to his fluttery panic attack on a runaway glider. In Hero, clearly designed to cash in on Lindbergh idolatry, Glenn Tryon is a smart-aleck cab driver who builds his own plane from spare parts, enters a New York-Europe race, and lands in a comic-opera Russia.
The revelation of the series is Raymond Griffith, the brilliant “silk hat comedian,” largely forgotten these days since most of his films have been lost. After a boyhood in the theater, Griffith entered films as an actor and gag man with Mack Sennett and developed into a star in the mid ’20s. A former dancer, he combined Max Linder’s sartorial splendor with the agility of a Fairbanks. Two jaunty Griffith features, Clarence Badger’s Paths to Paradise (1925, April 28) and Arthur Rosson’s You’d Be Surprised (1926, May 19), are the high points of the sidebar. In Paradise, he’s a con man who steals a necklace and flees to Mexico by car, pursued by most of California’s police force in one of the wildest and most elaborate chase sequences in silent cinema. And in Rosson’s spoof of drawing-room whodunits—an unsung little masterpiece—Griffith does wonders in the role of a cheery coroner investigating a Friday the 13th murder on a houseboat. Sound brought an end to his acting career—as a young man, Griffith had damaged his vocal cords and could speak only in a whisper. Ironically, the single performance of this superb comedian in a talking feature was as the dying Frenchman stabbed by Lew Ayres in a shell hole in Lewis Milestone’s World War I epic, All Quiet on the Western Front.