A brief one this: eight and a bit minutes of pre-war comedy from a world twisting itself out of shape through treaties, empires and dreadful ambitions. Yet, back on the ground, the cold-hearted pleasures of the music hall were jumping onto film and a 1914 reissue of a 1908 farce. Made in and around London, it’s tellingly British. There’s a bumpkin. He fails at life. He keeps on failing. And…in the eighth minute…the sum total of life’s cruelties conspire with a farmer to take the piss one last time. For this is the comedy tale of The Man Who Never Made Good. Indeed, a man No Good for Anything.
Ok, so, a country bumpkin grabs at and falls off a bus with the air of someone whose first scene isn’t held by the British Film Institute. He also has the air of someone who is very pleased with his stunt, dodges a cart and ambles smugly past the camera. It’s a sweet, odd moment: early film making, in Britain, with a performer used to winking at his audience, all right and wrong for the medium. Also, it has to be said, it suggests the rest of the film is going to be of the same stuff lousy TV comedians were still at in the 1990s when we collectively wished they’d just stop.
And on to this bumpkin’s first job in the big city: a waiter. There’s a lanky, big-nosed comedian look to him and the comedy isn’t particularly likeable. But, be kind, this is a possibly original version of schtick we all recognise. He steals a kid’s food. welcomes a couple to another table and serves soup to the lady and to the man’s head. He starts spraying water everywhere – although, delightfully, the kids at the next table break character and grin happily as the water hits everyone.
And on to some stuff with a rifle as he tries to join the Army. The uniforms are an odd mix of nineteenth and twentieth century. The schtick is eternal: he’s out of time, he twirls the thing, he stares into his comrades’ eyes with vulgar zeal. And then the sergeant kicks him out.
Ok, so he’s an idiot and doesn’t help himself, but old Jack here began to fear for the poor soul. That British thing – comedy in losers losing some more – keeps on going…
A brief flirtation with a maid results in a face full of water and a comic drenching. He lollops away, squeezing water out of an ear, tongue lolling. He’s done that comedy-walk before…
He has a go at being a Theatre Royal billboard man, but sleeps on the job, gets attacked by kids, then attacked on another picket-fenced street by more kids. Old Jack was torn between the curiosity at a street from 110 years ago (neat, similar houses to today, wildly different people) and the bumpkin’s passive reaction to the little shits throwing stuff at him. Kind of sad.
Perhaps this is how music hall played out: vignettes, raucous songs, and belittlement comedy. All well and good – and casting a cold eyed through-line to Fawlty Towers, Sorry and the like – but not nice. There’s more sod throwing, a bit of whipping and a final humiliation to come.
If this kind of slapstick, where the stick keeps slapping, is your thing, give this a go. In my opinion, he said sniffily, it’s a thing designed for a room full of baying bullies.
Perhaps you’ll laugh.