I saw this film recently at the National Film Theatre. It was made in Hollywood in 1926, and is pretty well forgotten today, despite being enormously popular at the time. It stars Syd Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin's brother) as 'Old Bill', a character created in newspaper cartoons by Bruce Bairnsfather. The most famous of these showed Bill and another soldier standing in a shell-holl in the middle of a World War One battlefield: Bill is saying: 'Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it'.

The film is an excellent silent comedy, well up to the standard of many better-remembered films. There is one delirious sequence involving Bill, and another soldier inside a pantomime horse. They are taking part, reluctantly, in a daft play for the troops, in a French village close to enemy lines, and manage to muck it up in various predictable ways. Most comedians would have stopped there, but the gag is built up and built up for about twenty minutes.

Firstly, there is a surprise attack by the Germans. The troops withdraw hurriedly, but the two inside the horse are trapped by falling scenery. By the time they get clear - having to attack a couple of Germans in the process, their own troops have gone.

Realising their position, they shuffle over to a horse trough and join a couple of real (and rather surprised) horses. Two German soldiers, too drunk to realise that not all the horses are real, lead the two real and the pantomime horse to a stable. As the Germans get more and more drunk and Old Bill and his mate try to get away there is a good deal of byplay: then Bill manages to snaffle some cognac and he and the other soldier proceed to get pretty drunk themselves. This does nothing for the realism of their act as a horse, but the Germans are now pretty well gone. They attempt to shoot the disobedient pantomime horse, but can't hit anything except its rump (to the annoyance of the soldier in the back). Then a dog, who has been introduced into the story earlier, gets involved, so that there is a scuffle with two Germans, the dog, and the 'horse'.

The Germans manage to pull the head off the horse and stagger back, knocking themselves out temporarily. The dog has no intention of being left out of the fun and climbs inside the horse, causing even more contortions. The two in the horse try to get away by climbing over the stable gate with a good deal of difficulty. Staggering about in the street outside, the appearance of a headless horses scares some more German soldiers witless: then the dog manages to realign himself so that his head is poking out of the front.

Finally what appears to be a mis-shapen and lurching horse with a dog's head stumbles into a barn where a number of German soldiers are sleeping, causing them to run away in bewildered panic.

That's the best sequence in the film, but there are several other classic sequences: it's a pity that it isn't more widely known - it certainly deserves to be.

Posted: Fri - May 5, 2006 at 08:37 AM by Roger Wilmut  | |

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