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Massive new book on filmmaker Henry Lehrman recommended

Scholarship in cinema history has covered the major names in screen comedy quite thoroughly, so it is always fascinating to read about one of the many contributors whose work is significant but has been given little attention. Thomas Reeder’s new book “Mr. Suicide: Henry ‘Pathe’ Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy” is a perfect example.

If Henry Lehrman is known at all, it is for having directed Charlie Chaplin’s first film, “Making a Living” (1914). He and Chaplin clashed due to the comedian’s own creative vision that would later emerge and identify him as perhaps the single most important figure in the history of screen comedy. As a result, Lehrman’s formidable talents are unfairly overshadowed.

When he directed “Making a Living,” Henry Lehrman was already something of a veteran of motion pictures and dismissed Chaplin as a newcomer. Chaplin was a veteran comedy performer who saw Lehrman as merely one who began working in a new medium a few short years earlier. In his first movie, Chaplin tried to enforce his ideas and Lehrman had his own vision, and this film features several instances where Lehrman exhibits a real understanding of how to contain the slapstick action within the frame. Despite the adversarial relationship, Lehrman would again direct Chaplin in the Cinéma vérité-esque “Kid Auto Races at Venice, California,” and the absurdist “Between Showers,” in which Charlie’s comic methods parallel the more florid gestures of Keystone house comic Ford Sterling, who was already a popular star when Chaplin landed at the studio.

Keystone was a great place of a director like Lehrman who was a master at showcasing the knockabout slapstick, and Ford Sterling who was an expert at conveying it. But the two of them ventured off to explore aspects of their respective talents that were kept in check by Sennett, forming the Sterling comedies, which gave the comedian the spotlight. Sterling was back with Sennett by the next year. Lehrman formed the L-Ko Komedy Kompany (L-Ko standing for Lehrman-Knockout), where he created a stable of fascinating performers.

Reeder’s study is biographical, informational, and critical and is so thorough that the above material covers roughly a third of the book. Reeder carefully breaks down all aspects of Lehrman’s career during this period, from his genesis at Biograph, evolution at Keystone, and the use of Ford Sterling’s series as a stepping stone to his own company. The author’s discussion of Lehrman’s work with Ford Sterling shows how he continued to evolve as a filmmaker, understanding the power of the close-up, and his working without a script so that the comedy was more wild and spontaneous. Period reviews that the author reprints, making such statements as “we laughed for thirty minutes, and positively cannot say what we laughed about,” is a good example of how Lehrman’s haphazard method of presentation was effective.

The L-Ko productions featured, among others, Billie Ritchie, whose style was similar to Chaplin’s. Ritchie is somewhat enigmatic in silent comedy history, and Reeder’s careful description and discussion of many films, along with Lehrman’s contribution, expands his study to include information about the comedian that is fascinating and insightful. This reviewer was unaware that future Chaplin stock actor Henry Bergman worked in the Billy Ritchie comedies for L-Ko. Same for how big a star Ritchie appeared to have been in his time. Further information about comedian Hank Mann’s work at L-Ko, some early work by director John G. Blystone, and more information about actress Peggy Pearce is also welcome.

The L-Ko comedies were distributed by Universal, but Lehrman then moved on to the Sunshine comedies through Fox studios in 1917. At this studio, Lehrman was eventually promoted as being one of the foremost comedy filmmakers active in movies. Hank Mann was given his own unit there, and Charles Parrott (Charley Chase) was one of the directors. Reeder opines that Lehrman got the Mr. Suicide nickname at Fox, not L-Ko as has been reported in other studies. The legend goes that Lehrman concentrated more on the visuals, and the effectiveness of the gags, with little or no regard as to the danger for the actor.

As Lehrman’s career progressed, he continued to present a level of comic surrealism and a dark anarchic spirit that was unique and consistently appealing to audiences. After success with Fox, Lehrman started his own studio in 1919, and promoted comedian Lloyd Hamilton to a series of silent comedies. Billie Ritchie continued to work with Lehrman, and one of the actresses was the ill-fated Virginia Rappe. The author explains how the Lehrman studio faltered leaving the filmmaker “saddled with debt and scrambling for work” by 1921.

The year 1921 was made even more difficult by the passing of Billie Ritchie, and the death of Virginia Rappe, who had become Lehrman’s fiancée. The result of Rappe's mysterious death resulted in the Roscoe Arbuckle scandal, where the comedian was accused of raping and murdering her. Lurid details in the press and three trials resulted in the comedian’s acquittal, but not before an angry Lehrman publicly condemned the man who had once been his friend. Reeder’s details about these events offer ideas heretofore not discussed thoroughly in other accounts.

Lehrman's later years are often rather sad, but filled with tidbits like the fact that he contributed gags to some of Laurel and Hardy's later feature films for the Fox studios. It is unfortunate that Henry Lehrman’s story concludes with his being forgotten in his own time, despite his having pioneered foundational slapstick comedies that were instrumental in the form becoming a cinematic art. But this book provides complete details that help us to fully understand Lehrman’s importance to film history. Sadly, a good number of his movies are among the maddeningly large number of lost films of the silent era, but those that do survive offer a solid testament to his creative vision.

Along with the massive text, the book concludes with a complete filmography that chronicles the filmmaker’s work. A Bibliography, an Index, and several interesting photos and graphics make “Mr. Suicide: Henry ‘Pathe’ Lehrman and The Birth of Silent Comedy” one of the all-time finest books ever written about the silent era. It is an absolute must for libraries and research centers, and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in motion picture history. Mr. Reeder should be commended for doing a masterful job on this book.

It is available for purchase here.

James L. Neibaur
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