Rediscovering Raymond
by Leonard Maltin
09.07.12 - 04:15 pm
Raymond Griffith is ripe for rediscovery, but that’s been true for decades. Walter Kerr made an eloquent case for him in his 1975 book The Silent Clowns, ranking him fifth in the silent comedy pantheon behind Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon, “a place that is his by right of his refusal to ape his contemporaries and his insistence on following the devious curve of an entirely idiosyncratic eye.” In 1990, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival—Telluride’s longtime partner in the rediscovery of the first 30 years of cinema—organized the first retrospective dedicated to his work. After years of lobbying by a handful of devotees (myself included), his 1926 masterpiece Hands Up! was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. But despite occasional showings of his surviving features, he remains an obscure figure to all but the most avid silent-comedy aficionados.

Perhaps the showing of Hands Up! at Telluride this year, in a beautiful 35mm print, will turn the tide.

Griffith came from a theatrical family and received his initial training on the stage. “First and foremost,” Kevin Brownlow has written, “Griffith was a brilliant actor. A former dancer, he moved with astonishing grace.” He learned about screen comedy at the proving ground for so many talents, on both sides of the camera, the Mack Sennett studio, beginning in the teens. He worked as a comedian before turning his attention to writing and directing; colleagues came to regard him as one of the most fertile comic minds in Hollywood. In the early 1920s he started acting again, taking supporting roles in a variety of feature films. His scene-stealing eventually earned him a shot at starring in his own films for Paramount. A dapper man who appeared right at home in a formal suit and top hat, he didn’t look like a typical silent-film comic, and that was a significant part of his appeal.

Paramount Pictures gave him a big build-up. “Raymond Griffith would be the last man in the world to hail himself as the new comedy king,” proclaimed a 1926 trade advertisement. “But the truth is, exhibitors and the public are doing it for him. The fact won’t be downed that he is a real comedy draw. Raymond Griffith combines class with humor, good looks with the agility of a Fairbanks.”

Like most of the great comedy stars of this era, Griffith was an active participant in the creation of his films, and helped fashion a persona that was unlike any other in the field.

Walter Kerr wrote of Griffith’s detachment. “With emotion waived, life becomes pure game; Griffith is exclusively addicted to the turn of the cards, the roll of the dice, the spin of the wheel, and cannot be got out of the casino. He is dressed to last the evening.”

The cheerfully aloof characterization works perfectly in Hands Up!  As a spy during the Civil War, Griffith enjoys an endless parade of challenges to his ingenuity and unshakable cool. We are “with” him all the way, sharing the excitement of his escapades and rooting for him to devise a way to extricate himself from each new predicament.

With a screenplay by experienced comedy hands Monte Brice, Lloyd Corrigan and Reggie Morris, and direction by Clarence Badger, another Sennett graduate who steered many successful features during the 1920s, Hands Up! is a model of silent-comedy construction and execution.

Unfortunately, only a few of Griffith’s other starring vehicles survive; of these, just one (Paths to Paradise) is in the same league as Hands Up! And while some of the star’s directors later criticized his unwillingness to soften his screen character and make himself more empathetic, it wasn’t his personality that brought Griffith’s starring career to an abrupt conclusion. It was the coming of sound. His voice was permanently impaired, and he could only speak hoarsely.

He made a pair of talkie short subjects that didn’t rely heavily on dialogue, but Griffith could see the handwriting on the wall. For this reason, his final screen appearance was doubly poignant: he appeared briefly, without credit, as a dying French soldier in a memorable scene in All Quiet on the Western Front.

But Griffith didn’t leave the movie business. He was an active producer for years to come, working primarily for his friend Darryl Zanuck on films as diverse as The House of Rothschild, Les Miserables and the Ritz Brothers version of The Three Musketeers. Director Allan Dwan remembered how helpful he was in coming up with bits of comic business when Dwan directed Shirley Temple in Heidi.

As archivists continue to unearth long-lost silent films, we can hope that other Griffith films may yet emerge. Other surviving films don’t have the luster of Hands Up!, but even if his reputation were to rest on this picture alone, Raymond Griffith would be worthy of attention—and cheers. After all, it isn’t everyone who can lay claim to starring in a comedy masterpiece.  

A noted critic and film historian, Leonard Maltin is the author of his annual movie guide (available as an app for the iPad and iPhone); in his thirtieth year with Entertainment Tonight; the author of many film books; and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

PORDENONE PRESENTS

HANDS UP!

U.S., 1926, 60m

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Starring: Raymond Griffith, George A. Billings, Virginia Lee Corbin and Charles K. French

Live music: Donald Sosin

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