Thursday, May 31, 2012

Roaming Romeo - 1928

Country: United States
Language: English
Director: Lupino Lane
Stars: Lupino Lane, Wallace Lupino and Anita Garvin
Release Date: 29 July 1928 (USA)
Also known as: Bending Her (UK)
Production Co: Lupino Lane Comedy Corporation
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Genres: Short | Comedy
Belle-Hure and Horatio Babaorum escape from a Roman galley only to land in a Roman palace where they indulge in their antique antics!
Lupino Lane is seldom ranked with the greatest silent screen comics, yet he was clearly a gifted performer of physical comedy. He was an amazing acrobat who could run up a wall like Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain, and take a fall with the best of them. Moreover, Lane wasn't just a knockabout clown: he turned in a well modulated dramatic performance in D.W. Griffith's last great feature Isn't Life Wonderful, and later demonstrated his flair for comic song & dance in the early talkie musical The Love Parade.
Lane made quite a few two-reel comedies in the late '20s, but although they tend to be jolly, fast-paced and packed with gags I've yet to find one that could hold its own with the best work (or even the middling work) of Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton. I suppose the main reason is that Lane was overly focused on gags at the expense of basic characterization and story construction. He races willy-nilly from one routine to the next, but without much rhyme or reason. Neither the star nor his supporting characters slow down long enough to give us a sense of personality, nor is anything Lane does motivated in any meaningful way. If it's funny, he does it. The laughs are there, and the bits are often beautifully performed, but taken as a whole these films seem curiously hollow.
Roaming Romeo is about par for a Lane two-reeler. The opening is a parody of the galley sequence from Ben-Hur with Ramon Novarro, a smash hit of 1926 that was still fresh in viewers' memories. Below decks in the galley ship we meet our star comedian and his sidekick, the latter played by Lane's real-life brother Wallace Lupino. The two of them, enslaved as oarsmen, manage to overpower the guard, then escape from the ship and swim to shore. Stealing outfits from two centurions who happen to be skinny-dipping, the escapees find themselves in a palace and masquerade as soldiers. From then on Lane and his buddy contend with various antagonists. First there's a hostile centurion officer who takes a dislike to our hero. One of the funniest bits comes when Lane starts to aim a kick at this guy, but when the officer catches him in the act Lane and his buddy quickly turn the action into a soft shoe dance. Later, our hero wins a wrestling match and is summoned by an aristocratic lady of the court (played by the great Anita Garvin). Before long, Lane has offended just about all the palace's authority figures, and must flee with his sidekick. Incidentally I've seen two prints of this film, one of which is missing the final sequence. The incomplete version ends flatly with a shot of the two comics running away from the palace. The complete version ends on a far more disturbing note when the former galley slaves willingly swim back to their ship!
As with most Lupino Lane comedies one can enjoy the good bits and ignore the filler. Unfortunately the scene with Anita Garvin feels haphazard and doesn't amount to much. (For what it's worth, Garvin gave an interview late in life in which she said she disliked Lane, though she didn't say why. This film marked their second and last collaboration.) The best routine is a familiar one, but nicely executed: when Lane and his buddy attempt to flee the palace guards they knock over a pair of statues and must take their place. When the Emperor comes along and stands nearby they attempt to sneak away, but have to freeze into statue-like positions every time he turns and looks at them. It's a funny routine up to a point, but nearly ruined by a tiresome punchline when a pair of black servants come along, see the "statues" move, and react with great fright. All too often Lane would fall back on hackneyed stuff like that.
In sum, this short gives a newcomer a good idea of what a Lupino Lane comedy is like, for better or worse. Buffs will enjoy watching the star execute his trademark scissor-jump and other physical bits. From what I've seen thus far, however, Lane's best performance on film is in the talkie The Love Parade, where he sings nicely and performs a terrific eccentric dance number with Lillian Roth. Perhaps this was one silent comedian who needed sound to fully come into his own as a performer in the movies.
Spoofs Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).

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