Monday, 8 August 2011

Among Those Present (1921)

Another first for the journey: the world of silent comedy. It should be understood that "silent comedy" itself really refers more to a particular style of performance within film, rather than to the technicalities of a lack of sound on film at the time. The big stars of the genre came from a world of vaudeville and so were more attuned to a theatrical style. This style was then adapted for film in the world of silent comedy, developed by producer-directors Hal Roach and Mack Sennett. Harold Lloyd is one of the three best-known and most enduring stars of the silent comedy era, next to Keaton and Chaplin.

Mrs. O’Brien wants to be part of high society, and is hosting a foxhunt as a way of getting in, even though her husband and daughter have no interest in such matters. Mrs. O'Brien wants to invite Lord Abernathy to the hunt. When Abernathy is unavailable, an ambitious young coat-checker is convinced to impersonate him.

To a certain degree, Among Those Present is a pretty good example of the kind quasi-satirical swings that silent comedies were rather known for. With the audience mostly made up of the lower classes (the upper classes still regarded film as a lower form of entertainment, unlike opera or ballet), these films tended to ridicule and satirise the upper classes, with the working class hero always getting one over on the bourgeoisie. This was a big reason that Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character became so beloved by audiences. Harold Lloyd, by this point in his career actually outselling Chaplin, follows this method here in a story by Hal Roach. Even the title cards echo the kind of sarcastic drollery intended to mock the well-off. That there is a subplot involving a society assistant to Mrs. O’Brien who seeks to steal her fortune by marrying her daughter just goes further to paint the upper echelons as greedy, back-stabbing and dishonest. Naturally, this would go down very well.

Lloyd plays The Boy, a hotel worker with ambitions of affluence who likes to wear the clothes of wealthy hotel patrons. It’s when the society assistant, played by William Gillespie, spots him and his ability to mimic Lord Abernathy that he convinces The Boy to “play a joke” on Mrs. O’Brien. He brings him to the pre-hunt party, where he has to regale the guests with tales of hunting, since Abernathy is a renowned hunter. The stories The Boy tells are very funny, particularly because they get more ostentatious as they go on, since he seems to be getting drunker as he goes on. One particular story sees both him and a bear follow a rabbit into a felled tree hollow, resulting in a fight inside the confined space. The following day’s hunt sees most of the humour derive from the fact that The Boy loses his horse and his trousers, only some of which remains as funny today as it was then.

In amongst all of this, The Boy, having overheard the assistant’s dastardly plans, feels the need to protect Mrs. O’Brien’s daughter, whom he has fallen in love with. The Girl, as she is known, is played by Mildred Davies, whom Lloyd would marry two years later.

Among Those Present is a simple enough film, but still holds some actual laughs and enjoyment to it. It doesn’t quite rest with Lloyd’s better-known classics, and seems more akin to the style of Chaplin, but it’s still worth the watch.

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