Lloyd Hamilton is something of an enigma among classic comedians of the silent era. A studio fire destroyed most of his massive output during the 1920s. Those films that survive present him as one of the most gifted, naturally funny comedians of his era – an era that features perhaps the finest comedy minds in movie history. Accolades from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are a matter of record. His influence on the popular Curly Howard is uncanny.
Anthony Balducci’s “Lloyd Hamilton: Poor Boy of the Cinema,” has filled an enormous void with his biographical assessment of Hamilton’s life and work, offering information that even the most learned comedy film historians had not known. Tracing Hamilton’s life from childhood, the book really takes off when Balducci discusses Hamilton’s choices as an actor, his contribution to his films, and his development during the early days of the silent pictures.
Comedy buffs will have some familiarity with the Ham and Bud series featuring the tall Hamilton opposite the diminutive Bud Duncan. These silent short comedies were not terribly inspired or inspiring, but boorishly amusing in the same way the teaming of Chris Farley and David Spade would be in more recent years. Of course the comedy has changed tremendously from Ham and Bud to Spade and Farley, and the earlier films presented a far different type of crudeness and vulgarity that was more befitting the framework of their time (the mid to late teens). This is not to indicate that the Ham and Bud movies are not funny on a sub-par level, but they are more interesting as a necessary training ground for Hamilton to develop his screen prowess. Balducci examines this period of Hamilton’s career with interesting insights as to Lloyd’s approach to the work, his inability to get along with the egocentric Duncan, and his later dismissal of this output as “hokum.”
Hamilton’s own starring films have a limited survival rate, but some of the surviving examples, including “Move Along,” “Breezin’ Along,” and “Jonah Jones” among his funniest and most creative. And while his attempt to tackle feature films was not successful, his short films remained popular. Balducci’s deep assessment of Lloyd’s feature “A Self Made Failure,” despite the film itself not being available, is one of the highlights of this book. Using the script and over 100 surviving still photos from the production, Balduccci attempts to break down the reason for is lack of success. The entire book, in fact, benefits from this sort of attention to critical detail and factual accuracy.
Hamilton’s talkies seem to have survived slightly better, especially those produced by Mack Sennett. “Too Many Highballs” is not immediately accessible, but it does exist. Orignally slated for W.C. Fields, it is interesting as being the prototype for the . Fields feature “Man on the Flying Trapeze.” “Doubling in the Quickies” is an interesting look at another area of show business. “Prize Puppies” is a fascinating series of comic situation, with Hamilton dealing with everything from noisy neighbors to being mistaken for a judge at a dog show.
Hamilton’s saga is a sad one, with alcoholism, missed opportunities, and a premature death in 1935 ending his career early. The poor survival rate of his films would seem to ensure his anonymity today, but the surviving ones are so great, and his reputation so strong based on the reviews of his day, that comedy buffs have kept him in deserved high esteem over time.
Balducci’s book ends with capsule biographies on several of Hamilton’s co-workers, giving greater depth to the characters in his life and career. An appendix features complete filmographies with annotation allowing us to determine which of the few films in Hamilton’s filmography still survive.
The author had the cooperation of many surviving members of Hamilton’s family, and the book features many rare, interesting photos from throughout Lloyd’s life and career. It is not only the first book about this fascinating comedian, it is also the definitive study. Any comedy film buff’s library is incomplete without it.