Written and Directed by Fred Hibbard. Produced by Lloyd Hamilton. Cast: Lloyd Hamilton, Babe London, Dorothy Seastrom, and Dick Sutherland. Two Reels. Released September 21, 1924. Available on DVD on American Slapstick Volume 2.
Comedian Lloyd Hamilton stated at the time this comedy was released: “It is an established fact that the most successful motion picture comedies are the two reel ones. The fast moving action demanded by the shorter picture gives the comedian the best opportunity to display his ability. It is also known that laughter cannot be sustained beyond a certain length of time, after which there is a sobering reaction.” This attitude is borne out with “Jonah Jones,” one of Hamilton’s funnier existing comedies.
Lloyd Hamilton is another of the many comedians from the silent era who is well known by those with an interest in film history but is well away from any mainstream knowledge of his work. Hamilton is one of the most likeably funny practitioners of silent comedy, even basing it on those few films to which we have access. Sadly, a good chunk of the Hamilton filmography is among the maddeningly large list of lost silent movies, depriving us of a significant piece of cinema’s rich history. “Jonah Jones” is one of the accessible Lloyd Hamilton two reelers, and it is consistently funny and filled with interesting ideas.
“Jonah Jones” opens with Hamilton as the title character who is driving along with his pudgy fiancée to his cow pasture. He sees a woman, Margaret, whose auto has a flat tire and helps out by blowing into the air tube and inflating the tire. He then steps back and leans on a nearby fence as the woman starts up her car, but she recklessly drives into the fence and knocks Jonah in to the mud. He climbs a tree to avoid her car, she hits the tree, and Jonan plummets to the ground. She speeds past him, covering him with dust from the dirt road.
This first series of gags can be considered mechanical, but it is their presentation that enhances their significance. First, director Fred Hibbard (a pseudonym for veteran comedy director Fred Fishback, who was hiding behind this moniker after his involvement in the 1921 Arbuckle scandal hurt his career) structures the auto scenes beautifully. Dorothy Seastrom, playing Margaret, is shown speeding by, when Hibbard cuts to a shot of her speedometer edging toward 80 miles per hour, then back to her car. A medium shot allows us to see several motorcycle cops giving chase, coming around the corner and following Margaret’s car. It’s very nicely framed, and the continuing tracking shots by cinematographer Leonard Smith (who would later receive four Oscar nominations including one win) impressively enhance the action.
Hamilton’s minimalist reaction to the fall in the mud, the covering with dust, etc., is very funny. He rises from the mud, his face smeared, his clothes wet, his hat cocked over, with a look of forlorn indignation. When he is covered with dust, he stands for several beats and absorbs the situation.
Jonah’s fiancée finds a makeup kit (biting the powder puff, thinking it may be a pastry), and it contains Margaret’s ID card. Jonah decides to return the items to the woman. When the rustic, disheveled pair arrives at her mansion, they discover Margaret’s society level family is forcing her into marriage, so Jonah makes it his business to rescue her.
Clever gags abound, including when Lloyd cleans up and prepares to look his best before going to Margaret’s home, and his arrival among the trappings of a status level far beyond his own. One of the more amusing visuals shows Jonah and his fiancée attempting to climb a ladder to Margaret’s room and rescue her, but it sinks into the ground from their weight. Jonah then pole vaults through the window and rescues the woman. This is followed by another nicely shot chase scene that concludes the short.
The visual framework for “Jonah Jones” is consistently impressive including shots that do not involve action. For instance, when Margaret is finally captured by police for her reckless driving, Hibbard cuts to a closer shot of the woman in her car, surrounded by several uniformed arms handing her tickets (the long arms of the law).
But the true essence of this film’s humor stems from Hamilton as its central character. Even the more mechanical slapstick gags are made more amusing due to Hamilton’s performance – his reaction shots make each scene. It has been stated that Curly Howard was inspired by Hamilton’s comedy, mimicking his walk and manner of dress. But Curly was more aggressive where Ham was much subtler.
“Jonah Jones” is a typically solid two reel comedy of the twenties featuring one of the period’s funniest and most durable comedians. It spotlights the work of a comedian, and a comedy director, who each died far too young and whose comedy is far too little known.