▶ Bryony Dixon introduces Pimple on Parade, a live-stream selection of Pimple comedies, on 10 March at 7.30pm GMT on the Kennington Bioscope’s KBTV YouTube channel. More details on the event at cinemamuseum.org.uk.
▶ A selection of Fred Evans’s films are also available on BFI Player.
A hundred years ago, in January 1921, Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, and his most autobiographical film, The Kid, was released to wild acclaim. His stardom was absolute. He had ridden the tidal wave that was the rise of Hollywood; in some ways he was as responsible as anyone for it. He was the most famous man in the world, and he suddenly wanted to go home.
His arrival back in London after 14 years in America was met with rapturous crowds who mobbed him wherever he went, and he had to sneak off incognito to visit his old neighbourhood for a moment of reflection. He had come a long way. What if he had stayed? What would Chaplin have become without that febrile set of circumstances on the other side of the pond?
Well, by chance, we have a kind of test case against which we can measure, in the person of Fred Evans. The two men have a surprising amount in common: both born in 1889 in London in the Lambeth/Southwark area – you could walk from Charlie’s birthplace to Fred’s in 10 minutes – a poor part of town where a great many Victorian entertainers lodged in cheap digs giving them access to the theatres that proliferated in and around London.
Both were from music-hall families; Evans came from generations of performers in variety, circus and, later, the nascent film industry. Fred’s grandfather, also named Fred, was a famous harlequinade clown at Drury Lane. His father, yet another Fred, led the Florador Quartette with Fred’s mother ‘Minnie’ Jee and her siblings. His uncles, Seth and Arthur Jee, made films as the Egbert Brothers. Our Fred’s other uncle was the famous eccentric comedian Will Evans, who went on to write popular sketches and farces such as Whitewashing the Ceiling and Tons of Money, the first of the Aldwych farces, which was filmed in 1924 and survives in the BFI National Archive.
Evans began performing more or less out of the cradle: at the age of three he played a miniature policeman suspended on a flying wire for Sanger’s circus; he performed all over the continent in circus and with his parents’ touring show, until his parents went on a 14-year tour of the States.
Like Chaplin with Sydney, Evans had a brother, Joe, close in age, with whom he would work on and off for most of his film career. Joe, two years younger, lived long enough to be interviewed by writer and broadcaster Denis Gifford: in the interview (the tape is held at the BFI) he describes their early filmmaking career, first for Cricks & Martin, a modest producer of comic film subjects, where Fred played Charley Smiler, a ‘dude’ or swanky character not unlike Chaplin’s first role for Keystone, a top-hatted swindler in Making a Living (1914). Joe wrote the scenarios and played ‘feed’ – ie, any other character needed to support the action.
The low status and modest pay that came from working for a company impelled the brothers to try and gain more control over their output – but it wasn’t easy. They tried to set up an arrangement with their uncles, who had founded the Kew based Ec-Ko film studios, but eventually found backing for their Folly Films through the Phoenix Film Agency and set up a studio on Eel Pie Island, in the Thames at Twickenham. Here the brothers set to making one- and two-reel comedies, creating the decidedly unswanky character ‘Pimple’. A rootless chancer like Chaplin’s tramp, Pimple however retained his traditional clown makeup and tended to small hats, loud jackets and big boots.
Pimple films were hugely popular throughout Britain from 1912 to the end of World War I, and the brothers’ output was spectacular – at least one a week, totalling some 200 titles. Initially, the comedies were basic situations, drawing on pantomime and music-hall tropes – as Joe put it, “Pimple does this, Pimple does that…” – until Joe ran dry of ideas.
After attending a preview of British and Colonial Films’ epic The Battle of Waterloo (1913), he came up with a burlesque, Pimple’s Battle of Waterloo, mocking the feature’s pretensions to historical accuracy by using the cheapest sets and costumes, with pantomime horses and, inevitably, ‘Waterloo station’ as a backdrop. From then on they lampooned every film, play or event in the public consciousness: the Charge of the Light Brigade, Ivanhoe, Elinor Glyn’s 1907 erotic romance novel Three Weeks, the spectacular stage melodrama The Whip, with Pimple in every conceivable situation and role – as Hamlet, Raffles, Sexton Blake and so on. Cinema audiences came to expect a couple of titles a month.
Both Chaplin and Evans, like other contemporary comedians, exploited common stage traditions to furnish their film comedies with plots and gags: drunk acts, struggling into a coat that has become wrapped round a lamppost, the impossible-to-get-rid-of sticky paper, the use of silhouette gags, the hat that repeatedly pops upward when placed on the head and the endless but skilfully executed pratfalls.
The idea of the ‘series’, with an infinite number of situations into which the stock character can be dropped, is pure Pantomime and harlequinade. The clowns are disrupters in a little world, temporarily cut off from reality, in which life operates on universal principals not unlike those of real life – daughters want to escape their fathers strictures and run off with handsome suitors, the young man must chase the girl, authorities must try to enforce absurd laws, and a host of street characters (butchers, barbers, tailors, fishwives and usually a small dog) must generally get in the way. At its most basic, as Chaplin said, all you need for a comedy is ‘a Policeman, a park and a pretty girl’. This became the model for a whole host of film comedy clowns (females too) in the film producing countries of the 1910s, and survive today as TV sitcom and comic characters like Mr Bean.
Dipping into the trade and fan press for 1912-15 you see Evans is a very popular star. In the fan magazine Pictures and the Picturegoer he even has a regular monthly slot talking directly to his fans – almost like a Twitter feed. And at the same time you see the tentative rise of another comedian in the popular Keystone comedies, unnamed at first, then emerging as Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin disappears for a while (there is a rumour that he is dead) but emerges triumphantly as a player for the Essanay Company, reportedly getting better and better with each release.
In 1915 Fred Evans, as ‘Pimple’, was on an army recruitment tour, having just volunteered for the 1st Surrey Rifles. When he returned to filmmaking after being discharged with an injury, Chaplin’s star was rising fast. In July 1915, in a popular vote for Best British Film Players among readers of Picturegoer, Fred Evans got 122,185 votes but they awarded Charlie Chaplin 142,920, even though he had not appeared in any British film.
‘Chaplinmania’ continued to intensify during the war; when Chaplin returned to London in 1921 it was like a royal visitation. Post-war, Fred Evans knocked out a couple more films before admitting defeat and, having gone bankrupt, returning to a dwindling career in sketch comedy on the stage. Might that have been Chaplin’s fate if he’d stayed? How do we explain the radical difference between two film comedians with such similar life chances? Pure talent? The developing Hollywood machine’s production values and marketing investment? The Chaplins’ business acumen? The topicality of the Pimple comedies, which didn’t export to non-British audiences or indeed to subsequent generations? No doubt all those factors contributed.
Pretty much all Chaplin’s films survive and it’s fascinating to compare them to the handful of films, mostly fragments, left to us of the Evans brothers’ prodigious output. I can recommend them as, in parts, hilarious and also for what they can tell us of the common ancestry of silent film comedy.
The peak of silent cinema
By Ian Christie
Some notes about the art of falling: Charlie Chaplin by John BergerSome notes about the art of falling: Charlie Chaplin by John Berger
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Originally published: 10 March 2021