A typical Larry Semon comedy featuring a most unexpected villain
On my first viewing of this Larry Semon two-reeler I'd pretty much decided by the halfway point that it wasn't one of Larry's better efforts, when just in the nick of time a crazed chase scene erupted and gave Huns and Hyphens a much-needed burst of energy, and a reason to keep watching. Semon wasn't strong on plot or characterization (and that's an understatement) but he had a gift for staging frantic finales, expertly edited sequences in which he and his colleagues dangle from ledges, sail off buildings, and race through city streets on foot or in cars or whatever vehicles are available. These chases look like live action cartoons, and individual effects and images are sometimes brilliant. When these sequences are excerpted and used in compilations they look fantastic and might cause a viewer to wonder why Larry Semon isn't generally regarded as one of the greats in the silent comedy pantheon, but when you watch his films all the way through the reason is clear: those finales aren't merely the highlights, they appear to be the entire reason the movies themselves were made, and ultimately may have been the only aspect of film-making Semon really cared about.
In the opening scene of this short Larry is presented, surprisingly, as a wealthy suitor to a privileged young lady named Vera who lives with her stepfather. Even more surprisingly, we're told that Vera has invented a gas-maskit's 1918, rememberthat has been approved for military use by the government. Normally you'd expect the father or father figure to be the inventor, but here it's the leading lady. (Incidentally, Vera is played by Madge Kirby, whose movie credits include All on Account of the Cheese and The Fall of the Muscle-Bound Hicks, two impressive titles which would stand out on anyone's resumé.) We soon learn that Larry is only masquerading as a swell, and is actually a lowly waiter at a seedy-looking saloon. As it turns out, this establishment is run by German agents, who lure Vera and her stepfather there so they can steal her plans, which she conveniently keeps in the bodice of her dress. On her arrival Vera realizes that Larry is not what he pretended to be, but he redeems himself by rescuing Vera and her stepfather from the spies and retrieving the plans from the enemy.
That's it for plot. Like many of his fellow comedians Semon was more interested in making viewers laugh than in nuanced storytelling, but unlike some of his peers (i.e. the ones who outgrew and outlasted him) he was perfectly content to indulge in the most outlandish, surreal, impossible gags, just as long as they kept things moving. For example, at one point in the saloon, a German agent standing at the counter decides to steal some eggs when the waiter isn't looking. He drops a few into his pocket. Larry sees this, and, outraged, kicks the guy in the pants, breaking the eggs. The villain reacts with dismay as the egg innards run down his leg, then we see the cuffs of his pants as live chicks hop out. For some reason Semon loved this gag, and repeated it in his work year after year. That's one thing you notice when you watch a few of his films: he not only wasn't shy about stealing ideas from Chaplin (as he does in Huns and Hyphens) Semon didn't mind repeating himself. Most comedians borrowed material from each other, and almost all of them borrowed from Chaplin, but the best ones reworked those "borrowed" gags to suit their own personae, and most were careful not to overdo a particular bit. Semon wasn't so finicky, and this must have contributed to the gradual decline of his career: after a while, audiences must have noticed the repetition. Beyond that, Semon didn't really develop much as a screen character beyond the blank, clownish figure we find in these early comedies. He skips about and performs his routines with agility and a certain amount of acrobatic grace, but he comes off as a cartoon character, not as a figure we care much about.
By way of contrast, compare Larry Semon's fortunes with those of the actor who plays one of the German bad guys in this film, the one who gets the egg down his pants. This is none other than Stan Laurel, making one of his first screen appearances. Stan doesn't have much to do in this film beyond the egg bit (which he also repeated in one of his own later solo comedies) but it's fascinating to see him at this very early stage of his career, and interesting to consider how Laurel the supporting player compares with the star of the show. Like Larry, Stan would spend years making fast-paced comedies featuring outrageous gags, wild chases, and silly character names. Unlike Larry, however, Stan eventually learned to slow the tempo, to base the comedy on something closer to everyday life, and to simply use his own name. As a filmmaker Stan learned to relax and stop straining for laughs, but Larry Semon never did.
In any event, Huns and Hyphens isn't a great comedy but it's worth watching for the finale, and to see the young Mr. Laurel. This two-reeler is an artifact of its time that demonstrates both why Larry Semon was so popular for a while, and also why his popularity didn't last.
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