Lloyd Hamilton was a major silent-film comedian, extremely funny and popular throughout the 1920s; according to Oscar Levant, Hamilton was the only comedian whom Chaplin ever envied. Unfortunately, the negatives of most of Hamilton's major films were lost in a laboratory fire, and much of his best work is gone forever. Viewed today, Hamilton's on screen character (with his flat cap and awkward duck walk) might remind modern audiences of Jackie Gleason's character the Poor Soul ... and that isn't a coincidence. Gleason apparently borrowed the Poor Soul from a character played by burlesque comedian Eddie Garr (Teri Garr's father), who in turn borrowed the character from Lloyd Hamilton.
"His Darker Self" is one of those casually racist comedies that were so prevalent in America before World War Two. Hamilton plays a faintly prissy mama's boy who decides to make something of himself by capturing a gang of bootleggers. (This is 1924, during Prohibition.) Hamilton decides to capture the bootleggers by infiltrating their gang. As it happens, though, all the members of this particular gang are black, so ... yes, you guessed it, Hamilton puts on blackface make-up and he impersonates a Negro, 1920s style.
There are the inevitable racial stereotypes. All the black bootleggers shoot craps and are superstitious and religious. At one point in this film, the black bootleggers participate in a Southern-style baptism, down by the riverside. Hamilton (in blackface) shows up at the baptism and accidentally gets ducked in the river. When he comes up for air, he has turned white again. Oops!
Lloyd Hamilton's blackface makeup looks completely unrealistic, but is helped somewhat by the casting of white actors (also in blackface) as "real" black characters in this movie.
The funniest (and least racist) sequence occurs early on, when Hamilton tries to walk down the street while carrying a large stack of parcels that block his vision. A pavement elevator is in front of him, and the elevator keeps dropping below street level just as Hamilton is about to step on it. Hamilton works several variations on this gag, narrowly missing a tumble into the lift shaft as the elevator arrives just in time. (This probably inspired a similar scene in Chaplin's "City Lights", or the roller-skating scene in Chaplin's "Modern Times".)
This film is more racist than it needs to be, with 1920s racial epithets like "smokes" (i.e., black people) showing up in the dialogue titles. The script is by Arthur Caesar (brother of songwriter Irving Caesar), who was one of the legendary eccentric characters of early Hollywood. Too bad he didn't put more of himself into this movie. Reluctantly, I can't recommend "His Darker Self". The comedy isn't clever enough or funny enough to make up for the generally nasty and racist tone.
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