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Syd Chaplin was a successful silent-film comedian whose importance has been upstaged by his much more famous half-brother. But in fact it was Syd Chaplin who helped kid brother Charlie get his first jobs as a performer in Victorian music-halls. After Charlie Chaplin became a film star, it was big brother Syd who negotiated the contracts that made Charlie a multi-millionaire. Richard Attenborough's film biography "Chaplin" sadly neglected the major contributions which Syd Chaplin made to Charlie's career, in addition to entirely ignoring Syd's own career as a comedian.
Like the Addams Family movies, "The Better 'Ole" is a live-action movie based on characters that originally appeared as magazine cartoons. "The Better 'Ole" stars Syd Chaplin in heavy make-up as Old Bill, a Tommy Atkins (private infantryman) in the British Expeditionary Forces during the Great War. Some historical background is necessary here. Americans of a certain age will recall Willie and Joe, the two riflemen drawn by American cartoonist (and infantryman) Bill Mauldin for "Stars and Stripes" magazine during World War Two. During the same period, English military humourist W.J.P. Jones was lampooning British Army officers in a panel cartoon called "The Two Types". What those characters represented for the Second World War, "Old Bill" represented for the British army during the First World War. Old Bill was created by Bruce Bairnsfather, a B.E.F. army captain and talented cartoonist. Bairnsfather's most famous drawing depicted Old Bill and a younger infantryman in a filthy trench full of rainwater. The younger man has clearly just finished uttering a complaint, and the caption reveals Old Bill's reply in his Cockney accent: "If you knows a better 'ole, go to it." That scene is re-enacted by Syd Chaplin in this movie, along with several more of Bairnsfather's drawings. (Bairnsfather's creation also became a London stage play, and there was a 1919 film version made in England ... so this movie is a Hollywood remake.)
Most of this film's appeal will be lost to modern viewers, who can't be expected to realise how incredibly popular (and how important to morale) Bairnsfather's cartoons were for the British war effort (and, to a lesser extent, the American war effort) during the Great War. Alas, too much of the humour here is too predictable. The best scene in "The Better 'Ole" occurs when Old Bill and his troopmate Alf go behind enemy lines disguised as the front and rear of a horse. This sequence is funny, but it's too similar to a scene in the earlier film "Shoulder Arms", in which Charlie Chaplin is a doughboy who goes behind enemy lines disguised as a tree. The fact that Syd Chaplin appears in "Shoulder Arms" (in two supporting roles) only emphasises how derivative "The Better 'OIe" is.
"The Better 'Ole" features good supporting performances by comedy veteran Edgar Kennedy and his unjustly obscure half-brother Tom Kennedy. The Kennedy brothers both had long film careers but only seldom worked together because they were similar physical types. Here, they're in separate scenes.
I enjoyed "The Better 'Ole" but I expect that most modern audiences lack the patience for it. Syd Chaplin deserves to be rediscovered, but this movie isn't one of his best efforts.
Fair silent comedy that does not play well to a modern audience -- probably
because it is not slapstick enough to be funny today and because the drama
appears more of an afterthought to what could have been a pure comedy. The
first half of the movie drags but the second half is bearable.
Film opens with our hero, Syd Chaplin, and his pal in the trenches where they are chastised by bully Corporal Austin (Edgar Kennedy) for singing after having survived a shelling. IMDb credits list Ed Kennedy as Corporal Quint but the actual film credit is quite clear. Film shift to the town of Boucaret where we encounter the traitor Major Russett who is in league with Gaspard, the owner of the Rooster Inn. Long and not particularly interesting sequence where Syd gets breakfast.
Cabaret night is mildly funny as Syd picks up thirteen chairs and a piano to clear the stage. Town transitions from British to German control. Syd and pal get left behind in horse costume. Probably best scenes are where Syd serves German General lunch and then sits on the body of an unconscious German soldier whose legs he arranges to look like his own. Syd and pal manage to fool German guards and eventually break free to help British Intelligence Officer save the British troops that come back into Boucaret. Syd is promoted to Sergeant thus giving him the opportunity to pay back Edgar Kennedy.
In many of these old silent war movies, even if the plot is threadbare, the shots of old war equipment or tactics might be of interest today. This is not one of those movies. Nor was Syd as good as his half-brother Charlie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This WWI comedy stars Charlie Chaplin's half-brother, Syd. Physically,
he doesn't look much like him, but with his bushy mustache looks highly
reminiscent of the Keystone comedian, Chester Conklin.
The first half of the film is very mundane and frankly it bored me. Nothing particularly funny occurred and the plot just seemed stuck. About the only thing that happened was the corporal making life miserable for Syd and his underlings because he was just a power-hungry jerk. Fortunately, towards the middle, it abruptly became extremely funny and I found myself laughing out loud. In fact, my wife came in the room and after a moment or two, she was laughing as well! So, let's skip talking about the first half except to say that Chaplin in a career private and dislikes his jerk of a corporal, played by Edgar Kennedy. When the movie switches to the show being put on for the troops, it picks up greatly. Seeing one of the guys in drag was cute, and Syd and his buddy dressed in an amazingly articulated horse suit provided a lot of laughs.
Unfortunately, the Germans attack during the show and the British troops scatter--leaving Syd and his buddy stuck in the horse costume and unable to get out in time! So, they continue to pretend they are a horse. Now this sounds stupid but was made believable because by the time they were discovered, the Germans who saw them were quite drunk! And it was pretty cute seeing them try to escape--especially when the horse head fell off and Syd's dog jumped into the costume (a horse with a dog's head is definitely memorable).
Later, once they are out of the suit, they attack a couple Germans and steal their uniforms. They then discover the German's plan to evacuate the town for the British and leave it booby-trapped to blow up! They also discover that one of the British officers is a German spy. Well, Syd rises to the occasion and the day is miraculously saved. The General is so thrilled that he offers to give Syd ANYTHING he wants, so Syd asks to become a sergeant so he can pay back Edgar Kennedy for all the awful things he did to him in the first part of the film! The film gets high marks for being entertaining and original. It is a FAR, FAR better film than Buster Keaton's WWI film, DOUGHBOYS and a little better than Laurel and Hardy's PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES (good film but too much sentimentality).
PS--Watch the scene just before Syd dons the horse suit. Watching him packing up chairs is amazing--such a seemingly mundane task done in such a swift and amazing way.
Syd Chaplin (as "Old Bill" Busby) and Jack Ackroyd (as Little "Alfie")
are World War I servicemen; while being bombarded, in a foxhole, Mr.
Chaplin tells Mr. Ackroyd, "If you knows of a better 'ole - go to it."
This exchange gives the film its peculiar title. The characters are
based on the (by now) obscure British cartoon comic "Old Bill", by
Bruce Bairnsfather. Seeing the familiar characters brought to the
screen might have made the opening scenes delightful, but they no
longer entertain. Veterans (of film) Edgar Kennedy (as Austin) and
Harold Goodwin (as Bert Chester) help make the early going bearable.
Ackroyd's stabbing of Chaplin as he sleeps under a bale of hay begins some intermittently good scenes. Chaplin's chair lifting ability amazes, and the Chaplin/Ackroyd team becomes funnier as the comedy progresses; they are most delightful as "two-men-in-a-horse".
The production levels offered by Warner Brothers are quite high; "The Better 'Ole" was the second film to make use of the studio's synchronized music and sound effects "Vitaphone" process. With a certain British sibling named "Charlie" experiencing a "Gold Rush" at the box office, it's easy to understand Warner's effort.
***** The Better 'Ole (10/7/26) Charles Reisner ~ Syd Chaplin, Jack Ackroyd, Edgar Kennedy, Harold Goodwin
Oh my goodness this is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. There are scenes I laughed so hard I thought I would burst. Funny throughout.... so sad Syd did not get the acclaim of his half brother...he deserved every bit of it... I was wary of a silent film about war... but I was not disappointed in the least... it is one of those movies one wishes could go on forever...it was so very good... at least if you like Chaplinesque type of slapstick others in the movie were also very funny... If you enjoy slapstick and comedy...if you love old silent films long lost...then you will really enjoy this movie. It is set in France during World War I when German was invading and controlling the country side...the Allies in this movie are the British and the comedy is without limits to nationality.
There is more about Bairnsfather's films in his biography - IN SEARCH OF THE BETTER OLE published by Pen and Sword Books, Barnsley, UK. His most famous cartoon was the Better Ole but his most famous film was 'Carry on Sergeant' the phrase that gets most Army Officers through wars. The film was made in Canada in 1928 but caused furore in the country when a Canadian soldier was shown going upstairs with a girl in an estaminet. It did not do well mainly because it was a silent film just at the time that the talkies were taking off eg The Jazz Singer. Originally 14 reels long it has been shortened in the modern era and has been shown on Canadian television. Other films by Bairnsfather are The Better Ole 1918, Old Bill through the Ages 1924, The Better Ole 1926, Vitaphone personal appearance 1927 and Old Bill and Son 1941.
Better 'Ole, The (1926)
** (out of 4)
Due to his legendary younger brother people have forgotten the work of Syd Chaplin. Forgotten is that this guy form the comedy genre and pretty much formed his younger brother Charles. This film here is yet another forgotten one but is slightly remembered for being Warner's second feature film to have the Vitaphone sound. The film, based on newspaper cartoon characters, features Syd as 'Old Bill', a legendary figure fighting in WW1 who constantly finds himself battling an uphill fight. This is a rather strange comedy because the film remains highly entertaining even though there's not a single laugh to be found it in. All of the jokes aren't what I'd call funny but they are amusing in some weird way and in the end the film really isn't too bad. The Vitaphone sound includes various sound effects, a couple whispered words and that's about it but I was surprised at how well it all sounded considering this technology was under a year old. Several of the gags are based around these sound effects and there are a couple unique ones including a scene where a bomb goes off in a barn and Syd finds himself covered with hay. There's also a very long sequence dealing with Syd and his buddy getting into a cow outfit and causing all sorts of trouble. I was also surprised at how big the budget was on this thing because the war scenes look top notch and all the costume detail is top notch. Even with that said, the comedy just doesn't come off as funny but for fans of early sound cinema this is worth viewing at least once.
Although the character of Old Bill and his pal Alf had its origins in
the comic strips of Great Britain in doing a bit of research I was
surprised to learn that the play on which this film was based was
produced by the American actor Charles Coburn. It ran 353 performances
and it starred Coburn on Broadway as well during the 1918-19 season.
But it came to the screen as a vehicle for Sydney Chaplin, older
brother of Charlie Chaplin and a fair comic himself.
Curiously enough one of Charlie's successes was a service comedy set in World War II Shoulder Arms. But in this case the comedy is set in the British army with the British born Sydney Chaplin.
Whatever else Old Bill is, he's a survivor. He and partner Alf played by John Ackroyd are the Willie and Joe of the British Expeditionary Force. The situations these two find themselves could easily be adapted to World War II era service comedies that conceivably would have starred folks like Bob Hope or Danny Kaye.
Briefly put the plot has Old Bill and Alf foiling a major German offensive almost singlehandedly. A remarkable achievement for a pair that make gold bricking an art form.
I'd check out The Better 'Ole to see what a funny guy Charlie's brother could be.
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