A publicity notice put out by the King Bee Company in 1917 called their star comedian Billy West "the funniest man on earth." Even by the standards of P.R. puffery that was an especially nervy claim for them to make, not only because Charlie Chaplin was the undisputed king of comedy at the time, but because West himself was nothing more than a Chaplin impersonator: he shamelessly copied Charlie's outfit, mannerisms, gags and plots. He was widely considered the best imitator in a very crowded field, but calling him the funniest man on earth was sheer impertinence.
In the early 1920s West finally ditched the Chaplin routine and attempted to establish a screen persona of his own. Instead of the familiar tramp costume he began dressing in sporty suits, combed his hair differently, and subtly altered his mustache, splitting it into two little tufts. In his new persona Billy rather resembled Monty Banks, and in his new series of films he took on the role of a dapper little gent with an eye for the ladies. Last year I saw one of West's later two-reel comedies, Don't Be Foolish, and found it surprisingly enjoyable, full of clever, well-staged gags. Billy West was clearly a gifted physical comedian in his own right, and didn't need to copy anyone else. I had high hopes for Line's Busy, another of West's post-Chaplin ventures, but this one proved to be a disappointment. It gets off to an unpromising start, as Billy re-stages a gag stolen directly from Buster Keaton's The Balloonatic, released the previous year. (Though it must be acknowledged that when this guy stole material, he stole from the best!) An attractive damsel in distress is trying to step down from the curb across a muddy pothole without dirtying her dress; Billy gallantly steps forward, lies his jacket across the mud, and guess what happens? If you've seen the Keaton film you already know.
Soon Billy meets a charity worker named Ethelyn, who raises contributions by flirting with men. Just as she's about to deposit her money in a bank a thief grabs it and runs, and Billy comes to the rescue, although a cop assumes he's the culprit. Ethelyn is grateful, gives Billy her phone number and invites him to call her sometime, then departs. From that point, the film takes off in several directions without settling on a central plot line or establishing any particular theme. Billy witnesses a car crash and is accidentally taken to the hospital in place of the injured party, which provides an excuse for a few "doctor" gagshave you seen the one about the edible thermometer?before he escapes. Then he runs afoul of a sailor on shore leave, which provokes some slapstick fighting. (A couple of the gags in this sequence are actually pretty good, so good we wonder where West got them.) Eventually, and for no particular reason, Billy decides to call the charity worker he met earlier, and enters a hotel lobby where there are three phone booths. And here West re-stages the key sequence of Harold Lloyd's 1920 short Number, Please?, frantically attempting to place his call as various people duck into the booths ahead of him. The problem with this sequence is obvious to anyone who has seen both comedies: Lloyd arranged matters so that he had an urgent, time-sensitive reason to make his call, but West did not. He has no pressing reason to call the girl immediately, so it doesn't matter that he keeps getting delayed. Thus, gags that worked in Lloyd's film fall flat here. And to make matters worse, while Billy waits in the lobby he has an encounter with an obnoxious little kid who keeps punching him, just like the kid who punched Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim, released the previous year.
When I saw Don't Be Foolish I wondered why Billy West didn't catch on with audiences, once he'd shed his Chaplin impersonation. This film is convincing evidence that viewers of the time knew the difference between fresh, original material and second-hand goods. Billy West wasn't the funniest man on earth, he was the Thieving Magpie of Silent Comedy.
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