"The Silk Hat Comedian"

The Life and Career of Raymond Griffith

by Tim Lussier

Raymond Griffith began in films in 1915 doing work as an actor, gag man, scenario writer or whatever else was required of him; however, it was his comedies of the mid-twenties that brought him the greatest fame as the "Silk Hat Comedian."

Raymond Griffith was born in Boston, Mass., Jan. 23, 1895*, to stage parents. He made his debut on the stage at 15 months. At seven years of age, he played "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and at eight years of age he was playing a female part in 'Ten Nights in a Barroom."

As a young boy, Griffith lost his voice playing a part in "The Witching Hour." According to the May, 1925, issue of Photoplay, "His part required that he scream out each night at the threat of a beating. On the fatal night, he ran and cowered, as the direction demanded. The audience heard a piercing shriek from the boy as he cringed before the whip. That was all. The terror on the boy's face was the terror of realism; he was stricken dumb. He could not speak a line after that scream. He has never spoken a line from the stage since then. His recovery was so gradual that he could not speak above a whisper for years, and he has never recovered the full carrying power, which the stage demands."

With the loss of his voice went his stage career, and Griffith finally joined a circus doing trapeze work, bareback riding, working as a clown and any other job required of him. He also worked as a dancer, a dance instructor at the Grand Central Palace in New York, a vaudeville performer and toured Europe with a group of French pantomimists. He also served a tour of duty in the Navy.

Once source claims that after being discharged from the Navy, Griffith went west to California in 1914 where he had a friend working with Vitagraph. Griffith was reportedly on the set to visit his friend when the director asked him if he'd like to play a Mexican bandit for $3 a day. This was the beginning of his film career, although Albert E. Smith, who co-founded Vitagraph with H.Stuart Blackton, did not list Griffith among the Vitagraph players in his 1952 biography Two Reels and a Crank (Doubleday & Company, Inc.).

Another source states that he ended up in California during his vaudeville days and decided to try the movies. This source says his first job was with Kalem in 1915.

It is documented, however, that he was working for L-KO as early as 1915. He left L-KO in the spring of 1916 and went to work for Sennett. Since his appearances in Sennett comedies during the next year are rather sparse, it is assumed he may have also been working as a scenario writer/gag man. Griffith worked for Sennett until 1917 (except for a very short stint with Fox) when Sennett left Triangle. Griffith continued to work for Triangle as an actor, gagman and scenario writer. Around this time, he was called up for service, but was released because of his voice. By the end of 1918, Griffith was back working for Sennett again, gradually moving away from from acting and more into scenario writing.

In June of 1921 Griffith left Sennett and joined Marshall Neilan's unit. While with Neilan, he returned to acting and, it is assumed, continued writing scenarios. In the fall of 1922, he left Neilan. In late 1922 or early 1923, he signed a contract with Goldwyn. His first picture the his new company was "Red Lights," a mystery-melodrama.

A review of one of the Goldwyn features, "The Day of Faith," found in the March, 1924, issue of Motion Picture Classic is a good example of how, with his return to acting, Griffith was beginning to be noticed, even when appearing in a mediocre film. It said, "'The Day of Faith' succeeds only in being a preposterous story of character development . . . What interesting moments it offers are found in a few character sketches ­ one of them capably played by Raymond Griffith as a hard-boiled newspaperman . . . "

Another of Griffith's films during this period was "The White Tiger" directed by Tod Browning. This film, which is available for viewing today, casts Griffith as Roy Donovan, also known as "The Kid." Griffith plays a fine dramatic role as a con artist working in conjunction with his sister (Priscilla Dean), however, because they were separated at an early age, they don't know they're brother and sister. Also unknown to each other, both are looking for the man responsible for their father's death. The third part of their con artist team (Wallace Beery) is, guess who - yep, the very man they are looking for! Inexplicably, the film was released by Universal, not Goldwyn. Griffith appeared in only two more films for Goldwyn before signing a contract with Famous Players-Lasky in late 1923 or early 1924.

Griffith was establishing a unique style of acting during this period ­ not strictly comedic and not strictly dramatic. In a 1991 article entitled "Another Griffith" , (Griffithiana, October, 1991, Vol. XIV, No. 40/42) Davide Turconi says, "As for Griffith's Goldwyn period, however, it is worth mentioning that he introduced certain changes to the films in which he appeared between 1922 and 1923 that clearly reflect his earlier experience with Lehrman (L-KO) and Sennett. In the films produced by Goldwyn, Griffith does not portray explicitly comic characters. They are shady figures, or detectives or journalists, whose portrayal is enlivened by frequent comic touches, sometimes reaching slapstick levels and giving rise to farcical scenes. According to some people, it was this very peculiarity that got him the contract with Famous Players."

During 1924, Griffith made five features for Famous Players, the first of which was "Changing Husbands" directed by Cecil B. DeMille and co-starring Leatrice Joy. His second feature was "The Dawn of Tomorrow." Movie Weekly (April 19, 1924) panned the film as "bunk ad infinitum" and said of Griffith's co-star Jacqueline Logan, "Acting is out." However, in the midst of all this criticism, the same review said, "Raymond Griffith, as the crook, gives a fine, interesting and convincing performance. His portrayal is of a sleuthy, without being vicious, nature. You can readily believe that a 'sweet young thing' like Glad (Logan's character) would fall for his caveman tactics."

His final feature that year was "Open All Night" starring Adolphe Menjou and Viola Dana. This film, another that is available for viewing today, casts Griffith as Igor Romano, an ex-New York floorwalker who is in France to absorb some "atmosphere" in preparation for being the next movie sheik. Throughout the film, he is slightly tipsy, a part he plays well, and, of course, he is dressed in his usual top hat and tux, a "costume" he had already become identified with.

Griffith has many enjoyable comedic scenes in the movie which range from subtle humor to mild slapstick. In one, he is trying to eat a plate of food in front of him, but the fork and knife keep getting tangled up in his cape, a dilemma which Griffith milks for quite a few laughs. He finally decides to get up, take his hat and cape off, and hang them up. However, when he sits back down, the plate is gone ­ someone has taken his food! Unflustered, he removes the napkin from his collar, dabs the corners of his mouth as if he has finished a hearty meal, and lights an after-dinner smoke.

At the end of the movie, he walks out on the street and sees a man wearing a sandwich board that advertises, "Valentino Returns to the Screen!" As Griffith alternates between a forced smile and deep concern over his lost opportunity to be the next movie sheik, two gendarmes, who know of his aspirations, ask him, "What will you do now?" Griffith hands one end of his cane to each of them to hold in a horizontal position. He then leaps over the cane, flashes a "Fairbanksian" grin and answers simply, "Doug!" He then dashes off but falls down a flight of stairs.

His first film of 1925 was the Bebe Daniels feature "Miss Bluebeard." In this film, Robert Frazer is Larry Charters, a wealthy composer who has a string of young ladies at his door. Griffith plays his lazy friend, Bertie Bird, whose only concern in life is sleeping undisturbed. When one of Charter's' girlfriends comes in demanding his attentions, Bertie is lying on the sofa, hidden from view, and is very much annoyed at having his nap interrupted. After chiding Charters about one of his other girlfriends, the girl tells him to kiss her and she'll behave. She closes her eyes and puckers, but Charters is reluctant. So, Bertie leans over, gives her a peck, and lies back down on the sofa. The girl is delighted thinking that Charters has kissed her and tells him to do it again. Again, when Charters hesitates, Bertie leans over to kiss her, she grabs him around the neck and they both fall to the floor. Of course, the girl is very angry when she realizes who has been kissing her!

Two pictures later, Griffith co-starred with Betty Compson in one of his best comedies, "Paths to Paradise." This film, which is also available for viewing today, brought Griffith some of his highest praise. His performance received a positive review in The New York Times, and Screenland magazine went so far as to say that Griffith would soon be Chaplin's top rival. Perfectly cast as a debonair con man, Griffith keeps the laughs coming nonstop so that the film clips along at a sprightly pace.

1924 and 1925 were Griffith's most productive years with 15 features during that period. However, he hadn't reached his peak yet as many consider his first film of 1926, "Hands Up!," to be his best comedy.

"Hands Up!" is a Civil War comedy which casts Griffith as a Confederate spy. His mission is to keep the gold of one Silas Woodstock (Mack Swain) out of Union hands. In the course of his mission, he tangles with Indians, a firing squad, the Union army and the affections of both of Woodstock's daughters (Marian Nixon and Virginia Lee Corbin). In his book Silent Clowns (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), Walter Kerr says, ". . . 'Hands Up!' contains some work that is daring ­ for its period, certainly ­ and some that is masterfully delicate, the work of an inventive, unaggressive, amiably iconoclastic intelligence."

Because it is a Civil War film, the inevitable comparison between "Hands Up!" and Buster Keaton's "The General" is often made. Although Kerr affirms that of the two films, "The General" is the masterpiece, he takes exception to a quote in the Stanley Kauffman-Bruce Henstell anthology American Film Criticism which states, "'The General' was voted one of the ten best films of all time. 'Hands Up!' is deservedly forgotten." According to Kerr, ". . . they have gone too far. . . 'deservedly forgotten' is surely the wrong phrase for what has happened to 'Hands Up!' 'Ignobly forgotten' might be better."

His next film, "Wet Paint," brought him more high praise from the critics. Pictures (August, 1926) magazine said, "Griffith takes the very slender plot and clothes it with comedy both subtle and slapstick, but laughable withal. In many respects, it is the best thing he had done ­ certainly sketches compare favorably with Chaplin's work."

Griffith made one more film in 1926 and two in 1927. Although 1926 brought him kudos from the critics, neither of the 1927 films received positive reviews, and, according to at least one fan magazine of the time, Griffith and Famous Players brought his contract to an end by "mutual consent."

In January, 1928, Griffith married Bertha Mann, a stage and film actress, and they spent most of the first half of the year in Europe. Griffith made no films in 1928, although several "projects" that apparently never developed were rumored including one with Howard Hughes and another with Louis Wolheim. In 1929, Griffith, in spite of his speaking handicap, made two sound two-reelers.

Griffith was to appear in films only once more, but he did it with style. His 1931 appearance in the anti-war film "All Quiet on the Western Front" brought him praise from many sources.

In the film, Griffith plays a French soldier who has been wounded by a German soldier (Lew Ayres). Because of his wounds, he cannot speak above a whisper ­ a perfect role for Griffith! The two spend the night in a foxhole together as the French soldier slowly dies. Although only a short sequence in the movie, Griffith's last appearance on film turned out to be one of the most memorable in cinema history.

Griffith did not act before the camera again, but he did continue to work in films as a production supervisor and associate producer. He died in Los Angeles Nov. 25, 1957, from a heart attack at the age of 70.

*Thanks to Bruce Calvert, who obtained a copy of Griffith's birth certificate to verify the 1895 birthdate. Calvert noted that the date is sometime given as 1890 probably because Griffith gave this as his birthdate when he enrolled in the navy at age 15.

copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

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