THE BOOTLEG FILES: “HANDS UP!”

Few films have attracted a critical volley over the years with the gusto and severity of the 1926 Civil War comedy feature “Hands Up!” In 1927, the venerable Robert E. Sherwood called “Hands Up!” a superior work to Buster Keaton’s Civil War comedy “The General.” In the 1970s, Stanley Kauffmann and Bruce Henstell, writing in their “American Film Criticism,” said “The General” was vastly superior and “Hands Up!” was “deservedly forgotten.” In his 1975 book “The Silent Clowns,” Kerr chastised Sherwood and Kauffmann and Henstell for extremism but did his own half-and-half act – he dubbed “The General” to be the superior film but claimed that Raymond Griffith, the star of “Hands Up!”, deserved equal ranking to Keaton and the other giants of silent cinema (Chaplin, Lloyd and Langdon). But in 2005, David Sanjek wrote in Senses of Cinema that “Hands Up!” gave the film the backhanded compliment of stating it “goes down with all the effortless ease of a well-mixed cocktail.”

Now, of course, everyone cannot be right. So who is correct? Sherwood in his glowing praise, Kauffmann and Henstell in their sneering dismissive tone, Kerr in his half-and-half cheer, or Sanjek in his casual appreciation of the film? The answer, to any reader of this column, should be obvious: the correct party here is me. Here is my take on the film and its elusive star.

“Hands Up!” is perhaps the funniest comedy film you never heard of, and its star Raymond Griffith might have been the funniest man in the history of silent comedy. I say “might have been” because there is no way to verify whether his canon was consistently hilarious or if this film was just a grand fluke. The majority of Griffith’s starring films (15 productions made between 1924 and 1928) are considered lost, and those that remain are difficult to track down for reappraisal. “Hands Up!” is the best-known Griffith film, and to be honest it is impossible to determine whether this was typical of Griffith’s output or whether it was just a happy aberration.

Unlike Chaplin or Keaton, Griffith was not his own producer/director. “Hands Up!” was produced by B.P. Schulberg and directed by Clarence Badger. While he was credited for being an excellent gag writer, it is unclear how much direct input Griffith had in the film’s creation. But we do know that he had enough star power to demand one of his co-stars be removed for being “too funny” (we’ll get to that in a minute).

Griffith’s on-screen persona was that of a debonair sharpy. A diminutive figure with an elegant mustache, his trademark costume was a silk hat, flowing opera cape and walking stick. His visual influence was clearly the French comic genius Max Linder, but his style was not Linder’s. Griffith gravitated to roles of a comic con man. This character worked perfectly in the setting of “Hands Up!”

“Hands Up!” takes place during the height of the Civil War. A gold mine is located in the west and both the Union and Confederate leadership want to secure it for their respective war efforts. Griffith is a Confederate spy who is called to General Robert E. Lee’s side during the midst of a battle. In a truly surreal scene which introduces his character, Lee explains the mission to a very patient and eagerly interested Griffith as the battle’s mayhem spirals around them – soldiers are gunned down, cannon balls unleash explosions, and even the general’s headquarters are blown up. The two men are oblivious to this, even shaking hands for an extended goodbye while smoke and debris fly around them.

Griffith heads west and dons his silk hat-opera cape outfit. Needless to say, he stands out in the west and his ability to keep himself incognito does not work. He is captured and sentenced to death via a firing squad, which leads to what might be a classic sequence of film comedy (provided enough people see it to appreciate it as such).

Griffith stands before a firing squad when, inexplicably, an old lady carrying a hamper of dishes wanders in front of him. Realizing where she is, she drops the hamper and runs off. Griffith, ever the gentleman, picks up the hamper and tries to pursue her with its return. Naturally, he is brought back to his position on the firing squad. The order is given to fire, but at the split second prior to the fusillade’s roar Griffith pulls a dish from beneath his cape and flings it into the air. The firing squad, taking the instinct of skeet shooters, aim their guns in unison at the dish and fire at it. Griffith steps forward and heartily congratulate the men on their skills, earning their mutual admiration. The squadron’s commander, who realizes what is going on, pushes Griffith back and orders the squad to resume their orders. Ready! Aim! And Griffith extracts another dish (this time smaller) and flings it in another direction. Again, the firing squad follows the dish and shoots it into pieces. More congratulations from Griffith, more frustration from the commander. Ready! Aim! And another dish, even smaller than its predecessors, is flung.

How does it end? Well, you need to pop a bootleg video in and see for yourself! In fact, I hesitate to give too much away since it will spoil much of the fun in this movie.

I can say that Griffith eventually escapes and winds up not with the gold mine but with the miner (Mack Swain) and his two lovely daughters (Marian Nixon and Virginia Lee Corbin). Swain was a veteran of the Sennett fun factory and had recently played the amnesiac prospector in Chaplin’s classic “The Gold Rush.” But Griffith, aware of Swain’s scene stealing potential, wanted him canned from the film during mid-production by claiming Swain was “too funny” and was disrupting the balance of the film. It did not happen, but Swain’s part was trimmed down and he has relatively little to do.

But there is one incredible scene where Griffith is forced to save Swain and his daughters from a tribe of hostile Indians. The tribe is ready to burn the white folks while doing a war dance. Griffith, however, informs the tribe that the war dance is passe and a new dance is now the rage. In a hilarious anachronism, Griffith teaches the Indian warriors to dance the Charleston. As the Indians are pre-occupied with their new Jazz Age dance steps, Griffith frees the captives and shepherds them to safety.

“Hands Up!” is curious for its romantic subplot: both of the miner’s daughters fall in love with Griffith and he is equally smitten with the pair. But when the film finally runs its course, it becomes clear that there is one woman too man. One sister nobly agrees to make the sacrifice for her sibling, but the other wants to do the same. Griffith cannot choose a favorite, as he loves them both. How can this solution be resolved?

At a well-timed moment, a stagecoach arrives and a bearded man emerges. He knows the sisters and introduces them to his wife Grace as she comes out of the coach. Then another woman emerges and is introduced as his wife Jane. Then a third comes, and a fourth, and a fifth. The man is none other than Brigham Young and Griffith has his answer. He bundles the two sisters into the stagecoach and the trio ride off. On the back of the stagecoach is the sign “To Salt Lake City.” For the first and perhaps only time in film history, Mormon-style love triumphs in face of old-fashioned monogamy. (Years later, unamused censors would remove this closing gag from prints of the film!)

Hal Erickson, writing in the All Movie Guide, observes: “Though Griffith never displays an emotion nor outwardly elicits audience sympathy throughout ‘Hands Up!’, we’re pulling for him all the way, eagerly anticipating his every move.” And that is the joy of the film. Griffith is a rogue (and a Confederate one, to boot!), yet his resourcefulness, style and surreal urbanity make him an infinitely entertaining figure. His comedy was inventive and his ability to turn a villain’s role into the anti-hero was no small feat (given that the 1920s was not the era of the anti-hero).

Alas, the off-screen Griffith faced an obstacle that his dashing screen persona could not overcome: the arrival of talking pictures in the late 1920s. A childhood injury to his vocal cords left him with a raspy voice that could not rise above a whisper. Although he bravely appeared in a pair of talkie shorts, Griffith’s knew his days as a film comedy star were over with the arrival of sound. He made one final movie appearance in 1930, playing the dying French soldier in “All Quiet on the Western Front” – the role required no dialogue and Griffith’s shattering pantomime of the fatally injured fighter was his last great triumph. The remainder of his career saw him working behind the camera as a producer, and his most celebrated films in that capacity included the Shirley Temple classics “Heidi” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and John Ford’s stirring “Drums Along the Mohawk.” Griffith died in 1957 from a heart attack brought about after choking on food in a restaurant. At the time of his death, his work in silent movies was long forgotten.

“Hands Up!” was released by Paramount Pictures, which still controls the copyright. Since Griffith’s name and work faded into obscurity long ago, there appears to be no commercially viable reason for the studio to give “Hands Up!” an official home video release. Other distributors that offer silent films for commercial re-release have likewise avoided the film. But bootleg videos, taken from 16mm prints, have been circulating for years. The quality of these videos vary, but at least “Hands Up!” is being seen in one form or another.

None of Griffith’s relatively few surviving films match “Hands Up!” for its audacity and vibrancy, which may cancel Kerr’s claim that Griffith is an equal to Chaplin, Keaton and the other silent comedy giants. The film does not trump “The General,” which cancels Sherwood’s gushing, and the Kauffmann-Hentsell claim that it is “deservedly forgotten” is ridiculous. As for Sanjek, the film is much more than a cinematic equivalent of a cocktail. It is a burst of high-class champagne, highly original and deeply engaging in its speed, wit and style. Even if this was Griffith’s one truly great work, it is undeniably his masterpiece and it deserves to be celebrated.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on September 30, 2005 in Features by
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One Comment on "THE BOOTLEG FILES: “HANDS UP!”"

  1. Ken Greenwald on Sun, 21st Nov 2010 5:15 am 

    When I was in college, I remember seeing a print of HANDS UP! I was awestruck. To me, Griffith was a genius. The only thing I now remember is the sequence where he throws the plates into the air and they are shot down by his executioners…. then escapes. That scene is still vivid in my mind. But the overall impression of that film still exists within me. A vivid, brilliant and very funny film by a truly forgotten genius.


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