“Stupid But Brave”
Directed by William Goodrich (Roscoe Arbuckle). Cast: Al St. John, Doris Deane, Eugene Pallette, Kewpie Morgan, John Sinclair. Released October 26, 1924. Two Reels. Source: Forgotten Funnymen: Al St. John alpha DVD.
Al St. John’s career went from manic slapstick at Keystone during the teens, to playing rustic sidekicks at the end of the 1940s. He was a master stuntman, an expert trick bicyclist, and a supremely gifted comedian. Buster Crabbe told me in a 1980 interview that the chief reason the Billy The Kid westerns he did were popular, was because “I had the best sidekick in the business.” His sidekick was Al “Fuzzy” St. John.
St. John has his coterie of fans among silent movie buffs, but he never achieved the sort of notoriety he seemed to deserve. When one explores the bypaths of screen comedy, Al St. John is one of the most impressive comedians you’re likely to run across.
In the 1924 two-reeler “Stupid But Brave,” Al plays a bum with sophisticated tendencies, who believes he can find a job if only he got rid of his scraggily beard and straightened up his appearance. He cleans up, is hired by a firm that expects him to report across the country in a couple of days, and, despite his having no money, he accepts the challenge and attempts to make his way there. The result is a series of amazing slapstick encounters, with Al hopping trains, being accosted by roadside convicts, joining in a footrace, running from the law, and, finally ending up in an explosion. When he rescues a female motorist from holdup men, she offers him a ride and, on the way, it is discovered she is the daughter of the firm’s boss. Thus, the comedy ends on a happy note.
The gags, probably offered by an uncredited Grover Jones, are often surreal. While being shaved, Al’s headed is turned a full 360 degrees by barber Kewpie Morgan. As he runs down a dirt path where convicts are working, he is accosted by them and his clothes are stolen by one, who makes an escape. Al, now in convict garb, is pursued by police. He sees a group running in a track event, so he strips to his underwear (which is similar to their uniforms) and runs with them undetected, winning the $100 first prize.
The race gag may have been contributed by Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, the director of this comedy, as it is similar to one he used in “Good Night Nurse” (1918). Arbuckle had lost his career due to a 1921 scandal, so a group of friends formed a production company called Tuxedo Comedies, which would allow him to write and direct under the pseudonym William Goodrich. Arbuckle was a very good comedy director who had learned from Mack Sennett how to frame the action using mostly medium shots so that all the comedy would be contained therein. His occasional close-ups are limited to reaction shots, which he edits into larger scenes with rhythmic cohesion.
Another interesting aspect of “Stupid But Brave” is how Al St. John has modified his screen character since his Keystone and Comique films of the teens. During the sequence where he is being shaved by barber Kewpie Morgan, the penniless Al sees how other patrons who could not pay are beaten up. He exhibits apprehension and garners viewer sympathy very subtly, without the blatant gestures of his earlier comedies. Comedy itself had changed, and St John responded professionally.
It can be argued that Al St. John’s best work were the films he wrote and directed himself, the idea being that the auteurist approach is usually more effective for a comedian this creative. However, St. John’s talents also allowed for him to respond effectively to a good comedy script and solid direction, which is what he gets in “Stupid But Brave.” There isn’t a wasted second, as the film always maintains its pace, spacing out the creative ideas effectively enough to make this one of the best comedies from this period.