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The Many Characters of Lupino Lane

On the third floor of the Library for the Performing Arts, one of the exhibit cases has recently been devoted to unique film related materials found in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. Currently the character photos of Lupino Lane in Only Me (1929) are on display, and the previous exhibition highlighted Brooklyn's Vitagraph Studio.

Lupino Lane as his usual screen persona
Lupino Lane as his usual screen persona. This and the various character photos from ONLY ME are in the catalog record MWEZ+n.c.8286

Lupino Lane was an international stage star, and, along with Douglas Fairbanks and Buster Keaton, one of the great acrobats and comic action heroes of the movies. Born in London in 1892, he was part of the Lupino family—a famous theatrical clan that started its reign in the 1600s. Stanley and Barry Lupino, very popular in England, were cousins and Stanley’s daughter Ida Lupino became a big movie star in America. Lane began his career as a child in pantomime, under the tutelage of his father Harry, and became known as “Little Nipper,” or just Nip for short. He had a thorough training in tumbling, juggling, mime and even shooting through “star traps” (trap doors in the stage floor that were connected to catapults that would allow a performer to suddenly pop into a scene).

Besides headlining in the music halls, Lane began appearing in British films as early as 1913 for companies such as John Bull and Globe, and hit international fame with the musical show Afgar. Coming to America with the show in the early 1920s he stayed for a while appearing in other Broadway shows such as The Ziegfeld Follies of 1924 and The Mikado. He even found time to venture to Hollywood to make a few comedies for the Fox Studio. In shorts like The Reporter and The Pirate (both 1922) and the feature A Friendly Husband (1923), he established his screen character of the befuddled innocent who stumbles his way to success.  

Lane as a female trapeze star
Lane as a female trapeze star

After a brief return to England he turned up as comic relief in D.W. Griffith’s 1924 drama Isn’t Life Wonderful, and began a series of comedies distributed by Educational Pictures. These were produced by Jack White, today a forgotten mogul of silent comedy, although his brother Jules is remembered as the producer of The Three Stooges films. Lane’s first short for Jack White was Maid in Morocco (1925) and the films in this series are marvels of comic action with Lane as the diminutive dervish that sets all the other elements spinning. The usual plot presents Nip as a milquetoast who has to prove himself to impress a girl, which leaves plenty of room for physical action and stunts. Early in the series the films were piloted by such top-notch comedy directors as Charles Lamont, Norman Taurog, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (under the alias of William Goodrich), but in 1928 Lane took over the direction under the name Henry W. George (after his birth name of Henry George Lupino). 

In 1929 he made Only Me, a two-reel homage to the music hall of his youth where he plays twenty-four roles—the main character that goes to a show, as well as all the acts, the people that staff the theater, and the entire audience. Done with clever editing and some discreet doubling by his brother Wallace Lupino, the Billy Rose Theatre Collection has eighteen photographs of the various characters, in addition to the original press sheet for the film. These are now on display on the third floor of the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Surviving photographs from silent comedy shorts are fairly rare, so the fact that there are eighteen from this particular film is a testament to, and a representation of, the breadth of the collection.

Here's Lane as one third of an onstage Barber Shop trio
Lane as one third of an onstage Barber Shop trio

Lane continued his Jack White series through 1929. Making a very successful transition to sound films he appeared in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929) and other big Hollywood features. Homesick, he and his family returned to England in 1930 where he continued making films, and had his greatest stage success in the late 1930s with the original production of Me and My Girl. Like Hello Dolly to Carol Channing, Me and My Girl became Lane’s show and he toured in it all through the second World War and after, until his death in 1959. Although most of Lupino Lane’s work is sadly forgotten today, many of his Hollywood comedies still exist and circulate, preserving his talents as a clown and comedy creator for future generations.

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