The Fourth Comedian: Douglas MacLean
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Slapstick Festival is back and bigger than ever and as always it showcases the best of comedy while highlighting much forgotten silent film icons. For Slapstick 2020 they turn the lights on Douglas MacLean (1890 – 1967) with a screening of One a Minute (1921). Co-director Rosie Rowan Taylor gives us an introduction to the life and films of MacLean:
The Fourth Comedian Douglas MacLean finally re-joins the silent film comedy ranks
One of Hollywood’s top comic actors of the early 1920s, Douglas MacLean finally returns to audiences after nearly one hundred years.
The ‘All-American Go-Getter’: Originally trained as a civil engineer, but going on to have multiple careers, including a bond salesman, a reporter, and an actor on the legitimate stage, to name just a few, Douglas MacLean became one of Hollywood’s most popular comic actors in the 1920s, and later a successful writer and producer.
MacLean was discovered by the prolific Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince whilst playing in a stock company in Los Angeles. Ince cast him in a small role in Fuss and Feathers (1918), before he went on to be cast in Captain Kidd Jr., and Johanna Enlists with Mary Pickford (also 1918). But the film that launched him into stardom, and established Henry King as a director, was 23 1/2 Hours Leave (1919). According to Kevin Brownlow in The Parades Gone By… “Ince hired Henry King to direct 23 1/2 Hours Leave, he spent considerably more than his budget, but the picture was such a success, so Ince put King under contract.” MacLean was also put under contract as a result of the film’s success, and this began his prolific career as a comic actor, starring in 23 feature films at the height of his success.
He had a massive fanbase in his time. As described in Motion Picture News in 1921, “Douglas MacLean […] comes before his legion of admirers again in the Thomas H. Ince production, ‘The Rookie’s Return.’” He was popular with critics of the time, and his films get good coverage in the trade press, at times receiving full page ads. He was even admired by his contemporaries; a 1921 issue of Picture-Play Magazine describes how “Harold Lloyd thinks that Douglas MacLean is so funny that he’d make a whale of a director.”
MacLean was at the height of his acting career during the early 1920s. By the mid-1920s, his success as an actor began to wane, and by choice he went behind the camera. At first, he was acting and producing, but with the coming of sound he decided to go behind the scenes completely and went into writing and producing for the rest of his career. His last film as an actor was an early talkie, Divorce Made Easy (1929). He worked for Paramount and RKO for a number of years, and went on to produce films including Ladies Should Listen (1934), starring the young Cary Grant, and Great Guy (1935), starring James Cagney.
Not as well remembered or revived at the “big three” Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, Douglas MacLean was no less successful or innovative. Much like Douglas Fairbanks had sets designed to help him achieve his stunts, MacLean designed and built sets (doing a lot of the work himself) to help pull off his gags. He was compared to his contemporaries on many occasions; Eve Golden likens his screen persona to Lloyd as “the all-American go-getter,”. Brian Taves, in his biography Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer, describes MacLean as having “a deadpan ability to appear less expressive when necessary if not quite going as far as the stone face of Keaton.” Taves also quotes a review of the time in Motion Picture Magazine describing MacLean as ‘the embodiment of a popular young university man’, who ‘has the exuberance and the winning smile of [Douglas] Fairbanks.’ Indeed, the humour in MacLean’s films lies somewhere between his energetic and expressive movement (Fairbanks), his smile (also Fairbanks), and the often awkward, strained or deadpan facial expressions he pulls (Lloyd and Keaton). If in one moment you find his facial expression funny, in another it will be the way in which he moves. In Bell Boy 13 (1923), he is due to meet the girl he wants to marry at the train station. However, his uncle has other ideas, forcing him to spend an afternoon with an overly exuberant girl whose affections he does not reciprocate. It is his facial reactions to her as he strains politeness, while desperately trying to escape, that are so funny. In One a Minute (1921), when his comes out of a mysterious room from where he was mixing the secret recipe for “Knights 99,” the ointment that cures all ailments, he is dressed from head to toe in a white lab suit with his face covered in a mask and goggles. Here it is the way he moves which is especially comic. His characters tend to speak or react before they think; coming up with off the cuff ideas before considering the practicalities, such as deciding to create the fake ‘cure all’ ointment in One a Minute, or being a yachtsman who is afraid of horses, but gets mistaken for a jockey, in The Hottentot (1922). It is these devices that set the scene for the hilarious ways in which he has to find his way out of the chaos he has created. Where he seems to differ from his three contemporaries is that he is not really the fool who does clever things, but rather, he’s a clever man that does foolish things. Like his peers, he has the ability to mix many different aspects of comedy successfully; visual gags, facial expressions, and body language. As with all good comedy, it is the execution that is key to the humour, and MacLean demonstrates this with the finite precision and ease that a lesser comedian would fail at. It is a great privilege that a number of his films survive as testament to his comic genius.
Re-Finding Douglas MacLean: As with many films, particularly from the silent era of cinema, not all of MacLean’s films are known to survive. Unfortunately, nine of the twenty-three feature films he made as an actor are considered lost, including the film that made MacLean a star, 23 1/2 Hours Leave. According to David Shepard, in The American Film Heritage, following the early death of Thomas Ince in 1924, many of the Producer’s films were sold or junked:
23 1/2 Hours Leave, Ince’s most famous comedy […] was sold to its star, Douglas MacLean, for $1,000 in 1932. Other negatives decomposed, and the remaining films were about to be discarded from storage in the garage of their custodian, former Ince associate Roy Purdon, when he mentioned their existence to his friend Tholen Gladden. Gladden arranged to stash the negatives in unused vaults at his employer’s studio – the same vaults originally built by Ince.
Later Gladden gave these films (which included several Douglas MacLean films) to the University of Southern California (UCLA), and they were eventually acquired by the American Film Institute (AFI) in1969, to be stored by the Library of Congress (LoC) as what is now known as Thomas H. Ince Collection. Overall, fourteen of MacLean’s films are known to survive in various archives around the world, including the EYE Film museum, the Cinematheque Française, Gosfilmofond, and the CNC, alongside the Thomas H. Ince Collection at the Library of Congress. Seven of the surviving films are considered incomplete (they survive only in fragments or there are reels missing), again not uncommon for films from the silent era. But seven are considered more or less complete. Two of these films (from the Thomas H. Ince Collection at LoC), One a Minute (1921), and Bell Boy 13 (1923), as well as a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary A Trip Through the World’s Greatest Motion Picture Studios (1920), (featuring MacLean at work) have now been expertly restored by Undercrank Productions and the Library of Congress, giving contemporary audiences the opportunity to see Douglas MacLean’s talents once again!
Restored to the Silent Comedy Ranks: Not only do these three films survive in complete copies, but the restoration team were graced with some of the finest sources of material to restore. One a Minute was scanned from the original 35mm camera negative (OCN), which is the best possible source you could wish for as a restoration archivist. Providing the negatives survive in good physical condition, OCNs have the sharpest image and clearest sound (they are the master copies), and will most likely have the least wear and tear, as they will have been used far less than a cinema release print (which will have been screened again and again in the cinema). Bell Boy 13 was scanned from a Library of Congress’ preservation from a 16mm reduction print, which appears to have been copied directly from the OCN of the film (which no longer survives). While this is not as good as having the OCN, it is still an excellent source, so don’t let it put you off. Through the World’s Greatest Motion Picture Studios was scanned from a tinted 35mm print from the period. Another good source of restoration material. Sadly, it is often the case that only a cinema release print, or a later copy of a film (a copy of a copy of a copy, for example) survives. Each time you make a copy of a copy, the image and sound quality reduces, and any defects from the previous copy (such as scratches) are printed in to the new copy (some can be removed in restoration, and others cannot). So, to be able to work from a print made directly from an OCN, or an original cinema release print from the time, is really remarkable in itself.
All three titles were scanned at 2K and digitally restored and graded by Greg Kimble and Thad Komorowski, with superb results, and keeping the visual integrity of the physical film.
Brand new musical scores have been composed and performed by renowned silent film accompanist Ben Model. His compositions excellently lend themselves to the rhythm and comedy of these films, as well as MacLean’s characters, and really help bring out the magic. Now audiences are lucky enough to be able to experience Douglas MacLean, one hundred years on, in the best possible way.
The restoration of One a Minute will receive its world premiere at Slapstick Festival in Bristol, UK, on January 24th 2020, with an introduction by celebrated film historian Kevin Brownlow.
One a Minute, Bellboy 13 and Through the World’s Greatest Motion Picture Studios, will be released on DVD and Blu-ray, by Undercrank Productions, on February 18th, 2020.
Golden, E. (1997), ‘Douglas MacLean: The Man with the Million-Dollar Smile’, Classic Images, vol. unknown, no. 262, pp. 16-18.
Shepard, D. (1972) ‘Thomas Ince’, in Shales, T. Brownlow, K., et al., The American Film Heritage: Impressions of the American Film Institute Archives. Washington DC: Acropolis Books, pp. 43-47.
Taves, B. (2012), Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer, University Press, Kentucky.
Unknown Author (1921). Current Paramount Releases. Motion Picture News [Online] volume XXIII, No. 7 (Feb 1921), p1177. [Accessed 11th January 2020]
Wayne, J. B. (1921). When Good Fellows Get Together. Motion Picture Magazine, [online] volume unknown (March 1921), p86. [Accessed 11th January 2020]
Filmography: Bellboy 13 (1923). [Online]. Directed by William A. Seiter. USA: Thomas H. Ince [viewed on 11 January 2020]. Available on Bluray and DVD from February 18th 2020
One a Minute (1921). [Online]. Directed by Jack Nelson. USA: Thomas H. Ince, Paramount [viewed on 11 January 2020]. Available on Bluray and DVD from February 18th 2020
Through the World’s Greatest Motion Picture Studios (1920). [Online]. Directed by Hunt Stromberg. USA: Thomas H. Ince [viewed on 11 January 2020]. Available on Bluray and DVD from February 18th 2020
Rosie Rowan Taylor 19th January 2020 Curatorial Specialist, BFI National Archive Film and Media Archivist, Researcher, and Historian