Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sam's Our Man

by Geoff Collins

Drat!!! Readers may recall that a while ago I had the audacity to take a gentle peck at Leonard Maltin, no less, for his error in attributing Sam Marx's appearance as an "extra" to A Night At the Opera. Check your facts, I said. The Father of the Marxes died in 1933 and, besides, it's widely known (i.e. in The GrouchoPhile, page 93) that Sam's in Monkey Business, in a great shot with his four sons. What a disgrace, I said. How could a distinguished author and researcher get this so wrong?

Now I find I've been and gorn and done it (as we say over'ere) myself. I am Guilty of Insufficient Research, not to mention that other crime so widespread amongst movie buffs: Wishful Thinking. In an article I wrote last May about the surreal little Victorian genius Dan Leno, I'd expressed quite justifiable regret that he was so poorly represented on film; he'd made a few but all that survives is a never-seen flip-book. Yet the star of James Williamson's tiny 1901 trick-comedy The Big Swallow is exceedingly Dan-like: small, alert, bright-eyed, sharp-faced and funny, every inch a comedian. And as he's "objecting to having his photograph taken" - unlike Chaplin in Kid Auto Races - he's looking at the camera the whole time. From a hundred and six years ago, he's staring straight at us. I really wanted this man to be Dan Leno. Can you blame me?

The bad news is, inevitably, this: it's not Dan Leno. The good news, however is that it's Sam Dalton. Who???

Sam Dalton was a music-hall comedian in Edwardian England who somehow found himself at the Williamson studios in Hove, appearing in The Big Swallow and a couple of other short subjects. Maybe Williamson saw his act at a local hall and recognized an appropriate funnyman for his film experiments; who knows? Sam is relentlessly obscure in the otherwise well-documented world of British Music Hall and I haven't been able to discover a single detail about him, despite long dreary trawls on Google (Have any of you suffered with long dreary trawls?) but he was very definitely The Real Thing. The Big Swallow is one of the earliest examples (Little Tich et Ses Big Boots is another) where a strong comic personality pops off the screen. All those early Pathes and Keystones wherein talentless crazies run around and wave their arms about: they do very little for me. In Classic Comedy, Personality is everything.

So: no excuses. I got it wrong. But I didn't get it wrong about Dan Leno; he's still, and always will be, a Third Banana. And so, at long last, is Sam Dalton. We'd love to know more about him.

Information Please!

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Anonymous East Side said...

That movie clip is vaguely creepy.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

"Vaguely" he says!

3:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I brought this up before but I have a memory of reading of a Leno film of him pouring a pitcher of water or some such thing. Did I dream it?

9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sam Dalton was my great-grand father born William John Dalton. He was variously billed as "Sam the original" "Eccentric vocalist and author" and "Eccentric comedian". My grandmother, Sam's daughter who also appeared with him sometimes billed a Gallie Dalton- Quick Change Dancer - used to sing two songs she said were his: The Music Stool and Little Billy Williams. We know that Sam went on a tour to South Africa in 1894 and the family story is that he emigrated to Canada but when and if that's true we don't know. He also appeared in two other of James Williamson's short films: The Magic Extinguisher and Are You There? both made in 1901. If anyone out there does have any information on Sam I would be pleased to hear from them.

4:31 AM  
Blogger JDF said...

I would be very interested to contact the Anonymous who is Sam Dalton's great-grandson. I am compiling a book about film-making in Brighton & Hove as a spin-off from my website (brightonfilm.com), which includes a short biography of Sam. My contact details, also on the website, are David at brightonfilm.com.

11:12 AM  

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