You may have a hard time running into someone who knows about silent (and also sound!) comedian Lloyd Hamilton on the street, but you may not have to struggle as much to find someone who knows about a performer whom Hamilton inspired. This is only one of the things which author Anthony Balducci is able to confirm in his book LLOYD HAMILTON: POOR SOUL COMEDIAN. During a period of research which lasted for about thirty years, Balducci not only managed to get hold on rare newspaper and magazine articles covering the comedian as well as studio records, but also interviewed several people who knew Lloyd personally, including family members. What ultimately came out of this process is a study of the comedian's life and work which nobody, I dare say, ever could have imagined likely to be written.
Lloyd Hamilton first reached stardom when he teamed up with Bud Duncan in a series of one-reelers produced by Kalem from 1915 on and a couple of years forward. (Lloyd was in his twenties at the time, but looked considerably older due to heavy makeup and a walrus-moustasche.) While Balducci admits that far from all of these early films have aged flatteringly, and that Lloyd, in fact, later on came to publicly dismiss the often rough and unsophisticated humor which they provided, the author is able to analyze them fairly, taking their historical context in consideration. One of the many things that surprised me was to learn that Lloyd, in fact, even during the Ham and Bud-years was considered quite a celebrity; while not as respected as Chaplin at this point, he was a popular subject for interviews early on. Several of his statements quoted in this book should be of interest to any aspiring comedian, as Lloyd talks about his wish to make more sophisticated, human comedy. The comedian did a step forward in this regard when he joined Sunshine Comedies, where he was under the direction of old-timer Henry Lehrman, and permitted to appear more on his own. However, the major change occurred when Hamilton made his entrance in his first comedies at Mermaid, where he cooperated with some excellent directors such as Charley Chase, and developed his own, distinct comic personality. Now without makeup and heavy moustasches, Lloyd developed a character who was his alone, without any obvious "borrowings" from other performers. While his character shared Chaplin's "outsider"-appeal to a degree, his soul was much less graceful and alert, making him into a somewhat tragic type. But boy, did he make it funny.
It has often been remarked that Hamilton's own life somewhat reflected the frustrations and unhappiness which his screen character frequently experienced. This is understandable from one point of view; the last chapters in the book make for sad reading, as Hamilton underwent two bitter divorces and was becoming a heavy drinker, resulting in him losing his house and, for a time, his job. However, this is far from a "misery biography;" the author pays equal attention to Lloyd's earlier, happier years, when the comedian was being praised as "the next Chaplin." Furthermore, he is able to dismiss several myths that have come to affect the general view on Hamilton in retrospect; for instance, contrary to what everyone (myself included) believed previously, it was not Hamilton's indirect involvement in a fight where a boxer was murdered that had him banned from film for a year, but a combination of his divorce-battles and alcoholism. Balducci also argues that while Hamilton has been accused of often having turned to violence when drunk, several of the accusations made against him should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps most interesting of all is Balducci's coverage of Hamilton's two feature films; while none of these films are known to exist in their entirety today, the author makes a convincing analysis as to why the comedian failed to gain success outside of the short comedy field.
With his book POOR SOUL COMEDIAN, Anthony Balducci has done a great favor both to fans of silent comedy as well as Lloyd Hamilton himself. Now, if someone would please release more of his films on DVD...