You'd Be Surprised, Arthur Rosson
Raymond Griffith in 'You'd Be Surprised' (1926)

Silent Film’s Raymond Griffith Pulled Tricksters Out of Top Hats

In Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian, the two clever silent films Paths to Paradise and You’d Be Surprised, make a working-class hero out of a toff in a top hat.

Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian
Clarence Badger and Arthur Rosson
13 June 2023

Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian, a new Blu-ray and DVD from Undercrank Productions, showcases a double helping of a largely forgotten silent films comedian. The two clever films in this set, Paths to Paradise and You’d Be Surprised, are funny and reveal examples of making a working-class hero out of an elegant upper-class toff in a top hat.

Paths to Paradise (1925)
Director: Clarence Badger

Paths to Paradise concerns machinations and romance between swanky jewel thieves, so it foreshadows more famous items like Ernst Lubitsch‘s similarly titled classic of 1932, Trouble in Paradise. The crime comedy opens in what seems a typical low joint with card players and Apache dancers. A cab driver leads a well-dressed man and two women into the shady honky-tonk and declares it “the toughest dive in the city”. The slumming tourists look around, scandalized and thrilled. The driver points out a young woman he claims is making counterfeit money. The young lady in question (Betty Compson, delightful throughout) gives them a suspicious glare.

Having been relieved of a wad of bills, the rubes beat a hasty retreat, done with adventure for the night. The alleged counterfeiter opens her “printing press” and takes out a stack of waffles, and the crowd proceeds to feast. Then another cabbie comes in and announces that his fare wants a Chinese opium den. Quick as a flash, everyone modifies the trappings, puts on Chinese silk jackets, lies down with pipes, and puts on a charade in pidgin dialect out of some comic strip.

At this point in the 1920s, the Chinese “hop joint” trope was such a tired stereotype that it became an object of parody, so this scene has layers beneath the discomfiting and tasteless charade. Paths to Paradise is self-aware the the “Chinese” environment is presented as a racist construction by non-Chinese people to entertain and exploit other non-Chinese tourists. And where did those tourists get their notions? From previous movies and pop culture products peddling the same rigmarole.

Paths to Paradise presents such tropes as absurd masquerades having nothing to do with real Chinese and instead about exploitation and flim-flam. To push it further, such tropes have to do with movies and popular entertainment for the gullible. The characters masquerade to cheat and steal, and masquerading is also the business of actors who push clichéd melodrama, so the proceedings imply a connection.

Nobody stands there and articulates all this, of course. That’s for critics with time on their hands. Still, it’s notable that at least one film is already implying a critique of these racist tropes as bogus. When George Roy Hill’s campy 1967 hit Thoroughly Modern Millie thought it was cleverly lampooning the same thing, maybe the makers didn’t realize they were 40 years behind the cutting edge.

Because the audience for dapper crook comedies is “in on it”, we enjoy the masquerade and hope our nefarious heroes can get away with their subterfuge. In other words, we don’t identify with the marks and saps who get fleeced but with the clever fleecers. This type of role-playing, especially when conducted in the upper classes (by “gentleman thieves”) or as class warfare (by an underclass targeting the “swells”), with the audience savoring the twists, is part of the appeal of stories about thieves and heists.

The reversals in Paths to Paradise begin when we’re first let in on the all-purpose game of this tourist trap, which is nothing but a series of frauds to trick fools out of their money. The next reversal involves the introduction of the supposed dupe, ripe for the picking, who wants an opium den.

We’ll never learn his name, and one of his characteristics is always introducing himself with a different name. He’s played by Griffith in his patented persona: a short man wearing a top hat and tails and sporting a mustache, looking slick and sophisticated. At first, he seems intoxicated and wide-eyed until he turns the tables by revealing his police badge.

While lecturing the pretty young woman, whose name we also never learn, her associates bribe his accomplice with their ill-gotten cash. Our man agrees to give them a break this time and takes his leave. At this point, she realizes they’ve been bested by another con artist who’s plucked them good. “We’ve been triple-crossed!” she exclaims.

Now that we’ve been duly warned to keep on our toes, the next act of Paths to Paradise introduces a rich old fool (Bert Woodruff) who waves around a fabulous necklace as his daughter’s wedding gift. Our heroine gets a job as a maid, tearfully assuring Police Detective Callahan (Thomas Santschi) that she’s going straight. Also arriving under false pretenses is our man, again giving out many names while claiming to be an ace detective.

When she’d suggested they team up on a job, he told her he doesn’t work with women because they always get you into trouble. After he realizes she could be helpful, she slings the line back to him about working with men. This flirtatious by-play establishes the equality and viability of both sexes working for a living at the same vocation, and their relationship will be a dance of mistrust, collaboration, and dependence. The thrill of thievery and danger provides its own aphrodisiac.

The heist offers clever use of lighting and implied sounds, and then comes a wild chase with the camera adopting the view of speeding vehicles. Unfortunately, the seventh and last reel for Paths to Paradise is gone, so new title cards describe what we’re missing, which is ever wilder-chase stunts. The woman turns out to be the voice of conscience, and the man gives in to love.

We can argue that they’ve been missing love, with loot as a substitute for their emotional void, and therefore the discovery of love replaces the need for other precious things. We can argue that because it’s exactly what happens in so many later “gentleman thief” and heist capers in which people give up their shady life for love. For comparison, check another item from 40 years later, Ronald Neame’s 1966 comedy thriller, Gambit.

Aside from the vanished reel, Paths to Paradise presents a gorgeous print from the Library of Congress. Keene Thompson, a big deal at Paramount, wrote the script based on Paul Armstrong’s 1914 play The Heart of a Thief. Director Clarence Badger knows that he need only tell the story clearly and highlight his two stars, who play off each other well with plenty of clever business.

Badger’s most famous film is 1927 the Clara Bow vehicle, It. Wikipedia informs us that he retired from cinema when he went to make a western in Australia and decided to stay there. He made only one more film, written by himself, a musical about an American director who decides to film a musical in Australia. It’s called That Certain Something (1941) and sounds fascinating.

You’d Be Surprised (1926)
Director: Arthur Rosson

A comic whodunit confined to one houseboat, You’d Be Surprised casts Griffith as the coroner, a working professional dressed to the nines – in that top hat and tails, again – because he’s on his way to the opera.

He’s annoyed at being distracted by a murder and tries to wrap it up in questionable or unprofessional ways. For example, things look bad for one stunning guest played by Dorothy Sebastian, most famous for Buster Keaton’s 1929 comedy, Spite Marriage. Her hurt and sultry looks instantly convince the coroner that she must be innocent and should come to the opera with him.

The opening credits list Sebastian’s character as Dorothy, while the other characters are named after colors, not unlike the game of Clue. Our coroner is Mr. Green, the victim is Mr. White (Edward Martindel), a suspect is Mr. Black (Earle Williams), the top cop is Brown (Thomas McGuire) and the valet is Grey (Granville Redmond). They are not a very colorful bunch, but there are plenty of swanky suspects in tuxes and evening gowns. More colorful is the random coroner’s jury pulled in from the streets; one member is clearly a prostitute.

You’d Be Surprised is a spoof of the currently popular whodunits set at house parties or in old dark houses where the lights suddenly go out, and when they come on, someone lies on the floor with a knife in the back. The fact that nothing can be taken seriously is signaled by the opening sequence of a black cat (on Friday the 13th) who wanders among the guests, so we first glimpse only their feet and legs. Years later, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 thriller Strangers on a Train would also introduce his main characters by their feet.

The final scene in You’d Be Surprised cameos Richard Arlen, only one year away from starring in William Wellman‘s 1927 award-winning war drama, Wings. I’m going out on a limb here, but one of the photographers who dashes in with him sure resembles genius cinematographer James Wong Howe, who was at Paramount. I can’t prove my sighting and must leave it to experts.

You’d Be Surprised boasts three important writers. The title cards are by Robert Benchley and Ralph Spence. Benchley is a famous wit and comedian associated with the Algonquin Round Table, and he’s probably responsible for cards like “Two thousand years ago Aesop said: Everybody enjoys a good murder – except the victim.” Spence’s big success was another Old Dark House spoof, the 1925 Broadway hit The Gorilla, which got filmed several times.

The script of You’d Be Surprised is credited to Jules Furthman, who wrote so many classics that film critic Pauline Kael quipped he was responsible for about half of Hollywood’s most entertaining movies. Film historian David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film claims that “going from [Marlene] Dietrich to Angie Dickinson, by way of Frances Farmer and Lauren Bacall, Furthman created the paper outline of the most challenging woman in American pictures.”

Thomson means that Furthman wrote eight films for Josef von Sternberg and eight for Howard Hawks. Sternberg’s titles include the 1927 landmark gangster film Underworld, in which Evelyn Brent plays a woman called Feathers; the monumental 1928 The Docks of New York, starring Compson of Paths to Paradise; and the crucial Dietrich vehicles Morocco, from 1930 and Shanghai Express, from 1932. The Hawks films include Come and Get It (1936) with Farmer; the defining Bacall roles of To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946); and Rio Bravo (1959), starring Dickinson as a woman called Feathers.

That’s why it’s necessary to exhume forgotten silents. You’d Be Surprised conceives of Sebastian’s character as a similarly self-enclosed siren. Already the archetype sprang from Furthman’s brain like the armoured Athena from the head of Zeus. We wish we could talk to him about that. He also directed three films of 1920-21, all seemingly lost.

The director of You’d Be Surprised is Arthur Rosson, who helmed dozens of silents and spent the last phase of his career as Cecil B. DeMille’s 2nd unit director. While he does nothing remarkable here, he’s aided by the glossy Paramount machine, and the film looks good. Griffith’s projection of bewilderment and sang-froid charms us throughout.

Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian is a Blu-ray and DVD funded by Kickstarter for Undercrank Productions. From nitrate prints at the Library of Congress, these 2K scans use digital restoration and Ben Model’s new organ scores. A brief extra profiles Griffith’s career, the reasons he’s mostly unknown (many of his films are lost), why he couldn’t make talkies (his damaged voice), and his successful career as a producer until 1940. We hope this release will raise awareness of this overlooked talent.