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Notes for an essay on the film career of Monty Banks

Author: David Levy, 1985

Monty Banks Born Mario Bianchi in Cesena, Italy, in 1897, Monty Banks was a popular slapstick movie star of the 1920s. Now, some decades later, his reputation has receded from institutional memory and indeed almost slipped beyond buffdom into oblivion. Of the many shorts and features in which Banks appeared between 1917-1928 - by one estimate between 100 two-reelers, fifty one-reelers and ten features - few have survived. The practice of one studio stealing a film title previously used by another, combined with the absence of any consistent approach to copyright by the smaller companies Banks was associated with makes it difficult if not impossible to identify precisely which of his films have survived and which have not.

Little Companies, Big Money

Out of the ashes of the Edison Trust, legally dead in 1918, there arose a hardier specter of monopoly. In the decade dating roughly from 1913, conditions and demand gleefully beckoned to numerous small-time movie enterprises. Most disappeared, some merged with others, a few were directly absorbed by larger, expanding entities, and even fewer endured the transition to talkies. Among the lesser concerns Banks was associated with were: the Century Film Corporation, which was started in 1917 and functioned within the Universal conglomerate until the mid-twenties; the Christie Film Company, organized in 1919 and lasting into the 1940s; the Bulls Eye Film Corporation, formed in 1918 to produce Billy West comedies and absorbed in a merger that became Reelcraft Pictures Corporation two years later; and possibly the Comique Film Corporation set up by Paramount in 1917 to turn out Arbuckle-Keaton comedies. Comique faded with the Arbuckle-Rappe affair of 1921. Warner Brothers, on the other hand, grew and grew. Established by the Warner brothers as a distribution outfit in 1912, their move into film production came in 1918. For a time, the company relied on Monty Banks' two-reel comedies between the release of occasional features. The Warners acquired Vitagraph in 1925, then First National, and were one of the studios that led the industry into talking picture production. Then too, the period marked the serious involvement of American banking and investment houses in the motion picture business. They financed the aggressive competition for the acquisition of blocks of theatres initiated by Adolph Zuckor in 1919. By the mid-twenties, the industry was effectively controlled by a small number of large corporations that owned the theaters. The stage was set for the switch to sound, the era of the small production company had more or less passed into history.

From Bianchi to Banks

How Monty Banks entered the film world remains unclear. In one account, he first joined Mack Sennett's Keystone studio in 1915, and as his reputation grew he left Sennett in 1917 to work with Fatty Arbuckle. Thus we learn that it was Arbuckle who encouraged the name change prior to the shooting of CAMPING OUT(1917) advising that: "You can't play another 'montebank' with a difficult name like Bianchi!". If, as it is commonly believed, young Mario Bianchi arrived in the USA in 1914 to seek a cabaret job as a dancer, could he have succeeded in obtaining employment with Sennett a mere year later? In 1927, Banks told a trade press writer that in 1917 he was working as a dancer in the Dominguez Café in New York City.

Possibly Banks was not remembering things all that well. On the other hand, the record - and it is a very incomplete one - does not show any Bianchi film credit before 1917. An early Banks-as-Bianchi

two-reel comedy, titled BRIDE AND GLOOM, was released by the Christie brothers in February, 1917. Apparently, a stint with Keystone followed. And then with late as his 1918 appearance in THE GEEZER OF BERLIN, a two-reeler produced by Century for distribution by Jewel, a Universal affiliate, Banks was still using the name Bianchi. All of which renders the Arbuckle connection a little problematic, but only that.

Banks' career after he left America for England in 1928 is easier to describe. By 1930, he had mostly given up acting to become a director and producer for British International and Warner Brothers in England. Following the 1932 divorce from his first wife, actress Gladys Frazin - who committed suicide in 1939 - and a marriage to the British film star Gracie Fields, whose manager he became, Banks returned to the USA in 1940 to direct Laurel and Hardy in GREAT GUNS. Banks' last film appearance was in A BELL FOR ADANO(1945). At the time of his fatal heart attack on a train near Milan, Italy in 1950, Banks was an executive with Twentieth-Century Fox.

A Dancer's Six Steps To England

Monty Banks silent screen career in America was, it seems, mostly guided by an ambition modeled on the success of Chaplin and Lloyd, who went on to produce and control their own work. They were established in the business when Banks entered it, perhaps in 1917, the year Keaton, who never sought a controlling interest in his work, joined Arbuckle at Comique. As the decade progressed, Banks' growing absorption with the business end of film production, linked to his persistent quest for a big distributor for his independent productions, apparently overwhelmed his artistic development as a performer which evolved little beyond the Sennett style.

Following his early roles at Christie, Keystone-Triangle, and Century, Banks worked for the Bulls Eye Film Corporation. We can identify one of his Bulls Eye releases, a 1919 comedy titled DON'T PARK HERE, and a likely Reelcraft subject, SQUIRREL TIME(1920).

In the Spring of 1921, the press carried stories of a series of two-reelers starring Monty Banks that Warner Brothers planned to produce in their new Hollywood studio at Sunset and Bronson. The previous year Warners had produced a Banks comedy called THE FLIVVER WEDDING. By the fall of 1921 four films in the Warner series had been completed, and with FRESH AIR playing the Strand in New York City, there was talk of a renewed contract. The Federated Film Exchange of America, Inc., the small distributing company the Warners used for the low-budget Banks comedies, proclaimed their satisfaction with the arrangement.

Banks took a different view. Unhappy with the deal, less than a year later he arrived in New York with Norman Toroque, a former director of Larry Semon comedies, and announced the formation of Monty Banks Enterprises. In September,1922 came the news that Federated would release a 'new' Monty Banks series. Banks was now claiming that he had developed "a new kind of comedy...neither slapstick or strictly situational" that would avoid "all the beaten paths of so-called 'gag men'." Perhaps he was simply attempting to distance the products of his new enterprises from the fallout of the Arbuckle-Rappe scandal.

For a series variously directed by Herman Raymaker, Alf Goulding and Harry Edwards the following year, the Banks company switched distributors, abandoning Federated for the Grand Asher Independent Production Company. Grand Asher does not appear to have added up to much more than a very brief partnership between Banks, one Harry Asher and S.V.Grand, in whose small Los Angeles studio the series was probably shot. A small-time states rights distributor a decade after the beginning of the end of the states rights exchanges in 1913, Grand Asher was dissolved in 1924.

The meaning of the Grand Asher scheme appears to have been that Banks still did not have the major distributor he craved. Moreover, he probably realized that such a goal would continue to elude him as long as he stuck to the two-reel comedy format.

In November, 1924, Banks joined with Howard Estabrook, a one-time actor, director and scenario writer to form the Monty Banks Pictures Corporation. Its purpose was to produce features starring Monty Banks for release by Associated Exhibitors, a Pathé affiliate with Harold Lloyd as one of its top stars.

Over the next three years, until Banks left for England in late 1928, his company produced a series of comedy features including RACING LUCK(1924), KEEP SMILING(1925), CHARMING DECEIVER(1926), ATTA BOY(1926), A PERFECT GENTLEMAN(1927), MORE SHOES(1927), PLAY SAFE(1927), MIDNIGHT MADNESS(1928), and FLYING LUCK(1928).

PLAY SAFE was and will always be a classic of the slapstick genre.

In the summer of 1927, Banks decided to fire his manager, Arthur McArthur: the matter wound up before the courts with McArthur suing for damages. The following year Monty was arrested on a warrant charging him with driving his car without a license sworn out by a private citizen claiming kinship with McArthur, a certain H.Lloyd. A short time later, Banks left for New York with a print of FLYING LUCK, the last feature called for by his Pathé contract; a meeting was scheduled to negotiate a new contract.

Custard Pie Features Padded With Extra Falls

It would be reasonable to conclude that Monty Banks tried and failed to parlay Sennett-Keystone comedy into big feature success. A Variety review of KEEP SMILING complained about Banks' lack of screen personality, but even more so about the inadequacy of the two-reel comedy stretched into a six-reel feature. "Banks," it stated "pulled all the regulation falls and flops and what not that goes with the slapstick films." The publication's appraisals of ATTA BOY, HORSE SHOES, PLAY SAFE and FLYING LUCK simply re-iterated those themes; that Monty was at his best in performing acrobatic stunts, but poor at developing moments of quiet humor and the characterizations found in the features of Lloyd and Chaplin he was endeavoring to emulate. FLYING LUCK was described as "a two-reeler padded with extra falls."

Maurice Bessy and Jean-Louis Chardans in an essay described Banks as a "dancer acrobat" rather than an actor. Which was probably more than enough for a film like the Keystone-Triangle DIMPLES AND DANGERS(1917), that simply called for Banks to execute a number of falls and manage some routine gags. Not a precision performer of delicate screen business, Banks tended to shine in swiftly-paced plot action demanding the use of the whole body, such as the water sequence on top of the moving freight cars in PLAY SAFE. Not surprisingly, his career was dotted with physical injury. In 1922, production on his "new kind of comedy" had to be interrupted while he recovered from a bone fracture.

Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns provided this thumbnail summary:

"It is almost impossible now to describe a once-popular comedian like Monte Banks by speaking of his mannerisms; he doesn't seem to have any. He is short, on the plump side, possessed of a miniature mustache that would seem suave on a head waiter but it is somehow a badge of apprehension on him. He is likeable. But, after a long and rigorous training at Warner Brothers and elsewhere, when he came to make features independently he took refuge in "thrill" comedies that owed a great deal to Harold Lloyd. Let it be said that he made these legitimately: in Play Safe he lowers himself by a rope from the roof of a runaway train toward the open door of a boxcar, letting the girl climb first on him and then up the rope while he sways precariously over embankments, bridges, and mountainside drops that are unmistakably authentic. The stunting is impeccable, worth keeping in film anthologies; but we cannot quite remember the man."

The screen personality Banks did project was largely a reflection of the changing character on the film comedy business in he 1920s. With the two-reeler in decline, the cartoon short would provide audiences with a more abstract and punishing brand of physical humor. The shift in exhibition practice from the twice-weekly bill change that included a feature, a comedy short and a newsreel, to the double-featured system was evident in the last months of 1928. Variety had begun advising its readers whether a picture contained audible dialog and how much; in April 1929 SHOW BOAT was given a 50% Dialog rating. It was a trend that Pathé soon joined with their All Dialog features. For Monty Banks, whose small form thrived on large body effects, it probably seemed like the right time to move on.

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