The Bootleg Files: The Hero

BOOTLEG FILES 823: “The Hero” (1917 short starring Billy West and Oliver Hardy).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A blatant (if effective) rip-off of Charlie Chaplin’s act.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is no great call for a Billy West revival.

When Charlie Chaplin’s popularity exploded into superstardom status during the mid-1910s, the demand of his films became greater than his ability to create original new works. To fill the void, a number of comic actors began to dress up in Chaplin’s distinctive Little Tramp costume and make-up and churn out short films of a Chaplinesque nature. Most of these imitators were not that special and their work has been lost to oblivion. But one copycat created a near-perfect facsimile of Chaplin’s act, to the point that his films were occasionally marketed as being genuine Chaplin films.

He was born Roy Weisberg in Russia in 1892, but by the time he appeared as a faux-Chaplin on screen in 1916 he was known as Billy West. In his films, West captured Chaplin’s physical mannerisms with uncanny precision, duplicating his shoulder shrugs, flatfooted walk and incredulous stares in a brilliant facsimile.

But unlike Chaplin, West was not his own director – and while many of his films lacked screenplay credit, one might assume that West’s responsibility for the content might have been shared with others. As film historian Will Sloan pointed out, the comparison with West and Chaplin was the difference between talent and genius – West’s talent in capturing Chaplin’s magic was considerable, but Chaplin’s genius in creating a long string of instant classic comedy shorts was without peer.

“The Hero” is typical of West’s output – he is very funny and it is easy to see how audiences back in his day could have mistaken his imitation for the genuine Chaplin work. But it lacks the sharpness and subtlety of Chaplin’s output, resulting in an amusing work that is a few notches below perfection.

West plays a waiter in a seedy restaurant and dance hall. He engages in some Chaplin-style mischief, such as cleaning his fingernails with the end of a celery stalk and pocketing handfuls of food when the head cook isn’t looking. One of his acts of culinary larceny is to pilfer and sandwich and hide it in his derby, which he places on his head – but he forgets about his stolen prize when he is outside and tips his hat to a pretty lady who bursts out laughing at the stranger with a sandwich on his head.

Billy wanders into a park where he spies an aristocrat wooing a matronly woman. He is comically delighted by the wealthy man’s melodramatic gestures and joins in the wooing of the lad. This infuriates the aristocrat, who presents his business card – he is identified as “Count Bon Ami” – as a prelude to a duel of honor. Billy responds by taking out a deck of playing cards, shuffling them and handing one to the count, who storms off in anger.

Elsewhere in the park, a young woman (Ethel Burton) is enjoying a day out with her beau (a young Oliver Hardy). When two thugs try to assault and rob them, Hardy runs off and Billy jumps in to vigorously dispose of the ruffians. The enchanted Burton takes her new hero home to meet her society doyenne mother – he presents the card for Count Bon Ami and is promptly invited to an evening’s gala at their home.

Billy returns to his job and saves the day when he subdues an oversized hoodlum who is terrorizing the establishment. He pockets a half-dozen eggs before heading off to the gala, where he becomes the life of the party. Burton takes him to a garden to know him better, but while seated on a bench Billy remembers the eggs in his pants pockets – which hatch due to the warmth of his being seated and result in the release of baby chicks down his pants.

After Billy enjoys too much spiked punch at the gala, he returns to his job – unaware that Hardy has followed him and discovers he is not a nobleman. Hardy returns to the gala and suggests to Burton and their friends that they should go “slumming” – and that gang arrives at Billy’s place of work. Mayhem ensues when Billy’s true identity is revealed and after a brief scuffle Hardy dumps an ice keg on Billy’s head.

Billy’s character in “The Hero” is devoid of the pathos and irony that Chaplin brought to his films. Instead, he comes across as a silly but aggressive creation who seems more comfortable with visceral slapstick (such as an egg-throwing fight in the restaurant) and unapologetic anti-social behavior (particularly his drunken behavior at the gala). And Burton’s bland presence lacks the warmth and effervescence that Chaplin was able to extract from Edna Purviance when she was his leading lady. Some of the blame for the crass edges of the work goes to director Arvid E. Gillstrom, although in fairness he was tasked with turning out films with speed rather than laboring with the artist’s touch that Chaplin brought to his work.

Despite its shortcomings, “The Hero” and the bulk of West’s mid-to-late-1910s films were popular. Even Chaplin – who didn’t hesitate to sue those who sought to improperly profit on his character and films – admired West’s work. The two met briefly in 1917 when Chaplin passed an on-location shoot for a West comedy and told the actor “You’re a damned good imitator.”

West eventually tired of imitating Chaplin and began creating a new series of films in the 1920s where he played a non-Chaplinesque character. By the coming of the sound era, West was mostly working behind the camera and only appeared on screen in bit parts. He left the film world in 1935 to run a successful restaurant. When he died in 1975, he had been out of the spotlight for so many years that his passing was barely noticed by the movie industry.

However, many of West’s comedies survive – which is no mean feat, given the survival rate of the silent era cinema. “The Hero” fell into the public domain years ago and has been duped over the decades – a decent print with a somewhat noisy musical soundtrack can be found on YouTube.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud (with new episodes starting in January) and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.