Obituary: Charles Lamont

Charles Frederick Lamont, film director; born San Francisco 5 May 1898; died Woodland Hills, California 11 September 1993.

CHARLES LAMONT enjoyed a 33-year film career, during which he was never out of work, directing hundreds of features and short subjects. He died at the age of 95.

Both his parents were actors, and he followed them on to the boards while still in his teens. In 1919 he began acting in silent films, but switched to directing in 1923. For 15 years he directed comedy shorts, most of them for Educational Films Corporation, a 'Poverty Row' company.

One morning late in 1931, Lamont and Jack Hays, a fellow director from Educational, visited Meglin's Dance Studio in Santa Monica, looking for children for Baby Burlesks, a new series of one-reel take-offs on well-known movies. Among the 200 children present was the three-year-old Shirley Jane Temple. As Lamont peered at her, Shirley Jane decided she didn't like his 'moon-shaped, jowly, moist-looking' face, and crawled under the piano to get away from him. 'We want that one,' Lamont said to Hays, and Temple was signed to a two-year contract. Lamont directed her in such Baby Burlesks as War Babies (1932), in which she flirted with doughboys as a French bar girl in an off-the-shoulder blouse and a large safety-pinned nappy and The Pie-Covered Wagon (1932), in which she was tied to a stake by tiny Indians. More than half a century later, Shirley Temple still recalled the terrors of Lamont's Black Box, into which she was placed several times for disobedience. 'It really was a devilish punishment,' she wrote in her memoirs. 'Remove child directly to the chill of the black box. Close access door tightly and leave child in box until sufficiently cooled and chastened.'

Lamont also directed shorts starring two great comedians whose careers had foundered after the coming of sound, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton. These were strictly low-budget affairs, as were the first features he directed. Lamont ground out more than 20 long-forgotten quickies for various shoestring companies before landing a contract with Universal, his home for the next 17 years. From 1939 to 1956 he turned out a staggering number of B-pictures: vehicles for the Dead End Kids, the Little Tough Guys, Baby Sandy, Gloria Jean, Joan Davis, Donald O'Connor, Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule. He was given an A-picture budget to make Salome, Where She Danced (1945), a Technicolor farrago that managed to cram in a sabre duel, a stagecoach raid, an attack on a Chinese junk, General Robert E. Lee, Bismarck, and Yvonne De Carlo, who emerged Venus-like from a shell to the strains of 'The Blue Danube'.

Dubbed 'the funniest deadpan parody I have ever seen' by James Agee, Salome made De Carlo a star, and Lamont directed her again in Frontier Gal (1945) and Slave Girl (1947). In the latter, she played a dancer who first robs, then falls in love with, a dashing young American, played by the paunchy, ageing George Brent. Universal considered shelving the film; preview audiences had hooted at the bad dialogue and worse acting. Lamont, however, shot new material, including a sardonic camel who narrated the story and knocked its absurdities. Released as a satire, Slave Girl turned a profit.

Lamont directed Abbott and Costello in nine movies. Lou Costello could be intractable, but Bob Thomas, in his book Bud and Lou, related a revealing on-set incident.

Charles Lamont directed a scene in which Lou bumped into an ambulance door. Next Lou bumped into the door of the hospital. Lamont halted the scene and asked, 'What did you do that for?' 'I think it's funny,' Lou replied.

'Once it's funny, twice it isn't,' Lamont said.

'I think it's funny, and I'm gonna do it.'

'Go ahead and knock your brains out. Don't forget: I'm the one who cuts the picture.'

Only one bump remained in the film.

(Photograph omitted)