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The 'Pimple' Films

Hugely popular silent comic character created by Fred Evans

Main image of The 'Pimple' Films

Between 1912 and 1918, Fred Evans and his elder brother, Joe, produced several series of short comedies, the most popular being the long-running series featuring the character of Pimple, played by Fred himself. Both brothers wrote and directed, and Joe played other parts as required.

The brothers were descended from generations of music hall and circus performers - their uncle was the famous comedy sketch writer and silent music hall performer, Will Evans (his father before him, another Fred Evans, was a celebrated stager of harlequinades) - and their parents were part of several touring musical troupes. When young, Fred and Joe worked together and individually in music hall and for Sanger's Circus. Fred first appeared in films after meeting the filmmakers Cricks and Martin at his uncle's house in 1910. His first regular role was as Charley Smiler, a 'dude' character dressed in frock coat, waistcoat and spats.

After an argument over money, Joe and Fred left Cricks & Martin and went to work for Precision Films in Whipps Cross, where they produced more short knock-about comedies. But again, they soon left, this time to work with Will Kellino at the Ec-Ko studios in Teddington. With help from their uncle, Will Evans, and relatives in the music hall business, they set up their own concern and began producing as Folly Films, handled by Phoenix. The brothers were obliged to change Fred's dude character under threat of a lawsuit from Cricks & Martin, owners of the Charley Smiler films, and thus Pimple was born. The character did not have a consistent costume - although there was a tendency to tight jackets and baggy pants or a schoolboy blazer and cap - but for the first years Pimple did sport a kind of pared-down clown make-up, consisting principally of white pancake round the mouth and nose. The central hair parting further emphasised the overgrown schoolboy look.

The early films tended to be of the 'chase' genre. In Pimple and the Snake (1912), which came to light only recently, Pimple attempts to retrieve a snake that has escaped from the Zoo, only to chase instead a lady's black feather boa, causing havoc along the way. As time went on, these chase films became more sophisticated, and in Pimple Has One (1915) the physical gags have developed to a degree that would be recognisable to anyone familiar with the better-known early American comic film. The Evans brothers drew upon the same well-developed physical gags of the British music hall and sketch comedies from which great comics such as Chaplin, Lupino Lane or Stan Laurel had derived much of their training and material, but Fred Evans was not primarily a physical comedian and relied more on character, situation and absurdism.

In 1913 Joe Evans wrote the first of the Pimple parodies. Inspired by the British & Colonial film The Battle of Waterloo (released the same year), Joe wrote a skit on this lavish production, making the Evans' lack of production value part of the joke (they shot most of their early films in the back yard of their Eel Pie Island premises on the Thames). The use of comic intertitles has sometimes been criticised for interrupting the kinetic physicality of the great (and much later) comic films such as those of Buster Keaton or Chaplin, but any lack of elegance is more than compensated for by the humour in the titles, which was greatly enhanced by topicality and the audience's familiarity with the subject being spoofed. An article on Pimple in The Bioscope for 22 January 1914 praises Evans' fertility of invention and refers to his brand of humour as "often as nearly akin to wit as is possible in a medium which receives no assistance from the spoken word."

The parodies became a staple format of the Pimple films from this time on and Joe and Fred gleefully lampooned topical situations and every important film and play of the era (including Trilby, Humanity, Ivanhoe, the Lieutenant Rose serials and even Shakespeare). By the mid-1910s they were producing six titles a month (Fred claims in an interview in Pictures and the Picturegoer in 1915 that he had made over 200). Some of these parodies became quite elaborate. Pimple in the Whip (1917), based on a famous stage melodrama, used the play's narrative to set up other parodies of topical events and dramatic conventions, as well as ridiculing the lavishness of the production of the stage play - which used live horses - with very cheap sets and pantomime horses.

The Evans brothers were brought up with the traditions of the music hall, and the pantomime seems to have been a significant influence; certainly Fred had played Clown in pantomime harlequinades, which shared this topical burlesque function. It is possible also that Fred's clown make-up was inherited from a previous Pimple character at Sanger's circus and that, having won the privilege of his own make-up, he was reluctant to perform without it. Another tradition from the theatre that the brothers took with them into film was the production of Christmas specials, harlequinades, for the younger audience. Certainly the live performance element was present throughout their careers. Even when producing several films a week, Fred promoted the films by travelling round the country and doing presentations or live acts in mixed film/variety programmes. During WWI in particular, Fred constantly toured to promote and raise funds for servicemen at the front.

Film historians have, so far, largely neglected these traditions of topical burlesque and pantomime, but the misinterpretation of these early films is beginning to be overturned as we understand more of the cinema's interaction with contemporary forms of entertainment such as the music hall, early fairground attractions and the legitimate theatre. The study of comedy in a wider context is also revealing. In many ways the topical skits of Pimple have more in common with the Crazy Gang, Benny Hill, the Goons, Monty Python or topical sketch shows like French and Saunders (BBC, 1987-) and The Fast Show (BBC, 1994-2000) than with the classic Hollywood silent comedies, or indeed with the feature film, which had just began to become popular as Fred and Joe Evans reached the height of their careers.

Bryony Dixon

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of How Pimple Saved Kissing Cup (1913)How Pimple Saved Kissing Cup (1913)

Pimple saves a kidnapped racehorse

Thumbnail image of Lieut. Pimple and the Stolen Submarine (1914)Lieut. Pimple and the Stolen Submarine (1914)

A comic take on the spy boom

Thumbnail image of Lieutenant Pimple's Dash for the Pole (1914)Lieutenant Pimple's Dash for the Pole (1914)

Lt. Pimple visits the North Pole

Thumbnail image of Pimple Has One (1915)Pimple Has One (1915)

Pimple is drunk and disorderly

Thumbnail image of Pimple and the Snake (1912)Pimple and the Snake (1912)

Earliest surviving film outing for the mischevious Pimple

Thumbnail image of Pimple in 'The Whip' (1917)Pimple in 'The Whip' (1917)

Parody horseracing drama - featuring pantomime horses

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)

Daft spoof of Napoleon's ill-fated campaign

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Charge of the Light Brigade (1914)Pimple's Charge of the Light Brigade (1914)

Pimple recreates England's notorious military defeat

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Complaint (1913)Pimple's Complaint (1913)

Pimple falls victim to a pair of pranksters

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Motor Bike (1913)Pimple's Motor Bike (1913)

More chaos on two wheels

Thumbnail image of Pimple's New Job (1913)Pimple's New Job (1913)

Pimple causes chaos again as a bill-sticker

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Part (1916)Pimple's Part (1916)

Pimple takes up the acting profession

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Uncle (1915)Pimple's Uncle (1915)

Pimple comedy of family rivalries

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Wonderful Gramaphone (1913)Pimple's Wonderful Gramaphone (1913)

Pimple invents a novel moneymaking scheme

Thumbnail image of W.H.O.R.K. a la Pimple (1914)W.H.O.R.K. a la Pimple (1914)

Pimple foolishly attempts to teach a fat friend to ride a bicycle

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Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Evans, Fred (1889-1951)Evans, Fred (1889-1951)

Actor, Director

Thumbnail image of Evans, Joe (1891-1967)Evans, Joe (1891-1967)

Director, Actor, Writer