In April 2022, I accompanied a screening of The Patsy (1928) starring Marion Davies. I hadn’t seen or played for the film in about a decade, and didn’t preview the film ahead of time. I had an unusual experience during the show, recognizing one of the actors in the film. Not so much from his face, as from some physical business he did.
One of the two male leads in The Patsy is played by Lawrence Gray. It’s a name I’m not super-familiar with and hadn’t seen much of, and yet there was something familiar. Maybe because he slightly resembles a young Dennis Quaid, or his role in the film was similar to that of William Haines’ part in Show People (1928).
But that wasn’t it.
When Gray’s character first turns up in the film, he’s pretending to be a waiter at the swanky country club that Marion Davies and her parents and sister are dining at. He goes over to their table, and does a little comedy business with a plate he’s carrying, flipping it over and over:
He then does another piece of business with the plate, perching it on his arm, then dropping it and narrowly catching it:
That’s what I recognized. The business with the plate.
My first reaction was recognizing the business with the plate. Prior to the pandemic, I’d been attending the NYC Physical Comedy Lab, a bi-weekly gathering of circus and variety arts performers and clowns run by John Towsen. It was a great skill-sharing and learning experience for me. One of the things we learned was something called “platter manipulation” – basically the exact business I watched Lawrence Gray pull off in this scene in The Patsy. I’ve learned how to do this same business.
When I looked up Lawrence Gray’s name on IMDb, and scrolled through his filmography, I realized why Gray’s face looked familiar.
Gray plays the object of Gloria Swanson’s affections in Stage Struck (1925), which I’d accompanied in February at the Kansas Silent Film Festival. There is a moment during a scene in the luncheonette they both work at where he shows off for Gloria and for a bevy of young women watching through the window. Gray performs the very same manipulation business, flipping the plate over and over, then doing the “chicken-wing” drop and catch:
I’m a little too rusty on this to make a video of myself doing it, but maybe in the coming months I can work something up and add it to this post.
I talked about this incident on episode 74 of The Silent Film Music Podcast with Ben Model, which you can find on your favorite podcasting platform, or you can listen to the show on my website here.