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COCL & SEFF – BEFORE LAUREL & HARDY

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Away from the glorious United States, there is another comedian duo that – inspired by what was going on overseas – began to make a name for itself in the film world just a few years after it became popular in Austria. And if, in its time, this duo enjoyed overall success with audiences and critics, nowadays few seem to remember the name Cocl & Seff.

Two is better than one

Many of us have loved comedians like Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. Their valuable contributions to the world of the seventh art began, in fact, back in the silent era. Yet, far from the glorious United States, there is another comedian duo that began to make a name for itself in the film world just a few years after it became popular in Austria. And if, in its time, this duo enjoyed overall success with audiences and critics, nowadays few seem to remember the name Cocl & Seff. But who, in fact, were these Cocl & Seff?

Soon said. The successful duo was formed by Rudolf Walter (as Cocl) and Josef Holub (Seff). And just like the better-known Laurel & Hardy – who were to begin their careers several years later – the two comedians formed a duo, within which, physically speaking, one was the opposite of the other, with Cocl presenting himself as a rather corpulent man and Seff, on the other hand, as a decidedly thin and lanky man, unmistakable with his bottle-bottomed glasses that led to his nickname ‘the Austrian Harold Lloyd’.

Their prolific career thus began thanks to the idea of Rudolf Walter. Born on 16 April 1885 in Leitmeritz, he first began to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, also taking part in numerous exhibitions. His career as a comedian began, however, almost by chance, when he performed as a cabaret artist at a carnival party. Given the success of his performance, Rudolf started to apply to perform again in some of the city’s clubs, even starting his own show, Cocl’s Variety. It was not until 1912, however, after moving to Vienna with his wife, that the artist started shooting the first two Cocl short films, Cocl als Säugling and Onkel Cocl am Gänsehäufel. These were immediately successful, to the point that Walter continued his short film production at his studio in Reichenberg, where he used to call upon not only professional actors, but also those who usually had other jobs in life, to act. Among them was, specifically, Josef Holub, who was employed at the Chamber of Commerce at the time. Thus, the comic duo Cocl & Seff was born, one practically the opposite of the other, united only by a certain clumsiness, typical of the protagonists of the successful slapstick comedies.

The duo’s first short film was Der Bauernschreck from 1913, in which Viennese cameraman Josef Zeitlinger also took part in the production – also beginning a long collaboration with the two. After the Sascha-Film became interested in producing their work, they also decided to found their own production company, the Reichenberger Filmwerkstätte. Everything seemed to be going well until the beginning of the First World War in 1914, which changed everyone’s plans.

While Josef Holub returned to his old occupations, Rudolf Walter enlisted voluntarily, working as a cameraman and war reporter first in Italy, then in eastern Galicia.

Yet the war was not enough to interrupt Cocl & Seff’s successful career. And immediately after the end of the war, the two continued to shoot a numerous films, also thanks to the birth of a new production company (after other domestic majors did not seem enthusiastic about continuing to produce their films): the Cocl’s Film Compagnie GmbH. It was during these years that their most successful works were filmed, among them Cocl geht zum Rendezvous (1919), Cocl und Seff als Villenbesitzer (1920) and Seff kostet 24,50 Dollar (1920), although both of them also took part in other work in Vienna, including documentaries, educational films and propaganda comedies.

Their partnership, despite the large number of films made, lasted, however, only until 1923, when, following an economic crisis that also affected Austrian cinema, the duo struggled to find financing for their films. And so, with just a few years of activity, the Cocl & Seff duo disbanded.

In the following years, Rudolf Walter retired permanently from the film scene and worked as a car dealer until 1925. He then moved to Florence, where he continued to work as a painter and where he remained until his death in 1950. As for Josef Holub, however, he did not definitively retire from the film world. On the contrary, he sporadically took part in minor national productions and advertisements, in which, however, he mostly only played secondary roles. With the outbreak of World War II, Holub also enlisted and was sent to Saxony, where he was promoted to captain in 1943 and, after the end of the war, retired to private life in Vienna, where he died in 1965.

Despite their prolific career, few people still remember the Cocl & Seff duo. It is interesting to observe how, in their comedy sketches, the two were inspired by American artists and, specifically, by the cinema of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Even though no one (or almost no one) seemed to have noticed them overseas, it is curious how the same patterns adopted by them – along with their figures and physicality – closely resemble the comic duo formed by Laurel & Hardy. Whether the famous American couple was inspired by them or not, we cannot know exactly. The fact is that Cocl & Seff, after having fallen into oblivion for many years, were finally rediscovered by the Filmarchiv Austria, which, in turn, restored some of their films, although most of them were lost. And so, despite numerous and often unfortunate vicissitudes, the two comedians finally got some well-deserved acknowledgement and, even today, still make people laugh and entertain as they did roughly a century ago.

Info: the page of Cocl & Seff on stummfilm.at