Is there anyone playing a more important role than David Shepard in the preservation of silent cinema? I doubt it. Shepard and Film Preservation Associates have restored and presented an astonishing number of essential silent films, including the bulk of Buster Keaton's career, The Lost World, Nosferatu, and many others. Now, Shepard has prepared for DVD release a definitive collection of over fifty silent comedies, called "Slapstick Encyclopedia." This is truly the most impressive set of silent era comedy ever packaged together.
Kino released essentially this same set on VHS in 1998, but DVD is the ideal format. Now for example, if you have a hankering for watching Snub Pollard in "It's a Gift," you don't have to fast forward until you find it on a VHS tape. You just pop the appropriate disc of this five-disc set in your DVD player and select the desired comedy from a chapter selection menu. Plus, this DVD set, released by Image Entertainment, costs less than Kino's VHS set--$69.99 vs. $79.90. (The initial price tag for Kino's entire set was a whopping $189.90, but they've recently dropped the price to remain somewhat competitive with Image Entertainment's superior DVD set.)
Image Entertainment's set rearranges the comedies into a more logical order and avoids some of the problems of Kino's set. For example, while Kino placed one of Charley Chase's finest comedies, "Mighty Like a Moose," on the VHS volume titled "Funny Girls," Image Entertainment's set moves this comedy to a volume titled "Hal Roach's All-Star Comedians," placing Chase in the company of Stan Laurel, Harold Lloyd, and Will Rogers.
Whereas Kino's VHS set consisted of eight volumes, Image Entertainment's DVD set consists of ten volumes, which have been paired on the set's five discs. The extra two volumes were created by rearranging the sequencing used on Kino's volumes--and by adding three additional comedies, two from Harry Langdon ("All Night Long" and "His Marriage Wow") and one from Harold Lloyd ("Haunted Spooks"). However, all three of these comedies have appeared on other Kino releases, so the bonus comedies aren't as surprising as I had hoped. "All Night Long" was previously packaged with Langdon's Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, "His Marriage Wow" with The Strong Man (also Langdon), and "Haunted Spooks" with the venerable silent classic The Cat and the Canary.
Image Entertainment's DVD presentation retains the same written introductions by Joe Adamson as the Kino set. (Adamson serves as co-curator of "Slaptstick Encyclopedia," along with David Shepard.) These introductions come immediately before each comedy and provide many valuable insights. In addition, the DVD set comes packaged with a twelve-page booklet by Adamson titled "The Whole Custard Pie Catalog." This booklet provides additional background information on many of the comedians who appear on these discs and the studios from which they hailed.
The musical soundtracks used here are the same ones used on Kino's set, so beware the "new musical soundtracks" claim on the set's cardboard slipcase. The claim isn't exactly wrong. The soundtracks were "new" for the original appearance of "Slapstick Encyclopedia" in 1998 on VHS from Kino. But nothing "new" was recorded for the DVD release. Whatever the case, the soundtracks -- supplied by Eric Beheim, Brian Benison, Robert Israel, George Korngold and others -- are generally quite good and a welcome presence.
"Slapstick Encyclopedia" is huge set, with over 18 hours of vintage comedy. You'll find many of the comedy giants represented in this series, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. However, you'll also find many comedians who deserve more recognition, such as Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Charley Chase, Billy Bevan, John Bunny, Charley Bowers, Larry Semon, and the French comedian Max Linder. But it's the comic genius of Mack Sennett that is felt most strongly throughout this set.
At some point in their careers, almost all of the great American silent comedians worked on the Keystone Studios lot for Mack Sennett, and a more fertile ground for producing comedians the world has never seen. The Keystone world was inhabited by bathing beauties who rolled on the beach, crazy-eyed cops who stormed out of the police station en masse, mustache-twirling villains with wild eyes and gnashing teeth, and anxious pit bull dogs that eagerly sank their teeth into the posteriors of both heroes and villains alike. This was a world where pie fights abounded, where cars frequently fell to pieces (or were smashed pancake thin), where boats almost always sprung leaks, and where malt mixers had an unusual propensity for exploding.
The Sennett comedies were formulaic but inspired, and they frequently concluded with a great chase, often involving a gaggle of Keystone Kops. The motivation for the chases rarely made much sense. Frequently, the motivation was even treated as a joke. In "Wandering Willies," for example, the final chase is motivated when the heroine (Ruth Hiatt) discovers that the villain has dropped a paper of some sort on the hallway floor. She opens it, reads it, her lips form an "oh!" and she goes running to the hero (Billy Bevan). They read the paper together and then off they go. The chase begins. But what does the paper say? Well, the subtitle explaining the contents of that sheet of paper was rewritten several times after shooting had been completed. At one point, the heroine said, "He was stealing my diploma as winner of the beauty contest!" At another, "This proves he is the president of the Kidnappers Corporation!" And yet another version read, "The big clam was trying to get a corner on Muscle Shoals!" Finally, they settled on "Look! A mortgage on Niagara Falls. We must stop it before he shuts off the water!" Total nonsense, yes. And hardly motivation at all. More likely Sennett was making fun of the whole idea of motivation. His product needed an ending and audiences loved chases. So he was simply finding a way to reach the expected ending for a Keystone production--all-out mayhem, with momentum pushing everyone in different directions until the entire effort exploded under the stress.
Or in the case of "Muddy Romance," Sennett and a car full of writers took off for Echo Lake when they learned it was being drained. Here was an effect they would normally never be able to afford. They made up the gags and story as they went along. Once again, much of the motivation is sheer nonsense: at the climax, the heroine and her beau suddenly decide to get married in a row boat in the middle of the lake! While the priest conducts the ceremony, the villain (Ford Sterling at his snarling best) turns the water valve (marked "WATER OUTLET--DO NOT TOUCH") that drains the lake and leaves a muddy mess for the Keystone Kops to thrash around in. Sennett's comedies could become practically surreal in their wanton disregard for motivation and logic.
But by no means was Sennett the only one producing comedies. That's one of the greatest virtues of this huge set from Image Entertainment: you'll get a healthy dose of comedy from many of the pioneers. You'll find comedians equally as manic as Sennett's troop, such as Larry Semon in "The Grocery Clerk," Oliver Hardy in "One Too Many," and Ben Turpin in "Mr. Flip," as well as comedians who attempted more sophisticated brands of comedy, such as Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew in "Fox-Trot Finesse." You'll find a pre-Stone Face Buster Keaton who screams and cries in very un-Stone Face fashion and a hyperactive Stan Laurel who bears little resemblance to the slow-witted character he would play when teamed with Oliver Hardy. You'll see the headstrong Fay Tincher in a raucous comedy "Rowdy Ann," challenging any notion that silent comedy was a man's domain. You'll see the wildly inventive sight gags of Charley Bowers and Max Linder. In short, this set is as good a primer course in silent comedy as anyone could have hoped for. It's required viewing for movie lover's everywhere.
The following pages describe each of the set's five discs.
Volume 1 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" concentrates on the very first American silent comedians, many of whom had only recently drifted from the vaudeville stage to the movie studio lots. The comedies on this volume date all the way back to 1909, when Ben Turpin starred in "Mr. Flip" as a love hungry man-on-the-make. Looking much like Groucho Marx, with his painted-on mustache and a wandering eye, Turpin tries to kiss and hug every woman he meets. But the women consistently get the best of him, especially in the scene where a telephone operator turns a little crank that shocks Turpin as he uses a pay telephone.
Other early comedies include "Alkali Ike's Auto" (1911) with Augustus Carney and "A Cure for Pokeritis" (1912) with John Bunny. One of the best scenes in "Alkali Ike's Auto" comes in the first few minutes, when Ike and Mustang Pete vie for the affections of a woman. While she's washing dishes, they fight over who'll do the drying. She ends up holding out each plate while Alkali Ike dries one side and Mustang Pete dries the other.
Unlike many of the shameless muggers on this video, John Bunny strove for a more refined brand of acting. We wanted "to feel the part." He said, "If you can manage to be the character you're impersonating, feel it so thoroughly that you transform yourself for the moment, your actions will tell more than you realize." Bunny was a bulldog of a man, with jowls, a wide nose, and a shape like a walrus. In "A Cure for Pokeritis" he wants to sneak off to a poker game, but his wife catches on to his plans and puts a Bible class onto his trail.
Long before he met Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy was already making comedies. In "One Too Many" (1916), he stars as a devil-may-care cad who must quickly find a wife and a child. His friend roams the streets and parks offering to rent babies, and he finds a surprisingly large number of mothers willing to hand over their young 'uns for just a few cents. "The Wrong Mr. Fox" (1917) stars Victor Moore in a classic tale of mistaken identities. Moore plays a streetwise hustler who is mistaken for a priest. He even steps behind the pulpit to deliver a Sunday sermon. When he senses he's losing the crowd, he changes into his leotards and shows the congregation a few bicycle tricks! "Fox Trot Finesse" (1915), starring Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, takes a more refined approach. It tells the story of a family where the wife has "fox trot itis." During a night out dancing together, the husband gets tired of dancing and tells his wife he has "busted the pectoral fin" in his right ankle. But it's not long before she sees through the ruse. "A Natural Born Gambler" (1916) stars Bert Williams, one of the very few black comedians who starred in his own comedies. He plays a Southern gentleman of questionable virtue who tends to spend all his time hanging around a tavern.
Of all the comedies in this volume, Max Linder's "Be My Wife" (1921) is the best. Charlie Chaplin considered Linder to be one of the greatest film comedians. He even borrowed many of his best routines from Linder. And you can see why: Linder understood how to use the camera to help create comedy. Most of the other comedians on this volume hadn't yet fully utilized the camera. It would typically be nailed in place while all the action whirled around it. But Linder used inventive camera placements, such as in the opening scene from "Be My Wife": the camera shows us the shadow on a window shade as a man appears to kiss a woman--and then pour water on her head! Or at least that's what the woman's mother thinks she sees. But then the camera brings us inside the house, and we see Linder was actually watering a plant. The vase just happened to cast a shadow that looked like a woman's profile. The short concludes with a scene where Linder fights himself. The onlookers can only see his feet because he's hidden behind a curtain, so Linder plays both sides of the duel by placing shoes on his hands. This scene would be imitated by many comedians; look no farther than Charley Chase's "Mighty Like a Moose" on Volume 6. (My only regret about Volume 1 is "Be My Wife" is an all-too-brief condensed version of a feature-length comedy.)
Volume 2 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" is devoted exclusively to the earliest Mack Sennett comedies. These are some of the craziest, most manic comedies ever made. The story behind "A Muddy Romance" is told often: when Sennett learned Echo Lake was being drained, he packed up the gag writers and actors and took off--"We made up the gags and the story as we went along"--in order to take advantage of a setting that he could never afford to create under usual circumstances. It's a classic tale of Keystone Studios resourcefulness.
Both "A Muddy Romance" and "Barney Oldfield" feature Ford Sterling as the villain. Sterling's villain would growl and grimace, kicking his knees up to his chest as he pranced mischievously after the heroine. In "Barney Oldfield" he kidnaps poor Mabel Normand and ties her to the railroad tracks. Her boyfriend, played by Sennett himself, enlists the help of world famous auto racer Barney Oldfield so that he can ride to the rescue.
"A Movie Star" features another of Keystone Studios' famous actors, Max Swain--a huge man, with mournful eyes, and a painted-on mustache that wrapped around his nose and halfway up his cheeks. He plays a blustery but uncertain actor who shows up at a movie theater for a screening of one of his own movies; Swain suffers the indignities of an all-too-enthusiastic audience.
"Mabel's Dramatic Career" (1913) is one of the earliest Mack Sennett comedies. It even features Sennett himself in a starring role as a goofish son who has eyes for the maid. But the real star of this short is Mabel Normand. In one of the best scenes, she goes crazy after the mother of her boyfriend says they can't be married. Mabel grabs a stick and commences to thrash the mother! After she's fired from her job, she goes to the big city and finds work as an actress, which then gives us the comedy's big scene: Sennett follows Mabel to the big city and watches in bug-eyed amazement as his old girlfriend appears on the movie screen.
"Teddy at the Throttle" (1916) stars a young Gloria Swanson and a devilish Wallace Beery. She ends up tied to the railroad tracks, thanks to Beery, while her boyfriend rides to the rescue. But will he reach her in time? This comedy features a famous stunt where the train can't stop in time and it rolls over Swanson--who ducks under the cattle guard in the nick of time.
Like many other silent era comedians, Charlie Chaplin's film career started at Keystone. And the same holds true for Fatty Arbuckle. In 1914, Sennett paired them together in a comedy called "The Rounders," in which they played drunks who stumble home to their less-than-thrilled wives, who promptly kick them out--leaving Arbuckle and Chaplin to team up and invade a restaurant.
Volume 3 picks up where Volume 2 leaves off and continues the Sennett story though the next decade. This is one of the new volumes in the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" set. Whereas Kino's set used just one volume for Keystone (with many additional Keystone comedies strung throughout the set), this revised "Slapstick Encyclopedia" pulls together the Keystone comedies so that a more extended overview of the studio's output is now available.
Much of the extra time in this volume is devoted to Harry Langdon. His "Saturday Afternoon" (1926) is one of the most understated comedies to emerge from Keystone. Langdon was one of the greatest screen comedians, but his best films are relatively few in numbers. Not until he began working with writers Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley did he really hit his stride. As James Agee said, "It seemed as if Chaplin could do literally anything, on any instrument in the orchestra. Langdon had one queerly toned, unique little reed. But out of it he could get incredible melodies." From his halting gait, forever on the verge of veering in the opposite direction, to his strange little fey wave that breaks off in mid-motion, Langdon brought a magical brand of innocence to the movie screen. When he arrives home in "Saturday Afternoon," his wife glowers at him for being late. He turns and looks at the door. Suddenly, for Harry, the door is the most interesting door in the world. He pats it as if something is wrong. He pushes it, rubs it. What's wrong? Hmm, nothing. So he starts brushing himself off, anything to avoid the gaze of his wife.
"His Marriage Wow" (1925) opens with Langdon sitting in a church. It's his marriage day and he's wondering where the rest of the wedding party is at. The church is empty save himself and a priest who solicits a contribution from Langdon: "I might as well pay in advance," Langdon says, handing over his money for the ceremony. Soon afterwards, when he realizes he's at the wrong church, Langdon runs up to the contribution box and tilts his head, wondering what to do, but then he takes off. Unlike his more manic stablemates at Keystone, Langdon relied upon gentle nuances of character. "All Night Long" (1925) opens with Langdon once again sitting alone in a large building -- this time a theater. His girlfriend left him after he fell asleep during the show. An elaborate story then develops as Langdon awakes and discovers thieves are preparing to break into the theater's safe. Langdon and the gang's leader go way back. They were romantic rivals in France during WWI. Vernon Dent, a frequent foil of Langdon's, plays the rival.
The rest of the shorts on this volume are more typical Keystone material. "Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies" (1925) begins with Billy Bevan pushing his car home. Unbeknownst to him, however, his car keeps bumping into other cars. Before he knows what's happening, he has acquired a long line of cars in front of his, each coasting, wavering, and swerving. While the cars stay in line, he pushes them up a hill and over a cliff! "Wandering Willies" (1926) gives us Bill Bevan and Andy Clyde as buddies who long for the life of a policeman--and the free perks, such as free apples from produce stands. So they trick a policeman out of his uniform and head for the restaurants. The climax combines speeding cars with a human chain of Keystone Kops sliding down the street and around telephone poles.
"Circus Today" (1926) allows Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde free reign at a circus. They play laborers who are called upon to fill in on the trapeze and on the high-dive platform. As can be expected, nothing goes right. Eventually, all the circus lions are running loose.
Volume 4 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" concentrates on the "Funny Girls" of silent screen comedy. However, this volume is somewhat misnamed. The comediennes frequently share screen time with the men and sometimes even play supporting roles, as in "One Wet Night." But in at least two cases, the comediennes take center stage: Gale Henry's "The Detectress" and Fay Tincher's "Rowdy Ann." Unfortunately, "The Detectress" (1919) is one of the weaker comedies in the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" collection. Its manic pace quickly becomes quite wearying and repetitive, as Gale Henry does some free lance detective work in Chinatown. Henry is served much better by her supporting role in Charley Chase's "Mighty Like a Moose," included on Volume 6.
Of the five comedies in this volume, Fay Tincher's "Rowdy Ann" (1919) makes the best case of presenting us with a great silent-era comedienne. Fay Tincher plays a headstrong woman who refuses to give up her tom-boyish ways. She wears a gun belt and carries a lasso, which at one point she uses to drag her father from a tavern. She even gets into a boxing match with a man who made unwarranted advances--and she wins by stepping on his corns: as he winces she delivers the knockout punch. Her father sends her off to college to "larn to be a lady." The professors soon try dressing her up as a Greek nymph--but she insists on wearing her cowboy boots, hat, and gun holsters.
Other shorts on this volume include Dorothy DeVore in "Know They Wife" (1918), Alice Howell, Neely Edwards, and Bert Roach in "One Wet Night" (1924), and Louise Fazenda, Ford Sterling, and Phyllis Haver in "Hearts and Flowers" (1919). Directed by Eddie Cline, who would later work with Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields, "Hearts and Flowers" gives us Louise Fazenda as a dim-witted cigarette girl who falls for a pompous band leader, but he doesn't much care for her. He says she "has the grace of a hippopotamus but none of the charm." When someone passes him a note that says she has recently inherited $2,000,000, he suddenly changes his mind. (If you're looking for the Sennett bathing beauties, "Hearts and Flowers" is the place to look.)
When asked to name the finest comediennes of the silent era, Stan Laurel named Alice Howell. She had a trademark mound of frizzy hair and a decidedly dizzy manner. In "One Wet Night," however, she doesn't have a lot to do. It's the men -- Neely Edwards and Bert Roach -- who carry the comedy, which gravitates toward knockabout comedy in the Keystone tradition. A dinner party is interrupted by an errant shotgun blast that releases a deluge of water into the dinning room.
"Know They Wife" is a different type of comedy altogether. It stars Dorothy Devore and Earl Rodney as sweethearts, but his parents have already arranged a marriage for him. So when he brings home the girl he loves, he disguises her as a man. Mother catches them kissing, with Devore wearing a man's suit and her hair pulled together under a man's wig: "You boys are certainly fond of each other," she says. About her comedies, Devore said, "We had none of the slapsticky stuff like Sennett. We did not rely upon wild mustaches and funny clothes, but on situation and story."
Volume 5 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" features some of the best work of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. You'll find Arbuckle teaming with Buster Keaton in "Oh, Doctor!" (1917) and "The Garage" (1920), and co-starring with Mabel Normand and Al St. John in "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1916). "Oh, Doctor!" and "The Garage" allow us to see how Arbuckle and Keaton worked together. "Oh, Doctor!" was one of their first comedies. Arbuckle takes the lead, with Keaton in a supporting role, but by "The Garage" three years later, Keaton and Arbuckle share screen time equally. In "Oh, Doctor!" Arbuckle plays a doctor with less-than-ethical methods. At one point, he even runs his car into a crowd of people and then passes out his business cards to the victims. Keaton's role places him largely on the sidelines, as the doctor's son. As Arbuckle punches and smacks Keaton, the Great Stone Face uncharacteristically begins screaming and crying.
"The Garage" was Arbuckle and Keaton's last comedy together. Keaton's Stone Face still hadn't arrived yet; in "The Garage" he cries, laughs, and mugs. But the Keaton pratfalls are well in evidence here, especially those that involve a rotating platform in the garage. Keaton spins and crashes headfirst, bouncing off of his own noggin before twisting and tumbling on the ground. "The Garage" is a wildly inventive comedy, with loads of good sight gags. In one scene a dog attacks Keaton and rips off his pants; however, Keaton uses his knife to cut out a Scotish kilt for himself from a billboard. And in another scene, Keaton and Arbuckle (as firemen) get halfway to the fire when they realize they're wearing the wrong hats, so they return to the firehouse/garage to get the right ones.
However, the best of the Arbuckle comedies may well be "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1916). If Arbuckle has a masterpiece, this is it. Arbuckle plays a hired hand who falls for the farmer's daughter (Mabel Normand), but the son (Al St. John, Arbuckle's real-life nephew) of the neighboring farmer wants to marry her--so that the farm lands can be united. Arbuckle wins her, though, and they get married and move to a beach cottage. St. John pursues them and hires a band of robbers to help him push the house out to sea. Fatty and Mabel wake up as their beds are floating on the waist high water. As outlandish as the plot might be, some of the best moments in this short come from the quieter moments, such as the ingenious vignettes that appear at the beginning of the comedy: a heart-shaped vignette shows us the smiling Fatty, and another heart-shaped vignette shows us the demure Mabel. A well-placed arrow from Cupid brings the two hearts together, in a heart that swells, while Al. St. John watches and stews.
Al St. John moves to the forefront in "The Iron Mule" (1925), directed after Arbuckle had been banished from the movie screen as the result of an infamous scandal. Never mind that Arbuckle was acquitted of any wrongdoing, his career in front of the camera was ruined, but he continued making comedies, such as this one, which features the same quirky train built for Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality. Buster Keaton himself takes a starring role in "The Boat" (1921), one of his very finest shorts (in a remastered and orchestrally-scored version that improves on the version included with Kino's "The Art of Buster Keaton"). Keaton stars as husband who has built a huge boat in his basement. After nearly demolishing their house while getting the boat through the small basement door, Keaton takes his family on a watery outing.
Volumes 6 and 7 both focus on one of the great comedy studios of the silent era: Hal Roach Studios. While Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio is usually regarded as America's most proficient assembly line for slapstick comedy, Hal Roach Studios refined and perfected the form, providing more elaborate storytelling and sophisticated narratives (in contrast to the manic, knockabout comedy of Keystone). Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, and Our Gang are all closely associated with their work for Hal Roach. These volumes are fairly similar in scope with Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase sharing duties in both volumes. The big difference is the inclusion of Laurel & Hardy in Volume 7. (More about them in the notes for Volume 7.)
Volume 6's main stair is Harold Lloyd, who stars in two shorts, "Get Out and Get Under" and "Haunted Spooks." Around the time that he made "Get Out and Get Under" (1920), Lloyd was beginning to perfect his American go-getter character. Here, his character is so absorbed in his own actions that he can't see how he's affecting others. When he accidentally runs his car through the wall of a garage and into his neighbor's garden, he looks at the car and says, "Didn't do a bit of damage!"--oblivious to the fact that the neighbor's garden has been devastated. Lloyd also supplies several good sight gags, as when his car breaks down and he literally crawls inside the hood while fixing it.
"Haunted Spooks" (1920) is the production where Lloyd became injured by a prop bomb that exploded, causing him to loose his thumb and forefinger (and making his subsequent acrobatics in movies such as Safety Last (1923) all the more remarkable. "Haunted Spooks" is a somewhat generic haunted house comedy that fails to take advantage of Lloyd's unique abilities, but it features at least one good sight gag: when Lloyd sees a ghost, his hair stands on end thanks to an apparent application of static electricity (making him look remarkably like the lead character in David Lynch's Eraserhead).
Will Rogers isn't normally thought of as a slapstick comedian, but in "Big Moments for Little Pictures" (1924) he imitates a Keystone Kops comedy, and in "Oranges and Lemons" (1923), Stan Laurel stars as a mischievous sprite who wreaks havoc in an orchard. His character is nothing like the one he would play when teamed with Oliver Hardy. One of the highlights of this hectic one-reeler is a wonderful, acrobatic maneuver that Laurel performs with a pair of swinging doors while hiding from the orchard foreman.
Charley Chase's "Mighty Like a Moose" (1926) is arguably the funniest short in this volume. Charley Chase and Vivian Oakland play a homely-looking husband and wife. He has huge buckteeth and she has a nose that hooks like an eagle's beak. Unknown to their mates, Chases sees an oral surgeon to fix his teeth and Oakland has a nose job. Afterwards, they don't recognize each other. Some of the funniest moments come courtesy of Gale Henry. She plays a gawky spinster who dogs Chase at a dance. She only knows one dance step--a polka!--which she launches into at the drop of a hat.
Volume 6 is one of the two new volumes created when Image Entertainment rearranged the contents of "Slapstick Encyclopedia."
Volume 7 continues the Hal Roach focus started in Volume 6. However, here, Laurel & Hardy are showcased in a lengthy excerpt of choice scenes from four of their silent shorts --"Angora Love," "You're Darn Tootin'," "Liberty," and "The Battle of the Century." During the '20s, Laurel & Hardy provided Hal Roach Studios with its most successful comedy team. While Keystone comedies emphasized speed and hyperactive motion, Laurel & Hardy emphasized comedy of character. Their comedies relied on the delicate interplay between the two leads. They created carefully modulated rhythms that start out slowly before gradually reaching absurdly frantic peaks. In "The Battle of the Century," for example, a simple banana peel on a sidewalk causes a baker to fall, precipitating a free-for-all that eventually involves everyone within throwing distance. And in "You're Darn Tootin'," an irritated Stan throws Ollie's horn into the street, beginning an hilarious exchange where the entire street is soon filled with men hopping from Stan's kicks. (He delivers vicious and unexpected kicks to the shin.) In "Liberty," Laurel and Hardy ventured into territory frequented by Harold Lloyd. They end up balancing on the girders of a high-rise office building, desperately trying to find their way back down again but only getting further and further into trouble. It's the high-wire antics that most people remember about "Liberty," but the best comedy comes in the setup: when Laurel and Hardy breakout of jail, their accomplice hands them a new set of clothes, but the pants get mixed up. They discover this only after they're already wearing each other's pants, so they must find somewhere to change. They try an alley, but a lady pokes her head out of a window and screams. A cop sees them unbuttoning their pants and he chases them. Eventually, they try changing at a construction site only to discover they are in an elevator headed to the top floor. Filmed high above Los Angeles by director Leo McCarey and cameraman George Stevens and utilizing camera angles that enhanced the illusion of danger, "Liberty" is one of Laurel and Hardy's most inventive comedies. Harold Lloyd makes a cameo appearance in "Dogs of War" (1923), an Our Gang short. He had more than a passing familiarity with Our Gang, for Mary Korman (Our Gang's sweetheart) was the daughter of his still photographer, and Jackie David was the younger brother of Lloyd's wife and leading lady, Mildred David. For people only familiar with the Our Gang troupe of the '30s and '40s, "Dogs of War" should prove to be a real surprise, for the Our Gang troupe of the '20s was just as good as--if not better than--their more famous latter day cousins. In this outing, the kids create havoc on a movie studio backlot, with little Farina (Allen Clayton Hoskins) getting them into all sorts of trouble.
"It's a Gift" (1923) stars Snub Pollard. After Harold Lloyd left Hal Roach studios, Snub Pollard was promoted to fill the void, and this comedy is one of his best. It's one of my all-time favorite silent era comedies. Pollard plays an inventor with a bevy of Rube Goldberg contraptions. He prepares his breakfast by pulling a selection of ropes over his bed, and he rides to work in a bullet-shaped vehicle that he propels by using a giant magnet. When a car passes in the direction that he wants to go, he holds out the magnet and away he goes, speeding down the road in his bullet-mobile. This short is filled with wonderfully inventive sight gags.
"Fluttering Hearts" (1927) is one of Charley Chase's funniest comedies. He performs an hilarious dance with a mannequin while trying to bluff his way into a private club (every man who enters the club must be accompanied by a woman). This is a wildly inventive comedy that serves as testament to Chase's comedic genius. He was one of the great silent comedians.
Volume 8 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" revolves around Charlie Chaplin. You'll find shorts that feature Charlie Chaplin himself, shorts that star his imitators, and shorts that star comedians who clearly followed in his tradition.
This video begins with "A Night in the Show" (1915), where Chaplin re-creates his famous music hall routine. He takes a dual role: as the Pest, he plays a drunkard who tries to find his way to a seat in a theater, and as the Rowdy, he plays a character with a wide mustache who looks more like Snub Pollard or Ben Turpin. The Rowdy sits in the balcony and pours beer on the audience below and throws fruit at the performers on stage. "A Night in the Show" became widely imitated--as this tape testifies, with comedians such as Billy West and Lupino Lane filming short comedies very much in the "A Night in the Show" tradition.
"A Night in the Show" contains several inventive pieces of comedy, such as the opening scene where the Pest tries to get a ticket to a concert and he ends up stuck in line behind a statue. However, "A Night in the Show" isn't among Chaplin's best comedies. To find Chaplin at his best, you don't have to look far, though: On this same disc, you'll also find one of Chaplin's all-time best shorts--"The Rink" (1916). It contains several priceless bits of comedy, such as the scene where Chaplin plays a waiter who determines a customer's bill by tallying all the different stains on the customer's shirt. Both of these comedies have previously been available from Kino in their "Early Films of Charlie Chaplin" set. Some people might consider their inclusion here as superfluous, but one of the virtues of this set is its completeness: it provides the best overview of slapstick comedy ever presented on video.
This volume also contains a rare snippet where Chaplin comically conducts an orchestra at a New York fund-raiser.
In addition to the Chaplin material, "Chaplin and the Music Hall Tradition" includes several additional shorts, including two by Chaplin imitators--Billie Ritchie and Billy West. Ritchie, who was well-established in music halls in the early 1900s, claimed that Chaplin stole material from him. In "Live Wires and Love Sparks" (1916), he stars as a "telephone worker blessed with a large family and a small income." Directed by Charles Parrott (otherwise known as comedian Charley Chase), "He's In Again" (1918) stars Billy West as a bum who tries to sneak into a dance hall/restaurant while Oliver Hardy plays the waiter who consistently throws him out.
Also on this disc, you'll find Stan Laurel in "Pie-Eyed" (1925). Before he joined forces with Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel was Chaplin's own music hall understudy. In "Pie-Eyed," he plays another version of the drunk character that Chaplin created in "A Night in the Show." And in "Only Me" (1929), Lupino Lane (a veteran of British music halls) one-ups Chaplin while assuming the drunk routine from "A Night in the Show" by playing a multitude of characters: he plays the ticket seller, the conductor, a flutist, a female dancer, a baby in a crib, and several other characters.
After rearranging the contents from the eight original volumes into ten, Image Entertainment was left with a short-changed Volume 9. This volume lost two shorts, leaving just four and the shortest running time of any volume in the set. As the volume's title indicates, these four shorts are frantic and dizzying, as they rely on wild chases and death-defying acrobatics.
Sid Smith stars in "Water Wagons" (1926) and "Outbound" (1924). In the former, he plays a go-getter sailor who helps Andy Clyde build and race a speed boat. And in the latter, he gets a job driving a truck. When he backs up the truck, however, his cargo (two telegraph poles) slides through the neighbor's window and picks up a bed--along with the neighbor!
"Chasing Choo Choos" (1927) is an excerpt from a feature-length comedy by Monty Banks. The excerpt is fairly uneventful until a chase scene begins, and then some truly astounding comedy takes place. Banks performs some incredible stunts aboard a moving train. He hangs precariously onto the side of the railroad cars, and he runs across their tops while water from a tower gushes just inches behind him. It's surprising he wasn't maimed in the process.
"Danger Ahead" is a relatively slight comedy. It's almost like a home movie. It was part of the Hairbreadth Harry series, which typically lampooned Victorian melodramas, but it features a wonderful sight gag: through judicious use of a double exposure, several people appear to hide behind a single telephone pole. The camera focuses on a single telephone pole and then the heads of several people suddenly poke out in all directions.
Volume 10 of "Slapstick Encyclopedia" focuses on the small, independent studios. During the silent era, the independent studios cranked out droves of one- and two-reel comedies every year. Many of these comedies were cheap knockoffs, but occasionally the independent studios produced some real gems, such as the comedies you'll find on this video.
Charley Bowers created some of the wittiest, most visually imaginative comedies of the silent era; however, you'll have to look hard to find his name mentioned in even the most extensive histories of screen comedy. Bowers' "Now You Tell One" (1926) is filled with incredible images as Bowers plays an inventor who has created a process "to graft anything." In his laboratory, he has grafted an ear of corn to an orange and cloves of garlic to bunches of grapes. He even grows an eggplant with a hard-boiled egg and a salt shaker inside. Bowers was a wildly inventive comedian who deserves to be more widely known.
Among the other comedies on this video, you'll find an hilarious short called "Family Life" (1924) that stars Mark Jones and Ruth Hiatt. This comedy features both wild knockabout comedy and some sophisticated satire (which takes aim at pre-fabricated houses and family vacations, among other things). Many of the sight gags are ingenious: for example, when the rear axle of the family car gets knocked forward, the vehicle does wheelies every time the father's foot touches the accelerator.
This video also features shorts by several more unheralded comedians, including Larry Semon, Billy Bletcher, and three massive comedians billed as "A Ton of Fun" (Frank "Fatty" Alexander, Hillard "Fat" Kerr, and "Kewpie" Ross). Larry Semon stars in "The Grocery Clerk" (1920) as the title character. This is a wild comedy filled with pratfalls as molasses, flour, fly paper, and many other household goods create havoc at the general store--thanks to Larry Semon. In "Dry and Thirsty" (1920), Billy Bletcher is just looking for a drink of alcohol, but he gets thwarted at every turn. But for the most anarchy per pound, you should try "Three of a Kind" (1926), as the "Ton of Fun" comedians play entertainers at a restaurant. In short order, however, a skirmish breaks out between the entertainers and their audience--with tables turned over and dishes smashed.
Amid the comedies by several small studios, Kino has also sneaked in a Mack Sennett comedy: Ben Turpin stars in "Yukon Jake" (1924) as a "wriggly eyed" sheriff who must confront Yukon Jake and the Purina Kid (the latter is described as "more dangerous than home-brew"). In the comedy's wackiest scene, Turpin dreams about encountering a bevy of snowball throwing lovelies (the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties) who emerge from igloos and start cavorting. An elaborate parody of Jack London-style Northern adventure, "Yukon Jake" is one of the craziest comedies in this entire set.
It's fitting that this set ends with a collection of lesser know comedians for this is one of the greatest virtues of this set: it introduces us to a wide range of comedians who we might otherwise never encounter. If you're looking for the comedies of Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle or Charlie Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy, there are other more extensive collections available, such as Kino's superb "Art of Buster Keaton" or Hal Roach and Image Entertainment's "The Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy." However, there is wealth of comedy outside the masters that deserves greater recognition. And nowhere will you find a better introduction to these treasures of silent cinema than in the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" set. This is essential viewing for all cinema lovers.
Copyright © 2002 by Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture
Published April 2002 by Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture
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