Starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand, Harry Langdon, the Keystone Kops, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties, Will Rogers, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Teddy the Keystone Dog, Fay Tincher, Louise Fazenda, Charley Chase, Charles Bowers, Larry Semon, and more
Series produced by David Shepard
Back to Review Index
Back to Quick Reviews
Review by Mark Bourne
"Their approach to life was earthy and understandable. They whaled the daylights out of pretension. They made fun of themselves and the human race. They reduced convention, dogma, stuffed shirts, and authority to nonsense, and then blossomed into pandemonium."
Mack Sennett, creator of the Keystone studio
"In those days, there was one secret to making good comedy. If it made the audience laugh, it was a good comedy."
Hal Roach, creator of damn near everything else
A funny thing happened on the way to sound cinema. A lot of funny things, actually.
Before the "talkies" arrived in 1927, motion pictures had seen more than two decades of rapid growth in technical innovations, artistic technique, and above all mass appeal. Sure, D.W. Griffith, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and others were showing us that this pubescent medium could be crafted into a striking and versatile new form of art. But for those of us among the hoi polloi, going to the flickers most often meant heading out for light entertainment, for easy thrills, reality-defying visuals, and gut-level laughs. (You know what they say about "The more things change...")
Of course, "us" in this case means our grand- or great-grandparents, the generation that experienced first-hand such headline-makers as World War I, Prohibition, Babe Ruth, the Jazz Age, the first printing of Freud's "Introduction to Psychoanalysis," and the sinking of the Titanic. The Civil War was only fifty years done, and 2001: A Space Odyssey was still fifty years away. Then as now, people went to the movies wanting to laugh. A new breed of performers, most trained on the stages of vaudeville or the London music hall, were happy to provide.
The good news
The good news is that many of these early comedies survive and their best writers-performers-directors are still ranked among the finest artists and inventors the movies have ever produced.
At the top of the silent comedy ziggurat stand Charlie Chaplin whose balletic comic-pathos virtuosity made him the world's first international screen superstar and Buster Keaton, whose blend of pitch-perfect comic expression with stunning athleticism make him an idol to, among many others, Jackie Chan. Their films are still funnier and more satisfying than much of what Hollywood pumps out almost a century later.
On the next tier down you'll find Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (Keaton's mentor until a Hollywood sex scandal killed the big man's career) and Harold Lloyd, whose high-hanging derring-do as an optimistic, bespectacled Everyman rivaled Keaton's and who lost part of a hand when a stunt bomb blew up without warning (more on that below). Chaplin, Keaton, Arbuckle, and Lloyd remain household names. Here in the 21st century they're revered as the Big Four of silent comedy. And peering over their shoulders, probably pinching their butts, is Keystone's lovely and irrepressible "Queen of Comedy," Mabel Normand.
Down one more step we find sad-eyed and baby-faced Harry Langdon. There's Chaplin's former roommate in the Karno music hall touring circuit, Arthur Stanley Jefferson, later known as Stan Laurel. Nearby, but not yet conjoined with Laurel for the premier comedy duo of the early sound age, is rotund Norvell "Oliver" Hardy.
Further down the pyramid there's reliable stalwart Ford Sterling (the Keystone Kops' Chief Teeheezel, among others), cross-eyed Ben Turpin, polymorphic Charley Bowers (who grew cats from plants right before our eyes), Bert Williams (a Broadway performer who had to apply blackface to himself because he wasn't "black enough" even though he was a "Negro"), Louise Fazenda, Snub Pollard, and other names that may not have achieved the lasting status they deserved, but who nonetheless have earned their own enthusiastic fan bases on the Internet and in the 3-D world. Several of them join Chaplin and company on the five discs under discussion here.
And the bad news?
The vast majority of films made before the late 1920s no long exist in any form. Like the contents of the ancient Library of Alexandria, most movies from that era are known today, if at all, only as titles that once existed. They were lost to casual disregard, professional indifference, or the cancerous effects of their own chemical composition.
But behind every dark cloud is a silver nitrate lining. The work of film preservationists such as David Shepard is more than merely a labor of love. It's a service to our national heritage, to our cultural memory, and to our continued desire to laugh our asses off. It was Shepard, via his Film Preservation Associates, who captained Image Entertainment's terrific restoration of 1925's The Lost World and 1922's Nosferatu.
Now his work on Slapstick Encyclopedia brings us five discs of carefully selected films coupled with textual info to provide a bird's-eye overview of the formative years of screen comedy. It's a fine introduction for viewers new to the history of funny movies circa 80 years B.S. (Before Sandler). Collectors and aficionados get a welcome resource that mixes familiar classics with nearly unknown "lost" items and rarities, some never seen before on home video. Not just for denizens of alt.movies.silent, Slapstick Encyclopedia hands over some of the funniest movies you could ever see by this many dead people.
Like Image's three-disc Origins of Film series, Slapstick Encyclopedia can't include everything that deserves to be here. Chaplin and Keaton have excellent and expansive DVD collections devoted strictly to them, and a collection of Keaton-Arbuckle collaborations recently hit the streets.
But with the eighteen hours of material rescued and restored here, you could hardly find a more consistently impressive high-flying reconnaissance over so much funny territory. Mind you, this humor comes from the lower chakra points, places still tapped for broad screen comedy today: male-female relationships, car chases, conflicts with authority figures, authority figures looking foolish, stock situations, rudimentary plots, ingenious sight gags, absent trousers, revenge strategies, more car chases, mistaken identities, incompetence untethered by ambition, innocent actions avalanching into catastrophes, perilous predicaments, hyper-expressive faces, reality-bending fantasy elements, still more car chases, people falling down a lot, sudden indignities, and of course there's more than one custard pie flung across the room here. Oh, and car chases.
So, with the exception of Chaplin, Keaton, and arguably a few others, these banana-peel slippers aren't what you'd call subtle or "sophisticated." The Marx Brothers' movies are still a decade or more in the future. Noel Coward wouldn't be caught dead in this neighborhood. The Algonquin Round Table? Fuggettaboudit. Woody Allen's cerebrally well-oiled comedies are light-years in the opposite direction. Nothing here exhibits brow of the high order. And that's exactly as it should be.
Oh yeah, also be ready for the good ol' days' penchant for humor derived from alcoholism, suicide attempts, racial and ethnic stereotyping, and now-outdated gender portrayals.
Though they were the cat's pajamas in their day, technically and artistically, of course, these films can be relatively crude fare. Musical scores aside, these films are, well, silent, so the stories had to get told and the jokes pulled off with a minimum of dialogue. You read the occasional title card to "hear" essential dialogue, get some verbal wordplay, or follow the narrative.
So nowadays silent films demand more from a viewer's attention than later generations have been trained to provide. The comedies, especially the oldest represented here, may stimulate more pursed lips than potent laughter. But everything had to start somewhere and the best silent films reward any extra effort on our part. And really, because of the limitations of their medium as well as their stage-honed expertise, the greatest of the men and women you see here make today's high-paycheck comedy and action stars, who rely on the cosmetics of editing and stunt doubles and camerawork, look like affected pantywaist pikers.
So what's here?
More than fifty films are on hand, from snippets to one- and two-reel shorts. Slapstick Encyclopedia originally appeared in Laserdisc and VHS formats through Kino Video. Now this new DVD edition updates those editions through some content shuffling plus the addition of "bonus films." The films have been digitally remastered from top archival materials. Furthermore, they sport Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo musical scores from solo pianos to small orchestral ensembles composed fresh for this set by Robert Israel and other maestros in the field. Far more often than not, these scores provide toe-tapping supportive and complementary accompaniment. Film historian Joe Adamson gives us brief textual introductions for each title and a twelve-page booklet that fills out our understanding of how these films and their makers fit into the grander scheme.
Visually, expect Shepard's typically fastidious job restoring prints that are up to 90+ years old. The restoration work is remarkable, with definition, clarity, and black-white levels generally very good, considering. Color tinting is used in some films, a common practice of the time and a welcome addition here. Of course, some damage caused by age and wear is still evident, but it's never a showstopper. The films here are shown at their proper projection speeds, in some cases for the first time ever on home video.
Taking a roughly chronological approach, each disc in Slapstick Encyclopedia serves up two volumes of films thematically grouped together from the early innovators, who revamped routines from vaudeville and the music hall, to the ascended masters, whose inspired improvisations created a new visual vocabulary.
Kicking us off is Volume 1, In the Beginning: Film Comedy Pioneers, a survey of vaudevillians, stage actors, and novelty acts who transplanted their work to screen by, essentially, setting up static cameras and filming a stage show. Their work in front of the camera inspired the first wave of film comedians.
The studio that launched screen comedy in the U.S. was Essanay. Best known for slapstick (the "breaking-up-a-household-of-furniture-and-chase-through-the-street" type, as one critic dubbed it), Essanay's first big star was Ben Turpin, who for a few years did for crossed eyes what Chaplin later did for oversized shoes. Turpin started his career at the studio as a janitor, shipping clerk, prop man, and stunt man before being placed in front of the camera at the age of 40. He was among the first screen clowns to gain widespread fame and recognition. There's a story told about Turpin. When people would stare at him on the Edendale trolley that he rode to and from his work at the studio, he would point to his eyes and say: "Ben Turpin! Five hundred dollars a week!" On this disc he appears in the 1909 short, Mr. Flip, playing an inveterate flirt who ends up with a pie, shaving cream, and seltzer in the kisser.
In the Beginning also highlights 24-year-old Oliver Hardy and his wife Madelyn in "One Too Many." Mack Sennett, whom we'll get to at length momentarily, was a protegé of D.W. Griffith. Still renowned for his work as the Thomas Edison of the broad comedy form, he began his career as an actor. Here we have one of his rare screen appearances in "Mabel's Dramatic Career" (1913), a groundbreaking little working-through piece that gave audiences an early hint of the greatness that would soon come from Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, and Ford Sterling. (In an example of life imitating, um, art, the plot of "Mabel's Dramatic Career" played out in real life when Normand, engaged to Sennett, caught him with another actress and called off their engagement.)
Victor Moore made a career out of playing an ineffectual milquetoast, and built a strong screen résumé that peaked well into the 1930s and '40s. He made an appearance in the Billy Wilder/Marilyn Monroe comedy, The Seven Year Itch (1955), and worked on stage as late as 1960. Here, in "The Wrong Mr. Fox" (1917), he plays an unemployed actor mistaken for the new preacher in a small town. John Bunny starred in over a hundred short films released between 1910 and 1917, many playing off his "Mr. Bunny" character ("Mr. Bunny in Disguise," "Bunny's Swell Affair," "Private Bunny," "Bunny's Dilemma," etc.) In an example of the "Bunnygraphs" he made with Flora Finch, 1912's "A Cure for Pokeritis" serves up a wife who plots to cure her husband of his habitual poker playing.
All but unknown today, Max Linder was the first world-famous film comedian. Chaplin, Keaton, and Mack Sennett openly acknowledged the influence Linder had on their craft. In an abridgment of his American-made feature "Be My Wife" (1921), Linder demonstrates why. Bert Williams was the only black performer to cross over into the white vaudeville circuits. In "A Natural Born Gambler" (1916), he recorded one of his Ziegfeld Follies routines.
The face of slapstick was given a more refined look by real-life married couple Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. (Stage veteran Sidney was an uncle of Ethel, Lionel, and John Barrymore.) This May-December pair mixed silliness with subtlety in their pleasant little 1915 two-step, "Fox-Trot Finesse." Though his fame was short-lived, Augustus Carney was once one of the most famous screen icons. From 1911 to 1914 he played "Alkali Ike" in some two dozen shorts. In "Alkali Ike's Auto" (1911), he may have inaugurated the cinematic fusion of girls and cars in a film written by the father of screen cowboys, Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson.
Next up is Volume 2, Keystone Tonight: The Mack Sennett Comedies. Between 1912 and 1917, comedy was synonymous with Keystone. There, Mack Sennett was the first important producer and director of screen farce, where speed, irreverence, exaggeration, sight gags, and bam-bam-bam delivery defined comedy. "You had to understand comic motion," Sennett once told an interviewer, whereupon he pushed the interviewer into a swimming pool. "That is comic motion."
Sennett's larger-than-life influence has made him a grand figure of Founding Fathers proportions. He's been portrayed on Broadway by Robert Preston in the musical Mack and Mabel, and by Dan Ackroyd in the 1992 biopic Chaplin.
Sennett's Keystone Kops first shifted humor into high gear in 1912. The prolific work from this original "King of Comedy" was an evolutionary step that launched careers, not to mention gags and comic tropes that remain familiar today. Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton, Harry Langdon, and more all passed through Sennett's komedy kollege. Most importantly for the survival of the form, Keystone comedies made a fortune.
"A Muddy Romance" (1913) was a triumph of opportunity Sennett ordered the camera crew and the rest of the behind-the-scenes crew to join the Kops and stars Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling at a newly drained lake down the street from the studio. The cast and crew got down and dirty before Sennett had even devised a plot for the picture.
Chaplin made almost three dozen films for Keystone in 1914 alone, and "The Rounders" teams up Chaplin and Arbuckle in a tour de farce that showcases Chaplin in a version of his renowned music hall "drunk act." The Hollywood cult of personality is skewered in 1916's "The Movie Star," starring future Chaplin heavy Mack Swain.
By 1913, stage melodrama's "black-hatted villain ties girl to railroad tracks" routine was already a cornfed cliché. So of course Sennett saw material ripe for spoofing. In "Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life," he satirizes both it and Griffith's penchant for race-to-the-rescue stories by roping Mabel Normand to the tracks of an oncoming train while Ford Sterling twirls his mustache with gusto until the Keystone Kops arrive for a terrific closing gag. Look for Sennett himself as Mabel's beau, and then-celebrity race car driver Barney Oldfield playing himself. The old chestnut is flogged again in "Teddy at the Throttle" (1917). Here it's future screen diva Gloria Swanson as the girl tied to the tracks by villainous Wallace Beery (Swanson's husband at the time), only to be saved by Teddy the Keystone Dog. (That uppity Swanson later tried to deny her early work as one of Mack Sennett's comediennes.)
The next step forward is Volume 3, Sennett in the Twenties. As Sennett's influence and Keystone's fortunes grew, his work as producer nurtured a training ground for a new generation of directors, writers, and performers in an industry still evolving toward the Cambrian Explosion delivered by sound technology.
Frank Capra (yep, that Frank Capra) was a writer at Keystone. Here we have three that bear his byline: "Saturday Afternoon" (starring baby-faced Harry Langdon), "Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies," and as a "bonus film" appearing only in this DVD edition Capra's first screen credit, "All Night Long" (story), again with Harry Langdon. In what might be classified as the first science fiction comedy, "Lizzies" features an eccentric inventor who creates automobiles that run on radio waves instead of gasoline. Naturally, the owner of an oil company, who is also pursuing the inventor's daughter, doesn't take well to competition, so he schemes to stop his rival. During the filming of "Lizzies," the future director admonished the actors to go for understatement. "Don't burst a blood vessel at the beginning of a situation, save it for the iris." But in a Sennett picture, nothing waited for the iris, especially when directed, as "Lizzies" was, by Del Lord, who went on to direct many Three Stooges shorts. "Super-Hooper" stars Australian Billy Bevan and Scottish Andy Clyde, a team whose work in two other shorts are on tap in volume 3, "Wandering Willies" and "Circus Today" (both '26).
Harry Langdon appears again in another bonus film, "His Marriage Wow" ('25). Harry's wedding day goes wrong when he shows up at the wrong church, leaving his bride-to-be waiting across town, and dour pessimist McGlumm convinces him that his future matrimony may prove diabolically fatal. It climaxes with a classic Keystone out-of-control auto ride that provides a whiz-bang glimpse of vintage Los Angeles.
Volume 4, Funny Girls: Genders and their Benders, proves that even before women could vote you didn't need to have a penis to be funny. In "The Detectress" ('19), Gale Henry (who also co-directed) heads to Chinatown to take care of a murderous tong member who has stolen a formula for glasses that will enable people to see what's in chop suey. Alice Howell loses sleep and gains plenty of water and mud in "One Wet Night" ('24). One of the best is the one-reeler "Know Thy Wife" (1918). Bob (Earle Rodney) brings home his new wife. But rather than telling his parents, who have another girl picked out for him, she's disguised as his friend "Steve" (Dorothy DeVore).
"Rowdy Ann" is a delightful showcase for stage comic vet Fay Tincher. She plays Ann, who's one tough cowgirl. After she clobbers Handsome Hank (Al Haynes), her parents send her East to college, hoping she'll come back a lady. Their plan doesn't work. Finally, Louise Fazenda is a flower girl due to inherit a whopping two million bucks in "Hearts and Flowers" ('19). Along for the ride are director Eddie Cline (who later helmed several Keaton classics), Ford Sterling in his famous Dutch Comic makeup, the Sennett Bathing Beauties, a same-sex kiss, and the title card, "You have the grace of a hippopotamus, but lack its charm."
Three comic greats (rather, two greats and a pretty good nephew) work together in Volume 5, Keaton, Arbuckle and St. John. Before Vaudeville comic and bit player Keaton rose to prominence as a writer, director, and star of classic films produced at his own studio, he honed his comedic skills with Arbuckle in a series of films made between 1917 and 1920. On this disc, as they play against each other's different physiques and performance styles, we witness Keaton's "Great Stone Face" persona emerging in "The Garage," and by the time of "The Boat" his signature characterization and manner are in full swing. Al St. John, who was Arbuckle's nephew, supports Keaton and "Uncle Fatty" well, but alongside his more talented and distinctive co-stars he will forever be one of history's second bananas.
A Jack-be-nimble 300-pounder, Arbuckle was (literally) the biggest hit working in screen comedy for years, and he's lesser known now largely because his career was cut short in 1921 by a sex scandal. At a wild Hollywood Labor Day weekend party hosted by Arbuckle, a pretty young starlet, Virginia Rappe, was overcome by an agonizing bout of what her death certificate a few days later called a "ruptured bladder" complicated by "acute peritonitis." The report was soon amended with the words "due to external force" and "manslaughter." No assault had been witnessed, but scandalous rumors and courtroom conjecture that Rappe had been anally raped by Arbuckle fueled the public's image of Hollywood as a Babylon awash in sin and degradation. Arbuckle was indicted for first-degree murder.
Never mind that no actual evidence condemned Arbuckle, or that after three trials he was acquitted. It didn't matter. The moviegoing public was in a prejudiced, witch-burning mood and, abetted by the press, was determined to use the funny fat man as a whipping boy. The infamous Hays Office of motion picture "moral and artistic standards" was created as a direct result of the case. One week after Arbuckle's acquittal, the Hays Office officially banned all his comedies, removed his films from circulation, and barred the comedian from ever acting again. Arbuckle was professionally ruined and the Hays Code cowed Hollywood filmmaking for a generation.
One of the best of the Slapstick Encyclopedia volumes, Keaton, Arbuckle and St. John holds five films. Among the earliest pairings of Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" ('16) puts its two stars in an oceanside cottage that takes to sea thanks to the nefarious doings of St. John. Long thought lost forever, "Oh, Doctor!" ('17) was recently rediscovered and appears for the first time in this edition. This rarity gives us Keaton as the young son (!) of Arbuckle's cash-strapped, horserace-addicted Dr. Holepoke.
In "The Garage" ('19) the three stars run a combo garage and fire department. Mayhem ensues, and the raise of a filthy-minded eyebrow may be prompted nowadays by the title card introducing the pretty female co-star: "Fanny, the boss' daughter daring, athletic, and likes riding the pole," whereupon she descends into frame on the fireman's pole.
Keaton and family, including two sons donning his trademark porkpie hat, also end up offshore in the masterful "The Boat" ('21), one of Keaton's personal favorites and a precursor of his 1924 feature, The Navigator. Keaton builds the eponymous vessel, christened the Damfino, in his basement. When it proves to be too big for the basement door, he tows it out anyway, bringing the house down in the process. From that beginning, here's a perfect example of the Number One rule of plotting Things Get Worse. (It was while filming "The Boat" that the Arbuckle-Rappe incident occurred. Keaton, already emerging as a first-class talent, was now well and truly on his own and the world never looked back.)
The weakest of the bunch is 1925's "The Iron Mule." Al St. John takes center stage in a period piece written around an eccentric train Keaton built for Our Hospitality. St. John gave work to his outcast Uncle Roscoe, who directed under a pseudonym.
Volume 6, Hal Roach's All-Star Comedies, takes us into the hands of the producer-director who eclipsed Sennett by refining the comic form with more thought-out and deliberately paced narratives. Like Sennett, Roach started out as an actor (in the Origins of Film set you can watch him play the Cowardly Lion in an Oz feature by L. Frank Baum), so he knew how to create for and work with actors. In 1915, he inherited $3,000 and set himself up as a producer at Hal E. Roach Studios in Culver City.
Roach released the first "Our Gang" film in 1922, and he brought his friend, folksy humorist Will Rogers, to his studio for a series of comedy shorts in 1923-24. Charley Chase, originally hired as a director, became one of Roach's top comedy stars by the mid '20s, until Laurel and Hardy gave Roach his greatest success. Roach reigned as Hollywood's leading producer of comedy films through the early 1940s.
Director Leo McCarey, hired as an Our Gang gag-writer by Roach in 1923, was the first to bring Laurel and Hardy together, and on this disc we also see samples of his fine work as producer-director of a string of clever two-reelers with the underrated Chase. While working for Roach, McCarey became one of Hollywood's most dependable comedy directors. His later work includes the Marx Brothers masterpiece Duck Soup ('33), The Awful Truth (Oscar for Best Director), An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary's, and Going My Way (his second Oscar for Best Director and another for his screenplay).
In "Oranges and Lemons" ('23), Stan Laurel wreaks havoc at a citrus farm. In "Big Moments from Little Pictures" ('24) Will Rogers a headline act on stage in the Ziegfeld Follies is onscreen to spoof his contemporaries, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Keystone Kops (with Kops Police Chief Ford Sterling).
When he went into the producer biz, Roach knew a fellow acting extra who had recently moved to L.A. from Nebraska. The fellow's name was Harold Lloyd and Roach hired him as his lead comedian. At the height of his career, Lloyd was one of the most popular and highest-paid stars of his time. While his achievements have been overshadowed by the work of contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, he made more films than the two of them combined. His trademarks were Clark Kent glasses and a boy-next-door, all-American optimism. His specialty was "thrill comedy" that placed his characters in daredevil jeopardy, such as the famous hanging-from-the-skyscraper-clock scene in Safety Last.
Sadly, Lloyd isn't well represented in Slapstick Encyclopedia, but we do get a top-flight Lloyd short, "Get Out and Get Under" ('20), in which Harold loves his new Model T apparently more than he loves Mildred Davis. The car breaks loose and leads him on a wild chase.
"Get Out and Get Under" has some historical interest. This is the first film Lloyd made after a "prop" bomb crippled him. While posing for a photograph at the height of his acclaim, he grabbed what he thought was a fake bomb and lit it with his cigarette. The bomb went off in his hand, costing him a thumb and a forefinger. The story was front-page news and it seemed the end of this daredevil's career. But Lloyd bounced back and made dozens more films. In "Get Out and Get Under" his still-healing facial scars are visible in his first close-up, and a flesh-colored glove plus prosthetic device replaces the right-hand digits lost in the explosion. Look for the actor who handed him the bomb, Nat Clifford, as the neighbor at work in his garden. Also note the pre-Hays Code cocaine use, and Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison, the first African-American kid in the Our Gang series, playing the boy who insists on helping while Harold is trying to repair the engine.
"Mighty Like a Moose" ('26) is one of the high points from Charley Chase directed by McCarey, and one of the best near-unknown two-reelers from the silent era. Separately and secretively, Mr. Moose (Chase) and Mrs. Moose (Vivien Oakland) hope to surprise each other by finally getting the corrective surgery they desperately need. He gets his overbite fixed, and she gets a serious nose job and a new wardrobe. As attractive now as they were ugly before, they meet by accident and don't recognize each other. Flirtation leads to plans for an illicit rendezvous. Each, naturally, has the problem of keeping the spouse from finding out.
Finally, the next bonus film, "Haunted Spooks" ('20), is a funny but minor Harold Lloyd vehicle with a scheming uncle who "haunts" a house to scare off the rightful possessors and claim it for himself. Some may rightfully cringe, others may appropriately raise a social-historical interest eyebrow at the pun of the title and the depiction of ethnic characters running about willy-nilly frightened by "Spooks! Fresh from de grave!" Different times.
Volume 7, Hal Roach: The Lot of Fun brings us more Roach. It opens with "Laurel & Hardy's Lafftoons" (or "Laugh Toons," as the credits read), 23 minutes of clips from four of Stan and Ollie's silent films: "Angora Love," "You're Darn Tootin'" (directed by Edgar Kennedy, the slow-burning lemonade vendor in Duck Soup), the apocalyptic pie fight sequence from "Battle of the Century," and the Harold Lloyd-like skyscraper girders sequence from the McCarey-directed "Liberty." Purists may furrow their brows, with some reason, at the fact that these are snippets instead of entire films. The complete versions are available on Image's nine-volume Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy series, and what's here still provides a strong record of the burgeoning rapport, personal chemistry, and comedic skills that this iconic duo would transfer to sound a few years later.
"Dogs of War" ('23) pairs up two of Roach's most bankable commodities, the Our Gang kids and Harold Lloyd. The Gang runs amuck through a Hollywood studio, the actual Hal Roach lot. Then, "Fluttering Hearts" ('27) features Charley Chase, who must retrieve a compromising letter from blackmailer Oliver Hardy, again under the hand of Leo McCarey. Next up is Harry "Snub" Pollard as a gadget-crazy inventor in "It's a Gift" ('23), which sets up a high-speed car chase and yet another super-science gasoline alternative in danger by the representatives of Big Business.
Volume 8, Chaplin and the Music Hall Tradition explores the stage roots that the great Charlie Chaplin brought with him to the studio. Plus, outright theft being the most filmable form of flattery, we get a chance to see two of the numerous Chaplin imitators in action.
Chaplin, who died in 1977, was born in London to music hall parents. After beginning a life in show business as a child dancer, he entered silent motion pictures in 1913, aged 24. His appeal as a silent screen star, director, and producer has endured through to the present day, and up until 1950 his films grossed five times more than any other U.S. film, apart from Gone With the Wind.
In "A Night in the Show" ('15), Chaplin again brought to the screen one of the stage routines that made him the hottest star on the music hall circuit, the drunk act, specifically the "Mumming Birds" sketch from his traveling Karno days. Here he plays two roles: a soused society swell creating chaos in the audience and on stage at a music hall show, and Mr. Rowdy, a lower-class boor who strives to out-crass the swell.
In "A Rare Chaplin Snippet" of rediscovered footage from 1916, Chaplin's Little Tramp improvises conducting an orchestra. That's followed by a full-bore classic, "The Rink" ('16), one of a dozen great shorts Chaplin made for Mutual during 1916-17. Based on a music hall routine written by his brother Sydney, this one has Chaplin playing a waiter who gains more enemies than tips, then after work heads to the roller-skating rink where, with extraordinary skating skill and body control, keeps the chaos coming. Supporting him are Chaplin's Mutual regulars Edna Purviance, eyebrow-laden brute Eric Campbell, and John Goodman-like Henry Bergman as Campbell's flirty wife.
Chaplin had many imitators. Billie Ritchie was one of them, even though he had been Chaplin's predecessor in the old Karno days and Chaplin picked up some tricks from him (Chaplin referred to Ritchie as his "professor"). Here, in "Live Wires and Love Sparks," we see what's likely the only surviving footage of Ritchie's take on Chaplin's Little Tramp. Billy West was an even more bald-faced Chaplin clone, and in "He's In Again" (1918) we see that, damn, he really was good at it. He's accompanied by Oliver Hardy's rendition of the aforementioned Eric Campbell.
Stan Laurel solos again in "Pie Eyed" ('25), his take on the classic stage drunk act. Then "Only Me" ('29) stars Lupino Lane many times over as he plays every member of the audience and every performer on a vaudeville stage. Lupino's multiple turn begs a comparison with Keaton, who did it more astonishingly and with greater verve in "The Playhouse," but Lane's approach is worth a click of the Play button.
At last, the final disc brings home a number of oddities and scraps, some that are all but unclassifiable.
Volume 9, The Race Is On, gathers up samples of a deathless comedy staple the chase. Comedy films have gotten plenty of gags from planes, trains, and automobiles, not to mention bicycles, trucks, streetcars, motorcycles, roller skates, ambulances, horses, and collapsible police wagons. The daredevil spirit of the age comes through in some of the "wackiest" films in the set.
Sid Smith stars in the action-driven and atypically elaborate "Water Wagons" ('25) and "Outbound" ('24). 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.
When his feature Play Safe failed to wow 'em at the box office, Monty Banks trimmed away all the fat and left the superb action sequence in which he rescues his sweetheart from a runaway train. The resulting retitled two-reeler is "Chasing Choo Choos" ('27). Once the chase begins, some genuinely "madcap" comedy arrives with Banks' astounding stunts aboard the speeding train. He hangs onto the side of the railroad cars, and runs across their tops while water from a tower gushes just inches behind him. Then it's "Danger Ahead" ('26), which lampoons Victorian melodramas. One of several comedies built around the comic-strip character "Hairbreadth Harry," it's a minor work, but it features some good gags and a clever bit of trick photography.
The set comes to an end with Volume 10, Tons of Fun: The Anarchic Fringe, spotlighting occasionally brilliant and absurdist work from small, independent studios. During the silent era, the independents cranked out miles of one- and two-reel comedies every year. Many of these were cheap knockoffs, but occasionally the indies produced a real gem.
Ben Turpin, he of the $500-a-week eyes, returns in one of the wildest shorts on board here, 1924's "Yukon Jake." This riff on Jack London's novels of adventures in the Great White North features the cross-goggled one as "wriggly eyed" Sheriff Cyclone Bill, who's on the trail of dastardly Yukon Jake (Kalla Pasha) and the Purina Kid (John J. Richardson). In the wackiest scene, Turpin dreams about a bevy of snowball-throwing Sennett Bathing Beauties who emerge from igloos and frolic in the frozen wasteland. The ruckus builds in one of the most enjoyable films in the Encyclopedia. Of course, Ben gets the girl, appropriately named Nell (Natalie Kingston).
"Three of a Kind" ('26) squeezes a lot of mileage from the girth of its stars the "Ton of Fun" comedians Fatty Alexander, Fat Karr, and Kewpie Ross, each weighing in at 300+ pounds. As with the racial stereotypes of this pre-PC era, some viewers will find this stretched-to-bursting fat joke about as funny as the slow, saggy sigh of an expired whoopee cushion. Others will decide that, sometimes, three very large men walking side by side really can be funny.
Billy Bletcher, in "Dry and Thirsty" ('21), anticipates the national tendency to scoff at Prohibition. In "Family Life" ('24) Mark Jones and Ruth Hiatt, aided by knockabout comedy and some sharp satire, send up components of American domesticity such as automobiles, pre-fab houses, family vacations, gang warfare, and natural selection.
One of the most eye-poppingly inventive films here is Charles Bowers' "Now You Tell One." A gentlemen's Liar's Club has convened for its latest telling of tall tales. Bowers takes the prize as an inventor botanist who has developed a potion that will "graft anything." So through astounding stop-motion animation effects, we're treated to witty gags worthy of a Tex Avery cartoon, such as an eggplant tree that sprouts hardboiled eggs complete with salt shaker. When the home of his would-be girlfriend is besieged by mice (one of which wards off her cat with a tiny revolver), he harvests cattail plants and grows an army of rodent-battling felines one of the oddest, possibly one of the most creepy-funny stop-motion animation scenes from the age before Ray Harryhausen. Also, note the scene where Charley drives a herd of elephants and donkeys into the Capitol building in Washington D.C. It's said that the trick photography so fooled the higher-ups that they demanded an investigation (after all, this was an age of "the camera doesn't lie"). Charley and the pachyderms had never stormed the District of Coolidge.
The set's final film is "The Grocery Clerk" ('20). Director-actor-producer Larry Semon is pitted against molasses, flour, fly paper, and other household goods in his pasty-faced mugging style.
Thanks to the movies, you don't even have to be alive anymore to still be funny. Now thanks to David Shepard and DVD technology, you don't have to be scratched, cracked, broken, spliced, or spooled out at the wrong speed either.
Forget self-congratulatory commentary tracks or studio promo puff-pieces or DVD-ROM marketing department "extras." The only thing missing from Slapstick Encyclopedia is the Easter egg that ejects a custard pie from the screen and into the face of the person sitting next to you. Now that's comedy.Mark Bourne
- Black and white with occasional tinting
- Full-screen (1.33:1)
- Five single-sided, dual-layered discs (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo musical scores
- Title cards in English
- Individual keep-cases in a box set
[Back to Review Index] [Back to Quick Reviews] [Back to Main Page]