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Slapstick Masters

Image Entertainment

Starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton,
Monty Banks, and Laurel & Hardy

Produced for DVD by David Shepard

Music composed and performed by The Alloy Orchestra

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

DVD technology sure has been good for movies made before filmmakers had even sound technology to work with. Nowadays fans of the good old stuff are able to throw out the faded, too-fast, raked-over-a-cheese-grater public domain prints released from fly-by-night video companies, then replace them with newly restored and spruced-up discs from outfits who care about what they're preserving. Like the vintage classic epics, dramas, and genre films, the octogenarian comedies are finding second lives in this modern format. New DVDs are showcasing the brilliance of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and other funny-makers from the days when screen comedy contributed mightily to the public acceptance and evolution of motion pictures. Shiny silver discs of one- and two-reel short films are excellent ways to indulge an aficionado's craving and also introduce a new generation to the gags and gag men (and gag women) that flickered on screens back when movie comics actually had to work for a living.

Among the essential comedy collections are Kino's 11-disc The Art of Buster Keaton, Image Entertainment's The Best Arbuckle/Keaton Collection, Image's six-disc series of Chaplin's Essanay and Mutual comedies, the exhaustive five-disc omnibus, Slapstick Encyclopedia, and a Keaton double-feature, The General / Steamboat Bill Jr.. What those sets have in common with the new Slapstick Masters is film preservationist David Shepard, one of the best friends silent cinema ever had. Thanks to his work on DVD releases of Nosferatu, The Lost World, Dr. Mabuse, The Sheik, and others, those pieces of our cultural heritage are here to stay. With his companies Black Hawk Films and Film Preservation Associates, he has helped keep the skill, ingenuity, and simple enjoyment found in early films alive and fresh for new audiences. If you're new to the "silent classic" comedies, think of his Slapstick Masters as an ankle-deep wade into fun waters, while Slapstick Encyclopedia is a cannonball into the deep end of the pool.

This single disc holds four black-and-white "two-reelers," each an outstanding example of silent short comedy at its best. All are transferred from excellent restored prints. Of the four, two of them — Charlie Chaplin's Easy Street and Buster Keaton's One Week — have long been recognized as some of their creators' finest, most individually distinctive, work. Also here is Big Business, arguably the best sampling of Laurel & Hardy's silent career before they made the transition into the sound era (a transition they made with rare success). All but unknown today, Monty Banks is represented here in Chasing Choo-Choos, a madcap runaway train adventure.

Fans who already own any of these films on previous DVD releases naturally want to know if Slapstick Masters offers anything new. Yes, it does. Plenty. As Shepard revealed via an email exchange for this review, three of the four prints are, to greater or lesser degrees, new for this edition. What's more, all four showcase brand new Dolby Digital 2.0 musical scores from The Alloy Orchestra, the most eclectic and eccentric — and brilliant — film re-scorers working. This Boston-based trio possesses the uncanny ability to be hip, odd, clever, raucous, delicate, or playful while simultaneously displaying respect and affection for the films we're watching. Their percussive, quirky orchestrations avoid the temptations of cliché. They are thoroughly modern but aren't likely to ever feel frozen into a definable now. Think of them as, perhaps, They Might Be Silents.

With their newfangled approaches to vintage movie scoring, The Alloy Orchestra can an acquired taste. Some traditionalists don't care for their distinctive innovations. Others — yours truly, for one — acquired the taste in the first bite (in my case, that was Shepard's The Lost World restoration). In 1999 Entertainment Weekly listed them among "The 100 Most Creative People in Entertainment." Of the four shorts on this disc, Shepard says that "These are familiar films, but I think Alloy's music makes them completely fresh again, and funnier than they are with more traditional accompaniments."

*          *          *

The four films on tap are:

Easy Street (1916) — Here's one of the finest from Charlie Chaplin's Lone Star/Mutual years. Charlie's signature creation, the Little Tramp, is a vagrant who reforms and becomes a cop. Assigned to the worst slum in town, he conquers a brute three times his size (hulking Eric Campbell, the heavy throughout Chaplin's Mutual years). Chaplin, who also wrote and directed the film, creates brilliant humor from unblinking observation of poverty and violence. 25 minutes.

According to Shepard, the clean, sharp picture material on this edition of Easy Street is, with minor contrast adjustments, the same one found in Image's Chaplin Mutuals set. However, the intertitles are not. He recently found an original print and learned from it that his company had been lacking some titles and incorrectly placed others in previous editions. So this edition has all of the titles and all are properly placed within the film. Alloy's orchestration here occasionally displays a dissonant, almost creepy edge (reminiscent of The Silent Orchestra's score for Nosferatu), and the choice works beautifully by upending our expectations and bringing out the dark currents running just under the skin of Easy Street.

One Week (1920) — Buster Keaton assembles a pre-fabricated house for his bride during the first six days of their marriage. Unfortunately, the directions are sabotaged by her spurned suitor. The result is a topsy-turvy, inside-out edifice better suited to Salvidor Dali than to a newlywed couple. The house is one of silent comedy's mechanical wonders (a fascination Keaton carried forth throughout his peak years). It becomes literally the center of the action when a house-warming party is interrupted by a wind storm that spins the house on its axis, ultimately flinging its occupants through the windows. An unforgettable debut, this was the film that introduced Keaton as an inventive and hilarious filmmaker in his own right after his years of apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle. Walter Kerr had this to say in his book on early screen comedy, The Silent Clowns:

"But from the very first film Keaton released as a star, once his association with Arbuckle was ended, was breath-takingly, an explosion of style. To sit through dozens and dozens of short comedies of the period and then to come upon 'One Week' is to see the one thing no man ever sees: a garden at the moment of blooming."

One Week was one of the most popular and profitable movies of 1920. It launched his career as the most technically virtuosic director/actor/editor silent comedy ever knew — perhaps the best that American cinema has seen to date. 22 minutes.

This new edition of One Week is not the version found in Kino's The Art of Buster Keaton collection. It is remastered from a completely different and better source, and runs at a different ("IMHO better," says Shepard) projection speed. Alloy reached into their big bag of tricks for this score. Their use of forward-driving keyboards, waltz-time, sound effects, and everything in between complements Keaton's windup to the climax, and then his follow-through that out-climaxes the climax, with mindful attention to every detail in Keaton's frenetic tale of Modern Age frustration and chaos.

Chasing Choo-Choos (1927) — Monty Banks didn't possess the character-making craft or charisma of his colleagues on this disc, but we can be thankful for at least one thing he did. When his feature Play Safe failed to wow 'em at the box office, he trimmed away all the fat and left the superb action sequence in which he rescues his sweetheart from a runaway train. The plot lost some of its coherence as a result, but the resulting two-reeler was retitled to stand alone as Chasing Choo-Choos. Its second half was filmed largely without trick photography on a spectacular stretch of the San Diego & Arizona Railway. Once the chase begins, one of the best comedy thrill sequences ever filmed arrives with Banks's 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, all before the big crash. Alloy's style adds new energy to the implacable train. 22 minutes.

Except for the main title, Chasing Choo-Choos is the same version found in Slapstick Encyclopedia.

Big Business (1929) — This is one of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's most well-regarded films and a blueprint for how to build — and build — a gag. Stan and Ollie's big business is trying to sell Christmas trees door-to-door — in California, in July. Things go wrong when they call on Jimmy Finlayson. In an escalating fusillade of tit-for-tat, he cuts up their tree and disassembles their Model T, while they in turn wreck his house from the front door to the piano. During this orgy of reciprocal destruction, the neighbors and a cop intervene only at their own risk. The supervising director for Big Business was Leo McCarey, whose later work included the Marx Brothers masterpiece Duck Soup ('33), The Awful Truth ('37, Best Director Oscar), The Bells of St. Mary's ('45), Going My Way ('44, his second Oscar for Best Director and another for his screenplay), and An Affair to Remember ('57). 18 minutes.

This new DVD incarnation of Big Business sure knocks one out of the park. Mastered and electronically restored by Michael Agee of Hal Roach Studios, the print looks so good it could have been minted fresh last week. Agee applied a few digital fixes to the already superb print found on his Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy DVD. Alloy's score is ideal, right down to its happy nod to the familiar Laurel & Hardy motif, "Ku-ku."

*          *          *

Image Entertainment's Slapstick Masters DVD presents the four films in their original full-frame, black-and-white (no tinting) formats. Speed and framing are exactly where they should be. As far as scratches, blemishes, and so on, the prints surprise no one by showing signs of age. Still, acknowledging all the usual caveats, the image quality is very good, ranging from Contrasty With Obvious Wear But Otherwise No Complaints (One Week) to Holy Cow That Looks Great (Big Business). Purists should be pleased. The Alloy scores are clear and robust in DD 2.0.

Our only beef comes from how the menu items are authored. Slip the disc into the player, hit Play, and the disc defaults not to a Main Menu but dives straight into Easy Street as the first part of a single 87-minute, 20-chapter feature. Left uninterrupted, Slapstick Masters plays straight through all four films. Easy Street is comprised of chapters 1 through 6, One Week is 7 through 13, Chasing Choo-Choos 14 through 18, and Big Business 19 and 20. Between the films, ornate period "magic lantern" slides enter from left or right to remind us "Ladies, please remove your hats" and so on. Yes, the slides are a cute gimmick, but to view the four titles displayed as individual menu items, you must click your Menu button and search for the Scene Selection or Index items. It's a minor quibble — what's a few extra clicks between friends? — but it's frustrating the way an advertising pop-up is frustrating.

That issue aside, Slapstick Masters is a first-rate introduction for anyone new to silent comedy, and a worthy addition to the shelves of dedicated enthusiasts. It reminds us of something Hal Roach said: "In those days, there was one secret to making good comedy. If it made the audience laugh, it was a good comedy."

David Shepard and the Alloy Orchestra know a good comedy when they see one, or four.

—Mark Bourne

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