When people talk about silent comedians only three names
are ever mentioned: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.
That's unfortunate because there were many, many comedians who made one
and two reel movies in the silent era, but most of them have been forgotten.
There are a lot of reasons for this. A majority of the silent clowns
never graduated to feature films the way the 'big three' did, many didn't
have a single identifiable character like the little tramp or the glasses
character, and others, like Billy West, made a career out of imitating
Charlie Chaplin and never moved out from under his shadow.
The sad fact is that most of the silent comedians have been forgotten.
This is unfortunate since many of their films are funny, but without name
recognition there is little incentive to restore their films and almost
no economic reasons to put them out on DVD. That's where American
Slapstick comes in. This three DVD set collects 17 silent era
comedy shorts, all of them new to DVD, and presents them in a nice three
disc set. All Day Entertainment in association with Reel Classic
DVD have released this set through Image, and they've collected some rare
and wonderful comic gems.
you're a student of silent comedies or have seen the SlapHappy
collection of DVDs (reviewed here), you'll recognize many of the stars
of these shorts. There's a Ton of Fun film, Billy Bevan makes an
appearance, so does Charley Chase, and there are examples of the work of
Larry Semon and Snub Pollard not to mention previously unreleased shorts
of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Stan Laurel. There are also
some obscure comics that I've never encountered before. Anyone recognize
the names Jack Duffy or Perry Murdock?
This is a good set of films. David Kalat of All Day Entertainment
(yes, the same David Kalat who provided the wonderful commentaries for
the Dr. Mabuse films of Fritz Lang) has selected a wonderful series of
shorts that showcases these forgotten comics but also presents some rarer
films of Lloyd and Chaplin. Just about all of the films are funny
at least part of the time, and while a couple do fall flat (Beauty and
the Bump, I'm looking at you) even these have their interesting points.
were many films that I was excited to see. The Lonesome Luke picture
was one, a true rarity since most of them perished in a fire in the early
40's. The Syd Chaplin short was also interesting. I knew Syd
did some solo work, but I had only seen him in his younger brother's films
before this. The Snub Pollard film is a highlight of the collection,
a wild film that's funny and inventive.
The bone I have to pick with this set is the way that the films are
presented. At the beginning of just about every short a card pops
up that states "This motion picture is presented in memory of Bob
Lee, founder and president of Essex Films." That's fine to remember
a lost loved one, but does this card have to be before every film?
Seeing it 10 to 15 times is a bit of overkill.
Another creative choice that I didn't like was crediting Reelclassicdvd.com
as the producer of these films. While I have no problem at all with
giving credit to Reelclassicdvd for providing the prints, but on a few
occasions the original title card is replaced by one that seems to imply
that this 21st century company created the film. That smacks of Raymond
Rohauer's efforts to put his name before Buster Keaton's on as many of
Keaton's classic films that he could find. (And securing the copyrights
in his (Rohauer's) name. While I don't think Reelclassicdvd is up
to anything so sinister, I assume that since this was only done on selected
shorts that there were missing their opening tiles, I don't like the practice.
The occasional "RCDVD" bug that pops up in the corner is also irritating.
Aside from those critiques, I really enjoyed this set.
in the Rain – Charlie Chaplin (1914): This was the first short
that Charlie directed when he was under contract at Keystone, and it's
a typical Mack Sennet short. There are a lot of prat falls, over
the top sight gags and a chase with the Keystone Cops. Chaplin is
in his tramp outfit at this time, but he still doesn't have the character
Laughing Gas – Charlie Chaplin (1914): Charlie plays a
dentist's assistant. You can imagine the rest. A rough and
tumble short, but Charlie manages to steal a kiss from the girl.
Submarine Pirate – Syd Chaplin (1915): Most people don't realize
that Charlie's older brother Syd made films too. Syd was actually
and actor first, getting a job in England with the famous Fred Karno.
He convinced Karno to let his young brother Charlie join the troop and
the rest is history. As David Kalat says in his audio commentary
to this film, if Syd did nothing else in his life, he would still be remembered
for getting Charlie his first acting job.
This short is a little unusual. When I first saw it, I didn't
really understand Syd's character. (I was happy to hear on David
Kalat's commentary track that he had the same experience.) Syd is a waiter
who overhears a couple of people plotting to use a submarine to rob a ship
that is carrying a lot of gold. The waiter manages to trick his way
on board the sub and then proceeds to use it not to save the gold bearing
ship, but to rob it. The fact that the star wasn't a good guy was
a little odd, but this is still an interesting film. The exterior
shots of the submarine, a real US Navy vessel (used with permission), were
an unexpected surprise.
Rival – Billy West (1917): Charlie Chaplin was incredibly popular
in the silent era, but also very slow when it came to putting out new films.
If the real Tramp wasn't going to make the movies that people wanted to
see, then imitators would. Chaplin had many people trying to copy
his style, dress, and comedy, and the best of those was Billy West.
This West comedy shows how close he was to the real thing. It costars
The Bond – Charlie Chaplin (1918): A promotional film that
Charlie did with his usual costars (at the time) Edna Purviance and Mack
Swain to raise money for the war effort. Excerpts are often taken
from this short and you've probably seen the clip of Charlie hitting the
Kaiser over the head with a giant hammer that says Liberty Bonds.
The entire short is included on this disc.
– Larry Semons (1922): Larry Semons is probably best known for his
silent adaptation of The Wizard of Oz featuring Oliver Hardy. He
was a silent clown though and was very popular in his time. He had
some of the best stunt men in the business on his payroll and his shorts
were often filled with creative stunts and elaborate gags. In this
film, Larry is a golf fanatic who has trouble on the links with Oliver
Lizzies of the Field – Billy Bevan (1924): Appearing in
literally hundreds of silent and sound movies, Billy Bevan was a regular
on the Sennet lot in the 1920's. This typical Bevan film has him
entering a free-for-all motor race with a $250 prize. Mayhem ensues.
Love – Ton of Fun (1926): Roscoe Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy and other
hefty comedians got a lot of laughs in their time. Producer Joe Rock
figured if one large guy was funny, three would be hysterical. To
test his theory he teamed together Frank "Fatty" Alexander, Hillard "Fat"
Kerr, and "Kewpie" Ross to create the "Ton of Fun". Billed as the
"three fattest men on the screen", the trio made low budget comedies for
poverty row studio Standard Photoplay and had a moderate amount of success
at the end of the silent era. In this short the group goes to work
at a construction site with predictable results.
Uppercuts – Jack Duffy (1926): Duffy started out in vaudeville,
was hired by Larry Semon to appear in his films, stared in a series of
his own shorts, and eventually became a make-up artist. This film
has Duffy playing an old man who arranges a fight, only to have the event
raided by the police. What a perfect way the start a chase!
Beauty and the Bump – Perry Murdock (1927): Another poverty row
comedy featuring Perry Murdock and Nita Cavalier. This was the first
of a very short series of only five films that teamed these two comedians.
After the partnership was dissolved, Nita retired after one more film role,
but Perry continued in Hollywood playing small parts in low budget westerns.
He eventually turned his talents to set design, and continued working in
that capacity until the early 1970's. In this rare film, Murdock
takes his girl to an amusement park where he manages to get a thug chasing
him. A rather uninspired film, it was interesting to see the park
Rosie – Francis Lee (1929): Cute, perky, and sexy, forgotten
comedienne Francis Lee is great in this risqué comedy. She
is entrusted with getting a rare teddy to the underwear show downtown.
After watching this it's hard to tell what the main selling point is, the
comedy or the women prancing around in underwear. I'm guessing the
Luke's Movie Muddle – Harold Lloyd (1916): A rare Lonesome
Luke short. Before Lloyd became a huge star with his 'glasses character'
he had a successful series of shorts as a Charlie Chaplin imitator.
Lloyd always talked these shorts down in later years; he wanted people
to remember him for his original creations, but this is does have some
laughs in it.
Your Dues – Harold Lloyd (1919): This was one of the very last
one-reel films that Harold Lloyd made. He's in his glasses character
here, and is mistaken for someone who wants to be initiated into a fraternal
order. Blindfolded, Lloyd gets put through some crazy initiation
stunts. The interesting thing about this film is that foreshadows
some of Lloyds thrill pictures, but without the actual thrills. In
one scene the blindfolded Lloyd is told to climb to the top of a tall building
and walk across the roof. This, unbeknownst to Lloyd, actually takes
place inside and the rigged ladder only gives the illusion that he's climbing
up high. It's funny to think that in a few years he'd be doing similar
stunts on the side of a building.
The Nonskid Kid – Eddie Boland (1922): Boland was a regular
in many Hal Roach comedies and appeared in many shorts with Harold Lloyd.
In this staring role, Boland shares the screen with Earnest "Sunshine Sammy"
Morrison, a child actor who was one of the original "Our Gang" kids.
Morrison was a talented actor even at an early age and steals the picture.
He was the first black child movie star and in later years he would be
cast as a regular in the Dead End Kids/ East Side Kids films.
at Auction – Snub Pollard (1923): Snub was another regular on
the Roach lot who graduated to his own series of shorts. His films
were often filled with inventive gags and unusual props, and this one is
no exception. Poor Snub has to retrieve a houseful of furniture that
was sold at auction and goes to some great lengths to get it back.
This outrageous short was directed by Charlie Chase under his real name,
Smithy – Stan Laurel (1924): This Stan Laurel solo effort
has him discharged from the army and getting a job at a construction site.
Stan plays a character that's similar to the one that would make him famous
when he was teamed up with Oliver Hardy. The plot, involving mishaps
while building a home, is also one that the team of Laurel and Hardy would
get a lot use from. A funny short.
Forgotten Sweeties – Charley Chase (1927): If you've seen
the Kino collection of Charlie
Chase shorts, you'll know that he was a talented and gifted comic.
While this isn't his best short, it is very enjoyable. Charlie's
ex-girlfriend and her new husband move in across the hall. This doesn't
please the jealous husband or Charlie's wife.
These films are accompanied by original piano scores written and performed
by Ben Model, with the exception of The Bond (Bernie Anderson on
organ), and The Submarine Pirate (piano accompaniment by Ray Brubacher.)
Cupid's Rival has vintage music playing over the film which is
not scene specific. These stereo tracks all sounded good, there were
no audio defects (with the exception of Cupid's Rival) to mar the
production and the music fit the subject matter well. A nice sounding
set of films.
Unfortunately these films have not been restored. Of course the
image quality varies from short to short, but it generally ranges from
'okay' to 'not so good.' The transfers were all made from 16 mm reduction
prints and they have seen better days. All of the prints have scratches
and dirt and the image was generally very soft, almost blurry at some points.
The contrast is generally not too good either. Details disappear
into shadows and highlights, and the level of detail isn't great.
Having said that, there really is not much economic incentive to restore
these films, so their shortcomings can be forgiven and even expected.
There are a couple of bonus items included with this set, all to be
found on the first disc. First is the short Getting Ahead. This is
an odd mixture of sound and silent film clips that, well, you just have
to see it for yourself.
Viewers with a computer with a DVD-ROM drive can access a .pdf file
of "The Chaplin Book", a 1916 picture book about the little tramp.
The most enjoyable bonus item however was the commentary track to the
Syd Chaplin film The Submarine Pirate by David Kalat. David is a
very entertaining speaker and gives a lot of background on the Chaplin
brothers including their work with Fred Karno, coming to America, and Syd's
leaving show business. Though the track isn't scene specific, he
only talks about the film a little, it is a lot of fun. (I especially
enjoyed David's description of Charlie Chaplin's older brother: "Syd
kind of looks like the unholy love child of Charlie Chaplin and Shemp Howard.")
This is a very good selection of rare and seldom seen silent shorts.
This wouldn't be the best collection to introduce someone to the world
of early screen comedy, a Chaplin or Keaton film would be best for that,
but fans of the genre will be overjoyed that a collection such as this
has been released. It's too bad that these films weren't restored,
as the video is a little rough, but if you go in expecting older 16mm prints
I'm sure you won't be disappointed. This set gets a strong Recommendation,
especially for comedy fans.