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.
If 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.
There 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.
Caught 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 down yet.
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.
A 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.
Cupid's 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 Oliver Hardy.
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.
Golf 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 Hardy.
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.
Heavy 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 and rides.
Reckless Rosie Francis Lee (1929): Cute, perky, and sexy, forgotten comedienne Francis Lee is great in this risquι 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 later.
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.
Pay 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.
Sold 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, Charles Parrot.
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.