I love the art of silent films. From the technical wizardry of The Last Laugh and Metropolis to the eerie atmosphere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary, the fun adventures of Douglas Fairbanks, and even the melodramas that were so common at the time, I really enjoy most of them. My favorite type of early film, however, is slapstick. Yeah, it may be a bit low brow to admit it, but watching someone fall down a flight a stairs or slip on a banana peel gets me laughing and the early comedians were better at that than anyone since. That's why I was so excited to discover that All Day Entertainment was releasing a second collection of shorts by some of the overlooked silent clowns. Like the first installment, American Slapstick Volume 2 is a hilarious compilation of rare and mostly unseen films from the early days of the cinema.
This three disc set groups the shorts by subject, and each topic has a very nice introduction that gives some background to the films that follow. This is a very nice touch, as even novice silent film viewers can appreciate how the movies fit into the larger picture and the historical significance.
The first disc starts out with some shorts and fragments (several of the titles presented in this set are only partial films... the rest presumably being lost) from one of the great masters of silent comedy, Harold Lloyd. While many of Chaplin's and Keaton's earliest films survive, a time when they were coming up with their characters and learning the how to be funny in films, most of Lloyd's earliest shorts are missing. His first big success was playing a Chaplin-like character, Lonesome Luke. While this series of films was very popular, Lloyd didn't like the fact that he was aping another comic. He came up with the 'glasses' character and over a series of shorts fully developed the everyman personality that he would make famous. Nearly all of the Lonesome Luke films were destroying in a fire at Lloyd's Beverly Hills estate in 1943, and only a few of the early 'glasses' shorts are still around. This is a nice treat seeing the star in the early days of his career.
Lloyd helped build Hal Roach Studios. He was their big star, but Roach new it was only a matter of time before his star moved on to a bigger studio. That, and the fact that the public had an insatiable appetite for comedy shorts, had Roach looking for more clowns to feature in his films. Some of these second string comics were quite funny, as the shorts in the next section, The Hal Roach B-Players, clearly illustrate. This section has films featuring Gaylord Lloyd, Harold's brother, James Parrot (brother of Charley Chase) and the unique looking Snub Pollard.
The final group of films on the first disc feature Educational Pictures product. While most people think of Educational as the poverty row studio where Buster Keaton ended up after his studio days were over, they actually released some quality films in the silent era. This selection includes several noteworthy entries. A Fresh Start with Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy is a good, and funny, example of the Educational line. Larry Semon 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 Semon is The Speed Kid a young man with a hot rod who races Hardy for the change to court the girl of his dreams. A frantic and enjoyable short, the section where Larry races through town with a bed attached to the back of his racers was particularly memorable.
The undisputed king of silent comedy was Charlie Chaplin and the second disc starts out with him. Well, sort of. It starts out with a group of Chaplin impersonators. Chaplin was amazingly popular in the silent era. For years he was the highest paid performer in the world, and every time he negotiated a new contract he would break records for highest salary. The problem was that he was slow to produce. After all, you can't rush genius. To cash in on the public's love for the Little Tramp, many similar acts popped up as well as several copycats. This section pays tribute to those largely forgotten imitators. It starts out with a trio of cartoons featuring the Tramp.
Next up is a selection of Chaplin's best impersonators. The king of that particular hill was Billy West, a comic that Chaplin himself once said came the closest to capturing his character. Like Lloyd earlier, West grew tired of impersonating someone more famous and developed another character. This one however never captured the public's fancy and West eventually moved behind the camera as an AD at Columbia.
The disc winds up with a look at Charlie Chaplin's older brother Syd Chaplin. Syd was the one who got Charlie started in show business. He had joined Fred Karno's acting troop in Britain and had risen in the ranks to become one of the company's stars and also a writer. He convinced Karno to give his little brother a shot, and the rest, as they say, is history. Before Chaplin left Mack Sennett, he convinced the producer to hire his brother on, something the didn't take much convincing since Sennett had been told by his partners in New York to give the British comic anything he wanted.
Syd is best known for being Charlie's business manager and getting those fantastic sums of money for Chaplin's films, but he was a good comic in his own right. This set presents two shorts and one of Syd's feature films, Charlie's Aunt. An amusing spectacle, the full length film has Syd dressing in drag to act as a chaperon for his friends, only to have amorous advances made to him. It's a cute film and one that would be a lot of fun to see with a large audience.
The final disc starts off with a trio of comedies that have all of the maniacal mayhem that silent slapstick is noted for, including a funny piece by Billy Bevans. The real gem of this set follows: a selection of shorts by female comedians. Louise Fazenda and Alice Howell were both silent slapstick comics willing to do the silly stunts that their male counterparts would do. Little known today, the films in this collection show that they are just as humorous, if not more so, as their more famous counterparts. The real find in this collection is a one reel short called Hold Still staring Anne Cornwall. This is a gem of a film where Anne steals the show with her comic talent. Though feminists of today may boo the ending, Anne plays a plucky lady trying to make it in a man's world. It's too bad more of these women's films are not available. By one account 90% of Alice Howell's films are gone. This set is a rare chance to see some obscure but never the less funny comedians.
The collection is wrapped up with a couple of unique offerings; early talking films that tried to incorporate silent style slapstick comedy. They don't work quiet as well, maybe it's something about the scratchy sound, or maybe it's that comedians weren't as talented as some of the silent greats, but it is interesting to see how they tried to continue the genre after the industry changed.
The films included in this set are:
Bliss (1917) - w/ Snub Pollard/Bebe Daniels/Billy Evans
Hal Roach B-players:
The Dippy Dentist (1920) - Snub Pollard/'Sunshine' Sammy Morrison/Gaylord
Breezing Along (1927) - Lloyd Hamilton
Charlie without Chaplin:
Felix in Hollywood (?) - Cartoon fragment
Hearts and Havoc:
Be Reasonable (1921) - Billy Bevan
Cinderella Cinders (1920) - Alice Howell
Most of these films are accompanied by original piano scores written and performed by Ben Model, Andrew Earl Simpson, and Ethan Uslan. A couple had organ scores by Blain Gale, and a handful used generic music soundtracks that were placed on them for TV broadcast presumably in the 50's and 60's. The audio tracks in this last category were scratchy and had some background hiss, and didn't fit the shorts nearly as well as the compositions made for this set did. The piano and organ scores sounded good, and were a nice addition to the set.
The quality of the windowboxed image varies over a wide range from short to short. Some of the films are very good looking with only minor print damage and wonderful contrast. Others are scratched and damaged, some have low contrast, several are from multi-generation dups, and a few have signs of decomposition. The fact that these films are available at all is a slight miracle. The most quoted figure is that only 15% of silent films still exist, and a most of those are from the larger stars and directors. These shorts of lesser known comics are exceedingly rare and even today there is not much economic incentive to restore these films, so their shortcomings can be forgiven and even expected. Overall this set of films look pretty good. They are generally rougher than what you'll find in an American Film Archives set, which is to be expected, but not as bad as some VHS tapes I've purchased back in the day.
There are no extras, but with a set like this, they really aren't called for.
Kudos to All Day Entertainment for putting out a second set of wonderfully
funny and rare slapstick shorts. David Kalat (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. The Syd Chaplin shorts as well as the movies
featuring the female comics were especially noteworthy. While it's
too bad that the video quality on these films isn't better, it's amazing
that we can see them at all. Highly Recommended.