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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


Kino's Slapstick Symposium Wave Three
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

There hasn't been much news on new silent films coming to DVD since the last column, but that was only a week ago so that's not too surprising.  In case you missed my write up on this year's SF Silent Film Festival, you can read it here.

As I reported earlier, next week (7/29/08 to be exact) Kino is going to put out a pair of discs with four films by and about the Swedish director Victor Sjöstrom. A Man there Was and Ingeborg Holm will be featured on one while the second one will have The Outlaw and His Wife plus the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöstrom.  They should make for interesting viewing and I hope to have reviews soon.

Flicker Alley isn't resting on their laurels either and they are working on an impressive set of Douglas Fairbanks films.  This set, which does not have a release date yet, will contain eleven films on five DVDs including the features When the Clouds Roll By, The Mollycoddle, The Mark of Zorro, and The Nut.  Should be a fun set.  Flicker Alley is also going to release Abel Gance's 1919 anti-war film J'Accuse.  The disc will also include a bonus short Paris Pendant Le Guerre (Paris During the War) (1915.)

As for this column, I have reviews on the latest wave of Kino's Slapstick Symposium.  This time they've released another great set of great pre-Hardy Stan Laurel films, The Stan Laurel Collection Volume 2, two of Harry Langdon's last feature films Three's a Crowd and The Chaser, as well as Mabel Normand's final feature, The Extra Girl.  They are all intersting in their own right, and films you won't likely see on cable.  (Especially the Langdon movies.  They're well, very differnet.)
 


The Stan Laurel Collection Volume 2:

Laurel and Hardy were one of the best, many would argue THE best, comedy teams to every ham it up in front of a camera.  The shorts and movies they made are still making people roll with laughter today, nearly 80 years after they first teamed up.   One of the surprising things about this duo is that they were an artificial creation.  They didn't meet, come up with an act, and tour vaudeville like Abbot and Costello or Burns and Allen.  They were thrown together as costars on a short, it did well, so they made another.  Within a year they were billed as a comedy team, and Laurel and Hardy were born.  But they were not equal partners.  Stan Laurel always made twice as much money as Oliver Hardy because he did twice the work.  While Oliver played golf after filming had wrapped up.  Stan was still working; writing new gags, planning shots and supervising the editing of their films.  But before these two comedic giants were brought together, they both had separate careers in comedy films.  Now Kino, is association with the French company Lobster Films, have released a second two-DVD set of early Laurel solo work:  The Stan Laurel Collection Vol. 2.  Many of these are very rare and haven't appeared on DVD before.  A true treasure trove for fans of silent comedy.

Mini biography of Stan Laurel:

Stan Laurel had been around show business his whole life.  The son of an English theater actor, the young man would watch his father from backstage and soon was bitten by the acting bug himself.  He joined the famous Fred Karno acting troupe in the mid teens, and was soon one of the group's leading actors.  Karno, the man who trained a generation of English comedy actors, had a school for actors with lessons in prat falls and other comedy techniques and had several touring companies that would travel across England and the continent putting on shows.  It was a great training ground for comedians, and since many of their shows were pantomime (due to an old English law that only allowed plays with dialog only in certain venues) this style of comedy was perfectly suited to silent movies.  When the Karno company toured the United States Stan decided to stay in Hollywood, like another Karno star had a bit earlier, Charlie Chaplain.

Stan played the American vaudeville circuit and then made a rough transition to film.  He worked for several companies and ended up returning to the stage at several points.  These early films are fun to watch not only for their comedic value (some of them are very funny) but also because you can see the Stan learning his trade as he goes along.  Though many of them feel rushed and slapped together, you can see the seeds of great comedy in them.

Stan's acting style is also much different than the way he would portray his character opposite Oliver Hardy that would make him famous.  In many of these films he uses exaggerated expressions and motions as a source of comedy.   This is just the opposite of the much more subtle approach he would take in later films, where a simple quivering lip or double take could bring peels of laughter.  He has a broad smile in many of these shorts where he shows all of his teeth; it wasn't until later that he developed the shy nervous grin that was so amusing.

Stan also derives comedy from situations that he would avoid in later years, chasing women for example.  He's a very different character from the nice but dim persona he cultivated in the Laurel and Hardy shorts.  In some of these early films he's outgoing and vivacious, in others inept, and in others creative.  Yet you can see gags here that would be refined and repeated in his Laurel and Hardy movies.

These films also represent wide varieties of style with many different types of comedy and gags.  There are straight slapstick films with Stan inadvertently causing mayhem in a public place, like Do You Love Your Wife?, and parodies of popular films such as in Mud and Sand and Rupert of Hee Haw.  In Somewhere in Wrong Laurel even takes to playing a tramp (it is hard not to think of Chaplin) complete with a bittersweet ending.  Some of these early films were a little rough though, without much of a plot.  Just a series of gags strung together one after another, but that doesn't make them unfunny.  Some of the short with the thinnest plots are the funniest.

Ironically the way short comedies were made back in the mid 20's was both the reason for these films successes and failures.  All of these films were made under a very tight schedule with a very small budget.  The small comedy factories had to churn out at least a two-reeler each and every week, often more than that.  This meant that the productions were rushed and this often caused poor production values and less well thought out gags.  At the same time, this frantic schedule gave a lot of room for trial and error.  If a gag fell flat, Stan would just note it and move on to the next film.  It was during this period that Stan started writing and directing some of his shorts, which gave him the ability to experiment with different types of comedy, and work on the best ways to put a short together.  He could adjust the pacing and work with the structure of his films.  But not only did Stan spend a lot of time on the set working of gags, he would often be in the lab after the other actors had gone home helping the editor cut the film.  (He personally supervised editing of all the Laurel and Hardy films up until 1940.)  The lessons he learned here would be applied with great skill in the work he did with Oliver Hardy.

If you are only familiar with his Laurel and Hardy work, these films might seem a little different at first.  The pacing and style is quite different, but they are still funny in their own right, and well worth watching.

DVD One:

Stan had a rough time starting in the movies.  While appearing at the Hippodrome in LA in 1917, the former manager of Universal Studios, Isadroe Bernstein, signed Laurel to make comedies for a new production company he was forming.  He made one (or possibly two) films for Bernstein before the newly formed comedy unit was dissolved.  He then went to Universal for a couple of months (though the four films he made there would be released over the period of a year) and was back in vaudeville by the end of that same year.

In 1918 Hal Roach was in a jam.  He had signed a contract with Pathe to provide a series of films for them to release staring Toto, a popular clown.  The comic quit however when there were still five pictures left in the contract, and Roach needed a star and quick!  A director on Roach's lot had seen Laurel's stage work and suggested him.  A screen test later Stan Laurel was back in the movie business.  Three of the five films that Laurel made for Roach are included in this collection (which is arranged by release date, not production date.)

Do You Love Your Wife? - 1918- 13 Min.:  The earliest Stan Laurel movie still in existence.  (It was filmed in mid-June 1918.)  This has Stan playing a janitor who basically makes a mess of things.  A typical slapstick piece that has some funny bits.

Just Rambling Along - 1918 - 9 Min.:  A knockabout film with Laurel playing a down on his luck man who manages to get a dime and runs into a restaurant to eat.  A woman he flits with switches checks on him and he doesn't have enough money to pay.  Like other comic films of the day, this is more a series of gags with a loose framework than a real narrative story.  Laurel does well and resists the temptation to overact or ham it up.

Hustling for Health 1919 - 12 Min. (Also appears on The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy Volume One.):  The final film Laurel made with under his initial Roach contract.

After his five film contract was up, Laurel was out of work again.  He soon signed on with one of the most popular comics of the day, Larry Semon.  Larry had made his name with one reel films and was expanding to two-reelers.  He hired several new actors to help fill out his comedy company and one of those was Stan.

Huns and Hyphens - 1918 - 19 Min - Semon's first two reeler.  It's interesting because Stan only has a bit part as a heavy.  Not much of him in this film at all.

Frauds and Frenzies - 1918 - 21 Min. - The third film Laurel made with Semon, (the second was Bears and Bad Men which is not available on home video to the best of my knowledge) shows a dramatic improvement in Stan's position in the company.  He's no longer a background bit-player, but an equal to Semon's.  The two play a pair of convicts on a chain gang who manage to escape and head for their girl's place.  If only they knew her father was the warden.

This is one of the funniest shorts included in this collection.  Semon is wonderful, and Stan is able to hold his own, and more, with the popular comic.  The two work very well together and have great timing.  It's sad that this is the last time they would work together.

After this short was made, Semon closed down his studio due to the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the country at the time.  When he opened it again (in November of 1918) he didn't try to recruit Laurel again.  It's hard to imagine why, since the final film they made is so uproariously funny.

After this Stan went back to vaudeville.  He'd stay there for three years and only made one film at that time (The Lucky Dog the beginning of a series that never sold.)  In 1922 G.M. Anderson (Broncho Billy) came calling and set up a series of films for Stan.

The Egg 1922 - 22 Min. - a great comedy that works well.  Stan play Humpty Dumpty aka The Egg and uncovers a plot to frame the president of the lumber company where he works.   The foreman is a more pressing problems however, as he doesn't like it when people are late to work.  Stan is later made, against his will, the leader of a movement to unionize the plant.  He gives a wonderful speech ("A bird in the hand gathers no moss") and later manages to save the president and win the affections of his daughter.

Mud and Sand - 1922 - 29 Min. - This is Laurel's first film parody, a take off of Valentino's Blood and Sand.  It works better if you've seen the original, but even if you haven't this is a riotous film.   The scene where Stan watches the bullfighters enter the ring, only to be carried out moments later on a stretcher is great.  Just wait until Stan goes in to fight the bull.  The tango he does later in the film is also a riot.

This was Stan's last film for Anderson, although he still had two films left to go in the contract.  It has been suggested that the distributor, Metro, canceled the contract due to poor sales.

Stanley went back to Roach again, and this time starting out as a star. He originally started out making one-reelers but half way through 1923 he was promoted to two reelers.

The Noon Whistle - 1923 - 11 Min:  Very similar to The Egg, this involves the foreman at a lumber yard who has to whip the workers into shape, including one especially lazy person, Stan.  It doesn't work quite as well as the other comedy, but it's still an interesting piece.

White Wings - 1923 - 11 Min.:  Accidentally grabbing the wrong cart, Stan is thought to be a baby stealer.

Under Two Jags - 1923 - 11 Min.:  The first film Stan made with the new Roach contract (although released later) this is a parody of the film "Under Two Flags."  Though I've never seen the original, this is still an entertaining romp with Stan playing a man who enlists in the French Foreign Legion and then falls for a princess.

Pick and Shovel - 1923 - 13 Min.:  Eh.  One of the weakest shorts in the set.  Stan is a lazy worker in a mine this time, and has trouble with the foreman.  It's too similar to The Egg and Noon Whistle, and the gags don't work nearly as well.

Kill or Cure - 1923 - 13 Min.:  This is a good film to wrap up disc one.  Stan is a door-to-door salesman selling patent medicine.  He has horrible luck, but he keeps on trying.

Disc 2:

Short Orders - 1923 - 12 Min:  Another fairly plotless film, Stan is working as a cook/waiter in a diner and is fairly inept.  There were some funny gags, but not the best film in this collection.

A Man About Town - 1923 - 12 Min.:  Stan asks a street car conductor how to get to his destination and the man simply tells him to follow a woman, as she's going to the same place.  Unfortunately Stan follows another woman in the same dress all around town.  A cute picture.

Smithy - 1924 - 24 Min.:  Laurel's first two reeler with Roach it was apparently also released as a one-reel film too.  I'd seen the shorter version somewhere before, and the whole two reels plays much better.  A very amusing film, Stan starts out in the army, gets discharged, and eventually ends up working construction with predictable and hilarious results.

Rupert of Hee Haw - 1924 - 23 Min.:  A parody of the now forgotten film Rupert of Hentzau, this mixed-up identity film plays well, though I'm sure it would be even more humorous if I'd seen the original.  Stan plays a dual role, as both a drunken King and a traveling salesman, Rudolph, who is the king's double.  When the royal court has enough of the King's drinking, they hustle him out of the castle and put the salesman in his place.  The only problem is that Rudolph is even more of an idiot than the king is when drunk.

Stan made one more film for Roach, Short Kiltz, before starting to work for independent producer Joe Rock.  There are a number of stories why this happened, and the truth will probably never be known.  Laurel and Hardy biographer Roe Stone says that the most likely reason is that Stan's wife, Mae, was a source of tension on the set and the "Stan's personal life was affecting his ability in front of the camera" so Roach fired him.  I find the latter a little hard to believe, since Rupert was a good film.  Granted Short Kiltz is bad, but that was because the gags didn't work rather than a flaw with Laurel's acting or timing.  In any case, in 1924 Stan was a star and went to work for Rock.

Mandarin Mix-Up - 1924 - 21 Min.:  Stan plays a baby in this film (on an oversized set,) and quite effectively too.  When the baby is put in the laundry, the Chinese cleaners who discover him decide to raise him as one of their own.  He grows up thinking he's Chinese, but when the Tong comes after him he has to run for his life.  A nice amusing story.

Detained - 1924 - 14 Min.:  This is a two reel film, but only this 14 minute version still exists so it's hard to tell how it would have played in the longer version.  This cut is funny enough, with Stan playing a convict who tries to tunnel out of prison, but it doesn't have that spark that some of the earlier films did.

Somewhere in Wrong - 1925 - 22 Min.:  Stan Laurel plays a tramp who comes to a rural family's aid when an unscrupulous landlord tries to foreclose on their property.  This is a great film that works on a lot of levels.  The reason it isn't better known is probably because Laurel plays a tramp, which puts the movie in the large class of Chaplin knock-offs.  While Laurel doesn't look like Chaplin's character he does slow down the action quite a bit.  This film isn't hectic and more attention was paid to the plot than in most of his films at Roach.   In this film you can see the genesis of the character that he would play so successfully opposite Oliver Hardy.  No mugging for the camera or acting wild in this film, just solid comedy.

Pie-Eyed - 1925 - 20 Min.:  Watching this film right after Somewhere in Wrong is a bit of a let down.  While the film is funny in parts, it doesn't have the charm that the earlier film did.  In this movie Stan is a drunk.  He staggers around through the film in a humorous way, but it does get a bit tiresome by the end.  The plot, what there is of it, involves Stan getting kicked out of a night club and then taken home by the police....but to the wrong house, something that Stan doesn't realize even after he climbs into bed with another man's wife.

Stan would make five more film for Joe Rock through mid-1925.  Then, although Stan had a five year contract, Rock shut down production for the rest of the year.  He had a 12-short contract with his distributor, and having made a dozen films, he could dole them out once a month for the rest of the year and just pocket the money the distributor was paying for them.  This meant that Stan was out of work for several months, and that's never a good thing.

Laurel returned to Roach.  Not as an actor though, but as a writer and director.  He directed and wrote shorts for James Finlayson, Clyde Cook, Mabel Normand, Theda Bara, and even a young heavy named Oliver Hardy.   For contractual reasons, he wasn't supposed to appear in front of the camera.  After all, he was still under contract to Joe Rock.

Get Em Young - 1926 - 23 Min.:  When one of the supporting actors for this Stan Laurel-penned film was injured (Oliver Hardy as luck would have it), Stan took the role.  It's not a great comedy, nor an important role, but it does jump start Laurel's film career.  Hal Roach liked what he saw and told Laurel to write parts for himself into his future scripts.  That he did and he started to appear more and more in Roach films through 1926 and '27.  Then in June of 1927 director Leo McCarey had the idea of making Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy a permanent comedy team for his film The First 100 Years.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The DVD:


Audio:

The audio track is comprised of a piano music played by Neil Brand.  The music he chooses fits nicely with the films.  There is no hiss or distortion, and the music is nice and clear.  A good sounding DVD.

Video:

The video quality was excellent in general.  Of course, it does vary from film to film, but even the worst examples looked good, and the best prints were outstanding.  Some of the films are a little bright, like Frauds and Frenzies, and there are spots and scratches on most of the prints that were used.  Some had problems with contrast, like Mud and Sand which was a bit dark.  Films like The Egg look fantastic however and I was very pleased with the overall look of this shorts.  I didn't notice and ghosting due to a PAL-to-NTSC conversion, something I was expecting.  All in all, these films look great.

Extras:

There are no extras.  With such a wonderful assortment of films however, the set doesn't need them.

Final Thoughts:

This set is still highly amusing from an entertainment standpoint, and very interesting historically.  These movies allow you to see a comic genius come into his own.  Kino and Lobster have done a wonderful job with the transfers and packaging of this collection.  Well worth picking up, this set comes Highly Recommended.


The Extra Girl:

Kino's Slapstick Symposium is a great series of DVDs that present some of the best in silent film comedy.  Their latest wave includes the last feature made by Mabel Normand, The Extra Girl.  A fun film with a classic sequence, this isn't Mabel's best work.  She appears tired and worn out in several scenes, but in others it's possible to see the vivacious girl who climbed to the top of Hollywood's elite in the early days.  Overall the positives out weight the negatives and this is a film worth watching.

Mabel Normand:

Plucky, attractive, and with a lot of screen presence, Mabel Normand was one of films first female comedy stars.  She appeared opposite Charlie Chaplin in the first feature-length comedy movie, Tillie's Punctured Romance, had a long running series of films with Roscoe Arbuckle, the "Fatty and Mabel" shorts, and even stared in her own features.  Her life was plagued with trouble however.  She had a stormy on-again off-again relationship with Keystone head Mack Sennett, was an alcoholic and cocaine user, and she also had a variety of health problems.

Mabel Normand was also close to the first big scandals that rocked Hollywood in the early days.  Her comedic partner Roscoe Arbuckle was arrested for manslaughter in 1921 (a totally false charge) and the Hearst papers played up the lurid details to sell papers.  Many states banned Arbuckle's films, which in effect banned many of Normand's work too since she was his co-star.

Mabel was also the last person to see director William Desmond Taylor, her ex-lover, before he was murdered in 1922.  Though she was never a serious suspect, the police did question her extensively and the papers wondered if she could have been upset over being jilted by Taylor.  Her career weathered these bumps, but the next one, would end it.  Just after this feature, the Extra Girl, was released Mabel was present when her lover, millionaire Courtland Dines was shot and wounded.  Though there is some question about what actually happened, the official story is that Mabel's chauffer, an ex-con named Joe Kelly (an alias it turned out), had shot Dines, reportedly to defend Mabel's honor.  The fact that he used Mabel's gun put her in the headlines again and this time her career was all but finished.  She acted on stage for a while, and then signed with Hal Roach and made a few shorts in 1926 and '27.  She fell ill once again in 1929 and died of Tuberculosis in early 1930.  She was 34 years old.

The Extra Girl (1925):

This last feature has Normand staring as Sue Graham, a star-struck teenager who wants to be in the pictures more than anything, even though her parents are less than enthusiastic about the idea.  When she enters a contest that a Hollywood studio is sponsoring to find new talent a neighbor substitutes the picture of a model for Sue's.  She ends up winning and travels off to sunny California.

Once there things don't go quite as planned.  When the studio head discovers that Sue isn't the beauty in the picture, he doesn't give her the contract she was expecting.  Instead he offers her a job in the costume department and occasionally as an extra.

Sue writes to her parents and tells them that she's a working actress, which is a mistake.  They decide to sell their house and move out to LA, and when they arrive they find out the truth.  A slick con man named T. Philip Hackett (Ramsey Wallace) "invests" their money in a non-existent oil well, and when he says that the company went bust it's up to Sue, along with her beau Dave (Ralph Graves) to get it back.

This is an unusual movie in that it's never sure what it wants to be.  The first part is a down-home comedy like Marion Davies would make, but then when the narrative switches to Hollywood, the show adds more broad humor and slapstick.  Finally the last section is more of an adventure film sequence with Normand and Graves fighting Ramsey Wallace.

Even with the changes in feel that the film has, it's still an amusing picture.  The highlight of the movie is when Mabel is instructed to bring a dog that's dressed like a lion to a set and grabs a real lion by mistake.  As she walking through the Keystone back lot and through various stages, viewers get an interesting peek at what an active movie studio looked like back then.   Not only is the sequence of historical importance, but it is outright funny.  The reactions that people have when they see the lion is uproarious, and Mabel's reaction is best of all.  Eventually the lion gets loose and runs amuck.  It is quite impressive, jumping through transoms and sprinting across sets, and ultimately is the most memorable thing about this film.

Mabel herself looks very tired in several scenes.  She doesn't have that pep and vim of her earlier shorts.  She's also getting a bit old to be playing teenagers at this point.  She dons a curls and young clothing, but she doesn't manage to pull it off.  Nearly 30 when this was filmed, she's a bit too long in the tooth.

The film also has a layer of sadness to it that takes away from the comedy.  Not a Charlie Chaplin bitter-sweetness that accents so many of his films, but just a gloomy air that dampens the film.  When Sue leaves for LA, there's a scene of her forlorn parents sitting at the dinner table with a place set for their daughter who isn't coming back.  The whole last third of the film, where the parents think that they've lost their life savings is also rather depressing more than funny.  Even the end, which tries to end on a high note, seems false.

Overall this is a movie that has it's moments, but even if Mabel wasn't stalked by scandal one has to wonder how much longer her career would have run.  In this picture she clearly looks like she's run out of steam.

The DVD:


Audio:

This film comes with an organ score by Jack Ward.  It is scene specific but sounds fairly generic.  It's nice enough but not one of those scores that really elevates the mood of the film.  The music is pretty weak on the bass side, but otherwise sounds fine.

Video:

The full frame image looks pretty good for a film this old.  There are a fair number of scratches and dirt, and there are a few missing frames too.  The contrast is fine and the detail is about what I would expect.  There are some sections that seem to be taken from a 16mm print.  These are softer than the rest of the film and there's a noticeable drop in detail.  Other than that, this is a nice looking film.

Extras:

This disc also includes a Mabel Normand short from 1913, The Gusher.  In this picture Mabel has two suitors, a slimy con man and Ford Sterling, a local boy.  Ford buys a fake oil well from the con man and then has to fend off his advances on Mabel.  Normand was funny in this short and it shows how much screen presence she had.

Final Thoughts:

This is a good film, but not a great one. Mabel Normand was a funny comedienne and there are some scenes in this film that show it.  It's just too bad that the movie is a bit uneven and that Mabel looks so tired and overworked during most of it.  Still, a rare chance to see a Normand feature, and one that shouldn't be passed up.  Recommended.


Three's a Crowd / The Chaser:

I've been waiting for to see these two movies for years.  After reading about silent comedian Harry Langdon's swift rise to fame and equally rapid fall as well seeing some of his classic films, I had a morbid curiosity about the movies that ended his feature film career.  Were they as bad as the critics said?  Did his ego really get the best of him and lead him to create some bizarre and morbid films without a hint of comedy?  Now fans of the comedian can see for their selves as Kino has released Langdon's last two surviving features Three's a Crowd and The Chaser.

Background:

After staring in Vaudville for years, Harry Langdon came late to movies, not making his first film until 1923 when he was nearly 40.  After a couple of quick shorts for producer Sol Lesser (both lost films), Mack Sennett bought Langdon's contract in 1924 and started him on his way to stardom.  By 1926 Langdon had developed his character, acquired a creative team that knew how to write and direct him (these included director Harry Edwards and writers Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley), and released a string of increasingly popular shorts.

As many other comics did before him, Langdon outgrew Sennett's studio.  In 1926 he signed a contract with First National and became an independent producer.  He took his staff of Edwards, Capra, and Ripley with him.  According to his agreement, he had to provide two features per year for three years and he would be paid a set amount for each one.  His first, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, was a big hit, but it was significantly over budget and so director Harry Edwards was fired.  The next film, The Strong Man, was directed by Capra and is considered Langdon's best.  It also did well at the box office.  With his third feature, Long Pants, (which also did respectable business at the box office) Langdon and Capra had a falling out.  Langdon fired Capra and decided to write, direct, and star in his films from then on, just as Charlie Chaplin had done.

Langdon's film career came crashing down as quickly it had risen.  His next three films were all flops and First National refused to renew his contract when it was up.  Unable to find other work, he signed on with Hal Roach and returned to making shorts, this time in sound, but after making only eight he was let go and eventually filed for bankruptcy.

This set contains the first two films that Langdon made for First National after firing Capra.  (The third, Heart Trouble, is a lost film.)

Three's a Crowd (1927):  With his first attempt to direct, Langdon set his sights high.  He didn't just want a knock-about comedy; he wanted to create art like Charlie Chaplin did.

In this film Langdon is a poor wretch who works doing physical labor and lives in a small room at the top of a very long flight of stairs.  He gets along fine but he's lonely and wants a family more than anything else.

His dreams come true when he spies a woman sleeping in a snow drift one morning.  He brings her to his loft and gives her his bed, and even arranges for a midwife and doctor to visit her when he discovers she's pregnant.  Nursing her and the baby back to health, the man seemingly has everything he could want, but can he keep it?

When watching this film of a poor man who takes in an instant family, it's hard not to think of Chaplin's The Kid (1921).   Unlike that classic however, this film has little humor, no suspense, and a wretchedly depressing ending.  It's hard to see what Langdon was thinking of when he made this.  The movie fails on so many levels.

First, the gags are few and far between, and those that he does incorporate into the film don't work very well and more often than not fail.  In one potentially humorous scene, Harry has fallen through a trap door in the floor and is suspended in air holding on to a rug, which is caught in the door that he fell through.  He climbs up the rug and opens the trap door which in turn releases the rug and causes him to fall some more.  Luckily the door slams shut once again, snagging the rug and saving poor Harry.  It's an interesting predicament:  He can't open the door or he'll fall again and he can't just drop down because it's too high.  How's he going to get out of this?  Actually he doesn't.  After climbing up and opening the door too many times the entire rug falls out and he crashes to the ground, landing in a truck unhurt.  It could have been hilarious if he came up with a creative solution to his problem, but he didn't.

Most of the other gags are very slight:  Harry opens his lunchbox and takes out a cup of coffee that's already poured and hasn't spilt, instead of using an iron he puts bricks on his pants to press them, weak jokes like that which would help pad out a short, but aren't enough to carry a feature.

His direction is often poor too and he has a tendency to hold scenes way too long.  While I realize this minimalist approach with little action was Langdon's style, he takes it much too far in this film.  In one scene he is finally able to get back into his own apartment after the woman gives birth and everyone leaves.  He stands in the center of the room, looking at the sleeping mother and new baby and just stares.  Langdon gives viewers long enough to let the emotion of the scene set in:  he's finally gotten what he's longed for.   Then he holds the shot a little longer.  And longer still.  Pretty soon viewers are no longer in the moment but wondering why nothing is happening and what's supposed to be going on.

There are a few instances where shots don't match up or scenes seem to be missing.  In one case the woman's husband sits up in bed and runs his fingers through his hair.  The scene cuts to a shot of her note on a chair and then back to the husband who is laying down and sits up again.  That's just plain sloppy.

An amazingly odd film, there are several scenes that just don't make any sense.  There's a boxing sequence near the end that comes out of no where and doesn't even have any jokes in it aside from the fact that Harry's glove is way too big.  It was a long way to go for such a simple joke.

There is so little humor, or even attempts at humor though this film that while watching I wondered if Langdon meant this to be a drama with comedic elements rather than a comedy with a dramatic back drop.  If he did, I would have thought that he would have paid more attention to the story, which makes almost no sense in places.

Spoiler warning:

In the note the woman leaves for her husband, she states that his drinking (and presumably his physical abuse) has gotten to be too much for her.  It has to be pretty bad if she's willing to become homeless in the winter while she's pregnant.  The guy comes back however, in rich clothes and a chauffeured car, and the woman leaves with a "thanks" and that's about it.  Why in the world would she do that??

So at the end Langdon has lost everything he's ever loved and is fated to live a lonely pitiful life.  And this is supposed to be a comedy?  Make no mistake, Harry isn't noble and selfless like the Tramp at the end of the Circus, he just gets left high and dry.  What was the movie trying to say?  Life sucks?  Don't wish because it'll never come true?  Not a great message for a comedy in either case.

End of Spoilers

The Chase (1928):  Three's a Crowd is an odd and unfathomable comedy but hard as it is to believe, The Chase is even worse.  For his next feature Harry decided to make fun of suicide.

In this film Harry plays a hen-pecked husband who is in trouble with his wife and mother-in-law because he stays out at night:  till 8:30!  After one such late evening an argument starts and it ends with the mother-in-law pulling a gun on Harry and trying to kill him.  After this his wife naturally files for divorce.  The judge hears the case and learns about what a horrible husband Harry is and instead of granting the divorce sentences him to become a woman for 30 days.  He has to stay at home, wear a skirt, and does all of the housework while his wife, dressed in a suit, goes out on the town.  Sounds like a bad episode of Three's Company doesn't it?

In any case, Harry starts doing the 'women's work' and has a horrible time.  He can't get eggs from the hen, and all of the salesmen who come to the door hit on him since he's wearing a skirt.  It gets so bad that he tries to kill himself, a few times, without success.

As if he sensed that the film was going wrong, the second half takes off in a totally different direction and could almost have come from another film.  One of Harry's buddies comes by and the two of them go golfing.  This leads to a series of gags that were recycled from his Sennett comedy Saturday Afternoon which was released two years earlier.  While this second section was more amusing, it was also almost sad.  It comes across as desperate and pandering, with Harry trying anything to get his audience's attention including adding in a dozen or so bathing beauties frolicking by the shore for basically no reason at all.

While this movie isn't depressing and experimental like his previous endeavor, it still doesn't work as well as Langdon's earlier films.  I've read a lot about the big three silent comedians, and one thing that they all have in common was they really thought their gags through.  They wanted them to be tight, and with everything explained.  If Harold Lloyd was going to get caught hanging from a clock 20 stories up, there had to be a plausible reason for him to be there.  That close-knit comedy doesn't appear in this film.  Many of the events just happen for no reason at all and that makes this feel more like a Keystone film, but without the fast pace (which is the main thing Keystone pictures had going for them.)  For example, while leaving his club one night Harry discovers a lodge coat, hat, and sword, neatly folded in the bushes.  How did it get there?  That's a pretty unusual thing to find.   In another scene Harry is in his dented hat, men's boots, and a woman's skirt when the ice man comes in and kisses him.  How could he not know that Harry was a man?  Ignoring that, why the kiss?  Was he having an affair with Harry's wife?  What's going on here?

The whole film is filled with one nonsensical scene after another.  That wouldn't be too bad, after all that's pretty much what Monty Python became for, but very few of these gags were funny.  When Harry's wife finds the suicide note he wrote, she starts crying thinking that he's dead.  She buries her face in a kerchief and then (get ready for this...) when she removes it her make up has run down her face making her look silly!  Not only is it not funny, it's in poor taste.

The DVD:


Audio:

Both films are accompanied by an organ score written and performed by Lee Erwin.  These were nice scores and they fit the films well.  The audio was clean and clear with no hint of distortion or other common audio defects.

Video:

Both of these films are sepia toned and look excellent.  The contrast and detail are both excellent and the wide range of brownish-gray tones makes these both look like they're much more recent than they are.   There is a little decomposition in both films, and one section of The Chase has been replaced by a 16mm blow up, but these are minor defects.  While scratches and print defects are present, they are fairly rare in both cases.  Overall these are both magnificent looking films.

Extras:

There is an excellent, excellent commentary to Three's a Crowd by film historian David Kalat.  After watching a feature, I usually listen to the commentary while doing something else; cleaning the room, putting away DVDs, something mindless like that.  It took less than a minute for me to stop working when this track started and I sat down and watched the whole film a second time, totally taken in by Mr. Kalat's comments.  Rather than heap scorn on the film like virtually every other critic and historian that I've read, he actually defends the film.  When he called this film a "misunderstood masterpiece" it was like hitting me on the side of the head with a board.  This?  A masterpiece?  After listening to the track I can say that Kalat does bring up many good points, though I still don't agree with his ultimate analysis.  In any case it's a good topic for discussion and a well worth listening to.  It's only too bad that he didn't provide a commentary track to The Chase also.

The only other extra is a photo gallery.

Final Thoughts:

This is a hard disc to rate.  I'm very glad that I was able to see these films finally, and I'm proud to have the disc in my collection.  I can't say that either movie is great though, but they should be mandatory viewing for any Langdon fan.  It's interesting in a train wreck sort of way to see a great talent self destruct.  Because of that, and the extremely interesting audio commentary, I'm going to recommend this disc, but only for fans of silent comedies who are already familiar with Langdon's work.



Comments?  Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.

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