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Alice Howell Collection, The
From where we are now, it's weird to think of these silent comedies as being filmed and released 25 to 35 years after the advent of motion pictures. I mean, with the first true examples of 'film' coming from the mid-1880s, you'd think that by 1914 a picture like Shot in the Excitement, featuring early film comedienne Alice Howell, would look more sophisticated. Aah, but those were the olden days, when horse-drawn carriages still regularly shared the road with motor cars.
This 2-disc collection of silent motion picture comedies, curated by Steve Massa and Ben Model, features Alice Howell, one of the earliest and well-renowned stars of slapstick comedies, who was active from 1914 to 1926 or so. The titles included here on disc one are the aforementioned Shot in the Excitement (1914, 14 minutes), Father was a Loafer (1915, 13 minutes), Under New Management (1915, 11 minutes), How Stars are Made (1916, 12 minutes), Neptune's Naughty Daughter (1917, 24 minutes) and In Dutch (1918, 23 minutes).
On disc two are six additional shorts: Distilled Love (1920, 25 minutes), His Wooden Legacy (1920, 16 minutes), Her Lucky Day (1920, 20 minutes), Cinderella Cinders (1920, 22 minutes), A Convict's Happy Bride (1920, 25 minutes), and Under a Spell (1925, 12 minutes). All run-times represent the most surviving footage available, so some shorts are not complete in length. Sources of prints used here often are comprised of different elements, many of which are 16mm rental prints. Sources and degree of completeness are explained before each short. Howell's work was mostly directed by her husband Richard Smith and was often marked by semi-serious characterizations, in which the actress could convincingly portray characters such as downtrodden cleaning ladies or innocent spouses caught up in comedic madness. She could beg on the street for change or engage in wacky fisticuffs with crooks with equal aplomb. An attempted murder-suicide of Howell and her pet dog even seems edgy in 2019.
By today's standards, the shorts can elicit chuckles and the occasional guffaw, with innocent children, babies, dogs, and donkeys adding extra punch, though sets and settings, not to mention plots, don't approach the complexity of more famous efforts by her male colleagues like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Her California films enjoy airy countryside locales, with empty fields and dirt roads stretching to the horizon, while later shorts, filmed in Chicago, show architecture of times-gone-by in that metropolis.
It's difficult to assess whether this collection of work, "unseen by the public for decades" will be of much interest to anyone beyond those fascinated by early film, but Undercrank Productions should nonetheless be lauded for uncovering and assembling these prints, scored by noted composer Ben Model. On the whole, this collection is Recommended for serious cinephiles.
As mentioned, these shorts, presented in their original aspect ratio of 4 x 3, have been culled from various sources, and look here as good as they ever will, though at that, sometimes degradation has resulted in psychedelic blotches swarming the frame. For the most part, prints have film-like grain, relatively soft definition, lots of gray tones but not a lot of deep blacks, but all are highly watchable, free of compression artifacts, and enjoyable as historical records.
Stereo Audio is of course limited to composer and curator Ben Model's scores for each short. Model does great work recreating the types of accompaniment that would be played live during screenings, while showing what I feel to be deliberate evolution in style from the early shorts to the latter. Dynamic range is planted firmly in the middle, due to the fact that as far as I can tell, solely piano or organ is used. Overall the audio sounds fine.
No extras other than basic menu navigation are offered.
The Alice Howell Collection gathers over three hours' worth of silent comedy shorts from the title star. While funnier than one might expect, what with our sophisticated modern tastes, this collection will of course be of most interest to film scholars and serious movie fans/historians. That said, if you're intrigued by what you read here, this release from Undercrank Productions is Recommended.
- Kurt Dahlke