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Marcel Perez Collection, The
Undercrank Productions // Unrated // January 26, 2015
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Before screening Undercrank Productions newest release, The Marcel Perez Collection, I had never heard of silent comedian Marcel Perez or his characters Robinet or Tweedledum/Twede Dan. After watching these 10 amazing shorts I was left wondering how history could have ignored this talented and funny actor, and I'm up on my silent comedy. Along with the big three silent comics (Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd) I'm also a fan of the clowns who never graduated to feature films. Largely forgotten one-time stars like Charley Chase, Snub Pollard, Lloyd Hamilton, and Billy West (I'd love a disc of West's Chaplin impersonations!) made great shorts back in the early days of film and I make a point of searching out their work. But Marcel Perez?? Never heard of him. I'm glad I know him now though. He made some excellent, funny comedies and though he worked for smaller companies the technical qualities of his movies are impressive even today and rivaled what was being done in Hollywood at the time. This disc (and the companion book, Marcel Perez: International Mirth-Maker by Steve Massa, which is reviewed here) is a great introduction to this forgotten actor.
Perez started out in Europe but immigrated to the US at the outbreak of World War I. This collection is broken into two parts one dealing with his Italian films (5 movies) and the other his US output (5 films also). (There is a 'play all' option too, if you want to just zip right through them all.) His Italian films are short one-reelers and this is where he honed his craft. The set starts off with one of the best really short films I've seen. Running a scant 4 minutes, 1911's Robinet's White Suit is a very funny flick. Robinet, after seeing that the weather is going to be mild that day, dons his new white suit and heads out into the city, with disastrous results. While it sounds (and for the most part it is) a typical silent comedy short, it has a slight surreal quality that generates a lot of laughs. For example, when Robinet realizes that it's going to rain he buys and umbrella and opens it. Instead of protecting him from falling rain, however, it saves him from a falling a brick chimney. It's this odd, skewed reality that makes the film so enjoyable (that and the fact that the plot has a resolution, not just a chase scene at the end, something a bit rare in comedies from that time).
When he gets to America, Perez blossoms. Working for smaller companies in Jacksonville Florida and San Antonio, Texas, he put out some creative, funny, and technically amazing films. In "A Busy Night" from 1916 he plays every part in the film (aside from the intro), sixteen roles in all. Billed as Tweedledum, he often appears in the same scene with himself, and even has both characters in a scene interact with each other seamlessly. And I do mean seamlessly. In one part a female Tweedledum is sitting on a window ledge talking to her husband on the other side of the room, and other version of Perez. Though there is no visual evidence, it's intuitively obvious that the shot was done twice, filming each character separately. What is astounding is when the wife stands up, turns her back, and walks over and kisses her husband. The change from a female Perez to a double is invisible, and there is no subtle change in lighting to cue when they've changed from filming just half of the room at a time to the whole room. It's incredibly impressive, and he does the same type of thing over and over in the short. Several times I stopped the film and advanced it frame-by-frame to try to catch the changes. Keep in mind, Perez did this half a decade before Buster Keaton's justifiably famous film "The Playhouse" (1921) where he also played multiple roles and Mary Pickford's "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (1921) where she played both mother and son and had the two kiss.
Perez directed a lot of his movies in America and since the level of quality does not dip and he goes from studio it can be assumed that he had a lot to do with the camera tricks. He was more than just impressive visuals; he knew how to create a gag. "You're Next" (1919) includes one of the best gags on this disc. A woman he's with has been offered a job as an actress at $500/week, but she'll only agree if the director can find a spot for Perez too. The director asks him what he can do and he replies that he can be a "comicker." He proceeds to do a great Chaplin impersonation, doing the walk and getting in trouble when he kisses a girl, followed by a rough-and-tumble Keaton-like stunt (he throws himself in front of a car and is run over, only to pop back up), and then he climbs a building and does some Harold Lloyd style thrills, walking along the edge looking like he's going to fall off. Finally he jumps off (a long shot of him falling the last four floors, hitting the ground, and standing up without a cut or light change to be seen) and runs over to the director. "Well, what do you think of me?" he asked the director. "I think you'll make a good property man" he replies.
It's a terrible shame that Marcel Perez is not better known. As this disc shows, he was a talented comedian who was also gifted both in front of and behind the camera. This disc is a great resource and worth seeking out.
All of the films are accompanied by a very nice piano score composed and performed by Ben Model. The music works very well, creating an atmosphere as well as accentuating the action on screen. There are some nice touches too, such as the time that Perez has been evicted from his apartment in "You're Next" and "The Sidewalks of New York" start playing. The sound quality is great and I didn't hear any glitches in the recording or encoding.
These films are very rare, often only one print exists and sometimes even that is incomplete. They have all been preserved by major film archives (the Library of Congress for the US-made short and EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands for Perez' European works) and generally look very good.
Overall these films are clear with decent contrast and good definition. There are some print defects, scratches and dirt, on most of the offerings, but this can't be helped. There is some evidence of nitrate decomposition starting in one film, and sadly short sections are missing from a couple of others. The missing parts (including the last minute from a couple of the movies) are pretty minor and don't ruin the viewing experience. Many of these films exist in only a single print. There aren't multiple copies where the highest quality version of each scene can be pieced together. What you see on this disc is what exists for the most part. We can be thankful that what has survived is in very decent shape and gives us a good look at a woefully forgotten comedian.
There really aren't any extras, though there was one innovation (at least I don't recall seeing it before) that I really liked: the disc starts out with a square. This lets know if your DVD player and monitor are set up properly to view 4:3 images. A simple but effective tool.
This is a must-buy for silent comedy fans. Marcel Perez was an incredibly talented and funny comedian and these ten shorts are a great, and long overdue, overview of his work. Check this one out, it comes Highly Recommended.