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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive

The SlapHappy series, an interview with series producer Larry Stefan
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

This month Silent DVD has an in depth look at the SlapHappy series.  This is a great show that was broadcast on PBS that gives an excellent overview of silent comedies.  Not only do they cover the big names from the era, but also a large number of talented comics who are now all but forgotten.  Lupino Lane, Larry Semon, Max Linder, Lloyd Hamilton and Snub Pollard are only some of the comics that are covered in the show.

We have an overview of the entire series with links to full reviews of all ten volumes and an interview with Larry Stefan, the producer, writer, and pretty much the driving force behind the series.

Speaking of slapstick comedy, at long last a collection of Harold Lloyd's longer films will be released on DVD.  On November 15th New Line will release three two-disc collections with a MSRP of $29.95 each.  All three collections will also be available in a boxed set, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, which will include a bonus disc that will not be available seperately.  The boxed set will retail for $89.85.  The discs will include the following films:

Volume 1

Disc 1:

  • Girl Shy (1924)
  • Safety Last! (1923)  w/ commentary by Leonard Maltin and director Richard Correll
  • An Eastern Westerner (1920)
  • Ask Father (1919)
  • From Hand to Mouth (1919)

Disc 2:

  • The Milky Way (1936)
  • The Cat's Paw (1934)
  • Why Worry? (1923
  • Featurette "Harold's Hollywood: Then and Now"

Volume 2

Disc 1:

  • Kid Brother (1927) w/ commentary by Harold Lloyd's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd, author Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, and Rich Correll
  • The Freshman (1925)  w /commentary by Leonard Maltin, Richard Correll and author/film historian Richard W. Bann
  • Bumping Into Broadway (1919)
  • Billy Blazes, Esq. (1919)
Disc 2:
  • Feet First (1930)
  • Grandma's Boy (1922)
  • Dr. Jack (1922)
  • Now or Never (1921)
  • High and Dizzy (1920)
  • "Scoring for Comedy" featurette
Volume 3

Disc 1:

  • Speedy (1928) w/ commentary by Suzanne Lloyd, Annette D'Agostino Lloyd and Richard Correll
  • Hot Water (1924)
  • Never Weaken (1921)
  • Haunted Spooks (1920) w/ commentary by Suzanne Lloyd, Annette D'Agostino Lloyd and Richard Correll
Disc 2:
  • Movie Crazy (1932)
  • For Heaven's Sake (1926)
  • I Do (1921)
  • Among Those Present (1921)
  • A Sailor-Made Man (1921)
  • Get Out and Get Under (1920)
  • Number Please? (1920)
  • "Greenacres" featurette

Bonus Disc

  • Rare, vintage interviews and home movies
  • Tributes and interviews with family, friends and legendary celebrities including Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Tab Hunter and director John Landis
  • Narrative chronology detailing the life and times of Harold Lloyd, hosted by Leonard Maltin
  • Video bios of many of Harold Lloyd's collaborators and stars of the golden age of cinema
  • Harold Lloyd Academy Award speech
  • USC's Delta Kappa Alpha tribute to Harold Lloyd hosted by Jack Lemmon and Steve Allen
  • 3-D photos shot by Harold Lloyd himself (3-D glasses included)
  • Photo and publicity galleries
  • Radio shows
  • And more!

In other news, Kino's Slapstick Symposium series sold fairly well so they are releasing a second series.  Scheduled for release on September 13 are The Harold Lloyd Collection II  (a two disc set), The Charley Chase Collection II, and The Oliver Hardy Collection.  Each will retail for $24.95 with the exception of the two disc Lloyd set which will retail for $29.95.  The Lloyd collection will have 10 of the comics short films including the two-reeler Never Weaken, one of his early thrill comedies, and the three-reelers Now or Never and Among Those Present.  The second Chase collection will feature six of the comedians shorts as well as a short biography of his life.  Last but not least, the Oliver Hardy disc will contain six two-reelers including The Sawmill, staring Larry Semon, and 45 Minutes From Hollywood one of Hardy's funniest solo shorts that happens to also feature Stan Laurel.  Silent DVD should have a review of all three volumes next time.

Kino is certainly going to be busy in September.  In addition to the second Slapstick Symposium discs, they will also release two Maurice Tourneur films; The Blue Bird and Lorna Doone.  Both are due out on September 6th and will retail for $29.95 each.

Warner has some silent films coming out too.  The latest in the TCM Archives series, The Garbo Silents will also be released on September 6th.  This set will include The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, and The Mysterious Lady.

On September 13th, Warner will release a four disc set of Ben Hur (1959).  In addition to the Charlton Heston film, the 1925 MGM version of the film, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ will be included as an extra.  With the whole set retailing for $39.95, this might rate a double dip.

Upcoming Silent Movies on DVD
Release Date
Buy at Amazon
The Blue Bird (1918) directed by Maurice Tourneur
September 6, 2005
Lorna Doone (1922) directed by Maurice Tourneur
September 6, 2005
The Garbo Silents: The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, The Mysterious Lady (TMC Archives)
September 6, 2005
Ben-Hur (Four-Disc Collector's Edition includes the 1925 silent version - Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ)
September 13, 2005 
 Charley Chase Collection II
 September 13, 2005 
 Harold Lloyd Collection II 2 disc set
 September 13, 2005
 Oliver Hardy Collection 
 September 13, 2005

The SlapHappy Series

Most people have at least heard of the three big silent comedians.  Charlie Chaplin is a household name even today, and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are well remembered by even casual silent film buffs.  In the 1910's and 20's however, there were literally thousands of comedy shorts made  staring comedians who are all but forgotten today.  How many people know of the work of Lloyd Hamilton, Andy Clyde or Larry Semon?  To learn more about these comics, and many others that history has passed over, you need only turn to SlapHappy.

SlapHappy is an exhaustive 30 episode series that searches out the forgotten comics and studios of the silent era and gives them a moment in the spotlight again.  More than just a documentary though, these shows present extended clips from silent shorts in addition to background information about the stars.  This lets you see for yourself how funny and creative many of these forgotten silent clowns were.   It also gives you the background on these forgotten stars; how they got their start, who they worked with, how popular they were, and often why their star faded.

One of the things I really like about this series is the fact that there is only sparse narration.  The narrator gives the background of the comic who is on the screen, sets up the piece, and then falls silent.  This lets the viewer concentrate on the comedy on screen, instead of having to process a lot of information.  There is even an option to view the shows without any narration at all.

Though this series is very informative, the strength of this show is the rare clips that they’ve chosen to fill out the half hour.  Some of the clips only last a few seconds, but the majority of them are minutes long, some going on for five minutes or more.  This really gives viewers the chance to see how gags were set up and executed, as well as how the comics progressed on to the next gag.  By cutting out the plot points of the shorts, as well as the minor gags, SlapHappy is able to present the funniest parts of the shorts as well as being able to give a good overview of an artist's work through several shorts.

Another great strength of the show is that there isn’t a laugh track.  This show gives the viewer credit for knowing what’s funny and what isn’t.

Each volume of The SlapHappy Collection presents three half hour episodes.  Overall, this is a very informative and funny show, and the DVDs look great.  Here are links to a review of each voulme:

The SlapHappy Series:

Volume One
Volume Two
Volume Three
Volume Four
Volume Five 
Volume Six
Volume Seven
Volume Eight
Volume Nine
Volume Ten

There is also a SlapHappy Movie, which includes the best sections from the series in a ninty-minute movie.

I really enjoyed every episode in this series.  Where else can you get more laughs than a feature length movie and learn something at the same time?  The whole collection is great, and they have a very good deal if you buy the entire set at once.  It's definitely worth it.

An Interview with Larry Stefan

I had the pleasure of talking with Larry Stefan writer and co-producer of SlapHappy, a series showcasing the best of silent comedians which was broadcast on PBS.  It is now available in DVD through the show’s website.

Silent DVD:  First of all, let me thank you for taking the time to talk with me.  I’ve really been enjoying the SlapHappy series on DVD.

Larry Stefan:  Oh good, I’m glad to hear it.

SD:  I’m curious to learn how you became interested in silent film and slapstick comedy in particular.

LS:  You know John, when I was growing the Robert Youngston films would show on TV and I became a fan through those.  I was into it at a young age and then kind of fell out.  Then when I moved out here I hooked up with a guy. Paul Lisy, who had a collection that he would sell on home video, his company was called Videobrary.   He would sell four complete subjects on a VHS tape.  We thought it would be nice to put these things together so we made a pilot and started that way.  We shopped it around a bit.

American Public Television feeds into PBS, and they have a screening one a year.  They showed the pilot and 6, 7, or 8 stations were interested.  They put up some pre-sale money and we used that to get the show going.  That’s how it started.

SD:  How did you go about organizing?  There are so many films that are included in the series.

LS:  Paul had a very nice collection, again this is what he would put out on home video, and through him I got to know a number of collectors.  What was exciting about the project was the passion that these people had for the movies.  Obviously nobody was being paid much at all.  These collectors wanted to share what they had.  Between Paul’s collection and a few other collectors, Richard Roberts who also did the research and worked on the scripts – he’s a big collector and a big researcher; we tapped into his collection and a few other private collections.  We were very fortunate.

Our system was to only use high quality prints that looked good.  Most of the stuff came from 16mm, some from 35 although a majority of it was 16.   We tried to be very eclectic.  Obviously most of the Chaplin and Keaton stuff is out and people have done incredible things with it as far as restoration.

SD:  Oh yeah.

LS:  Of course we had to include them, and it is wonderful stuff, but we tried to get the more obscure comedians.  Fortunately these collectors had these incredible movies.  The extent of my knowledge, and I thought I knew silent comedy, was really Stan and Ollie, Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.  That was about it.  I was surprised as anybody else.  I would ask these collectors for more and more material and dig a little deeper into some books on these comedians.  I had no idea who they were and yet here was this great material.  I was just amazed at what I found in these comedians who are totally forgotten today.

SD:  That’s one of the things that I like about the series.  I hadn’t heard of most of these either.

LS:  Absolutely.  I was the same way.  I think that’s nice about the show.  My purpose in putting it together was really sort of what Robert Youngston did; basically putting teasers together, just showing the highlights.  I think what we did was we brought some of these names back out of obscurity at least for the people who see the series.

We’ve only taken the best of what they did in a short, so it’s kind of deceiving.  You have these wonderful clips, but we’ve taken the two or three minutes out of a 20-minute short and in some cases it makes them look better than they actually were.  So we were able to cut out a lot of the fat and put what we thought would be the best stuff in there.  Just really try to pack each episode with as many clips, and of course maintain as much of a story line as we could, and really put these people in their best light.  The material is amazing, and their comedy needs to be remembered.

I think we were successful in doing that.  I think we have about 75 different comedians in the series.  Many of them we profile in the different episodes with a short still sequence.  Like you, I was surprised as anybody else as I got deeper and deeper how many comedians existed and made comedies.  A lot of it was just okay, but if you trim off 17 or 18 minutes it looks pretty good and its funny and it’s clever.

SD: You mentioned Laurel and Hardy a bit ago.  They seem to be fairly conspicuous in their absence as a team in the series.

LS: Absolutely.  All of the material in the show is public domain, and all of the Laurel and Hardy team material is all copyrighted.

SD:  That’s what I was expecting.

LS:  So we really couldn’t touch any of that.  We didn’t have the money to license that material, because of the very low budget of the show.  We do have quite a bit of their solo material in there, and even that was surprising.  I discovered my knowledge of this is very superficial as we dug deeper.  I think one of the best clips in the series is from the Stan Laurel and Larry Semon film Frauds and Frenzies, which I think is just brilliant, absolutely brilliant.  Larry Semon, I’ve seen some of his shorts in the past and there’s just nothing there.  They were just a bunch of sight gags.  In this film though, you can see all of Stan Laurel’s vaudeville influence.  My gosh!  My biggest surprise was that he made Larry Semon funny.

SD: (laughs)

LS:  The just worked incredibly as a team.  It’s discouraging in a way because I’ve seen Larry Semon comedies from the next ten years and there’s nothing as brilliant as that 1917 short.  You really have to attribute that to Stan Laurel.  And of course to Larry Semon for even allowing him to kind of take over that film, and allow his influence.  That was one that had me laughing out loud.  There are two or three in the series which I thought were absolutely incredible.  Hopefully people who watch the series will find parts that they enjoy as much.

Stan Laurel and Larry Semon are two convicts in Frauds and Frenzies.

SD:  I know I did.  I was really interested in seeing some more Larry Semon films after seeing that one.  (Frauds and Frenzies.)  I knew him from The Wizard of Oz (note:  Semon adapted, produced, directed, and started in the silent 1925 version of the film.) and the reason I searched that out was to see Oliver Hardy’s appearance in it.  I didn’t realize Semon was a comic until I saw SlapHappy.

LS:  Absolutely, and Oliver Hardy was in a lot of Semon’s comedies.  Semon had a tragic story and to me that was very compelling in doing the series as well:  telling these people’s stories.  Of course they are all the more interesting when you sum it up in two or three minutes.  Unfortunately there are a lot of tragic stories like that as you look into these lives.  That’s one thing we wanted to do was stay away from that in the series.   So we really put the shine on everybody.  We really wanted to make the series a kind of a bubble.  You watch it and you’re kind of in this era for 26, 27 minutes. We made a point of not going into the deeper more disturbing parts of these people’s lives.  Because 1) they don’t need to be told, and 2) that’s not what the series was about.  It did really seem like there was a reoccurring story on these people though.  A lot of them did not have good ends.

SD:  Yes, that’s true.  I noticed that when you were talking about Max Linder you didn’t mention his suicide.

LS:  Yes, that’s correct.

SD:  I though that was good.  A lot of Charlie Chaplin’s problems you mentioned it in passing, but the emphasis was that he turned comedy into art.

LS:  We could have gone into that, but to me it made no sense.  I have four kids here, and I really wanted to make a show that they could enjoy.  My oldest ones were 8 and 6 at that time, and I’d almost use them as a gauge to see what they thought was funny.  (At some points, not for the whole series.)  Also my thinking was “I want kids to be able to watch this.”  The comedy is perfect for kids.

SD:  Oh yeah.

LS:  It’s slapstick, it moves very quickly, and I think the music really drives the clips, so I wanted to make this age appropriate for kids.  Including suicide and drinking and a lot of the things that, unfortunately, made up a lot of these people’s lives, I just thought had no part in the series.  It just takes away from these people.  I don’t know it I was right or wrong about that, but I really wanted this to be appropriate for kids as well.

SD:  I watch it with my 12 year old and 9 year old sons, and they love it.

LS:  Oh good.

SD:  Especially the Ton of Fun series.

LS:  That’s funny, I’ve gotten a lot of comments about that with kids.  They really enjoy that.

SD:  It was a little embarrassing because my sons think that I’m the fount of all silent movie knowledge.  They would ask me “who are these guys?”  I’d have to say “I don’t know…”

The Ton of Fun Trio

LS:  (laughs) It’s funny that you mentioned that.  For the Ton of Fun we had four or five clips in the series.  It was tough to say anything new about them.  I know the fourth or fifth time, we were really stretching.  The clips were all different but there is very little knowledge about these guys.  I remembered them as being a particular challenge.  I was thinking “my gosh, what else are we going to say?”  I’m not sure if we ever added much after the first time we had them in the show.  It was very funny stuff for those two or three minutes though.  I’m not sure how well they played 20-minutes into it, but for a three or four-minute clip, they are very funny.

SD:  Yeah, what I saw in the series I thought was really good.

LS:  Good.

SD:  So is there an underrated comedian from the silent era that is a favorite of yours?

LS:  You know who I thought was amazing John, and I had no knowledge of him whatsoever, was Lupino Lane.

SD:  Ahh yes!

Lupino Lane (second from left.)

LS:  I knew nothing about him.  We did the pilot show; we put the most money into that to try to sell the series.  We had great prints to begin with of Chase, Hamilton, and Lupino Lane.  We had digital transfers done and that the first show, Three Funny Men, is just a beautiful looking show because of the transfers.  The first scene we showed was from Roaming Romeo, and that is just incredible.  That is an amazing short from start to end.  I think through the series I have just about the entire short in various episodes.  He was an amazing comedian and as I dug a little deeper I found that I should have known him.  He had an incredible life.  He was performing in the US and then he went back to England in 1930 or 32, I could be wrong on that, and continued in the theater.  He had this incredible story and interesting family background.  He came from a theatrical family with the performing tradition stretching back to the 1500’s!  An amazing story.  I’m not sure that undiscovered is the right word, obviously he was huge in England, and I’m not sure how well known he is today, but during the time he was very big.  For me, he was somebody I knew nothing about and very happy to find him.  Anttime he came on the screen he brought a smile onto my face.  Very clean and very funny stuff.  I think his problem was that he didn’t quite develop a personality.

SD:  Yeah.

LS:  Which is perhaps why he didn’t go into features.  He never went beyond the short subjects.  He was very clever with gags, and I think his stories were very tight.  He directed many of his comedies and with all of his training really knew what to do.  He was like a Stan Laurel.  It was in his blood, it was in his family’s blood.

SD:  You also mention in the series that Lane was a very talented acrobat, second only to Buster Keaton.  I think you said that early in the series and I was thinking “yeah, right.”  But every time he came on I was impressed with the stunts that he’d do.  One thing about Buster Keaton is that when he’d take a prat-fall he doesn’t just fall.  He falls on his head and twists around.  Lupino Lane would do similar fancy falls.

LS:  You’re absolutely right John.  We have Hello Sailor with Lane and his brother Wallace Lupino.  I don’t know if you recall but he runs up a bus.  Just incredible acrobatics.  Unfortunately there were two or three other comedies he was in, Movieland was one, where he’d stuff himself into a small box and do just absolutely incredible stunts, but the quality of the prints just wasn’t I wanted for the series.  I probably should have just put that stuff in there because the things he would do with his body were just phenomenal.

He was a real story teller too.  He wasn’t just in it for the gags; he knew how to tell a story.  Many of these guys, especially with many of the more obscure comedians, two or three minutes were enough.  You hit that three minute level and that was all they had to offer.  Lupino Lane was like a Charlie Chase, his storylines were so strong you hated to break it up, but we had to so we could go on to somebody else.  Earlier I mentioned Roaming Romeo; it was a twenty minute short and over the 30 episodes I probably have that whole short in there because all of it was so good.  You couldn’t just break away after two minutes.  In many of the shows, and I did this with the Larry Semon short Frauds and Frenzies too, I’d open the show with it and closed with it, which is ten minutes of the show.  Because the whole 20-minute short was so solid you had it do it.  I can’t say that there were many comedies that I could do that with, but anytime there was a Charlie Chase or a Lupino Lane, or obviously with Chaplin or Keaton’s you can go on and on because they are so good.

For the depth of comedians we have in the series, I would say Lupino Lane was probably the undiscovered comedian who I totally fell in love with.  Fortunately he had a very good ending and a very good life.

SD:  That’s one thing that I liked about the series is that you weren’t afraid to put a five minute clip to illustrate a successful scene and show how a whole scene is constructed.

LS:  I’m glad you noticed that.  You’re right if it worked, it worked.  Unfortunately many times we could only do a short bit.

SD:  Yes, especially when you’re featuring for or five comedians in a single episode.  You can’t show five minutes of each one of them.

LS:  That’s right, and unfortunately I couldn’t because many times I felt the material wasn’t strong enough.  Anytime I could get away with it, I would.  As I mentioned Frauds and Frenzies, my gosh if I could have gotten away with it I would have put the whole 20 minute short in there because it was so funny.  The Charlie Chase material as well, he’s so good.

Lloyd Hamilton was another one I knew nothing about, and I thought he was good.  His most famous short, you probably know, is called Move Along.  We had a print of that, but because of the quality I couldn’t stick it in the show.  I probably should have because it’s his most famous short and the basis for him being considered a great comedian.   I just couldn’t find a good print though.  Unfortunately later on his shorts were all gag driven and zero personality and a lot of that was because his own personal life was out of control.

SD:  Yeah.

LS:  He was one of the comedians that you really felt bad for him, because you could see what he was and what he had done in 1920, 1921.  Unfortunately by 1928, any other comedian could have done what he was doing, just knock-about gags.  So unfortunately I don’t think we showed his best stuff in the series.  There’s a good clip in the Battling Clowns episode from Careful Please that’s very funny.  I think that’s his best bit in the series but even then it’s not his strongest.

Lloyd Hamilton watching a brawl in Careful Please.

He had one of those lives that were just tragic.  He and Charlie Chase.

SD:  Yeah, as you mentioned that’s almost a theme with comedians.

LS:  Unfortunately, yeah.  It’s sad and I discovered doing research that Lloyd Hamilton and Charlie Chase were good friends.  I think we put this in the show somewhere that Charlie Chase, when he was writing his scripts, would often think “How would Lloyd Hamilton do this?” He was very influenced by Hamilton.  Of course it’s very difficult to see that, but they were great friends and great drinking buddies.  And neither one of them fared too well at the end.

Comedian and director Charlie Chase

SD:  Yeah, that’s true.  Another thing that I think is a strong point of the series is the writing and how you were able to concisely tell someone’s life or relate an anecdote without talking over the whole clip.

LS:  I appreciate that John.  I was very conscience of that.  Through each half hour episode there’s probably six minutes of narration.  I know what bothered me about the Youngston movies were the constant narration and talking over all the clips.  So I was very selfish in the way I made this.

We were given very little money to make the series, we self-funded it for the most part, so I was really able to do anything I wanted to.  All I had to do was deliver it at the running time of 26:46 to run on these PBS stations.  In that sense I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted to do.  So I really made the type of series that I would want to watch, and would engage me.   I’m sure you’re the same way:  I don’t have time to sit for 90 minutes and watch something.  For me, a half hour is the perfect time slot.  After half an hour I’m ready to get up and do something else.

When I was trying to sell the pilot I kept hearing from these TV stations “The show has to be an hour.  Nobody buys half hours anymore.”  Fortunately we did this set with PBS which was didn’t mind the half hour format.  And it worked at that length.  One of my goals in making this thing was to make a program that I would want to watch, and to make a show that would appeal to a very broad audience.  I wanted to make a show that would be palatable to people who knew nothing about silent comedy.  That’s why there are short clips, the anecdotal narration; we really don’t go into the dry history of these people.  We’re really doing what we can for the audience.  I want it to be enjoyable for people who don’t know Chaplin, don’t know Keaton, don’t know any of these comedians, but can appreciate very clever comedy.   That’s how I was trying to sell it initially; as great classic comedy.  You don’t have to know anything about these people; you can just appreciate it for what it is:  very clever outstanding comedy.

SD:  I thing you succeeded marvelously in that aspect.  Also people who do know something about silent comedy can be entertained by it.  Watching learned a lot.   I’m also impressed by your restraint in not filling the entire show with narration.  I’m sure, especially with Charlie Chaplin, it would be easy to narrate the entire program.

LS:   You know it’s funny but those, the Chaplin and the Keaton, for me were the most difficult to do.   They have been done in the past and done so well by so many people like Kevin Brownlow for example.  How can you top that?  The only thing I could really do on those is stick in some good clips.   I put in the Max Linder into the Chaplin show, the Arbuckle into the Keaton show, and just try to put the more obscure material in or take kind of a different slant with it.  They play well, but they’ve been done so well in the past that you can’t top it.

SD:  On the other hand you can’t just ignore them, they are so important.

LS:  Absolutely right.  And you mentioned Laurel and Hardy.  That’s a huge gap in the series, some other reviewers have mentioned that as well, but there just nothing we could have done.  We mentioned them in the team episode, but unfortunately we didn’t have the money to license any of the clips.  But that was about it.  Most of the other names we were able to get in there, and again many of the obscure comedians I think we put in a very good light.

Billy Franey was a name that I didn’t know.  I knew him from some of the Edgar Kennedy shorts I had seen, that my friend Paul Lisy had shown me.  He was a big name but we only have one clip of him in there.  There are many of those where we only mention a comedian once.  We were very fortunate getting the material we were able to get.  There are names that aren’t even shown that probably should have been, but because of schedule, because of budget…we did what we could in the time frame that we had.  Our main goal was to throw out as many faces as we could and put in the best looking material that we could and hopefully people would get exposed to it and appreciate silent comedy for what it was.

DS:  My appreciation for the series boils down to the fact that nearly every episode I laugh out loud.

LS:  I’m glad to hear that.

DS:  There is some moment in every show where I’ll be surprised by what happens, and that always causes me to laugh.

LS:  Which comedies for you were the most surprising?

SD:  The Larry Semon – Stan Laurel short that you mentioned.

LS:  Yes, when I was screening that print it was one of the ones where I was laughing out loud.  Where they are doing the fighting at the beginning… that just had me on the floor.

SD:  And I really liked the Lupino Lane clips that you have.  My sons really like the Ton of Fun, and my boys also like Snub Pollard a lot; the crazy inventions and stuff.  There’s one where he’s riding in a little car shaped like a bullet that is powered by a magnet…

Snub Pollard

LS:  That’s right, that’s very funny.  He was an interesting personality.  He played with everybody.  He started with Lloyd and went up to the 1950’s when he died he was still performing.  Unfortunately he was one of those guys who were hidden behind his costume and a personality never came out.  He was there at the beginning of the Roach studios.  He did a lot of incredible shorts that we didn’t have in the series, I learned about them later.  I’m not even sure we had his best stuff in there.  Like many of them he had the gags, he certainly wasn’t a Chaplin or a Keaton and I don’t think he came up with his own stuff, but they put him in a lot of great vehicles.  But he never really popped out, which is a shame.

SD:  You mentioned how long Snub Pollard worked.  One of my favorite episodes in the series was the one you did on second bananas, and how many of them had very long careers.

LS:  That’s right.

SD:  One of the people I have always liked is Al St. John.  He started with Roscoe Arbuckle and worked with Keaton, and later had a very successful career in B-grade westerns.  I was always amazed how long his career was and how he was able to switch and adapt.  Long after other stars had stopped working, he was still getting calls.

LS:  You’re right.  He’s another one of those names that I knew nothing about who popped out as a major comedian.  I can’t recall the comedy….where he’s in the barber chair….

SD:  Yes, I believe that was one that Roscoe Arbuckle directed.

LS:  Absolutely right, and Arbuckle is the same way.  I knew very little besides the scandal.  I never thought he was funny.  None of the Mack Sennett comedians ever turned me on.

SD: Yeah, I can see that.

LS:  It was just knock-about comedy, and he popped out as a personality.  Al St. John was the same way.  He comes out, not as a unique personality but he could fill it.  He could play the role.  Arbuckle as a director, did that short, did many of the Lupino Lane comedies.  Incredible director.  That was a surprise to me, how gifted of a director he was.

Al St. John, unfortunately was an alcoholic, and drinking was a problem.  You can tell in a close up, I think it’s the comedy with him in the barber chair, he has incredibly bloodshot eyes.  You gotta wonder if he was drinking back then.  But boy, he could do incredible acrobatics.

SD:  Yes, I agree.  I’ve been wondering, do you have any future plans involving silent cinema?

LS:  You know, it’s kind of a one-man-band here.  I’m still marketing the show.  I’m trying to make some more TV sales with it.  It’s still playing in Russia on two stations.  I need to make some more international sales.  Part of the reason we structured it the way we did with one track of narration was to make overseas sales.  All these companies have to do is put in a foreign language track.  I’m really concentrating on doing that as well because it’s perfect:  It’s visual comedy, it can play in any language, and it’s very easy to dub into another language because we don’t have anything on camera.

Part of the thought when we were making the show initially was that we should have interviews with people who were still alive.  To me, that is not interesting, that’s been done many times before and much better.  Our main goal was to make a show that was very palatable to a very wide audience, so that people could discover this stuff.  Just flick it on for half an hour and despite the fact that it was made in the 1920’s and in black and white it’s very clever comedy.  So we didn’t want to slow it down with a lot of interviews or narration because it’s visual and it speaks for itself.  Many times we just set up the story line, if even that, and you get it.  If you pay any attention to the films, you get what’s going on.

SD:  I like that about the show.  Instead of showing a five minute sequence illustrating how Buster Keaton got in trouble with his girl friend’s father who happens to be the police chief, you just say “a few minutes earlier Buster dropped a load of bricks on this guy” and hit the ground running.

LS:  Yes.  For me the challenge in putting the script together was to take more and more out.  It’s really bare bones narration, just enough to make it interesting hopefully.  It’s a very brief overview.  We could have said a lot more, but that wasn’t really our goal.

If I can I’d also like to mention the music to the show.

SD:  Oh yes…

LS:  We were very blessed because through a friend of a friend we got in touch with Bob Erdos who runs Stomp Off Records.  They’re out in Pennsylvania, and they just have an incredible catalog of the type of music that you hear in the series; ragtime and jazz.  They have contemporary artists doing these renditions of this older music.  Bob was incredibly generous with what he did with the music, allowing us complete access to his library.  There are some very big names to people who follow this type of music that we have in the show.   I really think the music drives the visuals.  If we had one without the other the show would have been a much lesser vehicle.

SD:  I agree.  I’ve seen some pubic domain editions of silent films where they just take any old PD record that they happen to have and slap it on and it sounds horrible.  I thought your music did fit very well.  I also liked the sound effects that you used.  I though you did a very good job with them.  They weren’t intrusive and you didn’t put a sound effect on every single action, just enough to give the feel that the music was a little more scene specific.

LS:  Yes, we had a great editor who was incredible fitting the music to the clips, much of the music was edited and had singing in it, but he did an incredible job cutting each selection to the music.  I’m amazed at what he was able to do in the editing room.  The same thing for the sound effects; he did an amazing job with that.  Again, we didn’t want to border on the Robert Youngston type goofy sound effects, just enough to pop out the comedy a bit.  I really have to credit my editor for that.  He spent a lot of hours gathering the sound effects and trying to get the right ones for the right sound.  He was very meticulous.

SD:  I think that you, your editor and Stomp Off did a fantastic job putting it all together.

LS:  It just makes it complete.  It makes it all come together.  Our main thing was to keep the pace going in the show and keep it moving.  Sometimes it drags, the surreal comedy show we really struggled with that one.  I don’t think we had any big names in that one.  There was such a nice selection of films to choose from though.  We had some really obscure stuff.  I think that was the only show where I thought “this should be in there because it’s very historical and obscure.”  Not so much paying attention to the funny side, but on the more interesting side, the visual side.  I don’t think it the strongest laugh show, but it has a heck of a lot of clips in it and it covers a wide span.  There’s some stuff you wouldn’t see anywhere else.

SD:  Oh yeah.  There’s one short in that episode that I wanted to try to track down was Fresh Lobster, where a guy eats lobster before going to bed…

Billy Bletcher learns the hard way that it's not good to eat lobster before going to bed.

LS:  Isn’t that incredible?

SD:  Yes.  He’s chased by an animated lobster and later on a paper mache lobster….

LS:  Absolutely.  We found that through a collector Dan Bursik.  As I mentioned earlier I was fortunate to come across some people who just had a passion for what they were doing:  Bob Erdos at Stomp Off Records, Dan Bursik with his film collection…it just wasn’t a money thing at all.  The license fees I paid were very small.  These people had a passion for what they had, and they had a passion for wanting to share it.  I think they thought that I wasn’t going to screw it up, and that we were committed to doing this right, and making it look right.  That was one of the high points of doing this series; getting to know these people who were passionate about silent comedy, who were passionate about that type of music, and we just couldn’t have done this show without that.

That short that you mentioned, Fresh Lobster, broke our bounds a little.  It was a sound picture done in the late 30’s.  Nobody knows much about it besides that it stared Billy Bletcher who was a silent comedian.  The print quality was incredible and the story was so surreal….

SD:  (laughs) Yes!

LS:  Apparently the story was that some Disney animators did this on the side, but it would be great to learn more about it.  I’m glad you mentioned that because that was a totally unique find.  I knew we found that very late when we were doing the series, but we just had to get that in there because it was so unusual.

SD:  Yes it was, and the animation was very good.

LS:  The animation was incredible, wasn’t it?

SD:  Yes, from the first animated parts I was wondering what studio released the film because it looked like really expensive animation, especially for the time.

LS:  Yes and the print quality is gorgeous.  A lot of production value is in this comedy, and I think that what I say in the show is all that we know about it.

Going back to the music John, that’s what I think the music does for the show:  It gives it a sense of production quality that it wouldn’t otherwise have, it would just be a bunch of clips strung together.  So I’m incredibly grateful for the music, without it the show wouldn’t be at the level that it is.  I’m very appreciative towards them, and anyone who worked on it.  It was a very small crew, and they didn’t do it for the money, because there wasn’t a lot of money to be made on it.  Hopefully this thing will be a testament to this type of comedy.  I don’t know if anybody, some other company with a lot of money, will do something like this because I’m not sure how profitable it would be.  I’m glad we got it done.  Now it’s out there.

SD:  I am glad too, it’s a very enjoyable series.  I’d like to thank you Larry for taking the time out of your schedule to talk with me.

LS:  Thank you.

Links of interest:

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


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