For those of us interested in silent screen comedy, there is perhaps no better time than the present. Even for old timers like this writer whose interest dates back to the pre-VHS era of 8mm and 16mm movie collecting, the accessibility of silent comedy is at its zenith right now in the 21st century. Massive sets featuring such giants as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd have given way to comprehensive packages spotlighting Harry Langdon and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Not stopping at this point, still more DVD compilations are being released, exploring the work of such second-tier greats as Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Larry Semon, and the inimitable Ton of Fun Trio.
Televista, inc, is among the chief distributors of silent comedy from the fringe that rests well past masters like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Yet these lesser-known practitioners are loaded with talent, and their films are filled with interesting ideas and hilarious moments. Their critical importance to comic cinema’s evolution is only matched by their historical significance as cultural artifacts.
The first two volumes of Old Time Comedies from Televista gather some fascinating little-known gems.
Volume one boasts a myriad of comic styles from the teens and twenties, including the underrated Raymond Griffith, Keystone stalwart Charley Murray, the forgotten Charles King, and one of many Our Gang knockoffs known as Hey Fellas.
The Griffith short is an abridgement of his outstanding feature Hands Up (1926). Retitled Injun Trouble, is a civil war comedy that contains so many clever ideas, it has become the catalyst for further study into Griffith’s career. Few of his films survive, and virtually none are accessible on DVD at this time, so the inclusion of the two-reel abridgement is commendable.
The gags in Please Excuse Me (1926), featuring Charlie King are outrageous and hilarious. For old movie buffs, it is interesting to see this latter-day western villain in a slapstick short. The Our Gang knockoff, Hey Fellas in The Tin Hoss (1925), features the kids putting together their own railroad, which is a gag the Gang themselves had already performed in their series. It is amusing in an imitative sense, but more interesting from a historical perspective. Chaplin imitator Billy West produced many comedies, one series featuring the Joybell Players, which included actors like Jack Cooper (not Jackie), Ethelyn Gibson, and Jack Richardson, who can usually be found in supporting roles otherwise. The effort on this disc, Daily Dozens (1926), appears to have been at least somewhat influenced by Chaplin’s 1917 Mutual production The Cure.
Volume Two boasts another Billy West production, Hard Boiled Yeggs (1926), featuring Billy himself, but as a dapper young man, not as a tramp imitator. His character inherits a lot of money, in a will that states that if he should die, some thugs will get the inheritance. This conflict makes for a lot of very funny sequences. Even better is Campus Romeos (1927), another outrageous short with the Ton of Fun Trio consisting of Fat Carr, Fatty Alexander, and Kewpie Ross; three enormous men whose pratfalls belie their girth. Popular second or third tier comics are often represented by solid examples of their existing work, and this is the case with the multitalented veteran Eddie Lyons in Pardon Me (1922).
Some may be offended by the stereotypes in the Monty Banks comedy Africa F.O.B. (1925), but it is even more blatant in the final short on this package, Dixie Madcaps (1918). The latter opens with several happy field hands eating large chunks of watermelon, soon being terrorized by two little girls (Jane and Catherine Lee) wearing bed sheets to simulate ghosts. The wild gestures, bulging eyes, kneeling and stammering prayers are all here. There is even one character who turns white in fear! Upon realizing it is just the girls, the slaves all chuckle with recognition and relief. It left this viewer slack jawed.
Stereotypes abound in these comedies, such as the overweight girl in Daily Dozens easily picking up 500-pound weights in a workout room and doing exercises. But the stereotyping evident in Dixie Madcaps goes much deeper. And, as a result, Televista should be commended for finding and including this very rare item on their DVD package. Yes, it is very offensive, but it is also historically significant and should spark serious discussion as well as a clear understanding as to the presentation of African Americans in early cinema.
The only drawback on these initial discs is the musical accompaniment, but I make this criticism with reservation. It appears the producers did attempt to find the best and most appropriate music, it is simply generic and not responsive to the on screen action. As there are many noted silent movie accompanists who are available to work on these discs, this problem will likely be fixed with ensuing releases. But in the case of , say, the Hey Fellas comedy on Volume One, the music seems more appropriate for melodrama and distracts from the action.
But this trifling quibble seems excessive in that Televista has compiled so much rare silent comedy material on these two discs, offering a cultural awareness and a historical perspective that is terribly important.
Televista reps have promised many more volumes of Old Time Comedies from their massive archives of silent cinema that has been effectively rescued from oblivion and will soon be made accessible to future generations. For anyone with even the most marginal interest in cinema’s rich history, the significance of such a contribution is beyond words.