In 1957 when producer Robert Youngson compiled a cross section of outrageous slapstick from the silent era, little did he realize that he was preserving our cinematic heritage. Silent movies had long been dismissed as anachronisms by the time Youngson assembled this footage for a compilation called The Golden Age of Comedy. But the success of this venture upon its 1958 release rekindled an interest in slapstick from the silent era. Suddenly, old silent movie footage was scraped up, layered with obtrusive music and sound effects, and tossed onto Saturday morning TV with cartoon kiddie fare. It captured a new generation of early baby boomers and now, here we are, celebrating its release on DVD.
The First Kings of Comedy Collection offers Youngson’s first two anthology of classic silent era humor: The Golden Age of Comedy and When Comedy Was King.
The Golden Age of Comedy offers many once-popular stars whose names and images have been crowded out by time and events. Only buffs like this writer are likely to know Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon, and Billy Bevan. Some may at least be aware of Jean Harlow, Will Rogers, and Carole Lombard. Certianly the biggest stars on this set are Laurel and Hardy, represented by large chunks from some of their funniest silent shorts.
With its bouncy musical accompaniment and narration, The Golden Age of Comedy movies along with a merry rhythm and there are several big laughs to be had. Clips from the fast paced Mack Sennett studios are interspersed with the more relaxed Hal Roach productions, and somehow they blend with great cohesion. It is easy to see how these great clips ignited further interest in the silent era. In this much later, more technological era, a compilation like The Golden Age of Comedy still holds up very well.
The success of The Golden Age of Comedy spawned another, similar anthology from Youngson two years later. When Comedy Was King has more of the iconic silent screen images in its lineup of classic clips, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle, all sorely missing from the first collection. Laurel and Hardy are back, as are the Keystone gang, and Harry Langdon.
While both anthologies offer great comedy that is also historically significant, what is most impressive is the quality of each film on this DVD. When Comedy Was King offers a good clear picture and loud, crisp sound but likely taken from 16mm source material. The Golden Age of Comedy looks even better and is probably from 35mm. It is perhaps the best quality I have ever seen on this title, including a theater screening back in the 1960s.
I don’t know the copyright status on these two films, but do realize they are available on DVD from other companies (though not in a double feature). The double feature disc from Genius Entertainment is the one this review is recommending. The compilations remain excellent introductory primers to the wonderful world of silent screen comedy.