The Silent Comedy Mafia 1 (1926/2006) – By James L. Neibaur

 One of the great things about DVDs is the immediate accessibility of some of the unsung films in movie history.  The wild comedies of the silent era are represented by this collection, which, being labeled as “1,”  would indicate the likelihood of future volumes.

Ben Turpin is the star here, being represented by two comedies, one from the Mack Sennett studios at the height of his career, another from Weiss Brothers/Artclass  where Turpin worked only occasionally after shrewd investments made him wealthy enough to only perform when he chose to do so.

The other comedians represented include Stan Laurel in an early solo film nearly ten years prior to his teaming with Oliver Hardy, as well as the lesser known Hank Mann (an original Keystone Cop), Bobby Vernon, Billy Franey, and Harry “Snub” Pollard.

The two Turpin films may be the funniest in this collection.  The Sennett effort is the typically outrageous The Prodigal Bridegroom (1926), which puts Ben, a successful butter and egg man,  in the unlikely love triangle where he plans to marry pretty Thelma Hill (the brunette in Laurel and Hardy’s classic Two Tars) but who is pined after by homely Louise Carver.  And the rival for Ben’s affection is fat, bombastic Marvin Lobeck.  Toss in Madeline Hurlock and Dave Morris as a couple of swindlers after Ben’s butter and egg profits, and the results are delightful.   The outrageous situations are punctuated by typical Sennett gags involving everything from trains to mud holes, that are as creative as they are hilarious.  The print quality is beautiful, from an old Blackhawk films print.

Idle Eyes the Turpin effort from Weiss Brothers/Artclass is much more gag oriented and, like most Weiss-produced comedies, bumps along at an even-but-fast pace that includes so many funny instances, one is left breathless at the end.
Ben starts out as a bum trying to cadge food from a pastry truck, and later from a  baby in a buggy (Ben Turpin).  His destitute ways and attempts to obtain food get him a  lot of hilarious trouble, until it is discovered that he is a long lost heir with a whopping $1000 coming his way.  

Along with these two wildly funny comedies, a collection of Turpin scenes and stills are available as extras.  It gives a great deal of insight to a popular comedian who is unfairly forgotten because he doesn’t quite reach the heights of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd.  Perhaps this is the difference between talent and genius.  Turpin had talent.  His best work remains timeless.

A young, almost boyish looking Stan Laurel stars in the 1918 Rolin comedy Just Rambling Along, providing a look at his early work in films.  Laurel, once understudy to Chaplin in the Fred Karno touring music hall shows, exhibits some semblance of Chaplin mannerisms here, and there is barely a trace of the vacuous Stanley character that remains so beloved.   The film is filled with funny moments, showing the genesis of Laurel’s comedy filmmaking genius, that would continue to manifest itself  successfully for another twenty years.  It is interesting to see noted heavy Bud Jamison here, post-Chaplin and pre-Three Stooges.

Some of the more interesting shorts included in this package feature long forgotten comedians.  The interest here is a reminder that silent screen comedy was more than the acknowledged masters like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  The Janitor (Morris Schlank/Arrow, 1919) features former Keystone Cop Hank Mann in the title role, disrupting an office and even thwarting Bolsheviks!  All Jazzed Up (Al Christie, 1920) features Bobby Vernon on the brink of the stardom he would achieve only a few years later.  It is filmed at the historic Angel’s Flight, the world’s shortest railroad, in downtown Los Angeles, adding to its historic significance.  Along with the Blackhawk titles, the original Christie titles are also included.  The Bath Dub (Reelcraft, 1921) features low budget comedian Billy Franey in one of the more surreal, creative comedies to come out of poverty row during the silent era, this one featuring an automatic bath tub (!).

Finally, Snub Pollard is featured in one of his comedies for the Hal Roach studios, The Big Idea (1924).  This comedy can be found on a few different collections, but the quality here is great (not to mention Fredrick Hodges’ delightful and appropriate piano music).  This is a nice, compact one-reel comedy (Snub worked best in this format).  Snub plays an unlikely inventor here, recalling his minor classic It’s a Gift, a heavily anthologized short that is perhaps his best known.  As with the other comedies in this collection, it is filled with exciting ideas.

Silent screen comedy appears to be overlooked nowadays, with only the top tier masters getting any attention at all.  The many clever and hilarious working comedians of the teens and twenties are fading into oblivion the same as they had during the talking picture revolution, before compilation films and television revived them in the 1950s and 1960s.  DVD allows us access to these historically significant films, allowing us to see the pioneers of comedy in cinema whose work rests comfortably down the bypaths rather than at the forefront.  When overlooking such great work, one is missing out.  

The Silent Comedy Mafia 1 is most highly recommended.  We wait in anticipation for ensuing volumes.