Weiss-O-Rama (2007) – By James L. Neibaur

 With so many public domain companies offering grainy prints of films without copyright, I approached the VCI collection of Weiss Brothers-produced silent comedies with some trepidation.  Six full hours of silent comedies with musical accompaniment appeared to be a wonderful deal, but I feared washed-out visuals with distracting, inappropriate scores (complete with vocals).  Then I remembered  being very pleased with a Joe E. Brown DVD collection I purchased from VCI entertainment, and took a chance.

It was well worth it.

The Weiss Brothers production company was not at the level of the Mack Sennett or Hal Roach operations, but they produced many comedy shorts during the 1920s with a variety of creative, talented comedians, many of whom are gathered in this massive volume.  On two discs, we get a whopping six hours of comedy shorts mastered from the original 35mm negatives, thus the picture quality is breathtaking.  Toss in appropriate accompaniment by excellent musicians like Phillip C. Carlie and David B. Drazin and we have a truly magnificent collection of movie comedy’s rich history.

This is not Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd stuff.  That is already out there, already long acknowledged as brilliant, and deservedly embraced.  This collection ventures down silent comedy’s bypaths to find such talented practitioners as Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, and former circus clown Poodles Hanneford, as well as the outrageously funny Jimmy Aubrey, the melodrama satires featuring Hairbreadth Harry (produced by Chaplin imitator Billy West), and the comedy team of Izzie and Lizzie, unknown to this comedy film historian until now.

It is the Turpin shorts that are the best;  three rare titles that feature the cross-eyed funnyman at his most outrageous.  The Turpin films in this collection are, in fact, obscure enough that the Internet Movie Database does not include any info on two of the three.  

By the time Turpin was working for the Weiss brothers in the late 1920s, he had already achieved stardom with Mack Sennett.  Turpin had invested his money wisely in real estate, and did not have to work by this time.  But his beloved wife Carrie had died in 1924, so he kept sporadically busy right up until his passing in 1940.  Here Turpin is represented by three hilarious comedy shorts.  The first, The Cockeyed Family (1928) features Ben getting a hefty promotion which means he must relocate.  Rather than take the train, his wife insists they drive across the country (during the era of dirt roads).  With their two ill-mannered children (one of them is Billy Barty), the gags are non-stop, as are the laughs, with blowouts and camping mishaps along the way.  Why Babies Leave Home (1928), features Ben as a hobo who stumbles upon his long lost parents.  Ben not only plays the forlorn bum, but also the wheelchair-ridden patriarch of the family.  His family is being mistreated by their wealthy landlord, but when Ben becomes an unlikely hero by foiling the kidnapping of an heiress, his family’s troubles are over.  Within the course of this incredible comedy short we see Ben chasing a flying pancake, and being dragged by an automobile, among other extraordinary moments.   The third Turpin comedy, Holding His Own (1928), has him getting into an argument with his neighbor, that soon evolves from petty slapstick to the destruction of automobiles.  Ben must then change out of his dirty suit to attend a fancy party, borrowing a tux from a waiter’s school, which proceeds to rip apart as the evening wears on, forcing him to run into rooms and steal errant pairs of pants from unsuspecting dressers.  It all comes to a head on the dance floor, when his loose suspenders become entangled with another man’s, resulting in a wild tug-of-war.  These are very rare comedies and among Turpin’s funniest.

Snub Pollard is represented by four hilarious comedies.  By this time, Snub had been in movies for about ten years, supporting Chaplin at Essanay, Harold Lloyd at the Hal Roach studios, then becoming a star in his own right with Roach.  In his films released by the Weiss Brothers, produced by Snub himself for his own company, the gags are more outrageous and, to this reviewer’s mind, even funnier.  The Bum’s Rush (1927) has Snub as a bum too lazy to run off with the other tramps when the law approaches.  As he lays about he gets entangled with an escaped convict running from the police, and is mistakenly shackled by his pursuers.  When his clothing is stolen by the convict, he is dressed in prison uniform and must now also flee with the criminal.  The crook is grateful to Snub and expresses undying friendship.  From this point, the two function in the film as a team, with several wonderful creative gags.  Fire (1926) features him as an unlikely house detective whobecomes a firefighter to attract a woman who fancies men in uniform.  Once Over and The Big Shot (both 1928) have him paired with Marvin “Fat” Lobeck as an ersatz Laurel and Hardy.  Without the artistry of Stan and Ollie, Snub and Fat still manage to get solid and consistent laugh with their creative slapstick.  

Poodles Hanneford, a former circus clown,  is certainly in his element in the very funny Circus Daze (1928), plays a hapless suitor in Better Behave (1928), and in Fare Enough (1928) he is a car mechanic who later becomes a cab driver.  The Hairbreadth Harry comedies – Sign Them Papers (1927), Fearless Harry (1926), and Rudolph’s Revenge (1928) – parody old time melodrama with crazy slapstick antics, comic villians, distressed damsels, and dashing heroes.  Jimmy Aubrey was never a star, but outlived most who were, living into his 90s.  He never backed down from telling the most amazing stories during his senior years.  His wild comedies Keep Smiling (1928), Alibi Alley (1927), and Have a Heart (1928) are most welcome additions to  this collection.  This writer has a special affection for Keep Smiling, which delightfully wanders all over the map, featuring hilarious gags and some truly sloppy pastry throwing.  

he rare items were exciting to discover, but it was even more exciting to be introduced to the comedy team of Izzie and Lizzie, whom I had not known before.  Apparently there were three Izzie and Lizzie comedies produced, and two of them are featured here.  In Ham and Herring and Movie Mania (both 1928), Izzie Goldberg is the normal son in a family of  Jewish stereotypes.  He is smitten with shiksa Lizzie O’Connor from their proudly Irish neighbors with whom they do not get along.  Perhaps it is the monster known as political correctness that has caused these comedies to be so obscure.  As with most films dealing with outdated stereotyping, they are fascinating items.  In Ham and Herring, the Jewish mother is shown bowl-cutting her younger son’s Hasidic curls, and the father reaches for an animal cracker and balks when he pulls out a pig-shaped cookie.  The casts were different for each of these films, (Margie Meadows plays Lizzie in Ham and Herring, while Bess True takes it in Movie Mania, etc.), so perhaps the inconsistent nature of the films made a longer series difficult.

Special features include commentary by comedy film historian Richard Roberts who was instrumental in compiling this collection.  He indicates that some of these films were preserved in the nick of time, that they are among the lesser known films of even the more notable stars, and that they represent a strong period of creativity in comedy movies.

Weiss-o-Rama is a magnificent collection, offering six hours of beautifully mastered and rare silent comedies that should fascinate anyone with a serious interest in film.  For the uninitiated, it is a perfect look at screen comedy from the golden age that is something other than Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  For comedy buffs, it is an essential addition to any collection that hopes to be comprehensive.