When we think of classic comedy, especially from the era before sound, slapstick stands as the main significant form. Sure, there were works with witty rejoinders and filmed plays piled high with clever dialogue, but sans the title cards, the power of pantomime and the purity of physical shtick argued for its viability in a wholly visual medium. Naturally, within such subsets lie the considered kings - Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd - but among their cinematic court were jesters of equal aplomb, if not fame. Thanks to the archivists at All Day Entertainment, and digital distributors Facets, we are treated to a wonderful second volume of forgotten figures and farces, shorts and features that prove there was more to onscreen pratfalls than little tramps and great stone faces.
Compiled over three loaded DVDs, American Slapstick Vol. 2 is then divided into sections. On Disc 1, we are treated to a look at Harold Lloyd, his brother Gaylord and the latter’s brief career, including his take on his sibling’s ‘Luke” character. Next up is an overview of Hal Roach’s remarkable studios and several of its b-players. Finally, we witness the birth of Educational Pictures, a brand that had very little to do with learning and everything to do with lunacy. Disc 2 offers the sole feature film, a look at Charlie Chaplin’s brother Syd and his turn in the classic satire Charlie’s Aunt. A few of his ‘Gussie’ shorts are offered as well. Equally interesting here is a chance to see Chaplin imitator Billy West. The final DVD presents a true piece of history as famous ladies of slapstick are discussed. Their importance is accented by takes on Billy Bevin as well as the talkies attempt to incorporate the ideas of old with the technology of the new.
All in all, it’s over seven hours of silent silliness and casual insights. Each section is introduced by a pleasant female voice, the information she passes along instrumental in understanding the context of each area. In addition, a handy insert outlines the stars being surveyed as well as the films on each DVD. Granted, much of this material is incomplete. As a matter of fact, historians argue that as much as 85% of pre-World War II cinema is lost forever. So the fact that we have access to any of these rarities is really special. Naturally, video purists will balk at the condition and visual variables, but if that’s all they care about, they are missing the bigger picture. Physical comedy didn’t begin with Moe, Larry, and Curly, and there was much more to the genre than Chaplin’s sentimentality and Keaton’s technical advances. The more we know about slapstick, the more we come to truly appreciate it as an art.
In a compendium loaded with intriguing elements, three items stick out specifically. The first deals with Chaplin and his mystique (the focus of Disc 2). Learning that his popularity created a series of imitators and impersonators is nothing surprising. Yet watching as West tries to emulate the Little Tramp, or seeing how brother Syd strived to create his own classic character is worth the price of admission alone. “The Hobo” is hilarious, West really doing a dandy bit of buffoonery. The snippets from animated takes on the Chaplin mystique are also excellent. But it’s Syd who steals the show. His work as Gussie, a haughty halfwit whose main attribute appears to be a rather ample rump is quite compelling and - dare it be said - equal to his brother’s subtlety and skill. “Caught in the Park” and “Gussie’s Wayward Path” stand as ready to be rediscovered gems, and thanks to American Slapstick Vol. 2, modern generations get a chance to witness the other Chaplin’s brilliance and personality acumen.
The second most significant contribution this collection makes is in the feminine side of show business. We always here about the men, both celebrated and infamous, but when was the last time you heard scholars reference Louise Fazenda, Anne Cornwall, or most importantly, Alice Howell. These three remarkable women are the focus of Disc 3, and their short films and sequences are absolutely fantastic. Beyond that, they are eye opening. We are used to seeing silent screen actresses as damsels in distress, clumsy dowagers, or sad, slightly soiled ladies. Here, our trio introduces us to amazing moments from “Cinderalla Cinders”, “Hold Still”, “A Hash House Fraud”, and “Faro Nell” and in each one they more than hold their own. It’s just too bad we can’t see more of these incredibly important individuals. A set of female slapstick stars is probably long overdue.
Finally, even though it’s part of the Syd Chaplin section, seeing Charlie’s Aunt here is quite stunning. Granted, the performances and the storyline are major selling points, but the chance to see a full fledged costumed comedy, complete with elaborate sets, faked locations, and other classic Hollywood hullabaloo is too good to pass up. Representing a near perfect time capsule of the industry of the era, we see that oversized ambitions, overacting, and larger than life spectacle are not a contemporary fault. This is also true of forlorn funnyman Billy Bevins. His almost epic “Be Respectable” goes from a clever character piece to a full blown citywide chase, complete with more Keystone style cops than modern day Los Angeles has policemen. It makes for a wonderfully thrilling addition.
Indeed, everything about American Slapstick Vol. 2 is spellbinding, even if some of it is in minor, mere footnote ways only. We enjoy the reckless ethnic stereotyping, as it provides insights into the social structure of the past. We champion those brave gals who orchestrated their onscreen gags with the precision of their far more renowned (and better paid) male counterparts. We wonder why certain names are no longer remembered while realizing that some actors were mere fading fads in a consumer driven entertainment marketplace. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this anthology, aside from the wealth of historical context and pure performance bliss, is how accurately it preserves the truth. While we may never see the likes of this style of humor ever again, the ability to revisit it in such a significant, substantive manner is a joy to behold. American Slapstick Vol. 2 is mandatory viewing for any functioning film fan.
// Notes from the Road
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