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Film

'Mack Sennett Collection' and 'Chaplin's Mutual Comedies' Are Documents of Comedy Landmarks

These two box sets offer up key historical examples of the pratfall as high art.


Various

Director: Various
Cast: Various
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Year: 1909-1933
US DVD release date: 2014-08-19

Various

Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Year: 1916-1917
US DVD release date: 2014-08-19

From flickering decay to digital restoration, two monumental Blu-ray sets offer more than historical interest to fans of comedy history, especially those with the wit to recognize that the pratfall is a high art.

The Mack Sennett Collection: Volume One contains 50 comedies ranging from 1909, when Sennett began as a writer and actor for D.W. Griffith, through the famous W.C. Fields shorts The Dentist and The Fatal Glass of Beer, the titles most likely to be familiar to slapstick fans. Digitally restored from the best sources available, some prints still look jumpy and faded (sometimes with footage still missing), but the quality improves as steadily as the technical sophistication.

The earliest Sennett-produced shorts are weird, violent, surreal affairs, with flagrantly grotesque folks throwing bombs and thwacking each other in heavily improvised plots, usually filmed outdoors and sometimes with airplanes and submarines. The best are still funny. Many parody Griffith's melodramas, such as Wallace Beery tying Gloria Swanson to the railroad tracks in Teddy at the Throttle.

Brillliance shines through, as in Charles Chaplin's delightful Recreation (shot in LA's Echo Park), his brother Sydney Chaplin as various unlikeable fools, and huge Mack Swain as the accidental lothario in Ambrose's First Falsehood. Fatty Arbuckle's direction of Fatty and Mabel Adrift (with color tints) is crammed with gratuitous beauty: silhouettes, lighting effects, even a trick shot of an ocean view.

Stars include lovely Mabel Normand (seen to great advantage in the 1923 feature The Extra Girl, a Hollywood spoof previously released by Kino), scrawny Louise Fazenda (one of the top women comics), cross-eyed Ben Turpin, bowler-topped Billy Bevan, and baby-faced Harry Langdon. Run, Girl, Run has Carole Lombard and bits of Technicolor, and The Bluffer is a talkie in "Sennett-color." Some titles offer amiable commentary from historians.

Speaking of treasure troves, fans of silent comedy are familiar with the 12 films in Chaplin's Mutual Comedies, directed by and starring Charles Chaplin, usually romancing Edna Purviance despite large rival Eric Campbell. Although not blemish-free, new restorations and HD scans make them look better and more detailed than you've probably seen them in this lifetime.

The dapper drunk wrestling with every prop in the room in One A.M. is enough to confirm genius, while titles like The Floorwalker (classic escalator and mirror gags), The Rink (waiter on skates), Easy Street (tramp as cop), and The Immigrant (now in the National Film Registry) cemented the legend of the Little Tramp and played endlessly around the world. It's a pleasure to have them collected so lovingly on Blu-Ray (with DVDs included) with options of orchestral scores or improvised piano. A one-hour bonus, The Birth of the Tramp, is an excellent overview of Chaplin's development, and another one-hour film focuses on co-star Eric Campbell.

8

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