Reviews

American Slapstick, Vol. 2

If you have a taste for the forgotten, the obscure, and the lost, American Slapstick, Vol. 2 is for you.


American Slapstick Vol. 2

Director: Various
Cast: Gaylord Lloyd, Harold Lloyd, Syd Chaplin, Billy West, Billy Bevin, Alice Howell, Louise Fazenda
Distributor: Facets Multimedia
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: All Day Entertainment
US Release Date: 2008-07-22
Website

In Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, "A Coney Island of the Mind", he compares the poet to an acrobat who must "constantly risk absurdity and death" like a "little charleychaplin man." Watching American Slapstick, Vol. 2, a three-disc DVD set featuring rare silent comedies (1915 – 1937) rescued from oblivion and presented with new musical scores, it is easy to turn the comparison around.

Slapstick comedy’s primary trope is loss of control — of the body, of one’s social standing, of a sense of propriety. This loss is the slapstick comedian’s gain, and the acrobats and physical comedians who represent this genre are surely poets of a kind.

Among its many offerings, American Slapstick, Vol. 2 gives us the early work of slapstick legend Harold Lloyd, shorts featuring Charlie Chaplin’s most successful imitator, Billy West, and an introduction (to the amateur silent film fan) to virtual unknowns like female slapstick comedians Alice Howell and Anne Cornwal.

It groups the shorts (33 in all, including a few cartoons) by subject, allowing the viewer to listen to a brief introduction that provides background to the films that follow. Given the slightly random nature of the rescued shorts, this important feature lets even novice silent film viewers appreciate how the films fit into the larger historical picture of silent film comedies.

Part One of the first disc contains early shorts starring Harold Lloyd. When he was just starting out, Lloyd played a Charlie Chaplin knockoff character called "Lonesome Luke." Many of these works were destroyed by fire, but American Slapstick, Vol. 2 presents us with one of the few remaining Lonesome Luke films, "Luke Joins the Navy." Here, shining through his Chaplin imitations is the hapless, ingratiating and smiley Lloyd we came to know later.

The "glasses period" Harold Lloyd comes out in charming films like "Don’t Shove", which was my favorite of the group. Here, Lloyd tries to win a girl’s heart at her birthday party by eliminating his rival, played by Oliver Hardy (of Laurel and Hardy fame). The roller skating sequences in "Don’t Shove" are like ballets in reverse — choreographed for maximum gracelessness and ridiculousness.

Part Two of Disc One introduces us to the B-list actors who gained some fame in the "House that Lloyd built", that is, the Hal Roach studios. These actors include Gaylord Lloyd (Harold Lloyd’s brother), James Parrot, Snub Pollard, and Larry Semon.

"Speed Demon", starring Semon, showcases daring feats that are amazing by any era’s standards. Without special effects or any visible safety measures, the actors perform insanely dangerous stunts in this film about a race between two men to win the hand of a lady.

In one scene, Larry Semon accidentally hitches the sheriff’s bed to the end of his racecar. As the bewildered sheriff stands up hitched to a speeding car with bed sheets clinging to his face, the long shot of the car speeding down a road tells you all you need to know about how perilous this stunt was. With enough crashes, explosions and tumbles to fill a modern Hollywood film, "Speed Demon" impresses.

"Fresh Start", starring Lige Conley and Jimmie Adams, tells the story of two ex-cons released from prison who try to get a new lease on life. They fall in love with a young showgirl, attempt to insinuate themselves into her home, undetected by her brute of a husband, and naturally, hijinx ensue.

The most amazing, Buñuel-esque sequence occurs when lions from a local zoo find their way into the home, leading to a surreal chase scene involving Conley, Adams, the husband and lions. In an incredible (and no doubt dangerous) scene, one of the cons locks himself in a room with a lion that decides to nap on his back as his socks literally curl off his feet with terror — the only special effects in the scene.

Disc two, "Chaplin Without Chaplin", features Chaplin cartoons and his best imitator, Billy West, in shorts that supplied the demand for Chaplin he himself could not fulfill alone. But for my money, the funniest short in the entire box set is in the third disc: "Cinderella Cinders", starring Alice Howell in one of her few films that survived in its entirety.

This frizzy-headed proto-Lucille Ball just happens to always find herself in the middle of zaniness. In "Cinderella Cinders", she gets a job as a cook at a wealthy couple’s mansion. The couple receives word that a count and countess (actually con artists) are in town, and they decide to give Howell’s character and the butler she works with makeovers so that they, too, can pretend to be royalty.

Unfortunately, the cat knocks over a bottle of moonshine into the punchbowl, and pretty soon Howell is seeing double, lurching around, and mocking the lady of the house. Acting decidedly unladylike at a time when women were denied the vote and supposed to stay in the home, the lovely yet goofy Alice Howell will be one of many revelations American Slapstick, Vol. 2 offers the would-be silent film slapstick fan.

By the time the viewer reaches the talkie films in the third disc, films that attempted to bridge the silent form of slapstick with its talkie incarnation, one realizes that the absence of dialogue added to, rather than deprived, the films. The talkies are simply not as compelling as their silent versions.

A narrator in one of the introductions says that the American Slapstick series loves "the forgotten, the obscure, and the lost." Lucky for us, these restored films — remembered, canonized, and restored — remind us of the vitality and joy that was early silent slapstick cinema.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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