Edward Everett Horton was one of those busy character actors seen all over the place in Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s. Looking a bit stork-y with head and beak thrust forward, he played fluttery, nervous, or dyspeptic characters defined by stammers and double-takes. His fussbudgets were forever worried or scandalized by whatever transpired unless he took a nip or two and turned into a devilish ally. His instantly recognizable voice was used to narrate the “Fractured Fairy Tales” on television’s Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.
Such a talent seems invented for the talkies, yet Horton was a star in silent films before anyone could appreciate his nattering voice. For example, he played the title role in the first version of the western comedy Ruggles of Red Gap (James Cruze, 1923). Like most of his more than 20 silent features, it’s now lost, which is another reason nobody remembers them.
In a lovely act of rediscovery funded by Kickstarter, Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions has excavated a marathon of shorts from the Library of Congress, digitally restored them from 2K scans, created new organ scores, and issued the set on DVD as Edward Everett Horton: 8 Silent Comedies. Preserved in excellent 35mm prints from the camera negatives, these well-made gems demonstrate again the importance of exploring silent cinema, or what remains of it.
The first two samples, No Publicity and Find the King, date from 1927, the rest from 1928. Directors are N.T. Barrows and James A Howe. Made for Paramount by Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Productions, the eight two-reelers find Horton playing fellows named Eddie. He’s never the same character twice, so the only consistency is the awkward, bony persona Horton carried with him.
Directed by Barrows, No Publicity is the only short in which Eddie is a resourceful working stiff, in this case, a newspaper photographer seeking a scoop. It’s the first of three items in which Horton disguises himself in drag. It’s also the first of three with excellent comic support from Aileen Manning, who had a line in strident beanpoles. And it’s the first of three with the wonderful Josephine Crowell, a portly matron with marvelous expressions of suspicion and alarm.
Crowell’s high point, and one of Horton’s, is in Dad’s Choice (directed by Howe), when she finds herself continually and accidentally harassed by Eddie, whom she takes for a masher. The scene where he attempts to retrieve a purse from her dog’s muzzle is staged for maximum laughs.
In general, Horton’s funniest moments rely on the accidental havoc he causes through clumsiness and misunderstanding. The highlight of Vacation Waves (Barrows) takes place on top of a double-decker bus, where Eddie’s interactions with a wife (Duane Thompson), her mother (Manning), a bratty brother (uncredited), and a fishing rod make him the bane of the conductor while the other passengers are vastly amused.
That’s the only short in which Horton plays a middle-class paterfamilias. Otherwise, he’s footloose, though he often ends up romancing some pretty heroine. Possibly this is the most incredible element in the films. While some films end in romantic resolution and a clinch, others end with Horton getting chased to the distant horizon by a person or animal.
Find the King (Howe) places Eddie in a Wild West saloon, as unlikely as that is. Even more unlikely is the marriage cross-purposes in Scrambled Weddings (Barrows), whose story is the most senseless and ridiculous of the eight. That doesn’t stop it from being pretty funny. This is another film with Crowell. Both her character and a gold-digging vamp (Lolita Lee, a ball of fire) get tied up, a sign of how much comic business for women is in these stories. Of course, they play “broad” types. Like most of the films, this is about rich people in a fabulous mansion.
Horton briefly dons drag again for Behind the Counter (Howe), which feels especially like a go-getting Harold Lloyd vehicle. This film finds a prominent part for Oscar Smith, a popular and busy African-American actor with a personal history more interesting than most of his servant roles. His role here, unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, is to be a scaredy-cat during a spooky nighttime robbery. His physical grace is delightful; just look at that last sight gag. In a better world, he’d have been starring in his own shorts.
Howe directed the remaining two films. Horse Shy finds Eddie mixing with the fox-hunting set for a string of animal gags. The final item, Call Again, has the last of the drag scenes as Eddie hides in a sorority house. Thompson and Manning show up again. The first reel, in which Eddie follows the wrong woman from a bus, borrows ideas from a Stan Laurel film, A Man About Town (George Jeske, 1923), which can be found in the Laurel or Hardy collection. The more of these films you see, the more connections you’ll realize.
Except for brief moments of nitrate decomposition on a couple of films, these digital restorations look dazzlingly clear and bright. As a short bonus explains, that’s because Lloyd preserved the negatives on his own estate before they got donated to the Library of Congress. This nifty discovery makes us yearn to see Horton’s few surviving features from the same era. Maybe one day.