Now on DVD, restored and remastered in HD to a shine, is a seminal anthology of slapstick comedy that infected many a young viewer in the early ’60s.
A number of factors revived an interest in silent comedies around this time. On TV, syndicated packages were circulating to local stations and kids’ shows. In theatres, veteran collector Robert Youngson put together a series of very successful compilations. Made for 20th Century Fox, When Comedy Was King was Youngson’s follow-up to the surprise hit of 1958’s The Golden Age of Comedy, and it’s now offered in terrific shape as restored from the negative.
The concept is simplicity itself. Beginning with scenes from a Charley Chase short in which a father takes his family to a movie theatre and faces a number of common hazards, the film strings together highlights from several classic slapstick comedies. Narration by Dwight Wiest obviates the need for title cards and provides a little background info, not too much. Although this is technically a documentary, it’s really an anthology of scenes to make you laugh, and in that it succeeds.
The opening scenes from Charles Chaplin’s early Mack Sennett shorts can seem distractingly fast and jumpy, for they’re not commonly run at 24 frames per second anymore, but either the problem disappears or the viewer gets used to it. These complete shorts can be found on Chaplin at Keystone.
The narrator tells us we’ll meet all three of the great original geniuses of silent comedy, here defined as Chaplin; Harry Langdon in the surreal and spooky domestic crisis The First Hundred Years (1924), now available on Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection; and Buster Keaton in the anarchic 1922 Cops, most famous for the gag where he grabs onto a moving car after casually tossing a bomb into a police parade. It can be seen complete on Kino’s Buster Keaton: The Complete Silent Shorts. Harold Lloyd, whom critic James Agee listed as a fourth genius, isn’t mentioned because Youngson couldn’t license material from him.
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In this film and others, Youngson mined much of his comic gold from Laurel and Hardy, and they close this film with their masterpiece Big Business (1929), a brilliant comedy of escalation and hostility co-starring James Finlayson as an angry homeowner who desecrates the duo’s Christmas tree. This is so funny, it’s profound.
Also excerpted are Roscoe Arbuckle’s Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), available in its entirety and with color tinting on The Mack Sennett Collection: Volume One; Teddy at the Throttle (1917) with Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery and Bobby Vernon, available in the same set; walrus-mustached Snub Pollard as a daffy inventor driving a tiny bullet-shaped car in It’s a Gift (1923); and clips of forgotten hard-working clowns Billy Bevan, Chester Conklin and Ben Turpin.
A highlight is the ingeniously simple and timeless A Pair of Tights (1929), another comedy of escalation about a foursome stopping to pick up ice cream. The entire thing is spun from two ideas: the ice creams keep getting ruined, and the car must keep driving around the block for lack of parking. In this way, the haplessness and needless complexity of modern life, the sheer trouble of leisure, is exposed. As in the aforementioned Big Business from the same year, a crowd of bystanders gets involved. It stars Edgar Kennedy, Stuart Erwin, and the putative comedy team of tall-and-short comediennes Anita Garvin and Marion Byron, both hilarious. Again, the clarity of the print is revelatory.
Laurel & Hardy with James Finlayson in Big Business (1929)
Although many of the films are available today in complete editions elsewhere, this film mostly showcases non-deteriorated footage of sharp “shot yesterday” quality, and Youngson was, in fact, responsible for preserving what became the only copies of several items. Such clarity allows nothing to stand in the way of getting the gag. We don’t have to squint and use our imagination to fill in any blanks; we can just laugh.
Another comedy collector named Richard M. Roberts offers a commentary with a fountain of facts on Youngson’s career, the importance of his films to cultural history and the warping of young minds, the bygone scenes in TV and 8mm collecting, and much minutiae on supporting actors and forgotten leads in the films themselves. Nor does his contribution end there. He also provides three plainly unrestored prints of obscure comedies with forgotten comics, and he gives commentary on those, too.
For some reason, the package doesn’t mention what they are. An Elephant on His Hands (1920) stars busy comedienne Dot Farley, whose trademark here is stiffly jutting braids, plus the obese and put-upon Hughey Mack and two pachyderms running loose in a hotel. Fast and Furious (1924) stars little Lige Conley, whose face and gestures resemble Chaplin, working in a store and having a chase. From 1926, Heavy Love stars the Three Fatties (Frank Alexander, Hilliard Karr, Kewpie Ross) as amateur housebuilders who construct it upside down; heavyset merriment ensues. The latter two films love trick stairs that become slides, a gag used to great effect in Keaton’s The Haunted House back in 1921. As many have said, imitation is the sincerest form of comedy.
This disc is available as an Amazon Exclusive from The Sprocket Vault, a DVD company founded in 2015 by another pioneering collector, Kit Parker Films.