What a joy to be able to write about and celebrate the DVD release of the 1960 comedy riot WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, now available in a dynamite 35MM transfer from Kit Parker’s new company, The Sprocket Vault.
Robert Youngson, for those unfamiliar with the name, was a silent-movie aficionado who turned his love of early cinema into a career. Producing/assembling a series of successful shorts at Warner Bros. (Magic Movie Moments, This was Yesterday, When the Talkies Were Young), he eventually graduated to features in 1957 with the release of his slapstick compilation The Golden Age of Comedy. The feature, distributed by 20th Century-Fox, surprisingly (or maybe not, considering the wide appeal Laurel & Hardy, costars in the picture, were then having on TV) made several Year End Ten Best lists. More importantly, industry-wise, the movie made a tidy profit, guaranteeing a further excursion into pre-talker laff-riots (Youngson and Fox continued their association until 1970).
The second installment, WHEN COMEDY WAS KING, wowed the crowds as much as the previous homage to the great silent comedians.
I can’t praise this collection of gags, guffaws and giggles enough. It’s a super comedy, ideal for slapstick buffs, but, even more so, a perfect primer to introduce the silent era to novice curiosity-seekers. Suffice to say, they will not be disappointed.
The 81 minutes fly by, nearly as fast as the ingeniously timed visual set-pieces. Of course, the masters are all here: Chaplin (The Masquerader, Kid Auto Races at Venice, His Trysting Place), Keaton (Cops), Arbuckle, Normand (Fatty & Mabel Adrift), and, natch, Laurel & Hardy (wisely saved for last, and beautifully paid tribute in their 1929 classic Big Business) – and each in their prime. Even Harry Langdon, celebrated as one of the “greats,” but whose appeal I personally could never warm up to, makes an appearance in a short, 1924’s The First 100 Years (alarmingly, even in 1959, when the footage was researched for inclusion, the negative was rapidly succumbing to nitrate disintegration), that admittedly, made me laugh out loud, and frequently (the only instance where the comedian has been able to get that response from me). My problem with Langdon is the man-baby character. A grown-adult, looking and acting like a toddler, never was my cup of pablum. That his character actively pursued women, worked dangerous jobs and parented children (with that Gerber label face), was…well, uncomfortable for me to watch, to say the least (glad to say, I wasn’t alone). Langdon was enormously popular for a brief period, and, according to his “creator” (then gag writer) Frank Capra, he never quite understood his own persona. This proved true when the comic branched out, wrote his own material, and flopped into oblivion (before posthumous rediscovery). Don’t like man-babies on the screen, as coworkers or in politics. So there!
Okay, demons wrestled – and that’s my one detour in this piece, I promise (but not a terrible one, since, as indicated above, I actually liked COMEDY‘s Langdon segment).
Other wonderful funnymen (and women) are beautifully showcased in this feature; some I worship, like Jimmy Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy. There are also tributes to Hal Roach and Mack Sennett (featuring the Keystone Kops and the Sennett Bathing Beauties), the wacky debuts of Gloria Swanson (with then-hubby Wally Beery), Teddy the Dog (plus other jaw-dropping canine stars), Chester Conklin, Vernon Dent, Ben Turpin, Anita Garvin, Madeline Hurlock, Mack Swain, Al St. John, Charles Murray, Daphne Pollard, Bobby Vernon, Charlie Hall, Tiny Sandford, Andy Clyde, Alice Day, Chester Conklin and a ridiculously young Stuart Erwin.
WHEN COMEDY WAS KING also offers a generous sidebar to unsung heroes like Billy Bevan, and, specifically, Snub Pollard, highlighted in a remarkable 1923 Pee-Wee-esque short entitled It’s a Gift.
On the negative side, there are few complaints, but ones I feel merit mentioning. While Youngson’s written commentary (voiced by Dwight Weist) is overall historically interesting, there’s a bit too much don’t-we-suck-now digs to spike the fun. A lovely pastoral seaside sequence is marred by Weist’s reminding us that this beach is now littered with beer cans.
On the standout side is a sensational running-gag ice-cream cone bit from 1929’s A Pair of Tights, with comedienne Marion Byron, a valuable contribution that Weist/Youngson acknowledge, save the fact that they pronounce her name wrong, as “Brian.” Surely, such a cineaste as Youngson should have caught this, but, never mind; it’s a minor carp, I suppose (unless you’re a Byron fan, which I am now, DRAT).
The picture quality of the WHEN COMEDY WAS KING DVD is generally excellent and razor-sharp, transferred from the 35MM negative. There is a slight blister effect during some dark scenes, mostly notable during the opening credits with Charley Chase (from Movie Night). It looks like a print with water damage, and may have been irreparably ruined during decades of neglect. Again, it’s not that marring, but worth noting. The mono audio, with some genuinely funny sound effects and suitable score by Ted Royal, is just fine and dandy.
The Sprocket Vault has further sweetened the silent comedy pot by including three full-length silent shorts (from the Richard M. Roberts collection) as supplements. Quality-wise, these two-reelers sadly resemble what most people perceive silents to look like. They are a grim statement on how we take care of our filmic heritage. Or don’t. The shorts themselves are a varied bunch. 1920’s An Elephant on his Hands is more highway-accident addictive than falling-down hilarious. And 1926’s Heavy Love, a Ton of Fun offering, produced by the dubious Joe Rock (a filmmaker with whom Stan Laurel deservedly had issues with during his tenure at the Rock studio) is often disturbing – unless seeing morbidly obese comedians fall through floors, painfully squeezing into small spaces and huffing, puffing and panting for twenty minutes is your thing. Only the 1924 Lige Conley entry Fast and Furious, rings true with inventive gags (and a BFF African-American costar, comedian Spencer Bell); the fact that it was directed by the prolific and talented Norman Taurog (who kept on helming major comedies into the late 1960s) is a likely reason.
WHEN COMEDY WAS KING is that rare motion picture that truly lives up to its title. While I try to avoid using erudite terms to underline my recommendations, this time I can’t resist. To quote the great scholars of yore: You’ll plotz!
WHEN COMEDY WAS KING. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1]; 2.0 mono audio. The Sprocket Vault/Kit Parker Films. CAT # 35053. SRP: $19.99.