AMERICAN SLAPSTICK VOLUME 1
This is AMERICAN SLAPSTICK: an irreverent, anarchic, deeply optimistic reaction to the roiling troubles of the world between 1914-1929.
These are the silent comedians who built American Slapstick: immigrants, outcasts and hard-up outsiders who personified the American Dream, becoming movie stars, heroes, icons.
And here are their films. If you’re looking for subtlety and refinement, drop this disc and run away. Inside, expect to find: exploding cars, innocent bystanders smacked in the head with hammers, half-naked underwear models chased by cross-dressing villains, auctioneers crawling across airplane wings to retrieve false teeth, memory-impaired lovers, somnambulists, drunken reprobates, deranged acrobats, and the Keystone Kops.
But wait, there’s more: the first film directed by Charlie Chaplin; the best film made by his brother Syd; a Cubic-Chaplin-Zirconia called Billy West; early (almost unrecognizable) appearances by Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy; classic shorts by forgotten clowns like Snub Pollard, Larry Semon, Billy Bevan, and Charley Chase; and the silent era’s sexiest comedienne Frances Lee trying to retrieve her stolen nightie!
CAUGHT IN THE RAIN • Charlie Chaplin • 1914
The legendary story goes like this: Mack Sennett hired a young comedian named Charlie Chaplin in 1914 to play opposite his then-biggest star, Mabel Normand. “Creative disagreements” ensued, and Normand wanted Chaplin out. Sennett called Chaplin into his office, planning to fire the young upstart, but received a frantic telegram from NY booking agents begging for more Chaplin films. So, instead of firing him, Sennett allowed Chaplin to start directing his own films. CAUGHT IN THE RAIN is (more or less) the first shorts Chaplin directed. It features elements both distinctive to Chaplin (such as his drunk act, a mainstay of his early films) and to Mack Sennett’s Keystone (yup, we get an appearance of the fabled Keystone Kops).
LAUGHING GAS • Charlie Chaplin • 1914
Chaplin’s years at Keystone are his least celebrated period. Keystone already had one breakout star, Mabel Normand, when Chaplin came along and taught them what true stardom was all about. The rapid pace of production gave Chaplin a crucial platform on which to develop, test, and refine his comic identity—honing his talent over the course of 35 films. These early works are seminal if crude: the comedy is rough, in all senses of the word. This is one of Chaplin’s most violent films.
CUPID’S RIVAL • Billy West • 1917
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Charlie Chaplin must have been quite flattered by the likes of Lupino Lane, Billie Ritchie, and Harold Lloyd’s “Lucky Luke.” Of these, Billy West was remarkable for mimicking Chaplin’s mannerisms so precisely as to fool many audiences. Chaplin told West, “You’re a damned good imitation but that’s all you are.” West has fallen into obscurity—ever see a Billy West DVD Collection?—but he was a truly gifted, if unoriginal, comic talent. Here he co-stars with a young Oliver Hardy as a jealous, cross-dressing artist. Is it Keystone or is it Memorex?
THE BOND • Charlie Chaplin • 1918
A promotional short in which Charlie (with his regular costars Mack Swain and Edna Purviance) does his part for the US effort in the First World War.
THE SUBMARINE PIRATE • Syd Chaplin • 1915
Syd Chaplin was a trained seaman who joined Fred Karno’s touring company, and then did the most important thing he would do in his entire life: introduce younger half-brother Charlie to the world of acting. Charlie soon overtook him, and everyone else, but Syd continued to appear in Charlie’s films (such as THE BOND) and manage his brother’s business affairs. Keystone produced a handful of Syd’s solo efforts, of which this rarely seen gem is often cited as the best.
GOLF • Larry Semon • 1922
Of all the forgotten clowns, Larry Semon is perhaps the least deserving of obscurity. He was a magician, a cartoonist, a writer-director, and one of silent comedy’s most peculiar stars. His films are chock-a-block with odd stunts and special effects. His films are best remembered today for the presence of either Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy (never together, though… look for Ollie in this short). But they ought to be celebrated for Semon’s unique comic imagination: no joke was too extreme, too broad, or too ridiculous for him. GOLF is typical of Semon’s gag-happy style.
LIZZIES OF THE FIELD • Billy Bevan • 1924
Billy Bevan was an Australian actor who joined Mack Sennett’s company in 1920 and quickly rose to be one of its top-drawing performers. He took the established Keystone style (frantic action, chaos, property damage, physical injury) and polished it without becalming it. If you needed a car driven too fast, in the wrong direction, and ultimately totaled, Bevan was your go-to guy. This bewildering spectacle of destruction was directed by Del Lord, who continued in this vein when directing the Three Stooges.
HEAVY LOVE • The Ton of Fun • 1926
Frank Alexander was a portly comic who got his start at Keystone in 1913, and went on to work with Larry Semon. Specializing in mimicking Roscoe Arbuckle, he came to be known as Fatty Alexander, and was eventually teamed with two other fat comics as “the Ton of Fun.” Sadly, when the Ton of Fun series came to an end, so did Alexander’s screen career.
UPPERCUTS • Jack Duffy • 1926
A veteran of vaudeville and musical comedy, Jack Duffy was headhunted for films by Larry Semon and went on to appear with Buster Keaton. He also had an additional skillset: makeup. Turning his talents on his own face, he transformed himself into a grizzled old man for films such as this. When his acting career fizzled, he remained busy as a makeup artist.
BEAUTY AND THE BUMP • Perry Murdock • 1927
Now here’s something extra special. This is about as rare as rare gets—I dare you to find any mention of Perry Murdock or Craig Hutchinson elsewhere. This Skylark-produced short not only has the typical joys of silent slapstick (cross-dressing, pretty girls, mustachio-twirling baddies, people getting smacked in the head) but it also has a wonderful slice-of-life quality too as an insight into recreational activities of the 1920s.
RECKLESS ROSIE • Frances Lee • 1929
When Dorothy Devore left Al Christie’s studio for bigger fame at Warner Brothers, Christie hired Frances Lee (and her partner Billy Dooley) to take her place. She kept going as a minor star well into the sound era. Blonde, sexy Lee was a natural for this kind of racy, pre-Code entertainment: here we have chorus girls, underwear models, a cross-dressing villain, and the immortal line “Stop him, he has my nightie!” Never say I didn’t do nothin’ for ya.
LUKE’S MOVIE MUDDLE • Harold Lloyd • 1916
Fans of Harold Lloyd may find him almost unrecognizable here. Lloyd found eternal fame with his “glasses character,” but before then had been a huge box office draw playing Chaplin-imitation “Lucky Luke.” Lloyd admitted these early shorts were deficit in imagination, but they were some of silent comedy’s biggest hits at the time. Most of the Lucky Luke shorts were destroyed in a 1943 fire; this is one of the few to survive. One of the many stories about how Lloyd created his “glasses” character says that he was inspired by supporting player Earl Mohan’s appearance in this short.
PAY YOUR DUES • Harold Lloyd • 1917
This is one of the last single-reel shorts Lloyd made. It is chiefly notable for implying—but not actually using—the kind of daredevilry Lloyd would make his trademark.
THE NONSKID KID • Eddie Boland • 1922
Eddie Boland was a minor player at the Hal Roach lot usually to be seen in supporting roles opposite the likes of Harold Lloyd or Snub Pollard. For a few years, he had his own starring run of shorts, frequently cast alongside child star Earnest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison. The original star of Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies, Morrison also briefly starred in his own solo series. As the street urchin who ruins Boland’s car, Morrison plays much the same role he did with Lloyd in the later short GET OUT AND GET UNDER. Boland makes little of an impression even here in a starring role, but Morrison remained in hot demand as one of the most prolific child comics of the silent era.
SOLD AT AUCTION • Snub Pollard • 1923
When Harold Lloyd took some sick days in 1919, Roach turned to Snub Pollard to fill the gap, establishing one of silent comedy’s strangest stars. Pollard had a fascination for elaborate contraptions, and a strikingly cinematic sense of humor. Where his contemporaries obsessed over developing “personalities,” Pollard went joke-happy with a demented brand of comedy not unlike what might happen if you let an escaped mental patient make movies. Full of supporting players familiar from the Harold Lloyd and later Laurel and Hardy series, this bizarre short was directed by Charlie Chase (under his true name, Charley Parrott) and is one of the most ridiculous movies in this entire DVD set.
SMITHY • Stan Laurel • 1924
Like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel was an English actor touring with the Karno troupe, who left the stage for a life of silver screen pratfalls. Years before he found immortality teamed with Oliver Hardy, Stan starred in an on-again/off-again series of shorts variously produced by Hal Roach and Joe Rock. Unlike most of his solo work, SMITHY closely models the kind of film we would later make with Ollie: meticulously plotted property damage.
FORGOTTEN SWEETIES • Charley Chase • 1927
Thankfully, Chase today is enjoying a long overdue reappraisal as one of silent comedy’s greatest talents. Where his contemporaries built their films around gimmicky personas, Chase’s shorts are situational comedies of manners. They are a snapshot of life in the 1920s, and a direct forerunner to today’s TV sitcoms. Chase started at Keystone, fresh out of vaudeville, and alternated between acting and directing (under the name Charles Parrott). He directed films for Lloyd Hamilton, Snub Pollard, Our Gang, and the Three Stooges, and continued to star in his own series well into the sound era.