Case Number 10729

AMERICAN SLAPSTICK

Image Entertainment // 1914 // 280 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // February 1st, 2007

The Charge

"Europeans responded to these roiling troubles with Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, Expressionism...and other gee-I'm-depressed-isms. But things were different here. Here, we made light of darkness, and laughed at pain, threw pies at the Kaiser." -- David Kalat

Opening Statement

When people think of silent comedy, film historian David Kalat says, we tend to think of the big three: Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. These stars (along with the team of Laurel and Hardy) managed to move forward into the sound era, though Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd ran into financial troubles and Charlie Chaplin was an anomaly as he kept turning out pantomime comedies through the 1930s. Kalat put together American Slapstick to help re-introduce some of the silent era's less-remembered comedians and show "familiar comedians in unfamiliar early experiences."

In the booklet accompanying the collection, Kalat explains that silent comedians helped American movie studios take over the world, since the French had been the kings of the silver screen before Mack Sennett came on the scene. His argument is that putting the spotlight on "second stringers and also-rans" illustrates that it was the American movie industry that was moving to the forefront, not just the few stars remembered today.

In addition to familiar faces like Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin, this three-disc set offers glimpses of people like Syd Chaplin (Charlie's brother), Billy West, Billy Bevan, Eddie Boland, and Snub Pollard. You also get some pre-code risque business from Frances Lee. The comedy shorts run between nine and 27 minutes.

Facts of the Case

American Slapstick contains 17 rare shorts:

Disc One
"Caught in the Rain" -- The Little Tramp flirts with a woman in the park, unaware that her hubby is nearby. This is the first short directed by Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops put in an appearance near the end.
Most notable gag: The Little Tramp tries, repeatedly, to climb a hotel's main steps but keeps tumbling back down.

"Laughing Gas" -- Charlie Chaplin plays a dental assistant. He's actually the guy sweeping the floors, but you know he'll end up doing some yanking.
Most notable gag: An upset Chaplin throwing bricks.

"A Submarine Pirate" -- This long-lost short features Charlie Chaplin's brother Syd as a waiter who keeps elaborate table settings in the pockets of his baggy pants. When he stumbles onto a plot to use a submarine to hijack a gold shipment, the waiter can't wait to get in on the action.
Most notable gag: When a beautiful woman plants a kiss on Syd, he makes a paper impression of the lipstick print for posterity.

"Cupid's Rival" -- Billy West, whose on-screen persona mimicked Charlie Chaplin very closely, poses as Cupid for a painting, sending real arrows painfully astray, while the artist (Oliver Hardy) dons a dress to spy on his sweetheart.
Most notable gag: A lot of paintings get smashed.

"The Bond"
The subtitle reads, "Charles Chaplin in a Liberty Bond Performance." Here, British-born Chaplin performs a service for his adopted country, comparing Liberty Bonds to "The Bond of Friendship" and "The Bond of Love" in short skits.
Most notable gag: An Allied soldier spars with the Kaiser in front of the Statue of Liberty.

Disc Two
"Golf" -- Larry Semon practices for his golf match by using the piano top as a putting green; meanwhile, his sister deals with unwanted suitors. Oliver Hardy makes an appearance here as one of the suitors.
Most notable gag: When Larry pulls a gun on the gopher who keeps moving his ball, the gopher pulls a gun on him.

"Lizzies of the Field" -- Billy Bevan enters a road race.
Most notable gag: In a dream sequence, Billy drives a Snoozenburg (a bed-car).

"Heavy Love" -- The Ton of Fun -- "Fatty" Alexander, "Fatty" Karr, and "Kewpie" Ross -- plays carpenters building a crooked house on a bluff.
Most notable gag: Stairs that turn into a slide.

"Uppercuts" -- Jack Duffy (a young guy who played old men) sends his butler into the boxing ring.
Most notable gag: Watch the stick figures in the title cards.

"Beauty and the Bump" -- Perry Murdock poses as a bathing beauty to dodge Hard-Boiled Hank, then finds out that his sweetheart wants the bumps on his head studied.
Most notable gag: Perry gives himself a few bumps on the head -- with a hammer -- for character.

"Reckless Rosie" -- Chorus girl Peggy (Frances Lee) gets caught in a rivalry between two lingerie manufacturers. Not many laughs here, but you get a pre-code eyeful of leggy chorines and otherwise scantily-clad women.
Most notable gag: Chorine Peggy, in minimal outfit, gives chase to an industrial spy.

Disc Three
"Luke's Movie Muddle" -- Luke (Harold Lloyd) is an usher with an eye for the lady moviegoers. As the projectionist, Snub Pollard gets the film tangled up.
Most notable gag: Luke adjusts a sidewalk sign.

"Pay Your Dues" -- A lodge grabs Harold, mistaking him for the new member who thought better of their violent initiation ceremony.
Most notable gag: The lodge members convince Harold that he's teetering on the edge of a roof.

"The Non-Skid Kid" -- When a mechanic gets hit by a car full of women, he lets the ladies take over his garage until he recovers. Eddie Boland turns up for a fill-up and stays to lend a chivalrous hand.
Most notable gag: Watch Boland's newly-pressed suit get more and more messed up.

"Sold at Auction" -- Auctioneer's assistant Snub Pollard must get back a houseful of mistakenly-sold items.
Most notable gag: The dance of the mosquitoes before they attack on a camping trip.

"Smithy" -- Smithy (Stan Laurel) finds a job with a construction company after being discharged from the Army.
Most notable gag: When he gets to the top of the ladder, Smithy drops the roll of tarpaper he's been hauling.

"Forgotten Sweeties" -- The blushing bride who moves in across from Charley Chase turns out to be an old sweetie of his. Their respective spouses want to move right away, but it isn't going to be that easy.
Most notable gag: Charley unwittingly finds himself in the wrong bedroom.

The Evidence

The highlight of American Slapstick is Syd Chaplin's "A Submarine Pirate." While his brother might have gone on to create masterworks unparalleled in silent comedy, 1915 found Syd's work perhaps even a little smoother than what Charlie was doing at the time. His stumbling around a submarine as a mock Napoleon or switching bags on a pair of criminals was inventive and fun. His character isn't the expected likeable underdog that the Little Tramp ultimately became, but the early Charlie Chaplin shorts featured on this disc show that the silent comedy king wasn't always a sympathetic character back then.

The other lost silent star most worth finding here was Snub Pollard. His graceful delirium as he's hit by a brick was a scream, which is good, because he gets clobbered a lot in various ways in this one; he's also good at finding ingenious solutions -- such as a piano ride down a busy city street -- to the many problems that crop up. You also might even recognize Pollard; he appeared in small roles for years after silent movies disappeared. When you check his IMDb listing, you're bound to see something you've seen there. I've seen his work most recently in Who Was That Lady?, part of the Dean Martin Double Feature released late in 2006.

While the shorts featured here are uneven, Larry Semon, Charley Chase, and the Ton of Fun (who thankfully don't do as many heavy-guys-crashing-into-things gags as you might expect) all provide good comic performances. Billy West may be funny at times, but he's nothing more than a Chaplin knockoff.

What might surprise you is that the lost Charlie Chaplin shorts unearthed here are some of the weakest material on the set. Chaplin was the greatest silent star, but it seems his best material has been picked over. However, you'll find a great Harold Lloyd short ("Pay Your Dues") and a Stan Laurel gem ("Smithy") amid the discoveries on this set.

The comedy in this set is a bit repetitive, since it usually boils down to a chase and people throwing things at each other. Since the set goes from 1914 to 1929, you'll notice some refinement in performances and gags as the silent era progressed. Most obviously, the title cards go from simple titles to whimsical lines like "The man who lived downstairs thought he was the original reason why girls left home, but no one agreed with him." There's also a hint of plot, if not logic, in the later shorts.

As you'd imagine with a set containing vintage shorts from the 1910s and 1920s, you'll notice lots of lines, grain, spots, and flickering. Occasionally, it's tough to read a scene, but most of the shorts still come across well enough. It looks like a few of the title cards have been replaced for readability, but the originals were mostly preserved. The modern soundtrack, in stereo, has an authentic feel to it.

David Kalat provides a commentary on "A Submarine Pirate." He shows a love for silent comedy, but his delivery is mile-a-minute as he rushes to get his points in. Couldn't he have slown down and done commentaries on two or three of these? Each short has a brief text description that puts it into historical context.

A bonus short called "Getting Ahead," apparently put together in the 1960s or 1970s, uses silent and sound clips to illustrate maxims for living. Stuff like "I never think of the future. It comes soon enough." The future, as depicted here, includes lots of pies in the face. Figures. There's also a 1916 promotional booklet for Charlie Chaplin included in DVD-ROM format.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Since the broad comedy featured here can be rude, risque, and violent, I wouldn't recommend this volume for family viewing.

Closing Statement

If you've never seen silent comedians at work before, you'd probably be better off starting with the classics (Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush comes to mind first) or a collection of the more commonly shown works of a star like Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

American Slapstick is for people who are serious about silent comedy. In his commentary, David Kalat admits to being thrilled just to find Syd Chaplin's "A Submarine Pirate" and add it to this collection. If you've seen quite a few silent shorts and share that thrill of discovery, you'll appreciate this collection. If you're interested in the history of silent comedy, you'll want to view the shorts in order by year, rather than disc order, to better see how the gags evolved.

The Verdict

The collection's not guilty, since it meets its aim of bringing forgotten stars to modern eyes. Since the gags are hit-or-miss (sometimes literally, when bricks are involved), you won't be laughing the whole time, but there are a few gems here.

Review content copyright © 2007 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 80
Audio: 88
Extras: 70
Acting: 85
Story: 70
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 280 Minutes
Release Year: 1914
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* "Getting Ahead" Bonus Short
* 1916 Chaplin Promotional Booklet in PDF Format
* Commentary by David Kalat
* Booklet

Accomplices
* IMDb for "Caught in the Rain"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0003760/combined

* IMDb for "Laughing Gas"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0004210/combined

* IMDb for "A Submarine Pirate"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0006115/combined

* IMDb for "Cupid's Rival"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0008848/combined

* IMDb for "The Bond"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0008907/combined

* IMDb for "Golf"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0013194/combined

* IMDb for "Lizzies of the Field"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0015076/combined

* IMDb for "Heavy Love"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0473986/combined

* IMDb for "Uppercuts"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0452497/combined

* IMDb for "Beauty and the Bump"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0415634/combined

* IMDb for "Reckless Rosie"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0253551/combined

* IMDb for "Luke's Movie Muddle"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0006978/combined

* IMDb for "Pay Your Dues"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0010552/combined

* IMDb for "Sold at Auction"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0248461/combined

* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0015343/combined

* IMDb for "Forgotten Sweeties"
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0248018/combined

* IMDb for Snub Pollard
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0689444/