Appellate Judge James A. Stewart once saw a rare silent comedy about mathematicians. Pi in the face didn't have the same laugh quotient as an old-fashioned custard, though.
"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
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:
"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
"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.
"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
"Lizzies of the Field"—Billy Bevan enters a road race.
"Heavy Love"—The Ton of Fun—"Fatty"
Alexander, "Fatty" Karr, and "Kewpie" Ross—plays
carpenters building a crooked house on a bluff.
"Uppercuts"—Jack Duffy (a young guy who played old men)
sends his butler into the boxing ring.
"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.
"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.
"Pay Your Dues"—A lodge grabs Harold, mistaking him for the
new member who thought better of their violent initiation ceremony.
"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.
"Sold at Auction"—Auctioneer's assistant Snub Pollard must
get back a houseful of mistakenly-sold items.
"Smithy"—Smithy (Stan Laurel) finds a job with a
construction company after being discharged from the Army.
"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.
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.
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 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.
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