Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Visit To The Movie Comedy Museum

by Paul F. Etcheverry

Want a mind-bending experience? Jumping out of airplanes? For amateurs. Trendy designer chemical amusement? Strictly for pikers. Try spending three days in the bizarro universe of prehistoric film comedy. I just willingly did this for the third year in a row, and trust me, my mind is bent. I wax only somewhat poetically in describing the Mid-Winter Comedy Festival that transpires annually during the Presidents' Day weekend at the Niles/Essanay Silent Film Museum, a wonderful and historic venue that shows silent movies every Saturday night. The museum's Edison Theatre served as the town nickelodeon way back in 1913, when "Broncho Billy" Anderson was cranking out westerns down the block. The festival has become the Northern California variant on the summer Slapsticon, as well as the ultimate meeting of “The Dead Comedians’ Society”. The program runs the gamut from the iconic (Chaplin, Keaton) to the amazingly obscure (Eddie Boland). While not the cup o’ tea for those who are only interested in well-known stuff that everyone likes, it's a bonanza for students of comedy. The festival tended to reinforce several conclusions on my part:
  1. The Hal Roach Studio rules. Sorry, Mack Sennett. Sorry, Jack White.

  2. No silent comedy short is more than one degree of separation from The Three Stooges, even if Bud Jamison or Vernon Dent does not appear in it.

  3. Subtle acting seals the deal, even in slapstick. Watch how Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Lloyd Hamilton, Max Davidson and other skilled comedians get laughs with beautifully timed expressions before and after the joke.

  4. If, well into the comedy short, you hear audience members asking who the star of the film is. . . it features one of the most forgotten of comics.

  5. If a brazen fur-bearing scene stealer is way more memorable than the star (hey, dogs got a lot of work in silent movies), the featured comic is only known by historians.

  6. Real lions and elephants are way funnier than CGI lions and elephants.

  7. Since comedy, like romance, is highly subjective, don't take any review seriously, even by the most reputable writers. Watch the film instead!
Among the rarities screened:
  • The wonderful Charley Chase's last film, His Bridal Fright, in which Charley is ardently pursued by a bevy of international mail-order brides.

  • A silent feature starring two cinema legends: W.C. Fields - and a pre-G. W. Pabst but always fetching Louise Brooks!

  • Too Many Highballs, the fifth Mack Sennett comedy short designed specifically for the delightfully misanthropic Fields, only. . . he didn't star in the finished film. Lloyd Hamilton did - and it turned out to his last starring two-reel comedy. Fields and co-writer Clyde Bruckman would subsequently remake this, verbatim, in the 1935 Paramount feature The Man On The Flying Trapeze.

  • Breezing Along, a hilarious short starring the aforementioned "Ham" Hamilton, the courtly and world-weary sourpuss himself, as a beleaguered butler.

  • Two shorts starring over-the-top "fat comic" Hughie Mack, the Chris Farley of nearly a century ago.

  • An Elephant On His Hands, the frantic pilot film for a wacky comedy series, directed by the wackier Vin Moore. The stars? The 367 pound Mack, a wild-eyed Dot Farley and the comparatively sedate Selig Elephants. The series lasted two films.

  • One of Harry Langdon’s indescribably bizarre early talkies, The Head Guy, which reflects his uncanny ability to be brilliantly original, irritating, uniquely funny, fearless and wildly flailing within the same five minutes.

  • A slew of Hal Roach comedies representing the studio's lesser-known series (Eddie Boland, Snub Pollard, Max Davidson, Taxi Boys, Thelma Todd & Zasu Pitts), as well as the last Stan Laurel solo comedy.

  • Edward Everett Horton brings his original spin to the world of silent comedy, in Dad's Choice (1928), a very funny short along the lines of Harold Lloyd’s last ‘glasses character’ two-reelers (small wonder, it was produced by Lloyd’s Hollywood Productions for Paramount).
Both The Mid-Winter Comedy Festival and Slapsticon offer an off-kilter nirvana for film historians and third banana aficionados - and there were lots of them in the house for all three days of this event.

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Blogger East Side said...

A question I've pondered lately: Considering the paucity of Hal Roach product available -- at least in the U.S. -- would he even be remembered now if it weren't for Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang?

4:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No wonder "....Flying Trapeze" reminded me more of a comedy short than a feature when I first saw it as a kid!And that was what I liked about it.

11:32 AM  

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