Sennett in the Twenties
Volume 3 picks up where Volume 2 leaves off and continues the Sennett story though the next decade. This is one of the new volumes in the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" set. Whereas Kino's set used just one volume for Keystone (with many additional Keystone comedies strung throughout the set), this revised "Slapstick Encyclopedia" pulls together the Keystone comedies so that a more extended overview of the studio's output is now available.
Much of the extra time in this volume is devoted to Harry Langdon. His "Saturday Afternoon" (1926) is one of the most understated comedies to emerge from Keystone. Langdon was one of the greatest screen comedians, but his best films are relatively few in numbers. Not until he began working with writers Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley did he really hit his stride. As James Agee said, "It seemed as if Chaplin could do literally anything, on any instrument in the orchestra. Langdon had one queerly toned, unique little reed. But out of it he could get incredible melodies." From his halting gait, forever on the verge of veering in the opposite direction, to his strange little fey wave that breaks off in mid-motion, Langdon brought a magical brand of innocence to the movie screen. When he arrives home in "Saturday Afternoon," his wife glowers at him for being late. He turns and looks at the door. Suddenly, for Harry, the door is the most interesting door in the world. He pats it as if something is wrong. He pushes it, rubs it. What's wrong? Hmm, nothing. So he starts brushing himself off, anything to avoid the gaze of his wife.
"His Marriage Wow" (1925) opens with Langdon sitting in a church. It's his marriage day and he's wondering where the rest of the wedding party is at. The church is empty save himself and a priest who solicits a contribution from Langdon: "I might as well pay in advance," Langdon says, handing over his money for the ceremony. Soon afterwards, when he realizes he's at the wrong church, Langdon runs up to the contribution box and tilts his head, wondering what to do, but then he takes off. Unlike his more manic stablemates at Keystone, Langdon relied upon gentle nuances of character. "All Night Long" (1925) opens with Langdon once again sitting alone in a large building -- this time a theater. His girlfriend left him after he fell asleep during the show. An elaborate story then develops as Langdon awakes and discovers thieves are preparing to break into the theater's safe. Langdon and the gang's leader go way back. They were romantic rivals in France during WWI. Vernon Dent, a frequent foil of Langdon's, plays the rival.
The rest of the shorts on this volume are more typical Keystone material. "Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies" (1925) begins with Billy Bevan pushing his car home. Unbeknownst to him, however, his car keeps bumping into other cars. Before he knows what's happening, he has acquired a long line of cars in front of his, each coasting, wavering, and swerving. While the cars stay in line, he pushes them up a hill and over a cliff! "Wandering Willies" (1926) gives us Bill Bevan and Andy Clyde as buddies who long for the life of a policeman--and the free perks, such as free apples from produce stands. So they trick a policeman out of his uniform and head for the restaurants. The climax combines speeding cars with a human chain of Keystone Kops sliding down the street and around telephone poles.
"Circus Today" (1926) allows Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde free reign at a circus. They play laborers who are called upon to fill in on the trapeze and on the high-dive platform. As can be expected, nothing goes right. Eventually, all the circus lions are running loose.
Funny Girls: Genders and the Benders
Volume 4 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" concentrates on the "Funny Girls" of silent screen comedy. However, this volume is somewhat misnamed. The comediennes frequently share screen time with the men and sometimes even play supporting roles, as in "One Wet Night." But in at least two cases, the comediennes take center stage: Gale Henry's "The Detectress" and Fay Tincher's "Rowdy Ann." Unfortunately, "The Detectress" (1919) is one of the weaker comedies in the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" collection. Its manic pace quickly becomes quite wearying and repetitive, as Gale Henry does some free lance detective work in Chinatown. Henry is served much better by her supporting role in Charley Chase's "Mighty Like a Moose," included on Volume 6.
Of the five comedies in this volume, Fay Tincher's "Rowdy Ann" (1919) makes the best case of presenting us with a great silent-era comedienne. Fay Tincher plays a headstrong woman who refuses to give up her tom-boyish ways. She wears a gun belt and carries a lasso, which at one point she uses to drag her father from a tavern. She even gets into a boxing match with a man who made unwarranted advances--and she wins by stepping on his corns: as he winces she delivers the knockout punch. Her father sends her off to college to "larn to be a lady." The professors soon try dressing her up as a Greek nymph--but she insists on wearing her cowboy boots, hat, and gun holsters.
Other shorts on this volume include Dorothy DeVore in "Know They Wife" (1918), Alice Howell, Neely Edwards, and Bert Roach in "One Wet Night" (1924), and Louise Fazenda, Ford Sterling, and Phyllis Haver in "Hearts and Flowers" (1919). Directed by Eddie Cline, who would later work with Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields, "Hearts and Flowers" gives us Louise Fazenda as a dim-witted cigarette girl who falls for a pompous band leader, but he doesn't much care for her. He says she "has the grace of a hippopotamus but none of the charm." When someone passes him a note that says she has recently inherited $2,000,000, he suddenly changes his mind. (If you're looking for the Sennett bathing beauties, "Hearts and Flowers" is the place to look.)
When asked to name the finest comediennes of the silent era, Stan Laurel named Alice Howell. She had a trademark mound of frizzy hair and a decidedly dizzy manner. In "One Wet Night," however, she doesn't have a lot to do. It's the men -- Neely Edwards and Bert Roach -- who carry the comedy, which gravitates toward knockabout comedy in the Keystone tradition. A dinner party is interrupted by an errant shotgun blast that releases a deluge of water into the dinning room.
"Know They Wife" is a different type of comedy altogether. It stars Dorothy Devore and Earl Rodney as sweethearts, but his parents have already arranged a marriage for him. So when he brings home the girl he loves, he disguises her as a man. Mother catches them kissing, with Devore wearing a man's suit and her hair pulled together under a man's wig: "You boys are certainly fond of each other," she says. About her comedies, Devore said, "We had none of the slapsticky stuff like Sennett. We did not rely upon wild mustaches and funny clothes, but on situation and story."