Is anyone playing a more important role than David Shepard in the preservation of silent cinema? I doubt it. Shepard and Film Preservation Associates have restored and presented an astonishing number of essential silent films, including the bulk of Buster Keaton's career, The Lost World, Nosferatu, and many others. Now, Shepard has prepared for DVD release a definitive collection of over fifty silent comedies, called "Slapstick Encyclopedia." This is truly the most impressive set of silent era comedy ever packaged together.

Kino released essentially this same set on VHS in 1998, but DVD is the ideal format. Now for example, if you have a hankering for watching Snub Pollard in "It's a Gift," you don't have to fast forward until you find it on a VHS tape. You just pop the appropriate disc of this five-disc set in your DVD player and select the desired comedy from a chapter selection menu. Plus, this DVD set, released by Image Entertainment, costs less than Kino's VHS set--$69.99 vs. $79.90. (The initial price tag for Kino's entire set was a whopping $189.90, but they've recently dropped the price to remain somewhat competitive with Image Entertainment's superior DVD set.)

Image Entertainment's set rearranges the comedies into a more logical order and avoids some of the problems of Kino's set. For example, while Kino placed one of Charley Chase's finest comedies, "Mighty Like a Moose," on the VHS volume titled "Funny Girls," Image Entertainment's set moves this comedy to a volume titled "Hal Roach's All-Star Comedians," placing Chase in the company of Stan Laurel, Harold Lloyd, and Will Rogers.

Whereas Kino's VHS set consisted of eight volumes, Image Entertainment's DVD set consists of ten volumes, which have been paired on the set's five discs. The extra two volumes were created by rearranging the sequencing used on Kino's volumes--and by adding three additional comedies, two from Harry Langdon ("All Night Long" and "His Marriage Wow") and one from Harold Lloyd ("Haunted Spooks"). However, all three of these comedies have appeared on other Kino releases, so the bonus comedies aren't as surprising as I had hoped. "All Night Long" was previously packaged with Langdon's Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, "His Marriage Wow" with The Strong Man (also Langdon), and "Haunted Spooks" with the venerable silent classic The Cat and the Canary.

Image Entertainment's DVD presentation retains the same written introductions by Joe Adamson as the Kino set. (Adamson serves as co-curator of "Slapstick Encyclopedia," along with David Shepard.) These introductions come immediately before each comedy and provide many valuable insights. In addition, the DVD set comes packaged with a twelve-page booklet by Adamson titled "The Whole Custard Pie Catalog." This booklet provides additional background information on many of the comedians who appear on these discs and the studios from which they hailed.

The musical soundtracks used here are the same ones used on Kino's set, so beware the "new musical soundtracks" claim on the set's cardboard slipcase. The claim isn't exactly wrong. The soundtracks were "new" for the original appearance of "Slapstick Encyclopedia" in 1998 on VHS from Kino. But nothing "new" was recorded for the DVD release. Whatever the case, the soundtracks -- supplied by Eric Beheim, Brian Benison, Robert Israel, George Korngold and others -- are generally quite good and a welcome presence.

The Comedians

"Slapstick Encyclopedia" is huge set, with over 18 hours of vintage comedy. Many of the comedy giants are represented in this series, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. However, you'll also find many comedians who deserve more recognition, such as Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Charley Chase, Billy Bevan, John Bunny, Charley Bowers, Larry Semon, and the French comedian Max Linder. But it's the comic genius of Mack Sennett that is felt most strongly throughout this set.

At some point in their careers, almost all of the great American silent comedians worked on the Keystone Studios lot for Mack Sennett, and a more fertile ground for producing comedians the world has never seen. The Keystone world was inhabited by bathing beauties who rolled on the beach, crazy-eyed cops who stormed out of the police station en masse, mustache-twirling villains with wild eyes and gnashing teeth, and anxious pit bull dogs that eagerly sank their teeth into the posteriors of both heroes and villains alike. This was a world where pie fights abounded, where cars frequently fell to pieces (or were smashed pancake thin), where boats almost always sprung leaks, and where malt mixers had an unusual propensity for exploding.

The Sennett comedies were formulaic but inspired, and they frequently concluded with a great chase, often involving a gaggle of Keystone Kops. The motivation for the chases rarely made much sense. Frequently, the motivation was even treated as a joke. In "Wandering Willies," for example, the final chase is motivated when the heroine (Ruth Hiatt) discovers that the villain has dropped a paper of some sort on the hallway floor. She opens it, reads it, her lips form an "oh!" and she goes running to the hero (Billy Bevan). They read the paper together and then off they go. The chase begins. But what does the paper say? Well, the subtitle explaining the contents of that sheet of paper was rewritten several times after shooting had been completed. At one point, the heroine said, "He was stealing my diploma as winner of the beauty contest!" At another, "This proves he is the president of the Kidnappers Corporation!" And yet another version read, "The big clam was trying to get a corner on Muscle Shoals!" Finally, they settled on "Look! A mortgage on Niagara Falls. We must stop it before he shuts off the water!" Total nonsense, yes. And hardly motivation at all. More likely Sennett was making fun of the whole idea of motivation. His product needed an ending and audiences loved chases. So he was simply finding a way to reach the expected ending for a Keystone production--all-out mayhem, with momentum pushing everyone in different directions until the entire effort exploded under the stress.

Or in the case of "Muddy Romance," Sennett and a car full of writers took off for Echo Lake when they learned it was being drained. Here was an effect they would normally never be able to afford. They made up the gags and story as they went along. Once again, much of the motivation is sheer nonsense: at the climax, the heroine and her beau suddenly decide to get married in a row boat in the middle of the lake! While the priest conducts the ceremony, the villain (Ford Sterling at his snarling best) turns the water valve (marked "WATER OUTLET--DO NOT TOUCH") that drains the lake and leaves a muddy mess for the Keystone Kops to thrash around in. Sennett's comedies could become practically surreal in their wanton disregard for motivation and logic.

But by no means was Sennett the only one producing comedies. That's one of the greatest virtues of this huge set from Image Entertainment: you'll get a healthy dose of comedy from many of the pioneers. You'll find comedians equally as manic as Sennett's troop, such as Larry Semon in "The Grocery Clerk," Oliver Hardy in "One Too Many," and Ben Turpin in "Mr. Flip," as well as comedians who attempted more sophisticated brands of comedy, such as Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew in "Fox-Trot Finesse." You'll find a pre-Stone Face Buster Keaton who screams and cries in very un-Stone Face fashion and a hyperactive Stan Laurel who bears little resemblance to the slow-witted character he would play when teamed with Oliver Hardy. You'll see the headstrong Fay Tincher in a raucous comedy "Rowdy Ann," challenging any notion that silent comedy was a man's domain. You'll see the wildly inventive sight gags of Charley Bowers and Max Linder. In short, this set is as good a primer course in silent comedy as anyone could have hoped for. It's required viewing for movie lover's everywhere.

The following pages describe each of the set's five discs.

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