Slapstick Symposium

Since Kino International introduced its own video distribution label in 1987, Kino On Video has been known (among other things) for the attention it has given silent-era comedy. Their "Art of Buster Keaton" series [review] is the linchpin of every silent-comedy aficionado's home video collection, and all silent comedy film buffs who know their stuff possess all of Kino's Charlie Chaplin collections. Their "Slapstick Encyclopedia" [review], a collection of more than 1,000 minutes of vintage shorts, provides as good an overview of silent-era comedy as anyone could have hoped for. Now, Kino adds a new series to their growing collection of classic comedy: "Slapstick Symposium." This series contains three volumes: The Charley Chase Collection, The Harold Lloyd Collection, and The Stan Laurel Collection.

Silent comedy lovers have long bemoaned the scanty attention paid to Chase and Lloyd by the film studios/distributors that hold their films in their vaults. These are two of the greatest comedians in film history, but their silent-era work has been largely unrepresented on video. The more industrious collectors could have found several Chase shorts tucked away on Hal Roach's superb "Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy" DVD collection [review], and Kino's own "Slapstick Encyclopedia" included one Chase short, the absolutely hilarious "Fluttering Hearts." Lloyd's early films have likewise been poorly represented on home video. In the early '90s Warner Home Video released several of Lloyd's best feature length films on VHS (such as Safety Last! and Girl Shy), but these titles are long out of print. Meanwhile, Lloyd's silent short comedies have been unavailable, except for a smattering of titles such as "Get Out and Get Under" and "Haunted Spooks," both of which appeared on Kino's "Slapstick Encyclopedia."

Stan Laurel has always received more attention than Chase and Lloyd—for obvious reasons. But Laurel starred in dozens of silent comedies before his partnership with Oliver Hardy solidified, and those early comedies have been difficult to find on home video. Hal Roach's "Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy" collection included a good selection of Laurel's pre-Hardy work, including the first short in which they appeared on screen together (but not as a team), "The Lucky Dog" (1919). However, dozens of Laurel's pre-Hardy comedies have gone unreleased. Are they lost? Or are they merely collecting dust (and possibly deteriorating)?

Kino's "Slapstick Symposium" series is therefore most welcome. It provides us with the best opportunity thus far available on home video to view the essential short silent comedies of these three great comedians. These collections are primarily the work of Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange at Lobster Films. Beginning in the mid '80s, they started purchasing important French and American catalogs of silent movies, and soon afterwards they began preservation work. Lobster Films [] is now collaborating with Kino On Video [] to bring these films to American viewers.

 The Charley Chase Collection

Most discussions about the great film comedians instantly include Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and maybe even Harry Langdon, but the name Charley Chase rarely if ever enters the discussion. Unlike the other aforementioned comedians, Charley Chase didn't have a funny-looking persona. He didn't wear baggy pants like Chaplin. He didn't have the blank, deadpan look of Keaton. He wasn't prone to great athletic stunts like Lloyd, and he didn't move with a hesitant, unsure gait like Langdon. Charley Chase looked and acted pretty much like any normal person. Even the trade advertisements of the time played upon this difference: "Don't blush, Charley, but you're a good looking sunamagun. You aren't a cartoon or a caricature. Your face ain't lopsided, nor do you sport a Adam's apple the size of a pumpkin; you look like a real human and you act like one."

Mack Sennett thought Chase too "normal looking" to be an on-screen performer and confined him to writing and directing roles (where he used the name "Charles Parrot"). Eventually, Chase landed at Hal Roach studios, supervising the production of shorts until Harold Lloyd left the studio. Then, Hal Roach looked for someone to fill the void, so he turned to Chase, giving him the opportunity to star in his own series of comedies.

Chase started by playing a character named Jimmy Jump, and this character is represented by a pair of one-reel comedies on Kino's Charley Chase Collection DVD. "April Fool" and "All Wet" (both 1924) are somewhat slight compared to what would soon follow. In "April Fool," Chase simply tries to avoid the April Fool's Day pranks of his co-workers, while perpetrating a few of his own. And "All Wet" is primarily concerned with a large puddle that literally swallows Chase's entire automobile. Chase's career hit a high point in 1926, when he produced several of his best two-reel comedies. Four of these comedies are represented on this disc—"Mum's the Word," "Long Fliv the King," "Mighty Like a Moose," and "Crazy Like a Fox." All of these shorts have fairly outlandish plots. Much of the fun comes from watching Chase respond to the none-too-normal situations. In "Mum's the Word," Chase's mother has remarried without telling her new husband about her son. When Charley surprises her by showing up at her front door, she urges him to play the role of servant for her husband. But suspicions arise as Charley and his mother sneak across the upstairs hall to talk to each other, and the maid gets in on the activities, sneaking across the hall to see the husband. In "Crazy Like a Fox," Chase meets a cute woman on a train and falls for her (and she for him), but he doesn't realize this is the woman he is traveling to marry: his father has arranged a wedding with the daughter of a business partner. So Charley tries to get out of the marriage, by acting crazy once he arrives at the bride's home. Inspired lunacy is the result. In "Mighty Like a Moose," Chase is married (the only such instance on this disc). Chase would frequently be placed in domestic situations in the sound-era, frequently with a domineering wife, but his silent comedies typically allowed him to be free of domestic entanglements. Here Chase has it both ways. He's married but extensive dental work on his buck teeth has made him dapper and attractive. Immediately, after leaving the oral surgeon's office, he encounters a beautiful woman while waiting for an elevator and they hit it off and decide to sneak out on their mates. What Chase doesn't realize, however, is this woman IS his wife: she just had an operation of her own—which has turned her wicked eagles' beak of a nose into a cute button. The short's highlight comes when Chase attempts to impress his wife by fighting the lothario who has been hitting on her—which of course means he must fight himself! "Long Fliv the King" is a change of pace for Chase. Much of Chase's character depends on being in a city because he plays a man-about-town. But most of this short takes place in a European country named "Thermosa." The plot is way too complicated to explain here, but the result is Chase the King must struggle against members of the powerful elite who would like to wrestle control away from him. The results, while frequently mildly humorous, are more suited to Harold Lloyd or Harry Langdon (compare this short with Lloyd's "His Royal Slyness").

Compared to the other two collections, this one is a bit slight. The Stan Laurel Collection contains nearly six hours of comedy shorts on two discs. The Harold Lloyd Collection contains well over three hours on one disc. The Charley Chase Collection contains a little over two hours (126 minutes to be precise). In addition, three of the shorts included here were previously released as part of Hal Roach's "Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy" collection (because the shorts featured Oliver Hardy in a supporting role). However, this collection from Kino does us the service of pulling together a selection of Chase's shorts onto a single disc.

 The Harold Lloyd Collection

With thick-rimmed eyeglasses and a straw hat as his trademarks, Harold Lloyd played an All-American character. While Charley Chase played a city slicker accustomed to getting his desires by way of deception, Lloyd was a go-getter with a strong dose of country-bred innocence. He constantly found himself in desperate situations that could only be resolved through no-holds-barred courage and athleticism (as seen in Lloyd's classic feature film Safety Last!, in which he hangs for his life from the hands of a large clock high above a busy city street). Lloyd got started using a Chaplin-influenced character named Lonesome Luke in dozens of frantic comedies between 1915 and 1919. The transformation to Lloyd's "glasses character" was gradual. When Lloyd first introduced the "glasses character," the character wasn't that different than Lonesome Luke, but eventually the "glasses character" became more real and less hyperactive. When Lloyd moved to two-reel comedies, his comedies became more about the character he played, so the "glasses character" became an everyman. He was still honing the characterization, so the results are sometimes uneven.

In "Are Crooks Dishonest" (1918), Lloyd wears glasses and a straw hat, but he plays a brazen, destructive con artist. Teamed with Snub Pollard, he runs a scam in the park, but they meet their match in Bebe Daniels, who runs a fortune telling racket of her own. In "Neighbors" (1919), Lloyd and Pollard are again teamed, this time as squabbling neighbors. The pace starts out slowly but the squabbles quickly escalate. This is the type of comedy that Laurel & Hardy worked to perfection. However, it's something of a blind alley in the development of Lloyd's "glasses character." "Bumping into Broadway" (1919) is Lloyd's first two-reel comedy with the "glasses character," and here many of character's crucial characteristics fall in place. Lloyd plays a struggling playwright. He has money to pay his rent, but when he meets the pretty woman next door, he's instantly smitten and gives his rent money to her so she won't be evicted. Here, we start to see Lloyd taking greater chances with his stunts: starting with a mild stunt (as when he falls out of an upstairs window into the arms of the old maid in the apartment below) and soon moving to the risky (as when he jumps from a brick wall into a moving automobile). Equally important, we get a taste of the wild fluctuations in luck that would grace the "glasses character": in one scene, Lloyd might have great luck (as when he gains access to a gambling den when a dog's wagging tail beats the secret code on the den's front door); however, in the following scene, his luck immediately turns horrendous (immediately after he breaks the house with extreme good luck at the roulette wheel, the police raid the joint). This leads to a chase scene that mixes the wildly physical (Lloyd flipping head over heels) with the cunningly absurd (Lloyd hides from the police by hanging his jacket from a coat room hook—while he's still wearing it!). Also significantly, Lloyd gets the girl in the end (a common ending for Lloyd's films). In "His Royal Slyness" (1920), Harold stars with his brother Gaylord Lloyd, who plays the Prince of Thermosa. The Prince is partying in New York and refuses to come home until he's ready. He sees Harold, notices the strong resemblance and sends Harold in his place. Needless to say, total chaos results, with Harold ultimately leading a peasant result through shear accident. "An Eastern Westerner" (1919) is a throwback of sorts to Lloyd's more destructive characterizations. Playing the son of wealthy parents, Lloyd spends his time staying up all night partying, so his parents send him west to stay with his uncle. He becomes sidetracked in the frontier town of Piute Pass, where "it's considered bad form to shoot the same man twice in the same day." He's willing to endure great hardship in order to win the hand of the pretty, spunky woman he encounters. In "Number, Please?" (1920), Lloyd solidifies his "glasses character" with another tale about winning the attention of a young lady. Here, the setting is an amusement park, where Lloyd is in competition for the young lady's charms with a chubby mama's boy. This short features several classic routines, as when Lloyd tries to place a telephone call from a hotel lobby but his efforts are constantly foiled. In "I Do" (1921), the Lloyd formula goes astray. Lloyd plays a newlywed who must babysit his brother-in-law's son. Here Lloyd is forced to react to the chaos that comes in the urchin's wake—instead of playing a crucial role in the creation of the chaos himself. Many different comedians could have played the role Lloyd assumes here, whereas in Lloyd's best comedies only he was capable of playing the lead character. Lloyd originally filmed this comedy as a three-reeler but it failed so badly in previews that he cut it drastically.

This disc's most substantial film is Grandma's Boy (1922), one of Lloyd's first feature films. This film contains many of the hallmark elements of such bona fide Lloyd classics as The Kid Brother and The Freshman. This comedy takes a much slower pace than Lloyd's previous films and allows us to appreciate the characters without resorting to manic behavior. Reportedly, Hal Roach wasn't happy with the results. He thought the slow pace detracted from the comedy, but Lloyd argued the comedy is the result of the leisurely molded characterizations. Here Lloyd plays a meek man who loves a neighbor girl, but he's constantly bested by a bully who also seeks her hand. Lloyd tries to prove he is brave by participating in the hunt for a murderer, but he fails in his efforts until his grandma gives him a magical charm that she claims turned grandpa into a Civil War hero (we see grandpa's story in flashback, also Lloyd). Convinced the charm is genuine, Lloyd rejoins the hunt and captures the criminal single-handedly. While not in the same category as Safety Last! or Girl Shy, this is a witty and appealing comedy.

 The Stan Laurel Collection

Before Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy joined forces for their first official comedy in 1927, Laurel had worked for several years making short comedies (as had Hardy). Laurel's comedies frequently come as a big surprise to people who have only seen his work with Hardy because Laurel was much more mischievous when he worked on his own. For example, in "Roughest Africa," a parody of travelogues, he plays an intrepid explorer who takes on an entire pride of lions, and in "Oranges and Lemons," he plays a destructive sprite who wreaks havoc at a fruit packaging plant. Rarely do we see the restraint of the Laurel who worked alongside Hardy.

While Charley Chase had no recognizable physical features to make him stand apart as a comedian, at least he had a consistent characterization that fans could expect to see. However, Stan Laurel reinvented himself every time he appeared on screen. This approach garnered the respect of other comedians, but it didn't earn him many fans. Laurel did not become a major star during his solo efforts at Hal Roach. He even left Hal Roach in 1924 to make comedies for Joe Rock at Standard Cinema, but the results were the same: many witty comedies with frantic situations and clownish behavior, but the Stan Laurel name was not selling. When he returned to Hal Roach Studios in 1925, he returned primarily as a writer and director of comedies by James Finlayson, Clyde Cook, and others.

The Stan Laurel Collection from Kino is devoted to Laurel's work from 1923 through 1925. So we get a good sampling of his 1923-24 Hal Roach starring roles, in addition to six shorts filmed for Joe Rock in 1925 and two directorial efforts from Laurel's return to Hal Roach in the second half of 1925. (If you'd like to see some of Laurel's pre-Hal Roach comedies, or the comedies from his formative period with Oliver Hardy, I recommend Hal Roach's "Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy" (a massive ten-disc series).

The first three shorts on disc one give a fairly good idea of what's to follow: "Oranges and Lemons" (1923) is a frantic comedy in which Laurel assumes a willfully destructive, clownish role, "Roughest Africa" (1923) is a parody of a currently popular genre, the travelogue film, and "Frozen Hearts" (1923) is a satire of a societal group, in this case Russians. Laurel alternates between these types of comedies throughout the selection of films on these two discs.

Of the frantic comedies, "Postage Due" (1924) is one of the better examples. It features numerous effective routines, as when Laurel goes to the post office to mail a letter. He tries to address the letter, but he can't find a pen that works (which of course says more about his ability to use a dip pen than the quality of the pens). The comedy gets more outrageous once he mails the mail—without a stamp—and he decides to retrieve it, which involves sliding down chutes (with police detective James Finlayson hot on his trail).

These discs contain several good examples of Laurel parodying other films, such as the classic Western "The Spoilers," which here becomes "The Soilers" (1923). The Western ends with a famous fist fight that lasts for several minutes and attracts hordes of onlookers; therefore, "The Soilers" also ends with a fist fight, but here no one bothers to pay any attention. At the end, the fighters collapse exhausted in the street. A street-cleaning crew promptly chucks them in the back of a trash truck. The best parody might be "Dr. Pyckle & Mr. Pride" (1925). Here, Laurel is clearly parodying the 1920 John Barrymore film. This is an elaborate production with excellent production values. When Laurel becomes Mr. Pride he wears makeup that makes him closely resemblance Barrymore's Mr. Hyde. Much of the comedy results from Laurel's hilarious spin on Mr. Pride's behavior: his vile acts consist of stealing a boy's ice cream cone, using a party horn to scare a woman, and placing a Chinese finger trap on an unwary pedestrian. The horror! The horror!

Laurel's satirical comedies take several forms, such as "Short Kilts" (1924), where the comedy focuses on two feuding families (their feud is the result of a game of musical chairs) and "Near Dublin" (1924), where all the Irish characters carry bricks to the local Saturday night dance, in preparation for the donnybrook that is certain to take place. The best of Laurel's satires may well be "Frozen Hearts" (1923), where the comedy focuses on Russia of the late 1800s. In its most outrageous scene, a gun duel between gentlemen leaves all the onlookers dead, while the two duelers are unscathed.

 About the DVDs

The shorts on these discs look great. Lobster Films has done an outstanding job of restoring the films. In general, these video transfers look better than Hal Roach's "Lost Films of Laurel & Hardy." The images are more precise and the contrast is more consistent. Neil Brand has provided the music for all the shorts (with the exception of Chase's "Mighty Like a Moose," which is provided by Robert Israel). Brand's piano playing showcases a wonderful range of mood and timbre. The only exception is the music for Lloyd's "I Do," which I suspect isn't Brand at all. In this one short, we hear a collection of horns, strings, and percussion in a brash mix that simply grated on my nerves to the point that I turned off the sound altogether. This score must be a mistake. Elsewhere, Brand's piano score is excellent.

Kino On Video has also released one other film through their partnership with Lobster Films, Laurel & Hardy's The Flying Deuces. However, the "Slapstick Symposium" series name does not appear on this DVD, so we decided to not discuss this release in detail in this review. Neither does The Flying Deuces (1939) fit in with the series' concept of rare silent-era comedies. This Laurel & Hardy comedy has been widely available, but usually in poor video transfers from badly worn projection prints. Lobster Films' restored transfer looks great. Accordingly, this release includes several extras, such as a preface by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films and several additional short films. Don't even considering purchasing one of the many cut-rate versions of The Flying Deuces. Kino's disc costs more than the others (suggested retail: $24.95), but it's definitely worth the extra bucks.

The Kino on Video "Slapstick Symposium" consists of three collections of shorts: The Charley Chase Collection, The Harold Lloyd Collection, and The Stan Laurel Collection. These DVDs are available separately (NOT as a set). The Charley Chase Collection contains six shorts from Hal Roach Studios: "Mum's the Word," "Long Fliv the King," "April Fool," "Mighty Like a Moose," "Crazy Like a Fox," and "All Wet." The Harold Lloyd Collection contains the 1922 feature film Grandma's Boy and seven shorts: "Number, Please," "I Do," "Just Neighbors," "Are Crooks Dishonest?," "His Royal Slyness," "Bumping Into Broadway," and "An Eastern Westerner." The Stan Laurel Collection contains 17 shorts from 1923 to 1925 on two DVDs: "Oranges and Lemons," "Roughest Africa," "Frozen Hearts," "The Soilers," "Mother's Joy," "Near Dublin," "Zeb vs. Paprika," "Postage Due," "Chasing the Chaser," "Short Kilts," "West of Hot Dog," "The Snow Hawk," "Navy Blue Days," "The Sleuth," "Dr. Pyckle & Mr. Pride," "Half a Man," and "Yes, Yes, Nanette." Each collection includes a photo gallery. Suggested list price of The Charley Chase Collection and The Harold Lloyd Collection: $29.95 each. Suggested list price of the Stan Laurel Collection: $39.95. For more information, check out the Kino Web site.

Photos courtesy of Kino International.