The Night It Came Together
For many fortunates in the movie life, there are moments of epiphany, that crossroad where you realize a screen world is one you'll be occupying. My rendezvous with classic comedy to settle future dedication happened August 1968 when a then-sister-in-law drove me to Wake Forest College (since University) for a triple bill of Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., Laurel and Hardy in Double Whoopee, and W.C. Fields in The Barber Shop. I've tried since to imagine a more ideal medley to combust lifelong interest, and so far, none occur to me. Interesting how you can have fifty people sitting before such a presentation, most having a good time, but only one (if that) coming away transformed. It wasn't as though I hadn't seen these personalities before. Keaton was familiar in old age 60's guise, but never before (for me) the comic astonisher he was here. Laurel and Hardy had been (and would be again) objects of Robert Youngson sampling, like slices of a cake mostly eaten, for it was obvious he had cheery-picked subjects originally fuller-fleshed. As to Fields, there'd been pictures in books, glimpses on television, and older folks to guarantee fun should I encounter him. Sherlock Jr. was the program's centerpiece. It's just occurs to me ... this was the first silent feature I saw projected on a screen, which is to acknowledge if nothing else how tough coming across such occasion was back then.
Wake Forest had a brilliant student programmer named Doug Lemza. He'd later edit Films Inc.'s Rediscovering The American Cinema catalogues and is currently branch manager for Criterion Pictures USA in Morton Grove, Illinois. Thanks to his stewardship, Wake's was a world class film site. I used to get my sister's boyfriend, a student there in the sixties, to bring home program notes Lemza wrote. Not sure if he was still there the night of Sherlock Jr., but momentum from his efforts kept WFU's series aloft for years after Lemza's departure (even unto a latter seventies period when I attended law school there). Rose-colored memory suggests it was an ideal venue and presentation that night. In fact, to go back from privileged DVD access would be a jolt for how austere these shows truly were. We sat in a teaching auditorium with hard-backed chairs. I don't remember music being played. Certainly there was no live accompaniment. The format would have been 16mm and I'm guessing long gone Audio-Brandon supplied prints. At least during the seventies, Sherlock Jr. rented for $75. Double Whoopee and The Barber Shop were probably got for a ten spot each. You never knew in those days what shape film would be in when it arrived. My later experience booking for college would amount to baptisms of fire for reels damaged, footage missing, etc. For at least this occasion at Wake, however, it was magic unbound, an experience I couldn't have imagined improving upon.
I'd actually been given a choice that week. There would be one trip to Winston-Salem, either to the comedies at Wake Forest or a Saturday kid show of longed-to-see House Of Usher at downtown's Carolina Theatre (later site of Jesse James). Which to select at age fourteen with both such vital wants? The pick was a right one in hindsight. It started me collecting on 8mm whatever I could locate of these clowns. You could, of course, buy much of Laurel and Hardy's output from licensing Blackhawk Films. The latter also secured narrow-gauge rights to The Barber Shop and three other shorts W.C. Fields did for Mack Sennett in the early thirties. Double Whoopee had made a deep impression for being initial view of a complete silent Laurel and Hardy. To own it was entering 1929 exhibition on ground floors for me. L&H fans --- how many times have you watched those two reels since childhood? Lately I've found myself going back to Double Whoopee on 8mm Blackhawk rather than enhanced delivery on DVD. For me, it is the more authentic format, closest to what I experienced from beginnings, and likeliest to call up sensation felt so many screenings ago when movies at home were new and novel. Never do I come away from the best Laurel and Hardys without a fresh appreciation. Double Whoopee is such a jewel of comic invention. Stan and Babe at the hotel register ... falls down an elevator shaft ... the boys quarrelling over a tip ... and pay-off of another "Battle Of The Century," this time with eye-poking, shin-kicking, the customary works. There are at least five sections you could mix and match anywhere to blissful comic effect. Youngson spotted Double Whoopee thus in multiple compilations without repeating himself (well, maybe the Jean Harlow entrance, such a seminal moment as to justify a go-back).
A lot of these stills are going to be familiar (some hopefully not). The one of Buster in front of Sherlock Jr.'s theatre was what made me so eager to see that film in the first place, it having appeared in Joe Franklin's Classics Of The Silent Screen (did he ever admit Bill Everson's having written that book?). All the Double Whoopee shots came from a set of ten Blackhawk sold for $2.98 during the late sixties. Unlike 8mm prints, these were from original negatives and amazing to me then for details they revealed of sets and props less visible when films were projected. Startling today would be a side-by-side presentation of recently released Sherlock Jr. on Blu-Ray with a bootleg 8mm I once owned. Talk about loss of detail ... it was a struggle reading numbers on the billiard balls Keaton aimed at (a crucial point of one sequence), so washed out was the image on my ill-got print. Yet therein was exotic appeal of acquiring something you really weren't supposed to have, unlike Blackhawk product authorized and above board. My Sherlock Jr. was furtively obtained in 1971 from a dealer who'd satisfied himself that I wasn't under-covering on Raymond Rohauer's behalf. Those five little reels, imperfect as they were, highlighted many a classroom show during high school and college in grinding unison with my Eumig Dual 8 projector. What peculiar alchemy this must have seemed to student/teachers I looked to entertain. With DVD and tabletop digital projection for modern day convenience, it would be simple for enthusiast kids to give programs lots better that mine ever were. Wonder how many (if any) are out in the field doing just that ...
Much more at Greenbriar Archives: Buster Keaton in The General, Spite Marriage, Le Roi des Champs-Elysses, and Keaton Columbia Shorts.
Laurel and Hardy's Fads and Flaps, Babes In Toyland, L&H Fox Comedies, From The Forties Forward, and Time For Some Laurel and Hardy.