Comedy's Comeback Continues
Where Robert Youngson really broke out was The Golden Age Of Comedy. Would anyone else have come up with an idea so beautifully timed? Had they eventually done so, it might have been too late for prints and negatives Youngson secured from (primarily) Hal Roach and collector archives known to few. Golden Age made it fashionable to applaud silent comedies. Critics seized opportunity Youngson presented to demonstrate a grasp of picture history and enrich their own cache. Nighttime TV hosts served as Pied Pipers for art house audiences flooding New York and elsewhere venues. The Golden Age Of Comedy shook free of musty association silents labored under when general audiences discovered how funny it was. These were laughs of a sort few youngsters had experienced, let alone with peers in a crowded theatre. Comedy had long settled into dialogue-driven tar pits where a Glenn Ford spent reels hiding geisha girls among straw huts as insubstantial as wink-wink stories tickling what was left of Hollywood’s Production Code. Look (or groan) at much of what passed for comedy in 1957 and success of Youngson’s venture seems not so remarkable. His was an audience more than ready for freshened mirth-making. Jack Parr and Steve Allen were sufficiently hip to sniff the zeitgeist, trumpeting The Golden Age Of Comedy as though it were laughter’s second coming (what I’d not give to see tape of that week Parr sang Youngson’s praises --- does footage exist?). The deal with Hal Roach was providential, for its continuation gave Youngson access to what amounted to the best of silent clowning, and there would be enough of it to sustain him for a decade plus.
Audiences knew Laurel and Hardy from television, their talking stuff seemingly vid-burrowed clear down to China. What even fans didn’t realize was that silent L&H was at least as good, especially in crowded auditoria. These subjects were barely seen since the twenties, Youngson in time (barely) to salvage good prints off nitrate passing thirty years of fragility. The Golden Age Of Comedy represented the first time, outside of Chaplin reissues, that pre-sound truly thrived before mainstream customers (Harold Lloyd had tried a few of his, without notable success). Theatres of every size and stripe were asking to book Golden Age, as Youngson’s compilation and ones to follow were ideal for matinees where kids were in and out and it didn’t much matter at what point you entered the show. Combination comedy days such as ones shown here were breath of life for theatres filling weekend dates, head shots of recognizable comics sufficient to fill drive-in lots as well for all night laugh-a-thons. That Laurel and Hardy continued as meaningful theatrical draws from the late fifties right through the sixties was pretty amazing, considering they hadn’t done anything US-new since WWII's close, Babe having died (in August 1957) and Stan settled into retirement. Youngson as deliverer of so much priceless stuff was nothing if not an evangelist for classic comedy. Narration he wrote took pains to identify and background faces chasing past us. In a way, Youngson’s continuing lecture was fun-making's equivalent of Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters mission. Much was silly with here-and-there cringe-worthy punning, but who else was instructing us as to finer points of silent filmmaking? How he put across what amounted to a clowning curriculum (and to a distinctly unschooled public) was the truest Youngson miracle.
When Comedy Was King showed what a Youngson package could do with major distributor backing. Movie columnists celebrated laughter’s archeologist for having unearthed what Granddad once found so uproarious. The compilation broke opening day records at Manhattan’s 68th Street Playhouse, a venue keeping count since nickelodeon days forty-five years before. The place had a single aisle, a tiny lobby, and seated only 389 patrons, but was ideally suited to first-run When Comedy Was King. Youngson had again delivered a perfect wedding of art and mass appeal. Aesthetes could laud classic samplings of Chaplin and Keaton while their kids enjoyed Youngson pulling drag for live action Disneys, The Three Stooges (when they met Snow White), and even Fox’s ultra-serious Crack In The Mirror, among many other unlikely pairings RY’s film engaged as it widened to neighborhood houses. There were degrees of critical condescension. The New York Times called Youngson’s a mild bonanza, and applauded his choice of highlights that moved without the benefit of palaver. First Gotham runs for Youngson generally went to art houses from which quotable reviews might spring, though fissures opened for want of showmen competent to project standard ratio film properly. 30 Years Of Fun was dealt columnist blows when its NYC opening found intended comedy sliced to 1.85 ribbons, for which Youngson unfairly bore blame. Reviewer Eugene Archer complained that by projecting the clips on a modern wide screen, Mr. Youngson has merely chopped the tops and bottoms off the images, with highly unsatisfactory results. As 30 Years Of Fun was by this time (December 1963) saturating among further flung venues, the problem compounded. To readjust masking and apertures was inconvenient for projectionists, and as 30 Years Of Fun played double bills in almost all situations, modifications would have been required for each and every show, operators in effect jumping from wide image to obsolete flat settings five or more times daily. Archer singled out celebrated 30 Years scenes of Charlie Chaplin disassembling an alarm clock in The Pawnshop for being effectively ruined because the audience couldn’t see the comedian’s hands while doing so. A January follow-up letter to editors, penned by 68th Street Playhouse manager Walter Brecher, defended Youngson: Please don’t blame him … the fault lies with the inertia of the average exhibitor, who has committed himself to the widescreen projection pattern. Brecher went on to point out that art theatres, including his own 68th Street Playhouse, took sufficient care to insure proper presentation, but what of venues across the country subsequently playing this and other Youngson features? I don’t remember noticing a problem when seeing ones at the Liberty, but that’s not to say prints weren’t every bit as cropped.
Laurel and Hardy clearly led Youngson parades, being the attraction that drew most customers inside. More than one reviewer commented that their stuff held up better than Chaplin’s. Some of that was backwash from CC’s then-recent exile, with feathers slow to un-ruffle even as a new decade began. Youngson allowed for latter in narration acknowledging controversy while expressing hope that viewers might put politics second to enjoyment of still rib-tickling moments out of Mutual comedies Chaplin had done so long ago. The big elephant in Youngson’s parlor was Harold Lloyd. He whispered not the name in compilations, but others noted absence of comedy’s point man for output and commercial success back when silents ruled. Lloyd and Youngson were sociable (as here), but the former licensing footage to the latter was strictly no dice, for Harold figured on going Bob one better with his own clowning scrapbook. 20th Fox meanwhile pulled stops to promote When Comedy Was King using contract starlets for premiere night at aforementioned 68th Street Playhouse. A newer-minted Keystone Kop is posed here with Margo Moore of Fox’s Wake Me When It’s Over, while Ina Balin on the right was just out in From The Terrace. Trade ads like one above trumpeted raves and put faces back in advertising circulation we hadn’t seen since … well, The Golden Age Of Comedy. Youngson worked show-biz magic of heating up years-past names, and not just among oddballs pre-disposed toward the brand. Ones among us that revere voiceless comedy probably heard opening gun at a Youngson show. I sure did, for it was seeing Big Business played off as When Comedy Was King’s dessert that made me go looking for 8mm silent comedies to own.