Those Big Parades Of Comedy --- Part One
One advantage most GB readers had growing up was ancient comic faces being familiar thanks to largely black-and-white television. We may not have known Ben Turpin and Billy Bevan by name, but those pans bridged many an hour toward Deputy Dawg/ Mighty Mice-filled Saturday mornings. There was also relic clowning at YMCA day camps, birthday parties, and as “treats” at school. You could have spooled our galaxy in 16mm ribbon for what was trucked to places youngsters gathered. A friend told me in 1968 of seeing Laurel and Hardy during classroom hours at a county school he attended. Which one?, I asked. Oh, something where Stan marched in a trench and ate a mountain of canned beans. Blockheads running at school? Enroll me now! I was ready to transfer despite ten miles' commute. But this sort of thing wasn’t uncommon. A teacher not given to lesson planning invited me to run Blackhawk 8mm for our Democracy In Action class during junior year. I wound up twice unspooling my whole collection as remaining semester yielded to Stan/Oliver, Chaplin, Keaton, et al. Some might call that misuse of education facility, but how’s it different from teachers now putting DVD’s on a loop to anesthetize bored or troublesome students? ... only today they’re doing it with stuff not half so engaging.
Derby hats seemed not so eccentric to a past TV generation, even if few of our fathers wore them by then. Neither did ladies sport hair like Miss Crabtree, and certainly there weren’t open roadsters and Model T’s driven through my neighborhood. It was alternate reality via syndication, one that by weight of its ubiquity became nearly as comfortable as our own. A weekday morning show Channel 8 called Limbo’s Cartoon Circus was host to ninety-minute blends of Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, and Our Gang, fact these went way back precisely what appealed most. When did wholesale rejection of old stuff take hold of us? (I mean them) Was it color’s final and absolute conquest of airwaves that hobbled distant era clowns? A last glorious stand was had in the seventies. Even as network affiliated stations dumped vintage for recent stock, there was independent UHF supplying berths for comedy we liked. Perhaps cable and satellite are to blame for what happened since. Too much choice, and who’s going to pause remotes on black-and-white? It must have been someone else’s lifetime that enabled dining at Shakey’s Pizza while double-duty cooks threaded Charlie Chaplin on a Bell and Howell. There’ll be no more such encounter (or visits to Shakey’s, for that matter), and any pizza I enjoy with Chaplin accompaniment will be mine alone but for a kindred spirit here or there who might remember.
I’m intrigued by efforts at silent movie revival back when that era was one from which Hollywood most wanted to distance itself. What 40’s-50’s presentations lacked was affection for their content. Silents, and by extension those who worked in them, became objects mostly shunned by industry said to have progressed a long way since. Warners celebrated twenty years of sound in 1946 with two-reelers clarifying viewpoint embraced by seemingly all. Out with what's old, and bring on the new. The ad above represents a Raleigh, NC theatre’s Journey Into The Romance and Gayety of Yesteryear. Such was novelty booking in 1945, a fun night out for the curious, and nostalgia perhaps for Grandpa, but in no way entertainment to stand on own merits. Anything so far back needed juicing up. Sight comedy got verbal overlay at expense of comics sped to frenzy in pursuit of laughs. Poor Larry Semon, long dead by the mid-forties when Warners cobbled shorts off his backlog, ran barely ahead of wiseacre narration putting unneeded (and sarcasm laced) exclamation on routines chiseled to bare-bone. So many great comedies meanwhile rotted in vaults. By time critic James Agee recognized gagging’s "Greatest Era" for LIFE magazine in 1948, much was past retrieval. Rich enough Chaplin and Harold Lloyd could afford protecting assets they owned from outset, distributing same at leisure. City Lights was back in 1950 to tune of $507K in domestic rentals, though Chaplin’s work was tabbed exception to prevailing rule that silent features were commercially moribund. Who would have spent to preserve Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon, one (perceived as) washed up and the other departed, their work spread among disparate owners? Deliverance for these and others came by way of archiving personalities Robert Youngson and Raymond Rohaeur, who would themselves achieve fame (or infamy) among a generation discovering comedy greats of the past.
Robert Youngson was heroic for rescuing slapstick out of rusting cans and would have made an ideal honored guest for Cinecon/Cinefest/Cinevent. He made Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, and others object of revival, but died (in 1974) just short of being himself focal point of buff adoration. Imagine questions we’d pose to a visionary whose work shaped lifelong enthusiasm for silent comedy. Was Youngson as jolly in person as photos suggest? Wish I’d met him to find out. Remember when RY frolics were all over television and theatre screens? I’d see When Comedy Was King at home one day, then head Liberty-ways for The Further Perils Of Laurel and Hardy a Saturday following. Narration he wrote made these schools for fun. Say whatever about cutting routines to quick or overindulging commentary, he put a mass audience before artists near-forgotten, rescued endangered negatives, and made many commercial again. Imagine being bug on a wall when Youngson negotiated with rights-rustler Raymond Rohauer for use of Seven Chances in 1970’s Four Clowns. There seemed nothing jolly about hellspawn Rohauer. History has tabbed him least likeable of those who dug for film before same was wider spread, even as records speak to his saving much (nearly all?) of Buster Keaton’s inventory and major segments of Harry Langdon (the First National features), plus others past calculation. Someone should write a book about Rohauer (Scott MacGillivray did a fine chapter on Youngson in Laurel and Hardy: From the Forties Forward), but I’d not envy the commission, for bio-Rohauer might be not unlike lives of Mussolini, Vlad The Impaler, or villains of similar stripe. Youngson and Rohauer were (maybe only) two silent-era rescuers that made something like commercial go of putting lost art before a new audience even as they went about it in starkly opposing ways, both deserving forevermore credit whatever the means for having done it.