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Thursday, April 21, 2011

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.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Youngson eventually compensated for widescreen projection by printing his subjects with a built-in mask, preserving the full-frame image. It's a shame that from 1967 forward, Fox was basically throwing away the Youngson features. Promotion was sharply reduced and so was the revenue, Fox seemingly content with spot playdates for kiddie matinees.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Does anybody know the story on (or even remember) the Charlie Chaplin TV series? It was very much a Youngson-type production (with cheaper music and puns) but I don't know if he actually had any connection. I saw it in the early 60s, but it already had the feel of an old syndicated show.

Laurel and Hardy never really had a "show" in the SF Bay Area. They'd have a time slot and maybe a static title card -- no host, no bumpers, nothing but shorts and those feature fragments. Pretty much like the no-frills cartoon carnivals on local TV.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Yes, THE CHARLIE CHAPLIN COMEDY THEATRE dates from 1965 and was produced by Vernon P. Becker. Becker also produced two feature films, THE FUNNIEST MAN IN THE WORLD (Chaplin) and THE GREAT STONE FACE (Buster Keaton).

Youngson's collaborator William K. Everson participated in the Chaplin TV series. I don't recall any puns in the narration -- it was partly historical, and partly obvious explanation: "Charlie loses his ice cream down his pants."

3:00 PM  
Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

Youngson's movies fascinated me when I was young because they struck me as morbid as well as funny, given his constant reminders of how long ago the movies were made and how many of the performers had died. I credit them with making me a movie buff with a historical interest in film rather than just a movie fan.

I don't recall seeing a Chaplin TV show until A&E (if I recall right) ran the Mutuals in prime time back in the Eighties. But one of my local (Albany NY) stations ran Laurel & Hardy shorts in a 7:30 p.m. slot as late as the late Seventies.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I remember seeing The Charlie Chaplin Comedy Theatre in the 60s and early 70s..In addition to Fractured Flickers.While living in Australia for awhile in the 60s,I remember a silent Our Gang TV series called THe Mischeif Makers and Funny Manns-more cut up silent comedy clips..I remember while over there,a friends dad and some of his buddies took me and my friend to Youngson's The Further Perils Of Laurel and Hardy at the cinema.The theatre was packed and the experiance was silmilar to going to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail years later..

5:06 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Caught many of Youngson's features for the first time at youth group, church and/or school fundraiser screenings: programs in a high school gym or church basement. In college I was renting the same well worn 16mm prints for coffee house and film club dates. In the sixties, the Hartford, CT-Springfield, MA area had the nation's first trial pay TV service (lasted only two years I think). They showed the two Laurel and Hardy features as Saturday matinee attractions a bit before general syndication. The only Youngson one I caught in an authentic theater situation was FOUR CLOWNS, although I did squeeze into a packed house(!) double bill consisting of CRAZY WORLD OF LAUREL AND HARDY, THE GENERAL and JAY WARD'S INTERGALACTIC FILM FESTIVAL..

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

I never saw any of the Youngston films but other clips I saw from the era they came out seemed to be played at a faster speed than they were intended to be seen. Was this true with Youngston's films?

2:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bill, I don't recall the Youngsons moving at too fast a speed ... but then my idea of "too fast" may differ from others. Opinions about silent comedy speed seem to vary pretty widely.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I was watching The Golden Age Of Comedy on DVD not too long ago and couldn't get over how crisp and clean the clips looked compared to old blackhawk and various other so called restorations..

4:16 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Walter Kerr's "The Silent Clowns" makes a pretty strong case for silent comedy (and silent film in general) being designed for faster-than-natural speeds -- not just an aesthetic judgment but backed by a contemporary direction to projectionists. He seems to regard natural-speed projection as something akin to colorization.

3:46 AM  
Blogger Devlin Thompson said...

I never saw the Charlie Chaplin show, and the only live-action shorts on TV in upstate South Carolina in the mid-to-late seventies were the Three Stooges and Little Rascals shorts, but one of the local stations (probably WFBC) did run HAROLD LLOYD'S WORLD OF COMEDY,which was my first exposure to him other than the standard SAFETY LAST photo in any film history. The theme (by Neal Hefti) was a favorite.

11:18 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

... and WFBC/Channel 4 used to run Laurel/Hardy, Our Gang, and The Mischief Makers during the late 60's on their "Monty's Rascals" Saturday and weekday afternoon show.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Joe Dante said...

Here's John Landis talking about Youngson's WHEN COMEDY WAS KING on Trailers from Hell:

8:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, Joe. I really enjoyed Landis' narration, and that 35mm trailer was in nice shape.

8:10 AM  
Anonymous roger said...


The Bay Area did have at least one hosted L&H show. It ran in the early eighties on KTZO (now KOFY) Channel 20 at 7:30 weekday mornings, and the host (can't remember who it was) did a brief intro and outro for each film. Growing up during that period, that show was my introduction to the L&H two-reelers. Longer releases were also shown, divided into 30-minute chunks.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

One of my earliest memories was of my parents' taking me to a late show of "When Comedy Was King" at a theatre called The Vogue on Hollywood Blvd, which was then considered a very nice, first-run house. They were both fond of dining at an old Hollywood establishment called Musso-Frank's which was right next door, so we probably had had dinner there first, I'm guessing.

I do well remember that when Laurel & Hardy flashed on the screen both my parents broke into wild applause, and the scene had the whole place screaming, hardly surprising.

Flash-forward to about one year later. I'm sitting in Stan Laurel's living room at The Oceana in Santa Monica. I was at this time on the reigning-side of 10 or so and had seen very little of their work, except, I think, Babes in Toyland on television. But, I suddenly remembered that clip in the Youngson movie. "Oh, Mr. Laurel", I say, trying to feign some knowledgability of their canon, "The one where you and Mr. Hardy are selling the Xmas trees" -- I totally blank on the title. "Oh", Stan says, "Do you mean "Big Business?" "Yes, that one was really good!" (Like I'd seen everything they'd done at that point. I'd probably seen maybe three of their films.)

"You know, we never worked well in crowds", I recall his saying, "We were always better sitting in a corner."

Thought you'd like this, John.

As ever, all best,


5:37 PM  

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