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Monday, April 11, 2011

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.

Part Two on Robert Youngson is HERE.


Blogger Unca Jeffy said...

It's true, black and white is considered less than color and silent less than sound. But you and I and more folks than you imagine know that silent is simply a different language and b&w is FAAAAAAAAAAAAAR more interesting than garish color. It's a shame so many films were lost, but that makes the ones that were saved seem all the more precious.

BTW...the classic films and banjo players may be gone (hopefully temporarily) but Shakeys is making a comeback here in southern California. And the mojo potatoes still rock.

11:38 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Shaky's has so far made no comeback around here, Jeff, but maybe one will surface within driving distance. Imagine reviving the silent comedies there with DVD projection a successor to 16mm. Would 2011 pizza-diners enjoy that?

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

If I had a teacher who looked like Miss Crabtree, I'd never have graduated.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

As recent as last Saturday night, our Sons of the Desert Tent screened a 16mm print of THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY as the second half of our monthly program. This was a beat up rental copy stitched together from (I'd guess) at least four prints, missing more than a few minutes, yet, the crowd loved it! Say what you will about Youngson's technique, the man had a genius for audience pleasing: all the big laugh spots were right where he left them 55 years ago, and not a few due to that damn pun-heavy, oh-so-cute narration! As to the interest level in this vintage stuff, old time silent and sound comedy may have officially joined the ranks of ballet, grand opera and cow chip throwing contests as an acquired taste appreciated by a fervent minority, but I am one SOD Grand Sheik who can attest that our minority is, indeed, fervent and not above dragging friends and relatives to at least sample the wares. Ours is not a very big metro area, but we have no problem attracting around 120 guests and members (our count, this month) to our regular, unadvertised meetings. And, speaking of Shakey's, this month's shindig was held in the banquet room of a pizza and beer place!

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy EVERY post, to be quite honest, but this one touched a special chord in many of you, I also grew up on the Youngson films, L & H, the Little Rascals, et al. In NJ, the NY stations WNEW, WOR, and WPIX were standard viewing for me. What great memories! I don't know about you, but I'd give anythnig to see that "Old Time" movie show in that ad!

7:03 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

I've got some of the Youngson compilations and they hold up well, given that tracking and restoration of old elements has come a long way. The only really off-note is when the narration dwells on how this happy comic or that pretty lady came to grief in later years. Perhaps those obits were still recent enough that Youngson felt obliged to acknowledge them.

Are there any current airings TV of silents outside of TCM? I remember when PBS would periodically run a series of classics with celebrity intros.

There was a smaller-scale PBS show -- produced by some local station, I think -- titled "The Toy That Grew Up." It ran agreeable programmers with occasional revelations like "The Cat and the Canary" and "Mark of Zorro," always opening with "Curse of an Aching Heart" on rickety piano. People on this site would recognize it as the song that makes Stan and Babe cry in "Blotto."

7:36 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Oh, THE TOY THAT GREW UP! One of the things that first turned me on to silents back in the pre-PBS sixties (along with the Youngson features) Great old PD things like SHADOWS, ON THE NIGHT STAGE, LUCKY DEVIL and THE LOST WORLD. And I remember the theme too!

8:37 AM  
Anonymous Ed Watz said...

John, between my college studies I worked for Rohauer for 4 years ('77 to '81), and he was quite the larger than life character of legend. Ro had been a friend of Bob Youngson's, but would always complain that Youngson was nagging him to make deals to use Keaton footage. Rohauer told me that the beautiful 35mm material from COPS (in WHEN COMEDY WAS KING) was a deal Youngson had made with Leopold Friedman, the last of the original trustees of Buster Keaton Productions, who at the time (1959)still owned a controlling share and overrode Rohauer's objections to use the footage in that compilation. Friedman died around 1980 and I believe was in his 90s. I recall the day Rohauer read his obituary aloud with delighted glee, followed by, "Well, that's the end of that!" Rohauer hated many collectors (Kevin Brownlow, and Bill Everson were favorite targets). He liked Youngson but hated his compilations, particularly the narration, which he felt was corny and overdone. I think Rohauer was envious of Youngson's success in the format, neither Rohauer's CRAZY WORLD OF LAUREL & HARDY nor the Jay Ward-issued version of THE GENERAL ("produced by Raymond Rohauer" - come on!) being nearly as good as Bob's best work.

11:27 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

What great stuff this is, Ed! Hope you'll be back for Parts Two/Three coming up, as there's more about Youngson and I'd sure welcome more of your unique reflections on RY and Rohauer ...

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes. Shakey's pizza. It was the first place I ever saw EASY STREET, TWO TARS and the Fleischer Supermans, among others.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

And the SHAKEY'S PIZZA in Charlotte was owned and run by a professional wrestler!

6:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

James Agee's LIFE article was supposed to have had some impact, perhaps just in starting a kind of comeback for Buster Keaton.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Shakeys ran Blackhawk prints too..or at least stuff that I had from Blackhawk films or had seen in their bulletins

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Shakey's is making a comeback??!! Well, they haven't come back to Sacramento yet, where they started. The only Shakey's I ever frequented was the very first one, at 57th and J Streets. (The 1954 opening coincided with that of my alma mater, CSU Sacramento, only three blocks away; my predecessors at CSUS made Shakey Johnson a multi-millionaire.) That first Shakey's never showed so much as a frame of silent movies, though they did have Dixieland jazz in the early years. (The silent movies came later, over at Pizza & Pipes a few miles away, after they installed the Mighty Wurlitzer from the demolished Alhambra picture palace.)

All honor to Robert Youngson -- and some to Raymond Rohauer -- for their contributions to the appreciation and preservation of silent movies. I'd also add Paul Killiam in there. To paraphrase Barbara Mandrell, they were film-buff when film-buff wasn't cool.

1:42 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Forgive me if I'm jumping the gun here, in case you were planning to link to this in part two... but this essay by Dick Bann about the preservation of Laurel & Hardy's Battle of the Century, and Youngson's role in it, is absolutely essential reading.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Sooke said...

We were lucky in Canada in the 60's. The CBC ran a BBC show called Mad Movies hosted by comedian and silent film collector Bob Monkhouse. It introduced us to lesser known stars like Ben Turpin and Harry Langdon.

4:23 AM  

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