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Monday, November 28, 2016

Where Clowns Ruled The Roost

When Comedy Was King (1960) Dons DVD Crown

It’s been written and said that Robert Youngson beget a generation of silent comedy enthusiasts that later became collectors, then archivists, and ultimately suppliers of classic clowning to DVD buyers, all this detail-explained by Richard M. Roberts in a richly informative and entertaining audio commentary for Kit Parker’s new release of Youngson’s When Comedy Was King, the 1961 compilation agreed by most to be the compiler’s best. Roberts was another inspired to collect by Youngson example. He understands the impulse that drew so many moths to 8/16mm flame. How often do movie mavens pause to examine mirrors as Roberts does here? He recalls the Blackhawk catalogs, old flick shows with Shakey’s pizza, kiddie meets where Youngson first wove theatrical spell. A lot of us rode these magic carpets ---still do by digital route. For me, at least, it’s valuable to take stock of where so much of it began. Like “monster kids” sharing scary pursuit through magazines and late shows, here was a generation separated by states, but shaped by an enthusiasm Youngson was among first to express. The producer's career and personal story is told by Roberts, each comedy highlight also ID’ed, w/ background as to how RY foraged footage for When Comedy Was King and others of his oeuvre.

When Comedy Was King was available before, though never like this. 16mm transfers of indifferent quality are here replaced by sourcing from the original negative. When Comedy Was King has not sparkled so since ’60 first-runs. Care Youngson took with his presentation finally sees fruition thanks to highest grade release of all that has gone before. If you’ve shrunk from prior DVD offerings, you need not from this. When Comedy Was King resonates personally for being first of Youngsons I saw, sock finish of Laurel and Hardy with Jim Finlayson and contested Christmas trees a segment I'd recall when Big Business showed up in a 1968 Sears catalog. Seems you could own the two-reeler, in its entirety, watching just as 1929 audiences did. What heady intoxicant this was in days before film possession became commonplace thanks to discs and digital. I'll not reiterate powerful narcotic 8mm reels became. They'd be monkeys to ride my back for years to come.

When Comedy Was King is a best lure for civilians new to silent-era laughter. Highlights, as in Chaplin, Langdon, Keaton, the rest, are presented not as museum march, but lively brisk-pace to accompany music/effects that made Youngson a mainstream hit-maker to 50/60's showgoers. No need being film-fixated to enjoy these, a point made by commentator Roberts. Some of sheer fun in old comedy has been bled out by over-reverence, slowed-down projection, or analytic overkill, our obsess for vintage clowning a sometimes-threat to suffocate it. None of this was chanced by Youngson. He was first, and so set the mold, for compilations everyone could enjoy, even those never before exposed to early-era slapstick. The DVD, available now from Amazon, includes three bonus shorts with mirth-makers so far unsung outside purest leagues, but they still amuse, and how: Hughey Mack and Dot Farley in An Elephant On His Hands (1920), Lige Conley in Fast and Furious (1924), and The Three Fatties in their Ton Of Fun comedy, Heavy Love (1926). These plus When Comedy Was King make for an evening, plus happy repeats, of vintage merriment.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Damn. Not available in Canada and the one that is has bad reviews.

6:57 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The man behind the restoration and DVD is Kit Parker, longtime Laurel & Hardy enthusiast and founder of the fondly remembered Kit Parker Films, one of the very best 16mm rental libraries.

WHEN COMEDY WAS KING is the best calling card for silent comedy, as John mentions. Wonderful footage from landmark shorts -- and Youngson had a lot to do with making them landmarks for new generations of movie-crazy kids. Great musical score, too, by Broadway's Ted Royal. I stand with John in recommending this DVD release very highly.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

You have not lived until you have experienced several thousand people going into hysterical laughter watching silent film comedy. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the sound era comes close to achieving the convulsive laughter that was and is routine with these films. I have actually felt buildings physically shake from the sound of so many people laughing at once. The laughter just begets more laughter and builds, builds, builds.

9:10 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I was a very young child at the Grand Rex movie theater in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina, when I had an opportunity to see this compilation film. Even though this was actually a reissue, the image was perfect, the old fashion movie palace was filled up and everybody was constantly laughing.

There was, and still is, a film buff approach to movies in Argentina that I have never managed to see in a similar way here in the United States. This can be traced back to probably 1928 when the first cine club was established in Buenos Aires.

And earlier, in 1923, we could actually see ads like this one:

10:32 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Reg is spot on about seeing a silent comedy with a live audience. I have never seen one in an audience of thousands, but I've seen plenty in the company of hundreds and the experience is unique. As we infer from RH's comment there are no gaps waiting for the next punchline, the laughter grows continuously and exponentially. Put on a Keaton or Lloyd feature, or a Laurel and Hardy short and chances are you will physically exhaust your audience.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The BBC aired live from The Albert Hall the twenty minutes of continuous laughter that is the climax of Charlie Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH. Show me one film since the coming of sound that could be done with except CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES. We have lost so much.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

John, this post is likely one of your best IMHO. I have said so much about Youngson previously. I will only quote Robert Youngson:

"Into the distance, and into memory, we will never see their like again."

12:07 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

I saw WHEN COMEDY WAS KING in the theater when it first came out and sure, the audience was in stitches, but I have to take exception with the idea that talkies have never equaled that level of hilarity. The hardest I've ever heard an audience laugh was at a Three Stooges film festival, and I left a screening of WHAT'S UP DOC with a sore leg because the woman sitting next to me kept pounding it while she (and the rest of the audience) was helpless with laughter. And more recently the ending of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE not only left patrons weak from laughter but also a little misty-eyed, no small accomplishment. So it's not all Ferrelly Brothers dross.

1:22 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

The reward for putting on Slapsticon for a decade was listening to an entire weekend of laughter every year, seeing these films as they are meant to be seen, it was indeed a cathartic experience that cannot be matched by watching these films at home alone. When I introduced these films to an audience, I would frequently say to them, "you are an endangered species" in these days of home video, streaming, and watching films on one's cell phone. Laughter brings people together, and it is wonderful to share that experience with a roomful of strangers.

Thank you so much for the kind words John, Kit Parker and I both worked very hard to make this DVD release a special one, and it is heartening to know that you think the effort paid off.


1:46 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer recalls college runs of silent comedy classics:

I well know the intoxicating effect of Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” Reg Hartt. The small college I went to in the 1970s had a curious feature between the fall and spring semesters called the “Interim.” For one month, professors could teach just about anything they found interesting, so long as they did not repeat themselves from one year to the next. Students would receive credit and were expected to do whatever work was required, but there were no grades. One professor, who loved films, found some pretext or another to focus his course on them, for as long as there was an Interim. When he covered American culture in the 1920s, for example, this meant that he would be showing a lot of silent films. As was his custom, films shown during the day to the students taking his course would be made available to the entire student body during the evening. I was taking a course that year entitled, “From the Bookshelf to Hollywood,” and since it was offered by another film lover, I got to see films like Victor Sjostrom’s “The Scarlet Letter,” with Lillian Gish and “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the latter in a black and white print, of all things. Still, it was the best of both worlds for me, being able to see films day and night. On one particular evening, “The Gold Rush” was shown to a packed audience, most of whom had probably never seen a silent film before, or thought of them as anything other than a curiosity. From the very beginning, though, they were pulled in by the story and the nascent romance of the Little Tramp with Georgia. The dance of the rolls went over well, but that was nothing compared to their reaction to the storm sequence. The laughter just began building, gag upon gag, and when the cabin began teetering above the abyss, it was no longer recognizable as laughter anymore, but only as screams and howls. It was remarkable, the reaction this film received, but also magical for me, a stranger among them — or so I imagined myself at the time — and yet to have this shared experience of laughter in the darkness.

1:57 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I've accumulated "When Comedy Was King" (on one disc with GAOC), "Days of Thrills and Laughter", and "Thirty Years of Fun". Will probably succumb to this edition.

There are other Youngsons I'd like to see again, although I suspect the rights to the silent Roach films is a sticking point on some. "Four Clowns" and "Laurel and Hardy's Laughing Twenties" are the titles that come to mind.

I remember them showing fairly frequently on one or two local TV stations. Did they ever get network runs? How did those fare?

9:14 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

LAUGHING '20s was withdrawn from broadcast and home video by Turner on December 26, 1995, after Richard Feiner claimed TV rights of the L & H silents. The judge found in Feiner's favor, because this film used each individual silent almost in its entirety as opposed to a brief clip.

4 CLOWNS was withdrawn in 1991 because Raymond Rohauer had licensed the Buster Keaton footage to Youngson for 20 years, and when the license ran out, the film went out of circulation.

6:10 AM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

I'm lucky to have the MGM/Turner laserdisc of "Laurel and Hardy's Laughing Twenties". There's a reason I keep my laserdisc player and a small collection of favorites.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Saw WCWK in my local theatre when first released.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Back in the early '70s I was part of a campus club that showed old movies in order to raise money for ourselves. Bogey always sold out, as did the Marx Bros. and W.C. Fields. The comedies made the auditorium rock. More than 20 years later, showing old films--silents, sound comedies, comedy sketches, etc.--elicited no laughs from my students, who found heavy-handed and vulgar teen comedies to be hilarious. WCWK got very few laughs.

2:25 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

A modern day horror story, a friend of mine who is a high-school teacher will run a Laurel and Hardy film for his students every year, the last two years, the response from the students has been "oh, this is like DUMB AND DUMBER".

Indeed it is, but we're not talking about the film they saw.


4:50 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Richard...think those students need a visit from de boyz in the Mafia...SCM of course. ...

10:24 AM  
Blogger Lionel Braithwaite said...

@tbonemankini; No, they don't. But you will have to find a way to convince them that these older movies are worthwhile.

12:03 AM  

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