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Real & Faux Silent Footage Worth Watching

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin May 21, 2012 at 2:27PM

YouTube has unearthed a treasure trove of film footage, aside from videos of cats roller-skating: precious moments of W.C. Fields on Broadway, The Three Stooges fooling around in Atlantic City, and a contemporary comedy short that predates 'The Artist' in its attempt to replicate the silent era.
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YouTube has unearthed a treasure trove of film footage, aside from videos of cats roller-skating: precious moments of W.C. Fields on Broadway, The Three Stooges fooling around in Atlantic City, and a contemporary comedy short that predates The Artist in its attempt to replicate the silent era. I first encountered that 30-minute short when it was new in 1996 and its creator, Robert Watzke, sent me a copy seeking my reaction. I screened it, enjoyed it, and then, frankly, it receded in my memory until just a few months ago when the filmmaker sent me an e-mail saying he’d posted it on YouTube.

Helen Slater in 'Heavenzapoppin'!'
Helen Slater in 'Heavenzapoppin'!'

Heavenzapoppin'! is a sweet, clever 30-minute short, shot on 35mm film (remember that?) about the denizens of a rural Eastern European village who magically find themselves in modern-day Hollywood. I won’t reveal any more of the premise, or describe how it’s executed, so you can experience it for yourself. Suffice it to say that I think the film is ingenious and very well executed; I enjoyed revisiting it after all these years. Writer-director-editor Watzke is also the star, along with a troupe called the Bubalaires, which tries to keep the spirit of Commedia dell’ Arte alive. You’ll probably recognize the filmmaker’s wife, Helen Slater, well-remembered as the star of Supergirl and The Legend of Billie Jean, and the late Bruno Kirby.

There isn’t much of a marketplace for short subjects, sorry to say, but at least the Internet has given them a home. You can watch Heavenzapoppin'! HERE and see the trailer HERE.

As for the genuine silent material I mentioned above, at least two amazing pieces of home-movie footage have found their way online from the archives of vaudevillian George Mann. The first is a blackout skit called “The Mormon’s Prayers,” performed by W.C. Fields in Earl Carroll’s Vanities, 7th Edition on Broadway in 1928 featuring the Great Man and a bevy of chorus-girl beauties. It’s only about minute long, but it’s wonderful to see the Fields on stage, and there’s a lovely bonus at the end.

W. C. Fields on Broadway (1928).
W. C. Fields on Broadway (1928).

The Stooges footage is in color—eye-popping Kodachrome which, as many people know, tends not to fade over the years. While appearing at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City in 1938, Moe, Larry and Curly agreed to appear in this gag movie staged, just for fun, by Mann and featuring his wife, beautiful Barbara Bradford.

Barto and Mann were a living Mutt and Jeff duo, the very tall Mann paired with the diminutive Barto; their unique dance act is nicely preserved in Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933). All I know of Dewey Barto is that his daughter was actress Nancy Walker. It turns out that George Mann was a prolific shutterbug whose daughter-in-law, commercial photographer Dianne Woods, has selected one thousand shots and made them available for licensing through akg-images. You can see some of his precious black & white photos, evoking a lost era of show business, and life in decades past, HERE.

So, even as issues of privacy (or lack of it) and governmental control continue to flare, one can be grateful to the Internet for providing access to material that otherwise most of us would never get to see.

This article is related to: Journal, Three Stooges, W. C. Fields, Silent Film Funny, Barto and Mann