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Silent Comedy Scholarship

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
September 25, 2013 12:00 AM
2 Comments
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Practical Press by Richard M. Roberts

If I had to choose an all-time favorite movie studio, it would be Hal Roach’s, where comedy was king in the 1920s and ‘30s. Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase, and Thelma Todd were among his brightest stars. They were surrounded by directors, writers, cameramen, prop men, and other specialists who knew comedy inside and out. Professor Richard L. Ward examined the business history of this enterprise in his 2006 book A History of the Hal Roach Studios, and decades ago William K. Everson wrote an eloquent monograph for the Museum of Modern Art on the movies themselves.

Now, silent comedy expert Richard M. Roberts has undertaken the formidable task of exploring all of Roach’s films with a critical eye and a firm grasp on what was going on behind the scenes. The privately published, oversized paperback, the first of a planned trilogy, is titled Smileage Guaranteed, Past Humor, Present Laughter—Musings on the Comedy Film Industry 1910-1945 Volume One: Hal Roach (Practical Press). The book is co-researched with Robert Farr and Joe Moore. In it you will learn details of how Roach got started, what it took to launch Harold Lloyd as a comedy star, and how each subsequent series came about. (Roberts has foregone coverage of Our Gang, pointing readers to the book I wrote with Richard W. Bann, The Little Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang, and similarly chosen not to cover the Thelma Todd or Boy Friends series, recommending my chapters and filmographies in The Great Movie Shorts. I appreciate the gracious gesture, but there’s a practical consideration, too: his book is already the size of a city telephone directory!)

I pored over every page of this book with great interest, from his intricate historical notes to his detailed filmographies. And just when you think you’ve reached the end of this massive volume, he offers a bonus: never-before-published pictures of the Roach gang at play from the scrapbooks of onetime leading lady Marie Mosquini. Wait till you see Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard, and Charley Chase frolicking at the beach!

It’s rare to find a book with genuinely original research and unfamiliar illustrations that’s also readable and entertaining. Naturally, I don’t agree with all of Roberts’ opinions; Harry Langdon’s talkie shorts for Roach still elude my funny-bone, and I question whether it’s legitimate to assume that Max Davidson’s lost late-silent shorts were inferior when one that survives is the hilarious Pass the Gravy. But these are minor quibbles.

If you love Hal Roach comedies you should consider this hefty volume a must, not just to put on your bookshelf but to read, from cover to cover.

BearManor Media by Steve Massa

Steve Massa is another enterprising researcher who has unearthed a cornucopia of information about little-known silent comedies for his new book Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy (BearManor Media). By dint of sheer determination, Massa has made his way through major film archives and uncovered prints of silent comedies that no one has bothered to catalogue, let alone screen, in years. Along the way he has identified unsung heroes as well as journeymen whose work deserves to be chronicled, if not praised to the skies.

The chapter titles will give you some idea of the breadth of this book: Silent Partners: Comedy Teams of the Teens and Twenties, Alice Howell: Forgotten Slapstick Queen, Charles Parrott: Comedy’s Best Kept Secret, Max Came Across: Max Linder in America, Billie Ritchie: The Man from Nowhere, I’m Glad Now That I’m Homely: The Downs and Ups of Marie Dressler, and Rediscovering Roscoe: The Careers of “Fatty” Arbuckle. Every chapter offers discoveries to even a diehard silent-comedy buff, along with rare and interesting illustrations (including vintage trade advertisements). Massa provides filmographies and a thorough index to make his book as useful as possible.

One may debate the relative merits of the performers profiled here—some of them remained in the second-tier of comedy stardom for good reason—but there is no question that Steve Massa’s research will remain a valuable guide for many years to come. His enthusiasm certainly makes one want to seek out many of these long-forgotten films.

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2 Comments

  • george | September 30, 2013 3:36 PMReply

    Sorry you're still down on Langdon's Roach shorts, Leonard. TCM has shown several of them, and while not as hilarious as his silents, they're still funny and fascinating. They're just so ODD, it's impossible to imagine anyone but Langdon starring in them.

    I'd gladly buy a DVD set of Langdon's Roach talkies. The lading lady in several of them was Thelma Todd, whose presence is always welcome.

  • Paul F. Etcheverry | September 27, 2013 5:26 PMReply

    I've attended classic film presentations by both authors: most recently, the "Lame Brains & Lunatics" show at NYC MoMA. Richard and Steve know their stuff and have certainly inspired me to reevaluate the lesser-known silent movie comedians. I particularly like how Steve's book throws the spotlight on silent movie comediennes Alice Howell, Fay "Rowdy Ann" Tincher and Gale Henry (whose mere appearance in a film makes me laugh).

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