50-Movie Comedy Classics Disc 1

That’s right—it’s another 50-pack, this time comedy “classics.”

It’s a little tricky to watch silent short comedies, particularly slapstick comedies—particularly when you’re alone. There’s the gap of time and change in comedy styles to consider; silents offer fewer clues; and most of all, to be fair to the original flick, you have to wonder what it would be like to watch it in a movie theatre surrounded by hundreds of others, with organ music going behind the movie. I’m trying to do that; it’s not always easy.

This disc consists of five collections of shorts—17 in all.

Stan Laurel Festival (all b&w, all silent and presented with unrelated music, all with Stan Laurel). Includes Mud and Sand, 1922, Gilbert Pratt (dir.), 0:26; Just Rambling Along, 1918, Hal Roach (dir.), Clarine Seymour, 0:09; Oranges and Lemons, 1923, George Jeske (dir.), 0:12.

Mud and Sand would seem inordinately strange if you hadn’t seen Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand—but fortunately, I had—and recently (in the 50 Movie Hollywood Legends set). With Stan Laurel as Rhubarb Vaselino—well, it’s pretty much a plot-for-plot remake but with silly names, lots of titles talking about “bull” with both meanings, and Laurel’s slapstick. The print’s poor at times, and this seemed as forced as many single-movie spoofs.

Just Rambling Along is apparently one of the earliest Laurel shorts, and it’s best moment is in a cafeteria line where Laurel manages to cadge a fairly full meal out of a ten cent cup of coffee (but the pretty young thing he sits next to then swaps his not-yet-paid ticket for her $1.25 big meal). Good print and so-so slapstick: I might have been laughing in that theater.

Oranges and Lemons is set in a citrus processing facility and grove and makes no sense at all—and it’s a decent little slapstick film, with just the kind of nonsense that Laurel could do well. Generally decent print. All three shorts are accompanied by appropriate (if not directly related) music.

Considering that the whole trio only adds up to about 46 minutes and there’s not a gem among them, I can’t give this more than $0.75.

Our Gang Festival. Includes Our Gang Follies, 1937, b&w, Gordon Douglas (dir.), George ‘Spanky’ McFarland, Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, Billie ‘Buckwheat’ Thomas, Doodles Weaver and the rest of Our Gang, 0:21; School’s Out, 1930, b&w, Robert F. McGowan (dir.), Jackie Cooper, Allen ‘Farina’ Hoskins, Bobby ‘Wheezer’ Hutchins and the rest of the Little Rascals, 0:20; Bear Shooters, same credits (by and large), 0:20.

I doubt that I’d be an avid consumer of Our Gang comedies even “in the day,” but I could be wrong. At this remove, and with this trio, it seems like different casts and considerably different qualities. And so it is. My first inclination, especially given the opening titles, was to believe that one movie was the “real” Our Gang and the other two were “Hal Roach’s Little Rascals in Our Gang”—but it turns out “Little Rascals” and “Our Gang” both seem to be used interchangeably for a whole succession of casts.

The first (and newest) movie is the newer group with Spanky McFarland, Alfalfa Switzer, and Buckwheat Thomas, while the other two are Jackie Cooper, Farina Hoskins and the rest of the earlier group—an almost entirely different cast. I couldn’t warm up to Cooper’s crew. (Good grief. There were 221 of these things between 1922 and 1944!)

Our Gang Follies (of 1938, not of 1937) is cute and well-produced, consisting mostly of song-and-dance routines in a follies run by Spanky. The hook is that Alfalfa, the star crooner, has decided he wants to sing opera (which consists of singing “I am the barber of Seville” three times, followed by “Figaro” twice)—and after getting booed off the stage, he goes to an opera house where the manager, to get rid of him, signs him to a contract 20 years in the future. Comes a dream and flashforward, where all the kids are still kids, Alfalfa’s bombed as an opera singer (getting vegetables thrown at him) and is put out on the street to sing opera and collect coins. Spanky owns a nightclub and invites him in—but Alfalfa can’t sing there, because the opera impresario won’t allow it. Never mind; it all works out. A clever little two-reeler.

The other two? Well, School’s Out has the credits spoken by a pair of little girls; otherwise, it’s Klassroom Komedy that mostly revolves around kids who don’t want their teacher to get married and think her brother is actually her suitor. Bear Shooters involves a camping trip, sibling rivalries, limburger cheese and, for reasons that aren’t apparent, two men hiding in the woods who want to scare off the kids and do so by one of them donning a gorilla suit. Maybe I would have found it hilarious when I was five years old. I doubt it. Mostly for Our Gang Follies, I’ll say this group might conceivably be worth $0.50.

All-Star Extravaganza. Umbrella title for three entirely different shorts:

The Stolen Jools (aka The Slippery Pearls), 1931, b&w, William C. McGann (dir.), Wallace Beery, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Gary Cooper, Loretta Young and literally dozens of stars (more than 50 in all). 0.20. An odd little all-star short to raise money for a tuberculosis sanatorium, this was funded by Chesterfield (yes, they get a credit, and are the only cigarettes mentioned), presumably done for almost nothing by the dozens of stars and distributed for free by Paramount. It’s lots of little cameos dressed up as a jewel-theft mystery. Schtick on a stick, but some of it’s decent schtick. On the other hand, with almost two minutes of credits for a 20-minute two-reeler, it presages today’s bloated credits. I’ll give it $0.25.

Ghost Parade, 1931, b&w, Mack Sennett (dir.), Harry Gribbon, Andy Clyde, Marion Sayers, 0:20 [0:17]. This odd item has some people in an old house that appears haunted, lots of slapstick, plot elements that seem to pop up and disappear randomly, mice crawling over a xylophone and somehow creating good music, and Halloween costumes. It might have been hilarious at the time, it may be typical of Mack Sennett shorts, and I wonder whether its status as an early talkie (with a credit for sound synchronization) is important. It’s also missing a few minutes. To be charitable, I’ll give it $0.10.

La Cucaracha, 1934, color, Lloyd Corrigan (dir.), Steffi Duna, Don Alvorado, Paul Porcasi, Eduardo Durant’s Rhumba Band, 0:20. Writing these notes before looking at IMDB, deliberately, this pleasant surprise seems likely to be a very early 3-strip Technicolor short, done partly to show off Technicolor. (Two-strip Technicolor couldn’t handle the full spectrum.) It has big swatches of deep blue, reds, golds, greens, as well as other colors. The plot’s cute, set in a cantina: Impresario and food snob arrives, speaking of taking a dancer to the big city under contract if he’s good. Dancer’s woman friend overhears this, accuses male of planning to desert her; he calls her La Cucaracha—the cockroach—and shakes her off. She sabotages the impresario’s salad dressing (or, rather, goads him into sabotaging it himself—much better). Her friends convince her to sing a song (guess which one?). Then, the guy’s big dance number comes up, she and her friends try to sabotage it by starting La Cucaracha again, the guy’s dance partner walks off, turns out the two songs blend—and, of course, she winds up dancing the number, the impresario hires both of them, and all’s well with the world. (After checking IMDB: Right on the money. This is the first live-action 3-strip Technicolor film and the color is nicely preserved. It won an Oscar as Best Short Subject, Comedy.) The sound’s not great, but it’s a charming little number and good demonstration of Technicolor, for which I’ll give it $0.40.

So that totals $0.75 for the three shorts put together: Not terrible, not great.

Fatty Arbuckle Festival (all with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, all silent and presented with unrelated music, all b&w). Includes Fatty Joins the Force, 1913, George Nichols (dir.), Dot Farley, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain, 0:12 [0:14]; Fatty’s Spooning Day (also known as Mabel, Fatty and the Law), 1915, Roscoe Arbuckle (dir.), Mabel Normand, Harry Gribbon, Minta Durfee, 0:11; Fatty’s Suitless Day (also known as Fatty’s Magic Pants), 1914, Roscoe Arbuckle (dir.), Charley Chase, Minta Durfee, 0:12; The Speed Kings, 1913, Wilfred Lucas (dir.), Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, several actual race-car drivers, 0:08.

If you find big men falling down a lot, sometimes not having pants and getting hit over the head by cops frequently just hysterical, you’ll love these—or at least the first three. If not… I will say that the slapstick is surrounded by plots, although the second one’s plot seems to be a love song to wifeswapping. The last one’s really not an Arbuckle short: He’s in it for perhaps 90 seconds and is definitely a minor character. I just didn’t find any of them all that funny, but I’ll give the group $0.50.

Keystone Cops Festival. Misleading umbrella title for four shorts, the longest of which doesn’t include cops of any sort. All silent (presented with unrelated music), all b&w.

The Bangville Police, 1913, Henry Lehrman (dir.), Mabel Normand, Nick Cogley, Dot Farley, Fred Mace, and a cop who looks like Fatty Arbuckle. 0:08. Odd little farm piece with a police chief who summons his troops by shooting into the ceiling several times and what seems to be the standard for gunplay: Guns have unlimited number of bullets, are almost always aimed at rear ends and never seem to inflict any damage. I’d have to stretch to come up with $0.05 for this seven-minute piece.

Love, Speed and Thrills, 1915, Mack Sennett (dir.), Mack Swain, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin, Josef Swickard and the Keystone Kops, 0:13. Hunting gone bad and flirtations, plus some use of comedy cops and slapstick driving. Better than the first, but still no more than a dime’s worth of humor. $0.10.

Her Painted Hero, F. Richard Jones (dir.), Hale Hamilton, Polly Moran, 0:21. I dunno. Maybe the Keystone Cops were watching as this two-reeler was filmed, but there are no police in the piece at all. It seems to be about big inheritances, untalented actors, spurned suitors (all gold-diggers) and a woman buying her way onto the stage where slapstick chaos ensues. The chaos is worth $0.10.

Wife and Auto Trouble, 1916, Dell Henderson and Mack Sennett (dir.), William Collier Sr., Blanche Payson, Alice Davenport, Mae Busch, 0:14 . Yes, there are cops—for about 90 seconds near the end of this short about a man with a big domineering wife, mean mother-in-law and a secretary he’d like to fool around with. They’re the Tri-Stone Cops, not the Keystone Kops or Cops, but never mind. Lots of falling down, a fair amount of shooting and some physical comedy. For this they needed two directors? Very generously, $0.15.

Adding it up, I get a paltry $0.40. Maybe if there were actually four shorts starring the Keystone Cops? Clearly I’m not in awe of early silent-movie slapstick; you may feel differently.

Whew. After Disc 11 of Hollywood Legends (but, thanks to a disc production error I’ve discussed elsewhere, I’ve already seen the two movies on side one), it’s back to another side of nothing but shorts—but this time, they’re Buster Keaton shorts.

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