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Retro Cinema – When Comedy Was King

Retro Cinema – When Comedy Was King
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During the late 1950s and 1960s, Robert Youngson’s compilation features of silent comedy shorts helped to introduce many movie lovers to that long-gone style of mirth making. This 1960 production, which is now being offered on DVD by The Sprocket Vault in a visually pristine restoration, provides a line-up of silent comedy royalty at their raucous best.

The formative Keystone years are represented with early works from Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon plus the wildly inventive Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916) with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand in a house that gets washed out to sea. Another Keystone gem, the 1917 Teddy at the Throttle, finds an 18-year-old Gloria Swanson chained to the railroad tracks by a villainous Wallace Beery but rescued by the heroic canine Teddy.

Buster Keaton’s classic Cops (1922) has the Great Stoneface eluding an army of angry constables after he accidentally tosses an anarchist’s bomb into a parade of police officers. Laurel and Hardy show up as Christmas tree salesmen who get into a violent tit-for-tat brawl with Yuletide-hating James Finlayson in Big Business (1929). The happy buffoonery of second-tier silent clowns including Ben Turpin, Billy Bevan, Snub Pollard and Andy Clyde are also included, along with the so-so 1929 A Pair of Tights that tried (and failed) to make a team out of Edgar Kennedy and Stuart Erwin.

The one real drawback to this delightful connection is, oddly, the soundtrack: a seemingly nonstop narration by radio broadcaster Dwight Weist and bombastic music and sound effects that offer unnecessary enhancement to the on-screen antics. The narration also attempts to apologize to the audience for including Chaplin in this production, citing the late-life political controversies that fueled a decline in his U.S. popularity.

As a special feature, this DVD comes with three obscure comedy shorts, including the bizarre home construction romp Heavy Love starring a trio of obese funnymen dubbed A Ton of Fun. Who knew that body shaming could be so much fun?

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Phil Hall Phil Hall has enjoyed a three-decade career in the film industry as a journalist, critic, publicist, distributor, festival programmer and actor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Wired, American Movie Classics Magazine and Film Threat. He is the author of seven books, including "The History of Independent Cinema," "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time" and "In Search of Lost Films."

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