With the success of Alpha Video releases like Charley Chase: From Keystone to Hal Roach 1915-1926 and Blondes and Redheads: Lost Comedy Classics, John K. Carpenter—a.k.a. “The Movie Man”—has dipped into his voluminous collection of 16mm movies and whipped up another DVD all-you-can-eat guaranteed to put a smile on the face of silent comedy fans. Inspired by the name of his Facebook group that welcomes vintage film fans of all stripes, The Movie Man’s Matinee spotlights the work of several hard-working clowns from the 1920s who may not have scaled the heights of fame as “the Big Three” (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd) but still gave 100% when it came to generating mirth. “I originally bought the 16mms to learn and expound my own knowledge,” John related to me in an e-mail, and if Matinee sells well—and we certainly wish him much luck on that score—there’s a Volume Two waiting in the wings, with more comedy goodies from his vault.
Classic movie mavens are no doubt familiar with the Our Gang comedies, which first emerged from the Hal Roach Studio (“The Lot of Fun”) in 1922. The “Little Rascals” shorts were a tremendous hit with movie audiences, and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (not to mention a sure way to make a buck) other studios went to work trying to imitate the “kiddie comedy” formula, notably the “Mickey McGuire” comedies that borrowed the antagonist (portrayed onscreen by a young Mickey Rooney) from Fontaine Fox’s Toonerville Trolley comic strip. J.R. Bray, the head of one of America’s first animation studios, instituted a similar kid comedy series in 1926 under the supervision of comedy veteran Joe Rock…an Our Gang knock-off known as The McDougall Alley Kids. (I say “knock-off” only because the black kid in the McDougall gang was named “Oatmeal.” Not too subtle.)
I’ll say this for Kids, Cats and Cops (1928)—the comedy that kicks off the six selections on Movie Man’s Matinee—the McDougall group threw an Asian kid into their mix, which is more than you can say for Our Gang. Apart from this novelty, however, Kids, Cats and Cops (the gang help the local constabulary rescue one of their members, who’s been kidnapped) won’t make you forget Our Gang any time soon. In fairness, I should point out that Kids was the penultimate release in the Alley series; by that time studio head Bray was battling a lawsuit with Film Booking Office of America (the distributor of his output) and preoccupied with some ill-advised investments. Though Kids has a sort of half-hearted feel to it, I’d be curious to check out more McDougall shorts since I always feel bad coming to any sort of critical conclusion based on a single sampling.
Up next is Sailor Beware (1927), an Al Christie-Paramount two-reeler starring gangly comic Billy Dooley, a vaudeville performer that Christie brought to Hollywood in 1925. Dooley, who bore a strong resemblance to comedian Larry Semon, appeared in various shorts that featured him as a gormless individual enlisted in the Navy/armed services (for some unexplained reason, Dooley wears his naval duds backwards in Beware). Beware casts him as Billy Epsom (he’s a salt, you see), who’s anxious to see his gal (Vera Steadman) while on leave because he’s got a gift for her: a genuine guinea pig from New Guinea. This newspaper headline will reveal just where Epsom’s headed for trouble:
The reaction to Billy’s pet (“THE GUINEA PIG!”) produces a few memorable moments of mirth, including a funny sequence where everyone on the streetcar riding with clueless Billy the Gob starts departing en masse while the vehicle is still in motion. I can see why Dooley’s staying power was limited (he really wasn’t able to stand out in the crowded field of comedy two-reelers) and why he finished out his career with bit parts and minor roles; while I’m trying to stay honest—a lot of these Christie comedies seem to depend more on jokey title cards than any actual cleverness with gags or physical comedy. That’s certainly the case with the next short (also from Christie-Paramount), Goofy Ghosts (1928); described on the DVD box as a spoof of The Cat and the Canary (1927), Ghosts is one of those “who-turned-out-the-lights” affairs with Jimmie Adams and Lorraine Eddy as a couple just trying to maintain in an old mansion menaced by a masked assailant known as “The Skull.” There’s a bright bit involving Adams and Curtis McHenry (as “Snowball,” the stereotypically frightened butler) where the two of them are running away from “The Skull” and as Adams stops suddenly, McHenry goes shooting through his extended legs sliding across the floor. Both Sailor and Ghosts certainly don’t lack for energy, and while they’re enjoyable they’re hardly remarkable.
Similar to Ghosts is Scared Silly (1927), an Educational Pictures comedy starring Johnny Arthur—noted on the back of Matinee’s box as the actor who played Darla Hood’s father in the Our Gang comedy Feed ‘Em and Weep (1938) (a role he played in a previous Gang comedy, Night ‘n’ Gales …not to mention a turn as Spanky’s old man in 1935’s Anniversary Trouble). Arthur made his share of two-reelers in both the silent and sound era, though his greater strength was most assuredly as a character actor; here in the House of Yesteryear he’s fondly remembered as the villain in the 1943 serial The Masked Marvel and a pawn shop owner responsible for scattering the chairs hither and yon in It’s in the Bag! (1945). I’ve only seen two of Arthur’s other Educational shorts (Home Cured and My Stars, both 1926) and I think Silly may the best I’ve viewed so far; the gags are fun (I like the serving tray that takes a trip down the stairs’ bannister) despite the familiar plot (Johnny and Company are frightened by a fake swami and his confederates) plus the added attraction of plus-sized Babe London (so memorable in the 1931 Laurel & Hardy short Our Wife–“Goodbye, Dimple Dumpling!”), as Johnny’s “childhood sweetheart.” (Comedy veteran Charles Lamont sat in the director’s chair for this one.)
The final two shorts on Movie Man’s Matinee were products of the Hal Roach studio and the first, Stand Pat (1922), stars James Parrott—billed in his shorts as ‘Paul’ Parrott—as a young swain competing with a rival for the hand of young Ethel Broadhurst. This one-reel comedy comes and goes so quickly that it’s a little difficult following the plot (Matinee’s box notes it involves “the gambling craze that’s taken over the country by storm”)…but it doesn’t really matter much. Parrott’s strengths would eventually be revealed behind the camera, as the director of several of Laurel & Hardy’s shorts as well as those of his older brother, Charley Chase. I’ve seen a few ‘Paul’ Parrott comedies and while I’m tempted to blame their length (mostly one-reelers) the fact is that Parrott’s character was so cookie-cutter bland the short length is a blessing, not a curse. Stand Pat does feature brief participation from Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, who later became one of the early members of Our Gang.
Parrott’s brother Charley Chase was still a year or two away from his own starring series at Roach…but in the interim, he demonstrated his inventiveness behind the camera (as “Charles Parrott”) helming shorts for the likes of Will Rogers and ‘Snub’ Pollard. Pollard, a second banana (he appeared in many of Harold Lloyd’s early comedies) who was promoted to his own series, depended on wild, wacky gags as opposed to a dynamic onscreen persona…and Sold at Auction! (1923) is a great example of this. It’s a most entertaining short featuring ‘Snub” as a misfit who’s hired to work for an auctioneer…and he inadvertently winds up selling the furniture of police chief James Finlayson (“D’ohhh…”). There’s a great deal of hilarity in Pollard’s attempts to rectify his mistake (he careens through city streets on top of a grand piano), and truly inspired bits like in one scene where ‘Snub’ is hit with a blackjack…and as he slips into unconsciousness the screen “melts” into blankness. (An earlier bit with ‘Snub” being hit with brass knuckles shows an onscreen candle quickly burning down to nothing but wick.)
As a bonus, a one-reel version of the Stan Laurel comedy A Mandarin Mixup is included; Stan made this one for Joe Rock in 1924 (he’s “Sum Sap,” an Asian laundryman…or is he?) but Mixup and several other Laurel efforts were re-released in 1934 in edited form by Pinnacle Productions, which added synchronized sound, music, and Pete Smith-style narration (courtesy of Randolph Crossley). I’d recommend seeking out the original (it’s been released on Kino’s The Stan Laurel Collection Volume 2) but viewing the cutdown version was an entertaining novelty (and demonstrates that—despite the political incorrectness—it’s impossible for Stan Laurel not to be funny).
“I feel others should have this experience to learn and experience rare unavailable comedies that were available when I first bought them in the 1970s,” John mused in his e-mail, which could very well be a personal mission statement defining both his love for silent comedy and his dedication to bringing it to light for new generations of moviegoers. I enjoyed The Movie Man’s Matinee very much—and am looking forward to seeing what’s next on the menu—because it provided me an opportunity to familiarize myself with the work of clowns that I certainly won’t be running into on a TV channel anytime soon.