Each year the Library of Congress sponsors a workshop where experts from around the country congregate and watch old films (mostly silent) and segments of film which lack I.D. information, such as titles or even who the actors are. Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions has just released a wonderful DVD, containing some of the fruits of those efforts. Found at Mostly Lost contains several silent comedies starring performers who will be familiar to readers of this blog, as well as some silent dramas, and two THRILLING vaudeville talkies, and one other interesting curio. These releases of Ben’s are like catnip to me — pieces of history and entertainment at the same time. So often the REAL illumination on the past comes from stuff that’s not a classic; and just as often the performers are delightful and interesting. I could watch films like this all the time — if it were possible. But the word “rare” is used to describe them for a reason. That just makes me more ravenous. The DVD includes:
The Nickel Snatcher (1920): Hank Mann ‘s the conductor of a horse drawn street car taking a lot of bathing beauties to the beach. Along the way, he foils a bank robbery! (Get ready for a completely offensive joke about a fat lady. It’s not silent comedy unless someone’s getting offended.)
Fidelity (1911): A touching melodrama about a faithful family dog, starring the stage actress Gertrude Norman. When her daughter is killed in a fire, a woman’s life falls apart and she begins to wander the earth — but there’s one friend who’ll never leave her: her heroic pooch. I found this one interesting. Though produced by Pathe Studios, one of the top outfits of the day, and starring an actress with Broadway credits, most of the other actors seem to be amateurs. My favorite moment was when the dying girl looked off camera for her cue to expire. So if you think silent dramas are too dull to watch, they do have their rewarding compensations.
The Paperhangers’ Revenge (1918): Bud Duncan, formerly of the team of Ham and Bud, here trying his darnedest to make comedy with an inadequate Lloyd Hamilton substitute in a one-reeler that owes more than a little to Charlie Chaplin’s Work. Two scabs defy the paperhangers union to take a job sprucing up somebody’s mansion. Will goo slosh out of buckets? Will ladders get swung? Will things happen with wallpaper and glue? You be the judge.
A Brass Button (1911): Another melodrama, this one produced by the Reliance studios. A maid steals a necklace and tries to frame some other people, but is caught out in the end because a clue is left at the scene: a BRASS BUTTON from her sleeve. I’m not sure, but it looks to me like the actress playing the maid is wearing just a bit of make-up in order to make her complexion appear darker.
Jerry’s Perfect Day (1916): Minor comedian George Ovey plays a tramp in trouble. First he sidles up to another tramp on a bench, falls asleep and dreams he is with his little wife. When he wakes up, he is petting and kissing the other tramp. Happens every day! A bunch of cops on their way to a company picnic then arrest “Jerry” and take him to their outing in handcuffs, intending to take him to jail after their frolics. Unfortunately, Jerry escapes and steals their uniforms while they’re skinny-dipping. The rest is so much comedy algebra.
One Million B.C. (1940): The briefest of treats — some test footage of lizards in dinosaur costumes for Hal Roach ‘s prehistoric classic. Some of the dinosaurs that didn’t make the cut are quite hilarious indeed.
Ventriloquist (1927): This and the other vaudeville clip below alone would be worth the price of this DVD to me. This is a film of William Frawley and his wife and vaudeville partner Edna Frawley’s vaudeville act. It is a funny crosstalk sketch, with Frawley as a fast talking street hawker of patent medicines, with loads of funny jokes and the eventual payoff of Edna becoming a ventriloquist dummy (quite disturbing) and Frawley doing the ventriloquism. It will make you laugh and may also give you nightmares — and I’m a sucker for entertainment that can accomplish both. (Interesting footnote, Gummo Marx was said to have started out in vaudeville with an act very similar to this, playing the dummy to his uncle).
Fifteen Minutes (1921): This one seemed like a fragment, missing a beginning and an end, so we lack both the set-up which explains the situation, and the big pay-off which silent comedies usually conclude with. But there are several entertaining gags nonetheless. Snub Pollard is a hapless dude in a silk top hat who is being pursued for some reason. As part of his ordeal, he is pulled down the street by a dog on a skateboard; finds himself in a driverless, speeding car that lands in a river; and is followed by a bear. It is a small bear, but a bear is a bear.
In and Out (1920/21): Italian comedian and director Monty Banks has just married his new bride, who causes no end of commotion what with her lack of cooking skills, and her brouhaha with the iceman and a book agent. The latter bit is especially original and funny. But one could be forgiven for expecting another sort of cinematic experience from a honeymoon film titled “In and Out”.
Grief (1921): Not at all the best title for this movie, as it really evokes nothing, unless it refers to something else that was going on at the time (titles of silent movies are often parodies of other movies or plays.) Jimmie Adams plays a chap who is wanted by authorities as the notorious masher “Bert the Flirt”, who will be easy to spot because he wears a certain type of hat. Jimmie has no end of trouble getting rid of his chapeau. One of the cleverest parts of this film is that he is pursued by two matching plainclothesmen who move in tandem, creating an impression not unlike Tin-Tin’s Thomson and Thompson. For some reason I missed, the film has a sort of prologue in which a number of street urchins re-enact a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.
The Joyride (1928): Another funny vaudeville crosstalk act starring George LeMaire and Joe Phillips. I found the later comedian to be of especial interest. A diminutive fellow, he compulsively emits a “woo-woo-woo” sound of just the sort we associate with Curly Howard. I am almost willing to bet that the latter comedian (who had not been a professional performer previously and had to step into his role as a stooge quickly when Shemp quit the act) instinctively fell into a routine he knew and liked when the pressure was on, essentially appropriating Phillips’ moves. Just a feeling I have. Anyway, this guy must be looked into. The team are complemented by two women (as yet identified) who sing a charming song. Then there’s business with a broken down car — I can’t help wondering if that cumbersome and expensive prop was part of their vaudeville act. Harry Langdon had worked with a car prop in vaudeville for years.
Am I endorsing this DVD? I’m endorsing and then some! Buy it here.