Well now, sometimes I’m tardy getting to time-sensitive material but seldom this tardy! And yet, perhaps a review of 100 year old movies isn’t so time-sensitive after all. Volume 2 of the Marcel Perez Collection came out back in February, just when the Mad Marchioness and I were packing up to move to Great Neck. Only now, five months later, have I finally gotten around to unpacking the DVD.
And much joy did it bring me. We previously blogged about the unjustly forgotten silent screen comedian Marcel Perez here, and I believe I also reviewed Volume I of the DVD, although I guess I must have taken the review down while doing my big Travalanche housecleaning a few months ago (lots of dated plugs for shows and products came down). But I loved it of course. Adding to my enjoyment this time was the fact that it’s been many months since I engaged with silent comedy at all. I had a really intense period in the years leading up to 2013 as I prepared my book Chain of Fools. It was kind of like “taking the cure” or working in an ice cream parlor. I got maxed out on a really good thing, and for five years now I very rarely peek at silent comedy, thus when I do its specialness is unimpaired by overexposure. I am 100% present.
And man did I enjoy these films. It’s so strange that a guy this talented and funny fell by the wayside, but nothing surprises me any more. Perez is an animated fellow, and a gifted mime, and because of this he comes across as much more Chaplinesque than most of his better known contemporaries. Only a couple of times did I find myself thinking he was borrowing a little TOO much from Chaplin. In some ways he also reminds me Larry Semon; he’s unafraid to reach for an extravagant gag. He’s also inordinately fond of that crude old Junior High special effect, “scratching the film with a pin”, i.e. to simulate lightning, or a noise of some sort.
Perez’s career spanned 20 crucial years in cinema history, almost the entirety of the true silent comedy era. One of the films in this collection, the French-made The Near-Sighted Cyclist (1907) ought to be made widely available as an important silent comedy benchmark. It’s straight-up slapstick in a way that would only be possible at this early historical juncture. Perez merely rides his bike around and smashes into things in a variety of ways, which might sound boring until you remember that this is only a few years after the 19th century ended, and we’re looking at horse-cars and shopfronts and cafes in Paris over a century ago. Even if it weren’t funny (but it is) this movie would be absolutely mesmerizing for that reason. Apparently it was extremely popular in its day, and one has to wonder if it influenced Mack Sennett’s seminal The Curtain Pole, made two years later.
The rest of the films in this volume were made in America between 1916 and 1923. Comparing them to The Near-Sighted Cyclist is a similar exercise to comparing Max Linder’s early comedies to his later American features, although in the case of Perez the later product is stronger than Linder’s, I think.
In several of the films Perez’s leading lady was his wife, Nilda Barrachi a.k.a. Babette Perez. The two were billed as Tweedledee and Tweedledum at the time. She was so fetching and charming I just had to look her up. She was his leading lady onscreen and off through 1919. After that, the role was filled by Dorothy Earle, also represented on the disk. Louise Carver is the comedy foil in a couple of the films, as a homely landlady in one (Lend Me Your Wife 1916), as a meddling mother-in-law in the other (A Scrambled Honeymoon, 1916). The former has that hoary old farcical plot about a bloke who won’t inherit from his uncle unless he’s married, so he has to pretend to be married; but this one comes with a good (and organic) twist.
Another fun game was to try to deduce the location. In some of the 1916 films I saw what looked like palm trees which made me think Hollywood — until I also saw Spanish moss. And then in one shot, I saw a factory with a huge sign reading “E.O. Painter, Fertilizer”. It all comes together to tell us these were shot in Jacksonville, Florida, which is where the Eagle Film company was located.
Another of the films, Oh What a Day! (1918) comes with a special bonus — much of it was shot at Coney Island! I am especially grateful for the scenes shot there, which offer vistas at Steeplechase and a bathhouse I’ve seen in no other film.The film also includes lots of scenes of car trouble on the way there…which means we get to have the experience of Brooklyn’s dirt roads and the buildings en route to Coney Island — invaluable. Also, when they arrive at Coney and park their car, there are TREES there. And you can tell it’s really Coney, because you can see a roller coaster (it may well be the Cyclone) in the distance beyond the trees! So we’ll watch this one in future not just for pleasure but for reference.
The DVD is nicely capped off with a fragment of Perez’s last self-directed comedy Friday the 13th (1923). There are other films on the disk; these are just a few highlights. What I lack in dispatch I hope may compensate for in enthusiasm! Order The Marcel Perez Collection Volume 2 here.
Also: good news for NYC/ Long Island folks: silent comedy saints Ben Model and Steve Massa, the guys behind Undercrank Productions, will be presenting several Marcel Perez shorts at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington Long Island this August 15!