It is with the utmost delight that I report the new release of Undercrank Productions’ DVD Edward Everett Horton: 8 Silent Comedies.
Edward Everett Horton has many fans among the classic film community, but few know about the first eight or so years of his screen career, during the silent era, when he actually STARRED in movies. (I’d mentioned this phase in my earlier post on Horton. I’d actually seen a couple of his silent pics a few years back). Sadly, most of Horton’s starring silent features are lost. On the current DVD, the Undercrank guys have included 8 of his two reel shorts from 1927 and 1928, which have been preserved and restored by the Library of Congress.
As with W.C. Fields (who also starred in silent comedies for about the same length of time), one can almost “hear” the comedian’s familiar voice, and it’s tempting to supply it, “Oh…oh my!” But there are additional points of interest to attact the viewer beyond that novelty (more on that in a tic). For one, these years were the tail end of the silent era, an interesting, discreet period quite different from the rough and tumble early days. This was the same era when Laurel and Hardy came into being. It was a time of transition, and Horton was one of those transitional comedians. Another point of interest: these films were produced by Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Productions, using key members of Lloyd’s creative team. At this stage, Lloyd was starring in features. Having Horton in his stable was a way for his people to continue creating two reelers, a form distinct from features, with much to commend it on its own merits. Horton’s screen character is not unlike Lloyd’s, although certainly a good deal prissier. Many of the plots and situations are not unlike those in Lloyd two-reel comedies, themselves borrowed from the early Fairbanks formula (Easterner goes to the wild west, young man must impress his girlfriend’s father, etc).
One major difference between Horton and Lloyd is age! Horton was about 42 years old in these films, and already developing a craggy, angular profile not unlike that of Harry Dean Stanton. But most of the characters he is playing seem to be about half of his age. It’s unclear if it’s part of the joke. His characters are usually rich, idle boys. His being on the older side adds an element of satire to the proceedings (reminds me a little of Humphrey Bogart’s reputation during his Broadway years). Horton’s being on the older side reminds me a little also of Harry Langdon, and I think I spy a little of his influence.
By the way, one thing that must be said off the bat, is that these are not just those tedious stagey “straight” comedies that were also common at the time. Nor are they, as I implied above, just Horton without sound. Horton was a real professional (as were the folks at the Lloyd organization). These movies are full of physical stuff, and its clear that Horton worked at the stylized intricacies of movement for the silent medium. He’s good at it. Not just the double-takes he’s so well-known for, but the whole slapstick shmear. My favorite remains the one I first saw about a decade ago, Horse Shy, which is not just a brilliant idea for a comedy, one that could be remade to this day, but one in which Horton had great opportunity for slapstick business (in a nutshell, he’s terrified of horses, but has to ride a wild one in order to impress his girl).
That said, one of the reasons Horse Shy is my favorite is that it is unique, and as we get this late into the silent comedy era novelty and inspiration are harder to come by. While these films are technically proficient, unavoidably there’s lots of business we have seen many times before. In addition to the wild west comedy, there is the “crooks in a spookhouse comedy”. (Come to think of it, both of those tired subgenres lasted well into sound era!) There’s the sinking rowboat gag we’ve seen from Chaplin and Keaton. There’s the switched straw hats, where the bully inadvertantly destroys his own one. On and on. The saving grace, however, is Horton and the thrill of experiencing a brilliant silent screen comedian we’ve not spent time with before. The comedy universe just got bigger! If there is ever a revised version of Chain of Fools, I will definitely integrate Horton (he belongs in a category with Fields and Raymond Griffith, I think).
More info here.