On Robert Youngson and Mixed Blessings

Robert Youngson (1917-1974) was a man of his mid-century moment. I was born a half century later than he, and probably wouldn’t be the person I am if interpreters from his generation (himself, Walter Kerr, James Agee, Joe Franklin, and others) hadn’t shone a light on cinema’s earliest comedians at a time when they had begun to fade into obscurity. Today, Youngson’s own efforts seem beyond quaint, in fact more outmoded than the original films he showcased. And so the reel turns.

A Brooklyn native, Youngson attended NYU and held an MBA from Harvard. In 1948, he began assembling short subjects for Warner Brothers, consisting of montages of old film clips, mostly footage from the silent days, featuring fads and technologies of bygone times: bi-planes, tin lizzies, old style football games (football was VERY different in the 1920s), daredevil stunts, and the like. He made scores of these little movies over the next decade, and they remained in circulation thereafter, shown on television as filler, sometimes excerpted themselves in the films of others. The appeal for older people was nostalgia, for younger people, novelty. If you were born in the 1930s or ’40s or after, you had witnessed none of those experimental times, which now seemed kind of clumsy, crude, and funny. In fact, this was also pretty true if, like Youngson, you had been born as early as the mid-teens. Those days would be at the fuzzy frontier of your memory. I can understand being fixated on a period you just barely remember; I am obsessed with the 1960s, the era when I was born.

In 1957, Youngson launched into a new phase of activity by putting together feature length compilation films of clips from classic comedies by Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, and others. There were eight of these films: The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), When Comedy Was King (1960), Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961), 30 Years of Fun (1963), MGM’s Big Parade of Comedy (1964), Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20s (1965), The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy (1967), and 4 Clowns (1970). The movies featured most of the major comedians of the silent era, with two HUGE exceptions: Charlie Chaplin (whose own self-produced films were still in circulation in their own right and still under the control of the comedian himself), and Harold Lloyd, who released two of his own compilation films very much in the spirit of Youngson in 1962 and 1963. This still gave Youngson a ton of material to work with, and for many years his films provided an introduction to silent comedy for folks who didn’t live near a museum or a repertory cinema that screened the real McCoy.

So Youngson’s work was invaluable in its way, very much in the spirit of the sidewalk tasting samples which restaurants offer to passers-by. Some commentators would leave off there with Youngson’s positive contribution, but as I say, I’m of a different generation and so it’s hard for me not to editorialize…about Youngson’s editorializing. Nowadays, when we have to access to everything, like EVERYTHING, it’s hard to swallow a presentation that stitches together scenes, and segments and clips from superlative movies willy-nilly, with gags shown out of context, adulterated, and smothered under hokey narration, corny music and sound effects. In retrospect, the attitude of Youngson (and in large part his whole generation) is perplexing to me, this patronizing distrust of the source material to entertain audiences on its own account (especially when the comedies of THAT era, the 1960s, were so terrible). I have always been mystified by the tone of Youngson’s movies, which make out like 40 year old film clips originated during the time of the caveman. I mean, for us, 40 years ago is (for example) The Blue Brothers. Yeah, it’s not two minutes ago, but is anyone moved to ridicule it for being some relic from the antiquated, pre-CGI 20th century? No! We just watch it as a funny movie. And, for me anyway, that is also the case with those silent movies. I saw Chaplin’s The Gold Rush when I was about 10 (the non-narrated version), didn’t require any hand-holding apart from some brief remarks by a teacher before the screening, and I enjoyed the movie from start to finish. And I still enjoy comedies of that vintage the same way — as funny movies, period, full-stop. Ironically, the movies that now seem corny, old-fashioned, and unwatchable are Youngson’s. But they served a purpose in their day.

For more on silent film and classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.