American Slapstick Volume 2 is three discs of fun and film history, broken into easily digested small bites. But serious film buffs looking for lost masterpieces may be in for a disappointment.
Cinephiles can usually name a handful of the giants of silent film comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, maybe Harold Lloyd or Fatty Arbuckle. But given that the silent era lasted 30 years, four names is not very many. This collection can fill in a some of those gaps. David Kalat produced this DVD, and he correctly points out that “No serious student of pop music would claim to know rock ‘n’ roll just because they’d heard an Elvis tune or two — and the same holds true for silent comedy.”
Among the three DVDs, you’ll find 30 films ranging from a breezy five minutes long to the feature-length (71-minute) film Charley’s Aunt starring Charlie’s brother, Syd Chaplin. The earliest film is from 1915, and the latest is a clip from 1937 (illustrating what “silent comedy” morphed into when talkies took over).
The collection seems to be assembled from whatever’s available. Nevertheless, from among those, Kalat groups them coherently. The rare Harold Lloyd shorts all go together; the one-hit wonders are presented as a group; the Chaplin knockoffs are back to back; and so on.
Anvils, Jalopies, and Rickety Ladders
The collection is (obviously) a mixed bag. Most of the shorts offer at least one really inspired gag. Don’t Shove, has Harold Lloyd in a roller-skating contest. And Harold’s brother Gaylord Lloyd has a lot of belligerent fun trying to collect debts from a pugilistic bar owner.
My generation will probably recognize some wonderful set pieces that inspired Chuck Jones and the Warner Brothers animators. In A Fresh Start, the heroes tunnel underground like moles (the film uses stop motion animation for the effect) — a gag I had mistakenly assumed Bugs Bunny invented. And in Jonah Jones, Lloyd Hamilton climbs a ladder planted in very soft mud, so that as he climbs, the ladder sinks.
Others films look like they were made by the yard, written and shot as though the quality of the gags didn’t matter; only the quantity. It’s easy to spot the silent-comedy formula when the films are this cheaply made: introduce a likeable sap who really wants something — a sandwich, the girl, some money, and then build gags around his desperation or around the oversized bully who thwarts him at every turn. If you can work in a chase scene with dozens of cops, so much the better.
The only extra feature is a booklet of liner notes. These essays are very helpful in explaining who the comedians are and sketching what their place in film history is.
I love the simple DVD menu. It offers 2 quick choices: “Go for it” and “Be picky.” I recommend “Go for it,” but if you’re looking for something specific, the “Be picky” menus will let you select a single film. The table of contents on the back of the liner notes will help you figure out which disc has which films. My only complaint on the menu is that it says “Last screen” when it means “Previous screen.”
Picture and Sound
Most of the movies are a little scratchy, but watchable. Some are incomplete, but they’re all we have, apparently. “Bliss” has bad blemishes on half of the frame.
How to Use This DVD
Leave the disc(s) in your player and watch a few shorts at a time. Be sure to read the printed Cine-Notes that come with your DVD for a little context on who you’re watching and why.