Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Grey Market Cinema: 4 Clowns (1970)

A good while back I remember reading on a Internet bulletin board—I think it was probably the one at In the Balcony, but I’m too lazy to look it up—a post by an individual who questioned the relevance of the comedy compilation films edited by Robert Youngson from 1957-1970. These movies, with titles like The Golden Age of Comedy (1957) and Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961), were among the first to recognize the lamentable passing of the silent comedy era, and were also instrumental in re-introducing audiences to the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc. before they were in danger of becoming just mists in the memory.

The individual who authored the post was trying to make the point that in this day and age, with the surviving works of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc. accessible to anyone with a DVD player, the Youngson films come off as merely quaint curios. I seem to recall—and I’m not 100% on this, so I certainly could be wrong—that this query was posited at a time when Telavista was releasing Youngson titles like 30 Years of Fun (1963) and The First Kings of Comedy Collection (which combines Golden Age and When Comedy Was King [1960] in the same package). The company also released both of Youngson’s Laurel & Hardy tributes, Laurel and Hardy's Laughing 20's (1965) and The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy (1967)—though Laughing 20’s was soon pulled from distribution not long after its release for reasons that I suspect had to do with copyright. (Fortunately I purchased a copy before these events took place, and it now sits in the secure if dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear vaults.)

The Robert Youngson compilations were my introduction to these marvelous silent clowns as a kid, particularly the Laurel & Hardy movies because our local television stations never showed any of Stan and Ollie’s wonderful shorts…preferring to concentrate on the antics of Moe, Larry and Curly. Further Perils was my initial encounter with the world’s most beloved comedy team, and a showing of The Music Box (1932) at our high school to raise money for…oh, something or another—I didn’t know there’d be a test…cemented the deal. I didn’t see any additional L&H shorts until the old CBN network started running them in the 1980s where as The Laurel & Hardy Show they were practically cut to ribbons…and believe you me, they don’t look good in ribbons.

I guess the point I’m laboring to make here is that I consider the Youngson movies essential viewing for anyone with a passing interest in silent comedy. Granted, they’re not perfect—they’re heavily edited and feature corny sound effects that the films most certainly could do without—but I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that most of my fellow film buffs also watched them with the same rapt fascination as I. To illustrate, yesterday I watched a newly-purchased copy of 4 Clowns (1970), the last of the Youngson compilations, in honor of comedian Charley Chase’s 116th birthday. It’s available from Vintage Film Buff.com, as is the aforementioned Days of Thrills and Laughter—which I also obtained from VFB…though I got this gratis for being a good customer in the past (thanks again, Grace!). I bought the Clowns DVD to complete my Youngson collection—though I’m still missing The Big Parade of Comedy (1964), which turns up on TCM from time to time.

Youngson once remarked that “Charley Chase’s life was one long embarrassing moment.” I can’t think of any other way to succinctly describe Chase’s style of comedy—a style that teemed with originality (embarrassment is nothing new, of course, but Charley had a way of making it fresh and unique) and on occasion demonstrated a dark or black sense of humor that is remarkably contemporary even today. It makes a Chase fan burst with pride to know that Youngson thought enough of Charley’s work to include him along the likes of Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy in his final feature film project, and the material selected does not disappoint. The standout footage is from Chase’s 1928 classic Limousine Love, presented here in a regrettably truncated (but still entertaining) form; Charley is a groom-to-be who arrives at the site of his wedding with a naked woman (Viola Richard) in the back seat of his limo. It is my dearest wish that one day I will get to see this two-reeler in its entirety; I do know (thanks to Cliff Weimer) that it is available on the German DVD Dick und Doof als Einbrecher u.a., available at Amazon.de.

Other excerpts from classic Charley Chase comedies in 4 Clowns: Us (1927), What Price Goofy? (1926; the timing of Charley and Marjorie Whiteis “sharing” the bathroom is reminiscent of a similar gag in Mighty Like a Moose [1926]), Fluttering Hearts (1927), Movie Night (1929; Charley’s last silent short) and The Family Group (1928), which had me doubled over with laughter watching Chase get caught in a gust of wind carrying a fistful of helium-filled balloons. The only one of these shorts available in its full form and on Region 1 DVD that I know of for certain is Hearts, which appears in Volume Five of Image Entertainment’s outstanding The Lost Films of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy series. Goofy? is available on a Region 2 DVD from Lobster Films entitled Charley Chase – Retour de Flamme and Movie Night is included the second German box set of Laurel & Hardy films (sorry I don’t have a link to this).

4 Clowns opens with a look at Oliver Hardy and excerpts from two comedies he made with Chaplin imitator Billy West, His Day Out (1918) and The Hobo (1917), and one of the Hal Roach Rex the Wonder Horse films, No Man's Law (1927) (I’d love to be able to see this one; Ollie plays a skeevy villain appropriately named Sharkey Nye who menaces helpless Barbara Kent until Rex comes to the rescue). Mr. Hardy’s good friend Mr. Laurel is then introduced in a clip from Kill or Cure (1923) and then the team is unleashed with scenes from The Second 100 Years (1927), the classic Big Business (1929), Double Whoopee (1929), Putting Pants on Philip (1927), Two Tars (1928) and one of my personal favorite L&H silents, Their Purple Moment (1928). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is a sad state of affairs in this country when its most beloved movie comedy team is treated like royalty on DVD only outside the USA; at one time, the wonderful Laurel & Hardy silent comedies were available on a series of nine volumes by Image Entertainment but sad to say, these discs have now been discontinued. (I remember forking over some king-sized TDOY dollars to obtain all these volumes, anticipating that they might go out-of-print and I do not regret this decision at all.) The solo work of Laurel and Hardy, however, is well-represented thanks to Kino Video in two volumes of Laurel and one of Hardy, and I heartily recommend all three.

Finally, we are treated to a generous dollop of the “fourth clown,” Buster Keaton—in a truncated version of my favorite of his silent features, Seven Chances (1925). Fortunately for silent comedy fans, Keaton is still well represented on DVD thanks to Kino Video still keeping The Art of Buster Keaton in stock. When these films were originally released to VHS in the 1990s, there was no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks that I could afford them—so I waited for AMC’s Film Preservation Festival in 1999 when they devoted an entire day to showing these films…and I watched and recorded every single one of them. (I even took a vacation day from work to accomplish this. Some thought I was crazy at the time…and maybe I was.)

I think it’s a crime that there are so many Charley Chase shorts I’ve not yet seen—Hallmark owns the rights to all of the Roach shorts, and with the exception of a pair of half-assed Laurel & Hardy releases (through Lions Gate) seem perfectly content to keep them socked away in a vault away from a classic movie viewing public that would chew off their arms for a gander at these precious gems. Every now and then, a stray short will show up as “filler” between movies on the Turner Classic Movies channel and usually when I get wind of these I try to get that news to like-minded fans up on the blog as soon as I’m able. So in absence of a generous presence from three-quarters of these “four clowns,” the movie of the same name has to suffice…and for this comedy fan, it succeeds in spades.

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6 comments:

Edward Copeland said...

Four Clowns was an introduction to me as a kid as well. I'd never even heard the name Charley Chase before I saw that film.

Samuel Wilson said...

I did the same thing with AMC and Keaton on that great day you mention, but I recall it being in 1995 and the occasion being Keaton's centennial.

The Youngson films are worthy of appreciation and preservation in their own right as historic documents of movie historiography, so to speak, and as cinematic essays expressing Youngson's particularly morbid nostalgia. What most impressed me about them when I was a kid, apart from the comedy itself, was how often Youngson's narrators would emphasize that the people on screen were now dead, often after unfortunate later lives. It may have been his way of infusing his clips with the pathos identified with silent comedy, but it gives his films an enduring, distinctive tone that keeps them interesting today.

Pathecomedy said...

Wonderful entry Ivan! By the way...NO MAN'S LAW is available from Reelclassicdvd.com

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

"Uncle" Samuel: you may very well be more correct on that date than I am...like nostalgia, my memory isn't what it used to be.

Pathecomedy: Thanks gigantically for passing along the availability of No Man's Land (1927). I'll dig through the couch cushions here at Rancho Yesteryear and see if I can come up with the tariff so that I can check this out.

Bill Crider said...

I agree, Ivan. Essential, indeed. These films were also my intro to many silent clowns I'd never have known about otherwise.

Daniel McCormick said...

With Vintage Film Buffs no longer doing business, this DVD is unavailable on the grey market. That's a shame, since I love Robert Youngson's silent compilations so much. I ended up paying $400 for a 16mm print of "4 Clowns" back in 2001 because there was no other way to obtain it.