Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Grey Market Cinema: Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961)

No matter which way I turned today, I seemed to find myself so distracted by issues and thus the delay of today’s edition of “Overlooked Films.”  With vital seconds on the clock ticking down, I grabbed a disc of Robert Youngson’s third silent comedy compilation, Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961), which I spied sitting on one of my DVD shelves and popped it in the honkin’ big DVD player on the HD TV in the bedroom.  I think I made the right call.

During his lengthy career, filmmaker Youngson won two Academy Awards (1951’s World of Kids and 1954’s This Mechanical Age) writing and producing a series of historical short subjects for Warner Brothers…but film buffs and silent comedy devotees remember him best as the man behind a series of films spotlighting footage from silent movies (but not just limited to comedies) accompanied by music, sound effects and tongue-in-cheek narration by Jay Jackson.  I was never a huge fan of Mr. Jackson’s “embellishments,” though Youngson did attempt to maintain a little respect for his subjects…and for a generation of moviegoers, their introduction to silent comedy came about with these movies, beginning with The Golden Age of Comedy (1957) and ending with Youngson’s final film in 1970, 4 Clowns—which I reviewed as part of “Grey Market Cinema” back in October 2009.

Days of Thrills and Laughter, I’m happy to report, received a DVD release in June of 2010 courtesy of VCI Entertainment…and considering the condition my copy is in (obtained from the now-defunct VintageFilmBuff.com) it might well be worth my while to invest in VCI’s release the moment I get two nickels to rub together.  It’s an hour-and-a-half of comedy highlights from some of the greats—Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, etc.—but it also concentrates on many of the “second-tier” comics as well.  In using that term, “second-tier,” I am in no way denigrating the work of a funster like, say, Harry “Snub” Pollard (who gets quite a bit of screen time in Laughter)—a very talented and hard-working laughmaker whose comedies contained bright, inventive gags (many developed by director Charley Chase) even though Pollard’s personality was rather non-descript.  I say “second-tier” in the sense that if I asked an average moviegoer who Chaplin was I would receive an instant glint of recognition…while dropping Pollard’s name would reward me with a quizzical look.

So there’s fun footage of Snub, along with Chaplin, Langdon, Ben Turpin, Al St. John—and two of Youngson’s favorite subjects, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, to whom he paid tribute in the films Laurel and Hardy’s Laughing 20’s (1965) and The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy (1968).  (Stan and Ollie are featured in solo comedies, before their famous teaming.)  A wonderful clip of a 1913 Mack Sennett comedy stars Mack himself—he enters a theater to see one of his comedies playing on screen (with Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling) and seated across from him is Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.  In addition, there’s footage from a Hal Roach two-reeler that looked pretty hooty—a 1925 short starring Arthur Stone and Martha Sleeper (a TDOY fave) entitled Sherlock Sleuth (featuring a wild chase involving a lion).

That’s the “Laughter” part of the feature—the “Thrills” contain moments from Harry Houdini’s film work (including the amazing waterfall climax from The Man from Beyond), as well as the serials of such cliffhanger queens as Pearl White and Ruth Roland (one of the clips features future Charlie Chan Warner Oland as the bad guy).  Douglas Fairbanks is on hand with generous footage from his 1917 Wild and Woolly, and the entire presentation of Days of Thrills and Laughter wraps up with some stupendous climaxes from classic silent serials (including scenes from 1929’s King of the Kongo, which had Boris Karloff in the cast) and the hilarious edge-of-your-seat runaway train sequence from Monty Banks’ Play Safe (1927)—with gags by Clyde Bruckman and stunt work by Harvey Parry.

When I reviewed 4 Clowns for the blog, I related a story about someone who commented on an Internets classic movie bulletin board, questioning the relevance of Youngson’s work when so many of the films of what film historian Richard M. Roberts once referred to as “the big three” were becoming more accessible on DVD.  My only argument at that time was a nostalgic one: had it not been for the Youngson films and a few other outside influences my interest in silent comedy—really, silent cinema in general—would have been null and void…something I don’t even want to think about.

But I got an e-mail from Richard shortly after I wrote the piece, and he was most helpful in pointing out that in many instances the Youngson compilations contain the last existing footage of comedy works lost to the elements of time and neglect.  For example, the only surviving elements of a one-reel Charley Chase comedy, Accidental Accidents (1924), have their origin in Days of Thrills and Laughter—the two-minute extract can also be seen on the must-have Chase DVD box set, Becoming Charley Chase.  4 Clowns was for many years the go-to-film for Chase’s classic Limousine Love (1927; Youngson’s personal print of the comedy did not surface until later) and to this day contains the only remaining footage of The Family Group (1928), a Chase silent that made me laugh till I cried when I watched it…and then cry again when I learned from Richard that it’s a lost film.

Richard closed his correspondence to me with the following:

So yes, these films are still quite relevant, apart from still being absolutely terrific entertainment.  So what if the narration is a bit maudlin, and the sound effects sometimes (and I do mean only sometimes, actually, those kind of sound effects are pretty historically accurate in terms of the type of thing a silent movie theater orchestra would use when showing a silent comedy.) a bit over the top?  Most likely more people were introduced to a new love of silent film comedy through them than anything else, and can still be today. The films are run at the speeds they were meant to be seen, and are treated as comedies, not stately museum pieces with pretentious, unfitting music. God Bless Robert Youngson, one of the true saviors and flame carriers of Silent Comedy.


Bill Crider said...

In the late 50s and early 60s, these films introduced me to some wonderful stuff.

Samuel Wilson said...

After my family got cable TV in the early Seventies, watching Days of Thrills on WPIX became a Christmas Day ritual for me. I credit that film with my film fandom -- not just an appreciation of old movies but that sometimes morbid biographical nostalgia that Youngson introduced to remind viewers that the people on screen were mostly dead. Your report that his films have actually preserved materials otherwise gone is stunning and sad but vindicates Youngson as well.