This is a great time to be a fan of vintage comedy, from the silent era onward. A brace of new Blu-ray restorations and books will make life a little brighter for both the novice and the aficionado. Add to that a celebratory screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last on its hundredth anniversary at the Academy Museum this coming Sunday and see how much there is to cheer about.
This collection, which was previewed on a big screen at the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is the result of many years’ effort but definitely worth the wait. The original negatives of Laurel and Hardy’s silent short subjects are long gone, but Serge Bromberg, Eric Lange and Ulrich Ruedel surveyed worldwide archives and private collections to find—and in some cases piece together, inch by inch—the best available materials. Thus, we (and a new generation) can enjoy such hilarious films as Putting Pants on Philip, The Second Hundred Years and the glorious The Battle of the Century, with its legendary pie fight. L&H scholars Richard W. Bann and Randy Skretvedt participate in commentary tracks and essays for the handsome booklet that accompanies the two discs. The results are breathtakingly good. They even found a good, complete print of Lucky Dog (1921), the Stan Laurel two-reeler in which Oliver Hardy appears briefly—a coincidence matched only by the presence of Lou Costello at ringside in L&H’s long-unseen The Battle of the Century (1927). These discs are precious indeed, and how appropriate that they come to us courtesy of Blackhawk Films, which made L&H comedies available to so many people in the heyday of 8mm and 16mm collecting.
Eight hours of rare Three Stooges footage? That sounds like a come-on for a K-Tel type of “greatest hits” collection…but in this case it’s true. Comedy specialist Paul Gierucki and producer/entrepreneur Kit Parker have joined forces to assemble a dizzying array of Stooge material, much of which was new to me—even a re-edited version of a TV special I appeared in nearly forty years ago called STOOGES: THE MEN BEHIND THE MAYHEM. Among the goodies are original trailers for feature films in which the trio appeared, color home-movie footage of Moe, Larry and Joe Besser (!), raw footage of Moe and Shemp frolicking with Broadway chorus girls in a swimming pool, a hitherto unknown Van Beuren two-reeler called EVERYBODY LIKES MUSIC featuring Shemp, a handful of TV commercials, a Jack Linkletter interview with the “new” Stooges from 1960, a talk show hosted by Dave Barry in which Moe gets to play raconteur, and much, much more. I’m happy to have all of this plus interview footage with relatives and descendants and a seemingly never-ending supply of odds and ends gathered in one 3-disc collection. It is truly a cornucopia that no Stooge fan should be without.
It has been decades since Walter Kerr wrote his valuable book The Silent Clowns and suggested that Raymond Griffith was worthy of a spot on the pantheon of great silent comedians. He remains on the sidelines, in part because it’s not easy to access his best work—until now. Ben Model has released a DVD/Blu-ray collection that should win him some new admirers. It includes one of Griffith’s best silent features, Paths to Paradise (1925), albeit missing its final reel, another feature (1926’s You’d Be Surprised) that’s not as good but still shows the star to good advantage, and a video essay by Steve Massa that sums up Griffith’s career quite well. The pictorial quality of the features is superb, thanks to the Library of Congress scans of 35mm originals, and they benefit from Model’s supportive theatre organ scores. [Not so incidentally, Ben is releasing new discs faster than I can cover them. Please check out his Tom Mix double-feature and a pair of rare Frank Borzage silents at www.undercrankproductions.com
No one has done more to locate, identify and chronicle early silent comedy shorts than Steve Massa and Rob Stone, alone and together. Theirs is a niche field but an important one, because the films they champion have been neglected for so many years. The only drawback is not being able to access the often-tantalizing short subjects they describe. Many of them are considered lost, although a handful are available online, thank goodness. Their spirit is invoked in the latest books from this industrious duo, which are filled with stills, frame enlargements, and tantalizing posters.
If you are hungry for detail and analysis of Abbott and Costello, this book was written with you in mind. Co-author Nick Santa Maria is a lifelong performer and posits that Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were underrated as actors; that’s what made their routines both funny and memorable. He builds a strong case for that premise along with his British colleague Matthew Coniam. Not only do they chart Bud and Lou’s career on screen; they break down every burlesque routine they drew upon in their feature films and subsequent TV series. At 482 pages there is little if anything left out on the subject of A&C, leaving the reader (especially a newcomer to the flock) with plenty of food for thought.