dvd watch: Classic Comedies…Imported!

ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd, Hal Roach’s distaff comedy duo.

I never thought I would own copies of rare Hal Roach comedies of the 1920s and 30s in a series of meticulously-produced DVDs…and I certainly never expected the source to be a German film archive! Filmmuseum of Munich has crafted two notable collections of silent and sound comedies, one featuring Roach’s female comedy stars (Anita Garvin & Marion Byron, from the silent period, and Thelma Todd with partners ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly, from the sound era) and the other spotlighting long-neglected comedian Max Davidson.

The Davidson two-reelers are rare, in part because many of the original negatives vanished long ago (like most of the shorts Roach released through Pathé in the 1920s), and in part because his Jewish stereotype character became politically incorrect. Then, a decade ago, film archivist Paolo Cherchai Usai, presented the—

Max Davidson is threatened by “Tiny” Sandford in Flaming Fathers (1927).

—recently-unearthed 1928 comedy Pass the Gravy at the annual silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy and it was greeted with such howls of laughter that it started making the rounds—and wound up on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. This hilarious short served to introduce audiences, and a number of film buffs, to Davidson, who headlined a short-lived Hal Roach series in the late 1920s.

Davidson was a German-born Jewish immigrant who, with his diminutive stature, bushy hair and scraggly beard, made a good living playing character parts—usually Jewish stereotypes—for many years. There was a vogue for ethnic comedies in the 1920s, typified by Samuel Goldwyn’s Potash and Perlmutter series, intensified by the enormous success of the Broadway play Abie’s Irish Rose, and followed by such imitations as Universal’s The Cohens and the Kellys. Max Davidson got his turn in the limelight when Columbia Pictures made yet another Irish-Jewish cross-cultural comedy called Pleasure Before Business in 1927. A screening of this rare feature at a recent Cinefest revealed that while Max looked and seemingly acted the same as he did in his subsequent two-reel comedies, the results weren’t nearly as amusing. That’s because Columbia didn’t have the elite corps of gag-men, directors, and supporting players that made the Hal Roach studio so successful in the comedy field.

The Roach team, including the gifted comedy director Leo McCarey, realized early on that Davidson’s strength, in that pantomime era, was the way he reacted to comedic happenings around him. Watch his starring shorts and you’ll see that he rarely does anything terribly funny except respond to sight gags, and the antics of his costars, especially the young actor cast as his son, Spec O’Donnell. It turned out to be a sure-fire formula for success.

The same mirth-makers who created the Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase classics of the 1920s also toiled on the Max Davidson series. Many of these two-reelers are exceptionally funny. One I’d never seen before, Don’t Tell Everything (1927), had me laughing out loud, even though I was watching it by myself.

Hal Roach directs his studio’s first talkie short, Hurdy Gurdy (1929). That’s future director George Stevens partially hidden behind the camera.

As to the stereotype issue, Max’s character is usually a skinflint, which is the most derogatory thing one can say about him. His look, and his gestures, are stereotypically Jewish, as Hollywood would have it, but in an era of often egregious racial and ethnic portrayals, this one is mild by comparison. Hal Roach felt that people should be able to laugh at themselves, and there is nothing malicious about the Max Davidson series. Max’s character is almost always a family man possessed of great stubbornness, which usually backfires in his face. That has nothing to do with Jewishness. To my mind, whatever awkwardness there may be for contemporary audiences in seeing an overtly, old-fashioned European Jewish figure like Max is trumped by the fact that the films are so very funny.

The Max Davidson DVD set includes twelve silent two-reelers, taken from both 35mm source material and in some cases, private collectors’ 16mm prints (which is often all that survives on a particular title). There is also Hal Roach’s first talkie short, Hurdy Gurdy, which takes place on New York’s Lower East Side and revealingly features a smorgasbord of ethnic comedy players—including Irish, German, and Italian characters along with Max Davidson.

There is little sense describing the films further: they deserve to take their place alongside the best silent comedy shorts. The DVD set also includes an illustrated booklet and a DVD-ROM connection where you can read several essays, and enjoy original scripts, stills, posters, and other ephemera. To order the DVD, click HERE. To read Richard W. Bann’s lengthy, and fascinating, essay about Max Davidson, click HERE.

Anita Garvin manages to resist the charms of Edgar Kennedy in the classic silent short A Pair of Tights (1929).

As for the Female Comedy Teams set, I can scarcely be objective, as I’ve been in love with Thelma Todd for many, many years. She remains underrated as a comedienne, and while many of the shorts she made with ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly are routine—and some are dreadful—the stars’ personalities and sheer verve save the day. Fortunately, DVD producer Stefan Drössler has chosen the best entries in this Hal Roach series, including The Pajama Party, The Bargain of the Century (directed by Charley Chase, and costarring the hilarious Billy Gilbert), and Top Flat (its title a timely wordplay on the Astaire-Rogers movie Top Hat).

These two-reelers are among the Roach shorts that turn up on Turner Classic Movies, but the German DVD also includes the surviving work of an earlier Hal Roach comedy duo, deadpan Anita Garvin and perky Marion Byron. This late-1920s teaming marked his first effort to create a female counterpart to Laurel and Hardy. Putting women into the same kind of slapstick setting as Stan and Ollie never quite worked, but you can’t blame a guy for trying. Nor can you fault the two comediennes, who were more than game and took their share of slapstick punishment along the way.

Then inspiration struck. A Pair of Tights (1929) gained immortality among comedy buffs when Robert Youngson used a generous excerpt in his compilation feature When Comedy Was King. It was later released to the home-movie market in its entirety by Blackhawk Films, and now it has made its way to DVD. This hilarious, wonderfully inventive two-reeler emphasizes situations and characterization as well as slapstick, and blends all of those ingredients together with felicitous results. Edgar Kennedy and young Stuart Erwin play a couple of “tights” (i.e., tightwads) who take hungry, flat-broke roommates Anita and Marion out on a date, which winds up disastrously as they try to purchase four ice cream cones.

Director Gus Meins shares a moment with Patsy Kelly and Thelma Todd during production of their two-reel comedy One-Horse Farmers (1934). Look at the size of that microphone!

Its chronological predecessor, Feed ‘em and Weep (1928), isn’t nearly as good, although the girls give it their best shot, and a tantalizing excerpt from Going Ga-Ga (1929) shows promise. More than anything else, these films confirm what Hal Roach aficionados have always known—that Anita Garvin was a great comedy talent whose gifts were never fully appreciated.

Again, there is an illustrated booklet, and a DVD-ROM function that leads you to an essays by such experts as Cole Johnson and Dave Stevenson, plus scripts, posters, and stills. To order, click HERE.

Finally, it must be stated once again that no single studio library has suffered more abuse than the one built over forty years’ time by Hal Roach. Rights have passed from hand since the 1940s, with each new owner lopping off main and end titles, cutting or overusing original negatives, and perpetrating other misdeeds. Even the company’s precious paperwork is now being sold piecemeal on eBay.

That’s why it’s so important that the UCLA Film and Television Archive has announced a major effort to properly restore all of the Laurel and Hardy negatives, using photochemical and digital means. Film buff Jeff Joseph has kicked off the campaign with a substantial cash donation, and L&H enthusiasts are being asked to make donations on a grass-roots basis. No contribution is too small! For more information about this project—as well as rare film clips and an authoritative essay about the state of the original L&H negatives by Richard W. Bann, click HERE.

These discs are produced in the European PAL format and will only play here in the U.S. on an all-region DVD player—or in most computers.

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