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Reeling in slapstick’s silent laughter

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Slapstick comedy was king at the box office from about 1912 to 1930. These comedies were so popular that at their peak nearly 600 two-reelers were produced a year.

Kino on Video's new, ambitious eight-volume series "Slapstick Encyclopedia" features 54 one- and two-reel silent comedies produced between 1909 and 1927. The first four-volume boxed set, bursting with sight gags, high-speed chases and amazing stunts, arrived in stores this month; the second installment is set for release in July.The first volume examines comedy pioneers such as pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy, Ben Turpin, John Bunny, legendary Frenchman Max Linder, Mabel Normand and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. The second tape is devoted to Mack Sennett comedies and includes classics such as Harry Langdon's "Saturday Afternoon." The third spotlights the work of long-forgotten female comedians such as Louise Fazenda, Fay Tincher, Gale Henry and Alice Howell. The fourth focuses on the comedies of Arbuckle, Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Arbuckle's nephew, Al St. John.

Producer David Shepard says that many of the films have histories as interesting as their plots and stars. "Most of them were not made by the major film studios," he says. "MGM made no silent comedies. Paramount made no silent comedies. Instead, they acquired silent comedies made by small studios that existed for that sole purpose and distributed them. With the sole exception of Hal Roach Studios, which was reasonably intact for years, all the material from before 1927 was scat-tered or destroyed. Most of these things have made it down only in the form of a chance survival of prints."

As owner of the Blackhawk Films catalog, though, Shepard has more than 400 silent comedies in his possession. But some of the "choicest materials" in the collection came from Europe.

"In the second part of the series is a tape called `Chaplin & Co.,' " says Shepard. "It's basically the influence of the English music hall on silent comedy. Billie Ritchie, who did the Tramp character onstage before Chaplin appropriated it, only made movies for two years. I really wanted a Billie Ritchie film, and the only one I could find in the whole world was from Den-mark."

Another film, the 1920 Arbuckle-Keaton comedy "The Garage," had been available in the United States only in poor, chopped-up prints. "Nobody has seen a print of `The Garage' that looks like this one," Shepard says. "That was found in France. There were two original tinted nitrate prints put together to make one good one."

Most contemporary audiences have the misconception that these silent short comedies were cheaply done bits of silliness. The fact of the matter is, Sennett two-reelers were expensive to produce and took nearly eight weeks to com-plete.

"You look at a film like `The Garage' and what goes into it or `Fatty and Mabel Adrift,' " Shephard says. "Look at the production (values). It was a huge production for a short comedy."

The short films were so important to theaters that often a two- or three-reeler would be booked as the main feature. "When theaters got hold of a comedy like `Saturday Afternoon,' " film archivist Joe Adamson says, "Harry Langdon was such a big deal, a theater would either book that with a bunch of other shorts and travelogues or they would book it with a modest feature."

Keaton, Adamson recalls, said that theaters would never book one of these comedies with a "Fairbanks feature or a Pickford feature because they were too im-por-tant."

Sennett, Adamson explains, learned how to make movies when he worked as an actor and writer for D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios. "The whole sense of filmmaking being an elastic thing that is all in the head of the director, that was something Griffith invented, but Sennett was right there," Adam-son says.

"In the long run of film history, you really have to say that Sennett started a studio and got more people started in the business than Griffith did," Adamson says. "Chap-lin learned filmmaking at Sennett. When (Chaplin) shot those pictures at Mutual, they always had scripts, but it wouldn't be the bible. Chaplin would just keep im-pro-vis-ing."

At Sennett, Adamson says, "they would make sure before a director got hold of a script, the story had been gone over and then the director would proceed to let it unravel. They would scavenge it for possibilities. They had to come up with footage that would make Sennett laugh in the projection room, so they would just keep going and going and re-shooting these things until they thought they had something funny."

But "they are not the biggest priority in the archives that have them," Adamson adds. "This is the part of the downgrading of comedy. They have these things but they'll put together some 1922 Rex Ingram picture first and let 100 two-reelers rot, especially the minor ones. We know that tons of these things have been lost."