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Chris Hicks: Great art form of film shines in new DVD

Pantomime is one of the lost arts of show business. In particular, comic pantomime.

The word "slapstick" has taken on a negative connotation. And don't even think about suggesting a pie in the face could be a hilarious, much less artful, moment.

In most corners, the three silent geniuses — Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd — seem to be exempt from such nose-thumbing. But each new generation is further removed from them, and, with some exceptions, younger people don't know them.

In our living room, we have one of those faux-antique wooden clocks with a dangling Harold Lloyd, and it used to surprise me that people would ask whether it's Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Likewise a black-and-white portrait of Chaplin is often mistaken for Keaton or Lloyd. (At least they don't ask if it's Mr. Bean.)

On the other hand, why should they be remembered when movies today are so far removed from what made icons of that trio?

Modern moviemakers can't stand for the screen to capture a moment that's still, much less silent. So what was once, in the early phases of cinema, the great art form of motion pictures — graceful, practiced and often hysterical physical comedy — is drifting away.

In the late 1920s and early '30s, when sound arrived, Laurel & Hardy, and especially Chaplin, continued to make essentially silent movies that had a bit of sound.

And later comics, from Red Skelton to Dick Van Dyke to Peter Sellers to Jacques Tati, kept witty comic choreography alive.

Today, who — besides street mimes and Rowan Atkinson — even makes the effort? (And "Mr. Bean's Holiday," despite a few clever gags, was disappointing.)

But there is hope.

In the late 1950s, well after the silent era had faded, Robert Youngson came up with the brilliant idea of pulling together some of the funniest silent-comedy clips, tying them together with a narrative thread and releasing them as a feature-length film in theaters.

The result was "The Golden Age of Comedy" (1957), a hilarious concoction I saw as a child, and which introduced me to Will Rogers, Ben Turpin, Charley Chase and Harry Langdon, among others.

Best of all were the silent shorts of Laurel & Hardy, whose sound films I had already come to love on television. Most memorable were "Big Business" (in which they are door-to-door Christmas-tree salesmen who get into a fight with a homeowner and wind up destroying his house), "Two Tars" (as sailors on leave who lead off the destruction of a line of cars in heavy traffic) and "Battle of the Century" (with the single greatest pie fight ever put on film — yes, hilariously and artfully).

Three years later, Youngson followed that one with "When Comedy Was King," with more equally hilarious silent clips of many of the same crew, along with the Keystone Kops, Fatty Arbuckle, and this time, Chaplin and Keaton.

Now audiences can rediscover these great moments, as the two films have come to DVD for the first time on a disc titled "The First Kings of Comedy" (Genius, $16.95).

And don't think you can't convert youngsters to this form of humor.

In the 1980s, I obtained VHS copies of these films and showed them to my young children, and they loved them. In particular the aforementioned Laurel & Hardy clips, which they played over and over.

Now they can show them to their kids, keeping this classic comedy alive for another generation.

Youngson continued to make these clip-flicks through 1970, so let's hope this DVD release is successful enough to warrant follow-up discs of "Days of Thrills and Laughter," "30 Years of Fun," "MGM's Big Parade of Comedy," "Laurel & Hardy's Laughing '20s" and "Four Clowns."

ON THE SUBJECT of vintage films, another notable release this week is what is credited as the first sound motion picture, the Al Jolson musical "The Jazz Singer" (Warner, 1927, b/w, three discs, $39.92) ... not to be confused with the 1980 Neil Diamond remake.

Actually, "The Jazz Singer" is largely silent, with sound interludes. But its historical significance can't be exaggerated.

We ran a story on this page last week that deconstructed the film, including its now-embarrassing blackface motif (an unfortunate, but undeniably popular aspect of early 20th-century entertainment).

Film buffs should be aware, however, that this triple-disc collection includes bonus features galore, highlighted by an amazing array of vintage Vitaphone shorts, early sound films that chronicled Vaudeville even as movies (and radio) were killing it off. They may seem somewhat stilted and stiff today, but as historical artifacts they are fascinating.

Also here is a feature-length documentary, "The Dawn of Sound," excerpts from the 1929 early-sound film "Gold Diggers of Broadway" and some short films touting the arrival of "talkies."

The fact that "The Jazz Singer" is finally on DVD is significant, but these bonus features make this a must-have for film buffs.