A one-joke satirical comedy, but it's a pretty good joke
Don't Park There was one of a series of two-reel comedies Will Rogers made for producer Hal Roach during the 1923-4 season. Except for a couple of amusing Hollywood satires the quality level was not especially high, and apparently no one (including Will Rogers and Hal Roach) ever thought much of the films, but I believe this one holds up quite well. The story amounts to little more than a one-joke anecdote, but oddly enough the joke is more relevant now than it was in 1924: this is the tale of a man who can't run a simple errand in the city because he can't find a parking space. All that Will requires is a bottle of Doan's horse liniment, but it seems that the automobile is taking over the urban landscape, thus making simple errands a major challenge.
This film works, and still gets laughs, first because the situation remains recognizable, but perhaps more importantly because the style is low-key (i.e. there's no frantic Keystone violence here), and the absurdity builds gradually. One could imagine hearing an anecdote similar to this one related on "The Prairie Home Companion." Early on, Will can't find a parking space near his destination because other drivers beat him to it. He attempts to bend the rules in various creative ways, without success. Eventually, Will is pushed further and further away from his destination until, as the title cards inform us, he is forced to leave Los Angeles and search for a parking space in San Francisco, then Seattle. Ultimately, when he learns that the liniment he seeks is no longer being made, he abandons his car and shuffles away, Chaplin-style, on foot.
One historical footnote: I've seen two versions of this film, one of which includes a brief but unpleasant racial gag, and another print, intended for TV screenings, which cuts it. The gag involves an African-American chauffeur who steals a chicken. It's dumb and unnecessary, and some will find it embarrassing, but my gut feeling is that these gags should be retained. Snipping such moments out of old movies distorts history. Institutional racism was rampant in the 1920s (maybe it's just gone underground today, but that's too big an issue for this little essay), and we need to be reminded of where we've been to get a sense of where we are. Re-editing old movies might "smooth out" the rough edges, so to speak, but it won't make uncomfortable aspects of our history go away.
At any rate, the racial gag is only a quick moment in Don't Park There. Beyond that, this short is a diverting, pleasant satire, well worth seeing. And it's worth adding that it's very nicely photographed, too, offering fascinating glimpses of public life of the 1920s.
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