When animation greats such as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett
gave interviews in later years about their work, they frequently cited
silent era comedians such as Charlie Chaplin as influences, and fondly
reminisced about the crazy gags and wild chases in the silent comedies
they viewed as kids. I don't know if those guys were Lloyd Hamilton
fans, or if they happened to see his short comedy Moonshine, but it
sure looks like the kind of thing they were talking about. Moonshine
plays like a live action Looney Tune, populated with real people
instead of anthropomorphic animals. The first half in particular is
amazingly "cartoon-y," and easily as action-packed and funny as your
average Bugs Bunny or Droopy Dog vehicle.
As the title suggests, our story concerns the eternal struggle between
moonshiners and revenue agents. And because this film was produced in
1920, the year Prohibition became the law of the land, the subject of
booze (and government efforts to suppress bootleggers) was a hot topic,
ripe for satire. Our setting is the rural community of Peaceful Valley,
a name instantly belied by the film's opening shot, which looks like it
could be a combat sequence outtake from The Birth of a Nation. A
pitched battle is underway between the hill folk and the revenue men,
but it's portrayed like a baseball game, complete with cheering
spectators and a scorekeeper who marks off casualties on a big
scoreboard. (Sounds like Tex Avery, doesn't it?) In the midst of all
the shooting, we learn that one of the moonshiners' wives is expecting
a baby. And this prompts a truly memorable sight gag, the kind of image
I love to find in silent comedies: it's a traveling shot of a country
doctor and a midwife in a carriage, racing to the home of the expectant
mother, while an obviously mechanical stork flies above them, carrying
a bundle! They reach the cottage just as the stork drops its bundle
down the chimney, and rush inside to help the family with their new
Twenty years pass, and the baby has grown up to be Lloyd Hamilton. (He
was still quite boyish and baby-faced in the comedies he made around
this time.) The rest of the story concerns Ham's love affair with a
local girl, Adenoid Applesauce, and his rivalry for her affections with
a local fellow, a bad egg known as Merciless Milton. The gags continue
to fly thick and fast. A cow gives milk directly to the breakfast table
through a convenient tube; Milton is flattened by a felled treebut
survives unscathed, in true cartoon fashion; a cat and a horse get
drunk; a document flies off a table, lands on a frog, and hops away; a
man in a boat is dragged down the street; and other surreal events
occur as casually as they might in a very weird dream.
Moonshine was the product of a brief but happy collaboration between
Lloyd Hamilton and director/performer Charley Chase, two great comedy
creators who seemed to bring out the best in each other. Chase makes
two cameo appearances here: first as the bearded hillbilly
"scorekeeper" during the gun battle, and later as a revenue agent who
pursues Ham. As for our star comedian, Mr. Hamilton was in his prime
when this film was made, finally coming into his own after years of
toiling away in the comedy salt mines, as the marginally more appealing
half of the Ham & Bud team. Unfortunately many of Ham's solo comedies
are lost, but that's all the more reason to track down and appreciate
survivors such as Moonshine.
In sum, I think it's worth noting that when this short premiered in
December of 1920, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett were grade-schoolers,
while the slightly older Tex Avery was just reaching his teens.
Something tells me that those guys were in the audience at their local
Bijou's, laughing it up at that mechanical stork.
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