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The devil made them do it, 12 February 2017

This two-reel comedy is more than just an amusing film, it's a milestone: Saturday's Lesson was the last silent Our Gang short produced for the Hal Roach Studio before the series switched to the full talkie format. Happily, it's a worthy finale, a high energy romp that gives each kid a good moment or two, and leaves the viewer with a warm glow.

"When little boys have been in school all week," says the opening title card, "they have their own ideas about Saturday—" Surprisingly, this introduces a scene of luxury, in which a well-dressed Farina is served a sumptuous meal by a uniformed servant. Needless to add, it turns out to be a fantasy. All too soon, he's awakened by his angry Mama, who puts him to work beating rugs. The other kids are equally unlucky: Harry and his siblings Wheezer, Mary Ann, and Jean must eat spinach—which, of course, they hate—and then do chores. Joe's mother is angry with him over some unspecified infraction, and orders him to chop wood in the back yard as punishment. And all the rascals are warned that if they don't behave, the "devil man" will get them. Before long, the kids manage to escape their imprisonment, meet in a park, and lament their sad lot in life.

Meanwhile, a strange fellow in a devil costume is roaming the city sidewalks, advertising space heaters. (It's claimed they're "hotter than hot.") We get the sense this guy is rather eccentric; he doesn't merely advertise the product, but actually throws smoke bombs at spectators, and performs back-flips for his own amusement. He too winds up in the park, and overhears the children as they discuss shirking their chores—and also hears Farina express curiosity about the "devil man." Recognizing his cue, he appears before the astonished kids in a puff of smoke, and orders them to perform their chores. They rush home to do so, terrified, in a wild frenzy of activity. Amused, the costumed devil follows them, issues more commands to the now-compliant kids, and makes sure they follow through.

A simple description of the story cannot fully convey the appeal of this short. Where the Our Gang series is concerned, the charm of these child actors who make up the cast is crucial. (If you don't believe it, try watching some of the many pseudo-Gang comedies produced in the '20s; those other kiddie shows never rise to the same level of quality.) Farina has one of the best moments, when he first sees the alleged devil and, without further ado, simply faints dead away. Joe Cobb has several terrific, highly expressive close-ups, and so too do the girls. The best Our Gang shorts are true ensemble efforts, and Saturday's Lesson is no exception.

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to enjoy this film with a full audience, at a recent silent comedy festival at NYC's Museum of Modern Art, and can attest that it scored a real hit. Although there were lots of entertaining Our Gang comedies made in the talkie era, I tend to prefer the silent shorts of the '20s. It's nice to find that this chapter of the series' history came to a close with a real winner.

And those kids do NOT want go!, 1 February 2017

It's always to pleasure to discover a "new" Our Gang short; that is, one I've never seen before. School Begins, a rare silent short released through MGM, was shown recently at NYC's Museum of Modern Art as part of a silent comedy festival. It scored a solid hit, even though most of us were at a disadvantage, since the title cards were not in English. (They were in Czech, or Dutch, or something most of us didn't understand.) But as usual with this series, the story is conveyed primarily through visual cues and the highly expressive faces of the players, so we had little trouble following what was happening, while the sight gags landed solidly, and earned their laughs. And why not? Silent cinema was—and still is—a universal language.

School Begins has an especially memorable, surreal intro, reminiscent of a Fleischer cartoon: the very first shot depicts a schoolhouse that resembles a scowling face. Harry Spear, our central figure in this short, enters the building trembling with fear, and finds his classmates all dressed as pirates, and fighting wildly. Next thing you know, he's hauled to the front of the room and inserted bodily into a spanking machine . . . at which point, he wakes up! It's morning, and time for the first day of school. This, despite the fact that there's a circus in town, and the fish are biting down at the swimming hole.

The dreamlike atmosphere continues into the next scene, as we see Harry's classmates sadly trudging off to school in slow motion. Harry reluctantly joins the crowd, while his kid brother Wheezer tries to tag along with his dog. (This sequence features a lovely tracking shot along a dirt road bordered by a barbed-wire fence, at a location that appears to be the same one used in Laurel & Hardy's The Hoosegow, made the following year.) Along the way we discover Farina, sitting among a pile of half-eaten watermelons, happily munching on one of them. Racial stereotyping of this kind was not typical of the Our Gang series, but indicates that the Hal Roach Studio was not immune from the attitudes of the day. Wheezer is sent away, as he's too young to go to school. He heads for the pond, gathers up some fish, and then heads for the circus grounds. Soon after, he accidentally lures a pair of trained seals away from the circus and directly to the schoolhouse, where they create an uproar.

School Begins is pleasant and amusing over all, although I have to add I found the finale a little odd. When the seals arrive at the schoolhouse the kids and their teacher react with great panic, as if they were grizzly bears. All that fuss, over a pair of cute trained seals? But that's a minor matter. Along the way there are several funny sequences, including one where Joe Cobb tries to get out of class with a fake note from home, claiming his mother has broken her legs. (You can guess what happens.) This idea would be re-used a couple of years later, in one of the early talkies with June Marlowe as Miss Crabtree. But the gag works nicely in the silent version, even if you don't understand the language of the title cards.

Crazy Eddie to the rescue, 28 January 2017

Like a lot of baby boomers I grew up with Bullwinkle, Rocky the Flying Squirrel, and the rest of the Jay Ward Saturday morning cartoon gang. That means I also grew up with Edward Everett Horton, peerless narrator of "Fractured Fairy Tales." I loved his warm, plummy voice, long before I learned to match that voice with his puckish face on TV sitcoms such as F Troop, or in old movies. Once I was familiar with him, EEH quickly became one of my favorite comic character actors; his presence in a TV episode or a flick was enough to inspire me to tune in, and, whatever the quality of the material, he was almost always amusing; at his best, he was delightfully funny.

It's only comparatively recently that I learned Horton had a substantial career in silent movies. You'd think he would be at a disadvantage without that wonderful voice, but you'd be only partly correct: with his highly expressive face and limber body, he comes off surprisingly well in the silent medium. I've seen him in the feature Helen's Babies (1924) opposite Clara Bow and Baby Peggy, and in a prominent supporting role in La Bohème with Lillian Gish. Better still, in the late '20s Horton starred in his own series of two-reel comedies produced by the great Harold Lloyd. I've seen several of these shorts, and they're generally quite enjoyable. EEH is the center of attention, and is granted plenty of opportunities to show off his chops as a physical comedian.

Behind the Counter, one of the series, was shown recently as part of a silent comedy festival at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. The print shown on that occasion had titles cards in a language other than English (Czech, I believe), but the story was easy enough to follow, and EEH and his supporting players conveyed a great deal without having to rely on words. The setting is a department store where Eddie seeks a job, though a haughty supervisor who appears to be Chief Floorwalker attempts to block his way. However, using a Harold Lloyd–style ruse, Eddie manages to finagle an interview with the manager. He lands a job, and also meets and flirts with the manager's daughter.

Once he's an official employee, Eddie tries out his idiosyncratic sales methods. When a lady is uncertain about purchasing a hat, he models it for her, complete with scarf. A little boy seems unimpressed with a miniature tricycle, so Eddie happily pedals it around the store's showroom. Less happily, he also gets involved with some firecrackers that go off accidentally. Meanwhile, we learn that the haughty supervisor is in cahoots with a gang of crooks who plan to rob the store that very evening. Eddie is leaving with the boss's daughter when she suddenly realizes she left her bracelet behind. They return to the store to look for it, along with her chauffeur, but accidentally lock themselves in. When the crooks arrive, Eddie and his companions initially assume the place is haunted; eventually they figure out what's happening, and our hero turns the tables on the crooks.

That's basically the plot. For me, the first half worked best; the tone is lively, and Horton is spirited and appealing. The second half, while still fun, depends too heavily on over-familiar Haunted House style gags relocated to a department store. For instance, when a cat who hangs out in the place slips under a sheet, Eddie and his companions react to the "ghost" with fearful trembling. (You've seen that one, right?) But there is an especially funny, unusual gag in the second half: a mannequin head that resembles the boss's daughter falls onto a hot radiator. Edie, who can only see the face from a distance across a counter, thinks it's his girlfriend, and converses with her. To his horror, the face expands from the heat, then melts. Now THAT's a startling sight!

Behind the Counter is a cute short, well produced and briskly paced. Horton comes off nicely, or as nicely as possible deprived of his distinctive voice. I hope this short becomes more widely available, along with his other two-reel comedies, in restored versions. Until then, I'll just have to imagine the witty things the characters were saying to each other.

"From small events Large Causes spring", 12 January 2017

Elsa Lanchester has always been a favorite of mine. She's one of those rare character actors you wish you could hang out with; she comes off like someone well worth knowing. I haven't read her autobiography as yet, but know a few basic facts about her: she grew up in a Bohemian family, performed in the British music-halls from an early age, and was married to Charles Laughton for many years. I dimly recall seeing her on the Dick Cavett Show a long time ago, but otherwise know her mostly from her film and TV appearances, where she usually played slightly dotty eccentrics, or, occasionally, sinister characters. What I never knew until recently was that, in the late 1920s, she appeared in three silent comedy shorts, written by—of all people—H. G. Wells! (An author not usually associated with comedy.) I've now seen one of these shorts, Blue Bottles, which is not only enjoyable in its own right, but also provides Lanchester with a good comic role, as well as a memorable bit part for Laughton, in his film debut.

The premise is simple. Elsa, playing herself, is walking home from the music-hall one night when she notices a discarded police whistle on the sidewalk. What she doesn't know is that, minutes earlier, a gang of crooks had knocked a bobby unconscious on this spot, and dragged him into their hideout. This was his whistle, and she's standing right in front of the crooks' hideout. Curious, and without quite realizing what she's doing, Elsa gives the whistle a toot. Thereupon, all hell breaks loose. Next thing you know, bobbies are arriving a large numbers, ready for action. They invade the crook's hideout, and a shoot-out erupts. Elsa gets caught in the fray, and tries desperately to stay safe and protect herself.

(Watch closely during the shoot-out: the rotund crook, who laughs maniacally as he shoots at Elsa from behind an overturned chair, is her fiancée Charles Laughton, in his film debut.)

Elsa, though semi-dazed after a clout on the head, manages to subdue several crooks, then flee the scene without being noticed. But she leaves behind her hat, and it's used to identify and locate her. The next morning a cop shows up at her rooming house to bring her in. She's terrified, but there are several more twists in store before her comic ordeal comes to an ironic close.

Blue Bottles is droll, spirited and suspenseful. Lanchester, with her big expressive eyes and childlike demeanor, makes a perfectly sympathetic and appealing central figure. There are a number of amusing gags along the way, including some clever cinematic touches, to keep things fresh. For instance, when Elsa blows the whistle, there follows a montage of ever-increasing tempo and intensity: nearby bobbies react, blow their own whistles, run down streets, etc. What we see is initially realistic, but then there are shots of soldiers in combat, tanks, plane flying overhead, a battleship, etc. Thus, a dramatic montage turns into a comic one. Later, during the shoot-out in the crooks' lair, similar transitions occur as grim situations turn into comic routines. The balance is deftly maintained, and the sequence is both exciting and funny.

At this writing, Blue Bottles can be viewed online, but unfortunately the available print was poorly transferred: the image is blurry, and the action is too slow. Even so, the quality comes across. I'd love to see a good print of this short—and the other Lanchester-Wells collaborations, if they're available. Blue Bottles would make an ideal curtain-raiser to one of Alfred Hitchcock melodramas of the period, such as The Lodger or Blackmail. After all, it's a crime story set in London, featuring an innocent person thrust into a dangerous situation. Very Hitchcock-like, only played for laughs; and if it were to be screened for audiences today, I believe it would still earn them.

Show Girl (1928)
She's the bee's knees, and that's no banana oil!, 20 November 2016

Dixie Dugan personified the flapper image: sassy, adorable, and bursting with vitality. She was created by J. P. McEvoy for a pair of highly popular comic novels, serialized in Liberty magazine during 1928-29. The character is best remembered now as the central figure in a long-running comic strip—one which far outlasted the era with which Dixie was identified—but even before the comic strip was launched, First National bought the rights to the material and adapted the first novel to the screen. (The second book would follow, two years later.) Up-and-coming starlet Alice White, blonde, 23 years old and cute as a button, was assigned the plum part of Dixie. Although the talkie revolution was under way, it was decided that Show Girl would be an all-silent feature, with jazzy musical accompaniment courtesy of the Vitaphone process. (The sequel, Show Girl in Hollywood, which also starred White, would be made with full sound.) And for icing on the cake, a number of familiar, seasoned character actors were signed for supporting roles.

When we first meet Dixie she's a working girl, living with her family in Brooklyn. Her Ma (Kate Price) is a beefy matron who may remind comic strip buffs of Toonerville Trolley's Katrinka, while her pint-sized, bald-headed Pa is thoroughly henpecked. (James Finlayson plays this role, cast very much against type.) Dixie's boyfriend Jimmy is a reporter, suitably cynical and wise-cracking. Although her circumstances are modest Dixie is ambitious, and when she auditions for a pair of producers she quickly lands a featured spot in a nightclub act, opposite a temperamental partner, Alvarez. She soon becomes involved with an older man, Jack Milton, whose interest in her is decidedly more than platonic. After a couple of melodramatic twists in the plot, including a false kidnapping stunt intended to boost her career, Dixie winds up as the star of a Broadway musical, written by Jimmy.

Clearly, this is not a deep or especially plot-driven film, nor was it ever meant to be one. Show Girl is a lightweight, diverting showcase for perky Alice White, and serves as a prime example of the kind of entertainment designed in its day to amuse the "tired businessman." The film's look and tone—and for that matter, its Vitaphone score—are reminiscent of the same studio's Colleen Moore vehicle Why Be Good? (Coincidentally, the only known surviving print of that feature was found in the same vault in Italy where, last year, the sole surviving print of Show Girl was located.) And while Alice White has a sweet, engaging quality, she's not in Moore's league as a comedienne. Much of the humor in Show Girl is carried by the saucy title cards rather than through visual comedy. Aficionados of '20s slang will have a field day with the language. One of my favorite examples is Dixie's unusual euphemism for bunkum; instead of relying on the more commonly used period expressions such as applesauce or horse feathers, she calls it "donkey fuzz!" (I guess that one didn't catch on.) Another plus are the dance numbers, which show off White's abilities to best advantage. I confess I was a little disappointed by the scenes involving Kate Price and Jimmy Finlayson as Dixie's parents. With these two comedy veterans I expected fireworks, but instead their byplay consists mostly of a single running gag, which in my opinion was repeated once or twice more than necessary before the inevitable pay-off.

Still, why quibble? I'm glad this feature was rediscovered—happily, complete and in pristine condition—and that the delightful Vitaphone score survives as well. Show Girl is a pleasant diversion, a welcome treat for silent film buffs, and a most agreeable way to spend an hour or so, whether or not you happen to be a tired businessman.

"Who's chasing who? And what for?", 30 October 2016

Above and beyond anything else, this short comedy is notable for one significant reason: it features Theda Bara, a top star of the First World War era, whose surviving films are very scarce indeed. Madame Mystery, which marked Bara's final screen appearance in a starring role, provides us a rare glimpse this singular sensation, the hottest 'vampire' of them all. However, it is not typical of the melodramatic vehicles that made her famous—or is that infamous?—during her heyday. This short was intended as a lighthearted parody of spy adventures, comparable in our era to a sketch built around a famous personality (one who is decidedly past her prime), on Saturday Night Live or similar shows. Miss Bara spoofed herself with good grace in this comedy; then, once it was finished, she chose to call it a day and retire.

The tone of Madame Mystery is goofy and cartoon-y, rather like something cooked up by the Mack Sennett crew, but in fact it was a product of the Hal Roach Studio. It's a representative example of Roach's "All-Star" series of the period, which, title notwithstanding, usually featured aging favorites who were no longer major box office draws. At the time, the studio's biggest stars were Charley Chase and the Our Gang kids; Laurel & Hardy had not yet become a team. Interestingly, both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were involved in Madame Mystery: Laurel behind the scenes, as co-director and gag man, Hardy in a supporting role as Captain Schmaltz of the HMS Royal, the ship that serves as the primary setting for the film's second half.

Our comic leads are Tyler Brooke and Jimmy Finlayson. They're essentially a team, but oddly their characters have no names. For those of you who haven't seen him, Brooke was a smallish, mustachioed man who looked like a cross between Max Linder and Adolphe Menjou; Finlayson, of course, is more familiar. Brooke is an artist, and they share lodgings in his garret studio. They're so broke Brooke can't even afford to hire a model, so Fin poses for him in drag, in a Little Bo Peep outfit. (Warning: once you've seen Fin in drag, you cannot "unsee" him.) Their luck changes when an auto accident occurs outside their studio. Two secret agents have crashed their car in pursuit of Madame Mysterieux (Theda Bara), who has blithely fled the scene. It seems she's in possession of a valuable, extremely dangerous substance, an explosive that could level an entire city. (Bear in mind, this film was made long before the atom bomb was devised.) Brooke and Fin, unaware of the danger involved, switch identities with the two agents and follow the lady to her ship, the HMS Royal, bound for New York. All they know is that she has something very valuable, and everyone seems to want it.

The funniest gag sequence takes place at the pier, when Finlayson, who doesn't resemble the spy he's impersonating, is turned away by shipping authorities since he doesn't match the man's I.D. photo. So Brooke the artist paints an image of the guy's face on top of Fin's bald pate, and subsequently Fin walks backwards onto the ship, facing people with the top of his head. (Trust me, it's funnier seen than described.) Once on board, the inept duo attempt to shadow Madame Mysterieux and retrieve her valuable item, whatever it may be. The plot climaxes in a surprise twist involving this substance, which Fin accidentally ingests; and it all culminates in a dream-like sight gag involving levitation. The special effects in the finale are fairly impressive, certainly good for a chuckle.

Miss Bara plays it straight throughout, more of a straight woman than a comedian, maintaining her dignity despite all the silliness surrounding her. I had high hopes that Mr. Hardy would provide a boost when he arrives in Reel 2, but unfortunately he wasn't granted a lot of screen time, or given much to do. He does have one good bit when Miss Bara gets her shoe caught on the gang plank. Gallantly he comes to her aid, saying, in Ollie-like fashion, "All things are impossible with me!" Sure enough he manages to fling her shoe overboard, much to her annoyance. The only problem is that someone decided Captain Schmaltz should wear a big, brush-like mustache, so Hardy's facial reactions are somewhat obscured.

All in all this is a moderately amusing short, entertaining what for it is, but a tad disappointing considering the talent involved. Considering how rare it is to see Theda Bara in anything at all, it's too bad that her farewell to the screen wasn't a little more distinguished, even as satirical comedies go. But this is nonetheless a pleasant bit of nonsense, and I'm glad it survives complete. And I do hope Miss Bara had a happy retirement, once she hung up her vamping shoes.

Cavalcade of crazy gags, 24 October 2016

By the time Walt Disney and his crew made Alice's Balloon Race, an entry in their Alice in Cartoonland series, they were getting to be experts at the job. The series had been launched in 1923, and sold to exhibitors on the strength of its central gimmick: each cartoon features a live action child who interacts with animated animals. The first shorts starred a girl named Virginia Davis who sported long blonde ringlets. After eighteen or so shorts Miss Davis withdrew, and was replaced with Margie Gay, a spunky brunette whose hair was bobbed in the latest style. As the series continued, Disney's team became more adept at animation, and the cartoon content increased while the live action footage decreased in both running time and importance.

Like the title says, the main event in this short is a balloon race, a contest for high stakes: $10,000 to the winner. Alice and her cat Julius, who serves as her co-pilot, are among the contenders, while their main rival is a wicked top-hatted bear (a precursor to Mickey Mouse's nemesis Pegleg Pete). Once the race is underway, the bear stops at nothing to thwart his rivals. Thanks to his chicanery, the balloon piloted by Alice and Julius plummets to the ground. Julius manages to re-launch it, but he and Alice are separated in the process. Then a violent storm hits, and our heroes struggle to deal with the storm, reunite, and somehow win the race.

That's the premise, but this is not a plot-driven cartoon. It's all about the gags, one after the other, surreal and dreamlike, coming at you so fast you hardly have time to comprehend them. The rapid pace is one of the best things about Alice's Balloon Race. There's a lot happening every moment, and although the gags are rudimentary, they're punched across with a lot of energy. Also on the plus side, the animation is smooth and sophisticated for the era. From the very first shot, which features a marching band performing in the foreground while race spectators enter the arena in the background, the animators make full use of the frame. The draftsmanship is detailed, and the black & white palate displays a broad range of gray tones.

On the debit side, this short—like all the Alice in Cartoonland series, or at least the ones I've seen—lacks strong characterizations. Alice is pleasant enough but doesn't register as a personality. Julius the Cat, who is the real star of these later entries, is a Felix the Cat lookalike without distinctive traits of his own. And despite the large ensemble, no other character lingers long enough to make an impression. Later on, once Disney's star characters were developed, the plot would become more important as well; here, the balloon race is only a loose framework to allow for the procession of crazy gags, and the short ends without a proper resolution.

In sum, while these Alice shorts are lightly enjoyable, they're best regarded as historical milestones in Walt Disney's career. If you want to see where it all started, you'll find these cartoons worthwhile.

"I dreamed that I was shipwrecked!", 23 October 2016

This is one of earliest entries in Walt Disney's Alice in Cartoonland series, and it's different from the others I've encountered. The distinctive gimmick of the series was that Alice, a real girl, would interact with cartoon animals. In the shorts I've seen most of the footage is animated, looking very much like typical cartoons of the period, only with the live-action Alice popping up at odd moments. Here, however, the first half of the short is entirely live action. After a few minutes, you may begin to wonder how this qualifies as a "Cartoonland" short.

The film begins with the introduction of Alice's dog, in an amusing sequence as he wakes up, drops his alarm clock into a garbage bin, and shimmies into his harness. Next we meet Alice herself (blonde Virginia Davis) who travels with the dog in a kiddie car to the beach. There they chat with a friendly sailor, who tells them about the time his ship was pulled to the bottom of the sea by an octopus. The tall tale he relates is animated, but in a very rudimentary fashion, like something drawn on a chalkboard. When the sailor is called away, Alice and her dog climb into a beached sailboat and promptly fall asleep.

The girl and her dog are charming, and the tone is akin to an Our Gang comedy. As Alice falls asleep however, the cartoon proper begins. She dreams she's on a ship at sea, tossed about by a wild storm. Abruptly, her ship sinks straight to the bottom. Alice swims out of the wreckage unharmed, and observes the sea creatures around her. Some fish are having a party, playing music and dancing. We also find some very odd looking creatures, zoo animals such as elephants, giraffes, etc., only with mermaid-like fins. A fish in a cop uniform directs traffic. (There's a gag that would return in many subsequent cartoons.) But danger rears its ugly head: first, a sinister octopus appears and threatens Alice, then a large fish attempts to swallow her whole. Just as things look bleak, naturally enough, Alice awakens and finds that all is well.

This is a pleasant short for the most part, although one macabre gag took me by surprise: it's a shock when the octopus seizes an inoffensive fish, slices him in two, and gobbles up half his remains. Whoa, that's pretty harsh! Otherwise, the humor is low-key and innocuous. Alice's Day at Sea is lightly amusing, not especially memorable, but of interest to animation buffs, and anyone curious about the early days of the Disney phenomenon.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
At long last this comedy—most of it, anyway—can be enjoyed again, 22 October 2016

Thanks to the efforts of dedicated film restoration experts several of Harry Langdon's early short comedies have been recovered, painstakingly cleaned up, and pieced back together again for home viewing. Until fairly recently, Langdon's two-reel short The First 100 Years could be seen only in the form of brief, tantalizing excerpts in Robert Youngson's 1960 compilation When Comedy Was King. Now, a Langdon DVD set offers a 13-minute version of this film. Some footage is still missing, but on the bright side this reconstruction represents about two-thirds of the original short, more than has been available for a long time. Happily, the surviving material gives a full sense of the story-line, and includes a lot of amusing moments for Harry and his supporting players. In its restored version the film ranks with the best of Langdon's early work for the Mack Sennett Studio.

The opening sequence is set high on a cliff overlooking crashing sea waves, and what transpires is so histrionic and deliberately overplayed we assume it will turn out to be a daydream or hallucination on somebody's part: Harry plays the stalwart hero of a melodrama, bravely defending the leading lady from "Black Mike," a top-hatted villain. There's a fight and Harry lands a hay-maker on Mike's jaw, causing the villain to sail off the cliff and fall to a distant ledge—though he immediately jumps up and shouts threats at Harry, shaking his fist as he hops up and down! "And then came wedded bliss," the title card informs us, and we realize that this prologue was intended as some kind of shorthand metaphor to explain how Harry won his girl from a rival. (Or perhaps it was just meant to be funny?)

The newlyweds must wash their own dishes until the arrival of their new cook, a fearsome gorgon played by Louise Carver, whose appearance suggests her previous job may have been as a guard at a women's prison. She quickly takes over the joint and bosses her employers. Harry's problems mount when an "old friend" of his arrives and immediately starts flirting with his wife. Unfortunately, at this juncture the footage gets a little choppy. However, there's a great bit where Harry tries to intimidate Louise with a newly-acquired bulldog, who takes one look at her and heads for the hills, dragging Harry behind him. Indignant, Louise quits the household, only to be replaced by slinky Madeline Hurlock, a dark-eyed beauty who wastes no time vamping the master of the house. When she kneels before him and massages his feet Harry's wife is taken aback, but Harry looks quite pleased with the new help.

The second half of the film turns into a haunted house comedy, as a storm blows in and the newlyweds find their home invaded by tall, mysterious bearded men in black who pop out of unexpected places. (Silent comedy buffs may be reminded of the later Charley Bowers short There It Is, which takes this sort of craziness and multiplies it to the 10th power.) There's a great moment when one of these guys leans over Harry, draping his long beard over Harry's face. Eventually, we learn the true identity of Harry's "old friend," the new cook, and all those bearded guys. Apparently the original finale is missing, but the surviving footage ends with a revelation which serves to wrap up the plot on an amusing note, so at least this version doesn't cut off in mid-scene. Even in abbreviated form, The First 100 Years is an enjoyable viewing experience and a nice addition to the Harry Langdon canon.

P.S. There is some controversy about whether Harry's wife in this film is played by Alice Day, who is billed in the credits, or her lookalike sister Marceline, best known as Buster Keaton's leading lady in The Cameraman. According to one source, Marceline substituted for her sister at the last minute, but Alice was nonetheless erroneously credited in the film and its publicity material. Personally, having watched the film carefully I believe the credits are correct, and this is indeed Alice Day.

Skirt Shy (1929)
A potentially good premise goes awry, 16 October 2016

As the silent era came to a close, Harry Langdon's career was already in trouble. While making features for First National he fired key members of his creative team; subsequently—and consequently—the quality of his work declined. After several flops, the studio dropped him in 1928. He was at loose ends as the talkie revolution erupted, and was presumably grateful when producer Hal Roach signed him to make two- reel comedies with full sound. Unfortunately, Langdon's first two shorts for the studio are unavailable for reappraisal, as their soundtracks are missing. Skirt Shy is his earliest surviving talkie comedy, and it offers ample evidence that adapting Langdon's offbeat comic style to the demands of sound presented formidable difficulties. After a promising start and several amusing gags, this comedy falls apart midway and never recovers.

The premise is quickly established in the opening sequence. Dobbs the butler (Harry) and Nancy the maid (adorable Nancy Dover) are servants in the household of Maggie Herring (May Wallace), who appears to be a well-off dowager. Actually, her house is heavily mortgaged, and is on the verge of foreclosure. Maggie's last hope is marriage to her wealthy, elderly suitor Edgar (Tom Ricketts), who courts her ardently, and yet is too bashful to pop the question. On the very day her mortgage payment is due he once again fails to propose; so Maggie departs to plead with her creditors for more time. But Edgar returns, and the butler and maid must somehow detain him until Maggie gets back from the bank. Oddly enough, Nancy decides the best course of action is for Harry to dress in drag and impersonate his mistress, in hopes that the near-sighted Edgar won't know the difference.

That's the set-up. Sure it's silly, but it's a perfectly good premise for farce comedy, as long as viewers are willing to suspend disbelief and accept the notion that the old man can't tell the difference between a guy in drag, and the lady he was courting just minutes earlier. But the premise goes off the rails almost immediately. Harry makes no effort to disguise his voice, and leaps about nervously, scaring the cat, breaking a vase, etc., in a way that would signal anyone who is even semi-conscious that he's not the person he pretends to be. And yet Edgar falls for it, so we can only assume he's not the brightest bulb on the tree.

As if this wasn't already a stretch, a new wrinkle is introduced. A second suitor shows up, a physically imposing, aging cowboy who wears six-shooters on his hips. He's an old beau of Maggie's who hasn't seen her in twenty years, who has shown up out of nowhere—or Texas, perhaps —determined to marry her, and eager to fight off any "galoot" who tries to stop him. How do we know this? Because he announces it all to the mailman! (The cowboy is played by Arthur Thalasso, who in happier days played opposite Harry in his best feature, The Strong Man.) This guy takes one look at Harry in drag, instantly accepts him as Maggie, and pleads his love. Now the filmmakers have pushed credibility way past the snapping point. We're expected to accept this ridiculous twist as a set-up for the extended battle between the cowboy, the old man, and Harry, which takes up the rest of the film.

During this finale, despite the preponderance of lame slapstick gags, Harry manages to sneak in a couple of quiet, characteristic solo routines: first, when he struggles with a pair of boxing gloves snagged on a branch, and next, when, much to his surprise, pieces of fruit miraculously fall into his outstretched hand, one after another. Those moments are brief reminders of the quirky brand of comedy that made him famous in the first place. Unfortunately however, much of this film's climax consists of the kind of tiresome, violent shtick we expect from lesser comedians, not Langdon. Following the release of Skirt Shy, Langdon made several more talkie comedies for Roach, and happily, they got better.

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