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 arrival.
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 tree—but 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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