You might want to avoid popcorn while watching this one
This long forgotten short was shown recently at NYC's Museum of Modern Art as part of a highly entertaining series devoted to examples of "Cruel & Unusual Comedy" from the silent era. Unfortunately this particular entry was missing its opening credits and first few minutes of footage, but otherwise the 35mm print was in surprisingly good shape and offered sharp image quality. The star is Jimmie Parrott, brother of Charley Chase, probably best remembered as the director of Laurel & Hardy's most satisfying short comedies of the late 1920's and early '30s. At this point in his career Jimmie (also known as Paul Parrott) starred in short comedies, very much like his brother, whom he closely resembled. Jimmie is clean-shaven and still slender in this short, and could pass for a shorter version of Charley.
Although it was made for the Fox Studio A Deep Sea Panic has the crazy, anything goes feel of a Sennett comedy. No surprise there, since it happens to be a reworking of Harry Langdon's Shanghaied Lovers, made for Sennett just a few months earlier. Roy Del Ruth directed both shorts so it's likely he was the culprit who "borrowed" the earlier film's plot, although such borrowings were common in the silent days.
In any case, the setting is a ship ironically called the Sweet Pea, where Jimmie, a shanghaied sailor, is treated as a peon by the brutal captain, played by Kalla Pasha. I have to say up front that Kalla really steals the show. I've seen this actor in a number of silent comedies, often playing fearsome villain to Ben Turpin, and although he had presence to spare his roles were usually small ones. Here he dominates the proceedings, looking like a live-action version of E.C. Segar's Bluto, only scarier. Allowing for the fact that some footage was missing from the opening I'd say that Pasha is on screen as much as Parrott, and he certainly makes a vivid impression. A lot of the humor in one extended sequence set in the mess hall concerns the Captain's irate demand to be fed his lunch immediately. Jimmie and the ship's drunken cook (Bobby Burns) wind up feeding him all kinds of unpalatable things, including a welcome mat, a doorknob, and big wads of chewing tobacco. Some of the gags in this film are not for the squeamish: the tobacco makes the captain's tummy swell up like a weather balloon, and even a dog who eats some of this stuff has to rush to the ship's railing to relieve himself—in a startling but funny moment that may have been intended as a tribute of sorts to Chaplin's The Immigrant. Other crazy gags involve tar mistaken for shaving cream, and a monkey who takes a strong liking to the Captain's face. Jimmie Parrott comes off as an agreeable comic lead (while his girlfriend, a stowaway on the boat disguised as a sailor, has very little to do) but it's Captain Kalla Pasha you remember when the film is over.
Refined it ain't, but A Deep Sea Panic is a spirited comedy that scored quite well at MoMA with the buffs who filled the auditorium. Sure, many of the gags are on the crude side, but the atmosphere is so cartoon-y and dreamlike that it doesn't come off as offensive, just wacky. Still, anyone interested in viewing this film may want to skip that trip to the concession stand for Jujy Fruits beforehand, and maybe for a while afterward, too.
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