For the second day of my Amazon challenge, I decided to peruse prime’s film selection. I opened up several tabs, each containing a potential candidate—most of which were Mystery Science Theaters. However, when I stumbled upon a compilation of silent comedy shorts, I decided to give it a whirl. I have always had an affinity for a few of these early film comedians (OK, mostly Buster Keaton), and since I have yet to review anything prior to the 1980s, this seemed like the perfect film to watch.
Slapstick Masters, like the title implies, features shorts by several brilliant comedians and Monty Banks (oooh, burn!). Clocking it at a little under 90 minutes, this compilation showcases Easy Street by Charlie Chaplin, One Week by Buster Keaton, Chasing Choo-Choos by Monty Banks, and Big Business by Laurel and Hardy. The film attempts to provide the audience with a historic feel by displaying old-time movie slides in between the films. The slides are less cool than I thought they would be, however. These shorts are also accompanied with music by the Alloy Orchestra, which (according to wikipedia) is a musical group that composes and performs music for silent films.
Easy Street features Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp, his most well-known character. After meeting an attractive woman at church, Chaplin’s character vows to turn his life around. As it happens, he walks past a “Cops Wanted” sign and voila! He’s a cop. Since he is the newest member of the force, he is sent to the most crime-ridden area: Easy Street. While there, he has a few run-ins with the local element and eventually ends up saving the pretty girl who just-so-happened to be in the neighborhood. Soon everyone is running every which way and bopping people on the head. Kind of like Scooby-Doo but without the ghosts, the dog, the van, Shaggy…. maybe it’s not as much like Scooby as I thought.
In all honesty, this is not my favorite Chaplin film. I realize that he is probably the most famous silent film comedian, but I guess Chaplin’s style of comedy doesn’t really resonate with me. While I find him to have a charismatic screen presence, I didn’t really have any laugh-out-loud moments. It has been a while since I’ve seen any Chaplin, and I was pretty shocked about how violent his films can be. Sure, it’s not all blood and gore; but there is a decent amount of hitting people over the head with objects, women being thrown around, and policemen pummeling the “bad guys.” Yes, I realize that part of the joke is that the bad guy is basically invulnerable to these acts of aggression, but I just didn’t find it that funny. And, as people were hitting each other over the head with various items, I couldn’t help but wonder if a good kick in the groin would have been more effective. In a way, I almost would have like to have seen Chaplin’s cross-dressing stuff instead of this. And, yes, I am serious.
The second film, One Week, is by one of my all-time favorite comedians, Buster Keaton. Here, we follow two newlyweds as they attempt to build their first home (essentially a premade build-by-numbers kit). However, the couple are thwarted when someone impishly re-numbers a few of the boxes. Needless to say, the house turns out pretty crazy, with the front door on the second story and the kitchen sink on the outside of the house. This creates all sorts of sight gags and imaginative uses of household items (and parts) as the newlyweds try to settle in.
Keaton, true to his nickname “The Great Stone Face” (for always maintaining a deadpan expression), is brilliant at keeping a straight face no matter what is happening around him. I don’t know why, but this cracks me up. I know I could go on and on about how much of a genius Keaton was–how he was a true pioneer in special effects (especially in-camera effects), how his films are excellent at creating long, elaborate setups in order to earn big laughs, how his timing was impeccable, how his stunts are amazing even compared to those today—but I will try to rein it in. Although One Week isn’t the best Keaton film by far, it is still a solid short. For those dying to know which Keaton film is my fave, that honor goes to Sherlock, Jr. (although Cops isn’t too far behind).
The weakest short in the set, is Chasing Choo-Choos by Monty Banks. No, this is not the Simpsons episode where Ralph choo-choo-chooses Lisa, although I sort of wish it was. Here is the basic story. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy is from the wrong tax bracket, so girl’s father (or whoever the hell he is supposed to be) set up boy to look like he tried to kidnap girl in order to make girl dislike boy. Boy tries to explain the mix-up to girl. Girl is abducted for some reason by whoever the hell it was. Mediocrity ensues. It involves a train.
Again, perhaps this is just a matter of personal taste, but I discovered that I am not a fan of Banks. I have seen a decent amount of silent films, but can’t remember ever seeing one of his before. He just does not have the same screen presence as the rest of the comedians in this compilation. In fact, I was a bit surprised to see that he was the fourth funnyman chosen for Slapstick Masters. Why Banks instead of Harold Lloyd? Or even Charley Chase? Hmmm, maybe Chase isn’t a “slapstick master,” but I thought he was more funny than Banks.
The final short in the set, Big Business by Laurel and Hardy, is easily the best. In this film, we find Stan and Oliver as Christmas tree salesmen. They go door to door trying to sell these festive items, but no one wants to buy. After a few rejections, things get a little out of hand at one house. Through a series of misunderstandings, the owner of the house and the two salesmen become involved in a crazy fight. It starts with the home owner cutting their measly Christmas tree with pruning shears and quickly escalates to a thorough trashing of the man’s house and the salesmen’s car. Trust me, it’s much funnier than I made it sound. Hilarity ensues.
Laurel and Hardy are perhaps one of the funniest comedy duos of all time. Yes, even better than Sandler and Schneider. Better than Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O. Heck, even better than the comedy stylings of Dinky and Grandpa Little. Laurel and Hardy just work. They play off each other well, are incredibly silly, and just plain funny. What I love about this duo is in their films, situations tend to spiral out of control faster than on Con-Air. It’s over the top; but just to the point where it is still somewhat believable, yet absurd enough to be laughable.
On the whole, I was underwhelmed by this compilation; however, I should have read carefully. The title was Slapstick Masters, not The Best of the Slapstick Masters. My bad. Perhaps the compilation could have been a bit more cohesive. While I don’t necessarily believe there has to be an underlying theme tying all the shorts together, I think more care should have gone into selecting what was part of the set. Comically, the shorts seemed to be all over the place.
Also, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the music. I know it may seem silly at first, but sound is an important part of silent cinema. The right music can take a comedy from funny to hilarious. The wrong music can just be plain distracting. At one point in Easy Street, it sounded like the orchestra was referencing “Born to Be Wild.” Talk about an anachronism.
Sigh. If only I could highly recommend Slapstick Masters. I love silent comedy and wish I could enthusiastically say that this film would hook even the most hesitant person into watching some awesome silent films. But I can’t. I suppose I will have to do some research to try to find a silent film set that lives up to my expectations. I know I am tough, but I think my fondness for some of these classics is what makes me such a critical judge.
Thanks for reading! Have a super awesome day! [**slips on a banana peel and falls on ass**]