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Silent Comedy Scholarship

Silent Comedy Scholarship

If I had to choose an all-time favorite movie studio, it
would be Hal Roach’s, where comedy was king in the 1920s and ‘30s. Harold
Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase, and Thelma Todd were among
his brightest stars. They were surrounded by directors, writers, cameramen,
prop men, and other specialists who knew comedy inside and out. Professor
Richard L. Ward examined the business history of this enterprise in his 2006
book A History of the Hal Roach Studios,
and decades ago William K. Everson wrote an eloquent monograph for the Museum
of Modern Art on the movies themselves.

Now, silent comedy expert Richard M. Roberts has undertaken
the formidable task of exploring all of Roach’s films with a critical eye and a firm grasp on what was going on
behind the scenes. The privately published, oversized paperback, the first of a
planned trilogy, is titled Smileage Guaranteed, Past Humor, Present Laughter—Musings on the
Comedy Film Industry 1910-1945 Volume One: Hal Roach
 (Practical Press). The book is co-researched with Robert Farr and Joe
Moore. In it you will learn details of how Roach got started, what it took to
launch Harold Lloyd as a comedy star, and how each subsequent series came
about. (Roberts has foregone coverage of Our Gang, pointing readers to the book
I wrote with Richard W. Bann, The Little
Rascals: The Life and Times of Our Gang
, and similarly chosen not to cover
the Thelma Todd or Boy Friends
series, recommending my chapters and filmographies in The Great Movie Shorts. I appreciate the gracious gesture, but
there’s a practical consideration, too: his book is already the size of a city
telephone directory!)

I pored over every page of this book with great interest,
from his intricate historical notes to his detailed filmographies. And just
when you think you’ve reached the end of this massive volume, he offers a
bonus: never-before-published pictures of the Roach gang at play from the
scrapbooks of onetime leading lady Marie Mosquini. Wait till you see Harold
Lloyd, Snub Pollard, and Charley Chase frolicking at the beach!

It’s rare to find a book with genuinely original research
and unfamiliar illustrations that’s also readable and entertaining. Naturally,
I don’t agree with all of Roberts’ opinions; Harry Langdon’s talkie shorts for
Roach still elude my funny-bone, and I question whether it’s legitimate to
assume that Max Davidson’s lost late-silent shorts were inferior when one that
survives is the hilarious Pass the Gravy.
But these are minor quibbles.

If you love Hal Roach comedies you should consider this
hefty volume a must, not just to put on your bookshelf but to read, from cover
to cover.

Steve Massa is another enterprising researcher who has
unearthed a cornucopia of information about little-known silent comedies for
his new book Lame Brains & Lunatics:
The Good, the Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy
(BearManor Media). By
dint of sheer determination, Massa has made his way through major film archives
and uncovered prints of silent comedies that no one has bothered to catalogue,
let alone screen, in years. Along the way he has identified unsung heroes as
well as journeymen whose work deserves to be chronicled, if not praised to the

The chapter titles will give you some idea of the breadth of
this book: Silent Partners: Comedy Teams
of the Teens and Twenties, Alice Howell: Forgotten Slapstick Queen, Charles
Parrott: Comedy’s Best Kept Secret, Max Came Across: Max Linder in America,
Billie Ritchie: The Man from Nowhere, I’m Glad Now That I’m Homely: The Downs
and Ups of Marie Dressler,
and Rediscovering
Roscoe: The Careers of “Fatty” Arbuckle
. Every chapter offers discoveries
to even a diehard silent-comedy buff, along with rare and interesting
illustrations (including vintage trade advertisements). Massa provides filmographies
and a thorough index to make his book as useful as possible.

One may debate the relative merits of the performers
profiled here—some of them remained in the second-tier of comedy stardom for
good reason—but there is no question that Steve Massa’s research will remain a
valuable guide for many years to come. His enthusiasm certainly makes one want
to seek out many of these long-forgotten films.

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