Caught In the Rain (Charlie Chaplin, 1914)
Laughing Gas (Chaplin, 1914)
A Submarine Pirate (Syd Chaplin, 1915), with Bonus Commentary by David Kalat
Cupid's Rival (Billy West, 1917)
The Bond (Charlie Chaplin, 1918)
Super-Secret Bonus Short ("Getting Ahead")
Golf (Larry Semon, 1922)
Lizzies of the Field (Billy Bevan, 1924)
Heavy Love (The Ton of Fun, 1926)
Uppercuts (Jack Duffy, 1926)
Beauty and the Bump (Perry Murdock, 1927)
Reckless Rosie (Frances Lee, 1929)
Luke's Movie Muddle (Harold Lloyd, 1916)
Pay Your Dues (Lloyd, 1919)
The Nonskid Kid (Eddie Boland, 1922)
Sold At Auction (Snub Pollard, 1923)
Smithy (Stan Laurel, 1924)
Forgotten Sweeties (Charley Chase, 1927)
While the title of All Day Entertainment's American Slapstick DVD set seems to suggest a comprehensive overview of that era's short comedies, in actuality the collection is more of a sampler of one and two-reel comedies from the 'teens and twenties, a grab bag of lesser-known films from some of the era's more durable personalities and a number of gems from its more obscure performers. Short comedy classics rub shoulders with more pedestrian fare in this set, in the end serving to be a rather accurate reflection of what the public actually saw in movie theatres during the silent era (they weren't all Chaplin or Keaton, folks!)
The discs are roughly organized, with the first focusing on Chaplin (both Charlie and half-brother Syd -- whose "A Submarine Pirate", a rare film previously unavailable on DVD, is one of the major entries in this collection -- as well as Billy West, the most successful of Charlie Chaplin imitators in an era full of 'em). The two Chaplin Keystones that start off the set, "Caught in the Rain" and "Laughing Gas", are by no means among his best from the period (in fact, curiously enough, Syd's "A Submarine Pirate" from the following year trumps them both in laugh content), but the Chaplin Keystones are amusing enough, with "Caught in the Rain" significant for being one of the first films directed by Chaplin (according to Sir Charles, it was the first.) The Billy West comedy "Cupid's Rival" (featuring his frequent heavy at this time, a pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy) provides a nice juxtaposition of authentic Chaplin versus pseudo-Chaplin in this disc, demonstrating that West in 1917 was pretty much mimicking Chaplin from 1914. The disc also includes the promotional short "The Bond" (1918) that Chaplin had produced for the war effort during WWI, which has been previously included in a number of other silent comedy collections.
Disc two jumps a decade and features slapstick from the 1920's, either produced by Mack Sennett or very much influenced by Sennett's Keystone work from the 'teens. Oliver Hardy again plays the heavy, this time opposite Larry Semon in his seminal comedy "Golf" (the short would also prove to be seminal for Hardy, as it was none other than Semon who introduced the comedian to the sport, which would become one of his lifelong passions.) The other noteworthy short comedy on the disc is Billy Bevan's "Lizzies of the Field" (1924), a standard-bearer for Bevan's frenetic comedies for Sennett in the twenties. The disc is rounded out by a few decent, but in the end extraneous comedies, featuring the likes of Perry Murdock, Frances Lee, Jack Duffy, and last but certainly not least, The Ton of Fun.
The third and final disc of American Slapstick is by far the best, and the most chock-full of grade-A silent comedy -- no wonder, since it focuses on the Lot of Fun, the Hal Roach Studios. Neither of the two one-reelers representing Harold Lloyd, "Luke's Movie Muddle" (1916) and "Pay Your Dues" (1919), is a classic, but the Lonesome Lukes usually get short shrift in many silent comedy collections so it's nice to see one included here, while "Pay Your Dues" is funny enough and surprisingly barbaric at times. An obscure Eddie Boland film is thrown in the middle of the disc for a little variety, but the three shorts that end the collection -- Pollard's "Sold At Auction" (1923), Laurel's "Smithy" (1924), and Chase's "Forgotten Sweeties" (1927) -- are all winning shorts, though special merit should go to "Sold At Auction", which is not only a prime example of Snub Pollard's work, but a stellar representation of Hal Roach's output of the period -- and directed by Charley Chase to boot. Although it is heartening to see Chase's own "Forgotten Sweeties" on DVD, the two-reeler remains one of his slightest comedies from his heyday.
The film quality of many of the films on the set is pretty good considering their age. The specks and scratches on all of these films come with the territory when dealing with eighty or ninety year old films, but they are all watchable and transferred from 16mm prints (these are not DVD-to-DVD transfers, so there is no ghosting of the image on any of these films). The images do often appear very soft, almost blurry at times, which likely is due to the source material.
The most annoying aspect in terms of this set's presentation is the occasional Reelclassicdvd watermark appearing at the bottom-right of the screen. Reelclassicdvd also appears on the credits before most of the films, as does a dedication to Essex Films founder Bob Lee, which after watching a few of the shorts does get a little grating (obviously this is a heartfelt dedication, as many silent comedies would not be available today if it wasn't for the efforts of the late Mr. Lee, but one would think it would have been preferable to include the dedication once, before the main menu screen, or on the liner notes instead of running the credit before nearly every short on the collection.) Reelclassicdvd, a small but mighty outfit that sells most of the comedies available on American Slapstick on its own label, provided many of the prints for these shorts. However, the quality of "A Submarine Pirate", which is truly one of the real treasures of this collection (and may prove to be the single title which would entice the most rabid silent comedy collector to pick up this set), is quite remarkable considering the scarcity of the film, and it is appropriate that the inclusion of this Syd Chaplin comedy is due to the efforts of David Shepard and his Film Preservation Associates and Blackhawk Films.
The musical scores of these shorts (with the exception of Bernie Anderson's organ score for "The Bond", Ray Brubacher's score on "A Submarine Pirate", and the vintage-era music on "Cupid's Rival") were composed and performed on piano by Ben Model and are very entertaining -- perfect accompaniment to these comedies that reflect the sense of fun they exude and at the same time never serving to overwhelm the films themselves. The few bonus items include "Getting Ahead", an unnecessary mix of clips that includes some silent-era footage; a .pdf file of "The Chaplin Book", a picture book that can be accessed on a computer's DVD-ROM drive; and best of all, an audio commentary for "A Submarine Pirate" supplied by All Day Entertainment's David Kalat, whose infectious enthusiasm for the film and the era itself makes one wish that the other shorts had commentary.
In the end, "American Slapstick" is an interesting and entertaining sampler of early American silent comedy. It would be more of interest to those already familiar with the era and its personalities, though a number of the films it features -- especially "Lizzies of the Field" and "Sold At Auction" -- are prototypical silent comedies that would be perfect short films to screen for first-timers and kids. Chase fans would primarily gravitate towards the Chase-directed "Auction" and his own "Forgotten Sweeties", but would also find much else in this set to be of interest. The prints of these films can be improved upon, and most of them have had little restoration work done, but the fact that these comedies are presented with rich, lively piano scores and at a proper speed makes this set a very authentic representation of the work produced at the various fun factories during the silent era.