A Note from Lindsey: Today begins TMP’s 11-part series on the Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD set! This series will run every Thursday for the next 11 weeks.
Slapstick Encyclopedia is a unique little DVD collection. Containing films with release years ranging from 1909 to the late 1920s, it was curated and produced by film historians David Shepard and Joe Adamson. Major figures of the silent era (Keaton, Sennett, Arbuckle, Chaplin, etc.) are featured, as are lesser-known silent comedy masters.
This set was obviously a labor of love for those creators, birthed from a passion for silent comedy, and it does a great service to film history and budding/future generations of film fanatics. If you’re looking for something with fancy menus and extensive commentaries, this set won’t hit the mark for you, but I consider it a valuable addition to my collection because it includes so many wonderful comedies that were previously unknown to me… and simply because it preserves these works, many of which are around 100 years old.
Included in the Volume 1 section of Slapstick Encyclopedia’s first disc are the following films:
One Too Many (1916)
Directed by: Will Louis
Starring: Oliver Hardy
Run time: 16 minutes
This film was part of a series known as “Plump and Runt,” which — not unlike Hardy’s legendary films paired with Stan Laurel — pretty much just follows a fat man and a skinny man dealing with some sort of mishap-laden scenario. In this case, “Plump” is attempting to convince his uncle that he’s married and has a baby, hiring ladies to pose as his wife and babies to pose as the child. The funniest scene involves Hardy swaddling a grown man and stuffing him in a crib, hoping that’ll pass for a baby.
The Wrong Mr. Fox (1917)
Directed by: Harry Jackson
Starring: Victor Moore (who also wrote it!)
Run time: 13 minutes
Writer/star Victor Moore is Jimmy Fox, an actor who has joined a Vermont stage company. Another Mr. Fox, Reverend John, is headed to the same Vermont town by train… and when both men arrive, there’s a great mix-up of identities. Moore’s writing is very clever, featuring not slapstick alone but very dark comedy as well. This is particularly true in the opening of the short, which has Jimmy Fox contemplating suicide before he gets the Vermont job offer! Having only seen Moore’s later work previously, I was impressed with The Wrong Mr. Fox.
Mr. Flip (1909)
Directed by: “Broncho Billy” Anderson
Starring: Ben Turpin
Run time: 4 minutes
One of the earliest films in this set, Mr. Flip was produced by Essanay Studios. Ben Turpin stars, and his character is reportedly the first man to ever be slapped in the face with a pie for comedic effect. This is a simple comedy of rejection, with Turpin’s character constantly flirting with and getting turned down by women. Simple isn’t bad, though. A whole lot of funny is packed into this four minutes of film.
Alkali Ike’s Auto (1911)
Directed by: “Broncho Billy” Anderson
Starring: Augustus Carney
Run time: 11 minutes
Essanay Studios strikes again with this very popular short, which was re-released two years after its initial 1911 release by popular demand. The plot involves the familiar tale of two men fighting over the same woman. The two men try to out-do each other by inviting her on different dates — first a horse ride, then a carriage ride, and finally an ill-fated automobile ride. The three actors involved in this love triangle — Augustus Carney, Harry Todd and Margaret Joslin — are all incredibly funny, Carney in particular.
Fox Trot Finesse (1915)
Directed by: Maurice Morris
Starring: Sidney Drew
Run time: 15 minutes
Sidney Drew and his wife star in this dance craze comedy. Mrs. Drew, the introduction to this film states, often wrote the shorts that the pair appeared in. Though she didn’t write this one, she was obviously a pioneering female comedian! This is a fun little film, with a dance-phobic husband faking an injury to get out of having to learn the fox trot, until his lie comes back to bite him. It’s a pretty good satire of fads and collective obsessions.
A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
Directed by: Laurence Trimble
Starring: John Bunny
Run time: 13 minutes
An interesting tidbit from the textual intro to this film: star John Bunny’s acting process was similar to the now-famous Method, and he is quoted as saying “If you can manage to be the character you’re impersonating, feel it so thoroughly that you transform yourself for the moment, your actions will tell more than you realize.” Ahead of his time, this one! Here he appears as a man whose wife is trying to break him of a bad gambling habit. Bunny is very funny here, but many scenes are stolen by Flora Finch in the role of his scheming wife.
Be My Wife (1921)
Directed by: Max Linder
Starring: Max Linder (Triple threat alert: He wrote it, too!)
Run time: 55 minutes
This story is all too familiar to modern audiences: Boy and girl are in love. An authoritative family member of girl disapproves and attempts to sabotage the relationship. Boy tries his darnedest to win over his lady-friend’s family. Even in the silent era it was a fairly common plot (see: A Sailor-Made Man, also released in 1921). This one’s set apart by the multi-talented Max Linder (aka Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle), who the Slapstick Encyclopedia notes as “the first world-famous film comedian.” His talents for writing, acting and directing are all very apparent here. There are a number of great gags here, and a super-adorable puppy, and a classic chase sequence.
A Natural Born Gambler (1916)
Directed by: Bert Williams
Starring: Bert Williams (Another triple threat! Writer, director, star!)
Run time: 22 minutes
An here, we have our first incredibly non-PC film in the bunch — many heavily made-up actors, playing highly stereotypical characters. This film is not one that should be dismissed, though, as it is historically significant. Bert Williams, the West Indian star/filmmaker of A Natural Born Gambler, was given complete creative control of his films beginning in 1915. He produced, starred in, wrote AND directed them.