WHEN COMEDY WAS KING: Sprocket Vault DVD Review

A Silent-era Tribute to the ORIGINAL Original Kings of Comedy

When Comedy Was King is now available on DVD from The Sprocket Vault, a new label highlighting rare and obscure classic films.

Here’s a film that needs a little explaining. While its content is mostly from the 1920s, When Comedy Was King is actually a 1960 feature celebrating Silent Era comedy. It could be described as a collection of classic black and white shorts stitched into a feature-length compilation with additional sound effects and voice-over, but it’s also much more than that.

Produced, written, and directed by Robert Youngson, When Comedy Was King ultimately acts a sort of loose documentary, as the narrator not only keeps the shorts moving along zippily, but provides commentary on the legendary stars and directors of the Silent Era, as well as historical context for some of the on-screen antics.

These shorts were already considered old-fashioned in 1960, some of them more than 40 years old (and all of them over 30). What’s particularly interesting about this format is that now, another half-century later, this modernized take has itself has become a product of antiquity; a window into the attitudes of two different eras.

Purists may balk at the edited nature of these shorts in compilation form, but there’s great value in this presentation as When Comedy Was King is, first and foremost, a terrific primer for silent comedy. I’ve seen vastly more silent films than the average person, but even so I’m well aware that my familiarity is strictly novice level. Sure, I know some Chaplin and Keaton, but there’s a whole world of this stuff waiting to be discovered.

Speaking of Chaplin and Keaton, you’ll find both of them here — along with lots of other screen clowns ranging from instantly recognizable to virtually unknown in modern times — Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Kops, Fatty Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Ben Turpin, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, and many others.

The film also provides a look at early examples of well-known gags and tropes, like a woman chained to a train track by a mustachioed evildoer, or that old classic, the pie-toss.

As the film’s narration points out, many of these old shorts were shot quickly and without the time or budget for multiple takes. That immediacy (combined with an appalling disregard for safety) gives these films an anarchic, full-throttle energy that is unique to this era.

The Package

The DVD’s cover boasts “restored from the original negative”, and while I have no point of reference, the quality seems pretty good in my opinion. Since it’s a collection of particularly old films (the oldest weighing in at just over a century!), the picture quality varies a lot based upon the original sources and their individual preservation, but this is a solid DVD.

Special Features and Extras

Commentary by historian Richard M. Roberts

Bonus Shorts (51:07)
The disc comes with three extra silent shorts in their original presentation (no voiceover or effects).

An Elephant on His Hands (1920)
Dot Farley receives a large inheritance from his uncle in India, on the condition that he care for the deceased’s pets — turns out they’re elephants. I found this one unfunny and exhausting.

Fast and Furious (1925)
Lige Conley and Spencer Bell star in this slapstick affair as a pair of grocery store employees who get roped into a wild chase. This is a fun film with amusing jokes and eye-opening train stunts, though some of the era’s gags involving Bell (who is black) will play as minstrelry to modern viewers.

Heavy Love (1926)
Comedy troupe “The Three Fatties” play inept carpenters who build a house with disastrous consequences. Of the three shorts, this slapstick-filled physical comedy extravaganza probably holds up the best.

While some segments run longer than others, When Comedy Was King moves along nicely thanks to the mostly welcome narration. I had very little idea of what to expect when I received this screener, but this is a great recommendation for anyone seeking a breezy introduction to silent-era comedy. More seasoned aficionados will likely enjoy this as well, but may ultimately be more interested in the unaltered original films.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
When Comedy Was King — [DVD]

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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