Combustible Celluloid
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With: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Fatty Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, Wallace Beery, Edgar Kennedy, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, Ben Turpin, Billy Bevan, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, Mack Swain, The Keystone Kops, The Sennett Girls
Written by: Robert Youngson
Directed by: Robert Youngson
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 81
Date: 03/29/1960

When Comedy Was King (1960)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The First Laughs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Along with his previous The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), documentary filmmaker Robert Youngson used When Comedy Was King (1960) to re-introduce modern audiences (or at least audiences of 1960) to the genius of silent-era comedy. Not only did When Comedy Was King help keep the films alive in the minds of moviegoers, but it also helped spur the concept of saving and restoring these films.

In the doc, Youngson shows some great films that I was already familiar with, such as Buster Keaton's Cops, Laurel and Hardy's Big Business, Chaplin's debut film Kid Auto Races at Venice, and Fatty Arbuckle's Fatty and Mabel Adrift, but it also showed some that I hadn't seen and was not familiar with, including a Harry Langdon short that was new to me.

I was also familiar with some of the lesser-known stars of the era, including Charley Chase, who appears in a movie-theater related short that opens this film, and Chester Conklin, with his famous walrus moustache. Certainly the (uncredited?) narrator that keeps piping up and talking over the shorts isn't necessarily always wanted (although he does give a shout-out to the great film critic James Agee, who published an essential 1949 essay on silent comedy). And, weirdly, he references "the three great comedy geniuses of the day," with no mention of the fourth, Harold Lloyd. But I still had a wonderful time watching this film.

The quality of When Comedy Was King is surprisingly good; DVD distributor Sprocket Vault promises on the box cover of its 2017 release that it's restored from the original negative. I had been expecting some blurry footage transferred from old video, but these clips look fairly fresh, even if they are adorned with sound effects and not-always-terrific music. Historian Richard M. Roberts offers a fact-laden, but not exactly professionally recorded, commentary track. The disc also offers three rare 2-reel comedy shorts as a bonus feature.

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