Saturday, November 19, 2011

The EYE Film Institute Presents Silent Film Comedy Online


The EYE Film Institute is in the process of digitizing their collection of silent films to make these rare works available on-line. One of the films already available is Hurry Up (1922), which features a somber-faced Jimmie Adams as a harried commuter. This one-reel comedy from Educational's Cameo series was directed by Fred Fishback, one of the great craftsman of silent film comedy. Among the major comedy stars to benefit from Fishback's many talents were Lloyd Hamilton, Mack Swain, Polly Moran and Baby Peggy (my Facebook friend, Diana Serra Cary).

Hurry Up produces laughs by transforming a commuter's struggle to get to work on time into a daredevil adventure. First, a train leaves the station without Adams.

Adams, determined to catch up to the train, scales a trestle to reach the top of a bridge and then leaps from the bridge onto the train as it speeds past.



Adams' problems are not over as he has to transfer to a trolley. Adams manages to get on board the trolley before anyone else, but a horde of passengers pack the vehicle so tightly that he gets pushed out on the other side.

Adams makes an effort to board a second trolley, but he cannot find the slightest space into which he can squeeze himself. He is left at the side of the road by the trolley, which departs with more than a dozen passengers hanging off its side.


Adams is less willing to give up when the next trolley comes along. He hangs off the side of the trolley by holding tightly onto another passenger's suspenders. When the suspenders snap, he goes tumbling back into the street.

Adams proceeds to dodge heavy rush hour traffic as he races on foot to his office. The nonstop race manages, under Fishback's skillful direction, to be both thrilling and funny. Fishback must have seen a great deal of humor in mass transit as he also dealt with the subject in Baby Peggy's The Straphanger (1922) and Lloyd Hamilton's Crushed (1924).

Another good film made available by the EYE Film Institute is Worries and Wobbles (1917). The film, written and directed by Larry Semon, imaginatively uses trick photography to convey the distorted perspective of a man who has had too much to drink. The drunken man is played by Jimmy Aubrey (pictured with an overturned soup bowl on his head on the cover of The Funny Parts). The premise of the film was not new, having previously served as the basis of Too Much Champagne (1908) and Distilled Spirits (1915). Key elements of the film can be traced further back to Georges Méliès' The Bewitched Inn (1897), which attributes the strange visions of the protagonist to supernatural spirits rather than distilled spirits. Specific gags from Worries and Wobbles were clearly carried over from The Bewitched Inn, including articles of clothing coming to life and a chair moving away as a man bends to sit down.


An optical effect used to open the film makes it seem as if the street is tilting in one direction and then the other as Aubrey staggers home. The Haunted House (1908), a Méliès-style film made by Segundo de Chomón, includes an entire room that dips back and forth in a similar manner (again, due to supernatural forces).


The de Chomón film also features its own inanimate objects that come to life, including a teapot that pours tea of its own volition.

A unique addition to Worries and Wobbles is a liquor bottle that comes to life, manifesting skinny arms and the bare outline of a face. Intolerant of a man who cannot hold his liquor, the bottle literally thumbs its nose at Aubrey. The film improves upon Méliès' old tricks and is elevated beyond these trippy effects by Aubrey, whose pratfalls and comic reactions make the procceedings all the more funnier.


I must add, too, that the print quality is excellent. Take this scene for example. The fact that details of houses far in distance are distinctly visible gives the scene a depth, realism and immediacy that is lacking in so many degraded prints.

I enjoyed a number of other comedies from the EYE collection, including The No-Account Count (1914), Operating on Cupid (1915) and Almost a Scandal (1915).

The No-Account Count (1914) unites the most shapely of ladies, Ethel Teare, with the most mugging of comedians, John E. Brennan. Brennan, posing as a count, is set to marry Teare until the real count shows up and spoils his plans. Brennan is determined to break up the new nuptials planned for his former fiancé and the count. He comes up with the perfect plan when he sees that Teare is secretly wearing a wig.


At the wedding, a snickering Brennan yanks off the bride's wig just as the couple is about to exchange vows. Teare is better off, though, as it turns out that the count is a black-hearted fortune hunter.


In Operating on Cupid (1915), Dr. Cutem (Neal Burns) needs to perform surgery on the patient in Room 9, but he reads his instructions from the wrong angle and thinks he is supposed to operate on the patient in Room 6. The fact that this patient is a romantic rival makes the doctor eager to cut into him.


A few other films caught my attention. Florence Turner plays a weepy lady in the Vitagraph comedy She Cried (1912).


Charlie Chaplin, in animated form, gets fried in the electric chair in Charley's Electric Dream (1916).


Larry Semon guides Hughie Mack through an early "high and dizzy" comedy, The Man from Egypt (1916).

Billie Rhodes (far left) is the charming star of Somebody's Widow (1918).

Also featured in the film is clean-shaven, pre-Sennett Billy Bevan (on the left).

Neely Edwards is so annoying that he gets socked in the face in Accidents Will Happen (1922). Wouldn't it be great to be able to punch annoying people?


Harold Lloyd kept it believable when he was perched precariously atop the ledge of a skyscraper.  But Edwards, as Hughie Mack had before him, was able to take a dive off a tall building without suffering the slightest injury.


 A comic duel from Almost a Scandal (1915) will be useful for an essay that I am writing on Billie Ritchie for an upcoming book.


I understand that, for the EYE Film Institute, this is just the beginning of the archive holdings to be uploaded on the net. I look forward to their other films with the greatest of anticipation.