Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Four Clowns (1970)

Robert Youngson made a career out of repackaging old silent movie clips into feature films. It was a talent that managed to keep interest in the films alive as we moved into widescreen color films with stereophonic sound.It was a talent that also won Youngson two Oscars for his short films.

I am a fan of several of the Youngson films. I love Days of Thrills and Laughter, a wonderful look back at silent films which fueled my passion for silents. I also love his When Comedy was King and The Golden Age of Comedy which showed me how funny silent comedy could be. (All three films will be reviewed here at Unseen)

The final feature film from Youngson is a mixed bag. The problem with Youngson's films is that in trying to cover the same artists, say Laurel and Hardy, who appear in numerous of his films, each new film had less material to work with since Youngson rarely if ever repeated clips.

This film takes a look at four of the screens great silent clowns, Laurel and Hardy (both separately and together), the criminally under appreciated Charley Chase and Buster Keaton (Its the inclusion of Keaton that is the reason for this film being placed at the midpoint of a week of Keaton films). Its a funny film but it suffers from some unevenness in clip choice, in particular at the start.

The film opens with a look at the early work of Laurel and Hardy. We get some clips of Hardy working in a couple of different films with out Laurel, including working as a Fatty Arbuckle/Eric Campbell style foil for Billie West one of the most successful Charlie Chaplin impersonators. Hardy is merely okay, and the clips are nothing special other than to show how good and how bad Billie West could Chaplin.

The Stan Laurel clips are worse. The set pieces are fine, but Laurel has no screen presence of his own. While it's true that he was in many ways the equal of Chaplin in working out gags and performing them (He was after all Chaplin's stand in in the Fred Karno troupe, where he was so good you couldn't tell them apart), he never really manged to establish any screen personality or presence until he hooked up with Hardy.

Once we get the clips of the two of them together we do get some good sequences, including a funny bit with a gum ball machine from Two Tars (which is a funny film that ends with a traffic jam that turns in to a mass auto wrecking) as well as hysterical clip of Hardy trying to get pants for the kilt clad, and very ticklish Laurel. These final clips are the real treat of the first third of the film and show you how good the pair could be in set pieces.

From there we about half an hour of clips from the films of Charley Chase. Chase was a dapper sort of fellow who played a sort of everyman. He was the guy we all aspired to be but with the faults we can never shake.

The highlights of the sequence is a bit involving two people in separate rooms with an adjoining bathroom. He is planning on using it to shave and wash up, she is going to shower. As each wanders n and out unaware of the other person they are confused by changes in the bathroom. Who took my towel? Didn't I leave the water on sort of things. Its a masterpiece of comic timing.

The other bit that is wonderful is a long piece about how a naked woman ends up in Charley's car on the way to his wedding. Complications ensue with a passerby and the appearance of a cop. Its classic and damn funny.

The film concludes with the work of Buster Keaton. Instead of getting any sort of greatest hit clip job, we get a condensed version of Keaton's classic Seven Chances. The plot of Seven Chances, about a bachelor who must get married or be disinherited, may seem familiar since it's based on a classic play which was used as the basis for dozens of films including the Bachelor with Chris O'Donnell.

Youngson's scissor work isn't bad and it manages to cut down the 56 feature to about 37 minutes without losing anything. All of the jokes are here, at least all of the ones I remember including the huge army of pissed off potential brides chasing Keaton across the city. If you want to see a classic Keaton feature but don't have a lot of time this is the best way to do it. (yes I know it's sacrilege to say it but it's true.)

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