The immediate sequel to the surprisingly successful documentary THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, WHEN COMEDY WAS KING showcases some of the silent screen's greatest comedians, including Charlie Chaplin,and Buster Keaton. It is not a history of silent film, but rather a compilation of many funny and frantic moments, highlighted by abridgments of several classic shorts.
The Chaplin segments, taken from his early years at Keystone, are far from prime Charlie, but they do tend to show how much personality Chaplin had compared to other Keystone stars. In fact, most of the Keystone footage, with or without Charlie, displays how little producer Mack Sennett was interested in personality and actual gags, concentrating instead on pure wild, unmotivated mechanical action. The one exception is a beautifully executed sight gag where journeyman comedian Billy Bevan, pushing his broken-down car down the street, unknowingly keeps picking up car after car until he accidentally pushes an entire line of cars off a cliff. An example of a well-thought out gag sequence, it is not surprising to learn it was devised by Frank Capra, would would go on to become one of Hollywood's most talented directors.
Though funny, much of the Keystone footage stands in complete contrast to excerpts from some shorts from producer Hal Roach, including one previously forgotten little gem called A Pair of Tights, a comedy about two guys, two gals, some ice cream and an irate cop. Starring Edgar Kennedy, Stuart Erwin, Anita Garvin and the unjustly forgotten comedienne Marion Byron, A Pair of Tights is as close to a Laurel and Hardy film as you can get without Laurel and Hardy.
"The Boys" themselves, of course, are represented in this documentary, with a large excerpt from the classic Laurel and Hardy essay on neighborly relations and personal destruction Big Business forming the film's climax. The Roach stuff, especially A Pair of Tights and the Laurel and Hardy footage, shows the timing, logic and intelligence that Roach brought to silent comedy. Even when the stars were not intrinsically funny themselves (Snub Pollard, for example), Roach and his gag men had a knack for making funny films anyway.
For many silent comedy fans, there is everything else and then there is Buster Keaton. So for Keaton fans, producer Robert Youngson offers a nicely abridged version of Cops, one of Keaton's visual masterpieces, in which he is chased by dozens and dozens of cops, escaping them in the kind of ways only Keaton could conceive.
Other silent favorites such as Harry Langdon and Charley Chase are showcased, though the film never even mentions or shows Harold Lloyd, who reportedly would not allow Youngson access to his films. A pity for Lloyd. Like THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, WHEN COMEDY WAS KING helped revive interest in silent films and make Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton favorites for a new generation of filmgoers. Although the narration is often intrusive (do you really want to hear about scandal and death while watching the lovable stars of old hit people with pies and ice cream?), the music and sound effects are wonderfully evocative. WHEN COMEDY WAS KING is a perfect starting place for movie fans who want to know what the days of silent comedy were like. ½- JB