The first of a series of compilation features by Robert Youngson, THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY made silent comedy respectable again and helped elevate the status of Laurel and Hardy as major players of the silent years. In fact, given that Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd do not appear in this tribute to the good old days of the silent clowns, the Laurel and Hardy scenes are, by default, the highlights.
Not that Stan and Ollie are the entire show. The film begins with amusing clips from from Mack Sennett comedies, mainly featuring Billy Bevan, one of those comedians whose face was hidden underneath funny makeup to help hide the fact that he was not, in and of himself, intrinsically funny. Most of the Mack Sennett scenes feature mechanical gags aided by trick photography, and several feature players who were loved in their day but who, as time revealed, really incapable of elevating the gags to an art. Watch Billy Bevan in the famous routine where he tries to eat a bowl of oyster stew only to be pestered by a live and lively oyster, and you may find yourself thinking of how much funnier later comedians like Lou Costello and Curly Howard made this bit because of their natural comic ability.
There are later sections of the film devoted to the surprisingly effective Will Rogers, a comedian most known for his verbal humor. Although also filled with camera trickery, the Will Rogers clips are effective satires on several stars of the day such as Rudolph Valentino and Tom Mix. Also fun are sections on female stars Jean Harlowe and Carole Lombard, a short scene with Charley Chase and an angry lion, and a long excerpt from the Harry Langdon short The Luck O' The Foolish, in which the baby-faced comedian gets into various tangles with other passengers on a train.
But it is Laurel and Hardy who hold the film together. Well-chosen and edited scenes from fims such as Two Tars, The Battle of the Century, The Second Hundred Years and other great silent shorts highlight the artistry, timing and personality of the comedy team that would become the world's favorite. The film's climax is from their short You're Darn Tootin' in which a minor spat between the boys escalates into a mass bystander orgy of shin kicking and pants ripping.
It is easy to criticize some of the narration, or perhaps some of the choices of clips used, not only in this film but in all the Youngson compilations. However, at the time, audiences had not seen silent comedy like this in years except possibly for short clips with wiseguy narration used as television filler. In this film, Youngson presented the art of silent comedy with respect and dignity as well as with a sense of humor, and both critics and audiences responded enthusiastically. Eventually, the Youngson films would run their course and become passé themselves, but for what they did, and how well most of them still hold up, they remain an important part of film history. - JB