Sitting in the archives at this very moment are hundreds, if not thousands, of one- and two-reel silent comedies. At one time, these slapsticks were presumed the only silents worth excavating—the lone unembarrassing artifacts of a primitive, prepubescent era. The comedies found their praises sung by every film expert from James Agee to Jim Broughton. No less than the head of UCLA’s film school declared the “Obsolescence of the Silent Film” and dared his readers to “[t]ry to see, if you can, any silent film—except a comedy with Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd, Raymond Griffith or Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon or Laurel and Hardy—and you will wonder why people thought it at all bearable, let alone great.”
The scales have shifted since—not least through our perpetual acquaintance with these films on 16mm and 8mm. (Dig through any film collector’s basement and it won’t be long till you find a dupe or two or three of Easy Street or Cops.) It’s the discoveries—the once “presumed lost” titles from studios not usually known for comedies—that really strain. Run two or three of them back-to-back and let the derangement begin. (May I suggest His Baby Doll and The Camera Cure, both Triangles from 1917?) Try to remember where one ends and the next begins. Slap another title on the head and you can barely tell the difference. It all feels vaguely second-hand, if not plagiarized, but from what?