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Silent Comedy, Drew Barrymore’s Uncle, More

The conventional wisdom regarding the early days of cinema is that five major studios – Paramount, Fox, Universal, MGM and Warner Bros. – were responsible for key innovations in Hollywood cinema, such as the star system, the birth of feature films and the creation of national and international distribution networks. In fact, the now largely forgotten Vitagraph Studios did all of these things before the five majors even existed, but the company’s eventual demise and sale to Warner Bros. in 1925 (where it was renamed Vitaphone and established as an independent unit to produce the first short films) led to its near erasure from mainstream cinema history.

Viggo Mortensen in
“The Great Lillian Room”

While intrepid souls like film historians Andrew A. Erish and Anthony Slide have attempted to raise awareness and maintain prominence for Vitagraph’s contributions, their efforts have often been hampered by the rarity of the films themselves – even for those of us interested in Vitagraph’s output, their releases have been extremely difficult to access. This situation has now been partially remedied by the release of “Vitagraph Comedies”, an essential Blu-ray collection featuring over nine hours of short films with contextualized audio commentaries for each Slide film. Spanning the years 1907-1922, the set contains one major discovery after another, revealing an entire generation of American comedy stars who preceded or existed alongside the better-known Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

The films exist thanks to the tireless efforts of archivists and historians at the Library of Congress, who planned the new collection according to their holdings. Moving Images Curator Rob Stone began by going through the library archives and pulling out anything labeled as a Vitagraph comedy; the films were then handed over to preservation specialist Lynne Schweighofer and nitrate film vault manager George Willeman, who were tasked with scanning and digitally reconstructing the materials – no simple task given the rough condition in which there were many films, some of them now obsolete. formats like 28 mm. Many of the library’s holdings were in a serious state of disrepair, leading to a worldwide search for additional materials from archives such as the British Film Institute, UCLA and the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands. In some cases, masters were assembled from multiple sources in a wide range of formats: film is made up of 35mm, 16mm and VHS nitrate elements.

One of the fun things about the “Vitagraph Comedies” collection is the breadth of styles on display; from the start, the studio clearly tampered with both the modest physical comedy one often associates with the era and the more sophisticated social satire, and both forms are generously represented on the Blu-ray – as are the films like “The Disintegrated Convict.” an example of filmmakers cleverly experimenting with practical and optical effects as early as 1907. There are also films featuring important early comics from the likes of John Bunny, Frank Daniels and the talented physical actress Edith Storey. Although some of these films have more historical than entertainment value, Storey’s films (“Jane Was Worth It,” “Jane’s Bashful Hero”) have aged beautifully and are still hilarious – and the fact that they exist is a small a miracle, because many of the documents in the Library of Congress and the George Eastman House decayed but yielded new observable copies when their best elements were combined.

Edith floor
“Jane’s Shy Hero”Lorber Cinema

One of the most influential comedy teams on “Vitagraph Comedies” is Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, a couple consisting of Sidney Drew and Lucille McVey whose films are more character-driven and more mature than the Keystone slapstick comedies that were popular at the time. time. (Fun fact: Sidney Drew was Drew Barrymore’s great-granduncle.) As film historian Rob Farr noted in his book about the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew’s pranks revolving around the Marital misunderstandings and playful pranks look forward to later popular forms. radio and television sitcoms; “I Love Lucy” may get all the credit, but Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew were there first.

While the Drew films were aimed at a fairly sophisticated audience, the powers that be at Vitagraph ultimately decided that the studio needed to compete with the big “Keystone Kops” comedies that were burning up the box office, so they brought in the physical comedian Jimmy Aubrey and director Larry Semon, specializing in large-scale comedic fights and chases. Semon’s ambitious comedies like “The Bell Hop” and “The Sawmill” are among the greatest pleasures and most surprising discoveries of the Vitagraph Comedies series, films that show how far the world of silent comedy is going. beyond the usual suspects. This is true for the collection as a whole, which serves as a reminder of the vital function that institutions like the Library of Congress play in preserving our cinematic heritage and provides an invaluable opportunity to see their work in action.

Vitagraph Comedies is currently available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.