Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Morbid Nostalgia of Robert Youngson (and my own)

What good are Robert Youngson's compilation features of the 1950s and 1960s today, when we have most if not all of the silent comedy shorts included, in their full length, unedited and unmarred by new sound effects, on DVD? Well, if we don't have some of them, it's time for some late additions to the Moon In The Gutter MIA parade. But the first question is still valid, and here's my answer. The Youngson films are textbook proofs of my argument that all films become documentaries in time. They are, in a way, obsolete references to the silent era whose very obsolescence makes them items of historical interest. For me personally, they are films that invited nostalgic feelings from older generations that have become objects of nostalgia in their own right.

The Youngson films were my first exposure to silent comedy. For years, the Christmas night showing of Days of Thrills and Laughter (1961) on WPIX out of New York was a ritual for me. The less frequent appearances of The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), When Comedy Was King (1959), Four Clowns (1971) and others were also special events for me. The clips were hilarious, and I enjoyed them like I think kids still would if they saw either the Youngsons or the originals. But there was something more to the compilations that gives them a distinct character that arguably allows them to stand as independent works of art, and that was Youngson's morbid sense of nostalgia -- a quality that reminds me very much, in retrospect, of the evolution of horror fandom that was happening at the same time that Youngson was at work.

I recently picked up a DVD that contained Golden Age and When Comedy Was King. I watched both in one sitting and the memories washed over me, from the recurrence of "Humoresque" as the unofficial Youngson theme to the narration most often spoken by Dwight West. Some of the opening commentary for King sets the tone I'm talking about.

As in the bygone days of vaudeville, if anything or anybody meets with your approval, we hope you will applaud. Somewhere, ghosts may be listening.

Youngson puts it in your face as often as possible that, in many cases, the people you're looking at are dead --were already dead by the 1950s. It's as if he wants to induce a sense of loss in older viewers, while the intended effect on younger viewers like me is a mystery to me. The actual effect on me, in some cases, was something like horror. He almost revels in the misfortunes of the funny folk, as when discussing Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand.

Across the lives of madcap Mabel and jolly Fatty alike were to pass the shadows of scandal, ill fortune and early death, but that, too, was the undreamed-of future in those early Keystone days.

Here's his verdict on the later silent features of Harry Langdon:

It was like a trumpeter reaching for a celestial high note beyond human range. Audiences stopped laughing, and the little fellow slipped into oblivion.

Youngson insists on the fact that Laurel and Hardy were underrated in their time, and that their "greatness was not recognized until the twilight of their lives." He then cites a New York Times editorial praising the team, then comments on the timing of it: "but that was after Oliver Hardy could no longer hear the applause." He ends the segment: "Now the Fiddle and the Bow can play no more. Time has ended the concert and the world is finally realizing how much it loved fat Oliver and skinny Stan." King itself closes moments later with a final nod to those comedians "who passed into oblivion just before the years when the world needed them most."

The narration has a split personality at times (and in Golden Age is read by two different men). Youngson will write one of these morbid passages in the middle of recounting the plot of some short, and then resumes his jaunty synopsis as if his mask had not just dropped and shown a grim reaper underneath. Here's a relatively mild sample from King describing the career of Charlie Chaplin:
The odd thing about King is that Youngson has nothing really to say about the misfortunes of one of his star attractions, Buster Keaton, whose travails had recently become the subject of a feature film. Keaton didn't even appear in Golden Age, which suggests that by following Youngson we're tracking the dramatic rise in Keaton's reputation. On the other hand, Harold Lloyd appears in neither film, and this was most likely because Lloyd wouldn't contribute clips from the films he owned (he would release two self-produced compilations in the 1960s). Lloyd isn't even mentioned in either film, but you sense a building resentment of his non-cooperation on Youngson's part. In Golden Age, he mentions in passing that Harry Langdon is one of four great geniuses of silent comedy, and knowing viewer can infer that Youngson means the canonical four of Chaplin (in King but not Golden Age, and who released his own compilation in 1958), Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. But throughout King the narrator refers to three unique geniuses and identifies them explicitly as Chaplin, Langdon and Keaton.

The bit about Lloyd was a necessary digression, but dealing with the comparative reputation of the "First Kings of Comedy" (as the DVD calls them) brings us back to one of my main points. Youngson was at work during the period when horror fandom becomes a virtual industry, or a cult if you prefer, through such influences as the Shock Theater movie packages on television and the proliferation of post-Vampira horror hosts on local TV throughout the country. Meanwhile, not only was Youngson active at the same time, but you had phenomena like the Silents, Please! program and cruder exploitation of silent comedy like the Funny Manns TV shorts. There seems to have been a parallel development of silent comedy fandom and horror fandom. The fandoms have in common a tendency toward personality cults, and here is where Youngson's morbid sensibility becomes familiar. His emphasis on the misfortunes of his stars (and he would address Keaton's troubles in later films) had me thinking, "Poor Bela!" There's a pathos involved in movie fandom in general, I guess, that enriches the work of performers or creators who are known to have had tragic or simply unfortunate or troubled lives. It's an extension of the auteur theory, in a way, since individual movies are enhanced, for cultists, by their significance for the lives of certain talent involved.

Analogies or parallels can't be exact, but it's worth noting that, around the same time, both Boris Karloff and Buster Keaton seemed to transcend their actual career circumstances to become living legends and pop culture icons, as signified, for instance, by their presence in things like AIP beach movies. In horror-man terms, Keaton was someone on a Bela-track who ended up more like a Boris, a beloved figure who finally heard fresh applause in the twilight of his life. Harry Langdon, at least as Youngson describes him, is more of a Bela, though the reality in Langdon's case was never so abject. Chaplin and Lloyd can't really be equated with Boris because they had more control over their careers than Karloff ever had, but in broad terms of public esteem they'd be "Borises" compared to underdogs like Keaton and Langdon, not to mention Arbuckle, whose scandals are so singular and historic as to render analogies with anyone irrelevant.

Looking back on them now, I suspect that Robert Youngson's films primed me to become a cult movie fan. They were my first lessons in thinking in a cultic way about movies, in seeing individual films as part of a larger story that added meaning to each episode. They hinted, perhaps without Youngson meaning it, that films could be appraised on terms other than the conventional quasi-literary ones. But there was no hinting required about Youngson's undeniable intention to use his compilations as portals into a dead world -- a world he declared dead.

It seems that the silent comedy and horror cults had about equal standing during Youngson's peak years, with comedy perhaps predominating a bit. Over time, because horror was part of a living tradition of a self-conscious genre, horror cult has had more legs than the silent comedy cult, which has become more of a specialization in a finite field. Perhaps mass appreciation of silent comedy has suffered from its paradoxical evolution into the modern action film or "roller-coaster ride" movie, which is like dinosaurs evolving into birds -- only in reverse. But I wonder whether during the 1950s and 1960s the cult promoted by Youngson and other high priests had just as much subversive potential, or subversive effect, on young minds as is claimed for the horror cult of irreverent hosts, transgressive subject matter and "sick" humor. One step toward finding out might be to learn whether other people have similar memories of similar feelings from watching the Youngson films. But if this is just an idiosyncratic experience of my own, at least you know more about the background to some of my judgments. Make of that what you will.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

I remember those Robert Youngson films myself. IIRC, 'PIX ran them in the afternoon more often than at night. Much fun. Morbid? Hardly. There used to be a time when TCM would reserve time for the silents, but I don't think they do that nowadays. More's the pity.