Rob Farr wrote:The fact that post-war compilation features like Gaslight Follies, Variety Time and Down Memory Lane made heavy use of silent comedy clips suggests that there was an interest in this kind of stuff even before Agee's article came out. Within a year or two after Agee, anyone with a television could see hundreds of silent comedies retrofitted with music tracks. Even Ham & Bud had a TV revival thanks to Marlu Television! Most folks in this group weren't even born in 1949, but less reading Life magazine. If anything, our young sensibilities were formed by the holy triumvirate of Youngson, Everson and Maltin with booster shots of Funny Manns to make sure the addiction took hold.
Absolutely, in fact, the real truth that the Nitratevile Nitwits are completely clueless about is the fact that silent comedies really never went away from public view, always remaining in some form or another. As far as television is concerned, the Weiss Brothers were selling prints of their short comedies to television from 1947 on, Milton Menell was supplying the Howdy Doody Show with silent comedy footage from 1949 on, the Doody Show ran a daily silent comedy spot for years, ten minutes of a silent comedy on NBC five days a week! Think that didn’t influence a whole generation of youthful comedy fans? Then Menell syndicated hundreds of silent comedy shorts through Mar-Lu Telefilms that saw action on regional kids shows across the Country, then Charlie Tarbox’s Film Classic Exchange joined in as well syndicating kid comedies and other silent comedy material. Then it was the MISCHIEF MAKERS, COMEDY CAPERS, FUNNY MANNS, CHUCKLEHEADS, etcetera, et cetera, on through the sixties. A whole new generation of silent comedy fans had grown up and was primed to make Robert Youngson’s GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY a surprise hit in 1958.
However, the eternally clueless that populate and pollute Nitratevile also never come close to realizing that silent comedy had another venue that kept them before a lot of public eyes even in the 1930’s and 40’s and that was the growing and popular home-movie and non-theatrical markets. The successful Kodascope Libraries and Bell and Howell Show-at-Home rental companies, along with literally hundreds of other rental companies nationwide kept these films in circulation for decades! And what were the most popular films in those libraries catalogs: comedies and westerns, a majority of them silent. Those films were shown in schools, churches, public libraries, the YMCA (who had several of the largest 16mm rental libraries in the country), amusement parks, bars, restaurants, and living rooms all over the US where and when home movie enthusiasm was hitting it’s peak, post-WW2 and through the 50’s and 60’s. Everyone who grew up in that era will remember a parent of family member with a 16mm or 8mm projector who would have a Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy reel in among the Family Kodachromes, or rented Kodascope reels from the local camera store. What does one think the reason all those lovely Kodascope prints we hold so dear today were made for? Silent comedies looked just fine on the mostly-silent Kodascope projectors that sold like hotcakes back then.
One could even buy those films outright, remember, all those home movie suppliers like Castle, Official, Blackhawk, Film Classics Exchange, et all have histories extending back sometimes even into the late 1920’s, the last two starting as rental libraries and moving into the printing and selling of vintage movie material even before WW2 and prospered because, in those days before television, home movies did indeed become a popular fad, and continued for quite awhile, and the faces of silent comedy continued to be familiar to new generations even in these “dark ages” before Mr. Agee’s supposed enlightenment.
So no, Mr. Agee did not single handedly revive interest in Silent Comedy, that article came out in Life Magazine’s September 5, 1949 issue, then disappeared until seeing book form in 1952 in AGEE ON FILM II, a book that did not sell worth a damn until reprints for film studies classes in the 1960’s, and by then, the interest in Silent Comedy was in it’s fullest bloom. Mr. Agee’s influence was small indeed, one Chaplin and one Lloyd reissue, and no major clamors for further theatrical pulls from those libraries for years to come, and to say Agee is responsible for the resurgence of Buster Keaton’s career is absolute piffle.
One man and one man alone was responsible for Buster Keaton’s return to national and international fame and that was Buster Keaton, who had already started working in television before Agee’s article came out and as an early and rather talented pioneer in that medium found himself in demand, not because of Agee’s article, but because he was one of the funniest things on early television and the older folk did indeed remember him. The renewed interest in Keaton’s silent work, apart from sporadic showings of THE GENERAL and THE NAVIGATOR at MOMA and the Eastman House (and as Mr. Hayde said, that at the time being barely a step or two up from being the equivalent of the “ubernerds watching 16mm movies in their basements”) didn’t happen until the early 60’s, and by then Keaton had already become a national figure and busily working celebrity again.
So we’ll leave Mr. Agee and COMEDY’S GREATEST ERA to the academics and the Nitratevile Nincompoops who ape them, both groups too narrowly focused to look beyond and too ignorant and unwilling to see the big historical picture so would rather worship what is indeed, a quaint, but very outdated piece, and the tiny pocket of a very big comedy film industry it discussed. They deserve no better.
RICHARD M ROBERTS