All that glitters is not gold, and there is a fair amount of dross in this anthology of the great comic moments of the silent films. Considered purely as entertainment, The Golden Age of Comedy proves the thesis that movies are better than ever; a few scenes of undeniable hilarity (almost all of them shown in the preview last week) are surrounded by interminable stretches of "classic" but boring sequences.
But this film will have, for the host of avid movie experts, the same kind of historic interest that the picaresque novel contains for the smaller group of people who still read novels. One cannot fully appreciate the modern motion picture without having some idea of the laff riots of yesteryear, when faces served principally as background for pies, and pants could be counted on to be torn off in the middle of Main Street.
The conception of comedy as presented here is generally quite low, resting on the two assumptions that all discomfort is a source of humor, and that any action can be made funny if it is repeated often enough. The best examples are the more subtle representations of these simple precepts: a woman walking away from having sat on a pie, not knowing that it was a pie; or the mass exposure of unfaithful husbands.
The best parts of the film, however, do not come under the sight gag category. Then, as now, parody was one of the movies' strongest sources of comedy, whether it was Will Rogers playing Robin Hood, or Ben Turpin as the latin lover. The best visual humor, only fleetingly dealt with here, was really the "dictionary of facial expressions" which could turn answering the telephone into a momentous occasion.
Besides the frequent tedium, there was a major sin of omission by not including any Chaplin in this movie. Despite the fact that he is well-known and represented elsewhere, it leaves a gaping hole, and deprives the film of what would probably have been its greatest sections. In lieu of him, the narration elevates Laurel and Hardy, who appear much too often, to the position of chief gods of silent comedy, a claim which cannot be taken seriously by anyone who has seen this movie.
The most disappointing aspect of the film is that it dispels the illusion that there was a golden age of comedy. The high points may have been classic, the conventions legendary, the faces immortal, but even these excerpts show an astonishing puerility and lack of invention. The only nostalgic portion for the younger generation is the appearance of Will Rogers, who is able to bring wit even into the silent film.
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