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A Cascade of Early Comics, Charlie Chan

Kino spotlights Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy; famous sleuth on the trail.

July 30, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it the summer of the two Charlies; vintage comedies of Charlie Chaplin and the mysteries of Charlie Chan have just hit video stories.

Kino on Video has released the second installment in its ambitious eight-volume "Slapstick Encyclopedia" ($90 for the set; $25 each) collection. The latest four volumes of silent comedy classics features 25 rib-ticklers starring such clowns as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Will Rogers, Harold Lloyd, Larry Semon, Charley Bowers and Billy Bletcher.

"Chaplin & Co.: The Music Hall Tradition" features two Chaplin shorts, his 1916 classic "The Rink" and 1915's lesser-known "A Night at the Show"--in which he plays several parts--plus a rare snippet of Chaplin from 1916 in which he conducts an orchestra.

Also featured on the tape is 1916's "Live Wires and Sparks," starring Billie Ritchie, a British music hall star from whom Chaplin heavily borrowed. "Live Wire" is the only filmic record of Ritchie's pantomime talents. "He's In Again," from 1918, stars Billy West, one of the best known Chaplin imitators. The amusing "'Pie-Eyed," from 1925, stars a pre-Oliver Hardy Stan Laurel as a very funny drunk.

"Hal Roach: The Lot of Fun" highlights the antic comedies from Hal Roach's laugh-filled studio lot, including the early Harold Lloyd comedy "Get Out and Get Under," from 1920; the 1923 Our Gang comedy "Dogs of War," which features a cameo by Lloyd; and the charming Will Rogers spoof from 1924, "Big Moments From Little Pictures."

"The Race Is On" shines the spotlight on the madcap antics and zany stunts featured in silent comedy. One of the best known shorts is 1917's "Teddy at the Throttle," which stars a very young Gloria Swanson, Wallace Berry and the amazing Teddy the dog. Monty Banks provides some chills in 1927's "Chasing Choo Choos," and Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde cause hilarious havoc under the big top in 1927's "Circus Today."

"Eight Tons of Fun: Comedy's Anarchic Fringe" highlights the crazy comedies produced at smaller, independent companies. Ben Turpin is a hoot in "Yukon Jake," a 1924 spoof of Jack London's adventure novels; lanky Larry Semon headlines and directs the frenetic 1920 comedy "The Grocery Clerk"; and the Keatonesque Charley Bowers stars in the inventive 1926 comedy "Now You Tell One."

To order any of the Kino comedy videos, call (800) 562-3330.

MGM has repackaged six Charlie Chan mysteries ($14 each) starring Sidney Toler as Earl Der Biggers' famous Asian sleuth.

Hollywood produced its first Chan mystery in 1926, but the sleuth, who worked for the Honolulu police force, didn't really catch on with moviegoers until 1931 when Fox cast Swedish actor Warner Oland in "Charlie Chan Carries On." After Oland's death in 1937, Toler took over the series and made several popular films as Chan.

Fox dropped the series in 1942, but two years later, Monogram Pictures revived the mysteries and brought back Toler, who was in his early 70s. In these outings, Chan was now working for the federal government. Added to the mix was African American comic Mantan Moreland in the stereotypical role of Chan's chauffeur Birmingham Brown. Benson Fong also was on hand as Chan's sleuthing son, Tommy.

MGM's "Chan" collection features the low-budget, rather lackluster Monogram thrillers. The films seem pretty politically incorrect in today's climate, especially since Toler isn't even Asian. Mystery fans, though, may get a kick out of the 1945 "The Shanghai Cobra," in which Chan investigates several murders caused by lethal snake bites. It was directed by the well-respected Phil Karlson ("Hell to Eternity").

The 1944 "Meeting at Midnight" (also known as "Black Magic") is an OK mystery involving a murder at a seance, and 1945's "Scarlet Clue" is a tolerable entry in which Chan is searching for some lost radar plans.

Toler died in 1947 and Roland Winters took over. The series, though, ran out of steam in 1949.

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