In one of the most interesting and important books on film history to be released this year, author James Roots offers a fascinating look at the development, the substance, and the significance of 100 comedians who starred in silent comedies. In an era when so many of the more obscure comedians’ work is readily available on DVD, a book like “The 100 Greatest Silent Film Comedians” fills a genuine need.
The book is essentially a primer, introducing people to an era of film history that has received a lot of attention, but mostly focusing on comedy buffs that already have an initial interest and some background knowledge. Gathering 100 silent comedians, ranking them as to how funny, timeless, and substantial their work is, and listing them accordingly is the perfect starting point for anyone wanting to get an initial understanding as to how vast and versatile screen comedy’s history has been.
This is not to say that the book is limited to newcomers. Old, grizzled comedy buffs will also find a great deal of merit in Roots’ study. Within the author’s subjective opinions there lurks a great amount of historical detail that is especially interesting when discussing some of the lesser known comedians on the long end of the list.
In his introduction, Roots makes note of the fact that some fringe level comedy buffs try to proclaim there is no “hierarchy” among silent screen comedians, and spends the book proving that there certainly is. Room does not allow this review to list all 100 comedians covered in this book. The initial chapters, naturally, focus on the top-level silent comics such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Roscoe Arbuckle, et.al. While this is not the most thorough examination one can find on any of these top level stars, each of them enjoying books of their own, Roots effectively discusses their work from both a historical and aesthetic perspective, including commentary on some of their noted films. The history is accurate, the assessments are interesting, and the author frequently offers a new and refreshing take on some long held beliefs.
The book becomes more valuable as it proceeds, talking about Max Davidson, Larry Semon, Fay Tincher, Louise Fazenda, John Bunny, Hank Mann, Alice Howell, Charley Murray, and James Finlayson, et. al., with an understanding of their positive aspects as well as their level of significance. The author continues with the likes of Chester Conklin, Marie Prevost, Dorothy Dwan, Al St John, and Alice Day, et. al. Finally, toward the bottom of the list, Billy Franey, Jimmy Aubrey, Neal Burns, Flora Finch, and (coming in at number 100) Cliff Bowes.
Listing 100 silent movie comedians, ranking them, and giving some historical detail with his assessment is quite an undertaking for author Roots, and he succeeds quite admirably. Unlike earlier books about silent comedians, most notably “Clown Princes and Court Jesters” by Karlton Lahue and Samuel Gill, Roots is more interested in how well these comedians, and their films, have endured over the decades rather than the impact they might have had in their own time. Many comedians whose work might have been quite popular in the 1910s or 1920s, do not hold up as well in the current era. However, some of the more obscure comedians’ work has withstood the test of time, despite their names not having lived on. Roots effectively covers all of this with an astuteness that extends beyond the subjectivity of his listing and scoring.
There are some particularly interesting passages throughout this book. For instance, James Roots indicates the fact that because he is hearing impaired, he has a unique perspective. This is especially borne out when Roots discusses the daredevil comedy action in two Harold Lloyd films – the silent classic “Safety Last” (1923) and the sound film “Feet First” (1930). Roots points out that previous studies insist that the daredevil activity in the latter film fails because it does not work in the context of a sound movie. Roots, oblivious to the sound, can still assess “Feet First” as inferior for reasons beyond audio effects, which he explains.
While this reviewer found himself in general agreement with the list and the subsequent assessments, Roots indicates early that his opinions are completely subjective and other readers may disagree. But this book is more than that. “The 100 Greatest Silent Film Comedians” is value packed with historical and critical information, not only stats and trivia, but enough assessment and discussion to make it an extremely effective primer for those with a developing interest in comedy film’s rich history.
This book is obviously recommended to silent film buffs, as even the most learned will likely gain even more knowledge, especially on the lesser known comedians. However, this book is an absolute must for any library or research center that attempts at being at all comprehensive. If a younger viewer moves past the master works of Chaplin or Keaton and discovers some of the lesser-known comedians on DVD or cable television, and it inspires a subsequent interest in knowing more about them, this book is the perfect introduction.
“The 100 Greatest Silent Film Comedians” is an extensive, thorough, fascinating look at one of the most interesting periods, and genres, in screen history. It receives the highest possible recommendation.