Deck the Halls December: A Hal Roach Christmas
It's December, the time of year when the whole world gets nostalgic. There is no better time to watch classic movies with a Christmas theme. Join Rodney and Adam as they discuss three Hal Roach silent comedies.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: This week, we decided to try something new. There isn’t a lot of silent material based around the holidays, but there is a trio of Hal Roach comedy short subjects. Being the kinds of people that we are, this seemed like a plenty logical choice for us, so we tracked down the three shorts from various sources and sat down on a cold winter’s day (it actually was cold on this day) for a little silent comedy festival. What fun!
ADAM WILLIAMS: Indeed! Hal Roach threw notoriously elaborate Christmas parties at the Culver City studio, so it’s a little surprising that he didn’t produce more shorts taking place during the Yuletide season. Nevertheless, this collection is a trifecta; each short is a clear winner.
RB: The three shorts, starting with Good Cheer (1926) with Our Gang all feature similar casts, as you’d expect from Hal Roach shorts. I always find it to be great fun to see the same stock players from Roach films pop up time and again. Charlie Hall makes appearances in two of the three shorts as does Martin “Tonnage” Wolfkeill. Noah Young too!
What really impresses me about this program that we put together is that we have three different takes on the holiday season. Good Cheer (1926) deals with the gang seeming pretty destitute and one of those shorts where they seem to be potentially homeless, which always kind of troubles me because I frankly don’t find much humor in homeless kids, but I digress. Anyway, the older kids don’t believe in Santa, but they don’t want the younger kids to lose hope. Naturally, the real Santa, along with a gang of bootleggers save the day and fill the kids’ bags with loot. It’s an interesting short, and one that I did enjoy, although like so many early Our Gang shorts, there is a tinge of melancholia, that is unsettling.
AW: There’s not a wasted moment in Good Cheer. Like the torrential snowfall throughout the film, the gags start suddenly and ceaselessly pile on. You’re right, the atmosphere is pure Dickensian bleakness—rootless children in rags, rodent-infested threadbare tenement buildings, disfigurement, and crime. The flippant tone to these harsh conditions—at one point, a child with only one foot is told to be thankful he doesn’t have two freezing appendages (!)—might be startling to those expecting a mawkish Hallmark-style Christmas story. This one is short on plot but jam-packed with bizarre imagery. People (and dogs and roosters) with hot bricks strapped to their feet to stay warm. A frozen cat giving up on chasing a frozen rat. A drunkard dressed up as Santa feeding booze to his horse who’s dressed up like a reindeer. The real Santa is portrayed as a spectral figure with a malicious sense of humor, laughing and keeping score as the bootleg Santas are summarily defeated. The movie also taught me a new sneering expression, as delivered by Joe—“Aw, cranberries!”
RB: Moving on to a short that I was VERY excited to see, also from 1926, There Ain’t No Santa Claus with annual Cinevent/CMPS favorite, Charley Chase. This is not one of the easier Chase silents to see, and, yeah, I know that prints do exist in several private collections and these prints do occasionally show up at film festivals but seeing as this is one of those pesky silent Chase shorts still protected by copyright, it’s just not as easy to come by. And that’s a shame because it’s a very fun one.
AW: Ben Model and Steve Massa presented this on their YouTube channel The Silent Comedy Watch Party last year and, if you haven’t already, I suggest heading over there.
RB: The first Chase short to be directed by his brother James Parrott pretty much picks up where the Leo McCarey shorts left off. It’s essentially a 20-minute sitcom episode revolving around Charley, determined to purchase an expensive watch for his wife (Eugenia Gilbert who was Mrs. Chase in several shorts around this time). Only problem is, his landlord (Noah Young, naturally) wants the money that he is owed. Kay Deslys, whom you’ll doubtlessly recognize from lots of Roach stuff, including Chase’s masterpiece The Pip from Pittsburg, has a lovely turn as Young’s wife. The antics are fun and the situations come fast. Totally delightful from start to finish.
AW: There are some big laughs here. I’m thinking of Noah Young’s dogged attempts to catch Charley in the act of buying the watch. Charley’s slick little slide as he comes out of the jewelry store is superb physical comedy. Eleven-year-old Mickey Bennett is terrific as Noah’s little brat of a son. His disgust at opening the wrong gifts (meant for Charley’s infant girl) is hilarious! The mere sight of scrawny Charley dressed up as Santa is instant entertainment.
RB: Now, rounding out the trio, is a certifiable classic that really needs no introduction. If you’ve read this far, you’re likely familiar with the Laurel and Hardy classic Big Business (1929), but personally speaking, it had been a bit since I had seen it, so taking advantage of the yuletide season, I set out to spend some quality time with old friends. I’m at a loss to say anything here that hasn’t been said elsewhere and better. Randy Skredvedt’s landmark work Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies covers the making of this short, and every other L&H short in such depth with such readability that I hesitate to even paraphrase his excellent work. A couple of things worth noting, is to look for perennial L&H nemesis Charlie Hall as one of the neighbors (you just saw him as one of the Santa’s in Good Cheer).
AW: I agree, it is difficult to write about Laurel and Hardy’s classic two-reelers for the reason you mentioned as well as it seems futile trying to describe the utterly silly contents. If you’ve seen them all, I’ll remind you that this is the one where Stan and Ollie are going door-to-door selling Christmas Trees. If you have not seen it, let me explain that Big Business has all the elements one typically looks for in a holiday film, namely madness and violent retribution.
RB: Taken as a program of 3 shorts, this is a five-star presentation in all aspects. I would maybe concede that Good Cheer itself is maybe a three-star short, but taken as a single hour-long program, this was a completely delightful way to spend a little time. Highly recommended.
AW: To relieve the stress from the season, look no further than Dr. Roach and his little pills. They go down easy and leave you in a festive mood. Four stars…and a Merry Christmas!