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DVDs: Slapstick comedy, Asian oddity, classic Bogey

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

The DVDs have been piling up so let's get to them.

The Slapstick Symposium: The Charley Chase Collection, the Harold Lloyd Collection, Vol. 2 and The Oliver Hardy Collection

For any fan of silent slapstick comedy, these three new collections from Kino on Video will provide hours of entertainment. For students of film history, the three sets also shed light on the careers of these three stars.

For me, the standout volume was the one featuring Charley Chase, the least remembered of the three comedians. Chase, as the short documentary included on the disc explained, was not only a performer, but a talented writer and director as well whose career extended to the end of the 1930s.

Teamed with director Leo McCarey at the legendary Hal Roach Studios, Chase turned out short comedies that featured some outrageous gags that had me laughing out loud. His on-screen character was the dapper young man who frequently found himself in trouble with members of the opposite sex. His Wooden Wedding from 1925 is a great example of this as he abandons his fiance at the altar when a friend informs she has a "wooden leg!"

Clever, surprising and sometimes politically incorrect, the Chase shorts are a lot of fun.

The Harold Lloyd collection has 10 of his short subjects and shows Lloyd in the films that launched him to stardom. Lloyd played a character described by many film historians as "All American" a young man who is able to succeed over many obstacles. These shorts feature that character who may be nave or over-his-head, but doesn't let that stand in his way.

Lloyd had great timing as a comic and performed many of his own stunts. These shorts are a great education for anyone who has seen one of his features such as Safety Last or Speedy.

The least successful of these collections is the one that features Oliver Hardy in films before his pairing with Stan Laurel. Hardy was a veteran-supporting player when he met Laurel, and appeared in films with comics Larry Semon and Chaplin impersonator Bobby Ray.

Some of these films are almost painful to watch today, as the stars were not among the top tier of the comedy world. Laurel and Hardy fans, though, will undoubtedly want to check this collection out.

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Save the Green Planet

This Korean film is marketed as a sort of wacky, funny offbeat movie about a young man who is convinced aliens from Andromeda are coming to destroy the Earth. He must learn their plan to thwart their invasion, and he has kidnapped the head of a huge chemical company who he believes is an alien.

He plans to torture the industrialist until he gives up his secrets.

Let me assure you that this film is not wacky or fun. It's a grim little meditation on obsession with a generous amount of gore tossed in. Sledge hammers, sandpaper and menthol rub all figure prominently in the proceedings.

I love Asian films, but watching this one was work hard work.

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We're No Angels

Here's a great classic. Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray star as three escaped prisoners on Devil's Island in the 1890s, determined to get back onto a boat to Paris. They've made it over the wall and now must figure out a way to escape the guards combing the island for them and get into the waiting ship in the harbor.

By accident, they are mistaken as three trustees who are supposed to work in the shop run by a kindly Ducotel family. The warmth and consideration shown by the family inspires the cons to help them when their mean old uncle, the owner of the business played by Basil Rathbone comes to inspect the books.

Tough guy Bogart did few comedies, but he's on the money in this delightful film as are his co-stars. Directed by Michael Curtiz, We're No Angels is a great little movie with a Christmas theme.

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Laughing in the Wind

Okay, this Chinese television series (the two disc set features 10 one-hour episodes) is very popular in its native country and could gain an underground following in this country among hardcore Asian film fans.

I say, "hardcore" because this wuxia production requires some attention in order to fully understand it an accessible Jackie Chan or Jet Li film this is not!

"Wuxia" is the Chinese literary tradition of stories set in the Ming Dynasty that recount the fierce competition between followers of various disciplines of kung fu. Wuxia is full of melodrama and fantasy that some Western audiences have difficulty accepting, although I find their conventions as no more unbelievable as the cowboy or cop that never reloads his gun or the car chases with axle-breaking jumps.

Laughing has a real soap opera component to it as well that undoubtedly helped hook its loyal Chinese audience. The story starts with little introduction, so a non-Chinese viewer might feel a little lost and the subtitles leave a little to be desired, but it was a pretty fascinating viewing experience.

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Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere

I'm actually old enough to have seen a serial in a theater (Batman at a 1962 kiddy matinee in Montgomery Alabama) and I loved this now defunct movie genre ever since. The newest serial release is Captain Video, a 15-chapter science fiction opus from Columbia Studios.

A note to the non-geezers: Serials were adventure or action movies which unfolded one 15 to 20 minute chapter at a time over a weekly basis. Each installment ended with a "cliffhanger" or an unresolved ending.

In the early 1950s, one of the most popular shows for children on television was Captain Video, a daily science fiction show on the Dumont Network. Columbia produced a movie version of the show in 1951 and it's a hoot.

Serials were never big-budget affairs and frequently were long on action and short on plot and characterization. Republic Studios generally made the best and Columbia made the worst, especially under the auspices of producer Sam Katzman who was noted for his low budgets.

However, Captain Video, unlike other Katzman productions I've seen, is fun. Captain Video (Judd Holdren) is in a life and death fight with Vultura, dictator of the planet Atoma, who is bent in taking over the earth. Silly costumes, improbable story lines, and not-so special special effects are actually some of the pluses in this production.

Captain Video is an engaging, entertaining, cheesy depiction of the struggle between interplanetary good and evil. Thank you VCI Entertainment for another outstanding blast from the past.

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