By Jeremy Carr.
As a silent film comedian, Horton crafted a distinctive identity, and when working under the aegis of Harold Lloyd, starring in a series of two-reel shorts for the celebrated filmmaker’s Hollywood Productions, he reveled in stories perfectly suited to his comic temperament.”
Edward Everett Horton looked funny, but that’s not meant as an insult. Quite the opposite. Horton’s penchant for befuddled faces and his famously functional double takes were part of a charmingly perplexed screen persona that endured from the silent era up to his passing in the early 1970s. Even when he gave voice to his characters (Horton’s theatrical experience made a transition to talkies relatively smooth), he nevertheless relied on a beneficial and largely physical conveyance of response. All this may be most apparent and widely recognized in his impressive supporting turns, in sound films like Trouble in Paradise (1932), Top Hat (1935), Holiday (1938), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), but Horton had been progressing his unique mien of screen comedy well before these acknowledged classics. As a silent film comedian, Horton was already crafting a distinctive identity, and when working under the aegis of Harold Lloyd, starring in a series of two-reel shorts for the celebrated filmmaker’s Hollywood Productions, he reveled in stories perfectly suited to his comic temperament, while also profiting from the expertise of Lloyd’s stock company, including stalwart writers, directors, and technicians.
Emerging from a Kickstarter campaign launched by composer and silent film authority Ben Model, eight of these films have now been digitally restored and collected in a DVD set presented by Undercrank Productions and the Library of Congress. The first, No Publicity, from 1927, was directed by N. T. Barrows and features Horton as a newspaper photographer tasked with capturing a snapshot of young socialite Sally Lawrence (Ruth Dwyer, who here and in 1928’s Scrambled Weddings is quite striking). Sally is game, but her snooty companions, gathered in “Snob-haven,” are less keen on the exposure. This is especially the case for Sally’s dowager aunt, played to stuffy perfection by Josephine Crowell (she’ll also reappear in this collection). Horton’s covert maneuverings are thwarted at every turn and he eventually finds himself donning the guise of a dowdy temperance speaker brought in to lecture on “What is wrong with our girls?” Rather convincing in the part (drag was a staple of Horton’s early comedy), he stumbles and sweats his way through the impromptu speech, trying to appease the liberated Sally as well as the conservative ladies assembled for the luncheon. And of course, the real orator ultimately shows up.
One foil after another interferes with Horton’s assignment in No Publicity, but as in several of these films, he soldiers on, just trying to do his job. He relies on a determined resourcefulness that defines his characters throughout this collection, and this cleverness and affinity for comically fruitful improvisation likewise occur in Find the King, directed by J. A. Howe and also released in 1927. Horton and Howe begin by having some fun at the expense of another blue-blood crowd, as Horton’s wealthy, straitlaced aunts can’t quite come to terms with their distracted nephew preoccupied with card tricks. But from this aristocratic pitch, the film transitions to a wild west setting as Horton is, rather unsuitably, sent off to tend to some family business, namely a gambling hall. Though he clearly doesn’t belong in this rowdy saloon (merely looking out of place is part of Horton’s fundamental shtick), the venue is much more fun for the bemused young man, but it’s also more dangerous than he reckoned. Horton’s natural impudence and best of intentions allow him to bluff his way through another madcap milieu, and thanks to the skill of his sleight of hand, he remains knowingly prudent and surprisingly slick.
Howe also directed Horton in Dad’s Choice, from 1928, where the star attempts to woo Sharon Lynn. Starting off in an urban environment teeming with mass chaos, the film is ripe for the mistaken identities and amusingly erroneous assumptions that are an additional hallmark of these collected shorts. Routinely flustered, Horton manages his way through seemingly unavoidable mishaps and, owing to some perceptive staging by Howe, he overcomes a series of gags shrewdly introduced and extended until the final payoff (an uncooperative dog steals the show during one such skit). With multiple locations arrayed as the film continues, including a vehicular pursuit that is well-filmed but fairly standard in terms of silent comedy, resulting in a nimbly hectic mobile marriage, Dad’s Choice is somewhat less consistent in its dispersal of humor, whereas Behind the Counter (also from 1928 and directed by Howe) is, by comparison, dependent on a central, fertile setting, a narrative context in which Horton performs best. Appearing alongside Dorothy Dwan and Oscar Smith, Horton is an anxious and generally hapless department store employee and the retail backdrop is skillfully established to generate any number of havoc-inducing calamities. Behind the Counter also has the most prominent bit of camera movement in these collected films, a bold visual gesture that comes out of nowhere and is never again repeated, and it boasts a genuinely surreal touch as a mannequin head begins to melt and misshapen on a radiator, sending Horton and company into a tizzy as they confront real burglars and imagined ghosts.
Horton is primarily outdoors for 1928’s Horse Shy and Vacation Waves (see top still). In the former, he is exceptionally bumbling as he prepares for a fox hunt, despite an aversion to horses (he is predictably assigned the most rambunctious one), and his comedy is exceptionally physical, combatting everything from an ordinary saddle to a fitful mechanical apparatus. With the same high production values evident in all eight films, Horse Shy even features some low-key special effects, which are arguably funnier because of their obvious simplicity. In Vacation Waves, Horton simply wants to get away for a fishing trip, but like the meddlesome wildlife in Horse Shy, here he is continually obstructed by his wife’s mother and younger brother. Even after he finally manages to board his boat, no easy task in itself and another of Horton’s more persuasively physical endeavors, he is routed by the film’s prop-infused disruptions.
The films collected for this set would have been lost if not for Harold Lloyd, who kept the negatives in his vault. They were later donated and preserved by the Library of Congress.”
“Pardon me, there seems to be a slight mistake.” This quote from Scrambled Weddings could well have been applied to any of these assembled films, as Horton is regularly the victim of diverting misunderstandings and false interpretations. Such is the case at the very beginning of Scrambled Weddings, where Horton discovers the prone body of his friend on the floor, a gun placed next to the apparent corpse. Not to worry, though, he’s just drunk. And the gun? It’s just a cigarette holder. Horton again finds himself in a twisted romantic entanglement, thanks in part to this irresponsible buddy of his, and as a young bachelor in love, the appearance of Horton, born in 1886, is itself somewhat incongruous. But that works fine, and to comedic effect, as this embattled man-child attempts to rectify the amorously convoluted state of affairs with his characteristic, albeit haphazard, quick thinking.
The films collected for this set would have been lost if not for Harold Lloyd, who kept the negatives in his vault. They were later donated and preserved by the Library of Congress but the decomposition still apparent in Scrambled Weddings and the last film featured, 1928’s Call Again, remains a minor impediment — in Call Again, it’s so bad that a title card is inserted to explain a pivotal plot point, obscured by the decay. Regardless, this impurity doesn’t prevent the film from advancing a standout sequence in which Horton, on his way to meet his girlfriend, follows an older lady who also intends to board the same bus. She mistakes his trailing for corrupt stalking and the hilarious sequence alone would have been worthy of an entire short. A nine-minute bonus feature, Edward Everett Horton: Silent Clown?, rounds out the Undercrank collection. Narrated by Steve Massa, who calls Horton a “fussy everyman,” which indeed applies to the eight films seen here, the brief documentary positions Horton’s career to this point while alluding to what lay ahead for the versatile and prolific comedian.
It’s said that Horton’s father had the idea of his son using his full name, rather than just Edward Horton. “I think you’re making a mistake,” father said to son. “Anybody could be Edward Horton, but nobody else could be Edward Everett Horton.” Even with the prolonged moniker, however, Horton may not be the most famous name in Hollywood history (though one could make an argument for his famous face). But in light of these surviving shorts and bearing in mind what was yet to come in his lengthy career, the elder Horton was spot on in his paternal assessment. To be sure, nobody else could be Edward Everett Horton.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).