By Jeremy Carr.
Marcel Perez certainly isn’t the most renowned name in silent screen comedy. He’s likely not even among its top ten most recognizable figures. But that didn’t stop composer and DVD producer/distributor Ben Model, along with a legion of 153 Kickstarter supporters, from pushing forward a volume of Perez’s rarely seen shorts. On the contrary, that obscurity was part of the drive. And now, after the success of that initial collection, and at the behest of fans clamoring for more, a second edition has recently been released, featuring eight films and one fragment, all dating from the years 1907 to 1923.
Produced by Undercranck Productions, from digital scans of archival 35mm materials maintained by the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art Department of Film, these entries were personally selected by Model and historian Steve Massa. According to Model, in his Kickstarter pitch, enthusiasts were left temporarily disappointed by the fact there just weren’t enough existing Perez films to comprise a second compendium. That changed as additional shorts were discovered and restored, but the resulting assembly still suggests a middling procurement of whatever was available. Like volume one, this compilation is hit or miss in terms of comic novelty and general quality: how good each film is and what shape the print is in. Still, just as he did the first time around, Model delivers an eclectic sampling of work, from a distinctive, forgotten figure, from a period when so little survives that the mere preservation of such work should itself be commended.
Born in 1884, the Spaniard Perez worked in a Parisian circus before starting his film career in 1907, appearing in shorts for Eclipse and Gaumont. He moved to Italy’s Ambrosio in 1910 then, after the outbreak of World War I, made his way to America, where he worked at Universal, Vim, Eagle Films, Jester, then Reelcraft. This studio-hopping did little to help solidify Perez as an especially famous face in any country, nor did his habitual moniker alteration; he played characters known as Robinet, Tweedledum, Twede-Dan, Tweedy, and others (his wife, actress Babette Perez, also appeared as Tweedledum’s on-screen wife, Tweedledee). Unlike Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, Perez was therefore unable to establish himself as a viable star in any one place or create an enduring character type. An accident in 1922, which occurred during the making of one of his films and eventually resulted in the loss of a leg, left him to work primarily as a director and writer until his death seven years later.
Notwithstanding the inconsistencies of his career, Perez presents himself with a relatively regular disposition, regular at least as far as this DVD collection is concerned (he acted in more than 200 films, so it’s difficult to judge the full scope of his output). As it did for many silent comics, much of this temperament has to do with a buoyant physicality. Perez is a markedly malleable individual, with a resource of facial contortions, elastic smirks and grimaces, and gangly, twisted mannerisms. He stands on the sides of his feet, his rear out, and proceeds to walk forward with his lower body tucked inward, producing an odd little waddle. While this type of Looney Tunes demeanor works well with the animated action of any given film – getting crushed by a safe and contending with an ACME-style oversized bomb in Some Hero (1916) – the posturing appears forced and deliberate, far from the casual naturalism of Chaplin’s similar shuffle, which Perez seems to blatantly emulate. (Or maybe it was the other way around?)
It was clear from the first set of films that Perez was keen to carve out a niche for himself largely based on this cartoonish mugging. Although there is some chronological overlap in the second anthology (volume one contained titles from 1911 to 1921), his devotion to a peculiar performance appears distinctly less excessive in this latest installment, even if the reach of his physical aptitude remains on full display. For example: The Near-Sighted Cyclist, Perez’s first film. As a brief statement at the start of this 1907 Eclipse production states – and each entry in the set has a similar blurb describing the condition of the print and some slight backstory detail – this five-minute skit was so popular Perez remade it in Italy and the United States. Its title is misleading, though, for this young lad has trouble seeing period, and as a result, The Near-Sighted Cyclist is laden with pratfalls and collisions. Filling up its scant five-minute runtime with an atmosphere of general disorder, as Perez encounters a series of obstacles and somehow falls or crashes into every one of them, the repetitive, superficial gimmick manages to quickly wear thin. By comparison, see Perez’s Robinet’s White Suit (1911), available on the first volume, which has a structure similarly advanced, with Perez’s hero moving from place to place and getting into mischief. But unlike that later case, wherein Robinet’s white suit gets gradually more soiled and becomes the point of the joke, The Near-Sighted Cyclist has no sense of building comic objective.
What is nevertheless notable is Perez’s broad physical comedy and the emphasis on impressive stunt work, as well as his consistency with other themes and recurring gags (though none are exclusive to his brand of comedy). Among these repeated focal points is a difficulty with assorted mechanical devices. In Oh! What a Day (1918), such contrivances are seen in still frame inclusions to start, depicting Twede-Dan entangled in some sort of domestic apparatus akin to the feeding machine of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), but challenging mechanics are also hilariously deployed later in the film when Twede-Dan has car trouble, fuels his jalopy with booze, and subsequently ends up with an inebriated auto that willfully stops at every saloon it passes. Additional modern-minded elements utilized by Perez promote the illustration of movement, via bikes and cars and realized to its fullest extent in Some Hero, which has a race-against-the-clock cross-cutting rescue, complete with damsel in distress. Perez’s heroes are also habitually girl crazy, unashamedly so in A Scrambled Honeymoon (1916), where Tweedledum would just as soon let a less attractive woman drown than give up the attentions of her more alluring friend. This female infatuation is amplified in Chickens in Turkey (1919), where the titular “chickens” are in fact a boatload of bathing beauties sequestered in a Middle Eastern harem. So audacious was this film for its time, that shots of physical violence and “alluring close-ups of women” had to be excised.
One of the highlights in the first volume of Perez films is In A Busy Night, from 1916, in which Tweedledum appears in 16 different roles, with some appearing side by side. It’s one of his more technically advanced productions and it showcases his knack for visual gimmickry and experimentation. In this second collection, films like Lend Me Your Wife (1916) and Oh! What a Day also underscore such meticulous ingenuity, with fluctuating speeds, stop motion, reverse motion, and frame-within-frame superimpositions. The most recurrent of Perez’s designs are animated zig-zag lines to indicate shocks, smacks, and even gunshots. They’re rudimentary but they’re amusing, and, to my knowledge, unique to Perez. Pinched incorporates a visual storytelling technique that was, according to its introductory description, a sub-genre of 1910s European comedies, one Perez had used before in 1914’s Amor Pedestre/Pedestrian Love. Called a “worm’s eye view” of a “chicken chase,” where only the bottom third of the image is shown and the rest is masked in black, this 1921 short opens with the legs of a pursuing man and his female mark and charts the course of their rapport only by their lower extremities.
Particularly striking is Wild (1921), which makes use of sophisticated formal invention and is the only inclusion to be enacted within a conventional genre, in this case a Western. This twenty-minute Reelcraft release integrates a unified compilation of close-ups, camera movement, shot sizes, special effects (Tweedy stops a bullet in his teeth), cutting that is rapid and progressive, and deep-space staging; it’s by the far the most aesthetically accomplished of the Perez films included in either collection. It also boasts a diverse range of comedy, from intertitle quips – The mule was in good condition until they crossed the border … then he was in a different state”—to various sight gags: Tweedy miraculously kicks a large boulder into the air; traditional mining unearths a wealth of jewels and pearls in lieu of raw gold; and, unexpectedly violent though it is, characters get knifed in the back and axed in the butt, all in good fun.
More so than the first volume, this installment includes several imperfect samples, which may have to do with the reduced bounty of titles to select from this second go-round. Certain shorts are not in great condition, and some only exist in a partial format, with incomplete or absent reels. Oh! What a Day fills its missing footage with explanatory intertitles and still frames, while Friday the 13th (1923), the last comedy short Perez starred in, is an extreme example, consisting only of a two-minute portion.
The Marcel Perez Collection: Vol. 2 is straightforward release, with no supplemental features or accompanying essays, and perhaps that’s all to be expected from a crowdfunded project like this, which is clearly a passion project above all else. No single Perez film comes close to the best by any of the more celebrated silent comedians, not that that seems to be the point. Model, who also provides a new score for each film, achieves what he sets out to do, raising awareness and increasing the appreciation of an overlooked artist. Perez was no slack entertainer, with his fair share of comedy and creativity, but it’s likely these films will be nothing more than a curiosity for most. What’s most important about the two sets is what they inspire. Through the passion of everyday movie buffs and organizations that foster film preservation, the breadth of silent cinema remains to be fulfilled. There is still so much out there, waiting to be discovered and to find a new audience.
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, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.