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By Steve Massa


Released June 23, 1929. Produced by Mack Sennett Comedies. Distributed by Pathe. Directed by Harry Edwards. Story by Edwards & Curtis Benton. Titles by Alfred M. Loewenthal. Photographed by William “Billy” Williams. Supervised by John A. Waldron. Two Reels. With Johnny Burke, Andy Clyde, James Hertz, Vernon Dent, Carmelita Geraghty, Elsie Tarron, Jack “Tiny” Lipson, Hubert Diltz

imageA Close Shave is Mack Sennett’s very last silent comedy, released on June 23, 1929. Long unavailable, the eight minutes shown today is all that’s known to exist. Having been “The King of Comedy” since his formation of Keystone in 1912, Sennett had set most of the standards for silent comedy and developed many of its biggest stars. Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling and Harry Langdon all became headliners under him, while other discoveries – performers, writers, and directors like Del Lord, Edgar Kennedy, Charles Parrott, Alice Howell, Frank Capra, Louise Fazenda, Clarence Badger, Raymond Griffith, and many others – went on to perpetuate and populate the movie slapstick universe for many years.

This final silent gives us a look at one of Mack’s last silent comedy “finds.” Johnny Burke was a long-time vaudevillian who toured the world with a World War I doughboy act that was titled at various times Patsy Went to War, imageDrafted, The Rag-Time Soldier, and Dirty Work. Sennett saw him onstage in Los Angeles and signed him up in early 1926. At that time Mack had just lost one of his biggest discoveries Harry Langdon. Like Langdon, Johnny Burke was an over forty meek and mild comic, and the plan seems to have been to keep the Langdon franchise going with Burke in his place.

Aside from being paired with Daphne Pollard in Sennett Girls Comedies like The Campus Carmen (1928) and Matchmaking Mamas (1929), Burke was given his own series of Langdon-esque “Handy Andy” comedies. With Langdon’s regular director Harry Edwards in charge, shorts such as A Dumb Waiter and A Jim Jam Janitor (both 1928) present Burke as an innocent, fish out of water type, often used by bored wives to make their husbands jealous. 1929’s Clunked on the Corner even takes it plot from a section of Langdon’s The Strong Man (1926) with a lady crook slipping a stolen jewel into Burke’s pocket and then vamping him to get it back. This time out Burke is an inept window washer that becomes a barber. Burke did some sound shorts for Sennett and Paramount, but his film career never took off, and he basically returned to vaudeville.

imageFor support in A Close Shave, Burke has Andy Clyde – one of the rocks of film comedy. Not long before this Clyde had settled on his “old man” screen persona. Before that he had been Sennett’s “Man of a Thousand Faces” – turning up as all kinds of different characters, often under some kind of massive fake beard, and frequently more than once in a single short. After finding his regular character Clyde grew into it, having to use less and less make-up as he worked non-stop in shorts, features, and on television right up to his death in 1967. Also listed in the missing footage are the Sennett regulars Vernon Dent and Carmelita Gerghaty.

At the time that A Close Shave was released the movie industry landscape was changing dramatically for Sennett. Sound had arrived, and he dove right in with early 1928’s The Lion’s Roar. Having just built an expensive new studio in 1927 the stock market crash wiped out most of his personal fortune. The combination of sound, the new studio, and the depression was a triple blow from which he never recovered. He was forced in bankruptcy in 1933, and spent the next thirty years as an emissary of Hollywood’s past. While continuing to offer stories and ideas to the studios, he kept his legend alive by posing with imitation Keystone Cops, and presiding over Bathing Beauty reunions until his passing in 1960.

Steve Massa is a noted film historian and author of "Slapstick Divas: The Women Of Silent Comedy" and "Lamebrains And Lunatics: The Good, The Bad and The Forgotten Of Silent Comedy".




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