June 3, 2019  (Web Review)

The Alice Howell Collection

Undercrank, 2 discs, 217 min., not rated, DVD: $24.95

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

Among the pioneering women of comedy, Alice Howell is often forgotten, which is understandable, given that the bulk of her silent comedy films are considered lost. This DVD anthology compiles 12 of her surviving short films, offering a long-overdue appreciation. With an expressive moon face and a shock of hair combed in a vertical fortress atop her head, Howell’s appearance alone produced smiles. In most of the films presented here, she takes on the character of a plucky but somewhat addled working-class girl, dealing with the indignities of dyspeptic employers, unsavory suitors, and plain rotten luck. Howell was adept at the roughhouse slapstick comedy that reigned in the 1910s and ‘20s, dishing out knockabout punishment while also being on the receiving end of the mayhem. In the 1915 “Under New Management,” she switches personas and effectively plays the harridan wife of a business executive, manhandling him by his ear while taking control of his office. The shorts in this anthology were made between 1914 and 1925 and feature some then-unknown players who were on the cusp of comedy stardom, most notably Oliver Hardy and Raymond Griffith. Sadly, some of the films are missing footage or are plagued by the deterioration that disfigured many poorly-preserved nitrate prints. All of the shorts here feature new musical scores by Ben Model that keep perfect pace with Howell’s jaunty and spirited performances. Highly recommended. (P. Hall)