The Alice Howell Collection

Studio: Undercrank Productions

Mar 15, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Time has not been particularly kind to the great comediennes of the silent era. The historical lens has been far more trained on the more glamorous starlets of cinema’s early years: romantic heroines such as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Clara Bow, and Marion Davies. Outside of perhaps Mabel Normand, few of the silent age’s funny girls are still widely discussed – and certainly not with the same level of reverence as their male counterparts, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or even Fatty Arbuckle. Undercrank Productions’ latest DVD set, The Alice Howell Collection, has arrived to shed some new and long-deserved light on one of the era’s forgotten female stars.

Alice Howell was a vaudeville performer who made her way westward to Hollywood when her husband – and frequent co-star, Dick Smith – took ill and needed to relocate to a warmer climate. She quickly found work as an extra in Mack Sennett’s famed Keystone comedies, but graduated on to bigger and better roles when Sennett came to appreciate the way she would good-naturedly take a fall, or let herself be the butt of a joke. As her stardom rose, she became a featured player in shorts from studios like L-KO, Reelcraft, and Universal. Best known bearing a tall, frizzy tower of hair atop her head, Howell went on to appear in more than 100 films before abruptly retiring so that she could better enjoy her accrued wealth by the late 1920s. A wildly funny actress with a gift for well-timed mugging and effortless pratfalls, Howell often found herself written into relatable, working class roles, playing a quick-footed rapscallion not all that different in her physical demeanor from Chaplin’s timeless little tramp character.

Like the work of so many silent era artists, a disturbing amount of Howell’s oeuvre has been lost to the ages. (Save for her appearances in a few of Chaplin’s movies, even her surviving work is underseen.) The Alice Howell Collection may be the best survey of the actress’ career that we’ll ever see, compiling 12 short subjects spanning eleven years of her filmic output. Each is lovingly restored from prints of varying quality, some even re-assembled from multiple sources to create the best-possible version for this two-DVD set. Most are prefaced with text introductions that detail the developments in Howell’s career which led into the films; over the course of a few hours, The Alice Howell Collection acts as a compellingly-accounted chronology of her work.

Ben Model, this collection’s chief conservator, also provides new musical scores for all 12 of the shorts. Coming up with well-suited soundtracks to these otherwise soundless features has to be a difficult endeavor, as done right it can significantly change the viewer’s experience – particularly with comedic shorts, where the musical cues need to keep up with fast-paced visuals, or be able to switch gears seamlessly with the genre’s sudden tonal shifts. Cinderella Cinders (1920), included here, displays a prime example of how big a role a proper score can play in landing a silent era gag. Howell opens the film as an overworked soup kitchen server, ladling gruel to a counter full of ravenous hobos. Overwhelmed by the gross cacophony of their slurping, Howell picks up a spatula and begins to conduct the unwitting crew into a makeshift symphony, manipulating their pitch and tempo as if they were an orchestra of gulps and belches. Without the music the gag would still make sense thanks to Howell’s exaggerated pantomiming, but with Model’s new score the joke is uproarious.

The Alice Howell Collection is a remarkable effort from Undercrank Productions, and a great service to the legacy of one of comedy’s underappreciated leading ladies. We’d eagerly recommend this sidesplitting set to any fan of Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton – with better promotional support during her lifetime, Alice Howell might have held her own among them.

(www.undercrankproductions.com)




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