Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

August 5, 2017

Billy Dooley Comedies #2 (Grapevine Video)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 6:01 pm


available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Grapevine Video

ordering info:


  1. Dumb Belles (1927)
    Director: William Watson
  2. Wild Wallops (1927)
    Director: William Beaudine
  3. Water Bugs (1928)
    Director: William Watson
  4. Campus Cuties (1928)
    Director: William Watson
  5. Sea Food (1928)
    Director: William Watson
  6. Gobs of Love (1928)
    Director: Arvid E. Gillstrom
  7. Happy Heels (1929)
    Director: William Holland
  8. Off the Deck (1929)
    Director: William Holland

Back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I had a very good collection of silent and early sound comedy shorts on VHS….I traded with other fans, and enjoyed many super-obscure shorts….although as you know, when you make a copy of a tape for someone, the image suffers quality loss with each succeeding generation of copy, so I was able to see some amazing stuff, but the quality was not that great….which is why, I’m assuming, I’ve yet to see a lot of that stuff be reissued on DVD….the quality would be below even Alpha Video standards!  Only the person with the original print could have it duplicated to produce a watchable product, not someone with a fourth-generation copy.

Producer Al Christie, though not as well-known as a Mack Sennett or a Hal Roach, ran a comedy factory for many years, into the early sound era. In the mid-to-late 20’s, he had a stable of comedy-short stars including Billy Dooley, Jimmie Adams, Bobby Vernon, and Jack Duffy.

In this new collection from Grapevine Video, we’re treated to eight Billy Dooley shorts from 1927-1929. The images I’ve included should give you a good idea of what Dooley was like. Billed as “the silly sailor,” he reminds me of some kind of cross between Larry Semon (physically, not in the style of his comedy) and Lupino Lane with a twist of Harry Langdon but much more animated. His persona is a sailor (also named Billy) who means well but stumbles into outrageous situations—-he remains eternally optimistic as he faces pitfall after pitfall, leading to pratfall after pratfall. I mention Lupino Lane because Dooley is also an amazing physical comedian, with gymnast-level abilities in terms of elastic body movement and tumbling skills. It’s no surprise that, according to the Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, Billy Dooley got his start doing trick bicycle riding, rope tricks a la Will Rogers, and comedic dancing. He also radiates positivity, and it’s not hard to see why he became a successful star of two-reel comedy shorts.

billy dooley

The eight shorts in this collection were originally released as two-reel comedies (meaning they were probably in the 18-20 minute range), and during this period Christie was distributing his product via Educational or Paramount. The picture quality on all of these is excellent (how else could Grapevine also offer a Blu-Ray of these?). Unfortunately, it seems as though many Dooley shorts do not survive in their original release form.

The sixth and seventh shorts, Gobs of Love and Happy Heels, in this collection are presented in something resembling their original form, with the original inter-title cards (with cute stick-figure cartoons of Dooley!) and silent, but they are from 1937 Hollywood Film Enterprises “Cine Art” re-releases for the home market. According to comments on the Silent Comedy Mafia discussion list, HFE released these in both one-reel and two-reel versions, and the one-reel versions sold much better, so I guess that’s why each of these two “Cine Art” reissues run only 11 minutes each instead of, say, 18. However, not having seen the original two-reel versions, I must say that these two shorts work just great in the abbreviated format. Dooley can still work his magic 90 years after the fact, and lovers of physical comedy will adore his antics. They are fast-moving, feature fun and colorful supporting casts, and provide a great vehicle for Dooley’s amazing acrobatic comedy.

billy billy

The other six shorts appear in a somewhat different form. I’m old enough to remember when, as late as the end of the 1960’s and the early 1970’s, low-budget UHF and indie TV stations played old cut-up and recontextualized silent comedy shorts, often with hokey sound effects and narration, and often totally divorced from their original context, as cheap filler. The children who would catch these would not know any better, and someone watching a UHF station at 3 a.m. would likely not really care about the sanctity of the print of some 20’s slapstick footage used to fill a 14 minute gap between a Hoot Gibson 30’s indie western and a dubbed Italian sword and sandal film. What we get in these six shorts is most (they run about 12 1/2 minutes) of an original  Billy Dooley short, but with the inter-titles taken out (although they do have the original Christie Paramount or Educational title cards) and with constant narration and over-the-top sound effects. I get the sense that the narrator saw each film once, made some notes, and just free-associated his way through the short the way someone would “call” a high-school football game for a small-town radio station. Although Dooley generally played “himself” in these films, he’s given the character name “Harry Heave-Ho” (!!!!) here, and I’m guessing the “plots” of the original are changed quite a bit in the narrating. We’re also often told what we are watching on the screen over and over. Although I doubt I ever saw these particular versions of the Dooley films on UHF as a child, I DO remember this phenomenon of crudely narrating and ham-fistedly (if that’s a word) scoring silent comedy footage, so I did feel a slight (very slight) sense of nostalgia…in that NO broadcast outlet has shown this kind of thing in 40 years, probably. However, it is somewhat annoying….fortunately, though, you can turn the sound off and watch it silent. Even without the inter-title cards (which are cut out due to the narration), anyone could figure out the plot (or listen to the first 10 seconds of narration, and THEN turn it off) to these, so perhaps you should enjoy them silently. In any event, thanks to Grapevine (I’ve been a customer of theirs since the VHS days of the 1980’s!) for presenting these rare versions of these wonderfully entertaining silent comedy shorts of Billy Dooley, probably the only surviving versions of them. As we move farther and farther away from the Golden Age of Silent Comedy Shorts in the 1920’s, with dozens of new selections playing local theaters each month back then, this material becomes more and more precious….and fortunately, just as funny as ever….if not MORE SO, since someone like Billy Dooley is a practitioner of a lost art.

95 minutes of silent comedy joy from a man who delivered the goods short after short after short….although not a name mentioned that much today, alas. Order from Grapevine at the link found at the top of this post….

billy costar vera

(Billy Dooley’s frequent co-star VERA STEADMAN, who’s in six of these shorts)

1 Comment »

  1. I came across this page while waiting for my wife in a parking lot and trying to pass the time
    I am very thankful as Grapevine has turned me into an enthusiastic fan of Billy Dooley, Thanks to people like you this once forgotten name will perhaps attain some of the recognition and appreciation this very talented performer truly deserves!

    Comment by James A Vecchio — July 6, 2020 @ 8:54 am | Reply

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