A Tribute to Robert G. Youngson
Robert G. Youngson, who died in April of 1974 in his early fifties, was hardly a documentarian in the strictest sense of the word. While he did occasionally shoot new material, he worked mainly from existing material, and in exhuming the past, he preserved and recorded it with affection, accuracy and humor. He had a tremendous respect for the past - a respect tinged with but not dominated by nostalgia for it - and he hated with a vengeance those films that kidded and ridiculed the past for easy quick laughs.
He had a particular love for the silent film, and most especially for silent comedy. He had a tremendous sense of humor, especially for the "black" comedy and the comedy of outrage that was so prevalent in silent film. He was a large man with a laugh to match, and watching Bob laugh (especially at Laurel and Hardy) was a treat in itself. Anyone who has such an affinity for silent comedy automatically has more than a streak of cheerful sadism in him, and Bob was fascinated by speed, mayhem and disaster. His bosses at Warner-Pathe, who happily interfered with his work hardly at all, asked only that he include a "sports reel" fairly periodically in his output of shorts. They undoubtedly were thinking in terms of the genteel and boring reels on badminton and golf that seemed to be standard fodder in sports-shorts, but to Bob the sports reel was merely another excuse for Griffithian exercises in cutting and pacing, and a roundup of carnage of which the Marquis de Sade would have been proud. Nobody ever seemed to finish a ski-run in a Youngson short without a broken neck or legs, and his very first short - Roaring Wheels - ostensibly a history of motor racing, was actually a detailed chronicle of the major disasters of that sport! Bob added to their effectiveness by dubbing in sound effects and screams of horror from the Warner library, and used liberal doses too of the best Warner musical scores. Korngold's marvellous, sweeping score for The Sea Hawk was also marvellously ambiguous, and could fit any occasion; tonight you'll hear it accompanying some particularly nasty motor cycle spills! In fairness to gentler tastes, we have only included a couple of Bob's all-out disaster shorts, but they're among his best, and there's ill-concealed glee in the narrator's voice as he ticks off one mishap after another. But to balance, there's plenty of solid newsreel material, important events and personalities as well as trivia, and typical samplings of Bob's condensations of silent comedies and features.
If there was one shortcoming in Bob's work, it was that his stunning ability as an editor was partially offset by a tendency to over-write. Like many autonomous writer-producers (Mankiewicz and Preston Sturges would be other parallel examples) Bob, who was a good writer, hated to sacrifice a word of what he had written. He could turn a very neat phrase, and one that seemed particularly apt, he would use again - and again - in subsequent films. He was a believer in honest sentiment, and sometimes it got a little out of hand. He also liked to be informative, and in addition hated for audiences that might not be familiar with the grammar of silent film to miss subtle nuances, so he tended to tell them a little too much. The narrations were never snide or smart-alecky; there was just too much of it, especially in his features. If I seem to belabor this point, it is because it will become rather apparent this evening. In just one Youngson short, where the breathless pace of narration and picture mesh, it might not be too apparent. And of course, it was never intended that so many shorts ever be shown together commercially, so I stress this one shortcoming as much in fairness to Bob Youngson as in criticism of him.
The Youngson shorts, one and two reelers, were all made for Warner-Pathe between 1948 and 1956. Apart from Fifty Years Before Your Eyes and the edited reissue version of Noah's Ark, his subsequent features were all compilations of silent comedy, with a stress on Hal Roach and Mack Sennett material. They include The Golden Age of Comedy, When Comedy Was King, 30 Years of Fun, Days of Thrills and Laughter, Laurel and Hardy's Laughing 20's and Four Clowns. Bob was undoubtedly responsible for the tremendous (and well-deserved) resurgence of interest in Laurel and Hardy in the 1950's; more importantly, his use of so much material, from original negatives then on the verge of decomposition, undoubtedly saved it. The same can be said for much of the great newsreel footage that he unearthed, much of which is as amazing for its pictorial style and beauty as much as for its content. Once unearthed by Bob, it soon became absorbed into many standard libraries, anthologies, and tv documentaries. Even if his own use of it had been less expert than it was, his salvaging of it would have been a major contribution.
Grateful thanks are extended to Mrs. Jeanne Youngson and Alfred Dahlem, Bob's editor and librarian, for their help and cooperation in this presentation. The films, in order of screening arranged for variety and change of pace, not chronology, will be found listed on page two.
THIS WAS YESTERDAY and IT HAPPENED TO YOU (1954 and 1955 respectively) are two related two-reelers covering the events leading up to World War One, including the campaign against Pancho Villa in Mexico, and the war itself.
LIMOUSINE LOVE was a 1928 Leo McCarey-Fred Guiol 2-reel comedy for Hal Roach, and one of Charlie Chase's best and most typical. It is seen here in its substantial condensation as originally intended for Bob's first comedy compilation, The Golden Age of Comedy; actually it was not used there after all, and eventually appeared in Bob's last film, Four Clowns, in somewhat shorter form.
LIGHTER THAN AIR (1951) A first-rate survey of the history of balloon and dirigible, including of course Hindenberg footage.
CAVALCADE OF GIRLS (1949) A light-hearted yet respectful roundup of American women in various stages of emancipation.
MAGIC MOVIE MOMENTS (1953) A good condensation of Michael Curtiz's 1929 spectacle, Noah's Ark with Dolores Costello and George O'Brien. Oddly, some of the biggest scenes of holocaust and mass slaughter don't make it into this one-reeler, although they're certainly there in Bob's later feature-length reissue.
TOO MUCH SPEED (1953) The title tells all: a cheerfully happy recital of some of the most appalling race-track crack-ups and disasters.
DISASTER FIGHTERS (1951) One of the very beat and most typical Youngson shorts; the Tacoma Bridge collapse and miscellaneous hurricanes & floods.
--- intermission, 10 minutes ---
WARNER-PATHE newsreel coverage of Bob Youngson receiving the Freedom Foundation Award.
BLAZE BUSTERS (1950) A fine one-reel roundup of fire disasters, including the Morro Castle. Bob wanted to release this one of red toned stock, but the plea was turned down as being too expensive.
THIS MECHANICAL AGE (1954) An Academy Award winner, and one of Bob's most charming shorts. Much of the footage has since been annexed for commercialis!
A BIT OF THE BEST (1954) A one-reel condensation of one of the best Rin Tin Tin adventures, 1927's Tracked by the Police, directed by Ray Enright, with Jason Robards and Tom Santschi. For perhaps the only time, Bob's narration does tend to poke fun at it a little, although it's genial rather than derisive fun
DAREDEVIL DAYS (1952) The stuntmen, barnstormers and flagpole sitters of the 20's; the real thing which the current Waldo Pepper recreates rather well.
I NEVER FORGET A FACE (1956) A fascinating parade of key personalities from the 20's, many of them, like Alfred E. Smith and George Bernard Shaw, in early examples of talkie recording.
WHEN TEE TALKIES WERE YOUNG (1955) When this 2-reeler first appeared, it had quite stunning impact since the old Warner films had not yet been sold to television, and these well chosen excerpts from 1930-31 movies with Clark Gable, Stanwyck, Barrymore, Cagney and Robinson were revelatory and really surprising. Now the films are more familiar - we've shown all but one of them in prior New School series, and the other one is coming up in the Fall - but it's still an excellent short.
LAUREL AND HARDY: We're wrapping up, appropriately, with some of the very best Laurel and Hardy material from The Golden Age of Comedy.