The brainchild (and clearly a labor of love) of producer-director Michael Schlesinger, a veteran of the studios' home-entertainment divisions, the Kino Lorber release packages five shorts that showcase the eponymous nitwits, Benny Biffle and Sam Shooster (played by resourceful creators Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan, respectively), in as many genres. Think Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Or Laurel and Hardy. Or Bud and Lou.
And like the aforementioned comedy teams and others, one of the guys in this duo is a moron and knows it and the other is a moron who doesn't.
The comedy here, both physical and verbal, is refreshingly retro and shamelessly corny - and genuinely funny. Having struggled my way through one contemporary screen "comedy" after another, I actually forgot that movies once knew how to be funny and without having to resort to diarrhea jokes, cute little old ladies (or a nursery-age kid) casually tossing off the word "fuck," or millennials being titillated by the idea of "balls."
hiksa (to her utter chagrin).
Much of the humor here is Jewish, not surprisingly, because the comedy shorts of the 1930s and '40s were extensions of the kind of sketch comedy that was hugely popular in vaudeville, burlesque and the Borscht Belt as some of the comics of the time made the transition to film.
Schlesinger's omnibus opens with the (rather elegantly done) murder-mystery spoof, "The Biffle Murder Case," and continues with the musical "Schmo Boat," a free-for-all staged in an art gallery titled "It's a Frame Up!" and the ever-popular man-in-a-dress bit, "Imitation of Wife."
Each comes with a healthy assortment of punch lines, double takes, slow burns and other comic curlicues - faux shorts nothing less than fastidious.
The cast of contemporary actors mimicking bygone actors playing ridiculous characters is flawless. (Each performer here is credited as an actor playing a character.) It's jaw-dropping, in fact, that Schlesinger was able to recruit so many game talents who are on the exact same wavelength that he, Ryan and Santa Maria travel. These impersonations are spot-on, as are the "poverty row" production designs that capture the look and feel of vintage shorts without ever a hint of condescension or eye-rolling sarcasm. This collection is not a parody. It's the real thing.
Even the opening credits of each short share the same determined focus, with artists, studios, trademarks and release dates giving the impression that what we are about to watch is indeed the real thing. Mervyn LeRoy! Del Lord! (The end credits reveal Schlesinger & company as the culprits.)
For the educated movie buff of a certain age, "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" is a heartening experience, taking one back to a time when going to the movies was indeed a night out (or an afternoon) - one that included not just the feature attraction, but a newsreel, a travelogue, a cartoon (maybe two), previews of coming attractions and a comedy short.
And for those newbies who self-describe as "movie buffs" because of their obsession with Marvel/DC Comics movies exclusively, "Biffle and Shooster" could be a revelation - particularly if their idea of a good comedy sketch is something that passes as one on "Saturday Night Live."
Watching "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster" also made me a little wistful, reminding me of how much I miss having access to the shorts of Leon Errol, Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy, Amos n' Andy and other comedy doodles that played with regularity on TV in the 1950s and early '60s. "The Three Stooges" remains ubiquitous and Turner Classic Movies, which should be a source, occasionally airs George O'Hanlon's Joe McDoakes/"Behind the 8-Ball" short subjects but not much else.
After the studios abandoned their comedy shorts, elements of the genre lived on, eventually working their way into other areas of film and television. The influence has been wide-spread: Groucho and the Brothers Marx, Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes, the Abbott-&-Costello and Martin-&-Lewis films, Burns and Allen, the work of Mel Brooks, "The Carol Burnett Show" and, most definitively, in Stanley Kramer's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," which is essentially a ga-zillion comedy sketches gleefully edited together. It's no surprise that Mike Schlesinger is an enthusiastic fan of Kramer's comedy extravaganza; he worked on its BluRay edition.
"Biffle and Shooster" has the same enthusiasm. And it's an ardor that is downright contagious. More to the point, it's falling-down funny.
And it's not faux at all.
Note in Passing: This essential DVD is available directly from Kino Lorber or Amazon. And you might want to check out these takes on the collection by CineSavant's Glenn Erickson and Home Theater Forum's Robert Harris.
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~photography: Kino Lorber 2018©
~Phil Baron as "Max Davidson" playing "Dr. Finkelstein" with Santa Maria and Ryan in another moment from "The Misadventures of Biffle and Shooster"
~photography: Kino Lorber 2018©