The Bootleg Files: Down Memory Lane

BOOTLEG FILES 727: “Down Memory Lane” (1949 compilation film of Mack Sennett comedy shorts).

LAST SEEN: In a truncated form on YouTube and Internet Archive.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.


By the late 1940s, silent movies had mostly disappeared from public viewing. Some Charlie Chaplin shorts occasionally turned up in kiddie matinees and museums and film societies would sometimes dust off an old print for one-time screenings. But for the most part, the films created prior to rise of “The Jazz Singer” were rarely on the big screen.

But that’s not to say the old films were completely forgotten. In 1949, the low-budget studio Eagle-Lion Films came up with an idea to recycle silent films for theatrical release. The studio signed a partnership with Mack Sennett, the founding force of American silent comedies, to create a feature incorporating his old slapstick romps. Sennett also retained the rights to sound films from the early 1930s that he made with Bing Crosby and W.C. Fields – Crosby was beginning to establish himself in the film business while Fields was making a comeback after an unsatisfactory stretch of silent pictures that failed to capture the depth of his humor.

Eagle-Lion had director Phil Karlson under contract to helm a film called “The Big Cat” and he was assigned to create new footage to bridge the old clips together – but he was given only two days to shoot the material. Karlson tapped a 28-year-old Los Angeles disc jockey named Steve Allen to write and star in the material – this was the first time Allen would be appearing on camera.

The resulting work, “Down Memory Lane,” was a raucous but often exasperating effort that looked like a slapped-together quickie. For anyone new to Mack Sennett’s work, the film is a confusing introduction to his film canon. And for those who are familiar with Sennett’s creations, the film is an astonishing (but often amusing) mess.

One interesting touch in “Down Memory Lane” was having the film take place in a television studio – this might be the first post-World War II Hollywood film that makes television the central aspect of its plot. Allen plays a TV host whose program mostly consists of him spinning records and doing on-air pitches for a dreadful shampoo that is sponsoring his program. The station’s owner (Frank Nelson, best known as the “Yes” man on Jack Benny’s shows), is livid at the indolent nature of Allen’s program and is threatening to have him fired. Allen assures his boss that the arrival of film reels from legendary filmmaker Mack Sennett will liven up the broadcast.

The Sennett reels are delivered by a Sennett employee (Franklin Pangborn) and Allen hands them to the station’s engineers to be put on the air. But when the films start rolling, there is no sound – Pangborn explains they are silent movies. Allen assembles a pile of instruments and gizmos and Pangborn joins him in creating zany music and sound effects to match the on-screen shenanigans.

Yes, the old silent chase scenes and knockabout are laugh-out-loud funny. But the problem with the Sennett clips used in “Down Memory Lane” is a lack of identification. While Allen occasionally points out notable stars like Mabel Normand, Ben Turpin and Gloria Swanson, the titles of the films are not revealed and many of the scenes appear to be grabbed randomly.

Adding to the confusion is the inclusion of Sennett’s sound films in the mix – the visual style is stodgy compared to the frenetic silent offerings and the footage being sampled is much too generous compared to the silent fare. Thus, we get to see a lot of English tenor Donald Novis in “The Singing Boxer,” a young Bing Crosby in “Sing, Bing, Sing” and “Blue of the Night,” and W.C. Fields in “The Dentist.” There is also an extended sequence where Allen delivers a commercial for his shampoo sponsor and a bald viewer takes Allen’s advice and immediately begins to shampoo his scalp.

Intercut with the sound shorts is silent footage of Charlie Murray in a strange situation: he is tied up in a basement with a boiler that is set at its highest levels by burglars. Murray is panic-stricken as the boiler begins to swell to ridiculous proportions while his wife is assaulted by the burglars. Mack Sennett turns up to sit with Allen and Pangborn, but when the Murray footage stops abruptly and Allen asks Sennett how it ends, the screen is suddenly filled by footage of an atomic blast. The film ends with Allen sitting in the rubble, running his fingers through his hair.

Seen today, “Down Memory Lane” is more interesting as a vehicle to introduce Steve Allen to a viewing audience. Allen does not wear the dark-rimmed eyeglasses that would later become his trademark – they can be seen on a desk where he is seated – and his comic material had yet to achieve the unique blend of erudite and silly that would endear him to television audiences. The persona he gave himself for this film is too much of a smart aleck to be charming and too caffeinated to sell a joke.

Eagle-Lion had hoped to push the nostalgia button with this film and recruited some of Sennett’s Keystone Cops to help promote the release. However, the advertising focused on Crosby and Fields – never mind that Fields died three years earlier – with little promotion of Allen as a new star.

To date, “Down Memory Lane” was never released on any home entertainment format. A truncated version designed for television broadcast is on YouTube and the Internet Archive – the Fields footage was cut out of this version, along with the Eagle-Lion opening screen credit.

But anyone who is curious about Mack Sennett and his old-time fun factory might do better to skip “Down Memory Lane” and check out the new book “Chase! A Tribute to the Keystone Cops” edited by Lon and Debra Davis. Not only does it offer a grand insight on Sennett and his collaborators, but it details where to find the original surviving works – which deserve to be seen in their entirety and not in a hack-chop serving like “Down Memory Lane.”

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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