Slick Sleuths (1926) A Silent Film Review

Mutt and Jeff find themselves in pursuit of the Phantom, a non-corporeal trickster who leads them on a very strange chase.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Color Me Shocked

A big thanks to Tommy Stathes for the review copy!

When you run a silent film blog, you will understandably get people asking how you got into silent films and for years my answer was the same: I was interested in early cinema for years but finally bit the bullet and rented Sparrows and City Lights.

Well, as it turns out, this wasn’t exactly true. It wasn’t a lie, I had just forgotten my childhood love of Mutt and Jeff.

And here they are!

Mutt and Jeff were among the early wave of comic strip characters adapted to the screen, initially as a live action series. However, as animation gained in popularity, the mismatched duo soon had their hand-drawn adventures projected on screens worldwide.

These cartoons were black and white and silent, of course, but they had an interesting resurrection. First, Slick Sleuths was among the Mutt and Jeff cartoons that were redrawn and re-released with synchronized music, effects and Kromocolor, which was a two-strip color format. The title cards were cut and Mutt and Jeff were “voiced” with assorted squeaks and whoops. Then things got even weirder because Slick Sleuths and other Mutt and Jeff cartoons were crudely redrawn yet again and released with groovy canned tunes (rock organ, flute solos, bongos, you know what I mean).

The 1926 original
1930s redraw
1970s redraw

Mutt and Jeff were not the only classic/silent cartoons to receive this treatment but I am focusing on them because they are the series that randomly fell into my lap. As a child, I had a small allowance that I would spend on important things like pink doll-shaped lamps, watercolor pans with which to paint the cats, Godzilla action figures and cassettes of Neil Diamond (I was a strange kid) but what I really liked were those cheapo public domain cartoon collections on VHS that could be had for 99 cents.

One of these tapes was a collection of those groovy Mutt and Jeff films. The company releasing the films didn’t spend much bread on the production and so everyone still looked 1920s and some of the films even included intertitles. (Voice actors? Don’t you know they cost money!) Why this didn’t ring any bells and make me realize I was watching a silent film, I cannot say. I must have been too busy feeding scrambled eggs to the tortoises. (It is a well-known fact that desert wildlife adores traditional breakfast foods.)

How hard can it be?

For those of you who have not encountered Mutt and Jeff, the concept of the animated films was a typical buddy comedy formula. Taller and smarter Mutt is usually the brains of the outfit while shorter, feistier Jeff is the brawn. Together, they would encounter various adventure formulas (exploring an Egyptian pyramid, going out west, etc.) and bend the laws of time and space as needed.

In this case, Mutt and Jeff are sleuths (complete with deerstalker caps) on the trail of the Phantom. The Phantom is no ordinary crook and it soon becomes apparent that our heroes are in over their heads. How do you track down and capture something that can change shape at will, ooze through keyholes and create their own escape tunnels in the sides of buildings?

Catch the Phantom, they said. The reward is yours, they said.

As was often the case in these cartoons, a Keystonesque police force springs into action in order to capture the baddie. Um, yay?

(Spoiler) The film ends with everything being a dream and Mutt and Jeff being told to move along from sleeping on a park bench. I guess this particular story was a bit wacky even for their brand and they once filled a camel with gasoline!

Weird? Us? Naw!

(Oh, and the surreal content of this cartoon should probably give you a hint that this was one of the Mutt and Jeff films directed by Charley Bowers. Pretty obscure today, Bowers was noted for his incredibly wacky, effects-laden comedies. I’ll get around to reviewing one of them at some point but do track them down if you get the chance. I guarantee you have never seen anything like them. When a man’s cartoons are more normal than his live action…)

This is a fun one and very much normal for the Mutt and Jeff brand. We have a bit of weirdness, a lot of slapstick and all the weird physics that we might expect in cartoons. The story is simple but then, we’re only in this for about seven minutes so a thin plot to hang gags on is plenty.

The 1926 original
1930s redraw
1970s redraw

The 1930s recoloring holds up fairly well, though the cut title cards are missed, but the 1970s version bizarrely decides to rename the Phantom Bugoff (?) and color him pink. I don’t know if this was meant to piggyback on the popularity of the Pink Panther series but it doesn’t really work and makes Mutt and Jeff look as though they are in hot pursuit of sentient Pepto-Bismal. The version I saw also cuts the intro and epilogue, which makes the whole thing considerably trippier, though it looks like the concept was stretched out to feature length and marketed as a new kid’s film. I am a bit surprised that the ad didn’t include an admonition to BYOM (Bring Your Own Mushrooms).

For all that, I can’t really be angry with the dodgy re-releases. Black and white cartoons were something I only learned to appreciate recently (despite loving black and white live action films) and the color redraws are tacky but little me liked them and I have fond memories of watching them. It’s one of those things that I know intellectually is not good and yet still enjoy. It’s like the neon mac n’ cheese so many of us wolfed down as kids.

However, after seeing the remakes of Slick Sleuths, it is lovely to view it in its original form (and you can see from my screen caps that the release has color tints!) and enjoy it as audiences would have during its initial theatrical run in 1926. It’s an odd, fun little cartoon and should provide plenty of enjoyment.

Where can I see it?

Slick Sleuths is available on DVD and Bluray as part of the Cartoon Roots series, Halloween Haunts.  This version includes an organ score by Charlie Judkins.

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