Here’s a Christmas movie you probably never saw: a long-unseen 1930 short starring the mostly-forgotten comedy team of Karl Dane and George K. Arthur.
It’s Christmas and cranky Pa (Irving Bacon in very old man make-up) is in an ill-tempered mood. Not only is his excessively extended family coming over for the holiday, but his bum of a son (the large, lumbering Dane) and his freeloader pal (the diminutive Arthur) show up with the most ridiculous present: a gumball machine they’ve pilfered from the front of a closed store. Last year, they brought Pa a stop sign as a gift. However, Pa is the only one unappreciative of such gifts.
But even without this nonsense, Pa has his hands full with a house packed with bratty kids and an elderly relative who insists on opening a window that lets in a gust of air to blow out the candles on the Christmas tree. Pa is then supposed to dress like Santa and come down the chimney, but a pelican nesting on the chimney’s peak starts attacking him. Meanwhile, the party erupts into a festival of ill-will as gift recycling and the recollection of antagonisms from days past create a not-merry Christmas atmosphere.
Although Dane and Arthur are the top-billed stars, most of the comic heavy lifting is carried by Bacon, who was a marvelous physical comic given to expert pratfalls and double-takes. Louise Beavers shows up as (what else?) a cook who is baffled at why her roast pig is talking. (A child’s doll was inserted into the pig, hence the “Mama” cry when it is poked with a fork.)
From a historic standpoint, “Knights Before Christmas” is interesting for film scholars to see and hear Karl Dane in a sound film. Dane was a major comedy star in the silent period, but his stardom evaporated with the coming of sound when studio heads felt his Danish accent was impenetrable. Actually, there is nothing wrong with his voice – while his Scandinavian roots are obvious when he speaks, his voice is clear and his command of English is not garbled. (Dane committed suicide in 1934 when film work completely dried up and he was bankrupted in failed business plans.) Dane is also more entertaining than Arthur, an Englishman who has relatively little to do in this film except comment on being hungry and watching as Dane’s on-screen family gathering erupts into chaos.
While “Knights Before Christmas” is not a classic, by any stretch, it is an interesting curio that has finally been retrieved from cinematic oblivion via film historians Geno Cuddy and Ralph Celentano, who have other intriguing Dane and Arthur short films on their YouTube page.