Charlie Chaplin famously said that a day without laughter is a day wasted. If that’s true, then the three days I spent at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival were the most productive of my life. Morning, noon and night we chortled at physical comedy, from the gala screening of The General (in sparkling high-definition) to Chaplin’s early shorts, via a panoply of less well-known silent comics, from Larry Semon to Charley Chase. All the screenings were introduced by fans, that is to say historians, film collectors and comedians – but fans all the same.
I filed a report for the Spectator Arts Blog, about the web of influence and collaboration that connects all these comics, but there were other themes that emerged over the weekend too. David Robinson and Sanjeev Bhaskar lamented the fall in Chaplin’s popularity in this country in recent decades. Perhaps we British aren’t inspired by his life story, ending his days as he did, comfortable and well-loved, suggested Robinson, quoting commments made by Chaplin’s widow. Perhaps we’re not so ready to connect with the “emotional journey” of his films, posited Bhaskar, pointing to Chaplin’s stellar popularity in India. Whatever the reason, there was plenty of evidence of Chaplin’s genius and sensitivity on display at the weekend. Whether you’re already a Chaplin fan, or a budding convert, you may like to know that the Roundhouse in Camden, north London is showing The Circus in April. Robinson also drew our attention to Chaplin’s concern with social issues, noting that his speech at the end of The Great Dictator is as timeless as his comedy, citing for proof this YouTube mashup:
Elsewhere, Griff Rhys Jones obligingly “pratfalled” on the stage of the Colston Hall when introducing The General and Graeme Garden gave us a thorough introduction to the charms of Charley Chase, which went down so well, surely Chase is due for a new surge in fame. David Wyatt taught us all about the silent film industry’s ability to laugh at itself with a selection of early spoofs including Will Rogers’ burlesque of Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, a film I’ve always loved but considered way beyond the reach of parody. How wrong I was.
Pierre Étaix, who directed beautiful comedy films in the 1960s, was this year’s recipient of the Aardman Slapstick Award for Excellence in Visual Comedy. He tipped his hat to Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and Laurel – and also to Harry Langdon and Snub Pollard (a name that sounds so much cooler with a French accent). He needn’t have bothered though: you can’t miss the influence of silent comedy on his work, which charmed the festival on Sunday night. Here’s a piece I wrote about him for the Guardian last year, and here’s one of his earliest shorts.
And the most bizarre outcome of the weekend? A fresh appreciation for Lloyd “Poor Boy” Hamilton, if only briefly, on Twitter. Enjoy: