Chicago (1927)

Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward

After two whistlestop days at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival I am on the train back to London already, but the laughter is still ringing in my ears. Through the fug of good company, great films and fabulous music I can still pick out some details … just about. Here are the five best moments that I will treasure from this year.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

Charley v Charley

Friday night’s silent comedy gala had plenty to recommend it, of course, but when it comes to slapstick there was one standout moment for me. The fight sequence in Mighty Like a Moose (1926), in which Charley Chase battles himself, with costume changes of course, is a special pleasure. Can I place a standing order to see this every Friday night from now on please?

Chicago (1927)

The many faces of Phyllis Haver

Cecil B DeMille’s Chicago (1927) is seedy, brutal, and hilarious. Like all the best nights out. The most deliciously cynical sequence must be Roxie Hart’s trial, though. As Hart’s lawyer sells her virtues (as it were) to the jury, Phyllis Haver moves through a cycle of poses that are as funny as they are strangely convincing. This devious minx flicks her features from “brave” to “sweet” to “shrinking” to “noble” faster than a flapper can roll her stockings.

The Awful Truth (1937)
The Awful Truth (1937)

Cary doffs his hat to Buster

If Bristol had done no more than to bring us Pauline Kael’s “slapstick prince charming” himself, we would still love this city. Watching Cary Grant in screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937) at Slapstick this year was an absolute hoot. But the moment in this fizzy film when Grant is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike, Sherlock Jr-style, and touches his collapsed opera hat to his forehead in imitation of the great Buster Keaton? Priceless.

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

A shot in the arm from Doug

Douglas Fairbanks is always great value, and sure, it was a treat to witness him shooting and kicking his way out of trouble in Wild and Woolly. But as Coke Ennyday in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916, shown as part of Lucy Porter’s excellent Anita Loos programme) Fairbanks is the stuff that silent comedy dreams are made of. Opium dreams that is. With a side of cheese. Unless you have seen this ludicrously loopy film, you have never seen anything like it.

The Kid (1921)
The Kid (1921)

Here’s looking at you, Kid

Fashions come and go, but Chaplin is for ever. And in The Kid (1921), five-year-old Jackie Coogan gives the master a run for his money, when it comes to comedy and cuteness both. Other Chaplin features are more ambitious, and more funny, but The Kid reaches parts that other films can’t. When were you last crying with laughter moments after you were just plain crying? Masterful stuff.

And not forgetting … Laura La Plante charming the audience and sailing past the Bechdel test in Home JamesMary Pickford’s note-perfect acting in the peerless The New York HatBuster Keaton’s heartbreaking conclusion to CopsFanny Fairbottom gossiping Over the Garden Wall

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