Buster, Denny and Dutch: all in a day at the Slapstick Festival

A little of what you fancy does you good. Right? I think so, and with that in mind I treated myself to a day of giggles at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival. My seventh visit, and suitably, I saw some heavenly sight gags.
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Buster Keaton, who made his first appearance on film 100 years ago, was the special focus of the festival’s silent offering this year. So it’s no surprise that I had two dates with Mr Keaton in one day. First, an energetic, and thought-provoking lecture on the Great Stoneface’s masterpiece The General (1927), by Peter Kramer, author of the recent BFI Film Classic monograph on the film. I really liked what he had to say about the film’s depiction of the Old South, and the punishment meted out to Annabelle Lee as the film continues. Plenty to consider, and I think he’s exactly right about Lee. What’s great about her character is that she behaves badly, gets punished and then grows a little. A carefully drawn female character, capable of personal development, in a silent comedy? Cheers to that.
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Dorothy Sebastian’s Trilby Drew in Keaton’s MGM silent Spite Marriage (1929) also faces a bruising punishment for her sins – hilariously so, in the sequence when Buster manhandles her passed-out body into bed – but I don’t buy into her transformation as much as I do Annabelle’s. Anyway, this film is frequently hilarious, while being more of a series of sketches forced into a feature than a narrative flick, and it was an excellent way to end my day at the festival. Not least because of sublime accompaniment from the European Silent Screen Virtuosi, AKA Gunter Buchwald, Romano Tadesco, and Frank Bockius, who made a late but welcome appearance after the film had begun. We were fed some line about Bockius being caught up in traffic, but I have read enough rock biogs to know what drummers get up to. Even Trilby Drew would blush, I’m sure.

Spite Marriage (1929)
Spite Marriage (1929)
It was interesting, too, to view the theatrical sequence in Spite Marriage in light of what Kramer said about the US romanticising the South in popular culture after its defeat in the Civil War. Like all good scholars, I was raised on 1066 and All That and I recognise the Wrong But Romantic/Right But Repulsive dichotomy when I see it.
Skinner's Dress Suit (1925)
Skinner’s Dress Suit (1925)
Anyway I have missed out two films. The afternoon closed with Skinner’s Dress Suit (1925), starring Reginald Denny, who has mostly passed me by, Laura La Plante (#queen) and wow, Hedda Hopper herself. This was an amiable comedy about a Pooterish clerk living in the suburbs. His wife is convinced he is due a raise and assumes he has been granted one even though the truth is sadly very different. Soon, they both start spending, and living, beyond their means. Cue lots of ritzy hi-jinks with a clutch of creditors in tow. It all whips along, and resolves itself nicely, but Denny is a little bland, and La Plante has far too little to do. That said, the extended dance sequences are a hoot – ever thought you’d see La Hopper tackle the “Savannah Shuffle”? It’s something, all right.
Her Night of Romance (1924)
Her Night of Romance (1924)
My absolute highlight of the day came at the very beginning, though. My first screening, and the first screening of the festival, in fact, was Her Night of Romance (1924). This spicy-sweet rom-com starred Constance “Dutch” Talmadge and Ronald Colman as two gorgeous young things who fall in love (and quite clearly lust) at first sight. However (you guessed it) all manner of hurdles come between them and wedded bliss. The screening was introduced by comedian Lucy Porter, who filled us in on all things Talmadge and prepared us for just how dreamy Colman would be in the film, and Kevin Brownlow who had lots of interesting things to say about director Sidney Franklin, whom, of course, he interviewed at length in the 1960s.
In his intro, Brownlow quoted Jeanne Basinger as saying that the film “cried out for Lubitsch”. Well, apparently Franklin was a great admirer of EL, and this film is written by his screenwriter Hans Kraly too. This led me to expect Lubitsch-lite, but actually , this was as near to full-fat Lubitsch as you can get. The sexualised use of objects (shoes, a vase) in the comedy, the pungent whiff of carnality in every gag, the tangible attraction between Talmadge and Colmna, the gleefully escalating chaos and the chorus of meddlesome but sweet-hearted villagers … this was as close as you can get to Lubitsch without being Billy Wilder I reckon.
Her Night of Romance (1924)
Her Night of Romance (1924)
It was an absolute joy from start to finish, with sparkling accompaniment from John Sweeney. We need more people to see Constance Talmadge, she really was a remarkable talent with a brilliantly mobile, expressive face,, so it would be great to see more of her films on disc soon please. Kevin Brownlow said he hoped to get a sharper copy of this title made, to do better justice to the luscious photography by Victor Milner and Rany Binger, so watch out for this. And Lucy Porter was not wrong about Ronald Colman. Divinely handsome, and devilishly funny – the perfect movie star.
I had a great day, but if you’re heading to Slapstick over the weekend, there is plenty more to look forward to, so make sure you enjoy yourselves. I’ll see you there next year!
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2 thoughts on “Buster, Denny and Dutch: all in a day at the Slapstick Festival”

  1. Recently acquired HER NIGHT OF ROMANCE and feel inspired to watch it now!

    There’s a matching character arc in THE GENERAL. At the film’s start, Buster is a timid wooer, uncertain how to proceed with Marion Mack/Annabelle Lee. The picture he gives her, mainly showing his train, suggests cluelessness.

    Thrown into the adventure with her, he’s driven crazy by her domesticity, but she’s knocked off her pedestal and what’s left instead of worship is appreciation of her earnest devotion. By the time she’s fixing his uniform, they’re a team.

    Richard Lester calls the character “almost aggressively stupid,” and there’s something in that, and the gender roles are terribly traditional, but it’s certainly following an effective throughline.

    1. Fairly confident you will love HNOR. And yes, J and A really are a well-matched couple – Not sure the engine matures in the same way, but eh?

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