Another podcast, and this time it’s all about the laughs in our comedy special. I’m joined in the studio by Phil Concannon of Philonfilm.net, Ayse Behçet, who writes the Charlie’s London series for Silent London, and podcast expert Pete Baran. Plus Chris Edwards of the wonderful Silent Volume blog also contributes a few well-chosen words on his favourite silent film: Exit Smiling, starring Beatrice Lillie.
We’ll be talking about our favourite silent comedies, and yours, and perhaps touching on a few films and film-makers you won’t expect. Plus we’ll be reviewing some recent silent film screenings, Ayse will be reporting back from the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna and we’ll be taking a look at the calendar too.
There’s also a lot of business about trousers. And possibly the odd 90-year-old spoiler.
With The Farmer’s WifeHitchcock proved that he could excel at comedy, but Champagne (1928) unhappily revealed that froth was far from safe territory for the director. The critics were hardly impressed, with Close-Up crowing about: “champagne that had been left out in the rain all night”. Looking back, Hitchcock tended to agree, saying: “That was probably the lowest ebb of my output.”
Hitchcock wasn’t happy at the time either, no fan of the source novel and uncertain how to proceed. What Champagne does have is a promising cast: Betty Balfour (the “British Mary Pickford”) takes the lead role and one of Hitchcock’s favourite character actors, Gordon Harker, plays her millionaire father. Balfour, who had made her name playing cockney sweetheart Squibs, does her best, but her likable screen persona fares much better in the second half of the film, when her character (The Girl) develops a touch more vulnerability and sweetness.
In the earlier stages of the film, The Girl is a spoiled, grandstanding heiress, but a combination of Balfour’s hard-to-repress charm and Hitchcock’s steely gaze means she’s very hard to hate. She invokes her father’s displeasure by commandeering a plane to catch up with her boyfriend’s cruise liner. For this, he wants to teach her a lesson. But Hitchcock gets in first, shooting Balfour triumphant in a ballgown after her dramatic entrance, but with her face covered in soot from the flight. I was rooting for her from that moment on. Further humiliations are in store, but it’s a blessed relief when she reaches the point of redemption.
That said, there are some hugely enjoyable glimpses of Hitchcock on top form here: including a cynical street robbery (shades of a similar scene in The Pleasure Garden, maybe even a nod to Graham Cutts), and some bold subjective camerawork.
Champagne is also of considerable interest as film that is utterly of its own time – a cocktail-swigging flapper, her father with his fortunes balanced precariously on Wall Street, her straitlaced fiance with his old-fashioned views – and a reflection of our own. Mira Calix, who will be scoring the film for its gala screening later this year, points out that Champagne attacks a continuing 21st-century obsesssion with celebrities who, just like The Girl, behave atrociously and are famous off the back of their parents’ success. It also, she hopes, will chime with supporters of the Occupy movement: a front-row seat to watch the 1%ers behaving badly and meeting their icky comeuppance.
A minor work, but not without its charms, Champagne maybe largely a waste of Balfour’s talents, but it’s a showcase for the director’s style and his mean streak both.
Disapproving of her love affair, a millionaire sets out to teach his irresponsible daughter a lesson by pretending to lose all his money. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Our heroine is attacked by a creep (7:25). Pure Hitchcock. But not entirely what it seems.
Watch out for: Those alarmingly close subjective shots, most notably some tricksy ones through the bottom of a champagne glass.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. And every schoolchild knows that statement is never more true than when the gent in question is a farmer.
Jameson Thomas, whom you you may not recognise under his bristly facial hair as the dashing lead in Piccadilly, plays Samuel Sweetland, a widowed farmer whose thoughts turn to matrimony. Samuel surveys the village women and sets about wooing potential Mrs Sweetlands, with hilariously disastrous results. Disastrous, but not in the usual vein of Hitchcock calamity. Samuel isn’t a perverted sex killer bumping women off in the dead of night. The Farmer’s Wife is a comedy, a broad one too, and the only injuries sustained are bruised egos and spoiled dinners.
Comedies are meant to have happy endings of course, and when I tell you Samuel is assisted in his quest for a new spouse by his sweet-faced and good-hearted housekeeper Araminta (Lillian Hall-Davis) perhaps you’ll be reassured that all will end well.
So how well does Hitchcock, acclaimed for his urban thrillers, succeed in staging a rural comedy? With flying colours. It’s not all down to the director, of course, this is an Eliot Stannard adaptation of a very popular play, but Hitchcock shoots The Farmer’s Wife as if it were a thriller, which somehow emphasises the poignancy of all these lonely people and their missed connections. His brisk economic style also ensure that the horseplay mostly doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Not exactly what you may expect from Hitchcock, but the silents rarely are, and there’s a huge amount to enjoy here.
A middle-aged widowed landowner decides to marry again. With the aid of his faithful housekeeper he draws up a list of all the eligible women in the neighbourhood, each of whom in turn rejects him. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Never mind the jelly and ice-cream, nor the awkward trouser situation. This proposal looks like one of Hitchcock’s murder scenes and features a very bizarre intertitle
Watch out for: The empty chair by the fireside. And what Hitchcock does with it.
A few weeks ago, I posted about a competition held by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The task set was to create a short animation, featuring a city landmark, to be accompanied by one of the pieces of silent film music recently unearthed in the archives of Birmingham Library. Now the winner, whose film will be screened at a gala event on 20 April, alongside some Charlie Chaplin classics and accompany by the CBSO, has been announced.
Gareth Hirst’s short film Street Act explores the dark and violent side of slapstick comedy, and the action takes on Birmingham’s Corporation Street. The movie uses the Indian War Dance music from the archive, to great effect – you can listen to eight more extracts here. If you want to find out more about Hirst, his animation work and his prize-winning film, you can read more on his blog. You’ll see that he put an awful lot of work into the film, including a heck of a lot of research. I understand he is a keen silent movie fan and a regular visitor to the Slapstick Festival in Bristol. Congratulations, Gareth!
Tickets for the Charlie Chaplin gala at the Symphony Hall Birmingham on 20 April 2012 are available here.
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:
Everyone loves Buster Keaton, but the readers of Silent London love him more than most. So today, on 4 October 2011, which would have been Buster Keaton’s 116th birthday, let’s pause to celebrate the Great Stone Face. After all, if it wasn’t for Buster Keaton, this blog wouldn’t exist. My first silent film and live music experience was a double-bill of Sherlock Jr and Steamboat Bill Jr accompanied by the Harmonie Band. What a treat. I was already smitten with early film before I went, but that evening turned me into an evangelist for the ‘live cinema’ experience.
I have Buster Keaton news to share, also. In the US, movie channel TCM is celebrating by showing Keaton’s films every Sunday throughout October. Sadly, that pleasure is not available on these shores, but Scottish film blogger Jon Melville isn’t going to let that stop him. He will be rewatching the same films on DVD, and writing them up for his Holyrood or Bust(er) project. Follow his progress on his blog here.
Project Keaton will be a month long open forum in which writers, artists, everyday Joes and everyday Janes (like me) from all over the world are being invited to tip their pork pie to Buster. The goal is to foster a month of creative exchange, with Buster as muse, and to celebrate one of cinema’s few, true geniuses. There are no rules as to content: essays, reviews, art, critiques, tributes, prose, poetry, all are welcome. And, since this is a month long project, there are no pressing deadlines: participants may contribute as little or as much as they wish any time at all during the course of October.
Find out more, including how to contribute to Project Keaton, here.
If all this has reawakened your love of Buster Keaton, then you may want to join the Blinking Buzzards – the UK Buster Keaton society, who produce quarterly newsletters and hold regular meetings. They are even working on a clothing range and talking about a festival, too. There is not much information on their website at present, but their next meeting will be held at the Cinema Museum on 22 October. You can follow them on Twitter or Facebook, where they are far more talkative and a regular source of Buster Keaton clips and news.
The final titbit I’ve been keeping stashed under my pork-pie hat is a date for your diary. You may already know that The Slapstick Festival, an annual orgy of silent comedy in Bristol, will take place from 26-29 January next year. This festival is organised by the fabulous people at Bristol Silents and is always enormous fun, with an enchanting mix of silent film geekery and out-and-out hilarity. Although it’s too early for the full lineup to be revealed, the four galas, the flagship events of the weekend, have been announced.
May I draw your event to the event taking place on Friday 27 January? Comedian Griff Rhys Jones will introduce a screening of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General (1926), with a new score written by Günter Buchwald and performed by members of the European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. There will also be a chance to see Laurel and Hardy in The Finishing Touch (1928) and Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer (1916), as well as a performance by the Matinee Idles, featuring actor Paul McGann. The Gala takes place at Colston Hall in central Bristol, and tickets are available here.
This is a silent film screening, a concert, an experiment and lunch, all rolled into one. Not So Silent Movies will happen on the first Sunday of every month at the Kings Place arts centre in Kings Cross. It’s the brainchild of composer and cellist Philip Sheppard and puts a range of leading musicians to the ultimate test of their improvisational skills – accompanying silent films. The films will be a complete surprise to the musicians, who will have had no opportunity to watch the movies in advance, or heaven forfend, rehearse. This is what Sheppard says about the project:
‘I love throwing caution to the wind and creating a spontaneous composition, and I have absolute confidence that these musicians can pull it off. There’ll be as much slap-stick on stage as on screen; we get such a buzz from taking the risk with no safety net – it’s the adrenalin that makes it work, and when it’s over you can’t repeat it – it’s a one off!’
The choice of films will be a surprise for the audience too, of course. But a little bird tells me we can expect plenty of Buster Keaton (from the shorts to the features), some Harold Lloyd, maybe even some Chaplins in the future. Sheppard is huge fan of silent comedy and keen to show a broad range of films. He has something very special planned for Christmas, too, hopefully involving a special guest. But he’s keen to hear suggestions from Silent London readers. So if you want to nominate some silent comedies that you would like to see with a spontaneous score, comment below.
The roster of musicians involved is very impressive, and changes from month to month. Here are the line-ups for the first three Sundays.
Sunday 2 October:
Special guests Guy Pratt bass (Pink Floyd & Roxy Music) Geoff Dugmore drums
House band Philip Sheppard cello Elspeth Hanson violin (Bond) Pip Eastop horn (London Sinfonietta) Mark Neary pedal steel guitar
Sunday 6 November: Special guest Dame Evelyn Glennie OBE percussion
Sunday 4 December: Roger Eno piano
Robin Millar CBE guitarist/star producer Steve Mackey bass player, Pulp
Not So Silent Movies takes place on the first Sunday of every month in Hall Two of Kings Place. Tickets cost £9.50-£12.50, or £29.50 with Sunday lunch and a bloody mary at the Rotunda restaurant included. Find out more here.
Which silent comedies would you like to see shown at Not So Silent Movies? Please leave your comments below.
Whether Paul Merton’s recent Birth of Hollywood documentaries piqued your interest in silent cinema, or you are already a fan of the era’s exquisitely hilarious comedians, this is a date for your diary. Merton, and silent film pianist Neil Brand, are reprising their Silent Clowns show, which toured throughout 2009, at the Cinema Museum this September.
According to my sources, we can expect some classic moments from Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as well as a complete Laurel and Hardy short, We Faw Down, their first film to be directed by Leo McCarey, which is sometimes known under the simpler title We Slip Up. Paul Merton will introduce the clips, and Neil Brand will provide musical accompaniment. You really can’t go wrong. Anyone who has read Merton’s Silent Comedy book or watched his recent TV programmes, will know that he is passionate about this subject, and if you only know him from the radio, you’ll know that he is exceedingly funny himself.
Silent Clowns is at the Cinema Museum in Kennington onSaturday 3 September at 7.30pm, but doors will open an hour earlier for you to look around the collections. Refreshments will be available too, and there should be some time for you to mingle and have a high old time. Tickets cost £6.50 or less for concessions. For more information, visit the Cinema Museum website, or to buy tickets, visit WeGotTickets.
It’s not too often you get to watch silent films in a Tudor mansion in Hackney, so grab this chance while you can. The Sutton House Music Society is staging a night of classic silent comedy with accompaniment from jazz pianist Dave Morecroft on Sunday 10 July. The National Trust describes Sutton House this way:
Built in 1535 by prominent courtier of Henry VIII, Sir Ralph Sadleir, Sutton House retains much of the atmosphere of a Tudor home despite some alterations by later occupants, including a succession of merchants, Huguenot silkweavers and squatters. With oak-panelled rooms, original carved fireplaces and a charming courtyard.
Not your run-of-the-mill cinema then. They will be showing four films: Earl McCarthy stars as Hairbreadth Harry in Sign Them Papers; Ben Turpin chases a pancake in Why Babies Leave Home; Harold Lloyd is a piano player in a wild west saloon in Two-Gun Gussie; and Buster Keaton dabbles in DIY in the sublime One Week.
What’s more, there will be cocktails and popcorn – and guests are encouraged to dress “film star fabulous”. I think they’re suggesting you channel Bebe Daniels rather than Snub Pollard, but heck, it’s up to you.
Doors open for the Silent Film Night at 6pm, and the movies will begin at 7pm, on 10 July 2011. Tickets cost £10 or £8 for concessions and include £1 membership of the Sutton House Music Society Film Club. Sutton House is at 2&4 Homerton High Street, London E9 6JQ.
The Forest Row film society in East Sussex are discerning and enthusiastic cinephiles, who show heaps of exciting films, old and new, every week. Like all people of taste, they love silent films, and so I am pleased to say that their forthcoming comedy festival will feature some slapstick delights. Top of the silent bill is a screening of Buster Keaton’s magnificent The General on Saturday 19 March, with musical accompaniment by award-winning composer Terry Davies.
And the following day, Sunday 20 March, there will be a programme called Silents, Please, which is still slightly TBC, but this is what they have to say:
Many of the great silent comedies of the 20s were two-reelers, lasting around twenty minutes. The festival will also screen a programme of these, including Buster Keaton in Cops, maybe some Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and other gems. Screened with live music from Terry Davies and Anna Cooper.
Cops is hilarious. This should be great.
For more details about the festival, check out the website here, or find the Forest Row film society on Facebook. Forest Row is easily accessible from London. Simply catch a train from Victoria to East Grinstead, then a bus or cab three miles to Forest Row itself, I am told.