Quick question. Can you remember March 2020? Me neither. Far too long ago.
So, a few things have happened since then, but at the beginning of March I reported for the Guardian on film historian John Bengtson’s campaign to have one alley in Hollywood renamed in honour of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, who all shot famous scenes there. When I wrote the piece, I hoped to be visiting the alley to see it for myself quite soon. Now there’s a bad joke.
The point is, that the campaign continues, and gathers support. Also, I wanted to share this video John has made that sums up the importance of the alley rather smartly. Why share, give it a thumbs-up, or just enjoy the gags?
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The consensus view on Clyde Bruckman was summed up by Tom Dardis, biographer of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: “he was not very funny, and he drank too much”. Matthew Dessem’s The Gag Man, an entertaining and revelatory study of the writer-director, does little to erase that image, but does examine how he came to “direct” some of silent cinema’s greatest comedies, and tells one heck of a Hollywood yarn.
Bruckman was a journalist who entered the film industry as an intertitle writer, before becoming a “gagster”. The “gag men” would conceive visual jokes for silent comedies, working in groups, throwing ideas around, so it’s tricky to say who did what. However, Bruckman is credited with the brilliant concept for Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921). The star had a broken ankle, which limited his usual acrobatic display. Bruckman sketched out an idea for creating laughs out of camera trickery instead of physical exertion. Thanks to deadly timing on behalf of cameraman and star, the multiple exposures work perfectly, including a triumphant sequence in which nine Keatons dance together.
UPDATE: I updated this post on 6 September 2015 once the programme for the Silent Laughter festival had been finalised.
Our favourite south Londoners are at it again. Fresh from staging a triumphant weekend-long event in June, the Kennington Bioscope team promise a full day of chuckles with a comedy festival in October. Tell us all about it, Ken!
Programmes include shorts with Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, Laurel & Hardy and others; rare features with Raymond Griffith and Walter Forde (Britain’s best silent comedian) concluding with Harold Lloyd’s classic GIRL SHY.
Plus special presentations – Kevin Brownlow on his Buster Keaton Thames TV series ‘A Hard Act to Follow’, David Robinson on Laurel & Hardy (whom he interviewed in 1954), including some new discoveries, guests Tony Slide (historian, author, founder of ‘The Silent Picture’) and Matthew Ross (editor of ‘Movie Night’, Britain’s only magazine devoted to silent & vintage comedy).
Here is the final programme – the Raymond Griffiths films is Paths to Paradise (1925) and the Walter Forde title is You’d be Surprised (1930). And I have heard, from the most delightful little bird, that the vegetarian cafe next door will be open for food again, possibly with a special offer for festivalgoers.
Sounds great. The perfect cure for the post-Pordenone blues, Silent Laughter is a one-day event taking place at the Cinema Museum on Saturday 24 October, from 10am-10pm. Tickets will be available from 1 September so bookmark this page now.
Wait a minute, wait a minute …
Yes, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The Kennington Bioscope is branching out even further, into the realm of early sound cinema, with a little something they are calling Kennington Talkies. What?
At this time of year, a silent film fan starts packing sun cream and sandals and contemplating a journey south to enjoy some warm weather and classic cinema in the company of like-minded souls. But there will be plenty of time to talk about Bologna later. This weekend just gone, I set forth in a southerly direction on the Bakerloo line, snaking under the Thames to the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London. What I found there was very special indeed – and long may it continue. Everyone who was there with me will relish the idea of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend becoming a regular thing, and for the lucky among us, an amuse-gueule for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.
We love the Kennington Bioscope, that’s already on the record, so the Silent Film Weekend is a lot more of a good thing. The team behind the Wednesday night screenings, with the help of Kevin Brownlow and a few guest musicians, have translated their evening shows into a two-day event. And with the added bonus of delicious vegetarian food courtesy of the café at the Buddhist Centre next door. It was a triumph all round.
The programme for the weekend, which you can read here, packed in quite a few classics along less well-known films. I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with Ménilmontant (1926) and The Cheat (1915) – especially on high-quality prints projected by the genius Dave Locke and introduced by knowledgeable types including the afore-mentioned Mr Brownlow. What a joy also, to see the BFI’s Bryony Dixon proudly introduce a double-bill of H Manning Haynes’s WW Jacobs adaptations: The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) is surely destined for a wider audience. And if you haven’t seen Colleen Moore channel Betty Balfour in Twinkletoes (1926) you really are missing out.
But for this report I have decided to focus on the films that were new to me. I appreciate that’s an arbitrary distinction for other people, but this way I can fold in the element of … SURPRISE.
That’s all, folks. I don’t know about the other festival delegates, but I am utterly and completely scherben*. it has been a fantastic festival: eight days to wallow in the full diversity of what we call silent cinema. I have learned a lot, met some wonderful people and enjoyed many, many movies.
The final day began with rain, a sleepy trek to the Cinemazero and some really quite startling footage, completely unsuited to the tender hour. I am not talking about Felix the Cat, who entertained a select crowd with his adventures as a wildlife documentarian in Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles (1928). I am talking about the new documentary feature by David Cairns and Paul Duane, Natan. This award-winning doc tells the truth, or attempts to, about Bernard Natan and his incredible life.
A silent movie at a massive west end venue? You can’t miss this. The Odeon Leicester Square is celebrating its 75th anniversary next month with silent comedy and live music courtesy of Donald Mackenzie, who will be playing the cinema’s wonderful Compton organ.
The film playing will be Harold Lloyd’s brilliant, recently restored, film Safety Last, the story of a small-town boy who comes to the big city determined to reach the top. As kids get free admission to the screening, this would be a fantastic way to introduce your children to silent movies – especially if they have seen and enjoyed Hugo, which riffed on the famous “clock face” scene.
To set the scene for the morning, a jazz band – The Hendo Washboard Kings – will be playing the audience into their seats and at the Compton is Donald MacKenzie, the Odeon’s organist for the past 21 years.The Compton organ was custom built for the cinema in 1937 by the London firm of John Compton. The organ has 5 keyboards and its pipework is housed in two large rooms underneath the stage. These days its appearances are rare and this is an ideal opportunity to see it in action.
Safety Last screens at 10.30am on Saturday 3 August 2013. Admission is £10 at the door (tickets are not available in advance) and accompanied children under 16 will be admitted free of charge. Click here for venue information.
I hate to admit it, but there are good reasons to leave London sometimes. Bristol, for example, can lay a good claim to being the capital of silent cinema in this country, thanks mostly to the year-round efforts of the marvellous people at Bristol Silents. Indeed, come January there is nowhere finer for the discerning silent comedy fan to be. The annual Slapstick Festival is a four-day, multi-venue extravaganza of comedy, mostly of the silent era, presented by comedians and experts – and accompanied by live music.
The 2012 Slapstick Festival will take place from 26-29 January 2012, and the full lineup has just been announced. Yes, there will be some more recent comedy courtesy of gala screenings featuring Dad’s Army, Monty Python and the French film-maker Pierre Étaix. But Slapstick Festival is noted for its passionate endorsement of silent comedy, and it’s here in spades.
Kevin Brownlow will be talking about Buster Keaton and showing footage from his documentary A Hard Act to Follow, while Griff Rhys-Jones will introduce a night of silent comedy including a screening of The General at Colston Hall with music from Günter Buchwald and performed by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. On the last day of the festival, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ian Lavender and Barry Cryer will also introduce their favourite Buster Keaton shorts.
Historian David Robinson will give an illustrated lecture, with clips, on Charlie Chaplin and also discuss his work with fan and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar; Barry Cryer will present a Harold Lloyd double-bill and Graeme Garden will make a case for the debonair Charley Chase. David Wyatt will give two presentations: one talking about lesser-known silent comics such as Max Davidson and Larry Semon and the other on the spoofs and parodies rife in silent-era comedy.
Slapstick Festival events will take place in Colston Hall, the Watershed Cinema and the Arnolfini Arts Centre, Bristol from 26-29 January 2012. See the Slapstick Festival website for more details and to book tickets.
And don’t forget, the Slapstick Festival has its own real ale, brewed locally, especially for the event. The launch of the Slapstick Beer takes place at the Victoria Pub, Clifton on Friday 9 December at 7.30pm. Details on Facebook.
This is a lovely thing to report: openair screenings of two silent film classics, with a local twist. And best of all, they are free.
In September, the Peckham Free Film Festival will be showing Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last on a giant inflatable screen on Peckham Rye near the cafe. The film will be accompanied by Neil Brand on the piano and by a package of local archive footage including newsreels, too. You’ll be able to buy refreshments from the cafe, which focuses on “free range, fair trade, organic, locally sourced, healthy” food, but I can’t be held responsible for the consequences of laughing with your mouth full.
Safety Last screens at Peckham Rye on Friday 16 September at 8pm. Entrance is free.
The festival will close in rousing style with another free silent film screening, on the roof of Peckham multi-storey car par. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin will be screened near Franks Cafe and Campari Bar, also located on the roof, so you can grab a drink and something to eat while you watch. Live music will be provided by Super Best Friends club, who describe themselves this way:
Super Best Friends Club are a friendly beast from London. We wonder if it’s possible to transform this cutthroat universe to a loving frequency. And we wonder if its possible to do this through nudity and frantic dancing. I think its worth trying.
Battleship Potemkin screens on 18 September at 8pm. Entrance is free. For more information on the Peckham Free Film Festival, click here.
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.
What’s better than a silent film screening eh? A free silent film screening of course. The Barbican is camping out at Canary Wharf this August to stage three outdoor screenings of feature-length silent comedy classics and you won’t have to pay a penny to attend.
Neil Brand will be accompanying on the piano while the assembled crowds enjoy Monday night screenings of Buster Keaton’s The Navigator and The General and Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. There’s nothing like watching silent comedy with a large, lively audience and Neil Brand is always on top form, so these shows should be inked in your diary already.
Monday 8 August
6.30pm – The General (U) (US 1926 Dir. Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman 89 min)
Set during the Civil War and based on a true incident, The General is considered to be the one of the greatest comedies of all time. Buster Keaton plays Johnnie Gray who loves his steam train The General. When Union soldiers penetrate Confederate lines and steal his locomotive, Johnnie sets off in hot pursuit – and seven of the film’s eight reels are devoted to the nail-biting chase.
Monday 15 August
6.30pm – Safety Last! (U) (US 1923 Dir. Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor 73 min)
In Safety Last!, Harold Lloyd’s most famous comedy, he plays a sales clerk in a department store who finds himself hanging off the hands of a collapsing clock on the side of a skyscraper high above the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Harold’s legendary building climb is breathtaking and hilariously funny at the same time. A sequence achieved without any special effects.
Monday 22 August
6.30pm – The Navigator (U) (US 1924 Dir. Donald Crisp, Buster Keaton 60 min)
Keaton’s biggest box-office success tells the story of inept millionaire Rollo Treadway and Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire), his rich, pampered girlfriend, who find themselves on a huge deserted liner adrift in the ocean. The Navigator is one of Buster Keaton’s finest films.
Hopefully some of the financiers of Canary Wharf will be tempted to leave their offices and join in the fun – it’s got to be more of a laugh than banking.
Silent film comedy is perfect family viewing – the slapstick of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd is pure live-action Tom & Jerry, and recent animated features from WALL-E to Shaun the Sheep have been upfront about drawing inspiration from the early days of cinema. So screenings such as this one at the Barbican, purely for the youngsters, have their heart in exactly the right place. The film showing on this occasion is Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), which I have to say slots pretty neatly into the Barbican’s current “City Symphony” series, but that’s not important right now. This show is part of the Family Film Club, which takes place every Saturday morning.
Harold Lloyd stars as Speedy (his real-life nickname) who has all sorts of adventures during one day in New York, including a trip to Coney Island and an encounter with Babe Ruth – culminating in a campaign to save the city’s horse-drawn trolley bus. And well he might. Judging by this clip, riding the New York subway in 1928 was not dissimilar to hopping on the Central line in 2011 (ignore the voiceover):
Speedy is on 12 March at the Barbican. The film starts at 11am, but the art activities will begin at 10.30am. “No unaccompanied adults will be admitted”, says the website, so if your children will allow you to come in with them, you can book tickets here.
The Hippodrome Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk, beautifully restored to match its 1920 heyday, will host Scotland’s first silent film festival – and it promises to be an event with a real ‘vintage’ feel. The programme incorporates some enduringly popular silents, from a rare chance to see It (1927), starring Clara Bow, to FW Murnau’s influential vampire film Nosferatu (1922) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), plus a handful of comedies from Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd.
Neil Brand will provide musical accompaniment to several of the films, and he will also perform his acclaimed one-man show The Silent Pianist Speaks. David Allison of The Island Tapes will reprise his score for Nosferatu at the festival’s closing night gala, and another of the films will benefit from a specially commissioned soundtrack performed by local schoolchildren.
There will be a Slapstick Workshop for over-12s by Scottish theatre company Plutôt La Vie, and a new, specially commissioned soundtrack for one of the films performed by local schoolchildren. Another retro treat for younger viewers is the “jeely jar special” – a revival of a 1920s practice whereby film fans can get a two-for-one deal on tickets for The Kid if they bring along a clean jam jar (with lid). Bargain.
And for a touch more glamour, the Opening Gala screening of It has a 1920s dress code. Dropped waists, long strings of beads and cloches – it’s the perfect opportunity to indulge your inner flapper and give Clara Bow a run for her money. Perhaps you can find some sartorial inspiration here. Festival director Allison Strauss says:
The whole event is designed to celebrate the magic, glamour and pure entertainment of films from the silent era. Our programme and the supporting events include something for all ages and we’ve made sure that the wide appeal will involve a broad range of tastes, from cinephiles to anyone discovering early film for the first time.
For full details and to download a brochure, visit the website here.