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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Here at Silent London we are big, BIG, fans of the Slapstick Festival in Bristol. It is a friendly, wide-ranging event, run by beautiful people, in a great city – and it always tickles our funnybone.
If you’ve ever been lucky enugh to attend you’ll know that it is a pretty special special festival, which doesn’t cut corners. Top-quality prints are shown accompanied by first-rate musicians and introduced by people who are experts or celebrities – or sometimes both.
And that’s not easy in these tricky times, so this year the Slapstickers are asking for a little help, from you. The Slapstick festival crew have launched a Kickstarter appeal to cover some of their costs, and they would love it if you could support them. The money will go to very good causes including more live music and affordable tickets for kiddies. As it’s a Kickstarter your assistance will be rewarded by some fabulous gifts, from kazoos to custard pies to the chance to meet a VIP – even Morph himself!
As for the more tradtional way of showing your support, tickets are now on sale for the festival gala, which will feature Chaplin’s wonderful The Kid among other treats.
If films can be accidentally lost, then it stands to reason that they can also be accidentally preserved. Doesn’t It? Silent film musician slash historian Ben Model certainly thinks so. This week he released the third DVD in his Accidentally Preserved series: a compendium of short silent comedies, fished from obscurity, with brand new musical scores by Model himself.
You shouldn’t expect to find the big four (or five? or six?) of silent comedy in these discs. Accidentally Preserved is for fans who want to delve a little deeper into the world of silent comedy, and spend a little time with lesser known names such as Al Christie, Jay Belasco, Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian or Sidney Drew.
First the science bit. The overwhelming reason that most silent films are lost is that they were reels of nitrate film, which were either mislaid and left to decay (nitrate decays terribly), destroyed in a fire (nitrate is also inconveniently flammable) or recycled to use for another movie or even melted down to make plastic goods. Neglect could mean a death sentence.
The films that Model is releasing are from private collections of 16mm movies. These are silents that were printed on safety film stock (as the name implies, much less fragile that nitrate) mostly for home movie rentals. The 1930s and 1940s equivalent of Netflix being a 16mm projector and a subscription to a rental service. Some of the AP films were transferred to more stable stock for other reasons – for example, for rerelease or TV broadcast.
Model hasn’t, by and large, restored these films, but rescued and scored them. And reinserted intertitles where necessary. That’s no mean feat in itself, and of course it means that via the Accidentally Preserved DVD releases, and Model’s YouTube channel,we get to see movies that we might never even have heard of.
So what of the films in volume three? After the Drew/Barrymore season at Pordenone last year, the sight of Sidney Drew and his “missus” in Vitagraph’s Wanted: A Nurse (1915) was like greeting an old pal. This is the slightest of comedies, with Drew malingering in order to gain the attentions of a pretty nurse, but he is such a great comic actor that it works, for just as long as the running time allows.
I was also especially taken with The Whirlwind (1922), a sort of low-rent Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) in which a tornado howls into town causing havoc, especially in the residents’ love lives. The child actors in this one are particularly effective. And if you like them, you’ll love Malcolm Sebastian’s turn in Hot Luck (1928), in which the young scamp gets up to mischief with his pet dog, as per, or the poor infant in Whose Baby? (1929) rescued from an onrushing tram by Arthur Lake in his familiar role as Dagwood Bumstead.
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?
There’s a silent half-hour comedy on the iPlayer right now. It will be there until 19 March 2014 and I reckon you should check it out. Here’s the link.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s new anthology series of standalone half-hour comedies has been picking up rave reviews. But the excitement turned positively feral on Wednesday night when episode two, A Quiet Night In, aired on BBC2. The episode features an old rich geezer (Denis Lawson), the two cat burglars who are trying to half-inch his priceless modern art (Pemberton and Shearsmith), his trophy, er, wife (Oona Chaplin) and a door-to-door salesman (Kayvan Novak) – and for the very most part, it is deliciously dialogue-free.
Just to be clear, Inside No.9 last night was a masterclass. IN EVERYTHING. iPlayer at your earliest convenience.
What I really like about what Pemberton and Shearsmith have done is that the idea may be an old one (they have talked about Mel Brook’s Silent Movie as an inspiration), but the tone of A Quiet Night In is far from rowdy slapstick of much modern silent humour, or even the genre-spoofing horror-comedy of their Psychoville series, which was just as inventive as Inside No 9 is shaping up to be. A Quiet Night In is a clever, and very dry comedy – in parts it is almost bleak. It is certainly not for kids, nor sensitive dog lovers. And you’ll never look at kitchen paper, Post-Its and baking foil the same way again.
That Oona Chaplin has a starring role will doubtless please the silent fans – one can only imagine what her grandfather would have made of what lurks under the bedstead here …
On this site you can find out a little more about A Quiet Night In, and watch clips, including a video of the creators discussing their motivation for writing a silent episode.
All this will have to tide us over until Matt Lucas’s Pompidou airs later in the year on BBC1. Yes, the Little Britain star is working on an entirely silent comedy series for the Beeb’s flagship channel. No catchphrases, no David Walliams. Lucas is co-writing, and he will play the title character, “an elderly aristocratic English oddball who has fallen on hard times but who remains upbeat and resourceful”.
It seems the idea is catching: two very famous ITV stars want to develop their own silent comedy project too. Mr Lucas is very supportive, as you can see.
I wonder if @antanddec’s forthcoming silent comedy TV show will be called ‘Let’s Get Ready To Mumble.'
There are so many silent film myths and so little time to wearily dismiss them all. But next time someone blathers on about the coming of sound causing all the silent stars to disappear in a puff of smoke, never to darken the doors of Hollywood again, point them in the direction of Laurel and Hardy. Case closed.
And once you’ve sung the praises of the little clever British one and big daft American one, you’ll be in the mood for seeing some of their films. Happily BFI Southbank is screening the full version of their last feature, the rarely seen Atoll K (1951) on 30 January. You can read more here from Uli Ruedel about why this is such a special opportunity:
Shot in Europe by the comics with genuine enthusiasm, but in poor health and under chaotic production circumstances, the film has been much maligned by some fans and writers, who would rather see it erased from history than enjoy it for what it is.
The film’s longest version – with its extra two reels including “some of the funniest sight gag sequences” (Everson) – has practically been unseen for decades, let alone in its original technical quality.
Curators, comedy historians and conservation scholars at BFI have now previewed and confirmed that the archive’s 35mm print, preserved from unique nitrate master materials in glorious black and white, does conform to the length of this longest existing (and likely never theatrically released) extended English-language version.
Running a delightful 98 minutes, it’s only a couple of minutes short of the 100 minutes worth of footage used in all the different national versions altogether. And with a splendid visual and sound quality, it allows for a fresh appreciation of the French-Italian ‘European super-production’, its sight gags and satire, even its mostly post-synched, faux American English soundtrack – the only dub incorporating the Boys’ distinctive voices in the original, on-set performances.
The hardcore nothing-but-silent fans among you will be pleased to note that Atoll K will also be accompanied by some dialogue-free treats – including a surprise change to the programme.
First up is Grand Hotel (aka Laurel and Hardy Visit Tynemouth, UK 1932, Dir JG Ratcliffe, 10min, silent). In this newsreel footage, the duo “are rapturously received when they visit Tynemouth in 1932, and Stan clowns for the camera with his dad”. But there’s more: “programme will now include previously unseen silent amateur footage of Stan and Ollie opening a Gymkhana at Eastwood Park, Giffnock, during their visit to Scotland in June 1947.” That’s another nice er, bit of BFI archive film programming you’ve gotten yourself into.
Two more thing to know if you’re a Laurel and Hardy fan:
The Laurel and Hardy rarities programme screens in NFT1 at BFI Southbank on Wednesday 30 January at 6pm, introduced by Glenn Mitchell, author of The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia, and Archive curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler. You can buy tickets here.