Ben Model, silent film historian, accompanist and film-maker, has been championing early cinema for years. One of his most interesting projects is the Accidentally Preserved series of DVDs, which collect rare silent comedies that have only been saved from the ravages of time because they were put out on early home-movie formats. This way, he has been rescuing the reputations of many once-beloved silent comedians and sharing many, many laughs.
The 2017 Slapstick Festival, which takes place in Bristol from 19-22 January, will feature a programme of Model’s Accidentally Preserved comedy shorts in an event hosted by Bill Oddie and Robin Ince, with music by Günter Buchwald. That event is on 22 January and you can buy tickets here.
Ben Model was kind enough to answer some questions about the event and his silent comedy sleuthing …
Where did you discover the films that will be showing at Slapstick Festival?
Most of the films on the programme are 16mm prints that I won on eBay. If you have your radar tuned the right way, and sometimes if the sellers mislabel or mis-identify something, it’s possible to win something fun and obscure for a decent price. A Bathtub Elopement, on the other hand, was something Rob Stone from the Library of Congress (USA), Steve Massa and I turned up in a large collection of old rental prints from the 1930s at the LOC. It was a film we knew was lost, and which was of significant interest for us – especially for Steve, who has spearheaded the rediscovery of Marcel Perez’s films. I included it on the Marcel Perez Collection DVD, which I released last year on my Undercrank Productions label and which won an award at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Italy.
Will this Slapstick screening be the films’ first showing in the UK?
It’s hard to say without doing deep research in trade papers from England as to whether or not these films were shown there during the silent era. A Citrate Special was never shown anywhere theatrically, and clearly was a prank film made internally at a studio and intended only for private use. No one has been able to find any information about where it was made or how it wound up being made available in 16mm. There are no listings in home movie catalogues from the 1940s – when my print was made – or later for this title. We screened it at the annual Mostly Lost film identification workshop at the Library of Congress a couple years ago and none of the 125 or so experts in the audience could figure out anything more about the film. I may post it on YouTube channel for the global hive mind, as sometimes that helps yield information like this.
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.
It’s a busy time! Here’s a roundup of the silent movie news I really want to share with you.
The Slapstick festival, our favourite reason to visit Bristol, is back in 2016, running from 20-24 January with a fantastic lineup of events topped by a special gala screening of Chaplin’s The Kid. But there’s so much more to the programme than that. I am looking forward to Kevin Brownlow’s favourite silent comedy westerns, Lucy Porter on the genius of Anita Loos, David Robinson’s lecture on the inside story of The Kid and a musical screening of Cecil B DeMille’s jazz-age drama Chicago (1927), as well as tributes to Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Ben Turpin and more. Read more and book here and don’t forget to support the Kickstarter campaign if you can.
It would take a smarter woman than me to keep up with Neil Brand these days – he pops up everywhere from the BBC to the Royal Albert Hall to the good old BFI. The best way to keep tabs on his activities and make sure you don’t miss a show, is his website neilbrand.com, which has just been thoroughly revamped. There’a google calendar of his upcoming events (very useful) and links to buy his DVDs, albums and books. Plus, there is an INCREDIBLY USEFUL page, titled So you want to programme a silent film?which is a clear, and authoritative guide to how to put on a silent film screening – from rights to music to marketing. If you are contemplating putting on a show – read this first. There is also a link through to Brand’s Originals site, which has some fascinating material about film music and musicians in the silent era. I hear that these pages will be getting their own makeover shortly.
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.
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.
The funniest weekend of the year is back: Bristol’s own rib-tickling Slapstick Festival. This year marks not only the 10th year of the festival but, as you all very well know, the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp. The Slapstick Festival will be celebrating the tramp in fine style with an orchestral gala screening of the the wonderful City Lights (1931), recently voted into the Top 10 Silent Movies by the Guardian and Observer. The screening will be introduced by comedian Omid Djalili and music will be provided by the 39-piece Bristol Ensemble.
There’s a full weekend of funny films beyond the Chaplin too. Check the listings below for details. Notable screenings inlcude the Societ laugh-riot The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), the rarely shown Raymond Grifffith romp Hands Up! (1926) and a chance to see Constance Talmadge in Her Sister From Paris (1925). And don’t miss Harold’s Lloyd’s classic Safety Last! (1923) with Radio 4’s Colin Sell on the piano.
More treasures are to be found in the talks and lecture events: David Robinson on the Tramp, Kevin Brownlow on Chaplin and the Great War, all three Goodies on Buster Keaton and Graeme Garden delving into the work of German Jewish comic Max Davidson.
There will be some modern work featured too: from Wallace & Gromit (naturally) to The Meaning of Life and Withnail & I. Yes, Tim Vine will be offering a tribute to Benny Hill too!
The 10th Slapstick Festival will be held at various venues across Bristol from 24-26 January 2014. Visit the website for more details, or read on for full listings and ticket information.
So when I had the opportunity to return to Slapstick this year I jumped at the chance. For me it was a sort of homecoming and a chance to reflect on the year’s events. My partner and I volunteered at the festival this year and we still managed to see most of the programme, which was fantastic.
Thursday night’s only event was a fascinating insight into the work of Aardman Animations, famously the force behind Wallace and Gromit and Morph. Both Nick Park and Peter Lord were present, offering the chance to see the genesis of some of their greatest works. Park and Lord have long been staunch supporters of Bristol Silents and Slapstick and were both around for the duration of the festival: two great guys who always had time to chat with fellow enthusiasts and fans.
Friday unfortunately was very busy for me until the evening, meaning I missed Boris Barnet’s The Girl with the Hatbox, starring Anna Sten and introduced by Chaplin biographer David Robinson. However, I was lucky enough to see the film while in Pordenone last year: I can tell you all it is a masterpiece whose time in the limelight is long overdue. Sten’s performance is funny and heartfelt: thankfully her talent is now being recognised.
Now, my main love of the silent era is our very own homegrown hero Sir Charles Chaplin. So the absence of Chaplin at this year’s festival did make me yearn for the twirling cane and moustache. However, the other two of the “Big Three” were present in all their glory. Saturday night saw Harold Lloyd take centre stage as the gala’s main feature with an introduction by “national treasure” Victoria Wood (that’s what festival director Chris Daniels called her: she reluctantly accepts the title, believing the only national treasure is Joanna Lumley). Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother and Keaton’s The Goat brought the house down and reminded us all that we do not need CGI to have a good cinematic time. For me the highlight of the night was George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon: conserved and restored to all its full-colour cinematic glory, with a beautiful narration by Slapstick advocate Paul McGann.
On exiting I heard an audience member comment “Lloyd gets a little left behind when it comes to Keaton and Chaplin”. I am not sure if this is true – but after Kevin Brownlow’s fascinating “The Third Genius” presentation on Friday afternoon I most definitely felt I knew the man behind the comedy a little bit more than I did before. Brownlow always has such wonderful insights, having met Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton various times. Last year I was lucky enough to be in the audience for a similar presentation on Buster Keaton. It goes without saying that men such as Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson help us all to get a little closer to an era long gone.
Saturday morning saw another presentation by Brownlow: this time on Colleen Moore – to introduce a screening of Orchids and Ermine. I think that Moore has developed quite a following: a lot of masculine swooning seemed to issue from the theatre on the crowd’s exit, and I cannot say I blame them! She was gorgeous.
Saturday night’s main feature was a selection of personal Keaton favourites by Dad’s Army legend Ian Lavender. The Electric House and College were strokes of genius made at a time when Keaton’s private life was beginning to ruin the one thing he loved so dear, his art. Lavender really struck a chord with me. He showed me a true fan’s passion for Keaton and how it can be so infectious. I often have people say to me: “I don’t know anything about Charlie Chaplin, but your passion makes me want to.” That’s the effect Lavender had on me.
Sunday saw the return of the Goodies and a fantastic reprisal of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue at the Bristol Old Vic plus a chance to see the brilliant June Whitfield on stage too – receiving her Slapstick/Aardman Comedy Legend award. Yet for me the highlight was Sunday night, my only Chaplin of the entire festival. OK it was not exactly a feature, a short or even a gala. It was about 30 seconds of a cameo in the 1928 Marion Davies film Show People presented by comedian Lucy Porter. Now before you wonder, no I did not swoon. I was in fact incredibly well-behaved and blogged about it instead!
So there you have it everyone: a rundown of my highlights of the 2013 Slapstick festival. I hope you have enjoyed it and thank you for all your support in making Charlie’s London what it is. You can find us on Facebook, Eblogger, Tumblr and Twitter.
Bye for now, and here’s to 2014, the centenary of The Little Tramp …
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.
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:
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.