The best thing I’ve seen so far at this year’s online Slapstick Festival is the French film Siren of the Tropics (Mario Nalpas & Henri Étiévant, 1927), starring one of the all-time greats of the dance world, Josephine Baker. With this movie, Baker became the first Black woman to star in a major studio picture. And it’s a triumph. I was lucky enough to see the film at the festival with an excellent live score played by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, which definitely brought up the best of this vivacious film.
Siren of the Tropics may feature one of America’s greatest stars, but it’s a film that could never have been made in America at the time, or for decades later. In the silent era, Anna May Wong set sail for Europe to play romantic leads, escaping Hollywood’s prohibition on what it called miscegenation. In the classical Hollywood musical, Black performers from The Nicholas Brothers to Lena Horne were seen only as “featured players” with no connection to the story – so their show-stopping sequences could be excised from the film for exhibition in the South.
In Siren of the Tropics, Josephine Baker isn’t just the star of the film, she is giving a career-defining star performance. Not least because this film fictionalises the creation of her star persona. It’s the story of a young woman from the Caribbean who falls in love with a white man and follows him to Paris. While searching for him, she is scouted by nightclub impresarios and becomes the toast of the city. Finally reunited with her love, she sees that they can never be together and she makes a sacrifice for him before sailing away to America to start a new life.
It’s a complete fiction, but one that hits on all the aspects of Baker’s persona that would have been familiar to her audience. It’s her A Star is Born. Baker’s character, Papitou, displays natural dance talent at home in the fictional Caribbean mining colony of Monte Puebla, grooving on the sand with her friends. She eventually travels to Paris where she becomes feted on the nightclub circuit with an act that involves her both performing an eccentric dance in the torn blouse and satin rompers of her famous plantation routine and also bringing the house down in sequins, lace and feathers as she twirls her limbs in the Charleston: two of her signature moves. Although Papitou is a dancer, not also a comedienne, the film supplies plenty of setpieces for Baker to prove her skills in both disciplines. At the end of the film that Papitou travels to Baker’s actual birthplace, the US.
You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a tough time right now. All I can say is that I hope you’re all taking care of yourselves out there, celebrating the small wins and staying connected.
Talking of connections, I have news of upcoming online delights for silent cinephiles. Viz, to wit, henceforth, etc etc.
Hippfest is back! Yes, the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival returns, online, this 17-21 March. The star attraction here is the wonderful Marlene Dietrich silent The Woman Men Yearn For (1929), along with a new score from Frame Ensemble. But believe me there are more delights yet to be announced. I am sworn to secrecy, however, and shall remain silent until the full programme is announced on 16 February. Read more.
I trailed this event last year, but the full programme for Slapstick 2021 (1-17 March 2021) is a few steps closer to being announced – the full details will be revealed on Monday 25 January. Passes are on sale now, at a variety of price points, and individual tickets for each event will be on sale on Monday, too. Read more.
On 4 February Coram hosts an online roundtable celebrating the centenary of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, and its depiction of care, with Bryony Dixon and Kate Guyonvarch. Sounds fascinating. Book here.
The Silent Comedy Watch Party courtesy Ben Model and Steve Massa was a trailblazer in the online silent game during the early weeks of the pandemic, and has gone from strength to strength. Wouldn’t you know it, they will be celebrating their 50th edition a year to the day since they started, this March? Catch up with previous weeks and get set for future episodes (this Sunday we’re treated to Alice Howell, Martha Sleeper and Charley Chase) here.
Kennington Bioscope shows no sign of slowing down – the shows just seem to get better and better. The next episode, on Wednesday, promises a programme called “Daring Deeds”. I can’t wait for historian-host Michelle Facey to explain further. Set a reminder.
Today is the anniversary of the births of Yevgeni Bauer, DW Griffith, Conrad Veidtand Sergei Eisenstein. What special silent film powers are unleashed on 22 January?
Next week: I reveal the winners of the 2020 Silent London Poll! Iron your bowties and polish your stilettoes, ladies and gentlemen…
Stay safe, lovelies. I’ll be back in touch next week to open those golden envelopes.
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Some news from our good friends at the Slapstick Festival this morning. As you know, this annual showcase of physical comedy is a guaranteed good time, and it usually takes place in January, in venues across the city of Bristol.
Well, nothing is going to plan right now and Bristol is currently in the highest tier of Covid-19 restrictions. That means that there will be no IRL event this year, but there is good news, not unrelated to the £11,000 raised by the festival’s crowdfunding campaign during lockdown. Slapstick is shifting to March, and pivoting to online.
“My four-year-old thinks One Week is a Sybil Seely film that just has Buster Keaton in it.” Polly Rose said many wise things in her introductions to three restored Keaton shorts to kick off the Slapstick Festival this year, but this one really stuck with me. The annual celebration of visual comedy had a fantastic lineup of silent cinema this year, and I saw lots of it. In between chuckles, I had plenty of time to ponder the fact that that Rose’s four-year-old made a really good point.
This year, as it has done for a few years now, Slapstick Festival goes beyond the big three, or big four, or however you want to cut the comedy canon. There are programmes devoted to those performers designated “forgotten clowns” and a dedication throughout the schedule to showcasing female talent. There was a screening of suffragette comedies for example, and even an entire distaff gala on Thursday evening – a presentation of female-led movies at Bristol Cathedral, introduced by Shappi Khorsandi, running along the same lines as the Friday night gala, hosted by Paul McGann and featuring Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Applause emojis all round for all of this. I absolutely loved it.
The insightful conversation between (hero) Samira Ahmed and Lucy Porter about the manifestation of the campaign for universal suffrage in silent cinema was a real highlight for me. Great to see these newsreels and comedies not just shown, but contextualised and deeply considered as well. And Porter’s line about “Darren” will stick with me for a long time. There was quite a meandering discussion in the room and the bar afterwards about the intent of filmmakers presenting such violent farces as Milling the Militants or Did’ums Diddles the Policeman. And how audiences took them! It’s hard to know the truth, but I feel that copper-bashing suffragettes and those who opposed them had both become popular caricatures by this point. So, many people watching the films, instead of looking for points of identification or moral victory, would have been merely enjoying the spectacle of a bunfight between two camps reduced to their most absurd and extreme positions – like switching on Question Time, say. Certainly one could see a few upper-middle-class white men claiming to be oppressed by intersectional feminism in these comic shorts. Though, I guess I have just proved that we all bring our own perspective to the films we watch. Make your own minds up – you can see many of these films on the BFI Player or indeed on the fine BFI DVD Make More Noise.
Greetings from Cinema Rediscovered in Bristol – the fabulous west country weekend inspired by a certain Bolognese festival of archive cinema. I am here to work a little and watch a lot – or that’s the plan. If you haven’t made it to this annual event (and this is the third instalment, so why not?) do try to rectify that next year. Bristol is a lovely place to be at the end of July and it’s a warm and wide-ranging festival too, based mostly at the fantastic Watershed cinema on the harbourside.
While I am here, I really must share some more festival news with you, because I have lots. First, because we’re in Bristol, but also last, as it is not until next year, I have Slapstick news. The Slapstick Festival is going ahead for 2019, but as the Colston Hall is closed for refurbishments, a few changes have been made to the setup. The festival will go ahead as usual 18-20 January at the Watershed and the Bristol Old Vic. The Gala screening of Modern Times will become a standalone event and take place at the beautiful Hippodrome Theatre on 10 February instead. Here are the details:
Hosting the event will be stand-up, TV and radio show panellist, writer, satirist and actor Marcus Brigstocke. Its centrepiece will be a complete screening of the Charlie Chaplin masterpiece Modern Times (1936), showing on a super-sized HD screen and accompanied live by the 40-piece Bristol Ensemble playing Chaplin’s own score for the film and conducted by Guenter A Buchwald.
In addition, there will be pre-show entertainment by students of the Circomedia circus-theatre school; screenings, with music, of Bacon Grabbers (1929), starring Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow (1924) and comedy magic from John Archer – the first act on Jonathan Ross’s Penn and Teller: More Fool Us series to perform a trick which left the duo baffled and a regular on the BAFTA-winning CBBC series Help! My Supply Teacher’s Magic.
You can book your seat for the Modern Times gala now on the Slapstick website. And keep your eye on that site too, as the full programme for the festival should be announced in October.
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.
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.
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.
More silent film goodness to look forward to in 2018, and this time a little closer to home.
The 2018 edition of Bristol’s Slapstick festival takes place at venues across the city centre from 25-28 January and tickets are on sale now. If you’re not familiar with this event let me tell you how it breaks down. Funny films. Funny people. That’s it, really. The Slapstick Festival celebrates the tradition of visual comedy on screen, beginning in the silent era. And it invites famous comedians to present and share their favourites, as well as a host of experts and the best silent movie musicians in the business.
So next year, silent comedy fans can look forward to:
The Silent Comedy Gala at Colston Hall on Friday night will be hosted by Tim Vine. The headline film is the superlative Sherlock, Jr, accompanied by Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life and Angora Love, starring Laurel and Hardy. The Buster Keaton feature will be accompanied by the world premiere of a new, semi-improvised score composed by Günter Buchwald and performed by the renowned European Silent Screen Virtuosi and members of Bristol Ensemble. A Dog’s Life features Chaplin’s own composition for the film and will be performed by a 15-piece Bristol Ensemble conducted by Buchwald.
Comedian Lucy Porter introduces two screenings of female-led silent comedies at the Watershed Cinema: Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen, and Constance Talmadge in Her Night of Romance. Porter is great at these intros, both knowledgeable and passionate, so don’t miss these. Music by John Sweeney too.
Someone else who is rather good at introducing silent movies is Kevin Brownlow, who will introduce a lesser-known film, Skinner’s Dress Suit, starring the brilliant Laura La Plante and Reginald Denny. Piano accompaniment by Daan Van den Hurk.
Meet the Austrian answer to Laurel and Hardy, Cocl and Seff, with a screening of some of their rarely seen work at the Watershed, with music by Stephen Horne and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.
And there will be a chance to see even more rare films at a screening called Lost and Found, in which collector Anthony Saffrey and historian David Robinson will present some recently rediscovered silent comedies, from André Deed (AKA Foolshead) Marcel Perez, Max Linder, Karl Valentin and more. Music will be provided by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Daan Ven den Hurk.
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.
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.
“Plot – The Boy is in love with The Girl – the rest just happens”*
This is not a review of the Bristol Slapstick Festival, just a note to say what a Good Thing it is, and to give you a flavour of this celebratory yet educational event. I was only able to visit about a quarter of the festival this year – in 2012 hopefully I will get to see more.
To hear, and be part of, a theatre full of people guffawing at Charlie Chaplin pretending to fall down a staircase in 1916 is immense fun, and inspirational too. How many people, how many times in how many places have laughed at the same scene? Talk about a gift to the world. In my brief visit to Bristol, I saw Harold Lloyd, WC Fields, Clara Bow, Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon, Chaplin and Buster Keaton – all of whose films can still have audiences in stitches today, but sadly aren’t seen too often any more. Not only was it a treat to see these films, but it was a privilege to watch them with the benefit of introductions and lectures by experts and fans – Ian Lavender on Keaton and Graeme Garden on Langdon were particular delights as, of course, was Kevin Brownlow’s talk before Mantrap.
What can I say? My only regret is that I couldn’t stay longer – the full programme looked very intriguing, Bristol is a great city and I met some lovely people on my trip. I’d recommend the Slapstick Festival wholeheartedly to silent film fans, but also to people who enjoy laughing, which should be all of you I reckon.
The Slapstick Festival website is here, you can follow related tweets via the hashtag #slapstickfest and read The 24th Frame’s day-by-day blog of the festival here.
*Taken from an intertitle on Harold Lloyd’s Get Out and Get Under, but this caption applied to 99% of the films at the Slapstick Festival, and it made me smile.
As Bristol gears up for its annual Slapstick Festival (reported on these pages elsewhere), I thought I would share with you a couple of interesting events they’ve got lined up before the main attraction, which kicks off on 28 January. First off, the Bristol Silents club is screening The Extra Girl (1923) starring Mabel Normand, on 12 January, 7.30pm at the Old Picture House. The screening is totally free and will be introduced by film historian David Robinson. Full details are available on the Bristol SilentsFacebook page.