Share

Silent Film

Charlie Chaplin
Printer-friendly version

In a landscape saturated with quick-fire gags, a new generation is embracing the world of silent comedy. Jess Holland salutes the original stars of slapstick

While the word 'slapstick' may invoke nightmarish visions of You've Been Framed, Farrelly Brothers-style gross-out comedy or shoddy street-mime, there's a quiet revolution going on. Silent film is becoming cool again, spurring a rebirth of interest in the flickering forefathers of screen comedy. Paul Merton's Silent Clowns TV series was the highest rated documentary on BBC4; Slapstick, the Bristol silent comedy festival, sold out for the first time this year; and film-makers as far afield as Norway and the States are turning their backs on hi-tech methods in favour of silent slapstick.
 
The Programmer
 
"There does seem to be a renaissance and it does seem we're very much a part of it," says Chris Daniels, programmer of the Slapstick festival, who also came up with the idea for Silent Clowns. Daniels set up Bristol Silents in 2001, after he and his friends got sick of travelling to London's National Film Theatre to see silent movies. He met up with the programmer at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol, and somehow managed to persuade him that audiences wanted to watch films from the 1920s.
 
Daniels' challenge was to screen high quality prints that didn't run too fast or look scratchy, with live musical accompaniment, and then to find an angle to engage new audiences. He found that packaging well-known contemporary comedians alongside classic Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy films was a winning combination. So when he started the Slapstick festival in Bristol in 2005, he pulled in crowds by getting big names like Paul Merton and Richard Attenborough to introduce the films.
 
The Accompanist
 
It worked. In 2005, 600 people attended the introductory show in Bristol's Colston Hall. The following year drew 1,000. And this January, the 1,600-capacity venue sold out. "I had this wonderful idea in my mind that we might actually get ticket touts outside Colston Hall for a film that was over 80 years old," remembers Neil Brand, a high profile piano accompanist who organises music for the festival. "That would just be brilliant."
 
Brand collaborated with Paul Merton on Silent Clowns and wrote a radio play, Stan, about the last days of Oliver Hardy. Like Daniels, Brand has been heavily involved in the world of silent cinema, ever since he started working as an accompanist for the NFT 25 years ago. "I'm delighted with the way that things have exploded in the last few years," he says. "Certainly for the first 15 or so years [of my career] there was a problem getting audiences because they assumed they wouldn't enjoy it. But I think that the wave has finally turned and people are coming along now in a real spirit of enjoyment. They're coming for entertainment, not because it's quirky or odd or old, but because it's an absolutely valid art form."
 
Daniels admits he has been "bowled over" by the success of the Slapstick festival; a success which he partly attributes to boredom with modern TV and film. "On the face of it, it doesn't make sense, does it?" he says. "Why on earth are 200 people turning up to watch a Buster Keaton film in an old theatre? Perhaps people are overwhelmed by the number of TV channels and the amount of information that's out there. There's something really quite special about the simplicity and structure of silent film. It reaches a different place."
 
He remembers how at a recent screening of a Buster Keaton film people were "gasping and laughing and holding their stomachs". While he is reluctant to "sound cynical", he thinks that dumbing down on TV has played into their hands: "When people see something of great quality, they're just delighted by it." And as Neil Brand points out, the live music adds a new, spontaneous dimension. He explains: "It's a very emotive and involving experience which is unlike cinema and unlike theatre and unlike opera but a little bit of all three, in a funny sort of way". In short, it appeals because it is unlike anything else.
 
The Filmmaker
 
Eric Bruno Borgman, an actor and director from Massachusetts, is one of the scores of people around the world who are proving that silent comedy on film is not a dead art form. His first feature The Deserter, released in 2006, is a feature-length DVD about a drummer in the American Civil War who is accused of deserting his regiment. Borgman, who plays the title role, has always been fascinated by silent comedy, although he knew that The Deserter was only going to appeal to a limited audience. Like the greats, Borgman put himself in serious danger in order to get laughs. "I'm no Buster Keaton," he says, "but I had to come up with something a little exciting. People say, 'You actually hung yourself upside down over a cliff for this shot?' And I'm like, 'Yeah! That's me! Don't think I had a stunt man because nobody else was stupid enough to do it'!"
 
Latterday Silent Films
 
There aren't many people around making silent comedies professionally any more, although respected directors like David Lynch and Australian Guy Maddin have worked in the silent medium making dramas, romance and horror movies. But you can still catch the scent of 20s slapstick in comedy acts such as Reeves and Mortimer, Rik Mayall and Mr Bean, and silent film fans like Neil Brand, Chris Daniels and Paul Merton are working to introduce new audiences to the greats.
 
"There's just something about those performers," Daniels says, when trying to sum up the appeal of the silent films he loves. "The skills they had - acrobatic skills and athletic skills and timing and balletic movement. I can't think of a comedian today who could come close to Keaton." And of course, they had the kind of daring that makes Johnny Knoxville look lame. "If you're watching someone like Buster Keaton, you're watching someone who's actually putting their life in danger to get laughs," says Brand. "When he falls off buildings, he's really falling off a building. He was an incredibly athletic man with a great imagination and to do what he did was very brave."
Person(s): 
Paul Merton
Person(s): 
Charlie Chaplin
Person(s): 
Rik Mayall
Person(s): 
Adrian Edmondson
Person(s): 
Jess Holland
0
Your rating: None