Drum roll please as we unveil the exciting and star-studded programme for Slapstick 2024, including the long-awaited return of our cherished Gala to the venue where it all began, now renamed Bristol Beacon and looking and sounding truly glorious after its extensive refit.
As you flick through this festival guide you will find information on the 30+ unique comedy events we will be sharing during the five days from Wednesday 14 to Sunday 18 February in the company of such famous guests as Samira Ahmed, Hugh Bonneville, Marcus Brigstocke, Terry Gilliam, Harry Hill, Robert Lindsay, Sylvester McCoy, Lucy Porter, Tim Vine and Sir Michael Palin (to name just some).
As ever, the line-up is a mix of silent comedy classics and rarities accompanied always by world-class musicians; nostalgic revivals; honours for modern day artists keeping the slapstick spirit alive; fresh looks at beloved stars of the past and not one, not two, but three regional premieres.
Celebrating Comedy Horror
In a festival first, Slapstick 2024 will feature a Comedy Horror strand, starting with the seminal and much parodied 1927 spine-tingler classic THE CAT AND THE CANARY, hosted by Alasdair Beckett-King and Robin Ince. Events in this strand are flagged throughout this brochure with a special logo and include Tim Vine introducing his film FEARMOTH, a live from New York Spooktacular with Steve Massa and Ben Model, a ‘relaxed screening’ of ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and Brian da Palma’s rock opera parody PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.
Leading Women On and Off-Screen
Another strand provides a triple bill of films from 1926 starring women, with Slapstick favourite Lucy Porter introducing two of them. And women take key roles elsewhere in the programme with Samira Ahmed urging a reappraisal of the insights and social impact of THE GOODIES; a Gala cameo by Cheryl Knight as Joyce Grenfell , Christina Newland revealing the real cost of early stunt work in the days before health and safety and Polly Rose highlighting Buster Keaton’s talkie talents and interviewing the author of a new book which puts Keaton’s life and work in new context.
Salutes to the greats
Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel & Hardy feature strongly, of course, including in a new film all about Stan and Laurel’s 1952 visit to Ireland. But today’s comic geniuses will not be overlooked. See inside for details of a day of events at Bristol Old Vic celebrating the work of Sir Michael Palin, Robert Lindsay, and Terry Gilliam.
In short, this line-up offers something for everyone who enjoys, or needs, more magic, mischief, and mirth in their lives and we do hope you will join us.
Slapstick Festival, a renowned celebration of silent, visual, and classic film comedy, is seeking a passionate and organised individual to fill the crucial role of Personal/Executive Assistant to the Director. This exciting opportunity offers a unique glimpse into the dynamic world of film festivals and entertainment, all while contributing to the preservation of timeless cinematic treasures.
Step into the Heart of Bristol’s Vibrant Arts Scene
As a Personal/Executive Assistant, you’ll play a pivotal role in supporting the Director’s vision for Slapstick Festival. Your responsibilities will encompass a wide range of tasks, including:
Providing comprehensive administrative support, managing schedules, and handling correspondence
Assisting with event organization, including venue bookings, logistics, and catering arrangements
Handling festival communications, maintaining social media presence, and coordinating promotional activities
Researching and preparing briefing materials, reports, and presentations
Demonstrating exceptional organisational and time management skills to ensure smooth operations
Flexible Hours, Competitive Salary, and Priceless Industry Experience
This position offers a flexible work schedule, allowing you to balance your professional commitments with your personal life. In addition to a competitive pro-rata salary, you’ll gain invaluable experience in the ever-evolving world of film festivals and entertainment.
Unveiling the Magic Behind the Scenes
Working within a small, dedicated team, you’ll have the opportunity to collaborate closely with the Director and contribute directly to the success of an iconic festival that celebrates the enduring charm of classic comedy. Your efforts will not only support the festival’s current endeavours but also play a part in preserving our cinematic heritage for future generations.
Embrace the Opportunity to Make a Difference
If you possess exceptional organizational skills, a passion for classic comedy, and a desire to be at the heart of Bristol’s vibrant arts scene, we encourage you to apply. Join the Slapstick team and embark on a fulfilling journey into the world of film festivals and entertainment, leaving a lasting mark on the preservation of cinematic treasures.
Don’t miss out on this extraordinary opportunity! Apply now and become part of the Slapstick family!
On Saturday 22nd April Slapstick presented a series of screen comedies at Watershed, Bristol examining how queer-coding and gender play was taking place onscreen as far back in the 1910s. With three films and three guests hosts feedback from attendees gave us rave reviews with over 85% saying they found the screening’s ‘excellent’.
After the screening of the 1918 film ‘I Don’t Want to be a Man’, there was a panel discussion about gender representation in film with the internationally respected film historian Pamela Hutchinson, the award-winning performer, filmmaker and playwright Malaika Kegode, pianist Meg Morley and Bristol’s reigning City Poet Kat Lyons. Below are some images from our panel discussion.
There’s been so much interest in the Sgt Pepper-esque image created by Keith Kilpin of Aardman for the cover of the Slapstick 2023 brochure and other publicity print that we’ve decided to make it the subject of a Guess Who competition.
To enter, study the original artwork, then turn to the ID grid and use the form below to give names to as many of the relevant numbers as you can manage.
The top prize will be a blow-up of the poster signed by most of our 2023 celebrity guests, x2 top price tickets to our 100th anniversary screening of the Harold Lloyd comedy SAFETY LAST! at St George’s on April 1st and a Slapstick 2023 t-shirt. It will go to whoever is first out of the pork pie hat who can put the right names to the highest number of the 34 spaces on the grid.
You can use the form below, or, if you prefer, email firstname.lastname@example.org putting Guess Who in the subject line. Closing date is January 23rd. Winner will be announced on or around Feb 14 (the day the next Slapstick fest begins).
Top tip – almost all of the faces can be found in the Slapstick 2023 brochure but – be aware -we’ve added in at least one celebrity we’re hoping to celebrate soon.
An announcement from Slapstick Festival Director, Chris Daniels
Welcome to the 19th edition of Bristol’s very own Silent, Visual and Classic Comedy Festival.
Music has been a key ingredient of every Slapstick since the festival began, but for our 19th annual edition, we’re giving it extra special attention.
As well as live accompaniments to all our silent films, we’re celebrating some of the many marriages between comedy and music, including via classic mockumentaries, Beatles revelations and family-friendly movies filled with hit songs.
Alongside the musical comedy thread, there’s another – eight event strand saluting the comic legacy of Michael Palin & Monty Python’s Flying Circus, including solo projects by Sir Michael and nods to people they influenced. Central to this, our 2023 guest curator, Sir Michael Palin (who will be 80 in May) will be joining us, introducing a selection of his favourite starring and non-starring films.
Another related strand features events saluting Monty Python’s Flying Circus, including solo projects by key Python members and people they influenced. As part of this, our 2023 guest curator, Sir Michael Palin (who will be 80 in May) will be joining us, introducing a selection of his favourite starring and non-starring films.
National treasure Sir Michael will not, of course, be our only special guest. Others in the live line-up include Rob Brydon, Graeme Garden, Harry Hill, Peter Lord, Alex Lovell, Griff Rhys Jones, Paul Mcgann, Stephen Merchant, Nigel Planer, Lucy Porter, Peter Richardson and all three members of The Scaffold.
As ever, much of the programme is dedicated to silent film comedy, its stars and innovators, with many of the films rare to see, recently rediscovered &/or newly restored. With this, we are delighted to be welcoming some of the finest champions of cinema and comedy’s history, among them the Oscar-winning Kevin Brownlow, Oliver Double, Polly Rose and Steve Massa/Ben Model.
None of this would be possible without the kind support of our major sponsors (Aardman Animations and the BFI, awarding funds from the National Lottery); the many supporters who offer help in cash or in-kind and the festival’s volunteers, advisers, venues and crews.
But what matters is the joy everyone gets from experiencing stellar comedy as it was made to be seen – on a big screen, amid an audience, all laughing together. So please do join us and let the laughter begin.
As you are reading this we are busily preparing for our 2023 season, which we are hoping will be the best yet!
To those who came to see us in 2022, we hope you had a fantastic time! If you want to remind yourself of the great events we put on as part of our Slapstick 2022 season you can visit our Event Archive.
For those who are new to the Slapstick family, the archive gives you a chance to see what you missed. With that in mind we look forward to seeing you in 2023.
In fact, you will not have to wait that long because as part of the run up to next year’s festival we will be putting on some special fundraising and promotional events. The first of these will be in November 2022, details will be released very shortly!
On April 16th 2022, Chris Tarrant, Sally James, John Gorman, Bob Carolgees and Benny Mills (The Phantom Flan Flinger), reunited for an evening of fun. They were accompanied by Matthew Lewis who reprised the performance of the Watership Down theme BRIGHT EYES that he gave, dressed as a rabbit, as a five year old in 1980.
The performers were also there to receive their Legacy Awards, given in recognition of creating significant new work in the medium of silent and visual comedy.
Our slapstick season finished on an absolute high, with the stars of the classic children’s TV series Tiswas reuniting for an evening of fun and mayhem.
Chris Tarrant, Sally James, John Gorman and Bob Carolgees, along with Spit the Dog, were among those that took to the stage on April 16th for this special event.
Sally James unmasked the Phantom flan Flinger, who turned out to be retired Birmingham taxi driver Benny Mills, now 87.
Matthew Lewis reprised the performance of the Watership Down theme BRIGHT EYES he gave as a five year old in 1980 accompanied by his daughter Nova, five, wearing the original rabbit costume.
The event concluded with The Four Bucketeers and Phantom Flan Flinger receiving the Slapstick Comedy Legacy Medal, honouring those entertainers who continue the comedy traditions of the silent film era.
Tiswas: The Reunion was a co-production between Bristol’s Slapstick Festival and Bristol Ideas and was a fund-raiser for Childen’s Hospice South West.
Below are some pictures from the evenings entertainment, courtesy of David Betteridge
Our last full day of festival events began with Paddington (2014), introduced by Andy Day, and concluded with Lee Mack’s hilarious Desert Island Comedy Flicks.
In between there was a moving tribute to the late great Barry Cryer hosted by his friend and long-time comic collaborator Les Dennis, with Barry’s Son Bob Cryer along with regular collaborators on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, Graeme Garden and Colin Sell.
As you will no doubt have heard, yesterday we learnt the news that we had lost a singular comedy genius and very dear festival friend, Barry Cryer.
We first met Barry in 2009 when he came to Bristol with Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and the Clue team to raise money for the festival with an ISIHAC show at Bristol Hippodrome. Right from the start, Baz was a delight. Year after year, he joined us for our annual celebration of classic comedy in Bristol, bringing with him his trademark charm, generosity, passion for new comedy and extensive knowledge of parrot jokes!
Over the last thirteen years, Baz performed in at least 14 events at Slapstick, most notably when he received the coveted Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award in 2015. Some of the other shows he helped create with us included celebrations of Morecambe & Wise, Tommy Cooper and Kenny Everett, for whom he wrote. He also performed a few times at Slapstick with his musical comedy teammates: Colin Sell and Ronnie Golden.
Barry was a friend, a patron and, without a shadow of a doubt, the godfather of comedy. Barry hasn’t left a hole in the fabric of light entertainment, he’s left a chasm that simply can’t be filled.
Our hearts go out to Barry’s wife Terry and his whole family at this difficult time.
We will continue to champion Barry’s incomparable legacy for years to come.
We know Barry would want the festival to go on despite this news, and so it will. We spent yesterday exchanging stories about Barry and telling each other some of his best jokes. If you have a fond recollection of Barry – or a favourite joke – we’d love to hear it.
RIP Barry Cryer. Born 23 March 1935; died 25 January 2022.
Since I reported the results of my researches into the brief career and subsequent total oblivion of the one-time superstar boy comedian Billy Lancet, I have been having second thoughts (and like them better).
The theatrical journalists who wrote about Billy in his own time had been familiar for twenty years with the other “boy comedian”, Wee Georgie Wood. They recognized Georgie as a victim of a thyroid disorder which condemned him (like the later Jimmie Clitheroe) to remain for life in a boy’s body, with a boy’s unbroken voice. Sceptical critics of the time, consequently, questioned Billy’s advertised age and assumed him to be a fellow artist turning his glandular defect to artistic and financial advantage. In my previous speculation, I went along with this notion – which left the mystery of why Billy’s career abruptly came to an end, while Georgie kept on for two more decades. Now I would like to propose another possibility.
Could the claim that Billy debuted as a very accomplished comic at 9 years old actually be true? Prodigies usually evince their gifts in their first ten years, and can come with multifarious talents – mathematical wizards, composers, dazzling instrumentalists, actors, poets (in 1955 we saw the publication of the 9-year-old French Minon Drouet’s inspired poetry). So why not a 9-year-old genius with a talent for inventing non-stop comic monologue to torment the grown-ups around him.
If this explanation of the inspirational comic gift of Billy Lancet is correct, the story becomes less mysterious. He made his triumphant debut in 1928, at 9. His success was instant and phenomenal. But in 1933, at 14, his voice broke…. THE END!
Someone recently posted on You-tube a recording from an old 8” low-cost shellac gramophone disc released in 1930.
It was entitled “The Butcher Boy” and was labeled as being performed by “Billy Lancet, The Boy Comedian”. It was indeed the voice of a very cheeky boy, and a very lively performer.
So who was Billy Lancet? There was some speculation on-line when the disc appeared , and vague recollections of an artist of some such name. but then he returned to obscurity.
Since I match the disc in age, I was curious enough to turn to the archives. The startling discovery was that for a few years, between 1928 and 1933, the now forgotten Billy Lancet was a super-star of British vaudeville, touring with his own company, topping the bill In the major British variety theatres. A typical review of the time informs us:
The chief attraction is Billy Lancet who appears in a sketch “Willie’s Birthday”. with Thelma Rayne and Cameron McKinley. One would not like to guess the age of Mr Lancet. He has the appearance and mannerisms of a boy of ten, but his work suggests many years of experience as a comedian. It is a most laughable sketch. The diminutive comedian has an irresistible personality and gets a grip on the audience before he has been on the stage many seconds. There is no story in the sketch. It is merely an incident in the life of a precocious young lad who knows his mother will always take his side against his stepfather, and his antics are decidedly amusing. Mr Lancet would hold the stage for twice the length of time allotted to him, and he is to be commended on a clean and entertaining act.
The Bad Boy of Variety
Willie’s Birthday was succeeded by other titles – Willie Lends a Hand, Leave it to Willie, Willie’s Good Deed, but clearly the sketches were constantly changing and updating, so that audiences could see them again and again and encounter new gags. He styled himself “The Boy Comedian” and “The Bad Boy of Variety (or Vaudeville)”.
As it happens, one of his earliest traceable performances was at the Bristol Hippodrome, in the week of 4 December 1928. Even then, however, the Bristol press announced him as “the eminent Billy Lancet”, so he must have been around before that. Curiously he is also advertised for the same week at the Bath Palace, so it may have been that his popularity led him to revive the old music hall practice for an artist to play several theatres in the same evening, racing by taxi from one to the other.
With his restricted growth and un-breaking voice, he could have continued indefinitely, like his senior, Wee Georgie Wood (1894-1979), who had been performing since the first decade of the 20th century, and went on until 1953, and the later Jimmie Clitheroe (1921-1973) . Lancet evidently shared with them the unexplained glandular disorder that trapped them in permanent boyhood. However it is likely that ill-health abruptly, prematurely and finally ended his starring career in 1933. He was to appear on stage only once more, in February
1938, when he was at Wood Green Empire in the supporting cast of the veteran Charles Austin’s comedy sketch company.
He was briefly in the news again for a day in 1952, when he was hospitalized for the spectacular inconvenience of coughing non-stop for two weeks.
Not even pictures of Billy Lancet have turned up, except for a tiny newspaper print in a variety theatre advert. There is still a haunting vitality in the face.
Another smart critic of the time torments us with the great opportunity that was missed with Billy:
In the vaudeville houses, there is a delightful delineator of boy parts who is known by the name of Willie Lancet. He is immensely popular and even in these bad times manages to sneak bookings where bookings are said not to be. He reminds one of Georgie Wood as he was in his best days, but without the curls. Willy’s boy is your real little he-man, a rascal of rascals, a good boy gone delightfully wrong. Watching him a few nights ago in one of the fast vanishing variety houses I thought of an ingredient that some British film director might do worse than make use of, namely: one helping of Mrs Richmal Crompton’s William stories, a sprinkling of English countryside and a generous slice of Willie Lancet’s refreshing juvenile nonsense. Season with a selected cast, a smothering of crisp witty dialogue, and you have a dish the cinemas might be glad to add to their programmes”
SLAPSTICK would have been up for those!
***A post script on Wee Georgie Wood: I remember often seeing his act, which invariably began with Georgie striding onto the stage and catching sight of the microphone placed there. “Take that thing away!”, he would holler; “I was there before it was!”. And even in the biggest variety theatres he could make himself heard to the back the gallery. These eternal boys knew their job. ***And finally – Billy Lancet is known to have made another gramophone record, The Telegraph Boy. One to look out for!
For years animation has been one of the most impressive and entertaining disciplines in cinema. Developing from simple flip books to modern CGI graphics it continues to dazzle and develop year after year. Of Course the technicality of it is incredibly impressive, but the thing that has kept animation at the forefront of film for so many years is its universal humour and unique blend of surrealism and hyperrealism. Animated films were designed to bring joy to everyone, it’s done just that since its inception and it continues to do so.
Moving images and animation go back thousands of years, from puppeteering and shadow plays all the way up to the first genuine animated film, made using the ‘Théâtre Optique’. A device created by Charles-Émile Reynaud, the Théâtre Optique, allowed transparent paintings to be projected over a background, and shown in a way that emulated movement, It was first used in 1892 to screen a series of animated short films, heralding the beginning of a century of developments in animation.
Using the Théâtre Optique, drawings came to life and became more fluid through rotoscoping. They also eventually appeared in colour, thanks to the film tinting technique. This continued development would go on for years and years, to this day still animation techniques are getting more and more complex and intricate.
With all this constant development some films can get lost in the past, but one filmmaker’s innovation is still being used to draw constant inspiration. Wladyslaw Starewicz is the founder of modern stop motion animation, originally a professor of biology he was asked to create an educational film exploring how beatles would engage in a fight. But it appeared the beatles would not fight under the lighting required to film the event, angered by this Sterewicz took matters into his own hands and ended up creating the principles for what would be the basics of stop motion.
He would attach the separate limbs of the bugs to strings, occasionally replacing specific body parts with plastic, the result was these incredibly realistic and human-like movements. Sterewicz went on to create many more incredible films, all using beatles and other bugs but
telling incredibly human and emotional stories. The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) tells a simple story of infidelity, a short tragic comedy made using stop motion bugs. The incredible attention to detail is what made this film the masterpiece it is, every minute movement is accounted for and the result is this magical piece of cinema. Stop motion animation would stay true to its originator, continuing to be an art form for absolute perfectionists whose obsession with precise details allows them to create some of the most jaw dropping films.
Think of Fantastic Mr Fox by Wes Anderson or the incredible Wallace and Gromit series by Aardman Animations.
Both Anderson and Aardman have noted that their inspiration came from Wladyslaw Starewicz. Indeed, if you were to watch Le Roman de Renard – roughly translated to The Story Of The Fox – you would see many similarities between it and Fantastic Mr Fox.
As we mentioned before, animation is an ever-adapting and changing art form. Contemporary examples of stop motion have become intertwined with CGI technology. But by no means has this changed the principles it was founded on. They are still about perfectionism and continue to tell incredibly human and emotional stories.
Aardman studios’ recent body of work showcases perfect examples of this. The Academy Award winning studio began as a project by two students, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, animation fanatics who made innovative strides in claymation.
Now a major film studio, Aardman uses thousands of talented artists in combination with CGI technology while still staying true to the art of stop motion and continuing to tell entertaining and beautifully charming stories.
At Slapstick, we have an incredibly close relationship with Aardman and appreciate the lengths they go to to keep such a timeless art form alive. We will be welcoming Peter Lord back to the festival this year to discuss some of the animations that inspired him and celebrate the unique blend of surrealism and visual comedy that animation does best.
Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin. All three began their careers more than a century ago, yet all still maintain their places as the greatest names in on screen comedy. Their films are still constantly discovered by new generations of lucky audiences who can now see them with worthy musical accompaniment – in Chaplin’s case, of his own composition.
What was special about these three was that they were not only the stars, but conceived, wrote and for all practical purposes, directed their own films. They were the total creators. Needless to say, they performed all their own stunts, however perilous: there could be no doubles for such personalities.
For Slapstick 2022 we have chosen each one’s last or penultimate silent film. Talking pictures had arrived, with The Jazz Singer (1927), but our stars did not rush to adopt sound, and Chaplin, though he was to make use of musical sound-tracks, did not speak on screen until 1940.
Keaton’s marvellous The Cameraman (1928) was the first film he made after giving up his own studio to move to MGM – a sacrifice of independence which he rightly came to regard as the worst mistake of his life. His budget was assured, but he was an employee, subject to the producer’s final word and whim. He was no longer permitted to risk doing his own stunts – and no-one else could do them.
Perhaps the producers had not yet learned to exert their full control when he made his first MGM film The Cameraman (1928). Despite the studio, The Cameraman (1928) still has the qualities of Keaton’s great silent films: his uniquely expressive physical comedy that belies the “stone face”, in the service of a gripping narrative.
The film was Keaton’s penultimate silent movie, as was Harold Lloyd’s spectacular The Kid Brother (1927). Lloyd, like Chaplin, retained his creative autonomy and was one of the comparatively few actors to make a triumphant transition to sound films.
Lloyd, sporting his indispensable lens-less horn-rimmed spectacles, plays Harold Hickory, a hick from Hickoryville, who plays the substitute housewife in a family of overly manly men. He has a chance to prove his worth and clear his family name when a group of con artists menace town.
It is an ingenious blend of slapstick, horror, romance and inventive gags. It was one of Lloyd’s own favourites and one of most impressive monuments of silent comedy
Upon release, it was a smash hit, both at the box office and among critics. Made at the apex of Lloyd’s career – and of silent film – it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive pieces of silent comedy.
It is as common for filmmakers to have a favourite as to have a film they try to forget.
In Chapin’s case the making of The Circus (1928) proved the worst year of his working life. The trouble was not the film but the circumstances surrounding its production.
Throughout the year he was battling a merciless divorce case brought by his wife Lita Grey. Her lawyers fought – and sometimes succeeded – to take possession of Chapin’s assets, including the studio and the negatives, which the crew was always having to secrete or smuggle elsewhere. This was only the start.
The shooting began with the difficult tightrope scenes for which Chaplin and the film’s romantic lead Harry Crocker, had been tirelessly rehearsing. The scenes were successfully shot – but the lab fouled up all the negatives.
Then the set was destroyed by a fire. Because of delays, when they went back to reshoot location scenes, they found the places had been transformed by Hollywood’s rapid development.
Finally, with relief, they set up the film’s final scene in a remote location, where the whole horse-drawn circus train goes off into the distance, leaving Chaplin deserted and alone. All was ready, but when they returned in the morning, everything had disappeared, stolen by mischievous students.
Incredibly the film was finished – to become one of Chaplin’s finest and most faultless silent comedies, with scenes of incredible virtuosity like the hall of mirrors or the climactic scene where Chaplin, balancing on the high wire, is assaulted and de-trousered by a gang of monkeys. It received a special award at the very first Oscar ceremony (nothing like today’s spectacle – just a banquet in the Roosevelt Hotel). But for Chaplin it would always evoke memories of that tormented year.
Forty years later, in 1968, Chaplin finally felt able to return to the film, to release it with his own accompanying score, and a title song, ”Swing Little Girl”, for which a top pop singer of the moment, Matt Monro was contracted. However, Chaplin’s musical arranger Eric James however decided that the 81-year-old Chapin performed it better, so it is his voice we hear over the titles of The Circus.
These three great films all have one notable cast member – a monkey, who saves the day for Keaton, leads the de-bagging of Chaplin, and helps Lloyd sail. This unique simian star is Josephine, whose showcasing career in major films extended from these three films and Street Angel (1928) all the way to Arabian Nights (1942).
But Josephine is not the only thing these films have in common. They represent the finest work of the three great comedy legends of cinema, and they mark the climactic end of the silent era. They also happen to ALL be featured at the 18th edition of Slapstick Festival. Be sure to seize this opportunity.
The following is a review of The Real Charlie Chaplin, originally published for Silent London and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author Pamela Hutchinson.
THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN
It’s a bold, almost alarming title. At this distance, can it be possible to uncover The Real Charlie Chaplin? And if there is something hidden in the biography this most famous of filmmakers, one that can without trepidation be called an icon, might those of us who love his films really want to know?
Rest easy then, as this documentary by Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Notes on Blindness) has no disturbing revelations. That is, as long as you have already been reading those large gaps between the lines of his biography. Chaplin liked the company of young women – girls, in fact. He married teenagers. He sometimes (often?) treated them badly. It’s a been said before and it is stated again here without excuses or attacking the women such as Lita Grey who testified to his ill-treatment. This has been trumpeted in some quarters as a belated #MeToo reckoning for Chaplin. That would be very belated. In truth we have always known this, but some fans refuse to hear it.
We learn also that he was temperamental, even as a child, that he was prone to self-pity, and finally was a distant father. The last words in this documentary are given to his daughter Jane, who waited years to get to know her famous dad, and found herself finally alone with him when she had all but given up hope. Also to his final wife Oona, who wrote so much about their life together and then destroyed her own words before she died. Thus the films ends as poignantly as it had began, in Chaplin’s tough, deprived childhood, and his own cruel abandonment by his father. Such cycles are common, we understand. Chaplin was flawed. The films, mostly, are not.
Many devotees will flinch at even that, but The Real Charlie Chaplin is no hitpiece: it’s an elegant, and sympathetic introduction to the man’s work and life, narrated in soothing tones by actress Pearl Mackie. She played Bill Potts in Doctor Who, and she’s from south London, as are the two directors – which matters, just a little. The Chaplin story as they tell it is a diverting way to spend two hours. We follow his path from rags in London to riches in Hollywood to comfortable if perhaps bitter exile in Switzerland.
We see his brilliance and creativity in comedy, his sudden fame and prolonged success, as well as the grisly moment that a certain faction of the American establishment turned against him. His punishment was extreme, in proportion to his previous adulation, you might say, rather than his supposed political crime. His incriminating remarks on communism are quoted here, which are all in a direct line of thought from his cathartic early film comedy, described in this film succinctly as: “The Tramp not only stands up to the man, he gives him a kick up the arse for good measure.” Fellow traveller? Of the funniest kind.
However, it was the murky, messily unresolved case of Joan Barry, dredged up for political ends, that really did for him. The motives of his accusers were far from honourable and no one comes out of this episode with a clean slate.
Illustrating the tale, here are film clips, archive images and the occasional set of distressed mock intertitles. There are few dates and facts – it’s a story rather than a lecture – but there is a certain candour in its tone, despite the absence of shock revelations. As a primer on his career, it gives more the sense of the man and his art, rather than a full filmography. As such, it’s possibly to pick at the odd dropped stich: the voiceover states that Chaplin scored his films, before going on to describe him making The Kid. You could read that as ahistorical, or you could concede the broader point that eventually, musical composition was another string to his bow. A caption on screen refers to Minta Durfee but the voiceover calls her “someone” which tells you the knowledge level that the film is aimed at.
There is something new here, and it provides a dash of welcome cockney colour, if nothing else. A recently rediscovered interview conducted by Kevin Brownlow in the early 1980s with one Effie Wisdom, a neighbour and friend of Chaplin’s from his youth. In re-enactments, Wisdom is played by Anne Rosenfeld, and Brownlow is played by Dominic Marsh. Wisdom recalls in uncanny detail conversations from their childhood and from his return visit to London as an old man, as well as the thrill of seeing him perform on stage as a young boy, and his native accent: “Common, like me.”
If you’re looking for the real Charlie Chaplin, perhaps it’s Effie Wisdom’s young pal we need to think of, the boy who hadn’t had his elocution lessons yet.
The Real Charlie Chaplin will be screened on Saturday 29th January 2022 at the Watershed in Bristol.
The above article was originally written for Silent London (see https://silentlondon.co.uk/2021/10/14/london-film-festival-review-the-real-charlie-chaplin/) and is reproduced with permission of the author Pamela Hutchinson
And proud to be hosting some of the finest and funniest silent films ever made live from Bristol’s best venues. With a little help from world-class musical accompaniments and some incredible guests we are more determined than ever to bring laughter, fun and delight to audiences old and new.
We have a rich and varied programme of events for our 18th edition. Including films from the undeniable legends of classic silent comedy; Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, Marion Davies, Chaplin and more.
As well as events celebrating the golden era of classic British TV comedy: ‘Tim Vine Salutes Kenny Everett’, ‘Barry Cryer: An Audience With A Comedy Legend’ plus live onstage talks and performances from master satirist Armando Ianucci along with stand up comedians Arthur Smith and Richard Herring and ‘Would I Lie to You?’ team captain David Mitchell amongst others.
Our celebrated programme of silent comedy will delight both casual fans and aficionados alike. From Soviet comedy My Grandmother (1929) introduced by Actor Paul McGann and Czechoslovakian slapstick comedy Old Gangster Molls (1927) introduced by comedian Lucy Porter to a screening of the brand new documentary The Real Chaplin (2021) and a lecture from Bill Oddie where he shares his enthusiasm for comedy ‘violence’ and another where he shares his love of classic animation with Aardman Animation’s Peter Lord.
But that’s not all. In addition to the above guests already mentioned we have a delightful number of returning slapstick family members, along with some new faces, all bringing their unique qualities to these events.
Writer Stephen Mangan, Actor Sally Phillips, Impressionist Ronni Ancona, the unstoppable Barry Cryer, Tim Vine, Richard Herring, Robin Ince and Andy Day all make a welcome return.
Our incomparable team of musicians return including; Guenter A Buchwald, Stephen Horne, Frank Bockius and Romano Todesco along with Bristol Ensemble’s Roger Huckle and solo pianist John Sweeney. All this accompanied with experts like David Robinson, James Curtis, Kevin Brownlow, Sian Norris, Peter Kramër, Andrew Kelly, Chris Serle and Serge Bromberg each ready to showcase their knowledge and passion.
It’s the perfect antidote to the long cold dark nights and the furore of 2020.
Many of Chaplin’s admirers regard The Kid as his most beautiful and most personal film. In honour of this year’s screening over the coming weeks we’ll be looking at the heartache that inspired this beloved classic. As a special treat, we’ve got our hands on extracts from David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin. Patron and filmhistorian, David Robinson, is a renowned film critic and scholar, whose books Hollywood in the Twenties (1968), The History of World Cinema (1973) and official biographies of both Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin have been critically acclaimed. We’ll be serialising parts from David Robinson’s biography of Chaplin, which looks in greater depth than ever before at Chaplin’s humble beginnings and the events in his life that motivated his work.
For those who have never delved into the history of silent comedy, Chaplin’s life started with great upheaval. He was born in 1889 to Hannah Chaplin and Charles Chaplin, Senior. Both his parents were music hall entertainers, but sadly never achieved fame. The temptations of the music halls meant both Charlie’s parents were distracted and often unable to take care of him. His parents married, but separated when Charlie was small.
His mother Hannah, suffered with mental illness most likely brought on by syphilis. Accepting this was incredibly difficult for Charlie, who often tried to be by her side as much as he could until her death in 1928. Charlie and his stepbrothers George and Sydney had to fend for themselves from an early age, and all had to suffer the hardships of workhouses when Hannah could not take care of them. By the age of nine Charlie had been sent to a workhouse twice. The workhouses were harsh places, effectively a prison for the poor. Despite all this Charlie was a resilient and plucky child, who remained determined and lively even given all the hardships he faced. Coping in London as two young boys, with no parents and little guidance, must have been terrifying. Born from his turbulent childhood, , The Kid shows some of the loneliness and desperation Chaplin must have felt, at this difficult time in his life.
Extract one : A london Boyhood
The Early life of Charlie chaplin
The career of Charles Chaplin Senior [Charlie Chaplin’s father] had a slower start than Hannah’s [his mother] but a more promising progression. At first he worked as a mimic, but soon developed into what was called a ‘dramatic and descriptive singer’ exerting a strong attraction upon his audiences. Chaplin described him as a quiet, brooding man with dark eyes, and said that Hannah thought he looked like Napoleon. The portraits that appear on the sheet music of his song successes show him with dark eyes that seem somewhat melancholy despite the broad prop grin.
Drink was the endemic disease of the music halls. They had evolved from drinking establishments and the sale of liquor still made up an important part of the managers’ incomes. When they were not on stage the artists were expected to mingle with the audiences in the bars, to encourage conviviality and consumption – which inevitably was best achieved by example. Poor Chaplin was only one of many who succumbed to alcoholism as an occupational hazard.
In 1890, however, he was still leaping from success to success. In the summer he was invited to sign for an American tour, and in August and September was appearing in New York at the Union Square Theatre. The American trip, however, seems to have marked the final break-up of the Chaplins’ marriage. Hannah had given birth to Leo Dryden’s son, George Dryden Wheeler. Thus the young Charles Chaplin found himself fatherless, but with another half-brother. He was three and a half; Sydney was four years older. In his autobiography he recalls that at this time the children and their mother were still living in some affluence. However the comfort which sheltered Chaplin’s first three or four years was soon to end. Hannah’s liaison with Leo did not long survive the birth of their child. Hannah seems to have been a devoted, affectionate and protective mother, and to have loved the new baby as fiercely as she did her older sons. It is easy then to appreciate the shock that she must have suffered in the spring of 1893 when the appalling Dryden entered her lodgings and snatched away their six-month-old son. The baby was to vanish from the lives of the Chaplins for almost thirty years.
Soon after Charlie’s sixth birthday, the family’s situation reached a new crisis. Hannah became ill – it is not certain with what, but Chaplin recalls that she suffered from acute headaches. On 29 June she was admitted to the Lambeth Infirmary, where she .stayed until the end of July. On 1 July Sydney was taken into Lambeth Workhouse, and four days later placed in the West Norwood Schools, which accommodated the infant poor of Lambeth.
In September Hannah was again taken into the Infirmary, and Sydney and Charlie, now eleven and seven, were admitted to the workhouse, ‘owing to the absence of their father and the destitution and illness of their mother’’. Charles Chaplin Senior was traced and reluctantly appeared before the District Relief Committee. Somewhat heartlessly, he told them that while he was willing to take Charlie, he would not accept responsibility for Sydney, who was born illegitimate.
The Committee retorted that since Chaplin had married the boy’s mother, he was now legally liable for Sydney’s maintenance. At this stage, however, Hannah intervened to reject the idea of the boys living with their father as wholly repugnant, since he was living with another woman. Charles was not slow to point out her own adultery. No doubt somewhat bewildered by the family bickering, the Relief Committee decided that it was desirable to keep the boys together and that the best solution would be to place them in the Central London District Poor Law School at Hanwell.
From his incredible hardship in his earlier years to the famous persona we all know today as the iconic Chaplin; Chaplin’s dramatic ‘rags to riches’ story is an extraordinary tale of determination and ambition. In our next series of blogs, we’ll be exploring Chaplin’s later years looking at howhe attracted attention as a young performer, and track the route he took to stardom in America.
We’ll also be sharing Chaplin trivia acorss our social channels so don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to find out more about Chaplin, and other famous silent stars.
 Glenn Mitchell, op.cit. cites an intriguing ‘personal ad’ in The Entr’acte of 29 January 1887: ‘To Charles Chaplin – send address to “L.H.”, 56 Darwin Street, Old Kent Road, Very ill’. If ‘L.H.’ was Hannah, it may be that the irregularities of the Chaplin marriage had begun before the birth of Charles Junior
Exclusive extract from David Robinson’s new Biography
Charlie Chaplin is still known as the world’s most famous film star. Despite his huge success in the movies, Chaplin came from difficult beginnings. In our first blog, we looked at his childhood in workhouses, where Charlie and his stepbrother Sydney had to fend for themselves during their early adolescent years. In this extract, we look at how Charlie and Sydney coped in this ever-changing environment, and how both boys went on to become entertainers. Unlike his earlier childhood days, luck began to shine on Chaplin. Read on to find out more.
[Hannah] had dermatitis and her body was covered in bruises. No one troubled or dared to inquire into the cause of her injuries; they were most likely explained by violent encounters with other patients as a result of her mental condition. The doctor has scribbled the abbreviation ‘Syp.’ in the corner of the form recording her physical condition on admission, suggesting that he may have supposed or suspected tertiary syphilis as the cause of her disorder. There is no other evidence to support this, though Chaplin to the end of his life appears to have been fascinated and frightened by this venereal disease. Hannah was committed to Cane Hill Asylum, the doctors reporting:
Has been very strange in manner – at one time abusive & noisy, at another using endearing terms. Has been confined in P[added] R[oom] repeatedly on a/c of sudden violence – threw a mug at another patient. Shouting, singing and talking incoherently. Complains of her head and depressed and crying this morning – dazed and unable to give any reliable information. Asks if she is dying. States she belongs to Christ Church (Congregation) which is Ch. of E. She was sent here on a mission here by the Lord. Says she wants to get out of the World.clothes.
On 12. November 1898 she was discharged from Cane Hill Asylum, and soon afterwards gathered up her sons from 289 Kennington Road. The three of them moved into a room at 39 Methley Street, behind Haywards’ pickle factory which exuded a pungent atmosphere throughout the neighbourhood. Their home was next to a slaughterhouse; and Chaplin remembered the horror with which he realised that a merry slapstick chase after a runaway sheep was destined to end in tragedy and the slaughter of the entertaining animal.
The beginning of his career: Background
Charlie first performed at the age of twelve, when he got a chance to act in a stage show. He left school permanently at thirteen and followed his ambition to become an actor. It’s extraordinary that Chaplin was so determined to do this, given the fates both his parents suffered in pursuit of the same. Chaplin worked hard from a young age, and his comic performances were quickly noticed by critics who saw him in his early shows, like Jim, A Romance of Cockayne.
By the age of sixteen Chaplin had toured the country twice with different theatre companies. His older brother Sydney had also had some success, and brought Charlie along with him. Charlie met Fred Karno (who ran a prestigious comedy company) but didn’t impress him at first. Karno said Charlie was ‘pale, puny and sullen-looking.’ But within a few months Charlie had become the star of the company, and went to America with Karno’s support.
Chaplin toured America twice with Karno’s comedy group, and on the second tour was invited to join the New York Motion Picture Company. By 1913 Chaplin was earning $150 a week, and had the promise of a new life. He went on to become an international superstar, America’s highest paid actor and still one of Hollywood’s most iconic faces. His childhood, though difficult, had given him the resilience and drive to conquer the American film industry.
On Friday 25 November 1898 Charlie Chaplin was now to become a professional entertainer. In early interviews he occasionally gave rather romantic accounts of his discovery by William Jackson, the founder of the Eight Lancashire Lads:
One day I was giving an exhibition of the ordinary street Arab’s contortions, the kind so common in the London streets, when I saw a man watching me intently. ‘That boy is a born actor!’ I heard him say, and then to me, ‘Would you like to be an actor?’ I scarcely knew what an actor was in those days, though my mother and father had both been connected with the music hall stage for years, but anything that promised work and the rewards of work as a means of getting out of the dull rut in which I found myself was welcome.
In his autobiography Charlie remembered that he had to rehearse his clog dancing for six weeks before he was allowed to appear – almost paralysed with stage fright. His debut may, then, have been at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, where the troupe appeared in the Christmas pantomime Babes in the Wood which opened on Christmas Eve. If so, Charles Chaplin Senior would have been on hand to watch his son’s first steps: he opened on Boxing Day at the Manchester Tivoli. Certainly Charlie was working with the troupe by 9 January 1899, when he was enrolled by Mrs Jackson at the Armitage Street School, Ardwick, Manchester.
Even to a ten-year-old in a troupe of clog dancers, the music halls of those times must have provided an incomparable schooling in method, technique and discipline. A music hall act had to seize and hold its audience and to make its mark within a very limited time – between six and sixteen minutes. The audience was not indulgent, and the competition was relentless. The performer in the music hall could not rely on a sympathetic context or build-up: Sarah Bernhardt might find herself following Lockhart’s Elephants on the bill. So every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo – a beginning, a middle and a smashing exit – to grab the applause. He had to learn to command every sort of audience, from a lethargic Monday first-house to the Saturday rowdies
Ill fortune had not done buffeting the Chaplins. Charles was aware that his mother was sick again. She had grown listless, seemed unconcerned when the sweat shop for whom she sewed stopped giving her work and took back the sewing machine, and neglected the little room. In May Charlie arrived home to be told by other children around the door that his mother had gone insane. He had the job of leading her to the Infirmary in Renfrew Road and then, as her nearest known relative, reporting the case to the authorities. He had just turned fourteen. The medical certificate records: ‘Charles Chaplin, son, 3 Pownall Terrace, Kennington Road, states she keeps on mentioning a lot of people who are dead and fancies she can see them looking out of the window and talking to imaginary people – going into strangers’ rooms etc.’ Hannah’s delightful window entertainments had passed into the region of madness.
While waiting for Sydney’s return, Charlie remembered making friends with some wood-choppers – also working in a mews behind Kennington Road – and that one of them treated him to a gallery seat at the South London Music Hall in London Road, Lambeth. The star act was Fred Karno’s Early Birds. This was his first encounter with the company in which he was first to achieve fame. Sydney finally arrived home, and Charlie at last could share his troubles. They went to Cane Hill to visit Hannah and were shocked at how ill she looked. Charlie was long and deeply troubled by her reproach, ‘If only you had given me a cup of tea that afternoon I would have been all right.’
Sydney announced that he had come home for good. He had saved enough to live on for the next few months, and had determined go on the stage. It was an ambition which his younger brother shared. Many years later he was to tell his son (a third Charles Chaplin), ‘Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the streets trying to find enough to eat to keep alive, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world. I had to feel that exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without that you go down to defeat’.
Facts you might not have known about Chaplin
Chaplin could play piano, violin and cello, all of which he taught himself as a child
Charlie Chaplin never shot a film from a completed script once in his career. The scripts would simply say ‘Charlie enters a shop’ or something vague, and Chaplin would work out the gags once on set.
Chaplin was meticulous about his work, and took longer to complete his pictures than any other filmmaker at the time
In the Kid, it took 53 takes to achieve every finished take that appeared in the final cut.
Charlie married four times, and had 11 children
In the 1950s, he was accused of being a communist and was deported from the US. He lived in Switzerland with his fourth wife for the rest of his life.
We hope this has given you an insight into the background that gave Chaplin such depth, and pathos as a performer. His dramatic ‘rags to riches’ story inspired the Kid, and is an extraordinary tale of determination and ambition.
Next up we look at David Robison’s study of Chaplin’s early life. You can also follow us on Twitter or Facebook to find out more about Chaplin, and the equally wonderful stars of the silent era.
 Lambeth Board of Guardians, Lunacy Examinations Book, 12 September 1898, GLC Archives.
On 30th December 2019, we learnt the sad news that Neil Innes, long-time friend and supporter of the festival, had sadly passed away.
Festival Director Chris Daniels made the following statement about Neil:
“We are deeply saddened to learn of Neil’s sudden passing.
“Neil was more than just a patron and a regular guest at Slapstick Festival, he was a real friend to us.
“His satirical genius through his songwriting, his eloquent lyrics and wonderful, intelligent observations engaged everyone who met or worked with him. You couldn’t wish for a more generous, good-hearted and warm natured human being.
“We will sorely miss his presence as one of the great satirical musicians of our time.
Charlie Chaplin, one of cinema’s most famous stars, was a man of many talents… actor, director, writer, and composer are among his many credits. With the upcoming screening of Modern Times at the Bristol Hippodrome, I thought I would take a bit of time to talk about Chaplin’s work as a composer… especially since the score for Modern Times contains the iconic melody of “Smile,” one of the most beloved songs of the 20th Century that has been covered by many recording stars. Although he had received a couple of honorary Oscars for his work in film, his first Academy Award was awarded for his score of Limelight in 1973.
In making his films, Chaplin had almost complete control over production. With the advent of sound…. he could also have control over an entirely new aspect of cinema production… the film score. The first film that Chaplin composed the score for was City Lights – a film that could have been made as a talkie, but Chaplin resisted, and it remained silent… but it did mean that he could score the film as he wanted. Before sound in cinema, Chaplin had control over the pieces that he wished to accompany his films. After sound, he became a composer. After the success of City Lights, Chaplin went back to his earlier films and composed scores for them as well.
Not a classically trained musician, Chaplin was able to play some instruments by ear and sing melodies. He had assistants who would then transpose these melodies into a finished score for his films. He was also very much influenced by his early experiences in the English music hall tradition. He would also use counterpoint in his compositions. In scenes where characters are living in poor conditions, he would often compose music that would evoke richer surroundings. Chaplin did not want his scores to sound comedic. In his mind, the music should not overshadow the comedy that was showing on screen. He wanted the scores to express the sentimentality of the narrative of his films.
Some of Chaplin’s melodies would go on to become popular songs. “Smile” has already been mentioned, but “Eternally” was adapted from his score for Limelight and “This is my Song” was from A Countess from Hong Kong. The lyrics for “Smile” were written by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. Petula Clark had a number one hit with “This is my Song,” and “Smile” has been famously covered by Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and Michael Jackson.
Join us on February 10th to hear Chaplin’s masterful score to Modern Times played by the Bristol Ensemble and conducted by Günter Buchwald. The evening will be hosted by Marcus Brigstocke and will also include two short silent comedies: Laurel and Hardy’s Bacon Grabbers and Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow. Comic magician John Archer will also be appearing to round out an evening of fantastic entertainment!
More information about the evening can be found here – and for a limited period, we’re running a 2-4-1 offer on gala tickets! To take advantage put the code ‘241 Tickets’ in the box as you check out!
Finally, a quick throwback to Slapstick 2014 when we organised a flashmob prior to our gala with Paul McGann, the City of Bristol Choir and the Bristol School’s Chamber Choir singing Smile. Enjoy!
Three Ages is the first feature-length film that Buster Keaton wrote, directed, produced and starred. The film contains three different stories set in three different time periods of human history: the Stone Age, ancient Rome, and modern times (the Jazz Age). The film was shot in this manner as a kind of insurance for the studio. If it failed, the film could easily be broken up into individual shorts. The film also works as a satire of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), which was a film that told four different stories over the span of 2,500 years. Three Ages was made in 1923, and starred Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, and Wallace Beery.
The three time periods that are depicted in the film have characters portrayed by the same actors. In the Stone Age, Keaton is a caveman who competes in a show of strength with another bigger, brawnier caveman (Wallace Beery) for the attentions of a cavewoman (Margaret Beery). In Ancient Rome, Keaton is shown in a rivalry to gain the affections of a Roman noblewoman. Keaton participates in a chariot race and is thrown into a lion’s den. In the modern age (Jazz Age), Leahy is to marry another man, but Keaton discovers that he has been charged with forgery and bigamy.
Three Ages was the first feature-length film where Keaton wore so many hats, but Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature-length film was in The Saphead (1920). He was recommended for the role in The Saphead by Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks had played the role onstage but had other commitments and, as the film was to have a more comedic slant, put Keaton’s name forward for the role.
This was the only film that Margaret Leahy made. She was discovered in a beauty pageant in England that was seeking new film stars. The stars were then flown out to Hollywood to make a film. Her first attempt was not a success and she was dropped from the film. She ended up making Three Ages, but never acted again after this film. Instead of moving back to England, Leahy chose to remain in California.
Wallace Beery was at one point the world’s highest paid actor. He started out in silent films at the Essanay Studios portraying a Swedish maid in drag named Sweedie. Beery made several of these films including one with his wife, Gloria Swanson. His most notable silent films include: The Lost World (1925), Robin Hood (with Douglas Fairbanks – 1922), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), and Beggars of Life (with Louise Brooks – 1928). He was fired from the studio with the advent of sound, but was contracted by Irving Thalberg to MGM as a character actor. Beery was nominated twice for the Best Actor Academy Award, winning one of them.
Introduction by Peter Lord. Piano accompaniment by Daan van den Hurk.
Buster Keaton is currently the most popular comedian of the silent era. But in the late 20s, he was giving anxiety to his producer, Joseph M. Schenck.
Schenck decided that since his releases for United Artists were not as successful as he had hoped, he would pass him over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, owned by his brother Nicholas. Here he could be sure his comedies would have stronger support, both in production and release. And so it turned out – to begin with.
Despite his string of brilliant comedies, MGM insisted that he worked from a script, something he had not done before, Buster dutifully made The Cameraman just as MGM wanted. It was a tremendous success. Spite Marriage was another. But thereafter, problems assailed him. Sound became a fact of life. Coming from vaudeville, Keaton had no fear of talk, but MGM did not yet know how to handle it. The front office arranged his subjects, and the writers to work on them, and Buster was less and less involved. Gone was his free and easy picture-making style when he could make it up as he went along, stop if he got stuck and play baseball, spend as much as the project required.
He was given a supervisor. At least one MGM director had left after having that indignity forced upon him. And it wasn’t as if the supervisor knew anything about Keaton’s style of comedy. Lawrence Weingarten specialised in sophisticated, light comedy. The company kept borrowing the co-workers he depended upon and not giving them back. On top of which Buster was experiencing marital trouble, was being denied access to his sons, and was drinking heavily.
During Prohibition drink swept through Hollywood like a tidal wave. Keaton was one of those alcoholics who only needed a couple of drinks to make him incapable. His state is all too apparent in some of his later MGM pictures, where this once athletic actor had to play sitting down. He also gambled for high stakes – often with the very producers who were crippling his career. Of course, it was all done with his best interests at heart. Having made one film he didn’t care for, he was obliged to repeat it three or four times for foreign versions. In an attempt to increase his popularity, he was given a partner – the silent Buster was teamed up with the garrulous Jimmy ‘Schnozzle’ Durante. But his popularity didn’t need increasing – even his bad films were huge box office successes, something which him all the more depressed.
He moved out of his bungalow into a land yacht which, parked on the backlot, became notorious for wild parties. Finally, Louis B Mayer confronted Keaton and ordered him off the lot. ‘You studio people warp my character’ said Buster.
Keaton eventually returned, on a far lower salary, as a gag-writer, helping to create some of the funniest sequences in film history.
So Funny It Hurt is the story of Keaton’s years at MGM. It includes rare footage, such as a home-movie shot in New York in 1928 of The Cameraman in production, and it is presented from the old MGM studios by the actor James Karen, a close friend of Buster’s from the 1950s.
Program notes from Kevin Brownlow.
Kevin Brownlow will be in discussion with David Robinson.
This unparalleled essay in European absurdism was one of the most regrettable casualties of the coming of sound. Released as a silent in May 1929, it was re-issued with synchronized music and sound effects in August 1930 – but too late. Variety, reviewing the new version on its London release, admitted that its production values (with fine photography by Charles Rosher) were far superior to most British pictures, yet mercilessly damned its chances: “Picture doesn’t mean anything in these talker days.” Significantly, perhaps, the same page carried a review of the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers.
The film represents an extraordinary marriage of a native British nonsense tradition with the sprightliness of Hungarian operetta. The story is by Douglas Furber (1885-1961), one of the most prolific English writers of revue and musical plays between the wars (his songs included “The Lambeth Walk” and “The Bells of St Mary’s”). The story is a merciless send-up of Ruritanian romance and in particular The Prisoner of Zenda. Betty Balfour plays the dual role of Sally, maid-of-all-work in a seedy London lodging house, and Princess Xonia of Bolonia, a revolution-prone Balkan state. Sally is carried off to Bolonia to take the Princess’s place in the forthcoming coronation procession, at which a regicide is confidently anticipated. Luck and nonsense naturally save the day.
The prolific Géza (von) Bolváry (1897-1961) began directing in his native Hungary in 1920, but from 1923 to 1958 he mostly worked in Germany. In 1928-9 he made a group of films in Britain or as Anglo-German co-productions: these included the excellent The Ghost Train (1927), Number 17 (1928), with Ivor Novello, Bright Eyes (Champagner, 1929), which teamed Novello with Betty Balfour, and finally The Vagabond Queen.
The musical score added to the film is of particular interest both in the evolution of music from silent to sound cinema, and in the subsequent progression of Bolváry’s career. It was assigned to the composer-compiler-conductor John Reynders, and was almost certainly prepared in close collaboration with the director. Reynders was London’s best-known cinema compiler-conductor of the silent film period. From its opening as a cinema in 1923 until the end of the silent period, he was musical director of the Tivoli Theatre, where he presented much-admired scores for the British premieres of – among numerous others – Greed, Ben-Hur, The Merry Widow, and Moulin Rouge. Subsequently he became a prolific composer of sound film music. His score for The Vagabond Queen is brash and energetic, and contributes very positively to the comedy, with its own jokes and aural commentary. It is particularly interesting that the film was actually extended by 1042 feet when the sound was added; the orchestral score accentuates the distinctly musical rhythm of the action. The creation of this novel comic balletic style may well have influenced Bolváry’s direct progression into film operetta, starting with Zwei Herzen im 3/4-Takt, which was to exert a great influence upon the development of German and Austrian musicals in the 1930s.
In addition to its star, the film boasts an excellent cast. Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961) – a favourite embroidery companion of the Dowager Queen Mary, he practically qualifies as a “Funny Lady” himself – has one of his most abandoned comedy roles as Lidoff the Bolonian diplomat. Patrician by birth and originally a painter, Thesiger had an unbroken theatrical career from 1909 to the end of his life, creating among other roles that of the Dauphin in George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan. He made his first film appearance in 1916 and his last (in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) in 1961. His most memorable appearances were in James Whale’s The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein, though nowhere is he as extravagant as in The Vagabond Queen. Glen Byam Shaw (1904-1986), the juvenile lead, made his stage debut in 1923, and went on to become a distinguished Shakespearean actor and director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (1953-1959).
Program notes courtesy of David Robinson. Introduction by Lucy Porter.
This show is intended to revive the reputation of a comedian of the silent era – not on the scale of a Lloyd or a Keaton, but extremely amusing and entertaining in his own right. I have several of his Universal comedies in my collection – they were released on 16mm by both Kodascope and Universal’s Show-at-Home library and tonight’s film is a good-quality copy of one of these.
Denny had been his father’s stage name – he was W H Denny, the Gilbert & Sullivan singer. Reginald adopted it when became an actor. He was born in Richmond, Surrey in 1891 as Reginald Leigh Dugmore – and he died in Richmond, Surrey in 1967. He was educated at St Francis Xavier College in Mayfield, Sussex. He felt he had been educated enough for a theatrical career, so ran away at 16 and got a job as an extra at the Duke of York’s theatre in London. He was hired as a chorus man by a prominent major American producer and opened in The Quaker Girl in New York in 1911. He is supposed to have made a film in 1912 but his memoirs don’t mention it. He signed a contract as a leading baritone with the Bandmann Opera Co touring India and the Orient. Rehearsals were held aboard ship bound for Bombay. It was obvious that Denny was not experienced enough, nor was his baritone deep enough, so he was relegated to lesser roles. He went into partnership with a crook, found himself stranded but managed to raise enough money to get back to America. In 1914 he played his first film role with Hazel Dawn for Famous Players in Niobe, directed by Hugh Ford. He had plenty of roles in the theatre, but this was 1917, and when America entered the war, he decided it was time to enlist. He was shipped by to England to train for the Royal Flying Corps. While he was on his pilot’s training course at Hastings, he won the Brigade Heavyweight Boxing Championship. The Armistice was signed before he finished his course, and on his discharge he returned to America. He found work at the World Studios in Fort Lee, in Bringing Up Betty and The Oakdale Affair, both with Evelyn Greely and both made in 1919. Denny was starred in a boxing series called The Leather Pushers. The money ran out, but Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, took an interest in them and with studio finance they became one of the most popular series of the 1920s. He was sent to California and starred in a series about the North West Mounted Police. With no riding experience, he was thrown and broke an ankle. Which was fortunate, because he then starred in a Jack London story, The Abysmal Brute (1923) about a backwoods boy who becomes a boxer. At Denny’s insistence, light comedy was injected into the melodrama. Universal quickly capitalised on his talent – realising that combining humour with handsome physique was what had made Douglas Fairbanks a star. Not too long afterwards, Denny became the highest-paid English star next to Chaplin.
Bryant Washburn had played this Skinner role in 1917 for Harry Beaumont at Essanay, and it was so successful he made two more Skinner stories. Glenn Tryon remade it in 1929 as Skinner Steps Out directed by Wm James Craft with Glenn Tryon and Merna Kennedy.
As you’ll see, Denny’s characterisation was that of a typical young American entangled in the problems of suburban life. The trouble was that Harold Lloyd did the same thing and was strong competition. And when talking pictures revealed an impeccable English accent, Denny’s career as a star comedian was over. He began a second career as a featured player – appearing in everything from Romeo and Juliet with Barrymore to Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He became one of America’s favourite Englishmen. His career in silent pictures was forgotten, not only by audiences but by Denny himself.
In the 1960, I went down to Palm Springs to meet Laura la Plante. She was a delightful person, and very funny, but pathologically shy. How she managed to become a leading lady is beyond my comprehension. She pleaded with me not to bring a film crew down. We did go down, but only to interview her husband, Irvin Asher for the Hollywood series. However, she did say how much she enjoyed working on this film, and praised Denny highly… She must have enjoyed her experience because director Bill Seiter became her first husband.
Here are some extracts from my diary for my first trip to California in December, 1964,
I was staying at the house of film collector David Bradley in the Hollywood Hills. Bradley had gone to spend Christmas in Chicago and he arranged with his partner, Tom Webster to give me the run of his collection and to do all the driving. It could not have been a better arrangement.
December 12th; Tom picked me up and we headed for the Pasadena Freeway to meet Reginald Denny. Los Angeles was full of signs for Denny’s – a coffee shop which had nothing to do with him. But on Hollywood Boulevard we passed a model shop named Reginald Denny’s, and it turned out that in 1936 he had begun working on a radio-controlled system for model planes. He adapted it for use with anti-aircraft gunnery. These models were designated TDD – which stood for Target Drone Denny.
When we located his street, we saw a tall, unmistakable figure standing on the kerb, lit by the light from his open door. It was a particular thrill to meet Denny, because I knew his younger self so well thanks to Bill Eversons’ screenings. He looked older than I expected and while he talked enthusiastically of his youth, I had the impression that he had thought little of his films. He admitted that he had not seen any of his silent for over twenty years. He clearly had little idea of how good he was and it took some persuasion before he agreed to see Skinner’s Dress Suit.
Tonight is our Reginald Denny screening, to be held at Bradley’s house. Tom and I go out to buy a lot of drink (which no one drinks). And as we return, the crowd arrives. Reginald Denny and his wife, who played opposite him in a late silent, Night Birds, Reginald Denny jr, Denny’s daughter, Joan and son-in-law, awaiting the show with a trace of nervousness. We settled them in and started with an episode from The Leather Pushers, the boxing series which brought Denny to Hollywood. This showed him as a likable but rather flat character, what humour there was came from the other members of the cast. But it was a surprise to see a leading man box so convincingly.
Then Skinner’s Dress Suit – Bradley’s print was a faded amber with bits missing, but although the audience seemed to miss some of the subtlety, it seemed to go over well. Smooth directed by Wm Seiter, it showed Denny at his best – as a comedian whose polish and technical brilliance never outshone his genuine warmth.
As the Denny family watched this 1926 comedy, the atmosphere noticeably changed. The picture’s gags at first received restrained, relieved chuckles. But as the story took hold, the audience, which included Sennett comedienne Minta Durfee, gave the film their whole-hearted approval. Mrs Denny spotted herself as an extra, and identified Janet Gaynor as another.
The children were very pleased to see that their father was so good as an actor and Denny himself was very bucked. At the end, he was assailed with congratulations. Grinning shyly, he confessed that he had expected the film to creak. “It stands much better than I thought it would,” he said. Then they all left, purring with delight.
Please note that there are a couple of short section missing.
Program notes provided by Kevin Brownlow. Introduction by Kevin Brownlow. Piano accompaniment by Daan van den Hurk.
Spite Marriage is the tale of a tailor who is madly in love with an actress… so in love, that he’s gone to see her play countless times! He is given the chance to marry the woman of his dreams, but what he does not know, is that she is only marrying him to make her old flame jealous!
The film was made in 1929 and stars Buster Keaton, Dorothy Sebastian, and Edward Earle. Spite Marriage was directed by Edward Sedgewick and Buster Keaton. It was written by Lew Lipton, Ernest Pagano, Richard Schayer, and Robert E. Hopkins.
Dorothy Sebastian’s most famous films were in the late 1920s. She was contracted to MGM, and when her contract was over she was relegated to smaller parts. Her other well-known films include A Woman of Affairs (1928) and Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Sebastian and Keaton were romantically linked during the production of Spite Marriage. Edward Earle was a leading man during the early 1920s with roles in East Lynne (1921), False Fronts (1922), and A Dangerous Flirtation (1924).
Edward Sedgwick directed most of Keaton’s films during their time at MGM. They had a shared love of baseball and shared an office on MGM’s backlot. Sedgwick also directed Laurel and Hardy and is credited as discovering Lucille Ball.
This film has the distinction of being Buster Keaton’s last silent film. It is also the second film that he made for MGM after becoming a contract player. The previous film was The Cameraman, also directed by Edward Sedgwick. The Cameraman was a financial success for MGM. In addition to being his last silent, Spite Marriage was also the last film where Keaton was allowed any creative control. When MGM signed Buster Keaton, one of their concerns was over the budgets of his films. In crafting his films, Keaton often used a lengthy improvised approach. MGM wanted Keaton to stick to a shooting script.
Keaton’s original idea for the film was to make a sound comic western. Keaton realised that the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927 was a signal that the age of silent film was about to end. At the time, MGM only had one stage that was used for making sound films. Sound was being reserved for other types of films. It was felt by MGM that comedies that used physical humour where much better made as silent films. Buster Keaton wanted to use sound effects in his films, but keep the dialogue to a minimum.
One of the film’s funniest scenes involves Buster Keaton putting his drunk wife to bed. This scene was recreated with much lesser comedic effect by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953). Buster Keaton would go on to recreate the scene himself on stage in the 1950s with his wife, Eleanor Keaton.
Accompanied live by Günter A. Buchwald, Frank Bockius, and Romano Todesco performing as The European Silent Screen Virtuosi.
Slapstick 2018 is just around the corner! We’ve got so many great events in January to help brighten those cold winter days and nights! Make sure you check out our full programme as we have four days chock-full of laughs, music and classic comedy with some great special guests. One of our events might have you braving the chill in fishnet stockings! Slapstick is proud to present The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Special guest, Jason Donovan!
I think everyone has their own Rocky Horror story. It’s amazing to think that this film has been screening in cities around the world for over 40 years! I first watched the film in high school, went to a few interactive screenings in St. Louis (in costume!), and finally saw the stage production a couple of times here in the U.K. It’s quite interesting that in the U.S. people mainly experience the film and in the U.K most people are exposed to the stage production. Both the film and stage versions have their own energy when you see them, but I have to say that I much prefer watching the film with an enthusiastic audience.
My first experience with Rocky Horror was watching it on video. I had seen my brother’s soundtrack CD and was very confused by the cover… I had no clue that the main photo was of Tim Curry! He had rented the film from Blockbuster (yes, I’m that old!) and I sneakily watched it on my own one evening. “Dammit Janet” is the song that captured my attention! I had heard about screenings and decided to read what I could online. I learned some of the call back lines and very much enjoyed watching the film for the first time with a very raucous crowd! I’ve not seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show with an audience for many years, so I’m very much looking forward to our screening!
What I love about going to see a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that it is a film experience like no other. Audience members are encouraged to dress up, bring props and shout at the film. Some screenings have cast members that act out the film as it’s being projected behind them. I’ve put a clip below from Fame that shows exactly what I mean:
I guess it goes without saying… but water pistols are a strict no no at Colston Hall!
Rocky Horror has had such a cultural impact. “The Time Warp” is a Halloween party staple. So many films and television shows have referred to the phenomenon. One of my favourite examples is this clip from Sesame Street with Susan Sarandon and the Count:
Richard O’Brien wrote the original stage musical and adapted it for film. He also starred as Riff Raff. In New Zealand, there is a statue commemorating him in his most famous role. Near the statue there is a wall that gives the dance instructions for “The Time Warp”. There is a even a web camera set up so that the world can view visitors to the statue and their dancing skills!
Join us for an evening of “absolute pleasure” on Saturday, January 27th! Tickets and more info can be found here.
January is just around the corner! We are busy, busy, busy in Slapstick HQ getting everything prepped for the festival. One of the new additions to our programme this year is called Young Slapstick! The events are happening on Saturday the 27th and it is a great way to introduce the little ones to the joyful fun of slapstick comedy. The main event will consist of two shorts and some clips hosted by Mark Olver. Following that is a workshop in the physical art of slapstick – pratfalls and all – hosted by Circomedia. Later in the afternoon, there will be a Punch and Judy show. I thought I’d take this opportunity to write a little bit about Punch and Judy and their connection to slapstick comedy.
The term “slapstick” originated from an actual stick that was used as a sound effect in theatre performances. It was a club that was comprised of two slats of wood that when hit against something (or someone!) would create a very loud slap sound. It originated in Italy’s Commedia dell’arte and was later integrated into the Punch and Judy puppet show. Mr. Punch usually holds a slapstick during a performance. Punch and Judy shows are known for their exaggerated use of physical violence.
Punch and Judy shows also had their roots in Italy dating back to the 16th century and stem from the same Commedia dell’arte tradition. Marionettes were the first type of puppets used in the Punch and Judy show. Mr. Punch even has an official birthday in the UK – May 9th, 1662. This was the date that Samuel Pepys saw a show with the characters in a performance in Covent Garden. Punch and Judy shows were popular in other countries during the period. George Washington even went to see a show in the American colonies. The glove-puppet style that most modern shows use was gradually adopted in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Slapstick is welcoming Prof. Patel and his very unique Punch and Judy show in January. He is the first Asian Punch and Judy Professor in the UK. There will be two performances – one of a traditional Punch and Judy show, the other is Prof. Patel’s re-imagining of the characters with a bit of Bollywood panache. The show looks to be a lot of fun and I look forward to watching it myself!
The subject of this post was originally going to be on an entirely different topic, which will be saved for a later time!
When I was doing research for that topic, I came across this TedxEmory talk on YouTube. The title of this video is, “Technology and the New Aesthetics of Violence.” I will warn you, there are some violent images shown from certain films in this video. So, viewer be warned! What does this video have to do with the Slapstick Festival? Well, there are a couple of reasons why I have decided to share this video.
The main reason why I even came across this video is that I was looking up the person presenting the lecture. Dr. Eddy Von Mueller is a lecturer at Emory University, and a former professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. More specifically, he was one of my professors while I was doing my film degree at GSU. Dr. Von Mueller had a dramatic impact on my education, and what areas of film history, theory, and criticism that I decided to focus on during my studies. In fact, you could say he was one of my favourite professors!
One of Dr. Von Mueller’s areas of expertise is in the study of animation. During the intro to this lecture, he explains that what he is attempting to explore is why violence in cinema can either make us laugh, cringe in fear or disgust, or make us cheer for a hero. Although most of the lecture is about gun violence is displayed in film, it can easily be transposed to other types of cinematic violence. It certainly makes a good starting point for how film studies explore how violence is portrayed in cinema and how different aesthetics can impact how an audience will react to that violence.
I’ve put a link to the video below… it’s a fascinating 20 minutes and takes me back to the film lectures that I absolutely loved!