Monday, 23 January 2017

Now there’s a funny thing… The Freshman (1925), Guenter A Buchwald, Bristol Ensemble, Slapstick Festival Gala

Another bumper show at the Colston Halls, mixing old and new as Buster, Stan, Ollie and Harold were preceded by Rory and Roy (who channelled Max)…

It was inauguration day in the US and multi-cultural Bristol was a good place to be - a city that knows its Tricky from its Trump. Cometh the hour cometh the multi-man as Rory Bremner provided pitch-perfect presidential  pretence; a much-needed humorous antidote to a western leadership that cannot even be bothered to count let alone spell-check.

Against the depressingly historic events in Washington DC, it was good to be reminded of the importance of comedy in providing relief and perspective.

First up was Buster Keaton’s The High Sign (1921) – actually his first solo short but delayed in favour of One Week, which he thought was stronger. It probably is but The High Sign is still a belter with a stone face caught up in a ludicrous plan to both kill and protect August Nickelnurser, the town miser who owns the Blinking Buzzards gang $10,000.

Buster manages to convince both the gang boss, the unfeasibly tall Joe Roberts, and August and his daughter (Bartine Burkett) that he is a dead shot thanks to the use of a hungry hound to create the impression he’s hitting all the targets in the funfair. It’s a tough commission but somehow Buster managers to get the job half done with the aid of an hilarious chase through August’s escape-routed house.

Of the films we saw, this was the favourite of my student daughter and her pal: Buster remains the coolest fool!

Dorothy Coburn and Oliver Hardy take a nap
Next we had Laurel and Hardy being offered a bonus to complete a new house on time in The Finishing Touch (1928). Homeowner Sam Lufkin obviously has more money than sense as this pair don’t look capable of working either faster or smarter. It’s the usual elegant disaster from the boys all given extra spice by the impatient promptings of a petite-yet-fearsome nurse (Dorothy Coburn), who runs a hospital nearby and asks them to keep the noise down.

Naturally there’s a cop on hand - Ed Kennedy – to keep a watchful eye and to make sure they’re both quick and quiet. Predictably, they manage neither but there’s no finer sight in silent of Ollie falling hard and Stan convincing himself and the World that it’s none of his fault.

Beat-perfect jazzy accompaniment was provided by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi, comprised of Geunter A Buchwald on piano and violin, Romana Todesco on double bass and Frank Bockious on percussion.

Roy Hudd in Max Miller style quiet suit...
Now then, the phrase “National Treasure” is often over-used but there are few more deserving of that epithet than Roy Hudd, a man whose illustrious career has always run in hand with preserving our music hall past. He is President of the Max Miller Appreciation Society and has kept The Cheeky Chappie’s legacy alive through his one-man shows and even playing him in a Doctor Who audio story (Pier Pressure).

Dressed in an outrageous Miller-esque silky suit, Roy proceeded to bring the house down with material now more sepia than blue but still showed why timing and stage-craft are so important to stand-up and slapstick alike.

"They don't make 'em anymore, duck!"

Harold's inspiration: Lester Laurel in The College Hero
Now for the main event and the screening of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), accompanied by the 25-piece Bristol Ensemble orchestra, conducted by Guenter Buchwald and playing composer Carl Davis’s lovely score.

This was Lloyd’s biggest hit of the twenties and whilst some, like me, might prefer say Speedy, this film is an undoubted classic of structure and style as Harold is put through humiliation after humiliation until it seems he can sink no lower but just as redemption seems beyond him, well… what do you expect?

Lloyd produced and his team of writers - John Grey, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, and Ted Wilde – along with directors Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor – worked out this narrative arc with slide-rule precision and it was one that would only really work with Harold’s particular persona. Of the big three (or four), Lloyd was perhaps the closest to the common man of the jazz age: perpetually optimistic and ambitious, he has the go-getting intensity of the classic American and his relentless spirit sees him through.

The new arrival: keen to impress!
Chaplin is of an earlier time as is Buster and both are somehow more “primal” blue-collar personas. Lloyd is on the up and here he’s off to conquer Tate University at all costs! His idol is The College Hero (James Anderson) and he pins a photograph from the College magazine, the Tattler… he devours the literature and is very impressed with a film about a college hero who has a signature shuffle he dances before extending his hand in welcome to every new acquaintance.

Harold’s living a fantasy of college life at a time when only the privileged few would attend (the World’s turning again…) but it was obviously an inspiration as dozens of similar films were to follow after The Freshman’s success.

Harold’s initial experience is cringe worthy and the College Cad (Brooks Benedict) repeatedly lines him up and plays him for the fall. Harry borrows a line from his film hero and asks them to call him Speedy as he starts to bribe his way to friendship through buying ice cream and soda for all.

Jobyna Ralston
He hosts the "Fall Frolic" dance in an attempt to secure his popularity but his tailor (Joseph Harrington) has to be on hand as he has not completed proper stitching for his dress suit… it’s very funny but the humiliating conclusion is all to inevitable.

Only the daughter of the hostel manager, Peggy (the excellent Jobyna Ralston) see him for who he is and loves him for it. She tells the momentarily crestfallen Harry to be himself but he still thinks he has a chance if he can only get to play in the big football game…

The final set piece is perfectly timed and you’re shifting in your seat well before Harry gets his chance…He does succeed in an all-American way but he only because he just won’t give up: ever!!

When all artifice is stripped away that is perhaps the quality that Lloyd most represents: energy and resilience for an audience struggling in their own lives. We’ve never needed him more…and I'm now not meeting anyone new without doing the college shuffle!

A super time was had by all and once again I was mightily impressed by Bristol and its comedy commitment – the Colston Hall was pretty much sold out and this festival just gets bigger and better.

Rory and the band take a bow!

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