Friday 24 January 2020

All kinds of funny… Slapstick Festival Day One, Bristol Watershed and Cathedral

They call it Slapstick and you may start the day laughing at a man diving through the Earth to China and finish it with another trying to escape marriage to a woman he thinks has a wooden leg but in between you are astonished by French Benshi and genuinely unable to watch the moment Emily Davison gave her life for Suffragism. Our sense of humour has always derived from concerns, compassion and need to collectively understand.

Here in one of England's most cinematic cities, people gather every year to laugh and, more importantly, to connect. I go to a lot of silent films screenings – yeah, obviously – but these are unique, this city responds in kind every year with sold out shows across the programme and with contributions from across the World.

This year Lobster Films supremo, Serge Bromberg brought so much to the party with restored and rare films fleshing out a fascinating mix of diverse comedies. He’s a pretty diverse man himself in terms of his talents and not only does he restore films he also plays accompaniment and today he provided live narration to Georges Méliès’ La fée Carabosse ou Le poignard fatal (1906) with John Sweeney on piano. It was a riot as Serge improvised off what script there was through twelve minutes of hand coloured Méliès madness involving a knight asking the titular witch for aid in rescuing his sweetheart from all manner of daft threats. Qui, nous connaissions le français Benshi et c'était magnifique!

A witch yes, but what is she thinking?!
Later in the day the tone was altogether more reflective in a discussion of Suffragettes in Silent Comedy with Lucy Porter and Samira Ahmed, moderated by Andrew Kelly. Lucy and Samira were the perfect blend of informed with their responses to the comic and journalistic context of these films – both fascinated by the response and social setting of these films that, regardless of their intent, were not only responding to, but helping to develop. Suffragism was a movement across class and sex, whilst most of the comedies on show were placed in very recognisable Edwardian middle-class South-East London, the newsreels showed the support from trades unions and men. As Jane Duffus – author of The Women Who Built Bristol 1184-2018 – said during the Q&A, many working class men did not have the vote as well.

We loved Chrissie White as Physical Culture Phyllis - in Wife the Weaker Vessel (1915) - see image at the top... and in Tilly and the Fire Engines (1911) with Alma Taylor – voted Britain’s favourite film star in 1915 by readers of Pictures and the Picturegoers,  14,000 votes ahead of Charlie Chaplin. But there was also extended footage of the 1917 Derby in which Emily Davison lost her life trying to pin a rosette onto the King’s Horse, the jockey, Herbert Jones was distraught and haunted by the episode through his life whilst the establishment perpetuated the myth of suicide and not political determination for the educated and brave Emily. In these times we do well to properly study history and the way that things happen and they are then portrayed; I loved this history session and its enquiring use of primary sources! That said, cross-dressing boy-girl Diddums Diddles the Policeman (1912) was wacked as anything and, yes Lucy, the moments when “she” shins up drainpipes and lampposts are indeed hard to unsee… still, do yourself a favour, it’s on BFI Player. Alot of these films are there and on the BFI's Make More Noise DVD.

Hard luck, Buster.
The day began with a screening of three top-tier Buster Keaton comedies with introductory expertise from Polly Rose, screen editor by day and Keaton PhD student by night (and day at the weekend no doubt!) accompanied by Guenter A Buchwald and Frank Bockius: nothing in January 2020 could be much finer! One Week (1920) and The Boat (1921) are sublime, laugh-a-foot-of-film-funny with that extra sprinkle of Sybil Seely but I’d never thought before that the latter was a sequel to the first? Of course now it’s obvious but… Hard Luck (1921) I’d never seen before and is not quite so perfect with Keaton playing off a string of unsuccessful suicide attempts the last of which was only recently recovered and which, he said, gave him the biggest laugh of his career, so much so that they had to delay the feature after it… I won’t spoil it and it’s another restoration care of Serge B.

Talking of whom, the Lobster restoration of Pierre Étaix’s Yoyo (1965) was a total surprise to me and proved to be not the mawkish clown-fest I’d cynically expected. Étaix’s film is so subtle and very smartly pays tribute to the silent era right through to the TV age of the sixties. Étaix plays father and son to cover the ground and the twenties section, with silence only punctuated by exaggerated sound effects was a delight. There was also a convicted murderer in the cast with huge ears and a long trunk… but we have to forgive elephants anything.

And so, to the grand finale and Bristol Cathedral in which, standing high in the pulpit, her expensive posh shoes out of view, Shappi Khorsandi preached to the converted on the subject of silent divas.

Love 'em both!
We started off with Mabel Normand marrying Rosco Arbuckle in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), one of their most winsome films presented with lovely crisp visuals as John Sweeney and Frank Bockius rocked the massive acoustics. Mabs and Rosco are primal screen and both eternally funny, emotionally agile and genuine, they also knew how to fling themselves around physically for the sake of our good time.

By comparison, whilst Viora Daniel and Lillian Biron were definitely female, there was precious little slapstick from either in A Pair of Sexes (1921) in which some daft man accidentally nicks his neighbours twin babies. Still, Dan van den Hurk accompanied with vigour. Definitely diva was Dorothy Devore who made short work of the plot and other characters in Saving Sister Suzy (1921) in which she needs to dress like a child so as to give her sister a chance of winning the man; an odd premise but DD is comedy class!

Also definitely diva and totally slapstick was the remarkable Martha Sleeper in Sure-Mike! (1925), her only leading role according to Silent Diva expert Michelle Facey of the Kennington Silent Speakeasy. Skating at speed through crowded streets, riding on a driverless motorcycle and bravely providing physical comedy, Martha also had an ace face, tough and pretty with a perky presence you’d expect to have found more favour. One of the films and finds of the day!

Martha Sleeper - a Parker Posey for the Jazz Age?
Lastly, we had Charley Chase – definitely no lady although not immune from diva-esque behaviour! In His Wooden Wedding (1925), he shares an hilarious dance routine with Gale Henry – the inspiration for Olive Oil apparently – as he tries to displace a wedding ring from the back of her dress… How did it get there? Well, his best man tells him is intended has a wooden leg…

The European Silent Screen Virtuosi joyfully accompanied the last three with Günter A. Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius.

A full day and a splendid full-throated programme. Bring on tomorrow Bristol!

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