My weekend plans
From Thursday to Sunday, I’ll be at Arlington’s Rosslyn Theater for Slapsticon, a festival of slapstick comedies, mostly from the silent era (with live musical accompaniment), with some films from the early sound era. You don’t have to be a complete dork and plan on spending all four days, and so I encourage anyone in the DC area (or anywhere close enough for a day trip) who has an interest in classic films to come sample at least one of the programs.
The festival is deliberately programmed against the obvious stuff you can get from a good video store or rental service — the canonized classics of Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and the Marx Brothers. Not that OUR HOSPITALITY, THE GENERAL, CITY LIGHTS, THE FRESHMAN, SPEEDY, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, ad infinitum, ad gloriam, aren’t masterpieces. Of course they are. But as the Slapsticon FAQ puts it: “The films being screened were chosen precisely because they can’t (yet) be seen on cable or video.”
But Slapsticon is the festival to really dig deep … to find out what *else* you like, how much there is to love and enjoy beyond the Big Four. To see your first Larry Semon, Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane, Max Linder, Max Davidson, Garvin and Byron, Our Gang, Fatty Arbuckle. And the real obscurities like Ton of Fun, or Ham and Bud, or Dane and Arthur. And to see highlighted the supporting performers like Snitz Edwards, James Finlayson and others. And to make discoveries.
I wrote a bit about Slapsticon after last year’s fest. Here are some other discoveries:
- Like many film geeks, I had the received notion that Buster Keaton’s career ended with sound. It definitely went into decline, and he never again reached his silent pinnacles. But at the first Slapsticon, there were several of Keaton’s talking shorts, and one in particular, GRAND SLAM OPERA … well, just read the review at the IMDb. At the end of what the reviewer describes (correctly) as the TOP HAT parody, when Buster finished his dance, the audience let out a burst of spontaneous applause, as if everyone was just *happy* with the reassurance that Buster still had “it.”
- I have literally had my breath taken away by the sheer athleticism and grace of Lupino Lane, a British music-hall star whom I had never heard of before Slapsticon became an annual fixture. And the physical durability of Larry Semon. And what a reliably awkward bourgeois everyman Charley Chase was (here’s G-Money on him). I’m looking forward this Slapsticon to seeing more of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, a team who perfected the husband-and-wife domestic sitcom in the 10s, meaning their influence stretches to this very day.
- Being immersed in the material also gives you a real sense of the general run of films. So when I saw CURSES!, a Mack Sennett parody from 1924, at Slapsticon 2 in the context of seeing a bunch of other Sennett slapstick and other stuff from the teens, it went from being an amusing film to being gut-bustingly funny. You also find out that so much of your received notions of film and entertainment history (and just-plain-history) just ain’t so. For example, seeing a large program like this gives the lie to the notion that such supposed pomo curses as parody, self-referentiality and textuality (plus such late-capitalist rentierist practices as product placement) are features of a decadent “late” cultural phase.
- In addition to silents and some sound shorts, last year, the organizers expanded their temporal reach forward last year by showing a rare Danny Kaye feature, and they plan to do the same this year, with a Bob Hope film (other than the familiar ROAD movies) accompanied by one of his rare shorts, and some Ernie Kovacs TV shows. I can’t say I thought THE MAN FROM THE DINERS CLUB was a great film, but I was glad for the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to LET’S FACE IT, CALLING ALL TARS and the Kovacs selection.
- In the something-for-everyone department, families have brought their kids before, and, provided they’re young enough and innocent enough (or been immersed in it), they’ve generally seemed to enjoy Slapsticon to the limits of their time-endurance. Each year the organizers have devoted the Saturday morning slot to cartoons (Max Fleischer, Betty Boop, early Tex Avery, some of the early live-animation mixes, etc.). This year and last they’ve had special programs of kid comedies, following on Slapsticon 2’s having Jean Darling of Our Gang as guest and an appropriate tribute program, which also really went over well. Like, I had no idea Judy Garland was the *second* act of Mickey Rooney’s career … did you? Silent films have a freshness and innocence to them that kids entertainment today generally doesn’t have.
- Another ongoing feature has been been discoveries and new prints — last year a new print of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (even for films that have minimal “plastic values,” there’s no substitute for seeing a good print in a theater) and HEAD OVER HEELS, a Mabel Normand film long thought lost. In that “slot” this year, Slapsticon will show the silent version of WELCOME DANGER, the film Harold Lloyd had nearly finished making when he had to rework it as a sound film. I’ve seen the talkie; I can’t wait to see what Lloyd wanted to make.
That was longer than I intended, but … that’s my plans for the weekend and I intend and expect to have a great time. See you there, I hope.
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