What could 100-year-old silent movie comedies possibly offer 21st-century audiences used to 3D, over-the-top special effects, and raunch?
“A lotta laughs,” says Richard Roberts, organizer of the Slapsticon comedy movie festival, which comes to the IU Cinema the last weekend in June. “In fact, more laughs than a lot of modern day movies.”
Roberts will be presenting films at the four-day Slapsticon festival, which showcases hard-to-find silent shorts and early sound comedies.
“Frankly the Slapsticon name bugs me,” says Roberts, a film historian and author of Smileage Guaranteed, Past Humor Present Laughter: Musings on the Comedy Film Industry 1910-1945.
“There’s way more range to comedy than just people slapping and hitting each other. We love to pay tribute to visual comedy in all of its forms.”
The festival starts on Thursday the 27th at 1 p.m. and runs thru Sunday afternoon. The films range from silent one-reelers ago to cartoons to the 1967 Buster Keaton feature War, Italian Style.
Must Be Rare and Funny
Roberts’ main criterion in selecting films for Slapsticon is rarity, but, he adds, “they do have to be funny.” He claims that none of the films that are being shown this year are available on DVD.
“We tend to show things that you can’t rent from Netflix or find streaming on the Net. We pride ourselves on dealing with a network of film archives and private collectors who have this material that so seldom gets seen.”
The festival is clearly a labor of love for Roberts, whose organizes it pro bono. He clearly takes great pleasure introducing audiences to lesser-remembered but worthy screen comedians.
“People today, if they think of silent film comedy, the names that pop into their head are Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. But there were literally hundreds of comedians. In Hollywood, it was an industry unto itself.”
One of those lesser-known comedians represented at this year’s festival is the once-popular Lloyd Hamilton, whose relative obscurity may be due to his having died in 1935 with few of his films having been preserved.
“[Buster] Keaton said he was one of the funniest comedians of all time,” says Roberts. “We’re showing some extremely rare examples of his work.”
Other lesser-remembered but once highly popular stars include Leon Errol, Monty Banks, Charley Chase, and Snub Pollard.
There are also films with comics still fairly well known today, such as Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Shemp Howard, Ben Turpin, and Harry Langdon.
For Roberts, one of the rewards in organizing the Slapsticons is tearing people away from their iPods and smartphones and getting them into a theater where they can watch the films as part of a live audience.
“It’s really the way these films were meant to be seen. They were never meant to be watched alone by yourself. It’s great to hear laughs still coming from these films,” he adds.
Risking Lives for Your Entertainment
Another one of the once-popular but now little-known comics in the festival is Larry Semon, a comedy star who, in the 1920s, earned a million dollars a year from making audiences laugh.
“He was considered one of the great daredevil comedians,” says Roberts. “He’s the definite example of a comedian who needs to be seen with an audience, not by yourself. His films move a mile of minute. He had a wonderful brace of stuntmen who do some jaw-dropping stunts. You see cars driving off cliffs, incredible stuff.
When Roberts speaks to Slapsticon audiences, he reminds them that the stunts they will be watching are real—made without the benefit of computer generated imagery.
“When you see somebody fall off a building, it’s most actually somebody falling off a building—or a building falling onto them. These people risked their lives for your entertainment,” he says with a laugh.
Music by Two IU Music School Grads
The music for the silent movies will be provided by two internationally-known film accompanists—Philip Carli and Andrew Simpson, both IU music school alumni.
“Dr. Carli and Dr. Simpson are just great at playing comedy,” says Roberts. “It’s amazing to watch because most of the time when sit at the piano to play, they’ve never seen the film. It’s a completely improvised performance. They have incredible encyclopedias of musical knowledge in their heads. It’s hearing live artists collaborating with dead artists on the screen.”
The Film Historian Next to You
The festival offers lovers of movie comedy chances to meet other aficionados in the form of group dinners, and chance encounters in the theater and lobby.
“There are great conversations going on in the lobby at all times. We always tell people in the program ‘If you really want to know more about films, mostly likely if you turn to somebody sitting next to you, you’ll find a historian who’ll have the answers to your question.’”
Bring the Kids
The Slapsticon offers clean fare for families, and children under 12 are admitted free.
“Absolutely bring the kids,” says Roberts. “Who appreciates slapstick more than children?”
On Friday the 28th at 11:00 a.m., four comedies organized on the subject of “Kids ’n’ Animals” will be screened. One movie stars the Our Gang ensemble (also known as The Little Rascals), and there are two shorts by Our Gang copycat troupes—Hey Fellas and Smitty Comedy. There’s also a sound short called Mickey’s Tent Show, from the rarely-seen Mickey McGuire series, which stars a 13-year-old actor who later took the name Mickey Rooney.
Roberts claims that in the decade he’s been holding Slapsticons, the festival has made its share of converts to the silent film comedies, despite the movies’ age.
“Human beings really haven’t changed that much over decades. We still have the same human frailties. Husbands still fight with wives. People still do the same stupid things they did a century ago.”
See the full program of Slapsticon movies here.