This weekend I was lucky to go some events which were part of the Slapstick Festival which happens every year in Bristol. I thought I'd come on here and tell you about them individually as well as ranting about just how much I love silent movies.
The first event was the Slapstick Gala, which started with a Laurel and Hardy short. Laurel & Hardy are not my favourite, but I enjoyed watching them write off dozens of what would now be vintage cars. The second short, 'Pass the Gravy', featured a prize chicken called Brigham, which gets eaten in socially embarrassing circumstances. I had no idea it was possible to get so much comedy mileage out of a chicken.
The main dish of the evening was Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, in which Chaplin, as the tramp, falls in love with a blind girl. A chance encounter with a drunk millionaire allows him to pass himself off as a rich man, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to earn the money to pay for the operation that will cure her blindness.
City Lights is piece of genius. It is genius because unlike modern films it hits every cinematic button, without lessening the impact of any of them. It has dozens of belly laugh moments, but the romance is genuinely and sincerely touching. It has social comment without being worthy or dull. It has glamour without being cold or heartless. It does not drag or sag for a second. It is, in short, faultless.
One thing that struck me strongly about City Lights, and many other silent films I've seen, is that the humour in them is very kind. To my mind there's two ways of doing comedy, and one is to laugh at us - humans - and our general ridiculousness. The other is to laugh at them - the people who aren't like us. Comedians like, say, Ricky Gervais or Sacha Baron-Cohen specialise in the latter. You're either laughing with, or your laughing at.
I find there's a political and cultural difference in these two types of humour. In silent films, the hero/heroine often suffers from a great deal of indignity in life: poverty, injustice or unrequited love. But they are always a sympathetic character, and we are invited to identify with them as they experience setbacks and humiliations. The harshness of life isn't skimped at, slithered aside or ignored: the
blind girl really must sell flowers or be on the street, and the tramp
really does end up in jail at one point. Audiences in the 20s would have experienced a harsher life than we might have, and these struggles would have seemed real to them. Of course, these struggles with poverty, disaster, and humiliation still occur today, but you won't catch Hollywood empathising with them, since the fabric of the modern American Dream dictates that losers are not like the rest of us.
In some ways silent movies are frankly not as squeamish as modern movies, which makes me wonder if we're all really as liberal as we think we are. In a scene in City Lights, Chaplin wakes up in bed with the millionaire. If this was a modern American comedy, the director would feel a need for both characters to be repulsed, in a 'we're not gay' moment. But Chaplin just gets on with the story.
Another point of fascination in these movies is, for me, what would have been the normal social background for viewers of the era. The cars, the clothes, the interiors. In City Lights, Chaplin and the millionaire attend a nightclub, and a party: they look far more louche and wild than the limp, terrible recreations of a 20s party in the recent, thoroughly awful version of The Great Gatsby. I would happily have watched any of these films again just to gawk at the things in the background.
The General, starring Buster Keaton. When it was released in 1928 The General bombed, since it was considered not really funny enough as a comedy. It's true that it doesn't have as many laughs as the Chaplin, but is more of an action/comedy film. What makes it supremely watchable is Buster Keaton, whose strangely beautiful hangdog face never moves, and yet communicates everything.
The General is susprisingly interesting as a historical movie about the American Civil War. Shot in 1926, but set in 1861, it is, presumably, old enough to have had input from people who would have actually remembered the era. Battle scenes with large numbers of men and horses are a fascinating lesson in what warfare would have looked like prior to World War One. The General in question is not a person but a train, and there are all kinds of marvellous old technology featured. In one breathtaking scene, a steam engine traverses a bridge that collapses. There are no CGI or tricks involved, so one can only presume that that really is a train plunging into a river. It is certainly worth watching the entire movie just for this scene. Making The General cost $750,000, a fortune at the time.
Disappointingly, the female lead in The General is both stupid and annoying, though comically very well played by Marion Mack. Virginia Cherrill, in City Lights, is altogether a more appealing heroine. If you do want to see one of the silent era's best female leads, one of my favourites, the Oscar-winner 'Wings' featuring Clara Bow is now out on dvd in the UK and can be purchased here.
You can buy both City Lights on DVD here and the General here. However all these movies are worth seeing on a big screen if you can manage it.