Forever laughing

Poster for The Plank (1967 version), from

So farewell then to Eric Sykes, one of Britain’s best loved funny men. He was a natural comic performer, generally playing someone confident that he knew what he was doing while demonstrating time and again that he had no reason to be so, best exemplified by the long-running TV sitcom Sykes. He was also one of the most talented comic writers of his time, writing for Educating Archie, Tony Hancock, The Goons, Frankie Howerd and his own shows.

Like many of his generation of comedians, he had an immense affection and respect for the great silent comedians. Some, such as Bob Monkhouse and Michel Bentine, presented compilations of silent comedies on television to bring them to new audiences. Others, such as Ronnie Barker (with A Home of Your Own, Futtock’s End, The Picnic, By the Sea), Benny Hill (The Waiters, Eddie in August), and in recent years Paul Merton, David Schneider (Uncle Max) and Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) have continued the tradition, with varying degrees of homage to the past – and with varying success.

Eric Sykes made a number of silent, or near-silent slapstick comedies, of which the most famous and still fondly loved is The Plank, of which three versions were made. It started out as a wordless, black-and-white episode of his BBC TV series Sykes and a …, the episode being Sykes and a Plank (tx. 3 March 1964), in which the two protganists were Sykes and regular co-star Hattie Jacques. In 1967 Sykes remade it as a 54-minute colour cinema release, co-starring himself and Tommy Cooper. This was then re-released in 1974 cut to 45 minutes, before a third version (30mins) was made for Thames Television in 1979, with Arthur Lowe replacing Cooper. It is the 1967 film that is the most familiar.

Sykes (who lived in a silent world himself – he was almost completely deaf) made other silent shorts for cinema and television: Rhubarb (1969, remade as Rhubarb, Rhubarb in 1980) in which the characters utter just the one word (guess what it is), It’s Your Move (1969, remade in 1982), Mr H is Late (1988) and The Big Freeze (1993) among them. But it is The Plank that has retained a classic status of a kind. The story is simple – two builders purchase a floorboard for the house they are working on, and encounter all manner of hazards trying to transport it across town. Judged by the standards of the comedy greats of the 1920s, it is average stuff, but Sykes and Cooper have the right deadpan delivery in the face of absurdity, and in its scenario of an inanimate object geting the better of two men it merits some comparison with Laurel and Hardy’s travails with a piano in The Music Box. The simple plank (much like the large plane of glass) is a silent comedy staple in any case. The twist is that here the plank gets star billing (literally so in the 1967 film’s opening credits).

The Plank and its creator show a continuity of laughter down the years. Slapstick itself no longer has the popular appeal that it once enjoyed, but Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd et al (themselves inspired by an earlier generation of theatre comics) inspired the next generation of comedians such as Eric Sykes who flourished on radio and television, whose works then made the next generation laugh when young and inspired them to make others laugh in their own time (as the many affectionate tributes to Sykes from today’s comedians has demonstrate). It’s a continuous process of inheritance and gratitude. Comedy dates, but laughter is eternal. Thank you Eric.


This you have to see. Leonard Maltin, on his Movie Crazy blog, has drawn our attention to a thirty-minute 1996 silent film (in part), Heavenzapoppin’!, which its producer and star Robert Watzke has recently made available on YouTube.

The film is a head-spinningly ingenious delight. It starts off looking like a reasonably conventional silent film pastiche, filmed in black-and-white, with title cards and so forth, set in some East European village with a folk-like tale of a hopeless young man who tries to sell the village bear and instead exchanges it for some magic beans. But then the title card writer starts to complains about his lot (he always wanted to be an opera singer), and things start to get increasingly self-referential and strange …

To say much more would be to give the game away – just to say that this is a Piradellian exercise whose closest film point of reference might be The Purple Rose of Cairo. The performing troupe that plays the villagers, the ‘Bublaires’, ably demonstrates the close connection between slapstick and commedia dell-arte, and the knockabout comedy is genuinely funny. There are a couple of well-known names involved, Helen Slater (Watzke’s wife) and Bruno Kirby as a bewildered film director. Plus you get two bears, a witch, a custard pie fight, a dog with fleas and a happy ending.

The twists and turns of the narrative may tie your brain in knots, but this is a magical piece of filmmaking. Do give it a go.

Slapstick hits the spot

Bristol’s annual Slapstick festival returns in January, with its tried and tested mixture of classic silent comedy and today’s TV and radio comedians making a crowd-pleasing combination. The festival runs 26-29 January 2012, with a pre-event on the 21st. Here are the programme details:

Saturday 21 January 2012 – pre-festival event

Les Bubb’s Silent Slapstick Funnies PG with Les Bubb

1300hrs, Venue: Watershed, Cinema 1 £4.60/£3.60 concs

Discover the delights of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Snub Pollard with a little help from world-renowned visual comedy performer and choreographer Les Bubb, with live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

+ Cinekids: Slapstick Workshop with Les Bubb 8 – 12 years-olds

1500hrs – 1630hrs, Venue: Watershed Waterside 3 £2 per child

Ever wondered how silent comedy clowns make you laugh so much? After the Slaptick’s Silent Funnies screening, join international visual comedy performer Les Bubb for an action packed workshop to explore (and practice!) some of the techniques used by the silent comedy clowns. Wear comfy clothing and prepare for lots of laughter and some falling over.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Buster Keaton: Brownlow and Garden

1740hrs £7.20/£5.60, Venue: Watershed, Cinema 1

The first of two exceptional events dedicated to “The Great Stone Face”, hosted by Oscar-winner Kevin Brownlow, here in conversation with fellow-enthusiast Graeme Garden (of The Goodies and Sorry I Haven’t a Clue). Rare film illustrations recall Brownlow’s meetings with Keaton in the 1960s, his restoration of The General, and collaboration with David Gill on the definitive Keaton documentary, A Hard Act to Follow.

“Stupid Boy!”: Celebrating Dad’s Army with Ian Lavender
An Audience with Private Pike

1930hrs £16/£14, Venue: Hall 2 (Colston Hall)

A unique chance to hear Ian Lavender discuss in his own words what it was like being in one of the UK’s favourite comedies and playing one of our best loved comedy characters – Private Pike in Dad’s Army.

Ian comes to Bristol’s Slapstick Festival with stories of his time on the Dad’s Army set.

Ian will be onstage with writer/broadcaster Matthew Sweet and the evening will include favourite clips from Dad’s Army, a showing of a complete episode, music – and more. Plus there’s a special questions and answers session where you get the chance to ask Ian a question.

A delightful evening of family entertainment in celebration of one of our best loved television series.

Friday 27 January 2012

The Clown Princes

1400hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

Chaplin, Buster Keaton & Harold Lloyd were the undisputed kings of silent comedy – or were they?

Thousands more comedies were made in the silent era starring many, many more comedians. Some even rivalled the top names and occasionally surpassed them in the laughter stakes.

David Wyatt presents his selection of some of the finest and funniest; Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Max Davidson & Larry Semon among them. For those with Keaton withdrawal symptoms though, Buster may make a surprise appearance (or two?).

Buster Keaton: “A Hard Act to Follow” with Kevin Brownlow

1600hrs Venue: Watershed, Cinema 3 £7.20/£5.60

Kevin Brownlow presents documentary footage to illustrate his work, experiences and encounters in filming the definitive Keaton documentary A Hard Act to Follow (1986) with its spectacular sequences recreating the filming of the collapsing railway bridge in The General – the most elaborate scene in all silent comedy. A unique opportunity to discover the creative methods of one of the greatest figures of film comedy, through the eyes of the world’s most honoured film historian.

Griff Rhys Jones: Silent Comedy Spectacular
A star-studded evening of classic comedy featuring Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General (1926)

Special guest host Griff Rhys Jones

1930hrs Venue: Colston Hall £18/£16/£8

Slapstick festival’s annual silent comedy gala presents three comic masterpieces celebrating the great silent comedians of yesteryear. Hosted by the inimitable comic actor and writer Griff Rhys Jones plus ‘master of ceremonies’ Chris Serle.

Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) is considered an undisputed masterpiece of cinema. Set in the American Civil War, Buster Keaton plays Jonnie Gray unable to enlist in the Confederate army because he is needed as a railroad engineer. His sweetheart, who thinks he’s a coward, won’t talk to him until he’s in uniform. Plus Laurel & Hardy in The Finishing Touch (1928) and Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer (1916).

The World Premiere of a new score for The General will be conducted by Guenter A. Buchwald and performed by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. Plus music from The Matinee Idles (featuring Paul McGann).

Saturday 28 January 2012

Charles Chaplin: Bridging Three Centuries

With David Robinson

0930hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

David Robinson is recognised as the definitive biographer and a world expert on Chaplin. In this presentation, richly illustrated with film and rare stills, he considers the phenomenon of an artist who was already on stage in the 19th century, became the most universally recognised personality of the 20th century; and in the 21st century still maintains his power as human symbol and supreme entertainer.

Since his definitive 1985 biography Chaplin: His Life and Art, David Robinson has been recognised as a world expert on the great comedian. In this presentation, richly illustrated with film and rare stills, he considers the phenomenon of an artist who was already at work as a stage artist in the 19th century, was to become the most universally recognised personality of the 20th century; and in the 21st century maintains his power, both as symbol and supreme entertainer, inspiring constant revaluation and study, and constantly attracting new young audiences. Chaplin has a unique place not just in cinema, but in the history of world art.

Grame Garden on Charley Chase

1100hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

To say Charley Chase is one of the comic greats of all time is no exaggeration: this brilliantly inventive and prolific comedian contributed to over 300 films as writer, director, or actor (sometimes as all three) before his untimely death at the age of 46. Chase worked with almost every major name in early film comedy including Chaplin, Arbuckle, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and the Three Stooges. Chase made many comedy shorts in the twenties as a hugely popular comic/performer in his own right. Chase admirer, Goodie and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue panellist, Graeme Garden selects his favourite shorts from this period to reveal Chase at his finest and funniest.

With live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney.

Harold Lloyd: Double Bill (U) with Barry Cryer

1400hrs Venue: Arnolfini £8/£6

Barry Cryer introduces two of Harold Lloyd’s finest comedies:

An Eastern Westerner (1920)
Dir Hal Roach USA 23mins

One of Lloyd’s funniest shorts An Eastern Westerner is consistently clever and amusing, well-paced and packed with gags. An immature playboy is shipped off out west in order to curb his outlandish behaviour, and ends up in a number of scrapes, in this amusing Harold Lloyd short.

Plus Grandma’s Boy (1922)
Dir Fred C. Newmeyer 60 mins

A rare chance to see Lloyd’s first feature film on the big screen. Harold plays an awkward, shy boy who is afraid of everything, including his own shadow. After a bully runs him off from the girl that he loves his Grandma tells him about a magic charm his Grandfather used to gain courage. After Harold begins carrying the charm he singlehandedly captures a killer and teaches the bully a lesson.

Featuring live musical accompaniment by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

Bill Oddie’s Top Comedy Moments in conversation with Chris Serle

1600hrs Venue: Watershed, Cinema 1 £7.20/£5.60

Whose first records were produced by George Martin, and who had two singles banned by the BBC? Who earned rave reviews on Broadway for his dancing? Who rode on the back seat of the Goodies’ tandem? Who has been called ‘Britain’s best-known birdwatcher?’ The answer to all of the above is… Bill Oddie.

A national treasure, Bill Oddie was one third of UK’s top comedy hit of the 70s – The Goodies and the UK’s favourite wildlife presenter regularly fronting Springwatch and Autumnwatch.

Witty, Candid and unconventional Bill invites you to join him as he recounts his working relationships with some of the greatest comic talents of his generation, including John Cleese, Jonathan Miller and fellow Goodies whilst delighting us with his top onscreen comedy moments from the last century. You can expect some Laurel & Hardy but otherwise Bill is not giving anything away in advance, and we don’t blame him! A fascinating insight into the comic influences of this unique comic performer.

He’s Not The Messiah He’s…Terry Jones!
Monty Python’s Terry Jones presents Life of Brian

Plus on stage discussion with Sanjeev Bhaskar.

1930hrs Venue: Colston Hall £16/£14

Terry Jones, one of Britain’s most famous comic writer/performers hosts a special screening of the Life of Brian, arguably the funniest British movie of all time, at Slapstick Festival.

This is a rare opportunity for Monty Python fans to enjoy this iconic film alongside the man who uttered the immortal words “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” The legendary Monty Python comic will introduce the film and also join ‘Kumars at no42’ and ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ star Sanjeev Bhaskar to discuss the film and Terry’s role as Actor/Director.

It is consistently highly ranked in comedy and film polls by The Guardian, IMDB and BFI, remaining one of Britain’s greatest achievements in comedy and film.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Slapstick Spoofs Hosted by David Wyatt

0930hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

Long before AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN there were silent spoofs of current epics like BENDING HUR, MUD AND SAND and THE 3 MUST GET -THERES. Before Laurel & Hardy, Stan Laurel almost made a career out of it. See Buster Keaton parodying western star William S.Hart, Ben Turpin reducing Von Stroheim to rubble, Max Linder doing Doug Fairbanks and Will Rogers just about everyone else. Don’t miss Rogers’ UNCENSORED MOVIES, Laurel’s absolute classic THE SOILERS – and much more.

My Chaplin: with Sanjeev Bhaskar

1100hrs Venue: Arnolfini £7/£5.50

‘Goodness Gracious Me’ and ‘Kumars at No 42’ star Sanjeev Bhaskar selects his favourite shorts and shares his passion for Charlie Chaplin with Chaplin historian and film critic David Robinson. The best of Chaplin with one of our best loved comic writer/performers. With live piano accompaniment .

Buster Keaton: Young Keaton (U)

1400hrs Venue: Arnolfini £8.00/£6.00 Concs & Bristol Silents Members

Between 1919 and 1922 Buster Keaton completed 22 comedy shorts. Many feel this was the most prolific and productive period of his life and festival patrons and Keaton admirers Bill, Tim, Barry and Ian have each selected a short to reveal Keaton at his freshest, most spontaneous and inventive. Films include THE BOAT (1921) and THE SCARECROW (1920). Featuring live musical accompaniment by members of the European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

Pierre Etaix: The Laughter Returns

1600hrs Venue: Watershed, CINEMA 1 £7.20/£5.60

Throughout the sixties Etaix consistently produced some of the finest visual comedies onscreen yet due to a disastrous rights deal his films have not been seen for almost 40 years. Étaix is a clown, magician, illustrator and cabaret artist whose films recall the genius of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd. He worked with Jacques Tati on “Mon Oncle” (1958), then found an ideal collaborator for his own film projects in Jean-Claude Carrière.

In conversation with Sir Christopher Frayling this special event co-presented with Bristol Festival of Ideas celebrates the work of this neglected film maker and performer. Plus a complete screening of Etaix’s first comedy short Rupture (1962).

La Grande Amour (1969) introduced by Pierre Etaix
87 mins Dir by Etaix Fr

2000hrs £7.20/£5.60 Venue: Watershed, Cinema 3

To conclude Slapstick Festival we present one of Pierre Etaix’s best observed and accomplished features. Etaix plays Pierre, married to Florence (Annie Fratellini), though he figures he could have married one of numerous other women. Despite the salacious gossip of the elderly local women who watch his every move, he has enjoyed a largely happy marriage and a satisfactory, albeit not exactly stimulating, life. Then the arrival of a new secretary, 18 year old Agnes (Nicole Calfan), turns his world upside down.

Consumed by a passion which he is convinced must be love, he indulges in increasingly absurd and charmingly innocent romantic fantasies, utterly distracted from his day to day life. Over time, he becomes convinced that the only way he can be happy is to consummate his love. But the dilemmas this presents him with are overwhelming.

A bold mixture of the familiar and the surprising (I’ve never seen a Pierre Etaix film – he will be attending the festival and will become the fourth recipient of their annual Aardman/Slapstick Award for ‘Excellence in Visual Comedy’), put over with the right balance of knowledge and enthusiasm. More details, including information on previous Slapstick festivals, from the festival site. Booking is now open.

On first looking into Chaplin’s humour

Gilbert Adair, from Time Out

The death was announced last week of Gilbert Adair, the essayist, critic, screenwriter and novelist. He was aged 66. Adair’s talent was wide-ranging, with much of it touching on cinema. He was a cinéaste to his fingertips. He wrote the critical history Hollywood’s Vietnam and Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema, wrote the novels Love and Death on Long Island and The Holy Innocents which were turned into films (the latter as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), wrote film scripts for Raoul Ruiz, and wrote many essays, reviews and thought pieces on film.

It is his essays, collected in volumes with mocking titles such as Surfing the Zeitgeist and The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, that have long been favourites of mine. Though he never quite attained the originality or depth of insight shown by the French writers (Barthes, Derrida and co) whose work he deeply admired, his essays touch omnivorously on so many aspects of modern life, with never a dull sentence and many a true observation. He weaves in films, and that includes silent films, in his survey of our times with knowing enthusiasm, and by way of a tribute I’m going to reproduce part of his 1985 essay ‘On first looking into Chaplin’s humour’ (a typically knowing and punning Adair title). This takes on the Chaplin vs Keaton debate with imaginative style. Keaton, for Adair, was ‘an aristocrat’ (you will have to read the full essay to judge why he thinks so); Chaplin stood for something else.

Charlies Chaplin remains, in his posterity, what he never ceased to be in his lifetime: a maverick, a dissident, a mischief-maker. Persecuted for almost six decades by the self-appointed arbiters of moral, political and ideological orthodoxies, he now finds himself posthumously assailed in the one category in which one had always supposed him to be impregnable: the aesthetic. For his detractors, apparently, Chaplin usurped the rank once universally accorded him as the century’s supreme clown. Not only are his films politically naive, flawed by an excess of pathos and not all that funny (sic), he himself was a boorish, mean-minded man, ungenerous ‘to a fault’ and consumed by jealousy of his co-performers … There even exists a suitable candidate for the pedestal from which Chaplin will be ejected when the dismantling of his reputation is complete: Buster Keaton … Yet Chaplin’s achievement seems to me a living model for our impoverished contemporary cinema; so that I would like to propose, not a theory (I am far too partial and subjective for a theorist’s severities), but, at least, an accessible back door or tradesman’s entrance into his deceptively transparent oeuvre …

The Immigrant, … one of his earliest masterpieces, is as good a point as any for my modest thesis. Chaplin, it should be recalled, himself had entered the United States as an immigrant Englishman; and, in his autobiography, he would savour the poverty he had suffered as an infant with an almost parodially Dickensian relish. On the other hand, he was soon to become the cinema’s single most prominent luminary, and as such was assuredly familiar with Soviet propaganda classics and the warped and jagged creations of German Expressionism. What he absorbed from the latter movement, however, was not the signifier – weird perspectives, evilly brewing shadows and all – but the signified, the thing filmed: the ghetto. Chaplin was, and stayed, the film-maker of the ghetto experience; of, in a word, dirt.

‘Dirt’, as a suffusive visual odour, so to speak – the scurfy piggishness of Stroheim, of Buñuel in his Mexican period, of the French directors Clouzot and Duvivier on occasions – is a filmic configuration for which the cinema would seem to have lost the formula. The ‘sordid’ it knows how to film (Raging Bull, La Lune dans le caniveau), if by that we understand either flamboyant putrefaction or a rafish, idealized, strobe-lit squalor … But, in Chaplin’s films, certainly up to Limelight, the sets are (or impress one as) grimy, the very light is filtered through the clinging, festering haze of the slums – and in a sense unintended by his critics, they stink. And Charlie himself? Naturally, he stinks. How could the paradigmatic ‘little man’ not do so? Crudely phrased, one’s apprehension of gamey underclothes is often quite overwhelming; and a reader tempted to dismiss such a contention as altogether uncouth and trivial might be reminded that, technically, underclothes constitute an immanent kind of off-screen space and may therefore be regarded as a minor aesthetic parameter (as indeed was the case with Stroheim’s fabled and finicky vestimentary perfectionism).

… It was from this total identification with the lumpenproletariat, with the material and physical realities of its quotidian existence, that Chaplin’s admittedly sometimes off-putting sainthood derives. Keaton was a great artist, to be sure, and his niche in the history of cinema is an elevated one; but Chaplin belongs to history itself.

The essay is reproduced in his 1986 collection, Myths & Memories, which I warmly recommend.

Time Out has a touching tribute to Gilbert Adair, written by Geoff Andrew.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 28

Bébé victime d’une erreur? The supposed Gaumont film filmed outside the Pathé studios at 30 rue Louis Besquel, Vincennes, Paris (location today inset)

Just time to rush out a hastily-cobbled together edition of the Bioscope Newsreel for you, picking up on a few of the things happening in the silent world that have caught our eye over the past couple of weeks.

A life in the movies
The Guardian has published a profile of Kevin Brownlow, asking why a man who has won an Oscar for a lifetime dedicated to preserving the art of silent film isn’t better known in his own country. Read more.

Locating the General
On July 20 John Bengston, author of Silent Echoes and other books on the locations behind classic silent comedies, gave a presentation before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences on the locations used by Buster Keaton for The General. The Academy has published his compelling and superbly researched PowerPoint slides, with Bengston’s commentary, on its site. Read more.

Gaumont mystery
On that truly engrossing and mysterious site The Cine-Tourist, Roland-François Lack has posed an intriguing question. He has examined closely the film credited as Bébé victime d’une erreur judiciaire, an extract from which appears on the recent Gaumont boxed DVD set Le Cinéma premier, 1897-1913. But this supposed Gaumont film was sot outside the Pathé studios, as his meticulous visual evidence makes clear. What is going on? Can you solve the mystery? You may certainly enjoy the detective work. Read more.

Bonner Sommerkino
Germany’s silent film festival takes place 11-21 August and the programme has been published (in German). Among the highlights are Frank Borzage’s The Circle (US 1924), Mosjoukine in Les ombres qui passent (France 1924), the astonishing unreleased (except in Japan) experimental German film Von Morgens bis Mitternachts (Germany 1920), Shingun (1930) – Japan’s answer to Wings, and Bolivia’s sole surviving silent feature film Wara Wara (1930). Read more.

One in the eye for Murdoch
Yes, we can bring in the News International scandal which has so engrossed the British media, because there is a tangential silent film angle. When someone rejoicing in the name of Johnnie Marbles interrupted the Culture Media ans Sport select committee’s investigation into the phone hacking scandal by placing a foam pie in Rupert Murdoch’s face, he was acting in a tradition that goes back to the custard pies beloved of silent cinema and beyond. The BBC News site investigates the history. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Chaplin in Babylon

Last year saw the appearance of a new silent film festival, the StummfilmLIVEfestival put on by the Babylon Kino cinema in Berlin, a 1929 cinema with original Art Deco screen and refurbished original organ. That first festival was a bold statement of intent, with an impressive ten-day line-up of classic silents. The Babylon Kino has made good on its promise to make the festival an annual event, and to keep up the eye-catching programming standard.

And so, from 15 July to 7 August 2011 the second StummfilmLIVEfestival will feature the complete film works of Charlie Chaplin – 80 films in twenty-four days (the filmographers among you might like to comment on whether there are precisely eighty films in Chaplin’s silent filmography). A full programme has not been published as yet, but there will be ten main screenings of the silent features with orchestral accompaniment by the Neues Kammerorchester Potsdam, conducted by Timothy Brock, on these dates:

15 Jul – The Gold Rush
16 Jul – City Lights
17 Jul – The Gold Rush
22 Jul – Modern Times
23 Jul – The Circus
24 Jul – The Kid
30 Jul – City Lights
31 Jul – A Woman of Paris
06 Aug – The Gold Rush
07 Aug – The Chaplin Review

Other musical accompaniment will be provided by Neil Brand, and Geraldine Chaplin is the guest of honour. As the Babylon website notes (in German only), eighty years ago, on 9 March 1931 Chaplin visited Berlin to promote his new film City Lights, so this is a sort of anniversary coming home for Chaplin. Tickets can now be booked for the orchestral screenings, and there are further details – in German only – on the festival site.

Performing arts

The Tempest (UK 1908), based on Shakespeare’s play, directed by Percy Stow

Apologies for the intermittent service, folks – it’s been a bit busy, and the Bioscope has been rather set to one side, gathering dust. But we return with news of a new online catalogue from the British Film Institute, which is some interest to us. The catalogue is The Performing Arts on Film & Television, which is available as part of the BFI website or can be downloaded as a single PDF (7MB). It’s a selective catalogue around 3,500 film and video materials, dating from 1895 to the present, held by the archives and collections of the BFI, Arts Council England, LUX, and the Central St Martins British Artists Film & Video Study Collection. It has been commissioned by MI:LL (Moving Image: Legacy and Learning), an Arts Council England initiative “to support projects and develop strategies that promote engagement with the arts through the moving image”.

So, what does this well-meaning venture give us? It is divided up into seven areas: British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, Theatre, Dance, Music, Performance Art and Artists’ Film & Video, From Politics to Poetry, and Cinema Acting Styles. As said, it’s a selective catalogue, so it provides information titles that are likely to be of strong interest of researchers. Some areas are covered in more detail than others (it’s hard to see what value there is in the tokenstic choices given under Political Oratory or Propaganda, which is rather stretching the idea of ‘performing arts’ in any case). But one of the sections that aims for comprehensiveness is British Music Hall and Variety on Film 1895-1930, and that’s our territory, which is good.

The section has been researched by the BFI National Archive’s curator of silent films, Bryony Dixon. It aims to identify most relevant films for the 1895-1930 period held by the BFI that document music hall, which it divides into Records of performances and actualities, Original works made for cinema featuring music hall artistes, and Films based on music hall sketches and plays. So many of these films record the only performance by some of the legendary performers of the past, or document aspects of stage practice which can be read about in many places but never seen again – except through film.

Fred Evans (Pimple) in an unidentified British comedy known as Fat Man on a Bicycle

So, for example we have E. Williams and his Merry Men (1899), a precious record of a seaside minstrel act; Lil Hawthorne singing Kitty Mahone in a 1900 synchronised sound film (1900); an extraordinary record of Hengler’s ‘plunging horses’ in a hippodrome act, c.1902, in a film known only as [Collapsing Bridge]; several Cinematophone, Chronophone and Vivaphone films of singers 1907-1909 which were originally synchronised with sound discs; music hall comedians such as Fred Evans (Pimple), Sam T. Poluski, George Robey and Lupino Lane in original comedies made for the cinema, rare film of the exterior of a music hall made in 1920, in the film Hoxton … Saturday July 3, Britannia Theatre; and numerous examples of DeForest Phonofilms – sound-on-film shorts made in the mid to late 1920s, chiefly of music hall and variety performers.

Other parts of the catalogue are more selective, and have relatively little on silent films. The Theatre section does point us to silent interpretations of classical theatre (an Italian Elektra by Euripedes from 1909, a 1911 Antigone by Sophocles), but the Shakespeare section is disappointingly selective and conventional. It mentions few silents, despite the BFI having the world’s largest collection of silent Shakespeare films. Look instead at the sub-section on 17th to 19th Century playwrights for such surprises as the Thanhouser company tackling Ibsen’s The Pillars of Society in 1911, or the 1915 American production of Ghosts with Henry B. Walthall. The Cinema Acting Styles section has a page on early and silent cinema, but it is peculiarly slender (just Orphans of the Storm, King of Kings, Piccadilly and a couple of documentaries – why bother?).

The catalogue is arranged thematically, so you will find silents dotted about all over the place, which is a good thing. It means researchers look for a theme, a performer or a writer might stumble across works which they could otherwise shun were they presented with a plain chronological listing. All of the archival films come from the BFI’s collections, and there is information on how to access the films from the multiplicity of options that BFI services provide.

I have meant for some while now to write a post on how to use the BFI’s main online database. I’ve refrained from doing so because of planned changes to that catalogue, which might render any advice too quickly out of date. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, targeted productions such as The Performing Arts on Film & Television are often a lot more useful for researchers for a useful selection rather than the bewildering vastness of a complete catalogue. Researchers seldom want everything; they want something that will be immediately useful to them. I hope this new catalogue – though it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, really – performs that function. It certainly makes for fascinating browsing.

Slapsticon 2011

Preview trailer for Slapsticon 2011

Slapsticon, the annual festival of rarely seen comedies from the silent and early sound eras, returns to the Rossyln Spectrum Theatre, Arlington VA 15-18 July 2011. Last year the festival made headlines around the world with the amazing rediscovery of a lost Chaplin film, A Thief Catcher. It may not be every year that they are able to repeat such a coup, but once again the organisers have come up with a programme rich in treasures and rarities. Here’s the programme so far:

Thursday July 14, 2011

12:00 pm — Spectrum Doors Open

1:00 pm

* To Be Announced

3:00 pm — Weiss-O-Roni III and Other Stuff

* Seeing Things (1928) — Ben Turpin
* Sock and Run (1928) — Snub Pollard, Marvin Loback

5:00 pm&ndash7:00 pm — Dinner Break

7:00 pm — Marx Brothers Rarities

9:00 pm

* Father’s Close Shave (1920) — Johnny Ray, Laura LaPlante
* Bringing Up Father (1946) — Joe Yule Sr., René Riano

Friday July 15, 2011

8:00 am — Spectrum Doors Open

9:00 am — Early Comedies:

* A Charming Villain (1916) — Smiling Billy Mason, Madge Kirby
* Ham Among the Redskins (1916) — Ham and Bud
* Her Anniversaries (1917) — Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew
* Local Showers (1916) — Musty Suffer
* The Child Needs a Mother (1916) — Fatty Voss
* Honeymooning (1919) — Mr. and Mrs. Carter DeHaven
* Risks and Roughnecks (1917) — Larry Semon
* Faint Heart and Fair Lady (1917) — Victor Moore
* Cupid’s Hold Up (1919) — Bobby Vernon

11:00 am — Kids ‘N’ Animals

* The Home Wreckers (1925) — Hey Fellas
* No Children (1929) — Smitty Comedy
* Young Sherlocks (1922) — Our Gang
* Mickey’s Tent Show (1933) — Mickey McGuire

12:30 pm–2:00 pm — Lunch Break

2:00pm — Hal Roach Comedies

* Follow the Crowd (1918) — Harold Lloyd
* All in a Day (1920) — Snub Pollard
* Are Parents Pickles? (1925) — Paul Parrott
* Never Too Old (1926) — All-Star with Claude Gillingwater
* Girl Shock (1930) — Charley Chase

4:00 pm — Rob Stone Rarities

6:00 pm–8 pm — Dinner Break

8:00 pm

* Dynamite (1919) — Lloyd Hamilton
* Silent Feature to be announced

10:00 pm

* War, Italian Style (1967) — Buster Keaton

Saturday July 16, 2011

8:00am — Spectrum Doors Open

9:00 am — Dave Snyder’s Cartoon Show

10:30 am — The Sennett Spot

* On His Wedding Day (1912) — Ford Sterling, Dot Farley
* The Great Toe Mystery (1914) — Charley Chase, Alice Howell
* A Janitor’s Wife’s Temptation (1915)
* Won by a Fowl (1917) — Paddy McGuire, Fritz Schade
* His One Night Stand (1917) — Harry McCoy
* Keystone Girls Open Trout Season (1917)
* What Happened to Mrs. Jones? (1917) — F. Richard Jones
* Galloping Bungalows (1924) — Billy Bevan, Sid Smith
* Matchplay (1930) — Andy Clyde

12:30 pm–2:00 pm — Lunch Break

2:00 pm — David Wyatt Rarities

* Moonshine (1921) — Lloyd Hamilton

4:00 pm

* April Fool (1921) — Lloyd Hamilton
* Professor Beware (1938) — Harold Lloyd

6:00 pm–8 pm — Dinner Break

8:00 pm — Chaplin Rarities

* The Simp (1920) — Lloyd Hamilton
* Red Hot Tires (1925) — Monte Blue, Patsy Ruth Miller

10:00 pm — A Columbia Conglomeration

* Blitz on the Fritz (1943) — Harry Langdon
* Many Sappy Returns (1938) — Charley Chase
* Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1935) — Andy Clyde
* One Too Many (1934) — Leon Errol

Sunday July 17, 2011

9:00 am — Spectrum Doors Open

10:00 am — More Talkie Comedies

* Idle Roomers (1931) — Cameo comedy Directed by Roscoe Arbuckle
* Thanks Again (1931) — Edgar Kennedy
* Blonde Bomber (1936) — Harry Gribbon, Shemp Howard
* Free Rent (1936) — Monty Collins, Tom Kennedy

12:00pm–1:30 pm — Lunch Break

1:30 pm

* The Battling Orioles (1924) — Glenn Tryon
* Queen of Aces (1925) — Wanda Riley
* Misfit Sailor (1926) — Billy Dooley
* Swiss Movements (1926) — Jimmie Adams

3:30 pm — Ones for the Road

* Who’s Afraid? (1927) — Lupino Lane
* Short Kilts (1924) — Stan Laurel
* High Society (1924) — Our Gang

Plus a few surprises, then it’s back to the Holiday Inn Rooftop Restaurant for a good meal, a few drinks, a few more drinks, some fond farewells, a few more drinks, some more fond farewells, a few more drinks, some fonder farewells, a few more drinks, some less fond farewells, a few more drinks, perhaps a fistfight or two, a few more drinks, then a fond passing into unconsciousness …

Clesrly a festival conducted in just the right spirit. Details on registration, accommodation, musical accompaniment and more, are available from the festival site.

Being Bean

The Trouble with Mr Bean (1992) (you will have to go to the Mr Bean YouTube site to view the video)

Rather by accident, I saw the feature film Mr Bean’s Holiday yesterday. Catching the opening credits while channel-hopping, I imagined that I’d stay with it for a few minutes and ended up, well, almost captivated. It’s a well-constructed comedy about Mr Bean’s haphazadous trip through France in the company of a lost child. It adroitly develops its situations with logical illogicality, and boasts a great comic turn by Willem Dafoe as a film director of stupendous pretentiousness. I’ve never been a particular fan of Bean, though given his position as the leading modern silent (or semi-silent) figure on the screen today, I have felt before now that the Bioscope should devote some space to the phenomenon. Because Mr Bean has been a worldwide phenomenon, and the interesting thing is to try and work out why.

There can be few who have not been exposed to Mr Bean in one form or another, but just to recap: the character is played by British comedian Rowan Atkinson, and has antecedents in various gauche figures that Atkinson has played in comedy routines throughout his career. Mr Bean was originally a television series in the UK, broadcast by ITV. The first episode was broadcast 1 January 1990, and there were thirteen half-hour episodes made 1900-1995, a fourteenth being released on video only. They attracted considerable audiences at home as well as being sold to nearly 250 territories worldwide, the word being spread in part by exposure on airlines. Two feature films, Bean (1997) and Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007), have been made, and a spin-off 26-episode animated series (2002).

Mr Bean himself is a social misfit. Habitually dressed in tweed jacket and tie, he is like some figure from an earlier age – the dingy, repressed 1950s – somehow thrust into our modern times (the TV series opens with Bean falling to ground down a shaft of light, as though an alien figure or someone who has time-travelled). He approaches the challenges of the modern world with resourceful ignorance. The simplest of activities, like going to the shops or a trip to the dentist, become extraordinary challenges through Bean’s stubborn obliviousness to the obvious, coupled with his ingenious (though completely unnecessary) tactics for getting round such obstacles. Unaware of the social niceties, Bean is pure selfishness. He will always take advantage of others and is wholly insensitive to anyone else’s situation. There is a nasty side to him.

Bean’s approach in life is to proceed in a straight line where anyone else would turn corners. This is exemplified literally on two occasions in Mr Bean’s Holiday. Firstly Bean, having arrived in Paris, gets a wrong taxi and finds himself on the outskirts at La Défense rather than the Gare du Lyon. So he gets out his compass and walks back in a straight line, through shops and restaurants, over busy crossroads, causing mayhem along the way while never looking up from his compass. And of course he gets to his destination. Then, at the end of the film, when he sees the beach at Cannes he has been trying to get to all film, he walks in a straight line, again head down, concentrating solely on his compass, and avoids falling from his first storey position by walking down a line of vehicles arranged side by side which conveniently have formed themselves into steps. It’s a gag worthy of Keaton.

But should Mr Bean be mentioned in the same sentence as Buster Keaton? He is a silent comedian, for the most part, occasionally reverting to some mumbled words. The Bean programmes and films are weakest where they require dialogue to explain situations (which makes the 1997 feature film Bean particularly poor, because it spends so much time trying to explain Bean and the situations he creates). Mr Bean’s Holiday succeeds because almost all of the gags are visual ones, not least because the action takes place in France and Bean only knows three words of French (Oui, Non and … Gracias). So it is silent comedy, and with a worldwide appeal to a degree built on that form of comedy that needs no translation and can appeal to all.

The Return of Mr Bean (1990) (you will have to go to the Mr Bean YouTube site to view the video)

But is he as good as Keaton, or Chaplin, or Lloyd or any of the 1920s master of the art? Well, no and yes. He is not the same as Keaton and his ilk, but then he is not of their age and he is doing different things. The fact that he is different does not mean that he is unworthy of consideration as ‘silent’ comic figure of importance. There is not the craft that one sees in the finest of the silent era comedians, a craft built up through years spent on the variety stage and then honed through the studio expertise of Keystone, Roach et al. But there is craft there, and the gags are not pastiches of 1920s comedies (the failing of many a would-be modern slapstick comedy) but of their time – and skilfully so. Take a look at The Return of Mr Bean above. Watch the brief, single-shot sequence (at 4.34) where Bean goes up an escalator and see with what skill the camera is in just the right place to makes his ascent feel funny even when he seems to be doing something entirely normal; then, when they have got us laughing at the obvious, we are caught by surprise as Bean is held up at the top of the escalator by the heels of his shoes.

This is a great visual gag, but it’s a gag that comes out of a present-day situation and is grounded in character. Someone else wouldn’t be so funny in the same situation. It is his innocence of any of the lessons of common experience that makes us laugh as soon as we see him approach any common situation, because we know that he will be unable to face the ordinary in an ordinary way. There is laughter in the anticipation, and then laughter at the surprise of the execution.

So there is craft there, and some real if variable visual wit. But another issue is human appeal. The great silent comedians were both misfits and Everyman figures at the same time. They were beset by misfortunes that could happen to any of us. Bean’s misfortunes are his own. They usually, and credibly, get the girl. Bean lives alone, and the occasional appearance of a girlfriend in the TV series leaves us flummoxed by the sheer unlikelihood of it (still more the attraction that he may have for Emma de Caunes in Mr Bean’s Holiday). Bean is not like us but rather the complete opposite of us (or at least we hope so). Keaton, Lloyd et al are sympathetic characters; Bean is wholly unsympathetic. We never feel sorry for him, even if we are happy enough for him to win in the end.

Proceeding in a straight line, from Mr Bean’s Holiday, image from

What is this the secret to his worldwide popularity? There seems to be more that such audiences recognise than simply his obtuse reactions to the everyday. It may lie in his Britishness – Mr Bean certainly has become associated by many non-British audiences with a certain supposed type of uptight Englishman abroad: over-dressed, inhibited, and as inept with people as he is with any language other than his own (see Patrick Barkham’s 2007 article on this in The Guardian). But Mr Bean was initially a huge hit on UK television, and we’re not that fond of laughing at ourselves in a way that others may be laughing at us.

Instead I think it’s got something to do with Mr Bean being perversely smarter than us. He is unfettered by the habits and mores that control our lives, making us laugh at ourselves just as much as we laugh at him. His lateral approaches to life’s hazards (such as the scene in The Trouble with Mr Bean where he dresses himself while driving a car because he is late for an appointment) mock us for being so constrained by lack of imagination when faced with everyday problems. In an odd way, we would all like to be like Mr Bean for his absence of social constraints – while at the same time hugely grateful that we are not anything like him at all.

Rowan Atkinson has noted the influence of Jacques Tati on the character (a gag when Bean cycles past a bunch of racing cyclists in Mr Bean’s Holiday is lifted from Jour de fête). There are certainly some parallels between two. They are both innocents abroad devising their own ways of overcoming modern life’s complexities. Both are silent comedians in a sound world, caught out of time. But Bean has nothing of Tati’s grace. This may have something to do with the televisual nature of his comedy, or simply that we live in a graceless age. Whatever the reason, there is craft but not art in Mr Bean; it does not uplift us, or make us feel that there is a better life out there somewhere. Yet equally it does not operate much as satire. It is hard to say what it is, if we do not learn from it.

Yet there are lessons to be learned. I’ve been scouring Google Scholar for academic papers on Mr Bean and I can find none that consider the films or programmes as art, but several that use the series as illustration of social situations, to measure responses to humour, or to study cognition. Mr Bean clearly serves as something that is emblematic of the human condition. This, however, is where I have had a problem with Bean up til now. He does not seem to be one of us. Not just his eccentric behaviour, but Atkinson’s taste for face-pulling take the character beyond a point where he can be recognisable as a human being. And yet the key to laughter is recognition, and Mr Bean makes the world laugh (Mr Bean’s Holiday grossed $230 worldwide). Mr Bean is what we become when we lose our humanity. The cause of our laughter may be relief.

There is an official Mr Bean website and a Mr Bean YouTube channel with full episodes of the live-action television series and the animated cartoon series.

France’s finest

Kino Lorber are releasing a second DVD set of Gaumont films. The first, Gaumont Treasures vol. 1(1897-1913), featured films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, and was effectively a cut-down version of a deluxe box set issued by Gaumont in France. Now Gaumont Treasures vol. 2, 1908-1916 is to be released on 19 April, featuring the work of Emile Cohl, Jean Durand and Jacques Feyder. Again it is based on a more extensive French original release (six discs), but the Kino release alone looks sensational – three discs, just under 600 minutes of film, and containing some of the most creative films of the early cinema period. Cohl was the first master of the animated film, Durand produced surrealist comedies and adventure dramas, and Feyder made films of surpassing elegance and wit. There are works from other filmmakers, examples of synchrononised sound films (Phonoscenes) and examples of Chronochrome, Gaumont’s hauntingly beautiful three-colour process.

This is the full list of films (English titles only):

DVD 1: Emile Cohl
Fantasmagoria (1908, 2 min.)
The Puppet’s Nightmare (1908, 2 min.)
Drama at the Puppets’ House (1908, 3 min.)
The Magic Hoop (1908, 5 min.)
The Little Soldier Who Became a God (1908, 4 min.)
The Boutdebois Brothers (1908, 2 min.)
Transfigurations (1909, 6 min.)
Let’s Be Sporty (1909, 5 min.)
Japanese Fantasy (1909, 1 min.)
The Happy Microbes (1909, 4 min.)
Modern Education (1909, 3 min.)
The Living Fan (1909, 4 min.)
Spanish Clair de Lune (1909, 4 min.)
The Next Door Neighbors (1909, 4 min.)
Crowns (1909, 5 min.)
Delicate Porcelains (1909, 3 min.)
Monsieur Clown Among the Lilliputians(1909, 4 min.)
Comic Mutations (1909, 3 min.)
Matrimonial Shoes (1909, 5 min.)
The Enchanted Spectacles (1909, 5 min.)
Affairs of the Heart (1909, 4 min.)
Floral Frameworks (1910, 5 min.)
The Smile-o-Scope (1910, 5 min.)
Childish Dreams (1910, 5 min.)
En Route (1910, 6 min.)
The Mind of the Café Waiter (1910, 5 min.)
Master of a Fashionable Game (1910, 4 min.)
Petit Chantecler (1910, 7 min.)
The Twelve Labors of Hercules (1910, 7 min.)
Petit Faust (1910, 5 min.)
The Neo-Impressionist Painter (1910, 6 min.)
The Four Little Tailors (1910, 7 min.)
Art’s Infancy (1910, 4 min.)
The Mysterious Fine Arts (1910, 5 min.)
The Persistent Salesman (1910, 8 min.)
A History of Hats (1910, 5 min.)
Nothing Is Impossible for Man (1910, 6 min.)
Mr. Crack (1910, 5 min.)
Bébé’s Masterpiece (1910, 4 min.)
Music-mania (1910, 5 min.)

Original music by Bernard Lubat

DVD 2: Jean Durand
Calino’s Baptism (1911, 3 min.)
Calino Wants to Be a Cowboy (1911, 6 min.)
Zigoto and the Affair of the Necklace (1911, 8 min.)
Calino the Love Tamer (1912, 6 min.)
Zigoto’s Outing With Friends (1912, 5 min.)
Oxford vs. Martiques (1912, 4 min.)
Onésime Goes to Hell (1912, 7 min.)
Calino, Station Master (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime, Clockmaker (1912, 5 min.)
Onésime vs. Onésime (1912, 8 min.)
Zigoto Drives a Locomotive (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime Gets Maried … So Does Calino (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime: Calino’s Inheritance (1913, 1 min.)
Onésime Loves Animals (1913, 6 min.)
Onésime, Tamer of Men and Horses (1913, 13 min.)
Onésime and the Heart of a Gypsy (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime, You’ll Get Married … or Else! (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime’s Theatrical Debut (1913, 10 min.)
Onésime’s Family Drama (1914, 7 min.)

The Railway of Death (1912, 17 min.)
Burning Heart: An Indian Tale (1912, 13 min.)
Under the Claw (1912, 25 min.)

Jean Durand 1882-1946
Mini-documentary, written by Pierre Philippe, recounting the career of filmmaker Jean Durand through photographs and film clips.

Music by Patrick Laviosa

DVD 3: Jacques Feyder and the Early Masters of French Cinema
Heads … and Women Who Use Them (1916, 36 min.)
Friendly Advice (1916, 16 min.)*
Biscot on the Wrong Floor (1916, 15 min.)*
The Long Arm of the Law (1909, 7 min.)
The Barges (1911, 10 min.)**
La Marseillaise (1912, 10 min.)
A Drama of the Air (1913, 17 min.)
Child’s Play (1913, 12 min.)
Feet and Hands (1915, 17 min.)
A Factory Drama (1912, 13 min.)
The Pavements of Paris (1912, 13 min.)
The Fairy’s Farewell (n.d., 25 sec.)

Music by Patrick Laviosa, Ben Model (*), and Didier Goret (**)


Three early synchronized-sound musical shorts: “Anna qu’est-ce quet’attends?,” “Chemineau chemine,” and “Le Mouchoir rouge de Cholet”

Actualities that reveal the workings of Gaumont, including footage of founder Leon Gaumont demonstrating the operation of a motion picture camera, a hand-crank viewing device, a zoetrope, and dignitaries touring the Gaumont Studios

Excerpts of Gaumont’s revolutionary full-color film process

This is a sensational collection. Here is the infant cinema already able to hold its held up as a mature medium, capable of displaying artistry of the highest order. With this and volume one of Gaumont Treasures, plus Flicker Alley’s five disc set of the works of Georges Méliès (plus an ‘encore‘ sixth disc), and the recent Spanish release of a Segundo de Chomón DVD set, we are astonishingly blessed with DVD releases of early French cinema. And there will be more – a four-disc set of the works of Albert Capellani, another director of style and vision, is promised by Pathé in May.