Posted by David Kalat on June 29, 2013
I used to say that Slapsticon was the most wonderful time of the year—but then last year it didn’t happen at all.
It’s like Christmas was canceled. So its return this year is doubly sweet—it’s the most wonderful time of two years!
For the uninitiated, Slapsticon is a putatively-annual four-day classic film convention dedicated to slapstick (mostly silent) comedy. But that doesn’t properly describe it—it’s unlike any other classic film fest I’ve ever encountered. For one thing, it’s all movies. Other fests are mostly dealers’ rooms with an ancillary screening room attached. Slapsticon allows its luminaries to hawk their own books and DVDs, but 99% of the thing is a bunch of film geeks packed into a screening room.
And then that’s where Slapsticon really earns its distinction: you might expect a 4-day festival of silent comedy that’s been running, on and off, since 2003 would probably spend a lot of time running movies by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, right?
That’s the perverse glory of this thing—it’s a fully committed celebration of rarities, obscurities, and forgotten treasures. Maybe not all of them are treasures, but definitely forgotten.
Any old fool can show THE GOLD RUSH, but only Slapsticon will wallow in Chaplin mimics like Billie Ritchie, or to program a bunch of films by Chaplin’s brother Syd. A huge part of the appeal of this festival is the opportunity to explore the less-well-traveled territory of silent comedy’s less remembered practitioners, but to do so with a tour guide. These selections have been curated, selected by historians and preservationists who share them with the best possible presentation and with enough context to appreciate what you’re seeing.
So what you have is this: a bunch of people, from around the world, who dearly care about slapstick comedy and film preservation gather together for a long weekend of watching movies that have the most marginal of commercial prospects—this is all about a love of movies, and it’s where you can see—projected on the big screen, with an appreciative audience and live musical accompaniment—movies you really will never see anywhere else, or ever see again.
I mean, yeah, from time to time these things surface on DVD–for example, a couple of years ago, Slapsticon made some waves by uncovering and debuting a 1914 Keystone short that included a substantial appearance by Chaplin—The Thief Catcher was omitted in all previous Chaplin filmographies. Until Paul Gierucki dug this up and watched it, Chaplin’s participation in it hadn’t been documented.
(That’s a crappy picture I took on my phone of Slapsticon co-founder Richard Roberts talking to the media about the discovery of Thief Catcher).
Slapsticon is where I saw Charley Chase’s Modern Love, which I’ve written about here twice (here and here). It’s where I saw A Florida Enchantment, a silent comedy feature made before Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which most film texts describe as the first feature length American screen comedy. Slapsticon is where I developed and debuted my restoration of Harry Langdon’s silent shorts, it’s where I met the musicians I hired for all of my silent comedy DVDs.
My first Slapsticon was in 2005. I was clued in to it by Uli Reudel, whose friendship and support I’ve never properly repaid. Back then it was held at the Spectrum Theater in Arlington, Virginia. Logistical challenges intervened, which led to the afore-mentioned hiatus—this year the festival has relocated to the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington.
I’m writing this as I prepare to head to Bloomington with my daughter, who has been attending Slapsticon with me ever since I started. I may post some addenda from the festival, or depending on what I see there I may be inspired to write an entirely new post for next week. We’ll see.
I know that there are some obvious highlights on the schedule: another rare 1918 Harold Lloyd to accompany the ones I wrote about a few weeks ago, a screening of that insane 1967 War Italian Style in which Buster Keaton plays a Nazi general (I wrote about it a few years ago—imagine Buster Keaton and a Jerry Lewis impersonator in Inglorious Bastereds, as directed by a total hack. You have to see it to believe it). There’s a rare Lloyd Hamilton short directed by Charley Chase, a 1943 Harry Langdon short from Columbia…
But those are things I’ve either already seen or already know enough about to be interested/excited. The true worth of Slapsticon is putting myself in that theater and trusting programmer Richard Roberts and the festival organizers. The most memorable and illuminating experiences at past events have been those “little” films I didn’t known to anticipate, but which exploded in my head when I encountered them, unexpected.
Back when I lived in Washington DC there was a theater called the Key Theater which had a film club where the idea was you didn’t know what they were going to show—just show up and be surprised. It was inspired by Henri Langlois at the Cinematheque Francais. I never went to either—but I’ve been surprised at Slapsticon, and I can’t wait to see what surprises are in store for me this time.
Having returned from the festival last night I wanted to add a few words about some of the more memorable discoveries. Queen of Aces was a delightful gender-bending short about an athletic young woman who poses as a man as a prank on her future father-in-law; Atta Boy was a fun feature starring the inventive but under appreciated Monty Banks as an aspiring reporter doing battle with some kidnappers; and the most malicious, mean-spirited Our Gang comedy I’ve ever seen, Your Own Back Yard, which builds to a profoundly triumphant finale after a lot of torture–I’ve never been an Our Gang fan, but the sheer audacity of this was enough to change my mind.
But by far the best of all was an archival television interview with Groucho Marx conducted by William F. Buckley, of all people. Buckley obviously believed he had a piece of gotcha-journalism all set up, a trap to make this old vaudevillian look like a fool. He was going to embarrass this old man, perhaps as punishment for his having been such an irreverent darling of the counter-cultural movement. But then Groucho effortlessly turns the whole thing on its head, and calmly eviscerates the arrogant interviewer–within minutes, Buckley is red and sweating and wondering where it all went wrong. Groucho takes down so many blustering windbags in the movies, but those are scripted encounters controlled for comic effect–this interview shows us that it could happen in the real world too, unplanned, just a quick wit at war with a viper.
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