Tuesday, July 20, 2010


When there are music or film festivals taking place hundreds of miles from you, you can say you have a reason for not going. When there's one practically in your backyard you have no excuse. So it is that I have been going to the mid-July Slapsticon film festival in Rosslyn, VA the past few years.

Slapsticon, which ran just last weekend, is a four-day program of old silent and early sound comedies put together by several film buffs and historians, concentrating on rare and recently discovered films. They had a big mainstream draw this year in the first public showing of an early Charlie Chaplin film done for Mack Sennett in 1914 but most of the time is pent viewing the work of far lesser known comics like Andy Clyde, Lloyd Hamilton, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Lupino Lane and many others. The movies are shown in the Rosslyn Spectrum theatre just two blocks from the subway and the silents play with live musical accompaniment from a rotating team of pianists with help this year from the Snark Ensemble, a group that specializes in accompanying silent films.

This year, as usual, I only made it to Friday and Saturday. Watching continuous old comedies from 9 AM to 12 midnight burns me out after a couple of days even with a couple of hours for lunch and dinner breaks. What I saw was not only funny, but an education. It's always instructive to see a film that fills in your knowledge about an actor you never heard of or a part of someone's career you didn't previously know about.

The highlights for me included the work of Sidney Drew, a very sophisticated comedian from the 1910's who did domestic comedy that had the dark, sardonic edge of Buster Keaton without the precision slapstick and a film that wasn't a comedy at all, The Round-Up, a 1920 western that starred one Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle playing a tough Old West sheriff very convincingly. This film showed that Arbuckle had acting range that might have better explored if his career hadn't been sabotaged by scandal.

There were plenty of other fun things like one reel of a Stan Laurel solo comedy, When Knights Were Cold, that parodied swashbuckler movies with a crazy abandon that anticipated Monty Python And The Holy Grail and a Buster Keaton television show from 1949 where he revived a lot of his classic boxing gags. There were also a few "Did I really see that?" shorts like one starring Snooky The Human-zee, a chimp who dressed like a man and interacted with a human cast and the Dippy Doo Dads, a Hal Roach series with live animals like dogs, ducks, and monkeys spoofing dramatic genres, like a boxing story.

There was also a lot of Charlie Chase (right) who seems to be a perennial Slapsticon favorite with good reason. He worked as a writer and director for Sennett, Roach and Columbia for over thirty years and also starred periodically in short comedies perfecting a style of humanized, believable slapstick that was the foundation of the situation comedy. They showed a Roach short from the early 30's, one of his last Columbia shorts from 1940 and his first talkie, Modern Love, made for Universal in 1929. Altogether the films showed how adaptable he was, working equally well with the genteel slapstick of Roach to the louder, violent style of Columbia and moving deftly into light romantic comedy in the feature, even getting to sing a song.

One section of the festival I always like is when they show a block of cartoons on Saturday, again with rarities mixed in with more familiar stuff. This year there were some familiar titles like the Betty Boop version of Snow White and the early Warner Brothers musical cartoon, Red Headed Baby, but there were some surprising things I hadn't seen before. One was The Old Plantation, a 10-minute Harman-Ising MGM cartoon with Southern caricatured Negro dolls involved in a horse race and another was Voodoo In Harlem, a strange Walter Lantz "out of the inkwell" type piece with stereotypical African figures jumping out of an inkwell and dancing around a cartoonist's studio.

It's easy to understand why those cartoons never saw the light of day on television when I was a kid. The real surprise, though, was a Tex Avery classic I had seen several times, Magical Maestro (right). I'd only seen this on TV before but now I discovered that the uncut version had a couple of ethnic gags, including one really good ones that referenced the Ink Spots.  Slapsticon is a place where I always enjoy myself and I will definitely be back there next year. Maybe this time I'll go the entire four days

No comments: