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

Tuesday, July 13, 2010



I watched a couple of very good films over the weekend, Hunger, about IRA hunger strikers in Northern Ireland in the 1980's and Antares, an Austrian drama that told three interlocking stories about tenants of a large apartment house, yet the image I can't get out of my mind is of a damned goldfish swimming across my TV screen.

You see besides those two, I also watched a couple of Mexican wrestler movies. These are the action films that were made for decades where actual masked Mexican wrestlers like Santo, Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras ran around acting like superheroes, fighting crime and righting wrongs fully masked as well as wrestling in the ring. As wacky as the premise was, especially since these guys never took their masks off whether in business meetings, hanging out at the beach or sleeping, the two movies I saw, The Champions of Justice and Mystery In Bermuda, didn't impress me all that much. They looked embarrassingly cheap, particularly Bermuda where Blue Demon and his buddies mostly just threw would-be assassins around hotel rooms before disappearing into the Bermuda Triangle (No kidding. That is how the movie ended.)

Champions had more going for it with the group fighting a mad scientist and his army of evil wrestlers and super-strong red-suited midgets as he kidnapped beauty contestants for some vague evil scheme. There was more action in this one but it's hard to get that excited when one of the big fights takes place in a quiet grassy field presumably because the producers didn't have the money for a decent set. There was one moment though that was so lame it buzzkilled the entire movie for me. At one point a couple of the wrestlers were having this fierce underwater fight with a couple of frogmen. The camera was positioned underwater to show them battling and as they were going at it, a small goldfish wiggled by in the foreground.

I'm not an expert in marine life but somehow I don't think there are goldfish in the Gulf of Mexico. They shot the bloody scene through a fishtank! I don't mind low budgets but that one got to me. I don't know if any of the earlier wrestling movies that involve mummies or werewolves are any better, but after that I'm in no hurry to do further investigations of the genre.