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Almost a month ago now I went along to the Cottage Road cinema with ms_siobhan and planet_andy for an evening of silent comedies with live piano accompaniment. I wrote up the first three short films in the week that followed, but then died under a huge pile of essays and left the post unfinished. Now, though, I feel sufficiently resurrected to finish the job.

The Champion (1915), dir. Charlie Chaplin

I'm pretty sure this is the earliest film I've ever seen on the big screen - although it was clearly a digital print, so we weren't watching it from the original reels. Unfortunately, though, the experience seemed to me rather wasted on a Charlie Chaplin film - and particularly one about boxing. I can't really like Chaplin's on-screen character for many of the same reasons I can't stand Mr. Bean. To be fair, he doesn't have the same childish mean-spiritedness as Mr. Bean, but his comedy is reliant on the same kind of klutzing and goofing, which I just don't find funny or endearing - only cringesome. And nor can I forgive it on the basis that the silent medium can only convey simple stories, so that it isn't realistic to demand anything more sophisticated, since films like Metropolis prove that isn't true.

Still, it had its moments, and for all that I think this would be a nicer world if no-one in it wished to punch other people for sport or watch anyone else doing so, I did quite enjoy the final boxing-ring scene - mainly for the reactions of the rowdy and enthusiastic audience, but also for the classic small-tenacious-dog-bites-huge-man's-trouser-seat gag which finishes off the scene. There was also a pretty good melodramatic villain with a huge handle-bar moustache, and some good action sequences of Chaplin swinging across the set on a pair of hanging acrobatic rings, knocking people flying as he went. I note with interest that apparently people were so coy in 1915 that even a closed-lipped kiss between Chaplin and his paramour had to be hidden behind a comically-placed beer bottle - already not the case by the time of the next film we saw.

The Paleface (1923), dir. Buster Keaton

Was it standard practice for comic actors in this period to both direct and star in their own short films? That's certainly something which Chaplin's film and this one, directed by and starring Buster Keaton, have in common, anyway. I liked this one a great deal better, though, because although Buster Keaton is a bit inclined towards doing unnecessarily silly walks, he doesn't goof it up to the extent that Charlie Chaplin does, and therefore retained my sympathies for his character. Also, he is just prettier, especially in his cute under-sized boater hat. It helped as well that the the visual jokes this time revolved much more around comic misunderstandings and misdirections, rather than just people being hit and falling over.

The story focuses on a group of (what the inter-texts call) Red Indians. Perhaps unusually for this period, we are encouraged to sympathise with them by a plot which sees a group of oil speculators trying to trick them out of their land, while Buster Keaton (an innocent butterfly-catcher) becomes absorbed into their tribe and helps them to see off the threat. But even that plot is only about assuaging post-colonial guilt really - see! we may have seized almost all of their lands, but now we're cheering for them as the under-dogs we have made them! Meanwhile, their culture is conveyed by extensive use of feathered head-dresses, peace-pipes, tee-pees, burning people at the stake, scalping them, war-dances performed while hollering and clapping their hands over their mouths, and of course they are all clearly played by blacked-up white actors. It's every stereotype in the book, really, and all just there ultimately to set up a series of jokes and chases. Always useful to remember that that's how more serious manifestations of prejudice are normalised and justified.

There were clearly some special effects at work in this film, especially for scenes involving heights. In one scene, Buster had to escape from some pursuing Indians by crossing a rope-bridge with only a few planks slung across it. He did a sort of rope-bridge version of the classic cartoon train-track gag, in which a character lays down tracks in front of their runaway carriage as it goes - except in this version he rearranged the planks as he crossed the bridge so that he could get across but no-one could follow him because of the gap he had left behind him. Other scenes saw him fall over a cliff into a river dozens of metres below, or bounce impossibly from a tree to a cliff-side via a blanket held like a trampoline.

My favourite scenes were probably the ones in which Buster is able to step unharmed out of the smoking remains of a fire which was supposed to burn him at the stake by sneakily making himself an asbestos suit in advance (after which, the Indians decide he must be a god), and the scene in which the Indian tribe do a war-dance around the oil speculators' office - and our resident pianist played the Charleston at that point in his sound-track. That latter moment was a good example of how much difference the sound-track can make to the experience, since of course it wasn't part of the original film at all - rather, a unique aspect of the Cottage Road screening.

Habeas Corpus (1928), dir. Leo McCarey and James Parrott

This was a Laurel and Hardy film, and so inevitably took us back to tedious goofing and jokes based around people being hit, trampled, covered in mud or similar. Laurel and Hardy are sent to rob a grave for a mad professor's latest experiment - which did at least give it a bit of a macabre, gothic feel, and was a slight improvement on the subject-matter of the Chaplin film. The plot mainly revolves around them making a pig's ear of the job, not helped by Laurel in particular being thrown into a quivering panic ever time he hears the slightest noise anywhere in the graveyard. And he is hearing plenty of noises, because the local police are onto them, and hiding in the bushes ready to catch them in the act.

There are a few simple laughs to be had - as for example when Laurel puts his lamp down on top of a tortoise, which slowly but surely carries it away. Or towards the end where Laurel is carrying a sack on his back containing what he thinks is a corpse, but the audience can see it's actually the police detective whose feet have torn through the bottom of the sack and who is walking himself along the pavement behind Laurel and underneath the sack. But, basically, it's just a standard goofy comedy, which (unlike the other two above, which at least both featured love-interests) did not even have one single woman in it.

Safety Last! (1923), dir. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

This was the main feature of the evening. The other three were all shorts of around 20-30 minutes long, but this is a full-length film, and one which is deservedly famous to the point of being iconic. It is best-known for featuring Harold Lloyd climbing up the face of a twelve-storey high-rise building above a busy city street, but while that is the grand climax of the film, it fits into a considerably longer and fuller plot than I had previously realised.

In brief, Harold Lloyd's character is the archetypal aspirational young man, gone to make his fortune in the big city, while his home-town sweetheart waits to be summoned once he has made his fortune. He secures a decent enough job as a department store assistant, but foolishly tries to impress her by claiming in letters that he is a much bigger shot than he really is, and sending her expensive gifts which he can't really afford. Meanwhile, his room-mate turns out to have an unexpected talent for scaling the faces of buildings, but also attracts the ire of a particular local police-man by playing a misjudged prank on him. The climactic climbing stunt is a wheeze suggested by Harold, who hopes to win a reward offered by his department store manager for whoever can attract the most customers to the shop. But while Harold assumes initially that his room-mate will be able to handle the actual climbing, the irate police-man has other plans - and hence Harold ends up having to do the climb himself.

The 'lore' has it that Harold Lloyd climbed an entire real building all by himself for this film, but I could see while watching it that all was clearly not as it seemed, because the buildings visible in the background as he climbs suddenly changed part-way up. A quick Google afterwards soon uncovered the excellent Powerpoint presentation on this page which shows very nicely how it was actually done. Basically, the first couple of storeys were real, but after that they built a façade set which they placed on the flat roofs of real buildings of approximately the right height, so that Harold Lloyd could climb up that while never being more than a few feet above (presumably) a big pile of mattresses.

This explains why the background scene keeps changing, as the façade sets were moved from one building to another in order to achieve the right sort of angle on the street below for the height he was supposed to be at. Mind you, what he did is still a feat not to be sniffed at, especially since (as I only learnt after seeing the film) he had apparently lost the index finger and thumb from his right hand four years earlier as a result of an accident with an exploding prop. So he did the entire climb, including gripping onto ledges, hanging from a clock hand and hanging from a rope, with only one and a half functioning hands. Scary!

Meanwhile, the comedy in this film was (frankly) streets ahead of the other three, with lots of excellent visual gags and clever timing. We particularly liked the obviously-practised way in which Harold and his room-mate clambered into their over-coats, which were hanging from hooks in their little rented room, and lifted up their legs in order to hide from their land-lady when she came round for the rent. There was lots of good farce and comic timing in Harold's interactions with huge hordes of demanding customers, too, as well as when his home-town sweet-heart came to visit, and he had to keep up the pretence to her that he was the manager of the department store, rather than a lowly shop assistant.

I would definitely watch this film again, and I'll also keep an eye out for some of Buster Keaton's other work. But, much as I enjoyed the whole special-occasion experience and the fun of having a live pianist playing for us in the cinema, I don't think I'm ever going to be won over to the work of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy.

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