10 Questions Answered by matthew c. hoffman

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1) Why silent movies? The other day I saw a mom looking at the new library newsletter (which features “Legends of Laughter” as the cover story), and she was pointing at the different actors and telling her daughter who they were. (That in itself was impressive.) A little girl simply hearing the name “Buster Keaton” is why I’m doing this series. Our community is unfamiliar with most of the films being shown. To those of us who love movies, there are no surprises in the program. But it is a needed program. How many people have actually seen a movie like The Kid Brother? Very few, and that’s a shame because it’s Harold Lloyd’s best film. The films of Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd are a screen legacy that need to be passed down. I wanted to remind people of our cinema heritage, specifically, the physical comedy tradition and the lost art of pantomime; silent comedy was more than just chases and pie fights. (You won’t find one pie fight in this series.)  I’m not promising everyone will be rolling on the floor in fits of uncontrollable laughter, but people should appreciate the craftsmanship of each film’s construction and admire the comic timing and physicality of the great clowns. Yes, these films are “silent,” but silent is a misnomer because no film is truly silent. Each film has a musical score. In the case of our April 10th screening of Speedy at the Pickwick Theatre, a live organ accompaniment more powerful than words. Silent cinema is the essence of pure cinema. Nowhere is that more evident than with the pantomimic delicacy and subtlety of Chaplin’s Little Tramp– a character who spoke a universal language to all cultures. This is also the cinema of technical ingenuity, and films like Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. continue to amaze audiences almost ninety years later. And it is the cinema of speed– physical movement that can put an audience under a genuine spell of awe. The films of Harold Lloyd, in particular, have a momentum fueled by heart and decency. No aimless, aggressive slapstick here. His films, like Keaton’s, are both emotional and cinematic. These comics were serious about what they did, and they performed stunts that today’s prima donnas would never attempt… If, by chance, it’s a turn-off  to you that you have to read inter-title cards and don’t much care for silent movies at all and have the false notion that they are primitive, this is not the series for you.  But the rest of you who enter the library’s “Chaplin Room” understand that there is nothing deficient about silent cinema. Personally, I prefer silence to the thunderous explosions heard within any cineplex. Of all silent movie genres, comedies hold up best. And with Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd, we’re dealing with safe coin in the pocket; there’s nothing risky about this series. It might take a few minutes to retrain people because the medium makes more demands on an audience than sound films, but it doesn’t take long to be totally engaged when someone like Buster Keaton is on the screen. After the darker themes of previous programs, I wanted to present something more upbeat and uplifting. The only sadness to be found is the realization that there will never be a new Buster Keaton movie. Therefore, we must make the old new again for the next generation.

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2) Why do characters in these movies move faster? Before sound film, which is recorded by the camera at 24 frames per second, silent movies were hand-cranked at 16 or 18 fps, which sped up the action when projected. (The more frames, the slower the action.) Silent movies CHOSE to move at this rate and were not intended to appear as natural. The speed of silent cinema is in fact a virtue; its rhythm made sense in the fantasies of the great comics. As Walter Kerr writes in The Silent Clowns, “Keaton’s celebrated stop-on-a-dime reversals of direction and Chaplin’s even more celebrated one-foot skid for a corner turn were obvious products of close study by the comedians of their intensified rates on the screen. Either device, done at a ‘natural’ tempo, would lose its specific humor, its capacity to make us laugh with a gasp. We should see the run being braked, almost painfully so, and the clown’s struggle for control as he hoisted his body another way. We should feel the weight of it. Chaplin was agile and Keaton a trained acrobat; personal equipment helped create the effect. But it was the omission of intermediary frames that made the effect nearly magical.”

3) Where’s Laurel and Hardy?!? Tut-tut-tut-tut. Laurel and Hardy were the patron saints of comedy, but I deliberately withheld them here. That could only mean one thing… But before there can ever be talk of a “Legends of Laughter 2,” it is our hope that all the L&H films will one day become available on dvd– especially their sound shorts. If there were any two comedians who deserved their own retrospective, it would be Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.

4) What’s the best book to read on the subject? The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr. The only book you need for my class. Kerr lived through the era and he wrote about it with a thoughtfulness and perception no other writer has matched. It’s the most accurate book out there on the subject of silent comedy. It’s also out of print, but it’s worth the search.

5) Who was the best silent comedian? It’s really an irrelevant question that serves no constructive purpose. Each comic is so unique. Of the three comics profiled, my opinion of Chaplin has changed the most. I always had false perceptions that his films were all sentimental, but not so. Watching Chaplin is indeed like watching a master. If Charlie were in an empty room with no props, he could still make an audience laugh. Keaton, by contrast, was by far the greater technical filmmaker. And Harold Lloyd’s films collectively may be the biggest crowd-pleasers of them all. Lloyd basically played himself onscreen– the middle class go-getter who reached the heights of success. He was able to achieve it in lieu of a horrible accident that had maimed his right hand (carefully hidden with a glove onscreen). But Lloyd never felt sorry for himself or made excuses, never saw himself as a victim. He did not allow this handicap to hold him back. He was the hardest working of the three because his talent did not come naturally. He was a businessman who became a great comic. People always talk about Chaplin vs. Keaton and who was the greatest, but people don’t realize that in the 1920s such debates were always between Chaplin and Lloyd, and Lloyd did not always come up second in the popularity polls. Keaton, on the other hand, was always a distant third with the public at the box office.

6) Why should the Park Ridge Public Library present a film screening of Speedy at the Pickwick Theatre? Because the public, based on their previous attendance, demanded it. A screening at a movie palace with a live organ accompanimnet is how these films especially are meant to be seen. Now a community will be able to have an opportunity to experience something magical. And you won’t find a better deal anywhere than an $8 general admission. Considering I’ve been playing free movies the last two years at the library–and hundreds of patrons check out free movies– I don’t think anyone will grumble about $8. “Legends of Laughter” is a community event, and we (The Park Ridge Public Library and the Silent Film Society of Chicago) are preserving the old traditions by presenting a film in this manner. I rejected video projection as a cheaper possibility and insisted that the film be a 35mm print (courtesy of the Harold Lloyd Foundation). We are not going to the theatre to watch HDTV; we are going to see film. (Please refer to an earlier entry on the philosophy behind that.) Everything had to be authentic.

7) Why am I not showing The Great Dictator or Limelight, which has both Chaplin and Keaton? The Great Dictator was a bit heavy for the family-oriented tone I wanted to establish. I did consider opening the series with Limelight and then working backward in time, but if you want to hook people on silent cinema– and on Chaplin and Keaton in particular– you have to start with the essentials– the films that most clearly define them. This is a silent film series– only Harold Lloyd will speak in 1932’s Movie Crazy— and I thought it would be more consistent if it remained that way. Keaton’s MGM musical Free and Easy was slated to be featured as well, but why show a mediocre sound film in place of a great silent?

8) What happened to their later careers if these comics were so great? Chaplin alienated his audience and wore out his welcome in America. Limelight (1952) was his last great film in my opinion. Some critics lament his style as too theatrical, and he was indeed a man of the theatre. But make no mistake: Chaplin was a great director. Anyone who has viewed A Woman of Paris (1923) knows this. In it, Chaplin the director was no longer serving Chaplin the performer. The result was an extraordinary film of sophistication. He took chances in his later sound career, but these chances were unpopular. Harold Lloyd made some solid films in the sound era– Movie Crazy and The Cat’s Paw— but he was a symbol of ’20s optimism which had fallen by the wayside in the era of the Great Depression. He lost his audience and the profits dried up. To his credit, he bowed out gracefully before making an ill-fated comeback in 1947. Given his enthusiam for innovation– and 3-D photography in particular– it’s a shame Lloyd didn’t make the first ever 3-D comedy in the early1950s. That might’ve revitalized his career. (No such plan was ever considered, but he would’ve been the artist to do it.) As for Buster Keaton, when he lost creative control of his films at MGM he tried to find comfort with a bottle. But this great man rallied and recovered, and in his later years revitalized his career on tv and in cameo roles in movies that didn’t really deserve his talent. Keaton continued performing well into the 1960s, often reworking old material from his earlier days. Was it a sad end that he appeared in ’60s beach movies? But it was because of this exposure that people went back and sought out his silent film work. As a result, Keaton lived to see an appreciation for all that had come before. It’s a shame that when mainstream Hollywood was done with him in the mid-1930s he couldn’t have found a second life in European cinema. Hooking up with a director like a Rene Clair, who was a visual filmmaker who found interesting use of sound, would’ve been something special. There never was any talk of such a collaboration. It’s just one of those what-ifs.

9) Will the film historian ever shut up? This time around I’ll condense my college lectures to a few minutes. For one reason, there just isn’t time to talk to an audience for 20 minutes.  This program is so packed and we have so much to get to I really can’t tell the Chaplin life story before the film. I will, however, tell you which materials to consult and which ones to stay away from. Anyone who wants to read Chaplin’s life story should note that there’s only one book you want if you want accuracy: David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Life and Art. I will still discuss some of the background of each film and I will try and provide at least one fact people will remember. The second reason my talks will be shorter for this particular series is because there is no need for me to explain as much. Before, I had to elborate on the elements of film noir, or define what a “pre-Code” film was. But you don’t have to explain what comedy is. All I have to do is talk about these men, which is an easier thing to do because it will be like talking about my three favorite uncles. I know them better than I know the entire spectrum of film noir.

10) Was Chaplin a Communist? Short answer: No. This may appear to be the most irrelevant question, but it’s already been asked once and the series hasn’t even started! Chaplin had too independent a mind to subscribe to any one theory. Chaplin had an innate sense of fair play, which extended to all. He was, in every sense, a citizen of the world. America would turn its back on him as a result, but the FBI could never prove he had any ties to the Communist party. At worst, he was perhaps guilty of bad judgment and naivete. The question is best answered in the wonderful Richard Patterson documentary The Gentleman Tramp, narrated by Walter Matthau: “He was never a Communist. He was a humanitarian and an idealist in a way that few of us have the strength or courage to be.”

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