Sometimes it’s easy to forget film has a history and that silent cinema is that history. And sometimes it is easy to think of silent cinema as a genre. But as Bryony Dixon silent film archivist at the BFI Southbank has pointed out silent cinema is not a genre it is the first 30 years of film history. The importance of silent films lies partly in their status as historical artefacts demonstrating how different the films of the silent era are from the cinema we are now familiar with, while also laying bare their similarities and connections and revealing how the influence of the films of the silent era is still felt today. This is perhaps most true in the case of the stars of the silent era comedies. Stars like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy.
One of the other fascinating aspects of the films of the pre-classical age is the way in which they invite us to see how cinema might have developed. The silent comedies were often implicitly political with working class characters lampooning the respectable middle classes. This was most in evidence in the films of Charlie Chaplin and his melancholy identification with the poor and excluded and the implicit critique of a society that treated the poor so badly. But it can also be seen in the work of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton both of whose films punctured the pretensions of the rising managerial classes. And it is there in Laurel and Hardy’s attempts to survive and retain their innocence as they negotiate the urban landscape of the industrialised United States of America.
But the concerns of the ordinary person were to be lost in the monopolistic classic period of Hollywood that standardised production and concentrated on the heroic individual and heterosexual romance framed within a linear narrative that promoted the values of the middle classes.
During the pre-classical era when Harold Lloyd, Charles Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton were producing work cinema was much more of a collective experience, slapstick comedy and visual gags were instantly intelligible to an audience that included many immigrant workers for whom English was a second language (if they spoke it at all) and a high proportion of illiterate workers who did not read.
The new cultural form of film in general but comedy in particular allowed some respite from the hard work and long hours that most workers suffered in the newly industrialising cites.
The Silent Clowns event at London’s Cinema Museum is a celebration of the comedy stars that made these films often writing and directing them too. The evening is being hosted by Paul Merton who is something of an expert in the field of silent comedy having presented a Channel Four documentary on the subject and also written a book. The evening focuses not on the mode of production when these stars were working or the wider social and economic context in which their films were made. The focus is on the stars themselves and the genius of the work they produced.
Paul Merton will be introducing a series of clips from the films of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton and also showing a complete Laurel and Hardy film, We Faw Down (1928). This event is part of the cinema museums’ ongoing programme aimed at raising enough money to ensure its future. The evening offers a unique opportunity to connect with the history of silent comedy not only through watching the films but also through the venue itself, which houses many artefacts from the cinema going experience of that era. There will also be a post screening discussion where people can talk about the films and raise any questions they might have.
It is a paradox of the contemporary cinema going experience that the more technologically advanced cinema production has become the more homogenised the experience of cinema going has become. What Thomas Schatz has described as the ‘the complexity of the cinema going experience’ has to all intents and purposes been flattened out by the rise of the multiplex. The Cinema Museum offers a different kind of experience. People meet before hand over drinks and home made food and they can discuss the films after the event not only with the presenter but also with each other. And while it might appear that the museum is itself part of cinematic history with its cinematic artefacts, uniformed ushers and choc ices for sale in the interval, there is also the sense that the more rounded and engaged experience of cinema going it offers will be part of the future of cinema going as more people grow tired of the corporate experience of the multiplex.
It has become a cliché to point out that ‘silent cinema’ is not and never has been silent and the Silent Clowns evening will be accompanied by Neil Brand on the piano.
This event is held at The Cinema Museum, Saturday 3rd September at 7.30 pm. For more information about the Silent Clowns event and the rest of the Autumn Season please visit The Cinema Museum’s website.
Deirdre O’Neill is PhD student at the University of Ulster. Her 12-year-old son volunteers as an usher at The Cinema Museum.