I had a pretty good time delivering my first lecture of the year at Edinburgh College of Art on Monday (on the history and uses of the long take), and then a really good time screening silent comedies on Tuesday evening — Chaplin’s A DOG’S LIFE, Harold Lloyd in FROM HAND TO MOUTH, and Keaton’s SHERLOCK JNR. Enthusiastic responses from students, some of whom had seen plenty of silent-era slapstick, some of whom I think had seen none. All pronounced themselves Keatonites at the end, barring one Chaplinist (who had seen several other films so had more to base her choice on). I only asked for a show of hands because I was curious, having previously advised that they shouldn’t feel that they can only like one.
The three films fit together well, because they’re all fairly short without being tiny, and because you can see how all the silent clowns borrowed from each other (well, I’m not sure how much Chaplin borrowed…)
The Lloyd film (which crams three hours of plot and business into 25 mins) gave him dog and kid companions and cast him as a down-and-out, a la Chaplin, and the Keaton featured a close-following scene very similar to the one in FROM HAND TO MOUTH. Of course, SHERLOCK JNR is such a surprising, peculiar and downright avant-garde comedy that even if moments owe their existence to the work of other comics, the film as a whole is sui generis. And its principle descendant is Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words.
(First, Buster literally breaks his neck falling onto railway tracks, then he climbs inside a motion picture…)
Anyway, it was a pleasure to share these eighty and ninety-year-old movies with a decent-sized audience, some of whose laughter had the delight of surprise in it — and the spontaneous applause was good too.