Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns at Leeds Film Festival

With a pitch currently underway to convert Charlie Chaplin’s work into 3D for multiplex release causing debate around the blogosphere, Silent Clowns was a timely piece of programming at Leeds Film Festival.

The programme consisted of extracts from Snub Pollard, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy with a full feature screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last comprising the second half. All the films were accompanied by a fantastic live band and introduced or had the premise set by Paul Merton.

However, I deliberately contracted the title to omit Paul Merton earlier as to be completely frank, he might as well have not been there. Things started well with him taking to the stage to welcoming applause and introducing the evening with a glow of real appreciation for the era. After telling a few jokes (which the crowd, myself included, lapped up) he set up the excerpts and then sat to one side and enjoyed them with us. So far, so good, but when the second the half began he very briefly introduced Safety Last and then left the room for the entire feature. I understand that he must have seen it dozens of times throughout his tour but still, I find it a little rude. I imagine a large proportion of people paid to attend this event based on his name and I for one was very disappointed by his hosting. “But he left the room to put the focus squarely on the screen!” I hear you cry, well that’s a weak argument considering his name comes first in the event title. Anyway, whether his intention or not, now let’s focus on the films.

As someone who had never really experienced much silent cinema I was very intrigued to what I would make of it and worried it would have ‘dated’ slapped all over it. Oh how wrong I was. From the very off Chaplin, Snub and Keaton had the audience in stitches, much more so than any multiplex screening of recent memory. From seeing just 3 short excerpts you can see how their influence has reached almost all subsequent and modern day comedy. The facial expressions, the set-up of the gag, the subversion of expectation and genuinely funny punch-lines establishes these greats as true pioneers of the era.

Now time for the feature. You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach just before the big dip on a roller-coaster? Modern film studios spend vast sums of money on special effects trying to recreate such thrill but Lloyd manages to pull off one after the next in the utterly engrossing Safety Last. The film follows a store clerk who, having grosly exaggerated his position to an expectant fiancée, ends up scaling a huge building as a publicity stunt for his store. Mishaps, capers and near-misses abound in the protagonist’s folly with audience laughter becoming increasingly nervous until audible gasps and delighted squeals fill the room with a joyous atmosphere. Certainly, it was a warm audience for the silent era considering they’d all paid to be there (with a Merton premium) but I can’t imagine anyone not liking this exhilarating, hilarious and charming film.

The Paul Merton issue aside, Silent Clowns was a wonderful evening which has resulted in me putting several silent comedy box-sets on my wish list and would urge you to do the same.

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