Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns (Leeds Town Hall, 9 November 2011)

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This is the second event I’ve attended at the Leeds Film Festival, and much more to my taste. Paul Merton, relishing his role as ‘folk historian’ of the silent era is an informative and entertaining host, even if his illustrations of verbal comedy, to contrast with the silent stuff to come, are a bit rubbish.

First up, we have a Snub Pollard (not well known but what a name!) short film, It’s a Gift, in which our hero sets the mould for Wallace and Gromit as a mad inventor out for a drive in his little magnet-propelled car, with an endless stream of little gags.

Then a snippet from Get Out ‘n’ Get Under in which Harold Lloyd drives a more recognisable period car and demonstrates that many of the quirks we still associate with driving are hardly new developments, with some terrific stunts along the way.

Then we get The Pawnshop, where Charlie Chaplin seems to fit an unfeasable amount of comic invention into a few short minutes. Merton told how Groucho Marx, infamously hard on other comics, rated Chaplin as the funniest comic ever. I’ve not really given him his due, I think.

A snatch of Seven Chances, previously shown on Merton’s tv show, shows Buster Keaton’s fantastic athleticism and agility as he tumbles down hillsides and dodges boulders.

Finally for the first half, Laurel and Hardy, in the short Big Business, develop a slight altercation, through tit-for-tat pettiness into orgiastic vandalism, and we see the foundations of their transition into the ‘talkie’ era.

The second half was given over entirely to Safety Last, the Harold Lloyd classic with the famous shot of him hanging from a clock hand, high up on the side of a tower block. What’s interesting about this, for me, is how ‘the Boy’s” predicament is set up over an extended period so that, when he does have to climb the building, there is a real sense of tension, growing markedly with each storey higher. His near destitution does lead to one uncomfortable scene, in which two stereotypical Jewish jewellers slaver over his money as he buys a necklace chain, which he can’t afford and means going hungry, for his fiancée to keep her deceived that he is successful. This anti-Semitic scene is a blot on the movie, which doesn’t otherwise date too badly but it’s pretty nasty.

This film is about stunts, though, which really get going when the climb begins, and it changed Hollywood, as Merton related, with Chaplin and Keaton having to inject thrills into their films along with the gags, in order to keep up.

Each of the films was given a live accompaniment, with piano and sometimes double bass and guitar also, or violin and drums. For Safety Last, all five musicians were on stage together. The live music really helped, adding a sense of immediacy and urgency, and filled up the hall. I’d been warned to avoid showings of standard (talkie) films at the Town Hall as the sound quality is poor. This may be true for cinema speakers but certainly isn’t for live music.

The only slight reservation I have about this event is that it really should have had a Q & A session. It was ideally set up for this – and I wanted to ask about that jeweller’s scene.

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