One of the most common questions I get through my blog is this: “My great uncle/grandfather/great grandfather was an original Keystone Kop, his name was John Doe, how can I find out more about him?”
99% of the time when I try to help with this question–usually by consulting my other Bible (Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory) or asking around in the film history community or looking up old studio directories–I’m finally forced to reply: “There doesn’t seem to have been anyone named John Doe who worked at Keystone. Is it possible he went by a different name at the time? Or worked at a similar comedy studio?” What I don’t say is, well, this: “Hate to break it to ya, but it looks like ol’ John was lying for a few decades. Or maybe the ol’ family lore wasn’t that accurate…!”
You see, over the years a surprisingly large number of actors claimed that they totally used to be Keystone Kops. Their numbers really swelled during the ’50s and ’60s, when silent comedy nostalgia was peaking. Sometimes it seems like every guy who had ever accidentally wandered on camera in the 1910s had somehow been a Kop–forget such petty details like whether they were even living in California at the time. Oh, and they usually weren’t just any old Kop, mind you, but an original Kop.
The silent era boasted an incredible number of stars, from sweet ingenue types to “grotesque” comedians to dashing heroes. But not all stars were fashionable flappers or svelte sheiks–some were more on the…hairy side. Or even came on four legs. Yes, I’m talking about the animal stars–could you tell?–and there was a virtual zoo of them back in the day.
Throughout 2020, numerous theaters and film festivals have faced unprecedented shutdowns and cancellations thanks to COVID-19. With so many film lovers stuck in their homes, many hardy souls have devoted time and resources to offering streaming films and online shows. In my opinion, one of the best shows has been the delightful weekly Silent Comedy Watch Party, hosted by historians Ben Model and Steve Massa. They’ve been streaming live every Sunday at 2 p.m. for the past 12 months!
Each Watch Party showcases 2-4 silent comedy shorts, some starring famous names like Chaplin and Lloyd and others featuring some of the countless obscure performers from the 1900s-1920s. Model and Massa discuss each short beforehand, giving backgrounds on the performers, historical contexts and other insights, and Model accompanies every film live with piano. Model’s wife Mana and Massa’s wife Susan work behind the scenes to ensure everything’s running smoothly–it’s a real team effort. All episodes are available on the Model’s YouTube page (definitely go and subscribe!), which means there’s a virtual smorgasbord of classics and rarities for comedy fans to binge their way through.
For many people, the Watch Party’s become a bright spot in their week, and they’ve been happily tuning in each Sunday to laugh and relieve a bit of stress–which is no small service nowadays. In celebration of the one year anniversary of the Watch Party on March 21st–which also happens to be their 50th episode!–Silent-ology’s conducting a little interview with the two masterminds behind it. I hope you enjoy!
Sometime ago, I saw this still on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s site (a site I have lauded in the past) for a film that was being restored:
A Sennett short–from the late 1910s, probably my favorite period of of the silent era–loaded with goofy slapstick–AND it starred Louise Fazenda! I waited with bated breath for it to become available.
I had bated breath for a pretty long time, but my lack of oxygen was worth it because The Village Chestnut is now freely available on the NFPF site! And it’s a beaut, too, one of those scratchy-but-clear prints that does silent fans’ hearts good. And it’s probably one of the best showcases for Louise’s slapstick skills I’ve seen yet–not every actress was willing to fall in mud puddles or do tough, dizzying pratfalls quite the way she did. Continue reading →
Picture a fast-paced silent film scene where one character chases another with a gun blazing. Bullets fly, characters panic, and the editing is fast and furious Picturing something from a Western? Maybe even a Roaring Twenties gangster shootout?
Nope, just a typical scene from a 1910s Keystone comedy, where people fire guns like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and bullets do less damage than gnat bites. This particular scene’s from a short known only by the most hardcore silent comedy aficionados, A Bear Affair (1915). Oh, and the actor brandishing the gun? That would be the actress Louise Fazenda, one of the toughest and most good-natured slapstick comediennes of the silent era.
Need a little pick-me-up after a long, hard day? Looking for some good old-fashioned slapstick nonsense that’s blissfully short? Have a particular craving for, say, a 1900s French comedy short that your friends (and possibly you) have never heard of?
Well that’s easy enough–The Policemen’s Little Run (1907) it is!
UPDATE 7/18/19: And the winner of the Charley Bowers Blu-ray set is….
Congratulations David! We will be in touch. I hope you enjoy these Charley Bowers shorts as much as I do! And thank you to all who entered–this was a popular giveaway!
Calling all silent comedy fans!! Flicker Alley has a very exciting new release: a Blu-ray set of 17 shorts by the one and only Charley Bowers! And when I say “one and only,” I’m not just using a cliché–obscure comedian Bowers was truly one of the silent era’s most, err, creative individuals. Not familiar with this highly unique genius? (Admittedly, most people on the planet are not. Sadly.) Allow me to give you a brief introduction:
A former cartoonist, Bowers became the head animator for the 1910s Mutt and Jeff cartoon series before becoming fascinated with stop motion animation. In the mid-1920s he created a series of comedy shorts starring himself as a vaguely Keatonesque character with a love of crazy inventions. These shorts were basically showcases for his “Bowers process,” as he grandly dubbed his stop motion animation skills. In the trades they were advertised as “Whirlwind Comedies.” Continue reading →
Say the phrase “silent comedy,” and instantly a host of clichés come to mind–pratfalls, silly mustaches, banana peels, wacky acting, and of course, pie throwing. (Although the latter wasn’t as common as we think).
50% of silent comedy pies were in this film (maybe).
Of course, there’s more to the huge world of silent comedy than those clichés (not that we don’t love them). From the one-reel farces of Max Linder to the light comedies of John Bunny and Flora Finch to the epic scale of TheGeneral, a wide variety of films fit under the “laughmaker” label, and this is partly because there were distinct trends in comedy that evolved just as quickly as cinema did itself. Continue reading →
Not only was yesterday Buster’s birthday, but this weekend I’ll be heading to Muskegon, Michigan for the official Damfino convention! This will be my very first time at this event (I’m giving a presentation too, so wish me luck!). Thus, it only seemed fitting to start out this Halloween month with one of Buster’s more well-known shorts.
There seemed to be certain plots and tropes that all silent comedians tried out in turn. Everyone did food preparation gags, everyone went to the beach, everyone (everyone) from Harry Langdon to Chaplin himself showed up as a white-clad street cleaner at some point. In 1921, it was Buster Keaton’s turn to try his hand at the familiar gag-rich setting of The Spooky Haunted House.