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Slapsticon Hits the Screen

First annual festival at Rosslyn Spectrum honors rare, obscure classic comedy films.

Philip Carli came off stage at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater sweating and tired, mentally and physically. Sometimes in that situation, he said, he’s tempted to say, “Do you realize I’ve just composed and performed an opera in front of you, off the top of my head?”

Carli is a rare type of musician—a silent film accompanist. Last week, he was one-fourth of a rotating group of pianists, providing a score for over 130 films at the first annual Slapsticon, a four-day festival honoring rare and obscure comedies from the silent film era and the early days of talking motion pictures.

Funded by Arlington County Cultural Affairs, the four-day event was the first major festival dedicated exclusively to comedies from the early age of film. Slapsticon director Rob Farr included works from the best-known performers of the genre: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. But much of the time was dedicated to “the rare, the forgotten, the obscure.”

“If it’s rare or one-of-a-kind, and entertaining, we would book it,” said Farr.

That meant Carli and the other accompanists were often accompanying films they had never seen before.

“Sometimes the way we prepare is we wait for the lights to go off,” said Ben Model, who traveled from New York to play Slapsticon. “It’s wonderful to see [these films] with an audience.”

FARR BEGAN PLANNING Slapsticon about 18 months ago, after realizing classic comedies were being marginalized in film studies.

“I was at a film festival in Syracuse, N.Y., and the comedy fans were all jammed into a small hotel room,” said Farr. “So we’re all crammed in there, looking over Leonard Maltin’s knees,” as the famous film critic sat on the hotel floor next to Farr, watching the old comedies.

Farr wasn’t sure what kind of response the festival would get. By Friday, he was exhausted but encouraged. The night before, festival showings ran late, and projectors didn’t shut down until after 1 a.m. Several dozen fans were still in the audience.

“Amazingly, at about 10 a.m. [the next morning], there were pretty much the same people,” said Farr. “At some point it all blurs, but there are some people who aren’t going to miss a single thing.”

SLAPSTICON BROUGHT TOGETHER fans and highlighted efforts to preserve early films, many of which have already been lost permanently.

Over the years, studios have licensed small segments of early slapstick comedies for use in commercials. But after saving a short clip, the rest of the film was often discarded, Farr said. Enthusiasts are trying to rescue the remaining works.

“Collectors have found them over the years,” said Farr. “Some people have told stories of fishing them out of trash bins. Others have found them at yard sales.”

More of the early comedies were lost forever, even when not tossed into the garbage bin. The film used in early studios was made of nitrate, which is highly unstable. “It’s like a fuse,” said author and film historian Joe Adamson. “Film preservation has become a big deal.”

Enthusiasts have many reasons for wanting to save the works. For one thing, early films provide a window into America’s cultural history. It’s also just good comedy, Farr said. “People can look at this stuff and it looks purely fresh and innovative—an act of genius, because we’re just not used to seeing it.”

Elements of slapstick still enter into today’s comedy, but fans of the early genre say it’s not quite the same. “Slapstick is kind of a dead art,” said Farr.

SLAPSTICK IS GAINING recognition as an artform. After years in obscurity, many films by Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd are now available on DVD. “In any list of great creative artists of the 20th century, they would have to be right up there,” said Farr.

Adamson took time off from his research at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to attend Slapsticon. “You really can’t discuss American film history without going back to the comedies,” said Adamson.

Classic films are important for more than just historical perspective, though, said Anthony Guneratne, another film scholar in the audience. Some of the orchestral scores stand up as symphonies on their own.

That’s because plot structure of early films is analogous to musical structure, said Carli.

FILMS SCREENED this weekend ranged from pure slapstick to more inventive works like 1925’s “The Early Bird,” an early prototype of the action-comedy. The hero, played by Johnny Hines, saves his job, the town and his girl with crafty gunplay and a high-speed horse-and-buggy chase.

Even with the thrills, the film didn’t approach the violence of today’s action-comedies. “It’s a pleasant way to spend an hour of your time,” said Richard Roberts, a film historian and slapstick enthusiast who provided many of the films from his personal collection.

But the films weren’t all sepia-toned looks at a more innocent time – some included the brand of racist and ethnic humor now taboo. In the 1926 Cinderella-story “Ella Cinders,” the naïve heroine is intimidated by stereotypical Native Americans wearing full headdresses. When she falls on hard times, subtitles let the audience know Ella was “eating less than an ant at an Armenian picnic.”

Such gags led organizers to include a special note in the program about the prevalence of ethnic and gender-based humor. “While we regret any distress they may cause, we hope that viewers will consider these images for what they are: a window into a time far-removed from our own. The very fact that these jokes are shocking today indicates how far society has come.”

Ethnic jibes not withstanding, with ironic plot twists and self-referential humor, the film showed the complexity of early comedies that often went overlooked in film studies.

But even with complex humor on the screen and an audience heavy with film scholars, Slapsticon provided plenty of the slapstick staples — swinging doors and banana peels.