Review - Paul Merton's Silent Clowns

PAUL Merton's celebration of silent comedy is a joy to behold: eclectic, exciting and heavy on laughs.

There's an air of excitement in the auditorium, as a succession of 80-year-old film posters trumpeting "coming attractions" appear on the temporary cinema screen and American standards are piped through the speakers.

Then, right on time, Paul Merton bounds onto the stage.

He welcomes the audience, gives a quick example of verbal humour (an old joke about workmen that I won't spoil here) to contrast with the visual comedy we're about to see, and launches straight into the show.

Golden Age clips

The evening isn't a comprehensive history of silent comedy, but a selection of clips from its Golden Age, complete with introductions from the host.

And as was common practice before the advent of soundtracks and standardised scores, the films are accompanied by a live pianist: the engaging Neil Brand.

Up first is It's a Gift, an inventive 1923 short starring Australian comic "Snub" Pollard as an inventor who feeds and dresses using an elaborate pulley system before travelling to work via his ingenious new mode of transport.

The film borrows from Buster Keaton's The Scarecrow and in turn seems to have influenced both Chaplin's Modern Times and - as Merton observes - Wallace and Gromit.

Slapstick

It's short, sweet and very funny, with an inspired final gag.

After that, Merton takes us back to the beginning of silent comedy, with two early French examples of the art.

Touchingly, he's so enraptured with his subject that he sits at the side of the stage, watching each film he screens.

First Prize for the Cello (1907) is a one-joke short (but what a joke!) that paved the way for the classic surrealist film L'Age d'Or. In it, a tuneless musician continues to play even as he's pelted with assorted houseware and furniture, including a full-size wardrobe.

During the film, Neil Brand talks the audience through the process of improvising a score, explaining that the first time he accompanied the film he had to predict the action. His approximation of a badly-played cello enhances the film no end.

Clarinet-swallowing

The notoriously weird Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912) (available on this excellent compilation of oddities and rarities), meanwhile, delivers precisely what it promises. It's prefixed by Merton recounting the restoration of the film, which had degraded to such a degree that it was almost lost forever.

Then, after the presenter provides a quick recap of Charlie Chaplin's path to stardom, we see an excerpt from one of The Little Tramp's earliest outings, The Pawnshop (1916).

While the sight of Chaplin repeatedly smacking people with a ladder is unlikely to convert non-fans, there's some variety in the material, and the moment where Chaplin slips seamlessly from brawling to scrubbing the floor as his boss enters a room is wonderful.

The film isn't as nuanced or tender as the star's greatest works (like City Lights), but it's very funny.

Old favourites

And though we don't get to see two of silent comedy's "big four", Harry Langdon and Harold Lloyd, the next short does lean heavily on Lloyd's concept of "thrill comedy", which places its heroes in great peril.

Liberty (1929) begins with a mock straight-faced recap of the word's resonance in American history (provoking uneasy murmuring in the theatre), before we see two breathless, terrified escaped cons also in search of liberty - Laurel and Hardy.

Reaching a getaway car, they outstrip their pursuers and change out of their jail stripes.

Freedom beckons. There's only one thing wrong: they've got each other's trousers on.

Crab

That minor mishap causes events to spiral gloriously out of control, until they're atop a construction site, the pair inching along a rail high above the city, being nipped repeatedly by a crab.

Though the film eventually runs out of steam, since Laurel and Hardy couldn't defy death with quite the same panache as Lloyd, for the most part it's a riotous ride, and again there's a sublime final gag.

Few of the audience were born when the film was released, but the gales of laughter it provokes are testament to the stars' enduring appeal.

Merton's short introduction to the film was earnest and insightful, suggesting that had Stan Laurel not been teamed with Oliver Hardy when he was, he would have given up acting to become a director.

For the rest of the review, click on the link below right.The host's contention that Laurel realised the pairing was "the chance of a lifetime" was particularly moving.

The second half of the show deals with Buster Keaton, perhaps the most sublime of all the silent clowns.

Merton explains his own fondness for the Great Stoneface, before treating us to an anecdote about Buster's early life on the stage.

The three-year-old Keaton was thrown about the stage by his vaudevillian parents to such an extent that his father decided to sow a suitcase handle into the boy's jacket.

Heckler

During one show punctuated by catcalls, Buster's dad threw him at a heckler.

We were expecting to see Keaton's sporadically dazzling Steamboat Bill, Jr., but it seems the touring copy is barely watchable, so we get merely a glimpse - a three-minute stretch from the legendary hurricane sequence.

Even if you've never seen the film, you'll probably be aware of the scene where the front of a house falls on Buster, the star miraculously passing through a small upstairs window.

Merton reveals that the director was so worried Keaton would be crushed by the three-tonne facade that he took the day off and spent it praying with a priest.

Comedy gold

The main feature spot is instead taken by Seven Chances (1925), another of Buster's finest works, showing in a pristine, tinted print.

The set-up is this: Buster will inherit $7million, saving his own and his firm's reputation in the process, if he's married by seven o'clock.

From that back-of-a-fag-packet premise, the star weaves pure comedy gold, packing the first half with sly sight gags before pulling out all the stops with an astounding extended chase sequence that sees him pursued by several hundred women, and several hundred boulders.

The film is met with raucous laughter and even bouts of spontaneous applause: a fitting finale to a joyous evening.

Thanks for reading. Comments and reader reviews are welcome below, or by emailing rick.burin@ypn.co.uk