Toronto Silent Film Festival 2013: The 1000 Laffs Slapstick Smorgasbord Delivers the Goofs

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Sunday’s Toronto Silent Film Festival screening brought together five sight-gag laden comedy shorts handpicked by programmer Chris Seguin. This wild and quazy quintet covered a lot of banana peel-littered ground, showcasing a very nice cross section of silent comedy immortals and candidates for rediscovery. The event benefited immensely from its venue (the nearly 100-year old Fox Theatre, which still has its washrooms inside the cinema) and the accompaniment of jazz notable Fern Lindzon, who worked a number of ironic pop melodies and dark variations on the Wedding March into her nimble piano kibitzing.

The Waiters’ Ball
Directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Produced by Mack Sennett
USA, 1916

The program began with a zany item from the formative days of comedy two-reelers. Here, star/director Arbuckle runs a grungy diner kitchen with all of the health code conscientiousness of a crack den concierge. The genial cook good-naturedly licks things he shouldn’t, gratuitously trails food across the floor and always seems to have a shoe on a flapjack. Nevertheless, the restaurant does steady business – perhaps because the clientele can’t resist the cross-eyed charms of waiter Al St. John and his title card repartee with Arbuckle. “Singe a fish!” Al yells – which would have worked out fine if the fish had been dead. Better still, after a customer requests fresh eggs, the accommodating waiter exclaims: “use the new ones!” (This prompts Fatty to trouble the kitchen’s nesting hen for some of her progeny.) And yet, as we gather after they’ve bashed each other with brooms a few dozen times, things aren’t always copacetic between these two service industry mavericks. Tensions rise to murderous levels when Al discovers that he doesn’t have the right attire to take his girl (the cashier) to the big “waiter’s ball”. Fatty signs his own potential death warrant when he mockingly kisses the lass and skips back to the kitchen with his freshly cleaned dinner jacket. Naturally, Al goes after him with a knife, and only a bit of quick thinking involving a head of cabbage prevents the cook’s real head from being skewered. In the meantime, Al has run off with the suit, forcing Fatty to do what any of us would have done in his position – he steals the female cook’s ball gown and heads out to the dance for a showdown. It all adds up to 16 minutes of very fine entertainment.

Get Out and get Under
Directed by Hal Roach
Written by H.M. Walker
USA, 1920

The remaining four films on the program all benefited from the involvement of Hal Roach, who became the acknowledged king of comedy shorts after more auteurishly inclined rivals like Chaplin and Keaton moved on to the feature film form. The first of these movies, starring bespectacled (you have to use the adjective “bespectacled” when introducing Harold Lloyd, it’s an article of faith in filmdom) daredevil Harold Lloyd, pits man vs (Henry Ford’s Model T) Machine in a gasoline drenched grudge match that threatens to involve the entire local police force, numerous railroad security guards and at least one runaway canvas tent. We also get some honest to goodness banana peel slipping, a comic puppy love assault, some spacial dissonance worthy of the Tardis or Oscar the Grouch (as Lloyd somehow climbs into the car’s engine) and a bizarre sequence that prescribes “jacking up” your tired “Tin Lizzie” with liquid cocaine.

His Wooden Wedding
Directed by Leo McCarey
Produced by Hal Roach
USA, 1925

This Charley Chase vehicle, directed by future Marx Brother collaborator and screwball comedy pioneer Leo McCarey, somehow succeeds in enlisting sympathy for a man who actually jilts his beloved at the altar upon hearing a rumour that she has a wooden leg. That’s true devotion. Chase is a winning hero though, and the look of befuddled terror on his face as he contemplates raising a peg-legged family goes a long way toward selling the flimsy plot pretext for an insane, mostly drunken, romp across a South Seas bound ocean liner. Chase’s comic dance-off with co-star Gale Henry in an effort to shake loose a piece of vital evidence from her clothing is a definite highlight.

Pass the Gravy
Directed by Fred Guiol & Leo McCarey
Produced by Hal Roach
USA, 1928

This recently-revived gem takes a little while to build up a head of steam as it establishes its premise (bride’s father invites groom’s father to a celebratory dinner which features the latter’s prize-winning rooster as the main course, unbeknownst to anyone at the table but the bride’s weaselly brother), but it had the audience in stitches once the film’s ill-fated engagement banquet got going. Co-presented by the upcoming Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Pass the Gravy forgoes most of the insulting ethnic shtick that mars many of star Max Davidson’s other shorts in order to focus almost exclusively on a complex series of pantomimes performed for Max’s benefit by the anxiety-stricken affianced couple (who try desperately to get their message across before the proud chicken breeder discovers the “1ST PRIZE” tag on his drumstick). Martha Sleeper and Gene Morgan do particularly great work in these scenes – and Max punctuates each of their charade-type routines perfectly with his head-scratching reaction takes.

That’s My Wife (1929)
Directed by Lloyd French
Written by Leo McCarey
USA, 1929

The final item on Sunday’s program provided an ideal showcase for Hal Roach’s rising star duo of (Stan) Laurel and (Oliver) Hardy, who would go on to even greater fame during the early sound era. That’s My Wife gets a lot of fresh mileage out of a perennial comedy chestnut – the protagonist who must dissemble in order to keep a potential benefactor happy. In this case, the protagonist is mustachioed Oliver Hardy, whose wife leaves him when he hesitates too long after she asks him to choose between her love and the slovenly charms of houseguest Laurel (who’s been living on their couch for two years!) Hardy doesn’t even seem all that concerned about losing his wife until a rich uncle comes a-calling and expresses an interest in seeing the bride. The unspoken proviso is that the old man isn’t going to leave Hardy a penny unless he likes the woman his nephew lives with. Well, Ollie still has a house full of women’s clothing, but the only person he can think of to put in them is Stan. It’s a gag that (literally) has whiskers on it – but the transvestism is really only a means to a very different comedic end. Once the ruse has done the work of getting L & H out onto a restaurant ballroom floor – and into a situation that somewhat parallels the aforementioned dance sequence in His Wooden Wedding – all bets (and practically all clothes!) are off.

The Toronto Silent Film Festival continues on Monday with an 8pm screening of Mary Pickford’s My Best Girl (1927) at Casa Loma, home to the Toronto Theatre Organ Society. You can find the entire TSFF schedule here.

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