Old films give us a window into the cultures, values and everyday norms of the past, and comedies sometimes hold up the mirror to society best of all. Although silent comedies rarely tackled politics head-on, they often took inspiration from current events and trends, and people’s attitude to them. Often this was in passing, but sometimes comics went the whole hog to make satires. The Suffrage moment became a favourite topic for comedy; many men in the male-dominated society felt threatened by the increasing voice of women, and this was reflected in comedic portrayals of fearsome battleaxes. As the 1920s rolled on, the increasingly confident and empowered flapper generation began to be represented in films, with wonderful performers like Clara Bow, Dorothy Devore and Marie Prevost flying the flag for contemporary women.
However, not all welcomed such developments. The narrow-minded mutterings in some quarters that skirts were getting too short and things really were going too far were ripe for spoofing. Emasculated men having to deal with the housework became a comedy staple, but the gagwriters at the Hal Roach studios went one step further and made some wonderfully silly and surreal films where genders were bent as men and women swapped roles fully. They weren’t trying to make a serious point, just having some fun and trying to make good comedy that would resonate with their audiences. Nevertheless, the films give a fascinating insight into what was considered conventional for each gender in the 1920s.
In 1922, the gagmen and performers had great fun playing with exaggerated gender stereotypes in Snub Pollard’s YEARS TO COME. Set in a future where men’s and women’s roles are reversed, it offers the amusingly goofy sight of the heavily moustached Pollard and the usually tough and burly Noah Young delighting in incongruous feminine mannerisms.
The Roach gagmen always liked to revist a good idea, and in 1926 they remodelled the basic idea of YEARS TO COME with another moustachioed comic, Clyde Cook. WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? was even dafter than the original, and mocks the more ridiculous gender conventions of Hollywood film for all they are worth. To this end, we get James Finlayson as a shrewish father-in-law (“about to bear up bravely as his little one is wrenched from his apron strings”), and Laura de Cardi as a caddish lounge-lizard, as well as a series of ridicuously surreal visions of an outlandish future.
This gag-happy little film was co-written by Stan Laurel and Frank Terry (It is Terry who makes a cameo as a man in a window, not Laurel as often stated. Sorry, Stan Fans!) For many years known primarily in a one-reel cutdown, WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? has been restored to its full glory, and kindly shared online by The San Francisco Silent Film Festival:
Roach comedian Charley Chase had a theory that comedy ideas could be recycled around every seven years. Sure enough, in the mid-30s he began reaching back to some older plots from the silent era. 1935’s OKAY TOOTS! was maybe inspired by the two previous films. Though not a remake of them, it takes a similar approach in playing with gender roles. In fact, it anticipates FREAKY FRIDAY as Charley and his wife Toots (Jeanie Roberts) swap bodies, each speaking with the other’s voice as Charley gets a lesson not to take all his wife does for granted. It’s a bizarre little film – unlike the previous two shorts, Charley and Jeanie do not outwardly look or dress like the opposite sex, but everyone accepts them as such without question. Chase’s impotent indignation as a group of housewives give him an enforced makeover is a highlight, as is his variation on a parallel parking routine used by Lloyd Hamilton and W.C.Fields. Look out for a funny bit from Charlie Hall at his most menacing too!
Though these films and the conventions they spoof are obviously very dated now, they remain interesting artefacts of their times – and more importantly, they’re still funny!
As we reach the point in the pandemic where anniversaries are being reported, a series of grim milestones remind us how long we’ve been dealing with all this. A more positive flipside of this is that many of the new initiatives and innovations that have managed to bring some sunshine into our lives are celebrating anniversaries of their own. The way we socialise and enjoy entertainment has completely been transformed in the last twelve months, and although some doors have shut, others have opened up new worlds of possibilities.
For silent film fans, the void seemed especially hard to fill. The whole essence of silent cinema revival usually centres around the live experience, after all. Silent comedy, in particular, needs an audience so that the viewer can roll on a wave of giggles and chortles. Laughter is always best when it is shared.
In March last year, the first episode of the nascent Silent Comedy Watch Party was aired. It couldn’t bring film fans together physically, but it could reproduce that feeling of an event, a shared experience. Quickly it became a huge success, uniting silent comedy fans and helping them to feel like they were sharing their laughter with others. Now, a year later the show’s hosts Ben Model and Steve Massa are just about to celebrate its one year anniversary. With the 50th Watch Party beckoning on Sunday, it has become so much more than just a live stream!
The idea of the show began when Ben returned from performing a weekend of shows in Nebraska and watched all his upcoming gigs for 2020 promptly get cancelled:
“Although I’d had the idea and tech to pull this off for some time,” says Model, “I hadn’t had a strong motivation to make a silent film show happen as a live-stream…but now there was a humanitarian need for this. I thought of all the people who could use a really good laugh to deal with the shutdown, the fear and stress of the pandemic, and not knowing when it would end. I called up Steve [Massa] about my idea for The Silent Comedy Watch Party, and we agreed this would be a great way to help people out.”
Laughter is the best medicine, after all, and coupled to the warm, community feeling of the events, the Watch Parties began to mean a great deal. Often they have been the highlight of empty or anxious weeks as the pandemic progressed. Although family commitments have meant I haven’t been able to catch every episode live, I’ve watched every single one thanks to the archive of shows on YouTube.
As the show’s press release reveals, “Messages, which came in over email and social media after the first live-stream, were full of gratitude for providing relief from the pandemic stress and for bringing viewers much-needed laughter. This has continued to be the case every week, with stories of families gathering to watch, spouses who’d never given the silents the time of day becoming fans, while other viewers told of how the show had helped them get through personal dark times and recovery from illnesses. “This is what gets me through the week” is a frequent comment Model sees about the show. During a period when days all run together, it’s become a weekly anchor of appointment TV for the 400-600 people who watch together, virtually, during the live-stream and the 1,500-3,000 people who watch the archived shows during the days after the stream.“
It’s not just the spirit of being at a live cinema event that’s being recreated, but something bigger, something global that silent film events have never been before. Now silent comedy fans from around the world who would never attend the same event in pre-COVID times can join in the fun together. Many of the films are rarities, from archives or obscure DVD releases and there are many that the viewers haven’t seen before, increasing that shared experience. In a way what we’re actually getting is something that brings us closer still to the original shared experience of silent cinema-going; seeing these films for the first time, and talking about them at the same time. I’ve really loved having chats with friends around the world each week about films that have just been screened, or seeing message boards and social media lighting up in praise of performers like Snub Pollard, Wanda Wiley or Charley Chase.
The celebration of these overlooked performers is one of the real highlights of the series of shows. Again, it creates something comparable to the original silent film experience; in the 1920s, it wouldn’t have been Keaton or Chaplin every week, but the likes of Bobby Dunn, Alice Howell, Paul Parrott or Joe Rock who filled the programmes at cinemas. It’s fantastic to see these kind of performers, so often overlooked by live cinema events, getting the most exposure that they’ve had in years. Quite naturally, live silent events often skew to the classic films, and while there are some great events showcasing rarities, it’s not often that you get such deep dives into the substrata of silent comedy. The global audience offered by the internet means that “will there be an audience for such obscure films?” is not a concern in the same way. We’ve seen a terrific slew of events, webinars and online festivals benefit from this over the last year, and on the punter side, it’s wonderful to be able to attend events that I’d always dreamed of without travelling across the world (I never did make it to a Slapsticon, to my eternal regret).
Of course, another advantage has been the ability to bring in guest hosts from around the world. The list of Silent Comedy watch Party contributors includes Suzanne Lloyd, grand-daughter of Harold Lloyd; Library of Congress curators, Rob Stone and Rachel Del Gaudio; Elif Rongen-Kaynakci from the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands; and filmmaker and artist, Ina Archer who is also a media conservator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Though undoubtedly we have missed out on the beauty of real world big screen events this year, we have gained something too. The Silent Comedy Watch Parties are a prime example of this and continue to be a real source of fun and inspiration. Congratulations to Ben & Steve for reaching their 50th show, and a big thanks for helping to make the last year miles better for silent comedy fans than it had any right to be. See you at the Watch Party on Sunday!
The first-anniversary show of “THE SILENT COMEDY WATCH PARTY” will live-stream on March 21, 2021, and will include the films: AN EYE FOR FIGURES (1920) with Hank Mann, shown on the very first episode; THE FADE-AWAY (1925), a Fleischer cartoon with Ko-Ko the clown, shown on episode 2, and QUEEN OF ACES (1925) starring Wanda Wiley, one of the forgotten funny ladies of silent films who’s become an SCWP fan favorite. Here’s the link to watch: The Silent Comedy Watch Party ep. 50 – 3/21/21 – Ben Model and Steve Massa – 1-year anniversary! – YouTube The show begins at 3PM EDT (that’s 7PM GMT ).
While you’re waiting for showtime, why not check out this piece on the shows from last year, when Ben very kindly stopped by The Lost Laugh Blog for a Q & A. Finally, in case you’re new to the shows (where have you been??) here’s some more info from the show’s press release:
THE SILENT COMEDY WATCH PARTY
Every Sunday at 3 p.m. ET, watch classic comedy shorts from the 1910s and 1920s on YouTube with new live musical scores by renowned silent film accompanist Ben Model, and with live introductions by film historian, Steve Massa. The show’s logo and graphic design are by Marlene Weisman; associate producer is Crystal Kui; Mana Allen and Susan Selig (Model’s and Massa’s wives) handle the camera, lights and stage management at the couples’ respective Manhattan apartments. The films programmed feature well-known stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as well as lesser-knowns such as Marcel Perez, Snub Pollard, Alice Howell, Gale Henry and more.
About Ben Model BEN MODEL is one of the nation’s leading silent film accompanists and performs on both piano and theatre organ. Ben works full-time presenting and accompanying silent films in a wide variety of venues around the USA and internationally – doing so virtually, now – carrying on a tradition he learned from silent film organist Lee Erwin (1909-2000).
Over the past 39 years Model has created and performed live scores for several hundred silent films. He is a resident film accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) and at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus Theatre, and performs at theatres, museums, schools and other venues around the US and internationally. His recorded scores have been heard on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and on numerous home-video releases from Kino Lorber, Milestone Films and Model’s own label Undercrank Productions. Ben Model is also a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University (Connecticut), where he teaches a course on silent film. https://www.silentfilmmusic.com/
About Steve Massa STEVE MASSA is the author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy and Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy. He has organized and curated comedy film programs for the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and Bristol Slapstick Festival, as well as provided essays for the National Film Registry, the National Film Preservation Foundation, and the Criterion Collection. Steve has provided notes and commentaries for many comedy DVD and Blu-ray releases, as well as co-curated Undercrank Productions’ The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, Volumes 1 & 2, the award-winning Marcel Perez Collection, Volumes 1 & 2, The Alice Howell Collection, and the forthcoming Edward Everett Horton Collection. His most recent book is Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of “Fatty” Arbuckle.