Early physical comedy had a marvelous inventiveness that still has the power to surprise and delight. When my kids first saw Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (in a museum exhibit) I thought they would quickly become bored with this old black-and-white story with no dialogue. I couldn't have been more wrong. The lack of sound forced the filmmakers to communicate through expression and body language in a way that's both easy to understand and surprisingly sophisticated.
You can marvel at the physical comedy greats with your kids during this week's Slapstick Savants series at SIFF Cinema Uptown — a fun way to while away these warm late August evenings. Slapstick Savants runs from Aug. 23–Aug. 29, and includes classic silent comedy from a variety of early masters like Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd and lesser-known gems from Charlie Chase and Charlie Bowers.
There are also "talkies" from the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy as well as a generous helping of slaps, bonks, tweaks, and whoop-whoop-whoops from The Three Stooges. Here are the films that are showing; check the SIFF website for specific times.
Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Chase & Bowers
The Gold Rush and Safety Last! are two of the greatest comedies of the silent era. Kids will delight in the extended scene of the cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff in The Gold Rush and Safety Last! is packed with inventive detail like Harold Lloyd hiding by climbing into an overcoat and hanging it on a coat rack. You have to see it to believe it. (These weekend showings include a number of matinees.)
The Three Stooges
I have to admit I laugh at the Three Stooges even though their inventiveness centers primarily on increasingly elaborate ways to hit each other (with accompanying sound effects). There tends to be a gender divide with the Stooges so this may just be an evening for the boys. There will be screenings of both Greatest Shorts of the 30s and Greatest Shorts of the 40s.
Laurel & Hardy
The Laurel & Hardy shorts are a perfect example of situations where sound was available but all the story and the jokes were expressed through the wonderfully inventive physical gags. Screenings include Classic Shorts and Way Out West.
The Marx Brothers
In any list of best Marx Brothers movies Duck Soup and Animal Crackers would be at the top. From the mirror scene in Duck Soup to the famous Animal Crackers' quote – "One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know" – the jokes come thick and very fast. Special guest Steve Marx, grandson of Groucho Marx, will be at the Wednesday screenings!
Keaton has always been a personal favorite and these two examples -- College and Go West -- as well as the shorts sprinkled throughout the program, are fine examples of his comic genius. For Keaton simply falling down wasn't enough. He somehow managed to fall and spin and twist with a grace and athleticism that will leave you wondering, "How did he do that?"
If you go …
Where and when: SIFF's Slapstick Savants runs from Friday, August 23 to Thursday, Aug. 29 at the SIFF Cinema Uptown. 511 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle
Tickets: Regular price admission $11; $6 for SIFF members. Tickets for each screening sold separately. Vouchers and passes are valid for admission.
Age recommendation: This series is ideal for kids ages 8 and up. Younger kids may enjoy some of the films but The Three Stooges’ nonstop cartoonish violence is not to everyone's taste.
Series pass: $50 for non-members; $35 SIFF members. Includes all screenings in the Slapstick Savants program.
About the author: John Kubalak is a writer, teacher, volunteer coordinator, raconteur, and scalawag. He does not publish science fiction under the pseudonym Jonathan Black but he does publish a monograph on fatherhood, The Eclectic Dad. He has a son, a daughter, a beautiful wife (and a little dog too!) who are adorable, maddening, zany, and brilliant all at the same time.