Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns

You may have seen the TV version of this show – Paul Merton fronts an hour or so of classic silent comedy with witty, insightful comments explaining how relevant silent movies are to today’s comedy. This was the live version as part of the Leeds International Film Festival, held in the rather grand and faintly surreal surroundings of Leeds Town Hall where a large screen had been erected for the festival duration.

The evening consisted of two halves – the first was a handful of short films, which acted as a kind of warm up for the second-half that was a feature length silent movie.

The movies were accompanied by live music ranging from the piano to a full band. This live music absolutely made the movies come alive and as we were increasingly engrossed in the stories, the music became secondary – which is how it should be. The piano playing by the inimitable Neil Brand was sublime.

It struck me how the short and punchy nature of the early silent comedies fits with our modern sensibilities – our attention spans (or at least mine) is so short these days that anything longer than an hour is a trial.

Merton took us through a series of shorts by silver screen legends Snub Pollard, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. The Chaplin short was elegantly hilarious and at almost one hundred years old, it was simply astonishing – it was fresh and engaging. The highlight for me had to be one of the best Laurel and Hardy films ever made – ‘Big Business’ – where the hapless duo try selling Christmas Trees in sunny LA. They meet their match when a truculent homeowner played by the rather fabulous James Finlayson starts a feud that results in his house getting trashed and their car blown up by dynamite (seriously).

After the interval we were treated to the Harold Lloyd classic ‘Safety Last’. It’s the famous one where he climbs the building and ends up hanging off the clock. As this was a longer movie, we were treated to a full live band that enhanced the experience hugely. The pace of this film was slower and but it built to its climax effortlessly. The gags were not just slapstick but visual and cultural – it was far subtler than I’d expected for 1923. Lloyd famously did all his own stunts (depending on what you read) and the mix of thrills and comedy is beautifully delivered at the climax of his climb. There was lots of nervous laughter in the audience – testament to how Lloyd was a real comic master.

A pretty much full Town Hall (a sight in itself for an evening of silent movies almost a century old) showed its appreciation with rapturous applause. I was entranced and you could see how in depression-era USA, these movies were sheer escapism from the harsh realities of the world, something we could do with more of right now.

As we left we felt privileged to have seen these wonderful classics on a big screen, with live musical accompaniment, in a room full of appreciative people. I’ll be digging out my Laurel and Hardy box set this weekend – what’s it to be…Way Out West, The Music Box or A Chump at Oxford?

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