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Vol. LXIII, No. 1
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
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Comedy Cavalcade From Chaplin to Kovacs Provokes Delighted Laughter at Arts Council

Dilshanie Perera

Describing the short films he presented at the Arts Council’s ninth annual Comedy Cavalcade as “beautiful little gems,” film historian Bruce Lawton screened six comic shorts from the early part of last century, showcasing the antics of film icons like Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and others. His selections garnered much approval at the packed house at the Solley Theater on Saturday.

Observing that “short films get short shrift today and are not a mainstay of cinema,” Mr. Lawton explained that in the “nineteen-teens, twenties, and all the way up to the fifties and sixties, shorts were the spice of the program,” adding, “in some cases, they were what people showed up to see more than the feature.”

The Pawn Shop, a black-and-white silent film from 1916, started off the event. Mr. Chaplin was the protagonist and ultimately the unlikely hero of the 20 minute piece, which takes place, no surprise, in a pawn shop. With its mixture of comic misunderstanding and dramatic irony, Chaplin’s brand of timeless physical humor provoked laughter in both kids and grown-ups.

Special effects circa 1930 were put to good use in Brats, featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as two adults relaxing at home trying to play checkers as their two respective children, also played by Laurel and Hardy, cause a commotion. Though the children and adults never appear on screen together, the cuts and back-and-forth dialogue between the characters made the story seamless.

In the question-and-answer session following the film, Mr. Lawton mentioned that the technique used in Brats to give Laurel and Hardy a child-sized stature simply involved the creation of two sets with identical features, with enlarged furniture and structures in one of the sets to give them the appearance of being tiny.

Max Fleisher’s Popeye the Sailor Man (1933) was the only cartoon screened that afternoon, while Mooching through Georgia (1939) starring Buster Keaton, was the only comic interpretation of a historical event, in this case, the Civil War. The audience instantly recognized the Little Rascals, or Our Gang, when they appeared onscreen in Gordon Douglas’s Night ’n’ Gales (1937).

The presentation ended with It Happened to Ernie (1959), a short film about how Ernie Kovacs had to shave part of his head to appear balding for his role in the film, It Happened to Jane.

“The form of short vintage films is a wonderful thing to behold,” declared Mr. Lawton, confiding, “I love to see so many young people here.” He added, “That’s how film preservation works. It’s not just saving them in an archive, but sharing them with an audience.”

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