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The week that sees the headline “Hollywood Plots End of Film Reels” also finds Rob Farr and friends lugging hundreds of the big metal spools up the stairs of the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre. A typical feature’s five or six reels can weigh up to 75 pounds, so this is no idle effort.
But irony goes unmentioned as Farr and a cadre of cinephiles prepare for the late-July opening of the third Slapsticon, a four-day celebration of the most forgotten of the forgotten silent comedians. Farr began the festival two years ago and, after laboring to exhaustion then, is happily acting as ceremonial host this year.
“I was freaking out two years ago,” says Farr. “It was pretty much me. And I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But this year, I’m not even the leader. I’m on the board of directors. It’s a team spread out over several states that put this together. And so it’s a real joy for me not to be carrying the entire weight of the thing. I didn’t even see any films the first year.”
And even over four days, it’s hard for attendees to see all of the 100 films programmed, rarer-than-rarities starring such “names” as Lloyd Hamilton, Henry Lehrman, and Charley Chase. Titles on offer include The Taming of the Snood, How Fatty Made Good, and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde, a 1925 Stan Laurel vehicle that, according to the Slapsticon program, shows the funny man “at his best”—albeit without frequent partner Oliver Hardy.
“We’ve never had this many 35 mm prints, this many people,” says Farr as a pair of dapper old chaps walk in wearing matching blue Ivy caps, the type a P.G. Wodehouse character might wear. “Every film festival tries to be edgy and current,” he adds. “This is the anti-edgy film festival.”
Farr developed Slapsticon after tiring of what other old-movie festivals offered. “I always felt they weren’t showing enough comedy,” he says of such drama-heavy events as Los Angeles’ Cinecon and Columbus, Ohio’s, Cinevent. Renegade slapstick fans would gather in their hotel rooms after hours for impromptu screenings from personal collections. “I remember peering over Leonard Maltin’s bony knees just to try to get a glimpse of the screen,” Farr chuckles.
Indeed, it was Maltin’s biographies of old Hollywood stars that gave Farr his first glimpse into the lost world of slapstick. “We, his contemporaries, grew up devouring the stuff and used to read about titles you would never, ever see on television,” says the 52-year-old South Jersey native. “Whatever you get hooked on as a teenager kinda sticks with you. So now is our chance to see all this stuff that we only read about when we were growing up in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Old movies appeal to Farr because they offer “a look back into another time and another place. When life is tough, you can kind of escape to 1920 for a couple of hours. And I guess I like silence, too. I’m a Quaker, so there you go. That might be why I’m a Quaker.”
As executive producer for Arlington County’s cable Channel 74, Farr can usually be found setting up recordings of such low-slapstick events as county
board meetings and press conferences. As the Arlington County film commissioner, he hands out permits to frantic Hollywood location managers desperate to grab establishing shots of D.C. from the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Surprisingly, Farr says, such work is “fun.” His workaday duties helped him secure the Spectrum for Slapsticon, and they’ve even rewarded him with a screen credit, in the Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys.
But talking about that kind of fun doesn’t light up Farr’s eyes as much as discussing oddities such as the 1929 short unexpectedly titled Television George. “The stuff that you find when you start looking at the obscure comedies just blows your mind,” he says.
Like many of his generation, Farr got his first taste of classic slapstick on television. In the ’50s, Hollywood studios decided to make a quick buck and clear some warehouse space by selling off old films that seemed useless at the time—silents mostly, but also some talkies, all made between the teens and the ’40s. Local TV stations used the footage as filler and cheap late-night programming. Eventually, prints found their way to the open market, creating a community of collectors like Farr.
Farr began his film collection in college in the early ’70s, buying 8 mm films by mail order. Though his stash now includes 16 mm features and shorts, as well as rarities like a Charlie Chaplin radio interview, he views his several-dozen-film library as “tiny” compared with those of Slapsticon co-programmers Richard Roberts and Bruce Lawton.
“Nowadays, even casual film fans have hundreds of films on DVD,” Farr says. But DVD is not actual film—another reason he decided to create Slapsticon.
Though Slapsticon attendees tend to be Barton Fink– ish “life of the mind” types, slapstick’s appeal remains its utter physicality. “The jokes are visual and physical rather than verbal,” explains Farr. “And when it’s well-done, it’s just a chain of visual jokes—‘gags,’ they would have called it in the era. And one leads logically into another, which tops the previous one, which leads logically into another, which tops the previous one.”
Farr has put his ardent analysis of what was obvious to filmmakers nearly a century ago on his Web site, Mug Shots. The kings of silent-era comedy—Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd—are hardly mentioned on Mug Shots, and they’re not the focus of Slapsticon. Farr thinks they don’t need the publicity. Instead, he offers surfers information on folks such as Monty Banks, the French-born actor-turned-filmmaker who tends to be remembered today for his disastrous direction of the 1941 Laurel and Hardy movie Great Guns. One online filmographer calls the movie “the weakest feature The Boys had ever made.”
“You only see that kind of progressing chain of gags topping one another in the work of the very best, like the Keatons and the Chaplins and the Lloyds,” Farr says. “But you also occasionally see it in the films of those who are less remembered, like Harry Langdon, Lloyd Hamilton, someone like that.”
“If you take a four-year degree in a film course, this stuff has no academic respect whatsoever,” says Farr. “You’re gonna watch D.W. Griffith, and you’re gonna watch Eisenstein.” But, he argues, “If you compare a Mack Sennett comedy from 1913 and a D.W. Griffith drama, Mack Sennett has more energy. It’s got more shots. I did a shot count once of two films that were released on the same day, one by Griffith, one by Sennett. Sennett had more angles, more shots, more varied cutting.”
Roger Ebert famously teaches a course on Citizen Kane, in which the film is analyzed literally frame by frame. Farr, you suspect, would gladly undertake a similar endeavor at some Slapsticon to come, taking apart pratfalls and pies to the face.
“It wasn’t because [slapstick directors] were geniuses,” he says. “It was because they had to keep it moving. You’re trying to make a group of immigrants—who might speak 10 different languages—laugh. So you can’t have two people talking to each other in a drawing room with title cards popping up. You have to keep it moving. And so, in a way, I think [slapstick] probably pushed the art of filmmaking forward faster and more under the radar than Eisenstein, with all of his theories of montage.”
Of course, even the highest-minded of low-comedy fans can’t theorize away everything. Thus a note in this year’s Slapsticon program on “gags, jokes and unconscious attitudes that may be offensive to today’s audiences.” “The past can’t change,” it concludes, “but we can change the present.”
Slapsticon’s program is in part a mockery of the film industry’s current race to digitization, in that it offers the “re-premiere” of Head Over Heels, a Mabel Normand comedy feature unseen since shortly after its 1922 release. Amazingly, reels were discovered in 2001 in an Andover, Mass., basement.
Will the citizen-cyborgs of 3015 be able to recover lost digital files of Shrek XXVI from some discarded hard drive? Not likely. “With all the technology, the best way to preserve is 35 mm, which is still the most expensive,” says Farr.
The American Film Institute underwrote Heels’ restoration, and the film is both a highlight of this gathering and a recognition of the reputations that Farr and many of the fest’s organizers and attendees have established in the cinema community. The AFI might have showcased its work at its Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring. Instead, the film was offered to Slapsticon. Similarly, the Library of Congress arranged for a Slapsticon-accompanying screening of previously unidentified footage at the National Gallery of Art.
“All the archives have tons of this stuff,” says Arizona-based co-programmer Roberts, who regularly helps curators at the UCLA Film and Television Archive identify stray nitrates. “At this unidentified screening, there’s like 12 different shorts that have all been preserved specifically for this show,” he explains.
Reports from the screening speak of NGA employees rushing around shushing the amateur film sleuths, who were giddily trying to outdo each other in identifying obscure background players. “Joe Rock! That’s Joe Rock!” one would cry out. In the end, 11 of the dozen films were identified.
In the end, Farr will express satisfaction about the festival. “It exceeded my expectations,” he says. “Apparently, we did well enough that the county is smiling upon us and is willing to do it next year. That’s the basic goal. You don’t want to screw up so bad that they’ll say, ‘Never again.’ We didn’t break anybody’s prints, and all the archives got all their prints back.”
Maybe Slapsticon can change the present. Though the crowd skews overwhelmingly to older white males, there are pockets of diversity, including some younger fans. Agnes McFadden has brought her two young children all the way from Princeton, N.J. It is
elementary-age daughter Erin’s third Slapsticon, and she seems a true believer.
Her mother proudly delineates the advantages of watching movies made when her great-grandfather walked the Earth: “In history class, when they covered the ’20s, she was the only one in class who knew what a bootlegger was.”
“She gets angry if I’m watching one of these films without her,” says McFadden. But Erin’s friends don’t share her interest. “If it’s black-and-white and no sound,” Erin says, “they don’t like it.” CP