It's are the perfect comedy for our digital age. After all, what are GIFs if not tiny silent films?by Caroline O'Donoghue / February 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
I have ended up at a silent film event. I say this to be honest from the outset, because there are two kinds of cultural events you “end up at” (rather than knowingly, wilfully attend) and they are thus.
One: events you are roped into because a friend-of-a-friend is playing Macbeth, and
Two: events you suggest as a way to signal how high-minded and interesting you are, but have no intention of actually going to, until someone calls your bluff and buys the tickets.
There are a total of 14 surviving silent film stars—none of whom I am friends with— so I am at the BFI on a Sunday, with five other women, for the second reason. We are attending Double Trouble: Early Female Comedy Double Acts, a 90-minute long presentation of the silent film comediennes that time forgot, after I suggested it over e-mail and someone called my bluff.
We settle in, thinking that at best we will appreciate—in a distant, abstract way—what silent film was giving the world in the 1920s and 30s, and leave feeling high-minded and interesting.
Three minutes in, and we’re sick with laughter. There are hiccuping, joyful tears. We are holding each other’s hands, pointing and grinning and squeezing each other because we are, quite simply, watching the funniest cinema we’ve seen in years.
We see the Edwardian Tully girls, stealing bicycles and locking their nanny into a wardrobe so they can get off with sailors. We meet Anita Garvin, whose long, greyhound face radiates disapproval at every man she meets. We watch Zasu Pitts trying to open a can of condensed milk. We spy on two French women at the theatre, slapping and licking the heads of the men sitting in front of them.
None of these things sound funny, written down like this. It sounds twee, or surreal, and not at all in-line with the comedy I’m used to enjoying, which largely consists of people in New York buildings talking very fast at one another. You might be reading this and thinking: well, good for her, if she found something new about classic cinema to enjoy, but it’s not really my thing. Trust me: it’s your thing. Silent comedy, I’m beginning to realise, is everyone’s thing.
Which is hardly a surprise, given the fact…