Sailors, bicycles and condensed milk: why now is the perfect time to get into silent cinema

It's are the perfect comedy for our digital age. After all, what are GIFs if not tiny silent films?

February 16, 2018
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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.

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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 that we share scraps of silent cinema with one another all day, every day. What are gifs, if not our generations interpretation of silent cinema?

Scroll down any of Buzzfeeds “funniest gifs ever” roundups and it’s the exact same humor people were enjoying literally a hundred years ago. People finding new ways to fall over; people missing high-fives; people failing to eat ice cream; people having their birthday candles blown out by people who are not them.

We have gone through a century of filmed comedy—dark comedy, body comedy, witty comedy, improvised comedy, sketch comedy, political comedy—to end up exactly where we started: laughing at people getting hit in the face and then silently dropping to the floor.

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Which is why now is the perfect time to start taking an active interest in silent comedy events. Your choices aren’t just limited to the megastars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Laurel & Hardy. Thanks to people like Bryony Dixon, the BFIs silent film curator, these events are more popular than ever.

“More and more stuff is getting digitised all the time. There’s a new golden age,” says Dixon.

“We used to have to project silent cinema in celluloid, and only about 100 cinemas in the UK are able to do that,” explains Dixon. “You also have to hire a pianist to accompany the film, which can be expensive. So it became a very specialist thing, it only hit a few people. And those people were almost always exclusively male film buffs.”

Now, she explains, “more and more stuff is getting digitised all the time. There’s a new golden age.”

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Not only has technology made it easier to show silent film, but it’s made it infinitely easier to promote it. Dixon no longer has to beg people to see that the art form is worthwhile: all it takes is a few seconds at Twitter’s gif keyboard.

“Silent comedy was made for the internet, and particularly for social media,” she says. “Gifs have made it easier to promote events on our Twitter. Someone falling over, someone pulling a funny face… it’s easier to get people on board now, because it’s already how they communicate.”

Yet despite its popularity, there’s something quietly (silently, even) subversive in what Dixon is attempting to do: by unearthing the female stars of the 1910s, 20s and 30s and curating them at the BFI, she’s democratising a history that used to only belong to a handful of people.

We live in a world where cultural memory is approximately 20 years old. We are led to believe that, because women mugging for the camera and doing physical comedy is relatively rare now—think how Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Derry Girls’ Saoirse Jackson are feted for their physical humour—it must have been practically verboten 100 years ago. The truth is that there have always been clowns of every description. And now is the time to meet them.