Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Library of Congress and Slapsticon 2008

Last weekend began my summer research schedule for the book. I arranged to spend the day before Slapsticon 2008 at the Library of Congress viewing Syd films. I think I had four or five films reserved for that day, but I had to arrive as early as possible, because my appointment began at 8:30. Little did I know then that I could have arrived anytime during that day and still viewed the films, so perhaps it would have been better to get some sleep first and then try to drive the 6 1/2 hours to Arlington. I will know better next time. Anyhow, I drove it, beginning from Zanesville at approximately 12:30AM and I was in pretty good shape until about 3:30. That's when I began to get REALLY SLEEPY. But, by 4:30, the sun was thinking about coming up and I got a reprieve. I was groggy the rest of the way, but alert and somehow, by the grace of god, managed to miss all the morning traffic around D.C. So, from the hotel in Arlington, I took the Metro down to the library, got my visitor's card (the worst picture ever made, I can tell you) and began viewing films. This is my second experience sitting in a film archive in front of a Steenbeck machine and threading rare films into it myself. I can't really believe they give me this privilege, but so far, happily, I haven't let them down. So, Wednesday, I viewed Giddy, Gay and Ticklish (Keystone, 1915), Hushing the Scandal (Keystone, 1915), a small, small fragment of Fatty's Wine Party (Keystone, 1914), and what was supposed to be 3 reels of the 7-reel The Perfect Flapper (First National, 1924), but which ended up being only 1 reel (the third). So, I spent about four hours viewing approximately one hour of film--but then that's research!

At one of the viewing carrels next to me was a pile of folks from Slapsticon, notably Steve Massa, who had invited me to join them after my work was done to view some of the 20-some-odd rare films they had scheduled to view for the day. I'm afraid I had to decline that offer, sadly, because by the time I was finished, I was having leg cramps--i.e., it was time to find a bed and crash.

Slapsticon was a delight ( This was my second time, but my first was a very long one-day journey in which I drove down, watched three Syd films and then drove home. That was two years ago. I wonder if I have some sort of skewed idea that one must push one's body to the limit in order to feel like one is doing proper research? Anyway, I saw Steve give an intro to Syd's work up on stage that year, but pretty much met no one. This year, I was determined to meet folks and see what kind of conversations I could get going on Syd. And, I did that. I had a wonderful visit to Slapsticon. I met up with old colleagues like Hooman Mehran, Uli Ruedel from the George Eastman House, Rob Arkus and Steve Massa, of course, but I also met some really famous silent comedy folks like Richard Roberts, Rob Farr, and Brent Walker--among many others. Brent, being that he's writing a book on Mack Sennett's Fun Factory, which should be coming out from McFarland soon, had quite a lot to talk about and I appreciated all the information he gave me. He's the one who discovered Syd's first released film to be Keystone's Among the Mourners (1914), which I got to see at the festival on Friday. Thanks again for that, Brent! He also had some tantalizing bits of info, which others echoed as well, about another possible Syd scandal. Now there's a surprise!

So, on Friday, before the screening of Among the Mourners, I had another visit to the LOC, because it takes about a week for them to get films for you and I had come up with another title late in the game. When I got there (it was totally empty of researchers on Friday, by the way), I discovered someone else had reserved reels of The Perfect Flapper and they were being housed on the shelves above my reserved film, which was Syd's last Keystone before A Submarine Pirate, entitled No One to Guide Him (1915). So, I asked to view those two reels as well, giving me a total of 4 reels to view that morning. Among the Mourners was scheduled for 2:00PM, so I had to hurry and work with all this stuff, having only arrived at the LOC at near 11:00AM, thanks to slowpokes Uli and his buddy Chris Seguin (and they say women are high maintenance--sheesh!). Too bad, too, because the National Portrait Gallery had two great visiting exhibitions that featured Charlie items--a Steichen Photography exhibit and one of old advertising posters. I got to see neither.

The Perfect Flapper reels (#1 & 2) were pretty good, especially the scene in which Syd does a parody on several odd scenes from Shakespeare. There are no title cards attached to these scenes, so I wonder how many folks could figure out what scenes he was doing--"A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" from Richard III, "Alas, poor Yorick!" from Hamlet, in which he kisses a bald man's head in lieu of a skull, and "Juliet, Juliet, wherefore art thou, Juliet?" which is a little play on similar lines from Romeo and Juliet, of course. No One to Guide Him, a two-reeler, however, had virtually nothing going for it. It was my least favorite film of the weekend. Maybe even Syd was realizing at that time that Gussle was about to fizzle out.

Back at the Rosslyn Spectrum, Among the Mourners was actually pretty good. To crib from Brent Walker's program notes: "The plot is a variation on one Sennett used frequently at Biograph and Keystone--the untrustworthy 'friend' (Conklin), who convinces his 'pal' (Opperman) to pretend to be dead, so as to test his wife's (Davenport's) faithfulness. Of course, Chester has every intention on moving in on the wife when hubby's in the pine box--but what no one anticipates is the arrival of an obnoxious, seltzer-bottle wielding drunk (Syd Chaplin), who disrupts the proceedings while demonstrating the profound acrobatic talents that would remain a staple of his comedy after he moved to his own starring unit as the character 'Gussle.'" In fact, this inebriate is the primordial Gussle, and a nod to Syd's Karno character Archibald as well. The monocle, the wide moustache, the center-parted, slicked down (but unwieldy) hair, and the sheer unconcern with propriety and decorum--those elements all made it into the Gussle character. Certainly, this film was a much better debut than what was Syd's first produced (but not first released) film, His Prehistoric Past, where he plays a cop, waking Charlie from a nap in the last few seconds of the final scene.

Anyway, by Saturday, I was ready to take my pile of notes and scurry home, which is exactly what I did. But the festival started something, and I found myself reviewing other Syd films I have copies of at the house. And, this activity lead to a great discovery, which I shall write about before I leave for my big LA research trip in a couple of days. Out in LA awaits my new research assistant and old friend Kendra Lisum, the AMPAS archive, the Warners archive and much, much more.