Very few moviegoers today, even those who would consider themselves film buffs, have had more than passing exposure to the films of the silent era. Yet it is in this period that the vast majority of the art's fundamental techniques were invented and refined, often to levels of great accomplishment. Most of us have seen--or seen parts of--Chaplin's The Gold Rush, a D.W. Griffith picture, maybe a Douglas Fairbanks or Tom Mix or Lon Chaney silent, and probably Eisenstein's Potemkin. Though a decent start, this only hints at the rich variety, not only of the silent cinema overall, but of these particular performers and filmmakers. Now Tempe's Valley Art Theatre--may its screen flicker a hundred years--is offering on Saturday and Sunday a program called The Silent Clowns, with live accompaniment by organist Rob Richards of Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa.
The bill, which runs about an hour altogether, consists of three shorts--early, lesser-known works by Lloyd, Chaplin, and Laurel and Hardy. Keaton, maybe the greatest of them all, is regrettably unrepresented. Harold Lloyd, most famous for hanging off the clock face in the astounding Safety Last of 1923, is featured here in The Non-Stop Kid. The plot of this splendid 1917 short couldn't be much simpler: Average-Joe Harold is trying to court a rich girl (the enchanting Bebe Daniels) whose other suitors are "plug-hat billikens." ("Dudes, bah! The lowest form of criminal life!" he snorts in one intertitle.) She's quite receptive to the Kid's advances, but her snooty father won't let him near her. As the title suggests, the eternally ambitious and optimistic Kid remains undaunted.
Also from 1917, the self-directed Chaplin short The Cure is primarily interesting as an example of the star out of his Tramp persona. Here he works instead in the routine for which he was famous in his vaudeville days--the comedy drunk.
Billed as "the Inebriate," he's a fancy upper-class tippler running amok at a sanatorium (he causes particular distress to a huge, bearded gout sufferer, played by Eric Campbell). Because of the setting, the film is strikingly reminiscent, visually, of last year's The Road to Wellville, but here the satire is contemporary rather than patronizingly nostalgic, and is therefore much funnier.
The final selection, 1928's Two Tars, stars Laurel and Hardy. Directed by James Parriot (with Leo McCarey billed as "supervising director"), it features Stan and Ollie as sailors on leave, hilariously wreaking havoc in a traffic jam in an effort to impress the two pretty molls they've picked up. Because Laurel and Hardy, unlike Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton, later became equally successful in talkies, it's often forgotten that they were paired in more than 20 silents. They were among the very few silent clowns for whom the addition of sound was an enhancement rather than a burden.--