Arts Beat

Slapsticon: It's a Fall Classic in Midsummer

Rare film clips featuring the Three Stooges open the four-day festival.
Rare film clips featuring the Three Stooges open the four-day festival. (American Movie Classic)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008

Starting today, more than 100 experts in slapstick comedy will descend upon Arlington for Slapsticon, a four-day festival of rare silent and sound films. The big draw for the sixth-annual event is tonight's "Three Stooges Rarities Show," which includes TV clips, commercials and home movies of the comedians.

"To see these kinds of films shown on a big screen, with an appreciative audience laughing, with live musical accompaniment -- the way it was meant to be seen -- is really magic," Slapsticon founder Robert Farr says.

Silent-film collectors, historians and fans have arrived from all over the United States and parts of Europe for the event. The "out-of-towners," as Slapsticon organizers call them, are likely to sink into their Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre seats at noon today and stay there (except for meal, sleep and bathroom breaks) until the festival ends Sunday evening.

Some attendees have published books on slapstick, among them Rob Stone, whose "Laurel or Hardy" was displayed at the 2006 festival, accompanied by a sign poking fun at the Slapsticon demographic:

"Want a signed copy of 'Laurel or Hardy'? Just look for a balding, overweight, middle-aged guy . . . Oops that doesn't narrow it down, does it?"

But Slapsticon isn't only for niche fanatics, who still lament the advent of "talkies." The audience for slapstick comedy extends far beyond those who lurk on such fan sites as Silentcomedians.com or duke it out on eBay for a 1929 Laurel and Hardy film called "Double Whoopee." Just look at the numbers for the surprise hit reality TV show "Wipeout." On that ABC program, contestants run through a course with such obstacles as Topple Tower, Sucker Punch and Giant Balls to compete for $50,000. About 10 million people spend an hour on Tuesday nights watching contestants fall off a bouncy ball into a mud pit. It's slapstick comedy, essentially.

So why is watching people fall down funny? Farr says it's simple: "We really enjoy seeing people losing their dignity."

Farr got the inspiration for Slapsticon about six years ago, while attending rare-film festivals. He discovered a subgroup of silent-comedy fanatics who gathered in hotel rooms to screen their favorite Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle shorts. He looked around the jammed rooms and decided there might be enough interest in this niche to justify a film festival of its own. Farr works for Arlington County, so he asked colleagues if he could use the Spectrum Theatre for his event.

All silent films at Slapsticon feature live piano accompaniment. Andrew Earle Simpson, an associate professor of music at Catholic University, says there is no way he and the other two pianists can see many of the films before they are screened at the festival so they have to improvise.

Many of the prints are brought in from private collections and film studios. Others come from archives at the Library of Congress and the University of California at Los Angeles just for the weekend.

"With comedy and slapstick, it's chase music and people getting hit by things, car crashes," Simpson says. "It's really a lot of fun."

Other Slapsticon highlights include Keaton's last film, 1966's "The Scribe," and W.C. Fields's first starring feature, the 1925 silent comedy "Sally of the Sawdust." Farr is also excited to present "Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath," which "sounds racier than it really is" and co-stars James Finlayson, who is famous for saying "Doh!" decades before Homer Simpson caught on. Surprise screenings are a Slapsticon tradition, so the schedule doesn't reflect the full slate.

Although some of the films date from as early as 1913, Farr says that slapstick transcends time and place. Just as audiences still cry at the final act of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," they still laugh when a piano falls on someone's head.

Farr says lots of jokes in modern comedies would be right at home in an 80-year-old silent film. Some of his modern favorites are "Mr. Bean" and last year's Judd Apatow film "Knocked Up." ("He has this mix of an interesting human story with a lot of gross-out humor and some good slapstick.") The quail hunting scene in 2005's "Wedding Crashers" gets high marks when Vince Vaughn's character gets shot in the rear end and smoke comes out of the wound.

"An assault on someone's dignity or on someone's body . . . that's funny," Farr says. "That just doesn't change."

Slapsticon is at the Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St. in Arlington. Tickets are $99 for the full four-day festival, $30 for single-day admission, $16 for a half-day. 703-228-1850. http://www.slapsticon.org.


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