I am describing the annual Presidents' Day weekend Mid-Winter Comedy Festival at the Niles/Essanay Silent Film Museum, a wonderful and historic venue. The museum's Edison Theatre was built as the town nickelodeon way back in 1913, when "Broncho Billy" Anderson was cranking out westerns down the block.
The fest runs the gamut from the iconic (Chaplin, Keaton) to the obscure (Eddie Boland). It's a bonanza for students of comedy.
The festival reinforced several conclusions on my part:
- The Hal Roach Studio rules. Sorry, Mack Sennett. Sorry, Jack White.
- No silent comedy short outside the 'polite drawing room farce' category is more than one degree of separation from The Three Stooges, even if Bud Jamison or Vernon Dent does not appear in it.
- Subtle acting seals the deal, even in slapstick. The best comedians get laughs with expertly timed expressions before and after the joke. And the comics who don't do this are often the ones who missed the brass ring of fame.
- If, well into the comedy short, you hear audience members asking who the star of the film is. . . it features one of the most forgotten of comics.
- If a brazen fur-bearing scene stealer is way more memorable than the star, the featured comic is only known by historians.
- Real lions and elephants are way funnier than CGI lions and elephants.
- Since comedy, like romance, is highly subjective, don't take any review seriously, even by the most reputable writers. Watch the film instead!
The fest offers an off-kilter nirvana for comedy buffs and film historians - and there were lots of them in the house for all three days of this event.