The silent comedy film series that Steve Massa and I and Ron Magliozzi put together in the late 2000s had two hooks. One we utilized to organize the shorts into programs and the other was the real inspiration for the series. The latter was crystallized in an introduction Eileen Bowser gave to one of the programs in the series we presented at MoMA.
Steve and I had been screening silent comedies in MoMA’s collection over the few years leading up to the Arbuckle retrospective we co-organized with Ron and which ran for two months at MoMA in 2006. Steve had already been aware of or seen many of these, having attended the Slapstick Symposium Eileen organized for MoMA in 1986, and at private screenings at MoMA that had been arranged by silent comedy aficionados Cole and Mark Johnson.
What these were, were among hundreds of silent comedy shorts repatriated and preserved by MoMA during the years that Eileen was the head of the film archive at MoMA. Not restored, but preserved. Some had beginnings and endings or bits in the middle missing due to nitrate decomposition. Many had titles that were in Czech and were only onscreen for a few frames. Nearly all of them starred comedians Steve knew well and I occasionally recognized. Aside from a handful of shorts, none of these starred anyone well-known.
But they had been preserved. We continued screening these shorts after the Arbuckle retrospective, with the idea of creating another series out of these obscure and unrestored comedies. Often, Eileen joined us for these viewings, and would occasionally share insights and insider information about the films or the prints themselves.
The series Steve and Ron and I created, which we dubbed Cruel and Unusual Comedy, had a test-run as an education program at MoMA in 2008 and then debuted as a public series in 2009. The hook we came up with was to showcase how comedy — and comedy film — of the 1910s and 1920s was an escape valve for issues and attitudes in the public consciousness at the time, often in surreal and outrageous ways.
This was the first hook I mentioned above, the one that served for guiding our programming choices and for marketing and promotion.
The other hook, that one that was the main initiative for these programs, was to honor the work Eileen had done saving and preserving these films. We set aside the fact that the films had only been preserved, and not been restored, since we found that they were entertaining anyway, and wanted to get these films up on a screen for audiences of fans.
I can’t remember if this happened during the first public-screening go-round of Cruel and Unusual Comedy at MoMA or at the 2nd or 3rd of the ensuing iterations of the series we did over the next several years. Eileen introduced one of the programs and spoke briefly about her work preserving silent slapstick comedies at MoMA. She said something very complimentary about our doing the series to showcase the preservation work she’d had done on all these films, saying that “a preservation isn’t complete until it’s shown to an audience.”
I was very pleased to have been able to be part of this project to get several dozen of the slapstick comedy shorts shown to an audience, helping complete this preservation project of Eileen’s.
Some of the silent films preserved during Eileen’s tenure have been digitally restored by MoMA in recent years, notably Rosita (1923) with Mary Pickford, Outlaws of Red River (1927) with Tom Mix, and the Ernst Lubitsch Forbidden Paradise (1924). I suspect there are more on the way.
During December 2021, the Museum of Modern Art Department of FIlm is presenting the series In Memoriam: Eileen Bowser (1928–2019), showcasing several films – sound and silent – that were favorites of hers. The film listings and schedule are here, and you can see which programs I’ll be accompanying on my show page.