Silent Comedy Laughs

Every once in a while I question something I’ve been saying about the way people react to silent films. It’s usually when one of these responses hasn’t happened for a couple or few years. And then it happens again, and I am re-invigorated with this reaction. This very thing happened on Saturday.

Ironically, it was something I had blogged about last week, in a post about showing silent comedies at senior living facilities and senior centers. It’s the comment I’ve gotten after these kind of shows a couple times — a thank-you for bringing the show to them, punctuated with “We don’t get to laugh like this…!”

It had been a while since someone had said this to me, but it just happened again. 

We get a lot of senior citizens at The Silent Clowns Film Series, along with a lot of classic film fans and some families. The series has been around since 1997, and we began a partnership with the New York Public Library’s Library for the Performing Arts in 2010 that tripled our attendance almost immediately. The shows are held once a month on a Saturday afternoon and, because they’re held at a public library, they are free. So, we get a lot of seniors at our shows.

I’m still working on finding an effective way to get the word out to parenting websites and blogs — and by effective I mean a way that leads to actual listings and especially attendance — because the kids who do come to the shows absolutely love it. 

Joel McCrea and Jimmy Conlin in Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

On Saturday, during the Q&A at our show of “It” (1927) starring Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno, one of the seniors in our audience had a comment about how absolutely funny the films were. In particular, he mentioned how much he’d laughed at the Alice Howell comedy Cinderella Cinders (1920) saying what was so remarkable about this was that, as he put it, “I don’t laugh”.

This comment reminds me of something I remember reading in Randy Skretvedt’s book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies. In the silent days, the Hal Roach staff would preview a two-reel comedy before releasing it, placing people around the theater with who would count the laughs in the picture. Apparently, when they got the short to the point that had 50-60 laughs they knew it was ready for release. Otherwise, they’d go back to reshoot or recut until I they got the 22-minute short up to that laugh count.

There is something arguably therapeutic about the kind of laugh you have at a silent comedy film show, and the number of times you have that laugh during a show. I’m sure there are studies about the connection between laughter and health. Hospital clowning is something you should know about if you don’t already; I have several friends in the clown/circus world who are involved with this.

The gentleman’s comment at our show last Saturday also brings to mind the closing line from the Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cock-eyed caravan.”

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Richard Ward

The best audience response I ever heard was about 30 years ago at a screening, with live organ music, of Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last.” There were probably 300 to 400 in attendance. The volume of the laughter was almost frightening. It was really that loud. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard that reaction at a contemporary comedy.