Film, History, Pop Culture

The Silent Clowns

Greetings, cinephiles! This is Peter, one of the adult reference librarians. During the December holiday break of my 5th grade school year, my Dad took my brother and I sledding at a nearby golf course, after a snow fall. Despite trees being only sparsely present, I managed to slam head on into a huge oak, knocking myself out briefly and badly scratching up my face. This was before the automatic ambulance/hospital routine for a likely concussion, so I was instead taken straight home for a lie down with an ice pack in a spare bedroom with a tiny black and white portable TV. As my Mom searched the limited channel selection, she came upon a silent film festival on channel 13, the local PBS station. She assured me I would enjoy it, mentioned the name Charlie Chaplin, and left me to it. I enjoyed the tiny handful of silent films I had previously been exposed to, so settled into what turned out to be the short Easy Street, from 1917. It was the iconic scene where Chaplin, as a cop, is doing battle with his arch enemy bully, played by frequent co-star Eric Campbell. The huge Campbell has bent a streetlamp in half in an attempt to literally gaslight Chaplin. Before long, I had forgotten about my injuries and was up close to the 6 inch screen thoroughly enthralled. By the end of the show, I was obsessed with Chaplin and commenced to find out anything I could about him and his work, reading everything I could find from the South Huntington Library. Before video, the only way to see his films was whenever PBS showed compilations, perhaps twice a year, and his feature The Gold Rush occasionally showed up on The Silent Years series on Saturday nights. Chaplin was in his eighties at the time, and still reissuing some of his features from the twenties with newly composed and recorded soundtracks. The following spring he re-released The Circus from 1928 to theaters, featuring a new opening theme song he wrote and sang himself, and my Mom brought my 11th birthday party guests and me to see it at the local revival house in Uniondale. For that year’s Academy awards, Chaplin traveled to America to receive an honorary Oscar and I was allowed to stay up and watch. Soon I had my own 8 mm projector and was starting to collect films, many of them Chaplin’s, from the old Blackhawk Films mail order catalog and projecting them for family and friends. With the advent of home video many years later, I was finally able to experience the rest of his output. Today, of course, all that is needed is a DVD player or an online connection to a video streaming service such as Kanopy, which is available to all cardholders from the library, which also owns virtually all of the Chaplin titles available on DVD as well. I love them all, but my recommendation is to start with the twelve 2-reel masterpieces Chaplin created for the Mutual company in 1916-17. Each one is brilliant, and those are the ones that hooked me for life.

Here is a link to the Chaplin films available from Kanopy, all of them in well-preserved, fully restored editions, with correct projection speeds and appropriate accompanying music soundtracks. Click on any of the titles for immediate download automatically returned after seven days, and enjoy!

Another silent film comic I came to enjoy shortly after discovering the genius of Chaplin was Buster Keaton, whose 1927 masterpiece The General was also shown on The Silent Years. I purchased many of his shorter films from Blackhawk for my projector (I still remember how excited I would be when I found the familiar box from Davenport, Iowa waiting for me in the mailbox when I got home from school.) The unfortunate thing about many of Keaton’s films was the poor condition of many of the surviving copies, which limited the number of titles available for public viewing, even after the advent of home video. Fortunately, Kanopy also features the majority of Keaton’s work in brand new, fully restored editions from the Cohen Film Collection, many with elements from recently discovered complete prints reincorporated into the films and available for the first time since they opened in theaters 100 years ago. The pristine quality of these editions is truly amazing, and look as though they were brand new. Finally, much of Keaton’s work is fully available for the first time in many years. The earlier, shorter works are probably the best starting point, although each of his silent features is delightful.

Here is the link to the Keaton titles available from Kanopy. Among them is the excellent new biographical documentary by Peter Bogdonovich, The Great Buster, also from the Cohen Film Collection. The library also owns, or can inter-library loan from other libraries, most of this material on DVD as well.

A third silent clown was Harold Lloyd, whose “Glasses Character” presented a dapper, young man about town, looking for romance and adventure. He perhaps best represents the optimism and exuberance of 1920’s America, and his work holds up very well as do his physical stunts, considering that many were performed after an on-set accident cost him the thumb and index finger of his right hand early in his career. He appeared with a specially designed prosthetic glove from then on. His best known film is Safety Last (1923), the thrilling conclusion of which features a harrowing climb up the facade of a downtown office building including Lloyd briefly dangling from the hands of a large clock. Although these scenes were filmed using trick shots which eliminated the risk factor, the resulting footage is among the most famous in silent film history. A handful of Lloyd’s films are available online from the Library’s Kanopy account. Of these, my personal favorite is Hot Water, which features a hilarious scene involving a streetcar, Lloyd, a bunch of packages and a live turkey. Clicking on the following links will bring you to the download screens for each film:

The rest of Lloyd’s great films are available from the library on DVD in a set titled The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection. Among the best are the feature length gems Safety Last, The Freshman, and Speedy, the last of which features a hair-raising high speed taxi ride through 1928 Manhattan, including cameos by Babe Ruth and, very briefly (don’t blink or you’ll miss him) Lou Gherig! This link will bring you to the catalog entry for The Harold Lloyd Collection:

The last great comic usually included under the “Silent Clowns” banner is generally considered to be Harry Langdon, whose innocent, baby-faced man-child character can be an acquired taste for some, but I enjoy him immensely. Although not available on Kanopy, the Library owns several DVDs of his best work. Although Langdon’s status as a true auteur is in question among scholars of cinema, Chaplin himself once claimed that he only ever felt threatened in his career by Langdon’s work. Here’s the link for The Harry Langdon Collection:

One addition I would personally add to the “Silent Clowns” pantheon is the silent film work of Laurel and Hardy, from their first pairings in the mid-1920’s to their transition to sound in 1929. There are a number of hilarious gems here, and an extra bonus is the chance to see these two brilliant comic actors develop their “Stan and Ollie” characters, both individually and as a team, as well as the early iterations of the types of routines Stan Laurel would invent for the two throughout their long partnership. Although Kanopy has no Laurel and Hardy to date, the Library has two volumes from the rare Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy DVD series, and more are available for inter-library loan from other libraries. Some of these include examples of very early solo film work by both comics as well. I find silent Laurel and Hardy to be every bit as entertaining as the talking variety! Follow these links for more info!

To sign up for a Kanopy account through the Library, you will need to enter the email and password connected to your library card, select your home library of Lindenhurst from a drop-down list, and enter your library card barcode. Click here for your library account. If your card has expired, you may click here for a temporary Library card while the Library is closed. For any other issues that arise, please email the Library at for help.

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