Sunday, June 1, 2008

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees "The Circus" (plus a couple of shorts)

It's about time I made it back to my little local hangout that happens to be the only theater that plays old silent films on a regular, weekly schedule. It's surprising how long it's been since I've had a Saturday night free to go to Niles. And now I'll miss it for at least 3 weeks, what with being at Holehead and then out of town.

But last night was a lot of fun. First a couple of shorts. First was "Modeling" by the Fleischer brothers (Dave and Max) and starring Koko the Clown. This is from 1921, and combines animation and live action very, very effectively. Max Fleischer dips his pen in the inkwell, the ink jumps out of the pen onto the page and forms Koko the Clown. Max draws a frozen lake and ice skates for him, so he'll have something to do. And Koko has silly adventures there. Meanwhile, in the other part of the studio, a man has come in commissioning a bust of himself out of clay. Trouble is, he has a huge nose and huge ears, and the bust just isn't right--it looks too much like him. While Max and the sculptor try to fix the bust, Koko jumps off the page and starts causing trouble in the studio. Very funny stuff.

I should also mention that this short was projected on their hand-cranked projector. When I first visited the theater and toured the projection booth, it became my new dream to someday hand crank a short film for an audience. Big kudos to the projectionist for this one.

Next up was the Buster Keaton short, "One Week". I've seen this before as part of the Buster Keaton DVD box set. But seeing it with an audience is a whole different matter. The story of newlyweds building their own house is full of Keaton's characteristic acrobatic comedy, and some completely absurd architecture. What more can I say, it's hilarious.

Then there was an intermission, and finally the feature presentation. This was a last minute rescheduling, because they couldn't get the film they originally wanted to play ("Orchids and Ermine" starring Colleen Moore), but as a last minute replacement you can do a hell of a lot worse than Charlie Chaplin's "The Circus".

They actually started this movie in sound, with the score Chaplin himself wrote for it. Just long enough for the opening credit song, sung by Chaplin himself (recorded for the 40th anniversary re-release in 1969, when Chaplin was 80). Then they turned the sound off an let Bruce Loeb take over at the piano (and he deserves kudos for the entire night's music).

For those who haven't seen "The Circus", Chaplin's famous Tramp character inadvertently joins the circus as he's running from the cops. Turns out, he's funnier than any of the actual clowns there, and without knowing it he's the star of the show. He's given a job, but can't do the actual clown acts. So he's made an assistant to the prop master, and gets his biggest laughs tripping over the props and "ruining" the show. He falls in love with the circus master's daughter, but a love triangle forms when she falls for the newest star, the tightrope walker named Rex. And, of course, in the wacky antics Chaplin ends up on a high wire himself.

But enough, I don't need to describe the plot. The gags are classic Chaplin, and it's hilarious. And of course, it's on DVD (in many editions), so just go rent or buy it and see it yourself. But still, there's nothing like watching it with an audience that's laughing along with you.

And that was last Saturday at the Edison Theater in the Niles Essanay Film Museum.

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