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Silent Comedies and Kids - Can't beat Buster, can't top the Tramp

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Silent Comedies and Kids - Can't beat Buster, can't top the Tramp

Old 04-17-03, 10:36 AM
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Silent Comedies and Kids - Can't beat Buster, can't top the Tramp

From the Los Angeles Times

Can't beat Buster, can't top the Tramp
By Randy Lewis, Times Staff Writer


When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg updated "Star Wars" and "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" for anniversary video releases, their oft-quoted rationale for after-the-fact tinkering with movie classics was that today's sophisticated kids expect better special effects than they were able to muster in the quaint old '70s and '80s.

In response to that, I have just two words: Buster Keaton.

I recently decided to see how my sons, 10 and 6, would respond to silent movies. To my astonishment and delight, Keaton and Charlie Chaplin have become as hot in our house as Anakin Skywalker and Spider-Man were last year.

Alec and Harrison are thoroughly modern kids, up on the latest on-screen adventures of Harry Potter and Peter Parker. They not only know the distinctions between all the Yu-Gi-Oh and Digimon characters (and trading cards), but actually care about them.

Curious as to whether a silent movie could connect with kids who think the Dark Ages was life before GameBoy, one night I put on Chaplin's "City Lights."

I knew it was a risk starting with a feature rather than a shorter film. Yet for nearly an hour, my 6-year-old, Harrison, was glued to the story of the Little Tramp and the blind flower girl who mistakes him for a millionaire. (He gave up only when his internal clock struck "bedtime" and he toddled off to sleep.)

Alec, the 10-year-old, who apparently came from the manufacturer without an internal clock, was gripped until the poignant but ambiguous ending, in which the woman sees the Tramp for the first time after her eyesight is restored because of his anonymous sacrifice for her. Then he peppered me with questions: "Did she recognize the Little Tramp?" "Does she know he was the one who helped her?" "Are they going to be together?"

From there we moved on (another night) to Chaplin's "The Gold Rush." They adored it, especially the scenes with a real bear, and another in a remote cabin with a miner and a claim jumper wrestling over a gun whose barrel somehow always ends up pointing at Chaplin.

Then it was time to give Keaton a shot. We tried "The Blacksmith," then "The High Sign" and, our favorite so far, "One Week," the whimsical chronicle of Keaton and his bride setting up house.

Shorts have the advantage of the comedic invention of such features as "The Navigator," "Go West," "The Battling Butler," "Steamboat Bill Jr." and "The General," but at running times (20 to 25 minutes) tailor-made for young attention spans.

Now my 6-year-old often zips right over the "Batman" and "Jurassic Park" videos and asks: "Will you put on some Buster?"

To see whether their response was an anomaly, I showed "One Week" to 30 10- and 11-year-olds in my son's fifth-grade class (to glowing reviews), then lent the tape to my neighbors to try on their young ones (a 3-year-old daughter, 4 1/2-year-old triplets).

The message on my answering machine later that night: "They think this is the funniest thing they've ever seen. We had it on with a group of people literally from 3 to 83, and we were all in hysterics."

Lucas and Spielberg notwithstanding, it's nice to know that the old guys, even with their Stone Age technology, can still speak to kids even 80 years later. And comedy that isn't rooted in flatulence or mean-spiritedness still makes them laugh.

"The pratfall comedy, the Chaplin comedies, the Keatons, the [Fatty] Arbuckles, the [Harold] Lloyds, they work," says John Flowers, who teaches psychology and film at Chapman University in Orange. "One of the strange things I've seen is that if we try to get [kids] into later black-and-white films of the '40s and '50s, it's not going to work as well. Anything that's more story-driven, heavy on plot, they much prefer with color ... with effects. But if you go way back, they don't expect that."

Silent comedies can appeal to even the youngest viewers, he says, "because they're far more physical. You either laugh or you don't. You don't have to explain much. They are literally seeing it for what it is. As soon as a kid develops a sense of what's contemporary, it knocks out the middle ground of older films, because those are too much like what they watch now, but not as good. Silents work because they are totally different from what they watch now."

As one of my son's classmates put it after watching Keaton's "One Week": "All the jokes in movies we see now are kind of the same. These were all different."
Old 04-17-03, 10:40 AM
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If you've got TCM, this month they are showing a slew of Harold Lloyd silent comedies, they are alot of fun, I highly recommend them!
Old 04-17-03, 10:40 AM
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I remember watching old Laurel and Hardy, Little Rascals and 3 stooges when I was a kid and loving it so......

I tried showing some Laurel and Hardy shorts that I had on an old VHS to my 4.5 year old daughter. She loved it.

Now, I guess I gotta find sum L&H, CChaplin and Keaton DVD's for my 1.5 year old son.
Old 04-17-03, 03:08 PM
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It's great to see people starting their kids on these classics.

When I was a kid I saw Laurel & Hardy's "Big Business" at a pizza parlor and I've been fascinated by the silent era ever since.

For those with TCM, Harold Lloyd's best known movie Safety Last (with Lloyd dangling from the clock) will kickoff this Sunday's Harold Lloyd marathon.
Old 04-18-03, 09:53 AM
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Pizza parlors showing silents... now that brings back memories. I think I was like, 3.
Old 04-18-03, 07:22 PM
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I showed some Chaplin shorts to my younger sisters.

...they didn't find them quite as enjoyable as that author's children did.

So it goes.

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