The sixth Flatpack Film Festival kicked off with a great night showcasing several classic silent films. This was the first event of this year’s Birmingham-based film festival, which screens a glut of films for every taste from classics such as The Elephant Man to surreal and niche shorts like The Cat With Hands.
Another Fine Mess was a showcase of black and white comedies from the early part of the twentieth century, accompanied by the expertise of Neil Brand, a pianist who accompanies silent movies across the world (he also featured on Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns TV series).
After we had taken our seats in the (surprisingly warm) cathedral along with 200 others ranging in age from teens to pensioners, Ian Francis, Director of Flatpack, gave a brief introduction to the four day festival taking place at venues across the city. It was then on to the main event as Neil Brand highlighted the recent renaissance of silent film, undoubtedly spurred on by the success of The Artist.
The first film we were show was A Pair of Tights, from 1929, which centred around a pair of tight wads taking two (hungry) ladies on a double date. Resisting their date’s calls for a slap-up turkey dinner, the ‘pair of tights’ agreed to splash out on four ice cream cones. This prompted hilarious scenes involving revolving doors, amorous dogs and fist-shaking policemen, climaxing in what can only be termed reciprocal slapstick violence. It was a great introduction to the genre and you quickly forgot that Neil Brand was playing the piano in the room throughout, his compositions matching the drama and his emphasis perfectly timed with what was happening on screen.
Next up was one of the highlights of the night: a short entitled The Dog Outwits The Kidnapper (1908). What starts out as a very sinister tale of a toddler kidnapping turns rapidly into a heroic story of canine bravery. I won’t ruin it for you, as it’s available on YouTube in all its glory, but I will say though that from a personal perspective any film involving a dog dressed up, or driving a car, is a winner in my book. See for yourself: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qApoxM41NGQ
Following these were some shorts illustrating the imagination, escapism and fantasy that characterised early black and white films. We were treated to eerie musical accompaniment for a man sneezing until he exploded (as funny as it sounds), a dramatisation of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves (as if it had been filmed on an drug induced high), and a train journey through space to the sun. These were also some of the earliest first colour films, created by artists individually hand-painting every single film cell – an arduous task to say the least, but the results were undoubtedly astonishing to audiences of the time.
Then it was the final event, starring one of, if not the most famous double act in cinema history: Laurel and Hardy in You’re Darn Tootin‘ from 1928. Audience participation was key to the screening of this film, with a drum handed out to replicate the noise of a punch to the stomach, a triangle for a kick to the knee, and pieces of paper for everyone to rip during the fabulous final scene: a mass trouser ripping involving over a dozen characters.
Accompanied by rapturous laughter, Another Fine Mess was a great start to the festival and also a great introduction to the silent film genre, the piano accompaniment and introductions to each short by Neil Brand really enhanced the event. The mixture of ages in the audience shows the variety of appeal these films have, and the overall audio and visual experience were unlike those found in Cineworld, the Showcase or the Odeon, and more like that at the theatre or the concert hall – a refreshing change to say the least.
A final thought for those who may not be too familiar with the stars of the silent comedy era: if you grew up finding the Chuckle Brothers funny, you’ll be in tears watching anything involving Laurel and Hardy.
Words by Andy Newnham