The Silent Clowns

Three cheers – silent ones of course – to the producers of the Silent Clowns film series. I’ve been attending screenings by this silent comedy exhibition project for well over a decade now. (I started bringing my son Cashel when he was little more than a toddler; now he has facial hair and beats me at arm wrestling.) My devotion stems from the fact that its organizers Ben Model, Bruce Lawton and Steve Massa (who’ve long since become friends and colleagues) are absolute connoisseurs, devoted to expanding and enriching the public’s appreciation of the art form they love so well. Understand: this is not a film series for the dilettante. This being New York, these gentlemen (rightly, I hope) assume you’ve long since already seen Modern Times, City Lights, The General and Safety Last. They therefore constantly invigorate our palates by exposing us to the work of lesser known comedians and lesser known works by the major ones, thus making helpless junkies of us their fans as we grow increasingly dependent on them for the thrills that come with each revelation. The three producers accompany the screenings with their own encyclopedic commentary, each of them expert in a different niche. Model is the accompanist (he studied with Lee Erwin, one of the biggest – and last – of the originals, as well as with film scholar William K. Everson, who wrote many of the seminal books on the subject.) Lawton is the projectionist and a preservationist; he’s the one who does the detective work, and I imagine the negotiating; you’ll see his name (and also Model’s) in the credits on many a silent comedy DVD nowadays. The third in the triumvirate, Massa, is also a film historian and writer, and a librarian at the NYPL performing arts branch. The three of them share behind-the-scenes anecdotes (and gossip) with us; point out interesting little details in the films; and spread their infectious enthusiasm. They also answer any questions. It really is the equivalent of a college course or adult education class PLUS a children’s program all mixed in one. It’s the only event in the city I’m aware of where grandparents, parents, teenagers and small children all seem equally engaged and, frankly, happy.

AND HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? Ten dollars for grown-ups, five dollars for kids. Clearly Model, Lawton, and Massa love silent film so much that, like Crazy Eddie, they have gone INSANE.

I didn’t come up with this post just because I felt like it. They are about to launch their new spring season “Jewels and Gems: Rare Prints from Private Collections”. Running on selected Sundays starting tomorrow through April 25, the series will feature such unjustly forgotten funny men as Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Lupino Lane, Billy Bevan and a pre-Hardy Stan Laurel. Don’t for a second let the academic-sounding title scare you. These are very funny films made by the top clowns of their day. Trust me, the old films are bewitching; once you get hooked, you won’t stop.

The Silent Clowns Film Series is now at the Arclight Theatre, 152 West 71st Street (between Broadway and Columbus). For info and tickets, go here.

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