Bring Back the Classics

Betty Boop and Popeye are in a theater near you.

By: Susan Van Dongen
   No Popeye?
   That’s hard to imagine for folks of a certain age.
   Today’s kids are deprived. Apparently the snarly sailorman is
hard to find on TV, even with hundreds of satellite channels to choose from.
   That’s one of the reasons why comedy connoisseur and film preservationist
Bruce Lawton is screening Popeye and some other old cartoons, along with classic
funny films from long ago.
   Back by popular demand, the Arts Council of Princeton presents
family-friendly Classic Comedy Cavalcade at the conTEMPORARY Arts Center
in the Princeton Shopping Center Dec. 28. Mr. Lawton, a film historian and archivist,
will roll out a plethora of short films in their original 16 mm format on a large
screen — as they were intended to be shown. In addition, he’ll introduce
the films and answer questions following the program.
   "I started a number of years ago with a marathon on New Year’s
Eve and now this is my fourth or fifth year with this," Mr. Lawton says. "I’m
running stuff that doesn’t get shown or isn’t readily available, a few oddities
like little comedy films and variety shorts. It’s a mix of things I’ve pulled
together from my collection, things I’ve restored.
   "And I’m running it all on film, not video projection," he continues.
"It’s great when the kids come in and they see the film projectors for the first
time. They want to know, ‘What are those machines? What is film?’"
   Interestingly, those kids — who have all kinds of technology
at their fingertips and have been bombarded by sound and vision since birth —
are intrigued with the vintage films, even silent movies.
   "The kids’ reactions are surprisingly positive, especially with
the young children," Mr. Lawton says. "This material is timeless and this is proven
when the people respond."
   The audience, including the young viewers, seems to be enchanted
with the physical comedy, remarkable stunt work and special effects from the old
movies. Mr. Lawton enjoys reminding the audience that all this work was done by
hand, and the stunts by stuntmen or the actors themselves. This was, of course,
long before the age of computers.
   "I always get questions like, ‘How did they do these films and
stunts?’" Mr. Lawton says. "I tell them that the actor really is performing this
stunt — they didn’t have computer generation. If it’s a trick, it was done
on the set, and that’s fascinating to kids. And people make connections —
they see gags in these films and they’ll recognize them in today’s cartoons."
   Look for Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel
and Hardy, and the eternally dishy cartoon character Betty Boop. Mr. Lawton is
thinking about screening some more obscure talents as well.
   "I have (films) with Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chase, who was
a John Cleese type from the ’20s, tall and lanky — his comedies are delightful,"
Mr. Lawton says. "Then there’s Lupino Lane, an English comedian who you might
call the British Buster Keaton. All of these films were produced for maximum entertainment
for an audience. They’re still very entertaining and they still work. And it’s
a privilege to introduce people to this material and these artists."
   Mr. Lawton recently launched another film series, screening
at the Princeton Public Library, focusing on James Stewart’s post-World War II
films. The series continues Jan. 14 with a triple feature — Rope,
Winchester and The Spirit of St. Louis. The Feb. 18 series finale
will feature the films Jackpot and Harvey.
   The screenings — celebrating an actor who also happens
to be a Princeton University alumnus — are planned around films made after
Mr. Stewart served in the war, which had a significant impact on his film career.
   "The war affected him deeply," Mr. Lawton says. "This is reflected
in his postwar performances, particularly in his choice of roles. But Stewart
is also a link to that golden era of comedy. ‘Jackpot’ in particular is a (template)
for today’s situation comedies.
   "Overall, doing this is like mission work for me, taking these
artists from 75 or 80 years ago and bringing them to life," he continues. "They
left these moments of wonderment behind, but you can turn on a machine and they’re
alive again."
Classic Comedy Cavalcade, hosted by Bruce Lawton and presented by the Arts
Council of Princeton, will be held at the conTEMPORARY Arts Center, Princeton
Shopping Center, 301 N. Harrison St., Princeton, Dec. 28, 3 p.m. Admission costs
$6, under 5 free. For information, call (609) 924-8777. On the Web:
The James Stewart film series continues at Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon
St., Princeton, Jan. 14, 1 p.m., and Feb. 18, 3 p.m. Free admission. For information,
call (609) 924-9529. On the Web: