Film historian’s classic comedies still hold punch

A packed house gets a new look at Harold Lloyd, Popeye and fellow stars of the early 20th century

By: Marjorie Censer
   Harold Lloyd’s still got it.
   As the film star — who made more than 200 movies in the first third of the 20th century — stumbled along the ledge of a skyscraper in 1923’s "Safety Last!" the audience laughed, gasped and even screamed at The Arts Council of Princeton’s fourth annual Classic Comedy Cavalcade: A Cinematic Holiday, on Wednesday.
   Film historian and archivist Bruce Lawton showed five short films, all made between 1923 and 1936. A packed house of children and adults munched on popcorn and watched as Popeye encountered Sindbad the Sailor in a 1936 film and as Robert Benchley nervously addressed a club in "The Treasurer’s Report" of 1928.
   Also shown were "With Love and Kisses," the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy film of 1927, and "King Klunk" with Pooch the Pup, a 1933 cartoon film.
   Mr. Lawton introduced the films and said he first became interested in classic cinema as a child. From a family of cinematographers, Mr. Lawton watched projected films in the 20-seat movie theater in his grandfather’s basement.
   "I discovered film at a very early age," he explained. "I haven’t been able to think about anything else ever since."
   Mr. Lawton spoke highly of film as an invention, noting that it allows modern audiences to enjoy performers and performances that would have otherwise been lost.
   "It’s 75 to 100 years later, and yet you can turn on a machine and they’re alive again," he said.
   He also emphasized the relevance of what the audience was watching, noting that much of today’s comedy is influenced by that of the past. However, he said, the films were not intended to be watched in sequence, as the cavalcade was set up. Rather, they were used as complements to feature films when they were first made.
   After the films, audience members peppered Mr. Lawton with questions. One attendee asked about seeing more of the films on reels — rather than on DVDs or VHS tapes. Mr. Lawton said he thought it was important for collectors to make the films available to audiences.
   "Film is sort of useless unless it’s got light shining through it in front of an audience," he said. "It’s much more fun if you share it with people — that’s the whole point."