Comedy, Part 1 (Silent Era) Essay, Research Paper
In the first years of American cinema, comedies appeared only occasionally among the numerous documentaries, dramas, and actioners Edwin S. Porter directed at Thomas Edison's New York studio from 1900 to 1909. His earliest comedies, up until around 1902, were one-joke shorts in various series: Grandma and Grandpa, Happy Hooligan, Old Maid. In his 1906 The Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend, Porter deftly employed the fantastic trick-photography humor which France's George M?li?s had developed so brilliantly. But the appetite for humor was not in Porter's make-up, any more than it was in the character of D.W. Griffith. A former Porter actor, Griffith began to write and direct at Biograph in 1908. By the summer of 1912, after some 400 split- and one-reel films covering a range of genres, he'd developed the cinematic vocabulary which is still the fundamental grammar today. Less than 80 of those films, however, were comedies or farces, and most of them were made before 1911. By then, the genre's chief exponent at Biograph was a Canadian who called himself Mack Sennett, who'd joined Griffith's stock company in 1908. A few months later he played the lead in Griffith's The Curtain Pole, a swell in a top hat, transporting a lengthy curtain pole via carriage and creating havoc for traffic and pedestrians. By 1910 Sennett was acting in, writing, and directing his own comedies, such as The Lucky Toothache and The Masher. He'd do at least 30 more before leaving Biograph in 1912 and forming his own production company, Keystone. The genre had gained considerable momentum by then. The successful stage actor John Bunny had debuted in films with the Vitagraph one-reeler Jack Fat And Jim Slim At Coney Island (1910) and soon became an international celebrity, starring in over 150 shorts until his sudden death in 1915 at age 51. The portly Bunny excelled at character comedy, farcical disguises, and domestic intrigues, usually playing against the spindly and hawklike Flora Finch in what their fans called "Bunnygraphs" or "Bunnyfinches," such as A Cure For Pokeritis (1912), Stenographers Wanted (1912), and The Autocrat Of Flapjack Junction (1913). Back in 1907, the Essanay studio formed to produce westerns and comedies. Although co-founder G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson quickly achieved stardom in oaters, the studio didn't develop a comedy star until 1911, when the "Snakeville" series of rustic comedies shot Augustus Carney to fame as the slapstick lead in Alkali Ike's Automobile. He ended his run in 1913 with the two-reeler Alkali Ike's Gal, but was unable to capitalize on his success and left films soon thereafter. When Sennett left Biograph, he took with him three players who'd flourished under his direction: Fred Mace, who struck out on his own soon after but met with little success and passed away in 1917; Ford Sterling, a master at comic villainy who remained with Sennett on and off for the rest of the decade; and Mabel Normand, a lovely and vivacious performer who would become the greatest female comic of the silent era. The trio appeared in Keystone's first release, the split-reel Cohen Collects A Debt (1912). Dozens of shorts quickly followed, which were all enormously popular and made Keystone's fortune. Sennett soon left acting and devoted himself to direction and, more increasingly, production. By 1913 he'd organized a second unit and had Henry Lehrman directing more split- and one-reel comedies. Lehrman's tasks that first year included The Gangsters, in which he tried out a hefty comic named Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, who'd been in films since 1909. Mabel Normand immediately saw the potential of this juvenile, aggressive, and acrobatic clown, and they appeared together in Arbuckle's next film, Passions, He Had Three (1913). Uncannily accurate at throwing pies, Arbuckle was at home in Keystone's brand of comedy, where pratfalls and chases were the order of the day, and the torrent of material compensated for whatever gags were duds. He quickly became Sennett's top male star, and by 1915, such comedies as the two-reeler That Little Band Of Gold had made Fatty and Mabel a popular team. Arbuckle started directing his own films the previous year, and usually co-starred either with Normand or with his wife, Minta Durfee. Normand was also directing her own comedies in 1914 — the same year she and Arbuckle had acted with a British music-hall comic who'd just arrived at Keystone: Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin had played a mustachioed swindler in his debut, the one-reel Making A Living (1914), directed by Lehrman. His second and third films, Kid Auto Races At Venice and Mabel's Strange Predicament, introduced the character that would become a 20th-century icon. Chaplin created the image of a tramp through a series of contrasts: baggy pants and too-tight jacket, oversized shoes and undersized derby, plus a toothbrush moustache and a cane as aspirations to elegance, despite his penury. The Tramp freed up his comic imagination, but the more Chaplin tried to develop the character through gags and bits of business, the more his directors (Lehrman, Sennett, George Nichols, Normand) tried to force him into the Keystone mold of high-speed knockabout. Chaplin gained more control by directing, first sharing duties with Mabel Normand in Caught In A Cabaret and then in his first solo, Caught In The Rain. When he left Keystone at the end of 1914, he was a popular film comedian, having directed another sixteen of his shorts; he'd also co-directed other films with Normand and acted for Sennett, even setting aside the Tramp to co-star with Normand and Marie Dressler in the first feature-length comedy, Sennett's six-reel farce Tillie's Punctured Romance. The savagery of Keystone slapstick had suited the Tramp, who started out impudent and aggressive, given to playing mean jokes and delivering swift kicks. But Chaplin could make better money and take more time on his films elsewhere, and between 1915 and 1917, first at Essanay and then at Mutual, he wrote and directed two dozen two-reelers which made him internationally famous. The Tramp became more subtle and expressive as Chaplin worked pathos and social commentary into the hilarity of such masterpieces as The Tramp (1915), A Woman (1915), Easy Street (1917), and The Immigrant (1917). A nuanced actor and a gifted acrobat, Chaplin simply had no peer, and when he began making three-reelers at First National in 1918, his influence in comedy was all-pervasive. By then, the two men who would become his greatest rivals in the 1920s — Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton — had already made their debuts. Lloyd had been in films since his extra days in 1912; in 1915, he began starring as "Lonesome Luke" in over 50 one-reelers which producer/director Hal Roach released through Path?. Although a successful series, Luke's heavy debts to Chaplin troubled Lloyd, and he and Roach developed what they called "the glasses character," introduced in Over The Fence (1917). Lloyd donned somewhat-oversized horn-rimmed glasses and played an innocent overachiever of untested abilities, a human character with whom people could identify. Luke was history by 1918, and Lloyd convulsed audiences in over 70 one-reelers before expanding to two-reels with Bumping Into Broadway (1919). Keaton first stepped in front of the cameras in The Butcher Boy (1917), playing second banana to Arbuckle, who was now releasing his own films through Paramount. Keaton had spent virtually his entire life in vaudeville, performing in his family's violent slapstick routines. He was a superb acrobat with perfect comic timing and spent the rest of the decade apprenticing in Arbuckle's two-reelers. When Arbuckle left to star in features in 1920, Keaton began his own series of two-reelers at Metro, which would catapult him too into features.By the late teens both Chaplin and Lloyd were making three-reelers, paving the way for the transition into features, which would define comedy in the 1920s. Mabel Normand had tried the waters as early as 1916, playing a rural tomboy who hits the big city in Mickey. Sennett withheld this blend of comedy and pathos, fearful of the public response, but when it was finally released in 1918, Mickey proved a tremendous hit. Normand went on to make features for both Samuel Goldwyn and Sennett, but in 1922 she was involved in two different murder scandals: the still-mysterious death of director William Desmond Taylor, and the shooting of millionaire Cortland S. Dines. Although innocent of any wrongdoing, her career suffered; in 1926 she did fine work for Roach, feature (Raggedy Rose) and short (The Nickel-Hopper) but left films the following year. Arbuckle, after making six hit features, was arrested in 1921 and charged with raping and murdering actress Virginia Rappe. After enduring two hung juries, he was fully acquitted at his third trial; but by then his reputation was so blackened that no one would hire him to perform, and he spent the rest of the '20s directing as "William Goodrich." In 1921 Chaplin released his first feature, the classic six-reeler The Kid and had audiences laughing and weeping at the Tramp's struggles to protect an orphaned six-year-old boy (played winningly by Jackie Coogan). Despite The Kid's great success, Chaplin finished the rest of his contract with short films, preferring to release features through the studio he'd helped found, United Artists. Lloyd, however, stuck with the format; in his first features, all directed by Fred Newmeyer, he explored different takes on his character which he would rework over the decade. In A Sailor-Made Man (1921, 4 reels) Harold was a fatuous young millionaire, likable but lacking real-life experience; in Grandma's Boy (1922, 5 reels), he was a rural innocent who still hadn't learned to trust himself, and in Dr. Jack (1922, 5 reels), he played an able, confident, good-natured soul who helped others overcome their troubles. All three films were box-office hits, but his fourth feature made him one of the giants of the era. In the classic Safety Last (1923, 7 reels), co-directed by Newmeyer and Sam Taylor (who together would helm his next four films), Lloyd took his innocent character to the city and literalized the idea of social-climbing by having him substitute for a professional human fly and attempt to scale the outside of an office building. Lloyd had made thrill-comedy shorts, such as High And Dizzy (1920) and Never Weaken (1921) and knew how to make his situation look scary as well as funny. Using clever camera angles on strategically located buildings, he could make his dangerous stunts appear even more death-defying without process shots or trick photography. He also worked carefully with his writers to build both the laughs and the situational logic that kept him in peril. The sight of Harold on the face of a building, hanging from the arm of a large clock, has become one of the indelible images of silent comedy — he'd pinched the nerve of anxiety with which everyone regards their ascent to success and also typified the crazy extremes into which comedy's premises could unfurl. In the years 1920-23 Buster Keaton's two-reelers established him as the most original figure in silent comedy. Notable for his unsmiling yet highly expressive face, Keaton developed a reactive character, forever improvising solutions to cope with a hostile and chaotic universe. The more extreme his predicament, the more unforgettably stoic Keaton would become. He could stand immobile on a sinking ship until only his trademark porkpie hat was left, floating on the water, in The Boat (1921), or run in a near-Olympic sprint from the hundreds of policemen who chased him in Cops (1922); either way, his sang-froid enveloped him and insulated his spirit from his body's trials. Keaton wrote and directed almost all his shorts with Eddie Cline, a former actor and director at Keystone. They also shared the honors on his first feature, Three Ages (1923, 6 reels) — basically a trio of two-reelers sewn together in which Buster struggled for love in the Stone Age, ancient Rome, and modern America. His next film, Our Hospitality (1923, 7 reels), which he co-directed with John Blystone, was set among 19th-century feuding families and climaxed with Keaton's amazing skills at stunt comedy. Tightly knit and wildly inventive, it proved a great success, and Keaton stayed in features for the rest of the decade.The films of the mid to late 1920s have justly been regarded as the zenith of silent comedy. Chaplin, working more slowly and deliberately, made only two features, The Gold Rush (1925, 9 reels) and The Circus (1928, 7 reels). Both were huge hits, but The Gold Rush, which places the Tramp in the Klondike, has come to be regarded as one of Chaplin's masterpieces, beloved not just for such set-pieces as the starving Tramp eating his shoe, but for the Tramp's touching attempts to woo the dance-hall girl who doesn't know he's alive. In 1923 Lloyd made his last feature for Roach, the brilliantly funny Why Worry? (6 reels), in which he played a hypochondriac millionaire wandering through revolutionary South America. He then began his own series of productions, releasing a trio of films through Path?. Girl Shy (1924, 8 reels) and Hot Water (1924, 5 reels) showcased his skill at the comedy of manners and social embarrassments, as well as his genius at constructing rousing chases and elaborate gags; The Freshman (1925, 7 reels), perhaps his greatest film, featured Harold as a college newcomer who goes from being the class goat to the hero of the gridiron. His last silents, released through Paramount, were all hits and boast some of Lloyd's best sequences: his packing a rescue mission with toughs in For Heaven's Sake (1926, 6 reels, directed by Taylor); the battle with a deadly thug in The Kid Brother (1927, 8 reels, directed by Lewis Milestone and Ted Wilde); the great trolley-car race in Speedy (1928, 8 reels, directed by Wilde). Buster Keaton directed five features at Metro between 1924 and '26, and for many Sherlock, Jr. (1924, 5 reels) is his classic. Keaton's sense of the absurd hit its extreme in his portrayal of a dozing projectionist who walks right up to the movie screen and into the film, which then cuts him into crazy new locations. Such hallucinatory humor befitted the inspired madness that followed: Buster and his girlfriend trying to operate a luxury liner all by themselves in The Navigator (1924, 6 reels, co-directed with Donald Crisp); hordes of would-be brides chasing Buster, who will inherit seven million dollars if he's married by seven o'clock, in Seven Chances (1925, 6 reels); and Buster herding cattle through the streets of Los Angeles in Go West (1925, 7 reels). The most ordinary of his features, the boxing spoof Battling Butler (1926, 7 reels), proved the most lucrative and enabled Keaton to launch his own production company. He then made his most expensive and elaborate — and arguably, his greatest — film: The General (1927, 8 reels, co-directed with Clyde Bruckman), in which Buster was a Confederate railroad engineer trying to retrieve his beloved train from Union spies. Keaton poured his funniest and most astounding gags into The General yet it was a financial and critical failure, and he never directed another feature. He made two more excellent productions of his own — College (1927, 6 reels, directed by James W. Horne), a school-days satire, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928, 7 reels, directed by Charles F. Reisner), with its classic finale set in a hurricane — and then Keaton became a contract player at MGM. Despite his loss of artistic control, his last two silents, both directed by Edward Sedgwick, included sequences up to Keaton's unique standards, most notably the tong war in The Cameraman (1928, 8 reels) and Buster's attempt to put his dead-drunk wife to bed in Spite Marriage (1929, 9 reels). The mid-1920s also saw the introduction of a new screen comic, whose short but meteoric career made him the artistic and box-office equal of Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton. In 1924 Mack Sennett signed vaudevillian Harry Langdon, convinced of his tremendous potential yet uncertain over how to go about developing it. After several routine slapstick two-reelers, Sennett found the co-workers who best understood Langdon: director Harry Edwards and writers Frank Capra and Arthur Ripley. Two- and three-reelers such as Remember When? (1925), Saturday Afternoon (1926), and The Soldier Man (1926) made Langdon famous. The slowest and gentlest of silent comics, his stock in trade were looks, half-efforts, pauses, and uncertainties. His character was a childlike, inexperienced man, totally unprepared for the realities of adult life, whose successes were the result of luck or Providence, not his own feeble calculations. In 1926 Langdon left Sennett and made his best films, his first three features for First National. His team went with him, and Edwards and Capra co-directed the six-reel Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926); Capra alone helmed The Strong Man (1926, 7 reels) and Long Pants (1927, 6 reels). All three films were hits, but Langdon wanted more Chaplinesque pathos in his work and directed his next three six-reelers himself. Three's A Crowd (1927), The Chaser (1928), and Heart Trouble (1928) were protracted, maudlin flops, devoid of the inventiveness and fun which had made his films so beloved, and they derailed Langdon's career. By the late 1920s, nearly one third of all films released were short comedies. Mack Sennett's supremacy in the genre, however, had come to an end. The list of artists who worked for him since the founding of Keystone is virtually a who's who of silent comedy, but Sennett's reliance on speed and increasingly familiar forms of slapstick made it impossible for most of his players to develop their own styles and material, and by 1928 he had no major stars for his comedies. Cross-eyed Ben Turpin, who'd been clowning in films since the start of Essanay, had made a hit at Sennett in both features (The Shriek Of Araby, 1923) and shorts (Pride Of Pikeville, 1927), but retired wealthy at the end of the '20s. Brush-mustached Billy Bevan made dozens of popular two-reelers for Sennett in the '20s, such as Ma And Pa (1922) and A Sea Dog's Tale (1926), but wasn't big enough to survive the change in operations in 1928, when Sennett closed down his shop and started making talkies for release through Educational. The comedies produced by Hal Roach, however, had become increasingly successful. Roach made his fortune working with Harold Lloyd, who, being less innately clownlike, had relied on well-constructed gags and strong storylines. Roach was keen to develop these virtues in his films, and they set him apart from Sennett's breakneck pace and anything-for-a-laugh approach. By 1928 Roach had several successful comedy series, all of which would go on to even greater heights in the '30s, after the advent of sound. Charley Chase had performed with Chaplin and Arbuckle in the teens and in 1921 began writing and directing at Roach. He resumed acting a few years later, developing the character of a dapper professional who was always the innocent center of outrageous and embarrassing situations; Chase especially shone with director Leo McCarey in such great two-reelers as Bad Boy (1925), His Wooden Wedding (1925), and Mighty Like A Moose (1926). The Our Gang shorts, starring a group of lovable but mischievous children, were a hit in the '20s, and as talkies with new stars, the series would be even more successful. Roach's greatest triumph, however, were his films which featured the funniest comedy team in the history of cinema: Laurel and Hardy.Englishman Stan Laurel, touring the States with Fred Karno's music-hall company (where he'd been Chaplin's understudy), settled here in 1912 and began making films in 1917. In one comedy that year, Lucky Dog, he performed opposite Oliver Hardy, a Southerner who specialized in comic heavies (and here played a stick-up man who attacks Laurel). The two then resumed their independent careers, and by the '20s Laurel had achieved some success starring in shorts for various studios, including Roach; he was especially fond of parodying hit films, sending up Rudolph Valentino in Mud And Sand (1922) and Barrymore in Dr. Pyckle And Mr. Pride (1925). Hardy kept busy supporting the Chaplin imitator Billy West and later, comic Larry Semon. In the mid '20s both men were at Roach and in 1927 began appearing together in two-reelers such as Why Girls Love Sailors and With Love And Hisses. These films kept them in their familiar roles: the thin Laurel as a brash if not-very-bright go-getter, and the fat Hardy as his menacing opponent. Later that year, in The Second Hundred Years and Do Detectives Think?, they began working as a duo, and by 1928 Laurel and Hardy were box-office stars, with their characters clearly defined. Both men are breathtakingly dumb; Hardy, however, has a sense of adult life and usually leads their activities and so bears the brunt of the slapstick troubles which ensue, while Laurel, less aware and more childlike, provides assistance which usually makes matters worse. (Although Hardy played the richer of the two characters, Laurel was the more creative offscreen, involved in the production, writing, and editing of their films.) The boys long to enter society, but their every involvement with the world ends in failure — and often in catastrophe because they could also release the most anarchic and destructive behavior from other people. The classic Laurel & Hardy silents have minor confrontations that escalate into wars: the streetwide pie fight of The Battle Of The Century (1927), the highway-long stream of wrecked automobiles in Two Tars (1928), and perhaps most memorably, their encounter with crabby Scotsman James Finlayson in Big Business (1929), in which they demolish his house while he destroys their car. Leo McCarey was an important contributor to the team's birth and directed some of their wildest comedies, including Liberty (1929), with its thrill-sequence climax, and Wrong Again (1929) where the boys try to stand a horse on top of a grand piano. Laurel and Hardy were the only silent comics of the first rank whose work would be enhanced by sound. Chaplin kept the Tramp silent during the '30s; Keaton and Lloyd were eventually stopped dead by talkies, and Langdon was unable to revitalize his career. Only Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, ignored by critics but adored by audiences, met this epochal change in the art of making the world laugh.