Posted by David Kalat on February 11, 2012
In the introduction to his essential new book The Funny Parts (McFarland, 2011), writer Anthony Balducci relates an anecdote about Bill Cosby appropriating and improving on a routine first performed by George Carlin, and the lasting personal enmity that resulted from this “theft.”
Balducci tells the story as a signpost for how attitudes about intellectual property in comedy have shifted over the last century or so. Among other things to admire about this book, this anecdote is an example of how Balducci shows an awareness and appreciation of modern comedy, and a refreshing willingness to discuss them in the same context as silent comedy–whereas too many scholars and writers steeped in silent-era movies tend to act as if popular culture ceased to exist in 1928.
The Funny Parts is an exhaustive—and at times exhausting—catalog of slapstick routines and bits —a history of the genre that doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, or by artist, but rather by joke.
For example, he chronicles the history of comedians slipping on banana peels. Balducci cites as his earliest exemplar of this gag the 1910 Biograph comedy The Passing of a Grouch. I wanted to run that clip for you here but I couldn’t find it in time, so I’ll run this instead–this is Harold Lloyd in 1926′s For Heaven’s Sake. Watch how the banana peel is used as a capper in an incredibly tightly choreographed and really quite epic sequence of physical comedy–this is as High Art as a banana peel gag can get:
For reasons we’ll explore in a minute, Balducci makes no claim to being a comprehensive survey of comedy bits, and when he cites The Passing of a Grouch, he makes no assertion that this is the earliest such gag, nor that the list that follows includes every banana-peel slip ever filmed—but the list is nonetheless an impressive one.
Now, mind you, this is basically a glorified list—the book does not take much time to try to dissect how these jokes function. Comedy is notoriously resistant to analysis.
To the extent this book of lists tries to answer, y’know, why did so many comedians do jokes about slipping on banana peels, Balducci offers the theory that comedians in the early days of cinema were under intense pressure to continually generate product and had come from stage comedy traditions that reached back to the Commedia dell’Arte—and so there was a pervasive sense of free-for-all, where each comedian felt entitled to adapt, adopt, and improve routines they’d seen elsewhere. What mattered wasn’t who did it first, but who did it best.
Fair enough, and absent any significant evidence to offer an alternate explanation, this seems as robust an answer as any. As we’ve discussed in this space before, the early days of American screen comedy didn’t place an obvious value on notions of intellectual property. For example, Charlie Chaplin tried to enforce some legal priority to the character of the Little Tramp, while willfully ignoring how many others he’d ripped off in “creating” that character in the first place.
And so we end up with things like Chaplin’s most iconic routine, the bread roll dance from The Gold Rush, being at least the second version of that gag—having been filmed previously by Roscoe Arbuckle.
And let’s face it–it makes no sense whatsoever for that the be the first screen version of that bit. Arbuckle’s performance of it seems parodic, like he’s mimicking (half-heartedly) something the audience already recognizes. But the written records of what was performed on stage in vaudeville and music halls are so spotty as to be useless in this regard–we can assume there were other versions of the bread roll dance prior to that, but we don’t (at this point in time) know what they were, or when.
Any attempt to try to define a comedian’s work in terms of specific gags has to allow for these vagueries. Balducci frequently notes when various routines have antecedents in the Commedia dell’Arte, but this begs more questions than it answers. We don’t have a reliable record of what was performed on the vaudeville stages, and by whom. A discussion thread at Silent Comedy Mafia have speculated on whether the fabled “mirror routine” had its roots in a stage routine—but speculation is all we can have on such a question.
But if the question is, where did a certain joke come from?, noting who did it first isn’t really the answer we’re looking for. As Balducci notes, the point was to do it best, not first. Even if we could lock down with 100% certainty that Roscoe Arbuckle’s version of the bread roll dance was first, it doesn’t change the fact that Chaplin’s was better. This was my argument back in our survey of Chaplin mimics—Chaplin’s greatest edge over his mimics was that he was simply better, and when you get down to it the questions over who did what first can never change that.
So… where did this joke come from? We’re not asking who did it first, but why anyone did it at all.
That being said, there is room here for other scholars to build on Balducci’s research and to extend the conversation into the realm of “why?”—for example, let’s take the banana peel.
Back at the turn of the century, as more and more Americans packed themselves into urban spaces, there were almost no public trash containers but plenty of street vendors hawking fruit. Put simply: city dwellers ate bananas in the street and discarded the peels as they walked. And other people did in fact slip on the peels–and this resulted in injuries and even deaths.
Which is simultaneously tragic and ridiculous.
There’s an uncomfortable dissonance in the idea that something mundane like an abandoned snack wrapper could kill you–and that queasy feeling is an invitation for a joke. We have our own first-hand experience with this phenomenon–79-year-old Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns from a spilled cup of McDonalds coffee. She endured years of hospitalization and skin grafts to recover. And her genuine physical pain became the butt of endless jokes–made not so much at her expense as to defuse the discomfort caused by the idea. Banana peel jokes in the silent era were that generation’s equivalent of McDonalds coffee punchlines.
I uncovered this secret history of banana peel jokes by accident, while reading an article about urban planning. I wish I had a similar explanation for all those limburger cheese jokes. I mean, seriously, how much limburger cheese were Americans eating back then? Was stinky cheese really such a scourge?
I’m not saying Balducci is remiss in leaving out discussion of the “why,” because there’s no good way to even get to that kind of analysis without the first step of data collection that Balducci has heroically done here. The research that went into this is nothing short of awe-inspiring—and I say that from the perspective of someone who once tried something similar. Some of my blog posts here about silent comedy subjects have been cannibalized in part from a book project I initiated and never finished. It was to have been a companion piece to my DVD series American Slapstick. Both forms of American Slapstick, the book and DVD versions, were intended to explore the vast stretches of si-com history outside the “Big Three” of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd.
Setting out to chronicle the history of slapstick comedy is a more daunting task than you might think. Consider the scope: one of the very first motion pictures ever made, in 1895, features a slapstick gag that would be a mainstay of the silent comics of the teens and twenties. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, inarguably two of the most important figures of the scene, were still making movies in the late 1960s. Keaton’s final work in 1966 is nothing less than a true-blooded slapstick two-reeler with Buster—silent—in his original costume, recreating his classic routines.
Even if you were disinclined to draw the scope that widely and decided to focus only on the most fertile period of slapstick comedy—say from 1912 to 1929—you are facing down a list of two thousand individual films, made by hundreds of comedians and filmmakers.
Assuming you were unusually well-organized and gifted with the analytical skills to wrap your head around thousands of comedies and keep them distinct in your mind, there remains the problem of actually accessing those films. Enormous numbers of films have been lost altogether—essentially erasing the legacies of some comics outrights. And just because a film survives doesn’t mean that it’s a cinch to be able to see it.
In 2008 I was working on an audio commentary to a Charley Chase short from 1925, Fighting Fluid. In this one-reel short comedy, Charley Chase has unwittingly drunk an entire office water-cooler full of bootleg whiskey. Emboldened by his hoochy-courage, he sets out to propose to his girlfriend. He tries to carry her off caveman-style, only to realize that picking other people up is actually kind of hard. He heads off to find some assistance, but by the time he returns the situation has changed. She’s left in the meanwhile, and a pair of shopkeeps are moving a mannequin that just happens to be wearing the same dress. To Charley’s inebriated eyes, two strange men are hustling in on his girl. He chases after them, but as he gets close, the dummy’s leg falls off! He picks up the leg, considers the prospect of marrying a one-legged girl, and tosses the engagement ring to the sidewalk. Phooey! (Apologies to any disabled readers—I’m only describing an old movie, not expressing any personal opinion here)
Chase returned to the wooden leg gag again—building the two-reel short His Wooden Wedding (also 1925 but later that year) around the premise of a bridegroom who mistakenly believes his bride-to-be has a wooden leg. A decade later, Chase remade His Wooden Wedding for Columbia, as Ankles Away (1938) with star Andy Clyde taking Charley’s onscreen role, while Chase directed.
But more interesting in terms of tracking the gag’s development was my suspicion that Charley had borrowed it from Harry Langdon in the first place. Langdon was a vaudeville star who had spent 17 years performing comedy on stage before being signed to a movie contract. The process of signing Langdon to a picture deal involved a bidding war, with Hal Roach Studio as one of the key (losing) bidders. In 1923, when these negotiations were taking place, the head of production at Hal Roach was Charley Chase—and so Chase was involved in some respect in the very inauguration of Langdon’s movie career.
The first Harry Langdon short released to theaters (after some false starts that would variously be released later or just discarded altogether) was a two-reeler called Picking Peaches. In it, Langdon plays a shoe clerk with a roving eye. A pretty girl comes in, and shops for shoes. She takes a leg off of one of the displays and places it under her skirt to see what the mannequin’s footwear would look like on her. Harry misses that key moment, however, and is shocked to discover that at least one of his customer’s legs isn’t firmly attached to her body. (A twist on the old joke: how far do her legs go up? Apparently not all the way!)
Picking Peaches was released in February 1924, while Fighting Fluid went into production in late October the same year. It is nothing but speculation on my part that a direct connection exists, but consider what happened next–
In his first feature film, His First Flame, shot in 1925 but not released until 1927, Harry Langdon revisited the mannequin-leg gag. But Langdon has embellished the Picking Peaches scene to now more closely mimic Charley Chase’s Fighting Fluid!
The chronology supports the supposition that Charley Chase, intrigued by a performer he’d been unable to hire, took inspiration from Langdon’s first released film to copy one of its gags into his own film. Langdon borrowed the gag back, copying Chase’s embellishments and adding new wrinkles of his own. Chase then took it back and puffed it up to be the central premise of an entire two-reeler.
And this is the story I then repeated in the commentary track, which I believed at the time. Shortly after recording that commentary track, I saw a minor and unheralded film called The Flirts.
How obscure is The Flirts? Well, even the most casual visitor to this blog can be expected to recognize the names of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. I assume only the more committed fans of the genre would consider Harry Langdon and Charley Chase to be household names. But even serious scholars can be forgiven for finding the names Jimmie Adams and Harry Mann unfamiliar.
Adams and Mann were at best competent performers, who left behind a small and unremarkable body of work that was considered a footnote even in its own day. They toiled on behalf of a small-time outfit called Bulls Eye Pictures, a company that didn’t even have a reliable national distribution network for their films. Instead, Bulls Eye bicycled prints on an ad-hoc basis around a scattering of independently-owned theaters, mostly in the South, with limited advertising and publicity. The Flirts is the definition of obscure.
Nevertheless, it is also a terrific and riotous film—arguably the best short to ever star a Charlie Chaplin mimic. And Harry Mann’s not even a good Charlie Chaplin mimic! What ennobles The Flirts is not any charms of its charisma-impaired stars, but the lively and witty direction of its filmmaker—wait for it—Charley Chase.
As director of The Flirts, Chase inserted an earlier version of the fake leg gag—
It is cruder and more embryonic, but that’s to be expected, five years before the Chase-Langdon versions of Fighting Fluid/Picking Peaches. This was 1919, in the immediate aftermath of WW1, when America had experience with significant numbers of one-legged men: injured soldiers returning home from the front. In the movie Blockheads, Stan Laurel gets a lot of comic mileage out of appearing to have lost his leg in the war—and it is no coincidence that Laurel and Hardy’s take on the severed leg gag would be made at Hal Roach Studios, Charley Chase’s home for nearly 16 years, in a film written by Harry Langdon.
Part of Balducci’s thesis is that this process of reiterating routines reflects the comedians’ efforts to improve upon the material. It’s a compelling argument: we can see Charley Chase experimenting with a rudimentary version of the gag in 1919, and Langdon improves on it by shifting the emphasis away from the visual punchline to his reaction to it (and changing the actual fake leg into a misunderstanding). Chase reworks Langdon’s improvements further by realizing that it is funnier if there is a pre-existing relationship between the man and the woman. And so on.
The problem with dissecting the back-and-forth process in too much detail is that it necessarily assumes there aren’t other exemplars you’re missing. This is the supreme challenge of this kind of study. Each new film opens up new revelations, challenges existing dogmas, suggests new directions for research. But not all slapstick comedies exist anymore—and digesting what does survive is a gargantuan task. Inevitably, the study of silent comedy is limited by lack of exposure to certain films.
My first analysis of the wooden leg gag didn’t account for The Flirts, and was skewed as a result. My current analysis has to carry a similar asterisk—I don’t know what I don’t know.
The only hope is for those of us who write about silent comedy to build on one another’s work—for each new generation of fans and scholars to layer new discoveries on the last. By a slow process of accrual, we can do together what no one can do alone.
To that end, Balducci’s tireless chronicling of gags is my new go-to resource for this kind of analysis. I can’t imagine how much time it took him to develop this list—I can barely imagine how much time it’s gonna save me.
But it raises a troubling worry–if we don’t know what we don’t know, what crucial aspects of the history of silent comedy have we been systematically ignoring? (Tune in next week and find out!)
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