Posted by davidkalat on August 11, 2012
Conventional wisdom will tell you that the arrival of talkies killed off silent film, especially silent comedy. (This is, for example, the premise of The Artist, and a couple of generations earlier the premise of Singin’ in the Rain). I’ve been tilting at this windmill pretty much since I showed up on this board back in 2010, but I don’t think I’ve ever been properly systematic about organizing my counterargument. So, I intend to devote the next several weeks to exploring this moment in film history in some detail. It’s going to be story about F.W. Murnau and Harry Langdon, Charley Chase and Cary Grant, Howard Hawks and Mack Sennett—it’s going to build a bridge from Murnau’s Sunrise to Hawks’ His Girl Friday. It sounds like a sprawling mess, and maybe it will be, but in my mind’s eye this all ties together. We’ll see.
I am generally leery of absolutes, and the absolutist position on the transition to sound is deeply problematic.
If you want to say that The Jazz Singer killed off silent filmmaking, that’s not an outrageous position to take. But there have been stray anomalies here and there—The Artist and Silent Movie are obvious examples, but there are also an array of films whose makers digested the aesthetics of silent comedy and managed to make sound films in that tradition: Tati’s Playtime, Etaix’s Yo-Yo, Pixar’s Wall-E. Arguably, much of the realm of animated cartoons from the 1930s through the 1960s recapitulated silent comedy aesthetics in a raucus, noisy new style. Filmmakers like Blake Edwards or Jackie Chan self-consciously paid hommage to the silent comedies that inspired them, and did so in modernist films.
If you want to say that the great filmmakers of the era were stopped in their tracks by the transition to sound, well, that doesn’t quite hold water either. Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon all continued to make movies without breaking their stride. It may be the popular consensus that their talkie era work was so diminished as to be incomparable to their silent greats, but that’s a matter of opinion, not fact.
Even if we were to agree that the talkie era work by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon was of such diminished quality that it couldn’t be connected to their silent work, that still leaves Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, and Charley Chase as silent era comedians who made the transition to talkies without missing a single step or changing their aesthetics at all. And then there’s the likes of the Three Stooges, whose work exists entirely on the talkie side but could easily have been done in the silent era without any changes.
What of directors like Leo McCarey, Frank Capra and Ernst Lubitsch, who got their start in silent comedy but are best known for talkie comedies?
Basically, if you want to stake out an absolutist position on this point, you have to clutter your argument with asterisks and carefully draw boundaries around what films and filmmakers you’re willing to consider.
That being said, you can’t really take up a contrarian position either—to say the silent-era style slapstick comedy continued unchanged into the talkie era is clearly a nonsensical statement.
So let’s try softening the absolutist stance and see where it takes us: what if we just say that there were a set of comedy aesthetics associated with silent films that were prevalent and popular in the 1910s and 20s but a different set of comedy aesthetics associated with talkie films were prevalent and popular in the 1930s and 40s. That’s a lot of qualifying weasel words, but it’s an easier stance to defend—and phrasing it this way shifts the emphasis away from the technological shift and onto an aesthetic shift.
The technology was never the central story here anyway, and putting it at the center was a mistake.
Just imagine, as a thought exercise, that sound technology had been part and parcel of the movies since Day One—that when Fred Ott sneezed, we heard “A-choo!,” that when the workers filed out of the Lumiere factory we could hear them grumbling about their lousy jobs. This isn’t so much of a stretch, really-there are experimental talkies from this early period.
Would this have changed things so very much? I doubt it—the early history of cinema is dominated by forceful personalities, great visionaries whose pioneering work helped establish what the movies were and what they meant to audiences. And these people—Melies, Feuillade, Griffith, Porter, Sennett—were the people they were because of their peculiar idiosyncrasies and personal quirks. Had they been given an extra tool to play with, they wouldn’t have suddenly been different people or had different sensibilities. The trajectory of American slapstick followed the course that it did because Mack Sennett was an anarchist rebel who liked to ridicule authority and convention.
So let’s try the opposite thought experiment—what if movies stayed silent. What then? Suppose the Jazz Singer never sang—would silent comedy have lived on?
Again, the evidence does not support this theory. Audience tastes were moving away from silent slapstick even before the advent of sound. The aesthetic shift we noted above was underway on its own. This aesthetic shift happened to coincide with—and was benefitted by—sound technology, but it wasn’t dependent on it.
And we can see this aesthetic shift in action, well before The Jazz Singer, if we take a look at Harry Langdon’s Three’s a Crowd.
For those of you playing along at home, Three’s a Crowd has been tagged with the infamy of being the film that tanked Harry Langdon’s career. Never mind that this myth is easily debunked—the fact that Three’s a Crowd is a disorienting and deliberately off-putting experiment has always singled it out for criticism. It isn’t hard to imagine that something like this would destroy one’s career.
But then again, all of Langdon’s films are weird creations, and he shot into pop superstardom in 1926 and 1927 on the basis of stuff that was really quite strange, so Three’s a Crowd’s quirks should be measured against that benchmark, by which it doesn’t come off nearly as bizarre as if you compare it to, say, anything made by anybody else.
According to Frank Capra, the problem with Three’s a Crowd were rooted in Langdon’s misconceived direction of the film—an error that existed because, well, because Langdon went and made it without Capra. Capra had been with Langdon since 1925 and had been a key creative collaborator on Langdon’s most acclaimed works. But fundamental personality clashes drove them apart and Langdon fired Capra; Three’s a Crowd was the first feature he made without any Capra involvement of any kind.
Capra needed to insulate his ego from the humiliation of being fired, and so told the story that he was the source of all Langdon’s success—and by extension, Langdon’s fall from popularity was attributable to Capra’s absence. Mind you, Capra told this story after Langdon had passed away, after he himself had become a Hollywood fixture, and during a period where access to Langdon’s films was virtually impossible—Capra’s version of the story had no one to dispute it.
Three’s a Crowd does not appear to have been treated as a flop in its day. Critical reception appears to have been positive, and its box office performance not too far off the mark. The perception of it as a failure developed later, in hindsight, in large part due to Frank Capra’s sour grapes retconning.
To the extent that Three’s a Crowd did fall short of commercial expectations can be explained by a variety of factors–1927 saw something of a Langdon glut. When he quit Mack Sennett’s studio to strike out into features at Warner Brothers/First National, Sennett still had a handful of unreleased Langdon films waiting in the queue. Looking to capitalize on someone else’s investment, Sennett sat on them until Langdon’s First National features started to come out, then released them. And these were now pretty stale items—made in 1925 by a less experienced comedian, juxtaposed with his latest and most daring works. This may well have tested audience patience to the limits.
But here’s the thing: focusing on these minutiae is causing us to miss the big picture. As long as the argument stays focused on “was Three’s a Crowd a flop because Capra was fired” or “were audiences tired of Langdon’s man-baby character,” we are ignoring the fact that across the board, and all at the same time, the great silent comedians hit rocky shores together.
In the case of Harry Langdon, we have an intensely personal and daringly experimental work—Three’s a Crowd—underperform at the box office, and in response Langdon retreats to familiar material and makes The Chaser, a more pedestrian and conventional comedy. His career was in a tailspin, and he went from comedy superstar to being largely marginalized to being a has-been. (Let me be clear: I think Langdon’s late period sound era work is wonderful, but we’re talking here about commercial success measured on the ground, in the day).
The same thing happened to Harold Lloyd—his personal, perfectionist project was The Kid Brother, the recipient of more gag-writing and cinematic effort than anything he’d made before it. Yet it grossed a mere $2.4 million, less than his previous For Heaven’s Sake. Lloyd was so disappointed by this he allowed the film to fall into complete obscurity for the next 30 years—unscreened, unrevived (although it is today hailed as a masterpiece). Having been bitten on his personal project, he followed it up with Speedy—which got an Oscar nomination and rave press, but grossed even less than Kid Brother. In strictly commercial terms, Lloyd was on a slide. He never again made a movie now considered to be great, and never again made a silent film.
Let’s look at Buster Keaton. It’s no surprise that The General was Keaton’s personal perfectionist project, which he spent nearly a million dollars making. When it opened, it was panned by the New York Times, Variety, and Life—critical opinion at the time held that Raymond Griffith’s Hands Up! handled similar material much better. Gauging audience reaction is a bit tricky—many texts, including Tempest in a Flat Hat, report that the box office was poor, but there are other sources that contradict this. But the critical drubbing is easily documented, and Keaton’s response is also undeniable: he retreated to familiar material of College, a less ambitious work.
And what of Charlie Chaplin? Following the success of The Gold Rush, he embarked on The Circus. David Robinson described this as “a production dogged by persistent misfortune. The most surprising aspect of the film is not that it is as good as it is, but that it was ever completed at all.” Chaplin suffered a nervous breakdown, quit for 8 months, and then never even mentioned the film at all in his autobiography. Like Lloyd and The Kid Brother, he let it quietly vanish and didn’t revive it for many years.
The Circus was, like the General, an uneconomical production marked by excessive spending, which set the bar very high for it to be considered a profitable success. Despite strong reviews it performed disappointingly; although it won an Oscar (beating out Speedy) it failed to surpass the box office returns of The Gold Rush.
Chaplin retreated even more than his peers, and didn’t make another film until 1931.
Have you spotted the pattern?
All four of the top comedy stars of silent slapstick—Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd—made expensive, experimental, personal films in 1927. All four of these movies were received in ways that disappointed and demoralized their makers. All four of the filmmakers responded by pulling back, making less ambitious follow-ups in 1928 (or in Chaplin’s case, not even making a film at all). (While I’m putting in parenthetical asides about Chaplin, I need to attend to a matter of pedantry: technically The Circus came out in January 1928, not 1927. But c’mon—January 1928. That’s awfully close to 1927. And the film was delayed due to Chaplin’s breakdown. I don’t think I’m on thin ice lumping it in with the other 1927 features).
In other words, the audience reaction to these films was consistent. Slapstick comedy from the very best practitioners operating at the height of their powers, making the films for which they would be best remembered and for which they expected to be the proudest, was dismissed. You simply cannot come to the end of 1927 and believe that the future of silent slapstick comedy looks promising or bright.
Audiences had spoken with their pocketbooks and the world of American screen comedy was going to have to respond by recalibrating what it offered in the way of movie comedy—an aesthetic shift was signaled, well before The Jazz Singer was even a gleam in Warner Brothers’ collective eyes.
Meanwhile, over at Western Electric laboratories, engineers were tinkering around with ways to record sound on discs. . . but that’s another story.
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