Posted by David Kalat on May 25, 2013
This past week TCM debuted a package of rare Harold Lloyd films from 1917-1919, including one especially eye-opening treat, The Marathon. Of all the thrilling discoveries shown that night, this was the one that quickened my pulse the most.
For those who missed it, let me show you a clip to set the stage for the discussion that follows:
Yup, it’s the mirror gag, made famous by the Marx Brothers in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup:
Back in 2007, when I produced the DVD set Becoming Charley Chase, I included a short video essay on the history of this gag. I’m going to run that clip in its entirety now—and even though it runs a good 6 minutes, I strongly recommend you click play if you plan on reading the rest of this blog.
OK, now that we’re all caught up, what does The Marathon add to this discussion? Well, in my video essay, created back in 2007, the earliest iteration of the mirror routine that I had found came from 1917 from Charlie Chaplin, but it wasn’t really the mirror routine as we later know it—for one thing, no mirror.
The oldest version that has all the bits we later recognize in the Marx Brothers version came from Max Linder’s Seven Years Bad Luck in 1921, so Harold Lloyd’s version predates that by a good two years, and is substantially closer to the later versions than Linder’s is anyway.
Among other things, this is a yet another useful cautionary tale reminding us to be wary of describing “origins” of anything in the silent era. The extant record is way too spotty to be sure of anything we find. No sooner does one declare that something is the “first” of its kind than a new restoration of a lost film comes along and rips the rug out from under you.
But in the case of the mirror routine, there is something else going on here that I missed before, and The Marathon has helped me identify it.
In my video essay, I focused on the Charley Chase connection—naturally enough, because it was an extra on a Charley Chase disc. But my main point was how to track Chase’s handprints on this thing as it wandered from Chaplin to Billy West to Max Linder to Charley Chase and then to the Marx Brothers…
To locate my fallacy, let’s take stock of the key details of this comedy set-piece. There are some key elements involved:
1. The “reflection” is on the run from his counterpart on the front of the mirror and has reason to fear for his safety;
2. The “reflection” improbably duplicates actions he cannot reasonable predict;
3. The “reflection” needs to access props that he doesn’t have access to on his side of the mirror;
4. The “reflection” physically interacts with his counterpart without being caught. Oh, and one more:
5. The whole scene is in a movie by or connected to Hal Roach.
The Marathon is the earliest film I have yet encountered that represents all of the first 4 attributes—and it is also the earliest version to include the fifth. And of all the attributes of The Marathon, it’s number 5 that may be the most intriguing.
If you watched the May 23 Harold Lloyd block in its entirety in one sitting, you already know just how often the Hal Roach studio recycled bits. If a joke worked once, it would be reused until threadbare.
How many variations on that slapping bit aired on May 23? I counted 9 million. Eventually this attitude would give rise to Laurel and Hardy—Hal Roach’s greatest comedy creation. They recycled gags as the fundamental point of their comedy—in contemporary parlance, they lampshaded the reuse of gags. But as the endless iterations of the mirror gag show, the reuse of routines did not necessarily imply a Laurel and Hardy-ish self-awareness.
Consider the muddy street gag: I could run a half-dozen variations on that scene, all from Hal Roach films. Somewhere on the Roach lot some hardworking set designer dug a deep pit into a backlot street, and having done so they found endless reasons for Charley Chase/Thelma Todd/Oliver Hardy/etc. fall into the thing.
Part of the joy of discovering old Harold Lloyd is the way that it doesn’t just enhance our understanding of him, but our understanding of the larger comedy community. My error in tracking the mirror routine through Charley Chase was my blinkered, cramped myopic focus on one small component of the Hal Roach universe, when what really mattered was the way Roach’s endless riffing on familiar comedy tropes drove his whole enterprise.
The more the mirror gag appears in Hal Roach’s empire, the more its appearance in Duck Soup needs to be seen in light of Leo McCarey’s role as director of that film, and his history as a Roach protégé. The Roach comedy canon depended on the reiteration of a relatively small body of comic routines—and Laurel and Hardy’s success playing with that formula must consequently be seen less as a defining attribute of their comedy, and more a feature of the studio where they developed their style.
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