Posted by David Kalat on September 21, 2013
From September and on for the next several months, on Mondays and Tuesdays TCM is airing a sprawling and ambitious multipart documentary called The Story of Film. As you have may have sussed out by now, this is a somewhat controversial program–in large measure because of its rather jaundiced view of classical Hollywood genre filmmaking. For an audience that watches TCM regularly, and finds leisure time to visit a TCM-sponsored classic movie blog like this, Story of Film‘s stance isn’t likely to find many happy supporters.
That being said, there’s a lot about Hollywood genres that is worth revisiting, challenging, and interrogating. There is too much received wisdom that has calcified around certain subjects, creating preconceptions that get in the way of being able to engage with these films in a fresh and clear-eyed way. And so, seen from that perspective, creator Mark Cousins’ approach represents an opportunity to explode some unhelpful conventional wisdom…
When it comes to silent comedy, though, he blows past that opportunity, managing to be simultaneously vaguely hostile to Hollywood’s classic era while also being uncritical about what it meant. Here’s what he says about silent comedy in the book version of Story of Film: “Silent American cinema’s greatest genre, comedy, had changed course at the beginning of the sound era and the fates of its director-stars were varied.” Yup, there it is again–that old canard about silent comedy being distinct from talkie comedy, and superior–treating 1928 as some kind of Rubicon.
As longtime readers of mine know, I am a committed and even obsessive fan of American silent comedy, but I am also deeply skeptical of the received wisdom about what the contours of this genre are.
The first thing we have to grapple with is that as a genre, posterity and received wisdom treats American silent comedy in a fundamentally weird fashion.
In general, silent films as a whole are treated as something apart from the rest of classic films. TCM rarely incorporates silent films into the main schedule, choosing to segregate silent films into special programming blocks. And this is consistent with how audiences approach silent films–there is a specialty sub-audience of silent film fans who not only enjoy silents but specifically enjoy silents over talkies, and seek them out because they are silent, whereas the general classic film audience (the general TCM audience) is more willing to sit through Casablanca than Sunrise. But aside from that basic prejudice, there isn’t any additional effort to discriminate within silent film genres:
You could show F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu back to back with Tod Browning’s Dracula and know the same audience would enjoy both equally. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a direct precursor to talkie science fiction, and it’s not unreasonable for Roger Ebert to compare Dark City to Metropolis and expect the audience to enjoy both on the same level. John Ford’s silent Westerns are still Westerns–there is no meaningful distinction of “silent Westerns.”
But… when it comes to silent comedy, there is a distinction drawn between silent and talkie comedy, and not only that but a common critical stance taken that the silent form is superior to the talkie form–and that fans of one will be a different sort than fans of the other.
Certainly there are easily recognizable attributes of silent comedy that distinguish it from talkie comedy: a predilection for the balletic and acrobatic kinds of physical slapstick, in films where the absence of sound focuses attention on visual gags. Supposedly the absence of sound allows for kinds of physical or visual humor that would be undermined by sound, cheapened by talk, and/or made leaden by the 24 fps frame rate of sound film.
To which I say: phooey.
The very existence of silent comedy is an almost inexplicable anomaly. It is not as if the traditions of comedy had been leading towards this. George Bernard Shaw did not go to bed at night wishing he could jettison all the dang words from his plays. Quite the contrary, at the moment that the movies came into being, nearly every form of comedy you could encounter in any media was centered around words.
The only meaningful tradition of “silent” comedy that predates the birth of the movies was the history of clowning. There is a line of thought that seeks to define the silent comedies of the 1910s and 1920s as a modern reinterpretation of clowning traditions. There is a respectable argument to made on this count, but you won’t find it from me.
My resistance to that line of thinking is simple: whatever common ground you may find between silent “clowns” and their non-movie antecedents are mostly coincidental. A rhinoceros looks like a triceratops not because they share any close relatives but because they independently evolved to live in similar environments.
If silent comedy cinema was truly just a new medium by which to explore existing traditions of clowning, then you’d expect the great silent clowns to actually be clowns, to have come from a clowning background. You’d expect the filmmakers to be turning to the history of clowning for inspirations for their films. Basically, you’d expect exactly the opposite of what the history of slapstick actually was.
Silent cinema poached its comedians from vaudeville more than any other source–that is, from a tradition of live comedy that was heavily dependent on puns, dialect comedy, songs, and other forms of wordplay. The very word “slapstick” refers to the mechanism to produce a sound effect to accompany on-stage comic violence that punters in the back row could hear.
There were the occasional silent comedians who came from unambiguous clowning backgrounds (Poodles Hanneford I’m looking at you), but the field was absolutely dominated by comedians who came from vaudeville, not the circus.
Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon were stage stars before they filmed a single frame, and their stage acts were not silent. Charley Chase started out with a primarily musical act built around his singing. Billy Bevan came from Australia’s music hall traditions. The prominent comedy stars who didn’t come from vaudeville or music halls just came straight to the movies (see Harold Lloyd for example), they didn’t start as clowns.
And during these early stage careers, the men (and women) who would become the great silent comedians weren’t trying to excise dialogue from their acts. They happily incorporated dialog comedy and other sounds into their physical comedy acts naturally–and only jettisoned the words when the technology forced them to.
When the first silent comedy features were made, the filmmakers drew from source material from the legitimate stage and from literature–from essentially “talkie” sources.
Placed before the silent cameras, however, these men and their contemporaries had to improvise and adapt. Whatever performing skills they may have honed on the vaudeville stage had to be warped to suit the limitations of silent cinema. And this they just happened to do better than anyone else. They had competitors and peers, and some of those competitors and peers tried alternate approaches to adapting to the silent screen. Some are better remembered than others today.
Put another way: many different kinds of artists tried different kinds of screen comedy in the silent era, and some of these were more successful than others–they are the ones that have been remembered and celebrated. But we shouldn’t assume by that result that their style of physical slapstick was somehow predetermined.
The Marx Brothers, WC Fields, and Will Rogers all made silent comedies–but their particular approach to comedy did not adapt to the silent form very well. Their silent films are poorly remembered if at all, and they found their fame later when they could deploy words to their advantage, as had generations of comedians before them.
The era of silent comedy is an anomaly, a side effect caused by technological limitations of early cinema. The overwhelming commercial success and lasting cultural importance of a handful of silent comedians is not merely coincidental with the development of silent comedy as an art form–it is the same thing.
If the defining feature of silent comedy is is silence, then we are talking about a twenty year cycle firmly bounded at both ends by technological advances. But if we acknowledge that the key figures of silent comedy emerged from non-silent comic traditions, and that their silent work was in many ways an accident of history, we not only have the privilege of conflating silent and talkie comedies into a single history, we are also better situated to recognize just how astonishing their silent accomplishments really were.
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