Silent Comedy

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by Gregg Rickman


One of the few unalloyed pleasures of life is the experience of pure, helpless laughter. A consistent source for that precious commodity is the early slapstick comedies of artists such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and many more. Liberated from sound film's harsh grounding in quotidian reality, these mimes were free to roam the earth, disguised as tramps trying to stay alive, as ambitious men trying to climb a building, as desperate men attempting to master a giant boat or outrun a herd of cattle… or as a beautiful woman out to rope a man (Clara Bow in It).

Comedy was an top attraction in film going back to the medium's birth. One of the very first Lumiere Brothers short films was the 56-second L'Arroseur Aroseé ("Watering the Gardener/A Sprinkler Sprinkled," 1895), a farce about a boy who steps on a hose, then douses the gardener holding the empty nozzle to his face in puzzlement. In this pioneering work the Lumieres laid the foundation for a century of screen comedy: puzzlement, disaster, laughter.

Stage magician turned filmmaker Georges Méliès also used comedy as part of his special effects spectacles, the most famous of which was the prototype for science fiction films to follow, A Trip to the Moon (1902). What is funnier than a rocket in the eye?

A Frenchman, Max Linder, was the first comic star. Linder was active from 1905-25 in dozens of comic sketches, many of which remain amusing today. He established a venerable comic type, that of an unflappable and joyful young man. (For a good selection of his work, including an American feature he essayed in 1921, Seven Years' Bad Luck, see the DVD Laugh With Max Linder.) Collections of early film such as Treasures from the American Film Archives and the three-disc set The Origins of Film contain good examples of early American comedies, from films lasting just a few minutes -- such as The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903, on Volume One of Treasures), on to two 1913 one-reelers by proto-feminist Alice Guy-Blaché (Matrimony's Speed Limit and A House Divided, both on Origins disc two).


A protégé of D.W. Griffith, the uncouth Mack Sennett is the "Father Goose" of American silent comedy, a primitive who founded a legendary studio devoted to comedy, Keystone. (He in fact had many studios up through the early 1930s.) His crowded early films, full of gesticulating comedians running into each other, seem herky-jerky and even incoherent to audiences today, but such was the state of screen narrative in 1913. Modern audiences can enjoy a Keystone effort from just a few years later (like 1916's spoof melodrama Teddy at the Throttle, with Gloria Swanson) with little difficulty. But throughout his career Sennett was a great advocate of the most vigorous, messiest slapstick comedy possible - as can be seen with his famous "Keystone Kops," who date back to his earliest films, through to such 1920s efforts as Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies (1925), which is on disc two of Kino's Slapstick Encyclopedia.

While many fondly recalled comedy players (Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, Ben Turpin) are associated with Sennett, his three greatest stars emerged straight away. The appealing Mabel Normand mixed beauty and a rare comic skill that despite series of harsh personal difficulties still seems fresh in her early short films as well as in later feature-length vehicles, such as The Extra Girl (1923).

Early Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin, an English music hall comic, was spotted by Sennett while on an American tour in 1913, and while at first unhappy at the studio soon developed his internationally beloved Tramp character. His 34 short films (plus one appearance in a feature, Tillie's Punctured Romance, with Normand) for Sennett in 1914 made him an international star; unfortunately these key works can usually only be seen in dreadful public domain DVDs.

Before his advent, nothing like Chaplin's crude, cruel and conniving character had ever been seen before on film. Before too long he began softening it with sentiment, only increasing his popularity. He did fine work at a new studio, Essanay, in 1915, and even better work at Mutual in 1916-17. All of Chaplin's films from those key years are available in excellent condition on two three-volume sets [Essany; Mutuals], which include such classics as The Tramp, The Immigrant, Easy Street and too many more to count. The addition of "pathos" to Chaplin's repertoire only made his continual flow of comic invention that much funnier by contrast.

In 1918 Chaplin inaugurated a new contract at First National, where he made two superb short features, A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms (both 1918), and the less-successful Sunnyside (1919). Chaplin's First National work (which includes other short films as well, stretching into the 1920s) is available on the fine Chaplin Revue discs. Repeated viewings yield ever-richer results.

Fatty Arbuckle

The other great comic star to emerge in the teens was Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, today best known for the scandal that ended his career in 1921 but in his time surpassed only by Chaplin in popularity. His appeal stemmed from a rubbery, cherubic face atop a large but dexterous body, decked out in billowing clothes. Entering films in 1909, he rapidly achieved stardom after signing with Mack Sennett in 1913, where he would work with the Kops, with Chaplin (notably in The Rounders, 1914) and very successfully with Mabel Normand (Fatty and Mabel Adrift, 1916). Arbuckle quite competently directed most of his films, detailing them with nice touches such as, in Adrift, a kiss his shadow gives Mabel. While most of his films employed the broadest of slapstick Arbuckle also successfully directed a dark fantasy of murder, He Did and He Didn't.


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