One of the most enduring genres of the silent cinema was slapstick comedy. Some of the screen's first great stars were the clowns who regularly threw pies, destroyed property and took pratfalls -- anything to get a laugh. TCM presents a quartet of classic comic shorts featuring some of the best in the business, including early star Fatty Arbuckle, his protégé Buster Keaton, daredevil Harold Lloyd, the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and the great Charlie Chaplin. Each brought his own unique character to the screen. Arbuckle was an overgrown bad boy, Keaton the stone-faced stoic, Lloyd the all-American go-getter, Laurel and Hardy the perfect team of social misfits and Chaplin the broke and often broken-hearted Little Tramp.
Nothing was safe from Laurel and Hardy. Houses, pianos and society soirees were all destroyed by the twosome, sometimes called the most destructive silent screen comics. So it's no surprise, when they get caught in a traffic jam in Two Tars (1928), that before long they and the other frustrated motorists are tearing each other's cars apart. That bit of cinematic magic was made possible by prop man Thomas Benton Roberts, who appears briefly as the man with car full of tomatoes. He constructed special breakaway cars, including one that fell apart when a wire was pulled. The sequence has made this one of the most popular of their silent shorts. It helps that the cast includes two of their best comic foils, Charlie Hall and Edgar Kennedy, the latter the master of the slow burn. In addition, the film had one of the pair's best directors, James Parrott, and one of their best writers, future director Leo McCarey.
Never Weaken (1921) was the last of Lloyd's shorts. With his growing popularity, the move to features was only natural. But first, he created one of the funniest suicide scenes in movie history. Thinking the woman he loves (Mildred Davis, the future Mrs. Lloyd) loves another, he sets out to kill himself, which somehow or other strands him atop a skyscraper under construction. The rest is pure Lloyd, as the athletic comedian dangles from girders, only a gust of wind away from a fatal fall -- or so it always seemed. For the films dubbed his "Thrill Comedies," Lloyd created the illusion that his character was in grave danger. In truth, he always had safety nets and mattress-covered platforms just outside the shot and was a master at shooting scenes a few feet off the ground while creating the illusion that he was high in the air. Most of those films include long shots in which his character clearly is at a dangerous height, but after Lloyd's death historians discovered that he was usually doubled by stuntman Harvey Parry.
Arbuckle was one of the most popular clowns of the early silent days and Chaplin's biggest rival. As Chaplin would later do, he took complete control of his films, directing, writing and starring in Coney Island (1917). He also had a strong eye for talent, discovering Buster Keaton in vaudeville and bringing him into films initially to act as a comic foil. In this early slapstick short, Keaton is one of two men (with Al St. John), whose girlfriend married-man Arbuckle steals during a Sunday at Coney Island. With his rivals and wife in pursuit, the star partakes of some of the amusement pier's most popular early rides, including The Witching Waves and Shoot-the-Chutes, and even masquerades as a woman to elude his pursuers, only to have St. John make a pass at him. This was only Keaton's fifth film, and he had yet to establish his screen persona as "The Great Stone Face." The film offers a rare chance to see the usually subtle comedian over-act, proving that he could move his face when he wanted to.
As good as the other films in this collection are, the true masterpiece is Chaplin's The Immigrant (1917). Chaplin made the film at Mutual, the studio at which he worked in 1916 and 1917. While there he solidified the character of the Little Tramp, which he had used in earlier films, as a mischievous but sensitive romantic, eternally down on his luck. He also developed his painstaking approach to filmmaking, using multiple takes and spending more time on his short films than anybody else in the business would have. The Immigrant started as a film about two people, the Tramp and a pretty young woman (frequent co-star Edna Purviance), who meet in a café. But before he'd even appeared on screen, Chaplin decided to make the café scene the film's second half. To motivate his character's poverty he rented a tramp steamer and shot scenes of himself and Purviance and building their relationship on the ship carrying them to the U.S. only to be separated by heartless immigration officials. The restaurant scene then became their reunion. He filled the film with slapstick gags that kept audiences buying tickets, but also drove his producers mad by stretching out production and shooting countless takes. By the time the film was completed, he had shot 90,000 feet of film, almost as much as director D.W. Griffith had shot for his feature-length epic Intolerance (1916).
By Frank Miller
As the film descriptions above indicate, silent comedies were a great training ground for young actors, director and writers. Of course, most of the people making silent films, particularly in the early years of the 20th century, had to learn the business from the ground up. There were no filmmaking schools at the time and even accomplished stage performers like Keaton and Chaplin had to learn the new language of film.
Training was done on the job. For actors like Chaplin and Keaton, that meant starting out with supporting roles before they developed the skills and characters that would make them film stars. Their move into leading roles in slapstick comedies was actually rare in the business. Many of the actors who started out working for Mack Sennett, Hal Roach and other comedy producers, moved into a wider variety of films after getting exposure and screen training in silent comedies. Sennett's studio helped make stars of Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery. He also maintained a stable of "Bathing Beauties," beautiful girls who served as set dressing for his films. One of them was Carole Lombard, who rose from the ranks of the bathing beauties to star in her own shorts for Sennett and then became one of the biggest female stars of the '30s. For his part, Roach provided early roles for stars like Jean Harlow, Bebe Daniels and Paulette Goddard.
But it was behind the camera that the silent comedy did its best job of molding Hollywood's future power players. Silent slapstick provided invaluable training in building jokes and constructing plots. Leo McCarey started out writing and directing for Hal Roach, working on the comedies of Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase before moving on to direct a series of hit features. He would win Oscars® for directing Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937) and for directing and writing Going My Way (1944), starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. Frank Capra started out writing silent comedies for Sennett, which led to his writing for silent comic Harry Langdon. When Langdon set up his own production company, he brought Capra along to write and direct. From there, Capra directed a string of hits for Columbia Pictures, winning directing Oscars® for It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can't Take It with You (1938). Al Boasberg wrote for Buster Keaton before contributing to some of the Marx Brothers' best scripts, while Edward Cline, who started in the Keystone Kops before writing and directing for Sennett and Keaton, became W.C. Fields's favorite director. And Harold Lloyd writer Sam Taylor went on to win one of the most famous credit lines in film history: The Taming of the Shrew (1929), written by William Shakespeare, additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.
By Frank Miller
With the coming of sound, silent comedy became a thing of the past, often viewed as a curiosity. Chaplin resisted making a talking film until 1940, when the Little Tramp posed as a parody of Hitler in The Great Dictator, and even then, the film's brightest spots were Chaplin's moments of silent pantomime. Only Laurel and Hardy made a completely successful transition into talking films, finding that dialogue provided a perfect extension of their comic personas. Eventually, most of the other clowns either retired -- like Lloyd, who had invested wisely in the days before income taxes and didn't need to work -- or faded into supporting roles.
Keaton's decline was one of the saddest, yet it also bore the seeds of his greatest influence. After a disastrous move to MGM in the late '20s, he had gradually lost control of his films. That got worse once sound came in, and he faded from popularity quickly. After a series of slapstick shorts and attempts to return to the stage, he wound up working at MGM for $75 a week in the '40s. There he wrote gags and played the occasional supporting role. But he also shared his expertise at physical comedy with two rising stars: Red Skelton and Lucille Ball. Skelton starred in remakes of The General (1926) and The Cameraman (1928), but when he and Keaton offered to work for free just to create a film together, studio executives turned them down. Keaton's influence on Ball was slower to build because she had yet to develop the Lucy Ricardo personality. You can see bits of his influence, however, when she gets to do physical comedy in Dubarry Was a Lady (1943) and Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949). When she sold I Love Lucy to CBS in 1951, followed by The Lucy Show in 1962, Keaton's influence on her came to the fore in a series of classic slapstick bits.
Artistically, the silent comedy was pretty much forgotten during the sound era, though directors like Preston Sturges borrowed jokes from the older form in sophisticated comedies like The Lady Eve (1941) and even worked with Harold Lloyd on a failed film The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947). Things began to turn around, however, in 1949, when critic-screenwriter James Agee wrote "Comedy's Greatest Era" for Life Magazine. His article sparked new interest in silent slapstick, sending fans back to revival screenings and inspiring popular compilation films like The Golden Age of Comedy (1957). Television comedians like Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Ernie Kovacs and Skelton drew on the silent slapstick traditions on their series. Before long filmmakers were once again paying tribute to the form. Stanley Kramer included a generous helping of silent-style slapstick in his epic comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and composer Henry Mancini called one track of his score for the slapstick-filled The Pink Panther (1963) "Shades of Sennett." Mel Brooks even made silent comedy the focus of his fifth film as a director-writer, Silent Movie (1976), about a director trying to bring silent slapstick back to the big screen. Of course, with ongoing restorations of the works of Chaplin, Keaton, Arbuckle, Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy, the truth is this treasured form of comedy has been back for a long time and clearly is here to stay.
By Frank Miller
Modern Times: The Criterion Collection DVD
In this silent film, a small-town boy out to impress his girlfriend scales a skyscraper in the big city.
This TMC Archives 2-disc celebration of Buster Keaton's art puts the spotlight on his MGM period.
Restored for the first time with high definition transfer, this set contains such favorites as Helpmates, Hog Wild, Another Fine Mess, Sons of the Desert, Way Out West, and the Academy Award winning film The Music Box.
In this silent film, the Little Tramp tries to help a blind flower seller to see again.