The Rogues’ Gallery of Slapstick by matthew c. hoffman

A friend asked me if I would be working some of the other great silent comics into Legends of Laughter— Laurel & Hardy, for instance… Some Snub Pollard… Maybe a little Charley Chase? Chase was an ordinary-looking craftsman of domestic comedy who thrived almost exclusively in two-reelers.

Check out the sight gag with the policeman!

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I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that one of the above names might make a “cameo” in the Park Ridge Public Library’s Legends series, but the program will be almost exclusively concerned with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin. There were many fine solo comedians in the silent era, but only three were artists.

Laurel and Hardy, those patron saints of comedy, are in that genius category as well, but we shall keep them separate as a comedy team. They are certainly my favorite duo of all time, but I want to concentrate on the three master comedians. As much as I would love to play a Laurel & Hardy two-reeler, it would be out of place if for no other reason than because their style was removed from the earlier comics. They changed the rhythm of silent comedy by creating laughter from their pauses. Secondly, it would necessitate removing  a Keaton or Lloyd or Chaplin short.  I don’t want to do that. There are just so many great shorts of The Big Three to choose from — films that really need to be seen– and there’s so much material to work in.

Regarding the other comics, as much as I’d like seeing ol’ Snub tooling around in his “Magnet Car”– or making (Turpin) time for the cross-eyed comic–  I don’t want to drift off course with a complete history of slapstick. Besides, there are reasons why these lesser comics (or lesser-known) are on a second tier. Whether it’s questionable comic timing, which was sometimes the case with Snub Pollard, or simply a limited availability of their films, as with the thoroughly unique but nearly invisible Raymond Griffith, there are very definite reasons why I’m not trying to sell them. Ben Turpin got a lot of work, but he always struck me as a one-joke comic. He’s cross-eyed. We get it.

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If I still operated the LaSalle Bank theatre (now called Bank of America Cinema), I could’ve done a whole series on silent cinema. Unlike the 2011 library series, there’s more opportunity for discovery in a theatre. You have more time to work in various films. You can take greater chances. The venue itself attracts the die-hards. At a revival theatre it’s easier to get away with showing films that might not attract an audience anywhere else. Had I done a theatrical “Silent Laughter” series, I could’ve shown the other solo comics like Buster Keaton’s mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Though his comic invention may have been lacking, Arbuckle was a fresh archetype to movie audiences– the beloved fat man. That alone may explain his popularity.

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Those days so long ago: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle with Buster Keaton.
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And Harry Langdon, whom some consider the fourth genius. He may very well have become that if his arrogance to be like Chaplin hadn’t made him lose sight of what had made him famous in the first place. He made a couple good films with Frank Capra guiding him, but after that? “Langdon rose rapidly to stardom,” narrator Dwight Weist tells us in Robert Youngson’s When Comedy Was King (1960). “Then, at the height of his career he turned, in films directed by himself, to a new, strange, offbeat kind of comedy full of pathos and even despair. It was like a trumpeteer reaching for a celestial high note somewhere beyond human range. Audiences stopped laughing. And the little fellow slid into oblivion.”

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At the revival theatre there was a strong core audience of neighborhood seniors, but as a programmer, I never catered to their desire for nostalgia. I didn’t show Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musicals just to make the older folk happy. I played Busby Berkeley extravaganzas and Ernst Lubitsch operettas because, besides being nostalgic, they have a value. As a result, I was able to get more film students involved during my time there.

Fastforward six years to the present and I’m preaching cineliteracy, a knowledge and appreciation of film art. But you want to have some fun while doing it though. This is a comedy series afterall. I’ve never been highbrow when it comes to film study because as a programmer, I was just as likely to show B-films that I admired or certain movie serials. I only go on the offensive when I see what attracts the general public. People who are reading this blog might be shocked by the number of library patrons who won’t check out a black and white movie because their hands are so filled with teenage sex comedies and Roland Emmerich epics. If there was ever anything that should be lost, it’s this dreck.

Slapstick comedy is certainly a lost art with the visual sight gag of yesteryear  now replaced with crude, lowbrow humor. A typical Oscar night telecast might package the history of comedy into a three minute montage in which you’ll see clips from films like When Harry Met Sally and There’s Something About Mary. Modern memories are dominated by the likes of Ben Stiller, Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, Steve Martin…. Maybe the Academy will throw in a couple clips of Chaplin for the sake of history, but that’s about it. (The distant, pre-Some Like It Hot period becomes a little hazier for the Academy with each passing year.) But just because something is modern and up-to-date with contemporary tastes, it doesn’t mean it’s better or funnier than what had preceded it. You have to dig under a mountain of garbage to find the real treasures of the past.

My mission in Park Ridge is to bring those treasures to the surface and get younger people active and interested in our cinema heritage– to show that these films are vibrant and well-crafted and not decrepit relics from a high contrast past. But to hook a suburban library audience, you need to thread up the projectors with the absolute best. When you show that a Jazz Age throwback like Harold Lloyd can be hip and funny in this modern age, then on their way out the door patrons can seek out the lesser-known Charley Chases and Snub Pollards and all the other greats of the past who helped define an important chapter in American comedy.

The following clip is originally from the Snub Pollard film It’s A Gift (1923). The narrator that you hear is Dwight Weist from the excellent compilation film When Comedy Was King.

I don’t take it for granted that younger audiences already know who Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were. In fact, many don’t. People know The Tramp image and they may have seen Buster Keaton’s famous stoic deadpan, and perhaps some have even seen the iconic image of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock twelve stories above  a city street. But a small percentage in our society have viewed the films. There are so many great films– a tremendous body of work from which to put a program together. I could do a whole series on Harold Lloyd alone. However, Chaplin and Keaton give Legends a balance and a diversity that maintains a thematic unity.

These three are the most accessible to the public, so as part of a library series I had to play titles that are available on dvd so patrons can check them out afterward. Such would not have been the case with Harry Langdon, whose films are not easily available. Even the Laurel and Hardy catalogue is surprisingly limited. Many of their great silent and sound two-reelers are not available on dvd in this country!

But for those wishing to learn more about these characters and other comedy pioneers,  I recommend reading the finest book on the silent era:

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Also, a great dvd collection you should own is the Slapstick Encyclopedia, a 5-disc set released by Image Entertainment (from the Blackhawk Films collection). This includes many short films made by Mack Sennett. Whether you will laugh or not at these films is a question best answered at home rather than in a library film series. Though they have a historical importance, there is a crudeness and tediousness in their design, especially with the Keystone stuff. These were the early signs of life in the womb of movie comedy, so they can have about as much entertainment value as watching images from an ultrasound. I think their popularity at the time had more to do with the newness of the medium rather than any innovation. Nevertheless, there are some shorts that possess an out-there quality with their lunatic construction and pace. Their best moments can be delightful.
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The following is Part 1 of a BBC documentary (available on Youtube) called “Laurel & Hardy: Living Famously.”


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NOTE: Though Laurel & Hardy will not be featured in my spring program, they will have the honor of closing out the film series at my old theatre. After nearly forty years of movies on Saturday night, the Bank of America Cinema (4901 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago) will be closing its doors on December 18, 2011, after a 35mm screening of Laurel & Hardy’s Babes in Toyland.

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