The Life and Times of Slapstick Comedy
Paper by Nolan Cooke.
Slapstick comedy was and still is one of the most loved genres of silent film. It was never the most glamorous and rarely the most profitable but they were consistent, the bread and butter of 1920s Hollywood. They almost always turned some kind of a profit and always drew a crowd whether it was Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton. People love to laugh no matter their nationality or economic background and these three men among many others were masters at the craft. Silent slapstick comedies were so incredibly successful not only because they made people laugh, but because the hero always comes out ahead in the end. This made audiences think that if a bumbling fool could succeed in a rapidly growing and changing world then anyone could. The quality and style of the acting, the storylines used to frame the gags, and society’s attitude towards humor at the time all contributed greatly to this effect. By analyzing scenes in some of the successes, and one of the failures, of the genre such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Harold Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake, and Buster Keaton’s films The General and The Cameraman I intend to prove that the key to these films’ success is that they inspired people nearly ninety years ago and continue to do so today.
The Gold Rush (1925) starring Charlie Chaplin is considered one of the all-time classic silent comedies. As a testament to the quality of the work it ranks number five on the list of highest grossing silent movies in history. That’s not just silent comedies, but all silent movies. It ranks just below the classics Ben Hur and Way Down East. The Gold Rush sees Chaplain once again reprise his role as the “Little Tramp” character, this time on an adventure seeking gold in the Klondike during the Klondike gold rush of the late 1890’s. The Lone Prospector, as this iteration of the Little Tramp is known, befriends a miner named Big Jim. At one point, the Prospector and Big Jim are in a cabin out in the middle of nowhere when a snowstorm starts brewing. The two companions are forced to stay inside but eventually they both fall asleep despite the howling wind. The howling winds blow the cabin towards a cliff and leave it teetering on the edge unbeknownst to the two occupants. When the Prospector wakes up he causes the cabin to tilt back and forth, nearly dumping both him and Big Jim off the cliff. However, he saves Big Jim’s life and earns his trust despite the fact he caused the trouble in the first place. When the Prospector helps Big Jim again by assisting him locate his lost mine he is rewarded with half the claim. Not only does the Prospector become a millionaire, but on his way home he is reunited with the girl he fell in love with while in the Klondike. While most slapstick comedies don’t have the protagonist ending up a millionaire, The Gold Rush is nonetheless a classic example of a silent slapstick comedy. The Little Tramp character was Charlie Chaplain’s most successful by far, being the focus of nearly all his biggest hit movies and shorts. This was due to the fact that Chaplain had created the most relatable recurring character the movie-going public had ever seen. Unlike similar characters played by Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, who while no less entertaining were more reserved and subtle, Chaplain infused the Little Tramp with a sort of vigorous energy that reflected the vibrant and lively lifestyle of the era.
Harold Lloyd’s most successful film, and the 12th highest grossing silent film of all time, For Heaven’s Sake (1926) puts a unique spin on the classic slapstick comedy storyline. Instead of a typical rags to riches type of story, Lloyd’s character J. Harold Manners starts off incredibly wealthy. Most slapstick protagonists start off poor but kind and rich in friendship. J. Harold Manners is rich, but does not appreciate what he has, spending his money with reckless abandon on fancy cars and other luxuries. He also has no real friends to speak of. It is not until he falls for a girl named Hope in the poor section of town that he begins to realize there is more to life than spending lots of money. Manners even helps Hope and her father, named Brother Paul, establish a mission where he befriends some of the neighborhood tough guys. When Manners is set to marry the girl he gets kidnapped by some of his wealthy acquaintances who disapprove of the marriage. Bull and the other toughs think Manners has left the girl and subsequently drown their sorrows in beer. They soon realize he would never abandon her and go on a booze fueled rescue mission. Once Manners is rescued it is up to him to get himself and his inebriated friends to the wedding on time. A hilarious bus ride ensues where Manners must keep Bull and the gang from falling off and getting left behind. He makes it to the wedding on time, getting the girl and solidifying his friendship with the neighborhood thugs and homeless. While this character is not as relatable for most moviegoers as Charlie Chaplain’s Little Tramp, the storyline is close enough to the typical slapstick formula that audiences could still relate. In fact it is likely its deviation from the formula contributed quite a bit to its success.
Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General (1926) is a bit of an outlier in the world of silent slapstick comedies. It had an unusually high budget for a slapstick comedy at $750,000, likely because of Keaton’s reputation for directing and producing successful films. Unfortunately The General proved a little too ambitious as it underperformed at the box office. For whatever reason audiences at the time didn’t find the gags very funny and many critics found the train chase which comprises a majority of the film to be quite tiresome. It is also this long train sequence that is praised by modern critics and puts The General high on nearly every list of the greatest movies ever made. The film begins in classic slapstick comedy fashion with Buster Keaton, an unflappable train engineer, attempting to join the army at the beginning of the civil war to impress his girlfriend. After a dejected Keaton is denied entrance into the army, his train, named The General, is stolen by a group of spies from the Union Army. Keaton immediately gives chase, determined to not let the spies get away with his pride and joy. Pursuing on anything and everything he can find, including a rail handcart and a bicycle, he eventually takes control of a train owned by the Confederate Army and the famous train chase ensues. This scene is an excellent example of a character making himself seem like a complete bumbling fool through the use of various slapstick gags despite the fact that he comes out ahead in the end. Only a masterful comedian such as Buster Keaton could pull off the dozens of gags that occur on and around the trains, many of which are quite dangerous and would take immense physical strength and coordination to pull off. One such stunt occurs when Keaton nearly shoots his own train with the cannon hitched to the back of it, only missing by sheer dumb luck. Another stunt occurs when he is attempting to load large logs onto the fuel car, tossing them high into the air with apparent ease. Many of the logs fly straight over the train or knock down the few in the fuel car, causing Keaton to hilariously scramble around to pick them all up again. Eventually Keaton retrieves his train and returns home in time to warn the local army unit of an impending Union attack, making him the hero of the day. As a reward he is made an officer in the Confederate Army and regains the adoration of his girl. Despite this film being one of Keaton’s few failures it signaled the beginning of the end of his slapstick comedy career. He made only a few more independent comedies since he was no longer trusted with his own films. Then he went to MGM where he clashed with the fledgling studio system and ironically also made his most financially successful film.
The Cameraman (1928) was the first film Buster Keaton made for MGM and one of the most financially successful of his entire career. While it is not held in quite as high regard as The General and a few of his other films, it is still well liked and most representative of the slapstick comedy genre. It has every aspect that makes up a quintessential slapstick comedy such as a beautiful and inspirational love interest and an improbable slapstick adventure that paints the protagonist as a bumbling fool but ends in both financial and romantic gain. The plot follows Buster Keaton playing a stoic tintype photographer, creatively named Buster, who falls for a girl named Sally whose picture he takes. After she leaves he tracks her down using the picture and discovers she works as a secretary at a motion picture news company. He attempts to get a job there in order to win Sally’s favor but is told he needs to own his own movie camera and prove himself as a cameraman by filming a few stories on his own. After several attempts that all end in failure Sally, who truly wants to see him succeed, gives him a tip on a good story that she withholds from all the other cameramen. The story Buster is sent to cover is a turf war brewing in Chinatown between the Tong gangs that operate there. The slapstick sequence that follows is one of the most absurdly over the top in the history of the genre. It perfectly illustrates how Buster the cameraman is the quintessential bumbling fool who gets incredibly lucky and comes out ahead despite the many death defying situations he finds himself in. Before the fighting even begins Buster befriends an organ grinder monkey who proceeds to wreak havoc by pulling his film reel out of his camera. Just as he gets the film loaded back into the camera the war breaks out all around him. While filming this massive street fight between knife and gun wielding gang members Buster is never more than a few feet away from the danger because he wants to get the best shot he can in order to impress Sally and her boss at the news company. First off his camera legs are shot out from under him, and a few bullets even come close to shooting out the camera’s lens. He climbs a two story high scaffolding to escape the brawl and get an overhead shot but the structure collapses as soon as he reaches the top and he seeks cover in a machine gun nest instead. Buster begins cranking away on his camera and his primate companion begins cranking away on the machine gun in an attempt to imitate him which causes another machine gun across the street to return fire. Buster then resumes filming behind some large crates where he is spotted by one of the gang bosses who sics his henchmen on him. The first henchman attempts to stab Buster but the monkey finds a knife and stabs the attacker before he reaches him. The second henchman is thwarted by Buster himself but the camera nearly gets smashed in the process. The furious gang boss sends an entire group of henchmen after him but he escapes into a building that has a perfect overhead angle to film from. Before Buster can yet again set up his camera he is trapped in the room by the henchmen and their leader before being saved once and for all by the arrival of the police. Shortly afterward he realizes the film reel in his camera was empty the whole time and believes the film and all hope is lost. He gives up on his news film career altogether when he realizes Sally has started dating another one of the cameramen. However, as in all slapstick comedies Buster ends up winning back the girl and getting the job he wanted when he discovers the monkey had switched his film reels sometime after the gang war and the footage was intact. The conclusion of this film delivers a strong message that hope is never lost even for a lowly buffoon like Buster, a message that surely resonated with audiences at the time. Unfortunately the lack of creative control afforded to Keaton at MGM caused him to quit accepting starring roles in feature films for most of his remaining career, although he did have dozens of smaller parts in film, television, and theater.
Buster Keaton’s films The General and The Cameraman foreshadowed and paralleled the downfall of the slapstick genre and silent films in general. The General’s failure at the box office showed audiences unwillingness to accept a more creative and well thought out style of comedy. Less than a year after its release The Jazz Singer used synchronized sound to usher in the beginning of Hollywood’s next great era. As wonderful and relatable as they were, slapstick comedies and their stars relied heavily upon physical gags for their success and had little use for sound. Once sound became the dominate format it was only a matter of time before silent comedies and silent film were phased out completely. The Cameraman was one of the last successful silent comedies due in large part to the fact that it was made with MGM in total control instead of Keaton himself. These were not only the last days of silent film but the last days of independent film for a long while to come. Although slapstick comedy’s golden age may have been in the 1920s, the art never died. It actually experienced a great revival in the 1940s with such stars as The Three Stooges and Abbot and Costello. There may be few slapstick comedies made these days, but the great and many works of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and all the other stars of the genre will provide enough entertainment for many generations to come.
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