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What became of the raucous laughter and inspired slapstick anarchism of the early silent comedies? Our regular film commentator Thomas Wartenberg traces the trajectory of film comedy from laughter to romance.
In a brilliant essay entitled, ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’, James Agee bemoaned sound comedy’s inability to deliver the raucous laughter he found so appealing in silent comedy. I was reminded of this critical judgment as I perused the American Film Institutes list of the 100 greatest American film comedies, for there were very few silent films on it. (The list is available at www.afionline.org/100laughs). Topping the list are two films involving cross-dressing: Some Like It Hot and Tootsie. The first silent film on the list is Buster Keaton’s The General (#18), certainly one of the great American film comedies. Charlie Chaplin’s first entry on the list is The Gold Rush (#25), certainly a classic but in many ways less funny, more maudlin than many of his earlier shorter features. Harold Lloyd’s sole appearance is at #79 with The Freshman. In all, by my count, only 7 of the 100 films are silent and, of those, 2 are actually sound films Chaplin made without speaking (Modern Times [#33] and City Lights [#31]). Of the earlier pioneers of film comedy, including the great female comic Mabel Normand, the list bears no trace.
Clearly, the AFI list of top film comedies is biased in favor of the present But I don’t think it is simply a case of historical amnesia. Rather, I think it betrays a fact about the evolution of film comedy that has structured the preferences of the Institute members who voted. Let me explain.
Comedy is as old as film itself. Among the earliest films screened by the Lumière Brothers was a film, L’Arroseur arros (1895), in which a gardener is the victim of a young boy’s prank and winds up getting sprayed in the face as he peers into a hose the boy has been holding shut. But in the debates between early film theorists about film’s distinctive nature – Realism or Fantasy? – film’s potential for comedy was neglected. In part, no doubt, this was because those theorists were concerned to elevate film to the level of an art form from its humble beginnings as a form of popular culture.
Early silent films were distinguished by their ability to elicit laughter through gags such as the one I just mentioned. Over the years, the great film comedians – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, to name the three masters of the genre – refined these gags. One memorable example occurs in Chaplin’s The Idle Class. Chaplin plays two roles in this film: his usual role as the Tramp but also the more unusual role for him of a rich alcoholic. At one point, when the alcoholic’s wife has announced that she is leaving him, the camera shows him in a medium shot from behind in which he appears to be crying: his shoulders are hunched, his head is tilted downwards, and his body seems to be shaking with sobs. A reverse shot shows that we are mistaken: What the alcoholic is doing is making a martini, hence his posture and bodily motion. What Chaplin has noticed, and used his camera to reveal, is that the two unrelated actions – crying and mixing a drink – appear identical when seen from the rear. The camera is able to disclose this to us in a way that other artistic media, such as theater, cannot because it can precisely determine our point of view on the action. In a theater – the artform early film theorists saw as most closely allied to film – viewers not in direct line to a character would see the action from the side, so this is an effect that could not be rendered in that artistic medium.
This suggests that film has certain distinctive comic possibilities not available to other arts. Of course, this does not mean that films ought to exploit this potential, a theoretical entailment mistakenly made by many early film theorists who tried to derive artistic imperatives from their understanding of the nature of film. Nonetheless, this capacity helps reveal the genius of silent film, its ability to show us features of the world, and especially our bodies, that are not apparent in the normal course of our lives. The fact that such revelations brought with them laughter accounts for the great pleasure attendant upon viewing silent films.
As film itself developed and the narrative mode dominated at the box office, film comedy was forced to adapt itself in order to compete. During the mid-to late-teens, narrative films became longer, involving more complex plots. In order to survive, comic films had to become longer, too. But they faced a problem in doing so, for audience interest could not be sustained by a series of gags that extended to the length common to feature films of that time. How would film comedy meet this challenge?
The obvious answer was to accommodate comic gags within an overall dramatic narrative. Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd all moved to such forms, as they produced longer films that had stronger and more coherent dramatic narratives. But the problem was that the narrative form often conflicted with the comic gags. This is clearest, I think, in the case of Chaplin, whose sentimentalism has grown more apparent over time. While The Gold Rush is a masterpiece, it certainly is not one because of the depth of the narrative of a Tramp’s ascent into wealth and amorous satisfaction, but rather because of the great comic sequences such as the dinner roll dance the Tramp performs in his dreams on New Year’s Eve (“The Oceana Shuffle.”) Although such gags could not be strung together into a feature-length film without wearying its audience, the films that result when comedy is placed within a broader narrative structure do not always have the same comic intensity that Agee celebrated in the early film shorts.
(Incidentally, we can note a similar trend in the ouvre of Woody Allen. The early films, like Bananas (#69), were mostly a series of gags strung together with a loose narrative line. In his later films, such as Annie Hall (#4), narrative predominates and unifies the film, although humor is still present. Here, too, comic laughter has been subordinated to the demands of narrative coherence.)
The subordination of comedy to narrative could have taken a number of different forms. Any of the standard genres, such as the Western or the melodrama, could have included comic elements, as indeed some did. But for the most part, it was romance to which comedy became subordinate, thus developing the romantic comedy as the supreme genre for film comedy. Now the comic elements could be integrated into the scaffolding of a developing romance, keeping audience attention from flagging by maintaining tension over obstacles placed in the couple’s way. The General is a good example of such a film, for Johnny Gray’s quest, filled at it is with comic episodes, is ultimately to win the favors of his beloved. While romantic comedy thus came into being during the silent age, it is, of course, the dominant form of comedy today. Not only are well over half of the films on the AFI top-100 list romantic comedies, but romance remains the paradigm for film comedy today.
One claim that is made about the fusing of romance and laughter is that it resulted in the domestication of film comedy. Theorists of comedy, including Freud and Bergson, have argued that comedy is inherently subversive, for it pokes fun at various forms of authority. One need only think of the predominance of the police in early film comedies – the Keystone Cops being paradigmatic here – to see the appeal of the idea that comedy is inherently anarchic, poking fun at those in power. Romance, on the other hand, is often taken to be a conservative genre, demonstrating the value of love and marriage over rebellious desires. Most romances end once the couple has surmounted obstacles, as the lovers face an indeterminate but happy future, free of the cares that had threatened their love.
If we accept these traditional accounts of comedy and romance, then it makes sense to see the development of romantic comedy as taming comedy’s subversions. From this point of view, the modern romantic comedy has lost the critical edge inherent in slapstick and other forms of early film comedy. The AFI’s celebration of recent comedy over older ones can then be seen as more than an act of historical amnesia: It camouflages the truly revolutionary nature of film comedy by celebrating the more domesticated form in which it currently exists. When the AFI recognizes films like Singing in the Rain (#16) or American Graffiti (#43) as comedies, it is clear that humor and laughter are no longer the primary criteria that make a film a comedy. To yearn for more of the anarchic pleasures provided by early film comedy, as Agee did, is not simply to accept the nostalgia so current in intellectual circles today; it is to ask filmmakers to provide the subversive experiences that made film comedy such a vital, if now overlooked, genre of the silent film.
One does not have to accept this entire argument, however, to see that the AFI list judges silent films from the standpoint of how well they approximate the norms of contemporary romantic comedy. The General, Sherlock, Jr., The Gold Rush, and City Lights all have romantic plots as the scaffolding for their brilliant physical comedy. (The complex plots of these films allow for physical comedy routines that could not be imagined in simple shorts, no matter how much these feature films are indebted to the shorts for their ideas, such as that of the chase in The General.) In addition, the AFI list has a general denigration of physical comedy in favor of verbal wit. There is only one Jerry Lewis film, The Nutty Professor (#99), on the entire lists and nothing by Jim Carrey.
The AFIs list thus betrays a failure of the film industry to adequately recognize the achievements of silent comedy, especially by its pioneers. Instead, it reflects the prejudices of a film public that suffers a peculiar form of historical blindness. Rather than using the list of top comedies to educate the public about the history of film, the AFI list reflects the self-congratulatory nature of the film industry, assured that it has improved upon its past through the addition of such technological improvements as sound and color. In so doing, one of the truly great achievements of the moving picture – silent comedy – is marginalized and the chance to reinvigorate contemporary film is lost.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2000
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.