Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reflections: Have You Heard This One?

A silent comic walks into a bar.

And knocks himself out.


Last week, I wrote about the struggles we sometimes face when trying to enjoy silent dramas. I blamed most of it on the drift of social values between the early 20th century and today, which forces old movies to make unreasonable demands on our sympathy. This week, I want to look at silent comedy, which has aged better, because it gives us more while demanding less.

Silent comedy is more than people trying to be funny on film. Actors were doing silly things or performing vaudeville acts in front of a lens as far back as Thomas Edison’s time. These early performers had talent, but they didn’t take advantage of the camera’s potential; they just did their stage routines without a live audience.

True film comedy took time to develop and peaked in the 1920s, when features by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd pulled major box office. The films were good too—inventive and joyful, taking full advantage of their soundless medium. They perfected physical comedy (‘slapstick’) and they’re still funny today. So what’s comedy got that drama hasn’t?

We return to sympathy: The blood and bones of good drama and pure cyanide for most comedies. Comedy is cruel; even the gentlest joke causes us to laugh at someone else. What happens if we sympathize too much with a comic character? Who’s the joke on then? Silent comedies don’t have to build sympathy for characters at all. The irony, though, is that they often do it better than dramas can today.

Charlie Chaplin made his Tramp rich in comedy..... ...but it was tragedy that filled the costume and made it believeable.

Social values change quickly; social pressures do not. We can still relate to silent standards like meeting a fiancĂ©’s parents, struggling to join clubs and teams, being bullied, or being broke; we’ll never escape the realities of physical pain and mortal danger. These are universals that slapstick constantly exploits.

Silent drama’s characters suffer these ills, too. However, we are expected to care for them, which is taxing if they aren’t so likeable anymore. Comic protagonists are often lazy, crooked, or stupid, and their goals less noble. They spend entire films trying to avoid punishment, detection or responsibility. When they seek love, it’s often from a foul person. These characters may be charming, but funny people usually are. So when they get their asses kicked, we’re okay with it.

Silent comedies have another advantage over dramas: They need less plot. Sure, silent films in general have thin plots, but the dramas have to fill their running times with supporting characters, twists and moments of pathos. The percentage of scenes that could lose a modern viewer goes up. Slapstick comedies, meanwhile, get a better deal; they can fill their scenes with ageless physical comedy. Yes, the best comedies integrate those scenes with a plot, but at the very least, they offer enough tumbles, brawls and lethal stunts to keep you entertained. (They needn’t be sublime, either. One of my favourite comedic scenes features Fatty Arbuckle hurling a piano through a wall to crush someone in the next room.)

Probably the best endorsement of silent comedy is to say that when it fails, it’s usually for the same reasons sound comedies do. Bad pacing, overacting and predictability kill silent comedians just as dead. For example, I’ll never understand the appeal of Al St. John, a popular supporting actor in silent comedies (and later, sound westerns). Al was a terrific acrobat, but he lacked a low gear. Every reaction was an overreaction—everything was electric and big, as though he was playing to the back row instead of the camera only feet in front of him. Al’s work tires me out because he never projected stillness. All the great silent comedians mastered that, and used the quiet to make their pratfalls and reaction-shots stand out.

Al St. John

Silent gags bomb worst when they make you wish for sound; The Navigator (1924) provides a memorable example. Buster Keaton and his female lead are running scared during a night aboard an abandoned ship, having been spooked by several gags already. Rough waters shake them up some more and jar a nearby phonograph, which begins playing ‘Asleep in the Deep.’ The lyrics begin:

Danger is near thee/
Many brave hearts are asleep in the Deep/

Buster and his girl are terrified by what they hear, but we can only read the lyrics, which are superimposed over the phonograph. Watching this, I always wonder what the singer’s voice sounded like. A deep, male voice, I guess? If the song was popular, the joke must have worked better in 1924. But Keaton isn’t betting on that. He portrays the last lyric, 'B-E-W-A-R-E,' on a slant, as though to illustrate how we would have heard it, if we could hear anything. Were The Navigator made a few years later, Keaton could have captured the lyrics on a record and played it for the theatre’s audience. The joke would have aged better.

Buster Keaton excelled as the calm centre of chaos.

Maybe it all comes down to freedom. Some silent dramas shackle their characters to old-fashioned values, while silent comedies, at their best, make everything possible. Slapstick challenges all physical limits, and when a silent comedian enters a room, every item in front of him—lamp, pitcher, picture frame; doorway, window, rug or chair—crackles with possibility. This is a world made of potential and it’s still fun.

Mind you, ‘fun’ need not mean ‘funny.’ Next week, I’ll consider how this potential can favour another silent genre: horror.

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