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About Whipsnade

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    Advanced Member
  • Birthday 02/15/1958

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  • Location
    Arroyo Grande, California
  • Interests
    Old movies, radio & music (before 1970). History & philosophy. Raising chickens. Sport fencing (foil & epee). Fly fishing and hiking.
  1. While I have always enjoyed the Tom & Jerry and other MGM cartoons, I think the Warner Brothers cartoons are superior in terms of story, characters and comedy. MGM and Walt Disney often had a more artistic presentation, but for pure slapstick, both visual and verbal, Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies can't be beat. From the fairly primitive cartoons of the thirties, they developed a formula and several characters, like Porky Pig and Daffy Duck. Then, in the early 1940's they created a superstar, Bugs Bunny. While Bugs needed several years to achieve his classic look and speech pattern, right from the start he tangled with his arch nemesis, Elmer Fudd (who underwent his own transformation, during those same years). Though Elmer was his first, Bugs faced many other adversaries through the years: Yosemite Sam, Witch Hazel, Marvin the Martian and the Tasmanian Devil (to name a few). There was also the classic teaming with Daffy Duck, a pairing reminiscent of Hope & Crosby. Warner Bros. had a deep bench, with many other stars besides the "big four." Sylvester & Tweety, Pepe Le Pew, Henery Hawk, The Roadrunner & Wile E. Coyote, Sam the Sheepdog & Ralph the Wolf, and Speedy Gonzales. And my personal favorite, Foghorn Leghorn; a loud mouthed, oversize chicken who crossed swords with Sylvester, Henery the Hawk, the Barnyard Dog, and Miss Prissy, the spinster hen. The character was loosely based on Kenny Delmar's "Senator Claghorn" character from "The Fred Allen Show" on radio. This is another example of a radio character crossing over to the movies (sort of). In all these cartoons, we get seven minutes of concentrated visual & verbal slapstick. The cultural impact and commercial success of these Warner Brothers classics can not be denied.
  2. OUCH! A Salute to Slapstick - Films of the 1930s

    The Charlie Chase shorts were filmed in the early years of the sound era and show the signs of some the difficulties of integrating sound into film. The action is subdued and controlled to allow the primitive recording techniques to pick up the sound. Charlie is his exasperated self, and Thelma Todd is stunning, as always. Actually, I think Chase was funnier in his bit part in Laurel & Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert” (1933), and he is the only comedian in this course to demonstrate the proper use of an actual slapstick. We can safely say that money on the floor gag fits the definition of slapstick, both literally and figuratively! This movie is L&H at there best. It is a simple story (unlike some of their other movies) that allows the comedy to flow effortlessly and shows the chemistry and affection between the two. Stan intentionally eating the wax apple is great physical comedy that was done in silence, but the gag is made more humorous when Ollie’s wife (Mae Busch) says “So that’s where they have been going.” Later, after the wives discover the boys lied to go to the convention, they make a bet between them about which one of the boys will confess the truth. Ollie sticks to the lie, but Stan cracks and confesses. In the end, Ollie is in hot water and Stan is in clover. Just as “Sons of the Desert” is the best among their feature films, “The Music Box” (1932) is the best of their shorts. It was so good, that Hal Roach allowed it to run three reels, rather than the standard two. Almost two thirds of the film is spent trying to get the player piano up the long stairs, but the potential monotony of the drawn out scene is avoided by breaks provided by people coming down the step. The short has no “Hal Roach music” soundtrack, until the player piano is set up, then the music starts while the boys clean up. In the process, they break into a humorous and charming dance -- at least until Professor von Schwartzenhoffer (Billy Gilbert) arrives home and destroys the piano. Gilbert was famous for his drawn out sneeze, so much so that Walt Disney had him provide the voice of Sneezy in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). Gilbert provided comic relief in many movies: he was the bartender in “Destry Rides Again” (1939). Harold Lloyd, in ‘Movie Crazy” (1932), showed how effectively he made the transition to sound in this wonderful movie that spoofs Hollywood and the filmmaking process. While he still shows his physical comedy prowess, he effectively uses his voice to make his naive character convincing. It is interesting to contrast his voice with that of Buster Keaton. Keaton’s voice is flat and slow in its delivery, in stark contrast to his silent screen persona, while Lloyd’s voice is light and evocative and seems a perfect fit for his silent screen persona. Another great movie from this early sound era is “Elmer the Great” (1933), starring Joe E. Brown. Brown made lots of pictures in this period and was very popular. He was always the loud-mouth country bumpkin who somehow made good in the end. His movies often had athletic themes that created numerous opportunities for visual slapstick. With its baseball theme, this movie is no exception. He did one more baseball comedy, “Alibi Ike” (1935). So much has been said about “A Night at the Opera” (1935) already; all I’ll add here is a word about Alan Jones (who played Ricardo). He plays the role that had been played by Zeppo Marx in the Paramount movies and is involved in the romance with Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). He was a great singer, who could fit in with the operatic theme. He could also handle popular music, as he showed in James Whale’s production of “Showboat” (1936). He re-teamed with The Marx Brothers in their next film, “A Day at the Races” (1937). His son, Jack Jones became a popular singer in the postwar period. I have seen many Wheeler & Woolsey comedies, but not “Hips, Hips Hooray” (1934). It was wild and wacky in the style of The Marx Brothers, but with more variety show elements added in. Robert Woolsey does remind me of George Burns, but it is not George Burns in this era. Woolsey, in the thirties, looked like George Burns would in the sixties and seventies -- especially with the round glasses. Finally, slapstick music was represented in “Sweet Music” (1935) and “Gold Diggers in Paris” (1938), both starring crooner Rudy Vallee. “Sweet Music” featured the Frank & Milt Britton Band, while “Gold Diggers” featured the Freddie “Schnicklefritz” Fisher Band. As mentioned, these kinds of bands were the precursor to the 1940’s “Spike Jones and his City Slickers” The musical antics of the slapstick bands provide the comic highlights in both of these movies.

    Courses covering the following genres would be great: Westerns, Musicals, Detectives/Mysteries, Theatrical Cartoons & Short Subjects, Gangsters/Prison. Other possibilities: Focus on directors such as Hitchcock, Ford, Capra and Hawks. Focus on decades such as 1930's or 1930's & 1940's. Focus on studios, either individually or in comparison. Focus on eras such as silent, pre-code or pre-WW2/post-WW2
  4. We now move into an era of filmmaking I know little about. With very few exceptions, I stopped seeing new movies after about 1980. My interests turned backwards through film history, rather than forward. Of these five movies, only “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad” (1988) was familiar to me. And that was because I had enjoyed the four episode TV series “Police Squad” that aired in 1982. Regarding the movies that were new to me: With “Top Secret!” (1984), it was interesting to see how ZAZ handled a transitional event between “Police Squad” and “Naked Gun.” I did not consider it to meet the level of either of those efforts, but it did have its moments. Two films on the list surprised me: “Sidewalk Stories” (1989) and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). “Sidewalk Stories” was a compelling story, effectively told (after I saw it, I learned it was a remake of Chaplin’s “The Kid” from 1921). I’m not a big fan of “social commentary” films, but it moved me emotionally. This seems like a movie that just barely fits our definition of slapstick, but I am glad I saw it. I was fully prepared to dislike “Anchorman” just on the basis of its initial popularity and its lasting impact on pop culture, but I enjoyed it in spite of myself. My first surprise was to see Christina Applegate as co-star. She is a skilled comedienne who honed her craft on the TV series “Married...With Children” (1986-1996). My second surprise was that the comedy held up throughout the film. There was no question about this movie fitting the definition of slapstick -- all the elements were present. It won’t make my list of favorites, but I would watch it again. That covers all but “Strange Brew” (1983). I have mixed feelings about this movie. I remember watching SCTV at the time and found the MacKenzie Brothers skits to be the best part of it. But I quickly came to feel that it was a simple routine that was weakened by repetition. By the time the movie came out, I was indifferent to it and never saw it. When watching the film, I had a slight wave of nostalgic enthusiasm, but it faded quickly to my earlier indifference. Clearly, it fits the definition of slapstick, but it didn’t hit the comic heights of “Naked Gun,” which is our other TV to movie translation. Two thoughts come to mind: First, this is an example of the change in target audience that took place after the imposition of the new production code in 1968. Before the new code, films had to be approved for general audiences of all ages. But after the change, films were created to appeal to specific demographic groups with different levels of maturity. Ironically, this “higher level of maturity” resulted in creating more juvenile films like this one -- films that had limited appeal to begin with and that do not age well. Second, this “TV to movie” attempt reminds me of the many movies in the forties that attempted to bring radio shows to movies. Shows, such as “Fibber McGee & Molly,” “The Great Gildersleeve” and “The Life of Riley,” were translated to film in an attempt to capitalize on their radio popularity. Each of these efforts resulted in mediocre films that failed to recreate the spirit of the original show. Their primary appeal was to fans of the shows, as it was a chance to see what had previously only been heard. “Strange Brew” seems like this, as it was obviously made to capitalize on their TV popularity. As an aside: I think the only really successful “translation” of radio characters to movies was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen & his dummy Charlie McCarthy teaming with W. C. Fields in “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” (1939). This movie brought to film the famous “radio feud” between Fields and McCarthy that played out on “The Chase & Sanborn Hour” during the 1937 broadcast season.
  5. An interesting contrast in styles of comical gags is presented in a short time frame in the Preston Sturges comedy “The Palm Beach Story” from 1942. The club car scene, in which the Ale & Quail Club members shoot up the railroad car, is an example of slapstick at its most wild and boisterous. This scene is almost immediately followed by the sleeping car scene, in which Geraldine (Claudette Colbert) is helped into an upper berth by John D. Hackensacker (Rudy Vallee). As he supports her foot for a boost, it slowly slips down and crushes his glasses -- twice. Here we have a much more subtle form of slapstick. While I find the club car scene hilarious, I think the breaking glasses is even funnier. And none of it would have been possible without the financial backing of the Wienie King (Lay off ‘em, you’ll live longer).The versatility of Sturges, in this period is truely amazing. Visual slapstick and verbal fencing abounds in this and other Sturges classics such as “The Lady Eve” (1941) and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (1944). 1948 appears to have been a great year for genre spoofing. As we have already discussed, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” was a near perfect spoof of the Universal horror series of the 1930’s and early 1940’s. But we had another spoof of the western/civil war genre with Red Skelton’s “A Southern Yankee.” The story is a standard civil war spy tale with Skelton’s comedic character running amok through it (with the off-camera help of Buster Keaton). This structure fits Miller’s definition of a spoof: the movie treats the genre with respect and pokes lighthearted fun at it. The story is meant as a comedy but has scenes that are played straight. Another example of a spoof (not on our viewing list) is Bob Hope’s “The Paleface.” As with “Southern Yankee,” “The Paleface” respectfully presents a standard western story line with a comic character (Painless Peter Potter, the dentist) operating within its bounds. When Hope was not on screen, it can be easily mistaken for a serious western. Bob Hope did several movies that would fit Miller’s definition of a spoof: “My Favorite Blonde” (1942) spoofed spy thrillers: “the Princess and the Pirate” (1944) spoofed pirate movies; “Monsieur Beaucaire” (1946) & “Casanova’s Big Night” (1954) spoofed historical dramas; and “My Favorite Brunette” (1947) spoofed detective/noir movies.
  6. “Scared Stiff” (1953) is an example of a movie that I would not normally watch, for two reasons. First: though I like Dean Martin, I am not a fan of Jerry Lewis. Second: it is a remake of “The Ghost Breakers” (1940), a movie I really like that stars Bob Hope & Paulette Goddard. Dean Martin plays the Bob Hope character, and Jerry Lewis is in the role played by the incomparable Willie Best. Because of these two biases, I had to watch it twice to see it once. I spent the first viewing comparing it to the original. Only with the second viewing could I see it more objectively. I still would not consider it a great film and would never choose it over the original, but it was worthwhile to watch as a piece of film history. One of the benefits of this course is that it has caused me to watch some films that I would not have otherwise seen. My film knowledge was increased by viewing this.
  7. With regard to the relative weakness of the comedies of this era, as mentioned by IN04150, I have to agree. When compared to the films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, we can conclude that bigger (and longer) is not always better. While I enjoy many of the films of this era, I think they can be overlong, ponderous and forced in their humor. “The Great Race” (1965) as an example, is enjoyable but physically taxing. I think “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963), though longer, is better comedy, but watching it is still something of an ordeal. Several reasons for the decline have been discussed, including the need to compete with television in the 1950’s and the changing demographics of audiences in the 1960’s (which resulted in the change to a new rating system in 1968). Another factor that has not been discussed is the breakup of the studio system. Movies faced a double-barreled threat in the late forties: competition from television; and a government-mandated prohibition on dual ownership of movie studios and movie theaters. This resulted in the slow dissolution of the studio system during the 1950’s -- a system that had controlled film production and distribution from its earliest days. While the studios are often accused of stifling creativity, they also controlled the creative propensity for excess. I think the studios served a function similar to that of an editor -- shaping the finished product, sometimes for the worst but often for the better. Is it a coincidence that the decline in quality corresponded with this loss of external control over the creative process? Something to ponder. Another possible factor is that comedy had run its course under the rules and conditions that existed at the time. The move to all-star comedy extravaganzas may be, in fact, a sign of weakness in the genre. A parallel can be drawn to the Universal horror genre, the last gasps of which were the “monster all-star” movies: “House of Frankenstein” (1944) and “House of Dracula” (1945). As we have seen, the next step after exhaustion is parody. For Universal horror, it was “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948). After the epic comedy era ran its course, comedy moved into an extended period of spoofs and parodies in the 1970’s. The target of these parodies was not comedy, itself; it was other genres or films from Hollywood’s past. The change in the production code in 1968 laid the foundation for a new kind of comedy that would come to the forefront after (and as) the 1970’s parody period played itself out. It is interesting to contrast the performances of Milton Berle in “Always leave them Laughing” (1949) and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963). In “Always,” Berle is not a likable character. He is an aggressive schemer willing to do almost anything to get ahead. And the comedy in the movie is too blatant and burlesque for my tastes. I was never a big fan of his style of comedy. Whether on radio, in movies or on television, he always seemed like he was trying too hard. But in “Mad, Mad,” I find him subtle and effective in his comedy. I find myself sympathetic with his character who must deal with Ethel Merman as a mother-in-law and Dick Shawn as a brother-in-law. And the “fight” with Terry-Thomas is hilarious. In an interview made at the time of production, Berle admitted that he intentionally acted in an understated way that was markedly different from his usual performances. I think it was a very effective performance.
  8. I was happy to see Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers” (1973) included in our movie line-up. It is a wonderful version of the Dumas story, played for laughs on several levels. Not only is it played as slapstick, it is also presented as a realistic representation of the filthy world of the historical past -- with chamber pots dumped out windows and mud & dirt everywhere. But the realism is in the setting, not in the fencing. As a fencer, I enjoy the fights in this movie and the overflow follow-up “The Four Musketeers” (1975). But it is not for the quality or realism of the fencing, it is for the energy and humor of the exchange. Of course, the fencing in this film is as choreographed as thoroughly as any fight scene in any movie -- the action is too dangerous to do otherwise. Because it was played for humor, the action was intentionally “clumsy, awkward and messy.” Realistically, swordsmen who were clumsy, awkward and messy had very short careers. The fencing that took place between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) was beautifully staged by fencing master Fred Cavens, and it was not played for laughs. But it did involve tripping on or jumping over furniture and candle stands, and it ended with Rathbone making a critical defensive mistake that allows the killing thrust to land. Cavens staged an even greater fight two years later, in “The Mark of Zorro” (1940), between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. Though the structure of the fight was roughly the same, the execution was at a higher level. It is the most realistic fencing I have seen in a movie. Even so, it is not the real thing. As Cavens explained, “For the screen, in order to be well photographed and also grasped by the audience, all swordplay should be so telegraphed with emphases that the audience will see what is coming. All movements -- instead of being as small as possible, as in competitive fencing -- must be large…” With “The Three Musketeers,” the movements are large, but the action is not telegraphed. The humor comes from not knowing what they are going to do next. The fight on ice, in “The Four Musketeers, is another example of this humorous approach to fighting. It should be noted that Lester’s version of “The Three Musketeers” was not the first version to spoof or parody the Dumas tale. A musical comedy version was produced in 1939, starring Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers, and a comic/dramatic version came out in 1948, starring Gene Kelly. The 1948 version contains some very funny and athletic fencing by Kelly that could be considered slapstick. But, the best example of comic fencing is not in any of these versions of The Three Musketeers. It is in “The Court Jester” (1956) between Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone and contains both expert fencing and ridiculous slapstick. It was staged by Hollywood’s other master fencer/choreographer, Ralph Faulkner. It is no coincidence that Basil Rathbone was involved in all these great fight scenes -- he was a skilled fencer. Among his fellow actors, only Cornel Wilde (who was a collegiate champion) was his superior.
  9. What is Slapstick? A Discussion of Definitions

    I must confess to having struggled with the definition of slapstick comedy we have been developing throughout the course. The fault for this is not in the material presented; it is in me. Part of the problem stemmed from my preconceived notion of what constituted slapstick. If asked, I would have described it as the visual comedies of the teens and twenties that emphasized physical exaggeration and violence. In this view, the silent era was the heyday of slapstick comedy. With the advent of sound, slapstick largely disappeared (with the notable exception of The Three Stooges). I come to realize that my view is another indication of the powerful impact of documentary anthologies like Robert Youngson’s “The Golden Age of Comedy.” I saw this film many times during my youth in the 1960’s; it was my introduction to the silent comedy that was often called slapstick. Youngson, and Agee before him, argued that this era was the golden age of comedy -- an era that was gone and would never return. As with the era, so it was with slapstick. This thesis was accepted by me uncritically for all these years. So much so that I confess I did not even consider the Marx Brothers movies as slapstick. Only the Stooges escaped this bias. When I was young, I did not try to classify them -- I just enjoyed them. When I was older, I came to view them as something of an homage to the golden age. This course has caused me to rethink this long held but poorly justified position. Now I can see slapstick as an ongoing continuation of an historical genre, one that has (and had to) evolve over time. Just as there is no set era for slapstick, there is no simple definition that could cover all its possible iterations. Our five-part definition (Exaggeration, Physical, Ritualistic, Make-believe and Violent) establishes the constituent elements of slapstick comedy. I don’t contest the inclusion of any of these categories in the general definition, but I wonder about the interplay between them, in any given instance. While as a genre or collection of movies, all the conditions are necessary, this is not always the case with individual movies. During the course, I have looked at some of the upcoming films and wondered why they would be considered slapstick. My mistake was to apply the definition too rigidly and completely to each film, in the mistaken belief that all five elements were necessary in each case. This quickly became unworkable as more and more of our target films failed to fit cleanly into this kind of definition. If all the conditions are not necessary for a given film, what number of conditions is sufficient to call it slapstick? It can not be one, for then a film that was just violent (V) would be slapstick. Nor could it be two, because a physical and violent (P&V) film would qualify. Three won’t work either, for a film that was physical, violent and ritualistic/repetitive (P,V&R) would also qualify. Four appears to be the minimum number. This gives us five subcategories as possible slapstick iterations for individual movies: Exaggeration (E) with P,V&R (E,P,V&R); Make-believe (M) with P,V&R (M,P,V&R); E,P,M&V; E,P,M&R and E,M,V&R. This broadens the application of the definition to allow the inclusion of films that are less obviously “slapstick.” The next issue is the amount of slapstick necessary to call a film slapstick. Some of the movies had slapstick interludes surrounded by conventional comedy (or even drama, in “Always Leave Them Laughing”). I’m not sure how to quantify this. I saw the tail end of “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) on TCM the other night and thought, “Here’s a conventional comedy of manners that is not slapstick.” Then, on a message board post, I was reminded of the beginning scene involving exaggerated humor and violence. I still would not characterize this movie as slapstick; this scene is more like a “slapstick cameo” in a regular comedy. There must be more than an isolated instant, it seems, to justify calling something slapstick. I’m not sure how much more it should be, but this does not seem enough.
  10. Wes Gehring on Film Comedy, Episodes 1-9

    As a review, I just watched all nine episodes of “Gehring on Comedy” in one sitting. It was even more informative than watching them individually. Though they were loaded with factual information and insight, the main takeaway was to highlight the importance of transitional periods in the history of slapstick comedy. It is easy to forget that the history of slapstick comedy is not a static thing; it is dynamic progression that must react and change in response to changing conditions through time. In this sense, slapstick comedy is always in a transitional state -- the bigger the event that impacts it, the more obvious and awkward the transition is likely to be. This history is both a gradual evolution through time and a more dramatic revolution in response to specific events. The revolutionary transitional periods that Gehring discusses were in the aftermath of two major events: the advent of sound and rise of television. The magnitude of these two events forced slapstick to adapt and resulted in extended and obvious transitional periods. By far, the most dramatic revolutionary event to impact slapstick comedy was the introduction of sound in motion pictures. This results in what is defined as a long transitional period from 1928 to 1934. The length of this period is a function of two factors: the difficulty of adapting to the technological realities of sound and the fact that the introduction of sound was, itself, a transitional event in all genres of film making. There is a Hollywood myth that “The Jazz Singer” (1927) instantly ended the silent era and started the sound era in one fell swoop. This distorted view is presented in films such as “Footlight Parade” (1933) and “Singing in the Rain” (1952). Silent film production continued for several years after “The Jazz Singer,” which was really a silent film with a few sound scenes. In the early years of the transition, studios began making both silent and sound versions of the same movie. Not only did the studios struggle to adapt to sound technology, they also needed theaters that were equipped for sound to be able to show their films to the public. It was not until the early thirties, when enough theaters had modernized for sound, that silent productions were phased out. Foreign language films were also a problem. Silent films were universal; only the titles needed to be changed for international exhibition. Before they created dubbing of voices, the need for sound required specific foreign language versions of films to be produced simultaneously -- with phonetic readings by the original stars (Laurel & Hardy shorts) or foreign language casts (Dracula, 1931). Even after the end of silents and redundant foreign language productions, studios struggled with the complexities of filming with sound. It took until around 1934 for the studios to master the new technology. By 1935, slapstick comedy was hitting new heights with productions like “A Night at the Opera.” A second revolutionary event impacted slapstick comedy in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the rise of network television. Though this was less of a technological challenge than the transition to sound, it was a greater threat to the economic security of the industry. As was the case with radio before it, television broadcasting provided a selection of free entertainment in the comfort of one’s own home. Movies studios had learned to adapt to competition from radio (and visa-versa) by intertwining the two mediums; the result was that radio stars were popular in movies and movie stars were popular on radio. Movies and radio were so different that, though they competed, they did not directly threaten each other. But television was different; it was too similar to the movies to be ignored or co-opted. The industry looked for ways to compete with the small screen. To do so, it was necessary to change movies into something that TV could not offer -- productions that were bigger and more colorful. The 1950’s were a transitional period in which more and more Technicolor productions were presented on wider and wider screens. Several widescreen systems were developed: CinemaScope, VistaVision, Panavision and the widest of them all, Cinerama. Filming in widescreen required adjustments in technique that were analogous to, though less profound than, the transition to sound. With the technological problems ironed out, the era of outsized productions with all-star casts dominated into the 1960’s. The result for slapstick comedy was that it was “supersized,” as it grew from elaborate productions like “The Long, Long Trailer” (1954) to such epic comedies as “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) and “The Great Race” (1965).
  11. In this clip from “One Week” (1920), Buster Keaton wages battle with a piano that he is trying to get into his new house. The extended gag is propelled by a large number of props that either aid or impede Keaton’s attempts to move the piano. The first props that we see are the box in which the piano is delivered, carried on the shoulder of a husky deliveryman and the weak ladder that Keaton descends quickly as the rungs break. The ladder gag is over in an instant, while the box gag is drawn out. Both add to the humor of the scene. The man carries the box like it is filled with feathers; when he hands it over to Keaton, it knocks him over and lands on top of him. Unconcerned, the deliveryman lifts the box to get Keaton to sign for the delivery, then drops it back on top of him. Next, Keaton must get the piano into the house -- a house so bizarrely mis-constructed as to be a work of abstract art. Keaton’s amazing athleticism and sense of balance is demonstrated when he uses a loose pipe to climb up and loop the rope around the chandelier, so he can haul the piano through the opening in the wall. Inside the house, the ceiling is pulled down from the force of the piano. When the rope gives, the ceiling rebounds with force, propelling the head of the paperhanger working upstairs through the roof. Keaton climbs up onto the roof and tries to pry the guy up through the roof, before accidentally knocking him back down. Coming back down, he demonstrates his physical skills, again, by balancing on a ladder. This is predominantly prop-driven comedy. This emphasis on props is one of the main difference between Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. As Montgomery characterized it, Keaton was involved in an eternal struggle against every kind of machine or monster. In this sense, he might be called an “oppositional comedian;” his humor came out of his struggles with people and things that got in his way. This approach resulted in the need for many props with which he could interact. This differs from Chaplin, who relied more on his personality than an abundance of props to drive his comedy. This difference between the two shows in their films and is shown on their faces. While Chaplin’s face was emotive and expressive, and constantly changing, Keaton’s face was an unchanging deadpan that earned him the sobriquet “The Great Stone Face.” The primary contribution Buster Keaton made to slapstick comedy was to increase the complexity and physicality of his gags. Even at this early stage of his independent career, the complexity of these stunts and the physical skills required to do them is amazing. And as we have seen, each new movie Keaton made involved increasingly difficult and dangerous stunts. No one before or since has made more physical sacrifices and faced more physical dangers for their comedy.
  12. This course has been a wonderful experience, and I would like to express my thanks to Dr. Rich Edwards, Ball State University, Canvas Network and Turner Classic Movies for having offered it. Additional thanks are offered to Dr. Wes Gehring and Vince Cellini for their valuable contributions. This is my first experience with an online course, and it was so compelling that I participated at a much higher level than I had expected. The message boards really drew me in. Thanks to my fellow students for their insightful comments. The films were well chosen and supported the general thesis and its arguments (I did actually watch them all). As a result, I saw lots of old films in a new light and a few films I had never seen. The time has passed quickly. My understanding of the history of slapstick comedy has been greatly increased. I am saddened that it has ended but grateful that it was offered.
  13. In 1989, Vincent Canby, in a New York Times tribute to Chaplin, wrote the following about this scene from the movie, “A Dog’s Life” (1918): “Charlie’s camera sits unmoving, . . . in the middle distance at an outdoor cake stand. The camera does not cut away. [by this] Chaplin is not intending to instruct the audience on the benefits of a full-figure framing . . . [it] came naturally to a performer in Music Hall . . . It also shows today’s audiences how much we are missing in visual comedy when it’s broken up into close-ups and cuts between images.” I agree, in general, that the cinematic simplicity of early movies is preferable to the modern-day approach of frequent, almost frenetic, changing of camera position, focus and angle. That said, Canby seems to mis-characterize the nature of the camera work in this clip. The middle distance shots may be static, but there are seven cuts to close-ups in less than three minutes. Several of them cut between the dog (Scraps) and the proprietor (Sydney Chaplin) to great effect. At any given point, the camera is static , but overall, the camerawork is more dynamic than Canby claims. ”Hoosierwood made this point in an earlier post (10 Sept 2016): “I don't believe that this was done in ‘one take’. To do this you would need multi (sic) cameras. Was that done in silent days? I don't think so. Starts with a wide shots then medium shot for the cart, then a shot of Charlie. Some close ups the dog, Syd and the cop. With one camera this takes changing the lens and moving the camera. Not one take.” Canby’s ultimate point is well taken, but his argument is hyperbolic. Beyond the middle-distance camera, several elements add to the effectiveness of the visual comedy in this scene. The set design, using the cart to elevate the Proprietor (Syd Chaplin) above the level of the Little Tramp (Charlie Chaplin), emphasizes the social difference between them. The open window in back of the cart that the cop looks through is effectively placed. The costume of the Little Tramp labels him a pauper and further emphasizes the social gap between them. His outfit announces his poverty and probable starvation, thus explaining or “justifying” his theft. Syd Chaplin’s acting (and mugging for the camera) heightens the humor of the scene. His use of the frying pan throughout the scene, and his surprise choice of the large sausage as a “weapon” that he uses to mistakenly hit the cop show how props can add to a gag. And, perhaps the most important prop/actor is the dog (Scraps). The Little Tramp’s association with the dog, further softens his character and makes him more sympathetic, even as he commits petty theft. As an aside, this kind of emotional manipulation of the audience (the use of dogs and children) so irritated W. C. Fields that he made sure his many screen personas declared their hatred of both dogs and children. A gag like this made a significant contribution to the history of slapstick comedy by presenting a study in the importance of comedic timing: Though the basic premise is simple, the gag is extended and made more complicated through the precise choreography of the Chaplin brothers working in opposition to each other. Their timing is perfect; every time Syd looks away, Charlie steals another cake. As the gag progresses, the oppositional dance becomes more involved. This kind of scene demonstrated that comedy did not have to be limited to quick, isolated gags; It could be extended through time and integrated into the context of a story.
  14. With the Lumiere Brothers short subject "L' Arroseur Arrose" (1896), we have the film origin of visual slapstick. So simple but effective -- and hilarious. This kind of simple gag would rule film comedy for almost twenty years. In the mid-1910's, Charlie Chaplin would expand the complexity and emotional impact of these kind of gags, as he integrated them into larger narrative structures that told increasingly complex stories. But, it all started here: from this small acorn, a mighty oak grew!
  15. In this clip from “The Golden Age of Comedy” (1957), the narrator asserts what producer Robert Youngson (and James Agee, before him) believed, that the era of silent comedy (from 1912 to 1930) constituted a “golden age of comedy.” The hallmark of this era was the gag that was completely visual -- a form of wit they believe has “all but disappeared.” While I am capable of lapsing into similar nostalgic dogma, I can not agree with this argument. My own opinion is that the silent era would be the “silver era that preceded the gold,” for I would consider the golden age to be the period from 1930 to 1950. The centrality of the visual gag was not due to it being the highest form of comedic art; it was due to the fundamental technical fact of early film-making -- there was no sound. While the visual comedy of the silent era is amazing, the addition of verbal humor to the visual gag takes the comedy to a higher level. It seems that there remained, in the minds of critics like Agee & Youngson, an element of an anti-sound bias that was based on the belief that film degenerated with the advent of sound. It can be argued that the quality of films dropped in the transitional period that followed the introduction of sound, but this was largely due to the technical difficulty of adapting sound to the existing methods of film-making. Additionally, in its earliest use, sound was presented as a novelty, rather than an integral part of the story. The roughness of the transitional period passed quickly, though. By the early 1930’s, verbal humor was being coupled with visual gags to great effect, producing classic comedies by the likes of The Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy and Joe E. Brown. An example of the ability of verbal humor to make visual humor stronger can be seen in the “stateroom scene” from the Marx Brothers’ film, “A Night at the Opera” (1935). While this scene would be funny in a silent presentation, the humor is increased significantly by the ongoing commentary of Groucho Marx. The impact of documentaries like “The Golden Age of Comedy” on popular opinion about the silent era is enormous. They “polish and refresh” the tarnished memories of those who lived through the era, while introducing it to a younger generation in an idealized way. These sorts of anthologies have a bias -- they present the best of an era and avoid the worst This kind of selective bias can give a distorted view of the era by ignoring its shortcomings. I can personally attest to the impact of this film; seeing it was my first introduction to the silent era. It popped up on TV frequently in my childhood in the 1960’s, and when it did, viewing it was a family affair. I also recall that there was a fascination with the 1920’s in general, and silent pictures in particular, during my childhood. Documentaries like this, I believe, helped drive a cultural trend that manifested itself in many ways. Examples? Several other “Youngson-like” documentaries (including “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy” in 1962), silent comedies at Shakey’s Pizza Parlors, movies like “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967) and even pop music with Tiny Tim’s version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (1968).

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