Dr. Rich Edwards

Breakdown of a Gag, Episode 1: Chaplin's Physical Comedy

219 posts in this topic

I thoroughly enjoyed the way this was filmed. I could see using this format for high school students in a film history class.

 

Now on to the analysis. First off, I'll admit that my knowledge of Chaplin (which includes the film Chaplin - and that certainly takes a great deal of artistic license) is somewhat limited. I've not read too many books about him and would love some suggestions actually. I also haven't been able to sit down and watch too many of his films. As they're silent, and I usually am engaged in some activity while watching a movie, silent films are hard to watch. That being said, I love the fact that we get to see the progression of Chaplin's growth as a comedian and storyteller.

 

When we look at the 1915 film, Chaplin has started to develop his character and the Tramp's personality. I especially love the purity in his movements. We really get to see the dance-like quality of who the Tramp is. When you mention that Chaplin once said "nothing transcends personality", and I read some of the comments here, I started thinking about others who have tried to imitate Chaplin. Particularly, I remember Gloria Swanson doing her impersonation in Sunset Blvd - let's face it, even the most talented comedian will never be able to replicate the Little Tramp character as Chaplin imagined him.

 

One thing I loved about the clip of Tillie's Punctured Romance was his interactions with the wonderful Marie Dressler. It shows that often Chaplin did some of his best work when pitted against an antagonist.

 

Finally, Chaplin has come into his own...he was finally allowed the creative control that he craved and we see him completely using the set of his scene to his advantage. Again, I have to acknowledge the beautiful choreography of the scene. To steal another phrase from Sunset Blvd "we didn't need dialogue, we had faces". Sometimes, many times actually, all that's needed for a successful gag is beautifully executed choreography, as we see here.

 

I'm looking forward to learning more about this fascinating subject.

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Reading everyone's comments makes me feel my personality will be showing when I bring up my thoughts! 

 

I'm not a sports fan, so the video lecture was a little confusing for me at first.  I did find it an effective method of pointing out the finer bits of the gag.  And I have seen enough parodies of sports programs to understand some of how they are supposed to function.  I guess it was more of a surprise and yet effective.  (Wasn't there a similar take in a Woody Allen film where his wedding night is overseen by "bedside/ringside" sports commentators?)

 

As to the violence, I would think there would be a long history of comedic violence in Vaudville and other entertainments leading up to film.  Punch & Judy always made me uncomfortable as it seemed to be nothing but violence.  The humor was not there for me.  I always thought this might be a cultural thing not having been raised on Punch & Judy.  Now I wonder if it may also have been from the lack of personality demonstrated by the puppets. (It really does look like puppet bullying to me.).

 

Chaplin has some amazing moves.  Those clips were great. I think seeing him in "The Rink" really showcases his abilities to me - look at him on rollersaktes!!!  Now that is control.

 

It was discussed about Chaplin's use of Cops as social commentary.  It will be interesting to see how Keaton's use police in his films.  And, on a larger scale, it would be interesting to see slapstick from around the world.  Would different cultures have different prank victims?  Is falling down funny everywhere? 

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What strikes me most about the initial discussion of Chaplin is understanding the context in which he was able to succeed. When you consider the early works of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, and dozens of others, you must remember that they were pioneering a new genre of expression. They were developing their characters and rituals that would define them, and they were bringing comedy to film.

 

I guess I never really thought about it before but, because early films were silent, the comedy had to be slapstick. The exaggeration, rituals, physical nature, and violence were necessities without the dialogue and sound effects that followed. The violence tended to be milder, so it was easier to see it was make believe.

 

In the end, while some may view these films as primitive and simple, I am amazed at what these geniuses were able to accomplish.

 

You make a really excellent point about how the silent film created this need for these comedic pioneers (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc.) to really sell their slapstick comedy. In their minds, as they were trying to plan how they gag would play out, they had to think, Okay, you (my audience) can't hear what's going on, so you have to see what's going on. So, what you see has to be exaggerated and over-the-top enough to get the point across to your audience. And there was no technology to fake any of the physical comedy -- it was all very real and often very dangerous. I can't help but think of the fabulous line from Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard when William Holden's character says she used to be big in silent movies: "I am big -- it's the pictures that got small!"  

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As discussed in Episode 1, Chaplin's level of physicality in his Slapstick routines grew with his star power. This brought about Chaplin acquiring more leverage with his films, as he was able to implement more of his artistic expressions. I imagine he acquired more freedom, but wasn't entirely liberated from the studio(s) restraints, which leads me to entertain the notion of the two police officers in A Dog's Life truly representing the movie studio executives.

 

A mere three years later, Chaplin, now fully aware of his star power developed more of a professional personality in his Slapstick comedic routines. He employed more detailed narratives into said routines, which in turn heightened his talent as a comedic entertainer.

 

The addition of physical aspects created an identifiable persona for The Tramp as recognized by audiences. This physicality became just as much an important part of his character as the faux mustache.

 

If an artist can grasp and then penetrate the psychology (or personality) of a character to its very core, a successful character creation will undoubtedly be birthed. Everything from mannerisms to accents to a character's personal style will be intricately crafted. In short, to grasp personality is to grasp everything. And Chaplin's "Tramp" is a, if not the shining example.

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I often wonder if the gags from "A Dog's Life" would still work today---especially with all that has happened in the news these days. As a nonconformist and someone who is not fond of authority and being told what to do, these were indeed delightful gags and probably had those in the audience who had similar experiences laughing extra hard.

 

 

 

I'm starting to wonder if the "idiot cop" archetype will start to disappear the way the "idiot soldier" has since 9/11.

 

I don't remember where, but I recently heard someone talking about how you'd never have something like a "Sgt. Bilko" today, because you just can't play the military for laughs anymore.  So many classic slapstick movies and bits would be verboten as well.

 

Sure, when the time is right, someone will come along and do it, and things will return to normal.  As someone who loves comedy, and writes it for a living, I hate when stuff gets taken off the table like this, but these are the times we live in.

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I thoroughly enjoyed the way this was filmed. I could see using this format for high school students in a film history class.

 

Now on to the analysis. First off, I'll admit that my knowledge of Chaplin (which includes the film Chaplin - and that certainly takes a great deal of artistic license) is somewhat limited. I've not read too many books about him and would love some suggestions actually. I also haven't been able to sit down and watch too many of his films. As they're silent, and I usually am engaged in some activity while watching a movie, silent films are hard to watch. That being said, I love the fact that we get to see the progression of Chaplin's growth as a comedian and storyteller.

 

When we look at the 1915 film, Chaplin has started to develop his character and the Tramp's personality. I especially love the purity in his movements. We really get to see the dance-like quality of who the Tramp is. When you mention that Chaplin once said "nothing transcends personality", and I read some of the comments here, I started thinking about others who have tried to imitate Chaplin. Particularly, I remember Gloria Swanson doing her impersonation in Sunset Blvd - let's face it, even the most talented comedian will never be able to replicate the Little Tramp character as Chaplin imagined him.

 

One thing I loved about the clip of Tillie's Punctured Romance was his interactions with the wonderful Marie Dressler. It shows that often Chaplin did some of his best work when pitted against an antagonist.

 

Finally, Chaplin has come into his own...he was finally allowed the creative control that he craved and we see him completely using the set of his scene to his advantage. Again, I have to acknowledge the beautiful choreography of the scene. To steal another phrase from Sunset Blvd "we didn't need dialogue, we had faces". Sometimes, many times actually, all that's needed for a successful gag is beautifully executed choreography, as we see here.

 

I'm looking forward to learning more about this fascinating subject.

I spy Marie Dresslertumblr_mra88vrrz31rlxl36o1_400.gifThe violence of slapstick comedy— or is it make believe.

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Watching these clips of Chaplin you will notice how smooth the action flows to the point where it looks effortless.  However at closer examination & re-examination you can see how important the timing and choreography of the scene and the actors actions were. Since most of us grew up on films with sound and fluid camera movements, it requires a little more patience on our part to appreciate how much effort went into the staging of some of these seemingly simple pratfalls and just how agile and athletic these comedians had to be.  

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There's a great British documentary series called Unknown Chaplin that shows exactly how Chaplin worked out and perfected some of his gags.  I think you can find some episodes or part-episodes on YouTube, but you can read more about it here: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/70826%7C70840/The-Unknown-Chaplin-Episode-One.html

Part 1 is on Vimeo.

 

At around 12 minutes starts a fascinating and insightful look at the making of "The Cure". Chaplin tried and rejected a whole host of stagings, even intricate and difficult ones, before he found what worked for his character. He didn't want the film to be just a string of zany gags. Every action should make sense and be right for his character and result in a coherent, flowing whole. That's probably a reason why his shorts are loved worldwide to this day.

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It is very easy to see that each scene gets more complicated than the previous one. But I would argue that Chaplin does many more subtle movements in Tillie's Punctured Romance then in A Dog's Life.

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First of all, I am enjoying this course. About Chaplin, it was true he was a perfectionest, often reshooting a scene over and over for hours.  I think this helped him learn more about what he wanted the end result of the comedy gag to be. How it looked on screen. Remember all this was new film making and early film makers were really experimenting in every kind of actual movement on film they could. Only when it was released to the public did they know what was sucessful.

 

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While this course is about slapstick, I cannot fail to correct your statement about Rodgers & Hammerstein. Songs that advanced the plot and were integral to the musical preceded Rodgers & Hammerstein. The songs in "Show Boat" are a good example.

(forgive me if this is double-posted; internet problems)

 

No, his point is valid. "Showboat" (book and lyrics by Hammerstein by the way; music by Jerome Kern) was virtually unique until the Golden Age. There were exceptions, but they were rare (and rarely prominent shows).

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I feel as if I am learning so much all ready.  I had never thought of the need for exaggeration because of the lack of sound.  It was a much more visual medium than what we have today.  I think that the silent movies are much easier to watch in a theater because you can focus on the movie along and not be doing something else which I tend to do at home when watching movies. The physical ability of these actors and directors is amazing.  There was so much action to keep in mind to make the gag work.  Someone suggested , and this may have been on another topic board, that some of the more recent comedy, slapstick movies are not as funny and I tend to agree.  I think in a way the early Chaplin, Keaton, etc where a more mature slapstick with a point to them not just to make a funny movie that will sell.

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**And the great slapstick performers become known for a particular kind of ritualistic performance – we begin to crave certain gestures, or certain ways of moving, as they are part of what we associate with that particular performer's brand of slapstick comedy.**


 


I am looking forward to this program. So far what has intrigued me the most is the above statement. This one statement is very true, as I find myself doing exactly what this is talking about. If i'm watching a classic movie with one of the classic slapstick comedians such as "Abbot & Costello", "Laurel & Hardy", "The Three Stooges" or perhaps Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Red Skelton, Jerry Lewis and Lucille Ball, I find myself waiting for the next pratfall or accident etc., and I'm never disappointed. 


 Who are today's "Abbot & Costello" or "Lewis & Martin", "Buster Keaton" and "Charlie Chaplin?" I'm somewhat at a loss to name any up and comers who may be leading the way in 'Slapstick."........


Any thoughts..........?

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Another thought: before Rodgers and Hammerstein popularized the form of using a song to move along the plot of a musical, songs were simply THERE. Often, a random song in the writers' vault was placed somewhat arbitrarily into some stage business, and it would stop the plot in the way some slapstick gags do. So are we perhaps seeing early movies built around gags? As in, the director or actor wants to do a particular gag and just does it without thinking about how it fits into the plot?

Thanks, that was one of the points that I was clumsily trying to express. You did it a lot better! Your comment got me thinking in another direction that gags, like musical numbers may  advance or "stop" the plot but may also establish a character.  One example that came to mind was Jerry Lewis in the opening of The Patsy. A slapstick routine integral to the plot because it also establishes the main character from the point of view of the folks looking for a "Patsy".

 

 

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The set (“from Turner Sports Studios”) and the discussion format made me laugh, and I thought it was genius to put some parody into the discussion of Charlie Chaplin’s comedy bits. But the setup really started me thinking. The set and the discussion format were humorous to me because I am familiar with modern sports casting and sports commentary. But someone in Chaplin’s era probably wouldn’t know what to make of either one.

 

So I’m wondering if Chaplin’s comedic genius also involved knowing his medium (film) and knowing his audience. He and all comics need an audience—people who find the material funny. Did the increasing sophistication of his comedy bits match the increasing sophistication of movie audiences as they grew familiar with film and what it could convey?

 

My guess is that all three—Chaplin’s comedic genius, technology, and audience—played nearly equal roles.

 

I found the discussion of personality development in Chaplin's comedy fascinating. It gets audiences to identify with the character and then to invest something of themselves in the character's story. I'm going to look for this in the next episode about Keaton. I bet it will apply to him, too.

 

I find these posts enlightening, informative and priceless.

I enjoyed reading your post and want to share a thought brought about your view on Chaplin's  comedic genius. 

 

About four years ago, I had the opportunity to see the musical Chaplin, and learned that Charlie Chaplin came from a broken family and was raised in poverty. I wonder whether the experiences of his youth made it easier for him as an actor to project the misfortunes of some of his character, in parody form.

More than any other slapstick actor in the silent era, I perceive that Chaplin's antics on screen, come with an edge- a certain realism, where it never feels that he is part of the gag, rather a victim of it. When seeing slapstick, I never believe what I see. It's a gag! But with Chaplin, I have always felt that he makes the gags look like part of the story, not an addition to it. "Never stopping the forward momentum."  Perhaps his genius could also involve he bringing attention to the human condition. Just a thought.

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Chaplin was always one to set-up, execute and maintain control throughout the ever increasing chaos in his evolving style, in the plot, environment or scale of his productions.

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I too was fascinated by the way the subject was broken down like a sports show. This is a very modern way to teach the subject, having one personify the audience and the other the instructor answering on a one-to-one basis. I quite liked it. 

I know that I shouldn't be talking about how the information was disseminated, but it really was used quite effectively as a teaching method.

I have been watching Slapstick since I was a wee lad in the early 60's and have never examined them for what made them funny.

The scene with the banana was masterful. It wasn't the slipping that I noticed, it was all the other extraneous movements that preceded the slip. Hand waving, leg bending and feet movement helped to distract the eye away from the banana and onto Charlie so that the slip would be a surprise.

In the cop scene I was impressed not only by the choreography, but also with the editing to make it look so seamless. If it was shot in one take, then his acrobatics were even more amazing.

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I  enjoyed the "commentators" discussion of Chaplin's skills and the themes he developed in his slapstick - more on that in a minute.  First, a little about the format of the discussion. Having more than one commentator is both effective and engaging, but I also immediately thought of sports shows and the parodies of them and so I had to put that aside and focus more on what was being said.  I'm not sure what made me think of sports shows because they are not the only ones to use this format. Final thought, the telestrator is helpful.

 

On to Chaplin. It is great to have the commentators and then the posting here to help me (all of us?) appreciate what we are seeing.

 

Chaplin quickly went beyond simple gags to get a laugh and connect the gags to feelings and issues that the audience knew - love, fear/dislike of authority, and sympathy for the everyday challenges of life we all encounter.  By developing and lengthening , which increases the tension in his gags. He increases the pleasure. For example, we get to delight for a few seconds more in when he goes from the single step banana slip to the multiple falls on the soap and enhances those with the plot idea that he wants to propose as we ask, "is going to get to pop the question?".  In the scene with the police, the image of him rolling back and forth to stay free is hilarious in part because of the exaggeration -- "how long can he get away with this" we ask -- and this is also a rare bit of slapstick that doesn't require violence but certainly requires physical strength and timing.  Later, in "Modern Times" he uses a similar technique in the blinded folded roller skating scene to really show the power of implied violence and danger.

 

 

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It is clear that there was an evolution in the Chaplin film between 1915 and 1919, and that this, in large part, was due to the greater - and then total - control over his work.   But we must also add that in those years, the  films was evolving rapidly.

With respect to the first short, is a simple gag, in the second, the gag is within a scene with interaction between characters and greater visual processing. The third short, and one of the most popular, "protestor" Charlot's character is the key to the scene. Here we see, not only a technical evolution of the creator, but also its greatest burden of social content. Anyway, the banana peel, Soap and falls, were one of the more gags used in the films, and the ridicule of the police, was also in the Keystone cops, showing the films, from its beginnings, as a folk art

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I find these posts enlightening, informative and priceless.

I enjoyed reading your post and want to share a thought brought about your view on Chaplin's  comedic genius. 

 

About four years ago, I had the opportunity to see the musical Chaplin, and learned that Charlie Chaplin came from a broken family and was raised in poverty. I wonder whether the experiences of his youth made it easier for him as an actor to project the misfortunes of some of his character, in parody form.

More than any other slapstick actor in the silent era, I perceive that Chaplin's antics on screen, come with an edge- a certain realism, where it never feels that he is part of the gag, rather a victim of it. When seeing slapstick, I never believe what I see. It's a gag! But with Chaplin, I have always felt that he makes the gags look like part of the story, not an addition to it. "Never stopping the forward momentum."  Perhaps his genius could also involve he bringing attention to the human condition. Just a thought.

 

Thanks so much for your reply.

 

I think you are right: that Chaplin's early experiences shaped his comedy, the personality that he created for the screen, and his ability to infuse his films with social commentary. In fact, I would say that your observations dovetail nicely with Episode 1 presented on Canvas.

 

What do you think?

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Watching a Chaplin movie for the first time last year, I knew there was a social message but I had no idea that there were actually elements to slapstick humor, the set-up of the gag, the execution physically, thinking through what is going to be done with physical comedy and how it relates to this physical set. And then the humorous payoff with the social commentary in the events of the scene, wow. I had no idea. Hense the reason to take the course. I learned so much last year from the Noir Course and now look at Noir so differently now, taping every movie I think might be Noir so when I saw this course on comedy, I had to try it too. And it is not disappointing. This is wonderful and I am ready to tape all the movies so at a later date when I can sit and watch them with my new found knowledge looking for the elements as well as the five conditions of slapstick.

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Just a quick thought...I think I figured out why I can't develop an appreciation for Tillie's Punctured Romance. I don't like Chaplin playing a rather villainous sort. I guess I like my slapstick stars to be cast in a kind of heroic or at least more innocent light. There is definitely a need for the villain, or some type of opposing force to give that dynamic...but just not Charlie.

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I really enjoyed the discussion, especially amused as someone pointed out, WHERE it was talked about; it was like watching a breakdown of a football game, but in this case being the brilliantly painful moves of Charlie Chaplin. Overall, the video was beyond fascinating as it is helping me see Chaplin with bigger eyes. I was aware of his youth, on his struggles, and before this, as an audience watching his movies made me feel as if he was almost trying to reach out to you. As if from what he found, he wanted to return a bit of it to people (and especially those) who might be in his previous predicament. What I love about Charlie Chaplin, and this discussion (on both the video and the board) is that he isn’t just a funny man, he’s the people’s funny man, ready to do what he has to do to do what he does best, make his audience laugh. What really made me awe, was the break down of the cops & Tramp scene in the 1918 film “A Dog’s Life”. I never would have seen the scene with that much detail if it hadn’t been pointed out to me, I usually look at the timing, based on Lucille Ball and John Ritter’s comedic techniques, but visuals and settings, really takes it to a whole new level for me. I am thrilled to learn on how detailed Charlie was; down from his timing, to the characters, to the simple trash can that is casually next to them. It’s fascinating to know how much he grew over time as well, and also how daring he was with certain topics like in the 1940 film “The Great Dictator”.

I am looking forward to more future discussions, and this has motivated me to rewatch my favorite Chaplin movie “City Lights” with much more open eyes.

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Also forgot to mention, as was pointed out by a few fellow peers, how much I adore Chaplin’s innocence and purity to his comedic pieces/movies. It’s something grand and truly golden, something that over the years has unfortunately slowly disappeared throughout the years in comedy generally. Then again, Chaplin is one and only.

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I've been a fan of slap stick since like forever.  Starting with the wonderful world of Warner Brothers Cartoons, The Three Stooges and of course the Marx Brothers.  I'm looking forward to seeing, hearing, finding something out about Slapstick that I've not considered before.   Best wishes to you all.

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