Dr. Rich Edwards

Wes Gehring on Film Comedy, Episodes 1-9

33 posts in this topic

I was a bit taken aback with Dr. Gehring's comment that because Red Skelton left movies for television we didn't know him. I mainly knew of him because of his TV show, which we watched each week when I was a kid. Movies weren't as available as they are now, at least where I grew up. My first view of him in a movie was a revelation... and that was on TV also, not in a theater. Since that time, of course, I sought out all of his films and really enjoyed them all. A great visual and verbal comedian.

I so agree.  Some of us only became acquainted with the older films because of tV.  I remember being surprised to find out that Bob Hope and Red Skelton had movie credits!

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Thank you, Dr. Gehring, for agreeing to be a part of this course.  Each of your segments gave me great insight into a type of film that I knew almost nothing about before taking the course.  I also want to say that your love for what you do comes through loud and clear as you talk about the history and continued development of slapstick comedy.  Thank you again for your willingness to freely share with us your knowledge and expertise as well as your love for these films.

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His comments are interesting about slapstick transitioning from the 40's to the 50's. The emergence of television played a part. I did not get to hear radio shows--just before my time. But I have watched TV since the mid-50's.

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I would like to extend my gratitude to Wes Gehring for his time and endless knowledge of film. These videos were a tremendous addition to the Slapstick course, as were the Breakdown of a Gag episodes. Gehring's wealth of film knowledge is undeniably admirable and inspiring, and I love listening to those who speak impassionately on the subject of film. I'm hopeful TCM and Canvas will partner again in the future for more courses on film. In doing so, they MUST bring along the cast of this course; Dr. Edwards, Wes Gehring, Vince Cellini, and any other instructor/film lover exuding an overflow of film and its history.

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     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).   

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