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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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For the Painfully Funny course, Vince Cellini and I shot an 8 episode web series that will break down some of the famous gags we will be watching in OUCH! A Salute to Slapstick.

 

First up, Charlie Chaplin. 

 

Use this thread to discuss the evolution of Chaplin's physical comedy from 1915 to 1918.

 

Breakdown of a Gag will be available to #SlapstickFall Students on Wednesday, 8/31/16, 7am Mountain Time / 9am Eastern.

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First a comment on the "Breakdown of a Gag" presentation, having both Dr Edwards and Vince Cellini  commenting made the episode a lot more interesting than a normal solo lecture. The use of the Vimeo helped me to focus in on some of the things in the 3 film clips of Chaplin that I would probably have not noticed. Can't wait for more.

Looking at Chaplin's development from 1915 - 1918 it is interesting to note that Chaplin appeared in 13 movies in 1915; 9 movies in 1916; 4 movies in 1917 and finally 6 movies in 1918. As was mentioned by Dr Edwards, the films in 1915 were part of those being cranked out by Mack Sennett with Chaplin having little control or creative input. The films of 1917 and 1918 although fewer in number begin to show Chaplin using his own creative genius and he is the boss.

The earliest gag we watched about the banana peel was a solo act, the wet floor gag had other folks in the scene but not very active in the gag but the final clip from  "A Dog's Life" has developed to the point where the other people, the cops, are actively involved in the gag. Taking the falls, kicks etc. and not just Chaplin. The protagonist and antagonist roles. When you look at each of these three clips, it gives you pause as to the, dare I use the word, choreography involved in setting up these gags. Just the layout of the set for each gag is pretty impressive... just look at the layout of the fenced in area of "A Dog's Life". The drop down door under the fence, the back entrance etc. We need to give a tip of the hat to all those unnamed, unknown carpenters and grips who built all this stuff to insure that the gag went off faultlessly.

Since I am writing this in Kansas, i just wanted to remind everyone that Buster Keaton and "Fatty" Arbuckle were both born in Kansas. Keaton in Piqua and Arbuckle in Smith Center. Must be something in the air here that brings out the slapstick! :D

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I truly adored the video lecture! It made me feel like I was watching a sports replay, but it was far more interesting! I also found it so intriguing that Chaplin was one of now many comedians to do the 'slip on a banana peel' bit. It's thought of as a cheap laugh today, but was likely considered cutting edge comedy back in 1915. What was truly shocking to me was when I heard that such a simple comedic gag in By the Sea (1915) and something so complex as the scene in A Dog's Life (1918) were filmed only three years apart, and were it not for the film style I would have guessed that A Dog's Life (1918) was filmed much later. It really shows Chaplin's proficiency in filmmaking once he was able to get behind the camera and write as well as perform his own material.

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One obvious evolution is involving other actors in the gag.  It's one thing to slip on a banana peel by yourself, but to orchestrate rolling through the trap door in the fence and chasing around the fence, that takes careful blocking and timing.  

I'm guessing we are watching one of the original slapstick chase scenes too?  How many times do we see variations of actors chasing each other around....and that is a whole other level of complexity.

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I have to say that even though I knew what was going to happen, it made me laugh out loud!  It's amazing to me how something so simple as slipping on a banana peel became so groundbreaking (no pun intended).

It also says a lot about one thing that I believe is extremely vital in slapstick: timing.  Even a simple "gag" such as this involves a great amount of timing.  It is obvious when watching the subsequent film clips that Charlie Chaplin knew very well how to use it. 

 

"Just slip on a banana peel, the world's at your feet!" ("Make 'Em Laugh", Singin' in the Rain)

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Another aspect of A Dog's Life is the addition of Aristotle's "reversal" and then Chaplin's quick reversal of the "reversal" to achieve the comic twist and climax to the scene when the second policeman arrives. The cinematic immediacy of this action--probably learned from vaudeville but reinterpreted faster on film--makes it much funnier.

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I loved the banana peel bit, but as stated by others the comedy grew once Chaplin got control. Involving others and more elaborate sets allows for more comedy potential. Laurel and Hardy were great at this as well, bringing in others until the whole thing is totally out of control pie fight. Chaplin got more control and went bigger and bigger and funnier at the same time. But sometimes doing more with less was just as funny and if not genius.

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Totally enjoying the class ~ ALL aspects of it, but the commentary on this, the first web installment, was excellent.  

 

It's so interesting to see the complexity of the material evolve.

 

Thank you for progressing chronologically. A small point, but one much appreciated!

 

Slapstick in the open air! Who doesn't love THAT?!

 

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One obvious evolution is involving other actors in the gag.  It's one thing to slip on a banana peel by yourself, but to orchestrate rolling through the trap door in the fence and chasing around the fence, that takes careful blocking and timing.  

I'm guessing we are watching one of the original slapstick chase scenes too?  How many times do we see variations of actors chasing each other around....and that is a whole other level of complexity.

The blocking and the timing, two things I never had thought about prior to this class. The amount of choreography that goes into making these films really astounds me. Vince Cellini briefly addresses this in the clip when he mentioned that Chaplin retains eye contact, however he is always aware of the placement of the soap and bucket. Knowing how to control ones body ties into the element that slapstick is physical and the actors are athletes.  

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I'm a little new to the slapstick game so some of my observation are probably pretty elementary, but I'm happy to have a forum where I can organize my thoughts.

 

Having never studied slapstick from a scholastic point of view I hadn't thought about how much technical prowess went into each gag. I always knew that timing was involved but never thought about the staging and sets. I found the evolution of the complexity in Chaplin’s gags fascinating.

 

I also found Chaplains thought that “nothing transcend personality” intriguing. His character The Little Tramp was and still is very sympathetic character. It seems to me that this idea of personality still holds true today. For some reason I am reminded of Will Ferrell in Elf (even though that doesn't have a great deal of slapstick). The premise could have made for a very silly movie but Will Ferrell made the character someone we truly cared about.

 

In relation to the previous lecture I was very impressed with Chaplin's athletic prowess. I couldn't help but think that Chevy Chase must have been heavily influenced by him. Both of them could do an exaggerated fall, make it look natural, and miraculously enough not get hurt.

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Very interesting analysis -- would have loved to see even more discussion and examples.

 

I have a historical question: do you know where these particular films were made?  I think Mack Sennett was based in the east and filmed in ? New York/New Jersey area?  But I remember reading that for a time Charlie Chaplin moved his production to Chicago.  There is a studio here in Chicago on Argyle, now St. Augustine College.  It was called Essanay and the sign over the door remains -- it has landmark status.  Of course, Chicago winters made filming year round difficult so everyone headed to California and Hollywood...

 

  post-60586-0-88164000-1472652681_thumb.jpg  

post-60586-0-88164000-1472652681_thumb.jpg

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The blocking and the timing, two things I never had thought about prior to this class. The amount of choreography that goes into making these films really astounds me. Vince Cellini briefly addresses this in the clip when he mentioned that Chaplin retains eye contact, however he is always aware of the placement of the soap and bucket. Knowing how to control ones body ties into the element that slapstick is physical and the actors are athletes.  

 

 

I also hadn't really thought about how much effort was put into the blocking and the timing for the elements of slapstick routines.  Like you mentioned, Chaplin had to be aware of all of the elements in the scene he would be working with while at the same time keeping his eye contact on the other person to sell the illusion of the bumbling klutz slipping on the soap and the bucket.  A lesser performer would probably need to glance at the soap to verify its placement before slipping on it, a "tell" that would ruin the bumbling illusion.

 

It's interesting to see the evolution of the routines as Chaplin gained control of the pictures as well, going from a solo pratfall to a full integrated scene with the two police officers.  Was this also in part due to a need to continue to impress and entertain the audience?  

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The analysis of the lecture really helped me understand what Chaplin's gags and slapstick routines he was doing at the time. The first clip from By The Sea (1915) was a very obvious gag that now has become a cliche in slapstick comedy, followed by Tillies Punctured Romance (1915) involving Chaplin slipping on the wet floor as a gag that stalls the plot, and ending with A Dog's Life (1918) that was injected with social commentary in a short period of three years as he took control over his pictures. It also helped me understand the simplest of gags very carefully with the touchscreen that carefully looked at each gag and situation in the scene to illustrate what Chaplin was trying to say in his pictures. His timing and blocking of the gags were near perfection on screen, but I imagined that he had to practice these routines over and over again to have the timing and blocking right otherwise it would look as if he made a mistake on film.

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I have to say that even though I knew what was going to happen, it made me laugh out loud!  It's amazing to me how something so simple as slipping on a banana peel became so groundbreaking (no pun intended).

It also says a lot about one thing that I believe is extremely vital in slapstick: timing.  Even a simple "gag" such as this involves a great amount of timing.  It is obvious when watching the subsequent film clips that Charlie Chaplin knew very well how to use it. 

 

"Just slip on a banana peel, the world's at your feet!" ("Make 'Em Laugh", Singin' in the Rain)

I have to say that my reaction to slapstick is often similar to that of Muriel Andrin. When Chaplin slipped on the banana peel, rather than laughing, I jumped with concern.  Yes, Chaplin does make me laugh but I have always been unnerved by people falling over.

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Very interesting analysis -- would have loved to see even more discussion and examples.

 

I have a historical question: do you know where these particular films were made?  I think Mack Sennett was based in the east and filmed in ? New York/New Jersey area?  But I remember reading that for a time Charlie Chaplin moved his production to Chicago.  There is a studio here in Chicago on Argyle, now St. Augustine College.  It was called Essanay and the sign over the door remains -- it has landmark status.  Of course, Chicago winters made filming year round difficult so everyone headed to California and Hollywood...

 

  attachicon.gifEssanay.jpg

Hello: The Internet Movie DataBase (IMDB) only provided the filming location for "A Dog's Life" and that was Hollywood, California. Hope this helps.

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Very interesting analysis -- would have loved to see even more discussion and examples.

 

I have a historical question: do you know where these particular films were made?  I think Mack Sennett was based in the east and filmed in ? New York/New Jersey area?  But I remember reading that for a time Charlie Chaplin moved his production to Chicago.  There is a studio here in Chicago on Argyle, now St. Augustine College.  It was called Essanay and the sign over the door remains -- it has landmark status.  Of course, Chicago winters made filming year round difficult so everyone headed to California and Hollywood...

 

  attachicon.gifEssanay.jpg

The Chicago Tribune Newspaper did a story entitled "When Chicago Created Hollywood" about Essanay in 2007. Here is a link to it: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-07-22/news/0707200533_1_skate-silent-film-awful

They report that Charlie Chaplin only stayed in Chicago for 23 days before he moved west. Essanay had studios in Fremont and Niles, California.

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In Tillie's Punctured Romance Chapin slips and falls twice, then he slips a third time but catches himself while the audience is anticipating the third fall and then steps into the bucket, removes his foot and continues on with the scene. He then kneels down to propose realizes the floor is wet and bounces up quickly. There is so much going on in this one scene and yes it all adds to the characters personality. Just brilliant! 

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One point I noticed in the discussion is that I can't agree with Dr Edward's comment that a gag always stops the plot of a film. I realize that's an option but I maintain that gags can also serve to advance the plot of a film.  This of course presupposes that there is a plot.

 

In the case of the first video we reviewed the gag IS the plot.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this first lecture, particularly the use of technology to point out visual items that might otherwise be missed in the short clips.

 

It was clear in all three clips that the "violence" was make believe - we see Chaplin recover from all of his mishaps in the gags.  

 

As for increasing sophistication, not only were gags more complex and longer, but we had the introduction of other characters to help reinforce that all was well with Charlie physically after his slips and falls.  In the second clip, we have a scene to set up his entrance to slip on the floor.  

 

In the third clip, we have much more use of the camera and edits which add to the level of sophistication.  The scenery itself helps set up the gag situation, while in the first two clips props were used to set up the gag. The scenery was not integral to the physical comedy of Chaplin himself in the first two clips, as it was in the third clip.

 

The third clip is also much more subtle in parts of the physical comedy.  It is not as grand  - Charlie untying the policeman's shoe lace, as opposed to the grand physical comedy of the first two clips, even though Chaplin is much more physical in the final clip.   

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One point I noticed in the discussion is that I can't agree with Dr Edward's comment that a gag always stops the plot of a film. I realize that's an option but I maintain that gags can also serve to advance the plot of a film.  This of course presupposes that there is a plot.

 

In the case of the first video we reviewed the gag IS the plot.

Thanks for bringing up this point, John, so I can clarify. I hope I didn't use the word "always," but if I did, it was a slip of the tongue. A slapstick gag can frequently interrupt the plot. And this brings us back to a point raised in Part 2 of this week's module--where I quoted film scholar Don Crafton--about how the excessiveness of a gag can overwhelm the classical Hollywood narrative.

 

But the strongest language I would use in writing about this tension between a gag and plot is that it happens "often" (but not always) and even more precisely, we should pay attention to when a gag does stop the plot of a film and consider what the filmmaker's goal is in doing so. 

 

Best, Dr. E.

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It is amazing to see how Chaplin evolved his comedy in just three short years. It grew from just a simple slip on the ground to this complex detailed story with full physical humor. Chaplin had these great ideas and they are choreographed perfectly so that all the elements in slapstick are orchestrated from timing to his reactions. I really enjoyed the video lecture!

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I have to say that my reaction to slapstick is often similar to that of Muriel Andrin. When Chaplin slipped on the banana peel, rather than laughing, I jumped with concern.  Yes, Chaplin does make me laugh but I have always been unnerved by people falling over.

 

 

It's not my favorite kind of comedy, either. I think that's why I like Buster Keaton best. The humor in his slapstick is that he avoids being hurt. It's more a ballet of avoidance than getting a laugh from being smacked in the head or slipping on a peel, which is ironic because from what I've read, he got hurt plenty doing those stunts--broke his neck when a water tank emptied on him. (Well, there's the gag that proves my theory wrong.)

 

That's why I've never been a fan of the Stooges. They hurt. I don't want to watch their noses pinched and their faces slapped. My favorite movie of theirs is a short called Disorder in the Court. It's more absurd than it is hitting. 

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Just the layout of the set for each gag is pretty impressive... just look at the layout of the fenced in area of "A Dog's Life". The drop down door under the fence, the back entrance etc. We need to give a tip of the hat to all those unnamed, unknown carpenters and grips who built all this stuff to insure that the gag went off faultlessly.

 

We just replaced an aging fence, but nothing like Chaplin's! That thing really looks 50-years patched! Makes me think my old one could have lasted longer.

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Nice to see all of the observations here. What I come away with, as a Chaplin fan of many years, is a continued fascination with the development of his authority as an actor and then director. TILLIE'S PUNCTURED ROMANCE (1914) was made under the great Mack Sennett and you see that Charlie is part of an all-star ensemble. The Tramp is just being born about this time. Chaplin is not the star.

 

By the time BY THE SEA (1915) was made he was in charge of the filmmaking, but did not have his own studios yet. He was limited by the location of the Essanay studios in southern California (he had already dismissed Chicago for the weather reasons mentioned as well as Niles/Oakland for the woodsy environment). In BY THE SEA the ensemble is one of his own making, to support him alone, a reflection of his growing stature.

 

A DOG'S LIFE (1918) takes this even further as at this time he is very close to completing the construction of his own studios and has a million-dollar contract with First National Pictures. The film is all about him and the dog. The Chaplin pathos is established.The fence/policemen gag is vintage, complicated Chaplin and plays out the legend of his painstakingly detail-oriented rehearsing of scenes. (His feature-length movies took years to complete.) It also shows how much of a "ballet dancer" he was, rolling back and forth under the perfectly measured hole in the fence so smoothly and perfectly! The rough edges of his music hall days were long gone.

 

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