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


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I will admit i am not a big fan of Charlie Chaplin. I never thought that he was that funny. Granted he did create gags that we love today but still not a big fan of his work. Maybe some of the films we will view will help me change my view point.

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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

 

If you're interested in reading more about the film locations, I highly recommend getting John Bengston's books, specifically Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. "A Dog's Life" was filmed primarily at the Chaplin Studios on North La Brea in Hollywood, currently owned by the Jim Henson Company. Bengston also has a blog with all kinds of information about silent film locations.

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Watching Chaplin progress over time is wonderful. Under Sennett, I feel it was "a gag for gag's sake." Many times, Sennett's gags were just for the sake of the gag and the story, or character, be darned. Watching a gag being worked into the personality of the character makes it funnier, at least to me. As Chaplin's independence from others in making films shows how he developed gags and worked them into the story and character.

Devising jokes and gags takes a-lot of talent. Working those jokes into a character's personality is genius. Of course, Charlie's exultation at winning over the cop is funny, the closing situation with the second police officer makes his escape much more gratifying.

While I laugh and appreciate The Tramp and Charlie's depiction of the character and mastery of the gag, Buster Keaton leaves me in awe. And, of course, Harold Lloyd is a Master as well. Three giants making films at the same time. (Along with Charlie Chase, Laurel and Hardy, Lloyd Hamilton and others, too.) We will never see film makers (and comedians) like them again. To succeed in that entertainment field at that time against all the other competition is truly amazing.

Great lecture and clips! Can't wait for more.

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If you're interested in reading more about the film locations, I highly recommend getting John Bengston's books, specifically Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. "A Dog's Life" was filmed primarily at the Chaplin Studios on North La Brea in Hollywood, currently owned by the Jim Henson Company. Bengston also has a blog with all kinds of information about silent film locations.

 

Mack Sennett had a building in Bayshore, Long Island. They painted over the outside of the building a few years ago, covering the Studio Emblems. What a shame. But the building still stands today. I was inside a few years ago and saw the small wall payroll safe and holes in the wood floors for the indoor lights. Amazing!. It is rental units now. Supposedly, Sennett (or some of his directors) shot beach scenes in Bayshore and Sayville, New York. There is also talk that Sennett premiered some of Chaplin's shorts in the large Bayshore theater. That was converted to a YMCA about 20 years ago.

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Though it felt more like satire rather than slapstick of course -- two cinephiles/educators using a telestrator to diagram the precise nature of Chaplin's physical comedy on a massive studio set designed for the talk of sport made my day. Like the intersection of the Keystone Cops, Running Man and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (broadcast on the Ocho, of course).

 

Practically, it was nice to slow down the pace of the slapstick short to look more closely at the individual elements involved. The gags often fly by so quickly that it's difficult to break the comedy down into its various working components.

 

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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

Dee Major,

 

Mack Sennett did start his film career in New York.  He worked with (for, really) D. W. Griffith (who never did understand Sennett’s humor) at Biograph for about three years.  That is where he met Mabel Normand.  In 1912 he teamed up with Adam Kessel and Charlie Bauman, formed Keystone, and headed to California along with his friend (and brightest star) Mabel.

 

Essanay was started in Chicago (c. 1907) by George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson.  S. an(d) A.  In the beginning, Anderson was the big star of the studio, being featured in Western films as Bronco Billy.

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That was great. I love and adore Charlie Chaplin. I also felt like I was watching sports news but I like the feel of it. Something different and it got my attention more.

 

Analysing these movie scenes with Charlie Chaplin really helps me understand and get into more depth with all of the actions of what slapstick consist of. I am a visual learner by far. So going over video clips is going to help me the most through this course. What other way could be better. ;)

 

I am looking forward to watching more and see what I learn and get out of it.

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Clip #1, The Banana Peel:

 

The Little Tramp (TLT) is happily finishing his snack. He carelessly throws away the garbage, but WAIT, he throws it on the street. the act of littering the public sidewalk, shared by all, is definitely a breach of the social compact. How to punish him? He slips on the object of his breach. 

 

The scene is funny because the TLT get his just desserts so the speak. This early slapstick gag has poetry in it, which is what makes the routine classic. The "payoff" as the instructor calls the fall is deserved in some way, so when TLT falls the audience doesn't feel sorry for him as much as thinking, "well. the little guy deserved it."

 

Clip #2, The Wet Kitchen Floor:

 

There is a lot going on in this scene. The commentary suggests that TLT is proposing marriage to the lady washing the floor. I confess, I would not have noticed this unless told that is the case, as I have never watched "Tillie's Punctured Romance."  Nevertheless, TLT is all dressed up, with a boutonniere, consequently we know this is a special occasion. He is waving around what appears to be a rolled up napkin while gesticulating to the maitre d'. He goes through the swinging doors to the kitchen and we immediately see that the floor is wet and that Tillie (I assume) is on her knees washing the floor. Now two problems are at hand.

 

First, we all know that you are not supposed to walk on a wet floor especially while it is being washed by a woman on her hands and knees. This is arduous work and her efforts should be respected until the floor dries.

 

Second, we also know that TLT, all dressed up, has to slip and fall on the wet floor. Not only is he going to mess up the floor with his footprints, but with his whole self as well. If he is heading to propose to Tillie TLT is off to a very bad start.

 

The fact that TLT has screwed up his courage to make the proposal, and walks into unfortunate timing for his declaration is funny because it fits his hapless character, and shows that he is the precursor to Charlie Brown. TLT just can't win.

 

Clip #3, The Cops:

 

TLT is trying to elude the policeman, who wants to arrest him for, I assume, vagrancy. Luckily, he finds the hole in the fence and rolls away. We like the fact that TLT is taunting the cop, who just can't seem to catch him. Right when we think TLT is caught upon the arrival of the second policeman, he manages to roll away again and exit behind both of their backs further up the fence. TLT tramp then escapes the notice of what appears to be a third cop.

 

The film may be called "A Dog's Life," but Chaplin wins in this routine. Why are we relieved that he eludes the law?

 

First, it does not seem that he has committed any serious crime, in fact it looks as if he is being picked on for being poor. It is easy to root for the underdog who can escape three cops.

 

Second, we admire his agility, both physically and mentally by getting himself out of a tough situation in which he is cornered. We all like to think we can be that nimble under similar circumstances.

 

I think all three situations are funny because they are comments to one extent or another on our social and personal circumstances. If we can't sympathize with TLT, then he is not amusing.

 

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Chaplin's gags were done seriously, were thought out well, and achieved with precision. The scenes that come to mind, The Gold Rush's bread roll, The Kid's chase scene, City Lights' boxing match, and Modern Times' dangerous skating in a department store. 

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Chaplin was right; there is no comedy without personality. For comedy to work, you need either an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, or an extraordinary person in an ordinary situation. Chaplin would fall into the latter category. Chaplin's gags grew more complex as he evolved, as did his comic persona. In the third clip, you see Chaplin striking a pose that both Groucho Marx and Bugs Bunny would later strike; legs crossed, arms in the air, signifying a carefree attitude. Chaplin, Marx, and Bugs were all, as well, masters of anti-authoritarian comedy.

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Chaplin was correct in that it all goes back to the personality of the character that he and others were portraying.  We can see from the clips that he has his traditional costume, with the shoes, the pants, the hat as well as his cane, but that is part of the personality that he created.  The rest of the personality comes in with his facial expressions and body movements as well as what he will do in a scene.  I teach a high school film class and the students get a "kick" of the shoestring scene in "The Gold Rush" and when we discuss they can't believe the thoughts that Chaplin went through to create the scene.  I truly look forward to the lecture on Keaton, who my students also study.  One final point, the literally pain that these performers put their bodies through for their art is unmatched in this day and age.

 

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The banana peel gag is not un-complicated. It is funny because it not like the Tramp. Nothing was said about the classic back kick. The Tramp mostly throws things over the shoulder and back kicks it away. This time he threw the peel over the over the one shoulder and did a back kick on the opposite side. That is why he did a slip and added to the comedy. Complicated.

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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.

One idea to throw out-- a gag breaks tension and shifts focus, giving the audience a break. It's a technique Shakespeare used regularly (think Romeo and Juliet, where a tense, dramatic scene is followed by Mercutio doing something amusing). I'm going to pay extra attention to this when watching the films in September, because it's honestly not something I thought about before.

 

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?

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Oh my, film scholarship discussion on an NBA sports set...expected Charles Barkley to chime in about the Marx Brothers at any minute! will really try and adjust ( old school student that I am) ...Chaplin was by far and away the only one for several years who thought the Tramp should have a character, instead of the frenetic slapstick films of Mack Sennett...his Mutual comedies get stronger and stronger in each film, the richness of the story, acting and gags ("Easy Street" is my favorite)...and just a year or two later, look at Fatty Arbuckle (where Keaton began his film work), Harry Langdon, and Harold Lloyd...looking forward to this journey to slapstick heaven!

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While I appreciate people sharing the evolution of a gag, I think it is important to judge the gags on their own merit. Chaplin is funny with the banana peel, even if I don't know he has done the same thing, with slightly different results, in the past. A good gag is funny on its own, knowing the evolution of the gag adds depth, but I don't think that is what the definitio means when they talk about ritualistic comedy.

 

I'm taking the ritualistic part of the definition to refer to something we all, as viewers and people, can relate to - we all try to avoid the banana peel, and also, occasionally, fail to avoid the banana peel. 

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is ​In this gag, surprise is used when setting up the victim for the gag. The idea is to force the person to focus on something and spring the action on the unsuspecting victim. Most people find it funny when someone (the unsuspecting person) is made a fool!

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Most unusual, this new way of videos as I adored the professor doing the Film Noir class from a historic theatre and had hoped he would repeat it. But the use of a telestrator was a very nice way of explaining the gags in Chaplin's comedy. A telestrator would not work in explaining film noir.

 

Chaplin truly was the first master of the slapstick. He started off doing things simple with the banana peel and just got more and more creative once he was allowed more artistic control over his work.

 

I truly sympathize with the woman in "Tillie's Punctured Romance" because what she was doing was back breaking work back then and if it was ruined then there would be hell to pay. Still, Chaplin slipping and sliding all over the place was fun to watch.

 

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.

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First of all Chaplin was truly a genius. He had ​the uncanny ability to make something out of nothing. His body language was exceptional. He demonstrates a universal language of setting up a gag and following through to explain to the audience what's going on and in the same sense, he can set up a surprise gag without ever losing your attention. His ability to combine some or all the elements of slapstick in just about all his movies was masterful, even if it involved repetition of a gag. Chaplin still kept his comedy fresh and funny. What he did on screen shows he's the master of slapstick.  

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I have been watching slapstick since my weekend TV lineup as a child. My mother always suggested girls do not like this sorta thing as my pops and I laughed and giggled the morning away. Unfortunately, throughout life I have caught myself laughing at others who unpredictability pulled a mostly harmless scene of slapstick real time. Most people have said its a "Sick sense of humor". I've never put this much thought into this new found awareness of what goes into these films and the complexity of pulling off these stunts. As a Newbie, I am excited to learn more and see my old pals in a new light. This is fantastic!!! I'm learning so much, can't wait for more film watching.

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Most unusual, this new way of videos as I adored the professor doing the Film Noir class from a historic theatre and had hoped he would repeat it. But the use of a telestrator was a very nice way of explaining the gags in Chaplin's comedy. A telestrator would not work in explaining film noir.

 

Chaplin truly was the first master of the slapstick. He started off doing things simple with the banana peel and just got more and more creative once he was allowed more artistic control over his work.

 

I truly sympathize with the woman in "Tillie's Punctured Romance" because what she was doing was back breaking work back then and if it was ruined then there would be hell to pay. Still, Chaplin slipping and sliding all over the place was fun to watch.

 

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 can't put my finger on it for the purpose of pointing to a specific example--hopefully someone else can--but I'd swear on a stack of Film Encyclopedias that the multiple cop elude is now something of a comedy meme.

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I think a good portion of the world was exposed to slapstick comedy without ever realizing what it was called. I remember watching Marx Brothers and Chaplin and Keaton and thinking it was hilarious they were doing "in real life" what my fave cartoon characters were doing in animation.

 

It wouldn't be until much later that I learned my cartoons were far older than I knew. But had it never been for Bugs & Daffy or Tom & Jerry, I would have never learned about Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, Fields, Chaplin, Caeser or Brooks.

 

Violence for violence sake is never funny, adding a small amount of violence to an uncomfortable situation and we get close to the idea of slapstick. Adding it all and receiving an unpredictable outcome equals comedy gold.

 

Side note* I had no idea what that sort of paddle was called until today.

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