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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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I never thought I'd see slapstick silent film moments being broken down like they were sports moments, but the technique to study Chaplin's evolving talent and method worked for me! The first gag, Chaplin slipping on the banana peel in By the Sea, is like L'Arroseur Arrosé. The set-up is very simple, using an every day object, and there's an audience expected outcome. By the time we get to Chaplin evading the police officers in A Dog's Life, the slapstick gag is longer, more elaborate, what he's going to do is uncertain, but we hope he's successful. The plucky Little Tramp has an anti-authoritarian message. He's the underdog we're rooting for to be clever and scrappier.

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In the earliest films in the festival, the framing of many shots would be similar to watching the gag being performed on a live stage. The camera, as the cliché would have it, is typically sitting in the fifth row of the audience, and placed in the center. The camera itself does not move much, allowing the performer to have the full range of movement from one side of the screen to the other. But compare that type of camera setup and movement to the films from 1928, and I think you will see that the early slapstick pioneers began to take advantage of cinematography, camera angles, camera movement, and editing.

 

The first scene that came to mind after reading this in today's post was from Charlie Chaplin's The Circus. The Tramp's love interest is above on the trapeze/rings and he is throwing up food to her because her father won't let her eat. Of course her father shows up but Charlie continues looking for opportunities to throw the food (ending with a fantastic twist on the pie in the face gag). I'd have to go back and rewatch, through this new context, but if I remember right for some of the scenes she is in frame but in others you just see Charlie throwing food up, with it being understood by the audience why the food is not falling down.

 

It's such a departure from films we've watched like "The Waterer Watered" where everyone is always in frame. There we get moments like the boy first sneaking up while the gardener is unaware but here we get to see how absurd Charlie's actions look when you don't realize what's going on. Because characters are out of frame, the visual image doesn't make sense on its own, without knowledge of the storyline, which brings its own, special kind of humor.

 

Really enjoyed this sequence while watching but hadn't thought to consider it in terms of camera position and movement. Adds a whole new appreciation.

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In the earliest films in the festival, the framing of many shots would be similar to watching the gag being performed on a live stage. The camera, as the cliché would have it, is typically sitting in the fifth row of the audience, and placed in the center. The camera itself does not move much, allowing the performer to have the full range of movement from one side of the screen to the other. But compare that type of camera setup and movement to the films from 1928, and I think you will see that the early slapstick pioneers began to take advantage of cinematography, camera angles, camera movement, and editing.

 

The first scene that came to mind after reading this in today's post was from Charlie Chaplin's The Circus. The Tramp's love interest is above on the trapeze/rings and he is throwing up food to her because her father won't let her eat. Of course her father shows up but Charlie continues looking for opportunities to throw the food (ending with a fantastic twist on the pie in the face gag). I'd have to go back and rewatch, through this new context, but if I remember right for some of the scenes she is in frame but in others you just see Charlie throwing food up, with it being understood by the audience why the food is not falling down.

 

It's such a departure from films we've watched like "The Waterer Watered" where everyone is always in frame. There we get moments like the boy first sneaking up while the gardener is unaware but here we get to see how absurd Charlie's actions look when you don't realize what's going on. Because characters are out of frame, the visual image doesn't make sense on its own, without knowledge of the storyline, which brings its own, special kind of humor.

 

Really enjoyed this sequence while watching but hadn't thought to consider it in terms of camera position and movement. Adds a whole new appreciation.

There is a scene in "Mickey" (the seduction scene, I think) where the camera begins to pan and it is such a shock, you begin to think there is an earthquake or something. Nothing like this has happened before and nothing like it happens after. It is as though they tried it just to see what the effect would be on the audience. I wonder, really, if there were a bunch of "oohs" and "ahhs," if people stood up in their chairs or reacted strangely as they did to the railway train in the Lumiere film.

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I have always LOVED Chaplin, feeling that there really was something special and unique in his films even before seeing the breakdown done in the video clip.  However, seeing how mature his slapstick gags developed in the three short years between "By the Sea" and "A Dog's Life", I cannot help but appreciate Chaplin's work even more now.  The elements of slapstick are all there, and even in today's society of bolder, faster, better, louder, I continue to find myself on the edge of my seat, wondering if Chaplin is going to slip on that floor again before he gets a chance to propose or if he truly will get away from the second policeman.  Chaplin is timeless, even in the early stages of slapstick.

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I must correct an extremely important point.

 

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle did NOT do "a bad bad thing". Nor should he be held up as an example of someone who makes bad lifestyle choices.

 

He was the completely innocent victim of a malicious and false prosecution, based on the completely false claims of an evil woman named Maude Delmont, who cooked up the outrageous lie that Arbuckle had brutally killed Virginia Rappe at a party. (Maude soon cashed in on her story by going on a big vaudeville tour, telling the lurid story to sold-out houses.)

 

But, after a vicious "trial by media" (led by William Randolph Hearst's syndicate), the public had already decided that Arbuckle was a depraved and evil monster, as evidenced by his "obvious gluttony". Even if he hadn't been banned from the screen by the Hays Office, the public would have boycotted his movies. Arbuckle did return to working in the movies, but off-screen, and under the pseudonym of "William Goodrich".

 

In 1933, he'd just begun a comeback, and celebrated his first year in a new marriage. That night, he died of a massive heart attack. He was only 46.

Thanks for the clarification. My teacher never mentioned all the trial particulars only that he was allegedly the culprit. I believe I read in Hollywood Babylon the case but don't remember ever hearing the innocence. Sad state of affairs the whole thing was. The whole story is beyond my comprehension. Someone lying to gain or worse murdering seems far from the genre we are studying but it was a story that stuck with me...

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Thanks for the clarification. My teacher never mentioned all the trial particulars only that he was allegedly the culprit. I believe I read in Hollywood Babylon the case but don't remember ever hearing the innocence. Sad state of affairs the whole thing was. The whole story is beyond my comprehension. Someone lying to gain or worse murdering seems far from the genre we are studying but it was a story that stuck with me...

"Hollywood Babylon" is notorious for being a disgusting example of the kind of yellow-journalism that destroyed many a career and life. The terrible thing is, many people believe these lurid stories, without checking the facts...and the motivation of the writers. Knowing that William Randolph Hearst led the despicable character assassination against a completely innocent man who only wanted to make people laugh, makes me appreciate the incredible audacity of Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane".

 

 

How strange that we should be discussing this today. It was exactly 95 years ago today (September 5, 1921) that the infamous party took place, and the laughter died for Roscoe Arbuckle.

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I'll definitely have to check that out. Thanks for the recommendation, pawprint!

 

Once you've seen the original "Unknown Chaplin", you'll fully appreciate this parody from the 1980s British comedy series, "Who Dares Wins":

.

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"Hollywood Babylon" is notorious for being a disgusting example of the kind of yellow-journalism that destroyed many a career and life. The terrible thing is, many people believe these lurid stories, without checking the facts...and the motivation of the writers. Knowing that William Randolph Hearst led the despicable character assassination against a completely innocent man who only wanted to make people laugh, makes me appreciate the incredible audacity of Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane".

 

 

How strange that we should be discussing this today. It was exactly 95 years ago today (September 5, 1921) that the infamous party took place, and the laughter died for Roscoe Arbuckle.

Also good to know. My instructor highly recommended! I think that's a case of rag journalism imitating rag pop-culture. You definitely got me thinking. I try and imagine enjoying OJ in the naked gun series the same as if that persona he has now was different. How would we see Trump if not for the media as well? The media has definitely shaped our impressions of everything...

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Also good to know. My instructor highly recommended! I think that's a case of rag journalism imitating rag pop-culture. You definitely got me thinking. I try and imagine enjoying OJ in the naked gun series the same as if that persona he has now was different. How would we see Trump if not for the media as well? The media has definitely shaped our impressions of everything...

If you think OJ's real-life fate adds a weird dimension to the "Naked Gun" films, try watching the very early episodes of "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" with Bill Cosby in them.

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If you think OJ's real-life fate adds a weird dimension to the "Naked Gun" films, try watching the very early episodes of "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" with Bill Cosby in them.

Eek! I think you're rolling now... Is it funny because it's not us? It seems that our conditioning of who it's ok to laugh at or with would be my focus if a thesis were the goal. Instead I'll focus my final objectives or closing statements on who or what it is we laugh at when we laugh at the end of this course. I recall a similar outcome to film noir studies last year. Hope there is a similar assignment.

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This episode showed Chaplin in a very simple gag and how just slipping on a banana peel can be funny and have an effect on what's happening. When he's playing with the policemen and making them try to catch him he does more than just falling but expanding the joke with other people and objects. The breakdown gave us more information about what's going on and how to look at slapstick in a different persepective. Chaplin was one of the greatest!

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Wait a hilarious and insightful way to highlight and interpret the physicality of PHYSICAL comedy with a sports desk and telestrator! Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd et al were incredible athletes, so this is the best way to break down exactly the lengths they went to for laughs.

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It's too bad that none of the links work in this URL. Do you have an updated URL for this resource?

 

They can be seen through the Library of Congress search engine except Three Acrobats which is on YouTube. The are delightful. I am guessing you'll enjoy them more with sound so YouTube is your best bet.

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I have watched Chaplin movies extensively during my childhood. I enjoy remembering now the movies and the individual jokes of those times. I even remember where I was when I was watching some of them. 

The theory of it has always eluded me. These presentations are wonderful to understand the background structure of such a genre. I can see that physical prowess is essential for any gag (I could only think how many shots, Chaplin had to get for the "perfect" angle on his slip on the banana, and how many times he had to watch the scene with the trap door on the Dog's Life until the effect was "just right").

I agree with the comment, that "telestrator"---the first time I hear that word--- makes these lectures look like a sports commentary, but they are definitely very instructive into making the point of the explanation. 

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Watching “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (again) I thought back on a comment someone made earlier after seeing the clip about being disturbed by seeing Chaplin in the role of “the bad guy.” I think that, to a certain extent, Chaplin was always playing the role of “the bad guy.” From his vaudeville days forward he portrayed characters of ill-repute, so to speak, and revealed their least likeable characteristics in the most humorous fashion. The Tramp was the epitome of “the bad guy” dressed entirely in black, constantly breaking the law, evading the police, turned into an empathetic character by exploring his environment and motivations.

While both the Tramp and Chaplin's character in "Tillie's" break the law, their crimes feel very different. The Tramp usually steals material things as a survival mechanism--he needs the food or money he takes. Also, when offered a job (The Circus) he shows a willingness to work and earn money legally. Chaplin in "Tillie's," meanwhile, usually money for luxuries--a fancy new outfit and cigars--and his actions hurt Tillie emotionally as well as monetarily.

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Chaplin made good use of the props and scenery that he had around him.  A funny person can make anything funny.  He is one of those people.  In both of the first two clips, he made falling funny.  This was done later by Dick Van Dyke by tripping on the ottoman in the opening credits of his show.  Also, I was a child of the 70's, so I remember watching Three's Company on TV.  John Ritter's character had a pratfall in every episode. Chaplin not only made a name for himself by doing these gags, but also heavily influenced comedy for all these years.  

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I wonder why the text sources do not mention minstrel shows? Does anyone know if the comedy in minstrel shows also used slapstick?

 

That's an interesting point. I personally do not know either. My points of reference when it comes to minstrel shows are mostly derived from old time radio and records I've heard (Amos n Andy, certain Jack Benny episodes, Moran and Mack). In later films, you had Al Jolson singing 'Mammy' and Bing Crosby performing 'Abraham.' None the examples that come to my mind seem to have much to do with slapstick, with the exception perhaps of one character threatening another in certain cases. However, I would have to imagine that for all the years which minstrel shows were popular, there had to have been some acts which contained slapstick gags.

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I wonder why the text sources do not mention minstrel shows? Does anyone know if the comedy in minstrel shows also used slapstick? 

Yes they did.  Granted source material is Wikipedia, but found this mention:  The typical minstrel performance followed a three-act structure. The troupe first danced onto stage then exchangedwisecracks and sang songs. The second part featured a variety of entertainments, including the pun-filled stump speech. The final act consisted of a slapstick musical plantation skit or a send-up of a popular play. 

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel_show

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Also good to know. My instructor highly recommended! I think that's a case of rag journalism imitating rag pop-culture. You definitely got me thinking. I try and imagine enjoying OJ in the naked gun series the same as if that persona he has now was different. How would we see Trump if not for the media as well? The media has definitely shaped our impressions of everything...

An extra example of how far scandal sheets were willing to go: During the investigation around Roscoe Arbuckle (I forget whether there was a trial), a newspaper published a doctored photo on the front page of him behind bars. He was, in fact, never held in custody.

 

In the 1990's, Thames Television produced a beautiful series about the silent era titled simply "Hollywood". One chapter described the Arbuckle scandal at length, and the susbsequent beginnings of Hollywood's self-censorship.

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It's funny but the performance I'm most familiar with of Chaplain's career came much later than what we are studying in this course.It's called "the great dictator" and it's really an incredible piece of film if you haven't seen it. I hadn't really experienced his "natural element" like it is in this video before. I completely agree with the fact that he seems extremely in tune with his environment. He is able to keep that awareness as he's moving and appearing seemingly out of control. That's the thing about slapstick, they have to look out of control while being carefully IN CONTROL of every single element. The notes speak to the fact that the slapstick stars had to be athletes because looking clumsy requires an extraordinary amount of control. 

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Chaplin, as many comedians, started with the simple bits of their stage performance, but he evolved those gags, and expanded them, carrying them beyond cliche to use them to enforce a stronger narrative and message.  My impression is that he leveraged simple props, but centralized the humor on the character using (or victimized) by the items.  Keaton and Lloyd did similarly, but Keaton often used much more elaborate devices, of size and mechanics, and Lloyd seemed to more dependent on narrative elements (circumstances and coincidences creating comic situations) as catalysts for his character's humor.

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Watching “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (again) I thought back on a comment someone made earlier after seeing the clip about being disturbed by seeing Chaplin in the role of “the bad guy.” I think that, to a certain extent, Chaplin was always playing the role of “the bad guy.” From his vaudeville days forward he portrayed characters of ill-repute, so to speak, and revealed their least likeable characteristics in the most humorous fashion. The Tramp was the epitome of “the bad guy” dressed entirely in black, constantly breaking the law, evading the police, turned into an empathetic character by exploring his environment and motivations.

I disagree about the tramp being the 'epitome of the bad guy'. In truth, the Tramp is the person we identify with - the person we root for. The police in silent comedies was a standard bad guy - the person who was going to get on your case - the person you had to avoid.  It's more about authority trying to clamp down on someone who just want to be left alone. In Payday, for example, the way he hides his pay from his overbearing wife because he wants a little spending money, how he has to sneak home after drinking. These are things we identify with. That's the difference between Tillie's Punctured Romance and future Chaplin films. People didn't like seeing him as the bad guy in Tillie, and identify with him as the Tramp. The Tramp is good-hearted, if bumbling. He is the underdog.

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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

I found this site - if I read it correct, Chaplin was in Chicago for only a brief time.

https://whitecitycinema.com/2010/09/20/the-secret-history-of-chicago-movies-chaplin-at-essanay/

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They can be seen through the Library of Congress search engine except Three Acrobats which is on YouTube. The are delightful. I am guessing you'll enjoy them more with sound so YouTube is your best bet.

 

Thanks for the tip. I watched "Three Acrobats" on YouTube and still have the rest to look forward to.

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