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Daily Dose of Doozy #1: Comedy's Golden Age-The View from the 1950s


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Comedy's Golden Age?  Well, yeah, if you grab a random amount of comedies of the past 100 years, the chances are good that the best percentage will be from the silent era.   Of course, a good  part of that is because the poor survival rate of silents means that more of the groaners from the silent era are gone, while the past 70 years of  groaners are still with us.  

 

Taste of course changes in 70-100 years.     I've know people who wouldn't watch slapstick from any decade,  for a variety of different reasons. Too rough, too crude, too anti-authority, too much going on.   And some folks think some of the silent comedies, Charlie Chaplin in particular, are way too full of sentimentality. I suspect those folks would rate other decades higher. 

 

   My father briefly met Harold Lloyd in the late 1940s, when Lloyd was a Parade Grand Marshall in Greenville SC. I recall my father mentioning to me that so many people in the parade had no idea who Lloyd was. These would be folks who grew up watching comedies of the 1930s-40s - and like so many even now, had no knowledge of things that happened before they were 12.  So the clip movies in the 50s had the job of re-introducing silent film slapstick comedians to the then present, and saying, if you will, "the past had funny stuff going on!"  Were they, and the books, intended to be the last word on the subject? No, one needs a sequel or three.    In the decades before  there were 57 channels and youtube internet, these films and books served a very useful purpose.   Very much the same purpose as  a college course on slapstick does.

 

 

   

    

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If not the “Golden Age,” then at least the era of the most universal appeal for comedy.  These films “play” in the classroom today for the same reason three generations could have side-by-side in the theater enjoying them ninety years ago.  You’re not rolling your eyes and chewing the straw in your character-licensed cup at the LEGO movie until you’re able to titter at some double-entendre reference that flies right over your kid’s head.  Everyone who’s watching is able to laugh, everyone who’s invested in the average Joe, underdog heroes of these films.  

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Yes, I agree with the statements of Agee and Youngson as the comedians of Silent Movie Era were the ultimate pioneers of Slapstick Comedy. For me, I admire the hilarious antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and they had uniqueness in presenting the comedy in their own ways. During the Silent Movie Era, all the gags and antics were presented on the movie screens without the sound. So, the comedians will use their facial expressions and body gestures in order to convey the meaning of those scenes with the audiences. I felt that the slapstick genre just evolved thanks to the invention of sound in movies. The documentaries, compilation movies and essays gives us the real insight of slapstick comedy during the Silent Film Era and it brings the allure of the comedians back to life.

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I don't agree it was comedy's greatest age but I do believe it was possibly the most innovative. So much of comedy is dependent on sound to aid delivery. Impressions and voices are great sources of comedy. And silence can also be used as a source of comedy when sound is present such as Jack Benny's pregnant pauses---but without sound something is lost in the delivery and tone.

Sight gags have never gone away and pratfalls or tumbles are still happening in modern comedy but it is just less prevalent as it was in the silent era where sight is the main sense used.

Documentaries are tricky for me to talk about because I am 23 and know many of my peers who refuse to watch black and white. Their opinion of silent film is that it is boring and cheesy. I understand that, there is no color, there is no sound so there is less of an immersive experience that is identifiable because most of us can see color and hear. So comedy essays that express the feeling that this is the greatest is hard to understand for younger generations because every era has their own style or music and by saying this one is the best it seems to discredit the present value, which some of it will not withstand the tests of time, but some will. I myself love to hear and discuss with another section of my peers the innovations that happened in the silent era but mainly because such essays I personally identify with are not claiming that this is the golden age of comedy--but rather pointing out that this had not been a convention or a technique used up until this point, there is more appreciation there and the ability to see a clip in a new light. 

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Honestly I don't feel I've watched or even studied sufficient movies from this period of time to say that we had a golden age of comedy or not. It seems to me that a golden age is the best period ever of something: the best artists, the most significant pieces of art (movies), the most influences lasting years after it's end, etc. The silent era was undoubtedly really important for comedy as a genre. If it wasn't for names like Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton and Langdon we wouldn't watch a so great development of it, who were masters in many ways for the future generations. But I wouldn't call it the golden age of comedy. It is more like a golden age of slapstck movies, which are a small and specific part on comedy genre. Decades after these first experiments we can observe a great number of comedians breaking rules and making comedy with such narrative quality that we can not ignore.

 

The gags on that time were completely based on visual situations because we didn't have sound. The situations and sets must had comic twists to amuse the public and yes, I agree that they were much inventive. Probably more original than great part of what we can see today. And it didn't desappeared, but it had to shape itself to the new sound era. From the 1930s and beyond speaking was as important as the visual, so it has to accomodate itself.

 

Any study or compilation has a personal view linked to what is presented on the paper (or at the screen). So yes, it is clear to me that these documents have influenced a lot what other scholars would study on the next decades, and even the general public. Once films are generally linked with our life's emotions, to remember great funny moments is quite an amusement and tend to make us believe that those were the best times that do not get back - unfortunately. It is not always true, but happens all the time.

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1. Do you agree or disagree with Agee and Youngson's statements that the silent films from 1912 – 1930 constituted "comedy's greatest era" or its "golden age?" Why or why not? I'd argue that they were the greatest era for physical comedy. I love verbal wit but there was something magical about the physical depths these comedians went to, that we don't really see today.

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This was a period of mime. Part of miming is showing emotions by facial expressions. Chaplin was a master at this bringing laughter and pathos. We still have physical comedy like Ben Stiller. But this was the golden age of comedy.

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    In this clip from “The Golden Age of Comedy” (1957), the narrator asserts what producer Robert Youngson (and James Agee, before him) believed, that the era of silent comedy (from 1912 to 1930) constituted a “golden age of comedy.”  The hallmark of this era was the gag that was completely visual -- a form of wit they believe has “all but disappeared.”   While I am capable of lapsing into similar nostalgic dogma, I can not agree with this argument.  My own opinion is that the silent era  would be the “silver era that preceded the gold,” for I would consider the golden age to be the period from 1930 to 1950.  The centrality of the visual gag was not due to it being the highest form of comedic art; it was due to the fundamental technical fact of early film-making --  there was no sound.   While the visual comedy of the silent era is amazing, the addition of verbal humor to the visual gag takes the comedy to a higher level.  It seems that there remained, in the minds of critics like Agee & Youngson, an element of an anti-sound bias that was based on the belief that film degenerated with the advent of sound.  It can be argued that the quality of films dropped in the transitional period that followed the introduction of sound, but this was largely due to the technical difficulty of adapting sound to the existing methods of film-making.  Additionally, in its earliest use, sound was presented as a novelty, rather than an integral part of the story.  The roughness of the transitional period passed quickly, though.  By the early 1930’s, verbal humor was being coupled with visual gags to great effect, producing classic comedies by the likes of The Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy and Joe E. Brown.  An example of the ability of verbal humor to make visual humor stronger can be seen in the “stateroom scene” from the Marx Brothers’ film, “A Night at the Opera” (1935).   While this scene would be funny in a silent presentation, the humor is increased significantly by the ongoing commentary of Groucho Marx.  

     The impact of documentaries like “The Golden Age of Comedy” on popular opinion about the silent era is enormous.  They “polish and refresh” the tarnished memories of those who lived through the era, while introducing it to a younger generation in an idealized way.   These sorts of anthologies have a bias -- they present the best of an era and avoid the worst   This kind of selective bias can give a distorted view of the era by ignoring its shortcomings.   I can personally attest to the impact of this film; seeing it was my first introduction to the silent era.  It popped up on TV frequently in my childhood in the 1960’s, and when it did, viewing it was a family affair.  I also recall that there was a fascination with the 1920’s in general, and silent pictures in particular, during my childhood.  Documentaries like this, I believe, helped drive a cultural trend that manifested itself in many ways.  Examples?   Several other “Youngson-like” documentaries (including “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy” in 1962),  silent comedies at Shakey’s Pizza Parlors,  movies like “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967) and even pop music with Tiny Tim’s version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (1968).

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I would agree but only insofar as that is all we have recorded history of. For all we know Vaudeville and live entertainment were much more grand. In terms of movies the silent era took much from theater so yes, in their own element were the greatest because they were not expected to be held to any higher standard as no rules had been written yet.

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