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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Doozy #2: A Piece of Cake: Charlie Chaplin

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Hi Everyone,


 


The second Daily Dose of Doozy will arrive in your email inboxes Tuesday morning, September 6, 2016. 


 


The theme of the first week of Doozies will focus on four clips from the Silent Film Era.


 


If you didn't receive this Daily Dose, it will be archived starting at noon Eastern time on September 6, 2016, here at the Canvas course site: https://learn.canvas...y-dose-of-doozy


 


You will need to be enrolled in the Painfully Funny course to view the archive link. 


 


Begin your discussions!


 


Thanks! 


 


Dr. Rich Edwards


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Watching this clip and then thinking about the comedy movies I have seen in recent weeks, there really is no comparison. Keeping the camera fixed on all the players involved in the gag allows us, the audience, to see not only the joke but also the reactions of both The Tramp and the shopkeeper. This is sorely missed when looking at today's films, where there is alot of editing, but also everything moves so quickly from one shot to the next. There isn't time given to the build up of the joke.

 

This gag wouldn't be as effective if Chaplin's timing wasn't spot on. He manages to get his hand away from the cakes at exactly the right time every time while also stopping chewing as well. I know he's a seasoned actor and a professional, but I don't think I'd be able to do either of those things separately, nevermind at the same time.

 

To me, this gag proves timing is everything. That has been true forever, including today.

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1. Similar to Agee and Youngson's perspective in Daily Dose #1, Canby makes a claim at the end of his analysis that there is something missing into today's visual comedies when compared to the silent classics. Do you agree or disagree with Canby?

 

The master shot possibly not used as liberally and we cut the hell out of everything now -chop it up like chop-suey! I'd say our acceptance of simplicity/purity or innocence has changed. It appears cute and harmless but stealing cake today like that could have severe penalties.

 

2. Beyond the placement of the camera in middle distance, what other elements (set design, costume, props, acting, etc) makes this gag effective as visual comedy?

 

The rope Chaplin holds grabs my attention knowing the doggie is dangling at the end of it like the audience. I'd say every set piece adds to the atmosphere because I buy it as a real shop. The oven and hanging props etc all work to persuade me of its authenticity/believability.

 

 

3. What do you think a gag like this and its brilliant on-screen execution contributes to the history of slapstick comedy?

 

Chaplin further proves he has a slight of hand and charm that makes his actions acceptable and even cute. Historically he created a number of similar characters that seldom were booed or not cheered/rooted for. You feel like you are the poor guy pulling one over on the victims. He sure does act the gluten for the punchline. How many cakes did he actually shove in his mouth that day?! I love set stories of numerous takes where performers need to eat on camera and hearing their discomfort from risking eating for longer than they'd care to. Learning curve... Chaplin taught us how to fool around historically speaking

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I loved A Dog's Life since I was a little kid. The Tramp and his cute canine companion were two of my early childhood heroes.

 

Chaplin was the king of visual comedy, though in his latest films he proved effective in verbal jokes, too, and his talking films are comparable to his silent ones. Even he, however, had to admit that purely visual comedies were a thing of the past as early as in the mid-1930's. As visual gags play second fiddle in sound comedy films, this thing "missing" is just that sound comedians, especially in the most recent years, are not using much of this kind of humor and, when they do, they don't depend on it to make a good film. In silent comedies, on the other hand, all jokes are visual, and everyone's goal is to make them as perfect as possible.

 

That is clearly shown in this short clip. With no sound available, all the laugh must come from what we see, and what we see must be irrationally funny. That explains the silly moustaches many silent comedians wore, as does Chaplin's brother in the clip. The set and the camera moves (almost none) make the whole thing look like a theater, simple, based on acting and with little use for technology tools a camera provides.

 

These gags were meticulously planned and executed by perfectionist comedians like Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd and certainly propelled both the popularity and the quality of silent slapstick comedies. These guys knew what to do and how to do it, and their simple but very effective gags influenced slapstick, and other forms of comedy, to this day and age.

 

 

 

 

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1. Similar to Agee and Youngson's perspective in Daily Dose #1, Canby makes a claim at the end of his analysis that there is something missing into today's visual comedies when compared to the silent classics. Do you agree or disagree with Canby?

 

I agree with Canby to a certain point.  There are still filmmakers like the Farrelly Brothers who still use visual comedy to a certain degree.  Some would argue that visuals contained in their comedy and other current comedy filmmakers are more sexually provocative or crude.  By comparison, the visual comedy contained in Chaplin and other comics from his era are rather tame. 

 

At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, comics today do not have the skills necessary to execute the comedy seen in silent films.  This can be attributed to several things.  First, many silent comedians had significant stage training  and learned to use physicality to reach audiences within an auditorium or theater.  Today’s comedians lack similar training grounds.  Nor do they need them to be successful in today’s media environment.  A comedian performs on a small stage in a comic club and winds up on HBO reaching millions.  Secondly, many of today’s comedians lack the historical reference of comics from the first half of the 20th century. Many comics today consider comedians from the 1990s as pioneers and legends of comedy.

 

2.  Beyond the placement of the camera in middle distance, what other elements (set design, costume, props, acting, etc) makes this gag effective as visual comedy?

 

The timing between Chaplin and the person behind the counter makes this scene work.  Without the timing, the gag would fall flat.  The deadpan expression on Chaplin after stealing the food only heightens the comedy.  Additionally, the fact that Chaplin is dressed as a down-and-out character contributes to his likability and sympathy audiences have toward Chaplin.

 

3.   What do you think a gag like this and its brilliant on-screen execution contributes to the history of slapstick comedy?

 

Watching this clip is like watching an great educator at work.  Many of Chaplin’s contemporaries and those comics who followed him in subsequent years could watch this clip and learn so much about timing, pathos, and physical comedy.

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Don't you mean Tuesday morning?

 

Yep. Labor Day Holiday threw me off. And since it is Tuesday, don't forget that tonight begins the OUCH! A Salute to Slapstick festival on TCM starting at 8pm Eastern.

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1) I agree with Camby. By not cutting away, the tension builds as each cake disappears into Chaplin's mouth. The cook KNOWS that something is wrong, but is just a split second too slow to catch Charlie in the act. Also, Charlie takes cakes in different ways (including behind the back!) which makes the laughter build. The one, continuous shot is something that I miss today. Critics today say that the audience doesn't have the attention span for long scenes. Perhaps they need to be "broken in" by watching these great films.

 

2) The simple set lets you concentrate on the comedy and you are not distracted. The two person set up (until the police officer arrives) keeps it simple. The acting and timing is top notch on both sides which also adds the visual comedy.

 

3) Being a likable character always improves the comedy in slapstick. You care about Chaplin and, as long as he is not stealing YOUR cakes, you root for him. The whole short is a symphony of comic execution and timing. Between Chaplin battling against authority and his love for the dog, you really do care about him. That is a very important contribution and will be used by countless others. Chaplin's movements in shorts like this are what made WC Fields call Chaplin "the greatest ballet dancer of all time."

 

I wonder how long they had to rehearse? I have always thought that perhaps they would count to themselves and Charlie would move on "Two" and the cook on "Three". Or perhaps there was a mirror off screen. However they accomplished it, the end result is pure comedic gold.

 

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I've been trying for two days to get these to play. What's the secret to getting anything but a black screen?

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1. I agree with Canby on his analysis since today's comedies rely heavily on the use of cutaways and closeups that the magic of screen comedy starts to lose its touch after this film premiered in 1918 and many other silent films of the period that were comedies. 

 

2. The use of the coat when the tramp sneaks a piece of cake away from the owner of the cake stand, the plate prop with the food inside the plate to make the gag work so effectively, the design of the cake stand also works as a set piece to give us an idea of where this scene takes place, and finally the use of acting as if he was not involved in the theft of the stealing of his cakes. 

 

3. Its use of timing and the reaction from the other character in the scene played by Syd Chaplin is what makes the scene so memorable and timeless, many later comedians as well as writers would use this scene as a device for their films in the future to consist on the idea of timing and also the reaction of the audience and characters to make the gag work both visually and consistently.

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Maybe the "silent" feature has been transposed to horror movies. Innocent girls in haunted mansions climbing stairs and opening doors. Never a word spoken but terror (laughter?) throughout the audience.

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By using everyday objects in a typical (for the time) setting ,the humor of Chaplins  gags shines threw. Today star actors close ups and special effects blurr the gag.Today the fan's focus is on the "star" not the gag.

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What a great scene and still so funny.  I like these films because they don't need expletives or nakedness to pull off a funny skit.  They were so intelligent and aim right at the funny bone.

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It is always going to be a challenge to compare one time period to another whether it is in film, sports, business innovation, etc., as the entire world changed along with it. Yes, these films used simple sets, didn't use a dozen cameras and extensive cutaways and rely on sound and special effects but that was because they couldn't. Stating that comedy was better because it was purely physical is an interesting assertion since we should not forget that it was their only option. They brilliantly utilized what was available to them and made amazing films that deliver timeless humor and set the stage for things to come.

 

One can always make an argument that the new thing is not as good as the old thing and that is probably the one constant throughout human existence. As the world around us evolves, people are inherently resistant to change and therefore like to cling to what is in their comfort zone. Like the silent stars and film makers believed their medium to be the best, every generation has a tendency to do the same. Comedy style in film has evolved and like it or not (I will admit, I too believe we are in a period that could be better) we must remind ourselves that the movie business is in fact a business. If it does not sell, it will change. Hopefully the next step in the comedic evolutionary scale will find its way to a better balance and rely less on the technological crutches available to it and drop the over the top vulgarity but we must wait and see.

 

In closing I also want to offer a thought regarding the comments voiced about slapstick being too violent for our times or not being aware of the criminal aspect of today's clip where Chaplin is stealing the food. These films are entertainment and were not intended to be the source of education in values. In the same context is Sponge Bob harmful to children as they might believe in talking sponges? Do we not enjoy the genre of futuristic space adventures because they are not real? Right! They are not real. Neither is the violence or getting away with petty crimes in the slapstick era as it was not real.

 

Films enable us to take flights of fancy, laugh, cry and feel things with no real danger as they are not real. We must however first be willing and able to dispel belief and take the journey the filmmaker provides.

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What strikes me is the impeccable timing. In this era, comedians spent years on the road honing their craft and their timing in front of audiences. The Marx Brothers continued this tradition even after the advent of sound, testing the routines from their upcoming films in a roadshow prior to filming. Technology can be wonderful, but I believe there is no substitute for live onstage experience.

 

Agree with others here; the lack of intercuts make it all the more exceptional.

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I agree with Canby that in today situation comedies something is missing in the translation of this gag do to close-ups and cutaways. I think this gag is effective because of the window on the opposite of the cart that the cop looks through and he sees whats going on. The little tramp spots the cop and can make his get away. I think this gag still works today because it is the epitome of classic gags.

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1. Similar to Agee and Youngson's perspective in Daily Dose #1, Canby makes a claim at the end of his analysis that there is something missing into today's visual comedies when compared to the silent classics. Do you agree or disagree with Canby?

 

I agree. In silent comedy there is obviously no dialogue to "distract" us there are only the actors and the gags. Even the intertitles are sparse. Today's comedies with big stars many with big egos and honestly a public that rewards and demands such entices many to overuse the close up. Also many directors nowadays enjoy experimenting with different cuts, different camera placements, angles. Reinventing the wheel. It's all a bit disorienting at times.

 

Through this course I am rediscovering so many of the comedies I've always enjoyed but now I am beginning to understand why. I like the full figure framing because even though we focus on what Chaplin wants us to he trusts his audience enough to also take in the big picture. To see the cook, the food, saucers, the lunchwagon, the window. The few cuts are only for emphasis, the cook-dog-cook-dog-cook and then the cop. Because the gag is the entire scene not just Chaplin stuffing cake into his mouth... Egads, how did he do that? That's another reason for one take... Who could consume all that cake twice?! I was actually watching one of the shorts yesterday, "Our Gang" and asked myself why so often the shot we see included a kind of telescopic pov. You know, where the sides are blackened and we only see a circle of the action. Sorry I don't know what it's called. But I think it might have to do with the use of full-figure framing, a necessity in an ensemble cast like Our Gang. I'll have to keep a eye on that.

 

Also as Dr. Edward's stated, it was cheaper and quicker. Chaplin and others were constantly churning out shorts or screenwriting, directing, blocking, rehearsing, refining, inventing, etc. There was no time and sometimes no money to shoot take after take. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Something we all seem to agree with here. Plus everyone is a professional who honed his or her skills on the stage and vaudeville where one take is all you got.

 

2. Beyond the placement of the camera in middle distance, what other elements (set design, costume, props, acting, etc) makes this gag effective as visual comedy?

 

I don't know if the music is true to the short or added later but it too cues our response. As I mentioned above I love that we take in the whole tableau. Chaplin hit just the right note with his shabby attire and poor little starving mutt, Scraps. Also, the plate of cakes is full and the sausages aplenty. No one should have that much when others have nothing so the audience sides with Charlie and Scraps. I love the fly gag with the reach-around. Even I was looking for that nonexistent fly. Charlie's face even stuffed with cake is so funny. With just a few facial movements he was the epitome of innocence. Charlie and Sydney played great off one another. And as usual, the cop gets the worst of it in the end.

 

3. What do you think a gag like this and its brilliant on-screen execution contributes to the history of slapstick comedy?

 

I've seen it remade time and time again in movies and cartoons. The not so innocent protagonist pilfering, kicking, pushing, kissing or somehow getting away with the most outrageous acts on a suspicious and confused antagonist. However, my loyalties are mixed in these kinds of scenes. I love when the little guy gets away with this behavior with someone with seemingly more power but if there is an uneven balance of power my sympathies shift to the antagonist. But Charlie hits it perfectly. Because of the cook's abundance, the Little Tramp's ritualistic downtrodden look and the inclusion of his hungry dog my loyalties are with Charlie. I especially love the ending... Priceless.

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I think the timing of the gags are superior to what is done today.  There is a patience exhibited by the director in waiting for the gag pay-off.  I appreciate how the gags are simple, tasteful and can be enjoyed by all ages and other languages.  Current movies seem to include tasteless gags that are in your face and not appropriate for young children.

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1. Then and now, it seems best to suit the shot to what the filmmaker wants the audience to experience. IN this case, there is payoff in the long stationary shot of The Tramp stealing food. We realize that Charlie hasn't had a chance to spit out the previous biscuits (or whatever he's eating) as he stuffs more in, which is one of the comic elements of the scene. Also, we can see that he and Syd Chaplin don't miss a beat in terms of who is watching who as the food supply goes down. 

 

2. Other elements that contribute to the comedy in this clip include:

  1. Sausage links (somehow funny, especially being stolen and eaten by a dog
  2. The cutaway shot to the police officer, letting us know that Charlie might not get away with this after all
  3. The contrast between Syd Chaplin's exaggerated eyebrow acting and Charlie Chaplin's more passive "innocent" expressions.

3. Chaplin was a master of timing and situation. He helped set an early high standard for film comedy. The camera sees everything - a quick hand retreat from a plate, a lunchwagon worker start to turn around, etc.

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Thought I'd share a story that I'm reminded of from today's lesson:

 

The great Chuck Jones from WB -Looney Tunes animating director fame stood at the Academy Awards presentation and accepted his lifetime Oscar and simply said: "I suppose this means you've forgiven me..."

 

Love it! He was a genius!

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I agree that timing is everything here-- and that Chaplin's sense of it is impeccable.

 

I keep coming back to the "everydayness" of slapstick gags and this type of visual comedy. No one is doing anything seriously out of the ordinary, and that makes it funnier (to me, anyway!). A salami as a prop is funnier than, say, a nightstick-- in part because many of us can picture having a salami around but not a nightstick.

 

Also, great addition of the dog. A cute, well-behaved dog is always a distraction and makes a good teammate. 

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