Articles on this Page
- 06/26/13--09:00: _No Smoking
- 06/27/13--16:12: _Doll Abuse
- 06/30/13--20:18: _YouTube Presents Hu...
- 07/01/13--08:06: _Water, water, every...
- 07/02/13--08:46: _Brain Dead Meets Ev...
- 07/03/13--07:03: _Funny Optical Illus...
- 07/04/13--10:35: _Fireworks Fun!
- 07/05/13--08:34: _TCM Brings the Gags
- 07/06/13--09:07: _Louie: Comedy Witho...
- 07/07/13--10:41: _Experimental Televi...
- 07/07/13--14:21: _Dumb, Dumber and Du...
- 07/14/13--14:05: _More Baby Doll Abuse
- 07/14/13--15:28: _The 700 Dirty Words
- 07/14/13--16:43: _Battling Butlers
- 07/29/13--19:12: _Sing, Clown, Sing!
- 07/29/13--19:27: _Theatre Etiquette
- 07/29/13--19:42: _Avanti, Ridolini! (...
- 07/29/13--20:16: _The Dangers of Tropes
- 07/29/13--21:01: _What's Black and Bl...
- 07/29/13--21:57: _The Mirror Prank
- 06/26/13--09:00: No Smoking
- 06/27/13--16:12: Doll Abuse
- 07/01/13--08:06: Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink
- 07/02/13--08:46: Brain Dead Meets Evil Dead
- 07/03/13--07:03: Funny Optical Illusions
- 07/04/13--10:35: Fireworks Fun!
- 07/05/13--08:34: TCM Brings the Gags
- 07/06/13--09:07: Louie: Comedy Without Laughs
- 07/07/13--10:41: Experimental Television: Test Tube Meets Boob Tube
- 07/07/13--14:21: Dumb, Dumber and Dumbest: The Three Faces of Gomer
- 07/14/13--14:05: More Baby Doll Abuse
- 07/14/13--15:28: The 700 Dirty Words
- 07/14/13--16:43: Battling Butlers
- 07/29/13--19:12: Sing, Clown, Sing!
- 07/29/13--19:27: Theatre Etiquette
- 07/29/13--19:42: Avanti, Ridolini! (aka Larry Semon, Italian Style)
- 07/29/13--20:16: The Dangers of Tropes
- 07/29/13--21:01: What's Black and Blue and Yellow All Over?
- 07/29/13--21:57: The Mirror Prank
In The Duck Hunter (1922), Billy Bevan's efforts to enforce a "no smoking" policy in his barber shop lead to a surreal battle of wills with Jack Cooper.
The routine was later reprised by the Three Stooges in No Dough Boys (1944).
But, interestingly, the Stooges did not borrow this old comic business outright. They started out with another routine that, although similar enough, maintained a distinct identity of its own. It was over a span of eight years that the two routines finally merged into one. If I was a wise old professor, I would call this comedy convergence.
In Superman III (1983), a young mother enters a park pushing a baby carriage. She lifts a toddler out of the carriage and sets him down on a see-saw. Suddenly, a stolen money bag drops from a scaffold and lands full force on the upended end of the see-saw, causing the other end to fly upwards and humorously catapult the toddler into a tree. Do not fret, though, as the toddler is represented by a blatantly obvious doll. For years, comedians have tossed, kicked, dumped and stomped baby dolls for laughs. No comic prop has been more maltreated than the baby doll. Is this a little sick? I do my best in The Funny Parts to explain the routine and describe the many gleeful ways in which comedians have roughed up these faux infants. Evidently, this business never gets old. Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm ("Mister Softee," 2011).
Bill Buckner, a former first baseman best known for a fielding error that cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series, has been redeemed. A happy ending for all even though the doll got shaken up in the process.
Jerry Seinfeld said, "The comedy universe is a swamp of madness." He expressed this opinion to David Letterman during an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee ("I Like Kettlecorn," 2013). Letterman agreed with Seinfeld, stating that funny routines often come from "guys. . . [with] personality disorders." He brought up, as an example, spastic standup comedian Lenny Schultz. He recalled a night in the 1970s when he was at the Comedy Store and saw Schultz running around on stage with a baby doll. Letterman said, smiling, "[He] has a little toy whip and he's whipping the baby. . . [Y]ou hear the sound effects of a crying baby." Letterman could not have looked more pleased as he finished the story. Yes, whipping a baby doll is great fun. It's madness, but fun.
The ultimate example of this routine was featured in a devilish 1915 Vitagraph comedy called Boobley's Baby. The plot is simple. Sydney Drew is pretending that a baby doll is a real baby so that he can get a seat on a trolley. A woman who Drew has been romancing sees Drew with his "baby" and, assuming that he is a married man, becomes furious with him. Drew is upset that his romance has come to an end and he takes his frustration out on the doll. Steve Massa wrote in Lame Brains and Lunatics, "[W]e see Sydney throttle and tear the arms and legs off the doll (which really looks like he's murdering a baby)."
A baby doll suffers a similar fate in a 2011 episode of The Middle called "The Big Chill." Laziness and selfishness cause high school sophomore Axl to grow hostile towards a baby doll placed under his care as part of a health class project. The unwanted doll, which falls victim to increasingly abusive treatment from its impatient caretaker, ends up being decapitated and dismembered.
A practice baby doll is not entirely safe even in the hands of a well-intentioned expectant mother.
More doll-catapulting can be found in this scene from Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994).
As I said before when discussing the "wedding attack" routine, sometimes dark currents of human psychology are the reason for the enduring popularity of a routine.
You can read more about this perverse phenomena of baby doll thrashing in The Funny Parts, which is available at Amazon.com.
It amazes me that I can go on YouTube every few months and find rare silent film comedies. My latest YouTube search turned up five interesting films.
1.) The Lyin' Tamer (1926)
The "lion comedy" is well represented by this 1926 Fox Imperial comedy. Michael Rogge, who posted The Lyin' Tamer on YouTube, admitted that he did not recognize the star of the film. One commenter thought it was Raymond Griffith, which is reasonable as the actor does bear a passing resemblance to Griffith. But the actor is, in fact, Ernie Shields. Shields may be a mysterious figure today, but he became a familiar face to film fans after starring in nearly eighty Universal comedies from 1914 to 1919.
The Lyin' Tamer is effective even though it is hardly original. The following routine from the film falls squarely into the conventional category.
Abbott & Costello still had use for the routine more than twenty years later when they made the jungle comedy Africa Screams (1949).
Here we have yet another routine that The Lyin' Tamer borrowed.
The tilting house routine that appears in the final clip was another well-worn bit of business. The routine was discussed previously on this blog. But at least the filmmakers attempted to heighten the suspense by incorporating a lion and a flood into the action.
2.) What Price Goofy? (1925)
Here is a classic scene from The Awful Truth (1937). The premise is clever. A dog misunderstands the intentions of its owner and plays a risky game of hide-and-seek with an incriminating article of clothing.
The director, Leo McCarey, had originally developed the routine for a Charley Chase comedy, What Price Goofy? (1925). The film presents just the sort of domestic crisis known to plague Chase. As a favor to a friend, Chase invites a professor to stay at his home. When he learns that the professor is a beautiful woman, he decides that it would be better to keep her presence a secret from his jealous wife. He has a burglar, of all people, pretend to be the professor. We have no bowler hat in the scene. Instead, Chase struggles to keep a female undergarment hidden.
3.) Shine 'Em Up! (1922)
The obvious lesson to be taken from Shine 'Em Up! (1922) is that some people are overly sensitive to racial slurs. Paul Parrott is trying to draw business to his shoeshine stand, but calling out "Shine!" is somewhat imprudent when the word "shine" is also an offensive reference to a black person.
4.) The Grocery Clerk (1919)
You are likely familiar with this scene from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).
Now, let's take a look at a similar scene that is less well known and much less serious.
The scene is artfully designed. An insert shot shows that gasoline leaking from an old man's can is creating a puddle at Semon's feet. The old man carries the leaky can to his car, leaving a stream of gasoline behind him. Semon lights his cigarette. The flame of the dropped match ignites the gasoline. The fire follows the gasoline stream to the car, causing an explosion. This scene demonstrates that suspense works as well in a comedy as it does in a thriller.
Semon could never resist using a routine that had worked for him before. Let's look at a later version of the "gasoline stream" routine from Semon's The Hick (1921).
This isn't as funny to me as the earlier version. I preferred Semon's thoughtless, cocky fool causing the accident rather than becoming the hapless victim of the accident. Also, the scene isn't set up in a way that creates suspense. Semon introduces too many distracting elements into the action. He frantically drives off as the irate father is firing a shotgun at him. A bullet punctures the gas tank. Then, abruptly, the father realizes that he is out of bullets and decides that this would be a good time to have a smoke. Semon, who just avoided being fatally shot, inexplicably climbs into the backseat of the car and plays "she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not" with a daisy. Gunfire. Car escape. Daisy plucking. As this is going on, it's easy to forgot that Semon's car has left behind a stream of gasoline and the gasoline can be ignited by the match that the father is about to toss to the ground. To work, the scene depends on a focus so intense that it is unnerving. All that matters at the moment is the match and the stream of gasoline.
5.) The One Best Pet (1920)
I'm not sure of the title of our last film today. My best guess is that it is a 1920 Chester comedy called The One Best Pet. I recognize the star of the film for sure. That mangy-looking chimp can be none other than Snooky (also known as "Snooky the Humanzee").
I am not ashamed to say it, I am vastly entertained watching Snooky climb up to a roof to rescue a befuddled toddler held aloft by balloons. Everything about this comedy looks sketchy from a child safety perspective - the gunfire, the rooftop antics, and certainly the lion leaping and clawing to get at a small child.
A DVD collection of Snooky comedies is available from Looser than Loose.
What treasures will you have for me next time, YouTube?
A stock situation in silent film comedy was a luckless man becoming flustered by an uncooperative inanimate object. A good example is provided by the 1921 Sennett comedy By Heck, in which Billy Bevan is humorously thwarted by a tricky water pump. Billy West reprised the routine three years later in Not Wanted (1924).
A variation of the routine (in which the water pump was replaced by a water fountain) was performed by Abbott & Costello in Who Done It? (1942). Costello is less fortunate than either Bevan or West as he must contend with both the water fountain and surly Abbott.
Here, Ben Turpin outwits rascally cabinet doors.
More can be found about humorously troublesome inanimate objects in the "Mannequins and Other Dummies" chapter of The Funny Parts.
Raimi labelled the original Evil Dead as “the Three Stooges with blood and guts standing in for custard pies.” Bill Warren got more specific on the matter in examining the film for The Evil Dead Companion. He wrote, "The bleeding wall sockets and the lightbulb that fills up with blood are gory duplications of similar shots involving water in the Stooges' A Plumbing We Will Go." Let's see what Warren means.
The sequels also indulged at times in Stooges-style comedy.
The Commedia dell'arte's "Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back" routine had probably been around for 400 years before the advent of motion pictures. It was a reliable routine that an experienced stage comedian was bound to transfer to film. Several popular Commedia dell'arte routines made their screen debuts in the French comedies that dominated the cinema between 1896 and 1911. But, in my research for The Funny Parts, I could find no evidence that the "Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back" routine appeared in any film during this prolific period. It wasn't in the dozens of Max Linder films that I watched. I didn't come across it going through Kino's expansive DVD collections. Nothing turned up in trade journals or film archives. The earliest screen adaptation that I could find was a version performed by Charlie Chaplin in A Dog’s Life (1918).
But, now, an earlier version has been identified. Steve Massa noted in his new book, Lame Brains and Lunatics, that Billie Ritchie performed the routine in a 1916 L-KO comedy called Live Wires and Love Sparks. I still do not think that this was the first time the routine was committed to celluloid, but it encourages me to believe that the true preliminary film recording of the routine may still turn up some day.
Charley Chase and Oliver Hardy performed an outstanding variation of the routine in Fluttering Hearts (1927).
I must admit that this routine in any form makes me laugh. Woody Allen produced a bawdy variation of the routine for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972).
The Three Stooges introduced the routine to many comedy fans with this scene from Boobs in Arms (1940).
Larry Semon manages a one-man version of this routine (having his own arms stand in for his legs) in Horseshoes (1923).
Semon specialized in creating funny illusions, which is something that I discuss at length in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film. He often played with the way that the film camera limits depth perception and tends to flatten images.
Semon later elaborated on this gag, making it disturbingly surreal. The film is Lightning Love (1923).
Here are similar illusions that I found in a BuzzFeed article, "25 Photos You Need To Really Look At To Understand."
Harold Lloyd also liked to surprise audiences with illusions.
A trick of perspective was involved in the famous clock sequence from Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923). (This photo is a digital recreation of the scene.)
This was one of Lloyd's favorite gags from The Kid Brother (1927).
In later years, the comedian expressed great pride in the gag, which was known to consistently draw big laughs wherever and whenever the film was shown. Lloyd pointed to the gag to illustrate the importance of previewing a film. He said that he filmed two different versions of the scene - one where he showed the metal bracket beforehand and one where he didn't. Lloyd had his doubts as to which was the better version. He insisted that, when it came to making an audience laugh, there were no "iron-clad rules." The preview audience reacted more strongly to seeing the villain seemingly batter Lloyd's head with the belaying pin and then having it shown at the end that the metal bracket had, in fact, been stopping the pin from making contact. The big reveal is, without a doubt, what makes the scene so funny. But a very similar gag appeared the previous year in a Mack Sennett comedy, The Prodigal Bridegroom (1926). This gag was entirely centered on the big reveal. It was staged in such a way that no alternative version was possible.
Of course, it can be debated if this really is the same gag. The fact is that, in both instances, the viewer is led to believe that a man is being struck repeatedly on the head with a heavy blunt instrument. The laugh comes when the truth is revealed and the viewer realizes that he was being fooled all along. But the audience is fooled by an illusion of depth in one instance and an illusion of camouflage (the bracket is hidden under Lloyd's hair) in the other. Is it the same? I think it is.
I will admit that I may be more likely than others to tie together the common threads of various gags. For instance, I see these two gags as being essentially the same.
When I first came across the Prodigal Bridegroom scene, I couldn't help but think that Lloyd had borrowed it outright and never really did have a question as to the right way to present it. But that is unfair and unreasonable. It is modern "propriety rights" thinking getting into my head. I do not want to cast Ben Turpin, the star of The Prodigal Bridegroom, as the Winklevoss brothers (although the image of twin Ben Turpins with bloated muscles is funny). The fact is that The Prodigal Bridegroom and The Kid Brother both went into production at nearly the same time. The Kid Brother only came out later because it was in production longer. I should clarify, though, that I am unable to say precisely when Lloyd devised and shot the scene in question. The Kid Brother was still in production at the time that The Prodigal Bridegroom was released, which means that Lloyd could have seen this gag get a big laugh in theaters and decided to tag it on to his big fight scene. But I have been determined in tracing the history of gags and routines to avoid accusations of plagiarism. The point is that having many different comedians share comedy business is what makes material develop and attain optimum form. As I stated in The Funny Parts, it takes a village to raise a gag. The bottom line is that the suspense that Lloyd builds up around the gag leads to the bigger laugh.
TCM has made an commendable effort to bring silent film comedy shorts to television. The channel aired 87 newly restored Mack Sennett comedies last September and followed this up in May with a 12-hour tribute to Harold Lloyd, which included a number of early one-reel rarities. These marathons allowed me to view many films that were previously unavailable to me. It made me feel like a paleontologist let loose in a new excavation site.
My book The Funny Parts was designed to provide film comedy enthusiasts with a means to travel through the history of film comedy and see the way in which gags and routines were developed. What made writing this book difficult at times was the fact that the film record is imperfect. Gaps exist that sometimes made it problematic to identify the fine graduations in a routine's evolution. This, in many ways, made my work on The Funny Parts just as tricky as the job that a paleontologist undertakes to reconstruct a fossil skeleton. Even when they are in possession of a complete skeleton, paleontologists are often unsure what to make of the various parts. You cannot connect the hip bone to the thigh bone until you can first figure out which bone is which. Paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope reconstructed an Elasmosaurus skeleton with the head on the wrong end. When reassembling an Iguanodon skeleton, Gideon Mantell placed a thumb spike at the end of the animal's snout. Thomas Jefferson once came into possession of prehistoric bones and, upon examining the long limb pieces and the large claws, he came to the conclusion that the bones belonged to a giant prehistoric cat. Wrong. The bones belonged to a giant ground sloth.
Henry Fairfield Osborn, a major authority in the field of paleontology, determined that a fossil tooth belonged to the first anthropoid ape when it, in fact, belonged to a peccary, which is an ancient pig. Mistakes are made, but they are understandable and acceptable. Speculation, wrong or right, is a crucial part of the identification process.
The development of film comedy was dynamic during the silent era. It was in a continual state of motion. Routines passed down the line from one comedian to the next in free succession. I was not always aware of every link in the chain when I wrote The Funny Parts. Take, for example, Buster Keaton's changing room scene in The Cameraman (1928). I analyzed that scene in The Funny Parts without being aware that one of the writers on The Cameraman had previously used the idea of a man changing clothes in a cramped space in the 1927 feature Horse Shoes (Monty Banks has to change into pajamas in a berth). I elaborated on the Banks routine in my next book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film, as a way to integrate it into the comedy routine flow chart. I am relieved to say that the belated discovery of the Horse Shoes routine did not upset my original analysis of the routine. This is partly due to Keaton, who could make a routine his own regardless of what had been done before. It may be that, sometimes, the history of a routine is not so much a chain as it is a tapestry.
Theatergoers must have experienced a great deal of déjà vu in the days of silent film comedy. Charley Chase appeared in Publicity Pays (1924) scaling a high-rise hotel in pursuit of a monkey. Three weeks later, Dorothy Devore was on theater screens chasing a monkey across a skyscraper ledge in Hold Your Breath (1924). A rush hour scene in Fred Fishbach's Hurry Up (1922) was likely still in the recent memory of theatergoers when a similar rush hour scene turned up in Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923). Gags and routines were easily shared and sometimes traded back and forth. A comedian chasing a monkey across the facade of a tall building may be the sort of idea that two writers in two separate places could get at roughly the same time. This "great minds think alike" concept, also known as parallel thinking, has been known to happen. But I suspect that an earlier version of this scene from an unknown source was the inspiration for both instances of monkey business. Harry Sweet may have climbed a building to retrieve a monkey in a Century comedy. Charles Dorety may have found himself on a ledge with a monkey in a Sunshine comedy. It is always possible that a long-lost comedy will suddenly turn up to reveal this and other intriguing content.
As part of my research for The Funny Parts, I opened up a blank pad in my lap and settled back to watch a collection of Keystone comedies. Mack Sennett produced the Keystone comedies from 1912 to 1917, after which he left the company to form the Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation. The Keystone comedies reflect a relatively dull and narrow stage in the early development of film comedy. This became clear to me during my viewing session, which turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. When the films were over, my pad remained blank. I had failed to identify anything that even vaguely resembled a gag or a routine. These films, which were designed as mock melodramas, simply allowed actors to make funny faces, race around rooms, fall down, and hit one another. Gags and routines were not part of the formula.
I prefer the type of wildly exaggerated gags and routines that the Sennett crew produced in the 1920s. Let me provide, as an example, a scene from Wall Street Blues (1924). Billy Bevan does not notice that he is dripping cleaning fluid onto a small dog. A dapper gentlemen lights a cigarette and tosses the match in the direction of the chemical-soaked dog, which proceeds to vanish instantly in a puff of smoke. Nothing is left of the creature except its doggie sweater. Bevan assumes the missing little dog was eaten by a big dog standing nearby and licking its lips. To avoid upsetting the woman who owns the dog, Bevan steals a toy dog from a little boy, wraps it up in the sweater, and fastens it to the end of the woman's leash. The woman, unaware of the dog's death or Bevan's deception, casually walks off dragging the toy dog at the end of the leash. This is great, crazy stuff. It is not the type of routine that you will ever see in a Keystone comedy.
To understand the primitiveness of the Keystone comedies, one need only set the Keystone comedy A Bird's a Bird (1915) against comparable comedies made by Sennett and Roach in the following decade. A Bird's a Bird starts with Mr. Walrus (Chester Conklin) learning that his in-laws are coming over for dinner. He doesn't have anything to serve them, which leads him to steal a cooked turkey from his neighbor's kitchen. A parrot is loose in the room as Conklin prepares to serve the pilfered bird. I was expecting something like this to happen.
This scene appears in the Three Stooges' Crash Goes the Hash (1944), but the routine in fact turned up much earlier in a 1925 Sennett comedy called Cold Turkey (1925). This became a familiar comic equation - parrot + turkey = shenanigans. I had seen the routine played out so many times before that it was, in my mind, inevitable. But, no, the idea of a parrot moving around inside of a turkey and making dinner guests believe they were under attack by a zombie gobbler was comic business for another day. Nothing as inspired and fantastic as that ever occurs in a Keystone comedy. Conklin becomes worried when the neighbor (Slim Summerville) joins him for dinner. Will the neighbor realize that the turkey being served is the turkey from his own home? Will he become enraged and attack Mr. Walrus? It doesn't matter as, at some point, a despicable "foreigner" (Hank Mann) shows up and plants a bomb in the turkey. The neighbor learning that Conklin stole his turkey loses importance when the audience is waiting for a bomb to explode.
The same dilemma, sans the bomb, befell Max Davidson in Pass the Gravy (1928). Unlike Conklin, Davidson hadn't been the one to steal the bird (a prize-winning rooster this time instead of a run-of-the-mill turkey). Davidson's son (Spec O'Donnell) stole the rooster so that he could pocket the money that his father gave him to pay the butcher. The film builds suspense as the viewer waits for the neighbor to notice a "1st Prize" tag on the rooster's leg and realize that the cooked bird that he has been served is, in fact, the champion rooster stolen from his yard. This is early cringe comedy. Max's daughter and the daughter's boyfriend do their best to retrieve the chicken leg from the neighbor's plate before he has time to discover the tag. Their efforts soon turn into a madcap game of football. This excellent comedy is vastly more sophisticated and refined than A Bird's a Bird.
The TCM marathon did reveal that, late in the history of Keystone, gags and routines did begin to emerge. A standard silent comedy routine in which a comedian poses as a mannequin is discussed at length in The Funny Parts. The idea of a comedian pretending to be an inanimate object was unsuitable to Keystone's violent, fast-paced style, but the makers of Keystone's The Surf Girl (1916) were able to figure out a way to speed up the action and subject the comedy protagonist to a slapstick drubbing. The scene starts out with Raymond Griffith eluding an irate man by hiding out in an arcade. He comes across a game in which the players knock hats off mannequins' heads by pitching balls as the mannequins rush past on a treadmill. Griffith, determined to stay out of the clutches of the irate man, struggles to pose as a mannequin while being pelted by balls. It's a perfect adaptation. The treadmill has been added to provide the speed and the balls have been added to provide the bruises.
Dizzy Heights and Daring Hearts (1915) includes an early version of another routine that I wrote about in The Funny Parts. Interestingly, this is not an embryonic version of the routine. It is, in fact, more carefully developed than later versions. Chester Conklin pretends to be the bootblack to make contact with a shapely woman sitting at a bootblack stand with a newspaper unfolded in front of her face. Conklin no sooner slips off the woman's shoe then he becomes startled to notice a big black toe peeking out of a hole in the woman's stocking. Conklin pulls the newspaper down from the woman's face and, once her face is in view, he is left without a doubt that the woman's skin is dark from toe to head. Conklin flees in panic as the actual bootblack laughs uproariously.
This routine was repeated for years in various permutations. To my knowledge, the earliest version can be found in a 1909 Essanay comedy called Mr. Flip. The film's plot is entirely built around this one gag. A soubrette receives an invitation to meet an amorous fan (Ben Turpin) for dinner. As a joke, the soubrette conceals her black maid's face behind a veil and sends her to meet the man in her place. Turpin is passionately embracing his date when he disarranges her veil and reveals her true identity. The sight of an interracial couple causes a great scene and Turpin is roughly ejected from the restaurant.
Here are two distinctly different versions of the routine.
The routine is played out again by Semon's partner, Stan Laurel. Laurel's reaction to the black woman is no less subtle. He screams and runs away as if his life depended on it.
The message of this routine could not be more clear. The races must not mix. The caption of this lobby card puts it another way.
An individual must "[draw] the color line." It could be argued that today's politically correct Hollywood has gone to the opposite extreme, promoting interracial couples at every opportunity.
Here is a version of the routine that leaves out the issue of race.
This gag still turns up today, except the woman will usually turn out to be a zombie and her face will be rotted or hideously disfigured.
My favorite discovery among TCM's Sennett comedies was a 1915 Keystone release called A Lover's Lost Control, in which Sydney Chaplin runs amok in a department store. Chaplin turned out the most imaginative, subversive and ultimately funniest comedies in Keystone's history. Funny business occurs in A Lover's Lost Control when Chaplin, who is in the midst of imposing his lecherous wiles on a pretty young woman, mistakes a mannequin's leg for the woman's leg. Chaplin used the gag again in a Standard Film Corporation feature, Bombardiers (1919). This time, the comedian finds a mannequin's leg in his lap and cheerfully assumes that the leg belongs to an attractive woman sitting beside him. The routine was further refined in the coming years by Charley Chase and Harry Langdon. The development of the routine is laid out well in an article by David Kalat. Langdon continued to make use of this routine for the remainder of his career.
Abbott & Costello revived the routine for a 1954 episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour.
Keystone's humor started to expand to more imaginative and spectacular proportions by 1915. In Dizzy Heights and Daring Hearts (1915), Chester Conklin spins around on an airplane propeller as the airplane soars across the sky. In The Surf Girl (1916), Raymond Griffith and Fritz Schade have a rousing fistfight while standing atop a moving Ferris wheel.
The earliest comedy of the Lloyd marathon was Lonesome Luke, Messenger (1917). Already, you can see the comedian playing with classic stage routines. Lloyd escapes from a pursuer by diving down a chute, which is a gag straight out of the English music hall. Later, Lloyd takes a break from being chased by Snub Pollard and Bud Jamison to render another well-established stage routine. The action begins with Lloyd slipping behind a curtain to hide. Pollard and Jamison, puzzled by Lloyd's sudden disappearance, mill about with their backs to the curtain. Lloyd, unable to resist an opportunity for mischief, pops out of hiding just long enough to poke at his pursuers. The men, who can see no one else around, blame each other for the pokes and get into a heated argument with one another. It's a simple bit of business and yet it is guaranteed to make an audience laugh.
The highlight of The Marathon (1919) is Lloyd's execution of the famous "mirror routine" opposite Eddie Borden. Setting this routine apart from the later versions is its slapstick climax. As Borden leans forward to get a closer look at his dubious reflection, Lloyd leans forward in precise synchronization, causing the two men to precisely slam their heads together. This forceful collision leaves Borden dazed and Lloyd riled. Lloyd waits until Borden is not looking to shove him, smack him, and break a vase over his head. The mirror routine is so clever and charming that the violence is unnecessary. It is a surprising flaw in an otherwise skillful rendition of the routine. Lloyd, an astute comedy maker, was working at the time to civilize his "glasses" character and move away from crude physical violence. It isn't reasonable for him to have resorted to this sort of action when he didn't have to. But the routine doesn't end there. After Lloyd has beaten up Borden, a woman (Dorothea Wolbert) comes along and continues the routine with Lloyd. This creates a rare mixed-gender variation of the routine.
In Take a Chance (1918), Lloyd rolls down a hill trapped inside of a trash can. A police officer runs frantically down the hill to keep ahead of the speedily rolling trash can, which threatens at any moment to crush him. The scene brings to mind Buster Keaton running down a hill to avoid rolling boulders in Seven Chances (1925). Of course, the Seven Chances scene is much more elaborate, but both scenes make use of the same basic idea.
A couple of the gags used in Next Aisle (1919) were recycled from other films. A revolving door routine is reminiscent of a revolving door routine in Chaplin's The Cure (1917). Another gag, which opens the film, was used the year before by Buster Keaton in The Bell Boy. It's a simple gag. A window cleaner is using a rag to scrub a storefront window clean. Suddenly, the man steps freely through the window frame, revealing that the frame lacks a glass pane and the window cleaner's efforts were nothing more than a playful (or demented) pantomime. A number of comedians performed this gag through the years.
Next Aisle includes other notable routines. Lloyd manages a faithful rendition of the Commedia dell’Arte routine “Lazzi of the Statue” when he pretends to be a mannequin in a department store's display window. One clever routine that is new to me involves Lloyd, an eager shoe salesman, driving a customer across the room as he struggles to squeeze a shoe onto his foot.
This collection of Harold Lloyd films were put together by the Harold Lloyd Trust under the direction of Lloyd's granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd Hayes. Hayes said that she was careful in selecting the early comedies to be restored for this tribute. She explained that she passed on restoring many of the early comedies because they were weak on story and characterization. It was not surprising to hear Hayes say that the rejected films offered nothing more than actors running, hitting each other, and falling down. That's where Lloyd had to start before he refined his craft and became one of the greatest comedy artists in film history. Coming to an appreciation of the fascinating twists and turns that occur in an artist's evolution is what makes film study worthwhile.
A modern audience might not fully appreciate this joke. Cleaning fluids were notoriously flammable in the 1920s. It wasn't until after World War II that these products were reformulated to make them safer. That is not to say that the cleaning fluids of today cannot cause a fire. They remain flammable due to a number of ingredients, including isopropyl alcohol and monoethanolamine. So, do not allow cleaning fluids to make contact with a flame. Keep yourself, your family and your pets safe. This is a public service message from the National Fire Protection Association. And me, Freddy the Fire Extinguisher.
Lloyd went far from this film to Bumping into Broadway and From Hand to Mouth, which are two films that he made at the end of 1919.
Silent film comedy went through a major transition in 1918 and 1919. During this period, many artists and businesmen helped to pave the way to film comedy's golden age of the 1920s. But it is the contributions of four men that stand out sharply in my mind.
1.) Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin continued his previous efforts to advance characterization and storytelling with A Dog's Life (1918) and Shoulder Arms (1918).
2.) William Fox. As the head of the Fox Film Corporation, Fox invested an extraordinary amount of money into his ambitious Sunshine comedy series. The series set a new standard, expanding the scope of film comedy. Suddenly, producers were under pressure to assure that a comedy film displayed elaborate staging, fantastic special effects, and spectacular stunts.
3.) Larry Semon. This former newspaper cartoonist filled his films with gags that were fast and furious. The gag was king in Semon's comedies, which no doubt had an influence on his peers.
4.) Harold Lloyd. Lloyd followed Chaplin's example in advancing story and characterization, but he also demonstrated incomparable care and finesse when it came to crafting routines.
It was due to these men and others that classic film comedy of the 1920s came to be defined by outrageous gags, well-designed routines, big-budget action, sympathetic characters, and comprehensible stories.
Louie C.K.'s Louie has received high praise from critics for its bold originality. It is not a mass-produced formula sitcom. It is, unlike the typical sitcom, personal and experimental. A.V. Club reviewer Nathan Rabin wrote, "Television gently coaxes viewers frazzled from the stress and anxiety of everyday life into the realm of the soothingly safe and familiar. The average television comedy is filled with characters and dynamics we’ve seen countless times before as well as jokes that have ricocheted through the medium since the days of Leave It To Beaver. . . Louie offers none of that." Another A.V. Club reviewer, Todd VanDerWerff, wrote, "There's really been nothing like it in the history of television." As many fans see it, Louie is on a mission to blow apart the rules. Culture critic Adam Wilson believes that the series takes the radical position that an artist cannot create a new genre unless he "burn[s] what came before." The problem, though, is that the rules of comedy may be immutable to torch-bearing rebels.
Producing a sitcom that is uniquely personal and experimental has a number of drawbacks. Experiments, which are based on unproven ideas, are unreliable, failing more often than they succeed. An experimental television series is a hit-or-miss affair that threatens to let down the viewer every time that he tunes in, which gives the viewer a good reason to stay away. Wilson wrote, "C.K. wants to deconstruct the sitcom, to defamiliarize viewers in a way that is exciting, but this can also be alienating when it doesn't work." C.K. is driven to experiment regardless of the consequences. Roger Ebert described C.K.'s 2001 feature Pootie Tang as "one of those lab experiments where the room smells like swamp gas and all the mice are dead." The show's most ardent fans are the sort of people exhilarated by the daring and unpredictability of experimental entertainment. I am, as a consumer of entertainment, more pragmatic. I care about results. I want, simply, to entertained. Yes, I am frazzled after a day's work and I prefer to be soothed. The following scene from Louie is far from soothing and, even more important, it doesn't make me laugh.
I assume that this scene has personal meaning to C.K., but it means nothing at all to me. This brings us to a look at the personal nature of Louie. The series, which explores the comedian's psyche, is, according to Wilson, an exercise in "unchecked subjectivity." C.K. explained that, while a series designed by a big writing staff has to follow strict rules and procedures, his own series is simply "one person going to these very strange places in their head." The lack of rules or filters presents a raw form of art, which it can be argued is regressive. Film comedy only advanced from its primitive beginnings because filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd established rules. A greater problem than this is that personal vision is narrow while comedy, at its best, is universal. Art should be governed by the artist's own internal logic, but it has to have meaning to others to find acceptance. Comedy, more than any other art form, demands for the art to be directed outside of the artist.
A viewer can remain engaged in a dramatic film even if he feels removed from the action. He can observe the action as nothing more than a voyeur, reveling in the sordid and the sensational without having to imagine himself as one of the participants. It's different with comedy. Not every drama needs to make a person cry, but every comedy needs to make a person laugh. Laughter requires the filmmaker to make a simple and direct connection to the viewer. Comedy that is personal or experimental risks coming across as something alien, off-putting, or confusing. "[W]hen the audience is confused," said Mack Sennett, "it doesn't laugh." The viewer must be able to quickly process a gag or a punchline to produce a response as clear and simple as a giggle, a chuckle, or a guffaw. The slightest glitch can cause a disconnect and prevent the laugh. It may not be reasonable to expect C.K.'s lonely loser, who makes never makes a solid connection to other characters in the series, to make a solid connection to viewers. Chaplin's Little Tramp was an outsider, but he had emotions that inspired identification and qualities that inspired admiration. The "Louie" character doesn't necessarily offer that.
This brings to mind the later work of author Carl Sandburg. After having spent decades writing books, Sandburg had to dig deep inside of himself to find something new to write about. His books became more personal and esoteric in the process and, before long, the author found that less people related to what he had to say and even less bought his books. C.K. no doubt digs deep inside of himself, but there's no guarantee that a viewer will respond to what he pulls out.
Buster Keaton was in an unhappy marriage at the time that he created his classic silent features. It is reasonable to question if the feelings that the man had about his troubled marriage are reflected in his work. Let's take a look at this scene from College (1927).
It is fair to say that, with this scene, Keaton was offering his personal perspective on marriage. It is also fair to say that he wasn't looking for the scene, as disturbingly sour as it is, to get him laughs. This is another example of a comedian going deep inside of himself and abandoning his comedy instincts in the process.
Laughter is social. It is about sharing and bonding. It is about an association between the viewer and the comedian. It is for this reason that, unlike drama, comedy is bound to certain expectations and conventions. Comedy that strays too far from the essential rules may intrigue viewers, but it will not likely make them laugh. This is not to say that comedy should be predictable (comedy depends on twists and variations), but comedy must stay within defined limits to remain comedy.
Let's get back to that earlier scene from Louie. The woman acts horribly towards Louie, who cringes helplessly in response. It is difficult to judge from this scene if Louie is a passive character or a witless character, but it makes no difference as neither sort of character is interesting. Chaplin's Little Tramp suffered scorn and abuse, but he was never passive or witless. Why is Louie putting up with this horrible woman? More important, I do not understand at what point in this scene that I am supposed to laugh. C.K. likes to create scenes that are tense or unsettling and he likes to withhold information to keep the action ambiguous. We have never seen this woman on the series before and we know nothing about her relationship with Louie. The scene is, in the end, unpleasant and confusing. Yes, it violated Mack Sennett's "confusing" taboo.
What about this scene?
Again, the world heaps abuse on Louie and he stands by helplessly. Is this funny? The comedian accepts various humiliations and lumbers off in his patented sad sack style. Wilson wrote, "Louie's misery seems inevitable, irreparable [and] real." But, in Wilson's estimation, the character redeems himself by demonstrating dignity and persistence in the face of his humiliations. I think that, by persistence, Wilson means that Louie continues to breathe.
I must admit that, in early episodes, Louie did occasionally stand up to a wrongdoer, pleading with them like an angelic emissary to be a better person. He seemed to believe that everyone possessed basic human kindness and they could find it inside of themselves if they just looked. Unfortunately, that never really worked out for him.
That scene, which comes from Harold Lloyd's The Kid Brother (1927), may be old-fashioned, but I find it poignant and amusing. I am able to identify with the scene in a meaningful way. It may be stylized, but I am fine with that. What's most important to me is that it made me laugh.
Wilson wrote, "Not only does Louie's audience not know when to laugh, they don't even know if what they're watching is supposed to be funny." C.K. said, "To me, as long as it's compelling, as long as it's something worth watching, it's okay if we're not getting laughs." It's all the same to C.K. if a scene makes you laugh, or cry, or cringe. C.K. insists that any sort of "high-registering reaction" is, in his opinion, "as good as a laugh." C.K. upheld this theory in defense of a controversial episode called "God." He said, "[E]ven though there aren't jokes [in the episode], it's funny to me." He had to deal with a backlash of angry emails after the episode aired. "[N]one of them were religious," said C.K. "All of them were, 'Why wasn't this funny?' They were outraged, like, 'Go ahead and say these fucked-up things about religion, but be funny, you jerk.'"
It would feel like death for a comedy film to play in a theater without getting laughs, but Wilson suggests that Louie's laugh-free humor plays well to people watching it alone on their laptop. He said that the series taps into the "post-millennial loneliness." It is comedy for a new age.
C.K. has remained unwavering in his belief that comedy can be funny without jokes to make people laugh. He explained, "I think that jokes are little insecurities inside a comedy. They're there to test, 'Are we all still here? Are we all still watching? Are we all laughing?' But in fact, jokes are stoppers. When you have a stream of funny, and it's building, a joke releases it, and it stops, and you have to reset." At another point in the same interview, the comedian said, "[S]ome people get irritated by comedy that's funny all the time. I like funny things. I don't like comedy."
I will say that the show, as memoir, is original and engrossing television. It is understandable that the show went in this direction. The most important achievement of the stand-up comedy revolution of the 1950s and 1960s was that it gave rise to a more personal form of comedy. C.K., who has worked as a stand-up comedian for 29 years, has come out of the same tradition as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. He stands on stage and talks about his life. It is to be expected that, when it came time for him to write scripts for his series, he would look to his own life for material.
I admire C.K.'s work on a number of segments, including "Divorce," "Blueberries," "New Jersey" and "Miami," but I simply cannot bring myself to categorize the series as comedy. I cannot tell where episodes like "Eddie" and "Niece" make the slightest attempt at humor. The times that I do laugh, I usually feel guilty because I am laughing at a character with a true-to-life mental illness. The best example is provided by "Blueberries," in which Louie obliges to spank a morose woman during sex and then realizes as the woman sobs uncontrollably and cries out "daddy" that they are reenacting a childhood trauma. The series has been good at wresting uncomfortable laughter from me. Laughter is cathartic. Discomfort is tension. The two are at odds with one another.
Despite C.K.'s rebellious efforts, I can identify an occasional element of classic comedy in the series. I love good, bona fide reaction comedy, which is the reason that I love Lloyd Hamilton and Laurel & Hardy. The greatest strength of C.K. as an actor is his ability to react in amusing ways to the surreal, absurdist events that play out around him.
One stock comedy plot that has been used on Louie was the "brat" plot, which served as the basis of a segment called "Never." Louie takes care of a weird, bratty boy, whose mother's parenting strategy is to never say "no" to the child and never criticize his choices. Modern parenting has taken on the responsibility of esteem-building, which is all well and good, but this sort of indulgent parenting only succeeds at monster-building. This is not "The Ransom of Red Chief." The misguided child does not shoot rocks at his caretaker with a slingshot. Instead, he tosses Louie's rug out window for no reason, he refuses to eat anything except raw meat, and he thoughtlessly empties his bowels of diarrhea while in repose in a warm bath. This scene from "Never" has been the one instance in which the series has indulged in old school comedy mayhem.
All in all, the episode is more disturbing than funny, causing me to laugh in an "Oh, God!" sort of way a number of times. The best part of the segment occurs when Louie offers honest, heartfelt advice to this clueless train wreck of a child in hope that it isn't too late for the child to correct his bad behavior. It's a moving scene that, in the end, made me smile.
Supporters of the series refuse to call Louie a sitcom or a comedy. It is something else entirely. The series, by C.K.'s definition, is funny, which is to say that it is strangely compelling. HBO's Girls followed Louie's personal and experimental path and, before long, what started out as a comedy became dark drama. As I said, a clown who breaks the basic rules of comedy will discover in the end that what he has produced is not comedy after all.
I expressed some disfavor towards experimental television in yesterday's article on Louie. I failed to clarify my position on the subject as I could not find a space in the article where I could squeeze in my burgeoning thoughts. So, I had no choice but to unpack my thoughts on experimental television elsewhere. Well, this looks to be as good a place as any to put them.
I support innovation in the arts, but I do not support change for the sake of change or support an artist overturning convention just to puff out his chest and brag that he is a groundbreaker. When Harold Lloyd came up with the idea for The Freshman (1925), he was told that he was misguided to think that anyone would pay money to see a feature film built around a football game. The logic was that a person interested in a football game would go to a football stadium. But the film was a huge success and this unique idea by Lloyd gave rise to the sports film as we know it today. Lloyd came to innovation through reliable instincts and trial-and-error methods. He was never pretentious, or self-indulgent, or contrived. He wanted nothing more than to exhibit his latest film in front of an audience and be assured in the end that the people enjoyed the experience. He only tried something new if he believed that the public would respond favorably to it. He was not interested in playing head games with ticket buyers.
Comedians were not afraid to experiment in the silent film era. This was, after all, a flourishing new art form. Here is one of the bolder experiments by Marcel Perez. It is a 1914 film called Amour Pedestre, which was released in the United States under the title Love Afoot.
To be frank, telling a love story by keeping the camera trained on the actors' feet is too experimental for my tastes. Still, I admire Perez (who I write about in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film).
I am skeptical of people who are fierce advocates of experimental television. I have a theory that might explain their motives. A glut of anything is bound to incite rebellion. Watching an excessive amount of television has to render traditional conventions, no matter how reasonable or valuable, boring and unpleasant. Television storytelling, as far as the chronic television viewer is concerned, is replete with clichés. But putting together a story with a conflict, a climax and a resolution is no more a cliché than building a house out of wood or brick. A writer can be true and original without rejecting essential story elements. These "anti-" ideas, from anti-hero to anti-climax, can be vastly overused and overrated. It becomes, in the end, anti-storytelling and anti-entertainment. It is not praiseworthy for a man desperately bored by houses made of wood and brick to suddenly decide to live in a house made of walrus blubber. It's just stupid.
Some artists resort to wild and crazy experiments when they have run out of real ideas. I think that Mad Men's recent "drug trip" episode shows that the series' showrunner, Matthew Weiner, is at a loss where to go with these characters. Of course, other people loved this loopy, pointless hour of television. Different tokes for different folks.
Upstream Color devotees have cautioned others that they are unlikely to enjoy the film on the first viewing. A person needs to see the film at least three times before they can understand what is going on. Even then, it is doubtful that everything will make sense. But that is what appeals to fans of the film. Film critic Alonso Duralde wrote about Upstream Color, "I have no idea what it was about, and I can't wait to see it again." David Gritten of the Daily Telegraph wrote, "My immediate desire when it ended was to stay in my seat and watch it all the way through again." Dave White, who writes for Movies.com, noted, "If it takes a few viewings to unlock (most of) its secrets then lucky you; you spent high-quality time you might have wasted on Pain & Gain." If you ask me, these people have too much free time. Chris Sawin, critic for Examiner.com, wrote, "There's some sort of genius buried within Upstream Color, but it's so enigmatic and obscure that by the time you reach it after digging through its countless layers you'll likely never find your way back again." I have an actual life that prevents me from going on such a mad, far-flung journey just to understand a 96-minute low-budget sci fi film.
You should be able to understand the basic plot, main characters and important action after the first viewing of a film. A second and third viewing should not be a desperate hunt for crucial facts that you failed to notice the first time around. A film should be worth revisiting for entirely different reasons. Someone might watch The Wizard of Oz (1939) on a frequent basis because they find the film endlessly entertaining. Cinephiles of all ranks might watch Citizen Kane (1941) multiple times to fully appreciate the film's rich artistic vision. Citizen Kane's nonlinear narrative is a patchwork of stories told by multiple narrators, none of whom is reliable. It is difficult to absorb everything about this film on the first viewing. But that doesn't make watching Citzen Kane a confounding experience. It is the most enjoyable film about a newspaper titan's downfall that was ever made. I find that repeated viewings of Psycho (1960) are worthwhile because they allow me to get deeper into the complex psychology of the characters. I enjoy watching the "We all go a little mad sometimes" parlor scene for the nuances that Janet Leigh and Tony Perkins bring to their delivery of dialogue, their body language, and their facial expressions. These are two characters who are keeping deep, dark secrets from one another. Also, it is a pleasure to explore the deliberate choices that Hitchcock makes in this scene in regards to framing, compositions and lighting. There's so much more going on in this film than a woman getting stabbed to death in a shower.
One critic said that he had to watch Akira (1988) ten times before he fully understood it. This film, which was based on a 2,182-page manga epic, is bursting at the seams with characters and events. Under the circumstances, the critic might be able to justify spending so much time trying to understand the film. But I cannot say that I am comfortable with film appreciation as immersion therapy, which strikes me as a wholly unhealthy way to past the time. Noel Murray of the AV Club wrote, "After seeing Star Wars four times in its first run (when I was but a lad of 7), I became convinced that true devotion to a movie involved practically memorizing it. . ." He memorized a number of films, including Raising Arizona, Pulp Fiction and Dazed and Confused, before he decided that this wasn't a good idea. He wrote, "Honestly, I can't recommend that method, because I can barely stand to watch any of those movies now." Still, in the defense of a movie like Citizen Kane or Akira, the facts are laid out in the open. They are neither hidden under countless layers or outright missing from the narrative. No one is trying to fool or exclude the viewer. Complexity is different than perplexity.
Upstream Color is enigmatic. It is unapproachable. It defies explanation. It's a head trip. Oh, my, tickle my frontal lobe with a feather! One critic, an obvious masochistic, said that the frustration that he felt watching the film is what made it an unforgettable experience. The plain fact is that, if this story had been told in a straightforward manner, the audience would have died of boredom. I cannot support an allegorical jigsaw puzzle that must be deciphered rather than experienced. I, myself, save high praise for films that can make me laugh one moment and cry the next. I am bored by attention-seeking audaciousness. While I do not celebrate artless, meaningless diversion, that doesn't mean that I have the slightest interest in idiosyncratic, inscrutable, self-important rubbish. My favorite review of Upstream Color came from Minneapolis Star Tribune critic Colin Covert, who described the film as a "cerebral, mournful mystery that resonates like a tuning fork struck on a far-off star." Could you imagine anyone saying that about Casablanca or The Godfather?
Boredom is an inevitable consequence when we have movies and television series streaming on demand onto our televisions, computers and iPhones. The only cure for this boredom, as profound and desperate as it is, is to find radically new content. New content of any kind is good just because it is new. Emma Dibdin of Digital Spy said that Upstream Color is "a cinematic experience that feels new." There it is. New. New is good. Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid observed the film operates in "such a unique, singular way that it's unlike almost any other movie I've ever seen." Unique, yes. White wrote, "To compare it to other movies in current release. . . is impossible." The film is incomparable. Great.
The conventions of television storytelling aren't as much the problem as the immoderate viewing habits of television addicts. People should find something more constructive to do with their free time than burn furiously through entertainment content. There's nothing reasonable about the bored slacker king who beheads his skillful jugglers and jesters because he's seen their act too many times before.
Just one more thing. . .
It might seem odd to look at a sweet and innocent film like Harold Lloyd's The Freshman and think of it as groundbreaking cinema. But it was, in its own quiet way, revolutionary.
No, The Freshman was not the first film that dealt with sports. Boxing films had been common fare for 10 years prior to the film's release. But The Freshman was different. It put forth an inspirational underdog story (enthusiastic college freshman rises from waterboy to gridiron star) and it managed along the way to build up suspense for a rousing "big game" finish. It provided the viewer with an entirely different experience than boxing melodramas like The Victor (1923), Dynamite Dan (1924), The Shock Punch (1925) and The New Champion (1925), all of which depicted a sports world that was sordid and immoral. The Freshman was without shame in celebrating good sportsmanship.
The success of boxing films did not assure Lloyd that his football film would attract an audience. The average man or woman did not feel comfortable to bring their family to a rowdy, smoke-filled boxing arena. It was certainly more appealing for a person to see a boxing match at a local movie theater, where the puddle of fluid on the floor was more likely to be a soda spill than a blood splatter. It was different with football. The public had easy access to a live football game if that's what interested them. Why, then, should they go to a movie theater to see a football game? But The Freshman was about more than an athletic competition. It presented a heartwarming story of a young man who is able to endure frustration and humiliation and triumph over great odds. Of course, football films are consistently popular today. Hollywood has profited in the last thirty years from a steady stream of football films - Hoosiers (1986), Rudy (1993), Jerry Maquire (1996), Varsity Blues (1999), Any Given Sunday (1999), The Replacements (2000), Remember the Titans (2000), Radio (2003), Friday Night Lights (2004) and The Blind Side (2009). The Freshman stands as the granddaddy of them all.
Here's a clip of Hughie Mack in an early boxing comedy called How Fatty Made Good (1915).
Lloyd, himself, made a one-reel boxing comedy called Hit Him Again in 1918.
To many, the formula for great comedy is simple - have a stupid character do something stupid.
But stupidity is not the key to funny. A comedy character must engage the viewer before he can make them laugh and, to put it simply, an imbecile is not engaging.
Who can root for a character too dumb to ever do anything right and so lacking in grey matter that he can never extract himself from trouble? The fool will eventually step off a cliff, never to be heard from again. What is the point of caring for an individual who we know from the start is doomed?
Intelligence never provided Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd with immunity from comical adversity. Their smart characters were challenged by difficult circumstances. Their smart characters often had to struggle within themselves against a simple human emotion or an unfortunate character flaw. Lloyd's conflicts were often internalized in this way. He must prevail over his bashfulness in Girl Shy (1924) and he must prove his manhood in The Kid Brother (1927).
Intelligence furnishes a person with a variety of abilities: learning, reasoning, planning, and problem solving. Still, the process of learning, reasoning, planning and problem solving is not always straightforward. Intelligent thought can be sidetracked by many of our faults. Cowardice. Vanity. Lust. Greed. Shame. These qualities and others can make reasonably intelligent people make foolish decisions. But these problems are more complex and profound than the problems of an idiot. This is the reason that it is much harder to write for a comedy character with intelligence. Tina Fey said that having her do dumb things on 30 Rock could be funny, but she admitted that the writers found these situations easy to create and went to them far too often.
Of course, some fools are exceptions, being able to endure the inevitable tumble off a cliff. I mean this both figuratively and literally. Think of Larry Semon, a cartoonish dolt who could be expected to hit the ground and astoundingly bounce back up to the brink of the cliff, or Harry Langdon, a divinely protected innocent who would in all likelihood drop safely atop a hay wagon. But Semon and Langdon, despite their many talents, were limited in their range and their appeal.
This is a fool protected by the fates.
Here is just a fool.
This is not to say that Keaton, as smart as he was, never benefited from good fortune. This is evident in the following scene from Our Hospitality.
But, whenever in possession of the facts, Keaton was often able to work out astonishing solutions to problems.
The smart comedian could always introduce an inebriation scenario if they ever wanted to indulge in stupid behavior. See Charlie Chaplin in One A.M. (1916) or Charley Chase in Bromo and Juliet (1926).
It helps when discussing the intelligence level of a comic hero to take a look at Gomer Pyle. Pyle started out on The Andy Griffith Show as a slack-jawed dimwit. Even though he worked in a gas station, he didn't know a carburetor from a hood ornament. This is made evident in the Griffith episode "The Great Filling Station Robbery" (1963).
Sixties sitcoms depended so much on misunderstandings that few characters in these series were good at discerning circumstances or communicating with one another, but these characters were not dumb either. Sixties sitcoms relied on a strict story structure. The protagonist had to start at point A, travel to point B, and end up at point C. In the process, he needed to learn something about himself and bring to light a moral message. It didn't have to be a profound message. Sufficient for the sitcom's purposes was a simple familiar American homily - "Honesty is the best policy," "Don't judge a book by its cover" or, maybe, "The grass is always greener on the other side." A character could not function in this structure without a fair amount of intelligence. You cannot find progress or meaning in the chaotic actions of an imbecile. It differs greatly from the limited Three Stooges formula: something happens (usually something breaks), something else happens (usually someone is injured), and then the action ends abruptly (the trio run off to escape a pummeling). No plotline. No character development. No familiar American homily. The clock runs out. Have you had enough laughs? Good. The Three Stooges were more about property damage and physical injury than character development and moral lessons.
It wasn't long before the writers of the Griffith show boosted Gomer's IQ to make the character more functional and allow him to play a larger role in the series. This is evident in a Griffith episode called "A Date for Gomer" (1963). By now, Gomer has become a more substantial character. He is reasonable, sensitive and, most of all, sympathetic.
Gomer's IQ was further increased when the character moved into his own series. Aaron Ruben, the show's producer and creator, said, "Gomer was not at all stupid and he was not really a clumsy goof. He just did things in his own country way." Gomer, trusting and helpful, is out of place in a world filled with cynics, phonies and scammers. But that wasn't his only problem. Gomer is unaccustomed to the formal structure of the military culture, which involves manners that are not explained in a regulations manual, and he has yet to become familiarized with the marine's way of life. Gomer breaking the rules reflects badly on his military trainer, Sgt. Carter (Frank Sutton), which puts Carter at risk with his superiors.
Nothing in the series was more important than the relationship between the oddball private and his hardboiled sergeant. A 1965 article published in the Gloversville New York Leader Herald praised the team of Nabors and Sutton. The article read, "A principal reason for this season's success of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. is the hot and cold war between Gomer and Sgt. Carter, possibly the best military feud since Quirt and Flagg of What Price Glory. They make a prize pair — the ingenuous trouble-magnet Gomer as played by Jim Nabors and the harassed sarge, etched in slow-burn by Frank Sutton." An astute critic of the day noted that Sutton was the best comic hollerer on television since Jackie Gleason. The fact was that Sutton was now playing Ralph Kramden to Jim Nabor's Ed Norton. Of course, the point could be made that Kramden and Norton had simply been molded into a small screen version of Laurel & Hardy.
Let us look, for a moment, at Laurel & Hardy. The "Two Minds Without a Single Thought" perspective of Laurel & Hardy may be overstated. This point is well-stated by Trav S.D. in his new book, Chain of Fools. S.D. wrote, "[I] don't buy the line that Oliver is as dumb or dumber than Stanley which many commentators (including the comedians themselves) seem to espouse. Instead, what I observe in the films is that Hardy’s character is more worldly than Stan, knows on some level how the universe operates, has a bigger vocabulary, and would probably be just fine if he wasn’t saddled with his dim-witted partner." The faithfulness and trust that Oliver Hardy maintains in his close friendship with Stan Laurel may, in fact, be his greatest weakness. In this way, Hardy suffers more from a weakness of the heart than a weakness of the brain. I leave out the team's costume comedies from this discussion as, somehow, the comedians lost any semblance of adult knowledge once they got into historical garb. Let's look at a scene from The Bohemian Girl (1936). Hardy's wife and her dastardly lover have kidnapped a nobleman's young daughter. Hardy is understandably puzzled to see this unfamiliar little girl hanging around their camp.
Forget about copulation, conception, gestation and birth, Hardy evidently believes that babies are brought down from Heaven by a stork. The team's modern-day personas were a little wiser to "baby makes three" dynamics.
The boys later return home with a baby as if babies were something you picked up at the market. They have still skipped past copulation, conception, gestation and birth, but at least they have no illusion about storks.
Hardy's machinations, no matter how finely formulated, were bound to be undone by Laurel.
Note that, at the end of that last scene, Hardy handles an epic setback with resilience and resourcefulness.
To this day, we still find comedy situations in which a blustery man is regularly put into trouble by a nitwit friend. Take, for example, this scene from The IT Crowd. This fool is about to be reduced to a cinder.
Of course, Stan and Ollie are exceptional in many ways. In Way Out West (1937), the pair is determined to do whatever it takes to reclaim a deed that they were dumb enough to lose. But shining through their bungling is a sense of responsibility and a determination. These are admirable qualities that inspire faith in the dimmest of characters. Stan and Ollie never give up hope in themselves and we never give up hope in them. Besides, these fellows are so charming that they cannot help but inspire undying affection and sympathy.
Two other great comedy icons of the 1930s were W. C. Fields and Groucho Marx, both of whom played characters that were far from stupid. The intelligence level of the film comedy character went into decline in the late 1930s. You might blame The Three Stooges. You might blame Abbott & Costello. The problem was that comedy presented by these performers was not connected to a narrative. Both teams shifted their attention away from storytelling to focus instead on "the funny parts." Although Abbott & Costello headlined feature films, their characters were rarely responsible for driving forth the plot. Other characters carried the stories, leaving the pair to appear occasionally to interject an old burlesque routine. In the case of both teams, children became the most loyal and affectionate part of their fan base. Children, who are still working to attain an intelligent understanding of the world, are easily able to identify with bumblers.
We now return to the question of whether or not Gomer Pyle was a bumbler. The fact is that the early episodes of Pyle repeatedly demonstrate Gomer's sharp wits. Gomer employs a clever plan to lead his platoon to victory during maneuvers ("They Shall Not Pass," 1964), he figures out the scheme of mother-daughter con artists and finds a way to thwart the crooked pair ("The Case of the Marine Bandit," 1964), and he captures a gang of thieves ("Sergeant of the Guard," 1965). It was only on a rare occasion that Gomer's writers went the easy route to dumb comedy.
The first season of Pyle was marked by a humor that was quiet and natural compared to the sort of comedy that characterized the series' later seasons. An episode that very much reflected the style of the first season was "Survival of the Fattest."
But another episode, "Gomer and the Dragon Lady," was more boisterous and laugh-out-loud funny and it was this episode that established the formula that would later carry the series through its second and third seasons.
It was obvious at the start of the second season that the writers had figured to make Gomer less intelligent so that he could cause Carter greater grief. Gomer now causes major accidents. He repeatedly sinks a raft in "Gomer Captures a Submarine" (1965) and he blows up a pick-up truck with a bazooka in "Home on the Range" (1965).
Gomer's various misadventures put into question the very meaning of intelligence. The first season often showed Gomer grinning happily while Carter yelled at him. Gomer remains blissfully unaware as this other person expresses distinct displeasure towards him. He fails to grasp obvious social cues and react appropriately. Doesn't this make him somewhat of a clod? It could be argued, though, that Gomer is simply perceptive enough to see through Carter's gruff exterior and recognize his true good nature. But, now, let us consider a scene from a second season episode, "Vacation in Vegas" (1966). Gomer has won a free weekend for two in Las Vegas and has allowed Carter to join him. But he fails to grasp the simple and obvious fact that Carter would rather enjoy the town's shows, casinos and ladies than spend an afternoon visiting a rock museum.
Intelligence is a capability for comprehending people and situations — catching on, making sense of things, or figuring out what to do. Gomer has poor skills when it comes to comprehending people and situations. He never seems to be able to catch on. Here is another example.
Gomer has no idea that he is being a nuisance to the shop owner.
In "Dance, Marine, Dance" (1965), Carter tries to get Gomer out of a contract with a crooked dance school only to be conned into signing a contract himself. Trust, and possibly a bad understanding of math, is what allows Gomer to be conned into signing the contract.
But the contract pitch turns out differently with Carter, who is led astray by his lust for the alluring dance instructor and the dance instructor's appeal to his vanity.
Who, here, is more stupid? You put trust in a person only if you have reason to believe the person is worthy of trust. Otherwise, you are using poor judgment, which is plain old stupid. But keep in mind that Gomer grew up in a small town surrounded by people he could trust. People in close-knit communities find that it is vital to preserve the trust of their neighbors and safeguard their reputation. A person who wrongs a neighbor will be found out quickly and ostracized. It is better to let your word be your bond. Gomer is still in the process of learning that people in the city are less trustworthy. He may have failed to realize that the shop keeper was irritated with him because he never thought to look past the man's genial facade. Even the most intelligent person needs time to learn how to adapt to a new environment. Intelligence is, at its core, about the ability to learn and adapt. Learning would mean that Ollie can finally figure out that he needs to avoid this dip in the riverbed.
Carter perhaps comes across as less intelligent in this particular situation. True, a crucial part of intelligence is the ability to understand people, but it is even more important that a person has the ability to understand oneself. Self-awareness allows a person to recognize his own shortcomings and regulate his actions accordingly.
At first, the series relied heavily on fish-out-of-water comedy. Gomer's values, in general, do not transition well to his new environment. Gomer's kindness with animals, which may be appropriate in a rural setting, frequently gets him in trouble on the base.
Gomer's honesty turns into a vice in "Gomer the Star Witness" (1965) when Gomer is called to testify as the sole witness in Carter's auto accident case.
In the fourth season, the writers took the goofy marine into a different direction. In the process, the series introduced major changes in the situations and characters. Dr. J, a frequent contributor to Amazon's customer reviews, perfectly summarized these changes in a review of the series' fourth season DVD set. He wrote, "Gomer's and Sergeant Carter's roles in the show are quite different. In the earlier years, the show is based on Gomer antagonizing/irritating Carter. Carter would blow up and then somehow everything would work out. But in this season, Carter is to a large degree the source of his own problems. He's the one who causes the problems - not in a comic way, but by his own vices. Then Gomer, through his flawless character, saves Carter."
Prior to the fourth season, Gomer made problems wherever he went. He was, as stated before, a trouble-magnet. This season, he is sensitive, intelligent and helpful while it is Carter who acts like a complete boob. I don't know what the producers expected to get out of reversing the relationship of their lead characters. It's comparable to switching the roles of Abbott and Costello and still expecting them to be funny. At this point, Gomer is no more than a pained straight man to Carter, who has been reduced to a blustery buffoon. This is particularly apparent in the episodes "The Prize Boat," "The Recruiting Poster," "Sergeant Iago" and "Friendly Freddy, the Gentleman's Tailor."
This is not to say that Gomer hadn't demonstrated sensitivity and helpfulness in earlier seasons or that Carter had never before suffered consequences for his vices, but these aspects of their personalities were more strongly emphasized and they became pivotal to storylines as the series went on. Gomer went from goofy to saintly. He was now, in effect, a hick Jesus.
The goofy character who is a constant irritant to the gruff character is a template that has continued on through many successful television series, including The Odd Couple, Too Close for Comfort and Family Matters.
Modern comedians, including Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Jim Carey, specialize in acting stupid. Not content to be perceived as plain, run-of-the-mill stupid, these comedians do everything they can to present themselves as hopelessly and peerlessly stupid. Lloyd Christmas, the character that Carey plays in Dumb and Dumber, takes the fool's step off a steep vertical drop without the fortuitous hay wagon to break his fall.
An exception in Carey's oeuvre is the comedian's most famous character, Ace Ventura, who proves to be a rather shrewd detective.
I personally find Ventura to be funnier than Christmas.
Ferrell works in parody mode. He is comparable to Don Adams, who got laughs by parodying super spy James Bond in the modest guise of Maxwell Smart. The joke was, of course, that Smart was anything but smart. But a satirical hero like Smart was dumb in direct contrast to the clever and efficient character that he was put forth to spoof. A parody character has no real substance. It is a funhouse mirror reflection. It is a shadow that bends and stretches to exaggerate the figure from which it is cast.
Any crisis or redemption in a Ferrell film is nothing more than a spoof of the type of crisis and redemption that can be found in a conventional film. Ferrell's Anchorman and Talladega Nights are, in this way, post-modern comedy films. But storytelling that is approached in a tongue-in-cheek manner is not storytelling at all.
Comedy is about the nature and condition of man. It is, in this way, the story of our lives. Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote, "Living is a constant process of deciding what we are going to do.” We make our decisions based on our perceptions, our feelings and our thoughts, and it is through these decisions that we construct our story. The story may be a tragedy or it may be a comedy. It may reveal triumph or failure. But our story, no matter what it is, has to do with a lot more than our IQ. Comedy, in its richest form, is not about stupidity. It is about the many unique features that make us human. And what the greatest comedians have taught us is that being human is being foolish and, of course, funny.
Gag and routine note
The "torn trousers" routine turns up in the Gomer Pyle episode "Friendly Freddy, The Gentleman Tailor" (1968).
Characters that appear stupid may not be stupid at all.
It is worth reading Chain of Fools, which was referenced in this article. The book can be purchased at
I no sooner wrote my recent article on baby doll abuse scenes in films and television programs then I came across two additional examples of this perverse trend.
Most minced oaths became well-established in our culture through common usage - tarnation, dang, shoot, gee, egad, lands sake, jeepers creepers, jehosaphat, flipping heck, cripes, doggone. But many others have been made up by entertainers purely for comic effect.
W.C. Fields earned countless laughs with his euphemistic expression "Godfrey Daniels," which was a more colorful variation of "Goddamn" than the standard "gosh darn." Godfrey Daniels is a close cousin to Sam Hill, Jiminy Christmas and Judas Priest.
Fields alternated this expression with an occasional outcry of "Drat!" The use of these euphemisms may have seemed wicked on the part of Fields, but adorable moptop Shirley Temple was no better with her frequent exclamations of "Oh, my goodness" and "Goodness gracious."
A Colonial era ghost played by Lou Costello in The Time of Their Lives (1946) used a number of quaint expressions, including "Odds-bodkins" and "zounds."
Yosemite Sam could curse up a storm without using one real curse word.
In Bonanza, Hoss Cartwright's swear of choice was "Dab" as in "Dab burn it," "Dab gum it" and "Dab blame it."
Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, opened up the idea of characters in a futuristic society using their own unique obscenities. A favorite obscenity of Orange's protagonist, Alex, is yarbles, as in "Come and get one in the yarbles, if ya have yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou!"
In the 1978 Battlestar Galactica, the Cylon Lucifer (voiced by Jonathan Harris) often used the word "felgercarb" as a euphemism for "crap."
The updated Battlestar Galactica made extensive use of the word "fracking."
Farscape introduced a number of otherworldly swear words, the fan favorite being "frell." Let's, however, check out two other of Farscape's dirty words.
The makers of Red Dwarf included the space-age, all-purpose "smeg" to their series' vocabulary.
Sitcoms of the 1970s got attention for naughty catchphrases like "Shazbot!" (Mork and Mindy) and "Kiss my grits!" (Alice).
Prison life comes with plenty of salty language, but prison life had to be sanitized when it was depicted in the 1970s British sitcom Porridge. Whenever the hardened convicts of Porridge became irritated by a fellow prisoner, they would tell them to "Naff off!"
It was clarified in A Christmas Story (1983) that little Ralphie's father was known throughout the Midwest for his ability to "weave a tapestry of profanity." Most prominent among his profane words was "fratching."
Moroney, a foul-mouth crime boss, weaves his own incomparable tapestry of profanity in Johnny Dangerously (1984).
Fusking wangler sloblock? That minced oath was provided by A Bit of Frye and Laurie (1990).
Charlie Brown most often expressed distress with his patented "Good grief!" But, when he was really upset, he issued a declaration that was not so much a word as an inarticulate wail.
Frankly, this best expresses how I feel when I am deeply frustrated.
"Smoo" is evidently an offensive word to dinosaurs.
Some interesting fake curse words came up in a Father Ted episode called "Old Grey Whistle Theft" (1996).
Minced oaths pop up occasionally on Cartoon Network's Adventure Time. From what I can tell from these clips, it may be necessary to wash out Lumpy Space Princess' bratty mouth with soap.
Obscenities were substituted with dolphin noises in a SpongeBob SquarePants episode called "Sailor Mouth."
Just because a man is a killer doesn't mean that he doesn't need to be sensitive about the words that come out of his mouth. Right after shooting a man in the head, this assassin sees it as proper decorum to substitute the holy "Jesus Christ" with the silly sound-alike "cheese and rice."
People receive a great relief from swearing and, if you stop them from using certain swear words, they will only find others that they can use instead. It hardly matters as the new ones are usually more funny than the old ones anyway.
That's it, I'm done with this topic. Fup off, you grassholes!
A forgotten silent film comedian now stands at the center of a highly publicized legal battle between Warner Brothers and the Weinstein Company. The comedian's name is Davey Don. Who is Davey Don, you ask? We will get to that soon enough, but let me first provide a little background on this lawsuit.
A Columbia Pictures executive commissioned a script to be written based on a 2008 article in the Washington Post titled "A Butler Well Served by This Election," which described Eugene Allen's experiences as a black man from segregated Virginia who served as the White House's head butler from 1952 to 1986.
Harvey Weinstein purchased the script, titled "The Butler," from Columbia. The Weinstein Company applied to the Motion Picture Association of America to get clearance for the "Butler" title. Warner Bros. Pictures exercised their right to block the use of the title, which belonged to them in relation to their ownership of a 1916 film called The Butler. The film was part of a series of "Otto" comedies produced by the Lubin Manufacturing Company in late 1915 and early 1916. Warner Brothers was not necessarily concerned that the public would confuse Weinstein's film with the earlier film (especially as no print of the film is known to exist). The company was more interested in reserving exclusivity of the title for possible use in the future. A studio rep made the point that they never saw value in the title "The Bodyguard" until a project came along about a love affair between a pop singer and her bodyguard. Warner Brothers' The Bodyguard (1992) went on to earn $411 million worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing films of all time. Maybe, the film would have been just successful if it had been called The Pop Singer and the Bodyguard, but the Warner Brothers rep understandably believes that the title helped them to effectively market the film. But this title war has brought up another issue. Warner Brothers seems to believe it's time to address Harvey Weinstein's repeated refusal to follow the MPAA's rules. The title belongs to Warner Brothers and they do not want to relinquish it. It is as simple as that. Many observers regard the lawsuit as a transparent ploy by Weinstein to drum up publicity for his film. Using a lawsuit to get a film free publicity is something that Weinstein has done numerous times in the past.
The 1916 film has been belittled in the course of this battle. Weinstein's supporters in the media think it's laughable for anyone to see any significance, legal or otherwise, in a film that is nearly one-hundred years old. But I feel compelled to protect the legacy of Davey Don. Frankly, not much is known about the man. He was born in Utica, New York, in 1867. Under the name David L. Don, he performed on Broadway from 1900 to 1912 in a variety of musical comedies.
This is where Don performed in The Belle of Bohemia in 1900.
Don's most successful musical comedy was The Red Mill, which was written by Victor Herbert. Don, in the role of Willem the innkeeper, introduced the popular song "You Can Never Tell About a Woman." Here, the song is performed by the Comic Opera Guild as part of a 2012 revival of The Red Mill.
Otto was a comically dimwitted German immigrant portrayed by Don in the same broad style as Weber and Fields' Mike and Meyer.
Otto bungles his way from one low-wage job to the next. The titles of the comedies reflected Otto's latest profession - Otto the Bellboy, Otto the Reporter, Otto the Artist, Otto the Gardener, Otto the Salesman, Otto the Cobbler. The Butler should have, by right, been called Otto the Butler, which would have avoided the current controversy.
Moving Picture World provided the following plot description for The Butler: "Mrs. Van Webber is giving a dinner and reception in honor of her daughter's return from college. Things are going along smoothly, when a telegram arrives which calls all servants out on strike. Leaving Mrs. Van Webber in a quandary as to who will prepare the dinner. Gwendoline suggests that Otto, their hired man, be allowed to take charge of the dinner. When the striking servants learn that Otto has taken their jobs, they station their gang around the house and whenever Otto appears they threaten him until he gets nervous and wants to throw up the job. But Mrs. Van Webber gives him more money and Otto starts in anew. The strikers now thoroughly aroused at Otto, chase him through the house and stone him."
It is obvious from this plot description that the earlier Butler was, in its own modest way, a socially conscious film that addressed class conflicts and labor rights. The Van Webber mansion is one of several mansions that served as a backdrop to Otto's misadventures. Stately manors had great meaning in the series, the main character of which was a poor immigrant desperate to climb the golden rungs of America's social ladder. Otto, described by Moving Picture World as an "unfortunate wretch," is invariably undone by his ill-conceived schemes to improve his position. Like Eugene Allen, Otto only wanted to escape racial discrimination and find a place for himself in a great mansion. But, as it turns out, he fails again and again in his attempts at social-climbing.
Marriage seems to be a quick way to achieve upward mobility. In Otto the Gardner, Otto pretends to be a prince to woo the lovely Lady Dora, who lives in a palatial estate. Of course, it isn't long before his masquerade is exposed. In Otto the Traffic Cop, Otto assumes a job as a traffic cop on a busy street corner and finds himself desperately dodging speeding autos. A woman faints after she is nearly struck by a car and Otto agrees to help her to her home, which happens to be a mansion. The woman only works at the mansion as a maid, but Otto assumes she owns the magnificent home and asks her to marry him. Of course, Otto comes to regret his impulsive proposal. Worse than the fact that the maid has no money is the fact that she is a widow five times over and her five husbands died in sudden and tragic ways. In His Lordship, Otto is a waiter who is struggling desperately to break his addiction to alcohol. While on duty, Oscar is instantly attracted to a rich young woman named Carrie and he is glad to accept her invitation to follow her home. Yes, her home is yet another mansion. It is, inarguably, the series' theme. Carrie, who has a wickedly playful nature, cannot resist the opportunity to play a prank on Otto after he gets drunk and passes out. She has her butler dress her guest in silk pajamas and place him in a luxurious bed. When he awakens, the woman's staff pretends that Otto is a lord and tells him that it is his wedding day. The mock marriage ceremony that ensues ends with Otto lifting the bride's veil and seeing that he has married a black woman. He is shocked because this is not at all what the status-seeking man had in mind.
Otto was invariably led to places where the rich played. In Otto the Sleuth, Otto arrives at a mansion to investigate the theft of a beloved canary. His aggressive interrogation techniques antagonizes a grim, hulking butler, who is quick to toss him out of the front door. Otto, determined to collect the reward money, buys a bird like the one stolen so that he can pretend he solved the case. But the real canary has already been found. The butler, who is highly displeased with Otto's attempted fraud, again tosses him out of the mansion. Otto's ejection from the mansion is yet another great defeat for our unfortunate wretch.
Throughout its long history, Warner Brothers has managed through a series of mergers and acquisitions to accumulate a diverse catalog of movies. When the Lubin company went bankrupt in 1916, the company's film library was purchased by the Warner brothers (The company name had yet to be established). The owner of the Lubin company, Siegmund Lubin, had previously loaned the brothers money to start up their studio and this may have been a way for them to repay his generosity. Lubin, who was known to help young Jews in the film industry, was particularly supportive of the Warners, who like him had immigrated to the United States from a Jewish community in Poland (Lubin from Samter and the Warner brothers from Ostrołęka). He was willing to finance their production company although he was a member of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was engaged in legal efforts to terminate upstart film companies. The fact that he acted in direct violation of his legal obligations to Motion Picture Patents Company caused him to be censured by the other members of the organization.
Lubin breaking the rules of an association brings us back to Weinstein. Weinstein and his lawyer, David Boies, have tried to give the public the impression that Warner Brothers is somehow acting in a racist manner. Boies called Warner's refusal to grant Weinstein the right to call its movie The Butler“a transparent attempt to hold a major civil rights film hostage to extort unrelated concessions from TWC.” I am personally burned out on the word "racist." The word "racist" is to a liberal what a squirrel is to a dog. Every time this fleet-footed, big-eyed, bushy-tailed word makes an appearance, it grabs the urgent attention of every liberal from miles around.
This is guaranteed to give the film publicity and it doesn't matter to Weinstein or Boies if this cheap strategy stirs up a great deal of rancor.
It is odd for accusations of racism to come from Weinstein considering that this is the man who produced Django Unchained, the most racist movie of all time. Even worse, Weinstein made a point to release the abominable Django Unchained on Christmas as if to thumb his nose at the good spirits and fellowship of the day.
Warner Brothers has made it clear that they wouldn't have a problem if Weinstein simply calls the film Lee Daniels' The Butler. Lee Daniels, the film's director, should like that title. Daniels and others involved in the film were willing to change historical facts to suit their purposes. They were willing to change the name of the butler who is at the center of the story (The story became so heavily fictionalized that they had to change the butler's name from Eugene Allen to Cecil Gaines). But none of them sees it as possible to change the title. It's nonsense. For all I care, they could call it The Butler Did It, Breakfast is Served or The Secret Diary of Cecil Gaines.
How about calling it Gerard Butler?
But I am not here to talk about Harvey Weinstein or Lee Daniels. I am here to remember a bygone comedian, Davey Don, and make the point that no one should assume Mr. Don's films were insignificant just because they were made a long time ago.
It is not possible for a comedy routine to survive for hundreds of years without being highly adaptive, and a routine has passed the stringent test for adaptability if it has been performed effectively by comedians as unlike as Harold Lloyd and the Three Stooges. The Stooges' clowning was, without a doubt, different from the tidily constructed comedy presented by Lloyd. Looks, alone, could tell you that these were entirely different species of funnymen. Lloyd looks like a normal, upright fellow.
As many theatergoers, I have suffered the indignity of having snacks rained down upon his head by the reprobates who hang out in the balcony. Stories of disorderly theater patrons can be traced from the 1500s to present day. Mira Felner wrote in a 2006 essay "The World of Theatre: Tradition and Innovation": "In his own time, Shakespeare’s plays were performed before a rowdy audience who booed, hissed, cheered, conversed, ate, drank, and even threw food at the performers, offering one explanation for the rat infestation in theatres of the period. Many believe that the open roof of the Elizabethan playhouse was a means to let the stench of food, drink, and unwashed bodies escape."
In 1833, a German nobleman shared his indignant observations of the English theater with the North American Review. He wrote, "The most striking thing to a foreigner in English theatres is the unheard-of coarseness and brutality of the audiences. . . English freedom here degenerates into the rudest license and it is not uncommon, in the midst of the most affecting parts of a tragedy, or the most charming cadenza of a singer, to hear some coarse expressions shouted from the gallery in a stentor voice. . . It is also no rarity for someone to throw the fragments of his goute, which do not always consist of orange-peels alone, without the smallest ceremony, on the heads of the people in the pit or. . . with singular dexterity into the boxes."
This rowdy behavior was ripe for comic treatment by 1903, at which time the Karno Company lampooned ill-mannered theater patrons in their "Mumming Birds" sketch. The sketch was later recreated on film by a number of comedians.
Let the food droppage begin.
A television syndicator, La Miniatura Film, sold a package of Larry Semon comedies to Italian television in the 1950s. It is not unusual for a syndicator to make changes to entertainment product as part of their packaging. Usually, though, the changes are limited to the removal of footage or alterations in the closing and opening credits. La Miniatura made a point to add music, sound effects and dialogue to Semon's comedies to make them more palatable to young people unaccustomed to silent comedy. Semon's voice was provided by Tino Scotti, a comedian similar in many ways to Semon. Here is a clip of Scotti in the boxing comedy il tallone di Achille (1952).
It is appalling to imagine one of Buster Keaton's carefully crafted silent films with dubbed dialogue. It would be an outright desecration to hear Harold Lloyd muttering to himself as he climbed the skyscraper in Safety Last! (1923). But this added feature somehow works in the context of Semon's wild and woolly comedies.
Italian comedian Febo Conti regularly portrayed Ridolini on his sketch comedy show.
The efforts of Hollywood writers to condense the various aspects of a marriage into a compelling three-act structure has, for decades, brought forth a frustratingly distorted and misleading characterization of marriage. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't that many people look to the movies to understand the world around them. My warning to these people: Movies lie.
The subject of marriage in movies is explored extensively in Jeannie Basinger's I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies. Before I purchased this book, I made a point to check out the reviews on Amazon. One reviewer found the book infuriating. Another thought it was "grim reading." Neither blamed the author because it was clearly the subject matter that had stirred up their bad feelings. Marriage is a sensitive subject, but Hollywood's ham-handed treatment of marriage has been anything but sensitive.
Before Midnight, which is truthful and insightful in its study of a marriage, is a rare exception to the hopelessly inept marriage movies that have come out of Hollywood in the last hundred years. It is, far and away, the best movie ever made about this combustible union of husband and wife. The relevant issues are laid out clearly, genuinely and, most of all, painfully. Tomas Hachard, a critic for the Los Angeles Review of Books, summarized the film's message as follows: "A movie that tells us, while piercing holes through a fairy tale, that if love is to be more than just commitment, we must still commit to love." For certain, neither love or commitment is as important to marriage as a husband and wife's commitment to love. Most people believe that we have no control over love. They are steadfast in their view that a person cannot, in any way, help who they love. They are apt to shrug nonchalantly when they speak of an acquaintance who has fallen in love or fallen out of love. But they are plainly wrong. When we wed, we vow to sustain our love for our partner. The love between a husband and wife is a solemn duty. The marital vow is best known for the phrase "to love, honor and obey." People have even greater trouble with the vow's "obey" part as they equate obedience with slavishness. But this pledge to obey simply means that a person agrees to set aside ego and self-interest and submit to this other person. If both parties in a marriage practice humility and deference, neither party can truly become subjugated to the other.
Ego has certainly driven a wedge between the couple in Before Midnight. In our modern world, men and women are self-important creatures. Marriage may be too mundane and restrictive for these sort of people. Too many people make the mistake of carrying on as if they are the star of their own personal movie, which is not a practical way to go through life. Life is real while movies, as I said before, are lies. At one time, the working title for my gag history book was Lies that Buster Keaton Told Me.
For decades, Hollywood pounded it into our heads that news reporters were sleazy (The Front Page, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Citizen Kane, Ace in the Hole) and then they pounded it into our heads that that news reporters were noble (All the President's Men, The China Syndrome, The Parallax View, Killing Fields).
At one time, consumers of movies and television were told that the jock was a hero. Wally Cleaver was a jock. His parents were proud of him. His little brother looked up to him. His friends held him in high esteem. He was, in every way, a good guy. He showed up for every practice and he worked hard to succeed. He cooperated with teammates and did what his coach told him to do. In contrast, the coach had little use for the clownishly unruly Eddie Haskell, whose role on the team was restricted to handing out towels.
But then a new trope was created. Now, according to Hollywood, the jock was a villain. The jock was, to everyone's dismay, a bully and a jerk. The unruly clown was the hero. I call this the wedgie era of cinema.
Unfortunately, tropes alter the way people see the world. A trope may start out as a convenient tool for a lazy writer, but it soon becomes a form of propaganda. The nerds vs. the jocks became a political and ideological battle between intellectualism and athleticism. It became an argument in favor of the socialist idealists and in opposition of the fascist "men of action." In other words, it became nonsense that some people swallowed whole. I personally admire intellectuals and athletes. I favor the cooperation of different groups as opposed to conflict and competition. But movies are about conflict and competition. It is for the same reason that marriage is portrayed in films as a battle of the sexes. I worry that this self-destructive battle has spilled over into real life.
Jesse Cataldo, critic with Slant, wrote of the Before Midnight couple, "Unmarried but united by children and a host of mundane responsibilities, the former trans-Atlantic soul mates are now a committed couple, no longer just a theoretical entity ready to be activated for another round of flirty debate. They have history and obligations, in addition to a growing sense of conjugal exhaustion, feelings made to seem even more prominent by the looming ruins of the film's Greek setting." That's what marriage is. It is history and obligations. . . and, oh yeah, diapers. It is not as juvenile, suspenseful, or enchanting as movies usually make it out to be. It is not about drunken bachelor parties or lavish wedding receptions. It is not about the world recognizing or validating a couple's love for one another. That is the perspective of a person who imagines himself in a movie and is waiting to hear the audience applaud. The vital parts of our existence, such as our marriage and our job, are personal commitments that do not need to be announced to the world.
Let's talk about jobs. The notion of a career was inflated to absurd proportions by the movies. It was no longer enough for a man to work hard on a job so that he can earn a steady income to support his family. Careers have come to the fore, causing the simple idea of a job to be obliterated. Careers give a person an identity, inspire their dreams and ambitions, and provide them with value. But isn't this really something that writers latched onto for the purpose of telling a good story? After all, writers have to find a way to clearly define a character. A character can be instantly defined in a movie by his occupation. A character needs goals. Career ambitions translate into simple and distinct goals. A character needs to achieve a heroic victory in the end. Getting a contract with a new client or winning a promotion is a great curtain-closing victory. The difference between a job and career is discussed extensively online. One writer claimed that, unlike a job, a career has a significant impact on society. Another writer said that a person puts time and energy into a job in return for money while a person puts his heart and soul into a career. That is self-important rubbish. A job is work with a paycheck. A career is work with a narrative. We walk through life as if we are characters in a movie. That, frankly, is stupid. Howard Beale said it in Network (1976): "You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here, you're beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do. Why, whatever the tube tells you: you dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs. In God's name, you people are the real thing, WE are the illusion."
We are imaginary heroes in our own lives. We script our dialogue on Facebook. Party affiliations have become the white hat that we don in our daily showdowns in Internet forums. Draw, pardner! We have transformed ourselves into media figures.
My grandparents were too busy with their many obligations to go to the movies. My grandfather owned a fruit stand. He was out of the house early in the morning to buy fruit at the market. At night, he watched the first half hour of the Ten O'Clock News before he went to bed. That was the extent of his television viewing. My grandmother watched The Mike Douglas Show while she cooked dinner. She once sat down with me to watch The Dean Martin Show. She affectionately referred to Martin as "that bum." She showed no other interest in television. My father, who worked multiple jobs, also never had much time for television. He once heard me down in the basement laughing my head off at an episode of F Troop. He came to see what I thought was so funny, but he didn't stick around for more than five minutes. I don't know what to make of people who watch a large amount of television and then spend hours talking about what they saw in online forums. That much television is bound to distort your perspective and generally rot your brain. I admit to having viewed more than my share of television, which explains the poor state of my own brain.
I love movies, don't get me wrong, but I know the difference between life and art, entertainment and propaganda, and enjoyment and overindulgence. A well-known saying is "History is written by the victors." A more accurate assessment of the situation is that history is written by the writers. God protect society from the lazy writers and their foolish tropes.
No one would expect the tired, bloated cast of Grown Ups 2 to risk bruises, sprains and broken bones to produce any spectacular physical comedy.
But we are fortunate to have the computer-animated characters of Despicable Me 2 keep alive the lively and bumpy tradition of silent film comedy.
When I saw Despicable Me 2 in a theater, I heard the audience laugh loudly after our comic hero pointed a garden hose at an annoying woman and blasted her in the face with a forceful stream of water. The hose gag has a long tradition in film history. It was, in fact, the very first film gag. Its auspicious screen debut can be found in The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895).
For decades, the comic greats found this simple gag to be highly useful.
But, believe it or not, the audience did not react as enthusiastically to this business as they reacted to the old hose gag.
Later, a little yellow minion switches on a high-pressure fire hose and is sent with the hose flying through the air.
This is an old routine that was performed by a number of comedians, including Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Laurel & Hardy and Lupino Lane.
The unconscious woman routine also turns up in the film.
The most memorable versions of this routine were performed by Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon (See The Funny Parts), but Chaplin struggled to lift and carry an unconscious woman years before either Keaton or Langdon in A Night in the Show (1915).
The multiple clones routine and the evil ice cream truck routine are also featured in the film.
To be fair, Grown Ups 2 did include one slapstick scene. Here it is:
This clip actually uses more CGI than anything in Despicable Me 2.
Lupino Lane similarly went speeding through traffic inside a runaway tire in Howdy, Duke (1926). I apologize for the poor quality of this clip.
The Schwartz Brothers performed the famous mirror routine during an international tour in 1912 and, in their wake, film adaptations of the routine were produced by at least three companies - Solax, Cines and Pathé. The Solax film, which I discuss in The Funny Parts, was a Alice Guy Blaché film called His Double (1912).
Kri Kri domestico presents an intriguing variation of the mirror routine. Our comic hero, Kri Kri (Raymond Krau), has no good reason to pretend to be another man's mirror image. He is not trying to thwart a romantic rival, or escape a lunatic, or steal state secrets, or hide the fact that he broke his employer's dressing mirror. Kri Kri, an envious servant, simply wants to play a prank on the master of the house (Gildo Bocci). Comedies that were centered on a prank, whether playful or malicious, were common in the early years of film.
Kri Kri domestico's mirror routine stands out mostly for its clever payoff. Just the fact that the film offers a payoff is remarkable since most versions of the routine have no clear resolution. All that happens is that the hoax is exposed and the scene ends. But Kri Kri domestico provides a twist. The rich man, who relies on his dressing mirror to tell him if he looks well, is engrossed with his "reflection" as he prepares for a formal reception. He has no need to examine the physical items that he is handling as he perfectly trusts what transpires within the four corners of the mirror frame. He believes that he is dressing in formal wear, including a top hat and black dress jacket, but Kri Kri is in fact putting on the man's fine clothing while the man is left to put on Kri Kri's clothing - a white sports jacket and an ill-fitting bowler. It is the prince and the pauper changing places, expect the prince is unaware of the switch. The man is later humiliated when he shows up to the reception in his shabby garb.
The same light and dark contrast was applied earlier to the jackets in Kri Kri domestico. It brings to mind a negative exposure image.
The black and white jackets and the mismatched hats may have been elements of the original stage version of the routine. Now, with Duck Soup, these elements merged into one. Kri Kri domestico ends the same way that Max Linder ends his second adaptation of the routine.
Sister, Sister ("The Meeting," 1994)
This is the only version I know that involves a busty clone.
I recently wrote about a routine in which Buster Keaton appears to be meticulously cleaning a window but it turns out the window frame is missing a glass pane and Keaton is cleaning nothing but air. Keaton later applied the same premise to a mirror routine in Sherlock, Jr. (1924).
Other versions of the mirror routine can be found in these earlier posts.
Alice Guy Blaché's His Double featured the first known version of the mirror routine to be recorded on film. A precedent for other classic comic business can be found in a variety of Blaché films. I cannot watch the filmmaker's The Drunken Mattress (1906), which features a woman struggling to carry a mattress up a flight up steps, without thinking of Laurel & Hardy struggling to carry a crate up a flight of steps in The Music Box (1932).