Putniblick /n/ 1. a golf-related aggravation 2. a nuisance
Here’s a perfect slapstick linguist paradigm: sound as a physical gag. And here’s a clip from W.C. Fields’ Never Give A Sucker An Even Break to demonstrate the point:
The clip treks far beyond the mere exemplar of a new category of mass produced silliness. Yes, sound is being used as a gag, for what’s stopping sound’s elemental physicality from being adopted into the fold of slapstick? But moreover, the scene is a strong critical manifestation of class consciousness, that pesky Marxist tract that rings truer the longer you live. The whole funny business is mired in an entrenched pitting of working-class sound against the sound of the bourgeoisie (catch the younger kid’s daze?), and ambiguously proceeds with no clear winners.
It’s also an aesthetic drawing-a-line-in-the-sand as well. Mid-thirties Hollywood saw an influx of singing-and-dancing idiots into otherwise purist slapstick routines, including the very best of the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and W. C. Fields. Thank God the whole mess got under the skin of at least Fields who laments its inclusion in the slapstick feature format on more than one occasion than the clip above.
More on this to come. Is that alright with you, Mr. Pangborn?
Currently in the middle of Lajos Egri’s sole work, where the Hungarian tailor-turned-theater-director first describes the existence of three-dimensionality to fully realized dramatic characters, an observation the slapstick genre successfully subverts. More on this point later.
First, there’s a crux in the book (the middle, right, where else?) where the author really digs it to Aristotle for claiming character is subordinate to action. Now, to be fair, Ergi’s whole work is really the first substantial study to emphasize the role of psychology (the third dimension to basics, physicality and sociology) as well as the internal dialectics of character that work in the creative makings of a memorable play. And to be fair, too, Egri’s point on Aristotle is instructive.
But it’s also totally confused. Egri faults Aristotle based on this confusion: Aristotle wasn’t a playwright, he was a philosopher. So when the ancient Greek writes in his Poetics about drama and catharsis and all that good stuff he does so as a witness to theatrical drama. Aristotle is discussing the appearance of drama unfolding before the crowds, an essential component of what dramatic theater is. So, if you remember this then it absolutely is true that, as Aristotle put it, action precedes character: it is through a character’s motions that an observer derives their motives and begins to compile a picture of character.
This is full blown within the complexities of cinematic slapstick. Take the case of Harry Langdon’s “The Odd Fellow” in his masterpiece Three’s A Crowd. It’s one of the most psychologically insightful comedies ever made, but also the film that best explores the passive nature of Langdon’s comic persona, a concept Egri deplores and considers poor drama.
The riddle is how can passivity be three-dimensional? Three’s A Crowd (1927) is radically dream-like and structurally experimental (second perhaps only to Field’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break of 1941) and especially so considering it’s a piece by a silent clown of the twenties.
The logic of the story is full of odd jokes: washing dishes with a clothes washing board (but Odd Fellow never realizes his mistake); an absurdly long staircase separating characters to and from points of action (an architectural quirk never explained); and an inanimate rag-doll – Odd fellow’s equally passive doppelganger – bumming around through the harsh seasons, city streets, and unconscious nightmares. The joke are half punch lines, half humdrum. They are abstractions – and featured in the background setting rather that in the decisions of our anti-hero – of all the small things in life that people put up with without thinking about at all.
[NOTE: Memorably, Langon rarely makes use of cops, which is extremely rare for the genre. The abstraction of official persecution is common, something people irrationally think about terribly often (in my own case, at least three times a week). It’s this sort of exacting detail – the absence of cop scenarios – that raises questions as to what logic is propelling Langdon’s story-lines and why he remains such an enigmatic figure in slapstick cinema.]
So, it’s these features of the external world that reflect the inner workings of the passive character. Woody Allen has confirmed this idea in interviews, presumably grasped during his post-Annie Hall work with Gordon Willis, saying that for a filmmaker visuals in the outside should reflect the inside emotions (which is Jacque Lacan’s idea of “ex-timacy” for those interested in psychoanalysis).
Odd Fellow is the prism for all sorts of miscommunications and hallucinations that move along in an exacting yet illogical way. Anonymous letters falling from the sky, neighbor’s distrusting and ridiculing his every move, floors giving out, abandoned women being extracted from his home just as improbably as they had entered. Harry’s “The Odd Fellow” – unlike a schlemeil, them that can literally do no right – is instead confronted with a host of unnecessary struggles, literally and figuratively, and in a way whose explication evokes comedy rather than Sisyphean tragedy. For that reason Three’s A Crowd should be entered alongside the work of Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien and W.C. Fields.
This is that point that is a blow to Egri: the external world can, indeed needs to, reflect the character within the language of film. Egri’s specialty was theatrical in nature so we can’t fault him for ignoring the visible reflections of all that he has to offer: character, conflict and progression through dialectics. However, it is in film, and especially evident in slapstick, that passivity in character can be counterbalanced by authorial (later to be identified as Hitchcockian) attention to detail in the background, in the setting, in the universe of the story. So the facility of psychology in Langdon’s work is relegated to the margins; his internality – especially in this film which was his first to write and direct – is reflected in the world outside.
From Ustinov’s Hot Millions (1968).
Slapstick, like Noir, is a film genre tethered to the industrialized modern world. The most famous jokes involve enormous buildings (Harry Lloyd), coal-powered trains (Buster Keaton), unforgiving factories/nations (Charlie Chaplin), etc. There is further evidence of this link throughout the 20’s and 30’s in Hal Roach productions, early Capra, and on and on. Those of you following along at home can perform a pratfall as such:
What is it? It’s a wide shot, confirmed by Chaplin and Keaton. Why? Because we have to see the entire fall, the whole fall, uninterrupted, uncorrupted, unadulterated. It is a beautiful thing and therefore can speak for itself.
But as sound enters into films – 29-ish – the pratfall begins to obscure and fragment, as though filmmakers (except Hitchcock) have forgotten how to use them. We see by end of the twentieth century they have all but disappeared from movie houses.
There is the simple explanation: since sound and picture have integrated in narrative film production, the need for a purely visual spectacle is obsolete. So in comedy, physicality no longer takes primacy. Look at the masters of comedy since the pratfall: writer-directors Sturges, Wilder, Allen; actors Sellars, Martin, Allen. We see the transition so early with the downturns of Keaton, Langdon and Lloyd and the emergence of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and more of those singing-types.
In the scene below, from Easy Living (1933), we see an opera of pratfalls, they being a predilection of screenwriter and soon-to-be-director Preston Sturges. But also in this scene we can draw a direct parallel between this post-silent era exaltation of the pratfall and the economics of the Depression:
The pratfall is the Icarus myth told in less than two seconds but with all its complexity left intact. Pratsfalls are about the possibility of freedom, for, at least in North America, freedom is synonymous with two functions. The first is Choice, and the second is Success. Without freedom one cannot make decisions, which is an extension of responsibility to self and others. Nor without freedom can one be able to attempt at success. Contrary to the prevailing perversity of the ‘success story,’ in order to attempt at success one needs to be allowed to fail. This is one of the ways advanced, modern societies are desirous and humane: they allow for the possibility of, expect and accommodate human failure.
So what if the pratfall’s gradual extinction from cinema were a symptom of diminishing possibilities within society? If that were the case, society would act largely outside the guidelines of responsibility or, its sons and daughters, their consequences. And, more dire than privileging success over failure, the very opportunity to fail would be denied, the very cornerstone of a society that respects the privileges of success in areas of human achievement. This doubly make sense when we observe that the only time in modern cinema (with the occasional exception of some animated features) when bodies fly through the air is when they are reduced to corpses.
To a prude, writing a comedy about the Depression at its inception – and Preston Sturges would go on to write more than a couple – would seem exploitative and insensitive, even perverse. But comedy protects the right of failure in times of economic disparity and defends against the general harshness that accompanies tight-belt eras. And it’s during these that the act of falling down needs to be not only protected but practiced.
Like Herriman’s Krazy Kat universe and Langdon’s peculiar passivity, there is something extraterrestrial about Larry Semon’s chase sequences. An example culled from Dull Care (1919):
Here’s amazing angular photography work that’s refreshing for an early two-reel slapstick (typically filmed flat). This image is half comicstrip, half Duchamps; a grocery clerk walking on the surface of the moon:
Especially in masterworks like The Rent Collector (1921), The Saw Mill (1922), and the finale of The Bellhop (1921) Semon’s daring sight gags and his incessant penchant for fallings, smashings and chasings are not simply crafty spectacle designed to surprise and thrill his audience. Though often plot-less, the stories are not tomfollery, or some inert loop of mania-for-mania’s-sake.
Instead, Semon plots are aggressively anti-rational: the internal logic of the narrative is constantly reversing itself, doubling over, and falling out its own windows. Who follows their pursuers? Why is the city next to the farm? What scientific property will be subverted in next frame? And while the visuals are clear, they’re not abundantly precise, a la Keaton, nor is the performance elevated above the setting, a la Chaplin. The settings are utter visual abstraction: high, low, up, down, big, small, busy, quiet, dark, light, etc., etc.
In the best of Semon there remains a dream-like distance to these visualizations, the effect of imagining stories that are half-real, half something else entirely. The timing is metaphysically perfect but physically impossible, provoking not only laughter but wonder and thought.
Here’s a triptych of diagonally composed thought bubbles. First, a horse looks on at a dubious attempt at murder:
Then the thugs replace the horse, finding themselves now on the other end of a gun:
But then the thugs’ mirrored threat of death manifests in a unmanned steamroller heading for their original target.
There is trickery, manipulation, and violence at work, but there is also magic, awe, and a general spirit of unpredictability; both sides of the anarchy coin. The chase concludes with Semon’s signature maddash-on-air, a continuing visual motif in his anti-rational cinema: