Tag Archives: Buster Keaton

The Economics of Pratfalls

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since sound and picture have integrated in narrative film production, the need for a purely visual spectacle is obsolete.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.

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Buster Keaton’s Partner

From "Sherlock Jr."

Roscoe picked Buster. Then, liking that idea, Buster decided he’ll pick Buster too.

He was his own comic partner. Contra Chaplin, whose whole being is wrapped up in the fact that he’s lacks anyone who would consider the tramp their buddy.

Chaplin is un-wanted; Buster wants to want.

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Slapstick Signage #2

A crate in the back of The Last Gasp Saloon in Edward F. Cline’s My Little Chickadee, written by W.C. Fields and starring Mae West and Fields. On the box is written the words “Last Gasp” – a reference to the literal denouement of the film as well as the nurturing nature of the bar  – and, underneath, “Greesewood” – the name of the western town the film takes place. (Cline also directed most of the best Buster Keaton’s shorts, including the infamous Balloonatic, and was the best of all Field’s directors with the possible exception of Norman Z. McLeod)

Fields, like Groucho Marx, was known for his insinuating names for things and characters, and though not this film, often penned scripts using pseudonyms. His favorite pen-name, or at least the one hi chose most often, was Charles Bogle. He also used Mahatma Kane Jeeves and Otis Criblecoblis, the former in another of Cline’s directions: The Bank Dick.

The most frustrating element surrounding My Little Chickadee is that it’s not considered a screwball. This is a gross error even though the reasoning is simple: the characters are not in any way wholesome.

Conversely, in a typical screwball otherwise “normal” human beings are made mad or abnormal by their desires for each other, desires that neither one can speak of in any straight-and-arrow way, hence the clever use of innuendo and comedy.

But in My Little Chicakdee you have two unabashed heathens – Flower Belle Lee and Cuthbert Twillie – speaking with virtual clarity about their mismatched desire for nasty indecencies: Flower Belle shakes her hips for everyone except Twillie; and inversely, Twillie pines only for the shapely Flower Belle.

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Newest Slapstick Advocate: Google

– It’s Google Motion.

– [shrugs from the rest of the conference room]

– You know… To save time.

– [blank stares around the room, eyes blinking like drowsy owls]

It’s the latest from Google everybody. And it just might not work.

Also, they’re discriminating against southpaws again (if you look closely), of whom I am not but whom I’ve always and without the need for recognition looked out for.

So, the first half of the 20th century was clowning, the second half of the twentieth century was ergonomics. Now, for the first half of the twentieth century, we get this?:

Look how they even chose a bulgy-eyed Buster Keaton lookalike for their video tutorial.

Stop this Techfoolery. But really… Is this some kind of joke?

In W.C. Fields’s voice: “That’s the most hyper-active ‘working stiff’ I ever saw.”

Oh, so it is a joke. Ahhh-h-h-ha.

APRIL FOOLS!

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