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Character or Action?: Egri, Langdon, and the Comedy of Unnecessary Struggles

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.

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Spelling Lesson #5: “A couple of tootins!”

Tootin /tu:tin/ n. 1. A person who uses the telephone to intimidate or provoke the irritation of others. 2. A fool

North America is rapidly becoming a frustrating place to tell interesting stories due directly to the intrusive presence of wireless ‘badgetry’, convergent idiocy and Gen. Digital Shenanigans (two-star General, that Gen. Digital Shenanigans). You simply can’t tell a dramatic story if everyone has access to same universe of information, there exists no barrier between public space and private space, and everyone is connected to anyone they want to no matter where they are or what time it is. If Hitchcock’s war with the MPAA censors during the 1950’s tells us anything about filmmaking, it’s that to realize the dream of total surveillance would be a most boring and meaningless experience.

No wonder then that the best Hollywood films and cable television circa 2012 take place in worlds and times where this function of reverse surveillance and instant mediation can be avoided. It’s one reason why the scenarios and plot devices at work in slapstick films are so appealing: it’s far easier to fall into a problematic situation where Time and Space (this is cinema, after all) are obstacles to one’s existence.

So, in comes this hilarious sight gag using a wired phone from Cold Turkey (1940) starring Harry Langdon and directed by 3 Stooges mainstay Del Lord. The prop carries a doubly deep sociological resonance for the actor. Harry Langdon was a giant in the silent era but in the sound era he was ruined, even though I think he has the best delivery of the silent clowns. [I actually think that his humor has always been a bit weird and dark, but once audience fit the voice with the actions this natural strangeness became more transparent and not to everyone’s taste (though biographers attribute his career downfall with a longstanding feud with the popular and powerful Frank Capra).] In Cold Turkey, four years before his death, Langdon uses a cousin of the microphone, the telephone, to signal why conversations over the phone can never be as funny as a gag that uses real time and space to it’s advantage, as was done one and two decades from this point.

Far from exhibiting mere post-modern self-reflexivity, we see the spectre of slapstick physically imposing itself into a world that has begun to forget it’s strength and will soon fully forget. The physical attributes of the phone are funny: its’ hard so you can hit someone with it; it’s connected by a wire so you can tug-o-war with it. But, the way society is hacked up and hung on display with them is, well, to a comic, more boring than tragic.

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Slapstick and Race

The language of a failed U.S. Reconstruction after the Civil War is prevalent throughout slapstick. However, most successful comics of the era tell gags that use existing racial stereotypes in such a way that upend the absurdity of the existing social order. In other words, the contradictions are explicitly brought to light, and sometimes with unexpected – even unintentional – poignancy.

For instance, there’s this twist on the Oedipal complex shown between Larry Semon’s escaped prisoner and the pretty, well-to-do black woman on the bench in 1918’s Frauds and Frenzies (she’s uncredited):

On their face we have in these six frames a social taboo that is being challenged, only by an unwitting and oblivious challenger, who then is so frightened by the prospects of that which he initiated that he hauls ass, literally and figuratively. Herein lies the joke. And slightly underneath this edifice we have the literal “flirting” with taboos, and that adds to the depth of the narrative.

But, if attention is paid to the Oedipal mirroring going on in the scene, something much more subversive can be read in these frames. First we have the initial non sequitur where the sex-hungry convict is not allowed to be attracted to the all-but attractive woman because of her dark complexion. Within this dynamic we have the fact that it’s Larry who is the one escaped from prison, not the woman is free and, more than free, a member of the middle class. In other words, the fact that even though he’s morally deviant, this “man” is white and therefore exempt from anything wrong in comparison to this non-white non-“man.”

On top of this, we have the acknowledgment in frame No. 3 and No. 4 that his desire of her is not surprising, i.e. she all but expects white men to confront her with their “insistence”.

Then in frame No. 5, the most subversive of all, we have the true depiction of the social order, i.e we know who is the true monster on the bench. Larry transforms into a uncontrollable, sex-crazed aberration. He is the ex-con, but more importantly he represents the perverse white order that cannot own up to its own desires, and does not admit even to itself its own routinely practiced behavior. Instead, it would rather run, windmill-style, away from the truth of the scenario.

This running away carries with it another double meaning. On the surface, it’s fleeing from what has been established as untouchable. But the undercurrent is more powerful: the convict runs away because he realizes the very law he accepts as maintaining his social order is, at least at times, undesirable. So the question remains: Does Larry fall because he is too quick to leave or does he trip because his real desire is to stay?

[The entire Semon (with Stan Laurel) film can be viewed here.]

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