Tag Archives: Frank Capra

Seek to Hide, Hide to Seek

This post revives an earlier debate about dramatic activity/passivity in slapstick.

Here’re two titans of the silent screen telling jokes with movie-making itself, yet the two gags are achieved through opposing performances. The first is Chaplin in 1914 from Kid Auto Races:

This clip is an abridged version of what drives the whole short: a man can’t help but flirt with the camera. Or is he courting with the audience he anticipates. Or is he in lovestruck with the cameraman? It’s hilarious, and you can extrapolate Chaplin’s entire cinema based on the few clownish emotions and dramatic ideas it presents.

However, here’s the same set-up (public event, large crowd, film-within-a-film) but the comedy comes from a much deeper subversion of our expectations:

This bit from Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), especially when looked at after Chaplin, is spinning with ideas about spectral identity and other Hegelian/psychological head-busters: Can activity (action) operate as passivity (inaction)? More mysteriously, can inaction ever NOT be a type of action (NOTE: the outgoing U.S. Congress, the 112th, earned the moniker “D0-Nothing Congress” but this is of course a misnomer; if the press were more analytical they would have more accurately named it the “Do-Everything-We-Can-Prevent-Action Congress”), as the only achievable passivity is in a thing’s non-existence, which then can’t be discussed in terms like “achievable” so why are we even talking about it?

This is why Langdon’s gag is so phenomenal (NOTE: the joke may or may not have been written by Frank Capra). A movie star playing camera shy running from a camera is first hilarious, secondly thought-provoking, (both of these are apt to describe KAR) but third, it’s twisted, inserting a bit of tragedy into the tomfoolery. There’s an element of the nightmare, of terror, of the uncanny.

In general, what is uncanny can not be entertaining, which is why Chaplin always framed (and in some cases masked) disturbing or uncomfortable subjects like war or poverty or Fascism in moral righteousness and divine/poetic justice, aka: a happy ending (despite his Tramp’s ambiguous future at the end of most of the features).

Langdon however is not a sentimentalist. If anything he’s a surrealist, upending our ideas about story and narrative by withdrawing from reality and, through slapstick logic, guiding us somewhere strange.

 

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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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