Tag Archives: silent film

Slapstick with Bullets – Part 1

Are gangster films slapstick or not?

It’s not as far-fetched as one might think, especially when considering the slippery slope of connotation in three closely related terms: “gangster”, “crookster” and “huckster”. This provides a spectrum of silliness. On one end, “gangster” designates a dramatic (not quite tragic) criminality where various illegal activities are organized in such a way that produces not only material wealth but also a compromised level of political clout in the everyday operations of city life. At the opposite end, a “huckster” implies a petty man who thinks he can outsmart everyone despite obvious evidence they’re not smart enough not to be in their situation of needing to habitually con other people to scrape by. So a “crookster” is simply the mid-ground and as such never appears as a central protagonist but only as henchmen, black sheep, bullies, jerks, or they just litter the background for a little color and edge. Here’s a typical “crookster”:

Crooksters are all the different character variants that exist somewhere between the gangster’s dramatic struggle not to be predetermined by existing social forces of legitimacy and power from which they are excluded, and the huckster, whose painfully comic existence makes everyone around them enraged, confused or appalled thus reinforcing the former’s fantasy of being intellectually superior to everyone around them.

But what if the archetypal “gangster” identity, just like the crookster above (and both made iconic in the 1930’s at Warner Brother’s studio), never really extracted itself from the dominant slapstick era that preceded its own popularity? What if Cagney and Robinson are nothing more than Chaplin and Fields stuck in a world full of flying bullets, loose women, bare knuckles and speakeasies?

Take as a for-instance these two clips of the same gag:

 

The top clip is from Roy Del Ruth’s Taxi! (1932) and, while hardly seen in the context of great Warner gangster films, is nevertheless completely typical of the formula: racketeering, corruption, murder, chips on shoulders driving traditional neighborhood allegiances to contest with a main character’s extra-neighborly ambitions, a street brawl or three and finally some less-than-deep philosophical fadoodling on the nature of right and wrong. In the scene, one of the film’s openers, Cagney’s character is caged in by two rival taxis and moments later cleans their clocks in a impromptu fist match, all of it egged on by onlookers and passersby. [Note: Roy Del Ruth, like another WB mainstay, Lloyd Bacon (discussed below), was brought up in slapstick and directed films staring Harry Langdon, Mack Sennett and Ben Turpin.] This scene from Taxi! is violent, quick as a newspaper catching fire, and depicts clear adversarial interests.

The second clip, from The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), W.C. Fields is caged in by two cars and and this slowly instigates a mob-like sapping of the old man’s simplest, stupidest, most private wishes from his tired, ever-shrinking soul. The scene is not explicitly violent, but it is absolutely brutal and painful insofar as public humiliation and arbitrary bullying is a kind of bloodletting even doctor’s can’t stop. But the scene is not quick at all; it’s slow as molasses, agonizing, cruelly drawing in the audience to watch a man with a raincloud over his head get yelled at for being wet by people with the sun on their shoulders.

It’s the same story told through two different aesthetics, a through-the-looking-glass moment.

Let’s not leave out all of the slapstick elements in the first Taxi! clip. The fight is a wide shot, not a chopped up P.O.V. Like a prat fall, the audience is invited into the fun of the fight, rather than any of the hurt or desperation. Also, we have stock characters: the loose cannon, the blockhead, the confused immigrant, and a couple of jerk-faced crooksters. These are all comical archetypes of physicality and sociology, but they all lack the aspect of psychology necessary for a fully-formed dramatic character. They are flat, which means they are better served in sight gags. Not to say that there aren’t humorless gangster films like Public Enemy or The Roaring Twenties, only that a clip like this bridges a gap between gangster films and slapstick in meaningful ways:

So speed is a feature of the gangster film. Warner’s two-week-wonder-tron, Lloyd Bacon, was given his first job in the teens (not his teens but the century’s) by then Human Resource Director at Mutual Films, Charlie Chaplin. They worked together often, for instance here as the Tramp’s double in 1916’s The Floorwalker:

But when is this speed not used to comedic effect in WB gangster flicks? When they want to be dramatic, they simply stop the break-neck speed and pace scenes differently. Speed – and this goes for a lot of entertaining 75 min features of the Pre-Code era – is a lingering effect of the breathtakingly quick gag work happening in slapstick pre and post sound. Here’s a prefect example of speed having a punch-line effect in the reform-angled gangster piece, Picture Snatcher (1933), directed by Chaplin’s protege-of-sorts, Bacon:

More on this questionable parallel in the coming weeks.

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Sears and Robots

Though not technically a robot, great costume work from Larry Semon’s Her Boy Friend (1924):

More on robots from the old blog here , here , and here.

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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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Slapstick Signage #5

Label from Larry Semon’s The Dome Doctor (1925), which combines a variety of viscous hair products, an escaped circus monkey, and strong electrical currents! Frankly this is due for a Gilliam remake:

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Semon’s Anti-Rationalist Spirit

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:

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“Suds” Redux

The best female-lead slapstick ever made, 1920’s Suds, is based on a popular one act by Frederick Fenn and Richard Pryce called ‘Op O’ Me Thumb. It’s also a great example of both how obligatory happy endings can nearly ruin a picture and how the function of comedy, slapstick included, is the total embrace of failure, death and pain.

In the should-be final scene, the pseudo-Cinderella Amanda Afflick, derided as “Sudsie” and played by Tinseltown’s first self-made millionaire, Mary Pickford, delivers a profoundly funny line when answering her own question wondering whether anyone will ever fall in love with her:

A triple negative. Not only, either – a triple negative spoken by a penniless, heart-broken, sobbing young woman:

This is the epicenter of comedy.

Look at how the triply negative intertitle mirrors the comical structure of the scene. The levels of Sudsie’s misery are so thoroughly so that they begin to crumble and fall within their very articulation. This blend of pathos and comedy is typically called Chaplin-esque, but this is less tragicomic than it is using tragedy as the baseline for humor.

The scene is actually Fields-esque. James Curtis, quotes W.C. Fields in his biography: “I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible. If it causes pain, it’s funny; if it doesn’t, it isn’t.”

See? She’s done for. Get it?

Of course things are only half as bad / twice as worse as they seem.

First, the half-as-bad: Before Sudsie concludes that nobody never won’t love her, the man of here dreams – a man who wants nothing to do with her – reluctantly pecks her cheek and then high-tails it out of the laundromat where the film finds its title. But, the scene is intercut with action happening just outside the door of the laundromat, where a delivery man who’s grown attached to Susdie because of a horse they both care for holds flowers in his hands and peers inside to look for the woman of his fancy. Once he gets a whiff of the jerk – whom he doesn’t know to be jerk per se – he backs off, not quite as upset as Sudsie will be moments later but nevertheless upset.

So “Nobody never won’t” is unambiguously foreshadowing the eventual reconciliation of the failed pair, Sudsie and the delivery man. Connecting through a break, positing a positive in a triple negative.

Now for the twice as worse: This is not the last frame of the film, as it so hilariously, proudly and beautifully should be.

After some cliche proverb about bumps in the road comes an obligatory last scene:

This is an interesting mirroring of the sense of shock and betrayal felt upon seeing this final scene of the film, only by the characters in the scene itself.

A close reading of the outcomes, from right to left: Sudsie is literally not Sudsie but instead some confused poster child for bourgeois ideals; her horse, Lavender, that previously mirrored Sudsie and her deeply-held conviction that scrawny, worthless, runts deserved to be loved as though they were your own self, is now a fat, boring, majestic-looking thing – Yucklph!; Finally, she winds up with … THE DAMN JERK! and not the delivery man after all.

He looks as confused as anyone, doesn’t he?

The whole charade – as cliche of a Hollywood-forced happily-ever-after as any – is a far, far cry from Fenn and Pryce’s original play, which ends as such:

She crouches in a shabby little heap in the middle of the empty room as the CURTAIN FALLS

See? She’s done for. Get it?

The only – and only slightly because this is just apologizing for what’s shown – saving grace to the disaster is that the fantasy/delusion operates in the Lynchian structure of it-could-all-be-a-dream. Let’s not remember that before all this disastrous bump-in-the-road business, Sudsie was falling asleep on the step:

Ay, there’s the heap.

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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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