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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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Slapstick Signage #6 & #7

Both from The Show (1922) and both pretty much sum up the narrative ingredients needed for for a seminal Semon short (Seminal Semon shorts? That can’t be right!): goo, wild animals, and explosives.

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