Here’s a perfect slapstick linguist paradigm: sound as a physical gag. And here’s a clip from W.C. Fields’ Never Give A Sucker An Even Break to demonstrate the point:
The clip treks far beyond the mere exemplar of a new category of mass produced silliness. Yes, sound is being used as a gag, for what’s stopping sound’s elemental physicality from being adopted into the fold of slapstick? But moreover, the scene is a strong critical manifestation of class consciousness, that pesky Marxist tract that rings truer the longer you live. The whole funny business is mired in an entrenched pitting of working-class sound against the sound of the bourgeoisie (catch the younger kid’s daze?), and ambiguously proceeds with no clear winners.
It’s also an aesthetic drawing-a-line-in-the-sand as well. Mid-thirties Hollywood saw an influx of singing-and-dancing idiots into otherwise purist slapstick routines, including the very best of the Marx Brothers, Chaplin, and W. C. Fields. Thank God the whole mess got under the skin of at least Fields who laments its inclusion in the slapstick feature format on more than one occasion than the clip above.
More on this to come. Is that alright with you, Mr. Pangborn?
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.
This is Harry Langdon as a human doorbell in 1933’s The Stage Hand. Besides Chaplin, who in the early sound films uses the new technology as just another prop in his comedies instead of embracing realist verisimilitude (that is until 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux), Langdon is far and away the best silent clown to deliver hilarious lines. For instance, see the above. Of course just how funny this scene is is ironic because these sound shorts are produced near the end of a precipitous fall from popularity that began five years earlier by ticking off Frank Capra. Add this to the fact that most people who’ve heard of Keaton, Chaplin and who squint a little when you mention Harold Lloyd, shake their heads and change the subject altogether if you bring up Harry Langdon.
Langdon is another figure in slapstick that expands on the issue of spoken word with particular genre of comedy, using idiosyncratic language so particular the jokes remain funny but also embrace something weird and unfathomable.