Trav S. D. is a professional vaudevillian and author who has written a history of vaudeville (No Applause – Just Throw Money, which I am currently reading) and a history of slapstick. Chain of Fools begins by briefly tracing slapstick’s long tradition from the ancient Greeks through commedia dell’ arte to the circus, acrobatics, vaudeville and finally cinema. The bulk of his book is about silent comedy, but he also includes several chapters on the slapstick that followed during the early talkies and TV to manifestations of slapstick today (Sacha Baron Cohen is, according to him, one of the few genuine contemporary “clowns” in the traditional sense). One of his main arguments is that silent film did not just come out of nowhere and disappear with the advent of sound, but is a timeless tradition with deep roots and great influence on later films.
His history is excellent. He discuses and analyzes the slapstick comedians we all know – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Mack Sennett, Fatty Arbuckle – but also highlights comedians most people are not familiar with, like Larry Semon, Raymond Griffith, Lupino Lane (Ida Lupino is his niece). I’m not sure if Charley Chase and Harry Langdon are considered well-known or not. They seem to occupy a middle tier.
Though he focuses on the silent era, he still provides a broad look at the careers of the silent comedians. He talks about how Chaplin’s lengthy popularity was partly owing to how he made himself timeless. By the 1920s, Chaplin could have been considered old-fashioned, a bit melodramatic and somewhat quaint. But his emotional instinct was right on and not being rooted in one time actually made him timeless. Trav S.D. also discusses what makes good comedy. For him, a pet peeve is the purposeless thrashing about or random happenings. Good comedians need motivations for what they do and a reason for us to care. It’s actually much funnier that way.
However, what I found most interesting – though I enjoyed his history and analysis of the different comedians – was his discussion of the cinema as a visual medium versus an aural one. The general narrative is that talkies, or sound, won out over silent movies, but he doesn’t buy that. With the popularity of radio and the novelty of sound, he believes that sound temporarily won out and people’s mode of receiving information temporarily was realigned from the visual to the aural. In particular in the ’30s, dialogue is emphasized, but ultimately movies became more about visuals than dialogue. He believes this began to happen in the 1970s (though he also credits Alfred Hitchcock).
He has a point. Movies that dominate the box office today are primarily visual rather than aurally driven. Perhaps most specifically action/adventure movies. He believes they are the descendants of silent, physical comedy. As he points out, in action movies, dialogue is primarily reduced to comic asides during an action scene. Replace the comic asides with intertitles, he says, and you have a silent comedy (he holds up Douglas Fairbanks as an example, both his action/romantic/comedies and later his action/adventures).
If you think about it, there were a lot of movies adapted from books, plays and radio dramas in the 1930s and ’40s. Adaptations of plays, in particular, are not something you see now and they tend to be the most talky movies of all. It’s not that movies became all talky. Errol Flynn still swashbuckled and screwball comedy is part slapstick (Cary Grant can do a pratfall with the best of them). Preston Sturges in particular mined slapstick and gags in his films, though he often contrasted them with scenes of extended and funny wordiness.
But I wonder if that is why there were so many actors with distinctive voices during the ’30s and ’40s: Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, James Cagney, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Claude Rains. They are actors I love to listen to. Though not all actors relied as much on their voice. Gary Cooper was primarily a visual actor; he used body language far more than his voice to communicate emotion.
But as Trav S.D. points out, so many of the great “cinematic” moments during the golden age of Hollywood are actually theatrical moments caught on film. “Here’s looking at you, kid” from Casablanca, he argues, is a case in point. In contrast, the sight of Chaplin walking down the road in the short “The Tramp” with his feeble cane, shaking his leg, is a purely cinematic and visual one. Alfred Hitchcock films are also filled with purely visual moments.
Ultimately, he argues, the addition of sound wasn’t so much an “improvement” as it was an expanding of options.
This is not exactly on topic, but I watched a fascinating video about Jackie Chan, which talks about how to film action comedy, what makes it work and the affinity between comedy and action.
And just because I really enjoy this formulation of what makes Buster Keaton’s gags work so well.