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Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies From Nickelodeon’s to Youtube – by Trav S. D.

51NF-vvToPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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).

The_Vagabond_still

Edna Purviance and Charlie Chaplin

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.

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2016 in Books

 

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The Mark of Zorro (1920)

downloadDouglas Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro is simply delightful. I enjoyed it even more the second time I saw it. Irrepressible, joyously bouncy, mischievous humor, swashbuckling and acrobatic heroics – it’s hard not to laugh and smile throughout the entire movie.

The Mark of Zorro was adapted from Johnston McCulley’s The Curse of Capistrano only one year after it’s publication. Evidently Mary Pickford, Fairbank’s wife at the time, suggested he turn it into a movie. I’m not exactly sure how faithful the movie is to the book, though I suspect not startlingly so (which isn’t a bad thing). But Fairbank’s film did provide the template for all future Zorro stories.

Don Diego Vega (Douglas Fairbanks) was educated in Spain and has been back in California for three months. His father is disgusted with him, saying his “blood has turned to water.” The only thing that seems to compel his interest are his magic tricks involving his handkerchief (“Have you seen this one?” he asks languidly). His father wants Diego to marry and figures the only woman who would be interested in his weak son would be an impoverished woman of noble blood.

But Diego is really Zorro, the mysterious masked bandit who rides about at night, punishing the soldiers who persecute the native people of California. His sworn mission is to free California of the oppression of Governor  Alvaredo (George Periolat) and his henchman, Captain Ramon (Robert McKim). He wants to rouse the caballeros into action by shaming them into doing their duty as men of noble blood (people are rather obsessed with noble blood in this film).

an awkward first meeting for Lolita and Diego

an awkward first meeting for Lolita and Diego

Meanwhile, his father’s plan to get Diego married proceeds apace. The Pulido family have been stripped of everything by the governor and need to repair their fortune, so Don Diego’s father and the parents of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite De La Motte) attempt to arrange a union. Initially, Lolita is excited…until she meets Diego. He sits limply in a chair and yawns, uttering inane comments about how he will send a servant to sing under her window (she replies by saying she has a servant who adores music) while she makes faces of the utmost disgust. When he shows her one of his ubiquitous magic tricks, her reaction is priceless. “He’s not a man. He’s a fish!” is Lolita’s verdict after he leaves.

But not ten minutes after Diego leaves, Zorro shows up to do his own wooing and Lolita is remarkably receptive to a masked bandit singing poetry to her in her garden. while her parents send someone to tell Captain Ramon about the presence of Zorro (not apparently fearing for the safety of their daughter) in the hopes of being restored to favor. Captain Ramon turns out to be lecherous, however, and after Zorro leaves, poor Lolita has to listen to yet a third profession of love in the same day.

The rest of the film builds to an extremely entertaining finale involving a rescue (several rescues), sword fights and an extended scene where Zorro leads Ramon’s men on a merry chase through the town: over walls, up walls, through windows. He leaps and swings and even stops to have a bite of breakfast while the poor soldiers are left hopelessly in his dust. It all looks like the best fun in the world and provides a perfect showcase for what makes Douglas Fairbanks so irresistible.

Zorro and Captain Ramon have a face-off

Zorro and Captain Ramon have a face-off

Fairbanks has a great deal of fun as Diego, too. He yawns, constantly fatigued and languid, and looks out from under hooded, sleepy eyes, only to grin ruefully (and with a twinkle of sly intelligence) whenever people react with disgust to him. The contrast between Diego and the energetic, joyous Zorro makes for one of the best contrasts in character I’ve seen in a Zorro film (or in any story featuring a character with a secret identity).

It’s also a fun role for Marguerite De La Motte. Douglas Fairbanks’ leading ladies do not generally have the most interesting roles, but Lolita is one of the better ones. She doesn’t get to do anything heroic, but she’s fun, highly expressive and lively (and her expressions of disgust are a panic).

I’ve discovered that with silent films (at least non-Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd comedies), it can take me several viewings to fully appreciate them. Silent films grow on me, possibly because I notice more each time I watch. I am reading Tracey Goessel’s The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks (an excellent and highly readable biography) and she discussed how one can miss little actions in silent films. Modern audiences are used to dialogue and music to direct are attention, whereas in silent films, little bits of business can occur quickly without our noticing. For example, when Diego first comes to call on the Pulido family, he does not intend to stay long. While he is greeting them all, different people keep trying to take his hat. The hat has a long tie attached to it and whenever they lay his hat down, he twitches it back…until he sees Lolita and then he lets them finally take the hat. It’s all done beneath the surface. It’s not flaunted; it’s simply happening while he’s talking. I didn’t notice the first time I saw the film, but it’s very amusingly done and nicely illustrates that he’s impressed with Lolita, even though he goes out of his way to demonstrate that he isn’t.

Mark 4Another thing I liked about the film is the finale, where the reveal of his identity is saved for the very end (even thought it should be entirely obvious to anyone who thinks about it for two seconds). But it’s dramatically satisfying as Diego finally loses his Diego lethargy and morphs into Zorro before everyone’s astonished eyes.

The version I watched was a Kino release and the piano score by Jon G. Mirsalis suits the action well. Since Douglas Fairbanks was never into doing romantic scenes, the romantic music for those scenes heightens the romance, as well as has a habit of getting stuck in my head.

According to Tracey Goessel, Fairbanks Zorro character influenced several creators of superheros. Bob Kane got the idea of the bat cave from Zorro’s hidden cave and Superman was partly modeled after Fairbanks, as well. In many ways, one could argue that Douglas Fairbanks was the first superhero.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2016 in Movies

 

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