Tonight on TCM: The Big 3 of Silent Comedy

Tonight through tomorrow morning on Turner Classic Movies: Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, the “Big Three” of silent comedy. Starting at 8pm Eastern, the menu will be:

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8pm: Keaton’s One Week

Keaton’s first short to be released to the public, One Week (1920) was based on Home Made, an actual promotional film for do-it-yourself house construction released by the Ford Motor Company. In Buster’s version, just before his character starts to build his pre-fab dream house for himself and his bride, his rival sabotages the effort by switching the numbers on the constituent pieces. The result is a make-work monstrosity out of a cubist nightmare: doors, walls, roofs, and windows all mismatched and not a single right angle in the construction. Later, when a storm strikes, the whole dealybob spins around and around on its foundation like a crank-fueled carousel. Despite all the craziness, Keaton somehow never lets us forget this is about a couple of newlyweds working toward a very specific goal. We’re rooting for them to finish this house so they can begin their life together, even as comical events keep intruding to impede them.

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8:30pm: Keaton’s The Three Ages

Keaton’s first full-length film, The Three Ages (1923), was essentially three shorts intercut to make a feature. Keaton cleverly designed it as a parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, which had told four stories from as many historical time periods, highlighting the similarities between human struggles across the centuries. In The Three Ages Keaton plays a “young man in love” in prehistoric times, during the Roman Empire, and the present day (1923). The heavy in all three sections was Wallace Beery, and the love interest a young lady named Margaret Leahy, who’d become a film actress by winning a contest. (This was her only film.)

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11:15pm: Keaton’s The General

Inspired by the photos of Mathew Brady and by Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, this Civil War comedy is set in Georgia in 1861. The title refers not to an army officer but the nickname of a locomotive tended by a crackerjack engineer played by Keaton. The army decides that the young man is more valuable to the Confederacy in his usual job as a train engineer than as a soldier. But his girl thinks he is shirking and shuns him. He proves himself by a daring single-handed rescue of his stolen train deep behind enemy lines.

That sounds plenty serious—and it is. The General flopped at the box office and some speculate that this is the reason why. Not only are there fewer gags, but audiences at the time were unamused by the subject matter. It seemed in bad taste to make a comedy against a backdrop of the country’s greatest tragedy. Today, at a further remove, audiences find the film breathtakingly beautiful, and can laugh at its silliness without being too stressed out at the nail-biting climax.

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12:45am: Chaplin’s The Kid

Chaplin’s first feature The Kid, released in early 1921 is in some ways his most artistically successful film, the one time he achieves a perfect fusion of comedy and sentiment in a single story.  As a title announces at the beginning of the picture he hopes to bring us both “a smile, and perhaps a tear.”  The Little Tramp finds an abandoned baby on the sidewalk and raises it as his own child. When the authorities learn about the situation they try to take the boy (Jackie Coogan) away to an orphanage “for his own good” in a flat-bed truck that looks more appropriate for a dog catcher than Child Services. Driven to Douglas Fairbanks-like heroism (the only such scene in Chaplin’s body of work), the Tramp runs across the housetops and jumps over a fence onto the departing truck and takes the Kid back. The reunion with the boy is one of the most moving scenes in all cinema. In the end, the child’s mother (Edna Purviance), now a successful actress, resumes custody of her son, and we are prepared to exit crying—until (as in The Vagabond) the last minute switcheroo and reunion.  We get the impression that the Tramp will get to visit the boy at the very least, which is roughly what is appropriate. He has taught him to rob, steal, and break windows, after all; he probably shouldn’t be a father.

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1:45am: Chaplin’s City Lights

Despite being released well into the sound era, City Lights (1931) may be thought of as Chaplin’s last movie of the silent period, as work on it began in 1927.  The plot is about the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks he’s a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Tramp is also hanging around with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who has a distressing fair-weather habit of recognizing and embracing Charlie only when he’s drunk—and not recalling a thing the morning afterwards. Eventually the Tramp procures funds for the girl’s eye operation (eye operation!) from the drunken millionaire, only to be arrested for theft when the latter sobers up. When the Tramp gets out of the pokey, he finds the flower girl to be in possession of two good, working eyes. Which means, sadly that she can see him. And that he isn’t a millionaire. The complex beat on which the film closes—of her realization and his trepidation when the truth is revealed—has been called by many critics one of the greatest and most moving moments in all cinema. In addition to writing, directing, producing and starring in this remarkable film, Chaplin also composed his first complete musical score for it (the first of many)

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3:30am: Lloyd’s Never Weaken

Never Weaken (1921) is one of Lloyd’s most important shorts — one of his last and one of his longest as he began to grope his way toward features. It’s also one of his so-called “thrill comedies”, paving the way for his most famous one Safety Last a few years later. After a few minutes of some romantic back-and-forth with his sweetheart (Mildred Davis), Harold is innocently sitting in his office when a construction girder is swung in through his window by a crane, picks him up, and carries him out several hundred feet over the city below….and we are off to the races, as Harold must find a way to get down from the top of a skyscraper that doesn’t even have any floors, stairs or elevators installed yet!

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4:15am: Lloyd’s Safety Last

Safety Last (1923) is the best known of Lloyd’s features, by virtue of the iconic image of him hanging from the clock at the top of an office building. A “thrill picture”, it casts him as a department store clerk who wants to make good with his boss by cooking up a publicity stunt. He hires a Human Fly (professional stunt climber) to climb all the way to the top of their seventeen-story building from the outside. Unfortunately, the guy he hired runs into some trouble with the police, and Harold, who’s never done this before, and certainly isn’t properly dressed or equipped, has to do the climbing himself. The hair-raising climax comprises at least a third of the picture. Indeed it is its whole point.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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