Jacques Tati: The Slapstick Tradition’s Last Gasp


Today is the birthday of the sublime Jacques Tati (1907-1982), the world’s premiere exponent of clown cinema in the post silent era.

Of Russian and Dutch extraction (his full last name is Tatischeff), Tati was a pro soccer player and French music hall comic before directing and starring in his first feature Jour de fete, about a funny postman, in 1949. He created his signature character the awkward, bumbling, unfailingly polite M. Hulot in his next film M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), as well as Tati’s recognizable style: a pleasant, leisurely pace; very little dialogue; stylized sound effects; recurring musical themes; satirical tweaks at modern life; an ensemble cast; and an organization revolving around the imaginative physical gag, reminiscent of all the great silent film comedians. His next Mon Oncle (1958) was his largest international hit, containing more pointed satire of modern domestic life, much in advance of what American comedians were turning out at the time. Playtime (1967) was his most ambitious film and his biggest flop (it bankrupted him), although it has its proponents, including Truffaut and Terry Jones (and me!) Playtime goes even farther than Mon Oncle in its satire, with enormous set pieces in an office building, at an airport etc. With Trafic (1971) he returned to a more modest budget and a more typical Hulot like scenario (the transportation of an experimental car to a trade show). Parade his 1974 TV special, is a mash-up of a variety show and a Tati film. Everyone in the audience seems to be a clown out of a Tati movie and there are interstitial segments in the lobby AROUND his show. It’s full of 70s hippie fashions and by now Tati’s is a distinguished older man. Instead of playing Hulot (as he had done for 20 years) he does cabaret bits, like a French Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, or Jerry Lewis, a mix of pantomimes, verbal comedy, sketches, the whole gamut. His other films are documentaries, although one of his earlier scripts forms the basis for the 2010 animated film The Illusionist.

Below a scene from Mon Oncle, in which he tries to figure out his sister’s moderm kitchen:

To learn more about  variety artistsconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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