For Bastille Day: How the French Invented Film Comedy
The following is an excerpt from my 2013 book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, published by Bear Manor Media, available from Amazon.com etc etc etc
…Just as jazz, the quintessential American music, was born as a hybrid between German marches and the syncopated playing styles of African-Americans, it might be useful to think of American screen comedy as the love child of another foreign import, the French farce, mixed with the limitless extravagance of the American imagination. As with the march, we start out with a fairly rigid European structure, pleasurable to experience, but a foreign import nonetheless. In skillful hands the French farce is as seamless as a series of geometric proofs, its symmetries and proportions all laid out according to strict, innate, universal laws. While some of Mack Sennett’s films may seem free-wheeling and plotless, many others borrowed their spines directly from pre-existing farces. At Keystone, Sennett actually had a translator on staff, converting the plots of French plays into English synopses for his use. It is a fallacy that Keystone worked without prepared scenarios. It would be more accurate to say that they sometimes worked without scenarios. Most of the time they actually had a working document prepared ahead of time, which they could then deviate from as the mood struck them during production. The films generally have some kind of funny or ironic story arc borrowed from farce.
As in farces, coincidental interaction rules the day in a Keystone comedy. If the hero flirts with a woman in one scene, and then runs afoul of a random gentleman in another scene, it’s a sure bet that those two will turn out to be a married couple later on, and that our hero will only learn this crucial information when he is hiding under the wife’s bed. These are some Keystone plots: A married woman with whom our hero had earlier flirted sleepwalks into his room, forcing him to hide on the roof when her husband comes home (Caught in the Rain, 1914). Two strange men accidentally switch jackets, each of which has something incriminating in the pockets, which their wives then find. Then they all meet in the park, adding pandemonium to the domestic strife (His Trysting Place, 1914). Two husbands flirt with each other’s wives in the park. Each woman calls a policeman to arrest the mashers, but now the women have since become friends and agree not to press charges against each other’s husbands (Getting Acquainted, 1914). None of these plots would have been out of place on the French stage or screen of the time.
While these scenarios are funny, they have another element, one Sennett seems to have imported almost by accident, like some disease hitching a ride with an invading army. This element is of course sex. Recall that at the time, women wore corsets and weren’t allowed to even show an ankle in public, or even walk down the street unaccompanied. The art of the time was a reflection of the culture. Consider, for example, the raciest, “filthiest,” most controversial English-language play of that day: Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw. A modern reader of the play might be forgiven for being a little confused by its reputation. The words “sex” or “prostitute” are never mentioned in the play, let alone references to the various acts the title character is supposed to have engaged in. Meanwhile, by contrast, all of the characters in French farces behave like dogs in heat. In Feydeau’s The Lady from Maxim’s (1899), a married man wakes up to discover that he has brought a prostitute home with him. In Through the Window (1882), a strange lady walks into a man’s house and requests a bout of revenge sex so that she can get back at her husband. In Hotel Paradiso (1894), a couple has every intention of engaging in an extramarital affair, but a chain of incidents prevents them from even getting to touch each other.
Inspired by this alternate reality of French permissiveness, Sennett attempted to transplant something like it to his native soil. This new universe is one where sexed-up slobs habitually just walk up to random girls and try to make their time. Borrowed from both the farce and the melodrama, it may be the most frequently used plot device in Keystone films. A guy spies a girl, starts talking to her, won’t leave her alone, trouble ensues. This kind of behavior was even more frowned upon in Sennett’s day than in our own and for all the same reasons. A woman’s reality in these films is downright dangerous. In Between Showers (1914), for example, the girl (Emma Clifton) is bothered by no less than four different men. She must feel like she’s got pork chops tied to her legs. Sometimes in these comedies it’s as though life has reverted to pre-civilization, where cavemen are just prowling around, on the hunt for women to bag and drag back to their huts by the hair of their heads. Indeed, in His Prehistoric Past (1914), that’s literally the plot of the film.
It’s not just sex that begins to rear its ugly head in the Keystone films, but on occasion even the scatological. The French are a freer culture; they have no hang-ups about the lower body. This is the nation of Rabelais, Voltaire, and de Sade. These are not people who pretend that certain bodily productions don’t exist. The action in Feydeau’s Hortense a dit: je m’en fous! (1916)* is precipitated by a cat peeing on a coat. In the Max Linder film Max’s Hat (1913), a dog pisses on our hero’s chapeau right on camera! By contrast, you don’t see a lot of urine in the American and English stage and screen during the Edwardian era. But the French influence will be felt. A few months after leaving Sennett, Charlie Chaplin would mistake a leaky baby bottle for a peeing baby in Easy Street. It’s more polite but it’s the same idea. And there were plenty of people who thought it was rude enough in 1916.
* Translates roughly as “Hortense said, “I don’t give a fuck!”
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.