In Which I Rank the Silent Comedians

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This post grew out of my conviction that the prevailing trope of there being a “Big Three” or a “Big Four” among silent film comedians is a false portrait of reality, and ultimately unhelpful to analysis. When I wrote Chain of Fools, I toyed with creating a “Big Six” or a Big “Ten”, and even shifting the usual order around some, just to be provocative. Ultimately, though I found even those expanded paradigms to be confining, so I’ve opened it up a lot wider.

I do not pretend that the order here is any sense “definitive” or “inarguable”. We are talking about comedians, not Olympic athletes. My criteria for placement tries to strike a balance among: 1) how funny I find them (entirely subjective); 2) how well their films are constructed; 3) their standing among other critics and the public, past and present (I never disregard that completely, even when I disagree); and 4) talkies are taken into account, as are shorts.

For various reasons, I left a few of the silent comedy giants out of the running. My accounting starts at the year 1914, when Chaplin came into the picture. Is this Chaplin-centric? Maybe, but I do have a reason. I feel like the form of the silent comedy short doesn’t really gel until Chaplin masters it during his Mutual period. Others may disagree, but that’s how I feel. It could have been anybody; it happened to be Chaplin. This means that some great ones from the field’s early years have been left out, notably Max Linder and John Bunny, both of whom I worship as performers, even though the vehicles that capture them are rudimentary. Linder, of course did return and make some features in the 1920s, and they are quite enjoyable. But rather than include Linder in the list below and give him a middling ranking (a grave injustice to somebody so important to silent comedy) I left him out completely. In essence, we may say that he is ABOVE this list. I also left out Douglas Fairbanks, whom I hold to be extremely important to silent comedy, but ultimately his reach was wider than comedy, and though he was very physical, slapstick was not his metier (i.e., he jumped over things, he didn’t trip over them). And lastly, painful though it is, I left off W. C. Fields though he starred in many silent features for Paramount and of course conquered the field of comedy during the talking era. Ultimately, he was not a creature of silent comedy as the performers below were, all of whom did some time in the trenches learning their craft in shorts. The career of Raymond Griffith‘s is closest to Fields’ silent career but even he spent time under Mack Sennett.

As always, click on the links for my full biographical article on each comedian. Now, starting at the top, and working our way down, a ranking of the top silent comedians:

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Charlie Chaplin

It’s fashionable to prefer Keaton over Chaplin these days, and technically Keaton is the better film maker and the more modern in sensibility. But Keaton came along six years after Chaplin. Essentially he quietly improved on what Chaplin invented and OWNED for decades. It is Chaplin who remains one of the world’s most recognized and beloved stars to this day. Educated modern people tend to pooh-pooh Chaplin’s “sentimentality”, but I did a little survey the other day. Chaplin made around 90 films. How many of them have pathos front and center? Scarcely more than a dozen. That they are among the better known and loved of Chaplin’s films tells you something about the tastes of the public. (And when someone derides Chaplin for being “sentimental” it tells ME something about THEM — that they haven’t seen many Chaplin films.) ALSO: this is a list of comedians, not necessarily directors (many of the folks below did not direct their own films). Chaplin’s film direction was crude and simplistic. After all, he started directing in 1914. But as a comedian — he was a comedy master. So was Keaton, but Chaplin had many more colors in his palette as a performer. And lastly, Chaplin’s talkies help secure his status as the top comedian; most of Keaton’s talkies are wretched (people are usually quick to add “through no fault of his own!”, but, no, I would call drinking, alienating studio chiefs, and letting others make your career decisions faults of your own.) Chaplin’s work was top notch from 1914 to 1952 at least. Keaton’s was equally superlative from 1917 through 1929. This isn’t to run down Keaton, it’s to defend Chaplin, whom I hear unthinking detractors trash almost daily. Anyway, read much more about him on this blog and in Chain of Fools!

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Buster Keaton

Keaton is arguably the greatest silent comedian of all time. See what I did there? Well, it’s true! And I don’t mean it lightly. I devoted an entire chapter in Chain of Fools to the genius of Keaton, and I even implied that he was smarter than Chaplin. Keaton was the complete creature of silence, and the ultimate master of silent comedy form and the better technical director. But we are talking about “favorites”, are we not? Mine, and the general public’s favorites, and in both cases, Chaplin continues to rule. Today, modern critics tend to prefer Keaton. I understand all of their points. But really, in the end it’s a debate about “Which is better, chocolate or vanilla?” I love them both when they’re good. Someone has to be second, and for reasons already enumerated, Keaton takes second place, and he would probably agree himself. (I’m guessing every comedian on this list would put Chaplin first without hesitation).

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Harold Lloyd

Like everyone else, I put Lloyd third, although I’ve often toyed with replacing him with someone else for various reasons (usually Harry Langdon or Laurel and Hardy). The reason being that Lloyd is less of a “clown” (or less obviously a clown), and his work is less personal. There is something transcendent and uncanny about Chaplin, Keaton, Langdon, Laurel and Hardy and even Larry Semon which is NOT present in Lloyd (although many modern people read “clown” into what he does on screen but I think that has more to do with the medium than the actor). Lloyd’s vehicles are strictly commercial entertainments. That said, as you see, I keep Lloyd in the third slot and it is impossible to do otherwise. Like Chaplin, he was a founding artist of silent comedy. Having begun his career in around 1915, he helped invent the form. Then there is the sheer volume of his work — he made many more films than Chaplin or Keaton, all of a consistently high quality. And though his work is less “personal” or distinctive than the clownier clowns, it’s easy for me to group his films mentally with those of later Hollywood comedy auteurs like Frank Capra or Preston Sturges (or later Hollywood comic actors who followed his template like Danny Kaye). Also, like Chaplin, his films remained of a high quality well into the talking era. And lastly there have been times (the 1920s) when the public at least would have rated Lloyd as number two or even number one.  Lloyd merits his place as “The Third Genius.”

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Laurel and Hardy

It’s customary to place Langdon fourth, and that order works for me if we are strictly talking about silent comedy features. Langdon’s features rank him with the other three, even though he made a smaller number of them. Laurel and Hardy broke into features during the talking era, and none of them are anywhere near what I would call a comedy masterpiece in a league with those of the Big Four silent comedy giants. That said: many, many, MANY Laurel and Hardy shorts (both silent and talking) are indeed comedy masterpieces. If you want to hear people LAUGH, and laugh hard — rock the HOUSE with laughter — Laurel and Hardy win, hands down. If it were only that, they’d be at the very top of this list. But we’re weighing several factors here. Every one of Laurel and Hardy’s features (and they made a lot of features) has serious weaknesses. That is because, generally speaking, even in a comedy if we’re to spend a good bit of time with a character, we want to identify with him and care what happens to him. Properly categorized, Laurel and Hardy (much like the Three Stooges, believe it or not) are satire, not comedy. (Look up the difference, if you don’t already know it. Most people don’t seem to). We laugh AT Laurel and Hardy, not with them. Unlike most comedians, we aren’t meant to feel sympathy toward them or root for them.  It is a forgone conclusion that they will never realize their goals or anything they set out to achieve. If we were meant to care about what they do, their movies would be depressing instead of funny — but we find it funny. The satire is very broad. It is social, not political, and is (based on every interview I’ve read with Laurel) entirely unconscious.. It has to do mostly with sending up institutions like marriage, friendship and the workplace, and the inability of some people to live up to society’s expectations. (Stan Laurel’s best solo work was also of this type, by the way. He’s weaker in the films where we’re meant to identify with his character. His strongest solo films are his spoofs and parodies). Laurel knew this about his comedy (that we’re not meant to identify emotionally with the team), and he said many times that he didn’t want to make features, because he saw the challenge we’re identifying. But the industry shifted, and when they stopped making shorts he had no choice but to make features.  But while the features generally have problems, some of those shorts are abstract, formal masterpieces. Man, just like music.

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Harry Langdon

Like I said, there have been times when I have been tempted to be provocative and rank Langdon third in the pantheon. Like Chaplin and Keaton, he is a great clown (Lloyd is not a clown, more like a comic actor), and Stan Laurel, it is commonly acknowledged today, based much of his screen character on Langdon’s, theoretically elevating Langdon above Laurel. Further, as outre as Langdon’s character is, Langdon found a way to make him sympathetic. (Whereas Laurel and Hardy’s features, even the best of them, never give us that level of emotional involvement. We laugh at them — perhaps harder than we laugh at anybody else — but the story is generally just excuse for slapstick. It’s not like we care what happens to the character — in fact the more they fall down and hurt themselves, the better.) Our ranking of Langdon fifth has more to do with volume ultimately. I’ve seen all of his extant films, including the talkies. Some are very funny and some are masterpieces. But (in the silent era, at least) there aren’t very many of them. And while his output in the talking era was respectably large, most of it wasn’t in a class with his silent work. But what there is of Langdon’s best work is pretty damned dazzling.

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Larry Semon

Commentators throughout the 20th century were in a habit of disparaging Semon. But with proper perspective, I believe he deserves a place close to the top. Langdon only beats him out because of the quality of his silent features (most of Semon’s features were relatively terrible) and because his career went so much longer (Semon died in 1928). But I think Semon belongs in a class with Chaplin, Fairbanks and Lloyd as being one of the founding geniuses of the silent comedy short. He arrived that early and his early movies are that good.  For a time in the late teens, he was considered second only to Chaplin. His gags were among the funniest and most memorable of any ever put on film (sometimes for originality, sometimes merely for scale and extravagance). The visual impact of his clown character ranks him with the top screen clowns. And I have answers for most of the usual criticisms of him. He is often accused of being repetitive. And it’s true that he often stages similar business from film to film. But ironically this is because they were successful with audiences! And the films were never meant to be watched several at a time. As with the Three Stooges, I say Larry Semon shorts are best watched “one in a row”. Another criticism is that, unlike Keaton or Lloyd, Semon doesn’t do his own stunts, so his films are less thrilling and impressive. That may matter to you — it doesn’t matter to me. Is every comedian supposed to take a Keaton level of punishment? Keaton is not human. Semon’s strength was imagination (he started out as a cartoonist). He doesn’t jump out second story windows, but it’s not as though he has no strengths. The criticism that hits home is that he is all gags, no story. He is a surrealist. That’s why his features are a jumble and many of his shorts overstay their welcome. But I think that of all the silent comedians, his comic sensibility comes closest to the Marx Brothers and the other nut comedians of the 1930s. If he had lived a few more years, it would have been interesting to see what he would have brought to talking pictures.

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Charley Chase

I doubt anyone could dislodge my top six, but the only factor preventing Charley Chase from climbing higher is that he didn’t star in features (aside from a couple of obscurities).  A great many of Chase’s shorts are works of comedy perfection, and I’ve always thought it was a case of gross myopia on the part of Hal Roach not to give him features to star in, especially during the talking era. The domesticity of Chase’s character suits him to all kinds of situations conducive to films of greater length. In fact, his character was far better suited to features than were Laurel and Hardy’s. But naturally Roach knew things we don’t, and perhaps stumbling blocks like Chase’s drinking problem (he had one) were a factor. As it is, some of the funniest, best made comedy shorts starred Charley Chase (often made with the assistance of his brother Paul Parrott, and a dream team that included Leo McCarey and others).

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Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and  Mabel Normand (tied)

I can’t help associating these two mentally because of all the co-starring they did in 1915 and 1916, and because of a certain parallelism in their careers. They’re each unique, but they also both rate a place in the rankings….right about here. And I have difficulty elevating one above the other. So let them share this slot.

Mabel came earlier than Roscoe; she was working with Sennett as early as 1911. She was the top female comedian of the silent era. There were many others, but the reason why you won’t find them on this list, although we’ve certainly written about them on this blog and will again is because 1) many of them were not slapstick comedians, but were more like comic actors in the vein of Fairbanks (e.g., Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Constance Talmadge), and 2) many were the leading ladies of slapstick comedians and not the stars of the films themselves (Edna Purviance, Bebe Daniels [in the Harold Lloyd pictures], Mildred Davis), and 3) many were parts of comedy ensembles (Louise Fazenda [at Keystone], Gale Henry, Minta Durfee) but not solo stars of slapstick comedies. (Alice Howell starred in her own films but I’ve not seen enough of them yet to weigh in on whether she ought to be on this list). There are ways in which Normand has aspects of all three of those other qualifiers, but you can also say that she starred in her own slapstick films (or co-starred as the equal of peers like Chaplin or Arbuckle), and also starred in her own features. She was also one of the industry’s first female directors and producers. In the end, scandal and illness hurt and shortened her career but not enough to damage her relatively high ranking on this list.

As for Arbuckle he was one of the most popular and recognizable comedians of the silent era and is still one of the best known. He was so popular that like Chaplin in 1917 he got his own production company to star in his own series of shorts (where Buster Keaton was his apprentice] and in 1920 he became one of the first comedians to stars in features. Scandal killed his career even worse than Normand’s, but by that time he was a highly respected, very solid comedy director so he worked steadily behind the scenes under pseudonyms for close to a decade and then made some interesting and funny talking shorts in the early 30s before he too died prematurely in 1933.

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Lloyd Hamilton

My regard for this important comedian is sort of the opposite of most others’. There are at least two important phases of Hamilton’s work. First, with Bud Duncan, as part of the team of Ham and Bud (1915-1917). Second, a solo career (1917-1935, with some interruptions). I’m one of the few people apparently who prefers the Ham and Bud work. It’s crude and it’s early, but it’s also pioneering. They were one of the screen’s earliest comedy teams, fully a decade before Laurel and Hardy. They were very clownish and made a very striking visual impression, and their gags are funny. It’s not sophisticated but it works for me. More folks are fans of Hamilton’s solo work, and I can certainly see that and respect it. His character was very interesting..sort of midway between the stylization of the clowns and the more realistic approaches of Harold Lloyd and Charley Chase…with a smidgen of Arbuckle’s character thrown in. Hamilton was very well thought of by his contemporaries and was even tried in features. I find that many of his shorts share some of the extravagant drawbacks of Semon’s films. But over time I am growing to appreciate him more.

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Raymond Griffith

Like Bunny and Fairbanks, it’s a little problematic to include Raymond Griffith here, as he often appeared in films that weren’t comedies. He was an actor. But a few things nudge him onto this list. One is that he spent a few years on the Mack Sennett lot and other slapstick studios 1915-1921, where he acquired a physical comedy vocabulary. I’m a little tempted to put him after Langdon on this list, because some of his features for Paramount are that good and I love him that much as a comedian. But there is something to be said for doing the day-in, day-out bread and butter work of comedy shorts. They deserve respect, and as I said the shorts of Laurel and Hardy, Semon, Charley Chase, Arbuckle and Normand count for something. (Griffith didn’t really distinguish himself until features).

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Ben Turpin

I’ve grown to think of Ben Turpin as the ultimate Mack Sennett star, and when I think of Sennett’s features, the ones he made starring Turpin like A Small Town Idol (1921) and The Shriek of Araby (1923) come to mind first. Somehow, there’s something about laughing at a guy with crossed eyes that is the essence of Sennett’s low-brow but ultimately irresistible comedy. Prior to his many years with Sennett, Turpin had also been one of the first comedy stars at Essanay, making him the silent comedy star with the longest career, as well (dating back to 1909…the age of Max Linder and John Bunny). It’s somewhat hard to gauge his talent. His crossed-eyes seemed to be his chief attribute, and if you’ll excuse the expression, it’s hard to see past them. He starred in lots of funny and popular comedies and the public has always loved him (and he remains one of the better known of the lesser silent comedians to this day…because of those damn eyes).

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Sydney Chaplin

“Putting Syd Chaplin BELOW Ben Turpin?! Are you CRACKED?!” he asked himself. Well, I don’t. Let’s say the two are tied. Obviously Syd was the better comedian. It’s too much to say that he taught his younger brother Charlie everything he knew, but he sure played an important role, and he shared that same excellent Karno training. Syd started his career at Sennett right when Charlie left (1915) and had some success playing a comedy character he called “Gussle”. And he also starred in some of the greatest comedy features of the silent era including A Submarine Pirate (1915, Sennett’s second biggest hit), Charley’s Aunt (1925) and The Better ‘Ole (1926). He also memorably appeared in several of Charlie’s films from the First National period. (My favorite bit with him is as the lunch wagon owner in A Dog’s Life, where he keeps almost catching Charlie as he steals muffins).

Now we go down a rung. Let’s say these guys are all about tied: 

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Chester Conklin

Great star of shorts as “Walrus”, co-star of Paramount features with W.C. Fields, Charlie’s boss in Modern Times, and a bit player in the sound era.

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Ford Sterling

One of my favorites! Major star of comedy shorts through 1921 (and one of Sennett’s biggest stars prior to Chaplin) and later more of an actor in features, including comedies like The Show Off (1926) and Miss Brewster’s Millions (1926). He had some success as a character actor in the early 30s and rounded out his career by starring in some comedy shorts for RKO.

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Mack Swain

Another of my favorites. A great star of shorts as “Ambrose”, and a prominent part of the ensembles in features like Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Griffith’s Hands Up. 

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Al St. John

Arbuckle’s nephew. First a valued part of the ensemble at Keystone, then part of a loose team with Arbuckle and Keaton at Comique, and then finally the star of his own shorts at various studios in the 1920s. In the sound era he finally moved up to features playing sidekicks in B movie westerns.

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Billy Bevan

One of Sennett’s biggest stars in shorts during the 20s, he mostly played bit parts in features during the talking era.

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Lupino Lane

One of the most talented and versatile of silent comedians, by virtue of his training as a music hall acrobat. Most of his work was for Fox and Educational. He made a couple of talking features before returning to England in the early ’30s.

Next Rung: 

Below these top guys, several supporting  and ensemble players who deserve honorable mention, but I’d have great difficulty ranking them:  Eric Campbell, Edgar Kennedy (who finally got to star in shorts in the sound era),  Snub Pollard, James Finlayson, Vernon Dent, Bud Jamison, Charlie Murray, but really by now it’s getting foolish. There are 50 other worthy people I could name, but you’ve got to stop some place! For my most on the Great Female Comedians of Silent Comedy go here. 

For more on silent and slapstick comedy film history don’t miss 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 etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500For more on show biz historyconsult 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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4 Responses to “In Which I Rank the Silent Comedians”

  1. A great list including a few I’m not familiar with. I sometimes wonder why Larry Semon isn’t better known today.
    A name I notice is absent is Max Davidson. His reputation suffers today, since his style was ethnic Jewish humor, but he sometimes rises above it, as in Call of the Cuckoos which is often included among Laurel and Hardy collections due to their cameo in it.
    Also, what do you think of the silent Our Gang shorts?

    Like

  2. Larry Semon and Charley Chase I’ve gotten to know and appreciate thanks to TCM feature nights. Lloyd Hamilton and Raymond Griffith I haven’t seen, to my knowledge, but I’m interested and will look for their work.

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    • I’m pretty sure there’s some Lloyd Hamilton on youtube. Griffith is harder — I’ve seen 3 of his features screened in theatres I think. Don’t know how available his work is for home consumption

      Like

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