We are now midway through the centennial anniversary of what may have been silent comedy’s most auspicious year. Yes, there were other momentous events in other years. Mack Sennett started Keystone in 1912. Charlie Chaplin made his first film in 1914. The great comedy features by the silent masters were all made during the 1920s. But 1917 is notable for the number and diversity of its comedy milestones, all of which combine for a major league industry-wide wallop. These combined events were transformational, to put it mildly. Granted — the real story of 1917 was happening in Europe: America entered World War One and Russia was wracked by Revolution. But our more modest purview is the revolution in comedy. Consider:
1. 1917 was the second year of Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual period, during which he made four of his most perfect comedies. Easy Street (January), The Cure (April), The Immigrant (June), and The Adventurer (October). With these films Chaplin essentially perfected the form of the comedy short, influencing the work of comedians and directors for decades. People watch these comedy classics to this day. It’s true that his famous features were still ahead of him, but it can be truly said that the Mutual shorts are closer to those in quality than they are to his crude, early efforts. They represent a big leap forward.
2. In April, 1917, Buster Keaton stepped in front of the cameras for the first time, in the Fatty Arbuckle comedy The Butcher Boy. Keaton would come to prove himself silent comedy’s greatest genius (there I said it) within a few years. But the film is doubly significant for being Arbuckle’s first short made by his independent production company Comique, marking a great stride forward for him as well.
3. Stan Laurel (later of the team of Laurel and Hardy) released his first movie in July, 1917. We wrote about that film, Nuts in May, yesterday.
4. In August 1917, Larry Semon, previously a director and gag man, began to star in his own Vitagraph comedies, becoming one of the top comedy stars of the late teens and early 20s — by some measures the top star during that period.
5. In September 1917, Harold Lloyd introduced his famous “glasses” character, in the short Over the Fence. Prior to this he had played a more clownish character called Lonesome Luke in his films. But it was his more realistic “boy with the glasses” character which would make him the top comedian of the 1920s.
6. In 1917, Mabel Normand (silent cinema’s top comedienne) filmed her first feature Mickey, released the following year. A smash hit, it too marked great strides forward for the early slapstick star. It was the high point of her career.
6. Towards the end of 1917, Mack Sennett branded and began to hype his famous “Bathing Beauties”. This is what you might call a soft benchmark. He had presented early versions of this innovation in years previous. But from this point forward, he is more focused and aggressive about promoting the concept in his comedies.
7. Also in 1917, Mack Sennett signed Ben Turpin, the famous cross-eyed comedian, who would become one of his top stars over the next decade.
For more on early silent and slapstick film comedy, including all these comedians, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.