Every Tuesday and Wednesday in September, Turner Classic Movies will be showing some of the finest silent comedy and slapstick classics (and documentaries thereon). Here’s what’s on the menu tonight:
8:00pm (EST): The Birth of the Tramp (2014)
A documentary on the evolution of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, released on the 100th anniversary of his debut.
9:15pm (EST): A Dog’s Life (1918)
A Dog’s Life is a longer, more ambitious film than any he had made previously, in some ways a sort of dry run for his later The Kid. For my money, the six scenes of A Dog’s Life are as funny and clever as any of his earlier shorts stacked together, with the additional bump of an emotional journey.
Chaplin plays his Little Tramp in the film. His co-stars are a pooch named Scraps, and Edna Purviance as a forlorn dance hall girl. All three of them are living “a dog’s life” in that they each are getting the short end of the stick. They meet, pass through several trials together, and in the end find happiness by exchanging their solitude for cooperative domesticity.
But along the way, we get to experience several of Chaplin’s most hilarious routines ever. And they’re all physical bits. In the first, after stealing a hot dog the tramp evades a policeman, over, under and around the wooden fence where he was sleeping. In the second, he applies for a job, but each time he advances toward the clerk’s window, someone else steps up to it just a split second before. In a later scene, Charlie keeps stealing muffins from a food vendor played by his brother Sydney, each time snatching one just as Syd’s back is turned. Try as he may Syd can’t catch him at it. In the end, Charlie has swallowed the whole plate of treats. And then there’s a funny bit with Charlie walking across a dance floor with a dog’s tail sticking out of his pants, and the other one (much imitated) in which Charlie supplies the gesturing hands of the man he has just knocked out so it will seem to the guy’s partner that he is still awake. In the coda, one of Chaplin’s occasional happy endings, man, woman, dog (and puppies) all one one big, happy family.
10:00pm (EST): The Circus (1928)
Despite being an estimable hit in its day (the 7th most successful film financially of the silent era), today The Circus is the least well known of Chaplin’s silent comedy features. Why might that be? Possibly because it is more “thinky” than “feely”. The film (which may have been inspired by Max Linder’s 1925 swan song The King of the Circus) begins with the Tramp fleeing a cop on a circus lot after being framed for a theft. His flight accidentally takes him into the middle of the circus ring where the audience, thinking he’s part of the show, greets him with gales of laughter and storms of applause. He is hired as a clown and turns out to be terrible at it. Meanwhile he falls in love with an equestrienne (Merna Kennedy —Lita Grey’s best friend) who makes the mistake of being nice to him. In due course she falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), a plot point that is not only reminiscent of The Tramp but anticipates Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). In the end, the circus blows town, but the Tramp elects to string along alone. The image of him sitting on a log as the show (and his girl) leave without him is at once striking, moving and, well, kitschy, in a black velvet painting kind of way.
So, this can work on a couple of levels. At its most accessible, it’s set in a circus, and children love the circus. It’s possible to enjoy this film without having a contemplative brain in your head. After all, in one scene Charlie is walking a tightrope with his pants down, with monkeys crawling all over him (see above. It’s one of the highlights of the film). At another remove, however, The Circus is terribly self-conscious. This is a movie about a lonely clown who is having trouble being funny. That’s a formula that may be thought provoking but is probably intrinsically unworkable, despite having been tried many times. Others who’ve given the “accidental comedian” motif a go with varying success included Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl, 1923), Harold Lloyd (Movie Crazy, 1932), Red Skelton (Merton of the Movies, 1947), and Jerry Lewis (The Patsy, 1964). As a comedy premise the deck is stacked against you. The idea of an unintentionally funny comedian is too overwrought, too convoluted to be completely funny. The moments in the film that work best are the ones that are at a remove from that idea, such as when the Tramp poses as part of an animatronic Noah’s Ark display on the midway in order to evade the cop.
And, given that Chaplin is the clown in question in The Circus, what’s he really about here? Is he frustrated with the fact that the process of creating funny comedy (or any effective art) is not conscious, that it is (as we have pointed out a few times), completely instinctive? It can’t just be summoned at will. And Chaplin is famous for having made entire crews and casts wait around for hours, days and even weeks as he tried to do just that.
Or does Chaplin want to tell us that, like the Tramp, he is actually really a serious person (the kind of person whose voice is more like A Woman of Paris) and that he’s just been sort of railroaded into being a comedian? Another intriguing element in the film is the group of hack professional clowns who work at the circus and whom the audience hates. If the Tramp is Chaplin, who are they supposed to represent? The Keystone comedians? It certainly seems germane to his actual attitude towards them during the early part of 1914. It’s as though he were saying, “It’s not MY fault the world thinks I’m better than those people. Don’t blame me. I was born this way!”
Then there is the metaphor of getting the Tramp left behind by that circus. On the one hand he seems to be saying “I can take or leave this comedy thing.” But, on the other hand, perhaps he is expressing the fear that history will pass him by. The Circus was released a few scant months after The Jazz Singer. Was he beginning to have doubts that he could keep up with passing trends?
The self-doubt extends into the romantic realm in this picture, as well, a continuation of a theme he introduces in The Gold Rush. When Edna Purviance had been his leading lady, sometimes the Little Fellow would get the girl, sometimes he wouldn’t. Most of his films of the late silent era follow the model set by The Tramp and The Vagabond, generating pathos out of how the Tramp could never get the girl. (In The Gold Rush he had to buy the girl.). The Circus continued that theme.
Production on The Circus was apparently jinxed. Set-backs during filming included a scratched negative, a fire which set the production back for weeks, and personal woes for Chaplin including the death of his mother, his divorce from Lita Grey, and hassles with the I.R.S. In light of all that, we may fortunate that this film emerged as a comedy at all!
11:30pm (EST): One Week (1920)
This film (the first of Buster Keaton‘s solo shorts to get a public release) 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 (Sybil Seeley), 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. (Twisters are a frequent bête noir in Keaton’s Kansas-bred consciousness.)
When Buster learns that he has built his house on the wrong lot, he has to tow it to the correct spot. Unfortunately on the way, his car stalls on some railroad tracks. Seeing an onrushing train, we brace for disaster, then breathe a sigh of relief when it turns out that the locomotive is on an adjoining track. It passes, leaving the couple unharmed. A beat—and then the money shot: a train heading in the other direction comes from out of nowhere and smashes the house to splinters.
What sets Keaton apart is his famously tight story telling and the attention to character. Despite all the craziness, he 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.
12:00am (EST): Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Steamboat Bill Jr. was Buster Keaton’s final independent film, and one of his best. The story: dandified college boy Buster tries to prove himself to his riverboat captain dad, and win the heart of the daughter of his dad’s rival. The Mississippi setting unavoidably evokes Mark Twain. The climax contains Buster’s most famous film sequence…the brilliantly staged hurricane, culminating in his most well known single shot, with the building facade falling down around him, while the real life Buster stands there frozen praying to God they measured the window right. A movie as beautiful as it is funny.
1:15am (EST): Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962)
Inspired by the success of Robert Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), Harold Lloyd made this compilation film containing clips of his own “greatest hits”. For many of us born far too late to have experienced his films in their own day, this film was our first introduction to the work of silent comedy’s “Third Genius”.
3:00am (EST) Number Please (1920)
While the climax to this short is one of the film’s best parts, the set-up is convoluted. Harold and a rival (Roy Brooks) vie for the attentions of a girl (Mildred Davis) at an amusement park. When her dog gets lost, she wants to go up in a hot air balloon operated by her uncle. The balloon will only hold two. The girl announces she will go up with whichever beau gets her mother’s permission first. The rival heads for the mother’s house in a car. Harold runs to a telephone so he can call the mother for permission. This would seem easy…but it’s a public phone in a hotel. The hilarious part is the succession of obstacles which prevent him from doing this simple thing. Then he winds up with a lost purse, which he finally gives to a goat to eat so he won’t be arrested for stealing. But it turns out to have been the girl’s purse, complete with the balloon tickets….
3:30am (EST) Speedy (1928)
Counterintuitively, given that the American film industry was largely based in New York City during its earliest years (roughly 1893-1913), by the twenties most of the business was where it is now, in Hollywood. Location shooting in New York City for major feature films had become something of a novelty. Harold Lloyd’s Speedy redresses that lapse; it’s virtually a love poem to New York. Harold plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold has to rush him to a game); and an actual vehicular accident, which the producers opted to keep in the film because it was so spectacular. And let’s not forget the cool scenes at Coney Island and Times Square! Harold plays a slightly different character in this film: cocky, pushy, fun-loving and a little irresponsible. Just like New York.
Speedy was Lloyd’s last released silent film. His next film Welcome Danger was originally prepared as a silent, but adapted for sound.
5:05am (EST) Anna Case in La Fiesta (1926)
This couldn’t be farther from a silent slapstick comedy. I can only think they include this short and Roseland (below) as illustrations of what the late silents were up against. This is an early Vitaphone talkie starring opera singer Anna Case, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
5:15am (EST): Charley My Boy (1926)
An early Leo McCarey effort. The great Charley Chase gets mistaken for a suitor for the affections for heiress Kathryn Grant (he’s just there for a job). The last act has him roaming around the boss’s house, trying to hide booze from prohibition cops.
4:57am (EST) Roseland (1930)
Ruth Etting et al in a Vitaphone short set in the famed Jazz Age nightclub.
And stay tuned — they’ll be showing more classic comedies later in the day — more on that to come!
For more on silent comedy and slapstick film history please check out my new 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