Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Book Review: "The Comic Mind" by Gerald Mast

An excellent survey of screen comedy, from the earliest turn-of-the-century filmed comedy sketches through the films of the 1960s. Mast is less interested in a purely historical survey of names, facts and dates, instead undertaking a thorough and insightful critical analysis of key comedy performers, filmmakers and styles. The emphasis here is on comic film artists who did used the medium in unique ways or exerted some level of creative influence and control over their films. Thus there are no chapters on performers like Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope or Wheeler and Woolsey, for example.

The geniuses of silent comedy are well-covered here, with individual chapters on the great clown-filmmakers Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon. While some silent comedy aficionados might see the emphasis on these four giants as limiting and redundant, Mast provides deep insight into their work, and is primarily interested discussing these comic artists in terms of their distinctive cinematic styles. Mast does look briefly at other distinctive film clowns like Douglas Fairbanks, Charley Chase and Larry Semon who made their mark on the medium. There are also discussions of the "fun factories" of such comedy producers and visionaries as Mack Sennett, Hal Roach and Al Christie.

The chapters on silent comedy rank alongside Walter Kerr's "The Silent Clowns" and James Agee's essay "Comedy's Greatest Era" as one of the finest critical surveys of that period. Mast is perhaps less eloquent than either Kerr and Agee in his descriptions of the clowns and their personalities, but he is highly perceptive in describing what makes the films of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon both incredibly funny and deeply profound.

Moving on to the sound era, Mast provides a thoughtful analysis of the principles of sound comedy before moving on to such masters of the form as Ernst Lubitsch, Rene Clair and Jean Renoir. He presents an interesting contrast in how Lubitsch and Clair use sound and image together in different but equally effective ways, and provides some much-welcome insight into Renoir's often-overlooked gifts for comedy. Mast then discusses three main modes of screen comedy in the sound era. First is the Dialogue tradition, represented by the great writer-directors like Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. Mast also examines how directors such as Capra and Hawks imposed their distinctive directorial styles on writer- and script-dominated comedies.

Next is the Clown tradition, which examines how the distinctive personalities of performers such as W.C. Fields and the Marx Bros. shaped their films. Mast's observations on the Marx Bros. are particularly astute, differentiating between the invisible, intentionally artless filmic style they achieved under skillful craftsmen like Norman McLeod and Leo McCarey in their final three Paramount films, and the uninspired and clunky theatrical approach of their first two films for the studio. It's easy to mistake the plain and unassuming style of films like MONKEY BUSINESS, HORSE FEATHERS and DUCK SOUP for a lack of cinematic imagination, but it is in fact perfectly suited to what the Marx Bros. and their directors worked so hard to achieve. For example, a deliberately elegant style would be at odds with the roughness and anarchy of the humor of these films. Similarly, he argues that the more showy style of their first two MGM films essentially works against their comedy.

It is worth noting here that unlike the silent comedians discussed earlier, who were often heavily involved in the direction, writing and producing of their own pictures, these sound comedians rarely had such clear, direct creative control over their films due to hierarchical differences under the studio system. Thus, the films of clowns like W.C. Fields and the Marx Bros. have posed a special problem for critics (especially those trained in the auteurist approach) in determining the ways in which the performer could exert their personality on the film style even when they were not credited with the script or direction (although Fields wrote the stories for a number of his films under his variety of comic pseudonyms, and Mast takes the unique stance that Fields' films for Universal -- rather than Paramount -- represent his greatest and freest work since he was given greater independence in writing the screenplays). Mast does an admirable job of dealing with these films in terms of how the comedians were able to exercise varying degrees of creative control, both through their choice in collaborators and through shaping the cinematic style to suit their comic persona.

Finally, in the Ironic tradition, Mast discusses a select sampling of comedies -- including Max Ophuls' LA RONDE, Ingmar Bergman's SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, and Stanley Kubrick's DOCTOR STRANGELOVE -- and how they work to subvert expectations and provide humor through their ironic comment on human behavior. Mast concludes the book with a thoughtful consideration of comedy's importance within the arts.

"The Comic Mind" is a thorough and perceptive survey of film comedy, and is certainly essential reading for anyone with an interest in the subject.

Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1974.

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