Friday, May 21, 2010

Mr. Flip

Ben Turpin is one of the iconic figures of silent comedy, immediately recognizable by his crossed eyes and brush mustache. He had one of the longest careers of any of the silent clowns, dating back to 1907, and lasting until his death in 1940 (his final appearance was in Laurel and Hardy’s “Saps at Sea”, in which he played the cross-eyed plumber who can’t understand why all of the faucets in Oliver Hardy’s apartment are performing the opposite functions!) Turpin’s star really began to rise after he was paired with Charlie Chaplin in the first two comedies Chaplin made for the Essanay company in 1915. Turpin worked most memorably for Mack Sennett’s studio, where he appeared in a series of parodies of popular dramatic films of the day.

Turpin’s career began at the Essanay studio in Chicago. He worked as a janitor at the studio as well as performing in comedies. One of his earliest efforts is “Mr. Flip”, from 1909, in which he plays an obnoxious man who pesters every woman he comes in contact with. It’s a crude comedy, to be sure, but also possesses a certain charm in its simplicity and good-natured gagging.

The film opens with Turpin, appearing quite dapper with a boutonniere and straw hat, as he enters a shop. He immediately begins flirting with the female clerk, and she resists his effort until a moving man comes by with a dolly cart which he uses to carry Turpin out of the scene. Next, he enters a manicurist’s shop, and after flirting with one of the manicurists, the other puts a pair of scissors up through the bottom of his chair, which he sits down on, causing him to jump up in pain and flee the scene. There is an interesting moment of a close-up insert shot when we see the second manicurist inserting the sharp end of the scissors up through the bottom of the chair. Turpin goes on to flirt with a telephone operator, hair dresser, waitress, and finally a bakery clerk, who throws a pie into Turpin’s face!

“Mr. Flip” is an interesting, early screen comedy, predating the Keystone comedies as well as those of Chaplin. The closing “pie-in-the-face” gag is the earliest one I have yet identified in watching many of the early comedies. What is perhaps most interesting about the film, at least from a formal standpoint, is that it is shot in wide proscenium-style shots that capture the entire scene, which was certainly the prevailing style at the time. It’s worth comparing this with the editing of the Keystone comedies, which increased the pace of the shots greatly. Turpin’s style of comedy, crude and largely physical, would be quite influential in the comedy styles that would emerge in the coming decade.

Although Turpin never quite achieved the status of such leading clowns as Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, he remains an important figure in screen comedy, particularly for his work in the early years of the medium.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce (1900)

One of the many pre-“Great Train Robbery” narrative films in American cinema, “Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce” (Edison, 1900) is interesting because of how it handles its entire narrative within a single shot; in this case, it’s a proscenium-style wide shot that encompasses all of the characters and action within the frame.

The film takes place in a kitchen, where a maid and a young boy are preparing dinner. The maid is kneading flour into dough, when the husband of the house enters. The boy, hiding behind the wall in the adjoining room, observes the husband and the maid flirting, as the maid embraces him. The husband’s back is turned to the camera just enough so that the viewer sees the maid’s flour-covered hand prints on his back. She goes back to kneading the dough as the boy exits through the front door, calling his mother in, presumably to inform her of what he has observed. The wife scolds the maid, then confronts her husband, who protests her accusations until she points out the hand prints on his back. The husband gets down on his knee to beg forgiveness, but the wife picks up the bowl of flour from the table and proceeds to dump it on her husband’s head! The husband flees, and the wife grabs the maid, ejecting her through the front door and knocking over the kitchen table in the process. The wife exits the scene through the front door as the film comes to an end.

This final action is interesting, because it conforms to the convention of many of these early narrative films that the characters must exit the frame at the end. Having characters forcibly ejected by being thrown, kicked or pushed out of the scene was a common technique. In this case, even though there is no narrative logic for the wife to exit the scene, she does so anyway in order to provide closure to this short sketch. The film itself is a kind of farce comedy, as evidenced by the description in the Edison rental catalog, which describes it as “a very funny picture” ( It is a domestic comedy, the type of which would later be made especially popular by the Vitagraph company, and the type of which would also serve as a basis for the plots of a number of American slapstick comedies, especially those produced by the Keystone company. In this sense, the film can be seen as influential in its own way, establishing a kind of screen comedy that would go on to have a very long life in the cinema.

Although far from the complex narratives that would appear even just a few years later, especially in the films of Edwin S. Porter, “Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce” is still a good example of early storytelling in the cinema. This film was part of a larger series of films revolving around the “Jones” character. James White served as producer, which at that time was really an all-round description of the film’s maker. This series, which dates back to 1899, is evidence of the popularity for telling stories even in this earliest period.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

Edwin S. Porter made a number of films that bridged both the “actualitie” and “narrative” approaches. Working for the Edison company, he is often recognized as the pioneer of narrative storytelling in American cinema, with films like “The Great Train Robbery” and “Life of an American Fireman” (both 1903) serving as the models from which longer, more complex narrative films emerged in the coming decade. The narrative approaches in these films, however, can be traced back to the work being done by the British filmmakers, particularly of the “Brighton school”, in films such as “Daring Daylight Burglary” and “Fire!”

One of Porter’s most interesting works, from a purely formal standpoint, is a film that borrows from another tradition-the trick films of Melies, de Chomon and Zecca. “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend”, from 1906, is a film that, in many ways, typifies the kind of borrowing that was taking place during this time in the development of new cinematic techniques and styles. Porter may have been borrowing, but he was certainly borrowing from the best. This film provides an interesting glimpse at a “road not taken” in the cinema, for within just a couple years, D.W. Griffith and other filmmakers would be shaping the medium to an even more narrative-centered approach that left films like “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” appearing to embrace a nearly surrealistic sensibility. It borrowed from the comic strip panels of Winsor McCay, and blended this with the narrative influence of the British, and the formal innovations of the trick film pioneered in France and Britain.

The film opens with an elegant, top-hatted gentleman (dressed all in white), sitting at a table in a restaurant and stuffing his mouth with large portions of Welsh rarebit. He drinks glass after glass of wine from the bottle sitting at the right of the table, and eventually takes a drink of water, which he promptly spits out. Taking another drink of wine, he helps himself to more rarebit, slopping it onto his plate then eventually lapping it up right off the serving ladle. He shovels the last of it into his mouth and takes one last drink of wine. The framing of the medium shot gives the viewer all the information they need, and avoids cutting in for close-ups or anything that would disrupt the flow of the action. Porter holds this medium shot for the duration of the scene, and it works effectively by focusing on the grotesque, exaggerated comic performance aspects.

The next shot finds the man leaving the restaurant at dark, and stumbling down the staircase, obviously a little the worse for wear. This shot gives way to a second shot, in which a lamppost is seen swinging back and forth like a pendulum. On top of this is superimposed a shot of the city streets spinning around. The gentleman stumbles into the frame, making his way to this swinging lamppost and trying to clutch on for dear life as he falls and stumbles about. He waves his handkerchief around frantically, calling for help. A passing policeman hauls him offscreen. This scene is remarkable for the amount of motion that Porter manages to suggest by having the superimposed elements working together. Although presented as a long shot of the lamppost (which allows the viewer to enjoy the physical humor and trick effects without interruption), the scene itself is made up of two separate composite elements which add greatly to the illusion of the hallucinations being experienced by the gentleman.

The next scene is again framed as a long shot of the room, although this time, the camera placement is at a diagonal that allows the corner of the room to serve as a focal point in the middle of the screen. The gentleman, arriving home, stumbles tipsily around his bedroom. The character leaves the shot twice during the course of this scene, with suggested action taking place off-screen. The first instance is when he exits, dressed in his top hat and tails, and returns, dressed in his pajamas. The second instance occurs right after he has gotten into bed and, unable to settle down, exits, and returns with a handkerchief tied around his face.

Porter continues holding this long shot as the next part of the scene begins. First, the man’s shoes are seen to move off-screen. He sits up, looking at this occurrence, perplexed. This is followed by even more unusual happenings-the furniture in the room moves about the frame and finally disappears, courtesy of trick photography. Puzzled, the man looks about the room, then lies back down to go to sleep.

Now, Porter cuts in for a closeup. The man is seen lying in bed, asleep, his head resting on the pillow. Above his head are superimposed different visions that are haunting him: a pot of Welsh rarebit, out of which pop three little demons carrying a pick-ax, a hammer, and a pitchfork, which they use to pound away at the head of the sleeping man, who reacts in pain. Awaking in panic, the vision disappears, but the man pulls the sheet over his head to try to escape the hallucinations. Porter very economically uses the framing of the close-up as a way to capture both the man’s pained physical reactions, and to allow for the use of double-exposure to create the illusion of the demons who are haunting his sleep.

The next shot reverts to the exact same set-up as before: the diagonal, long shot of the bed in the corner of the room. Now, the man lies under the bed covers, but almost immediately, it begins rocking and shaking about, as if he were possessed by some kind of demon (indeed, the shot is reminiscent of the scenes of the bed shaking and lurching about in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” from nearly 70 years later!) Finally, the bed lifts itself about a foot in the air and begins spinning around and around, before finally taking flight out the window.

In a brilliant double-exposure shot, Porter shows the bed flying above the city. The use of the moving scenery creates the illusion of a traveling shot. The bed, set against the dark night sky, is shown to be moving over a cityscape, with the man holding on to the bed after the sheets blow off. Sitting up in the bed, the man grabs at an invisible steering wheel, positioning himself as if he were driving a car, and proceeds to navigate this phantom bed through the air before lying back down. Eventually, he is lifted up off the bed by the wind, and holds onto the headboard as he is held adrift in a horizontal position. Losing his grip, he floats backward to the footboard, which he grabs on to at the last moment. He kicks his legs about in the air in panic, just as the bed is seen passing over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Next, Porter returns to a static, long shot of a building top, over which the bed is seen flying. The bed rises up out of the frame, but the man is seen falling toward the top of the building. Porter next cuts in for a closer medium shot of the building top, with the man, in his pajamas, caught on the weather vane, which turns around and around until he finally drops off. Returning to the long shot, Porter shows the man falling into the city streets. He returns to the diagonal, establishing shot of the bedroom as the man comes crashing through the ceiling and landing in his bed. The signs of destruction disappear as the man awakes, shooting out of bed. The man sits on the edge of his bed, panicked and trembling, as the film ends.

Formally, Porter uses a very economic shot sequence, only going in for close-ups, or changing angles, when necessary to introduce a better vantage point for the viewer, or to allow for the depiction of necessary visual information. As a trick film, the “dream structure” of its narrative places it in contrast to the films of Melies, Zecca and others who embraced the ability of film to depict the impossible. In this sense, Porter seems to be contextualizing (and justifying) his trick effects within the context of a dream world in which anything is possible. Even the scenes in which the man stumbles about the street are explained away as a hallucination. From a narrative standpoint, it’s much more simple than some of Porter’s earlier efforts, but at the same time, reflects the story’s origins in the cartoon panel strips of Winsor McCay. Indeed, the film can be seen as a kind of photographic comic strip in the way that it is structured both formally and in terms of narrative. As Lloyd Fonvielle has noted, "Because movies were a new form, novelties, they fell into story frames that audiences were already familiar with -- newspaper cartoons and comic strips, which could be read in less than a minute, and vaudeville skits, which lasted about ten minutes" (Fonvielle, "Visual MicroFiction"). It makes for an interesting comparison with the current vogue for films based on comic books, which also involve a narrative, but with an emphasis on the moments of spectacle that are integral to the visual nature of the comic strip. This borrowing from a the highly visual medium of the comic strip, which viewers of the day would have been familiar with, places this film (and others like it) as a kind of ancestor of the comic book films that currently draw on an existing audience, familiar with the techniques and narrative structure of that format. When viewed in this context, it makes clear that Porter was working with an eye toward capturing the formal qualities of that medium and integrating it into the narrative structures he had helped to develop earlier in the decade, while borrowing uniquely cinematic techniques from the European pioneers working at the same time. In this sense, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” stands as an example of the wide range of influences at work in early cinema.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Parody or Homage?: Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie"

Hot off the success of his two critical and box-office smashes, BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Mel Brooks next turned his satirical sights on the golden age of comedy, creating a silent movie for the present day, titled-appropriately enough-SILENT MOVIE. Filming in color and widescreen, but with only a musical soundtrack and a few selected sound effects, Brooks sought out to make the first silent comedy in 40 years, loaded with cameos and filled with the kind of sight gags and physical humor that had worked for Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Problem is, that type of humor doesn’t really work for Brooks and company.

As audacious as the idea sounds, it’s important to keep in mind that Brooks was the reigning box office comic of the time, and especially after going against conventional wisdom and shooting his previous smash hit, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, in black and white, he pretty much had free reign. SILENT MOVIE, however, is a textbook example of what can go wrong when a comic artist, working with material ill-suited to them, is let loose with no one to tell them “no”. That’s not to say the film is a complete failure; in fact, there are a couple of memorable moments, but not nearly enough to sustain itself for feature-length. Whereas Brooks’ previous two films had been parodies, SILENT MOVIE, however, is set up as both a parody as well as a kind of homage to the great silent clowns. This creates a kind of tension, where Brooks seems to want to send-up the style by over-playing everything in the form of parody, but at other times, seems to want to move toward doing contemporary gags in a “straight” silent format.

The basic problem, so obvious it hardly needs mentioning, comes down to a clash of comedy styles: Brooks, trained in the Borscht Belt humor of the Catskill resorts where he got his start, and the verbal humor of the Sid Caesar programs for which he wrote sketches during the 1950s, is all wrong for this kind of material. It’s rather remarkable that such a brilliant comedian didn’t recognize this as a basic problem; or rather, if he did, that he didn’t abandon the project outright. The silent clowns, and their modern day counterparts like Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis, were schooled in a very different form of humor, in which physical comedy routines were crafted and timed with the same skill and precision that comics like Caesar devoted to the verbal joke. Brooks seems to think that visual and physical comedy instead involves a total lack of subtlety, mixed with forced and obvious sight gags, and-worst of all-inserting way too many verbal jokes into the film in the form of intertitles! His contemporary, Woody Allen, seems to share the same misconception about the art of silent comedy, once calling it the “checkers” in comparison to the “chess” of talking comedy.

Brooks took the leading role this time around, a move that others have noted marked a step down in his work. Perhaps because he was unable to stay behind the camera (and Brooks is certainly one of the sharpest and most stylish comedy directors of the past forty years), the film has a fairly flat look to it and seems awkwardly staged much of the time, with the co-starring performances of Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise too often hurt by takes running too long, and action stretched out to unnecessary lengths (the scene in which the three of them, dressed in suits of armor, attempt to meet with Liza Minnelli in a studio commissary, is almost painful to watch). The problems with the editing are a real surprise, given that Brooks has unquestionably the finest editorial eye of any comic filmmaker working since the post-war era.

If the film works as a satire at all, it’s not as a satire of silent comedy (which, in itself, seems a very puzzling concept to attempt at all). Rather, the film does work to some extent as a satire of contemporary (1976) Hollywood. The opening title reads: “Hollywood: The Movie Capital of Greater Los Angeles”, which is even more bitingly funny today than it was in 1976. The problem is Brooks doesn’t take it far enough. Perhaps afraid of being accused of biting the hand that fed him, Brooks’ satire of the corporate conglomerate Gulf and Western (here called “Engulf and Devour”) is muted by the fact that the characters are played in such an over-the-top fashion (one bit has Harold Gould, in a state of fury, literally frothing at the mouth and barking like a dog!) Whereas Jerry Lewis had the nerve to really rip Hollywood to shreds in films like THE PATSY and THE ERRAND BOY, here, Brooks seems too enamored of Tinseltown in order to really do it any serious damage. He pays loving homage to the town when he really should be taking a sledgehammer to it. What’s perhaps most ironic about SILENT MOVIE is the fact that it feels dated, not because it’s silent, but because its so clearly a product of its time. It almost seems to have more in common with such period films as BUGSY MALONE or even WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD. The lineup of cameos adds to this feeling.

The plot has Brooks, aided by Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise, setting out to sign every major star in Hollywood to appear in their silent movie, making it a hit and thus saving the studio, Miracle Pictures (“If it’s a good one, it’s a miracle…”) from being taken over by the corporate entity of Engulf and Devour. The “guest stars” do a good job kidding their own star images; particularly memorable is Burt Reynolds as the very picture of the vain, macho leading man, even stopping to admire himself in the mirror on his way downstairs in the morning. Reynolds, a delightful light comic, has some of the film’s best scenes, despite the intense over-playing of Brooks, Feldman and DeLuise. James Caan has a fun scene with the guys in which they attempt to sign him while in his rickety trailer, which threatens to tip over at the slightest provocation. Anne Bancroft shares a hilarious and energetic tango with Brooks. Only Minnelli seems wasted, as she has little to do other than watch as Brooks and the gang stumble about in suits of armor. One of the most fun is Paul Newman, resting up in a hospital after a racecar accident, and attempting to elude Brooks and company on a motorized wheelchair chase to and fro across the hospital grounds. These moments, far from seeming gratuitous, actually prove to be some of the film’s most fun moments, because it’s always a delight to see stars poking fun at themselves, and they all seem to be having a genuinely good time in the process. Special mention needs to be made of the film’s most surprising cameo-the brilliant and poignant Marcel Marceau, who does a pantomime of struggling to walk across a windy room in order to answer the phone. (I won’t spoil the topper to this sequence, because it’s so totally unexpected and unprecedented in the art of mime, that it really deserves to be seen in order to fully appreciate the surprise).

A major flaw in the comedy itself is that Brooks and his writers seemed to mistake silent comedy for cartoon comedy. Whereas the best silent comedy involved a subtle working with characters and situations, Brooks seems intent on creating a kind of live-action Looney Tune, with absurd cartoon humor running throughout (especially the bizarre and ludicrous steamroller gag outside of Burt Reynolds’ house). The image of the trio stacked on each others’ shoulders to create a “tall man” effect is nowhere near as funny as it could be. Apparently, Brooks shot a scene with Buster Keaton’s wife, Eleanor, in which they re-created the telephone booth bit that she and Buster had performed years earlier, but this scene was left on the cutting room floor, supposedly because a shadow cast by the camera equipment rendered it unusable. One gag that comes close to being brilliant occurs in the scene where Brooks and company visit studio chief Sid Caesar in the hospital following a heart attack, and Feldman and DeLuise turn the heart monitor into a game of Pong, which has a visible and quite dramatic effects on Caesar. It’s a good moment, crossing into the surreal, and taking advantage of a new medium (the video game) within the silent film medium

Then there are the unfunny gay jokes that Brooks is so relentlessly fond of. While it’s certainly misguided to look for sensitivity in comedy of any kind, there’s a big difference between the delightfully and sharply-written characterizations of Roger DeBris and Carmen Giya in THE PRODUCERS, and the running gag in SILENT MOVIE, in which the three male leads repeatedly find themselves piled on top of each other as two passing women shout at them, “Fags!” This type of humor is better suited to less clever comics, and it’s disappointing that Brooks falls back on this kind of thing again and again in his work when he can’t think of anything more original. The scene in James Caan’s trailer feels inspired by the brilliant cabin scene in Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH, in which the cabin, teetering on a precipice, appears ready to plunge itself and its occupants to their doom at the slightest motion. The difference, of course, is that Brooks’ scene lacks the suspense and “thrill” comedy of Chaplin’s (to say nothing of Chaplin’s brilliant comic panic). In Brooks’ scene, there is no real impending danger, other than the trailer falling two feet on one side. It does finally tip over, but Brooks is unable to find a suitable topper to end the sequence on, so instead, as all the guys tumble on top of on another, the two passers-by once again shout homophobic slurs at them. As much as some silent comedy strikes us as insensitive today, it was never mean-spirited like this. (Another cheap joke, albeit an amusing one, occurs when Harold Gould unveils a picture of Bernadette Peters-who is being sent to seduce Brooks-to his all-male board of directors, and asking their collective opinion, they respond without uttering a word, as the table rises off the ground several inches!) Other gags, including such adolescent humor of reading through intertitles of DeLuise’s need to use the bathroom, to Marty Feldman getting whacked in the crotch by a blind man’s cane, Harold Gould speaking before the board of directors with his fly unzipped, and DeLuise getting a can of Coke shot into his groin by an out-of-control vending machine, are so juvenile as to barely require further comment.

The film ends with the kind of all-out chase-and-action sequence that Harold Lloyd would have handled brilliantly. The device of using the malfunctioning Coke machine, while hardly too clever nor terribly funny, makes for some good moments as the bad guys are bombarded with exploding soda cans! The film ends with the triumphant premiere of the silent film (wishful thinking on Brooks’ part, perhaps!) The cast lines up, marching in time, to Morris’ “Silent Movie March” (which sounds remarkably similar to the theme Morris composed for the TV series, “Coach”, with Craig T. Nelson).

This is a good time to mention that, for a silent film, SILENT MOVIE is surprisingly reliant on music. John Morris composed 87 minutes of wall-to-wall notes, interspersed with sections of silence and moments carried more by sound effects (such as in the hospital sequence). Even though Brooks essentially drives home the point that SILENT MOVIE is the first silent film since Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES, it misses the point that silent comedy did, in fact, live on into the sound era. Its most notable practitioners were, of course, Laurel and Hardy, who’d actually started in the medium itself and continued to work in that tradition throughout the rest of their careers. Jacques Tati found perhaps the most ideal blend between balancing the use of sound with a visual style of comedy, creating a body of comic work that is unequaled in world cinema. More recently, Rowan Atkinson had a great deal of success with his TV program, “Mr. Bean”, which is perhaps the closest comedy of recent years to the mischievous fun of the world of silent comedy. But in SILENT MOVIE, the score-which really is integral to the overall film-feels uninspired and flat at times. Visually, it’s one of Brooks’ dullest films, too, despite the occasionally bright color patterns. He worked here with cinematographer Paul Lohmann, who’d shot NASHVILLE the year before for Robert Altman and would work with Brooks again the following year on HIGH ANXIETY. In his work with Brooks, Lohmann’s compositions feel somewhat unbalanced, but this may be due to a general feeling of scenes seeming under-rehearsed and even poorly timed (a detriment in this kind of comedy). One has to wonder how much ad-libbing was involved. The screenplay is credited to Brooks, Rudy DeLuca, Ron Clark and Barry Levinson (from a story by Clark)-none of them comedy writers terribly noted for their sense of visual comedy.

Taken as a whole, SILENT MOVIE is an interesting experiment, but it fails to live up to its potential, which in itself is a problematic statement, as this style of comedy is clearly ill-suited to Brooks’ strengths as a comic artist that it’s difficult to say just what “potential” the project ever had. This is no slight against Brooks, as the same point would apply if Chaplin were to have tried his hand at doing a film consisting of purely verbal comedy. As a cinematic experiment, it’s a kind of metaphor for the idea that “you can’t go home again”. Major work had been done in the field of visual comedy in the work of Laurel and Hardy, Jacques Tati, and Jerry Lewis in the forty-five years since the transition to sound. Here, Brooks creates a copy of a form, then, rather than bringing anything new to it (other than perhaps certain jokes which would have never gotten past the censors in the silent era!)

Still, the film has the best fly-in-the-soup gag ever committed to film.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Dilemma of Harold Lloyd

When is a comedian not a comedian?

Of the “big three” silent clowns working in the golden age of comedy, Harold Lloyd is frequently distinguished apart from Chaplin and Keaton as being more of a “comic actor” rather than a comedian. This is a puzzling distinction to anyone watching the films, because on-screen, Lloyd is just as funny as Chaplin and Keaton, and his films demonstrate perhaps the highest degree of sheer inventive and brilliant gags.

It is in this last point, though, that the key to understanding this distinction can begin to be seen. Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd relied more strongly on gags and situational humor in his comedy style. Chaplin and Keaton had both developed their characters early in their screen careers (Chaplin had developed the basic costume and mannerisms in his second film, and Keaton’s dead-pan, rough-house style was apparent almost from the very beginning of his work with Roscoe Arbuckle). Lloyd, however, had entered acting with aspirations to be a dramatic actor. He acted in touring dramatic companies prior to entering film. Anyone familiar with Chaplin or Keaton’s backgrounds on the stage might wonder why this distinction is worth mentioning. Of course, the key difference is that the stage work done by Chaplin and Keaton contributed extensively to the development of their comic characters, as well as situations to which they would return throughout their film careers. Lloyd, on the other hand, entered films as an extra, playing a Yacqui Indian in an Edison subject from 1913, then going on to do a number of other bit parts in dramatic pictures. His good fortune came in meeting up early with Hal Roach, who began producing a series of films in 1915, and recruited Lloyd as his star comic.

The “Willie Work” character that Lloyd developed lacked the distinguishing features required by the leading comics of the day, and was thus unremarkable (apparently, the first couple of shorts they made with the character didn’t even get picked up for distribution). Unhappy with the situation at Roach, Lloyd moved over to the Keystone lot, where he found himself a “little fish in a big pond” among Sennett’s star roster of clowns. He often found himself in supporting roles, including some alongside Roscoe Arbuckle who-along with Chaplin-was perhaps the most significant comedian of the World War I era. After his stint at Keystone, Lloyd returned to work with Roach, developing the “Lonesome Luke” character, a kind of inversion of Chaplin’s Tramp, and set to work turning out a large number of one- and two-reel comedies with the character.

It’s worth noting that by 1916, Lloyd had already appeared in far more films than either Chaplin or Keaton would, at least during the silent period. A recurring theme in his career, especially in this period, seemed to be a drive to continually explore and test new approaches to his work, even if they weren’t always entirely successful. For instance, he could have easily just stayed on with Roach as star comic from the get-go, but he made a fairly bold decision to try his luck at Keystone-bold, because the Keystone lot at that time was a very competitive place to put it mildly. Returning to Roach could have been seen as a mild defeat, but instead, Lloyd took advantage of the situation to work at a prolific rate and to try to develop the kind of comic character that had eluded him.

Because Chaplin and Keaton had both started on the stage, much of their humor came from their stage backgrounds-in the English music hall and vaudeville circuits, respectively. A key difference for Lloyd is that he never had that comic training, so he learned “on the fly”, while making movies. And just as the stage was a major shaping influence for so many clowns, vaudevillians, acrobats and so on who made the transition to film, film itself would be a major influence on Lloyd. His comic character, for instance, was a pastiche of other, more successful comedy film characters (most notably Chaplin). And when he made the transition to his fully-developed, “mature” character in 1917, his inspiration would again come from film.

Lloyd had seen a film about a meek parson, and was inspired by the fact that the character wore glasses. He decided that, by adopting something of this persona, he could create a character who was more sympathetic, less grotesque, and overall more like an “average guy” rather than the gallery of highly-stylized clowns who were working at Sennett and other companies during the time. Thus the “glass character” (as Lloyd called him) was born.

It also helped that he was working for Hal Roach, a comedy genius sympathetic to Lloyd’s approach. In the 20s, Roach would become noted for his situational comedies, relying more on plots and situations rather than breakneck chases or roughhouse slapstick. In many ways, Lloyd helped lay the foundation for this kind of humor in silent comedy, even if as a comic tradition it pre-dates cinema and has a long history on the stage. (It would also be unfair to forget such comics as John Bunny and Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, who worked in this style during the early 1910s, especially before the Keystone format really became the standard). In addition to the “parson” film that he’d cited as an influence, another clear inspiration on Lloyd was actor Charles Ray, who specialized in a kind of rural, small-town boy persona in many of his films, and this was certainly a characterization that Lloyd would return to in the 20s.

So far, we can see how Lloyd’s lack of a comic stage training, as well as his influences within the cinematic medium, set him apart from other clowns working during the period. His frankly unremarkable comic character that he’d been working with, in an effort to ape the success of other grotesque comics, worked well enough, but remained undistinguished from so many others. The really big players in silent comedy during the WWI and post-war years were moving away from more generic slapstick toward fully developed characters, and unique comic styles suited to their personas.

Chaplin is the most obvious of these. Audiences had watched the development of his Tramp character from its prototype at Keystone, to its development at Essanay, and the full maturation of the character at Mutual. With the signing of his First National contract, Chaplin would be able to take the character to new heights and place him in longer, more complex films that dealt with often more serious themes than one was accustomed to seeing in comedy shorts of the period. On the other hand, there was Roscoe Arbuckle who, in the years before his career was rocked by scandal, made some of the most inventive and delightfully surreal comedies the screen had yet seen. Working with his nephew, the rubber-limbed Al St. John, and a young New York stage comic-Buster Keaton, Arbuckle’s films produced for the Comique company stand next to Chaplin’s films in terms of sheer creativity and masterful execution of gags.

In this environment, the time was definitely right for Lloyd to create a new character. This creates another distinguishing feature about Lloyd’s approach: it’s inconceivable that Chaplin should have abandoned the Tramp in 1918 and switched characters and comic styles completely. Similarly, Arbuckle had developed from the comic “fat boy” of the early Keystones into a mature character capable of both wild knockabout and moments of pathos. As for other clowns, their work may have been far more routine, but they were certainly consistent and quite good at what they did, and even the most cardboard characters could be very funny with the right gag men and directors.

Lloyd’s comedy style could be distinguished from the other major clowns in another way: his films are extremely plot-heavy. Chaplin never cared much for plot as such; even his early, self-directed Keystone efforts tend to favor letting the shot linger on him performing various bits of business. And of course Chaplin could make even the simplest actions funny, such as running a feather-duster over a fan in THE NEW JANITOR, his business with the mop and bucket in THE BANK, or even his reaction shots to Ben Turpin’s mugging in HIS NEW JOB. Arbuckle could perform the most complicated bits of business with incredible grace and ease, making them look so easy. Keaton, who began making his own series of films in 1920, was also known for making the incredibly difficult appear incredibly natural and simple.

Lloyd’s short films often begin with a cast list, identifying all the major characters in the piece, as well as explanatory titles setting up the exposition of the plot. The films often take full advantage of the two- and three-reel running times. It is no coincidence that Lloyd was the first of the clowns to make the move to features on a full-time basis, because his approach seemed to warrant the longer running time more than any other. The question of the “move to features” is a difficult one, because technically, we’d have to point to Chaplin in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE as the first, but this was obviously a one-shot deal that wouldn’t be repeated for some time. Mabel Normand made MICKEY for Mack Sennett in 1918, and Arbuckle would appear in some features for Paramount in the early 20s. The distinction has been made, at least in the case of the Arbuckle features, that they were more in the “genteel” tradition of screen comedy, based on plot and situations. In this sense, they aren’t that different from the kinds of approaches Lloyd was moving toward. And of course, Chaplin had made THE KID in 1921, but returned to making shorts for another two years afterward.

In any case, regardless of who was first, it is true that when Lloyd made the move to features full-time in 1922, there was no looking back. His first effort had been the four-reel A SAILOR-MADE MAN in 1921. GRANDMA’S BOY had been expanded into feature-length with the addition of newly-created gags added after preview screenings. The film told the story of a meek young country boy who is inspired to stand up to a bully after hearing stories of his grandfather’s bravery in the Civil War. Harold gains the courage to stand up to the bully as well as drive a menacing tramp out of town. With DOCTOR JACK (also 1922), Lloyd created his first feature that was designed as such from the outset.

Because Lloyd relied more heavily on plots and situations, he has been called less “inherently funny” than the other clowns. Lloyd himself said, in response to the accusation that he relied strictly on plot and material for laughs, “Well, that’s not true. If true at all, it’s true of all comedians. Every comedian must have material. And he must create situations and conditions.”

The differences are minor, but can be seen if one looks closely enough. To compare Lloyd’s Civil War comedy, GRANDMA’S BOY, with Keaton’s THE GENERAL, it can be seen that Lloyd’s film relies on its construction of plot to carry the film. To be fair, the films are still quite different, as the Civil War is referenced only in a flashback in Lloyd’s film, whereas it provides the historical context and setting for Keaton’s film; I use the “Civil War comedy” label as more a convenient shorthand for talking about a theme that appears in both. In Lloyd’s film, the gags arise out of the plot and situations. He must keep the story moving in order to allow for new situations out of which he can create gags. In Keaton’s film, on the other hand, the “plot”, as such, is practically put on hold while the audience watches him struggle to maneuver the train, search for timber, load a cannon, etc. Here, it is really the reactions of Keaton’s character that provide the interest for the viewer, and his interactions with his environment.

Chaplin’s films took another route entirely; frequently, he’d surround his “plot” scenes with extended comic sequences which could almost be appreciated outside of the film. Granted, the narrative thrust that provides the motivation for the prize fight sequence in CITY LIGHTS gives it an added dramatic component, but the viewer would find it just as funny whether or not he or she knows specifically why Charlie is fighting in the match. Similarly, even the “shoe-eating” bit in THE GOLD RUSH is a singularly funny, standalone sequence, and does not really need to be seen in the context of the entire film to be effective. (Chaplin himself seemed to recognize this, and culminated his work in the silent medium with the picaresque MODERN TIMES, whose plot serves as a clothesline on which to hang a number of comic sequences). The films of Laurel and Hardy are another example of this idea at work-they were always at their best when working at a relaxed, leisurely pace which allowed them to develop their gags naturally, rather than to force them into the confines of a strict linear narrative progression (the best example, in their feature-film work at least, may be BLOCKHEADS). It’s no coincidence that Lloyd’s most famous sequence, the building-climb from SAFETY LAST, is also the sequence from all his films that stands well on its own, even out of the context of the narrative.

To take this idea to the extremes, one could also argue that we don’t really care just why Abbott and Costello are discussing putting together a baseball team when they perform “Who’s on First?”, nor do we really care just why W.C. Fields has to sleep on the back porch in IT’S A GIFT. The film’s plots serve merely as an excuse to get them into these set-ups. It’s not so much the situation that’s funny, but what the comedian does with it. It’s hard to imagine watching Lloyd eat a hard-boiled egg and making it side-splittingly funny the way Stan Laurel could.

Many of Lloyd’s best comic sequences, on the other hand, really need to be seen as part of the overall plot in order to really work. This may be one of the reasons that his films never worked as well in the forms of excerpts in compilations, such as HAROLD LLOYD'S WORLD OF COMEDY or HAROLD LLOYD’S FUNNY SIDE OF LIFE. Because his comic sequences did not originate as standalone vaudeville bits, honed over a period of years on the stage, but rather emerged as fully-formed parts of a narrative whole, Lloyd’s films truly must be seen in their entirety in order to be fully appreciated. Lloyd is a truly narrative filmmaker, then, in addition to being a very funny comic artist. His approach can be seen as a different one, though by no means it in inferior, in any way.

Character development remained the central plot device of almost all of Lloyd’s films. The one exception to this may be HOT WATER (1924), in which he plays a married man who has problems with the in-laws. It’s one of his funniest films, to be sure, but lacks the kind of character arc seen in so many of his other works. THE KID BROTHER may just be his most satisfying film from a character development standpoint, because the goals he wants to achieve are almost universal, whereas his character’s goals in SAFETY LAST and even THE FRESHMAN are a little more tied to the time and place of the culture that produced the films. His character types tended to differ from film to film; often alternating between the small-town boy trying to make good, or the rich idler who learns about the important things in life. Buster Keaton also frequently used variations on these character types, yet underneath it all, he was still the clearly defined “Buster” character, and even kidded this fact in moments like that in STEAMBOAT BILL JR. when, trying on a series of hats at a store, he comes across his trademark porkpie hat, and it is immediately tossed aside. This type of gag wouldn’t have worked for Lloyd, because he really becomes the character in a fundamental way, which is a tribute to his skills as an actor. Chaplin rarely underwent any kind of real character transformation in his films, partly because his character was so iconic and well-defined, and because he liked to brings his plots full-circle, with his character ending up where he’d started, often walking off down the road with resignation and acceptance of his station.

Lloyd, then, used character development in a more complex way than other comics. Along with his emphasis on a strong narrative, and an astonishing degree of cinematic inventiveness, he shaped his films in such a way that they require the viewer to engage fully with the film from start to finish, in a way the best comics were able to do.

To say that Harold Lloyd isn’t a “comedian” is to set up a distinction that, I think, misses the point. It is worth noting the differences he brought in his approach to his work, but it is wrong-headed to suggest that they make him any less a comic artist than Chaplin or Keaton. Lloyd’s use of the medium of film is unique to him, and it is difficult to think of any other comic filmmaker who was able to so successfully integrate narrative and gags within their work.