Friday, June 8, 2012

Comic Relief: Silent Comedy

I decided to share an essay I wrote for a Comedy Film class. This is longer than my other comedy papers (future posts), but since silent comedy laid the foundation for comedy in films, I thought this would be an appropriate start.

Written by Trudy L. Bockoven
Feb. 27, 2008     

Silent Comedy—A Funny Sight to See

Picture two coats hanging from pegs on a wall.  It is not a funny image.  But take those two coats, place a man inside of each, and hang the coats again on the pegs, with the men’s legs and arms hidden from view, and that is a funny image.  It is also an ingredient vitally essential to silent film comedy—visual humor. In many ways, viewing the comedy can be even more entertaining than hearing the comedy.  Consider the party game of charades.  If a person verbally gives clues to the book, movie, or phrase they want others to guess, it is not as funny.  Instead, they must act out the phrase without talking and their wild gestures, expressions, and mannerisms make for hilarious fun.  It is the same concept for silent film comedy—show them, do not tell them. Without the use of language, the audience needs to see what is comical; therefore, the comic actors use plenty of physical comedy such as pratfalls, facial expressions, slapstick, and sight gags.  This is a closer look at the particular techniques that help make silent comedy so laugh-out-loud funny!
PRATFALLS.  Authors Scott and Barbara Siegel describe a pratfall as “…the comic term for landing on one’s hind quarters without injury” (226).  Falling on the rear end sounds easy enough, after all…most of the audience has experienced landing on his or her rump at some point without even trying.  Maybe that is what makes a pratfall so comical—it is funny when it happens to someone else.  The pratfall is not necessarily an easy feat; it takes planning, practice, and coordination to fall without causing injury.  Falling on the derriere gets more laughs than, say, simply falling down.  For some reason (perhaps a juvenile response) the audience has a fascination with the backside of a person’s front and enjoys seeing it landed on, and the more artful the landing, the better.  “Before the coming of sound, physical humor was especially highly prized, and its practitioners, such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle, were among those who took pratfalls with the greatest comical grace” (Siegel 226). 
Charlie Chaplin uses pratfalls several times in The Tramp.  Early in the film, he walks along a dirt road.  A car passes by causing him to lose his balance and he falls on his behind.  However, his fall does not end on his rear end, instead, the fall continues with his legs flying up and over his body until he is practically on his shoulders with his rump in the air.  It is clumsiness and poetry rolled into one humorous technique.  The audience barely recovers from laughing over his artful fall, when along comes another vehicle causing the tramp to land on his hind end once again.  Although there are many pratfalls in the film, each one is different.  The audience can quickly get bored seeing the same stunt pulled over and over again.  To keep a pratfall fresh and funny, the comedian uses clever ways to “reinvent” the fall.  Chaplin was expert in making each pratfall seem unique.  For instance, another classic pratfall in the film takes place when the tramp lands with his hind-end on a burning hot rock, making his britches smoke as though on fire.  The reinvention pays off with laughter from the viewers.  Pratfalls, when artistically executed, work to set a comic atmosphere.
FACIAL EXPRESSIONS.  Many silent film comedians have almost signature facial expressions.  Consider Stan Laurel with his eyes squinting shut and his face puckering up as though he is about to cry.  Oliver Hardy has a way of staring into the camera in disbelief before smacking Laurel.  The na├»ve baby-face expressions of Harry Langdon produce laughter too.  Buster Keaton, on the other hand, earned famed for his lack of expression.  “From the very beginning, his persona was the same: the unsmiling stone face.  Keaton had developed his stoic expression very early on in his vaudeville career, noting that audiences laughed when he didn’t smile” (Siegel 153).  A good example of his “stone face” is in the film The General.  Keaton’s character, Johnnie Gray, is a railroad engineer.  A loose boxcar is in front of his engine as he chases Union soldiers.  He looks away and does not see debris (thrown by the soldiers) derail the boxcar.  When he looks forward and realizes the boxcar is gone, his blank expression somehow registers total confusion and amazement.  He is nearly expressionless as he stares ahead in disbelief.  He blinks, looks behind to see if the boxcar is somehow back there, and then looks forward again.  He tilts his head and moves his eyes from one side to the other, still searching for the boxcar.  His lack of expression during that scene creates a very funny moment in the film.  The audience expects a look of surprise or shock; Keaton gives them the unexpected—a deadpan expression—making the scene far funnier.  Facial expressions (or the lack thereof!) are forms of physical comedy.  Words are not necessary when the face expresses the reaction to situations.
SLAPSTICK.  According to Webster’s Dictionary, slapstick is “a stick or lath used by comic performers or characters for striking other persons, esp. a pair of laths that produce a loud noise without causing injury” (1257).  “Without causing injury” are the key words.  Slapstick is the term used for the horseplay and roughhouse behavior within a film that does not cause physical harm.  For instance, a character receives a blow to the head with a mallet, yet receives no injury.  It is physical abuse without the physical harm and it is especially physical comedy.  “Slapstick was as natural to the silent screen as were the action-melodramas and spectacles, and for the same reason: It utilized those aspects of the world best communicated through the moving image, those not requiring the supplement of language” (Wexman 37). 
A scene in The Butcher Boy (with Roscoe C. “Fatty” Arbuckle) gives a great example of slapstick.  The character of Alum (the head clerk) punches Fatty in the stomach, twice.  Fatty then uses his large stomach to punch Alum, sending him into a pratfall with his legs flying overhead.  Slapstick abounds as the scene continues with Fatty pelting Alum (and others) with bags of flour.  Pies are thrown, a small keg hits Alum in the side of the head, the manager smacks Alum with a broom.  It is utter chaos but no injuries occur in spite of the blows to the head, punches to the stomach, and other roughhouse behavior. 
If a person saw someone get slugged in the stomach, or hit in the head with a keg, it would not be a laughing matter in reality; but, in film the audience understands that the behavior is beyond what is perceived as common sense and the viewer feels free to laugh.  It is almost a wicked pleasure to laugh at such antics when the viewer considers the times he or she would relish punching a foe in the face. 
SIGHT GAGS.  Sight gags are visual jokes—“visual incongruities and surprises” (Wexman, 35). In a manner of speaking (pun intended!), the viewer did not need any dialogue to understand the humorous situation.  With no sound in the films, sight gags are a main staple of silent comedy.  Author Geoff King writes, “Where the story outline was developed first in the silent era, it was often adjusted to fit the selected gags…” (31).  Sight gags usually consist of someone or something being the wrong size (or visually incongruent in size like thin Laurel next to wide Hardy), or a person behaving odd for the circumstances they are in, or an object used in an unusual manner.
An example of a “wrong size” sight gag is Fatty Arbuckle dressed as a girl (The Butcher Boy).  It is visually funny to see such a rotund full-grown man dressed as a young girl with hair in ringlets and large feet in Mary Jane shoes!  Another example of “wrong size” is the tramp using a simple watering can to water an entire orchard one tree at a time (Charlie Chaplin in The Tramp).  Many comedians of the silent era also chose “wrong size” clothing for visual humor: shoes too big, suit coat too small, pants too short.  
Strange behavior is visually funny too.  In The General, there is a scene where Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) behaves very oddly.  She is in a train engine with Johnnie pursued by enemy soldiers.  It should be a very tense situation, yet she picks up a broom and starts tidying the area as though she is keeping house!  Her peculiar actions provide a sight gag since it catches the audience by surprise.  It is unexpected behavior for the circumstance.
Another form of a sight gag is the clever use of an ordinary object.  Using a ladder for a ladder is ordinary; using a porch rail for a ladder is unusual and funny.  The element of surprise creates laughter as Keaton yanks the porch rail off the house and then ascends it like a ladder (One Week).  Also consider this: A dog running is ordinary, but a dog running on a treadmill to grind pepper is visually funny, using the dog in an unusual manner (Luke, The Butcher Boy).
“In silent comedy the gag construction could advance unimpeded:  No pause was needed for lines to be heard and laughs registered” (Wexman 38).  Sight gags of size, absurd behavior, and unusual methods abound in silent comedy.  The visual gags catch the audience by surprise and a surprised audience is a laughing audience. 
Pratfalls, facial expressions, slapstick, and sight gags are techniques of physical comedy used within silent comedy films.  They are successful in creating the comic atmosphere for films without the assistance of language.  What’s more, the effects of physical comedy also work well with sound.  Silent comedy laid the foundation for sound comedy to stand on, and many of the successful comedy films since the silent era manage to combine both physical and verbal comedy. The influence of physical comedy from yesteryears, though termed as silent comedy, still echoes loud and clear into the future of film.

NOTE: I have the citation references, but opted not to publish them along with this post (hopefully making it more difficult to plagiarize in full).  If you would like to know a specific source, please ask, and I will gladly provide the information.

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