Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

Open, general discussion of silent films, personalities and history.
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Mark Zimmer

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu May 25, 2017 10:32 am

All I know is I watched three Langdon features and I don't think I laughed once. I just don't find him funny or even amusing.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Feb 06, 2018 8:02 pm

silentology.wordpress.com wrote:
Mike Gebert wrote:It is time to restore disorder and treasure silent comedy in all its wild and varied permutations, free of artificially imposed rankings which say more about 1949 than 1923.


Research in vintage newspapers, trade publications, and magazines will confirm that the Big Four were always considered top-ranking comedians, even back in the 1920s, and were praised and informally ranked the same way they are now. Let me repeat that: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon were considered the Big Four even in the 1920s.

That quote is taken from the article In Defense Of “The Big Four” Of Silent Comedy, which, I must admit, does a pretty good job of defending it's case.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostWed Feb 07, 2018 9:10 am

Ranking the comedians today is a concept I do not like much. Matters of taste are hard to quantify. Its like rating your grandchildren. I would never assert that Lige Conley was the intellectual powerhouse that Chaplin was reputed to be. However I can enjoy a Lige Conley Educational comedy as much as a Chaplin Mutual.

I'm amazed Agee's article was published at all. A combination of film industry and audience forsook silent film altogether.
Like a denounced personage in a Stalin photo, silent film disappeared completely from movie houses by 1936. To me that's like no one painting after photography was invented, live performances stop completely after the inventions of film and records.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Feb 08, 2018 5:56 am

Tommie Hicks wrote:
I'm amazed Agee's article was published at all. Like a denounced personage in a Stalin photo, silent film disappeared completely from movie houses by 1936. To me that's like no one painting after photography was invented, live performances stop completely after the inventions of film and records.


Yes, although it depends a little bit on what one means by "disappearing." :)
"New" silent films were of course pretty much gone altogether by 1930 (or, if we're talking internationally, the mid-30s or so) but old silent films were still appreciated by a good chunk of people, especially in Europe and Asia (and to some degree the US). Where I come from (Northern Europe) the Chaplin Mutuals were still going strong by the late 30s, with or without the Van Beuren soundtracks... So silent film, as a phenomenon, wasn't really quite as suppressed in the public's minds when Agee wrote his article in -49 as one may think.

I do agree it's startling to think how fast the production of *new* silent films died once sound had made its permanent entrance; as late as 1935 (or so), Leslie Wood predicted in his book THE ROMANCE OF THE MOVIES that the total abandonment of silent film in favor of talkies probably wouldn't last (wish he were right). At the same time, from a purely commercial standpoint it did make sense...the studios had spent several fortunes adapting to sound once it was clear that sound was the future. Today it seems bizarre to us that silents couldn't live side by side with talkies (especially since lots of late silents have aged far better than many early talkies) but although some people back then did miss the "silent era," by and large audiences of the early 30s really seemed to prefer sound (see, f.i., many exhibitor's notes saying as much after screenings of "silent cavalcades") and by the mid-30s, silents were so much a thing of the past that there really was no way back, as far as new film production was concerned.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Feb 08, 2018 8:16 am

Yes, as documented before, here and elsewhere, Silents did never totally disappeared. (Albeit, they were repackaged/scored/foleyed/narrated, etc.)

That blanket statement is as factually wrong as the similar canard in the OTR community, that Radio/Audio Drama wholly died in America in 1962.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Feb 08, 2018 8:23 am

Silents were deader than dead in 1933, the way hair metal was deader than dead when Nirvana was big. It was not just that the technology had changed but the world seemed so different from 1928.

But by the late 30s there was starting to be a revival— The Sheik and Son of the Sheik were brought back in revival theaters, then Tumbleweeds, and Chaplin's reissue of The Gold Rush was a big moneymaker. By 1949 the 20-year mark that seems to be necessary for full-on nostalgia for a simpler time had been passed.

So I think Agee was in exactly the right place at the right time in 1949. But his article reflects unspoken prejudices of that time— that features matter more than shorts in comedy (which is why he hymns Sennett, but crowns iconic comedians for post-Sennett or never-Sennett work), that people who are long inactive are funny (and Laurel and Hardy who were still working were not), and so on.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Feb 08, 2018 2:33 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:So I think Agee was in exactly the right place at the right time in 1949. But his article reflects unspoken prejudices of that time— that features matter more than shorts in comedy (which is why he hymns Sennett, but crowns iconic comedians for post-Sennett or never-Sennett work), that people who are long inactive are funny (and Laurel and Hardy who were still working were not), and so on.


Although it was probably better that Agee focused on the Keaton of Sherlock Jr. and not the gag writer on At the Circus.

I wonder if the Agee article led, directly or indirectly, to MGM's Red Skelton remakes of Keaton features. Maybe also Gene Kelly copping Singin' in the Rain from The Cameraman.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Feb 08, 2018 3:57 pm

Daniel Eagan wrote:I wonder if the Agee article led, directly or indirectly, to MGM's Red Skelton remakes of Keaton features.


Skelton's A SOUTHERN YANKEE was released a full year before Agee's article appeared, so I don't think so. :) For all we know, Skelton's Keaton-inspired films may to some degree have made Agee think of the silent era again, though.

As for silent films having almost completely disappeared from public consciousness in the early 1930s, again, that depends on what country/public we're talking about... in the US that may have been true to some extent, but in Europe and Asia the public doesn't really seem to have had the same either/or mentality that hit Hollywood regarding silents vs talkies. Max Linder's last film MAX, DER ZIRKUSKONIG was reissued in Northern Europe as early as 1930, with much success, and that's just one individual example. A friend of mine (who'll be 95 years old in a few days!) remembers seeing Laurel & Hardy's BIG BUSINESS in theaters as a child and, from what he describes, that must've been in the early 30s.

For that matter, in many European countries, new silent films continued to be made (side by side with talkies) until at least 1933/34.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostFri Feb 09, 2018 12:39 pm

Image
Here's a revival of a silent Rodolph Valentino film in February 1930 in Rochester, as the second part of a double feature. While interesting, silent film shows were few and far-between in the sound era. I wonder if it had live accompaniment, or a recorded score...
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostFri Feb 09, 2018 1:19 pm

A lot of the big hits had reissue versions from 1930-31 with synchronized scores-- if you saw, say, Ben-Hur or The Big Parade in 16mm in the film society days, those are the versions you saw from Films Inc. Of course numerically they weren't huge in terms of the percentage of screens occupied, but they were the kind of thing a neighborhood theater could show and feel like they had a big title to show. Of course, at that time those particular films were only 5 years old or so, and did not necessarily seem wildly out of date.

This sort of thing continued through the 30s-- the Van Beuren releases of the Chaplin Mutuals stitched into feature length, for instance. But the trades talked a lot about the 1938 reissues of the Valentino films as a different kind of thing-- I'd say they were, in a sense, the first "nostalgia" shows, bordering on being the first "camp" shows, playing the films as a throwback to another era, simpler and yet more floridly sexual. And by that time those films were closer to being two decades old, and certainly from a different world of sheiks and mad silent movie passion.

Their success led to talk about different ways of reviving old films, though only a few really were released that way. I suspect Chaplin, for one, had very mixed feelings about relegating himself to the world of nostalgia acts when he was only in his early 50s and still making contemporary-set, new releases.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostFri Feb 09, 2018 2:00 pm

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostFri Feb 09, 2018 2:18 pm

Yes, that print was common as well, and also available in 16mm many years later.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostSun Feb 11, 2018 6:29 pm

I'll get my two cents. May repeat the opinions and thoughts of others, and in some cases, not so much.

The Agee article: Wonderful for its time in that it brought silent comedy back into the mind of a public who was forgetful of silent comedy heritage. Keaton especially benefitted, getting his work restored. As far as the pantheon, I look at it as the start of a conversation, one Walter Kerr continued, and one we're still continuing to this day. Unlike Agee and Kerr, we have access to YouTube, DVD/Blu-Ray and cable television, so obviously we have much more to go by than memory and some rare Blackhawk print. I am extremely grateful for this.

So is Agee's pantheon still valid? Yes. It's there to agree or disagree with, and for us to insert our own opinions on top of it. I used to obsess over the pantheon myself, but the older I get, I do see the wisdom in spending more time watching and enjoying films and less time thinking about them. There are other much more important things to think about in this world, with comedy, I just want to laugh.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Feb 12, 2018 6:13 am

Metaldams wrote:I used to obsess over the pantheon myself, but the older I get, I do see the wisdom in spending more time watching and enjoying films and less time thinking about them. There are other much more important things to think about in this world, with comedy, I just want to laugh.


This is well said. Just want to add that Kerr, being stationed in New York City, did have access to quite a lot of silent films which were otherwise largely unavailable to the public at that time, so he was in a privileged position in that sense. Kerr saw dozens of early Keystones without hardly ever (maybe never? Been some years since I read the book) laughing, which I personally find strange. I can understand how someone might generally prefer the more character-driven humor of 20s Roach, but surely the Keystones of the 10s can be outrageously funny, once one understands and accepts the codes of their universe.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Feb 12, 2018 6:35 am

Smari1989 wrote:
Metaldams wrote:I used to obsess over the pantheon myself, but the older I get, I do see the wisdom in spending more time watching and enjoying films and less time thinking about them. There are other much more important things to think about in this world, with comedy, I just want to laugh.


This is well said. Just want to add that Kerr, being stationed in New York City, did have access to quite a lot of silent films which were otherwise largely unavailable to the public at that time, so he was in a privileged position in that sense. Kerr saw dozens of early Keystones without hardly ever (maybe never? Been some years since I read the book) laughing, which I personally find strange. I can understand how someone might generally prefer the more character-driven humor of 20s Roach, but surely the Keystones of the 10s can be outrageously funny, once one understands and accepts the codes of their universe.


Growing up, watching Laurel & Hardy on television, they were about my grandparents' age, or maybe a little younger, and therefore, I could relate to them. The Keystones, however, funny as they are, make reference to 19th century archetypes of melodrama, frequently by way of Griffith, and thus were less culturally accessible. Add in the issues of available recordings, types of recordings, personal recollections, and such issues as class markers by means of clothing choices, that would be been intuitive to an audience in 1915 is a blank without extensive training (i.e. looking at hundreds of hours of film from the era).

Agee didn't have L&H on tv, waiting for him every rainy afternoon (better than soap operas, ugh!). He would have had to make the active decision to seek them out, spend money he didn't have as a child. He was not predisposed towards them. He would have to learn to appreciate them.

My nieces have complained to me about family secrets. I've explained to them there are two sorts of secrets: things we don't mention because we are ashamed of them, and things we don't mention because we are bored of them. Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton and Langdon were, as have been settled here, part of the accepted background. There was nothing groundbreaking about his thesis; it might have been a piece reminding people about how wonderful the craze surrounding Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic was; an affirmation of the normative grown so commonplace as to have been forgotten through neglect. Nothing more.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Feb 12, 2018 7:13 am

boblipton wrote:Growing up, watching Laurel & Hardy on television, they were about my grandparents' age, or maybe a little younger, and therefore, I could relate to them. The Keystones, however, funny as they are, make reference to 19th century archetypes of melodrama, frequently by way of Griffith, and thus were less culturally accessible. Add in the issues of available recordings, types of recordings, personal recollections, and such issues as class markers by means of clothing choices, that would be been intuitive to an audience in 1915 is a blank without extensive training (i.e. looking at hundreds of hours of film from the era).
Bob


Totally agree that the more one understands of social norms and trends of the 1910s, the more likely one is to appreciate the Keystones. To me, this realization has really been an eye-opener in later years, and is part of what makes the Keystones so interesting to me.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Feb 13, 2018 6:43 pm

As gauche as it may be, I try not to pay attention to the great writers and critics. I think it's better to love what you love, without worrying what someone else thinks or says. That's how I get away with my deep love of Ford Sterling and Al St. John. Damn the critics, they make me laugh more than pretty much anyone. Charley Chase too. His sound shorts were surprisingly consistent and very funny.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Feb 13, 2018 7:21 pm

Smari1989 wrote:
boblipton wrote:Growing up, watching Laurel & Hardy on television, they were about my grandparents' age, or maybe a little younger, and therefore, I could relate to them. The Keystones, however, funny as they are, make reference to 19th century archetypes of melodrama, frequently by way of Griffith, and thus were less culturally accessible. Add in the issues of available recordings, types of recordings, personal recollections, and such issues as class markers by means of clothing choices, that would be been intuitive to an audience in 1915 is a blank without extensive training (i.e. looking at hundreds of hours of film from the era).
Bob


Totally agree that the more one understands of social norms and trends of the 1910s, the more likely one is to appreciate the Keystones. To me, this realization has really been an eye-opener in later years, and is part of what makes the Keystones so interesting to me.


Absolutely. Those old Keystones definitely have Victorian era clothing which you did not see in the economic boom jazz age twenties. The change between teens and twenties has always fascinated me, both clothing and morality wise. Also, as Bob Lipton eluded to, those 19th century archetypes are by way of Griffith, a filmmaker I definitely find it helps to put a pre jazz age thinking cap on for.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Feb 13, 2018 7:52 pm

And not just Victorian clothing. Think about the Chaplins where he's trying to pick up nursemaids in the park. Then look at the Laurel and Hardys where they're middle class guys dealing with their wives. One is a picture of 19th century class structure, the other is the world of situation comedy up to the present day, as relatable as The Dick Van Dyke Show or Home Improvement.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Feb 13, 2018 8:50 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:And not just Victorian clothing. Think about the Chaplins where he's trying to pick up nursemaids in the park. Then look at the Laurel and Hardys where they're middle class guys dealing with their wives. One is a picture of 19th century class structure, the other is the world of situation comedy up to the present day, as relatable as The Dick Van Dyke Show or Home Improvement.


You're absolutely right. World War I drew us closer to modern American culture. It also decimated old Europe, sadly, which is what a lot of those films of the teens look like. I love watching older films and comparing them to the historical events of their time. Laurel and Hardy with the wives, Lloyd literally climbing his way up the corporate ladder, Clara Bow...feels like a different world.
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