Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

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Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Jan 22, 2008 10:01 pm

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A few facts. When James Agee wrote his famous essay, "Comedy's Greatest Era," for Life magazine in 1949:

• The last major comedy of the silent era, City Lights, was only as far back in time as Home Alone is today.

• The General was as old as Ferris Bueller's Day Off is now.

• The Kid was no more distant than Caddyshack, with Bill Murray, is now.

• The founding of the Sennett Keystone studio, surely the year zero of silent comedy, was only as deep in the past as Woody Allen's Bananas is to us.

Sure, a lot of time has passed since those comedies of the 70s, 80s and 90s. But even a counterculture piece like Bananas doesn't feel like it came from an entirely different world from our own. Bill Murray is still a major star; Macaulay Culkin is on his second career now, but still only in his 20s; Matthew Broderick is still boyish, even if he plays teachers (as in Election) rather than students these days; and Woody Allen's leading ladies are actually younger now than they were then.

By comparison, Agee was writing about movies and stars who were not just difficult to see (and, at that point, seemed even more lost to history than they turned out to be). They also lay on the far side of multiple cultural shifts-- the urbanization and social changes of the 20s, the Depression, World War II-- as well as a huge technological shift within the industry (the coming of sound), all of which made them seem far more antiquated and alien than they really were. Agee could legitimately talk about comedians from 25-year-old movies belonging to an entirely different tradition from the comedians of his own day, in a way that we would never think of, say, 80s comics like Chevy Chase and John Belushi being completely different from Ben Stiller and Jack Black today.

I bring all this up to make the point that Agee was writing in a specific time with a specific point of view toward film history-- and that we live in a very different one. Agee set out to make a mark on film history by reviving memories of the great silent comedians, and he succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of what would normally have been an ephemeral essay in a quickly-discarded weekly. For one great silent comedian, he did a huge personal favor, reviving and inflating the reputation of Buster Keaton just in time for him to enjoy a renaissance in movies and on early TV. And he did all of us a favor by legitimizing interest in the period, helping create the market for all the compilation films and reissues that made silent comedians household names in the 50s and 60s, a form of fandom that is still the (graying) base of interest in their films today.

But Agee was also writing for his time, strategically, attempting to influence the attitudes and practices that existed then. And we, who live in another time entirely, need to understand how Agee's essay has outlived its value and shaped our understanding of the period-- in ways that limit our thinking and affect what gets seen and saved today.

* * *

The best of comedies these days hand out plenty of titters and once in a while it is possible to achieve a yowl without overstraining. Even those who have never seen anything better must occasionally have the feeling, as they watch the current run or, rather, trickle of screen comedy, that they having to make a little cause for laughter go an awfully long way. And anyone who has watched screen comedy over the past ten or fifteen years is bound to realize that it has quietly but steadily deteriorated. As for those happy atavists who remember silent comedy in its heyday and the belly laughs and boffos that went with it, they have something close to an absolute standard by which to measure the deterioration.


The first point about Agee writing for his time is that he was reviving the silent period in part as a cudgel with which to beat his own time. So let's consider what that "ten or fifteen years" encompasses-- the high points of Bob Hope's career (The Roads to Morocco and Utopia, The Princess and the Pirate, etc.), W.C. Fields' final masterpieces Never Give a Sucker an Even Break and The Bank Dick, nearly all of Preston Sturges' career (from Easy Living to Hail the Conquering Hero), Billy Wilder's screenplays for Midnight and Ball of Fire and his US directing debut with The Major and the Minor, My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday... we should all suffer such deterioration!

But there are two points to be made about that. One is, no one lives through a time period seeing it as an undisturbed string of masterpieces; if you lived through the 70s, you experienced it as a decade of cheesy disaster and Charles Bronson or Burt Reynolds movies, and only later learned it was the decade of Coppola, Scorsese and Altman. For every Miracle of Morgan's Creek, there's a so-so piece like Princess O'Rourke or The More the Merrier, or more likely five of them, all forgotten today.

The other is that Agee was only talking about half of the equation-- it may have been a fine time for realistic romantic comedy, but if your standard was visual comedy, physical comedy, there's no question that the teens and 1920s were a far better period than the highly verbal 1940s were.

We will discuss here what has gone wrong with screen comedy and what, if anything, can be done about it. But mainly we will try to suggest what it was like in its glory in the years from 1912 to 1930, as practiced by the employees of Mack Sennett, the father of American screen comedy, and by the four most eminent masters: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, the late Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton.


That's the moment, nine paragraphs in, when Agee makes his most lasting soundbite about silent comedy: the enshrinement of a pantheon, consisting of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon (which is the order most of us would unconsciously sort them into today). He goes on to devote a considerable amount of space to each of them, as well as to Sennett as the wellspring from which silent comedy flowed. And in the process he creates a sort of narrative: first Sennett created disorder, then Chaplin made disorder into high art by adding humanity to manic mayhem; Lloyd raised gag construction to a high art, Langdon shrunk it all to a minimalist naivete, and Keaton expressed his own strange and somber wavelength. The bulk of the piece is devoted to explicating this taxonomy; few other figures rate more than a mention in passing, even when that mention is clearly fond in intent.

And so, for more than 50 years, we've had the idea that these were accepted as the four major silent comedians, and all others (Raymond Griffith, Lloyd Hamilton, Poodles Hanneford, etc.) are interesting runners-up who fell short. Except... we haven't behaved that way at all. For starters, you would be hard-pressed to say that Langdon... or Lloyd... or even, perhaps, Chaplin has been as loved and widely seen as Laurel and Hardy. True, Laurel and Hardy get a favorable passing mention from Agee-- in regards to a sequence not from any silent film, but from 1938's Swiss Miss-- but Ben Turpin rates half a dozen by comparison. Hell, James Finlayson gets as much ink as they do.

Why is that? If Laurel and Hardy were soon so beloved as to spawn societies in their honor, which is more than demigods like Chaplin or Keaton could say, why doesn't Agee rate them as highly as, well, Harry Langdon, whose career was a blip within a moment by comparison with their 20-year reign? It's not that they weren't as interesting as the others-- Samuel Beckett certainly responded to their iconic possibilities, to name one-- and it's certainly not that they weren't as accomplished -- indeed, Agee's opening description of how silent comedy works seems to describe them better than anybody:

An ideally good gag, perfectly constructed and played, would bring the victim up the ladder of laughs by cruelly controlled degrees to the top rung, and would then proceed to wobble, shake, wave and brandish the ladder until he groaned for mercy. Then, after the shortest possible time out for recuperation, he would feel the first wicked tickling of the comedian's whip once more and start up a new ladder.


(Tell me that the mention of "ladder" in that paragraph didn't immediately conjure up pictures of Ollie installing an antenna in Hog Wild.)

Yet Agee not only doesn't consider them worthy of his pantheon, he writes them out of history entirely:

As soon as the screen began to talk, silent comedy was pretty well finished... the only man who really survived the flood was Chaplin, the only one who was rich, proud and popular enough to afford to stay silent.


The only man... Except, that is, for Laurel and Hardy, who simply kept on doing what they were doing, virtually unchanged except that now they spoke as they did it, and continued doing it in feature films until just a few years before Agee wrote the essay.

The problem is, acknowledging Laurel and Hardy's greatness would undermine Agee's case that screen comedy was dead, killed by dialogue. It would introduce two comedians who had in fact kept it alive in talking pictures until shortly before his piece-- and it would remind audiences that their most recent memories of slapstick were not especially good ones. It would be tough to make the case for the primacy of slapstick over verbal comedy if the most familiar titles you had to set against Abbott & Costello in their prime were The Bullfighters and The Big Noise. You could say all you wanted about Sons of the Desert or Helpmates or Big Business, but people would remember what they saw most recently, and think, "He's raving about them? About that?"

And so Laurel and Hardy are denied the pantheon. Looked at with that knowledge, the pantheon soon reveals its qualifications for entry: you needed to make features, not just shorts, as evidence of artistic ambition. And you needed to be out of the present day movie business and to belong in some sense to the past-- Langdon was dead, Keaton had long since been shipped off to the minors, Chaplin was a legendary eccentric who reappeared in some new guise every five years or so, and Lloyd was an ex-star who still had the money to keep testing the waters every five years or so to see if he was forgotten yet. (Warren Beatty sort of does the same thing today.) What you could not be, what was unforgivable for the purpose of Agee's thesis, was to be successfully employed by the Hollywood of the 1940s, as Laurel and Hardy were.

Or as the other comedians who most fit his description of great visual comedy were:

When a modern comedian gets hit on the head, for example, the most he is apt to do is look sleepy. When a silent comedian got hit on the head he seldom let it go so flatly... the least he might do was straighten up stiff as a plank and fall over backwards with such skill that his whole length seemed to slap the floor at the same instant. Or he might make a cadenza of it-- look vague, smile like an angel, roll up his eyes, lace his fingers, thrust his hands palms downward as far as they would go, hunch his shoulders, rise on tiptoe, prance ecstatically in narrowing circles until, with tallow knees, he sank down the vortex of his dizziness to the floor and there signified nirvana by kicking his heels twice, like a swimming frog.


Frankly, that doesn't sound that funny to me; it sounds like hamming it up a bit tiresomely. But okay, let's accept that it was funny once, or four or five times, but it would never have stayed funny all the way to 1949. It would have evolved. And it did evolve. What it evolved into was the elaborate, brutal, jam-session-fast physical slapstick of the Three Stooges. There could hardly be a straighter line than from the Keystone mayhem to the Stooges' mayhem, except streamlined and made faster and meaner for the 1940s.

I'm not a huge Stooges fan, but there's no denying that their best shorts are brutally efficient laugh machines, with timing to make His Girl Friday feel like a Robert Wilson staging of a Philip Glass opera. But they were hopelessly lowbrow, respected by no one over the age of 8 then, and there was no way that James Agee was going to sing their praises in Life magazine as the living exemplars of comedy's greatest era. They'd have carted him off to dry out and get some sense back into his head. (This reminds me of a story the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum told, where the Sundance Film Festival asked him for a suggestion of someone to do a retrospective of, some undervalued American auteur whose reputation they could transform by granting him serious attention. That's easy, Rosenbaum said; Jerry Lewis. Um, we had in mind a different underappreciated auteur, they replied.)

And what else it evolved into was... Warner Brothers cartoons. I mean, if there was a 1940s star who would have been likely to go through that whole rubberlegged routine after getting bonked on the head, it wasn't Bob Hope or Danny Kaye or Lou Costello, it was Bugs or Daffy. The reaction that would have seemed insanely overdone in live action comedy would have only rated about a 4 in a Tex Avery or Frank Tashlin cartoon. But again, decades before the serious appreciation of non-Disney animation, what were the chances that Agee would have written and Life would have published a paean to wise-cracking animals strictly for kids? Agee could pay tribute to lowbrow visual humor if it was as cold and dead as a Greek statue, but live vulgarity was too vulgar for Life.

* * *

Agee's piece made real history in kickstarting the 50s and 60s revival of classic silent comedy on a mainstream-respectability level; and his appreciations of the four comedians he admires at length are astute and well worth reading.

But the effect of reducing the richness of silent comedy to four primary figures has been unnecessarily restrictive on subsequent thinking about the genre. His choices do not match reality today; to judge by popularity at the film conventions, for instance, one would be tempted to say that the four best-known and loved comics are Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase, who is never mentioned once by Agee, and behind them would come, along with Chaplin and Lloyd, such cult figures as Raymond Griffith, Roscoe Arbuckle, Max Davidson, Max Linder, and Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, with a surprise late entrant in the form of Charley Bowers. (Needless to say, none of these except Arbuckle even exists in Agee's piece.)

More to the point, thinking of them as the Fab Four ill-serves the period, putting the emphasis on those who did feature work (which means stars who started with Sennett but progressed to features), and ignoring both those Sennett figures whose careers remained in shorts, and later performers whose careers were in shorts at the same time as his four were making features-- such as the entire Roach stable, even though their 1920s work is more like the 1920s feature work he prizes than 1910s Sennett films are. His narrative of historical progress in silent comedy thus misses much of what was interesting in both decades in the name of a unified storyline of straight-line evolution to feature films, when features were still very much the exception rather than the rule for comedians.

I have always felt Langdon in particular is the odd man out in this narrative. Not that he can't be very funny, but he's a very minor ringer of changes on other people's work (sometimes literally; Tramp, Tramp, Tramp has deliberate echoes of both Safety Last and Seven Chances, showing how Langdon would react in a similar situation). He only exists at all because so many others had been there first, giving him something to create tiny variations of, which audiences got because they too were so familiar with what he was building on. Yet his presence in Agee's pantheon serves to close the door to others by establishing him as sort of the minimum necessary qualification for membership; everyone else must be even more minor than Langdon, by definition, and thus can be safely ignored. He's the self-conscious Mannerist climax to the Renaissance of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, and with him the entire genre and its one-dimensional storyline of progress comes to a close.

Pull him like a cork from the bottle, however, and a raucous party breaks out all over the pantheon. Not everyone let loose deserves a permanent spot among the greats, but plenty of them have something interesting to contribute along the way. Arbuckle is groping his way toward a more mature and quieter form of slapstick, but his career ends before he can fulfill that promise as Chaplin and his own protege Keaton will. The Roach stable is taming slapstick, forcing it to obey more unified rules of story construction which result in beautifully constructed two reelers that build and build on a single premise. Douglas Fairbanks-- why isn't he the fourth great comedian, if we must have one? He was certainly a big enough star, and his teens comedies are more like what Harold Lloyd would later do than The Kid, let alone Super-Hooper-Dyne-Lizzies or Fatty and Mabel Adrift, are. And all around are interesting folks doing their own thing-- Lupino Lane and Wallace Lupino are doing hairbreadth timing together, Charley Bowers is cutting cars to pieces with tinsnips, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew delight with an unexpectedly urbane form of comedy entirely outside the madcap slapstick tradition.

Agee's creation of a pantheon and a narrative to support it had the effect of performing triage on a rapidly disappearing era-- it told the future, you had better remember these four, at least. But now we have saved enough, and have enough opportunities to see enough if we will only take them, that we can throw aside his artificial narrative and see the genre for what it really was-- a diverse world full of individual personalities working in countless directions, working at every length and at every level from high to very lowbrow. In paying tribute to chaos, Agee paradoxically tamed it into order. 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.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Jim Roots

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PostWed Jan 23, 2008 8:26 am

Last year I drafted a long list I titled "Rankin' Them". Exactly what it sounds like: I ranked the silent comedians into about five tiers, and unlike Agee I included some girrrrrrlllsss too. Just call me "iconoclastic".

I haven't looked at the list in a long time. I'll try to review it and decide whether it's worth posting here or not.

I do recall I put Keaton and Chaplin on planets of their own. And that the first tier on this lesser planet Earth included Chase, Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy.

And while I took care to write a very brief comment on all of the entries, I didn't attempt anything like Mike's dissertation.

If readers would rather stick to discussing Mike's posting and not get into arguments about my ranking Mabel Normand so low on the totem pole, please don't hesitate to say so. I will abide by majority wishes.

Jim
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PostWed Jan 23, 2008 8:28 am

By the way, being Canadian, I may have been the only one here to notice it, but does anyone else find a striking resemblance between the Agee in Mike's doctored photo and the late lamented Mordecai Richler?

I actually thought it WAS Richler at first. Then I noticed his greasy long hair was combed.

Jim
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Mike Gebert

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PostWed Jan 23, 2008 8:30 am

I think it'd be interesting to see where you grouped things. Even if you're still ranking stuff, the very fact that you expand it beyond a sacrosanct four is what I'm talking about, seeing it not as a story of unilateral progress with Langdon (of all people) at its apex, but as a tremendously fertile period with lots of interesting by-ways.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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PostWed Jan 23, 2008 8:48 am

Wow Mike, you need to be writing for some kind of film journal. Too bad Life is no longer around, and Entertainment Weekly ignores anything more than a few months old. Maybe you could write a sequel to Walter Kerr's Silent Clowns. That post was very perceptive.
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Mike Gebert

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PostWed Jan 23, 2008 9:06 am

Wow Mike, you need to be writing for some kind of film journal.


I am, it's called NitrateVille!
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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PostWed Jan 23, 2008 10:00 am

Great article, Mike. Many astute and thought-provoking points.
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Harold Aherne

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PostWed Jan 23, 2008 11:49 am

I guess I like to mentally strip off all the critical veneer from a movie before I watch it, but it's a lot harder to do when that veneer has affected what gets preserved/available. The very fact that we can watch almost any Griffith Biograph means that we can watch his style evolve in a way that's harder to do with James Cruze or John S. Robertson. And, as with silent comics, we get led into an impossible circle: is something preserved/available because someone perceived it as great, or did someone perceive it was great because it was preserved/available? And this further points up the randomness of an impenetrable trio (or quartet) of greats: if Raymond Griffith had been more to Agee's liking and he had reversed the ratio of attention Griffith got compared to Keaton, would Buster instead be the cult figure revered amongst cinephiles?

I have to agree with you on the unjust dumping on sound comedians. Some of the 40s personalities aren't really to my liking, but I enjoy Wheeler and Woolsey, W. C. Fields, Mae West, and Joe E. Brown a great deal, among many others. And like Chaplin, Keaton, and many other silent comedians, they all had stage experience. There has been a tendency to make silent comedy something that sprang solely from the head of the film medium itself, but vaudeville and music hall traditions surely must have informed the sorts of humour and visual gags found in movies of the period. Even musical comedy performers, such as Beatrice Lillie and Eddie Cantor, are marvellous performers in silents.

One thing about Walter Kerr's book that I find a little dismaying is his tendency to imply that Douglas MacLean or Reginald Denny, say, aren't on the same plane as the Big Ones because their work is less essentially "silent". I guess that depends on how far you're willing to take "essentially", and others with more experience re: these two will have to respond. And his dismissive treatment of female comedy performers probably says more about Walter Kerr than silent comedy.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Jan 24, 2008 4:53 am

Nice words Michael(though quite a few of them), but, I hate to tell you, this is a bit of old news. Rattling and smashing Agee's trimuverate of the Three Kings(plus a qualified fourth) has been what has been going on the the Comedy Film History Biz for a couple decades. This is what I was writing about in the 1990's, and the rest of the Silent Comedy Mafia has been working on as well. Heck, even Walter Kerr was taking stabs at re-defining the Comedy Greats in THE SILENT CLOWNS, and some of us have been working to correct his mis-conceptions mis-definitions, and general East Coast sophisticate snobbisms since 1975 (Reginald Denny, Syd Chaplin, and Johnny Hines Demi-Clowns indeed, Nonsense! They have as much right to be called comedians as anyone else working then, and they were far more successful at it than many, Chase, Arbuckle, Larry Semon, Lupino Lane, all better comics than Kerr deigned them to be, etc.).

This is what has been going on with Festivals like Slapsticon, showcasing all of the other hundreds of silent and early sound comedians in the Comedy Film Industry who need to be seen again and recognized for their own greatness or talents, giving them the opportunity to play before audiences again and earn the laughs they knew well how to get. This is what has been happening with DVD releases like the Allday Langdon set, the Laughsmith Arbuckle set, and many others and many more to come.

I have been sitting back chuckling as so many critics have suddenly been "discovering" Langdon, as if the majority of the films on that DVD set haven't been around these last fifty-plus years to look at in one form or another, if they had made a small effort to look. This is the treasure we in the Comedy Mafia have been enjoying for decades, and now that it's out on a DVD all gussied up with music and commentary tracks so the tragically-hip can turn their noses down and look at it as "serious art", it becomes suddenly "in" to think they may be worthy of view. But we still will have to drag some kicking and screaming to even look at Keaton and Langdon's sound work, because someone once said in a book that they were bad, so they will not be able to offend their virgin eyes and ears with the possible blasphemy of a funny Langdon Educational or a funny Keaton Columbia.

Anyway, glad you're finally getting the message Gebert, but you are coming to the party a bit late.

RICHARD M ROBERTS
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PostThu Jan 24, 2008 7:03 am

Gee, no points for working in a mention of Poodles Hanneford?

I don't disagree that I'm hardly the first to call Agee's pantheon into question, but I've never seen some of these points (eg, about the curious omission of Laurel and Hardy due to their sound careers violating his neat premise) made, though one never knows. Anyway, something worth saying is worth saying often...

Oh, and I showed Palooka From Paducah and Pest From the West in Wichita in the 80s, having heard that Keaton's sound shorts had their moments. (Speaking of Slapsticon, I think Alibi Bye Bye was on the same program, too.) So there have always been pockets of rebellion against The Man, even in the sticks.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Jan 24, 2008 3:26 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:Agee's creation of a pantheon and a narrative to support it had the effect of performing triage on a rapidly disappearing era-- it told the future, you had better remember these four, at least. But now we have saved enough, and have enough opportunities to see enough if we will only take them, that we can throw aside his artificial narrative and see the genre for what it really was-- a diverse world full of individual personalities working in countless directions, working at every length and at every level from high to very lowbrow. In paying tribute to chaos, Agee paradoxically tamed it into order. 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.


I think you're correct in saying that Agee was writing for his time, and that it was a time in which it was difficult to see the major silent film comedy features--though it was still possible to see many silent shorts in 16mm rental prints and Castle Films cut downs.

It was also a time when Chaplin was the only one of these major silent comedians still working in a leading creative capacity--though, god knows, for all it's political correctness, "Monsieur Verdoux" has to be one of the worst films ever to come out of Hollywood, IMHO.

But I take exception to a few of your points.

Laurel and Hardy were certainly popular, but they were at best minor comedians in their own era. Their iconic status really came with the releasing of their films to TV in the early 1950s. All of their feature films were either intended as "Bs" or at best as program pictures--designed for the bottom half of double-bills. They were popular enough to make features, but they were primarily short-subject comics, and as such would have had much the same status as The Three Stooges (also given a huge boost by TV), Charley Chase, Billy Bevan, Ben Turpin, Lloyd Hamilton, et.al.

I don't want to take anything away from L&H, I love their stuff, but I'm referring to the way they were perceived at the time.

There were many people in my parents' generation who'd seen silents in theaters as kids, who had fond memories of Lloyd Hamilton. Their repeated fond memories of Hamilton seem somewhat misplaced based on his surving ouvre (though I do have a fondness for the anarchy of the Ham & Bud films).

It could well be argued that there were several other silent comics beyond L&H who continued doing what they had been doing in talkies, and with some success. Harold Lloyd made features through 1938. W.C. Fields made a creeer out of reworking his silent films for the talkies. Charley Chase made a nearly unbroken string of shorts until his death in 1940. Harry Langdon continued making shorts (leaving Hollywood from time to time to return to the stage). Buster Keaton also continued making shorts intermittantly into the 1940s. There were certainly budget and schedule constraints that made these later shorts less good than their silent predecessors, but it would be a mistake to say these films weren't funny. You really need to see a film like Langdon's 1938 "A Dog-Gone Mix-Up" with an audience to realize how moviegoers responded to such films. The real problem is that the audience had moved on. Radio and Broadway transplanted to Hollywood swayed audience tastes. Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Danny Kaye, Preston Sturges, et.al., managed to figure out a way to better integrate sound and visuals, and in their time they were highly regarded for doing just that. Interestingly, when I was a teenager and first interested in movies, the film that friends of my parents most often mentioned that they'd like to see again was Harold Lloyd's "The Cat's Paw." It clearly made an impression, though many would argue that Lloyd betrayed visual comedy with this picture.

Another thing to remember is that generally speaking the critical establishment of that day had very little regard for American movies in general, and comedies in particular. Agee was definitely "slumming" when he was writing about silent comedy, and it is testament to his skill and enthusiasm that his essay was so influential. One need only read Paul Rotha's "The Film Till Now" and "The Film Since Then" to get a sense of how established film critics regarded most American films--even films we revere as classics today. It was often written that Alfred Hitchcock's best films had been made in Britain, for example, a positiion that would be difficult to defend in today's critical environment. The reason that Chaplin, Stroheim and Griffith were so fiercely championed is largely because they dared to buck the Hollywood studio system--the relative quality of their work was somewhat less important than that they were independent (in Chaplin's case) or supposedly destroyed by Hollywood's pursuit of commerce over art.

And, while I agree that we need not be contrained by Agee's pantheon in this day and age, and that we are in a better position to see more films by other comics, I'd still be hard-pressed to make a case for others than Agee's top four being the gold standard by which other comedians and films be judged.

One may point to Max Davidson in "Pass the Gravy" or Charley Chase in "Mighty Like a Moose" or Roscoe Arbuckle in "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" or some films by Lupino Lane, Laurel and Hardy, Raymond Griffith, W.C. Fields, Monty Banks, even Lige Conley as masterpieces in need of rediscovery--and indeed they are. But these comics were not nearly as consistent (or successful) as Agee's "big four."

Chaplin, by virtue of the fact that he led the way, and made good movies, and was wildly popular throughout the world is probably unassailable as the top silent film comedian. Some naysayers will argue that he doesn't have the appeal he once did, but put those pictures on a screen with an audience and they still connect.

Whether one puts Keaton or Lloyd in the number two or three position is more a matter of preference. Lloyd was the more popular in his time, Keaton seems to align more with our current sensibilities. But no other silent comics (including Chaplin) were as consistent in turning out top-notch comedy features in the silent era.

Langdon is a bit more problemtaic, to be sure. I tend to agree with those who insist that Langdon needs to be looked at in context--i.e. he worked "slow" when everyone else was working "fast" and as a result he really contributed to the refining of silent comedy--a point that is lost without the slew of other comedies surrounding his films at the time.

I'd be content to put Langdon in a second tier that might include Raymond Griffith, W.C. Fields, Dane and Arthur, Hatton and Beery and Monty Banks--but that said, I still believe that on balance Langdon shines brighter than these other silent feature comedians, and that his films are more consistent and ultimately more interesting than theirs as much as I admire "Hands Up!," "Running Wild," "Rookies," "Play Safe" et.al.

So I think that there is a need for more in depth exploration of silent comedy in general, but I don't see that Agee's 60 year old tract is any less valid than it was when he wrote it.
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PostThu Jan 24, 2008 4:24 pm

Good points all, Bob, just a couple of comments back:

Minor Laurel & Hardy may have been (though they sure turn up a lot in celebrity cartoons-- but okay, so does Ned Sparks), but they certainly carried the tradition straight through to a time shortly before Agee was writing, which is my real point-- and in features, which is more than the Stooges, or any humorous cartoon character to speak of, had done (not counting Mickey in Fantasia and a few other things like that). And more faithfully than Fields did (even when his sound films are remakes, you wouldn't say they had a silent feel-- maybe a vaudeville feel, but not a silent one). I think it's necessary to Agee's argument, though, to ignore L&H. If there's no slapstick in 1949, then visual slapstick is dead and that's a shame. If there was a Hal Roach team still basically making silent-style slapstick in 1945, and audiences rejected them as unfunny and old hat (or rather, much preferred something else, such as Abbott & Costello), then slapstick is dead, apparently for good reason.

There's two ways of looking at Agee's pantheon. One is, did he get the four best silent comics? Well, no, to my mind, since he's lacking Laurel and Hardy, but some could certainly argue that he did. Other than Laurel and Hardy, it's tough to make the case for anybody clearly displacing Langdon, at least on surviving films, and impossible to seriously evict any of the other three-- if, that is, you're convinced we must have exactly four (which we don't insist on in any other area-- directors of the 50s, Wyler, Zinnemann and Kazan, for sure, but is #4 Sirk or Mann?).

But the other question is, is how he arrived at those four an accurate way of looking at the period? That's my real issue with him, which perhaps could have been clearer, this "narrative of progress" which begins with Sennett comedians in shorts and then shifts to the major feature comedians of the 20s. That puts so much emphasis on features as the measure of comedians, and yet the silent comedy feature barely existed for 2/3rds of the silent period. Perhaps no single short-film comedian rivaled the big four, but the overall body of shorts is far more varied and quirky and interesting than the body of 30 or so major comedian features. One runs the gamut from Sherlock Jr. to The Kid Brother, the other from the New Yorkerish wit of the Drews to the mad scientist surrealism of Charley Bowers. That's what Agee's pantheon has been blocking from view to a considerable degree.
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PostThu Jan 24, 2008 5:27 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:That puts so much emphasis on features as the measure of comedians, and yet the silent comedy feature barely existed for 2/3rds of the silent period. Perhaps no single short-film comedian rivaled the big four, but the overall body of shorts is far more varied and quirky and interesting than the body of 30 or so major comedian features. One runs the gamut from Sherlock Jr. to The Kid Brother, the other from the New Yorkerish wit of the Drews to the mad scientist surrealism of Charley Bowers. That's what Agee's pantheon has been blocking from view to a considerable degree.


If you're going to say that Fields's talkies dont't resemble silent films, then what can you say about Fields's silents? Except for the mustache many of them contain sequences that were remade (virtually shot-for-shot) in his talkies.

As for Agee's weighting toward features, I don't think anyone writing at the time would have looked at shorts as being equal to features. That may be a prejudice you'd like to correct, but it is a valid argument, given critical sentiments that survive to this day, that the more important comedians would move into the "more important" arena of features. Is John Candy (as a latter day example) more likely to be remembered for his TV sketches or for something like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"?

Also, one might argue that Agee was asking the reader's of "LIFE" for a reappraisal at a time when silent comedy was completely off the radar. All the more reason to point to the best and not just the genre as a whole.

He allows Sennett to stand in for short comedy (a simplification, as we all know). He missed L&H, to be sure, but as I say at the time L&H did not have any sort of critical reputation, and hadn't made a film for close to five years.

There are those (like Richard Roberts--sorry, Richard) who seemingly have never seen a silent comedy they didn't like, and who manage to divine virtues where none are apparent to the average viewer. This is not a bad thing--somebody needs to carry the torch and be willing to watch anything and everything if only so others don't have to. Discoveries are out there to be made, after all.

But one would be hard pressed to make the case for silent comedy to the completely uninitiated by showing them Lloyd Hamilton, Max Davidson or Charley Chase. They all made amusing, even hilarious films, but they do not connect on an emotional level the way the "big four" do.

One may argue, with some justification, that the only necessary requirement for a comedy is that it be funny (or at least funny to someone), and I would agree with that--but that tends to make one comedy interchangeable with another. The Three Stooges I find hilarious if I see one of their films in a theater. When I sit through a six-short marathon of the Stooges each film become less funny than the last one. Are the Stooges great comedians? Moe Howard certainly thought so (he also didn't think Harold Lloyd was a comedian). Numerous Stooge fans would agree with Moe, and I would say they certainly made some very good films over a long period of time, but (for me at least) they don't wear well en masse.

Likewise for me, Larry Semon.

I love Mr & Mrs Sidney Drew, but they are more amusing than hilarious.

Ditto with Reginald Denny and Douglas MacLean.

I would argue that the first true character-driven comedy features may have been Cecil B. DeMille's "Chimmie Fadden" (now lost) and "Chimmie Fadden out West" both made in 1915--years before "the Kid" or "Grandma's Boy"--Victor Moore is quite amusing and (given that many other films are lost in this period) the surviving Fadden feature is remarkable visually and made with great sophistication (as opposed to the extended mayhem of "Tillie's Punctured Romance")--but again, I would not trot out "Chimmie Fadden Out West" to make my case for silent comedy to an uninitiated audience.

It seems to me that there is much that can be written about the nuances of silent comedy--how stars were influenced by producers--how gags were recycled--how some types of screen characters had appeal at the time that is lost on audiences today and vice versa. the potential topics are endless and the journey is worth taking. However . . .

One of the questions often asked is "What film would you show to someone who's never seen a silent film to win them over?" And invariably the answer, for those of us who have already had occasion to do this, is "The Kid Brother" or "City Lights" or "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and that just about says it all for Mr. Agee as well.
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PostThu Jan 24, 2008 8:49 pm

As usual, Mr. Birchard makes good points. Two of them stand out in my mind: one is the statement that a feature is perceived as inherently better than a short subject; the other is the issue of character and humor as opposed to simple comedy.

First, there is no clear answer to the statement that a feature is inherently better than a short subject, except to note that the proper length for a story is determined by its subject. Is a haiku inherently inferior to an epic poem? Each form has its strengths and weaknesses -- it is impossible to draw the attention to a single instant in an epic poem, or to indulge in details in a haiku -- which if you've ever read THE ILIAD, particularly 'the catalogue of ships' is clearly a virtue. But academia favors something complicated, because it can be analyzed at length, and that serves the purpose of the academic. I happen to think that there is a place for the feature and the short, and to watch some of Charley Chase's marvelous three-act comedies in two reels is a treat not only in terms of gags, but in terms of brilliant construction.


The other point is a matter of what I consider the distinction between comedy and humor. Comedy consists, in W.S. Gilbert's phrase, of 'something humorous and lingering, with melted lead and boiling oil.' It's the old fat man with the gouty foot being kicked -- at least until we are old, fat and gouty. Humor is much more difficult: it calls for a sense of identification with the subject of the humor, and that is what Chaplin added to the mix of the Sennett zanies: a sense of complicity and warmth. Chaplin, Keaton Lloyd and yes, Langdon are all people we can identify with. But I can also identify with Lloyd Hamilton's shlamazel, Chaley Chase's mule-headedness and Laurel and Hardy's deep friendship. I can't identify with the Stooges. They terrify me and always have and a lot of the comedians of the teens and 1920s were like them and too, like the circus clowns in Chaplin's THE CIRCUS: technically adept, but emotionally empty.


I think Kerr hit that particular nail on the head without making it clear to his audience or perhaps even to himself.
Last edited by boblipton on Fri Mar 06, 2015 2:55 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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PostThu Jan 24, 2008 8:50 pm

Agee. I meant 'Agee' in that last sentence. Argh!
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PostThu Jan 24, 2008 9:45 pm

You know, you can edit your posts! There's an edit button at the upper right. (At least there should be. As sysadmin I have super powers, so I can't actually see what normal logged-in folks have. But you should have that.)

To the point about whether shorts or features are better-- I'm not saying either is better. Which is the point, much like Charles Musser's point about early cinema, that we shouldn't look at it as something that's trying to be MGM in 1935 but not very good at it yet-- it should be accepted as its own thing. Shorts are not an incomplete evolutionary step on the way to features, they're a perfectly reasonable career in 1925.

A decent analogy is animation in the 40s or 50s. Were Disney's features more prestigious than Warner Brothers' 7-minute shorts? Absolutely. Were they, in many ways, the best thing being made? By some standards, certainly-- they could tell a story with a richness of emotion that a shorter film couldn't. They were the top of the heap. But by sheer quantity, you'd have to say that the cartoon business was still mainly about shorts, given that there were half a dozen studios making a couple of dozen shorts each a year, versus one Disney feature every second or third year. So just focusing on features misses the bulk of the industry's output. And in creativity, you can at least argue that there was more inventiveness and variety going on between Chuck Jones, Gerald McBoing Boing, Avery at MGM, etc. than there was in The Lady and the Tramp or Sleeping Beauty.

That's basically my point-- a few guys, who had the kind of persona that wore well and worked dramatically in a 70-minute movie with a real plot, made features; but there were other kinds of comedians and in sheer numbers, if not excellence (outside of L&H, who I'd stack against anybody), they really were the bulk of silent comedy, more than one Chaplin film every third year, or even one Lloyd film every year.

If you're going to say that Fields's talkies dont't resemble silent films, then what can you say about Fields's silents? Except for the mustache many of them contain sequences that were remade (virtually shot-for-shot) in his talkies.


Well, take Running Wild and The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Very similar setup. But they take a very different turn at the climactic moment, with Running Wild doing something much more visual and action-oriented than the talkie does. (Partly, I suspect, because Fields circa 1927 was much more agile than Fields circa 1935.)

It's a subjective thing, and we probably have to agree to disagree, but I think Fields has such a distinctive sound persona and voice that it turns his talkies into 100% talking pictures, built around his dialogue and distinctive snarl. Where Laurel and Hardy, now you can just hear what they were saying all along, but nothing's really changed about them.

One of the questions often asked is "What film would you show to someone who's never seen a silent film to win them over?" And invariably the answer, for those of us who have already had occasion to do this, is "The Kid Brother" or "City Lights" or "Steamboat Bill, Jr."


Hey, I've had occasion to do this too-- with a couple of kids I keep around the joint. And more than anything, you know what their favorites are? Laurel and Hardy, and Buster and Fatty together. All shorts. But then I think kids are more attuned to short blasts, and less to the twists and turns of a long narrative, anyway. So part of that is simply that adults are more used to watching full-length stories-- and there's no question that those three are not only first-rate comedies, but also very solid and satisfying narratives, irrespective of their comic aspect. (After all, what's The Kid Brother except Tol'able David with some gags added?)
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PostFri Jan 25, 2008 8:57 am

Mike Gebert wrote:
One of the questions often asked is "What film would you show to someone who's never seen a silent film to win them over?" And invariably the answer, for those of us who have already had occasion to do this, is "The Kid Brother" or "City Lights" or "Steamboat Bill, Jr."


Hey, I've had occasion to do this too-- with a couple of kids I keep around the joint. And more than anything, you know what their favorites are? Laurel and Hardy, and Buster and Fatty together. All shorts. But then I think kids are more attuned to short blasts, and less to the twists and turns of a long narrative, anyway. So part of that is simply that adults are more used to watching full-length stories-- and there's no question that those three are not only first-rate comedies, but also very solid and satisfying narratives, irrespective of their comic aspect.


I agree that, especially where kids are concerned, shorts may well be the best way to introduce folks to silents. And I would add Max Davidson to that list. I've seen people howl - and I mean howl - at PASS THE GRAVY. ditto the L&H BIG BUSINESS.

I also agree with Bob that when you string multiple shorts together, especially multiples featuring the same star(s) you get a rapidly diminishing rate of return. Shorts - at least those made, say, post-1925 - simply weren't designed to be strung together into a full evening. I've gone to see retrospective showing of WB cartoons. I *love* to see them on a big screen in glorious Technicolor with an appreciative audience, but after three or four, I'm exhausted. Ditto the Vitaphone shorts. I understand why they're bundled together for modern distribution, but it's not the ideal way to see these films.

So I guess it all depends on time and attention spans. But if you wish to turn newbies on through comedy, one or two well chosen shorts may well be the ideal introduction. But you have to know your audience. I've used some of the more outre Browning/Chaney features as an introduction as well.

The important thing is to show that not only is there value in vintage film, there's content/craft/fashion etc. that you just don't see anymore in modern product.


Mike Gebert wrote: (After all, what's The Kid Brother except Tol'able David with some gags added?)


Dem's fightin' words. THE KID BROTHER may be the most beautiful comedy ever made.
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PostFri Jan 25, 2008 9:00 am

I don't actually mean it dismissively. Tol'able David has a barnstormer plot as well as unusual delicacy in the handling that together make it one of the best films of the early 20s, and The Kid Brother borrows both plot and virtues faithfully.

I agree about shorts, whenever I did a program of shorts of any kind I tried to find something substantial enough-- 30 or 40 minutes-- for the second half, so people felt like they saw a whole something and weren't just start-stop-start-stop for two hours.
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PostFri Jan 25, 2008 11:31 am

Now you've got me wondering. After reading all about Slapsticon I had decided to have my own mini-slapsticon. My film group is meeting at my house tomorrow night and I decided to program a night of shorts that I am pretty sure no one there will have seen. I was planning on about two hours of film and trying to really vary it. Everything from A Pair of Tights to an early talkie Burns & Allen to an El Brendel Columbia. What do yoou think of the idea? I would also have a Sennett Langdon and a silent Chase in there, so it's not totally obscure.
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PostFri Jan 25, 2008 2:49 pm

There are those (like Richard Roberts--sorry, Richard) who seemingly have never seen a silent comedy they didn't like, and who manage to divine virtues where none are apparent to the average viewer. This is not a bad thing--somebody needs to carry the torch and be willing to watch anything and everything if only so others don't have to. Discoveries are out there to be made, after all.

But one would be hard pressed to make the case for silent comedy to the completely uninitiated by showing them Lloyd Hamilton, Max Davidson or Charley Chase. They all made amusing, even hilarious films, but they do not connect on an emotional level the way the "big four" do.

One may argue, with some justification, that the only necessary requirement for a comedy is that it be funny (or at least funny to someone), and I would agree with that--but that tends to make one comedy interchangeable with another. The Three Stooges I find hilarious if I see one of their films in a theater. When I sit through a six-short marathon of the Stooges each film become less funny than the last one. Are the Stooges great comedians? Moe Howard certainly thought so (he also didn't think Harold Lloyd was a comedian). Numerous Stooge fans would agree with Moe, and I would say they certainly made some very good films over a long period of time, but (for me at least) they don't wear well en masse.

Likewise for me, Larry Semon.

I love Mr & Mrs Sidney Drew, but they are more amusing than hilarious.

Ditto with Reginald Denny and Douglas MacLean.


Well folks, you now know why it's hard to get Cinecon to book comedy films.


And all I can say to Birchard is hogwash.

Slapsticon runs whole programs of short comedies every year, audiences love them, and our attendance numbers grow every year.

The Mid-Winter Comedy Festival at the Niles Film Museum shows programs of Comedy shorts every yeaer, it sells out.

The San Francisco Film Festival ran a program of Hal Roach Comedy shorts last year, it sold out, and was a smash hit.

The Bristol Silents Slapstick Festival has literally thousands every year and Paul Merton is currently touring with with his Silent Clowns show playing to sellout crowds.


When was the last time a Cinecon show sold out Bob?


This coming from a man who falls asleep through most movies he views, whatever the film is. I can see why you have problems making an emotional contact with any film you watch.

And you know, when a person laughs at a comedy film, they are making emotional contact, try it sometime.


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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostFri Jan 25, 2008 3:36 pm

Laurel and Hardy were certainly popular, but they were at best minor comedians in their own era. Their iconic status really came with the releasing of their films to TV in the early 1950s. All of their feature films were either intended as "Bs" or at best as program pictures--designed for the bottom half of double-bills. They were popular enough to make features, but they were primarily short-subject comics, and as such would have had much the same status as The Three Stooges (also given a huge boost by TV), Charley Chase, Billy Bevan, Ben Turpin, Lloyd Hamilton, et.al.

I don't want to take anything away from L&H, I love their stuff, but I'm referring to the way they were perceived at the time.



I hate to correct you Bob, but Laurel and Hardy's Roach features were not released as "B's" or supporting features. MGM was one of the last and strongest holdouts against the double bill, and kept up their feature releases with a strong shorts program into the late thirties. Apart from that, L and H features like THE DEVILS BROTHER, BABES IN TOYLAND, BONNIE SCOTLAND, THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, and SWISS MISS were all produced and released as bonafied "A's" and were released and distributed as such.

That said, it's true that the critics for the most part disliked them, as Robert Youngson one introduced them "Nobody loved them but the Public". Even John McCabe down graded them in his first published interview with them. As usual, the critics got it wrong, which is why the old adage "Nobody builds monuments to a critic" also holds true.

And in saying that, I also think that really, Agee's article had far less impact outside of critical and film history circles than people think. Apart from Chaplin and Lloyd reissuing CITY LIGHTS and THE FRESHMAN in 1950, there was no big re-discovery of silent comedy through the early fifties, and very little further critical and historical writing on it. The big revival came after the release of Robert Youngson's THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY in 1959, and by then television had brought a lot of comedy material, including Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Fields and The Marx Brothers back into public view. Then it was television that continued to re-introduce the public (including most of us who love and collect the stuff now) through shows like COMEDY CAPERS, THE MISCHIEF MAKERS, FUNNY MANNS, etc.

The Film History and Academic circles, always more happy to read about film than actually watch it, read Agee's article, because he was a critical name to be reckoned with (and AGEE ON FILM was an academic regular for years), and took on the concept of "The Three Kings of Comedy" as gospel, never bothering to look further, because comedy films were not "serious art"in their limited and distorted perspectives. Again, "Nobody loved them but the Public".

Fortunately, the public popularity has always kept some amount of silent comedy material available. It has had it's ebbs and flows, but silent comedy, ANY silent comedy, is always more accessible to an general audience than ANY silent dramatic feature. (Sorry Bob, but I'll hold up a Charley Chase or Max Davidson against any silent Cecil B Demille to an unitiated audience any day of the week, and they'll win hands down, I've seen it happen MANY times). In many ways, we who love, study , preserve and write about silent and early sound comedy have always been happy to be outside the attention of the generally humorless academic film history crowd. The last thing we need is more pretentious tomes dissecting the comedy style of Harry Langdon, or the discussions of the "difference between comedy and humor". Better just to watch the films and laugh.


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PostSun Jan 27, 2008 10:02 am

In case anyone is wondering, I looked over my "Rankin' 'Em" file and decided not to post it here, for two reasons:

1) The discussion here became so interesting and serious that a ranking now seems out of place. It should probably be posted in a new thread, if at all.

2) I discovered that, despite filling four pages in Word, my list still has significant omissions. I refer twice to Gale Henry, but neglected to include an entry for herself. I left out Max Davidson, one of my own favourites. Etc. I'm not trying to be comprehensive ... well, yeah, I guess I am ... but to include Joe Rock but not Max Davidson is indication that I haven't been comprehensive enough yet.

Meanwhile ... it seems that Bob Birchard considers slapstick to be either a filler on the program or a B movie by definition. With a few notable exceptions (like the Marx Brothers), this could be true of the talkies era, but I don't believe it of the silents era. Two-reelers by nature are not what leads the bill of fare for the evening's entertainment, but slapstick features were certainly headliners right up until the talkies. If I recall correctly, even Larry Semon's features were the Big Picture on the bill.

I don't think anyone can reasonably dispute Richard's point that the best and easiest way to introduce newbies of any age to the silents is to run a couple of two-reel slapstick comedies. Personally, I would follow those with a feature comedy or two before I ever attempted to engross the audience with a drama feature, regardless of how terrific that drama might be. The more exposure they get to the medium and culture of silent films via comedies, the more receptive they get to a drama feature.

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PostSun Jan 27, 2008 10:18 am

I followed-up reading Andy Edmonds' two biographies by reading Donald McCaffery's Four Great Comedians. This happened to be timely reading because McCaffery accepts Agee's pantheon, even christening the big four as the Four Kings. He never questions whether they are more deserving of their crowns than anyone else.

What's interesting is that McCaffery practically turns the ranking of the Four Kings on its head. Even as he insists periodically that Chaplin is great, he has almost nothing positive to say about him, and comparisons between Chaplin and the other 3 kings are invariably derogatory to Charlie.

According to McCaffery, Chaplin couldn't put a decent film together with the exception of The Gold Rush. He beats Keaton only in having developed a strong on-screen character, but he never developed that character beyond a superficial level, therefore he gets no points for it.

McCaffery implicitly ranks Lloyd as the best of them all, and gives a spirited defence against charges that Lloyd is a "mechanical" comic actor.

Surprisingly, Langdon's best two years of work (according to the author) put him almost on the same top level as Lloyd, better than both Chaplin and Keaton. The fact that he had only those two years of greatness, and the fact that McCaffery buys unquestioningly into Capra's claim that Langdon was nothing without Capra and Ripley, is all that keeps McCaffery from claiming Harry was the greatest of all time.

Keaton is almost dismissed in this book. In this, I think McCaffery is actually writing from the perspective of the 1920s, when Buster was considered by critics and the public alike as the weakest link among the Four Kings. He disparages everything Keaton ever did in the talkies, seemingly considering his 1960s beach-party movies to be representative of all his post-silents work.

It's an interesting book, and I rather like his moderately iconoclastic rankings (though I don't agree with them). I just find it peculiar that someone so intent on elevating Lloyd and Langdon above Chaplin and Keaton would never think to challenge Agee's pantheon even as he does so.

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PostSun Jan 27, 2008 12:33 pm

Jim Roots wrote:I followed-up reading Andy Edmonds' two biographies by reading Donald McCaffery's Four Great Comedians. This happened to be timely reading because McCaffery accepts Agee's pantheon, even christening the big four as the Four Kings. He never questions whether they are more deserving of their crowns than anyone else.

What's interesting is that McCaffery practically turns the ranking of the Four Kings on its head. Even as he insists periodically that Chaplin is great, he has almost nothing positive to say about him, and comparisons between Chaplin and the other 3 kings are invariably derogatory to Charlie.

According to McCaffery, Chaplin couldn't put a decent film together with the exception of The Gold Rush. He beats Keaton only in having developed a strong on-screen character, but he never developed that character beyond a superficial level, therefore he gets no points for it.

McCaffery implicitly ranks Lloyd as the best of them all, and gives a spirited defence against charges that Lloyd is a "mechanical" comic actor.

Surprisingly, Langdon's best two years of work (according to the author) put him almost on the same top level as Lloyd, better than both Chaplin and Keaton. The fact that he had only those two years of greatness, and the fact that McCaffery buys unquestioningly into Capra's claim that Langdon was nothing without Capra and Ripley, is all that keeps McCaffery from claiming Harry was the greatest of all time.

Keaton is almost dismissed in this book. In this, I think McCaffery is actually writing from the perspective of the 1920s, when Buster was considered by critics and the public alike as the weakest link among the Four Kings. He disparages everything Keaton ever did in the talkies, seemingly considering his 1960s beach-party movies to be representative of all his post-silents work.

It's an interesting book, and I rather like his moderately iconoclastic rankings (though I don't agree with them). I just find it peculiar that someone so intent on elevating Lloyd and Langdon above Chaplin and Keaton would never think to challenge Agee's pantheon even as he does so.

Jim



The problem with McCaffery's book is that he sets up a rocky set of values, i.e judging the quality of their films on their plot construction, as the main criteria. Thats like judging D.W. Griffith on the quality of his gags.

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PostSun Jan 27, 2008 1:01 pm

I have McCaffrey's Three Classic Silent Screen Comedies Starring Harold Lloyd and it is a pretty good book. McCaffrey analyzes three Lloyd features pretty well, and it has a Harold Lloyd interview in the back. I have not read any of his other books though. It was written in 1976, after Lloyd's death. When was the Four Great Comedian book written? It sounds like I should skip it.
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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 7:42 am

It's not a new book, Bruce. Published some time in the early 1980s, I think (I'm at work now and the book is at home, so I can't check). Maybe even the late 1970s.

I got my copy through Alibris. It's out of print.

Jim
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Rob Farr

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PostMon Jan 28, 2008 9:40 am

It's a small A.S. Barnes paperback published by Tantivy Press in 1968. It was part of a pretty good series which included Early American Cinema, D. W. Girffith and the Rise of Hollywood, Hollywood in the 1920s, 1930s, etc. But the low point was the publication of J.-P. Lebel's volume on Buster Keaton (1967). It reeks!
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PostWed Jan 30, 2008 2:10 am

McCaffrey's early books, especially Four Great Comedians and Focus on Chaplin, were major influences on those of us just getting into silent films in our teens during the early 70s. I had heard of Chaplin and had been introduced to Keaton by the CBS "Camera Three" episode devoted to THE GENERAL, but I knew Lloyd only from the still on the clock and had never heard of Langdon. McCaffrey's Four Great Comedians did for silent comedy (in a bit more detail) what the Franklin/Everson book did for silent drama in creating a canon of titles to be sure to see, at a time when it was difficult to find much to read about silent cinema, much less actually watch it. If there were books or TV shows on silent comedy at that time, they tended to have more of a nostalgic attitude towards something that some might still find amusing, whereas McCaffrey's analyses (however opinionated they might be) were among the first to treat silent film comedy as a reputable art form. Contingent on such a radical (for the time) idea, was proving to the academic establishment that the best silent comedians actually had a firm grasp of dramatic structure and weren't just throwing together a random series of gags to get laughs and sell tickets to people whose attention spans couldn't handle feature-length stories (sort of like much of the movie comedies of the past decade, which may explain why early Chaplin seems to go over better with today's college students than Keaton).

Imagine my surprise as an 18-year-old enrolling at the University of North Dakota, to find that the same McCaffrey whose books I had was there (of all places) running the college film society and teaching classes in film and in classic movie comedy.

--Christopher Jacobs
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PostWed Jan 30, 2008 9:56 am

Did he use his own books as texts? Was he a pretty good lecturer?
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PostThu Feb 21, 2008 12:59 pm

Did he use his own books as texts? Was he a pretty good lecturer?

McCaffrey used his own books along with various other books and film scripts, assigning chapters or sections to read rather than the entire books. This was back in the day when most textbooks were a dollar or two for paperbound, maybe $5-$10 for a hardcover, so $10-$20 worth of books for a class would be a pretty big stack instead of a down payment on one text.

His lectures recapped points he made in the books and elaborated on films we watched for class. I had already read much of the material before taking the class so it was harder for me to judge how good his lectures were to other beginning film students. He did, however, have a habit of straying off the topic on various tangents yet managing to work his way back to finish his original thought, which might have been difficult for students to follow if they didn't already know some of the basics.

Having read "Four Great Comedians" when I was in high school, it was nice to see films like Chaplin's EASY STREET and THE PILGRIM, and Langdon's SOLDIER MAN with a live presentation by the person who actually wrote the book that first made me want to see them.

--Christopher Jacobs
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