Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

Open, general discussion of silent films, personalities and history.
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Mike Gebert

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Mar 09, 2015 1:13 pm

Okay, we're in the uninteresting phase of constructing straw men to prove the other side was wrong all along. Unless someone has something new to add to this, let's call it a day.

Though I would love to see Westlake's take on silent comedy:

"Parker was watching a Harry Langdon comedy mirthlessly when the first bullet came through the plate glass window…"
“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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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Mar 09, 2015 2:18 pm

FredFitch wrote:
You better learn how to write like James Agee. Good luck with that.


Excellent advice; you should take it. (Please remember that re-stating Agee's positions, or even Kerr's, does not constitute writing like them.)
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Mar 09, 2015 2:41 pm

Okay, let's not gang up, either. We'll just furnish material for that other site that comes to life when they find something to argue with here. :lol:
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JLNeibaur

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Mar 09, 2015 3:25 pm

Well, now, I do agree with the idea that someone like Charley Chase was not at the level of Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd. He is brilliant in and of himself, of course. However, I think a case can be made to put Langdon alongside the Big Three. I take some umbrage at any dismissal of Harry Langdon, especially repeating Capra's claim that Langdon wanted to be like Chaplin. The cinematic evidence shows that Langdon had an established character prior to Capra's contribution, and while I would not dismiss anything Capra actually did, his autobiography obviously overstated it. Now that we have easy access to Langdon's self-directed "Three's a Crowd" and "The Chaser," we can see the comedian's own vision as a filmmaker. I wrote a book on Langdon's silent films and got pretty close to the work. My assistant on all my projects was seeing the films for the first time, and her enthusiasm allowed me to appreciate them even more. Is Harry Langdon the equal of Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd? I think a case can certainly be made. He was offbeat and a favorite of the surrealists, so I can understand his not being for all tastes. It took me a while to appreciate his talkies, but there is a lot of interesting material among them. He also persevered and kept active to the very end, just like Buster Keaton.

There were hundreds of comedians in silent movies, and it is great we have as much as we do to assess the period. And there are rabid fans who work hard to research and discover so many forgotten ones. Much of the time, the only interest is historical, and there is nothing aesthetic worth noting. But Arbuckle, Langdon, Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Lupino Lane, Larry Semon, Alice Howell, etc etc remind us that silent comedy is filled with fascinating, clever ideas beyond the Big Three.

As far as the importance of the Agee article is concerned -- I always understood that the real resurgence of screen comedy's popularity happened with the release of The Golden Age of Comedy (1958) which started out playing art houses and extended to a more mainstream release due to expanding interest. Laurel and Hardy were playing on TV, the Stooges started generating interest with a new generation (which continues to this day), and silent comedies were being marketed as kiddie fare (I remember in the early 60s discovering silent comedy via stuff like Funny Manns and Comedy Capers). I don't know that the Agee article made as much of a difference in the resurgence of silent comedy later on.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Mar 09, 2015 5:26 pm

JLNeibaur wrote:As far as the importance of the Agee article is concerned -- I always understood that the real resurgence of screen comedy's popularity happened with the release of The Golden Age of Comedy (1958) which started out playing art houses and extended to a more mainstream release due to expanding interest. Laurel and Hardy were playing on TV, the Stooges started generating interest with a new generation (which continues to this day), and silent comedies were being marketed as kiddie fare (I remember in the early 60s discovering silent comedy via stuff like Funny Manns and Comedy Capers). I don't know that the Agee article made as much of a difference in the resurgence of silent comedy later on.


LIFE magazine did a spread on TGAoC when it came out, which certainly helped its mainstream success, and to an extent it also provided synergy with Agee's article of eight years before. Ironically, though, only one of his "Big Four" is in the film, and it's Harry Langdon, while Laurel & Hardy - they of the six sentences in Agee's piece - are clearly the stars. There would be no Chaplin or Keaton until Youngson's WHEN COMEDY WAS KING came out in '60, and Lloyd did his own compilation two years after that.

More than anything else, Agee's article accomplished two things: It reminded the public 1) that Chaplin was much more than a graying political troublemaker, which is how he was then being painted by the media; and 2) that Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon were equally great artists and their work was worthy of rediscovery.

Which is exactly what happened, but not for nearly a decade after, because it took Robert Youngson to get the ball really rolling. Everything else up to that point was happening in museums and art houses, which at the time was only a step or two removed from "ubergeeks watching 16mm in the basement." Rohauer may have been striving to rescue Keaton's oeuvre during those years, but it didn't start really paying off for them until after Youngson.

Frankly the scholars and archivists of the past half century were more influenced by Youngson's films and TV shows like COMEDY CAPERS than with Agee. The fact that they're striving like hell to rescue and call attention to anything that ISN'T Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd proves it. And unnecessary garbage like a sixty-year-old "pantheon," or Kerr's brusque dismissal of Mack Sennett and his silly tags of "Imperfect Fools" and "Demiclowns" just ticks them off.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Mar 09, 2015 11:16 pm

When I was just a kid in the early 60s watching Funny Manns or Comedy Capers I responded to the gags as a bluntly visceral experience. We get older and learn to appreciate these things at a deeper level, especially when we develop a more refined interest in the cinematic process and its development.

Any past dismissal of the Keystone films is proven wrong by the restored versions we have seen since (i.e. the recent blu ray set) where the evolution of screen comedy can be observed. I guess we have to base the reactions of Agee and Kerr on the materials available to them at the time. It may have been more difficult for them to appreciate that Keystone comedies were more than just the frenetic energy on the surface. There is a lot of dross in comedy's history, and I think some of the fringe comedy buffs tend to overrate a lot of the mediocre, but we all understand the importance of having so much of this material available and accessible at the level it is now. We can better assess the films than Agee or Kerr might have.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 7:12 am

????

Agee loved the Keystones. You do realize he was going to see them as a kid, right? If anything, his view of them was colored by those golden childhood memories of his dad taking him to see 'Charlie' at the local theater.

Kerr gave them quite a bit of time, but seriously--they are not great films. They're not. C'mon. Important films, sure. Like Melies is important in the development of films using special effects, but do they hold up in their own right today? Some more than others, but the Hal Roach comedies hold up a lot better.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 7:15 am

Joe, if I could write like Agee, I would, believe me. But if advising someone to write beautiful prose could do the trick, we'd all be much better writers. I do think I'm better than you, though. You're free to come to my blog and disagree. :)
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 7:24 am

JL, I take umbrage at any suggestion I was 'dismissing' Langdon. I was simply evaluating him as not being as good as Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd--and by saying that, I'm merely saying that his overall body of work is much less impressive, and his most famous and successful films were directed by Frank Capra. No, I don't think Capra deserves all the credit, and neither did Agee, and neither did Kerr.

To say Langdon hasn't gotten sufficient credit is silly, since Agee went out of his way to elevate him to godlike status, Kerr likewise devoted a lot of time to him (and a more measured analysis of his strengths and weaknesses), and he's gotten plenty of attention and praise. None of which did him any good, since he was dead by then.

I personally have not enjoyed his films that much, but that's a matter of taste. I may someday appreciate him more, but I'll never regard him as the equal of artists who made many more good films, and who unequivocally deserve the lion's share of the credit for those films. Who was the best visual comedian? A matter of opinion. But a guy who (according to Wikipedia) made a bit over 30 films in the tail-end of the silent era, can hardly be put at the same level of more prolific, popular, and influential comedians AND filmmakers. Langdon was a final flourish, not a founding father.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 7:31 am

Oh, and Mike, I'll happily call this a day (been more like One Week), but since you clearly do know your Westlake, let me say that I can't be sure he was that familiar with silent comedy. I personally do see a lot of Keaton and Lloyd in his Dortmunder novels and some others--but that may be a second-hand influence, from later sound comedians. He was very influenced by old movies, and never made any attempt to hide that. So it's a question of what he had the time and opportunity to see--he lived in Greenwich Village for a good while, so it's certainly possible he went to some revivals.

I've read nearly everything he ever wrote, and I've yet to come across a reference to Keaton, Lloyd, or even Chaplin. W.C. Fields he clearly adored.

Well, you brought it up. Btw, you're welcome. You know, for all the blog traffic I've helped you generate. Anytime you want to return the favor.....;)
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 8:00 am

No, the discussion went in a new direction, so it's fine. What we don't allow is endless back and forth of the same points, because that kills any other discussion from anybody else.

This all raises an interesting point, which is that silent comedy tends to divide between people who like the anarchic, zany humor of Sennett and people who like the solid construction and more realistic situation comedy of Roach. I'm in the latter camp, for sure, but one thing that's exciting about the Sennett project from Paul Gierucki et al. is that you never knew how much zaniness and illogic in Sennett belonged to the fact that the films had been butchered in various ways over the years. As we see Sennett's films in better condition, they may get better, or at least we'll have a better idea of why they appealed to people in the teens even as the Roach approach dominated in the 20s.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 9:12 am

Mike Gebert wrote: silent comedy tends to divide between people who like the anarchic, zany humor of Sennett and people who like the solid construction and more realistic situation comedy of Roach.


That can actually be said of all comedy, not just the silents. It's one of those mysterious barriers that can separate groups of people and empty the bullpen when one group or the other feels slighted.

For the record, Langdon creeps me out, but I also can barely stand Chaplin (there, I said it). However, I laugh out loud when I do watch their films but my gut reaction is as noted. Just personal taste.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 9:30 am

oldposterho wrote:
Mike Gebert wrote: silent comedy tends to divide between people who like the anarchic, zany humor of Sennett and people who like the solid construction and more realistic situation comedy of Roach.


That can actually be said of all comedy, not just the silents. It's one of those mysterious barriers that can separate groups of people and empty the bullpen when one group or the other feels slighted.

For the record, Langdon creeps me out, but I also can barely stand Chaplin (there, I said it). However, I laugh out loud when I do watch their films but my gut reaction is as noted. Just personal taste.

--Peter


I also find Langdon extremely creepy, but I've only seen a couple of his silent films. He's one of those people I'm not ready to write off yet; I'd like to understand what it is other people find in him. Maybe I need to try one of his talkies.

Of course there is every possibility that I will never get Langdon. Dreyer has so far completely escaped me.

Comedy...anarchy vs. realistic sitch comedy? I like both the Marx Brothers and Mrs. & Mrs. Sid, Preston Sturges and Jane Austen, Buster Keaton, John Hughes, Real Genius, and Clueless (oops, back to Jane Austen), my cat's uncatlike ability to fall off things. I don't know how that all fits. I've always avoided trying to analyze why something makes me laugh, because I'm afraid I will then stop laughing. I know that being surprised is an important element.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 11:53 am

I've not been able to read all posts here that carefully, so forgive me if I repeat anything that's been said numerous times before here...

Agee's article obviously needs to be read and understood in context. Back in 1949, the common view among critics still seemed to be that Chaplin alone represented what was great about silent film comedy; a case could be made, certainly, that Agee was daring when he set out to write about not just the one undisputed "king" in his LIFE-essay, but FOUR of them: Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon in addition to Charlie. Today the article may appear dated in some ways, as we are fortunate to have so many more films by so many more comedians readily available (Arbuckle, Chase, Linder, Hamilton, etc), but back then one was probably grateful for any occasional showing of a chopped-up Chaplin Mutual or two. Agee may not have managed to cover just how many brilliant clowns there were back in the silent era, but he did, at the very least, make a convincing case that Chaplin was not the only one. Agee's apparent relative neglect of Roach in Sennett's favor may seem unfair to us today, but again, Sennett was a greater icon than Roach, and thus more likely to grab the attention of readers at the time.

I agree that the "ranking" of comedians is really quite unnecessary today, and I'm not sure if Agee really meant his own ranking to be taken as literally as many readers seem to have done. As I think I've said before, I can see the point of "The Big Three" as a sort of unifying term to be used for the very largest names, whether one personally think they are the very best or not, but once beyond these three it's mostly a matter of personal taste. Even so, Agee's inclusion of Langdon as a fourth seems quite plausible to me. No, Langdon probably didn't possess the same amount of "all-around" talent that Chaplin and Keaton, and probably also Lloyd did; he didn't prove himself to be that much of a director, for one thing (though both THREE'S A CROWD and THE CHASER have their moments, IMO). But as a performer, he was completely unique for his time. By comparison, Roscoe Arbuckle was BOTH a very talented performer and director, but his films essentially consisted of the type of comedy which other comedians did at the same time; often done more cleverly, by all means, but he was still in essence rather conventional. Langdon's entrance in films, as has been noted before, arguably launched and allowed for a different kind of rhythm in silent comedy, slowing down at a time when "everybody else" were speeding up. If the quality of his films was not as consistent as that of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, or even Arbuckle or Chase, his contributions as a performer still carry weight comparable to that of The Big Three, IMO. And yes, as others have thankfully pointed out already, Langdon did develop that character years before he even knew Capra, on the stage; and even if he had not, he'd still have had the character fairly well-developed in films before Capra became a significant contributor in his career.

As to Lloyd Hamilton, whose name suddenly popped up here, he is an excellent performer, and has often brilliant gags, but don't expect his films to contain narratives of any significance. The best one I've seen so far is MOVE ALONG; very clever stuff. Unfortunately, one of his more readily available shorts, BREEZING ALONG, isn't all that good; apparently, his personal problems had begun to severely affect his work as well by then.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 2:43 pm

FredFitch wrote:????

Agee loved the Keystones. You do realize he was going to see them as a kid, right? If anything, his view of them was colored by those golden childhood memories of his dad taking him to see 'Charlie' at the local theater.

Kerr gave them quite a bit of time, but seriously--they are not great films. They're not. C'mon. Important films, sure. Like Melies is important in the development of films using special effects, but do they hold up in their own right today? Some more than others, but the Hal Roach comedies hold up a lot better.


I think it was Kerr who was more dismissive of them. The Keystone stuff holds up if you screen it today (I did a film series at a local coffee shop about 7 years ago, and when I would run Keystones, they would be well attended and get a great response from young and old people). The Keystone films are often dismissed as more frenetic than funny, more primitive than refined, but exploring past the fringe will prove otherwise. I certainly agree that the Roach stuff is great too. Both approaches are excellent in their own way. Thanks for resurrecting this thread, it's been interesting.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 4:14 pm

As Smari1989 writes, you have to take Agee in his time. In the late 1940s NO ONE was thinking about silent comedy, and no one had been thinking about it since the release of MODERN TIMES in 1936--except, perhaps, for those misguided souls who somehow felt the Marx Bros. embraced silent comedy (via Harpo) even as they pioneered a "new" all talking vaudeville sensibility that propelled film comedy in new directions (ignoring the fact that the Marxes had been vaudeville and Broadway headliners since the early 1910s, and that what they brought to film in 1929 was essentially what thy brought to the stage in 1912).

While it may be true that Agee's literary star does not burn as brightly as it once did, it is essentially irrelevant with regard to his piece on silent comedy, which was revolutionary in its day and age, and which essentially (along with silent comedies on kiddie TV in the late 1940s and early 1950s) started the reevaluation of the form and the practitioners thereof. This essay has become a "standard text," and will remain so even after Agee's poetry and fiction have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Agee was also writing at a time when it was difficult to see a lot of the films he was recalling. Of the fifty Sennett films on the Blu-Ray set, likely no more than a dozen would have been easily accessible in 1949. Not to say they weren't out there, but that it would have required some diligent effort to see them all at the time.

It also must be remembered that elevating Keaton, Lloyd and, to whatever extent, Langdon, took some cajones and imagination at the time. Lloyd had essentially been off the screen since 1938, and even by then his best work was long behind him and largely unseen since original release. Keaton would have been known to most, if at all, in 1949 as an occasional bit player whose current work bore no relation to the genius Agee suggested existed in his silent features. Likewise, Langdon, already dead for five years, would have been remembered for some mildly amusing (at best) Columbia shorts and for NOT being Stan Laurel in ZENOBIA.

Likewise, the Sennett vs. Roach dynamic (and this still pretty much holds sway) was tainted by the fact that only the best of the Hal Roach Studio stuff was consistently revived, while the worst (and there was so much of it) remained largely unseen, while Sennett was often represented by Chaplin Keystones and some clips that appeared in occasional Warner Bros. pastiches, and a few Chester Conklin, Mack Swain and Ford Sterling reels that happened to be handy and not at all "filtered" for their cinematic excellence.

Even after all the discussion since Agee's essay appeared, did he really get anything wrong? He might have used a wider sampling (had it been available); he might have thought higher of Langdon (had he been able to revisit any of Harry's silent features at the time); he might even have moved Laurel & Hardy into the pantheon with the other three or four (but who knew of their enduring appeal and just how much better they were than most of the other 2-reel practitioners--the perspective just wasn't there).

Agee's essay was an informed piece of intellectual "slumming," based on memories that for the most part were twenty or more years old. He created awareness, and desire. Those of us fans of silent comedy owe much to his pioneering opinion piece. The challenge, or gauntlet, laid down by Agee has led many to look more closely at the silent comedy "food chain," and add immeasurably to the shelf of opinion and criticism on the subject. Today there are whole books on silent comics like Ford Sterling, Lloyd Hamilton, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Edgar Kennedy, et. al. and more on the way--there has even been a massive tome chronicling the dreck of the Roach Studios, undertaken because others have already chronicled the studio's better output. None of these would have likely seen the light of day if Agee had not written his piece in the first place.

So, this "ancient" thread has reopened for discussion. At least here there is discussion, rather than the endless posting of youtube links and decade old Cinevent notes that make up the not very interesting content of a group that shall remain nameless.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 10, 2015 9:18 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:
While it may be true that Agee's literary star does not burn as brightly as it once did, it is essentially irrelevant with regard to his piece on silent comedy, which was revolutionary in its day and age, and which essentially (along with silent comedies on kiddie TV in the late 1940s and early 1950s) started the reevaluation of the form and the practitioners thereof. This essay has become a "standard text," and will remain so even after Agee's poetry and fiction have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Agee was also writing at a time when it was difficult to see a lot of the films he was recalling. Of the fifty Sennett films on the Blu-Ray set, likely no more than a dozen would have been easily accessible in 1949. Not to say they weren't out there, but that it would have required some diligent effort to see them all at the time.

It also must be remembered that elevating Keaton, Lloyd and, to whatever extent, Langdon, took some cajones and imagination at the time. Lloyd had essentially been off the screen since 1938, and even by then his best work was long behind him and largely unseen since original release. Keaton would have been known to most, if at all, in 1949 as an occasional bit player whose current work bore no relation to the genius Agee suggested existed in his silent features. Likewise, Langdon, already dead for five years, would have been remembered for some mildly amusing (at best) Columbia shorts and for NOT being Stan Laurel in ZENOBIA.

Likewise, the Sennett vs. Roach dynamic (and this still pretty much holds sway) was tainted by the fact that only the best of the Hal Roach Studio stuff was consistently revived, while the worst (and there was so much of it) remained largely unseen, while Sennett was often represented by Chaplin Keystones and some clips that appeared in occasional Warner Bros. pastiches, and a few Chester Conklin, Mack Swain and Ford Sterling reels that happened to be handy and not at all "filtered" for their cinematic excellence.

Even after all the discussion since Agee's essay appeared, did he really get anything wrong? He might have used a wider sampling (had it been available); he might have thought higher of Langdon (had he been able to revisit any of Harry's silent features at the time); he might even have moved Laurel & Hardy into the pantheon with the other three or four (but who knew of their enduring appeal and just how much better they were than most of the other 2-reel practitioners--the perspective just wasn't there).

Agee's essay was an informed piece of intellectual "slumming," based on memories that for the most part were twenty or more years old. He created awareness, and desire. Those of us fans of silent comedy owe much to his pioneering opinion piece. The challenge, or gauntlet, laid down by Agee has led many to look more closely at the silent comedy "food chain," and add immeasurably to the shelf of opinion and criticism on the subject. Today there are whole books on silent comics like Ford Sterling, Lloyd Hamilton, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Edgar Kennedy, et. al. and more on the way--there has even been a massive tome chronicling the dreck of the Roach Studios, undertaken because others have already chronicled the studio's better output. None of these would have likely seen the light of day if Agee had not written his piece in the first place.

So, this "ancient" thread has reopened for discussion. At least here there is discussion, rather than the endless posting of youtube links and decade old Cinevent notes that make up the not very interesting content of a group that shall remain nameless.


I am glad it was reopened, as it has been interesting to read the most recent comments. I agree we are at a better vantage point with regard to the accessibility of the Keystone films (restored on blu ray with appropriate musical accompaniment, no less). While I find James Agee to be one of the more interesting film critics of that era (for Time and The Nation), I always understood him to have had little impact during his lifetime, and that his work gained added recognition after he died. I appreciate the significance of Comedy's Greatest Era, but really think the Youngson compilations and the issuing of silent comedies as TV kiddie fare are more responsible for people our age to have picked up and carried the interest further. I've always been more attracted to cinema's aesthetics than its trivial history (it's pretty unnerving to listen to DVD commentaries hoping to hear something regarding the comedian's creative process, and to instead get where the fourth billed actor bought his hats), so I certainly appreciate a discussion thread like this one.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostWed Mar 11, 2015 4:53 am

Bob Birchard wrote:As Smari1989 writes, you have to take Agee in his time. In the late 1940s NO ONE was thinking about silent comedy, and no one had been thinking about it since the release of MODERN TIMES in 1936--except, perhaps, for those misguided souls who somehow felt the Marx Bros. embraced silent comedy (via Harpo) even as they pioneered a "new" all talking vaudeville sensibility that propelled film comedy in new directions.


Not having been alive in the late 1940s, I don't like to make assumptions about cultural life at the time. However, silent comedy couldn't have been completely neglected. The Perils of Pauline came out in 1947, and while it may not be a very good movie it was set in and around silent comedy. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock/Mad Wednesday may not have been a success, but again had to have raised awareness of silent comedy (and received a ton of publicity as well). Lloyd eventually got a Golden Globe nomination, and the film played at Cannes.

Keaton was no longer a comedy icon, but he did okay. A bit part in In the Good Old Summertime would have exposed him to a fairly large audience; earlier in the decade he appeared in a number of B-movies, like San Diego I Love You. He continued writing, was returning to the stage, and would soon have roles in Sunset Boulevard and Limelight. I'm not trying to make a case that Keaton and Lloyd received anywhere near the attention they did twenty years earlier, but it is clear they were still part of the industry. They functioned something like stars of the 1930s did twenty years later, performing in smaller roles but bringing their history along with them.

And of course cartoons continued to ransack silent comedy for ideas and bits, just as television would loot the silent library for material to broadcast.

While it may be true that Agee's literary star does not burn as brightly as it once did, it is essentially irrelevant with regard to his piece on silent comedy, which was revolutionary in its day and age, and which essentially (along with silent comedies on kiddie TV in the late 1940s and early 1950s) started the reevaluation of the form and the practitioners thereof. This essay has become a "standard text," and will remain so even after Agee's poetry and fiction have been relegated to the dustbin of history.


Writing criticism for The Nation used to mean a lot more than it does now; writing film reviews for Time gave Agee huge exposure. As for a spread in Life, it was the equivalent of a piece on 60 Minutes today. Whether he was "right" or "wrong" about silent comedy, his opinion carried weight, perhaps more with the intelligentsia than with the mainstream. But John Huston was just about to hire him to work on The African Queen, about as high profile as you could get at the time.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostWed Mar 11, 2015 6:17 am

Here's when silents were neglected, as I understand it: 1931 to 1938. Even then, you had the Chaplin Van Beuren reissues in the 30s (and a couple of Chaplin shorts were always good to spice up the program at a little neighborhood house that couldn't afford first-run Disney or Popeye). And certain things, like King of Kings, never went out of non-theatrical distribution (because of its widespread church/Sunday school distribution for 50 years, still one of the most-seen movies of all time).

In 1938, Son of the Sheik started getting bookings and became a cult hit. That led to other reissues like Tumbleweeds with its sound prologue, and Chaplin's reworked version of The Gold Rush, which was one of the top moneymakers of 1942. MOMA was also distributing Griffith films and Keaton's The General and The Navigator by this time.

Agee, though, happened to write (and as Daniel says, a big essay in Life was as mass as media got then) at the perfect moment to have influence. In the 1950s, you had the film society movement popping up, booking films from MOMA and others. You had TV bringing silents back to life, sometimes as they were, often in a bastardized form like Fractured Flickers. And most importantly, perhaps, you had Buster Keaton, newly appreciated, turning up to do a version of The Butcher Boy on any TV show that needed five minutes of comedy. Keaton never had an agent as good as Agee.

The Golden Age of Comedy took that to a new level of exposure, I suspect, and so did the Chaplin and Lloyd reissues, in that people were finally really seeing their films in something close to their original form, not as a sketch on The Gary Moore Show with handheld titles and tinkly piano. But it built throughout the decade, and Agee's essay would be its ur-text.

I've always felt— maybe I said it in this thread somewhere— that Agee was essentially performing triage, saying, we need to save these at least from that era, and at that he and others were very successful, and deserve our gratitude. But we're in a different era, and The General is saved, and we can look beyond it to other things. Maybe Max Davidson is no Keaton, but Flaming Fathers and Should Second Husbands Come First? don't need to be the work of an auteur— they're pretty damn funny, anyway.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostWed Mar 11, 2015 6:42 am

JLNeibaur wrote:
Bob Birchard wrote:
While it may be true that Agee's literary star does not burn as brightly as it once did, it is essentially irrelevant with regard to his piece on silent comedy, which was revolutionary in its day and age, and which essentially (along with silent comedies on kiddie TV in the late 1940s and early 1950s) started the reevaluation of the form and the practitioners thereof. This essay has become a "standard text," and will remain so even after Agee's poetry and fiction have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Agee was also writing at a time when it was difficult to see a lot of the films he was recalling. Of the fifty Sennett films on the Blu-Ray set, likely no more than a dozen would have been easily accessible in 1949. Not to say they weren't out there, but that it would have required some diligent effort to see them all at the time.

It also must be remembered that elevating Keaton, Lloyd and, to whatever extent, Langdon, took some cajones and imagination at the time. Lloyd had essentially been off the screen since 1938, and even by then his best work was long behind him and largely unseen since original release. Keaton would have been known to most, if at all, in 1949 as an occasional bit player whose current work bore no relation to the genius Agee suggested existed in his silent features. Likewise, Langdon, already dead for five years, would have been remembered for some mildly amusing (at best) Columbia shorts and for NOT being Stan Laurel in ZENOBIA.

Likewise, the Sennett vs. Roach dynamic (and this still pretty much holds sway) was tainted by the fact that only the best of the Hal Roach Studio stuff was consistently revived, while the worst (and there was so much of it) remained largely unseen, while Sennett was often represented by Chaplin Keystones and some clips that appeared in occasional Warner Bros. pastiches, and a few Chester Conklin, Mack Swain and Ford Sterling reels that happened to be handy and not at all "filtered" for their cinematic excellence.

Even after all the discussion since Agee's essay appeared, did he really get anything wrong? He might have used a wider sampling (had it been available); he might have thought higher of Langdon (had he been able to revisit any of Harry's silent features at the time); he might even have moved Laurel & Hardy into the pantheon with the other three or four (but who knew of their enduring appeal and just how much better they were than most of the other 2-reel practitioners--the perspective just wasn't there).

Agee's essay was an informed piece of intellectual "slumming," based on memories that for the most part were twenty or more years old. He created awareness, and desire. Those of us fans of silent comedy owe much to his pioneering opinion piece. The challenge, or gauntlet, laid down by Agee has led many to look more closely at the silent comedy "food chain," and add immeasurably to the shelf of opinion and criticism on the subject. Today there are whole books on silent comics like Ford Sterling, Lloyd Hamilton, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Edgar Kennedy, et. al. and more on the way--there has even been a massive tome chronicling the dreck of the Roach Studios, undertaken because others have already chronicled the studio's better output. None of these would have likely seen the light of day if Agee had not written his piece in the first place.

So, this "ancient" thread has reopened for discussion. At least here there is discussion, rather than the endless posting of youtube links and decade old Cinevent notes that make up the not very interesting content of a group that shall remain nameless.


I am glad it was reopened, as it has been interesting to read the most recent comments. I agree we are at a better vantage point with regard to the accessibility of the Keystone films (restored on blu ray with appropriate musical accompaniment, no less). While I find James Agee to be one of the more interesting film critics of that era (for Time and The Nation), I always understood him to have had little impact during his lifetime, and that his work gained added recognition after he died. I appreciate the significance of Comedy's Greatest Era, but really think the Youngson compilations and the issuing of silent comedies as TV kiddie fare are more responsible for people our age to have picked up and carried the interest further. I've always been more attracted to cinema's aesthetics than its trivial history (it's pretty unnerving to listen to DVD commentaries hoping to hear something regarding the comedian's creative process, and to instead get where the fourth billed actor bought his hats), so I certainly appreciate a discussion thread like this one.

JN


This seems a good time to mention that the Library of America has an excellent collection of Agee's writing on film and other selected articles, including "Comedy's Greatest Era". Even with the wide range of fine books, articles and research written about silent comedy since that article was published, I still consider Agee's essay to be one of the finest appreciations of the subject, thanks to the eloquence of his writing and the ideas he puts forth about each comedian's performance style. This is a quality I greatly admire in Walter Kerr's writing, too, and has kept me coming back to his book even after having it read it many times over the years, and even after having seen the work of many of the comedians he passes over very quickly. Like Agee, Kerr has his favorites, and does an admirable job of articulating the qualities in their work that make them special.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Mar 12, 2015 1:54 am

Daniel Eagan wrote:
Bob Birchard wrote:As Smari1989 writes, you have to take Agee in his time. In the late 1940s NO ONE was thinking about silent comedy, and no one had been thinking about it since the release of MODERN TIMES in 1936--except, perhaps, for those misguided souls who somehow felt the Marx Bros. embraced silent comedy (via Harpo) even as they pioneered a "new" all talking vaudeville sensibility that propelled film comedy in new directions.


Not having been alive in the late 1940s, I don't like to make assumptions about cultural life at the time. However, silent comedy couldn't have been completely neglected. The Perils of Pauline came out in 1947, and while it may not be a very good movie it was set in and around silent comedy. The Sin of Harold Diddlebock/Mad Wednesday may not have been a success, but again had to have raised awareness of silent comedy (and received a ton of publicity as well). Lloyd eventually got a Golden Globe nomination, and the film played at Cannes.

Keaton was no longer a comedy icon, but he did okay. A bit part in In the Good Old Summertime would have exposed him to a fairly large audience; earlier in the decade he appeared in a number of B-movies, like San Diego I Love You. He continued writing, was returning to the stage, and would soon have roles in Sunset Boulevard and Limelight. I'm not trying to make a case that Keaton and Lloyd received anywhere near the attention they did twenty years earlier, but it is clear they were still part of the industry. They functioned something like stars of the 1930s did twenty years later, performing in smaller roles but bringing their history along with them.

And of course cartoons continued to ransack silent comedy for ideas and bits, just as television would loot the silent library for material to broadcast.

While it may be true that Agee's literary star does not burn as brightly as it once did, it is essentially irrelevant with regard to his piece on silent comedy, which was revolutionary in its day and age, and which essentially (along with silent comedies on kiddie TV in the late 1940s and early 1950s) started the reevaluation of the form and the practitioners thereof. This essay has become a "standard text," and will remain so even after Agee's poetry and fiction have been relegated to the dustbin of history.


Writing criticism for The Nation used to mean a lot more than it does now; writing film reviews for Time gave Agee huge exposure. As for a spread in Life, it was the equivalent of a piece on 60 Minutes today. Whether he was "right" or "wrong" about silent comedy, his opinion carried weight, perhaps more with the intelligentsia than with the mainstream. But John Huston was just about to hire him to work on The African Queen, about as high profile as you could get at the time.


You don't have to make assumptions about cultural life in the late 1940s--just look around today. TCM provides access to all sorts of movies from the 1930s, but if you were to ask the average movie goer of today if they know who Clark Gable or Joan Crawford is, they would give you a blank stare. I did not suggest that silent comedies had disappeared, only that it took some effort to see them. Agee's essay brought popular awareness to silent comedy. LIFE magazine had a circulation of around a million copies, with a presumed readership of three people per copy. That's a lot of eyeballs.

As for Keaton, you make my point. In the late 1940s he was doing small parts and bits. Few average moviegoers of the time would have had any sense of his past glory. Agee's essay did not resurrect Keaton from the dead, it provided critical awareness of his place as a onetime top comic at a time when he currently was no such thing.

as for some of the other markers you offer, MAD WEDNESDAY may have been made in 1945, but it was not released widely until 1950. Is it a coincidence that this happened after Agee's essay was published? Probably, but it is an interesting coincidence.

Similarly, when Chaplin reissued THE GOLD RUSH in 1942, he felt he needed to tart it up with narration. When he reissued CITY LIGHTS, post Agee, in 1950, he apparently saw no need for narration. Again, this is probably just a coincidence, but an interesting coincidence.

I do not mean to suggest that Agee's essay opened the floodgates to wide availability for silent comedy, only that it created wider cultural awareness that helped create an interest. Quite true, kiddie TV offered probably the widest exposure, but such TV exposure was erratic, and except for network shows like HOWDY DOODY, silent comedy airings were hit and miss and market to market. Mostly TV programmers ran silent comedies because they were cheap.

I would agree with what others have noted, that Robert Youngson probably was the most important single factor in getting some silent comedy material seen in pristine prints in theatrical settings, but he did as much damage as he did good by chopping up his source materials without preserving the complete films.

What Agee did was bring critical and cultural awareness to silent comedy at a time when it was (mostly) not on anyone's radar.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Mar 12, 2015 8:22 am

Agee, and Youngson, did bring greater awareness to silent comedy's significance in some circles, but I don't know that it ever became any big popular trend in the mainstream. Kids of the early 60s like myself connected to the Funny Manns type programs because of the slapstick imagery and kinetic energy provided, and some of us connected heavily enough to want to know more about that period and those people. But I don't see that there was, say, a massive mainstream celebration of the work of Buster Keaton -- it appears to have been pretty much within the film-as-art community. The mainstream was still dressing him up in stereotypical Native American garb and having him do blackout mechanical gags while muttering cowabunga in a lightweight teen musical (yeah, I know he was working, making more money than in 1923, and his comic prowess stole the picture from the likes of Tommy Kirk, yada yada.....)

I think the importance of Agee, and Youngson, is that they showed those who appreciate cinema on a deeper level that slapstick was a very valid form of comedy and that its best work went beyond what they might dismiss on the surface. And that has carried on to some extent. Even the very young writers for the film-art mags have an understanding and appreciation for the likes of Buster Keaton. Our problem now is that they seem to stop at "The Big Three."

Was the 1950 re-issue of City Lights a wide release film that extended to the neighborhood theaters, or was it limited release and mostly big cities and art houses? That I don't know. I know the Youngson films got wide release, often as weekend kiddie matinees, which I attended myself (saw 30 Years of Fun and Further Perils of L&H at the theater - both shows packed with kids).

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Mar 12, 2015 8:27 am

Bob Birchard wrote:I did not suggest that silent comedies had disappeared, only that it took some effort to see them.

But you originally wrote:
In the late 1940s NO ONE was thinking about silent comedy, and no one had been thinking about it since the release of MODERN TIMES in 1936

That suggests some sort of collective amnesia about a dominant social and cultural medium that was occurring not even twenty years earlier. That's really hard to believe, given the way art forms feed on their past. I think consumers of the time were more familiar with silent stars than we're willing to give them credit for.

You write about Keaton that
Few average moviegoers of the time would have had any sense of his past glory.

I'd argue just the opposite. The only reason he got that stupid bit part in In the Good Old Summertime was because of his history as a silent comedian. That's why producers continued to hire him for beer commercials, TV shows, beach party cameos, etc.

Yes, he wasn't making movies like The General in the 1940s, but he wasn't that performer anymore either. He was a different person, he adjusted, the marketplace adjusted, and he found a comfortable niche essentially re-enacting bits from earlier in his career. Older viewers recognized what he was doing, younger viewers saw an old guy doing bits.

You complain that kids today don't know who Joan Crawford is. Or Clark Gable. But if you asked them about their own stars, stars you probably don't recognize, they do just fine. They get it when Katy Perry hires Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliot for her Super Bowl show, even though neither Kravitz nor Elliot will ever be as big as they used to be. Chevy Chase wasn't hired for Community because he was funny, it was because he was a former SNL and movie star.

Keaton and all the other silent clowns committed the cardinal sin of getting old. On one level that's what Mad Wednesday is about.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Mar 12, 2015 11:03 am

Daniel Eagan wrote:
Bob Birchard wrote:I did not suggest that silent comedies had disappeared, only that it took some effort to see them.

But you originally wrote:
In the late 1940s NO ONE was thinking about silent comedy, and no one had been thinking about it since the release of MODERN TIMES in 1936

That suggests some sort of collective amnesia about a dominant social and cultural medium that was occurring not even twenty years earlier. That's really hard to believe, given the way art forms feed on their past. I think consumers of the time were more familiar with silent stars than we're willing to give them credit for.


You seem to be insistent on picking nits, when in fact we are both essentially saying the same thing.

Do you really think that in 1911 when Irving Berlin wrote "Everybody's Doin' It Now" that he actually meant "everybody"? Or that when Chubby Checker sang of "Twsitin' Around The World" that the entire world was in on the already dying Twist craze?

Have you never said something like, "They had tons of food at that party," when in fact there may only have been cumulatively 53 pounds of food? Phrases like, "Everbody's on Facebook," or "No one's on Myspace these days," are figurative expressions, not meant to be taken literally, but to convey a sense of the situation as it stands. Perhaps you would prefer the literal "Barely a thousand pounds of amusing performers" to "Ton of Fun"?

So, if you can't get your head around: "In the late 1940s NO ONE was thinking about silent comedy, and no one had been thinking about it since the release of MODERN TIMES in 1936," please substitute "FEW, IF ANY" for "no one."

You write about Keaton that
Few average moviegoers of the time would have had any sense of his past glory.

I'd argue just the opposite. The only reason he got that stupid bit part in In the Good Old Summertime was because of his history as a silent comedian. That's why producers continued to hire him for beer commercials, TV shows, beach party cameos, etc.

Yes, he wasn't making movies like The General in the 1940s, but he wasn't that performer anymore either. He was a different person, he adjusted, the marketplace adjusted, and he found a comfortable niche essentially re-enacting bits from earlier in his career. Older viewers recognized what he was doing, younger viewers saw an old guy doing bits.


And your point is? Again, you cite examples that only support what I am saying. In 1949 it had been 17 years since Buster Keaton had had a starring role in a major studio feature. The "average moviegoer" [the average moviegoer tending to skew younger] would have had no awareness of Keaton's previous status as a starring feature comic. By 1949, Keaton was more or less anonymously creating gags (and recycling gags from his earlier films) for Red Skelton movies.

You complain that kids today don't know who Joan Crawford is. Or Clark Gable. But if you asked them about their own stars, stars you probably don't recognize, they do just fine. They get it when Katy Perry hires Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliot for her Super Bowl show, even though neither Kravitz nor Elliot will ever be as big as they used to be. Chevy Chase wasn't hired for Community because he was funny, it was because he was a former SNL and movie star.


You seem intent on misreading what I write. I am not complaining that "kids today don't know who Joan Crawford is," I am simply stating it as a matter of fact and to point out that in 1949 few "average moviegoers" [the average moviegoer tending to skew younger] would have had any idea who Buster Keaton was. This is not a criticism, or a rebuke, just a simple statement.

Keaton and all the other silent clowns committed the cardinal sin of getting old. On one level that's what Mad Wednesday is about.


And, again, your point is? It is clear that these comics--Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, et.al.--all aged and were no longer credible as the the screen personas they created in the 1910s and 1920s. What Agee was talking about was revisiting the work they created in their primes--this at a time when that work was not widely available for reappraisal, and when there was no body of critical reappraisal to support his championing of silent comedy--and yes, I know the guy down the street had a one-reel cut down of GYMNASIUM JIM that the camera store threw in when he bought his home movie camera and projector, and that Uncle Johnny Coons ran silents on his TV shows, and that occasionally someone would put on an "old time movie" show at the local school, theater or library, but the totality of these could not add up to the cultural boost given to silent comedy by the widely seen Agee essay.
Last edited by Bob Birchard on Thu Mar 12, 2015 3:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostThu Mar 12, 2015 12:34 pm

One thing that's easy to forget when comparing the present with the past, especially in terms of younger generations' cultural awareness, is that populations in developed countries used to be much younger than they are today. In 1900, the median age of the US was 22.9 -- some of which can be accounted for by the influx of young immigrants, but another factor is that people simply didn't live as long. Only 5% of Americans were 65 or older (born in 1835 or earlier). Compare that with the 2010 median age for the US: 37.2, with 13% of the population 65 or older.

What does this have to do with Agee and the general awareness of silent comedy in the mid-20th century? Let's have a look at the 1950 census, which is close enough to the Agee essay for our purposes. The median age of the US was 30.2, meaning that about 50% of the population was born in 1920 or later. For at least half of all Americans, then, silent comedy was something they might have fond (or vague) memories of from their childhood, but it's doubtful that it was much more than that, except for the tiny percentage who were active film collectors. (Data taken from https://www.census.gov/population/www/cen2000/censusatlas/pdf/4_Age-and-Sex.pdf and https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/2010_census/cb11-cn147.html.)

What about the other half? Aside from the questions about accessibility for older movies (rather limited outside of NYC or LA, unless you were a collector), there was also a persistent idea that technological *change* was always *improvement*. In other words, by the 1920s, nickelodeon-era shorts weren't considered complete, valid artistic statements unto themselves; they were usually written off as the threadbare (even laughable) predecessors of more accomplished features. So it was eventually with silent films themselves, early talkies to some degree, and so on. Their artistic validity was often judged in the face of what they lacked. While I disagree with many points of the Agee essay, it was a step in the direction of accepting older films for what they are, not what they should be based on what techniques are available now.

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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Mar 16, 2015 1:54 am

I was four months away from seeing the light of day when Agee's essay appeared, but I do recall a parallel example from 1957. The September 2 issue of LIFE carried a story about James Cagney and MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES. The piece contained side-by-side comparisons of Cagney in makeup with images of Lon Chaney in the silent originals. At a time when, as Harold Aherne points out, "new meant better," it was immediately clear that the Cagney versions could not hold a candle to Chaney's original makeups of 30 years earlier. This certainly created a desire on my part to see the Chaney films, and I'm sure others were similarly stricken. At the time about all you could easily see was HUNCHBACK and PHANTOM, the M-G-Ms would not become accessible until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Would FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND been possible, however, without the cultural boost of the LIFE/Chaney article? Perhaps. Shock Theater was just making its way to TV, but it seems pretty clear to me that the desire to explore horrors past came at least in part from the Cagney/Chaney piece in LIFE, and although there was a lot of current horror and sci-fi in the 1950s, it did not capture the imagination in quite the same way that images of Chaney and METROPOLIS did.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostMon Mar 16, 2015 9:09 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:Would FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND been possible, however, without the cultural boost of the LIFE/Chaney article? Perhaps. Shock Theater was just making its way to TV, but it seems pretty clear to me that the desire to explore horrors past came at least in part from the Cagney/Chaney piece in LIFE, and although there was a lot of current horror and sci-fi in the 1950s, it did not capture the imagination in quite the same way that images of Chaney and METROPOLIS did.


I suspect it has to do with the nostalgia of publisher Forrest Ackerman, who saw many of Chaney's films and METROPOLIS upon their release. And yes, the SHOCK! package of course led a Universal Pictures lineage to at lease HUNCHBACK and PHANTOM. In-between terrible puns, Ackerman held Chaney with a holy reverence, with rare mention of the biopic. Meanwhile, a critical (as you can get with FM) assessment of the articles usually do have it framed on a steady mix of news about the then-new releases and rehash of nostalgic favorites.

MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES falls under a different kind of nostalgia of the 1920s that was cultivated by the studios in other biopics like BUSTER KEATON STORY, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, I'LL CRY TOMORROW, etc., and probably reaching fever-pitch on television with THE UNTOUCHABLES.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 17, 2015 3:49 am

I don't think there's any doubt that FJA's nostalgia was the source of Famous Monsters' "obsession" with the past, and, as I said, the Shock package hit TV in 1957, and that provided grist for the mill, as well. I'm merely suggesting that the LIFE piece on Cagney/Chaney helped make it possible for young readers, many of whom would have been 8 to 12, to be receptive to articles about silents they had no hope of seeing at the time. I'm sure there were "perks" for the magazine in covering current product, and that may be part of the nostalgia for Famous Monsters today, but the stuff that seemed to grab the imagination of readers at the time was about the earlier films. Understandable because we were seeing stuff from the early 1930s on TV, but I'm not sure that explains why young readers would have had any interest in stories about unavailable silents if LIFE hadn't primed the pump on the eve of the magazine's founding.
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostTue Mar 17, 2015 3:59 am

Jack Theakston wrote:MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES falls under a different kind of nostalgia of the 1920s that was cultivated by the studios in other biopics like BUSTER KEATON STORY, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, I'LL CRY TOMORROW, etc., and probably reaching fever-pitch on television with THE UNTOUCHABLES.


"Nostalgia" generally runs in 30 to 40 year cycles. The late 1920s and early 1930s often looked back to the "Gay '90s," and in the 1950s there was a certain preoccupation (among adults) for the 1920s, with lots of fake speak easies popping up and the emergence of an interest in Dixieland and "trad jazz."
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Re: Smashing Agee's Pantheon of Comedians

PostSat May 06, 2017 4:31 pm

Two film-watching perspectives we encounter constantly: viewing from an historical perspective, and viewing a film for what it's worth today. Case in point:

I and others recently saw Mad Wednesday/The Sin of Harold Diddledock for the first time. We were floored with laughter, and everyone agreed that the comedy ranks as one of the Top 100 among our personal favorites. Harold Lloyd finally found his voice in this one, while also proving that sight gags were/are timeless.

Historically, this comedy may have "failed," if failure can be defined as not making a profit on the $1 million + budget, but the comedy succeeds by 1. Making an audience laugh uproariously throughout. 2. Appealing as much to people in 2017 as seventy years ago in 1947. 3. Proving that true talent transcends time.
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