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.
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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!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.
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.
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.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.
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:
(Tell me that the mention of "ladder" in that paragraph didn't immediately conjure up pictures of Ollie installing an antenna in Hog Wild.)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.
Yet Agee not only doesn't consider them worthy of his pantheon, he writes them out of history entirely:
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.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 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:
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.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.
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.
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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.