Monday, February 1, 2016

Harold Lloyd in Luna Park

Speedy: The Comic Figure of the Average Man

By Phillip Lopate 


In his memoir, An American Comedy (cowritten with Wesley W. Stout), Harold Lloyd asserts that while growing up “I was average and typical of the time and place.” He continues: “Supposing Atlantic City had been holding Average American Boy contests, with beauty waived, I might have been Master America most any year between 1893 and 1910.” This insistence was not random; it suited someone who doggedly set out to create a type on-screen as close as he could make it to an average specimen—a mirror image of the American audience. The fact that the man who said this was anything but average, a brilliantly gifted physical performer with a genius for constructing comic gags, who moreover understood the film medium with greater sophistication than all but a handful of his peers, speaks to both his modesty and his vanity. It also approaches the mystery of why audiences today may find it harder to connect with Harold Lloyd than they do with, say, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. He embodied the spirit of the American dream that any average individual with gumption could attain success, an ideal that still seemed within reach in the twenties, before the Depression, Vietnam, and national disenchantment.

Chaplin flirted perennially with pathos, Keaton with melancholy, while Lloyd went his merry way, positive thinking and triumphant. “It’s the optimism,” wrote his defender Richard Griffith, “which chiefly sticks in the highbrow craw and accounts for the continued fundamental lack of interest in him and the continued rating of him below Chaplin, Keaton, and even [Harry] Langdon. Weltschmerz is hard to find in him . . .” And not just world-sorrow, but alienation of any sort. David Thomson gets it right, as usual: “Early clowns are all outsiders, men incapable of, or uninterested in, society’s scale of merit. Chaplin admits the scale but criticizes it. Langdon never notices it. Keaton is bewildered by it, the Marx Brothers know it is a lie, Laurel and Hardy believe it will never come their way. But Lloyd became the least deviant of comedians, a man who never dreamed of being out of the ordinary.” Still, this judgment needs to be complicated, because only a profoundly and uniquely imaginative artist—by definition, an outsider—can take on his shoulders the burden of synthesizing the entire society around him and fashioning an archetype from it that will play in Peoria. A lack of deviancy, moreover, does not account for the sheer inventiveness and pleasure that can still be found in abundance in Lloyd’s films, particularly his four best features, Grandma’s Boy (1922), Safety Last! (1923), The Freshman (1925), and Speedy (1928).

As good a place to start as any is Speedy. The title alone tips off Lloyd’s comic approach, which is to keep up a pace so rapid that no lingering sentimentality or sadness can attach. Fittingly, the film is set in New York City, where, the opening titles tell us, everyone is in such a rush. Whether or not the expression “a New York minute” was yet current, the idea that the city represented the forefront of hectic modernity already held sway. We see establishing shots of trains, tugboats, crowds all hurtling by. Eventually, we are brought to a slower neighborhood, where the most gradual and archaic of conveyances is introduced: a horse-drawn streetcar, driven by Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff), the grandfather of Lloyd’s love interest, Jane (played winningly by Ann Christy).

At a very basic level, the film is about modes of transport, and its rhythm is largely dictated by many shots of people rushing via taxi, subway, streetcar, and motorcycle. It is also about an older way of being, a more traditionally communal, unhurried morality, in conflict with the new, headlong corporate capitalism that sprang up in the Gilded Age with the railroad barons and now seemed well-nigh unstoppable. The plot hinges, in fact, on a villainous railroad company that seeks to drive the old horsecar line out of business and take over its tracks.

The protagonist, also named Harold, and nicknamed Speedy, would appear to be in harmony with this burgeoning capitalist ethos: he is ambitious and in a hurry to succeed, the very prototype of “the aggressive bourgeois ego which George Santayana saw emerge in the industrializing U.S.—the go-getting American with no higher aim than diligent imitation of the rich . . .” (Pankaj Mishra). But because he is in love with Jane, and she with him, he ends up allying with Pop Dillon and his elderly neighbor-friends against the big shots. Lloyd’s character may be a go-getter, but he is also fundamentally decent and in sympathy with the little guys—his coworkers at the soda fountain and the small shopkeepers who come to his aid when the railroad company tries to seize the horsecar. A full-scale donnybrook occurs between the neighborhood geezers and the railroad thugs, and the point of it is that our hero needs all the help he can get from the People. A veteran uses a peg leg to his advantage. A Chinese laundryman applies his hot iron to the seats of the bad guys. (There is also a loyal dog that keeps coming to Speedy’s aid.) A sort of popular-front politics can be read into these scenes, which if nothing else celebrate the enduring values of neighborhood diversity and local community against the impersonal globalizing corporation.

Speedy is an urban variant of the “boy with the glasses” character that Lloyd had been painstakingly refining for years (and that very nickname had been used earlier for The Freshman’s protagonist). Lloyd had stumbled on the idea of giving his character a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles (lensless, since glass would becloud the eyes’ expression). The glasses were meant to signify a nerdy milquetoast type, from whom one would not expect much derring-do, and who would therefore pleasantly surprise the audience when he rose to heroic challenges. Speedy is given a few other characteristics, such as being unable to hold down a job because he is so obsessed with the Yankees (the cameo featuring a game Babe Ruth, who gets bounced around in Speedy’s cab, is a nice little eye-opener). But in general, we are asked to accept that Speedy is simply Youth in its most healthy, energetic, and accident-prone form.

Lloyd divided his movies into “character pictures” and “gag pictures”: The former, like Grandma’s Boy, took longer to set up the plot and had more psychological shadings. Speedy is decidedly a gag picture: the pace alone, with its wealth of sight jokes, dictated that there would not be enough time for much character development. In various sections, such as the long taxi-driving sequence, the gags flow outrageously yet organically into each other. “Lloyd was outstanding even among the master craftsmen at setting up a gag clearly, culminating and getting out of it deftly, and linking it smoothly to the next,” wrote James Agee. One extended sequence, Speedy’s date with Jane at Coney Island, may suffice as example.

It begins in the subway, with much pushing and shoving. In his memoir, Lloyd quips: “The Subway is a comedy all by itself, except to those who have to ride in it.” Again, we are treated to an ethnically and physiognomically diverse batch of New York humanity. Speedy contrives to get seats for his girl and himself by a trick involving a dollar bill on a string, which he dangles before a seated passenger to entice him to stand, then pulls away. A bit shady, unfair, not entirely what you’d expect from the supposedly proper Speedy, but—entrepreneurial, shall we say. At Luna Park, Speedy is the height of fatuous self-content, with his loving girl beside him and a week’s wages in his pocket, and a new white suit that makes him feel dressed for success. It does not take long for the suit to be marred, first by an overfriendly dog whose paws deface his trousers, then by his leaning against a freshly painted fence. Passersby laugh at the black bars on his jacket, and he has no idea why until he turns around and sees the pattern in a fun-house mirror. Next he passes a fish stand, and a crab lands in his pocket, leading to a set of mishaps in which the crab pinches ladies’ behinds and, in one case, steals a nightgown from a handbag. The women slap Speedy, thinking him a deviant masher, and he reacts with astonishment and self-righteousness. The humor here flows from the Lloyd character’s thinking he is an utterly normal, upstanding citizen, while those in his vicinity view him as a pervert. Here I am making the case that Lloyd’s comedy derives precisely from challenging his character’s assumptions of being the quintessence of average and normal.

Lloyd was a veteran of one- and two-reel comedies made for producer Hal Roach (Mack Sennett’s rival). It was a school that taught him to brainstorm ideas with story and gag writers but never to work from finished scripts, instead trusting to improvisation and inspiration on location for building elaborations on a gag onto a comic bit. “Our lack of method is deplorable, but somehow it works,” he testified. While he often directed parts of his pictures, he omitted taking directorial credit, preferring to help out the ex–gag writer designated for that job and perhaps feeling it was sufficient that the public knew the film reflected his own comic vision. Ted Wilde is listed as the director of Speedy, but the whole notion of auteurism seems a little spurious when it comes to silent comedy. By whatever collaborations the film came about, the result hangs together as a fresh, kinetic, fast-moving affair. The Coney Island sequence, for instance, has some beautiful cutaways to the fairway at night, some surreal dream swirls when Speedy and Jane are trying out every punishing ride, and a hysterical fantasy shot of twin babies with Harold-like spectacles riding in the moving van driving the couple home, which they pretend is their future abode.

By the film’s conclusion, Speedy has gotten his girl by saving Pop Dillon’s horsecar business, and all ends happily. In an interview with Lloyd long after he retired (he did not self-destruct, like many other silent film stars, but was a business-shrewd steward of his heritage), he was asked to compare Chaplin’s Tramp to his boy with glasses. “Well, Charlie generally had to play the losing lover because his character was the Little Tramp—who was a little grotesque. If he won the girl, she generally had to be off beat, a little screwy . . . But with this boy-with-the-glasses character—that was one of his virtues: he wore ordinary clothes, the same as the boy next door. He was somebody you’d pass on the street—and therefore his romances were believable. And I would say that I got the girl most every time. Generally, in many of Charlie’s pictures, he walked down the road at the end, which had its own virtue.”

We see in this passage Lloyd’s evenhanded sense of perspective, though his penultimate statement about getting the girl might strike some nowadays as a little smug. Still, as he said, each—Chaplin’s final saddening aloneness and his own cheerful romantic triumph—has its place. And Lloyd had a purer sense than most of what it meant to keep audiences laughing. He was a profound student of the art of comedy, as well as one of its most ebullient practitioners.

Phillip Lopate’s most recent books are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell. He directs the nonfiction program at Columbia University.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


After fifteen films that received mostly local acclaim, the 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende) at last ushered in an international audience for Ingmar Bergman. In turn-of-the-century Sweden, four men and four women attempt to navigate the laws of attraction. During a weekend in the country, the women collude to force the men’s hands in matters of the heart, exposing their pretensions and insecurities along the way. Chock-full of flirtatious propositions and sharp witticisms delivered by such Swedish screen legends as Gunnar Björnstrand and Harriet Andersson, Smiles of a Summer Night is one of cinema’s great erotic comedies.

The film was the inspiration for the Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical, A Little Night Music.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Welcome to Intro to Film, Spring 2016

Welcome. We are about to begin an adventure in the world of cinema. Our exploration will take us across the the globe and back in time as we discover the art, craft and imagination that has touched each of our lives.

The journey and the magic are about to begin. Enjoy the ride. 


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Classic Comedy Film Trailers

The Art of Comedy: Humor in Film

For more information, please go to this URL:

Comedy Films are "make 'em laugh" films designed to elicit laughter from the audience. Comedies are light-hearted dramas, crafted to amuse, entertain, and provoke enjoyment. The comedy genre humorously exaggerates the situation, the language, action, and characters. Comedies observe the deficiencies, foibles, and frustrations of life, providing merriment and a momentary escape from day-to-day life. They usually have happy endings, although the humor may have a serious or pessimistic side. 

Types of Comedies:
Comedies usually come in two general formats: comedian-led (with well-timed gags, jokes, or sketches) and situation-comedies that are told within a narrative. Both comedy elements may appear together and/or overlap. Comedy hybrids commonly exist with other major genres, such as musical-comedy, horror-comedy, and comedy-thriller. Comedies have also been classified in various subgenres, such as romantic comedy, crime/caper comedy, sports comedy, teen or coming-of-age comedy, social-class comedy, military comedy, fish-out-of-water comedy, and gross-out comedy. There are also many different kinds, types, or forms of comedy, including:

  • Slapstick
Slapstick was predominant in the earliest silent films, since they didn't need sound to be effective, and they were popular with non-English speaking audiences in metropolitan areas. The term slapstick was taken from the wooden sticks that clowns slapped together to promote audience applause. 

This is primitive and universal comedy with broad, aggressive, physical, and visual action, including harmless or painless cruelty and violence, horseplay, and often vulgar sight gags (e.g., a custard pie in the face, collapsing houses, a fall in the ocean, a loss of trousers or skirts, runaway crashing cars, people chases, etc). Slapstick often required exquisite timing and well-honed performance skills. It was typical of the films of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, W. C. Fields, The Three Stooges, the stunts of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923), and Mack Sennett's silent era shorts (for example, the Keystone Kops). Slapstick evolved and was reborn in the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s (see further below).

More recent feature film examples include the comedic mad chase for treasure film by many top comedy stars in Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and French actor/director Jacques Tati's mostly dialogue-free Mr. Hulot's Holiday (1953, Fr.), and Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (1993) and The Mask (1994).

The Blake Edwards series of Pink Panther films with Peter Sellers as bumbling Inspector Clouseau (especially in the second film of the series, A Shot in the Dark (1964) with Herbert Lom as Clouseau's slow-burning boss and Burt Kwouk as his valet and martial arts judo-specialist) are also great examples. Cartoons are the quintessential form of slapstick, i.e., the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, and others. 

  • Deadpan
This form of comedy was best exemplified by the expression-less face of stoic comic hero Buster Keaton. 
  • Verbal comedy
This was classically typified by the cruel verbal wit of W. C. Fields, the sexual innuendo of Mae West, or the verbal absurdity of dialogues in the Marx Brothers films, or later by the self-effacing, thoughtful humor of Woody Allen's literate comedies. 
  • Screwball
Screwball comedies, a sub-genre of romantic comedy films, was predominant from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. The word 'screwball' denotes lunacy, craziness, eccentricity, ridiculousness, and erratic behavior. 

These films combine farce, slapstick, and the witty dialogue of more sophisticated films. In general, they are light-hearted, frothy, often sophisticated, romantic stories, commonly focusing on a battle of the sexes in which both co-protagonists try to outwit or outmaneuver each other. They usually include visual gags (with some slapstick), wacky characters, identity reversals (or cross-dressing), a fast-paced improbable plot, and rapid-fire, wise-cracking dialogue and one-liners reflecting sexual tensions and conflicts in the blossoming of a relationship (or the patching up of a marriage) for an attractive couple with on-going, antagonistic differences (such as in The Awful Truth (1937)). Some of the stars often present in screwball comedies included Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, William Powell, and Carole Lombard.
The couple is often a fairly eccentric, but well-to-do female interested in romance and a generally passive, emasculated, or weak male who resists romance, such as in Bringing Up Baby (1938), or a sexually-frustrated, humiliated male who is thwarted in romance, as in Howard Hawks' farce I Was a Male War Bride (1949). The zany but glamorous characters often have contradictory desires for individual identity and for union in a romance under the most unorthodox, insane or implausible circumstances (such as in Preston Sturges' classic screwball comedy and battle of the sexes  The Lady Eve (1941)). However, after a twisting and turning plot, romantic love usually triumphs in the end. (See more discussion later in this section.)
  • Black or Dark Comedy
These are dark, sarcastic, humorous, or sardonic stories that help us examine otherwise ignored darker serious, pessimistic subjects such as war, death, or illness. Two of the greatest black comedies ever made include the following: Stanley Kubrick's Cold War classic satire from a script by co-writer Terry Southern,  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) that spoofed the insanity of political and military institutions with Peter Sellers in a triple role (as a Nazi scientist, a British major, and the US President), and Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), an irreverent, anti-war black comedy set during the Korean War. Another more recent classic black comedy was the Coen Brothers' violent and quirky story Fargo (1996) about a pregnant Midwestern police chief (Oscar-winning Frances McDormand) who solves a 'perfect crime' that went seriously wrong.

Hal Ashby's eccentric cult film Harold and Maude (1972) was an oddball love story and dark comedy about a suicidal 19 year-old (Bud Cort) and a quirky, widowed octogenarian (Ruth Gordon), with a great soundtrack score populated with songs by Cat Stevens. (See examples of other feature films below for more.) John Huston's satirical black comedy Prizzi's Honor (1985) starred Jack Nicholson as dimwitted Mafia hit man Charley Partanna for the East Coast Prizzi family, who fell in love with West Coaster Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner) - another mob's hitwoman. The film included an Oscar-winning performance from Anjelica Huston as the vengeful granddaughter of Nicholson's Don. Tim Burton's dark and imaginative haunted house comedy Beetlejuice (1988) featured Michael Keaton as the title character in a dream house occupied by newlywed spirits Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin. The shocking but watchable first film of Peter Berg, Very Bad Things (1998) told the dark and humorous story of a 'bachelor' weekend in Las Vegas gone bad for five guys when their hired stripper/prostitute was accidentally killed.

  • Parody or Spoof - also Satire, Lampoon and Farce
These specific types of comedy (also called put-ons, send-ups, charades, lampoons, take-offs, jests, mockumentaries, etc.) are usually a humorous or anarchic take-off that ridicules, impersonates, punctures, scoffs at, and/or imitates (mimics) the style, conventions, formulas, characters (by caricature), or motifs of a serious work, film, performer, or genre, including:
  • the Marx Brothers' satiric anti-war masterpiece  Duck Soup (1933) with anarchic humor
  • the western spoof Cat Ballou (1965)
  • Woody Allen's Japanese monster film parody What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)
  • the 'genre' films of Mel Brooks (the quasi-western Blazing Saddles (1974), the quasi-horror film Young Frankenstein (1974), the inventive Hitchcock spoof/rip-off High Anxiety (1977), the Star Wars (1977) spoof Spaceballs (1987), and his swashbuckler send-up Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993))
  • Herbert Ross' Play It Again, Sam (1972) poked fun at Woody Allen as an insecure nebbish-hero who worshipped an imaginary, trench-coated, archetypal tough-guy detective (a la Humphrey Bogart)
  • Silver Streak (1976) - a comic thriller parody of Alfred Hitchcock's 'train' pictures, with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (their best film together) onboard the Silver Streak from LA to Chicago
  • Neil Simon's scripts for The Cheap Detective (1978) and Murder By Death (1978) spoofed Agatha Christie detective films
  • Jim Abrahams' and the Zuckers' revolutionary comedy Airplane! (1980) - a sophomoric parody of the earlier disaster series of Airport (1970) films and the original Zero Hour (1957); their The Naked Gun (1988) series parodied TV cop shows, and Top Secret! (1984) ridiculed Cold War agents and espionage spy films (and Elvis Presley films); Abrahams' military comedy Hot Shots! (1991) was a genre parody/spoof of Top Gun (1986), while Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) parodied Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
  • in The Freshman (1990), Marlon Brando (as Carmine Sabatini) poked fun - with brilliant parody - at his own characterization of Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972)
  • Carl Reiner's Fatal Instinct (1993) spoofed suspense thrillers and murder mysteries such as Basic Instinct (1992)
  • Gene Quintano's Loaded Weapon I (1993) made fun of Lethal Weapon (1987) as well as The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Basic Instinct (1992), and Wayne's World (1992)
  • the Austin Powers films (1997, 1999, 2002) - parodies of the James Bond 007 films
  • the Scream films (1996, 1997, 2000) - spoofs of slasher horror films
  • Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black (1997) - a sci-fi comedy farce based on a comic book series that poked fun at alien invasion films, with Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith as government agents (with camaraderie similar to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series) battling about 1500 Earth-dwelling, other-worldly extra-terrestrials in the New York area; a sequel appeared in 2002
  • Galaxy Quest (1999), about the cast (including Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, and Sigourney Weaver) of a 70s sci-fi TV series in reruns, this was a parody of sci-fi TV, Star Trek itself, and cultish "Trekkie" activities
  • director Nora Ephron's romantic comedy You've Got Mail (1998) updated and paid homage to Ernst Lubitsch's classic The Shop Around the Corner (1940), with leads Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in their third teaming (after their previous hit with Ephron - Sleepless in Seattle (1993)), replacing James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as feuding-by-email Manhattan bookstore owners
  • Last Action Hero (1993) - a spoof of action films
This category may also include these widely diverse forms of satire - usually displayed as political or social commentary, for example:
  • Billy Wilder's sex farce The Seven Year Itch (1955) - a parody of a conventional Hollywood romance
  • Terry Gilliam's tasteless but hilarious Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983) and The Life of Brian (1979) - an irreverent parody of religious films
  • the witty Monty Pythonesque A Fish Called Wanda (1988), co-scripted by veteran John Cleese (with the character name of Archie Leach - named after Cary Grant's real name) and directed by veteran Charles Crichton (whose film career was responsible for such classics as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)); it was both an acclaimed black comedy and caper farce about a search for a stolen cache of diamonds; the title referred to both a fish and the name of Jamie Lee Curtis' character
  • writer/director Albert Brooks' satirical Real Life (1979) - a pseudo-documentary on 'real' small-town suburban family life
  • Woody Allen's pseudo-documentary Zelig (1983) with its use of vintage historical clips to portray a human cipher or chameleon in various time periods
  • Rob Reiner's largely-improvised show-biz mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984) about a non-existent British heavy metal rock band on tour of third-rate venues
  • the serious-comedic political satire of Tim Robbins' pseudo-documentary (or fictional mockumentary) Bob Roberts (1992) about running for Senatorial office; Tanner '88 (1988) was a similar made-for-TV mini-series about a fictional Presidential candidate (Michael Murphy)
  • Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis (1996) - an irreverent, bizarre, and absurdist media satire
  • Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (1996) - an intelligent satirical parody (and mockumentary) about small-town 'drama queen' hopefuls
In many comedies, there is much overlap with the category of 'farce', since the term has now been broadened and extended (from the early part of the 20th century) beyond its origins and roots in silent film (and early talkies) comedy (W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, and Buster Keaton to name a few), and the works of The Three Stooges. Now, farces - and farcical elements in films, may include fairly outrageous plots, unlikely and absurd circumstances, frantic-paced action, mistaken identities, a major transgression or hidden secret (i.e., often an extra-marital infidelity) sometimes based upon a misunderstanding, and lots of verbal humor, absurdities and physical slapstick, often with a concluding chase scene of some kind. Recently, farces have widened their scope by deliberately and satirically mocking established genres and standard filmic conventions themselves:
  • Classic screwball comedies and other classic comedies: such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), To Be or Not to Be (1942), The More the Merrier (1943), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Born Yesterday (1950), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), etc.
  • UK comedies: the British Ealing Studios comedies (The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)), the grotesque commentaries found in the Monty Python films, Tom Jones (1963)
  • Kubrick's classic, black comedy: Dr. Strangelove: Or... (1964)
  • Other comedies in series: the Hope/Crosby 'Road' movies, the Peter Sellers/Inspector Clouseau Pink Panther films, the Mel Brooks comedies (beginning with The Producers (1968) and including such films as Spaceballs (1987), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)), the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker films such as Airplane! (1980) and Hot Shots! (1991), some Woody Allen films (i.e., Love and Death (1975)), Carl Reiner/Steve Martin films: (i.e., The Jerk (1979), The Man with Two Brains (1983), and All of Me (1984)), the Mr. Bean movies (i.e., Bean (1997))
  • Other recent examples: What's New, Pussycat (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), Murder by Death (1976), Tootsie (1982), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), Peter Bogdanovich's Noises Off... (1992), There's Something About Mary (1998), Waking Ned (1998), South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), The Simpsons Movie (2007), etc.
Earliest Comedy:
Cinematic comedy can be considered the oldest film genre (and one of the most prolific and popular). Comedy was ideal for the early silent films, as it was dependent on visual action and physical humor rather than sound. Slapstick, one of the earliest forms of comedy, poked fun at farcical situations of physical mishap and indignity, usually in pratfalls, practical jokes, accidents, acrobatic death-defying stunts, water soakings, or wild chase scenes with trains and cars. [Burlesque is another form of early comedy, characterized by unrefined and broad humor, designed to produce ridicule.] Pioneers in the early days of silent cinema and film-making, the Lumiere Brothers, included a short comedy film in their very first public screening in 1895 titled Watering the Gardener or "The Sprinkler Sprinkled" (L'Arroseur Arrose). Its predictable subject matter included a man with a garden watering hose who was tricked into being soaked by a prankster child.
Keystone Studios:
It took until 1912 for American comedy to emerge. The first comics were trained by performing in the circus, in burlesque, vaudeville (music halls), or pantomime. Film entrepreneur Mack Sennett, soon nicknamed "The King of Comedy" and "The Master of Slapstick Comedy," formed the Keystone Company (and Studios) in 1912 - it soon was the leading producer of slapstick and comic characters.
The major hallmark of Sennett's career work was inventive, visual, improvised comedy displayed in short silent films that moved frantically. His early short comedies featured wild slapstick chase finales, visual gags and stunts, and speedy, zany action. The action appeared all the more frantic and frenzied by his use of a filming technique whereby he shot the pictures at a slow camera speed, and then accelerated the frames in the projector during playback. He often cast vaudevillian, burlesque, and circus performers in his films. Those with exaggerated or grotesque looks (obese, cross-eyed, lanky, leering, pop-eyed, etc.) were chosen to add to the unreality of the situations. His most popular pictures involved his bumbling comedy policemen, the Keystone Cops. There would be flying pies, bricks, careening vehicles with people hanging off, crashes, and other dangerous-looking stunts. Cinema's first custard-pie-in-the-face was in Sennett's silent film comedy A Noise From the Deep (1913), in which comedian Mabel Normand, a farmgirl threw a pie into the kisser of obese farmhand Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.  

Eccentric comic artists (and character actors) included Arbuckle, Edgar Kennedy, Mabel Normand, zany and cross-eyed Ben Turpin, Mack Swain, Billy Bevan, Charley Chase and Chester Conklin. [Even Carole Lombard began her career at Keystone.] Charlie Chaplin got his start at Keystone (his first film was the short Making a Living (1914)) and made numerous short films from 1914-1919 (for Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National), until his first full-length feature that he directed, wrote, and acted in, The Kid (1921) - see below.
The Silent Era Clowns
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle:
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was one of the earliest silent film comedians (as well as director and screenwriter). He started out with the Selig Polyscope Company in 1909 (his first film was Ben's Kid (1909)), and then went onto Universal Pictures in 1913 where he appeared in several of Mack Sennett's Keystone Comedies films, noted for fast-paced chase sequences and 'pie-in-the-face' segments. Arbuckle was the first of the silent comedians to direct his own films, starting with Barnyard Flirtations (1914). His teaming with Mabel Normand at Keystone, in a series of "Fatty and Mabel" films, were lucrative for the studio.
In 1917, Arbuckle formed his own production company ("Comique Film Corporation") with producer Joseph Schenck which afforded more creative control, hiring Buster Keaton to star in his first film The Butcher Boy (1917). He used his 'fatness' as part of his sight gags, and his slightly-vulgar but sweet and playful character became extremely popular with younger audiences. By 1919, he had secured at $3 million/3-year contract with Paramount Pictures - the first multi-year, multi-million dollar deal for a Hollywood studio. It is little mentioned that Arbuckle mentored and aided Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin as they entered the film business, before his own downfall in the early 1920s. He was accused of the rape and murder of young starlet Virginia Rappe in San Francisco in a widely-publicized case -- and thoroughly chastised by Hearst's 'trial-by newspaper' (with soaring sales) and public condemnation. His career was over, although he was eventually fully acquitted of the act after three trials.
Charlie Chaplin:
Charlie Chaplin, a silent actor and pantomimist, was recruited to Keystone from an English variety act, and became Sennett's most important discovery. Chaplin made 35 short Keystone films for Mack Sennett in 1914. In Chaplin's second picture, the 11-minute Kid Auto Races in Venice (1914), he invented his immortal, trademark Little Tramp character as he attends a 'baby-cart' race in Venice, California. His first masterpiece, The Tramp (1915), produced by the Essanay Company in Chicago, showed the early development of the character, known for his baggy pants, bowler hat, walking cane, funny stride, and oversized shoes. Chaplin had appeared in Sennett's feature-length Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) and produced two dozen two-reelers for Mutual, including such classics as The Rink (1916), The Floorwalker (1916), The Pawnshop (1916), The Cure (1917), The Immigrant (1917) and Easy Street (1917).
Chaplin made two masterpieces in the 1920s: his first full-length starring feature that he directed was The Kid (1921) pairing him with young Jackie Coogan. It was followed by another full-length comedy titled The Gold Rush (1925), Chaplin's best silent film with segments of poetic miming and classic slapstick. Even though the silent era was ending and the sound era had arrived, Chaplin turned out more "silent" features: the exquisite City Lights (1931), and his satire on the machine-age,  Modern Times (1936). Chaplin resisted the coming of the talkies until his first talking picture The Great Dictator (1940) and other talkies including Limelight (1952) - a film with silent comedian Buster Keaton as co-star. 
Buster Keaton:
One of the great silent clowns of the early comedic period was Buster Keaton, known for acrobatic visual gags, physical action, and for his deadpan, unsmiling, expression-less "stoneface." (His first name was a nickname given to him by Harry Houdini after he fell down some steps.) Keaton was first a vaudeville performer, performing and partnering quite often with former Keystone star and mentor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. He entered the profession of film-making in 1917 at the age of twenty-one as a supporting player, in his film debut The Butcher Boy (1917). Then, he started his own production company and became an actor in his own production unit in many excellent short films (usually two-reelers) from 1920-1923, including One Week (1920), Neighbors (1920), The High Sign (1921), The Boat (1921), The Haunted House (1921), The Playhouse (1921), The Paleface (1921), Hard Luck (1921), and The Frozen North (1922), but none as a repeating character. 
A few years later, he also starred in a number of feature-length silents, his first being The Three Ages (1923). Among his best features were Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Go West (1925), Seven Chances (1925), and Battling Butler (1926). His most-acclaimed feature-length production was the fast-paced Civil War adventure tale of a railroad engine called  The General (1927), which he soon followed with College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). The latter film is known for one of the most suicidal stunts ever filmed - a falling wall with only a top-floor open window to save him from being flattened. [One of his last film appearances was as one of the 'waxworks' friends who plays bridge with silent film star Gloria Swanson in  Sunset Boulevard (1950).]
Harold Lloyd:
Harold Lloyd, a popular silent clown, has been dubbed the 'third' genius or master of silent comedy - after Chaplin and Keaton. [An actor/producer, he actually outgrossed his better-known counterparts, by retaining ownership of his films and their profits.] Like them, Lloyd also spent some time in the early years with Mack Sennett, became known for realistic, daredevil stunts, and for his bespectacled, neat, innocent, noble-hearted, 'average Joe' characters. From 1915-1921, he produced a number of short films for Keystone and for major comedy producer Hal Roach, playing the character of Willie Work (debuting in his first starring film Just Nuts (1915) as a Chaplin-like character) and Lonesome Luke (first appearing in Lonesome Luke, Social Gangster (1915)). 
Lloyd graduated to full-length features playing the part of a normal Everyman (or "Glasses Character") or "Boy" - which debuted in the short Look Out Below (1919). His last short was Never Weaken (1921). He became most identified with this 'boy'-next-door character (normally named Harold) with his most famous trademark - horn-rimmed glasses. His most-remembered film, the feature-length Safety Last (1923), featured his perilous, memorable climb up a tall skyscraper's face that climaxed with his hanging off a giant clock. Lloyd's career lasted 34 years with over 200 comedies (mostly short subject featurettes, but including 11 silent features and 7 sound features). One of Lloyd's other greatest films was also his most successful, The Freshman (1925), in which he portrayed a college underclassman (Harold 'Speedy' Lamb) determined to redeem himself - on the football field. Other well-known films included Grandma's Boy (1922), Why Worry? (1923), Girl Shy (1924), The Kid Brother (1927), Speedy (1928) (his final silent film) and Movie Crazy (1932). His last film was released in 1947 - director Preston Sturges' The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), retitled Mad Wednesday by co-producer Howard Hughes, re-edited and released by RKO in 1950.
Harry Langdon:
Another early comic performer was baby-faced, innocent, timid Harry Langdon, who also worked at Keystone. He experienced only a brief period of fame during the end of the silent era, although he could be placed in the same league as his three other comic contemporaries: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. His best feature film in a short four-year film career, The Strong Man (1926), was director Frank Capra's feature-film debut. The film predated Chaplin's  City Lights (1931) by several years with its plot of a meek man in love with a blind woman. Langdon also starred in two other hits: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) and Capra's Long Pants (1927) in which Langdon played his typical simple-minded, man/child role. 
Larry Semon:
Another popular, second-level slapstick comedian in the silent era who made hundreds of two-reel shorts from 1916-1924 for Vitagraph and for the B-picture company, the Chadwick Pictures Corporation, was the charming, white-faced, smiling, and clownish Larry Semon. He began film work at Vitagraph in 1915 as comedy short gag writer and then as director in 1916. His first feature-length film was also his best known and most influential work - a remake and adaptation of Baum's The Wizard of Oz (1925), with Semon serving as both director and star - as the Scarecrow opposite Oliver Hardy (of the comic team) who played the Tin Woodsman. The film's release was highly publicized, but the public didn't like it - and it was essentially a failed effort. Afterwards, he took a supporting role in Josef Von Sternberg's classic film Underworld (1927), and his last film, after filing for bankruptcy, was A Simple Sap (1928), released posthumously after his prematurely-short life.
The 30s Clowns
With the coming of sound, slapstick went into a bit of a decline and the flexible freedom of the earliest comedians was curtailed. Comedy was transformed, however, and began to be refined as an art form, with new themes, elements, and written characterizations, and comedic humor was now being derived from clever dialogue. Visual comedy remained strong throughout the 1930s, but now witty dialogue and verbal comedy were added. Some of the great comedians or teams, including Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello, or individuals such as radio star Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown, W. C. Fields, and Mae West emerged. Hal Roach's company was responsible for other ground-breaking comedy shorts during the 1930s, including the popular "Our Gang" series that lasted until 1944. 
Laurel and Hardy:
One of the greatest and most-beloved of the comedy teams was the one of British-born Stan Laurel and the fat-faced Oliver Hardy, first purposely teamed together toward the close of the silent era by producer Hal Roach in the slapstick film Slipping Wives (1926). They had first met, by accident, during the filming of Lucky Dog in 1917. Director Leo McCarey at Hal Roach Studios recognized their potential as a team and capitalized on their contrasting, disparate physical differences (Stan: the "thin" man and Oliver: the "fat" one - each with derby hats) and classic gestures (bewildered head-scratching, tie-twiddling, eye-blinking and baby-like weeping). 
Although Laurel and Hardy worked together as a successful comedy team for 20 years (and were precursors of the 50s team Abbott and Costello), they were not equal partners - Stan considered himself the creative force and "brains" of the team. Their dozens of short films and twenty-seven feature-length films were produced over three decades (the 20s to the 40s), including such film classics as Sons of the Desert (1933) - arguably their best film, Way Out West (1937), The Flying Deuces (1939), and A Chump At Oxford (1940). One of their funniest bits involved getting a piano up a set of stairs in The Music Box (1932). Laurel and Hardy's last Hollywood film was The Bullfighters (1945), capping a teamed career of almost twenty years. They were among the few actors who successfully made the transition from silents to talkies.
Plots of their hilarious films used situational mishaps or incidents to trigger chaos and personal jeopardy, usually with the dignified, superior-acting, pompous Ollie trying to succeed and boast, only to be frustrated, exasperated and sabotaged by the simple-mindedness, childishness and brainlessness of Stan. Audiences were amused by their endearing qualities of naivete, clumsiness, innocence, and stupidity as they sunk deeper and deeper into trouble, chaos, and self-destruction. 
The Marx Brothers:
Once talkies emerged, the most famous and popular comedy team was the zany foursome of the Marx Brothers. They were the only real-life sibling comedy group in Hollywood history:
  • the witty, wise-cracking, ad-libbing, absurdly-punning, caustic, fast-talking Groucho (famous for his crouched walk, mustache, cigar, round glasses and leering eyes)
  • piano-playing, broken Italian-accented Chico, famous for distorted logic
  • the mischievous mute-pantomimist/harpist Harpo (with an old taxi horn and numerous harp solos), known for chasing girls
  • the straight-man Zeppo (who left the other brothers in 1933 after his performance in  Duck Soup (1933), his fifth film)
Their comedy was a mixture of slapstick, sophisticated verbal comedy (often absurd and risque), zany anarchistic disrespect for the establishment, nonsensical action, and inspired buffoonery. 
After almost two decades in vaudeville together, the brothers finally received widespread attention in their screen debut, The Cocoanuts (1929), filmed at Paramount's East Coast studios. Next were major box-office and critical successes - the film version of their Broadway play, Animal Crackers (1930), Horse Feathers (1932) and their last film for Paramount - the political, anti-war satire/spoof  Duck Soup (1933)
The Marx Brothers further developed their unique brand of absurdist, hilarious, slapstick comedy with a change to MGM Studios in the mid-30s. MGM's productions of  A Night at the Opera (1935) with its memorable scenes of the stateroom and a legal contract, and A Day at the Races (1937) were made at the height of their popularity. A frequent romantic foil for Groucho who appeared in a number of their films was Margaret Dumont, a memorable character actress. The film career of the Marx Brothers extended from 1929 to 1949. Marx Brothers Groucho, Chico and Harpo made their final film appearance as a team in Love Happy (1949), with a young 23 year-old Marilyn Monroe. Later on, Groucho became a star as an early TV game-show host. 

W. C. Fields:
W. C. Fields is known for his recognizable raspy voice, pool cue, oversized bulbous nose and nasal drawl, stove-pipe hat, flask of 100-proof whiskey and love of drink, caustic verbal wit and wisecracks, and irritable disdain for small children, animals, upper-class snobs and bullying wives. The vaudeville star was an inspired comedian, a master of visual gags, double-takes, casual asides and pantomime. His film debut was in the silent one-reel comedy short Pool Sharks (1915), in which he showed off his pool-playing ability, and his first sound feature film was Warners' (and First National's) pre-code musical comedy Her Majesty, Love (1931). Fields usually wrote his own scripts and produced such classics for Paramount as It's A Gift (1934) and possibly his best film, The Bank Dick (1940), in which he credited himself as screenwriter Mahatma Kane Jeeves. Another wacky contribution was Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) (written with the pseudonym of Otis Criblecoblis) - his last starring role in a feature-length film. Fields was a natural while portraying a hen-pecked husband, a phony, an eccentric, a windbag, a non-conformist schemer, or a pompous charlatan. 
Mae West:
Another contemporary, wise-cracking, drawling performer was the bold, blowsy and flirtatious Mae West who enjoyed titillating and shocking audiences with double entendre dialogue, sexual innuendo and a desire for sex, especially before the advent of the Hays Production Code. [One of her typical lines was: "Listen, when women go wrong, men go right after them."] Mae West starred in her own films, notably as a buxom burlesque queen and singer in an 1890s saloon in She Done Him Wrong (1933), and as a circus floozy in I'm No Angel (1933). She also appeared with Fields in their only film together: My Little Chickadee (1940).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Aesthetics of Black and White and Color

Black and White and Technicolor in Hollywood's Golden Era

In the 1930s and 1940s cost was not the only factor determining which film stock a film project would employ. Hollywood Technicolor tended to be used to make everything pretty, so that the most serious dramas often tended to be black and white: Citizen Kane (1941), The Little Foxes (1941), the entire genre of film noir, and so on.

Black and White
It's extremely important to remember that black and white can be just as subtle as color because you can do so many things to it. First, black and white is never just that: It is also all the gradations of gray in between. And silver. And beiges. And so on. When you walk into a paint store and ask for black the clerk (after laughing at your naïveté) will hand you 50 color chips: jet black, deep-space black, Frederick's of Hollywood black, midnight blue, and so on. White has, if anything, even more variations, and gray is practically infinite.

Black and white is the color of glamour cinematography. The most glamorous icons of the screen, those actors who only require last names—Garbo, Bogart, Bacall, Gable, Dietrich—are most famously photographed in black and white.

And, as its name suggests, at least one whole film genre is defined in large part by the fact that it was shot in black and white: film noir.

Nitrate Stock
Silver nitrate stock, on which much silent film was shot, produced a shimmering, other-worldly quality, seeming to set the screen on fire. Unfortunately, because it was rather unstable, it could also set the projector, the booth, and the theater on fire, so that its projection is now illegal in all but a handful of theaters in the country specially equipped to contain a blaze.

Black and White Today
Directors still sometimes opt for black and white to make a political and/or aesthetic point. Street Scene (1989)—a film by an African American director—restages Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) in the contemporary inner city, suggesting both that inner-city denizens have at least the humanity we grant to the little tramp, and that nostalgizing poverty is cruelly absurd.

Some films are shot in black and white as a kind of homage to earlier cinema genres. Steve Martin's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982) pays tribute to film noir, while Movie Movie (1978) and Young Frankenstein (1974) fondly recall the 1930s backstage musical and the 1940s horror film.

The Golden Era: Color Classic
Especially for the Technicolor technicians, the principal job was to figure out how to make color film acceptable to an audience and an industry that was at first hesitant about the technology. Some actors, for example, did not think they photographed as glamorously in Technicolor as in black and white. Still, after the box office successes of films like 1939's Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (we wonder whether Shirley Temple is still kicking herself for not taking on the role of Dorothy), studio execs came to realize that adding color to a film would measurably increase its box-office appeal. So this expensive technology was used for high-profile prestige pictures, like the Errol Flynn vehicle, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which cost $2 million, an amazing price tag for the Great Depression years.

Black and Blue: Using All the Crayons in the Box
Some directors have been thinking outside the Crayola box, mixing panchromatic and color stock in the same film. Early on the decision was in part economic: Technicolor was incredibly expensive. But even early on the decision to mix it up could be motivated by plot and theme as much as by economics. The most famous example is of course The Wizard of Oz (1939). Monotonous Kansas is also monochromatic. But when, after her tornado-driven house landed in Kansas, Dorothy opened the front door and found herself in a Technicolor Oz, the 1939 audience shared her sense of wonder at their introduction to a prismatically colorful new world.

Self-Reflexivity and Other Kinds of Color
Though we shall visit the notion of self-reflexivity in some detail, it is worth noting that sometimes black-and-white clips appear in color films in order to suggest that these films have a connection to the history of film. Old horror films play on television in the background while the new horror takes place in Halloween's foreground (1978). Gilda (1946) plays on the monitor of a video store while a disturbing love relationship takes place in the foreground of The Fisher King (1991). Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters desperately dance during the Great Depression against the very ironic backdrop of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on film, in Pennies from Heaven (1981).

Sometimes black and white is used in a color film as a way of establishing a biographical past for a principal character. This technique is used in Mishima (1985) and Zelig (1983). Sometimes it establishes a point of view, as for a gay man looking down desiringly on a group of schoolboys in If … (1969). Other older experiments with black and white and color include Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Eisenstein's great experiment with ideologically mixing it up in Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny, Russia, 1944).

Read more: 
Andrei Tarkovsky speaks about color vs. black-and-white cinema
Indie Auteurs Delve into Black & White