There’s an old quote you may have heard, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “…In this world, nothing can said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d like to amend that: “…In this world, nothing can said to be certain, except death, taxes, and fans of silent comedy debating about the ranking of the Big Four.” (Or the “Big Three,” for the multitudes of you who haven’t made Harry Langdon an integral part of your lives yet.)
General film enthusiasts take the informal-yet-widespread ranking of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd as the all-time best silent comedians for granted (and more would include Harry if they would actually watch Harry, harumph), but for some time now the tide has been changing among silent comedy fans. It’s not uncommon to find arguments in favor of less emphasis on “The Big Four,” of adding or replacing a comedian or two, or even of ditching the ranking all together. Those in favor of the latter say there were lots of popular comedians back in the silent era, and furthermore, these unjustly overlooked folks could be just as funny as Lloyd or Keaton. Thus, the ranking is unfair and not even historically accurate. Right?
As regular readers know, I love learning about obscure silent era personalities–the more obscure the better–and recently devoted an entire month to covering forgotten comedians. I’m currently researching Louise Fazenda, as overlooked a comedienne as you could get. And I’m still going to argue that the Big Four ranking is not only just, but that there are sound historical reasons why it exists, and I shall defend this argument with every molecule of my entire being.
First, let’s examine where the Big Four ranking came from…or rather, where we think it came from, according to popular lore.
The Legend of the Big Four: Origins
The usual explanation is this: In 1948 respected critic James Agee wrote a piece on silent comedy called “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” specifically singling out Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon as the “four most eminent masters” of screen clowning. This piece is often credited as resurrecting interest in early comedy, and is also either assumed or implied to have ushered in that lofty silent comedy pantheon referred to as “The Big Four.” (Note: new fans who have yet to become obsessive superfans are usually only aware of “The Big Three” at first. Might I introduce you to the classic 1925 short Saturday Afternoon?)
“The Big Four” was further cemented by theater critic Walter Kerr’s beautifully-written 1975 book The Silent Clowns (despite having nearly a thirty year gap between his work and Agee’s, I guess). In his analysis of silent comedy, Kerr laid out his case for why Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon are masters of their art, and also argued–at times controversially–why other clowns rank below them. And thus, so the legend goes, we’ve all been taking the Big Three or Four for granted ever since, while worthy performers languish in obscurity to this very day.
Well, let’s think critically here. The glossing over of pop culture history aside (like the role television played in keeping silent comedies in the public consciousness), this appears to be saying that if Agee and Kerr had chosen to write about Mack Swain, Lupino Lane, Snub Pollard and Billy Bevan, then comedy fans would be praising them to the skies while dismissing Harold Lloyd as a schmuck, visual evidence be darned. (Swain and company are awesome, but you know what I mean.) I’m thinking that two big fallacies are at work here.
Fallacy #1: The “Exclusive Club” Fallacy
This is the general idea that the Big Four ranking is a sort of exclusive club of the laugh-out-loud funniest, and thus any comedian not part of the Big Four must hardly rate a titter (or a watch).
Three quick points, based on my observations of interacting with silent fans online daily (and occasionally in person!) for years:
- It’s mainly silent film newbies who think this. This is usually because they’re unaware of the wide variety of talent out there. Give ’em some time!
- People who are silent comedy enthusiasts love obscure comedians (especially comediennes) and are overwhelmingly in favor of giving them more attention.
- I have yet to find a hardcore enthusiast who argues that none of the Big Three or Four are worthy of any attention, although plenty of them are really super tired of people always talking about ranking comedians.
Thanks to this fallacy, silent fans who love people like Charley Chase and Larry Semon can get pretty miffed at the ranking. But I’d say the “exclusive club” is a wrong perception. The ranking isn’t just about who’s “funniest”–“funny” can be subjective–but about who was also a great artist. It takes a clever comedian to be funny, but it takes an exceptionally clever artist to turn out consistently fresh, excellent work year after year in a very distinct era of the cinema. It ain’t as easy as it looks.
“But what about people like Douglas Fairbanks or Marion Davies? They were consistently funny and turned out great work–why can’t they be in your fancy Big Four club?” Well, Doug and Marion were hilarious and insanely talented, but they did not establish distinct comic characters with distinct costumes and distinct makeup, and they acted in as much drama as comedy. In short, they were not “clowns” the way Keaton or Chaplin were. This is no slight to them whatsoever–it’s a complement to point out their versatility. I think they’re two of the best actors of the silent era, but do not classify them as clowns the way Larry Semon and Alice Howell are clowns. There’s a difference, and that’s okay.
Here’s where we could have a long discussion about the differences between clowns, regular comedians and light comedians, and why some comedies are considered masterpieces while others are not, and it would be a familiar one with points already made by dozens of other writers and film buffs. To keep things moving, all I can say is if you are insisting that there’s really no discernible difference between Billy West and Charlie Chaplin, then…I might not be able to help you. Let’s move on to fallacy #2, because this is the one that’s critical.
Fallacy #2: The “Arbitrary Big Four” Fallacy
This is the notion that the Big Four were chosen more or less arbitrarily–mainly by James Agee’s 1940s tastes–while performers who were just as lauded were unjustly overlooked.
Now, I’ve searched, I’ve hunted, and I have scoured messageboards, but it looked to me like a crucial factor was always being overlooked. That is, until I spied this comment on the silent film board Nitrateville:
Bingo!! He’s on the right track, folks. Research in vintage newspapers, trade publications, and magazines will confirm that the Big Four were always considered top-ranking comedians, even back in the 1920s, and were praised and informally ranked the same way they are now. Let me repeat that: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon were considered the Big Four even in the 1920s.
To be even more specific, Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd were the Big Three for years before Langdon entered the picture, when he was instantly considered their match in the talent department.
I, too, had a touch of the “arbitrary Big Four” fallacy back when I was first getting into silents. When my interest in Keaton’s work led me to start dabbling in research in online archives, to my surprise I kept finding his name linked with Lloyd’s and Chaplin’s, just like it is today.
For instance, here’s an excerpt* from an article from The Photodramatist, 1923:
And some mentions in exhibitors’ reviews of comedy shorts (in this case Buster shorts) they rented for their theaters, submitted to trade publications:
This confident review might raise your eyebrows–especially if you know that Snooky was a chimpanzee:
Here’s some mentions in newspapers and movie magazine articles:
And as early as 1930 they were being discussed in serious books on the cinema, as in this excerpt from The Film Till Now: A Survey of the Cinema by Paul Rotha:
When Langdon came on the scene in the mid-1920s and skyrocketed in popularity, what happened? His comedic talents were immediately being linked with Chaplin’s, Keaton’s, and Lloyd’s:
The take away from all of this is that Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langon were always considered masters of their particular slapstick art. They set the standards for what a great comedy could be. Thus, Agee and Kerr were merely drawing on what was arguably common knowledge to anyone who knew or remembered silent comedy–even if that knowledge was little-discussed at the time.
Is the Ranking Even Necessary Anymore?
I suspect a few of you out there aren’t quite satisfied. “Fine, so Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon always had a high reputation. That doesn’t change the fact that lots of excellent comedians languish in undeserved obscurity!” you shout, banging your shoe on the table before dramatically flipping it over. I applaud your passion, my friend, but as soon as your blood pressure normalizes I’m going to make one more point.
If film historians across the world vowed to smash the pantheon forthwith and start silent comedy history anew with the wealth of accessible information and films that we have now, I’m willing to bet a silly amount of money that folks are still going to be drawn to the films of the Big Three (who in turn will introduce them to their friend Harry Langdon). Their high-quality work simply has more universal appeal that that of, say, Joe Murphy and Fay Tincher in the Andy Gump shorts.
And someone like Keaton inspires more devotion than, say, Lloyd Hamilton or Max Davidson. Talented as many comedians are, it’s simply a fact that some performers and films are always going to be strictly niche interests (and silent film’s already a niche as it is!). This holds true in every genre of film. The “cult classic” label exists for a reason.
So in my opinion, the ranking is always going to stick around, because Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon are simply that fantastic. But if there’s one thing you and I can agree on, passionate fellow silent fan, it’s that we should keep sharing the more obscure comedians with anyone who has an open mind.
I’ve been to a number of silent film showings featuring obscure performers, and folks always seem to have a great time (a Charley Bowers program was a big hit). The Big Three/Four may get more attention and discussion, but Max Linder, Marcel Perez, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, etc. can certainly deliver the laughs too. (To say nothing of the great Roscoe Arbuckle, my pick for turning the Four into a Big Five.) The ranking doesn’t, in my view, take anything away from everyone else’s talent. If their work is good, people will enjoy it.
So point people toward as many silent era comedians as possible, most definitely. But know this, fellow passionate fan of silent comedy: the next time you feel compelled to sigh over the attention constantly given to the Big Three/Four in our beloved niche genre, remember–we do live in a world full of people of all ages and creeds who have never seen a Chaplin film and have no idea who Buster Keaton is.
*A couple of theses clippings were also used in my article “Were Chaplin and Keaton Rivals?” All clippings were snipped by yours truly.
To read the famous James Agee article for yourself, visit this link.