At first glance, he appears to be an actor from society dramas. He had perfectly creased trousers, well-shined shoes, a coat and tie, white gloves, and, most impressively of all, a high silk top hat brushed to a fine sheen. But then there’s those big, practically bulging eyes–eyes that could only belong to a comedian.
These are the eyes of Max Linder, a film comedy pioneer that paved the way for all the great comedians of the silent era and beyond. If there’s a comedy routine you like, chances are Linder got there first. While he isn’t as well-known today as folks like Buster Keaton or Mabel Normand, Linder shares their aura of timelessness. All he needs is to be introduced to new audiences–for who today in this era of steampunk and all things vintage can resist comedies starring a dapper Edwardian gentleman with a tidy mustache and a top hat? Continue reading →
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.)
There’s a reason Harry’s wiping away a tear.
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? Continue reading →
Not too long ago I saw a discussion in a Facebook group about a silent era actor who, it was revealed, had strongly supported keeping his wealthy neighborhood “White People Only.” Naturally this was disheartening news, and more than one person declared that they would never look at him the same way again.
I could hardly blame them, but it got me thinking: What do we do if we love a star’s work onscreen, but discover that they were less-than-charming off screen? Is it reasonable to judge a star by their personal life?
The mischievous Little Tramp, the all-American daredevil, the Girl with the Curls–in the late 1910s they were three of the most famous faces in the world. And back in that smaller, more laid-back Hollywood, they just happened to be close in real life, too. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s marriage made them the cinema’s version of royalty. Doug and Charlie Chaplin basically had a bromance. The trio clowned for publicity cameras, travelled together, gave advice on each other’s films. To fans they must’ve seemed like the veritable Three Musketeers of the movie business.
Literally attending the premiere of Doug’s The Three Musketeers (1921).
And in a way, they were…up to a point. Charlie and Doug were practically inseparable, and Doug and Mary were arguably the loves of each other’s lives. But Charlie and Mary? Well… Continue reading →
If you’re already a big silent comedy fan, you might recognize The Knockout as being the one Keystone Walter Kerr used in his beloved book The Silent Clowns to illustrate how supposedly “unfunny” early Sennett films were. (And if you’re just starting to learn about silent comedy, I’m excited to be introducing you to The Knockout!) After describing the plot in some detail (“cowardice and belligerence alternate with indifferent logic through the balance of the twenty-minute film”), Kerr concludes with these observations: “It is probable that, except for an innovative detail here and there, the substance of this’plot’ doesn’t strike you as particularly funny. My point is that it isn’t, not through today’s eyes.”
So let it be written.
Walter Kerr, I love your book. The Silent Clowns is one of the most beautifully-written and thoughtful works of film criticism I’ve ever seen. You have inspired me, moved me, and made me think…but I think you’re wrong about The Knockout. Continue reading →
Back when I first started watching Keystones, one thing that threw me right away was the over-the-top “mugging” of some of the actors. Seeing adults hop around like cartoon characters and make faces that toddlers would consider beneath them was startling, to say the least. While the sheer old-timey-ness of it was admittedly glorious, it sure took some getting used to.
Probably the worst offender for me at first was the energetic young Al St. John. His grimaces and hyperactivity drove me crazy…
…until I started getting more acquainted with him. After awhile I started to see that hey, he was a great acrobat and had a nice screen presence. And heck, his crazy style could be darn funny. Almost in spite of myself, I became a fan. And at one point I thought to myself, “Past Me wouldn’t have expected this, but I really like Al St. John now…however, if there’s anything on God’s green earth I do know…
“…it’s that I’ll never like that friggin’ Ford Sterling.”
One question that pops up now and then among silent comedy fans–on message boards, in Facebooks groups, or even in those old-fashioned face-to-face conversations–is the following: “Were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton rivals?”
It seems like a straightforward thing to ask. Were these two famous, brilliant comedians in active competition to top each other’s films throughout the 1920s? If those Chaplin vs. Keaton fan arguments are any indication, the logical answer must be “yes.”
An artist’s representation. (By the uber-talented Damian Blake.)
If you ask a Chaplin fan which film they think is his masterpiece, the choice is often City Lights. At times there’s a three-way tie between City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. A few intrepid fans give The Gold Rush some votes, as well.
And yet, there’s another wonderful Chaplin film out there that maybe gets less attention than his post-1920s films. I’ve seen some people describe it as “thoroughly enjoyable,” and “memorable,” and remark that it “holds up extremely well.” Often, it gets the “it’s sentimental, but…” treatment. (Being sentimental is simply not trendy nowadays, you see.) But you know what? I will give it my “Chaplin’s Masterpiece” vote in a flash: The Kid (1921).
This day, April 16th, is not only the birthday of Charles Spencer Chaplin but his 125th birthday–a nice milestone in a year just chock full of Chaplin milestones. It’s a good day for laughter and perhaps a good day for some reflection too.