In Defense Of “The Big Four” Of Silent Comedy

There’s an old quote you may have heard, attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “…In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d like to amend that: “…In this world, nothing can be 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.)

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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

Thoughts On “The Knockout” (1914)

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