Siegfried Kracauer on the international development of the silent film comedy

Silent Film Comedy

Siegfried Kracauer on the international development of the silent film comedy

Siegfried Kracauer, in Sight and Sound 21:1 (1951), 31–32.

Silent film comedy, which reached its apogee in America during the ’twenties, originated in France where its essential traits were developed long before World War I. At a time when the art of story-telling was still unknown — D.W. Griffith had not yet entered upon the scene — this genre had attained near perfection. It was rooted in the traditions of the music hall, the circus, the burlesque and the fair, spectacles drawing in varying degrees on the eternal fascination which catastrophe, dangers and physical shocks exert on civilised man. From its outset film comedy piled up these kinds of thrills in ever new combinations, with the understanding, of course, that at the very last minute the characters involved could manage to escape to safety. The purpose was fun after all. A boy tampering with a garden hose inundates the apartments of a nearby house; people on a pleasure stroll fall smack into a lake; itch powder in the fish does things to the dinner guests; a bride who gets stuck somewhere appears at the wedding party in her underwear — such gags were common in France between 1905 and 1910. Some motifs migrated to America and there became institutions. For instance, the gendarmes, standing figures of the early French farce, re-emerged as the Keystone cops and, surviving the Sennett era, continued to the last to play their double role as the pompous pursuers and the chickenhearted pursued, the former mainly for the purpose of collapsing all the more drastically. There is no short Chaplin comedy in which the Tramp would not alternately dread and outwit some bulky policeman — the mouse playing with the cat. Crumbling pillars of order, these gendarmes or cops were visibly intended to deepen the impression of a topsy-turvy world. Similarly, the nightmarish motif of being stripped of one’s clothes in front of normally dressed people threaded slapstick from beginning to end; Harold Lloyd losing his pants was just another version of the bride in her underwear.

Film comedy evoked material life at its crudest. And since in those archaic days of the immobile camera life on the screen was synonymous with life in motion, the comedy makers did their utmost to exaggerate all natural movements. With the aid of a single camera trick they set humanity racing and revelled in games of speed. In “Onesime Horloger” (1908), a very charming French one-reeler, Paris runs wild, the Avenue de l’Opéra turns into an agitated ant heap, and wallpaper flies onto walls that have mushroomed a second before. It was cinema; it was fun; it was as if you sat in a roller coaster driving ahead at full blast, with your stomach all upside down. The dizziness happily added to the shock effects from disasters and seeming collisions. To frame these space-devouring adventures, the chase offered itself as an invaluable pretext. Gendarmes chased a dog who eventually turned the tables on them (“La course des Sergents de Ville,” ca. 1910?); pumpkins gliding from a cart were chased by the grocer, his donkey and passers-by through sewers and over roofs (“La course des potirons,” 1907; English title, The Pumpkin Race). For any Keystone comedy to omit the chase would have been an unpardonable crime. It was the climax of the whole, its orgiastic finale — a pandemonium, with onrushing trains telescoping into automobiles and narrow escapes down ropes that dangled above a lion’s den.

As should by now be clear, these chases and states of extremity involved not only cops and robbers but pieces of furniture and highways as well. Comedy was cinematic also in that it extended its range to include the whole of physical reality that could be reached by the camera eye. The rule was that inanimate objects held important positions and developed preferences of their own. More often than not they were filled with a certain malice towards anything human. When the pumpkins rolled down or up a slope it was indeed as if they wanted to play a practical joke on their pursuers. And who would not remember Chaplin’s heroic scraps with the escalator, the beach chair and the unruly Murphy bed? Among the scheming objects those devised for our comfort were in fact particularly vicious. Instead of serving man, these progressive gadgets turned out to be on the best of terms with the very elements they were supposed to harness; instead of making us independent of the whims of matter, they actually were the shock troops of unconquered nature and inflicted upon us defeat after defeat. They conspired against their masters, they gave the lie to the alleged blessings of mechanisation. Their conspiracy was so powerful that it nipped Buster Keaton’s smile in the bud. How could he possibly smile in a mechanised world? His unalterable impassivity was an admission that in such a world the machines and contrivances laid down the law and that he had better adjust himself to their exigencies. Yet at the same time this impassivity, human though it was, made him appear touchingly human, for it was inseparable from sadness, and you felt that, had he ever smiled while pushing the buttons or declaring his love, he would have betrayed his sadness and endorsed a state of affairs which caused him to behave like a gadget.

Of course, it was all comedy and the threats never came true. Whenever destructive natural forces, hostile objects, or human brutes seemed to win the day, the balance shifted abruptly in favor of their sympathetic victims. The pumpkins returned to the cart, the pursued escaped through a loophole and the weak reached a provisional haven. Frequently such minor triumphs were due to feats of acrobatic skill. Yet unlike most circus productions, film comedy did not highlight the performer’s proficiency in braving death and surmounting impossible difficulties; rather, it minimised his accomplishments in a constant effort to present successful rescues as the outcome of sheer chance. Accidents superseded destiny; unpredictable circumstances now foreshadowed doom, now jelled into propitious constellations for no visible reason. Take Harold Lloyd on the skyscraper; what protected him from falling to death was not his prowess but a random combination of external and completely incoherent events which, without being intended to come to his help, yet dovetailed so perfectly that he could not have fallen even had he wanted to. Accidents were the very soul of slapstick. This too was intrinsically cinematic, for it conformed to the spirit of a medium predestined to capture the fortuitous aspects of physical life. Since there were so many happy endings, the spectator was led to believe that the innate malice of objects yielded to benevolence in certain cases. Harry Langdon, for instance, belonged among nature’s favourites. A somnambulist fairy-tale prince, he waddled safely through a world of mortal dangers, not in the least aware that he was safe only because the elements succumbed to his babyish candour and sweet idiocy. Was it not even possible to influence chance and assuage spite? When attacked by a tough, Chaplin’s Tramp in his anguish invoked the magic power of rhythm to avert the worst; he performed a few delicate dance steps and choice gestures and, with the aid of these emergency rites, hypnotized the tough into a state of incredulous wonder which paralysed him just long enough to enable the cunning Tramp to take to his heels.

Any such gag was a small unit complete in itself and any comedy was a package of gags which, in music hall fashion, were autonomous entities rather than parts of a story. As a rule, there was a story of a sort, but it had merely the function of stringing these monad-like units together. What counted was that they succeeded each other uninterruptedly, not that their succession implemented some plot. To be sure, they often happened to build up a halfway consistent intrigue, yet that intrigue was never of so exacting a nature that its significance would have encroached on that of the units composing it. Even though “The Gold Rush” (1925) and “City Lights” (1930) transcended the genre, they culminated in such episodes as the dance with the fork or the misdemeanour of the swallowed whistle, gag clusters which, for meaning and effect, depended so little upon the narrative in which they appeared that they could easily be isolated without being mutilated. Film comedy was an ack-ack of gags. For the rest, it indulged in absurdity, as if to make it unmistakably clear that no catastrophe was meant to be real nor any action to be of consequence. The nonsensical frolics of Sennett’s bathing girls smothered the tender beginnings of comprehensible plots, and the many false moustaches on display bespoke a joyous zest for unaccountable foolishness. Absurdity stripped events of their possible meanings. And since it thus cut short the implications they might otherwise have conveyed to us, we were all the more obliged to absorb them for their own sake. It is true that comedy presented acts of violence and extreme situations only to disavow their seriousness a moment later, yet as long as they persisted they communicated nothing but themselves. They were as they were, and the shots rendering them had no function other than to make us watch spectacles too crude to be perceived with detachment in real life. It was genuine cinema, with the emphasis on the pranks of objects and the sallies of nature. This explains why from early slapstick to Chaplin’s full-length films, the visuals in a measure retained the character of snapshots. They were matter of fact records rather than expressive photographs. But would not art photography have introduced all the meanings which the comedy makers instinctively wanted to avoid? Their concern was alienated physical existence.

Film comedy died with silent film. Perhaps the Depression precipitated its death. But it did not die from the change of social conditions, however unfortunate; rather, it was killed by a change in the medium itself — the addition of dialogue. Those nightmarish tangles, games of speed and plays with inarticulate matter, which were inseparable from comedy, occurred in depths of material life which words do not penetrate; speech with all that it involves in articulate thoughts and emotions was therefore bound to obscure the very essence of the genre. Comedy ceased to be comedy when the admixture of dialogue blurred our visual experience of speechless events; when the necessity of following more or less intelligible talk lured us from the material dimension, in which everything just happened, to the dimension of discursive reasoning in which everything was, somehow, labelled and digested verbally. It was inevitable indeed that the spoken word should put an end to a genre which was allergic to it. Harpo alone survives from the silent era. Like the gods of antiquity who after their downfall lived on as puppets, bugbears and other minor ghosts, haunting centuries which no longer believed in them, Harpo is a residue of the past, an exiled comedy god condemned or permitted to act the part of a mischievous hobgoblin. Yet the world in which he appears is so crowded with dialogue that he would long since have vanished were it not for Groucho, who supports the spectre’s irresponsible doings by destroying dialogue from within. As dizzying as any silent collision, Groucho’s word cataclysm’s wreak havoc on language, and among the resultant debris Harpo continues to feel at ease.

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