Did Groucho kill Harpo?

A few weeks ago I was bloviating self-importantly about Laurel and Hardy’s debut talkie, Unaccustomed As We Are, and how I felt it demonstrated the ability of silent-era comedians to weather the transition to sound without losing a step.  Some of the replies in the comments section addressed the central question directly:

“What’s strange to me is that, to judge from most of the histories I’ve heard, people suddenly stopped being interested in the kind of comedy they’d loved for decades, silent comedy in the style rather than the technical sense, as soon as sound showed up. People watch that kind of comedy now- Mr. Bean is an internationally popular figure, and Mr. Hulot was one before him, both of them fundamentally silent comedians dropped into a sound world a la Modern Times. So what killed it back then? Why did people suddenly want all Grouchos and no Harpos?”

That’s a superb question, Tom S., and very carefully phrased at that.  It’s a question I’ve been thinking about for many years, and while I can’t pretend to have a definitive answer, I do have some ideas.

One Man Band

In another response, DBenson proffered the answer that is most commonly put forward to explain the transition:

“Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns makes a strong case that the nature of sound itself killed classic silent comedy: The slight undercranking to give people and objects a subtly impossible speed and grace; the absence of ambient noises that make the world too solid and dangerous; and the general air of fantasy that allowed artful violations of physical laws and accepted behavior . . . all these vanished with sound.  He argues that Laurel and Hardy prospered in part because their comedy style was slow and patient — their timing was already in sync with sound.”

Fair enough, and Kerr makes some excellent points.  But I’ve never felt comfortable laying it all at the feet of sound.  It doesn’t quite ring true to me that silent comedy was aesthetically incompatible with sound, and that Laurel and Hardy were just exceptions to the rule.  There were too many other exceptions–Charley Chase and Our Gang also made an almost effortless switch to sound without changing their style of comedy or losing audiences.  That means pretty much the entire Hal Roach Studio made the switch–which implies there’s something more at work here.

Speaking of Hal Roach, I’d argue that Harry Langdon’s work at Roach in talkie shorts was a comprehensive translation of his experimental anti-comedy, and that he too made the transition without changing his style.  I realize however that’s a controversial position, so I won’t insist on it here–but Langdon’s surviving Roach talkie shorts are due up on TCM in a few weeks so you can see and decide for yourselves.

And before you jump to the conclusion that there was something unique about Roach that resisted the inherently destructive effect of sound on silent-style comedy, let me put the Three Stooges up for consideration.  There is nothing about their act was dependent on sound–they could have been silent stars, if they’s just started making movies earlier.  They represent the survival of physical slapstick well into the 1950s!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtDqywkHd-c]

The video clip above is excerpted from a 1900 French film  included in Flicker Alley’s Saved From the Flames DVD.  Yup, 1900.  In color, with a soundtrack.  Choke on that, Jazz Friggin’ Singer!  (It isn’t even the earliest sound film—I just chose it because it’s cool, I could have dug back into the 1800s if I wanted to).

Experiments with sound recording predate experiments with motion pictures—indeed the inventors behind the movies had always intended to include sound as part of the technology.  My point is, the technology existed at the dawn of cinema.  It existed, but it was tricky, awkward, and expensive—and the support from audiences and filmmakers just wasn’t enough to overcome those logistical and financial hurdles.

For argument’s sake, let’s imagine that history took a different path, and sound was part of motion picture technology right from the very beginning.  If it’s true that sound killed silent comedy, then if sound was there from the start, we should expect silent comedy to never have existed, right?

Movies represent an enormous and complex feedback loop.  On one end are the content providers: the visionary artists, and the businessmen and investors who support them.  At the other end are the recipients: audiences and critics.  The cycle depends on both ends—if audiences and critics respond poorly to something, then the content providers will have a powerful incentive to stop making it.  If the audiences and critics respond positively, then there will likely be more.

The Kiss

Film technology didn’t come to us with an instruction manual.  The “language of film” had to be discovered by trial and error.  It took people like G.A. Smith, Edwin S. Porter, Thomas Ince, D.W. Griffith, Georges Melies, Louis Feuillade, and so on to experiment—and it took the filmgoing audience to provide feedback on what they liked: what worked, and what didn’t.  If those early filmmakers had been given sound as part of their movie toolbox, they’d still have had to work through that whole messy process of trial and error to find their way to the film language we know today—and their audience would have had to react to each step, just as they did in the history we know.

Mack Sennett

Silent comedy as we know it came to us in part because of Mack Sennett (seen above in a seminal early American comedy–The Curtain Pole).  Mack was an anarchic young man working for Griffith but unable to take Griffith’s pretensions seriously.  He had an eye for talent, and attracted ex-vaudeville comedians and their English music hall compatriots—such as Charlie Chaplin.  Audiences responded overwhelmingly in favor of this, and turned Chaplin into a star—and inspired legions of copycats to follow his example.

The addition of sound at the outset of this process might have changed the movies they made, but wouldn’t have changed any of the personalities involved.

You could argue, however, that the vaudeville comedians taking to the screen around 1910-1915 might have done more dialogue-based comedy, instead of the physical slapstick, had they had the ability.

Perhaps.

But doesn’t it strike you as odd that silent comedy as an artform took root so powerfully in the United States, more so than anywhere else in the world?  Other countries (like France, Germany, and Russia) made terrific silent dramas, and science fiction films, Gothic horror, adventure yarns, detective thrillers, high-minded art films… but America cornered the market on comedy.

There’s more: America cornered the market on comedy with foreign comedians.  The talent existed abroad, but came here to flourish.  Chaplin didn’t become a star in his native England.  That was never even on the table.

What was different here?  Well, among other things, America at the dawn of the twentieth century was a place dominated by polyglot immigrant enclaves in fast-growing urban centers.  To appeal to mass audiences in America meant trying to appeal to an exceedingly wide array of folks, of all races and social classes and educational backgrounds.  In turn, this meant that movies that appealed to Americans were likely to be highly exportable, and better equipped to translate across national lines.  The environment encouraged visually-based comedy, physical slapstick and thrills, because this had the broadest possible appeal.  A man getting clonked in the face with a brick is funny no matter what language he speaks.

This simple fact put a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of the development of a primarily visual, language-independent form of comedy in the earliest days of cinema–and this thumb would have been on that scale whether or not sound technology existed at the time.

I’m not saying that the very same movies would have been made, or the same comedians would have risen to the top—but in our imaginary alternate universe where sound caught on in 1900, I believe the form of silent-style physical slapstick comedy would still have arisen in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Now, I want to turn that thought experiment on its head: what if sound never caught on?  If The Jazz Singer never sang Mammy, then would silent comedy have thrived into the 30s and 40s?

Jazz Singer

In the years since Charlie Chaplin first rose to stardom, movie going audiences around the world had experienced the First World War, in which traditional notions of national pride and military honor were cruelly thrust up against efficient modern technology.  Ten million died, but worse yet were the survivors—maimed, disfigured things that returned home with shellshock to communities that had no place for them.  Then came the Russian Revolution, further  proof that the old way of doings things was permanently over.  The world began to slide in a global Depression… That Depression didn’t hit the US until after The Jazz Singer opened, but Europe had been feeling it since the end of the war.  If we want to be specific about America, we should take note of women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and the anarchist terrorism of the 1920s.  Simply put, those golden years of silent slapstick were also years in which piece by piece the world lost its innocence.  It seems unreasonable to expect that the audience that lived through these things would want the same things from their entertainment as the people who did not.

And then there’s Buster Keaton.  When historians talk of sound killing the silent comedian, Buster is Exhibit A.  One day, he’s making The General, the next he’s a washed-up alcoholic has-been slumming with Jimmy Durante.  But how much of this is to blame on sound?  Buster’s unhappy marriage had a lot to do with his drinking, and his misguided manager Schenck takes the blame for selling Keaton’s contract to MGM, the entirely wrong studio for him.  If he’d ended up, say, at Paramount—or had never married Natalie Talmadge—or both—we’d be having a very different conversation.  That’s not a sign that sound was fundamentally inhospitable to him—just that he had a run of very bad luck.

Also, drawing that line in the sand between Keaton’s “good” films and his “bad” ones is trickier than it sounds.  Yeah, you don’t have to take much convincing to put The General on the “good” side and The Passionate Plumber on the “bad” side… but where exactly is that line?

Passionate Plumber

What if I were to try to draw that line at The General itself? Hang on—don’t laugh—hear me out:

The General

I have no intention of trying to impugn the genius of The General as a work of art.  But remember the feedback cycle I described above: content creators → audiences and critics → content creators → (repeat).

The General cost Buster $750,000 to make.  Adjusting for the changing value of the dollar, that’s just under $10 Million in today’s money.  It was an expensive undertaking—and a huge investment not just of money but of Buster’s effort.  The painstaking attention to period detail, the hundreds of extras, the crashing of the train into the valley—Buster held nothing back.  And what feedback did he get for all this?  The New York Times panned it.  Variety panned it.  Life panned it.  Critical consensus was that Raymond Griffith’s Civil War comedy Hands Up! was the superior film.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0co9hlv_2cc]

As for audiences… well, I’ve got a problem here.  The box office figures that Tom Dardis published have been disputed and debunked, but they stuck around long enough to infect a lot of what is written about Keaton’s films, so putting a fine point on what his various films earned is always subject to some controversy.  But from all of what I’ve read, it’s safe to say the box office returns weren’t what Buster was hoping for.

He shored up, and played it safe by making his next film, College, in the same mold as Harold Lloyd’s success The Freshman.  This is not the action of a man who felt vindicated in his creative experiment.

But wait, there’s more:

What about Harold Lloyd?  The Kid Brother was Lloyd’s perfectionist project, his analog of The General.  It was the recipient of more gag-writing and cinematic effort than anything he’d made before.  It grossed just $2.4 Million, less than For Heaven’s Sake.  Lloyd was so bitterly disappointed by this, he allowed The Kid Brother to fall into obscurity for the next 30 years: unscreened, unrevived.

The Kid Brother

Lloyd followed The Kid Brother with Speedy—and although this one earned him an Academy Award nomination and enthusiastic press, it returned even lower box office receipts than The Kid Brother.  In strictly commercial terms, he was on a slide.

Let’s put that slide into very clear terms: Harold Lloyd never again made a silent film, and never again made a movie widely accepted as a classic.

Next up is Charlie Chaplin.  After the heady success of The Gold Rush, he embarked on The Circus.  David Robinson called this thing “a production dogged by persistent misfortune.  The most surprising aspect of the film is not that it is as good as it is, but that it was ever completed at all.”  Charlie suffered a nervous breakdown, quit for 8 months, and never mentioned the film in his autobiography.  That’s right—not a single word about it.  Like Lloyd and The Kid Brother, Chaplin let The Circus fade into the shadows, forgotten and untouched for many years.

The Circus

The Circus cost Chaplin almost as much as The Gold Rush had (!) and while it was well received by critics at the time, it performed poorly and made much less than The Gold Rush.  Hang on—I hear you saying “Duh, of course it didn’t beat The Gold Rush,” but the point here is that Charlie expected that it would.  And when it floundered—he didn’t make another film until 1931.

Last one: Harry Langdon.  He was riding high, arguably the highest of all the great comedians–at that moment in time.  Three in a row had been huge hits: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants.  And for his next feature, Langdon made a bleak black comedy called Three’s a Crowd.  It’s a harrowing tragedy with scarcely any laughs.  Set aside the questionable wisdom behind making this thing (it’s a defiant work of iconoclastic filmmaking by an auteur who wasn’t listening to any advisers), it marked the turning point as his career began to slide into oblivion.

Now, to pull all of this together: around 1927-28, every single major screen comedian working in Hollywood embarked on a feature film that meant a lot to them personally, in which they made unprecedented investments of themselves and money—and every single one of these was slapped down by the marketplace, and left their makers chastened.  Every one of them suffered a career downturn before The Jazz Singer.  In fact, the arrival of sound had exactly nothing at all to do with these events.

So we could use our time machine and kidnap ole Al Jolson and avert the release of The Jazz Singer, but it wouldn’t change history.  Audiences were moving away from Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin, and Langdon already—even though these comedians were still making terrific movies.  The quality of their films had not diminished—not one bit.

It’s not that the movies got worse, it’s not that sound was competing, it’s not that the aesthetics had (yet) changed.  The reason audiences were turning away in 1927 was, as discussed above, the cultural climate was changing.  The world was a different place.  The 1927 world needed different jokes and different kinds of jokes than the 1914 world.

And there was a new breed of comedian who had come along to tell those new jokes.

In the span of time between Buster Keaton’s first talkie, Free and Easy, and Charlie Chaplin’s last silent, Modern Times, the following took place:

W.C. Fields made It’s  Gift and Man on a Flying Trapeze, the Marx Brothers finished all of their Paramount films including Duck Soup and still had time to move to MGM and make Night at the Opera, Lubitsch transitioned to sound and made all four of his naughty operettas and then: Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, and The Merry Widow, Frank Capra made It Happened One Night and inaugurated the screwball era, the first Thin Man movie arrived, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers started making musicals, and Theodora went Wild.  Mae West began her career and made such gems as She Done Him Wrong and Belle of the Nineties.  Rene Clair made A Nous la Liberte, and Leo McCarey made Ruggles of Red Gap.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyvYgleN5kI]

In other words, Keaton and Chaplin looked so very tired and atavistic compared to this fecund new world of sound comedy.  Is it really any surprise that silent comedy gave way?  It really doesn’t matter how bad or how good the scripts MGM gave to Buster Keaton in the 1930s were—a new kind of comedy had blossomed and it suited the needs of the contemporary audience.

We’re living through the same process now, methinks.  CGI-based animation has supplanted hand-drawn cel animation.  In theory, the difference between CGI animation and cel animation is not as great as the aesthetic gulf between silent slapstick and screwball talkies.  And I’d argue that audiences aren’t primarily drawn to the surface aesthetics anyway—Pixar movies are excellent because the Pixar team are the best storytellers in Hollywood today; Dreamworks has its finger on the pulse of popular culture and makes imminently crowd-pleasing things.  If Pixar and Dreamworks were animating by hand, their films would still be as great.  But they work on CGI, and so the ruthless logic of the marketplace decrees that their competition is obsolete.  Someday a future generation of film geeks will be looking back and wondering why Shrek killed Snow White.

34 Responses Did Groucho kill Harpo?
Posted By Jerry Kovar : January 1, 2011 8:24 am

An excellent and most appropriate essay to begin the New Year. A couple of thoughts as I read and enjoyed: I would also point the finger at radio as a prime suspect who contributed to the death of silent comedy. Tati, Mr. Bean certainly kept the art alive as did Jerry Lewis (especially “The Bellboy”). The evolution of screen comedy continues to this day though seemingly stalled on rom-com’s, the irreverence of Jack-Ass/Jack Black, black male actors dressed as huge black women and generally humor for the pre-thirty year old audience. Where at one time comedy, as subjective as it is, was more universal and open to all audiences, I find that more and more I must retreat to the silents, L&H, Marx Bros, WB cartoons or early Woody Allen/Mel Brooks for some good clean silly fun. Today I am satisfied if a comedy can bring a smile to my face but guffaws are few and far between (original “Death at a Funeral”) and sustained comedy is only found in animation (“Toy Story” series). Hopefully an aspiring filmmaker somewhere will take on the challenge of silent comedy. Anyway thanks for the essay and Happy New Year to all.

Posted By Jerry Kovar : January 1, 2011 8:24 am

An excellent and most appropriate essay to begin the New Year. A couple of thoughts as I read and enjoyed: I would also point the finger at radio as a prime suspect who contributed to the death of silent comedy. Tati, Mr. Bean certainly kept the art alive as did Jerry Lewis (especially “The Bellboy”). The evolution of screen comedy continues to this day though seemingly stalled on rom-com’s, the irreverence of Jack-Ass/Jack Black, black male actors dressed as huge black women and generally humor for the pre-thirty year old audience. Where at one time comedy, as subjective as it is, was more universal and open to all audiences, I find that more and more I must retreat to the silents, L&H, Marx Bros, WB cartoons or early Woody Allen/Mel Brooks for some good clean silly fun. Today I am satisfied if a comedy can bring a smile to my face but guffaws are few and far between (original “Death at a Funeral”) and sustained comedy is only found in animation (“Toy Story” series). Hopefully an aspiring filmmaker somewhere will take on the challenge of silent comedy. Anyway thanks for the essay and Happy New Year to all.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 1, 2011 12:11 pm

I think you make extremely valid points across the board. The same change in the tastes of the public can also be blamed for the demise of the western. The lofty artistic goals shared by the great silent screen comedians in the period you mentioned also seems similar to what happened to the film school crowd from the late 60′s and 70′s.

The film school crowd continued to make personal films that the public no longer wanted to see after Jaws and Star Wars. That last part is a mixed blessing, at best. I would much rather watch Jaws or Star Wars than Heaven’s Gate or Hopper’s The Last Movie. Coppola hasn’t been the same since Apocalypse Now. When was the last time anyone heard from Michael Cimino? What was the last great Bogdanovich movie? Only Spielberg and Lucas, and to a lesser extent, Scorsese emerged from the 70′s unscathed, but Lucas became a whore after Jedi.

Could you research why exactly the western died the way it did? The one western a year, or every other year, does not satisfy.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 1, 2011 12:11 pm

I think you make extremely valid points across the board. The same change in the tastes of the public can also be blamed for the demise of the western. The lofty artistic goals shared by the great silent screen comedians in the period you mentioned also seems similar to what happened to the film school crowd from the late 60′s and 70′s.

The film school crowd continued to make personal films that the public no longer wanted to see after Jaws and Star Wars. That last part is a mixed blessing, at best. I would much rather watch Jaws or Star Wars than Heaven’s Gate or Hopper’s The Last Movie. Coppola hasn’t been the same since Apocalypse Now. When was the last time anyone heard from Michael Cimino? What was the last great Bogdanovich movie? Only Spielberg and Lucas, and to a lesser extent, Scorsese emerged from the 70′s unscathed, but Lucas became a whore after Jedi.

Could you research why exactly the western died the way it did? The one western a year, or every other year, does not satisfy.

Posted By Joel Zawada : January 1, 2011 4:33 pm

Great piece overall, but you’ve overlooked a few very real reasons that sound killed silent comedians, the most glaring being the limitations the technology imposed. Sound equipment was enormous, heavy and hard to use. Comedians who’d built careers improvising material on location were now tethered to a very static frame in properly-insulated sets. The spirit of creativity and freedom they embodied was shackled completely, and many had trouble adapting to these restrictions.

In a very real way, the advent of sound set the language of film back about ten years. All of the advances in shot choices, camera movements, and storytelling and editing techniques were sacrificed in favor of putting as much dialogue onscreen as possible. And since Hollywood didn’t have the amount of writers capable of filling all those actors’ mouths with witty banter, moguls turned back to theater and its ready-made scripts to fill the void, awkwardly shoehorning established screen personalities into material unsuited to their personas. In a very real way, for a period of time following sound’s introduction, movies simply became showings of poorly-recorded stage plays.

The comedians who thrived were the ones who came into that world with established sound material. The Marxes just filmed their Broadway shows. W.C. Fields had plenty of verbal material to punch up whatever script he was given. Laurel and Hardy had similar material available to them. It just wasn’t the same for Keaton, whose act on vaudeville was mostly physical and mute, and whose voice placed him in the role of a simple country bumpkin, a far cry from the highly inventive and resourceful hero of his silents.

The truth is that the silent comedians who succeeded in sound were the ones who were able to stick with their established personas and deliver lines well. Those who didn’t were casualties because they were given the wrong materisl, they couldn’t be creative under the many new restrictions, or in the case of Chaplin, they simply rejected sound outright and continued doing whatever they felt like, and audiences moved on.

Posted By Joel Zawada : January 1, 2011 4:33 pm

Great piece overall, but you’ve overlooked a few very real reasons that sound killed silent comedians, the most glaring being the limitations the technology imposed. Sound equipment was enormous, heavy and hard to use. Comedians who’d built careers improvising material on location were now tethered to a very static frame in properly-insulated sets. The spirit of creativity and freedom they embodied was shackled completely, and many had trouble adapting to these restrictions.

In a very real way, the advent of sound set the language of film back about ten years. All of the advances in shot choices, camera movements, and storytelling and editing techniques were sacrificed in favor of putting as much dialogue onscreen as possible. And since Hollywood didn’t have the amount of writers capable of filling all those actors’ mouths with witty banter, moguls turned back to theater and its ready-made scripts to fill the void, awkwardly shoehorning established screen personalities into material unsuited to their personas. In a very real way, for a period of time following sound’s introduction, movies simply became showings of poorly-recorded stage plays.

The comedians who thrived were the ones who came into that world with established sound material. The Marxes just filmed their Broadway shows. W.C. Fields had plenty of verbal material to punch up whatever script he was given. Laurel and Hardy had similar material available to them. It just wasn’t the same for Keaton, whose act on vaudeville was mostly physical and mute, and whose voice placed him in the role of a simple country bumpkin, a far cry from the highly inventive and resourceful hero of his silents.

The truth is that the silent comedians who succeeded in sound were the ones who were able to stick with their established personas and deliver lines well. Those who didn’t were casualties because they were given the wrong materisl, they couldn’t be creative under the many new restrictions, or in the case of Chaplin, they simply rejected sound outright and continued doing whatever they felt like, and audiences moved on.

Posted By Tom S : January 1, 2011 6:15 pm

Duke: We may not have the number of Westerns now that we did during their peak, but the average quality has increased astonishingly. I have a hard time thinking of a post-Unforgiven Western that wasn’t at least watchable, and I swear about half of them are masterpieces.

Posted By Tom S : January 1, 2011 6:15 pm

Duke: We may not have the number of Westerns now that we did during their peak, but the average quality has increased astonishingly. I have a hard time thinking of a post-Unforgiven Western that wasn’t at least watchable, and I swear about half of them are masterpieces.

Posted By Tom S : January 1, 2011 6:16 pm

Also: Thanks for the answer to my question! I think that’s probably about as satisfactory an answer as it’s possible to get, since I must admit that there’s no way to explain the transition that won’t make me feel a bit sick from loss.

Posted By Tom S : January 1, 2011 6:16 pm

Also: Thanks for the answer to my question! I think that’s probably about as satisfactory an answer as it’s possible to get, since I must admit that there’s no way to explain the transition that won’t make me feel a bit sick from loss.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 1, 2011 7:29 pm

I will now attempt to name as many post-Unforgiven westerns as I can. For the sake of this list, I shall limit the titles to period westerns, not modern day “westerns” like No Country for Old Men (which I love). I will also limit the list to theatrically released films, not TV western films. Here goes: Frank & Jesse, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Texas Rangers, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, Wild Bill, Posse, True Grit, Open Range, The Quick and the Dead, The Proposition, Appaloosa, The Alamo, Dead Man, Ned Kelly (2003), Geromino: An American Legend, Sommersby, Bad Girls, Lightning Jack, Maverick, Black Fox, The Cherokee Kid, Ride with the Devil, The Claim, South of Heaven, West of Hell, American Outlaws, Gang of Roses, The Missing, Bandidas, Seraphim Falls and September Dawn. That’s about it for theatrically released westerns since Unforgiven*. I’m having a hard time picking out masterpieces.

*Thank you, Wikipedia!

Posted By dukeroberts : January 1, 2011 7:29 pm

I will now attempt to name as many post-Unforgiven westerns as I can. For the sake of this list, I shall limit the titles to period westerns, not modern day “westerns” like No Country for Old Men (which I love). I will also limit the list to theatrically released films, not TV western films. Here goes: Frank & Jesse, Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Texas Rangers, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, Wild Bill, Posse, True Grit, Open Range, The Quick and the Dead, The Proposition, Appaloosa, The Alamo, Dead Man, Ned Kelly (2003), Geromino: An American Legend, Sommersby, Bad Girls, Lightning Jack, Maverick, Black Fox, The Cherokee Kid, Ride with the Devil, The Claim, South of Heaven, West of Hell, American Outlaws, Gang of Roses, The Missing, Bandidas, Seraphim Falls and September Dawn. That’s about it for theatrically released westerns since Unforgiven*. I’m having a hard time picking out masterpieces.

*Thank you, Wikipedia!

Posted By dukeroberts : January 1, 2011 8:47 pm

In response to Joel- You make very valid points too. So much of what Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd did was location shooting. THey had these big outdoor sets with which to work. The bulky equipment and ambient noise made it difficult to achieve the desired pieces with sound. They were then confined to sound stages, which probably stifled their creative freedom, whereas Chaplin learned to work with the soundstages in his silent films. Modern Times is a great example of this.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 1, 2011 8:47 pm

In response to Joel- You make very valid points too. So much of what Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd did was location shooting. THey had these big outdoor sets with which to work. The bulky equipment and ambient noise made it difficult to achieve the desired pieces with sound. They were then confined to sound stages, which probably stifled their creative freedom, whereas Chaplin learned to work with the soundstages in his silent films. Modern Times is a great example of this.

Posted By Jeff : January 2, 2011 12:47 am

One correction to an otherwise fine think piece-Lloyd’s first talkie, WELCOME DANGER, was his biggest grosser and kept him on top of the box office of the major comedians until his next film, FEET FIRST, which showed a major drop in grosses and was the true beginning of his slide.

Posted By Jeff : January 2, 2011 12:47 am

One correction to an otherwise fine think piece-Lloyd’s first talkie, WELCOME DANGER, was his biggest grosser and kept him on top of the box office of the major comedians until his next film, FEET FIRST, which showed a major drop in grosses and was the true beginning of his slide.

Posted By Tom S : January 2, 2011 5:00 am

Duke- I’d rate (at least) Dead Man, True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James, and the Proposition as masterpieces, but horses for courses. Your list also (understandably) doesn’t include Deadwood, which is one of the best pieces of Western-related entertainment I’ve ever seen, modern or otherwise.

I’m not sure if it fits your criterion, since it’s set in the 40s, but the recent Korean movie The Good, the Bad, and the Weird is one of the most outright entertaining Westerns (well, movies generally, really) that I’ve seen in years. I also think excluding the neo-Western- which also excludes, for instance, the excellent The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada- cuts out some of the really interesting stuff that’s been made in the genre in the past few decades.

Posted By Tom S : January 2, 2011 5:00 am

Duke- I’d rate (at least) Dead Man, True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James, and the Proposition as masterpieces, but horses for courses. Your list also (understandably) doesn’t include Deadwood, which is one of the best pieces of Western-related entertainment I’ve ever seen, modern or otherwise.

I’m not sure if it fits your criterion, since it’s set in the 40s, but the recent Korean movie The Good, the Bad, and the Weird is one of the most outright entertaining Westerns (well, movies generally, really) that I’ve seen in years. I also think excluding the neo-Western- which also excludes, for instance, the excellent The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada- cuts out some of the really interesting stuff that’s been made in the genre in the past few decades.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 2, 2011 5:19 am

I haven’t seen The Proposition or True Grit (yet), but I thought Dead Man was absolutely dreadful. The Assassination of Jesse James is good, if not a little overlong and overindulgent. It would have been just as good at 30 minutes shorter. The acting in it was great though. Of the movies listed, I probably enjoyed Tombstone and 3:10 to Yuma the most. They weren’t trying to be arty and they both delivered solidly entertaining westerns. To me, they hued closer to the 50′s style westerns more than the others. The 50′s, to me, was the zenith of westerns. There were great westerns in the 30′s and 40′s, but the 50′s was the best decade for them all around, starting with Winchester ’73 and The Gunfighter in 1950, all the way up to Rio Bravo in 1959.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 2, 2011 5:19 am

I haven’t seen The Proposition or True Grit (yet), but I thought Dead Man was absolutely dreadful. The Assassination of Jesse James is good, if not a little overlong and overindulgent. It would have been just as good at 30 minutes shorter. The acting in it was great though. Of the movies listed, I probably enjoyed Tombstone and 3:10 to Yuma the most. They weren’t trying to be arty and they both delivered solidly entertaining westerns. To me, they hued closer to the 50′s style westerns more than the others. The 50′s, to me, was the zenith of westerns. There were great westerns in the 30′s and 40′s, but the 50′s was the best decade for them all around, starting with Winchester ’73 and The Gunfighter in 1950, all the way up to Rio Bravo in 1959.

Posted By Jerry Kovar : January 2, 2011 7:58 am

dukeroberts – the oversaturation of westerns on free TV is often credited with the demise of the movie western. I would add that the disappearance of the double feature added to its death since many outstanding westerns were often on the bottom of the bill (Randolph Scott, Budd Boetticher, No Name on the Bullet). Here’s hoping “True Grit” resuscitates interest. I would agree with the statement that there have not been any western masterpieces since “Unforgiven”.

Posted By Jerry Kovar : January 2, 2011 7:58 am

dukeroberts – the oversaturation of westerns on free TV is often credited with the demise of the movie western. I would add that the disappearance of the double feature added to its death since many outstanding westerns were often on the bottom of the bill (Randolph Scott, Budd Boetticher, No Name on the Bullet). Here’s hoping “True Grit” resuscitates interest. I would agree with the statement that there have not been any western masterpieces since “Unforgiven”.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : January 2, 2011 12:34 pm

Another excellent Kalat piece, which superbly expands the argument he put forth in his superb audio commentary for Harry Langdon’s THREE’S A CROWD. Just one overlooked point and a personal observation: you fail to mention the fact that every single one of Buster Keaton’s “terrible” M-G-M sound features made a ton of money at the box office, so from a business perspective he was doing just fine in the talkies. It’s the dirty little secret that no Keaton fan likes to bring up — or has all sorts of excuses for — but it can’t be ignored. Buster was fired from M-G-M because of the sad fact his personal reliability and drinking had become intolerable to studio head L. B. Mayer, not because of the performance of his films at the box office. Bottom line: if Buster had been a good little boy instead of a drunk he would have continued to work at M-G-M; unfortunately, Keaton preferred to have the hangover and the rest, as they say, is history. That said, let me add the very contrary opinion (hopefully welcomed by the man who has spoken so well for the film said to have killed Harry Langdon’s career — and I am so looking forward to the Langdon/Roach shorts due to be shown on TCM this month) that this is one Keaton fan who has always felt that some of Buster’s much maligned M-G-M features (let me repeat — some) are terribly under-rated, if not on par with the masterpieces he was churning out a short few years before. And having sat through a screening of the much reviled THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER at New York’s Film Forum several years ago and seeing the reaction it got from that audience, no one will convince me that it belongs among the worst of Keaton’s output (for my money, nothing was worse in Buster’s M-G-M years than his first talkie, the God-awful FREE AND EASY, and I can only imagine the true horror that that thing is in its Spanish language version). In any case, thanks again for the great article.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : January 2, 2011 12:34 pm

Another excellent Kalat piece, which superbly expands the argument he put forth in his superb audio commentary for Harry Langdon’s THREE’S A CROWD. Just one overlooked point and a personal observation: you fail to mention the fact that every single one of Buster Keaton’s “terrible” M-G-M sound features made a ton of money at the box office, so from a business perspective he was doing just fine in the talkies. It’s the dirty little secret that no Keaton fan likes to bring up — or has all sorts of excuses for — but it can’t be ignored. Buster was fired from M-G-M because of the sad fact his personal reliability and drinking had become intolerable to studio head L. B. Mayer, not because of the performance of his films at the box office. Bottom line: if Buster had been a good little boy instead of a drunk he would have continued to work at M-G-M; unfortunately, Keaton preferred to have the hangover and the rest, as they say, is history. That said, let me add the very contrary opinion (hopefully welcomed by the man who has spoken so well for the film said to have killed Harry Langdon’s career — and I am so looking forward to the Langdon/Roach shorts due to be shown on TCM this month) that this is one Keaton fan who has always felt that some of Buster’s much maligned M-G-M features (let me repeat — some) are terribly under-rated, if not on par with the masterpieces he was churning out a short few years before. And having sat through a screening of the much reviled THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER at New York’s Film Forum several years ago and seeing the reaction it got from that audience, no one will convince me that it belongs among the worst of Keaton’s output (for my money, nothing was worse in Buster’s M-G-M years than his first talkie, the God-awful FREE AND EASY, and I can only imagine the true horror that that thing is in its Spanish language version). In any case, thanks again for the great article.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 2, 2011 1:29 pm

Jery Kovar- You are certainly right about the TV western killing the western film. There were way too many at one point. It’s sad, really. I wouldn’t mind seeing a good western show either. I saw Deadwood once. It was fine, if not a little too crude. My dad grew up loving westerns and TV westerns and he instilled in me an appreciation for them as well. He would not have liked it. He had no problem with cussing and what not, but he didn’t like his westerns to have that stuff. He loved Gene Autry and Maverick and Have Gun, Will Travel.

Anyway, I need to check out some of those early Buster Keaton talkies to see if they really are as bad as some say.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 2, 2011 1:29 pm

Jery Kovar- You are certainly right about the TV western killing the western film. There were way too many at one point. It’s sad, really. I wouldn’t mind seeing a good western show either. I saw Deadwood once. It was fine, if not a little too crude. My dad grew up loving westerns and TV westerns and he instilled in me an appreciation for them as well. He would not have liked it. He had no problem with cussing and what not, but he didn’t like his westerns to have that stuff. He loved Gene Autry and Maverick and Have Gun, Will Travel.

Anyway, I need to check out some of those early Buster Keaton talkies to see if they really are as bad as some say.

Posted By Jeff : January 2, 2011 4:28 pm

Not all of Keaton’s talkies are unwatchable-FREE AND EASY has moments but it is too long, Keaton is made the “comic relief” in his own film (!) and they are obviously building up Robert Montgomery and Anita Page at his expense-but I have a soft spot in my heart for parts of SPEAK EASILY and THE SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK. However, you can notice his physical deterioration as the films progress, due to the drinking and his own indifference to the work. Skip DOUGHBOYS and WHAT! NO BEER?-both of which are just leaden and the latter Keaton looks almost dissipated.

Another point on Keaton’s box office grosses (silent vs. sound): all but his last silents were released by Loews, the parent company of MGM, with the last three by United Artists, which did not have the massive distribution that MGM had, so that probably would account for the dropoff in the grosses between the two groups. Also, the silents would have rolled out on a more gradual basis than the talkies, since the production costs had increased with sound, the studio would have made more prints and had a broader release pattern to increase revenue. While MGM was the biggest studio, they actually had fewer theaters than Paramount, Warners or Fox (the ones they had, in many cases were the biggest ones in the big cities) but due to block booking could “package” a season’s worth of films with the biggest stars and hit not only the major cities but also smaller ones, which had a tendency to prefer the Metro films to many of the other studios titles because of the former’s targeting the middle-brow audiences rather than the urban, intellectual group as much. Keaton’s talkies are more “rural” than the silents, which might account for their more popular appeal than the masterpieces we now know.

Posted By Jeff : January 2, 2011 4:28 pm

Not all of Keaton’s talkies are unwatchable-FREE AND EASY has moments but it is too long, Keaton is made the “comic relief” in his own film (!) and they are obviously building up Robert Montgomery and Anita Page at his expense-but I have a soft spot in my heart for parts of SPEAK EASILY and THE SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK. However, you can notice his physical deterioration as the films progress, due to the drinking and his own indifference to the work. Skip DOUGHBOYS and WHAT! NO BEER?-both of which are just leaden and the latter Keaton looks almost dissipated.

Another point on Keaton’s box office grosses (silent vs. sound): all but his last silents were released by Loews, the parent company of MGM, with the last three by United Artists, which did not have the massive distribution that MGM had, so that probably would account for the dropoff in the grosses between the two groups. Also, the silents would have rolled out on a more gradual basis than the talkies, since the production costs had increased with sound, the studio would have made more prints and had a broader release pattern to increase revenue. While MGM was the biggest studio, they actually had fewer theaters than Paramount, Warners or Fox (the ones they had, in many cases were the biggest ones in the big cities) but due to block booking could “package” a season’s worth of films with the biggest stars and hit not only the major cities but also smaller ones, which had a tendency to prefer the Metro films to many of the other studios titles because of the former’s targeting the middle-brow audiences rather than the urban, intellectual group as much. Keaton’s talkies are more “rural” than the silents, which might account for their more popular appeal than the masterpieces we now know.

Posted By chris : January 3, 2011 5:09 pm

Good article. I don’t think physical comedy will ever go away. No matter how times change, a good piece of slapstick will still make ‘em laugh. (Not saying it’s good or bad) the Jackass tv show and movies are nothing but slapstick with absolutely no context and they do well. Then, there’s the recent success of The Hangover with its slapstick with context.
If anything, I think the Marx Brothers were the right thing at the right time, a perfect blend of verbal and physical humor.

Posted By chris : January 3, 2011 5:09 pm

Good article. I don’t think physical comedy will ever go away. No matter how times change, a good piece of slapstick will still make ‘em laugh. (Not saying it’s good or bad) the Jackass tv show and movies are nothing but slapstick with absolutely no context and they do well. Then, there’s the recent success of The Hangover with its slapstick with context.
If anything, I think the Marx Brothers were the right thing at the right time, a perfect blend of verbal and physical humor.

Posted By What Killed Silent Comedy? | ThinkWing Radio with Mike Honig : January 4, 2011 3:38 pm

[...] On MovieMorlocks.com (accessed from Turner Classic Movies’ TCM.com), I ran across an interesting discussion entitled, “Did Groucho kill Harpo?“ [...]

Posted By What Killed Silent Comedy? | ThinkWing Radio with Mike Honig : January 4, 2011 3:38 pm

[...] On MovieMorlocks.com (accessed from Turner Classic Movies’ TCM.com), I ran across an interesting discussion entitled, “Did Groucho kill Harpo?“ [...]

Posted By Doug Bentin : January 7, 2011 5:33 pm

I don’t think we can overlook the fact that sound itself could be funny. In the earliest days of sound comedy the filmmakers who best understood that were the guy making cartoons and Stan Laurel, who tried hard to create sound gags that worked as well as his sight gags always had. I heard somewhere that he was the first gagman to hit someone on the head with a piece of metal with the result being the sound of a hammer smacking an anvil. Just watch him and Ollie singing “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in “Way Out West” to see how he could make a sound gag work as well as a silent one.

Posted By Doug Bentin : January 7, 2011 5:33 pm

I don’t think we can overlook the fact that sound itself could be funny. In the earliest days of sound comedy the filmmakers who best understood that were the guy making cartoons and Stan Laurel, who tried hard to create sound gags that worked as well as his sight gags always had. I heard somewhere that he was the first gagman to hit someone on the head with a piece of metal with the result being the sound of a hammer smacking an anvil. Just watch him and Ollie singing “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in “Way Out West” to see how he could make a sound gag work as well as a silent one.

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