Posted by David Kalat on May 2, 2015
Up above, that’s a picture of the back of Joan Crawford’s head.
You might be wondering why I think that’s worth looking at, or how I expect to squeeze 1500 words out of it. I happen to think this is a potent and symbolic moment in the history of American screen comedy.
Longtime readers are used to my familiar soapbox rantings by now—I’ve spent most of my time here at TCM’s Movie Morlocks spinning my argument that the transition from silent slapstick to talkie screwball is *not* about the advent of sound. Most historians, if asked to demonstrate why screen comedy changed so radically in the 1930s, would point to a blackface Al Jolson singing his heart out and say, “here, lookit.” Not me. I’m going to point to the back of Joan Crawford’s head. “Here, lookit.”
I’m not saying that the technological transformation wasn’t real, or wasn’t significant. It was clearly a profound shift in Hollywood’s gravity: theaters invested heavily in the new equipment and needed to justify that expense by switching over to showing talkies instead of silents; the sound-recording technology imposed clunky limitations on filmmaking technique; some former movie stars were vexed by how their voices did not fit their screen personas… true, true, true.
But the question I posed isn’t whether The Jazz Singer was a big deal, it was why the decades-long international dominance of silent slapstick suddenly gave out and was replaced by a brand new genre of romantic comedies? If that’s the question, then the whole Jazz Singer thing becomes a noisy variable (see what I did there?). Take it out of the equation—for example, by imaging a world where the advent of sound happened much later, or much earlier—and you’ll see the same transition taking place anyway.
If we want to understand why the dinosaurs died off, let’s start by looking at the dinosaurs. Silent slapstick flourished from basically the dawn of cinema (L’Arroseur arrose, 1897) and throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century. In its purest form, it was a cinematic form that prioritized the “hero” comedian—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd. Their movie adventures were designed as vehicles in which these great men would perform their physical comedy and visual gags. There were exceptions to the rule—lady slapsticians like Alice Howell, or comedians like Sidney Drew who de-emphasized visual comedy. But in the main, when we talk about silent slapstick, we’re talking about a tradition derived from live vaudeville in which a male solo performer would command the attention of his audience by doing funny things with his body.
Harry Langdon entered Hollywood in the mid-1920s, when this format had cohered into formula. He was himself a mature adult, approaching middle age, joining a mature medium. His brand of comedy depended on audience familiarity with the formula—he played off existing audience expectations, specifically by screwing with the timing of familiar jokes and defying genre norms. Langdon was decidedly a second generation screen comic—he exemplified Slapstick 2.0.
Other practitioners of Slapstick 2.0, who similarly made their careers out of playing off variations of what had gone before, included Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and the Three Stooges—comics who are remembered at least as much, if not exclusively—for their work in sound films. To the extent slapstick was going to continue into the 1930s, this was to be its direction. Harry Langdon was the spearhead of the future.
And by 1926, Harry Langdon pretty much owned the screen. His run of short comedies at Mack Sennett’s studio had been an unprecedented hit, and he was fast eclipsing the better established comedians who’d blazed the trail before him. He’d left Sennett (who was more Slapstick 1.0 than Sennett?) to start making feature length pictures for First National, the same studio that ushered Charlie Chaplin from shorts into features. The first of these was to be Tramp, Tramp, Tramp.
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp concerns a cross-country foot race into which Langdon has been improbably and inappropriately registered. He is smitten by a billboard model, and since the foot race is sponsored by the company she advertises, he’s all but compelled to do it.
And the movie therefore conspires to put Langdon face to face with the model. Whereupon he goes into fits of both mental and physical gymnastics trying to work out how his angel can be both on the billboard and standing next to him.
And it’s here that we find Ms. Joan Crawford. She’s only 22 years old—and that’s if we believe her birthdate was in 1904. There’s some controversy about that date, and it’s possible she’s actually still a teenager in 1926. She’s certainly still quite green—she’s little more than a glorified extra at this point in her career. In the years to come, she will become one of the enduring stars of Golden Age Hollywood. But first she has to finish this take.
In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp she has the chance to be the leading lady. That’s a bit of a misuse of the term—she doesn’t get much screen time nor much characterization, since Langdon’s solo act dominates the proceedings, but she will be the top-billed actress in a film by one of Hollywood’s hottest comedians. That’s a career boost no matter how you cut it.
But she cannot get through a single take without giggling uncontrollably. Langdon is going into spasmic fits, and as he does his schtick, Crawford does what everybody in the audience will do—she laughs.
Exasperated and exhausted, director Harry Edwards offers a solution: we don’t have to do this in one take. We’ll frame it so we see Langdon and the back of your head. You can laugh—as long as you hold your head still. Then, when we go to do your close-ups, Harry can go back to his trailer and take a break, and you don’t have to try to keep a straight face while looking at him.
It was a fine solution. But it only worked because the film didn’t require Harry and Joan to actually interact at all. Her character is just a cipher, a prop. You don’t need to see anything but the back of her head. It worked because the movie was about Harry Langdon, and everything else was secondary.
In other words, the real problem was that the strength—and weakness—of the film depended wholly on Langdon. This was the hidden fault line in all classic slapstick. Get a great comedian working at the height of his powers and relatively unfettered creative freedom and you could get a masterpiece. But the added value of great collaborators was always going to be limited. There was a wellspring of talent in Hollywood—they were pouring into the city by the bus load, and some of them were geniuses. The working method and style of the great slapstick auteurs had little use for these talents, whose skills were being wasted.
Or, put another way, Slapstick 2.0 didn’t have much room for women. Go back and take a look at my list above—Langdon, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, the Stooges. It’s not that Hollywood didn’t have any funny women—they just didn’t have much of a place at the slapstick table.
It’s also worth noting that the funny women coming into movies weren’t generally coming from that vaudeville stage tradition that had minted the likes of Harry Langdon. Instead, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, and so on were glamour queens who demonstrated awesome comic chops and started getting opportunities to explore those skills because the filmmakers they worked with saw something special.
For several years now, there was new generation of great comedians who had been rising to prominence as writers and directors, but not necessarily as performers themselves. They made comedies to be enacted by others. These writers and directors had come up the ranks during the Slapstick era—Leo McCarey, Ernst Lubitsch, Gregory La Cava, George Stevens, Frank Capra. They’d seen the old model at work, and they’d mastered it. Now they were building something new.
And that something new would be a more ensemble-based style of comedy, which gave pride of place to these funny ladies. They would be comedies which would derive as much comic pleasure out of how they were written and directed as how they were performed. And put together, these factors means that this new comic form would emphasize social criticism—deriving laughs from how these funny ladies defied social norms.
And Capra? That’s him, standing alongside Harry Edwards, telling poor Joan Crawford to keep her back to the camera. The only reason we even know this story is because Capra told it.
Of course that right there makes it suspect. Capra told many stories about his time with Langdon and few of them were strictly true. The staging of Crawford’s scene with Langdon is perfect as it is—it’s actually tough to imagine a superior setup in which her face would have been visible during the take.
But the fact this anecdote, however exaggerated, stuck with Capra long enough to make it into his memoir means that it says something about Capra, regardless of whether it accurately describes anything about Crawford. And what it says about Capra can be best understood by watching what he did in the years following his break from Langdon.
Roughly ten years later, with It Happened One Night, he’s bottling lightning. The pieces of screwball have been swirling about Hollywood’s orbit for years. In other words, It Happened One Night wasn’t precisely the first screwball comedy, but it makes for an easy to identify moment when all the ingredients appeared in the same recipe.
It isn’t that the new formula emerged fully formed in 1935—more that these ex-Masters of Slapstick had all been rowing in the same direction for several years, and the blockbuster success of It Happened One Night was a very public proof of concept to the new aesthetic.
Capra never directed Crawford in one of these newfangled screwballs, but his use of the likes of Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert shows the lesson learned from Tramp Tramp Tramp: if you’ve got a great actress in your film and all you can think of for her to do is stand with her back to the camera, you’re doing it wrong.
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