“Why are they all ugly little men?” asked Cindy, after I’d dragged her to three solid weeks of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, and Harold Lloyd at a silent film comedy festival, back in those dim, dim days before the invention of home video.
Well, if you hang around women long enough, sooner or later you’re going to get more truth than you can handle.1 But why were they all ugly little men? And what was their secret? Today, we watch films like Birth of a Nation, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Mark of Zorro, The Sheik, and Metropolis because they’re a part of film history. We watch The Gold Rush and The General because they’re funny.
Modern DVD technology gives us greater access to the work of these men than ever before. Virtually the entire work of Chaplin and Keaton is available to us, in restoration that ranges from good to superb. Harry Langdon, far less known, is represented by a single DVD, offering three of his feature films. Harold Lloyd, whose fame was once almost equal to Chaplin’s, isn’t featured on DVD at all, although that may soon change.2
If the human race is still around five hundred years from now, which is looking less and less like a sure thing these days, it wouldn’t surprise me if their image of “Twentieth-Century Cinema” consisted of a single figure, Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin was the first great mass media star in history. He was loved as no man had ever been loved before. Remarkably, his hunger to receive love was fully as great as the public’s desire to give it. Unlike Elvis Presley, probably his single greatest rival, Chaplin was not destroyed by his success, at least not until he was an old man. From the very first, he seems to have felt himself to be a great artist, destined to command a great audience. In the first flush of fame, when virtually anything he appeared in would be a hit, he spent more on his two reelers than other directors did on feature films.3
Most of the films that first put Chaplin in the public eye, the 37 one- and two-reelers he cranked out for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios4 in 1914, aren’t available to us. Keystone regarded movies as ephemera. When a film’s original prints wore out, after about eight weeks, the film was forgotten. Negatives were usually saved, to be raided for material for future shorts.5
In Mabel’s Married Life (1914),6 one of the few Keystones that is available, we see immediately why Chaplin captured the country’s imagination. Other performers, when they make an entrance, run to the center of the stage,7 look directly at the audience and then roll their eyes and wave their arms in strange, exaggerated, repetitive gestures meant to convey what? Fear? Happiness? Anger? The audience has no idea.
Chaplin does not rush to center stage. While he sometimes looks at the audience, he does not make a practice of this. His gestures are quick and restrained rather than exaggerated. He does not repeat them. Instead, he tells a story, with glances, expressions, and body language all working as one.8
Mabel’s Married Life is a frenzied, slapstick farce, built almost entirely around manic flirtation and aggression.9 If one took this film seriously, one would assume that in 1914 America married couples did nothing except pursue extramarital affairs.
Chaplin started at Keystone making $150 a week. He switched to Essanay12 in 1915, getting a raise to $1,250 a week (A year later, at Mutual, he would be making $12,000 a week).13 Essanay gave Chaplin much of the control he wanted over his films, although he furious that they insisted on billing him as “Charlie Chaplin.” “Charlie,” he felt, was undignified.14 The Charlie of these films is virtually a walking id, furiously aggressive, flirting with every woman in sight and knocking down every man he meets,15 and it was this Charlie that first made him famous. All over the world, people saw this delicate, fierce, friendless little man as their second self, the person they really were inside.
Chaplin took Edna with him when he moved to Mutual Studios in 1916, where he turned out a series of twelve two-reelers known to history as “the Chaplin Mutuals.” These films, including The Rink, The Cure, One A.M., and above all, Easy Street, are among the funniest and most famous short films ever made. However, it is The Vagabond that gives us the fullest taste of the “tragic Charlie,” the “infinitely sensitive, infinitely suffering thing,” that would bewitch audiences in his great feature-length films, like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1935).
Buster Keaton would not have cared for Cindy’s reference to him as “an ugly little man.” Photos of Keaton off the set in his glory days reveal a man who thought of himself not merely as handsome but beautiful. Keaton’s taste ran to expensive sport clothes, favoring in particular tight, vee-neck polo shirts to show off his physique, anticipating the “Gene Kelly” look by two decades.
Keaton broke into pictures in 1917, working with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle,18 who had worked with Chaplin at Keystone. Two recent DVDs from Kino International contain ten of their two-reelers and give a good sample of the frenetic slapstick that entertained America back in those simple times.19
Keaton, unlike Chaplin, was fascinated by the techniques of movie-making. Like Harold Lloyd, he made “big” pictures filled with spectacular stunts that showed off his superb athletic abilities.21 Chaplin, on the other hand, used his great fame to focus the audience’s attention almost entirely on himself. Beginning with The Kid in 1921, he seemed to deliberately retreat into the world of stage and music hall. Most of Chaplin’s features have a staginess that seems at least half-deliberate.22
Amazingly, The General was not a success at the box office, and Keaton’s next two films, College and Steamboat Bill, Jr., also lost money. Keaton lost the artistic control of his films that he had previously enjoyed, and his last two silent features, The Camera Man and Spite Marriage, were made under contract for MGM. Unfortunately for the auteur theory, they’re both extremely funny, particularly Spite Marriage. Both films are set in New York and have a “Roaring Twenties” flavor lacking in Keaton’s other films.
Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon were all perennial misfits who, even when they triumphed, never really became part of society. Harold Lloyd, however, was the bourgeois comedian – the little guy who would do anything to impress the boys at the Rotary Club. Harold Lloyd had moxie. He had pep. He had spunk, and he had spirit. He had everything a successful American man was supposed to have. It was just that he was short and skinny and wore horned-rimmed glasses.24)
Lloyd was as much a striver off-screen as on. He made dozens of unfunny films ripping off Charlie Chaplin (the insufferable “Lonesome Luke” series that began in 1915) before developing his own persona. He was very proud of making more money than Chaplin, which he did in large part by making so many more films than Chaplin did.25 Lloyd was, in fact, one of the richest men in Hollywood during the twenties, and his huge estate was used for shots requiring a backdrop suggesting limitless wealth.
According to contemporaries, Harry Langdon slowed comedy down. Langdon didn’t enter films until 1923, when he was almost forty. He’d been a headliner in vaudeville for almost twenty years, doing a single act, “Harry’s New Car.” Langdon’s baby-faced on-screen persona was the most passive of the silent comics. Chaplin struggled first to dominate the world and then, in his later comedies, to find a soul as noble and as innocent as his own; Keaton sought to impose rational order on a world that seemed to lack it; Harold Lloyd wanted acceptance and success; Harry Langdon simply wanted to survive.
Seen today, Langdon’s best shorts hold up better than his best features.26 His personality was so passive and unchanging that he needed a tight script to get consistent laughs. Still, Langdon’s best work, like A Saturday Afternoon, is very good.
Why Were They All Ugly Little Men?
The world of silent film comedy was an inverted world, a world in which everyone acted out as furiously as we in the real world repress. It was a world in which the little man defeated the big, the ugly defeated the handsome, and the poor defeated the rich. And who among us does not feel that the world treats him as little, ugly, and poor, and who does not dream of turning the tables? The silent clowns were urged on by just these demons, and used their careers to make their fantasies come true.
All four of the silent clowns were innocent, but the quality of their innocence varied. The early Chaplin had the innocence of a two-year old, an unchained id that amuses solely because it lacks the physical strength to enforce its will. In his later films he transformed himself into a holy fool, although satyr’s horns still lurked beneath his derby’s crown.27 Keaton had more than a hint of the idiot savant in his make-up, while Langdon was so obviously a case of arrested development that he gives people the creeps even today.28 Harold Lloyd was the only one of the four who was capable of growing up, though when he did so he of course lost all his charm.
The Death of Slapstick
Why did slapstick die with silent film? The talkies hurt slapstick by making films more real. Mack Sennett started the tradition of “undercranking” comedies to speed up the action.29 In an undercranked world, objects seem to lack mass, and violence loses its brutality. A punch in the nose is an insult, not an injury. Sound films had to be shot and projected in real time, making the frenetic chases, fights, and pratfalls that made up so much of silent film comedy seem earthbound, painful, and unfunny. Both Chaplin and Keaton also relied on the silents’ “quick time” to make their physical dexterity seem almost superhuman. Thought and action, separate for the rest of us, were one with them. The real time of the talkies made them prisoners of gravity, just like everyone else.
Neither Keaton nor Lloyd went gently into that good night. Keaton, facing a variety of personal devils, including a collapsing marriage and alcoholism, simply needed the money. Lloyd liked being a superstar. Both made a number of features in the early sound era, but neither achieved anything resembling their former success. Performance is a very intuitive process, and if you’ve made it to the top it’s very hard to change, even if you want to.30
Chaplin, with his unique popularity, was able to stretch his transition from silents to talkies over a decade and completed one successful talking film, The Great Dictator. His remaining talkies were sabotaged more by his gigantic ego than any problems with the new medium.
More Than You Want?
All of the films that Chaplin made for Essanay are available on three DVDs from Image Entertainment. Volume 2 contains His Regeneration, in which Chaplin only has a cameo, and Volume 3 contains Police and Triple Trouble, which the studio pieced together from footage that Chaplin shot for “Life,” a never-finished feature. Image also offers three DVDs that cover all of Chaplin’s work for Mutual studios, two that cover all of his work for First National (including The Kid), and a single DVD that contains Mabel’s Married Life and Tillie’s Punctured Romance. All are well-restored, with lots of extra materials. Image has also released all of Chaplin’s feature films individually. “Budget” Chaplin compilations are usually not worth the money. Kino International has released all 10 features Buster Keaton did before going to MGM, along with a total of 19 shorts. There are 10 discs available individually, plus a complete set with a bonus disc of home movies, television appearances, etc. Keaton’s last two silent features, The Camera Man and Spite Marriage, are only available on VHS. The two-reelers that Keaton did with Fatty Arbuckle are available on two DVDs from Kino.
Three Harry Langdon features, The Strong Man, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, and Long Pants, are available on a single DVD from Kino.
Restored versions of Harold Lloyd’s feature films are now appearing on the TCM cable channel. Presumably, they will be released on DVD sometime in the near future.
Laurel and Hardy’s silent films are available on a nine-volume series, called The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy, although these films have never been lost. The discs are padded out with numerous shorts that feature either Stan or Ollie or neither.
There is an excellent website devoted to silent film at www.silentera.com/
- See “Reasons for Movie Ratings” at www.filmratings.com. [↩]
- Lloyd isn’t available because his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, who seems to have inherited Grandpa’s way with a dollar, has gained control of his films and intends to release them in a suitable (and, one presumes, suitably profitable) manner. For more on Harold, and Suzanne, go tohttp://www.haroldlloyd.com/. [↩]
- Chaplin shot more film to make The Cure (1917) than D. W. Griffith did to make The Birth of a Nation (1915). And it was worth it. [↩]
- Sennett, one of the many Canadians to make a living by making Americans laugh, founded his Keystone Studios in 1908 and is regarded as the father of film comedy, although in fact he was much influenced by the Frenchman Max Linder (as was Chaplin), who started making film in 1905. Sennett’s Keystone Kops and Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties, once world famous, are pretty much forgotten now. [↩]
- Ironically, it was Chaplin’s enormous success that first made Keystone realize that its library was valuable. According to restorers, some of the Chaplin Keystones simply can’t be recovered. Others are in bad shape and also aren’t very funny. [↩]
- This film, made in 1914 like all of Chaplin’s pictures with Sennett, is the first to list him as director. He shares the screenwriting credit with Mabel Normand, who was already a star when Chaplin arrived, as well as Sennett’s mistress. Normand was one of the first stars to fall victim to cocaine. [↩]
- Even though many scenes were shot outdoors, early silent films have very much the look of filmed stage plays. Birth of a Nation, which established much of the basic film vocabulary, did not appear until 1915, and it took another five years for its lessons to sink in. [↩]
- The great Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa once said that actor Toshiro Mifune could register an emotion in five feet of film while another actor took eight. Chaplin could probably do it in one foot. [↩]
- Charlie and Mabel are married in the film, though you’d scarcely know it. Mabel, alone in the park, is set upon by massive Mack Swain. When Charlie proves unable to defend her virtue, Mabel enlists Mack’s wife (Alice Howell), who pounds some sense into the big fellow. Eleven years later, Chaplin would make Swain immortal by featuring him as “Big Jim” in The Gold Rush. [↩]
- Shortly after Tillie’s Punctured Romance was made, Dressler’s career went into eclipse, apparently because she championed an actors union. She re-emerged as a film star in the late twenties, and was very successful in early talkies, winning an Oscar in Min and Bill (1930) opposite Wallace Beery and had a memorable exchange with Jean Harlow at the end of the all-star Dinner at Eight (1933). [↩]
- Chaplin nevertheless wrote his half-brother Sidney that he “hogged the picture.” [↩]
- Essanay stood for “S and A,” George K. Spoor and “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the first western star. Broncho Billy was born Max Aronson, but changed his name, suspecting that America wasn’t quite ready for a Jew in the saddle, a belief that may have been fostered by his experiences growing up in Pine Bluffs, Arkansas. [↩]
- Scarcely more than a year after Chaplin starting making films, there was a thriving “Charlie Chaplin” industry, which manufactured Charlie Chaplin statuettes, postcards, ashtrays, label pins, balloons, and, of course, Charlie Chaplin squirt rings (O America!). [↩]
- Chaplin always identified himself as “Charles Chaplin” in the credits. [↩]
- Chaplin spends a lot of time literally kicking ass. When he gets an opponent down, he usually walks on him as well. In his early films, Chaplin was so agile he could throw himself forward on his hands and kick his opponent in the face. [↩]
- Chaplin took his heroines much more seriously than other comedians did. Keaton sometimes played the heroine for laughs, as in The General. His beloved Annabelle Lee (Marjorie Mack) is a perfect airhead (she’s also very funny). For Lloyd, the heroine was always the sweetest little gal in the whole world. It was always difficult to imagine why a woman would want to mate with Harry Langdon. [↩]
- According to those who worked with him, Chaplin as director would act out each character’s part and then say “Now, you do it.” Some actors felt that working with Chaplin was the greatest privilege in the world. Others hated him. [↩]
- Arbuckle’s career was destroyed in the infamous “Fatty Arbuckle rape case.” Arbuckle was charged with murdering a young woman, causing her bladder to rupture by raping her with a champagne bottle. In fact, the woman had had an abortion (illegal, of course, at that time), which had injured her bladder. Apparently, she passed out from drinking too much champagne at a party held by Arbuckle, and her bladder ruptured. (The “party” was little more than a one-man orgy featuring Fatty and half a dozen naked whores.) The jury found Arbuckle innocent, but he was out of pictures for a decade and never regained his popularity. [↩]
- In Good Night, Nurse, available on Volume 2, Fatty’s despairing wife takes him to a hospital that promises to cure alcoholism through an operation. (Exactly which body part must be removed is never specified.) Dr. Buster greets them fresh from the operating room, his gown drenched with blood and a huge knife in his hand. Not all of these films are gems, but Keaton fanatics will want both DVDs because they show a very young Buster at the height of his athleticism, hurling his body through space with an almost unbelievable disregard for his own safety. [↩]
- His first feature, The Saphead, is not funny and has perhaps the worst plot I’ve ever seen. The Saphead was a huge hit on Broadway, starring Douglas Fairbanks, who recommended that Keaton get the lead for the film version. [↩]
- As anyone who has seen his films knows, Keaton was fascinated by boats and trains and featured them endlessly in his work. [↩]
- The Circus (1928) more or less disproves my theory, so please ignore it. [↩]
- Keaton never tried to reach audience’s emotions the way that Chaplin did, although Buster’s isolation, due to his entire lack of social skills, could become a little terrifying at times. Chaplin wanted his audiences to feel his suffering, when the Tramp is separated from Jackie in The Kid, for example, or when he waits agonizingly for a sign of approval from the blind girl at the end of City Lights. [↩]
- It is remarkable that, eighty years after Lloyd starting making features, nothing says “loser” like a pair of horn-rims. Steve Urkel (actor Jaleel White on the TV show Family Matters) is the most recent example, and one of the few continuing characters since Lloyd to wear glasses at all. (The others are Robert Q. Lewis and Woody Allen, who always go together in my mind. [↩]
- Chaplin released three features during the twenties, while Lloyd made thirteen. [↩]
- Long Pants, in which a youthful Harry falls in love with a “snow” queen (Alma Bennett), is the best of the three feature-length films available. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926) is famous in part because Harry’s leading lady is Joan Crawford. Vegetarians should be warned that the film contains a shot of an entire half-steer on a spit at a barbecue, a truly awesome sight. [↩]
- See, for example, his “mad scene” near the beginning of Modern Times. [↩]
- Compare Keaton with Dustin Hoffman in The Rain Man and Langdon with Andy Kauffman. [↩]
- Early film cameras were handcranked. Chaplin said that he timed his performances to the rhythm of the camera. Cameras could also be overcranked to provide slow motion, although not to the degree that they can today. The “correct speed” for silent comedies has been an endless source of debate. The new DVD releases address this problem with elaborate care. [↩]
- Because of the need to avoid any unwanted sounds on the soundtrack, shooting a sound film was a much more complicated, and much more expensive, process than shooting a silent. Lloyd complained that sound films took away all the opportunities for improvisation and spontaneity. [↩]
- Laurel also borrowed very heavily from Langdon’s baby-like innocence. In his early films without Hardy, Laurel tended to be an unfunny wiseguy, without a real character. It took the partnership with Hardy to slow him down and release his genius. [↩]
- Laurel was the “idea” man of the two and deserves most of the credit. But Ollie took most of the pratfalls. [↩]