Thoughts On: A Night At The Opera (1935), Our Hospitality (1923) & City Lights (1931)
Three films from the most iconic comedic figures in cinematic history.
The first 50-odd years of comedy films are an incredibly intriguing, though largely extinct, form of cinema. They differ from the modern day cinema, and the modern day comedy film, in innumerable ways. But, if we take a brief look at 3 examples of comedy from around the 20s and 30s from some of the most iconic comedians of all time, we can explore some of the elements of movie-making that have been more or less lost.
If we start with A Night At The Opera, we come to my favourite Marx Brothers movie. The Marx’s form of comedy is one pretty unique to the early 30s as they seemingly played a notable part in the evolution of sound cinema in the Hollywood mainstream. In bringing what was essentially vaudeville and Broadway theatre into the cinema, the Marxes represented a new wave of comedy in an epoch that even the likes of Chaplin didn’t really thrive in. They were some of the first major comedians to then incorporate hilarity into their style of cinema through dialogue and sound effects. We see this through the constant quips and puns, or the endless verbal tirades Groucho would go on – and often at the expense of the oblivious or shocked-beyond-belief Margaret Dumont (who arguably made their comedy quartet a quintet). It was then Groucho, most iconic of the Marx brothers, who seemed to embody the lessons cinema had to learn from the stage in the 30s; he had timing, he had subtlety and he knew how to fill a soundtrack. And, as much as the Marx brothers films are a good ear bashing, they are also a chaotic, yet welcoming, symphony in comparison to most early 30s sound movies. The majority of the early talkies, as good as they may have been, almost all have very sketchy sound designs that are rife with long, awkward pauses. Just like the musical taught filmmakers to fill this space up, and to use silence effectively, Groucho Marx then seems to offer similar lessons to comedians.
However, looking beyond their place in film history, what the Marx represent most starkly is the reoccurring character that has not only become a rarity in modern cinema, but is something perceived to be negative or unfortunate for an actor who can only play variations of one character. It took the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx years and countless hours making films and plays to fully understand their on-stage or on-camera presence, and once they secured this character, they very rarely deviated from it. In such, Keaton was the stone-faced clown; he was usually a romantic hero, yet the smallest man in his films. He then faced his conflicts without a hint of exaggerated emotion. He was the stoic, pratfalling stunt man in a meticulously designed world. With Chaplin, we have a figure that needs very little explanation: the little tramp. The tramp, in his early incarnations could be a disgusting, rude and rather malicious character. But, over time, he evolved to be the bumbling romantic; a coarse and defiant shell easily pierced and ever easier to love. When we come to the Marx bros, we come to the hardest characters to explain. Whilst they have distinct features – Groucho the dirty blabber-mouth, Chico the relentless annoyance, Harpo his silent, deep-pocketed accomplice and Zeppo the straight man or the romantic attraction – the Marx brothers should be best defined by pure chaos. Whatever their caricatures were, their soul purpose seemed to be to exude calamity and pandemonium wherever they stepped.
Whilst much more could be said about all of these archetypal caricatures that all supersede the names of the Marxes, Chaplin and Keaton, what they all represent is the reoccurring character that we don’t seem to accept outside of sequels in the modern day. These three figures all seemed to stem from the birth of cinema with repetition being the star of the earliest movies. For example, companies were often the sellers of Kinetoscope and Nickelodeon shows. Edison’s Manufacturing Company is one of the greatest examples of this, but there is also Méliès who was the famed cinema magician. This focus on companies would soon shift over solely to the screen performers once they began to receive on-screen credits after 1912. Audiences were then no longer going to see an Edison short, the cine-magician, and nor were they going to the “Biograph girl”, rather, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford or, indeed, Charlie Chaplin. This attraction to a star becomes all the more literal through our figures today: Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx Bros. They didn’t just make many movies, but of course made many as the same characters – something that plainly doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe we could attribute the downfall of this practice to the advent television, but there was something unique and in no way like television about the approach to story that these figures had. There was no sense of a series, no chronology in the lives of their characters – nothing to indicate that The General had anything to do with The Cameraman, The Kid With City Lights or Duck Soup with Monkey Business. Without explanation, the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and The Marxes broke the illusion of a cinematic story with the artifice of their characters (who were essentially centre-pieces that stories formed around), and this worked.
When we question why and how this could be, we could of course turn back to the idea that audiences were looking for the same characters, but, when we look to Buster Keaton for instance, it’s clear that there is also a unique form of spectacle that overshadows this simple notion. Within Our Hospitality, Keaton puts on display one of the most defining performances of his character. Because the drama is atypically heavy in this short with murderous family feuds being the basic premise of the story, Keaton pushes his bumbling stoic archetype to its extreme. In all of his films, Keaton puts and/or finds himself in terrible relationships with either family or, more often, women, who do not respect him, nor give him any reason to stick around. This is incredibly true of Our Hospitality. No matter how love-struck a man is after a few hours of knowing a girl, it is doubtful that he would dodge bullets from a well-established familial enemy as to see her again. Nonetheless, this is what Keaton does in this film. As haphazard as he is stoic, he becomes the spectacle of a heroic clown by committing himself to a silent agreement made between the audience and himself to maintain and stay within the bounds of his own genre.
This idea of an individual’s genre rings true with Chaplin and the Marxes too. Each of these figures not only drew audiences, but they provided them with unique conventions. This meant that audiences didn’t just want to see the same performer play the same character, but the same character play in a new section of an already familiar and understood world. What Keaton then comes to symbolise is the differentiating manner in which the give-and-take of cinematic comedy functions.
Comedy does have, and has always had, elements of originality and predictability in tension. With Keaton, the predictability was in the plot of his films, yet, the originality would largely lie in the action and the gags. Knowing this, coincidence was a huge force in his stories. Coincidence allowed Keaton to manage the fact that we could predict something was going to happen – say for instance, in Our Hospitality, we know the Canfield brothers are going to try, but fail, to shoot him – yet also provide an original twist. A good example of this would be the waterfall gag in Our Hospitality. Here Keaton uses an elaborate set of coincidental happenings coinciding to provide a unique joke with a predictable outcome in the plot: he goes to fish at the same time in which a dam is being destroyed and he is being hunted, but, just as the Canfield’s pass, the surge of water cascades over the falls above him to act as a curtain that shields him from his passing foes.
Understanding the function of coincidence in Keaton’s films paints a perfect picture of how he, and other silent comedians, would engage audiences, giving them what they wanted, but in a way they couldn’t have imagined. And it’s seemingly this engagement that lies at the heart of what made the one-trick pony silent clowns so prolific and successful.
It is through Chaplin that we find the last element of classical comedies that simply doesn’t exist in the cinema of today. Chaplin, whilst many compare him to Keaton, was a very different on-screen persona. In my view, Chaplin was a storyteller and Keaton was a filmmaker; Chaplin focused on story and character whilst Keaton played with the form of his movies and the elaborate design of his sets and stunt set-pieces. When we then look to a film such as City Lights, which is arguably Chaplin’s greatest film, we see one of the best projections of his Little Tramp. Naive, romantic and destined for a rocky road towards his dreams, the Tramp encapsulates the poetic beauty of the mime as a vacuum for empathy. Without spoken words, Chaplin leads us towards his final shot – which is one of the greatest in all of cinema – having used the power of pure cinema to ask ourselves to step into his character’s shoes and feel for him. This is what made Chaplin such a unique storyteller. Whilst we are invited to feel the physical pain, and maybe a little of the heart break, of many slapstick characters, no comedian has us feel emotional torment like Chaplin does. He, and nobody has done this before or since, put a heart in the shell of his archetype and made us bear its beating, feeling every skipped beat and palpitation.
When we begin to amalgamate the Marx bros, Chaplin and Keaton into three representatives of a lost cinema, we can see its virtues to be the manner in which the predicable was balanced with originality whilst an audience was given all they hoped for and more from figures they’ve fallen in love with on their cinema screens. There is so much more that could be noted about the key characteristics of early comedy, but I’ll leave this to be a topic you ponder upon. So, what are your thoughts on how comedy has changed over the ages?
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