Here's a curiosity for you from 1909, years before the Keystone Cops and then Arbuckle, Chaplin, Keaton, et. al. ushered us into the heyday of silent film comedy. Produced by Pathé in France under the title Pickpock ne Craint pas les Entraves (pickpockets fear no barriers), it was released in the U.S. under the title Slippery Jim, with English inter-titles.
The pickpocket in question is arrested by the police, handcuffed, and locked in a cell. For the next eight minutes he repeatedly and nonchalantly proves himself to be a master escape artist thanks to his talent as a contortionist and shape shifter. It's all very clever, but it's all accomplished by camera tricks, specifically stop-action substitution.
The Catalonian director, Segundo de Chomón, had worked with that pioneering French movie magician, Georges Méliès, and the film is full of the same sort of tricks of construction — bodies being assembled from component parts — that hearken back to the days of Joseph Grimaldi.
Some of Chomón's visual effects are remarkably smooth for 1909 (e.g., splitting the cop in half), others quite amateurish (e.g., the aerial bicycle). The unnamed performer seems agile enough — watch him scamper up that water pipe — but since the "physical" comedy is faked, perhaps we should just call this "visual" comedy... or live animation! Still, it's quite watchable, and amusing enough. The original music for the film was composed by Antonio Coppola in 2008.
The Steamroller Gag
At least that's what I call it: the flattening of a living, breathing human being into a pancake. Here's the segment again from Slippery Jim, though here they're flattened by a swinging door.
This was done in live performance earlier than 1909 in a pantomime by the Byrne Brothers, and later became associated with the Ringling Brothers clown, Paul Jung, whose steamroller was powered by clowns walking inside it. Here's the description from my Clowns book (glad I remembered I wrote this!): In Jung's version, the steamroller plows into a clown street cleaner, leaving behind an oilcloth silhouette of him on the ground, flat as a pancake. The cloth victim is placed on a stretcher. A clown policeman tries to arrest the reckless driver and is in turn flattened by the powerful machine. Finally, a dwarf with a false head is struck by the steamroller; his head rolls off and is also flattened.
And here's a variation on the gag from Mel Brooks' 1976 film, Silent Movie. Brooks, Marty Feldman, and Dom DeLuise hope to convince Burt Reynolds to appear in a modern silent movie they're trying to make.
Appendix: Segundo de ChomónFrom the excellent Europa Film Treasures web site:
Directed by Segundo de Chomón, Catalan artist settled in France, this film renews the genre of the effect film, mixing successfully chase films and effects films. Chomón’s imagination is wilder than ever. Chomón makes the most of his rare technical skills in an interminable series of effect films with Julienne Mathieu his spouse for the company Pathé Frères. This Spanish man from Teruel leaves his office job to become a colorist for Georges Méliès. A good part of his career is spent at Pathé’s where he participates in the set up of a system of industrial coloring; the Pathécolor. In 1901, Chomón settles down in Barcelona. He directs numerous documentaries, has a go at animation and effects. Called back by Pathé to Paris, Chomón works as a camera operator on The Goose that laid golden eggs in particular. He directs all in all about forty films and makes an attempt at every genre. Action, laughter, imagination and much madness… As a Pathé advertisement of the day read: “If it’s funny, then we’re sure to go see it !”
Update (12-4-11): Here's an effusive review of the film from Matt Barry, whose Art & Culture of Movies Blog is well worth checking out.