There are a ton of books about silent film comedy, many of them excellent, but they're not written by performers. Paul Merton, author of Silent Comedy, is on the other hand a popular British comedian — mostly improv and stand-up, rarely silent —with a love for the heyday of slapstick. He has even done several lecture tours on the subject, bringing screenings with live music to theatre festivals and other venues throughout the U.K. In the past two years he has produced two documentaries on early film (not just comedy) for television: Paul Merton's Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema (BBC Bristol, 2010) and The Birth of Hollywood (BBC2, 2011). He has also done an interactive presentation on early British film comedy for the British Film Institute, which you can view online here.
Merton chooses to limit his study to Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Laurel & Hardy. He is dismissive of Harry Langdon; other comedians such as Fatty Arbuckle and Charley Chase play only minor roles, and there's no mention at all of Lupino Lane or Charley Bowers. Instead of separate sections on each comedian, the approach is chronological, which might sound boring and unimaginative, but isn't because he switches back and forth between these powerhouses every year or two to show how they continually tried to outdo one another. This works very well, bringing fresh insights into their working methods; for example, how Lloyd's success with the thrill comedy Safety Last spurred Keaton and Chaplin to create similar moments in Three Ages and The Gold Rush, respectively.
As a performer, Merton is always thinking from a performer's point of view, getting inside their heads better than most silent film historians. To his credit, he notices what stunts are real, and very much appreciates the virtuoso skill and hours and hours of practice required. However, not being a physical performer, he's not as sharply attuned to physical comedy vocabulary. It does not occur to him, for example, that the topmounter in the running 4-high in the elopement scene from Keaton's Neighbors is — in most of the shots — very likely a rag-doll dummy, and not Virginia Fox.
________________________"Slapstick comedy has a format, but it is hard to detect in its early stages unless you are one of those who can create it. The unexpected was our staple product, the unusual our object, and the unique was the ideal we were always hoping to achieve." — Buster Keaton
As much as he admires the creativity of this golden age of cinema, Merton is not afraid to address its uglier aspects, specifically negative racial and gender stereotypes widely prevalent in those days. But he is also quick to point out progress made during the 20s in both areas, for example in Keaton 's The Paleface (1922) and The Cameraman (1928).
|Keaton and Chaplin in Limelight (1952)|
With his successful silent film tours offering solid evidence, Merton is bully on the appeal of silent film comedy when presented in the right circumstances, a point I was emphasizing in my recent Revenge of the Silents post. Here are just a couple of examples Merton offers:
In January 2007 at the Colston Hall, Bristol, I presented Steamboat Bill Junior to over 1,500 people on a big screen with superb musical accompaniment from Neil Brand and Gunther Buchwald. The house front falling towards Buster is a tiny moment in a cyclone sequence that runs for nearly fifteen minutes, but when the stunt happened the audience cheered and applauded spontaneously. A few days after this ecstatic response I heard the playwright Mark Ravenhill extolling the virtues of Steamboat Bill Junior on a BBC Radio 4 arts programme. I seem to remember that he had seen the film on a big screen at an open-air festival many years before.
The other people in the studio, who sounded like professional critics, had each been given a DVD of the film to take home and watch. Their verdict was unanimous: it simply wasn't funny because in their view humour dates very quickly, and black and white silent comedy couldn't be more dated if it tried. How could they get it so wrong? Well, watching a silent film on a small television screen with inappropriate music as accompaniment can destroy the magic. It's easy to see nothing….
Laurel and Hardy's last silent film release before their first talkie has often been considered their best ever. I've watched Big Business more than thirty times with a live audience, and the responses have been remarkably uniform. They always laugh in the same places with the same regular rhythm. Stan and Leo [Mc Carey] previewed their films in exactly the same way as Harold, Buster and Charlie, and the films were recut according to the audiences' reactions. That's one of the reasons they still work so well today.
A page from Merton's book, above, and a few more short selections below....
He [Keaton] was always proud that he didn't use a stuntman. Larry Semon's films are chockfull of stuntmen all pretending to be him, but it was Buster's belief that stuntmen didn't fall in a comical way.
[NOTE: Keaton did have a stuntman pole-vault into the dorm window for him in College, which I believe was the only time he was doubled, at least in the silent era. —jt]
The tiresomely idiotic debate on Keaton versus Chaplin is, in my experience, overwhelmingly used by proponents of Buster to attempt to rubbish Charlie… It’s an appealing mind-set for some people, who say: "We’ve all heard that Charlie Chaplin was meant to be the greatest comedian in the world, but my preference for Buster Keaton demonstrates my ability to think for myself. Chaplin was overly sentimental, but Keaton’s coolness and cynical eye chime exactly with our Modern Times...." Well, the good news is that they are both fantastic. There’s no need to choose between them. Enjoy them both! That’s one of the main aims in my book. I shall examine the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, not in isolation, as has been the usual practice, but showing how they influenced each other in a creative rivalry that also featured Harold Lloyd. This rivalry and desire to make better and better comedies ensured a stream of high-quality pictures. Great works of art were created.
As much as he [Keaton] liked Roscoe [Arbuckle], he was trying to get away from unmotivated slapstick. In all the years they worked together, the only disagreement Buster had with Roscoe was over Roscoe's assertion that the average mental age of an audience was twelve and that you should pitch your comedy at that level.
As for Paul Merton the comic, he is hardly silent, known instead for his surreal rants, often delivered dead pan, though he denies mimicking the Great Stone Face, Buster Keaton: "It comes from one of the first things I did as a stand-up in the early 80s called A Policeman on Acid, which was basically this policeman recounting in court the time someone gave him some acid and describing his trip. And I realized then it was much funnier if the policeman himself didn't find anything he was saying funny, so the deadpan approach came from there, and I suppose that kind of set a style. I wasn't deliberately copying Keaton at that point."
Here's the clip:
Merton is returning to touring his own comedy in 2012 in a "night of sketches, music, magic, variety, and dancing girls (two of them aren’t girls)." Click here for more information.