Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Report: "Silent Comedy" by Paul Merton

[post 224]

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 is, first of all, a good writer! The problem I have with most historical works is that they're too thorough. I know the impulse: you've done all that research, naturally you don't want it to go to waste — "I suffered for my art; now it's your turn!" — but the result is more info than the reader needs. You can't see the forest for the trees. Merton's chronicle is full of fascinating tidbits and anecdotes, but he marshalls those facts to make a point. They all contribute juice to the narrative flow and actually tell us something significant about the performer. The result is a rich and entertaining read, 329 mass-paperback pages, though obviously you'll get a lot more out of it if you can view some of the films he's talking about, easy enough with YouTube and a basic DVD collection. Think of it as a companion volume to the actual movies.

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 BowersInstead 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.


Chris Michael said...

I can highly recommend this too. If you can get access to clips of the films he is talking about it is extremely helpful.

David Carlyon said...

Great posts, John. I enjoy your focus on silent film comedy, a special treat in this post on Merton and your earlier one highlighting two terrific movies, and putting them in a broader context, with interesting links and recommendations. Nicely done.

One thought though, about laughter as proof. You quote Merton referring to the loud laughter at silent film presentations, and you made the same point in your earlier post. In general I agree that laughs are good. They’re good as part of our human connection, and good as indicators of the quality of a comic performance.

Yet you’ve been a clown. You know some laughs don’t ring true. Maybe it’s friends laughing extra hard to be supportive, or people forcing a laugh because they know it’s supposed to be funny. But it’s not the genuine physical sound of spontaneous response.

The same thing happens at silent comedies. Some of the laughter sounds tinny, betraying a determination to SEEM amused. Some people even cackle at the comedian’s first appearance on screen, before he’s done anything, much less any comic thing. Then and through the movie, they laugh to prove they get it, or to encourage others, or to be noticed for their appreciation.

Of course people are entitled to respond however they want. And laughs can build and be contagious, a lovely social glue bringing us together. But pushing the hilarity at silent movies often does the reverse, killing the real laughs.

jt said...

Hmm, I wonder if this is more true at a live silent film presentation than at, say, a stand-up comedy show. At the latter, hosts constantly tell us how great and funny and popular the next comedian is, how many big-name venues they've played, strongly implying that it will be hip of us to dig him or her. When they're done, we're instructed to "give it up for them" one more time. That seems a lot more forced to me. On the other hand, there's no doubt some truth to your observation: silent film fans (myself obviously included) tend to be evangelical, warriors for what sometimes seems to be a lost cause. We don't just want the movie to succeed, we're rooting for the entire genre. That being said, my experience at these events is that the vast majority of the laughter is indeed spontaneous combustion. This doesn't happen with all such films, but does pretty consistently with the best ones. —jt

David Carlyon said...

John, you’re absolutely right that the “encouragement” at stand-up shows is more forced. For that matter, circuses do the same thing, seeking applause for every trick of every act.

But the tinny laughs I’m talking about at silent films are different. It’s not so much that they’re forced by an MC, as they’re self-forced. That is, people read — or children hear from their parents — that this stuff is hilarious so they push their laughter to show that they’re getting it. Though the films were originally popular, they’re now an esoteric taste, which means that proving you appreciate such rarified stuff provides cultural status.

I agree that most of the laughs at presentations are spontaneous, and I share your feeling that much of this stuff is great. I adore Keaton, applaud Chaplin, and am warming to Lloyd. But urging people to see them is one thing. It’s entirely different when people push their laughs during the movie. It’s phony laughter, drawing attention to itself and away from the screen. Worse, as I wrote before, it kills other laughs. Someone guffawing at a mildly amusing bit is like the blowhard at a bar, squelching shared feelings than encouraging them.

I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better for those of us who love Keaton and Chaplin to pretend to be indifferent for a decade or two, so would-be sophisticates will move on to other fun, and a new generation of children can grow into their own responses to silent comedy, without being preached to that they SHOULD be laughing.

David Carlyon said...

Aha! An example of what I'm discussing just popped on the Comedy for Animators website. <>

It's a video of Joel Jeske in his Goth Comedian character. Beginning with his back to the audience, he does a slow turn to face forward. It's a set-up to establish the character. Nothing funny so far.

But at 32 seconds, a woman laughs. Perhaps she's thinking that she's seeing a clown and so she should laugh. Or maybe she knows Jeske and wants to be nice, encouraging him. But it ain't funny, and her laugh ain't real, i.e., not spontaneous. At some level close to consciousness, she's signaling that she's enjoying herself. This "laugh" fades, and ends in a falling tone at 38 seconds, a kind of verbal shrug to signal she's spent from such hilarity.

THEN at 40 seconds, Jeske's hand falls off. It's a surprising and funny moment, and gets spontaneous laughs.

To my ear, it's a clear difference between fake and real laughter.

jt said...

In general I think your thesis has validity, but there's no way we can know why a particular anonymous person in the audience is laughing. It didn't sound forced to me, and it's certainly possible (likely, even) that she was laughing at Joel's eccentric appearance/persona. I know that I laugh at all kinds of odd things in a performance. Some things just strike me funnier than they do others. Murky territory.