Monday, April 9, 2012

On the Shoulders of Giants: The Oblivious Gag (or, Channeling Harold Lloyd)

[post 260]

Installment #2

Picasso once said, "good artists borrow, great artists steal."

No he didn't. Or if he did, he probably stole it from T.S. Elliot, who supposedly said the same thing about poets.

Supposedly, because what he really wrote was: "One of the surest tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion."

Ditto physical comedians. Depending on how you look at it, they either avail themselves of a time-honored tradition of gags and techniques — or they "steal" like crazy. As Joe Killian and I used to joke about a bit we liked: "Consider it stolen!"

But as the two Toms (Stearns and Leabhart) said, it tain't what ya do, it's da way dat ya do it. Wit dat in mind, we get to have a little fun standing on the shoulders of that physical comedy giant, Harold Lloyd.... and in this case those shoulders are high off the ground.

While many of the gags seen in silent film comedy can be traced to the variety stage, taking a movie camera outdoors and letting it follow the action opened up new possibilities, the car chase being an obvious example. But the camera could also track vertically, taking advantage of that era's skyscraper boom to create thrills formerly reserved to displays of high-wire walking in the town square.

[ASIDE #1: Native Americans, specifically Mohawks, were used in large numbers in the building of the early skyscrapers. They gained a reputation for "walking iron" and were credited with superior balance and no fear of heights. Likewise, my friend Pat Judd, who like me has a bit of Cherokee blood, comments "let's hear it for my Cherokee / Choctaw ancestors who stood on top of the Mackinac Bridge arches when no one else wanted to go up there to finish that expansion project!" In more modern times, Mohawks were heavily involved in the construction of the World Trade Center. Go here and here and here for more on this cultural phenomenon and listen to this NPR All Things Considered report.]

[ASIDE #2:  Georges Mélies did a 74-second rooftop action film more than two decades earlier in 1897, Sur les Toits (On the Roof), but it's shot on a stage set and is pretty lame. Likewise Alice Guy's rooftop chase, Les Cambrioleurs (The Burglars) from 1898.]

Camera angles and other tricks ensured that enough of these stunts were less dangerous than they seemed. Note, for example, the absence of high-angle shots that would reveal any safety precautions. All this made possible a whole new genre of thrill comedy, with Harold Lloyd climbing to and dangling from that clock in Safety Last being the most iconic example. But this piece is not about Safety Last, but rather another Lloyd skyscraper sequence — and above all his refinement of what I am hereby dubbing the "oblivious gag."

Left: Lloyd in Safety Last;
Right: Safety mattress for Lloyd's Feet First 

First, however, a few popular photographs showing the public's fascination with this dangerous new world being created in the skies above them.

The Waldorf (1930)

You've probably seen this well-known Lunch Atop A Skyscraper by Charles Ebbets, taken in 1932:

But this Smithsonian exhibit on the Mohawk says the year is 1928 and that the photo was taken by Lewis Hine. Hmm... anyway, the caption does identify several Mohawk ironworkers.

And a current photo from the One World Trade Center construction:

Back in the day, they didn't just pose for pictures up there, they did entire acrobatic acts. Here's a video of the same guys from the photo above:

Even more spectacular is this clip of the vaudeville acrobat Joseph Späh, who performed his daredevil drunk act under the name of "Ben Dova" (get it?). This is from 1933, a bit after Lloyd's heyday, but I suspect Späh was not the first to be doing stunts like this.

Lloyd didn't invent aerial movie thrills, but he had the foresight to see the comic potential and the talent to take advantage of it. As one Lloyd title card reads, "In a Certain City, each crowded skyscraper holds a budding romance." An early example of this is in High and Dizzy, his 1920 short. [Note that this is a decade before the above photos.] Harold, a new doctor in love with a new sleepwalking patient, somehow manages to find himself on the same hotel ledge as her. At this point in the story, she has already taken one oblivious stroll on the ledge.

Notice that the sleepwalking mindset even carries over to Harold, who is so concerned with the girl that he is out the window and walking along the ledge before he realizes where he is and can even register fear. He continues this theme a year later in Never Weakenhis last short film and favorite 3-reeler. In this one, Harold has of course gotten his facts wrong, mistakenly assuming he's lost the love of his life to a tall, handsome stranger. Suicide is the only option. Blindfolded, he soon finds himself skywalking without realizing it, and again gets his facts wrong, thinking he's in heaven.

Lloyd sure knew how to get the most out of a gag. I love that the oblivious theme is reprised at the end of the sequence, with him on the ground, frightened out of his mind.

If this skywalking sequence looks familiar to you, that's because it's been replicated many times, with and without the "oblivious" aspect. An early case in point is from Liberty (1929), a late silent film by Laurel & Hardy. This is not bad, but they don't do anything new with it, so please don't feel obligated to watch all 11 minutes. I just include it to make my point!

Not surprisingly, this comic business shows up in numerous cartoons — much easier to draw than to stage! — but of course the thrill is not quite the same. First up is A Dream Walking, a Popeye cartoon from 1934.

And then there's this sequence from Bugs Bunny's Homeless Hare (1950).

A character who was totally unmindful became the trademark of Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus), star of animated movies and a long-running tv show. Near-sighted in the extreme, Magoo stumbles through a hostile environment unaware of the perils he is skirting. The opening titles to his Saturday morning tv series capture this m.o. pretty well, and include the kind of high-elevation gags popularized by Lloyd:

Babies are also liable to be unaware of grave dangers, thus Tot Watchers, a Tom & Jerry cartoon in which our heroes save a baby from — you guessed it — yet another construction site.

And we come full circle, from cartoon back to live action, with the otherwise forgettable Baby's Day Out (1994), in which the incompetent bad guys learn that kidnapping is not as easy as it's cracked up to be. Again with the construction site!

The Oblivious Gag
So we actually have two things going on here. One is simply the thrill comedy of the skyscraper, interesting enough in its own right. But more significant because it's more useful to your average feet-on-the-ground comedy creator is this particular genre of gag that could take place anywhere and only depends on our comic hero being spectacularly unaware and even more spectacularly lucky. And for my money, it's usually funnier if the unawareness is more of a (comic) character flaw than being simply caused by sleepwalking or blindness.

While your classic gag structure relies on some initial unawareness on the character's part, he or she usually pays the price and we get to see their reaction to the outcome. We see the banana peel, they don't. They slip, they fall, they react, we laugh. Conventional wisdom has it that this is funnier if the character is wearing a top hat, or at least acting haughty, because the greater the assumed dignity, the more satisfying the fall.

With the oblivious gag, there is no price to pay and the joke is that such characters have no idea how close they have come to harm. With no payoff required, structurally it's more likely to be a running gag rather than a three-parter.

Sometimes they eventually learn — cue the double-take — but sometimes they are never the wiser. Peter Handke wrote a play called The Ride Across Lake Constance and, if memory serves, the title references a folk expression meaning "you just escaped great danger without even knowing it." A man walks across frozen Lake Constance. When he successfully reaches the other side he is informed that the ice is too thin to support human weight. He immediately dies of a heart attack. Thus the saying, "you took a ride across Lake Constance."

Another expression tells us it's better to be lucky than good, and that's certainly true of our old friend Harold Lloyd in the aptly titled Why Worry? (1923). A hypochondriac millionaire, he is seeking peace and quiet in what he thinks is a quaint island paradise, only to find himself in the middle of a revolution — not that he notices:

Buster Keaton's The General (1926) features an army reject who becomes a war hero through a combination of courage, resourcefulness, and plain luck. The intertwining of several oblivious gags over the course of the movie makes the sum greater than the parts and shows why Keaton's storytelling so often rose to the level of art. Here's a short example in which Keaton, infiltrating behind enemy lines, is so busy with firewood that he fails to notice two entire armies passing by. If you're going to be oblivious, might as well go big with it!

And here his inability to get control over his pesky sword pays off big time:

In some of these scenarios, we do eventually get to see the character's reaction to a rather perplexing reality. In another short sequence from The General, Keaton is trying to derail a box car that is impeding his progress. His first reaction comes when he discovers that it has somehow gotten back on the track; his second, when it magically disappears. Both are to be savored!

In more recent times, the Peter Sellers character of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies solves every crime thanks to incredible luck and despite being oblivious to pretty much everything going on around him. In this selection from A Shot in the Dark (1964), our inspector's charmed life is not even mildly ruffled by multiple assassination attempts. [Spoiler Alert: the would-be assassin turns out to be his boss, Chief Inspector Dreyfus, seen berating him at the end.]

And of course we love Clouseau and root for him no matter what!

Thanks to Ben Model, Drew Richardson, Riley Kellogg, and Jeff Seal for their suggestions for this article.

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