— by JASON EAKEN —
Recently, my friend Tyler Smith, co-host of the great film podcast “Battleship Pretension,” organized a silent comedy night, and I realized just how limited my viewing had been.
I’d seen “The General” and “Modern Times,” as well as Buster Keaton’s “7 Chances” and an assortment of his short films. I’d seen “The Great Dictator,” which is Chaplin, but not silent (though it retains much silent comedy). I knew of Harold Lloyd, but hadn’t seen any of his films.
It can be difficult to motivate people to watch silent films, comedy or otherwise; even for film lovers, the task can seem daunting. With a group night organized around the idea, it’s both easier to be motivated and more enjoyable for initial viewings. Comedy is better in a crowd.
Our schedule was set. We began with Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman,” moved on to Keaton’s “Sherlock, Jr.,” then Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” and finished (the next day) with Keaton’s “7 Chances,” upon my request. It’s these three men, though — Lloyd, Keaton, Chaplin — who are the three, nearly undisputed kings of silent comedy. Within the trio, the most popular was Chaplin, but all three have plenty of supporters and among film lovers, the debate is sure to be endless, though this piece will contribute its two cents as well.
What is indisputable is that all three had distinct, amazing talent and timing. These are great comic actors. They were contemporaries, just as today we have numerous comedic troupes, of sorts, in Judd Apatow and David Wain and Jody Hill and Edgar Wright and Todd Phillips, and all of their unique comedic sensibilities.
And while there are great physical moments in each of those writer/directors’ films, their weapon of choice is their great dialogue, which is not the strength of any of the silents. The closest thing to silent comedy I’ve seen in the past few years — and this was noted when it came out, even — is Pixar’s “Wall*E,” with its beautiful, wordless opening sequence and the way Wall*E himself had to communicate multitudes in limited, subtle facial expressions.
There is a clear hierarchy, though, for the silent trio. Lloyd is on the bottom, which is not at all to suggest that he is bad. There is a recurring gag in “The Freshman,” in which he does a little dance each time he meets someone new (check it out below), and the gag is so silly and disarming, it never wears itself out.
Lloyd is at the bottom simply because he does the least. He acts, where both Keaton and Chaplin also write and direct their films. It shows. Lloyd is very funny, but his comedy does not seem quite as organic as the other two, in the way it seems to flow effortlessly from them.
Chaplin is the next tier. Bound to his romantic whimsy and his little mustache, Chaplin’s comedy is more about sweetness than all-out hilarity. This is not a criticism, especially if you are looking for a kind-hearted comedy. He excels at using a singular setting for endless comedic opportunities.
But there can be only one king, and it is Buster Keaton. Where he leaves the rest behind is in his construction of a comedic sequence.
In the underrated “7 Chances,” which I am told he didn’t really want to make, the film builds for about 30 minutes with small bits of comedy in the midst of the plot. But then, all at once, the elements he’s set in motion combine and explode and he is propelled headlong into a non-stop, 20-plus minute comedic action set-piece, which culminates with him running down the side of a mountain as hundreds of boulders come hurtling after him, as he tries to escape an angry mob of women, all dressed as brides. The camera cranes high above him, showing the full measure of the situation, and it stays on him longer than you’d ever expect.
He operates on a scale so far beyond anything I’ve seen from Chaplin or Lloyd. In “Sherlock, Jr.” (made the year before) he combines that great physical aspect with his love of cinema (see clip below, beginning around the one-minute mark or so).
Consider what he is doing, first visually: the way the shot is composed as a frame within a frame so that we assume we’re seeing a regular shot of a movie theater. Then, he confounds our expectations of a movie screen and editing and continuity. Look how long that shot is used and how often. Keaton, in this sequence, combines technical, visual, and comedic elements to create something that awes us as much as it amuses us. “Sherlock Jr.” contains, essentially, a film within a film, except that the film-within-the-film is as long as the rest of the film. Keaton is the best because he is the best storyteller. He takes chances, he understands tone, he incorporates the movies themselves as an element in the fun, and he’s just the most original of the bunch.
If you have not sat down and watched the films of these guys (as I had not, as at some point, all film lovers had not), treat yourself to a healthy dose of all three. You may agree with me, you may not, but regardless, these films are made with such pleasure, and they are pleasing in a way that few things are anymore.
Jason Eaken is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EAKEN.