Dwight Macdonald on film; Silent comedy: American art form, part 1
Now finally their last unique quality of this. Forum is that it's the one kind of movie that was not only invented in America but also was never done with success anywhere else. Griffith did invent the serious feature film as we now. But of course that was taken up by the Germans and Russians. But the gem going to Russians in the 20s anyway I didn't seem to go in very much for humor. Well I suppose it was for political reasons and neither country was that much to laugh about really. So we not only invented it but also there was nothing comparable to it in the history of cinema. And as we will see light is seitan efforts to imitate the effects of this kind of slapstick comedy are not very successful right out of the house. You are listening to Dwight McDonald on film. During the past
decade Mr. McDonald has been perhaps the senior critic among American film critics and during this past year he was distinguished visiting professor of film history and criticism at the University of Texas. These programs were drawn from that lecture series the topic for this program is the silent comedy an American art form. Park run that now once again here is right. McDonald now run it all began in this county with not thought of that you probably know. Who. Nineteen fourteen I began to make one with comedies and. The Senate was the set of the Aga lef of this particular form of. His own comedy the famous and the the Keystone Kops and the scent of baiting. And he also had some extremely good movie comedians Mabel Normand charming lovely
creature Fatty Arbuckle got into certain trouble and. Was in fact excluded from the films I think unjustly. Max Wayne Bent Taipan the one with the cost Chester Conklin with the mustache and the. Set of a cop type and John these are the lesser known ones. And of course the two bright ones both began their careers with the Senate. Namely Keaton and Chaplin. And then it was also in this same school of silent comedies in America Howie Langdon. Whose movie The strong man is a lovely thing. Now is man a fact seems to have been on the scene of Fellini's wife who was certainly imitating Howie Langdon. I prefer lying than actually but. I mean she was a combination of Chaplin and Langdon and the critics all praised her for this reason. I think this is just why her poem was one so good. Then it was how Lloyd Finally don't think of it in
any way. He was a different kind of comedy really he had a lot as I all did but he was the brash aggressive young Philistine executive business type on the way up. I think he was the least interesting of these comedians but still he was pretty good. Now are these classic as we might call them silent movie comedies in America were unique in several ways first of all they were the most cinematic of all movie genre's simply because the effects could not be gotten in any other medium. Combination of realism an odd officiality which is characteristic of the cinema in general in which I talked about last time. In connection with Eisenstein's the Russian silent films. I sometimes tend their district the way out this peculiar combination is carried. Even father I think in these comedies than it was by the Russians. Now I surrealism they were mostly taken outdoors and the photography looks like really old newsreels as you'll see.
Also they took full advantage of the ability of the movies to show the profusion of material objects and industrial civilization. For instance use of the side Geiger is really is highly complicated industrial operation you might almost call it. Getting its results from the interaction directed with severe logic towards the projected end the interaction of many component parts which often machines themself. To best feature movies. The general and the navigator of those two movies are respectably actually a locomotive in the case of the general on a steam boat in the case of the Navigator and Keaton himself and is frozen face and jerky movements might be said to resemble a human machine. A recent French comedian Jacques Tati. Some of those comedies you may have seen. Who loves holiday and
something about my uncle. Anyway I tot he has a direct image of Keaton except whereas I think Keaton is just kind of neurotic in his deafness. I think tawny becomes psychotic and catatonic in fact. And I think we had a llama and I don't think he is very funny. Now on the artificiality part of it are stylization. They've also gone extremely far off. You think of the ballet for instance when you see chaplain's pantomime. Or for that matter Keaton's acrobatics and cops as he dodges hundreds of policeman running after him all of the theatre of depression which is extremely formalized as you know. Talk about conventions. The chase for instance that is the climax of many of these silent comedies and for very good reasons. Very good to stick in topical reasons was a great and obvious discovery by Mack Sennett and it's become just as stylized as they see
it now. Secondly another characteristic of these comedies is. That they are very obvious in one sense and of another sense they're very sophisticated. Their homemade products you might say the people who began to make them the least scent of Keaton and Chaplin they all came out of broad avail. And I really had no idea that they were making anything artistic across any more than a lot of a performer who had any such idea. And I would begin by sitting around and thinking up some comic situation. And the simpler the situation the better such as for instance I cop who was both tempered and resourceful. And who uses cleverness and guile to get the better of all the tough customers on his beat. And this of course is a description roughly of the theme of Chaplin's famous easy street light motif of these comedies is the outwitting of force and a foul by weak
but clever people the hero is not Ajax or Achilles but Ulysses the man of many wisdoms of many devices. Ulysses the first intellectual the face pacifist in fact. You know the story about how he tried to escape being conscripted for the Trojan War he pretended to be mad. And he plowed the sandy beach by the sea shore where nothing would grow but even more clever apprising whose name was unknown to me at least who showed that he was faking by putting his infant baby in the path of the plough and Ulysses. Plowed around it so that he was forced to go off to war at least as one of the legends. James Joyce you now the reason that he is the central figure of his great work was it to him Ulysses was the hero of the villain because Joyce also was a pacifist and an intellectual. And that
making Blume the middle class Jewish advertising salesman into Ulysses was one of the great stocks I think of. Modern literature. Well anyway after deciding on the situation sadder than his crew began to think up psych gags and hit a Joe on them long experience and. Vaudeville. Them out of Same with something to make the audience laugh. Now often the gags were crude and just sort of slung together anyhow and the result wasn't funny. You mustn't think you know that all these comedies are funny this is what happens of course in. History of any odd and especially critical history. Now there is a mess in places like powers in New York there's a whole group of sophisticated moviegoers. Who think automatically any old comedy is funny. But this is not the case. Many of them are not very funny fans I think all that custard pie throwing is not terribly funny. And also I often
senselessly pile up in a chaotic y physical violence and mayhem is not funny in itself. But often also it all came together into a form of a rhythm of its own. And with just enough detail on the screen to put it over the main point and no extraneous decoration and the result was OT. You'll notice in these films of Keaton fans and. I mean if somebody is putting poison into a glass why he holds up a bottle with a huge white label on it says poison. So you get the point right away but he doesn't do anything he just gives you enough to make his point and this is one of the qualities of an art form. And also in the case of Keaton and Chaplin and props of Langdon to some extent that I not only have all the virtues of a comedy but but each of them invented a specific individual character for himself that was consistent throughout all their films. And it also was interacting and even moving as a human type. And this raised it into the level of poetry I think.
Now thirdly the last unique quality of this form is that it's the one kind of movie that was not only invented in America but also was never done with success anywhere else. Griffith did invent the serious feature film as we now. But of course that was taken up by the Germans and Russians. But the JEM going to Russians in the 20s anyway I didn't seem to go in very much for humor. Well I suppose it was for political reasons and neither country was that much to laugh about really. So we not only invented it but also there was nothing comparable to it in the history of cinema. And as we will see later efforts to imitate the effects of this kind of slapstick comedy of recent years such as been made mostly in France and to some extent in this country by the makers bothers you the hills will talk about that later. Not very successful. Now the mechanical aspect and
also why I don't mention a sense of a comedy is logic. This is something that's been forgotten and recent years especially by the pony Richardson and the meekest brothers. I thought I would read from much the best it's ever been written on these comedies and in fact I think one of the greatest essays ever been any aspect of the movies. When you consider the level of most of the stuff that's been written but any why is James Agee's comedies greatest which you probably read yourself but I just thought I would read what he has to say about Keith. He says Buster Keaton started what I could do I just feel in a half with his powers and one of the roughest acts in Vaudeville the three kittens in fact what he did at the age of three and a half was that he was a human projectile his parents. Used to follow him around either through the sea and they are even into the audience and he joins with the comeback and so on and he was called Buster because DENI apparently called him Buster because they admired the way he could take falls. Very early in his movie career.
Friends asked him why you never smiled on a screen. He didn't realize he didn't. Got the deadpan habit and variety. On a screen he had merely been so hot it like it had never occurred to him there was anything to smile about. He was by his home just so much the most deeply silent of the silent comedians that even a smile was a definitely out of key as a yell and he does smile every now and then but not often in a while his pictures are like a transcendent. Juggling Act in which it seems that the whole universe is an exquisite fly in motion and the one point of repose is the juggler's effortless on an arrested face Keaton's face ranked almost with Lincolns as an early American archetype. It was haunting a handsome almost beautiful yet it was ever there was a big funny improve matters by topping it off with a deadly hat as flattened as a phonograph record. Keating was a wonderfully resourceful inventor of mechanistic
gags as he ran afoul of locomotive steam ships prefabricated and other electrified houses. He put himself through some of the hottest and covers punishment ever designed for laughs. In Sherlock Jr. drawing along on the handlebars of a motorcycle quite unaware he has lost his driver. Keaton whips through city traffic backs up a tug of war gets a shovel full of dirt in the face from each of a long line of Rockette time ditch diggers as he goes by them. Approaches a rock at a high speed with his hands up and by dynamite precisely soon enough to let him through and hitting an obstruction. Leave the handlebars like an arrow leaving a bow Wham's to the window of a shack in which the one is about to be violated and hits the heavy feet face knocking into the opposite wall. The whole sequence is clean and motion as a project to have a bullet. Well now just on this film hit the question of realism. Pretty obvious things. From the photography muscling things
made in movies like this these kind of comedies that you've got a much more somehow real sense of American small town life 19 15 to 19 25 than you do in a serious more serious films. I mean all the detail I think very well done I guess went to the place and shot them they didn't even build very many sets. And then on the other hand the whole conventional pot the formal official plot was just one little example that I told you they all began from vaudeville Chaplin and sound of the Keaton. And you know there's a home there's a home language gesture a sort of conventionalized gestures that are all fences when he slipped on a banana peel you know well that for all it took 20 years of life in vaudeville to develop a farm like that you know I mean his feet shoot out from under me goes packet had over he lands on a shell as it hits his legs up and that fall is OT. Same way you can't walk past a locomotive in a
comedy without a gush of steam coming out of the scholar you know and then you grab a city a passenger jump up and so on. And you can't pass a want to either cause on any system without getting to the loo. I mean this is all like this is all this kind of thing was a cross is gone now. You see at the time the audiences must have been accustomed to this and would have felt very badly if these things hadn't been done. And I was across the plot of the film that I think is absolutely charming fascinating and. So I've never seen anything like it is the cause. His dream which occupies most of the last. High a moment of absolute lunacy in that I'm sure this was not done self-consciously and he hadn't seen Cocteau I have a height of surveillance or more as a man like that but is that business when he said he jumps to the stomach of the old lady and her on escapes the guy if that's all you just does it that's all. So it's done.
When he lives up this elaborate business of Skype ing from the gags as before that when he had that circular hoop with address insider you dive through a window and emerges as an old lady all dressed in a dress that's all perfectly possible is just ingenious but then I simply leave the side of the house all off. When I show you the action immediately leading up to it. First time I saw it I didn't notice it this time to my amazement. The whole side of the house was off so that you see him preparing to jump through the window as well as landing outside of the window. Now doing things like this you say shows a complete freedom in the use of the medium which I think is the essence of using any. And it's extraordinary how little of this kind of thing has been done. You see the movies are a private vehicle for this kind of magic. It's very rarely done except of course and consciously survivalist films. She writes about not in this essay but in another one he says is not one of his funniest pictures
Roger was not one of the funniest. None of his full length films were I don't agree with him about that. I think they some of them were. But it's about 100 times as funny as anything made today. This was written about nineteen forty five and some of the houses yards and streets are even while being photographed in was usual in the old comedies. I would side I think that we really created poetry in this country it is about commas I think that they were as good poetry as Whitman as we produced. In fact most serious films even good ones are rather prosaic compared to the fantasy of this sort of thing and the style the intensification that you get which is calculus of poetry. And what a charming and wonderful idea to make the medium itself. They subjects of the cinema. One of the beauties of that last half of Sherlock Jr. is that it's all in terms of the medium you say. That probably is why that Keaton felt so extremely free and using the medium
because it's about a movie projectionist who dreams and then he actually steps into this way not just as something that is very act a mob of reminding someone of eight and a half and this that creators are often at that best when they are dealing with their own medium as the subject matter as well as the medium. And then the ending is that he sees that all the children on the screen and then as a father are appalled at the fact that he's won the girl. And then the cops you know how in the world could you ever end a movie like that gets all the cops in the whole city into the Playstation and locks them up and try. And how can you top it stop. Well what happens is his dad then comes along and he proudly greets you and he will have none of them. So that he has to unlock that thing and then he's grabbed by the cops. This is out of a lemon peel in the martini you might say I mean these kind of you see this is another thing that you can't and the comedy really on a positive note you've got to end it in some such
way as that. These comedies of kittens are private definitions of Bragg's famous remarks in a little book on a lap that is famous analysis of what makes us laugh which he said was essentially. Something mechanical grafted on to the living. And by this he meant the contrast between the automatism of the now obsessed person. And the variety of life that Moxon defeats his efforts to fit life into his obsession. An obvious example is done quick sit. Another one as Molly as our staff unease. Fantastic philosophers in the clouds. Examples of the same thing. Something that mechanical grafted on to the living that's the essential of what makes you laugh. And because Keaton is literally uses machines all the time. And also as I said before he himself is a machine. But not affine is. Generated by the fact that he is not quite as good a machine as the machines that he's carping with. So he's always
one lap behind them. Just as Francis Chaplin in that great sequence in modern times. When he gets involved first without feeding machine which feeds him forcibly and then when he becomes himself a machine you know he has these tighten up not so much on a summary line that he finally gets. Doing this all the time he can't stop it. I mean there's another example of this. Contest with the machine. In the current issue of sight and sound the British Film Institute Quarterly which by the way is probably the most interesting and best serious magazine on the movies published now. Anyway they have a hour long thing on Buster Keaton. This is an interview done with him at Venice last fall a few months before his death. The interviewer says the most impressive thing about all the features you might do in the 20s is that distinctive visual style. They all have a kind of look which one associates with a Keaton
film. How did you work with your various call directors to achieve this who actually did want and Keaton's that. Number one I was practically my own producer on all those silent pictures. I used to act on some but the majority I did alone and I cut them all myself I got all my own pictures and then. The interviewer says How did you find your gags did you get them from the stat things in the decor and so on. And he said yes the props and characters everything. There's nothing right and this applies to Tony Richardson of the beloved one and two. What's new pussycat. And two dozen other ghastly attempts at humor on the screen now. He says there is nothing worse with us than a misplaced gag. Someone might suggest a good guy or even an excellent one. But if it doesn't fit the story I'm doing. And I try to drag it in that it looks dragged in on the screen. So it's much better the save until some time when it does but what I'm doing. Simple idea
but this is the why that an artist works. As I've said before about the loved one. One of the main problems with that as with his other films including Tom Jones. Is that he cannot resist any effect at any time so he throws everything in but his keeper who was a simple unsophisticated guy compared to riches and anyway. Keaton realizes this and that's one of the reasons of Keaton's comedies are good. Question isat is your usual method was a site with a story and then look for the guys. Where did you begin with a film like The general the general is that the Civil War film involving the adventures of a Southern patriot with a locomotive. He's trying to avoid the northern forces and save the south. And that's Keaton and Keaton's as I took that first page out of the history book. Disney did it about nine years ago and called it the great locomotive chase. But he made a mistake and told it from a northerners standpoint and you can always make villains out of the Northerners
but you cannot make a villain out of the south that is a mistake you made. I mean you can't make a villain out of the South of course is that the South lost the war so you can get out of south now on race relations but not on civil war. And then on show like JR there's a very interesting exchange that questionis says. He would often use guys which couldn't be managed except in films and a question like Journey was full of that. Fans of the scene and shot of JR where you're doing yourself into the picture and it seem he keeps changing and how did you get the idea of this thing. Because this is the great thing about the movie and Keaton says that was the reason for making the whole picture. That long episode which is almost a half an hour just that one situation that a motion picture projectionist in the pit it goes to sleep and visualizes himself getting mixed up with the characters on a screen. All right then my job was to transform those characters on a screen into my projectionists characters
at home and then I've got my plot and you know because that's what happened. The father and the girl and the villainous Wyvil take part in the society drama that is padded on a screen. To make it right was another thing and after that picture was made every camera man in Hollywood spent more than one night watching it and trying to figure out just how we got some of those scenes. He doesn't really answer the question you say he was really an unconscious. Maker of films in a general sense. He was the only major comedian who kept sentiment almost entirely out of his way and what physical comedy to his greatest heights beneath his lack of emotion he was also on insistently sadhana deep below that given a disturbing tension and graduate to the foolishness for those who sensed that that wasn't as comedy a freezing was but not of pathos but of melancholy with the humor of the craftsmanship and the action that was often besides a fine still and sometimes dreamlike beauty.
Much of the Civil War picture of the general is within hailing distance of Matthew Brady and there was a ghostly unforgettable moment in the navigator when on a deserted softly rolling ship all the piled doors along a deck swing open as one behind Keaton and as one slam a shot and I have a you know illusion of noise. If any of you sing that is one of the greatest things in movies. Perhaps because dry eye comedy is so much more rare an odd than dry wit. There are people who never much care for Keaton. Those who do not care mildly. And I'm one of those who do in fact come to think in the last few years after seeing most of these great many of Keaton films I've come to think that actually that he's been very much of a write it up until recently and I find it a great many people agree with me in other words the chaplain of course was as great as he ever was but he wasn't so much better if he was at all better than Keaton. They were simply great and
different ways. You can't compare them as pantomime as I mean Chaplin obviously is infinitely more varied and arresting and he saw that. But the what Keating does in his best comedy is to make a use of the medium in a much broader fuller why than Chaplin ever did because he brings in the background completely in Chaplin it really is essentially this clown and pound of Mama's but in the film like the navigator the general and Sherlock. In these films all of the whole physical world is really put into motion and the most genius Miss Stanley is one of a way and I think it's the structure of his film The timing broadening out so to speak of the focus of his comedy which I think makes them comparable to Chaplin. You have been listening to Dwight McDonald on film and this program Mr. McDonald discussed the silent comedy and American art
- Dwight Macdonald on film
- Producing Organization
- University of Texas
- KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- The Silent Comedy: An American Art Form, Part I.
- Other Description
- Series of lectures by Dwight Macdonald on film: its makers, its history, its future.
- Film and Television
- Media type
Announcer: Miller, Phil
Producer: Jordan, Bill
Producing Organization: University of Texas
Producing Organization: KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
Speaker: Macdonald, Dwight
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 67-16-4 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- MLA: “Dwight Macdonald on film; Silent comedy: American art form, part 1.” 1967-03-31. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 17, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-vt1gp97j>.
- APA: Dwight Macdonald on film; Silent comedy: American art form, part 1. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-vt1gp97j