thumbnail of Dwight Macdonald on film; Silent Comedy: American art form, part 2
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
In fact that when you think of a movie like not all holding call What's new pussycat but I'm sure that most of you kids thought was terribly funny. Anyway I did not get one laugh out of that thing I was so depressed that I knew that the thing in it because it tried so hard to be funny out of every one of these world it then forgot this one. You've got to have a straight man. 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 at American art form part 2. And now once again here is Dwight McDonald.
Now I'm going to talk in more general Times about movie comedy and essentially contrasting what we have gotten in the last 10 of years us with what they did in these films one of which you've seen in the silent period. I might say that humor is one of my field because I've got quite a lot of different fields and humor is one of them I was the additive in those of the Yale record at Yale which is the so-called humors magazine which just about a funny as the one you have here is which was very funny that in that I could. But anyway I was the editor. And I've done a volume of Powys which. I am proud of. So I'm especially interested in comedy now I think that there are three general rules for all kinds of comedy. One of them is that comedy is the most formal of the arts. In a sense that it depends on timing. On building to a climax and on the most delicate control of the material and I was just an extremely odd official business. The power docs here is of course a comedy should make you laugh a bit successful. And
it must give an appearance on a contact of spontaneity and Lavina's and so on it once you get the idea that that try to make you laugh then of course you're not going to laugh. Just as you can't tickle yourself it's the same reason. So anyway that's one thing about comedy that's extremely formal and takes a great deal of skill to do it. And the second thing you might say is that at the same time it has to be as I've pointed out that in reality. It's what they call a normative That is the comic writer or the comedian or the comic movie maker or a playwright. Express is the norm of a culture. And what he's making fun of is the fantastic excesses of the absurdity of a culture of life. The point of view of humor is essentially commonsense and what they call Central. That is. The humorist is really they want it says what fools these mortals be that sort of things out. And that sense there has to be a realistic norm against which the Comedy is played if
everything is out point out later. If everything was then in my opinion nothing goes. Now owns on comedies the photography for one thing gives you this real sense and also the types of everyone except the Central who has his own humanity to bother with the people that he conflicts with satirically exaggerated I think this is very interesting what is more prosaic really than a policeman. Well few things really. And yet the Keystone Cops are very funny precisely because a cop is an every day kind of thing. And this stereotype clashes with their wild behavior and when a dozen of these commonplace placement 10 Lizzie and careen down some kind of bravado somehow it's funny because of the contrast it is also a pot it was because of something by the sinister and threatening about a policeman too. So you have another conflict which generates human. And of course is not enough just to be censored because Bunton soldiers would not be funny in the same situation.
And that's because they're locked and out of every day reality. At least I do in most countries and also they're not part of our lives so much on the other hand a fireman or postman would not be very funny in movie comedies because they lack this sinister menacing aspect but again is it Cos Santa didn't figure all this out. Know that in confidence that your wife will find. Another aspect of this reality principle and comedy is this straight man and this is often forgotten in fact that when you think of a movie like an awful thing called What's new pussycat but I'm sure that most of you kids thought was terribly funny. Anyway I did not get one laugh out of that thing I was so depressed that I was after singing it because it tried so hard to be funny and I forgot every one of these rules. It's any forgot this one. You've got to have a straight man. You know a straight man is I suppose don't you I mean it comes in broad about again you know you have a team and one of them is the guy that gives the jokes and the gags in the other one is the father figures in the jobs he's the straight man or a straight woman for that matter. In fact in the
MOX Brothers films one of the things that makes them so extremely funny is Maag with the money because I'm a very elegant and very aristocratic sort of a social climbing lady with extreme dark colored feathers and profiles of all of our works. And the way that she is flabbergasted and yet retain their dignity always by the antics of Groucho and Groucho without. But anyway she's this white woman dead and you have to have that now. Kina causes his own state man is very complicated because he really is playing both pots at once. He doesn't need a sitemap and also at the beginning of shot JR. He props goes on too long this is I think it's mind effect I think the first part the first half goes on too long before you get into the fantasy but I can see why he did it. And I think that should be quite a lot of that sort of thing you see what he wanted to do was to show a privately ordinary
domestic drama in which you have a small town Batman in a small town little hero and a pretty girl and so on. And the more that he builds out up within reason the more. By contrast the fantasy will be accepted. And that's Anyway why that there was so much at the beginning. Now the third thing about comedy I think is that it must be logical. And that's part of it being formal but it must have logic. And here again a pussycat was a private example of something that had no logic whatsoever. And another example of how a load of the hills made by the make us brothers who. Have all the qualities to make a movie comedy except that they don't know it and they about making movies and I don't have a sense of humor but otherwise. But this is the John all of the way to now I mean we're going to that later this business about the so-called American got underground and they were back in cinema this business I was make us boys out of it. Great great publicity guy they got more publicity on no money at all and the
best agent could get them. And that's because they managed to be in. They managed to get this snobbish and premature us out of the film. Not any of them they're very generous they promote all kinds of other bad filmmakers like Andy Warhol and. Markopoulos and so on and so forth. They do have a sort of a union of film I guess. Now. I saw about six or seven American films. About a year ago and I made some notes on them but anyway I'm also certain demonstrations fund them. I found three rules and I was thinking all the time of these old comedies going to the movies I saw how to embody a wife bedtime story kissed me stupid what a way to go and it's a mad mad I would say all the mad world but this really was just an essence and then I go into these one the first one is that humor compared to guerrilla warfare that you have to travel faster than light. You can't elaborate that's one thing.
Second thing is that while the tragic can be unattractive and even repellent I can't say much for how to goblet for instance and as Max Beerbohm once we mock the baths were very bad hosts really probably would be the wife of the rice host in the history of literature. But that's all right but the comic hero has to have some sort of charm an attraction go into that later. And another rule. These are all the more immediate generalisations on the kind of comedies we're making today. Is that comedy is sadistic in that it makes fun of the misfortunes of others. But at the same time it must be removed from reality are they making fun. And so this that aspect becomes a little bit too well too close to the bone really. And it really isn't funny. So in other words it's got to be fast and light these gentle people have to be attractive. And also it has to be not too real really
realistic comedy isn't funny as I try to explain. Now in the first example about running fast and not well how many people are saying it's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Quite a lot of you. Unfortunately for you. But I that's a very interesting proposition because that was a deliberate attempt as you know to say in fact in the first two minutes to recreate this very well the slapstick. Now he made every possible is that all of these rules but this first rule was the one it was the most violated because. As I say comedy should be like a Viet Cong grade. This was more like the Battle of the Somme. I mean the watch on a Cinerama screen and I think it was on like a hundred and five actors or so-called actors had speaking Rosemond as they watch them battering each other with all kinds of planes explosives and other devices for three hours with sound effects. There's just too much to respond to. One of them is to limit this gigantic demagogues on to three out
to what I would call hardcore slapstick. I think that that's a severely limited as a hardcore pornography. I'm for the same reasons because both of them are entirely physical. Slapstick. The physical element prevails and therefore you can't go on by along that way without getting bored. The fact that the Senate comedies for instance only lasted one LEO and then finally got up to two or less. Is I think significant now. Chaplin Langdon and Keaton were able and Lloyd were able to make four like features but that was because of the humanizing aspect of the character that they invented another way they injected a certain humanity into it. It wasn't all just slapstick and the reason that slapping doesn't work for such a length of time. In fact not really much more to the reason that doesn't work is because there was a limited number of primate types and combinations that you can make with custard pies and
physics of runaway automobiles and so on. That's one. But now the point about the attractiveness of the comedy can claim the license of serious drama. It can't be either highly serious or in a loud sense realistic. You can sympathize with the hero of a tragedy but you have to sympathize with the comedian himself in a comedy I mean himself as himself not just in his role. He must be positively a product of the physical grace of a Chaplin know the social grace of a Cary Grant. The poetic and upness of a keaton are aligned and. Also as unattractive as must be tasks so obviously unreal as to be in itself a form of fairytale fantasy like a terrible witch or something NOW example that causes WC Fields who would give us a kick to a child with a great deal of pleasure. But you know he made himself into such a monster that she really couldn't take it very seriously
as a child was rather. Felt differently about it. Now as I think the good thing of while there's an example of a radically unattractive team that played it to lead the two lead male. And in. Fact I don't think anybody less attractive on the screens into the Ritz Brothers than those two. They might be advised by difficult to have that the sympathy among other things about that movie. In the mad world for instance there was several that think well for one thing everybody and it was a crook. While you can say well why not. Well I don't doubt somehow it became a little bit. Too well. They're all just know how to bomb Israel at the end when Spencer Tracy who is posed to be the honest cop and so on when he turns out to be just as good as anybody else. And no I don't think that's. Somehow it seems wrong in comedy anyway and and I'm much wiser not that it was the fact that I had all these aging thaws like Spencer Tracy must be over
60 by now and Duran well over 65 70 years of Milton Berle Ethel Merman Mickey Rooney. And when you see these sort of puffy and elderly have this pride of tag pratfalls and Vanna receiving end of punches and get thrown through windows and everything but it's alright when you do it when you're young and in the Senate days but there's somethin vally awful about that I thought anyway. Now the question about the curious sadism of comedy. The jokes on the other people not on us and we laugh at them. Even when we laugh with Falstaff. For instance we also laugh at him because he has a misfortune to be very fat. In fact Falstaff exemplifies both Tyson who makes fun of other people and the person who was a butt of humor. He says men of all sides take a pride to good at me he explains to his page I'm not only within myself but the cause that wit is in other men. I do here walk before thee like a sow that I have overwhelmed all her litter but one. But there's more
to it than this. In this business of making fun of other people Will Rogers was really expressing a half truth when he says everything is funny so long as it is happening to somebody else. To make us laugh. Sadism has to be disguised. Because if a man who slips on a banana peel if he really injured his spine nobody would find it comic except perhaps the Marquis de sod whose whites are not noted for their humor. Now almost any situation in between it is comedy. Even in fact is that a coup because John the threat of being annihilated by a nuclear bomb. Or even as Billy Wilder showed him what I thought was a musing comedy. Many people don't agree with me almost as only good comedy Some Like It Hot namely one two three. Even the whole question of the relations of the east and west of the Cold War and of the fight in Russia the things that are happening politically to dissidents inside Russia and so on even that can be
funny but has to be made clear by a stylised treatment that we're not in the real world. Because if the team is too realistic it becomes unpleasant and a good example of this is in the contest between whiles one to two out of these in the apartment and this kiss me stupid. One two three. It was deliberately artificial just a succession of tolerable guy I mean some of them quite funny but most of them were pretty bad. And sustained by Cagney as great by power. However they never pretended to be anything more than that. A kind of a Bob Hope show you might say. But an hour in the apartment. I guess I will go to that length of the trouble there is that it got much too realistic and been funny it became rather disgusting the situation and. It's been very much single out as the film that I think is now fact there's some truth in this not not that anything that happens but the situation is a very gamey one to say the least. And to make comedy out of
mutual infidelity and so on and a TON of the whole thing is just a big joke going to make it in this valued Proliant way. You could only have done it if he had kept it completely on a safe that's another comedy should be on the surface of it gets too much below the surface then it gets. That too when you compare these all silent comedies in times of this rule about that it can't be too realistic art becomes painful and unpleasant. They presented abstractions from people not people whose words of a catastrophe were no more distressing than the endless poverty's actions and rebirths of cats and dogs in movie ka toons all as a matter of fact. Some people think that those are painful. I don't know I don't think they are. But some tender hearted people do think so. Because this is a magical world obviously in which nobody really gets hurt but in the Mad Mad World imitation 40 years later is not the magical world these comedians seem to be flesh and blood. And their sufferings are subject to the laws of the real world.
The result of not amusing. Now events is that begins with an old man dying by the roadside after an automobile accident. And the result is not funny even if the man is Jimmy Durante. Even if we got many close ups of his contorted face sweating with pain. That which we do it just isn't funny and also there's an attempt to imitate the kind of catastrophes that happen in films like this when you see a poor negro couple are driving along in a pickup truck with all of that where the goods on the truck. And they get shoved off the road in some way or other and the truck goes heightening out of control in that part of the problems I want and all the beds and everything spell out of it and finally everything is destroyed and then goes head over heels and so on. Now this somehow isn't funny. You know I mean it would be probably in a different context but it's not funny when you have essentially realistic movies. And I mention the power of the hills. That violates the business about robbing the point in all the time. They seem to have this in
making his movie that a lot don't even think that when a man even if his behind is bare I still don't think it's funny when he falls down and fall down in the snow. Once. But they think it's funny if he does it five times I think the fifth time is funnier than the first time. But that's another thing too there's got to be a sudden kind of repetition in comedy since it's extremely formal. You do have a great deal of repetition in fact repetition is one of its main things for instance that scene in the movie the famous dollar bill scene when he finds a dollar bill in the trash and then the two women come up and then the kind that comes up and so on. Now this is repetition of course but it would be funny if just the same type of woman came up every time at all and in fact that was a genius to have the third one be different than a face to. So the repetition has to be varied as well as being repetition. It can't just be senseless going over and over again. The main trouble with a movie like how are the hills off what's new pussy got the main trouble is
that it doesn't have this norm of reality in other words you can't laugh at something unless there's something. They have to be violated in some way. If everything is mechanical if nothing is living then it's been funny or caught in the bags and I sit in this movie of how you know the hills it was a series of incidents which didn't build which didn't build up to anything and which began all over again every 10 minutes so it could have really gone on forever and so I think could What's new pussycat. They desperately tried to have a chase one of the classic chases at the end of What's new pussycat. But somehow it wasn't timed You know that's another thing. The skill with which these comedies were made in a sense of timing which is all important in any form of comedy or any for that matter. You can't just do it by having a lot of people rushing around a little as I did at the end of the West to put it out it's got to be very much. More time than that. Now there's a movie called
The Joker that filling the bucket. Thanks directors made a number of comedies I find his comedies also bad because there isn't any norm there. Anything for a laugh it's like Alice in Wonderland without Alice fences you see the great thing about out of the mind that among other great things about it is that the count of Alice is I completely sensible normal little girl. And in fact without Alice the humor of the other fantastic characters wouldn't come out at all in fact he did I did a thing called Sylvie and Bruno in which the normal characters are not normally thought they were but they are not they're rather sentimental. Stupid really. Images of Victorian childhood and there is no fun in that or you can't read it. But that you have to have Alice in order to have Alice in Wonderland. And this is what is often forgotten. For instance there's a great silent comedy by when I call the Italian store hat made in 1927 in which you have a party of the most solid kind of bush types. And they're
meant to behave like lunatics by the logic of the plot. And each situation develops inevitably out of the preceding situation. Another wide squares comedy is making fun of convention using convention to make fun of it. Whereas the broker simply violates convention which isn't enough. There was another French movie named Zazi about three years ago which had a great reputation abroad and some of the Haitian over here which again is one of these Anything Goes things made by Louis Mahler. His own description is sort of off putting He described it he said that quite a visual is posting absurdities at a rapid clip. It doesn't matter whether the viewer misses out on a few gags if the exuberance generates hell arity well. And some of the more insane aspects of our civilization are magnified in Nightmare dimensions the swift moving prizes deliberately intended to react with a frenzied tempo of life today. Now you see those senses show us seitan pretensions on the part of Mr. Ma which is very adding again to this bit of comedy I think it's hard to make a comedy if you're really trying to echo the frenzied tempo of life
today and so on. And if you violate reality and the minute you get bored because there's no contrast in the comedy like the comedy here the fantastic changes in tech effect are related to an everyday context. There are interruptions highlights not the norm. But in Zante the norm is the fantastic and so the effect of each succeeding violation as we can until at the end of it he tries to ended up knowing that he has to end up with a big thing this time with I think it's up to sauerkraut instead of pie that's found in a German restaurant and powers. The whole restaurant of the MA list and I've never seen so much sauerkraut thrown him out of my life and so much violence and so on. And you look at and then you get more and more tense with disgust really if not you. Funny thing thrown around. Because he doesn't because he doesn't do anything except just have extremely violent echoing the destruction of our time I suppose.
Now the reason that these new films can't repeat the effect of the film. Well there is one great exception and that is a hard day's night. I hadn't thought it was possible but I must say that Les is faced on the holidays not really does just some of this about the Marx Brothers and of the great silent comedies but in general the time of most of these attempts and you're up in here to imitate these kind of comedies is that they try to do it to look at you sort of think about the Hard Day's Night is that it's very contemporary too because you took the Beatles causes you know a contemporary phenomena. And also he didn't just simply imitate the physical slapstick aspect he had plenty of that too. But there was much more than that where the trouble with these other imitations is that you can't recapture the past. There's no way of doing it you can't just repeat it. A man can't become a child again for instance. He can become childish but that's quite different. Children are never childish friends. Now that the world of Santa Keaton and Chaplin
is gone it's part of the childhood of the movies. And you can reproduce all of the externals but you miss the innocence and spontaneity that makes these externals charming and funny. I must say in closing that to be absolutely. I discovered that after Lester had made two years ago a hard day's night which I thought was the best film of that year out of a lot of other people. He then made a much inferior film called The Knack. And then he met a pretty terrible film called Help That's his current film. I don't help on the Knock you have this thing I was warning about this business of hammering home points you know the exaggeration aspect of it. Also you have this complete lunacy and no norm at all. Whereas in the holidays not discussed was very good it was real. You had a really good television directive and the clean old man grandfather and so on were really quite good that way. Well that I think that's the end of my talk.
All I want to just read something that I found in my voluminous files I had 10 bags when I arrived and. I found the following on comedy which I had written down seven years ago from Lytton Strachey's portraits in miniature which really applied by well to what I was saying last time about movie comedy. So I just followed you said pure comedy unlike tragedy and drama and most forms of fiction depends for its existence on the construction of a conventional world in which while human nature and human actions are revealed their consequences are suspended. The characters in comedy are real but they exist in vacuo. They are then needed to instruct us not to exalt us but simply to amuse us and therefore the effects which would in reality follow from their conduct must not opinion. If they did the comedy would cease to exist. The jealous husband would become a tragic personage. The break would be revealed as a
jest and the old bore as an old bone. And I think this is exactly what I was trying to express when I objected to most of modern comedies like the Mad Mad World and kissed me stupid and bad times. How do you know why. But I won't object to them on the grounds that once you make the thing real it isn't funny and otherwise my example was of a man who slips on a banana peel is funny. As long as he doesn't fracture his back in doing so. But if he does then it's not very not funny. And this is what state she is saying to it's an artificial blowout and I think it's a modest formulation of comedy. The people are out and out actions. Human nature and human actions are revealed but that consequences are suspended because of the consequences of poor Buster Keaton's ride on that motorcycle without the car behind him and so I well I mean he would have been Massa good at any one of all those commanders.
Dwight Macdonald on film
Silent Comedy: American art form, part 2
Producing Organization
University of Texas
KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-xs5jg18s).
Episode Description
The Silent Comedy: An American Art Form, Part II.
Other Description
Series of lectures by Dwight Macdonald on film: its makers, its history, its future.
Film and Television
Media type
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
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: 67-16-5 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:02
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “Dwight Macdonald on film; Silent Comedy: American art form, part 2,” 1967-04-07, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 17, 2022,
MLA: “Dwight Macdonald on film; Silent Comedy: American art form, part 2.” 1967-04-07. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 17, 2022. <>.
APA: Dwight Macdonald on film; Silent Comedy: American art form, part 2. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from