Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Silent comedy became cool in the garish early-70s, at least where I lived. A local pizzeria, Noble Romans, screened Keystone and Hal Roach comedies in the main dining area, sending me to a black-and-white world where frenetic clowns flew about, leaping, spilling, crashing, mugging their way through very thin storylines. Since my parents were divorced, I pleaded with each to take me to Noble Romans as often as possible, doubling my exposure to those magical, frayed films. Food was a secondary concern.

These films still have a hold on me, partly as nostalgia, but primarily because I enjoy the mechanics of early American slapstick. Yes, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon remain the lasting examples, but their best work came after the initial silent comedy rush of the mid-1910s. It's that period that I find most fascinating, where pretty much anything was attempted, and actors bruised and broke their bones stretching physical gags to the limit.

I used to think I was alone loving those one- and two-reelers, until I moved to New York in my early 20s. There I encountered a group of young film and art students who not only knew the names Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, and Mack Swain, but owned 16 millimeter films of their more obscure efforts. Friday night screenings in a tiny apartment became a semi-regular event, just like Noble Romans, only with beer and potent weed instead of salami subs. Many of these prints were in mint condition, free of scratches and random jumps. You could really study Mabel Normand's comic expressions, Fatty Arbuckle's subtle, deft moves, Snub Pollard's compact aggression.

Here my appreciation deepened as I learned the names behind the bits -- Leo McCarey, Del Lord, Charles Parrot (later known as Charley Chase), and the prolific gag writer Al Boasberg who, when asked by an actor why a club would be hidden under his character's bed, replied, "Because the goddamned prop man put it there!" This was a time of serious comedy exposure for me, providing context and focus as I wrote jokes for stand ups, performed improv in the Village, and began mixing with actual comedy writing pros. Soon I discovered the great radio comedians, Fred Allen my favorite, with Jack Benny right behind, and through a former Letterman writer became a big fan of Jerry Lewis, who owed much to the silent period.

All this comes back to me as I'm currently reading "Keystone: The Life and Clowns of Mack Sennett" by Simon Louvish, the biographer of W.C. Fields (another legend I became acquainted with). While not as poetic as Walter Kerr's "The Silent Clowns," perhaps the most beautifully-written book about comedy I've ever read, Louvish's look at Keystone Studios has a nice, steady flow, and fills some of the biographical gaps left by Kerr, who was busy honing perfect sentences about pratfalls, delayed reactions to bonks on the head, and the differences between Chaplin's gait and Keaton's stride. Louvish reminds me of my first encounters with those mostly-forgotten performers, where I would gaze at the extras as though they were ghosts, and wonder how warm the breeze was that moved Mabel Normand's skirt. Most of these films are nearly a century old. To me, they are gateways to a place where shadows forever chase one another.

Speaking of ghosts, there are plenty to be seen in this one-reeler, "Kid Auto Races at Venice" (not "in" as the replacement title card erroneously states). Shot on location January 10, 1914, it is Chaplin's second film ever, and the first where he wears the Tramp costume. Contrary to legend, Chaplin's self-written one included, this costume was thrown together, the character improvised on the spot. As Louvish points out, "Kid Auto Races" is more a screen test than comedy, as Chaplin pretends to be a nosier member of the crowd behind him. Since Chaplin was unknown at the time, many of the bystanders assumed he was a real pest to the camera crew. Sort of like what Andy Kaufman would do much later, only not as strange nor potentially violent.

And of course I can't overlook Mabel Normand, the most alluring of the Keystone ghosts. "The Bangville Police," from March 1913.