Most newcomers to silent film start out with comedies and there are four comedians who are usually trotted out as the best of the best. The so-called Big Four are indeed wonderful but there are risks.
(This post is part of Silent Movies 101, where we examine aspects of the silent era in a beginner-friendly format. You can catch up on past posts here.)
While most silent movie fans are lovely, there is considerable balkanization among some of the more hardcore elements and comedians are a particular target for these hostilities. I mean, serious fights! Wars! It’s like election year but it never ends! Be careful out there.
I will include one film that I consider to be an ideal entry point, as well as a few quirks and eccentricities of their fans or anti-fans and some things you should never mention.
Note to established fans: I know that we’ll never agree on those key films or even on descriptions of comedic styles but I am trying to provide an easy entry point to complete beginners. Simplification!
Note to everyone: This is a good time to remind everyone that this site focuses on the art of silent film, not the love lives of its participants. This ain’t TMZ, is what I’m saying.
Comedy Persona: The Little Tramp
Charlie Chaplin mixed the comedic style of the British stage with his own instinctive grasp of the motion picture medium. His films are often described as containing pathos, that is, they contain melancholy or tragic elements to contrast with the zany comedic antics of Chaplin and his co-stars. Chaplin preferred to “punch up” with his humor (attacking the powerful, not minorities or other marginalized groups) and was adept at providing his leading ladies showcases for their talents.
Don’t Mention: His exes and there were many. Some very messy divorces and lurid details.
Look out for: Some people have branded Chaplin as a hopeless Commie Pinko Argle Bargle AAAAAHHH!!! It’s best to avoid discussing this topic with them. Distract them with reruns of Walker, Texas Ranger and make a run for it. You would also do well to avoid delving too deeply into Chaplin’s personal life. There’s some very disturbing stuff to be found there.
Starter Film: City Lights (1931)
Comedy Persona: The Great Stone Face
As a child performer in his family’s roughhouse comedy act, Keaton learned how to take a fall and his comedies are noted for their daring and innovative stunts. Maintaining a serious expression in the face of disaster or ridiculousness was Keaton’s trademark (he laughed plenty in real life, by the way), as was his willingness to do some pretty insane stunts, sometimes with bone-breaking consequences.
Don’t Mention: Natalie Talmadge. Keaton’s ex is the subject of many a hate fest. It’s sooooooo silly.
Look out for: It has gotten a lot better lately but it used to be that anytime someone mentioned Chaplin, there would be all these random people chiming in with “Keaton is better!” I once had someone burst into a conversation to demand that I include Keaton in a post about the centennial of Chaplin’s debut! If you like Keaton, fine. If you like Chaplin, fine. If you like both or neither, fine. Don’t let anyone bully you and enjoy the comedy.
Glossary: keatonocity (n) The length of time between a mention of Charlie Chaplin and someone bursting in to demand why we aren’t talking about Buster Keeeeeeeeaton. Waaaaaah!!!! Measured in seconds. (The problem with this, of course, is the utter refusal to accept that someone may have different taste in comedians and not agree with theirs. Oh, the humanity! And it renders the topic of Buster Keaton tedious– something his movies certainly were not.)
Starter Film: The General (1926)
Comedy Persona: The “Glasses” character, a boy next door
The scene with Lloyd hanging onto the hands of a giant clock for dear life is probably the iconic image of silent comedy. Lloyd incorporated stunts into his pictures but his main shtick was as an optimistic go-getter who usually gets more than he bargained for. His comedy persona was versatile by design and also the most “normal” of the major comedians. As a result, he was the most likely to enjoy a traditional storyline and an unabashed happy ending.
Don’t Mention: Lloyd’s best-known controversies are blessedly benign and mostly related to business. It’s kind of a relief. The most frequent disagreement concerns which of his regular leading ladies was the best.
Look out for: Not too much here, either. (And remember, we’re not digging into personal stuff, just common pitfalls.) Lloyd did end up suing Howard Hughes over the troubles of his final starring picture, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. He also clashed with writer-director Preston Sturges (the film is actually pretty good, by the way) but you probably won’t get much of a reaction from mentioning these incidents. If you join me in appreciation of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, show discretion. It is often considered a lesser film for both Lloyd and Sturges, though it does also have a loyal following.
Glossary: to lloyder (v) The act of lurking in a discussion about unrelated comedians and then surfacing to remind everyone to love Harold Lloyd, even if he has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Similar to keatonocity but less frenzied.
Starter Film: Safety Last! (1923), the one with the clock
Comedy Persona: The Little Elf
The most controversial of these four comedians, Harry Langdon’s comedy persona is the subject of puzzlement and there seems to be no middle ground between fans and haters. While other comics were about speed, Langdon was a slow, sleepy man-baby. Naive, sweet, ditzy and given to panic, the character could not be more at odds with the speedy 1920s and this is the source of much of his comedy. (That’s my take anyway. You see, I have never, ever read two sources that agree on Langdon’s comedy persona. He remains an enigma, which may be a part of his appeal.)
Don’t Mention: Frank Capra. He wrote and/or directed some of Langdon’s biggest hits but parted with him on less-than-friendly terms. Capra had few kind words for Langdon when he mentioned him and Langdon’s fans have taken to returning the favor.
Look out for: For some reason, quite a few people have it in for poor Harry and will go on at length as to why he was not funny, was not as talented as the others and doesn’t deserve to be placed on the same shelf. It’s incredibly dull. I suggest tranquilizer darts. (Aim for the buttocks.)
Starter Film: The Strong Man (1926)
Time to Dump the Big Four
So who decided that in the end there could be only four? James Agee is generally considered to be the guy who popularized the notion with a landmark 1948 article entitled Comedy’s Greatest Era. Walter Kerr continued the Four thing in Silent Clowns in which he emphasized the work of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon (though in all fairness he did cover many, many other comedians with particular attention paid to Laurel and Hardy). Kerr also helpfully informs us that silent movie funny women just aren’t in the same league as the menfolk, stating that “there are no women clowns in circuses.”
Woe is me! Poor unfunny women. I guess it’s because of our ovaries or something. Good to know. (I know a lot of gents just love Kerr but I hold a grudge. Sexism is annoying and I’m still cleaning up the mess he left regarding Chadwick and the 1925 Wizard of Oz.)
The problem with the Big Four designation is that it slams the door for other rediscovered talents. Does anyone have the nerve to place their new favorite on the same level as the Four? Not many people do.
Silent movie fans argue about who should be first among the Four and who should be dropped (usually Langdon) but this is spectacularly missing the point. Silent comedians have been placed in an artificial box that stifles conversation. Who says that there can only be four top comedians? And who says they all have to be men? The Big Four thing really should have been retired years ago but we will be stuck with it as long as it keeps being repeated uncritically.
There is so much more to silent comedy than these four talented comics. We’ll be discussing other comedy greats of the silent era in future articles. And who knows? You may create your own Big Four. Or Five. Or Six.
Put your money where your mouth is
I’m going to do something risky. I am going to list the comedians I watch when I’m just chilling. Not reviewing, or writing an article; just when I am in the mood for something fun and funny. I’m not saying they’re the best (who can measure funny?) but I do consider them personal favorites. Note that I’m not a big fan of stunts or slapstick. I admire the skill involved but that style of humor doesn’t really do it for me so you’ll probably notice my list is a little more on the quiet side. It also has (ewww!) girls. Watch out or you’ll get cooties.
The silent comedians I watch the most on my own time:
Now excuse me while I take cover under the coffee table. I think things are about to get dangerous in these parts.
(If the comments start to get too lively, I will shut down the whole shebang.)