Silent Movies 101: Comedy’s Big Four (and how to discuss them without being murdered)

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.

Approximation of how Big Four discussions usually end up.
Approximation of how Big Four discussions usually end up.

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.

Charlie Chaplin

immigrant-spying

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)

Buster Keaton

out-west-menacing-keaton

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)

Harold Lloyd

two-gun-gussie-naughty-boy

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

Harry Langdon

soldier-man-udders

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.)

No girls allowed? Sheesh!
No girls allowed? Sheesh!

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.

We are apparently in some kind of silent movie "Highlander" situation. "In the end, there can be only four. Or three. Depends."
We are apparently in some kind of silent movie “Highlander” situation. “In the end, there can be only four. Or three. Depends.”

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

Should I really do this?
Should I really do this?

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:

Charlie Chaplin
Marion Davies
Mary Pickford
Harry Langdon
Ossi Oswalda
Reginald Denny
Stan Laurel
Charley Chase

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.)

29 Replies to “Silent Movies 101: Comedy’s Big Four (and how to discuss them without being murdered)”

  1. Harold Lloyd’s “Hot Water” is so relentlessly and inventively funny that every time I watch it I literally end up crying with laughter. It never lets up! I’m lukewarm about Chaplin, but the moment in “The Kid” where he sees the baby on the ground and looks around, and then up – as though it might have fallen out of a window – is laugh out loud hilarious. Have only ever seen clips of Charley Chase, but they made me want to see more and – yay – someone else shares my appreciation of Reginald Denny. Excellent article, with well-chosen photos and clips – really enjoyed it, thank you very much.

    1. Your argument is spot on. Personally, I think anything able to convey its message along with a huge dose of entertainment after 100 years of cultural and technological changes is a classic and should be properly appreciated. I love introducing my children to silent comedies and watching them appreciate the genius.

  2. As someone whose favorite filmmaker of all time is Buster Keaton, it is so embarrassing how fanatical and mean-spirited his fans get toward Chaplin or other talents of the era. Indeed the Dwight MacDonald introduction to the 1980 printing of Keaton’s ghost-written autobiography is one of the most irritatingly anti-Chaplin things I have ever had the displeasure of reading. Why do some Keatonphiles feel the need to tear Chaplin down to build Buster up? Considering how much Keaton respected Chaplin, I cannot think he would approve. Maybe it’s because they feel he’d been critically cheated so long? I have no clue, but I love both dearly and would not want to be without the work of either man. Thank goodness the ill-will seems to be going down in the fan base, at least in the places I haunt.

    Anyways, I am so for getting rid of the Holy Trinity/Tetarch too. Charley Chase is one of my faves now, all thanks to your blog. Women were a big part of the early cinema too, and must be given their due! Marion Davies, Mabel Normand, Bebe Daniels, and Florence Turner are only three of my favorite funny ladies from the silent era. I think that’s why I’m so sickened when films like the 1992 Chaplin try turning them all into talentless shrews. The fact that so many people who don’t watch silent films are willing to take these depictions as truth makes it all the more sickening, doesn’t it?

    1. Indeed! We need a big dose of understanding and, ironically enough, good humor when discussing silent comedians. I agree with you, Keaton seemed like a really chill guy and so it’s a minor tragedy that some of his alleged fans would be so stiff and humorless. (Of course, I am only speaking of the lunatic fringe, most Keaton fans are pretty sweet.)

      Yeah, the casual dismissal of women from early film history is infuriating. When modern viewers whine about demands for more women in films to be “political correctness” I just roll my eyes. No, honey, women are just reclaiming what was always theirs.

  3. “PC” complaints are just people uncomfortable with anything other than white and male in the movies. It’s gross. It’s wonderful that we are seeing more diversity in movies, even if we still have a long way to go.

    1. Yep, it never occurs to them that a “team” movie or TV show with one woman, one minority character and, like, four white dudes is not really even-steven. When I was a tiny kid, I decided Chewbacca was a girl (is there any reason why this couldn’t work?) because I didn’t want only one woman on the main Star Wars squad.

  4. This is very nice for an introductory article. I have to share my favorite dumb argument story. When I posted a review of one of the Chaplin box sets, someone chimed in with “Ben Turpin was funnier. Just sayin.” To which my response was “and when there’s a Ben Turpin box set, that will be relevant.” I’d certainly be happy to review it!

    1. Ha! Now there’s one I have never heard: the great Chaplin vs. Turpin debate. What I want to know is why so many people feel the need to rain on a Chaplin fan’s parade. We can call it Chaplin Derangement Syndrome (noun) The irresistible urge to proclaim Chaplin to be less funny than (X)

      1. I’ve dodged some of the Chaplin Derangement Syndrome by virtue of my model: if your favorite comedian didn’t start until 1917, well, I’m not up to that yet. But, I’ve had people bring up Turpin, Bunny, and others – and I’m totally in favor of giving those people their due, but the reality is that Chaplin is a significant figure to studying the period AND his stuff happens to be easy to find. If nothing else, it’s nice to find that there are silent geeks who know these more obscure folks. Oddly, I’ve never yet had an Arbuckle fan who felt I was giving Charlie too much attention!

      2. Yes, it would be great to have more of the early work of Turpin and anything more from Bunny available but, as you say, Chaplin definitely earned his place at the top. For Keystone rivalry, I more often run into people bashing Ford Sterling in favor of Chaplin. Chaplin himself seemed to encourage this in his autobiography, dismissing Sterling as someone who didn’t understand the difference between stage/spoken comedy and silent humor. All I know is that I find Sterling completely hilarious, especially when he jumps on people and tries to bite off their noses.

  5. Do add Raymond Griffith to your list if you haven’t seen any of his films. They are few and not available from Amazon, but worth hunting down. They are always crowd pleasers when they show at festivals. HANDS UP! (1926) and PATHS TO PARADISE (1925) are my two particular favorites.

  6. ‘Net connection was down, or would have waded into this thread a lot earlier. I have always loved every one of The Big Four (do have a particular soft spot in my heart, or head, for what Walter Kerr termed the “Keaton Quiet” in the face of calamity), but the comediennes and their comedic foils/partners are still my absolute favorites. May have gathered from previous comments here that I’m a fan of singly, in pairs, or as a trio, that lovely redhead Minta Durfee and her pals Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle, Oh, but the earlier teaming of Flora Finch and John Bunny is such comic gold, and hard to beat.

    Our Gang ranks high on my go-to list for the lovely recreation of “back porches/alleys on the neighborhood block” atmosphere, plus the kids’ spontaneity.

    Later in the 20s Colleen Moore and Marion Davies are so refreshingly honest in their comedy. Davies actually heads my go-to list, The Patsy and Show People in particular.
    If only we could find Flaming Youth yet undiscovered in archives half way ’round the world (I can dream). Ella Cinders is a joy, so must make do with Moore’s extant films for now.

    Any thoughts on ZaSu Pitts (showing her comedy chops much more in talkies, I know), or foils/partners William Haines, Jimmy Finlayson, Al St. John…….Ford Sterling (cringe)?

    1. Well, let’s see… I like Zasu Pitts quite a lot. I enjoy seeing her pop up in extra roles in Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks pictures of the 1910s. Wonderful gawky humor. Haines is a doll and a half (haven’t checked out his talkies yet), love all things Hal Roach and so Finlayson is a special favorite, Al St. John seemed to have a complete blast with Arbuckle and (later) Keaton.

      I seem to be alone in the Ford Sterling fan club but I can’t help it. The man makes me laugh. πŸ™‚

  7. Hi Fritzi. I like your starter choices. James Agee didn’t say there were only four good ones, he just picked four that he considered the best for his article. If he had written a book, I’m sure he would have picked more. And of course Ben Turpin was featured on the cover of the magazine.

    1. Yes, I highly doubt that Agee intended his article to become a bible for silent comedy, he was just celebrating favorites. it’s a shame that it has led to the Big Four orthodoxy instead of simply being acknowledged as excellent film writing.

  8. You’re not alone about Ford Sterling- had a colleague that adored him. Sterling would come into frame and she’d already be laughing with anticipation. Not sure why I’ve never appreciated him much, really. Of the Keystone troupe, I’ll always laugh ’til it hurts for Mack Swain, Arbuckle, and Chester Conklin, especially when paired with the “sugar on the Keystone grapefruit” as the adverts put it, gorgeous, feisty Mabel Normand.

  9. Oh you make such great points! It is so funny how people become so narrow in their thinking and take offense when you don’t agree with them. Mary Pickford is very funny and so is Marion Davies. I love most comedy styles so I love slapstick. I do love the Mack Sennett comedies and many of the others. Max Linder is someone who should be world known but so few know about him. Glad you discussed their work and not so much their private life.

    1. Thank you! Yes, the private lives of silent film people are emphasized way too much for my taste. I mean, it would be ridiculous if a serious critic were to review, say, “Bridge of Spies” and spend much of the piece gossiping about Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ ex-wives/girlfriends and then go on and on about Alan Alda’s political views. I call the emphasis on love lives and gossip the “TMZing of silent movies”

  10. To be honest, you are the first person I’ve come across that uses “the Big Four” rather than “the Big Three”β€”I’ve never seen Harry Langdon included! Actually, you’re probably the first person I’ve come across that appreciates Langdon as a comedian. I’m sorry to say that all the Langdon bashing has prevented me from looking at his work and deciding for myself.

    1. Yes, Big Three is used pretty often but not always. I wanted to talk about Langdon and he was part of the Agee article so here we are. Capra’s interview in the “Hollywood” miniseries was devastating to Langdon’s reputation; he was so convincing and wove a believable tale of a career cut short by hubris. The miniseries is wonderful and made use of the best information available at the time but it is 35 years old and many films and documents have surfaced that change the story.

      A lot of people go into Harry Langdon movies looking for a reason NOT to like him. Ford Sterling has a similar problem, especially after the passive-aggressive number Charlie Chaplin did on him in his autobiography.

  11. Hi – I enjoyed your article, especially since I know very little about the subject matter. Other that The General and Ben-Hur I have watched very little silent film. Since you wrote this great article I will work on imporoving my record.

    Best

    JEC

  12. I love Chaplin, Lloyd & Keaton passionately, wth Charlie getting a slight edge, but I wouldn’t be without the art of any of those geniuses. I have all of Langdon’s available work, as well as Arbuckle’s, and I appreciate it, and find it entertaining, but those two don’t grab me like the aforementioned three comedians. I would put Charley Chase up there; he’s just hysterical, and had his own distinctive style too: proto-sitcom. Dick Van Dyke and John Cleese remind me a lot of the vastly underrated Chase. For those of you out there who aren’t that familiar with him, there are several Chase DVD sets available, and they’re all vital. Once you watch one Chase comedy, you’ll want more and more. They’re like potato chips.

    Regarding L&H, I’m not the biggest fan in general; I find their widely acclaimed The Music Box to be tediously unfunny, for instance. But I do love their silent stuff by and large (especially Big Business and Two Tars), and Towed In A Hole is damn funny too.

    As for women, or comediennes if I may still use that term, I’m in love with Colleen Moore and Clara Bow for light comedy, and Marion Davies is growing on me; and of course, they’re all excellent dramatic actresses as well. And, even though she only starred in one silent (bittersweet) comedy, the pretty much perfect EXIT SMILING, stage star Beatrice Lillie is a comic powerhouse on film, and if she’d forsaken stage for screen, she could have been the greatest silent comedienne of them all.

    1. Thank for sharing your list! I have to say that “Exit Smiling” failed to enchant me, mostly due to Jack Pickford’s decided lack of appeal as the object of Lillie’s affections. She really knocked it out of the park in Clive Brook’s “On Approval”

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