Your First Year of Silent Films: This is where we learn to laugh without canes, pork pie hats or glasses

Welcome back to my curated list of silent films selected with the newcomer in mind and designed to be viewed one weekend at a time. This time, we’re going to dive into comedy but not the obvious choices!

(You can read my complete list of curated selections here. If you want a more general guide to silent film, read my Silent Movies 101 posts here.)

Silent comedy is more popular than drama by far, which is why this list has been pretty drama-centric. It has been my experience that drama fans will branch into comedy but some comedy fans sit right there and never move. Since the goal of this series is to give silent film newcomers as broad an experience as possible, getting acclimated to drama is a must.

The other pitfall of silent comedy is getting caught up in any “Big Three” or “Big Four” controversies. Basically, the Powers That Be have spoken and Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and sometimes Harry Langdon have been deified, set apart from all other silent comedians. I find this creation of a comedy hierarchy to be spectacularly unhelpful and have written about my objections at length. I think people should laugh along with any comedy star of their choosing and don’t need busybodies telling them that so-and-so is better, funnier, etc.

On that note, I have chosen four comedies, two shorts and two features, that showcase worthy comedians who are never part of the Big Four debate.

Evening One: I’m dying here!

Hypochondria was a popular comedy topic in the silent era. Health crazes and fads were sweeping the country and there were still good, old-fashioned snake oil remedies available too. Healthcare comedies about hypochondriacs and malingerers also allowed comedians to be funny without big chases and faw-down-go-boom, which is always a plus. (We’ll be covering slapstick more extensively in due course but it is important to know that it is not the ONLY silent comedy option.)

Foxtrot Finesse (1915)

Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew were a married couple and a popular comedy team that specialized in more domestic comedy situations. Their humor is more character-driven than you might expect in comedy shorts of this era. (With silent film, always expect the unexpected.)

The couple pokes fun at their own May-December union as they play a husband and wife with different ideas about the foxtrot. He just wants to read his paper in peace, she wants to dance the night away and the foxtrot fad means that he has nowhere to hide. His solution? Feign injury! It’s his only hope!

Why am I watching this? 1910s comedy is often considered to be synonymous with the chaotic films of Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio. While these films were indeed popular, other styles of comedy were present and succeeding handsomely.

Further, Mrs. Sidney Drew (as she styled herself) was an active and equal partner in her husband’s comedy films. She co-starred, co-wrote and, in some cases, co-directed the pictures and is every bit his equal in screen charisma.

Finally, this short is just as cute as a bug’s ear and it has the bonus effect of showcasing a middle class American home from the WWI era.

As well as swell polka dot dresses.

Trivia: Sidney Drew was the uncle of the famous Barrymore siblings, John, Lionel and Ethel, all of whom were making movies around this time as well.

Read my full-length review here.

Available on DVD as part of the Slapstick Encyclopedia.

Oh Doctor! (1924)

Okay, so I lied about the glasses.

Reginald Denny may be familiar to classic film fans as That English Guy in numerous studio films but in the silent era, his persona was 100% American. He specialized in boxing pictures but soon his flair for comedy made him the go-to guy for breezy, humorous pictures.

In this case, he plays a hypochondriac falls in love with his nurse and no surprise as she is played by Mary Astor. Previously a coward and a wimp, Denny becomes a daredevil in the hope of impressing Astor enough for her to date him. Astor is never just “the girl” in this film and takes an active part in the story, even managing to uncover a plot to steal Denny’s fortune.

Why am I watching this? Denny and Astor are delightful, charming and FUNNY! While there is some physical comedy in this picture, most of the humor comes from Denny’s wacky attempts to stay healthy and, later, to impress Astor.

This is a milder brand of silent comedy but that doesn’t mean it is bland. There are plenty of belly laughs for the taking and I think you just might join Reginald Denny’s fan club after watching this movie.

Read my full-length review here.

Available on DVD from Grapevine.

Evening Two: Women in comedy? Madness!

At least one major comedy star and some silent film historians have claimed that women cannot be funny. Women in silent comedy? Ha! Shouldn’t they be making babies or something?

Obviously, this sexism burns me up, especially since it betrays ignorance of film history. There were plenty of women operating in slapstick comedy, domestic comedy, action comedy, romantic comedy, flapper comedy and just about any other flavor you can imagine during the silent era. If you can’t find a single funny lady, that really says more about you than it does about the women.

Mabel at the Wheel (1914)

My one slapsticky selection for this article showcases Mabel Normand, actress, and Mabel Normand, director. Charlie Chaplin was rapidly building popularity at this point and he plays the villainous suitor who won’t take no for an answer. As part of his fiendish plan, he kidnaps Normand’s race car driver boyfriend just before the big race. Who in the world will win the race and save the day? (Tip: Spoiler in title.)

It’s not a masterpiece but it is a fun little film in the Keystone house style and Normand is, as always, a delightful presence on the screen.

Why am I watching this? Well, for Mabel, obviously and because this is the film that the 1990 Chaplin biopic used to showcase her alleged incompetence as a director. Charlie Chaplin spent the rest of his days claiming that Mabel Normand couldn’t direct and a great many film historians took him at his word. The movie does not support Chaplin’s claims and shows instead that Normand had mastered the sort of rough slapstick short that was the Keystone stock in trade.

Read my review here for a complete debunking of the “Mabel couldn’t direct” myth.

Available as part of the Chaplin at Keystone box set.

Show People (1928)

It seems like madness but there are still people in the world who think that Marion Davies was a talentless gold-digger. (My brother had to school some of them during a Hearst Castle tour. I have trained him well.) Well, this little showbiz comedy is the perfect response to such ignorance and it’s so much fun that you’ll want to watch it again and again.

Davies plays a southern belle who dreams of stardom on silent dramas. Billy Haines plays a slapstick comedian who befriends her and helps her get her start in pictures– at the receiving end of a seltzer spritz!

Davies is perfect, her sparkling personality and flawless comedic timing on display. Haines is adorable as her snarky love interest and there are more cameos than you can shake a stick at. This film is happiness in a bottle.

Why am I watching this? First, you’re seeing Davies doing what she did best in a film designed to showcase her delightful personality. You also get some behind-the-scenes footage of MGM during the silent era and a glimpse of how silent era audiences viewed comedy and drama.

Most of all, though, you should see this movie because you’ll get some honest belly laughs in the bargain. This film is beloved by silent film fans for a reason and you’ll quickly understand why.

Read my full-length review here.

Available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Extra Credit: Judex (1916-1917)

Watch episodes ten and eleven of the French serial Judex, one on each evening. The grand finale is upon us!

Judex is available on DVD.

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That’s all for now! Next week, we’ll be back with a selection of silent films that head in a more slapsticky direction. Stay tuned!

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14 Replies to “Your First Year of Silent Films: This is where we learn to laugh without canes, pork pie hats or glasses”

  1. Yes, you’re correct, there are many silent fans of a year’s standing, who have never ventured far from comedy. I know – I’m one of them! Call me a Philistine if you like, but I love the early Keystones. Perhaps later on I’ll move over to drama, but comedy seems ideally suited to silent black and white film.

    Glad to see your piece on Mabel At The Wheel – just about my fave short comedy. Mabel was a director on many films, that’s for sure. The question is ‘what was a director in 1914?’ In the 1920s, Mabel explained that they didn’t have directors then (1914) like they do today (1920s)’. From what we can tell, a 1914 director was there to carry out the boss’s will, in this case Sennett’s will. Sennett would brief the designated director on what was required and woe-betide anyone who deviated from the agreed scenario/gags. Only Mabel got away with any ‘deviation’, and Chaplin records being fined $25 by Mack for going over budget! Mack loved Mabel (sort of), but ‘hated Chaplin’s guts’. It is my belief that this underlay the nastiness Chaplin perceived in the orders barked by the directors, including Mabel – everyone had to do as told, or find themselves out of the gate. Of course, Mabel didn’t bark, or even screech like Marissa Tomei – she simply couldn’t (let’s burn Attenborough’s film).

    1. Further, we cannot ignore the fact that Chaplin, genius though he was, was a sexual predator and Mabel Normand was most assuredly not interested in him. Further, Chaplin seemed to be particularly fixated on how much the crew adored Normand, which would have offered her protection and a barrier against any further harassment. (Not to mention Mack Sennett’s possessiveness.) Chaplin similarly aimed nastiness at Mildred Harris and Pola Negri, both of whom he perceived as cheating him on an emotional level.

  2. Hi Fritzi. What a great selection to get a person grounded in silent comedy. Too much Ham and Bud too soon can have dire effects. I would love to learn more about Lucile McVey (Mrs Sidney Drew #2). What did she do with the rest of her life?

  3. Such a fan of William Haines here. I loved him in Show People, Little Annie Rooney, Tell It To The Marines, but, as you say, to each their own.

    Great photo in this post’s header: Haines, Polly Moran enjoying his mugging, Marion Davies, King Vidor……a lovely location or back lot shot, is it?

  4. Yes, count me on Mabel Normand’s side when it comes to Chaplin’s attitude toward women (although I’m not sure if it rises to the level of misogyny). Among my circle of film buff friends they look at me as if I had 2 heads when I express reservations about Chaplin’s artistry and character flaws. For some reason, the personal character flaws of Woody Allen do not affect my enjoyment of his films, possibly because intellectuals do not rate him as highly as Chaplin.

    1. For myself personally (everyone has to make their own decisions about this), I am generally harder on problematic talents who are still alive and active in the industry. There’s nothing I can do about Chaplin but I can sure as heck boycott Roman Polanski. I find that, in my personal opinion, Chaplin’s pictures do not reflect his obsession with underage girls.

  5. I’ve found that many of the romantic comedies of the silent era are a good intro to comedy for those less inclined towards slapstick, especially if it’s a dramatic actor branching out. For instance, fans of Norma Talmadge’s dramas may be very surprised to learn that in Kiki she showed considerable comedic flair. The scene where she fakes having catalepsy is a minor gem, easily the equal to Keaton or Chaplin’s work.

  6. Thanks, I just watched Show People again, and it’s even better the more silents you have under your belt. I think Mr. Haines was better in silents – he seems a little too brash when talking.

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