Thursday, November 15, 2012

Woodley



Australian comedian Frank Woodley has brought his affection for silent film comedy to the fore on his new television series, Woodley.  The series, which involves a newly divorced man trying to cope with the rejection of his wife and maintain a relationship with his young daughter, manages to be both funny and sentimental at the same time.  In the following scene, Woodley gives up on a suicide attempt because he suddenly remembers he is supposed to attend his daughter's musical recital.

video

Woodley took many gags directly from classic comedies.  Take a look at this gag performed by Charlie Chaplin in The Idle Class (1921).

video

Now, we have the same gag performed by Woodley. 

video

Frankly, Woodley's version of the scene pales in comparison to the original.  Chaplin wickedly upended expectations to expose the callousness of his character, a pampered fool with no regard for his wife's dire concerns over his drinking.  This gag does not work as well with Woodley as his character is truly broken up by his wife's departure.  However, Woodley does well with most of the other gags.  Here is Harold Lloyd in Bumping into Broadway (1919).

video

Woodley repeats this gag when he and his daughter Ollie (Alexandra Cashmere) have to sneak into a fashion show.

video


Larry Semon in A Pair of Kings (1922)

video


Woodley

video


Harold Lloyd in Number, Please (1920)

video


Woodley

video

Woodley also introduces gags that are entirely original, including a clever toaster gag that opened the series.

video

Even though his routines are largely silent, Woodley often provides sound effects as punctuation to gags.  The toaster scene was no doubt enhanced by the various sound effects, including the squeak of the toaster lever and the roar of the flames.  Key sound effects can also be found in the following scene.  

video

The final shot of the scene would not be as funny without the sound of the baby crying or the sound of the nurse cutting through the tape.

Silent comedy often involved comedians being confused or misled by optical illusions.  Here is a scene in which sounds and images combine to create a misunderstanding.

video

Woodley's daughter comes to spend the night at her dad's home, but she can't get to sleep because her mother forgot to pack her favorite stuffed animal.  Woodley, who doesn't realize the mother is home, plans to break into her home to get the doll.  Fate, which was a force that so often controlled the quick twists and turns of silent film comedy, intervenes to help out the anxious father.

video

The series episodes, much like the comedies of the silent era, often climax with chases or slapstick battles.

video

Woodley, like the classic comedians, strives for laughs using such common household objects as ladders and hoses.

video

He also makes use of old-fashioned juggling tricks to get laughs.

video

In a recent article, I wrote about the torn trouser routine.  Here, Woodley provides yet another variation on this enduring routine.

video

It's comforting to see at least one comedian trying to reintroduce the art of physical comedy to the general public.  Films like The Idle Class and Bumping into Broadway currently draw the interest of only a small niche audience, the majority of which is middle-aged or older.  As sad as it is for me to admit this, I doubt that these films will acquire enough new fans in the coming years to remain in the public consciousness.  Director Joe Dante was recently asked if he thought that the old horror classics will continue to have an audience in the next generation.  He was not at all optimistic.  He pointed out that it's hard to get kids today to even consider watching Frankenstein (1931), one of the most important horror classics, just because the film is in black and white.  He believed that, for the purposes of the general public, any film made in 1931 is in all likelihood near the end of its shelf life.  I applaud Woodley's efforts to keep the principles of silent film comedy alive and well in the 21st century.  

video

I try my best to keep silent film comedy alive and well with my second interview with Derek McLellan for The Dream Factory Podcast.  Click here to listen.


Up a Wall



In 1902, Georges Méliès created a comical little film that showed a dancer running up a wall and performing handsprings in mid-air.  The film, titled The Human Fly, can be viewed below. 

video

The film stands today as a forerunner to a number of popular films.


Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1950)

video


Lionel Richie in "Dancing on the Ceiling" music video (1986)

video


Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception (2010)

video


Monday, October 22, 2012

The Swing Game



One of Max Linder's early films was a morbid 1906 comedy called Le Pendu, which translates as The Hanged Man. The film begins, as many Linder films begin, with Max in love. Max wants to marry a baron's daughter, but the baron will not consent to his daughter marrying a film actor. Linder made an interesting choice in his series to play a fictitious version of himself. His celebrity as a film actor became a subject for mocking in a number of his films. This is a concept that was later adopted by other comedians, including Jack Benny, Louie C.K. and Larry David. Max may be a film actor known for his sense of humor, but his rejection by the baron does not put him in the mood to be funny. Instead, he goes into the woods and hangs himself from a tree. Max is discovered by a servant gathering truffles. The servant finds a gardener with a scythe and asks for his help in cutting the man down, but the gardener is less than willing. The gardener, according to a Variety critic, "dares not cut the rope without the presence of an officer." He hurries away to bring back a policeman. The policeman is not sure of the official procedure for dealing with a despondent man hanging from the limb of a tree. He leaves the scene to visit the station house and returns with his sergeant. The sergeant in turn consults the police commissioner. Max's father is summoned to the scene, but he refuses to go out in public without first putting on a necktie. The bourgeois man's meticulousness when it comes to properly adjusting his tie shows the same obsession with the social dress code that Linder's character demonstrated so often in his films. Like father, like son. In the meantime, Max is wriggling at the end of the rope with his hands fumbling for support and his tongue bulging out of his mouth. This is dark, dark stuff.

  
I was asked by someone if Le Pendu was evidence that Linder had been plagued by suicidal thoughts years before he committed suicide in 1925. I felt compelled to argue against that assumption. To start, Linder was not responsible for the scenario of Le Pendu. The film was in fact a remake of a film written and directed by Alice Guy Blaché for Gaumont. In Blaché's Le Pendu, a husband rebukes his mother-in-law for playing her phonograph too loud. His wife rushes to her mother's defense and the two women run the cranky husband out of his home. The man, despondent, hangs himself from a tree. The man is taken down from the tree and he appears by all evidence to be dead. His wife sobs uncontrollably, which prompts her mother to take action. The woman turns the crank on her phonograph and the music that comes out is able to miraculously rouse the man from his tragic slumber. As pointed out by film historian Alison McMahan, the Gaumont film focuses on the romance of the couple while the Linder film is more concerned with mocking the "institutional bureaucracies" that often incapacitate government officials.

La Pendu came up during a recent interview with Elio Quiroga, who is producing a documentary on Linder. Quiroga imagined that most people would be shocked today to watch this "awful comedy" of a man hanging himself. But suicide was not a shocking subject at the time. Linder's top rival, André Deed, used the suicide premise on a number of occasions. In 1909 alone, Deed produced three suicide comedies - Boireau n'est pas mort, Le Suicide de Boireau and Cretinetti si vuol suicidare. It was inevitable, though, that Deed's efforts would go nowhere. First, Deed's cartoonish character was as indestructible as Wile E. Coyote. Deed throws himself under the wheels of a speeding car, but he rises up again in the next moment without a scratch. This comic fool was also unlikely to succeed in his suicide attempts out of sheer incompetence. Deed could try to hang himself from a tree, but it wouldn't be long before the tree branch would crack and the comedian would fall to the ground.

Linder's character is considerably more crafty and more real than Deed's character. Could his suicide efforts so easily be thwarted? In Le Pendu, the tree branch does not break. The film shows Max hanging from a noose for six or seven minutes while people, including a small boy, react with horror and panic. It is understandable that a person seeing the comedian's prolonged death struggles would be disturbed. Bob Lipton, IMDb reviewer who saw the film at a recent Museum of Modern Art exhibit, was certainly unsettled by what he saw. "This," he emphasized, "is the slow, strangling sort of hanging in which the victim expires slowly." The dark humor of this scene was emphasized by the film's German title, Moderne Schaukelpartie, which translates as Modern Swing Game.

The end of the film, which is important to this discussion, has come into question. I, myself, have never had access to the film and must rely on accounts of other people. McMahan, who carefully examined the film for the purposes of "Alice Guy Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema," understood that Max had expired before he was cut down from the tree. He is only brought back to life due to an outlandish method employed by a doctor who has arrived on the scene. The doctor attaches a bicycle pump to Max's mouth and works the pump to fill his lungs with air. The bicycle pump works as magically as the phonograph in reviving the man from death. The girl's parents, who have been deeply affected by Max's display of emotion, agree to let Max marry their daughter. But a critic with Variety who reviewed the film at the time of its release noticed something else that no other viewer has mentioned. When Max is finally taken down, the critic was able to clearly see a hook attached to his coat, which meant that the jilted suitor was hanging safely from the tree all along. In the end, Max never had any intention of killing himself and his death struggles were nothing more than an act. A Variety critic wrote, "This relieves what would be otherwise a gruesome sight."

Linder made another suicide comedy in 1910. This time, he wants to marry Catherine, but Catherine's father insists that his daughter marry a banker with substantially more money than Max has. Max, unwilling to go on living, hires a criminal to take his life. Max is waiting for the hitman to arrive when a messenger arrives at his home with an urgent letter. It's good news. According to the letter, Max has inherited a large fortune that will make him more wealthy than his banker rival. The problem, though, is that he must now duck and dodge the hitman so that he can live long enough to share his newfound wealth with his beloved Catherine. The film was released in France as Le Pacte, which refers to the "pacte" or pact that Max comes to arrange with the hitman, but the film was released in the United States under the more general title Max in a Dilemma.

Linder remade Le Pendu in 1914. In this version, it is made clear beforehand that Max is not really hanging himself. Max can be seen wrapping one end of the rope under his arms so that he can safely hang from the tree. The ruse is made evident by the film's U.K. title, Max's Persuasive Suicide. This is not to say, though, that the film was presented everywhere with a comforting wink to theater patrons. The film was released in Germany under the bleak title Max will sterben, which translates as Max Wants to Die. Possibly, different cultures have different tolerance levels when it comes to doom and gloom.

The biggest difference between this film and the original is the ending. After cutting Max down from the tree, the police commissioner assures Max that he will visit the girl's father with him and assure the man of Max's serious intentions. He tells Max that the man cannot possibly refuse him this time. Max is filled with optimism when he and the police commissioner confront the father, but the father is not moved in the slightest by the police commissioner's pleas. Max, who has never removed the rope from around his neck, attaches the other end of the rope to a chandelier and hangs himself for real. This ending is, without question, far more grim than the ending of the original film.

The following clip from Max in a Taxi (1917) shows yet another time when Linder looked to derive humor from failed suicide attempts.

video

As you could see, the tree branch did break that time.


When all is said and done, this comic suicide business is nothing more than a stock routine that continued on for decades. The routine was performed by many different silent film comedians, including Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Larry Semon. The comedian's motives varied at times. In Tweedledum Institutes His Life (1913), Marcel Perez attempts to hang himself, drown himself and blow himself up in order for his wife to collect on a life insurance policy. In Dead Easy (1927), Bobby Vernon goes through various attempts to kill himself as a publicity stunt.

The pay-off gags varied as well. This is a scene from Haunted Spooks (1920) in which Harold Lloyd attempts to kill himself by jumping off a bridge.

video

In Love's Last Laugh (1926), the suicidal man (Raymond McKee) jumps off a bridge only to land safely in the swimming pool of a passing cruise ship. This scene is played with a different twist entirely in Better Off Dead (1985).

video

Better Off Dead was an entire feature film about a man trying to kill himself.  There's a scene in which John Cusack tries to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning.

video

And, of course, there's a hanging scene.

video

Here are hanging scenes from other comedy films.

Hard Luck (1921)

video


Delicatessen (1991)

video

Linder had no patent on the suicide routine and, despite his sad end, it would be wrong to assume his performance of the routine meant that he had long been of a disturbed mind. The many joyful comedies that Linder produced are discussed extensively in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film."

"Jajajajja. I luv my life!!!!"



Nikki Finke, the editor of Deadline.com, ruffled a few feathers when she protested Julie Bowen scoring an Emmy win for her comedy work on Modern Family.  Finke cut straight to the point when she stated, "Beautiful actresses are not funny."  Comedy, in her view, has to do with "emotional pain and humiliation and rising above both by making people laugh with you instead of at you."  I addressed this very subject in an essay called "Beauty and the Pratfall," which is included in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film" (now available on Amazon.com).   My belief is that, while beauty does not make it impossible for an actor to be funny, it does make it less likely that an actor can be funny.

The pain and humiliation of the unfortunate have long been a big part of comedy.  Max Linder delivered to the cinema, in exquisite form, the comedy of embarrassment.  Take a look at this clip from Mon Pantalon Est Décousu (1908).

video

I have found myself returning to this simple old routine from Linder again and again.  I wrote about it in "The Funny Parts."  I wrote about it in "Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film."  I wrote about it before on this very blog.  


Elizabeth Banks, a pretty actress who does a lot of comedy, argued against Finke's remarks on her blog.  She stated emphatically that she has never had a problem being entertained by a pretty woman performing comedy.  She provided as an example Sophia Vergara, whose work she generally finds funny.  She insisted that, whenever the actress is performing, she is never in the slightest bit distressed or distracted by her "gorgeous breasts."  She added that it really made her laugh when, during the Emmy ceremony, Vergara split her dress.  Yes, this really happened.  Photographic evidence is provided below.


It was a real-life version of Linder's split seam routine.  But being desirable means never having to say you're sorry.  This is evident in Ms. Vergara's reaction to the mishap.  Vergara was not pained.  She was not humiliated.  The bare cheeks of her backside were visible through the split seam and her response was to snap a picture of her backside and tweet it to the nation.  This was the joyful message that accompanied the picture: "Jajajajja.  I luv my life!!!!"  This is far from the distress expressed by Linder.


Of course, it isn't only an issue of beauty.  It is also a sign of the times.  I made the point in "The Funny Parts" that shame is too often lacking in our modern culture and this has rendered this sort of comic business irrelevant.

Comedy trades in the shame that a person feels when, in one way or another, they prove to be less than adequate.  Beauty, in all its perfection, does not present inadequacy to the world.  This is Curly Howard in his underwear. 


This is Elizabeth Banks in her underwear. 

video

There is a difference.  Can that really be denied?  It is worth noting that, in the Banks scene, the filmmakers expected to get the biggest laugh from a less fit character's oversized belly.  

I speak about this at length in "Eighteen Comedians."  I examine the comic stylings of various pretty actresses, including Thelma Todd and Katherine Heigl.  I compare Linder's split seam routine with a similar routine performed by Priscilla Lane in Four Wives (1939).  Can beautiful women, or beautiful people in general, normally be funny?  We report.  You decide.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Interview: Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film


 
I enjoyed talking to Derek McLellan for his Dream Factory podcast.  We had a lively conversation about the comedians featured in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  I thank Derek for his cordiality and insight.  The podcast can be found here.  

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book Release Announcement: Slaughterhouse Frome



 My latest book (and second novel) is Slaughterhouse Frome, a seriocomic science fiction story about a stressed expectant father who suddenly suffers a break from reality and imagines himself to be a futuristic warrior fighting in a cosmic war. 

Your response to this announcement might very well be, "Didn't this guy just announce the release of a book?"  Scrupulous time management and great (perhaps excessive) perseverance kept me going in the last three years while I worked to simultaneously complete three books - The Funny Parts, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film and Slaughterhouse Frome.  For my purposes, multitasking has its benefits.  Whenever I needed to step back and take a breather from one project, I was able to conveniently redirect my attention to one of my other projects.

I was allowed by my Frome novel, which explores the subjects of marriage, parenting and intergalactic travel, to let loose my creative energies and express sentiments and ideas of a more personal nature.  The objective assembly of facts for a biography or the identification of a film's essential features for a film analysis book is somewhat different than a novel, which must be crafted out of the author's own experiences and fantasies.  It is for this reason that I feel more exposed and vulnerable to be presenting this work to the public.  But bravery is a requirement of an author as much as, if not more, than the ability to turn a phrase.  I hope that the people who read Slaughterhouse Frome find it enjoyable.

Classic Comedy Routines that Live On



I have commented in the past about the creative efforts of Cartoon Network's Adventure Time to introduce classic comedy routines to a younger audience.  A recent episode of Adventure Time, "Ignition Point," featured variations of two popular Commedia dell'arte routines - “Lazzi of the Statue” and “Lazzi of the Sack.”  The "Lazzi of the Statue" routine involves a man pretending to be a statue.  This routine was performed in countless silent films.  It is not known for certain when the routine was first recorded on film, but it is very possible that the routine made its screen debut with Alice Guy Blache's The Statue (1905).  

Excerpt from The Statue

video

Adventure Time updates this routine with an imaginative flair. Jake's fantastic stretching powers comes into use as Finn and Jake pretend to be a painting.

video 

The “Lazzi of the Sack” routine involves a man who conceals himself in a cloth sack without realizing that he is taking the place of a pig due to be slaughtered.  As it turns out, the man must struggle to free himself from the sack before he is set upon by a cleaver-wielding butcher.  Adventure Time presents a pork-free version of the routine.  Finn and Jake, who have a blue hue due to a flame-proofing spell, blend in well when they fall into a crate of blueberries.  Unfortunately, though, a baker assumes that the pair are oversized blueberries and promptly chases after them with a handy cleaver. 

 

As can be seen in the next screen capture, Finn wears one of the Commedia dell'arte's "zanni" masks at one point in the episode.
  

The final routine of the episode has its origins in a different source than the Commedia dell'arte.  Finn and Jake learn of a plot to kill the Flame King and are determined to root out the conspirators before they can execute their evil plan.  Our heroes join a theatrical troupe so that they can dramatize the murder plot on stage and thereby provoke a reaction from the would-be king-killers.  This idea was borrowed directly from Hamlet, but it might also remind comedy fans of a plan to expose a murderous Nazi spy in Abbott & Costello's Who Done It? (1942).  The eternal question "To be or not to be?" meets the eternal question "Who's on First?" 

video

But, as I watched the climax of "Ignition Point," I didn't think of Hamlet or Who Done It? as much as I thought of Wonder Man (1945), a comedy in which Danny Kaye takes part in an opera to expose a murderer to a district attorney seated in a theater box.  


Wonder Man

video

video


Adventure Time

video

I find it comforting that a number of classic comedy routines have survived into the 21st century.  Another classic routine, this one involving a man struggling clumsily to carry an unconscious woman, was recently revived by Two and a Half Men.  This is Buster Keaton performing the routine in Spite Marriage (1929). 


Now comes the new version, which essentially substitutes gracefulness with smuttiness.  I feel compelled to note that, despite his "tiger blood," Charlie Sheen needed help from Jon Cryer to carry his unconscious woman (Diora Baird).  I thank my brother, Francis, for bringing this episode of Two and a Half Men to my attention.


In the last hundred years, a variety of ferocious beasts and deadly monsters have been on the prowl to bring ruin and chaos to film and television weddings.  The origins of this silly business are detailed in The Funny Parts.  Recent examples of this trope include a wedding sent into disarray by prehistoric wolves in a 2011 episode of Primeval and a wedding brought to a bloody end by zombies in REC 3: Genesis (2012).  Here is a clip from Primeval.  

video

It is hard to fully understand the psychology of a popular routine and the reason that people feel compelled to come back to the routine again and again.  What would Bruno Bettelheim say was the hidden meaning of this comic fairy tale?  He might say that a great deal of fear and anxiety lies beneath the order and formality of a wedding and these monsters and beasts represent this undercurrent of dark emotions suddenly breaking loose.  In any case, I doubt we have seen the last of these wedding disasters.

Let me end this article by letting you know that I have added film clips to a few of my previous articles.

http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2011/12/if-i-could-walk-that-way-i-would-not.html
http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2011/08/hat-mix-up-routine.html
http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/2012/04/boomerang-hat-trick.html

That's it for today. I thank you all for coming by.