Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why You Want to Bring Me Down?

Funny People, a comedy-drama starring Adam Sandler, is scheduled to be released next month. The story involves a popular comedian who learns he's dying from a blood disease. The trailer shows shows a number of sentimental scenes with crying, hugging, and crying while hugging.

This may be a good time to talk about comedians blending comedy and drama in films. It may be a good time to explore the long and bumpy road that many comedians have taken in pursuit of pathos.

The Kid (1921) was the prototype for the comedy pathos film. Chaplin finds an infant abandoned beside garbage cans. He claims the baby and raises him as his own. Chaplin is a loving and responsible caretaker to the child (Jackie Coogan). He deals the best he can with this disturbing situation presented to him. The film's eventual crisis, that of the welfare workers taking Coogan away from Chaplin, comes out of the cruelty of welfare workers and nothing that Chaplin has done wrong. He cannot be faulted in any way for his predicament. Circumstances have arisen that are beyond his control. The world, after all, can be unfair.

Harold Lloyd developed an alternate model for the pathos film in which the hero does in fact contribute to his predicament, either due to a personality flaw, a wrong action or a mistaken idea. It is necessary, before he can get himself out of the predicament, for him to learn a lesson and make himself a better person. Lloyd, at various times, had to overcome shyness, acquire courage, cure himself of hypochondria, learn to be himself, and learn that brains can be more effective than brawn. Lloyd said that, in his films, he "got himself into difficulties and had trouble getting out but finally rose above it, surmounting the whole thing and came out well in the end." Lloyd, in the words of Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, liked for his character to demonstrate "resourcefulness in a pinch." On screen, as in life, he believed that success in life was dependent more on hard work and enthusiasm than luck. Unlike Chaplin, he didn't see the world being controlled by a cruel fate.

Chaplin races across rooftops in pursuit of the orphanage van. He drops down on top of the van and breaks into the back doors to recover Coogan. This is the sort of action that Harold Lloyd took at the climax of his films. But, while Lloyd emerged victorious by taking action, Chaplin is only able to hold onto Coogan temporarily.

Adam Sandler entered pathos territory before Funny People. It would be hard to find a scene darker or more tearful than Sandler's death scene in Click (2006). Also, the comedian showed a softer side in Big Daddy (1999). Compare Chaplin's situation in The Kid with Adam Sandler's situation in Big Daddy. Sandler, like Chaplin, adopts a small boy abandoned by his mother. He, too, has bonded with the child only to have welfare authorities take the child away from him. This makes the film resemble The Kid. But other elements of the film make it more like Harold Lloyd's The Freshman. Sandler adopts the child to fool his ex-girlfriend into thinking that he can be responsible. He contrives this situation with selfish and deceptive motives. But, then, having to take care of a child does in fact make him more caring and responsible. His character, like Harold Lloyd's character in The Freshman, must undergo improvement and ultimately win over the crowd in a rousing climax. The crowd in The Freshman is spectators packed into a football stadium and the crowd in Big Daddy is the spectators packed into a courtroom.

In the end, Big Daddy failed at pathos. Peter Rainer, critic for New York Magazine, wrote, "Sandler being Chaplinesque isn't pretty." The film earned Sandler the Razzie Award for Worst Actor of the Year.

Sandler was not the first to try to fill Chaplin's shoes.

In The Clown (1953), Red Skelton plays a down-and-out comedian battling alcoholism while trying to care for his young son Dink. Skelton manages to stage a successful comeback with the support of his son but he feels faint as he comes off stage and he collapses before he can reach his dressing room. After he is laid down on a couch, he regains consciousness and looks up lovingly at his son. He asks his son if he was proud seeing how well he did on stage. Dink tells him that he has always been proud of him. Skelton tells Dink that he is a good boy and then dies. Dink's estranged mother comes in the door right on cue and the boy goes running into her arms. Dink's mother has a lot in common with The Kid's mother. She gave up her baby because she wasn't fit to care for him, but now she comes back into his life as a wealthy woman and offers the child luxury and security. It is questionable if Chaplin will be able to find a place in The Kid's fancy new life, but Skelton made it easy in his case by having the good manners to die.

The Kid was the obvious model for Gigot (1962), a pet project of Jackie Gleason. Gleason got a great deal of pathos out of The Honeymooners' Ralph Kramden, but Gleason and his writers never had an outright plan for Kramden to generate pathos. Gleason just wanted the character to be a realistic representation of people he knew while growing up in Brooklyn. Pathos was something that developed naturally out of Kramden. Kramden showed how sad it was to be fat, poor and dumb. But Gigot, besides being fat, poor and dumb, is mute. He also had neighbors constantly making him the butt of practical jokes. It seemed that, when it came to this film, Gleason was pouring on the suffering a bit thick.

Lou Costello tried his hand twice at pathos, first the Harold Lloyd way and then the Chaplin way. The premise of Little Giant (1946) is similar to the premise of The Freshman. Costello, a rookie vacuum cleaner salesman, is crushed to learn that his new co-workers have made him the butt of a practical joke. He is about to walk into an awards ceremony when he finds his co-workers laughing about him. This isn't much different than the scene in The Freshman where Lloyd stands outside of a party and sees his fellow students laughing about him. Costello's version of The Kid is Dance with Me, Henry (1956). Costello is trying to gain custody of two orphans, but a mean welfare worker is doubtful that Costello is able to provide a suitable environment for them. When Costello gets implicated in a murder, the welfare worker removes the children from his home. Costello shows he has the talent to handle dramatic material, but Little Giant and Dance with Me, Henry provide the actor with weak material. Dance with Me, Henry is mildly amusing at best. Little Giant is unwatchable.

The Three Stooges attempted pathos in Cash and Carry (1937). The Stooges arrive at their home, a dilapidated shack in the city dump, only to find a little boy they don't know doing his homework at the kitchen table. The Stooges do not react with great sentiment to this child. Larry pipes up, "Come on, beat it." But, then, they realize that the boy is wearing a leg brace and needs the support of a crutch to stand and walk. The boy tells the Stooges that his mom and dad are gone and he's being raised by his big sister. Moe, normally gruff and scowling, smiles sympathetically and softens his voice. He has never acted more tenderly to another individual. But the other two Stooges do not show much concern. Larry, though having had his "Get off my lawn" Gran Torino moment, hangs out in the background for the remainder of the scene. Curly pretty much acts like Curly. For the most part, the Three Stooges show no great commitment in they way they treat the pathos of this scene. To them, it must have been just another genre. Seconds after meeting the crippled orphan boy, Curly accidentally hits Moe in the head with a pipe and it's back to their usual comedy business. A pathos comedy was, in the end, no more significant to the Stooges than a haunted house comedy.

Jerry Lewis gave pathos a bad name. Lewis got involved with pathos while he was still working with Dean Martin. The earliest examples of Lewis pathos can be found in The Stooge (1952) and The Caddy (1953). The Martin & Lewis films often had a dramatic scene where Martin would lash out at Lewis and tell him to get out of his life. The particular nature of their relationship made it seem like a father rejecting a helpless child and making his best effort to abandon him. Lewis always looked devastated. As a child, I was disturbed by Martin's hostility towards Lewis. Abbott's abuse of Costello was pure absurdity. Moe smacking Curly in the head with a wrench was too far-fetched to be believed. But Martin's hostility towards Lewis seemed all too real.

Pathos was at a maximum in Lewis' first solo film, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). Lewis, in the title role, plays a troubled teenager in a crime-ridden urban neighborhood. No one seems concerned that casting the 30-year-old comedian as a teenager would strain the credibility of the film. A gang of juvenile delinquents give Lewis a switchblade and demand that he use it to rob a well-dressed woman coming down the alley. Before he demands that the woman turn over her valuables, Lewis wants to make sure that he looks tough and he also wants to show the woman he knows how to handle a switchblade. The scene gives Lewis an opportunity to act foolish. At one point, he lapses into a Bogart impersonation. It would make sense for Lewis to imitate James Dean or Marlon Brando, both of whom had played juvenile delinquents during this period, but Bogart's tough guy acts seems misplaced in this situation.

Lewis fails dismally in this film to integrate comedy and drama. He brings the comedy to a screeching halt whenever he wants to let some pathos lumber through. A scene, no matter how anguished, should not cause the comedy to stop. Take for example the big dramatic scene in The Kid. The welfare workers are taking Coogan away from Chaplin. Even in the midst of this emotionally wrenching scene, Chaplin supplies slapstick in the form of Coogan grabbing a sledgehammer and repeatedly bonking the welfare workers on their heads.

In Below Zero (1930), Laurel & Hardy are impoverished street musicians struggling through a bitterly cold winter. As sad as their situation is, it doesn't mean that the comedy has to stop. Hardy gets hit in the face with a snowball. A large woman smashes a bass violin over his head. But comedy seemed less of a priority in Laurel & Hardy's Air Raid Wardens (1943). The duo is featured in the comedy as patriotic Americans who want to contribute to the war effort but are rejected when they attempt to enlist in the various armed services. "Uncle Sam doesn't want us," says Stan. The boys volunteer as air raid wardens but they are fired for wreaking havoc during a late-night drill. Good pathos is heartbreaking. Bad pathos is cringe-inducing. This is bad pathos. Laurel & Hardy's many failures, which are normally funny, are only depressing in this context. These scenes transform the duo from purveyors of comedy to objects of pity.

In The Delicate Delinquent, Lewis is wild and funny going up against a sumo wrestler in a self-defense class. But, minutes later, he has a highly dramatic scene with Darren McGavin. Lewis acts in the scene as if he is desperate for the audience to feel sorry for him. It is jarring to see Lewis go from his monkey face to his serious face. But this is how Lewis would handle pathos for the rest of his career.

The central character of a pathos comedy is, in either case, a victim. Chaplin is a victim of cruel welfare workers and Lloyd is a victim of cruel classmates. Lewis turned himself into an advocate for the world's victims. This led him to do a lot of moralizing in his films. Lewis liked to hammer home a message about the importance of believing in yourself, or the importance of kindness, or the importance of a person learning to like themselves before expecting other people to like them. More than a hint of vanity comes through in these showy and self-righteous performances.

Lewis enters The Kid territory in The Family Jewels (1965). Except the film has one big difference that is obvious at the outset. The ten-year-old orphan girl (Donna Butterworth) is a heir to a great fortune. She lives in a mansion rather than tenement housing. Lewis, opting for a silly ending, dons a ridiculous disguise to trick authorities into granting him gain custody of the girl. The film, in all its wackiness, creates no real dramatic tension or sympathy.

In 1972, Lewis tried to outdo The Kid with The Day the Clown Cried, which featured the comedian as a washed up circus clown who befriends a group of children imprisoned in a Nazi camp. Chaplin was the caretaker of one displaced child. Lewis is now the caretaker of dozens of displaced children. Even more, Lewis has managed to transform Chaplin's tenement into a concentration camp and replace the cold-hearted welfare workers with genocidal Nazis.

A filmmaker is messing with a volatile formula when he tries mixing comedy and drama. He has to get it just right or else the whole thing will blow up in his face. It offends people when a comedian seems to be showing off and trying to prove how dramatic he can be. It irritates people when the sad scenes in a comedy come across as forced, contrived and excessive. It doesn't win fans to have sad scenes in a comedy turn mawkish or maudlin. That's when critics complain that about a comedy having gooey sentiment, turgid sentiment, heavy-handed sentiment, cloying sentiment, or mushy sentiment. It is a mistake when a film is rigged for pathos scenes as a way to manipulate audiences.

Even as a child, growing up in the sixties, I knew good pathos from bad. Pathos was sprinkled into Don Knott's films in the sixties. Knotts was a skillful enough as an actor to move smoothly between pathos and goofiness. Still, pathos and Vic Mizzy music did not go well together. The one comedy that really moved me during this period was Popi (1969), which totally flipped the premise of The Kid. Alan Arkin, as Popi, comes up with an outrageous scheme to get welfare authorities to take his children. He is desperate to get his two small boys out of the slums and he figures that, if he sets them adrift in a rowboat off the coast of Miami, he can trick the Coast Guard into thinking they are Cuban refugees and draw publicity to get a rich family to adopt them. Arkin is a rare actor who can make me laugh and cry at the same time. It's forty years later and he's still doing it for me. I had this reaction to Arkin just last month seeing him in Sunshine Cleaners.

It is the job of a filmmaker to create characters and tell a story. A character may find himself in situation that evokes pathos. Fine, people in the audience may feel sad and they may even shed a tear. The audience will recognize the pathos if it's there and allowed to come out on its own. Compassion should grow naturally out of the characters and situations.

One of the best moments of pathos in a comedy comes in It's A Gift (1934). Grocer W.C. Fields has a dream of moving his family to California and becoming the proprietor of an orange grove. He finally gets his wish when he inherits enough money to buy an orange grove for sale. The family arrives at their new property, which is barren and rundown. Fields' son finds an orange growing on a bush but its a pathetically puny specimen. Fields is about to toss away the orange in disgust but he suddenly decides to take a second look at it and this causes him to have a change of heart. It may not be much of an orange but its still an orange. His expression softens and he sticks the orange into his pocket. His wife grabs their children and takes off on him. He calls out to her, offering to drive her to wherever it is she wants to go, but she ignores him and keeps on walking. Fields sits down to contemplate his situation. The family dog, who has not been one to desert him, comes to his side and licks his face. The scene is real to life and it evolves naturally out of the story. Fields plays the scene perfectly. He does very little and yet he conveys just how devastated his character must feel at having had his dream shattered.

A truly Chaplinesque comedy is Bread and Chocolate, a 1973 Italian film starring Nino Manfredi. Manfredi gives a heartfelt performance as Nino, a poor, luckless Italian immigrant struggling through a series of demeaning jobs in Switzerland. The film starts out light and funny but the series of misadventures have an effect on the character. This character isn't the type of a shallow, persistent buffoon like Mr. Bean, who remains unaffected as he bounces from one disaster to another. He fights hard not to give up and keep up his spirits. He is able, for much of the film, to maintain a sense of humor and a friendly attitude. Eventually, though, he becomes frustrated, angry and discouraged. His situation has grown increasingly hopeless in Switzerland and, yet, he has nothing to go back to in Italy. He is unhappy with his home country, where no jobs are available, and he is unhappy with his adopted country, where he is treated so badly. He becomes trapped between these two countries. Repeatedly, he boards a train to return to Italy, only make a last-minute scramble for the exit. In desperation, he tries to be accepted as Swiss by dyeing his hair blond, but he becomes disgusted seeing his reflection in a mirror and smashes his head through the mirror. It seems in the final scene that he has finally resigned to go home. He boards the train, which quickly pulls out of the station. But, then, the train disappears into a tunnel and we suddenly hear the screech of the emergency brake. In the final shot of the film, Nino trudges out of the tunnel. He stops and stares into the camera, as if expecting someone in the audience to tell him where to go and what to do.

Bread and Chocolate is not about self-improvement, which is what Lloyd's films were about. Nino is working as hard as he can and it isn't getting him anywhere. He tries to "improve" himself by dyeing his hair, but he finds himself unwilling to pretend he's something he isn't. This film, like Chaplin's films, provides a commentary on the social conditions that trap people. It is, in this way, comparable to another poignant comedy of the period, The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975). Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) is the "prisoner" of the story. Edison is a character that a modern American audience should be able to understand. He is not a tramp or an immigrant laborer. He is a middle-aged business executive who has just lost his job and, due to social problems like unemployment, labor strikes and crime, finds himself slipping towards a nervous breakdown.

Funny People promises to be different than The Kid or The Freshman in that the central character is being threatened by an impersonal agency: disease. This brings up Lloyd Hamilton. Hamilton was unique in that he was plagued more by natural forces than he was by people. Harry Langdon was said to have been an innocent protected by God. Frank Capra talked about Langdon escaping a cop because a loose brick just happens to fall at the right time and the right place to knock the policeman unconscious. Harry's triumph is, in the end, due to divine intervention. Hamilton, on the other hand, has a never ending war with all God's creatures great and small. And, when he isn't being chased by a lion or trying to get a squirrel out of his pants, he is being harassed by wind, rain and snow. It is as if this poor fellow has a quarrel with God.

For all the animosity that Lewis drew for his attempts at pathos, no pathos comedy was ever loathed more by critics than the Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams (1998). This film had it all, from a self-righteous character moralizing to everyone to a gang of sick children showing up to evoke pity. Stephen Hunter, a critic with the Washington Post, wrote, "There should be a special room in Hell where the makers of films like Patch Adams are sent. There they will be force-fed treacle through a funnel and made to endure lectures from the morally superior. . . Indeed, there's such a subtext of preening narcissism, of vanity exploded out to the horizon, that Patch Adams becomes hard to bear. . . It's about altruism as a form of psychosis." Roger Ebert, critic with the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote, "[Patch Adams] made me want to spray the screen with Lysol. This movie is shameless. It's not merely a tearjerker. It extracts tears individually by liposuction, without anesthesia." Dennis Lim, critic with the Village Voice, wrote, "a buffoonish, scarily maniacal bedside manner, which, far from being salubrious, is more likely to trigger relapses and lawsuits. . . Patch regains his composure in time for a climactic tantrum before a medical review board, after which. . . sick children file in for a weepy encore. It's an unforgettable image, stunning in its crassness, and a fitting coda for the year's most repugnant movie." It wasn't The Day the Clown Cried but it came fairly close.

Keaton was one comedian who thought it best to stay away from pathos. In general, the Great Stoneface shunned overblown emotions. Harold Lloyd was warm and lively in scenes with his leading ladies, particularly Jobyna Ralston. But Keaton did not have that same warmth and liveliness with his leading ladies. In Sherlock, Jr., he is tense and awkward when he goes to see his girlfriend, Kathryn McGuire. This is especially odd considering that Keaton has come to propose marriage. The couple go through a comically mechanical routine just to hold hands.

The film's villain, Ward Crane, steals a watch belonging to McGuire's father and later plants a pawn ticket for the stolen watch in Keaton's pocket. When the pawn ticket is discovered in his pocket, Keaton is unable to offer an explanation and he is asked to leave the house. A close-up shows the reaction of the girlfriend. A close-up shows the reaction of the girlfriend's father. But Keaton's reaction is shown in a longshot. The camera is too far away to see if Keaton's eyes are welling up with tears, too far away to show if his lip is quivering, too far away to show if his brow is wrinkling. The shot could have only been set farther back if Keaton could have gotten his hands on the Hubble telescope at the time.

McGuire breaks up with Keaton and gives him back his engagement ring. A scene where the hero is rebuffed by his girlfriend would normally display the actors tightly in the frame and feature reaction shots of both characters. However, Keaton's reaction is again shown in a long shot.

Keaton acts dejected standing on the front porch. But he is not one to stay down for long and, far from wallowing in pity, he soon speeds off to tail Crane and get the goods on this shifty character. You go, Buster. I dedicate this video to you.


  1. Great piece and great comparisons. I've never seen The Clown, but it sounds like a remake of The Champ (1931), directed by King Vidor and starring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Certainly, the ending you describe is identical.

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