Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Sampling of Comedy Films from 1908

My research on comedy routines had me poring through 1908 to 1921 editions of Moving Picture World to glean plot details from the magazine's "Stories of the Films" and "Comments on the Films" sections. It was fascinating to see the way that the trends in comedy films changed from year to year. Pivotal changes were clearly evident in the 1908 releases.

A Pathé Frères comedy Une Belle-mere emballee (released in America as Runaway Mother-in-Law) is a slapstick style mother-in-law joke. The film opens with a mother-in-law barking orders at her family as they move into a new home. At one point, the woman pauses to take a rest on a two-wheeled cart loaded with family possessions. The woman accidentally slips the cart's brake loose and proceeds to ride the cart at rapid speed down a steep incline in the street.

A trend in prank comedies produced a Vitagraph comedy called Buried Alive. A young man, bored with the sun and sand at Coney Island, has his friends hide him under a mound of sand so that he can play pranks on the other sunbathers. When a baby is placed on the mound, he heaves his stomach to make the baby bounce up and down. When sweethearts sit on the mound to kiss, he pops out of the sand and stares blankly at them until they have become thoroughly unnerved.

An unlikely hero comes to the fore in the Lux comedy The Bewitched Tricycle. A thief looks to make a getaway by stealing a tricycle delivery cart, but he finds that he is unable to turn the handlebars to steer. The cart takes the thief on a wild ride through busy streets and finally delivers him into a lake, where he is apprehended by the police.

A number of other fantasy comedies on the schedule made use of the novel effects offered by the film medium. In Wonderful Fertilizer, fertilizer gets into a little girl's drink and causes her to grow to the size of a giant. These imaginative and outright silly films are the forerunners to many later films. The Bewitched Tricycle and Wonderful Fertilizer can be linked, respectively, to The Love Bug (1968) and Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992).

The general release schedule for 1908 shows that effects-driven comedies, the sole objective of which was to present impossible spectacle, were on their way to being replaced by slapstick comedies. The Bewitched Tricycle is interesting in that it attempted to combine the two forms - it had the wild action of Runaway Mother-in-Law and the magical action of Wonderful Fertilizer. But the magic was to contribute more subtly to the comedy in the coming years.

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