Thursday, November 15, 2012


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.

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

Now, we have the same gag performed by Woodley. 

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).

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

Larry Semon in A Pair of Kings (1922)


Harold Lloyd in Number, Please (1920)


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

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.  

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.  

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. 

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

Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1950)

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

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception (2010)