Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Funny Optical Illusions

The Commedia dell'arte's "Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back" routine had probably been around for 400 years before the advent of motion pictures.  It was a reliable routine that an experienced stage comedian was bound to transfer to film.  Several popular Commedia dell'arte routines made their screen debuts in the French comedies that dominated the cinema between 1896 and 1911.  But, in my research for The Funny Parts, I could find no evidence that the "Lazzo of the Hands Behind the Back" routine appeared in any film during this prolific period.  It wasn't in the dozens of Max Linder films that I watched.  I didn't come across it going through Kino's expansive DVD collections.  Nothing turned up in trade journals or film archives.  The earliest screen adaptation that I could find was a version performed by Charlie Chaplin in A Dog’s Life (1918).

But, now, an earlier version has been identified.  Steve Massa noted in his new book, Lame Brains and Lunatics, that Billie Ritchie performed the routine in a 1916 L-KO comedy called Live Wires and Love Sparks.  I still do not think that this was the first time the routine was committed to celluloid, but it encourages me to believe that the true preliminary film recording of the routine may still turn up some day.

Charley Chase and Oliver Hardy performed an outstanding variation of the routine in Fluttering Hearts (1927).

I must admit that this routine in any form makes me laugh.  Woody Allen produced a bawdy variation of the routine for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972).

The Three Stooges introduced the routine to many comedy fans with this scene from Boobs in Arms (1940).

Larry Semon manages a one-man version of this routine (having his own arms stand in for his legs) in Horseshoes (1923).

Semon specialized in creating funny illusions, which is something that I discuss at length in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  He often played with the way that the film camera limits depth perception and tends to flatten images.

Semon later elaborated on this gag, making it disturbingly surreal.  The film is Lightning Love (1923). 

Here are similar illusions that I found in a BuzzFeed article, "25 Photos You Need To Really Look At To Understand."


Harold Lloyd also liked to surprise audiences with illusions.

A trick of perspective was involved in the famous clock sequence from Lloyd's Safety Last! (1923).  (This photo is a digital recreation of the scene.)

This was one of Lloyd's favorite gags from The Kid Brother (1927).

In later years, the comedian expressed great pride in the gag, which was known to consistently draw big laughs wherever and whenever the film was shown.  Lloyd pointed to the gag to illustrate the importance of previewing a film.  He said that he filmed two different versions of the scene - one where he showed the metal bracket beforehand and one where he didn't.  Lloyd had his doubts as to which was the better version.  He insisted that, when it came to making an audience laugh, there were no "iron-clad rules."  The preview audience reacted more strongly to seeing the villain seemingly batter Lloyd's head with the belaying pin and then having it shown at the end that the metal bracket had, in fact, been stopping the pin from making contact.  The big reveal is, without a doubt, what makes the scene so funny.  But a very similar gag appeared the previous year in a Mack Sennett comedy, The Prodigal Bridegroom (1926).  This gag was entirely centered on the big reveal.  It was staged in such a way that no alternative version was possible.

Of course, it can be debated if this really is the same gag.  The fact is that, in both instances, the viewer is led to believe that a man is being struck repeatedly on the head with a heavy blunt instrument.  The laugh comes when the truth is revealed and the viewer realizes that he was being fooled all along.  But the audience is fooled by an illusion of depth in one instance and an illusion of camouflage (the bracket is hidden under Lloyd's hair) in the other.  Is it the same?  I think it is.

I will admit that I may be more likely than others to tie together the common threads of various gags.  For instance, I see these two gags as being essentially the same.

Coney Island (1917)

One Week (1920)

As far as I can see, both scenes come down to the comedian breaking the fourth wall to prevent the camera from capturing an immodest image.

When I first came across the Prodigal Bridegroom scene, I couldn't help but think that Lloyd had borrowed it outright and never really did have a question as to the right way to present it.  But that is unfair and unreasonable.  It is modern "propriety rights" thinking getting into my head.  I do not want to cast Ben Turpin, the star of The Prodigal Bridegroom, as the Winklevoss brothers (although the image of twin Ben Turpins with bloated muscles is funny).  The fact is that The Prodigal Bridegroom and The Kid Brother both went into production at nearly the same time.  The Kid Brother only came out later because it was in production longer.  I should clarify, though, that I am unable to say precisely when Lloyd devised and shot the scene in question.  The Kid Brother was still in production at the time that The Prodigal Bridegroom was released, which means that Lloyd could have seen this gag get a big laugh in theaters and decided to tag it on to his big fight scene.  But I have been determined in tracing the history of gags and routines to avoid accusations of plagiarism.  The point is that having many different comedians share comedy business is what makes material develop and attain optimum form.  As I stated in The Funny Parts, it takes a village to raise a gag.  The bottom line is that the suspense that Lloyd builds up around the gag leads to the bigger laugh. 

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