Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Brief Look at Gags and Routines


We all know that, in the history of film comedy, a select number of gags and routines have been recycled endlessly.  The recently released Marcel Perez Collection includes a smattering of familiar comic business.  The Commedia dell'Arte's "man disguises as chair" routine, known formally as "Lazzo of Hiding," turns up in two of the Perez comedies, Camouflage (1918) and Sweet Daddy (1921).

Camouflage (1918)


Sweet Daddy (1921)


Here is another version of the chair routine performed by Monty Banks in Nearly Married (1920).  This clip and many other clips in this post come from a YouTube channel created by film collector Tommie Hicks, Jr.

Disguising as a coat rack is another effective form of camouflage.  Herman learned this in an episode of The Munsters called "Herman's Sorority Caper" (1966).

Camouflage is shown to be an important part of military training in Dad's Army.

The vacuum cleaner routine has been featured in films for more than a hundred years.  Whenever it seems as if the routine has disappeared forever, it will suddenly resurface in a film or television show.  The routine recently made a brash return in an episode of The Odd Couple.

The message, very clearly, is that some gags can never die. 

This is a unique variation of a stock routine performed by Hank Mann in Hot Dogs (1920).

I keep coming across mannequin legs in comedy films.

This scene from Her Painted Hero (1915), which teamed Charlie Murray and Polly Moran, includes a military drill routine and a hose routine.  We even get the reliable gag of a baby doll being tossed around like a football.

The "baby doll tossing" routine figured prominently in the climax of Marcel Perez's You're Next (1919).

Andy Warhol took the baby tossing business to a ghastly extreme in Bad (1977).

Stan Laurel was fond of the military drill routine.  Here he performs a fairly standard version of the routine in Under Two Jags (1923).

This scene from Hot Sands (1924) features Monty Banks performing a mock fight routine that had previously been performed by Max Linder in Be My Wife (1921).

Charlie Chase later acted out this comic business in Mighty Like a Moose (1926).  This is the type of routine that could not do well in a sound film.  Sound gives force and weight to a fight.  The sounds that are made when two men get into a scuffle cannot be mimicked by a single man flinging himself around and clutching his own throat.  Chase's version of the routine is clearly the superior one.  Look at it and see if you agree.

Banks borrows this collapsible chair routine from Charlie Chaplin's A Day's Pleasure (1919).

The next routine has come up often in my writings. David Kalat recently dubbed this once popular laugh-getter the "Black Reveal" routine.  Monty Banks performs a variation of the routine during an amusement park ride in Hot Sands.  

Note that, once Banks recovers from the shock, he politely tips his hat to the woman.  The woman does not act as if she has been insulted.  Quite the contrary, she couldn't look more amused as she laughs off the poor man's shock and confusion.  It is not that Banks dislikes the woman or the woman dislikes him.  The simple fact is that, at the time, anti-miscegenation laws criminalized sexual relations between whites and blacks. 

Harold Lloyd provides a unique twist on this gag in Fireman, Save My Child (1918).

Under the circumstances, it was odd for this same routine to be transferred to a pair of children in Kid Tricks (1927).

An unconscious woman proves to be an unmanageable burden to Stan Laurel in Under Two Jags (1923).

A woman could be relied upon to periodically lose consciousness to force a comedian into an awkward situation.

How about dealing with a seemingly unconscious man?  In Room Service (1938), Harpo pretends to have committed suicide to forestall the hotel manager's efforts to evict him and his friends from their rooms.  The hotel manager, fearful of scandal, is agreeable to Groucho's plan to dump the "body" in the alley.

Sid Smith had similar troubles moving a seemingly dead man in An Auto Nut (1919).

Chaplin famously turned a massage into a wrestling match in The Cure (1917).

Snub Pollard attempted similar business in What a Whopper! (1921).  But Pollard was not as clever or expressive as Chaplin, which made it necessary to add a floppy dummy into the action to insure laughs.

This empty window pane gag was widely circulated among film comedians.  Here is yet another version of the gag that I discovered.  The comedian is Jack Cooper.

Monty Banks follows a lively comic dance with the torn trousers bit in Nearly Married (1920).

Lively food was frequently a source of comedy in silent films.  Hilliard Karr must contend with an uncooperative stalk of asparagus in Three Wise Goofs (1925).

What would classic film comedy be without men lumbering around in ape suits?  Bert Roach disguises as a chimp in a scene from Under a Spell (1925).

We find an oft-repeated scenario in Plumb Crazy (1923).  An inept plumber (Bobby Vernon) causes water pipes to burst, breaking up a high society party and flooding a luxurious home.

How about a few more hat mix-up routines?


The mirror routine has proliferated in countless numbers.  Here are two more examples.

Dick Powell and Lee Bowman in Model Wife (1941)
Mick Jagger and Jimmy Fallon on Saturday Night Live

For an episode of his NBC variety show, Jerry Lewis revives an old routine that had been performed before by Charlie Chaplin and W. C. Fields.  I discussed this routine in a previous post.

This clip should have been included in my retrospective on the "stuck in a tight enclosure" routine, which can be found here.  Herman (Fred Gwynne) and Grandpa (Al Lewis) get themselves locked over night in a bank vault in The Munsters episode "Don't Bank On Herman" (1965).

As long as we're looking at scenes from The Munsters, here is the complete coat rack scene that was mentioned at the beginning of this article.

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