Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: "The Gag Man: Clyde Bruckman and the Birth of Film Comedy"

The highest praise that I could pay to a biographer is to say that the biographer selected a subject that was sufficiently unique and unduly neglected, they acquired their facts through exhaustive research, and they detailed a story that was in the end fascinating and enlightening.  I can say all of these things about Matthew Dessem's new biography of comedy writer Clyde Bruckman, The Gag Man: Clyde Bruckman and the Birth of Film Comedy.

I could have called this article "Second from the Left."  Despite his many important contributions to classic film comedy,  Bruckman was never a readily identifiable figure on the rare occasion that he turned up in a behind-the-scenes Hollywood photo.  He was never the person that the cameraman deliberately arranged to have in the center of the image.  Let's take the photo below.  There he is, just as I said, second from the left.  He is, as usual, unassuming and anonymous.   

This book puts Bruckman in the center of the frame for once.  Yes, here we have him.

Film historians have written before about Bruckman's work with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W. C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and the Three Stooges, but Dessem tells tales of Bruckman's experiences with lesser known comedians.  He explains how a speeding ticket set into motion a series of incidents that derailed Monty Banks' career.  He details the failed efforts to establish Wheeler & Woolsey's Robert Woolsey as a solo comedian.  He provides a fascinating account of the way that Sennett's scenario department carefully developed scenes for Ralph Graves.

The highlight of the book is Dessem's account of the legal battles that Harold Lloyd waged against Bruckman over copyright infringement.  Lloyd learned the hard way that suing an old friend to protect your ownership of an old gag can prove to be nothing but a ruinous folly.  This chapter is required reading for fans of film comedy history and students of artists rights.  Rule number one for comedians and comedy writers is that comedy is a creative commons.  Comedy routines develop in the same way that games develop on school playgrounds.  Comedy thrives from the freedom of play.  The process would have been destroyed a long time ago, which means that most classic comedy routines would been lost, if the courts had at any time introduced widespread legal restrictions.

This is great work from Mr. Dessem.  I recommend you purchase the book.

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