Comedy’s Modification Within Silent Film – Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin

During the 1910s, popular comedy shorts preceded more esteemed features. By the 1920s, however, comedy developed into a mass-observed genre of feature lengths with stars like Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. Silent film, by just referring to its title, suggested a dependence on physical action-slapstick-for comedians. But this alone did not distinguish silent film comedy’s capabilities. Similar action, albeit with sound, had been performed on vaudeville stages and circus arenas. To this end, silent film needed to offer comedians something more to explain its durability with an abounding audience; although the aspect of mass-exhibition is a crucial one when considering the various medium-specific strategies offered to comedians.

A focus on the aforementioned performers’ careers offers an explanation as to how this relationship with not only the medium, but also the audience, affected their approach to silent film comedy. Through the analysis of Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Saphead (1920), and The Immigrant (1917), film evidently offered itself as a representational art form of time and space that could be manipulated to convey a complicated gag and a more sophisticated story. This was accomplished through the comedians’ use of medium-exclusive techniques as well as the development of a filmic persona that worked both for and against audience expectation.

Before any examination of what silent film specifically offered comedians occurs, one must first acknowledge cinema’s general contribution to performers as well as audiences. Before cinema, live performances such as circuses and music halls were the major venues for inexpensive entertainment (Bordwell 3). Yet because these performances were live, the constriction of time and space limited certain exhibition possibilities. For a specific performance, there was only one time and space to see it; there would evidently be a smaller crowd than that of a performance shown in various locations at multiple times.

Likewise, transporting whole theater productions to various locations was expensive (Bordwell 3). The distinguishing aspect of cinema then was the ability of mass-exhibition at an inexpensive rate. Furthermore, the medium of silent film freed comedy from spatial and temporal boundaries associated with performances of the stage. No longer would a comedian have only one chance to successfully execute a gag or express concern over the limitations of a single locale. In fact, they had the ability to capture more complex scenes, particularly through the use of filmic devices.

Such an idea is found in Keaton’s Sherlock Junior. As Keaton’s character, Sherlock Jr., falls asleep at the projection booth he becomes duplicated through the effect of super imposition. This is to let the audience know that the real Sherlock Jr. is asleep; his dream body becomes the main character and proceeds to be the subject of an elaborate gag involving the cinema itself. This overtly suggests that the audience realize the inanimate quality of the comedian. By presenting the character as this lifeless dream body, the spectator is given more reason to laugh at the body rather than worry. In the subsequent scene, Sherlock Jr. (not yet fully absorbed within the film he is trying to enter) is transported between several areas at the whim of an already-edited film. As he dives off a rock surrounded by the ocean, for example, a cut causes him to disappear into a snow bank, legs sticking straight up. Not only is this sequence impossible to reproduce outside film, but it additionally comments on the medium itself. The scene tampers with film cutting techniques applied to audience expectations. To this end, the filmic technique itself becomes the prop for the joke.

The scene of the driverless motorcycle chase which covers the film’s climax is a specific kind of elaborate gag offered by silent cinema. It is both a spectacle and humorous scene to see Keaton perform his own stunts. During one moment, the safe passage of the motorcycle across a missing part of a bridge is possible only through the support of two passing trucks. This shot was achieved with the help of a horizontally split screen. Just like the movie theater scene, the motorcycle chase illustrates how filmic devices were utilized to both complicate and execute various gags.

While silent film offered comedians medium-specific devices, the option of mass-exhibition allowed the development of a more expansive consideration of identity-on and off the screen. The massive attention given to Keaton’s performance in The Saphead reflected the presence of not only a budding star, but also a specific style of acting which shaped a cinematic identity. Since 1909, dramatic films sought a form of “legitimate acting” in which actors “restrained their movements so as to focus attention on subtle gestures and facial expressions” (Krämer 281). Yet comedians frequently directed their heightened performances to the camera; the point was for an immediate audience reaction, either laughter (the theater scene in Sherlock Jr.) or amazement (the motorcycle chase).

In The Saphead, Keaton turns a straight characterization of the character Bertie into an “excessively restrained” piece of acting as a comedic strategy. One should acknowledge Keaton’s theatrical past in order to posit this as a strategy rather than a weakness; Keaton’s “definitely and subtly expressive acting” was the result of his wide-ranging skills from the live stage (Krämer 281). As he was juxtaposed against the legitimate acting of William H. Crane, his restrained performance became a comedic spectacle that often undermined as well as commented on the dramatic style of Crane (285). For example, the film’s conclusion shows Bertie hearing the news about the birth of his twins. Crane’s character, Nick, expresses joy through a dance but Bertie shows no emotional response. Keaton’s performance became a central focus of the film because of this. Some critics described it as a reflection of poor acting but others found it as an ironic statement of Bertie’s character as the only unintelligent hero in cinema to that point (286). The latter would assume the performance as a product of his professional fun. For the retrained acting style would become a trademark to Keaton; as he developed this persona through a line of films, he would become known as “the Great Stone Face” (Bordwell 140). His persona, due to the fame offered from the medium, was often confusingly overlapped with his personal life. Gossip, because he never smiled, often assumed a melancholy love life (Krämer 287).

Turning the focus to Chaplin, his initial films also reflected a character connected to the traditions of a live performance milieu. As Mack Sennett’s employee at Keystone, Chaplin was initially less mindful of his cinematic persona. His presence in the Keystone films illustrated a rather flat character typified by violence and vulgarity. He can be seen hitting a man in the mouth with a brick in Laughing Gas (1914) and thumbing his nose at a cop in A Film Johnnie (1914) (Maland 199). Although he found great success through this coarse slapstick, various critics detested this primitive character favoring one who could positively influence the masses as well as further develop silent film’s artistry (204). Chaplin responded to the criticism of vulgarity through a reflection of his past:

It is because of my music-hall training and experiences that…work into my acting little threads of vulgarisms…this crude form of farce and slapstick comedy…was due solely to my early environment, and I am now trying to steer clear from this sort of humor and adapt myself to a more subtle and finer shade of acting. (Maland 204)

It is evident then that there is a certain level of sophistication desired by the medium of silent film. Just as Keaton tampered with performance strategy, comedians bound by a vaudevillian past needed to now rework their persona and humor to satisfy the expectations of a new medium.

It is important to acknowledge the significance of how this criticism and Chaplin’s response illustrates a precise product of silent film’s contribution to comedians. The existence of the criticism itself proves the mass attention to not only the comedian as a substantial figure, but a cinematic performer whose influence should be directed toward didacticism and artistic development. As Chaplin noted, these particular concerns were nonexistent as a live performer. The attention to the comedian in the silent film medium brought with it demands and expectations for a wider level of appeal. Likewise, the medium offered comedians a tangible record of their comedic transformations, leading not only to a sturdy cinematic identity, but also a developing star image outside the medium.

As seen through Chaplin’s response to the criticism of his persona, a broader level of responsibility was necessary to maintain comedic fame within silent film. There was urgency to explain his artistic choice, while at the same time, being careful so as to not reduce his popularity (Maland 204). As Chaplin announced his comedic ambitions in the same breadth, a level of attention-outside the films-formed. While the comedian gained the ability to influence via film (as the criticism noted), he was just as well guided by the appeal of his audience; while silent film was working towards a certain level of artistry, it was ultimately a commercial product. Without profit, the comedian no longer continued to work in film. Therefore the star image associated with film offered comedians a source of advertisement essential for their sustainability. Throughout 1915, the image of Chaplin was exploited through the Motion Picture Magazine, various cartoons, and attire (203). This offered him a level of fame beyond the medium as well as the responsibility to solidify profit.

Maintaining popularity and profits were crucial elements for performers in the silent film medium. Comedians needed to carefully follow the desires of their audience in order to remain in film; through this, they were forced into a greater consciousness regarding their personas as well as style of humor. Silent film offered comedians the ability to develop a story which complimented their gags. Through the examination of Chaplin’s The Immigrant, one will see how the aforementioned criticism motivated Chaplin to regard silent cinema with a keener eye. The film no longer contains a persona grounded on vulgarity and violence, but a humorous character illustrating romance and kindness (Maland 205). This “subtle and finer shade of acting” is complimented through his ingenuity with humor (204).

The initial reception of silent film, as seen through Chaplin’s earlier years and the movie theater scene in Sherlock Jr., was that because characters lacked voice, they were closer to inanimate objects. The Immigrant, however, transcended this conception. While people can still be seen tossing around like fish on a boat or being knocked into like punching bags, Chaplin’s delicate treatment of character and story prevented a completely superficial depiction of comedy. The most evident transformation of silent film comedy could be seen through the change in Chaplin’s filmic persona. In The Immigrant, he is a gentleman guided by his love for a woman. In the beginning of the film, he offers his lover a seat as the boat violently rocks and secretly gives away his money to her. The point is that Chaplin developed humanness in his persona, allowing people to see something more than a funny, inanimate object but still finding room to laugh. There is a kindness to his character, but at the same time he makes use of silent film devices for comedy-particularly through the execution of causal gags.

In terms of The Immigrant’s humor, the use of the causal gag illustrated a significant aspect of silent film comedy. In the beginning of the film, the use of the intertitle interrupts the rocking of the boat with the words, “More rolling”. This assumes a causal connection to the rolling of the people on the boat when it in fact refers to the rolling of dice during a gambling game. In addition to using a filmic device-the intertitle-as a tool for a joke, the causal gag was a substantial mode of humor in Chaplin’s films. Another form of this cinematic joke is also employed in the shot introducing Chaplin. Appearing to be sickly heaving over the boat, he is in fact pulling for a freshly caught fish. The stationary, frontal camera view toys with the notion of audience expectations just as Keaton did with the editing devices in Sherlock Jr.

One can now see that the inception of silent cinema underscored a previously untapped output for humor-a medium free from the boundaries of space and time. This evidently attracted comedians as they were now able to perform elaborate gags, like in Sherlock Jr., unworkable in the live arena. The silent nature of the medium naturally encouraged the use of physical actions to convey humor. Yet comedians such as Keaton in

The Saphead utilized the medium to accentuate comedic acting strategies. These strategies, equally present with Chaplin, were identified through the comedians’ ability to imprint an identity-their comedic persona-through a line of films. This persona, often extrapolated beyond the medium, became the subject of advertisement and celebrity gossip. Further with comedians’ role in silent film, a focus on Chaplin showed the development of the comedy genre into one beyond superficial humor. The Immigrant, for example, showed Chaplin’s growth as not only a comedic performer, but a filmmaker who treated his characters and story with a previously nonexistent sentimentality.

Works Cited
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film History: An Introduction. New York, NY:
McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2010. Print.

Krämer, Peter. “The Making of a Comic Star: Buster Keaton and The Saphead (1920).” The
Silent Cinema Reader. Ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer. London: Routledge, 2004. 278-289. Print.

Maland, Charles J. “A Star Is Born: American Culture and the Dynamics of Charlie Chaplin’s
Star Image, 1913-1916.” The Silent Cinema Reader. Ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer. London: Routledge, 2004. 197-209. Print.