For today’s piece I offer the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoon The Tantalizing Fly, a quite short (under four minutes!) bit from 1919 that includes the cartoonists’ typical sort of free-flowing strangeness and wonderfully mutable world, in which both Max Fleischer and his cartoon Koko the Clown can’t get to whatever they meant to do today as there’s a fly which won’t stop bothering them. It’s funny, yes; it’s also impressive to see that it’s done, since so much of it involves interactions between cartoon Koko and a real-looking fly. The cartoon also gets a bit recursive as Koko grabs hold of the pen and starts drawing on his own … well, it’s easier to see than to read about. Do enjoy, I hope.
Today I’d like to offer a cartoon, the Max and Dave Fleischer short Koko Bubbles. This is one of the Out of the Inkwell series of cartoons, dating from 1922, and it shows a lot of what’s fascinating and weird about the cartoons of that era. For one I’ll never stop being amazed by the blend of live-action and animated footage, even if it is really obvious how it was done to our modern eyes; but that this is ninety years old just makes it more impressive.
The story is loose, by classic standards of cartoons; it’s hard not to think that in the day they wrote the cartoons just by throwing every joke they could think of on the pile and cutting whenever it was too long. Also, the Fleischers were (rightly) proud of their technical prowess, such as the rotoscoping that makes a lot of Koko’s bigger movements uncannily natural, and would show off what they could do even if it didn’t quite fit a storyline; and, it was at least a common convention to have the lead animator be seen. This time around at least he has some particular role besides starting and stopping the action.
This stream-of-consciousness plotting does make it more familiar, I suppose, to people who like the dadaist cartoons often aimed at young adults. It’s got some narrative thrust, though, in the form of this bubble-blowing contest between animator Max Fleischer and the cartoon Koko, and that’s enough to excuse the clown having his head pop or getting chased by a rampaging bubble monster or the like.
I’d like to put up another silent comedy for you today. From April 1915 here’s Love, Loot and Crash, starring Charley Chase as Harold, the suitor, and Josef Swickard as Peter Cushing’s Alternate Doctor Who. The short was one of Mack Sennett’s last Keystone pictures before he switched from Mutual to Triangle pictures for distribution, which is valuable information for you fans of motion picture distributors of the mid-1910s. It’s also got a lot of the essential elements of a Mack Sennett comedy: befuddled homeowners, appealing if slightly bland suitors, bumbling cops getting locked in the basement, ditch diggers having motorcycles jump over them, fruit vendors getting their wagons smashed, burglars dressing as servants, elopement, driverless cars running in loops on a pier, all that. The easily embedded YouTube version starts with a commercial, I’m afraid, but the archive.org one I can’t make easy to just show on WordPress.
A pre-fame Harold Lloyd has a small part in the picture. If you don’t look up what character he plays, you can use this as a test of the principle of Clark Kent’s disguise: his character isn’t wearing the glasses that Lloyd would become famous for.
Today I’d like to offer another silent comedy, Snub Pollard’s 1924 Sold At Auction. If my research on this is correct, Snub Pollard came to star in this Hal Roach short when Harold Lloyd took some sick days. Also interesting to me, at least, is that it was directed by Charley Chase, another of the second tier of silent movie comedians; and James Finlayson also has a role, as camper and as homeowner. The version at archive.org includes a soundtrack, with “King For A Day” opening the action.
It starts off well, I think, with a winning baby-basket-at-the-doorstep introduction to Pollard, and has some of the great bits silent comedies offer. It also uses a really striking melting-film wipe to a flashback that I’m surprised I haven’t seen used more. The camping scene’s fun, and includes a bit of stop-motion animation of the kind that I love seeing in silent comedies, and there’s a wonderful runaway piano.
I realized I’ve got a shocking lack of Harold Lloyd video in my little humor blog here, so let me correct that by referring you loyal readers to the 1919 Hal Roach-directed short A Sammy In Siberia, which is surely one of the few American comedies set against the backdrop of the Allied invasion of Siberia in 1918. Archive.org has the video in reasonably archival form, though YouTube again has the form easier to embed in a WordPress site. Don’t read the comments [*].
I admit it’s the setting that’s making me choose this one. The short doesn’t really show Lloyd (or Roach) at his best, despite a couple nicely done stunts and fast action. But when do you see any kind of pop cultural representation of the Siberian Intervention? And I wonder also where Hal Roach filmed this, since there’s a good bit of what looks like stuff filmed outdoors in the snow. (On the other hand, the establishing shot of the cabin with the mountains in the background looks like a set to me.) Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database don’t seem to have much about this film. That’s often a danger with silents, though, to get distracted by looking at the stuff that isn’t the actors.
[*] It’s funny because back then you could stereotype Russians as big fat guys in silly hats the way you can’t anymore since political correctness destroyed humor? Seriously, guy, you want to put that thought out on the Internet where people can read it?
I’d like to offer another silent comedy bit today, so, let me offer The Mechanic, from 1924, starring Jimmy Aubrey, who I admit I don’t know much about. Wikipedia offers that he worked with Charlie Chaplin and with Laurel & Hardy, but that’s not so distinguishing a set of properties as you might think as Chaplin, Laurel, and Aubrey worked for Fred Karno. Karno was one of the leading producers for music hall performances, and brought quite a few of the greats of British stage comedy to British and to American attention, and so is one of the basic links to use if you need to connect any early 20th century stage performers. (And maybe later ones: Wikipedia delights me by noting that Karno’s houseboat, the Astoria, is still afloat at Hampton, Middlesex, where Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour uses it as a recording studio.)
The Mechanic is at archive.org, although it’s obviously not complete: credits, particularly, are missing, and if someone cut scenes from the reel before archive.org got hold of it I wouldn’t know. The jokes are stagy and somewhat padded, I admit, but the timing of jokes, particularly slapstick ones, has gotten generally much faster over the decades. The short, like many silents, also has the distracting value that if you look away from the action you can see actual Los Angeles of that time, and for that matter just the view of a garage back in the days when garages might be called things like Gasoline Alley are interesting. On archive.org the film is in two bits, a fifteen-minute main sequence and for some reason thirteen seconds that didn’t quite fit. Embedded below ought to be a YouTube copy of the first portion of this, and I trust you can find the last quarter-minute.
I haven’t the time to be entertaining on my own today, so let me instead point you to Ben Turpin’s 1909 short feature Mr. Flip. It’s got a lot of what you imagine to see in silent comedies, including what Wikipedia credits as the first filmed pie-in-the-face gag. I certainly accept that it’s an early one, since the pie-in-the-face isn’t framed very well or set up as clearly as it probably would be if the director, “Broncho Billy” Anderson (who played three roles in The Great Train Robbery), or Ben Turpin realized they were producing the first filmed instance of such a slapstick icon. (It’s in the final scene, at about 3:35 into the action.)
Ben Turpin achieved his greatest fame in Mack Sennett comedies and if his face looks familiar it’s probably because, well, it’s a very distinctive face and you probably saw him in clips from the Sennett shorts.
As before, the Archive.org link above is probably going to be a lasting URL, but it’s easier to embed from YouTube so here’s that.
I’d like to put forth another amusing short film from Georges Méliès, this one titled Le Mélomane. It’s another amusing bit of playing with stop-motion and multiple-exposure animation, which is impressive stuff considering the film was made 110 years ago, and all the more impressive when you realize: wait, this was made 110 years ago. Méliès did effects like this mostly in-camera, without edits; to do a multiple-exposure shot he would wind the camera backwards the correct number of frames, meaning he counted the number of frames he needed for each bit of action, and simply shoot again. This has the side effect of making the multiple exposures a little ghostly in effect, but to me, that just makes it all the more amazing that he does this.
As with these, there’s a link to archive.org which ought to be good for, well, archival purposes, but I can’t figure how to embed the film from that. So here’s the video embedded by YouTube, which is easier to see today but might be broken sometime in the future:
I’d like to offer another silent comedy here, this one 1915’s A Versatile Villain, starring Charley Chase. You probably don’t recognize the name and that’s honestly fair enough as his heyday was 85 years ago and he wasn’t in the top tier of silent (or early talkie) comedians. Even his name sounds like an attempt at the mockbuster equivalent of Charlie Chaplin. But he still did some fine work.
A Versatile Villain is also pretty neat in being the sort of parody of Victorian melodrama that’s pretty near the only way anyone sees Victorian melodramas; it’s easy to see the conceptual heritage to, well, Dudley Do-Right, down to the shacks of crates marked DYNAMITE and all that. It’s enough to make you wonder if there were ever a time that this sort of story was being told except for the comic thrill of finding it all ridiculous. I’m inclined to believe that no, these stories have pretty much been absurd exaggeration from the start, or pretty near, that curious sort of entertainment that spoofs something which doesn’t quite really exist, or at least exists nothing like its spoofs do.
The video is available at archive.org, but since I can’t embed that, here’s a YouTube version:
It’s been a while since I had a movie around these parts so let me point you to George Méliès’s The Devilish Tenant, a 1909 short that gives us Méliès as the star, of course, here unpacking and packing up a room from his trunk. This may be a fairly basic premise, but it shows off the stop-motion tricks that Méliès so delighted in, and even when you know how the trick is done it’s still fun seeing. And, yes, it’s in color despite being from 1909.
The link above, from archive.org, is probably the more archive-ready. Unfortunately if things haven’t changed much there’s not a good way to embed archive.org videos on a WordPress site, so, let me include a YouTube link that’s vulnerable to disappearing over copyright claims or the other ways the Internet is a vague and ever-shifting thing.
The blog Movies, Silently addressed recently one of those questions you never realize you always wondered about until after you hear it asked: in silent movies, who was the villain who was always tying women to train tracks? Basically, who was Snidely Whiplash a parody of? The answer’s surprising and I don’t wish to spoil it, so I’ll not say.
In another article on the same topic, Movies, Silently points out a curious phenomenon: the “heroine tied to the railroad track” gimmick is much more evident in parody — Mack Sennett films particularly, or in homages or tributes or just jokes about how they used to do things — than in the original record. (Admittedly there’s a problem studying the original record in that so much of it has been lost.) That is, the heroine gets tied to the railroad track because people think they’re riffing on the cliche of heroines getting tied to the railroad track, when the actual source is a lot less … well, visible, at least.
There seems to me a conceptual parallel in something that sounds unrelated: impersonations of Elvis Presley and (since Elvis has faded some, at least in my social circles) William Shatner. You know how they sound in parody; what’s shocking is to go back and listen to an actual Elvis record, or the original Star Trek, and compare to the source. At some point impersonations started doing comic exaggerations of one another, with any reference to the original forgotten, and now there’s this thing that is “a William Shatner impersonation” that hasn’t got anything to do with the source. Of course, since it communicates, and entertains, and amuses, it’s serving some purpose, but it’s still, really, a weird phenomenon.
The blog Movies, Silently reprints a Photoplay essay from 1925 in which Al Christie explains his formula for reliable comedy. Christie worked largely — I want to say entirely, but I’m not sure — in short subjects; his imdb.com profile lists 762 titles he produced, 460 he directed, and 173 that he wrote, stretching from 1912 to 1947, so I suppose we just have to hope he liked making short subjects.
I admit not recognizing most of the titles (although he apparently was an uncredited producer for the 1930, non-Jack-Benny, version of Charlie’s Aunt), since they tend to sound like Old Short Subject Titles, eg, Calling All Crooners (1937) or Short Change (1924). Well, Tillie’s Punctured Romance stands out, but this is the W C Fields version from 1928. (The Charlie Chaplin version is on archive.org, but Christie didn’t have anything to do wit it as far as I know.) Unfortunately short subjects are harder to appreciate than full-length movies; even Turner Classic Movies mostly uses them to fill in schedule gaps, and rarely has the time to curate or to put into cultural context any of the ones it does have. A occasional night of Robert Benchley shorts or of George Méliès films is great, and appreciated, but it doesn’t give the audience the chance to appreciate the whole field.
In his article Christie gives six “time-tested situations” that he says are reliable comic starters, and they’re probably still a sound base for plot-driven comedy, particularly visual comedy:
- Heaving the pie.
- The lover foiled.
- The Amateur Expert.
- The Crowner Crowned — or The Socker Socked.
- Papa and the Baby.
- Caught in the Act.
I’d like to think that “Papa and the Baby” has worn out its freshness, although if we take this to mean “father figure acts like a dope”, well, it may still have worn out its freshness but it’s also pretty relied upon, so it’s doing business for somebody. I’ve got a fondness for the Amateur Expert motif, which is good for (one) absurdist explanations to common things and (two) getting people into situations where they’re hopelessly outclassed.
The whole article, though, I think’s worth reading, not just because of its insights into how to make a short silent comedy that people will respond to, but also because these fine points about what people laugh at are written in a slangy mid-20s movie-publicity-magazine style that’s itself charming in its antiquity (“this goes back to the French farces of Moliere, and hence does not germinate with the Genus Americanus of Ribticklus”? Really, Al, you want to commit that to print?).
I like silent movies. They’re interesting on many grounds, not least that it’s an art form which appeared in a rough, primitive form, grew to astounding sophistication within a generation, and then vanished, apart from a few novelty acts, in a half-decade, even though the legacy of this genre is still perfectly with us. I particularly like silent comedies, but I’ll try nearly anything.
Number, Please? is a 1920 Harold Lloyd picture, with Lloyd racing Roy Brooks (Lloyd’s personal assistant) to the mother of Mildred Davis’s character, looking for parental consent to a hot air balloon ride. It’s all quite funny, not least because any stunts you see are really done, with a shocking minimum of tricks done by camera or editing.
As often happens with silent comedies, especially short ones like this, the characters don’t have actual names — just “The Boy” for Lloyd, “The Girl” for Davis, and “The Rival” for Brooks — although it wouldn’t do much besides slow down the intertitles a bit if they were given particular names.
Much of the action is at the amusement piers in Venice Beach, California, or as people looking at the early scenes of Lloyd riding the back of a roller coaster call it, “Coney Island”.
I wanted to have the video embedded, since that’s so much more sensible than not, but there seems to be some problem with embedding stuff from archive.org at WordPress blogs that doesn’t actually work if I follow the directions to make it work. I’m sorry about that.
The film pioneer Georges Méliès is credited for many things, most prominently, for making astounding films by the simple use of stopping the camera and changing what was on set, and for creating illusions that are still rather jaw-dropping just by exposing the film twice. He’d do this, incredibly, with a hand-cranked camera and simply turned the film back the correct number of cranks before filming the second round of whatever the stunt was. And you can’t even start writing anything about space travel in popular culture without referring to his 1902 A Trip To The Moon.
What he doesn’t get much credit for, despite the awe and wonder and dreamlike enchantment so many of his films inspire, is being funny, so I want to share a two-minute-long short from 1900: Déshabillage Impossible, or, Going To Bed With Difficulties. The premise is simple: the traveller wants to undress for bed. It’s quite simple, and funny in a way that doesn’t show a hundred-plus years of age.
Méliès did pretty much the same film again in 1900 — I believe later in the film, based on the Star Film numbers — to similarly good effect, although I don’t think it’s quite as good. Still, that take, Le Réveil D’un Monsieur Pressé or if you prefer How He Missed His Train, is also fun and only a minute long, so it isn’t asking much of you.