Kings of (Silent) Comedy

Presented at SFSFF 2013
Print Source
Lobster Films and Flicker Alley

Live Musical Accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald

Essay by Gregg Rickman

Directed by Otto Messmer, USA, 1924
With a few exceptions—notably Winsor McCay’s 1914 Gertie the Dinosaur—early film animation made little impact until 1919. That’s when producer Pat Sullivan’s Feline Follies, starring the rowdy cat Master Tom, captured the public’s attention. A newspaper cartoonist, Sullivan had some success with a series of Charlie Chaplin cartoons in 1916, and his top animator, Otto Messmer, mastered drawing Charlie’s moves and used those skills to create a rascally cat with onscreen charisma.

For the new series starring the now renamed Felix, the modest Messmer served as its uncredited director for the next decade, producing some 70 percent of the drawings, in addition to drawing a daily Felix strip in the funnies beginning in 1923. Felix the Cat was the first great cartoon star, the progenitor of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Bugs Bunny but with more adult appeal. Like his successors, Felix was heavily merchandized. Felix the Cat tie-pins, brooches, silver spoons, dolls, pillows, candy, blankets, pencils, and automobile radiator caps were available for sale throughout the 1920s. The cat even had his own theme music, “Felix Kept on Walking.”

Felix was a stubborn loner interested in food, shelter, and, occasionally, females, in roughly that order. Rudyard Kipling’s “Just-So” fable of 1912, “The Cat That Walked by Himself,” had been a key inspiration for the character, as was Chaplin’s peripatetic Tramp. Another great silent comic, Buster Keaton, both influenced and copied Felix. Felix frequently uses the deadpan comedian’s trademark hand-over-the-eyes gesture to assess a new landscape. Keaton returned the favor by borrowing Felix’s characteristic circular walk while thinking things over in his 1925 feature Go West. Made one year earlier, Felix Goes West might well have been Keaton’s inspiration for his parody of the western.

As Felix Goes West illustrates, the lone cat occupies a stripped-down world—empty streets and stark mountains, hostile people and animals, all handsomely drawn by Messmer and associates on paper, not the newer animation cels. By the time Felix Goes West was made, animator Bill Nolan had already rounded out the cat’s originally angular features.

When talkies arrived, Sullivan refused to adapt to the new medium, bringing a sudden end to Felix’s enormous popularity. Pat Sullivan died in 1933, but Messmer continued to draw the Felix comic strip for many years, living long enough to be rediscovered by animation historians. At a Museum of Modern Art tribute in 1976, the 86-year-old modestly accepted thanks for his life’s work. His speech in full: “Like the cartoons, I am silent.”

Directed by Leo McCarey, USA, 1926
Buster Keaton believed he only needed 20 minutes to achieve maximum laughter. In Mighty Like a Moose, Charley Chase proves the point. It’s a brilliant comedy but of a different sort that made Chaplin and Keaton’s reputations. It seems more like a prototype for television’s half-hour situation comedy, its characters interacting in a tightly wound plot.

Charley Chase (born Charles Parrott) began his career at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio. Tall, mustached, and polite, he didn’t make an impression in 1914 amid Sennett’s bulbous-nosed rowdies. He first became a director of one- and two-reel farces, turning other comedians into stars, including his brother Jimmy Parrott. For a couple years, he ran the day-to-day operations at producer Hal Roach’s “Lot of Fun.”

By late 1923, interest in heavily made-up buffoons had diminished and top comedians Keaton and Lloyd were deserting shorts for features. Roach had already helped Harold Lloyd to fame as a normal fellow in extreme situations and he saw a new opportunity in his right-hand man. The Charley Chase series of short comedies started in early 1924. Full-page ads featured a picture of the actor in top hat and tails. “You aren’t a cartoon or a caricature,” read one. “Your face ain’t lopsided nor do you sport an Adam’s apple the size of a pumpkin; you look like a real human being and you act like one.”

Chase specialized in playing a real human being in increasingly absurd situations that followed a linear, if cracked, logic. Frequently married in his films, Chase drew humor from the perils of domesticity, and his female costars were active players in the chaos, particularly Vivien Oakland in Mighty Like a Moose. The morality was no longer Victorian but Jazz Age, with open acknowledgment, and open defiance, of Prohibition. Director Leo McCarey, Chase’s creative partner in all this, had joined him a few months into his stardom in 1924 and stayed with him through 1926 before going on to supervise the teaming of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy the following year. McCarey then went on to direct some of the great comedies of the 1930s, from Duck Soup (1933) to The Awful Truth (1937), the latter garnering him the first of his Oscars for directing. After Chase’s early death in 1940, McCarey said that Chase had “taught me all I know.”

Directed by Buster Keaton, USA, 1922
The Love Nest was the last of the 19 shorts Buster Keaton made between 1920 and 1922, and the only one for which he took sole credit as writer-director. It’s a deep-sea chart of Keaton’s comic universe, bleak and absurd, minus the love story that softens his other films.

Keaton, a comedy veteran since his childhood as a member of his family’s vaudeville act, never courts sympathy. Like Felix the Cat he just keeps moving through his black-and-white world no matter what. Buster also famously remains “stone-faced.” Keaton said he shot his first three solo films before reviews pointed out that he never cracked a smile. His character is dedicated to staying alive and simply doesn’t have time for it. Studio publicity released during its production declared The Love Nest unique in that “there is not a woman in the cast.” In fact, Keaton’s usual female lead, Virginia Fox, appears briefly only in silhouette to say good-bye to Buster, a lovely shot filmed at Palisades Park in Santa Monica. (Her image also appears in a photograph.)
Initially, the jilted Buster seeks oblivion in his tiny craft dubbed “Cupid.” A string of black comedy jokes emphasizing life’s cheapness in a hostile environment follows. The diminutive Buster’s straight-faced guile is primarily set against sea captain Joe Roberts’s he-man brutality. C. S. Sewell of Moving Picture World wrote in his review that The Love Nest is a “burlesque of ‘virile sea stories’” suggesting that Roberts is parodying Wolf Larsen of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, filmed in 1920 with Noah Beery as the Survival-of-the-Fittest captain.
In a 1922 interview, the Los Angeles Times paraphrased Keaton’s take on comedy filmmaking: “humor has progressed much since the days when his father used to pick him up and hurl him into the scenery. To get across with comedy today, one must be human, and the ‘gag,’ or situation, must be original.” Full of clever gags, The Love Nest might be as well known as Keaton’s similarly themed Cops or The Goat if it hadn’t been lost for many years, its scattered fragments coming together only since the 1970s.  

Directed by Charles Chapiin, USA, 1917
It’s hard today to comprehend the intensity of Charlie Chaplin’s sudden, mass popularity that surged just after he entered films in 1914. In March 1917, Photoplay reported that continuous laughter during two weeks’ run of Chaplin comedies loosened the bolts on theater seats. According to David Robinson’s definitive biography of the silent star, nine out of ten men attending costume balls that year went as Chaplin. The British-born vaudevillian was also supposedly paged in 800 hotels simultaneously across America on the night of November 12, 1916.
Chaplin’s initial popularity was built on acrobatic aggression but, by 1917, he had formed his more sympathetic Tramp character, which he spoke of frankly as seeking appeal with “a pitiable expression.” He needed his popularity. In April 1917, when America entered the World War, he was widely attacked for not rushing to enlist. He had tried but he didn’t meet the Army’s physical requirements; perhaps this first experience gives The Immigrant its particular edge.
Chaplin began work on what became his penultimate film for Mutual that same April, right after his 28th birthday. The film, like so many of his others, is built on his character’s poverty, this one beginning with a broke diner in a fancy French restaurant. Chaplin felt his way into his movies, improvising on camera and filming take after take. Into the café scenes, he eventually folded in the appearance of Edna Purviance, his regular costar from 1915 to 1923. (She used to encourage him before shots by saying, “Go on, be cute!”) As he shot and reshot the dining scenes, he substituted increasingly large men as the threatening waiter before settling on massive Eric Campbell.
The café sequence concluded, he began to shoot the shipboard scenes comprising the first half of the film, which answer the question of how Charlie and Edna came to know each other. A stage device—a rocking platform he had first used in a 1910 music hall routine about an unsteady ocean voyage—helped the ship’s floors heave. Lastly, he shot the film’s brief scenes linking the two parts, including the famous shot of émigrés forced behind a rope once they arrive ashore. Once shooting was over, Chaplin’s remaining challenge was to reduce 40,000 feet of exposed film to 1,800 for its release, accomplished over four straight days and nights without rest.
The Immigrant’s send-up of American hostility toward huddled masses yearning to breathe free ensures Chaplin’s film is as timely and as funny in 2013 as it was in 1917. According to David Robinson, this film, along with Easy Street and The Cure all made in less than six months, are “an astonishing leap forward” for Chaplin, “launch[ing] the series of masterpieces that mark [his] maturity.”