Monday, September 10, 2007

Slapstick to Screwball

Silent film director D. W. Griffith enthusiastically announced of this new art form, “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We’ve found a Universal language.”

Some ten years later, Buster Keaton took a pratfall as his car was demolished by an oncoming train.

Griffith is quoted in the autobiography of one of his most famous stars, Lillian Gish, who affirms that he believed “we were taking the first tiny steps in a new glorious medium that had been predicted in The Bible and called the Universal Language. That when it could be brought to its full power, it would bring about the millennium.”

And so it came to pass that Harold Lloyd hid from bullies by crawling up inside laundry hanging from a clothesline.

Charlie Chaplin cooked and ate a boot.

And anybody in the scene took a pie in the face.

The glorious medium that Mr. Griffith had believed was predicted in the Bible and would bring about the millennium reflected almost obsessively on the common lives of common people, but with a little bit of exaggeration. Mr. Griffith specialized in drama, not comedies, and so perhaps his view of the purpose of film was a bit more serious than Mack Sennett’s. Griffith’s hope that silent films would bring about the brotherhood of man fell short of ending warfare for all time. But he was right about the universality of silent film. He was also right about predicting the success of Mack Sennett. Sennett was his protégée.

The universality of silent films was lost when sound pictures came on the scene. Even dubbing into different languages does not have the same effect of universality of meaning. Not everything translates well. Even the titles of films are changed to mean something different.

But pantomime goes beyond mere words, and in comedy films, mere pantomime found embellishment in slapstick. Slapstick evolved into the purest form of film comedy, a gag requiring only a little setup, or sometimes none at all. Afterward, nothing needed to be explained.

There had been physical comedy since the Renaissance, and some early 20th century vaudevillian stage slapstick launched the careers of some famous film comedians, but the slapstick was not so intricate, so carefully plotted, and so technically sophisticated as it became on film. With special effects, physical comedy reached its zenith on film. One could not be witty or acerbic in a silent film. Comedy could be represented successfully only in its broadest terms, and so the Keystone Kops formed a bumbling brigade that raced through the city streets, tumbling off the running boards of the “paddy wagon.”

In yet another ten years, Laurel and Hardy were taking a piano up a flight up stairs, dropping it and being run over by it as they ushered slapstick into sound film. However, sound allowed slapstick to meld into screwball. The dinosaur skeleton model may have tumbled into a heap in “Bringing Up Baby,” (1938) but the film is as much noted for its banter between Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as for the tear in the back of her dress at the party.

Carole Lombard’s comic prattle in “My Man Godfrey” (1935) begins to overshadow her talents at physical comedy, and all the pratfalls taken in “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) take a back seat to Preston Sturges’ witty script. Witty could be just as silly as slipping on a banana peel, but it required more understanding. Never again would comedy be so simple, and so universally understood.

If Mr. Griffith was right about silent films being the Universal Language, then pantomime was its grammar. Slapstick was its exclamation point.

This entry is also part of the Film of the Year Slapstick Blog-A-Thon. Please visit this site and the other blogs taking part for more on slapstick comedy.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I think verbal comedy works best when it is combined with some slapstick moments. For instance I happened to catch Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963) on TCM yesterday, and enjoyed the witty sex comedy banter but it wasn't until Irene (Edie Adams) smacked playboy Hogan (Jack Lemmon) across the face with his token goodbye present (a stuffed monkey, what else?) as he sat waiting for a shave in a crowded barbershop that I finally burst out laughing. She said more in one swing than forty minutes of dialogue. Perhaps slapstick adds an exclamation point to sound comedies also.

Superb post. Thanks for tracing the path from Griffith through slapstick to screwball for the blog-a-thon.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by Thom, and congratulations on a successful Slapstick Blog-a-Thon.

I agree, verbal comedy is often enhanced with a bit of slapstick thrown in.

Joe Thompson said...

Jacqueline: I like the way you used Griffith's trick of intercutting to contrast his idealistic ideas with the practical results.

Joe Thompson ;0)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Joe. But Mr. Griffith does it better.

I'd like to encourage all our readers to pop over to your blog for a look at Buster Keaton's early career in vaudeville. Terrific stuff. (

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