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81 3 Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and the Classical Style I n 1915, only one year after Charlie Chaplin entered the film industry, the magazine Photoplay ran a four-part series on his career, already proclaiming him “the most popular comedian that the motion picture industry has yet produced.”1 Chaplin, the magazine contends, never fit in with his cohorts at Keystone, which he left at the end of 1914. “Chaplin introduced a new note into moving pictures,” the second article reads. “Theretofore most of the comedy effects had been riotous boisterousness. Chaplin, like many foreign pantomimists got his effects in a more subtle way and with less action. . . . Chaplin enlarged the field of all motion picture comedies.”2 The fourth article laid bare the nature of this “new note” and the way in which the field of motion pictures had been expanded: “It is plain to the careful observer that Chaplin is working toward something entirely new in pictures. In a general way, his idea is that comedy should be more subtle and have more real story.”3 The period that we think of as the golden age of slapstick comedy—what James Agee called “comedy ’s greatest era” in the essay that revitalized the study of the period—was in fact a time of transformation, when slapstick comedy moved from the depiction of physical mayhem in its purest form (as expressed in Mack Sennett’s films) to a compromise with classical technique, exemplified in distinct ways by the canonical slapstick features of the twenties.4 Film comedy would not yet reach the level of classical standardization of the late 1930s, what Frank Krutnik calls “formalized comedian comedies” wherein “the twin demands of representation and presentation are articulated and contained within a stable and predictable formal mode.”5 The films of the slapstick era are still part of a moment in which “aspects of the classical representational paradigm coexist with a presentational mode of attraction that has its roots in such variety forms as vaudeville and burlesque.”6 As Krutnik observes, comedy “has always been slower than other genres to fall in line with industrial practices of standardiza- 82 chaplin in context tion.”7 Yet by the 1920s it was clear that the minimally narrative, a-narrative, or even antinarrative slapstick of the first decades of the century would need to enter into dialogue with the tenets of classical technique, even if the endpoint of standardization was not yet clear. Perhaps no one recognized the nature and necessity of the transition more than Chaplin, whose characterization was among the most nuanced and distinctive and whose narratives were among the most varied and complex of any of the silent clowns in their artistic maturity. But Chaplin’s own negotiations with classical form occurred in the context of a series of parallel negotiations as each of his rivals sought his own way forward from gag-reel to film, efforts that defined a horizon of approaches against which Chaplin’s evolution as a filmmaker might be judged. The terms of the negotiation between slapstick’s traditional modes and classical style’s normative demands would not look the same from comedian to comedian; they would vary across the last two decades of the silent era but most especially across the individuals who would come to define the form—based on each figure’s filmmaking style and philosophy, to be sure, but also on the history and training that he brought with him, and even, pivotally, on the contours of his body and the ways in which he knew how to perform in and around a given radius of space. The development of Chaplin’s hallmark visual style was the product of a series of stylistic and narrative choices, but Chaplin did not make these choices in isolation. He stood always in the presence of other performers and filmmakers, former vaudevillians and screen-born actors alike, who had to navigate their own way through this new terrain. To know Chaplin’s filmmaking and the cinematic style that he would develop to support it, we must first turn to two of his peers in particular: Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The arc of their choices would help define the matrix of options from which and through which Chaplin’s own brand of cinema emerged. Harold Lloyd, Student of Slapstick By financial standards, the most successful figure in negotiating the transition to a new era of slapstick in the 1920s was the one most opposite to...


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