By Alan Bilton. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 256 pp.
Alan Bilton’s Silent Film Comedy and American Culture brings to mind Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery’s observation that film history is not a simple empiricist history. They quote the American historian Charles Beard to remind us that, at best, film history must always remain a subjective ideological history: “ Whatever acts of purification the historian may perform he yet remains human, a creature of time, place, circumstance, interests, predilections, culture.”1 Allen [End Page 291] and Gomery divide the field of film history into four major areas, representing the major avenues of film historical investigation: Aesthetic film history deals with the history of the cinema as an art form; Technological film history involves the study of the origins and development of the technology that makes possible the creation and presentation of movies; Economic film history concerns who pays for movies and how and why they are made; Social film history is concerned principally with three questions: (1) Who made films and why? (2) Who saw films, how, and why? (3) What was seen, how and, why?2 The title of Bilton’s first chapter is “Introducing America’s Silent Film Comedy: Clowns, Conformity, Consumerism” and confirms what the title of his book already suggested, namely that Bilton adheres mostly to the social approach to film history with some minor attention to the economic approach. This selective approach is perhaps the book’s strongest aspect and its greatest weakness in that it avoids a whole set of questions concerning the aesthetic and technological categories of film history.
In his analysis of the relationship between silent comedies and the development of practical capitalism and consumerism in the U.S. during the turn of the twentieth century, Bilton relies heavily on the work of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who was one of Hoover’s key speechwriters, as well as one of the most important architects of Western consumer culture. Bilton proposes that slapstick movies, with their use of destruction, comically uninhibited lust, illogical gags, and absurdist anarchy, provide a test case for Bernays’s theories, which for the first time applied psychoanalysis to explain economic and cultural phenomena. Bilton aims to explore whether such manic energies can be absorbed and tamed by the system, or whether instead they illuminate the essential irrationality of consumer culture and the transformation of civic duty into boundless desire. Bilton quotes Rob King’s study of the Keystone Film Company, which states that the “timeless” age of silent comedy can only be understood in terms of “a shift from a producer to a consumer economy” (29). Thus, Bilton claims that one should read all slapstick comedy as a form of collective anxiety dream.
Bilton raises the important paradox of slapstick: on the one hand, it serves as a subversive tool that attacks social norms, while on the other hand, as comedy, it serves an essentially conservative purpose, restraining excessive activity by redirecting its energy to humor and laughter. This issue is very crucial to all humor study and is probably one of the preeminent unsolved [End Page 292] questions regarding humor and its effects on society and politics. Analyzing Keaton and Chaplin’s films, which are rich in satirical and subversive gags, could suggest a broader approach to this issue and might expose the dichotomy, which leads to the above-mentioned paradox as an oversimplified attitude. The context of the gag may be the key to understanding whether it is subversive or submissive.
Bilton’s narrow focus on the social perspective enables him to encapsulate the entire oeuvre of the seven most iconic and popular silent comedians: Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Rosco “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon. He observes that Sennett’s movies should be read “not as absurd Dada provocation, but rather as a cock-eyed reflection of the immigrant experience, its kicks, knocks and scums” (48). Or as he sums it up: “If the key theme of a Demille picture is the Cinderella theme, Sennett’s films remain stubbornly ugly sisters: grimy, grotty, redolent of the...