written by Laolu Ogundele
What makes you laugh? Seriously, this is not a trick question… Okay, let’s narrow the question down. What kinds of films make you snicker, giggle, and guffaw? Whatever your answer is, do you know that it would likely be different if you lived 100 years ago? What if I told you that you’d probably be a great consumer of Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick style of comedy had you been living in the 1920s?
What’s my big point? 😉
As with most other aspects of life and society, the film comedy industry has evolved through the centuries. But the evolution isn’t tied solely to changes in what audiences found funny. It’s more complicated than that. In fact, it is believed that a lot of it was down to an improvement in film technology. For example, in the 1920s, when filmmakers had not yet figured out how to include audio components in their productions, they, of necessity, focused on visuals, leading to the popularity of the slapstick style of comedy. However, as technology improved over the next decade, films could now begin to have sounds, and producers began to explore using gags and banter in their movies.
Today, film technology has advanced significantly, and film producers now have a wide array of tools at their disposal. But with comedy, more isn’t always better; sometimes, old is gold. So, let’s look at some forgotten comedy actors that could probably give contemporary ones a run for their money.
There’s no better comedy actor to start with than Buster Keaton, “the Great Stone Face.” Plying his trade in the silent era of comedy, Buster Keaton is said to have been far ahead of his time. He was a visionary storyteller and cinematic genius that got his nickname – “The Great Stone Face” – because he could never be caught smiling on camera. His mantra seemed to be, “oh, y’all can do the smiling and laughing; I’ll pass on that.” An enigma of sorts, Buster Keaton was respected for his rich, original stories, cinematic prowess, and innovative special effects.
But arguably, what makes Keaton most remarkable is the fearlessness with which he approached physical comedy. He executed the most insane stunts, which included having a house fall on him, and leaping from one story building to the next – all without green screens or safety gear. He indeed was a sensation! In retrospect, the height of his acting career was in the mid-1920s. However, by 1928, he would make a move that would turn out to be his worst career mistake – sign a deal with MGM. This deal effectively crippled him creatively, and six years later, he filed for bankruptcy. His personal tragedies notwithstanding, his extraordinary legacy remained. He would always remain “The Great Stone Face,” who never broke into a sweat – or a smile.
Another comedy actor that burst into the scenes in the early nineteen hundreds was Harold Lloyd. He, along with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, is widely regarded as the king of silent comedy. However, if Buster Keaton was “The Great Stone Face,” Harold Lloyd could have been known as “The Great Happy Face” – so much was his enthusiasm and boyish charm. His acts were characterized by hilarious chase scenes and impressive stunts, even if they weren’t as daring as those that Keaton would pull off. By far, his most iconic comedic scene is found in the movie “Safety at Last.” In that dramatic scene, which has since proven to be his landmark showing, Harold is seen hanging for dear life from the hands of a huge skyscraper clock.
Unlike the other leaders of the silent comedy genre, Harold’s signature was to make his characters “normal.” This proved to be a genius decision because the audience seemed to relate better with his character than with Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, for example. Thus, whenever his character was in danger, which was fairly often, the viewers did not only laugh, they also felt a bit of fear and concern for him. This birthed the “thrill comedy” genre – a creation that electrified viewers and was crucial in cementing his place amongst the film comedy pioneers.
While Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were two of the landmark actors of the silent era, The Marx Brothers were pivotal in bringing the early sound era of the 1930s into life. To us, the general public, they were simply a team of four sibling comedians known for their rascally chaotic performances. But on closer observation, there seemed to be more method to the madness. Each team member had something creatively distinct to add to the group.
- Chico, the oldest of the group, typically played a chatty Italian con master.
- Groucho was gifted with masterful wit that was delivered with impeccable timing. Ever smoking a stogie, he was arguably the group’s central and most famous member.
- Harpo primarily played a mute, red-haired mischief maker.
- Zeppo, who was the youngest, and last to join, was the quiet stiff who never quite managed to carve a niche for himself within the group.
Together, they made waves in the comedy industry and became fan favorites for several years! Though they didn’t quite do dangerous stunts like their predecessors – Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd – they brought their own unique touch to the world of comedy.
The man who tries to be funny is lost. To lose one’s naturalness is always to lose the sympathy of your audience. Harold Lloyd
I imagine that such styles as romantic comedies, situational comedies, and dark comedies may seem more familiar to you today. But while contemporary comedy films are excellent in their own right, they’re often deficient in compelling characters and raw performances, instead relying on great graphics, impeccable audio, and stunt doubles. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine, so I hope you like the old prescriptions that I have just gathered for you! ☝️😂
A comedian does funny things. A good comedian does things funny. Buster Keaton
Next posts – this weekend: updates about my blog; next week: The Story of Harmless Bullet (day 31), A Guide To Finding Beauty In The World, Magical Lies, and Moral Dilemmas in Books.
STAY TUNED! 📚😀🤸☕️
These were great comedians. It would be nice to see someone with the same talent resurrect their comedy. Well done, Ray
Yes, agreed:) but it would be “something else” – modern time + show biz as it is = dictate their own rules or “trends” 🙂
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