Saturday, September 3, 2016

Comedy College

Sorry if I'm a bit late on this, but TCM is offering a course this fall entitled Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies

We invite movie lovers, comedy fans, and online learners from around the work to join us for a free, flexible online course, TCM Presents Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies. Enjoy multimedia course materials, daily emails with movie clips and conversation starters, and ongoing interactions with fellow film fans on the TCM message boards or at #SlapstickFall. 

In this course, we will explore the greatest slapstick gags in movie history by showcasing 56 classic films released between 1914 and 2004. Spanning almost a century of filmmaking, we will watch, discuss, and analyze the best comedy gags ever filmed involving physical comedy, broad humor, and outrageous situations. 

The course will run concurrently with Turner Classic Movies' OUCH! A Salute to Slapstick programming event, airing every Tuesday and Wednesday in September 2016.  Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of comedy, Hollywood filmmaking, and popular culture. You will be able to share your thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of students, fans, and film lovers.
Here's a segment from a web series produced for the course: Breakdown of a Gag

You can get more info at the TCM Message Boards: Ouch! A Salute to Slapstick 

A few blogs ago I mentioned the David Wolper documentary series Hollywood and The Stars, which consisted mostly of library and newsreel clips, with wraparounds from host Joseph Cotten. The episode "Funny Men" was broadcast on November 29, 1963, exactly one week after the assassination of President Kennedy.


Clearly inspired by the compilation films of archivist Robert Youngson (who we'll get to in a moment) then playing in theaters, there are a couple of interesting things here: for one, this may be the first time Chaplin's City Lights rehearsal footage was ever seen publicly. And if I'm not mistaken the man with Fred Allen is none other than an unrecognizable Clifton Webb. Straight man, indeed.

The Marx Brothers are only mentioned in passing, and if Hal Roach was mentioned at all I missed it. Roach's discoveries Laurel & Hardy are seen only in a brief clip from an English newsreel. I guess Wolper was taking no chances with usage rights.

Roach already had a deal in place with the aforementioned Youngson, a longtime documentary producer at Warners who spent years compiling old movie clips for nostalgic shorts. He would expand on this technique in 1957 with a feature entitled The Golden Age Of Comedy.

Although James Agee's legendary Life Magazine article "Comedy's Greatest Era" in 1949 had begun the revival/canonization of the great silent clowns, it was Youngson who truly brought this campaign to the masses. He hedged his bets with narration that emphasized nostalgia, but interspersed throughout were comments about "the lost art of visual comedy".

There's a curious moment when the narration describes Harry Langdon as "the fourth in the great quartet of silent comedians". The other three are never mentioned. Was Youngson so afraid of a lawsuit he couldn't even mention their names? (I admit with Harold Lloyd, that fear might have been justified)

An odd quirk of Youngson's nostalgia was his stressing how many of the beloved stars had passed on. He shows a sequence with a very young Carole Lombard as a college athlete. As she wins her race and is congratulated by celebrating friends, the narration reminds us of how she died so tragically. Just the thing to extend the mood.

(For more about Youngson and The Golden Age Of Comedy read this excellent piece by John McElwee at the web's best movie blog, Greenbriar Picture Shows. Mention my name.)

Youngson released several other films in the same vein, with generally decreasing box-office returns, the last being 4 Clowns in 1970.

By this time the silent comedy revival was pretty much over, and the silent clowns had been replaced by The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields at revival houses as well as college film societies. An exception was Buster Keaton, whose cult would only continue to grow. He's here in 4 Clowns, thanks to Youngson making a deal with the controversial film archivist Raymond Rohauer, which allowed Youngson to include Keaton clips without fear of being sued by Raymond Rohauer.

The Roach deal is still in place, so Youngson once again features Laurel and Hardy. Rather strangely he includes a long sequence from Two Tars, just as he had done in The Golden Age almost 15 years earlier. Another curious decision is Keaton being represented solely by one of his weaker features, Seven Chances. This may have been Rohauer's doing, for some arcane legal/financial reason/scheme.

The revelation of 4 Clowns is Charley Chase, presumably as unfamiliar to audiences of 1970 as he is to audiences of 2016.

Sort of a cross between Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy (Chase was older than Hardy, but seemed younger onscreen), Chase was a harbinger of sitcom stars like Dick Van Dyke. He was invariably married or engaged in his films, and this was significant in the the nature of his farcically domestic comedy. He never managed the transition to features, unlike the similarly natty but less domesticated Raymond Griffith.

As part of Hollywood, his superb series on silent movies  (my favorite documentary series on any subject), Kevin Brownlow produced an episode on silent comedy.

It shows the rough and tumble beginnings, and even has some brief clips of Max Linder. before moving on to Sennett, Roach, and then the big four. The segment on Harry Langdon features an interview with his writer/director Frank Capra. Although not quite perfect (the Lloyd section is mostly the untypical Hot Water) it's an excellent overview, and probably the compilation I'd show to someone new to the form.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

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