Ever since this weekend's blog-a-thon was announced back in July, I've been feasting on a fairly regular diet of slapstick movies in order to get better acquainted with this film technique. What a treat! I enjoyed watching sloe-eyed Mabel Normand spoof the virginal damsel-in-distress in shorts like Bangville Police (1913) and well-upholstered Marie Dressler's freewheeling performance in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914), got re-acquainted with Charlie Chaplin in the latter film and then saw a very different (and talking) Charlie in The Great Dictator (1940), laughed mirthfully at rotund Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's unexpectedly agile performance in The Cook (1918), had a good time with the self-reflexivity and naughtiness of A Reckless Romeo (1920) and the surrealism of The Play House (1921), chuckled at a gender bending, gun-totting Fay Tincher beating a cowboy in a boxing match in Rowdy Ann (1919), smiled at reedy Harold Lloyd's body transformations and romantic predicaments in Number, Please (1920), snickered at milquetoast Harry Langdon's bid to win the girl in All Night Long (1924), marveled at the acrobatic prowess of Buster Keaton in the extended running gags of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) and The General (1927), grinned at slow-moving W.C. Fields' slick shtick (say that five times fast) in The Bank Dick (1940), laughed hardest at the unconstrained chaos of the Three Stooges in full cry in No Census, No Feeling (1940), and topped it all off this morning with one of my favorite Warner Bros Looney Tunes, Rabbit Seasoning (1952).
Experiencing the many hilarious movies above, and reading a bit about this particular approach to filmmaking, I began to realize that the comedy is enhanced by the talent of individual performers, by pantomime and acrobatics, by robust energy and speed, spontaneity, surprise and suspense, running gags and chains of destruction in extended mise-en-scène, camera tricks and other technical manipulation, masks, props and body transformation, sound effects and music. Though these conventions are familiar in slapstick comedies it is possible to imagine a slapstick without any one or even all of these elements.
Having your bill blown sideways is "deshhhpicable." And funny!
However, there is one convention that all but defines the comedy style, and without which it couldn't truly be termed slapstick. Slapstick films make us laugh through representations of exaggerated violence that don't result in anyone being seriously injured. In other words, we laugh at violence on the screen, even if it appears to hurt someone, as long as the injury is shown to be temporary. Whether Marie Dressler gets kicked in the rear for the thirtieth time in Tillie's Punctured Romance, W.C. Fields pounds on his daughter's head in The Bank Dick, or Elmer Fudd blasts off Daffy Duck's bill once again in Rabbit Seasoning we laugh despite, or because of, the fact that such violence is unexpected, socially unacceptable, exaggerated for effect, and staged so that we know that no one has sustained permanent injury.
The slapstick tradition actually predates the cinema by many years. A "slapstick" refers to a prop of the Italian commedia dell'arte; a stick made of two pieces of wood bound at the handle which make a very loud crack when applied to a character on the stage. This exaggerated violence seems more realistic thanks to the loud racket issued by the slapstick,and it's funny since the audience can see that the performer isn't really injured though it sounds as though he/she has been struck viciously.
A primitive form of screen slapstick reaches all the way back to one of the earliest experiments of the cinema, the Lumière brothers' short, L'Arroseur arrosée (1895). In what has been called the first comedic film, a boy plays a prank that causes a man using a watering hose to spray himself, and he gets slapped in retaliation. This film is obviously staged and the representation of violence is just for laughs (whether one does is another matter). In the U.S. a form of the slapstick tradition was passed on through vaudeville and transferred to the screen in the early silent period by filmmakers like Mack Sennett and performers like those working for the Keystone studio. In the silent cinema musical accompaniment plays an important part in reinforcing the tempo and rhythm on the screen, but improvised action often has to compensate for the lack of realistic sound especially when violence is portrayed. Perhaps that has something to do with the inspired and still unmatched performances by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Arbuckle, et al.
The facial expressions are funny, but you should hear the slap.
One of more direct applications of the old slapstick stage routine in the sound period is seen in the Three Stooges shorts. Sound technicians added any number of original sound effects over the act's on-screen mayhem to reinforce the exaggerated representation of violence. To see how the addition of sound effects improve the illusion of violence in these shorts just watch one with the sound turned off. Yes, it might look as though Moe really hits Curly with a chisel, but turn up the sound and you'll hear "KONK!" and Curly's "Oh! Oh! Oh!"— suddenly the simple bit becomes twice as effective and, more importantly, twice as funny. Still, it's the fact that seconds later Curly is back to his old self again, and the chisel has left no mark on his cropped cranium that we're able to keep laughing.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that it's funny to see a man blindy stroll over an open manhole and fall in, but if we look into the hole and see him lying there bloody and broken we'd be cruel creatures indeed to continue laughing. Lucky for us that slapstick films rarely cross the line between comedy and cruelty. Sure slapstick can be violent but that's what makes it so much fun to watch. Besides, it's just a gag, and though accidents can and do happen slapstick performers were/are professionals who know their craft well. So laugh it up folks, but don't try this at home.