July 2003

The Touch of Comedy

In Chaplin's last film, A Countess From Hong Kong, he plays a steward in a scene which borders on self-effacement. Entering a room with his tray of drinks, he seems to stumble, a balletic moment in which he does not stumble, in fact, but recovers with a grace that is charming to watch.


The Gold Rush (1925)

As much as any comedian who ever worked in front of a camera (I can't comment on his work before a live audience), Chaplin knew the power of subtlety and surprise: the snowball that just misses the rich man's top hat, the banana peel cleverly or accidentally sidestepped, the dowager unaware that her slip is not only showing but imperiling her knees.

Chaplin was his own best director, capable of creating sublime slapstick. He was a master of visual humor, like the arctic cabin teetering at the edge of a precipice in The Gold Rush, as well as the slightly subtler humor of a starving man preparing to eat a parboiled shoe, also in The Gold Rush.

What is not clear is how often the directors improved the comedy of the great comedians like Chaplin and Keaton and a handful of others who had learned the trade in front of live customers and knew how to extract every quiver of laughter from them. Comedians like George Burns, who had started in vaudeville, knew how to work audiences. Before he appeared in an unfamiliar vaudeville theater, Burns went on stage before the crowds arrived, lit a cigar and watched where the prevailing drafts blew the smoke. "If the smoke blew in Gracie's face, the audience hated me," Burns once told me.

King Vidor once remarked that he did not think Charlie Chaplin was a particularly good director. But, Vidor added, "The thing is that Chaplin could think of 10 funny things to do to get from one side of a room to the other." I think it is true of humor as of many things that the essence is in the details. Slapstick humor is wonderful in its gross ways. Oliver Hardy carefully rolls up one sleeve and then thrusts the other arm into the fish tank to retrieve the sunken watch. In a broader kind of visual gag, Laurel and Hardy drive their jalopy to a saw mill, momentarily failing to realize that the saw is bisecting the car right down the middle from radiator to taillight. Visual humor is sometimes wonderfully improbable. In one of the shorts, a workman passes the camera carrying a long board all by himself. At the end of the board sits Stan Laurel eating his lunch as he bobs along. It doesn't make a lot of practical sense but it is a deliciously funny tableau.

It is often hard to know for sure where the director begins and the comedians leave off, or vice versa. With the best comedians the viewer thinks he knows and gives the comedian credit, which he or she may or may not totally deserve. In fact, Stan Laurel was a brilliant director of comedy and once the personas of Laurel and Hardy had been perfected (often with the guidance of Hal Roach), they went on to their long memorable careers together. In a real sense, the twosome they created was duplicated by other pairings in later years, including, if in a slightly different way, Hope and Crosby and one or two other successful teams: the dumb but trusting follower and the competent but inept leader. In a sense, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were in a line of partners in which one was obviously the bright calm leader, the other the impetuous and often foolish instigator of mischief. Metaphorically speaking, Hope is usually the one with the imaginative but misguided ideas, Crosby the one who is customarily and dubiously uncertain about the enterprise.

But, like all teams, you need both halves, the dreamer and the doubter, the schemer and the foot dragger. Hope and Crosby were blessed by the help of some of the shrewdest directors of comedy in Hollywood, including Norman Panama (Road to Hong Kong) and David Butler (Road to Morocco). Hope and Crosby were essentially a verbal twosome rather than visual, although Hope was likelier to end in the cannibal's pot than Crosby, who seldom lost his dignity or his toupee.

The earliest film comedy was show, not tell: the comedy of the banana peel and the pratfall. In a silent film, a dialog card did not add much to the visual joke you saw on the screen. The further film got from the slapstick of silent comedy the more important the words became. The writers and their dialog and the jokes were waiting in the wings to give these visual comics a new dimension.

Like everything else about the movies they migrated north from the sight gags and broad action of earlier comedies until ultimately what they said could be as important and funny as what they used to do. The new breed of makers of comedy were writers more than performers. Even Charlie Chaplin, who was a sort of transitional figure between slapstick and comedy of character, had figured out that pathos was really as essential to comedy as fall-down slapstick. Indeed, more and more, character came into comedy and with it the much wider range of emotion — actions and characters meant to produce emotional responses in the viewers and an awareness that what happened on the screen could be affecting and could just as effectively produce tears as well as laughter, with both ends of the emotional spectrum creating strong responses in audiences.

The early days of visual jokes in which laughter was the primary result evolved subtly into situation comedy and a new breed of comic actors in which the situations now embraced and conveyed pathos as well as laughter.

Chaplin did some of the funniest early comedies like some of the sequences in The Gold Rush. There are few tableaus in Chaplin more moving than when he is waddling down the road into his own future in his battered derby and baggy clothes. Battered but fearless, he was at last a kind of elderly waif, alone in the world but befriending the pretty blind girl played by the young Paulette Goddard in City Lights.

Historically, the subtle change from the comedy of jokes and knockabout farce to deeper feelings, more poignant situations and outright sadness took the idea of what was funny to the wider world of what was touching and perhaps more deeply human. An early comedy like King Vidor's Show People was funny but it also recognized a realer world with its good guys and its not so good guys and its gulf often quite wide between the ideal and the real, the gulf between triumph and the near-miss.

There is always a rising sophistication and complexity in film comedy as in all things. Woody Allen, with his nerdy but endearing self-portraiture, was an extension of the strain of comedies that went back spiritually to Chaplin as the tramp and Jackie Coogan as the waif shuffling to survive in the hard world. In a long comic tradition he is essentially a loner hoping to find the right girl but seldom succeeding. Some of the early comic figures grew out of an almost old-fashioned world of farms and lanes and small towns; the later humor often arose in an urban America, with its hard sidewalks, metaphorically speaking, and its complexity. Allen, probably the most perceptive of the modern comic inventors, gives us an urban and contemporary world that is several ways more testing and frustrating than the simpler ways of the past.

Billy Wilder more than anyone brought film comedy up to date. William Holden, one of his great admirers, once said that Wilder had a brain full of rusty razor blades. The Apartment was a sardonic masterpiece, profoundly cynical but creating a slight possibility that decency might just narrowly survive. In The Fortune Cookie, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were a kind of perfect pair, a prototype for a certain kind of comedy in which the idealist and the cynic struggle for supremacy. Matthau the schemer, the born survivor, contends with Lemmon as the nice guy, decent if a little naive, to see whether goodness has a chance to triumph. Wilder was the master of a kind of sophisticated modern urban comedy rooted in credible character and salted with cynicism. He brought from his native Vienna an infusion of worldliness that seems in retrospect to be distinctly European.

The link among masters of comedy like Charlie Chaplin and Billy Wilder is their recognition that comedy, like tragedy, was born in a close and sympathetic observation of the real world.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

More from this topic