This part of my now-broken-up lengthy piece on classic film comedians, probably written sometime in 2005, spotlights Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges.


2. Only rather recently did I discover Buster Keaton, and I can’t believe it took so long. Everything people say about him is true, though I would never use him to beat up Charlie Chaplin, whom I also love, much like I’d never use Laurel and Hardy to beat up the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges. This “My comedian can beat up your comedian” crap is really childish and juvenile; most of these guys were friends or at least spoke well of one another instead of engaging in the petty babyish name-calling and pissing contests some of their fans engage in. I love both Buster and Charlie and would never say one is better or funnier than the other; they’re great, funny, sweet, and endearing in different ways.

The more I see of the fellow, the more I love him, and part of that appeal is, yes, because he was a fellow shortie, though he never let his height get in the way of getting the girl and defeating the bad guys. He was also kinda cute; I’m glad to know I’m not the only woman who feels this way and who’d give him a hug if she went back in time! And he wasn’t poorly-built either, as you can see from the clips where he’s in an undershirt or antique bathing suit, or even outright shirtless; you don’t get to be such a daring extremely physical comedian by accident or by having a weak flabby physique.

In his earliest films with his buddy Roscoe Arbuckle and Roscoe’s nephew Al St. John (plus their pal Luke the dog, who often steals the show from his human counterparts), he frequently laughs, smiles, and cries; it wasn’t until later that he became stonefaced. And even when he was Mr. Stoneface, this lonely, put-upon, but incredibly daring, brave, ingenious, enterprising little guy, none of the human emotion was lost.

His eyes were very alert and expressive, and he evokes sympathy despite how no emotions ever pass across his face. You feel for him when you see how he’s lost the girl (for the moment at least), been upstaged by some guy who’s taller and better-looking, seemingly run out of resources in his battle against whatever (other people, machines, the elements), such as the opening scene of the 1920 short The Scarecrow, when he’s sitting up in bed with that old-fashioned toothache remedy, the handkerchief tied around the face.

Unfortunately, his career too went downhill after he signed to MGM; he made one classic, The Cameraman, and one great solid film that might not be as strong as his earlier stuff when he was an independent but is still very good and funny, Spite Marriage (which would’ve been his first talkie had not the sole sound studio been booked solid for months). When he began to speak, it was all downhill for poor Buster.

He had a very pleasant speaking voice, sounding like a very reliable, nice guy, and had used his voice for years, first in his vaudeville childhood (where he’d been performing since the age of 6 months) and then entertaining the troops when he was drafted in WWI, but his voice wasn’t the problem. The material he was forced to work with was. He was given almost no creative control, not allowed to improvise stuff, forced to do and say things he didn’t find funny and didn’t think worked, and finally pushed more and more to the background as he played second-fiddle to the up-and-coming Jimmy Durante.

It was now all about sound gags, and the studios would make people do whatever THEY said was funny. Everything was funny then because sound was so new, and that was why so many early talkies which are viewed as duds now were so high-grossing and popular, because people were so enthralled with the brand-new medium they couldn’t distinguish between crap and gold. They also wanted to hear what these people sounded like, bad material or not, and it really puzzled Buster as to why these below-par unfunny gags and movies were getting such wild laughs and box office figures.

Instead of harnessing the best of both worlds, everything that makes silent comedy so great and timeless plus the extended benefits and possibilities of sound and verbal humour, they went for sound gags only. They also turned Buster into a hapless hick bumbling into and out of trouble. Unlike Laurel and Hardy, he wasn’t even dumb (endearingly or not) to begin with; he was a very smart, inventive, astute, ingenious guy who never let his small size get in the way of saving the day and winning the heart of the pretty girl.

He always found a solution to a pressing problem, even if he had to break some bones along the way to doing it (for example, during the bit with the train and the water tower in Sherlock, Jr., he broke his neck and didn’t even find out till years later why he’d had such a severe headache for several hours that day). He wasn’t some hapless dumb-ass Kansan hick, he was a smart, astute little guy.

He also stopped getting the girl in his talking pictures; the first one fades out, almost in media res, as he’s standing there onstage with the other people in the show, looking so sad, helpless, lonely, lost. The old Buster, in his independent days, would never have ended the picture then; he’d have bounced back and found some new ingenious way of winning her back.

Thankfully, he experienced a revival late in life and had his career and reputation resurrected; so much for the sleazemonger Kenneth Anger’s allegation that he died an obscure drunk. His silent pictures also never made much at the box office when they were originally released, but due to this reevaluation, they’re now hailed as classics and he’s considered one of the Top 3 silent clowns.

He also has my respect and love even more because he stood by his best friend and mentor Roscoe one million percent during the awful scandal that destroyed his reputation and got him blacklisted, knowing all along he was innocent and being framed by a money-hungry, unscrupulous fame-seeker who used not only sweet Roscoe but also the poor girl who died and who probably would’ve died even if she hadn’t showed up at the party Roscoe inadvertently came to be the host of. He practically worshipped the ground Roscoe walked on.

3. It’s not for nothing that the great Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin is the most recognisable figure of the 20th century, as well as one of the most universal and belovèd. His first film short, 1914’s Making a Living, features him as himself, but very soon after, he made a short wearing oversized baggy pants, huge upside-down shoes, a flimsy cane, a little moustache, and a beat-up derby hat, and a legend and cultural icon was born.

He appeals to something deep inside of all of us, that character striking an emotional chord, this lone, put-up Little Fellow frequently having to do battle with bad people, elements, or machines but never giving up, always soldiering on with a positive, friendly, kindly, loving, upbeat, sweet attitude, knowing he’ll get through it and tomorrow may be better, and even if it isn’t, he’ll still do just fine and get along with what he’s got.

He had the perfect mixture of sugar, laughter, and tears; people who bash him for sentimentalism need to look deep inside themselves at why they think it’s unhip, uncool, and dated to have a moral message in a comedy or why they find something wrong and criminal about human emotions, being reminded that sometimes there can be tears in the midst of laughter, and laughter in the midst of tears. The ends of his films are so emotionally moving and frequently move me to tears, something I RARELY do at any movie.

Even the people who personally find City Lights a little overrated have this reaction; the ending is something you can get choked up just thinking about, something you have to see to understand why it’s so moving, powerful, time for the waterworks. Even the end of Modern Times does that to me, even though it’s not even a sad ending, but because it’s the last we’ll ever see of the Little Tramp again. He tells the Gamine, “Buck up—never say die! We’ll get along!,” and they get up and walk down the road into the sunset. The last thing we see this dear character doing before they start to fade from view on the horizon is using pantomime to tell the Gamine to smile.

It’s that dear attitude that speaks to something in so many people, keeping your head high and having a positive spirit in spite of the pain and disappointments life may deal you. We never see the Tramp again in film, but based on this beautiful, poignant ending, we know wherever he is, he’s doing just fine.

Say or believe whatever you want about his Lolita obsession, but you’ve gotta admire him for staying true to his principles and holding out against making a talking picture for so long, as well as sticking by his political beliefs even though it got him kicked out of the country where he’d been for 20 years. He wasn’t just funny and universal, he was a person of deep-standing convictions which he truly lived, and a genius and a perfectionist.

He also had some great supporting actors, like Edna Purviance (one of the great loves of his life, though they never married) and Mack Swain, and, in Modern Times and The Great Dictator, the beautiful Paulette Goddard, to whom he was married, if not legally (since neither ever produced a marriage certificate), then at least common-law.

How could anybody hate the Little Fellow or bash the sweet, good, kind, human emotions he appeals to in us? Instead of making fun of him or claiming he’s dated because nowadays we have creepy homeless bums instead of friendly, harmless neighbourhood tramps who carry replacement panes of glass for windows on their backs (as though changing times mean the underlying message has changed as well), these people ought to listen to the chilling moving final speech of The Great Dictator, containing the lines “We think too much and feel too little.”

4. They might not get as much critical praise and respect as some of the other people profiled here, but I’ve always loved the Three Stooges, and they’ve got the enduring popularity and millions upon millions of fans worldwide to attest to their sheer greatness and hilarity. They were, well, stooges, but damn were they good at it.

Larry Fine (the only one not related to the others) was the relative straight man, Moe was the bossy violent one, and Curly was the sweet childish one, the most popular Stooge among fans and my fave as well. (I realise it says something about my own juvenile character when my favourite member of a comedy group always seems to be the man-child, the sweet, innocent one instead of one pretending smartness and superiority or dispensing wisecracks or knuckle-cracks.) Shemp was also a Stooge until 1930, when he was replaced by Curly, and came into the group again when Curly suffered a stroke in 1946; sadly, he never recovered and died in 1952.

Just like off-screen Laurel and Hardy were the opposite of their onscreen personas, surprisingly, Moe was the opposite of his own offscreen as well. He was very protective of his shy, sweet, nonconfrontational baby brother Curly (born Jerome), a devoted family man, a bookworm, the only Stooge who was good at managing money, and making hooked rugs in his spare time. Though Moe was the oldest one in the group, he wasn’t the oldest Howard brother. He was the penultimate brother, having three older brothers Irving, Jack, and Shemp (Samuel), and of course younger brother Curly. And of course, they were NJBs.

They’ve been accused of being too violent and not very friendly to women, but they were funny and that’s what matters. Do you really think they were like that off-camera too? The people who think that must be the same ones who think Buster never smiled, Stan was as much a child-like bumbler as his character was, Arthur Marx was really a mute, and Charlie Chaplin really dressed like a tramp off-camera. Idiots.

2 thoughts on “Classic silent and early sound comedians, Part II

  1. The comics of that era were unique and still hold up. They did some amazing stuff on film and were truly talented actors. Nice coverage of some of the best of these.

    Glad to have you with us in the A to Z Challenge.

    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out
    Twitter: @AprilA2Z


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