Chaplin at Keystone

Charles Spencer Chaplin managed to appear in some 35 short films and one feature during the twelve months he spent at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios between 1913 and 1914. It’s a sign of how immensely popular these films were that all but one survive (the missing title is “Her Friend the Bandit,” which Chaplin directed with his co-star, Mabel Normand), but for the most part they survive in poor or incomplete prints — the result of having been copied and recopied over the course of nearly a century, until only images so scratched up and muddy that they can barely be made out remain.

For years, looking at the Chaplin Keystones has been a painful and frustrating experience. But now — thanks to the remarkable efforts of the Chaplin Keystone Project, a consortium of public archives and private companies including Lobster Films in Paris, Blackhawk Films in the US, the Cineteca Bologna, The British Film Institute and the UCLA Film and Television Archive — it’s possible to watch them without wincing. Painstakingly pieced together from the best surviving 35-millimeter material (and supplemented by some 16-millimeter footage), the Keystone shorts and the seven-reel feature “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (in Ross Lipman’s magnificent UCLA restoration) have never looked remotely as good in my experience as they do in Flicker Alley’s four-disc “Chaplin at Keystone.”

The set features extensive production notes by Jeffrey Vance, scores from the likes of Neil Brand, Robert Israel and Rodney Sauer, and a short excerpt from the recently discovered “A Thief Catcher,” in which Chaplin makes his first and only appearance as a Keystone Kop; among the supplementary material is a 12-minute piece by John Bengston based on his amazing book “Silent Traces,” looking at some of the Keystone locations as they exist today. The box retails for $79.95 but is available, for the proverbial limited time, for $59.96 through the Flicker Alley site.

Although Chaplin found his familiar costume quite early (it’s all pretty much there in “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” the second film he made for Sennett although it was the first to be released), this isn’t the lovable Little Tramp of the later films, but the obnoxious, anarchic, sexually intemperate
and frequently inebriated character — a real threat to social order, as the Dadaists, among the first of Chaplin’s highbrow fans, were quick to recognize.

Working at a frenetic pace, Chaplin can be seen refining and reconsidering his character almost from film to film — and after all of four months in the movie business, he’s learned enough about filmmaking to start directing his own movies, which are immediately distinguishable, with their more emphatic use of close-ups and more fully developed character comedy, from the broad and frenetic shorts directed by Sennett and Keystone’s other house directors. It’s in “Caught in a Cabaret,” from April 27, 1914, that Chaplin reveals the real depth of his talent and ambition, working up a blend of class conflict and personal pathos (again in collaboration with Normand) that could serve at a template for his work through “Modern Times” — itself being re-released his week in a solid Blu-ray edition from Criterion.

My New York Times review is here.

93 comments to Chaplin at Keystone

  • Brian Dauth

    Jean-Pierre: I have sent out some inquiries to see if audience attendance statistics by gender are available. The one anecdote I can share is that when my parents moved to a new development in suburban New Jersey in the mid-fifites, my mother and other wives who stayed at home and did not work, would go to the movies in the afternoon before their husbands came home. They almost always picked a “woman’s picture,” and my mother remembered vividly even years later (she told me these stories at least 20 years after the events happened) how all the women were left feeling romantic after seeing AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER.

    Well, all most all of her friends. One of them was a Civil War buff (my mother always described her as severe and mannish-looking), and she hated romantic movies of any sort. When it was her turn to pick a movie, she chose THE HORSE SOLDIERS, which my mother remembers the group not liking very much.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well the teenage audience and its culture does predate the rock and roll era in American films. In the 40s there were the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland “A” films at Metro, the Donald O’Connor-Peggy Ryan “B” movies at Universal, and, at poverty row Monogram, the series was even called “The Teenagers.” Of course, the existance of these movies may well have had something to do with the number of older males who were in the armed forces during the war years. We really should pay more attention to the business and sociological side of the so-called “Golden Age” of Hollywood. Studio decision making at that time may well be indistinguishable from the situation as it currently exists.

    The opening of “the generation gap” in the 60s may well be the central factor in the closing of the cultural status gap between high and popular art. And the sheer numbers of the baby boom generation may be the cement to the enshrinement of cultural studies of artifacts from that period. We should keep in mind that a very important factor in affection and appreciation of popular culture comes from being in tune with the temper of the times which produced it. We need to keep constantly reflecting on whether we are witnessing a genuine artistic falloff in present day cultural artifacts or just falling into the all too inevitable “these kids today” griping coming from the previous generation.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Barry -

    Add the Henry Adrich, Nancy Drew, other series as well.

    Particularly in the case of the Hardy family films, I don’t think their appeal was limited to or even mostly aimed at Andy Hardy’s age group. My guess is that the age demographics for that series, and many other films with adolescents in them, were not that much different from the norm.

    Films with younger stars – say Shirley Temple – liely skewed younger, but again, my guess is that far more adults without kids with them went to see them than would happen today.

  • Blake Lucas

    “We really should pay more attention to the business and sociological side of the so-called “Golden Age” of Hollywood. Studio decision making at that time may well be indistinguishable from the situation as it currently exists.”

    Barry, somehow I doubt that. I doubt it very much. And it’s not because I think studio bosses and producers got up in the morning and thought “What work of art shall we produce today?”

    It was strictly a business for them then too–they wanted an audience and generally got it, but for all kinds of films. Adults didn’t feel short changed, nor teenagers, nor children. And if you look at the nature of so-called “women’s films” then, or films in so-called “action genres” the maturity of storytelling and filmmaking carried the day enough that anyone of either sex could be as interested in and engaged by any film. I know my own filmgoing in formative years was a mix of every genre and every kind of film and I was interested in every kind.

    Films that are a little adult for you may actually be the ones you yearn for most, as they are a safe place to start to feel the mysteries of adult experience and you can work to understand them and find it rewarding when you do. As noted before, the production code meant anyone could go to anything. So at the same time, matinee movies did not need to be childish. Movies in “action” genres were not all action, nor did they need to be–the action element was well-motivated and could be powerful. It wasn’t blowing away a couple of dozen bad guys in the first ten minutes, from which frankly I recoil. It was very different–movies most of us agree deserve classic status readily bear this out.

    Jack Lemmon, an actor who started in the 50s, once made an observation in an interview that I thought was pretty good and pertains to any movie for any audience we might talk about, then or now. He said that in those early years for him everything was not so much on one movie, and on the first weekend gross, as it now is. A movie hadn’t been endlessly second-guessed at every stage of production. It seems to me this allowed filmmakers, within proven genres, to work with some freedom in making the film they wanted. It didn’t have to be a blockbuster. It could probably do well enough in the scheme of the whole operation.

    The separation into “chick flicks” and “guy flicks” (read “male adolescent” here) is endlessly depressing compared to what was once possible in commercial cinema, both in production and exhibition. Flashback to early 1956 when ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS went into wide release–a “woman’s picture” but would anyone want to limit such a beautiful movie in that way? In any event, the co-feature was RED SUNDOWN, a superior Western directed by Jack Arnold. I can assure that these movies were complementary and went beautifully together. I loved both of them (and still do), and I don’t think either one was meant to be a drag on any member of the audience.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Blake -

    My reading of the best known producers/studio heads of the 30s-50s is that there actually was a fair amount of both feeling a degree of social responsibility, artistic pretention and at times political awareness in what films were made.

    Louis B. Mayer seemed to really want to present a vision of an idealized American way of life that he to his surprise found himself to be a major influence; Thalberg and Selznick were both culture vultures in the 1930s; Zanuck was big of contemporary social issues. There are other examples.

    They of course were first and foremost business people and didn’t start or end as assuming what they created was meant to be great art or a always a positive force in society. But my sense is that they did feel a higher burden to be seen as “doing good” than is present today.

  • Barry Putterman

    Blake, of course one can’t disagree with anything you said. I’m only suggesting that the differences were within the conditions that the studios were facing; a more homogeneous audience and an autonomous assembly line production system, rather than the motivations in their decision making.

  • nicolas saada

    Johann, I was amongst the first to write about Mac Tiernan and DIE HARD in Cahiers du cinéma. But now it has reached high extremes: three stars rating in very serious magazines on a film called THE OTHER GUYS which I went to see in a theatre. It was excruciating. It’s difficult for me to understand how the same writer can see comparable merits in wonderful films like SOCIAL NETWORK and turkeys with nothing to even admire in terms of craft or writing. Artistic nadir is sometimes not enough to discourage excellent writers to write about films or works of such poor calibre.

  • Blake Lucas

    Tom, my first line was kind of meant as a joke, wasn’t it? Still, though I can’t imagine any studio era boss actually saying that, of course I agree they had interests beyond the dollar and would recognize and take pride in something they perceived to be aristically or socially or culturally worthwhile. It’s in the nature of sustaining something expensive like making movies to think of the financial side first. Nothing wrong with that–directors we admire also have that in mind, very much so with those we also may admire as producers, like Hitchcock.

    And I also agree it’s very different now, much as I imagine there is plenty of delusion and pretension to go along with the hollowness.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    It’s obviously an exaggeration, but when someone can write, as I read somewhere yesterday (in context of The Social Network) that Scott Rudin is the only American producer consistantly making successful adult-oriented wide-release fils, that statement isn’t far off.

    On the other hand, we are now in a period where animated films – long meant for pre-teens and their tag-alone parents – now in some cases are appealing to all audiences. And curiously, The Social Network has done a majority of its business with patrons older than the characters in the film (which is why, though successful and set to be quite profitable, it is much less of a hit as one might have expected).

  • Nicolas, I have yet to see Adam McKay’s “The Other Guys” (I am waiting for the DVD release on Dec. 14th) but in the latest issue of Cahiers there is a Cahier critique dedicate to it, under its French title “Very Bad Cops”, instead of the smaller format, Notes sur d’autres films, which they usually reserve for less interesting films. At times Cahiers champions these idiosyncratic films and sometimes their taste is contestable. But I find they contribute to a larger discourse on films. Films that are dismissed in English language magazines. Take “The Last Airbender” for example, which was dismissed in Sight and Sound, I am not saying it is great film, heck they didnt either, but in the review of the film they did have interesting things to say about it, like how the white landscape of Greenland that opens the film is similar to an artists blanck canvas etc. I like Cahiers for their general good coverage of films, film festivals, and the film industry. Stephane Delorme reaffirms the importance and wealth of French cinema with specials on Chabrol, the utopia of French cinema and the future of French Film. This is a tradition that goes back to the magazines inception when the critics championed people like Renoir, Becker, Cocteau etc. Now that I live in Toronto, I have been enjoying seeing a lot more movies, but what I came to realize is that with the increase in viewings there are going to be a lot more mediocre films. I enjoy being able to read Cahiers as I know French, which, I assume, is not the case for many people in North America, so I try to see as much as I can that they seriously appreciate as there is pleasures to be had.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Anyone ever hear of Baby Marie Osborne? She was one of the first top-billed child stars between 1915-1919, when she aged from 4-8. Discovered by Henry King and used in one comedy short he directed, she went on to play the lead in quite a few comedy and dramatic features for several years until she got too old to be called Baby, Little Mary Sunshine perhaps being the most famous.

    Anyway, she died last week at 99 in San Clemente. She had some bit and extra rolls in an attempted 1930s comeback, but ended up as a stand-in (including for Ginger Rogers), than pretty much left the business for good.

    She had more than 70 yers ahead of her, raised a family, led an active life and lived comfortably. I suspect no one is still alive who starred in a movie any earlier than she did.

    And speaking of child actors, just rewatched The Pilgrim, in which the four year old is played by Dinky Riesner, son of director Charles Reisner/Riesner, later the director of the honorary Oscar winning Bill and Coo (an hour long drama film enacted by two birds), then later the acclaimed screenwriter of Coogan’s Bluff, Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter, The Enforcer and Rich Man, Poor Man for TV.

  • Oliver_C

    “…but in the review of ['The Last Airbender'] they did have interesting things to say about it…”

    It’s possible to say “interesting things” about any number of nonetheless-worthless movies: Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography for ‘Jersey Girl’ and ‘Cassandra’s Dream’, say, or the ideal casting of Bill Murray and Angelina Jolie to play Garfield and Lara Croft respectively.

  • … And don’t forget Dinky Reisner was once married to Maila “Vampira” Nurmi!

  • Barry Putterman

    Well of course it IS preferable to say interesting things about uninteresting films when it turns out to be part of your job to say something about uninteresting films.

  • Shawn Stone

    Doing some research on another subject, I found myself dawdling over some movie listings from 1960. All of the drive-in double-feature parings were genre opposites; my favorite (playing at 2 drive-ins in the greater Albany NY area that particular weekend) was SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER and COMMANCHE STATION. Today it’s almost always 2 films from the same genre.

  • pat graham

    BARRY–one small tweak: the “interesting” things ought at least be TRUE, however we construct that … but then those “uninteresting” films won’t really be uninteresting anymore!

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Shawn Stone

    My favorite of all time is one from Manhattan sometime in the early 1970s -
    Z & With Six You Get Eggroll.

    i booked drive-ins in Chicago (as well as art houses; drive-ins sometimes were more fun) in the 1980s and 90s, and generic match-ups weren’t really all that important. It was a matter of what was available (usually from the same distributor, and an older but pre-video release) and of course demographically compatible (as well as rating). No way the equivalent of Suddenly Last Summer ever made it to a drive-in of course.

  • Peter Henne

    What I was trying to paraphrase from Belton is that ’50s audiences were becoming homogenous, but their tastes weren’t without range. He discusses how different strata within that “new middle class” sought to distinguish themselves from each other, and identified with different kinds of films, though he calls this diversity “slight.”

    I think there’s a lot to what Blake and Shawn said about double bills in the era. It was not atypical to combine genres on them, and perhaps the reasoning there was that you would rope in the largest audience that way, the target being to give something to almost everybody. All the same, that approach must have depended on audiences having a tolerance, not to mention interest, for disparate films. I’m guessing the idea of going to “the movies,” whatever type they may be, still had a lot of clout among moviegoers then.

  • Barry Putterman

    Possibly Pat. But for me, if the ode is interesting (and maybe even true) it doesn’t necessarily make the Grecian urn interesting as well.

  • pat graham

    but if the ode were ON the urn, literally and physically, what then? … which seems more the point, at least to me

    but i suppose that’s enough airy abstraction for one thread …

  • In theatre ads I’ve collected, it does seem that showmen opted for variety in their programs, unless they were theme oriented, such as a science-fiction/horror combination or a comedy pairing for matinees, etc. With regards the above mentioned booking of SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER with COMMANCHE STATION, I’m not surprised these two played together, as Columbia often used their Randolph Scott westerns as support for higher-profile “A” releases, or at least films they had higher commercial hopes for (such as THE WARRIOR AND THE SLAVE GIRL, another one with which COMMANCHE STATION ran during 1960).

  • Barry Putterman

    Well if the ode was physically ON the urn, then I do think that this would make for an interesting episode of “Antiques Roadshow.”

  • It may be a long way downhill from Chaplin to Adam McKay, but I think McKay is one of the better and, yes, more interesting directors of dumb comedies around right now. The Other Guys isn’t as good as Step Brothers (a funhouse mirror version of a Judd Apatow movie), but it has its own modest virtues: good riffs on buddy movie conventions, good supporting turns from Michael Keaton, the Rock, and Steve Coogan, and a very funny lead performance from Mark Wahlberg spoofing his role from The Departed. It doesn’t have the Walmart surrealism of McKay at his best, but in a conventional sense it’s probably his “best made” film (i.e. there’s a story that’s more than just pretense for the gags).

    More appropriately for this thread:

    I think one of the major failings of most people making these dumb Hollywood comedies is that they don’t have any capacity for visual gags (or visual storytelling). McKay is no exception, here (neither is Apatow). This puts a limit on how much a performer can get out of their physical comedy (Jim Carrey could have used a Frank Tashlin, Will Ferrell could still use a Blake Edwards). Having said that, I do feel that a lot of the contemporary dumb comedies that have other strengths – in their writing, their tone, their performances, etc. – often get overlooked. Horror movies, action movies, sci-fi movies have hardcore cinephile cultists who will rush to their defense, but the dumb comedy remains unloved – except by the masses, and even then, not always. Two of my relatively recent favorites The Brothers Solomon and MacGruber – both written by and featuring SNL’s Will forte – didn’t seem to connect with anyone.

  • Patrick Henry

    Around 1960 I remember seeing in a small college town, as a middle of the week filler, Hugo Haas’ BORN TO BE LOVED, which despite its rather lurid exploitational two-sheet, turned out to be a sweet, charming little “warmedy” which I recall the whole audience (mostly college and high school kids) thoroughly enjoying.

    Whatever today’s equivalent movie might be (if it exists), I think it’d be greeted by young moviegoers with apathy if not derision as being exruciatingly “uncool” and way too insufficiently “exploitational” for them to profess admiration for it.

    As an occasional actor in budget movies, I keep encountering young directors who nonetheless feel they have to add revoltingly made-up faces, eyeball-popping gore, and maybe a “clever” decapitation or two to their debut movies. They usually say, “Oh but the audience doesn’t take it seriously, they know it’s all in fun.” That may be true, sort of, but what about any potential Ed Geins in the audience? They would take it seriously indeed.

  • > Whatever today’s equivalent movie might be (if it
    > exists), I think it’d be greeted by young moviegoers
    > with apathy if not derision as being exruciatingly “
    > uncool” and way too insufficiently “exploitational”
    > for them to profess admiration for it.

    That’s pretty much the treatment that the charming little (mostly ignored) film The Longshots (Durst, 2008) got.

  • nicolas Saada

    Jon and David D , my biggest problem with the idea of even taking in consideration the movies we mentioned is the poorness of their directing style. Having worked at Cahiers- a long long time ago- I remember that the quality of a director remained our ultimate criterion. This is why we foudn DIE HARD better that for instance BEVERLY HILL COPS 2, or THE THING more interesting than an average horror flick.
    I am sure that Adam Mc Kay has merits but watching his last film was an excruciating experience, reinforced by the fact that I know have to confront myself with the risky task of directing films. I don’t read Cahiers so there is not much I can say for or against a magazine that was once part of my life but from which I feel now strangely alienated (the reverse is I imagine true !).

  • jbryant

    Jon: I think that “story that’s more than just pretense for the gags” is what keeps THE OTHER GUYS from being a great dumb comedy. I agree with you on its other virtues, but the high-finance plotline that structures the story is sort of confusing and definitely not funny, not even in a bitingly satirical way (and I realize that’s more or less intentional — McKay is so incensed at Enron, Madoff, and every other entity that ever gave capitalism a bad name, that he’s reluctant to let the film’s humor “infect” that material. The end credits are practically a prose documentary on the evils of these guys). I much preferred the “pure” silliness of STEP BROTHERS, but I guess I can’t be too hard on McKay for allowing his passion on the subject to infuse his work.

    As for dumb comedies in general, I got your back. I haven’t seen the Forte films yet, but I’m a big defender of Apatow, Ferrell/McKay and certain Farrelly Brothers efforts, and I have even found positives to accentuate about such “unclean” things as MALIBU’S MOST WANTED, FREDDY GOT FINGERED and the occasional (gasp!) Adam Sandler opus. Have I gone too far? :)

  • jbryant

    In a preemptive strike to salvage a scintilla of respect in the wake of my comments above, I’d just like to state that I find Charlie Chaplin to be one of the most profound artists in the history of film, and darn funny, too. The Keystone box sounds like a godsend.

  • Jon and jbryant, I’m with you. I think the McKay-Farrell comedies are wonderful (I was on a panel discussing ANCHORMAN with Scott Foundas, Jessica Winter and Nick Dawson earlier this month, so there are a lot of supporters out there). Their films are almost entirely improvised, and this method frequently upends the narratives, sending them into anarchic, absurdist dream-worlds, like in the ending of STEP BROTHERS. The emphasis on plot in THE OTHER GUYS makes it their weakest, for sure. I think McKay’s politics were handled with more style in TALLADEGA NIGHTS, which secrets a satire of consumerism into the antics. The social commentary in THE OTHER GUYS is plodding and obvious in comparison, although I still found a lot of it hilarious.

    McKay’s visuals don’t match up to the verbal-performative feats of his work yet, but I think they’re a little underrated. THE OTHER GUYS was muddled by trying to ape modern action tropes, but I thought TALLADEGA NIGHTS had some fine racing cinematography.

    And Jon, I highly enjoyed MacGruber, one of my favorite comedies this year. I’ve only seen some of BROTHERS SOLOMON on TV, and I’m eager to watch the whole thing. SNL has been pretty poor since Will Forte’s departure. Jbryant, I also love FREDDY GOT FINGERED, as well as Sandler’s YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN.

    And the Keystone Chaplin box is wonderful. I think a healthy cinephilia can embrace both McKay/Ferrell and Chaplin! I wrote about it for TCM here, less eloquently than our host, but still:

    http://moviemorlocks.com/2010/11/02/chaplin-at-keystone/

  • jbryant

    Robert: Yes, ZOHAN (co-produced and co-written by Apatow) is great. While it traffics heavily in the outrageous, over-the-top humor that put Sandler on the map, it’s also surprisingly endearing, and the premise is downright bold. Dennis Dugan is a much-maligned director, but his slapdash vigor is a good fit for the material. Most importantly, I laughed a lot and I left the theater feeling good.

    Coincidentally enough, I stumbled upon STEP BROTHERS tonight on one of the premium channels, and even though I own the DVD I couldn’t turn it off. I’m sure my being weaned on Jerry Lewis from an early age is a factor in my high tolerance for these contemporary “idiot-men.” It’s hard not to think of Lewis during the job interview scene in which Farrell and Reilly are mangling the name of the HR woman — “Are you saying ‘Pam’ or ‘Pan’? ‘Pand’? Is there a ‘d’?” — even if McKay is not quite “The Total Filmmaker” yet. As you point out though, his visuals are perfectly serviceable, and sometimes a bit more.

  • Greg Mottola will be one to watch: I think both “Superbad” and “Adventureland” are among the best comedies of recent years as they combine an absurdist sense of humour with a sensitive understanding of what being a US teenager today seems to entail. “Superbad” is crass and rough around the edges, but also very sweet, while “Adventureland” is more polished and serious, but with a lot of laughs thrown in.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Greg Mottola is a ringer, as he was established as a talented indie filmmaker back in the 1990s (Robin Wood praised THE DAYTRIPPERS — and Sandler — in “The Film Comedy Reader”). So is David Gordon Green, another indie director who’s moved into the Apatow orbit (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, the series EAST BOUND AND DOWN). Green’s direction of the last 2 episodes of EAST BOUND’s just concluded second season
    was particularly good.

    My experience with the McKay/Apatow/Farrell comedies is spotty, but I’ve liked some of what I’ve seen (a couple of Farrell’s sports parody movies). But films like ZOHAN, ANCHORMAN or THE HANGOVER, while they have their moments, are too uneven to count as good moviemaking. And my strictures above on the infantilism of most of the casts of these films still stand.

  • Braccia

    I’m a huge fan of STEP BROTHERS and FREDDY GOT FINGERED. Another good one for those appreciate absurd, dumb comedies is Louis C.K’s POOTIE TANG.

    And I’ll defend “Savage” Steve Holland’s mid 80s gems ONE CRAZY SUMMER and BETTER OFF DEAD until the end. I wish he’d kept on making movies ~ though OCS and BOD share so many actors and plot points, he may not have had many other tricks up his sleeve. Still, if you guys haven’t seen those, check them out. The world could use more terrific Curtis Armstrong performances.

  • These statistics about the audience in the 30s, 40s and 50s I found fascinating. I must read up on it, because I too feel that it goes against some kind of popular consensus. Thanks for the many book tips!

    Barry, I’m with you about taking a sociological approach. That’s what I’m trying to do in my research on Ekman.

    I like most of what Apatow has directed and/or written and/or produced. As for THE OTHER GUYS, this is what I wrote about it on my blog recently, in a short summary:
    “The Other Guys lacks on the visual side, but it more than makes up for it when it comes to the writing. It had some of the most outrageously funny and bizarre dialogue I’ve heard in a long time, and the story was on some levels pure genius, in its set-ups and twists. It’s written and directed by Adam McKay, who previously has made the even better Anchorman – - the Legend of Run Burgundy (2004), the less great but still good Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) and a lot of stuff for TV. He obviously has a golden pen, and a very good actor partner in Will Ferrell.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Fredrik, I think it would be fascinating to hear about audience composition and how film studios attempted to cater to it in countries other than the U.S. We are so used to thinking about “foreign films” in terms of artistic movements and individual directors that the social dynamic is hardly even questioned.

    Gregg, it might be worthwhile to try distinguishing between the infantile, which could include Langdon, Lewis and possibly Sandler (not to mention Joe Penner) and the adolescent which would be Apatow, McKay and environs.

  • Brian Dauth

    I wonder how (or even if) the mise en scene that emerges from comedy is distinct from that arising from drama/melodrama/adventure/etc. For me, Mankiewicz’s mise en scene is Shavian as opposed to an autuer like Sternberg whose mise en scene is far more dramatic/emotional. Each affects me differently, and I wonder if dramatic/expressionistic/poetic mise en scene is privileged over other manifestations of it.

    Richard Brody wrote about Mankiewicz: “He wrote brilliant dialogue but knew how to do more than photograph actors delivering it: he had a sort of visual perfect pitch, and his images, in their simplicity, add just the right touch of disorder, whimsy, or surprise to suggest a psychological value added over and above the script, the story, and the performance.” Even when he made CLEOPATRA, Mankiewicz retained this elegance, creating a drawing-room Roman epic, devoid of the more (over)elaborate visuals that the genre often inspired.

    As for Dennis Dugan: I am fond of I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY. Not sure about its visual style, but I have never been driven to distraction by its images. I will continue to watch the other films posters praised in hope of an “aha” moment.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Barry, you write “it might be worthwhile to try distinguishing between the infantile, which could include Langdon, Lewis and possibly Sandler (not to mention Joe Penner) and the adolescent which would be Apatow, McKay and environs.” Interesting point, but in the 1920s, say, Lloyd and (in a more distanced way) Keaton often essayed adolescent-like characters who grow up and integrate into society (eg, GIRL SHY, THE FRESHMAN, COLLEGE, STEAMBOAT BILL JR) which of course paralleled the theme of many silent light comedies/rural dramas along the same line (eg Ford’s JUST PALS, King’s TOL’ABLE DAVID, and many lost films like Charles Ray’s). I don’t know that Will Farrell ever wants to (or can) “grow up” and integrate into society (or that we’d want to see that film, to be honest with you!).

    Brian’s question is interesting and relates back to Chaplin, who famously filmed to showcase his performing virtuousity. How then are directors like Jay Roach, who is supposed to have set up multiple cameras to catch all the improv mugging of his comedians in DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS, any different? Well, Chaplin selected his angle before filming himself and in my opinion selected the best one possible (you’ll never catch me complaining about his mise en scene). And of course other comedians (obviously Keaton, but also Lloyd and Langdon) made a point of integrating themselves into their dramatic/emotional mise en scene, which in certain films (GO WEST, THE KID BROTHER, THREE’S A CROWD) is very beautiful.

  • Gregg Rickman

    That’s Chaplin’s virtuosity (and not his virtue, which is not at issue). My old software can’t handle Dave’s editing function.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well Gregg, for that matter, it is rather hard to picture what Jerry Lewis would want to be if and when he grew up. Maybe it is necessary to subset adolescent films between those who see it as intermediate physical stage left behind through rite of passage, and those which see it as a philosophic state of mind which should be carried over into adulthood.

    By the way, I haven’t seen enough Adam Sandler movies to say anything other than “possibly,” but it could be that he is unique in the ability to move from infantile through all the forms of adolescent in his various roles. Maybe I should put in the time and make a study. I could call it “Sandler & Young.” (note: there are no penalties for anybody who didn’t get that last reference. in fact, there may be a penalty if you did get it.)

  • Antti Alanen

    Dear Jean-Pierre Coursodon, thank you for the fascinating Roland Totheroh information that the Chaplin Keystones were shot at 12-14 fps! Recently when restored versions have been screened at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato the speed has been 16 fps. I think they were meant to be screened too fast but at sound speed (24 fps) we would lose the poetry of the motion.

  • I’ve taken an interest in the phenomenon of the “unfunny comedy,” which is not a denigration. Films such as Observe and Report, World’s Greatest Dad, and Big Fan, have all the surface signs of comedies – comic stars, situations, set-ups et cetera – but are not at all played for laughs. In fact, they are generally sad, almost painfully so.

  • THE RETURN OF OCTOBER (Joseph H. Lewis, 1948) is perhaps an example, of an “unfunny” film. It’s a good movie. But…

    THE RETURN OF OCTOBER is always described as a “comedy”. If a “comedy” is defined as a picture that actually tries to make people laugh, then THE RETURN OF OCTOBER is not a comedy. Rather, it is a cheerful, light-hearted piece of storytelling. This charming movie is definitely what people today call a “feel-good film”.

  • D. K. Holm

    The trio of films I listed are all “feel bad” movies.