Comedy, slapstick and the comic in general


A few half-ordered thoughts

This text was originally written as an introduction to the topic of the 19th Silent Film Festival in Karlsruhe and was slightly changed or revised for publication in the blog “Sense and Cinema”.

Among writers and artists, the comic genre with its various forms is considered to be more difficult to produce than serious subjects, i.e. tragedies. Nothing easier than pulling through a conflict and at the end putting a few dead people on the stage or letting the reader find them in a powerful way in the novel. In comedy, not only the subject has to be right, but also the implementation. We don’t expect a long-winded plot with tormenting delays and long-foreseeable peripeteias from a comedy, but rather entertainment and speed. Then there are also big differences between the individual comic genres; we know sophisticated comedies that are more serious dramas and are only considered comedies because everything ends well in the end and the conflict did not claim any lives, but perhaps only led the protagonist or protagonists to a decision – not infrequently to a marriage – which he or she found difficult. It was precisely this problem that the protagonist had to deal with and the decisions that came with it that often made the protagonists seem ridiculous to us. Let’s take e.g. B. Molière’s “Misanthrope”, we can clearly see how the protagonist squirms, how difficult it is for him to confess his love to the woman he loves. But that’s exactly what makes him look “ridiculous”. Here the comic arises from the violation of one or the other social norm; however, these transgressions are not so serious that they cause (deadly) conflict – quite the opposite, the transgressions, and the people who commit them, seem ridiculous to us – and in laughter the conflicts are resolved and forgiven.

There is no unified, overarching theory of the comic. And in addition to the theory indicated here, which traces the comic back to social but solvable conflicts, there is also Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory, so to speak physically oriented, which defines the comic in a completely different way. Very physical: what deviates from the body line has a funny effect on us – often almost interchangeably in Bakhtin’s thinking with the concept of the grotesque. An example from literature could be Gogol’s The Nose, but I prefer to stick to the film and refer to the characters in Boris Barnet’s films, in particular the very gaunt and conspicuous character embodied by Vladimir Fogel. The 19th Karlsruhe Silent Film Festival largely dispensed with two genres the film “The Girl with the Hatbox” will be screened – one could also cite Barnet’s “The House on Trubnaya Street” or Pudovkin’s “Chess Fever”. While Barnet’s films are always comedies, rarely interspersed with situational comedy, Pudovkin’s film is one of the rare examples of slapstick film from the socialist era. Pudovkin was heavily criticized for this. … But back to Barnet and Bakhtin: the hatbox itself, which the girl almost always carries around with her, appears in its grotesque size as a kind of extension of her body line.

The 19th Karlsruhe Silent Film Festival dispensed largely with two genres: satire and parody, and with good reason. Many comedies contain typical elements of satire, i.e. exaggerations, irony, etc., when they make fun of social conditions or people. Pure satires are rather rare in the silent film era. On the other hand, there were relatively many parodies, i.e. imitations of more or less famous models from literature, the theater or from the still very young cinematography. However, this genre has suffered from the already severe losses – as is well known, about 80% of silent film production is irretrievably lost – because comedies and parodies were not very important artistically, were mostly shot as two-act plays, played at the beginning of the program – and ever the more successful they were, the quicker the copies were used up and melted down. As far as I know, there is almost no academic work on parodies of the silent film era, precisely because the sources are so poor. In the medium term, however, the Karlsruhe Silent Film Festival plans to play a program with parodies, and will always present the template and its imitation, e.g. B. D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance”and Buster Keaton’s“The Three Ages”; unfortunately a parody far inferior to its original. However, there are also successful counter-examples such as e.g. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, starring John Barrymore, on which the parody starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, titled “Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride”. Film parodies were also created in Germany. In the Munich Film Museum there is a copy of a film that depicts a Faust parody: it is about “Doctor Satansohn” by Edmund Edel, created in 1916; none other than Ernst Lubitsch plays the Doctor Satansohn, who promises women eternal youth, albeit under one condition that cannot be met: kissing ban … Unfortunately, the film only exists in an archive copy, so that it is only loaned to FIAF members and therefore the film can seen rarely. One could also suspect a parody of “Homunculus” in the film “Homunkulieschen” – with gender role change as a means of parody. According to the description on wikipedia (german), however, it is more probably a comedy that only uses the popular material without making fun of it.
I don’t want to slip too much into a theoretical discussion of genres, but for clarification it should be clearly stated that the parody is a form of reception of other works. This is evident from the meaning of the Greek word παρῳδία parōdía“counter-song” or “disguised sung song”. Satire, on the other hand, is a form of representation that is characterized by appropriate formal means (see above). And of course the parody uses satirical means when it makes fun of a template.

This section is now longer than intended, readers may forgive me… I am interested in the topic.

The approach outlined in the first section usually leads to dramas that can be understood as character comedies because the conflicts arise from the social situation and the character disposition of the characters. And there are comedies like this in film too, many of Ernst Lubitsch’s best silent film comedies are included here. The same goes for the festival’s opening film, The Marriage Circle. We are dealing with the elective affinities of cinema (an allusion to the famous novel by Goethe) While with Lubitsch it is already clear after a few scenes at the beginning of the film that the wrong people are married here, it is much more tricky with the Swedish film “Erotikon” by Mauritz Stiller. In doing so, we have before us a whole panopticon of various typical characters: the elderly, easily forgetful professor with an offbeat research interest, his young wife, who successfully manages various suitors, appointments in the fashion shop, etc., the housekeeper, who knows the professor’s culinary preferences intimately Etc. The deviations from the social rules are very finely spun, so that the film allows itself a lot of time to develop the comical aspect of the situation, which ultimately slips just a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe. Even at major silent film festivals, it took a long time for the highly educated audience to start laughing. It should be said here: “Erotikon”, this “sophisticated comedy”, was Ernst Lubitsch’s favorite film. Not communicated by Lubitsch himself, but betrayed by Billy Wilder in an interview after Ernst Lubitsch’s death.

It may have become indirectly clear from the previous description how important the distinction between comedy and slapstick is to me. I would have liked to have used the older term “burlesque” for slapstick, but that could lead to misunderstandings, especially among German audiences. In the French-speaking world, the slapsticks are still referred to as “burlesques”, and the term is still common in English. Here we are dealing with pure comicalness of the situation. The protagonist stumbles from one stupidity to the next. It has little to do with any social conflict; the character is designed that way. The Mack-Sennett cops are seldom clumsy and seldom stupid; it has absolutely nothing to do with any reality. We still allow ourselves to laugh about it. It is not uncommon for the dramaturgy of the films to be outrageously bad or non-existent. Gag follows gag, and the only thing that counts is the imagination that someone might have used to come up with something new. Of course, these films also had their place in the cinema; the program usually started with them because after a fun movie you get happily excited and want to see more. When the concluding melodrama with a (water) corpse has ended, the audience wants to go home.

Chaplin? Chaplin is a special case and that is probably the secret of his success. The character of the tramp isn’t just superficially funny. It has depth, it is socially determined as the eternal socially disadvantaged, who “fights” through everyday life with cunning and deceit – this is very often not a metaphor, but becomes very concrete. And so even the cake fights that we have seen so often have a certain meaning, e.g. in “The Rink”. However, the tramp is sometimes cruel and almost anti-social anarchic. A good example of this is one of the first scenes in “The Cure”, when the tramp traps the gouty patient’s foot in the revolving door.

During the silent film era, comedy and slapstick were also clearly separated from each other by film directors. Unfortunately, even some silent film experts seem to have forgotten this knowledge. There is no other way I can explain the presentation of corresponding program series at large festivals. To clarify the difference between comedy and slapstick, I would like to quote from Ernst Lubitsch’s artist profile written by Julius Urgiss – today we would speak of an interview – which was published in the specialist journal “Der Kinematograph”. Julius Urgiss uses the term “Filmgroteske” precisely for what we now call “slapstick”.

“Lubitsch is an individuality. His domain is the comic to the grotesque. He sees two different guidelines in this. With the film grotesque, every impossibility is allowed, the logic may be completely switched off, with the film comedy, on the other hand, the action must be logically structured. A combination of both types is artistically quite impossible. But Lubitsch is a master of both types, and he gave us many examples that document that.”

from: Der Kinematograph, No. 505, August 30, 1916

One might perhaps make a qualifying remark: In the film “The Wildcat” (OT: Die Bergkatze) there is precisely the amalgamation of elements of the grotesque or burlesque, i.e. slapstick, with the film comedy, which is described here as artistically impossible. Because “The Wild Cat”, which we have already presented several times at the Karlsruhe Silent Film Festival, clearly contains slapstick elements. One of the prettiest and funniest is the stair scene with Pola Negri and Harry Liedtke. It doesn’t advance the plot in any way and is completely meaningless in and of itself. As is so often the case with slapstick.

Photo above: Poster excerpt “Boireau, roi de la boxe”, Pathé 1912

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