The Birth of Slapstick Comedy

         The Keystone Film Company can be credited with a film screen genre known as silent slapstick comedy, but the man who produced the first films and founded silent screen comedy can also be credited with providing the training ground for several very distinguished directors. I feel that Mark Sennett's contributions to the development of cinema have been significant enough to mention before discussing Charlie Chaplin's contributions to cinema.

         Mack Sennett worked as an actor in several of D. W. Griffith's films and studied the methods that Griffith had used during his apprentice years when he worked for American Biograph. Sennett tried to direct films for Biograph but was not very happy about the lack of creative freedom he was given, which led him to form his own company called Keystone Film Company. It was first located in New Jersey, but within a month he moved it to Hollywood. Between 1913 and 1935, Sennett produced thousands of one and two-reel films and many features on slapstick comedy. For the first two years he did all of the directing himself, but after 1914 he operated as production chief and worked closely with his director, actors and writers.

         His slapstick comedies became the single most important American mode of the 1920's. The films consisted of a visual humor with a twinge of harmless violence such as pie throwing, cliff-hanging, and auto-chasing. They required "rapid fire editing" and the "last-minute rescue" that Sennett learned from Griffith and combined with his great sense of pacing and timing movement. His films were internationally famous, and his Keystone comedies made a huge contribution to the American dominance of world cinema following World War I. At Keystone Film Company, Sennett discovered and produced the first films for several distinguished directors, including Charlie Chaplin.

         As a young boy and the son of British music hall parents, Charlie Chaplin spent most of his time on stage. His contributions to film started before he hooked up with Sennett as he was already on a vaudeville tour in 1913. The first film he performed in for Sennett in 1914 was titled Making a Living, and he played a typical English dandy. It did not take long for him to develop the character and costume of "the little tramp" that made him famous all over the world as a sad little clown dressed in oversized shoes, big baggy pants, and an undersized coat and derby-style hat. Keystone limited his style of comedy, and it was time to move on to something else.

         In 1915 Chaplin signed a contract with Essanay and made fourteen two-reel shorts with a more subtle style of comedy than Keystone films allowed and he was paid what was an enormous amount of money back then, $1,250 a week. He directed these shorts himself using what he learned at Keystone. His best films at Essanay were The Tramp, Work, The Bank, and A Night at the Show for which he was paid a salary of $10,000 a week plus a very large bonus. In 1916 and 1917, he produced twelve two-reeler films that were perfect masterpieces of mime and made him internationally famous. These films displayed his great gift for social satire, showing the very poor against the very rich as well as the very weak against the very powerful. He associated himself to the very poor against the very rich because that is where he stood particularly during the Depression. However, he would not have to associate himself among the very poor again because of the star power he gained in June of 1917.

         In 1917, he signed a $1 million contract with First National to produce eight films enabling him to establish his own studios where he would produce these films and all future films until he left the country in 1952. He directed several two and three-reelers, but his most successful effort was The Kid, a feature-length film that was an auto-biographical comedy/drama about the tramp's commitment to the poor little boy of the slums which combined sorrow with tender humor. This film earned over $2.5 million and became an international hit. He made one more film for First National and then in 1923 he was free to release his films through United Artists.

         All of his films after 1923 were full-length feature films; and his first one, A Woman of Paris, was a much-admired film even though he briefly appeared as a reporter. The film that followed in 1925, The Gold Rush, which we viewed in class, is a comic epic with Chaplin as the central figure playing the little tramp. This film made humor out of hardship, starvation, and greed with three stars fighting out for the rights of a claim. The film was shot on location and was written and directed by Chaplin. The music in this film was very good with Charlie playing into it with his mime and motions. The location shots of the city were effective as were the snow shots for special effects. The drama and emotions of the girls and Charlie's reactions were very good at getting the audience involved.

         After watching this film, I can see that it is understandable why The Gold Rush is Chaplin's most characteristic work and why it is still very popular today. It contains an excellent display of mime and blended comic and tragic themes so it is no wonder that it was Chaplin's personal favorite. I enjoyed watching this film and am glad it was selected for this class to preview.

         Chaplin was quite a musician, and his first two sound films included musical scores written by him. In 1931, he used sound effects but little spoken dialogue to display his great art of silent mime into the era of sound in City Lights. In this film, as well as in Modern Times, he carries out his attitudes of social criticism regarding the poor and the rich. In Modern Times, he plays a factory worker describing the dehumanization of the common workingman in a world that is run for the wealthy by machinery. The satire of this film and the inequities of the Great Depression "modern time" did not earn Chaplin any popularity in the United States, and it was banned in Germany and Italy. However, it was successful in the rest of Europe; and, despite its controversial topic it is still one of Chaplin's funniest, best structured, and very socially committed films.

         Charlie Chaplin made many more contributions to the film industry after 1936, but they were not as well received particularly in the United States. However, his greatest genius was as an actor, comedic, and a mine as his little tramp character; and. that is what he is best known and remembered. He made great contributions to the history of cinema and will always remain one of the most important and distinguished directors particularly during his films of the 1920's.

Work Cited

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

Susan Marinoff

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