Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Setting Up The Jokes

In 1995 a small, poignant and occasionally painful film written and directed by Peter Chelsom went largely unnoticed despite a cast of magnificent actors. Funny Bones focused in on the career angst of Tommy Hawkes (Oliver Platt), the son of world-famous comedian George Hawkes (Jerry Lewis) who kept hoping to follow in his father's footsteps. There was just one problem: Tommy wasn't funny onstage.

Traveling back to Blackpool, England (where he had spent his youth), Tommy auditions numerous comedy acts in his effort to try to become a funny person. Along the way he meets the naturally brilliant Jack Parker (Lee Evans) who is a talented, but deeply tortured comic and Jack's mother, Katie (Leslie Caron).

Funny Bones may have been one of the first films I've ever come across that seriously addressed the question of whether one's ability to be funny is genetic or can be learned. It's a gem of an indie film that got far too little attention and is well worth renting from Netflix. The recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented two programs that dealt with the concept of "funny" in a unique way: by showing audiences what some comedic talents were like without the voices we have come to association with their work.

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On Sunday morning, July 12, movie critic Leonard Maltin hosted a program dedicated to the early silent cartoons that starred Oswald, The Lucky Rabbit. The creation of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, these shorts were obvious predecessors to the library of Mickey Mouse cartoons. It turns out that copyright issues prevented Disney from continuing to use the Oswald character within America (although the rabbit certainly made his presence felt elsewhere around the globe). See if you can spot the similarities in this drawing:

Among the films shown that morning (with piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin) were:
  • Trolley Trouble (1927)
  • Oh Teacher (1927)
  • Great Guns (1927)
  • Mechanical Cow (1927)
  • All Wet (1927)
  • The Ocean Hop (1927)
  • Bright Lights (1928)
  • Oh What A Knight (1928)
While lesser-quality prints of Trolley Trouble and Mechanical Cow are available on YouTube (see below), they provide an invaluable lesson in the craft of writing and communicating comedy via the silent screen. The prints screened at the festival were provided by the Walt Disney Company, which regained the films in 2006 as part of an assets swap with Universal.

Back in 1927, when these films were first released, the only sound accompanying them in theaters was probably the local pianist (who was casually improvising at the keyboard while watching the screen). Back then, there were no such sound effects such as alarm clocks, clanging horns, exploding guns, or anything else like that. As a result, words often had to be inserted into the action to explain that a car might have been a taxi -- or that someone might be selling milk.

While the soundtrack that accompanies each of these shorts is highly effective, it adds several layers of interpretation to each movement that were not necessarily available to audiences at the time of the film's release. Try watching one of these cartoons on your computer without any sound and you'll get an idea of how carefully Disney and Iwerks had to set up certain gags.

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In 1926, the great vaudevillian W.C. Fields appeared in his third starring role in a silent film entitled So's Your Old Man. Shown at this year's festival (with Philip Carli accompanying the film at the piano), this comic gem gave audiences a rare chance to watch Fields in action, but without his trademark voice.

Born in 1880, Fields ran away from home at the age of 11 to become a juggler in vaudeville. By the time he made his Broadway debut in 1906, he had already been headlining on stages throughout North America and Europe. While his juggling gave him great skill in handling physical tricks, he had also learned how to strengthen his act by adding sarcastic comments.

At first, one would be suspicious of how well Fields could handle the demands of silent film without being able to inject his usual, snarling comments into the action. But So's Your Old Man proved him to be a master of comic timing, especially when given a sure-fire script which allowed him to play off everything from a pony to a man trying to shave while aboard a moving train. Fields's sight gags when asked to tee off on a golf course had the audience in stitches.

Curiously enough, a sound version of So's Your Old Man was released just eight years after the silent version, with Fields again starring as Professor Bisbee and the young Larry "Buster" Crabbe as Bisbee's future son-in-law. Instead of inventing a shatterproof windshield, the sound version had Professor Bisbee inventing bulletproof automobile tires. Bisbee's daughter was still in love with a wealthy young man from "the other side of the tracks."

You can watch You're Telling Me! (1934) in sequential segments on YouTube starting with this clip. Many of the same stunts are visible in the later film, performed by a master of comedy.

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