Straight men

I should spend a little time considering the “straight man” in comedy. Margaret Dumont was probably the greatest straight woman of all time. Typically the term applies to verbal comedians, but I’m sure physical comedy has it’s own kind. What springs to mind is the audience member brought on stage to have fun with. Also, I think of the court jester who plays off the king as his straight man.

In animation, Elmer Fudd may be the greatest straight character ever. Foghorn Leghorn played off the dog. Did that dog have a name?

Here is Groucho Marx talking about the role of the straight man with Dan Rowen.  On the TV show Laugh-In, Dan Rowan was the straight man to Dick Rowan’s dimwitted character.

One of the youtube commenters notes:
“Groucho & Chico traded being straight man to each other. Groucho played straight man to Chico quite a bit.”

If you have the patience for a 45 minute podcast, try this.

 

My favorite pie fight

I have seen quite a few pie fights on video, and I just found my favorite.  It is from a Little Rascals theatrical short called “Shiverin’ Shakespeare”. What makes this one different?

  • Use of slow motion.  Sometime it’s during the throw, sometime on the hit.  Just the variation in speed makes it interesting.  When the pie flies in slo mo, then hits at full speed, it seems faster.
  • Editing.  This one has a nice pace of editing.  With fun reaction shots of the kids.
  • The actors, when entering the fight, move with a slow deliberateness that is just funny.  It’s almost like the slower they move, the funnier it is.  The first man who buys a pie stops to weigh them in his hands.
  • It still has all the usual pie fight elements like the matronly woman getting hit, and the wide shot of pies flying in all directions.

 

 

Chaplin’s Animated Face

Animators can learn valuable lessons from studying Charlie Chaplin and other silent film comedians. Recently, I delved into Chaplin’s early work as he began his movie career at Keystone Studios.  His films from that early time are often overshadowed by his later work at Mutual, First National, and United Artists. But I found these short films to be more than worth the time to watch. What stood out to me were Chaplin’s facial expressions. They were quite animated. More so than later on in his career. Other actors at Keystone would strike big expressions, but it would be one thought with the face contorting around it.  Chaplin had much more complex acting in his face.

This is presentational acting.  It isn’t about “telling a story.”  It’s about the audience watching people do funny things. A funny actor can take an otherwise simple scene and turn it into a laugh.  I have assembled several examples to show how Chaplin uses his expressions to create comic effects.

In Chaplin’s very first film, Making A Living, he plays a low life character. This is before he even invented the little tramp.  I caught him making what I am going to call a “micro-expression.”  It’s a very brief change in his face.  Through the magic of the animated gif, it’s easy to isolate this moment.  Here he is interacting with an older woman who is to become his future mother in law. It’s a traditionally antagonistic relationship.  As she turns away, watch his face change, then reverse back.

He starts smiling, then drifts into a split second of disgust, then snaps back into charming in an instant. His whole head has quick little jump to accentuate the change, and he does a jolly little laugh. When speaking to the lady, he shows his polite face. She turns away, and he reveals his true thoughts.  But he does it so quickly and smoothly it looks natural.  He isn’t holding it too long. He does something similar in this next shot, but in this case, he is heading into dinner. He drops his polite face for his “I”m hungry and about the get dinner” face.

These next two shots are from A Film Johnnie. Charlie is attending a movie screening, and he is reacting to the events on screen with uninhibited emotion.  In the first one, watch what he does after he wipes his eyes.  Rather than simply carry on with the same face he changes it. You can practically hear him trying to catch his breath from being overcome with emotion.

Shortly after that, he wrings out his handkerchief and gets his pants wet and I absolutely love the face he makes before he turns away.

At the Keystone studio, actors were encouraged to strike exaggerated facial expressions.  While Chaplin would eventually develop less extreme ways to express character, he was more than capable of mugging with the best of them.  In these shots from Cruel Cruel Love, he has been tricked into believing he has consumed poison in an attempted suicide.  This is his “I’m dying from poison” face.

Following that scene, a messenger arrives and interrupts his “dying”.

It’s a simple scene of him being handed an envelope.  But look at all that he does with it. He goes through a series of thoughts…

  1. I am surrendering to my fate and looking forward to the sweet relief of death.
  2. What, someone is here? What do you want?
  3. A message? I am confused.
  4. Wait, I am still dying!
  5. Are you still here?
  6. A polite nod of acknowledgment to the messenger.

It all happens very fast. Every one of those thoughts seems natural and recognizable. It’s an amazing bit of comic acting.

In this next scene from A Gentleman of Nerve, Chaplin is acting rudely towards everyone. There isn’t much of a story here. It’s all about his character and watching what he does.  He begins this part by sneaking some soda from the lady to his left.  Characters with active minds are interesting. Watch how many different thoughts appear to go through his head.

Here is a scene from Mabel at the Wheel, where he is not playing the Tramp, but an unlikable fellow. He is a comic villain. It moves quickly, but he holds his expressions just long enough to be read. He is acting angry towards Mabel, but he is also delighting in it.  It’s not just one version of aggression, it has variations and shades.  He connects with us the audience and also fights with others around him.  A lot goes on. He’s busy where everyone else is not.

Now, a scene from Mabel’s Busy Day.  Charlie has stolen a tray of hot dogs from Mabel and is trying to sell them to a bunch of bullies at the race track.

His face has varying degrees of frustration, fear, and anger.  But he settles on none of them long.  He keeps it moving. He keeps it animated. I might say it has texture.  If he just had a single attitude the whole time, it would not be nearly as engaging for this long. A lesser actor would have been much less entertaining. This is the power of good comic acting.  Many of these things go by so quickly, an audience doesn’t individually identify them as I have, but they perceive them.

Animators sometimes praise “subtle” qualities in acting, and Chaplin himself would eventually move towards a more controlled facial performance.  But this is the face that America, and the world, fell in love with. Chaplin would continue to grow as a respected artist, but this style of performance was wildly successful. Remember, cartoons are not the place for sublety.

Chuck Jones and Steve Smith

When Chuck Jones returned to directing cartoons at Warner Brothers in the mid-1990’s he brought along his friend and collaborator, Steve Smith.  Steve took on the role of Talent Development Coordinator.  He would scout animation programs for promising artists, give classes, and consult with Chuck about the projects.  I met Steve a little while ago to talk about him Chuck.

They became colleagues when Steve invited Chuck to speak at his school. The school was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, where Steve was the dean from 1985 to 1995. Chuck would regularly visit the school and give talks to the students. He would screen his films for them and he always insisted on showing them on film, not video.  He would give students drawings of his characters.

You can see some wonderful photos of Chuck surrounded by clown students in full makeup HERE and HERE.

Steve’s professional name is TJ Tatters.

It takes more than just big shoes to fill the, er, big shoes of being Dean of the Clown College.  Steve has led a distinguished career in entertainment.  From Wikipedia

Steve Smith began his career in clowning as a graduate of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, Class of 1971. He then toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for six seasons before leaving the show and moving to Chicago, Illinois, where he attended the Goodman School of Drama and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting from the institution, now usually known as The Theater School at DePaul University. At that time, he also hosted a children’s television series called Kidding Around for the local NBC affiliate, WMAQ. The program won several Emmy Awards and was a favorite among viewers for seven seasons.

Smith was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in 1993. He is also the recipient of several other honors including the Medal of Merit for Notable Achievement in Performing Arts from Ohio University, the Excellence in the Arts award from De Paul University, and the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art Circus Celebrity, Power Behind the Scenes.

Steve is still building the clown community as the Creative Director of the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco.  There he also teaches a course called Human Cartoon Class.

 

The clowns fondly remembered Chuck’s visits.  In September of 2011, they held an event to kick off the “Chuck-Centennial” a celebration of Jones’ life and work. Adam Gertsacov remembers that event in a blog post HERE. The Chuck Jones blog mentions that Chuck’s granddaughter, Valerie Kausen, attended the ceremony.  It truly was a strong relationship.

Clearly, Chuck Jones appreciated clowns, and for that, I love him even more. He understood that cartoon characters are just clowns in different costumes. This was the inspiration behind Comedy for Animators.  In 1989 I gave a talk called Comedy, Clowns, and Cartoons at a conference at UCLA.  I met Chuck at that same event, but he did not attend my talk.  I very much wish he had.

Chaplin carries a piano

Piano moving is a classic theme for physical comedy, and Charlie Chaplin has done it more than once.  Chaplin wrote and directed His Musical Career in 1914 while working at Keystone Studios. It is an excellent example for animators to study, so let me break down a fun scene for you.

Early in their studies, animators often create a scene of a character lifting a heavy weight.  It is a good way to develop an understanding of biomechanics, which will make the action seem realistic.  If you want to take it to the next level, make it entertaining. This is what we can learn from Charlie. The video below picks up where he enters the apartment with the piano on his back.  It’s important to know that the piano is a prop, so it isn’t actually heavy. This allows Chaplin to mime it in funny ways, rather than be “realistic”

Note the first shot of his entrance.  It’s set up so that the piano fills over 2/3 of the frame.  He stops to show how darn big it is. But that’s not all. Charlie has a partner, who is substantially larger, and should at least be helping.  Not only is he not helping, during this moment he is stopping to take a drink. The scene is all about making Charlie support this enormous load for as long as possible.

The old man wants to discuss where to put the piano, so he asks Charlie to wait a moment.

That leads to an argument with the daughter about where it should go.

When a decision is made, Charlie tries to lower the piano, which leads to this funny pose.

When he is finally relieved of the weight, he cannot straighten up. Another funny pose.

His partner must use his foot to push him back into a straight line.

And when he’s completely straight, he can’t just help him up, so they have another brief argument while his foot is still on his bum.

During this scene, Charlie gets no respect for all the work he is doing. But the relationship between the two piano movers is fluid. Earlier, Charlie got the best of the other guy, so there is no set rule to how things must happen between them.  It’s all about whatever is funniest for the moment.

 

 

 

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