The Fun Factory: Burlesque

I have been reading Rob King’s book on the Keystone Studios, “The Fun Factory”. The sub title is “The Keystone Studio and the Emergence of Mass Culture.” It is giving me quite a lot of postable material.

In developing film ideas, The Keystone studio often used “burlesque”.

A derivative of the Italian burlare, (to ridicule) the term “burlesque” refers, in it’s initial significance, to the tradition of theatrical parody that flourished across Europe from the late seventeenth century on arriving in America two centuries later. (Historically this has not been the only meaning of the word, and burlesque also refers, of course, to the bawdy variety style entertainment that put on leg shows for working class men, in which Mack Sennett began his performing career)

Basically, the directors would see what popular melodramas had come out of other studios, often from D.W. Griffith at Biograph, and create parody versions. Here is basic technique.

Simple exaggeration was, after all, among the most basic and familiar of burlesque practices. “There’s just a hair breadth between melodrama and comedy.” Mack Sennett explained in a syndicated interview in 1913. “You can make the latter out of the former by exaggerating it a bit.” Epes Winthrop Sargent concurred in a 1914 column on the “vogue” for travesty, arguing that “exaggeration” was the most potent weapon in the burlesque filmmakers arsenal. In a later article, the Keystone comedian Chester Conklin, likewise explained that all that was needed to burlesque melodrama was “simply [to] take the dramatic scene and overplay it.” … In the hands of Keystone’s filmmakers melodrama’s ethical ritual quickly shaded into carnivalesque caricature.

This is something to keep in mind if you are watching old comedies.  You might not be aware of the source material that is being burlesqued, and you would not find it as funny it’s intended audience would have.  Still, the method of creating the comedy is valid to know and use.

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