There is an age old comedy tradition of a show being disrupted by an unruly audience member, usually one who is drunk. Before going into movies, Charlie Chaplin found his fame on stage by playing a drunken theater goer in a play called “The Mummingbirds.” He sat in a box near the stage, and was able to draw more attention than the “real” show going on.
This sort of interrupted performance was used by Disney for a handful of short cartoons. In The Orphan’s Benefit, it is mishcievous children making trouble. In Magician Mickey, Donald Duck tries to ruin the show.
Early circuses were basically displays of trick horseback riding. A audience member who appeared to be inebriated would stumble into the ring and get on a horse. Somehow he would not only stay on the horse, but he could turn unintentional somersaults too.
What brought this to mind was the following video. Will Ferrell plays a man upset about his divorce. He has gotten drunk, and is at a professional basketball game. He is on the court at half time to do one of those half court free throws for prize money. But when he throws the ball he nails a cheerleader in the face. The stunt woman does an admirable pratfall.
Here is a longer version if you are interested.
I am currently reading The Fun Factory by Rob King. For my purposes it’s the most useful book I have found on the topic of Mack Sennett and his Keystone Studio. It’s not about the personalities who worked there, but about how their style of comedy and how it was influenced by changes in American society. I will probably pull several blog posts from the book.
I like studio history, and from reading this book, it’s obvious things don’t change all that much. Sennett’s financial backers brought in Thomas Ince to organize the studio;
Ince’s involvement is crucial to the present analysis. In inviting his supervision, Kessel and Bauman were placing Keystone within the sphere of influence of a filmmaker who was taking pioneering steps in the efficient organization of film production. Ince was at the forefront of the spread of production line practices that had begun to take hold in the film industry, the model for which was the departmentalized system of “scientific management” first proposed by Frederick Winslow Taylor’s experiments in industrial efficiency.”
But this wasn’t the sort of thing the Keystone publicity mentioned.
..the studio occasionally released “behind the scenes” films depicting the Edendale lot as a space of comic disorder and chaos.
They also tried to present actors as being no different than their on screen characters. It was part of the illusion of being a wacky freewheeling place to work. But Sennett and Ince kept tight control over production. Sennett had a tower office built on the corner of the lot, where he could keep an eye on everything and everyone. He had spent some time working in a boiler factory.
The paradox here is that, throughout their careers, Sennett and their filmmakers consistently repudiated their alliegance to this system, prefering to proclaim their carnivalesque defiance of the industrial virtues of efficiency and work discipline.
It’s not so different with animation studios. Hey, we’re making cartoons here! It’s gotta be FUN! Seriously, there is often a lot of money at stake, and artists are notoriously disorganized, so it’s understandable that controls have to be in place. I have been fortunate to work mostly at studios where the atmosphere is comfortable, but not all of them are like that. Some of them are miserable places. And many of those have flashy websites with recruiting pages that make it look like paradise. It’s all marketing.
I didn’t start off writing a post about character walks, but that’s where it ends up.
Popular culture has been the breeding ground for many things that get developed into “highbrow” culture. I recently learned a bit of trivia about the Commedia del ‘Arte that I had never heard before. While driving home the Friday evening, I listened to the NPR program Fresh Air. It was a rebroadcast of Terry Gross’s interview with Jennifer Homans, author of Apollo’s Angels, a history of ballet dance. Here is the piece of the transcript that caught my attention.
GROSS: So how did dancing en pointe, dancing on your toes, start?
HOMANS: That’s one of the most interesting moments in the history of ballet because it’s really a point at which popular traditions feed into a sort of high operatic, high balletic art.
Marie Taglioni is the ballerina that we most associate with the origins of pointe work. And she was working in Vienna, and in Vienna, she was working at the opera house, but a lot of Italian troupes were passing through. And these sort of Commedia dell’arte or acrobatic troupes often, you know, did tricks.
And one of the tricks that they did do was to climb up on their toes and parade around. And this kind of trick was then incorporated into classical ballet, most notably by Taglioni, and sort of given an elevated form so that instead of just stomping around en pointe, it became an image of the ethereal or somebody who can leave the ground or fly into the air, whose point of contact with the earth is only slight. So, you know, this is a kind of elevation towards the angels and God. And so a trick becomes a kind of high aspiration.
The commedia actors had very demanding styles of movement, and walks in particular were used to express character. Here is a quote from another source:
Hens, chick, rooster, capons, ducks, peacocks, all the farmyard bipeds make us laugh, their walks absurd parodies of man’s own gait. [The actors] are not identified so much by the color and cut of their costumes as by the walk, the gesture, the manner in which each uses his ‘feathers’ to express pride, joy, anger, and sorrow, alternately swelling and drooping, preening and ruffling, as he picks his way like a strutting fowl, ever vulnerable, across the stage before the appreciative eyes of the audience.
That verbal description is inspiring since it describes walks in a way very different than what animators are accustomed to. Animation walks tend to be utilitarian, they are simply to get a character from point A to B in a manner that seems realistic for the characters body and mood, as well as the situation. A wacky walk might be so distracting from the story, and the director would nix it pretty quickly.Tex Avery would sometimes create totally fresh character walks, the likes of which we hardly ever see anymore. I’ve just watched a Jerry Lewis movie, and realized Jerry’s run was one of his signature actions that will always belong to him. A big part of Johnny Depps presentation of Jack Sparrow’s character was his effeminate swagger, something the Disney executives originally hated. That’s the way to start a character.
The Penguins of Madagascar movie is right up my alley. I loved it. I laughed harder than anyone in the audience. I found this fun mockumentary about the production of the film.
If you are not familiar with “method” acting, it involves the actor spending all his or her time living the character they are playing. Even while off the set they stay in character. Nobody can have more fun with this concept than people working on animated features.