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.




Jackie Chan Master of Silent Comedy

I am thrilled that Jackie Chan gets so much appreciation from film fans and makers of YouTube video essays. His work is being studied and there are many lessons for animators to soak up. Here is a recent video that makes a case for Chan as the fourth great silent comedian. It features some excellent examples from Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. Chan studied their work and applied it to his own.

I have other posts about him on the topics of TIPS FOR ACTION COMEDY, HOW TO DO ACTION COMEDY, and the ten video extravaganza JACKIE CHAN’S TIPS FOR ANIMATORS. All these are worth watching more than once.

How Chaplin expanded cinema comedy

Here is some more of what I learned from Rob King’s book on Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio “The Fun Factory”.

The earliest Keystone comedians brought their characters with them from vaudeville. These were the ethnic caricatures that were popular in their day.

In contrast with the “classical” body of white America, the vaudeville stage elaborated an iconography of ethnic grotesquery. Characteristic elements of costume and makeup drew attention to the orifices and bodily extensions, from the stage Jews exaggerated nose and protruding ears to the red whiskers and ruddy countenances of the Irish performers.

These characters were sometimes created and often enjoyed by the same people that were being lampooned. But over time, as immigrants assimilated into society, they did not want to be differentiated, and no longer found them funny. Middle and upper class audiences often found such performances distasteful and vulgar.  Around this time Chaplin began his climb into the stratosphere of fame.

Such phenomenal popularity could only have emerged at the intersection of several crosscurrents in the development of film comedy during the mid-1910’s, chief among them was the vocal disfavor into which the ethnic character had fallen by this time

While other comedians still pursued their stereotypical types, Chaplin concocted a character who had no recognizable nationality, but was a distinct representation of a social class: A Tramp.

-the tramp was a particularly visible figure with America of the period 1870 – 1920, when, in the wake of the upheavals wrought by the economic crisis of 1873 and the depression of 1893, as many as a fifth of American workers spent some time as transients. Tramping thus formed part of the common work experience of industrial America. But it was also a familiar theme of turn-of-century popular culture, where the tramp was a stock character of newspaper strips, dime novels, vaudeville and early film comedy.

David Carlyon, author of Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You Never Heard Of  has pointed out that circus clowns created comic tramp characters long before Chaplin, and were primarily responsible for it’s success in other forms of popular culture.

It wasn’t just the appearance of the character either. Chaplin moved away from the excessive energy in the acting, and the quick pacing of the shots in favor of a slower more thoughtful presentation.   Most comedians were still trying to push everything faster, with quicker cuts, and Chaplin was taking more and more time in each shot.

Rather than grounding his comedy solely in the expressive possibilities of frenetic action, Chaplin uniquely exploited the intervals between the action that introduced an affective dimension to the performance.

Where “comic” situations invited the spectator to laugh at the clown’s transgression, humor complicates that reaction by opening up a margin for identification. It is precisely that complexity that Chaplin’s lumenproletariat persona provokes inviting a spectatorship that oscillates between the poles of empathy and ridicule.

Chaplin didn’t completely reject the rough and tumble comedy, he was still great at that. But he gave the character some room to be more human. This was the turning point where physical comedy became palatable to higher class audiences, and soon everyone was going to see Charlie Chaplin.

Animated Charlie Chaplin shorts

Recreating Charlie Chaplin is a tough order, but these animated shorts are fairly engaging. They obviously did some research. Apparently produced in Luxembourg.

Roberto Benigni

Roberto Benigni is one of my favorite film makers.  Like many great comedians he is at his best directing and acting in his own films.  In 1999 his tragicomic film, Life is Beautiful earned him an Oscar for best actor, and a nomination as best director.  I will never forget his reaction to winning, when he was the first and only winner to literally jump to the top of the seats as shown in this clip.

On IMDB, he is credited with this quote about Charlie Chaplin:

Charlie Chaplin used his ass better than any other actor. In all his films his ass is practically the protagonist. For a comic, the ass has incredible importance.

I love his verbal delivery and energy. If you were to read them as text, think how much would be lost from listening to him. Here are two interviews with him for you to learn from.

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