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.

The Great Dictator


I have a confession.

Until this week I had not seen Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”.

Fortunately for me, there is a new release from Criterion, and it includes some wonderful extras that make the dvd or blue ray totally worth viewing. First I watched the film with the commentary track from Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, which is one of the very best commentaries I have ever heard.  Dan Kamin wrote the excellent book, Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man Show.

The story concerns the fictitious land of Tomania, clearly representing Germany. Chaplin plays both Henkel (the dictator who looks like Hitler) and the nameless “Jewish Barber”. The challenge for Charlie was to portray the fascists as both dangerous and laughable. The slapstick was carefully measured in with realistic violence to keep things in perspective. When Henkel (Hitler) tumbles down some stairs, Chaplin plays it realistically. He wanted Henkel to look like a normal person falling, and not a gifted comic.

Disc two includes a documentary from Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft.  “The Tramp and the Dictator” tracks the parallel lives of the two men, who were born just 4 days apart in the same year. They show clips of color film shot by Chaplin’s half brother Sydney during production. The movie is black and white, but when intercut with the color footage, it has a startling effect. When Chaplin began production on the film, he met with criticism from many in the movie industry who felt we shouldn’t antagonize Hitler.  Chaplin appears to have been a fearless man, and my respect for him has only grown.

The second disc includes some visual essays, and a deleted scene. The set comes with a 28 page booklet that features Al Hirschfeld’s original press book illustrations for the movie.

Of course the Nazi government never allowed The Great Dictator to be shown to the people. But did Hitler see it? The records show that Hitler had ordered it for viewing, not once but twice.

Everyone should know this speech.  I am sorry to say it feels more necessary than ever.   Please watch.

 

10 Types of Comedic Entrances

I have a previous post about character entrances, but I have put a lot more thought into it.  The result is my first Comedy for Animators video.  10 types of comedic entrances looks at various funny ways characters can enter a scene.  I have found at least two examples from both animation and live action films to demonstrate each one.

The term “entrances” covers a few things.  It can be a character walking into a scene.  It can be the very first scene where a character is shown to already be.  It can be a scene about a character entering another place.  A character can be revealed when something in the scene changes.  Basically, it is the shot where you, or someone in the story, first sees the character and the effect it has in the telling of the story.

The ten different types of comedic entrances are:

1:  The big entrance.  This is an attention grabbing entrance.  It should emphasize the character’s style and have an effect on the other characters in the scene.

2. The downtempo entrance.  If the character has a low energy style, you may want to create a story that begins with a high energy. By clashing with the situation, the character will stand out as unusual. A low energy character in a low energy place would be inherently uninteresting from a physical comedy point of view.

3.  The surprise entrance.  The character is hidden in some unexpected place.

4.  The misleading entrance.  The character enters the scene in some way that leads the audience to make assumptions.  Then the reality proves to be very different.  Such characters usually go on to prove they are not what they seem to be.

5.  Bad timing.  The character enters at a really bad moment.  Prior to the character entering, the situation is set up for them to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

6.  Exit as entrance.  We first see a character as they are being kicked out of some other place.  Often, they are literally flying out the door

7.  The disguised entrance.  The character enters the scene in some disguise that is comical in itself.

8.  The subverted entrance.  This is a scene about a character entering, but the entrance does not go as planned.  It can be seen from the entering character’s point of view.

9.  The strange, surreal doorway.  A character simply walks into the scene, but it is through some very strange doorway.

10.  The forced entrance.  The character is forcibly brought into the scene or story.

And there you have it.  If anyone can identify a type of entrance that I have overlooked, I would be very happy to hear about it in the comments.

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