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.

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.

 

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