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.

Fun Factories

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.

Animated Acting: Make an entrance!


I teach animation at the Academy of Art University, and one common mistake I see students make is this. The scene opens with a person in a relaxed standing position. Then they start “acting” with some arm gestures. It’s as though they are waiting for the director to say “action!”

I tell them the audience is gathering an impression from the very first frame, and it’s great if the character is already clearly in some state of thought or action. If you are just doing a single shot, imagine there was a scene before, and we are cutting on action to your scene.

That little tip leads me to a larger topic. That of how a character enters a scene. A great entrance will immediate capture an audiences attention. Charlie Chaplin worked at making interesting entrances. Here, the actor Rowan Atkinson explains why:

Chaplin so took over a picture, he seemed to always be center screen, or entering or exiting in some eyecatching manner. Entrances and exits are a special aspect of physical comedy, worthy of great thought, but Chaplin also did this for a different reason: editing. Sennett would often edit out any material he didn’t care for, and this angered Charlie. But Sennett had to leave in the entrances and exits. By embedding good stuff in those moments, Chaplin was assured of quality screen time.

Sennett was editing out what he didn’t care for, and audiences will do the same, essentially forgetting those moments.  So Chaplin used that knowledge to make sure his time on stage was as effective as possible.  He could make a great entrance, then slow down a little maintain the integrity of the performance.

Of course we don’t have to do great entrances to keep from being thrown on the cutting room floor.  But it is a way of not being boring.  It’s a way to get the audience immediately excited.

While comedians and animated characters can put a lot of energy into entrances normal actors also want to know why they are entering a space.  Here is a 4 minute video about entrances and exits from a writers point of view.  As a film maker, you are the director, and this is worth watching.

Now back to energetic characters trying to grab the spotlight.  In the TV series Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer made a trademark of barging into Jerry’s apartment without knocking.  Here is a montage of Kramer’s entrances.

Entrances are more than just coming in through a door.  Any time a film begins, the first scene is essentially the entrance.  One way of making this entertaining is a camera reveal of the situation.  In some of Popeye’s earliest shorts, we would first see him in close up, bobbing up and down like a sailor, with the rain pouring down.  He would be in a heroic pose:


As the camera pulls back, we see the real situation.


The Three Stooges had some great entrances.  Here is one of my favorites from “No Census, No Feeling” which starts at :24. While it looks like stuntmen were used, they matched the action over the cut very nicely.

One group that has taken entrances very seriously are professional wrestlers. They are all showmen.  A youtube search for “entrances” will show numerous compilations of them. I was impressed with this particular fighter’s entrances, which are very theatrical.

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.

A quote about Mack Sennett

Mack Sennett was the producer of the Keystone Cops, and the man who brought Charlie Chaplin to Hollywood.  There is an old biography of him, called Father Goose: The Story of Mack Sennett. It was written by Gene Fowler and published in 1934.  For obvious reasons, I particularly like this quote:

“The advent of sound and the collapse of the world’s economic structure found Sennett with his back to the wall, but still full of fight.  Then came the thrust from nowhere, a sudden and unexpected stab which Sennett, like Caesar in the Forum, accepted as the unkindest cut of all.

The animated cartoon was a new and popular toy – especially to a world in despair.  It preserved and accentuated a thousand-fold all the illusions of slap-stick.  The pen was mightier than the bed-slat.  By the exercise of a few thousand strokes of a cartoonist’s quill, a whole animal kingdom of stars came into being and had an immortal existence in an inkwell.

These charming imps cost but little, were not given to fits of temper and knew not the weaknesses of the flesh.  They worked for no salary, and for the sheer fun of it; they would never grow old.

What did a horde of prankish animals care about censorship?  In a Sennett comedy, if anyone tied a tin can to a dog’s tail, an irate humane society would release it’s furies.  In an animated cartoon, India-ink dogs could be stung by bees, have turpentine applied to traditionally tender spots, be flattened by steam- rollers, reproduce their kind with strangers and otherwise defy the conventions.

A nimble rodent has become the world’s hero.  In the eyes of Mack Sennett, he must always remain a scraggly mustachioed villian whose mischief will never be undone.

Who killed Cock Robin?

‘I did,’ said Mickey Mouse.”

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