[To read part one of this essay, click here. For part two, here. And for part three, here.]
Early Silent Comedy
"In order to laugh at something, it is necessary
1. to know what you are laughing at,
2. to know why you are laughing,
3. to ask some people why they think you are laughing,
4. to jot down a few notes,
5. to laugh.
"Even then, the thing may not be cleared up for days."—Robert Benchley
The Earliest Comedies: 1890-1905
What you consider the first comedy in movie history depends in no small part on what you think is funny. The Internet Movie Database lists the first comedy as William K.L. Dickson's 1890 experimental film Monkeyshines No. 1, but given that the white blob at the center of the screen is barely identifiable as a human being, much less a funny one, I think its designation as a comedy derives purely from the short's title.
Then there's the case of poor Émile Reynaud whose "praxinoscope" allowed him to project hand-drawn cartoons to an audience. His animated short Pauvre Pierrot is a whimsical tale of a man serenading a beautiful woman beneath her balcony, but while the Internet Movie Database lists this as a comedy, I don't really see it as such. Reynaud made other films but when his business failed, he threw his invention and most of his films into the Seine. Did he make the first movie comedy only to destroy it later? The world may never know.
Other contenders for the title include boxing cats, boxing brothers, and vaudeville stars Robetta and Doretto performing a series of slapstick stunts for Thomas Edison's company. Each of these probably satisfy somebody's idea of comedy.
But personally, I credit the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, with having written and directed the first full-blown comedy. You remember the Lumière brothers, don't you? They invented the first truly portable and practical combination movie camera-projector; they were also the first moviemakers to charge admission for one of their films. L'arroseur arrosé (Tables Turned On The Gardener), premiered in Paris on December 28, 1895, and shows us the simplest of gags—a gardener is watering the lawn, a mischievous boy steps on the hose, the gardener looks at the nozzle to see what's wrong, the boys steps off the hose, the gardener gets a face full of water.
Lumiere - L'Arroseur Arrosé - 1895
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Admittedly, it's not particularly funny, but L'arroseur arrosé has a beginning, middle and end, creates a sense of anticipation and has a payoff. You've got to start somewhere, right?
Unfortunately, for the next decade or so, comedy pretty much ended there as well. In the early days of film, the only qualification one needed to become a director was access to a camera, and judging from the quality of the comedy made during this era, technical expertise and a sense of humor rarely went hand in hand. Gags tended to be no more sophisticated than that first one; the setups were obvious (boy steps on hose), the payoffs predictable (hose squirts man) and the resulting joke was not likely to elicit much more than a chuckle from anyone over the age of seven.
More elaborate variations on the theme—boy ties rollerskates to sleeping man, man wakes up and falls down—didn't make the films any funnier, just longer getting to the point. Turns out that where comedy is concerned, getting exactly what you expect every single time isn't all that satisfying.
Adding to the frustration for a would-be film historian is the fact that you see the same simple gags repeated note for note over and over again. This was not so much because the gag was particularly funny but because it was often cheaper for a theater owner to make his own version of a film than to pay the rental of the original. Thus, there are many more versions of the mischievous boy gag than you're ever going to want to see.
Even Georges Méliès, the most consistently original director of this early era, wasn't quite able to lick the comedy genre. Although he's primarily known now for his science fiction and fantasy films, Méliès also directed some three dozen comedies, mostly turning on surprising camera tricks —for example, the story of a man preparing for bed only to find it impossible to undress.
The trick photography, usually a series of jump cuts, was the most sophisticated of its day, but when observed in film after film, proves more tiresome than humorous. By his own admission, Méliès was never much interested in character or human situations, a real limitation given that comedy (and drama, for that matter) ultimately is about the inherent absurdity of being human. Without that essential element, his films wound up being about nothing at all and were successful only as long as the tricks were fresh and inventive. As soon as he began to repeat himself, his audience abandoned him for other novelties—he was broke and out of the business by 1913.
Indeed, comedies made before 1906 are more significant for their role in advancing editing techniques—the point-of-view iris shot and the cut-in to emphasize the key prop in a joke, the "wipe" in Mary Jane's Mishap (1903), the dissolve in Méliès's Les Cartes Vivantes (1904)—than for any humor they may contain. The Big Swallow (1901), for example, is remembered now only for what might be the first close-up in movie history (and no, Lillian Gish wasn't in it).
Historic though it may be, hilarious it isn't.
Max Linder (Again)
As I mentioned in Part Three of this essay, the first international film star was the French comic, Max Linder. He was also the first true film comedian—the first to develop a "language" of gesture and expression that not only overcame the limitations of silent film but took advantage of the relative intimacy of the medium.
Thanks to the close-up, a storytelling device unique to film, an actor no longer had to play to the back row of the theater—the camera brought the back row to him. Whether intuitively or by design, Linder realized the broad gestures and inane dialogue of music hall comedy were largely devices for indicating to an audience what to pay attention to as the actors set up a gag. On film, simply lifting an eyebrow would suffice.
While situational comedy had been around since the theater of ancient Greece, until film allowed for recognizable settings, and more importantly, recognizable characters with recognizable needs and desires, film comedy was limited to the most simplistic gags. With a reel of film growing longer—around ten minutes rather than the 45-seconds of the Lumière brothers' standard offering—it became possible for filmmakers to put fully-realized characters and situations on the screen, and so far as I can tell, Linder's "Max" was the first three-dimensional character in the history of movie comedy. You can imagine "Max" existing before the cameras started rolling, continuing to exist after they stopped, and in between, behaving on screen the way a real person would, albeit at the heightened levels required of farce comedy.
With the elbow room to portray an actual character, Linder could derive laughs from the juxtaposition of this character—the dapper aristocrat—and the chaos he created around it, a welcome breakthrough, believe me, if you've suffered through more than a hundred comedy shorts featuring mischievous boys and one-note gags.
Not to mention he was just better at it than anybody else, until Charlie Chaplin came along in 1914 to raise the bar.
Because, as I mentioned before, Linder worked during a time when it was cheaper to buy a camera and steal an idea than to pay the rental fee on the original film, it's easy to compare and contrast the way different filmmakers handled the same comic idea—a laboratory experiment, if you will, in what is and isn't funny.
For example, one of the favorite props used to generate laughs in turn-of-the-century comedies was glue—apparently, a hundred years ago pots of the stuff just sat around waiting for people to fall in it. Alice Guy's La glu (The Glue) (1907) is typical of the era: a mischievous boy brushes glue on various surfaces—a staircase, a bicycle seat—much to the consternation of various adults. Basically a one-joke pony repeated over and over again to no great effect.
Linder, on the other hand, in the one-reeler Max ne se mariera pas (Max Is Stuck Up) (1910), built on the idea the way a classic comedian would. On his way to his fiancee's for dinner, Max stops at a bakery to conduct a little routine business and accidentally gets stuck to a sheet of flypaper. What begins as a minor inconvenience, shrugged off with bonhomie and good humor, becomes a minor annoyance, then becomes a potential source of embarrassment when he arrives for dinner only to find he's still stuck, and escalates into a full scale disaster as he and his future father-in-law wind up wrestling over a serving dish and destroying the entire set.
You've seen this sort of progression in a hundred comedies, from the Marx Brothers to Adam Sandler, but you didn't see it before Max Linder, not in a movie anyway.
And now because I love you, I present my favorite Max Linder short, Max victime du quinquina (Max Takes Tonics) (1911). He made it three years before Chaplin, but if I had told you Linder copied it move for move from the little Tramp, I dare say you'd believe me. The intertitles are in French (with a German translation!), but there are only a couple and the gist is easy enough to figure out—feeling rundown, Max visits a doctor who prescribes a tonic of red wine and quinine bitters. Soon roaring drunk, Max is mistaken for a big shot and helped "home" by a helpful policeman.
Speaking of French comedy, you might also check out the work of Linder's fellow Frenchman, Ernest Bourbon, who performed under the name Onésime. A particular favorite of the surrealists, Bourbon relied heavily on trick photography in such shorts as Onésime horloger (Onésime, Clockmaker) (1912), in which to receive an inheritance more quickly, he builds a special clock to speed up time. I confess, he's not really my cup of tea—to me, he plays like the poor man's Méliès—but you might want to track him down nevertheless.
And finally, as if to prove that "French" and "sophisticated" aren't necessarily synonymous, film historian Matt Berry recently wrote about one of the earliest examples of scatological humor, 1903's Erreur de porte (The Wrong Door), in which a country bumpkin can't tell the difference between a telephone booth and a lavatory. It's bathroom humor—literally. You've been warned.
To continue to Part Four (b), Mack Sennett and the Keystone Comedies, click here.