A selection of notes from programs that I curated at the Columbus Museum of Art between 1979 to 1992. All material is copyrighted.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
The Laughmakers: The Comedians of the '30s and '40s
One sign of the changes that took place in American culture between the 1930s and 1940s can be found within the comedy film genre of the period. The comedy films of the 1930s were dominated by the "zanies," broadly played and clownish figures who represented a mix of vaudeville and the circus. The 1940s was increasingly represented, however, by comedians whose talents had been honed on radio and who were more comfortable with the one-liner rather than the baggy pants. Slapstick, the physically expressive humor of the silent cinema, had already been tempered by the 1930s to the verbal demands of the "talking picture." It became almost extinct, however, in the 1940s as the ear became more important than the eye.
Aside from being one of the greatest comedy teams of the era, the Marx Brothers also represented the changing spectrum of American comedy. Harpo was an overt throw back to the silent period as he combined his nonverbal tantrums and barrages with an anarchistic sense of innocence. Chico was a continuation of the vaudeville ethnic humor tradition in which bad accents and fractured English played to a sympathetic ear among the immigrant laborers who were a prominent part of the early vaudeville audience. Groucho, on the other hand, was the verbal specialist of the team and his nonstop banter of puns, non sequiturs, and one-liners more closely resembled the audio gags of radio rather than the broad farce of vaudeville. The Marx Brothers' successful transition from stage to screen in the 1930s was not surprising. Groucho's ability to continue his own career as a radio, and then television, comedian was due to his unique position within the changing context of American comedy.
W. C. Fields was the embodiment of the vaudeville performer. First trained as a juggler, Fields was able to use his skills to develop an extremely idiosyncratic form of physical humor. He also had a reputation for his fast wit and sharp tongue and he began interjecting his own brand of commentary into his sight gags. Further, Fields had a deep conviction that humor was based on cruelty and that the audience was laughing at you, not with you. Fields had a distinctive, though erratic, film career and his screenplays (usually written by him under a preposterous pseudonym) veered between surrealism and barroom braggadocio. His jaundiced view of the world was developed, in part, from Fields own harsh upbringing and he had a strong distaste for hypocrisy and conventional morality. He was also not particularly fond of either children or dogs.
Laurel and Hardy were one of the few comedy teams of the silent period who discovered a successful niche in the sound era. Though they rarely received great critical support and their films were mostly "B" productions, they retained a surprisingly strong sense of affection from their audience. This was due, in part, to the "everyman" nature of their characters. Throughout their films, they portrayed men of limited skills, dreams, and ambitions who simply wanted to get through the day with the least amount of agony. Repeatedly, they discovered themselves in a world in which petty pride, misplaced envy, and duplicity would systematically reduce their existence to a state of violence and anarchy. They would wade through the chaotic universe of their films with a nonchalance based not upon bravery but rather upon their inability to completely comprehend the world round them. In the face of adversity, they neither overcame nor endured. They simply muddled through.
At the height of his career, Bob Hope was the ideal radio comedian. His brand of humor was based on story gags and so-called "groaners," jokes that were meant to be bad so that he could milk the real laugh by his defensive come back to a groaning audience. Hope lacked the slapstick skills and strong personality of the earlier generation of film comedians and throughout his numerous movies he always played variations of the same character, an average guy with a smart mouth. This was indicative, however, of the direction of the comedy genre in the 1940s. Increased competition from radio programs steered comedy films toward the verbal rather than the physical and a form of comic realism began to take precedent over the extreme exaggeration of an earlier era. Hope was indicative of these changes in which the large screen found itself increasingly influenced by radio and, by the end of the 1940s, television.
Like Hope, Red Skelton was most successfully connected with radio and television. Unlike Hope, however, Skelton was able to create comic characters and handle physical humor. Originally trained as a mime, Skelton also benefited greatly from the comedy coach that M-G-M Studios hired to direct him through his scenes. That Buster Keaton, his coach, never received any credit for his labor is a mute testimony to Keaton's "nonperson" status by that time in Hollywood. Yet it was through his direction of Skelton that Keaton was able to stage the silent cinema's last stand as he created some of his final visual gags on the screen. Through this connection, as well as his own talents, Skelton provided a bridge between two generations of film comedians.