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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

April 1, 2015: April Fools: Keaton and Chaplin

[A few years ago, I had a lot of fun writing an April Fools series. Foolishly, I haven’t done so since, but this year have decided I won’t get fooled again. So this week I’ll be highlighting and AmericanStudying a series of funny figures and texts. Share your own funny favorites in comments and I’ll add ‘em to the crowd-sourced weekend post—no foolin’!]
On mining the past or the present for laughs, and why we need both.
Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent film The General, which retells the true story of a Civil War locomotive and its engineer, is more than just the comedian and director’s masterpiece, or one of the great American films (although it’s both); it’s also exemplary of Keaton’s consistent use of the past (both historical and artistic) as a primary source for his comedy. That was true of the films that helped launch his career:  the short The Frozen North (1922), a parody of frontier culture and Westerns; and Three Ages (1923), Keaton’s first feature film and a parody of Biblical melodramas such as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). And it was just as true of the group of classic features he made over the next half-decade, a list that included not only The General but also the Hatfield-McCoy parody Our Hospitality (1923), the detective comedy Sherlock Jr. (1924), and Seven Chances (1925), which was based on a 1916 play. In all these different ways, Keaton relied on the past for his stories, his genres, and his audience’s sense of the traditions he was employing and parodying.
Charlie Chapin’s 1936 silent film Modern Times, in which Chaplin’s iconic hero the Little Tramp is forced to confront various elements of the industrialized, urban world during the Great Depression, is more than just the comedian and director’s masterpiece, or one of the great American films (although I would argue it’s both); it’s also exemplary of Chaplin’s consistent engagement with the present (both its issues and its images) in his comedy. That was true of Chaplin’s earliest directorial efforts, such as The Kid (1921), in which the Tramp and an adopted son struggle to survive in the modern world, and A Woman of Paris (1923), which stars Edna Purviance as the titular new woman who refuses to adhere to traditional roles or expectations. And it was even more true of the masterpieces that Chaplin would direct and star in over the next two decades, a list that included not only Modern Times but also the urban comedy City Lights (1931), the Hitler parody The Great Director (1940), and the black comedy of adultery and murder Monsieur Verdoux (1947). In all these different ways, Chaplin’s films reflected, critiqued, and contributed to the evolving modern culture and society around them.
Obviously this is an overly simplified vision of both of these comic and artistic geniuses and their full and rich careers; but I feel that there are these interestingly contrasting threads running through each man’s works. Moreover, I believe those threads could be productively linked to other American comic artists: Mark Twain, for example, like Keaton tended to focus his comic texts on the past (whether English, as in The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; American, as in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson; or world, as in Innocents Abroad and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc); whereas Nathanael West, for another example, like Chaplin usually focused his satirical lens on elements of the modern American society around him (Hollywood in The Day of the Locust, urban living and relationships in Miss Lonelyhearts, the failure of the American Dream in the Depression era in A Cool Million). And at the end of the day, I think it’s vital to include both kinds of comedy and art in our conversations: laughing at the past helps us understand and engage with those histories; and laughing at the present helps us recognize and analyze ourselves. And those are both seriously important skills.
Next fools tomorrow,

PS. What do you think? Funny favorites you’d share?

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