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The Show - The Balanced Program, The Serial, Newsreels, Animation, Comedy

films picture silent film

T he burst of picture-palace construction that followed the opening of the Strand in 1914 may have heralded the primacy of the feature, but one should not assume that short films conveniently left the scene at the same time. The palaces demanded a continuing stream of shorts to fill out their programs and supply the variety they felt necessary to attract audiences.

Initially, those established industry forces that were doing well with short films tried to hold the line against features; the result was a “generation gap” among producers so strong that it even forced old enemies to make common cause. Universal’s Carl Laemmle, one of the leading independents, carried on a vehement campaign on behalf of shorts well into 1917. 1 Over at the Motion Picture Patents Company, Edison’s production manager, Horace Plimpton, declared to the New York Dramatic Mirror:

Almost every one of my friends that I talk to—friends not in the business—tell me that he prefers the short subjects and the varied programme. He does not mind a good two or three reel, but he does object to sitting through a film that takes an hour and a half or two hours to show, and he particularly objects to the latter if he happens to come in during its running so that he is forced to sit through some thousand feet of film which cannot interest him because he does not understand it. And yet the theatres, generally speaking, have got the “feature craze” pretty badly. They advertize them liberally and generally get good houses—besides which we shall have to admit—they attract a class of patrons formerly absent from picture theatres. Generally speaking, I suppose that the theatres in residential sections are more likely to do better with long films because families are able, or more apt, to make an evening’s entertainment out of their visit, whereas those catering to more transient trade are better off with more and shorter subjects (“How Long Should Films Be?” New York Dramatic Mirror, 24 February 1915, p. 22).

Plimpton obviously had his eye on the transient trade, but a week later Samuel Goldfish, a leading promoter of features, told the same paper that short-film programs were finished. The Dramatic Mirror, showing its age, chose to differ with him in a strong editorial placed on the same page. What eventually happened, of course, is that silent theaters carefully walked the line, by presenting both feature-length pictures and a “varied programme” of shorts. 2

The 1922 Motion Picture News survey revealed that comedy, news, and novelties dominated the short-film market, but one house in seven still offered a dramatic short, generally a Western. Between 1925 and 1927, for example, Universal alone produced 135 two-reel “Mustang” Westerns, 21 of them directed by William Wyler. Only two of these Wyler-directed shorts appear to survive at present, indicating the problems that historians face even in locating such material, much less in dealing with it adequately. 3

Equally problematic are the "scenics"—proto-documentaries that appeared as frequently as animated cartoons on 1922 theater screens. The fact that Prizmacolor scenics were the only regularly available program of color films that year may have temporarily inflated the popularity of this genre, but Burton Holmes and Robert Bruce were doing well with black-and-white reels of their own. Little was written about these films at the time, and next to nothing is known of them today. Yet their influence in shaping audiences’ perceptions of nonfiction material may have been significant. 4

The Serial

Serials, newsreels, animation, and short comedies are, by comparison, much more accessible today, although few general histories attempt to integrate them into their overall picture of the silent-film scene. Anthony Slide’s Early American Cinema includes a chapter on serials, for example, but despite the fact that 35 percent of theaters were running them in 1922, the form is ignored by most other writers on this period. Hard information on silent serials comes from a handful of genre specialists, while John Hampton’s Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles provided the only regular public screenings of such films in recent decades. 5

Serials were among the first attempts to develop very long and complex screen narratives, and they served as a useful bridge between the short film and the feature during the crucial 1913–1915 period. Edison’s WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY? (1912) numbered a dozen one-reel episodes, although it lacked any necessary connection between the segments and is better classed as a series production. But unlike earlier series such as Essanay’s “Broncho Billy” pictures, WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY? did have a unifying narrative line, with a beginning, middle, and ending, and employed many of the “thriller” devices common to later serials. Produced in cooperation with the Ladies World , which serialized the episodes in printed form, it established the direct link between these two media that would ignite the growth of film serials in 1914.

THE ADVENTURES OF KATHLYN (the first episode was released on 29 December 1913) is usually considered the first true motion picture serial, with a narrative thread continuing directly from one episode to the next, week after week. The Chicago Tribune serialized this Selig production as a circulation-builder, an idea soon picked up by William Randolph Hearst. THE PERILS OF PAULINE (Pathé, 1914), the first serial produced for Hearst, became the most famous of early “chapter plays,” defining the genre and establishing its greatest star, Pearl White. Not well reviewed at the time (except in the Hearst press), the film is derided by Anthony Slide as “badly written and badly directed” and attacked by another historian as “appalling beyond belief … crude and inept.” The magic that burned this film into the national consciousness was clearly not just coming from the screen but was part of a larger cultural phenomenon, quite possibly created by the massive Hearst press campaign. 6

The heroines of these early serials—Pearl White, Ruth Roland, and Helen Holmes in particular—were spectacularly active characters always at the dramatic center of their films and often executing the most difficult and dangerous stunts themselves. The characterization grew directly from earlier one-reel melodramas such as Biograph’s THE GIRL AND HER TRUST (1912) or Kalem’s GRIT OF THE GIRL TELEGRAPHER (1913), but the serials outperformed these models in stuntwork and villainy. These women were a match for their opponents not only mentally but physically. However, this aggressive, even threatening, posture softened by 1916. For example,   Grace Cunard, who wrote her own films, had previously appeared as a traditional, active heroine in serials such as THE BROKEN COIN (1915). By 1916 such “unladylike” behavior was out of fashion and needed considerable dramatic justification. For her last serial, THE PURPLE MASK (1916), she concocted a script that apparently had her on the other side of the law, as the leader of a criminal gang. The situation offered an excuse for an aggressive matching of wits with the hero, a ploy Cunard had not previously needed. 7

An alternative was to emphasize the male figure, which led to the rise of serial heroes such as Eddie Polo and Joe Bonomo at Universal and Charles Hutchison at Pathé. While Ruth Roland’s career lasted throughout the silent era, and she was joined after 1924 by Aliene Ray, the character of most successful serials shifted after the war to emphasize male heroics.

The market value of serials was simultaneously downgraded as their production was abandoned by the more prestigious producers and left in the hands of Pathé, Universal, and an assortment of small independents. In 1915 Pathé and Universal already dominated the serial market, releasing four titles apiece, but Vitagraph, American, Mutual, Lubin, Reliance, and Kalem also released one or two. 8 Five years later, Pathé released seven serials, Universal six, and Vitagraph four. But seventeen more serials came from fourteen other producers, generally minor outfits, including Burston (THE HAWK’S TRAIL ), Hallmark SCREAMING SHADOW ), and Canyon (VANISHING TRAILS ). By 1925 many of these small companies had left the field, leaving most production to Pathé (five serials) and Universal (four) and contributing only four other titles.

None of these firms were in the business of supplying the major downtown palaces; instead, their products went to small urban houses, country theaters, and other unaffiliated venues. Because children made up a large portion of the audience in these theaters, the serial came to be known as a children’s genre, and censorship groups began to direct more attention to the problem of serials and youth. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, head of the Pennsylvania board, wrote in 1922:

The “crime serial” is perhaps the most astounding development in the history of the motion picture.… It is meant for the most ignorant classes of the population with the grossest tastes, and it principally flourishes in the picture halls in mill villages and in the thickly settled tenement house and low foreign-speaking neighborhoods in the big cities.… The crim inologist would find the picture serial a fruitful field of study ( The Morals of the Movie [Philadelphia: Penn, 1922], pp. 55–56).

But while Oberholtzer could produce prison wardens to testify that “criminals are made in the picture houses,” by the 1920s few others were taking the form so seriously.

In 1917 William Randolph Hearst sought to mold public opinion with the release of PATRIA , a “preparedness” serial in which Mexico and Japan were identified as fomenting a secret fifth-column insurrection in America. All Hearst gained for his trouble was a presidential rebuff, but it is significant that he made the attempt. Only a few years later, the once-glamorous serial would be trapped forever in a world of circuses, cowboys, and jungle adventures. 9

Newsreels

“Did you boys ever see a moving picture newspaper?” the photographer went on.

“Do you mean one telling the business, and giving news and printing advertisements of shows?” inquired Joe.

“Not exactly. I mean a series of moving picture films, taken daily, weekly, or perhaps monthly, showing current events, such as coronations, inaugurations, and all sorts of events of interest. Just as an ordinary newspaper prints the news of what happens, the moving picture newspaper shows pictures of the same thing. "

“I think I have read something about that,” said Blake (Victor Appleton, The Moving Picture Boys; or, The Perils of a Great City Depicted [New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1913], p. 68).

The newsreel itself was something new to Victor Appleton’s young chums in The Moving Picture Boys; or, The Perils of a Great City Depicted. THE PATHÉ WEEKLY had been introduced domestically in 1911, but only in 1913–1914 did a stream of popular news weeklies reach American screens. Some were connected with the major national producer-distributors, such as THE UNIVERSAL ANIMATED WEEKLY , which first appeared the same year as Appleton’s book. Others were regional productions, such as San Francisco’s GOLDEN GATE WEEKLY , distributed by Sol Lesser in 1914. Eventually, the early picture palaces, including New York’s Strand, Rivoli, and Capitol, began assembling their own news programs, cannibalizing these existing services and shooting extra material of their own to order. The character of these newsreels was established at a very early date, and it soon became apparent that coronations and inaugurations could not be depended on to keep the public’s interest week after week. Even Appleton’s young news-cameramen soon came to question the bulk of the material in their weekly reel:

“I hope there aren’t any harrowing scenes,” murmured Joe.

“One thing I don’t like about this business is that we have to show so much of the sad side of life.”

“Well, it’s there—every one knows it, and we’re like a newspaper—obliged to give all the news we can get,” replied his chum. “Look out!” (p. 123).

A near car collision turns our heroes away from such reflection and back into another round of tenement fires, harbor catastrophes, and rapid-transit accidents, those perils of a great city which were the true meat of the news cameraman.

Emmanuel Cohen, editor of THE PATHÉ WEEKLY , divided his newsreel subjects into three categories: “sudden events” like the Japanese earthquake or the Shenandoah dirigible disaster; “impending events” whose occurrence might be predicted from existing situations, such as the burning of Smyrna during the 1922 war between the Greeks and the Turks; and “scheduled events” such as ballgames, coronations, and inaugurations. 11

Cohen realized, as did Appleton’s heroes, that it was the sudden event which gave the newsreel its essential dynamism. Yet newsworthy accidents were scarce, and the reel needed to appear on schedule every week (or twice weekly by the end of the silent period). Newsreel editors met this problem by keeping a core group of cameramen on staff in various cities for regular assignments—beauty pageants, parades, road races—and supplementing their footage with material supplied by as many as 1,500 “stringers,” free-lance cameramen scattered across the country. For capturing newsworthy tornadoes or air crashes, these men could be paid from thirty-five cents to one dollar per foot of negative, possibly more for choice material. 12

Competition among free-lance cameramen was fierce because an editor could use only so much footage of a given event. The ability to maneuver one’s seventy-five-pound load of camera, tripod, and extra film magazines into the most advantageous position soon built up an aura of machismo around the newsreel cameraman that was unique in the industry. “No weakling’s game is this,” boasted one prominent Pathé newsman. 13

On a more organized level, competition among the various newsreel producers was equally fierce. When Pathé acquired exclusive rights to a major 1923 horse race, it attempted to blind “pirate” cameramen through the use of smoke pots and a crop-dusting plane. Because these actions obscured the race for everyone, less intrusive tactics were usually employed. Austin Lescarboura describes a battle at Ebbets Field between the “official” camera crew and some pirates atop a nearby apartment building. The weapons were pocket mirrors, used to flash sunlight into the opponent’s lens. 14

In general, audiences were well served by this competition, since newsreel editors felt compelled to “scoop” their rivals by rushing stories onto local screens in record time. Jack Cohn had footage taken of a New York City subway explosion at 8:30 A.M. developed and printed during the morning and onscreen at Broadway houses by noon. 15 But some felt that this situation fostered inefficient duplication of staffs and services and created a strong inducement to fabrication and fraud. Howard Lewis indicates that the four existing newsreels in 1925 were able to turn a healthy profit, but after Universal, Fox, Pathé, and Kinograms were joined by Paramount and MGM in 1927, the market became oversaturated (table 6.1).

Nonetheless, with newsreels considered an obligatory part of the balanced theater program, producer-distributors hoping to supply a theater’s complete show felt obliged to offer a newsreel of their own. By the time Fox introduced its talking MOVIETONE NEWS in 1927, it was estimated that 90 percent of American theaters regularly programmed one or another of the existing newsreels. 16

Animation

Newsreel production was centered in the East not simply because most newsworthy events were best covered there but because the newsreels were closely tied to various press syndicates. For much the same reason, silent animation studios were also headquartered in New York and, to a lesser extent, Chicago. 17 Just as newspaper comic strips arose as adjuncts of expanding urban broadsheets, so animated cartoons would be taken up by newsreel distributors and the press lords who often sponsored them. While J. Stuart Blackton and Winsor McCay had earlier demonstrated the potential of cartoon animation as a curiosity, it was J. R. Bray and Earl Hurd who made the medium economically feasible by their separate development, in 1914, of what became the Bray-Hurd process. 18

When he created GERTIE THE DINOSAUR (1914), Winsor McCay drew each frame separately and completely—a labor-intensive process that challenged even his prodigious drafting abilities. But producing such films in large numbers was impossible without dividing the work and automating the non-creative aspects. Bray took the first step by conceiving of the background as a separate plane, offset-printing it in quantity, and animating only the necessary foreground elements. While Bray mentioned the use of celluloid overlays in one of his patent applications, its modern use was developed by Earl Hurd, whose own application was filed later in 1914. Through the use of transparent plastic “cels,” various layers of action could be sandwiched and only the necessary “moving” elements, such as an arm or a mouth, animated. When combined with Raoul Barrés introduction that same year of the peg system for registering the various overlays, all the key elements of animation technology had been established by 1915.

Bray and Hurd were able to effect a patent monopoly on the strength of their pooled patents, ironic at a time when the original Motion Picture Patents Company was being dissolved by the courts. Studios either took out a license for the use of cel animation or restricted themselves to animating on paper. Surprisingly, many important animators in this period stayed with paper, not only because they wished to avoid the license fee but because they preferred that medium to celluloid. 19 Felix Cat, the most popular of silent cartoon characters, was animated on paper by the talented Otto Mesmer, whose spare compositions made a virtue of this necessity.

Bray produced a series of COL . HEEZA LIAR cartoons beginning in 1913, and Raoul Barré‘s ANIMATED GROUCH CHASER appeared on the Edison program in 1915. The third significant animation studio in this early period was the International Film Service (IFS), organized to highlight characters appearing in the Hearst newspapers’ comic pages. George Herrimann’s KRAZYK AT , Frederick Opper’s HAPPY HOOLIGAN , and George McManus’ BRINGING UP FATHER were three of the more important IFS series that Hearst appended to his newsreel. 20 The original artists had nothing to do with the creation of these films, which were under the direction of Gregory La Cava (later a noted director of live-action comedies). Bud Fisher’s MUTT AND JEFF , the most successful of the recruits from the funny papers, was produced by Fisher’s own company and distributed by Fox.

While the Bray-Hurd process made possible this rapid expansion of production, it severely diluted the quality of the work. A typical period manual, such as Homer Cray’s How Motion Pictures Are Made, is obsessed with “bottom line” economics in its discussion of animation, a concern not especially evident in its coverage of other industry activities. “The constant aim,” Croy writes, “is to eliminate all unnecessary detail and to perfect methods of shortening the work, in order to bring down the cost of production to where it will be commercially profitable.” Any available shortcut would be taken. Croy says that most exposures are doubled or tripled (that is, two or three frames are shot from each drawing), while Austin Lescarboura insists that only one object at a time should be shown in motion. Where “balloons” are used to show dialogue, Lescarboura notes, all action must cease, purportedly because audiences would otherwise become distracted and confused. 21

In fact, it was such threadbare assembly-line methods that dismayed audiences. Animator Richard-Huemer, who entered the industry with Barré in 1916, recalls widespread audience antipathy to cartoons, which he felt survived only because of their status as part of a program package. They were able to maintain a position here because of their low cost and the occasional use of popular comic-strip characters whose names had value. “Funny as a crutch” is the way he describes them. 22 After the war, Paul Terry carried on this tradition with his tedious A ESOP’S FABLES series, featuring Farmer Al Falfa. Truly imaginative work within the studio system awaited the arrival of Ko-Ko the Clown and Felix the Cat.

Produced by Pat Sullivan and animated by Otto Mesmer, Felix was the first animated character to develop his own following. 23 Often compared to the early Chaplin in his resourcefulness and physical grace, Felix also had something of Chaplin’s worldview and wry sense of humor. Making free use of his ubiquitous tail, which might serve as a ladder or form itself into a floating question mark, Felix was in complete command of the stylized spaces designed for him by his creators.

Time and space came under even broader attack in Max Fleischer’s OUT OF THE INKWELL series, in which Ko-Ko the Clown was the nominal lead. Although his clown may not have had much personality, Fleischer more then compensated with a bizarre assortment of self-referential gags, usually involving the relationship between the animator and his troublesome creation. Ko-Ko’s CARTOON FACTORY (1925), a surreal masterwork, has Ko-Ko turn the tables and mass-produce scores of animated Max Fleischers, who then proceed to harass their creator. Fleischer’s development of the rotoscoping technique, in which previously filmed live-action material was traced by the animator, not only gave his films an uneasy suggestion of human motion but helped make him an expert in the combining of live action and animation. 24

Austin Lescarboura’s Behind the Motion Picture Screen (1922) devotes most of its animation section to live-action animation, but today this significant work is largely neglected, with only Willis O’Brien’s model animation for THE LOST WORLD (1925) noted in the general histories. Lescarboura spends considerable time on an (unnamed) Chicago puppet animator and the five-reel animated feature he had just completed, possibly Howard Moss and his little-known Essanay feature, THE DREAM DOLL (1917). 25

Certainly the most extravagant live-action animator of the period was Charles Bowers, who had once been a partner of Raoul Barré. While O’Brien gradually mastered the ability to give his tiny creatures the illusion of life, Bowers animated things like eggs and automobiles. In a highly imaginative series of shorts produced at his Astoria, New York, studio, Bowers brought to live-action animation the physical, and metaphysical, freedom of action that Mesmer and Fleischer had given to their cartoons. Neglected even in its time, Bowers’ work exists today only because the curator of the Toulouse Cinémathèque discovered a cache of reels once owned by a traveling Gypsy exhibitor. 26

During the pre-1927 period, most animation studios were very modest affairs, the kind of operation that might be located above a tailor shop. 27 A few key animators and their support teams went from one small outfit to another, with releasing arrangements changing so frequently, even for a successful producer like Fleischer, that little could be taken for granted. Walt Disney, who drifted to Los Angeles in 1923 after failing in Kansas City, would begin to change the face of this industry again by the end of the decade. But until the advent of Mickey Mouse, he and his studio were victims of this same turmoil and had nothing very impressive of their own to show for it.

Comedy

While dramatic subjects essentially abandoned shorts for features after 1915, the same route was not followed by comedies. Relatively few feature-length comedies were produced before 1920, and even in 1925, the year of THE GOLD RUSH , THE FRESHMAN , and SEVEN CHANCES , almost one thousand reels of short comedies were released. It was nearly impossible to avoid catching a one- or two-reel comedy, or sometimes both, in the average silent-movie house. History remembers the great character comedians who moved into features, but with a few key exceptions, the army of two-reel comics who created the bulk of silent comedy has been forgotten. 28

Large “fun factories” like Keystone were not in the lead in producing feature-length comedies. They continued to develop the short-film form, while producers such as Lasky or Vitagraph added long comedies to their release schedules with varying degrees of success. Mack Sennett produced the six-reel TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE in 1914 but refused to follow up on it. When Triangle presented him with Weber and Fields, a vaudeville team who seemed ready-made for features, he put them into two-reelers. 29

When comedy features did appear, they tended to be adaptations of popular stage successes, often with the original stars. Cecil B. DeMille directed Victor Moore in CHIMMIE FADDEN (1915), which was popular enough for a sequel but did not immediately impel DeMille to produce more comedies. His vision of cinema, like D. W. Griffith’s, was far more sober than that, at least in 1915. At Vitagraph, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew moved from shorts to features with the rest of the company, but the extended length seems to have changed their status very little.

In terms of audience appeal, it is clear that shorts surpassed features on the pre-1920 comedy scene, with one notable exception. Douglas Fairbanks, working almost entirely in features, was generally considered “one of film land’s most popular comedians” for his work in such breezy light comedies as WILD AND WOOLLY (1917) and WHEN THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1920). 30 Fairbanks had come from the theater and began in films doing the usual theatrical adaptations. Gradually his production unit began to craft new scripts to suit the jaunty screen persona he had established, and his career flourished. But Fairbanks was one man against an army of Chaplins, Arbuckles, and Lloyds then working entirely in shorts. His comedy positioned a realistic character in situations that took time to develop; their comedy, while more than simple slapstick, was certainly gag-based and far more dependent on stereo-types and conventions.

Audiences now began to see two distinct types of comedy. The more “high-class” comedy descended from Broadway adaptations and portrayed recognizable characters in believable situations. It was generally to be seen only in features. Short films were the province of “low comedy,” a continuation of the slapstick tradition of nickelodeon days. Low comedy had its intellectual champions, especially Gilbert Seldes, but was constantly under attack by moralists for its vulgarity, disrespect, and inducement to lawlessness. Sennett and the early Chaplin became lightning rods for both these forces. 31

These brief films made use of a visual shorthand well suited to the capabilities of early screen narrative. Stereotyped characters represented familiar figures developed on the stages of British music halls and American vaudeville theaters. Racial and ethnic stereotyping, with its attendant “humor,” was an integral part of this scheme. Its physical aspects drew on the same primal impulses tapped in the commedia dell’arte ; indeed, the word “slapstick” itself originally described Harlequin’s wooden paddle. As Mack Sennett put it in the argot of 1918, “Explanations must be Hooverized to as great an extent as possible in the movies. By custom side-whiskers and stove-pipe hats have come to be recognized as the badge of the official goat of the comedy. Just as a white lawn dress and curls are the sign of the heroine in drama.” 32

When Chaplin began adding a note of pathos to his short comedies, as early as THE TRAMP (1915), critics took notice. “A moving episode like this must be seen to be appreciated,” wrote one otherwise skeptical reviewer, referring to Chaplin’s first lonely trudge up a dusty road. 33 Chaplin continued this tentative exploration but refused to abandon either his stylized comic costume (developed at Keystone to suit the demands of Sennett’s comedy) or—until the 1920s—the short-film form itself. His chief rival, Fatty Arbuckle, occasionally inserted a sentimental note into his raucous comedies, but Arbuckle was not very interested in character comedy as such.

Much more important was the change in comic persona affected by Harold Lloyd in 1917–1918. Abandoning his clownish “Lonesome Luke” character, Lloyd suddenly appeared as a middle-class white-collar worker whose only comic prop was a pair of eyeglasses. Still working within the tight format of the one-reeler, Lloyd began to merge the physical comedy of the slapstick tradition with the believable situations and characters successfully employed by Fairbanks. This proved to be crucial to the great age of silent feature comedy to follow.

There is still some controversy as to who was responsible for this change, Lloyd or his producer, Hal Roach. 34 Whatever the truth of the matter, Roach immediately began to investigate the possibility of other realistic characters in believable situations.

Roach and Sennett were in direct competition for supremacy in short-comedy production, and this new angle would enable Roach to differentiate his product from Sennett’s by bringing in some of the elements of “high-class” comedy involving character and situation. His use of this approach can be seen not only in the Lloyd films, but in later Roach comedies featuring Charlie Chase, Will Rogers, Laurel and Hardy, and even Our Gang. Sennett continued to work in the earlier tradition throughout the silent era, relying on such baggy-pants comedians as Ford Sterling, Billy Bevan, and Ben Turpin—clowns whose appeal was primarily based on funny costumes and makeup. While he continued to discover future stars such as Harry Langdon, Sennett’s “fun factory” was unable to accommodate their comic style, and the importance of his studio declined.

Adolph Zukor saw the potential of placing an important slapstick comedian in a feature-picture framework and in 1920 signed Fatty Arbuckle to a $2 million contract. The first Arbuckle feature, THE ROUND UP , appeared on 10 October 1920, and a total of seven features were released before a notorious scandal destroyed the comedian’s career less than a year later (two more completed films were shelved). 35 To get full value for his money, Zukor used the most high-pressure assembly-line methods, at one point running Arbuckle from a Joseph Henabery film on one stage to a James Cruze film on another.

Arbuckle seems to have been removed from any creative control, and the scripts, taken from stage plays or magazine stories, have no feeling for his particular comic strengths. One film, canceled during production because of the scandal, was successfully repackaged for Will Rogers. Seen today, the surviving Arbuckle features have nothing to recommend them over the shorts. A comedian noted for movement and energy in his films, Arbuckle was slowed to a halt, reduced to exchanging humorous dialogue titles with his supporting cast. Audiences at the time were apparently satisfied by small bits of pantomime or an occasional appearance in drag, but how long such indulgence would have lasted is an open question. Zukor’s decision to mass-produce Arbuckle films was clearly the problem. In 1919 Arbuckle released only seven two-reel comedies, each a small masterpiece of timing and invention. During the same amount of time on his Paramount contract, Zukor squeezed nine features out of the man, more than triple the amount of screen time. The results were obvious and served as an object lesson to other short-film comedians moving to features.

The same fate almost befell Arbuckle’s protégé Buster Keaton, whose first feature picture, THE SAPHEAD , appeared only a week after the initial Arbuckle feature. Cast arbitrarily in this adaptation of a familiar stage farce, Keaton struggled to assert some of his own style but accomplished little more than a few pratfalls. Fortunately, this was only a one-shot affair, and Keaton was able to develop his style in two-reelers until 1923.

Chaplin’s THE KID , released on 6 February 1921, was the first really successful example of the move to features by an established short-film comedian. In complete control of the production, Chaplin polished the film until he had everything exactly the way he wanted it. THE KID was a revelation, and the posters produced for its original release tell why. “This is the great picture upon which the famous comedian has worked a whole year,” they boasted. 36 None but Chaplin could afford to spend that kind of time refining a comedy, but time was what was required to get things right. It would be 1923 before Chaplin released a feature again and 1925 before he would issue another feature-length comedy.

Harold Lloyd, last of the big four to enter features, was the first, however, to do so successfully on a regular basis. Following the release of A SAILOR-MADE M AN on 25 December 1921, Lloyd never returned to shorts; he produced a steady flow of one or two features per year for the rest of the silent period. With Chaplin appearing on screen so infrequently in the twenties, Arbuckle gone, and Keaton’s films often losing money, Lloyd became not only the most popular comedian but the greatest box-office attraction of the period. 37

There is scarcely space here to mention, much less discuss, the remainder of the vast number of comics starring in shorts and/or features in the silent era. Larry Semon, Raymond Griffith, Harry Langdon, Reginald Denny, Mabel Normand, Will Rogers, and W. C. Fields all produced work of high quality. A few had as much control over their work as Chaplin or Lloyd, and several were making more money than Keaton. But their contributions to silent comedy clearly are more limited than those of the big four: less original, less imaginative, or simply less able to survive the decades. 38

The great silent comedians may dominate history’s image of this era, but it could be argued that a revolution in the crafting of situation comedies was of greater significance in the overall development of film comedy. Chaplin and Keaton were inimitable, after all. The key problem with such comedies was dependence on a preexisting literary text. Adaptations of dramatic successes might be opened up a bit onscreen, but the purchaser of a witty Broadway farce wanted to see the original jokes and gag-lines in the filmscript, which meant a profusion of title cards. Unlike dramas, few comedies achieved success onstage because of an underlying story idea (CHARLEY’S AUNT would be one exception). Instead, audiences were attracted to the dialogue, the songs, or an especially engaging performance. But because only the narrative line was essentially transferrable to the silent screen, these other values were meaningless. Pre-1920 adaptations of light comedies are among the most static films of their era and offer a strong explanation for the concurrent popularity of short gag comedies.

The Fairbanks films, as scripted by Anita Loos, indicated an effective new model: attractive young characters, a fresh comedy concept, and minimal reliance on title-card repartee. “Whenever possible build your story about a theme and make your climax the outcome of some great universal truth,” Loos counseled. “The old truths, of course, are pretty well worn, but every day our civilization finds a new truth born.” 39

Cecil B. DeMille was keenly aware of the “new truth” of the postwar world and lightened his society melodramas with stylish directorial touches and attractive performances from Gloria Swanson and other fashionable young leads. His methods were not lost on Ernst Lubitsch, who built on them to create a new comedy of manners that would revolutionize late silent-screen comedy. In addition to DeMille, Lubitsch also drew on Chaplin’s A WOMAN OF PARIS (1923), especially for its use of visual symbols and telling details of characterization. His first American comedy, THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE (1924), already demonstrated that purely cinematic devices—editing, the close-up, camera movement—could be used to communicate a high degree of visual wit: the “Lubitsch touch.” Spread by such disciples as Mal St. Clair, Monta Bell, and Harry D’Arrast, the new style was an indigenous high-comedy silent-screen form, distinct from literary antecedents on Broadway as well as from the antics of the great character comedians. In place of bons mots or pratfalls, Lubitsch created comedy through the shot of a door closing or Adolphe Menjou raising an eyebrow. By the time he directed LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN (1925), Lubitsch was able to eliminate all Wildean epigrams, substituting visual analogues instead. This was no mere stunt but the culmination of several years of increasingly sophisticated work in silent comedy by a number of writers and directors. While Lubitsch may have been the first to synthesize these elements successfully, the eventual demonstration was probably inevitable. 40

By 1925 screen comedy had achieved a happy balance of verbal and visual elements, something apparent even in the work of otherwise minor performers and directors. A Reginald Denny comedy for Universal, SKINNER’S DRESS SUIT , for example, confidently displays a sophisticated style unknown only two years earlier. A star like Marion Davies was able to take advantage of this and change the shape of her career from period-picture heroine to bright young comedienne (SHOW PEOPLE 1928). As William K. Everson points out, many of the situation comedies of the late silent era hang on conventionalized plots hardly different from those of television sitcoms. But while the television approach is almost entirely verbal, these silent films were able to mine the same situations in terms of visual comedy, a far more difficult achievement. 41

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