Kings of Silent Comedies

I’ve written before about the movies that are shown on a giant, inflatable screen in the Sunken Gardens of the Santa Barbara Courthouse. The verdant lawns of the massive city edifice are covered by noon as movie-goers stake their spot hours before dusk, when the movies actually start. We went last year at the end of the season and only missed a couple showings this year. This year’s theme was “Comedy Classics of the Silent Era”, presenting black-and-white masterpieces of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. The artistic talent of these kings of silent comedy was appreciated during this year’s filmings, and I think it’d be interesting to write a little bit about these pantomiming geniuses.

Harold Lloyd

The first film we saw was The Freshman, starring Harold Lloyd. Lloyd played an excited (but extremely naïve) student, leaving his home for the first time for college as green as the gardens that housed our Friday night movies. His naivety led him into some sticky situations where he was often ridiculed by upperclassman. Harold Lloyd is famous for performing many of his own stunts despite any and all endangerment to his own self. Lloyd ended up losing a thumb and a finger after one mishap when a prop bomb turned out to be an actual, functioning bomb. He continued acting after the accident, wearing a special prosthetic to hide the injury.

Lloyd started in the industry mocking greats of the time but soon found his own persona. He often portrayed his character that he referred to as “Glass”, a horn-rimmed eyeglasses donning everyman. The glasses were lenseless, and it was said that Lloyd wore them in order to be taken seriously in comedy. Otherwise, he was just too good-looking to be funny. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Lloyd tried to embrace the era of “talkies”. His can-do attitude did not sit well with Depression era movie patrons. Eventually, Lloyd’s popularity waned, and he retired from comedy. The Harold Lloyd Estate, also called Greenacres, is highly-regarded as an impressive movie star mansion. With 44-rooms, a golf course, 900 feet of canoeing, and 15 acres, it’s hard to argue with that. Harold Lloyd’s career, as evidenced by his home, was definitely lucrative.

Buster Keaton

We watched “The Great Stone Face”, as Keaton is sometimes called for his stoic, poker-faced demeanor, in four short films shown back-to-back on two different nights. Keaton was born into a family of entertainers; his father co-owned a travelling show with Harry Houdini. He was born Joseph after his father but supposedly was nicknamed “Buster” when Houdini witnessed Keaton tumble down a flight of stairs at the age of 18 months. Keaton walked away unscathed and mostly unflummoxed, prompting Houdini to comment on what a “buster” his spill was. Keaton joined the vaudeville show his parents ran at the age of three. The act included Keaton’s father grabbing him by a suitcase handle sewed into his clothes and throwing him into the stage set, orchestra, or audience. Still, child stars today might just have it worse if TLC television shows us anything.

After serving in World War I, Keaton got his start in silent comedy. Like Lloyd, Keaton was also a bit of a daredevil. One scene had water surging out of a water tower right onto him. At a routine check-up a few years later, the doctor took X-rays, which revealed that Keaton had fractured his neck during this scene. Keaton filmed The General in 1926, and audiences of the time did not take a liking to it, thinking it to be too dramatic. It was regarded as a flop, and Keaton lost his artistic freedom for future films. However, the film is well-received today; some consider it Keaton’s greatest achievement, and it often ranks high on lists of “best all time” films. Despite the minor failure, Keaton continued acting well into the 60’s, appearing in multiple movies and TV shows like The Twilight Zone.

Charlie Chaplin

Of the three, Charlie Chaplin is easily the most recognizable of the three by name and mustache. UCSB’s Arts and Lectures played The Gold Rush and Modern Times. Most films at the courthouse were accompanied by live, improvised piano, but in reverence for Chaplin’s demand for control of the entire process, his films were played with the original sound. Chaplin was born in the United Kingdom and made it to America when touring on a vaudeville circuit. He found his trademark persona when he filmed his second movie after arriving in Los Angeles. Chaplin often embodied himself as “the Tramp”, a clumsy, innocent wanderer who strives to break social barriers (and often barely succeeds). Chaplin described the character’s costume as a contradiction: baggy pants with a tight coat; tiny, round bowler in striking contrast with his oversized shoes; and a small mustache to disguise his age but not his expressions. The character caught on quickly and became an undeniable success for Chaplin.

Both of Chaplin’s parents were singers, a skill passed down to their son if his solo in Modern Times is any indication. The nonsense song that Chaplin sang in that film was the first and only time that silent film lovers had ever heard his voice in one of his movies. Chaplin was notoriously critical of the introduction of sound films; he believed the true art was in pantomime. Realistically, it was something he was good at, and talkies were threatening his livelihood. Despite over a decade of technological improvements in full-length sound films and the rising popularity of the genre, Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936. Chaplin had just finished filming Limelight (where he would share the silver screen with Buster Keaton for the first time) when he was notified that he had been banned from the United States amid accusations of communist behavior. Chaplin was welcomed in Switzerland, but he returned to the United States in 1972 for the first time when he was given an Honorary Academy Award.

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