chapter  10
22 Pages

California slapstick revisited

Addressing the first Slapstick Symposium held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1985, the late film historian Jay Leyda proposed that film scholars adopt the label “California Slapstick” to describe a style of physical comedy that linked the films of Sennett, Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton, and others during the years 1912 to 1928. The central ingredients of this comedy, he contended, were “violence, acrobatics, embarrassment, and irrationality.” Making light of the fondness of academics for categories derived from art history, Leyda joked that “students who love to apply the term ‘expressionist’ to any film that hasn’t yet been labeled could easily change my suggested term to ‘expressionist slapstick.’ Do, if that will make you happier.”1 A serious argument, however, can be discerned in the particular term Leyda chose for talking about these films. In the remarks to follow I wish to explore the utility of the label “California slapstick,” both as short hand for a subgenre of silent film comedy and as an invitation to more systematic thinking about the role of social geography in comedy films made in a particular place and period. In effect, I want to press harder on the concept of California – particularly Southern

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California – as a materially specific region for the production of slapstick comedy, with primary focus on the development of the forms and themes of the comic chase. I have come to this topic through researching the production histories of silent comedies by Buster Keaton, and will be using two passages from Keaton’s 1920 two-reeler, The Scarecrow, to explain my central ideas. But I believe these ideas have wider relevance and application. Investigating the production of films from the silent era can be difficult work. In the case of Keaton, for example, the lack of studio records, scripts, notes or other written documents is a substantial barrier to understanding precisely how and under what conditions a given film was planned, shot, and assembled. Scattered recollections and trade press reports provide clues, and sometimes good stories, but the reliability of these accounts is often in question. Anyone with an interest in the production of silent comedy in California therefore can only be grateful for the remarkable detective work of John Bengtson, who in two recent books examines the production sites of many of Keaton’s and Chaplin’s films.2 Armed with video discs, production stills, fire insurance maps, and other public images and documents, with great skill and shrewdness Bengtson has identified a wide range of locations beyond the studio where scenes and sequences were shot. His meticulous research provides a new perspective on the way in which comic ideas were generated and refined in specific physical locations, and a different kind of guide to the changing environment of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, as well as more remote locations, in the 1910s and 1920s. Among other things, locating the history of slapstick comedy in relation to social geography – to the ways in which a terrain is delineated, inhabited, and administrated; its resources identified, marshaled, and allocated; its surfaces built up and made available for human movement and settlement – requires us to focus on the production of early comic films in both practical and conceptual ways. Implicit in the concept of “California slapstick” as I will expand on it here are four interrelated premises. First, elements of the material environment – topography, modes of transportation, traffic corridors, grading and landscaping, parks, residential and commercial buildings, interior and exterior architectural design – are not only important backdrops to the staging of physical comedy, but may be seen to have shaped the development of comedy forms and themes in distinctive ways. The label “California slapstick” is valuable in part because it encourages us to examine the comedies in relation to environmental conditions in rural, suburban, and urban locations, and how these in turn took particular shape in response to land use practices and policies in Southern California between 1890 and 1930, a period of rapid industrialization and extraordinary population growth. The sites


where motion picture production companies were established, as well as the neighboring locations favored by filmmakers for the staging and recording of comic events, can be profitably studied in relation to these historical patterns. It is commonplace in writing on early US film history to attribute the settlement of the motion picture industry on the west coast at least in part to the combination of topographical diversity and temperate climate that Southern California offered. However, California slapstick should be conceived not simply as a convenient response to the favorable conditions for location filmmaking, but as a subgenre of comedy that articulated new relations among a variety of residential, agricultural, industrial, and recreational settings. Comedy performers and filmmakers who migrated to Southern California in the 1910s confronted the physical effects of economic and political practices that had guided urban development in the region over the course of several decades. With this in mind, I wish to consider how the physical environment they encountered may have come to inform the stylistic design and thematic import of the slapstick chase. Second, slapstick films are valuable to us today in part for the photographic record that they provide. On the occasion of the first Slapstick Symposium, Ron Magliozzi of the Film Study Center at MoMA emphasized this point in his report on the Slapstick Identification Seminar that accompanied the conference, noting:

The fact that so many of these films are shot on location, on the real streets of Hollywood and its vicinity is significant. There is rare beauty in these fresh new palm trees, the garden paths, the city streets, store fronts, the street lights, a glimpse now and then of a non-actor moving or staring in the distance. . . . A record of everyday reality in the twenties is always present in these films.3