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introduction: restoring slapstick to the historiography of american film tom paulus and rob king

When critic Gilbert Seldes wrote the above, he was describing a situation of cultural neglect: the most popular and, in his opinion, the most

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interesting films produced in America – the only films he considered truly “cinematographic” – were also paradoxically the most despised. The object of Seldes’ tribute? The lowly genre of slapstick. “The drama film is almost always wrong,” Seldes declared, “the slap-stick almost always right.” And while Seldes conceded that “people of culture” had belatedly recognized the talent of Charlie Chaplin – the “great genius” referred to in the epigraph – they had done so, he believed, only to consign the rest of the genre to the shadows of critical obsolescence. Slapstick had become “the Keystone the builders rejected,” a pun that took literally the name of America’s most famous comic studio, the Keystone Film Company, as though the knockabout pleasures of slapstick bespoke the secret foundations of the American film industry’s development and success.1 Nor was Seldes’ a solitary voice. Other literary intellectuals and critics of the period offered similar, and similarly tactical, celebrations of knockabout.2 In his legendary Photoplay interview with Mack Sennett, no less a luminary than Theodore Dreiser could declare:

My admiration for Mack Sennett is temperamental and chronic. . . . [T]o me he is a real creative force in the cinema world – a master at interpreting the crude primary impulses of the dub, the numbskull, the weakling, failure, clown, boor, coward, bully.3