chapter  1
16 Pages

the good thieves: on the origins of situation comedy in the british music hall bryony dixon

A few years ago I took a short sabbatical to look at the British Film Institute’s (BFI) holdings of archive film material relating to the British music hall. At the back of my mind even then was a curiosity toward finding a link between British performers, trained up on the halls, and the early days of slapstick comedy emanating from Hollywood. Another year spent working on our Chaplin materials intensified this curiosity and I attempted, like many before me, somewhat clumsily to draw a link between Chaplin’s comedy and certain traditions of the music hall in nineteenth-century Britain. I was warned that we should be extremely cautious about assuming cause and effect in cases such as these; that just because one thing precedes another, as pantomime does silent film comedy, it doesn’t mean an individual such as Chaplin was influenced by it to any significant degree. These warnings duly noted, I have recently been trying to find some trace of a link between film slapstick and the British comedy tradition in the film record as it relates to music hall. David Robinson and others have already written about the similarities between Chaplin and the clowning

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traditions passed down from medieval Italy through the diaspora of the commedia dell’arte to the British pantomime Harlequinade.1 Simon Louvish, who has published studies of many individual comic performers, also makes this leap in his book on Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Discussing an 1896 review in The Era of Fred Karno’s sketch, “Jail Birds,” Louvish notes, “We are looking at the ‘missing link’ between the grotesque antics of clowns such as Grimaldi and the crazy tricks of the future silent cinema.”2 But we need to add some detail to this. At the Chaplin Conference held by the BFI in 2005 there were conversations with Mike Hammond and Yuri Tsivian about the need to compile a “gag-ography” if we were ever to understand the influences of stage comedy on early film. The sources for such a study are difficult, rare, and usually incidental. Apart from tiny nuggets picked out by dedicated researchers like David Robinson, the only way to bridge the gap in our knowledge might be some kind of “experimental archaeology” in which gags or comedic business could be reproduced in performance by contemporary practitioners. It would also take the efforts of a number of researchers to pin down the ancestry of gags, approaching the challenge from different angles. All I can do is offer what information I have found in the film record in Britain and some preliminary observations. So how do you trace a gag? I was not particularly surprised to find little mention of influences in the writings of British comedians working in early film. Slapstick performers, like other comedians, carefully guarded their comedic business: why would any performer admit that their “unique” selling point, i.e., the means by which they could earn a living, was not entirely original? Of course comedy relies on a common pot of gags and business, but performers went to great lengths to conceal the origins of their routines. Every now and then a particularly secure comedian might own up to an influence, but only if he was very well established or was looking back at his career from a safe distance. (Chaplin, the man least likely to admit that his genius was not sui generis, was happy to acknowledge some admiration for the clown Marceline and for Max Linder in his autobiography.) As a result of this inclination for silence there is very little evidence for the ancestry of slapstick gags in the memoirs of comedians; almost nothing was written down. And lest we imply that our legendary performers were guilty of the comedic equivalent of plagiarism, we should unpack what we mean by gags, jokes, “business,” and routines. Is it possible to have an original pratfall? When does imitation or mimicry become copying? A good comedian is by nature a good mimic – it is the core of comedy, humor being essentially about recognition. But when is copying a sincere form of flattery, and when is it cashing in on another’s success? The “outing” of joke thieves is today a popular pastime for internet contributors, and a great way for people to show off or to reinforce their allegiance to a particular


performer;3 but the complaints about plagiarism around the time of Chaplin’s stellar rise in 1914 had a more serious edge. The costume and gags that comprised an entertainer’s “act” were vital to his ability to promote himself – his “brand” if you like – and they relied, to an extent, on an element of novelty. As a stage performer you could get a whole season out of one gag, sketch, or routine as you traveled from one town to another (and more if you took it to another country). Once a comedian’s material was translated into films, which were exposed to audiences nationwide more or less simultaneously, that element of the novelty value of a particular piece of material was lost, and with it, its earning power. In the mid-1910s this issue took a quantum leap, as entertainers who had been part of a centuries-old tradition on the stage were forced to confront the new reality of film versus the stage. Billie Ritchie – a Scots comedian who had played lead roles for Karno before Chaplin – was most vociferous in accusing Chaplin of having copied his tramp persona.4 It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the losers in these new circumstances, even if Ritchie himself was not above copying a gag or two (for example, two weeks after Chaplin released Work – released June 21, 1915 – Ritchie came out with a film titled The Curse of Work – released July 4, 1915 – on an entirely similar theme).5 Chaplin may have acknowledged a debt to Max Linder (albeit only in 1921), but Linder had by this time already been taken to court for plagiarizing Karno’s sketch, “A Night in an English Music Hall,” the very sketch that made Chaplin a star. Of course it only became a legal issue because Karno felt he was missing out financially. The fact is that Linder’s 1907 film, Au Music Hall, was successful because he was a great performer, just as Chaplin’s “tramp” persona was more appealing than Billie Ritchie’s. All artists are thieves; the trick to stealing the work of other comedians, as David Robinson likes to say, is to know that you are stealing the good stuff. Chaplin took from Ritchie during their Karno days, Ritchie took again from Chaplin, as did a host of others. During the course of this lively competition, everybody “upped” their game and great strides were made in the development of film comedy. There is a tendency, particularly with film historians who haven’t been exposed to the study of stage history, to assume that “everything starts with Karno.” Certainly his companies developed a particular type of ensemble play, although how much this was due to his talent or to that of individual performers is hard to say. Karno was a good businessman and evidently knew talent when he saw it, but he must have had his influences too. His comedians clearly had considerable training in physical comedy before they worked for him, and he employed writers (Sydney Chaplin for one) to help with scenarios based in particular contained settings (a music hall, a football match, a secret society’s clubroom, etc.) within which the comedians could show off their “business.”