chapter  2
12 Pages

d. w. griffith shapes slapstick barry salt

D. W. Griffith had a strong, and unrecognized, influence on the form of American film slapstick. He was a man lacking a real comic touch, but as everyone knows, Mack Sennett came out of his troupe at Biograph to set up the Keystone Film Company, and all those years of being in D. W. Griffith’s films had an effect on what Sennett subsequently did. But before Griffith made films, there were Pathé films, and Griffith saw them before he started directing at Biograph. Amongst Pathé’s biggest hits of 1907-1908, was Le Cheval emballé. I have written about this film before, but it is worth reminding you of the use of comings and goings on the Pathé staircase in it, and in other Pathé films.1 A delivery man goes up the staircase and into a room and back onto the staircase, while his horse is shown in a cross-cut sequence eating the contents of a bag of oats outside a grain shop on the street level. These scenes inside the house are all shot from the same frontal direction. Le Cheval emballé was so successful a film that it would have been difficult for film people to avoid seeing it in 1908 in New York, but in any case, Griffith made a version of it, at the urging of Mack Sennett and Billy Bitzer, under the title of The Curtain Pole,

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later in the year. At that point Griffith had not developed the idea of using side-by-side spaces shot from the same frontal direction. Ben Brewster has identified An Awful Moment, made about a month after The Curtain Pole, as the first use of the device, and the next example I know of is A Wreath in Time, made another month later, with Mack Sennett in the lead. After that, this layout became more and more frequent in Griffith’s scenography. I have illustrated Griffith’s way of shooting scenes in adjoining spaces in Film Style and Technology, with an example from The Battle, but here is another example from The Sunbeam (1912).2 In shots 1 and 2, the little girl leaves her sick mother in their tenement room, and sets off downstairs looking for someone to play with (Figures 2.1a-2.1b). In shots 3 and 4, she reaches the ground floor and accosts a middle-aged spinster in the hallway (Figures 2.1c-2.1d). The spinster rejects her. After more interaction with the spinster, the little girl approaches a man in the hall, and is rejected again (Figures 2.1e-2.1f). He goes into his room, shuts the door, and looks angrily back toward it. When Sennett, Dell Henderson, George Nichols, and other Griffith actors were allowed to direct at Biograph, it is not particularly surprising that they took up his use of room-to-room movement in side-by-side spaces filmed from the front. The only thing surprising about this is that no-one has remarked on it. In Sennett’s case, he began directing comedies for Griffith in 1911, and the side-by-side room staging can be seen in films like A Convenient Burglar and Too Many Burglars. And so it became the usual way at Keystone of filming scenes taking place in a house with more than one room. A good example from 1913 is A Healthy Neighborhood, which Sennett personally directed. In this film, the comically incompetent Dr. Noodles, played by Ford Sterling, has to give emergency treatment to a girl that his own medicine has made ill. She is in the dining room of her father’s house, and then her father rushes out to the right into the adjoining kitchen to get water (Figures 2.2a-2.2b). As the scene continues, Dr. Noodles rushes into the sitting room on the other side of the dining room to secretly consult his medical textbook for advice (Figures 2.2c-2.2d). This latter move is neither necessary nor advantageous from a comedy point of view. It would be more amusing if he was in the same room, and had to resort to various extra comic stratagems to get a look at the textbook without being seen by the others present. Indeed, this would be the way such a scene would have been done on the stage, from whence the situation comes. Besides this rushing backwards and forwards several times through these three side-by-side rooms near the climax of the film, there are earlier scenes in Dr. Noodles’ surgery, with the action going backwards and forwards from his consulting room to his waiting room, and vice versa, which are also side by side, and also shot from the same frontal direction. Sennett also throws in a little weak cross-cutting between

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Figure 2.1

Frame enlargements and camera set-up plan from The Sunbeam (1912)

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Figure 2.2

Frame enlargements and camera plan from A Healthy Neighborhood (1913)

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parallel actions in this and some of his other films, but this is never particularly effective because it is not related to the drive of the plot. Dr. Noodles’ surgery on the left, and his waiting room on the right, are the location for more movement between adjoining spaces filmed from the “front” (Figures 2.3a-2.3b). Dr. Noodles is engaged in a classic stethoscope routine with his pretty patient, but between them, Mack Sennett and Ford Sterling completely destroy the comedy in this by going through the moves so fast that the rationale for them is completely unrecognizable. Also, having put a dentist’s chair in the doctor’s surgery, they also fail to exploit it with some of the standard stage gags involving dentists’ chairs. The most obvious feature of A Healthy Neighborhood and The Riot, the only Sennett-directed films I have seen from the first two years of the company’s existence, is the way they are relentlessly crammed with action and continual movement, so that the detail of the narrative is difficult to follow. It is a matter of “Why the hell is he doing that?” most of the time, to a degree that I have never seen anywhere else in a film. As I have indicated with one instance above, this represents a consistent failure by Sennett to develop and milk a number of viable comedy situations. It is just as well he left most of the directing to others at Keystone. The Pathé comedies were not the only model available to Mack Sennett through the years from 1908 to 1912, before he developed his own sort of slapstick. The Gaumont Company in France also had slapstick units making films from 1906 onwards, but its productions did not feature the use of side-by-side spaces, or indeed any other specific features that are to be found in the first few years of Keystone production. The Gaumont “Calino” films are mostly constructed from a discontinuous series of scenes each exploiting one basic gag, without the use of any moves or gestures that can be seen taken over into Keystone films. Both Pathé and Gaumont comedies use undercranking (accelerated motion) to speed up their action at times, from 1909 onwards, but there is no

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Figure 2.3

The doctor’s surgery and waiting room in A Healthy Neighborhood (1913)

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accelerated motion used in the early Keystone period. The total destruction of interior sets, combined with acrobatic tumbling, that is so characteristic of the well-known Gaumont “Onésime” comedy series from 1912 onwards, likewise does not appear in Keystone films, where the violence is focused on people rather than things. When Charlie Chaplin came to Keystone at the beginning of 1914, he gradually moved toward a slower style of comedy, against resistance from Sennett. This was a matter of leaving space between the gags to give time for the characters’ reactions, and hence their thought processes, to be savored by the film audience – not to mention giving the audience time to appreciate the cleverness of the gags, and also the idiosyncrasies of Chaplin’s movement, which goes on in the spaces between gags. I think Chaplin’s success also made it possible for Fatty Arbuckle to develop his own slower style of comedy. One can see Arbuckle trying to do things differently even in his first days at Keystone in 1913, when he was still one of the mob in films like The Riot. In this, while everybody else is throwing bombs and bricks in the usual frenetic Keystone way during the climax of the action, Arbuckle is using his own special sort of slowed-down graceful pitches to launch his missiles. When Chaplin started directing, he took up the use of side-by-side spaces shot from the front that was standard at Keystone, and he took this style with him when he moved to Essanay in 1915, and on to Mutual in 1916. His New Job (1915) provides a good example of this. In this film, the row of side-by-side spaces are areas of the main stage of a large film studio, though some are separated by either the walls of sets, or actual walls. The sequence of events at this point in the film is that Charlie, after a misdemeanor in his new job at the film studio, is sent by the director (Figure 2.4a) to help the studio carpenter (Figure 2.4b). His attempt to saw a plank of wood flips it at the carpenter, knocking him through the door into the property room (Figure 2.4c). The carpenter retaliates by kicking him in the behind after he has picked up the plank (Figure 2.4d), which sends him flying at high speed right through the shooting area, and then another intermediate space, before knocking down an actor in front of the dressing rooms (Figure 2.4g). Charlie then ambles back along his tracks and eventually into the property room, where he is startled by a life-sized female statue (Figure 2.4k). He tips his hat to her (Figure 2.4l), before his next misadventure begins. The gag is the repercussions of Charlie’s stupidity in handling wood, with the initial knocking over of the carpenter, topped by the exaggerated distance traveled by Charlie with the plank, culminating in the knocking over of another uninvolved person. The basic elements of this can be seen in my earlier examples (and of course hundreds of other films), but the new element is Charlie’s leisurely and unconcerned walk back through the stages of his flight, embellished by funny gestures along the way. In Figure 2.4h he does a silly

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Figure 2.4

Frame enlargements and camera set-up plan from His New Job (1915)

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high lift of his leg, kicking himself in the behind, and in Figure 2.4j he pauses to stretch as a relief from his exertions, before moving into the prop room and acting as though the statue was a real woman (Figures 2.4k and 2.4l). The major traditional theories about humor are obviously relevant in this sequence. That is, Charlie’s stupid actions give rise to feelings of superiority in the audience, and the incongruity theory applies to his reaction to the statue, and also to his other unnatural gestures.